It was one of those perfectly silent nights; except for the strong breeze and the deluge hitting like a bulletstorm the half-open window, nothing disturbed the peace of a dawning Sunday. George had his feet on the desk, puffing on a rolled-up cigarette and sipping rotgut.
A distant clock broke the graveyard silence. He sat up, straightened his back, and peered about with bulged eyes and a fluttering heart. There were no working clocks in the apartment; the one sitting on a bookcase had run out of batteries years ago. Yet, the tick-tock reverberated demandingly within the confines of the four deaf walls. He swigged down more bourbon and refilled the lowball; the bottle was getting dangerously empty.
He cast a sidelong glare at the closet; apart from the black-and-white pictures of heroes past that hung there, his reflection in the mirror stared back at him judgmentally and vengefully. On the coffee table, according to the mirror, stood a dirty old glass pipe. He licked his lips and spun around on the desk chair. Nothing there.
On the coffee table stood only an old candle (that had been lit twice in order to impress former one-night flings) and a collection of Poe’s works and Fante’s short story collection Big Hunger. He glanced back at the mirror; the glass pipe was right there, between the books.
Death in the Afternoon fell off the stacked bookshelves. He started, and every single hair on his body stood in attention. A violent gush flung the window wide open and the relentless, freezing wind swept clean the desk of all the empty tobacco pouches, the broken lighters, and the yellow papers forgotten there for months, if not years. With the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of the reflection in the mirror that showed a different reality: there was no wind, the coffee table was hidden under several unsteady towers of books, and a small chunk of junk sat atop a copy of Wild Boys. And on the couch, she sat.
In spite of the violent wind, he sat petrified and breathless, ignoring the chill creeping into his bones and the rain washing down on his desk and computer screen. In the mirror, Emily sat on the couch—alive and laughing—and he sat next to her holding her hand and caressing her cheek while she rested her head on his shoulder. His neck produced a crack when he turned around; the blue foldout couch was empty. His gaze returned to the mirror; it reflected the harsh, lonely reality.
Ηε shut the window and threw himself back on the chair without picking up the trash scattered all over the floor. Tick-Tock; the same damn clock said once more from somewhere afar—yet so near—and cold sweat streamed down his neck. The copy of Death in the Afternoon lay on the floor; its cover emanated her soft, warm glance and he felt her phantom touch. Yet another ghost from some long-forgotten time; Tick-Tock, and there was nowhere from whence the sound could come. Only from behind the mirror; huffing and puffing, he opened the closet and dug into the piles of wrinkled underwear, socks, and clothes. Nothing there; no watch, clock, nor any other sound-producing mechanism had sneaked its way amid the clothes. He leaned back on the chair, fired up a cigarette, and had a good swallow of rotgut.
He observed his reflection on the mirror mimicking his every move, puffing on the cigarette exactly as he did. He averted his gaze, physically unable to stare at his own self for more than a few seconds.
Again, and again; the sound’s frequency and volume continued to increase. Something was approaching. The storm intensified, the heavy rainfall and wind threatened to shatter the window. The toilet was flushed. He leaped off the chair, toppling it over. He stood there petrified, waiting for the bathroom door to open with his fists clenched. Nothing happened. He sank the remaining bourbon and tiptoed to the bathroom; no light was coming from behind the door and the narrow kitchen appeared undisturbed. He pushed the doorknob down, his heart taking permanent residence in his mouth.
Tick-Tock and he let go of the knob, leaping backward.
He opened the kitchen drawer and grabbed a hammer he had never used; with the lit cigarette dangling from his lips—the rising smoke tickling his nostrils—he kicked the bathroom door open, holding the hammer over his head. The room was empty.
He yanked the shower curtain aside, peeked behind the door; there was nothing. He turned on the light and buried his face under the tap. He lifted his head and his eyes met the small mirror. He wasn’t there. Instead, he was sitting on the toilet seat, a rubber band girdled around his upper arm. He still had a full head of long hair; the first signs of baldness had not yet made their atrocious appearance. With his heart drumming behind his ear he watched himself burning some junk in a Coke bottle cap, then shooting it. He began nodding in and out of consciousness and a grin illumined his face; an unadulterated joy he had forgotten glimmered in his eyes. “Are you alright in there?” Christine’s voice blared into the apartment. “Yes,” his own rusty voice came from within the mirror, “almost done.”
Tick-Tock; loud, emphatic, demanding. Whatever the clock signaled for, it was approaching.
He stepped out of the bathroom and turned the light off. The mirror showed himself backing away petrified, befuddled, and pale like a ghost. He almost jumped off his skin, when a thunder quaked the apartment. He leaned against the kitchen counter holding his heaving chest. He wiped the sweat off his forehead with his forearm, then encountered a brief vision of himself standing by the open front door during cold winter nights and hastily smoking a cigarette before returning to some cold embrace.
After a couple of minutes of catching his breath and mentally reassuring himself he was hallucinating, he returned to the main room. Everything appeared quiet and normal. He picked up Death in the Afternoon and stared at its cover as he poured more rotgut in his lowball.
With a cigarette in his lips, he caressed the book and traveled back to that sunny, comfortably warm spring afternoon he sat next to Christine on the bus and commented on her reading Hem. It didn’t take him long to let everything go to Hell and effectively shove her away from his life, for good. He continued to stare at the book through watery vision and could only recall the good times of the happy few months that taught him there was a way out of permanent midnight.
Tick-Tock; he dropped the book and the cigarette trembled in his lips.
Another thunder blared and for a brief second the lightning illumined the room and more than a hundred ghosts stood there, judging him, criticizing him, plotting against him. According to the mirror, he was on the couch and a tall, slim blonde was sitting next to him.
She climbed on his lap, kicking an almost full bottle of expensive wine off the coffee table. He could not remember her name, but he recalled that night: they had gotten high on ice and had sex against the closet, which had resulted in her head causing the first hole on the thin wooden door, which was now concealed under a black-and-white photograph of Fitzgerald. Abruptly, the woman faced the mirror. He met the reflection of the younger version of his face hidden behind a long, thick beard and long, dense hair.
How long ago was it?—he managed to ask before realizing the reflections were staring not at the mirror (that was there at the time) but at him. The chair rolled backward, landing on the couch. He gaped at the smiling reflections of a past long gone. His own self waved, then guffawed. The woman blew him a kiss. His heart pounded against his ribs. His reflection leaned forth and grabbed the glass pipe (the same one he still possessed, now hidden under clean towels in the bottom shelf of the closet).
Tick-Tock; another lightning bathed the apartment momentarily with its bright, heaven-esque light. Then, everything reverted to normal. The mirror showed him sitting on his chair, sporting a look of sheer terror. He rubbed his eyebrows, rolled the chair back to the desk, and had a good swallow of bourbon.
Warmth overwhelmed his intestines, his mind grew slightly numb, and he felt a tad more relaxed.
Will it last? Is it over?—he wondered, then lit the cigarette that had fallen on his lap. The first plume of blue smoke rose in front of his face and within it, he encountered countless smiles and glances that once upon a long time ago had been part of his life, some for nine months and others for nine hours. He leaned back, dragging long puffs and taking big sips, heading straight to blackout island. Tick-Tock; the two bookcases in the corner shook. It could not be an earthquake; only the bookcases trembled and, besides, he did not live in a seismogenic area.
Rationality flew out of the window the moment he felt a gentle, yet stern, touch on his shoulder. He did catch a glimpse of the soft fingers before turning his head. Christine’s hand protruded from within the mirror, as she stood right in front of him—albeit behind the glass—with a wide grin emitting comfort and warmth.
She let go of his shoulder, yet her hand—still wearing the armband he had bought for her once upon a time during a walk—remained in front of him in what he called reality. He could not touch it; he reluctantly raised his arm, wiped his palm on his stained and burned t-shirt a couple of times. He did not dare touch her. Her smile began twitching downward until it turned into a lower.
She dissipated into thin air; the mirror once more reflected the cruel reality. The bookcases stood still; only a handful of books had fallen. He scratched his head as he observed them, and every title he read brought a new shiver down his spine.
The Great Gatsby, a copy of which he had given as a present to someone whom he once thought important but had turned out to be nothing more than a far too prolonged one-night stand; he stared at the copy he had bought to fill the hole in the bookcase. Ask the Dust, which he had encouraged an old fling to read while he spent a restless Sunday morning cooking the five grams of ice for which she had begged him. Love is a Dog from Hell, many of which poems he had read to various women that had visited his apartment over the years. Catch-22, a conversation about which had led to a heated autumn week spent in bed with someone whose face he could hardly remember. The Divine Comedy, about which he had often joked with Emily, once calling her his Infernal Beatrice.
He choked down more rotgut, unwilling to go near the books, let alone pick them up. He dragged a long puff and glanced back at the rain and the flooded street. He drank, wondering if hooch can cause hallucinations; especially after Christine reached out through the mirror for him. He poured more rotgut down his quivering liver, hoping the haziness would make it easier to dismiss the whole ordeal as a dream.
The alarm clock on the smaller bookcase to his left came back to life; even though it did not have batteries in. It was moving too fast—backward—covering days in matters of seconds. The watch rang and would not be turned off. The switch was not working. The alarm was loud, demanding attention. It would not be switched off, it would not be ignored.
In desperation, he hurled it at the wall; several pieces rained down on the blanket on the couch and the ringing finally ceased. His lips quavered under the heavy sigh that escaped them and he swigged more bourbon; Christine appeared in the mirror. She was wailing while dialing a number on her phone, with tears welling down her eyes. “Don’t,” came his hoarse voice from the bed; he knew which day it was.
She had found him on the bed with the spike in his arm. She dashed to the bed, disappearing from the mirror and his sight; he could still hear her muffled sobs. He even felt her wet kisses on his cheeks—he felt their warmth, the love they contained. Tick-Tock; he reached for the mirror wishing to touch her one last time. Nothing but cold glass under his fingertips.
Tick-Tock; Emily sat on the couch, reading Kerouac. Her shoulder-long blonde hair glistened under the sunlight, the bangs covering her forehead and brushing against her thin eyebrows waved from the air. “This is far better than the other one,” she said. He stepped into the picture; barely twenty years old. He set two mugs of steaming coffee on the table and flung himself on the couch. “No doubt,” he smiled and she pressed her lips on his.
A tremendous weight crushed his chest; he wished to reach for Emily, to feel her soft touch once more. He didn’t dare to stir. She was not alive—all that she was and all that she could have been had been buried several years ago in an unmarked grave on a rainy autumn Sunday morning. She was gone; and yet, there she was in the mirror kissing passionately his younger self.
Tick-Tock; the clock refused to die. It grew more emphatic with every passing minute, more threatening. Whatever it signaled for, it was near. Almost there.
He buried his face in his palms and screamed. The mirror showed nothing but the accurate soulless reflection of his dead apartment. And yet, for a glorious moment, it had felt as if she had come back to life; perhaps, she was still alive in some other magical realm he had been given one chance to reach and had wasted it.
He wiped the tears away and entered a staring contest with his reflection, observing the bloodshot eyes, the unkempt beard, the unwashed and still long hair thinning dangerously on the top. He offered a faint, semi-honest smile to himself, then rolled and lit another cigarette.
The bottle was getting empty fast and it was his last one. It was too late in the night, there were no open drugstores or liquor stores in the vicinity. He drank long, realizing he was heading for a long, dry morning. At the moment, with one more lowball still left in the bottle, he didn’t care. He puffed on his cigarette; TICK-TOCK.
Too loud, almost as if the clock was inside his head. He choked on the smoke gliding down his throat; he gagged and burst into a coughing fit. He was sitting on the couch, swigging bourbon straight from the bottle and puffing on a long, fat joint. “Still awake?” Christine’s voice came from the kitchen, as she took her shoes off. He couldn’t see her but he knew. He had seen her back when the scene had taken place. “I lost track of time. Don’t worry; it’s the last match of the card.” “How much did you drink?” she shrieked when she stepped inside the room; three empty bourbon bottles lay on the coffee table. “Not much,” he shrugged and bit the corner of his lips in an atrocious smirk. “You’re smoking pot, aren’t you?” “Needed something to take the edge off,” he stated. “Why are you doing this?” she sat next to him and threw her arm around his shoulder. She blew a faint kiss on his cheek, he didn’t even flinch. “It won’t take long; half an hour, probably. It’s the main event, the show’s almost over.” “Fine,” she sighed and shook her head, “you mind if I watch it with you?” “Of course, feel free. Want a sip?” he offered her the bottle, she declined sternly both the bourbon and the blunt. “How was your night?” he asked in a cold, robotic voice, his eyes fixated on the television screen. “It was fun; we had a couple of beers, talked. You know how it is, going out with friends you haven’t seen for quite a while.” “Yeah, I know,” he nodded, having hardly listened to a word she said. “So, you sat here watching wrestling all day?” “Pretty much. I tried to write, but there was nothing. So, I just drank some and watched a show. Then, another one. And so on. Till you came.” “Sounds exciting and productive,” she rolled her eyes. “It helps with taking my mind off of things, so, that’s good.” “Haven’t you had enough to drink?” “No, I’m good.”
Why was I such an asshole?—he rubbed his closed eyelids when the scene ended and reality reappeared in the mirror. A lighter flickered in the kitchen, for a brief second the sparkle illumined the room. He peered at the door connecting the two rooms and saw nothing.
Only a faint cloud of blue smoke; he lunged to the kitchen. Nothing. He turned on the light; still nothing. Only some ash in the sink; he ran his fingers through his hair, the scent of lingering smoke crawling into his nostrils.
He turned off the light and embraced the absolute darkness of the stormy night. He returned to the living room and poured the last glass. Yet another empty bottle; another addition to the sea of broken glass, of false promises, of burned down dreams.
He picked up the half-smoked cigarette from the ashtray and lit it; according to the mirror, he was not alone. He was sitting cross-legged on the chair, hunching over toward the couch. He was holding hands with Bircan, whose eyes were covered under a film of glistening tears. “It’s beautiful to dream of, but,” she said and his heart sank because it did back then. “Damn it, don’t fall for her lies, you moron,” he bellowed. Both he and Bircan froze and peered at the mirror with arched eyebrows.
What the hell, he gulped the lump in his throat down and sat frozen like a statue on the chair, gawking at his reflection approaching the mirror. His eyes were bloodshot and exhausted; “can you hear me?” he whispered to his reflection. There was no immediate response. Only a tilting of the head and a film of perplexion in the eyes.
His reflection touched the mirror and felt nothing but glass. George clambered up to his feet and extended his shaking arm toward the mirror. With only his index finger, he reached for the reflection’s hand; he touched skin. Instantly, they both leaped back. “What’s going on?” Bircan asked from within the mirror. “Nothing,” mirror-George shuddered, still glaring at the mirror.
Tick-Tock; the merciless phantom clock stated, yearning for attention. And the scene disappeared. He had a gulp of bourbon. It was the middle of the night, too long until the stores opened. He poured water in his lowball, extending the rotgut’s life for a short while by weakening it.
Tick-Tock; he had a small sip and recalled the nine months he wasted with Bircan, falsely believing he felt something for her instead of realizing she was just a cheap replacement for Emily and Christine.
And it all began with that phrase, “beautiful to think of,” which had led to their first kiss that was supposed to be their only, and, instead, turned into a nine-month fairytale that never should have been.
He fired another cigarette up—she had been the one that often sent him to the kitchen to smoke, especially after she broke up with her boyfriend for his sake—and inside the sheath of blue smoke, he encountered a pair of bright, green eyes staring back at him. His chest heaved, his heart squirmed, and he sank the watered-down bourbon.
The glass was almost empty and his heart sank deeper into the abyss of despair. How could he sleep without enough alcohol in his bloodstream? He dragged long from his cigarette, trying to postpone his worry for after the glass was completely dry. He slapped his hand away from the glass.
Tick-Tock; again, even louder, even more ominous. The moment was almost there; whatever it was, it was too close.
George opened the closet and fished out the glass pipe from under the towels; it was dirty, it contained the taste of a thousand lips and the scent of countless pieces of ice and rock. He held it between his fingers and brought it up to his eyes. An artifact from a previous existence, a memento of simpler, in some ways, times. With a sigh, he put it on the coffee table.
Tick-Tock; almost there, he thought he heard a voice announcing. Perhaps, it was his own mind.
He choked down the remaining bourbon when Emily and he appeared in the mirror, sitting next to each other on the blue foldout couch, which, through the years, had grown more stained and worn out by usage and countless pieces of rock, ice, and junk smoked and injected on it. They both looked horrible; his eyes were bloodshot, his body appeared weak. Emily was pale and had cried herself dry of tears.
Tick-Tock; what’s the point? the moments never change, the past remains. Tick-Tock; a warning, a chance? or just a game?
He was an idle, and helpless, spectator of the moment that had plagued his mind for years. His reflection placed a chunk of junk on a spoon and heated it up. Emily was the first to go for the needle; she drew the melting junk into the syringe. “NO!” He bawled; for a moment the reflections froze and peered about. Unfazed, Emily rolled up her sleeve and found a vein.
“Stop her, you bastard!” He bawled. “Call for an ambulance!” He pleaded with his younger self. All his reflection cared for was the spike. He filled it up and the needle penetrated the exposed vein. They were both knocked out, trotting around in flaming meadows and chasing mocking dragons. Perhaps, it was only he that did that.
Emily was gone. Overdose.
He burst into painful tears; he reached for the mirror. Tick-Tock. “Do something, you useless junkie! It’s not fair, damn it, it’s not fair!” He rested his forehead on the mirror, algid glass against flushed skin. Tick-Tock. “Shut up!” He yowled at the invisible clock. “Shut up! What do you want, damn it? What is it?” He demanded and graveyard silence was the only response he received.
His younger self and Emily still sat on the couch, both peacefully out of consciousness, both trying to erase the memory of the abortion and the harrowing thought of having murdered their unborn child because they knew they could not become parents to a poor baby that would be born addicted to junk and would carry their defective genes.
“She’s dead! Wake up, you useless piece of shit!” He screamed one last time. Nothing came of it. It was lights out for both of them.
Tick-Tock; “what do you want?” He demanded from the phantom clock. Tick-Tock; nearer, louder, more threatening with every passing second. “Screw you!” George headbutted the mirror. A crack appeared and blood entered his eyes. He wiped it away and sniffled.
Tick-Tock; “fuck you!” Another headbutt on the mirror; Tick-Tock. He clocked the glass and the mirror shattered. Emily’s reflection disappeared. He winced at the small pieces of glass protruding from his torn skin. It was all over. No more Tick-Tock; perfect silence. Even the raging storm was dying out.
He sat back down and tilted the empty glass in his mouth. He hurled it at the wall and a short-lived rainfall of glass fell over the couch. He picked up one of the bigger pieces from the shattered mirror and caught a final glimpse of Emily sitting on the couch, conquered by the spike.
His lips curled into a half-smile that illuminated his exhausted face, and he lit a new cigarette. Emily was gone; instead of a mirror, he saw his hanging shirts and it was perfectly alright.
Tick-Tock; distant, faint, barely audible. A bone-chilling shiver traversed his spine and crawled into his numb brain.
George Gad Economou holds a Master’s degree in Philosophy of Science and resides in Athens, Greece, doing freelance work whenever he can while searching for a new place to go. His novella, Letters to S., was published in Storylandia Issue 30 and his short stories and poems have appeared in literary magazines, such as Adelaide Literary Magazine and Modern Drunkard Magazine, and his first poetry collection, Bourbon Bottles and Broken Beds, is slated for publication in 2021 by Adelaide Books.