11 Oct The Painting in the Mirror
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"The Painting in the Mirror"Written by
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Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
My hands shake as I write this. I’ve long given up any hope of anyone ever believing me, or offering me any form of meaningful help. All I can do is stay here and hope I never see it again. I don’t know why, but for some reason I’ve come to believe that if I can’t see it, maybe it can’t see me. That makes sense, right?
You have no idea what I’m talking about. You’ve probably already dismissed this as the senseless scrawling of a madman. Believe whatever you want, I can’t help that. All I can do is tell you what I saw, and what horrible things I have come to know about this world.
It all began about six months ago. I was just starting my last semester of college, and desperately needed a place to stay. I don’t have many people I can safely call my friends, and this put me at a disadvantage. My home was too far away from campus to commute, and my family couldn’t afford to put me up in the overpriced dorms anymore.
Desperate, I scanned local newspapers and websites, looking for anything I could afford. Less than a week before classes started, I lucked out: there was a one-room basement studio going for below market-value in the nearby town of Greenhaven, New Jersey. The drive to campus would only be about fifteen minutes, and there were a number of local stores and restaurants where I could look to find a part-time job. Excited, we contacted the realtor’s listed e-mail address, and got a response inviting us to tour the place and, if we liked it, sign the lease forms.
Things started getting strange the day we got there. When we arrived at the building, rather than meeting the realtor, we were instead greeted by a scrawny courier, who handed us an addressed envelope.
“The keys and lease forms are inside,” he said in an unsteady voice, “If you like the place, sign the forms and send them with a check to the address on the envelope. If you don’t, just send them back with the keys.”
This struck us as extremely strange, and we tried questioning the courier, but he was rushed and had more deliveries to make. Once he left, my parents got into an argument. My dad was uneasy and wanted to leave, convinced this was some sort of trap or scam, but my mom insisted that we look at the apartment. I love my mom, but she’s very impulsive and has an extremely short temper, and before we made a scene I took the keys and went down into the apartment.
It was a small one-room studio with a cramped bathroom and kitchenette. It wasn’t ideal, but I knew how much my parents were paying for my tuition and knew this was the cheapest place we were going to find that was livable. I faked enthusiasm, which convinced my mom. My dad still looked uneasy, but didn’t argue.
The move-in was brutal, and the three of us were exhausted by the end of the night, but the place was cozy enough. I hugged my parents, thanking them before they left. My dad held on longer than usual, and when my mom was out of earshot, said quietly to me:
“You let me know if anything—and I mean anything—doesn’t feel right, okay?”
I nodded, and was about to say something, but when I mom saw him murmuring to me she became agitated and my dad decided it was best to leave, but the concerned expression stayed on his face as they drove away.
That first night was one of the weirdest of my life. As I lay there on my newly-assembled bed, I realized that this was the first time I had ever slept completely alone. Up until that night, I had always lived either in my house, in a dorm building, or in a hotel room whenever my family went on vacation. In all cases I had been surrounded by people I knew in a safely guarded place. Now I was alone in a creaky old building in a town I knew nothing about.
And then there was the mirror. It was the only decoration in the apartment—besides another smaller one in the bathroom—and hung on the wall at the foot of my bed. Whenever I would shift onto my back, I would be confronted by my own shadowy likeness, framed by the bedpost and painting hanging on the wall above me.
There is a strange state of consciousness that descends upon the human mind when falling into or emerging from deep sleep. It is a state of being neither asleep nor fully awake, but a murky realm in between where the rational fears of the conscious are confronted with the macabre imaginings of the irrational unconscious. I had just descended into this state, on the threshold of sleep, when I thought I saw something move in the shadowy depths of the painting’s reflection in the mirror. I tried to make out what it was, but my exhaustion caught up to me and in seconds I was asleep.
Classes began the following day, and I was so distracted that I forgot all about the strange dream. It was nice to see some familiar faces, but I’ve always had trouble connecting with people on a casual basis, and this semester was no different. I would return from classes and sit in front of my laptop in my tiny dark apartment, with nothing for company except the creaking of the pipes and occasional cockroach scuttling through the kitchenette. At night, I would lay sleepless in bed, staring at the whitewashed ceiling or my gaunt reflection in the cloudy mirror.
It wasn’t until about a week later that I saw the figure in the painting again. I had just come home from a long evening run on a Friday night (my idea of “getting out more”) and collapsed, exhausted, onto my bed, staring into the mirror. Once again, I was just on the brink of sleep when I saw movement in the reflection of the painting.
The figure was back, and getting closer. I could see that its movements were disjointed and lopsided, as if it had several broken bones, with long gangly limbs like twisted branches. Its ash-colored body was emaciated and hairless, and its head was hung, concealing its face. I remember watching with a sort of horrified fascination as the thing shambled closer, and closer.
At some point I must have fallen asleep. That seems completely unbelievable to me now, and I don’t remember anything else from that night, only that when I woke a weak grey morning light was filtering through the apartment’s tiny windows and my throat felt like it was full of sandpaper. I dragged myself out of bed and into the apartment’s small bathroom, turned on the faucet to the sink, and greedily slurped metallic-tasting water down my parched throat. Almost immediately, I vomited it back up. I drank again at a slower pace to keep myself from throwing up again.
When I looked into the mirror above the sink, I barely recognized the face that stared back at me. My eyes were sunken in their sockets, the flesh beneath them swollen with ugly purple blotches, and my skin was pale and pasty-looking. I shuffled into the cramped kitchen, my body aching with every move, and opened the fridge. The plate of leftover food from Friday was sludgy and covered in mold, and the half-drunk carton of milk was sour.
How long was I asleep?
With a creeping dread, I stumbled back to my bedside table and picked up my phone. It was dead. I plugged it into its charger, and once it had recharged enough energy to function, I checked the date.
Over a week had gone by.
There were several voicemail messages from my mom, growing progressively more worried, the last of which was from the night before. I immediately called her, telling her I lost my phone and forgot to call her.
“Are you alright?” she asked worriedly, “You don’t sound too well.”
“I’ve come down with something,” I said, “Don’t worry, I’m fine. I’ll sleep it off.”
After a few minutes, she gradually calmed down. She offered to drive to where I was staying, but I politely refused, on the excuse of not wanting to get her sick. In truth, I didn’t want her to see my abysmal state, knowing how prone to hysteria she was with regards to my physical well-being. Although, to be fair, I was fairly close to hysteria myself as I hung up the phone.
The following week was miserable. The workload wasn’t too much of a problem, as it was still the beginning of the semester, but my physical and psychological condition didn’t get any better. Despite the fact I was malnourished, the very thought of food made me sick, and I ate little. I slept fitfully, haunted by nightmares of being chased down and rent apart by shapeless monsters. I began visiting the campus health center in my spare time to talk to counselors, at one point bursting into tears in my exhaustion, but when the psychologist recommended that we call my parents, I automatically refused. The last thing I wanted to do was make them worry about me.
At some point in my last session, the subject of the painting came up. I mentioned my recurring nightmare of the misshapen figure from the reflection of the painting over my bed. The psychologist frowned.
“Well, what’s this painting of?” he asked, “When you’re awake, I mean.”
I realized then that I had no idea what the painting actually depicted when I wasn’t having nightmares about it. The psychologist suggested that I take it down immediately, and bring it to my next session.
When I walked out of the health center, for the first time in weeks I felt somewhat better. It was so simple, just take down the picture! Why hadn’t I thought of that? It also struck me as strange that I had never thought to look at the picture during my waking hours.
For the remainder of the day, I felt better than I had since the semester started. I was actually more focused on my classes than I was on my own anxiety and fear, so much so that I forgot all about the painting until I crawled into bed at the end of the day.
After undergoing my nightly ritual of tossing and turning in a vain attempt to find a comfortable position, I found myself once again staring into the mirror at the foot of my bed. Naturally, my eyes drifted to the painting suspended over my head, trying to make out what it depicted. I squinted, trying to identify the vague shapes, then finally realized how stupid I was being. I sat up and twisted around in bed to look at the wall behind me.
The painting wasn’t there.
I sat, dumbfounded, in that awkward position for a few moments, staring blankly at the bare wall above my head. I turned back to the mirror, dread gripping my gut like a horrid claw, and saw the painting suspended over my terrified, exhaustion-ravaged face. Back to the wall: blank whitewash.
I think this is the point when the last of my sanity left me, because when I turned back to the mirror the creature’s upper body filled the picture frame.
I watched with a sort of horrified fascination as it stalked closer, as if like myself in a horror film. I willed myself to move, but my body wouldn’t respond, as if the nerves connecting my brain to my body had been severed. I was a sack of meat, waiting for the thing in the painting to come and tear me apart.
The thing dragged itself closer until its head and shoulders dominated the painting. Two spindly, claw-like hands reached up and clutched the bottom of the frame, and I realized with horror that the claws were gripped around the outside of the frame. Then it lifted its hideous head, which was covered with sores seeping black pus, and stared straight out of the frame—AND I SAW ITS FACE! OH MY GOD I SAW ITS FACE!!!
Or—what was left of it. The skin was cracked and peeling like old paint, the mouth nothing more than a jagged, bloody line. And its eyes—oh my God. It had no eyes! Just black sockets with rivulets of blood running down its bony cheeks like little black rivers but it saw me!!! IT SAW ME!!!
Perhaps it was the trauma of that abhorrent sight that broke my paralysis. I scrambled to get out of the bed, but it was too late. The hands lashed out, the clawed fingers sinking themselves into the soft flesh between my neck and shoulders. I tried to scream but only managed a choked shriek as I was dragged headfirst into the painting.
I don’t entirely remember what happened to me next. Maybe that’s for the better. My memories of the horrible interlude between that dreadful night and whenever I awoke—weak, shivering, and slick with sweat and blood—on the floor of that horrible little apartment to the sound of the police kicking down the door. Only two images come back to me. One is the my immediate descent into the nightmarish world of the painting, my room whooshing away from me and my screams of terror and pain being lost in the roar of some infernal, otherworldly wind.
The other is the faces. I could see them swirling in the dark, the spectral remains of what were once perhaps people, but now nothing more than wailing wraiths churning forever in a vile storm of horror and torment. Whether they saw me, or were even capable of sight, I don’t know. Perhaps I was just another screaming spirit being dragged through the storm with them, borne upon hellish winds to whatever damnation awaited me.
The doctors rarely talk to me here, and the nurses don’t say anything other than empty, vaguely motherly condolences like “hush” or “don’t worry” or “everything’s gonna be okay.” Every now and then I’ll feel the sharp pinch of an injection, or the soft rubbing when they change the bandages on my arms and shoulders.
How could I not have seen it? How could I be so stupid? I was there for almost two weeks—or was it three? Four?—and in all that time if I had just contorted in the right position through any of those restless, sleepless nights, or thought to lift my head from my computer screen, I would have seen that there was nothing there. And if I had noticed sooner, maybe I could have gotten help. Maybe I could have gotten out of there sooner, and everything would have gone back to normal. Maybe—
I don’t see my parents much. They stop by often to check on me, but I pretend to be asleep. Not because I don’t want to be with them, but the pain on their faces is too much to bear. I lay there and feign sleep, despite the fact they know full well that I’m awake. I’m not ready to face the pain yet. I’m not sure I ever will.
I answer the doctors’ questions as calmly as I can. I’m rarely successful. I cry a lot, and often wake up thrashing and screaming to the creaking of the body restraints holding me to my bed. I’m not allowed near pictures or mirrors—or rather, they’re not allowed near me. And that suites me just fine.
Eventually, after what was probably weeks but felt like years, I managed to convince one of the nurses to give me paper and a pen. She was one of the nice ones, but gave me a thin felt marker instead of a pen, and only on the condition that she sit beside me while I write, like she is now.
I like her. She’s nice, and quite pretty, though I wish she wouldn’t dye her hair black like that. It makes me think of night, which in turn makes me think of nightmares, which makes me think of—
My hands are shaking again. I have to stop writing. You know my story. Whether you believe me or not is up to you. You probably think I’m crazy, and I probably am. I guess I won’t know until I breath my last breath, and see for myself what lies on the other side of death—Heaven? Hell? Nothing? Personally, I’d prefer an eternity of nothingness to what I saw in the painting in the mirror.
Credit To – Thomas Sireci
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