4870 words, short story
Whose Face This Is I Do Not Know
I glance in the glass wall’s reflection. It faces me twenty feet away as I walk up the stairs, marble slab steps showing grainy pink underneath my red sneakers. My fingers clutch the railing’s chrome. I’m feeling shaky, that internal quiver where your body announces that it may not be up to this.
I focus on my image. Is my hair longer now? The eyes wider, bluer? The lips, are they swinging towards bee-stung or thinning?
Thinning, it seems to me, but other people move in and out of the building in the morning sunlight, interrupting the reflection.
They dress like beetles, shells blue and black and brown. The woman coming towards me eyes my clothing: faded t-shirt, jacket like thick black leather armor, unremarkable jeans. Past her shoulder my hair is bright curly blonde. I force a matching smile and trot up the stairs.
The elevator. Watery bronze strips bordering more slabs of pink granite, bronze circles around the buttons, loose with age underneath my touch.
Definitely thinner lips. A wave of red is creeping up the hair too, overtaking the blonde. Ragged edge, a fractal line. Some hairs must change faster. I wonder if it is always the same rate.
I am a marvelous machine, a wonder of the Universe.
Hettie is dead. My nose stings with repressed tears.
Dr. Basil’s administrative assistant Mindy sits typing at an expanse of gray and pink desk, a vase of white flowers near her elbow. The surface of the vase is matte clay marked with combed lines.
At first her look is sharp as she says, “Can I help you?”
Something in my silence tells her who I am. She makes a silent oh of surprise.
In her eyes, tiny images of me, too small to make out details.
“A.J.?” she says hesitantly. “A.J., is that you?”
She thumbs the intercom on her desk. “A.J. is here.” Wonder edges her voice.
Dr. Basil’s tone is flat and unreadable on the intercom. “Send A.J. in.”
When I first enter, he is standing by the window, a long rectangle that reaches from floor to ceiling to frame winter clouds. He makes an abortive move towards me, catches himself and goes to sit behind the desk. He motions me to a seat.
The chair is too low to the floor and would be difficult to get out of quickly, so I perch on the edge, resting my weight on my legs. On the desk a brass monkey holds a globe up overhead. The monkey’s face is sad. Two images of me dance on his shiny cheeks, distorted by the metal’s shape. Both of me are tiny, insignificant, but we are there. Small mechanisms. I am a wonder of the Universe. Hettie said so.
“The newspapers reported Ms. Stillson’s death,” he says after precisely two silent minutes.
“It was icy and Hettie slipped,” I say.
“Where were you?”
“In front of her house. I went away before anyone could talk to me.”
Tension leaves his shoulders at the words. “Good,” he says. He looks at me. “Female, are you?”
“Since Friday,” I say. “Well, earlier than that, I think.”
He nods again. “And the degree of change is still infrequent? Small changes at a rapid pace, but the major shifts, sometimes weeks or months apart?”
“I haven’t noticed a change.”
He hesitates, staring at me as though he were hungry, as though I were reminding him of someone. “Any other odd . . . episodes?”
“No. I haven’t imagined I was becoming anyone else,” I say.
He looks disappointed but nods. “Would you like something to drink? Hot coffee, tea?”
“Could we send out for a pizza?” I say. “I haven’t eaten in a couple of days.”
Twenty-five minutes later, the spices of a triple meat pizza burn their way down my throat. At first my stomach doesn’t want to take in so much, but I concentrate and it relaxes enough to let me gorge.
I don’t know when the next meal will be. It’s all been moment to moment for so long, and Hettie’s death makes it all even more uncertain. With the thought, acid roils along my throat and I wash it down with gulps of soda, full of sugar and caffeine that my body stores away.
I keep an eye on myself in the window. My hair is creeping back to black, leaving an odd silver line across it. My eyes are definitely droopier, sadder looking than when I came in. A new fullness to my cheeks.
Dr. Basil goes out to talk to Mindy. I don’t mean to listen, but I do. It’s hard to avoid in this form, when every nerve and sensory ending seems so alert. The beast still lingers underneath the human skin.
“What now?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” he answers.
A silence before she says, “Will you turn it in to the authorities?”
“A.J.? No. No, I wouldn’t do that.” But his voice is thin and unconvincing. I imagine his eyes flickering towards the door, trying to warn her that I might be hearing them. Am I imagining it or do I know this? I can’t tell any more. I wipe the thin red grease from the pizza on the box’s lid, fingertips leaving oily arcs.
“It’s been three years,” she says. “Over three years.”
“Only two days since Hettie died,” the doctor says. “That will be why she came back. It came back.”
Hettie would have never called me it. But Hettie was never maternal. She was like a rock, a boulder awakened to life by some wizard, pragmatic and wise and given to thinking in a not precisely human way. I know there was a time before I came to her, but I only dimly remember it, as though remembering that I had remembered it once.
We used to go out walking in the woods, looking for sassafras root or mushrooms. There are few mirrors in nature, particularly in the woods. It didn’t matter whether I looked different coming out than I had going in. I could give up looking at myself.
She lived on the edge of a nature preserve, Pinhook Park. With the trimming back of the Parks Service she and other people trespassed as deep inside the forests of the park as they liked.
When I’d realized what I could become, that was where I’d gone. For three years I lived in Pinhook’s woods. I don’t remember much of the moments there. There’s a difference to non-human existence, as though everything were deeper but some key emotions were missing. It felt peaceful sometimes, sure, but other times it felt cold and shitty and damp and hungry above all else.
Finally I’d become aware that I was moving away from that form. I found myself naked on a bank of frost-covered grass one day and thought, “All right, I can pass now.”
An ice-glazed puddle reassured me that I could re-enter the world without too much notice. My nose was still too large but my ears had shrunk back to human size, and my teeth were moving back towards omnivore.
I stole clothing from a Goodwill drop-off box, an outfit assembled of too large jeans and a black hoodie. No socks, but luckily, happily, red sneakers just my size, as though the Universe were applauding my decision to come out of the woods and be human again.
Like I had much choice in the matter.
Hettie hadn’t said much when she saw me sitting on her front steps, waiting for her. The snow blanketed the grass, framing the sight of her straw-colored hair topped with a blue knit cap. Sunlight glinted on the snow and water dripped from the eaves of the house in a slow, steady cadence. Behind her on the street a white van rolled past and continued. The air smelled wet and cold.
Recognition in her eyes. How did she know me? Was there something that persisted in showing, beneath all the forms, the boys and girls and in-betweens that I had been?
“Hettie,” I said. “It’s me, A.J.”
“I figured you’d come back some time,” she said matter-of-factly. Hettie’s imperturbability had been a standard of my childhood. Maybe that was why Basil had picked her to raise his experiments. I’d never asked how she came here, or what she thought of me.
She motioned me inside. Enough mirrors in her house that I could catch glimpses of myself. I seemed to be stable, not making any dramatic changes other than the movement back to the human. The house smelled of pine and floor wax. Hettie had always kept it immaculate. Orderly.
She set out clean towels on a chair by the bathroom door. “I’ll fix dinner,” she said, leaving out unnecessary words to pat my shoulder. “Welcome home.”
When I came out of the shower, toweling my thin brown fur dry, I stared into the mirror, committing every feature to memory. Like meeting a stranger you are promised to, a bridegroom or a bride. But who will die right after the wedding, never to be seen again.
Hettie knocked on the door, interrupting my reverie. “Come out and eat. Your clean clothes are here outside the door.”
In the kitchen, she sat across from me and stared. She’d heated two cans of tomato soup and set out a sleeve of crackers and cheese slices beside my bowl. My stomach rumbled at the sight.
“You know I have to call him,” she said.
“Yes’m,” I said. I ate quickly at first, but slowed as I became sated. With every bite of soup, it was like I was ingesting sleepiness. I hoped I could make it through the entire bowl before I crashed face down.
I did but I don’t remember much of her taking me up to my room to sleep. Only the drum of the rain, a glimmer of drops on the windowpane, tinting the streetlight’s shine to silver.
In the morning, sun sifting through the window woke me. I lay there luxuriating in the warmth and feel of the sheets against my skin. The bed smelled of soap and ironing and a trace of lavender. My face, checked in the bathroom mirror, looked increasingly human. Nice to wear my own clothes again. Hettie had laid my glasses by the sink. Funny, I’d had no problems with my eyes all the time I was gone, even though their shifts had plagued me all through childhood.
Downstairs, Hettie was making toaster waffles. Butter and syrup sat out on the table with two Starbucks containers of coffee, one large and one small. I picked mine up and sipped it. After months of no caffeine, it rocketed through my system like being slapped.
“Where were you?” she asked without preamble.
“Near here, Pinhook Park,” I said.
She raised her eyebrows. “All that time?”
I nodded. “That’s how long I was . . . whatever that was,” I said.
“Looked like a big bear at first,” she said. “Like that was the destination, anyhow.”
“Did you call Dr. Basil?”
She flipped waffles onto a plate for me and started a couple for herself. “He wants you to come in this morning, after breakfast.”
“Not wasting any time.”
“It’s been three years, A.J.,” she said. “Or did you notice that, when you were off being Bigfoot?”
“I don’t think I was ever really Bigfoot,” I said. “Maybe a werewolf.”
“A very slow one,” she said. “More waffles?”
I shook my head, even though I wanted them. I didn’t want to be sluggish. “When does he want me to come in?”
“Now, if you’re ready.” She looked at the bus schedule magneted to the refrigerator. “The 545 comes in about 30 minutes.”
Outside, a layer of ice coated the trees, the sidewalk, the grass, as though they were all encased in glass.
“Pretty,” I said.
“Pretty is as pretty does,” Hettie said from behind me.
I opened my mouth to say something smart-ass and felt the porch railing shake under my grip. Hettie went down with a thump on the first step. At first I was laughing as I turned.
Then I saw her fixed stare.
I fell to my knees. The minute I touched her shoulder, the weight of her told me what I didn’t want to know, that all life was gone. Not even a flicker left.
I called 911 on her cell phone all the same, fishing it out of her pocket. I couldn’t linger. They would look too hard, too close at my features, which still were not perfectly human, still had the animal lingering underneath. So I left, went back up the steps as though I was going to fetch something, leaving her there.
I paused in the dining room, about to go upstairs and pack, but I heard the ambulance’s distant shrill. Absurdly I grabbed the closest thing to hand, a liter bottle of vodka that Hettie kept for company, which had not been touched in all the time I had lived there. I ducked out the back door and headed through the back yard, past a snow-ridden pile of wood, across an icy crunch of gravel.
I scrambled along the alleyway, ignoring a couple of dogs hurling themselves against fences. Behind me there was a crash and splinter of wood. I turned to see a bulldog bow-legging its way toward me. An old dog. White streaked its jowls. Its broad shoulders sagged. It growled.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” I said, and tried to let pheromones roil off my skin. Slowly, its hackles subsided and it stopped growling, but from its yard a backdoor slammed. A voice shouted “Percy!”
I turned and fled.
At Pinhook Park, I sat on the hill overlooking the miniature train course and got drunker than I ever had been. When I woke the next morning, propped in the corner of a chilly cement shelter, I felt as though my flesh would crawl off my bones, reacting to the amount of alcohol I had tried to drown it in. For the next two days I vomited, until finally I gathered the strength to walk the blocks to Dr. Basil’s downtown office.
He comes back in, watches me while I eat the last of the pizza and mop my hands. The grease clings and I have to scrub it off. I catch him watching the gesture. I wonder what nuance of self-loathing psychiatry has taught him to read into it.
“I want to change your medication,” he tells me. “I think I have a mixture that will keep your form from drifting away from human.” He holds out an orange-brown bottle of pills, white-capped. Only three capsules in it.
“One every eight hours,” he says in answer to my look.
“What about when I run out?”
He glances away from me. I follow his gaze. He and I stand looking at the window’s reflection. My breasts seem larger than this morning.
“We’d like you to stick around so we can monitor the changes,” he says.
I take the medicine bottle, hold it in my hand. “How did you develop this?”
“What do you mean?”
“You haven’t had me to experiment on for the last three years. Who did you develop this on?”
“Ah. You weren’t the only member of your batch. You met a few growing up. Casey even lived with you for a while. And then Deejay and Deecie.”
“Are they here?”
He shakes his head. Somehow I know they’re dead, but I have no idea how. He smells of it. I push it. “Maybe they can come visit me, huh?”
“We might be able to scare up one or two visitors,” he says.
“Where am I going to stay?”
The Doctor takes me downstairs, past the basement level, to a comfortably outfitted apartment. There’s a stack of video games, and the TV is taller than me. No windows, though.
I look around.
Dr. Basil watches my reaction to the apartment. “We have paperwork we’d like you to help us with,” he says. He gestures at a memopad on the table. “Tests of perception and personality. That sort of thing.”
“That sort of thing,” I repeat.
During the days I devote myself to Dr. Basil’s tests. They seem calculated to take up as much time as I’m willing to give to them.
Memories of Hettie play themselves over and over in my head. It wasn’t that there were any words of love, it was simply that she gave me a faith that she would always be there for me.
I thought about the others Dr. Basil had mentioned. I did remember Casey, but barely. I remembered playing Mirror with them, the game where one person makes a gesture and the other follows suit. We played it for hours. I remember running over green grass on summer evenings and playing statues and freeze tag, standing as though frozen in shape, frozen in place.
I don’t remember whether Casey was a boy or girl but more importantly I don’t remember whether or not s/he changed as well. I hear Hettie in my head telling us to play nice together and that’s about it. I don’t remember anything about Casey going away other than going into their room and looking under the bed to find the blue knapsack s/he had left me, with a handful of pictures and two favorite action figures.
What had happened to the pictures? I wasn’t sure. I had held onto the dolls for years. Probably still boxed up in Hettie’s attic.
I remember the month before the change. I’d look up and see her staring at me, as though willing me to do something. She talked to me about things she’d never mentioned before.
“You’re a person, not a lab animal,” she told me. “You need to decide your own destiny. You need to be able to not worry about Basil.” She looked into my eyes. Were they changing as she watched? All I could see were hers, which never changed.
“You are a wonder of the Universe,” she said. “You deserve to be free in it.”
I play some games and watch TV. It’s canned stuff, on-demand, so I can’t see the news. They won’t give me net access outside the internal web. It’s the last that chafes me the most. It didn’t bother me at Hettie’s but here, where I know it’s just a matter of bringing me a tablet or screen, it eats at me.
“Look, bring me a kiddie laptop,” I tell Dr. Basil when he comes in that night to check on me. “Put whatever kind of lock-downs you want on it. I don’t care if all I can do is read the weather. I just want to feel connected. You know how it is, Doc.”
I smile as warmly as I can at him, thinking happiness and sensuality, trying to project them. Friendliness. Trust.
It succeeds. He brings me a cheapie screen. There aren’t even any restrictions on it that I can see. I work with the presumption that it’s all monitored, though. I have more to worry about. Giving it to me he lets his hand linger on mine in a way that made this body flush and warm.
The new machine has a shiny screen. I can keep an eye on myself even as I tab through web portals, making it look like someone catching up. I’ve been away three years, and some of this is actually just that - catching up. There are only so many ways to access a link, though, so it’s not too hard to navigate.
I do take a risk and check my mail. A two year old message in one folder reads “Call me.—KC.” And a number. I try to find the number on the net, but it’s out of service, the web tells me.
I finish by playing a game where you throw an exploding ball from character to character. It explodes in my arms time and time again. I keep holding it too long.
When Dr. Basil returns that morning, he wants to run tests. He takes my blood pressure, listens to my heart. His fingers stray here and there, never long enough to remark on, but long enough to let me know what he’s thinking. He keeps staring at my eyes.
“You said you could maybe let me have a couple of visitors,” I ask. “You know. Casey and those others.”
His eyes widen. “Did I?” he says. “Well, I can see.” His hand on mine. I disentangle, retracting my fingers to fold them in my lap.
“I wish you would,” I say, looking straight at him. “I would really . . . appreciate that.”
Beneath his gaze, I lean back, arching to make my chest more prominent. I hate these kind of mechanical tricks, but when someone is sending out the signals he is, they will work.
“I’ll see what I can do,” he says. He packs away his equipment, piece by piece. “May I come by and eat dinner with you tonight?”
I force a shrug. My body performs as I wish it to, mimicking acts with a grace that makes it believable. “Depends on what sort of mood I’m in,” I say and, deliberate as removing my lips from a kiss, I look elsewhere, refuse to meet his eyes.
The breath that comes from him is almost a groan.
“You’re still female?” he demands.
“Of course.” I add, “Usually the less stressed I am, the less likely I am to change.”
That evening he eats with me, bringing take out Chinese, chopsticks, and fortune cookies. I haven’t done much that day so I pick at the food.
He watches me. I put a piece of Governor’s Chicken in my mouth, biting down with delicate care and licking my lips.
He grabs my hand and raises it to his face, pulling the fingertips over the cleanly shaven skin of his cheek.
I pull it away again, shaking my head.
“I’m out of sorts tonight,” I say. “Sorry.”
“I suppose having a visitor would settle you,” he says.
The shrug gets easier with practice, a supple don’t care movement that emphasizes the pendulum sway of my un-bra-ed breasts.
“Whatever,” I say, and let out a bored breath. “Really.”
“You’re teasing me,” he says.
“Am I?” My stare is deliberate and provocative.
He grins at me, an I know something you don’t smile that clenches at my stomach. “Be careful what you wish for,” he says, then stands. “Be ready tomorrow after lunch.”
“Ready for what?”
“We’re going to see Casey,” he says.
He leaves the scatter of white boxes on the table. I abandon it in turn for the maid that comes in every day while I’m in the shower.
All through the next morning my stomach burns. I wonder if it’s some new change, but a handful of antacids calms it. Lots of calcium; I’ll need to make sure to take a Vitamin D pill that night.
I am much more in tune with my body than the average person; a lack of potassium, for instance, leaves me almost incapacitated by headache. Fish oil restores the lubricants in my tears. Otherwise they’re not quite right, but burn and weep continuously.
We don’t leave the building, which disappoints me.
Instead, Dr. Basil takes me up to a third-floor laboratory. One wall bears huge jars, a gallon size at least, some much larger, five gallons, ten. Not old yellowed pickle jars either, but clear. Newly made equipment with every line and measurement conforming to Science.
On the table one of the largest jars holds a shaggy mass the size of a bowling ball overgrown with kelp and barnacles. It takes me a moment to realize that it’s a head. Underneath it, dangling like a puppet, swims a body in miniature. A troll’s body, barely six inches tall. My face, horrified and appalled, is reflected over it. My breasts are absurdly large now.
Now that I look, the rest of jars hold other parts. A hand, a shin. A ribcage. All with these bodies, ranging in size from two inches, up to a foot, attached, like absurd, horrifying key chains to each.
The only eyes that are open, thankfully, are not the miniature sockets on the heads dangling from elbows and tibia—is that an armpit?—but the full-sized ones in the jar on the table. There, the eyes, the sorrowing green eyes that I think must be Casey’s, track my movements. The blenched lips move as though to speak, but I have no idea what they try to whisper as I reel away.
Dr. Basil’s grip on my shoulder is like iron. “Look,” he says. “It’s an amazing regenerative process. These have only been growing for two weeks, two and a half really. Each of them will have the original’s capabilities. And more, according to whatever genetic modifications I’ve made.”
“Is that what you did with all of them?” I ask.
“Don’t be so horrified. It’s how you were grown too. Disassembly, some genetic tweaking, and then reincorporation.” His other hand trails over my breast, pinches a nipple as he pulls me towards him. “God, you’re so lush. I know how perfect you are. You become what the people around you want you to become. Your skin is like velvet.”
He groans and buries his face in the side of my neck. I feel the body responding, opening, growing wet. I waste time hating it for what it cannot help. I push him away. He pulls me back to him, suffocatingly close.
“Do it,” he breathes into my ear. “Do it, or I’ll cut you up and raise myself a new crop. A more pliable crop No more raising you in an uncontrolled environment. That little experiment in socialization proved far too risky.”
“You don’t have the right to do this.”
“I own you. I own this.” His fingers pinch the nipple harder, but my time as a beast has left me with advantages, and one of them is sharp teeth.
One swift motion. Rip and tear. He reels away, the side of his head spraying blood where I have removed his ear.
I step back but he’s not looking at me any more, stumbling in the spray of blood which coats his face like a mask. I grab the keys from his hands and run away, up the stairs. Past the flashing lights and the people running in. He shouldn’t have let me keep the black leather jacket; the blood doesn’t show on it.
He’ll think I’ll move far away, try to escape by train, by plane, by automobile. He won’t realize that I can stay close, that there are shelters in Pinhook Park where I can sleep if I keep a step ahead of the rangers, and that’s easy enough if I give into the beast and its senses.
I cannot believe that Hettie, who kept me, who was doctor and nursemaid and governess and keeper, would have wanted me to be the beast, but maybe she did. Maybe she spoke to my own desire to free myself from the house that was all I knew. I had escaped, I thought, and the others could too.
Basil has shown me the key to his own destruction. I found what I need in Hettie’s garden shed. A saw, twine, salt, and a jar that will do for the first one. Sawing off my own hand is hard, but the beast surges and lets me look down dispassionately at my work. I tie it off and drop the hand in the jar before filling it with water and salt.
I will raise my own army, I think. I vanish back to the park with my jar.
The next few months pass quickly. I waver in and out of beast and human form. By the time summer is ripe and the world is full of food, my hand has fully regrown twice, and in a cave in the Park’s heart, there are four of me in varying shapes and sizes, and two more jars, along with white plastic buckets, hidden in a cluster of sewer pipes. I bring them sacks each night, the contents of the park’s trash containers. We feast on discarded potato salad and rolls and pizza crusts, eating quietly and efficiently, like the biological machines, the wonders of the universe we are.
It’s not exactly like having Hettie back, but it feels close. We sit into the night and tell stories, stories about who we are and I tell them about Hettie. About cartoons I watched when growing up. About the others.
We do not light a fire. The full moon shines down on our faces. We are thinly furred and built for speed now, much the same, but the small details of our appearance shift now and then, darkening and lightening, an ear tilting, nose building into a ridge.
The moonlight catches our eyes, reflecting each other as surely as our faces do, our faces, our face that is the thing to come.
But still, whose face this is, I do not know.