Fiction logo

Pareidolia

(per-ˌī-ˈdō-lē-ə), n. The human inclination to extract a meaningful interpretation out of a random pattern, sound, or image.

By Conor MarkoPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 16 min read
V+ Fiction Award Winner
26
Pareidolia
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Someone should help her.

Not that it will make a difference if anyone does. On this lonely stretch of mountain highway, during the early stages of a snowstorm, there are likely no witnesses that will stumble upon this scene anytime soon.

Except you.

It’s your fault, really. Not the accident, but the fact that you’re seeing it. You should be moving into your new apartment now, back in the city you grew up in. But somehow, you forgot your mirror at your old place. Technically, Morgan forgot it. You weren’t responsible for packing it into your tiny car, and Morgan didn’t really care what was in there, as long as you were out before the new tenant arrived. You didn’t want to turn around under the brewing storm above, but the stupid mirror is quite expensive, and your new apartment is not furnished at all. Once you realized you weren’t sure it was there, you were convinced that Morgan had forgotten it. Turning around to go get it was the most sensible option. It would probably be faster than unpacking your entire trunk just to find it.

You have no idea what caused the accident, but you can guess. Between the steep incline of the road, the sheet of snow on the highway, and the sharp bend just beyond, little is left to the imagination. The woman’s car is wrapped around a thick aspen tree in a twisted steel embrace, and the windshield is completely blown out. There’s glass everywhere, all along the road, and the front tires are completely deflated.

But it’s the driver of that car, the woman herself, that you find yourself fixated on. She lies in the snow, mangled and broken, but alive. Her face is contorted into a raging, gasping snarl, the fight for her life clearly etched between her chipped teeth and bleeding forehead. The contours of her face are sharp, angular, but changing constantly as she pants through cherry red lips. She is lying some distance away from the totaled car, but you don’t know how she got there. She may have been thrown through the windshield on impact. She may have crawled that far. You aren’t certain.

What is certain, though, is that she will die. You’re no doctor, but you can see that her body has fared far worse than her face. The snow around her is stained a heavy crimson, becoming darker by the second. Three of her four limbs lie in unnatural, sickly angles, and with her good arm, she props herself up on her side. The eyes staring at you are partially obscured by her long, matted hair, but you can see that they house imprisoned emerald irises, pleading with you to intervene.

No call to emergency services will be quick enough to get to her. No amount of training from that CPR course you took last year will make a difference. Her fate is sealed.

And that’s when she opens her mouth again, not to breathe, but to speak. She coughs once, twice, then utters a word that cuts deeper than the horror of witnessing this tragedy –

She calls out your name.

Your mind races and your heart beats even harder than before. How did she know that? You look again at her sharp face, those high cheekbones. She’s a stranger. A complete, total stranger. You’ve never seen her before, you’re sure of it. How does she know you?

While your mind is swimming, spiraling, your body is acting. You step away, over a twisted length of metal, backpedaling until your hands make contact with your car. You stumble around back to the trunk – it was only held down by a loose rope because the trunk was too full to completely close, and it flung open when you slammed the brakes upon seeing the car crash – and tie it down again with shaking hands. She calls out again, but you can’t make out what she says this time. You just find your way into the driver’s seat, spin the car around, and peel away from the dying woman that knows your name.

____________________________________________________

It is less than half an hour before the apartment becomes an unbearable hell. There isn’t even time to unpack anything. The walls are immediately suffocating, the ceilings too low, and the floors crooked and uneven. The hot air coming through the vents sounds like distant screaming. On top of it all, there is the overwhelming, insatiable urge to get out. The apartment that looked so cozy, so homey during the property viewing, now feels like the setting to a horror flick. Nothing good will come of being here, not now. There has to be some other place in this familiar city that won’t be so oppressive, so damning.

One such place comes to mind, and it’s not long before you are in the old familiar coffee shop, with Priti at the other end of the table. A lot of long nights were spent here as teenagers, feverishly studying for those high school exams that seemed so important at the time. Even though those days have long since passed, she seemed excited to meet here again. This building is just a nondescript coffee joint to some, but to others, it's like a home away from home.

“You know, I always pass this place on my way to work,” Priti says, a cappuccino in her cupped hands. “And I think to myself, ‘I should go in there again’. But it wouldn’t feel right, going in alone. But now you’re back, and, well... it feels good to end up here again, after all this time.”

“I know what you mean. Thanks for coming on such short notice.”

“Of course! I feel like we haven’t seen each other in so long!” Priti smiles. Her lips part into a thin smile, reminiscent of the way they would when she figured out the answer to a tough math problem. “When’s the last time we saw each other in person, and not over a video call? A year? Maybe more?”

“Something like that, yeah.”

Her smile fades, but her contentedness lives on in the soft crinkles around her eyes, the soft curves of her eyelids. Steam rises from her drink, disappearing into the air around her.

“How have you been?” she asks. “When did you move back from Morgan’s?”

“Just today, actually.”

“No way!” Priti smiles again, but it’s a wide one now, the one that she made when she found out she was going to college. She had dimples back in high school, but they seem to have faded now, filling in as her face filled out.

“Yeah. It’s just a few blocks from here, on, uh… 34th street.”

“We should go see it after! I bet the place looks great,” she says.

“Hah. Not really. We, uh, probably shouldn’t go there just yet. I need to, um…”

Priti cocks her head. She cut her hair short recently, and it barely reaches her shoulders. Most of it is hidden under her beanie.

Then she puts a hand to her face, her cheeks turning pink. “Oh, shoot. You just got here, I shouldn’t be inviting myself over like that. You probably haven’t even unpacked yet. I shouldn’t be so eager.”

“No, no, it’s fine. But you’re right, I haven’t even taken everything out of my car.”

“That same old car you had in high school?”

For a while, the conversation continues about the car, and what Priti’s been up to recently. What mutual friends have gotten married, or graduated, or both. Priti finishes her drink. The other one at the table remains untouched. She continues to talk, but it’s to a distracted audience. There is a figure at another table, just behind Priti. The body is obscured, but the face is visible. The features are unmistakable, and that feeling of impending doom is back.

“I saw someone die on my way back here.”

Priti freezes upon hearing it. Even her mouth stays put, slightly open, and the muscles in her face clench and unclench, as if unsure how to react. Eventually, she blinks a few times and quietly asks, her lips barely parting, “What did you just say?”

“I… saw a car accident. EMS hadn’t arrived yet. The car went off the road and hit a tree.”

“Oh, my God.” Her expression is something between sympathetic and shocked. “I don’t even know what to say…”

“The driver, they got thrown out of the car, I think. They were on the ground, and—”

“No, no. Please, stop. I can’t. Not here.” Her lower lip quivers, but she composes herself and takes a breath.

“I’m so sorry you had to witness that. That’s awful, it really is. I feel like I’m going to cry… I don’t know how you’re staying this calm about it.”

“She said my name.”

At this, Priti’s expression changes. Her mouth closes and one of her eyebrows raises, ever so slightly. “Was it someone you knew?”

“No, it wasn’t. It was a stranger, and they… well, they look like the person sitting at the table behind you. Exactly like them.”

Priti doesn’t turn around. “Am I missing something here? Is this a joke?”

“No, it’s not. She…”

But the figure behind Priti has changed. Someone still sits at the table, but the features are different. Maybe it was just the lighting. It’s a woman, still, but not the driver. Definitely not the driver.

The crinkles around Priti’s eyes are back, but they aren’t there from smiling, anymore. Her eyes are narrowed, pupils dilated. Something in the way she is regarding you makes it seem like she suspects something. That, in turn, makes you suspicious of her. That oppressive feeling is starting to get even worse than it was in the apartment. Time to leave.

____________________________________________________

The clouds above the town roil and spit, the snow turned into freezing rain. The dense columns block out the sun, and it seems a lot later in the day than it already is. People take shelter wherever they can, going to great lengths to avoid being pelted and stung. Cars inch through the slush, sliding through intersections and skidding around corners. It is doomsday.

In the town’s largest supermarket, the lines are backed up. Each till has several shoppers standing single file in front of it. You’re one of them. After making a less-than-graceful exit from the coffee shop, and Priti’s questioning glare, you figured grocery shopping was a safe option. After all, you haven’t eaten anything today. Returning to the apartment makes you feel nauseous, but maybe that’s just your hunger pangs. They’ll go away once you get something into you.

Besides, being an anonymous person in a crowd has you at ease – at least, more than you were at the coffee shop, or apartment. No one knows you here, no one can identify you. And as long as you don’t look at anyone, you can’t mistake them for someone else.

A couple is behind you, waiting to unload their shopping cart as the conveyor belt jerks ahead. Though you don’t mean to listen in, their conversation carries over as you wait for the cashier to scan your things.

“…said he had to cancel for tonight. The road he normally comes in on is completely closed down,” the woman says.

“Then why are we buying all this stuff?” the man asks. He has a gaunt, scruffy face that looks like the old neighbour next to Morgan’s house, a retired police officer.

“Well, he said he could come tomorrow.”

“Oh. Alright.” He examines one of the cans in their cart, squinting at it from behind his horn-rimmed glasses, before placing it onto the conveyor belt.

“Yeah,” the woman says. “He said they closed it because of an accident. Really bad, apparently.”

“Well, in this weather, I’m not surprised.” His nose is crooked, seemingly almost too big for his face. “Hope everyone’s okay, though.”

“He told me that someone died in the crash.”

“Oh, no.”

“Yeah. Someone from around here, too. I really hope it’s not someone we know. That would be awful.”

“Does it matter if we know them or not?” the man asks.

“I – what do you mean by that?”

“Either way, someone’s dead. If we’re not grieving, someone else is. It’s equally bad.”

“I guess. It would just feel a lot worse if I knew them.”

“Worse for you. Better for someone who doesn’t know them. Same amount of grief in the end.”

“You have a weird way of looking at things,” the woman comments. She goes to place a loaf of bread on the conveyor, revealing the shape and detail of her face. Familiar.

“Isn’t that why you married me?”

“Oh, please – hey, where are you going?”

But you’ve seen enough. The woman calls after you again, but you’re already halfway out the door, groceries left behind, sitting idly as you plunge into the driving rain.

____________________________________________________

“That’s a hell of a story,” the man says. His features are uncertain in the dim light of the bar, but that’s ideal. It’s comforting that the light is too dim to make out each other’s faces. In absence of expressions, of intimacy, of knowing, a stranger is the easiest person to talk to, right about now. You struck up a conversation with him not long after stumbling into the establishment, cold and wet. He listened quietly while you told him about what happened today, down to the last detail. He never asked questions, never interrupted. Just listened.

It might also be the alcohol. The man has been drinking for a while, judging by the empty glasses around him, and you’ve just finished your first drink. Another is on the way.

“But – and forgive me if this sounds a bit crass – that’s the way things go,” he continues. Several empty glasses surround him, and you’ve just finished your first drink. “Things happen, you don’t have a lot of control over them. You don’t have any control over them.” Outside, the rain has turned back into snow, and it’s starting to get even darker out. The bar is quiet, but it won’t be long until people start trickling in for happy hour.

“I can’t stop thinking about it, though. I’m reminded of it all the time. Everything I see just puts me back there, mentally.”

“Do you think you’re reading into it a little deeper than you should?” he asks. Drinks arrive, and he takes his.

“How can I not read into it? It’s everywhere I go. I keep seeing signs.”

“And that’s what you’re misinterpreting. What’s that phrase again? You can’t do… no, you can’t see… Oh, I know. You can’t see the forest for the trees. That’s the one.” He leans back, probably looking impressed with himself.

“I don’t think so.”

The man huffs. “Alright. Look. You give me an example of something you think is a ‘sign’, and I’ll tell you why it’s not. I’ll buy you a drink every time that I’m wrong. Go for it.”

“Well… that conversation I overheard earlier. Of all the things they could talk about – the crash?”

“You don’t even know that was the crash you saw. You’ve seen the weather recently? And the state of the roads in and out of this town? It’d be a miracle if there was only one fatal crash today. You said you were local, didn’t you? You know that as well as I do.”

“Alright… But what about the faces? I saw her face twice today. There’s no way.”

“Oh, come on. That’s just statistics. You go to crowded places, like restaurants and grocery stores, you’re going to see similar looking people. Especially if you’re primed to look for certain features. Distinctive ones.”

“You a psychologist?”

He laughs. “Right now, I am.”

“Fine. Then explain the name thing. There’s no way you can explain that away with stats or coincidence. There’s no way she knew my name.”

The man’s head nods slowly, a bobbing shadow in the darkness. “That is a weird one, I will admit… But hold on a second. What was your name, again?”

You tell him your name.

“Ah…” He repeats your name a few times, each iteration becoming more and more garbled, until it starts to resemble a completely different word entirely. Eventually, it sounds like a vague cry for help, an awkward phrase that sounds only tangentially close to your own name.

“…right. I can’t say I’m convinced.”

The man sighs. “Look. You saw something awful. It sucks that you saw it. But that was your only role in it. The rest was out of your control. Even if you tried to save her, nothing would have changed. Maybe you’ve got some weird form of survivor’s guilt, maybe you think you’re responsible. You’ll screw yourself up thinking about it like that. It’s already screwing you up. You sound like someone going through a breakdown. Like a trauma response. Something of that nature.”

Now he shifts in his seat, and the light reveals his face more clearly. You see his creased forehead, the groomed beard, and the piercing in his left ear. He regards you curiously, the wrinkles of his face casting minute shadows. In that moment, the boundary has been crossed. There is no longer a sense of strangeness in the air, of anonymity. It has been replaced with something far worse, far more condemning.

“Are you feeling alright?” he asks, a level of concern evident in his voice.

You shake your head, eyes wide. You throw cash onto the bar next to your untouched drink, and run out of the bar.

____________________________________________________

Nighttime. Shivering, tired, and alone, there is only one place left for you to go.

You stagger back into your apartment, immediately feeling boxed in again. You’ve given up. Despite your pounding heart, your racing thoughts, you are resigned to the fact that this will never go away. The fates have cast their die for you, and this is how they have landed.

After what feels like hours of staring at the empty walls, you wander over to the windows. The snow is coming down heavily, streaking the glass and obscuring your vision. By tomorrow, it might be a foot high. It could be a dozen. You hope it’s a hundred.

Your phone vibrates from your back pocket. Taking it out, you accept the call, recognizing the name.

“How’s your new apartment?” Morgan asks. “Say that it’s awful so that you can move back here. I’m already sick of the new tenant.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, really.” Morgan goes off about the new tenant’s strange quirks, which seem numerous despite it only being a few hours since they moved in. You’re just glad to be talking about something other than yourself.

That isn’t to last, though. Eventually, Morgan asks the dreaded question: “How about you? Your day going any better?”

Steeling yourself yet again, you go through the details of your day. Morgan reacts much like Priti when hearing about the accident itself, then falls silent as you move on to talk about seeing Priti again. You’re talking about the conversation in the grocery store when you’re cut off.

“Hold on, hold on. You stayed until the ambulance came, right?”

“Uh, no, I… I left right after she said my name. I freaked out and drove away—”

“What the hell is wrong with you? A woman was dying in front of you, and you didn’t help them? What were you thinking?”

“Morgan, they were going to die!”

“That doesn’t matter! If someone’s lying there, injured, alone, you can’t just… I don’t even have the words for this. Did you even call the police?”

“I – no, I didn’t. It was out of my control! She would have died whether they were there or not. It makes no difference!”

“That’s a load of garbage and you know it,” Morgan seethes. “There is something seriously messed up in your head. Just leaving the scene of an accident like that—”

“I had no part in it!”

“Doesn’t matter. Not a bit.”

This conversation isn’t going the way it should be. Morgan is probably seconds away from hanging up, and that means being alone in the apartment again. The harder you breathe, the harder it seems to get any oxygen in. It’s like the air is being sucked out of the room.

You’re grasping at straws. “The – the mirror, Morgan. I forgot my mirror at your place when I left today. The big one. Is it still there?”

“What? What does that have to do with anything?”

“Just – please, answer me.”

Morgan groans. “No, it’s not here. Why would it be?”

“Because that’s how I saw the accident. I realized you didn’t pack the mirror, and I turned around to go get it.”

“Yes, I did. You were busy packing your other bags, but I put it in there, behind your box of clothes.”

“I don’t remember that at all. I believe you, but… Why didn’t I find it in my car when I got to my apartment?”

“How would I know? Are you trying to distract me here? Seriously, you did something really irresponsible today, I’m not just going to let it go!”

Morgan continues to berate you over the phone, but you sink down onto the floor, no longer listening. The apartment feels spacious and breathable. That stupid mirror, the root cause of all of this, is probably still in your car, buried beneath the piles of junk you crammed into it. It’s that damn mirror that caused you to turn around, to see the accident that has been messing with you all day. You’d been blaming the mirror – blaming yourself – for all the trauma you’d been put through today, but really, it had nothing to do with it. Just a weird twist of fate. Completely out of your hands.

____________________________________________________

Unbeknownst to you – or maybe, buried by snow and ice and dirt, in a deep recess of your mind, it is known – there is a broken metal frame still sitting behind a tree, missed by the cleanup crews. It is twisted, scarred from being hit by freshly pierced tires, tires embedded with shards of something clear and sharp. The metal no longer resembles its original shape. But from a certain angle, combined with a few haphazard shards of glass that were also missed, it almost seems to resemble the shape of a human face.

Short Story
26

About the Creator

Conor Marko

Conor Emerson Marko is a writer and musician based in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He won the Vocal+ Fiction Award for his first publication, "Pareidolia".

More work forthcoming.

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  2. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  3. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  1. Eye opening

    Niche topic & fresh perspectives

Add your insights

Comments (3)

Sign in to comment
  • Savannah Svetaabout a year ago

    Oof... this story is so tense, so full of dread from beginning to end, until that very last paragraph that just confirms that feeling... very well done. It was a great read. Thank you for writing and sharing!!

  • JBaz2 years ago

    An Absolute compelling story. Beginning to end.

  • Al2 years ago

    I love the way you write and how you brought the reader straight into the protagonists mind. The suspense, the characters and the style is very engaging. Love it!

Find us on social media

Miscellaneous links

  • Explore
  • Contact
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
  • Support

© 2024 Creatd, Inc. All Rights Reserved.