She didn't trust reflections, especially not ones in dreams.
But while dreaming or catatonic Penelope tended to forget important things, so she didn't remember the danger as she came upon a beautiful garden of the mind.
There was a huge lake topped with lilies, an old, quaint wooden bridge going across like a gateway to the afterlife, stunning smears of orange, red, pink, and the deeper blues and grays of night drifting up from lower in the sky.
Flowers too huge and bright to be real grew everywhere, calling out with the promise of soft petals and sweet smells that reminded her of being home again. Some anchored themselves to the bridge with long wispy vines. Others were in the grass, inviting Penelope to come up and pick them.
That was one thing she remembered from her old life; loving to pick flowers regardless of the occasion. She'd put them in her room, in other people's rooms, in any place at all. If a particular corner needed brightening up, or if a particular person needed cheer, she'd find them a flower. It was the best she could do.
Growing up, she learned to show restraint, especially considering that picking the flowers killed them. An exceptionally sensitive spirit, she loathed the thought of causing an unnecessary death to anything, no matter how small or inconsequential. Due to this trait she was often made fun of at school. Her mom tried to explain to her that people tried to hurt whoever was different, or special, or kind, and just to ignore it.
Penelope got by, flitting like a bee from one thoughtful fantasy to another, ignoring the call of despair until one day she just couldn't anymore.
Until one day she couldn't give flowers to her mother, because she was gone.
The grass was almost like water in the way it moved with the wind, a wave of soft blades that soothed her bare feet like a carpet. One thing she noticed that despite the abundance of flora, this strange and beautiful world lacked any creature but herself. She was alone here, constantly searching for anyone to speak to, to hold, to love.
She began to walk across the bridge, her delicate, long fingered hands brushing the railing and vines that hugged it. Vivid red blooms beamed at her like eyes. The sky darkened slowly, but something about its pace was off, as if someone were playing around with the rhythm of everything. She couldn't figure it out and decided not to think about it too much. Mom had always told her not to over think things.
She peered over the edge of the railing, trying to get a view of herself. Her features were dark, smudged, only a silhouette.
Have you forgotten what you looked like, precious? Have you forgotten yourself? Perhaps I could jog your memory.
She realized her waist was braced against the bridge, her feet lifting off the ground. She was going to fall over if she wasn't careful, but couldn't stop herself. Penelope had to find out what she looked like, as if failure to find her reflection would equal nonexistence, or an existence that would make death seem tame.
She left the safety of the bridge and began to approach the lake bed, her toes sinking into soft wet sand. Ankle deep in the curiously warm water, weeds brushed her ankles, even seemed to wrap around them a bit, a if urging her to stay and rest. It would have been nice to just lie on her back and stare at the sky until the sun sank and every prickling doubtful thought just died. How nice, just floating in inky blackness where no monsters would care to look, the cold lights of distant stars and a careless moon waiting for the nightmare to start—
Her reflection was a little clearer now, still distorted but no longer a complete shadow. The girl in the lake was short but leggy, with an elegant shape. She could make out eyes, blinking irregularly, and the short, curly mop of hair. Something about it was off, something about the way it wavered gave her a sense of impending danger. Why was it that she felt so alien to herself? Why did that reflection seem so...threatening?
Wake up, Penelope. Mommy needs you.
Suddenly she was no longer standing by the lake, but in a hospital room. All those years ago, an eternity it seemed, but in actuality it was only two years. Two years since a once beautiful mind became tarnished. Two years since her model-gorgeous body dwindled to a gaunt, sallow scarecrow that lost all its stuffing and was left out in the rain, in the harsh, remorseless glare of the sun.
The lights didn't flicker here, because this was a normal hospital. She cursed the lights for being so constant and stark.
Her mother's hair was red like hers. It had once been so bright and glossy, framing her pale face like an exotic bird's feathers. Her green eyes had once been bright and expressive. Now they were too dull and watery, but somehow still gleaming with a fierceness her tired body wouldn't allow her to express. There was no one to fight, no one to punish. Diseases didn't apologize.
Penelope could only stand there and grip her mother's hand, willing her own strength and warmth to transmit to the only person in the world she couldn't be without.
She had gone down fighting, smiling even through pain and fear. Penelope wished she could be that strong, that brave.
The nurses would check in occasionally, their faces dimly concerned. They had seen this all before and could do nothing but usher their charges into featureless peace as gently and quickly as possible.
Penelope hated them, knowing full well they had done nothing to deserve such hate. Irrational emotions seethed in her like peroxide bubbling in a cut, and she couldn't be free of them.
Death didn't apologize. He was just there and then gone before you even knew what happened. Or worse; he was there for far too long, lingering until you forgot what it was like to be happy, his shadow hanging over you, making you go cold.
Like a flower kept from the sun, Penelope wilted. She fell into the deepest chasms of her mind and refused to come out. And it wasn't just grief that strangled her soul; it was the spider.
In Thorneburg she had initially found consolation, the beginnings of closure, the beginnings of, if not a friendship then a kinship, but soon his shadow hung over her, too, and it was deeper than the shadow left by death. It was a sick, hungry shadow that tainted you just by being there.
She could never, ever get clean, could never purge herself of the poison.
She fell down dark hole after dark hole until she decided to stop falling and turn on a light. The world she had always known was cruel, unbearable. So she made her own and made it well, drawing upon everything bright and pretty.
And he ruined that too.
Penelope tried to find herself and found something else instead. Bending down and reaching out to better see and touch her own reflection, she realized it wasn't her, and this Other yearned for contact just as badly, but in a way that was twisted, wrong.
It wore her face but it wasn't her.
There was a terrible explosion from the water as a hand sickly and dead and gray lunged from the murk, grabbing her outstretched wrist, pulling her violently under. Claws scored her flesh, drawing not blood but memories. Such painful memories she had tried to escape from, but there really was no escape.
The water was cold again. It filled her lungs in a choking flood. She went numb from a paralytic touch too horrifying to name and sank, deeper and deeper.
The peaceful dusk faded to an ashen suggestion that grew farther away as the harsh grips of too many hands yanked her from the peaceful world she had made and into another nightmare.
Its the way its supposed to be, precious. You and me, we have business to attend to.
Penelope drowned, died again, and came up for air in the real world.