by James C. Clar
“Jesus, Maile, he’s at the end of the hall staring into that friggin’ mirror again” Jake said as he entered the small kitchen, opened the refrigerator and took out a beer. “The kid’s going to turn into a queer or something. It’s not normal. He should be outside running around.”
“What business is it of yours, Jake? He’s not hurting anyone. Just leave him alone or I'll … “
“Or you'll what?” Jake crossed the room in a stride. His right hand arced out and slapped Maile on the left cheek. Maile took the blow in silence as she choked back tears. She just hoped that Tommy hadn't heard or seen what happened.
“That’s what I thought,” Jake laughed. He turned around and waked into the living room where he plopped down in a chair and started watching a baseball game from Japan on Oceanic Cable.
Down the hallway, Tommy was barely conscious of what had transpired in the kitchen. Although the second floor apartment in the old building on Kapahulu Avenue was so small you could pretty much hear everything going on, he was so captivated by the old mirror that stood floor to ceiling just outside the door to his bedroom that he was nearly oblivious to everything else.
His mom seemed to be sobbing again and, lately, that meant her latest “boyfriend” had made her sad. He couldn't figure it out in any case, so why try? He just wished Jake wouldn't hit her like he did. He felt like he ought to do something about that but he didn't know what. He was only nine, after all.
They, he and his mom, that is, had moved into Waikiki from their old place downtown near Chinatown. His mom had gotten a new job at a big bookstore chain in the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center. She made more money than she had answering the phones for that trucking company she used to work for. At least now, so she said, they would have medical benefits.
As far as Tommy was concerned, the move had been a good thing all around. He liked his new school, Jefferson Elementary. He was within walking distance of the beach, the zoo and, amazingly, the library. Everything had been going great until Jake moved in with them. Although Tommy and his mom only went to Saint Augustine’s on Kalakaua Avenue for Christmas and Easter, he still prayed everyday that Jake would disappear just as quickly as he had shown up.
“Tommy,” he heard his mom’s voice from the kitchen. She paused to blow her nose. She sounded like she was underwater, like she always did after she had been crying. “It’s time to clean up and have some dinner. Go wash your hands.” Reluctantly, Tommy stepped back from the mirror and went into the bathroom.
“Is your homework done, honey?” Maile asked as the two of them sat eating spaghetti and meatballs. The sounds of the baseball game came from the TV in the living room. Tommy understood only a little Japanese, but he could tell that the Hanshin Tigers were playing the Yomiuri Giants. He was just glad that Jake, a Giant’s fan, had apparently decided to “drink his dinner” again tonight.
What Jake did for a living, or where he went when he left “for work,” was a mystery to Tommy. All the little boy knew was that, at least at first, his mom thought that maybe Jake was “the one” who could make her happy.
“Sure, mom, I did it at the library.”
Most days after school, Tommy would wait for his mom at the library. He loved to roam around the stacks and check out all the cool books. It also meant he didn't have to be home alone in case Jake got in before his mom. Maile would come by after work and the two of them would walk home along the canal and then a block or so to their apartment.
That afternoon they had stopped for a few minutes at the fire station on Paki to watch the firemen wash their trucks. One of the guys even let Tommy wear a yellow Honolulu Fire Department hat. Tommy got the impression that the fireman wanted to talk more to his mother, but she didn't seem interested. Too bad. It'd be really neat to have a fireman for a “dad.”
“Tommy,” his mom whispered between mouthfuls, “you can't spend all your time in front of that mirror. It’s not normal. We've talked about this.”
“I know, mom, but it’s cool. You just don't understand.”
The mirror was an antique. It was a rectangle about seven feet high and four feet wide mounted on the wall at the end of the hallway. The frame was gilt with weird Asian symbols and other strange designs in black lettering. The glass was old too, smoky and blotched in spots. Even so, the mirror seemed to possess a nearly fathomless depth. Tommy would have sworn that it absorbed whatever light shone on it.
Once, a few weeks back, he had tried to explain to his mother about the animals but she just thought he was making it all up. She sent him to his room that night saying that he was “too old for that sort of stuff” and that he could come out when he was “back in touch with reality.”
That was OK, though. He had spent the evening looking through an old book he had picked up on Chinese calligraphy. He thought he might be able to “decipher” ... he loved that word … the markings on the mirror’s frame. So far he wasn't having any luck.
“Listen, if you keep this up I'm going to ask old Mr. Liu take the darn thing away. You don't want that, do you?”
Mr. Liu owned the building where they lived as well as the Chinese restaurant that occupied its entire first floor, all the way to the end of the block where Campbell Avenue curved around the back. Tommy knew from talking to him that “Chawlie,” as Mr. Liu pronounced his given name, would never remove the mirror.
One afternoon, the old man had told him that the “speculum” was something that had been in his family for centuries and that it had once belonged to someone called the Yellow Emperor.
“If you are patient, and you really believe,” Charlie promised, “someday you might see all sorts of fantastic creatures; creatures that were trapped in the mirror during an epic battle in the remote past … long before you Haoles came into being. No kidding.”
At first, Tommy thought that Mr. Liu had been pulling his leg, making up some kind of elaborate story and telling it like it were an authentic part of Chinese history. But then, one evening as he sat looking into the old mirror with the rich, exotic odors wafting up from the restaurant below, he had seen a bird that looked a little like a hawk. It had the head of a man, the body of a monkey and the tail of a dog.
A few days later, he spotted a flying serpent in the upper right hand corner. When it swooped down to the bottom of the glass, he noticed that it had iridescent wings. At first he thought that he was, like, hallucinating. But the animals kept coming back. Soon he could see them every time he stood quietly in front of the mirror. The funny thing was, he was never afraid.
Just a little while ago, right before dinner in fact, and for the first time ever, Tommy saw a tiger. The animal was burnt orange and had stripes so black they were fulgent. It pranced back and forth from one side of the mirror to the other, pausing each time it reached the center to open its mouth in what Tommy was certain, had he actually been able to hear it, was a deep throaty growl.
From the moment he first saw it, Tommy was entranced with the tiger. The beast seemed to be speaking to him in a language that went beyond mere words. The boy felt that he could almost read its tigrine thoughts in the bold stripes that traced their way all over its powerful body.
Tommy’s mother was saying something but he wasn't listening. He was thinking about what Mr. Liu had told him. Once in a while, Liu explained, the animals in the mirror might befriend certain individuals who existed on this side of what he called the “great divide.” The creatures could become almost like pets. Tommy had never had a pet, a real pet that is. That little turtle that only lived for a week didn't count. Most of the places where he and his mom had lived didn't allow them. He couldn't wait to see Mr. Liu tomorrow and tell him about the tiger.
“So it’s a deal, baby? No more spending all of your time looking into that mirror. Tell you what, tomorrow after school we'll go get you a new pair of sneakers.” Tommy’s reverie was broken by his mother’s voice.
“Don’t bargain with him, Maile,” Jake said from the doorway. Tommy figured it must be between innings and Jake needed another beer or a shot of ‘Jack. Neither he nor his mother had heard the man enter the kitchen.
“Just tell the little dweeb to stay away from that damn mirror or you'll whup his ass. No wonder kids are so crazy today. How about this, little man? Tomorrow the two of us will go over to the park and I’ll teach you how to throw a curveball.”
“I told you before, Jake. This isn't any of your business and Tommy isn't going anywhere with you. Now leave us alone.”
“Yeah, you told me alright, Maile. And what did it get you? Anyhow, shut up and let the kid decide. What do you say Tommy, you up for an afternoon in the park with ‘Uncle Jake’?”
With that, Jake lurched into the kitchen and grabbed Tommy by the shoulder. “Answer me, kid” he said as he forced Tommy to turn around in his chair.
Maile was up in an instant. Before she reached him, however, Jake backhanded her with his left hand. She fell backward and banged her head on the edge of the kitchen sink before she fell, dazed, to the floor.
Tommy was crying now as Jake pulled him up out of his chair. The remains of dinner were scattered all over the table as the boy tried desperately to hold onto something.
“You want to spend all your time in front of that mirror like some kind of freak? OK by me you little pansy. C’mon. Let’s go have a look.”
Jake dragged Tommy by his hair and one of his ears out through the doorway and into the hall. Behind them, Maile began to stir.
“Here you go, Tommy,” Jake snarled as they reached the end of he hallway. He maneuvered around so that he could press the little boy’s face into the scarred glass of the mirror. Whimpering, kicking his feet furiously, Tommy struggled to get free.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” Jake howled. One of Tommy’s feet had connected with his knee. “You'll pay for that now, yes you will.”
Before Jake could make good on his threat, he stumbled over one of Tommy’s Matchbox cars. The boy was, much to his mother’s frustration, forever leaving them in the hallway after he played race cars. Jake released Tommy momentarily as he reached out heavily with his hand to steady himself against the mirror. Instead of the sound of breaking glass that Tommy expected, however, he heard a noise that reminded him of a giant drain emptying. The sound was gone in an instant … and so was Jake.
Tommy humped away from the mirror on his backside. Gazing into the sooty depths of the glass he saw the tiger, its muzzle stained red now, tearing into something that it had caught. Sated, the animal raised its head and looked right at Tommy. After a moment, it trotted off toward the edge of the mirror. Tommy thought for sure he saw it “wink” just before it disappeared from view.
The next Saturday, Tommy and Maile left their apartment. It was a beautiful day. The sky was blue, there were a few puffy white clouds out over the ocean and the light trade winds carried the scent of ginger, hibiscus and plumeria. Off to their left, the sere sides of Diamond Head shimmered in the bright midmorning sunlight.
Neither mother nor son ever mentioned what had happened to Jake. Tommy wasn’t sure at what point Maile had made it out into the hallway that night or what she had seen when she finally arrived there. She never asked and he never brought it up. In any case, she had been woozy from falling and bumping here head when Jake slapped her. For all Tommy knew, his mom probably thought that Jake had gotten tired of the two of them and finally taken off for good. Coincidence or not, though, Maile had sure stopped harping at him about spending so much time looking into the mirror. And Tommy now paid even closer attention to everything Mr. Liu had to say.
Today they were on their way to the zoo. Tommy wanted to check the gift shop for a book about tigers. As they reached the corner where Ala Wai Boulevard crossed Kapahulu and turned onto Paki Avenue, he remembered the nice fireman from the other afternoon. He also knew from when he was out riding his bike that you could sometimes use the restroom at the back of the fire station.
“Hey, mom,” Tommy said with a twinkle in his eye as the light changed and they crossed the street. “I have to go to the bathroom … “
- - -
James C. Clar has published stories in print as well as on the Internet. Of late his short fiction has found a home in places like the Taj Mahal Review, Golden Visions Magazine, Apollo’s Lyre, Flashshot, Thrillers, Killers ‘n’ Chillers, The New Flesh Magazine, Static Movement, Residential Alien, A Twist of Noir and Antipodean SF.
Labels: James C. Clar