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The Monster’s Million Faces


The Monster’s Million Faces

Home / The Monster’s Million Faces
Original Fiction Rachel Swirsky

The Monster’s Million Faces

The mind has an amazing ability to heal itself, especially given the newest therapies, but Aaron's mind just won't cooperate. And neither will... he.

Illustrated by Sam Weber

Edited by


Published on September 8, 2010



He’s old this time. A hospital gown sags over his gaunt frame. IV wires stream from his arms, plugging him into a thousand machines. I could tear them out one by one.

I ask, “Do you know who I am?”

He rolls his head back and forth, trying to see. His eyes are pale with cataracts, roosting in nests of wrinkles. He gestures me closer, skin thin to the point of translucence, veins tunneling below.

Recognition strikes. “You’re that boy I hurt. . . . All grown up. . . .”

His voice is harsh, as if it hurts to talk. He speaks in short gasps.

“Wanted you to know, I . . . always regretted . . . what I did . . .” Papery fingers reach for mine. I snatch my hand away. “Have to ask. . . . Can you forgive. . . . ?”

Son of a fucking bitch.

There’s more to the room now. Painfully bright light shines on tile. Everything smells clean but foul, like ammonia. The thousand IVs have condensed into one, a bubble of blood floating inside the cord where it goes into his arm.

I aim my first blow at his mouth. His blood sprays my face. The thousand machines blare alarms. Footsteps rush across distant tile.

I launch myself on top of him. His jaw snaps. Bone fragments shove through skin. His ribs crack under the force of my knees. He makes a primal, rattling sound as his body writhes, contracts, and finally slackens.

His corpse collapses into a mass of bones and flesh. I try to pull myself out. Bones rattle, shift. I can’t gain purchase.

“Dana!” I shout. A dozen bones snap under my weight. Thousands more seethe below.

“I’m through with this! Dana! Get me out!”

* * *

My eyes open onto Dana’s sunny third-story office.

I’m on an overstuffed, floral-printed loveseat below a wide window. Dana’s in a facing armchair, legs folded beneath her. She’s tiny and fragile-boned, dwarfed by the furniture.

“No luck?” Dana asks.

“What do you think?”

“Better tell me about it then.”

I tug at the sensors attached to my scalp with adhesive tape. “Can I get this crap off first?”

Her gaze flicks to the machine on the cart beside me. I can tell she wants to keep taking brain wave readings while I talk about my trance. Instead, she waves her stylus in assent and watches while I peel the sensors off my hairline.

She repeats her question and I answer this time. She takes notes. She doesn’t flinch when I get to the part about smashing his face.

“Was it satisfying?” she asks.

“What, killing him?” I shrug. “Yeah. While I was doing it.”

“But not lastingly,” she concludes, making an emphatic mark. “We’ll try again next time.”

* * *

I’ve never liked to fuck. I never thought that was a problem. What I do with my dick is my business—no one else’s.

Some people disagree. Like my former boss, Chelsea Elizabeth Reid. One night when we were both working late, packing billable hours, she got forceful about informing me that she’d done a lot for me. I owed her one. A kiss. One kiss at least. When I tried to phone security, she wrestled me for the receiver, and then things got bad.

Yeah, I get angry. I hit people. Sometimes I get so angry when I hit people that I don’t remember it afterward. Dana says it’s because of what happened when I was a kid.  Chelsea could have charged me with assault, but then I could have come out with sexual harassment, and she already had two strikes with the partners. So instead, she phoned from the hospital, once she’d recovered enough to speak.

“Paid leave,” she proposed, cold and concise. “You stay away. I pay for your treatment. Then I find you an opening somewhere and we never see each other again.”

* * *

Dana talks while adhering sensors to my scalp. “Try younger,” she says. “Imagine confronting him just after it happened.”

“As a kid?”

Dana’s fingers are cold on my forehead. “Imagine your adult self in the past. You’re in control of the trance—realism is irrelevant. The point is to find a scenario that works for you.”

“I don’t know what he looked like.”

“Imagine something.” Dana secures the last sensor. “Start with the body. How big do you think he was? Was he White or Asian? Bearded? Clean-shaven? Think. How old was he?”

* * *

He’s thirty. White. Bad teeth set in a scowl, breath rank with nicotine. Stringy brown hair falls to his shoulders, roots oily and unwashed.

It takes a second to recognize his orange jumpsuit. In real life, he never went to jail.

I ask, “Do you know who I am?”

He regards me with disdain, his pupils flat and lifeless. “You want to know if I feel guilty?”

His mouth is cavernous, teeth black and yellow with decay. A broken incisor glistens jaggedly.

“Come on.” He spreads his hands wide as if trying to get me to trust him. “You want to know, boy, don’t you? If it eats me up inside?”

He sneers.

“I don’t feel a fucking thing.”

* * *

“Don’t worry,” Dana says. “We’ll find the right one.”

* * *

Back home in my claustrophobic apartment, blinds pulled, I pick up a call from Dad. I told him I fell down a flight of stairs at work. He thinks I’m on leave during physical therapy.

He talks fast.

“Aaron! Glad I caught you. How’re you feeling? Enjoying your time off?

”Wish I could get a break. Things are a mess around here. The moron we hired still hasn’t learned to use the cash register.

“Your mother’s hassling me to take time off this summer. Who am I supposed to leave in charge? The moron? I don’t know. She wants to come visit when you’re well enough for guests. We know you’re not set up for company. Don’t worry about entertaining us. We’ll get a hotel room. We’re getting older, you know. It’d be nice to see you for more than just Christmas.”

He stops to breathe.

“What do you think? Will you be feeling okay by summer? You should be better by then, right?”

* * *

It’s not my parents’ fault. They’re decent people. But being around them makes me remember. There’s a reason I only go home on the holidays.

* * *

Dana says I should think about my trauma as a psychic wound that never healed. We need to find a way to close the wound—a way to give me closure.

Ten years ago, treatment would have been limited to talk therapy and drugs. If things were bad enough, they might have tried early erasure techniques to wipe the initial trauma. But erasure is crude, especially long after the event.

If I were a bad candidate for memory grafting, those would still be the options, but physiological and psychological testing shows the grafts are likely to take.

“You’re lucky,” Dana said when we got the results.

Dana says the term graft is technically misleading. There is no physical, manufactured memory to be implanted. Instead, new episodic memories are created by finely tuned stimulation of the brain.

Once we’ve found the right scenario, I’ll go back to the neurologists. They’ll record what happens when I experience the scenario under hypnosis and then replicate it, filtering out the trance activity. Simultaneously, they’ll stimulate parts of my amygdala, hippocampus and temporal lobe in order to make the memory seem autobiographical and emotionally significant. My brain will create the graft itself—encoding engrams for events that never happened.

Dana says this process sometimes occurred spontaneously during early hypnotherapy attempts, usually to the patient’s detriment. Those memories were often traumatizing. My new memory will be therapeutic.

“I mean it. You’re really lucky,” Dana said. She shifted in her chair. Sunlight filtered through the blinds, dividing her body into stripes. “Part of how people process trauma is based on how events unfold. That may seem trivial, but the question is: how do we turn that to our advantage? Erasing trauma can cause memory problems and personality shifts. And we can’t modify the trauma itself because we can’t alter existing memories—at least not yet.

”So we have to make new ones.“

”So what new memory do you give me?“ I asked.

”That depends. People need different things—resolution, confrontation, revenge, absolution, the answer to a question. We’ll keep inducing hypnosis until we find a scenario that works.“

She leaned forward, catching my eye.

”This is just the start—bandaging the wound, as it were. You’ll still need therapy afterward.“

I waved off her provisos. ”Won’t I remember sitting here, talking about it? Won’t I know it’s fake?“

Dana shrugged. ”We’ve known for a long time that false memories feel true. Intellectually, you’ll know it’s fake. Emotionally and therapeutically, it’ll be true for you.“

* * *

I was eight. He took me for five days.

He kept me blindfolded with plugs in my ears. You’d think I’d remember something about him—some smell, some sense of his size and shape. But I don’t.

For five days, I saw nothing but dark.

On the sixth day, he left me on the porch of a farm in the middle of nowhere, still blindfolded. He rang the doorbell so the people inside would know to come out. The old couple saw a black truck pulling away, but that was all anyone ever found.

My parents were prepared for the worst. The police were trawling for my body. No one thought he’d let me go.

They told me I was lucky for that, too.

Lucky, lucky me.

* * *

”The subconscious is snarled and dark,“ Dana tells me. ”Indulge your worst fears, your most venal prejudices. Don’t filter anything.“

* * *

He’s a fag. Spindly, disproportionate, long as a birch and narrow as a clothes hanger. Rouge and eye shadow enhance a foxlike face, sharp and predatory. He leers.

I ask, ”Do you know who I am?“

A pointed tongue darts out, whetting his canines. Spindly fingers stretch toward me. I’m running, running, but his fingers are everywhere, poking into my mouth and my eyes and my nose and my rectum.

Next, a thug. Skin like tar, slit with a mouth full of gleaming teeth. Meaty lips pull back into an animal growl. One enormous, muscled arm thrusts forward, fist wrapped around a semiautomatic.

Metal gleams. He forces me to my knees.

Barrel in my mouth. Steel shoving against my tonsils. I gag. It shoots. Everything goes black.

Pathetic pedophile next. Downy-cheeked, timid. He sits at a heavy old desk scattered with ancient bibles and illuminated manuscripts.

I ask, ”Do you know who I am?“

His piercing blue eyes are hollow. He wrings sallow hands.

“I’ve waited so long,” he pleads. “I’ve spent years trying to atone. . . . Please forgive me. I’ll never forgive myself.”

He clutches my sleeve. His grip is rigid with desperation.

“I swear to God it was my only lapse.”

I smack his hand away. I only hate him more for cringing.

* * *

Dana’s expression never changes.

“This isn’t going to work,” I tell her.

She shakes her head. “Psychological leaps are often counterintuitive. The process is completely unpredictable, which makes it predictably difficult. Most patients go through dozens of scenarios.”

For once, I’m normal.

* * *

I imagine a famous actor, a bully from grade school, a woman, even though the only thing I know is he was male. The homeless man we found sleeping on our porch one morning when I was seven, scared and stinking, and shouting about aliens in the storm drains.

It wasn’t my father, but Dana says the mind makes strange leaps. I follow her advice and imagine Dad. He’s as bulky as he was in my childhood, before prostate cancer and chemotherapy made his skin baggy and ill-fitting. He wears a cap with the logo from his hardware store. His overstuffed tool belt clanks when he walks.

His jeans are unzipped.

He cups his hand around his groin, trying to hide it.

I start to ask the question—“Do you know who I am?”—but he turns away before I can open my mouth. He cowers. I’m bright red and shaking.

It’s too embarrassing to imagine.

* * *

I walk home from the station.

Streetlights stare into the dark. Dirty remnants of last week’s snow lie in heaps, punctuated with trash cans and fire hydrants. I pull out my cell phone and dial. It rings a long time. Dad’s out of breath when he picks up.

“Aaron?” he asks. “Long time no hear. Things are still a wreck at the store. The moron broke three crates of ceramics. I don’t think I can get away for that trip. We’ll have to postpone. Veteran’s Day, maybe? How about you? Young people heal up fast. You’ll be better any day now.”

Suddenly, I don’t know why I called. I haven’t been okay since I was eight years old. If he doesn’t know that, no phone call or vacation is ever going to bridge the gap.

I don’t blame Dad for failing to protect me, but he taught me early. No one can.

I go up into my lightless apartment.

* * *

Even Dana’s patience is thinning. Her fingers dig into my skin as she adheres the sensors to my scalp.

She has no advice. She sets up the trance in silence.

I close my eyes and go back to the place where I knew him. Back to the dark.

* * *


Then the smell of leather and cigarettes. I shift. A streetlight gutters on, casting faint, irregular yellow light on the windshield.

The car’s interior is turquoise, spacious compared to modern cars. Beside me, the steering wheel is locked with a club. A torn toolbox sticker glistens on the dashboard. My father’s Mustang.

I’m in the passenger seat. The driver’s seat is empty as it should be. I’m supposed to be in the back, trying to sleep with dad’s jacket pulled over my knees.

He only left for fifteen minutes while he went into the bank. He asked if I wanted to go in since it was after dark. I said no. I’d spent all day at Aunt Denise’s, swimming in her pool with Justin and Holly. I was tired.

There’s an adult in the backseat where I should be. I turn to see him, but the streetlight goes dark.

I ask, “Do you know who I am?”

“You’re Aaron.”

The voice is utterly generic, accent flat and unmarked.

Shadows ebb and swarm. “What do you want from me?” he asks.

That’s the real question. Some people want resolution, Dana says. Or confrontation, revenge, absolution.

Or the answer to a question.

My mouth is dry. I think my voice will crack. “Why?”

Another silence. Shorter this time. “I knew I shouldn’t. But right then, all that mattered was what I wanted.”

He pauses. Shadows shudder in the stillness.

“And you, well—”

My breath feels stuck as I wait for him to finish.

“—you didn’t matter at all.”

That’s it: the answer to a question I never even knew I was asking. Why choose me? Why hurt me? Why let me go?

Why me?

No reason. No reason at all.

I feel strangely calm as his voice fades. The smell of cigarettes recedes. I can no longer feel the cracked leather seat.

At last, I’m waking.


Copyright © 2010 Rachel Swirsky
Art copyright © 2010 Sam Weber

About the Author

Rachel Swirsky


Rachel Swirsky's short fiction has appeared in Weird Tales, Fantasy Magazine, and Subterranean Magazine, among others, and been collected in Year's Best anthologies edited by Rich Horton, Jonathan Strahan, and the VanderMeers. She is also the submissions editor of Podcastle, an audio fantasy magazine. According to her personal website, "Rachel's maternal grandfather was an Orthodox Jew. Her paternal grandfather was a member of the KKK. Her great-uncle suffered from an addiction to milk, and her great-grandmother was afraid of grass. Among her relatives, she counts screen-writers, poets, physicists, mathematicians, librarians, and engineers." Goodreads | Author Page Rachel Swirsky's short fiction has appeared in Weird Tales, Fantasy Magazine, and Subterranean Magazine, among others, and been collected in Year's Best anthologies edited by Rich Horton, Jonathan Strahan, and the VanderMeers. She is also the submissions editor of Podcastle, an audio fantasy magazine. According to her personal website, "Rachel's maternal grandfather was an Orthodox Jew. Her paternal grandfather was a member of the KKK. Her great-uncle suffered from an addiction to milk, and her great-grandmother was afraid of grass. Among her relatives, she counts screen-writers, poets, physicists, mathematicians, librarians, and engineers." Goodreads | Author Page
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