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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Michael Abbey hadn’t been expecting to receive anything, and so the small package had come as a surprise when the postman left it carefully on his doorstep and stood back with a nod and a smile.
Abbey thanked the man, collecting the box and bringing it indoors. It rattled in a dry and muted way that triggered an obscure sensory association from childhood, but he couldn’t quite place the memory. He set the box down on the narrow table in the front hall, intending to deal with it later, but he only managed to walk five steps away before turning back.
Did I forget about another late-night impulse purchase? he wondered, wracking his brain without success. Frowning, he fetched a pair of scissors from a drawer in the kitchen and cut the tape, then opened the flaps and peered inside.
He saw a pile of monochromatic laminated cardboard shapes, plain black on one side and silver on the other.
A jigsaw puzzle.
Now he was even more confused. Abbey walked through to the living room and emptied the pieces onto his dining table, then performed what had become the standard ritual after receiving any mail during this latest lockdown of the ongoing pandemic: he took the box back to the kitchen, tore it into its component panels, slid them into the recycling bin, and washed his hands thoroughly with antibacterial liquid soap. It took only a minute or so, and then he was back at the dining table, frowning down at the sizeable pile of grey and black shapes.
Abbey picked up a few, seeing that they were all different, and of the usual sort of design: some straight edges, but mostly cut into interlocking loops and sockets. There were no markings at all on either side — just flat black, and flat silver. No picture, and nothing else in the box as a reference. Nor had there been any note, nor a return address.
He considered just sweeping it all into the recycling bin alongside its shipping container, but something about the oddness of it made him hesitate. It wasn’t like he was in the mood to watch television, or to read. He could just put some music on, sit at the table with a snack, and at least see if he could put a few pieces together. If it was too difficult, he’d just throw it away. Or maybe put it in a bag for the local charity shop.
With that matter settled, he began flipping the pieces over so that the silver sides were all facing up, reasoning that they were much easier to see and thus should be easier to assemble too. By chance, he found that two nearby edge pieces did in fact fit neatly together, clicking into place in that particular way that leaves no doubt as to them being neighbouring shapes. He smiled.
When Abbey next looked up to check the time, three hours had passed. There was an asymmetrical pattern of featureless silver shapes in front of him, entirely assembled around the edges and partially completed towards the centre too. He knew he really ought to go and make a proper lunch, but neither hunger nor even the growing pressure of his bladder seemed important just at the moment. He picked up another of the dwindling set of unplaced pieces, and pursed his lips.
Another glance at the clock on the mantlepiece, and somehow a further hour had disappeared. Abbey blinked, suddenly confused, and a moment later he became aware that his need to use the bathroom had now graduated to something like pain. He looked towards the door that would take him to the hallway and the downstairs toilet, but then he looked back at the puzzle. Incredibly, it was virtually complete; a sea of silver, except for a single small hole near the middle, still showing the wood grain of the table underneath. Abbey looked around the edges of the puzzle to find the remaining piece, and then he frowned as he saw that he was already holding it in his hand.
Might as well finish the thing, he thought, and he didn’t understand why his heart began to beat more quickly in his chest.
He pressed the final piece into place with a small smile of satisfaction, and then the smile faded as quickly as it had appeared.
At first, the silver was as hazy and opaque as it had always been. Reflecting the light from the window, but scattering it from the texture of the cardboard and the layer of refracting gloss on top of it. But then it changed. As if an evaporation was taking place, lifting a condensed liquid from a cold surface and into the air, the silver began to deepen. Blurred areas of indeterminate colour suddenly sharpened, becoming the recognisable reflections of the room around the table.
Abbey’s pulse accelerated again when he found that he couldn’t pull himself away. His legs no longer responded, and his palms were still pressed against the table surface, just scant centimetres on either side of the mirrored surface that was still inlaid with the skewed, curving lines of the pieces which had formed it. Abbey tried to close his eyes, or at least look away, and found that he was likewise powerless to do so.
His own face came into view, but there was something wrong with it. It was several seconds before he saw that it was mirrored; flipped left to right. The expression on his reflection’s face was one of paralysed horror.
He saw the living room, but from all angles. The door to the hallway. The sofa, and the armchair. The painting on the wall above the fireplace. All of the chairs around the dining table were empty.
Then Abbey realised that he was the one inside, looking out.
And he was not alone.
I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love to hear from you; I'm @mattgemmell on Twitter.
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