This story is by Corinne Harrison and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The man was caught in the glasses lens like a fly trapped under a drinking glass. His uniform hung from him like curtains from a rail, his handsome was face splattered with dirt, eyes wide with fleeting terror. Then, with the subtlety of sunrise, the image began to transform. Above his right eye the man’s face started to sink, his skin peeled back, as easily as the skin peeling from a peach. His head opened along the right side of his skull, revealing a sloppy mess of smashed brain, blood, clumped hair and skin. The left side of his face however, stayed intact.
Howard stared at the apparition, his heart hammering hard. The man opposite him had turned his head so the sun coming in through the bay windows flooded into his glasses, turning them into a cinematic screen. On it was Howard’s nightmare; the man that followed him everywhere he went. The man with half a face.
‘Howard? Is everything alright?’
Howard blinked. The vision was gone. Behind the glasses now were the watery blue eyes and large sagging face of Dr Carson.
‘Yes,’ Howard breathed. He waited for the adrenaline to drain away.
‘What were you thinking just now?’
‘I-’ Howard searched for an answer and his mind went to his nurse. An old crow of a woman, one with black beetle eyes, a sharp walk and a suspicious glare. ‘I think my nurse is trying to kill me.’
He felt something sag behind Dr Carson’s levelled gaze.
‘And why is that?’
‘She – she’s trying to make out like I’m crazy. It’s the only reason I can think why she’s doing it. She keeps putting things in my room, things that aren’t mine. I found a – a Capstan cigarette box on my pillow, dog tags, a picture of a woman I’ve never seen and – when I fetched the attendant, nothing was there. And – and I keep seeing things.’
‘What kind of things?’
‘They’re – people. Following me. I’m sure she’s doing it, there’s no one else that could-’
But Dr Carson had taken his fountain pen and started scratching something down, nodding absentmindedly. His face was carefully crafted. He looked uninterested.
He’s in on it.
Howard started to twist his hands around each other, staring at the bowed, balding head of his psychiatrist.
Suddenly, he was sure they were not alone. The hairs on the back of his neck stood erect. His skin went cold, as though he’d been dunked deep into freezing water. Something shifted in his periphery.
Dr Carson stopped writing and leant back to steeple his fingers.
‘Howard, tell me. Can you remember how you came to be here?’
‘You know why I’m here doctor.’
‘Please, just humour me.’
Howard wondered what trick this was. On his lap, his hands started to twist again.
‘I – I was fighting in the war. In France. We travelled to Belgium, and then to … a forest.’
The room reeled. He thought he saw the contents of Dr Carson’s thick oak-turned table roll and scatter like ants under a boot. Around him the walls started to squirm. He blinked hard, struggling to keep his thoughts straight.
‘And I got sick. I was discharged from service. And I think … I’ve been here ever since.’
A heavy silence. Howard looked up to see Dr Carson appraising him sternly and his foreboding increased.
‘Tell me, do you remember what happened in the Ardennes forest?’
The cold along Howard’s skin tightened, sinking to his marrow. The presence on his periphery leaned forward, listening intently.
‘You tell me that you’ve been seeing things. Objects that aren’t there, people that aren’t there. Is it possible that this has happened all before?’
‘I – no.’
Dr Carson cocked his head in thought and sunlight swirled into his glasses again. On them, Howard saw himself; a face drawn to its bones, eyes pitted like two small wells, hair like dry grass.
He also saw a man behind him, caught once more in the glasses lens. A short, dark buzz cut covered half his head, a high cheekbone and a moss-coloured eye was still intact on the left side of his face. The other half though –
With a thrill of fear, Howard looked away. Something strange was happening. The walls of the room looked like they were melting and the room’s overhead light was blinking. Outside, the grounds of the property were no longer the neat, manicured lawns, the copse of poplar trees, the winding path through the greenery. Instead, the world outside was a charred, pernicious landscape.
Frost coated trees had been stripped of leaves and many stood like snapped toothpicks among the smog. A shell exploded close to a foxhole, throwing up a mushroom cloud of dirt and showering the soldier inside. The rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns filled the air, weaving through screams and men’s cries for their mothers. Soldiers ran over snow glazed ground, throwing themselves into foxholes, shooting back at the onslaught. Barely visible in the writhing gloom were rolling fortresses. The nozzles of their guns swivelled, aimed and shot at will towards the forest.
Panicking, Howard looked back towards Dr Carson, but another had replaced him. The man had once been a towering figure, fit enough to keep up at a run with his fellow soldiers, despite his limp. Adam. He’d been kind, always sharing his Capstan cigarettes with everyone, tucking the case into his jacket breast pocket next to a photograph of his sweetheart.
But now, under his khaki-green uniform, his shoulders had shrunk to sharp angles and his cheekbones looked like the edge of broken glass. His moss green eyes however, were wide with horror. Howard heard a shot, heard men yelling in the distance. Suddenly, Adam had only one eye and half of his head had been blasted open. Maggots writhed in what was left of his brain. A sickly-sweet smell filled the room – it was the smell of the man’s brains. It made Howard feel as though his insides had flushed themselves and soon the smell was coupled with that of shit.
Howard sobbed. The man with the half-face reached out towards him.
‘Howard?’ The voice sounded drowned and guttural.
Howard stumbled from the room, knocking into two attendants standing outside the door. He slipped like silk from their grasp and fled down the hall. The sound of their footsteps were like the pursuit of horse hooves. The hallways were still lit by paraffin oil lamps and in their glare, he could see the walls flowing like water.
To his horror, the corridor ended. Next to him a framed oil painting squirmed and opened like an eye. It showed him a frost-bitten glade, bordered by blackened thickets and trees. He remembered it.
Amidst the shelling of his company he’d swelled with panic, watching as ghostly figures of dead men lunged for him, as objects crawled around him. He ran screaming from his foxhole into the glade. Then, a figure swathed in dusk’s darkness limped out of the trees after him, calling his name. The man’s arms were huddled to his sides to protect him from the cold, but for all Howard knew, he could have been concealing a gun. A great terror washed over him. He fumbled for his gun and pointed it at the figure. Grey light fell over the man and the moment Howard pulled the trigger he saw Adam’s face crumple in horror. A gunshot. The sickening thud of bullet meeting human flesh.
Howard turned from the wall, wailing. The two attendants reached him and as one of them leant over him, he saw a man with half a face.
A horrible, haunting darkness ensued. It weaved through his days and dampened his senses. He’d wake at intervals, finding himself in bed, being bathed, sitting in a crowded common room. What felt like a long time later, he resurfaced to see his nurse bending over him, a small tray of pills in her hands. Not too long after, the darkness lifted and gradually, the gnawing fear and uncertainty deserted him. In time, the half-face man left him too.
Everything happened quickly after that. He was packed, showered, clean shaven.
‘Let’s make this is our last goodbye,’ Dr Carson said as he stood on the veranda of the red-bricked mansion. He watched as Howard’s sister helped him into her car, hand hovering in farewell.
‘Can you smell something?’ His sister said as she got in next to him.
‘Hmm.’ She wrinkled her nose and set the hospital issued bag next to him. It gave a great rattle and he thought of the pills he’d been taking.
As they pulled away in the car, something trickled down Howard’s spine. It was a startling cold, diving down his collar and spreading along his back and arms. From the back of the car a sickening, sweet smell rolled towards him. Out of his periphery, something shifted.