Louis woke that day unaware of the world, a state in which he seemed to find himself more and more often, oblivious to his wife’s absence from their bed, though he was usually the first to leave bed in the morning. He lay blinking a moment, failing to recognize his immediate environment until some vague suggestion of reality nudged his memory into familiar territory.
I am in bed, he thought mistily, and now I must get out of bed.
Fifty years old, and heavy in the way a once-athletic man carries his weight, he stepped into the bathroom intending to perform his morning rituals, brushing his teeth, showering, shaving, and dressing prior to the long drive to a job he only faintly recognized as meaningful. His sallow face stared back at him in the bathroom mirror, a face muddied by dark and silvery stubble, brown eyes blinking over their unremarkable color, cheeks beginning to sag into a woebegone permanence.
His thoughts were on the terrible taste in his mouth, no doubt caused by too much late evening coffee, when his face disappeared.
He wasn’t dreaming; he’d left his dreams some time before that moment, unmemorable dreams, of frustrating human relationships, and he was quite conscious.
But where a face had existed a second before, a featureless pall now occupied the area in his reflection.
He wondered if his eyes were experiencing some calamity, a retinal detachment perhaps, but every other object in the mirror was fully formed, his toothbrush, his pajamas, the fingernails of his hands; even his hair, significantly thinning and full of white strands, lay clearly on his head.
Only his face had vanished, his eyes, his nose, his mouth.
A hazy, flesh-colored field had taken its place.
He touched his face, and though he felt his lashes, his eyes, his nose, his lips, none of his these features lay reflected in the mirror; it was as if his face existed only in a tactile dimension.
Puzzled, he opened a drawer on the basin and found a small hand mirror. But the smaller mirror reflected an identical image. His face was gone, replaced by nothing.
Unnerved, he left the bathroom to seek out Ruth, his wife, and found her in the kitchen pouring coffee.
“Something’s happened to my face,” he told her, his hands framing his head foolishly.
She gazed up from her coffee, her eyebrows lowered, though not in panic. She seemed to take the change in stride, touching her own face, which was sinking as well, before raising her eyebrows again.
“What do you see?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she said, perfectly calmly. “Your face is gone.”
He looked around the kitchen, saw the toaster’s silvery shell, and bent to see if it, too, refused to reflect his face.
But his face was actually gone, no mirror contained it, no metallic reflection—
“What should I do?” he asked his wife, confused, and worried. He’d never lost his face before.
“I really don’t know,” she said, before sipping her coffee. Then she said, “But if you don’t hurry, you’ll be late for work.”
Louis rode the train into the city, hiding his face, or the area where his face used to be, behind a magazine, though he felt all the other commuters were studying him with some curiosity.
He rode the elevator to his office, embarrassed by his lack of features—how were any of his co-workers to measure his disposition? Even if he smiled warmly, how were they to know? They’d be alarmed, overly cautious. He’d experienced too much aggravation as it was; now, Ben Harrison would have a legitimate reason to distrust him, and his supervisor, Mr. Claire, would think he was hiding something. Even some of the women, who had noticed him staring at them from time to time with middle-age wanderlust, might accuse him of surreptitiously leering.
This was no good, no good at all.
He passed the day without leaving his desk, self-conscious, afraid. Most of his co-workers eventually puzzled out his identity, and a few, after the moment of realization, nodded as if confirming something they long suspected.
Mr. Claire, evidently notified of the change, stopped by his desk in the afternoon and asked unceremoniously, “Louis, what’s happened to your face?”
“I don’t know, sir,” he replied, staring at his hands. “It only happened this morning.”
“You’d better see someone,” Mr. Claire told him earnestly, though Louis interpreted this as a cautionary word.
What will I do, Louis thought, without my face?
He made an appointment to see his doctor the next day, insisting that he couldn’t wait a month, as was their usual approach to treating an emergency. He would call in sick to work tomorrow; Mr. Claire would understand.
“I’ve lost my face,” he said as his doctor walked into the examination room.
Louis sat on the edge of the examination table, his legs hanging in air, his arms holding his body still on the table.
His doctor, Sanders, nodded noncommittally and said, “That much is evident, Mr. Lynd.”
His doctor, a man in his fifties as well, always struck Louis as a bit of an eccentric, though his diagnostic skills seemed nonpareil. He was a short man with a soft, brown moustache, and spoke with a flat, Midwestern tone in his voice.
“I’ve heard of people losing their faces before,” Louis said. “But I never thought it would happen to me.”
“You just never know,” his doctor replied with a smile.
Dr. Sanders examined Louis carefully, listened to various sounds in his chest through a stethoscope, probed the flabby portions of his belly, shone a tiny light into his ears. The entire examination seemed expertly conducted, but once it concluded Louis’ prognosis was no cheerier than before.
“Doctor, what can I do to get my face back?” he asked as he buttoned his shirt.
“Well, you know,” Dr. Sanders said, apparently trying to find an appropriate verbal buffer for what he was about to say. “As they say, you should have taken better care of yourself through the years. Cultivated your psyche, gave your face something to reflect, that sort of thing.”
“I never thought my psyche needed cultivating,” Louis said. “I thought my appearance was a permanent quality—”
“That’s the entire problem, I imagine. The condition develops slowly until one day, like an incubating virus, it blossoms all at once.”
“Vacuity, of course.”
“Isn’t there something I can do?”
“There are some specialists who treat this condition,” Dr. Sanders said, shrugging. “But they’re very expensive, and it’s an elective type of procedure. To be honest with you, once someone loses their face they never really recover it. At best they can only create a rudimentary outline of artificial features, as artificial as the programmed interests that create it.”
Louis sighed, his heart beating rapidly, only now realizing that he may never see his face again.
“Doctor, why does this happen?”
“Some studies suggest there is a genetic component. Incipient vacuity, or a predisposition to indifference. Or, as some studies suggest, it’s simply the result of gross neglect.”
Louis moved from the examination table and stood before the small mirror above the basin in the room. But his face wasn’t in the mirror’s reflection. Dr. Sanders’ face peered over his shoulder in the glass, its eyebrows raised and its moustache twitching thoughtfully.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Lynd. I wish there was something I could do for you.”
Louis reported the results of the doctor’s examination to his wife, and she seemed to accept the diagnosis philosophically. In fact, as the days passed, she seemed not to notice the difference. Their marital routines were practically set in stone, and, except for wondering how he would ever take a decent picture at family events, she seemed completely unconcerned.
But he remained concerned, and continually complained about the matter, the hurtful whispers from his co-workers, his neighbors, his friends—until she couldn’t bear to hear his complaints any longer.
“For goodness sake, Louis,” she said, “why don’t you just wear a prosthetic?”
Louis’ latest grievance stuck in his throat as he considered the suggestion.
“Are you saying I should wear a mask?”
“Yes, a mask. Find a good mask, something nice, then you won’t have to worry about people staring at you.”
“But they’ll know it’s a mask.”
“They’ll get used to it. I’m sure you see people wearing masks every day and you don’t give them a second thought.”
“Aren’t they expensive?”
His wife stared at him with an expression that made up his mind for him.
So Louis created a mask to order, one he thought might best resemble the face he once possessed, with a few carefully considered enhancements, and had it properly fitted. He brought it home in a plain brown box and hesitated trying it, until he finally managed to steel his nerve and wear it briefly to the corner store.
A week later, after several more such experiments, he finally wore his new mask to work, and though he received many curious stares, no one commented negatively on the change. In fact, Mr. Claire, who had been avoiding him noticeably, stopped by his office and wished him a good afternoon. The man’s approving smile reassured Louis, and convinced him that he’d waited far too long to cast his mask.
Thereafter, he never left his house without wearing his prosthetic, and sometimes even wore it at home for his wife to enjoy.
Every so often, though, he would open the pages of old photo albums and gaze on the face he used to have, which seemed inferior to the face he now presented to the world. The activity saddened him too much to keep the pages open for very long.
But as he grew older, and increasingly dependent on an artificial face, he often removed the mask to gaze at his unmasked reflection, wondering what he might have done differently, how he might have lived his life differently, in order to prevent this irreversible loss of meaningful expression.
Working in multiple genres, Lawrence Buentello has published over 100 short stories and innumerable poems in journals, magazines, and anthologies, many of which can be found in several volumes of collected fiction and poetry. He is also the author or co-author of several novels. Buentello lives in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas, with his wife, Susan.