She woke up with a gasp. A blur of images; men in masks, a bound girl in the middle of the room, a fading flower. An alarm ringing, insistent. Banishing all tendrils of dream.
As soon as she lifted her head from the pillow, she knew something was wrong. Her head felt heavy – too heavy, as if it was made of something solid and cold. Her first thought was flu, but that couldn’t happen today. The interview.
She forced herself to sit up. There wasn’t any pain. Just a leaden feeling, a stuffiness. The alarm was still flashing, 7.05, 7,05. She had less than two hours to get there. A shower, some pills, a mug of coffee. She could do this.
Standing up in her bare feet, she felt unsteady. It was as if she wasn’t really awake, but still trapped in one of those horrible dreams. If she turned around there would be a man in a mask behind her, lying in her bed, naked – she glanced back. Just her crumpled duvet.
It wasn’t the first time. The nightmares came once a week or more. Perhaps it was the apartment: clinical surfaces, too smooth, too clean, too impersonal. Being here by herself, she often felt like she was stepping into the pages of a book to be closed by the reader. Leaving the building was the only way to start the story again, to become real. She didn’t have time for anxiety today. This was it, this was the big chance. The once-in-a-lifetime, the city job, the lifelong career. Breathe.
In the bathroom, she let the water run first to warm up. The interview. She fumbled in the cabinet for decongestants, benzodiazepines, painkillers… and as she shut the door, she caught the first glimpse of her reflection.
The pills clattered in the sink, spilt across the floor, clinked against the shower door. Gripping the sink, white knuckles, she examined her reflection. A fracture had appeared down the side of her face, stretching from her temple to the corner of her mouth.
She tilted her head this way and that, scrubbed at the mirror with the corner of her shirt and finally reached up to touch her face. Her skin didn’t feel like skin anymore. Shiny, almost porcelain. All the warmth was gone from her face, and as she pressed down on her cheek the crack began to widen.
Reaching into the cupboard, trying to find – an object, anything firm, real. A can of antiperspirant. Pinching herself, drawing blood with her nails. Must be a dream. Still dreaming.
Looking back in the mirror, the fracture was growing bigger. Her phone began to ring. 7.30, the time read on the screen. She rejected the call. The fracture –
Plasters. That would do it. Clumsily opening boxes, peeling off wrappers and carefully placing the sticky part – too small. Two plasters. Three. Skin-coloured, they snaked down her face like a burrowing worm. The phone rang again. The interview.
Call rejected. She slumped in the corner, biting her lip. Even that felt strange, like she was chewing on the rim of a mug. Coffee.
In the kitchen she took a handful of pills, washed down with a strong black coffee, swirling in her stomach. Already, she could feel the nausea coming on. Her phone rang again. This time she looked at the screen: Mum read the caller ID. She answered.
“Sarah?” said the voice on the other end. “I’ve been trying to get hold of you.”
“Sorry,” she mumbled. “Something’s happened. I’m not feeling – I don’t feel good at all.”
“What’s the matter, dear? I just wanted to wish you good luck today.”
“It’s – well it’s going to sound crazy, but…” she paused. “My face is beginning to crack. There’s a line running through my face. It’s fracturing.”
“I see,” her mother replied. “Try not to worry too much about it. It’s probably nothing serious.”
“How could it not be serious? It’s my face!”
“These things happen, don’t they? You’re just nervous. We’re thinking of you.”
“Okay, but you don’t –”
The call cut out. She looked at the phone, placed it carefully on the counter and went back into the bathroom.
Another fracture had appeared. Creeping from the top of her lip down to her chin, a thin black line.
“My name is Sarah, I’m twenty-four years old. I’m, I’m a – I like drawing and hiking and walking my parents’ dog. My name is Sarah.”
As she spoke in the mirror, a fresh fracture appeared on the other side of her mouth. She reached for the plasters, noticed her hands shaking, felt a stinging in her eyes. The interview. That’s all that matters. I have to get to the interview. Four more plasters.
Back in the bedroom, the clock read 7.45. It would take her at least forty minutes to get there, she knew. She’d timed it in the dry run. Everything was waiting for her by the side of her bed; her suit, her portfolio, her handbag and shoes. All arranged neatly like a suit of armour before a battle. She could feel the plasters shifting on her face.
She didn’t want to look again. Instead, she got into the shower. The rest of her body was just the same as usual; her stomach was just as disgusting, her legs could do with a shave, her toenails were begging for another trip to the salon. She was quick, but by the time she got out the clock read 7.55.
As she was buttoning up her shirt, the plasters started to fall off.
One by one, autumn leaves or chrysalis segments, flaking away to reveal –
She looked in the mirror again.
The fractures were everywhere, criss-crossing her face. When she touched her cheek, it came away in her hand, porcelain-thin and sharp against her skin. In the place where her cheek used to be was a white nothingness. A blank space.
Heart racing. Buzzing in veins, prickly skin, panic – detached.
This isn’t real, she told herself, it can’t be. I’m still asleep. The next thought:
A small bottle of superglue in her bedside drawer. Holding the slice of cheek in one hand, she squeezed a trail of glue around the edges. Then, in front of the mirror, she carefully placed the little part of her face back in the right slot and held it steady. After a minute, she let go.
Another piece fell into the sink. Just above her eyebrow, part of her forehead.
By the time she had finished it was 8.15. She would have laughed if she could, but smiling was difficult now.
“I’m Sarah. My name is Sarah.”
She could still talk, at least.
Outside her apartment, the world seemed louder than usual. The cars beeping and pedestrians shouting, newspaper sellers and children crying, the drone, the murmur, the constant. She couldn’t tell if the pills had kicked in or not. She tried not to think about her face as she walked to the metro station, heels clattering on the pavement.
Just one hour, then I can go home. I can go to the hospital. I can have a drink, take something stronger, forget this. Forget about me.
Passing through the barriers, her face was beginning to hurt. A steady, low throb, as if her body was battling to be heard, her blood fighting its way through the ceramic wall, nerves kicking back into life.
By the time she sat down on the train, the pain was incredible. She clenched her knee to stop from crying out. Nobody was looking at her, nobody noticed as her lip shook and her foot started tapping on the floor.
The interview. What would she say? How would they look at her? How could she hope to get a job when she looked like this? Falling away. Thoughts – going to school, meeting people, losing contact, having a birthday party, growing older, leaving home, having sex, watching home videos, family members dying, children walking around in circles and a steady voice throughout. A friendly voice, a voice that commanded respect and obedience. A voice saying – Greenfield Street, Next Stop.
The shapes around her – the people, just shapes, just commuters, just obstacles – bustled against her and ignored her and fought to escape the train first, briefcases crashing into shins and grunted apologies.
The stream of humanity slithered up the escalator and Sarah was among them, within them, inside them. It was like, she thought to herself through the pain, it was like a pilgrimage, but the holy site, the temple or the shrine was just an illusion. Just a scrap of paper trampled into the ground, a pound sign, a dollar.
She didn’t notice the tiny piece of face drift to the floor as the pain subsided. She didn’t hear it crack under the feet of the horde.
The breeze outside the escalator rustled her hair, but she couldn’t feel it on her skin. The sky was grey; exactly the same shade as the building in front of her.
This was it. This was where she was meant to be, the place of the appointment, the building she belonged in. This was where she had to be.
She told them her name.
“Okay. Through those doors. Take a seat. You’ll need this.”
A lanyard was passed through the tiny gap in the glass. Sarah turned away from the reception, wondering why they hadn’t commented on her face. It was if nothing was wrong at all.
She slipped the lanyard over her head. There was a picture on the card: an anonymous face with no features, just a silhouette of a human.
The doors opened up into a long, dark corridor. The further she looked, the fewer lights she could see, as if they had been purposefully dimmed by an unknown being, trailing off into dark shadow. She sat down on the nearest seat and tried not to look into the abyss.
Her left earlobe dropped into her lap.
She sat there for some time, examining it in her hands, more curious now than anything. It reminded her of those chunks of glass you find on a beach as a child, polished by the gentle lap of the waves into something almost beautiful.
A door opened behind her.
“You can come in now. We’re waiting for you.”
It was a musty room illuminated only by soft lamps and LCD screens showing profit charts. Mahogany panels, rich leather seats, no windows. In the gloom she could make out six figures. All wearing suits and all wearing masks. They sat around an oblong table, hands laid out, almost perfectly immobile.
Each mask was identical – a completely blank face with two black eyes and no other features.
“Welcome,” one of them said. “Please, take a seat.”
She sat down facing the masks on a heavy chair with a high back. She tried to smile, and a tiny part of her bottom lip fell onto the table.
“Don’t worry about that,” said the mask opposite her. “Just tell us a little bit about yourself.”
She didn’t feel scared anymore. She didn’t feel nervous, excited, panicky. As she spoke, chunks of her face slid off one by one.
“My name is Sarah,” she said, “and I’m twenty-four years old.” She told them why she wanted to work for them. She told them what she could do for their company. She had done her research, tireless hours of preparation. She was going to get the job. She even showed them her portfolio. This was hers, and she was going to take it. They listened wordlessly, no interruptions, no coughing or clearing of throats, just absolute silence. Already, she could feel the things she knew about Sarah begin to fade. The concept of who she was, the memories and hopes and fears, the people she knew or cared about. Her voice rang out in the long room; reedy and desperate, and by the end it could have been anybody’s voice, anybody’s words.
When she finished, she looked down at the table. The fractured remains of her face stared back at her. Even her eyes were there, gazing up, unmoving.
The man closest to her handed her a box.
“Here. You can put the fragments in this.”
She hesitated, just for a second –
“You do want to work for us, don’t you?”
She picked up the nearest piece – part of her nose – and arranged it carefully in the middle of the box. Then she placed the second piece (a slice of her cheek) next to it. Her lips, she arranged below the nose. Perhaps they will sell it, she mused. A jigsaw for children.
The man reached for the box. She was still holding onto the edge; the corrugated cardboard felt reassuring under her fingertips.
“What are you going to do with it?” She asked. “I mean, where will you take it?”
The man turned to face the others. They shrugged. “We’ll probably throw it in the incinerator.”
She let go of the box. One of the masks stood, lifted her face and carried it out of the room. The door clicked shut behind him.
“One more question,” one of them said to her.
“What is your name?”
“I don’t know,” she replied instantly, and she realised it was true.
“Then we are proud to welcome you to our team,” they said, and this time they spoke together as one.
After that, she followed them out of the room. They all walked in single file down the corridor, into the dark, and the last of the lights dwindled into nothing.
© Copyright David Marriott 2012 – 2016 all rights reserved.