“A Mirror Darkly”

We had a discussion in Rough Writers a couple of weeks ago about whether some stories shouldn’t be written. Most of my short stories come to me as dreams. I have several stories in the back of my mind that border on horror, but since I don’t actually read horror, I haven’t written them down. This is my first attempt in that direction. Those of you who are horror purists may not consider that part of the genre, perhaps more dark fantasy, and I will defer to your classification. Read it and see what you think it is.

I’ve often said that teachers are simply students who love school so much that they never left. Whether that’s true for anyone else, it’s true for me. I loved high school and college, but I know that elementary school laid the foundation for my success later on in life.

And that’s why I decided early on to become a first-grade teacher. Male first-grade teachers aren’t that common, but I was fortunate to have one, and because I knew that more and more kids often didn’t have a dad at home, I knew that I could be a great deal of help to many of them.

But it took me until my third year of teaching to learn that I couldn’t help all of them. That’s just the sad reality. Some kids have problems at home, with their health, or with other issues that are far beyond my ken and my control to help with. In those cases, all you can do is support them as much as possible, be a friend when they need one, and do whatever you can to make their challenges lighter.

That was the case during my third year as a teacher. The week before school started, I was asked to come visit a student in their home. I entered a relatively modest home in a quiet neighborhood and was introduced to Mrs. Melodie Addams and her first-grader Augie.

“It’s short for Augustus,” the precocious little blonde-haired boy said. I knew immediately that I would have a firecracker on my hands.

“I’m pleased to meet you, Augie,” I said, bending down to his level as we sat in their darkened living room. “Are you excited about starting school? I have a pretty good idea that you will do really well.”

“I’m already reading,” he said matter-of-factly.

“It’s true,” Mrs. Addams said. “He started reading when he was three. Now he’s reading every book he can get his hands on.”

“And I have started math as well,” Augie added. “I can add and subtract. I asked Mommy to teach me how to multiply and divide, but she said I had to wait for the rest of the kids in school.”

I nodded slowly, still wondering what I was doing in their home. “I assume that my visit here was to allow Augie to get acquainted with me. And you of course.”

She stared at me. “Oh, I have no doubt that Augie will be fine with you as a teacher,” she said. “And I can see that you are highly qualified. In fact, the school sings your praises.

“Well,” I said, a little embarrassed. “Thanks.”

“I wanted you to come because I want you to know about Augie’s special needs,” she said. “You see, he has been diagnosed with severe catoptrophobia.”

I raised an eyebrow. “I’m not familiar with that particular disease, but as long as it isn’t contagious, I am sure that the school–.”

“It’s not a disease. It’s a phobia. I’ve already talked to the school board and the principal about it. He’s fine as long as he is not exposed to mirrors. If he is, it’s pretty traumatic.”

I paused. “Mir—mirrors?” I echoed.

She nodded, and I looked down at the little boy, who acted as if nothing was wrong.

“If you look around our home, you will notice that all mirrors and shiny surfaces have been removed from our home. Augie doesn’t ride in the car unless he wears a hood over his head. We never take him into public restrooms. And we are very selective as to which restaurants we visit and stores we go to—when he is with us.”

My head was whirling. None of my education or the two years of teaching had prepared me for this. I knew that I needed to say something to reassure Augie and his mother.

“Well, you’ve talked to the school board and to the principal,” I said. “Our school has been very good about making accommodation in the past. I don’t see why that won’t continue in the future.

“On the other hand,” I said before Mrs. Addams could speak. “Kids will be kids. If we go about covering all the mirrors in the school for Augie’s sake, they will know that there is a problem. And sooner or later, someone is bound to stick a mirror in front of his face.”

Mrs. Addams nodded. “We had considered just home schooling him. But Augie really wants to be around other kids. He’s doing fine learning here. But we feel for his own social development, we want to give public school a try.”

I looked at the little guy in front of me, who looked excited at the prospect of starting school, and I exhaled. Then I nodded.

“As I said, I can’t guarantee anything, but I will do my best to make Augie comfortable.”

Phil Sheridan, the principal, had already met with the Addamses. When I got back from my meeting, I talked to him about the possibilities. He and I agreed that somewhere along the line, disaster was waiting, but we would do our best to accommodate Augie.

That accommodation actually turned out to be easier than I imagined it would be. Our first plan was to accompany Augie to the restroom, covering the mirror whenever he visited it. But as we talked about it, we realized that I couldn’t realistically leave my class alone to take care of one child’s needs every single day. In the end, we decided to move my first-grade class down to the opposite end of the hall. Monica Sterns, the fourth-grade teacher, also taught crafts, and had a small restroom attached to her classroom. I made sure it had no reflecting surfaces, and we moved in.

The first week of classes were full of hectic excitement, but other than that, were actually not much different than the two other years I had taught there. Augie was a little shy at first, but a little girl named Belinda decided that Augie was going to be her best friend. By the second day of classes, they were inseparable. Augie even told her his secret, one that she swore she would never share.

I allowed Augie to use the special restroom, what the other kids started calling Augie’s “batcave.” Augie was gracious to share it with me. It had a toilet, a sink, and not much else. Because it didn’t have a mirror, I attached a mirror to the inside of my briefcase for a double check on my appearance right before class or a staff meeting.

Mrs. Addams was usually pretty punctual about picking Augie up after school at 3:15. But three weeks into the school year, something happened and she didn’t show up when she normally did. In fact, the after-school supervisor shut down at 4 and she asked me if I would be willing to watch Augie until his mom showed up. I was working on putting up new decorations in our classroom and knew that I would be there another couple of hours, so I said no problem. Besides, I had grown fond of Augie. He was a very bright boy, cheerful and always willing to help and participate.

I didn’t even have to ask Augie to help with the decorations. He was thrilled to have the opportunity to help. It was late September, and I wanted students to start thinking about fall, so the decorations were decidedly orange, yellow and brown. I put Augie in charge of taking down everything that was on the bulletin board so that we could redecorate it. In the meantime, I streamed autumn-themed crèpe paper across the ceiling from wall to wall. I kept an eye on Augie, especially when he asked to take down the push pins on the bulletin board.

I had finished about half the room when Augie yelled on the other side of the classroom: “Where should I put the old push pins?”

“Just lay them on top of my desk,” I said. I had my back to him, but so far he had shown great responsibility for a first grader, so I wasn’t worried. Then I heard a crash.

I turned on my stepladder and saw that in putting the pushpins on the desk, Augie had pushed my briefcase off the desk. Papers had flown everywhere and the briefcase lay on the floor upside down.

“That’s all right, Augie,” I said, seeing the shocked look on his face. “Give me a second to finish here and I’ll pick it up.”

A second later, I realized that he intended to pick it up himself, and a half a second after that realized that it would be a mistake.

“Wait–,” I said, an instant before I heard a blood-curdling scream come from Augie. I dropped everything that was in my hands and leaped down from the stepstool. As I crossed the room in three strides, I saw that Augie had turned my briefcase over and was staring into it, and into the mirror inside. His face had turned white, and he began to cry.

I snatched the briefcase from his hands, closed it and lay it atop the papers on my desk, then grabbed Augie. I carried him over to the small set of cushions we had fixed up for a reading center. I pulled Augie into my lap while he sobbed, and I tried my best to comfort him.

“You know, Augie,” I told him as he began to quiet down. “Everyone is afraid of something. I have things I am afraid of, even now.”

“You’re afraid? Why, you’re a big man,” he said.

I shrugged. “Even big men can be afraid. But you know there are two things to do when you are afraid.”

“What’s that?”

“First of all, you need to admit you’re afraid,” I said. “Until you admit it, you really can’t do anything about it.”

“Well, that’s obvious,” he said, and I smiled slightly. “What the second thing?”

“The second thing is a little harder. You have to face your fears,” I said. “Let me ask you. When did you start becoming afraid of mirrors?”

His face grew very serious. “When the dark man came into my room.”

Warning bells went off in my head. “What dark man?”

“He told me not to tell anyone, but I already told Belinda ‘cause she’s my best friend. But you’re my best friend too, aren’t you?”

I nodded. “The best. Now tell me. What dark man?”

His eyes grew big. “There was a big storm about a year ago. My window blew open and the man came in. He asked me if I wanted to be big and strong like him. I shouldn’t have said yes, but I did. And then the pictures disappeared.”

“Pictures? What pictures?”

He started to cry again, but I felt like there was a breakthrough coming.

“What pictures, Augie?”

In response, he got up from my lap, still crying, and went to my briefcase. He reached into it without looking and took out the small vanity mirror that I carried in it. He carried it back to me. I could see that the whole process was incredibly difficult for him, but he apparently seemed determined to see it through so that I could understand what he was going through. And I did want to understand.

But what happened was completely beyond my understanding.

Still crying, Augie climbed back into my lap and pulled the mirror up in front of our faces.

As I looked into the mirror, I saw that my face had turned ashen white. And that was all that I saw. Because Augie had no reflection in the mirror.

“The dark man stole my picture,” he said simply to me.

And even though I knew exactly what Augie was trying to tell me, it was one of those rare moments in life when I had absolutely nothing to say to him in return.