3LBE #14
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Reflecting House

by Samuel Minier

 

Dozens of the old man are waiting for me in the solarium. They all eat the same breakfast I do: half a grapefruit, lightly buttered toast, an eye-opener highball of tomato juice heavy with Tabasco. Every Sunday the same meal. I feel like an old man myself as I eat it, but it is all I can stomach. The sour grapefruit goads me awake, the toast absorbs the alcohol still brewing in my stomach, and only the Eye-Opener dulls the hammer-and-anvil in my head. Saturday night inebriation — well, if truth be told it starts Thursday night — it’s the only way I can ensure I’ll make it through the Sunday visit with the old man. All of them.

Not wise, of course. My weekend binges have lead to a series of near-disasters, but luckily my drinking cohorts know the conditions of Father’s will. They are more than eager to ensure cash keeps flowing to me. On more than one occasion I’ve found myself being slapped awake at the foot of the path leading to the house. ’Thomas, Thomas, you up?’ they cajole with rough palms across my cheeks. I have no doubt they would carry me across the threshold if they could, but I am forbidden to bring any company beyond the path’s entrance. ‘Come on, man, it’s six-thirty, you gotta move!’

I may be a drunk, but I’m not a fool: if I do not set foot in this house by seven every Sunday morning, my access to Father’s fortune will disappear instantly. I’ve given up looking for the security cameras I’m sure Father had installed to monitor my presence in the house. They’re probably hidden deep within each of the old man, and I try to ignore him — them, whichever — as much as is possible.

The solarium would have a beautiful view if it had any windows. I suppose it has its own peculiar beauty; the lighting is cast back and forth upon itself so many times that the beams become like shiny metallic rope, turning the room into a cage of brilliance. Sometimes I think it’s a shame no one else has ever seen the house. No roads lead to it or by it; the footpath peters out twice in ruses designed to deter curious hikers. Knowing my father’s penchant for spectacle, I’m surprised he didn’t have the house constructed on a cleared hilltop. Its grandeur would blind everyone for miles.

I have a recurring dream every Sunday night: only on Sunday night, at the end of my twenty-four hour sequester. I am standing before the house at dusk. Twilight engorges the peaks and spires with refracted purples, glittering oranges. As the sun drops below the horizon the house shudders, begins to rise, the earth whispering as it crumbles off the swelling mound of foundation. Beneath is a dome, a vast gleaming head pushing its way upward, the house balanced atop like a crown…

I know I should hate this place, or at least be terrified. The first time all of the old man came forward to greet me, I threw up. Recycled sour mash beneath my feet as I tried to run, but I did not yet know how to navigate in this place. He surrounded me quite easily, so that I crashed into him twice. More close catastrophes; breaking any portion of the reflective surfaces within the house is also a violation of the will. That first Sunday, I could do little more than cling to the ottoman in the foray — the first piece of furniture I managed to stabilize myself against. Twenty-four hours of eye-clenched sobbing and alcoholic dry-heaves as the old man watched. Their expressions never have changed in the five years I have been staying in the house: an unblinking stare, so piercing it is a surprise the mirrors don’t spontaneously shatter.

So how do I continue? The numbing effects of routine, for one. More important though is the acute awareness that this is my sole means of support. Socializing and drinking leave little time for drudgery such as work. This is not elitist; this is self-awareness. I have never held a job in my life and will never need to — as long as I have Father’s money.

Never underestimate what a person will endure to survival. It is surreal, but it is only one day a week. I imagine many people tolerate church in much the same way. The old man stays confined here in the house; they do not traipse after me in the streets, or follow me to the bars. They have never attempted to harm me. I understand the phenomena of the old man about as well as I understand the distillation process of scotch — which is to say, not at all. In both cases I refuse to let details get in the way.

I suppose if there were some means of understanding how the house operates, some opportunity, then yes I would investigate. But the will forbids me from even speaking of the house’s unusualness, so I have little choice but to quietly persevere. It’s not that bad actually. Yes, there was the incident of cutting my face open, but I’ve moved beyond that —

A knock at the front door.

We pause, precise in our simultaneity. Silence hangs in the air like the strings of grapefruit that dangle from our spoons.

Impossible.

Well, not impossible; I suppose a hiker could have persisted on the trail. But very unlikely. In the five years I have been staying here, I have never had any visitors.

Three solid bangs echo again.

I look up from my breakfast to the old man. My fingers absently trace the scar on my face; it runs from the far corner of my right eye to loop down under my mouth. Since the scar does not appear in the mirrors, I must rely purely on touch. The old man mimics my motion, their own hands passing over decrepit-but-unscarred faces. Well, what do you make of this?

A flicker of smiles? Like rats or other small creatures, scurrying in the outskirt glow of a fire? No, I don’t believe that. A trick of imagination. The old man doesn’t react, they never react. I resolve to ignore this lapse of reason, ignore my supposed visitor as well. I turn our attention back to the grapefruit.

“I know you’re in there, Mr. Catoptra.”

The voice freezes the spoon between our teeth. This is no random hiker. Not even Father’s lawyer knew the address to the house; I’d had to acquire it from a secret safety deposit box. A business associate, someone involved with the construction of the house?

“Mr. Catoptra! Come out, Mr. Catoptra!”

We rise from the table in a nausea-inducing whirl. I learned long ago not to look too carefully when we move, least vertigo seize us and leave me in vomiting fits. The vaulted crystalline ceilings of the main hallway resemble an icy cavern. Though straight, the hall is a labyrinth of the old man, stretching taller and more askew the nearer I approach them. Then, just when it seems we can grow no closer, they refract before my approach, the images angling through the mirrored seams of the walls to reappear behind me. Still watching. Tiny versions of him flicker in the self-propagating side passages I cross by.

“You must come out Mr. Catoptra! You must come out!” The visitor sounds feverish with need.

I rest my head against the immense front door. The cold reflective surface could well have felt like the old man’s skin. He and I stare at each other, balanced on our foreheads. I try to imagine who is on the other side of this glass, calling to me, but only the old man fills my vision.

My face is nowhere in the reflection. My hands, my clothing, everything else but the face matches. Wrinkled and worn beyond comprehension, the visage in the mirror looks many hundred years old. The skin is stretched tight over the skull, as translucent as wet parchment, with tiny forks of blue jutting throughout the bare scalp. The grooves of the skull are visible beneath that membranous skin. Hair begins just above the ears, flowing far down the back in a curtain of spider web. The pupils had retreated deep into the eye sockets, giving the impression of two rodents watching suspiciously from caves. Beneath the shriveled ridge of nose lies only a scrawled line for a mouth; the lips have apparently disappeared or fallen off.

But no scar.

“Oh! Oh,” The visitor seems to be struggling to remember a sequence, or a script. “The will… If you won’t come out, then you must let me in. I know about the will, the stipulations! My presence will not cost you your fortune. In fact, it is only through me that you can truly receive what is yours. By birthright!”

Who are you? I want to scream.

“Mr. Catoptra, let me in!”

But what of the money? Father’s will stipulated I must stay alone in the house — no, wait. The letter of the will states that I can bring no one with me. It said nothing of visitors, or strangers. Those coming of their own accord. And this man apparently knew that fact.

I rub my chin, again feeling the scar. I’d still been drunk that Sunday morning when I had devised my “test”. I remember the drag of the paring knife against my ocular bone, and waiting to see a red tear appear beneath that ancient eye. When none did, I pushed harder, the knife slipping off the bone and digging into my check, tearing down and still no reaction from the old man, his hand rubbing at the parched texture of his skin as mine carved a runny sign into my own, an upside-down question mark…

What will my visitor see, when he looks into the house? Above all else, this is the question that guides my hand to pull the door back.

The sunlight rushes me like some bright beast, setting the mirrors aglow. Squinting, hand half-raised in protection, I remain composed enough to say, “Call me Thomas. Mr. Catoptra was my father.”

In my first glared vision of him, he takes a startled hop. Slightly short, slightly balding. Stocky, in the manner of middle-aged men who fight the sag of time with weights. The priest’s collar is too tight on him, creating a donut of flesh beneath his jaw.

“I know, Mr. Catoptra. But I have news, news of a glorious resurrection!”

I almost burst into laughter. All this, for some overly-ambitious apostle, a door-to-door faith seller? Something familiar though, about that phrase, about the meter of the words as they flow from his mouth. I consider his neck again, suddenly placing that thick ring of skin in memory’s context. “You were the minister, at my father’s funeral.”

“Yes. Yes, I was.” His eyes burn like the old man’s: alit with anticipation, but trembling too. Excitement? Fear? He hoists a small case. “I have something for you, Mr. Catoptra. May I come in?”

“Call me Thomas,” I repeat, “and prepare yourself.”

I take hold of his shoulder, to steady him as he enters. No change in the expression of the old man. The priest, though, drops him to his knees at the sight.

“Oh,” he breaths,”oh, our faith is a mighty faith…” He is overwhelmed, but not at all surprised.

The priest’s reflections are perfectly normal. I am suddenly close to tears. “Can you — explain this, explain any of this?”

From his knees, the priest fumbles with the case. “All will become clear… will become clear…”

He draws forth a glittering chunk of crystal, hollow through its center, smooth on the bottom but thick and jagged along its upper rim. He needs both hands to lift its weight toward the mirrors.

I cannot deny the old man’s movement this time — a drawing up of the shoulders, the mouth cracking into smile to reveal teeth opaque in rot and waxy shine.

“This is yours, Mr. Catoptra.” He rises from his knees. The crystal’s peaks and spires flash with fire as he approaches me reverently, as if bestowing something upon me, presenting me with a gift fit for a king…

King… peaks and spires… the images of my dream rush back to me, of something huge beneath the house awakening. The crystal the priest holds is in the shape of a crown…

“Wait,” I murmur. Again, stronger. “Wait.”

The priest hesitates, his outstretched hands faltering. “But Mr. Catoptra — ”

“Stop calling me that!”

The old man was actively moving now, flickering back and forth like panthers in a zoo. The priest looks to them as if for guidance, his mouth slack in uncertainty.

“I think you should leave now, “I try to say it with command.

The old man hisses, the mirrors vibrating against each other in a rattlesnake-warning. This was all the prompting the priest needed. He seems to gather his courage and his bulk as he hefts the crown high, advances on me. “Mr. Catoptra, you will receive this gift — ”

I strike him straight between his upraised arms, my fist against his mouth. No blood, just a smack like hitting a mound of clay. He stops, more surprised than hurt, and I swing again. A very lucky blow — his nose bursts, sending splatters across his collar. The drops are cast in violet-scarlet against the glowing crown.

The crown slips from his hands as he instinctively grabs for his face. It clatters across the ground with fantastical sounds, like lasers firing. The old man’s gaze is locked on the bouncing crown, his wrinkly maw caught between rage and horror.

I dart past the priest, intending to escape deeper into the house, but a blood-wet and powerful hand seizes my arm. The priest grins at me, his mouth ringed in gore and snot as he flings me into a wall. My temple rams the mirror, somehow not breaking the glass but immediately swelling my eye. Jarred to inactivity, I manage to note that the old man no longer matches any of my movements; instead, they soundlessly pound their fists against the mirrors in frustration.

The priest retrieves the crown at his feet and charges me, the crystal drawn back like a weapon. However, his inexperience at moving in the house leaves him vulnerable to the glare and reflections, the hundred images of the old man and himself swarming beside us, over our heads, under our feet. Within five steps vertigo leaves him staggering.

I slip back to him as fast as I dare. His eyes strain to use me as a solitary point of focus, but I drop low at the last second, bringing my shoulder into his stomach. He stumbles, trying to strike my head with the crystal. It passes heavy and sharp by my ear as I manage to spin him. He sways with dizziness, and I shove him again, this time at the shoulder. Now it is all he can do to stay on his feet as his own twisting reflection throws him more off-balance. The blood pounds through my inflated eye as I spin him a half-dozen full turns.

The crown again drops to the floor, followed a second later by the priest. He is on his hands and knees, his head lolling. I instinctively kick him in the face. The back of his skull makes a satisfying thunk as it hits the floor.

The scores of the old man surrounding me are livid, dancing in fury. It is contagious: I am suddenly sick to death of this damn house, and the game of my father’s will, and this ancient specter that haunts me. In a fit of madness I grab the heavy crown from the floor, meaning to smash every mirror in sight to pieces…

But something strange: a tingling in my hand where I hold the crown, spreading up my arm and branching through my body like an electrical current. I find myself lifting the crown above my head, grasping it with both hands before lowering it, the brush of cold light against my skull, the flaaasssh — and suddenly I KNOW…

I let out a breath I have held for years. “It’s about damn time.”

Father Phillip is recovered enough that he has raised himself up on one elbow. He looks at me cautiously, hopefully. “Mr. Catoptra?”

“Yes.” Repeating it, listening to the sound of this voice. “YES!”

My calculations had been right. Only five years! I would have never dreamed to come back that quickly. I knew the house was the key. The crown was the trigger, of course, but my image had needed somewhere to reside, somewhere to build power en mass so that when the crown was presented, all that was needed was contact.

In the very beginning, I’d had neither the wealth nor the technology for such a feat. Per my instructions, Father Phillips’ family had simply confined my son to the bottom of a dry well, hands and feet bound, with only a huge shard of glass before him. That first time took over a quarter of a century: he was quite mad by the time I was able to inhabit him. My son Gerald — Thomas’ great-grandfather.

I bring my hands to my face, feeling. The eye is tender, will be bruised for days. The scar, though, that scar he had so foolishly cut into this wonderful flesh, that mark is completely gone.

Well, completely removed from my visage.

Within the mirrors stand dozens of scar-faced Thomases. Their pounding fists against the glass are as silent as their noiseless shrieks. Already they are beginning to disperse, like morning mist before the hot sun. Soon, the mirrors are completely empty.

I turn back to Father Phillip. His family had always served as my attendant, my awakener. I am part of their religion now, my raising a familial honor passed down from father to son. And in all my resurrections, I have never seen a more slip-shod performance.

“He almost escaped,” I say as I advance on him. “And then you actually threw him at the mirrors. Do you have ANY idea what would have happened if one of those had broke?”

He opens his mouth to apologize, and with one hand I whip the crown down from my head. The points of the crystal cleave through his skull like the teeth of a bear-trap.

I spend the next hours anointing every mirror in the house with his blood, re-charging them. Luckily, Pastor Philip already has a family. Tomorrow, when they learn of his fatal car crash, I will pay a visit to his son, both to express my condolences and to ensure that he does not lose the faith that has guided his family for generations.

And speaking of generations, it is time for me to strip off these bloody rags. My return calls for a celebration, a night out on the town. Thomas’ true love affair may have been with the bottle, but it is not right for a young man to be alone. He is far overdue to meet a special young lady, start a family.

I think I’ll make a wonderful father. I already have the perfect house picked out for us.

 

 

Sam Minier has over thirty stories and poems published in markets such as Flesh and Blood, Space & Time, Chi-Zine, Gothic.Net, and the due-soon anthologies Fear of the Dark, Dead Winter, and Deathgrip 3: It Came From the Cinema. He has also received two Honorable Mentions in Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror and was nominated for the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s 2001 Rhysling Award. He hopes to have a web site of his work ready to go by Spring 2004.


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ISSUE #14

Winter 2004

FICTION

ART