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Mirror Mirror [on the wall]

by Rachel Fikes about a month ago in fiction
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Who’s the foolishest of them all?

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“The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window,” Bug whispered, braces glinting amid the tent shadows.

“Noooooooo. You’ve already told her this one.” Red rolled his eyes at his older brother, then swiveled to me. “Besides, foolishest story I’ve ever heard. Right, Aunt Nichole?”

Bug crossed his arms over his Ghostbusters tee, lips squinched in defense.

I swallowed hard. How to tread lightly? Uneasy with being responsible for another human life, I never had kids. Yet Bug, my oldest nephew, had been easy. Tender-hearted and hauntingly insightful, it was damn near impossible to get mad at him, even when he’d riled his mother. But his younger brother?

“Hello!” Red seared me with one of his signature glares. He was nine going on ninety and had a keen way of making me feel like I was the child. In truth? I was a bit scared of him. And I fought fires for a living. “Earth to Aunt Nichole. Do you read me?”

My ornery side wanted to correct Mr. Precocious, that “foolishest” wasn’t a word, but the coward within won, choosing the path of least resistance. “Who wants s’mores?”

“Me, me, me!” My nephews waved their arms wildly, argument doused.

“Perfect.” I crawled from my sleeping bag and unzipped the makeshift tent in my bedroom. “Follow me.”

Hopefully the graham crackers and marshmallows were still good. I bought them a month ago when I reluctantly agreed to watch the boys while their parents attended a wedding. I, a 35-year-old hermit and borderline Luddite–not by choice, sheer ineptitude–didn’t have much in common with my nephews, who frequently watched YouTube reviews to determine what snazzy new gadget they’d put on their Christmas lists. Their video games were too realistic and made me dizzy, and my apartment wasn’t big enough for hide and seek, but luckily both, like me, loved scary stories.

My skin prickled as I passed the bathroom. I stopped, frowning. The thermostat blinked a staggering 59 degrees, ten below what I usually set at night. One of the boys must’ve fiddled with it. If I had a backbone, I’d have asked who and why. But my sister and brother-in-law wouldn’t be back for another hour or so. So far, we’d managed to get through this evening without any fights or crying. No need to push my luck. I thumbed the temperature back up, then weaved through the jungle of my living room.

I lived alone. Had no partner, no pets. A shock to Red upon his initial tour. “Where are all your cats?” he’d asked. I wasn’t sure if he’d been earnest or flippant, but I leaned towards the latter. The wee imp was sharper than most, adults included. And I did fit the weird aunt archetype, save I’d chosen crazy plant lady over cat lady. With the long hours I pulled at the station, I’d have felt guilty, unable to give any sentient creature the attention it deserved. But I loved my green babies. They brought me peace.

Typically.

In setting the mood for our spooky evening, I’d dimmed the lights and flicked on the electric candles, and now the ferns cast spidery shadows over the carpet. The ivy tinked the French doors from a nonexistent draft. Something clawed my leg. I recoiled, squealing.

“Just your plant, Aunt Nichole,” Bug managed between giggles.

Red pointed at my ficus fiddle leaf, which seemed to have scooted a few inches from its haunt near my sofa, before joining his brother howling. My heart still raced, but I chuckled. I sucked with kids, but if I could get them to laugh? Even if it was at my own expense, I was winning.

I preheated the oven, pulled out a pan, and started assembling the sweets on my marble island. Both boys perched on stools, leaning in to inspect.

“The oven?” The freckles on Red’s nose crinkled. “Supposed to roast mallows on the fire.”

Bug, my stalwart ally, nodded eagerly. Traitor.

The oven beeped. I shrugged and popped in the s’mores, shimmering heat smacking my face. “Out of firewood. Unless you boys wanna skedaddle over to the forest and chop some for me? Have an axe right here.” I feigned reaching for my broom closet.

“Oven’s good.” They chimed, and I bit back a smirk. Maybe I wasn’t such a pushover after all.

“Ready yet?” Red’s eyes twinkled.

“Five minutes. Just enough time for you both to wash up, eh?”

Melodramatic groans.

I mimicked my sister’s no-room-for-arguing stance, hand on my hip. “Four minutes now.” And sucked in a noseful of carmelized air. “Guess I’ll just have to eat them alllllllllll by myself–”

The boys rocketed off their stools and dashed to the bathroom, feet thudding the carpet. If my neighbors below didn’t know I existed before, they certainly did now. My shower curtain swished, and two faucets spurted on full blast. Impatient, one had opted to wash his hands in the bathtub–

“Aunt Nichole!” Red bellowed.

I started, slamming my knee into the cabinet. “Mother of–”

“Hurry!” his brother pressed, panicked.

I hobbled to the bathroom. If they were screaming over a spider, I’d be disappointed. Farm kids were supposed to be tough.

Pale and panting, both pointed at the back of my garden tub.

“Don’t see any scary beasties.”

Red scoffed as though I’d said the foolishest thing in the world. “What is that doing there?”

“The mirror?”

“Duh!”

I pinged between my bewildered nephews and the patina Versaillian beauty I’d hung this morning. An attempt to give my cramped bathroom the illusion of more space. “You don’t like it?” Their mother was quite the interior decorator. It hadn’t occurred to me that her talents and thereby judgment may’ve passed to her offspring.

Bug shook his head, bangs fringing his eyes. “Not there. You have to move it. Now.” He climbed into the tub, knocking over candles.

I caught a succulent before it crashed to the tile. “Stop,” I spat, then grimaced. “Sorry. I mean, why must I move it?”

“Take it down, and we’ll tell you. If it’s not too late.”

I’d have argued–both relished practical jokes– but their urgency rattled me. I waved them out of the way, lifted the arched mirror off its peg, and set it on a rug. The tension steaming the room dissipated, if slightly.

“All right.” I sighed, sitting on the lip of my tub. “What decorating faux pas have I committed?” Their mother would get a kick out of this.

“It’s a pretty mirror, Aunt Nichole,” Bug said, then pointed at my vanity. “But you can’t place it across another. Or any other mirrors.”

“Is that the gospel according to your mother?” I asked, trying not to be offended.

“You’ve opened a gateway.” Red scrubbed his ginger tangles, still eyeing where the mirror had hung as if it were a water moccasin. “For ghosts.”

I laughed, even as my stomach clenched. “Like Casper?”

The boys exchanged a look before Bug turned to me. “Not the friendly kind.”

“Could summon your doppelgänger,” Red added, stumbling over the syllables.

How are you so sure I’m not your aunt’s evil twin? I wanted to say, but my goal, having spent much of their formative years abroad, was to get closer, not alienate.

An alarm screeched, the stink of burnt chocolate trailing.

“Bloody hell,” I hissed, rendering snickers from my nephews. Aunt of the year, I was. I threw them an apologetic wince before sprinting to the kitchen. I’d have to send my neighbors some booze after tonight too.

The doorbell rang as I yanked open the inferno, smoke funneling around me. Sis always had the best timing. I burned my fingers before grabbing a mit, then dropped the sizzling pan on the stovetop, growling at the lumps of char.

“Not sure why you became a firefighter when you prefer to watch things burn.” I spun to face my older sister, eyes cocktail-glossy. “Still the pyro, I see.”

“Pop’s field wasn’t handy.” I’d set his squash patch afire when I was no older than Bug. Not out of malice. On the farm, boredom and curiosity were mutually exclusive. “Thinking of a career change. Mortician perhaps.”

“Practicing on the neighborhood cat?”

“S’mores.”

“Good call.” She winked. “Boys would’ve been up ’til morning with all that sugar.”

🪞

Goodbyes were swift. As swift as southern goodbyes could be, that is. Hugs, kisses, promises to see each other in the near future, gossip about a high school friend getting yet another divorce–the small town sacrilege!–followed by another round of hugs and kisses. As I closed the front door, Red snared my hand.

“Don’t put it back up,” he whispered.

I nodded. It took a few months to find the perfect mirror, another few to save up and buy it. The price of a car payment, it’d be back up before bedtime. Ghosts could haunt someone with a more disposable income.

“Bloody hell.” Red’s grip tightened. “I mean it.”

His mother flinched, and I offered her a sheepish smile. “Bug said they got in trouble for cursing at school? So, I taught them some British profanity instead. Less vulgar. More elegant. At least to Americans anyway. Teachers may not catch it.”

She snorted and pecked me on the cheek. “What would I ever do without you?”

Neither of us could’ve guessed that by tomorrow morning, she’d find out.

🪞

Living alone had its perks–perks one didn’t truly appreciate until they’d cohabitated with a pack of college roomies who liked to rut in the wee hours of the morning, or messy lovers who managed to piss everywhere but the toilet. My apartment may’ve been small, but there were no sunny-side-up undies strewn about the floor like landmines, no fighting over what to watch on TV or who ate whose momma’s tamales, and best of all? I could prance around wild and free, AKA naked, which I often did.

Except tonight.

I checked the thermostat again. 61. Could’ve been a morgue. I shivered, pulled on a fleece robe, and grabbed a longneck from my fridge before heading to the crime scene. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit my nephews had shaken me. But the mirror, pouting against the wall, steeped in shadows, looked lonely. Out of place.

“Nobody puts Baby in the corner,” I joked and hung her back up.

Though I’d been careful to only touch the frame, streaks panned the bottom. If I were a sucker, I'd have been alarmed. But those smears, strategically placed like some sinister ghosty crawling from its portal, matched Red’s dainty fingers. Clever little fiends. Bet they were hyena hooting all the way home. I chortled and sipped my beer. I’d get ’em next time.

🪞

I gasped awake to something cold, heavy on my chest, and twisted. Well, attempted to. Sleep paralysis, even when aware, was frightening. I shut my eyes and focused on wiggling my fingers, my toes. The mattress shifted. A presence crawled along my side. Pulse thudding my ears, I yelled. A whimper throttled out instead.

Not real.

Raspy breathing whisked with my own. Come on! My mind tried to connect with my muscles. Just a twitch, a kick. Anything to snap out of this. The bedroom bloated with rancid fumes, and my lungs fluttered. The most common victims of house fires? Those with dead smoke detectors. You can’t smell in your sleep. That meant–

I blinked.

Nocturnal pupils stared back. I shrieked, yanking the comforter over my head.

“Mirror mirror on the wall,” a throaty voice sang. “Should’ve listened to your nephews after all.”

My blanket ripped off. Dense air swamped me. I jumped. My skull banged the headboard. I grabbed for my empty beer bottle, labored breaths fogging my view. It was blacker than black. I couldn’t see–

A glint. Another. The sheen of predatorial eyes. I pitched the longneck and launched from my bed, from my room. Cackles crowed close behind. I swerved into the bathroom, slammed the door, and locked it, flicking on the lights. White stung my eyes. The bulbs hummed, growing hotter, brighter. One burst, two. A flash. An eclipse. Glass hailed, biting my cheeks, my neck. I felt for the tub, thumped the side. If I destroyed the mirror, maybe just maybe–

“Too late.” Bony fingers dug into my arms, whipping me around.

A bulb buzzed back on. The thing that held me, that reeked of carrion? It was…me. A close twin, save the whites of her eyes were ash, her irises fishy green.

“You’ve been such a gracious host. It’s only polite I return the favor.” She chucked me at the mirror.

I braced for impact. But no impact came.

An icy stream seized me, drowning me in darkness. Weightlessness. A void. Deeper and deeper the current dragged me. My brain cried, my chest burned. I plunked into something hard, unforgiving. Porcelain. I was back in my tub. I guzzled air, choked on smoke and ruin. This was my bathroom, yet–

Not.

The walls were scorched, the plants shriveled, and soot flaked off my once, prized mirror.

“Welcome to my humble abode.” My doppelgänger smirked through the glass from my bathroom, full of flowers, color, life. “Oh. Do tuck in my nephews. I’ll extend the same courtesy to yours.”

“No!” I reached for the mirror as she kicked it. It exploded, shards of glass and metal and embers. I jolted against the tiles, jaw unhinged. Was this hell?

“Aunt Nichole.” A child’s voice.

I froze, and peered around the towel fixture. Two sets of glowing eyes, one slightly higher than the other, pierced the haze.

“Bug? Red?”

Their doppelgängers ambled forward. Freckles slimed Red’s cheeks like baby slugs, and bangs dripping with moss and spiders oozed Bug’s brows.

“So glad you’re back.”

“Oh?” I wheezed.

“Yes.” Red placed a blackened lump in my hand.

“What’s–”

“One of your s’mores from earlier.” He giggled, though it sounded more like a frog getting stomped. “It’s your turn to tell the next story. Make it scary.”

“Yeah, but this time”–Bug crept closer and grinned; a worm slithered across his braces–“Don’t hold back.”

fiction

About the author

Rachel Fikes

Writer, piper, whisky fiend

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