's 2016 Horror Write-off:


Submitted by Ariel Jay

Humans are built to recognize faces. It's one of our most basic instincts. It's why merely a colon and a parenthesis can communicate joy or sadness online. It's how we can look at a faucet, or two screws and a switch, or depressions in a rock face and see something staring back at us.

A couple friends and I were knocking a few beers back and ideas around when the topic came up. Once sober, or sober-enough, we decided to really look into it. Nothing more exotic than the things you could find in a garage and what we could pilfer from the science labs on campus. We ran tests with electrodes, magic eye paintings, rorschach blots, optical illusions... Mostly just waving paper in front of our eyes, but somehow we flipped a few cranial switches. Must've killed some brain cells too, because I remember Jesse telling me that I was not looking anyone in the eye, but nothing before that beyond what I could piece together from our notes.

Jesse's words stuck with me the next day. There's a thing called 'faceblindness', where you can see faces but can't recognize them, even faces you've known for years. I don't know if that's what I had, but I soon found my attention slipping. I could hear people, but what used to resolve into a face was to me just a blot of light and shadow in shades from peach to mahogany to ebony.

I was staring at the board in class, trying to watch people from the corner of my eye so as not to stare (I couldn't tell when I was doing that anymore) and figure out what had happened to me when I saw it. Its haunches were the rough crumpled fabric of the professor's sleeve. Its tail curved over his hair and opened its wide serpentine gullet down his ear canal. The cursive sentences about the boiling points of ideal gasses became a lion's mane and the shadow of the screen formed a slant that looked like the back of a goat's head. The image of the creature was only with me for an instant before the professor moved away from the board and broke it, but I knew I had seen it, as surely as I might have seen a face in that old Martian photo.

I knew what it was. I had remembered seeing a statue of one - some bronze thing crouching on its forelegs, snarling at its prey - but I couldn't imagine how I started seeing chimeras. The human brain simplifies whenever possible, and a chimera has too many parts: too many faces, too many limbs, and too many textures. A human can recognize a face from only two dots and a line. A chimera is far more complicated.

And yet, I saw it. As I walked back to my dorm, a shadow swooped across the sun and I saw reaching paws in the silhouette's primaries and a curling maw in a crumbling brick corner and the quiver of fur in a grassy median that caught the sun like the bony curve of a spine. I ran to swipe myself through the door and bury into my studies.

I told the guys what happened to me. None of them seemed at all rattled. They were all excited that we had learned something, or knocked something loose, or uncovered something about how the human mind puts the world together. The electrodes and tests came out again. The chimera snarled at me from every page.

We weren't a professional scientific group, no matter what we wrote down in notebooks. I didn't have any way to take time off for medical reasons or have someone professional look me over to make sure I hadn't broken something essential. Not that I mentioned my concerns aloud. This was merely uncanny, not actually hurting me in a tangible way. I could power through it.

The image of the chimera followed me over the next few days. In the quad on a brisk day while doing my chem homework, I caught the sunlight on a watery arc from the fountain that fell into sparkling, spark-spitting fangs. Stone gleamed in the shape of hips and forelimbs and a brush of brittle leaves swept into a curling mane. On my way to class, scattered sticks and smudges of dirt on the sidewalk shaped a beast crouching in my path. I skirted it. In the library, I thought I heard a low growl. I looked up and the chimera sitting in the paisley watched me with all six rose-blossom eyes. It stretched its paws and crept closer as through Gilman's yellow wallpaper.

It nagged at me like a nail lodged in my shoe. I couldn't remove it alone, metaphorically-speaking. I texted Jesse the bare-bones and he invited me over, we had a long talk, and he fucked me to sleep.

I woke up in a warm, happy haze. Creamy sunlight filtered through the blinds and onto our intertwined limbs. I closed my eyes and dwelled in the moment. Hot breath brushed my hair. I was immediately awake. Fat claws scraped down my spine and a low growl rumbled in my ear. Square-shaped goat eyes stared at me from the folds in the blankets and something bit my bare feet. I untangled myself from the bed. The chimera didn't leave. It moved from the bed to the tints of off-white and smears of poster colors on the wall, and from there to the spurs of shoelaces and the yawning teeth of a thousand dust particles in front of my nose.

I've seen it now, what we did. There's something deep, something primeval in the human psyche that we unlocked that one drunken night. I don't know when it first lodged itself in the human mind eons ago, but what we unleashed - the chimera - has been chasing me, coming closer. I can feel it lurking even now. I don't know what will happen if it gets me - maybe I'll just die, maybe it'll find a way out of my head - but I can't afford to let it out. I've written this down for someone to find so you all can know the truth.

Jesse, if you're the one to find this, I'm so sorry. I wish I could've been more open with you. I wish I had a more eloquent way to say goodbye.