The face was unnaturally long. Its cheeks were sunken in. It was not a human face. Of course it wasn’t. What did I expect except a vague approximation? But it really wasn’t vague, was it? The mouth was a distinct cut, a sharp slash from cheek to cheek—too sinister for a smirk, and that is why I called it a smile, a smile with no teeth. But then, it was an impressively tight-lipped mouth. I projected a nose onto the face because I don’t believe there actually was one, just a long, flat journey to the eyes. They are what I spent the most time studying.
Two large, too—large dark spots that took up most of the underwhelming forehead. To call them hollow would have undermined the strange intelligence I detected behind them. Perhaps they were devoid of some other thing we see in the eyes. Windows without a. . . Well, I did say the face wasn’t human.
Not even close.
The stream from the shower head had reached a scalding temperature. I had been in for too long. My body was tenderizing from the inside out like some deep-sea crustacean ready to be slurped from the shell. My skin was tinged lobster. The steam had reached a suffocating density, and only when it obscured my view of the face did I look down from the top left shower tile and turn the nozzle, cutting off the water.
Not a human face, you see. Only evidence that our minds look for something familiar, even in the random splotches of mildew and the jagged lines of fake granite. Even then, what I saw in the tile was less a portrait and more an inkblot test.
I pulled a towel from the rack and dried off my body. My body was unremarkable; I won’t go into detail. I dressed in a postal worker’s uniform and braided my hair while the toast cooked, all thoughts of the face in the shower receding to the back of my mind.
I didn’t think of the face during my route. I delivered letters to the pastel painted boxes of suburbia, placed packages upon their flower-choked porches, dodging bumblebees who were only trying to protect their modest livelihoods. I let the blue of the sky mollify my splotch-soaked vision, grateful that the weatherman had been wrong and it had not rained. I passed my day unseen. As a child I hadn’t considered that mailmen lived outside of their uniform. To me, they had been rare creatures or ghosts, and I thought myself lucky if I ever caught a glimpse of one.
I had all but forgotten about the face until the next morning when I got in the shower. My stomach was still distended from the sodium-packed Chinese noodles I’d eaten for dinner, and I admit, I was a bit self-conscious when I found the face staring back at me again. I uttered a polite, “Good morning,” on impulse and was actually disappointed when I got no response back. Odd. Was I of the mind that granite could speak now or had something about the amused curl of the face’s lips tricked me for just a moment?
Either way, I made a habit of greeting the face from then on out. A strange ritual, I know, one that only made sense within the seclusion of the shower. But I enjoyed the company. Even though ascribing a personality to the face made me all the more aware of my naked body, exposed before his—yes, his—empty gaze.
I began to talk to the face after a while, only then realizing how raw my voice had become from disuse. I couldn’t remember the last time I had carried a conversation with anyone that consisted of more than two words, “Sign here.”
He listened with the patience of faux stone as I told him about the cat that I had nearly run over in the mail truck, the ache in my knee, how I had delivered a package that smelled suspiciously like a certain drug and I hadn’t bothered to report it. I babbled on about the pretty woman who had given me a glass of ice water, and how I had been too shy to manage even a “Thank you” in reply.
I was enthralled by the infusion of expression that would occur each time I talked to him. There was something new to notice each time I stepped into the shower. As the water cascaded down my back, I studied the downward tilt of the eye spots, which gave the impression of a lowered brow. His bald head was shaped like an egg, reminiscent of that horrifying painting, a pale expression clutched between raking palms. My face was not distorted in The Scream, yet the tight smile was somehow worse, making me suspect that there was a cry welling up somewhere I couldn’t see, and that it would sneak up on me one day without warning. But this was just a feeling, and I didn’t pay it much mind.
Months went by, until one night as I lay in bed, drifting off to sleep, I heard it. My breath faltered and then ceased altogether, an instinctive aid to the ears. A few seconds passed and nothing happened. I was eager to chalk it up to a premature dream, come before consciousness could slip away, but before I was allowed an exhale, I heard it again—a rustle from the attached and only bathroom in my small house.
I hadn’t closed the door. I could see the outline of the sink, the toilet, the shower. . .suddenly, I heard it again. It was the rustling caused when the shower curtain was shifted. My stubborn, self-preserving psyche continued to convince itself it was dreaming. But then I heard the screech of the hangers on the metal bar, and the delusion was broken. The grind of metal on metal—it sent a shock of solid terror through me, which the airy nature of fabric had not been able to achieve. My body stiffened, paralyzed. I was unable to move my neck from the angle it kept towards the bathroom.
The fear seemed justified, but where was this sense of dread coming from? All at once, I felt that everything I knew would come to a swift end. I imagine it is what prey feel like before they are dealt the death strike, but there was something unnatural about this predator’s gaze, something that couldn’t be explained by carnal hunger. It was a cold, dead gaze, for something that did not need to eat, something that hunted for reasons beyond survival. That’s when I saw a head peeking out of the shower curtain. I stifled a cry, landing a painful bite on my own tongue. Waves of shivers traveled up and down my limbs. I recognized the shape of that head. Yet every part of me revolted at the thought of accepting that it was rounded like an egg. The room was too dark to make out the features or the hollow eyes that I knew were watching me. The blood-rushing dread steadied into a throbbing ache when the head didn’t move. It didn’t ever move. I forced my eyes closed, but I sensed the dead gaze on me for the rest of the night. I didn’t sleep, but I didn’t open my lids until brightness seeped in through the edges. I looked to the shower curtain, but nothing and no one was there.
I skipped my morning shower.
The rain poured down all day. Regardless, I refused to step inside the shower when I returned home. I went to bed, hot and sticky and reeking of mud. Finally, after another day and another sleepless night passed, I couldn’t avoid it anymore; I smelled terrible. I undressed cautiously, throwing glances at the curtain every so often. A ghastly sight greeted me in the mirror. My face was drawn and pale from exhaustion, greasy hair plastered to my forehead. My eyes had sunken into the depths of dark circles, and my lips were bloodless to the point of nonexistence. I hardly recognized myself, and yet, as I turned my face this way and that, I couldn’t shake the thought that something about my countenance was. . .familiar.
A sudden urge made me flip the light switch, throwing the bathroom into darkness. I kept the lights off while I showered. I didn’t greet the face as I usually did, opting to let the fall of the water be the only sound, a static buzz that seemed to increase in intensity with my anticipation the longer I stayed in that tiny space. The gaze was strongest here, as if I was encroaching upon a domain that had ceased to be mine. As an extra precaution I kept my back to the upper left column above the nozzle, but I couldn’t shake the prickling sense of the eyes boring into me from behind. I was forced to become more intimate with my body than I had in years, relying solely on touch to scrub myself clean. This felt like a violation of some sort, though no other hands beside my own laid themselves on me. When I exited the shower I nearly tripped on the ledge, and my retreat from the bathroom ended up being a stumbling ordeal. Water flew from my hair and fingertips as I dashed out without a towel.
I tried to go about my day as usual. I focused on my work, hoping to distract myself from the horror that had become my ablutions. A package needed to be signed for; I knew the address, and my heart sped up a bit to realize that it was the same pretty woman who had given me the ice water. I steeled myself and walked up her drive, knocking three times upon the door. She greeted me with a radiant smile and a glass of sweet tea. The sun was out again, and the beams shone through the dark liquid, turning it the golden hue of honey.
“Sign here,” I said, handing the woman the digital pad and pen. She traded me for the sweet tea.
“Grout,” she said as she signed. “The master bathroom needs re-tiling. You should have seen the old ones. Ugly things. I can’t wait to toss them.”
I swear her eyes flicked up to me as she said this. My hands were full so she slipped the pad and pen into my satchel herself. She smiled sweetly as I handed her the package, but I couldn’t help the cold feeling that spread over me.
Ugly things. Did she know? Was this an attempt at mockery? She was looking at me full in the face now, and her expression turned into one of concern. Paranoia took my chin in its grasp and jerked it downwards. Perhaps what I had seen in the mirror that morning hadn’t been an illusion after all. Hot embarrassment coursed through my cheeks. I shoved the drink back into her hands and left the porch without a word.
That night, I heard the shower curtain move again, accompanied by the grating squeal of the hangers. My head was aimed at the ceiling this time, and I didn’t dare turn it to see what I feared would be staring back at me. Instead, I fell asleep by sheer force of will. But when I dreamed, I dreamed of a skeletal creature slipping out of the shower, dripping slimy, black shadows. I lost the creature in the haze of the dreamscape, but knew exactly where it was in the next moment when I felt a spot of pressure on the edge of my bed. The pressure increased as the thing crawled on top of me. I had to be awake. I had never had a more vivid dream, but I couldn’t move. The creature pressed itself onto me through the sheets, soaking them through. The sharp scent of mildew reached my nose, and it came to my attention that something was breathing heavily in the room. It couldn’t be me; the weight on my chest had grown so great that I couldn’t manage a single gasp. The outline of an ovular head hovered into view before me. The face was blank, stripped of all features. Where had they gone?
The face descended. A low keening escaped my lips or maybe it only happened in my mind. The breathing became faster, more excited, but not so much as a puff of air brushed against my cheeks. There was no air, no air at all. I was suffocating. Just when I was sure I was going to die, a gust of oxygen tore through my lungs, and I wrenched myself into a sitting position. The room was empty.
I sat there for hours. Nothing could induce me to move until the first blush of dawn, and by then I had resolved myself.
I moved slowly, toe by toe to the kitchen, fearing that my plan would be discovered if I made the slightest sound. I settled myself before one of the wooden drawers and eased the thing open. It took only a moment to find what I was looking for. On the way back, I had to pause and listen, certain that I had heard footsteps coming from the bathroom. When I strained my ears, I realized that it wasn’t footsteps, but the steady drips of a leaking nozzle. The light streaming in through the window blinds did nothing to dispel the inky darkness in the bathroom. I let the hammer in my right hand reassure me with its weight while I groped for the light switch with my left. I exhaled as the room was flooded with fluorescence.
My eyes strayed to the mirror only once. I caught myself before I could see what was reflected within, and made a conscious effort to keep my sights trained on the shower curtain. It didn’t look disturbed in any way, but I knew that this must be a trick. Before the hand, which I knew was reaching from the other side, could pull back the curtain, I yanked it from its hangers, revenge for that awful squealing that had sent goosebumps to the very core of my being. I raised the hammer, ready to strike, but the shower was devoid of any life, save for the panicked skittering of a water bug.
I sighed, and my eyes roved inevitably to the top left shower tile. The face stared down at me, unchanged from the first day I had noticed it. It still resembled an inkblot test. You can’t pass or fail those. But you do receive a grade, varying from letter stable to insanity. What bothered me was that I had always received top marks on those.
My hand tensed around the hilt of the hammer. He saw me. He must have. Those insectoid eyes saw everything. What infuriated me was that his expression didn’t change at all. His lip continued to curl; no longer an innocuous smile as I had been fooled to believe, but a fully realized smirk, a challenge to my intention.
I swung the hammer and wiped the smirk off his arrogant face. Fake granite flew in all directions. A shard sliced through my cheek, but I didn’t stop there. Blood ran into my gums because I couldn’t stop grinning. When the deed was done, I stepped back and admired my work. No more face, just a gaping hole of rotting grout.
My mood cheered considerably after that. I left the shower in a chuckling stupor, cradling the tool of my triumph in my arms. I cleaned the hammer in the sink, humming all the while. I was confused at first as to why I kept having to wash off a crimson liquid until I remembered that I was injured, and the cut from my cheek was dripping onto the steel as I bent over my work. I felt along my face, and when I found the wound, I pressed my hand into it to staunch the flow. Once the hammer was cleaned and dried, I strolled to the kitchen, kneeling before the wood junk drawer out of respect for the gift it had given me. I made to place the hammer back in the drawer, but had to pause.
A knot in the wood, paler than the rest of the drawer caught my eye. I peered closer. What I saw caused a scream, the one that had been lurking, waiting all this time at the back of my throat, to pierce the morning air. In the knot was an ovular, egg shaped head, two large, hollow eyes, an empty plain where the nose should be, and a lipless mouth, curled into a wretched smirk.