Friends cleaning out a New Orleans shotgun shack discover the horrifying secret of Grandma’s mirror in this chilling tale from Kayla Brown.
New Orleans is known for many things: Jazz, vampires, and summers so hot they force you to shower multiple times a day.
Neven Nolon had grown up in New Orleans and was well aware of the heat. He was not, however, prepared for the blistering heat of his best friend’s newly inherited shotgun house on Saint Ann St. As he arrived around noon, ready to help Hannah with sorting her inheritance, he was surprised that the inside was ludicrously hotter than the outside. Upon stepping through the purple-trimmed front doors, he felt as if he’d had the air knocked out of him —nearly suffocating in the sudden wave of heat and dust.
“I’m so sorry,” Hannah told him from her position by the door. “The AC was working fine when I was here yesterday, but today I just can’t get it to come on. I called the company, and they can’t come out until tomorrow.”
He could have turned right around and left, and Hannah would’ve forgiven him. She’d been his best friend for nearly eight years now, however, and he owed her. He never would have gotten through History 101 at Tulane University without her help.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Let’s just open all the windows and doors. That’s what a shotgun house is designed for, isn’t it?” There’s some debate over that. Most people tend to agree that the houses, designed with one long hall from front to back, were built specifically for air circulation during the hot New Orleans summers. That was, after all, a rational reason for them to be the most popular design in the city, but New Orleans was hardly ever rational. Most tour guides will assert that the design had less to do with airflow and more to do with allowing the spirits to filter through unencumbered.
Either way, opening the windows and doors did get air flowing properly, so at least there was that. It still felt like the inside of a furnace, but at least there was a breeze.
“Alright,” Neven said, once he could breathe again, “what’s first on the agenda?”
Hannah motioned for him to follow her down the long hallway and toward the back of the house. “We’ll start in the master bedroom. I’ll need a place to sleep, after all. I’m warning you, my gran was a bit of a packrat.” They walked into the master bedroom, and Neven immediately realized that the word ‘packrat’ had been an understatement. There were boxes stacked all around the room, and furniture hidden under sheets. Everything was packed in so closely together that the junk fit like puzzle pieces, leaving just a four-inch-wide trail leading up to the four-poster bed, which was the only space not covered in boxes.
“Wow.” Neven took in a breath, filling his nostrils with dust. He coughed before continuing. “You weren’t kidding. This place is a—it’s a lot.”
Hannah shrugged. “Gran never threw anything away.”
“I can see that.”
“Having second thoughts?”
Neven laughed and waved a hand. “You kidding? Rummaging through old boxes is what I live for.”
“What odd hobbies you have.”
They shared a laugh before glancing again around the room, trying to take in the enormity of their task.
“Where do we even start?” Neven asked.
Hannah shuffled through the room and over to the bed, picking up a box full of black trash bags and pulling out two. Neven did his best to follow behind her, only tripping over boxes once or twice. Hannah turned and handed Neven the bags with a flourish.
“One for trash and one for treasure,” she said.
Neven took the bags with a grin. “I like the way you think.”
The two immediately got to work, Neven finding the first box by the bed to go through.
Everything inside was definitely more junk than treasure. Hannah’s gran had kept her losing lottery tickets, a pile of parking tickets, and what might have been important tax documents on top of pieces of what appeared to be broken furniture.
“I still can’t believe your grandmother left you all this,” Neven said, piling the tax documents over on the bed and throwing away the useless papers and other junk.
“It’s just a little shotgun house,” Hannah told him from the other side of the room.
“Have you seen the housing market lately? This place could probably sell for at least a half million on Zillow.”
“I wouldn’t sell it.”
“Of course not! I just think it’s cool that I have a friend who owns a house in New Orleans.”
“Neven, everyone you know owns a house in New Orleans. We grew up here.”
“Not every twenty-year-old I know. You’re officially the youngest homeowner I’ve ever met.”
“Too bad my grandmother had to die to make that happen.”
Neven felt his foot pass his teeth and go all the way into his throat. He looked over at Hannah, who was standing by what he could now see was an antique vanity, staring down at the silver hairbrush that her grandmother had probably used every night.
“Yeah,” he mumbled. “Yeah that sucks.”
He shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other before turning back to the box he’d been emptying. There were just a few scraps at the bottom. The junk at the bottom seemed to be just a pile of broken pieces—the silver handle of a teacup, a broken monocle, and a gold-plated bookend that looked like a bear with its hand cut off. “You might could pawn some of this silver and gold if you want,” Neven told her.
Hannah walked over to him, reaching over him to pull out the silver handle. “I guess I could ask Mom. See if it has any sentimental value. No sense in pissing off the family by pawning heirlooms.” She grabbed another plastic bag from the bed and threw the last remains of the box into it.
Neven moved on the the next box. This one was full of doilies. Great.
“Hey,” Neven spoke, after shifting through several stained pieces and throwing them into the ‘sentimental’ bag on the bed, “not to get too personal or anything, but why didn’t your grandmother leave this to—well to her kids? Like to your mom, you know?”
Hannah was sitting on the floor, going through a box that had been shoved under the vanity. Her methodical movement of pick up an object and toss it into a bag paused as she answered, “Oh…that’s kinda complicated…”
Of course, Neven had shoved his foot in his mouth again. “Forget I asked. Sorry—”
“No, it’s fine.” Hannah spoke too quickly. “My mom and her siblings, well, they didn’t want anything to do with my grandmother.”
“Oh.” Neven scratched at his hairline, his fingers getting lost in the wiry strands he’d been known for as long as he could remember. “Why?”
Hannah laughed—a chirping sound with a little hiccup in the middle. Neven recognized it as her nervous laugh. “They, well, my grandmother kind of had a checkered past. A lot of people around here, well, you know how Cajuns are, they were suspicious. They suspected her of a lot of—of really awful stuff.”
Awful? Neven had met Hannah’s grandmother only once; at the senior living home she’d been moved to in her final days. She’d been a tiny, wrinkled lady with large eyes that slightly protruded and limbs the size of cornstalks. She couldn’t have hurt a fly if she’d wanted to, and as he remembered her toothless grin and easy laugh, Neven could hardly imagine her ever wanting to hurt anything or anyone. “Oh…” was the only response he could come up with even though he knew it wasn’t enough.
Hannah looked up from her spot on the floor, meeting his gaze across a room full of dust and memories. “They thought—they say she was a witch. I don’t really know the whole story, but Gran’s kids didn’t want anything to do with her and her reputation once they were all grown up. My mom was the only one who’d even talk to her, and that was just so I could know my grandmother, I think. My aunts and uncles never had kids. It was just me.”
Neven barked out a laugh, breathing in another lung-full of dust and having to cough it out before he could talk. “Reputation? What kind of stuff did they suspect her of doing? Casting spells? Doing voodoo?” He waved his fingers in the air toward her as he said the word ‘voodoo.’ He’d been around Cajuns all his life, and he’d never get over how superstitious they all were.
“A little of both, I guess.” Hannah said. She was not laughing. “And then there were… well, you know how it is in NOLA. Sometimes people just sort of—vanish. People around here liked to blame the crazy witch lady, as if she actually had the power to make college boys half her age and twice her size disappear. Ridiculous.”
When Neven found something surprisingly funny, his laugh became a squawk. That’s exactly the sound that emitted from him now. Fortunately, Hannah simply laughed along with him. Once their laughing had trickled out, he looked back down at the now empty box that had once contained the doilies. He quickly unfolded the box and put it on top of the first one he’d emptied, forming a neat little pile. When he turned to look for his next project, something in the far corner of the room—the opposite side from where Hannah had once more crouched down—caught his eye.
At first glance, he’d thought it was a tall woman in a white gown, and he’d nearly jumped out of his skin. Before he screamed like a kitten and embarrassed himself, however, he took a second look. A white bed sheet had been draped over something tall, and roughly human shaped. A black marble bust was peeking out from behind whatever that sheet was covering, and that was what he’d thought was a person. He could see nothing under the sheet with the shape that was hard to pinpoint. It may have looked like the outline of a body standing in the corner, but that couldn’t be what it was. He was suddenly curious.
“What’s that?” he asked, stepping toward the strange mystery.
Hannah’s cry was loud enough to make him stop abruptly and turn toward her. She’d risen again to her feet, caramel-colored hand reaching toward him and lips trembling.
“Don’t touch that. It’s—just don’t.”
Neven looked between her and the hidden fixture. “What is it?”
“It’s Gran’s mirror.”
He eyed it. It could definitely be a tall mirror, with a slight oblong shape. “Why’s it covered up?”
Hannah broke eye contact with him at last, grabbing her trash bag from the floor and flicking it as if trying to open it wider. He thought she might ignore the question when she answered, “Well, you know—I guess sometimes we just didn’t like what we saw in there.”
“Oh. Okay.” Neven found another box to sift through. This one full of antique oil lamps so covered in tarnish that he could hardly tell what they were. Sometimes Hannah’s answers just gave him more questions, but Neven had learned not to keep goading her. The last time he’d done that, she hadn’t spoken to him for a week.
There was the sound of something expensive shattering from Hannah’s side of the room. “Ouch!” she cried and added a curse for good measure.
Neven turned to see her staring down at her open palm. “What happened?” He tried to navigate the narrow path over to her, but it was difficult with a bag full of oil-lamps trying to slip from his sweaty hands.
“I—I just cut my hand,” Hannah told him.
Hannah shook her head. “I’ve got some bandaids downstairs. I’ll be back. Need anything from the kitchen?”
“Got any clementines?”
Hannah scooted out of the room, heading back to the front of the house. Neven continued to sort through the oil lamps, hoping to find at least one that wasn’t dented or battered to hell. He thought he heard something—a whisper on the wind coming through the window. It gave him chills up his back and down his sweaty neck. He started humming to himself to drown whatever it was out.
Then the whisper got louder, and it sounded almost real—almost like words.
Neven stopped humming, listening carefully. It was definitely words, probably English, but he couldn’t make it out. “Hannah?” he called out. “Was that you?”
There was the jingling of wind chimes from somewhere outside the open windows. Was that what he’d been hearing?
He dropped the box to the floor, metal clinking hard as it lost its fight with gravity. He turned toward where the voice—the faint female whisper of his name—had come from and saw the mirror, hiding idly under its sheet. The wind had picked up and was rustling papers, fabrics, and other objects around the room, but that sheet over the mirror didn’t move. It hung like a curtain of iron.
Neven cried out, “Hannah? Hannah is this some kinda joke? It ain’t funny.” His voice shook the accented words out of his mouth. A college education with a semester abroad had mostly depleted his accent, but when he was scared or nervous, it came back in full force.
“Neven. Help me.” That had definitely come from the mirror.
Neven raised his hands in the air. “Nope! I’m out.”
He took one step toward the door when the voice called to him again. “Neven, please.” The voice was louder this time, loud enough for Neven to recognize. A pair of sparkling eyes, a gapped-toothed smile, and pigtails formed a perfect picture in his head. He knew that voice. He turned and looked at the mirror. The sheet was immovable.
“Neven, I need you.”
He took a step toward the mirror. Surely one look wouldn’t hurt. One look, just to see if he was crazy.
Neven approached the mirror and ripped away the sheet. It fell heavy to the floor but didn’t make a sound.
Staring back at him from the glass was something that looked like Neven—same pattern of freckles, same nose that curved slightly to the left, and same reddish curly hair that seemed to contradict his darker skin tone—but it wasn’t Neven. Whatever it was, it was smiling, and Neven didn’t like that smile. It was all fang and no mirth.
Then, Mirror Neven started to do things, to show Neven things that would have been unwelcome in even his darkest nightmares. Neven tried to look away, but he couldn’t. He was frozen, eyes wide, staring at an image that should have been himself but wasn’t, and oh, the things that other self was capable of—things Neven would never imagine.
“What is this?” Neven wanted to ask, but his jaw was jammed into place, locked and unable to move.
“I told you not to look.” It was Hannah talking now.
Neven could hear her from the open door, and he tried to turn toward the sound of her voice. He couldn’t – he was stuck in place like a nail that had been hammered into a board. He continued to watch the image that looked like him committing atrocities that Neven couldn’t articulate even if he wanted to. Neven felt tears trickle down his cheeks, and in what felt like seconds, his eyes were soaked.
“Look away, Neven.” Hannah told him, her voice breaking on the second syllable of his name.
“I can’t!” Neven wanted to scream, but his jaw was stubbornly closed and it hurt to try and move it.
“It’s not real.” Hannah’s voice was closer now. She’d moved across the room to stand directly beside Neven. She’d always been taller than him, but not by much. Neven knew she was bending down to speak directly into his ear, even if he couldn’t look away to see her. “Whatever it’s showing you, it’s not real. It’s just—it’s like your worst nightmare, your biggest fear, but it’s not real.”
If asked, Neven always answers that his biggest fear was spiders, but it wasn’t. His biggest fear, in the simplest of terms, was his father. The big brute had taken pleasure in the pain of others. When his cruelty had finally landed him in jail, Neven hadn’t cried, but he’d been too scared to celebrate. The truth, however, was more complex. As it often is with our fears, there are some things that we can’t even admit to ourselves that we are scared of. Neven had never admitted that he was scared that his father’s darkness had somehow wormed its way into him.
Hannah’s voice was fast, low and urgent as she hissed into his ear, “Just look away.”
Neven finally, painfully unhinged his jaw, “I can’t—I would never…” His jaw clamped shut before he could even finish the thought, his teeth rattling in his head.
Suddenly, the visions stopped. The mirror turned silver, showing vague outlines of Neven, Hannah standing right behind him, eyes focused away from the mirror. Neven’s heart was still racing. He took in a deep breath to try to calm himself, but his chest felt like it was in a vice. He tried again, but he couldn’t get the air deep into his lungs – he still couldn’t move.
Then, to Neven’s horror, the silver of the mirror began to move—to liquify. It dripped out of its metal frame like mercury and inched slowly closer to him. He wanted to scream, to run, but he could not move. He could barely breath. The liquid reached his shoes, pouring over his steel toed boots and climbing up his legs. It burned. As soon as it reached up his leg, he felt like he was on fire, like flames were licking up and over his body, climbing slowly up his legs, over his stomach, then torso, each second feeling like hours of agony. He tried to scream, but no noise would come out. Finally, the burning got to his neck, face, mouth, eyes—and he was engulfed in darkness.
Somewhere in that darkness, the pain ceased.
When he dared to open his eyes again, Neven found himself collapsed onto the floor of the dusty bedroom, but it was different somehow. He looked around, finally able to move after all that pain. His vision was blurry, and he had to wipe the tears from his eyes. Once his vision cleared, his eyes landed on the mirror in front of him, and he scrambled away like a spider—limbs moving unsettlingly fast.
The person staring back at him from the mirror was not him. It was Hannah, standing straight, apple in hand. Her expression was one he could not identify, and it occurred to him that he found it even more unsettling than the mirror itself.
“How—” Neven’s voice cracked as if from disuse. He tried again. “How are you inside the mirror?”
“I’m not the one inside, Neven.” Her voice was slow, measured.
Neven looked around, realizing too late what was different about the room. Everything
was opposite. The bed was on the opposite side of where it had been before. It was a reflection of the room he’d just been cleaning with Hannah—the room she was still in. He turned his attention back to her.
“How is this possible? How do I get out?”
Hannah shook her head, slowly. “I’m so sorry. I tried to warn you. I honestly thought you could fight it, but…you gave in to temptation.” Hannah took a bite of the apple, chewing slowly as if pondering every nibble.
“Hannah, what are you saying?”
“This is the price I have to pay in order to—to stay out here,” she sat the apple down on a box and glared at it. “I said I’d stop bringing people to her, that I’d stop it all, but she won’t leave me alone if I do that.” In a sudden flash of movement, she backhanded the apple, sending it flying across the room and into the wall away from the mirror. Hannah’s back was to him now, watching the apple as it rolled on the floor. “And the voices—oh, Neven,” she turned toward him, tears in her eyes, “you have no idea the things they say to me, the awful things they tell me to do if I don’t bring people for her—”
“What are you talking about?” Neven interrupted. He’d never seen Hannah this worked up, and she wasn’t making sense. “Who is ‘her’?”
Hannah took a deep breath and sat on the floor in front of the mirror. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t completely honest with you before.” Tears were streaming down her face now. “You see, my grandmother, she never really left. People like her, they don’t really die. She’s with me always, and now she’ll be with you, too…I was really hoping that she wouldn’t want you—that she wouldn’t choose you, but then you had to look in that stupid mirror. I asked you—I begged you not to look! Now look what you’ve done.” She put her face in her hands, sobbing.
Neven felt his body chill, and his muscles began to shake. He’d never seen this side of Hannah. She was always cool and collected.
“Hannah—” His voice shook and he did his best to calm it. “Hannah, I’m sorry. Just please get me out of here.”
Hannah screamed, “I can’t!” She looked up at him, face red and wet from tears.
Neven heard a voice coming from the hallway behind him, so faint he couldn’t make out the words. Hannah abruptly stopped crying.
“She’s coming,” Hannah whispered, eyes wide as the voice grew louder. Neven realized the voice was singing.
“Fais dodo, Colas mon p’tit frère…”
Hannah rose to her feet, slowly.
“Fais dodo, t’auras du lolo…”
The voice was getting louder, closer, as Hannah slowly reached for the sheet that had covered the mirror, eyes never leaving Neven’s.
“Maman est en haut…”
“Hannah,” Neven whispered, too scared to move—to turn his head to see whatever was coming through the door behind him, “please.”
“Qui fait des gâteaux…”
Hannah stood before the mirror, blanket in hand. “I’m sorry.”
“Papa est en bas…”
Neven felt a tear roll down his cheek. The voice was so close now, right behind him.
Whatever it was had no reflection in the mirror, just like him.
“Qui fait du chocolat…”
“I told you not to look,” Hannah whispered.
“Fait dodo Colas mon p’tit frère…”
Hannah draped the sheet over the mirror, and Neven’s world turned to darkness.
“Fait dodo, t’auras du lolo.”
About the author
K.E. Brown is an author who's loved dark thrills and suspense ever since sharing stories around the campfire on her father's farm. She's had stories, essays, and poetry published in Dewpoint Literary Magazine, Sojourn Literary Magazine, The Moonlit Road, and received the 2021 Monroe-Walton Center for the Arts award for best new writer. Her serialization, "Royal Street," will be published in The Dark Sire Literary Magazine in February 2023. She is represented by Steven Hutson of Wordwise Media, and her first novel is currently on submission. You can follow her career or reach out to her at https://kebrownauthor.