The Life of Mirrors: a short story

This is the first thing I’ve written and finished for many years. I’ve fallen into a bit of a rut (okay, a huge trench) when it comes to writing and for a long time, I just stopped.  I hope this is encouraging to you- it took me forever.
Enjoy.

(To the curious few, this is the short story that I submitted and that was rejected)

The first time a child disappeared from the Main Street Antique store in the small town of Attica, New York, people thought he had just slipped outside unnoticed, that he’d just wandered off and been snatched. The boy’s name was Adam, and though the police searched high and low, and the people of nearby towns pasted images of little Adam’s face all over Facebook and their local papers, no one seemed to have seen him. Two months passed and he wasn’t found. Not a footprint, not a sighting, not a grainy photograph from a security camera. Nothing.

The partially blind owner, Ginny Quartermain, was pulled into the police station for questioning. Nothing came of this, however, as Mrs. Quartermain was also hard of hearing, and the station master possessed only a small amount of patience. It was concluded that Mrs. Quartermain had nothing to do with the disappearance after two hours of a loud discussion over tea.
And yet, little Adam was ever seen again in Attica, and his parents were left to wonder and grieve.

110h

 

“Hello?”

The bell rang belatedly as Ariadne Hunt pushed open the door to the aging Georgian mansion. Shabby turrets and a weed-strewn garden nestled back against the bank of pine trees behind the house.

Oddly coordinating smells of old leather and mothballs accosted her as she stepped inside. A Stradivarius, old and warped, sat in a handbasket on the floor. Shaky, faded handwriting lettered the tag with the numbers ‘1701’ and $200, and both the violin and the tag looked as if they might have been found floating in the ocean after a shipwreck.

The afternoon sunlight slanted through the window, highlighting jewel-toned buttons in a mason jar on the counter.

Two chaise lounges, old and ostentatious enough to have been used by Marie Antoinette herself, stood back-to-back in the middle of the room. A sign displayed ‘Do not sit’ in that same shaky handwriting.

Fifteen years ago, after the death of her husband and the scandal of little, lost Adam Murdock, Ginny Quartermain had moved the family antique store into the ground level of her house. It was no longer located on Main Street and no longer sold its wares, but the gilded sign that had always hung in the window in the store’s previous location was propped up near the door.

Main Street Antiques: Family Owned and Run Since Before This Stuff was Old.

“Hello?” Ariadne raised her voice.

Boards creaked overhead. A light in a stairway at the back of the room clicked on and then immediately off again.

The door opened at the top of the stairs, sawing against its hinges. Tentatively, a voice called, tonelessly and over-loud: “Ar-deen? Is that you?”

“Yes, Ms. Quartermain.” Ariadne navigated to the bottom of the stairs. “I have your papers, and the lovely nurses are waiting out in the car. They’re excited about bringing you home.”

“Home.” The old woman chortled, wobbling down three more steps. She dragged a suitcase behind her, though movers had been in and out for the last few weeks, helping her choose what objects she’d like to take with her to the assisted living home down the street and which to leave behind. “Home,” Ginny Quartermain repeated. “I am home.”

“Your new home,” Ariadne amended, reaching forward to take the suitcase, but the old woman pursed her lips and didn’t let go.

“Okay, then,” Ariadne dredged up a smile and handed the old woman the papers. “Here are all the papers back; everything is settled.”

“Can I—” the old woman looked around, tears suddenly glimmering in her rheumy eyes, “—just look around, one last time?”

“You’ll be welcome to return whenever you like, Ms. Quartermain,” Ariadne said, though that wasn’t exactly true. “Because the bank won’t be selling the house for some time, and we’ll be holding an estate auction in about a month, you can certainly visit—”

“Oh, I don’t think you’ll be wanting to do that.” Mrs. Quartermain spun around rather suddenly. “There are too many magic items in this house. It wouldn’t be good to split them up now. They’ve been together too long.”

“Magic?” Ariadne frowned at a framed oil painting that looked like George Washington at about two hundred years old. “Did you say ‘magic’?”

“Of course I did.” Ginny looked annoyed and sat down on the chaise lounge facing the stairway. She scowled at the ‘do not sit’ sign and brushed it onto the floor. “What else might I have said? Magic. Tragic? I suppose that makes sense. Pelagic? No.” She scowled at Ariadne. “Don’t believe me, do you? I’d wager you’d be surprised how many magic items came into the antique shop over the years. I’d wager,” she waved a gnarled finger at Ariadne, “you’d be surprised how many magic items you own!”

The car honked outside, and Ariadne felt strangely annoyed with everyone.

“If you sold magic items in the antique shop years ago, how is that different from an estate sale selling them now?”

“No, no,” said Ms. Quartermain. “No, we never sold them.” She rubbed her hands over the floral-patterned arm of the chaise in a sort of friendly way. “No, we never sold them. We always gave them away. Magic laws prevent the selling of the items outside the boundaries. So we would give them away.”

“Magic laws?” Ariadne sat on the chaise lounge also and turned so she could see Ginny’s face. Something interested her, about the old house and its old occupant, and her delusions about magic. Something, perhaps a tattered remnant of childhood imagination, caused her to sit, ignore the honking from outside, and listen to the old woman’s rusty voice.

“Yes,” said Ginny. “Magic items can’t be sold. There are penalties.” She pointed to the picture of the ancient George Washington. “He is the proudest of all the magic items left, I think. Sometimes prefers to look young for me again. Mostly he paints himself old, older than I am, just to laugh at me.”

Ariadne squinted at the portrait. Washington had brown streaks in his hair, and she suddenly couldn’t remember whether they’d been there before.

“He’s the only magic item down here, I think,” said the old woman. “Except.” She chortled and pointed to Ariadne’s black skirt, which had turned half-cream as if she’d spilled paint on herself. One of the embroidered flowers clung half on her skirt and half on the cushion.

“What!” Ariadne jumped up, but the strange creeping color and the flower still clung to her, and she tried to brush them off amidst Ginny’s cackling.

Like snow melting, the color seeped out of her skirt and back onto the couch. The flower plopped into the dusty Persian rug and scuttled back up onto the cushion.

Ariadne warily braced herself against a roll-top desk and it moaned in protest. She pointed at it, a  wordless question on her lips. Ginny shook her head. “Not magicked, dear. Just old.”

“Good. That was the weirdest thing…” Ariadne glanced up at Washington and jumped. There was no trace of the white, powdered hair and age-wrinkled skin now; youthful green eyes twinkled out of a youthful face. He’d also changed position slightly, all traces of his previously stooped back were gone.

“Is this some kind of… practical joke?”

“Magic is never a joke, Ar-deen.”

Ariadne raised her eyebrows, curious despite herself. The horn honked outside again.

“One thing I will say,” Ginny said, standing again, and making a move to collect her suitcase, “is that the most dangerous thing to split up would be the tea set. They’re a close group, and I don’t know what the sugar-tongs would do. Why, they might snap people’s fingers off.” She cackled again as if the sugar tongs were a dog who’d bitten the ankles of a particularly annoying house-guest. She stood and shuffled toward the door.

“Oh.”

“What?” Ariadne glanced back at the portrait. He was still young. She didn’t like turning her back to him.

“And the mirrors.”

“The… mirrors? What about them, Mrs. Quartermain?”

A car door outside slammed, and then came the chatter of heels on gravel. A shadow crossed the door, the knob clicked and caught, and then a voice shouted, “Ariadne! Is everything all right?”

The door didn’t open. “I didn’t lock that,” Ariadne said. She hurried to the door and opened it. The two nurses stood outside, impatient. “Give me a moment,” Ariadne waved them off and snapped the door back shut. A door creaked softly shut behind her, and she turned just in time to see the hem of Ginny’s skirt disappearing up the stairs.

“Great.” She said. Magic sugar tongs? And what was that about mirrors?

The top step groaned as she paused and opened the door. Sunbeams, distorted by the fluttering leaves of ivy, fell from high windows. If Ariadne expected sheet-draped furniture, she was disappointed. Nothing about the house looked as if its mistress was setting off to leave it forever.

“Mrs. Quartermain?” Ariadne rounded a corner, searching. The house hushed like a forest disturbed by intruders. A massive flagstone fireplace echoed back her call.

“Here I am, dear. Oh-watch that rug. It’s temperamental.” Ariadne jumped back, both because she’d just raised her foot to step on what looked like a deeply shagged rug, and because the voice seemed to materialize out of nowhere. Ginny appeared from an adjoining hall and the rug almost seemed to . . . growl?

“It’s time for us to—”

Ginny cut her off. “I need to show you these things, dear. It’s important.”

She pointed at a Prussian blue tea-set on a low coffee table. “This is the tea-set.” Something sprang up from the sugar bowl, snapping and parading threateningly around the glass edge of the table. Ariadne squinted. The sugar tongs were snapping and dancing back and forth like a fencer in a duel. As she watched the queer display, the tiny tongs strayed too close to the edge of the table and fell with a soft thud onto the shag rug. With a snap and a clatter, the rug rolled up around the table, curling itself over it as if in protection. From within, the clicking of the tongs could still be heard.

Ariadne slowly breathed out, lowering her hands from where they’d been clutched defensively across her chest.”What,” she breathed, “was that.”

“The tongs, dear, the tongs! I told you. They probably heard you talking about selling them.”

“And the rug?”

“Temperamental. Doesn’t like being stepped on.”

Ariadne laughed and didn’t recognize her own voice. “How very odd.”

“Follow me, dear.”

They passed beneath the head of a huge white stag hung very high upon the wall. He blinked, as if coming out of a sleep, and craned his head to watch them. Scars marred the drywall behind his antlers: great sweeping gouges. Fine particles of dust filtered down onto their heads as they passed beneath him.

Ginny flipped on a light switch in a windowless room, and illumination blazed from every corner, magnified and repeated in a thousand uneven surfaces. Ariadne winced as the brightness struck her eyes.

Mirrors. The room was full to brimming of mirrors, from every age, every style, and state of disrepair. They were stacked deep, the ones behind only visible if they were particularly oddly shaped or if they could be seen between the gilded and shellacked edges of their kin. Two bookshelves held the kind of ornate hand-mirrors seen in fairy tales, and the massive chandelier had tiny shards strung from each arm.

“Mirrors, my dear, hold the deepest and oldest kind of magic. The most dangerous, and the most unforgiving.” Ginny smiled grimly at the golden array glittering at them.

“Magic,” Ariadne choked, rubbing her eyes, “is a trope in children’s literature.”

Ginny snorted. “The tongs weren’t enough to convince you? The white stag? The rug?”

Something stirred in Ariadne’s ribcage, and it was uncomfortable, like a nightmare forgotten when the sun rose and yet still lurking in the shadows for when loneliness and darkness swooped in. “Parlor tricks,” she whispered.

“Magic isn’t a trick,” Ginny insisted. She put her hands on her hips and stared Ariadne up and down. “You’re not ready. If you can’t believe, I can’t explain.”

Ariadne remained still and quiet.

Ginny pursed her lips. “Do you remember Adam Murdock?”

Everyone in Attica knew that name, like they knew the names of their brothers and sisters. “He was my neighbor.” Adam had loved apples and sword-fights with sticks. He had been her best friend.

“Adam Murdock was my grandson,” Ginny said mournfully. “He disappeared from the shop one day. I knew where he’d gone, of course, but the police, his father, and the public… they wouldn’t listen. I’m old, was old even then, and in their minds, old folks’ imaginations run rampant. I knew where he’d gone. But no one listened.”

“You knew where he’d gone, and you never went after him?”

Ginny barked a laugh. “Well, that wouldn’t have done any good, now would it. I’d be gone, then, too, and the secrets of his vanishing would be lost forever.”

Ariadne stared, waiting. The light glimmering off the mirrors hurt her eyes.

“Into the mirrors,” Ginny said quietly. “Of course. I knew it. All along.”

Something creaked outside, and Ariadne closed her eyes rather than look at it. Her stomach felt as if it were an anchor sinking to the bottom of the sea.“You think—” She licked her lips, and continued in disbelief, “That Adam was taken by the mirrors? How-”

“No!” Ginny snapped, startling Ariadne. “Never. You’ll not find a magicked item that will do real harm. Never. Adam entered them unknowingly, perhaps, but never unwillingly. Never.”

“You’re saying that he entered the mirrors.” Ariadne’s voice still wasn’t entirely recognizable to her.”If that was even possible- and it just sounds completely insane to me-”

“Because you don’t believe!” snapped Ginny again. Her rheumy eyes were glistening with tears and anger. “You don’t believe.” As if she suddenly made up her mind about something, the old woman set down her suitcase, straightened up, and stared into Ariadne’s eyes. “Watch and believe,” she whispered. She hobbled over to a massively large mirror, at least eight feet tall. It wasn’t quite oval, but it wasn’t square either. It’s scalloped edges were hard to define, and a large spider-veined crack spread over the lower left-hand corner.

She paused, her fingertips inches away from the cool surface. Ariadne watched, confusion and curiosity burning in her throat. But the words came anyway, despite both. “Mrs. Quartermain, we really should be getting—”

“Watch and believe,” the old woman said again. Then, she took a deep breath, stared around at the mirrors for a moment longer, and glanced down at the floor. “Goodbye, my dear.”

Then, as if she was passing through a sheer curtain of water, the old woman disappeared. One moment she was there, and then there was no trace. Ariadne gaped, then screamed. The suitcase sat on the floor, brisk and plain. The stag outside scraped his antlers against the wall. And the house fell silent, but for the tap-tap-tap of ivy leaves on a window somewhere.

Gone. Ginny had passed through the mirror as if it were nothing. As if it were an open door.

Her words rang in Ariadne’s memory. “Adam. . . into the mirrors.”

Could magic be more than a trope in children’s fiction, the perfect ending to the stories so beloved by young minds? Could Adam have stepped into the cracked surface of a mirror and found himself in some fairy-land, with goblins and poison apples and red slippers?

“A portal. The mirrors are a portal.”

Slowly, as if in a dream, Ariadne moved to the edge of the mirror until it towered before her. The fine cracks spread out like a map, incorrectly reflecting the hem of her skirt and the white lines of her face. She reached out a hand and tentatively touched the surface. It was shockingly cold, and her finger didn’t pass through.

“Okay, I’m going through.”

Ariadne did what she knew needed to be done. She collected herself, stared her reflection straight in the eyes, and walked straight into the mirror. Ice coldness washed over her, stinging her eyes and her nose. A sharp pain slapped her face and then she found herself sitting on the floor. The mirror towered above her and the brilliant light from the chandelier was completely blinding.

Nothing had happened, nothing at all. Her eyes filled with tears. Was she, after all, not to be allowed to enter? Was mirror-land, or fairy-land, or whatever it was, a place only for those who never lost childhood faith?

She stood shakily, feeling angry and foolish.

Fairy-land was closed to her, apparently. She frowned and straightened in front of the mirror, feeling rejected.

“Perhaps once more,” she murmured to herself. Something clicked in the hallway, but she didn’t glance toward it. But she didn’t move toward the mirror again, either. Her face still stung from the impact. She wanted to move forward, to lift her chin and try again, but she couldn’t. It was enough to be rejected once by the portal. Ariadne stood, staring into her own reflection, summing up the will to believe, searching the mirror for any sign that she could enter. There was none.

She almost turned away. Almost moved back to pick up the bag. Her brain was already desperately searching for the words to explain to the nurses how she had lost the patient— and then almost without thinking, she stared once more into her own eyes, and stepped forward.

As she did so, something clinked softly just behind her and there was a sharp pinching pain in her ankle. Inches away from the surface of the mirror, Ariadne yelped and glanced down. There, clamped firmly around her ankle, its tiny teeth puncturing her skin, were the sugar tongs. In that moment, her head hit the mirror and passed through.

Ariadne yelped again as the rest of her body plunged through and the prick of metal teeth abruptly vanished.

She stumbled, flailing and gasping, and collided with something. Verdant green leaves trembled all around as she pushed away from a podium set on the edge of a great wood.

A podium?

“Here’s your badge,” wheezed a voice nearby. A disk with the number ‘4173’ was pressed into her hands. Ariadne stared at it for a second.

“Am-am I a prisoner?” At least that explained why Adam had never come back from mirror-world.

The hoarse voice laughed. “Ha, no. You’ve just escaped from prison, dear. My, you must be confused.”

“Escaped from prison…?” Ariadne caught sight of the speaker– a shrewd old man with few teeth grinning at her broadly. Ginny Quartermain clutched his arm and looked inextricably happy.

“He means Earth, dear,” Ginny said.

“Right.” Ariadne pocketed the token and rubbed her nose. Freestanding before the podium was a mirror, presumably the one through which she had come. “You meant to say that over four thousand people have been through that mirror?”

The old man shrugged and adjusted his perfectly round spectacles. ”Nope. But over four thousand people live here, and now you can be one of us if you’d like. Sorry, my name is Quartermain.” He winked and reached out to shake Ariadne’s hand.

“Where is here?” Ariadne asked, shakily. Suddenly, she felt a little sick and her ankle stung. The tongs were no longer attached, though, so they must have dropped off inside the house.

“We like to call it home,” said Mr. Quartermain. He patted his wife on the arm and beckoned to Ariadne. “Come. See for yourself.”

Ariadne reluctantly followed the couple away from the podium and the mirror.

None of this made any sense, she thought. Mirrors and magic portals, snapping sugar tongs, and the Quartermains… it was like a bizarre dream. But even though her ankle stung and the metal token was heavy in her pocket, quiet belonging flooded her being.

A figure scrambled through the wood toward them, an older, leaner figure than the one imprinted upon her mind. He half-tripped, his arms windmilling, before he came up against a tree and halted, smiling.

“Adam?” Ariadne stopped dead.

He laughed, at it was just as she remembered.

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