The thing which may once have been my uncle reached out for me, stroking again the edge of the mask where it fused with my own flesh.
“Will you submit, nephew?” His fingertips began to flake apart where they had touched my skin–its skin–smoldering like the ashen leavings of his cigar.
“Haven’t I?” I held up the bottle, so much heavier now than when first I had lifted it from the trunk, but still thirsting. To this day the echo of that thirst resides in me. It might have driven me to kill myself with drink, if any spirit distilled by man could ever have dreamt of quenching it.
He laughed and waved a dismissive hand; flecks of ash floated in the wake of his fingers. “Mere schoolboy villainy. Beckman thought that he could refuse the call, that he could become its master. I must confess, once I too suffered from such delusions, but I learned. It’s better that you have no such fantasies. Give me the bottle.”
His supercilious tone did little to endear him to me, but I could find no reason to refuse. I was, I had decided by then, dreaming. Or so I told myself. I still try to convince myself of it to this day. I was not in this damp and dismal room in Gilman house but safe in my own bed, suffering under the effects of wine and brandy and the strain of my translations. In the morning I would laugh at my somnolent visions of hollow corpses and dermophagic relatives.
I placed the vessel on his outstretched palm. The corrosion had spread from the tips of his fingers to the first knuckle, baring pearly glimpses of phalanges through crumbling grey flesh.
“Now the mask.”
I lifted a hand to my face but could find no purchase at the seams. My uncle shook his head at my futile attempt. “No. With this.”
He offered me the curved blade which I had last seen still amongst his other possessions. It was only then that I realized that the weather-beaten steamer trunk lay on the floor beside him. On the wall behind it hung a mirror, but from my vantage I saw no reflection within.
I balked, but his gaze was implacable. And if I were only dreaming, as I still struggled to convince myself, perhaps the best way out was to follow this nightmare to its conclusion. I no longer felt any of the unholy arousal the mask had first sparked in me, not any of my former burning curiosity about the bottle’s inscription. Even the surreal sense of somnolence had begun to fade, leaving me only weary and afraid.
With a trembling hand I brought the blade to the side of my face, feeling clumsily for the place where the alien skin merged with mine. The initial incision was just before my ear, and I shuddered to feel an oily fluid seeping from the wound, cooler and more viscous than blood. There was no pain from the cut, but my shoulders ached from the awkward angle the procedure required, and my arms began to shake as I dragged the blade across my brow. Where the knife wavered from the mask to my own skin, there I found pain. My pulse leapt and fluttered below the blade, and for a terrible instant I wondered if one determined stroke might end this madness once and for all, but I lacked the needed certainty–or the faith.
I wonder sometimes–I imagine I will always wonder–what would have happened if I had finished the task. If I had removed the mask, my mask, and looked into that mirror. But as I worked, trembling and clumsy, my hands slick with fluids, a blow fell upon Beckman’s door. I paused, black fluid dripping from my fingers. My uncle’s eyes flashed as he looked up, and beyond the window the darkness seethed and crackled. Before either of us could speak or act, another blow fell with a crack like the wrath of Jove, and door flew inward.
One might imagine I was beyond surprise at that point, but not so. I looked up to see my sister framed in the doorway, and I cannot recall a time I have been more shocked.
“I had hoped you would have more sense than this,” she said, shaking her head. It was the sort of admonition she had used on me uncountable times in our youth, whenever she found me in the midst of some foolishness or ill-planned deviltry. Her tone had not lost the power to make me flinch with chagrin.
My reserved, bookish elder sister–she had inherited the curiosity and thirst for knowledge that plagued so many in my family, but after the death of her fiancé years ago had settled into respectable spinsterhood. Or so we had always thought. But now she stood on the threshold of that miserable room, her spine straight and head high, a book held close to her chest like a shield. Her face was set in its familiar lines, but now a strange, fierce glow filled her, transforming her into some implacable fury, some avenging Olympian.
“I think perhaps you ought to leave now,” she said to me. “Before you wander any further astray.”
Had I but known as a child what depths of horror so simple a word could contain…but none can understand that abyss who have not stood upon its brink themselves. The knife fell from my numb fingers. My uncle commanded me to halt as I took a step backward, but even had my sister not offered me hope like a spar to a drowning man, a lifetime of heeding her cautions–or regretting my failure to do so–left the crumbling phantasm with no hope of countermanding her. One step, then another, until I stood beside her at the door. I expected her to display horror at my mangled face, but all I saw in her eyes was her usual affectionate exasperation at my foolishness, and a deep fatigue outstripped by determination.
“Go,” she said. I went. “As for you, Uncle–”
The last thing I saw as I stumbled for the door was my sister opening the book in her arms, and our uncle’s mouth stretching in a roar. Fissures spread across his cheeks. Thunder shook the stones and timbers of Gilman House, though all other reports of that day I have found agree that the sky remained clear and bright, unblemished by any cloud. But thunder chased me down the hall, and I still wake trembling when storms sweep off the ocean.
Of my flight from Gilman House I remember nothing. I came to later that day on my own front step, groggy and spent as if in the aftermath of a fever. The bottle, my notes, my uncle’s trunk–all had vanished from the house. Even then I might have written the whole affair off as illness and nightmare, except…
Except that a scar, pale and slick and long-healed, now runs from my left temple across my brow.
I have not heard from my sister since that day. I have not seen my uncle save in nightmares. My face in the mirror remains my own. For now.
This concludes “The Perplexity from a Place Abroad.” We sincerely hope you’ve enjoyed the story, and if you did, please tell your friends.
This portion of “The Perplexity from a Place Abroad” (c) 2014 Amanda Downum