The Vanity Trap

by Dean Moses

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Photo by Dean Moses.

 

“The streets are filled with them. I can’t even look at their faces anymore, it causes me too much pain,” Alice Chambers—the patient—says.

Two women sit adjacent to one another in a drafty room. Wind can be heard gently hissing through chinks in the window pane. The faint sounds of passing motorists mingle with the squall.

“I can fix the pain,” Dr. Safe says. “That’s why I’m here. You only need to say the word.”

“That’s my dream, but other doctors say it’s just not possible.”

“I am not other doctors, Alice. Come to think of it, how are your dreams?” Dr. Safe asks.

“That’s when he comes to me… in my dreams.”

Dr. Safe shuffles in her seat. The squeaking leather reveals shades of a disagreeable demeaner permeating her aura. “Go on, Alice,” the doctor says, excusing the interruption.

Alice regards the physician and her effects with disdain, everything from the expressionist art hanging on the office walls to the doctor’s lavish black skirt, glossy leather heels, and regal demeanor. Alice silently wonders why she comes here every week. The answer arrives as swiftly as she asks it: dependence.

Dr. Safe’s restless thumb finds the end of her pen and begins to click it, repeatedly. Another reveal, this time peppered with flashes of impatience. “Please, continue.”

There is awkward silence. The two women regard each other, neither willing to face the elephant in the room, the large pink metaphorical beast currently stomping about the office bellowing brash trumpet blows. Both doctor and patient recognize they don’t like one another—and perceive that each party knows this—yet they also concede to a sad truth: they need each other—a parasitic relationship more than a mutually beneficial one. Alice sits in silence wondering who the parasite is between them.

“He comes to me in my dreams and—”

“Is it an erotic dream?” Dr. Safe interrupts.

A motorcycle thunders down a street somewhere in the distance, permitting Alice’s annoyance to subside before giving her answer.

“No… In my dream, I am here… in your waiting room.”

****

Alice Chambers sits in Dr. Safe’s waiting area. The office’s secretary—a stocky woman named Maggie—is not behind her desk, but she can be heard. Maggie is a patient now, waiting alongside Alice. She is breathing abnormally, hands tremble, stomach protruding in rapid jolts. The chair on which she is slumped shakes. The steel legs sound akin to chattering teeth as they dance rhythmically on the wood flooring. Alice pretends not to notice her, yet the room’s potted plants and abstract artwork can’t keep her from peering at the overweight secretary through her peripheral vision. She wonders if Maggie is ill or perhaps simply nervous. She considers offering reassurance but decides against it, for such social interactions seem idiosyncratic, even in dreams.

“I. Am. Dead,” Maggie pants. Red, bulging eyes lock onto Alice.

Time goes by in an uneventful haze. She watches through the glass door while snow gently layers the outside world. The wind thrusts the flakes to and fro in arctic flurries. Something about the growing blizzard is bewitching, the unbridled pale vista momentarily wrenches Alice’s troubles from the forefront of her mind, allowing for a respite from anxiety—but only briefly. He comes into sight, jacket puffed by the cold air, long, dirty hair twisting and flapping by winter’s unseen hands. His face—oh God his face—is concealed by a ski mask, on which a skull is imprinted—the kind bank robbers wear on television shows and movies—leaving only green eyes visible in the whiteness. This balaclava resembles flesh, as though it is an extra sheet of skin hanging from his face. He stands, amidst snowflake and slush, gawking through the glass with those gleaming eyes.

Alice shivers, she can almost feel the frost chilling her bones. The man gradually lifts his arm and points at the cloth of skin obscuring his face. Unnerved, she turns away to see Maggie gone from her seat, but the chair is not empty. The man from outside is now sitting in the secretary’s place, his ski mask removed. A torrent of horror beams from him—it. No skin, no blood: only those green eyes shining as bright as fresh kindling in bare bone—a skull void of life’s light. Its teeth chatters from receded gums, the same sound as Maggie’s chair. It’s gloved hand points to its rattling face once more. Alice does not cry out, she just slumps off her seat and into a ball—petrified. The glass door swings open and the snow and the cold and the green-eyed skull envelope her.

***

“That’s where the dream ends,” Alice says pensively, hoping for another motorcycle to steal the conversation away.

“This… nightmare merely seems to be the projections of an anxious subconscious—bear in mind I’m not a phycologist,” Dr. Safe replies.

Silence.

“So. Are you finally ready for this procedure? Deep down it appears that you are, judging from this dream. Remember, I can take the pain away.”

Alice reflects on her dream once more. The harrowing images she described weighs on her like an inconceivably heavy knapsack filled with cinder blocks, which she seems to refill each day. However, her insecurities are just that much heavier. Yes, this whole thing is experimental, but it can be done and she can empty her knapsack, once and for all.

“Yes. I am ready.”

 

18 hours later

Alice rides in the back of a cab. The vehicle smells of sweat and tobacco, so she opens the nearest window. The air is sharp and nips at her cheeks, and stings her lungs slightly as she inhales. The city flashes by in a miasma of depressing greys and an assembly line of business suits. Perfect blondes keep stride with stunning redheads, briefcases swinging leisurely by their sides. Alice believes the concrete wilderness has distorted her view of the world, yet inherently she recognizes that she has become jaded due to her own imperfections. Everybody else is just so beautiful, how is she supposed to compete? She knows how… after last week.

 

Six Days Earlier

Strobe lights pulsate around the hall, huge multicolored spotlights shimmy on the timber frames and fade as they pass over the encompassing skylight. Dance music blares from wall-mounted speakers, the only problem: nobody dances. Alice sits at a white-clothed table on which an electronic candle burns in the foggy hall, its red bulb twinkling in and out. Clustered among thirty other identical tables—all with other women slouching over, resting at, and perching beside them—Alice waits for the next alarm. The last guy had bypassed her table, some nonsense about having to leave early due to work the next morning, yet she had seen him leaving with a woman—work on her more like, Alice thinks to herself. She taps her newly polished fingernails on the tablecloth, watching all the couples chatting, some more than others.

Finally, the bell rings—a strident wail that cuts out the music. A static voice sprouts from the speakers: “That’s right my budding lovers, it’s time to switch tables. And don’t forget, if you fall for the lady across the table, shut off her candle! That way she knows you are in L-O-V-E—love.” The voice fizzles out and the dance music resumes.

Alice does not much like the candle gimmick—men always get their choice of women, like we’re fruit on a tree—but this is the biggest dating service around, and bigger equates to more options, plus she has become desperate. The chair on the other side of the table slides backward. A young man is now sitting opposite, grinning widely. An immediate flutter shoots through her stomach, the kind she would have as a pre-teen daydreaming about the boys in The Beatles.

“’ello, love,’” he says, an English accent instantly detectable, it gets better. “Name’s Geoffrey.”

“…I’m Alice. Sorry, this whole thing is just—I don’t know—I’ve just never done this before.”

Geoffrey glances over his shoulder, taking in the ambience. He turns back, rolling his eyes. “Ya know, I don’t even know what all this toss is about. I just came in here lookin’ for a pint.”

Alice laughs. “That’s a good excuse. But, I think she may say otherwise.” Alice nods two tables down. A beautiful blonde is staring at Geoffrey through dense eyeshadow, her index finger twirling around a lock of fair hair, ignoring the man she’s supposed to be talking with.

“Yeah,” he sighs, “she’s hot as you like… but dumb as a sack of spuds.”

Alice laughs again, this time harder. She begins to realize that he may not just be a pretty face, he also has charm, and she likes that, a lot. In what feels like mere minutes, the bell rings once more, signaling their time together had come to an end. Geoffrey leans over the table and flips a switch, dousing the candle. After rising from his seat, he winks. “See you around, love.”

Alice waits for the next guy, but no one comes.

***

The music had died over ten minutes ago, this Alice considers with anxiety in her heart as she shoves through the mass of couples, hoping handsome, English, Geoffrey has not left yet. This sea of lustful eyes smells of perspiration and alcohol and cheap perfume. The sea rears up into a wave that trickles through double doors and pours onto the sunset-draped sidewalk outside. Alice thrusts herself through the horde and waits—like she had for most of the night—beside the doors, eager to catch a glimpse of the man who turned off her candle. Unfamiliar faces bob through the smoky air, like ghostly orbs in a graveyard’s mist. They are all so ethereal, so beautiful. Does the world not have imperfections anymore? She wonders.

The crowd becomes thinner, losing its hefty figure into tattered trails. Straggling at the end of the line, Geoffrey glows with a smile, his eyes glassy with drunken hubris, his right arm dangling over the eyeshadowed blonde from two tables down. Alice marches and, in her mind, she yells, asking Geoffrey why, why he turned off her candle, why he said that other woman was ‘dumb as spuds’ if he was just going to leave with her all along? But, in reality, all she can muster is, “Bu—but—why?”

The blonde throws her head back and cackles with laugher. “Geoffrey, you didn’t tell me you had a pet dog.”

Geoffrey blushes. Alice remains silent, stunned by the whole affair.

“Sorry, love,” Geoffrey says, “I was just being nice. Odds are you were a stunner in your time, but you’re just too old for me.”

The pair brush by Alice, leaving her alone in the big hall as she begins to cry.

 

Now

The shuffling cab brings Alice out of the past, in its place her mind turns to last night’s dream, or lack thereof. For the first time in a long while the man in the skull mask did not come for her, thus reassuring her on yesterday’s decision. Only deep, dark empty space courted her through the night. Then she sees it, a flake fall: snow in the middle of summer. This marks Alice’s first time seeing snowfall since the man in the mask began invading those long nights.

“Crazy weather, madam.”

The driver is a mere silhouette against the encompassing, colorless outside. He sounds French. His accent makes her think of Geoffrey again. Alice has always wanted to visit Paris, but she never will.

“Sure is,” she replies.

***

Dr. Safe looks different dressed in a lime surgeon’s outfit. The air of manufactured propriety does not seem so dense around her in this state. She is flanked by three other people, each one dressed in similar green garb—their genders and ethnicity impossible to distinguish.

Alice—outfitted in nothing but an open-backed gown—steps toward them, the soles of her feet tingle atop the brisk floor. An IV-bag swings behind her on a poll.

“Right here.” The doctor gestures to a metallic slab carved in the form of a body. It reminds Alice of an old horror flick, during which a policeman outlined a corpse with a small piece of chalk. As she sits on the edge her toes dangle inches above the ground. She notices deep lines and varicose veins zigzagging about her feet.

“That will give it away,” she announces.

Dr. Safe lifts a white mask over her face before snapping on a pair of blue gloves. “We will take care of everything, don’t you worry.”

Alice reclines, then the surgeons cluster around her with needles and glinting scalpels and clamps and saws. The world begins to darken for Alice, comparable to someone gently dimming the lights.

“You are going through the looking glass, Alice,” Dr. Safe says, her voice distorted, “see you on the other side.”

“Make me beau…”

***

Dr. Safe’s waiting area is empty. The light snowfall outside has turned into an uncontrolled blizzard—a blinding light. Alice knows what comes next. She waits for him—it. After a few minutes it arrives, emerging from the storm like an actor pushing onto a stage through velvet curtains. Thankfully the mask is concealing the revulsion beneath, but Alice knows it’s still there, lurking.

“Why do you care so much about what they think of you?” The man in the skull mask asks, taking a seat beside her. It’s the first time she hears its voice, it’s softer than she had imagined. The question stuns and shocks, it was one she has never considered, still, she finds the answer.

“Because when they look at me, they don’t see me… how I was. They see someone else, a middle-aged woman, not the beautiful, fun-loving girl inside.”

The skull mask reflects on this response, its eyes shining above the guise. It brushes snow from its shoulders. “If you live your life for others, you will pay the price. I tried to warn you, night after night—beauty is only skin deep.” The mask falls away, unveiling a man, the most handsome she had ever seen: carved jawline, pronounced cheekbones, those beautiful, smoldering eyes glinting in the white light. It—he leaves his seat and wanders into the snow.

“Wait!” she cries. “I never gave you a chance.”

***

The world remerges, like teardrops taking shape. The room is bright. The slab beneath Alice is now a bed, as soft and cushioned as she has ever felt. The IV-bag is almost empty. Relief washes over her; the operation is over.

“Remarkable technology,” Dr. Safe’s voice seems to bounce around the room. “There will be no bruising and no pain. You can start wearing your new face immediately. You have just made history, Alice.”

The bed vibrates and begins to rise, until Alice comes face to face with Dr. Safe. The smug, self-satisfied demeaner has returned to the doctor’s expression. Clearly, she is proud of her latest masterpiece.

“Did you make me beautiful?”

“Why don’t you see for yourself.” The tone is completely self-congratulatory.

Dr. Safe reaches for a hand mirror, and for the first time Alice can feel the elephant in the room plodding away, for she no longer hates Dr. Safe—she understands that she was the parasite all along, after all.

The fluorescence flares off the hand mirror. The ceiling is visible in the clouded glass and then Alice’s silver hair and then… her face. Her skull is almost visible through a reedy film of skin. Robust lips jut—no hang from the skeletal features, while the cheeks are tumulus masses on an otherwise gaunt surface. She attempts to grimace. However, the skin is unnaturally taut. She feels her muscles fighting against the science that stretched her flesh like a canvas. She wrestles with the image in the mirror, desperately vying for that smile. Unfortunately, like dry glue it refuses to yield. The only human emotion she can muster is that of her eyes, fliting back and forth in dismay, tears diming their glow. The pain—emotional—is instantaneous, a flood of terror and regret. She hollers in agony: a creature caught in its own human trap of vanity.

“You said there would be no pain, you said you would fix it. You said no pain! I am meant to be beau—”

The mirror plummets. Glass showers the room. Dr. Safe lurches backward: “But… you are.”

 

One week later

Geoffrey leans back on a concrete wall—what isn’t concrete here?—cigarette wilting in a forefinger, index finger vice grip. Last week’s freak snowstorm has receded in the city’s mind, women are back on the streets in all their glory: booty shorts, crop tops, miniskirts, tank tops, low cut dresses—a feast for the eyes. This is Geoffrey’s favorite spot from which to smoke and watch his prey. He knows he could seduce any one of them, all he has to do is play up his Englishness and steal their gaze with one of his tried and tested smiles. Maybe he could implement that crazy blizzard into a pickup line, something like: Glad to see the sun back out, and to see your backside in the sun. Geoffrey giggles at the thought, he wouldn’t be so careless, though. He likes to think he could get any woman with ease, yet he realizes he must put some effort into his game. It’s funny really. Back in England he was nothing to the ladies, humorous that pasty skin and an accent can make all the difference across the pond.

Scanning the scantily dressed women, comparable to an all-you-can-eat buffet, he deliberates on the kind of meat in which to sink his teeth. He takes a long, hard puff on his cigarette. A stream of smoke is expunged from his nostrils as he sees her—the one. She’s not like the others—exhibiting her wears to the world—she is shrouded in a sweater despite the sweltering heat, and although a hood conceals her hair, her pale beauty shines from beneath. If the goodies are hidden in this temperature, they must be goodies worth hiding. Geoffrey stomps out his cigarette, feeling it crumble, he makes his move.

Cars zoom along the road, briefly robbing that divine beauty from view in roaring, whaling blurs while Geoffrey shadows her from the opposite side of the street. She trudges through the radiant cityscape with her head down, comparable to if snow still layered the cracked concrete and crystalline glass—concrete and glass, Geoffrey thinks, concrete and glass, that’s all this place is: a stone zoo filled with herds of bitches grazing on unkept street corners in the watchful gaze of overweight businessmen from their twinkling towers. Half the women on the streets are dressed in form-fitting pants suits, meaning half those fat men in glass towers are probably women, but that does not matter to Geoffrey, he has a preconceived notion of this city and he is too old to change it now. There is a gap in the traffic—a fleeting space that reminds him of an old video game in which a frog dodges traffic—Geoffrey takes this opportunity without bothering to look both ways.

“A little hot for those threads, love,” he says, stepping in front of his target. Her skin is spotless and smooth, a flawless visage that leaves him unable to discern her age. He begins to worry she may not be legal.

“She’s a little outta your league, fella,” an eagle-eyed passerby breathes faintly into his ear with an aroma of chewed mint before continuing on his way.

Geoffrey shrugs off the interruption, flashing that winning smile. “How ‘bout I buy you—“

“Geoffrey? I can’t believe it! My first time outside in weeks and I ran into—sorry I am babbling, It’s great to see you. ”

She regards him in awe, but only with her eyes, for her skin remains unblemished by lines or creases.

“D-do I know you?” He husks out.

“Oh shit, sorry. It’s me, Alice—we met at that lame dating thingy… you turned off my candle.”

That old hag, he recalls. No bloody way. He scrutinizes her like a 10th grader looming over a fish prepared for dissection.

“I know I look a litt—a lot different, but I am trying to get it fixed. That’s where I am heading now.”

He detects lip movement, yet hears no sound, save for the traffic whizzing by. Tears are running down her flawless cheeks now, seeping over her high arches.

“I know… I’m disgusting. I can’t even look in the mirror. What it must be like for you—someone who knew me,” she says whipping her face with her sleeve.

Geoffrey gawks, mouth slack, for he cannot comprehend what is happening. He spoke with the hag at that stupid dating service—an event he only attended for the low self-esteem chicks—today the hag is no longer a hag. She’s… perfect. It can’t be, surely it must be a trick, being played on him by one of the hag’s hot friends, a revenge trip. He is not going to be taken for a ride, he will take them for a ride, scare them right good and proper. Before the hag’s friend can spurt anymore lies, he clutches the bitch’s hood, jerking it from her face and brandishing a pocket knife with the other. Grey, brittle hair flutters into sight and gleams in the sunlight—a mop of ash identical to that hag’s unruly mane. Her face is of an angelic twenty-year-old but that all ends at the hairline.

“What the fuck are you?” Geoffrey mouths, dropping the knife.

Horror, dismay, melancholy—a variety of emotions burning from the hag—former hag—all conveyed through her—its eyes. Here come the tears again, glistening in heavy globs.

“This is mental—fucking mental.”

He turns and flees, as though he had seen the most terrifying thing on the planet. Geoffrey would never smoke in his pickup spot again, he would never watch the women walking by, in fact, he never went back there again.

***

Dr. Safe bends over her desk shuffling paperwork into a file like cards into a deck. The evening casts its golden hue upon the surgeon, her shadow looming long and reedy over the office. The award-winning hands perform their task swiftly and efficiently. With the paperwork funneled into a hefty stack, Dr. Safe crosses the carpet on bare feet and sits in her chair. She reaches for her name-brand high heels lying   beside her seat when the office door bursts open, dislodging the bottom hinge slightly.

Alice’s eyes are red and puffy, reconstructed nostrils flaring, mouth sucking air in substantial gulps. Her sweater is drooping from her chest with water weight—sweat.

“You ran all the way here?” Dr. Safe says, hand tightening around the heel.

“I. had. To. See. You.” The words are horse and enfolded in desperate gasps for air.

“Didn’t Maggie tell you? It’s no longer business hours. Make an appointment and—”

“I need you to fix my face, bitch. I need you to fix it NOW!”

Dr. Safe takes a deep, controlled breath and lifts her heel: “Maggie, can you please make Alice an appointment for tomorrow—”

“SHUT IT, BITCH. Fix my face or I will fix yours.” A blood-covered hand emerges from beneath the sweater, the sunlight flashes off the knife it holds, including a splattering of red globs around the blade.

Dr. Safe’s heart sinks, she can feel it falling and falling and falling and—“Where… where’s Maggie, Alice?” But she already knows the answer, she can feel it rising from her skin as gooseflesh: Maggie is dead.

Alice ignores the questions and steps across the carpet, her shadow swallowing the doctor whole.

“I have told you time and time again, Alice: I did fix your face.”

Alice pounces. Dr. Safe hurls the heel. It careens through the air—narrowly missing Alice—and splinters the window. A high-heel shaped orifice yawns into the evening, and the rush hour traffic and the gentle breeze and a steady beam of light floods into the room as the two women fall to the carpet wrestling for control of the knife Geoffrey had dropped just under an hour earlier. Alice is older but stronger, she quickly gains the advantage, climbing atop Dr. Safe’s stomach. The doctor wants to wail and say get off me, get off, yet only harsh breaths emerge. Alice burrows the knife into the soft flesh of the doctor’s belly. Despite the searing pain, Dr. Safe’s mathematical and medically educated mind never stops whirling, she focuses her left hand on the object Alice has paid no addition to—the other heel. Her fingers find the smooth leather.

“I am going to fix you just like you fixed my f—”

A weighty WHACK fills the room before being sucked out the gash in the window. Alice drops to the floor moaning and groaning, her body splayed in a crumbled heap. “Ma face. Ma face,” she murmurs.

Dr. Safe wrenches the knife from her gut. A steady red stream flows through her fingers. “I will fix your face.”

The doctor gets to work on an afterhours surgery, undoing all the work she had done. First, she removes the nose, fully, leaving only a small hollow indent from which blood pours. Next, she cuts the cheeks, slicing sleek layers like a Thanksgiving ham. It’s all a crimson daze to Alice. She drifts in and out of consciousness, and there, by the crack in the window, the man in the skull mask shakes his head. She reaches out to him, begging for aid.

“Why do you care so much about what they think,” he says, as the knife takes an eye.

 

Two weeks later

Alice sits in a wheelchair griping the metal hand rests, her vision an endless black landscape.

“Okay, Alice. Let’s take a look. Remember, the surgeons did their best,” the nurse explains.

The bandages are carefully peeled back. Gradually her reflection becomes visible. No eyelids, no nose or cheeks, not even her scalp could be saved. A one-eyed, living skeleton inhales sharply at its appearance. The nurse winces at the sight.

“At last… I am beautiful.”

 

 

Dean Moses is an author, photographer, and freelance journalist. He authored “A Stalled Ox” from 1888 in 2015 and contributed to the “Cost Of Paper: Volume Four” with his short story “Not In Service” in 2017. He also contributed three short stories to “BONED Every Which Way 2016: A Collection of Skeletal Literature,” published by Spaceboy Books. His writing and photography has appeared in numerous newspapers, including the New York Amsterdam News, Spring Creek Sun, Ridgewood Times, and Queens Courier. He began his career by transcribing for the New York Times’ Lens Blog. Dean was born in England in February of 1991. At the age of nineteen he moved to New York City, where he hoped to fulfill two of his longtime dreams: Marry the love of his life and become an author. Dean currently resides in Manhattan with his wife and four cats.

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