Jonathan Lynch’s Skype session with his mother was in five minutes.
He had to admit he missed her; he hadn’t been able to visit his tiny hometown in years. In fact, he missed contact with anyone, seeing as his current city had been under lockdown for fourteen consecutive months. Fortunately, and unlike many of his friends, Jonathan was still earning a salary, though now he had to work remotely from home. It was far from ideal, but being able to work in his pajamas, and a cold beer being only five paces away from his workstation, lockdown certainly wasn’t without its perks.
Three minutes until the Skype meeting.
He just wished he’d hadn’t broken up with his girlfriend, about a week before the breakout. Or rather, that she hadn’t broken up with him. He’d been on thin ice for a while, and the last straw fell on her birthday, the day he’d promised to take her to see Hamilton in the city but had been too hungover to go. After two days of silence, she phoned him and broke off their eleven-month courtship. Before hanging up, she complained about his near nightly binge drinking, how he’d come home late at night, waking her, scaring her cats, smelling like a brewery. After the initial heartache had faded, Jonathan managed to laugh it off. Same problem I had in my twenties, he thought. Can’t blame a guy for wanting to have a good time. Still, being all but confined to his apartment now, it would have been nice to have some company. The walls were so narrow. So confining. And the nights were so very, very long.
A minute and a half before he had to Skype his mother.
Tonight, he was already half in the bag, having pounded a few and chased them with vodka. Sure, it was only a Wednesday, but as long as his reports met their deadline, no one at the office would complain. He had been warned once about his tardiness, disheveled dress, and occasional inebriated demeanor during work hours. But now he worked from home, so no one would notice or care.
Thirty seconds left. His mother had already messaged him twice, asking if he was online.
Remembering how even in a Zoom meeting for work he could sneak a couple brews, he skipped over to the kitchenette, pulling a cold one from the fridge and pouring it into a ceramic mug. No reason to think it was anything other than a cup of coffee. It’s not like he was hiding anything: he just knew how worried his mother would get, her being a health nut, a neat freak, and devoted follower of the latest health scare making the rounds across the cable news networks.
10:15 PM: Jonathan? R u ready?
Jonathan planted himself at his desk, his cold mug of lager in his hand, and accepted her request for a Skype call. Within seconds, his mother’s pleasant yet weathered face manifested in the form of a few hundred grainy pixels on his monitor. Since turning 60, she’d stopped getting her hair dyed bronze-amber and had let it go grey, which in truth looked much better. He smiled and took a swig of beer.
The two of them spoke leisurely for about an hour. At 73, Jonathan’s father, Melvin, had finally decided to retire from the bank. Jonathan was glad for that, knowing his father hated that job and never seemed to get the recognition or due compensation her deserved; the bank always making him work extra hours, take on duties above his paygrade, and always making excuses for postponing vacation days or promotions promised months before.
Jonathan had polished off the contents of the mug within six minutes and had started pouring whisky from a flask off camera to maintain his buzz. His mother never seemed to notice.
But then, she mentioned something that startled him: “Jonathan, I can’t see too well, who’s that in the room with you?”
Jonathan furrowed his brow, a cold feeling working its way up his spine. He was all alone. There wasn’t anyone in the apartment with him. He hadn’t had any visitors for weeks.
“Uh, there’s no one here except me, Mom.”
“No, there is someone there. There, standing at the corner to your right.”
His heart lurched. Jonathan spun around, looking to the edge of the hallway leading to his bedroom. There was no one there.
Turning slowly, Jonathan forced a laugh. “Mom, I think your eyes are playing tricks on you. It’s probably the bad quality of the picture you’ve got. It happens all the time; computers often mistake certain patterns and objects for human faces.”
But his mother was adamant. There was someone standing not eight feet behind him, plain as the nose on her face.
Just then, Jonathan sensed something – like steam, graze the back of his neck. He considered looking back again but – No. It was nothing. Just the power of suggestion.
Jonathan couldn’t place exactly where this feeling had come from, but the chill up his spine had waxed into a small, glowing fever, and his mother’s insistence was really starting to piss him off.
“Okay, look ma, it’s starting to get late, and I have a lot of work to do tomorrow. I’m going to need to go to bed now, so let’s just say good night.”
Visibly struck, his mother began to backpedal, asking when they could Skype next, telling her son that she loved and was proud of him. It was a conscious effort on Jonathan’s part not to roll his eyes.
When the session ended, he drained the flask then drained the mug. His brain was swimming around inside his skull, but his stomach was heavy, and his neck was nettled. His mother had spoiled his good mood.
It was now 11:15. Jonathan decided he’d retire in 45 minutes.
Free now to move around unencumbered, he stumbled his way to the fridge and popped another tallboy, taking a deep drink from the can. On the back of the whisky, the imported lager from Prague tasted of bean juice. He killed it then popped a second one. Nursing this beer, he walked over to his eastern exposed windows and peered down at the dark street below. He looked down at the local coffee chain, now shuttered, where hours earlier, a mob of anti-vaxxers had congregated, protesting the store’s policy on masks and their refusal to allow in-door dining. At the time, he had shaken his head, mentally condemning them for their stupidity. Now, alone, staring at the empty sidewalk, he sympathized with them. Maybe illness – or even death wouldn’t be the worst thing to come from all this. He’d read somewhere online that suicide rates had dipped during the pandemic. How could that be? After a year of staying at home he was climbing up the walls.
40 minutes until midnight.
Jonathan wasn’t drunk. Definitely not. He was tipsy sure, but not drunk. But he wasn’t sleepy either. Feeling restless, he picked up his phone and toyed with the thought of texting his ex. Then, knowing she would accuse him of drunk texting, perhaps looking for a booty call or a quick blowie, he nixed the idea and slammed the phone down on his desk. He didn’t need that shit right now.
Instead, he remembered his buddy from college, Dorian Wentworth, and knew he was often up late, being on unemployment and collecting checks. The isolation of that night was nibbling at him, and so he texted his friend, asking for a Zoom meet. Dorian replied immediately in the affirmative. He was already online, playing World of Warcraft, and could use a break.
30 minutes until bedtime.
They met on Zoom and shot the shit for a good fifteen minutes, talking about everything from their exes to the latest online games to the latest draft decisions of their favorite sports teams. Then, about seventeen minutes in, Jonathan felt his phone vibrate in his lap. Figuring it was just some junk text, he kept chatting with Dorian. Then he felt another text come through. Not wanting to seem rude, he excused himself and picked up his phone to check. The texts were from Dorian. He looked up at the screen, realizing that Dorian was still talking – talking about nothing. Dorian was blathering on and on as though just trying to force any semblance of a casual, natural conversation. Who was he doing that for?
When Jonathan checked the texts, they read as follows:
11:47 PM: Dude, who’s that in the room w/ u?
11:48 PM: I’m not fucking kidding, who is that? There’s someone right behind u!
Feeling that same chill up his back, though the fiery friction of annoyance wasn’t far behind, Jonathan looked over his shoulder then did a full sweep of the room. Nothing. There was no one there.
“Dori-an,” said Jonathan, then shook his head, hearing the drunken slur in his voice. “Dorian, you can stop pretending to talk about D&D; I saw your texts. There’s no one in the apartment with me. Your computer must have some kind of filter on it; those things always see faces where there is none.”
“Oh, okay,” said Dorian, fear and trepidation audible in his voice. His bald, cherubic face looked stunned.
“Okay, no problem. Listen, it’s a bit late so I should be shoving off now. See you later.”
Before Jonathan could say goodbye, Dorian had left the Zoom meeting. Strange, he thought.
Almost instantaneously, Jonathan’s phone slithered across the top of his desk, indicating another text. Jonathan picked up the phone. This time, Dorian had sent a screenshot of their Zoom meeting, the title of the file reading: Who is that? Jonathan saw his own face, his eyes heavy with fatigue and drink, and saw a red circle drawn around a wide space over his shoulder. Again, there was nothing there. Nothing but empty space. The phone then vibrated a final time in his hand. One last text from Dorian.
11:52 PM: Don’t you see him? That creepy looking guy right over your shoulder? I’m telling you, he’s right
on top of you. Get out of there! I’m going to call the cops.
By now Jonathan was near livid. Even his boy Dorian was pestering him with this phantom. What would otherwise have just been annoyance was amplified into full-born rage from the booze sloshing around his bloodstream.
He texted Dorian back:
11:54 PM: There’s no need to call the cops. There’s nothing here. Just fuck off.
He sent the message then turned his phone on silent.
Five minutes left before midnight.
Having a hankering for a nightcap, Jonathan made the mistake of getting to his feet too fast. He regretted it instantly, finding his legs were sticks of butter beneath him. And the room was spinning before his eyes. It took a good minute for him to find his equilibrium. Then, able to stand firmly on his own two feet, Jonathan made the wise choice of staggering through the hallway to his bedroom and collapsing onto the mattress.
He awoke three hours later. He had to piss something fierce. But that wasn’t what woke him. He could feel his 40-ABV blood racing through his veins, his heart punching a hole through his chest. His stomach felt like it was filled with rocks, and in his temples, he could feel the familiar heat of an onset headache. A hangover for sure. Nothing to get too worried about.
When he got out of bed, the crapulent symptoms seemed to recede, and he felt somewhat better. He then strode his way to the commode. Standing, he let out a long stream of urine into the bowl, the dark piss making a small tearing sound against the porcelain. The smell of his piss hit his nostrils, causing his stomach to flip. Feeling the familiar rush from his gut to his throat, his gullet filling with saliva, he could no longer kid himself. Kneeling onto the floor, he vomited into the bowl, his puke intermixing with the darkened water. The smell was maddening and so he flushed before letting out one more mouthful of regurgitated goo.
Panting for a spell, he slowly got to his feet and felt the full force of his self-induced nausea. He thought about that study he read a while back: about how the suicide rates had gone down this past year. He then wondered what the rate of liver failure would be.
Before returning to bed to nurse his hangover, he splashed some water on his face then looked into the mirror above the sink. That’s when he saw it. The other man. The thing that his mother and Dorian had seen hovering over him.
It stood directly behind him, as though it were a second head jutting out from his shoulder. He saw its waxy sallow skin, its dying bloodshot eyes, the grotesquely bulbous forehead, a swollen scarlet scab of a nose. And a crooked set of yellow teeth forming a hideous rictus grin. The face was not just malformed but disgusting in its humanness. He could not only see it but feel its hot breath bearing down his neck. It felt like his flesh were ablaze.
Adrenaline surging inside him, Jonathan dashed out of his apartment, grabbing an overcoat and slippers on the way. Not waiting for the elevator, he ran down the stairwell, three steps at a time.
Outside the building but still within the property line of the complex, he fished out a lighter and cigarette from his coat pocket and lit up. As he was panting, the tobacco hit his lungs hard, causing him to cough. He took a smaller drag, which soothed the burn at the back of his gullet, and he started to feel better.
What was that in the mirror?
It was still dark out. Dark and empty. He couldn’t go far. Not without risking infection that was. Despite understanding the motives and zest for life demonstrated by the anti-maskers, he wasn’t about to tempt catching COVID. Not over some spook in the mirror. Well, he probably wouldn’t catch anything, what with the streets as empty as they were, but why take a risk? Jonathan always was a bit of a hypochondriac.
It couldn’t have been real, he then thought. That’s just stupid. There’s no such thing…
Jonathan then began to chuckle a little, laughing at himself for being so childish. There was nothing there in the mirror. Assured that he’d just been dreaming – imagining things from the power of suggestion, he crushed his cig and made his way back inside.
By the time he’d slunk back into his room, his temples were in full throb of an agonizing migraine. But at least now his stomach was empty, and his blood pressure had gone down to normal. It’d be a rough day but nothing that he hadn’t faced before. He’d get all his work in on time and would even be able hack it in the staff Zoom meeting without raising any eyebrows.
But before he retired to try and salvage what was left of a good night’s rest, he crept back into the bathroom. He couldn’t say why other than that there was some invisible force, pulling him back in front of that mirror. Perhaps, he just needed to assure himself one last time that it was all in his head.
But when he stood there, facing his reflection, it only took a minute before the spectre reappeared. There was no surprise or shock this time. Not like a jump scare in the movies. Instead, the apparition just materialized into view, as though reemerging from beneath a black pool of liquid. Its crooked, hideous grin seemed to taunt him from the other side of the glass. Jonathan had a good look at it, and realized he’d seen it before. He’d seen the same face in his dreams, in his nightmares, in the reflections and shadows that always seemed to follow him, ever since he was six years old. The spectre had always been there, always following him, but was now far more palpable. Far more powerful. Jonathan knew the spectre would always be with him, always shadowing him. But, in all his terror-filled childhood memories, he’d never seen the spectre hovering this close behind. And he’d never seen its face look so near to his own reflection in the mirror.
What happened next – the accumulation of events – defied reason and sanity…
It took a moment, but Jonathan soon realized he couldn’t breathe. Or at least, it seemed like he couldn’t breathe. The air was so dense. So thick. Humid and hot like – like jungle mist. It smelled of acetone and stale yeast and wreaked of bile.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and burned – like candles at a midnight vigil. That was where it was the hottest, at the back of his neck, where the enormous mouth of the spectre in the mirror was closest.
His chest heaving, his own breathing now audible, Jonathan tried to tear himself from the mirror – to even turn around to face his tormentor. But he was stuck there. Stuck there by the same force that had drawn him in to take a second glance. He might have extricated himself earlier, before the face had reappeared. But now it was too late.
The heat cindering his flesh grew brighter, taking on a wet – moist quality somehow. And the sound of the heavy breathing – his or the spectre’s he couldn’t be sure – was bludgeoning his ears – vexing in its monotony and incessance. The room was a furnace! And still that face – that horrible yellow face was staring – glaring at him from the mirror.
He turned the taps then promptly twisted them back, finding only white fog billowing from the pipes. He was so hot. So hot and so thirsty. What the hell was happening? Why was it happening? He wasn’t sure how he knew but that face – that face in the mirror was the cause of it all.
Acting on inertia, Jonathan slapped at the glass, aiming for the spectre’s reflection. The mirror’s surface was chilled – almost cold. It might have only been that it was slick but to Jonathan’s touch, it felt like ice inside of that boiling room. Like cool, refreshing water. It then came to him. Of course. It made perfect sense. It was the only thing left to do.
He struck at the mirror again, this time with a closed fist. The glass wobbled on its hooks, his and the spectre’s image disappearing for a fleeting second in shimmering waves. Just a little more. It’s almost over. He threw a right hook into the glass, putting his hip into the throw, and the mirror shattered into a thousand pieces. The silvery shards lay inside the basin before him, glinting in the moonlight like a billion lost stars. Feeling something wet on his knuckles, he brought his hand to his nose and smelled blood.
The wheezing cacophony had ceased, but the room was still unbearable – growing hotter by the second. And his feet were still glued to the floor. At least he didn’t see that face.
Then, looking down at the shards of glass winking at him from the sink, he got a second idea. Another brilliant plan by anyone’s standard of drunken-dream-logic. But then – anybody sober and rational hearing it might well say it was the only course of action he had left to free himself of the looming figure. The best thing for Jonathan at this point.
He reached down and picked up a shard of the former mirror. A particularly long, blade-shaped piece. It felt so cool – so soothing in his hand. It’s just like shaving, he thought. Speaking to himself. It’s just like a shave after a long hot shower…
Maroon oozing from his knuckles, the sweat on his back evaporating instantly in the boiling hell-room, he stretched his neck, pointing his chin upward, and drew the makeshift razor close. It feels so smooth, he thought, feeling a jagged edge graze his three-day stubble. It feels so cool…
The warbling birds outside roused him. In the weak daylight, he found himself face down on the floor – blood everywhere. Am I dead? he thought. No. But close to it.
He looked around him, discovering the scarlet splatter he was lying on. That and the shards of the broken mirror. His head felt like an expanding water-balloon, about to burst, but that wasn’t what concerned him. He felt a sting, most prominent in the side of his neck. He then remembered what he’d done – or what he’d almost done before blacking out and felt a thrill of panic rise in his chest. Did – did I?
Fearing the worst, he grabbed for a large piece of mirror – one not too obscured by vinaceous smudges – and looked at himself. Past the blood caked to his skin, he could make out a long fleshy scar carving its way from his sternomastoid, up over his jaw, and ending in a hook along his cheek, just shy of meeting the corner of his mouth. A scratch. A bad one. But nothing fatal. That being said, he had lost a lot of blood. He’d have to call a doctor. Probably go to the hospital.
Easing himself vertical, almost falling over from blood loss, he grabbed a towel and pressed it hard to his lacerated face and neck. He then stumble-walked his way to the kitchen, pouring himself a tall glass or orange juice, then dialed 9-1-1.
He was discharged from the hospital hours later. The facility was hopelessly overburdened with patients, but they managed to stitch him up then send him on his way, telling him to pick up a roll of gauze and some anti-biotic ointment from the pharmacy before he left. As much as Jonathan was worried about catching COVID, he was kind of relieved that the hospital had so much else on their plate to deal with: no nagging questions about whether this was a suicide attempt or how much alcohol or drugs he’d consumed. He didn’t need that shit right now. Though, one of the nurses did find time to comment that the scar looked kind of like an upside-down question mark, with the hooked end and all. Jonathan didn’t know what to make of that.
By the time he arrived home it was past noon, and he’d missed his Zoom meeting for work. He texted his supervisor with a half-baked excuse, lying about what happened but keeping in the part about going to the hospital. Hopefully it would fly; he hadn’t taken any days off from work in months. Still, they probably knew…
Beside the wound and the shattered mirror, there was no evidence of the incident last night. There was no boiling heat and no bodiless face hovering over him. Even his clothes weren’t sweat through like they ought to have been. It was nothing. Nothing but an idiotic nightmare fuelled by too much beer and too much spirit.
Sitting at his desk, feeling faint but mostly present, he thought about whiling away some hours online – playing Minecraft or scrolling through Facebook. But before any of that, he thought, first thing’s first. He scoured the fridge, then his desk and all the cupboards for liquor – finding beer, wine and spirit. Then, without hesitation, poured the contents of each can, bottle and mickey down the kitchenette sink. It was somehow satisfying, watching the brownish yellow liquid disappear into the drain. He found further satisfaction crushing each aluminum can, before stuffing them with the glass into a black trash bag. He lugged the bag down the steps, not bothering with the elevator, and deposited the heavy load on the street.
Back in his apartment, he felt contended. And for the first time in months – years perhaps, felt clean. Pure. He decided, despite his misadventure, to attempt some of his reports. Maybe if he sent them in before midnight, it would make up for missing the Zoom call with his coworkers. Maybe they’d notice with time, how he’d turned a new leaf. How he’d become a new man. Yes. This felt good. This felt right.
But it only took a few hours until Jonathan realized the farce he was playing. Until he felt that feeling. That pull – the same gravitational force that had drawn him to the mirror a second time the night before. Getting up from his chair, he inched his way into his bedroom, where a full-length mirror was waiting for him. He began to feel thirsty. Who was he kidding?
Standing in front of the mirror, staring at it, he waited, seeing nothing but his own reflection. The gauze on his bandage starting to look soiled. Then, as though on cue, it appeared. The grinning, yellow face. This time, it didn’t look like it was right behind but instead beside him, as though the floating bodiless head was resting its chin on his shoulder, the two of them standing cheek to cheek like lovers. There was no heavy breathing this time, no suffocating heat in the room. But something about the spectre’s appearance had changed. Wanting a better look, Jonathan turned his head to the side and the spectre mimicked him in sync, exposing that side of its face as it almost eclipsed Jonathan’s. There, marking the spectre’s waxy flesh was a deep black gash, the wound starting up from the side of its neck and ending in a hook along its bloated yellow cheek.
Credit : Malcolm MacDonald
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