The line bordering the other side of sanity is only the width of a shadow. All you have to do is move to a different angle to watch it disappear.
I am a man of particular taste. My alarm is set at 6:28 AM, because 6:30 doesn’t give me enough time to massage the salt into my morning egg. I carry with me a list of my favorite adjectives and check them off throughout the day to avoid redundancies. And you will never catch me throwing my clothes in a pile at the day’s end, because I find it uncomfortable leaving undressed mannequins in my room. (I’d oblige you not to picture some tormented scene – it’s really quite a civilized way to store your outfits. I even made them plastic masks by boiling down some old toys and shaping them with a scalpel, so they look perfectly natural there.) Things must be just so. If they are not so, then I am not so. My wristwatch broke once, and I didn’t leave work until 3 in the morning. I physically hurt trying to tear myself away while it only read 4:52 PM. I am telling you this because I want you to understand how orderly my routine is, and how shocked I was to see something so egregiously (checked off) out of place.
Three weeks ago
I walked into my apartment and placed my hat upon the garden gnome which stood sentry at my front door. I drank a glass of water which I had left on the kitchen counter that morning to re-hydrate me from my walk home (I trust the public transit as much as a toddler with a gun). Then to my bedroom, where I found them.
Two faces were mounted on the wall astride my bed: that of the bus driver, and another of Elaine who lived next door. The bus driver displayed a crafty grin, while Elaine was transfixed with the most preposterous (check off) sneer I had ever seen in my life. She was an angel in an apron, benevolent to the bone – I’ve never seen her wear such a dreadful expression in all my time with her.
“Bet you feel silly now,” the bus driver said.
“I beg your pardon?” I was shocked, but not so shocked as to forget my manners.
“Not trusting the bus. How does it feel knowing I got in safe and she didn’t?”
“What happened to you, Elaine?”
Her twisted sneer remained unaltered, her dead plastic eyes completely devoid of life. I touched her face, and then the face of the bus driver – both were made of plastic, much like those on my mannequins. Peculiar to say the least, considering I never made faces to resemble either of those people. I must say I rather liked them there though. Now that they were pointed at the mannequins, the faces could keep each other company while I was gone.
Two weeks ago
Elaine is dead. I believe that’s the most important fact to address first. She struck her head on a concrete pillar after tumbling down nearly two flights of stairs. I never saw her, but the landlady was kind enough to show me pictures she snapped with her cell phone. She shows me all the strangest things – I suppose she doesn’t think I judge her because of my own eccentric tastes. She’s wrong, but I wouldn’t say it to her face.
Her grotesque sneer was identical to the mask above my bed. I believe that to be the second most important fact. I didn’t volunteer this information to anyone at the time, but I am disclosing it to you because I find it easier to trust people when I am not looking them in the eye.
There is another mask above my bed, although perhaps this was the most important fact of all. The smiling face of my landlady. I believe I understand why she is smiling, because the bus driver now looks absolutely terrified.
“What are you so scared of?” I asked him, but now his expression was fixed.
“You’ll see,” the landlady said, grinning from ear to ear.
One week ago
Her comment was germane (check off) to the news the following week. The bus was clipped by a drunk driver and sent rolling down a hillside. Two casualties, one of which was the driver himself. I can only imagine how horrendous it would be to roll down the hill amidst a blender of falling bodies and flailing limbs. Of course, I don’t have to imagine how they reacted to the situation, because I could see it plainly on the driver’s face.
It is with deep trepidation that I must report my latest discovery. My own face has been added to the wall, and while the landlady’s mask doesn’t seem the least perturbed, my own expression surpasses the most ghastly countenance of dread your darkest imagination might conjure.
I tried to shift my anguished face, but the expression was hard set and immovable. I tried heating it in the oven to make it malleable, but two hours at 500 degrees didn’t make the slightest indentation. All it did was make the landlady giggle from above my bed.
“You can’t change it. You’re done for.”
“You’ll see,” I replied.
I went to knock upon the landlady’s door. It seemed like a fairly straightforward fix. Once her real face matched the mask of terror I saw in my own, then my face would be able to smile again.
She opened the door and invited me in. I let her serve me tea and introduce both of her cats in a sing-song voice as though they were the one talking. And they call me the crazy one.
I considered waiting for her back to be turned, but I had to make sure the expression really captured her impending disaster. It wasn’t as easy or as pretty this way, but I knew the second I lay the knife upon the coffee table that it would pay for its trouble. I cut her in eight places – an even number so she could rest in peace – saving the killing blow until the moment her face was the perfect contortion of distress. It seemed like an awful mess to leave for the cats, but I heard they take care of that sort of thing in time.
Her face is still on my wall. And it’s still smiling. The police arrived faster than I thought they would. That’s the problem with apartments – thin walls. Always some nosy neighbor poking their nose into something that isn’t their business.
I supposed I should have hid the body. It’s not a matter of legal repercussions – they questioned me but didn’t have any evidence in my direction – it’s just that when they found the body it was doubtlessly sent to a funeral home. There they would modify the face into a more comfortable sight for her open casket (which I can’t imagine why a woman of her appearance would have requested before her demise).
Her body was out of my hands now, and her face was still smiling. My mask, however, remained locked in its grizzly scream. I don’t know how long I have, but it seems like Elaine and the driver both terminated within a few days of their masks appearing. I had to act fast.
I tried to make another plastic mask to match my own, but my damn hands kept shaking. That’s what happens when you mess up your routine – things begin to fall apart. I couldn’t get even a passable likeness of myself.
The only remaining option – one I had considered but pushed to the back of my brain as a last resort – now stood stark and alone. I took the plastic mask of my face and tossed it in the rubbish bin. Now a few shots of gin to numb the pain – now a deep breath.
And in goes the knife. Skin doesn’t peel back from a face nearly as cleanly as I expected. I kept getting the depth wrong – either too shallow and only nicking myself, or too deep and cutting the underlying muscle. It took nearly three hours before I had removed my entire face and was able to pin the bloody mess to my bedroom wall.
But skin is so much easier to adjust than plastic, and would you look at that? In no time, it was smiling. I looked over to the landlady’s face and my heart beamed with satisfaction to see her twisted terror finally appearing. One lived while the other dies. One comedy while the other tragedy, but it is the actor who decides which to wear