Face originally appeared in the anthology Spark. This nasty little tale draws inspiration from the works of Clive Barker and Margaret Atwood (and contains a quote from The Robber Bride.)
Maria Kopes was twenty-eight and unmarried when she nearly lost her face. It started with a small, moist canker on the side of her mouth. Hardly bigger than a paper cut.
Throughout the day, she kept touching it with her tongue, nudging it gently until it opened like a small mouth.
She wondered if any of her coworkers would mention it. Whether jokey Hans or slim, cold Jean would make some comment about the oozing slit. The thought tied her stomach into knots of anxiety. Jean looked the way that rounder, fleshier women wished to look. Dry and neat and slender with a face from a magazine.
Every so often, she would deign to join Maria for coffee. They would talk – or rather, Jean would talk while Maria listened – about their male coworkers and how objectified Jean felt by their constant gaze. Maria would nod and fiddle with her dry hair and try to look as if she understood what that was like.
Sometimes she felt as if she was stuck in the rerun of a bad chick flick. But then she’d felt like that for most of her life. As if she was in the audience, watching herself.
Today Jean didn’t join her for coffee. Maria was able to eat a peaceful, solitary meal at her desk. The canker pulled each time she opened her mouth. Despite this, she managed to choke down her chicken salad. No salad dressing. Her mother had always said she was too fat.
The work day ended and most of her coworkers shuffled off to noisy homes or over-packed bars. Maria was happy to return to her empty flat. She found its silence – the silence of an abandoned cathedral – strangely comforting.
Her evenings followed a ritual as unchanging as a monk’s. It began with a lukewarm shower to wash off the grayness of the day. She caressed her dimpled thighs, her heavy breasts, pretending that they were someone else’s hands, someone else’s breasts. When she slipped two fingers between her thighs, she hesitated, feeling the spectre of her mother watching. Any warmth drained from her.
Still damp, she slipped on one of her heavy flannel nightgowns, feeling it stick to her skin. When her mother was still alive, they used to do an hour’s penance of aerobics before supper. Maria had always felt ridiculous flailing her arms and legs in a parody of her mother’s movements.
Now she was alone, she just ate her unadorned meals, hating them, hating herself. There was a tub of chocolate ice cream tucked in the back of the freezer. She kept it there for the same reason that a recovering alcoholic might keep a bottle of booze hidden in his sock drawer. To test her conviction. To punish herself.
Tonight she felt strong. She opened the freezer door and studied the ice cream tub, its sides frosted with icy diamonds. She contemplated peeling off the lid and staring at the rich brown tide of calories.
At the thought, her hands twitched compulsively. She felt something ooze down her cheeks. When she touched them, her fingers came away warm and wet.
Washing the blood off her hands reminded her of her first period. Stains on her schoolgirl panties and the expression in her mother’s eyes when she told her. The look had been almost….vulpine, cruel.
“You’re a woman now,” her mother had said and the words sounded like a threat.
She could almost hear them now, almost see the dry sparkle in the older woman’s eyes when she looked at her own reflection. Tentatively Maria touched the open wounds on her face. Instead of pink and gaping, they exposed firm flesh. Smooth and slightly yellowed like the ivory keys of a piano.
Maria’s mother had worn the face of a wizened child until the day she died. Hormone replacements and surgeries and injections to murder the nerves had left her with features that were youthful but oddly contracted as if her face was on the verge of collapsing inwards. Even when the final illness ate her up, she’d prided herself on still passing for twenty-eight.
Maria had nursed her through the last days, endured her rants and incoherent rambles, held her hot, dry hand and hated herself for wishing it was over, wishing she was free.
But even now she still felt trapped. Her life was finally her own but she didn’t know how to expand into it, how to fill it. She didn’t know if it was a failure of imagination or guilt that kept her locked in the patterns of her old life.
The wounds on her face breathed. There was no other word for it. They opened and closed like gills. A leaden dread settled on her limbs. She had to drag her hand up to her face. Numbly she pulled at the ragged flesh. It tore like rotten silk.
There was a face growing beneath her own. Old preserved flesh, vulpine eyes, a mouth like a cruel slit.
Screaming, Maria threw herself from the bathroom.
“Oh god oh no please no,” she whimpered, feeling the creature heave and twist under her skin. Something like a hand pressed against her ribs.
Maria vomited. She spewed up chunks of desiccated chicken and wilted lettuce leaves, hard pellets of chick peas and brown rice, powdery handfuls of sweeteners. She heaved compulsively and yet the vomiting didn’t stop.
Eggs whites and diced carrots and low fat mayonnaise. Cottony tampons and acidic pink nail polish and finally, a mucus-covered tangle of pantyhose. She spewed it all out until her throat was raw and flayed.
Shakily she climbed to her feet and made her way to the kitchen. As the nausea passed so did the movement beneath her skin. She could still feel a heaviness inside her like an over-sized embryo, like a tumor in her womb. But it wasn’t moving anymore.
Her reflection in the gleaming fridge door showed old scabs crusting her cheeks. The skin tightened further, knitting together when she swallowed her first spoonful of ice cream.
“You can’t come back,” she told her mother between bites, “you can’t come back.”