Mona – the heavyset waitress dressed in the customary pink outfit, apron, and beaten up pair of generic white sneakers, refilled Roland’s cup with piping hot coffee. Roland, a man in his seventies with wisps of white hair neatly combed to the side, opened his sketchpad. He looked over his drawing, a sketch of a striking woman in her mid to late twenties. He was pleased with himself that he got Vivian’s likeness down.
After several minutes of drawing he suddenly sat upright as if he’d been jolted. It was like an icy hand reached out from a grave closed so long ago, touching him, sending a chill throughout the very core of his being.
He looked around but save Mona and Leon, the owner and cook, the diner was empty. At 2:30 in the morning, the streets outside were just as barren. No headlights in motion, no pedestrians, only the endless dark of night which now seemed even darker with the broken streetlights. A lonely gloom filled the atmosphere this evening, which gave Roland an underlying feeling of restlessness.
A half-hour passed and Jack, another senior citizen although younger than Roland by six years, entered Leon’s 24-hour diner. The bells connected to the double doors sounded overly loud in the bludgeoning silence, startling Roland, who looked up from his sketchpad. He waved to Jack, who sauntered over to Roland’s usual booth in the far corner after exchanging pleasantries with Mona and ordering coffee – cream, no sugar.
Roland gave Jack a strange glare as the other man sat down. An odd and somewhat anxious look creased Roland’s face, as he studied Jack, adding more lines to the many already present. There was something strange about Jack that caused Roland to feel disturbed but he said nothing.
A stout man with a steel gray pompadour and sideburns, Jack had some trouble squeezing into the booth opposite Roland. His beer belly pressed against the edge of the table, Jack scooted into place with a grunt, the effort reflected in his expression.
“Whaddya say, Roland? You look a little pale tonight,” Jack greeted him as he still struggled to get comfortable. Mona came by and set Jack’s coffee on the table. “Thanks, dear,” he said in a gravelly tone that was slow-roasted from years of smoking.
“Anything else?” Mona asked.
“Yeah, I’d like a patty-melt and fries.”
“Sure thing, Jack,” Mona responded, ambling off.
Jack turned back to Roland. “You okay Roland? You’re looking at me like you’ve never seen me before. What gives?”
“Um…just a little gloomy in here tonight, that’s all.” Roland replied, voice taut with unease. He stopped drawing and quickly closed his sketchpad, not wanting Jack to see what he was working on.
“Does seem kind of dismal in here tonight, don’t it?” Jack said as he scanned the diner. Well, whatever it is, don’t let it get you down.”
At that moment, the front door of the diner opened and the muscles in Roland’s neck knotted up when he saw who entered. Sal Wallace, the local private detective, was dressed in a trench coat with a matching fedora hanging crookedly on his head. Underneath it, he wore a rumpled cheap suit and tie, the latter now loosened and the top few buttons of his dress shirt undone. Sal was still in pretty good shape for someone in his sixties; he had to be for someone taking photos of people having carnal knowledge of other people who weren’t their spouse.
Minding his own business, Sal walked up to counter, sat on a stool and asked for a black coffee. Roland and Jack stared at him the entire time. Especially Roland.
“Try not to think about him. It was forty years ago. A whole lifetime has gone by,” Jack whispered.
“I let it go a long, long time ago, Jack. But all said and done, I can never forget it,” Roland replied, matching Jack’s whisper, eyes narrowing at Sal.
Mona handed Sal his black coffee in a white Styrofoam cup. The private dick paid her, got up, then glanced over Roland’s way. There was a flinch of recognition on his otherwise stoic granite face. Without breaking stride, he exited the diner.
“Every time I see him around town, I’m always reminded. I always think of him and Vivian. How they had the affair,” Roland said, raising his voice that now Sal was gone. He gazed deep into the dark recesses of his coffee.
“You’re a strong man, Roland. I don’t know if I would’ve reacted the way you did. I don’t know what I would have done if I’d have found my wife in bed with another man. I would’ve done something harsh. I know it,” Jack admitted. “I still want to kill my idiot boss for firing me last month. I gave thirty years of my life to that company and what do I get for my years of service? The middle finger!”
Roland had heard it all before almost every night for the past four weeks. He heard it so many times, the story of Jack being fired that he could tell it himself. Roland wanted to stop him from ranting and raving about it; he was sick of the whole damn thing. He was about to say something, anything to change the subject, but when he looked up at Jack, he flinched visibly. Whatever caused Roland to feel unsettled about Jack’s presence just got worse.
Jack stopped before he could start. His tone inflected with righteous indignation to one of concern. “You okay, buddy?” He reached over to Roland, who was rubbing his left tear duct with a pinky finger.
“Yeah, fine. Just got something in my eye,” Roland sighed. He sipped his coffee. “Y’ know, Jack, I’m gonna tell you something. Something I ain’t never told no one else. Something I’ve kept secret for forty years now,” Roland declared, his demeanor serious. “I ain’t as strong as you think I am, Jack. I almost did it.”
“I almost killed Vivian and Sal the night I caught them together,” he told him in a conspiratorial whisper.
“Are you serious?” he practically shouted.
“Keep your voice down, jackass!” Roland snapped.
“You almost offed the two of them?” Jack said, lowering his voice again. He looked around, making sure Mona and Leon didn’t overhear them. They simply went about their business.
“After Vivian and I were married and moved in together, my uncle Joe gave me a pistol. It was a snub-nose 38-caliber revolver. He gave it to me to protect Vivian and our home,” he explained.
Roland drank some coffee then continued.
“It wasn’t long till I learned about Vivian and Sal. The signs were there – like how Viv would always work late at the furniture factory. She had the afternoon shift but sometimes wouldn’t come home till three in the morning. It didn’t sit right with me.
“I didn’t know what exactly was going on until I decided to find out for myself. One night I parked down the block from where she worked and waited to see what time she left.”
Roland took another sip of coffee. He paused, savoring the taste, leaving Jack in suspense.
“Go on,” Jack encouraged.
“Vivian left the factory at nine p.m., long before she told me she’d leave. She got into the Plymouth her parents bought her and I followed. She drove to the Lamp Lighter Motel on 35th Street. Remember that dive?”
Jack nodded. “Yeah. It's abandoned now.”
“Anyhow, she pulled up to the building and parked next to a blue Sedan that sat in front of Room 114.”
Roland’s rheumy eyes filmed over. They had a faraway look in them as he relived this trauma for what seemed to be the hundredth – no, the thousandth – time. Even though the passage of time dulled the sharp pain of the memory, it still hurt. However, he was proud of himself that he wasn’t screaming about it now the way he did for so long.
“Sal opened the door. It was the first time I saw his ruddy face. Vivian kissed him on the mouth, waltzed right in, and closed the door behind her.” Roland took a deep breath, continued. “My heart dropped, Jack. It fell a thousand feet into a pit. All I could feel was jealously, hatred, and anger… I couldn’t take it. I went home for the pistol that was meant to protect her.” He smiled wistfully at the irony. “I was gonna use it to kill Vivian and the man she was with.”
Fountains of emotion came springing up from Roland’s chest, rooted in memory. His eyes were shiny. He sniffed, then took a deep breath, comforting himself.
“When I came back to the Lamp Lighter, armed with the gun, Sal was just leaving. He got into his car and drove off, probably to go fetch a late night snack. Who knows? Who cares? Vivian’s Plymouth was still there. I knew she was inside waiting.”
Roland opened up his sketchpad, turned to a blank page, and started drawing frantically, the harsh sound of the pencil scribbling on the paper seemed loud in the nearly-deserted eatery.
“As soon as Sal was gone, I parked in his spot. I knocked on their door. My hand grasped the gun so hard that my knuckles turned white,” Roland explained, still sketching away.
“‘Back so soon, honey?’ Viv says from inside, thinking I was Sal. She opened the door and found the snub-nose pointed at her pretty face. I marched in, slamming the door behind me. Vivian tried to scream, but only gasped instead. She took a couple steps backward towards the bed and its soiled sheets.”
“‘Yes, honey, back so soon,’ I tell her. ‘How could you do this Viv? How could you?’ I demanded.” Roland’s hand accelerated; his pencil racing across the paper almost of its own volition.
“‘Roland… Roland, please stop. Don’t let him make you do this. Don’t let him.’” When she spoke those words, she didn’t look at me. Her eyes were fixed on something behind me instead.”
“‘Don’t let him do this?’” Jack echoed. “She meant Sal, right?
“No. She was talking about someone else. Something else.”
“What do you mean?”
“She told me… she saw a monster.” He was still drawing, impossibly faster now, but didn’t look at what he was doing.
“Saw a monster? You mean you, Roland? Because of what you were gonna do?”
“No. She said she saw a monster. Standing behind me. She didn’t scream. She just stared at it, mouth hanging open, and an expression on her face I ain’t ever seen on a human being. I didn’t believe her… I wasn’t that dumb. I didn’t look behind me… I just kept the gun on her face.”
Still drawing, Roland continued his tale. Jack listened raptly, his eyes widening.
“When I moved forward, I noticed a mirror to my right… I looked into it… and I saw it, Jack, the thing in the mirror…the monster…the demon…just like Viv said. It was standing behind me all that time only I couldn’t see that damn thing – but she could.”
Mona came by, gave Jack his food, regardless that he was oblivious of it. She warmed up both of their cups. Roland nodded his thanks and didn’t resume speaking until she was out of earshot. However, not once did his drawing hand waver.
“It was standing behind me with its arm stretched forward, alongside my arm. Its hand clutched my hand, guiding me, holding the revolver with me, pushing me to do it. It was using my anger and jealousy as a means for me to pull the trigger and splatter Viv’s brains all over the room.”
Roland finished his drawing, turned the sketchpad over but didn’t put down his pencil.
“In the mirror, I saw its face. Then it looked at me… it turned its head and looked at me in the reflection.”
Roland snapped the pencil in two, he held it that tight. He turned his sketchpad over, looked at his work, and nodded, keeping it away from Jack.
“You’ve got to be kidding me, Roland.”
“No. It was then I knew what it was trying to do. It wanted me to kill them and then myself. That’s why I didn’t go through with it Jack. I ran right out of that flea-trap and didn’t look back. Not once.”
“I don’t know if she ever told Sal what happened that night. I divorced Vivian and tried to forget her. All of it. But every time I see the detective, I’m reminded of the thing in the mirror.”
“I’ve never heard anything like that before.” said Jack, looking alarmed.
Roland showed him his drawing. “Here’s what it looks like. It’s been forty years and I can still see it like it was an hour ago.”
It was a sight that haunted Roland’s dreams for many years following that night. The face was horrid yet indescribable. Its eyes were blank white surfaces with no visible pupils, yet somehow, even though it was just a drawing, seemed to be looking right through him.
Jack made a face and turned away.
“Jack,” Roland began. “I need to ask something of you. Something important.”
“Whatever it is you got planned tonight…don’t do it.”
“You know what.”
“No, I don’t know.”
“Don’t play coy, Jack.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“I know what you’re going to do to your boss for firing you. The monster… the thing in the mirror… it’s standing behind you.”