By Richard Webb
1st Place Winner for Teleport’s 2019 Fantasy Contest
I never liked my nose. Hate it, actually. It’s big and wonky. I always thought I was cursed with plainness all round, in fact. I have thinning hair, I’m on the short side, dumpy too, nothing to look at, but I particularly hate my nose. I stare at it in the mirror as if staring down a nemesis. The hours I spend imagining it was different, wishing I could change it…
… and then gradually, so, so slowly, I do.
I don’t notice at first. I’m in a hurry, getting ready for another evening of abject failure (during which I know no woman will so much as even look at me). I glance at my reflection. Barely noticeable but my nose is just a little straighter. I stop, check the mirror. Perhaps it is a little smaller too. No! I’m just being hopeful, I think, fooling myself. I leave the house, annoyed: whatever else I may be, I’m not delusional.
As the night wears on I put it out of my mind, refuse to even look at myself in the mirror in the pub. Makes little difference—no-one else looks at me either. I put on a brave face (which is my usual mask). I get drunk, pretend I’m having fun. My friends are loud, lewd and full of laughter. I wonder if any of them have the same worries behind their leering grins. I go home alone, crash asleep on my bed, knowing my head and heart will hurt in the morning.
I awake with a start. My head explodes. I wither back onto the pillow until the pain subsides to a nagging but manageable throb. I find a glass of water by my bedside and take a few gulps. My mouth is dry and sour, my guts are churning and I’m pretty sure I smell rank. Why do our bodies betray us so?
I feel sick. I stagger upright, then forward and sideways at the same time towards the bathroom, heaving up a torrent of bitter and bile into the toilet. I wipe the bowl, shaking, wretched. Eventually I pull myself up. My eyes find the mirror. Never have I seen such an appalling, pathetic face looking back at me, begging for pity. Stupid, stupid face. I want to tear it off.
But my nose is a little smaller.
I try to shake myself out of my turgid torpor and look at it again. It is definitely smaller, straighter too—pretty normal-looking really. I haven’t imagined it. Yes, well, actually I have imagined it. Or wished for it, many times, over many years. Either way it is undeniable. After all, is there any harsher truth-teller than a mirror?
Have I been punched, is it broken? It doesn’t appear so, nor is it painful, though the thud in my head might be blanking out all other sensations. (If I am honest, I’m quite likely to be punched in the face—people have been close to doing so before). Booze never makes me the life and soul exactly, life and asshole perhaps. But anyway, my nose is not broken, in fact it is… perfect!
I grin. My teeth show crooked in the mirror. I stop grinning and stare at myself. At my mouth. Why do my lips have to be so thin, my teeth misaligned? I wish I could change it…
I picture something more pleasing: fuller, symmetrical, curved with a hint of a smile and a hint of playfulness too; full lips, a hint of a pout, behind which white teeth stand straight and neat, perfectly sized and placed. Hmm, like Brad Pitt’s teeth… maybe if I could imagine them…
I stare at my mouth in the mirror, all the while keeping that perfect picture in my mind. I go into a kind of trance, blocking out everything else. I rarely think this hard about anything. Eventually the buzz of the migraine inside my head swells to a roar so I have to stop, but I swear I feel a tingle in my lips.
Later that day, once my hangover erodes, I try again. I feel the sensation in my lips once more, so I keep going.
After a few days I think I can see change happening. As much to convince myself of my madness as anything, I search through old photos to compare against. There are not many and even fewer in which I actually smile—mostly I stare in resentment at the photographer—but eventually I find one. In it, I am laughing, caught unawares. I barely recognise myself.
I stare at it, holding it up to the mirror alongside the reflection of my face. I look from one to the other, back and forth. My eyes compare my mouth and nose in the photo to that in the mirror, reducing them to abstract shapes. I scarcely believe it at first (for who doesn’t want to believe their face is more pleasing than it really is?) But it is true—objectively so: the pictures are different, my face is now different. Somehow, I have wished it into being. The change is subtle, yet marked to me, knowing each contour of my own despised face as well as I do.
I wonder at the nature of this change: is it faith, or magic, or science? I have cast no spells that I am aware of, nor have I spoken any prayers. Have I opened some dormant part of my mind, or did God help me to do so? Perhaps I have become a mage or even a deity though I don’t feel either magical or godly. I’m too rationale to believe any of this but isn’t this how people of faith believe everything was created: matter ‘thought into being’ by the gods? And now, I can do it too—well, a little bit at least.
Evidence is required. I grab my phone and take a picture, brushing aside the weird realisation I have just taken my first ‘selfie.’ I create a file, upload the photo and set a password. This is for my eyes only. The file is called ‘ChrysalisOne.’
Traveling to work, I receive further proof. The sun is shining and everyone around me is shining too, in the twinkle of their eyes, the gloss of their hair or the sparkle of their teeth. Everyone looks good, glowing with inner confidence. I shuffle onto the bus, embarrassed to be amongst them—an intruder. I stand, holding the rail, squeezed too close to other bodies and lurching with the whims of the damned vehicle. (Buses are so bloody degrading).
A woman nearby—young and full of shine— looks at me. Properly looks at me, catching my eye. She doesn’t look away, at least not immediately. A wry smile crinkles the corner of her mouth and arches one of her eyebrows, just a hint. I know I haven’t imagined it. This is unprecedented! I think of little else all day and rush home that evening, to get back to the mirror, to my task. ‘Project ChrysalisOne’ has been green-lit.
I practice, finding ways of improving my concentration, such as locking onto an image of the desired change in my head. I stare without blinking at my reflection, projecting the next modification. It is just like exercise: the benefit is imperceptible at first, painful too, but progress comes. My mind aches with the effort of it the following day but I know I must work through this. Man up, no pain, no gain.
Over time, I get better, faster at effecting alteration, like building up a muscle or speeding up reflexes. Turns out you can improve how hard you think if you think hard enough about it.
I face-off against my own face. The sense of contest is important: I wrestle against myself. My reflection is my arena but also my prize. (My mouth is taking shape). The mirror becomes my friend or team-mate when it is working, my opponent when it is not. Ibruprofen becomes my regular post- workout masseur. I can manage several sessions each day if I manage the pain right.
I plan it all out. I draft a program of self-improvement; one thing at a time. Face first: nose—done; mouth—in progress; then jawline, then cheekbones, eyes, and skin. Maybe ears too, though mine are actually ok. (No-one really looks at ears, do they?)
The work is hard. Sometimes my mind fuzzes over, unable to hold the right image for long enough. I sit on the edge of the bath, searching images of famous, good-looking men, seeking the right reference material: this is essential research, (and not at all weird). I scan for shots of film stars, sports stars, pop stars… after all, they are rich, successful, desired. And it’s all in their looks, isn’t it?
It all takes months, but gradually I work my strange mind-magic. My face is reshaped, millimetre by millimetre, like I am a ‘claymation’ film animator studiously manipulating the pose of a clay model a fraction between each painstaking shot. After each day I upload a new selfie to ChrysalisOne. From one day to the next, there is no difference. But comparing back to a picture from, say, three weeks ago, the difference is noticeable—to my eye at least.
Over time, I overcome my complexion, fighting the detail of every tiny blemish. I conquer one patch of skin, sometimes within minutes, only for a new battle to break out somewhere else the next day. But I win in the end.
“What is your regime?” a woman at work asks me.
I frown, acting innocent. “Regime?”
“Yes, your skin; looks great,” she says. She shares a little awkward smile and runs a finger through her hair. “Is it a special skin crème you use? Or a change of diet?”
I lie, saying that I bought some or other tub of fashionable and expensive white goo, smiling inwardly when she scurries off to the pharmacist during lunchbreak. My ‘regime’ is simple: no more skin care, no more diets, no more wrinkles… it’s all in the mind.
Over a few more weeks I sort my hair out, for once and for all. The tangled mousy mop is gradually swapped out for thick black locks, with a healthy-looking gleam. The hair I always wanted; the hair I deserve.
Because I’m worth it.
I get a haircut. The cut is not perfect, (despite me presenting the barber with a photo of George Clooney), but after a week of intense focus, I make it so. With a little concentration each day, I can ensure it never loses style, never gets longer, and never needs another cut. No combing, no gel or products, just a little bit of ‘me time.’ A good hair day, every day, forever.
Perfection, once achievable, is intoxicating. I decide to remove the stubble from my chin. It takes about a week of careful concentration, up close to the mirror with magnifying glass in hand, killing off one hair at a time. Once that is done, I never need to shave again either. I’m saving a fortune on razorblades!
“Like your hair,” says the woman at work. She talks to me most days now. We have worked in the same office, two desks apart, for three years, with barely a word between us. A month ago she introduced herself to me as Sophie. “And the new colour really suits you.” In a few weeks she’ll have forgotten my hair was ever any other colour.
“Do you think I should change my hair colour?” She looks sheepish as she asks, again running her fingers through her locks as she looks at me.
“I like it as it is,” I reply. She tries not to smile too much and blushes a little, I notice.
After several months I look far better than ever before. I overhear people at work wondering in whispers whether I’ve ‘had work done.’ Some might think of it as cosmetic surgery but what I do is so much more than that. It is ‘thought surgery,’ and it is me waking up to my inner voice, not paying for someone with a scalpel to fashion a dream from my flesh. I have found the means of peeling back my outer husk. I will emerge from my cocoon reborn, shining and new, magically remade.
One night I spring awake, shaken by a nightmare. In it, I am a were-creature, a shape-shifter, transforming in slow-motion into something hideous and malcontent. The images unnerve me. Am I a monster of someone’s creation, now unbound?
I am jittery and try to put the nightmare from my mind by reaching for my phone beside the bed. I open ChrysalisOne and run the file of photos through an app which puts them into a slideshow. The pictures document my change, from loathed to loved. I shudder at the early shots, no longer recognising the person with the pleading eyes trying to avoid the lens. I prefer the later ones, looking coolly to camera—much more palatable. Watching the slideshow is like watching a horror movie with a happy ending and I sleep much better after that.
Nights out improve immeasurably. Women now look at me. All the time. I even take one home now and again. (And yes, if you must know, I did give myself an extra inch or two in a certain area, as a Christmas present to myself. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? Be honest now).
I rarely drink these days. Don’t feel the need to. One night at a bar, I am chatting to a couple of women when I notice this guy, alone, gulping down a whiskey, staring at me. He’s pissed off. I recognise that look. It’s the one I used to wear. I ignore him; it’s what he deserves. He leaves, huffing.
He is waiting for me outside. “Oi, pretty boy,” he says. “Think yer bloody it, don’t ya?” He is drunk, slurring and stumbling. “Think yer so special.” He belches and I think for a second he might vomit.
“Whatever,” is all I say in reply.
“Smug bastard. Betcha couldn’t fight a proper man like—” He staggers towards me, swinging his arm. He misses and snarls.
I know why he wants to punch me. He’s the old ‘me.’ Pathetic. I know that it is himself he really wants to punch. He gives me a shove. I shove back, harder. He’s so drunk, he topples. I walk off, unhurried, not looking back as he sobs on the pavement.
I think about it later, admitting that it could have been more serious, and thinking that perhaps I should get myself a bit more conditioned. Yes, I’m pretty well-honed these days, (thanks to staring at a photo of Hugh Jackman’s abs all summer whilst staring at my own), but that is of little use in a fight.
Should I try to make my jaw rock-hard or my fists as strong as iron? I wonder to myself how far I could take it with these, less natural self-improvements. This is just comic-book super-hero stuff though, isn’t it? But what if I could make myself more of a man than other men? What if I could achieve a new level of augmentation—shouldn’t I be looking beyond notions of just good-looking? Maybe I should be thinking bigger, something more high-performance—a ‘super-powered’ body, maybe? Faster, stronger—bigger perhaps. Or something else, something different? How far could my magic go? For now, I just hold these thoughts in the back of my super-powered mind.
In the meantime, I overhaul my bodywork, broaden my shoulders and put a little more beef on my biceps. Of course, I have to be bare-chested when I’m staring at the mirror which feels a little ridiculous at first, but it works. I appreciate the company of the guy looking back at me. He nods his approval.
I think I’d like to be a little taller as well. After all, I’m dark and handsome now, may as well get the full set. Major improvements such as these take longer though, as I have to visualise the bone and muscle under the skin in order to lengthen my back and limbs. (I even have to resort to looking at medical diagrams to help my mind focus). The toll is agony, but I bear it in private and the tramadol helps for a while, though I might need to think about something stronger in the long run.
While I’m looking at myself looking at the mirror, I get a little lost sometimes. Which one am I? Have I have stepped out of the mirror or has another man stepped out of me? The guy in the mirror (I think it is him) looks at me and smiles, shaking his head, letting me know I need to snap out of it.
Sophie invites me to sit with her in the work canteen sometimes but not always—she’s careful not to appear too keen in front of gossiping colleagues. She leans towards me and asks: “Have you been working out?”
“Yes,” I reply. In my head, not in a gym, but I don’t tell her that.
“Good for you.” She is quiet for a while, sipping a soda. “Maybe we could… I dunno, maybe you’d like to work out with me, y’know, sometime, if you’re not busy.”
“That would be… nice,” I say.
Nice. I rush home from work to spend more time looking at myself in the mirror, trying to wish all my planned-for changes into being all at once. It’s a hard-core workout, and I am pumped. Sometimes I wish so hard I even break sweat.
I’ve worked at the same place for five years now and I have a meeting the HR manager. I think she wants to promote me—my colleagues say such positive things about me these days.
“It says here in the file, that you’re thirty-seven. But that can’t be right,” she says.
“I am thirty-seven.” It hadn’t occurred to me to lie about this.
Her expression betrayed her amazement. “I expected you to be… ” Her voice trails off, before she betrays her professionalism.
And no, I don’t look my age. After all, I have removed all my wrinkles, blemishes and have never let my hair thin or start greying. My body has no trace of middle-aged spread or sagging skin.
“What age did you think I was?”
She is embarrassed, glossing over the matter by changing subject and talking shop.
I’m not paying attention, lost in my thoughts. Until now, I hadn’t considered it but to all intents, I have got younger as those around me get older. I have stopped ageing. Has my mind mastered time as it has mastered my body? I’m cheating time, at least on the outside, and in this world it’s what is on the outside that counts. How I look is my validation. It decides what the world decides about me. Your face is your reality check. Mine has become my painting in the attic.
Call it wishful thinking. A thought experiment. Mind over matter. Will to Power. Somehow, I have accessed a higher form of thinking. Perhaps I am a higher form. In fact, I am sure of it. I have unlocked my inner Übermensch.
One day at home I find a photo of my former self in a drawer I’m clearing out. I’m on the short side, dumpy, with thinning hair and a crooked smile that doesn’t reach my eyes. I stare out of the picture, desperate for the picture-taker to point the camera elsewhere. And, my god, that nose. I feel sick. It is not embarrassing, so much as depressing. I can’t look at it. I can’t let anyone else look at it either. I rip it up. The few photos of myself on the walls of my flat came down a long time ago but I feel an overwhelming urge to find all the others. I rummage through drawers, cupboards, wardrobes, finding old albums and loose photos. I end up ransacking my flat, hunting down the old me.
I have them all. Putting the photos in the kitchen sink and setting them ablaze, I think I should be sad but these pictures show a different person. His eyes tell his tale of despair and loneliness. He tried hard in his way, I suppose, craving acceptance—so eager to please others. No self-belief though, always thinking the worst of himself rather than thinking the best and making it so. The flames purge me of his taint.
My head throbs until I gulp two codeine tablets. I have to turn the tap on to fill a glass of water. It douses the half-burned snaps leaving a blackened mess of ash and past-me.
I go online; there is more work to be done. Deleting all trace of him will make my awakening complete. All surgery requires a period of recovery; this is my after-care, my recuperation therapy.
Click, delete, click, delete.
After the obvious imperfections have been taken care of, I start on all the tiny things that didn’t bother me previously, just because I can: the curve of my fingernails; the size of my ankles; and yes, the shape of my ears. I work on the colour of my eyes. I mean, they’re ok, but I’m sure I could do better. I go from muddy brown to a mesmeric light green in instalments, working my way through a palette of shades in between. No-one notices the work-in-progress; after all, how familiar are you with the eye-colour of anyone else? (Test yourself, you won’t remember many, I promise). I keep going until I get the colour I want.
“I never noticed you had such green eyes before,” says Sophie, one day at work. I smile, flashing the pearly whites which go with them. She smiles back, lost in my eyes, hypnotized. Nowadays when I turn it on I get the same response pretty much all round, regardless of age, gender, preferences: I charm them all. I have off-the-chart charisma and I don’t even have to try.
It’s too easy.
I don’t need to be witty or smart or good at my job or even particularly pleasant—everyone is willing to give me a break. I experiment with lateness, sloppiness in my work, rudeness even, smiling all the while, a twinkle in my eyes. It’s fun at first, seeing how far I can push it. No-one has a comeback; perfection wins every time.
I float through my day on a cloud of other people’s reactions: admiration, eagerness, envy, desire—all provide the fuel to keep me energised. Even outright hatred, (which is really just powerless jealousy), keeps me powered up. But never indifference—that’s the only thing I can’t bear.
People will never see me the same way. After a while I don’t see them the same way anymore either. I mean, all their imperfections—why don’t they do something about them? Do they never think to try? Really think, that is.
They start to bore me. Their reactions become predictable—always positive, always wanting my attention in return for theirs. How long can anyone remain interested in a game they can’t lose?
I barely go to the office after a few more months. Even Sophie has lost her shine to me. Despite my utter dereliction of duty somehow the HR manager never quite manages to give me my notice so I’m still on the payroll for now. It means I can spend more time at home. I’ve had mirrors installed in every room, so I can get some work in wherever I am: lying in the bath, standing in the kitchen. As long as I have enough tramadol to keep the headaches at bay I can go for hours at a time. I never get bored of looking at myself.
As time passes, I change more and more; sometimes I could swear I can see things change in front of my eyes. Revolution, not just evolution.
But the thing about an unlimited palette is that you don’t know where to stop. There is no stop. Perfect face: sure; perfect body too. But that is the thing with perfection: it leaves you very dissatisfied after a while.
I am beyond other people by now. Their opinions, flattery, rewards and relationships mean little to me. I have moved beyond being just a man. There is no ceiling. I look to the skies. I will become more than human.
* * *
I take myself to the brink, to the edge of the world. I stand, toes curled over the edge of the tower, feeling the wide open space of the plains below. The panorama is breath-taking. As I survey all before me, I notice a small boy in a blue coat in the park way, way below. He stands, holding his bike, looking directly up at me. He waves.
I feel the wind through my wings, gusts fluttering their feathers. They took months, far longer than any of my ‘human’ augmentations. They cost me much—I endured many nights of anguish as they sprouted from my shoulders, feeling like their weight would tear my spine apart. I got no sleep for a month, just lying on my bed, trying not to scream as I stared at the mirrors on my ceiling, willing the change into reality. Even the morphine I procured from a nurse in return for a date gave me only minor respite from the pain. Yet I proved to myself I was strong enough. I kept my focus, plastering downloaded images of the eagle’s skeleton and musculature on my walls, so I could study and recreate each limb and articulation.
Then the adjustments: realigning my shoulders and broadening my ribcage and upper torso to compensate for the extra load. I ground my teeth through the torment as I ground out the results I wanted. Then came muscle, then feathers; hundreds, thousands of them—each sharp tine taking ten minutes of focused imagining to break through my skin but my concentration never wavered, even though my eyes streamed. I could no longer leave the house, so I ordered my meds online, stock-piling them until the pharma company refused to deliver any more.
Re-learning to walk, spread and re-fold my wings, even learning to sleep with them—all those processes took time. But it has all been worth it for this moment: the moment I prove humans can evolve, upwards, become greater. The moment I become more than myself.
I take a selfie and upload it to my ChrysalisOne file.
I flex the muscles from my upper back through my shoulders and along my new limbs. My wings fully extend. I can already feel the wind pulling at them, tantalising, urgently demanding the release from gravity but I lean back, holding it in, savouring the sensation. I breathe deeply, feeling the confidence and satisfaction flow through me, fresh and delectable. I stand on the summit, in more ways than one. I am overwhelmingly proud of myself. Like a high-diver, I raise myself up on my toes, bend at the knees and push off…
I soar. I surf across the crashing waves of air, riding the thermals and shooting the breeze. The wind rushes torrents under my wings. I glide on exhilaration, free as a bird.
No-one has over done what I am doing right now. No-one. This is mine, not for those lower people. The sun beams on my face and I close my eyes.
Something is wrong. The wind is dropping. I have no control. I can move my wings but realise I don’t really know how to use them. I flick them out but they are not at the correct angles to propel me. How did I get them wrong? I am losing height. I try again but it is still all wrong, slowing me down rather than generating momentum. I panic, flapping wildly, without rhythm or purpose.
I see treetops, first a blur of green, then individual trees as I plummet. My limbs move but everything is out of synchronicity. I can’t breathe, can’t focus. Nothing works, nothing can help me. I am sucked from the sky, gravity’s plaything.
I crash into the first tree, pure white pain exploding through me. A rush of branches snap, bones break, and my breath is punched from me. I plummet, twisting, twisted. Twigs slap me, bark scrapes me, and thorns rip me as I fall. A thousand tiny indignities compound my injuries. I slam into a thick branch, crunching my ribs. They crack with a sickening sound. But that is not the end. My fall is broken but I am not at rest. I drop the last ten feet, landing like a dead-weight into the blanket of leaves and moss.
I am almost blinded by numerous excruciating agonies. I feel blood in my mouth. I see something white flecked with red, jutting jagged through my trouser leg. Smashed leaves and tree detritus fall down around me. Feathers flutter to earth with ethereal lightness. They use gravity as their plaything, coming to rest only when they wish.
Times passes. I don’t know how long.
I open one eye. I see a face surrounded by light. I wonder if I have awoken, reborn again, somewhere else. But a paroxysm of pain tells me I am still in this world. The face belongs to The Boy In The Blue Coat Who Waved. He is sitting on his bicycle, one foot on the grass.
“I saw you fall. Just now,” he says.
“I have been… falling for a long time,” I reply. The words come slowly, rasping and raw.
“Are you hurt?”
“I… am… broken.”
The boy nods, as if taking this all in. “Are you are an angel?” he asks. “Only I’ve never seen one with such a big wonky nose before.”
Bio: Richard Webb writes long and short SFFH fiction with recent publications in the British Fantasy Society magazine and the ‘Legends 3’ anthology (inspired by David Gemmell), from NewCon Press. He also writes screenplays (6 short films produced to date, winning several film festival awards); co-wrote/co-hosted a weekly indie radio music show for 2 years and was shortlisted for the BBC Writer’s Room 2016. He acted as Events Coordinator of the BFS for 2 years and was panel programmer for FantasyCon UK in 2015. He lives feral in the wild, carving out stories on trees with his bare claws. He tweets @RaW_writing
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