Serial Killers: The Man in the Mirror (Part 1) by Connor Long-Johnson

Serial Killers are part of our Trembling With Fear line and are serialized stories which we’ll be publishing on an ongoing basis.

The street outside was being bombarded in a deluge of rain. The pitter patter of pregnant raindrops crashing down to the ground punctuated the stillness of the night; the faint sound of cars passing by in the street with low groans gave the raindrops company as they fell. 

These sounds gave the boy companionship too. 

He lay alone on his bed, his eyes heavy from the exertions of a day that was slowly dying. In a charcoal black ocean of darkness, he looked up at the ceiling. The only light to guide him was the artificial light on the screen of his mobile phone. In the darkness the bright beam seemed like a holy prophet, guiding him through the dark into a brave new world of knowledge and entertainment. 

He reached across to the bedside table and grasped for his phone. In the darkness he heard a loud rattle break the silence in the room as his medicine bottle hit the ground. Unable to find it, he shifted his body onto his side to look and finally clasped it in his hands. He returned to laying on his back and began to scroll, his thumbs being exercised with movement at regular intervals. 

As he gazed into the screen his eyes narrowed, focusing in on the latest stories being told by his peers. Soon after, he decided to check upon his own, earlier status with the autumnal theme. His pupils dilated with delight as he saw that his last post had now gained over two thousand likes.

Two thousand!

 The image, a photo of him standing amongst the crisp, brown leaves with chestnut-brown conkers shining in the morning light around him earlier that morning atop the hilly grounds of the Greenwich Maritime Museum, was a personal favourite of his. 

After the shoot he had spent the next hour in a local café sat in front of his computer; delicately he had edited the photo, altering his complexion to remove the ugly, red raw pimple that was growing in the middle of his forehead; after he had done so and changed the filter to alleviate the gun metal grey of the London sky, then he had posted the image to the internet. 

Now, when he looked at the photo, he felt honest, authentic, genuine even. It was a true representation of him, it was who we wanted to be. More importantly, every like provided a shot of dopamine, an orgasmic feeling exploded in his mind with every ping of his phone. It was glorious.

As the tranquillity of the room continued to be disturbed by the rain and sleep eluded him, the boy felt the sudden urge to urinate. Swinging his legs to the left and laying his feet gently on the floor, he slipped into his brown chequered slippers and walked to the bathroom. He brought his phone along with him; it was a constant friend to populate the emptiness of the night with him, like a child holding a stuffed bear. Taking care not to make too much noise – his parents sleeping soundly in the next room – the boy closed the door to the bathroom with great care, sure not to rouse anyone from their sleep. He flicked the light switch on and began his stream.

As he finished and was drying the last of the soap suds from his hands, he noticed himself in the mirror and turned to inspect his image. He had never liked the structure of his face. His cheekbones that lined his jaw were not like those of the people he saw everyday on the internet. His eyes were blue, but they were a dull, pallid blue. They looked like a fabric that had spent too long in the sun, or had its vibrancy worn away by the tide of time; they did not shine or shimmer like those of the people he so admired. 

Despite his own ill-will toward his image, he felt that a late-night selfie might brighten his mood. He turned back to face the bathroom mirror and ensure that his face – besmirched by the passing day – looked suitable enough to be exhibited to the internet. After agreeing with himself that it was – at least – passable, he flicked open the camera on his phone and held it high above his head, angling it downwards as he stared back up to meet the camera’s gaze. He puckered his lips slightly and smirked, turned his face to the left (what he believed to be his more photogenic side) and then tapped the screen of his phone ten times with the sound of clicking bounding around the empty room as he did so. 

Ten photos, one would be superior to the others. 

He scrolled through them, unhappy with the results: the first looked too forgettable, the second made his lips look as if they were about to burst, the fourth was terrible, the sixth one made him look gaunt and ghost-like. The ninth picture, however, he favoured above all the others, although all the photos were of himself, he felt that number nine was the one that reached out and spoke to him. It seemed to show a childlike cheekiness that he thought people would be attracted to. 

Satisfied, he locked his phone, snuck back into his bedroom with soft steps, took off his slippers and crawled back under the covers. He would edit and upload the photo now and by morning he would wake to a shower of likes, love and comments. 

He swiped up to unlock his phone, ready to edit the image and post it to the world. 

It was then that he noticed something had changed.

The photo that stared back at him was not the one that he had taken in the bathroom only moments ago, it was almost identical, but something was different about this picture. 

The face had shifted ever so slightly to the right, turning as if to face the camera directly, the veins that ran underneath the coffee brown tanned skin were more pronounced, looking like rivers flowing across a muddy plain and the eyes looked drawn in. 

The boy’s face scrunched in confusion; he did not understand it. He had not edited the photo yet and the image now facing him was not his own. 

It was impossible, he put down his phone and picked up the sleek silver tablet lying lazily on his bedside table. He needed to scrutinize the picture on a bigger screen, to see if he was finally going insane, or to see if the picture he took was that awful. 

He opened his tablet and began to scroll through the photos. There they were, all ten of then. The ones that had made him ghostly and forgettable were still their same undesirable selves, they were mirror images of what he had looked like in the bathroom. As he swiped intently through the photos, he became more and more sure that what he had seen on his phone was false; it was some side-effect of his meds, or of staying up this late into the night. Yes, that was it. It was his mind telling him that he should be asleep, instead of addictively abusing his phone. 

The next image proved himself wrong. 

The photo was different again this time. It was now incomparable to the one that he had chosen earlier, it was a twisted, demented painting, an artist’s impression of all the human suffering in the world. 

This time the image was staring directly into the camera and out back at him, the eyes now had charcoal black bags sagging under them and yet still seemed full of life. The veins, where before they were slightly elevated, were now raised above the skin and looked like purple tunnels of blood cavorting across his face. He no longer recognised the person who stared back through the screen. This was a stranger masquerading as him, his face turned to a cheap Halloween mask. 

He began to feel the tiniest droplets of sweat rolling down his back and his heart steadily beginning to pound against his chest, like a trapped animal desperate to escape captivity. If it was his tired state or something else, he did not know, but the world around him became a swirling mass of colourful confusion, with the room around him becoming a nightmarish vortex of panic so powerful that felt he could reach out and grab a handful, thick and smouldering.. 

He checked his phone again, hoping against hope that this was all some awful fever dream from which he would wake, or maybe some other side effect of the medication. He had read online that the side-effects could range in severity, but he never imagined anything like this. 

What he saw surprised him.

The photo was normal. 

He swiped through them all with the eagerness of a child opening a sought-after gift. All the ten images were now normal, the face in the phone was his; the eyes were blue and bagless, and skin was dark and without cracks or crevices and the hair was the colour of the night sky. He pinched his forearm gently, just to be sure he was awake; the sweet pinch of pain told him that he was. 

The tension drained slowly from his body, dissipating around him. He was like an overfilled cup; the emotions were now spilling down his sides until the relief surrounded him in a puddle of sweat. He needed a drink; with a deep, grateful breath we got up and walked back to the bathroom. 

Taking a cup and filling it with precision and holding it with a steady hand he swung it back and took long greedy gulps. He watched as the water disappeared, leaving nothing but the transparent bottom of the cup, through which he could see the mirror. 

With a jolt the cup flew from his hand and landed with a smash as it hit the cold, tiled floor. 

Staring at him from the mirror was now the image that he had so desperately thought was gone. He raised his hands to his eyes to shield himself from the horror when he noticed the purple lumps running across the palms of his own hands. They were veins. Veins like that of his reflection. They were rough and lumpy and gave his skin a look as if it were mottled. As he brought his hands back down, he noticed his forearms; gone was the pure, light-brown complexion filled with the deep colour of caramel coffee. His arms had taken on a lighter hue and now looked more like a lukewarm cup of tea that had been left for too long and was now undrinkable. Etched across both forearms were scratches and cuts, some red and raw, others faded and jagged.  

Anxiety began to return in tidal wave-like feelings that rolled up his throat from somewhere deep within him. Before he knew it, he was on his knees, retching and heaving. 

He could feel something forcing its way up. It was as if a balloon was expanding in his chest and was about to burst, releasing a combustible mixture of feelings. 

He staggered back to his feet, swaying violently as he did so. He lurched forward and reached for the door. Grabbing a hold of the metal handle, he yanked the door open and stumbled through into the hallway. 

He looked back into the bathroom and saw the mirror. Inside it he saw himself, now pure and unbesmirched. His old self had one hand lain flat on the pane, the other pounding hard like a heartbeat against the glass. The look of terror in the eyes of his reflection fired bullets of worry that hit him hard in his midriff. 

After he had staggered back into the dark retreat of his bedroom, all of a sudden, he felt the comforting embrace of sleep there to greet him. The trauma of the night’s events had sapped the energy from him and now he no longer cared for his image. He collapsed, exhausted, onto his bed and within moments his breathing was steady and he was at rest.

Connor Long-Johnson

Connor Long-Johnson, currently writing his thesis on the fiction of Stephen King at the University of Greenwich in London, England. He enjoys writing short stories in the Gothic, fantasy and Science-Fiction genres inspired by the stories of Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson.  He can be found at cljohnson.co.uk.   

Stephanie Ellis

Stephanie Ellis is a member of the HWA and writes dark speculative prose and poetry which has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including Flame Tree Press' A Dying Planet and Nosetouch Press' Fiends in the Furrows. She is the author of gothic novella, Bottled, from Silver Shamrock Publishing and the novelette, Asylum of Shadows from Demain Publishing. Her first novel, The Way of the Mother, is due out in October, via Silver Shamrock. She can be found at https://stephanieellis.org/ and on twitter @el_Stevie.

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