If you were to judge the scene purely by sight, you would have thought that Jerry was all alone in the house of mirrors. After all, as the child makes his way through the disorienting maze, his is the only shape we can see.
But let us engage one of our other senses, shall we? Say, for example, our sense of smell. If we were able to smell the air inside, we would instantly know that something wasn’t quite right. The odour is putrid, vaguely reminiscent of spoiled milk, with something else lingering underneath. Something bad. Something ancient. Something angry.
Jerry was deeply aware of the smell. It was all around him. It invaded every pore, and with every single breath he could feel it sting his nose, could taste it at the back of his throat.
He was twelve years old, and tall for his age. He had sandy brown-blonde hair and sparkling green eyes that were remarkably intelligent. His skin still bore the smoothness of youth, but had the early signs of adolescent acne popping up along his fringe.
Sweat dripped down his forehead and into his eyes. He wiped it away with the back of his arm. It was cool and chilly inside the house of mirrors, and yet he was perspirating. Jerry knew why: fear.
Jerry’s father and mother were dead. As was his little brother, Billy. Billy had been seven years old. He didn’t know where his parents were now, but he knew that Billy lay in his bed, the one with the cartoons on the duvet, because Jerry had gently laid him there. And then he had tied Billy’s corpse to the bed. Just to be sure. After securing his brother’s lifeless body, he had gathered the objects that he now held in his white-knuckle grip and had left his family home in Sycamore Close, for what he hoped would not be the last time.
Garish carnival music echoed throughout the twisting corridors. The honky-tonk piano plinked and plunked its drunken way through the classics with wild abandon. The music was happy. Too happy. Like a smile that has been stretched too wide and now resembles a scream.
Jerry crept through the reflective corridors; eyes wide. Replications of himself mimicked his actions with flawless synchronicity across the glass walls.
He had a plan of sorts. Had a couple, actually. Jerry wasn’t sure which one would be the best, or most effective. He had gone through the scenarios in his head, what would happen, what could go wrong. He knew instinctively, however, that when the adrenaline kicked in, he’d act on impulse.
On the outside, the house of mirrors looked normal sized. But inside… everything was wrong. That the glass maze spanned an area ten times what it should did not surprise Jerry, but it did scare him. He was making a conscious effort to cling to the loving memory of his family in order to not lose his nerve, but he was still just a child.
He snuck deeper into the lair, as his heart hammered against his ribcage like a prisoner against the walls of his cell. Jerry didn’t precisely know where he was going, but his gut told him: in the middle, at the deepest point, at the centre of the maze, the apex of the illusion.
His name was Ving. Jerry didn’t know what his last name was. Or if he even had one. Ving had arrived with the carnival, Jerry now realised. The carnival was his guise, his distraction. The carnies themselves were his servants.
Jerry had managed to sneak past the human operators of the carnival. Or perhaps they had let him slip by. Maybe they wanted him to succeed. Or maybe this is all a trap, thought the boy.
Ving had ruined Hovale. Utterly ruined it. It was a small town, an insignificant town, outside of the influential grasp of the big cities, and Jerry had loved it. Sure, it had its flaws, such as the local cinema having only two screens, and the people having slightly too conservative views, but overall it was a warm, homely town. And then Ving had taken all that was good and right about the place and sucked it out. Hovale was now just a carcass, a shell. A ghost town. And the spectres that haunted the streets were anything but harmless.
It had taken Jerry a while to notice what was going on, but when he had finally realised… well, by that point it had already been too late, hadn’t it? By then, his parents had been taken. As far as he was aware, all of his friends had succumbed by that point as well. Maybe one or two had holed up like him, and tried to fight, but Jerry couldn’t reach them via his walkie-talkie. Maybe some were still alive. Jerry hoped so; the thought added much-needed sunlight to his dark mind.
He had promised Billy that he’d protect him. Had promised his baby brother that he’d keep him safe. And for a while, he had succeeded. They’d kept low, and only ventured out during daylight. Richmond, the nearest town, was miles away, and Jerry didn’t know how to drive. His dad had told him that that summer he’d show him what to do, but of course, that opportunity never arose. They couldn’t risk walking to Richmond. They’d have to spend a night outside, which was too risky. Just too damn risky.
And Billy… Billy…
Dad killed Billy.
The thought entered his mind like a blade, striking right where it would hurt most.
Dad killed Billy.
That night came rushing back to him and Jerry was helpless to stop it. He remembered screaming at his little brother, telling him to not open the door to the back garden, that that wasn’t dad anymore, that dad wasn’t right, that dad wasn’t okay, that there was something wrong with him, that… that…
He closed his watery eyes and pushed the memory away, as a single tear made its way down his cheek. He took a deep breath.
From somewhere deep inside him, he pulled strength from a well of resolve he didn’t know he had. If she were still alive, his mother would have told him that he got that strength from his father, David.
He knew he had found it straight away.
The room was sort of circular. In truth, it was a triskaidecagon, with one of its thirteen sides opening onto the corridor from which he had entered. There were no other entrances or exits that he could see. All of the walls were mirrors, offering Jerry an awful view of his sick-looking face.
God, I look young. Too young. A silly little kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing.
In the centre of the mirror maze’s central room was a black coffin. The room was otherwise bare.
Jerry swallowed hard. The air seemed still and thick; somehow expectant. It felt as if the whole world was holding its breath.
Without completely taking his eyes off the sarcophagus, he checked his watch. 3:17 p.m. Good. That was good. It wouldn’t be dark for many hours to come.
Jerry approached the tomb. It was blacker than anything he had ever seen. Blacker than night. Blacker than… black. It didn’t look real. It seemed to warp the very light around it, absorbing it, swallowing it. The coffin looked as though it were a silhouette, cut out of the very fabric of reality.
The boy placed the items in the deep pockets of his jeans and placed a hand on the lid. Jerry gasped as the warmth was drained away from his sweaty palm. He recoiled, inspecting the skin for damage.
Does it matter, Jerry? Asked that familiar voice within his head. Does it matter? It’s now or never. Think of Mom. Think of Dad. Think of Billy. Billy who you used to spend hours in front of the TV playing racing games with. Billy, who always offered you the last cookie in the packet. Billy, who you were going to teach to play guitar. Billy.
Jerry stood tall and advanced upon the tomb of the beast once more.
He put both hands on the crypt and refused to retreat when the cold seemed to invade his skin. The chill snaking its way up his arms felt sentient and malevolent. Jerry persevered. Gently, ever so gently, Jerry raised the coffin’s lid. It groaned an antique protest but moved willingly enough. Jerry pushed the lid away as the body housed within came into view.
Jerry stumbled backwards as the top of the coffin thudded down onto the floor with a racket. The sound was big and loud, and echoed through the room, down the hallways of the house of mirrors.
The body inside did not move. It did not move. The eyes were closed. The mouth was closed. Jerry noted that Ving’s chest did not rise and fall like that of a sleeping person. Because he’s undead, Jerry realised. He’s undead, that’s why. He doesn’t breathe because he doesn’t need to. He’s not alive, at least, not in the proper sense, he’s—
Jerry realised he wasn’t breathing. He had to make a conscious effort to restart his respiration again and hastily gulped a mouthful of the lair’s stale atmosphere.
Now or never Jerry. Now. Or. Never.
He pulled the stake out of his left pocket. The other item remained in his right pocket. It was small and rectangular.
Jerry approached the vampire’s coffin.
He looked inside at the abomination. He stared at Ving’s pallid face. The sallow skin. The creature’s hands were crossed over his stomach, the nails long and sharp. How old are you? Where did you come from? He was curious, but even the child knew that the questions did not matter. Nothing mattered anymore.
He raised the stake above his shoulder.
Sweat dripped down his face.
He tensed his entire body, muscles ready.
He brought the spike down with all his might.
The creature’s eyes flicked open. An ice-cold hand gripped his arm like a vice. The boy screamed.
Jerry was frozen to the spot. Ving slowly sat upright, still clamping down in his wrist. Jerry sobbed.
The devourer turned towards him with a smile. His eyes were beautiful spirals.
“Ah… Young Jerry Pilovski. I’ve been searching for you.” The vampire’s voice was soft and smooth. The words trickled down Jerry’s ear canals like butter.
His eyes, oh God, his eyes!
Jerry felt himself leaning in towards the vampire. His mind was blank. Everything was spiral.
He’s hypnotising me, Jerry thought, suddenly. Using all of his energy, the boy wrenched his gaze away from the ancient creature, up to the wall behind. He wasn’t much surprised to see that the mirror reflected only himself. As far as the glass walls were concerned, Ving didn’t exist.
“GrrrAGGHH!” The raw, unadulterated rage in that scream turned Jerry’s blood to ice. The bloodsucker smacked the wooden post from his hands with ease, and the weapon went skidding across the floor. Jerry cried out as the vampire threw him backwards and then lunged at him with a demonic speed.
Ving tackled the child who would never become a man and pinned him to the wall. Jerry heard the glass crack as his head collided with the mirror with force.
The destroyer of life was upon him, now. Jerry could smell Ving’s breath. It was the breath of something that should have been long-dead. It tasted of corruption, of dust, of years in the shadows, of an age spent in the night. The odour was of drained life, of stolen youth.
Ving was smiling. “I was… searching for you, you know. Boy. The memories of your mother and father,” he tapped the side of his head, “told me the house was not empty.”
“I HATE YOU!” screamed Jerry into the face of evil. “I HATE YOU!” Spittle flew from his lips.
Ving’s smile grew broader. “And then I got your teeny tiny little brother,” his voice rose in pitch, mocking him.
Anger and injustice boiled in Jerry’s veins. “HE WAS SEVEN YEARS OLD! SEVEN! YOU MONSTER! YOU LEECH! YOU—YOU—”
“Yes, yes, I’m a monster, I know. I’ve heard it all before, boy. A thousand times over.” His grin widened again, impossibly. “I was searching for you, and here you are. You’ve presented yourself to me. On a platter.”
His mouth can’t get any bigger. Can’t. And—and there’s too many teeth. Whoever said vampires only have two sharp teeth? There’s too many, too many, too many—
Like black lightning, the vampire darted in towards Jerry’s exposed neckline. The vampire’s teeth sunk into the tender flesh there, and Jerry screamed in anguish, rage, and defeat.
“NO!” bellowed the boy, in a voice he barely recognised. “NO!”
He lashed out with his feet, simultaneously striking the vampire in the gut and in the groin.
A winded, wounded sound escaped the vampire: “GUH!” Ving stumbled backwards into his sarcophagus, his lips and teeth a striking crimson. Jerry stared in horror at the liquid trickling down the ancient beast’s chin. That was his blood! HIS blood!
Rivulets of gore trickled down Jerry’s neck, which was starting to show the first few wisps of facial hair. Jerry brought a hand up to the gaping holes above his collarbone, and felt the warmth seeping out. He looked at his red-stained fingertips, shocked. He had failed. He had been bitten.
“I’ll kill you. I’LL KILL YOU!”
Ving roared back with laughter. “If you kill me, my dear boy, you will kill everyone. Everyone. Your mother, Susan. Your father, David. And your brother… Billy. We are linked, now. We are one.” His accent was exotic and unplaceable. “We’ve shared blood.”
“DON’T YOU DARE SAY THEIR NAMES!”
Ving chuckled. The chuckle turned into a laugh. The laugh turned into a scream. “WHAT WILL YOU DO NOW? WHAT WILL YOU DO? IF YOU KILL ME, YOU KILL US ALL. Even…” Ving lowered his voice to a soothing, velvety growl: “Yourself.”
The vampire clicked his fingers, turned and wandered over to the corner. He bent over.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” Jerry was losing a lot of blood, and the room swayed before him.
The vampire span around and threw something at his feet. It skittered and came to a stop. It was his stake. He had fashioned it from a leg of his wooden bedside table. Had haphazardly cut the point using his mother’s best kitchen knives.
“Kill me,” whispered the vampire with a grin, “kill us all. Kill me… kill yourself.”
Jerry stared at the spectre. He’s teasing me. He doesn’t think I’ll do it. He’s mocking me. The thought fuelled the fire within him. He would not die a coward. He would not die a mockery.
Ving began to spin around in a twisted mockery of a dance whilst chanting his sing-song mantra, his slithery voice reaching a higher and higher pitch. “KILLME. KILLUSALL. KILLME. KILLUSALL. KILLME. KILLUSALL!”
Jerry thought of life and love and goodness. He though of his mum, Susan, of his dad, David. Of his little brother, Billy. All were doomed to an eternity of this, just as he was. Unless… Unless I do the right thing. His head swam. His shirt was sticky with blood. Jerry knew that he would soon be unconscious. He would soon be dead. He would soon be one of them.
“KILL ME, KILL US ALL! KILL ME, KILL US ALL! KILLMEKILLUSALL! KILLMEKILLUSALL! KILLMEKILLUSALLKILLMEKILLUSALL! KILLMEKILLUSA—”
The vampire span around, his face a look of shock as the boy raced towards him. Ving’s expression of sheer surprise was almost comical. The boy ran at him, armed with the spike and the other thing. Ving tried to dodge the attack, but it had caught him completely and utterly off-guard. He never, never thought the boy would fight. Over a thousand years of always winning, always surviving, always being the killer and never the killed, had caused him to underestimate the boy.
Jerry, twelve years old, screamed a death cry as he leapt and plunged the stake into the torso of the hissing, cringing vampire, whilst pressing the button on the remote control.
Two things happened.
First, Jerry and the vampire screamed in unison, harmonising beautifully in their shared agony. Jerry plunged the paling deeper and deeper into Ving’s chest, feeling the mimicry as sharpened wood plunged into his own heart as well.
Second, the fireworks Jerry had rigged to the roof of the house of mirrors detonated. At the time, Jerry wasn’t sure if he even could damage the vampire’s layer. After all, it didn’t obey physics or reality. But as he felt his core being pierced by the stick that had once propped up his bedside table, a hole exploded in the ceiling above them in a dazzling display of colours. Sunlight, rich and warm and good and powerful, flooded the room.
Ving shrieked. The sound was inhuman and agonising.
The rays of gold bounced off the mirrors and shot back across the room. The vampire burst into flames, paling protruding from his rapidly collapsing ribcage.
Jerry felt the pain in his own chest grow warm, but it did not burn, nor did the sunlight char his skin. I wasn’t that far gone, then, he thought with a smile, as he collapsed to his knees. I’m still me. I’m still me.
He closed his eyes and let the pleasant darkness take him.
Across the small, rural town of Hovale, a series of nightmarish howls filled the air and were suddenly silenced.
Perhaps there are some human eyes, here and there, peeking out through windows and curtains, but if there are, we shall not disturb them by prying.
In a once-pretty house in Sycamore Close, a child’s bed is now empty, except for the dust that lies on the cartoon-covered duvet.
23rd July 2019
Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest