By Kathryn E. McGee
I don’t recognize him at first, not until he says my name.
“Peach?” My boyfriend, Kyle, is seated and waiting in the big red booth next to me.
“Oh, I didn’t see you there.” I adjust the stretchy black dress I wore for the occasion and slide into the booth beside him. The restaurant is crowded, and he looks a little different, like something about him has changed. “You cut your hair today?”
He shakes his head. “Nope.”
“Well, happy anniversary, babe.” I kiss him on the cheek. “Can’t believe it’s been a whole year.”
“Neither can I.” He kisses me back, then looks away, toward the TV on the wall.
Before he turns, I see what’s different. There’s something on his forehead: a red line, maybe half an inch long. Red like blood. A cut near his hairline. No. It can’t be that. He would have told me. I glance around the restaurant, waiting for him to say something else, anything else. He can feel the cut, can’t he? But he just watches the game. Maybe it wasn’t a cut. Maybe it was a piece of lint or a shadow or a strange play of light.
I need to see it again to be sure.
I tap his arm. “The new supplies for the dresser came today.” This will get him to perk up and turn back to me. He loves to talk woodworking.
“The varnish?” His eyes hang on the screen.
I nod. “Plus a few of those hinges you like, and discs for the sander.”
“That’s good, babe.”
There are other changes too. He’s wearing a new shirt, bright green. He usually wears muted colors like black or gray. My heart thumps. A new shirt isn’t strange. I’m sure I sometimes look different too. Different than when we first started dating. I’ve cut my hair, gained a few pounds, gotten a bit older. Who hasn’t? We’re changing together, that’s the important thing. And we’re in our late thirties, not kids anymore. I thought he’d propose tonight, but now…
I rub the void on my left ring finger.
The server approaches. “What would you like?”
We always get cheese sticks to start. Always.
Kyle looks up. “I’ll have the clam chowder.”
“No cheese sticks?” My eyes are fixed on the red line. Growing. Getting longer. A cut in his flesh. I can see it so clearly now. A red wound opening, like some invisible person is unzipping him from the forehead down.
He says, “I’m not really in the mood for fried food, but feel free to get them.”
The server eyes me expectantly. Not sure what else to do, I order a plate of cheese sticks for myself. I can take the extras home in a doggy bag.
“And to drink?”
I scan the menu. “I’ll have the summer ale.” Kyle and I have always been big into microbrews. His name for me, Peach, comes from a beer we sampled during one of our first dates.
He says, “I’ll have a glass of merlot.”
“I thought you hated red wine?” I swallow hard.
He shrugs. “Just have the taste for it tonight.”
A tiny bead of blood forms where his forehead flesh has spread, oozing red. I can’t deny it now. But Kyle doesn’t seem to notice, or he doesn’t care.
“And to eat?” The server acts like she doesn’t notice, either. Seen it before, I guess. She’s being polite.
Kyle makes a production of running his finger down the menu before ordering the chicken fried steak.
I can’t focus, so I say, “I’ll have what he’s having, please.” Smiling, I try to act natural, as if I saw this coming. But I can’t believe this is happening.
He’s shedding his face—right in front of me.
We met at an antique furniture show. I was looking for a pair of side chairs and bumped into him next to a vintage hardware display, knocking a bowl of old nails to the ground. He crouched beside me in his gray shirt and jeans, helping clean up the mess.
I told him I liked to refinish furniture; he told me the same. We had an easy time that day, meandering through the displays. An hour passed and when he paused in front of a Dutch highboy with mahogany inlay, I thought he was going to kiss me. He didn’t, not then, but later that night. We clung to each other in bed, our bodies moving together, changing and reforming like malleable bits of clay.
He said what I was thinking, “We fit together perfectly,” and ran his fingertips along the side of my face, tucking my hair behind my ears. It felt as if the future had already happened: he and I were together forever—permanently.
A few weeks later, we were out at another brewery, and I told him over the lip of my glass, “Don’t ever change.”
He kissed me and said, “Of course not, Peach.”
The cut on his forehead grows, deepening into a groove along his hairline, slicing down to his cheeks. I’m about to ask Kyle if his face hurts, but he keeps talking. I’ve heard it can be this way. You don’t feel when the flesh starts to separate. My head spins. The red line continues, snaking its way around his face, the gash widening and oozing.
The cheese sticks and chowder arrive. My stomach turns.
“Are you okay?”
Kyle waves a hand. “I’m fine. I’ve told you, everything’s fine.”
“Are you sure? You just seem…”
He scratches at his cheek. “Seem what?”
“It must hurt. Changing.”
“Let’s try to enjoy the night.” The bead of blood on his forehead gets bigger, threatening to fall.
“I think we should talk about it.”
“About what?” He dips his spoon into his chowder. The drop of blood falls from his forehead into the bowl, plopping. He lifts his napkin, patting his face, smiling as if nothing bad is happening. Maybe I’m imagining it all. We’ll get engaged and married and have babies. We’ll be happy. Everything will be fine.
The server drops off a stack of extra napkins. Kyle thanks her and dabs at his face before returning to his soup, finishing the bowl.
Our first woodworking project was refurbishing a pair of bookcases for my living room.
We found some old ones at a thrift store. They were made of sturdy walnut but were damaged, the wood chipped, the paint job sloppy. Kyle liked the challenge.
“There’s a way to fix everything,” he said, “if you have the right tools.”
We bought an electric sander. I’d previously done all my sanding by hand, but Kyle convinced me an electric unit was right for bigger jobs. It was fun being with someone who liked the same things as me. He taught me how to run the sander across the wood, telling me to be gentle, don’t push down, let the tool do the work.
We began the project by sanding off the offensive finish using an 80-grit paper. Kyle had been right. The power sander helped tremendously. We got back to the raw, original wood, then repaired the damage, using putty in all the cracks and holes before sanding again—gently, this time, using a finer, 220-grit, paper—and applying several layers of stain.
We worked feverishly; by Sunday night, drifts of sawdust and globs of stain covered the floor. The bookcases looked spectacular. I could see in Kyle’s eyes that he felt the same: thrilled at a job well done. Pressing me against the tool chest, his hands roamed. I breathed in sanded walnut laced with pine and sweet citrus before tasting him and letting out a moan. Kyle swept off the work bench and set me up to face him, skirt hiked, legs spread and ready. He tugged an extension cord, unplugging the shop light near the car. Heady sawdust swirled. We fucked by the drill press in the dark.
The chicken fried steaks arrive smothered in gravy. Kyle takes his time cutting off a bite, dipping it into his mashed potatoes. “What’s wrong? You’re not eating.”
The degloving has begun. His facial skin peels away, pulling forward from his forehead, exposing red tissue and muscle beneath.
We can work through this. We’ll adjust. One day, this will just be a thing that happened, a blip in the past. We’ll talk about it with our kids—that time Dad lost his face at dinner—and we’ll laugh. “He got a new one,” I’ll say, “and I loved it even more.”
His face peels off and flops onto the table, the underside turned up and blotched with tissue, beaded with blood. His skull is covered with exposed muscles—red and glistening. The muscles around his eyes and mouth are circular, while those on his forehead extend upward, disappearing into his hairline. His eyeballs and teeth are bright white, set off by the crimson backdrop. It’s the absence of lip and eyelid skin that affects me most. I try not to gag.
He finishes chewing, masseter flexing, and swallows a bite of mashed potatoes. “Will you excuse me? Bathroom break.” His voice is different now, deeper. He sounds overly formal. Even the cadence of his words is new. He’s someone else now, isn’t he? He rises to leave. His original face rests on the white linen tablecloth.
The server comes by. “Doggy bag?” Her eyes well with sympathy.
It hadn’t occurred to me to take his face home, but now that she’s offered, I realize I can’t let the face I fell in love with get thrown out with the scraps.
“That would be great.” I fight back tears.
She returns with a Styrofoam container and a paper bag. While she clears off the table, I package up Kyle’s discarded face, folding the top of the paper bag with a firm crease. The server leaves. I’m about to slip the bag into my purse when it rustles.
Maybe I accidentally bumped the table.
It rustles again.
A small voice, clear and distinct, speaks to me.
“You there, Peach?”
With slow, shaky hands, I open the bag and pop up the Styrofoam lid. The face skin undulates, moving, a mask that can bend and speak.
“Kyle? Is it—”
“It’s me,” his original face says, mouth hole stretching and closing. “I don’t know how things got to this point.”
Tears flood my eyes. “I don’t either.”
“I feel so alone.”
“I’ve felt alone for a while.”
“We can make this right, but you have to help me.”
I look up to see Kyle—new Kyle—returning from the bathroom, his face meaty, the collar of his shirt stained with blood. He’s not even looking at me but texting someone. Who? I close the doggy bag, slipping it into my purse.
“Shall we order dessert?” He raises his eyebrows. “They have bananas foster.” I grimace, unable to imagine the Kyle I met a year ago ordering anything but the brownie. What’s happened to him, to us? The imposter across the table says, “Or I could really go for crème brûlée.”
A few weeks ago, we met up after work at a boutique varnish supplier in downtown. We were refinishing a wood mirror to hang over our dresser. When I walked in, the door jingled, then slammed shut behind me. I spotted Kyle across the room. He’d beat me there.
He was crouched beside a woman in a flowing skirt. The store owner. I’d met her before. Her long hair was loose and untamed, strands flying over her shoulder, sticking to her face. She paused to brush one piece away. They were laughing. Kyle held a bunch of paper towels, wiping something off the floor. The heavy smell of varnish wafted toward me, made me cough.
Kyle looked up, caught my eye. “Hey, Jax.”
My name sounded foreign on his lips. I couldn’t remember the last time he’d called me that instead of Peach.
“Just a bit of an accident.” He looked down at his shirt and pants, which were covered with the sticky brown varnish. “Guess we’ll be buying two cans.”
“Oh, that won’t be necessary.” The woman offered me a kind smile that I distrusted immediately. She was covered with the varnish, too, her top and skirt ruined, and I wondered what sort of collision must have occurred for them both to be stained.
That night I crept out of bed and into the garage, did my sanding by hand, rubbing a coarse grit across an old tabletop, rubbing ferociously. When Kyle found me there at three in the morning, he didn’t press the issue, didn’t ask why I was up so late.
He did ask if I was okay.
I’d been going too hard with the sandpaper, hadn’t I? I’d ground flesh off my fingertips, streaked blood through the sawdust. It was only then I felt the pain.
I position the doggy bag carefully in my purse, so it doesn’t get damaged. The whole way back from dinner, New Kyle and I barely speak. We both know there’s something going on—a silent fight. Small patches of skin have started to grow on his forehead, the tip of his chin, the apples of his cheeks.
When we’re home, I stick the doggy bag with his old face in the fridge, hiding it behind a gallon of milk. It’s not a secret, but I’d rather not discuss it with New Kyle. Not now. Not yet. After making a few comments about my stomach being on edge, I am relieved when we end up on opposite sides of the bed, turned away. He falls asleep, snoring deeply.
Growing skin must take a lot of energy.
In the morning, I wake to see a new man next to me. Kyle’s grown most of a face. He is handsome enough but it’s hard to get a sense of what he really looks like while he’s sleeping. Maybe his new face will be okay. We just need to get to know each other. He’ll wake up and hold me and things will be even better than they were before…
I hear a strange noise and hold my breath.
His original voice is talking to me from the kitchen. Slipping quietly out of bed, I pad down the hallway, across the tile floor, and open the refrigerator.
“You’ve got to get me out of here. It’s freezing.” His voice is clear. It’s him.
I reach for the doggy bag and find his face skin propped up, masklike and turned toward me. There are gaping holes where the eyes and mouth should be. The skin is moving, writhing, alive.
His face expands and contracts, the mouth hole undulating. “Peach?”
“I want things to go back to the way they were.”
“You have to put me back on my body, so we can be together, and then… Everything will be fine. It’ll be like it was, like it used to be.”
“But your body has a new face.”
“I have an idea.” He drops his voice to a whisper.
I press my ear to the doggy bag, listening.
After the varnish store incident, we moved on as if nothing had happened. We sanded down and refinished the mirror, installing it above the dresser. It was the right size and style, but I didn’t like the way I looked in the glass. My body and face seemed warped, simultaneously too wide and too tall. There was no way to position the thing that seemed right. I asked Kyle if he could see what I meant, but he shook his head, looked away, said I needed to get used to it. That I was just afraid of change.
In the garage, I prop up Kyle’s original face in the Styrofoam takeout container so he can see the room. The face skin flexes and stretches while he speaks, directing me to the workbench.
He tells me to stay calm, remember our plan. Everything will be okay. “There’s a way to fix everything when you have the right tools, remember?”
Rummaging around, I find what he wants: the electric sander and an extension cord.
I tiptoe back into the bedroom where New Kyle is snoring, an imposter in my bed.
Moving slowly, carefully to avoid making a sound, I set the open takeout container holding his original face on the nightstand. I plug the extension cord into the nearest outlet.
“Go ahead,” his original face whispers. “This is like any other refinishing project. Remember when we redid those bookcases? Remember when we decoupaged those wood trays?”
I pause. “What if this doesn’t work? What if your face won’t stick back on? What then?”
The mouth on his skin mask widens. “I’m drying out. We need to do it now. You’ve done this, or something like it, a thousand times. You just need to scuff him up a little so I can adhere.”
Hovering over his body, inching as close to his new face as possible, I turn on the sander and press it to his forehead. His eyes pop open. He screams. Screeching, he starts to roll to the side. I lean into the job, pressing the rough surface to his flesh, imagining a coarse slab of wood that needs to be grated.
Kyle’s movements are violent and immediate. Struggling to balance, I press the sander even harder. It slips, sliding over his nose, over his lips and grazing his chin before settling onto his neck. I push down too much, and the sander digs into his throat. Blood spurts. I pull away, then finish his face while he gurgles and shakes.
“Help me,” his new face croaks, blood spurting.
I say, “I am helping!” and pluck his original face from the nightstand. Working quickly, I press his flesh-mask onto the surface I’ve created, raw and ready. I smooth the edges, thinking of a project he and I did together last spring, cutting out pictures of flowers and pasting them onto a tabletop, pressing each image for a seamless finish we later painted with a glossy lacquer coating.
His old face doesn’t look good, not yet. Blood seeps up around the edges, dribbling over its surface. He’s stopped talking. An awful thought hits me—
He’s dying, he’s dead.
I know that can’t be right. He said he’d love me forever. I can imagine his skin stitching together: old and new melding. Muscles reattaching. Face skin moving again on his body. His eyelids flutter, opening with some difficulty, but looking right at me. His hands graze my hips. Now his lips move, puckering and opening. It must be working. He’s trying to breathe, to speak!
“Help me,” he says.
And I know it’s him. He’s back. He needs me.
“Shhh. Rest now. Give it time, baby.”
Blood pours onto the pillow around him. The wound on his neck is too big. But that was an accident. I can patch it. With the right tools. This is a delicate process.
I curl up beside him. He is very still, very calm, and my muscles relax, my curves fitting into his body. It’ll take about an hour, is my guess, for the new face to set, before he regains his strength, wraps his arms around me and murmurs my name, as only he could say—
Kathryn E. McGee's horror stories have appeared in Kelp Journal, Automata Review, and Gamut Magazine, on the Ladies of the Fright website, and in anthologies including Chromophobia, Halldark Holidays, Dead Bait 4, Horror Library Vol. 6, Winter Horror Days, and Cemetery Riots. She hosts Skeleton Hour, the Horror Writers Association's horror literature webinar series, and is an Active Member of the HWA. Her other work includes co-authoring DTLA37: Downtown Los Angeles in Thirty-seven Stories, a non-fiction coffee table book about Downtown Los Angeles. She has an MFA in creative writing from UC Riverside Palm Desert.