What the Mirrors Keep

What the Mirrors Keep
by Erin Cole

It all started on the night of the housewarming dinner, when my best friend Ted and his wife Sarah had come over for dinner to see our new house. It was the cusp of normal times, when relationships were healthy and friendships were strong, but something dark had pervaded Ted’s thoughts that night, and it muted him for most of the evening.

He drew me outside to the deck for a drink, likely intending to tell me about it.

“House looks great,” he said. “Classic, although I pegged you as being more modern.” I had never known Ted to care about home décor.

“What’s up with you?” I said. “You’ve barely spoken a word tonight.”

Ted clinked the ice in his drink and spoke in a deep, husky voice. His serious voice.

“Tell me, Paul, are you happy? I mean, really happy?”

Ted had always been at odds with Janelle. She was different from other woman: quiet, graceful, keenly ambitious, didn’t like the word no. Ted had confronted me once, saying that love didn’t pull you away from others; it was supposed to bring you closer to them. I’d always thought he was jealous, and it was never more obvious than that night.

“What kind of question is that? Sure, I’m happy.”

His gaze crossed the patio and landed somewhere behind me, in the kitchen. “So you and the kids are doing okay?” When his eyes slid back to mine, they were full of need.

“We have our usual ups and downs.”

Not liking the direction of our conversation, I poured another splash of scotch into my tumbler. I wasn’t in the mood to dig up old bones I thought we had buried years ago. Ted extended his glass and I filled it. We both swilled a gulp in silence. Ted averted his attention to the stars above us. Whatever troubled him was bound to escape.

“I know there’s something you want to say, so say it.”

Ted lifted his drink to his mouth and paused, as if articulating the best defense.

Impatience rattled my nerves. “For Christ’s sake, what the Hell is it?”

The words popped from Ted’s mouth like a cork. “I saw something in Janelle. Something’s not right about her.”

I couldn’t believe we were facing this problem again. “You saw something in Janelle? What on God’s green Earth are you talking about?”

He leaned in toward me, eyeing the kitchen window behind us. Janelle and Sarah were still cleaning up the table. “I don’t know exactly.”

I thought for a half-breath that he might be high. We used to smoke weed in college, but that was two decades ago, and Ted was a firefighter now.

“What exactly did you see?” I asked, working to remain calm and levelheaded.

Ted shifted on his feet like an embarrassed teenager. “I passed by Janelle’s study the other day when I was over here helping you move the hutch. She was standing in front of a mirror, talking. I saw something in it.” He pinned me down with an expression that cooled the air around me. “I saw a reflection that wasn’t hers.”

We had also pulled off a few practical jokes in college, including one that landed us in the slammer, but again, that was behavior from pot-smoking college days.

“Ah, good one.” I laughed. “You almost had me that time.” Ted wasn’t chuckling or even smiling. My laughter faded like fogged breath. I returned to his ridiculous remark with added frustration. “What do you mean it wasn’t her reflection?”

I gulped the rest of my drink in a burning-hot swig I hoped would drown my unease, because I didn’t want to hear his answer. The sliding glass door scraped open. Sarah poked her head outside.

“Ted, I’m not feeling well. Do you mind if we leave early?”

Ted eyed me again with a look less comforting than a punch to the gut. No, he definitely wasn’t high or joking. Genuine fear showed in his face.

“I’ll be right there.” He walked to the door and turned to me. “Keep in touch.”

“She doesn’t like me,” Janelle said after Ted and Sarah drove off. She gazed at them through a small split in the curtain. From where I stood, I could see a slice of her face reflected in the window—her face, not another reflection—and it was just as young and beautiful as the day we were married.

“I don’t think that’s true,” I lied. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I didn’t think Ted liked her, either. Somehow, I gathered that she already knew.

A few nights later, our son Luke padded into our bedroom, crying. His body was shaking uncontrollably as if he’d been standing in cold rain for hours.

“What’s wrong, pal?” I said as I rubbed both of my hands up and down his arms.

“Something was talking to me in my room.”

“Talking to you? Where? From the window?” He and our daughter Madeline shared a room. My thoughts detoured into darkness. “Is the window open? Is Madeline still in her bed?”

Luke tried to quiet me with a sweeping gesture of his hand. “Yeah, she’s asleep. It was in the mirror. Something was in the mirror.”

Janelle lifted her head. “It was probably just a bad dream, honey. Be a big boy and go back to bed. We’ll talk about it in the morning.”

I walked Luke back to his room and tucked his red race-car comforter around his shoulders. I caressed his head until his eyes shut.

Then I walked over to the mirror. I stepped in front of it and peered into it up close. My mind said that monstrous hands were about to jet out of it, snatch me by the shoulders, and jerk me inside it, or at least materialize another face, not my own.

I saw nothing, just my own weary reflection. I went back to bed.

We never did talk about the mirror the next morning. Luke didn’t bring it up, but something had changed in him. I recalled the strange conversation with Ted regarding the reflection he claimed to have seen in the mirror. Had Luke seen something similar?

I found both incidents too bizarre for further consideration and carried on as if nothing had happened.

A few nights later, the mirror went missing from the wall in Luke and Madeline’s bedroom.

“What happened to the mirror?” I asked Luke, standing in the middle of his and Madeline’s room.

He looked over at Madeline, her eyes shut and attention lost to the headphones tethered to her mp3 player. He brought his finger to his mouth and pointed under his bed.

I bent down on hands and knees and peered underneath the bed frame. A mess of lost toys and missing socks cluttered the dark space. In the back corner, something bright and silver gleamed. Tinfoil.

“You wrapped the mirror in tinfoil?”

He signaled again for me to keep quiet. “It’s the only way to block its reflection,” he whispered.


“The thing in the mirror.”

He had a familiar look in his eyes, the same one as in Ted’s. I wouldn’t say then that monstrous hands out of nowhere had indeed grasped me, but it sure as Hell felt as if something was pulling me into a nightmare.

Madeline and Luke battled incessantly over the bedroom mirror. When Luke wasn’t around, she stole it back from beneath his bed and strung it over the nail on the wall, but as soon as she left the room, Luke took it back down, wrapped it up in tinfoil again, and shoved it back under his bed. After that, he hid it in the mattress, the dresser, and finally, the bathroom closet. Janelle stopped buying tinfoil.

I did everything I could to placate Luke’s preoccupation with the mirror except talk with Ted, a conversation I didn’t want to have.

He came by the house one evening, oddly refusing to come inside, saying something about a cold he didn’t want to pass on to the kids. Bullshit, I thought. I found Ted’s new aloof nature a bit bothersome.

I told him about Luke and the mirror, cringing at what he might or might not say next.

Ted crossed his arms when I finished. “What do you want me to say?”

“I want you to tell me the truth. What’s really bothering you?”

“I did tell you the truth, and you laughed. Remember?”

“What did you see in the mirror, Ted? I’ve got Luke saying the same—” A thought slipped into my mind like a thorn. No, no, he didn’t … he wouldn’t … “Have you already spoken to Luke about this? Did you tell him what you saw?”

“No. C’mon, I wouldn’t do that.”

“Then what’s going on?!” Anger blew an ill wind through me.

Ted pointed at the house. “It’s her.” His voice fell flat against the stucco siding, or maybe it was the wall forming between us.

I glanced around the side of the house, making sure Janelle was still in the backyard, gardening.

“You’ve never liked Janelle,” I protested in a heated whisper. “Just admit it.”

I felt like berating Ted, because given a few more seconds’ thought, I realized it came down to envy, plain and simple. There was no other explanation. Ted was jealous of what I had achieved in business, of who I had married, and even of the kids I’d had when he and Sarah couldn’t conceive. Something red and hot worked itself inside me.

“We both made our own decisions,” I stammered.

Ted lowered his head. “We’ve been friends for a long time. I’ll be honest with you, even if you don’t like it.”

“Then stop trying to turn this on me. After all the times I helped you and Sarah—”

“Janelle is a demon, Paul.”

The word “demon” hit me like a punch between the eyes—worse, actually, because it didn’t stop at my skull. It bore through bone and brain and sank into my heart. I couldn’t believe what he had just said. He must be crazy, I thought. That was it. He’d gone mad, and I didn’t want any part of it. I turned around and headed for the front door without saying a word.

“I’m as serious about this as I’ve ever been about anything in my life,” Ted said.

“You’re insane, then.” I kept walking. Fucking insane.

Ted stopped me at the screen door. “I have something to give you.” He held out his hand. “I want Luke to have this.”

It was a gold-plated medal, the one awarded to him last year for going “above and beyond the call of duty” at a Level-4 fire at the mill. Ted had lost one of his buddies that day. Emotion squeezed at my throat.

“What are you doing, Ted? I don’t understand. What’s wrong with you?”

“Just take it, please, and tell Sarah—” Ted broke off with a jerk of his head.

The sweet scent of jasmine drifted at my side. Janelle had come from the backyard, shears in her gloved hand, with a star-gleaming smile and blue eyes like glacial ice.

“Hi, Ted. I didn’t even know you were here. You want to come inside for some iced tea?”

“No thanks.” He turned to me. “I’d better get back to the station.”

I watched him drive off and roll through the stop sign ahead.

“What’s that?” Janelle asked, pointing to my hand. She approached me with an intense, quizzical stare.

“Just something Ted wanted me to give to Luke.”

“Well, that was nice of him, but I don’t think we should accept it.”


A malicious frown curled from Janelle’s mouth and into her eyes. “I don’t think our son should accept gifts from a man who peeps in on his best friend’s wife while she’s changing. We should call him Peeping Ted.”

Janelle’s comment upset me. I couldn’t believe that I thought for even a half-second that Ted would do such a thing. Then I reasoned that Janelle sensed Ted’s dislike for her, so she made the situation into something it wasn’t.

None of it mattered anymore.

The following morning, Sarah found Ted on the bathroom floor, his eyes frozen open toward the ceiling. Reports said his blood pressure had dropped too low and he had died in his sleep.

“All those years of smoke inhalation and steady stress,” the coroner remarked.

The problem with the conclusion was where Ted had died. He had no bruising or head injury from tripping or falling, so unless he had been drinking heavily or sleepwalking—two things he didn’t do—it didn’t make any sense why he would be on the bathroom floor.

I couldn’t ignore the persistent thought that something else had happened to him. Given his unusual behavior the days before, I had to wonder if he’d done something to himself. Then another thought crested and crashed: What if Janelle did something? What if she was … ?

The thought was outrageous. Stuff for B movies, not an event in my life. But the thought that Janelle might not be what she seemed continued to fester in my thoughts over the next few days.

At Ted’s funeral, Luke wept beside an oak tree. Ted had treated him like a nephew. I tried to talk to Luke, but he wouldn’t open up to his mother or me. When Janelle wasn’t looking, I handed him the medal Ted had given me. Luke knew who it belonged to; he had been at the award ceremony.

“Ted told me he wanted you to have this.”

Luke nodded. A plump tear rolled down his cheek. He hung the medal around his neck and slipped it inside his shirt.

Madeline immersed herself in one of those tabloid gossip magazines during the eulogy. I wanted her to show some respect, so I took it from her.

She spent the next two days pretending I didn’t exist. Janelle said it was what preteens did and that I was being too hard on her, letting my grief surpass my judgement. I silently disagreed with her, an increasingly common occurrence. Every day, I climbed further up the wall that had formed between Ted and me. I wondered if one day I would jump over to his side, opposite from Janelle.

Luke grew more distant. Unlike Madeline, he slipped in and out of dark, silent moods and sank further into isolation. He reinstated his mission with the mirrors, this time taking all of them down. Madeline shouted her complaints to Janelle. Janelle cornered Luke before dinner one night.

“The mirrors are important for a girl’s self-image, Luke, and if you don’t stop taking them down, I’m going to have them permanently mounted above your bed.”

“Don’t talk to him like that,” I said, grabbing Janelle by the arm. I had never spoken or touched her like that before. I let go of her arm, and the white outline of my fingers darkened to red across her skin. “He’s still grieving,” I added, ashamed of my outburst.

She conceded and pointed a crimson-painted fingernail at my chest. “Fine. But the mirror in my study stays.”

Over the next few weeks, I strived to rekindle my father-son bond with Luke. He never discussed the mirrors with me, and I didn’t want to bring up anything that might jeopardize our rocky relationship.

Still, at night, just before dozing off in those weightless spaces of pre-sleep, I knew something was amiss with Janelle, a feeling that deepened each day. Madeline, too. A mark on their souls, maybe, and for the first time, I began to see things from Ted’s perspective, noticing the dark side of Janelle she concealed from the rest of the world.

One night, I woke to an empty bed after a nightmare that had formed around Ted’s last comment regarding Janelle. Outside the window, the fog had folded in so tight I couldn’t see the bordering pines. It played on my tension.

I heard voices streaming down the hall from Janelle’s study. Not like those spoken by people, but a crackling muffle as if it were coming through a radio.

I crept down the hall, up to the door, and inched my head around the corner. I caught the edge of movement, Janelle’s soft, petite elbow, and the wave of her robe. A little bit further and I could see her standing before the mirror, speaking. At first, I imagined it was to herself, but my thoughts replayed what both Luke and Ted had said. It wasn’t Janelle’s reflection. Something was talking to me in the mirror.

The scrape of a footstep from behind startled me. I jerked around.

“Dad? What are you doing?”

“Shit, Madeline, you scared me.” I moved away from the door and against the wall where Janelle couldn’t see us.

“Are you spying on Mom?”

“No, of course not.” I cinched my robe tighter, pretending the chill was to blame for my jitters.

“You know she doesn’t like Peeping Teds.”

My body froze before my mind could assimilate exactly what it was she’d said. I reeled inside.

“Watch your mouth, young lady.” How could Janelle have told her that?

It was at that moment that I jumped over Ted’s wall, and both Madeline and Janelle were on the other side.

“What?” Madeline said, feigning innocence with a smile becoming more like her mother’s every day, enigmatic and knowing.

The door to Janelle’s office creaked open. She stepped out, hugging the door tight against herself as if there were a dog inside that shouldn’t escape.

“What are you two doing?”

“Dad was spying on you, and I’m hungry.”

Janelle’s eyes slid over to me.

“I wasn’t spying,” I replied. “I couldn’t sleep and came to find you.”

“Well, now you found me.” She squeezed past the door, shut it behind her, and passed by me without a glance, taking Madeline under her arm. I heard them talking in the kitchen, speaking in an incomprehensible low tone, to be a fly on the other side of my wall.

Luke fell ill. At first, we thought he had a cold or a mild case of the flu, but then he sank into deep sleeps during the day and had lost most of his appetite. I couldn’t even get him to eat his favorite cereal.

We took him to the doctors, had him examined, and ran blood tests, but nobody could figure out what was wrong with him. I sat by his bed every chance I could, sticking Ted’s medal beneath his pillow for good measure. I wasn’t religious, but somehow I hoped Ted would watch over him.

That night, his fever spiked. I patted his face and chest with a wet washcloth. He rolled and shifted uncomfortably in his bed, muttering and moaning. I struggled to hear his slurred words, crushed under the heavy heat of his sickness. Then one audible word escaped from him and clanged against my heart like a cymbal: “Mirror.”

The accumulation of events over the last two months awakened me with a clear, definitive resolution. I knew what needed to be done. Maybe I had known all along but lacked the desperation to act until then.

Janelle and Madeline were sleeping soundly. I walked quietly down the hall and into Janelle’s study. The baseball bat weighed heavy in my hand. The mirror on the wall that Janelle made me promise me not to touch, the one that Ted had seen the reflection in, hung in the far corner.

It looked older than I remembered: a square teak-and-maple border with intricate carvings too detailed to see clearly in the darkened room, oval-shaped and beveled at the edge, the way they used to craft them centuries ago, with a splotchy film covering it from oxidation over time.

I approached it as though it were a sleeping bear, heeding the worm-like sensation writhing in my gut. Filtered green light reflected in the mirror even though there wasn’t a green bulb or lamp in the room. I edged closer, looking at it from the side, too intimidated to stand directly in front of it. Monstrous hands emerging didn’t seem far-fetched at all.

Then, ever so subtly, a shadow flitted inside the mirror. Instinctively, I spun around. Nobody was there. I looked back into the mirror, stepped closer, almost at arm’s length, and waited against the silence of the house. I shifted my head a fraction of an angle when a figure emerged from the mirror with astonishing speed.

It jolted me backward. My mind turned on itself as I stared at what peered back at me. My breath wheezed in fitful gasps as I fought for air. I didn’t, couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing.

A hideous thing, with rope-veined skin pulled tight over grotesque bulges, bulges that weren’t just bones. Teeth like claws. A pointed, black tongue and yellow, burning eyes.

Evil. A demon.

It spoke to me, told me Luke was going to die, told me it had killed Ted, and said that I was next.

I wrenched myself from its madness and clenched the bat as tight as I could. Putting all my strength into one blow, I swung at the mirror. A high-pitched wail screeched out. Hot, white pain stabbed into my head and forced me to drop the bat. It clanged to the floor. I curled up on the floor and pressed my palms over my ears. Pain seared into me.

I glimpsed movement and looked up. The thing in the mirror leaned forward, seemingly ready to climb out. In one last desperate attempt—for Luke, for Ted—I lunged for the bat and hurled it at the mirror, smashing it against the glass.

A crack splintered out from the center like a broken blood vessel. Shards of glass popped from the frame and shattered to the floor in jagged, angular pieces. Seconds later, a scream exploded from upstairs.

I ran out of the study, following the cry into my bedroom. Madeline stood beside our bed, mouth agape in horror. Janelle had turned a sickly purple as if she couldn’t breathe. I crouched over her and administered pumps to her sternum.

“Madeline! Call an ambulance!”

My lips molded around Janelle’s. I lifted her neck up and blew breath inside her mouth, then worked her chest again.

“Janelle! Janelle!”

I shook her limp form.

Oh, God, Janelle.

They took her away just as dawn broke, gold across pewter clouds. The coroner said she died of heart complications. Madeline wouldn’t speak to me or anyone else.

Minutes after Janelle’s death, Luke had climbed from his bed, pale and gaunt, but alive. When he looked at me, we both knew, understanding that darkness lived in the mirrors.

The following morning, I found Madeline in Janelle’s study. She was picking up shards of the mirror and attempting to piece them back into the maple-carved frame.

“Madeline, honey? What are you doing?”

She picked up another shard of glass and looked into it.

“Putting it back together. It’s all I have left of Mother.”

Copyright © 2015 Erin Cole