The rumble of the car engine blasted in his ears, churning like the images running though his brain. His eyes felt sore and he wanted to close them but settled with blinking hard. Was he sweating? He had the sense that his back was wet, but he wasn’t sure. He shrugged it off, unimportant, now the end was close. He’d been over it many times in these past hours, what he would see, and by now, he felt prepared.
His goal, “On Edge,” was a little art gallery by the sea. Originally it hadn’t been named for it’s cutting edge art, but because it was situated on a cliff high above the Atlantic Ocean. It was the installation “The Real Beast” that gave the name new meaning. Now, it was what everybody came for, what John came for.
It was one of those mirrors that distort faces. When you gazed into it, you’d start out by seeing yourself in some abnormal way, with a large forehead, or a tiny neck. But if you waited a little, the image would change, you’d be able to see something entirely different. People who’d experienced it all described it as seeing something twistedly, profoundly or even shockingly true about themselves. The first big sensation had been a dumb-struck girl who’d seen a nightingale. Later came a heart-touching story of a transgender woman who’d seen a colorful butterfly. But it wasn’t all rosy. A novelist had seen a newspaper with yesterdays headlines, and a make-up artist an empty stained coffee cup. What had convinced John of taking the long trip had been the woman who’d seen a mosquito sucking blood from a naked arm.
John tightened his grip on the steering wheel. There would be no butterflies for him, nah ah. First he’d imagined he might see a rabies infested wolf held down by heavy chains, but the bloodsucking mosquito convinced him, it would be more subtle than that. Maybe a blood filling tic biting between buttocks, or tapeworms bursting through intestines or… He’d always known there was badness inside him. His whole life, he’d worked hard to control it. Now he wanted to, needed to, see it to know it’s shape and form. He sniffed close to his armpit. Did he smell? Again he wondered whether his back was wet or not.
He’d imagined that the installation was somehow more private, not just a mirror hanging in the middle of a room with people closing in around the person staring into it. But how else would the world have known about the bloodsucking mosquito? An elderly man was in front of the mirror, and John had to admit it, he stepped closer, too. It was the badness getting to him. His nails dug into the flesh of his hand, making it shake with pain. Why couldn’t he control it? It was too powerful, making him take another step forward, widening his eyes.
The reflection of the old guy’s distorted face stirred. Slowly something else formed. John squinted, his pulse rising, what? What would show? No, it wasn’t his business. He turned away his head, a last effort at control, but quickly turned it back again, his mouth slightly opened. The image was gray and blurry. It took a while for John to realise it was raining inside the mirror, raining hard. That was it. Nothing else.
The old man put his hands in his pockets, shrugged and moved toward the door. John licked his lips, and let his eyes follow him. Something like a chill seemed to run up the man’s spine, and as he moved toward the parking lot, his shoulders shook.
John looked at the image of his own enlarged forehead and the deep creases running in parallel bows across it. He turned his upper body, looking at his back. No, it wasn’t wet, not even a little sweat-patch between the shoulder-blades. He tried to breathe deeply, but his lungs seemed too small, and the breath ended in a gasp. Then his image stirred.
“It’s not working.” John looked around for assistance.
“What do you mean?” asked a blond girl behind him.
“It’s not working.” He pointed to the mirror. “Look.”
What he saw was the face that stared back at him every morning from the mirror above the bathroom sink. Creased, graying, drooping. Tired, like always.
“Let me try,” said the girl and stepped in front of him.
John drew a hand across his forehead and blinked as his reflection disappeared. The girl stood quietly, as far as John could judge, completely unfazed by the enormity of the situation. Her features blurred and a stem grew from the bottom of the mirror till a giant Copper beech spread it crown and covered the whole image from one side of the frame to the other.
John backed away. He stumbled, back first, out the door, landed on his behind but was up in a second and turned away, running. He only heard the swish, swish, swish of his feet in the tall dry grasses, and the waves far away. The badness… He clasped his ears. The mirror didn’t work, something had been wrong with it. He stumbled again, this time on his knees. He was sure he screamed, but no sound escaped his lips. The badness… No. He shook his head and kept on running. He had to hurry, because by now the thought was pressing hard, shutting out everything else, even the swishing sound from his feet in the grass, even the rolling ocean. It wasn’t till he no longer felt the grass, and gravity pulled him down hard he moved the hands away from his ears. It went too fast for him to utter a word or even a thought, thank God, then the bones in his feet shattered into pieces against the rocks, pain exploded from their soles and all the way up his spine. Wet, was the last sensation he had.