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The Face: Part 6 – Finale!

Part 5

Jane had to muster all her courage to keep her eyes on Peter as he lay on the hospital bed. In the end, she just told herself that she would not have to do so for long. Seven hours in the waiting room had drained her, leaving her practically numb.

Peter wasn’t a pretty sight. The doctor had told Jane that both his legs had been severed from the knee down and that he had half-drowned in the murky water. But the rest, perhaps the doctor hadn’t much time to describe properly. Or the nerve.

Peter’s right eye was closed. A large cotton bandage over the other one.

She tried not to look at the gap beneath the sheets, where his legs should be. She was not ready for that, and all she could think of was football and his bad knee, so much that at a sick moment she nearly laughed at the irony.

She took his remaining butchered hand – there were only three fingers under the bandage – and struggled inside to quiet her turmoil. But how?

His eyes opened. He didn’t smile at her, but she did. At least she tried.

“Hey babe”, she said with a shrill voice. “Looking good.”

He’s quite a mess, the doctor had said.

Peter said nothing – he just looked at her, his single eye sad and bloodshot.

Jane fought back tears. “How are you feeling? Doctor says you’ll be fine”.

He lost a lot of blood and his wounds were infected in the water, the doctor had said.

What was left of Peter’s face was pale, drained, haggard and very, very sad.

His lips moved. “I ‘m sorry”, he whispered.

Jane shook her head violently. “No, no. Don’t say that.” Tears came flooding now. “You’ll be ok, you’ll be out soon.”

He won’t last the night, the doctor had said. Sorry.

Peter squeezed her hand. “The painting…” he muttered, “… it spoke to me.”

Jane stared at him in dismay. Not only was her husband mutilated, he had gone crazy too.

Peter was still speaking, words lost and chewed and swallowed. Jane listened, and knew that she would hear that slow, wheezy, wretched voice for the rest of her life.

“It… spoke. While I drove. It said things – in my ear. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was the painting… It said you’re really unhappy, Pete.’ It said…” he coughed here and spat some blood. “It said… look at your miserable life, Pete. You helped Piper Jack because you were afraid that one day you’d end up like him. You had dreams, Pete, and now you’re cut down. This job, this compromise, this life… you hate it all. You hate your wife, don’t you, Pete? Because you failed, and you didn’t want to face up to the cost.’ And I tried, Jane, I tried to speak to it, to tell it to shut up… but… it’s voice was in my head and I couldn’t stop it because… I’m so sorry, Jane… because I knew it was right. Because I gave up. I settled. I didn’t face up to it. And I pretended…” He began to cry then, and all Jane could do was hold his hand, afraid to feel anything anymore, because she knew that her husband had tried to kill himself.

Peter slept and died an hour later.

Jane returned to an empty house late at night, after having cried herself dry. Fortunately some of Peter’s family took the burden of funeral arrangements and a friend drove her home. The friend offered to stay the night with her, but Jane insisted that she wanted to just be alone. The friend nodded in sympathy and drove off. “If you need anything, call me, no matter what”.

Jane stood at the door, daunted by the silence that loomed over her. It was heavy, oppressing, and the house was dark, like a tomb.

She shut the door behind her and leaned on it. She was exhausted, ragged, torn to shreds. The pain had retreated now, down in one of the chambers of her heart. She felt like screaming and fainting at the same time, she felt like just dropping there on the floor and staying there until she too was dead. A feeling of complete void had spread throughout her body and her limbs felt both light and heavy. And then, in the chaos of light and dark that had seized her mind, an image appeared. It didn’t surprise her.

She was expecting it.

The Face was there, in her mind’s eye, as vivid as if she was looking at it. It came from far away, out of a dark horizon, and drew nearer and nearer. What had happened to it? Did the police take it? Did it wind up in the ravine too? Or was it destroyed when they towed Peter’s truck?

She knew, of course. The face grew in her mind. She could almost touch it. She glanced towards the stairs and saw the blue light again. But she wasn’t dreaming now, was she? She was wide awake. She pushed herself off the door and walked to the light with steady paces. She kicked off her shoes and let her coat drop on the carpet. Reaching the stairs, she stood with her back to the living room’s entrance. She glanced up where the bedroom was. The blue light engulfed her, bright with clarity, easing her mind. And in that mental pause, everything became clear.

The face was only the vessel. It was an avatar of their life, of things lost in the deep, of everyday rituals, of the masks they had worn and worn out.

She turned around. It was there, smiling at her, hanging on the wall. She was not afraid of it anymore. She walked to it, firmly, unflinching from the bright light it cast.

She stood before it and they locked their gazes for a moment, studying each other patiently, both immersed in the blazing blue light, bright, cold and true.

And then she began to laugh. She laughed, until there were tears in her eyes, she laughed like a madwoman, she laughed  and laughed and turned away laughing and walked away and she disappeared into the dark house, her laughs echoing through its walls, rising and falling and cackling and echoing because she had finally seen it, seen it and could not stand to look at it anymore.

The face in the painting was hers.

THE END

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The Face: Part 5

Part 4

“That’s weird. No offence, honey, but it is”. Peter tied the four corners of the towel in a knot and handed it to his wife. It was Sunday morning. Next day. Peter had brought Jane into the bedroom, put her on the bed and brought her a towel filled with ice.

Jane pressed it on her bruised face and sighed. “I know”, she said hoarsely. “And I ‘m scared. All this time, ever since that painting came into the house, I feel like I’ve been losing my mind.” Tears welled up in her eyes. “I’m seeing it change faces, do things, speak, laugh… and then I’m having a nightmare about you sleepwalking, but no, it’s me sleepwalking and falling down the stairs!” She began to sob.

Peter stroke her hair gently. “I don’t know”, he said. “Maybe it was me yelling at you like I did last night. I ‘m really sorry about that, honey. Don’t know what got into me.”

She managed to smile under her bruises. There was her Pete. “It’s okay”, she whispered. “I know that painting means a lot to you.”

Peter waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t matter. I love you more than anyone else, including myself. If that thing is disturbing you, it’s gone.”

Jane was surprised. “Really?”

Peter took her hand into his. “That’s right. Actually, I’m going downstairs right now and taking it off the wall. Our peace – your peace – is more important than any gift.” With that he stood, kissed her softly on the brow and turned to make good his promise.

“Pete?”

“Yeah?”

“You know, I was just wondering about what you said in the dream. About your lost dream, about trying to find happiness and all. I just wanted to ask you about it.”

He laughed. “Honey, it was your dream.”

“Yeah, I know, but – well, you know what they say about dreams.”

“Well?”

“Do you really feel like that? Unhappy?”

He looked down for a moment, and put his hands in his pockets. Jane knew that posture; it was his body language for deep thought.

“Oh, come on”, he said in the end. “Do I look unhappy?”

“No…”

“I’ve got a great home, and I ‘m married to the woman I love. What more could a man want?”

“His football career, perhaps?”

He looked at her, a little sternly, and she wondered if she did well to ask the question. Then his face changed and she knew that she could expect an honest answer. “Look”, he said. “Sure it bothers me – ruining my knee and my quarterback career in one go ain’t exactly the best thing that ever happened to me. But what am I going to do? It was an accident and I have to live with it. That’s the way things are. You lose some, you win some. So in that sense, yes, I could say that I’m unhappy. But when I look at you”, his face brightened here, “I know that happiness doesn’t come from only one place. Life goes on – and I can say I’m happy it does.”

She smiled at him, her tears now of joy. “It does, babe. And I love you too. I know how hard it must be – I see your face every time a game’s on. And I think you are a strong man to be able to see past your losses. Ouch.” She put the ice back on her aching face that was throbbing now with all her talking, and smiled sheepishly. She could feel it – the peace of the rituals was coming back.

“Well, enough sugar for today. I’ll go lose the painting.”

In the evening, as she came down to make his black coffee, Jane stood on the lower step and looked into the living room. She stood there for a while, savouring the empty space where the face hung until the day before. She felt a weight lift off her, and she sighed with relief. She was going to make her husband the best coffee in the world.

While she watched over the boiling water, feeling the hot steam on her swollen face, she wondered a little about it. It was off the wall and out of the house, but what had he done with it? After he left in morning, she had slept for most of the day.

Oh well, she thought. It’s gone. Hopefully he’ll dump it in the swamp. Or burn it. I’m good with either.

A car pulled up the front driveway. Before she looked out of the window, she knew that it was not Peter’s truck, familiar as she was with the deep, rumbling sound of its engine.

It was a patrol car. Jane was at the door before she had a chance to wonder what the police were doing at her house.

The young officer looked solemn when he came out of the car. He was in his mid-twenties and obviously new at giving people bad news. When he told Jane about Peter’s accident, he fumbled with his cap. When Jane screamed and began to weep, he cried too.

The waiting room in the hospital was crowded. It took time for Jane to realise that all those hysterical people were somehow related by the same accident. From fragments of sobbing stories, she got the whole picture before she went in to see her husband.

Peter had been heading down Highway 23, the one that passed by river. It was early and still dark. The road was wet too – it always was over there, especially in the winter when the banks flooded.

Pater came at a crossroad but for some reason, he didn’t stop – not even when he saw the massive lights of an oncoming semi coming from the opposite direction. Neither did he seem to hear its blaring horn. He just let his vehicle cross over to the semi’s lane and, just before collision, he swerved to the right.

After the semi smashed into his side, Peter’s truck was pushed for about a quarter mile, falling on its side, co-driver’s seat screeching on the asphalt, hitting three pedestrians and taking two sedans and a motorcycle with it.

Strangely, Peter’s truck slid away even after the mass of twisted metal and torn bodies had stopped – some six hundred yards from the initial point of collision – and disappeared inside a ravine. When the police arrived, they found Peter’s truck with its face immersed in water, the carriage sticking out of the slimy, brown surface, loaded with the weirdest painting they had ever seen.

To be continued…

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The Face: Part 4

Part 3

Her clenched hand opened stiffly, walked over to the living room and closed her eyes. She already knew what she was going to see when she would open them: Peter talking to the face, and the face answering back to him, being some haunted antiquity of some sort, some portal to hell from where the infernal blue light came – so hell was blue, then, not flaming red – and then Peter would be sucked into it or something, or made to chant some unholy incantation from the depths of darkness that would unleash nightmarish hordes of imprisoned demons that would fill the world and –

She opened her eyes. In that fraction of a second the blue light went off and the house was dark again. She blinked furiously and it took some time before her vision readjusted. When it did, she saw Peter’s back. He was naked, standing in front of the face and staring at it. Jane thought about turning on the lights, but then she remembered something about not waking somnambulists. What if Peter was sleepwalking?

She came up behind him quietly. She squinted in the gloom: his eyes were wide and glassy, staring inanely at the painting. He was sleepwalking alright. But Jane was not. She had heard two voices, two echoing voices, and that blue light had been real just a minute ago. What had just happened? She looked at the face and frowned. It was still as impassive as ever. She turned to her husband. Now what? Peter was just standing there, his dead eyes fixed on the face.

She decided to wait. She sat heavily on the sofa and watched Peter. He had never sleepwalked before. Why now? And why stand there? What could have triggered it? Stress? There was not much in his work – true, he had a responsibility as a night-guard, but he’d been doing that for years and it was more boring than dangerous. No, then – not stress.

“No”, said Peter.

Jane flinched and jumped up.

Peter was still staring at the face, but his lips were moving. “No”, he said again. “It isn’t stress, Jane. It’s all this life. It’s the lost dream and the lost chance of seeing that dream come true and having to keep on living without it. It is trying to find happiness away from it and pretending that things are still okay. But they’re not, Jane, and it gnaws at your soul like a woodworm, and it hurts like hell. And really”, he said and turned around, his eyes looking at her without seeing her, “all that pain must lead somewhere.”

The first blow took her by surprise. Her head swam and she felt half her face burning. Her nose was wet and warm and when she looked up she only saw Peter’s heavy hand coming down on her again. She managed to yelp, but this second stroke sent her sliding across the floor to the stairs. Senses failing, Jane turned on her back and raised her arms to protect from the oncoming beating, but Peter was gone. In a split second he had disappeared and she had been left there, bleeding and laying by the bottom stair.

She rose painfully on one elbow. She knew her face was swelling and could not stop crying, more from shock than pain. Her eyes searched the room frantically, but everything seemed quiet, still, and ordinary. She sat there on the floor, trying to catch her breath and put some order in her head. And then her eyes came to rest on it. Actually, she felt as if they had been drawn to it.

The face. It was clearly changed now, grinning widely in its malicious way, eyes bulging in contempt. Jane couldn’t take her eyes off it and felt again as if she was being drawn to it, as if she was called to crawl to it and –

A thunder came from upstairs. Her senses were still reeling and it took time to understand that all the noise she heard was nothing more than her husband slamming the bedroom door behind him and running down the stairs to her.

She cowered as he suddenly towered over her. But this time he knelt beside her, his face scarred with shock.

“Jane? Honey? Babe, are you okay? What happened?”

Jane looked up at him dumbly for a moment, wondering if he was making fun of her. No, his worried face was sincere. This was her Peter.

“Honey, your face! It – What did – you fell down the stairs?” He lifted her head gently and she pulled on his sturdy arms to raise herself.

“You broken anything? How do you feel?”

She whimpered suddenly and then hid her swelling face in his chest and began to sob. He was surprised at this but nonetheless held her firmly, taking the weight of her battered body.

Peter glanced around, trying to figure out what had happened. Had she been sleepwalking? His eyes came to rest on the face. For a crazy moment he thought he saw it change expression – eyes bulging over a malicious, mocking grin – but then he realised it was only the streetlights from outside sending a sallow light on the canvas, a sickly ray of light now and then broken by some trees skeletal branches moving in the night winter’s wind.

To be continued…

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Faster wound healing from bioengineered growth factors

New article! And for once, it’s biology!

A group at EPFL has vastly improved the efficiency of growth factors in wound healing and bone formation. How’d they do that, you ask? Well, they fused growth factors with a 22-amino acid sequence that increases their affinity for proteins on the extracellular matrix. In fact, what they did is so cool that they are publishing in Science today.

Feast your eyes upon the article here.

–Nik

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The Face: Part 3

Part 2

What just happened? That wasn’t Peter. No.

Not her husband, the kind, caring man she loved.

That grin on his face –

That tone in his voice –

Those angry eyes –

– someone else.

She unfolded her legs and stood slowly. Her hands were still shaking, but she felt a little calmer now. Do something. But what?

Give him some time, have some tea… then go upstairs and see if they could talk about it.

About it?

About what? The painting? His shouting?

Or was there something else?

Because that wasn’t just anger in Peter’s eyes. That wasn’t just anger at all, was it?

No, it was more than that.

That’s why I’m shaking. I just don’t want to see it.

That was murder.

Right, she thought, and wiped her eyes. Get some tea.

She walked to the hall, and stopped. No. Don’t look at it. Not now.

The face was behind her, across the room. And she felt its eyes on her, burning into her back, heavy on her shoulders. And yet, she wanted to turn around, lock eyes with it again like that first day, and face it.

Face it. Deal with it. She spoke with it the day it came, and she could do it again.

Face it.

She was half-turned when she heard the laughter again. Not like that morning two months ago, but now it was a snicker, a nasty giggle that filled her ears like little spiders, her head, the living room and the house, loud as a thunder.

She froze into place. Peter can hear it. No way he can’t hear it. It’s so loud… please, hear it. Please. Please. PLEASE…

… and then it stopped.

She never made the tea. She stood there for a long time, half-turned towards the face, long after the laughing stopped and everything was quiet, and she knew, she knew that only she had heard it.

When she did manage to move, it was a good twenty minutes later. Only then could she look at it.

There it was, this token of Peter’s friendship to an old wino, hanging over the mirror. It didn’t look any different. Except…

… except that a large pink tongue was sticking out of its lips, and the eyes were wide gaping black holes.

She almost screamed, she took a step back, and fell on the sofa.

Of course, when she looked up again, it was just the same painting Peter had brought in: no tongues, no lips, no mocking, no holes.

Just a face.

 ***

She climbed the stairs and entered their bedroom silently. Peter was already asleep – but then again, it never took him long. She looked at him for a while, watching him snore under the covers, and something like a smile parted her lips. She loved him, and she knew that he loved her too. And she felt at that moment that as long as things remained so, if love was there bonding the two of them, then everything was going to be alright. Love conquers all – where had she read that? – and love could get them through – through what? – and love could beat the face downstairs and bring peace back into their home – why had it left in the first place?

Love. She lay beside him and caressed his shoulder tenderly. She was not going to give him anymore trouble about the painting. Love lives on sacrifices. And with that firm resolution, Jane fell asleep.

Her eyes tore open and she could feel her pulse pounding on her temples. It was still dark outside and she glanced at the alarm clock. It was nearly 3 am. And then she noticed what had roused her.

Peter was gone. On his side was nothing but ruffled sheets and covers.

Normally, Jane would have fallen back to sleep, sure that her husband had simply gotten up to go to the bathroom or something like that. But lately things had been far from normal and if she knew anything, it was that she couldn’t rely on rituals anymore.

She sprung out of bed and put her bunny slippers on. Then she walked to the door and listened before opening it. She thought for a moment that she could hear voices, a soft murmur of a conversation scraping on the heavy silence that wrapped the house. She strained to listen more carefully. She couldn’t make out any words, but the murmur came from somewhere like a tunnel or a cave or something, because whatever was spoken dragged a tail of echo behind it.

Jane put her hand on the door handle and pressed it downwards. It was unusually cold, almost frozen. Now she was out of the bedroom and she could hear clearly that the voices were coming from the living room, and she could catch a glimpse of a blue light at the bottom of the stairs. Did they buy a new lamp she didn’t know about? But she was sure that one of the voices was Peter’s – the soft, raspy murmur she was used to hear on those timeless moments after they had made love. Actually, his whispers had the same tone now. She walked down the stairs slowly, hesitant, fearful, each step bringing her lower and closer to the echoing murmurs, and the blue light grew brighter and brighter. She shivered when it touched her bare ankles.

She was standing on the floor now, but she could not let go of the rail. The murmurs were loud now, and the echoing reverberated through the house.

But still she couldn’t make out the words.

To be continued…