That was actually the challenge. To write a story so disturbing that the reader would feel compelled to take a step away from the computer.
Maybe I should have put in more maggots in honor of Halloween.
Evan rested his cheek against the cool porcelain. He’d flushed but there was no getting away from the smell. It was in his nose and in his mouth. Sometimes it seemed to be in his skin. There was no shower, no scrubbing, no bleach that could get the faint sour stench off of him.
When his arms felt less like warm rubber he used them to push himself up so he could sit while he waited for his legs to catch up. They were splayed out on the floor, boneless and at angles he wasn’t quite sure were natural. But they didn’t hurt. His head hurt and his throat hurt, but he knew his legs would come back to him and the exhaustion, something that never seemed noteworthy when he was a kid with the stomach flu or a student who’d had too much to drink, would fade a little. Enough to get up and brush his teeth and blow his nose.
He sniffed and winced. His nose was as tender as his throat and he knew he’d pay for blowing it. He’d had it cauterized but all the spewing, from having it come out of his nose when he tried to hold back, ate away the scars and it was as bad as ever. “Fuck Fresh Direct,” he said in a low hoarse voice. If it hadn’t been for that train wreck of a delivery guy he might have made it all night without this happening. Or at least until he had to go out.
Evan coughed a little on the burning in the back of his throat and found the energy to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand. He tried not to notice that he could feel the bones, each individual one, against his lips before he dropped his hand back into his lap. He didn’t look at it lying there; he just stared at the bottom edge of the bath towel hanging at eye level. It had a border of flowers, a leftover from Gail, the towels he used when he hadn’t been able to force himself to do laundry in weeks.
He shut his eyes, willing himself not to think about her. He coughed on a deep breath, and using the toilet as a support, managed to get to his feet. He shuffled to the sink, half bent, half expecting to make another trip to the floor. He made it, gripping the counter with both hands and leaning hip against it before he let go to turn on the tap. He rinsed his mouth with water a few times and opened the medicine cabinet with a practiced flick that didn’t involve looking up. He squeezed a generous glob of toothpaste on his splay-bristled toothbrush and started with his tongue. He didn’t stop until he had done the roof of his mouth and all of his teeth. It was hard to stop there. He wanted to keep brushing until there was nothing left of his mouth. If he could just brush away the chance of ever tasting that taste again, everything would be fine. He rinsed with Listerine until his gums stung and his whole mouth tingled.
He washed his hands, but he was only buying time. The box of tissues on the counter mocked him. There was no choice though. The smell was still in his nose.
He took one gingerly from the box using only his thumb and forefinger. He grabbed another with less care. Folding them into quarters, he brought them to his nose, and with a deep breath, blew.
He blew twice, each time making a long rattling sound. He didn’t need to look to know that the tissues were bloody. He just pinched his nose with a fresh one and tilted his head as far back as it would go.
He washed his face again before he could shut the medicine cabinet door and look in the mirror.
Even without the blood it was a face that was easier to see as a mask. It really had nothing to do with his face. It didn’t look anything like a face he ever had before. His face was round, with big eyes and unruly hair that fell into them. The kind of face people trusted. This one was mean. Angular but not bony, the eyes looked out from under the shadows of heavy eyebrows, permanently bloodshot. The nose was pinched and too large, and the mouth was a thin line under it that didn’t look like it could smile. Above all of it was hair, but just barely. It was thin and lank and if he tried to do anything but comb it straight back, his scalp showed through.
He turned off the bathroom light with a short sigh that made him cough again. In the bedroom he dressed without the lights, pulling a sweater on over his shirt and thick socks over his feet, knowing the restaurant would be too cold.
The TV was still going in the living room and he stopped behind the sofa, his hands on the back, distracted.
Perfect faces looked back at him. Smooth, smiling over something, happy. With the sound turned down they were just icons of perfection. On TV even the villains were sleek and beautiful.
It took effort to let go of the sofa cushions clenched between his fingers and reach for the remote. Even more effort to turn the TV off, all sixty-five inches going dark at once. When the room fell into shadow the tension in his shoulders drained and it was easy to walk to the kitchen. He put his keys in one pocket, wallet in another, and a roll of Tums next to the wallet. He checked his watch and even knowing he’d be late, he forced himself to stand at the counter and drink an entire can of Ensure. He chased it with an antacid and left the apartment the only way he could. Quickly.
Evan didn’t see anyone in the hall or the elevator on his way down. The doorman he passed with a nod, not really looking at him except for a glimpse out of the corner of his eye. Even that was obscured by the frames of his dark sunglasses.
On the street it was harder. He mostly kept his eyes on the ground a little in front of him, his shaking hands in his pockets, and walked fast enough to sweat a little. At least until he got down to the cross street and had to stop and look up to hail the cab.
One stopped almost immediately and he got in. “Fifth and Franklin,” he said clearly, putting on his seatbelt and mentally crossing his fingers that the guy wouldn’t be chatty.
“Fifth and which?” the driver asked loudly.
Evan looked up and instantly regretted it, his stomach rolling. In the mirror, small as it was, he could see the man’s face in crystal clarity. It pulsed red on the right side, eroded and tinged white and green around the gaping hole in his cheek where things, maybe spiders, maybe worse, crawled in and out. “Franklin,” Evan said again once he was sure he could open his mouth safely.
The massacre of a face nodded to him in the mirror and the cab pulled away from the curb.
Evan didn’t dare look up again for the duration of the ride, not even at the back of the guy’s head which he knew would be matted with blood with those damned things crawling over it.
“That’s $10.50,” the driver said.
Evan dug in his wallet to avoid looking up and passed the guy fifteen dollars as he was opening his door. “Keep it,” he said, not able to stand being in the cab anymore.
The man might have said something but Evan missed it slamming the door and walking fast up the block with his eyes down and his hands back in his pockets. Getting out of the apartment was always something that sounded easy. When Fanny called him and asked him to meet her at Saigon Grill he just said yes. He conveniently forgot what it would take to get there and what it would take once he was sitting at the table.
He managed not to look another person in the face until he got inside the restaurant, pricked with cold through his sweater despite the sweat he could feel slipping down his back. “Thompson, table for two,” he said to the hostess, his voice perfectly even over his clenched stomach.
She didn’t have a mouth. Just the upper teeth and everything else sheared raggedly away to her throat where yellow ooze dripped down her neck. “Oh, yes sir. We seated you right over here,” she said through the hole, turning slightly to one side to pick up a menu. Just before she turned completely to lead him to the table he saw something fat and white squeeze out of the hole, end waving slightly like it was testing the air.
The hostess was easier to look at from the back even if part of her side seemed to be missing completely.
Fanny was already getting to her feet when they approached the table. “Evan,” she greeted, hugging him tightly.
He tried to concentrate on the hug, putting his arms briefly around her, but he had seen too much before his head was past her shoulder. When she let him go it was a relief to sit down and play with his napkin for a minute before he had to look up.
“You’re looking thin,” she said in her light voice. It was half admiration and half concern. She’d been trying to get his diet secrets for over a year.
He shrugged and dragged his eyes up, knowing he had to. “I work out,” he said evenly to her eyeless face.
She cocked her head slightly to one side, giving the distinct impression of skepticism despite the pulsing growths where her eyes and eyebrows should have been. “You’ll have to introduce me to your trainer.”
Evan just nodded. He remembered what Fanny used to look like, he’d known her for ten years, long before he started seeing blood everywhere, and he still had pictures of her doe eyes and sweet face. She could have been on TV.
“I hardly see you out anymore, what have you been up to” she asked; fingers distorted with broken sores playing over the rim of her wine glass in slow circles.
He knew it was coming, she would ask how he was so she could tell Gail and then they’d get to the Gail report. How she was doing, what she was doing, who she was seeing. It always felt like a mix of trying to get them back together and trying to goad him into saying something nasty about Gail. “Just working. I’ve been swamped since the Honeywell project,” he said truthfully. He had expected to starve freelancing, but after only a few tight months he had started pulling in more cash than he had with a studio job. It was probably because he didn’t charge all of his billable hours, giving the clients more than they were really paying for, but he knew no client would pay for all of the fiddling revisions he did when he couldn’t sleep.
Fanny was nodding. “It’s good that’s working out for you,” she said noncommittally. None of his friends understood why he would have given up a job in one of the top studios to work from home. But then they didn’t see the dripping, pulsing, bloody mess he did every day. Running to the bathroom every hour was no way to work.
“How about you? You started that new job last week didn’t you?” he asked quickly, hoping to shift the conversation.
Fanny wasn’t about to be derailed once she started. “Yeah, it’s great. I work so close to Gail now, we can get lunch together almost every day.”
“That must be nice,” he agreed in resignation.
“She was asking about you.”
Evan drank most of his glass of water, enjoying the way it made a cold soothing path down to his inflamed stomach. “It was over a year ago, can’t we just give this up?”
From her remarkably unaltered mouth it was possible to make out her frown. “You’re the one that brings it up,” she said defensively.
He pinched his nose at the complete ridiculousness of the statement. He would never bring it up. Why would he even want to think about it? Did he ever need to remember what it was like to come home to that tragedy every night? To wonder if the worms or whatever they were crawling in and out of Gail’s open sores would get in the sheets? Did he need to remember how she was so understanding when he couldn’t get it up, even with all the lights out? “Well I’m done bringing it up.”
“Good,” Fanny said, unfolding her arms where they had been locked sternly over her chest. “I keep trying to tell her it’s over but she never gets it.”
Evan blinked in confusion. “Oh. I mean, good,” he managed before the waiter came.
It was easy to keep his eyes on the menu while he ordered and somehow not as hard as usual to bring his eyes back up to Fanny’s face.
The mouth was smiling at him and a knobby hand settled over his and squeezed it briefly. “I have to go to the ladies room, I’ll be right back.”
He nodded and once she’d left the table he looked down at his hand. It hadn’t started sprouting sores but he did feel the urge to wash it until it was raw. He wiped it on his pants instead and finished off his water, seriously contemplating drinking Fanny’s too. He left her glass where it was and forced his head up to find a waiter.
In a mass it was almost easier to deal with the destruction all around him, the faces and rotted limbs just smeared into a haze of red and green. He saw a waiter with a neck and arm so swollen and deformed that he walked with a tilt to that side. Evan was about to raise his hand to signal the waiter over when his eyes focused past him.
Over the waiter’s shoulder at the bar was a perfectly smooth face. It was a woman in a green blazer with dirty blonde hair that fell to her shoulders and was tucked behind her ears to reveal the completely even skin of her round cheeks, her high forehead, her wide nose, and her pointed chin.
Evan could feel himself gripping the table so hard that his hands ached but he couldn’t loosen then anymore than he could stop staring. He dragged his eyes away from the perfect face to do a quick check. There was no blood anywhere, all of her limbs seemed to be where they were supposed to be, fingers to feet. Relieved, he brought his eyes back to her face and saw that she was staring back. His breath caught in his chest but he didn’t look away.
She said something to the woman next to her, patting her shoulder, a puffy mass of open wounds, with a perfectly formed hand. Then she slipped off the barstool, moving directly toward him.
He could have been holding his breath or panting, he had no idea, his body was reduced to two staring eyes and he couldn’t feel anything else.
She stopped at the edge of his table, her eyes brown on closer inspection. Her mouth moved to reveal slightly uneven but white teeth. “You’re clean,” she said.
Evan blinked but he couldn’t make sense of that. But then it didn’t really matter—he just wanted to look at her. “I’m Evan,” he said faintly, un-clawing one of his hands to offer it to her.
She looked down at it with a slightly arched eyebrow. “Lydia,” she returned, shaking his hand briefly.
Her hand was warm and the warmth seemed to linger on his skin.
“Would you like to get out of here, Evan?” she asked, making him realize that he’d been staring with his mouth slightly open.
He nodded. “Yeah.” He stood, surprised that his legs worked that well. He looked at the seat across from his and promised himself he’d call Fanny in the morning.
“Come on,” Lydia said, leading the way to the door with her perfect silhouette.