A Horrible Trick by Amanda Stanley

Tawny just thought people had stopped noticing her. Perhaps the bus driver hadn’t seen her outstretched hand. She didn’t speak loud enough in the coffee shop. But standing in front of the bathroom mirror that night, she saw only the room reflected back. After staring at her toothbrush for some time, she picked it up, and it appeared to float unaccompanied.

She unbuttoned her pyjama top and once it was in her hands, the polka dotted shirt was floating just like the toothbrush. At least I don’t have to wear a bra anymore, she thought. She looked down and saw herself, but once she looked back into the mirror she was gone. She shook her head as if to empty her brain of the day behind her, deciding it must be a dream she was having, and made a cup of tea. That would help. She ignored a text from Rebecca asking her to go for a drink.

Every so often, she glanced at the mirrors stationed about her flat, wondering why she had so many.

The next morning, before daring to look in the mirror, Tawny dialled her mum’s number.

‘Hello, you’re up early for a Sunday.’

‘I didn’t sleep very well.’

‘Tawn? Are you there? I can’t hear you.’

‘Yes, I’m here. Can you hear me?’

‘There must be something wrong with the signal, I’ll ring you later. Have a good day.’

The line went dead. Tawny took her phone away from her ear and held it in front of her, mouth slightly open. She saw the couch she sat on reflected in the screen. She didn’t answer her mum’s call later that day.

The following day, a few people walking in the local area became concerned when they saw a bicycle moving without aid, as if someone had pushed it and it continued to move in a straight line, cleverly avoiding cars and grass verges. It stopped at a doctor’s surgery. One person was waiting for the surgery to open; an elderly man, his hands stuffed deep in the pockets of a thick fleece, collar turned up to protect his neck from the cool wind. The surgery operated a walk-in service, and he wanted to make sure he was first in line. He noticed the bike cycle itself into the car park and blinked a few times to make sure he was really seeing it. The pannier bag opened, and a bike lock floated out to wrap itself around the bike and the lamppost it leaned against. The bag then continued to float towards the man, whose eyes became wider as it came closer. A set of keys flew out of the bag and opened the door. Something was holding it open, waiting for him to enter.

He was meaning to see the doctor about his foot, which had been bothering him for months now, but when the doctor saw to him that morning, all he could talk about was what he saw outside the surgery.

‘Who opened up the surgery this morning, doctor?’

‘Usually, our receptionist Tawny opens up, but she hasn’t come in today. Every doctor has a key, so whoever arrived first must’ve opened.’

‘And this Tawny, did she phone in sick or just not turn up?’

The doctor didn’t answer straight away but looked at his patient with his eyebrows furrowed.

‘She didn’t turn up, which is quite unlike her actually.’ There was a silence between them. ‘Anyway, what can I help you with today?’

The elderly man wanted to tell him what he had saw but worried he would be considered insane if he had.

‘Well, isn’t that the receptionist’s bike outside, Doctor?’

‘Bike? She doesn’t ride a bike. She drives here every morning. I expect that bike belongs to another patient. So, I assume you’re back about your foot, Paul.’

But Paul didn’t respond. His gaze fell to the floor and he began muttering, ‘how’, ‘but’, ‘who’, and other such short words.

What Paul didn’t know, and what nobody but Tawny knew, was that she had cycled to work, hoping to draw as much attention to herself as possible, held open the door for the elderly patient, said ‘Good morning, Paul,’ and watched his expression grow in confusion. She left the door unlocked and went to sit at her desk. One of the doctors came in shortly after and smiled at Paul sitting in the waiting room. After she had closed her office door, another doctor entered and went straight into their office, and shortly after the first doctor reappeared.

‘Have you been seen to, sir?’ she said, glancing at the apparently deserted reception.

‘No, not yet, Dr Prava.’

‘Our receptionist doesn’t seem to be here yet,’ she said, and wondered internally who had unlocked the front door, assuming that another doctor had arrived before her. She sanitised her hands and walked behind the desk, leaning over the chair where Tawny was sitting, unable to see her. She took no notice of Tawny’s bag underneath the desk, but noticed that the computer was logged in.

‘If you want to come over sir, I can get you signed in.’

By the time Paul was seen to, a couple more doctors and a nurse entered the surgery, greeting Dr Prava with some confusion, but all obviously having too much on their minds to delve into questioning her.

The doctors all met in the kitchen over the kettle, and Dr Prava told them Tawny was not there.

At this moment, Tawny raised herself from her chair, her frustration bubbling above comfortable levels, and entered the kitchen, slamming the door behind her. They all jumped and stared through her at the door.

‘Someone must have left the main door open,’ one of the older doctors said. He addressed the nurse next to him, ‘Leslie, would you mind seeing to that, and keeping an eye on the desk for more patients coming in.’

Leslie nodded, and approached the door with hesitation before opening it and leaving the room. Tawny moved to replace Leslie’s space in the circle and watched Dr Prava dial a number on her phone.

As everybody waited for the call to be answered, Tawny tapped the older doctor, Stevens, on his shoulder.

He looked at his shoulder and swept it with his right hand. She repeated her action, harder this time. He looked around suspiciously, but his attention was taken by Dr Prava’s audible sigh as she put the phone down.

‘No answer.’

A mug fell to the floor, smashing into small pieces on the outskirts of the circle, where Tawny was stood.

‘Dr Stevens, do be careful,’ said Dr Kim, who stood on his other side.

‘Sorry, I must’ve nudged it.’

Leslie re-entered the room, carrying Tawny’s phone.

‘This was just ringing from a bag under the desk. I think it’s Tawny’s.’ Dr Prava took it from her to confirm it was her number that had just rang the phone.

‘She must’ve forgotten it on Friday.’

‘Doctors,’ Leslie said. ‘The patients are becoming restless. Perhaps I can manage reception for today and we can address this situation later?’

Everyone agreed that was the best course of action, but by then Tawny had become so frustrated that she began to shout at all of her colleagues, raising her voice as loud as it would go. They didn’t hear a thing. She began to wonder whether the world was playing a horrible trick on her, as she felt tears roll down her face and turned to the kettle, unable to see her reflection in its silver surface.

Tawny’s decided to leave the surgery and visit Rebecca. She waited on the doorstep for her to come home from work, and the winter sun was set before she heard the sound of the car engine that covered the rumble of her own stomach. Rebecca noticed the bike at the side of the door, and looked around the front garden, her gaze landing again on the bike in confusion. She unlocked the door and Tawny slipped in behind her. Rebecca dialled a number and Tawny remembered that her phone was still in the hands of Dr Prava.

‘Hi,’ Rebecca’s voice, always gentle, always soft, said into the phone. ‘I’m looking for Tawny.’

Tawny heard murmurs on the other end, watching Rebecca nod along, as she closed her curtains and turned lamps on around downstairs.

‘Really? That’s unlike her. Have you been through her phone?’

The conversation continued, with Rebecca giving Dr Prava Tawny’s phone password, assuring her she’d go and check on her, and urging her to contact the police if they could not find her by morning. At least they’re worried, Tawny thought.

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When Rebecca put the phone down, she was in the kitchen, and placed her hands on the counter, clearly in deep thought. She jumped when she saw the cupboard door open, and backed away when one of the mugs, the one Tawny had gotten her for Christmas, floated across the room to land on the counter in front of her. Her eyes were wide.

‘Tawny?’ she whispered.

‘Yes, it’s me,’ Tawny replied, but realised she wouldn’t have been able to hear her. Instead, she stepped towards her, so they stood almost nose to nose, and kissed her on the mouth.

Rebecca flinched and backed away further, putting a hand to her lips. After a moment, she began to shake her head resolutely, picking up the mug and putting it back in the cupboard. As she approached the door that led from the kitchen into the hall, Tawny slammed it shut, preventing her exit. Rebecca froze, and looked around the room.

‘You can’t be …’ she whispered again. ‘You can’t.’ Her breath became heavy and she closed her eyes, leaning against the counter now. Tawny watched her, finally deciding to open the door and leave the house quietly. Once Rebecca realised that she was free, the bike, and whatever had come into her house, had gone.

As Tawny rode home, her previous encounter with Rebecca played in her head.

They were watching a new documentary that everyone was talking about. It was about the private ownership of tigers in the United States. Every now and then, Rebecca pierced the silence with a joke, and Tawny chuckled obediently. They had watched half an episode when the knock at the door signalled the arrival of their pizza. Tawny let Rebecca have the last piece, and Rebecca let Tawny have the last dough ball in return.

A few hours later, Tawny was in the bathroom cleaning herself up. Rebecca’s dressing gown felt old; it had lost its softness after too many trips to the washing machine. Tawny made a mental note to buy her a new one as she pushed her fingers through her hair at the mirror. She always thought her skin looked its clearest after sex and admired it before rubbing some toothpaste around her mouth with her finger.

They didn’t talk after but cuddled close together while sleeping. Rebecca kissed Tawny softly on the lips when she left the next morning.

Tawny stopped at the supermarket, not bothering to lock her bike up, instead letting it fall to the concrete outside the automatic doors. She pushed through two teenagers holding hands as they walked through the doorway and grabbed a basket. She went through the aisles, not taking notice of the glances to the floating metal basket or the objects that seemed to fall from the shelves into it. She picked up all of the items that she always thought too expensive to buy. Gourmet Camembert, tender stem broccoli, truffle oil and the new brand of oat milk people had been raving about. She went to the till, and watched the shock grow on the check-out lady’s face as more items fell onto the conveyor belt. She didn’t scan them, but instead got up from her seat and went to fetch a man wearing a nicer shirt than her. Using a soft voice, he told her to take her break early, as if she was imagining it all.

He came around to where Tawny was standing and began putting the items back into the basket, which Tawny had placed on the floor. When all of the items were in the basket, Tawny grabbed it and ran. She ran past the confused security guard, past her bike and in front of a car that didn’t see her but braked at the sight of a floating basket glinting under the streetlights.

Panting at her door, she let herself into her flat and slid down to sit cross legged on the floor, the basket coming with her. She began to laugh and didn’t stop until she realised the world couldn’t hear her.

Someone knocked at the door later that evening. Tawny squinted through the peephole to see the distorted shape of Rebecca and opened the door. Her guest stared through her and wrapped her arms around herself, as if hoping it would provide some protection from whatever entity was haunting her.

As she walked over to the kitchen counter, Tawny closed the door behind her, and she turned around. Rebecca found the remainder of Tawny’s supermarket feast of roasted broccoli in truffle oil and melted Camembert, the leftover cheese now forming a hard crust on its edges. She looked around the rest of the flat for signs of life, while Tawny went to fetch a book Rebecca had lent her from her bedroom. When she came back, Rebecca was sitting on the couch, and Tawny placed the book in front of her. She gasped and looked to where the book came from, her eyes falling on Tawny, who sat next to her and put her hand over Rebecca’s. Her eyes widened but she didn’t pull away.

‘You’re here,’ she whispered.

Tawny nodded instinctively but soon after shook her head because she knew it was useless.

Rebecca lifted her other hand and it moved slowly through the air, trying to land on Tawny’s head. She gasped when she found it.

‘Why can I feel you, but I can’t see you?’ she whispered. Then she put her hand to her forehead. ‘Never mind, you can’t even answer me. Maybe I’m going mad.’

Tawny fetched a piece of paper and wrote an assurance that Rebecca hadn’t lost her mind, and her guest smiled at the words.

‘That is your handwriting. How d- when did-.’ Rebecca sighed. ‘I don’t know where to start.’

Tawny stroked her hand through Rebecca’s hair and tucked it behind her ear. Rebecca’s eyes closed as Tawny climbed on top of her.

‘This must be the weirdest thing I’ve ever done,’ Rebecca laughed, as Tawny started to kiss her soft and then hard, and she kissed her back. Rebecca found Tawny’s waist and when she took off her shirt it appeared in her hands. Her eyes grew wide.

Tawny moved her hands to Rebecca’s chest and felt her goose bumped skin through her thin blouse. Her lips fervently kissed her neck and she listened to Rebecca’s moans. She lay down on the couch and let Tawny undress her, keeping her eyes closed and imagining her face, feeling her fingers inside her and knowing that it didn’t matter that she couldn’t see her. She felt herself grow wetter as Tawny’s mouth took over and her hands found an unseen head of hair. She pulled it and moaned until she came and felt Tawny’s touch grow further away as her breath returned to its natural rhythm.

Rebecca’s eyes were still closed when she heard the bathroom door slam and its lock click. Tawny was no longer on the couch with her. Her skin grew cold. When she sat up, she opened her eyes and found her clothes on the floor. She self-consciously dressed before knocking on the bathroom door. There was no response.

‘Tawny, are you there? Please talk to me.’

Nothing. Even if she had spoken, Rebecca wouldn’t have heard a sound.

About The Author

Amanda is an English Literature graduate who has always loved to write fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. She consumes books and stories of all kinds and is an environmental and social justice activist.

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