The span of my childhood could be separated into two categories: Knowing and Not-knowing.
In fact, everyone in my family, even the adults, could split similarly: those who knew and those who didn’t.
Regardless of which category you fell into, everyone knew Grandma had certain… proclivities. It was an unspoken thing, yet you felt how heavily it threaded into every conversation and side-comment at family gatherings. No one really talked about it, not outright, but it was always there, lingering between the lines.
The Not-knowing part of my childhood wasn’t all blissful ignorance. Like the Not-knowing adults, there were always hints of restlessness whenever we visited Grandma's House of Mirrors. That’s what everyone called it—though, to the public, it was Gertrude Inn, a quaint, three-story, hundred-year-old ten-bedroom house operating as a Bed and Breakfast, run by someone in my family since its inception.
Despite how often she smiled, Grandma had this way of putting the house on edge. In a way, the Inn was a reflection of her. Aged, unique, beautiful. But full of secrets. Everyone walked on eggshells around her, though I'd never witnessed her so much as raise her voice. She smiled warmly, yet her eyes held a cold indifference that felt like she was seeing right through you, guts and all.
Gertrude Inn sat in darkness during the day, supposedly to save on electricity; one single window and a shining beam of light brightened the winding corridors on each of the second and third floors. Those single sunrays felt so lively compared to all the shadows, with dust particles dancing in the warmth. My cousins used to make a game of only trying to walk in the sun lest your legs get snatched by some faceless monster in the dark.
There was some speculation that Gertrude Inn was haunted. Creaking floors and dim lighting aside, people reported strange sounds at all hours. Some guests even claimed to see ghosts. The Inn had its own cult following amongst supernatural enthusiasts, who shared photos of specter light orbs and ghostly apparitions of small girls and old ladies online.
Because the old lady ghosts looked eerily similar to Grandma, it was widely accepted that it must have been the ghost of a woman in our family tree.
But the thing that really made Gertrude Inn feel like a horror movie set was the mirrors.
My great-grandfather built them, and over the last hundred years, the walls became filled, nearly every clean inch coated in aluminum reflection. That single sunray from those lone windows on each floor bounced about, decorating the halls in a disorienting, masking glow.
Around the time when I transitioned from Not-knowing to Knowing, I gained a unique fascination with the mirrors. My cousins, aunts, and uncles liked to pretend they didn’t exist. When we were delegated to help out around the Inn, I’d watch the others stalk the halls ahead of me, carrying buckets of cleaning supplies and fresh sheets, never looking from left to right at the mirrors, gazes fastened directly ahead.
But I couldn’t help but look back and forth, short as I was, fascinated by the different heights and styles of the framed mirrors around me and how different and distorted they made me look, my face contorting and reshaping with each step. I liked to take my time in each bedroom when I cleaned—those walls equally covered in mirrors—making faces at myself and imagining someone else staring back at me.
The year after Grandpa died, Grandma became more reclusive.
One evening, my parents sent me to track her down, as she'd been missing since lunch, and it was long past dinner.
Up to the third floor, past the guest rooms, the further along I crept, the more the walls narrowed. A single sconce poorly illuminated the dark at each turn, but that one small light bounced off the mirrors, casting a dizzying glimmer, my reflection echoed all the way down the hallway, thousands of me watching back.
Finally, I approached her room, and my hand shook as it clasped the vintage crystal door knob, which spun loosely like it needed a repair, then pushed my way in. Her bed was made, complete with a crocheted white doily adorning an old quilt, another draped over a little red table, and a lit desk lamp that glowed beneath the stained glass lampshade.
A soft humming caught my attention, but I couldn't tell where the sound was coming from. She wasn't anywhere in the tiny bedroom.
I circled the space, trying to locate the source. The humming grew louder as I neared the armoire. I wouldn't consider myself a brave kid, but my curiosity was piqued, and no matter how hard my little heart rattled in my chest or how sweaty my shaky hands felt, I pressed my ear to the closet door and listened.
I gripped the metal handle, and the moment the door cracked open, Grandma's humming grew louder. Shoving dresses and shirts on coat hangers to the side, I stepped through a hole at the back of the closet.
"Grandma?" I called out. The humming paused, then picked up again. I kept climbing, stepping over mounds of boots and boxes, until I emerged into the brightest-lit room in the house.
And there were mirrors everywhere.
"Hello, darling Mercy," Grandma gestured for me to join her, not the least bit surprised to see me.
"What is all this?" I looked around in wonder at all the beautiful ornate mirrors, some framed in elaborate gold filigree, some in thick knotted wood. Grandma stood in front of three large glass panels resting on a massive open-backed easel.
Paintbrush in hand, she elbowed me playfully. "How'd you find me, little bug?"
"Is this how you make mirrors?" I looked around in wonder.
Grandma didn't answer. Her humming resumed, as did her painting. I glanced down at the table and saw three identical empty frames, all silver with intricate faces painted along the edges. The faces resembled cherubs, but their teeth looked more like fangs, smiles distorted.
I looked back at the glass she was painting and noticed something odd.
"Grandma, how come you can see through these mirrors?"
Her humming continued as she painted a silver metallic sheen on the glass.
On one side, the silver allowed your reflection to stare back. But on the other, the glass was see-through, like a window. I wasn't a mirror expert, not like Grandma or my Great-Grandpa, but I broke a mirror when I was cleaning once, and I remember the backside being dark; you couldn't see through it like you could these.
Grandma kept humming, and I was hungry, and that room creeped me out, so I shrugged and waved goodbye, reminding her my mom was looking for her.
I dismissed the strange room, letting it remain tucked away in the recesses of my memory. Then, one weekend, I got assigned to room cleaning. We all took turns helping out at the Inn, but it was more of a chore as I got older. The secrets of the old house held less interest for me.
That is until I took a bottle of Windex into a room on the second floor, spraying down one of the many mirrors, and I recognized the silver metal frame, intricately painted cherubs with fang-like teeth and distorted smiles staring back at me.
The one-way mirrors.
I tried to pull the mirror off the wall to look behind it but was surprised to find it securely stuck. No matter how hard I tried to pull it off, it wouldn't budge. A cold chill ran down my spine as I recalled the secret room. That was when I realized there were two kinds of people in this family: those who knew and those who didn't.
Grandma passed away a couple of years later, but still, I kept her secrets.
My family argued about who would take care of the Inn. It had been in our family for so long no one wanted to give it up, but no one wanted to take responsibility for it, either. Finally, they came to a compromise and decided to share the duties. So, one of our families would move into the Inn each season to take care of the guests and keep Gertrude Inn up and running until someone stepped up and decided to take over the House of Mirrors.
It was summer when it was our turn. Mom and Dad claimed a bedroom on the first floor, and though no one wanted to sleep in Grandma's old room, I claimed it greedily.
Gertrude Inn had a presence, a sort of sentient awareness like you could feel her breathing. She tensed and held her breath, and so did I when I crept into the armoire that first night.
I palmed the back of the old wardrobe, my hands sweaty as I searched for the secret knob. When I entered Grandma's secret room, it was pitch black. I stumbled around in the dark, seeking out the hanging lamps I remembered briefly from my only previous visit.
But in my search, as my hands felt along the walls, I found another door knob. My heart racing, I slowly twisted the tiny metal handle, the creaking sound like a thunderclap, considering the height of my nerves. My foot padded out ahead, testing the floor, and as both hands pressed against the narrow walls, I discovered a light switch.
Though the light cast was dim, like everything else at Gertrude Inn, it was enough. Slowly, I stumbled into the corridor, merely three feet wide, between the bedrooms, floors creaking loudly beneath my bare feet.
And then I watched in horror, through the backs of the mirrors, as guests slept the night away. I held every gasp and breath, as my brain tried desperately to comprehend what I saw.
A shriek tore out of my throat when I came upon a couple having sex, and the man stopped mid-thrust to whisper, "Did you hear that?" to his partner.
My hand clasped over my mouth, terrified they'd know I was there. Know what hid behind the mirrors.
I turned around and ran back to the secret room. I turned off the light, banged my knee against a table in my rush to escape, and when I returned to my new bedroom, I stared at the armoire in screaming silence until the sun came up.
It took hours to calm my racing heart, and in that time, I thought back to every interaction I'd ever had with my Grandma, all the puzzle pieces and bits of memory I tucked away slowly clicking into place. Walking over to a mirror, I stared back at my reflection until I no longer felt scared or uncomfortable.
The following morning at breakfast, I watched my parents, Not-knowing, move around the kitchen in blissful ignorance, shaking cereal into bowls and discussing their days over morning coffee.
"Mercy, you feeling okay?" Mom placed the back of her hand over my forehead, frowning.
I cleared my throat, "Yeah, I'm good."
"Must have been a little weird to sleep in Grandma's room last night. No one would blame you if you decided to stay in another room. We can rework that one into a guest room—"
Their eyes widen at my reaction.
"Sorry. No, I'm good. Actually, it made me feel closer to her. And you know, I was thinking… She showed me once, how to make the mirrors. I think I'd like to take it over. Learn the family business."
I shrugged and dug my spoon into the milky cereal, ignoring my parents' tight smiles. They don't want me to become like Grandma, even if they don't know precisely why.
What I do know is that Gertrude Inn breathes for me. And I'll keep her secrets.
Maybe make a few of my own.