I was born and raised in the middle of nowhere. A little spot called Blindwater, to be exact, so named because the first settlers in the area assumed the water was taking away their sight. Nowadays, it's commonly thought they simply got a hold of some bad moonshine.
I don't think very much changed throughout the generations.
Until the Walmart came in, there was very little to do around these parts. Kids, like myself, spent most days at the Faircloth Funfair, a somewhat run-down, very odorous carnival nestled between two hills some distance away from the edge of our home turf. Yup, we had our very own "spooky place on the outskirts of town".
When I say that things were in disrepair, I mean it in the least harmful way possible. The red and white paint was wearing off the ticket booth, rust was slowly overtaking poorly-hidden, defunct bumper cars beneath a tattered blue tarp... and there were a fair few plaster animal characters missing limbs and other features.
I tried to sneak into one of the bumper cars with my love interest at the time, my best friend's sister. I always thought my friend was way too protective of her, and her father was a raging drunk who kept her "safe" indoors six days a week, but curiosity had overridden fear. Unfortunately, the second I slipped into the seat, I was sinking in soaked, spongy upholstery ridden with white, thread-like worms. There was no easy second chance after that.
Despite the decay, the only thing I really feared about the place was an awkward glance from a new carnie I didn't recognize or the occasional pack of stray dogs lured in by discarded scraps.
One attraction that was a favorite among kids and teens, in close competition with the creaking Ferris wheel, was the house of mirrors. I was never really able to see why they enjoyed it, much less why it was a favorite spot to inhabit. I think if I was pressed to come up with a theory, it'd be the availability of secret corners and alcoves to do morally questionable things.
The outside of the small building was painted with red and white stripes, much like the ticket booth and some of the concession stands. A large mural on the front of the building, airbrushed with all the expertise of a very self-assured twelve year old with a paint set, depicted "Harvey Heck". He was part Carnival Barker, Part Mime, with a small dose of Old-Timey Villain thrown in for good measure. Handlebar mustache, Top hat, Monocle, black and white face paint... it made little to no sense.
Naturally, I assumed the attraction was some sort of "haunted house" full of tinny Halloween music and costumed staff waiting to jump out and grab people.
"It's not scary at all," kids would say, "it's fun." They tried to tempt me in with any reassurance they could think of. I was having none of it... until fate - and jealousy - forced my hand.
It was the same girl, the Sister, that got me in the door. She hadn't even asked me to go, but when I saw her going in with a group of older boys, I quickly followed without a second thought. I had no real idea of what could possibly occur, but I knew I wanted to make sure nothing happened between them at all.
The first thing I noticed was the smell of cut wood. Sawdust, to be exact. The powdery substance coated the creaking, red-painted floor, mixing with straw and peanut shells. Lots and lots of peanut shells. It was clear that no one had swept the place or laid down fresh straw in ages.
Once I was in, I thought the mirrors were hilarious. There was row upon row of them, creating a maze that seemed impossible to navigate. You'd turn a corner and - BAM - you'd walk right into a window expertly placed in the path between the mirrors. The sound of collisions, followed by laughter, echoed to the dark, cobwebbed rafters of the building.
Every warped image you can imagine played out in front of us as we explored. You could see yourself taller than normal, as short as a toddler... fat, thin, old, young... the kids who knew where to look showed us mirrors where we had vestigial arms, blackened teeth, and any number of crazy things. Each sight was more hilarious than the last.
I don't really know how long that specific journey had been. There were enough twists and bends to keep us walking for what seemed like an hour despite the actual size of the place. All I know for sure is that my feet were starting to hurt as much as my cheeks ached from laughing.
Then, when we turned a corner, the jovial mood changed. The Sister, my crush, was faced with a shocking reflection. She appeared completely nude, and barely had time to cover up as the rest of us slowly realized what we were seeing.
The guys erupted in laughter, tugging and pushing at her, trying to pull her hands away. Cat calls and rude comments rose up and drowned out her shrieks. Within seconds, she was bawling her eyes out.
Enraged, I lashed out at the boys with flailing, ineffectual punches and slaps. I squealed in rage, like a kid so much younger than I actually was. They shoved me away, laughing even harder. I remember being called a pervert for "wanting be the one" who saw her exposed.
I crumpled to the floor. In the midst of sucking back my own bile, already feeling the sting of bruises, I completely lost any sense of reason and civility. Scrambling to my feet again, I pushed past the small but frenzied mob and reeled back for a death blow.
BANG. My fist struck its target, spreading a spider's web of cracks across the object of everyone's attention. The mirror. One of the boys grabbed my fist as I pulled back again, but he slid off just as quickly due to blood spreading across my knuckles.
Again and again, I thrashed the only thing that wouldn't be able to stop me. An inanimate object. Panting, sweating like a pig in a room that was suddenly as hot as the Sun, I gave a final kick to the glass that remained in the mirror's frame.
I turned back to the others and shouted like a maniac. I demanded to know if they were happy, now... if they'd gotten what they wanted... if they were proud of violating a girl too young to even have anything to look at.
At first, I thought they were all shocked by the speed and severity at which I'd cracked. There was a sudden sense of relief that washed over me when I saw the confusion and dread in their eyes. I knew they'd never mess with me - or her - ever again.
They took off in random directions. All except for the girl. She stood motionless, staring wide-eyed in my direction. I didn't care if I'd scared her, too, because it was enough just to stop what was happening.
She continued to stare as she slowly, awkwardly brushed past me. It was the first time I'd actually felt her skin or the ruffled, yellow dress she often wore. It was a fleeting sensation as she pushed past with little to no regard for me.
Now I was confused. I turned to watch her as she continued through the mirror's frame.
Harvey Heck put his hands on her shoulders as she stepped into the dimly lit expanse just beyond the border. Behind the two stood a long table seating a few small, shadow-obscured figures. Set before the group were empty plates and bone dry drinking glasses. She turned back to look at me, wide-eyed and still. His hands were huge compared to her slight form. He was impossibly tall, even if he weren't wearing the top hat.
I looked from her face to his. In his monocle, I saw my own eerily clear reflection. In an instant, I had to look away.
"Themselves," the girl whispered in an icy tone, "when they look at me, they think of themselves."
Within the span of a blink, I was looking at the girl behind a mirror's surface, staring at me from where my own reflection should have been.
I shouted, and as I did her mouth opened just as wide. I pounded on the glass once more, and she followed suit. As I moved, she moved... now little more than a silent, distorted copy of myself. Her hands met mine as I touched the cold surface.
Balling up my fist once more, I struck the mirror and sent cracks crawling across its surface. This time, however, the cracks oozed red liquid wherever they crossed the girl's body. I could immediately see the blood wasn't mine, and unlike the glass, it was warm to the touch.
I stepped away from the mirror for a moment, calling out into the impossible distance of the maze for any semblance of adult assistance... but beyond the thuds of other children running into glass, and the stupid, mule-like laughter of others... there was no response to be heard.
Then, when I returned to the mirror, she was gone. I gawked back at myself, waved my hands around, felt the glass again, and cried out in desperate anguish.
The Funfair is still running on fumes all these years later. Harvey Heck's Hall of Mirrors is a prized attraction, but it draws in less and less children as time presses on. I went back several times during those early years in Blindwater. I went back, and I looked for her... through ever changing paths, around corners that weren't there yesterday, stomping peanut shells and straw into the floor.
I even broke a few mirrors when I was sure I wouldn't be caught. They never lead anywhere other than separate paths in the maze.
The boys... those cruel, thoughtless boys... turned on each other once the girl went missing. They each accused each other of being the last person to see her. They all claimed to be the first one to leave when things got nasty. None of them even mentioned I had been there, and though I never spoke to them again, I'm sure it has something to do with my screaming fit and the idea I might be guilty... that I might do something to them next.
I didn't want to give up the search. I told myself many times that I'd keep looking until I was old and gray, until I dropped dead from exhaustion. Even as a kid, I knew in the deepest, darkest pit of my being, that I was lying to myself.
Eventually, fear would overtake me again, and I'd be unable to step into the building. Not fear of what had happened or fear of the inexplicable nature of it, but of what I'd seen.
Fear of my own visage seen through Harvey's eyepiece, and the quiet, gnawing terror that it was the one accurate reflection.