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Brown Bottle Nostrum

fantasy by Jay Lake

The bottle sits at the back of my grandfather’s medicine cupboard.  It’s old, in that way that so few things are, as if it has accumulated extra mass, extra layers of reality like coats of varnish.  The shoulders are slightly uneven, clearly hand blown, and the brown glass is full of bubbles.

The cap might be cork, but Grand wrapped duct tape around the neck years ago, so long ago the wrinkled gray stuff has had time to generate its own ecology of dust and mites and cobwebs.  There’s a faded label, blank except for one word written in spidery Palmer method script:


Facial what? I used to wonder when I visited summers as a kid and he’d send me to the cupboard for Pepto-Bismol.  “Don’t touch that other crap, kiddo,” he’d shout from the couch — that old tartan one that was so ugly it could have disguised dog vomit — “it’ll take the hair right off’a your chest.”  Then he would collapse into heaving old-man laughs.

Only now he’s dead.  Outlived his wife and both his kids, somehow, despite losing the use of his knees on a frozen hillside in Korea half a century ago.  My grandmother had been hit by a bus when Daddy was a boy, Uncle Marsh came home from Vietnam in a box, and Daddy went four years ago to a disfiguring skin cancer not long after Mother died of kidney failure.

Grand had written me a note one day last week, then gone to sleep on that tartan couch with no intention of ever waking up.  No pills, the coroner said, just sheer force of will.  The old man was done with life.

‘Everything’s yours,’ the note read.  ‘There’s cash in the toolbox, and mind that old medicine bottle.  See you in Heaven.’

Now I was going through the house.  It was a way of saying goodbye, I supposed.  And honoring his bequest, such as it was.

The place was small but crowded, with bits and pieces of Grand’s wide range of interests.  An African tribal mask occupied an old G.I. footlocker along with pots and pots of theatre makeup — skin base.  What did he need that for?  At the bottom of a sweater-filled closet a pair of long-toed clown shoes sat atop IBM stock certificates.  The cash was a few hundred dollars, banded up with the elastic of an old red clown nose.  He had a lot more money than that, in the bank.

What was it with the clowns?  I’d never heard Grand talk about clowns, not once in my life.

Eventually my packing and sorting led me to the medicine cupboard.  It was a shallow-backed shelf with a door, built into the bathroom wall.  Not with a mirror, just someplace useful mostly for storing bottles.  There was everything in there from Anbesol to a bottle of Xanax, along with generations of toothbrushes like the poster of evolution where the little monkey turns into a walking man.

And the bottle.


What the hell was facial?

Surely whatever was in there had gone flat or stale in the decades that the bottle had been sealed.  It was nothing more than an old crust, traces of some long-lost nostrum.  Whatever it was, I wanted to find out.

I unfolded the file from a pair of toenail clippers.  I picked up the bottle, as I had never dared do as a child.  It had a bit of weight and sloshed slightly.  Something was inside.  I held it up to the light.  That was like trying to peer through molasses.

“Take the hair off’a my chest, huh?”  I smiled at Grand’s memory.

The file’s curved hook worked right into the ancient duct tape.  I peeled that off.  The cork beneath crumbled away with the tape.

Cautiously I sniffed.  It smelled vaguely familiar.  Like what –?  Makeup, maybe?

At least it wasn’t just pure vinegar.  Probably cocaine extract, or something worse.


I grabbed a cotton ball, covered the bottle’s mouth and tipped it over then back again.  Pulling the bottle away, I could see a grayish stain spreading into the ball.  I’d gotten some of the medicine out.

Stepping over to the mirror, I raised the cotton ball, held it close to my face, studied it.  Still that makeup smell.  Nothing sizzled or popped.

What was left to me now?  This was it, the last of him.  My real memory of my grandfather, in this little bottle of antique crap, as he’d put it.  I had a strong urge to be a part of him, a part of whatever this bottle had meant through decades of decay and the family dying around him, even as he kept his good humor and a place in his heart for me.

“Okay, Grand,” I said.  “Here goes nothing.”

I swabbed it on one cheek.  It stung, like rubbing alcohol will.  I watched in the mirror.  Nothing else happened.  I swabbed the other cheek.  Another sting.

Then my skin began to peel away.  First just the patches I had swabbed, falling from a glistening pale under-skin.  I opened my mouth to scream, and my lips split wide to reveal new ones, bright and red.  Trailing shreds and shards of my normal, healthy pink skin, I ran through the house.  The long-toed shoes pursued me, clattering, as the red nose bounced behind them.  From out of closets and dressers and under beds other things slithered and slid, ruffled collars and a large brass-mouthed horn.

By the time I reached the door, there was no hair left on my chest.  My hands were huge and white, with seams.  Seams.  I wore bright motley, and those cruel long toed shoes.

Everything else, my pink face and brown hair had been a costume.  Grand had warned me about the bottle, in his way.  I just hadn’t listened as well as I should have.

I’m still here, and so’s the bottle.  One of these days the pizza driver’s going to be a girl, and I’ll give her a facial.  Then I’ll have company, someone to share the tartan couch with.  Someone to share the bottle with.  Someone to pass the hairless, costumed future with.

When I get to Heaven, I’m going to kill him.

Copyright April 2011 by Joseph E. Lake Jr.

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2011 books are Endurance from Tor Books and Love in the Time of Metal and Flesh from Prime Books, along with paperback releases of two of his other titles. His short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy awards.

[return to the April 2011 main page]

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