Joe walked into the antiques shop still riding a wave of elation that had only begun to crest. The shop had a narrow storefront in Chinatown, a bright red and gold dragon flying at the top of its sign, proclaiming the little store Lost Generations of Qing and Ming. As the wooden door clattered shut behind him with a tinkle of bells, a young woman sitting behind the counter looked up and gave him a polite smile. She sat next to a much older woman, one aged enough to be her grandmother, a possibility more likely that not considering they both had brown eyes peering through glasses that rested on dimpled cheeks. “Let us know if there’s anything we can help you find,” the young woman said. Joe nodded, and flashed a grin. The girl looked back down at a tablet resting on the counter and continued to scroll. The older woman gave him a moment’s glance, then sipped from a steaming tea cup.
He walked slowly through the aisles of antiques and curiosities, running his fingers along ceramic statues, gazing at scrolls and paintings even older than the white haired woman sitting behind the counter, but in his mind the Payments Received screen of his Paypal account was all that he could see.
Last night, Joe had published a new post for E-Crack, a website that promised “the internet’s most addictive content”. As a free-lance writer, he spent a few hours each day writing click-bait for a few different websites, much of it “sponsored content”, a tortured euphemism that described what amounted to digital ad-copy for whoever paid for it. But he liked E-Crack, because it was pure silliness and entertainment. Nobody came there to decide which smartphone to buy.
Until this morning, writing for these kinds of websites had been like panning for gold: he might get a few thousand hits and shares, enough for the site to pay him a few hundred dollars from time to time, but not much more than would help him scrape by with the expenses he shared with his girlfriend, living crowded with their cat in a Williamsburg studio. Today when he’d woken up, he checked the revenue generated by his most recent post, a series of fake text conversations among history’s world leaders, living and dead. Imagining the texting habits of Joan of Arc and Genghis Khan must have struck a chord. He’d even ascribed them personalities: the Khan was a meat-headed ‘bro’, while Joan was an artistic eccentric who insisted she found inspiration from the voices in her head she swore were real. The post generated $24,681.72 for him in less than twelve hours. From the time he made the post, went to sleep, and woke up, he’d earned more for himself than he had in the entire past year.
For a moment, he thought someone must be playing a prank on him, or perhaps his Paypal account had been hacked to hide or launder money. In a few moments, the fortune might transform into a pile of bitcoins for a Russian oligarch. But no, E-Crack listed 1.4 million views for the post, 600k shares on Facebook alone. Other websites were writing about the post and linking to it, creating an avalanche of traffic to E-Crack which hadn’t peaked until mid-morning.
He’d remembered to check his phone then. Twenty-six missed calls. They started about three hours after he’d made the post. The summer’s biggest hit-maker, a brand-new, baby-faced rapper, had tweeted a link to it. By the time the East coast had gotten out of bed, the post had already gone viral.
“Mr. Damici,” the lead content editor from E-Crack, Jane Willowsby, greeted him when he returned her calls. “Joseph. Congratulations. You’ve generated over a million hits in less than twenty-four hours. And aside from some headaches for our network engineers, everyone’s very happy with you. How would you like a position as a full-time content generator? A regular column, whatever you’d like. Three or four posts a week, five hundreds words or less. We need to keep those tasty morsels bite-sized.”
“Absolutely,” was all Joe could say. With a dry mouth he agreed to a $100k annual salary, with a 1.5% stake in the ad revenue for traffic generated by his articles. And that was it. In a daze, he left his studio with his debit card, and took the subway into Chinatown. He didn’t know exactly why, but he felt it would be a good place to spend a lot of money, to buy something unique and useless that would impress his bohemian girlfriend and all their hipster friends. So he’d walked into Qing and Ming. Four and a half stars on NYSeeit has to mean something, right?
Joe found a jade dragon sculpted into a candle-stick atop a cylindrical base. The body wrapped itself in a spiral around an absent candle. Its mouth gaped open as if spewing flame; it must create quite an image once the candle’s first lit. He examined a laminated card on the edge of the shelf that displayed it. The piece was a 19th century antique from the Qing dynasty, used for writing by candlelight for a scribe or priest. Its price was listed as $400, but for once, blowing half a month’s rent on something so frivolous had become inconsequential, so he decided to pick it up.
As he approached the counter, Joe noticed a heavy, wrinkled canvas covering an object resting against the end of an aisle. He pulled a corner of the canvas aside to see a mirror underneath. A smooth sheet of glass shined his reflection back at him. The glass was inside an oval gilded in metal embossed with some kind of writing. Mandarin, if his eyes did not deceive him.
The old woman pointed her finger and hissed words he could not understand. “She says do not touch!” the younger woman translated for him. “The mirror is cursed. Cover it.”
Joe complied, but smiled back at them both. “That’s good, I like that. You know how to hook a customer. I’ll give you a grand for this jade piece and the mirror both.”
The older woman frowned. Despite her Mandarin, she understood Joe’s words. “You are fool to want that mirror,” the older woman spoke in a raspy voice, her accent thick. Her words were clear enough. “It show the truth. Silver inside the mirror will show you spirits. The past, the future. But certain truths not meant to be seen. That mirror drive you mad.”
“I get it,” Joe chuckled. “I told you, I’ll buy the mirror. You trying to drive up the price?”
“That mirror is cursed, sir,” the young woman spoke up. “The only reason it’s not in our warehouse is because its meant for the junkyard. We received it from an estate sale. The man who owned it threw himself from the roof of his penthouse. He’d lost his wife, his job, half his fortune. Then his life. When we received the mirror, we studied its history. Those words you see around the outside of the pane are black magic. The person who made that mirror was an evil man. Every person who’s owned it has been bonded to that mirror until the end of their life. And that end has never been good. Its creator was beheaded after he poisoned the daughter of his provincial governor, along with half their household. The mirror showed him the governor’s corruption, and after losing his own infant daughter during a hard winter, burdened with heavy taxes, what he saw through the looking glass broke him. Truth can be a kind of madness sometimes.”
“So can refusing a wealthy customer,” Joe responded, his tone serious, the grin evaporated. “Do you want my money, or not? This dragon’s neat, but I can spend my money elsewhere. And if I can’t have the mirror, I don’t want the jade either.”
“Two thousand,” the old woman demanded. “Your fortune turn sour with the mirror, but if you want a curse, I not stop you. You pay for the privilege.” The old woman cackled. Her smile was brown from the tea, but her eye teeth were still sharp as daggers.
Joe grunted an affirmative, but the woman’s words took some of the fun out of his purchase. The young woman swiped his card with a device connected to her tablet, and turned it around for Joe to sign on the touch screen. He rubbed his finger on its smooth surface, hit the accept button, and turned toward the mirror. “You have something to wrap the canvas with?”
“I give you a rope to tie around the mirror,” the old woman said. “Maybe you hang yourself with it.”
* * * * *
Joe walked off the elevator into the fourth floor of his apartment building. He held the mirror with both hands, still wrapped in its canvas and tied with the rope. The jade dragon was inside a reusable canvas shopping bag more suited for groceries than priceless relics; it was by far the most expensive item the bag had ever held. By far, the most indulgent. But I earned this indulgence, Joe told himself. He approached his studio, leaned the mirror against the wall, yanked his keychain from his jeans pocket, unlocked the door, and walked inside.
His girlfriend Kat (short for Katarina, but her only her parents called her that) was cooking lunch on their stove. A couple paninis sizzled in a cast iron skillet, some kale with garlic frying in a pot nearby. She had ear-buds in, and washed a few dishes while the food cooked.
“Hey,” Joe said to her as he tapped her on the shoulder. Kat’s eyes widened in a moment of surprise, but she smiled when she saw him.
“Ha!” she said as she paused her music and unplugged her ears. “Got lost in the suds. You scared the shit out of me. Where’ve you been? Go out somewhere to write?”
“Mm-mm,” Joe said. “I went on a little shopping spree, to celebrate. Come here, I want to show you what I got.”
Kat turned off the stove, and followed Joe into the front of the studio. He set his bag on the kitchen table on his way out. Joe crouched down, pulled the mirror up, and brought it into the apartment, kicking the door closed on his way in, and gently placing the mirror on their futon. “Here,” Kat offered him a serrated steak-knife from their silverware drawer. Joe used the knife to rip through the rope, and the canvas fell open.
“Dayumn…” Kat said. “Looks tight. Hey, I know you struck a gold mine with that last post, but let’s make this the last reckless purchase for a little while, huh? Our student loans haven’t gone anywhere, ya know.”
“I know, I know. But let’s enjoy this,” Joe and Kat stared back at each other in the mirror. Joe smiled. Kat blew up her cheeks like a puffer-fish, and Joe jostled her with his elbow. She smiled and kissed his cheek.
“What’s that writing around the mirror?” Kat asked.
“Mandarin. You’ll never believe what the old lady at Qing and Ming told me about it. She said the mirror’s cursed. That it would show me the truth, whether I wanted to see it or not.”
Kat’s brow furrowed. “Joe, that’s creepy. Don’t tell me that. I spent half my childhood with the heebie-jeebies, feeling haunted in my bedroom. Nightmares, shadows without light. Don’t bring me back into that.”
Joe scoffed. “Calm down, Kat. They were just driving up the price. Probably hoping to sell it to somebody with a hard-on for ghost-hunting.” Joe saw something flash out of the corner of his eye. “Is Phil here?”
“No…” Kat drew the syllable out. “We’re meeting him and Mika for dinner, remember? Nobody’s here but us. C’mon, we had some paninis that didn’t sell. I cooked ‘em for us, and picked some rooftop kale to go with it. You hungry?”
“Yeah,” Joe nodded. He gave the mirror a sideways glance, and felt something sink in the pit of his stomach as the old lady’s words echoed through his head. Enough. You’re psyching yourself out. He was hungry, though. So was Kat. They ate quietly for a few moments, taking big bites out of their paninis as olive oil ran down their fingers. Brown paper towels were their napkins. Ice-water tinkled in a couple of mason jars.
“Quit looking at it, Joe. You’re freaking me out. It’s just a mirror, right? We can still chuck it out if we need to. Just don’t tell me how much you paid for it if we do,” she said with a wink.
Joe pulled his eyes from the mirror. Even though he’d looked at it sideways, he still had some kind of strange vision when he peered at its surface. He saw Kat (different hair-cut and clothes, but still same ol’ Kat) kissing Phil, one of his very best friends. And not in an even remotely platonic way, but part of one of those steamy make-out sessions that usually act as a prelude to sex.
All three had spent their years at CUNY together. Are they having an affair? She definitely isn’t acting like it. But anybody who could get away with something like that for any length of time would have to be good at lying. I need to keep an eye on them at dinner tonight, he thought, stewing in his imagination.
“Joe!” Kat said, waving a hand in his face. “You’ve got a thousand-yard stare. Did you see something else when you went out earlier? Something that upset you?”
He flashed a grimace, struggling to transform it into a grin. “No, no. Just have some things running through my mind about E-Crack. Ideas for posts, things like that.”
Kat sighed. “You want your notebook?” she asked. “If these ideas aren’t worth writing down, they’re not worth taking up our time together.”
“No,” Joe shook his head. “You’re right. Can’t become obsessed, or I’m going to burn myself out.”
“You done with lunch?” she asked. He nodded. Most of his food was gone, but an edge of his Panini and a few leaves of kale remained. Kat scraped the rubbish into a compost bin, and rinsed the dishes in the sink.
Joe threw the canvas back over the mirror. He was done looking at for now. Kat gave him a questioning glance.
“’Til we figure out what to do with it. Hey, I almost forgot. I got something else, just for you. A dragon from the east.”
* * * * *
El Taqueria bustled with a pleasant buzz of conversation, glass bottles, sizzling fajitas, and Mexican folk music. Joe and Kat sat on one side of a table. Mika and Phil, their closest “friend couple” sat across from them. Together, the pair owned a coffee house that Kat helped them manage.
“To the digital age,” Phil raised his cerveza and they clinked their bottles together, each taking a sip before setting their bottles back down.
“Thanks for dinner, Joe,” Mika said. “How’s it feel to strike it rich?”
“Don’t think it’s sunk in yet,” he replied. “Hoping my luck holds out. E-Crack is a big name, but who knows how long they’ll want me? My contract is for one year. I may be able to turn it into a career. Might just be able to pay off our student loans and save a little nest egg. We’ll see.”
Kat chuckled. “Lighten up, Mr. Practicality. You know how you’re supposed to answer that question? ‘Well, after becoming the world’s most well-known internet writer, I’ll launch a humor podcast, and begin building my digital media empire’. So next time, that’s what you should say.”
“If I want everyone to think I’m an asshole,” Joe smirked. “No, I get it. I’m lucky. I also have some measure of talent. And I’ve worked hard to get where I am. I just don’t want to make any grand visions. In case it all comes crumbling down around me, I still want to have a shred of dignity.”
Phil spoke next. “I understand you, man. It’s how I feel about the coffee shop. We’ve been making money for two years, but tastes could change in a couple more, and there’s no way to know how well we’d be able to adapt.”
“You’d do just fine,” Kat replied. Not a moment’s hesitation, Joe thought. Her eye seemed to shine a bit too bright at that moment. Phil’s cheeks looked a shade too rosy.
“Here’s hoping,” Mika sighed. “Okay, enough doom and gloom. We’re here to celebrate. What does everybody want to eat?”
In ten minutes, the server set down bowls of guacamole and salsa that they shared with a basket of warm tortilla chips. Joe also ordered a platter of tacos for them, but otherwise they filled up on beer and chips.
The fried tortillas cracked in his mouth, salty and delicious. Piped in Mariachi music paired well with people-watching the crowd of hip Brooklyn-ites that surrounded them. But Joe still couldn’t shake the lingering doubt and suspicion from the vision he’d seen in the mirror. Kat and Phil sat diagonally from each other, but dominated much of the conversation. Usually, that would be no problem. Joe was good with words, but had more practice writing than speaking. Mika was a slight introvert too, and aside from a few words every now and then, was pleased to have Phil speak more than she did.
In his mind’s eye, Joe saw Kat and Phil kissing. Easier now that they were face to face in the restaurant.
“You alright, dude? Looks like you’re about to lose it,” Phil said.
Joe flashed a quick grin. He realized that his knuckles were white. A half inch of beer warmed in the bottom of his bottle. He drained it. “You know,” he said, pointing at his head and making a circle in the air. “It goes where it wants to.”
“Damn, Joe, you need to chill the fuck out,” Kat said. “Hey, there’s an alley behind this place. Real chill, it’s where the workers go to smoke on their breaks. Wanna sneak back there? If you give me your card, I can pay the bill, and we can torch this joint Johnny gave me.” Johnny had a medical card. He’d moved on from the coffee shop, but traded his extra smoke for bags of coffee from Kat and the others.
“Yeah,” Joe said with a bit more ice in his voice than he intended. Three pairs of eyes stared at him. “Didn’t realize success would bring this much stress,” he sighed. “Thanks, Kat,” he handed her his debit card. “We’ll meet you outside.”
* * * * *
The smoke helped a bit. Joe felt a slight calm as he exhaled from his nose, and passed the nickel-sized roach to Phil. A few stars were visible. They peeked through gaps between the buildings. Even in one of the brightest cities in the world, some stars could still shine through. A few pigeons ruffled through trash piled in the alley. Koo-oo-o, koo-oo-o. “They’re talking to us,” Joe said. “Eating our left-overs.”
Kat smiled and kissed his cheek. Warmth spread from his cheek to his chest and out to his fingers. He felt connected to everything around him. Not only his friends, but the pigeons in the alley, the stars above, even the brick wall he leaned against.
A door opened from the back of the restaurant. A cook was hauling a full bag of garbage and threw it into the dumpster. Mika was startled for a moment, and hid the joint behind her back. “Relax,” Phil chuckled as he spoke. “Dude works at a restaurant. He’s gotta be cool. Hey, amigo!” he called out. “You wanna finish this?”
The man smiled. He wore jeans, a black tee-shirt, and a ball cap over his head. His voice had a thick accent. “Gracias,” he said. He wiped his fingers on his jeans and took the roach. He smoked until it burned his fingers, and flicked the remnants back into the alley. “Back to work. Very busy. Thank you, thank you,” he said as he walked back inside.
“Alright. You guys wanna head to a bar? Keep celebrating?” Phil asked.
“They might want some time with each other,” Mika said. “Not sure I have a ‘party ‘til dawn’ night left in these old bones, anyway.”
“Yeah, think we’re gonna go home and keep celebrating,” Kat told them. “You ready to head back, Joe?”
“Yeah, let’s go. I’m ready to take it easy.” Joe came to Phil and gave him a tight hug. A little too tight. Phil grunted an oof before Joe let go. He hugged Mika too, as Phil and Kat shared their own friendly squeeze. This kind of farewell was a tradition for the group.
* * * * *
Fifteen minutes later, Kat leaned her head on Joe’s shoulder as they rode the subway back to their neighborhood. Kat dozed, and Joe glanced at their reflection in the widow. The shuhshushshush of the train was hypnotic. Joe rode his buzz all the way home. And even though the window wasn’t a mirror, the reflection it cast was comforting. It showed him the truth he did want to see. All else remained hidden beneath the shush of the subway and the head on his shoulder.
Joe nudged Kat when they came to their stop. She shook off her nap, and walked with him out the train’s door and up the subway steps to the surface. In a couple blocks, they were back at their building, walking through the doors together, taking the same elevator Joe had brought the mirror and the jade dragon up in. Kat had her key ready, and let them both in.
She walked into their kitchen, pulled open the fridge and leaned inside. “We have a little less than half a bottle left. Wanna help me finish it?”
“Yeah,” Joe said. “Bring it out. I’ll get a couple glasses.” He placed the wineglasses next to the jade dragon candlestick. Earlier, Kat found a candle that was the perfect width and they’d cut it to the correct length to reach the dragon’s maw. Joe flicked his lighter and gave the jade dragon its fiery breath. Kat turned off the kitchen light, and giggled as they stood together in the candle-light.
“Thanks, Joey,” she spoke softly as she poured a bit of wine into both glasses.
They brought their glasses over to their coffee table, and set them down. Joe moved the mirror from their couch and leaned it against the wall with the canvas draped over it. He slumped down into the cushions and wrapped his arm around Kat’s shoulder. She leaned her body into his and took a sip of wine, then cradled the glass against her body. In the small space of the studio, the candle cast a soft glow that filled the apartment with a dim light.
A soft rustle came from the canvas as it slumped to the floor. Joe’s eyes darted to the mirror. It was a reflex, alerting him to the source of an unfamiliar noise, but he could see into the glass and what it revealed hurt him deeply. Kat and Phil were in bed, their bodies entwined, their faces wound tight in masks of ecstasy, the bed rocking rhythmically. Something doesn’t add up. Is this mirror tricking me? I’ve never seen that room. Not in our studio, not in Phil’s apartment either. And they look so different in the mirror. Not like they do today. What the hell is going on?
Kat felt Joe tense. She set her wine glass on the coffee table and turned to him. “Relax, Joey…” she ran a few fingers through his hair. “What’s going through your mind?”
Joe breathed a heavy sigh. His fingers laced together, wrapped around the wine glass. “Are you and Phil having an affair?”
“Jesus Christ, Joe,” Kat said, anger in her voice. She set her glass down. “Of course not. He and his girlfriend are my bosses. You really think I would be that stupid? Where is this coming from? You’re not even the jealous type…”
“It’s coming from that god-damned mirror,” Joe seethed. “And the words that old shop-keeper said to me. That the mirror would show me truths I wouldn’t want to see. Well, I certainly don’t want to see what that mirror’s showing me now. Know you can’t see it. You’re not the mirror’s owner. I see you and Phil…” his voice began to choke. “I see you fucking. Your hair looks shorter than it is now, and it’s a bedroom I’ve never seen before. But I know it’s you. And I know it’s him.”
“You know I’d never do that to you, Joey,” Kat told him. “I love you, I don’t even want Phil.”
“So why I am seeing that in the mirror?!” Joe snapped. “It wouldn’t show me that for no reason. Either I’m insane, or that curse is real. The mirror is showing me a truth I don’t want to see, and I can’t think of seeing anything more painful than my best friend and my lover tangled up together in bed.”
Kat sighed. “I don’t think you’re crazy. I think that mirror’s showing you a window into the past.” She’d put her wine glass down too, and slumped forward with her head in her hands.
“The past?” Joe’s eyes narrowed as he asked. “You and Phil had sex and neither of you ever told me?”
“We weren’t officially a couple back then. Yeah, we’d gone out a couple times. Even fooled around a little. But we weren’t exclusive. At least…I wasn’t. Phil and I were at the same party that night. Think you were visiting your parents. Anyway. We went home together. And once you and I became an item, Phil told me we shouldn’t ever tell you, and I agreed.”
“You agreed to lie to me,” Joe told her, tears in his eyes.
“Joe, I’m so sorry. We never meant to hurt you. But we weren’t even a couple back then. I was getting to know both of you. We were safe. It happened once. It was years ago,” Kat explained.
Joe walked to the kitchen table. He picked up the jade candlestick. He looked at Kat. She cowered against the couch, afraid he was about to fling the object at her. Instead, he turned to the mirror and hurled it at the glass pane with all of his force. The mirror shattered, and the world turned red.
* * * * *
Detective Corrigan studied the pooled and dried blood on the studio’s floor. Bits of clothes, bones and hair were scattered nearby. The forensics team crouched close to the mess, collecting a bizarre smattering of evidence that had been left behind. Corrigan, a homicide detective, led the investigation, but didn’t know yet what to make of it.
A downstairs neighbor brought the incident to the attention of the police. Blood had leaked from her ceiling. When the police entered, a young woman had been found clutching her cat, sprayed in the blood of the deceased. Whether he was the victim of a crime or an accident, Corrigan had yet to determine. The woman was still in a state of deep trauma, now in psychiatric treatment at a Brooklyn General Hospital. Her cat, much to the chagrin of the investigators, had escaped the studio or hidden itself so well nobody had been able to find it. All that remained in the studio now was the remnants of the body and all the couple’s possessions.
“Any theories, Ms. Williams?” Corrigan asked. Williams was crouched on the floor, her gloved hands tucking a hair sample into a zip-locked bag.
“Not yet,” she said rising. “We’ve ruled out explosives due to the lack of any kind of residual damage to the area surrounding the body. No noise reported either, except from the woman’s screams. I’m stumped. Never seen injuries like this before.”
“Me neither,” Corrigan admitted. “Hell of a body to catch.”
“Any suspects yet?” Williams asked.
“Only the woman. Katarina Popov, known as Kat. Been living with the deceased for a few years, but once we calm her down and question her, I doubt we’ll be able to come up with any hard evidence. If she’d done it, I think it’d be a bit more obvious. No weapon, no motive beyond your usual romantic bumps in the road. But hell if I know who else it’d be.”
Williams’ eyes glimmered as a new idea flashed in her mind. “You know, about fifteen years ago, I got called to a scene that reminds me of this. At least a little bit. Industrial accident. A tank of liquid nitrogen leaked from a broken valve and covered a custodial worker. He fell to the ground, and shattered to pieces. Wasn’t found until the next morning. Once the nitrogen was spent and dissipated, his remains thawed. Looked a little something like this.”
Corrigan nodded. “Shattered. That’s a good word for it. Shattered and melted into bloody goop.” He looked around the studio, hoping to see something that would give him an idea. “Hey, Williams,” he said, pointing to an object leaning against one of the walls. “Wasn’t there a crack in that mirror when we walked in here?”
Williams followed his eyes. “I remember a spider-web of cracks in that glass, from some kind of impact. But you’re right, doesn’t look damaged anymore.”
“That is weird,” Corrigan remarked. “Well, let’s close up the scene. If the next of kin claims the possessions, that mirror will be theirs. It’ll be someone else’s problem.”