Maze of Mirrors — New Short Story

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Maze of Mirrors

“Come on, Jessica,” Charlie said. “You used to love the fair.”

He was right—I did. I used to love a lot of things.

Now I wasn’t so sure.

The sun was setting, and the lights were coming on at the state fair. Neon lights in red and blue were blinking into life on all of the rides, and the merchants’ stalls and concession stands were lighting up in shades of white and gold.

I could smell the powdered-sugar scent of funnel cake, and from somewhere distantly, I could hear cries of delight from one of the rides—possibly the Tilt-A-Whirl.

Charlie took my hand and smiled at me, and I was suddenly aware of my engagement ring on that same hand—somehow it seemed heavy.

I glanced around me. It had seemed to me once that there was magic in the air at the fair.

But I could no longer feel it.

“Come on, Jessica,” Charlie said again.

I allowed myself to be pulled forward, and we went up to the long row of turnstiles where we would buy the little blue paper wristbands that would grant us entry.

We passed through the turnstiles, and Charlie stopped to buy a roll of tickets that would get us onto the rides and into some of the other attractions.

I tried to tell him not to bother, but Charlie simply smiled and bought some anyway.

“Just in case,” he said.

Since I wasn’t interested in the rides, we decided to just walk and take in the sights.

As we walked along the dusty paths that wound between the stalls in the August heat, I glanced up at Charlie.

His handsome, classic profile was outlined in the waning sunlight, and his light brown hair had picked up just a touch of gold from that same fading light.

He looked much the same as he had when we’d first met three years ago—and maybe he was the same.

Maybe I was different.

“Would you like any food?” Charlie asked.

“No thanks,” I said. I smiled up at him and tried to feel the same way I used to feel about him—but it just wasn’t coming.

We continued to walk, and soon we came in sight of a booth where you could win a prize by shooting a target.

Charlie let out a whoop and ran over to it.

“Come on, Jessica! I’ll win you a prize!”

Charlie’s enthusiasm had once really charmed me—now I found myself feeling slightly irritated.

But I followed him, and I smiled politely at the tired-looking teen who ran the booth.

Charlie paid for his three chances with tickets, and I stood beside him as he aimed the little gun on a swivel at a row of moving yellow ducks.

He was a terrible shot, and for just a moment, I was reminded of why I fell in love with him.

His enthusiasm as he aimed for duck after duck and missed made me laugh.

“I’m going to do it, Jess! I’m going to win that prize for you!”

But try after try, Charlie kept missing. His enthusiasm never waned, and he also wouldn’t give up.

My interest began to fade, and I found my attention drifting to other things.

But Charlie kept trying for that prize like he was trying to win me back.

Perhaps he was.

Not far away was a mechanical fortune-teller—the kind in which you inserted a few coins and it told you your future.

I drifted over to it.

In a big glass case sat the upper half of a metal woman with black hair and a star-spangled kerchief. She was clad in a red blouse, and her fingers were covered in rings. Those same fingers were stretched out over a crystal ball, and her dark eyes looked vaguely down in its direction.

When Charlie and I were first dating, we’d come to this same fair, and I’d purchased a fortune from a machine very much like this one—in fact the one in front of me might have been the same one.

I fished two quarters out of my purse and plugged them into the coin slot.

Lights went on in the glass box, and a mysterious jingle began to play. The fortune-teller sat up a little straighter, and a recorded voice intoned, “I see all! Here is your fortune!”

A slender white slip of paper dropped onto a tiny tray.

I picked it up and stared at it.

The first time I’d been here with Charlie, my fortune had promised true love—it had seemed prophetic back then.

This time I turned the little slip of paper over and over in my fingers, but the result was the same.

It was blank.

Charlie came bounding over to me with his hands behind his back. Then he brought his arms around to the front and produced a stuffed animal—a purple bear with a heart-shaped nose.

“For you, Jess.”

I took the bear and looked up into Charlie’s smiling face. He looked really happy, and the evening sun outlined his handsome face, bathing him in a golden glow.

But for me the glow was gone. Our wedding was in six months. And I was having doubts.

Yes—I was having doubts.

“It’s very thoughtful of you,” I said. “Thank you for winning this for me.”

“It wasn’t easy,” Charlie said, his grin wide and boyish. “I fought those ducks right up to the end.”

I smiled despite myself, and Charlie glanced over at the mechanical fortune-teller.

“Oh, hey—I remember this! Did you get a fortune?”

“I don’t think it’s working,” I said.

“Well, that’s okay,” Charlie said. “There’s plenty of other stuff to do.”

His face suddenly lit up.

“How about the Maze of Mirrors? I know you love the maze.”

Charlie took my hand, and before long we were standing in front of a gaudy building done up in shades of gold and silver. A sign at the top proclaimed it to be the “Maze of Mirrors,” and yellow lights flashed all along its border.

A couple walked up to the elaborate front door and went inside, and a soft light came into Charlie’s eyes as he watched them disappear.

“Do you remember this place?” he said.

“Yes, I do,” I replied.

On that early date when we’d come to the fair, we’d also gone to this same Maze of Mirrors.

And this was where we’d shared our first kiss.

The memory was a happy one, but it was distant and hazy—like something I’d tucked away to be treasured on a rainy day.

It no longer felt like part of the present.

“Yes, I do,” I murmured again.

“Would you like to go inside?” Charlie asked.

“Sure.”

He gave my hand a little squeeze, and we went in through the ornate door.

There was a big, heart-shaped mirror in the entranceway, and I stopped to look at us.

This mirror held no distortion. It simply showed the two of us standing in the shadowy hall—Albert tall and golden-haired in his polo shirt, khaki shorts, and tennis shoes. And I saw myself—dark hair, equally dark eyes, clad in a white sundress and sandals.

We were much as we had been on that day a few years ago when we’d first come here.

And yet we were very different now—or at least I was.

Charlie looked over at me and our eyes met in the mirror.

“Jess,” he said softly, “I feel like I’m losing you.”

I smiled back at him, but I said nothing.

We moved on into the maze, and I could hear the laughter of the other couple somewhere up ahead of us.

Charlie and I examined ourselves in all the mirrors—one made us tall and thin, another made us short and fat, and still another made us curvy in all the wrong ways.

I found myself giggling and enjoying myself despite my misgivings, and I hurried on ahead.

Eventually, I realized I was alone, and I looked around.

“Charlie?”

I hurried back the way I’d come, but I couldn’t find any sign of him.

I stood still and listened, figuring I’d hear him—or someone else—moving around, but there was only silence—I couldn’t even hear the couple that had come in ahead of us.

“Charlie?” I said. “Charlie, where are you?”

But there was no answer.

I decided to go back to the entrance—surely he was waiting for me there.

I began to hurry, running past distorted images of myself, but the mirrors seemed to stretch on and on, and somehow I couldn’t find the way out.

I was well and truly lost.

Figuring that someone else would have to come along eventually—the evening was still young, and this was a popular attraction—I spied a little bench and sat down on it.

The bench was covered in thick, red cloth and was as ornate as the mirrors all around me. At the very least, I had a comfortable place to wait, and I was sure that someone would be along in just a few minutes.

But time stretched on, and eventually, my attention began to wander.

And then there was a flicker in the mirror that stood opposite me—just the barest hint of movement—and I found myself staring into it.

Like the mirror in the entranceway that Charlie and I had first encountered, this mirror seemed to have no distortion in it. I saw myself reflected back very plainly—I was sitting on a bench with a purple stuffed bear at my feet.

There was another flicker from the mirror, and then I suddenly saw Charlie reflected in it very clearly.

I stood up and turned around.

“Charlie! Where have you—”

But there was no one behind me.

I turned back to the mirror.

Charlie was still there—but as I peered closer, I realized that the Charlie in the mirror wasn’t wearing the same clothes he’d had on a few minutes ago. And instead of a dimly lit hall of mirrors behind him, there was a bright, sunny day.

Somehow this was a different Charlie.

He was laughing, and he was looking at someone far off in the distance—someone I couldn’t see.

And he was holding something in his hand—a football.

I looked closer, and I realized that I recognized the wide swath of green field where Charlie was standing. There was a ring of trees beyond him, and I could see a few picnic tables nestled close to the trees.

This wasn’t just a different Charlie.

It was Charlie on the day we met.

My cousin had dragged me to a picnic I didn’t want to go to, and as I walked across that same grassy filed to sneak out early, a football—not thrown by Charlie—had hit me squarely between the shoulder blades.

But Charlie was the first one over to help me up, and I still remembered the concern in his eyes as he’d looked at me.

He’d wanted to drive me to a hospital, but I’d insisted I was fine. We’d ended up talking and laughing for hours and rather than leaving early, I ended up staying until the sun set and most of the other picnickers had gone.

I stood up quickly and walked away.

As I hurried along, I saw another flicker of movement in a mirror, and despite my misgivings, I stopped to look.

This mirror showed no sign of distortion, either, and as I watched, another image of Charlie appeared within its glassy depths.

This time, Charlie was seated at a table in a restaurant, looking slightly uncomfortable in a suit and tie. The table was next to a window, and I could see a dark lake stretching beyond it.

The were candles on the table, and his face was bathed in a soft light.

I recognized this Charlie, too—this was how he had looked on the night of my birthday dinner—the first celebration we’d shared after we started dating. Charlie had put on a pair of oversized green plastic glasses, and then two waiters had wheeled out a cake that was completely covered in candles. The blaze from the cake was bright, and Charlie had belted out an off-key version of “Happy Birthday.” I’d been overcome with laughter, and diners at the neighboring tables had laughed, too. They’d even cheered and clapped when Charlie had finished singing.

Charlie was always ready with a joke and always trying to make people laugh.

He was entertaining—but it took a lot more than that to build a life.

And that was the trouble really. Charlie wasn’t serious enough to depend on.

But even as I hurried away from the mirror, I realized that I wasn’t being entirely fair to Charlie.

He had a serious side, too—and there was more to him than just jokes and good times. A lot more.

As if in answer to my thoughts, the nearest mirror flickered and showed me yet another image of Charlie.

This time, he was standing in a hallway—my hallway, in fact.

It was the hall that led to the apartment I was living in when I’d first met him, and he was standing in front of my door.

His back was to me, and he was wearing a thick winter coat. And in one gloved hand, he was clutching a brown paper bag, while the other hand was raised to knock at my door.

I knew exactly what was in that bag.

That first winter after we met, I had a terrible case of the flu.

I was lying on the couch in my apartment, feeling all alone in the world, when Charlie showed up at my door with a big thermos of chicken noodle soup.

The soup was steaming and hot, and it was just the thing I needed to soothe my sore throat and aching body.

I’d warned Charlie that he should stay away—I didn’t want him to get sick, too.

But he showed up every day for the next three days to bring me more soup and to make sure that I was okay.

I knew very well that Charlie had a serious side—and that he wouldn’t disappear when times got tough.

Charlie was fun, but he was also solid and dependable.

No—he wasn’t frivolous at all.

Something else was wrong.

I hurried away from the mirror.

As I ran along the shadowy hall full of mirrors, I saw my own swift figure reflected back to me in dark glass after dark glass. I continued to watch my own fleeing form, and I realized that I could already see what the problem was.

It was me—running.

I stopped.

I stared at myself in the mirror and watched my chest heaving from my recent exertions. I could hear my own breath echoing raggedly in my ears, and I knew that the running wasn’t the only reason I was having trouble breathing.

I was panicking.

I was scared.

And as I looked into my own eyes, I realized that this was the real reason I was having second thoughts about Charlie.

I wasn’t different.

But I was afraid that I would be.

Right now I was still me. I still had my own space—my own separate identity.

But after the wedding, I would be part of an Us. I would be Charlie and me together forever.

I wondered—would I still be me?

And that’s what I was really worried about—not Charlie, not his personality, or how responsible he really was.

I was afraid to lose myself.

I continued to stare into my own eyes, and I began to breathe in and out very slowly.

I realized that I didn’t need to worry.

I would always be me.

I saw other images then—this time in my mind’s eye and not in a mirror.

I saw Charlie and me sharing our first kiss right here in this Maze of Mirrors.

I saw Charlie on another day running out to me in the pouring rain with an umbrella to shield me from the deluge.

I saw Charlie kneeling before me on a bright sunny day with a black velvet ring box in his hands.

And I heard myself saying, Yes, I will marry you. I love you.

Then Charlie had stood, and I’d thrown my arms around him.

I love you, too, Charlie had said. And I always will.

I realized then that I didn’t need to be worried about myself—or Charlie.

He was good, loyal, loving—in good times and in bad.

He would always support me.

And I would always be me.

I stared into my own eyes in the mirror.

“You can do this,” I said to myself. “You both can.”

Then I turned and ran again.

But this time I wasn’t running away from something—this time I was running toward something.

I was running toward Charlie—and our life together.

I called out his name as I ran.

“Charlie! Charlie!”

As I hurried along the shadowy halls full of mirrors in ornate frames, I felt a new twinge of worry. What if I couldn’t find Charlie? What if this crazy maze had somehow conspired to take him away from me?

I couldn’t let that happen.

I ran and ran, this time glancing at the mirrors on either side of me, hoping to catch a glimpse of Charlie once again, but the mirrors remained stubbornly blank of anything except my own fleeing figure.

I ran faster.

Just when I thought I couldn’t run anymore, I spied a light up ahead.

I’d found my way back to the entrance.

I ran past the mirror where Charlie and I had stopped to take a look at ourselves, and I burst through the ornate doors at the front and ran out into the early evening sunshine.

I was free.

I looked around. A crowd of people was standing around the entrance to the Maze of Mirrors, and Charlie detached himself from the group.

He hurried over to me.

“Jess, are you okay?”

I threw my arms around him. “Charlie! Charlie! You’re here! You’re okay!”

He hugged me tightly and then stepped back.

“Of course I’m okay. The question is are you?”

“I’m fine. What happened? Why is everyone out here?”

“The fire alarm went off,” Charlie said. “The whole place filled with smoke. I looked everywhere trying to find you, but the firefighters pulled me out.”

He pointed, and I could see firefighters standing in a cluster not far away. They were all dressed in yellow with reflective stripes, and many of them held masks which I assumed protected against smoke inhalation.

I glanced behind me. The Maze of Mirrors looked fine—there was no smoke and no sign of a fire.

“But there’s no smoke,” I said. “Did they put the fire out?”

Charlie glanced over at the firefighters. “They haven’t said anything yet, but I’m thinking there was no fire. I think some kids pulled the fire alarm and then set off some smoke bombs.”

He glanced at me searchingly. “You’re really all right?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You didn’t hear the fire alarm?”

“No.”

“What happened in there?”

“I found myself,” I said. “And I found you.”

******************

© 2019 by Catherine Mesick

Image by Ria Sopala/Pixabay

******************

Thanks very much for reading!

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