When I was a kid, I played with mirrors. I was convinced that if I was fast enough, stealthy enough, something enough, I could make it so the reflection was different from the reality on my side of the mirror. That I could trick the mirror into showing something that wasn’t truth.
My fascination with mirrors continued as I grew up. I studied the way they were made, and the way reflections happened. The way the shape of the mirror could alter what was seen in it. The more I learned about them, the more I wondered if my early childhood games didn’t hold some seeds of truth.
Which is how I wound up doing my graduate work on mirrors and the physics of reflections. Which is how I wound up in the lab when, well. Easier if I just tell you.
The experiment that changed everything started off as goofing around, the three of us playing “what if” with the kinds of ideas you get when you’re a kid: What if there really is an opposite world behind a mirror? What if you can walk into its reflection, breaking the surface as easy as diving into a still pool? What if you can walk into onemirror and out of another?
What if becomes something more when you have lab space and a research grant, when you’ve spent grad school studying quantum entanglement and positing the existence of pocket universes.
So then it wasn’t just goofing around, late-night discussions over one too many beers, spinning theories like telling stories; it was Lara and Zack and me in the lab, trying to see if there was anything on the other side of the mirrors and how we could get to it, to figure out how to reflect whatever might be there back to us.
I couldn’t imagine Lara doing any other sort of work. She seemed almost as if she was made from mirrors. Glass-pale and sharp-angled, she was the kind of person it could be stressful to be friends with: her reflection of you was uncompromising, and always less flattering than you wanted it to be.
I stuck around anyway. There’s something compelling about the discomfort of that sort of reflection, like the relief of picking a scab and seeing the healed skin underneath. Plus, she was a brilliant scientist, utterly driven. It was like she could see the constituent parts of the universe in the same uncompromising and sharp-angled way that she saw people.
Zack and I had been friends for what felt like forever, but was actually since our freshman year of high school. He was the person who knew me best, the person I could share anchovy pizza with at three in the morning, the person who also wanted to know how the small pieces of the universe fit together. The person I went to for everything, because I knew he’d help me see things clearly.
The mirrors weren’t the hook for him. Zack wanted to know if there were other universes behind their reflective surfaces. If there were, he wanted to go to them. I didn’t. I wanted to know if they existed, of course—I had a theory that you could modify the mirror equation to measure their location the same way we measured objects’ reflected distances now—but I liked it here. There is comfort in known qualities.
Which was why it was going to be Zack standing inside the mirrors that day, and I would be on the outside of them, recording observations and making adjustments as Lara tried to capture his reflection. And yes, I mean capture, not just see. That was part of the idea: that if we could separate a reflection from the reflected object, it could more easily travel between the mirror universe and our own than a physical object could. We were hoping that if it worked, the connection between Zack and his reflection meant that he’d be able to provide us with specific observations of what that mirror universe was like.
“Are you worried about what might happen to your reflection?” I asked, ducking under his arm to turn on the lights as he held open the lab door.
“What, like it’ll get caught in the mirror and never come back?”
“Or maybe that it likes it there so much, it decides to stay.”
“Wouldn’t happen,” he said.
“You’ve been talking about how cool a mirror world would be since we started this. What do you mean, it wouldn’t happen?”
“Well, my reflection might want to stay, but you would reach through the mirror and pull its ass out.” He grinned, and we got to work.
Lara had been setting up the mirrors in increasing numbers. First, there had been two full-length mirrors, framed in wood that looked almost red, Zack between them. Then she put him at the center of an equilateral triangle.
“No good. I’m still catching bits of secondary reflections,” I said. We were after a clear image, not a reflection of Zack, plus a spare reflection of one of his arms.
“Are you sure you don’t need me to actually do anything?” Zack asked.
“Just stand there and look pretty,” Lara said.
Zack struck an exaggerated runway model’s pose.
I laughed and helped her turn the triangle into a square, the muscles in my back and shoulders grumbling as we rearranged the heavy mirrors.
“Remind me again what you’re going to do with his reflection if you catch it,” I said.
“I have some thoughts.”
“She’ll clone me and all my fabulousness.”
“Wrong field, Zack,” I said.
But four mirrors wasn’t the right number either, and neither was five.
Lara and I were moving opposite mirrors. Had we stopped and stood in front of them, I would have been reflected in hers, and she in mine. Then we set them, six-sided as a snowflake.
“I can see—” Zack began, his whole body taut, electric.
A great shattering. Particles of mirrored glass falling through the air like snow. When they settled to the ground, the space at the center of the mirrors was empty.
Zack was gone.
All the way gone. Disappeared.
I flung my arms up and shouted, my stomach knotted into surprise and delight. We had done it. We had really done it. Forget capturing his reflection, we had skipped that step completely, done what we’d only barely hoped might someday be possible, and sent Zack somewhere else, another world maybe, through the mirrors.
They were destroyed. Shattered. Not one piece of glass left in a frame. Which meant that whatever there was to connect Zack to here, to us, was gone.
The knots of my emotions twisted from delight to concern. I stepped toward the broken mirrors.
Lara shouted from the other side of the room, startling me into stillness. “It probably can’t happen again without the reflections, but.” She pulled one of the mirrors to the side, breaking up the snowflake symmetry.
“Still,” she said, face flushed, eyes shining, her excitement a heightened reflection of mine. “Look at what we did!”
“It is kind of amazing,” I said. “Kind of completely amazing. But we need to bring him back.”
“Right,” Lara said. “It’s no good to us if all we can do is make someone disappear. A stage magician can do that. So we need to figure out what happened here, exactly. That should give us some idea of where he is, and what to do next.”
So we spent the day taking measurements, recording every factor of everything we could think of that might possibly be useful, and then, when we were as certain as we could be that we had the data we needed, gathering up the enormous piles of glass that sat at the foot of each mirror.
“Are you seeing the same thing I am?” I asked.
“All the pieces are broken in the exact same shape,” Lara said. “A hexagon, just like the mirrors were.”
“Any idea what it means?”
“Not yet. I want to run some basic tests.” After those tests were run, we put the pieces in marked, labeled boxes.
“Are you okay?” Lara asked.
“You keep staring at the center of the room.”
Where Zack had been standing when he disappeared. “I guess I keep hoping that whatever we did will spontaneously reverse. That he’ll just be . . . back.”
“I don’t think it’s going to be that easy.”
She was right, of course.
I dreamt about Zack that night. It made sense that I did—there were certainly reasons for him to be on my mind. But the whole thing was deeply unsettling. Memories appeared in still images like photos, then froze over and shattered: painting our faces blue and white for Spirit Day our freshman year of high school, making popcorn in a pressure cooker for our first-year physics lab in college, splitting a bottle of champagne the day we found out we’d both gotten into grad school here.
When the pieces fell, they fell like snow, one after another after another after another, gone, until I stood in a blizzard made from the pieces of our past. And while I could see his footprints, tracks clearly visible in the fallen heap of memories, I couldn’t follow them, couldn’t find him.
I woke up shivering.
I didn’t get any warmer when I got to the lab the next day.
There was snow falling steadily in the center of the room where the mirrors had been, over the precise spot where Zack had disappeared. I held my hand underneath, to check and make sure it really was snow, not just falling pieces of mirrors. Flakes landed, chilled my skin, then melted away into small drops of water. I scrubbed my hand against my jeans.
“Lara,” I called, coat still on. “You probably want to come here and see this.”
I heard her footsteps stop when she saw it. “That’s unexpected. Hang on. I want to record this.”
Outside the lab, it was early fall. The day was predicted to be sunny and in the upper sixties. We hadn’t even had a frost warning yet.
Inside the lab, there weren’t any clouds or anything that might have given a clue as to where the snow was coming from. It was just there, starting about a foot above my head and falling to the ground. I hugged my armsaround my stomach, chilled.
“Frozen in reflection,” Lara said as she checked gauges, took samples.
“Reflection,” I repeated, the word setting off a train of images in my mind. “Do you think the snow is coming from wherever Zack is?”
“I think that’s the most likely possibility. We did ask him to send back any impressions. You know how he is. No matter how weird things were, he’d try to stick as close as possible to the plan of the experiment.”
“And so he’s sending us snow.”
“Either that, or sending him through weakened the barrier between the mirror universe and ours to the point where we’re experiencing their weather events. Either way, it’s interesting,” she said.
I stood in the falling snow, perfect six-sided flakes reflecting the light, and pushed the memory of my dreamaway. That hadn’t been real, and dwelling on it wouldn’t help. “It is interesting, but watching it isn’t bringing Zack back.”
“I thought we agreed the best way to do that is to figure out where he went—I’m running your modified mirrorequations now—and determining the source of the snow could help do that. There may be trace elements in it that will offer some data.”
“I’m not so sure that’s the best way to find him anymore. I think I need to concentrate on him, not his location.”
She shook her head, dismissing the idea. “You can’t bring him back if you don’t know where he is.”
“I think I can,” I said.
Lara looked at me.
“Spooky action at a distance. I re-create as much as I can of the circumstances of his departure, and see if by acting on the mirrors I’m able to act on him wherever he is now in a way that pulls him back through.” It was the same sort of large-scale entanglement we’d hoped for with the original experiment—the captured reflection being held in the mirror, with Zack here to influence it and relate its experiences—just reversed. Well, reversed and complicated by the fact that it was a person, and not a reflection, that had been captured. Complicated by a lot of things, actually, not least of which was that spooky action at a distance hadn’t yet been proven on anything larger than a particle.
Lara shook her head. “It’s a stretch. Too much of one. I’m going to continue with the location work.”
“I understand,” I said, then went down the hall and got out the boxes of shattered glass. I did understand, and I felt better that we were coming at the problem from two different directions. It was more likely that something would work.
As I sorted through the pieces of the mirrors, I realized they weren’t clear reflections anymore. They held color, lines, fragments of pictures that didn’t change. It might not have been Zack’s reflection that we’d caught, but we’d captured something.
I let myself hope.
I set the glass back into the mirrors, very carefully. I didn’t want to glue it in, or introduce any material that might interfere with the mirrors’ connection to Zack. The glass itself was cold, so cold my bones ached after ten minutes of work, and I had to take frequent breaks to rewarm my hands.
It took me days—days while Lara continued to run equations and tests, marking formulae on the mirror in her office in grease pencil, using her own theories to look for Zack—to sort enough pieces of glass to fully see it, but not only had we captured reflections, we’d captured six different images, one in each mirror. Pictures of Zack, frozen in crystals of time. Some of them I recognized—like the one of him disappearing, shock and delight reflected on his face.
Some of them I didn’t. There was one that was him from the back, in the same clothes he had worn in the lab, faded jeans and a black sweater with a pull on the hem. He was walking through a snow-covered forest. In another, Zack knelt at the feet of a woman whose face wasn’t visible, passing a small piece of glass into her hand.
There was a tiny piece missing from one of the mirrors. A thin shard of glass in one of the images of Zack that I did recognize, from the day we had all begun working in the lab. The missing piece was right over where his heart would be. I looked all over the tables, dumped the boxes where the pieces had been stored upside down, but nothing fell out.
Lara found me, what felt like hours later, knees bruised from crawling back and forth across the floor. “What are you doing?”
“There’s a piece missing.”
“It’s not missing. I know exactly where it is.”
I picked myself up off the floor and followed her down the hall.
The piece of glass was broken, cracked in two down the center. “I found it the day he disappeared. I set it aside because it was the only one broken differently from the others, and I wondered if that mattered—like maybe the shattering started with this piece. I’ve been running tests on it, checking baselines against the measurements we took of the other pieces the day they shattered. That’s why I had it in here.”
“Were you planning on giving it to me?”
“Once you needed it, of course.”
The two halves fit together perfectly, but they didn’t fit into the mirror. When I set it in place, all the pieces of glass from that frame fell to the floor. I looked around, making sure the other five mirrors were still intact, coils of tension releasing from around my stomach when they were. I dropped to the floor, searching with shaking hands through the pieces of glass to make sure none of the others were further broken or chipped.
“Did you do anything to the glass when you tested it?” I asked.
“Of course not, but that doesn’t mean it’s unchanged. We are working in fairly unknown territory here. If you don’t mind, I’ll run a few more tests while you put the mirror back together.”
“Go ahead. Just . . . be careful.” I couldn’t shake the feeling that if something happened to the pieces of themirror, we’d never be able to get Zack back.
Hours later, the rest of the mirror reassembled, I went to get the twice-broken piece from Lara. She looked puzzled. “There’s something unusual about it. Nothing that should have changed its size or the way it fits into the image—I measured against the others—but there’s a crystalline lattice inside its two halves, and I don’t recognize the structure. It’s not normally found in mirror glass, and it’s not present in any of the other pieces.”
The internal change shouldn’t have made a difference, but it did. I placed the other pieces Lara had been testing in the frame without incident, but when I put the two broken halves in place, all the pieces of glass fell out of the mirror again.
It felt like something fell out of me with it. All those hours of work, lost again, meaning even more hours awayfrom being able to even try to bring Zack back. I was terrified that one of these times, the strange luck that kept the other pieces from breaking further wouldn’t hold, or the pieces would fall out of the five other mirrors, or. I didn’t even know what other disaster to anticipate.
“What am I going to do?” I scrubbed the exhaustion from my eyes.
“Go home,” Lara said. “Warm up—I can see you shaking from here. Start again tomorrow with a fresh eye.”
Good advice. I hated taking it.
It was still snowing in the lab when I came in the next day. It had gotten colder, too. Measurably colder, cold enough to leave a rime of frost on things in the lab.
Though not the mirrors. The five that had all their pieces still stood, showing the captured images. I spent most of the day putting the glass back in the frame with the missing piece, my hands aching from the cold.
The snow fell faster as I worked, hard enough that it was difficult to see the mirrors through it.
“I want to set the mirrors back into place like they were when Zack disappeared,” I told Lara. “See if it will bring him back, even with the missing piece. The rest of the mirror holds together without it.”
“It’s unlikely to work,” she said.
“Then it doesn’t. And we can try something else next. But we need to try this now. I’m worried about the obscuring effects of the snowfall, and if there’s something important about their precise location, it’s not like we can just set them up in another area of the lab.” I could hear the desperation in my voice. So could Lara.
“Fine,” she said. “Maybe the temperature shift is a signal of some sort. Let’s see what happens.”
Lara and I arranged them back into the standing pattern, six sides, like a snowflake. We set them in place so that with the final two, we would have been reflected in each other’s, had there not already been images of Zack there.
We stepped back, and the temperature in the room plummeted. There was a great howl of wind and snow, and I could hear the shriek and groan of the glass in the mirrors.
The snow cleared, and Zack was there.
He was dazed and cold—blue framing his lips and edging his fingernails. His hair was rimed with frost, and snow coated his clothing. He blinked against the lights, rubbing hard at his eyes.
He was here. Safe and whole, for all that he stood frozen in my arms as I hugged him, tears of relief freezing in the corners of my eyes.
But that wasn’t the end of it. It soon became clear that while Zack had returned, he wasn’t the same. It was like his personality had been left behind, or frozen out of him. He was flat, not all the way here, a blank stranger dressed up in Zack’s clothes.
And there was nothing that stranger wanted more than to go back to where he’d been.
“Let me see the equations again,” he said to Lara. “Maybe I can see where you’re going wrong.” He spent all his time in the lab—there before either Lara or I were in the morning, staying long past when we left, running numbers, poring over notes from the experiment that had disappeared him.
“Does he talk to you about it? Where he was, what happened?” I asked Lara. “Because he doesn’t talk to me.” Not about being there, not about anything. If I was lucky, he’d say hello. I’d asked him about the images in the mirrors, and he said that they already showed me all I needed to know, and walked away.
“He lets bits and pieces slip when we’re working. Like, he said it was snowing there. But he won’t answer direct questions about it. He thinks it was something in the mirrors themselves that helped him pass through.”
“And that’s why he couldn’t come back until they were reassembled,” I said. “There might be something to that. And the missing piece might explain why he’s been so strange since he came back.”
“He’s not strange; he’s just focused.”
“The kind of focused where he doesn’t remember to eat meals or leave the lab or interact with other humans. You know that’s not like him. There’s something different. I think something may have happened to him while he was gone. I mean, the other day, I brought him anchovy pizza, and he picked the anchovies off.”
Lara looked at me out of the corner of her eye. “I don’t think good taste in pizza is grounds for assuming there’s something wrong with him. We sent him to another world, remember? People change for all sorts of reasons, and that’s a pretty compelling one to me. But it’s nothing more than that. Stop trying to see something that isn’t there.”
I started staying overnight at the lab. Poring over all the notes the three of us had generated since we first started talking about the idea of a world behind the mirrors. Reading journal articles that theorized that time could be captured and crystallized, trying to see if I could find anything in them that would match up with the crystalline structure in the broken mirror piece. Staring at the frozen images of Zack in the mirrors, trying to parse the mysteries of the ones that were unrecognizable.
Trying to understand what had happened. To understand why all of Zack hadn’t come back.
I wasn’t the only one staying at the lab at all hours. Zack stood at the center of the mirrors, the puffs of his breath frosting the glass. That was the other thing that was different about Zack now—he was cold, all the time, as if the snow was falling inside him.
“What do you see?” I asked.
“I see a place I need to go back to, a place I should have stayed.”
“Why?” I asked, my heart breaking over the question.
“Because I was myself there. My true self. Look in the mirror—you can see how I really am.”
I couldn’t, though—the mirrors no longer showed new reflections on their surfaces, only the images of Zack that had been frozen there when he disappeared. So all I saw was a flat copy of my best friend, a piece missing from his heart. This was someone so changed and cold that there was nothing left of the warmth I remembered.
Still. Maybe he could see something I couldn’t. “How about me? What do I look like in the mirror?”
“I don’t think I can see you,” he said. “There’s no part of you there.”
Days had passed now, but snow still fell, in that space at the center of the mirrors. It felt like a door left open.
I was still trying without success to decipher the crystalline lattice in the twice-broken piece of mirror. It looked, I thought, almost like snowflakes, like a pattern of frost. Frozen in reflection.
I pinched the bridge of my nose, closing my eyes.
Maybe, I thought, maybe if I melted it. I put it on a plate and lit a Bunsen burner underneath it. After a couple of minutes, I heard Zack shout from the other side of the lab, crying out that he was burning, something in his shirt pocket, burning his chest.
I turned off the burner. Heard Lara ask if he was okay, heard him say it had stopped.
I looked at the pieces of mirrors again after they had cooled. There was no change. The heat that burned Zack from across the lab hadn’t been enough to melt the crystals.
I put my head down on the lab table and cried.
It wasn’t science, what I did. I couldn’t replicate it in a lab. I don’t know why it worked, and most of me didn’t expect it to. But I was desperate.
I stood in the center of the room, where the snow fell, and I held the broken pieces of mirror in my hand, and I filled them with reflections.
I thought about the time, sophomore year of high school, when my period had bled through my jeans, and Zack hadn’t said anything, hadn’t even blinked, just shrugged out of his ever-present flannel shirt, giving it to me so I could tie it around my waist and hide my embarrassment.
About the time we had taken the railing off the wall to get the couch out of his floor of the rental house, and watched as it shot down the stairs, out of the front door, and across the street because both of us thought the other had a grip on it. How both of us had nearly fallen after it, we were laughing so hard.
The time I said I missed seeing the stars, and he drove me into the Florida Keys, so I could find them.
I stood and reflected on all the things that were the way I saw him—his laugh, his enthusiastically off-key singing, the way he emptied his pockets for any homeless person he passed—and snow fell around me and froze my breath and my tears, and then I filled the small, missing piece of Zack’s reflection with the mirror I held in my hand.
The image in the mirror changed—it became a woman’s face, crystalline and beautiful as snow. She held out her hand, and on it, there was a piece of a mirror, six-sided, like a snowflake.
As I watched, it melted.
She closed her fingers over the emptiness, looked at me, and nodded. Her image faded.
The snow stopped falling.
I heard the door to the lab open and looked over to see Zack, standing outside the ring of mirrors. I walked back through them, to him. He smiled, really smiled at me, for the first time since he’d come back, and rubbed his hands across his eyes.
“Sophie,” he said. “You’ve got to come see this. I’m working on location calculations, when one of the mirrors in my section of the lab decides it’s like a slideshow or something. It showed me all these old pictures of us.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Like the day we met, and the day we started class here, and, oh, in undergrad, the day we were mad scientists for Halloween! Remember?”
I did. “That was fun.”
But when we went into the lab, the surface of the mirror was clear of everything but the expected reflection.
Zack shook his head. “I guess I’ve been working too hard. I must have fallen asleep and had a dream that seemed so real I needed to tell you about it.”
“Stranger things have happened,” I said.
“Right?” He grinned. “Hey, I’m starving. Want to go grab some pizza?”
“With anchovies?” I asked, hoping so hard for the right answer.
I glanced back at the mirror—now whole—as we left, and I saw the change in the reflection. Over his heart, on the pocket of his shirt, there was a fading spot of water, like what might have been left by melted snow.
Kat Howard: Mirrors have always seemed sort of magical to me. When I was a little girl, I used to play the same game with my mirror as the narrator plays with hers in the story’s opening. I would try to somehow outrun my reflection, wishing that if I just moved fast enough, I would be out of the frame of the mirror, and she would still be there. I wasn’t quite sure what would happen after that, but I knew it would be amazing. Then, right before I got the invitation to write a story for The Starlit Wood, I read a physics article about the possibility of time crystals (which, sadly, almost certainly don’t exist). So when I needed to think about rewriting a fairy tale, my brain mashed up mirrors and crystals and said, “Hey, let’s try ‘The Snow Queen’ with science in it.” My favorite part of “The Snow Queen” was always the mirror. That strange mirror that broke into pieces and fell like snow and changed what people saw, that melted like ice—I loved everything about it. I was shocked when I reread Andersen’s original, at how little page space the mirror took up, because in my memory, it was this huge thing, the focus of the story. So this was also my way of altering the story’s reflection to show my favorite pieces of it.