By Melissa R. Mendelson
The smell was sickening, but nobody seemed bothered by it. People on the left sat in large, black seats with hood dryers over their heads, covering their faces. People on the right were positioned in short, black seats with their hands held inside white, metallic boxes, some flinching from the pain. I slouched on the couch but then sat up, trying to sit up straight, only to fall back a moment later, and my head craned over my shoulder to look out the window behind me. He was still there, standing across the street with a cardboard sign that screamed: This Is My Face!
A short, Asian woman approached me and smiled. She gestured to the right, and I looked down at my hands. I didn’t need to alter my fingerprints. I was here for a different reason, and I reached into my pocket, pulling out a crumpled, orange ticket. Her eyes narrowed as she looked at it, but she still smiled, nodded and walked away.
It took everything to get this, this piece of orange paper. I even took a loan out, promising to pay the guy back, but he waved it off. He said that I had two months to pay him, and I asked what would happen, if I was late. He responded that he wouldn’t have his guys come and beat me up. They would just rip off my face.
“This way, please.” The same woman gestured for me to follow her, but that was the last time, where she would look at me. “Over here.” She noticed that I had stopped by the people on the left, trying to see their face. Did they afford it, or were they like me? I rubbed my chin, touched my cheek, and then I realized that she was still watching me. She led me all the way to the back. There was nothing here. Was the orange ticket not good enough? Was I scammed, but the white door nearby opened. The room looked like a storage closet with a brown, leather chair in the middle. On the floor beside it was white buckets, some still had blood on it. Now was the time to run especially when an older Asian man stepped my way, his apron coated in blood.
“Ticket,” he said.
“Here.” I handed him the ticket, but my hand would not open. “Sorry. Nerves,” and he took the ticket from me.
“This way, please.” He gestured toward the chair in the room. “Have a seat.” He nodded to the woman, and she hurried off, avoiding eye contact. “You’re getting a loaner?”
“What?” I sat down in the seat. “No. I gave up everything not for a loaner. Is that what the ticket says?”
The man read it again. “No. Sorry. No loaner, but no rich face.” He gestured toward one bucket near my foot. “You can only have one of those.”
I looked over into the bucket. Faces floated in a white foamy substance. My stomach curled into my throat, but I pushed the bile down. I reached toward one face, but I noticed the man shake his head. I looked again and pointed at where I was reaching.
“Will it hurt?” I sat back in my seat, resting my head against the hard cushion beneath it.
“You won’t feel a thing.” I didn’t even see the other Asian man standing behind me, holding a large syringe. “This will just pinch,” and he shoved the needle into my neck, my body jerked from the injection. And the room went dark.
The smell was worse. It was everywhere, inside my nose, on my tongue. I gagged on it and gagged again. I thought that I was going to throw up. What the hell was that stench, and why was it all over me? But when I tried to move my hands, I found them restrained.
“What? Let me go.” My vision was hazy. The eyelids didn’t seem to work right. “Why am I restrained?”
“Relax.” It was that man with the syringe. “Just give it a moment or two.” He watched me gag. “Do you need a bucket?”
Before I could say something, he shoved a small pink bucket in front of me. “No, I think I’m okay, but really, what is that smell?”
“Are you serious?” The man with the bloody apron walked into the room. He quickly removed the restraints wrapped around my wrists, and I immediately reached up to touch my face. But he grabbed one hand in a tight grip. “Do not touch your face,” he said. “We don’t need another incident here.”
“She will show you to your chair.” He pointed to another Asian woman, and she too would not make eye contact with me. “Do not touch your face. Understand?”
“Yes, I understand.” My lips felt funny as if I were talking through a mask, and I cringed at that thought. “Can I look?”
“This way.” The woman hurried away.
“Please, follow her.” The man with the bloody apron slammed the white door shut.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” I muttered, and again, my lips felt funny like plastic. “Don’t touch your face,” I muttered to myself. “But I want to scratch it so bad.”
I quickly caught up to the woman, and she gestured toward an empty large, black seat with a hood dryer. I sat down and flinched as she slammed the hood dryer over my head. How long was I supposed to sit like this, and oh good, someone turned on the news. I would’ve preferred a Reality Show like Rich Faces, but instead, I was stuck watching this. And I reached toward my face.
“Don’t touch it.” A woman nearby lowered her magazine to look at me. I couldn’t see her face with the hood dryer over it. “Just sit still, and watch the news.”
“I hate the news,” I said.
“Me too, but you’ll be sitting here for awhile like me.”
“How long is awhile?”
She checked her watch. “Over twenty minutes,” she said.
“Why won’t anyone look at me? They made eye contact when I walked in, so what changed?”
“You did.” She resumed reading her magazine. “It goes against their belief in what we’re doing.” She said nothing else.
I sighed and pulled at my shirt. I was getting hot under the hood dryer. What if my face melted off like in that Indiana Jones movie? I couldn’t think like that, and nobody forced me to do this. This was my decision. I couldn’t land a job with my real face, that face that everyone made fun of all my life, but now I could. Now, I could be someone.
“Can I have my real face back?”
It was just a question that slipped through my lips and out into the air, and an Asian woman walking by froze at my words. “No,” she hissed. “What’s done is done,” and she stormed away.
“What’s done is done,” I repeated, hoping that it wasn’t so loud this time.
“Is the president really who he says he is?” A reporter leaned forward, staring at me through the screen. She gingerly touched her face before continuing. “There is still speculation that President Nole is not being honest about his real self, but searches into his true identity have run cold. Any allegations that have surfaced are now being disputed, but without fingerprint evidence, those allegations are most likely to be dismissed. And President Nole is still denying being scanned by the optical, so the question will just remain. Is the president really who he says he is?”
“Doubtful,” a man nearby muttered. His hands were released from a white, metallic box. “Now, I can visit my ex-wife,” and I flinched at his words.
I could understand the need for changing faces, but why was altering fingerprints as much a big thing? It just gave people like that guy a license to do whatever they wanted, and I watched him walk outside. The police would never know that it was him, and was that even his real face? Or would an optical do him in? I hated those things, those red lasers scanning your eyes, verifying your real identity. They looked like little black cans with a red eyeball, and the police just loved to use them when they pulled you over. And then I remembered that I was told that my eyes would be sensitive after my face change. I would have to make sure to try and not get pulled over. At least, I still had my own fingerprints, but in today’s world, that doesn’t even matter.
“Next top story. Mother wants to change her four-year-old’s face,” the same reporter said.
“Jesus,” I muttered. “I need to get out of here.”
“Ten minutes more,” I heard someone say, not realizing that my eyes were closed, and those ten minutes felt like eternity.
The fresh air smelled so good, so crisp, but it didn’t last. That stench crawled across it, and funny enough, my stomach growled. I was told not to eat anything prior to the face change, and I was starving. I also didn’t want to go home right away. My parents would be there, and I didn’t want to face them.
I looked across the street at that man with the sign that screamed: This Is My Face! He sat on the curb, watching traffic go by, the sign resting at his feet, facing my way. His face was covered in defeat, but his eyes were razor sharp, piercing like that needle to my neck. And I rubbed at that spot as I turned away and walked down the strip mall toward Burgerings, a fast-food joint.
“Have some hungering for some Burgerings? Well, don’t you fret. They are sizzling, appetizing, and tasty, you bet.”
I couldn’t help but smile, but did my face even move? “They pay you extra to say that?”
“I wish.” The girl behind the counter glanced over at her manager, who had a dollar sign on his cheek. “Whatever. What can I get you, new face?”
She pointed at my face. “I can tell when people have their face change. This is my face, but you like what I did to it?” She pointed to the tiger stripes on each cheek. They were beautiful, and she smiled, almost as if she knew that I approved. “It was a birthday gift,” she said.
“My parents. Now, what do you want? I suggest if you’re eating for the first time to keep it small. Chicken fingers or fries, and definitely use a straw with your drink. We’ve seen some horror shows that don’t do that.” She cringed, almost as if she remembered one incident. “So?”
“Fries and a milkshake. Vanilla milkshake.”
I reached into my pocket and pulled out a ten. That was the last of my money. I would have to borrow from my parents now, but I had set up a few job interviews for next week. With this new face, I would surely land one of them, if not all of them, and then I realized something. I hadn’t seen my new face yet.
“I wouldn’t do it.” She grabbed my order and held it out to me.
“Do what,” I asked.
“Go to the bathroom, and look at your face. We’ve had some horror shows in the bathroom here too. Some very vivid horror shows. One even made a few people quit, but I have a strong stomach. Have a good day.”
“You too.” I took my order and walked away, finding a small table near the window. “Horror shows,” I muttered, and no, I did not want to be one of those horror shows.
I poked my face a couple of times with the straw before finally placing it between my lips. Chewing the fries was even stranger, almost uncomfortable. What if I got a piece of food stuck under my skin? I almost gagged at that thought and pushed the fries to the side. I still finished the milkshake.
I was about to leave when I noticed three men approach the fast-food place. They wore baggy jeans and worn shirts. One even had on a brown overcoat. All three of them had their heads wrapped up in dirty bandages. They were what people called, Mummers. Most of the time, you couldn’t even understand them, but they didn’t have lips.
“No. No.” The manager with the dollar sign on his cheek nearly launched over the counter, heading straight for the Mummers. “Get out! We don’t serve your kind.”
“Ungering,” one said.
“Ies,” the second said.
“Ease,” the third begged.
“Get out, or I’ll call the cops. You know how they feel about you.”
I flinched, remembering a video that went viral last week. A police officer beating one of those Mummers to a bloody pulp. No one knew how that incident got started, but nobody would forget how it finished. What if I became like one of them? No, I couldn’t think like that. I’ll pay that guy back, so no, I won’t be like one of them. But then I realized that all three of them were staring at me.
“Get out,” the manager yelled on top of his lungs. “Now!”
“Ew,” the first one said.
“Ace,” the second added.
The third said nothing.
“Fuck,” I muttered under my breath. “What was that all about?” I watched them walk outside, but they didn’t leave. They sat down in the parking lot, facing my way. “Shit,” I said.
“They know a fresh face when they see one.” I didn’t realize that the manager was standing next to me. He grabbed the empty milkshake off the table and threw it into a nearby trash can. “I would make a run for it now before dark. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories about them ripping new faces off.”
“Shit,” I said. “My car’s the blue one right out there. Could you please keep watch until I get to it?”
“Sure,” but the manager turned away the moment that I went outside.
“Asshole.” I had brought the fries outside with me, almost as a peace offering, and placed them near the Mummers, but not too close. I wasn’t an idiot, and then I broke out into a run toward my car. I didn’t look back until I jumped inside and locked the door. When I looked outside, I expected to see them right there, leaning against the glass, but no, they were still sitting where they were. They looked my way, and a moment later, the third one grabbed the fries. And I thought I was afraid of my parents.
The ride to the strip mall felt like a long drive, but driving home was even longer. I made every red light, and normally, that would irritate the hell out of me. But today, I was grateful to be caught in the red. It gave me time to rehearse what I would say inside my head, and I felt confident about the talk that waited for me at home. That confidence died the moment that I parked the car.
“You got this.” I steadied myself as I stepped outside and pocketed the keys. “What are they going to tell you? Go back and get your real face? What’s done is done.” I walked up to the front door. I started to knock but then lowered my hand. “What am I doing?” I took the keys out of my pocket. I was about to unlock the door when it opened, and my father waited on the other side. “Hi, Dad,” I said.
He was quiet for a moment, first looking at me, and then focusing on my car. “I guess that loan that you took out was not for a new car.”
“How’d you know that I took out a loan,” but he didn’t answer me, walking away instead. “Dad?”
I stepped inside the house and flinched at the sound of my father’s study door slamming shut. “Mom? I’m home.” I closed the door behind me and tried to step away, but my feet wouldn’t move. “Mom?”
“In the kitchen.” I couldn’t tell by that voice if she was upset or angry. It was worse when I could never tell. “Well, you coming inside?”
I moved toward the kitchen, playing with the keys in my hand. I glanced up and found her seated at the table. No drink or food. She was waiting for me, not surprised by what I did. How did they know about the loan? Did that guy call the house? Did he stop by? It was my problem not theirs, and I didn’t want them to know. I avoided her gaze, still playing with the keys, but then I placed them on the table.
“Look at me, Dave,” and I did. Her face did not soften, but it was her face, beautiful and soft unlike my father’s, his own but aged and worn. “Okay,” she said.
“It was your decision.”
“Well, you and Dad could’ve helped me like you did with my sister.”
“Sit down,” and I did. “Your sister was in a bad car accident that scarred her face, so she needed a new one. I’ve explained that to you. Actually, many times, but you just don’t listen.” She shook her hands out into the air almost as if to swat away a fly. “You never listen.” She folded her hands into her lap. “So, you did this.”
“I needed a new face.”
“Why, Dave? Nothing was wrong with your face.”
“It had marks on it, acne, and it was ugly. And I can’t get a good job with it. You see how Alex is doing. She’s got a great job now, a new boyfriend and traveling everywhere. I want the same for me. I will have the same for me, but not with that face.”
“That was your face. There was nothing wrong with it.” My mother moved away from the table. “Dinner will be ready after six, and I think it would be best, if you ate in your room tonight.” She stepped away from me.
“You punishing me, Mom?”
“Why don’t you go look at your new face? You need to clean it off.”
“Clean it off? Is something wrong with it?” I watched her leave the room. “Mom?”
I couldn’t get myself to move out of the chair. I looked over at the keys, barely able to touch them, but I finally got myself up and pocketed the keys. I pushed myself out of the kitchen and toward the bathroom down the hall. I didn’t want to walk inside. What if I made a mistake?
“What’s done is done,” I said, closing the bathroom door behind me, but my hand rested on the light switch. “Just do it,” I scolded myself and flipped on the light.
My heart froze, its last beat echoing against my chest, but then I reminded myself to breathe. My feet slid across the tiled floor, and my shaking hands found the sink, gripping the sides for support. My eyes focused on a droplet of water escaping the faucet and disappearing down the drain, but I finally raised my head up and stared at the stranger, who looked back at me.
A white film coated the face. It reminded me of glue when it dried on your finger, and it seemed to be peeling off from the forehead, reminding me of those face masks that my mother would talk about wearing to clear up her skin. Was it hard to pull off or easy? I couldn’t remember what she said, and I reached for one, white curl sticking out near the right temple. I pulled, and I prayed. Please, don’t let my face fall off, but thank God, it didn’t. The white film gave way, peeling across the face like a gentle breeze.
“There. That’s better.” I looked at the ball of white film in my hand and felt nausea. “Disgusting.” I threw it into the wastebasket nearby. “And sticky.” I washed my hands.
I looked at the stranger again. His face was clear, smooth, perfect. No flaws, no scars, no acne marks. I was a new man, and I smiled. And he smiled back at me.
“I don’t regret my decision,” and I left the bathroom.
Until dinner was ready, I made myself busy. I tore all the posters of tv shows and rock groups off my walls, shoving them into large, black garbage bags. I collected all my socks, especially the ones with holes, and there were a lot with holes. They were thrown away. I reached under my bed and pulled out all the garbage that lived under there, some magazines that I was not proud to have, but I would find a real woman now. I didn’t need those images anymore, and then I turned my focus to the closet. What a disaster zone. So many t-shirts, and a lot of them were worn and had holes too. They had to go, but I kept the others that were still in kind of good condition.
“Where are my packages?” I remembered that I had stored them in the hall closet outside my room and quickly retrieved them, ripping them open like Christmas presents. “Time for a change,” I said as I held a pair of brand new, black socks in my hands. “Good-bye, Dave. Hello, David. That’s more professional.”
I pushed the t-shirts aside, making room for the new dress pants and shirts, more professional attire. I would never work in retail again. I was a company man, or soon would be. “Hello. How are you? My name is David. How can I help you today,” but that still sounded like retail. “Fuck it. I’ll work on it,” I said.
“Dinner, Dave,” my mother called from downstairs.
“Dave’s not here anymore,” I called back. “It’s David,” but she didn’t answer me. “David,” I liked the sound of that.
After dinner, I didn’t bother bringing the plate or plastic cup downstairs. I just shoved them into one of the large, black garbage bags along with the used napkin. I placed the knife and fork on the carpeted floor. At some point, I would tear this carpeting up anyway and replace it with a smooth, wooden floor. Right now, I hopped onto the bed, lied on my back and stared up at the ceiling.
“Where would I travel to? Definitely California. Colorado. Texas? Nah.” I rubbed my chin. It was a bad habit, and my hand paused along the skin. It felt cold, smooth, and I should be careful. I didn’t want to rub my chin raw, so I would have to break this habit. I folded my hands across my stomach, fighting that urge to rub my chin or scratch my face. “Alaska. I think Alaska would be nice.” I dozed off.
The room was pitch black when I awoke, sitting up in bed. What time was it? I searched the room until I found the little, black alarm clock on the floor near the closet. 11:15pm. I must’ve been tired, but what woke me? Was it my parents, my mother turning off the light? No, that wouldn’t have done it, but now that I was awake, I had to go to the bathroom.
Unlike before, I didn’t think twice about going into the bathroom. I threw on the light and did my business. I smiled at the stranger in the mirror as I washed my hands. I turned to grab a hand towel and froze mid-reach. I looked back at the mirror, hoping that it was just my imagination, turning my head to the side. Behind the right ear, where the mastoid was located was a lump of flesh. I reached for it, holding it between my index finger and thumb, squeezing it into a ball. I gagged and threw up in the toilet next to me.
“Maybe, it’s not noticeable.” I checked the other side. “Good. Fine. Perfect.” I turned to look at the skin hanging below the right ear and gagged. “What the fuck,” I exclaimed.
“You okay in there,” my father asked from the other side of the door. “Dave? David?”
“I’m fine. Just fine.” I tried to push the skin behind the ear, but it didn’t work. “Everything’s fine, Dad. You could go to sleep.” No response. Good, I hope he walked away. “Shit. What do I do,” but I already knew the answer. I had to go back.
I didn’t sleep for the rest of the night. Tomorrow was what? Tuesday? No, Wednesday. I had called out from work to get the face change, and I was planning on just quitting tomorrow. Maybe, I would still do that, but I had to get my face fixed first. My father worked remotely in his study after eight a.m., so I didn’t have to sneak past him. But my mother was a different story. Lucky for me, she was outside, watering her plants when I made a run for it.
“David, is that you,” but I didn’t answer her.
I quickly got into my car and flew away from the house. The place should be open by now or should be open by nine, and there was no traffic blocking my way. I was making great time. Ten minutes away, stuck at a red traffic light, and a large crowd of people walked across the street, waving their signs. Some said, “I like my new face.” Others read, “It’s my face. It’s my choice,” and some of them chose well, decorating their cheeks with hearts and roses. But one man turned to look my way, and his face, all of his face was a chessboard.
A few people including that guy from yesterday stood at the corner of the street yelling at them, waving their own signs. That guy from yesterday had a new sign, and it said, “I’m Natural.” They were screaming louder, and all I needed were for the black and whites to show up, pulling out the optical to zap into our eyes, and I would be the one probably dragged away. And because of them, I lost almost half an hour.
Finally, I arrived at the strip mall and quickly found a parking spot. I was about to exit the car when two black and whites zipped by, followed by two large, white vans. They blocked the entrance of the place, and the police officers hurried inside. A few minutes later, everyone was dragged outside, and the officers pushed the older Asian man toward one squad car. His apron was still coated in blood. Was my blood on there too? Another Asian man, maybe the one with that syringe was put into the same car, and the officers drove off but not before looking my way.
I turned around, acting like I was just waiting for someone. Maybe, I had a friend getting food at the Burgerings or was picking up someone from one of the other stores. I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel, hoping that none of the other officers walked my way with an optical in hand. I was waiting, just waiting and watching those that fucked up on my face to be driven away.
I looked out the window to see most of the customers that were in there at the time of the raid to be led over to a waiting van. Only one woman passed the optical, but the officers weren’t so quick to let her walk away. They scanned both of her hands with a digital computer screen, waiting for her true identity to be confirmed. Her face changed from fear to hope, and she was finally allowed to walk free. She looked like she had won the lottery, and as she hurried toward the car, all the women that worked at that place were led toward another van. Again, the officers looked my way, exchanging glances, and I knew that they were wondering why I was sitting there, watching them. One officer shrugged and headed off in my direction, and an optical rested in his hand. And I started the car and hurried away, praying that they did not call it in, and all the way home, I waited for them to catch up to me. But they never did.
“David, you okay?” My mother watched me hurry into the house, closing the front door behind me. “Aren’t you working today at the mall?”
“I was. Um…. I wasn’t feeling well.” I would normally kiss her on the cheek when I came home, but I moved toward the stairs instead.
“If something was wrong, you would tell me. Right?”
“Nothing’s wrong, Mom. I’m okay,” but I barely looked at her when I said that. “I’m okay,” and I hurried up the rest of the stairs toward the bathroom.
Once in the bathroom, I threw on the lights and approached the mirror. The face was unchanged. They did good work, but then I looked behind the right ear, the lump of flesh was still there. And it looked like it was hanging even lower. Maybe, I shouldn’t touch it, but I did, again curling it into a ball between my fingers and then letting it go.
“I could cut it off. Maybe, that would be okay, if I did that. It’s just skin, and it shouldn’t hurt.”
I opened the medicine cabinet over the sink, looking for the small pair of scissors that I knew would be in there. I leaned forward, pushing things around until I found it on the second shelf. Just as I grabbed the scissors, something fell into the sink. I pulled my hand back and looked down. It almost blended with the porcelain, curling into a ball, and then falling down the drain, and I stared after it for a long moment.
I slowly closed the medicine cabinet. My eyes moved from the drain up to the mirror. The stranger looked back at me, and I turned my head to the side, hoping, praying that the damage was not that bad. A scream rose up into my throat, but I couldn’t pull myself away from the red abyss that sucked me in.
Bio: Melissa R. Mendelson is a Poet and Horror, Science-Fiction and Dystopian Short Story Author. Her stories have been published by Sirens Call Publications, Dark Helix Press, Altered Reality Magazine, Transmundane Press, and Owl Canyon Press. She also won second place in the Writer’sWeekly.com 24 hour Short Story Contest. She has written two books “Better Off Here” and “Stories Written Along Covid Walls“, both of which can be purchased at Amazon, or found on our Bookstore page.
Melissa can also be found at her website, HERE.