You may have seen me lying underneath the sewer grate while you stepped right on over it. Walking to the park, to work, to the library—day, night, it doesn’t matter. Because my murky yellow eyes certainly saw you. In that precious ephemeral moment when the angle of the sun was just right and the timing of your gait brought you into perfect view, I memorized your face. I scanned it up and down and left and right and opened up the front drawer of my table and put the memory in there, for safekeeping. I never want to forget your face, you understand.
Sometimes I put your face on. I don’t have one, so I have to use yours. I spend all day preparing it, molding the memory that I’ve stowed away into a genuine, bona fide visage. First, I open the drawer and hang your face out to dry. I keep the drawer moist to preserve the organic matter, since if the faces get too dry they crack apart and it’s a huge mess, trying to sort through the disjointed fragments. A nose of a 34-year-old housewife joins with the eyes of a 5-year-old boy and it’s all topped off with the bushy beard of a 61-year-old businessman: a catastrophe, in other words. It’s not convincing at all. People look at you like some kind of Picasso piece when you go out like that. Believe me, I’ve done it. But I’m more careful now.
After the faces dry a little bit, I move them to my workbench. It’s nothing really to talk about—solid bone, smooth, mostly clean except for a few crimson stains which no matter how hard I scrub I really can’t get out. I would go to the specialty cleaning store and buy some product for my unique situation, but I know that would attract too much attention and I can’t have that following me around. Me, I don’t ever want to be noticed. That’s why I took your face.
So when the faces are lying on the workbench I begin the revitalization process. Faces age quickly when they’re detached from their hosts, but I require them to be perfectly preserved. Pristine condition. Like a snapshot in my memory. There’s a special brush I use to coat the faces with a thick sludge I’ve developed over the years, precisely for these restorative purposes. I haven’t gotten the recipe just right yet, but with each batch I cook up there’s a pleasant warm feeling in my stomach, as though I’m getting closer. Unfortunately, there’s no manual for what I’m doing, so I’ve really done it all by estimation, trial and error. You could say I’m a pioneer in the field.
Anyway, the sludge is tar-black and real sticky. That’s the reason I use my special brush. It touches any other surface and you’ll never get it off, so I handle it pretty delicately. I bring the tar cauldron to a boil before I start the coating process, which gives it a life of its own. It starts to bubble, then I’ll be damned if black slugs don’t start crawling out of the pot right once it reaches one hundred degrees Celsius. There are only a few slugs at first, but soon there are hundreds writhing all over the place, spilling out of the pot and onto the floor, goddamn thousands of goop-drenched slugs making their way up the walls, climbing up one another to reach the world outside the grate. They never make it. Slugs evaporate right before they hit the sunlight with a pop and a sizzle and I never see them again. Can’t let them keep me from the main course.
After the concoction is all ready and the slugs are gone, I can start working in the sludge. Like glazing some good ol’ home-cooked barbecue, I joke to myself. No one’s there to laugh at my jokes except for me, but I still tell them. And I sure as hell laugh. Whoops! Not too loud, can’t let them hear you, can’t let them know—the yellow eyes are suspicious enough as it is, and if there’s any sound they’ll catch ya! I try to time my laughter with the passing of the subway cars. That way it’s drowned out in the KSHHHHHSHHHHH.
Splat splat splat rains down the sludge, I wipe it all over the faces! Mmmmm, I can feel them now, warm faces, glowing faces, faces just for me. I mean, they’re your faces, but I’m making them again. This time, just for me.
Once the sludge takes and your face heats back up to normal 98.6 I pick it up and place it on the hole where my face should be. I have a couple of strange protrusions on the hole where my face should be, but they never get in the way anymore because of my recipe. The first few times I tried it out, people could tell that it wasn’t really my face. They saw right through me! I’ve gotten wiser now, so things like that don’t happen anymore.
Anyway, the face fits great. I feel renewed, like I got a fresh pair of clothes from the laundry and I’m just holding them to my skin. It feels like that all the time, when I’ve got my face on. Rain or shine, the face is fine! I thought of that myself, you know.
When I’ve got the face properly fitted (and I don’t need anyone to tell me or any mirrors, I just know), I walk around the streets for a while. I don’t do anything in particular. I don’t abuse the fact that I own your face. I could steal your life, your job, your house, even your family. There’s a lot of power in the face. I’m just content to walk around in it, though.
The best is when people you know recognize me. Well, they recognize you, but I am you at this point, for all they know. Only you know I’m not you. That’s our secret and we won’t be letting that out, now will we? So they recognize me and say hi and, if I’m really lucky, we’ll talk about our days. Most of the time I do the listening, but I know how to talk just like you. It comes with the face, inscribed on your lips. Eventually we part ways, me and your friend, or your acquaintance, or your wife. Occasionally we have sex beforehand. In your very bed, while you’re working late at the office or out on a business trip or something like that. They don’t notice anything, because I’m you.
I have a grin on my face because you know that’s not true. You are you, after all. But listen: I am you.
Sometimes I’ll even find you when I’m wearing your face. You’ll be walking down the sidewalk on a crisp fall day underneath massive gray clouds and just-brown trees, and I’ll be coming down the other way. The air’s chilly, pale wisps trickle out of your mouth with each exhale. You don’t notice me, and if you do you simply write me off as another hapless pedestrian. Surely there can’t just be another…me, walking down that road! Coincidence—maybe I look a bit similar, but nothing more than that. After all, your face is your face. How can somebody else possibly be wearing it? The whole idea is absurd.
But I look more like you than your identical twin does. I look more like you than you do, because my face is perfect. You wouldn’t be able to understand it, even if you really thought about it. I operate on a different level. Past rationality. I’m buried in you like millennia-old rock. No amount of digging is going to get me out.
You’re in your bed at night and it’s unnaturally dark. The type of darkness you don’t find in the cities and the suburbs anymore. It’s the darkness twenty thousand feet down in the depths of the ocean, infinite darkness, annihilated void. The sun recoils at the thought of penetrating such vast oblivion. It hangs over you like a stifling veil. If you had the nerve to hold up your hand just an inch above your face, you wouldn’t be able to see it. You can’t even see your own nose.
I’m standing right next to you. I’m watching you. You’re watching you. I’m watching myself. Sludge rolls down from the ceiling, thick sludge, sludge accumulated from across that vast ocean floor. This is the sludge life came from. It crawls into your mouth and becomes your blood. There’s sludge pumping through your veins. Your heart recoils, sputters, but only for a moment. The sludge is making its way through you, and there’s nothing to be done about it. Maybe the sludge was in there all along and I’m just bringing it out. It’s dark in there, inside you. You open your eyes, all you can do, no screams as your throat’s blocked out with the stuff. It doesn’t matter either way. You still can’t see. It’s as dark out here as it is inside you. But it happens that you see two dim, yellow orbs just inches from your face before the sludge swallows you up from the inside.
You wake up the next day. Something’s been torn inside you. You can barely move, at first. What the hell is wrong with me? You walk outside. Still dark, enormous night sky black as ever towers above you. Have you slept through the day? Have you slept at all? Plane flies overhead, two dim, yellow beams cutting open the sky. The nausea hits, you vomit sludge all over the pavement and it’s absorbed by the road instantaneously. Bowels breathing bubbling blackness, you’re falling, you hit the pavement, fall into it, last thing you see two dim, yellow lights rolling over you like a tidal wave. You go to sleep for an eternity.
You wake up. You feel refreshed. Best sleep you’ve had in years. Best sleep you’ve had, period. Yawning, you walk over to the bathroom, splash your face with a little cold water. But something’s wrong. The whole house trembles violently. Black sludge drips from the faucet. You’re looking at yourself in the bathroom mirror and your face is falling off.
Max Miroff walks down dirt paths leading nowhere between forests in Virginia. The air is damp. Upon returning home he lathers his hands with soap so the accumulated sap which droops from pine trees will drip down the drain, and when he looks up to see himself in the mirror in the back of his mind the only thought he thinks which thumps and thumps like pumping blood is that the bathroom is empty. He writes to fill it back up.
I think you show enough writing skill to fill many, many rooms.