On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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His name was Michael, and he took shortcuts.
Anyone who has ever driven in a city knows that the main reason for delay isn’t distance, but rather congestion. The presence of others is the deciding factor. Thus, the least-populated route is invariably the fastest, even if it’s not the shortest. And Michael knew how to find one, no matter where he might be.
He had discovered the entrance when he was nineteen years old, and he was privately sure that it wouldn’t have been possible when he was any younger. Some things had to develop, and to awaken, and to become clear.
He had been drunk and angry at the time, standing in the shabby bathroom of his accommodation at the university where he was pursuing a degree he didn’t care about. He’d been out drinking with a few friends, and had gone home early, not in the best mood, but his anger was at himself. His palms were pressed against the flecked mirror over the sink, and in the moment when he truly hated his own reflection, he had felt a rapid wave of nausea — and then everything changed.
It took him only a moment to realise why the familiar bathroom looked suddenly so strange, and he actually did vomit into the toilet bowl, almost missing it because he’d first lurched in exactly the opposite direction.
Everything was around the wrong way; flipped along the axis from the glass. From the words on his t-shirt to the placement of the door and the sink and everything else. He was in the mirrored world he had always seen as an unreachable reflection, and when he looked into the mirror again, he saw nothing at all.
The incident was years ago, but it remained vivid in his memory. He had found out that it was empty in there, at least of other people. A silent, unpeopled, horizontally inverted parallel world, where he could be at ease, and move uninhibited. If he wasn’t within sight of a mirror, then he was entirely alone, and he could go wherever he wanted. The true world beyond the glass was still there, and still ticking away, but he would never be seen unless someone happened to notice him move quickly through the background of their own little reflected portal into the place that only he could go.
Michael had frightened a great many people by briefly appearing in their mirrors, usually just crossing quickly beyond a doorway, but then he was gone. No matter how many gasps or fading screams he heard, he knew that it would take only moments or minutes for rationalisations to kick in. He was a ghost in the peripheral vision of those staring at their own reflections; a psychological trick, or tiredness, or cause for making an appointment with an optician. Michael didn’t much care what they thought, or what they told themselves to think. His world was his own.
He learned to use the mirrors as an escape, at times, or a sanctuary, but mostly as a secret passage between places which would ordinarily be teeming with the great mass of humanity. Michael could always get there more quickly, because he could always choose a route where there just wasn’t anyone else to get in the way.
It was only in the last few months that he’d begun to feel uneasy.
The first time was when he had been stealing clothes from a large department store, which was easily done. Enter a mirror somewhere quiet, enter the store, find and try on the clothes in peace, remove the security tags and stash them somewhere, and then exit a mirror and retrieve the clothes without trouble. He’d been at the bottom of a deserted escalator on his way to a changing room where he would use the mirror to exit back in the normal world, when he felt that he was being watched. An intense feeling of scrutiny and danger, which had long since been absent from his journeys through the reflected places. He spun around, and there was the barest hint of a blurred shadow up above, on the higher floor that the escalator connected to, as if someone had ducked out of sight.
It happened again the following week, and twice in the same day not long afterwards. Then it happened again, and again. Michael started to fear the mirrored place, far more than he had when it was new to him, and even worse, he had began to feel hunted.
He avoided it completely for weeks, but its lure was too powerful, and soon he found himself acting as he had all those years before, racing from one mirror to the next, through known and familiar places, moving as fast as he could without looking back, in an attempt to reclaim his private domain. But still the feeling of pursuit remained. And today, as he ran down a deserted street in the evening, all of the road signs backwards and the houses and shops on the wrong sides, he finally heard the echo of racing footsteps behind him.
His pulse accelerated further, and he spurred himself on, because there were no mirrored surfaces here that he could use to escape back to the sane and populated world he had come from. The footsteps came closer. Michael panicked, unable to resist the ancient urge to see and gauge his pursuer, and after an instinctive sudden dash to one side and beyond the waist-high barrier of a parked vehicle, he turned and saw him.
The face was full of fury, and a strange blankness that was even more disturbing. Eyes that he could have drawn from memory if he had any artistic talent, and everything else just as he remembered too — but also subtly wrong. Left was right, and right was left. A doppelgänger, but seen through a mirror. It was him, but also not.
It was Michael backwards.
He knew at once that he was the prey in this place; the quarry on the home ground of its predator. A silent and empty world, given one more eternally trapped inhabitant by his own incursion. He glanced around in desperation, but there were no perfectly reflective surfaces in sight; his own world has barred to him. In this place, he was the trespasser.
Michael moved to run, but the reflection of him that was native to this world moved faster, and his last coherent thought was that this was the face he knew most well, flipped from left to right, with the hatred written so clearly upon it.
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