The Masks of None
The gang of children passed a muddy
football from one to the other. Bounced it off the kerb. The tallest kicked it
over their heads, over a low privet hedge, and into an abandoned garden. The house
had not been empty long but it looked like it had never known life. Dark
windows like pools of oil and the For Sale sign staked to the neglected lawn.
Vicky opened the gate. It squeaked. The girls entered, overacting their search for the ball. Sarah hung back. She looked at the neighbouring windows but their trespass had gone unnoticed. She followed the group down the drive, past the side door to a garage set back from the house.
“Go on, open it,” said Vicky, taking satisfaction from the expectant looks of the younger girls.
Dawn quickly obliged. She was bulky, bovine. She’d push you to the ground and laugh, if someone told her what to do.
The garage door wasn’t locked. The handle twisted; a pull from the bottom and the thing lifted up on two concrete pillars, wired to counter- weight the door.
“See, told you it wasn’t locked,” said Vicky. “That’s enough, Dawn. Go on, roll under”.
“Do we have to?” said Sarah, staring over to her house two doors down. “There won’t be anything good in there.”
Dawn stopped the door, just enough to let the other girls scramble underneath.
“Cool, paint” came a voice under the door.
“I’m dead if Mum comes out.”
“Chill,” said Vicky. “We’ll be quiet. Remember, we’re just looking for our ball.”
She disappeared inside.
Sarah followed with a quick look back at the drive. She pulled the door down behind her and the concrete posts shot up, dangling out of reach of the five bobbing heads.
The garage was dark with the door closed. It was empty except for some broken stuff that the owners hadn’t thrown out. Dented paint cans, stiff bristled brushes, broken dip sticks and jars containing remnants of goo. All forgotten on rusting metal shelves that stood nearly to the roof. On the back wall there was a set of broken steps and piles of faded old curtains and furniture drapes, dusty and flecked with paint. The only small window was ringed dark green with moss. The garage smelled of mould and a black patch crept out of one corner like a shadow.
Rachel stood straight up and started barking like a dog.
“How how howww.”
She still moved with the childhood grace of the unaware but her small eyes searched the garage for mischief with not the slightest bit of fear.
“Shut up,” said Sarah, twitching about the closed door. “My neighbours are really nosey. They’re in, they’ll be round.”
“Oooh,” said Rachel. “Will-y” She yelled at the top of her voice. “Sarah loves you, Mr Williams.”
Sarah wanted to run away but she did not.
Vicky pulled out a cigarette and lit it. She dragged on it slowly and passed it between the eager girls. The smoke curled with the darkness and sent tendrils under the door. “I’m here,” it whispered to the neighbours in Sarah’s mind. Once it was done, Debs crushed the red end into the floor.
Rachel bounced to the paint cans and tried to get one open.
“Can’t. You do it.”
She thrusted the rusting thing at her sister. Debs got the top off with the dip stick and gave her both back.
Rachel crouched round the can, intent and excited, stirring the congealed contents into a hideous duck egg blue. She dipped a brush and spattered paint up the wall.
“Don’t. They’ll know it was us,” said Sarah.
“You said the owners moved abroad,” said Dawn.
Sarah wished she hadn’t tried to gain favour by telling Vicky about the empty house.
“Yeah, but the new people. Don’t.”
“She’s scared,” said Rachel.
She flicked a glob of paint. It landed in Sarah’s hair.
“Ahh, get it out.”
“They’ll know it was you now,” said Deb. “Do it again Rach.”
Rach flicked some at her instead.
“Agh, little bitch!”
“Sssh,” said Vicky.
They all stopped. A car pulled up. Footsteps crunched on gravel.
“You go,” said Dawn.
“Just look under the door, stupid.”
But Dawn didn’t move.
A man’s voice, right outside the garage door.
The girls froze. Debs and Rachel exchanged glances, started giggling. Then grunted with the strain of trying not to.
“Shut up,” said Vicky. She bashed Debs on the arm.
Sarah crept to the pile of sheets, lifted them and beckoned the girls. Vicky looked at the door then moved. The others followed.
The sniggering increased as the curtain came over their heads. It smelled of damp, mould, dust.
“Wooooo,” went Debs. “I’m a ghoooost.”
“Shut up,” said Dawn, with even more noise.
Sarah sat on a box with her head buried in her knees. The smell of the cigarette filled her with fear. It tasted rank in her mouth and she wished she’d gone to play with Janie instead. The other girls picked on Janie for still playing with dolls and made Sarah join in with them. But Sarah never got into trouble when she played with Janie.
The steps on the gravel came again, and then the car. Finally it was quiet but the girls stayed still a bit longer before throwing off the sheets. The dust particles spiralled in the limited light from the window.
“What you sitting on?” asked Debs.
Sarah didn’t know. She looked at the box between her legs. Heavy, dark wood, beautifully carved. She jumped down and stared at the patterns, wiping the dust out of the grooves. The carvings reminded her of the love spoons at her gran’s house. The girls pulled the curtains away to reveal a small wooden chest. Sarah imagined it in her room, full of her things. She immediately decided to keep it, began thinking of ways to get it home. It would be hers. She stroked the surface. The ridges of the carving were smooth with wax, giving it a softened, living feel.
Debs and Dawn snatched the box from under her hands and dragged it into the centre of the floor. Wood scraped against the concrete. Rachel jumped onto the lid with a thud.
“Get off!” shouted Sarah.
“What’s in it?” asked Vicky.
“Spiders,” said Debs.
“Urgh! I’m not opening it,” said Dawn. “You open it, Sarah.”
“Fine. I like spiders.” She wasn’t sure if she did but she liked how it sounded. She wasn’t scared of spiders and for once that made her the brave one.
She slid her hands around the box. Two bands of uncarved wood met at the join. She opened the lid.
The smell of stale escaped. The chest was blackened inside, as if a fire had burned within. A stained rag covered the bottom. It looked like oil or tar. Sarah thought of the mess on her dad’s jeans that time the car exhaust leaked.
Rachel grabbed the paint stick and poked at the rag. Nothing crawled so she lifted it out the box, dangling it on the edge of the blue tipped stick. She shook it in Dawns face before throwing it back onto the curtains.
The girls stared at the bottom of the chest. Two masks lay on a bed of straw.
Grecian faces made of wood. Neither laughing nor frowning, their slit-mouths were carved in wide open lines. Space for a hiss although not quite room for a scream. Two perfect circles for eyes that looked cruel, unusual in their symmetry.
“Cool,” said Rachel, poking at one with her stick.
She picked it up and turned it over. Leather straps were roughly nailed into the crude back.
“Looks like a monkey,” said Debs.
Rachel put the strap over her head and started jumping around, her arms waving at her sides, making noises like an ape.
“Oogh oogh oogh.”
She got louder. Jumped higher.
The others laughed and clapped.
“Oogh oogh oogh.”
Vicky saw their approval and snatched the other mask.
Rachel swung from the shelves until they rattled and came away from the wall. Sarah grabbed out to stop it falling.
Debs laughed. “Here, gimme a go.”
Her sister turned away, pulled off the wooden mask and threw it to Debs. But when Rachel turned back to the girls her face was covered with a different mask.
Sarah backed into the shelves. She grabbed at the rusted unit.
Rachel crouched still, her hands out wide. This mask was green, moulded to her features but contorting them. As if hooks skewered her cheeks and eyebrows, unseen hands dragging the flesh up and out, as tight as it would go. She started swaying, eyes closed, or stretched shut, Sarah could not tell.
Rachel turned in slow spinning circles with her arms slightly raised. She moved closer to the other girls and – smack – she punched Clare in the guts.
“Urgh,” Clare groaned. “You’re dead.”
But Rachel kept turning.
Vicky was still. Her head slightly cocked, looking at them through the round eye holes.
Debs had the mask on. Now she was howling, rocking and clutching at her head.
Sarah could only watch. A familiar chill spread up her chest, the same chill that rolled in suddenly when she thought about growing old, or death, or the cancer that had eaten her gran. It made her sick. She couldn’t think or run.
Debs pulled at her hair, scratched at her head, her nails raked the wood on her face. The mask came away with the noise of ripping cloth. She threw it on the floor. Underneath was a new mask, just as ugly, just as painful. So she ripped at that until it came away. And another and another. The masks piled up around her, but she was oblivious to everything in desperation to reclaim her own skin. She slumped and rocked with the strain.
Sarah crept further into the garage. Inside, she screamed “run” but the way out was blocked by those things and the door was firmly shut.
Dawn began to understand. She shrunk, wobbled, looked between the things that had once been her friends.
Then Vicky moved. With one hand she took off the wooden mask and held it out in front of her. She advanced on Dawn. Her face was now covered with a thick clear coating. Underneath her features looked blurred, like they had started melting into pools of wax. Last summer Vicky helped Sarah dig up a goldfish buried in a snappy bag behind her garage. A liquid yellow blob, held together by the plastic, threads of matter running through and a large black smudge in the centre, like the stone of a decaying fruit.
“Stop it,” said Dawn, backing away.
But she didn’t know how to stop Vicky forcing the mask onto her face.
The others howled and roared. They beat each other and pulled off their masks, their legs bent like insects.
Suddenly there was a rattle, a creek, and the garage door lifted up. Feet, then legs, then the body of Sarah’s neighbour appeared, his wife peering over his shoulder. Vicky jerked to face him and let Dawn fall.
“What are you doing? You’re not supposed to be in here,” said Mr Williams. “I could hear your racket from inside. Come out of there, all of you.”
Sarah looked stunned, between him and them.
“Sarah, is that you?”
He stared at the paint covered wall, then at the scene on the garage floor. The girls writhed where they crouched, slow subdued movements. The moans dimmed to a low hum.
“What have you got there?” he said, advancing into the garage.
He picked up a mask and stared into the back of it.
“No, don’t,” said Sarah.
But Mr Williams didn’t listen.
“Look at these, love.”
He picked up another mask and handed it to his wife.
They turned them over in their hands.
What was left of the girls twisted, hummed.
“These are funny,” she said, trailing her fingers across the blank face.
“Put them down,” said Sarah.
But they still did not listen. They put the masks on. The pack howled. Then Mr Williams howled and his wife fell on her fat knees.
Sarah scuttled to the front of the garage, towards the opened door. She looked at the others, bobbing, howling, and throwing more masks to the floor. The pile got bigger and bigger.
She turned back to see her dad marching down the drive.
“Sarah! What’s all the noise? Mr Williams complained, said you were over here.”
“Dad, we’ve got to go.”
She dragged on his arm.
“Don’t be silly Sarah, what’s going on? Is that Jim?”
“Don’t go in there Dad, please.”
“Hang on, just a minute, what have they got there?”
Her dad shook her off and went into the garage.
Sarah ran down the drive, onto the street, past her old house. The noise exploded behind her.