By Joe Nazare
His wife called him callous, but Charlie had his heart set on this for too long to be moved.
She’s your only living relative, Kayla felt obliged to remind him. She loves you, and would want you to be there for her.
Doubtless true, but the cerebrovascular accident (if you could deem the internal ravages of age “accidental”) had left his Aunt Helene lying in a coma for thirteen days running. Odds were that the old gal wasn’t getting up anytime soon, and probably wouldn’t recognize Charlie even if she did. Tomorrow night after work, he would go to the hospital to keep bedside vigil once more. Today, though, was his only one off, and his last chance to catch the annual convention.
So the decision was a no-brainer, really. Off to the Meadowlands he headed, with neither Kayla nor a guilty conscience coming along for the ride.
A Haunting Task, the convention billed itself as, a pre-Halloween-season gathering for the decorating enthusiast. It was really more craft fair than an upscale trade show like TransWorld or HAuNTCon—events Charlie had never attended, knowing from watching others’ chronicled visits on YouTube that he needn’t bother. All the outsized, outré animatronics on sale there were thousands of dollars beyond his holiday budget. The wares on display at AHT, though, were geared toward those looking to set up amateur haunts rather than paid attractions, and proved nonetheless macabre for having been homemade.
This was Charlie’s fourth time coming here, and like each previous year, he spent hours perusing the tabled offerings, and schmoozing with the vendors and other attendees. Rarely did he make an actual purchase. He was more interested in getting ideas that he could adapt and personally fabricate for his haunt: Charlie Spangler’s Halloween Haven, a yard- and home-walkthrough for neighborhood children and the kids at heart who happily chaperoned them. So although he was empty-handed, his head was chock-full of October notions (he definitely would be working on “corpsing” some foam pumpkins this year) as he exited the showroom and traversed a long corridor in the convention center. And that’s why he almost walked right by it.
It wasn’t some cheap lenticular image that he sensed out of the corner of his eye. His passing must have triggered a motion-detector; the rectangular pseudo-mirror hanging on the wall to his left began to operate like a video monitor.
Instantly, Charlie thought of the highway of the dead in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. Continued inspection, however, brought the aptness of such comparison into question. There was no discernible pattern to the pictured foot traffic, with the travelers staggering in myriad directions and periodically sideswiping one another. For that matter, there wasn’t the least semblance of roadway beneath their bare soles. Nothing as civilizational as pavement, just an unending expanse of loamy, dung-colored earth.
The scene was devoid of greenery, nary a blade of grass or a stunted shrub visible. Apparently nothing living could thrive in such terrible terrain, which was also plentiful with pitfall: time and again, the walkers would sink a leg knee-deep in the dirt and have to struggle to pull the limb loose. Looking long-since-exhausted yet pushing ever onward, the figures persisted in solemn and soundless peregrination.
Captivating as the mirror was, Charlie felt compelled to look away, to scan for sign of proprietor. But his was the lone presence in the corridor, whose white walls also didn’t feature any nearby doorway beyond which someone might have been strategically secreted. Charlie had to admit: it was a brilliant bit of marketing, placing the dark glass in such inconspicuous setting, where a person would stumble upon its unconventional wonders and be all the more amazed.
The object’s designer, whoever that might be, had truly held a mirror up to supernature. The wretches captured within the plain silver frame had been rendered ultra-realistically. Emaciated, scraggly-haired, clothed in tatters, what little fabric remaining charred a uniform black. Each figure sported two Stygian pits where the eyes once resided, the resultant facades evoking the windowless gaps of vandalized tenements. By far, the most remarkable aspect of the travelers’ appearance was the murky smoke issuing from their sockets. Some eyeholes billowed, shooting tar-dark tendrils as fervently as a site of industrial fire. Others emitted a snuffed-candle wispiness—an indication of less serious perdition, or perhaps of a longer stretch spent upon the wasteland and the near completion of the soul’s holocaust.
Still, there wasn’t one member of this miserable mob who failed to spill his or share of noxious tears, which streamed up to join a sky rife with ominous cumulonimbi. In turn, these foully-brewed storm clouds sent vibrant orange tines spearing downward. The strikes were frequent and far-flung, suggesting a scene of extraterrestrial blitzkrieg. And the hapless migrants formed perfect lightning rods, inevitably leveled by a dead-on zapping. Once knocked prostrate, they lay motionless and smoldering, their long ordeal seemingly ceased. Eventually, though, the random victims all hauled themselves back upright with grim determination. They resumed their apocalyptic walkabout, polluting the heavens like mobile smokestacks as their gouges spewed exhaust with rekindled intensity.
Ah, the circle of afterlife, Charlie thought with a chuckle. Dantean to the extreme.
Without a doubt, the mirror’s designer possessed some serious CGI skills. Charlie, though, didn’t dwell upon the maker’s technical prowess; he was too busy enjoying the frisson created by the electronic decoration. Further appreciative staring did allow Charlie to consider that part of the piece’s effectiveness came from the way it framed its strange display. For all the chaos of cursedness transpiring across the crowded landscape, the scene did not unfold via panoramic scroll. All the action was accessed from an unmistakably fixed vantage point. The numberless dead would lumber in and out of view, passing nearby (sometimes occultingly close) and in the far background. When a bolt of ocher lightning blasted soil up against the glass, leaving besmirching splotches of grime behind, it only reinforced Charlie’s sense that some netherworld periscope facilitated his observance of the tribulation.
Albeit fixed, the perspective was hardly limited. Charlie didn’t know how many minutes he’d already spent in witness, but was certain he hadn’t once spotted the scene repeating itself. The video was not confined to short loop, furnishing ever-diminishing returns as its uncanny content grew more familiar. If anything, the mirror seemed designed to reward the persistent viewer over and over with glimpse of fresh horror.
Like this one now in the mid-distance: a wanderer whom Charlie pegged as a desperate newcomer to the Plutonian plain attempted to stem his own effusion by pressing his fists to his sockets. The gesture provided but momentary anodyne, as the ocular volcanoes refused to be sealed off. Dusky reek promptly engulfed the man’s hands, its scorch annihilating flesh and phalanges alike within seconds. As if stunned by such quick and grisly disarming, the man held his maimed limbs out in front of his face, the ragged, steaming stumps looking like nothing less than a pair of guttering torches.
“Unreal,” Charlie couldn’t help but marvel.
Apparently the mirror had a voice-activation feature as well, because a second after Charlie breathed the word, the figures in the frame all swiveled their eyeless gazes onto him. Like zombies responding to the dinner bell of human noise, the travelers stopped in their variegated tracks, turned, and homed in. Their mouths gaped in mute howl and their blind sockets blazed as the horde closed ranks and closed the distance to its prey.
This explicit targeting sent a delicious shiver rippling through Charlie. At that moment, he wasn’t thinking about his imperiled soul, but rather Sold! He didn’t care what this wickedly clever decoration cost; he had to add it to his haunt. With that in mind, he reached for the breast pocket of his jacket to retrieve his check book.
But ended up clutching his chest instead as an internal lightning bolt ripped jagged agony down the length of his left arm. Eyes popped, he watched the posthumous throng part to reveal his Aunt Helene, no longer comatose and blackly fuming. The arresting revenant stretched one crooked hand straight toward the mirror, whose glass now appeared so transparent, it might not have been there at all.
Charlie crumpled bonelessly to the floor, the rigid linoleum soon giving way to loam.