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Shadow Womanby Linda Howard
It was a normal morning. Lizette Henry—once upon a time Zette-the-Jet to her family and childhood friends—rolled out of bed at her usual time of 5:59 a.m., one minute before her alarm was set to go off. In the kitchen, the automatic timer on the coffeemaker would have just started the brewing process. Yawning, Lizette went into her bathroom, turned on the water in the shower, then while the water was heating took a desperately needed pee. By the time she was finished, the water in the shower was just right.
She liked starting her mornings off with a nice, relaxing shower. She didn’t sing, she didn’t plan her day, she didn’t worry about politics or the economy or anything else. While she was in the shower, she simply chilled—or more aptly, warmed.
On this particular July morning, her routine so honed and finely tuned she didn’t need to look at a clock to know what time it was at any point, she showered for almost precisely how long it would take the coffeemaker to finish its brewing process, then wrapped a towel around her wet hair and dried herself with a second towel.
Through the open door of the bathroom, the wonderful aroma of the coffee called to her. The bathroom mirror was fogged over with steam, but that would be clear by the time she’d fetched her first cup of the morning. Wrapping herself in her knee-length terry-cloth robe, she padded barefoot into the kitchen and grabbed one of the mugs from the cabinet. She liked her coffee sweet and light, so she added sugar and milk first, then poured the hot coffee into the mixture. It was like having dessert first thing in the morning, which in her book was a nice way to start off any day.
She took the coffee with her into the bathroom, to sip while she blow-dried her hair and put on the small amount of makeup she wore to work.
Setting the cup on the vanity, she unwound the towel from her head and bent forward from the waist, vigorously rubbing her shoulder-length dark brown hair. Then she straightened, tossing her hair back, and turned to the mirror—
—and stared into the face of a stranger.
The damp towel slid from her suddenly nerveless fingers, puddling on the floor at her feet.
Who is that woman?
It wasn’t her. Lizette knew what she looked like, and this wasn’t her reflection. She whirled wildly around, looking for the woman reflected in the mirror, ready to duck, ready to run, ready to fight for her life, but no one was there. She was alone in the bathroom, alone in the house, alone—
The word whispered through her mind, a ghost of a sound, barely registering. Turning back to the mirror, she fought through confusion and terror, studying this new person as though she were an adversary rather than . . . rather than what? Or, who?
This didn’t make sense. Her breathing came in swift, shallow gulps, the sound distant and panicked. What the hell was going on? She didn’t have amnesia. She knew who she was, where she was, remembered her childhood, her friend Diana and her other coworkers, what clothes were in her closet and what she’d planned to wear today. She remembered what she’d had for dinner the night before. She remembered everything, it seemed—except that face.
It wasn’t hers.
Her own features, what she saw in her mind, were softer, rounder, maybe even prettier, though the face she was looking at was attractive, if more angular. The eyes were the same: blue, the same distance apart, maybe a little deeper-set. How was that possible? How could her eyes have gotten more deep-set?
What else was the same? She leaned closer to the mirror, looking for the faint freckle on the left side of her chin. Yes, there it was, where it had always been; darker when she’d been younger, almost invisible now, but still there.
Everything else was . . . wrong. This nose was thinner, and more aquiline; her cheekbones more prominent, higher than they should have been; her jawline was more square, her chin more defined.
She was so completely befuddled and frightened that she stood there, paralyzed, incapable of any action even if one had occurred to her. She kept staring into the mirror, her thoughts darting around in search of any reasonable explanation.
There wasn’t one. What could account for this? If she’d been in an accident and required massive facial reconstruction, while she might not remember the accident itself, surely she’d remember afterward, known if she’d been in a hospital and undergone multiple surgeries, remembered the rehab; someone would have told her about everything, even if she’d been in a coma during her recovery. But she hadn’t been in a coma. Ever.
She remembered her life. There hadn’t been any accident, except for the one when she was eighteen that had killed her parents and turned her world completely upside down, but she hadn’t been in the car; she’d dealt with the aftermath, with the crushing grief, the sense of floating untethered in the black space of her life with all of her former security gone in the space of a heartbeat.
She had that same feeling now, of such unfathomable wrongness that she didn’t know what to do, couldn’t take in all the meanings at once, couldn’t grasp how fully this affected everything she knew.
Maybe she was crazy. Maybe she’d had a stroke during the night. Yes. A stroke; that would make sense, because it could screw with her memory. To test herself, she smiled, and in the mirror watched both sides of her mouth turn up evenly. In turn, she winked each eye. Then she held both arms up. They both worked, though after showering and washing her hair she thought she’d have already noticed if either of them hadn’t.
“Ten, twelve, one, forty-two, eighteen,” she whispered. Then she waited thirty seconds, and said them again. “Ten, twelve, one, forty-two, eighteen.” She was certain she’d said the same numbers, in the same sequence, though if she’d had a stroke would she be in any shape to judge?
Brain and body both appeared to be in working order, so that likely ruled out a stroke.
Call someone. Who?
Diana. Of course. Her best friend would know, though Lizette wasn’t certain how she could possibly phrase the question. Hey, Di; when I get to work this morning, look at me and let me know if I have the same face today that I had yesterday, okay?
The idea was ludicrous, but the need was compelling. Lizette was already on her way to the phone when sudden panic froze her in mid-step.
She couldn’t call anyone.
If she did, they would know.
They? Who were “they”?
On the heels of that thought she was suddenly drenched in sweat, and nausea convulsed her stomach. She lurched back to the bathroom, barely making it to the toilet in time before she couldn’t hold back any longer. After throwing up the small amount of coffee she’d drunk, she clutched her stomach as dry heaves seized her body and wouldn’t let go. Sharp pain stabbed behind her eyes, so intense that tears blurred her vision, ran down her cheeks.
When the convulsive vomiting stopped, she weakly sat down on the cool bathroom floor and reached for the toilet tissue to mop her eyes, blow her nose. The terrible pain behind her eyes eased, as if an internal vise were being loosened. Panting, she closed her eyes and let her head drop back until it rested against the wall. She was so tired it reminded her of how she’d felt after just finishing a 30K run.
30K? How would she know what running thirty kilometers felt like? She wasn’t a runner, never had been. She walked on occasion, and when she was a kid she’d done some riding, but she wasn’t a fitness nut by any means.
The stabbing pain behind her eyes was back, and her stomach rolled. She sucked in air through her mouth, willing herself not to start heaving again. Putting her fingers on the inside corners of her eyes she pushed hard, as if she could force the pain out. Maybe the pressure worked; the stabbing eased, just as it had before.
The nausea and headache were kind of comforting, though. Maybe she was just sick. Maybe she had a weird virus that was making her hallucinate, and what she thought she was seeing in the mirror was just that: a hallucination.
Except she didn’t feel sick. And that was strange, because she’d just thrown up so violently her stomach muscles ached, and she’d had that piercing headache, but she didn’t feel sick. Now that it was over with, she felt perfectly well.
She also felt annoyed. Her schedule was completely shot; by now her hair should be dry, and her makeup on. She hated when anything disrupted the timeline she’d laid out for herself; she was so regimented, she made a Swiss watch look harum-scarum—
Wait a minute. Regimented? Her? When had that happened? It felt wrong, as if she were thinking of someone else entirely.
Abruptly she was retching again; she surged to her knees and bent over the toilet, choking, her stomach rolling, saliva dripping from her open mouth. This time the stiletto of pain behind her eyes was blinding. She gripped the edge of the sink beside her, holding on to prevent herself from collapsing on the floor—or headfirst into the toilet. Even as awful as the nausea and pain were, somewhere deep inside she felt an incongruous tickle of humor at the idea.
The spasms gradually faded and now she did collapse, but at least it was on her ass on the floor. Leaning back against the vanity, she tilted her head back and closed her eyes, mentally watching the pain pull back like a visible tide.
Obviously, she had to have some kind of bug. Just as obviously, no way could she go to work. Not only did she not want to make a spectacle of herself dry-heaving all over the place—or worse, wet-heaving—she didn’t want to give this to anyone else. After they recovered, they’d probably be after her with torches and pitchforks.
This was crazy. She didn’t think this way, about toilet-diving being funny, or about mobs with pitchforks. She thought about work, and her friends, and keeping the house clean and her laundry done. She thought about normal stuff.
Pain twinged again, not as sharp, not blinding, but there behind her eyes. She froze, waiting for the beast to grab her. Her stomach rolled, then calmed; the pain faded.
She needed to call in sick, the first time she’d done so since she began working at Becker Investments. Her department head, Maryjo Winchell, had a company-issued cell phone for this type of thing, and, being the careful type she was, Lizette had programmed Maryjo’s number into her own cell phone.
They would know.
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