Before I really get into it, I should say that I was not exactly thrilled at the idea of buying my girlfriend another mirror. She spent more than enough time in front of the ones we had, and she was obsessive about her makeup, weight, and what she called her ‘aesthetic’.
What was her aesthetic, you might ask? Gothic. Yup. It’s the reason that we had to get the Edwardian armoire. Then came the French chaise longue, and God knows that was one bitch to move into the living room. And now was this medieval mirror thing. Yeah, I was leery. And writing this now, I should have been more firm. But I’ll be perfectly square with you. I loved her. So to put it quite simply what it came down to was how Tommy Wiseau so perfectly (and hilariously) put it: ‘Anything for my princess.’
“We moved it last year,” the owner said as we walked into the store, “and it was quite a move, too. Heavy as bricks. We also had to keep it covered. No other way. Then we had to insure it against … accidents. We went to Zehr’s before we even took it out of the crate. Only firm that would insure for the problem we had in mind.”
Kayla squeezed my hand. She loved this kind of shit, too. Spooky stories, haunted houses, possessed paraphernalia. Any and all of it. It was ‘on-brand’ as she so often told her Twitter and Instagram followers. She even had six pairs of Ouija board panties, two bat tattoos on each foot, and I’m pretty sure she owned every damn book by Anne Rice ever published. So, yeah, when she heard that Land Antiques in Shakespeare (yes, that is the town’s name) had a legitimate Art Nouveau mirror in stock — one that had supposed ‘properties’ — well … like I said: anything for my princess.
“And just what was it insured against?” I ask the guy.
His mouth twitched into a crooked half-smile and didn’t answer right away. He sure was an odd little man, I will say that, with that grin and those perfect-circle spectacles of his that I’m pretty sure went out of date about a hundred years ago. His store was a little strange, too. For a supposed antique store, it looked like more of a pawnshop; trashy novels and poetry collections, gaudy pieces of jewelry, atrocious paintings that only a drunk might have considered art. A mannequin wearing some old moth-eaten war bonnet stood near the mahogany staircase leading up to a shadowy second-floor corridor and stared at us vacantly. “Insanity,” this guy finally says.
Kayla squeezed my hand even harder and then began stroking it with her other. Did I tell you that kind of Hocus Pocus stuff actually got her off?
Well anyway, aside from that little fringe benefit, I didn’t put much more stock into any of it. I thought this guy was giving me the full fist. You know how enthusiastic small-business owners get. Besides, where did a guy within a small dump get the money to buy, ship, and insure a historical artifact? All I really cared about at this point was just how many zeroes all this Hocus Pocus mumbo-jumbo would add to the price tag.
But seeing Kay’s eyes light up now, I guess the sparkle in those blue beauties made it all worth it. I decided to have a little fun with the fairytale, and I put my best mock-British accent on. “And … what might insanity have to do with a mirror, sir? Surely … surely ’tis only a mirror. Merely this — and nothing more.” Now Kayla’s twinkling eyes disappeared as they rolled into the back of her head for a moment. Ha-ha, how very literary of you, James. But still, I guess it in a way reassured her I was still ‘on-brand’; she kept on with the stroking.
In response, the old man mounted the mahogany stairs. “Are you familiar with the theory of the three selves?” he asks.
Kayla as we followed him up: “Yup, I think so.”
I looked at her quizzically. “I never heard of it.”
“The man who made this particular mirror in 1912, Jacques Brien, was very familiar with the notion. Infatuated, really. To the point that he took it to literal extremes. He had a wife, Missus Eleanor Delacroix — born 1880, wed to Brien in 1910, died 1912 — and as far as the legend goes Mister Brien wanted to make a mirror that would reflect her as what he believed only he saw. So he could prove his love to all men. Now, I can’t confirm it, of course, but apparently, he used very … unconventional materials … and he became utterly obsessed. And … well, rather forceful of his conviction. The great irony? His wife grew … very frightened … so much that when the mirror was completed, Missus Brien refused to stand in front of it.”
“She was that fugly, huh?”
Kayla slapped my shoulder.
“Sorry,” I said. Then back to the bad British, “Truly your forgiveness I implore.”
“Oh, would you stop? You only know the lines because of that Simpsons episode, anyway.”
I shrugged. “Sad but true.”
The man chuckled but it was more of a wheezing. That funny grin crept on his face again. “That’s part of the appeal, you see. The legend is that it was not meant to be looked at. Such fine craftsmanship, and yet it’s forbidden to look at straight on.”
Full fist, folks. Full fist.
Well, for a moment, all joking aside — but perhaps exactly because of the joking — I found my mind turning back to old, childish, schoolyard myths. Particularly the one regarding the Bloody Mary.
We got to the top of the stairs. That corridor at the top seemed longer than it should have been in such a small shack of a place and was coated with tacky ‘vine’ wallpaper — just these thin brown swirls over a faded puke-green. At the end it opened into a place that looked a little like an attic; triangle-shaped roof with no straight walls and very little headroom. Up here the walls were lined with large but broken wooden sculptures (a giraffe with no ears, elephant without tusks, deer with no antlers, so forth), unremarkable trinkets, faux-wrought-iron candelabra … and in the center, as Mister Land indicated, one obscenely large mirror covered in a black satin blanket.
I was already sorting and counting how many Advils I could fit into a day after throwing out my back hauling this.
Kay ran up to it immediately, tearing herself away from me. “Oh, you’ve got to uncover it.” She pulled her iPhone out of her back pocket, started tick-tacking the screen with her glossy black fingernails — manicured with about three layers. “I’ve got to see how I look here. Get a photo, too. Tumblr’ll freak.”
I didn’t move from my spot at the side of the room. “Kay, come on. Can’t you wait?”
“I bet I’ll look amazing.” She turned to me, adjusted the seat of her shorts and palmed her breasts. “I look amazing, right, James?”
“Yeah. Always.” And before I even finished that last word she had already turned back towards the covered mirror, phone-camera held up and ready to go. “Can you uncover it?”
Mister Land nodded his head as he approached the mirror, that queer crooked grin still stuck on him like it was one very unlucky case of rigor mortis. “Yes, of course. How silly of me, leaving it like this. How could you buy something without giving it a test-drive, first?” He flicked a light switch. A plastic-candle chandelier overhead threw dim light that was about as yellow as piss. Then he reached for the top corner of the cover.
They both looked at me.
Wait? For what?
“I mean, it’s just … it’s just a mirror, right? What’s the point?”
Land shot me a glare and then gave an expectant look to Kay, as if it say, He’s in your court, milady.
Almost angrily, she snapped, “James, this is a piece of art. It’s not just the mirror. There’s a frame. Brien carved it out of desert bloodwood.”
A kind of quiet cough escaped my mouth. “Yeah, but —”
Land cleared his throat, hand still on the top corner. “Well, she is right. I admit the frame is the real attraction, legends aside.”
I put on hand on my waist, started scratching my head as I paced a little.
Delaying? Was I delaying? Why was I —
And right then Land pulled the cover off with one good yank.
For a moment no one said anything. I soon found that I was holding my breath. In the far corner of the room, the dusty deer sculpture with no antlers peered at us with flat obsidian-bead eyes.
Eventually, Kay broke the silence with a whisper. “This is …” She reached one hand to the mirror, slowly, cautiously, as if it might’ve been a hot surface. “This is amazing.”
Land raised his eyebrows, a kind of told-you-so expression accompanying that shit-eating grin. “All done by hand — oh, please don’t touch. Fingerprints.”
Kay retracted her hand, nodding slowly. Then she inspected the whole thing, side to side, top to bottom. Soon, and not much to my surprise, she started inspecting herself, sticking her ass out to one side, brushing her raven-black hair, tugging the hem of her Rob Zombie shirt down to show her cleavage a little more.
And I admit, that mirror was intense. From the angle I was at, everything in the reflection seemed a little more distorted; the room’s odd shape tilted crazily as if on the verge of sliding off into some unseen forever-place. There were no spots. It was utterly flawless. And the frame? It seemed impossible in its detail. Sinuous lines, swirling designs, and fungal-inspired motifs. The lacquered bloodwood gave a delicate maroon finish.
Although, all in all, it all reminded me far too much of a living thing … the red hue of the wood and the intricacy of the carvings gave the impression of skinless, muscle-y tentacles wrapped all around. Some weird alien thing, like something, dreamed out of Giger’s mind and then translated by Barker’s hand. And you can call me as nutty as squirrel shit, but it was so perfectly lifelike I expected that frame at any moment to begin pulsing, perspiring, and then slithering.
How did it go again?
At night you walk backward into a dark room that has a mirror, holding a lit candle, and then you look into the mirror and say her name thirteen times, you should count them because if it’s wrong it won’t work … (one) Bloody Mary … (two) Bloody Mary … (three) Bloody Mary …
“What the hell is that!?” Kay literally shrieked. Her phone clattered to the hardwood floor. And let me tell you something: anything that could get the phone out of her hands had to be serious.
I blinked, shook my head a little. “Huh? What, Kay?”
“This!” She turned away from the mirror to face me, and her thin eyebrows were pulled together in an angry V. She was pointing at a bare spot on her cheek.
I didn’t get any closer, and it the lighting in the room wasn’t too good … but I could see well enough. There wasn’t anything there. I raised my hands in a confused gesture.
She swung around to face the mirror again. “The zit, James! What the hell? I asked you how I looked. I asked you and — and what’s this? Oh, great. You didn’t tell me I smeared my lipstick, either.” She started wiping the side of her mouth with the heel of her hand. “… I asked you … you said I was ‘amazing’ …”
I sighed. This was actually, in point of fact, not a new thing with her. Especially when she was about to take pics for all her Tumblr friends. But I guess you had to look perfect, prim, and proper for the whole world when you’ve got about a zillion followers. “Kay. There was nothing there. The lipstick wasn’t smudged when I looked. Honest. And maybe the zit just started. Is it that noticeable?”
No response from Queen Grimhilde. She just fidgeted, fidgeted, fidgeted, poking that side of her cheek with nearly all her fingers.
… (four) Bloody Mary … (five) Bloody Mary … (six) Bloody Mary …
Suddenly the man was in front of me. No more odd smile, and thanks very much for that. “Er, perhaps it’s time to discuss pricing.”
“Yes,” from Kay now, but still fidgeting, “perhaps. Perhaps I need this mirror since my boyfriend apparently can’t tell a zit from my face.”
That wasn’t fair. That wasn’t fair at all. But … hey, about a hundred internet neckbeards had bought her Ko-Fis in the last month, and her Patreon relied on her photos. It was just something I didn’t get. And I don’t care if you think it’s shallow or just my biased opinion or whatever, but I know girls, and I know that I am on the goddamn needlepoint when I said that she always looks amazing. I simply didn’t know why she worried so much about little things. She was so gorgeous, okay, that I would personally bet she could walk around in a gorilla suit and — as long as her face was still visible somewhere in its mouth-opening — there’d be guys approaching her all like, ‘Heyyy! Great outfit.’ And, speaking of apes, a certain primitive guy-fear popped into my head: that there’s always another dude waiting in line.
Her personal flaws aside, here I had the penultimate Goth Girl and I loved her. Call me what you will, I wasn’t about to lose her over a fucking zit.
With a friendly arm, Land ushered me towards the stairs. I didn’t resist.
“Let’s work the numbers out downstairs while she makes a decision.”
… (seven) … (eight) … (nine) …
Well, I almost puked when he told me the price.
“That’s … that’s just under what I paid for my truck out there.”
“It’s a piece of history.”
“Yeah, but that much for a mirror?”
“She’d be very disappointed. She seems quite enthralled by it.”
I didn’t like that word he used, enthralled.
I got up, pulled my pack of smokes out, went to the door. “I need a minute to think.”
“No rush,” he said as the door closed.
As I sucked on a Belmont, I frustratedly found that I was in fact not thinking about how I’d afford the mirror at all but about that goddam Bloody Mary shit. And why was I thinking about it? Sure. It’s a mirror, after all. There’s a relation there. And my little quips got me feeling all kiddish, okay. And this guy really liked to play up the whole supernatural thing, too, and that word enthralled …
But wasn’t there something else that was really bothering me now, with all that piled up? Something about —
… (ten) … (eleven) … (twelve) …
He said he’d insured it.
You know what the thing is about the Bloody Mary? As kids, we’d swear we saw her and this and that. But no adult ever actually threw the mirror away, reported it to the cops, took the family and moved out. Why? Because when you get to be an adult you’ve learned things. You’ve learned things like how staring into a mirror in a dimly-lit room for a prolonged period can cause people to ‘see’ things. You learn things like how under the right state of mind, facial features seem to melt, distort, disappear, rotate, whatever. Maybe you see a zit. What was it again? The ‘strange-face illusion’, that was it. Or maybe just self-hypnosis. Anyway, the brain’s a pretty fragile thing, right? Systems misfire, shoot neurons all over the goddamn place. And then you see shit. That’s all it is. End of story. Merely that and nothing more.
I chucked my half-smoked cigarette and barged back inside. Kay wouldn’t like this, but I just couldn’t be expected to pay all that on a hoax.
“Alright, Mister Land. We’re done here.”
“Yeah, sorry. We’re leaving. No sale.”
“That’s … a shame. I didn’t think you’d pass up something so … unique.”
“Yeah, well I caught on to your little parlor trick. The weird oblong room? The dim light? Busted statues with creepy beady eyes? Come on. Anybody’d fall for it if they really wanted to. Everything here is cheap garbage. That mirror probably isn’t even real bloodwood.”
“Mister Garrett, I assure you —”
“ Yeah, yeah. Hey, I’m not letting you give Kayla anymore of the ‘experience’ so that she’ll tell her friends and tweet it all around, or get a news story so you can bump the price up more and more.” I went to the staircase and called up: “Kay!”
From behind me: “… don’t …”
I turned to the old codger. “What?”
“I said you don’t really believe that, do you?”
“That I set this all up. That it’s a trick.”
“What are you talking about? I just told you —”
“No, no. You certainly don’t. You’re quite afraid. You’re afraid that it’s not a hoax. Do you know how I know that?”
“Oh, gimme a break, buddy.” Facing the stairs again: “Kayla!”
“I know that because I was watching you. Up there. You didn’t look into that mirror straight on for even one second. Kept your distance and your angle. You insisted that I keep a mirror of all things covered up, and lo and behold when I did remove the cover you were standing there, not moving one muscle. You expected something bad to happen, didn’t you? When I asked you to come downstairs? No protest. Even eager.” Then that goddam, stupid warped grin crept back on him. “You aren’t even brave enough to go up there, now.”
I wanted to knock the guy one in the nose. But … that was quite an overreaction. And why would I want to overreact? Was it because he was right?
“Thanks for the mental assessment,” I said quickly, “but Kay’s got a psychotherapist, and she’s very good. If I need to know what I am and am not afraid of, I’ll ask the professional.” I mounted the steps with one foot. “KAY-LA!” What the hell was she doing? I felt like Echo waiting on Narcissus here.
Suddenly this guy clasped his hand around my wrist so swiftly and so tightly that I actually screamed.
“I didn’t tell you about the concept of the three selves before,” he says. He looked terribly serious now, and if he once wore a crooked grin it was now the same thing but flipped into a grotesque frown.
“Let go of me.”
“In a moment. It’s very simple to explain. There is the version you see, the version other people see, and then the true version — the version unfettered by the tint of human perception …”
I tugged my arm. No good.
“… but think of it this way: your girlfriend up there, she probably has a determination of what she’s like; that’s the version she sees. She takes her photos of herself and shows them to people; what they observe is the version others see. But the third version, the true version? Nobody ever sees it. To see that version would … why, it could unlock and unhinge doors in the mind that could change our entire system of belief or self-worth.”
“Let … go!” I emphasized each word with two stronger tugs. But the old man held on vice-like.
His eyes blazed beneath twitching eyebrows. “Don’t you see? That’s the version Brien was trying to capture! He needed God’s eyes! Because he was convinced that his wife was so beautiful — to the very core. But I must ask, what if God, like Missus Brien, chose to blindfold Himself once He finished His creation?”
A hot-cold tingling wormed its way through my body, from the top of my head down to the tips of my fingers. It felt like my guts had liquidized.
… (thirteen) BLOODY MARY!! …
“And why do you think God would do that?”
… and when you say her name the thirteenth time she appears as a corpse covered in blood, and you have to be brave because she’ll scream at you, try to curse you, strangle you, steal your soul, drink your blood … or scratch your eyes out.
And just like that he let go. My wrist throbbed, the bones felt crushed. I groaned and raced up the stairway. “KAYL —”
There she was, at the end of the corridor, and my mind side-slipped.
She was cross-legged. Her head was bowed, and with her dark hair covering the face she looked a little like that girl in The Ring. She was sitting in … a pool of wine. Yes, must be merlot by the looks of it. She must’ve found a bottle of it in that room and wanted to show me, then on her way she dropped it and spilled it all over the place and now we’d just have to clean it up. The front of her Rob Zombie shirt was soaked in it, too; have to buy another, can’t get that out in the laundry. And what was she holding in her hands which rested there limply between her legs? Shards of glass from the broken bottle, no doubt. Surely.
Only that and nothing more.
I ran to her on weak knees, starting to feel very dizzy. Of course, it wasn’t wine, of course not. That was only what I’d hoped for — prayed for. I crouched next to her and got her in my arms. She was warm, nearly hot in my embrace, but shaking and shivering there like a raccoon caught in an autumn night’s rain. She was muttering something senseless, the faintly metallic and sickeningly cloying scent of iron riding on her breath with each quiet burst of syllables.
“Don’t talk,” I said. “We have to get you to a hospital. Now.”
More muttering, too low to catch.
“I suppose there won’t be a sale after all.”
I looked up. There was Mister Land. He wasn’t much more than a dark lump there in the dimness.
“I fear I owe you an apology, Mister Garrett.” His voice had taken on a horrible graveness, low and gravelly as if his throat was coated in cooking oil. “I had to test it, you see. But I’m afraid it just won’t be something I can sell.”
“What — what the hell is wrong with it!?” I felt red anger flaring in my chest with an acidic mixture of regret and grief.
“Nothing. It works perfectly.”
“Then what did it … what exactly did it do to Kayla … Look at her!”
He stamped a foot down. “It did nothing!” he snarled. From somewhere beyond the corridor I heard the softest of giggling, and I swear to you that for a moment the vines on that wallpaper — they looked like they were growing. “It’s a mirror,” Land continued. “It reflects. She is the one who looked. I can’t be held responsible for what people see when they look.”
Kayla was speaking clearer now, though not much more than a croak. “It’s okay, James. It’s okay now. I won’t ever have to see that again.” She opened her hands, lifted them up a little, brought them closer to my face. “I never want to see that again … I never want to see that again … I never … I never …”
I could just barely keep the gag-reflex back.
A bloody white orb rested in each of her palms, about the size of golf balls. They were no longer sparkling.
She began sobbing loud, braying sobs, and instead of tears blood oozed out of sockets that had once housed two perfectly beautiful blue eyes.
I squeezed my eyelids shut. It was my turn to jitter and shake. Then slowly, carefully, I asked Land, “Then … what … the hell … did she see in there? Brien’s fucking ghost!?”
Mister land gave a harsh laugh. “How utterly childish. Have you not been listening, Mister Garrett? It works exactly as Brien intended. Your Kayla looked into the mirror, and I assure you she saw nothing but her reflection.”
Then his voice took on an undertone of half-amused bitterness I didn’t care for at all, because just at the sound of it I knew he had the crooked grin on again. “The reflection of her third self, that is. Merely that … and nothing more.”