Chapter 6: To Be Young Again
Matt awoke with a sprinkling of popcorn across his face. Its fragrance, both sweet and salty, was strangely comforting.
Kettle corn. I love that stuff.
Suddenly, the image of his brother’s slumped body flashed into his mind and he shot to his feet.
He glanced around and found himself alone except for a boy lying face down in the same field of spilled popcorn. His hair was a mess of kernels and seeds. Looking at him gave Matt an unsettling feeling, like he should know him, but didn’t know from where.
He cleared his throat and ran his hands through his own hair, dislodging a small colony of half-popped kernels. “Hey, are you okay?” came a voice from nearby.
His hand flew to his throat. Something was wrong with his voice. It hadn’t been this high since for a while now. Had he inhaled a bunch of helium? No, it wasn’t quite that high.
He cleared his throat again, hoping that the change would not be permanent. He spoke again, trying to speak in manlier register. “Um, do I need to call an ambulance or something?”
When the other boy did not stir, Matt stooped down next to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. At Matt’s touch, the other boy stirred slightly, emitting a low moan. With his help, he rolled over.
As his face came into view, the other boy jumped back as if he’d been shocked. He did know the face. He’d seen it every day of his life.
“Dad?” he yelped, his voice once again reaching the choirboy range. He made no attempt to correct it his time.
His eyes flickered open, still distant and unfocused.
Matt shook his head. It couldn’t be him. This boy didn’t look any older than him. Did he have a cousin or something that his dad had never told him about? Even if that was it, the resemblance was creepy.
The boy blinked hard and shook his head vigorously, creating a mini blizzard of fluffy bits of popcorn. “Huh?” he blinked his eyes a few more times, and then looked him over. “Hey, where did the tent go? Where’s everyone else?”
Matt glanced around to make sure they were alone. “It’s just us, I think. I was in the tent one minute and woke up here the next with a face full of popcorn.”
The boy held out his hand and Matt took it. “I’m Neil, by the way.”
Matt almost lost her grip. Stepping back, he scrutinized the other boy again. His jaw worked up and down, struggling to find his voice. “N-Neil? Neil Phelps?”
Neil stumbled back. “How did you know that? Are you related to Matt?”
Matt wrinkled her nose in an expression that was unmistakably his own. “What? I am Matt!”
Neil shook his head rapidly back and forth in jerky motions. “What? Aren’t you like thirteen or fourteen?”
Matt pursed his lips and drew his eyes into narrow slits. “You can’t be any older than that either.”
Neil looked down at himself and then back to Matt. “It’s just that I have a son named Matt who looks a lot like you. Have you always had that mole by your nose?”
Matt reached up and touched the mole. It had been there ever since he was a kid. “Yeah, what about it? That’s kind of a weird question.” He turned and looked around again. “I’m going to see if I can find help. Come if you want.”
Matt took a few steps and Neil called after him. “Hey, wait. Let me ask you one more thing. Do you know Tyson Phelps?”
The question stopped him as if he’d reached the end of a long tether. “Oh, course. That’s my brother. It’s his birthday today, though I’m beginning to think it was a mistake bringing him here. I don’t know what happened, but this place is a mess.”
Neil met Matt’s gaze and held it. “Matt, he’s my son, and so are you.”
Matt rolled his eyes and turned to keep going. “Yeah, right.”
Neil kept up with him. “Matt, I’ll prove it to you.” Running alongside him, he gestured to a nearby purple tent with a large golden banner above the door. “Look, Matt. I don’t understand what’s going on, but I think we need a mirror.”
Matt looked over at the purple tent, which bore the sign “House of Mirrors”.
“Come on,” Matt muttered, pointing towards the tent. “Let’s get this over with.”
Neil followed Matt into the tent. Once inside, the tent seemed much larger than it had appeared from the outside. In front of them stood seven sections of the tent, each curtained off to create its own room. In the center of the tent stood a pole, like one that might be seen at a crossroads. On the pole stood seven signs, each one pointing to a different section of the tent.
Matt approached the pole and squinted to read the faded black writing on the signs. “The last, the first, the best, the worst. The dream, the quest, the ultimate test.”
He blinked hard and reread the strange labels. “Hm,” he muttered, chewing on his lip. “That’s weird. Usually they just have ones that stretch your face or make your butt look really big.”
Neil pointed to one section. “How about the first one?”
Without a word, Matt slipped past Neil and into the first compartment. In the compartment stood only a full-length mirror with a golden frame and the words “The Last” etched on a bronze plaque near the top. There was enough light so that they both see clearly the two figures reflected there.
For a long moment, neither of them spoke. The faces that stared back at them didn’t look much like the ones they had seen in the mirror that morning.
Matt examined his face with his fingertips, searching every pasty, acne-scarred crevice. Neil took similar steps, making all sorts of faces in the mirror.
“I must be dreaming,” Neil muttered. “Or having a nightmare. This is how I looked, in…in…” He paused to keep himself from hyperventilating. “Junior High school,” he squeaked.
Matt nodded. “Yeah, me too. Back before my voice changed all the way.” Matt turned and looked at the boy next to him. He did look different, but if he squinted and held his head just right, he could tell that it really was his dad.
“Dad,” he whispered. “It really is you.”
Neil nodded, exhaling hard. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. I guess it’s a little easier for me to believe that you’re Matt. It’s only been a few years since you looked like that.”
Matt ran his hands through his curling hair. “How did this happen? Maybe those snow cones were from the Fountain of Youth?”
Neil snickered and gazed into the mirror. “If so, it’s pretty ironic. I’m probably one of the few guys who doesn’t want to go back to how he looked when he was young. Can you blame me?”
Now it was Matt’s turn to snicker. “Hey, you asked the question. You kind of look like the kids who get stuffed into lockers and stuff. How did you ever get a date with mom?”
Neil sighed and gazed as his shoes. “I suppose I deserved that. But the real question is what will we do now? If we are both years younger, does Tyson even exist? Did everything go back in time, or just us? I mean, it’s kind of strange that we would still be at a carnival in the past.”
Matt shrugged. “I don’t know. It kind of makes my head hurt. The one thing I do know is that I’m sick of staring at myself in the mirror. Let’s get out of here.” He turned and tried to exit that portion of the tent. As he reached the tent flap, however, it snapped closed and would not budge, no matter how much he tore at the fabric. Neil joined him, tugging at the fabric, but they might as well have been trying to force two sheets of steel apart.
“Pull harder!” Matt cried, his face bunching up in frustration.
Neil’s face also turned red. His unimpressive muscles were not doing him any favors now.
At last, they both gave up and collapsed to the floor, breathing hard and feeling like the room was closing in around them.
“Great, Neil,” Matt said. “Now what do we do?”
“Neil? What happened to ‘dad’?”
Matt only rolled his eyes. “You look like some guy who I…who gets beaten up for his lunch money every day. And you don’t even have facial hair. Can’t call you ‘dad’ looking like that.”
Neil opened his mouth to answer, but stopped as another voice filled the confined space.
“Prepare to learn the secrets of the mirrors. Stand directly in front of the first mirror and gaze deeply into its surface.”
The voice rumbled and scraped as if it were coming from the throat of a giant with a cold. Before Matt could protest, Neil stood in front of the mirror and motioned for Matt to join him.
Matt stepped forward and they stood side by side in front of the polished surface. At first, nothing happened.
After about thirty seconds of staring at the blank surface, Matt’s left foot tapped an erratic rhythm against the ground. “What are we waiting for?” he asked. “This isn’t turning out to be very—”
Suddenly the surface of the glass sprung to life, rippling and changing as if the surface had been liquid instead of glass. When the colors settled, they revealed a scene unlike any they had ever seen.
In the mirror, the two of them sat together, though each of them appeared much older. The tent was lit only by firelight. The older version of Neil closed his eyes, his brow beaded with sweat. He grasped his son’s hand and said something that did not come through the glass.
Before they had time to consider the scene further, they felt themselves pulled violently to the side by an unseen force. They now stood in the second compartment, in front of an identical mirror labeled “The First.”
In an instant, the mirror’s surface changed, revealing an image vastly different than the last one.
“What do you see?” Neil asked Matt.
“Probably the same thing you see—a newborn baby, a boy. And you are there, the older you, and…Mom.”
Neil shook his head. “I see a baby boy, but I see my parents. You never got to meet them.” He scratched his chin, “Wait a minute, could it be?”
Before they could speculate further, they found themselves yanked into the next compartment. This one was labeled “The Best”, and both Matt and Neil agreed that it showed them a scene from the day that Tyson was born, after he was safely delivered, wrapped snugly and introduced to the family.
This mirror was followed by “The Worst”, which showed them both the day Matt’s mother, Neil’s wife, had died.
With barely enough time to process their intense grief at having this awful scene play out in front of them, they quickly found themselves in front of the mirror labeled “The Dream.”
Matt barely dared to blink. In front of him was an image of their family: Neil, Matt, Tyson, and two younger children, all bearing a strong resemblance to their older brothers. A woman Matt had never seen stood beside them, smiling and tousling the hair of a little girl with blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail. One thing was for sure, this was not the neighbor from across the street.
The sorrow he had felt just a moment before evaporated to be replaced with intense happiness. Matt didn’t think it would actually ever happen, but seeing it here made him realize how much he wanted it to.
To their surprise, the next mirror included Tyson as well. They stood in front of an identical mirror marked “The Quest.”
“The Quest?” Matt said with a wry smile. “What are we, knights? “ He bowed comically low to his dad. “Sir Neil, worry not. I shall slay any dragons that need slaying.”
“Sure,” Neil said with a chuckle. “Maybe you can bash them over the head with your guitar. Or just turn it up all the way and start playing.”
They fell silent as the glass changed, revealing an incredibly tall stone tower. Its large circular base tapered as it rose, ending in a small point at the top. The image shifted, climbing the side of the tower until it reached the top, which sported a statue that looked suspiciously like the hood ornament of a luxury car.
The image in the glass changed scenes to a small round room in which the walls were completed lined with bookshelves, bulging with hundreds of weathered tomes. In the center of the library lay a plush bed just large enough for one person, and on the bed lay a person they knew well.
“Tyson!” Matt cried.
Behind Tyson stood a man that Matt knew too: the awful magician who had completely wasted an hour of his life. The man had an open book in his hand and was reading it to his sleeping brother. The image focused in on the cover for a moment, and they could see that it was Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.”
Just looking at the magician made Matt’s skin crawl. This was not a friendly story time. The strange expressions on the magician’s face looked more like he was telling a ghost story and trying to scare his brother out of his mind.
“Hey, I had to read that in Lit class,” said Matt with a chuckle, trying to push the feeling away. “Wasn’t too bad.”
Before they could process the strange scene, the image in the glass changed scenes again, out of the tower and back down to the ground level, where it once again entered the building. The image hovered over a sprawling carnival scene for a moment until homing in on a familiar purple tent. Finally, the image entered the tent, and the two of them were left staring at their own reflections.
Matt realized that he had been holding his breath, and let it all out in a rush. “What does that mean? Did that magician kidnap Tyson?”
Neil shook his head. “I don’t know. He wasn’t a very good magician. He was even scared of rabbits. Who’s ever heard of a magician who wouldn’t pull a rabbit out of a hat?”
His stomach beginning to churn. “And that tower,” Matt said. “Never seen that before.”
“If the mirror is right, we’re at the bottom and Tyson’s at the top,” said Neil. “Maybe our quest is to get him back…from evil story time.”
“Huh, maybe. Let’s check the last mirror out.” Neil disappeared into the final compartment. Matt tried to follow him, but found the curtains sealed as tightly as before. Matt waited, his feet twitching. A minute later, he found himself yanked into an audience with the final mirror. Instead of a gold rim, this mirror was lined completely in black. “The Ultimate Test,” read Matt. “Sounds spooky.”
The surface shimmered and Matt felt himself drawn into the swirling surface.