It was a Thanksgiving like any other and Charles Scribe heated up a Hungry Man Roasted Carved Turkey dinner and poured himself a glass of Robert Mondavi cabernet in a plastic cup. Charles took his meal at his writing desk, as there was no dinner table in his apartment. Wine was reserved for holidays and though he had placed a bottle-stopper tightly over the wine bottle, it was still flat because it had been sitting in the refrigerator since the Fourth of July.
The six-foot by eight-foot, forty-eight square foot writing nook by the far walls of the apartment felt like a prison cell. Charles took his morning coffee there. He did his accounting work remotely from his laptop. He took his meals there. His recreation time mostly involved walking across the room to a gray couch that was fraying at the cushion seams and watching something off of Netflix mindlessly until the weight of his anxieties re-ignited, and then he’d walk back to his desk and work until he couldn’t keep his eyes open.
Charles Scribe sipped his wine and walked over to the Bay Windows, cracked them slightly, lit a fresh, unused linen and lavender-scented candle, and looked out at the town of New Hope, Pennsylvania. Far down the road, he could see the New Hope Railroad. It traveled south and west to its terminus at Warminster Station, about thirty miles from Philadelphia.
Charles meant to say a prayer but could not think of anything that he was thankful for. Then he thought to make a wish but couldn’t say what he wanted. He didn’t dare reach that far. All he could muster was a vague desire to escape. To get out. From this cage. From the prison of his school debt, his mortgage, his assigned accounting work, his employer, and every shackle and chain that bound him to the monotony of a life he did not want. Like that train hastening away toward unknown possibilities, or those retired dreams resigned to shoe boxes, mixed in with old photographs. What was it Albert Camus had said? Imagine Sisyphus happy. Wasn’t that a joke? The only happiness was freedom. The crisp wisps of winter air reminded Charles that there was a wide world out there.
Charles stroked his close-cropped beard and stared at the round package on the kitchen island. It was an antique mirror he had picked up as an impulse down at American Antiques & Design. It was wrapped in brown parchment paper that was crinkled around the giant round mirror. There was twine string tying the package tight.
Charles grabbed a pair of scissors, cut the string, and ripped the package open. He looked at the mirror. It had a circular face around the glass. The face was made of distressed wood of a reddish shade, with yellowed letters for the hours around its exterior. The interior glass was a foot and a half in diameter. Clear and clean like a perfectly still silver lake. Where had this antique hung? What halls had it inhabited? What men had looked into its alluring façade? Charles got a stool and put a nail into the wall to the side of the Bay Windows and hung the mirror from a string.
Stepping back a few steps to admire his work, Charles looked at the mirror. How it hung, whether it was hanging flush. It was perfect. He stared into his reflection in the clear silver of the mirror’s reflective surface. Here he was. Twenty pounds overweight. Graying hair shot out in stripes through his black wavy hair, once dark and vibrant. His stubble bearing the same salt and pepper. Eyes droopy. Jowl creased. He picked up his glass of cabernet and took a long sip, which reddened his lips. He licked them and tasted the bitter and sweet notes of the grapes. He listened to the soft patter of the wind through moist leaves, crackling in the breeze outside.
When Charles looked back into the mirror, he saw his reflection fading into the distance until the mirror was empty. Was this mirror defective? He grabbed some paper towels and some Windex and wiped the mirror down. Still isn’t giving a reflection. Slightly aggravated, Charles tried lifting up the bottom and holding the mirror at different angles. He even took out his cell phone flashlight and tried to see if he could get some light to shine off of it. This thing is really broken. Just my luck.
Giving up the project, Charles stepped back and looked into the mirror again. Only this time, he saw a man in a blazer, with a button-down shirt, seated at a table in a bookstore, smiling and laughing as he signed books. He saw the man after he’d returned home. He was in a massive study, filled with hardcover books. Mahogany shelves. A stepladder. He was smoking pot from a little white bone piece and blowing the smoke into a thin Dyson air purification foil.
There was a notebook and half-finished story open on the desk. A bottle of Macallan whiskey cracked on his desk. A clear crystal glass with a giant cubed piece of ice melting in its center under a layer of caramel-covered liquor.
Wait, why does that man look so familiar? His face was fresh. His skin was taught and moisturized. He had a solid tan. His hair was dyed a jet black color. But it was unmistakable. It was him. A version of him. What the hell? Charles kept watching. Watching himself, but not himself, at galas, drinking and socializing with friends, attending book signings for his best-selling novel. It was impossible.
Charles opened up a cabinet and fished for an old redweld somewhere in the back. A folder that contained an old manuscript, written back in his college days at Swarthmore. He remembered how it felt back then. The gothic stone architecture. Storied buildings. Manicured lawns. Tree-lined walkways. It had been a time of adventure. Studying creative writing under visiting authors like Christopher Castellani. He thought of what might have been.
Then he took down and repackaged the mirror, took a few spoonfuls of the apple cranberry desert, which tasted surprisingly tasty, and brought the package out to his Mercedes CLS coupe parked out front and made his way to American Antiques & Design.
* * *
“This thing is broken,” Charles Scribe said as he shouldered his way into the antique shop.
Rupert Horowitz had his legs up on the desk by the register and he didn’t move a muscle as Charles barged into the shop. He licked his lips and said, “That’s the thing about antiques, friend, they have a life of their own.”
“Whatever you want to call it, this thing is broken.”
“It’s working perfectly. I’m sure of it.”
“Look, I want a refund. I paid good money for this mirror. And it doesn’t show a reflection.”
“You sure about that?”
“Sure as shit.”
“All these old antiques come with a story,” Rupert said, finally standing to his feet, and sliding open the register. “This one comes with a good one.”
“Oh yeah, what’s that?”
“Legend is that this mirror is a looking glass into what might have been. The guy that brought it in was an old Arab mystic. He was apparently a member of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. Man’s name was Paschal. As a boy, he worked as a bootblack in New York City who worked out of Grand Central Station. Later as a greenhorn on cargo ships, leaving from the Port of NY/NJ in Bayonne. He was some kind of medium. But later in life, he became a novelist, after acquiring the mirror. He told me that this mirror was imbued with special powers. Behind the face of the mirror is a second mirror. An obsidian magical mirror, once owned by John Dee. Apparently created by the Aztecs. Anyway. Whatever it does, it is yours now.”
“I’m not into the occult. I just want a mirror for my living room.”
“No refunds, pal. Didn’t you see the ‘Closed’ sign on the door? It is Thanksgiving. Now get out of here before I call the cops.”
* * *
A few months back, Charles had gone out to dinner with a co-worker, Sarah. Sarah was a tawny-haired blonde of twenty-eight years old. She did the bookkeeping for business clients who had S Corps. or Schedule C business returns. She was seven years his junior. She’d just decided—that very day—to leave the accounting life and open up a little speakeasy that served small plates and bespoke cocktails, with some family inheritance money. “I can’t take another tax season,” she’d confided in ‘Charlie.’ That was what she called him. He had been her supervisor. She seemed to look up to him and wanted his approval. Or something else. “I need fresh air and sunlight and a human connection,” she had said. “I need to work with people.”
He’d agreed to go out with her to the Salt House, a cute place with good cocktails and a better raw bar. They sat at a wooden table in the tavern by the fireplace and enjoyed the heat radiating off the dancing flames. Sarah was in high spirits and had been throwing them back pretty hard. Charles wasn’t much of a drinker. And it didn’t take long before he was four sheets to the wind.
Charlie didn’t remember giving her a copy of his manuscript. Hell, he barely remembered writing it. It was like a different person penned those lines. As an undergraduate, he had been inspired by Christopher Castellani’s novel, “The Saint of Lost Things.” It was named after the patronage of Saint Anthony. But it was about lost dreams, more than anything else. Charlie had written his book, “The Saint of Lost Causes” based on the patron saint Jude and life in the rural outskirts of Pennsylvania. The book’s protagonist is a hopeless dreamer who sets out on a quixotic quest to do the impossible, and the book chronicles his journey and transformation and all those he met along the way.
As Sarah slammed down a tequila shot, what, number six, Charlie had let it slip that he used to be a writer before his father convinced him to go into accounting. Charlie had grabbed his spare copy of the manuscript from where he kept it in a plastic binder in the trunk of his car, slammed it down on the table, and watched her deposit the envelope in her purse.
When he had woken up in the morning with the worst hangover he’d had since college, he imagined it had all been a dream. But the absence of the spare copy of his manuscript was evidence to the contrary. More confirmation came when she texted him about having to carry him up his stairs and unlock his door for him. So it had been one of those kind of nights.
* * *
Back at his apartment by the New Hope Train Station, Charlie looked into the mirror again, at the scenes of another life, a life that might have been. He pulled up a chair directly across from the mirror and spent long hours imagining this other life.
The time was flying by, and it was almost time to get ready for bed and get prepared for the week ahead. Charlie often had a coffee before bed. The caffeine didn’t bother him or keep him up. Instead, it tended to help him sleep. As he sipped the coffee, he adjusted the mirror against the wall. And a small paper note fell out of the casing of the mirror.
The note said, “If you like what you see, step inside. A whole new life is at your fingertips.” Charlie obsessed over the idea. This other life was everything he had ever wanted. Being an author. Writing for a living. Traveling for galas. Attending book signings. Having engaging conversations with other creatives. It was the opposite of the accountant’s life he had settled for. Counting beans for people that had more than he did. Living under the crushing weight of debt. Pinching every penny until it wept. Dealing with impossible deadlines. Trading time for money. The only thing—if he stepped into the mirror, he'd be there. He wouldn't ever know what it was like to get there.
Charlie made up his mind. He was going to do as the note had said and step into the mirror. Charlie went back into his bathroom, shaved, and then put on his most stylish clothes, trying to emulate the figure he saw in the mirror.
Then he heard a knock on the door. “One second.” It was Sarah. How does she even know where I live? He stood there in the doorway looking at her with a yellow pigtail and a blush of excitement on her cheeks. “What are you doing here.”
“Let me in Charlie,” she said.
He stepped out of her way, and she strode into his apartment in a bit of a skip, seeming to be familiar with the place. She strolled into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, finding the half-full cabernet, searched the cabinets for wine glasses, and finding none, found the eight-ounce plastic solo cups, removed two, and poured, saying, “I guess we are going with these again. Remind me to buy you some glassware for this place, will you.”
“What is going on?”
“I have news,” Sarah said.
“About your new restaurant?”
“No silly,” she said with a giggle, “This concerns you.”
What could this be about? Charlie was completely lost, and looked back again at the mirror, thinking that as soon as she left, he knew what he had to do.
“After our night out last week, which by the way, you were fucked up buddy.”
“Well, that would explain why I can’t remember half the night.”
“You were funsies, dude. For real. I’ve never seen you let loose like that.”
“Oh yeah,” she said. “I saw a whole new side of you. A good side.”
“Do you remember kissing me outside the Salt House?”
“I did? We did? Are you fucking with me?”
“Oh no. No joking. We kissed. It was kind of epic. I was actually feeling pretty bad about the whole thing because I couldn’t figure out why you didn’t call after—and then I thought back about how fucked up you were and finally realized you didn’t remember a thing.”
“I’m really, really sorry…”
“Listen, buddy boy. A young lady tells a man of your age that she enjoyed a kiss and was waiting for a call, you take it and run. Got me?”
“But that’s not why I’m here. At least, it’s not the only reason.”
“Chin chin,” she said. “Let’s have a drink.” The plastic cups crinkled a little and the liquid leaped as they put their solo cups together in cheers.
As Charlie took a big sip of the wine, he wondered if this was what his life could be like. But deep down he knew that pouring over bank statements and filling in 1040s, with somewhat fictionalized Schedule C, Profit and Loss statements, was quite literally sucking the life’s blood right out of his throat like a thirsty vampire. And under the cloud of this dross, he couldn’t imagine living this carefree. It was like, in his role or mantle, the whole world was gray and without color. His eyes floated back to the mirror—his one way out—his one escape. Then he looked back at Sarah. Why does a woman this rocking want me? There were no answers there, only more questions.
Sarah went back from the bottle and poured another round.
“I’ve got something for you to sign Charlie. I took care of everything.”
“What are you talking about.”
She placed an envelope on the kitchen counter. In the envelope was an offer letter for the publication rights for his manuscript. And a $1,000 check. He skimmed the terms. It was all Greek to him. Primary rights. Subsidiary rights. There were dozens of terms that made no sense to him.
“What did you do?” Charlie asked.
“My friend Rene works at a publishing house in Phili. After that night out—since you didn’t call—I wanted to, you know, get inside your head. I read your manuscript from cover to cover. And after reading it, I was literally in tears. It was the best thing I ever read in my life. So, I made a scan of the whole damn thing, formatted that sucker for you, and sent it to Rene.”
“And she read it?”
“Read it. She loved it! She went straight to the acquisitions board, and they wanted it.”
“You’re kidding. Just like that.”
“Trust me, you got lucky. It usually doesn’t happen so fast.” She made a gesture like brushing some dirt off her shoulder and said, “Maybe you just had a really good agent.”
I looked at her, in literal shock. The pigtail was constantly swaying behind her head. Her bright blue eyes seemed to catch all the light in the place. She wrapped her arms around Charlie and gave him a long kiss on the lips. When was the last time a woman kissed me like that?
Charlie looked at Sarah. Then he looked in the mirror. Still not sure what to do.
“You better be ready to be a big-time author,” Sarah said. “Because I’ve decided to become an agent—and you are my guinea pig.”
Looking at Sarah, Charlie thought he saw some lost things that might be reclaimed.
“Can you excuse me for just a minute,” Charlie said, sitting down at his laptop.
“What are you doing, Charlie, I want to celebrate,” she said.
“Tendering my resignation,” Charlie said. And then he walked over to the mirror, took it down, and stowed it away in the closet.
Turning back, he looked at Sarah again.
“You were saying?” he said.