She reached the bathroom and shielded her eyes as she fumbled for the light switch. As she looked into the mirror across from her, she shuddered. The face staring back was still so alien to her. She doubted she would ever get used to it. She pulled herself up onto the counter in a sitting position, with her slippered feet resting in the sink. She winced as her legs touched the counter; it was so cold it made her whole body ache. She got to work applying her makeup, trying to paint her face into something more...familiar.
This task was much easier when she still had her vanity, but sadly there was no room for it when they moved. They had to find a cheaper apartment; cheaper meant smaller, and smaller meant sacrificing luxuries they had once taken for granted. Mia lost her queen size bed, and now slept on a twin in the only bedroom, while Valarie took the futon in the living room.
Valarie finished her makeup and moved on to her hair. She could hear Mia rustling about now, brushing her teeth over the kitchen sink. Val continued to comb through her hair. She frowned as she watched herself. Only a year ago she had had a head of thick, vibrant raven-black hair. It was gorgeous, the envy of her sisters and female co-workers. Now, it was stringy and limp, hanging lifeless around her face. She considered pulling it up into a messy bun, but as she began gathering it all at the top of her head she suddenly felt something that made her stomach churn. She pulled her hand away and saw a large clump of hair woven through her fingers.
Valarie stared in horror at the hair. She felt her heart pound and she grew dizzy as she began to hyperventilate. She knew that this was a possibility, but had never prepared herself for it. She was content to cling to her denial for as long as possible. She reached her other hand to the back of her head and sighed with relief when it came out hair-free. Val decided to only pull up the front of her hair, leaving the back down to cover this new little secret.
Valarie shuffled back out into the hallway and to the linen closet where she kept her clothes. She rifled through the stacks of towels and shirts until she found a button-up blouse, something that wouldn't have to touch her delicate hair. She started looking for pants, but was interrupted by a scream from the bedroom. It was an angry scream - not hurt or frightened - so, with a sigh Val dropped the clothes and shuffled towards the bedroom. Her feet dragged on the floor as she walked; her muscles felt so heavy these days.
Mia had a full-length mirror that hung from her closet door. Valarie found her sitting on the floor in front of it, crying into her hands. Mia looked up when her mother entered the room, and Valarie immediately saw the source of her distress. Three large pimples had erupted overnight across the girl's forehead.
It broke Val's heart to see her daughter so upset, and she sympathized. But then she looked past the girl, into the mirror. As she stared at her own reflection, she saw a much different face than the one when she woke up. Her cheeks seemed fuller, her complexion was a healthy pink, and the dark shadows around her eyes had all but disappeared. But her eyes...no amount of makeup could restore the light they had once had. They used to be bright, full of passion. Now, they were sunken, dull...lifeless. And suddenly she felt jealousy and anger coming over her. She would gladly take a face full of acne if she could only have her health back. To see her daughter crying over a few pimples while Val's own body was wasting away....
She almost said something hurtful, but she stopped. She reminded herself that she was the adult, and it was her job to help her daughter through this. Even though it seemed so trivial, so petty to her, Mia was still so young and innocent. And to her, it was devastating. Val's first thought was to fetch her makeup and teach her daughter how to use the concealer to hide blemishes like that. But as she looked at her own reflection again, and remembered the face underneath all her makeup, she realized that she was hiding, too. She spent more than an hour every morning trying to hide the truth from the world, and from herself. If she chose today - in her daughter's moment of desperation - to teach her, then Mia would spend the rest of her life hiding, just like her mother.
Without a word, Valarie walked out and returned to the bathroom. She washed the makeup off off her face and watched as an hour's worth of expensive product flowed down the drain. Then, with shaking hands and a lump in her throat, she grabbed a fresh razor and got to work.
Valarie left the bathroom half an hour later to find her daughter sulking at the kitchen table with a thick headband covering her pimples. When Mia looked up at her mother she gasped at the sight, then quickly covered her mouth in embarrassment. She knew what the cancer treatments were doing, but she had never actually seen it; her mother had taken great care to hide the effects. She got up slowly from her chair and cautiously approached her mother.
Valarie's skin was a sickly gray and translucent; blue veins could be seen running underneath. Her cheeks were sunken and skeletal, and her skin was pulled so taut that her cheekbones and chin were almost pointed. Mia flipped the light switch to get a better look, and the light glinted off her mother's newly-shaved head. She lowered her head slightly and Mia reached up to touch it. It was so smooth, and surprisingly cold.
Valarie gave her daughter a calm smile, though she was anything but, and handed her her backpack. She had never felt so nervous and vulnerable in her life, but she could see from the look in Mia's eyes that her bold plan had worked. If Val could face herself and the world without fear or shame, then so could Mia. Mia removed her headband and tossed it onto the table as the two walked out the door.