Writing Exercise: Mirrors

Photo by Jon Eric Marababol on Unsplash


“In her New York Times essay “The Ghost Story Persists in American Literature. Why?,” Parul Sehgal writes about how ghost stories throughout American literature have functioned as social critique, manifestations of protest and redress that reveal “cultural fears and fantasies,” and which understand “how strenuously we run from the past, but always expect it to catch up with us.” Write a story that uses a dark or troubling part of history as the impetus for an appearance of a ghostly presence. How does the ghost serve “as a vessel for collective terror and guilt, for the unspeakable” in your story?”

My passage below is based on the Poets & Writers prompt (above). I found this prompt on their weekly “The Time is Now” section. It was apparently posted on Halloween, but I happen to love ghosts any time of the year and decided to try out the prompt today. I am hoping to turn this passage into a short story. Feel free to leave any feedback or suggestions in the comments section!

She was tired that morning. God, was she tired. She felt it in her back and left shoulder as she sprayed the cleaning solution in the bathtub. The start of the new year last week weighed on her. This year marked nearly fifteen years which she’d spent cleaning houses from top to bottom: sweeping, mopping, dusting, vacuuming, sanitizing, scrubbing, all of it for clients with their endless trinkets and other testimonies of wealth, materialized in rolls of white carpet spread out in spare rooms never even used by their owners.

Early in her cleaning days, Iris had suspected many of the rooms were just for show for most of her clients (how could one childless couple possibly put six bedrooms to use?), and this suspicion was confirmed each week when she saw her own vacuum marks on the rug undisturbed, not a single footprint having tread over them since her last cleaning.

This morning the temptation to take the day off and rest had hit her harder than normal, but she was glad she had gone in after all, as she’d forgotten Mrs. Kerry was going out of town for a church trip for the next four weeks. She felt obligated to look after the house in her absence, as Mrs. Kerry was one of the few clients she really cared for. Mrs. Kerry was an elderly woman, one who had never once accused Iris of stealing a misplaced ring, nor demanded she clean the baseboards a second time, or readjust a slightly crooked painting on the wall.

While some of Iris’s clients left the house while she worked, Mrs. Kerry, being somewhat frail, typically stayed politely upstairs and out of the way, even going so far as to suggest Iris have free reign of the tea cupboard and pantry while she worked.

For clients like Mrs. Kerry, the ones who reminded her of her own grandmother, Iris didn’t mind the work so much. As nice as the old woman was though, she was somewhat glad she would be gone all the next month, as Iris preferred working alone in the quiet solitude of the house, undisturbed.

The bathtub she was working on had accumulated a surprisingly thick layer of dust since the week prior, and she had to take more time than normal to clean it. She sprayed the cleanser a few times before realizing the bottle was empty.

“Of course,” she muttered and slowly stood up to refill the bottle with the gallon jug stored under the sink, her knees cracking painfully as she rose. She bent under the sink, rummaging around until she found the bottle of bleach. Raising her head, she caught her reflection in the full-length mirror hanging on the back of the bathroom door.

Something was not right, and she felt her breath catch in her chest as she realized what it was. It took her a few seconds to place the source of the strangeness: she was looking at two separate reflections of herself. Her normal reflection appeared before her, holding the bleach bottle just as she expected, but a second reflection stared back at her, from behind where she stood.

It was her: her image, her form, but yet it was not her entirely. “It” – that was all she could think to call the creature in the mirror – had her same tired face with the matching undereye circles of exhaustion. The same wispy brown ponytail, flecked with gray and falling over one shoulder, and dressed in the same faded blue cleaning uniform. Yet “it” stood, empty-handed, straight and tall, in the center of the bathtub behind her, wearing a small and unwavering smile, pleased with itself.

Her lungs, frozen with fear, demanded oxygen and she now breathed in a huge gulp of air, blinking involuntarily as she did so. The apparition vanished with the blink, and only Iris’s usual reflection remained in front of her, staring in disbelief. She sat on the bathtub’s porcelain edge, trying to collect her bearings.

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