Amy watched her cat, Milo, approach the latest acquisition, an antique three-panel mirror which resembled a Renaissance triptych. The two side panels were about three feet tall, and the middle mirror was full length. Its heavy wooden frame had been carved into a floral motif, and all three reflective surfaces contained small areas in which the silver backing had flaked off. Amy’s fiancé, Collin, had just attached it to a wall in her den. The three parts were placed contiguously, and each had its own separate mounts.
Milo came to within several feet of the mirror and suddenly halted. His ears flattened back against his head, and the hair on his back bristled. He crouched down and issued a series of threatening wails.
“Milo, what’s wrong with you?” Amy scolded. “It’s just your own reflection!” But Milo hissed at the mirror, his tail flicking back and forth. Then he quickly turned and bolted from the den.
“What was that all about?” Amy wondered. “He’s seen mirrors before.”
“It could be giving off an odor he doesn’t like,” Collin said.
“But it’s just an old piece of furniture. With no fabric. How could it be giving off an odor?”
Collin shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe someone tried to restore it, and Milo smelled the chemicals.”
With her fiancé in tow, Amy had purchased the mirror at an auction that morning and the two of them loaded it into his truck. The auctioneer had not made any claims about its age or country of origin; it was simply described as antique and it looked every bit the part. Collin felt that it was out of place among the modern furnishings in Amy’s house, but he had said nothing. She was in one of her betweens, the restless, uneasy interludes that lingered between projects.
A talented sculptor, Amy enjoyed working in a variety of media. Most of her creations sold in small private galleries, but occasionally she was able to place a larger piece into the lobby of a corporate headquarters. Her work generated a modest income; but as a relatively new artist, she still needed a small monthly infusion of cash from her well-off parents.
Unlike many other artists, she did not accept themed assignments, preferring instead to let loose from her subconscious whatever most clamored to get out. While she was working, Amy stayed focused and upbeat; and when the project ended, she was usually proud of what she had accomplished and willing to give herself a well-deserved break. But all too soon, sometimes within a week of finishing a work, she entered one of her betweens, a period of self-doubt and angst as she waited for a new idea. If nothing came, she could become miserable; and the longer she was mired between projects, the more miserable she became. Of late, this tendency had caused Amy to drag her feet in completing a piece in order to delay the onset of the next between. It was becoming a real problem. Fortunately, there was Collin, her stabilizing counter-weight.
Blond, blue-eyed and fair, he towered over his petite, olive-skinned semi-goth. Collin was fascinated by Amy, but he became uneasy when she went off her meds. She was most likely to do this when a between period became protracted. She claimed that the medications which tamed her volatility also smothered her creative gift. And that really drove her crazy. She always promised to resume her lithium and risperidone once an exciting idea made its overdue entrée. So far, that had worked out okay, and Collin enjoyed the excitement she brought into his life. But there was another aspect of her that also worried him.
Amy was a born-again nihilist. Her parents had dutifully raised her in the Jewish faith, but now she believed in nothing. No God, no soul, no meaning or purpose in life. “Life is what you do before you die,” she had told him on their first date. “If you’re really lucky, you’ll find a passion to distract you from the oblivion that awaits.” Collin, a devout Christian, cringed on hearing this. When he tried to tell her there was more to creation than what we perceived through our senses, she rolled up her sleeve and again showed him the tattoo on the inner part of her left forearm. The tattoo consisted of six dark blue numbers: 832775. The same numbers that had been tattooed onto her maternal grandmother’s forearm when she entered Auschwitz. “Do you think the ones who died weren’t fervently praying to be rescued?” Collin had no good answer; the same question had plagued him as well.
The back surfaces of the wooden framework and mirrors cleaned adequately with just a dusting, but the intricate carvings on the front were going to require a cloth, wood cleaner, and patient effort. As she worked, Amy again puzzled over the hostility her new acquisition had elicited in Milo. His behavior mystified her, but she wasn’t willing to dismiss the incident. Amy trusted him.
Several years before Collin entered her life, Milo had become her knight in shining armor. After a long and particularly dirty day of work in her home studio, Amy had entered her bathroom to shower, and after disrobing, spotted a large roach on the tile floor. She instantly recoiled from the little monster, lowered the lid on the toilet, and took refuge on top. She had always feared and loathed insects, especially the roaches with their long twitching antennae. This one was big enough and close enough that she could see the tiny hairs projecting from its legs. It made her skin crawl. Worse, it acted as if it owned the place. Instead of scurrying off into a dark recess, the roach stood its ground between Amy and the door, holding her captive in her own bathroom stark naked. It seemed to be daring her to step down onto the tile.
“Milo! Milo!” she yelled. In moments, her sleek black tomcat was at the entrance to the bathroom. Fully tuned to the fear in her voice, he first looked up at his mistress crouched on the lid of the toilet. When Amy pointed at the roach, Milo understood and immediately pounced. First, he immobilized the bug under his right paw, letting it know who was boss. Then, using his front paws, he herded the little monster out of the bathroom. The confrontation was over, and it was mammals: 1, insects: 0. Amy never saw the roach again. Milo was her hero, and she rewarded him with lavish praise, treats, and cuddling. With Milo and now Collin in her life, she had two brave knights, and she felt pretty safe.
She finished cleaning the wooden framework of her new acquisition and then examined the front surfaces of the three mirrors. Placing the tip of her left index finger on the center mirror to see how readily the grime would come off, she felt pleasantly stimulated. It was as if she had pressed a button on an electrical switch and trickled a few volts into multiple pleasure centers in her brain. It was subtle yet undeniable. Her curiosity aroused, she added the tip of her middle finger to the surface of the mirror. The pleasurable feelings grew stronger and her mood ticked up. After a few more moments, Amy pressed her entire left hand onto the mirror. Instantly, a wave of euphoria and optimism washed over her.
The closest thing to which she could liken it was her one-time encounter with cocaine at a party some years back. She knew that her bipolar disease and blow were a dangerous combination, but the aura of well-being had doused all doubts and delighted her with a sense of freedom she had never experienced. The next day, while recovering from such an exalted state, a realization came over her. The stuff was just too damn good. If she indulged even once more, she might never stop.
Now a similar realization. The unearned joy the mirror bestowed was too much like cocaine. It was too good. And things that good were to be feared and shunned. Then she couldn’t believe what she saw. Her hand was partially submerged below the surface of the mirror. Only her knuckles were still visible. Terror and panic doused her euphoria.
She gasped and pulled back, but couldn’t. Her hand remained fixed in the mirror. Her heart pounded, her throat tightened, and she tried again, harder. Hard and sudden enough to unleash a bolt of pain from an old shoulder injury. She had an impulse to push her free right hand against the surface of the mirror to get some leverage, but checked herself. That could only make things much worse. But her left hand was now fully submerged below the surface of the mirror. At the brink of full-blown panic, an idea came to her. Use something else for leverage!
She looked about and saw several items on her glass coffee table, including a heavy tome that featured the work of Max Beckmann, her favorite artist. She grabbed the bottom of the book with her right hand and then pushed the top of the book against the mirror. The book began to sink into the surface and Amy tried to pull her left hand out. By now her left wrist was partially submerged and she was pulling back with enough force to make her left shoulder protest the only way it knew how. She hoped to see her left hand and wrist emerging from the surface of the mirror. No luck. It wasn’t working.
But something odd had occurred. As the book sunk into the mirror, the forward pull on her left arm eased perceptibly. When she let go of the book, it continued to submerge into the mirror, remaining perpendicular and cantilevered from the reflective surface. Although Amy had been unable to withdraw her arm, the mirror seemed preoccupied while swallowing another object.
She glanced once again at the coffee table, but there was nothing else of substantive size within reach. And she couldn’t call Collin because her cell phone was on the kitchen table. She had to do something and do it soon.
Careful to keep any other part of her body from coming in contact with the mirror, she examined the surface closely, looking for any possible means of escape. Was it the carefully constructed device of an alien race, the mouth of a wormhole used to transport strange creatures between Earth and whatever realm they called home? Collin was fascinated by all that weird physics stuff. On the other hand, his religious proclivity might lead him to see the mirror as a supernatural gateway to hell or heaven knows where.
Then there was a tug on her left arm, and examining the mirror again, she saw that the book had been completely engulfed. The glass surface had resumed its painless but inexorable consumption of her arm. In desperation, Amy wondered if she could summon the wherewithal to cut off her own arm, but there was nothing available to accomplish this and she couldn’t gnaw it off either. She almost felt relieved.
Then she did something that would have embarrassed her in any other circumstance; she began to pray. The words didn’t come easily. She could only remember bits and pieces of the prayers of her youth, so she simply implored God to spare her. It was the most impassioned prayer of her life, a foxhole conversion.
She glanced at her forearm. Half of the six tattooed numbers on the inner aspect were below the glass surface. Only the 832 portion remained visible. Horrified, she swore out loud. Then remembering another incident when she had frantically called out for help, she screamed, “Milo! Milo, help me!”
The next moment, she heard the soft grunt he made whenever he jumped onto the floor from a height. Then came the rapid click, click, click of his claws on the hardwood floor as he heeded her call. Entering the den, he approached his mistress and looked up at her, making full eye contact. Amy writhed as she struggled to extricate herself and pleaded, “Milo, help me! Please!”
And Milo understood. The evil thing was tormenting his mistress. The hair on his back and tail bristled, making the tomcat appear much larger. His ears pulled back flat against his head and he let out a long threatening wail. Then with a clipped, high pitched screech, Milo launched himself through the air, razor-sharp front claws projecting from his paws, long white fangs fully bared. Hitting the mirror, he clawed deeply into its surface. And then he too was trapped.
Milo struggled to pull back one front leg and then the other, as if trying to extricate a claw stuck in a piece of fabric. But the mirror was a thing, implacable and oblivious to Milo’s wails and hisses. Amy shuddered in abject horror. Milo tried using his hind legs to back-peddle his way out, and that accomplished nothing.
But Amy noticed a slight loosening of the grip on her forearm. Straightening her entrapped arm, she leaned away from the mirror and again struggled mightily to free herself. Suddenly, the fourth numeral of her holocaust tattoo, the first of the two 7s, was visible on her forearm. Seconds later, the other 7 slipped out of the mirror. She pulled with all her strength, her shoulder be damned. A moment later, out came the 5, the final numeral. She could barely believe what was happening, and continued to pull with everything she had. Then her wrist began to emerge. But as she intently focused on extricating herself, Amy realized something. Milo had gone silent.
She glanced down at her brave knight, and a scream tore its way out of her. Milo’s head was completely buried in the mirror. His front legs had been swallowed as well. Somehow, he was still back-peddling with his hind legs, his black furry abdomen and pelvis moving to the right, then to the left as he struggled. Amy begged him to break free, assuring him that he could fight it and win. “C’mon, Milo! You can do it!” But Milo couldn’t do it. He kept going in deeper.
Just as Milo’s hind quarters entered the mirror, Amy wrenched her arm completely free. She immediately looked down at what little remained of her rescuer. She had an impulse to grab his tail, but realized it was futile and might well hurt him. The tip of his tail vanished completely below the gleaming surface.
“I called him. I called him and he came to help me! Milo didn’t hesitate for a moment. He attacked it, and now he’s gone!” Collin had listened carefully to the entire story. True, Milo was nowhere to be found, but her story was absurd. The woman he loved, the individual who mattered more to him than anyone else, had been off her meds too long and was now delusional.
Amy paced the kitchen and occasionally stuck her head into the den to take furtive glances at the mirror. As a sheriff’s deputy, Collin had considerable experience in escorting disturbed individuals to their community’s various hospitals, but he cringed at the prospect of escorting his own fiancée into a psychiatric ward. Now he wondered how crazy she was going to get.
Collin had recently been suspended without pay for refusing to carry out an eviction at an apartment in a blighted part of town. The tenant had only been two weeks overdue, but the housing laws favored landlords at the expense of renters. When he knocked on the second-floor apartment door — the doorbell apparently inoperative — a young woman came to the door. When told that they were to be evicted, the woman said that her husband had just started a new job and that they would be able to pay the rent in two weeks.
Then Collin saw a little girl hiding behind the woman, and he couldn’t bring himself to carry out the eviction. When he later told Amy about his suspension, she had been outraged at the injustice of it all. “No good deed goes unpunished,” she finally said. The loss of Collin’s income also meant they had to postpone their wedding date.
Suddenly, Amy pulled Collin from his musing. “You don’t believe me, do you?” She had stopped pacing and was staring at him.
“Amy, I know that something awful happened. It’s just that ….”
“C’mere. Follow me.” She led him toward the den, pausing momentarily at its entrance before striding in. Collin watched as she took a small ivory statue of an elephant from a bookshelf, and holding it by its trunk, placed it against the surface of the middle mirror. Nothing happened. Unsure, she glanced at Collin and then pushed harder. Still nothing. She put the statue down and chose a book off a shelf. Holding the book by one end, she pushed it against the mirror. Still nothing. Amy cursed and threw the book on the floor. “It’s not doing it now! I don’t understand it. This thing ….”
Colin came to her side and wrapped his arm around her waist. “Let’s sit down and talk about it,” he suggested. He led her back to the kitchen. She followed docilely, and they each took a seat at her breakfast table. Collin took hold of her left hand and noticed the bruising on her left forearm. How had that happened?
Eventually, Collin was able to piece together the chaotic fragments of her narrative. When she said her prayer had gone unanswered, Collin almost told her that God had indeed listened and that Milo had been His instrument. But he held back, realizing that might only reinforce her delusion. Better that she realizes the experience was the product of her bipolar disorder and resume her meds as soon as possible. But how to accomplish this?
“Amy, you’ve told me Milo sometimes slips through your back door when you take out the trash and that he might go on a two or three day expedition through the neighborhood or the woods behind your house. Sometimes he darts out the door without you actually seeing him leave. And he doesn’t come back until he’s good and ready, right?”
After a moment, she nodded. Seeing this, Collin began to hope that she could be induced to return to the real world. “The euphoria and confidence you felt when you touched the mirror? Those are classic signs of a manic high. You’ve been off your meds too long.”
Again, Amy seemed willing to acknowledge this. She had certainly experienced it in the past. “And if you think the mirror has it in for you, remember that you and I physically handled it when we put it into my truck after the auction. We both touched it. Nothing happened then, and nothing happened when we unloaded it and carried it into your den.”
Again, Amy nodded. But it wasn’t going to be that easy. “If the mirror actually is the evil, freakish thing I’ve described,” she objected, “it wouldn’t have taken hold of me in plain view of you and everyone else.”
“Amy, you’re saying that the mirror is aware of its surroundings and is capable of guile.” Collin had almost added, that’s crazy! This time, she neither nodded nor made a reply. Then Collin got up and headed for her bathroom medicine cabinet, returning a minute later with two of her prescriptions. He set them on the table and then brought her a glass of water. Half-pleading and have-demanding, he said, “If you love me, take your medicine.”
The seconds ticked by as he silently waited. When she picked up the two containers, he momentarily thought she might throw the plastic bottles in his face. Instead, she opened both, removed a tablet from each, placed the tablets in her mouth and drank. Collin sighed with relief. It was a start.
But Amy panicked when Collin suggested that they take a sledgehammer to the mirror. “Don’t you see? If it’s broken, Milo will have no way out!” She wouldn’t even let Collin remove the mirror from her house. If Milo extricated himself from the mirror, Amy wanted him to enter a safe and familiar environment. But she didn’t argue when Collin asked her to pack a bag and spend the night at his place. Before leaving, she put fresh water and cat chow in Milo’s bowls. “There may not be anything for him to eat or drink on the other side,” she explained.
Collin withdrew $95 from the ATM at a nearby Piggly Wiggly, and spent nearly half of it on groceries. Only $25 remained in his account, just enough to keep it open. The internal investigation regarding his suspension was still in progress, and Collin had started looking at online help-wanted ads. He had worked minimum wage jobs before and he could do it again. It was a step down in pay, but there was no alternative at the moment.
Not for a minute did he regret his refusal to evict the family, but he desperately needed cash. If he didn’t find a job quickly, he might be facing eviction himself. Amy, who was now back in her own place after spending the night at his apartment, told him he could come and live with her indefinitely. Collin had been grateful, but becoming financially dependent on his fiancée, even temporarily, was unappealing. And despite Amy’s assurances, Collin wondered what her upper middle-class parents would think when she told them that the wedding date was indefinitely on hold. Yes, her parents were willing to pay for the wedding, but then what? Were they supposed to support Amy and their unemployed son-in-law afterwards?
When Collin returned Amy to her house, she asked him to stay for lunch, and he readily agreed. Entering her small foyer, Amy called Milo several times. But there was no sound of claws on hardwood, and a search of the house showed everything to be as they had left it. In the kitchen, none of the cat food had been consumed and Milo’s water bowl appeared untouched as well.
Amy fixed pasta primavera with grated parmesan cheese for their lunch. Collin enjoyed a large serving and then prepared to leave. Two job interviews awaited. He gave her a kiss on his way out and promised to call in the evening.
Calling it security almost made it sound important. But in Collin’s mind, he had been offered a job as a night watchman, unarmed at that. The business manager was a nice enough guy who seemed sympathetic when Collin explained why he had been suspended. That Collin might be called back to work as a sheriff’s deputy was not a problem. The security business had a high rate of employee turnover even when jobs were scarce. Collin declined the optional medical insurance; for the immediate future, he was going to need every spare dollar. Having cancelled his cable and internet service, he hoped to get by until his first paycheck would arrive.
Getting back to his apartment a little after 6 pm, he ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and then called Amy. No answer. She might be out, Collin thought. He tried at 7:15, and again was invited to leave a message. Maybe she’s taking a shower. When she didn’t answer at 8 o’clock, he grabbed his keys and dashed to his truck.
Amy didn’t answer her front door, but Collin had a key and quickly entered the foyer. “Amy?” No answer. He called again and began searching the house. Maybe she’s gone to see her parents. But when Collin checked the tiny garage, he saw her red Corolla parked inside.
He went back inside the house and made a second search. Collin knew he couldn’t have missed her on his first round, but he went through every room searching for any clue. It looked like all her clothes were still in her bedroom closet and dresser, so she probably hadn’t fled to her parents’ house. Spotting her phone on the breakfast table, he checked her incoming calls. Since their lunch together, it had received exactly three calls, all his. And where would she have gone without taking her phone? Collin began pacing.
To calm himself and organize his thoughts, he plopped down on the big white leather couch in the den. It was the most comfortable place in the house. There was really no other reason to have entered this room; he had already searched it twice. Opposite to where he sat, his own reflection in the three-paneled interloper stared back at him.
Then Collin stood and approached the mirror, halting inches from its surface. He exhaled forcefully to create a small patch of fog on its surface and was about to sketch a smiley face onto the condensation. But just before touching the glass, he jerked his index finger away. That’s how Amy said it had started. With just a finger.
His concern was nonsensical, stupid even, and he knew it. Collin also knew he had to make physical contact with the mirror or kiss goodbye any claim he had to rationality. But something was preventing him from touching it, and the harder he tried, the more agitated he became. Collin backed out of the den.
Moments later, he was sitting in his truck, wondering how things had come to this. His damp palms rested on the steering wheel, but he didn’t start the engine. Where the hell is Amy? Collin wondered. As he recalled her description of Milo fearlessly attacking the mirror, a painful realization caused him to grip the steering wheel tightly. In Amy’s narrative, however delusional it might be, Milo had been cast in the role of her brave defender, not himself. The woman he wanted to marry had described her pet as more willing than he to confront the mirror. Now Collin started getting angry. At himself. I’ve succumbed to Amy’s paranoid delusion, he realized.
Reentering the house, Collin approached the mirror, sweat dripping down the middle of his back. With the tip of his nose less than a foot from its surface, he pressed the palm of his trembling left hand onto the mirror and watched in astonished horror as it sunk into the glass surface. He panicked, then got a grip. It’s just a delusion, Amy’s delusion! This isn’t happening. Amy’s craziness has infected me.
Delusion or not, Collin violently pulled back his left arm, but it wouldn’t budge. He felt an urge to push his right hand against the mirror to obtain some leverage, but stopped when he realized that might make things worse. His left arm continued to sink into the reflective surface.
Then a crazy new thought. Grab a hard heavy object and smash the mirror into pieces! Even if I lose the part of my arm that’s in the mirror. But there was nothing within reach and he couldn’t yank it off the wall. Soon he was standing sideways to the mirror, engulfed to his shoulder. The mirror was insatiable. He again told himself it was a delusion and the only possible way to save himself was to reject everything his senses were telling him.
Moments later, the left side of his head and neck were submerged below the glassy surface. He tried to scream but couldn’t.