Facing Off

His face was grotesque, a squirming mass of muscle and skin. She watched him from across the table. She didn’t stare–she was trying to avoid eye contact, because that’s what one does in these situations. But she kept a wary eyeball on him as she ate.
His mouth was snarled, missing a tooth. She could see half-chewed bread through the gap. One eye was closed, the lines radiating from its side crooked and deep. His hair was unkempt, spiking up at the top, lurching forward at the side. A streak of milk had dried hard and dark like rebellious hair gel.
She ate her breakfast, pretending to ignore his grunting. That familiar feeling was back, like spaghetti trying to escape her stomach. Disgust, fear, hilarity, pride. All mixed up. She couldn’t look at him. She wouldn’t look at him. Not directly, anyhow.
His reflection in the curved metal vase made the distortion worse, but she was distanced. There was a barrier. She could watch him without shame, without reaction. Like a security guard through a hidden camera.
He hadn’t realised she was watching him. His eye glimmered for a moment–or was it the sun glinting off the vase? She thought she saw a crooked-toothed grin, but it was fleeting. The one-sided mouth contortion was back in place. He was staring right at her, sensing her discomfort. His nose wriggled almost imperceptibly, but it sent a shiver across her skin. She remained cool, unmoved and unresponsive, showing no sign of her internal fight. She couldn’t let any emotion cross her face. Then he would know. He would have won.
His mouth twisted again as he took a mouthful of juice. Orange fluid dribbled down his chin, soaking into his shirt like his existence into her life. Had he done that on purpose? Was he trying to get a reaction from her? Did he have a problem with his eye-hand co-ordination? One eye was open, harshly staring then moving rapid-fire around the room. The other looked as if it were closed–but she knew he was watching her through it. They were, after all, both playing the same game. The impulse to face him head-on was unbearable, but she couldn’t do it. That look on his face–she didn’t know if she could stand it any longer. There was a growing urge to stand up to him, to show him he wasn’t getting to her, to mimic him.
She saw the reflection of his twisted mouth, one side open and the other scrumpled like a squashed snail. His eyes mocking her, daring her to react. She couldn’t keep her emotions inside any longer.
She took a breath and turned. She made a pig nose and curled her lip. She crossed her eyes at him.
His head lurched against the table, almost face-planting into his toast. He flicked his head back with his mouth open wide. His eyes crinkled as a familiar groan of defeat and joy escaped his chest.
‘Ah, Mum! You always make me smile. One day I’ll make you laugh first.’