The thing wearing Anna’s face is making breakfast. This isn’t how it starts.
It starts when Erik is reading in the study, papers scattered across the desk, rubbing circles into his temples. He blinks down at the word on he’s on – ‘and’ – then suddenly it’s dark. It’s dark outside in the space of a second. Sunlight was slanting across his face from the open window, he felt the heat, and now it’s night-time.
Erik glances to the clock. 8:35pm. He’s lost five hours. Five hours from nothing. How could that be? He lifts his aching, stiff body from the chair and stands without purpose for a moment. Erik tries to remember the last time he ate; this morning, or possibly he got some lunch, or did he…
There is a long second during which Erik can’t ever remember eating. It’s a surge of sudden realisation underneath his skin. For a hot, blank space in time, Erik doesn’t actually remember anything at all.
And then he’s back on his feet, stood in the study, and his books are lying open. The smells of parchment and linen pervade the room, and everything is familiar, and everything is something he knows.
Erik goes into the living room.
“Why didn’t you come and get me?” he asks Anna, who is watching television.
“Oh, I didn’t want to disturb you,” she says carelessly.
Erik wants to press the issue. Wants to ask, ‘for five hours?’ Wants to say, ‘what happened between 3 o’clock and 8 o’clock?’
He wants to. He doesn’t.
The problem is that it happens again. Erik loses time between the day, or time speeds and collapses, and then all of a sudden he’s left lost and bereft.
There are other things; gaps in his memory where he knows there’s something to find but can’t find it. He is losing himself at an accelerating pace. He keeps forgetting to eat, and only knows that he’s forgotten when a migraine blooms and pain begins to gnaw his gut.
Erik is talking to a policewoman after being stopped for speeding. He doesn’t even really remember getting into his car. He doesn’t even know why he was in a rush. He launches into a spiel about metres and pavements and the fact the problem never would have occurred had there been a sufficient traffic system. She nods, writing in her notepad, and asks, “Can I have the name?”
“I told you – Erik. It’s Erik–”
“Carter!” he finishes, blinking hard and frowning. “Erik Carter, sorry, and I–”
“Right.” she says, voice oddly blank, vacant. It seems disconnected from a person, as though the sound is coming from somewhere else. “Sign here and I’ll let you go.”
“What were you thinking?” Anna shouts. “What–”
“I didn’t get a ticket,” Erik states, but he too sounds disconnected and surreal.
“That’s not the point! You could have been seriously hurt.”
“Anna, nothing happened,” he begins. “I just…”
He stops. Had he been about to say something? I just wanted to get to work. I just wanted to be early. I just wanted to feel something…
But that doesn’t feel true. None of them feel true – not one. Erik stares at a point behind Anna’s head, until he realises she’s calling his name.
“Erik?” Her tone is softer now, more forgiving. Play acting.
“What, sorry?” Erik glances at her. “Look, it doesn’t matter, nothing happened.”
She makes a frustrated noise. “You–”
“Anna, please stop worrying.”
Erik expects the familiar fine, rolled eyes and a huff of indignation. Instead, she falls oddly quiet.
“Okay,” she says.
Erik wakes and it’s the middle of the night. Something feels wrong, clammy, shuddering, coming apart.
He gasps upright.
He thinks, maybe, this is when it starts.
Down the dim-light hall, illuminated by the glow of the kitchen, is the spare room.
When Anna and Erik moved in, they agreed to leave that one empty, free to possibilities and imagination. Free to that word neither of them wanted to acknowledge yet; a young married couple with careers to focus on. In truth, neither had the time or the motivation to decorate.
The door sits slanted, half-open. Erik brushes fingers along the doorframe, the smooth wood cool in the night air. He leans his forehead against the cold surface and traces patterns along the handle until the sensation of wrongness subsides and his skin settles back onto his body.
There are little things.
He begins to notice little things. Talking to people, and their voice is empty, empty. The routine in which he lives doesn’t seem so much routine as it does… tracked. As through his progress throughout the day is on track.
The worst of all is Anna. There is something wrong with Anna.
A few days ago, Erik felt this rising sense of hysteria clawing its way up his throat, thorny and gnarled. He called her inside the car. “I need you to come home.” He was holding the phone so tightly his hand ached. How could he possibly say that he didn’t think they were living reality? That something was wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. Something is broken inside the world. Nothing is real.
“Anna,” Erik states. He doesn’t understand the sound of his own voice. “Please come get me.”
He doesn’t remember much of what happens afterwards. Only that he finds himself back home.
Inside the room, past the door, is darkness. A draught coming in, the air chilling skin.
There’s a chair beside the window. Erik brings knees up as he sits and curls around himself. Time comes and goes. He stares outside, breathing evenly, the sound shallow. The sound is unrealistic, not belonging to him.
“Something’s wrong.” He tries to inject urgency into his voice; but he can’t rise above a gentle murmur. “Something is wrong, Anna.”
“Nothing is wrong,” she says. The cadence of her voice is off. “Erik, is this another panic attack?”
“I don’t know what’s going on,” he says, feeling as though he’s drowning, as though he is sinking through the air. “Anna.”
“It’s alright,” she murmurs, reaching out and bringing him to her. I don’t want this, Erik thinks. I don’t want it. I don’t want her. “You’re alright,” she says.
The thing wearing Anna’s face is making breakfast.
Nothing is real. Not in this reality, anyway. He’s living in some kind of dream, some comatose state, where everything is a projection of reality.
Erik spent the night unable to bring himself to bed, and woke twice with the sensation of being watched, people pressing their faces to the window and looking in.
Now, he spends all his time in the spare room. The door opens itself now. It waits for him. Erik closes it with a soft click, walks to the window, and stays there until morning.
People come and go. Doctors. Friends. Family. Voices gentle, hands soft, flashing lights into his eyes, slapping his cheeks.
Erik doesn’t move. He has become marble. He can’t bring himself to end it, so he will wait here for the end.
Something is close to the door. It touches fingers to the outside, pushing. Steps close and stands beside him.
Erik doesn’t move. He doesn’t blink. Something cards fingers through his hair. “Come back,” Anna whispers. “Come back to me.”
About The Author
Margaret McDonald holds an MA in English literature from Glasgow University and a BA in Creative Writing with English Literature from Strathclyde University. She was long-listed for the Emerging Writer Award 2022 and short-listed in the Cranked Anvil Short Story Competition 2020.
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