1

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…

1

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

0

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…

0

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…

2

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…