Please enjoy the following story, one of four from my recently released collection from Bucket ‘O Guts Press, Mio Padre il Tumore:
Just to Spite Your Face
by Steve Lowe
Jerry is fourth in line for his rhinectomy. He hates waiting.
He’s stuck next to a lady called Fanny. Her face is opaque and Jerry sees her jaw and teeth and tongue grinding in her mouth as she tells him, “I’m getting my facelifts re-touched.”
Fanny looks at Jerry and he hears her voice in his head say, “What do you mean, why?” Then he notices her iPiece and realizes she wasn’t talking to him.
She looks at his nose.
Jerry turns to the old television in the corner of the waiting room. The President is on, talking about the attack the night before, the Guerillas again. Grave-looking men stand on each side of the President, talking to his two heads.
A woman strolls by, dazed and floating. A mask hangs from her ears, a tiny white curtain covering the flat spot where her nose used to live. A female computer voice says from the ceiling, “Daniel?” and a massive man on a scooter zips through the waiting room, disappears into the back.
Jerry thinks, “I’m third in line now.”
Signs on the wall above the TV read: Welcome to FedMed – YOUR Dollars Working For YOU! and Beauty – It’s More Than Skin Deep™
Jerry watches Fanny’s face from the corner of his eye, the outline of her molars and incisors and jawbone working in unison as she chats away on her iPiece.
Jerry removed his own iPiece when he entered the clinic. Something inside the building interferes with the gadget. The static feedback and distortion pierces his skull, causing terrible headaches. But he feels bare, disoriented without it, his stream of constant info no longer planted in front of his own left eye. He pats his shirt pocket where his iPiece sits, still on and faintly murmuring entertainment and vital information into his chest.
A warm spot over his heart.
Jerry looks back at the ancient, archaic television set. The President’s two heads are speaking at once. The left side is smiling and laughing, the left hand held out to the audience, palm up. Jerry can’t hear what the left head is saying through its unnaturally wide smile. The right head is angry and barking, fist pounding the podium. Jerry can’t make out what the right head is saying either. Their words mix together, the left and the right. Their static and distortion also make his head hurt.
An hour goes by and Jerry fights boredom-induced sleep. The huge man on the scooter motors out from the back, thinner now, gaunt-looking, his emptied flesh sagging and gelatinous. A moment later, another man, sickly skinny, staggers through the waiting room. Glassy eyes float above a white mask and Jerry imagines the new, gaping holes in the man’s flat face.
Jerry’s nose runs. He wipes it with his sleeve and thinks I’m second in line now.
A girl wanders into the waiting room. The female computer voice in the ceiling chirps, “Good afternoon Candace. Please have a seat and we will call you when your procedure is ready to begin.”
Jerry watches Candace take a seat across from him. Her iPiece, a clear rectangle of plastic, hovers in front of her left eye, which stares straight ahead, glazed, mesmerized by the content streaming into it. But her right eye twitches up and down, left and right, nervous and unsettled, like the look on her face.
Like the feeling deep down in Jerry’s guts.
He looks back at the TV President. The left head is angry now, growling at the assembled Congress, baring white fangs. The right head is serene, speaking gently, the right hand casually slipped into his pants pocket. Jerry still can’t make out what they’re saying. His head still hurts.
An older woman stumbles out from the back, plodding along with the help of a metal walker. Her hair as white as the mask strung over her ears, shielding a face that lacks contour. Tennis balls wrapped around the walker’s feet skid across the tile floor and her worthless left foot drags along behind her.
Jerry sneezes into his hands and thinks I’m next in line.
Both the President’s heads are laughing now. They stare directly into the camera, directly into Jerry. A trickle of snot leaks from his nose and spreads across his lips, salty.
The iPiece is his shirt pocket buzzes faintly and the female computer voice in the ceiling calls out, “Jerry?”
* * *
Jerry walks down the antiseptic corridor, the walls pockmarked by doors on each side. Bright light pours through the lone, eye-level window in each door.
The female computer voice in the ceiling instructs him, “Bear to your right and enter the last room on your left. A technician will be with you momentarily to begin your procedure. Thank you, Jerry.”
Jerry tiptoes along the silent corridor, afraid to break the serene calm of the clinic, where dozens of people are in the process of reshaping their looks and their lives. He made himself sick with excitement for two weeks anticipating this day, and now that he is here, he feels sick again, but not in the same way. His spine bunches like a knotted rope twisting through his torso. He feels taut, ready to snap.
I’m just anxious for my procedure. It’s only natural.
He doesn’t believe himself.
Jerry comes to the end of the corridor and stands before the door he was instructed to enter. He reaches for the knob, but pauses. Another door, two down from his, opens. A sickly skinny man with a shock of spiked hair glides out into the corridor. His facemask dangles, his dilated eyes leaking, his nose gone.
Jerry steps back to look in the other room. White, mechanized arms extending down from the ceiling drift about through the air. Their precise movements mesmerize Jerry. A robot hand carries a tray toward an opening in the wall and dumps its contents through as the door silently glides shut. When Jerry awakens from his momentary trance, the other man is gone and Jerry is left alone in the claustrophobic closeness of the corridor.
“What am I doing here?” Jerry barely notices he is speaking aloud. His voice is alien, not his own.
His iPiece buzzes again and the female computer voice in the ceiling answers him. “Bear to your right and enter the last room on your left. A technician will be right with you to begin your procedure. Thank you, Jerry.”
Jerry flinches. His nose runs, into his mouth. He tastes it.
* * *
The alarm wounds his brain. The sharp squawks resonate through the entire building, the universal sound of emergency alertness. The modern call to attention that something bad is happening. Jerry knows the alarm is for him, for pushing through the door at the opposite end of the corridor, the one clearly marked DO NOT ENTER. But the sound of the alarm is so closely associated with the Guerillas that he catches himself looking around for them, automatically, Pavlovian.
Alarm equals attack. Guard against terror. Fight the Guerillas. Take back the night. That piercing, clear tone, synonymous with fear, danger, pain.
Jerry trembles at the mere thought of the Guerillas. Short, hairy, sinister. Always around a dark corner, lurking, waiting. Leaving a bomb in a transit car, opening fire in a crowded café, suicide attacks, their bodies loaded down with explosives and roofing nails and ball bearings, sprinting and jangling toward their targets. If you could hear them coming, then you were dead. Guerillas were the enemy and Jerry saw them everywhere, especially when he didn’t have his iPiece in, with its comforting stream of knowledge and data and funny videos, iMail and iTalk and …
The alarm ends. Jerry is tucked back in the corner of a storage room, nestled beneath soft plastic packaging of snowy white, hands clamped over ears. Trembling in the wake of the alarm. His iPiece buzzes again and again and he hears the voice in the ceiling out in the hall calling for him. He removes his iPiece and switches it off, then tries to remember the last time he had done so. He can’t.
He leans back into the soft bags and closes his eyes. There are no Guerillas here. Time disappears. Voices drift past, hushed and hurried. They don’t find him there, in his cocoon.
Jerry’s heart slows, his pulse normalizes. Exhaustion supplicates fear and he slips into sleep.
* * *
Jerry awakens to a muffled noise on the other side of the wall he is slouched against, the smoky tendrils of a nightmare instantly melting away. His mound of plastic packaging still surrounds him, close and hot and slick with his perspiration. He panics and kicks the airy bags away, clawing toward the light, but there is none in the black storeroom.
The memory of the alarm lingers in his mind, dangles from his brain stem like the phantom tingle of a severed limb. He remembers where he is and why. He ran because he was afraid. But where did that fear suddenly come from? Or why did he just now recognize it for what it was?
His grandmother’s voice, cracked but resonate, says from the deep of his memory, “Don’t cut off your nose just to spite your face.”
Jerry runs his hands over his face, feels the contour of it. Lips, dry and splitting, chin spiked with stubble, his high cheekbones products of his European lineage. Nose, bulbous and jutting. Jerry feels his nose and closes eyes, tries to picture his face without it. He imagines the cord from the mask strung over his ears.
Snot runs down his lips into his mouth, tastes like blood. He hears the noise again, like something inside his head digging, chewing its way out.
He opens his eyes and listens. The muffled crunch continues, growing louder in proportion to his realization of it. A grinding, tearing, cracking; a sound like animal ingestion. He places his ear to the wall and listens.
Panic pinches him in the absolute darkness and he feels his way along the wall for a light switch or an exit, stumbling over the bags of soft material, wondering about the contents.
Gauze? Facemasks? He shudders at the thought of a thousand facemasks for a thousand faces, a thousand noses.
Where do they go, the noses? Do the robot arms dump them down the hole in the wall? Do they fall down into the bowels of the clinic? Do they throw them out with the trash? Recycle them? Incinerate them?
Jerry comes to a corner, a new wall. He tries to remember seeing a door at this end of the room, but knows that he never bothered to look. Never took the time to see his surroundings before the lights went out. Too frightened to notice.
His hand strikes cool metal, round like a doorknob. He grips and twists and is relieved that it is not locked. He pulls the door in and rushes through into more darkness. The smell hits with a nauseous wave and Jerry knows instantly to go back the way he came, that his weak stomach will not last long in here, wherever he is.
Jerry holds his mouth and nose with one hand while searching through the dark for the doorknob. He finds no cool metal orb on this side of the door, though. He gropes, panicky, but feels only smooth, solid steel. He gags from the stench, like turned dairy products, the puddle of old milk around the clogged grate of the grocery store cooler where he lasted just two weeks as an employee, about a hundred years ago.
He searches for something else, a handhold, a solid object, another wall or door, anything to guide him. He reels with vertigo in the shapeless, unfamiliar, rancid dark. He steps on something with a crunch, soft and slick, but solid at its core. He takes another step forward and his left foot sinks into a pile of the same. Objects tumble around his foot, bury it up to the ankle, and he trips, falls forward.
His hands plunge into a pile of something up to his shoulders and his face hits the mass with a splat. The smell assaults his nose and rampages through his guts, which reject their contents. Jerry scrambles, his panic nearing delirium, reaching and crawling, slipping through a mound of rubbery, wet, slimy objects, fearing what they might be, probably are, but praying, begging that they’re not.
He notices for the first time the sound that drew him here. Louder now and very near. He freezes and listens. His eyes slowly adjust to the dark and shapes form. A spectral glow several yards away gives the room a sudden, vast feel, like a massive cavern opening, the breadth of the space stretching out before him. From the other end of that space, Jerry hears the sloppy crunch and gurgle of eating, of something massive, chomping, chewing, swallowing. A sluice of fluids and a rumbling. The whoosh of air intake and noisy, wet, rattling exhalation. Between the nausea and stench and horrible texture of whatever he is stumbling through, and that wet, dense din, Jerry’s head swims.
The lights come on at that moment and Jerry sees, squints.
The noses piled before him and beneath him are a small mountain, building to a peak of pink and red and brown and tan, of flesh and cartilage. He stands knee deep in noses, too horrified to make a sound. From a chute in the wall to his left comes a light tumbling sound as another nose bounces out and pinwheels through the air onto the pile, the surgicallylasered end cauterized, smelling faintly of charred meat.
A scream builds in Jerry’s throat, on the verge of exploding from lungs, but catches there when the hand appears above him. Four fingers and a thumb, covered in translucent, pinkish-gray skin and large enough to envelop him, glide through the air and drop down to the pile of noses. Jerry jumps back as long fingernails, yellow and split and stinking, narrowly miss his chest. They plunge into the noses and curl in, hoisting away a handful. Jerry can’t see where the hand goes, but he hears the sound, the chomping, crunching, grinding, swallowing.
A voice from the other side of the nose mound calls out, “Time to eat, you huge bitch!”
A grate rolls away from the black ceiling above and a hose drops down. The crunching stops and there is a silent pause. Jerry holds his breath in anticipation, his scream a blockage now, cutting off his wind. From within the workings up in the ceiling, gears turn and a motor rattles to life. Fluid sputters and sprays from the rusted end of the hose, chunky pink viscera flinging about as pockets of air chatter through the line. Then the spray explodes from the hose, a full stream of the stuff, showering down.
Despite his fear, Jerry has to look, has to know what this place is, what that hand belongs to. He crawls up the nose mound, slowly closer to the edge. The room drops down several feet and he realizes he’s up high, on a second level, overlooking a large room, dank and fetid. In the far left corner, a man dressed in a rubber suit like a firefighter leans on a lever and watches the spectacle before him with either a grimace or a grin, Jerry isn’t sure which. He leans further over the edge to see what the man is looking at.
Long and tubular, like a giant worm, pink-gray flesh stretches tight over its pulsating, dripping body. A hairless head, turned up to the hose, a great mouth opened wider than seems possible, catches the plopping contents from the sky. Jerry watches in frozen disbelief as the worm undulates with each swallow, ripples roiling through it, internal organs just visible through the milky skin.
He thinks of the woman in the waiting room. Fanny, with her jaws and her teeth and her face stretched tight against her chin. He thinks of the enormous man on the scooter emerging from the back, roughly half his original girth, his skin drooping from his bones. He watches the pink slush spray down and can smell it, smell them. He looks down at his hands, propping himself up on the pile of noses to see down into the pit, the thing down below. Eating, drinking, gargling, rumbling, consuming.
He takes it in again, unable to process the sight, seeing without comprehension. He follows the length of it, at least twenty feet. A dark mass slides through the translucent tube, inching along with each convulsion from the head, each guttural ingestion of liquid fat. He looks to the end of the creature, where its body narrows and another mass is making its way out. There, a second man in a glistening yellow slicker coaxes the dark mass out from the end of the creature, births it into the world. It has arms and legs, like an adolescent child. Jerry watches in horrified disgust, incapacitated by equal parts fear and revulsion and curiosity.
The second man picks up a hose and sprays the new thing with water and it reacts, cowering against it. It turns away from the hose and Jerry sees its Guerilla face. More Guerillas crawl about and stumble to their feet, testing their limbs, flexing their stubby fingers, bumping into each other. Jerry‘s wide eyes take it all in, his myopic focus finally broadening, opening to the scope of what is happening. A dozen Guerillas fumble about in differing stages of existence. Those able to walk without much trouble have also begun to dry, their dark, matted hair sticking out from their bodies in tufts. They help the fresher offspring to their feet as still more inch their way out of the mother creature.
The pump within the ceiling shuts off and the last bits of liquid drop from the hose into the mother’s mouth, which catches it all. She lowers her head, still working the meal through her considerable length, smacking her lips together wetly. She turns toward Jerry, a mostly shapeless mass with two huge, glittering eyes, two vertical slits for a nose, and that terrible hole of a mouth. She reaches for the nose mound and Jerry watches the hand with a disembodied interest as it hovers near, descends down over him. It begins to close around him when his body finally breaks free from its terrified paralysis.
His lodged scream also breaks free as he scrambles away from the hand, the fingers scraping his head, his arms, ripping into his shirt. He tumbles back, head over heels, noses rolling down with him, bouncing off his face and chest.
A voice from down in the pit yells, “What the hell was that?”
Jerry jumps to his feet and slams into the door, reaching for the handle he already knows is not there.
“We got a breach! Containment, down to the basement, we got your runner!”
Jerry searches around for something, anything. The hand scoops away more noses and Jerry can see the heads of the workers down below, running toward the exit door, just visible past the edge of the shelf. The door doesn’t move against his shoulder and he stops throwing himself against it when the pain makes his eyes water. He considers the pit, jumping down, fighting his way out.
Who are you kidding? You’re a coward. You’ll break your leg jumping down. There’s Guerillas down there.
He hears them as well, their agitated cries. The beast that bore them huffs on her mouthful of noses and turns her head back, her pupils dilated and fixed on him. Her hand reaches again and Jerry feels his bowels loosen. He can’t think, can’t save himself, can’t do much more than weep and tremble.
A tumbling sound from his left draws his attention to the far wall, where a nose bounces out of the chute from above and lands on the pile. Jerry sees it and reacts.
He feels the mother beast’s nails scrape against his right shoe as he scrambles up through the narrow chute. He is slick with sweat and sickness and other, foreign fluids, and he struggles up into the metal shaft, adrenaline powering his muscles. Minutes pass like hours as he climbs, the occasional nose tumbling down, bouncing off of him. He eventually reaches a junction thatbranches off into several secondary chutes leading away to different parts of the clinic. He sticks with the main shaft before him, clawing and shuffling, painfully, slowly, reaching for the white square of light ahead.
Jerry does not recognize the sensation inside him. He feels a wellspring bursting from within, a shower of energy that filters through his body out to the tips of his fingers and toes, to the end of his nose.
“I don’t want to die. Oh, God, please. Don’t let me die.”
He reaches the white light of the opening, urged on by his imagination, thoughts of Guerillas scrambling lithely up behind him and tugging him back down to be consumed by the monster that bore them.
He pushes through the hole and tumbles out of a wall, falling to the floor and slamming into the base of a surgical chair.
A girl in the chair says, “Hey, what’s going on?”
Jerry stands, wincing with pain from every joint and stressed muscle, his drenched clothes clinging to his body. He looks at the girl, at the robot arm hanging from the ceiling, the laser gripped between its mechanical fingers. He recognizes the girl from the waiting room, the scared look still in her right eye. He pulls her by the arm, drags her from the chair, from the room.
The female computer voice in the ceiling says, “Please have a seat in the chair, Candace, so your procedure can begin.”
Jerry says, “C’mon, we have to get out of here.”
Candace says, “Oh… OK.”
Out in the main hallway, red lights flash high on the wall every ten feet.
That must be for me.
Jerry looks around, trying to think. He imagines a team of armed guards covering each exit, waiting to gun him down. He looks at himself, filthy, stinking, dripping. He looks at Candace swaying next to him, at her fresh, clean medical scrubs.
Jerry guides Candace back into the room and helps her into the chair. The robot arms go to work.
* * *
Jerry glides out into the lobby, which bustles with excitement. He struggles to ignore the woman’s iPiece over his left eye and the images streaming into his head, to focus on playing the part. Sweat seeps into the fresh, white medical scrubs, builds on his upper lip. He tries to breathe slowly so the facemask won’t flutter. His nose feels massive on his face, even hidden beneath the mask, as obvious as the red warning lights flashing throughout the building. Security guards stalk past with machine guns in hand. They don’t bother to look at him.
Jerry catches a glimpse of the TV, the President still on. Both heads are silent, watching, boring a hole through him.
A security guard stationed near the front desk places his hand on a sidearm at his hip and watches Jerry shuffle toward the door. The iPiece over his left eye buzzes and the female computer voice in the ceiling says, “Thank you, Candace. Have a pleasant day and we’ll see you again at your follow up appointment. Goodbye.”
The guard relaxes and looks back into the lobby. Jerry stumbles out the front door.
He wills himself not to run for three blocks then ducks into the bathroom of a battery replenishing station. He places Candace’s iPiece in the tank of the toilet. He pulls out his own iPiece and decides he’ll flush it. Perhaps they’ll have some fun tracking him along the sewers beneath the city. Jerry feels his mind opening by the minute, new ideas blooming where before there were only vacant, complacent thoughts.
He turns the iPiece on and it instantly buzzes in his hand. He hesitates, knowing he should not linger, but curiosity wins. He places it over his left eye and sees the FedMed logo next to a cartoon icon of a ringing bell.
A pre-recorded message, the female computer voice from the ceiling, chirps, “This is a reminder for your appointment on Monday, August third. We missed you at four o’clock today, Jerry. We hope everything’s OK! Please call our office at your convenience to reschedule your visit. We look forward to having you back soon!”