It was getting dark and Imogen wanted to stop for the night. The same conversation rolled around when she told Nick they should’ve made a reservation and he replied there would be vacancies everywhere. Imogen tried not to repeat herself again though she continued to worry about being stranded, because of the kids.
Behind her she could hear Lucy reading licence plates of each passing car, making up words with the trio of letters. When they’d left for home this morning it had been cute, even funny. Now it grated on her nerves and she wished guiltily that Lucy would shut up and fall asleep like her brother David in the baby seat beside her.
“Pea, kay, tea. Packet!” Lucy declared with four year old authority as a sedan bearing that licence combination passed them. Her attention moved onto the next car. “Bee, bee, el. Bubble!”
“What’s the name of the next town, again?” Imogen asked, trying to put Lucy’s piping voice at the back of her mind. She knew she’d already been told but she was tired and it was hard to think.
“Grant Creek,” Nick replied, pulling into the turnoff lane. “We’ll stay there the night.”
“Thank God,” Imogen muttered and Nick smiled at her, his hazel eyes sparkling in the fading light. She knew he found her impatience amusing. She wondered how almost nothing could rattle him. It was a skill she’d tried to master as long as she could remember. Whenever he told her not to worry it was like she’d lost yet another battle. She was anxious about everything; the kids, their careers, not having a reservation.
“Eff, you, sea—“
“Lucy!” she said crossly, then realised her daughter hadn’t yet said anything to go with those letters. “Um, do you want a chocolate?” Nick snorted laughter and she gave him a warning look which he conveniently missed.
“Chocolate?” Lucy repeated, her interest piqued. She’d forgotten about the letters but when Imogen checked the glovebox there were only empty wrappers. She shouldn’t have interrupted the natural progression. What did it matter if Lucy said the swearword? It wasn’t like she’d never said it before. It had been harrowing the first time around though, and Imogen didn’t want Lucy to regain her fascination with them. She’d been embarrassed enough when Lucy had said every swear word she’d learned for two weeks. It had been enough time for Imogen to grow weary of the disapproving stares from other mothers.
“You can have one after dinner,” she promised, hoping Lucy would be content with this. Lucy cheered softly, wary that her treat might be taken away if she woke up David beside her.
“Did you see that sign back there?” Nick asked with a broad grin. “It said ‘Welcome to Grant Creek, Queensland. Pop two thousand something.”
“Pop,” Lucy said in the back seat with a giggle.
“Pop is short for population,” Imogen explained. She wondered if Lucy would continue questioning but didn’t.
“Would a town that small have a motel?”
“Every town has a motel,” Nick said in a reassuring tone. “I’ll bet it’s above the public bar.”
“That’s a hotel, not a motel,” she corrected him, wondering if she wanted to walk the kids past a bunch of drunks.
Two high pitched beeps sounded out of Imogen’s handbag at her feet and she removed her phone from it.
“There’s no service,” she said worriedly. She looked out the windscreen at the road as it headed deeper into the bush. “The GPS won’t work.”
“It’s okay, honey. GPS will still work even without a signal. It’s not like we’re in the middle of the bush, either.”
The calm tone that had calmed her nerves before now made her feel like she was being patronised. She was about to snap a reply when the first few buildings began to show. They’d arrived in town but when Imogen checked her phone, there was still no service.
Nick drove down the main street, which had no other traffic on it.
“There aren’t any people around,” he said. She wasn’t too surprised, as a township like Grant Creek likely couldn’t offer much by way of attractions.
“Maybe they’re at home watching television,” Imogen said wryly.
“Maybe ‘Peppa Pig’ is on!” Lucy suggested.
Nick laughed and nodded. “Maybe it is, Lu.”
They drove on in silence for a few minutes.
“Huh,” Nick grunted and pulled over. Imogen didn’t know what he was looking at. She couldn’t see anything particularly odd. There were a few more houses, some trees and the road ahead.
“What is it, Daddy?”
“It’s the end of the town.” Nick turned to Imogen apologetically and she understood what he wasn’t saying.
“There’s no hotel, is there.” She meant it as a question but it came out as a statement.
“Do we have to sleep in the car?” Lucy asked, excited at the prospect of camping in the car overnight. Imogen couldn’t match Lucy’s enthusiasm.
“We might’ve passed it,” she suggested with a positivity she didn’t feel.
“Let’s turn around and check again,” he said and reached over to touch her knee before performing a U-turn that took up the whole road. “Where is everybody?”
“It’s after six, they’re all inside their homes because it’s getting dark.”
Nick glanced at her but said nothing.
Lucy yelled out behind them, causing David to grumble and stir in his seat. “There’s a man! Look!” She pointed ahead of them, her finger accusatory but helpful. “He can tell us where the hotel is!”
“Lu, use your quiet voice,” Nick said. Lucy immediately hushed, likely she was still anticipating the chocolate she had been promised.
Imogen looked at the man as Nick drove toward him. He was standing underneath a bright yellow awning, the type Imogen had seen only in Hollywood movies depicting ‘quaint little towns’. He was bent slightly forward, leaning on a cane. He wore a dark shirt and long pants, clothes that she didn’t expect to be worn in this hot climate. Then Nick moved the car to the side of the road and pulled up beside him. Imogen saw this man was leaning on a cane.
She rolled down the window as the man watched from his position on the footpath. She wondered why he wasn’t coming up to the car. Surely he could see that they wanted to talk to him?
“Excuse me,” she began and waited for the man to acknowledge her presence before continuing. He cocked his head as if puzzled that she was addressing him. Undaunted, she went on. “Could you tell me where the hotel is around here?”
The man remained silent.
Nick leaned over in his seat and spoke to the man himself.
“Is there a hotel in this town?”
The man shook his head. He shuffled closer to the car but stopped within a metre of it. Then he smiled and Imogen was amazed by the number of wrinkles that lined his face. At her first guess she would’ve put him at eighty but now it looked as though he was at the century.
“You can go on to the next town,” the man said in a voice that was surprisingly deep and robust. “That’d be Shepherd’s Knot, but they got their farm show on so I don’t like your chances.”
Nick settled back into his own seat and Imogen threw him her ‘I told you so’ look because she didn’t want to say it. The man approached the car and bent down so he could look through the window. Imogen felt uncomfortable being so close to him, uncertain as to why. There was nothing distasteful about him.
“I got a phone in the shop if you want to call around,” he offered with a smile.
“Thank you,” Imogen said and as Nick switched off the engine she opened the car door, careful to give the old man time to move away. She watched as Nick rescued David fro the baby seat, the eighteen month old awakening from his nap. Imogen unplugged Lucy from her booster seat and had to stand back as Lucy hopped out herself and close the car door on her own. She didn’t like things done for her.
“The phone’s on the counter at the back of the shop.” The man grinned at Imogen and gave her a sly wink. “You can let your kids run wild Mrs, they won’t break anything.”
Imogen didn’t like the implication that her kids were the type to ‘run wild’ but she smiled politely as Nick replied for her.
“I seriously doubt that.’ He gave Lucy a warning look and settled David more comfortably on his left side.
“I won’t break anything.”
“Daddy—” Lucy said painfully. Nick smiled at her to let her know he was only joking but Imogen could see that their daughter was still upset.
“The name’s Joe,” the man said as he turned to enter the store. Despite his presence of the cane and the shuffling movements he’d made earlier, Joe strode into his shop. He had a slight limp on his left but it was hardly noticeable. Imogen wondered if his previous motions had been ingenuine and why he would fake something like that.
“Wow,” Nick breathed upon entering the shop. Imogen followed closely behind with Lucy’s hand in hers. When she saw what was inside the small shop, she paused in awe at her surroundings. Lucy took her chance and pulled away, immediately losing herself in the aisles.
It was a curio shop. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen anything that even resembled what she was seeing now. The closest she’d ever come to being in a place like this was after her eighteenth birthday when her mother had dragged her to a house where a woman gave palm readings. The house that the woman lived in had been filled to the ceiling with strange items; from potions to voodoo dolls and from tarot cards to crystal balls, but compared to this shop, that collection would have died in shame.
From where she was standing directly in front of the door, she could see nearly everything within the shop. On her left were sculptures of dragons, wizards and castles with spiralling towers. Beside those were articles of furniture; chairs and tables with gremlins carved into the legs, or rocking chairs with snake carvings. Out of the corner of her eye she could see suits of armour and ancient weapons beside them. The collection wasn’t only extensive, it actually looked complete.
Twice, as she investigated the aisles, an item caught her eye and she reached for it. Both times she stopped, not knowing what it was that held her back from picking it up. She likened it to a magnet; as though it promised to make a connection with her but they ended up polar opposites instead and she was repelled at the last minute.
“Jen?” Nick’s voice woke her from her reverie. “Are you coming?”
“Let her look, let her look,” Joe’s voice drifted from the back of the shop. “These things should not be rushed.”
“Coming,” Imogen called and hurried over in the direction of where the voices had come from. She couldn’t see them and yet the shop was so tiny. Like an overflowing cupboard.
She walked carefully down the centre aisle, feeling displaced. The strange sensation had begun to fall on her as soon as she entered the shop and as she walked further, she felt more and more like she’d travelled back in time or to some parallel world where she was living a completely different life—as though she’d pursued a different career path, met a different man, had different children with him. She’d forgotten why she wanted to go to the back of the shop but knew she had to get there.
A man in his thirties stepped into view at the end of the aisle. He was attractive, with brown hair and hazel eyes. He held a chubby little boy in his arms and it was from looking at David that Imogen was jolted back into the present. She looked back at Nick and decided not to mention that she hadn’t recognised him for a moment.
“You must’ve had a good look around,” Nick told her.
“A couple of minutes isn’t much time for a good look,” Imogen replied, wondering why he was rushing her. He still had to call the hotel.
“You took more than a couple of minutes, Jen. I booked a room at Shepherd’s Knob and got caught up talking with Joe. I thought you’d be pissed at me for taking so long.”
“Language,” Imogen said habitually as she turned to look out the window, but the shop’s items covered her view. She looked at her phone instead and was stunned to see it was half past six. Where had thirty minutes gone?
“I’ve booked us a room, it turns out that—”
A shriek caused Imogen’s heart to leap as she recognised her daughter’s cry.
“Lu?” she called out worriedly, hurrying along the ends of the aisles and looking up each one. “Lucy?”
“I found something!” Lucy said, her delight now apparent in her voice and Imogen could feel herself relaxing a little, though she didn’t give up on her frantic search. She’d had the strange idea that something in the shop had hurt Lucy on purpose. She found Lucy halfway up an aisle kneeling in front of a mirror. She was running a hand lovingly over the sculptured gold frame.
“Isn’t it pretty?” she asked. “Can I have it for my room?”
“It might be too expensive,” Imogen said, joining Lucy in front of the mirror. Their reflections looked back wonderingly, capturing all of the light in the room and reflecting it back in a way that gave it depth.
“How much is it?” she heard Nick asking. Imogen quickly glanced around the frame but there was no obvious price tag. Joe didn’t appear to need one.
“The flawed diamond mirror, eh?” he said. Imogen was puzzled that a rectangular mirror would be named such a thing. “That one’s a hundred and fifty.”
It was a fantastic price, for the quality. Everyone was silent and Imogen felt the anticipation mount until she couldn’t hold back any further.
“We’ll take it!”
She tore her eyes away from her reflection to see Nick gaping at her. She wasn’t usually the spontaneous one, the spend-thrift, the compulsive buyer. She’d never found anything she wanted more than this mirror, though.
“Looks like both ladies have luxurious tastes,” Joe said with a chuckle. He began to move past Nick but as soon as he got within sight of David—still in Nick’s arms—their son began to scream and fight.
“What the hell?” Nick asked, struggling to hold onto him. “Davy, stop it!”
Joe quickly backed away and David’s tantrum instantly ended, the only evidence it had even happened where the streaks of tears down his cheeks.
“Do you take credit cards?” Imogen asked, sure that Joe would at least have a machine for EFTPOS. She was shocked when he shook his head.
“I’m afraid it’s cash only.”
Imogen was astounded. Who operated on a cash-only basis nowadays? She only had a fifty dollar note in her purse and doubted he would let her have the mirror for so great a discount. Nick set David down and pulled out his wallet. He pulled out a fifty and a twenty then shrugged at her.
“Would you let us have it for a hundred and twenty?” she asked, giving her best smile to Joe and hearing the hopefulness in her own voice.
“I can do that, Mrs,” Joe agreed.
Imogen handed the money to Nick who in turn handed it to Joe. She picked up David who’d moved over to cling to her legs, surprised that he hadn’t poked, pulled or tasted every item on the shelves.
“I’ll get the kids sorted,” she said.
Lucy hopped into her booster seat on her own and David was surprisingly placid when she clicked him into place.
“Can I have my chocolate now?” Lucy asked as she was harnessed into place.
“At the hotel,” Imogen said and was relieved when Nick exited the store carrying the mirror. He popped the boot open and Imogen watched him lay it across their suitcases.
“Do I have your approval?” he asked her. Imogen wasn’t sure whether Nick was in a good mood or not. He was smiling but sometimes that didn’t mean he was pleased. Perhaps he was annoyed at spending so much money on the mirror. If this was the case, damn him. He was the reason for their money problems, not her.
“Yes,” she said, in case his question was innocent. They both got into the car and left Grant Creek behind.
Their room at the hotel was surprisingly spacious and the kids were exploring every bit of it. They seemed glad to get out of the cramped confinement of the car. Nick was lying on the bed scrolling through news apps on his phone and Imogen had pulled out her book to finish reading. She couldn’t concentrate, she was stealing glances at the partly shut bathroom door. The mirror was in there because she hadn’t wanted to leave it in the boot of their car. She’d insisted it come up to the room with them and Nick had complied without comment. For some reason unbeknownst to her, the intense desire to have it near her was now foreshadowed by a growing concern that it wasn’t a natural, normal piece of glass.
She’d asked Nick to put it back in the car but he’d protested that she was being unreasonable. After some arguing that had started out softly for the kids’ sake, Nick moved the mirror into the bathroom. He’d had to do it himself because she was worried that she would fall under its hypnotic spell again.
A delighted squeal sounded from the bathroom; the same sound Lucy made when she’d discovered the damned thing in the first place. Nick and Imogen both moved at the same time to investigate, when David came barreling out of the bathroom. He slammed into Nick and attached himself to his father’s legs, screaming. Imogen was spooked by the contrast—why was David so terrified when Lucy sounded so gleeful?
Imogen took a few more steps to the bathroom door but Lucy made an appearance, holding something in her cupped hands.
Her mind jumped on a few different ideas what it was Lucy held. At first it looked like a lightbulb that was somehow lit up by itself. Then it looked like a piece of coloured crystal. When Lucy’s fingers moved around it, Imogen was startled by her impression of a giant eyeball.
“I found a diamond,” Lucy said enthusiastically. When she held it up, Imogen’s mind made the final connection and she could understand what she was looking at.
“Where did you get that?” Nick asked, prying a sobbing David off his leg. He shifted the boy to one side and ignored his cries in order to inspect the diamond in Lucy’s hands. Imogen reached out to comfort him but David headed for the safety of the bed instead, crawling beneath it.
“It has a light blue flaw in the centre,” Nick said to Imogen, who was caught between going to her frightened toddler or inspecting the thing Lucy had found. She knew David was safe where he was, that he felt secure so she moved to her husband and daughter. She looked at the diamond in Nick’s hands and saw the peculiar imperfect sphere in the middle. She reached out to touch it but Nick moved it away from her outstretched hand. He ignored the sharp look she gave him.
“Where did you find this?” he demanded. Imogen recognised the glimmer in his hazel eyes and the anxious tone of his voice—it was excitement. Pure, greedy excitement. She’d seen it on his face when he’d won big at the casino last year. She’d heard it in his voice when he’d told her he could win it all back after losing it all. It was never enough. There had to be more. This trip was supposed to remind him that his family was more valuable than some plastic chips. It was supposed to show him what money could buy, instead of a dealt hand or a spinning wheel of red and black.
“In the mirror.”
Imogen didn’t doubt her daughter’s words but had trouble comprehending them. How could something like a diamond come out of a flat surface like a mirror? But she knew. Even as she made herself ask the logical questions in her head, she knew. It was the reason Nick had called the sphere in the centre of the diamond a ‘flaw’ instead of something more descriptive. He’d used that word because Joe had used that word.
The flawed diamond mirror.
“Come look!” Lucy ran back into the bathroom and Nick followed. Imogen hurried in after them, unable to talk because all of the spit in her mouth had disappeared. The light was too bright in here; it made her feel tingly and surreal. There was only one thing on her mind; keep her daughter away from the mirror. She had to grab Lucy and run.
She froze instead when she realised the light source was coming from the mirror itself. Nick knelt down in front of the mirror and set the diamond down on the floor. With both hands he gripped the mirror and spun it around to look at the back.
“What are you doing, Daddy? Why is he doing that, Mummy?” Lucy asked, swapping her questions from Nick to Imogen. She eventually grew silent when not given an answer. Imogen knew what he was looking for; he was looking for the trick. He was trying to figure out why the mirror was projecting light. Imogen could see a small line of black writing in the corner.
“This makes no sense,” Nick said.
“What does it say?” Imogen wasn’t sure if he was talking about the writing or the fact the mirror seemed to be glowing all by itself.
“Two flaws must be replaced by one.”
“Is it a riddle?” Lucy asked.
“Yes, honey.” Imogen was certain the line was a riddle. Or a warning. “Let’s just leave it alone, Nick.”
Nick ignored her and turned the mirror back around. The bathroom was washed with the ethereal light of the mirror once again.
“How did you get the diamond, Lu?” Nick asked. When the answer didn’t come fast enough he shouted at her. “Lu, pay attention! How did you get the diamond?” he pointed at the large gem on the floor.
“It’s in the mirror, inside. I could see it so I reached in and took it.”
The explanation was simple and horrific. Imogen shook her head but Nick was intent on seeing the results for himself.
“Don’t!” Imogen screamed and yanked Lucy close to her. Normally Lucy would object or cry but she was silent as they both watched Nick reach his arm all the way in to his elbow. It was like looking at an illusionist performing a very smooth trick but she knew there was no trick here. Just magic. When Nick reached in further, all the way to his shoulder, Imogen couldn’t keep her silence. “Nick, for fuck’s sake!”
“I have another one!” Nick shouted. Imogen wanted to join David underneath the bed. If this was what he’d seen Lucy do, then she could understand his terror. She remained where she was, knowing that if she stepped out of the bathroom now, she would take the kids and go.
Nick finally pulled his arm out of the mirror completely and was holding a diamond with a light blue flaw in the centre, exactly like the first one. He set it down beside the other and was about to reach in again when Lucy’s scream stopped him.
“Only two, Daddy! Only two!”
Imogen was still holding onto her daughter but now she looked frantically around the bathroom for something to smash the mirror with.
“It’s okay, honey. That means one left,” he said to her in his matter-of-fact voice. Imogen made a move for the drawer, to see if there was a hairdryer inside—or something equally weighty to smash against the mirror—but Lucy gripped onto her tightly, restricting her movements.
It was too late anyway. Nick had rolled the dice again and reached into the mirror a second time. A second time for him but he’d gambled the warning meant each person, not overall. He couldn’t be happy with two huge diamonds that were probably millions of dollars each. He couldn’t be happy with the life he already had. He couldn’t be happy with one thing when he knew there was more to be had. She’d always known that about him but tolerated it, because his greed hadn’t made him selfish. He was a flawed man.
Imogen thought she understood, which was how she managed to grab him before he was pulled into the mirror by some unseen force. She had a hold of his middle and could feel herself being dragged towards the mirror, which had widened somehow to allow entry for Nick’s broad shoulders. Imogen could feel a warmth radiating out from the mirror. The light was now so bright that she had to screw her eyes tightly shut. She screamed for Lucy to close her eyes, for many different reasons.
Her grip was slipping. She could feel it sliding from his waist and down to his thighs. She tried to hold on but now the heat was searing her face. Nick was kicking out with his legs which made her job a great deal more difficult. She felt small hands gripping the sides of her shirt and knew Lucy was trying to help. It was still no good. Imogen was being dragged toward the mirror herself as well as her daughter.
Her grip slipped completely and she was thrown against the tub with Lucy between her and the porcelain bath. Nick’s legs were disappearing into the mirror and the light had gone from red to pink. She lunged for him and managed to get his ankle. He was mostly still now; one of his legs was twitching and she tried not to think about what that meant but she could feel her her throat cloying with sobs.
She thought about breaking the mirror anyway but now she wasn’t sure she could— whatever she smashed against it would likely travel through to the other side.
The other side, where Nick was going right now.
Whatever was pulling Nick was very strong because it was pulling her in too. She was aware she’d have to either let Nick go or be pulled inside after him, leaving her children behind. It wasn’t an easy choice but she was spared from making it as her grip on Nick’s feet was wrenched from her.
“No!” she yelled. Tears streamed down her eyes. She groped around in the mirror and her hand bumped against something cold and hard. She grabbed it and pulled it out.
When she looked at it, the warning made a horrific kind of sense.
Two flaws must be replaced by one.
What she was holding was a diamond.
It had a hazel flaw in the centre.
© Delia Strange 1996, All rights reserved.