Annabelle knew that something lived in her mirror, but no one would believe her, all because of Susie and her stupid stories.
It was a big mirror that stretched to over double her height, and about double her width as well. It leant, unfixed – which was why she was never to touch it – against the stretch of wall to the left of her bed, set in a slender frame the colour of bitter chocolate, and one day, Annabelle got the distinct feeling that it was looking at her more than she had ever looked at it.
From then on, she realised that it watched her all the time; from the second she stepped into her room, until the second she ran back out, heart thumping and skin tingling with panic, it's unseen eyes were fixed upon her.
She'd done what she'd thought was the sensible thing to do, and had told her Mummy that there something was in her room that shouldn't be there. Mummy had been soothing at first, giving her soft-voiced pep talks on how she was perfectly safe, and how that anything nasty would be chased away if she just went and told it that it wasn't welcome.
Annabelle had spent almost fifteen minutes shouting at the mirror, but nothing had happened. Mummy had smiled then, and gone back downstairs, happy that her mission was accomplished. Annabelle was left to stand and stare at her own reflection, knowing that it was still not quite right.
When the complaints continued into a second week, Mummy began to lose patience.
"Enough, Annie," she'd said when Annabelle had told her, for the third time in one night, that the mirror was making funny noises. "This is getting silly now. We've looked in the mirror, and there's nothing there but you and me."
Annabelle had given up trying to explain herself after that. Mummy just didn't understand. Instead, she found every excuse possible to avoid going into her room, from loitering in the landing to making trips for glasses of water that lasted for anything up to forty-five minutes, depending on how fast Mummy caught her. She even tried sneaking into the guest room once, to sleep in there instead, but when Mummy found her in there, she got very angry. So angry, she told Annabelle that if she ever did it again, she'd lose her television time for a week.
One night, Mummy had really shouted at her, and ordered Annabelle to go back up to bed and stay there. She hadn't even given Annabelle a chance to open her mouth and protest, which was, in Annabelle's opinion, most unfair. She'd trudged up the stairs, intending to go back to her room, as told, but had stopped when she reached her door.
It was slightly ajar, just as she had left it, but what bothered Annabelle was that the room was dark, which was not how she had left it. Once the sun went down, Annabelle was never without the light of her beside lamp, not even on her bravest of nights.
Annabelle didn't like to think of herself as being afraid of the dark. While it made her far nervous than she would care to admit, she didn't shy and scream at being plunged into a little bit like some girls (and boys), but she did always like to know how to make the dark go away at the flick of a switch.
An uneasy twist in her gut told her it was going to take more than mere flick of a switch to bring back the lamp's reassuring glow this time.
With a tentative finger she pushed at the door, edging it into the shadow. She could see the switch for the main light, gleaming bone-white on her wall in the light from the landing. Perhaps, if she could reach this switch without touching a single toe on the carpet of her room, everything would be okay.
Even though she shuffled right to the very edge of the landing carpet, the light switch stayed just out of her reach.
She stretched as far as she could, and spilled her water down her front as she did so.
The shock of the sudden cold hitting the front of her nightie made her stumble forward, straight onto the shadow-black carpet of her room.
A light flickered on. Once more, her room looked as it should, bathed in a warm, yellow light. For a moment, she wondered if the light had ever gone off at all - it was very late after all, and Mummy always said that Annabelle had a very silly imagination when she was tired.
Then the light blinked, as though the switch had been flicked on and off within the same second. Annabelle looked at her lamp – the one at her bedside was cold, grey and dead. The one reflected in the mirror, however, was bright and twinkling.
By the time Annabelle had her next proper thought, her feet had carried her back down the stairs at high speed, panic brimming in her chest. Shaking from head to foot, she headed towards the lounge door – Mummy would have to believe her now.
She came to an abrupt halt when she heard Mummy say: "It's not like her to lie."
The door was open a small fraction, enough so that if Annabelle pressed her eye to the long, narrow gap left in the doorway, she could just see the tops of two heads rising up above the back of the sofa. One blonde and shiny– Mummy's – and one dark and fluffy– Auntie Gloria's.
Gloria wasn't Mummy's sister, but came over all the time. She always kept Mummy up watching television and talking about stuff Annabelle didn't understand, no cared to try. However, right now this was not the case at all.
Annabelle listened as to each murmur and rasp of their conversation with all the concentration she could muster.
"But that's all she seems to do these days," Mummy said. "Is it because I'm not giving her enough attention, or is she turning into one of those horrible little girls who like to tell tall-tales for kicks?
"I don't know. I feel that the way I handle this phase of hers is going to be crucial, and I can't help thinking that I'm doing everything wrong."
"Come on, Claire."
That was Auntie Gloria –
"You always think you're doing everything wrong, and more often than not, everything turns out fine."
"I played along, and she only got worse!"
Mummy sounded angry.
"Every night, it's a new story about that stupid mirror. She even tried telling me that it's started to make tapping noises whenever she tries to sleep. What am I supposed to say to that?"
Annabelle's chin wobbled – she bit her lip to try and stop it as a teary haze clogged her eyes. She knew Mummy didn't believe her. She'd known right from the beginning that Mummy wouldn't understand, but to hear her sound so angry about it, and to hear her call her a liar made Annabelle feel angry as well as dreadful.
"She probably doesn't think she is lying," Gloria said.
Her dark, curly head bobbed up and then down as she moved around on the sofa.
"She has such a strong imagination, it's likely that she believes she's seeing and hearing something there. Houses always make strange noises at night, and they can get misread so easily by little ones."
"She's nearly eight years old. She's hardly a little one," Mummy said.
"She's little as far as I'm concerned." Auntie Gloria chuckled. Annabelle could hear the clink of glass hitting glass, and a gurgle of liquid, as Gloria's head dipped out of sight. "You wait until she's as old as my Susannah, and still telling stories to anything that will listen. That's when it's time to start pulling your hair out."
Annabelle knew the short silence that followed, as the top of Gloria's head bobbed back into sight, was not a good one. It made everything inside her tummy clench and squirm.
"Stories?" Mummy asked in the light, quiet tone she tended to use before shouting. "What stories are those?"
There was a creaking as Auntie Gloria shifted on the sofa.
"Oh you know, silly ones...she tries to tell them to me all the time, but I don't listen. It's all stuff she's got from the telly. Silly moose always tries to pass them off as her own, just because she changes a few names and places."
"I don't suppose she would have been telling any of these stories to Annabelle, would she?"
"Would that be a problem?" It sounded to Annabelle like Auntie Gloria recognised that tone of Mummy's as well.
"I don't let Annabelle watch telly." Mummy sniffed. "I only let her watch videos. Then I know what she's seeing."
"Keeping the kid on a diet of Disney and lies then?"
"She can watch anything she likes, so long as I know there's no horror or violence in it."
Auntie Gloria made a nasty sound, somewhere between a cackle and a cough.
"I know your idea of violence! Morgan wouldn't approve."
It sounded like a joke, but Mummy didn't seem to find it funny.
"Morgan's not here," she snapped, sounding so strange that Annabelle wasn't sure for a moment that it had been Mummy that had spoken.
"I know. Sorry sweetheart, I didn't think."
They went silent, for a very long time, both heads turned to look at the television screen. Whatever it was they were watching, it was in black and white, with people all dressed in suits and tight dresses – something Annabelle had no interest in, but she strained her ears anyway to try and make the blurry murmurs the black and white people were making into recognisable words.
She didn't do very well.
Auntie Gloria suddenly spoke.
"Have you ever spoken to Annabelle about-?"
"No," Mummy said.
Annabelle sat in puzzlement for a moment as that short burst of conversation sank into her skull. What hadn't Mummy spoken to her about?
"Does it have anything to do with you?"
"Yes it does – sort of."
"She's never asked," Mummy said, after a short pause.
"She's never asked why she doesn't have a Dad?" Auntie Gloria didn't sound like she believed Mummy at all, and she had a right to. Annabelle pushed against the gap in the door until the hard wooden edge started to press a neat, straight groove down the side of her face; she had asked Mummy about where her Daddy was, several times, and had never gotten a straight answer, not ever.
The issue of the mirror and the lamp forgotten, she waited for Mummy to say more, holding her own breath so that its growing volume didn't distort what she heard.
"No," Mummy said. "Could you send Susie over here tomorrow? I want to check what she's been telling my daughter."
There was a weighty pause.
'I'll get her to drop by before she goes to school,' Gloria said, her voice flat and glum. There was another clink of glass.
'Damn, this bottle's empty. Shall I go and get another?'
The top of Mummy's head jiggled as she nodded, and Gloria was up on her feet all too soon, and making her way to the door. Had Annabelle not been pressed quite so hard into the gap, she would have been able to pull away, and slip, unnoticed into the dining room (strangely enough, the dark in there did not bother her nearly as much) until Gloria had got whatever it was she wanted from the kitchen. As it was, she was leaning too far forward, and the instinctive jump caused her to slip on the flat pile of the carpet as she tried to propel herself backwards, and she found herself splayed on the floor, in front of a stunned Auntie Gloria.
She looked odd. Surprised and angry all at the same time, with her heavy eyebrows shot up in arches and her mouth pursed. Annabelle half expected her to tell on her, but instead, the woman just pointed at her, and then repeated the same stabbing gesture towards the stairs.
The message was simple:
You. Bed. Now.
Annabelle tried to speak, but had barely begun to form the word, 'But – ', when Auntie Gloria pulled a very nasty face and repeated the gesture with double the force.
This time Annabelle obeyed, scampering the stairs and along the landing with her well-practiced silent steps. When she got to her door, she stopped.
The lamp was on again, on both sides of the mirror this time, as it should be, and without letting herself pause to think about it, she rushed into her room and dove straight beneath the covers.
She then lay there, eyes screwed up tight, refusing to turn and look to the source of the occasional, but ever so deliberate little tap, knocking on the wrong side of a sheet of glass, until her head could take being awake no more and she drifted off to sleep.