Gamut Magazine
Issue #1

We Never Went Away, We Just Hid Better

By: Sam Rebelein

“You know about the uncanny valley?” he asks.

It’s one of those questions where your answer doesn’t matter, he’s going to explain it to you anyway. He’s already mansplained a number of things to you tonight, including the end of Inception, which is the reddest of flags, as far as things men can mansplain go. But he did make a good case for how Leonardo was in a dream the entire time, and it actually did make you want to rewatch the movie for the first time since 2010, in spite of yourself.

Still, there’s another, more confident you out there somewhere. She went home alone after this Hinge date. She got a Sprite and a bag of Flamin’ Hot Funyuns from the bodega, and she’s watching You at home at this very moment. She already has her bra off and she’s taken a way-too-big hit off her pen. It’s not too late to be her, you know. The bodega is open 24/7.

But here you are, walking up the dim flickering stair of this guy’s apartment building. Why? Is it because he’s actually really cute and strong-looking, and you’re curious to see how he handles you? Because it’s been a while since you hooked up with anybody, and actually you’ve eaten a lot of Funyuns recently? Because you already shaved your legs, so why not?

But why him? Why do you continue letting him talk at you while he holds open the door to his apartment? Why do you put your back to him, your shoulders tense, as you step inside? Why do you step inside??

“Can I get ya anything?” he asks, locking the door behind you and slipping a key into a pocket.

“Just water,” you say.

“You got it.” He flicks on a light and the apartment is disarmingly cozy. Exposed brick, strings of yellow Christmas lights. Ikea furniture and—ah, yes, a bespoke poster for Inception, all dark colors and angular lines. He must have gotten it off Etsy or something. He has a bookshelf, and at a glance, you can see Jane Eyre on there, House of Leaves, Watchmen, The Lighthouse. Probably books he kept from college; you can’t imagine he’d read Bronte on his own. But it’s a good sign, either way, that he has books.

He opens the freezer, takes out an ice tray. Cracks it, starts plunking cubes into a glass.

“So, the uncanny valley is that unsettling feeling you get when a face is close to human, but not fully there.”

He sticks the ice tray back in the freezer, opens the fridge, pulls out a Brita pitcher. All of this with his back to you.

“It happens a lot with AI faces in movies, characters in video games… Faces are a little too long, a little too big in the eyeballs, the teeth look weird. They’re animated funny. Here.”

He turns, hands the glass to you. Smiles. It’s a handsome smile, and surprisingly humble. None of the gusto he had back in the restaurant. Maybe you’re misreading him.

You take the glass of water, offer a tight, quick smile in return. He walks over to the dining nook, shrugs out of his coat, kicks his shoes into a corner. If he was a gentleman, he would have offered to take your coat, too. Or at least tell you where to put it. Instead, you’re just standing here in his entryway, fully clothed, disarmed by a glass of water.

You sip the water, just to be polite. But you’re not gonna fuckin drink it. There could be anything in those ice cubes. In fact…why are they so long? Don’t they look overly long? His cube tray must be really wide. You blink hard, look around the room again. Actually, now that you’re giving it a closer look…that Inception poster has a typo in it. Incepon, it reads. You roll the name over your tongue, silently to yourself in your head. Incepon. It sounds like a lesser demon. A lieutenant of Hell or something. Incepon…

“The thing that gets me about the uncanny valley,” he says, unwrapping his scarf from his neck, “is, like…why does it freak people out? Why does it make you afraid when faces are familiar, but slightly different? What is it about the uncanny valley that makes it so unsettling?”

He’s unzipping his hoodie, rolling his arms out of the sleeves. He drapes it over the back of the chair with his coat, then starts unbuttoning his flannel.

“You know what I mean?”

Keep looking around, you’ll see the spine of Jane Eyre is uncannily valleyed as well. Janyre, it reads. Almost the same, but not quite. The edges of his coffee table seem to curl up into spikes.

“The human mind is all about pattern recognition,” he says, taking off a pair of socks. “Evolutionarily, you get spooked when you see shadows move in a way you can’t immediately identify, because that means an animal could be sneaking up on your camp. That shadow slinking along could be a bobcat or a tiger. People are afraid of spiders and snakes because the way they move is wholly unnatural to you. It’s all about survival.”

He unrolls another pair of socks from his feet.

Was he always wearing this many clothes?

The couch seems to have a spine along its middle, running from armrest to armrest. The Christmas lights are flickering like living flames. None of the bricks are in straight lines, they’re all bent and diagonal, and arranged in odd shapes, not rows. The floor feels uneven underfoot, even though when you look at it, it looks perfectly flat.

“So why is that?” he asks, as he unbuttons the sleeves of another shirt. “What happened to humans hundreds of thousands of years ago that taught them, on an instinctual level, to be afraid of things that look mostly human, but not entirely human? What is the human mind warning you about?”

“I don’t know,” you murmur, gazing at the eight doors of the fridge. You blink, and there are five doors. Blink, and there are nine.

How many windows are in this room? Can you tell? It’s too dim, too bright.

“Exactly,” he says, pulling the shirt off his arms. “You don’t know. It’s almost like there was some other creature out there you learned to be afraid of. But why? Who used to attack you in the night?”

“I don’t…know,” you say, your voice getting wet with a sob in the back of your throat. The ice in your glass is starting to rattle as your hand shakes.

He sighs sadly. “Well, that’s my whole point. Nobody remembers why. That fear is buried so deep you barely know it’s there. But it still is. It’s a shame, this uncanny valley between us…”

“Why are you telling me this?” you ask, as you start backing toward the door, which you know is very locked.

“Because,” he says, as he grips the corner of his jaw. “I don’t want you to be afraid of me.”

He begins to unbutton his face.

Sam Rebelein holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College (with a focus on Horror and Memoir). His work has appeared in Bourbon Penn, The Dread Machine, Coffin Bell Journal, Press Pause Press, Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, the Stoker Award-nominated anthology Human Monsters, and elsewhere. Sam’s debut horror novel Edenville is out now from William Morrow. His follow-up collection of stories set in the same fictional universe, The Poorly Made and Other Things, is coming for you in early 2025. Sam currently lives in Poughkeepsie, NY, with two very old dogs. For pictures of their sweet, stinky lil faces (and updates about Sam’s work), follow him on Instagram @RebelSam94.