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  • Writer's pictureMerle Emrich

Refractions – Part V

Updated: Jan 19

Read Part I here.

Read Part II here.

Read Part III here.

Read Part IV here.

Faces

Alaister woke up in the cold of his apartment, to the dripping of the faucet and the sound of rain mixed with snow hitting the windowpane that failed to keep the winter air outside. With a groan, he pushed himself into a sitting position and sprung out of bed. He shuddered as his bare feet touched the floor but resisted the urge to crawl back into the warmth underneath the blanket. Instead, he stood and hurried over to the kitchenette to pour himself a glass of water.

There was a slow silence about this morning that brightened the gray gloom of the day. Even the noise of the busy street outside seemed dull and distant and Alaister could not help but smile. On any other day, or in a more awakened state, he might have frowned at the shaking of his hands or the tremble in his legs. Buteven if he noticed ithe didn’t.

He turned off the tap and drank the water in large gulps. The faucet continued to drip. As he placed the glass on the counter, his eyes fell on his hand. White paint stained his fingers. White paint, dry and cracked, smeared across his forearms. All color drained from his face. Alaister spun aroundeyes wide, he stumbled over to the opposite wall. With his hands he traced its texture, finding familiar shapes. Only a layer of paint more, only a shade brighter than the white of the wall, they were barely noticeable but to him who knew that they were there, to him who was the creator of the portraits that stared at him with blank and lifeless eyes.

And then, his fingers found the outlines of a face that was less familiar. Alaister fell back, and propping himself on his elbows, he squinted his eyes at the wall. And there, the last of a series of faces that began with the clumsy image of a teenager, his head tilted in a way that gave him an air of defiance, next to the face of a young girl with curly hair, was a new portrait. Her contours were distorted in an expression that might have been surprise or shock or a scream.

Alaister’s breath caught in his throat. He gasped for air and even though his mouth opened and closed, even though his body heaved trying to force the air into his lungs, a heaviness that rose from his chest blocked the breath in his throat. He rolled over onto his knees, his head buried in his arms. His fingernails dug into his skin, but he did not feel the pain. All he was aware of was the silence that was torn apart by a multitude of voices. They whispered to him. Murmured. Beckoned. Screamed accusations. And finally, he managed to swallow a lungful of airretching and biting the insides of his cheeks to stop himself from sobbing but breathing.

*

Jae found herself drifting. With the first light of morning, a dark glow had torn through the sky, spreading, brightening, darkening. Matthew had given her an apologetic smile and opened his mouth but before he had been able to say anything, the black light had swallowed him. Jae had hesitatedbut only for a momentthen, she had stepped into the light. She did not understand how light could be dark and bright at the same time, but the facts were that it was, and she had closed her eyes, blinded by the glow. And when she had opened them again, she had found herself suspended in darkness.

She tried to move. Her arms flailed helplessly, and her feet failed to find the ground. She felt nausea churn in her stomach as if she was spinning but her vision gave no indication of movement. Eventually, she gave up and closed her eyes listening to her heart that beat as if intent on tearing her body apart.

Wherever she was, it was quiet. But through the drumming of her heartbeat, she could make out another sounda murmur, a whisper, a multitude of voices. She opened her eyes again and in the periphery of her vision shapes began to form. They were vague and pale and when she turned her head to get a better look at them, they faded, but they were there nonetheless, and this meant that she was less alone.

A figure took form within the darkness in front of her. Hollow eyes fixed their gaze on her and hands that were no more than bones gripped her own. Jae tried to tear her hands free and half-stumbled back, but the figure held on, and when it spoke, its voice did not seem to come from its mouthbare teeth lined up in a frozen smilebut echoed all around them. It was a voice that was at once a low rumble and a high-pitched screech that distorted the words the figure spoke making them unrecognizable. Jae struggled against the figure’s grip, but it only pulled her closer. It was only when she finally gave up, eyes closed so that she did not have to look into the hollowness of its face, that the words slurred and slowed, broke apart and reassembled to make sense.

*

With the blinds drawn and blocking out the sparse light of the winter day, the faces on the wall were almost invisible. But still, Alaister could feel their blank stare following him through the room. He nearly tripped and fell as he pulled the mattress from the bed but steadied himself and proceeded to drag it over to the wall, placing it against it so that it covered at least some part of the portraits. His keys and a pile of unopened letters tumbled to the floor as he dragged the small kitchen table over to hold the mattress in place.

When he was confident that the mattress would not fall over, he took a deep breath. With slow and measured steps, willing himself to act calm and composed, he walked over to the door. He turned the handle, but the door did not open. Alaister gave a brief nod, then went back to the kitchenette and picked up the keys from the floor. For a moment, he held them in his hand, his eyes fixed on them before he closed his fist around them. From the kitchenette, it was only a few steps to the window. He pulled up the blinds just enough to be able to fit his hand through the gap. The handle of the window got a little stuck as he pulled on it but thenalmost reluctantlylet itself be moved and a draft of cold air flooded the apartment. Alaister shivered and pulled his shoulders up. He stuck out his hand and held his breath until he opened his fist and the keys slipped from his fingers.

He listened for the sound of the keys hitting the ground, but the apartment was too high up. Instead of the clatter of metal on asphalt, a humming began to fill his head. It was not much more than a faint white noise at first, but it steadily grew louder until individual voices filtered through the buzzing. Alaister slammed the window shut.

But he knew, no window, no door, would keep the voices out.



Written by Merle Emrich.

Cover photo by Merle Emrich.


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