Short story #20
I wrote this story after reading a Natgeo magazine article about the youngest face transplant patient in history. Her story was devastating and it inspired me to write this short story.
It became a bit long-winded as I went on writing it (it finished at 4,600 words) though there are some parts that I like.
As they drove through the suburb the car jolted up and he heard a dull thump. When he looked up at the rearview mirror he saw the crumpled figure of a large blonde mammal on the road and wrapped around what was presumably its neck was a blue cloth strap.
“Oh laws,” he said. He stopped the car.
“What is it dad?” she asked.
“Think I ran over a dog. Someone’s dog.”
“I should say so.”
He parked the car at the side of the road. He opened the door and she made to follow him but he said Stay inside and lock the doors, Nina. She watched in the rearview mirror how he stood with his hands behind his back looking down intently at the dog for a minute as though by so doing he could somehow resurrect it. He looked around and then walked backed to the car.
“I think we better go talk to the owner,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
“Do you want to go down?”
They walked to the house closest to the dead dog and they climbed up the porch and he rang the doorbell. While he waited he observed the house. The yellow façade was unkempt and dulled by a fine layer of gray dust from the residue left by the passing vehicles in the road but the underlying design and the withered plants at the front bore the palimpsest of a past when the house was attractive. The porch itself was wood painted white but the years and lack of maintenance had turned it gray and scratched.
“Maybe no one’s home,” she said. “There are no cars here.”
“Maybe he doesn’t use cars.” He rang the doorbell again.
Just as he rang it the door opened less than an inch and in the darkness revealed he could only make out a hanging chain.
“Yes?” It was a woman’s voice. It was gruff and distant and by the darkness it seemed as though it were the house who had talked and not the inhabitant. He looked down at Nina and she looked up at him as well. She had gone pale and her eyes had widened.
“Yes?” said the voice again.
“Yes. Good day. Um. We. Sorry to disturb.”
“I’m not interested in any promotions.”
“Ah no. I am not a marketer.”
“What do you want?”
“Are you the owner of a labrador by any chance?”
She paused. “Why?”
“Well we, my daughter and I, were on little excursion and we passed through here as a shortcut. And the thing is that we seemed to have run over a dog. And we were wondering if — ”
The door slammed and they heard the chain slide and then the door opened again, this time fully. He started at what he saw and Nina let out a suppressed shriek and he felt her fingernails dig into his arm.
A small, frail woman stood there at the door. She had no nose and upon it lay a fold of skin. Her mouth was a contorted opening that did not close all the way as though in an expression of morbid and perpetual awe. A fine lining of pink flesh suggested a faint semblance to human lips. One eye was pulled upward and the other downward. Her face was caved inward with the forehead and the lower jaw jutting out, as though in the process of creation either by accident or cruel designs some hand had pummeled it through while the skinclay had not yet dried. It was no human face.
“You killed my Tim?” the woman asked.
“Jesus,” he whispered to himself.
He stared at her. The woman must have realized this. She brought her gaze down to the floor and turned her head slightly to the side in a self-aware shame-filled gesture as though to somehow mitigate the potency of her hideous mien. Nina nudged him lightly with her elbow. He looked down at her and got back to his senses.
“Sorry?” he said.
“You killed my Tim,” she mumbled.
“It was an accident ma’am,” Nina said. “We didn’t mean it.”
She walked past them. She did not pass in between him and Nina, but instead moved to the side of them some feet away, as though to avoid contaminating them with whatever condition it was she had. She walked over to the dog in the road and when she recognized it she fell down to the cement on her knees. Her small shoulders shook with her sobbing. She put her hands to her face and from the porch they could hear a suppressed wailing.
He and Nina looked at each other.
“We should do something,” she said.
“We can’t resurrect the dog.”
“I know I know.”
“We should get going anyways. It’s getting late.”
“What happened to the right thing to do.”
He opened his mouth as if to say something but he closed it again.
The woman picked up the dog and carried it hanging limp in her arms and together they looked like a caricature of some religious renaissance marble sculpture. She made towards the house and she didn’t seem to mind that the blood had stained her dress and arms. He pressed Nina’s face against him so she wouldn’t see. The woman set the dog on the balding grass of the yard and got a shovel from a small wooden toolshed beside the house. She pushed the shovel into the ground in the yard and stepped on the shovel head to make it go deeper but it barely did anything and she threw a pathetic mound of soil to the side. At the rate it was going it seemed as though she would take a whole day to dig a hole deep enough.
“Excuse me ma’am,” he said. He walked toward her.
She stopped digging and she glanced at him quickly from the side. As though ashamed to turn her head to him. Her upper torso heaved up and down at the exertion beyond her evident physical capacities.
“Can I help you with that?” he said.
Her shoulders collapsed into a tight shameful slouch. Like some creature putting itself into a defensive position, triggered by some instinct primal or learned.
“It’s the least I could do,” he said. “I’m sorry about what happened.”
“Alright,” she whispered. She held out the shovel without looking at him and he took it and started to dig. Nina walked to them and stood beside her to watch but they didn’t say a word. Nina stole glances at her but she didn’t notice or if she did she didn’t show it. Instead she stood there contemplating the digging and her fallen dog like some old widow contemplating the burial of her only son.
When he finished the hole the woman took the dog in her arms again and laid it in the hole. He started to put the dirt back but she made a gesture to him to stop and he did and she stood there looking down at the dog. As though in that ultimate contemplation she could somehow engrave in her memory a permanent imprint of her fallen friend. Then she nodded at him and he started to cover the hole.
Nina looked at her and saw that her face was wet with tears. On that countenance whose semblance to a human’s was remote the tears gave the woman a more human aspect. Nina brought her hand up and took the woman’s. The woman did not look at her but neither did she pull her hand away.
When he finished he patted the soil with the shovel and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “Well,” he said, “that seems to be about it.”
“You loved him a lot,” Nina said. “Didn’t you, ma’am.”
“He was my only companion left.”
The woman turned to walk back to her house. He looked at Nina and then gestured with his head that they head back to the car. Nina ignored him. “Wait,” she said. The woman stopped.
“What happened to them?” Nina said.
“Happened to whom,” the woman said.
“Your other companions.”
“There were only two. My parents.”
“Are they dead?”
“Nina,” he said.
“Yes,” said the woman. “My father died less than a year ago. My mother much earlier.”
“I’m sorry,” Nina said.
“And ever since you’ve been living alone with the dog?”
“Sorry. With Tim.”
“Nina,” he said. “Let’s get going.”
“What’s your name?” Nina asked her.
The woman looked at the ground and then raised her gaze at Nina’s eyes. The contorted mouth contorted still more in what seemed to be her version of a slight smile. “Call me Ms. Emily,” she said.
“Pleased to meet you Nina.”
“That’s my dad.”
Ms. Emily looked toward him and he forced a smile and nodded at her. “Pleased to meet you Ms. Emily,” he said.
They stood unspeaking for a moment. Ms. Emily looked down at the ground again and said: “Can I invite you to come in for tea? I don’t have nothing much and I haven’t had visitors over in a while but I thought. I thought I should thank you. For helping me I mean.”
“I think we should get going,” he said. He widened his eyes at Nina. “Mom is waiting for us at home.”
“Dad. She’s not going to mind.”
“Dad.” She widened her eyes at him too. She turned toward Mrs. Emily.
“We’d be happy to have tea,” she said.
That contorted smile appeared on Ms. Emily’s face again. “I’ll set the teapot,” she said. “Just come in.” She opened the door and got in the house.
“Nina,” he said.
“You said we have to do the right thing,” she said. “We just ran over her remaining companion.”
“We helped her bury the dog.”
“But dad that’s nothing. I think the least we can do is accompany her for a while.”
He let out an exasperated sigh but he followed her into the house.
It was dimly lit and dank and humid. The windows were all shut and all the curtains drawn. The unventilated air was dense and stale and it was hard to breathe. It smelled of years of human activity and inhabitation. A frosted bulb on the ceiling seemed to contain more insect carcasses than light. Even in the dimness they could see that the furniture was covered in a stratum of dust. On the shelves were china figures, testament to a past when the residents perhaps payed attention to the physical appearance of the house. They stood looking at father and daughter like silent spectators expecting some curiosity to unfold.
The clinking of pots and plates and spoons could be heard from the kitchen. He and Nina stood by the entrance and he had left the door open, as though by closing it they were to trap themselves into some distant realm and shut off contact from the world outside. She stuck her face out of the kitchen door and in the dim light it seemed more hideous. On seeing it he felt the hair at the back of his neck stand.
She made a motion with her hand toward the dining table. “Just take a seat,” she said. “I’ll be ready in a minute.” He and Nina took spots each beside the other on one side of the dining table. After some minutes Mrs. Emily came out of the kitchen and set on the table plates and cutlery and teacups. The plates were bordered blue and the ceramic originally white had with age taken on a pale earthly almost corpselike tinge.
She went back to the kitchen and came out carrying a sponge cake. It had the dry, stale look of some stage prop as though it were but an inedible imitation of an actual cake. As though along with the plates and cutlery it had been shelved and forgotten in some other period in time when visitors had come to the house. She went back to the kitchen for one last time to get the teapot and this she set on the table and then poured each of them a glass. She took a seat on the short end of the table next to Nina.
Mrs. Emily gestured at them to partake of the cake. “I hope it’s still good,” she said.
He took a small slice of the cake about an inch thick and set it on his plate and then did the same for Nina.
“But so small?” Mrs. Emily said.
“Don’t want to spoil the appetite,” he said, forcing a smile and rubbing his stomach. “Don’t want to anger the wife.”
“Of course.” She chuckled. “My mom used to always say the same to me. Don’t spoil your appetite eating all that sugar, she’d say.”
He took a small forkful and raised it up toward her and put it to his mouth. It was as dry as it looked but otherwise it tasted like a regular cake and in other circumstances and without the view of the woman’s frightening face he would have enjoyed it. Nina watched him and when she saw his reaction she herself took a part of the cake. “It’s good,” she said.
Mrs. Emily smiled in satisfaction. “Glad you like it,” she said. “My parents used to love this cake when I made it for them. My dad especially.”
“You made this cake?” Nina asked.
“I used to. Nowadays not so much.”
“Not a lot people to bake for.”
He noticed that she had set neither cup nor plate for herself. “Don’t you want to take something yourself, Mrs. Emily?” he said.
She looked down at the table gingerly. “I don’t eat in front of people.”
“Why not?” Nina asked.
“Eating for me is a messy and complicated process.”
She looked up at Nina. “Well. You will have of course noticed that I do not have any lips. Liquids and solids both fall out of my mouth when I try to eat.”
“Oh,” Nina said.
They continued to eat in silence. Mrs. Emily looked down at the table, as though somehow made aware again of her appearance and the effect it may have caused on her visitors.
“Mrs. Emily,” Nina said.
“What happened to your face?”
He put down his fork on the plate with a loud clank. “Nina,” he said.
“What?” Nina said.
“I’m sorry Mrs. Emily,” he said. “She’s really like that.”
“Please don’t apologize,” Mrs. Emily said. “I was in fact looking for an opportunity to try to explain it to you.”
Nina looked at him and he shot back a warning glance just as he always did when she was getting out of line. Mrs. Emily sighed and then pushed herself away from the table and went to nearby drawer and took out a picture frame and held it tight to her chest. As though to suffocate whoever or whatever it was contained in that picture. The memory. What was lost or who remained.
She took her seat with that same posture and then she showed the picture to them. It was a picture of a young, pretty woman. Some distant other who in the hands of its unsightly holder and her grim surroundings looked like some artefact or creature from another world entire.
“Is that you?” Nina asked.
She nodded. “I’m sure you’re wondering,” she said, “why all the curtains in the house are closed.”
He and Nina looked at her in expectation and before they could answer or even gesture in agreement Mrs. Emily spoke again.
“It’s to avoid having to see my reflection on any surface. All the mirrors in the house I’ve removed as well. All of them served as painful reminders.”
“Reminders?” Nina said.
“Four years ago I tried to commit suicide.” She paused and looked at them as if to measure the impact of her statement on her listeners.
“Suicide?” Nina said.
“I tried to take my own life.”
“Don’t ask so many questions, Nina,” he said.
She looked at him and then at Nina. “No no,” she said. “Just ask. It doesn’t bother me now.”
“So why?” Nina said.
She laughed and it sounded bitter. “I broke up with my boyfriend. Who at the time I thought was the love of my life. Until I found out he had been seeing someone else.”
She turned the picture toward her and contemplated it as she may have perhaps done myriad times before.
“Then I took a rifle from my dad’s room and shot myself on the chin. I blew off my face. But I survived. Luckily or unluckily. Until today I struggle to decide which. The doctors told me that God had given me a second chance. Maybe so. Or maybe he is punishing me for trying to take my own life. In any case, it’s kind of stupid what I did. Isn’t it?”
“How old were you?” asked Nina.
“I was nineteen.”
“Goodness,” he said.
“Sorry?” Mrs. Emily said.
“You’re so young.”
“Yes. I know it doesn’t show. One of the benefits of this hideous face, I guess. It seems as if we never age.”
He expected her to laugh but she did not.
“When they rushed me to the hospital,” she said, “their first priority was to make sure that I wouldn’t die. Of course. Whether they could reconstruct my face or at least make it look human was not a concern. As you can see now. I came out a monster.”
“It’s not that bad Mrs. Emily,” Nina said. “Once you get used to it.”
Mrs. Emily grinned and took Nina’s hand in hers. “You are a doll,” she said. “Sweet girl.” Then she let go and continued.
“I decided to stop going to school. Of course. It was the logical conclusion. It was not even a matter of what I felt, if they would make fun of me or not. I thought of them too. The students. Why should they be made to see something so repulsive? They didn’t deserve it. It was a matter of justice. Simple as that.
“My parents refused at first, especially my mother. But what could they do? They knew I was right. So they took care of me, God bless them. At times they’d bring me out to the supermarket or to the park, but people would stare at me and many would grimace. As though offended that my parents would allow such a monstrosity to be revealed to the world. Soon I had to go out with a veil on my head.
“Then. Well. Two years later my mom found out that she had cancer in its advanced stages. Lung cancer. She was a heavy smoker. She died not long after. Soon it was only my dad taking care of me. Whenever he had to go out to work I only had Tom for company. And then one day my dad didn’t come home from work.”
Tears fell from Mrs. Emily’s eyes and she wiped them with a handkerchief. She sniffled.
“Are you okay Mrs. Emily?” asked Nina.
“Yes yes. I’m alright. Two days later my uncle knocked on the door and told me that my dad had died from a stroke. When he talked to me he wouldn’t even look me in the face. As though he were talking to himself. As though I were some nonentity. A phantasmal witness to a soliloquy. And then he walked to the front door and then before opening it to leave he said that he would be sending over food and other necessities to me every week. That if I needed anything I could just call them and they would come over. That, due to certain circumstances (he did not specify, nor did he need to) and to his great regret, they could not have me live with them.”
“And so you’ve been living in here by yourself?” asked Nina. “All this time.”
“Yes.” She smiled again. “Like some ghost in one of those haunted houses you read about in books.”
“But they abandoned you,” he said. “Your own flesh and blood.”
She turned to him and it was the first time she looked him in the eye for a sustained period of time. Despite her inhuman face he could read in the eyes the depth of human emotion. Not of anger, not of bitterness, but of a languid sadness.
“Well,” she said. “In appearance I no longer look of any flesh and blood. Who can blame them, sir. It is but our natural tendency to judge by appearance. The external. The superficial. It takes a great effort to go past it.”
“We see past it,” said Nina.
“Thank you, Nina.”
They finished up eating and they helped Mrs. Emily clear up the table. She wrapped up what was left of the cake and gave it to them to bring home. I’m not gonna be able to finish that all by myself, she said. He accepted.
She opened the door for them and the red light of the setting sun bled into the house like some pentecostal fire. He stopped at the door.
“Mrs. Emily,” he said.
“It. Well um. I just thought it was right that since we robbed you of your last companion, it’s only right that we replace him for you. With two more.”
He looked at Nina and Nina smiled back at him. “Can we visit again the following weekend?”
Mrs. Emily smiled. “Of course. I’d love to have you.”
“I’ll let you meet my wife as well. Don’t worry, she is not as judgmental as I.”
He smiled and then Nina approached her and gave her a hug. Mrs. Emily stood still as if unaccustomed to any display of human warmth or affection and then wrapped her arms around Nina. The father and daughter walked out of the house and into the car and Mrs. Emily stood by the door waving at them and they at her until she was no more than a silhouette slowly fading into the background.