John Doe

My wife had loved the colour yellow. Just adored it. She used to say she could find yellow in everything–in the sun that split the sky into a million other colours at dawn, in the washed-out light of crescent moons, even in the flaxen hair that topped my head, long turned peppery-grey with age. I had little to offer her when we married besides cheery moods and soft smiles, so as a surprise wedding gift I painted the front door of my house bright butter yellow–oh, how she smiled and laughed when I brought her home that first night! That was many years ago now, but I can still see her in my mind’s eye. I find I can no longer remember things the way I used to, just small things. Mundane things. With her, though, they never seemed mundane. I remember the way her shoulders moved when she aired out fresh linens early in the morning, I can remember her in the garden, her hair tied back with a white bandana, tending to sunflower seeds–yellow flowers to match our yellow door. I remember the way her teeth looked when she smiled, all straight and pearly and perfect. I remember all the things about her that she forgot about me. Dementia is an ugly beast, but we never let it bring us down; I delighted in retelling our stories to her, in making new memories by reliving old ones. Forty-eight years of marriage passed blissfully until age finally took her from me. Now, I am left only with a yellow door and a field of sunflowers. The only things left that mark her time, her place, in this world.
It was four loud knocks on that front door that roused me from the dregs of a late-afternoon nap one midsummer night. It was hot, the kind of stifling heat that even a breeze can’t alleviate. Dusk had fallen, the evening star twinkling bright through the kitchen curtains, a hot, hot night that threatened to choke me when I opened the door. On the porch stood a couple, young, bedraggled, dressed in rags that betrayed too-thin frames on both of them. Naturally, I invited them inside for dinner–a remnant of an old habit of picking up broken things to fix them, bringing home strays to show them what love is. How my parents had rued me for such a drive in my early days. But I was excited to have company for a meal. It had been so very long.
Under the dirt and grim, they could not have been older than their late 20’s. Bright blue eyes shone out of the woman’s gaunt face, analyzing me from underneath shaggy black hair. The man’s hair too was black. but his eyes were so dark a brown they glittered a similar colour. I could see my reflection in them, clear as day. Looking at them made something click inside me, something protective, something attached, as if they automatically assumed the representation of a future that could have been for me, but never was; as if in their faces I could recognize the faces of the children my wife and I never managed to have. In that moment I wanted to offer them everything they so clearly needed, and then everything they wanted, and it both delighted and terrified me, because they were really just strangers, and what can strangers be to an old man living alone in a field full of sunflowers, really? Dangerous, is the answer to that question, but I lended them my trust the moment I laid eyes on them. I suppose it was pity.
While I cooked, I tried to speak with them, ask them questions, but they were so withdrawn from me that I wondered what kinds of terrible things had forced them into nomadic living. Names they would not give, and when I asked if they were hungry (a silly question, I know, but you know how it is sometimes trying to make conversation), the woman only smiled wanly at me. The man simply stared, as if he couldn’t hear me. They were strange, queer folk from the start, staying so quiet while they sat with perfect posture at my kitchen table while I bustled around them, busy as a bumblebee with dinner. Very strange, very queer, to think they would receive my hospitality like that, now that I look back on it. I remember that they both sat with their hands folded on their laps, their gazes never leaving me. Now, it is unnerving, but at the time I only remember feeling somewhat awkward under their stares, failing so miserably to make conversation. I must have appeared such a foolish old man to them, although it hardly matters now.
I served them a meal I remember having been one of the wife’s favourites, but for the life of me now I cannot recall what it was. I just know that they never touched it. They sat across my table from me and never so much as looked at the food I had served them. They just stared, silently, at me, watching every bite I took. I think I only managed half my meal before I couldn’t do it anymore, I was so self-conscious, so I packed everything up into my wife’s Tupperwares and stored them in the fridge for later. I was never keen on leftovers, but she had hated to waste food. They watched me do this with some interest, but never moved. I could feel the weight of their scrutiny, and I wished they would leave then, but I could see even in the corner of my eye that they stayed perfectly still. I felt rather than heard myself speak.
“I usually turn the television on after dinner. I…I hope that’s alright by you.”
They made no response. It felt like it took years for the television to turn on. The screen came to life in slow motion, turning from black to gray to unearthly blue. It gave me time to feel every pinprick of those two unmoving stares along my spine. Everything felt dreamlike around me–the shining of the stars outside, the movement of the curtains in the hot, heavy air around the open windows, the low buzzing of the lightbulbs humming in the kitchen behind me–until the television snapped me out of my reverie with it’s harsh, cacophonous voices. As usual, it was the news programme.
“…under no circumstances should you answer the door tonight,” the anchor was saying, “they are not what they seem.”
My eyes were fixated on the screen, on the anchor’s face. He always does the evening news, that chap, but I can’t remember his name. He’s young, but that night his face was full of worry lines, and I suddenly had the impression he was much older than he had always looked onscreen.
“Whatever you do,” he cautioned me, “don’t let them inside.”
I looked away the, catching my own reflection in the glass of the window. Outside, sunflowers danced in the dark, and little spherical lights my wife has wound around the porch railing glowed yellow. I looked comical superimposed on that quiet scene, television remote clutched in calloused, blue-veined hands and a checked shirt tucked tightly into my trousers. I was floating there, watching the sunflowers wave in and out and in and out of my transparent chest. And then, behind me, I could see my guests, standing now, still staring, their mouths both gaping open. The reflection made it look like their mouths kept growing longer, almost to an inhuman size, like the way snakes unhinge their jaws to eat bird’s eggs.
I turned, slowly, my stomach knotting itself over and over again so tightly I could feel it making its way up into my throat. I thought then it might choke me.
They were already upon me when I faced them, moving with deadly silence. My face was mere inches from hers, her eye sockets all empty and black and hollow, her mouth a cavernous one lined with tiny clear teeth shaped like ice cream cones. The only noise she made was a quiet hissing, constant, as if she were taking one long inhale. I thought she might scream, but she just kept hissing. I couldn’t make a sound, I couldn’t even scream, and I felt my jaw go slack as my shoulders tensed and the remote fell from my hands to the floor.
She put a grimy hand on my face, thumb on my chin and fingers on my temple. Her mouth met my other temple, sinking tiny sharp points into my cranium. I felt the blood trickle sticky down my face, blurring in my eyes, as she pulled something smoothe out of my head. It felt like she was unfolding all the gyri of my brain and sucking them out of the hole in my head. I know all about the brain, you know, from when my wife was sick. Her mouth felt wet, and I could only think that it was my grey matter dripping down her chin and onto my carpet. The pain was unbearable. Stars exploded behind my eyes, excruciating bright light that dizzied me, and after that I could only see blackness. I would have collapsed if she hadn’t been holding me up. How she had so much strength in one arm, I will never know. She was so small, so slight…so fragile a thing.
I did lose consciousness. The shock, it must have been. I woke up with my face in the carpet, breathing in my own coagulating blood. I can’t remember what colour the carpet used to be, but it was rusty when I woke up. Everything I looked at bent around me as if I was looking at it all through the bottom of a bottle–all shaky and almost circular. I was so dazed, I couldn’t remember my name or where I was or how old I am–all things I used to ask my wife every morning when she woke up. I was afraid. I thought I was losing myself like she did. I could see the front door open, could see the little yellow lights paving the way down the stairs to the road, and I moved towards that, the yellow, crawling, until I was outside. I had to use the stairs and the railing to stand up. After that, I lost time. It was pitch black and I walked out into the sunflowers. I didn’t know what time it was. I still don’t know where I was trying to go. I was just…going. And then I was on the highway, walking, I don’t know how long I walked for, but I didn’t think of a single thing. It was as if I didn’t have a thing left in this head of mine.
You know, they call them “hospitals,” but there’s not much hospitable about them. I understand now. You keep us all here like animals, locked up with no freedom to do anything. You’re not helping us, you’re studying us. You’re trying to understand them. Those things that came for us and ate us and left us like this. Hollow shells. You make me tell you this story every godforsaken day and you never think about what it does to me, because it’s the only thing I remember anymore and it’s the only thing you care to know about. You never even tell me who I am. I’ll bet you don’t even know. I’m just another nameless face in this crowd to you. You treat us like your lab rats, damn you! Let me put your experiment to rest; I’ll tell you what I know to be true. Those things were here to hunt us, and they will come back for you. You people who remember them and remember me and remember what it’s like to feel sunshine on your face and hear your loved one’s voices and have hopes and dreams for the future. And then the next batch of up and comers will lock you up like me and you’ll know what it’s like to be treated like refuse. You won’t even let me sleep, you’re so afraid of losing the rest of me. You think I’ll let the rest of myself slip away and I’ll lose my value to you. Well, I’ll tell you what: maybe it’s not such a bad idea. So maybe I will let myself go.
Maybe this is the night where I say goodbye, and remember that I said it in the morning.

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