Somewhere in a red brick-walled apartment building four guys are playing Monopoly. There are supposed to be five guys but Seb, realizing he knows none of their names, opted out, and is standing by the window, which isn’t open but tricks his brain into thinking the air in the apartment is fresher with the cold night in view, that there’s less of that sour-smokiness (no one’s got anything, but it’s the smell of too many people being too social too loudly, and manifests anyways). Seb studies the guys playing. All four have skinny fingers and all four have weird, rubbery faces in the light. All four of them have names but Seb isn’t sure what names and he doesn’t want to guess and call one guy the wrong thing and be all weird. He tries to calculate the distance back to the dorm from here. He rubs his eyes. One of the guys swipes a five hundred, thinking no one’s looking. Seb finds himself badly missing people who don’t really exist – the friends he told his parents about last Sunday over the phone, the rugby-player roommate who didn’t get quarantined and never came back.
“I think I’m gonna go.”
This is an unbelievably stupid thing to say. The guys all turn to Seb at once and blink. Seb is thinking of an eight-eyed four-headed beast guarding the gates to some off-brand Hell.
“Where, man? John’s your ride.”
One head, who must be John, burps loudly. Seb smells it from here.
“I meant, like, the bathroom. Where is that?”
A finger with the tiny thimble barely hanging on points toward a black door. An abstract orange painting smolders on the wall beside it. Should Seb nod? Say thanks, bro? But they’ve already gone back to Monopoly. Maybe the air smells nicer in the bathroom. They don’t notice him as he opens the door, disappears inside.
It was nice and normal in there until Seb decided to wash his face. The city moon, a rotten orange glowing from within, peeked over the toilet through a grimy window. It was dark and smelled like wet dirt—maybe that was the mold, black and creeping, on the curtains in the shower. It was also very quiet, with no one looking at him, so right up until he decided to wash his face, Seb was offered some respite. The lightswitch is a rope dangling from the ceiling like princess hair, but it’s better in the dark. No one had texted Seb or even snapped him and his phone’s blue light made his eyes hurt and he was flushed with embarrassment and shame at everything he is – so of course he’d decide to wash his face, hoping it’d make him feel different.
The handprint wasn’t there when Seb bent down. Now it’s splayed out in the place his face should be in the mirror. It glows. It has stubby fingers. Dripping, Seb tries to wipe it away. It doesn’t move at all. It’s on the other side of the mirror.
At some point the back of Seb’s head touched the wall adjacent to the mirror. The hand isn’t moving. Seb hasn’t breathed in several hours, is how it feels. The hand is just hovering there. Where is the bloody-faced woman with the knife? Where are the voices bubbling up from the sink? Outside, through several walls and over a million miles, John burps again.
There’s a quiet thumping from inside the mirror, in that other world where white hands stick to walls and it’s all a little blurrier. The hand squirms, once, twice, Seb ducks and tries not to miss his parents again. What is this? Who is this? Every horror movie Seb has ever seen, and even some he’s only seen trailers for when he was little and stayed up late to watch TV with Dad, is playing in his head at the same time. They all end this way, or no, they begin this way, the solitary, geeky victim, the blissful and ignorant next-up getting drunk just outside.
The hand is crashing into the wall now. The face of the woman who used to live here but died after, like, drowning her kids and dog in the bathtub is about to shape itself out of the shadows and bite off Seb’s hand at the wrist. God, the camera’s already zooming out. It’s so loud. Seb can’t curl himself any tighter. Just leave him alone, just let him be-
“Hey, Seb? Hey? You’re all good in there, right?”
The thumping in the mirror externalizes, then shifts forty-five degrees. John is knocking on the bathroom door. Seb unfolds himself, realizing only now how much he was cowering, wiping some water off his face. The hand is gone. He stares at his face in the mirror, unbelieving. It had just been there.
John opens the door. He’s holding a soda. His face is clearer than Seb remembers. “You’re okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.” He will never hear about this. Seb’s already folding up again, in a different way.
John gives him the soda. “Here. C’mon. Benny dropped out and we’re starting over. You wanna go back to the dorms, or you up to stay longer?”
The soda is warm but tastes pretty good. Seb sloshes it in his mouth as he looks around. The other three guys are talking about something; one laughs, in a way that makes Seb smile too. Benny, cradling the thimble piece, fumes on the edge of the couch. Maybe this isn’t so bad. Maybe Seb can find some people to really miss, who really exist. Something about Seb is opening up, and maybe the hand scared it out of him, but maybe this is just the way he was supposed to have been doing, thinking.
“I can play,” he says. The bathroom door closes behind him and John walks with him to the couch. The other guys nod. Benny is deep in an argument with his phone.
“Good to see you finally join us, huh?”
“Yeah.” Seb goes to sit down, and just before he does, he notices the stubby handprint pressed into the couch, fuzzy-pale and pronounced, as if to mark his spot.
Sam Bowden is a rising freshman at Kenyon College, where he also attended the Kenyon Review Young Writers workshop. He wants to double major in neuroscience and creative writing, but we'll see how that goes. A six-time novelist and a two-time decent novelist, he spends most of his time researching fictional slang, teaching beginning piano to elementary-age kids through his local fine arts center, or playing cello. He was recently honored as a Gold Medal Portfolio winner in the 2020 National Scholastic Writing Awards.
Ananya is an 18 year old artist and animator. She was born in India and moved to Chicago at 4 years old, and is now an animation student at SCAD. She might be a Youngarts finalist but she is also a fierce competitor on the nap battlefield.