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Reflections in Black

Randall left work early again, feeling ill. Nothing definitive, a general fatigue, a general malaise—that was the word, although he’d never used it before. If he’d stayed in his chair another minute it would have required an army to get him out. He didn’t know where he belonged, but he didn’t belong there.

The bus was unusually crowded for the time of day. He wondered if there might be a concert or some such event. He found a seat quickly and hunched forward, trying to shut out the pack. But there were just too many of them, jostling about, not exactly noisy, but murmuring. That constant murmur. And they smelled: rank body odor and cigarettes, and things left out in the rain. But it had been a dry fall, so that stench had to be from something else.

He glanced around. Had they all been fighting? Their faces were discolored, bruised. That fellow’s nose had gone scarlet, swollen. The woman next to him appeared caked in blue, turning black around her eyes. Another woman’s lipstick smeared from both ends of her lips, as if a razor had widened her mouth. Some of their clothing was torn. He studied the women, seeking exposed flesh. It was an old habit, but he didn’t mean any harm. He simply liked women. Was that an exposed breast or an elbow? He felt vaguely ashamed, but he looked anyway. Another word he’d never used occurred to him: voyeur.

Their outfits were unusually colorful, some of the clothing beyond outlandish. They were in costume, he suddenly realized, but they’d been wearing their costumes too long, and now their costumes stank, and their makeup had deteriorated.

Halloween wasn’t until tomorrow—were people partying early? He’d never liked the holiday himself. It seemed such a sad and desperate celebration, poking at your fears for some supposed fun.

“Paula!” A female’s voice from the back of the bus. Maybe an objection. Maybe a warning. Randall couldn’t get the tone, the intent, or even the age of the speaker from just a single word. He turned around in his seat to see if he could tell who had said her name. Maybe, he thought, he might even see Paula herself. Would he even recognize her after so many years? He’d certainly had plenty of practice trying to imagine her older face, her body. Of course it was unlikely to be her, but what did they say? A small world.

His cell went off. One ring. He looked at the screen. “Not Available” was all it said.

“Paula!” He jerked his head up, looking for the speaker. No one looked at him. No one looked eager to speak. Each huddled to him- or herself, nursing their poorly disguised injuries, murmuring softly.

He’d always thought of her as the one who got away, although arguably he never had her in the first place. She’d been pleasant enough, and consented to his kisses. But never further, no matter how he’d suggested it, although he’d never been that direct. They’d gone to dinners and movies and he’d felt cowed by her quiet beauty. She was taller than him, and had that beautiful voice, especially when she laughed, or whispered into his ear. Those were early college days and he had lacked confidence. He never told her how he felt, and he had no idea how she felt about him. It was ridiculous to be thinking about her now, but someone had said her name, and he hadn’t had sex in a long time. If he could find that person he would tell them to shut up.

His cell went off again. “Not Available” flashed on the screen. He answered anyway. There was nothing but static on the line, and perhaps under that a distorted murmuring.

At his stop he pushed his way through the stinking crowd. Everything he touched left his hands feeling greasy. Climbing off he looked back to see if anyone watched him as the bus pulled away. It was hard to tell. The one face turned in his direction appeared to be sleeping.

As he walked home it occurred to him how the homeless huddled under steps and in alleys appeared to be in costume, but for them it was constant and involuntary. But he was romanticizing things again—it had always been his problem. After the breakup Miranda said he’d always expected too much—he had too much imagination—that was why they’d ended up hating each other. She’d been the last of many.

Randall had been furious at that comment. It was as if Miranda had broken the rules—it was over, she had no reason to say anything. That night he’d tried to track Paula down. Maybe she was still unattached. Of course it was just a fantasy that they might reconnect, but such things did happen in the real world.

But he couldn’t find a “Paula Jenks” on any of the social media. A general internet search turned up very few possibilities of the right age. She might have married, of course, and had a new last name. Women were difficult that way—it made it more complicated to track them down. The websites wanted a credit card number to delve further. It felt a bit too desperate to pursue things that far, however. He would have felt like some sort of stalker. So Randall had let it go.

He felt deflated as soon as he entered his apartment. He hated the familiarity of it. No matter how much he rearranged things it always felt the same, and nothing at all like where he should live. Perhaps if he had more room, or even a house, he could turn his environment into some sort of sanctuary. But that required more money, and although he was in a job he couldn’t stand, he couldn’t imagine another.

He went into the dingy bathroom and washed his face. In the dim light his reflection looked darkened, bruised, and mottled as if make-up had been applied to unsuccessfully hide the damage. He was only forty, but aging poorly. Tomorrow he would wear dark glasses for his commute. He thought he had a pair large enough to disguise things.

Revelers outside his windows were breaking things. What had gotten into people? If it was this bad the night before Halloween, what could he expect on the actual night? He vaguely remembered a name for this night from when he was a kid. “Malice Night” or “Prank Night”? No, Mischief Night was what they had called it, but he didn’t remember it being anything like this.

He thought he’d successfully put Paula out of his mind until he’d heard her name on the bus. It seemed possible the experience had ruined him. A month after he’d given up searching for her he’d been drinking and thought he’d try again. Who cared how it looked? Maybe Paula would be pleased to hear from him. Maybe she’d been thinking of him too. He chose one of those “lost loves” websites and entered his credit card information. He felt relieved that he didn’t have to talk to a live person. The website just asked him a series of questions and he typed in all he could remember. He remembered she was a year younger, so he knew the year she was born, and he remembered she had lived in Georgia all her life, so she had probably been born there as well. He knew where her mother had lived, but he couldn’t remember the exact address, but he thought he might recognize it if he saw it. He might have even visited Paula there, or had he?

He’d been excited when her social security number came up. There were flashing screens and “progress” bars—all for show he presumed—with intermittent results. Randall had been much less excited when a married name came up, “Paula Duncan.” Husband named Frank and an address where both of them lived. Then after an agonizing period of more so-called “processing,” there was an obituary notice for Paula Duncan from a mortuary in the town where Frank and Paula Duncan lived. A vague disappointment consumed him. He did some more checking with the social security number he had. In one of the online records that number came up “deceased.”

And that was that. The service charged his credit card and didn’t even offer condolences. Why should it? He hadn’t been the husband. It made him feel vaguely dirty, as if he’d been peeping through the bedroom window of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Duncan.

Randall couldn’t say he was heartbroken. He was saddened, certainly, to think someone so vibrant, so beautiful, someone he might have loved was gone. But he hadn’t seen Paula in years. It had been merely a pitiful fantasy.

Then today happened. Whoever the Paula had been on the bus she hadn’t been his Paula, and he needed to stop thinking his, because she never had been.

Randall’s cell phone rang. He picked it up off the coffee table, expecting to see “Not Available” again. But this time the screen said “Paula Jenks.” He frantically hit the button and fumbled it to his ear. “Hello?”

No one spoke. There was a hollow, liquid sort of background noise, a soft echoing effect, as if the phone were at the bottom of a well. “Hello?”

A clicking noise. Then, “Hello, is this Randall?” He didn’t recognize the voice, and as had become his habit when dealing with telephone solicitors and scammers, he avoided saying ‘yes.’ “This is Randall.”

“Randall, this is Alice Jenks. Paula’s mother.”

“Oh. Oh, Mrs. Jenks. I’m sorry. I heard . . . ”

“The reason I’m calling is because Paula has been trying to get in touch with you.”

His eyes filled with tears. “I’m sorry. I heard that Paula died. I’m just so relieved . . . ”

“Died? Who would say such a thing?”

He could tell her the truth, but it was embarrassing. He couldn’t think of a way to say it without sounding creepy. “I’m sorry, it was on social media. You know how that goes, rumors and half-truths. Obviously it was a different Paula.”

“Well, I don’t have the internet, but I know how people are.”

“Could I speak to Paula?”

There was a pause, with more liquid clicking. Randall thought they’d lost the connection. “I’m afraid not. She’s lying down, feeling poorly I’m afraid, poor dear. She’s been trying and trying to contact you, with no luck at all. She became quite worked up over it, actually. I told her to rest. But I had to promise I would make the attempt for her. If I hadn’t I didn’t think she would fall asleep.”

“How did she try to contact me? I’ve moved a few times, but I’ve always left a forwarding address. And I have email, social media . . . ”

“Oh, my daughter doesn’t own a computer. I believe she may have written you a few times over the years and you never answered. She gave me this phone number. She wrote it on this pad by the phone, several times in fact. The same number, but several times so she wouldn’t forget. But she couldn’t reach you.”

“I didn’t get her letters. If I had gotten one of her letters I absolutely would have written her back. And I don’t have any phone messages from her.”

“Oh, I don’t think she would have left a message. She hates speaking to those machines. But Randall, she would absolutely love to see you, she really would. She’s been in poor health for years, but I think seeing you would make all the difference.”

Would it be rude to ask what was wrong with Paula? He wasn’t sure, and he didn’t want this woman to think it would make some crucial difference to him. “Of course I can come sometime. Where do you live?”

“Might you come right away? She feels so badly, I frankly worry about her. Could you come for Halloween? She dreads the holiday, all those costumes and masks, that morbid preoccupation. We’re in the same house, a few miles from the old campus. Are you very far away?”

“Not at all. Give me the address. I have to take care of a few things, but I’ll be there tomorrow night.”

He was at least twenty hours away by car, probably more, and he didn’t own an automobile. Randall left a phone message for his boss telling him he was much sicker than he thought. He threw some clothes into a bag and left the apartment.

The rental was much too high but he had little choice. He hadn’t driven in a while, but his initial nervousness passed once he got out of the city and onto the highway. He kept his cell phone on, lying on the passenger seat beside him. He expected the woman to call back, confessing that it had all been some tasteless Mischief Night prank, but she never did.

Once he crossed over into Maryland he could see that a large number of people were out—teenagers mostly, running around in the dark, yelling and breaking things, screaming in pain or excitement. At one point he had to veer around two figures in clown suits in the middle of the road. He couldn’t be sure, but his impression was they had been copulating. They howled as he passed.

He’d never liked driving at night. As it was he had no idea if he would make it to Paula’s house by Halloween night, or what it might mean if he didn’t. Perhaps nothing, or perhaps everything. Timing mattered in life, and his timing had always been mediocre at best. He was bound to lose his job, but it certainly wouldn’t break his heart.

Paula would be much older than the woman he remembered, the woman he might have loved, but then so was he. She probably still had the eyes, those high cheekbones, that beautiful voice. He hoped she still had the smile.

Randall’s night vision wasn’t what it used to be. That was clear now that he was out here, the lights from the oncoming cars stabbing his eyes. The reflections off his windshield felt dangerous, confusing.

It nagged at him that he was travelling all this way without actually having talked to Paula. Her mother had sounded sincere but here he was driving hundreds of miles with no sleep because of a phone call from a woman he might or might not have met.

About 2 AM in a rural area beyond Richmond he ran over something. He didn’t see it until he was about to hit it, and he still had no idea what it was. A mound of clothes, seemingly, but there was hair, or fur, in a streak along the top. And it screamed when he ran over it.

He stopped a few yards ahead of the object and glanced in his rear-view mirror. He couldn’t see very much with his tail lights, but whatever it was, it didn’t appear to be moving. The responsible thing to do, of course, was to walk back there and check. What if that was a human being?

But he hesitated. He hadn’t seen any other vehicles the past half hour or so. The area was poorly lit, and although there was a building just off the roadway, some sort of maintenance shed, it was dark, and there were no other structures in view, no one to call out to if he needed help.

He grabbed his cell phone. No bars, but a 9-1-1 call might still go through. Something flashed by the car. He looked up. Several dancing ragged figures—perhaps they were meant to be scarecrows—shouted at him nonsensically.

Something slapped his driver’s side window. He stared into the bloody red face. “Watch where you’re driving!” it shouted, moving its lips in exaggerated fashion. What he thought was blood was actually some sort of paint, garish and dripping. He drove the car slowly through a growing crowd of garishly-dressed revelers, who sprawled on and off the hood, daring him to hurt one of them. He was tempted to hit the gas pedal a few times, but what if he actually hurt someone? He would be charged—he might even go to prison. This went on for two or three miles before, seemingly bored, they let him go.

After a few more hours his cell phone rang. He jumped, almost running off the road. Paula’s name flashed on the screen. When he picked it up her mother got straight to the point. “So are you coming?”

“Yes, yes. Like I said, I’m coming. It might just take me awhile.”

“I just wanted to make sure. She’s been asking.”

“Tell her I’ll be there. But I have to hang up now.”

“Alright, but please come.” She hung up. They were up late, but then so was he. He wasn’t sure why, but he felt as if she thought he’d somehow wronged Paula. But it was such a long time ago, and they’d been so young, babies practically.

He made a few wrong turns, and became lost more than once. He drove part of the next day in the completely wrong direction. He was going to be late, he supposed, but was now too tired to care. By the next evening, Halloween night, he stopped paying attention to all the people in disguise. It seemed somehow normal, as if they were at last displaying their true selves, however deplorable. Once or twice someone spit at the car, or struck it with something. Randall didn’t stop.

Somewhere in Alabama both headlights went out. Randall was so tired he almost didn’t notice, and when he did realize he simply stared straight ahead, counting on the moonlight and occasional streetlight and the luminous paint on the edges of the road to show him the way. Eventually they came back on as suddenly as they had gone out.

It began to rain about an hour from his destination. Randall turned the wipers on but they weren’t making good contact with the windshield and left a thin skim of water after each swipe of the blades. He had to lean over the steering wheel and gaze intently through a confusing array of fragmented street lights in order to stay safely on the road. Eventually the rain let up as he entered a series of narrow neighborhood streets. Leaves were down everywhere, making a dark and nasty mess in the gutters. Water pooled in spots on the uneven pavement, shimmering with yellowish reflections. The only signs of trick-or-treaters were some scattered candy wrappers and a few soggy remnants of costume, scarves, gloves, random bits of cloth, and what looked to be a cheap mask torn in half, dropped in the hurry to get home.

He pulled up in front of the address a little past eleven. He sat for a few minutes, thinking it looked vaguely familiar. He remembered coming here with Paula, but he wasn’t positive it actually happened. The house was a typical Victorian: sash windows, stained glass, and a finial on the roof, a canted bay window in front, geometric tiled walk and a round tower at one corner. It was hard to tell how big it was, or even the exact color. Tall unkempt evergreen bushes and trees hugging it so closely kept it dark and secretive, in contrast to the neighboring properties and their denuded trees. He’d barely been aware of the change of seasons when he left the city. Here it appeared full-blown, almost past.

He hadn’t yet decided what to say to her. He trotted up the walk before he could lose his nerve. Several windows were lit, so he assumed they were waiting for him.

The door opened before he could ring the bell. A woman’s pale face: could this be Paula, aged so harshly? No, surely too old and too short.

“I presume you’re Randall?” Her voice surprised him with its strength. She sounded almost angry.

“Yes. I’m sorry it’s so late, but I got here as soon as I could.”

“It will do.”

She guided him through a short hall and into some sort of sitting room. Although there were lights on in the house the rooms were dim. Perhaps the darkness of the wallpaper and the overdone décor were too much to overcome. This room was relatively tidy except for tall stacks of women’s magazines piled sloppily by each chair. There were a number of pictures on the side tables. All of them were of Paula around the age Randall had known her, but none newer than that.

“Paula will be joining you soon. She requires a little time to get ready.”

“Do you have a more recent photograph of her somewhere?” Maybe it was rude to ask so quickly, but that’s what was on his mind.

“My daughter doesn’t like to get her picture taken. I approve of that. I’ve always thought there was too much vanity in the world.”

He sat down in a chair by the window. It was low, and he had bad knees. He worried that it might be a struggle to get out of it. “I think you’re right. I hate getting my picture taken myself. I don’t, usually. I think the last time was when I renewed my license.”

“My daughter doesn’t drive. She doesn’t feel the need to.”

“I see.” Although he didn’t, really. The Paula he’d known had loved touring around, driving to new places.

The old woman sat down and stared at him with an expression that was almost a smile but not quite. Calculated interest, perhaps. Because of the lowness of his chair he had to look up at her. He felt as if he were under observation.

“It’s been years since you’ve seen my daughter. Have you thought about her very much?”

He squirmed. “Yes, yes I have. I have many fond memories. And sometimes I wondered how she was doing.”

“And yet you never called.”

“I . . . think I called. I’m pretty sure I tried. But you know how it is. People move around, their lives get complicated. Before you know it years have passed.”

“My daughter has never moved. She has been here all these years.” Paula’s mother leaned forward slightly. Randall had the uneasy feeling she might leap on him and he wouldn’t be able to get out of the chair in time.

“I’m s-sorry,” he said. “I should have tried harder.”

“You became involved in your own concerns, your own . . . passions. I imagine you only thought of her when you were between women, when your appetites made you remember how beautiful she was. That is often the way with you men, I think.”

Surely it was more complicated than that, Randall thought. He really had cared for her. But he thought about the timing she suggested, and saw the truth in it. But still he said, “No. It wasn’t like that. I never stopped caring for her. Please, can I see her now?”

She didn’t answer right away. She turned her head and raised an eyebrow, as if listening for something. There was another open door on the other side of the room leading somewhere else in the house. Randall leaned slightly and tried to look through it. It was a hallway, and very dark, but he thought he saw a glimmer of something, and movement.

“She’ll be down soon, I promise.” He straightened up quickly, unaccountably nervous that she had seen him looking. “She just wants to look her best for you. She was always a pretty girl, but the years, they do things to the best of us, and shallow people, they sometimes judge us harshly.”

“She was always beautiful. I’m sure she still is. A few wrinkles, a few extra pounds—that doesn’t bother me, I promise. Look at me, I’m not perfect.”

“No, you are not,” she replied. He guessed she wasn’t going to let him get away with anything. “You have to look past the surface to see the person inside. Tell me, if I were able to look inside you, Randall, what would I see?”

“I . . . I don’t know how to answer that.” But some words came readily to mind. Petty, bitter, impatient, disappointed. So he was dishonest as well. “I guess you’d be disappointed.”

“Only if I had misjudged you, Randall. Only then.” She turned her head and looked back through the entrance hall from which they’d entered this room. “I see it is only a few minutes before midnight.” Had there been a clock in the hall? He certainly hadn’t seen one. “Do you like Halloween, Randall? Are you familiar with its customs?”

“I dressed up and went trick-or-treating as a child. I guess I haven’t thought much about it since then. I was never into scary stuff. I never could understand why anyone would want to be scared, frankly.”

“For some, it is evidence that they are still alive. You are alive, aren’t you Randall?”

He forced out an awkward laugh. In truth, he felt as if he could hardly breathe in this house. “As far, as far as I know.” The forced laugh he repeated made him feel a bit crazed.

“You are a lucky man, certainly. The approaching hour provides us with a unique opportunity.” She smiled widely, exposing several broken and missing teeth. “There is a traditional Halloween ritual. I recall it very well from when I was a young woman of marrying age. I remember being so eager to participate in this ritual, as were many of my friends. Do you want to hear about it?”

Of course he didn’t want to hear about it, but he couldn’t imagine saying no with her looking at him like that. “Of course. Please tell me.”

“It’s quite a lot of fun, actually. When you’re young you’re always wondering what is going to happen to you, what you might be in for in your life. More so than when you’re older, I think. When you’re older you already know what’s going to happen to you.”

“I guess. I guess that’s true.”

“Very good. We are on the same page, then, Randall. The ritual is simply this. At midnight on Halloween a young man or young woman turns off all the lights and stares into a mirror. Eventually, according to this ritual, you will see the face of your future spouse standing behind you, looking over your shoulder. Isn’t that delightful? Doesn’t that sound like fun?”

“I guess. I guess I can see how that would be fun, if you were young enough.”

“Oh, don’t be such a stick in the mud, Randall! Do you think my lovely daughter would be interested in a stick in the mud? Play along, why don’t you? It’s something to do until she comes down. And let’s just say you see her face in the mirror, looking over your shoulder. Think of her reaction if you told her that! It would likely make her very pleased, don’t you think?”

“It might.” It was an interesting idea. It gave him something to open with when he finally saw Paula. And he could tell her anything—it didn’t matter what he actually saw in the mirror. He didn’t expect to see anything. But he could tell Paula he saw her in the mirror, and how beautiful she was, but not nearly as beautiful as she was actually standing there in front of him. “I’ll do it. Where’s the mirror?”

“We only have the one. In this entire house, only the one mirror. It’s hanging on the wall at the end of that hall.” She gestured to that other open door and the darkness beyond. “But you must hurry. It’s almost midnight. Soon it will be too late.”

Randall struggled out of his chair with some effort. It felt as if the air in the room was so heavy he could hardly move against it. He staggered a bit as he made his way to the open door. “Could you turn the light on in there? I can hardly see.”

“Oh, but Randall,” she said sternly behind him. “Weren’t you listening? The lights have to be out, or the game won’t work at all!”

Game, ritual, he wished she would make up her mind. He peered down the hall, his eyes struggling to adjust. There was that slight glimmer again. It must be the mirror, he thought. But no signs of movement. “Okay. Okay.”

He stepped forward a few steps. The lights in the sitting room went off behind him. “Hurry!” she said from the dark. Her voice rose. “There isn’t much time!”

He quickened his pace. The glimmer at the end of the hall appeared to change. Of course, he thought, because of his own movement. There was a sound behind him. Was the old woman following him in? He stared into the darkness, trying to concentrate, attempting to force his eyes to adjust.

“One more thing,” she said behind him, but her voice had subtly changed. “Voyeur.” Had he understood what she said? “If the viewer were destined to die before getting married, he or she would see something else entirely.” Her voice was completely different now, completely changed, reminding him of that voice he had heard, and been captivated by, that beautiful voice so many years ago.

“Midnight,” the voice said.

He was looking into the darkness so determinedly his head was splitting. But at last he was beginning to see his reflection in the black, his features distorted, melting, disappearing in patches, moving, rotating. A woman’s face rushed out of the darkness behind him and stopped above his shoulder. Paula was as beautiful as ever, unaged, until she too began to distort, the flesh melting from her bones, until that moment when they were exactly alike, two naked skulls, staring.

Originally published in Best British Horror 2: Dark Satanic Mills, edited by Stephen Jones.

About the Author

Steve Rasnic Tem is a past winner of the Bram Stoker, World Fantasy, and British Fantasy Awards. He’s published over 450 short stories. His most recent collections are The Night Doctor & Other Tales (Centipede Press), The Harvest Child And Other Fantasies (Crossroads), and Everything Is Fine Now (Omnium Gatherum). His last novel Ubo (Solaris, February 2017) is a dark science fictional tale about violence and its origins, featuring such historical viewpoint characters as Jack the Ripper, Stalin, and Heinrich Himmler. Yours To Tell: Dialogues on the Art & Practice of Writing, written with his late wife Melanie, appeared from Apex Books in 2017. In 2018 Valancourt Books published Figures Unseen, a volume of his Selected Stories.