For as long as he could remember, Eric saw Faces.
He saw them in shadows, mostly. The shadow of the moon peered down at him with black eyes against a pale Face. Distorted shadowy Faces molded into the trunks of trees watched him pass by, back when he used to take evening hikes through the park. Menacing clouds swirled together and formed into Faces, and the shadows on those clouds had Faces, too.
Sometimes he would see Faces in fog built up on the window of his car, watching him silently as he drove to work in the morning. When he went camping with his friends, the twisting flames of orange and white that lapped at the pit of the campfire would flash Face after Face. He saw Faces in puddles of water and piles of leaves and patterns of frost. He saw Faces in smoke rising from factories, and stains on the rug, and the folds of clothing. They watched in silence, his own personal gargoyles, demons or protectors or neither or both.
Every so often he would tell someone about them, maybe a close friend or family member. He would point out a Face, and they would look at it and shrug, or shake their heads, unable to see what he saw. They would say he was trying too hard to see what wasn’t there, and even if it was there it couldn’t hurt him, so it didn’t matter anyway. Eric wasn’t so sure. He knew it was irrational to be scared of them–after all, he’d been seeing them for years, and they had yet to do anything more than give him nightmares from time to time, horrible dreams where Faces would swallow him whole if he got too close. He kept his distance, but he learned to ignore them and tried to have a normal life.
The first normal thing he did was fall in love with a girl named Claire, a skinny blonde with freckled cheeks and hair shorter than his. They dated for months, but Eric decided not to tell her about the things he saw. She wouldn’t understand–they never did. It was always “just your imagination playing tricks on you, Eric,” and he didn’t need to be told so again.
At a family dinner for Christmas, Eric’s brother made a joke about the Faces in front of Claire, and Eric had no choice but to explain. She didn’t laugh or tell him he had a wild imagination. She seemed to understand, somehow, and that made Eric love her more.
That night, after they left Eric’s parents’ house, Claire told him she saw Faces, too. Horrible, twisted shadows with pitch black eyes and gaping mouths, hiding in the clouds and the moon and the trees and in fire and water and snow and fog. She spent her whole life being afraid of them, and for once Eric found himself saying that they were nothing to fear, that they couldn’t hurt anyone, even though he never believed it himself.
As they held hands and walked through the park, Claire pointed to a tree and asked him if he saw it. He looked, and the Face looked back. It had two warped black eyes, a single, elongated nostril, and a grinning mouth of darkness lined with thin wisps of light that looked like teeth.
“I see it,” he said, looking away.
“What if they’re right?” said Claire. “Everyone who says the Faces aren’t real. Maybe they’re right. Maybe what we’re looking at isn’t real.”
“If we both see it, it has to be real.”
Claire looked in his eyes and pursed her lips. She let go of his hand and began walking towards the Face in the tree.
“Don’t,” said Eric. “Don’t go.”
“Come with me, Eric. It can’t hurt us. We have to know for sure.”
He tried to follow, but he legs only carried him a few steps before locking up. He had been afraid of the Faces his whole life–he didn’t want to be swallowed whole, like in his dreams. He called to Claire, but she kept walking until she was face to Face with the shadow in the tree. Eric was sweating, shaking. He tried to speak, but the words died at his lips.
Claire had her back to him, blocking his view of the Face, but he could see her hand reach up and touch the tree. A sharp squall whistled through the park, noisily blowing through the leaves and branches of the surrounding trees. Claire stood still, her hand to the bark, as shadows twisted and writhed all around her, distorting her features until her entire form was cloaked in darkness.
“Claire!” Eric cried. The wind stopped and there was silence, but the shadow remained, engulfing Claire, making her disappear. Eric began to call for her again, when he saw her step out of the darkness. First her legs appeared, the dim moonlight illuminating the blue of her jeans, then the shadowy blanket that covered her was gradually pulled away, inch by inch, until only her head remained obscured by darkness.
When she stepped out of the trees, mere feet away from Eric, the light of the park lamp washed over her and most of the shadow left her face. Most, but not all. She did not look like Claire any more.
There was a Face where her face used to be.
Today’s three prompt categories were, “Spooky faces,” “Shadows,” and, “Christmas dinner.”
Seeing faces in mundane patterns. Pareidolia. Maybe there’s a reason our brains automatically do it.
Have a good sleep, Reader.