I was wandering through a vast field cluttered with wishing wells. The wells, rings of stacked dark stones with wooden roofs, stood in various states of weathered dilapidation. They were close enough together that I was unable to walk in a straight line for more than twenty steps. It was like walking through an apple orchard, except that instead of trees, there were wishing wells, millions of them stretching to the horizon.
I remained in bed for several minutes going over the dream before finally getting up and heading to the bathroom. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought about the wishing wells. Why wells? I had never lived by a well or used one, really. The only wells I had ever seen had been in historical re-enactments and movies. In the movie Goonies, the wishing well was both a path to riches and an escape to mundanity. Symbols can be interpreted both positively and negatively, like flipping a coin. Maybe I should play the lottery today.
My haggard face blinked at me. Ugh. The difference a good night sleep can have on one’s face increases sharply as you approach forty. Prodding the bags under my eyes, I resolved to stop eating ice cream before bed. A mud mask was in order—I would have to be a little late to work.
After rinsing off my mask, I took my time showering, shaving, and styling my hair. I put on my blue work uniform and checked my posture in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom. My butt looked great as usual. My gut could use some work.
I walked down to the kitchen and put the kettle on. Grabbing the coffee from the freezer, I ground up two tablespoons of the cold beans. I flipped the grinder upside down and tamped it several times from each side before removing the top and examining the grounds for consistency. Satisfied, I dumped them into my french press and sat to peruse the newspaper while the water boiled.
Turning directly to the “Style” section I was flummoxed to learn that paisley was making a comeback. Taking a nod from gang culture, some young fashion influencer had crafted an entire line of blue and red paisley outfits. Blue and red like the Bloods and the Crips. Blue and Red also like the sirens that chased them. Neither was my style, so I moved on to the front page. The economy remained in shambles; children in third-world countries were still committing atrocities that should only be reserved for the most sociopathic adults; natural disasters were devouring various corners of the world rich and poor alike (the only noticeable difference being the size of the headline).
My water kettle screamed and I sighed.
I poured the boiling water into the glass pitcher and watched the grounds bubble up like ravenous quicksand. While the coffee’s aroma wafted itself into my brain confirming the imminent tide of caffeine, I again reflected on my dream. Why would anyone need so many wishing wells? Were they all capable of granting wishes or were they all simply for water? What would happen if you cast the same wish into several different wells? What would I wish for anyway? Less paisley in the world, that’s for sure.
I pressed the pump down and finally poured the coffee into my Garfield mug and took that first hot sip. As the heat danced itself down my gullet, I held up the mug to savor the aroma. Steam vapors undulated above the dark surface like evanescent spirits detached and dwindling. I looked across my kitchen table at the empty seat facing me. It was actually dusty. How long had it been since I cleaned? I couldn’t remember.
On my commute to work my mouth began to taste like a third-world urinal so I pulled off at a gas station for some gum. Inside, it was empty except for the two brown persons working the counter. It wasn’t until I was pulling out my wallet to pay that I realized that they did not really have faces. It wasn’t that I couldn’t see their faces; they actually had no faces. They had heads and they had hair, but where their eyes, noses, ears and mouths, cheeks and foreheads should have been, there was only smooth skin. I tried to remember if they had faces on my numerous previous visits, but I couldn’t recall with any certainty.
The cashier’s voice emanated from a placid pool of flesh, “Your change, sir.” Fighting off the impulse to reach out and caress the flesh to see if it would ripple, I thanked her, turned abruptly, and swept myself out the door. On the way out I tripped slightly, and they blatantly laughed at me. Instinctively turning to scold them, I stopped short. Their combined lack of feature and the flat silence that greeted me had me at a loss for words. Making sure of my footing this time, I turned and resumed my swift exit.
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My fine black silk suit held me together like a second skin. My designer leather shoes reflected the infinity above. The grass whispered a hushed incantation below me as I wandered from well to well. Now and again I would pat my empty pockets searching for change that I knew was not there. I shouted into one well and then the next, but they just swallowed up my cries with stoic finality. When I grew frustrated and my voice hoarse, I sat down with my back to one of them.
I was still picturing the faceless convenience store employees when I scurried into the back door of the Post Office where I work. Was that some form of birth defect I had never heard of? How was it that two people with such a rare disability were employed at the same gas station? Was it a genetic thing?
Those questions were quickly put to rest as I made my way to my desk. Every single one of my co-workers was also faceless. It was a little strange.
The day crept forward otherwise without incident. Diverse and varied bodies ambled in toting taped-up packages and stacks of letters. A little old lady with delicate skeletal hands purchased six books of “Phantom of the Opera” stamps. A young man in tight jeans and an unfortunately loud and clashing hooded sweatshirt picked up a package in a giant box that weighed almost nothing. No one had a face. No smiles or frowns, no rolling eyes, just the fluttering phantom huffs of impatience.
The co-worker who sits to my left—I can never remember his name—was still obese and smelled of crackers and blue cheese. I shot a few discreet glances in his direction and, although he never looked directly at me, I could make out the pale curve of his featureless countenance glowering just under his mash of greasy hair. I tried to imagine how he used to look to no avail. Breathless, I reached up to feel for my own features and was relieved to feel my hawklike nose, soft lips, and gummy eyelids.
My supervisor emerged from his office in the back and approached me slowly with small clicking steps. I have always wondered if he unknowingly wore tap shoes. His non-face drooped a bit at the chin and was marked by a few liver spots, but otherwise was smooth as an ostrich egg. I must have looked strange, staring and sweating, because he called me into his office for a chat before my lunch break.
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The stones of the well were cool through my jacket and the smell of damp earth filled my lungs. As I ran my fingers through a tuft of soft grass, a small brown rat with two tails scurried from the other side of the well and sat up on his haunches scrutinizing me. I have never liked rats, their severe black eyes and gnarled hands recall specters from my haunted youth. I shoed him away with a quick gesture and muttered, “Go away, Rat.” To my surprise the rat responded, “You go away. Go lean on your own well.” His voice was larger than mine, hearty, commanding.
We took our seats on opposite sides of his desk. He sighed heavily and I picked some lint from my pants.
“Mr. Solodis,” my boss said, his voice floating around his head from a speaker directly behind his skull. He knows my first name but refuses to use it. His close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair reflected the fluorescent bulbs sizzling high above us. “Are you feeling well today? You seem a bit–”
“I’m fine. Thank you,” I interrupted with a thin smile.
“Yes.” His pause congealed around his blank visage. It was a heavier silence than usual.
He didn’t have eyes so I attempted to stare where they should have been. There were three photo frames arranged on his desk with their backs to me. I have no idea who is in these pictures, but I imagined them faceless as well. I was getting anxious to be out of his small office. The light felt like poison on my skin, and I was sweating again. The wall clock sneered down at me.
“Have I done something wrong?” I asked.
“Are you on drugs?” He asked, body completely still. People move their faces a lot more than their bodies when they talk.
“No, Sir. I’m just feeling a bit… off today.”
“You are not on drugs?” He folded his hands over his belly bulge.
“I find drugs detestable.” It was true. I never understood the compulsion. If anyone ever offered me drugs I would call the authorities immediately. I decided to move things along. “Actually, Sir, maybe I should go home. I do feel a little bit achy. Perhaps I’m coming down with the flu.”
“The Swine Flu. Or maybe bird. No laughing matter either way. Maybe you should go home.” He often repeats others’ suggestions to give the air that they came from him in the first place. He’s not fooling me.
“Yes Sir. Great idea. I’m sure I’ll feel better tomorrow.” I got up quickly and left.
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“My well?” My voice had shrunk. The little rat was impetuous, “Yes. ‘Your Well.’ As in ‘Not My Well.’” He paused, sizing me up, before continuing, “Unless you have something to eat?” I shook my head and sat up a little bit. He looked soft and was pretty cute for a rat, not so daunting after all. “May I pet you?” I asked, reaching out to stroke his pelt. He sprung back, nipping at me. “Of course you may not!” Tiny fangs and whiskers glinted, “You must move on from here. I’m very busy. What do you want?” What did I want? I looked up to the sky where the sun hung like a frozen egg in a blue glacier. “I don’t know. I have been wandering through this field, but I have no money for wishes.”
Driving home, I examined the people in the cars I passed, all equally faceless. A world full of egg heads. Some of them noticed me scrutinizing them and turned their non-faces to me. I knew I was staring. I couldn’t help it.
At a stop light, I rolled down my window and summer heat rushed in. A rusty blue pickup truck pulled up next to me, and a man with a sunburned cherry-head nodded along to a soft country song. His equally sunburnt elbow hung out the passenger window.
I shouted at him, “HEY! YOU DON’T HAVE A FACE!”
The sound of idling motors rumbled in the heat. A heavy drop of sweat streamed down my face and leapt to my collar. It was impossible to see how he was taking my observation. I grit my teeth and squeezed the steering wheel.
“Well you look like an asshole to me!” He drawled before motoring away.
I quickly rolled up my window, turned up Rod Stewart’s Greatest Hits, and focused on getting home.
At my house, I watched some TV. Characters in my favorite shows all had faces. News Anchors had faces. The President giving a speech on healthcare reform had a face. But incidental people, background people, special guests that I had never heard of; none of them had faces. I didn’t feel ill, but I was beginning to think something might be wrong with my brain. A tumor would be quite an inconvenience.
I turned off the TV and called my friend, Sturgis. Sturgis was his last name, I didn’t know his first. We met some years earlier at a bar in downtown D.C. We had both been hitting on the same woman at the same time without realizing it. He must have said something to turn her off because she left before I could buy her a second drink, but then he and I started talking. Since that night we have often gone out to bars together to pick up women. Often enough, disputes over who would get the cute one repelled our prospects. He paid for most of the drinks though, so I tolerated him.
When he didn’t answer the phone I left a message asking him to come over right after work. I didn’t give him any details. I would just wait and see how he looked and decide how to proceed from there. My couch felt harder than usual. I decided to give myself a manicure to pass the time.
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The rat brushed his whiskers with his little hands, “Well, if you had some money, what would you wish for?” His two tails thumped the ground in quick succession. I chewed my tongue and examined my shoes thoughtfully. “Hmmm… I don’t really know. Perhaps to go home? But I don’t really know where that is right now either.”
The sun had set when Sturgis finally arrived. He had eyebrows, and nostrils like inverted straws pulling up into his brain. The dimple on his chin and his obnoxious freckles remained. Strangely he had no mouth and no eyes.
As usual, he headed straight for the kitchen. I had just finished some Chinese food delivered by a faceless presumably Asian teenager whose only noticeable characteristic was a giant aching pimple in the middle of his sprawling forehead. The open cartons were clustered on the counter, mostly empty. Ben sniffed at them absently before moving on to rummage through my refrigerator. I attempted not to stare at him.
He was telling me about his date, “She’s a fox, I’m telling you—straight out of a lingerie catalog. Long brown hair. Long brown legs. Mad eyes. She’s the kind of girl you want to trap in a glass case and hide away from the world. Chicken still good?” He grabbed a two-day-old drumstick and proceeded to talk with his mouth full, “She can talk though. A little too much for my taste, really, but she’s hot enough.” He was a revolting creature.
“I hate you.” I was deadpan. My face may as well have been blank too.
He was quick to retort, “Fuck you, Solodis. I hate you too. I just hate you less than most people. What did you want from me anyway? You sounded pretty wacked-out on that message. Find out you got cancer or something?” His eyebrows were twitching on his forehead like two caterpillars caught in a mating dance. The freckles held their ground.
“I’m fine. TV trouble. That’s all. Fixed itself.” If it was cancer, I’d be sure and call him right away to confirm his heinous prediction.
“Grand. I’ve got to be going anyway. Sylvia’s already been waiting…” He checked the time on his Blackberry, “for fifteen minutes.” I followed his back to the front door. He spoke over his shoulder as he left, “Let’s get together for a drink next week. Ciao!”
I shut the door and locked it. Back in the kitchen the gnarled chicken bone glistened quietly on the counter. I returned to the couch and thought about my dream again.
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The rat took two little steps forward and jutted his nose at me, “You don’t even know who you are, much less where you are. You’re lost.” His thin rat lips pulled back to a sneer, “Maybe you should pick a well and throw yourself into it.”
My chest tightened up. “But… What would happen to me?” I had two tufts of grass in my fists and was tugging at the roots. He was right, I was lost. I couldn’t just wander around this field forever. The rat sighed. “I couldn’t tell you. It’s different for everybody. You just have to try it.”
It’s been four months now. I haven’t had another dream since the wishing well/rat dream, but every morning I wake up remembering little details from it as if I had just dreamt it. About two months ago I stopped going to work. It became maddening smiling at the constant parade of unintelligible blankness, all those people who weren’t really people. Sometimes, if an exchange dragged on, the faintest traces of an eye or lips might begin to emerge, but the customer would always leave before any real change could register.
For awhile I imagined faces for them. I pictured faces from my past, like James Benton who would beat me up if I came to the playground when he was there, or Susie Swans who only decided she would date me when every other option was taken. I invented new faces. I attempted to squeeze as many noses as I could between the hair line and the chin. I imagined mystic arrangements of multiple eyes blinking at me in unison, or just a giant mouth grinning at me dumbly. But this game quickly lost its luster.
In my bathroom mirror, my own face withered and jaundiced under a lifeless swath of hair. My butt and gut shriveled up as well; I became desiccated like the abandoned shell of a cicada. Even my designer shirts and slacks, usually reserved for the nights I would cruise bars, hung forlorn on my frame.
One evening just a few weeks ago, I was examining my ruined face in the mirror. My cheeks had deflated and my eyes looked shriveled. I sighed and one of my teeth, a small molar, clinked to the sink and danced down the drain. I was falling apart! It was like my entire being was suffocating. I decided to go out and get some air while I still could.
I dressed myself in my favorite black slacks and burgundy button-down–a combination that had proven effective multiple times for attracting desirable women–and drove downtown to my favorite bar. The bartender, not surprisingly only a mouth, greeted me apprehensively.
“Mr. Solodis, you don’t look so good,” he said with some concern flickering in his eyes.
“Yes, ahm.. my mirrors are broken,” I coughed through a weak smile.
He lifted a clean martini glass waving it like a crystal wand. “The usual?” he asked.
I nodded and slid a few seats down the bar where the lighting was less revealing. The cool air had me shivering already. “Straight up,” I added.
It wasn’t until my third manhattan that I noticed her: No face, but lovely hair and a shapely form, nice breasts and a firm-looking ass. She was probably a little older than me, maybe in her late forties, but it was hard to tell. Her dress, lime-green and slick like icing, clung to her curves as she ambled over to the free seat next to me. I offered to pay for her drink and she turned to me.
“Why are you sitting over here all by yourself?” she asked.
It’s hard to flirt with someone while avoiding eye contact. “I can’t see anyone anymore,” I said.
Her Vodka martini arrived and she spilled some down her arm as she raised it to where her mouth should have been and absorbed the liquid through her skin. “I hate relationships too, but that hardly answers my question,” she said tilting her egg-head a little to the side before continuing, “You look sad.”
“I’ve had better days,” I said, still avoiding looking at her directly for fear of scaring her off. She slid to the edge of her seat and her perfume wafted over me, a soft alluring scent like powdered berries and sex. She put her hand on my knee and brought her non-face close to my ear.
“This one’s not over yet,” she whispered.
Her forwardness stung me in a strange way. A hole in my chest opened up and I felt as though my ribcage was being dragged down to the sticky shadows of the floor. I was furious with her, but at the same time I was more lonely than I had ever imagined possible. My whole life had been spent maneuvering from exploit to exploit, completely unfazed by the world at large. I had taken what I needed and moved forward with a content smile and blissful ignorance regarding the smoldering emptiness of my wake. Being alone never bothered me as long as I could launch myself at the next pretty face.
I felt like an old, rotten teddy-bear, the one a child keeps around on the shelf even after it has been replaced by a newer, softer, cleaner friend. I reached up and scratched at my leathery cheeks.
“Let’s do a shot,” She said, waving at the bartender.
“Why?” I croaked hollowly.
“Why are you talking to me? Why do you want to do a shot with me?”
“Because I’ve been sad before too.”
She ordered two tequila shots and the bartender brought them over with limes and salt. She ran her arm across her face and sprinkled salt on her magically moistened wrist.
“I’m not sad anymore,” I said, pushing the salt away and grabbing the shot. “I’m furious.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” she said, raising her glass to toast. “To feeling something.”
As she said this I thought I caught a glimpse of her lips, a red smudge coming into focus, like a koi fish rising to the surface of a deep pond. I squinted at her face as she brought her glass down to cheers mine. She tossed her shot back and by the time her glass was back on the bar her face had resumed its nebulous burnish. With a sigh I tossed back my shot.
“How’s that feel?” she asked.
“Are you fucking with me?” I asked, turning my whole body to face her. Maybe she hadn’t gotten a proper look at me.
“Nope.” Another sip of her martini was absorbed into her face-skin. Her giggle evaporated into the nothingness from whence it came.
Suddenly I found myself fighting back the urge to weep. My throat closed up and my eyes glassed over. I gripped my knees.
“What color are your eyes?” I blurted.
“What color do you think they are?” She turned her head playfully, succeeding only in obscuring the irony. I took a guess.
“Green.” I said and took a big swallow from my drink.
And then there they were! When she looked back at me I was staring into a beautiful set of light green eyes. They were magnificent. The rest of her face was still missing, but I just threw myself into her luminous eyes.
“Someone’s paying attention!” She giggled again. I smiled and signed to the bartender for another round of shots.
“I must be,” I said, passing her the salt and raising my glass.
We toasted and shot our drinks.
“What else do you see?” she asked, tossing her hair back over her shoulder.
Flustered, I groped for a response. “Where are you from?” I asked. Always best to answer an unanswerable question with a diverting question.
She knew the game as well. I stared into her eyes. “You have a bit of an accent.”
“What? Aw shucks. I thought I had that under control!” Suddenly she had lips. Full, red, luscious, perfect lips. She continued, “I’m from Birmingham, Alabama originally. But I’ve lived up here for over ten years. I thought I had beaten back the ol’ twang.”
I looked around the bar. Everyone else was still starkly faceless.
“Nope,” I stammered, “Still there. Listen, —Fuck!”
“What?” Her lips made a perfect ‘O.’ I wanted to dive into it.
“What’s your name?”
“Well, that took you long enough.” She smiled exposing fresh dimples. “I’m Crystal. And you are?”
My heart was racing. “Crystal?” I asked.
“Yup. And you are?” She cocked a freshly sprouted eyebrow and in the center of her face a shadow congealed into a straight, longish nose. I giggled and bit my lip.
“My name?” I had forgotten my name. She nodded slowly, still smiling, eyes half closed, enjoying the game. “Uhm..”
“Your real name.” She said, sipping her drink.
“Justin!” My name is Justin. I wiped my sweaty palms on my slacks and downed the last of my martini.
“Another round, Justin?”
I was feeling pretty drunk, and the exhilaration from seeing the first normal face I had seen in months had my head spinning with greater fervor. I put my hand on her leg and she let her own hand fall on mine.
“Crystal,” I said, “You are so beautiful.”
She pursed a perfect smirk and I reveled in the way her eyes dug into me.
“Flattery will get you everywhere, but drunk flattery is a sign of desperation.”
“I’m serious. I’m a little drunk, but I’m serious as I’ve ever been. You are the most beautiful woman I’ve seen in . . .forever.”
“Right,” she said, replacing my hand in my own lap and finishing her drink. She stood up.
“Wait!” I grabbed her hand and entwined my fingers with hers. She sat back down and looked at me with what I hoped wasn’t pity. I stared in her eyes and took a deep breath. “Crystal, I’m sorry. You’re right. I am sad. I’ve been going through the most horrible ordeal for the past several months. I feel like you’re the first person to actually look at me, to talk to me, to smile and laugh with me. I didn’t mean for it to be a line. I really do think you’re beautiful. I’ve been lost in this maze of emptiness and you just stepped into it like this torch, this heavenly bright light, and, well, you’ve just brightened up my night in a way that I didn’t anticipate.”
She mulled this over for a second, eyes hard, but still eyes. Suddenly she let her shoulders drop and her hand relaxed in mine.
“Heavenly bright light, huh?”
“I’m no poet,” I shrugged.
“I’m still here.” She smiled and underneath her hair I caught glimpse of her ears for the first time. “Now what?” she asked.
“More drinks?” I rebuffed, another question for her question. She shook her head and her ears danced under her hair. “I love your ears,” I added.
She looked at me and smiled, squinting her eyes, reading my face. I took another deep breath.
“Come with me to the bathroom.” I said. She stiffened and I began to regret the suggestion.
“That’s what you want?” She asked, voice iced over.
“I need you.” I said with as much assertion as I could muster.
She looked at our intertwined fingers and then back at me and sighed.
“After all this, that’s what you really want?” Her eyes dug into me. I knew I was taking a leap, but she had been working the seduction angle pretty hard initially. I had come so far with her, I had to see how far she could take me. I tightened my grip on her hand and held her gaze.
“I need it.”
The bartender sauntered over. “Couple more shots, guys?” He asked.
“Fuck it. Sure.” she said to me and stood up before I could register her expression. We left the bartender where he stood and walked to the tunnel in the back of the bar where the restrooms were.
Once locked inside the small bathroom, I immediately started kissing her neck. She moaned softly and I slid her dress strap down her shoulder, my other hand groping for her breast. I kissed down the front of her dress and was about to inch it up over her hips when she grabbed my face and lifted me up to kiss her. I froze. There was no mouth, no lips, no tongue. Her lovely face had been replaced with empty skin, smooth and horrible, her cute ears swallowed back into her skull.
Her breath, sharp with vodka, poured out of her. “What’s wrong, baby? This is what you wanted.” The small room tightened around me. Her gristly hands on my cheeks pulled me towards her blankness. I couldn’t make a sound. There was no air. I was choking.
With a violent motion, I pushed her off and fled back into the bar, falling onto the crowded dance floor. I must have blacked out for a second, because when I opened my eyes I found myself in a dark hole staring up at a hundred wobbling moons. But the moons had hair, and several hands were reaching down and prodding at me. Music was pounding. Voices clattered from everywhere. I conjured what little energy I had left and flung myself out the bar and into the street. The next thing I knew I was in a cab speeding home.
I haven’t gone outside since. Too weak even to rise from my slab of a couch, I flip through channels; Celebrities and Public Officials, faces miraculously intact, smile at me from their distant realities. On talk shows, movie stars laugh and I scrutinize their features for some hidden meaning, some sacred revelation that might free me from this festering nightmare. There is nothing. Their faces, the last faces my miserable world has deemed fit for me to perceive, show me nothing.
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I looked around at the stipple of wells stretching off into a distant oblivion. Cold and silent, they stared back at me from all directions. “But which one?” I asked, “They all look the same.” The Rat’s two tails thumped again and he cocked his head, squinting his black eyes. “You aren’t looking close enough,” he said, “Each of these wells are unique with their own depth and secrets. They can help you find out what to wish for, but first you must dive into one. You must dive into its heart.” Such a large voice for a small rodent. He looked at the sky for a moment before continuing, “I have to go. Whatever you do, don’t throw yourself into your own well.”
“What happens if I throw myself into my own well?”
“The well dries up.”