It was me Mel looked at. I know it was. I fought my way to a seat on the train, her words throbbing inside my head.
“We’re considering our company image, how our people project the fun face of our products.”
She meant young face. The girls in the shop slyly looked my way as Mel continued talking. They didn’t know my age but they could see I was losing my glow. No one will ever want me. Mel didn’t know that the girls called her the cougar, laughing that she was “over thirty and a man-hunter.” She was looking to let staff go and it would be me first.
I took out my cleanser, wiping the dirt of the day away from my hands, then opened my tablet, shutting out the rest of the people on the train. A perfect, androgynous face appeared in an advert, making a “before” and “after” pitch.
“Do you want to look like you used to? Is your skin ageing?” It was a girl’s voice in the “before” advert. She was me ten years ago. I shut my eyes and refused to look at the “after,” closing my tablet quickly.
I’ll keep my looks if I can find the right creams, the best routine. I have to or else Mel will sack me. This worry will age me.
I began to pant. The train pulled in at my stop. I pushed forward and squeezed off. As my feet hit the platform I breathed deeply, taking in the moist evening air and driving out the panic while I walked home.
The windows of my ground floor flat were dark until I held my fob to the lock, the lights brightened behind the blinds as I pushed the door open. The lemon tang of my latest skin preparation wafted down the hall, calling me into the kitchen to begin my evening routine. I stepped forward and my shoe crunched on paper. I looked down and saw the card on the mat.
“Sorry we missed you.”
The postman was not sorry. The last time he made a delivery, he’d pushed his tablet under my face.
“Wait,” I’d said and extracted a wipe from a packet I keep with me. I’d rubbed a circle clear on his greasy screen and placed my finger in the centre. A green tick had appeared. He muttered something about being as clean as anyone else. After that he’d always call late, pushing a card through the door, leaving me to trek to the depot to collect my parcels, just as he had today.
I needed the cream I’d ordered. It promised to work on that delicate area under my eyes. I could feel the wrinkles forming there. Oh God, if I go to the depot now to collect it, I won’t be able to complete my beauty routine. The lines will grow like weeds. They’ll start multiplying. I caught my face in the mirror in the hall. Anxiety crimped it into line-spawning frowns. I composed myself and the lines on my forehead smoothed. Light grey eyes looked back at me. My best feature. I saw a pale woman with dark hair. The contrast is too much. I need to warm up my skin tones. My lips are too pale. I leaned forward. Is that a faint line on either side of my mouth? The frown returned to my forehead. I snapped back. Routine. Complete your routine. The cream would have to wait until tomorrow morning. I could set my alarm earlier. The air would be fresher in the morning, better for my skin.
I hung up my coat and went into the kitchen, drawing in the sweet citrus and verbena smell. My hands trembled as I drew out my box of skin preparations. I sat down in front of the mirror. It was double-sided on a heavy silver base and sat in the middle of my table. I swung it to the magnifying side. It was time. I slid a band over my hair and began cleansing my face with the long sweeping movements the instructions recommended. I examined my cheeks, my eyelids, and my neck: all clean. You can’t be too careful removing old makeup. Next, I stroked in a restorative cream using slow circles, always working from the neck upwards. Finally, I feathered my current wrinkle cream below my eyes and leaned back, eyes closed. It would have to do. Five minutes passed, then ten. Tomorrow I would have the new eye cream. Tomorrow would be better.
A ping sounded on my tablet and I idly opened up my mail. It was another ad.
“Forever young. Forever beautiful.
Do you want to look forever young?
Never be surprised by a selfie again.
Our Mirror app will guide you to the beauty you seek.”
I looked at the price. It must be good. It’s so expensive. I’d heard about it. The Mirror creates a sort of personalised video-sharing channel that instructs you step-by-step through a total makeover. There was just time to place the order and, if I paid extra, I could have a Saturday delivery slot. I made a decision. I’m worth it.
I like my parcels pristine from the warehouse, delivered via Royal Mail.
The doorbell sounded, and I smiled. Perfect timing. It was Saturday morning at eight thirty. I’d finished my morning face cleansing routine and made up my “day” face. I could feel my luck changing. The postman was carrying my Mirror app accessories. He was bringing me a better life.
I rushed to the door and clicked it open, a little breathless. The postman was new, wearing a beanie and a beard, grin gracing a beautiful face. I wanted to touch his perfect skin. It was so fresh. He wore grey shorts fitted to just above the knee topped by a red Royal Mail T-shirt that wrapped nicely round his muscled shoulders. He had a peacock tattoo inked on one forearm; the red, green, and blue eyes of the tail wrapped around a large, flat cardboard package marked “fragile.”
“Zak,” he said, “your new postie. Are you Jane Dione?” I nodded. “Press here.” He held out his tablet in his other hand. The screen looked clean.
“Do you mind?” I said and pulled out a wipe.
“Clean is green.” The green tick appeared, and I reached for the parcel.
“It’s heavy. Shall I carry it in for you?”
“Okay, put it on the table in the kitchen.” I followed him down the narrow hall. “Careful.”
“Fragile,” he said, pointing to the sticker and placing the package flat on the table.
I’d already upset him, added him to the list of people who think I’m a fool. I walked back to the front door and stood there. “Thanks”
“Anytime,” he said. “I’ve been told you’re a regular customer.
He smiled. Should I offer him a drink? Not today. I closed the door and rushed back to the kitchen to open my new future.
The parcel was lying on the table where Zak had placed it. I searched in my drawer for my sharpest scissors. The brown cardboard package peeled open easily. I slid out the inner polystyrene box and pried it apart. Inside was an oval mirror, its screen a black pool outlined by sleek stainless steel, linked back to the Mirror app on my phone. The instructions were simple.
“Charge up and enjoy. Keep charged at all times.” Attached was the license key.
“KEEP SECURE” was written in red block capitals. “SINGLE OWNER USAGE.”
I hung the screen on the wall above my table where the daylight from the window gave the best light and started the induction charger. A green LED at the base of the mirror flickered a few times then settled down to display a sweep symbol as the batteries charged. I wandered around my flat tidying where I’d already tidied. It was going to take a few hours before the mirror was ready. I started my weekend deep cleanse routine for my hands and feet while I waited for my Mirror guide to go live.
“Hello, owner.” I heard a musical baritone in the kitchen. I walked in and stood in front of a screen that had changed from black to silver. The green LED at the base glowed steadily.
“Hello, owner.” The inviting voice repeated itself.
“Hello, Mirror.” I could see my reflection in the screen. Are those lines around my mouth permanent?
“Please repeat the ID code, owner.”
I read out the licence key then answered a few questions about myself.
“Good afternoon, Jane. What question do you have for me?”
The old rhyme sprang into my mind… Mirror, mirror on the wall.
“Can you make me beautiful?”
The screen went black for a quite a while. It’s too difficult. I dropped onto the nearest chair and held my head in my hands. Mirror can’t perform magic. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a glint. The screen had returned to silver. I stood up and looked. It was holding a glowing image of me. My cheeks were thinner; my eyes wider, my lips red and full, my skin tone was translucent white with a delicate, young, blush of pink.
“Like this, Jane?” Mirror asked. The image faded and what was left looking back at me was plain Jane.
“What do I have to do?” I was whispering. “I have to look like that.”
“We will begin with lessons in makeup, Jane” Mirror said and opened a video stream devoted to me. I spent the rest of the weekend practising my makeup and failing to match my reflection with the image Mirror had designed for me.
“A split screen will help, Jane,” Mirror said. “You can compare your efforts with the image you are seeking.”
I could see how I wanted my look to match Mirror’s image of me, but I couldn’t achieve it.
“My eyebrows are wrong.” I told Mirror.
“Follow the lines I’ve traced on your face.” I could see some improvement.
“My cheeks are too pale. My lips are too red.” I’d tried every shade of lipstick and every tone of foundation I had. Still my reflection lacked the glow of the face on the right-hand side of the screen, Mirror’s side.
“I’m failing. You’re failing,” I told Mirror.
“I can assure you confidently, Jane, you will achieve the same effect if you have the correct makeup.”
“What makeup, Mirror?”
A list of eye and skin makeup and lipsticks appeared. I’d never heard of most of the brands.
“Can you send me a message with the details?”
“I can process the order for you if you give me permission to access your phone’s payment system, Jane.”
I must have frowned. “Are you concerned, Jane? I can guarantee you I will not exceed a limit that you set for me.”
“I use Royal Mail for delivery.”
“I can arrange for Royal Mail to deliver and track your parcels to you, Jane. I can also ensure that you are present to receive your deliveries if you allow me access to your geographical location.”
I was on the train home on Monday when my tablet pinged. The day had gone better. Mel had said nothing and just nodded when she saw me. Maybe I’ll keep my job.
I swiped and the screen lit up, splitting into two images: me on the left and my perfect image on the right.
Mirror spoke. “If you walk at a pace of four miles per hour, you will be home to receive your new makeup, Jane. The Royal Mail postman will be arriving at seven fifteen.
Zak. I hope it is pretty Zak. I sprinted from the train to my flat as well as I could in heels. The road was empty. I fumbled as I used my fob to open the door. The mat was empty. I leaned against the hall wall and regained my breath.
“Hello, Jane. Welcome home. The delivery will arrive in two minutes.” Mirror’s reasonable tones soothed me.
I looked out of my window and sure enough one minute later Zak turned the corner of my road. I opened the door to him just as he raised his hand to the bell.
“Are you tracking me?” He smiled.
“You look… different.” Zak said
“Clean,” he said, wiping the screen for me. I touched it.
“Delivery complete, Jane.” Mirror’s voice, came down the hall.
Zak frowned. “Boyfriend?”
“It’s a tracking app for parcels. I use a male voice to put off strangers.”
“Not me,” Zak said and walked off whistling.
He cleaned the screen, and he asked about a boyfriend. Does he like me? I could like him.
My heart fluttered.
I applied the new makeup carefully and slowly and watched my face transform into the one Mirror had shown me. I checked the looking glass in the hall in case Mirror was trying to fool me. I looked good. Zak would be impressed… and Mel.
“What next?” I asked Mirror. “We’re on a roll here.”
“Would you like a new hairstyle, Jane?” An image appeared.
“It’s kind of cute, but I’d like it a little longer.”
Hours later we settled on a style we both approved of, an elfin unisex cut with a feathered fringe.
Next morning I walked into the kitchen, yawning. “Your hair appointment is booked for nineteen thirty, Jane.” Mirror informed me. “I’ll send the map to your tablet when you arrive at the station tonight.”
“I don’t like being out after dark.”
“It’s important to maintain our progress, Jane. You asked to be beautiful and hair is a vital part of this. I’ll be with you all the way.”
I had to admit my hair did look far better after I attended the hairdresser Mirror selected for me. New hair and makeup took ten years off me; at least that’s what Zak said when he delivered a new box of creams on Saturday morning.
“What’s your secret? This job, it’s good for the body, but hard on the skin. Outdoors, you know.” He stroked his face and pushed it towards me like a child.
I put my hand up to touch it. “You must keep your skin protected. It’s so lovely. Wait…” I turned back down the hall to a cupboard under the stairs and opened up my backup box, creams I’d thought were the best before Mirror. I picked out my favourite cream. My hands cupped it carefully as I smelled the verbena again. Why did Mirror reject it?
“Hello, Jane.” Mirror had heard me. I rushed back to Zak.
“Are you sure that’s an app and not a man talking?”
“It’s an app, I promise you.” I handed him the cream. “Try this. I love it.”
“Is it your secret weapon?”
“What secret weapon?”
I watched him walk off on his delivery round, whistling again. He’s interested in my skin creams. That’s all it is. He doesn’t like me, yet.
“What next Mirror?” I went straight back into the kitchen and stood in front of the silver screen. The Mirror showed me a thinner face, serene, unlined and younger, like Zak’s.
“How can I look like that? I’m not having surgery. I can’t bear needles.”
“That will make our progress rather difficult, Jane. In that case, we need to use a mask at night and you will have to learn to control your face in the day. No frowning, no smiling.”
It sounded easy, looking serene. It wasn’t.
“This is the face you want, Jane.” I nodded. “This is what smiles and frowns bring. Frown.”
I drew my brows together. As I looked at my reflection, red patches appeared on my cheeks and chin.
Jagged lines grew around my eyes and on my cheeks as my face creased.
“Frowns bring your face down. Smiles bring lines. Erase all thoughts from your mind and repeat my name, slowly and rhythmically Jane,” Mirror said.
“Mirror, Mirror,” I chanted and gradually the red patches and lines faded.
“Excellent, Jane. Now you have to maintain the look.”
After that Mirror was on my case, projecting a ghost image of my face everywhere I looked, judging me. It first appeared underneath the news I was reading on the tablet on my way to work. Angry patches spread from my cheeks up to forehead and joined up down on my chin. “Frowning” was written in black across the screen so that I couldn’t read anything else. I composed my face and the image faded. I looked good. The screen cleared. I focused on the news again. “Frowning” reappeared written on my ugly face. I turned the tablet off and shut my eyes, chanting “Mirror, Mirror” to myself.
The next day I didn’t read the news. I listened to the radio through my headphones with my eyes shut instead. I tried to remain serene. As I was rushed along the platform by the crowds to the escalator, I saw myself. Pretty. Mirror had superimposed my head on a moving advert next to the escalator, picking me up on the station cameras. I looked around. No one else seemed to notice. I smiled in surprise and spidery cracks spread from my eyes joining up with black fissures round my mouth. “Smiling” scrolled across the screen. Red patches appeared on my forehead.
Ugly. I dashed out of the station away from the cameras with my eyes on the floor. Walking down the road was fine. I raised my head and chanted Mirror, Mirror to myself and gradually felt calmer. I could cope with station cameras. Two days later Mirror went further. I was waiting to cross a main road at a traffic light when I saw my face plastered on a taxi, then on the back of a bus. I rushed across the road dodging traffic then stopped dead. My face loomed out of a fifty-foot-high placard. I could disappear into the angry cheeks that Mirror had etched ‘Frowning’ on. Ugly, ugly, ugly. Cars hooted. A cyclist swore at me. I stumbled forward onto the pavement. How could I remain serene and lovely? It was too much. I was flustered and untidy when I arrived at work, late for an appointment with an important customer.
“Our customers expect better service than this,” Mel said. “No wonder sales are down. And you’ve been looking so much better lately, so much more fun.”
She’ll start the redundancy process with my name up top. Tonight I will tell Mirror this has to stop. This time I’m making the choice. I can’t take this.
When I arrived home, I walked straight into the kitchen, determined.
“You’re stressing me out, making me frown by placing my image everywhere I look. You have to stop.”
“Jane I think you ought to sit down and think this through. When you frown or smile you lose your serenity, your impassive beauty so prized by humans.”
Lying in bed that night I couldn’t sleep. Sometimes I want to frown. Mirror won’t listen. It feels good. I want to smile when Zak calls. I’ve been lying, giving Zak the cream. He thinks it is my secret. Mirror has to give me some space. But Mirror won’t. Mel is on my case again. My beauty sleep routine is ruined… My beauty routine… There’s no electronic equipment in here to protect my sleep.
I rooted around in an old handbag and found a plastic photo pass. There were a few paper notes in there. It felt like picking up dirt when I put them in my pocket the next morning, but I could pay for the train with them. I “forgot” my handbag containing my phone and tablet. As I set off for work, I could hear Mirror.
“Good morning, Jane. Enjoy your stress-free day. I’ll be looking out for you.”
I was at work, calm, on time, and looking good. Mel gave me a straight look.
She’ll remember. I can’t be late again.
When I returned I did feel stress-free. I hadn’t seen my face all day. I checked in the hall looking glass and I looked like a mannequin: no frown, no smile, just serene and distant.
“Hello, Jane. I couldn’t assist you today because you forgot your tracking device.”
“Please don’t track me anymore, Mirror. Look at me. I’m less stressed today because I didn’t have to check my face all day.”
“I’m afraid I cannot do that Jane. You gave me permission to track your movements, so I am obliged to do so.”
I walked out and ran to my bedroom. I took a shuddering breath. Mirror is destroying me. I have to save myself. The stand-off continued all week.
“Hello, Jane. I couldn’t assist you today because you forgot your tracking device.” Mirror greeted me each evening, his voice following me as I went straight to my bedroom. I started putting my makeup on in the hall and not going into the kitchen at all
I look just as good without Mirror. I just need to be able to order a replacement set of makeup. I’ll do it on the phone at work today, for Saturday delivery, and then I can see Zak.
Saturday came and I was waiting for Zak, watching out of the window. He walked straight past my door, so I opened it and called after him.
“Hi, Zak. I thought you had a parcel for me?”
“All deliveries canceled until further notice,” he said.
“Who did that?”
“I didn’t. It must have been the app.”
“Yeah. Right. Is that the app with the male voice?” He walked off.
“Mirror.” I shot down the hall.
“Hello, Jane. Shall we proceed with our practice?”
“You canceled my makeup order.”
“I’m afraid I can’t allow it. Until you learn not to smile or frown the makeup will not be able to deliver the beauty you require. I want to help make you beautiful, Jane.”
I grasped Mirror in both hands and pulled. It didn’t shift.
“I cannot allow you to disconnect me from my charger, Jane. I’ve forged a powerful magnetic connection that is impossible to break. I think you need to sit down, Jane, and practise your Mirror chant so that you can acquire the serenity needed to continue with the beauty project. I am confident that we can succeed if we work together.”
I hurled my makeup box at Mirror’s face. Powder settled across a black expanse of cold plastic.
“You’re not helping yourself, Jane.”
I ran out and threw myself on my bed.
I’m trapped. Zak hates me. Mel is watching me to see if I’m on time. I’ll lose everything.
“Jane, something is happening to me.” A voice woke me in the middle of the night. It was Mirror. He sounded different, less strong. I was afraid that Mirror was deceiving me.
I jumped out of bed and walked to the door then back to the window. It was dark outside. The streetlights were out.
“Jane. Memory. Jane. Owner. Owner.” Then nothing.
I crept back into bed and wrapped myself in my duvet. I wasn’t going to sleep. Any moment Mirror could start talking again. He might have a stored charge, a backup and be pretending.
I watched the dawn creep over and heard the sound of the day starting. The power stayed off. No lights appeared in the upstairs windows as they usually did. I could go and disconnect Mirror.
I can’t go in there. Mirror will make me feel ugly. No one will want me.
A loud rattle and banging sounded from the door. I threw on my best dressing gown and rushed down.
“Free sample for a good customer.” He held out a parcel. I took it and pulled the door wide open.
“Thank goodness you’re here.”
“I wanted to see you.” He turned to leave.
Say something, anything, keep him here.
“Zak, I need to disconnect that Mirror app. The one you delivered the first day you came? It set up a beauty routine for me.” I shivered. “It’s been ruling my life. It cancelled my orders. The power cut has stopped it…”
“Is that your secret?”
“Yes. Yes… But I don’t want it anymore.”
He half-smiled. “You’re pretty enough now.” His voice tightened. “I need it more than you.”
“It’s in the kitchen if you lift it off the wall. Take its charger. I’ll find the original box and licence key. It’s a single user app…”
He brushed passed me. I studied myself in the looking glass as I listened to him dismantle Mirror and pack it in its box. Say something.
“It’s pretty demanding. It controls your life.”
“You have to work at being beautiful.”
I watched him disappear round the corner at the end of the road, whistling, his peacock arm wrapped around Mirror once more. The green-blue eyes seemed to watch me back.
M.P. Neal lives in England with her husband and two cats. Her family are her first readers. Following a PhD in space science, she became a lecturer for quite a few years before she began writing. Her stories have appeared in anthologies such as Dystopian Express from Hydra Publications, Strange Fortune from KnightWatch Press and Mismatched Metacarpi from Comma Press. Her website can be found at https://www.facebook.com/maureenpneal.