I’ve never been afraid of my own reflection. In fact, I’ve quite enjoyed it. I’m sure anyone would with a reflection as stunning as mine. If I bite down in just the right way and push my tongue into the roof of my mouth, my jawline looks more chiseled than that of a Greek God. If I gaze six degrees upwards, the light illuminates my eyes in a green purer than the grass on a castle lawn. If I tilt my head slightly upwards, I can best flaunt my nose’s flawless symmetry. And my ears: they always seem to do the work themselves, exquisitely positioned behind my cheekbones no matter how I turn my head. If I had to put my features into one humble word, it would be perfection.
What was I talking about again? Oh right, the mirror. As I said, it’s been akin to a best friend to me until recently. I’ve spent countless hours in front of that mirror admiring my reflection as it endlessly compliments me. In any discipline, one can only achieve greatness with tedious practice and the mirror holds no exceptions. But it only occurred recently to me that I might be spending too much time with the mirror. But it wasn’t because I was finished touching up my features. As I stared into the mirror, I saw something: something that forced even Otto Renner to look away.
I was getting ready for school in the center hall bathroom while Dad hurried me from outside the door. He knocked for the third or fourth time. I was too distracted to count. “Otto,” he said. “Would you hurry up in there?”
“Just a minute, Dad,” I replied. It was probably at least a little more than a minute, but when I gaze upon the divine perfection in the mirror and it stares back at me I can’t help but lose track of time. That morning, I shaved in my usual delicate fashion to avoid any cuts. I used my Sandalwood shaving cream by Louis Boyd coupled with my MicroPrecision four-blade titanium razor. Next, I applied a couple dabs of Claud Christensen’s Absolute Extract to my neck, just above the collar bone. Then I rubbed even smaller drops into my wrists. Then, I opened the cabinet and grabbed the shoe polish can of Baxter Norton matte finish pomade. I only took a dollop of that and made sure to blend it into my hair enough so that nobody could see it shine. Lastly, I rubbed on some of my Crème Della Mare moisturizer. The only thing left to do was admire my artwork. “Otto Renner, you look fantastic,” I said. I slapped my cheeks a few times to brighten my face for when I stepped outside – it looks better in the sunlight.
But on the third slap my stomach churned and I almost fell into the shower jumping from the mirror. I saw something in the mirror: my reflection…blinked. Or at least I think it did. I stared, keeping a keen focus on the gorgeous man staring back at me. For the first time, I wasn’t sure if he was me. Sure, he looked exact like me, but I felt a certain disconnect from the boy staring back. There was something more to that ‘reflection’ than a parallel image of myself. But maybe I blinked and didn’t notice. But then how would I have watched my reflection do it? I raised my arm and my reflection did the same. I scratched the tip of my nose and my reflection followed.
I jump again. A knocking at the door. “Otto, come on. I have to go to work.” Dad groaned.
I shook my head and my reflection did that too. “It’s my imagination,” I told myself.
I opened the bathroom door with my head held high and the Absolute Extract scent wafting over the humble masses otherwise known as my parents. But soon it shall grace the nostrils of my whole school.
“Are you ready?” Dad said with a pleading tone.
“Let’s go, get in the car. We’re already going to be late for school.”
Dad slipped on his suit jacket and frantically checked his watch on his way out. I grabbed my backpack and followed him, but before I pulled the door shut, I looked back towards the bathroom. I couldn’t quite see the mirror from there, but I felt an eerie aura emanating from the center hall. I knew what I saw.
There weren’t any more reflective anomalies that night, so I started to let my suspicions pass. My reflection had dutifully done what was expected: it blinked when it was supposed to, it raised its arms appropriately, and it even yawned when I yawned. But the next morning while I stared into the mirror checking a stray pimple beneath my nose, I decided to put my reflection to the test. I stepped back so I could see my full torso and part of my waist. I gawked at my reflection before starting the test: a sight for sore eyes. A beady green glare and thick, healthy eyebrows with brown hair flowing like the lobby fountain of a five-star hotel. Before I started the test, I couldn’t help but smile and gawk at my reflection. But then I threw a punch at the air. The reflection followed. First test, passed. I didn’t know whether to feel relieved that it was a normal reflection, or disappointed that I hadn’t caught it off guard. I tried again, this time throwing my elbow forward. Second test, passed. Or did it? I watched closer that time, tracking my reflection through the full motion. Something still seemed off.
“Jesus, Otto. Are you almost done in there?”
I didn’t answer. Instead I opened my mouth as if to yell back to him, but didn’t release any words. Another test, passed. I turned towards the door, feigning completion of my tests. But then I stepped outward towards the mirror with my right foot and jerked my chest towards the mirror. It followed…but there it was again. Something was off. It was delayed. If only half a second off, the reflection was still not exact. I stared at myself, not an inch from the mirror. My nose almost touched it. I looked up towards my reflection’s eyebrows, then down towards my nose. It followed this exactly. Then I slowly raised my right hand and gently placed my palm on the glass, letting one finger drop at a time, each making a clinking sound on impact. Glass, nothing more. Just that mirror, me, and that slight delay I know I saw. I removed my hand from the mirror and opened the bathroom door. I jerked my head back toward the mirror and my reflection did the same. Giving up, I shut off the lights and mostly closed the door behind me. I looked back down at my hand and wiggled each finger. It wasn’t just the glass I felt. There was something else not nearly as smooth as a mirror. The remnants of the sensation lingered on my fingertips. It was coarser than glass. Almost like…skin. A dull shudder overtook my spine, but throughout the day, I shook the feeling again. “It’s impossible. You’re just seeing things,” I told myself.
On Tuesday I finally decided to tell my parents what was going on. We sat around the dinner table recounting our mundane Tuesday tales. They asked me how the math test went and I said, “fine”. Nothing to break the silence but forks scraping against ceramic plates and Dad sipping his beer. “Um, Mom…Dad,” I began. My voice cracked.
My mother’s eyes shot to me whirling with excitement, “Yes, Otto?”
I looked back at the bathroom to see the door was cracked open. The mirror hung silently in the darkness. I turned back towards the table. Dad had put his beer down and was staring at me keenly over his glasses. I leaned into the table over my plate. “There’s a man in the mirror.” As soon as I finished speaking, Dad shook his head and rolled his eyes, then picked up his beer for another large sip.
“What? A man in the mirror?”
“If anyone is going to find him, it’s going to be you,” Dad said.
My mother glared at him. “He’s a teenager, leave him alone. What do you mean by ‘a man in the mirror’?”
“Well, I don’t know. It’s me, but…it’s not…me. It’s someone pretending to be me. Does that make sense?”
Dad waved his hand toward me, pointing as if to exhibit his stupid son in the act. “Of course, it doesn’t make sense. You just said there’s a man who looks like you, but isn’t you in a piece of glass in the bathroom. My God, why are you –”
Mom raised a hand and snapped her thumb to her other four fingers without looking at Dad. He sighed and slouched back in his chair, but complied. “Otto, honey. That’s just your reflection. You know that, right?”
“Well, no…I mean yeah, I know it’s supposed to be.” It was at this point I realized how nuts I sounded. It is just a reflection. How could it be anything else? But again, I pictured the blinking reflection. And I pictured its movements that day afterwards. It was so precise, like it was trying to make up for its mistake. I still felt the rough pads of his fingers touching mine through the glass. I couldn’t shake the thought any longer, but I also couldn’t articulate it to my parents. I dropped the subject and ate the rest of my dinner in silence.
But that night, I found a trick online to test the reflection with certainty. All I had to do was pluck one hair from my head, measure it, and then hold it in front of the mirror and measure the reflection of the hair. This all made sense: if the reflection was truly an image of me, the hair would be the same length. If it was an entity trying to mimic me, it was unlikely it’d manage to present a hair of the same length.
Once my parents went to bed, I got to work. I took a pair of scissors from my desk drawer and cut a single strand of hair from my head. I spent twenty minutes trying to find the one that would be the least noticeable and settled on a specific strand about 2 inches above my right ear. I held it in my hand and twirled it, examining its every feature. While I did this, a mixture of anticipation and absurdity intertwined in my head. “This is so stupid,” I whispered to myself. But I needed to know. I went ahead and held the hair against a ruler, carefully placed on the desk: 1.71 inches. I checked the measurement, once, twice, three times, as we learned in chemistry: measure twice, cut once. In this case, I switched the chronology. Satisfied with the calculation, I pinched the hair again, took a deep breath, and headed for the bathroom. “This is it,” I told myself. There will be no doubts after this one.
I flicked the light switch and the yellow-white lights illuminated the granite vanity and stone tile floor. I took in one more deep breath, then poked my head around the corner. The reflection of half my face looked back and blinked along with me. I heard Dad snoring in the other room and bugs chirping outside the window. If anything bad happened, I was alone. “It’s just a mirror, Otto. It’s just a mirror,” I whispered to myself. The reflection copied my lip movements. I saw my zit in the mirror, but this time I didn’t care. I raised my hand with the hair pinched tightly between my fingers and slowly brought it to the mirror. At first, I couldn’t quite tell the length in the mirror, but it seemed distorted in some way. I thought it might be because of the angle at which I was holding the hair. But I brought it closer and closer until the hair was pressed up against the glass, touching its own reflection with my pressed, white fingerprint smudged into the glass behind it. I looked at myself in the reflection’s eyes, then back down to the hair and pulled out the ruler with my free hand. A nervousness overtook the bathroom and hung in the air. I couldn’t tell if it was mine.
I steadily placed the ruler like the last piece in a sculpture of feathers, then let it snap against the glass. 1.69 inches. I stared at the ruler and back at the hair, baffled by the result. The difference was so subtle. Was it a mistake? But I read it again and again. Cut once, measure twice. The hair fell exactly to 1.69 inches. Again, and again until I finally allowed the truth to settle. I had gotten my answer, but I never thought of what I would do with the result. As my likeness and I stared at the ruler and the hair’s mismatched reflection for a few seconds I finally decided what was best. I pulled my lips together, made a frown and nodded with approval at the hair. I couldn’t let the reflection know I was onto him. At first this all felt stupid, but now it was peril. I didn’t know how the reflection would react to me knowing its game. I didn’t want to find out.
Then came yesterday when, for the first full day in my life, I didn’t look at a mirror once. Before we left for school, Dad checked his watch twice to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating. “Everything alright, Otto?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I nodded.
He took a small comb out of his suit pocket and ran it through my hair, fixing some imperfection I hadn’t seen. “At this rate I’ll be able to stop for coffee before I get to the office. But you look…different.” He put the comb back in his pocket and wiped his hand against his suit jacket. “It’s so oily.”
“Mhm,” I hummed. I didn’t care how I looked. Whatever kept me away from that mirror.
But it called me and relentlessly so. I couldn’t stay away forever. The whole day I wondered how I looked. I wondered why people were staring at me like I had eight heads. I wondered why none of the girls would talk to me. I felt like an outcast, and the only difference between fame and leprosy was that mirror. I think it knew that too. It knew I needed it, perhaps as much as it needed me.
And that brings us to today. Not even my mother can bear to look at me for more than a few seconds at a time. Her voice sounds constricted like she’s struggling to breathe within two feet of me. Eventually she asks, “Otto, honey. Why don’t you go take a shower?”
“Because I can’t do it with my eyes closed.” I stare at the floor. I don’t even want to look at a window for fear of my own reflection.
“What? Why would you do that anyway? Is this about the mirror?”
I don’t answer. She’ll never understand.
“This can’t go on forever. Sooner or later you’re going to have to go into that bathroom.”
“No I won’t. I can shower with the hose outside.”
“That’s ridiculous. The hose?” she scoffs.
I fire both hands to her shirt and grab it in desperation. “Don’t make me go in there, please. I can’t go in. We can’t let him see me. Please!” My hands are damp and trembling.
“Otto,” she says sweetly. “Look, I know I’m your mother and I’m not supposed to see your…you know. But you can’t go on like this. I hate to see you this way. I’ll go into the bathroom with you and we can look at the mirror together, okay? That way if anything happens, I’ll be by your side.”
I think about it for a moment. At least I wouldn’t be alone this time. I nod and loosen my grip on her shirt.
“Okay, good,” Mom says. She claps her hands together and scans around as if she’s planning on bringing something to the bathroom, but doesn’t. She then lightly places a hand on my shoulder and we start towards the bathroom. I can feel him. Something is in there. I feel like my heels are about to rip out of my socks as I contemplate bolting in the other direction. “I can’t do it,” I say.
“It’s okay, Otto. Trust me. Can you do that? Just trust me.”
I nod again but I don’t mean it.
Mom gets around to my side and gently pushes open the bathroom door. It swings quietly until it nestles against the linen closet door inside. “Go ahead,” she prompts.
“Can you go first?” I whimper.
She looks like she’s going to say no, but after examining my expression agrees. “Okay, sure.”
I nod and mutter, “thank you”, as if she’s taking my place in battle.
Mom walks into the bathroom confidently, turns on the lights, then looks at herself in the mirror. She plays with her hair a moment while staring at the mirror and then says, “Look, no man in the mirror. Come on in.”
“Really?” I say.
She nods and I feel the fear begin to dissipate. “Yep, no man. Just one dashing lady.” That sensation of absurdity chips at my fear. I walk into the bathroom and join her. Mom puts her arms around my shoulders from behind and holds me to her chest. I watch as our reflections do the same. “See? It’s just you and me. And what a handsome reflection that is.”
She looks like she’s about to cry while she hugs me tighter. I don’t fully understand, but I can feel her love. It’s a moment I’ll always remember.
“I see why you like this bathroom. This is some excellent lighting,” she jests.
“Yeah,” I laugh too. There’s nothing there. The reflection is identical: no blinking or slow movements attached.
Mom releases me and pats my shoulders. “Alright, now take your shower, you stink. Dinner’s in twenty.”
“Okay,” I say softly. She starts to leave. “Mom?”
She turns back around and places one hand on the doorframe before leaving.
I want to tell her so badly that I love her. But while I look at her and the embarrassment of being afraid of my own reflection ties my tongue and I say, “never mind”. She nods and walks away, and that is a moment I’ll also never forget.
I turn the shower on and wait for it to heat up. In the meantime, I muster up the courage to look at the mirror alone. There again, as it was with Mom, is nothing but a spitting image of a beautiful young man staring back. I smile at it and admire its perfect white teeth. “I’m back,” I whisper to myself. The glass begins to fog and I jump in the shower.
I hum a tune by Walker Hayes I heard on the radio days ago and bask in my rediscovered confidence. I wash away the two-days’ filth and feel the putrid oils rolling off my skin with the water. I’m not afraid of a mirror.
I turn the water off and get out when I think about ten minutes have passed. Then I reach out to grab the towel, but out of the corner of my eye, something feels wrong. I turn to the mirror and see my reflection leaning against the door with its arms crossed, glaring at me through the fog. I gasp and lose my balance, grabbing the towel rack for support on the way down. My back smacks into the tile and I feel a sharp pain run from my spine to my knee. Lying on the floor with my back against the vanity, my skin crawls and my stomach flips and my mind flings through a gauntlet of fear. It’s real.
But I have to face it. Like Mom said, I need the mirror. I couldn’t function even a day without it. So, I began to stand. My legs quake and arms stiffen. I power through the terror. What is a reflection going to do to me? My body pulls at me to remain on the floor, but it’s time to confront the reflection. I place a hand on top of the cold granite counter for support and pull myself to my feet, keeping my eyes shut. My breathing shivers with the rest of my naked body and my lips feel dry against the steamy air and a clammy glow resonates into my forehead. My eyelid twitches as I try to open them. My body feels separate from my mind, like it is resisting with all its effort. It can’t keep me away from the mirror. Nobody can.
I slam my eyelids open and stare at my reflection and it stares back with the same wide-eyed glare. I raise a stern index finger to it and point at myself. I grit my teeth and lean in, poking the mirror and parting the fog on it with my fingertip. “You can’t beat me.”
It smiles back and then I feel its skin against mine, pointing back. The reflection then breaks from me. Its lips break into a sinister, victorious curl as it stares back through its eyebrows. In one last movement, it lunges at me and its hand warps through the glass and grabs my finger.
Suddenly I feel thin: as if each particle of my body is stretched out over a leather rack so I’m in one place, everywhere, and not quite anywhere at once. I can’t breathe – I can’t feel my body. A candescent stream of silver light spreads outside of my being and over me and all around like an endless kaleidoscope. The only figure I can make out through the surreal plane, is my own body staring back at me. It’s me, scratching my teeth with my nails, then drying my hair with the towel. But I’m doing none of these things. I feel a deep urge to mimic it’s movements, but nothing more. It then looks straight at me, and I back to it. It’s me, but it’s not me. It winks and presses its index finger into its pursed lips.
“Everything okay in there?” Mom calls. But I can’t tell where it’s coming from. It sounds so far away, so muffled. Like someone crying out from a cave a mile away.
“Everything is great,” my voice answers, but I know I didn’t say a thing. I try to scream, but nothing comes out. I don’t even feel my mouth move, I just watch it. “Finally,” the voice whispers. He taps three times on the mirror with his nail as if to taunt me like an animal in a cage. My physical form leaves the bathroom and sits at the dinner table. I try following it, but the reality of my two-dimensional trap begins to set in. A weakness overwhelms me. I’m growing tired: so, so tired. As if I’m about to fade away. “Can you pass the salad?” I hear my own muffled voice query.
“Really Otto? You never want salad.” It sounds even further away now.
“What can I say? I’m feeling like a new man.” It turns back towards the bathroom and stares with a bright, jagged smile strapped tight across its cheeks. The silver kaleidoscope dims. I begin to fall into a deep, shrill slumber. All I can do is hope for an escape from this reflective hell that will never come. I may have opened the portal in ignorance, but he never will.