“The green mask…” And the naked man stops.
There is a freight of history here.
He tries again: “The orange mask is tranquility—feelings of contentment, images of peace. The blue mask is euphoria. The red mask is anger. But the green mask…the green mask is something else entirely.”
“What does it do?” Winston asks, looking up from the floor next to the bed.
And the man is silent again.
Peering over his shoulder, Winston watches a coal flare in the shadows. Sir August smokes a putrid brand of European tobacco. It was one of the first things Winston noticed at the train station, where they met—a cloud like burning pollution. If smoke could rot, he thinks.
“You don’t have to tell me about it,” Winston says, backtracking. “I’m just curious.”
“No. It’s fine. I’m just trying to figure out how to describe it. There is…a failure of language in this territory.”
Winston’s fingers play across the book between his steepled knees. Leather-bound, tall and wide: Historia, XV, the title page says, a simple name scrawled in ornate script. The book is handwritten. There are dated entries—black text illuminated in red and brown. He traces the lines of a freehand sketch inscribed on an otherwise blank page; it depicts a rather nondescript mask.
The sweat is drying on Winston’s naked shoulders and back, wicking the heat into the cold Catskills air. There is snow in the dark outside. There are trees all around the chalet. The world is cold and dark and ugly, he thinks.
And it’s almost time.
But he puts it off. Listening. Learning.
“Be careful with that book,” Sir August says. “It’s my life’s work. Like the previous volume was my father’s.”
“A family of archivists,” Winston says.
“It’s an honor. We’re the keepers of secrets.”
There is another cigarette flare in the shadows. Another pregnant pause.
Then: “I’ve only used the green mask once. There are members of the inner circle who can’t get enough of it—a half dozen who are fracturing, breaking apart, losing cohesion. I’m afraid we’re going to have to clean house sometime soon…The mask brings things to the surface. Thoughts. Memories. That’s how I’d describe it. But that’s wrong, not quite right. I remember putting the mask on and spinning through a tunnel of brambles. I fell from a thicket in the sky and landed in the middle of a field behind my parent’s estate in Berkshire. I was young, and I remember this day. I approached the house and I could see my parents through the back window. My father was dressed in his charcoal grey business suit, standing with his arms held wide; my mother was in her sundress, crouched down over a man on the floor. The man was naked. He was writhing, his back arched and his fingers clutching at the carpet. My mother’s arms and cheeks were smeared with blood, and she was…my God, she was smiling…” There is no silence this time in Sir August’s pause, just an exhaled hiss. “I had my hands cupped to the glass, and as I stood there, spying, my father turned toward me. There was blood smeared in four-finger streaks down his face, and when he saw me the streaks split open, cracking along a perfect smile. He beckoned me in. And…and I joined them. I was filled with so much excitement at the time; whatever they were doing, it felt like I was now a part of my parents’ private world. There were gouges in the naked man’s flesh—deep and burbling with crimson—and my mother daubed my forehead and cheeks with his blood. The man’s eyes were clenched shut, and he was groaning in pain. My father said ‘Welcome, son. Welcome to your birthright.’ He handed me a knife and had me carve my initials into the man’s trembling flesh. With each cut there was a low hiss, punctuated at the end by a keening howl.”
Sir August halts, shakes his head, and takes a deep drag on his cigarette.
“I’d wandered into some type of initiation—one of my parents’ personal acolytes—and that’s how I learned about my heritage, about the world I’d been born into. The green mask…I guess it just brought this memory to the surface, pushed it into my brain in a rush of nauseating adrenaline. Afterward, I needed the orange mask just to calm myself back down—a hit of tranquility to settle my nerves. Even after that, however, and over two years later, that memory still feels fresh, like an open wound inside my skull.”
And then, quieter: “And I still have dreams.”
“Did it really happen that way?” Winston asks, thinking that the whole thing sounds like a scene from some cheap horror movie. “Do you think your memory’s accurate?”
“Yes, of course. I remember it clearly—that day at my parents’ estate, forty years ago—I remember it like—” He pauses, and Winston fills in the blank, like it was yesterday. “—like it’s still happening.” Then, quieter: “Or, at least, I remember something very much like it.”
Winston isn’t sure, but he thinks he detects a hint of confusion creeping into the older man’s voice. “My father died a long time ago, but I asked my mother about it, about that time in Berkshire…about how I learned about us, about our family. She was in her sickbed at the time, not long before she died. She just kept shaking her head, a horrified look on her face. ‘No, no, no. We’re not monsters,’ she told me. ‘We’ve never been monsters!’ But she was confused, I think, already half dead.”
Winston sits in silence for a while, tracing the drawing of the mask with the tip of his finger.
“What the mask does, however,” Sir August continues, “what it looks for and finds inside your head, what it rides to the surface…I’m not exactly sure. I’ve left a page blank—” He nods toward the book. “—for when I figure that out.”
“Where are the masks kept?”
“That’s a secret.” The man pauses, then leans forward, until his face is in half-light. He smiles around his cigarette. “Madame K has them now—she has the space and the security. A basement room in her estate in Virginia. The old crone loves holding them over us. She charges members for ‘bonus’ visits. She’s using the green mask herself. She looks like a bloody horror show now…absolutely falling apart. But, as I said, that’s all secret. Taboo knowledge.” He leans back and pats the bedspread at his side. Then smiles a wicked smile. “Now get back over here. I’m just about ready for another go.”
Winston pushes the book aside and pauses with his hand on the pile of discarded clothing next to the nightstand. His fingers slip into his jacket pocket.
He thinks about what Sir August’s mother had said. We’re not monsters. But Winston knows otherwise.
“Why are you telling me these things?” he asks, as he circles the bed and crawls in from the far side, holding his sharpened screwdriver cradled against his forearm. There is very little light in the room; the floor is bathed in moonlight, but the bed is back in shadow. He’s sure Sir August can’t see his hand.
There is a whisper of movement as he draws near, Sir August reaching for the ashtray and putting out his cigarette. Then there is a pause, and a responding whisper: “I’m telling you these things, my pretty boy, because I know who you are. Simon told me all about you…the lonely lover waiting at home.”
And the older man moves.
There is a blade in the air, arcing through a beam of moonlight, disappearing back into shadow as it nears Winston’s chest. Winston falls forward, into Sir August’s body, and the blade misses, the man’s wrist colliding with his shoulder. Bruising him hard. The man is not anchored on the bed, and Winston’s weight topples him over backward, his shoulder striking and bouncing him off the nightstand. Sir August’s torso turns and he hits the floor bicep first. His Historia, still open on the floor, slides beneath his weight, and Winston hears pages crumple and tear.
The knife is still in Sir August’s hand, but before he can think to raise it, Winston follows the man over the side of the bed, managing to bring the screwdriver around.
The screwdriver’s filed-down tip hits Sir August dead-center in the throat, and it doesn’t stop until it splinters the floor. Vertebrae scrape and split—at least Winston thinks they do, thinks he can feel a tug of resistance in the plastic handle, holding strong for a mere millisecond before giving way.
Then Sir August is groaning and sputtering, blood pooling in his throat and on the floor. He doesn’t last long, going suddenly still after a brief convulsion.
And the knife drops from his hand.
Winston rolls off the man’s naked body and scrambles for the leather-bound book, pushing it away from the newly made corpse, making sure it is safe from the spreading pool of blood—even if torn and crumpled and quite a bit worse for wear. It could prove useful in the coming days, Winston thinks. Then he lifts himself up onto his knees.
He surveys Sir August’s corpse.
“That’s for Simon, you miserable fuck,” he growls, tempted to rear back and spit on the man’s body. Instead, he turns and vomits onto the floor.
In retrospect, they were in love. Or so Winston thinks.
He is making coffee while Simon sorts through his closet, picking out clothing in a haphazard way, throwing it toward his open suitcase. A rented tux is already laid out on the bed.
“You shouldn’t do it,” Winston says. “You shouldn’t go. You should get a normal job.”
“Like you?” Simon asks. “You’re miserable at the store. I hear you complain about it all the time. You sound like a bitter old woman. You sound like you’re worn down to a tiny little nub…I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want to live that way.” Then he leans back out of the closet and turns, smiling. “Besides, you said you were fine with what I do. You said you didn’t get jealous.”
“I don’t. And I’m not. But…” He wants to continue, to convince Simon to stay, to hold him here and keep him happy, but he doesn’t know how.
And Simon continues to pack. The smile lingers on his face.
It hurts Winston to think about him this way. Vibrant. And so very, very alive. But it’s worse to think about him the other way, about what he’s like when he gets back from Virginia, from his whore’s holiday.
In those weeks, in the heart of that cold and snowy winter, Simon spends all of his time in their bedroom, the blankets wrapped around him like he’s trying to burrow into a cocoon. He is pale, and getting paler. He doesn’t want to fuck. He isn’t himself.
“I can’t sleep,” he says. It is the middle of the night, a week after his return from Virginia. They are in bed together. There is no moon outside, but the streetlamps tint the snow a vibrant orange. “It’s always in my head—this changed thing. And it’s growing. It’s getting stronger.”
Winston can feel Simon next to him, fairly vibrating. “Tell me about it.”
Our lives are built on stories.
And Simon begins. “It was…it was at the party in Virginia. An old plantation house. Sir August brought someone in to cut my hair the night before; he briefed me on my manners—don’t wander too far, don’t speak unless spoken to, don’t express too much interest in anything odd I might see. I had to look good and proper for his peers. I had to be polite. I had to be his pretty little consort, dangling like a jewel from his wrist. There was music; there was caviar, champagne, candles in the chandeliers. There were speeches, songs, toasts to a successful year. And then, in groups, we went downstairs.
“There were ten of us in our group. We stopped in a big dark room…there was a line of brightly colored masks against the wall. Four of them, I think. Orange, red, blue, and green. Sir August didn’t put one on…he just gestured me over, whispered for me to behave, and fitted the green one against my face.” Simon falls silent. Winston feels his breathing stop for a moment, then hitch back with a shuddering gasp. “It was dark, and I could hear someone laughing, a grating sound spiraling into the distance…Then, inexplicably, I was back playing baseball. It was the state championship. I remember. I told you about it, right, my ‘glory days?’ The ninth-inning single I stretched into a double, how the second baseman was surprised, how he missed catching the outfielder’s throw? And me running…faster than I’ve ever run? Making it all the way home?” And Simon sobs. “The greatest feeling in the world…But now it’s gone. I remember elbowing the second baseman in the face, brutal blood exploding out of his mouth. I remember the umpires yelling as I came home. And I was just so angry…so, so angry. And I slid in, the play over and the catcher unaware, and my cleats hit his skull. It didn’t happen that way.” But there is doubt in his voice now. “Or was I just fooling myself all of this time? Why did I do it? We didn’t win, of course, I put that guy in a coma…But I got the trophy! And I just don’t understand. I don’t understand how it could happen that way.
“I want to go back. I want to go back to that mask, to see it again…to see if it’s true. But I can’t imagine…I don’t think I could handle—”
Winston reaches out to hold him, but Simon pulls away, letting out an angry hiss. “Don’t touch me,” he says. “I don’t deserve to be touched.”
And he retreats to the living room, taking his blankets with him, remaking his cocoon on the sofa.
And Winston watches him fade. Over the following days. Over a week and a half. He tries to shore up the truth—you won that game, you played safe and fair, you’re just confused—but Simon doesn’t listen. Simon doesn’t believe. Winston tries to get him help, tries to take him to the hospital, to a psychiatrist, but Simon refuses.
Then, one day, “It’s going, going, gone,” Simon whispers. The memory, Winston knows. The truth. And there is no longer fear in his voice. Just sadness.
The next morning, Simon’s not in the living room. He’s not in the bathroom, not in the bedroom.
He’s gone. And Winston doesn’t find him until it’s far too late. Out in the cold. Out in the bitter, deadly cold.
Our lives are built on stories.
But buildings fall when foundations crumble.
The group calls itself Carnem Ex. Flesh out. To Winston, it sounds like a bunch of aging aristocrats playing at games of power. But they found the masks. And that makes them something more.
Winston studies Sir August’s Historia on the train ride from New York to Richmond, Virginia.
According to Sir August’s book, Carnem Ex found the masks in a catacomb beneath Paris. They got word of the location via whisper network. They paid informants and researched local legend; they traced the masks from Egypt to the UK in the late 1800s, then, stolen, to Paris and the Underground. How the masks got to Egypt in the first place—who made them and how—no one seems to know.
In the late 1980s, a nest of barely human sewer-dwellers held the masks as sacred. The sewer-dwellers were ghuls, some people claimed, feasting on communion-sanctified human flesh. Pale anyway, and very, very anti-social. The vault where the masks were kept was considered holy ground to the group, untouchable.
Sir August hadn’t been present during the assault on the catacombs, the “valiant operation” that had “liberated” the masks from the “flea-bitten savages” (as he so eloquently puts it), but he compiled accounts from the team’s leader, and from the higher-ranking participants, and transcribed them in precise print onto the book’s rough pages. To Winston, it reads like pulp fiction—pale, bestial beings fleeing flashlight flares and shotgun blasts; brave hero explorers liberating priceless relics. All it needs is an orchestral score, a swooning maiden, and a medal of honor at the end, and it would be a B-movie producer’s dream.
Winston wonders at the truth of the situation. Something far less noble, he is sure. Nothing heroic, just petty thugs engaged in a graceless smash-and-grab. But Sir August has a flare for making murder and atrocity sound justified and noble.
Monsters wearing masks of words, he thinks, hiding behind books and rules and rituals. They need their masks, he guesses. It’s the only way they can recognize themselves.
Since the eighties, the four masks have been kept out of circulation. Too dangerous to actually use, something to be honored and feared and admired from a distance…Until recently, that is, until Madame K wrested control.
Now they are a game, Winston thinks. A late-night lark, forced on the innocent. Forced on Simon.
The train is nearly empty.
Winston leans against the window and stares down at the edge of the passing track. The world outside the glass is getting brighter and drier and warmer the farther south they get.
The adrenaline that had surged through his body at Sir August’s chalet is long gone, and he feels absolutely exhausted. Not too much farther, he thinks. Not too much longer.
The first half of his plan is done. Sir August is dead. The second half, the second target of his vengeance, is waiting for him in Virginia. The green mask. To see it broken into pieces on the floor. For what it did to Simon.
And Winston closes his eyes.
This isn’t when they first met. That is an unremarkable moment, a mutual friend DJing at a club. Yadda-yadda-yadda. Not even a lingering glance. Instead, this is their first date.
And it is Simon asking Winston, and that is a surprise. I…I didn’t think you were interested. Andrei—a friend—and if not Andrei, then Jack—a friend Winston doesn’t particularly like—I thought you were courting…and that’s a weird word to use, and Winston is surprised to say it.
But Simon just smiles. Boring, he says, and dumb.
They go to a movie. Repeatedly glancing over in the dark, and Winston seeing Simon smiling back, moving closer. They don’t make it to the final credits—the movie is bad, the seats uncomfortable, and they’re both distracted. Coffee and pastry instead. And surprisingly comfortable laughter. Simon’s smile so bright, Winston can’t help feeling warm—to inspire that, to inspire that light! They talk, Simon asking him about his post-grad studies, about his job, seeming genuinely interested. Winston asking and Simon expounding on his music—once fronting a band, reveling in the spotlight. But things fall apart, Simon says, now working PR at an indie record label, unable to make a living wage. But he smiles anyway. He doesn’t mention his second job…that’s third date territory.
And it’s dark when they leave, and spitting a light rain. But it’s summer, and not cold, and the air smells like wet ivy and cherry blossoms.
Wait, Simon says, grabbing hold of Winston’s arm, looking up and down the street. Sly eyes peering out through damp hair, glistening in reflected sodium-arc light. Pulling Winston through an open gate, into someone’s dark front yard. There is a hedge and a solid wood fence here, and the moon is coming out, splitting the rain clouds. The moon is large—not full, but large. And Simon presses Winston up against the fence.
And his body, his lips, and his hands. Touching. And Winston gasps. And it is something strange, he thinks, giddy, when the world conspires to make us happy. And this is the happiest he has ever been.
But even in the dream there is loss, the knowledge, lurking in the shadows—behind that hedge, in that movie theater, back behind that moon—that this won’t last. This happy memory will be just a memory again, soon, tainted by dark action, by what Carnem Ex and Sir August, Madame K and that mysterious green mask have done.
And he doesn’t want to wake up from this night, doesn’t want to relent and once again find himself in that rocking train. Doesn’t want to leave Simon’s hands. Doesn’t want to lose the smile on Simon’s face—a smile that is all his own, its focus and incredulous source.
He clings. Just a little bit longer.
He clings, still.
In this place inside his head.
Madame K’s full name is Madame Cecily Karnov. Winston finds it in Sir August’s book—one of seventeen names inscribed in the book’s front cover, etched into a maze of illuminated curlicues. Carnem Ex‘s inner circle, he gathers. Three names have been crossed out. Only one “K” remains.
He finds her address on the internet. There are magazine articles about her palatial estate, about the architecture and landscaping; there are notices about her charity galas; there’s an open invitation for a children’s Easter Egg Hunt—complete with directions and parking instructions—dated 2008. Madame Karnov doesn’t seem to be the type to take a low profile.
Winston rents a car at the Staples Mill Road train station. He uses some of the money he found in Sir August’s chalet—there’d been a bundle of fifties in the nightstand drawer, next to a lighter and a pack of the man’s horrible-smelling cigarettes.
Then he drives west.
It is just past sunset when Winston leaves Richmond, and the sky on the horizon up ahead is painted a vibrant pink. The atmosphere on that side of the world is clear, but there are wispy cirrus clouds over the dark indigo at his back. The sight is far too pretty, he thinks, far too cheerful.
The world should be dark. The world should be ugly.
Anything else is false advertising.
He stops at a Kmart ten miles from Madame Karnov’s estate. He buys a Diet Coke, a pair of scissors, and a pack of cigarettes. He doesn’t know why he buys the cigarettes. He doesn’t smoke. Simon smoked.
He cuts his hair in the car, trying to make the sides and back as short as he can; then he pulls his bangs forward until they hang in his face. Examining himself in the rearview mirror, he knows he looks like shit, but he doesn’t care. As long as he looks like the right kind of shit. Like Simon had looked in his final days. Then he tosses the scissors out the window and drives the final ten miles to Madame Karnov’s house.
There in an intercom at the front gate—a waist-high box recessed in a tall wrought-iron fence. It is full dark, but Winston can see the top levels of the house in the distance, on the other side of a well-manicured lawn. The building is wide, curving around a circular drive, and its façade glows an immaculate white under the glare of lawn-based spotlights.
Winston pauses for a time, staring up at the house.
This won’t work, he tells himself.
It has to, he responds—another voice inside his head, this one seething with anger—for Simon’s sake.
And he presses the button on the intercom box.
“State your business.” It’s a masculine voice. A security guard.
“I…I need to see Madame Karnov,” Winston manages. “I was here before. Back on New Year’s. I came with Sir August? I have money…I have some money. It’s about the green mask. It’s important…about the green mask.”
There is silence. Then: “Hold on.”
Winston fidgets nervously. He touches his pants, feeling Sir August’s hunting knife in his pocket. The weapon feels small and weak and insufficient. I should have found a gun, he thinks.
Then there is a loud buzz, and the gate slides open.
Winston waits for instructions from the security guard, but none come. After half a minute, he pulls forward and drives up to the house.
The security guard meets him at the front door. The man is big and imposing, dressed in an immaculate black suit and standing bolt upright—at least six-foot-four and 250 pounds. He looks like a Secret Service agent, Winston thinks, cowed by the sight. If it were daytime, the man would be wearing dark glasses. And an earpiece.
“You shouldn’t be here,” the man says. Then his impassive face crumples, and his brow bunches with worry. “I’m serious,” he says in a confiding whisper. And he glances back over his shoulder. “You should get far, far away from this place. It’s toxic. She’s out of control.”
Winston is surprised at the man’s words, and at the earnest, pained expression on his face. He takes a confused step back.
“Marshall?” a voice calls from inside the house.
The black-clad man steps back, his face suddenly placid once again.
“Who’s there? Who’s at the door?” The voice is frail but lilting—a high-pitched tremble.
Madame Karnov is an old woman who almost certainly looks older than she actually is. A desiccated mummy—stringy white hair hanging stiff over ravaged skin, her rail-thin body wrapped in a yellow robe. When the security guard steps aside, Winston finds her descending the staircase from the second floor, gripping the polished railing with her skeletal left hand. Palmed in her right hand, Winston is surprised to see a mask. It is an orange mask.
“Do I know you?” the old woman asks.
Winston clears his throat. He is feeling nervous, but he doesn’t try to hide the tremble in his voice. He wants to sound wretched. He wants to sound as bad as the old woman looks. “We met back on New Year’s. I was here with Sir August. He…he showed me the green mask.”
The old woman reaches the bottom of the staircase and pauses. She tilts her head, studying him. Just how observant is this old hag? he wonders. Did she even give Simon a second glance, or was he just the whore on Sir August’s arm, unworthy of her attention?
“Oh yes, you,” Madame Karnov finally continues. “I’m sorry. My mind’s been wandering a lot these days. I should have recognized you. That day…I remember thinking you might be back. It’s a sign of power, you know, to be chosen like that, to be receptive and willing. But it’s hard. It takes a toll.” And she raises the orange mask. It is trembling in her hand. She puts it to her face and her entire body shudders. When she lowers it a couple of seconds later, there is a relaxed smile on her face
The orange mask is tranquility, Winston remembers. The mask looks like it’s made from a smoothed and contoured piece of wood, whittled down thin and painted a glistening orange sheen. There is no mouth or nose or eye holes.
Winston steps forward. He digs into his pocket and pulls out the cash remaining from Sir August’s bundle. “I…I brought money. I want to see it again.” He pushes the money into Madame Karnov’s free hand.
She stares at the cash for a moment, then smiles. “You can leave us, Marshall,” the old woman says, her voice drifting, fragile. “Everything’s safe. I’m doing business with my new friend here.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the security guard says. Then, without even glancing Winston’s way, he turns and disappears through a door beneath the staircase.
As soon as he’s gone, Madame Karnov’s left hand drops down to her side, and the money spills to the floor. She doesn’t seem to notice. Or care.
“This way,” she says. “I could use the company.”
Then, the orange mask still palmed in her hand, she leads the way back into her silent house.
The air grows cold as they make their way underground.
“I thought it would be a good idea,” the old woman says, her voice shaking, “letting people use the masks. I thought it would give us power. But not everyone can handle it…not like us.” She nods toward Winston, and her face contorts into a horrible smile. “It changes you, it changes your past, and that makes you a different person. Some people just can’t handle that. Some people just can’t let go of what they were.”
In the stairwell, Winston notices a sour smell coming from the old woman. She smells like rot and sweat-drenched fever dreams.
“It’s dangerous,” Winston says, his voice barely a whisper.
“What in this world isn’t?” the old woman replies.
The stairwell drops them into a dimly lit corridor. Winston had been expecting some type of dungeon—an echoing catacomb, perhaps, complete with dark stone walls, torches in sconces, and the chill of graves. Instead, he finds an oddly clinical hallway. There’s laminate flooring beneath their feet, and a stippled drop-tile ceiling above their heads. Madame Karnov leads the way past a half-dozen shut doors, then pulls to a stop in front of a seventh.
There’s another security guard posted outside this door—a smaller man, all compact muscle and permanent scowl. He holds the door open for Madame Karnov, nodding slightly as she steps into the room; he gives Winston a hard glare but lets him follow her inside, closing the door on his heels.
And Winston finds himself alone with Madame K.
The room they are in is deep, dark, and mostly empty, illuminated by a set of spotlights focused against the far wall. There are four ornamental shelves recessed in this wall. In order, Winston sees the red mask, the blue mask, the green mask, and then an empty alcove where the orange mask would have normally been.
“I brought them here almost three years ago, right after old man Winslow passed away. Suicide, you know. He was always so protective of the masks. He wouldn’t let anyone touch them.” Madame Karnov lets out a sigh—a rattling, exhausted wind. “Maybe he was right. Sometimes I’m convinced, sometimes I’m not. It showed me…the mask shows me…” And she trails off into silence. When she turns toward Winston, there’s a thoughtful distance in her eyes. “There’s a compulsion for self-discovery, I guess, buried deep inside the human soul. It brings us back here again and again. No matter how painful…What did the mask show you, my dear boy? What miracles? What altered landscapes?”
Winston doesn’t reply. Instead, he steps up to the green mask. It runs like quicksilver in the dim light—different shades in swirling motion, running from pastel green to near black. Unlike the orange mask, there are shapes on its colored surface—a hurricane under where the left eyehole should have been, whirling out into hash marks and thick dark lines.
Winston glances over. None of the other masks have any type of marking. They are all solid colors. The green mask is different. Special.
“Put it on,” Madame Karnov says. “And, please, try to narrate what you see. I want to know it all. Every moment.”
Winston lifts the mask and holds it about six inches from his face. Then he lowers it, turns, and walks over to Madame Karnov. She is smiling in anticipation. Her teeth are nasty, discolored bits of chalk; they radiate that sour smell that he’d noticed earlier—earth and rot, sweat and rutting bodies. And as Winston nears, Madame Karnov lifts the orange mask to her face. She puts it on and lets out a contented sigh.
Winston reaches into his pocket and pulls out Sir August’s hunting knife. He is quick and merciful about his vengeance, driving the blade up and into the back of Madame Karnov’s skull. At the impact, the orange mask jolts from her hand and clatters across the floor.
There is no look of surprise on the old woman's face. Just contentment. I did her a mercy, he thinks, killing her while she was wearing that mask. She had no idea what was coming. The last thing she knew, that last moment, was tranquility. Far better than what she deserved. She deserved to die screaming, in pain, horrified at the darkness closing in. For Simon’s sake.
Madame Karnov’s body falls, taking the knife down with her. Winston stares at the blood on his hand—thick on the ball of his palm and smeared across his forearm, where her body pulled her down—then he wipes it clean against his shirt.
And he stares down at the green mask, still cupped in his left hand.
It changes you, Winston thinks, remembering Madame Karnov’s words, watching the miniature hurricane twirl across the mask’s cheek. It makes you a different person. But maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. Not now, not in a world without Simon. He has nothing left to lose.
Besides, he is curious. He wants to know what the green mask will show—what miracles, what altered landscapes? as Madame Karnov had asked.
He contemplates the mask for a couple seconds more, then fits it to his face.
—and finds himself falling into a movie theater. Dark, rustling all around. He looks over and sees Simon, sitting there at his side, a wide smirk on his face. This is—what?—behind the mask, what? A dream—my memory? And Simon out loud: Fuck this shit. Let’s go. And Shhhhhhhs from the surrounding audience, tossing daggers with their eyes, and Simon gets up, pulling Winston to his feet behind him. And out into the lobby. And he isn’t laughing, just growling, and they retreat across the street. The sky is the sickly yellow of city-tinted storm clouds, and the street smells like simmering garbage. They sit drinking coffee, and Simon steals half of Winston’s croissant without asking, distracted eyes roaming the room. And he is tight-lipped about his job—angry then silent, talking about being a star but wasn’t, never made that mark, now sifting the bitter dregs of the music industry. His eyes barely acknowledge Winston as Winston describes his studies. I never had patience for schooling, Simon says, rolling his eyes, too much bullshit, too much pretension. I prefer to think for myself. And then, let’s go, again pulling Winston to his feet and across the room, bumping into a couple near the door, grumbling for them to get out of the way. And it’s pouring outside, the sky suddenly cold. And Simon pulls Winston into a front yard three blocks away. Winston shivers, uncomfortable, the clouds still thick overhead, still spitting rain. He pushes back, but Simon grunts in his ear, and he stops pushing. Cold, and just wanting to get out of there, feeling Simon hard against him, and helping him along, just to move things forward. And an animal growl—Fuck!—and Simon’s done, buttoning his pants, his full weight against Winston, breathing heavily. And: Do you need a ride home? And he does, but Winston shakes his head No. He’d rather walk home alone. Cold and wet and—
And the mask falls away from his face.
Winston finds himself on his knees next to Madame Karnov’s body. The green mask is cupped in his hands. He turns it over. The swirling hurricane on its cheek has grown, engulfing the hollow where the left eyehole should have been.
Simon wasn’t like that, he thinks, horrified.
The mask lies. And: Why did I put it on?
Nothing left to lose? Had he actually thought that thought?
But Simon had been crass. Why had Winston kept going back, ending up in his bed, falling in love? A crass, callous whore. But that’s a lie! Winston thinks, shaking his head. That isn’t what happened!…Or is it? And the hurricane is even bigger now, nearly half of the mask swimming in its deep, dark whirlpool currents.
And Winston knows that he’d been wrong. So, so wrong.
Nothing left to lose? He’d had a great deal to lose, a great deal to protect…Simon. He is losing Simon.
And he feels sick. Madame Karnov is leaking blood at his side. A slow trickle, no heartbeat left to spurt. And he killed her. And Sir August. He’d planned it out, turned himself into a murderer. And for what?
For Simon? An asshole, a person who’d used him, who he’d returned to for no good reason, no doubt because of some horrible flaw buried deep in his DNA. Was Winston a monster? Had he been a monster all along?
Simon was certainly not worth killing for. Not worth lifting a finger—
Winston doubles over and vomits onto the floor, forcing out a stomach full of Diet Coke and bile. There are tears streaming down his cheeks as his chest heaves itself dry. When he is done, he tries to sit still for a time, tries not to think, tries not to reconcile the two competing streams of history inside his head: the one where he’d found happiness and righteousness, where he’d sought out and attained justice for the cruelest of wounds, and the one where he’d become a cold-blooded murderer, killing in memory of a stupid asshole.
He knows that one of these is pure fabrication, but he’s starting to forget which. His happiest memory…was it always nothing more than a fantasy, his brain re-writing an ugly truth into a romanticized ideal?
How bad a person is he? How oblivious? How evil?
Our lives are built on stories, Winston thinks. They’re built on the lies we tell ourselves, recasting villains as heroes, editing out inconvenient truths when they muddy the neat progression of our character-defining arcs…And where do I stand?
On shifting, delusional sands.
But the mask lies!
Finally, he stands up. He stares at the green mask for a long second, turns it over, and drops it to the floor. It is surprisingly brittle, and shatters like an eggshell beneath his foot. There is no satisfaction in the act…no relief, no feeling of closure.
He considers keeping the orange mask for himself—a fleeting impulse. It had given Madame Karnov some solace, perhaps slowed her descent into oblivion, but the thought doesn’t linger long, and the orange mask shatters as easily as the green mask had. As does the red. And the blue.
It’s best to end it here, he figures, remembering Madame Karnov on the stairs—a haunted skeleton, barely human. It’s best to leave all of the masks shattered on the floor.
Like so much inside his head.
He expects the security guard to pounce on him as soon as he opens up the door, but he doesn’t. Marshall—the guard who’d greeted him at the front door—is standing just to his co-worker’s side, and when he sees Winston, he holds his arm out and keeps the squat man back.
Winston looks down. He has Madame Karnov’s blood smeared across his shirt. And he can feel more—tacky and heavy—on the skin of his face. He must look horrible, he thinks, like he’s been rolling around on the floor of an abattoir.
He starts to raise his hands, surrendering…but part of him hopes that the guards don’t notice or don’t care, hoping they’ll just end it now, pull out their guns and blow his brains across the hallway wall. The quicker, the better. But maybe it shouldn’t be quick, he thinks. Maybe there should be pain. I certainly don’t deserve anything better.
But instead of pulling a weapon, Marshall takes a step back. He puts his hand firmly on his co-worker’s shoulder and they both turn away, retreating back down the length of the corridor. When they reach the stairwell, before they turn and disappear from sight, Winston sees Marshall look back over his shoulder. The black-clad man offers him a sympathetic nod—is there a hint of thanks in that gesture? Winston wonders—and they disappear.
Winston makes his way back through Madame Karnov’s house. It is empty now—all the lights on, but silent, an eerie stillness in the air. When he reaches the front door, he sees a car all the way down the length of the driveway. He watches it signal, turn onto the main road, and disappear…The security guards. Fleeing.
Our lives are built on stories.
Winston fumbles with his keys for a moment. He unlocks the rental car and falls inside. Then he sits in silence, staring out at the night sky.
The moon is large. Crystal clear, Winston can see the shape of craters etched onto its surface—sharp shadows on white dust, pockmarks like frozen ripples. There isn’t a cloud in the surrounding darkness, just indigo-bathed stars dotting the heavens.
Again, he thinks, the sky is far too beautiful.
Again, he thinks, the world lies.
The new version of his past will grow inside his head. He knows this. It’ll grow and push everything else out, until it is the only truth he’ll be able to believe. He saw it with Sir August—in thrall to a memory he would never doubt. He saw it with Simon—under assault from a new soul, too dark for him to bear.
And Winston wonders, How will I react? Like Simon had? Shivering in the dark, choking on anguish, self-destructing? Or will I become something new? Something worse?
Already, he feels the past gibbering outside his head—this dark, contrary thing, itching to move in, itching to take control.
Maybe it is easier for evil people. Sir August. Madame Karnov. Maybe perverting their happiest memories, their character-defining experiences, doesn’t really change them all that much. They still end up selfish mercenaries, looking out for their own good…and damn the consequences, damn morality, damn the new wounds to their already wounded souls.
But Winston always thought of himself as a good person. Even if it was a lie—truth or delusion, it was the reality inside his head.
And the wounds to our core are the most dangerous, he thinks. The skin inside, beneath all of those masks, is the most tender.
He starts the car and lets it idle.
He glances over at the passenger seat and notices the pack of cigarettes he bought at the Kmart earlier. It is Simon’s brand. American Spirit Lights, in their distinctive yellow sleeve. He grabs it, crumples the unopened package in his fist, and tosses it out the window.
Then he hits the gas and flees.
|Richard E. Gropp is the Bram Stoker Award-nominated author of Bad Glass. His short fiction has appeared in Interzone, Pulp Literature, Daily Science Fiction, and Wilde Stories: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction. He is a Pacific Northwest native, but currently lives in Florida with his husband, Jim, their dog, Ripley, and their cat, Scratch.|