© 2015 M. Ramon
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When Frank saw it leaning up against the side of a building on Dresden Ave. he gave it a glance and nearly walked on by. How different things would have been for him if he had done just that. But he hadn’t. Something nagged at him as he passed the full-length mirror, its reflective surface streaked with such dirt and dust that barely any reflection could be seen at all. His steps first slowed, and then stopped altogether. He turned back and walked up to the mirror.
There was a folded scrap of paper tucked into the edge of the frame. Frank looked around; he was alone on the street. He pulled the scrap of paper free of the frame, unfolded it and read, in a neat, slightly slanting script:
I am free. Take me.
Someone wanted to get rid of the mirror, and instead of just tossing it in a Dumpster they had left it leaning there for anyone to take. Frank thought about it for a moment. His apartment was cramped as it was. He might not even have an apartment much longer if he didn’t find another job soon. Did he really need one more thing that he would have to lug with him if he had to move?
But it was just a mirror. It wouldn’t take up much room at all really.
Taking one more look around, and seeing no one else on either side of the street, Frank slipped the scrap of paper in his pocket, picked up the mirror and tucked it under one arm. It wasn’t too heavy. He felt a little silly walking around carrying a full-length mirror, but screw it. It wasn’t true that nothing in life was free, but preciously few things were. Why not take advantage of it?
Less than twenty minutes later Frank walked up the flight of stairs to his apartment, setting the mirror against a wall long enough to fish his keys out of his pocket and open the door. Frank carried the mirror into his bedroom, accidentally banging it against the doorframe. The mirror was undamaged.
He set the mirror so that it faced the bedroom door. By extending the kickstand attached to the back of the frame he made the mirror stand on its own. He stood looking at it, admiring it. The frame looked beat to hell, but he admired it just the same. It was his. And hell, it was free.
While Frank couldn’t do much about the frame, he could do something about the glass. He searched under the kitchen sink and found a half-full spray bottle of Windex. After spraying the mirror surface down (and letting it settle for a bit, giving the cleaning solution time to break through the layers dirt and grime), he went at it with a cloth. In all it took three applications of Windex and the same number of scrubbings, but damned if he didn’t get it clean. After switching out for a clean rag to wipe away a few last spots and streaks, he was satisfied.
Frank’s cell rang. He pulled it out of his hip pocket and looked at the screen.
It was Hayleigh. Frank slid his finger across the screen to accept the call.
“Hey, babe,” he answered.
Frank turned away from the mirror, taking a seat on the edge of his bed. He talked with Hayleigh for a while, making plans for dinner the following day.
The mirror watched.
The next morning Frank awoke from a nightmare. He had no memory of what it was about, but a feeling of inky dread had followed him out of the dream, and there was a sheen of slick sweat on his body. By the time he jumped in the shower a half hour after waking (after a quick standing breakfast of leftover pizza and a glass of pink lemonade), the dream was already in the past, part of another life.
Frank gave himself a once-over in his new mirror before he left the apartment, once again admiring just how clean the glass looked, a far cry from the grimy thing it had been when he found it. As for himself, he thought he looked good. Well, decent. Decent was good enough.
He left the apartment, locking up after himself.
His first stop was the temp center to see if they had any work for him (they didn’t), then the store to get supplies for his dinner with Hayleigh. He was cooking, something he enjoyed in spite of the fact that he wasn’t particularly gifted at it. She had told him to surprise her, and he’d decided to attempt a Penne dish with chunks of eggplant and grape tomatoes. He made sure to pick up a cheap bottle of wine. Cheap was all he could afford; thankfully Hayleigh wasn’t a snob.
At home again. Frank stowed the groceries. He had plenty of time before Hayleigh would show up, so he wasn’t in a hurry. He walked through the open door into the bedroom, throwing a glance at the mirror without a thought.
He stopped in his tracks.
He saw something in the mirror. Not his reflection. His reflection is what he should have seen, but instead of reflecting the doorway of his bedroom, and him standing in it, it reflected what looked like a spacious living room. In that phantom living room a bay window looked out on a brightly lit day.
Even though he knew it was a ridiculous thing to do, Frank turned to look behind him. The same doorway, the same hall beyond. Definitely no bay window.
He turned back to the mirror. The same living room, the same bay window, but there was a difference. He saw the reflection of a person in the mirror this time. Not him, no. It was a woman. She was moving toward the phantom window. She had on a light summer dress. The feet at the ends of her long legs were bare as she stepped slowly through the living room. She stopped, staring out the window at something that the mirror did not reveal. For some reason, although all he could see was the woman’s back, Frank got the impression that the woman was very sad.
Someone else entered the mirror, like an actor walking into frame. It was a man. The man in the mirror stood watching the woman. Perhaps he was the woman’s husband, or boyfriend. Maybe he was neither.
Frank stepped closer to the mirror. He reached up to touch its surface, and an image came to him of his hand slipping right through it and into that other world. He pulled his hand back. While the thought of his hand slipping through a mirror might have seemed ludicrous just minutes ago, now it seemed like a reasonable possibility.
The man in the mirror walked up behind the woman and placed his hands on her shoulders. The woman didn’t respond to the man’s touch; she continued staring out the bay window. The man took his hands away from her shoulders and put them in his pockets. They stood there for a moment, seemingly unaware that they were being watched through what not long ago had appeared to be an ordinary mirror.
The man took his hands out of his pockets. His right hand was empty, but there was something in the other hand. Frank couldn’t make out what it was. The man in the mirror put his hands together, and when he pulled them apart there was something stretched between them. It looked like some sort of cloth. Frank tried to make it out.
It was a necktie.
The mirror man swung the necktie over the woman’s head so that it looped around her neck. He pulled tight, and the two mirror people began struggling.
Frank expected to hear the sounds of that struggle, but this strange movie appeared to be the silent kind. He took a step away from the mirror, fear rising up his spine.
The mirror man pulled the woman to the ground, straddled her struggling form. The tie was still pulled tight around her neck. She fought for life, but the man was bigger than her, and stronger. Her movements became sporadic, and then ceased altogether. It was only then, when she was perfectly still, that the man released her.
“Jesus fucking Christ!” Frank said.
Then, afraid that the man in the mirror had heard him, afraid that the man might turn and look at him, Frank dashed out of the room, closing the door behind him. His breath was coming quick and sharp, and his heart felt like a trapped animal beating at its cage.
He tried to think rationally. What he had just seen was a visual hallucination. It must have been. It was strange to think that the thought that he may have been hallucinating, possibly experiencing the first signs of oncoming mental illness, was a comforting one.
After a few minutes, fighting a cold dread, Frank slowly opened the bedroom door. Across from the doorway, in the mirror, there was a man. Only this time the man was him. There was no spacious living room, no bay window. No woman lying dead and no man standing over her. Just Frank reflected in the doorway to his bedroom.
Frank walked up to the mirror, and this time he did touch it. There was nothing strange about it at all. All he felt was smooth glass, and nothing more.
He went into the bathroom, ran the sink and splashed cold water on his face. He looked at himself in the mirror over the sink (a mirror in which he had never witnessed a man murdering a woman in a sundress), and stared closely into his own eyes.
Maybe this is what it’s like to go crazy, he thought. Maybe I’ve slipped a gear.
Frank stayed out of his bedroom the rest of the afternoon. He took a walk around the neighborhood, reasoning that some fresh air would do well to clear his head.
At a quarter to six he started on dinner. When Hayleigh showed up a little past seven Frank put on a smile that wasn’t quite genuine.
“Something smells good,” she said.
“Yeah. Listen, could you…before we eat, I want to show you something.”
He led her to the bedroom and for a moment they stood together, Hayleigh looking at Frank questioningly. Then she noticed the new addition to the room.
“Where’d you get the mirror?” she asked.
He told her about finding the mirror, and the slip of paper making it clear that the mirror was free to take. He did not tell her about the strange scene that had played out for him in the mirror’s surface earlier that day.
“Does anything about it look strange to you?” he asked her.
“What do you mean?”
“Just look into it. What do you see?”
She did as he asked.
“Oh,” she said in an awed voice. “I see it.”
“What do you see?” he asked.
Hayleigh reached up and ran a finger down the glass smooth surface of the mirror.
“I see…I see…my weird boyfriend standing next to me.”
She laughed. Frank didn’t.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, seeing the sour look on his face. “I don’t know what you want me to see.”
“Never mind. It’s nothing.”
They ate dinner, which they both agreed that Frank had actually done a good job on. As hard as he tried to be present for Hayleigh that evening, his mind kept wandering back to what he had seen in the mirror. If Hayleigh noticed his distance she didn’t let on.
“Want to stay over?” Frank asked after the food had been eaten and the dishes washed.
“Oh, I wish that I could,” Hayleigh said. “But I have paperwork I have to get through tonight. Sorry.”
Was that a reminder that she had a job and Frank didn’t?
It was a ridiculous thought. Hayleigh wasn’t cruel that way. Still, the idea had occurred to him.
“Thank you for a lovely dinner,” Hayleigh said as Frank saw her out the door.
She gave him a peck on the lips.
“Want me to walk you to the car?” he asked.
“No thanks; I’ll be fine. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
As she turned to leave a twinge of anger flashed inside of Frank.
She’s lying about having paperwork, he thought. She’s a lying bitch!
The thought shocked him. The pure heat of it.
“Bye, baby,” Hayleigh called back as she started down the stairs outside Frank’s apartment door.
“Huh? Oh, yeah; talk to you tomorrow.”
Franke shut the door and bolted it. He stood for a while, his back against the door. One thought echoed over and over again in his mind:
She’s lying. She’s lying. She’s lying.
The next day Frank took a walk to the newsstand on the corner of Sixth and picked up a newspaper. He didn’t find what he was looking for on the front page of the Cedar Falls Review. Standing near the newsstand he paged through the paper, looking for something, anything. He checked the police blotter. Nothing there either.
There were no headlines proclaiming MURDER, about a GRIZZLY DISCOVERY. There were no interviews with neighbors talking about how the people in the house at the end of the block had always seemed like such a sweet couple. He found no photograph of a man being led away from his home in handcuffs, and no smiling photo of a woman that had been taken before she became a TRAGIC VICTIM.
There was some relief in this. It seemed to him that his inability to find any story about a woman being murdered the day before was further confirmation of what he knew. You can’t see a murder happening by using a mirror as some sort of window into some stranger’s home. That type of thing might happen in a movie, but not in the real world.
The thought occurred to him that he could have seen something that happened in another part of the world, somewhere far outside the boundaries of concern for the Cedar Falls Review. But it was easier to just accept that the murder of the woman by the bay window hadn’t happened at all.
Frank tossed the paper in a trash can and walked back to his apartment.
In the bedroom he studied the mirror for a time. Part of him expected to see the scene play out again: the woman walking to the window; the man entering the picture and moving over to her; the man resting his hands on the woman’s shoulders before reaching into his pockets; the necktie; the struggle; the end of the struggle.
All Frank saw was his own reflection.
Three days passed before the mirror revealed itself to Frank again. In those three days Frank was able to convince himself that whatever had happened was a one-time occurrence. Whether it had been a hallucination, a momentary rip in the fabric of reality, or spacemen from the furthest reaches of the galaxy beaming images down into his brain as an experiment, it would not happen again.
But it was not a one-time occurrence.
When the mirror showed that it was something more than a mirror for the second time, Frank didn’t feel fear so much as relief. It wasn’t until the moment that he realized that it was happening again (whatever “it” was), that he admitted that some deep, secret part of him had been expecting it all along. Had even been longing for it.
He almost missed it. There was a flicker in the corner of his eye, and when he turned toward the mirror he saw a new scene. It wasn’t the living room with the bay window; instead it was as if he were watching from the backseat of a car as it was driven down a street at night. As the car passed a streetlight the cabin of the car would be momentarily lit up, and then the streetlight would be behind them, and the interior of the car would return to shadows, the lights from the dashboard softly aglow. There was a man behind the wheel and beside him, in the shotgun seat, a woman. Frank could tell that they were speaking to each other, but again he could hear nothing.
The experience was somewhat disorienting. Aside from the fact that he was watching a silent movie being played out in his mirror there was the added weirdness of the apparent motion clashing with the reality that he was standing absolutely still. It made him a bit queasy at first, but after a few minutes he acclimated and the feeling passed.
Frank wondered where these people were headed, and if he would get to watch until they got there. Every now and again the woman would turn to look at the man as he drove. Frank thought she looked upset. Her eyes were puffy and red, like she had been crying recently. The man never turned to look at her, even for a second.
After some time the car came to a stop. They were parked at a spot overlooking a body of water, possible a lake or a bay. Cold moonlight left an elongated reflection across the surface of the water (which looked almost like a mirror). Neither the man nor the woman appeared to be saying anything. They sat looking out at the water. For a minute they stayed just like that, and Frank began to think that nothing more was going to happen. For some reason he felt disappointment.
The man reached down, appeared to be searching for something under his seat. As he came back up the woman turned toward him and started to speak, but she never got the chance to finish whatever it was she had intended to say. The man moved quickly, reaching over and jabbing at the woman with his left hand.
Frank flinched. He thought the man had punched the woman. The woman looked shocked at what had happened. She looked down at the spot where the driver had struck her, which was out of Frank’s view. She lifted one hand to the spot and brought it up to her face. There was blood.
The driver struck out again, and then again. Moonlight glinted on metal and Frank realized that the man was not punching the woman; he was stabbing her. The woman tried to defend herself, attempting to block the blows with her hands, her back pressed up against the passenger door. He face was a writhing portrait of agony and fear. She turned and tried to open the door.
The door is still locked, Frank thought. She’s too shocked to remember that she has to unlock it before it will open.
The man kept thrusting the blade into the back that was turned to him. His face was contorted with purest rage.
The man stopped. The woman was still, slumped forward against the door she had been unable to open. The man looked out over the water. He was calm.
And just like that the mirror was a mirror again. The scene in the car hadn’t faded away, like when a movie fades to black. It was there one second and the next Frank was staring at nothing more than his own pale face in the reflective surface of the mirror.
He left the bedroom. In the living room he sat down on his couch in a room made dark by twilight. For some reason he wasn’t thinking of what he had just seen in the mirror. Instead he was thinking about Hayleigh. Thinking of her had once made him happy. Now all he felt when he thought about her was anger and a sense of betrayal. He couldn’t understand it. Maybe it was beyond his understanding.
Frank thought about what she might me doing at that moment. And all the while, he thought to himself:
Bitch. Liar. Bitch. Liar. Fucking lying bitch.
Over the next five weeks Frank continued to watch as the mirror showed him more of these scenes. There was always a woman and a man, except for one time when the act was played out between two men. It was always the same, more or less. It always ended with an act of violence, with one human being erasing another from existence. Frank wanted to stop, but he couldn’t. It was like a drug, and he was addicted. The thought of simply getting rid of the mirror never even crossed his mind.
After a while he stopped making excuses to Hayleigh about why it wasn’t a good idea for her to come over, or why he didn’t want to go out anywhere with her. Eventually he just stopped answering his phone, for her or for anybody. She came to the door three times, begging to know what she had done wrong. He never responded, just stood on his side for the door and listening to her plead. Her voice grated on him like fingernails on chalkboard. He thought it might drive him mad.
The third time she came to his door she had shouted that she was going to call the police and have them check on him if he didn’t say something, anything to at least let her know that he was okay.
“I’m fine,” he said on his side of the door. “Please go away.”
His brother came once, undoubtedly responding to a worried phone call from Hayleigh. After banging on the apartment door for ten minutes, and with no response, Frank’s brother left; he did not come back a second time.
Whenever Frank looked in the mirror when it was just a mirror he could see that his cheeks were beginning to take on a gaunt, sunken look. Some days he lost track and forgot to eat, and when he did eat his meals usually consisted of nothing more than some toast or crackers washed down with a glass of water. His cupboards, never exactly well stocked, were beginning to look bare. He didn’t mind. He sure as hell didn’t feel like making a trip to the store to restock his fridge. As long as he had the mirror he was fine.
Because the mirror wasn’t a lying bitch. The mirror wasn’t a lying, backstabbing whore.
The mirror had so many things to show him.
At first Hayleigh sounded relieved when he finally called her. Then she remembered that she was angry at him, and her voice turned cooler.
Why should she forgive him? There was something seriously wrong with him, didn’t he see that? She didn’t deserve to be treated the way he had treated her. No, she didn’t want to see him again.
In the end she agreed to drop by his apartment. It didn’t mean that he was forgiven, and it didn’t mean that things would be the same between them just because he was sorry. But yes, she would come by. He told her to come around eight, and she agreed.
When eight o’clock rolled around the Sun was already starting to dip below the horizon, ready to quit its vigil for the day. With the lights off the living room was dim but not dark, shadows at war with the red dying light of day.
It was three minutes past eight and she wasn’t there yet. Frank’s hands were squeezed into tight fists. She was late. Only by three minutes, sure, but still late. It was disrespectful. Not that she had ever really respected him.
When heard her coming up the steps he rushed to the door; he stopped himself just before opening it. He flipped the light switch just as she knocked at the door. Her knock was light; it was a tentative knock, nervous. As if she were unsure if she should have come at all, and was having doubts, was thinking about calling the whole thing off. He could picture her stalking back down the stairs and out of the building. He opened the door quickly, before the vision had time to become reality.
“Hayleigh; I’m glad you came,” he said.
She didn’t respond at first. She looked into his eyes, eyes that were so much hollower then when she had last seen them.
“Jesus, Frank; you look sick.”
“I’m fine. I guess I haven’t been eating much lately, but I’m okay.”
Frank didn’t tell her that he couldn’t remember when he had eaten last. Two days before? Three?
“Come in,” he invited.
She looked just as unsure as her knock had sounded, but she did come in, taking off her jacket and tossing it on the couch.
“It smells like a gym in here,” Hayleigh observed. “Like stale sweat and old socks.”
Frank ignored that.
She moved to a window and lifted it up, letting in fresh air.
“I didn’t say that you could open my fucking window,” Frank whispered between clenched teeth.
“What?” Hayleigh asked “I couldn’t her you.”
“Nothing,” he said. “It was…nothing important.”
Hayleigh took a look around the apartment. Frank had been cleaning with even less frequency than he had been eating.
“Maybe…” she trailed off.
“What is it?”
“Maybe we should go somewhere. Get something to eat. You look like you could use it.”
And you look like a fucking whore, my dear, he thought.
“Sure,” he said instead. “Sounds like a good idea. I just want to show you something first.”
“It’s in the bedroom. Follow me.”
“It’s not the mirror again, is it? You already showed it to me, remember?”
No, not the mirror. The mirror would never show her the things that it had shown to him. He was special.
“Not the mirror,” he said. “Just come on.”
He headed for the bedroom, not entirely sure that she would follow him.
She did follow, however. In the bedroom Frank turned on a light. The mirror reflected Hayleigh as she entered the room.
She will belong to the mirror soon. We both will.
He didn’t know where the thought had come from. It sent a quick shiver up his spine. He shook the feeling off.
“So, what is it?”
“Huh?” Frank asked, confused.
“What did you want to show me?”
“Oh, yeah. It’s right over here.”
Frank went to the dresser opened the top drawer. He took out a small cardboard box that had been tied shut with a tiny ribbon, then pushed the drawer shut. He set the box on the table by the bed, then came back to where Hayleigh was standing near the doorway. Now the mirror reflected both of them standing side by side.
“Go look,” he told her.
“What’s in the box?”
Hayleigh looked unsure, but when she looked up at him and he flashed her a smile she couldn’t help but smile back. She started for the table. Frank followed after her, but stopped.
The mirror wants to see.
As Hayleigh picked the little box up off the table with her back to him Frank went to the mirror and moved it so that it was facing her. So that it could see. As she fumbled with the tightly tied ribbon Frank moved to the foot of the bed. He threw back the bottom of the coverlet, and as Hayleigh finally managed to get the ribbon free of the box Frank picked up what he had left under the coverlet, gripping it tightly in his right hand. He moved closer to Hayleigh—
Hayleigh the liar, Hayleigh the liar, Hayleigh the liar, Hayleigh the liar!!!!!
—and rested his left hand on her shoulder. She opened the box.
There was nothing inside of it.
“I don’t get it.” she said.
“And you never will.”
He raised his right hand high, bringing the hammer down against her head. She screamed, but her screams were cut off with more hammer blows. She fell to the floor, looking up at him with an agonized, pleading look in her eyes. A look that asked, why are you doing this?
He hit her again and again. He hit her until she stopped moving, and then he hit her some more. Somewhere, in another life, perhaps another word, he could hear police sirens. They got closer. Some part of his mind that was still capable of rational though understood that someone must have heard Hayleigh’s screams and had called the cops. Some part of him knew that they were coming for him.
Frank dropped the hammer; it landed in a spreading pool of blood. He turned and walked to the mirror. The mirror had watched it all. Frank looked at himself, saw that he was covered in blood. Whose blood? He couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter, anyway.
The sirens were very close now. Frank walked to kitchen, and when he came back to stand in front of the mirror he held a knife in the hand that not long ago had gripped a hammer. The sirens were right outside. They were coming. They would take the mirror away from him. Or they would take him away from the mirror. There was no difference really. Frank looked into his own eyes as he raised the knife to his throat and swiped it across. It was easier than he thought it would be.
“Love you, babe. See you tomorrow.”
Brian hung up the phone. Before making plans to meet with her the next day at Otto’s he had told Jenn about the mirror he had found earlier that day. About how there had been no price sticker, but there had been a note tucked into the frame. He told her about the way the clerk at Seconhand Discounts had seemed puzzled by the lack of a sticker, and the presence of a note that read:
I am free. Take me.
“I know sometimes Jim gives stuff away when he can’t sell it and he’s sick of it taking up space,” the clerk had said. “But this doesn’t look like his handwriting.”
“It says free,” Brian had reminded him. “Free means free.”
The clerk looked unsure of what to do.
“Maybe I’d better call Jim, just to be sure.”
“Come on, man” Brian had said. “Look at this thing. It’s so dirty you can’t even see your own reflection in it. Plus the framed looks old, maybe even a little rotted. No one would pay money for this.”
The clerk thought about it.
“Yeah, okay. Just take it.”
So Brian had.
Now he stood admiring his mirror. His free mirror. He had cleaned it up, and now the surface was without dirt or grime, and without streak or spot.
Brian started to turn away from the mirror, but stopped.
What the hell?, he thought.
He wasn’t looking at his own reflection any longer. He watched as a man led a woman into a bedroom. He watched as the man left frame for a moment, then came back to stand next to the woman. The woman left frame briefly, but the man hurried over to the mirror (for one disturbing second Brian thought the man was going to step right out of the mirror and into Brian’s home), repositioning the mirror so that Brian could see the woman once more. She was standing at a bedside table.
Brian watched as the man moved to a bed, lifted the end of a coverlet and picked up a hammer that had been stashed there.
Brian watched the rest.
An hour later Brian was sitting on his couch, his third beer of the night in hand. He was thing about the mirror, and what he had seen in it. But he was also thinking about Jenn.
Thinking about her made him angry.