01 Feb Smile and Nod
It began with a stranger. It seems the most peculiar of occurrences often do.
Ryan Sanders had been enjoying his walk along the Boston Commons. The trip had become part of his evening routine. After work, he would walk through and then along the border of the Commons before riding the Red Line all the way home. Although he was never alone there, Ryan often felt he had the Commons all to himself.
The reason, he gathered, was quite the simple one; if any one attribute could be attributed to Ryan Sanders, it would be that he is unremarkable. He did not mind this one bit – it meant, for the most part, he was left alone, unnoticed, unbothered. To his own devices, as they say. And, as any good introvert can attest, time left alone is time well spent.
Today was particularly wonderful. He drank in the atmosphere, allowing his senses to remove their filters and bathe in the totality of the experience. Enjoy it for what it was, as his father would often say. The grass, having once again survived a cruel North East Winter, awoke with a renewed greeness at the first signs of spring. The distant playing of a street performer’s string instrument (Ryan was unsure which) crept beneath the low murmur of conversation and laughter that seems so inseparably linked to the presence of crowds of people. Birds began their seasonal courtships, tweeting songs in incrementally increasing bursts. These sounds were punctuated by life beyond the Green, car horns and tire screeches that reminded Ryan of the price and pervasiveness of modernity. On a day less beautiful than today, this alone would have irked him plenty.
But not today. Today was beautiful, and perhaps that would be enough.
His immersion was total, his mind empty of intentional thought and instead populated by a series of pleasant images and agreeable sentiments. With a slight smile on his face and his hands snug in his denim pockets, Ryan thought himself as carefree as a child.
Or so it was until something had broken, had oh so rudely interrupted, this pleasant stream of consciousness. At first, it was an indiscernible sensation, a crawling feeling that originated from the base of his neck and seemed to course through his veins and into his head. After a moment, he could identify it. It was the feeling of being watched. The gaze of the Other – someone had taken notice of him. His delightful meditative trance popped like a bubble, and the smile fell as though suddenly privy to the whims of gravity.
The feeling was intrusive but not wholly unsurprising (the Commons was a public space, after all). He spun his head around wildly – an action he was now more than acutely self-conscious of, all thanks to the uninvited observer – in an attempt to discover the perpetrator, the Ruiner of Good Days, Destroyer of All Things Enjoyable.
It did not take long to find the culprit (Stellar work, Detective Sanders). A girl of unknown age sat cross-legged on a wooden bench not far from where Ryan now stood. She wore a plaid skirt that reminded Ryan of his days in Catholic School, and a light sweater that seemed two sizes too large. His eyes held there before he had become aware they had idled so. Embarrassed, Ryan sprang them upwards.
Then he gasped an unbelieving gasp.
No, that wasn’t quite right.
He was unwilling to believe what his eyes professed to him as reality.
The girl’s face was devoid of all features but her mouth, a mouth outstretched into a grin wider than any Ryan had ever seen. The ends of her mouth extended from cheekbone to cheekbone, thinning her lips into an impossibly invisible line. Her teeth, both bottom and top, stood naked and white. They seemed locked into place, airtight, gates that not even light could enter.
After a minor struggle (against what? against that urge, that seemingly ubiquitous urge, that compels one to slow one’s car on a busy highway and glance at the wrecked aftermath of a car crash), Ryan moved his gaze upwards. Her face bore two shallow crevices where her eyes should have rested, lazy indents as though a thumb had been pressed twice into a ball of Play-Doh. From there to her mouth was only a preternatural smoothness, shapeless skin where features should have been. His eyes danced on her face and finally settled once again – again unwillingly – on her mouth. On her smile.
And this was when Ryan could no longer control himself, and he shrieked. In a moment, during a flash of conscious thought rising against a sea of adrenaline before once again being submerged, he wondered if he could ever be sane again. His knuckles tightened, nails digging into the bed of his palm and drawing blood. He took no notice of this. His gaze was transfixed on the girl, the one in the plaid skirt, the one with only a mouth, who had gotten up from her bench and began walking towards him.
Ryan stood frozen. His legs buckled and were suddenly unwilling to propel him away and, to anywhere but here, and he watched as the girl began approaching him in wide – yet perfectly even, and somehow graceful – steps. Every step was marked with a nod of the head. Her head took a decelerating glide downwards, quickly and silently SNAPPED as it seemed to lock into place, and glided upwards again.
Downwards. SNAP, then lock. Upwards.
The smile remained unmoving, glued to her face. New step. Head nod. With every nod he thought he could hear her teeth clatter together, knocking against one another mildly as though she shivered. Surely his imagination. She was too far for him to hear that.
She was closer now. Upwards. Downwards. SNAP, lock. Another step forward. Ryan was unsure how long he had been standing there. Seconds and minutes seemed indistinguishable. What he knew was that she had breached a considerable distance.
The clattering became louder. It was not his imagination. Fist tightening, a steady stream of blood fell from Ryan’s hand and landed on the walkway below.
How could he hear it?
That was when his attention shifted to the periphery of his auditory input, and he became aware that the low and steady hum of the Commons was low and steady no more. He could hear no cars, no laughing, no birds, no one, no nothing.
Ryan Sanders suddenly became sure he was the only person left in the world. And he did not relish it.
Upwards. Downwards. SNAP, lock.
The thought of isolation was useful to him. No one was coming to save him, he realized. No passerby would take notice, rush to the rescue, and offer him a helping hand. If Ryan was to live, it would be of his own accord, it would result from his own actions.
The girl was nearly at arm’s length to him. He could smell her, an olfactory cocktail that mixed the sweet (and dying) scent of her perfume with the smell of rot. But there was more… faint, yes, but he swore he smelled freshly-cut sawdust. His stomach rolled over, but his legs finally straightened. He whipped around, a considerably graceless twirl, and prepared himself to sprint.
It lasted but a few seconds. A congregation of faceless beings, wearing only that grin, that damned grin, had collected silently behind Ryan. The occupants of the Commons had become a disorganized mob, each member stepping gracefully forward. Their heads, each abiding by their own imagined metronome, glided upwards, downwards, and SNAPPED and locked. Over, and over, and over again. The clatter of teeth had become a constant and maddening sound.
Ryan attempted to scream, his body’s last-ditch effort at survival, but he was silent.
A tall man sporting runner’s headphones that rested on his head now stood right in front of Ryan. He no longer moved – he had reached his destination – but his head continued its pattern.
The grin widened more, and still more, until it had adopted the shape of a crescent moon. His lips were gone, retracted. In a series of loud CRACKS and POPS, his jaw unhinged and both rows of teeth ceased contact with one another. They Ryan peered into his mouth and saw a tubular membrane which resembled a vaginal canal. It was covered with bumps of pink flesh, creating a rocky, cobblestone-like appearance. Strings of saliva, dangling from the sides and top like stalactites, had begun to drip down in nauseating streams.
And yet the mouth opened wider, wider, widest.
There was no longer a face but only a mouth, only that canal.
All was still for a moment.
And then the head lunged.
The circular opening that had become the man’s face had absorbed Ryan’s head like a snake to its rodent prey. But it did not swallow. It would have been better for Ryan if it had.
It began to suck, producing a slurping sound not unlike a child maximizing what remained of a sugary beverage through a straw. Ryan’s eyes had begun to sting with an acidity. He felt them being sucked as though through a vacuum, swelling out of their sockets until – with a sickening POP – they were ripped clean from his head. Each hair follicle was plucked until no eyebrow remained on his face. His nose was the next to go, and it did, torn off his face with the speed of a band-aid.
His final thought, the last cry of a consciousness aware that it will soon be no more, was as simple as it was absurd.
I should have gone home.
The slurping stopped. The man’s head craned back to its original position, jaw popping into place and his grin returning to its resting point.
The remainder of Ryan Sanders emerged, his face gone. All that remained was a grin, wider than Ryan had ever grinned, his lips thinned into a fine line, his teeth locked into place.
The mob moved elsewhere. Ryan followed.
With each step, his head began to move.
Ryan was not alone.
And for the first time, he did not mind.