The Eyes in the Window
She never saw herself as pretty, Constance, because she was never told. In a perfect world, this task would be relegated to her mother; that was, after all, how Lisette and her mother got on, and Lisette was the most beautiful Acara that Constance had ever seen.
But in her world, there was only Constance and her father. She would have loved to have a mother to tell her how lovely she looked, how luminous was her purple fur, how radiant her smile, even if she didn't perhaps mean it; Constance would have been reassured by the mere gesture.
It was to this lonely reality she awoke as a harsh rapping upon her door shook her from a restive sleep. By now she recognized her father's heavy, decided footfalls and had anticipated his demand for an untimely meal, but eleven years of this nightly ritual did not prevent her wincing at the caustic overtone in his voice. Constance heard herself mutter a small apology as the sound of her father's gait faded into the hall.
Only a pale cotton sheet pinned the Usul's delicate frame to her bed on this night; summer always brought on oppressive heat. She slid her feet to the floor and traipsed toward the hall, the blanched carpet beneath her devouring the sound of her approach and consequently the only audible sign of her existence. She passed the corner of the room in which stood a pristine collection of Usuki dolls, a dazzling array of vibrant garments and polished, dyed porcelain which shone in stark contrast against the half-lit gloom that represented the remainder of her worldly possessions: a small dresser, a weathered Rocking Uni from her childhood, and her mother's desk, to which was attached a large, empty frame of the same cherry wood.
Halfway between her bed and the door, Constance was halted by what she could only describe to herself as the thundering sound of a cannonade. The candescent glitter raining from the sky told her that these were fireworks, and she suddenly registered the warning Lisette had given her the day before: that midnight would mark the beginning of the Mutant Day celebration.
Her vantage in the center of her room allowed her to see the distant lights of the plaza and the shadows of the masses dancing in sharp relief. Surely the mutants were congregated beneath the stone effigy of Capara the Kyrii, pawing her feet and howling in raucous worship of the silken hair and facile beauty that they never could possess. The adults would be weeping by now, showering the statue with meager offerings of stale bread and incense, while the children dodged playfully through the crowd, indifferent to and likely unaware of their own repugnance. Though Constance could not clearly see the activity, she knew her assessment to be true because Lisette had described it to her.
Only yesterday Lisette had stood in the center of the schoolyard, poised to deliver her daily sermon of neighborhood gossip. A tangle of devoted parishioners lay strewn about her feet, their eyes and ears wide in awed anticipation. Many of the younger girls, Constance suspected, had come simply to admire the velvet sheen of her pampered pink fur; they lacked the cognitive integrity to grasp the rich complexity of Lisette's stories. These stories did not come free, of course; the hand-picked dandelions and last year's Halloween candy littered beneath her makeshift podium indicated her price of admission. She began, as usual, in a display of fine verbal acuity:
"Ladies, I stand before you with chilled news. A tragesty is upon us."
Most of the young Neopets stared blankly, but the older and wiser shuddered at her grave tone.
"Tomorrow, as some of you may know, is Mutant Day," she continued. Her eyes swept the crowd and came to rest upon Constance. Several girls nodded in recognition, and Constance made sure to do the same, afraid her devotion was being tested by Lisette's cold stare.
"For some, it is a day of rejoicingment, I think. But for us (several girls delighted at this implication of companionship), for the normal ones, it is a day of cool and unusual punishment. Tomorrow, I am told to honor the Mutants for their ugliness, to celebrate their looks, which are far interior to mine. But in doing so, I undercut the countless hours I have spent grooming, the intimate care I take in perfecting my appearance. Tomorrow will be an insult to my pride, to our pride! And don't even get me started on that pitiful ceremony they conduct in the center of town."
To the surprise of none, she launched into an unprompted, full-winded account of what Constance now witnessed. Lisette had never seen the proceedings herself, of course, for this type of thing was far beneath her, and besides, she wanted her beauty sleep, not that she really needed it, and she definitely wasn't afraid if that's what you were thinking, because she isn't afraid of anything, she was just too tired, that's all. She relied instead on the heirloom wisdom of Lisette's past, and if that was enough for Lisette, then it was enough for Constance.
A deafening crash shook Constance from her reverie. She steadied herself against the subsequent tremor and looked up to see her paw pressed to the glass of her window; her body had been inching toward the sill while her mind raced with the memory of Lisette's tale.
A dusty haze now smothered the plaza, obstructing it from view. This was not in the itinerary that Lisette had described, Constance was certain; still, she wracked her memory for any mention of smog or smoke, of what sounded to be exuberant fanfare. No, Lisette had definitely omitted this from her original description, yet Constance heard the unmistakable sound of hearty cheering.
As the fog dissipated, Constance could see that the landscape of the center plaza had changed, though she could not quite place it. With her nose to the window, she now had a perfect view of the goings on in the center of town. But as the dawn of comprehension washed slowly over her, her alarm came not from what she could see, but what she couldn't - for the once proudly erected statue of Capara the Kyrii now lay in jagged scraps at the feet of the liberated.
The headlines of tomorrow's papers flashed behind her eyes: Shock, Sorrow at Loss of Beloved Statue; Mutants Exiled for Defamation of Town's Pride and Joy; Truth about Mutants Revealed in the Month of Hiding.
Her mind halted at the irony inherent in the latter title. The Month of Hiding is one for quiet and subtlety, she thought aloud. Yet here they are, the Mutants, shouting their sentience, revealing themselves and their secrets to the world.
The scattered marble shards told Constance to hate the Mutants for their defiance of the Hiding, and she wanted desperately to do so, but their triumphant revelry gave her pause. Their behavior was foreign to her, it was new; they behaved as if they were - the word sounded strange, metallic as it clanged against the walls of her mind - free.
Constance knew what it was to long for freedom. She was a prisoner in her father's house, slave to his demands and miens. But she could never hope for freedom because she had never seen it up close; she didn't know what it looked like.
But she saw it now, and she was sure of it. Lisette had been mislead about the Mutants; they did not idolize the statue, they detested it. They had been subjected to Capara's torment and now had become their own masters, and Constance would join them. Tonight, she would be free.
Her heart drummed wildly against her chest as both paws clasped the rail. Her stomach knotted itself so tightly that it hardly existed; in fact, nothing existed now but her steely determination and fiery will. In her mind's eye she saw herself ripping the window open, exploding into the night without so much as a sidelong glance at her broken home. Legs tensed, mouth clenched, heart racing, Constance closed her eyes and was ready.
She opened them, and despite the chorus of protests from her thousands of muscle fibers cocked and ready in agonizing wait, she was frozen in horror by what she saw. Her window had sprouted eyes, three of them, yellow and staring and awful. Beneath them was a mouth, a jagged, oblong gash of a mouth studded with crooked teeth, rounded in surprise and confusion as if to mock her.
Somewhere in the distance, the festival carried on, but there was nothing there for Constance. Nothing would shake her from her blank transfixion. Not the celebration in the plaza, not the fractured statue. Not the revival of the explosions in the sky, not the glistening aftermath descending like ash. Not the heavy footsteps charging behind her, not the cold arms ripping her from the sill. There was only Constance now, Constance and the eyes in the window, Constance and the crooked teeth.
As her father dragged her towards the kitchen, she caught sight of the desk her mother had left her. For the first time she understood the empty wooden frame towering above the desktop. This was not a desk at all; she knew now what to call it, and she dared herself to believe that she had known it all along. The word floated to the surface of her memory and escaped her lips in barely above a whisper.
And she knew why it no longer contained a mirror.