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By Marlys Millhiser
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Marlys Millhiser
All rights reserved.
The Gingerbread House sat sullenly in the downpour. Water gurgled in its eaves troughs, cascaded from its peaks and false turrets, dripped from lacy trim bordering porches and railings and overhangs.
The streetlight pinpointed wet speartips on the ornate fence, made dancing leaves sweep shadows across the gate swinging in the wind. A hollow clang sounded over the noise of the storm as the gate returned to strike uselessly at its latch.
In the grassy depression between the black fence and the city sidewalk, a puddle gathered, its spillover creeping under the gate.
The Gingerbread House stood aloof from the surrounding city and from the rearing wall of mountains that crouched but a few blocks to the west, insulated by the storm, by its ancient trees, by its history in a neighborhood gone neon and brash.
Storm sewers could not cope with this rare deluge and a car moved cautiously up the hill to the stop sign opposite, headlights piercing the spaces in the fence, reaching to the porches and windows of the house set far back in the protection of its lot....
Shay Garrett, sitting on the window seat in the upstairs hall, leaned into the curving window as the car turned the corner. Headlights twisted through the distortion of old glass and wind-driven rain to bring fire to the solitaire on her finger.
She turned the ring so the diamond faced her palm, heard the mutter of voices downstairs, imagined a prickly tension waiting in the dark silence of the hall at her back.
As she rubbed the stiffened muscles of her neck, she felt the diamond cold against her skin and wished that it could rain inside the house, wash away the dust of decades, generations, decay, boredom.
Tomorrow a wedding band would be added to the solitaire. Tomorrow Shay would shake the dust of this house from her heels. Why then this uneasy feeling, this ennui so morbid and weighted it constricted her breathing?
"Shay?" her mother's voice came up the stairwell, sounding a bit frayed. "It's time to take Grandma Bran up. Can you help?"
Shay let her breath out slowly. "I'm coming."
"Why, the light's not even on," Rachael said below and Shay heard the switch click downstairs.
Instant light glared on new flowered carpeting and wallpaper meant to look old. The imagined, energized tension in the air seemed heavier as Shay passed the door of her room.
At the head of the stairs the wedding portrait was crooked and she paused to straighten it. The age-darkened photograph of Grandma Bran and her stiff-mustachioed husband. How could the woman in the picture be the same as the woman below, sprung from her eternal nursing home for the wedding tomorrow? Aging made no sense to Shay.
She moved down the curving stairs, half-strangled with the oppression of family relics and forebears.
"What were you doing up there with the lights off?" Rachael Garrett pushed the wheelchair to the bottom of the stairs and slid a hand under the old lady's arm to lift her.
Jerrold Garrett set his drink beside the telephone on the ancient buffet. "Probably leaning against a wall being winsomely bored."
A momentary tableau of the faces in front of Shay ... her parents' looks of helplessness, a touch of longing ... the rather sweet vacancy of her grandmother's stare. Shay forced a reassuring smile. "The gate's off the latch, Daddy. It's banging in the wind." She took Grandma Bran's other arm and it trembled at her touch.
"I'll get it." He grabbed a raincoat from the hall tree and the smell of soaked wood rushed in at them as he slammed the door.
Rachael smiled over the nodding white head between them, but through a mist of tears. "Well, what did you think of it?"
"Think of what?"
"Your wedding present ... in your room. You couldn't have missed it."
"I didn't go in my room. What is it?"
"The mirror from the attic. The one you were so intrigued with, remember? We've always called it the wedding mirror because it came into the family as a wedding present. It's very old and I suspect valuable. I thought you should have something ... of the family."
As Shay tried to remember a particular mirror from an attic stuffed with the discards of generations, Grandma Bran lurched forward.
Her mother caught herself on the banister. But her grandmother clutched at Shay, pale lips forming soundless words, sudden intentness replacing the emptiness of her stare.
"You don't think she's having another stroke?" Fear caught in Rachael's whisper as they pushed the old woman back into the chair.
A bony hand yanked at her wrist and Shay found herself on her knees in front of the wheelchair. "Mother, she's trying to talk. It's all right, Grandma." But she couldn't free her wrist. Nor believe how strong this tiny creature had become. Nor ward off the panic that seemed to pass from the frail body to her own.
"Damn gate's broken again." Her father and the rain smell entered the hall together. "Why the hell you insist upon hanging onto every piece of junk your family ever — what's the matter with her?"
"I don't know. I thought she might be having a stroke, but she seems to be trying to talk. Her color's high, though, Jerry."
The pinks of the delicate flowers on the wallpaper swam into the reds. The darkness of the buffet levitated in the blurred periphery of Shay's vision. She felt lost in her grandmother's eyes, as if she were being pulled out of herself, merging with the agony of the old woman's struggle as withered lips fought to form around something and sagging throat worked to give it voice.
"What is it, Grandma?"
"Mirror," Grandma Bran answered clearly. It was the first word she'd spoken in twenty years.CHAPTER 2
Shay leaned the folded canvas and metal of the wheelchair against the wall in the guest room. Her father set Grandma Bran on the edge of the bed.
Rachael grasped her husband's arm as he straightened. "That's the first thing she's said since her stroke. Jerry, you don't think there's hope ... after all this time?"
"I think you never give up on anything." He gestured toward the woman on the bed, whose vacant smile belied the brief lapse into reality they'd witnessed downstairs. "She's probably happier where she is, wherever she's gone. Leave her alone."
Shay still felt the impact of that emotional exchange. Her grandmother, after forcing out one word, had shuddered, looked confused and then lost all interest in further communication. "But why did she look so frightened when she said 'mirror'?"
"Oh, honey, she wasn't frightened. She just can't control her expressions that well." Rachael touched the parchment cheek and the old lady patted her hand as if to offer comfort. "I just wish it'd lasted longer. There's so much I want to say to her, ask her."
"Well, I still think it's a mistake having Bran here for the wedding." Jerry forced a creaking window open a few inches at the top. "She's not going to know the difference and she might do something to wreck it."
"She's never been any trouble. I'll watch her." When he was gone Rachael turned to Shay.
"You understand, don't you? You're the only one of her grandchildren she responds to anymore. I'm not sure she recognizes her own sons. I thought she should be here."
"Mother, it's fine. I'm glad Grandma will be at my wedding. And Marek won't mind."
Rachael stared at Grandma Bran as if willing her to speak again, but the old lady was absorbed in folding her suit jacket. Sitting erect, she fumbled at the blouse's buttons. She could do so much for herself. At the table she rarely spilled her food. Her walk was halting, a barely perceptible dragging of one foot. Only in the last few years had the doctor insisted a wheelchair be kept handy so she wouldn't tire.
Shay hovered near the bed with a nightgown and hoped she'd never live to grow this old.
When Rachael returned with Grandma Bran from a trip to the bathroom, Shay helped to tuck the covers around the wasted body.
"Honey, about tomorrow. It isn't too late."
"Mother, don't —"
"Please, let me finish. I have to say this and I promise to say it only once. If you ..."
Rachael pushed back thick hair where any trace of gray had been camouflaged. "I'm not accusing you of anything, darling. Oh, I don't know how to say this. But ... if you —"
"Mother, I can see you're never going to get it right and we don't have all night. Let me say it for you. Shay," she tried to imitate her mother's low voice, "if you're pregnant your father and I will pay for you to have the baby at some home or even to have an abortion, but you do not have to marry that man tomorrow. How's that?"
Rachael sank onto the cedar chest at the foot of the bed and stared at Shay. Her face had gone as pale as Grandma Bran's. "How did you know?"
"That's getting to be pretty standard for a night-before-the-wedding talk."
"Not when I was a girl. She ..." Rachael turned to the woman in the bed, who appeared to be sleeping, and dropped her voice, "she gave a talk on the birds and the bees."
"Wouldn't it be cool to know what her mother told her?" Shay laughed softly, switched off the light and sat beside Rachael. "Look, you're exhausted. I've tried to keep the wedding as simple as possible, but there's been a lot for you to do. There's your work and worrying about Grandma and the big dinner tonight."
"To which your husband-to-be didn't show."
"I told you about the bachelor party."
"He could've come to dinner and then gone to his party."
"What don't you like about Marek?"
"I don't dislike him. I don't even know him." Rachael stood and walked to the door. "It's just ... just that you don't love him."
Jerry Garrett collected the remaining glasses, carried them into the kitchen, where the dishwasher rinsed its second load of the evening. On his way back he struck a hipbone on a corner of the buffet in the hall.
"Damn thing doesn't belong in a hall anyway," he muttered to the house. But the dining room had two buffets already and no room for more. They all had some family history which Rachael could rattle off at a moment's notice. Both he and his daughter had tuned that out long ago.
He sat in the one comfortable chair the house could manage and surveyed the white-and-silver wedding bows on the glass-fronted antique cabinets whose shelves were lined with knickknacks and Rachael's cobalt-blue-glass collection. This room was too little even for the small ceremony to be held here in the morning. All cut up, with its many rooms overcrowded, the Gingerbread House was suited more for tiny fluttering old ladies like Bran than for full-grown males.
"I wondered where you were." Rachael glided in with a soft swish of her hostess gown and sat in the wooden platform rocker.
"I've had the strangest feeling all day." She glanced at the corners of the high ceiling.
"That's only natural." But he'd noticed it too. So had the dinner guests. His brothers-in-law hadn't bothered to tease each other. Ever since he'd carried that crappy old mirror down from the attic and gone to collect Bran from the nursing home, he'd had uneasy sensations in his middle. "Well, did you talk to her?"
"More like she talked to me." Rachael lit a cigarette, blew smoke at the chandelier. "She didn't admit to anything."
"Is she angry with us?"
"No. She just laughed in a nice ..." Her lips trembled and she took a deep breath. "A nice condescending way. Why, Jerry? Why?"
"She's just bored. I hear it's all the rage." He wanted to cross the room, hold her. But he didn't. "Just bored. She always has been. But Jesus, marriage. That's like jumping off a bridge to scratch an itch."
"And she's twenty years old. There's nothing we can do." Rachael stubbed out a half-smoked cigarette. "I suppose these days we should be relieved she's marrying, not just moving in with him." She stood and started for the doorway. "Mom didn't say any more, maybe it was just a ..."
Jerry was staring over the rim of his glass at the figurine of a shepherdess on the mantel, but his mind was seeing the willowy shape of his daughter, the long pale hair, the contrast of a summer's suntan, the sudden flashes of kinky wit that would light mischief in otherwise solemn, indifferent eyes ...
When someone screamed upstairs. When the figurine toppled, to crash against a bellows below. When the Gingerbread House shuddered to its gables with a strange explosive impact....
Shay sat beside her grandmother after Rachael left. The rain had stopped but wind still lashed leaves around the streetlight and shadow silhouettes flickered across the bed.
"Mother's hopelessly old-fashioned, Grandma Bran," Shay whispered to the sleeping form. "Love! I've got to make a change sometime."
A hand moved on the coverlet and lids lifted on faded eyes that looked through Shay. "Book," Grandma Bran said, the bed shuddering as her body joined the struggle to say more.
And again Shay had the sensation of being drawn out of herself. She slipped off the bed and rubbed bare arms. Hearing even two spoken words after years of silence made her skin crawl.
If mind and speech were returning, would it be a blessing for someone almost a hundred years old?
Mercifully, her grandmother subsided into sleep and Shay tiptoed out, crossing the hall to her own room, where the flowered carpeting and wallpaper continued from the hallways both upstairs and down. If she never saw another pink-and-red printed posy in her life, Shay vowed, it'd be too soon.
Rachael'd decorated this room "little girl pretty." The frills and flounces left small space for Shay and her belongings. And with her wedding gift sitting in the middle, it was almost too cramped for air. She leaned over stacks of L.P.'s that blocked the heat from the baseboard heater in winter and opened the window. Rain and wind had brought the clean pine scent down from the mountainsides.
Shay turned to inspect her wedding gift. "Yuk! I remember you now." Mother, I was fascinated by this monstrosity because it was so horrid, not because I liked it. She wondered what she and Marek would do with it.
A full-length glass with a ragged crack running diagonally across the top. The crack would always cut across her face unless she stood on her head. But the worst was the frame, bronze molded in the shape of hands, long, slender but masculine-looking hands that slithered and entwined about each other like snakes, and all with talon-like fingernails. The base was a pair of hands turned downward, the mirror's weight resting on the thumb, forefinger and little finger on each hand.
Just looking at the thing gave her the shudders. After slipping into filmy baby-doll pajamas, she lifted the veil Grandma Bran was said to have worn at her wedding from its perch on a lampshade and tried it on. Another of her mother's treasures. How could Shay see well enough through the lace to descend the staircase? She giggled at a vision of herself in a heap of satin and lace at the foot of the stairs, while embarrassed guests tried not to notice.
But she laughed aloud at her image in the wedding mirror. Even through the veil and the crack in the glass, her bare legs and straight hair dripping beneath the lace looked a comical mixture of time periods.
The harsh voice startled Shay as she lifted the veil to see her grandmother swaying in the doorway, her shapeless nightgown and milky skin ghostly against the darkness of the hall.
Grandma Bran's eyes were locked on the wedding mirror.
"Corbin!" the old lady screamed.
Goose bumps prickled on Shay's arms. "No, Grandma, it's a ..."
As their eyes met in the wedding mirror, the mirror began to hum. Waves in the glass undulated into the room on a sea of mist and swamped Shay in a sweating sickness. A cracking sound ripped the air with such force she was thrown to the floor. The carpet gave way beneath her and Shay fell in a blackedout world filled with an old woman's screams.CHAPTER 3
The screams ended. Shay thought some disaster, natural or otherwise, had befallen the Gingerbread House.
She rose through layers of silent black. Sickness heaved inside her.
She whirled in sweeping circles that stopped when she reached the hardness of floor. The web of the veil's lace lay in a jumble in front of her face. Shay pushed it away and gagged.
She lay on a floor of varnished boards that smelled of oil and dust. The carpet with its gay posies had disappeared.
Pulling her knees under her, Shay raised herself on her hands. No stacks of L.P.'s, no baseboard heater. Just a foot-high baseboard stained dark brown instead of white. She swayed and fell back to the floor.
Footsteps, excited voices in the hall ...
"Sounded like dynamite. But I don't see anything's been blown up."
"Help me," Shay tried to shout, but it came as a whimper.
Blackness threatened her again and she twisted on the slippery floor to find something solid to hold to stop the swirling. Her hand met a cold talon at the base of the wedding mirror.
"What's wrong with her?" The voices were in the room now.
"She must have fainted. You men go check the rest of the house. I'll unlace her. Brandy?"
"Just some water please." Shay felt a loosening around her ribs that allowed her to breathe deeply. "What's happening?"
"I don't know. Knocked pictures off the walls and broke dishes, but we can't find what or where it exploded. Here, I'll take out your hair."
Excerpted from The Mirror by Marlys Millhiser. Copyright © 1978 Marlys Millhiser. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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