The longer I trailed behind her in the woods, the stupider I felt for having left the comfort of my bed. But her hair had reverse-Rapunzeled, spilling through my open window and onto my bedroom floor, and what should have been alarming was a thrill I couldn’t name. When I approached her summer red hair that glinted with moonlight, I wanted to touch it. Not just because it looked soft, but because I wanted it to be my touch that made her turn her head. She had her back to me, and I wanted to see her face, wanted to see the shape and expressions and colors that belonged to this strange girl who danced around the neighborhood at night in dresses so long that it was a miracle she didn’t trip.
We’d moved a couple months ago to this town small enough that it fell under the radar of maps. My parents told me I’d make friends in no time, but my school mates whispered things about my short haircut and baggy clothes and talked about me using sharp words I’d never heard in real life before. But I’d seen this girl who didn’t go to our school many nights before, moving like wind and water on the sidewalk. It was a looseness and freedom I wanted too, and I felt connected to her even thought we’d never met. I’d only ever seen her from behind. I hadn’t seen her face and I always wondered if she had ever seen mine.
When she heard me walk to the window, she pulled her hair back and I crept out to be with her. But she didn’t turn around. Instead, she grabbed my hand and ran like we were being chased, and in a fearmongering town like this where people seemed to hate me for the crushes I harbored in secret, it almost felt like we were. I never let go, not even when we got to the forest. I regretted not putting on shoes before I left, wincing as I stepped on sticks and rocks. I couldn’t imagine where we were going, but the forest made it feel mystical, like I was being invited into her world and only the forest could handle its vastness.
When I mentioned her to my parents a few weeks back, they said they’d never seen her, and while it made me feel closer to her, like her appearances belonged to me, I’d started to worry she was a ghost or an omen or some intangible thing. But now she was the hand in my hand.
When we’d been running for ten minutes, deeper into the dark, tangled wood, the forest felt less mystical and more claustrophobic. I wasn’t even sure where the path led or how far it unraveled. I let go of her hand and she became still as a rock in the middle of the path. I couldn’t keep following something I didn’t understand.
“Turn around,” I told her.
“If I turn around, you won’t like it.”
“I want to see what you look like.”
And when this strange girl who’d baited me by presenting her hair like a bowl of strawberries on my windowsill turned around, it was like biting into those strawberries and finding them rotten between my teeth. She didn’t have a face. At least, she didn’t have just one. She had hundreds, each of them squirming beneath the other like a papier-mâché from hell. I couldn’t focus on one set of lips or ears, my eyes jumping from one horrifying inch of skin to the next. A blue eye blinked from below a slender ear and a mouth full of braces licked its lips and someone else’s. I had mistaken her as a friend, had foolishly invented an affinity between two lonely outcasts, but she was really a stranger who held a crowd on her shoulders.
“Why did you visit me?” I asked, stepping back.
“I liked the look of your face.”
And the words warmed me despite everything. Then I clutched my reddening cheeks, afraid she was about to peel my face off of me. But then I watched her chin bubble as new features pushed through and I knew they were mine. She wasn’t Rapunzel, but Medusa, each face its own hissing snake. I touched my arm just to make sure I hadn’t turned to stone.
“Where were you taking me?”
“I was running as long as you wanted. We could have run forever. But no one ever does.”
She said it out of a stray, pink mouth, and there was no way to read her face, but she sounded let down.
“I thought you’d want to come with me,” she continued, “but I guess I was wrong. I’m always wrong. I’m too much for everyone.”
I grabbed at my face again and was relieved it was still intact and that I wasn’t just speaking out of a void. “Can I go home?”
“If you want.”
I turned and ran without thinking about it, without ever turning around. When I climbed back into bed, I cocooned in my sheets the way I used to as a little kid to protect myself from nighttime thoughts that turned to monsters. My lungs hurt from breathing so hard, and my head dizzied from the effort of gulping air. And in my delirium, the sheets turned to silk faces that blended into each other, the mean boys and girls and parents from town staring at me, screaming at me with spittle I could imagine on my skin, pressing against me like they could wipe me blank and make me wear a face they liked better. Then one by one their faces became my own, their expression of disgust like what I must have looked like in the forest. I closed my eyes. I wanted to run to her, to tell her I was sorry, but I had a strange sense that she would no longer recognize me.
Sarah Fannon is a graduate of George Washington University’s Honors English and Creative Writing program and she continues to live in the DC area. Her work is featured in SmokeLong Quarterly, Dark Moon Digest, Divination Hollow Reviews, miniskirt magazine, The NoSleep Podcast, and the LGBTQ+ horror anthology, Black Rainbow. You can find her on Twitter @SarahJFannon and Instagram @ampersarah.