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The Face: Part 2

(Part1)

It finally went on the living room wall, watching over the larger part of the house. When Peter went back down the basement to pack in his hammer and nails, Jane stared at the face. She wasn’t sure, but when she finally took her eyes off it she felt that a kind of communication had passed between them.

Not that she could repeat any of it.

The next morning came, bright and sunny and golden. Jane woke up and looked at the alarm clock – was that the time? She was getting lazy, she thought, and flung the covers off.

She didn’t really notice it coming down the stairs, hurrying as she was to get everything ready before Peter came, the black coffee and the ritual. She was going to check the alarm clock, make sure it rings tomorrow –

– wait.

It was Friday. Tomorrow would start the weekend. As the kettle hissed and bubbled, she placed her hands firmly on the counter, leaned on it, shut her eyes and breathed out.

That’s when she heard it.

Laughter. Muffled, coming from the living room, loud and crackling, and Jane spun around, her heart beating like crazy.

Silence.

She stood there for a while, waiting from her heart to slow down. When it did, all she could hear was a buzzing fly in the heavy quiet of the house.

She walked to the living room wide-eyed, the only sound the shuffling of her slippers on the wooden floor. She looked around, half-expecting someone to leap out of the corners.

Nothing.

But she heard it, didn’t she? She was sure if it, as sure as she was that there was someone coming up on her from behind –

When she turned, two things happened: first, she was blinded by a sudden flash. Second, she realised that she was holding the carving knife in her right hand, its sharp blade reflecting the morning sunrays pouring into the house.

She lowered the knife slowly, and for the first time that day, she remembered the painting. It was right there on the wall, staring at her with those eyes, its mouth twisted in a peculiar way, a strange crook that seemed like a smile, but a mocking one.

“Good morning”, she mumbled, and ran to get the hissing kettle off the stove.

 ***

Another week passed, rituals and all, even though Jane attached another one to the larger play: Every morning, just as she came down the stairs to the kitchen, she looked at the painting. It was more of a quick, mechanical glance, first unconscious and then a habit: Down the last three steps, thud on the floorboards with her bunny slippers, turning around to the kitchen, and she would see it, a fast click like a snapshot.

It was later, much later, that Jane realised that she was slowly building an album of the face in her mind. Had she known, she would perhaps have taken the time to look at her gallery in a row, to compare images. By the time she finally did it, the result was hardly surprising anymore.

And so the autumn carried on, with its everyday rituals and routines, and the face became part of them. It blended in with everything else like a chameleon, not as dominating as it was at first, but in a way friendly, benign. It fitted in. It became part of Peter and Jane’s daily life, smiling at their joys or frowning for their troubles. But always slightly, ever so slightly, its veneer seemed permanently imbued with an imperceptible mockery.

“You’re overreacting”. Peter opened his beer can and took a long, satisfying swig. “Aaah”, he said and stretched his legs across the floor. Then he looked at Jane, who sat huddled on the other end of the sofa with her knees under her chin.

“I mean, come on, it’s just a painting”, he went on. “Look at it!” He pointed at the face on the wall.

Jane shook her head. “I’m telling you, that thing is weird. I have this strange feeling every morning, like it’s watching me.”

“‘Watching’ you?” Peter’s brow arched.

“Yeah. Me, us, the house… I don’t know, it’s crazy –”

He grinned. “Hey. Is this some kind of wheedling trick? Y’ know, trying to make me get rid of the painting? Don’t you think it’s a little late for that?”

She sighed, angry. “You’re not taking me seriously.”

“Sure I am.” He was still grinning, but it was an alien, sarcastic grin she’d never seen before. “In fact, I’ve heard legends tell that this face is actually alive. Yeah. Like a Stephen King book, huh?” He got up and walked to the painting. “Hey, Mr Face. Whassup? Wanna pull some faces for us tonight?”

The Face just stared back, unaffected. Jane noticed that she’d been holding her breath.

Peter put up his can. “Maybe you want a cold one first?”

“Pete…”

“How ’bout it?” He was shouting to it now. “Hell-ooo?” He knocked on the wooden frame, and the noise made Jane jump. “Anyone home?” He turned around and looked at his wife. “Guess not.”

She glared at him. “That’s not funny.”

“Oh, come on, hon.” Another swig. “It really bothers you, doesn’t it?” He glanced at the face over his shoulder. “You know how important it is though,” he added thoughtfully. “To me.”

“Yeah, Piper Jack.” She honestly never meant it to say it like that.

Too late. Peter’s eyes flashed. “Yeah, Piper Jack. What about him, huh? What’s so wrong with keeping an old man’s memory alive? But everyone’s like that – everyone’s forgot how good he was once – he was a pilot at the Korean war! He was even wounded; decorated twice! Did you know that? Did you? Of course not. Why? Because you’re just like everyone else – you don’t care. Man, this world is a jungle: A good man falls and everyone kicks him while he’s down. Everyone’s just out for their selves. Well, I was Piper Jack’s friend – his only friend – and that’s why he left me that painting, and it’s staying right where it is. Goodnight!”

He stormed out the living room, leaving her there on the sofa staring at the air behind him. She took a few deep breaths to calm herself. It didn’t work. Five minutes later she was still there, knees under her chin and a tear in her eyes.

To be continued…

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The Face: Part 1

This is a novella (a short story that’s a bit too big to be a short story) that I wrote over a decade ago.  Since it’s too long to publish in one go on the Internet, I thought I’d do it in a series. Hope you like it!

***

The Face

The painting came on a grey autumn morning, riding on the back of Peter’s truck. Jane would never forget that day: It rained later on, but right then the wind was strong enough to pull the wrapping cloth away and make poor Peter chase it around the yard.

Peter worked as a night guard at the Dunns. The Dunns – named after the founding family – was a small shoe factory about ten miles away from their house. Peter got a job there after he wrecked his knee and couldn’t count on his football skills to provide the two of them with the daily bread.

He always joked about it though.

He’d been working at the Dunns for almost two years when the painting came. When it came. Jane couldn’t put it any other way: Peter didn’t bring it. It came.

So it was one of those ugly, grey, freezing Tuesday mornings, around half-six, and there she was, standing in her purple robe, waiting to hear the engine roar as she stared at the big Snoopy mug with the plate on top to keep the coffee warm. Black. That’s the way Peter drank it. Said it suited him. A big black coffee for her man.

The truck pulled up the front yard and Jane flinched. She knew the ritual: He’d come in, heavy boots on the front porch – and staying on the front porch – and he’d come inside in his socks, he’d grab her, kiss her and stroke her hair. Then she’d give him the Snoopy mug and he’d take one long swig, set it down, smack his lips, go “mm-hmm” and say that he just loved the taste of his wife’s coffee right after his wife’s lips. Then she’d laugh, and the day would begin.

There had been a time when she would spend those mornings – grey ones, sunny ones – wishing that the ritual would change; today, maybe tomorrow. But after a while she spent mornings – grey ones, sunny ones – telling herself that rituals were good, that they meant something, that they gave life steadiness; something like an iron bar you could hang on to when your ship was being stormed to pieces – and boy, did she know about storms.

Like the day the painting came.

Peter didn’t come straight in that morning. Jane was looking at the Snoopy mug, telling herself about how good rituals are and all that, and suddenly she realised that Peter was still outside, by the truck, calling her.

She wondered if she should take the mug with her but decided not to.

She went out to the front porch.

“Mornin’, baby! What’s happenin’?” Her voice was always hoarse this early.

Peter waved and walked behind the truck. “Mornin’, sugar. Got you somethin’, thought you should see it before I brought it in.”

All Jane could see was a big flat object, covered in a white cloth. Looked like a window. “What’s that?” she asked, starting to get suspicious like any rational woman at a moment like this: the moment when he brings something into the house, and that something is not expected.

Peter straightened the object and Jane mechanically placed herself in front of the door, like a guard.

Peter stretched out his hand.

Jane took a deep breath. It was cold out here.

Peter pulled the cloth off.

Jane didn’t breathe out. She just stared at it. And it stared back. Because that was what it was.

A face. That was the first thing that struck her. A face. The fact that it was a painting sank in later.

Or maybe it never did.

She was speaking now, fast. “There’s no way on earth that thing is coming into the house. No way.”

Peter’s face fell. “You don’t like it? C’mon, baby, it’s art. Kinda weird, sure, but that’s the whole thing about it. It’s modern art!”

Jane kept shaking her head. “No. No. No!

And then Peter looked down at his feet. He did that when he got serious. “Look, just listen to me for a second – there’s a story here.” Remember old Piper Jack?” Piper Jack used to teach at an aviation school, teaching folks to fly Piper Cherokees. After crashing with one of his students, he developed a bad case of the shakes that eventually beat him down to the lonely old drunk everyone knew him to be: an old alky with no one to share his war stories except a mangy brown tomcat that pooped all over the house. When they found his rotting body earlier in the summer – a steaming hot week after he died – the coroner put down the cause of death as either the bottle or the cat’s filth.

Jane stopped shaking her head and peeled her eyes off the painting. It didn’t take its eyes off her. “Piper Jack? What about him?”

“Well, here’s the story. Remember we used to think the old man had no family? Well, it turns out he had this cousin, right? So, since he didn’t bother making a will before he passed, all of his stuff – including this painting – went to her. I can’t imagine where he even got it from – he didn’t strike me as the artistic type. Anyway, get this”, he said, and pulled a folded piece of paper out of his back pocket, “when the cousin came over to collect Jack’s things, she finds this note taped behind it. It says: ‘In the event of my death, this painting is to pass on to Peter Belder, for his kindness towards me during my old age.’ Can you believe that? I just helped him cross the street a couple of times – that’s all. Didn’t like it one bit either, him reeking of whisky like he did. Anyway, the note is signed and all, so the cousin comes in yesterday evening at work – very polite and all, didn’t look like old Jack one bit – and gives me this painting. It spooked me at first, but after spending the whole night with it, it kinda grew on me.”

Jane tried to sympathise. “Baby, I still don’t see why this… this thing has to go into our house. You want to keep it, fine, but do we have to put it in public view?”

Peter shook his head. “You don’t get it? It’s not about the painting. When I asked the cousin what she was going to do with the rest of Piper Jack’s stuff, she told me that it was going to either charity or auction. Scattered to the four winds. So you see”, he said and looked at it, “this painting here is all that remains of the old fella. It was a present. It don’t feel right, just burying it somewhere, know what I mean?”

Jane sighed. He had a point. And now that she took a calmer look at it, the face didn’t seem as hideous as it first did. It actually seemed a bit friendly too, something like a faint smile on its lips. In fact, the artist must have been a genius – the face seemed to change expressions when you looked at it from different angles.

“So what’d you say, baby?” Peter was giving her puppy eyes as the final resort.

“Okay”, she said, still looking at the face that suddenly seemed satisfied. “Okay. But I say which wall it goes up, right?”

Peter beamed. “Sure, honey. Whatever you say. Thanks.” He began to untie it. “I love you”, he said, but she had gone back into the kitchen.

By the time he brought the face inside, the coffee had gone cold. He didn’t even touch it though, preoccupied as he was with their new acquisition. Jane poured the black liquid down the sink while Peter went down to the basement to get a hammer and nails. It was later, much later, that Jane realised that their ritual had been broken.

He didn’t kiss her either.

To be continued…

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New Science Question

I have a new Science Question out over at EPFL, once again subtly and delicately marked on a screenshot so you know where to go. Just click on the image below:

Sans titre-1

Go on, give it a shot! It’s multiple choice too, so you DON’T EVEN NEED A KEYBOARD! Can you believe that? We’re living in the future!

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Spintronics: deciphering a material for future electronics

New article on EPFL!

Do you know what topological insulators are? Other than a fancy term from The Big Bang Theory (S04E14 for those who care)? Well, these materials hold the key to a future where electronics are replaced by spintronics: using the spin of electrons rather than their charge, which can open up a bunch of cool technologies. Like faster computers. So fast, in fact, that they’ll make your head spin. Get it? Spin?

… hello?

Fine. Let’s just stick to the science.

– Nik