“Ooh, Ib, is he there?”
Ib jerked in surprise; she hadn’t even heard her sister come up behind her. “Too loud, Mary,” she murmured, glancing out from under her bangs at her classmates. Luckily, most of them seemed to be engrossed in other paintings (or stupefied with apathy. With high-schoolers, it could often be hard to tell) and didn’t turn to look at the two of them.
“Well sorry!” Mary said in a play-whisper, and giggled behind her hand. “I didn’t realize it would bother you so much.” A lie, of course, but Ib didn’t bother taking offense. That was just how Mary was.
“Anyway,” she continued, this time in a real whisper. “Is he?”
“One moment.” It was a crowd scene, painted in blues and reds and vibrant purples, so it was taking her longer than normal to seek him out.
(He would be there, of course. Like the sun rose in the east every morning and the planets circled the sun, he would be there.)
“Ah.” Ib let her finger stop on the bottom left corner of the painting, where a street vendor was selling fresh-cut flowers in every color of the rainbow. There, among the customers thronged around the stand, stood an elegantly dressed man with purple hair examining the petals on a bouquet of roses.
“There,” she said. “I found him.”
When Ib and Mary were little, they’d thought it was normal. They’d even made up stories about the strange purple-haired man that everyone from Da Vinci and Michelangelo to the man at Disneyworld who sold caricatures for ten bucks a picture (fifteen for color) had thought to work into their art.
(“He’s a time traveler,” Mary would say, laughing. “He went back into the past and made friends with all the famous artists so they would put him into their paintings.”
“Don’t be silly,” Ib would respond, frowning.
“Yeah? What’s your theory, then?”
“I think—I think that once, a long time ago, a really good painter painted him into his painting, so that when all the other artists saw it they wanted to put him in too. And now everyone puts him in. Like a signature.”
“Hmm. I still like my idea better!”)
It wasn’t until one day a few years ago—they were twelve, Ib thought, or maybe thirteen—that they realized that the man wasn’t so normal after all. They’d been having the old argument again, (this time Mary was trying to argue that he was a vampire who was trying to make up for the fact that he couldn’t see himself in the mirror), and they had decided to take the argument to the one person who always knew best.
“Mom!” Mary called loudly, stomping her way into the kitchen, Ib following close behind. “Mom, who is the purple man?”
“The who, honey?” she’d replied, chopping an onion as she spoke.
“The purple man. You know, from the paintings.”
Their mother stopped and turned to them, brow wrinkled in confusion. “What are you two going on about?”
“He just has purple hair,” Ib interjected quickly, trying to clear up the confusion before Mary could get indignant. He isn’t—he isn’t actually all purple.”
She’d expected that to be the end of it—her mother would go, “Ooh!” and make that face like she did when she’d unraveled a particularly difficult problem, then take them aside as she cooked and explain all about the purple man to them.
What she didn’t expect was for her mother’s brow to crease further. “Ib, honey, I don’t know what that means. Is this some game you and Mary are playing?”
“Mom!” Mary scowled. “You an’ Dad are always going to those fancy art exhibitions. Don’t you ever actually look at the paintings?”
“Of course I look!” her mother replied, sounding exasperated. “You know how passionate your father and I are about art.” She shot them a look. “And if this is a game, it’s a very silly one.”
“Mom.” Before she’d even fully realized what she was doing, Ib had run forward and grabbed a hold on her mother’s pant leg. She tugged as she spoke, pulling away from the kitchen.
“Ib, stop it! I’m busy with a recipe.”
“Just for a moment,” Ib said, “Just to the living room.” Something in her voice must have caught her mother’s attention, because she finally put down her chopping knife and sighed heavily.
“Fine, then,” she said, “But make it quick.”
Ib nodded. It would only take a second, she knew, to show her Mom the purple man and prove to her they weren’t being funny. Only a moment, and then the tight feeling that had been building in Ib’s chest since the moment her mother had first spoken would finally be able to go away.
Mary kept pace with Ib, uncharacteristically quiet, as they entered the living room. Above the mantle her parents had hung a watercolor of an idyllic country scene, painted in deep rich colors. The majority of the painting—stretching from the middle and up into the top right—was devoted to an elaborate rendering of a thick forest, all pines and vines and growing greens. The left, however, was a farm scene: crops grew on the rolling hills of the foreground, and tucked into the background was a small cabin with plumes of white smoke rising from the chimney. There, the purple man sat on the porch, throwing seed at the chickens milling around at his feet.
(He was very small in it, really. Just big enough that you could make out his features—the elegant coat, the piercing gray of his eyes, the shock of lavender hair. It wasn’t that strange that her mother had missed it, really it wasn’t.)
“Look!” Mary said, pointing up towards the cabin. And stopped.
The purple man wasn’t there. Chickens milled around the dropped feed, forever frozen in place, but the spot where the purple man used to sit was just… empty. Old wood boards and bare grey stone.
Their mother folded her arms and stared down at the two of them with a flat gaze. “Well?”
“Um,” Mary started.
“We’re sorry,” Ib interrupted, her voice just above a whisper. Her eyes were still glued to the little cabin, as if any moment the purple man would wander back into the scene with a fresh bag of seeds.
“Sorry!” he would say, laughing sheepishly. “I had to run inside and get some more.”
She could hear his voice inside her head, clear as though she’d known him all her life, and yet the picture didn’t move.
“We’re very sorry,” Ib continued after a moment. “We were just teasing. We’ll… we’ll go to our room and not bother you, we promise.”
Before her mother could get more than half a word out, she’d grabbed her sister’s hand and yanked, tugging her along behind as Ib fled back into their room. She closed the door behind them and pressed her back against it, breathing heavily. For a long moment, the two of them just stared at each other, eyes wide.
It was Mary who broke the silence first.
“What…” she said, and swallowed. “What was that?”
“Oh, yeah, I see him! You’ve got a good eye, Ib.”
They’d tested it, of course; Mary’s natural curiosity meant she’d never stop thinking about it otherwise. If it was just Mary and Ib together, the man would always be there, whether it was an a pleasant summer scene, a freezing arctic tundra, or even an abstract jumble of boxes and blotches and dots. When they were with someone else, whether it was their mother, their father, or just some random stranger who happened to be looking at the same picture as them, the man would be gone. (Ib could understand that, at least; the man was probably shy. She could definitely sympathize with the feeling of wanting to hide from the rest of the world.) The strangest part, though, was that when Mary looked for him without Ib around, he’d be gone as well. It was only her presence that could make him appear from whatever hiding place existed between all the different paintings of the world. For some reason neither of them could understand, he tolerated Mary, shunned everyone else, and followed Ib around like her own personal shadow.
Mary had been jealous when the first found out. (She probably still was, though she hid such feelings much better now.) She didn’t like the idea of Ib being able to do something she couldn’t. Ib, though, was just uncomfortable with the whole thing. She and Mary were twins, after all; their personalities might be opposite, but they’d still been together for the whole of their lives. Having this strange, unexplainable phenomenon separate them in such a way just felt…wrong.
“Ooh, hey,” Mary leaned in closer, examining the flower stand, “I think he likes the red ones.” She nudged Ib playfully. “Maybe he’s getting you a gift!”
“Don’t be mean,” Ib said with a frown. She’d hated red roses ever since she was a little girl with a disgust she couldn’t fully explain.
“Sorry, sorry! You know I love you. Seriously, though, he looks like he could really fit in this painting, doesn’t he? All these colorful people wandering around the city…”
Ib checked the plaque under the painting. “It says it’s a Guertena, so. He likes color like that.”
Mary recoiled. “Ugh, seriously? You should warn me about things like that, Ib!”
“You liked it just a moment ago.”
“Well, yeah, but that was before I knew who made it.” Mary crossed her arms and stuck her lip out in a pout. She had a bizarre hatred for Guertena, their parents’ favorite artist. Their mother was convinced she was only doing it for the sake of rebellion, but her dislike seemed genuine enough to Ib. (And plus, given her own pickiness when it came to flowers, it wasn’t like she had any room to comment.) “I mean, seriously, with an ugly name like that how could he possibly be any g—”
Mary broke off.
“Mary?” Ib asked. Normally it would take her at least ten minutes to wind down from one of her rants.
Wordlessly, Mary pointed to the picture.
In the bottom corner, the man in purple was moving.
His painted arm waved slowly, lazily. He was facing outward, towards the two girls, and his miniscule lips were moving. No sound came out, and his detail was so tiny there was no way she’d be able to read his lips, but somehow she knew what he was saying all the same.
“Ib?” he was asking. “Ib? Ib?”
Ib stepped back with a gasp. “What?” she asked again, slowly.
A feeling of aching loss welled up inside her. All of a sudden the gallery around her looked frightening, like the paintings on the walls were going to reach out and grab her and gobble her up. She had to protect her rose; if they got to it they’d kill her and mommy and daddy would never know what happened to her. There was something else she had to protect, too, something tall and warm and kind. It was more important than her own life, but somehow she’d forgotten what it was.
What was it?
What was it?
Ib snapped back to reality at the feeling of Mary’s arms wrapped around her. She was holding Ib in a tight, desperate hug, her face nestled in Ib’s shoulder and one hand stoking Ib’s hair.
“Shh,” Mary whispered, “Shh, shh. It’s okay. It’s all going to be okay.”
“Mary?” Distantly, Ib realized there were tears running down her cheeks. Her breath came in little gasps and her hands shook; she held on to the fabric of Mary’s dress in an attempt to steady them.
“Ib! Are you okay?”
“Y-yeah,” she said, feeling dizzy. “I think so. Um. Can we..?”
The other students were staring at Ib and Mary, expressions ranging from curiosity to pity to mocking. She felt uncomfortably like a zoo exhibit, or maybe as though she was one of the galley’s pieces herself.
“Oh,” Mary said, noticing the students as well. “Yeah. Let’s head to the bathroom, okay? Before some idiot calls for a teacher.”
Ib broke down completely in the bathroom, crying and shaking and gasping for air. Mary held her the whole time, the two of them curled up in one of the stalls to get at least a façade of privacy.
When Ib finally quieted down, the two of them left, late enough that they got yelled at by their art teacher for almost missing the bus home. (Mary threw the woman the middle finger, and promptly received two weeks detention. )
She held Ib’s hand on the way home, rubbing comforting circles across the back of her palm; something she hadn’t done since they were little kids. Ib kept her face pressed against the cold glass, trying to avoid the stares of the other students and Mary’s own pale face. She didn’t want to talk, not when she wasn’t even sure herself what was wrong.
When they finally got back to the school, Ib pulled Mary aside and whispered into her ear. “Um. Don’t tell Mom and Dad, okay?”
Mary nodded reassuringly despite the fear in her own face and squeezed Ib’s hand tighter. “Promise,” she said, and Ib smiled a little. Mary had her faults, but she would never break a promise.
“Ib!” Mary said, swinging her feet down over the edge of her bunk. “Are you excited?”
Mary scowled, peering down at her with mock-anger on her face. “You’re so dull, you know that? It’s only five more minutes! Try to be a little enthusiastic, won’t you?”
“Technically,” Ib felt compelled to point out, “We weren’t born until the afternoon.”
“Bah. That’s not the important part! Nobody counts to the exact minutes, anyway. I’m the boss here, and I say that in—” she checked the clock “—Four minutes we’re going to be sixteen!”
That, Ib couldn’t argue. Mary was unquestionably the leader in their relationship.
“I can’t wait to get my license,” she said, flopping back onto her mattress. “Do you think Mom and Dad will get us a car?”
“No.” From her position, sitting on her own bed, Ib could just see the bottom of Mary’s feet. It was all she could do to resist tickling them. “Definitely not.”
“Again.” Mary’s feet pulled up (much to Ib’s disappointment) and a moment later her head popped over the edge of the bunk. She grinned at Ib upside-down. Her hair formed a golden halo around her head. “Dull! So dull. I can hardly believe we’re related. It’s okay to dream a little, you know?”
“I dream,” Ib said grumpily, pushing Mary’s head out of the way and standing up, “Of you letting me get a good night’s sleep for once.”
“I said dream a little. You shouldn’t ask for such impossible things!”
Ib headed over to their shared dresser, opened the bottom drawer and pulled her lighter out. She’d picked it up somehow at some art show back when she was a kid; the silver coating was tarnished and nearly rubbed through in some places with how often she’d played with it, but its weight still felt solid and familiar in her hand.
“I should throw that away, you know,” Mary said lazily.
Ib giggled. No matter how often Mary threatened to get rid of the lighter or tell their parents about it, she’d never actually done anything to it. When she was younger, Ib had begged Mary not to every time she mentioned it, promising candy or pocket money or chores in exchange for her silence. Now it was more a friendly joke between them than anything else, a tradition as old as the lighter itself.
Ib flicked the cover open and closed as she thought, staring down at her hands. The man hadn’t moved again since they’d gone to that gallery nearly three months ago—sometimes, Ib was sure the two of them must have imagined it. Still, she couldn’t could help but tense every time she saw his frozen form in a painting. He’d gone from expectation to mystery in a blink of an eye, after all. Ib still wasn’t sure what to think.
Absentmindedly, Ib wandered across to the mirror hung on the back of their door. It was full-length and polished to perfection (Mary, surprisingly, was a clean freak) and reflected Ib’s body in the dim light of the desk lamp. She poked at her cheeks, ran her hands over her eyelids and through her hair, smoothed down her rabbit-print pajamas.
“What are you doing?” Mary asked from behind her.
Ib paused for a moment before speaking. “Have you ever thought about growing up?” Logically, she knew that turning sixteen was no different than turning fourteen or fifteen or seventy-three, but it felt… important somehow. Probably it was just Mary’s excitement getting to her, she thought dryly.
“Well, you were born thirty-five years old, and I plan to follow in Peter Pan’s footsteps. So no, I can’t say I ever really thought about it.”
Ib giggled at that. Absentmindedly, she held the lighter up next to her face and flicked on the flame. She wasn’t sure why, really; maybe she was just hoping the firelight would let her see herself in a new way.
“If you burn the house down on our birthday, I’ll never forgive you.”
Ib wasn’t listening.
The mirror wasn’t showing her room anymore. Behind Ib’s reflection there was only a foggy blackness stretching out, like some infinite corridor.
“What...?” Ib whispered.
There was a shape forming in the mirror, far away but drawing closer. Ib squinted, tried to make out the figure in the gloom.
Oh, she thought, Of course, as the man in purple stepped forward.
“Ib? What’s going on?”
He pressed one hand against the glass, looking down as though he could see her. His body was still strange, all paintbrush strokes and drawn lines like a gallery piece come to life. He stared right at her and mouthed the same words as he had in the gallery:
“Ib? Ib? Ib, help!”
She could hear a rustle behind her, then a soft thump as Mary jumped down out of bed. “Ib?” she asked again. “What’re you looking at?”
Ib ignored her—there’d be time to talk later. Right now she wasn’t sure that the man wouldn’t disappear if she turned her eyes away. Slowly, she reached out and pressed her free hand against his in the glass, a perfect mirror image. His fingers were larger than hers, but still strangely delicate; underneath the cold surface of the glass she could feel a faint warmth from the heat they gave off.
This time, she wasn’t scared. The feeling of his hand around hers was familiar and reassuring. Even if things were scary, it would be okay so long as she didn’t let go.
Carefully, she curled her fingers, watching as they disappeared through the mirrors surface to grasp his. His hand was warm, soft, and alive—nothing like she’d expected a painting to feel. She held his for a moment, steadying herself, then pulled.
Tugging on his hand was like pulling a treasure up from a sea of molasses. His hand came slowly, the mirror rippling around his arm as she dragged him through. On this side of the mirror, his hand looked different: as real and human as Mary or Ib themselves. She kept up the effort, straining and pulling until his arm was through past the elbow.
Okay, she thought, breathing heavily. Okay. I can do this.
Mary screamed, fear and pain and horror mixing in her voice. She’d never heard her sister sound that terrified before.
Ib jumped, her heart leaping into her throat, turned towards her sister, and very nearly screamed herself.
Mary’s arm was wrong. From the elbow down, her skin turned to paint, peach and tan and streaked with gold, a bizarre halfway-point between two dimensions and three. Mary was clutching it with her other hand, mouth open and eyes wide. “Ib,” she whimpered. “Ib Ib Ib help me please Ib.”
Ib jerked her attention back to the painted man, jerking her hand out of his grip like she’d been stung. For a moment he paused, grasping at the air where she’d been only a moment ago. Then he flattened his hand against the surface of the mirror and began to push, forcing himself through inch by inch.
Ib glanced back at Mary, whose arm was being eaten away for every gain the man made. Back to the man in purple (her man, she thought achingly), still desperately trying to pull himself into the real world.
And finally, down at her hand.
The first blow of the lighter’s hard metal edge sent a spider web crack through the mirror. The man jerked, and quickly pulled his hand back through; it must’ve been easier to go in than get out. She could see him from the other side, desperately shaking his head.
“Ib, no! Please Ib, please.” He mouthed. His hands looked like they were shaking. For a moment she thought she saw tears pooling at the corners of his eyes.
She quickly jerked her gaze away from him. If she looked again she wouldn’t be able to do this.
The second blow shook the door, rattling it so loudly she was afraid it would come off its hinges.
One more, she thought, and struck.
The glass fell from the mirror’s frame, leaving deep gashes across Ib’s exposed hand. She ignored the blood welling up and the sick, awful feeling beating in her heart; there would be time for pain later. Instead, Ib to Mary’s side, dropping to her knees next to her sister’s curled-up body.
Mary was sobbing, and she hugged herself like the pressure was the only thing keeping her together.
“Mary,” Ib said, grabbing her sister’s hand. “Let me see.”
“Ib,” Mary moaned, voice wild, and curled in tighter. “Ib, I’m sorry.”
“Shh.” Ib ran her uninjured hand across Mary’s head, feeling the sweat that stuck her thick hair together. “It’s okay. Mary. It’s okay. Didn’t do anything wrong. Just let me see.” She was dropping back into the fragmented sentences Mary had tried so hard to break her out of as a child. Part of her hoped Mary would notice, would frown and scold her like they were both little again. Like nothing was wrong.
Mary shook her head harder and gulped in a frantic breath of air. “No, Ib, you don’t understand. I—” she gasped, near hyperventilating. “—I did something horrible.”
More than anything, Ib wanted to call her parents, drag them home from their fancy late-night art party and make them come fix everything. But what would she say? “Mom, Dad. Nearly pulled a man through a mirror and probably just about killed my sister. I’m bleeding heavily. Please help us.” All that would do was get both her and Mary thrown in an asylum.
Instead, she just tugged at Mary’s arm again. This time she relented. Ib checked it over frantically: no brush strokes, no paint, no ink or pencil or paper. Just smooth, unbroken skin. Ib let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding and wrapped her arms around her sister, pulling her into a crushing hug. Probably she was bleeding all over Mary’s favorite pajamas, but she couldn’t say she really cared right now.
“Shh,” she whispered, rocking the two of them back and forth. “It’s okay. What did you do?” She wasn’t sure if Mary’s words were just adrenaline-induced delusion or an actual confession, but either way it was probably better to keep her talking.
“I don’t…” Mary’s voice broke. “I don’t remember! But it was bad. I know that much. Worse than the worst thing you can possibly imagine. I remember feeling so ashamed and I don’t even know why.” She hiccupped, tears staining the collar of her shirt, and buried her head in the crook of Ib’s shoulder. “I’m sorry,” Ib, she murmured, her voice muffled. “I’m so, so sorry.”
For a moment, Ib wanted to say that such an idea was ridiculous. That it was impossible to do such a thing and be unable to remember it. But she thought back to the way she’d felt when she’d first seen the painted man on the other side of the mirror, the voice in her head thinking friend about a man she couldn’t recall meeting, and suddenly she wasn’t so sure.
Instead she just clutched Mary that much tighter, like she could keep the shadows away with the force of her arms. “It doesn’t matter,” she whispered fiercely into Mary’s ear. “You’re my sister and I love you. No matter what you did, I’ll always, always love you.”
“Ib,” Mary said weakly, “Don’t go, okay?”
“I won’t,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere. Just… don’t worry, okay? Everything’s going to be all right. I promise.”
As long as they had each other, everything would be all right.