The Three-Panel Mirror

 

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Behold, the short ghost story (set in a tuxedo rental shop and involving a wrench) that I composed for the first round of the 2016 Flash Fiction Challenge. It scored 12 out of 15 points, which means I ended up 4th in my group out of a few hundred, and get to move on to Round 2 in pretty good shape! I’m faklempt!  

Synopsis: A young woman with doubts about her impending marriage has a disturbing experience on a pre-wedding errand. Is it just her vivid imagination, or should she heed the warning only she can see?

***

The thought of Brett wearing a rented tux to our own wedding made me question my judgment all over again. Sure, buying one wouldn’t be cheap, but I didn’t want our future contaminated by the karma of the strangers who’d worn that tux first. Brett thought I was crazy. He couldn’t justify spending money on something he’d only be using for a few hours. I saw his point, but I also saw someone who clearly didn’t think the way I did.

So here we were in the sticks of New Jersey, on a day with a really weird vibe, checking out a tuxedo rental place my future in-laws had recommended. Like any place they’d ever recommended, this one – Drago’s – was close to their house and owned by the son of a third cousin twice removed or random neighbor from the old country who would “take care of us.”

I remained skeptical, and the unexpectedly rural roads started to seem increasingly “Deliverance”-esque.

“We’re about 10 minutes away,” Brett said as he noticed me looking out the window at what could only have been an abandoned mental hospital. Its sign read, “Mount Hope Manor.”

It was set back from the road but that didn’t matter. I could still make out the emaciated, terrified faces of patients forced to undergo bizarre and cruel psychiatric treatments that would one day be investigated by Detective Lilly Rush on “Cold Case.”

Shudder.

Drago’s turned out to be a tiny storefront attached to Ivanko’s Hardware on one side and an old- timey deli that still sold Tab on the other. The interior reminded me of Brett’s grandma’s apartment: wood paneled walls and cabinets; forest green carpet; ornate Eastern Orthodox crosses; gauzy curtains trimmed in deep red embroidery that I now recognized as rushnyk. Also, it smelled like 1945.

Drago himself was about 50, with wavy salt and pepper hair. He wore black pants, a tight, polyester striped button-down, and an onyx pinky ring. He wasn’t unattractive, but I sensed something sinister about him – which might have been what made him not unattractive.

He offered me water and coffee but I declined, knowing that any beverage he served would be spiked with a medieval roofie.

Brett explained what he wanted then disappeared into the dressing room. Drago said he’d pick out a few options, then winked at me as he headed into the “back.” I wondered what else he kept in the “back.” I wondered if I should cancel the wedding. I wondered if Brett would ever put together our new bookshelves. Suddenly this last point seemed extremely urgent.

“Brett! When are you doing the bookshelves?”

He stuck his head out. “I told you – we don’t have the right wrench. We’ll stop and get one from my dad on the way home. You know … you’d probably be a lot less stressed if you focused on one thing at a time.”

I rolled my eyes.

Drago returned with an armful of tuxes. Feeling uneasy, I made the executive decision to run next door to the hardware store while Brett changed. I bought the wrench so we didn’t need to stop at his parents’, thus hastening our exit from these parts. When I came back, wrench in hand, Brett was standing in front of the three-panel mirror in Tuxedo Option 1.

I looked at Brett and he was Brett, handsome as usual in a tux with a silly cummerbund. But when I looked in the mirror, it wasn’t Brett’s reflection. It was someone else entirely: a kid, 16 or 17, with red hair and freckles and a rather unfortunate nose, wearing the same tux Brett had on now. I blinked. The kid was still there. Brett was still there.

The wrench fell to the floor with a thud, narrowly missing my foot.

“What you think of tux? Ees beautiful, no?” Drago asked in his Eastern European accent, patting Brett on the shoulder.

Before I could open my mouth to respond, someone with a much younger voice said, “Car crash. Drunk driver.”

Shudder again.

“No cummerbund,” I told Brett. “It’s not a prom.”

Brett went back to the dressing room and the red-headed teenager vanished.

When he came out in Tuxedo Option 2, I took a very quick glance at his back, hoping to avoid anyone who wasn’t physically in the store, then tried to engross myself in a text message.

Brett turned around. “Are you even looking?”

Reflexively, I lifted my head. This time, instead of the correct reflection, I saw a beefy, very athletic man in Tuxedo 2 – mid 20s, with a crew cut.

I waited and then heard, “Last day of second tour in Afghanistan, IED.”

Third shudder of the day and we weren’t done yet.

“The lapels are cheesy,” I said quickly. “Just pick a really plain one, put it on, and we’ll get out of here.”

Brett was starting to get annoyed, understandably, and Drago didn’t look too thrilled either.

I braced myself for Option 3.

This one had ridiculous tails. I just shook my head, but not before I saw, in the mirror, a wholesome-looking suburban dad-type in the tux.

“Kidnapped. Tortured. Hung.”

Shudder 4, bordering on convulsion.

“It’s the tails, right?” Brett asked. “I agree – over the top. Let me try the next one.”

Let me just get OUT of here.

Brett modeled the fourth tux – which would have been perfect under any other circumstances.

“I like that one. But we should think about it for a little bit,” I said, practically walking out the door. “Get dressed. We have time to decide.”

“If you like it and I like it, why don’t we just take care of it now?” Brett wanted to know. “Why are you being weird?”

It had taken me a split second to process that when I looked at the mirror now, Brett’s reflection was in it.

 

 

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The Three-Panel Mirror