Estimated reading time — 4 minutes
I’ll tell you right now that my story doesn’t have any dramatic climax or any cathartic resolution. Don’t bother reading it if that’s what you’re looking for. My story is of one very specific moment in my life. One which, try as I might, I cannot negate as a trick my exhausted brain played on me, or a momentary lapse of reason and subsequent plunge into childish fears.
I think a fear of mirrors must be fairly common, in this day and age. I remember when I was young I saw one of those compilation TV horror shows. The ones where there’d be a different short scary story between commercial breaks. In retrospect it wasn’t the scariest thing in the world, and if I saw it again today I would probably invite friends over and we could quash our collective fear by mocking the bad acting or ridiculous storyline.
All I remember of it is that in the story a man was being constantly tormented by a disfigured, murderous psychopath, but he only saw him when he looked in the mirror. The whole story was a typical song-and-dance of the man catching his stalker in the mirror behind him, turning to face him and finding nothing there.
Maybe the reason I remember it so well is because it was so shortly after I heard my mom die. I say heard because I never saw her body. I was watching TV (a different show) when I heard what sounded like porcelain breaking, followed by a loud thud, coming from the kitchen two rooms away. The sudden noise was oddly unsurprising, but I remember craning my head to see my mom’s legs sprawled on the tiled floor. I couldn’t see any more of her, the doorframe was in the way. Luckily (I suppose), my father ran in first, calling her name somewhat frantically. As I stood up, but did not advance out of what I imagine was fear, I remember him telling me to stay where I was.
The doctors told us a virus had gotten into her heart. I remember my father protesting that he hadn’t even heard of that before. Neither had I, but the concept of death itself was fairly new to me, and I remember being filled with an overwhelming sense of existential fear. As if I or anyone I knew could suddenly crumble into a pile of lifeless dust at any moment.
I don’t think I was a very fearful child, though. Not moreso than most. And even my uneasiness around mirrors didn’t exactly trump my other fears of spiders, or being in cramped spaces. I guess it makes sense that mirrors are a source of fear for people. One of the defining signs of self-awareness is whether or not an animal recognizes itself in the mirror. Maybe we still retain some primal belief that what we’re seeing really isn’t us, but some sinister shadow-self. Not to mention all the scenes in horror movies that use them. A character bends down to splash water in their face, and when they lift their head back up their face is distorted in some gruesome way.
I had just gotten home from a party at a nearby frat house. I lived in an old Victorian house that four of my friends from school and I rented. I was the only one home, having left the party early (if you can call 2:00 in the morning early) and my roommates were all still out. I ran upstairs to my room, exhausted and wanting nothing more than to lay in my bed and feel the rest of the world leave me behind. But I didn’t. In rare form I decided to take a few more steps down the hall to the old, poorly-design bathroom two of my roommates shared with me. It was lit by a single, fluorescent bulb, casting the black and white tile in a sickly, near-green color. I ran a thin strip of toothpaste on my brush and gave my teeth a once-over before spitting the slightly brown spit and foam down the sink. When I looked up I saw her.
Standing behind me in the bathtub with the curtain drawn wide open, my mother’s mouth hung down as if screaming, but without any sound. I could tell it was my mother, but she was a grotesque shadow of how I remember her. Her eyes were either completely gone, or simply black in color. The sockets were vacuums within which nothing reflected. Her skin was so pale it was almost blue, and her dark hair looked drenched in water, hugging her scalp tight and falling in front of her shoulders in thin strips. Her mouth wasn’t exactly screaming, so much as hanging open. Impossibly open, much further than a person’s jaw can extend. She seemed to be wearing a thin white nightgown, drenched, like her hair, and clinging to her emaciated body. Her stick-legs looked like they were going to buckle under her weight, while her arms reached back against the walls.
I must have only seen her for seconds before turning, screaming and falling backwards, slamming hard against the tiled floor. The tub was empty. There had been no sound, and now as the echoes of my cry dissipated I could only hear my heavy breathing. I don’t know how long I lay on the floor of the bathroom. The fluorescent bulb dully buzzing as I became too frightened to even move. Eventually I heard the downstairs door swing open, as a parade of drunk college boys and their floozies poured in for the night. They found me only the floor, and thought it was hilarious that I was so drunk I had almost passed out in the bathroom.
I never saw her again. I never want to see her again, and every day I wish I hadn’t. There are myths of people being scared to death, or being haunted by dreams of a single event for their whole lives. I’ve had dreams too, but they aren’t what haunts me to this very day.
When someone you love dies, you tend to forget everything bad about them, and eventually your fond memories of them just coalesce into a fondness you share with everyone else that knew them. But that’s not how I feel about my mother. I was too young to have endless loving stories about her. Instead all I can remember is her face that night in the mirror.
My story doesn’t end with me taking my own life, or anything dramatic like that. I have thought about it, though. I tried putting a length of rope across my neck one day and squeezing, just to see what it would feel like. But I would never go through with it. It isn’t so much that I want to live. What bothers me the most is that I don’t know for sure what happens when we die. Nobody knows. But what I saw that night in the mirror makes me think I do.
Credited to Matt Chatham.