Ignoring her mother's voice coming from downstairs, fourteen-year-old Mir knelt on the dusty floor of the bedroom, sitting back on the heels of boots that looked every bit as goth as the rest of her outfit.
Her face was scrunched up in the way it often was when she focused deeply on something—eyes squinting, lips pursed.
A few feet away, a dark object towered over her. In her mind, it was as mysterious and awe-inspiring as the black monolith in the movie, 2001. In reality, it was an eight-foot-tall mirror, its ebony frame covered with carved images from most people's nightmares: spiders, bats, snarling wolves, laughing demons, and the tortured, screaming faces of lost souls.
The smoky-grey glass itself was grimy, and reflected very little; she could barely see a dim version of herself in the lower portion of it (although the bright purple streaks in her jet-black hair did stand out). Sagging maroon drapes behind her were open only a foot or so, letting in a bit of weak light. Turbulent rain clouds had blocked out the sun for most of the day.
Mir's eyes widened when the glass suddenly flashed bright red for a second or two. The dirty film was gone. Her reflection stared back at her with total clarity.
"Sooooo...magical Windex?" she muttered, and leaned forward to run a finger across the glass. It was smooth and dry, with a touch of warmth. She pressed her palm against it and felt faint, pulsating heat.
It flashed red again, and the room's reflection disappeared from the glass surface. In its place were swirls of grey-black smoke twisting and gusting, then parting to reveal a shimmery scene—jagged, rocky ground that appeared to be far below, in another world, showing depth that couldn't really be there. Yet it was.
Click, click, click.
Mir tapped her scarlet fingernails on the aluminum water bottle hanging from her belt, as she assessed the situation. She felt no fear, only a sharp thrill that made her heart pound.
She opened her phone and immediately texted the intriguing stranger who'd recently begun sending messages that captivated her and expanded her knowledge of the dark arts, but most importantly, promised that something—a very real, very impressive gift—stood tall and dark and daunting, waiting for her. How they knew, mattered little to Mir. They knew, and that was enough.
u were rt, she typed.
told u, was the response.
Their back-and-forth felt familiar, yet edgy, dangerous. She wanted to make it clear that she understood.
its not just a thing its a world
a place of power
i see that i feel that
There's so much more when ur ready
im ready now
Mir accepted this without argument. Behavior that would have stunned her mother, who had to battle with her over every little thing.
Another text arrived.
I knew it wld reveal itself 2 u
Power to power
Then a second text: and u look the part rt?
Mir laughed, though softly, lest her family hear. Somewhere up here on the second floor, older brother Ben and four-year-old Henry were exploring this cobwebby, white elephant of a building that only The Munsters could love, meant to be inspiration for the next novel of their horror writer stepfather, Braden Andros. His second book had reached the number three spot on the New York Times bestseller list and was now descending. His obsession with making it to the top of the list ("That's how careers are made, sweetie.") had put them here, in this huge, dilapidated Victorian mansion.
Andros had toured it the first time by himself, at night. Its "haunted house" design and location at the top of a hill with a woods in the background, gave it the perfect atmosphere. He didn't want to be impressed, he wanted to be intimidated.
It didn't take long.
The library was located in a rear corner of the first floor, and entering it was like stepping through a time portal. Shelves of old, musty books lined the walls up to the ceiling, with a ladder on wheels to reach the higher volumes. There were brass lamps beside each of four threadbare, upholstered chairs that were no doubt considered quite elegant back in the day. In his mind's eye, Braden Andros could see a harrumphing, entitled white gentleman with a starched collar, a pocket watch chain, and a round monocle, seated on luxurious plushness while reading a thick book, briar pipe in hand. Yet, looking up frequently, feeling watched. The room had that vibe, as if a plethora of unsatisfied, lonely souls looked over your shoulder. To the point where Andros actually turned to glance behind him, then chuckled, embarrassed. Oh, Ando, you are never going to be able to relax and read a book in this room, he told himself. But you will definitely write some seriously freaky shit in here.
He moved on to the second floor, where the darkness inside open doorways was deep and impenetrable, several spots in the floorboards seemed to creak all on their own, and there was a hollow drip, drip, drip sound coming from a faucet somewhere.
Then, finally, the attic, where a dull ceiling bulb revealed multiple hulking, tarp-covered shapes behind which a fairly traditional machete-wielding serial killer might hide, or a less typical, fangy, blood-sucking ghoul. The air was thick with dust and filthy particulates that hung there in the feeble light and challenged you to breathe them in without coughing up a lung.
As Andros stood on the ladder that folded down from the second floor ceiling, with only his head and shoulders through the attic floor's trap door, he nodded his head, knowing that somewhere in his novel, a terrifying scene would take place in a room exactly like this one.
In the end, he paid far less for the building than it was worth to a novelist whose one-quarter-finished-but-utterly-stalled third novel desperately needed a kick in the pants—supernatural or otherwise—to get it in gear.
Mir was just as drawn to this building as her stepfather, but her inspiration had come from a different source. Within minutes of seeing the real estate agent's photo of the exterior of the place (and picturing Vincent Price greeting them at the door), she received a text from the stranger who later became mentor. His initial text included an illustration of an impressive horned demon, along with the message: i know you. i know your soul.
Leery, but intrigued, she texted back simply, and?
And it began.
Unlike other teens, Mir was not only not obsessed with taking selfies, she in fact had never posted a photo of herself anywhere online. Her mother had stopped sharing blog photos of her once she started first grade. Yet this stranger described her in detail, down to the dozen rings on her fingers. The text that followed said, simply, magnificent.
Within days, with texts flying back and forth at a furious pace, Mir learned of their shared fascination with the dark arts, and death, and all things grotesque and unsettling to normies.
In a family of creatives, her unconventional style was taken in stride, but for the first time, Mir felt truly understood and accepted. The idea of moving from West Coast to East Coast with her family was still disturbing, but this new acquaintence helped ameliorate her feelings of dread with promises of dark things to come, and more than that, they shared precise descriptions of the house itself and the unique gift that awaited her arrival. It would change everything, the texter told her.
She had no doubt about that now.
Her thumbs sped across the keys.
i can feel it
it reaches out caresses me, sends chills thru my soul
i am there with u
i feel that
Mir ignored her mother's voice calling her again, and continued texting.
im not alone were not alone, she typed.
we'll never be alone the darkest corners of this ancient world will be ours, along with its inhabitants
Seconds went by, then another message.
they are majestic their eyes are red as fire their souls black as night we will release them into this world & they will wrap their wings around us their power will fill us, then we'll use that power & this world will quake before us
"Whoa," Mir whispered, in awe. This was more than she'd expected, or even hoped.
One more message from her dark mentor.
go. be what they expect. whine ur ass off.
She replied with a wink emoji.
Minutes later, her heavy boots kicked up clouds of dust behind her as she clomped down the wide, curved main staircase and announced to her family in her best snarky teenager voice, "I'll live here in this butt-ugly, decrepit, so-called mansion, on one condition: that bedroom in the back, at the end of the hall? It's mine!"
The moving van pulled away after the final load. Dwarfed by stacks of cardboard boxes all around him, little Henry sucked on a Twizzler almost the same color as his head of unruly, curly hair, and waved at the vehicle from one of the living room windows. Other boxes of various sizes were distributed throughout the house, with pertinent details written in black Sharpie: kitchen stuff! master bedroom! lamps! fragile! the good china's in here!
A cleaning crew had rid the rooms, hallways, and closets of cobwebby corners and inches of dust, and buffed everything that was capable of rediscovering its original shininess. The attic and the library were off-limits. Braden Andros wanted them to remain in all their spooky glory.
Miranda's mother, Tabby, had been ambivalent about the move, but that melted away once she saw the large greenhouse out back, where she'd have unlimited sunlight to paint and sculpt to her heart's content. For now, she was working on restoring their lives to some sort of normal routine. Carrying a laundry basket of her daughter's neatly folded clothes—every item, black, of course—she stopped at the open doorway and her eyes shot daggers at the mirror.
"Christ, Mir, that is some creepy crapola. How will you even sleep with that thing in the room? Ugh. Here, put your own laundry away. And lunch is in fifteen minutes."
Mir imagined the towering mirror scowling back at her mother, in its own way. She stifled a grin and responded, "Whatever."
Later, as she headed downstairs and passed Ben on the way up, he shoved his brand new learner's permit in her face and said, "Save your allowance, Svengoolie-girl, 'cause once I'm driving, you'll have to pay cold hard cash if you want me to take you anywhere."
"The odds of you passing the written test are soooo slim," she answered, continuing down the stairs.
He frowned and said, "Weirdo."
"Loser," she said over her shoulder.
The sibling relationship was back to its normal routine, at least.
It was 9:45 p.m. The night was dark and still. But not quiet. As it turned out, the woods behind the house came with a particularly vocal owl, which the family named Tommy. Their grandparents were aging hippies, so Mir and her siblings got the Pinball Wizard reference. Every Who! call coming from the trees made their mother smile.
At the moment, Tabby was downstairs watching quasi-celebs dancing on TV. Henry was in bed. Braden Andros had been holed up in his writer's room for hours. Ben was in his bedroom, studying the Motorist Handbook he saw as the gateway to freedom.
In her dark bedroom, Mir sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the mirror, trading texts, nodding, her fingers reaching out to connect with a glass surface that felt alive.
She had much to learn.
Sunday was Hammerson, Maine's Founder's Day, and Tabby Andros thought the town's pancake brunch would be the perfect time to introduce her family to their neighbors.
Both Ben and Mir were fairly horrified at the thought of mingling with strangers and faking civility. Neither of them expected the oohs and ahs that came from townsfolk upon learning they had an author in their midst, one whose books they'd actually read.
Braden Andros charmed every person who approached him. Writing wasn't his only gift. There were selfies and autographs, and tales told to him of local myths and monsters, after which Andros would smile and stroke his goatee, which, together with a man bun and dreamy, thoughtful eyes, announced to the world, Yes I am indeed a creative. At his side, Tabby played the doting wife. By the end of the afternoon, it was clear that they'd moved beyond the "outsiders" label, to "local celebrity family."
Sure, there were still a few soccer moms who took one look at Mir and pulled their little tots closer, and boomers who said (with more humor than sarcasm), "Halloween's not for a while, you know." But no one ran away screaming. If asked, Mir would have confessed to being at least a little disappointed.
But she did put away two stacks of the best pancakes she'd ever eaten, enjoying the hell out of them even as her eyes followed her stepfather, watching him glad-hand these people, and wondering how they could allow themselves to be so easily captivated by him.
At one point, her gaze connected with his, and he read the "I'll never fall for your bullshit" look in her eyes. She saw the "Does it appear that I need your adoration?" look in his.
Tommy the chatty owl was serenading again. Tabby was in the kitchen, fixing the garbage disposal. She had a knack for such things. Henry was building a giant Lego bridge in the livingroom. Mir and her stepfather were in her bedroom. She'd asked him for help in moving the heavy mirror a few feet closer to her bed.
"Damn, this thing is humongous." Braden Andros was six-foot-two. The mirror was almost two feet taller than he was, and not quite five feet wide. Mir watched as he ran his fingers over the images carved into the frame. "And so freakin' cool," he said. "I should have had it put in my writing room. Impressive as hell."
"So take it," she said. "You already took everything else that's mine."
"I'm not—" Andros sighed. "I didn't mean now. I meant before you ever saw it. Look...why do we have to be enemies? We're a lot alike, you know."
She stared back at him, with no response.
He tried again.
"It'll get better once school starts. You'll make new friends. And you and Azza and the other girls can still text and Skype, right? Moving wasn't the end of the world. I mean, look, you got something really cool out of it, right?" He rapped his knuckles on the mirror frame.
Mir's eyes were neutral, but her mind was flashing scenes of the trio of friends she'd finally made after three years of lonely misery in junior high, always the youngest after skipping two grades in elementary school. Her friends' resemblance to her felt like a sisterhood, their entire look dominated by the color black. They nuked popcorn and watched classic monster movies on Saturday nights, then danced around campfires on the beach at dawn, after making straw dolls of the high schoolers who taunted them and tossing those effigies into the flames.
"You think that's enough?" she said to her stepfather.
"No," he said. "But it's all I've got."
He put a hand on her shoulder. She shrugged it off.
"I was born there. In that house. Mom went into labor in the middle of a bad-ass storm, all alone, thunder booming, lightning crashing. My real dad died there."
"He made it home through all that, yet barely got through the door before his heart gave out."
Andros just stood there, silently. What was there to say?
"I was born into that. Connected to it. And now it's gone."
She ran her hand along the intricate carvings on the mirror frame.
"You took it away because of your super-important book. The novel that's going to propel you into that exclusive stratosphere of the top authors, right? You'll sell a bazillion copies. Netflix will make a movie out of it. You'll appear on Late Night With Stephen Colbert, and share amusing anecdotes. But first you have to finish writing it. You have to be 'inspired.' Right? Well, I want to help. Seriously."
Her stepfather looked both curious and suspicious.
With an enigmatic smile that only made him more wary, Mir continued, "They say, 'Write what you know,' don't they?"
Andros took a deep breath, having no idea what she had in mind.
"Write what you know," she repeated. Then she shouted, "So get to know Hell!" and pushed him with all her strength, just as the mirror opened up to a horrifying scene, a Hadean world of fire and hideous creatures and a feeling of foreboding so strong that it felt as if it could reach into your chest and rip out your heart.
Andros' head swiveled toward her, as long, demon arms reached out of the glass and bony hands clamped on to him, pulling him partway into the mirror. In desperation, he grabbed the frame, but he was no match for the things that wanted him, needed him. As his fingers lost their grip, the look of terror and betrayal on his face was the reward Mir had sought all along.
Braden Andros was pulled down into the world within the mirror, his mouth a tortured grimace, emitting a groan that grew louder and more pained, then became a screech of agony and horror that was suddenly cut off in mid-note.
For a few seconds there was complete silence. Then, the sound of flames crackling and hot wind blowing the smell of wet ashes into the bedroom.
"I always knew I'd win," Mir whispered.
Her phone bleeped at her.
i just fed it
what do you mean, no?
She was barely aware of the sound of her little brother's Big Wheel tricycle rolling over hardwood flooring beyond the bedroom door ("Aw, come on, Tab—a little boy riding a Big Wheel through the halls of a huge, spooky mansion? It's iconic!" Braden Andros had said with a laugh when he brought it home), or her mother's chirpy laugh rising up from the first floor.
Inside the mirror, grey-black smoke whirled and danced. Tendrils stretched out, beckoning like skeletal fingers.
it took him 4 you
why wasnt he enough?
i thought u meant like chicken tenders
u mean b/c he loves puppies & stuff?
he wasn't enough
it cant have henry or my mom, and Bens not home.
it doesn't want them
Seconds ticked by.
so it has a conscience?
i dont get it
i know ffs i know
Mir searched her mind for an answer, asking herself, What does it want? What, dammit?! I'm seriously brilliant. I'm smarter than a portal to Hell, or a freakin' stranger who's playing games with me!
Is this a test?
Her dark partner's sudden change made her think maybe it wasn't a change at all. Had this been below the surface all along? Mir had an exceptional memory, and now she ran through as many texts as she could picture in her head, looking for subtle clues she'd missed.
She didn't hear the click of the doorknob.
Another text arrived.
i cant go out & find people 2 feed 2 it.
im not strong enough 2 force some1 & i cant entice any1 people find me spooky, the blk makeup, the clothes, my eyes my eyes creep people out. i cld never convince any1
what the hell does it want?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
braden andros is calling out to you
hes not my dad
he thinks he is
hes not! he also thinks hes the next stephen king & hes not that either
look at him, suffering, begging your forgiveness
Miranda's eyes searched the swirling clouds within the mirror's surface. She caught a quick glimpse of aquamarine, and splashes of pink, in the distance in that world. Her stepfather's hippie-dippy shirt, as her mom called it.
i dont want him 2 come bk
he begs you
i dont care! i won!
Mir slammed her hand against the mirror frame.
he ruined my life he dragged us out here 2 freakin maine & made me leave my whole life behind but i still beat his ass
yeah no shit
The smoke swirled, then parted, and she saw Andros' face down below, almost buried in red, reptilian arms pulling him farther downward, deeper and deeper into the world beyond the mirror, his lips forming a silent scream.
The corners of Mir's mouth twitched upward. Her eyes gleamed.
The sound of her phone pulled her away. The texts came quickly, one after another.
it needs a dark soul
Mir heard a familiar giggle from inches away, behind her.
The shove was surprisingly strong, and caught her off-balance. As she fell sideways toward the mirror and blood-red arms reached out to embrace her, pulling her in almost lovingly, she turned and saw little Henry's impish grin as he hopped backward, avoiding her hands as she reached for him.
"But...no! I won!" she screamed, as gravity lost its hold on her. She floated into grey-black smoke. Bony fingers with knuckles the size of walnuts covered her mouth.
"Nopey, nopey," Henry said, unable to hide his innocent glee. "I winned it!"
He skipped lightly across the room, like a gamboling lamb, and once in the hallway, dropped his narrow little behind onto the bike seat and pedaled away, down the hall to a dark room where glowing red eyes greeted him, and an ancient voice whispered, "Good boy."
Copyright ©2019 Nik Barnabee
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