When you were twelve you made a new face to put on top of your face. As far as you could tell there was nothing wrong with your face—it looked completely normal, just like everyone else’s—but for some reason, nearly every time other people looked at you, they got angry. This had been happening for as long as you could remember, but lately things had been getting worse.
The first recent incident took place at your Grandpa’s funeral two months ago, when you couldn’t stop grinning because that hilarious joke from Spongebob kept popping into your head. Then, during the drive home, as your parents screamed at you about the immature, disrespectful faces you had made during the funeral, you cried and tried to tell them that you had been grinning not at Grandpa, but at the picture in your head of Squidward wearing a salmon suit. But they didn’t listen. They just kept yelling.
The next incident happened a week later, when your dad took you to see that awesome new mummy movie with Brendan Frasier. This time you kept a straight face for the whole movie to make sure he wouldn’t yell at you again. But somehow that was wrong too, and on the way home he yelled at you anyway, calling you a selfish little ingrate who doesn’t appreciate anything.
So, since there seemed to be something seriously wrong with your face, you decided to make a new one.
That Christmas you asked your parents for an arts and crafts set. Following the big day you spent the rest of your Christmas break in your room, building the new face. During those days you stood in front of your bedroom mirror for hours, testing out different smiles, different frowns, different shapes of the eyebrows, all in the hope of finding a version of your face that no one could get angry at. By the time you went to bed each night, every part of your face ached from overuse.
On the morning of New Years Eve you finally finished your new face. Sculpted from cheap clay, scaffolded with thin toothpicks, and permanently frozen into an expression of safe neutrality, your new face wasn’t a perfect disguise, but it would have to do. Your parents were taking you to your Uncle Ron’s New Years Eve party later tonight, and you didn’t want to get yelled at again.
To your surprise, the new face worked perfectly. No one seemed to know it was there. Moments after arriving at the party your Uncle Ned pulled his nasty old trick of crushing your knuckles like grapes while shaking your hand, but since your new face hid the twisted scowl of pain flashing across your real face underneath, he quickly let go and tried the trick on another, more responsive kid.
Then, hours later, when your cousins Scott and Ted stole a bottle of vodka from the adult cooler and got caught drinking in the basement, the two boys tried to pin the crime on you. But thanks to your new face hiding the nervous sweat and frightened blush colouring your real face beneath, your Uncle Ron didn’t believe them for a second, and he punished the true culprits instead.
After that day you wore your new face every time you left the house.
Thanks to your new face, the rest of the school year went great. The kids in your class stopped making fun of you at school, and your teachers no longer got angry every time they looked in your direction.
Later that summer, after you’d had your friends over for a few sleepovers and a birthday pool party, you noticed that the new face worked on your parents too. So from then on you decided to wear the new face all the time.
After all, it felt nice to not get yelled at every day.
Over the next few years you kept working to improve your new face. As you spent more time among the normal, happy, non-threatening faces that constituted your high school social circle, these improvements became easier. So, each night before bed, you stood in front of your bedroom mirror and carefully carved the day’s improvements into your new face. Here you watched the excess clay curl from your fake cheeks in smooth, thin ribbons, your frozen expression gradually growing softer, more human, and more alive, than it had ever been before.
After college you got a job at the local CVS near your house. As a fine arts major with a focus in sculpture and pottery, you didn’t yet have the money to open your own art studio, so you decided to live at home for a few years to save up as much money as you could.
But soon after you began work, customers started complaining about you. Each time there was a dispute over an incorrect price or an expired coupon, they would demand to speak to the manager. Once the manager arrived, the customer would yell about your careless attitude, about your detached demeanour, about the way your dead-eyed expression made it seem like you weren’t even listening to the words they were saying.
After two weeks of this you considered telling your manager the whole embarrassing truth about your two faces. But there was a problem. Your new face had fused to your skin and could no longer be removed.
So, in order to save your job, you turned to the only thing you’d ever done right in your life: sculpture.
On your next day off you drove around town and spent a few hours studying the behavior of the employees working in various retail stores. Standing in the quiet aisles, a small sketch pad clutched in your hand, you covertly drew reference figures of the employees’ faces. Here you focused on the welcoming curl of the lips, the cheerful squint of the eyes, the thoughtful wrinkle of the brow.
Later, when you studied your drawings in the comfort and safety of your bedroom back home, you noticed that nearly every employee’s face displayed the same fake, over-exaggerated expressions that only exist on television. Thinking about this, you remembered your old best friend Spongebob, and suddenly everything made a little more sense. Apparently a neutral face could only take you so far. If you wanted strangers to actually like you, you would need a face as expressive as a cartoon character.
So for the rest of the night you closed yourself off in your basement workshop and built a third face to put on top of your other two. This time you used your reference figures to create a face as cheerful, expressive, and inviting as your favourite undersea sponge.
For the next few years, your third face kept you out of trouble at work. Customers responded positively to your giant, permanent smile, and whenever a disagreement did crop up, you diffused it easily thanks to your perpetually cheerful expression that made each person feel like a respected and appreciated customer of your store. As a result of this improvement, you were promoted to assistant store manager at the beginning of your fourth year at CVS.
But despite this success at your day job, your dreams of opening your own art studio were no closer than they had been at the end of college. Even with the increased salary of an assistant store manager, you could barely keep up with your personal expenses and student loan payments.
On top of this, your personal life outside of work was nonexistent. You weren’t exactly sure what the problem was in this department, but from past experience, you suspected it had something to do with your three faces. Whatever the problem, no one at work ever wanted to spend time with you after they clocked out. Each time you asked a coworker to hang out—whether it was Alex, Jen, Gabe, Rachel, or any of the other employees close to your age—they looked away from your grinning face and mumbled a vague excuse about being busy for the next few days.
So for the next five years you trudged through life without feeling much of anything. Each day was exactly the same as the one before it, and soon, the change of the seasons was the only way you felt the passage of time.
Some time later, while taking the Grove Street curve on a snow-thickened morning in January, you lost control of your Toyota and barrelled toward an eighty-foot pine standing on the side of the road. In a panic you stomped on the brake, but the pedal shuddered uselessly under your foot. The car continued its slide; the rear began to fishtail. Feeling this you took a deep breath and looked out the window. The world lay choked with white, and the oncoming pine looked like the shaft of a brown arrow cutting sharply into the sky. Now you lifted your foot from the brake and finally admitted to yourself that you no longer cared whether you lived or died. Your life had become nothing more than an empty bag, a useless thing free of emotion and passion and love and meaning, and you couldn’t think of a single reason to get all worked up about something so worthless.
An instant later you felt the impact. Metal crunched, like an aluminium can being crushed; glass shattered, and icy air whirled around you; your seatbelt cut into your shoulder and drew blood.
For the next week you lay in a hospital bed and recovered. But every time your parents asked you to describe the accident, you stayed quiet. You didn’t care about anything anymore, least of all yourself, so you didn’t feel the need to explain anything. In the best case scenario, a full recovery would plant you right back in the same place you’d been for the past five years, completely alone in the world, working a job that means nothing to you, so you kept your eyes closed and thought about nothing at all.
A week after leaving the hospital, your parents took you to see a therapist named Anna. You had not said a word in the two weeks since the accident, and your parents were worried about you.
You met with Anna on the third floor of a townhouse near the centre of the Topine business district. She had straight blonde hair and looked to be ten or twelve years older than you. She was pretty and looked a little bit like an actress that had been in a comedy with Ben Stiller a few years ago, a movie you had seen in the theatres by yourself.
Since you no longer cared about anything anymore, you decided to answer Anna’s questions. What did you have to lose? So you told her about your car accident in the snow, and the moment during the skid when you stopped caring about your life. You told her about your worthless job at CVS, your non-existent social life, your rotted aspirations of one day opening an art studio.
For the first few sessions you didn’t see the point in any of this meandering conversation. But after a while it started to feel good to talk to a kind person who never felt the need to yell at you.
Then, at the beginning of your eighth session, Anna asked about your childhood. For a few minutes you omitted any mention of your replacement faces and instead talked about safe, inconsequential fluff, but soon you admitted the truth. It was the first time in your life you’d ever told anyone about your three faces.
“That’s interesting,” Anna said, after listening to the history of your faces. “Do you still use your alternate faces these days?”
“I wear the second one all the time,” you said. “You’re looking at it right now. But the third one is just for work.”
“Wow, that’s very impressive. You’re a very talented artist.”
“Thank you,” you said.
Now Anna paused and looked down at her lap.
“I’m not sure if this will interest you or not,” Anna said, looking up at you, her icy blue eyes shining, “but did you know that you’re not the only person who does this?”
“Well, I’ve never seen anyone take things quite as far as you did, but this is a common practice among individuals on the autism spectrum.”
“What are you talking about?” you said, your heart smashing in your mouth.
“I’m sorry, but we’re at time. We’ll have to pick this up next week. But let me write this down in case you want to read up on this stuff in the meantime,” Anna said, leaning over her desk and scribbling some words on a purple post-it note. Moments later she swiveled around in her chair and handed the note to you.
You took the paper and looked down at it. Written in Anna’s looping cursive were three words:
But before you could say anything more, Anna opened the door and ushered you into the hallway.
“So did you get a chance to take a look at those things I wrote down for you last time?” Anna said, moments after you sat down at the start of the following week’s session.
“I did,” you said, your heels bouncing nervously on the beige carpet. “It was pretty scary how accurate it was, you know, describing me and how I am.”
“Good, I’m glad. And how do you feel, now that you know a little bit more about this stuff?”
“I feel angry and stupid and a lot of other things that aren’t great, but there is something I want to try that might help alleviate some of these bad feelings,” you said.
“Okay, sure. What do you want to do?”
“Well, this is probably going to sound pathetic, but over the last two months you’ve become the only person in my life I can actually call a friend, so I want you to be the first person in the past fifteen years to see my real face. Because if what you say is true, then that would mean there was nothing wrong with my face to begin with, and . . . I don’t know. I guess I just want someone nice to see the real me for once.”
Anna smiled at you and nodded.
“Absolutely. I’d very much like to see your real face.”
“Okay,” you said, blowing out a quivering breath. “The second face has been stuck to my real one for a long time, so this might take a while.”
Anna leaned back in her chair and gave you a wincing smile.
“Okay, but be careful. Don’t hurt yourself.”
You took a deep breath and pressed your fingers into the smooth clay just in front of your ears. You couldn’t remember how thick your second face was, so you pushed through the clay until you felt bone. Once there, you curled your fingers into a bowl and began to pull. Soon you heard the brittle crunch of toothpicks snapping, the suction-cup slurp of dry clay peeling from your skin. Moments later a crackling burn engulfed your head. Tears of pain beaded in your eyes. Gritting your teeth against the searing pain, you suddenly grew impatient and claustrophobic; you couldn’t bear to wear this awful thing for another moment. So you began tearing your second face away in chunks, your hands clawing at your cheeks. Once finished, the last bits of your second face lay piled in your lap, and jammed beneath your fingernails.
Following this it took a while for the pain to subside. Once it finally did, you opened your eyes and looked at Anna. But instead of her pretty face you saw the reflection of your own. She was holding a mirror in front of you.
Your real face looked horrible. The skin and muscle had rotted away, and all that was left was blood blacked bone. Looking at yourself, you couldn’t believe what you had become.
“How do you feel?” Anna asked from behind the mirror, her face still blocked by the horrifying image of your own.
“Oh my god,” you said, as tears trickled down your destroyed face. “This is the most awful thing I’ve ever seen.”
“I didn’t ask how you think you look,” Anna said, her voice suddenly firm and forceful, more serious than you’d ever heard it. “I asked how you feel, now that you’re not wearing a mask anymore.”
For the next ten minutes you stayed silent and thought about her question. Then, finally, you spoke.
“I’m afraid. I’m afraid of what people will say and how they’ll treat me. But underneath that, I do feel a little better. I almost feel like an actual person again. And this is the first time I’ve felt like that in a very long time.”
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