The Hall of Mirrors
Jack watched the girl walk up to the booth. She was perfect. Slim, heart-shaped face, blonde hair almost down to her waist. She was with a guy but that didn’t always matter. As she got closer, though, the watery lights strung up over the ticket booth revealed brown roots at her scalp. Jack recoiled a little in disgust. He muttered some half-hearted joke as they paid for their tickets to the Tunnel of Love. The girl’s sleeve brushed his arm as they went into the gaping maw of the ride. Jack jerked away as if he’d been burned.
As he was settling back into his seat he glanced up and saw the Crone. She was standing across the midway, in front of the Siamese twins’ tent. Jack stared at the ground. Even with the crowd streaming between them he could feel her eyes on him, an ugly old woman with lank black hair tied up in a gypsy scarf. He knew all that fortune-telling stuff was a gaff, but the Crone still gave him the creeps. Sometimes when she stared like that it was like she knew what he was thinking. It was stupid, no one knew what was in the deep hidden part of his mind. He smiled a little, thinking about that. Suddenly he remembered the Crone, but when he squinted through the throng she was gone.
It was after 1 a.m. when the last of the crowd trickled out the main gate. They were working a small town with nothing much to do, but Red found a seedy bar down by the river that was still open. The bartender didn’t look too happy to have a bunch of carnies barge in after midnight but there wasn’t much he could do about it either.
They sat at a couple tables drinking and Jack was looking around the bar but there wasn’t much to see, just a trashy blonde with blue makeup caked around her eyes half-asleep on the bar. If she’d been a little younger Jack might have considered it but the makeup couldn’t conceal the deep cracks around her mouth or the way her jowls swung down over her throat. Red saw him looking and grinned over his beer. “Jack gets hisself around, got a girl in every town.”
“Little blondies,” One-Eye Dave leered. “Don’t know what they see in you, Jackie boy.”
“Yep.” Jack drained his bottle and pushed his chair back. “And every one of ‘em waiting right where I left her.”
The tables erupted in derisive laughter. “Arrogant son-of-a-“ Red said, but Jack was already up and out the door.
He wandered down around the River Road for a little while. These little towns usually had a street or two down by the river or across the tracks where he could find the runaways, the hookers, the bad girls. Once or twice he’d had a cute blonde high-schooler out for a thrill, but those left him a wreck for weeks afterward, worrying someone would find out. Mostly he stuck to the lost and the worthless.
The pickings tonight were disappointing. After an hour of roaming aimlessly Jack headed back to the cow pasture where they’d set up. He wasn't upset. He didn’t always find a suitable girl. .
The carnival grounds were dead silent when he got back. The strings of yellow lights had been turned off. Jack didn’t need the light, he knew the setup. He wound his way through rides that hulked huge and still as dinosaur skeletons, past sideshow tents with flaps pulled back, gaping like toothless mouths. Like the Crone’s mouth, he thought, and shuddered. He stuck his hands in his pockets and whistled tunelessly to drive his sudden uneasiness away.
He sauntered past the Ferris wheel, a darker silhouette against the starless sky. The midway still smelled faintly of fried things, funnel cakes and corn dogs mixed with the sickly-sweet ghosts of cotton candy. The freaks had set up a poker game in the burlesque tent. A streak of light spilled out between the flaps, and he heard the growling voice of the Dog-Faced Man as he folded. Jack stepped around the puddle of light and turned toward the caravans, huddled beyond the midway like a herd of sheep afraid of the dark.
Jack broke off in mid-whistle. Every muscle tensed to run, he swiveled on the balls of his feet, searching for the voice.
A girl stood behind him, half-hidden in the shadows of a trailer. He could only see part of her, but what he saw looked good- long legs, honey-colored hair falling over her shoulder, one ocean-blue eye. Nineteen, maybe twenty. She was perfect, not a single flaw.
She kicked at the ground with the toe of a high-heeled shoe. “Hey, your name is Jack, right?”
He nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
“I saw you tonight, at the carnival. Me and my friends ran into some guys in a bar and they said they knew you. They said you liked blonde girls.” Her voice was high and tinkled like a cheap music box.
Was she serious? Red and the guys actually did him a favor? Maybe this was some kind of joke. Jack looked the girl up and down. Even in the dark he could see what a knockout she was.
“You don’t like me?” She stuck out her lower lip in a pout. Jack’s wariness wavered, then collapsed.
“Sure I like you. I like you a lot.” He reached for her.
The girl squealed and giggled. Swift as an animal she turned and vanished into the shadows.
Jack stared at the spot where she’d been. A burning, flickering feeling filled his lungs and closed his throat. His feet moved without him telling them to. His fists clenched convulsively, fingers flexing open, closed, open, closed. He thought this was how wolves felt when they were on the hunt.
The blonde girl was fast. Jack followed the sound of her laughter around wagons, past the Scrambler, between cages where mangy tigers snored. She was taking him back down the midway, past the tent where the Bearded Lady dealt cards. Jack began to sweat a little.
“Hey,” He called softly. There was no answer. Maybe it was a joke, a stupid joke, and when the guys finally got back he’d have to pound Red good for getting him all worked up. “Hey, girl.”
“Hey cutie, you get lost?”
Jack spun in a circle, trying to pinpoint the direction of the voice.
He saw her, a flip of long hair, a swish of pink skirt. She disappeared behind a sagging ticket booth. The sign above the entrance stood out faintly in lightless neon tubes. HALL OF MIRRORS. Jack knew the rest by heart. Can YOU escape the AMAZING LABYRINTH? Or will YOU be LOST FOREVER in the HALL OF MIRRORS?
“What the hell?” He growled. He couldn’t do it in there. It had to be somewhere away from the carnival grounds. Somewhere private.
Her voice echoed faintly from the entrance. “It’ll be fun! Come get me!”
He knew his way around the Hall of Mirrors. All the carnies did, so they could go in and drag out any customer who got freaked out. He would just step in for a minute and tell her they had to go somewhere else. He could hear giggles bouncing off the cold, hard surfaces of the mirrors somewhere in the bowels of the Hall.
He stepped inside. The first room was narrow and pitch-black. At the end was a full-length mirror. It was curved just a little, so that the image reflected back was warped and stunted. Startled, Jack blinked at this twisted version of himself, with its too-short torso and grotesquely long arms. He laughed sharply, denying the pinched face that was somehow his own.
The path skewed left. Jack followed it and was in the main room. There were no corners here, just a rough circle of plain narrow mirrors that reflected him back a hundred thousand times, endless rows of Jacks growing smaller and smaller but still reaching into infinity. Up above were more mirrors, angling in to a high apex so that the room had a chilly, cathedral-like feel. Somewhere there was an exit, lost in the endless repetitions of himself. Jack turned in a circle, looking for it, but between the darkness and the endless reflections he couldn’t make out where it was. It had been a while since he’d been in the Hall of Mirrors.
With an irritated sigh he began walking around the walls, trailing his fingers along the chill metal. The burning feeling was starting to fade, and that made him furious. “Do you hear me? We need to get out of here!”
He was thinking that it was a joke and he was going to kill Red when she appeared before him in a swirl of pink. She stepped out from between two mirrors so suddenly that he almost ran into her. She peered at him with one blue eye, the other hidden behind the edge of the mirror frame. “Took you long enough.”
“What the hell is wrong with you? We can’t do it here- we have to go someplace-“
“Okay already.” She rolled her eyes. “Calm down, tiger. I just thought this would be kinky, but we can go wherever you want.” She smiled, flashing even, white teeth. “Can I kiss you at least? I never saw myself kissing anybody. It’ll be sexy, all these mirrors.”
He opened his mouth to say no, but she gazed up at him, her lower lip caught in her teeth, and he could smell her perfume, faintly floral but not overwhelming, like the roses his mom kept when he was a kid. God, she was perfect.
“Yeah.” He whispered. The burning feeling was back, hotter than ever, searing his chest and lungs and raking his throat.
“Okay! Close your eyes!”
He obeyed. A moment later he felt her slender body pressed to his, a hand creeping up his face.
Something was wrong.
The blonde girl’s nails were smooth, flawless ovals, not too long but not bitten short. The nails that scraped over his skin were long and very sharp. He jerked away from the touch, his eyes flying open. For a second everything was blurred. Then he was seeing double. There was the girl, soft and beautiful. But there was also the Crone.
What the hell? Jack raised his fist to pound the old bitch, jumping back with a snarl of disgust. But distance gave him focus, and his arm fell limply to his side.
It wasn’t the girl and the Crone. It was one person. Half her face was the girl’s- flawless, hair like honey in the sunlight. But the other half was the Crone, weathered skin, stringy black hair, oily black eyes. The part in the middle, where she changed, shifted and wavered, so he couldn’t quite see it somehow. The pink skirt blended into gypsy rags layered one over the other, a riot of colors so faded they all sank together into brown. Jack stared, mouth slightly open. The burning was gone, replaced by horror so strong he wanted to vomit, as if he’d put his hand down a drain and touched a dead rat.
The thing grinned, and Jack couldn’t repress a strangled whine. The even white teeth of the blonde girl merged into withered red gums.
“What’s the matter, cutie?” The voice was the Crone’s now, scratchy and whiskey-rough. “Don’t you want to do it?”
Jack flung out an arm to throw her aside. The Crone snatched at him, her long nails sinking into his wrist, drawing blood. The old monster was stronger then he would have thought. Desperately he struck at her, and she lost her grip. Jack pushed her hard. He heard her grunt as she crashed into a mirror. He was already past her, reaching for the door tucked between two mirrors just a few feet away, the exit where she’d stood a moment before. His fingers smashed into the cold surface of a mirror. Jack swore loudly, clutching his jammed fingers to his chest. His heart was pounding so hard he wondered briefly if he was having a heart attack, if he would drop dead right here. The exit was gone.
Fear hit him then, and he swung around to scream at the Crone-girl. “What the hell?”
She was fast. Before he could move she was right there in front of him. The weird, misshapen face was inches from his own. Jack gagged as the Crone-girl blew sickly-sweet breath into his face.
“Erica. Her name was Erica. But you never asked her name before you put your hands around her neck and choked her to death. You didn’t ask any of them!”
“What?” He gasped.
“She was confused, like all teenagers, and she ran away. And you found her and seduced her and murdered her!” Tears rose in the black eye of the Crone-girl. “As soon as I found out I started casting for her soul. She told me all about you!”
“Casting? What the hell are you, you old-“
She brought her knee up between them, between his legs. Jack moaned as pain shot through every nerve in his body, and when she let him go he fell limply to the floor, breathless with agony.
The Crone-girl grabbed a handful of his hair and yanked his head up. “Would you believe I looked like this once? Before life made me old and grief turned my eyes dark. Before I dyed my hair black so you’d never suspect. And you never did. I thought your kind were supposed to be smart.”
“I am smart,” He gasped. “You old bitch. I never got caught. We went back to the same towns again and-“
She slapped him, her long nails raking bloody scratches across his face. “Maybe you’re right.” She laughed. Jack shuddered at the sound. “It took a witch to catch you, after all. After I joined this disgusting carnival I started looking for the others. It was easy, once I knew you were the one. They came like fish to a worm. And I snatched them up. I trapped them. It hurt me every time. It hurts them, hurts them to be trapped. I hear them screaming all the time, I hear Erica...” She let go of his hair. His head thumped to the filthy floor.
She went to the wall, placing a hand against the glittering edge of a mirror. Jack stared, mesmerized.
“There is only one thing that can contain a loose soul.” The Crone-girl cackled. “And only one place with enough mirrors to hold them all.”
She struck the mirror with her fist. A fine web of cracks radiated out from the center. At a second blow the mirror exploded in a fountain of glittering shards. They fell to the floor in a waterfall of glass. There was nothing but blackness behind the mirror. The Crone-girl moved on, hitting another mirror. One by one the mirrors broke and shed their silvered glass. Jack felt tiny slivers dig into the back of his neck, bury themselves in his clothes and skin.
Finally all the mirrors were in pieces. She stopped in the center of the room and began to mutter under her breath. She waved her hands wildly, oblivious to the blood dripping down her arms.
“I always knew there was something weird about you.” Jack said through gritted teeth.
She muttered faster and faster, in a strange, ugly language he’d never heard before. While her back was turned Jack struggled to his knees, ignoring the crippling pain in his groin, then to his feet. He took a step toward her. Then another.
The Crone-girl stopped her muttering. Jack froze as she turned to him. The girl part of her had melted away, leaving only the dark, ugly Crone. Her skin was paler than ever. She seemed to have trouble standing. Her eyes were fixed on some point above his left shoulder, unfocused. Wore herself out, Jack thought. This would be a piece of cake.
She smiled. Jack followed the direction of her gaze, and his curse caught in his throat.
A silhouette stood in the mirror frame directly behind him. A female shape, vaguely outlined in shifting gray mist. Within the mist there was nothing, only dull black. Flat like a paper doll, not just black but empty, like what you saw when you looked down at the bottom of a well. It stepped out of the frame, coming toward him. Jack backed away, fighting the urge to puke. Beside him the Crone-girl cackled.
He caught a movement in the corner of his eye. There were more of the flimsy black things, one in each frame, surrounded by jagged pieces of broken mirror like sharks’ teeth. They swayed and wavered, and Jack began to hear their voices, faint as a grass rustling in a light breeze. The voices grew louder, until the sounds were beetles skittering over his skin.
Jack clapped his hands over his ears, but he could still hear them. The empty forms moved closer, rippling like hung laundry. A soft breeze might blow them away. But there were no breezes in the Hall of Mirrors.
They moved closer, whispering. Jack looked frantically around, but they circled him completely, a wall of shifting, flat woman-shapes. Panic came fast, grasping his heart in a cold fist, tearing his breath to ragged shreds.
One of the things reached for the Crone. The old woman held out her arms. Tears rolled down her cheeks. “Erica!”
“Grandma…” The voice was distinct but strained, as if the shade were forcing the words out of a mouth that wasn’t there. “It hurt…”
“I know it hurt, baby. I know! I’m sorry, Erica! I found him for you, I waited until I had enough of you and now I let you out- here he is, Erica!” The Crone blubbered, tears and spit and snot mingling on her face. Even in his panic Jack felt a wave of disgust for her.
The shade wrapped her arms around the old woman. The Crone sighed deeply, as if she’d been waiting for this. But then her expression changed. She gasped and coughed, twisting away, and Jack saw that the woman-thing’s arm was embedded in the Crone’s chest. The flat black limb disappeared into the layers of velvet and rotten lace, but the old woman’s expression said it went deeper, much deeper.
There was no blood. The Crone’s face contorted, wrinkles writhing, chasing each other across her grayish-yellow skin. She sighed, then groaned, then screamed shrilly. Her eyes bulged. Her screams became moans. She went limp.
The Erica-creature dropped her arm, and the Crone slid to the floor with a thump, her eyes glassy, her mouth slack.
The sick fascination of watching the Crone's death vanished, replaced by a choking sense of panic. For an eternity they were very still, all of them. Jack stared at them, into them, frozen in terror. Finally they moved.
A dozen hands plunged into him, his chest, his arms, his back. It didn’t hurt, but there was pressure so intense he thought his flesh might collapse. Jack gasped for air, but his lungs wouldn’t work.
And then he felt the cold.
It was the worst cold he’d ever felt, worse than Minnesota in the winter. At first it was just in the places where their hands penetrated his skin, but then it began to spread. It spidered through his body, freezing whatever it hit, nerves to veins, veins to arteries, arteries to organs. Jack twisted half-heartedly. His panic faded, pushed out by the cold. Very soon his muscles froze. Then the horrible whispers stopped, and he realized with a start that the bones and skin in his ears had frozen.
The Crone and Jack were hastily buried in the field where the tents had been set up. The shattered glass and metal frames were packed up and hauled to the local dump. If anyone wondered what had happened in the Hall of Mirrors they didn’t discuss it in the daylight.
The Crone had kept to herself, so no one paused to linger over her grave as the carnival prepared to move out. But Jack had been with them for a long time. Red and a couple of other guys stopped to set a bottle of beer and a pack of cigarettes on the unmarked mound of dirt before shuffling off to climb in the caravan.