Chuck’s challenge for the week: Diseased Horror.
I loved the idea at first but struggled to find a direction to take it in. Then it struck me that while bugs that travel through the air or the water or various bodily fluids are horrible enough in their own right, what about one that could travel even more insidiously — through the mind itself, or even just through eye contact?
The only thing I’m not really sure about is the ending. I’d love to hear some alternate thoughts, but I definitely wanted to convey that the disease doesn’t stop with the hero.
This initially came in way over the limit at about 1400 words, and I managed to trim the fat down to a very terse 999. I hope you enjoy it.
The bus is running late, and my coffee is too hot. Ellen’s sent me a text message reminding me that she loves me — she knows this time of year can run me a little ragged.
I feel a prickle on my neck. I look up and lock eyes with this guy across the aisle. He’s staring at me, the top of his newspaper folded down covering his face below the nose, his eyebrows pulled together in an expression of cold fury. I look back at my phone.
He’s still staring at me.
I meet his eyes again and then there’s this pressure in my head, like I’m in an airplane that’s just climbed thirty thousand feet in thirty seconds, like I might get squeezed out through my own ears. There’s something strange about him. He’s got a horrible scar from his hairline to his cheek, but that’s not it. Then it strikes. He looks like me.
Not quite like me — the eyes are a little bit smaller, the chin stronger, the cheekbones sharper — but it’s too much like looking in a mirror. With a crack like a starter pistol, he snaps his newspaper back in front of his face.
I feel dizzy. My ears are ringing and there’s a cloudiness in my head that wasn’t there a minute ago. My phone buzzes. It’s Ellen, asking if I got her text. The bus driver is announcing my stop, fifteen minutes early. My coffee is barely lukewarm.
By the end of the shift, my head is pounding. The bus home is standing room only, and it feels as if everybody on the bus is staring at me. Every time I try to catch one of them at it, though, their eyes dart away like startled goldfish. When the driver lets me off at my stop, he tells me to have a good night, and I swear it sounds like me talking.
When I wake up, the pain in my head is unbearable. It feels like there’s some thing in my skull, skittering along on tiny insect legs, tearing at the grey matter with its rending beak. I can’t call in sick, though — it’s tax time and the firm is understaffed — so I lurch into the bathroom and pop a handful of Tylenol. I brace myself against the sink, taking deep, unhelpful breaths, then slam the cabinet shut. The mirror cracks from the impact, and I see it — a bright red weal, the skin puckered and angry — running from my hairline to my jaw, just around the outside of my eye.
It’s hideous. I’m hideous. I go into Ellen’s makeup drawer, rummage through piles of mascara and foundation, and find the concealer. In great gobs I smear it on the scar, smoothing it out like plaster. The skin underneath feels hot to the touch, like a pan left on the cooktop. I go to ask Ellen how it looks. Her body rises and falls beneath the sheet, and I decide not to disturb her. No sense in making this her problem.
The boss calls me into his office and slaps down a pile of returns on the desk. Yesterday’s. I’ve screwed them up, apparently. My head starts throbbing and I can’t make out a word. All of a sudden he’s looking at me funny, and then his face changes. His sallow, pale skin tightens up and tones, his receding hairline creeps forward. The angry red scar I saw in my mirror this morning blooms on the side of his face. The eyes scowling at me are my eyes. Rage overtakes me. I leap from my chair, my fist finds his face — my face — and for a split second, the thunderstorm in my head goes quiet. The relief is so overwhelming that I grab the phone off his desk — one of those old-school jobs, stamped metal on the bottom — and smash it into his head, opening up a wicked gash to mirror the one that’s already there. He ragdolls to the floor. I straighten my suit and leave the office early.
My head feels better.
I walk instead of waiting for the bus. Every face is a shadow of mine: my jaw here, my nose there. Every eye follows me as I hurry past. I’m bumped, then shoved, then I break into a run, throwing the false mes aside, ignoring their protests as they topple from my path. My headache creeps back in, threatening to sunder my skull. My own voice shouts at me from a hundred mouths.
I hear Ellen moving around in the bedroom, just waking up. I sit down and turn on the television, and my fingers leave vivid bloodstains on the remote. I turn and see her in the doorway, but she’s not Ellen. She’s me. My face, imploring me in confusion and mounting panic. My voice, asking me if I’m all right. The only thing missing is the scar, so I grab a kitchen knife.
The headache is better now that I’ve dispatched that pretender. My own distorted face leers at me from every person I pass. It’s too ludicrous not to laugh. I sit down for lunch and a cup of coffee, watching all the pale imitations of myself, and there — there — is somebody who looks different. She’s normal. I can’t take my eyes away. She sees me, and looks uncomfortably away, but I am spellbound.
A lightness builds in my head and then a stretching, like some invisible tail reaching up out of my head and spanning the distance between us. Then I have her eyes again and there’s a feeling of sweet release, like taking off tight shoes at the end of the day. The scar opens up on her cheek, invisible, beneath her skin, but glowing, white-hot.
A passing me asks if I’d like a refill. I scowl and tell me to get lost.
When I look up, the girl across the aisle looks just like me.