The teeth of another morning sank into Jenny’s thoughts and shook them side-to-side like a dog with a new chew shoe. Gnawing and tearing away at the laces of what little sanity she had pulled tight and knotted around her.
Her father, Carl, yelled downstairs, slammed cupboards, heaved the usual burp-grunt of distaste at something he found unsatisfactory in the fridge, which included most everything under their ‘Goddamn roof!’
Her mother, Terry, likely sat in the living room corner entranced on a lit smoke or wiped anxiously at the kitchen table in fear someone would enter and see the disaster of their lives. Who knew where her brother, Bram, was, nor did she care. The only thing the two of them had in common was DNA and another day in a dysfunctional home.
Jenny breathed in, pretending the stale laundry in the corner was the musty scent of the school’s library. She rolled over and surrendered to the pull of sleep. Maybe she’d re-awaken to something better, a different life or a new family. At the least, a change in perspective, but today, the pull wasn’t enough. Squirrel-like energy whirred inside her, and she tapped her foot as if powered by a motor.
Fortunately, it was a school day, the one place where she could escape the toxic grasp of her family, even though the West Side girls routinely snickered at her plain, unbranded clothing in the lunch line or rolled their eyes at her high octave in music or anything else they deemed lame about her. It was still an escape from home.
Jenny’s walk to school was nearly the same each day, a ten-block trek that wound through her neighborhood and across 3rd Avenue. She passed by the bus stop, never paying much attention to the people getting on and off, but today, a peculiar man stood on the corner trying to sell something to people as they passed by him. Peculiar, as in he wore a red and black striped trench coat, a checkered bowtie, a bright teal silk shirt, purple-polka-dotted pants, and shiny, yellow leather boots. A cowlick parted his hair in the middle.
Jenny thought to cross the street further down the block and avoid the strange man, but he had already narrowed in on her. He waved for her to cross the street. He seemed to have something important to tell her, and since Jenny had been praying for change in her life, she stepped off the curb and approached him.
The man’s mouth widened into a toothy grin at her approach. Jenny realized then it was too late to turn back on a second thought.
“Well, hello there, little lady,” he said. “How are you doing today?”
While he seemed pleasant enough, Jenny’s stomach fluttered with butterflies. The man was stranger than strange.
“I’m good,” Jenny said in a tone that didn’t reciprocate his pleasantness.
He leaned down to her. “Say, how would you like to buy a mirror for that pretty little face of yours?” He pulled a folded-up green, velvet cloth from behind his trench coat and unwrapped the most stunning, antique mirror Jenny had ever seen. “It’s very old and very special.” He jigged his eyebrows at her.
“It is beautiful,” Jenny said. “But I’m afraid I can’t.”
The city bus swerved up to the curb in front of them. The brakes hissed to a stop, and the doors opened to a senior woman in an orange hat. Her eyes landed on the strange man and scanned the length of him before peering over at Jenny.
“Be careful who you make deals with, my dear,” she said. “What seems too good most often is.” She winked at Jenny and walked away.
The strange man tapped Jenny’s shoulder. “This is a deal you cannot afford to pass up.”
“Why is that?” Jenny asked, turning to face him.
The strange man’s eyes glimmered. “It is a reversing mirror. It can make bad things good.”
That a regular old mirror could change bad things good intrigued her. “How can it do that?”
“When bad things happen, look into the mirror, and they will turn good.”
Jenny inched closer to peek at the mirror, to verify his claim, but the man jerked the mirror back and folded the velvet cloth back around it.
“You can’t look in the mirror now,” he said, as if obvious. “Only when things are bad. But foremost,” he pointed his finger at her, “you must never break the mirror, or the good things will stay that way.”
Jenny frowned. “Don’t you want the good things to stay?”
The strange man laughed out, uncomfortably loud. Jenny glanced down the street, not wanting anyone to catch her talking to him, but not wanting to be alone with him either.
“You are a quick one!” he shouted. “So, how ‘bout it?” He extended the wrapped mirror towards her.
“I better not,” Jenny said. “I don’t have any money anyway.”
“No money? Certainly, you must have some?”
Jenny saved her money in a Mason jar at home, a total that wasn’t much more than a few dollars. Surely not enough to pay for a reversing mirror.
“I’m late for school,” Jenny said, and before he could say another word, she ran down the street.
School stretched out longer than usual. Jenny’s encounter with the strange man and the mirror consumed her thoughts. Was he a magician? Could the mirror truly change bad things good? Would he be at the bus stop again?
Though fascinated by his offer, passing by the empty bus stop on her way home softened a knot of worry in her spine. The strange man gave her the heebie-jeebies. Maybe the old woman was right, and the mirror was too good to be true, that was until she walked up the steps of her front porch and heard shouting from inside. When she opened the door, her father hollered at her from the kitchen.
“Don’t go in the bathroom,” he growled. “Your brother took it upon himself to flush his retainer down the toilet.”
“It wasn’t my fault!” Bram shouted from the couch, sulking with an unflinching glare.
“If you paid attention to what the hell you were doing, I wouldn’t be forced to take the goddamn toilet apart! How many times have I told you to put your retainer in its case?”
“Like you’ve never forgotten anything? Like picking up your own son at school?” Asshole, slipped out in a mumbled breath.
Her dad marched from the kitchen with red-hate eyes. “What’d you call me?”
In three swift strides, he crossed the living room looking ready to smack Bram upside the head. Bram clambered over the sofa to escape his meaty grip, but he wasn’t fast enough. Her dad snagged his shirt, swung him to the ground, and sat on top of him pushing his face against the stained fibers of 12-year-old shag carpet. He slurred into his ear. “Don’t you ever call me that! You hear me?”
Jenny’s mother walked into the room, glossy-eyed and holding a lit cigarette. “What the hell! Stop it right now, both of you.”
Jenny ducked from the room and crept upstairs to her bedroom. She shut the door and took a deep breath. Then, went to her drawer, pulled out the Mason jar, and dumped the contents over her bedspread.
She wondered if the strange man with the mirror would be there in the morning.
Where yesterday, Jenny felt squeamish upon encountering the strange man, today, she anticipated seeing him again. A skip of hope quickened her step when she spotted him at the same bus stop wearing the same gaudy clothing. She crossed the street and walked over to him. He watched her with a beaming smile.
“Hello,” she said to him.
The strange man bowed to her. “Ah, yes, hello again. The pretty, inquisitive little girl with no money.” He said it as if that was her new nickname.
Jenny smiled. “Not today.” She peered behind his back to see if he still carried the green, velvet cloth with the mirror wrapped inside. “I brought some money. Do you still have the mirror?”
He eyed her like a dirty slide beneath a microscope. “I do. I do.”
“How much is the mirror?”
“How much do you have?”
Jenny unfurled her fist to a wad of change and bills. “$13.86.”
The man reached behind himself and extended the green, velvet cloth to her. “Then $13.86 it is.”
Elated, Jenny handed him the money and took the mirror. She unfolded the cloth to look at the old mirror.
“Wait,” the man said. “Remember what I told you?”
“Yes,” Jenny said, folding the mirror back up. “Only look in the mirror when things are bad.”
“And never break it,” he added with a crook of his lip.
“What is your name?” Jenny asked.
She held out her hand. “Thank you, Sullivan.”
Sullivan shook her hand and waved to her as she headed to school. It was the longest school day that Jenny could remember. Certain her father and brother would be fighting when she got home, she could hardly wait to turn the bad things good.
“You know all you guys do is make a mess in this house,” her mother yelled. “I follow you around all day, cleaning up your shit.”
Bram sat at the kitchen table, left hand buried in a Fritos bag, the other hand building his latest castle on Minecraft.
“Get over here and clean up these wrappers!” Her mother took a swig from her tumbler and downed half the clear liquor inside.
“After I finish fencing in my sheep,” Bram said, not bothering to look up.
Her mother marched over to him and snatched the electronic pad from his hand.
Bram scoffed at her. “You’re rude.”
“Rude? What, because I’m the one cleaning up your crap and trying to teach you some manners in the process?”
Jenny stood in the middle of the kitchen, mirror hidden behind her back, and took in the scene that the mirror was about to change.
Bram frowned at her. “What are you looking at?”
“Hold that thought,” Jenny said. She turned around and closed her eyes, afraid to look in the mirror, afraid to lose the $13.86 it took her five weeks to earn.
Her dad walked in, bickering something about why her mother spent a hundred dollars on bed sheets. Jenny blinked her eyes open and peered into the mirror, angling it to reflect her family standing behind her. To her disbelief, they were smiling and laughing.
Jenny shook her head in awe. She turned around to see for herself, if the situation had changed for the better, but it hadn’t. Her family glowered at her and one another. She glanced back at the mirror. Inside it, her mother laughed so hard, she hung onto her father’s shoulder for support and squeezed her legs tight to keep from peeing her pants. Her father held his gut in a fit of laughter. In the mirror, everyone was happy.
While it wasn’t quite the ‘good’ Jenny had expected, she watched her family through the mirror, as discreetly as possible, for the rest of the evening. It was one of the better ones she could remember.
The drain of sleep the next morning lost its strength. Jenny had a magic mirror now, and she dreamt of it all night. On her way to school, she passed by the bus stop. Sullivan wasn’t there, and she wondered why and where he was. She wanted to thank him, tell him that the mirror worked. Maybe too much, she considered, reflecting back to her family’s bouts of hilarity and glee. Still, the reverse was better than the norm.
At school, the West Side girls snickered at Jenny in the hallway. Jenny pondered what they would be doing inside the mirror. Gaze at her with green-jealous eyes? Befriend her in the cafeteria? Invite her to the next sleepover? Curiosity won over, and she reached for the mirror in her bag.
With her backside facing the girls, Jenny stared into the mirror. The girls huddled together, but not to whisper secrets. The blond girl, Heather, cried into her hands. Deep sobs racked her body. Her friends next to her, Missy and Julie, wept along with her, as though the news of a death pained them all. Jenny looked away from the mirror, questioning what went wrong. Why had her family laughed, but the girls cried?
Only look in the mirror when things are bad, Sullivan had said.
Didn’t bullying classify as something bad?
She turned to the girls. As she expected, they giggled and pointed their fingers at her with cold-blue eyes, not envy-green. Hurt and angered, Jenny stared into the mirror again. The girls resumed weeping.
Serves them right, she thought before wrapping the mirror back up and tucking it into her backpack.
Jenny went straight home. Her dad and brother sat at the kitchen table. Bram wiped at his eyes, as though he had been crying too. Her dad blew his nose, seemingly choked up about something as well.
“What’s wrong?” Jenny asked them.
Her dad lifted his head, slow and steady, and gazed up at her with lifeless eyes. His voice broke into a whisper. “Nothing.”
“Something must have happened,” Jenny said. She dropped her bag to the floor and sat down. “What is it? Are you and mom getting a divorce?”
Her dad shook his head. “No,” he said as if mustering the strength even to speak.
“We were just waiting for you to come home,” Bram said. He stared blankly at the table.
Never in all her years, had her brother waited for her to come home. Could it be that the mirror’s reversing had a withdrawal effect?
Jenny slipped the mirror from her bag again. It had to make things good, maybe even back to the way they were, because the current fugue-like state of her father and brother troubled her more than their flaring temperament.
When she peered into the mirror, her heart kicked. Her dad’s face wilted with sorrow in such an extreme manner, the skin around his mouth creased as if something tugged at the corners, exaggeratedly like a sad clown. Her brother’s expression twisted similarly, but his eyes gleamed with terror.
She yelled into the mirror. “Stop it! You’re making things worse!”
When she glanced back at her father and brother, nothing had changed. Her father began to moan in pain or misery. He clutched the side of the table and bowed his head. Her brother rocked back and forth, “No, no, no!”
An obvious fix occurred to Jenny. She held the mirror up to her father. “Dad, look in the mirror. What do you see? Don’t you see? Everything is all right.”
She turned him around so that he could see the reflections of her and her brother in the mirror. Her brother started laughing again. Then a tickle rose up in her throat, and some force gripped her with a violent chuckle, a deep-rooted laughter with no end.
“What are you laughing at?” her father said.
Jenny tried to stop, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t control it.
“What is going on?” her father demanded. He spun around to face her brother and her. He narrowed in on her. “Where did you get this?”
Jenny managed a few words now that her glee had down spiraled into despair. “It’s…a…reversing…mirror.”
Her father’s eyes darkened. “It’s black magic.”
He raised the mirror over his head, intent on smashing it. Jenny waved her hands for him to stop, but her father was already in the motion of hurling the mirror to the floor. It shattered and chucked shards of glass across the room.
Jenny gasped in a deep breath. At her feet, a broken shard of mirror reflected half of her face. Either her head grew larger or the shard of glass had somehow lifted off the floor and rushed up to her face.
Shadows drifted across her. She looked up, a long way up. Her father and brother towered over her, giants with giant eyes and giant hands swiping down at her. Jenny realized with a sickening clarity that she was shrinking.
She stretched her hand out when her fingers touched what felt like glass, a mirror’s edge, sharp and biting against her fingers. She spun around, again and again, but not to the yellow walls of her kitchen, and instead to city streets. Where her kitchen disappeared, a bus stop appeared.
By some way of magic, Jenny had materialized to a different part of town, maybe even a new one. It wasn’t until she looked down at herself, at the whimsical clothes she wore, that the horror became real. The foolish, bright, mix-matched colors and patterns of her shirt, skirt, and shoes meant only one thing—Sullivan.
Someone tapped her on her shoulder. Jenny jerked around to find him standing before her.
“What did I tell you?” Sullivan said, snapping at her.
“Where am I? What happened?”
“Beyond not listening to my instructions?”
“But I didn’t do anything wrong. I only tried to change the bad things,” Jenny pleaded.
“Perhaps I should have clarified more. I meant things that were bad the world over, not personally for you.” He pulled out a hot-pink feather and stuck it in her cap. “A lesson learned.”
Jenny surveyed her surroundings with a deep chasm hollowing into her chest, at the nightmare of her situation. People walked down the sidewalk steering clear of her. Their eyes quickly averted the opposite direction, just as she remembered doing to Sullivan. “What am I doing here? I want to go back home.”
Sullivan tsked at her. Jenny looked him over and saw that he wore normal clothes. No polka-dotted-pants or a plaid tie and yellow boots. He was an average looking citizen.
“Can’t I’m afraid,” Sullivan said. “It’s your turn now.” He handed her a folded-up green, velvet cloth. Jenny didn’t need to unwrap it to know its contents. By the feel of it, she knew it was another mirror, no doubt identical to the one she’d owned.
“But this isn’t fair. I didn’t do anything wrong. Those girls were mean to me! And my father and brother too.”
“I don’t make the rules.” Sullivan turned and walked away.
“Please, Sullivan. What am I supposed to do with this?”
“You have to sell it.” Then, in the quickest of seconds, he was gone.
Jenny unwrapped the cloth to be sure it held the reversing mirror. Unknowingly, she had attracted the attention of a woman, the same woman who had stepped off the bus and warned her about purchasing something too good to be true. She wore the same orange hat.
“Ohh my, that’s a pretty mirror,” the old woman said.
Jenny hesitated. How could she give the mirror away knowing what she knew, and to a senior woman at that?
“It must be very old,” the woman said. “I’d fancy owning a mirror like that.”
“It’s a magic mirror,” Jenny said. “A reversing mirror.”
“What does it do?”
“It turns bad things good.” The old woman’s eyes lit up. “But it didn’t work for me,” Jenny added.
The old woman scanned Jenny’s wardrobe. “Some of us have trouble reflecting what’s really on the inside, don’t we?”
The old woman was wise, Jenny thought. She folded the mirror back up. “I have to get rid of the mirror if I want to get back home.”
The old woman smiled. “Well, you don’t need to sell a mirror for that, dear.” She reached into her satchel and pulled out a black, leather book with a large, silver braided knot on it. “What you need is the imagination to make your dreams come true.” She extended the book to Jenny. “I’ll trade you for the mirror? It’s a legal sale.”
Jenny took the book, though not sure it suited her tastes. “But the mirror is bad. It lied to me. You don’t want to look into it.”
The old woman took the mirror from her hands. “Don’t worry. I have no intention of looking into it.” She winked at Jenny and pointed to the book before walking away.
Jenny glimpsed down at herself and noticed that she was in her normal clothes again, backpack slung over her shoulder. The sound of the bus drew her attention to the street. It stopped in front of her with a gust of warm exhaust. The digital board displayed her neighborhood. Jenny put the book in her backpack and stepped on. She didn’t intend to look in it either.
BIO: Erin Cole is a member of the Horror Writers Association and has publications in Below the Stairs, The Deep, Dark Woods, Dragons, Droids, and Doom, and is the author of The Blood Berries, Feral Things, and the Kate Waters Mysteries. erincolewrites.com