Pareidolia

Elana Gomel

I threw away the delivery. This is how it started.

My parents were late. Dad was at his real estate firm, Mom at a church meeting, and I was hungry. Mom texted me to order something online and not to wait up for them. I was used to solitary dinners eaten in front of the TV as I shovelled burgers or Chinese food or pizza into my mouth. I was not picky. Ally is such a good girl, the refrain of my mother’s churchgoing friends, their wrinkled cheeks shedding powder like moths’ wings as they stroked my hair. And so pretty!

The bag waited for me on the porch. I brought it in and inhaled the greasy smell of fries and the meaty aroma of the burger. Saliva collected in my mouth. I was hungry. But still – Ally is such a good girl! – I refused to eat from the paper bag and dumped its contents onto a plate.

Red liquid spread onto the white porcelain, forming a puddle that smelled of iron and salt. Did they send me an uncooked burger? I lifted the bun.

A bitter taste in my mouth remained even after my stomach was purged of its meager contents. I threw the burger and the fries into the trash bin and piled up old newspapers on top. And then I sat in front of the TV, staring dumbly at the pictures I had taken on my phone.

There had been a face on the burger.

I wasn’t stupid. I knew about pareidolia: the human propensity to see faces in random objects. But the photos did not lie. What I had seen was real: a scrunched-up face shaped in fried meat, coarse and fissured, tiny eyes, and a mouth opened in the “O” of shock or surprise. The mouth moved, whispering inaudible words. The pics on my phone captured its mute effort to communicate.

Was it a divine sign for me to go vegan like my friend Sophie? It’d be easier to accept if I still believed in God. But I did not. Not anymore. Not after Jason’s disappearance.

I went back to my room. The discoloured patches on the walls where pictures used to hang looked like blank faces. My parents had insisted we take down all family photos with the four of us. “No need to live in the past,” they had said. “We have to move on.” I still had one picture of Jason I had hidden in my makeup drawer, and now I pulled it out. My brother’s dark eyes and wry smile looked back at me. I stroked the picture, as if I could feel the stubble on his cheeks but there was only the cold smoothness under my fingers.

My parents came home separately; I heard first my father’s and then my mother’s steps on the creaking stairs. I did not hear them speak to each other. The distance between them seemed to be growing every day like an earthquake rift, stranding them on the opposite sides. Sometimes I felt like I had been dumped into the rift, buried at its rocky bottom.

I was still hungry, so when they finally settled in the master bedroom, I crept down to the kitchen. Our house was surrounded by dense trees, the backyard merging with Wisconsin woods. I was used to their shadows invading our home, and I was not spooked by the spiky black silhouette on the floor. Until it moved, mutating into a clawed hand that stretched to the ceiling.

I peeked out. The shed where my father kept his tools crept close to the kitchen window and lifted itself up on two scrawny chicken legs, swaying hypnotically and casting moon shadows onto the walls of the kitchen.

I went out through the backdoor and stood in front of the shed. It was made of sheet metal and had two small windows and a door in the front. Now those windows glowed with pale yellow light. The murky panes were splotched with black round stains that irised like pupils.  The door formed a slack mouth.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“What do you want?” the shed retorted. Jagged metallic sounds were coming from its interior, and the door flapped as it spoke.

“I want my brother back.”

“I can help you. For a price.”

I was not even shocked to find myself talking to the chicken-legged shed with a human face. Suddenly, I realized I had been ready for this for a long time. Ever since my mother became so engrossed in her church activities that she came back home only to sleep. Ever since my father threw himself wholeheartedly into his real-estate firm with a growing inventory and a pretty secretary, surfacing from his business whirlwind only to comment how I had suddenly grown. Ever since Jason disappeared.

Yes, my older brother had been mixing with a wrong crowd. Yes, he had dabbled in drugs. Yes, he had been a blot on our suburban middle-class family. Yes, my parents had threatened him with detention, even though at eighteen he was legally an adult.

But he was my brother. He used to carry me in his arms when I was younger and twirl me around. He sneaked candy and comics to my room when our mother outlawed both on the grounds of them being bad for my waistline and my brain. When I screamed, awakening from a nightmare, it would be Jason who sat on the floor by my bed until I fell asleep again. Our parents did not believe in monsters, or fairy tales, or love.

And then one day when I came back home from a Girl Scout camp, he was gone. There were blanks spots on the walls where his pictures used to be. And my father told me, his eyes sliding off me as if seeing my face was as hard as staring at the sun, that Jason had left us and was not coming back. He is an adult, my father said. He made his choice.

And ever since that day, I had been ready for atrocious miracles.

“What do you want?” I asked the chicken-legged shed.

“A pretty face. A pretty face like yours,” the mouth-door screeched. The rusty metal bent and bulged around it.

“All right. But only if you tell me where my brother is.”

“I’ll give you three gifts. If you use them right, you’ll find your brother.”

“OK,” I said, and one of the chicken legs rose into the air. It held three objects: a can of oil, a scouring pad, and a ribbon. I took them, and the shed turned around and sauntered away to its place in the corner of the backyard where it settled down, the chicken legs folding and disappearing under its cuboid body.

The “gifts” were scruffy and underwhelming: the ribbon discoloured, the scouring pad damp, the oilcan leaking. I put them in the pocket of my hoodie and started walking back to the house. And then I hesitated, went back toward the shed, and poked my head through the open door. Moonlight flooded the interior, and I saw my father’s old shotgun in the corner. My parents were NRA people and took care of their firepower. I was surprised to see the shotgun here, abandoned and tarnished.

The barrel of the shotgun swivelled toward me, the hole of the muzzle flapping like the mouth of a beached fish. The single eye of the ejection port regarded me dully.

“Do you know where my brother is?” I asked.

“I need oil,” it rasped. “They left me here to rust away, though I did what was asked of me. Give me what I want, and I may tell you.”

I pulled out the oilcan. I knew how to lubricate a weapon, having seen my father polish his collection of semi-automatic guns and pistols each Sunday afternoon.

The shotgun lay across my knees like a dosing snake as I unscrewed the barrel, cleaned, and oiled it. The stubby nose of the trigger twitched as if smelling something rotten.

“I did what you wanted,” I said. “So, tell me where to find Jason.”

“I do not know,” the shotgun responded, its voice now oily and sanctimonious like the voice of the preacher in my mother’s church. “But she may.”

And it pointed with its muzzle at the old spade leaning against the wall. I got up, the rust from the shotgun having left red marks on my fingers. I remembered Jason putting Calamine lotion on my hand after I had inadvertently touched poison oak.

The spade was stained with dry mud. The last time I had seen anybody use it was when Jason had tried to dig out a pond for my goldfish and ruined our mother’s flowerbed. She had refused to talk to him for a week.

I lifted the spade. The mud stains on its blade formed a cartoonish face with a wide mouth and two small peevish eyes, one much higher than the other.

“Do you know where my brother is?” I asked.

“I need cleaning,” the spade clanked. “They left me here to fall apart, even though I did what was asked of me. Give me what I want, and I may tell you.”

I took out the scouring pad and cleaned the blade until it shone in the moonlight and I could see my own reflection in it. No, it was not my reflection. The face was the same as had been crudely sketched in dry mud but now it seemed to have sunk into the metal, coarse, and wide, and hungry.

“I did what you wanted. Can you tell me where to look for Jason?”

“I’d rather not revisit this unpleasantness!” the spade jangled. “I do not know where he is now. But since you polished me, I suppose I could lead you to somebody who may.”

The spade hopped on its single leg-handle out of the shed through the black grass and toward the margin of the woods. I followed.

A white aspen tree grew there, pale against the dappled night. Jason had rigged up a makeshift swing for me, but the tree was too thin to bear my weight, and the swing had fallen off. I was surprised not to see it in the unkempt grass. How long had it been missing?

The tree’s white bark was crisscrossed by black cracks that came together in a long lugubrious face with slanted squinting eyes and a thin-lipped mouth. But the eyes were obscured by the drooping branches that fell over them. The tree shuddered and waved them aside, but they keep falling back, as annoying as unkempt hair.

“Do you know where my brother is?” I asked.

“They never come by me anymore,” the tree rustled. “Tidy up my branches, and I will tell you.”  

I took out the ribbon and standing on tiptoes, gathered the whipping branches and tied them together, away from the tree’s face, as Jason used to do when I was a small child and my curls got into my eyes. The aspen rustled its thanks.

“I did what you wanted,” I said. “Show me where Jason is!”

“I would rather not,” the aspen whispered. “He sleeps soundly in my cradle of roots. But you helped me, and I owe you. Ask your friend spade to dig.”

The spade tumbled head over heels and bit into the mulch. Lumps of dirt flew into the air, and soon a deep hole was revealed.  At first, it was too dark to see what was at the bottom of the hole, but then moonlight poured in.

It was not a hole. It was a grave. Under the thin layer of earth bulged the pale dome of a skull. Around it lay remnants of a tarp and discoloured rags; one of them still bearing the logo of Jason’s favourite brewery.

I jumped into the grave and lifted the skull. Faceless and anonymous, it stared through me with its empty eyeholes. There was an additional hole on the forehead where a bullet from my father’s gun went through. They had used the rope from my swing to tie their son’s body into a tarp, but it had unraveled.

Carrying the skull, I went back into the house and made my way upstairs. The door to the master bedroom stood ajar, and soft snores were coming from inside.

I crept into the bedroom. My mother was lying on her stomach, her meticulously styled grey hair fanning out on the pillow. She went to the hairdresser every two weeks but refused to colour her hair, telling everybody that God made it that way and who was she to argue with His decree? Humble bragging, I overheard one of her friends hiss behind her back.

My father curled up on his side, his bald head gleaming in the light dribbling in from the hallway. His phone set on mute flashed with messages, painting his face in glimmers of green. Or rather, painting where his face should have been. The pallid oily skin flowed smoothly from the top of his skull to the front, forming a lardy featureless oval. There were no eyes, nose, or mouth.

My mother turned over and I stared at the same lardy expanse of blankness under her steely fringe.

Still carrying my brother’s skull, I went down and back into the shed. I knew my father kept gas canisters there. It took me several trips to bring them back into the house and splash gasoline around the kitchen.

“Don’t do it!” the ice maker on the fridge rattled at me with its toothy grill.

“Don’t do it!” whispered the soft shapeless folds of the kitchen curtain.

“Don’t do it!” clattered the plates on the countertop.

But Jason’s skull was silent.

I lit a match and ran out, carrying my brother’s faceless head.

I stood by the shed, watching the flames shoot up into the darkness. The fire painted the woods orange and crimson. The shed unfolded its fleshless clawed legs and scampered away from the heat. I followed, sticking close to it.

I could still phone 911, I supposed, but then I remembered my phone had been left in my bedroom.

“Just tell them you woke up in the middle of the night, smelled smoke, and rushed out,” the shed said. I looked at it. My own reflection looked back at me, backlit by the fire, and yet somehow clearer and bigger than life.

Ally is such a good girl! And so pretty!

I was pretty, I knew it. I had been pretty since I was a child: sweet obedient Ally, her curls blond, her eyes bright blue, her cheeks round and pink. Not like her unruly big brother, with his dark eyes and olive skin, his face betraying his alienness, his non-belonging, his dubious origin.

I had always known Jason was adopted. When our parents had despaired of ever conceiving, they adopted that little stranger, with his mixed-up genes and his junkie birthmother. And then a miracle. Their own little girl, her face so bright, so cute, and so innocent. Perfect little Ally, to complete their perfect little family. Too bad the adopted son could not be returned to where he came from! Well, they had found a way around it, hadn’t they?

The heat from the fire was too much. I moved away from the shed. But my face remained glued to its metal wall. It ballooned like a reflection in a soap bubble, spreading across the front — my pink mouth stretching across the dinky door, my blue eyes appearing, superimposed upon the dirty windows, as my vision faded.

The chicken-legged shed swivelled three times on one leg and sauntered into the woods, as the faceless creature standing next to the burning house was rubbing her hands across the blankness of her missing face.

Elana Gomel is an academic and a writer. She is the author of six academic books and numerous articles on subjects such as narrative theory, posthumanism, science fiction, Dickens, and serial killers. As a fiction writer, she has published more than eighty fantasy and science fiction stories and three novels.
Her website:  https://www.citiesoflightanddarkness.com/