You’re sure you’ve been here before. You’ve met this perfumed man who watches you through glass organs below the wax mask. Before this, you searched for a mirror in this house without mirrors, and when you couldn’t find one, you found a sink. Thinking now at last you’ll locate your true likeness in water, you turn the taps. Nothing pours from the faucet. Instead, water splashes in a room elsewhere, alerting you in a smooth rush. A patch of darkness blooms in the ceiling above your head.
“Was it a happy memory you touched?” His voice is sibilant and distant, as if it comes from a phonograph in the next room. His face would be handsome, were it made of human skin instead of wax.
After wandering through this mansion, it’s a relief to encounter another person. Although puppet, rather than person, seems apt. What comes to mind when you look at him is the way some spiders adopt the shapes of ants, or the way a moth’s wings mimic the eyes of a hawk. Your host, if that’s what he is, reclines in one of the sitting room’s two armchairs. You suspect his glass eyes are purely decorative, yet notice how they dilate in anticipation as you hesitate in the doorway.
Hidden appendages move and stretch the pliant membrane of his wax mask. You can’t tell if he’s tall or short, fat or thin. There’s a fullness to his shape, a substantial weight. Its movements give the impression of a greeting, although his paraffin lips remain fixed under the slender line of a pencil mustache. “Please, do take a seat.”
The chair is warm. Recently occupied. Another body has left an indelible mark in the cushions. Time sags. You melt into the furrowed seat, compelled by sudden exhaustion.
“How late is it?” you ask.
“I would assume you, of all people, would know. You were the one who invited me in.”
Thick enough to taste it on your tongue, an odor announces itself: the sickening sweet decay of dead flowers preserved in a clouded glass vial. Houbigant Quelques Fleurs, isn’t it? You know it from musty bedrooms and funeral homes. An elderly woman’s scent of choice, maddeningly persistent and easily over-sprayed. Such silage emanates from the wax-faced man; you assume a storm of flowers this obscene exists to cover rancid filth. His paraffin face must belie a more hideous second visage yet to be seen. You cringe.
“Judgmental, aren’t we, dear?” he says, clucking his tongue, or what sounds like a tongue. You’re not sure if he has a mouth. Something seems too dry about his unmoving lips and teeth. Less a clucking than a regular, sustained resonance. An old ticking clock, deep and woody, driven by gears and springs. The sound is coming from inside his chest.
“I didn’t—this doesn’t make sense,” you protest.
“Yes, dear; you did.”
“I thought those things, I didn’t speak them. I would never.”
“Ahh, so you admit it. You don’t appreciate my original and singular aldehydic perfume? Within the nascent chypre genre, it predates similar and more commonly employed offerings from the House of Chanel. As rivals, there’s hardly room for comparison, though. Houbigant Quelques Fleurs is a time machine, as I like to say, even in light of unfortunate modern IFRA strangulation. It’s a story about the flowers. Nothing but the flowers. More than fifteen thousand different flower essences compose the body of the scent with bold, unapologetic grandiosity. I’m not joking with you, Madame. You recall the fragrance, perhaps, from a wedding day? Or was it a funeral procession where you encountered the name?”
Madame, he calls you. That feels right, although you’re not sure it wouldn’t have felt just as right had he called you Mademoiselle or Monsieur. Sharp pain radiates down the nerves of your forearms and across your knuckles. You realize your hands are shaking as you grip the arm of the chair tight, so tight. Pins and needles riddle your unsteady wrists. You can’t look down at your hands for fear you’ll see them as they truly are: quivering and blue-veined, tissue-paper skin stretched thin across your arthritic joints. A white finger bends like a bird’s claw. An oversized diamond tilts on the bone. A cadaver’s ring; a dead man’s band.
“This is just a dream,” you say in an old woman’s voice.
“Am I also dreaming, then?”
A troublesome question. “I don’t think you’re real.”
The perfumed man lifts a white-gloved hand and holds it over the spot on his embroidered vest where a heart should be, but you know it’s not a heart because you’ve heard the false sound, the hollow tick-tock of an imposter. “You wound me, Madame. But you’ve caught me in a forgiving mood. Have a bite. The orbs won’t work for me.”
“Orbs? What orbs?”
“Oh, dear. I can’t tell if you’re harassing or flirting with me.”
He flutters his waxen eyelids, and little paper lanterns flutter into your sight, tumbling lazily through the air like bubbles, perfect spheres glowing with inner light. One drifts close enough to reach, and though your arm is weak, emaciated, spotted with time’s unforgiving imprint, muscles sagging as if weighed down by an opiate languor, you manage because you must. You must eat. You grasp it. Firmer and fuller than you expected, its pliant surface belies its brittle appearance. It rests in your palm like a disembodied breast, the same warm temperature as living flesh.
You gnash into the soft orb with your teeth and spill into the rubble with a blast of bodily pain. The German rocket has turned the apartment that formed the nexus of your sixteen-year-long life into a broken sandcastle in a blink. The entire world’s weight presses into your chest, grinding at your sternum and ribs. Stone made into powder, rubble and airborne ash, and you know that some of the weight and dusty drift is what’s left of your parents. You hope they were lucky enough to die in that flickering instant when the quotidian miseries of an ordinary life became this endless moment of loss. Papa will not read to you at bedtime ever again. Maman will not fuss as you sew the hem unevenly on a new dress. The body that wore the dress now deformed in an instant.
You reach not with your arms, for they are pinned like the rest of you, limp and useless as the broken stems of trodden flowers, the remains of a cutting garden blasted by an untimely freeze, blackened petals turned to sludge and wilting with heavy shorn heads to meet the bare dirt; but with whatever force exists outside the body’s limitations. You reach for something greater than this earth, anything beyond this temporal suffocating agony.
The strangled voice of the old woman: “Please, please.”
Strange theft, she croaks your young dying words.
And now you are back in the mansion, on the sagging chair. Your tailbone hurts. The orb has spilled its mucilaginous pulp and slipped your hungry grasp. He is closer than he was before, or closer than you remember him being.
“What did you see?”
Mere inches separate the arm of the perfumed man’s chair from yours.
“My name is Daphne.”
The clucking sound again. “You shouldn’t trust the orbs. They’re like me, sensuous and exotic, but oh-so-naughty. Always lying about the most vital things.”
Why is he laughing? The name Daphne feels so natural. You want to argue this point and claim her as yours, but his face is shifting. Garbling, bubbling, sliding down his neck as the wax melts. You open your mouth to speak, but something plugs your throat. You know with instinctual and unaccountable certainty that if you comment on his dissolving mask, a vision more terrible than the disintegration and decay of the false face you’re witnessing will manifest. Runny wax self-obliterates. You turn away.
You hide from what hides beneath. The smell of vintage perfume blasts and buries you with a bomb of suffocating florals. Just as brutally and fast, it burns out. All fragrance vanishes. No smell at all.
This eerie emptiness in the air is worse. Excessive scent concealed the smell of lack. Nothingness is odorless; even sterile stone has a smell, even moss, and bombs, and ash as it hangs in the air becoming part of your lungs with every breath, even orbs becoming one with your flesh. The air outside especially has a distinctive fragrance after lightning or in those hesitant moments before the rain.
You won’t look. You can’t. You don’t want to know.
The voice is molten, bubbling into more effusive nothingness. “I thought we’d found you a happy one. But then, it’s so hard to tell the difference. To be honest, happy or sad, after a point all your stories begin to taste the same.”
The tug of wires, gloves, or memories lifting you from the chair. You’re waking up, but to what? Or maybe you’re falling asleep and dreaming your way into a better life. Falling and lifting, a seizure of hope. A flash. Then nothing.
This time he is not in the other chair when you arrive. You explore the vacant room with its two haggard empty chairs and their indented seat cushions. The orbs float like soap bubbles or dust motes, bouncing off each other and sparkling in the slanted lamplight. A single window you don’t remember from last time offers no reflection when you seek your face in the black pane. Staring through the window, unalloyed darkness gazes into you. You suspect it isn’t featureless, that, indeed, something waits outside and may soon take notice if you’re not careful. You dodge the faceless windowpane.
Tick tock tick tock. An old clock or the sound of beetle legs clicking? You turn. Now he hesitates where once it was you who filled the doorway. The chairs are gone. Maybe they were never there. The same waxen mask as last time smiles without smiling; the same fragrance assaults without apology.
But there is something different in the air. The perfume mixes with the sour sweat of unwashed desperation. The smell of struggle, and regret; a lifetime of human failings and false starts. Too human a smell to belong to him.
“There you are, little girl,” he says. When he finishes speaking, there’s a rattle of gears and the sound of something spooling.
You want to run, but he’s blocking the door. You’re afraid to speak this time. You shift one foot, and he moves in perfect sync. He imitates with a crab’s scuttle. Hidden under broad pinstriped trousers, his legs seem to bend not once at the knees, but at multiple joints.
You tilt your head. In this house without mirrors, he offers a perfect semblance, tilting his head with its cheap toupee and absurdly small hat. When you raise one hand, he does the same.
“What’s wrong, little girl? Don’t you trust me?”
You remember him. Or, at least, you have some memory of him. Daphne met him in this strange place in a prior dream, but Daphne isn’t a name that feels right for you, like a coat that won’t fit, too long in the sleeves, too heavy in the chest.
“You can’t keep still forever,” he says. “You’ll have to move eventually.”
Speaking would invite disaster. Your silence is the only thing keeping him back. He’s ravenous. You can tell from the dilated pupils of the glass eyes whirring within the waxen mask. He’s lying, too. Children sense these things. You can stay still forever, can’t you, but is that better than being devoured all at once?
Of course he follows your train of thought as if your voice sneaked out through your mouth, wriggling its tiny limbs and trying to fit its wings through the gates of your breath to fly free. “Have you considered why you’re here, little Brianne? Have you considered you’re here because of what you’ve done?”
You don’t want to listen. You’re a good girl. Papa always says so. The fragrance hanging in the air isn’t rain or stone or flowers. It isn’t quite ash. It’s something too adult for you; the aftertaste of an overdose. Cherry liqueur coats your throat.
The perfumed man mirrors your backward steps with retreating steps of his own. The tick-tock in his chest accelerates. The odor of cloying flowers returns like some repellant hypnosis. Your small hands clutch your dress. You take another step back, then another, and the distance between you grows, until he’s almost down the hallway, almost gone—
But the wall is at your back. The ticking in his chest purrs with predatory contentment.
Something touches your back. The wall is not a flat, papered surface. Wriggling appendages like fingers prod and work at your skin, growing sharper, faster, tearing through fabric and flesh as they search for the seam that, when pulled, will unravel you.
You push off the wall in panic. In that instant, your attention wavers. His waxen face rears up inches from yours, close enough you’d feel his breath if he had any breath, close enough to see the clicking beetles below his mask. Close enough he could grab you in his many-jointed arms if that weren’t a violation of the rules of this game, which hover unspoken at the perimeter of your awareness.
You take a step back. Who’s making the rules? Something is smiling under the false wax lips, something is assembling larval young into the form of a smile.
It catches your attention. You don’t dare turn away. An orb tumbles through your peripheral vision with inexorable intent. Even before the fleshy membrane touches your lips, pain blooms in your chest and drags you back to a life in its final moments of struggle many years in the future. The orb presses against your mouth and nose as you resist.
With whatever force exists outside the body’s limitations, you reach for something, anything outside this room, anything but this suffocating agony. You are not in the room anymore. You are not in the rubble left by the German rocket that turned your life into a broken sandcastle in a blink. The quotidian miseries of an ordinary life have become something much worse.
You are in your office again. Each evening finds you hunched over your escritoire with worsening osteoporosis, crooked spine, hammering away at the stubborn keys of your typewriter as the ribbon strains to keep pace with your possessed drive. You have so many stories. Tonight is different, though. Tonight the story machine lies still, and you sit at the edge of your bed not weeping when you should weep while the smell of cherry cordial filters up from the sofa downstairs. It finds you here without irony. The deadly fragrance wafts in and out as you breathe, sweetening into the sour smell of too much liquor. This is voluntary.
In the stillness, you begin to wonder if you’ve made a mistake. The same tincture you gave Henri tonight now works its fatal alchemy through your bloodstream, and you fear you’ve ended the story too soon.
Your body is already stiffening, muscles constricting and joints becoming disarticulated, but you manage to look into the rippling wine in your glass and see a face that might be yours, old and worn and jagged, gaunt cheekbones like the buttresses of crumbling cathedrals, lips like a sere seam of paper slit by a letter opener. Lipstick highlights the cracks.
The room smells like musk and mothballs of old age blooming below the bright and sickening cherry tones. Your skin is spotted. You remember her now.
Dame Daphne, the elderly mystery writer, foolishly borrowing a page from one of her femme fatales. She poisons her miserable husband, who made the mistake of sneaking out with another buxom assistant one too many times. In jealous rage, she decides to join him in a mortal tryst. Ridiculous, after everything she’s survived. This body won’t last, already its vision blurs around the corners like the creep of tarnish on silver. Soon, too soon, you’ll—
His tepid face of wax so close to your eyes, it doubles. The overpowering reek of dead flowers—you know it, but the burden of the name of the fragrance is now lost to you—the reek replaces whatever it is you’ve been breathing.
He could have you, and he will.
“I murdered my husband,” you say. A confession, complete with tears and a broken voice, except it’s the voice of a little girl, shrill and scared. Your tiny fingers cover your mouth as you cry, too young to understand the motives that made you kill.
“Someone murdered a man,” he replies. Won’t he set you free? Won’t your parents arrive and get you out of here? You can’t force yourself to move. Of course not—that would break the rules. The game isn’t over, just paused at his will. After he speaks, you notice in addition to the ticking clockwork a sound like a needle gliding over the grooves of a record hissing from inside his hollow body.
The fabric of the floor and walls shakes with thunderous footfalls. Sequestered within the vastness of this manse, someone or something else is moving. Something large. The perfumed man turns away from you. There’s a flaw in the wax on the back of his head, a hole with prehensile black hairs or pincers poking out of it. He says, “How lucky for you that someone else came along.”
Faster than anything human should move, he hurtles out through the doorway and scuttles back soon, too soon. You missed your chance to run. He’s different now. The cadence of his internal tick-tock slows to a satisfied sluggishness. His shape is different, swollen, distended. As you regard him in disgust, you realize the contours of his rotund beetle body are shifting as puppet hands and face struggle under his skin.
A puppet broken beneath the rubble. Another body up for grabs.
You feel the tacit stricture that bound you to this room lifting as you wake up.
Wake up. Or fall asleep. Wake up, damn it, or fall asleep. Whatever gets you out of here, whatever lets you escape from—
It’s your last chance. You can’t move.
“Tell me something, little girl. Besides what lurks beyond these walls, what else is lightless yet full of life?”
The spot on the ceiling from the running faucet spreads. The funeral perfume of flowers presses the entire world’s weight into your chest, small as you are, grinding at your sternum and ribs. It’s as if your bones have already been ground into powder, and you know that some of the weight is what’s left of your parents, who you hope were lucky enough to die in that flickering instant.
A flash. No regrets. You close your eyes to let in the bomb’s light.
And clad thusly, you enter the room where your old friend with his smell of horrid perfume is waiting for you again, seated in a sagging armchair. A tall stack of books sits to one side of him, and with the refined air of a true gentleman, he invites you to peruse. The books’ covers are featureless, plain cloth bindings. When you crack open the first of them, prepared to read the denouement and learn the solution to the mystery, the pages are filled as you’d expect, with what seem to be sentences made from words. But the words deform. You drop the ambiguous volume and grab another. Words swim around the page in melting phrases, shying from your attention and dissolving into streaming filaments of squirming ink, like the floaters, little fibers of protein that skate across the vitreous fluid of your aging and tired eyes.
You raise them, giving up on the story.
You close the book. You wear the false skin like an unmarked binding because you have known its likeness.
Before you got here, when you were searching through the endless tract of hallways, through the procession of empty rooms, you found one space with an enormous stone bench. Twelve identical masks, all made of paraffin wax, all with the same staring glass eyes and ridiculous false pencil mustache, waited upon it to be worn. And it occurred to you to take one and wear it over your own false face.
“Not much of a reader, are you, Lauren?” the perfumed man asks as you set the book down.
“That’s not my name.”
“Isn’t it? Try it out.”
“Lauren,” you say. And it fits. They all fit. But aren’t you Brianne, the scared child? Or are you Dame Daphne after all, possessed by foolish vengeance and intense regret? But they’re just figments, aren’t they? They must be, for you’ve learned your lesson today about futility. And anyway, you’re wearing the mask, and in finding the perfumed man you’ve found a mirror in a house with no mirrors.
“You’re right,” the perfumed man declares, although you haven’t said anything aloud. “Of course, you’re right, even if you change your mind in a split second. Neither Lauren nor Brianne is real. Neither am I, though you may accuse me of being named Henri in one of your more confused moments and slap my face in petty jealousy. Creations, characters from the oeuvre of the writer Daphne, figments left to die with the rotting brain of the woman who breathed imaginary life into them.”
“But Daphne died in the bomb blast. Her parents survived.”
No, you’re not Daphne, even if you once were. The only memories you have of hers are what the orb gave you, and the orbs are liars. The only memories you have are the ones you choose, and you choose to believe her parents survived. All of this is the last, strangled votive of a dying girl entombed under forty tons of brick and concrete. A crushed breath whispering goodbye.
With the sudden inspiration that comes from knowing your own bomb-interred corpse, you know the answer. You remember the question he asked you before: What else is lightless, yet full of life?
“A stomach,” you say.
It starts with your face, where the mask you placed over your skin begins to melt and stretch. It reaches across your ears and down your throat and over your scalp, warm now, pliant as the living integuments it subsumes, or annexes, or reclaims. Whatever verb applies, whatever swimming fugitive word, you and the membrane fold inside out as a greater whole reincorporates by gentle seductive exfoliation. The fluid inside you builds. The embrace draws you inward, warm and all-encompassing, a bloated glowing center where you cannot be alone. Many larvae arrange themselves into your new face beneath the wax, where they feast. You’ll never be separate again. A smile blooms under the petaled sheath of paraffin lips.
Jonathan Louis Duckworth is a completely normal, entirely human person with the right number of heads and everything. He received his MFA from Florida International University. His speculative fiction work appears in Pseudopod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Southwest Review, Flash Fiction Online, and elsewhere. He is a PhD student at University of North Texas where he serves as the interviews editor at American Literary Review, and he is also an active HWA member. Find him on Twitter @joduckwo.
Joe Koch (he/they) writes literary horror and surrealist trash. Joe is a Shirley Jackson Award finalist and the author of The Wingspan of Severed Hands, The Couvade, and Convulsive. They’ve had over fifty short stories published in books and journals like Vastarien, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, and The Queer Book of Saints. Find Joe online at horrorsong.blog and on Twitter @horrorsong.