Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Fiction

Empty Houses

The new house had a lot of mirrors in it. Not, like, a freakish number—just more mirrors than I’d ever had before. They were in the usual places: bathrooms, closet doors, a nice-full length in the foyer so you could check your coat and shoes. But they were on the back of every door: bathroom doors, bedroom doors, even the odd little door that topped the staircase onto the second floor. There were additional mirrors in each bedroom—big ones!—and the one in the littlest bedroom was so beautifully framed, we were surprised the previous owner had left it.

The result was that I started accidentally scaring the shit out of myself the second we moved in. If a door closed behind me as I was carrying boxes, the sight of my own reflection would make me jump when I turned around. Because there were so many mirrors, and because some of them were tucked into odd places, my reflection always seemed to be moving in slightly the wrong direction.

Austin was used to explaining my “heightened startle response” to our friends when I did something like knock over a glass of water because the waiter had come up too suddenly behind me. But even he found it jarring when I was gasping or squawking with surprise multiple times a day. Garth Marenghi—our grumpy indoor calico—was almost as edgy in the new place as me, and she’d taken to expressing her discomfort by completely disappearing between meals.

“It’s like—and it only does this at night—but like if I walk by the little room on my way to pee, my reflection will seem to be going backwards.”

Austin put a very gentle hand on my shoulder, but his voice was wry. “I hate to be the one to break this to you, but a reflection is supposed to be reversed.”

He could make me feel so silly it was actually a relief—the peril of being both very imaginative and wildly inattentive was that you ended up, say, literally afraid of your own reflection, but also surprised that your reflection kept showing up in a house full of mirrors.

What we called “the little room” was going to be the guest room, though the realtor had relentlessly referred to it as a “perfect potential nursery.” Austin wasn’t even straight, but we looked like a straight couple, so strangers were always willing to project whatever their idea of domestic bliss was onto our future. They did it less once they found out Austin was pansexual, which I didn’t even notice until he pointed it out to me—suck a certain number of dicks and suddenly everybody doubted your fatherhood credentials.

The little room had the same square footage as the other two bedrooms, but the ceiling sloped down half of it, so the room felt small even if you were too short to actually be inconvenienced by the drop. Austin—whose childhood friends had called him “The Bear” for a good decade before he ever wrote that word into a dating profile—spent no time in it, so the space was ceded to me without either of us paying much attention. The room didn’t feel inherently special, but once we started calling it the little room, and once I realized it was basically mine, it became special. It felt like an office space or a studio, a place a woman would go to get shit done, even though I pretty much just listened to records and smoked weed in there, trying to keep the smell out of the rest of the house.

The night we moved in, after all our friends had gorged themselves on pizza and driven home, we sat together on the floor and finished the last of the remaining drinks, which meant the worst of the remaining drinks, which meant Seagram’s.

“I cannot fucking believe we bought a house,” I said, as the streetlights clicked on and suffused the room with an orange glow. “We did it. We’re basically boomers now.”

“Blah blah estate taxes are unfair,” chortled Austin. “Blah blah my dream car is a Corvette, blah blah something super racist about school districts. Oh no!” He put down his drink and stared in mock-horror at his own hands. “It’s already happening!”

“It can’t happen until we finish!” I started ticking off my fingers. “First we gotta get the guest room ready. Then we put pull-out couches in the living room. Then we get the basement fixed up into basically a separate apartment space. Then we can turn into boomers, because our house’ll be so full of our friends that they’ll just change us back.”

Austin’s hand, still cool from being wrapped around the neck of a bottle someone had the temerity to name an Orange Sassy Swirl, crept under my shirt and fumbled blindly for the hooks of my bra.

“This one’s in the front,” I said, snapping it open and then wriggling around inside my shirt until I’d gotten my arms out of the straps and could pull the whole bra out one sleeve, like a horny magician.

“God, I love you,” said Austin, scooching over and pulling me into his arms. “Hey girl, do you wanna buy a house together?”

“You know,” I said, leaning into him and kissing a trail up his collarbone, “I bet you could convince me.”

I caught a glimpse of us over his shoulder in one of the mirrors. But where I was wrapped around Austin, my reflection was momentarily still: watching us and smiling gently. And I know, I know, I know, but: at the time, it felt like a gesture of welcome.

• • • •

All the mirrors sometimes showed my reflection wrong, but the one in the little room was the worst. It wasn’t lost on me that the room I spent the most time getting high in was also the room where I “saw” the most things. It was like a game my high-self played on my sober-self. One night I even left a note: check mirror in MOURNING, in caps just like that, I assume to ensure that I still appreciated my own pun.

But in the morning the mirror didn’t do anything, it just acted like a mirror, and I was hard-pressed to articulate what had even creeped me out.

“Check this out,” said Austin, looking up from his phone after about a week of my escalating scares. He walked into the little room, unhung the mirror, and set it down with the glass facing the wall. “Let’s just do that to any of them that freak you out. We can Goodwill ’em, throw ’em out—whatever, as long as you’re happy.” Garth Marenghi emerged suddenly from under the bed and padded over to sniff the back of the mirror, her tail flicking with interest.

Until Austin did that, it hadn’t occurred to me—because the mirrors were there when we moved in, I’d mentally put them in the same category as walls and windows, just another immutable thing. Now I could remove them at will, leaving each one alone until it startled me, then taking my very business-like vengeance by stacking it neatly in the basement.

“Don’t mind me,” said Austin, posing dramatically next to the mirror he’d removed. “I’m just a local hero, doing what comes naturally.” He reached down to scratch Garth’s ears, which she surprised us both by tolerating.

My hero,” I said, “in my very own dream house.”

• • • •

Austin’s hours picked up suddenly—an unexpected windfall for our budget, but it meant I was down a pair of hands for house work. “Renovations” seemed like too big a word, requiring both skilled labor and a sense of aesthetics, whereas what I did was more like “cut a hole into the ceiling for a light here” and “actually here won’t work, where the fuck did I put the spackling?”

We hadn’t finalized who we were going to invite to live with us, but I had a mental shortlist that felt promising. Mel in the little room, so we could smoke weed and giggle together into the night. Danielle and Plum in the basement apartment, so they had a private place but were still members of the household. A rotating cast in the living room, according to who was just passing through and whose rent was recently hiked and who got dumped and needed a place to crash. Our house less a house than a neighborhood in and of itself, a community that just happened to also have my bedroom in it.

It was slow-going, because I was just one person, and because I was still learning, which meant endless mistakes. Garth Marenghi skulked from under beds and behind bookshelves, following me as I worked from room to room. In a month we’d mostly finished unpacking, but random boxes and stacks of unsorted books and clothes still made hiding easy for her.

“I just feel like,” said Austin, coming up behind me as I pored over paint chips at the kitchen table, “you should double-check if Danielle wants to live in the basement before you paint it her favorite color.”

“We’ve talked about how we’re going to live together since middle school, I think she’s pretty aware. Besides,” I smiled, “you’re just worried I’m gonna paint it pink.”

“Well, if you’re going to, definitely make it that one—” he pointed to a glaringly bright fuchsia, “instead of that boring bullshit.” He indicated the palest pink on the strip, which was of course the one I was actually considering. He blinked at me. “Why don’t you ask for help, anyway? Like twenty people helped us move; I bet you could get two of them to come over and help paint a room.”

But I just shook my head, feeling both proud of my hard work and self-conscious about my pride. “Nah. I don’t want anybody to see it until everything’s ready.”

• • • •

It was the kind of narrow urban house built so close to its neighbors that you could reach out your windows and fist bump each other. The backyard was small, with a chain link fence along two sides and a neighbor’s tall and rather elegant wooden privacy fence forming the last. My therapist had suggested I “get more sunlight” like she was a fucking medieval chirurgeon, so I was making an effort to stand around in the yard every afternoon for the amount of time it took me to drink a beer. I liked the idea of a modest vegetable garden there, or at least some herbs, but since we were barely people who mowed the lawn adequately, gardening seemed like a distant dream. We didn’t get much in the way of birds or squirrels, because unlike the yards on either side of us we had no trees. So I just stood in our grass patch, idly watching passing airplanes.

The first little dead bird I found back there still looked perfect: no blood, not even any ruffled feathers. It might’ve fallen out of the sky, except there wasn’t really a splat. I thought about leaving it there until Austin got home so I could show him, but that felt ridiculous. I was gonna leave a poor bird in the grass for ants to eat out its eyes just so Austin could gently tell me a cat got it?

I dug a little hole just inside the fence and buried it there.

• • • •

I was making myself a sandwich when I noticed Garth’s bowl was still full from breakfast, the edges of the pâté now crusted. And I noticed fully that she hadn’t shadowed me at all this morning, as she so often did when we were alone in the house.

Looking for Garth when she didn’t want to be found was futile, but I looked anyway. Late in the afternoon I finally texted Austin.

I’m probably just being dramatic but I haven’t seen GM all day and I’m worried

He texted me back immediately—not his usual from work.

She didn’t come down for breakfast this morning. Haven’t seen her since last night.

So by the time Austin got home I’d pretty much torn the place apart, but he still pitched in and we looked around the house until it was very late and we were both deeply sad. I kept thinking of the dead bird in the backyard and wondering if Garth had done it, if that should have been my first hint that she had an escape route. Skipping dinner hadn’t helped me hold it together, and I ended up sitting in the little room and crying quietly, hoping Austin wouldn’t hear me. I had always been an easy crier, something that shamed me a good deal more than it ever seemed to bother other people. Still, it was my habit to cry in private, and Austin’s habit, when he noticed, to offer me the dignity of pretending he hadn’t.

I went into the bathroom across the hall when I was done, to wipe the tear tracks from my face and make a vague effort to look presentable, whatever “presentable” was at one in the morning with a missing cat.

Behind me in the reflection I could see into the little room, then into the mirror in the little room, and, for just a moment, the flick of Garth Marenghi’s tail in that reflection of a reflection. I spun around, relief already spilling into frustration—Garth how could you scare us like that!—but when I did, I remembered that the mirror in the little room had been the first to go. It was just wallpaper where the mirror had been. Still, I tore into the room—somewhere in there, I had seen her as she retreated, and just because I was high (yeah, okay, I’d started smoking while Austin was circling the block calling Garth’s name) I was having trouble telling which angle I must have seen her from.

“I think I just saw her in the little room!” I yelled.

Austin tore up the stairs. “You think?” he asked.

“Well, it was just a reflection—you know how the mirrors are up here.”

But the smell in the little room gave my smoking away, and Austin suppressed a tight-lipped sigh. “Maybe it’s time we got some sleep,” he said. “I can call off work in the morning; we can put up posters around the neighborhood and start calling shelters.”

“I’m not saying I saw your cat because I’m high, I’m saying I saw your cat because I saw your cat!”

My cat,” repeated Austin quietly. “There’s nothing wrong with the mirrors up here. Either you saw her or you didn’t.”

“I did,” I said.

“Okay then,” said Austin firmly, and we spent another fruitless hour moving everything in the room, even taking apart the bed frame before we finally gave up.

• • • •

Mel came over a few days later ostensibly to help me look for Garth, but there was no way of “looking” that Austin and I hadn’t already exhausted, so I ended up giving her a tour of the house.

“I can’t believe you installed all the overhead lights yourself,” she said, admiring every single cheap fixture I’d so laboriously put in. “Whenever I move into a place without ceiling lights, I just trashpick more lamps.”

I threw up my arms proudly. “This is my first time not doing that! But man,” and I flipped the light on and off a few times for emphasis, “it turns out that filling a dark room with light is basically the most satisfying thing. I can see why God got really into it for a day.”

Mel laughed. She’d been my friend for fifteen years, and she’d stuck with me even during the periods when my unchecked depression had sloughed off all the friends unwilling to put up with accusatory outbursts and weird crying phone calls and pointed vaguebooking. Mel’s laugh was bright and rich and moved easily into snorts, which helped to counteract her otherwise intimidating attractiveness. It turns out nobody is too hot to talk to after you’ve watched them snort-laugh their way through a mediocre joke.

“You wanna get high as balls and stay the night?” I asked. “Really get a feel for the house?”

Mel sighed. “I would love to, but work’s so early tomorrow, and your place is sort of far out.”

And what I should have said was: “yeah, of course, maybe next time.” But instead, tears sprang to my eyes, and I was horrified to suddenly be crying that an adult friend didn’t want to have an impromptu sleepover. Mel’s eyes widened too, just for a second, and then she leaned forward and pulled me into a deep hug.

“Oh babe,” she said. “I’m so, so sorry about Garth. Fuck it, let’s smoke weed all night and I can just be a goblin at work tomorrow.”

So I retrieved my chonky vape and brought her to the little room. My hands were sweating with how much I wanted her to like it.

“This wallpaper is wild,” she said, running her hands along the folk-style alpaca print, which was either a horrifying 70s artifact or something a more recent hipster had painstakingly sourced.

“I thought you might like it,” I said. “It’s the only room I didn’t paint.”

“What used to hang here?” She traced the dark outline of the mirror, the only part of the wallpaper not slightly faded by sunlight.

“Ugh, you remember all those mirrors? There were just too many, and they started freaking me out.”

She waggled her eyebrows at me. “Freaked you out how?”

So I explained, as haltingly to her as I had to Austin.

“Oh my God!” she exclaimed. “You can’t let me stay in a room that used to have a creepy mirror in it and not give me the mirror! I can’t even get a good night’s sleep if a house isn’t haunted enough.” She was cheerful, almost bubbly—the exact opposite of the heavy, half-asleep way I felt, even though we were smoking the same indica strain. “Let’s play Bloody Mary!”

“This is why Austin always says you’d be the first to die if we were in a horror movie.”

That made her laugh, too. “Good! At least that girl usually gets laid and has a good time first. Anyway, didn’t you say the mirrors were only weird when you’re alone? Well, how can you be alone if I’m here?”

In the face of her enthusiasm—and since I felt so indebted to her, for putting my grief before her comfort—we trooped down to the basement, and I retrieved the first mirror to be put down there, the one with the fanciest frame.

“That is definitely how I’d want a haunted mirror to look,” Mel said, taking one side to help me maneuver it up the stairs.

Mh,” she said as we hung it up, sounding less like an art critic than a lady sexily eating chocolate in a commercial. “Really ties the room together. Can’t believe you took it down.”

And actually, it did make the room feel more complete—the emptiness in the wall had carried its own strange weight. “I just . . .” I sighed. “You know how I get, sometimes.”

“Aw, babe.” Mel crossed in front of the mirror to hug me. And as she did, her reflection passed too, walking in the other direction. Mel froze and stood there, her reflection just as rigid as she was.

That,” I said, waving my hand at it. “That’s the thing it does where shit is backwards.”

“What the fuck,” hissed Mel. “That’s not how mirrors move ‘backwards.’ Like, letters should be backwards—your reflection can’t go the other way.” She turned, very slowly, but her reflection was normal now; by the time our full attention was on it, it had already sidled back to the right place, and it perfectly mirrored Mel’s bloodless lips and flared nostrils.

“Do you want me to put it back in the basement?” I asked, pitching my voice low, as if the mirror could hear us.

But Mel ignored me. She kept looking at her own reflection, changing her expressions, first gradually, then a quick silly shift to tongue out and eyes wide as a monkey’s.

“That made me feel crazy,” she said, finally turning away to meet my eyes. Then, too quickly, “I mean, weird! It made me feel weird. But I know it’s just us being high and talking about ghosts and shit. We got ourselves in a mood.”

But I didn’t think we had. I was pretty sure we’d still been laughing together, right up until we hung the mirror.

“I’ll just take it down again,” I said. The last thing I needed was the little room freaking her out—then she’d never want to move in with us. But Mel stopped me with a hand on my wrist.

“We were just being silly,” she said. “Please don’t go back to taking down all the mirrors. You know Austin is worried about you, right?”

“Um. No, actually?”

“Okay, well!” Mel sat down on the edge of the twin bed, and I sat next to her after she patted the quilt to invite me. “Sorry, I’m not trying to make it a big thing. But he’s been worried that you’re isolating yourself since you bought this place, then this whole thing about the reflections, now Garth—he’s just worried.”

You just saw it being weird,” I said. “You just said ‘that’s not how mirrors work.’ And I haven’t been ‘isolating,’ I’ve been working! You saw all the lights I put up!” I got to my feet too quickly—I wanted to raise my voice or shadow-box, but I knew that would look all wrong, so I just stood there, looming. “If I’m productive all day, I’m isolating! If I don’t get out of bed, I’m depressed. Like, tell me what the right way to be is and I’ll do it, okay!?”

“Oh, babe,” said Mel, for the third time that night, only this time she didn’t sound like a mom-friend, she just sounded tired. “There’s never a right way to be, there’s just greater and lesser shades of wrong. And I think being afraid of mirrors and taking them all down like a Victorian mourning house is probably on the wronger side.”

She didn’t even, like, waggle her eyebrows at me when she said “wronger,” so her words just sat there, making me feel sober and miserable.

“Sorry,” I said. “I’ll leave the mirror up. But you should get some sleep, I guess? For work?”

Mel took my hand and squeezed it. “Maybe both of us should get some sleep,” she said.

I lay awake in bed plotting what to say to her in the morning to make things normal between us, but by the time I woke up she’d already left for work.

• • • •

That day in the yard there were two dead birds. One of them was immaculate, just like the first, and it was even on the lawn as if it had been posed with wings fully extended. The other one was most of a bird, totally normal except that its soft little body terminated abruptly in a pulpy mass that looked more like a cancerous lesion than a cat injury.

Austin is worried about you, Mel had said, so I didn’t call him, even though these birds were obviously more distressing—wronger—than the first one. I took them out of the backyard this time, into a copse of trees at the end of the street, and dug a real hole more than a foot deep. I tried to think of something to say, but I didn’t think that much about birds even when they were alive, so . . .

“Good luck, guys,” I settled on, which it wouldn’t occur to me until later was a deeply weird thing to say at a funeral.

• • • •

“Do you know what time Melissa left last night?” Austin asked, handing me a carton of cashew shrimp from the Chinese place next to his office. I hadn’t noticed I was hungry until I smelled the shrimp, and now I took it gratefully as he unpacked rice and veggies and his own big carton of what he cheerfully called “deep fried sugar chicken.”

“Dunno—I was still asleep.”

“But she did spend the night, though?”

“Yeah! Why?”

He unwrapped and unsnapped a set of chopsticks. “Her car was still here when I left this morning, but the little room was empty. Just thought it was weird, that’s all.”

I opened my mouth to say, We didn’t sleep together, but stopped in case that sounded too defensive. It’s not that Austin and I are monogamous or anything, but we’re the talk-about-it-exhaustively-for-weeks-first type, not the fun-spontaneous-two-or-threesome type. “Her car was gone by the time I woke up,” I said instead. “Didn’t really think about it.”

Austin just nodded.

• • • •

It’s not like I was unaware that something weird was happening. I didn’t like scary movies at all, but Austin was such a fan of the genre that he entered our relationship with a cat named Garth Marenghi. So, yes, while I was sitting on the edge of my bed at three am, high as fuck but not wanting to wake Austin, I thought phrases like “evil mirror” and “haunted house” and even “exorcist.”

But you please look the love of your life in the eye on a Wednesday afternoon and say the words “evil mirror.” Don’t laugh, because otherwise they’ll think you’re joking—actually, no matter what you do, they’re going to think you’re joking. Or worse: they’re going to take you seriously and assume it represents a drastic change in your mental health. Because, no big deal, but in this scenario, you have a history of “drastic changes” in that vein.

Or: you can just go on being normal. I don’t actually want to talk about the difference between when a person goes missing and when a cat does. The pattern’s pretty much the same. It takes everyone a while to notice, then even longer to admit that there’s a problem, and by the time everyone is in agreement about the facts, it’s too late. Melissa Cotts lived alone in a little apartment. She’d been great at her job for the last year or so, but before that, her work history was spotty. She had one regularly-scheduled but emotionally distant phone conversation with her parents a week.

It took a while before anyone reported her missing, is what I’m trying to say.

So you just . . . keep looking for your friend and your cat. You stay busy on the house, Austin stays busy at work, and if you let them, things can sometimes feel normal again.

It’s just—it’s very easy to let the words “I think the mirrors ate our friend” go un-uttered.

• • • •

“Can I be the worst, most self-absorbed person in the world?” I asked, thumping down on the couch next to Austin, where he was half-watching some YouTuber.

“I guess . . . ?” he said, but he was smiling.

“No one is ever going to want to live with us now that we’re the last people Mel was seen with. Everyone’s going to think we have a murderer living on this street. Which maybe we do.” I tried to keep my tone bright, like this was a funny observation. Austin had held me through enough sobbing sessions about Mel to forgive those rare occasions when I could talk about her without bursting into more tears.

“I know you think you want roommates,” said Austin. “And—sorry, that was condescending—maybe you do! But just trust me: let’s live for at least a year without any, and then we can see if we want people living with us again. It’s been really nice to never wonder whose dishes those are, or whose socks, or whose groceries.” His video ended and another one auto-played without him seeming to notice.

I crossed my arms over my chest. “Okay, but pick a lane. Either I’m isolating myself too much and need more social contact or we’re bougie suburbanites who need a whole house to ourselves to feel alive, but it can’t be both.”

“Whooooa,” said Austin slowly. “Well, first, I don’t think it’s inherently ‘bougie’ to want to live in your own house. And also, I don’t remember accusing you of needing more social contact.”

We were that deep into the conversation before I remembered that he hadn’t said that to me—it was Mel, on our last night together. I’d tried not to think about that night in too much detail; otherwise the weight of it seemed inescapable. I’d taken the mirror down as soon as I saw she was gone the next morning, but I should’ve taken it down as soon as it touched the wall, I should’ve left it in the basement, I should’ve accidentally shattered it on moving day.

“I just feel . . . smothered,” I said, straight-up lying. “Like, your visible concern about ‘how I’m doing’ makes me more keyed up, and then you get more worried, and just—what if we had a fun house where our friends lived with us and we laughed a lot instead of being so tense all the time?”

Austin put his phone down next to him on the couch and sighed. “Nobody wants to live with us.”

I laughed. “Now you won’t even let me invite them, how can they say yes?”

“Because I already invited everyone, okay? Jesus, I watched you try to mine Plum for her ‘favorite architectural style’ like that was a normal conversational pivot, but you never asked anybody a fucking thing about whether they even liked their lease. Yeah, I asked around if anybody wanted to move out next to the airport and live in our basement and the general vibe was ‘no,’ okay?”

“Not if that’s how you pitched it to them—” I started, and Austin’s face just closed. I don’t know how else to describe it, because his expression didn’t actually change. But he was looking past me instead of at me.

“I love you,” he said, in not quite a monotone. “But sometimes you get me so fucking tripped up. I’m gonna go for a walk, okay?”

“Uh, okay,” I said. He started for the door, and at the last minute doubled back to take his phone off the couch.

After he left, I had a sudden fear, but when I checked his keys were still hanging on their hook next to the door. Austin was not the kind of guy to go for a pack of cigarettes and not come back, but—

Anyway, I was glad his keys were still there. While I waited for him to come back I went into the little room and sat cross-legged on the floor, packing a glass bowl. Austin preferred the smell of the vape to the smell of actual leaf, but if he wasn’t here . . .

I cracked the window anyway out of guilt. The room felt lonely, though I guess with Austin just having walked out, I could’ve projected loneliness onto anything. I missed the surprise of Garth jumping suddenly next to me from some hidden place, her delicate sniffs and skeptical expressions. I missed Mel selflessly curating me a selection of Twitter’s best memes even when I didn’t manage to text so much as a “lol” back.

My phone dinged from the bedroom as I had that thought. I shook off a little chill and went to it, but there were no new notifications. Only then did I see Mel watching me through the mirror on the back of the bedroom door. Garth twined around her feet and Mel waved, a half-sarcastic finger wiggle she’d given me a million times before. Then she was just my own reflection again, staring blankly.

It didn’t seem right for Danielle and Plum to say no to the house without seeing all the work I’d put into it. What was the point of trying so hard if they wouldn’t even give it a chance?

• • • •

“You would never actually leave me, right?” I asked Austin the next morning at breakfast, which right away he knew something was wrong because normally I was still asleep at 6:30 in the morning. Also, it was possible that even though I had lain in bed with him all night, I hadn’t managed to sleep much—and even more possible that I looked like someone who hadn’t slept. I guess I can get a certain way sometimes when I’m not at my best. Think of how you have a particular pair of pants you wear on rough days, just for comfort—I do that too, but with myself. You just—take a little bit of a back seat to yourself, if you need a break.

“Of course not,” he said. “But there are definitely actions you can take that make it harder for me to stay.”

He spoke so deliberately that I understood immediately this was a script, probably workshopped over text with anyone still willing to listen to me-adjacent drama. Knowing that whatever I said would be dissected in turn made it harder to make the right reply.

“Okay,” I said. “I’m sorry. And I’m listening, if there’s anything you want to tell me right now.” And I did listen to what he said. But mostly I was screening it, because I knew if I listened too closely, I’d just get upset—and I’d already missed a full night of sleep, how much more upset did a person need to get? And Austin would’ve appreciated, too, that I was saving us both a scene.

“Look,” I said, only when I was completely sure he was finished. I even left a respectful pause, like we both had a lot to mentally digest. “Let me make a peace offering. How about we have Danielle and Plum over for dinner? I’ll do the planning, and the cooking, and that way I get my taste of, you know, having people around, but also it’s just a dinner party, not a move-in date.” I made eye contact with him. I forced a tentative smile. “We’ll just—work on getting back to normal.” I’d keyed in on those words—normal, work—as reoccurring while he spoke, and clearly this attention to detail paid off, because he returned my smile.

“I’d like that a lot,” he said. Then he held out his hand, and I was just riding along with myself, so I took it and let him curl me into a hug. “Thanks for sticking with me,” he said, and I felt like he was fishing, that I was supposed to reassure him that oh no, I was the difficult one, poor Austin had to do all the sticking around and hanging in there, but I let his words speak for themselves.

After he left for work, I hung the mirror in the dining room.

• • • •

The birds seemed important, but I didn’t know in what way or how many were necessary. If we were the kind of house that had BB Guns lying around, I probably would’ve tried to shoot a sparrow. But we weren’t, and anyway, the birds hadn’t needed my help to happen before. Still, I dug out a bag of birdseed from when we’d last lived with a girl who packed up her birdfeeders from apartment to apartment. I scattered the seed in great handfuls around the yard while I drank my afternoon sunshine beer. At least this way there would be lots of birds to pick from.

I didn’t know the rules, obviously: if it only worked at night, if it only worked in the little room, if you really did have to be high. If the other mirrors helped or if it was only the one that mattered. But I felt like, as I got dinner ready (Danielle: allergic to tree nuts, Plum: vegetarian), the details would work themselves out. The mirror was hungry, or the house was, and they would find a way. And I understood that I should feel bad about this, okay? I understood.

It’s just—I didn’t want my friends to leave me.

Caspian Gray

Caspian Gray

Caspian Gray is a used car salesman who has previously worked as a funeral director’s apprentice, a pet nutritionist, an English teacher in Japan, a Japanese teacher in America, and a crystal healing “expert” in a head shop. He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he shares a home with a tall man and a tall toddler.