by Van Peltekian
Marvin Langford looked in the mirror at the face that wasn’t his. He thought by now, after thirty-two years, he would have gotten used to it, but he never did. Because it never changed. For just over three decades he looked at that face and for just over three decades it remained the same, never a cut, never a blemish, never a wrinkle, never aging. It was a snapshot.
A constant reminder.
Marvin and the face would share a morning routine. He would enter the bathroom and look in the mirror and he and the face would scowl at one another. Then he’d brush his teeth and stare silently into the eyes that weren’t his. He’d feel his bristling chin and run an electric razor over it blindly, hoping he was doing a good job, and watch the sink fill with salt-and-pepper hairs that hid behind the face in the mirror.
Next, Marvin would step into the shower and he’d rub soap on his skin, feeling the fat deposits and body hair that were hidden under an athletic physique, a nondescript body; a placeholder really, mostly featureless, devoid of birthmarks, scars, or freckles. It really had none of the defining features of his head, neck, forearms, hands, feet, or legs from the knees down. His stomach didn’t even have a belly button, but he could feel one underneath the smooth flesh, and he always wondered why there wasn’t one in the first place. It was a glitch that took time getting used to.
He’d push it from his mind, close his eyes, and point the face that was not his up toward the pressurized water from the showerhead. As it cascaded down his brow, his cheeks, his chin, over his shoulders and down his back, Marvin would hope that when he opened his eyes the high cheekbones, light lines of youth, and the curly head of reddish-brown hair would be washed away and replaced by the sunken eyes, wide chin, and prominent cheekbones he no longer remembered but would see in photos of himself before the face came along.
Once he’d left the bathroom in disappointment, he’d get dressed and go about the morning, making sure to avert his gaze from any reflective surface so as to not lock eyes with the eyes that were not his.
Today was different though for Marvin Langford. Today he looked in the mirror.
He’d barely slept and was awake long before the morning alarm. He ate lightly, sipped coffee, and waited for the phone to ring. The young brow of the face that was not his furled pensively, the youthful eyes narrowed, focused. His body was tense, anxious, constantly looking at the quiet telephone nearby. Had he missed the call? There was no way he could have. He nearly sent the coffee cup flying across the room when the telephone finally rang.
“Hello?” he said with the coarse voice of a smoky chimney that belied his young features.
“Marvin?” The voice of Harry Kingslover came through with a throatiness that one might attribute to a cartoon frog.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“Good morning, Marvin. How’re you doing?”
“Good, Harry. Better now that I’m hearing from you.”
Harry made idle chit chat about the weather, his own morning, and other things. Marvin had trouble paying attention but did his best to remain as patient as he could, playing the game of exchanged pleasantries until Harry finally made his way to the purpose of the call.
“Everything’s set up. Courthouse at noon sharp. I’ll meet you out front. Wear your best. Today’s your big day.”
Then he hung up.
Marvin glanced at the digital clock over his oven. It was almost eleven, just enough time to finish his coffee before walking to the courthouse. It was an exciting day.
Today would be the day the face went away.
He stepped out of his apartment building in his best beige suit. The sun bore down from the crisp blue sky onto the vibrant vivacity of the city. Marvin walked, head down, eyes focused on his feet, so as not to meet the gaze of anybody else. Most people acted as though there was nothing standout about him, just another person in a maze of people.
Others, however, would take notice of the thin metal band around his neck with the small red light and scowl in judgment. Once, a long time ago, somebody saw him and actually tried to get violent. Three decades and he’d still get the occasional hateful look or critical remark. Marvin hated the scowlers.
They didn’t matter as much to him as they had in the past, because today the division between Marvin and the rest of the world would be lifted. He would be back on their side—to jeer at and pass judgment on others—like he had once been.
As he crossed the street and stepped into the forecourt of the courthouse, he saw the unmistakable bulky frame of Harry Kingslover, adorned in a dark blue suit. Standing nearby were two elderly people, a man and woman that Marvin didn’t recognize. Harry met Marvin just past the halfway point of the forecourt.
“Marvin,” Harry said, taking Marvin’s hand in his. He wasn’t much taller than Marvin in height, but due to the size of his frame, he appeared so. “You look good.”
“I never look different,” Marvin replied.
Harry chuckled awkwardly. “You get enough to eat?”
“Yeah, sure.” Marvin noticed the elderly woman bury her face in the crook of the elderly man’s shoulder and they embraced. He looked at Marvin with sad disdain.
Harry noticed Marvin’s gaze.
“Greta and Byron Hawley,” he said, looking over his shoulder.
Marvin felt a knot plummet in his stomach and his blood turned to ice as he recognized the couple. It had been thirty-two years since he’d last seen them, in this very courthouse. Marvin on one side of the room waiting for a verdict, but instead hearing only wails from Greta and “there, there” from Byron. It was worse than any anger they could have inflicted on him. They never got angry, but Marvin had sometimes wished that they had.
“I told them they couldn’t handle it, what with your face being how it is, but they insisted on being here,” Harry continued.
“Are they coming up to the hearing? I thought it was closed to the public?”
“Closed to the public, yes, but they have a right to be there.”
“Then let’s get this over with.”
They walked across the granite paving slabs of the forecourt to the sleek white granite courthouse. Marvin looked down as he passed the Hawleys. No reason to upset them by looking at them.
Ushered through the security checkpoint and into the great hall, Marvin and Harry made their way to the elevators. Marvin watched as the digital display above the doors flashed in descending order. The hairs on his neck prickled as he felt eyes on him. He turned to see a nameless scowler staring. They would be the last to do so.
The elevator chimed and the doors opened. Without a backwards glance, Marvin stepped inside, followed by Harry, who pressed the button with the number ten in the center. Marvin leaned back against the cool metal of the elevator and closed his eyes.
“Aw, jeez,” he heard Harry mutter under his breath. Marvin opened his eyes and looked. Standing not two feet from him were the Hawleys.
Up close, they were a haunting sight. Grief and despair had aged them considerably. Grief and despair that he had caused. Greta’s hair was a dull gray and pulled into a bun, but the long thin strands made it impossible to contain. Even though he wore a cap, Byron was all but bald and sported a clean salt-and-pepper beard. The years hadn’t been good to them. Their skin was sallow, their faces heavily creased. There was no spark of light in their eyes. It was as if all the life had been sucked away, yet they lived on. Marvin looked at them with the eyes that were but were not his, his reflection on every wall, on the ceiling, for them to see. They stared back at him with pain and grief so strong it was as if those were the only things they knew.
Marvin stammered, trying to find words. Finally, the elevator chimed and the doors opened again. “I’m—sorry,” was all he could manage, all he could think to say, before being escorted out of the elevator by Harry.
They stepped out into the hallway.
“I told them they couldn’t handle it,” Harry said again quietly.
They walked down the hallway in silence, Marvin acutely aware of the pair following closely behind them. They walked slowly enough to maintain distance, but the feeling of their eyes burned on his back.
They came to a door.
Harry knocked and peeked inside before stepping in entirely. “Harry Kingslover with Marvin Langford.” Harry peaked back out at him. “They’re ready for you.”
Marvin looked at his reflection in the nearby window and took a deep breath. The eyes that were not his stared back at him. He looked at the Hawleys and entered the room.
It was large, about the size of a conference room. There were two rows of seating, with an aisle in the middle. At the head of the room, behind an official looking desk, sat three individuals. They were the same three people Marvin had come to know for every yearly cycle of the last thirty-two years. The one on the right was Felicity Daniels, head of the parole board, the one in the middle was Judge Gregory Hawes, and the one on the left was Kathleen Vreeland, the Judge’s longtime assistant. To the far right sat a stenographer. Next to the desk stood a bailiff who Marvin had never seen before.
He joined Harry at the small table situated facing the large desk. Harry motioned to one of the chairs but Marvin declined, preferring to stand.
“What happened to Otto?” Marvin asked Harry, motioning to the bailiff, a young mountain of a man.
“Retired, about six months ago,” Harry whispered.
“State your name please,” Judge Hawes said.
“Marvin Langford,” Marvin said.
Behind him, Marvin heard the door open and close, and resisted the urge to turn around, knowing full well that it was the Hawleys taking a seat somewhere in the back.
Judge Hawes motioned toward Vreeland who handed him a tablet.
The judge took the tablet and looked at the screen.
“Let’s make this quick,” he said, beginning to read from the tablet in a clear monotone drawl. “Thirty-two years ago to the day, Marvin Langford, aged sixty, was found guilty of one count of operating a vehicle while intoxicated, and one count of vehicular manslaughter. The victim, Caleb Hawley, aged thirty-two, was pronounced dead at the scene. Mr. Langford plead guilty to both charges. The sentence was one lifetime of full-body holographic masking equal to that of the lifespan of the deceased. Caleb Hawley was thirty-two, therefore Mr. Langford would wear the holograph for a thirty-two year sentence. Today that sentence is completed.”
“Due to Mr. Langford’s appearances at all parole hearings, continued treatment for alcohol abuse, ongoing communication with his parole officer, Harry Kingslover, and for not tampering with his holographic projection collar, the court recognizes that Mr. Langford has served his sentence in full and is fit to return to regular civilian operations with his original appearance. If Mr. Langford would please step forward, the Bailiff will remove your collar.”
Marvin stepped around the table, and the Bailiff walked over to him.
“Wait!” A voice from the back of the room broke the silence. They all turned to Greta Hawley, who crossed the room and walked over to Marvin. “Just smile for me once. I want to see him smile, before he goes away, back to pictures.” Marvin looked at her and all of her pain. He did his best. The face that was not his broke into a smile.
“My son,” she said, wrapping her arms around Marvin as she began to sob. Byron came up to his wife’s side and led her away gingerly. Marvin watched as he led her out of the room. He turned away from the door and sniffled. Marvin hadn’t noticed that he had started to cry. Tears for the Hawleys. For Caleb. For himself.
He wiped his eyes.
The Bailiff pressed a button on a small remote and the light on the collar went out. The face disappeared in a cascade of pixels. Marvin then felt the collar being removed from his neck. The face that was not his was gone.
There was the bang of the gavel. “This hearing is adjourned. Have a good day.”
Marvin stepped out of the room and into the hallway. He looked at Harry.
“Thanks for everything,” he said, taking the man’s hand and shaking it vigorously. Harry said something but Marvin didn’t hear. He noticed his hands. These weren’t the hands he knew. Marvin looked down the hall toward the nearby window, but from where he was standing he was not reflected. He eyed a sign for restrooms and began to walk hurriedly down the hallway toward them.
“Hey Marvin!” Harry called. Marvin stopped and turned back. “It can be a shock. Maybe take your time with it.”
“I haven’t seen my own face in thirty-two years, Harry. I think I’m ready.” Marvin continued on his way, with Harry watching apprehensively.
Inside the bathroom, Marvin froze. He had been waiting for this moment for so long, had planned it out in his head. But now he didn’t know what to expect. All he had to do was take a few more steps and he’d be in front of the mirror, but now that the moment was here, he was afraid. Harry said it would be a shock, and now he was worried about what he’d see. Drawing in a breath to mount his courage, he approached the mirror.
Marvin Langford didn’t recognize the face that stared back at him. The sunken eyes were too sunken, the prominent cheekbones now hollow, and the wide chin sagged with jowls hidden underneath a swath of uneven, graying beard. The hair was thin and wispy, the front having almost receded entirely. The creases and lines of age heavy, weathered, the pores of the face large and dark, the skin itself loose and flabby. The whole thing was wrong.
This wasn’t the face of Marvin Langford. It was an old man’s face. For the past thirty-two years, Marvin had lived in holographic youth. But behind a dead man’s image, Marvin had aged.
Panic rising, he touched the loose flesh, pulling at it, pushing it, trying to make the skin look tight, make it look like it did in the pictures back at home, but no matter what he did, the face wouldn’t change.
The alarm brimming over, Marvin removed his suit coat and hurriedly undid the buttons of his shirt. Underneath the shirt revealed a body that was equally aged and wrinkled. Where lithe muscles used to be was drooping skin, the toned abdominals now a protruding gut. His formerly clean arms were now covered in stark white body hair.
Marvin let out a scream and shattered the mirror with his hands. Glass and blood erupted over the bathroom floor.
Harry and some bystanders entered the bathroom to find him on his knees, shirt open, sobbing into his hands, surrounded by hundreds of fragments of glass.
“I don’t want it! I don’t want it!” Marvin wailed.
Harry went over to him and put his hand on Marvin’s shoulder.
“Marvin—” he began.
“I want the old face back! Tell the judge I want the old face back!”
“Come on, it ain’t that bad,” Harry said. “Really, it ain’t.”
Marvin caught his breath. Removing his hands from his eyes, he saw hundreds of tiny reflections of the dreadful face staring back at him in the shards of broken glass. He cried out in anguish.
He couldn’t trade the face. It would stay with him until the end of his days. It was his face. His own.
Marvin hated this face.
Van Peltekian is an author who writes character-driven pieces that lean mainly into sci-fi and horror. He takes inspiration from writers like Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Rod Serling, Richard Matheson, and many classic weird tales authors.
Off the page, he gleans inspiration from various movies, TV series, news stories, and from his own personal interactions, using them as jumping off points for world building.
Van’s work can be found in Tales From The Pandemic: A Modern Decameron and The Writers Corner Anthology 2022, both published by Chuckanut Editions. His short story “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” was featured in our Spring Issue: Alter Ego and “The Night the Stars Landed” was featured in our Fall Issue: Golden Age.