This is part two of the Shrewsday Christmas Ghost Story. You can find part one here.
When she woke, it was dark. And there was still no one there.
What time was it? Meg moved her head painfully. She must have hit it as she fainted. Two hours had passed, and Dylan was still not home. Her heart lurched as she remembered the events of the day, and involuntarily, she glanced at the mirror.
It was a blank stare, reflecting the room and Dylan’s Christmas lights
She heard sound of the key in the lock. Dylan hollered up the stairs: “Sorry I’m late. Traffic was a bugger. We’re going to have to make a quick turnaround I’m afraid….
And the woman in Meg took over. I look a sight, she thought, and I have five minutes. Without a thought for the bump on her head, or the mad woman in the mirror, she flew about, donning dress and make-up, checking herself without flinching in her new-framed mirror, threading in earrings and coaxing hair into something respectable. It took her ten minutes: not bad for one who has recently been spooked into unconsciousness.
It was not until they were in the car hurtling towards the venue for the evening’s entertainment that Meg told Dylan what had happened. Her husband did not believe in such things and found at least five deeply plausible scenarios for his highly imaginative wife to choose from, as to why a young woman with insane psychopathic eyes might quite reasonably appear in the mirror accompanied by all the demons of hell. Meg harrumphed. It had always been thus. Dylan loved her very much but he felt her to be whimsical verging on fanciful.
The party went off beautifully; Meg outshone all the women in the room with the black dress, and Dylan noted that her eyes sparkled with something new tonight: an elation he did not ever remember seeing before. Meg had always been witty, but she held everyone in the palm of her hand this evening; it seemed every sentence had something in it to make one laugh uproariously as befits a firm party. Though it was true that some of what she said had an uncharacteristic streak of something like cruelty in it.
Dylan’s boss quite neglected his own partner. In fact every man in the room seemed to have their eyes involuntarily drawn to Meg as she moved about.
Dylan was so proud that he never stopped to observe that his wife was possibly a little out of character. But why should he? It was Christmas. Party time, and his wife was the life and soul.
They came home, exhausted, and slept the sleep of the very tired.
Until about 3 o’clock in the morning.
When Dylan woke, straining his ears. His house was usually silent, but a commotion appeared to be coming from somewhere, though Dylan could not pinpoint quite where. Was the radio on? Had he hit the television controller by mistake, or was his laptop streaming some horror film?
Investigation revealed that it was none of the above.
It was like – what did rats sound like? It was a scrabbling, scuffling, unsettled movement. It was not one but at least tens of something. And as well as the movement, he noted with growing concern that there were mutterings, speech-like sounds, guttural conversations in some Eastern European dialect or other. And he thought, there is a rational explanation for this. What else have I left switched on?
He cast his eyes about the place. Dylan’s pillow was closest to the windows and he glanced outside to the tranquil forest. There was no wind tonight. No neighbours were holding wild parties in the nearby houses. It must be something streaming somewhere in here….
Meg slept on as Dylan padded out of bed and tried to follow the noise to its source. His sense of direction was not great; he had a few false starts. Eventually he divined it was coming from the direction of the mirror. He must have put his work phone on the shelf next to it.
And then, this man of infuriating science and rationality froze in his tracks.
There was someone sitting inside the mirror.
And it was looking at him.
He would have dearly loved to look away but it held his gaze, as if it were a spider. With black, fathomless, simple predator’s eyes. This, thought Dylan in the instants after he locked eyes with it -must be how a fly feels when it crawls onto a web.
He could hear Meg’s breathing, shallow and fast, and without looking he knew her eyes flickered back and forth beneath her eyelids. Yet he could not move, held immobile with something like terror by the cold malevolence of those eyes.
Behind the predatory presence were the things making the noises: grotesque crawling things; each with greenish luminescent skin and eyes alight with diabolical enquiry. Not a solid human presence among them, but spirits all, something dark and unutterable. And now Dylan realized that Grimm and his like had populated their fairy tales not with fantasy, but with living nightmares they had seen once in a glass dimly.
And just when their cackle-talk had become almost unbearable in its malevolence, and Dylan could sense a leering intent towards his side of the mirror. And Meg sat bolt upright and screamed.
Her eyes were unseeing: but it was enough to break the mirror’s chatter, and send the presence in the mirror and her nasty little companions back into the world of the reflection once more, and away, out of sight beyond the light-waves.
Meg came to, to see her husband picking up the mirror, frame and all, and bearing it out of the room.
She dragged on a dressing gown and ran to waylay him at the top of the stairs. “What are you doing?” She shouted. “Dylan, where are you going with that?”
“I’m burning it.” She could see how deathly pale his skin shone, and how terrified he was. He had been given the choice of fight-or-flight, and he had chosen to fight whatever it was he had seen and heard that night.
“Stop!” Meg shrieked. Her voice was unearthly and imperious and it stopped her husband in his tracks. This was not the Meg he knew; nor was it a Meg he chose to cross. She fixed him with the coldest eyes.
“That is mine.” She spoke slowly, deliberately, almost as if she were speaking lines. Fresh from sleep, was she still in some persona from a nightmare? “Put it back where it came from. The mirror is well within my control. Leave it be.”
It seemed the woman behind the glass had done more than beckon. Meg felt as if with every second that passed, that woman was entwining herself like the ivy on the frame itself into Meg’s being. And their hopes and fears were becoming one and the same.
The mirror had a story to tell. She would not bid goodbye to the looking-glass until it had said its piece.
And then she checked herself. What was she saying? The thought of seeing what that mirror portrayed again turned her stomach cold.
Yet: the mirror stayed. Dylan turned silent and sullen over the ensuing days, scheming desperately to rid himself of the viper at the heart of his home, yet somehow faltering under the imperious orders of the woman who lived in his wife.
A few days after it arrived, Dylan had tried removing the mirror from its frame once more, so that the one artifact was once again two parts. It took courage, and the mirror had the grace to remain inanimate as he worked. But when he tried to move it, the mirror was stuck fast.
It was odd, he thought, as he tinkered with screwdrivers and tools to free it: the wear-marks on the back of the mirror so exactly matched the frame. And he noted for the first time Cyrillic lettering there, etched in the back of the mirror. Had it always been there? He was in no position to ask Meg.
He sighed deeply.
Meanwhile, Meg’s eyes turned blacker. Like an insect’s. And Dylan would walk into the bedroom to find her seated in front of the mirror, at the centre of a cacophony of scuffling and shuffling and scratching which would lessen on his entry, as if he had walked in on a conversation not intended for his ears.
Meg met his eyes the first time this happened, an alien playfulness in her eyes laced with the strange. Then she laughed.
As she turned back to the mirror, her voice dripped with scorn.
“Molchat!” she commanded, though whether she was talking to her husband or to the creatures in the mirror he could not be sure. And what she was saying was anyone’s guess.
Dylan had reached the end. He would not watch his life pull away from him towards this chaos. He must act.
The time difference between London and St Petersburg is around three hours. Thus, when the phone rang in the little shop in St Petersburg, it was a little after 7am on Christmas Eve. Old Gorokhin was still eating breakfast in his small apartment, far from Pravdy Street. But Nikolei Gorokhin, young entrepreneur, knew that now, enquiries could come from far and wide, and from any time zone. The last weeks had seen an explosion in demand for Gorokhin antiques, and he knew they would be prosperous if they kept on top of demand.
He picked up the phone. An agitated Englishman was on the other end. He asked for Old Gorokhin and was rambling on about the old mirror frame they had sent across to England a week or so ago. Nikolei remembered it: grotesque old thing. Gave him the creeps.
Where had it come from, the man was demanding angrily? What did old Gorokhin think he was doing, sending a thing like that half way across the world?
A thing like what? Nikolei asked politely in immaculate English.
He listened as what had appeared to be an angry but rational Englishman rapidly revealed himself to be a little unhinged. There was someone inside the mirror, the man shouted. No, not just one person, lots of people. Well, not people exactly, but things…muttering things….
He must know where the frame came from, he told Nikolei. It was having a most adverse effect on his wife. Could the shop supply more information?
The customer, as Nikolei Gorokhin knew, was always right. This was a new enterprise, and Nikolei was keen to keep every customer on side as much as possible. It would not do to be returning large sums of money at this early stage in the online enterprise. He soothed the man, and told him he would get the background information on the mirror before the shop closed for New Year.
He put down the phone and stared at it for a short, concentrated minute. That had been a very odd phone call indeed. Come to think of it, his grandfather had always hated the frame when it stood in the corner of the shop. And he had been extremely hasty to make it the first artefact he sold through the website. And even then, he had had a strange little clause tied up in the small print of the deal: he had demanded that Nikolei specify the item could not be returned to the St Petersburg store under any circumstances.
He reached for the phone once again; and this time dialed his grandfather’s number.
Why did he get the feeling this development would be no surprise to the old man?
Meg listened to the phone call. She had never heard her husband so rattled. He was usually calm verging on smug. And here he was, Mr Rationality himself, shouting loudly about the Little People In The Mirror to a complete stranger on the other side of the continent.
Though part of her smiled secretively, hugging events to herself, still part of her understood his fear. A side of her was dismayed at the abrupt change their lives had taken. There was something terribly wrong with the beautiful artifact sitting on the shelf in their bedroom.
But it was hers. And she was not, the other part of her thought with fierceness, going to let it go.
At 9:24am British time on the day in the midst of a thoroughly miserable Christmas break, the phone rang. Dylan picked it up.
A thick Russian accent introduced itself as Valentin Gorokhin. “I think,” the gruff tones continued, “I may be of some service to you.”
“I think you might,” Dylan agreed animatedly. “How long has the frame you sold us been in your possession?”
A long pause. “Ah….quite some time,” Gorokhin owned.
“And have you ever noticed anything unusual about it?”
An even longer pause. “It has always sat in the corner of my shop. My father acquired it some time before I took over the business.”
“And you have never sold it?”
“It…..came back.” There was tired resignation in his voice. “I tried to sell it many times and always, the buyers returned it.”
“Do you know why?”
I can guess. And I think,” if Gorokhin had been in the same room as Dylan, he would have looked him straight in the eye, “so can you.”
They spent some time talking. Dylan confided how the frame seemed to have acquired a life of its own since being united with the mirror; of the wear on the mirror, and how it so exactly matched the frame; of the Cyrillic writing. How he had lost his wife since that diabolical thing arrived in the house; and how his only chance of regaining her seemed to be to discover the thing’s past and track it back to its lair.
Dylan’s sneaking respect for the old man increased with every moment. Between them, they reached an understanding.
And this is what he told him. Some time in the early 20th century, an unhinged old general had left St Petersburg for a damp old house in the forest. Named Alexandr Ilyasov, he was in disgrace. He had been a famous general, Gorokhin had been told by his father, in the Russian army. Ilyasov had been renowned for dealing with those irritating insurrections which bothered the Russians in the final quarter of the nineteenth century.
Yet, sometime in the 1890’s, he had lost it. He had broken down, and had proved himself incapable of running any campaign, no matter how small-scale. He had sold up his great house on Nevsky Prospect, one of the great streets of St Petersburg; and fled, with his tail between his legs, to an old house in the forests outside the city.
He mouldered there for another thirty years, holed up all alone with his things, until his death. It was Gorokhin was was called upon to clear the house, and some rum old things they found there; none stranger than the old mahogany picture frame.
That was all Gorokhin could tell him; though he, too, could swear that on dark winter evenings he had heard voices fem the frame in the corner of the store. Unlike Dylan, he understood them. It was not pretty, what they said, he related. They spoke in riddles unsettling and unspeakable, or beauty and dismemberment, of talismans once living and now dead.
And now Dylan had a lead. Maybe long-dead Ilyasov could tell him how to silence the old mirror once and for all.
Dylan sat down in front of his computer and began his preliminary searches:
Alexandr Ilyasov. General.