Anastasia clumped up the stairs, livid with a seething fury that engulfed all her sense and reason as it raged. She hated her sisters. She hated them, and a grim smile of pure glee lit up her thin face, as she thought of the noise of her feet as they pounded the landing. She was unmerciful to every obstacle that found its way into her path, she thought with vengeful satisfaction, her stamps shaking the very foundations of the house, which wasn’t especially well-made at any rate, though it sported a large library, if not much else.
Safely in her room, she slammed the door, and as suddenly as her anger drained from her thoughts, she began to cry great hot tears.
Why did they dislike her? Why was she unwanted? What was wrong with her?
She hugged her knees to her chest as she cried. Was there no one to whom she could talk without being constantly snubbed and shunned?
She wept out all her sorrow till she could cry no more, and as she dried her eyes her sharp ears perceived the deep mellow sound of a striking bell. It was the bell of the clock tower on the high street. It must be seven o’clock.
Some instinct made her glance quickly at her watch, lying on the bedside table, still and cold. Funny. It wasn’t a quarter to seven. Maybe her watch was slow. She frowned. Odd things had been going on during the past few weeks, starting with her mother’s curious weekend trip to Italy a week ago, and prolonged by her mother’s even more curious fail to return home.
That was the morning that the news came through – Spain was devoid of all life forms. Not even the bodies remained. Not that any brave detective had crossed the border longer than was proved long enough to erect observation cameras, which, it may be added, froze after three hours and crashed every computer in the United States. How? – nobody knew. And now Australia, which had been wiped out a month ago, was collapsing on its own foundations. Everything was shrivelling and dying, a few fearless researchers said. They, too, who had been harmlessly caring with tender caution for one particular camera, to save it from ruin, seemed to be wrinkling and crumpling like brown paper bags, falling in on themselves, to a dust scarcely resembling the common substances of decay. It was the end of the world.
“Ssh.” A voice brushed over her tears.
Anastasia’s head jerked up, and she wiped her eyes quickly. No one must see that she, ‘scraggy’ Anastasia, who possessed the biggest biceps in her year, had been weeping her eyes out with as much stoicism and courage as a rather wimpy toddler.
“Anastasia,” the voice whispered. It was a gentle, silvery voice, so quiet she could scarcely distinguish it from the million tiny sounds of the ever-moving county, audible even in the grey apprehensive world of November. The voice, she thought, seemed to be coming from near the mirror, maybe from her underwear drawer in the big chest. This was the fishiest thing yet.
Anastasia approached the drawer, cautiously – for caution’s sake, not for fear. Bending her head, she searched the drawer, not heeding the havoc her rough fingers were creating as they combed and shoved the contents of the drawer with as little mercy as a military vehicle. She was not usually a very tidy person, and besides, the drawer was subject to an empty feel, nobody having found the motivation or the inclination to do the washing over the past seven days. Her mother had not been there, and neither had her father. Her father had died earlier that year, somehow. They said he’d been drowned, somehow. Anastasia thought better. She had had appalling nausea the hour they said he had been swept over the side into the treacherous waves. That day, she had noted, by chance, had been a day of all that is calm, smooth and windless.
She had instincts. She knew she had.
“Anastasia Swallow,” the voice said again, and Anastasia started. Raising her head slowly, she came face to face with her own reflection in the mirror. She had the urge to gulp, and gave in to it.
“Er...hi,” she said awkwardly. “What on our dying planet? You aren’t going to destroy me or anything, are you? What even are you? You look exactly like me! You’re my reflection, of course! But...excuse me?”
“I am indeed your reflection, Anastasia Swallow,” her reflection told her courteously. Its lips moved as it spoke, but, she knew, her own did not. Anastasia stepped back, and to the side, experimenting. Her reflection, as normally, moved with her. But it could make small movements of its own accord. Creepy.
“Reflection,” said Anastasia, testing the word. It was strange. She had not had a conversation with anyone in weeks. School had been closed down, because most people preferred to hide in their homes, and thought it wasn’t as if she didn’t fight with her sisters every second of the day, those cross quarrels could not with any truth be called conversations. A conversation was a respectable discussion, with civility and etiquette on both sides, and interest at least on one – the sororal quarrels of the Swallow girls were immersed in rudeness and vulgarity, and only employed for the sake of irritable impatience, fractious tempers and petty intolerance. Alice liked cooking, so she cooked. Carolyn didn’t mind dusting, so she dusted. Hope adored quarrelling with her ‘puny brat of a younger sister’, so she did, and roped the other two in with her as well. And she was only ten minutes younger anyway, Anastasia thought resentfully. But the youngest sister had no qualms in allowing herself the complacent vanity of admitting that they were jealous – she was more intelligent, stronger, and had the swankiest name, besides having obviously been their parents’ favourite, despite their efforts to hide it. Consequently, Alice, Carolyn and Hope made her suffer for it all. Everything. Every single accident. Everything.
“Tell me.” Her reflection nodded, and Anastasia did.