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House of Mirrors
It was my birthday, and I just wanted to be left alone.
If I’d made a wish, that’s what it would have been. But then it’s hard to make a wish without candles, or a cake, or anything that might have hinted that it was my birthday. I suppose it didn’t really matter. My wishes never came true. I’d given up on the big ones a couple years ago.
Now I just wished to be left alone.
Maybe this sounds crazy, but the local carnival was perfect for that. It was fall and that was the only excitement in town. People were everywhere, but they were all focused on what to see, or do, or eat next. No one paid any attention to me. Not even the carnies with their rigged games. I guess a twelve-year-old boy wasn’t worth their efforts.
But for once, I actually did have money. Because my grandmother had remembered. She was the only one. My mom had forgotten until she saw Grandma’s card sticking out from the pile of junk mail that had been tossed on the table. She quickly came over and gave me a kiss, telling me how she wished she didn’t have to work a double shift tonight and promising that we’d do something special tomorrow…there were always a lot of things we were going to do tomorrow.
So here I was , dropped off at the carnival. For the moment…alone.
It was easy for me to disappear into crowds. A scrawny kid with glasses was invisible most of the time anyhow. The only time I ever got noticed was when I was about to get blamed for something, so I tried to stay out of everyone’s way.
I headed away from the vendors of all things deep-fried, where clouds of tempting smells hung in the air, and powdered sugar mists rolled off mountains of crispy brown dough. My mouth watered, and for the first time I could actually buy something, but I knew that was where they’d hang out. I figured I’d be safest sticking around the little kids’ area. The only reason they’d come over there would be to torture the animals in the petting zoo. I was hoping they’d find something else to do instead.
Unfortunately they did.
I’m surprised that I didn’t hear them first, with their “look at me” laughs and obnoxious shouts. There wasn’t anything quiet about them.
Except this time.
Maybe it was the noises of the carnival that drowned them out. The grind of the generators in the cool evening air, the music blaring from the rides, the screams from the fun house…the same noises that would hide any cries for help.
For once I wished they’d been louder.
As soon as they spotted me, the four of them began pushing their way through the crowd like they were scrambling for a better view of a schoolyard fight. Only this wouldn’t be much of a fight. It never was.
Now the last thing I wanted was to get beaten up or humiliated on my birthday. They’d probably even try to spank me for fun…I can just imagine the pics making their way around school. So I quickly ducked behind the nearest booth. I’d almost squeezed between two metal posts when a meaty hand grabbed me.
It’s the only time I ever wished I was smaller.
“How much money did you get, Squirt?” Ethan said as he lifted me roughly off the ground. He nodded over to his friend Brandon.
“What? I’m not reaching in his pocket,” Brandon said. “You do it. He’s your brother.”
“He’s just my step-brother, and I’ve got my hands full.”
Yeah, my seventeen-year-old step-brother. I’d made a big wish about him that never came true. Probably the biggest, if size counted. Ethan was huge. Not tall enough that he had to duck in doorways, but wide enough that he had to go in sideways.
Ethan’s girlfriend, Ashley, flipped her hair and stuck a hand into my front pocket. “Don’t be such a candy-ass!” She said that all the time.
“Careful,” Ethan said. “He might get excited.”
“Shut up,” she said. I tried to squirm away, hoping to keep her from reaching the little pocket deep inside. But her fat fingers were too quick. She pulled out the crisp twenty I had carefully folded that morning, and grinned as she slapped Ethan on the shoulder. “Where to?”
Ethan dropped me and looked around. I watched as his two brain cells tried to make a connection.
“Let’s go in here,” he said, “It’s only two bucks.” He pointed to a nearby trailer with a bright red neon sign: The House of Mirrors. ”We’ll take him too, and then I can tell ‘em I did something with him on his birthday,” he said as he cuffed the back of my head. “Right, Freak?”
A small old woman dressed like a gypsy sat on a stool behind the bars of the little ticket booth. She was probably safer back there with this group.
I wished I was back there too.
“Five,” Ethan said as he shoved my money under the grate, his hand still greasy from the fried whatever.
The old gypsy woman’s hair was wrapped in bright scarves, and earrings hung down to her shoulders. They jingled as she bent to examine the crisp bill, carefully unfolding it, and then looking over at me. She slid four tickets to Ethan with my change, and then reached a ticket through the bars to me…and smiled. It was hard to tell with her droopy eye, but she may have even winked.
“C’mon, let’s go,” Ethan said, and Brandon gave me a quick shove. We climbed to the top of the short steps, the metal kind with sharp holes punched in them. I wished there was a way that I could trip Ethan on them. Just thinking about it made me smile.
A thick curtain darkened the entryway, like the black velvet had swallowed all the light. Ethan pushed it aside, and grabbed me by the arm. Right before I was dragged through, I thought I saw the neon sign flicker off.
Inside, the room was brightly lit. A series of mirrors lined one wall, and black and white pictures and old carnival posters covered the other. There was no one else in the room. Not that an audience would have stopped them though, they were too mean and too dumb to care.
“You first,” Ethan said as he pushed me forward. I was always his guinea pig. Usually whatever he wanted to try was something stupid, and I got to pay the price.
This time, at least, it was harmless.
I didn’t want to get shoved again, so I quickly stepped in front of the first mirror. It had a dark blue frame. I stared at the only friendly face in the room.
The mirror was tall and narrow, and made my legs seem a mile long. I wished they were. I could outrun them like that.
“Hey…you’ve finally grown,“ Ethan said as he shoved up beside me, his stretched-out reflection towering over me. It almost made him look fit. “But you’re still a shrimp.” He laughed, and high-fived Brandon.
“Hey,” Ethan said, “I got an idea.”
Great. So much for harmless.
“Let’s see who can come up with the goofiest picture of the Freak here. Winner gets fried butter,” he said as he waived around what was left of my birthday money.
“Can I just take a picture of him now? He don’t need a mirror to look goofy,” Brandon said with a stupid grin. He high-fived Ethan again.
“OK, back up. This one’s mine,” Ethan said as he extended his arms out to the side. “Stand up straight, Freak. I wanna win.” As I did, he grabbed my underwear with one hand and yanked hard enough to lift me off the ground. I clamped my mouth shut at the sharp pain, but couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down my cheeks. “Perfect,” he said as he pulled out his phone. “Top that!”
I nearly fell to the floor when he let go. Stumbling, I tried to adjust my pants. When Ethan gave wedgies, I always felt them for days.
“Nice try,” Ashley said, “but I got this one.” She pulled me toward a mirror with a bright green frame. “Come on,” she said, “Stop cryin’. Don’t be such a candy-ass.”
I wiped my eyes and tried to straighten up. I wasn’t going to cry.
This mirror was short and square, and now I looked like I had no legs. Two feet tall, but with long arms and a huge head.
“Somethin’s missing,” Ashley said as she stood behind me and studied the reflection. “Oh, I know,” she said right before she yanked my pants down hard enough to make the button pop off. Ethan and Brandon roared as she took her picture. I blushed furiously.
I wished I’d never gotten Grandma’s card.
I tried to reach down for my pants, but Brandon grabbed my arm and dragged me away. He dumped me in front of a mirror with a black and white striped frame. “My turn,” he said.
This mirror was larger, and my reflection was horribly bloated. My head looked like an overinflated balloon. I looked nearly as bad as I felt.
Brandon stepped back to take his picture. “Wait!” he said. “This is perfect.” He grabbed me and turned me so that I was facing away from the mirror. “Look! He’s a sumo wrestler!” he said with glee.
While he was busy showing the pic to the others, I managed to pull my pants back up. At least the zipper still worked.
“Erin,” Brandon said, “looks like I’m gonna win you some fried butter.”
“No thanks,” she said. I didn’t know her, but at least she’d been quiet so far. Maybe she wasn’t as bad as they were, even if she was hanging out with them.
“Come here, kid,” she said as she held out her hand. The gentleness of the gesture caught everyone by surprise. I slowly walked with her until we stopped in front of a red-framed mirror. Perhaps she was alright. She did have a pretty smile. I sighed and turned to look.
“See…now he really does have four eyes.” She was right, four eyes, four ears, and one long continuous nose. “And that’s even without the glasses,” she said as she snatched them and tossed them across the room. “And I can win my own butter, thankyouverymuch,” she said, one finger waggling in the air as she took her picture.
The guys doubled up with laughter, and Ashley gave Erin a knuckle bump. While they cackled away, I crept off in the direction that I’d heard my glasses fall. When I found them, I tried to quietly fade into the background. I would have snuck out, but they were in front of the only exit. So I focused on the old carnival posters while they carried on, wishing they’d forget about me.
For the moment they had. They were too busy hooting and hollering and arguing about whose picture should win.
“Psst,” said a small voice at the far end of the room.
I looked over past a photo of an old Ferris wheel.
“Come this way,” the voice said, and with a slight jingle, the curtain in the corner moved.
Anything was better than this.
I slipped into the corner, and ducked through the opening. When I stood on the other side, I paused and slowly turned, surrounded by a hundred reflections of myself. Not short, not fat, not distorted in any way. Just me.
The old gypsy lady stood just outside the circle.
“I have a surprise for you,” she said, “but you have to close your eyes.”
I was so used to people telling me what to do, that I didn’t even think about it. I nodded and closed my eyes.
I strained to listen to what she might be doing, but I couldn’t hear any movement. In fact, I couldn’t hear anything at all. Even the laughter from the next room was gone.
“Ok… you can look.”
The room was pitch dark and silent. Like she’d turned off more than just the lights.
Then there was a green flame floating quietly above her hand. As she stepped toward me, the flame’s reflections began to appear—not all at once like they should have, but like the wave in a stadium crowd. I watched as they slowly circled the room, each ring of flames appearing farther and farther away.
“Happy Birthday,” she said.
I turned back to her. “How did you know?”
“I see many things,” she said, the green light flickering in her eyes. “I told fortunes for many, many years.”
“Then why are you in the House of Mirrors?”
“Because I no longer liked what I saw.” She gave a slight shake of her head. “Now I let people see for themselves,” she said as she waved her arm slowly about the room.
I glanced around at the hundreds of floating flames.
“You would like to make a wish,” she said. “That I can see.”
Hesitating, I nodded again.
As she held out her hand, I leaned forward. Then I took a deep breath and gently blew.
The instant the flame went out, it was as if everything else came back to life. I could hear the joyful sounds of the carousel again, the barking megaphones of the various hawkers, and the faint familiar screams from the roller coaster.
And then the lights came on.
I blinked in the brightness, and a hundred me’s blinked back. But in the first row of mirrors, the reflections simply stared.
Reflections of them.
Ethan was stretched tall, and Ashley, in the mirror next to him, looked a quarter his size, though her head was at least as large as his. Next was Brandon, with a reflection so wide that he completely filled the mirror. I stepped back, half-expecting it to burst. Last was Erin, or at least I think it was her. The face was so mixed up it was impossible to tell.
At first they didn’t move, like they were confused and trying to figure out what was going on. But then they banged their fists on the glass…only it made no sound. Ashley’s face was purple with fury. Brandon almost looked hungry. Ethan just looked pissed.
I turned to take them all in. I wished I had a camera, because THIS was the winning picture.
And I laughed.
And laughed and laughed and laughed. The kind of laugh that you hear in the movies.
The old gypsy woman waved to me from the exit door and I paused to wipe the tears from my eyes.
As I stepped over to her, my hundred reflections walked with me. But the four of them didn’t move. I could see their faces change as the anger slowly melted away…and they began to silently scream.
I stopped and turned toward Ashley. “Don’t be such a candy-ass.”
Then I turned off the light and walked out.
I’d finally gotten my wish.
While he edits the novels of others by night, “House of Mirrors” is the first time that he clicked Send.
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