Pink clouds. Blue mist. Indigo haze, popping like a potion.
Bisexual lighting, Connor chuckled to himself, before pursing his lips back into an unimpressed line.
Trinity Hall had come alive this fall, embracing the festive tragedy it was destined to be. Its brimstone walls which oft absorbed light was no match for the season’s colours - fluorescent orange and vibrant purple from jack o’ lanterns, crystal balls, and Dracula cutouts hung across the vaulted ceiling. The common room was stocked with caramelised apples shaped like skulls, miniature cauldrons filled with candies chocolates, and simply put - a regal platter of devilled eggs.
Connor took another egg to join his cup of coke and whisky, something to munch and sip on as he wandered the familiar college hallway in its unfamiliar state.
The spirits of the dark had outshone themselves on this delightful Halloween. Connor walked past mummies, ghosts, glow-in-the-dark skeleton suits, and even the Devil himself in the form of the college’s star athlete. The six foot two titan of a football player turned menace of the underworld donned a domineering black coat and protruding red horns, a pitchfork held firmly in one hand and his partner - a token sweetheart in white lingerie and angel wings - gripped staunchly in the other.
Connor had forgotten about Halloween. Honestly, the only reason he was here was because he lived at Trinity Hall and somehow, despite an entire month of persistent advertising, he had missed the memo.
That’s the mirror from Snow White, he thought as his gaze lingered for a second longer than it should have, studying the unfamiliar figure that stood within it.
Grey sweats from his high school football club. An ugly maroon sweater received during orientation week. Pools of all-consuming darkness building beneath his eyes. Cheeks hollow and splotchy, and constellations of acne on his dry forehead. He saw himself slouching, like a plant needing water, and as he made a feeble attempt to straighten himself up he realised how unmaintained he looked.
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Who’s the fairest one of all?”
A witch… No, an enchantress, with satanic runes inscribed across her delicate arms and obsidian nails dipped in liquid shadow. With partially ripped stockings and a robe that fluttered like smoke, Connor was utterly enamoured. She glanced at him with galaxy-clad eyes - and he wondered whether that was part of the magic too.
“Long time no see, Connor.” Her voice was a fissure-like alto. Like the hum of a tuning fork.
“Hi, um. I’m sorry. I don’t think we’ve met?”
“I think we know each other quite well.”
Connor squinted, trying to make out the face of reality within illusion. He took notice of her most significant aspects - the angular wedge of her collarbones, ears halfway to a Tolkien elf, a chin that was ever so slightly off centre - but his memory found itself wanting.
“Was this… recent?”
“Nope, not at all. We have a bit of a history, you and I.”
Connor shook his head. “Sorry, you’re gonna have to give me a hint.”
A disappointed shrug. A sly grin. This “What an idiot, but I’ll play along” look fit the enchantress exceedingly well, and for a split second, Connor wondered how many hearts this woman had toyed with - wielding her enthralling words and beguiling gaze - and whether he was next in line to an embarrassing swindle.
She retrieved a set of spectacles from a pocket inside her costume. At a glance, they were far too massive for her face - or anyone’s face really - with outrageously thick rims and lenses that looked more like magnifying glasses. But as she slipped them on, like glass slipper to a runaway princess, the sorceress’ air of magistracy settled into familiar ground.
The realisation hit Connor like a pumpkin-shaped carriage.
"In the flesh.”
Connor hadn’t seen Marianne since high school graduation. In fact, he didn’t recall seeing her there either. Time travelled swiftly once he got his diploma. Only the weekend shortly after, Connor had packed all his belongings into two large suitcases, kissed his parents goodbye, and fetched a two-hour taxi drive to the closest airport and a one-hour flight to Dublin.
He was the only person in town to leave beautiful, countryside Reine for the university life. Or so he thought.
Marianne pulled out a half-finished pack of cigarettes, extending one to Connor. Marlboro Reds against black fingernails, like an inviting roulette table.
“I’m good, thanks.”
“I thought you liked cigarettes.”
“I did.” He coughed. “Old times, I guess.”
Connor’s eyes grazed over Marianne’s body, not in a creepy or intrusive way, but like a wary investigator. Perhaps if he looked at her in a certain way, at an awkward angle or under a different light, he could catch the resemblance. There was little overlap between the Marianne he knew and the stranger who stood before him today. He recalled her as sickly and lopsided. With an unfashionable hairstyle and freckles that spilled over her pale complexion like a permanent rash. The woman before him, makeup and costume aside, was an entirely different beast. Tenacity in her eyes. Esteem in her stance. A subtle but profound bravery pulsed out of her as she faced out-of-place Connor.
She was strikingly good at maintaining eye contact - a skill that Connor had left unpractised.
“Fair enough.” Marianne shrugged, pressing death between her lips.
The smouldering flame looked natural on her, like wings on a fairy.
“Cheers to the old times, Connor.” Marianne gleamed, raising an invisible glass as a playful gesture.
Connor inhaled sharply, as if he had the cigarette. Gaze averted - what is the sick twist of fate? Fists balled - a pose he was well-acquainted with, but for reasons he had once feared. The atmosphere seemed to weigh heavier, the gravity intensifying beneath Connor’s feet.
When he met her eyes again, her gorgeous eyes with daubs and flays of light hazel against dark chestnut, not unlike the pepperings that once adorned her skin. Within them, was power. Vulnerability turned strength. Pain turned resilience. Marianne had not necessarily changed, but instead empowered since they last met.
And that was when he caught it, the haunting reflection of himself within her spangled spectacles.
He found himself at the back of the school courtyard. A scene that reeked of tension, hostility, and cheap cigarettes from the convenience store. There, Connor stood, surrounded by his friends, their faces hidden behind smoke, twisted with cruel amusement.
A young Marianne walked alone. In the wrong place at the wrong time. With a smug grin, Connor took a long drag from his cigarette, blowing the smoke in her direction. The pungent aroma hung in the air like a cloud of darkness.
Marianne’s eyes watered as the smoke invaded her space. She stepped aside to avoid it, but Connor and friends for whatever reason - had a bone to pick with cowardice. They pushed forward, mocking and taunting, all their cigarettes adding to the intimidating haze.
Connor approached with a smirk of superiority, but as the smoke cleared, he was surprised to see Marianne standing taller than before. Her eyes filled with a glimmer of defiance - a spark that would later grow into the immense, blinding conviction he would see in her today. She mustered her strength and spoke up, her voice steady and unwavering.
“You’re so desperate, Connor. All smoke and no fire. It’s embarrassing.”
The words hung in the air like a body on a rope. Silence. Connor’s face contorted in a mixture of anger and humiliation. He turned to his friends, searching for support, only to find amused glances and cruel laughter echoing alongside Marianne’s cutting words.
She was right, but not entirely. With his fists clenched into redness, a face flushed with rage, and a wounded ego that threatened to consume him - he ignited into a soaring flame. A primal scream erupted from his throat as he lunged towards Marianne, pressing the gleaming hot cherry of his cigarette into her cheek.
Connor shook his head. His gaze returned to Marianne’s, who held her own, composed and confident.
Just beneath her left eye was a nearly indistinguishable splotch of coarse, uneven skin. A remnant of his past actions.
As Marianne’s invisible toast hung in the air, a knot of remorse churned in the pit of Connor’s stomach. His body heavy with guilt and shame and the knowledge that he needed to apologise, to make ends meet, swirled in his mind like a brewery in a storm.
He searched her eyes longingly. Was there room in there for forgiveness? Her smile held nostalgia and guardedness, an acknowledgement of the past and their bitter, ash-filled history.
Connor raised his coke and whiskey, a conflicted smile playing at his lips. “Cheers to old times, Marianne.” He murmured, his voice dripping with regret.
Marianne’s smile widened briefly, a flicker of understanding passing between them. She held his gaze for a fleeting spell, a pinch of empathy and a silent plea for him to change. And then, with a graceful turn, she walked away and disappeared into the crowd like a mythical creature vanishing into the night. Both versions of Marianne, billowed in Connor’s head like a hazy memory.
His eyes locked back towards the mirror, its bejewelled edges and ornate inscriptions, and the sorry reflection of the man it trapped within.
“The fairest one of all.” He said to himself as he made way home.