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Broken Mirrors

by Colleen Borst about a month ago in Short Story
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A Summer Ghost Story

Broken Mirrors
Photo by Aleksandra Sapozhnikova on Unsplash

“The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window,” Fin whispers in her best Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark voice, striking a long match and carefully feeding it through the mouth of the jar in her hands, lighting a half-way burned down red candle. “There. That should protect us from unsavory things that lurk in the dark.”

“Too bad we’re not in an abandoned cabin,’ Garnet sighs, ‘We’re hardly even in the woods. It kinda puts a damper on the whole epic ‘we finally-graduated-high-school-and-made-it-out-alive party.’”

Fin rolls her eyes. “We’re almost close enough to be in the woods. I mean, true, it’s the outskirts, and we’re in a vacation cabin and not an actual abandoned cabin, but there’s a bunch of evergreens, and a little river and a firepit and no close neighbors, so we’ve got enough of that abandoned vibe to pretend.”

“Except for the whole electricity, running water, and wifi.” Garnet grumbles and rolls their eyes. They grab Fin’s hand with theirs, pull her close, and wraps their free arm around her waist. Fin’s soft auburn curls brush against their skin, and they felt her breath catch and exhale warmly on their cheek. Garnet answers with a gentle kiss on Fin’s lips, ending with the slightest of nibbles before pulling away. “I guess I’ll forgive the transgression of booking us a cabin with modern amenities,” teases Garnet.

“You’re a tease, you know that?” Fin rebuts at Garnet. “And I’m not very patient.”

“C’mon, let’s get out to the fire… we’ve got forever in front of us.” Garnet responds, grandly gesturing out the door to the night sky above them, a navy blue canvas peppered with tiny twinkling lights.

Fin drops Garnet’s hand and smiles. “I’ll be right out,’ she responds, ‘I gotta take a quick bio break.”

In the bathroom, Fin looks in the mirror and splashes cool water on her face, steadying herself and feeling slightly drunk from Garnet’s touch. Her reflection doesn’t follow her when she moves, though, at least not like any typical reflection should. Her eyes stare straight back at her as Fin moves her eyes right or left. The swivel of her head in the reflection is slightly delayed, almost glitchy--not enough to draw attention, but long enough for Fin to look away quickly, telling herself all she saw was a trick of the light. She remembers the candle in the window and imagines Garnet chastising her for a fire hazard if she doesn’t blow it out. She hugs herself and rubs her biceps, soothing her goosebumps before she walks up the stairs, licks her fingertips, and pinches out the candle flame.

Garnet is already settled in at the campfire and making s’mores for everyone by the time Fin joins the circle. It’s a small gathering, just five of them, but that’s how they liked it. Their circle formed through four years of high-school theater, being slightly weirder than their peers and definitely being more dramatic. High school theater has long been a respite for nerdy queers, and their experience proved no different. Fin plops down next to Garnet, their friends absorbed in a war of monologues. Randy reciting Sylvia Plath, Leigh reciting Dorothy Allison, and Janna arguing they were both full of shit because clearly, Octavia Butler was the undisputed queen of all storytellers.

Fin chucks a marshmallow at Randy, hitting his face before bouncing into the fire.

“Dude!’ Randy squeals, interrupting his own monologue, and glares at Fin. ‘Not cool. You wasted a decent marshmallow.” Another marshmallow pelts Randy in the face.

“BOOOOO!” Janna yells. “No more Plath or another marshmallow gets it!”

“Cheers to that!” chimes in Leigh as she pops open a White Claw and raises the can in the air, toasting no one in particular.

Garnet leans their mouth close to Fin’s ear. “It’s gonna be a long night of banter and drunk toasts.” “And friends.” Fin answers. “And that’s the best kind of night.” she smiles, leans her head on Garnet’s shoulder, grabs their hand in hers, laces their fingers, and squeezes tight.

**********************

“What the hell happened to you last night?” Janna demands Fin over the dining room table, their long shiny purple acrylic nails tapping the side of their coffee mug, impatiently waiting for answers.

“Hmmmm?” replies Fin, grabbing her own cup of coffee and straddling the backward chair across the table from Janna.

“What they mean,’ Randy coos, ‘is those are some cute hickies.”

“Don’t be jealous. It causes wrinkles.’ Janna playfully snaps. ‘Actually, I was referring to those.” They point to the shallow cuts covering Fin’s hands.

“Ugh. I honestly don’t really know. The wind was powerful last night and rattled the window in our room. I went to close it, and it cracked when I was sliding it down. A few pieces broke and hit my hands. They’re just surface cuts.” She contemplates telling Janna about the face she thought she saw in the window, pale and stern. But she stays silent.

“Coffee by the fire?” Janna asks.

“Just a minute.” Fin answers as Randy follows Janna outside.

She walks up the stairs to the bedroom and kisses Garnet right above their left eyebrow. “Wake up, sleepyhead.”

Garnet grumbles and stirs. “Why? Is there coffee?”

“Yes. C’mon... Let’s go enjoy it outside. This house is starting to give me the creeps.”

Garnet swings their legs off the bed and grabs yesterday’s t-shirt from the end of the bed.

“You still freaked out by the face you thought you saw in the window?”

“I was half-asleep. It was probably just my own reflection. Still… I’m glad we’re leaving tomorrow.”

Janna and Randy sit by the fire, hunched over a book. Fin sneaks up on them quietly and whispers, “Boo!” Janna startles and almost spills their coffee. “Whatcha reading?” Garnet asks.

“Just one of those ‘History of this area’ books. Leigh found it last night.”

Leigh wanders out with her coffee and sits down by the fire. ‘Y’all. Did you know that this used to be a logging town? I mean, I guess many small towns up here were logging towns, but it doesn’t seem like it anymore, you know? It feels like it’s just vacation homes.”

“And railroad towns!” interrupts Fin. “There were a lot of towns that just died as industries shifted.”

“You’re such a history nerd,” Randy tells her.

“I know,’ Fin replies, “but it’s fascinating. How many lives were built, lived, lost, and forgotten in these woods?”

They spend the morning telling each other stories of early settlers featured in the book. Garnet and Randy interject rants against settler colonialism into every account.

Tired from stories of dead lumber towns, the group walks the grounds. Leigh takes the opportunity to point out indigenous plants, showing the others what is edible and poisonous. It’s a lazy day, and the group relishes the absolute lack of responsibilities.

That evening, after dinner, while Fin brushes her teeth, she looks in the mirror. Her reflection stares back at her. She spits in the sink and looks up, wiping her mouth. Her reflection follows her until her hand reaches the middle of her mouth, then stops and presses her pointer finger upright against her lips. The wind makes a “shhhhhhhhh” as it streams in the window. Fin splashes cool water on her face and leans closer to the mirror. Her reflection leans into her, their noses touching as Fin’s hits the mirror. Nothing seems out of place. She blinks and shakes her head, trying to erase what she thinks she saw.

Fin crawls into the bed next to Garnet. “Can we go now? No waiting till the morning?” Garnet puts their arm around Fin and pulls her close. “Just get some sleep. I’ll keep you safe.” Fin snuggles into Garnet’s biceps and pulls their other arm around her. She falls asleep in a cocoon of safety.

********************

Fin wakes up to darkness surrounding her. Her hands are so cold she can barely feel them. It’s too chilly, even for a Pacific Northwest summer. She cups her hands and tries breathing warmth into them but is met with nothing, not even a tiny push of wind from her mouth. She tries to get up and realizes she is already standing straight up, sandwiched between two hard surfaces. There seems to be space at her sides, and Fin begins screaming as she shuffles slowly to one side. She can hear the muffled voices of her friends, of Garnet, calling for her.

“Help! Garnet! I’m here!!!” Fin bellows at the top of her lungs. Her voice is so soft she can barely hear herself. She tries to throw herself against the surface in front of her, attempting to make as much noise as possible. All she hears is the scratching of a mouse as it runs through her legs. Panic grips her as she tries to yell louder, and she feels tears start to run down her cheeks.

Fin hears a whisper cutting through the darkness. “Scream. Bang as hard as you can on the walls. They won’t hear you. They won’t find you.”

“Who are you?” Fin screams again.

“You should have kept that candle lit.” The whisper answers.

Fin looks to her left, in the direction of the voice. A wispy figure, small in stature with a stern look on her face, hair pulled tight in a bun, and wearing a simple dark gray gown, stares back at her. Fin recognizes the face from the window.

“What the…’ Fin starts, ‘let me out of here! Who are you? Where the hell am I?”

The figure smirks. “In the house, of course. And no, I’m not letting you go… I’m tired. Tired of watching this house and scuffling through the walls while watching others come and go.”

“But… I don’t want this!” Fin begs again.

The figure shrugs. “That’s irrelevant to me. You came. You lit a candle for protection. You snuffed it out. I have spent years waiting for someone to notice the mirrors. And you did, and you believed what you saw in the reflections. That’s all it takes from one for the house to choose its next guardian. Before me, it was someone else. Now it’s you. And if you’re lucky, you won’t have to wait as long for someone else to take over as I did.”

The figure steps backward, unswayed by Fin’s pleas, fading with every step she takes until she completely disappears.

Fin hears Garnet frantically calling her name. Fin listens as Janna, Randy, and Leigh take turns trying to calm Garnet down. She shuffles to the right, trying to find a knot or crack she can see through. Finally, she spots a crack of light and peeks through to the bedroom she and Garnet were sharing. “I’m here! I’m here! I’m here,” she hears herself screaming over and over again. She can see Garnet frantically looking in the closets and under the bed. “I’m here, I’m here, you’re so close…. I’m here….”

The mirror on the wall above where Fin is trapped shatters, and glass splinters spray across the floor. Garnet yells in surprise and runs to the bedroom door, shielding their face from the shards. They think they see Fin’s blue eye in one of the broken pieces. “She’s here…I know she’s here.” they gasp, trying to scramble back into the room.

Janna grabs Garnet. “To hell with this. We’re going into town and reporting her missing. We’ll get our shit when we file a report.”

Fin watches them leave. She stops screaming, giving in to their inability to hear her. She tries pushing against the walls with all her strength, willing a soft spot in one of the old boards to crumble, but the house won’t cave. She takes a deep breath and thinks about the candle she lit in the window the night they first arrived, wishing she hadn’t extinguished it. Fin never asked to be the house’s guardian, and she refuses to resign to the role.

*****************************

They can smell the smoke and hear the sirens before the cabin comes back into view.

Garnet opens the door and jumps out of the Forester before Leigh can stop.

“Did you find her? Is she ok?” yells Garnet, running up to the fire truck.

“I don’t think so,’ one of the firefighters says ‘we searched the place best we could and couldn’t find anyone…” and looks doubtfully at Garnet.

“I am telling you, my girlfriend is in that house! Or at least she was… I mean,... we weren’t here…we went into town because we couldn’t find her….” Garnets stammers and starts to head for the house in a panic. A firefighter grabs them by the arms. Garnet fights back, struggling to break free. “I just want to know what happened,” Garnet frantically pleads, “I need to know!”

Another firefighter looks at them. “It seems like there was a candle lit in the window on the top floor. Our best guess is that the jar the candle was in shattered, and the open flame caught some debris. It just spread from there.”

“That makes no sense.’ Janna explains to the firefighter, ‘We only lit that candle the first night, and Fin blew it out before we all went to bed. Didn’t she?... Garnet! Didn’t she?”

“What?’ answers Garnet, ‘Oh. Yeah. Yeah, she did. So we’re just supposed to believe the candle lit itself and our friend ups and disappears without a trace? This is bullshit.” Garnet looks at the firefighter. “You have no idea what happened, do you?’ they ask, their voice quieter than before, ‘and you don’t think you’ll find her.”

The firefighter looks Garnet in the eye. “The possibilities of finding your… friend… alive anyways… is pretty slim. But we’re trying.”

Garnet, Janna, Randy, and Leith watch the firefighters wield their hoses for hours, trying to gain control of the fire. They are still putting out the last of the flames when dawn breaks and casts an eerie gold glow on what little is left of the house’s skeleton.

*************************

Many years from now, Garnet’s grandchildren will be at their house on summer break, camping in the backyard and making s’mores around a fire. One of them will look at them and say, “Grumpus, can you tell us the story about the cabin in the forest? The abandoned one that burned down, and people say you can still sometimes see a red candle burning in the ashes?”

Garnet will look at their grandchildren, their words tightening around their chest, and say, “No. Not that one. But I have many others in this old head of mine I can frighten you with.”

Their grandchildren squeal, and as Garnet begins to tell tales, they wonder how many fables have grown from seeds of truth.

Short Story

About the author

Colleen Borst

As an artist and a writer, I love pulling strands of folklore into our current world, imagining what could be, and paying respect to the past.

Visit me at ColleenBorstConsulting.com or etsy.com/shop/ModernHexology

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