Behind His Mask

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Chapter 21 - Sleep in One Place, Wake Up in Another

I barreled headfirst into Evander’s room in Emi’s basement. The windows let in so much light, it made the place sparkle. I was in the white part of Thistle Comb again. It was obvious when I saw Loring lying peacefully on the bed, but his presence wasn’t the only thing that was different from the other bedrooms I’d been in thus far. For one thing, clothes weren’t strewn all over the carpet. There was no dust on the bookshelves and the mos-eye-ic was different. The whole thing had been done over in white and gray. Since the eyes had fewer colors than a black and white photo the whole piece felt lifeless. Somehow, it wasn’t Evander’s room; just a poorly constructed copy. But it represented a real place. When would it be taken over by shadow? Would it be when Evander moved out of Emi’s house?

I paced over to the bed and looked at Loring. Was he really that different from Evander? I got closer and decided he was. His face was deathly white and his stubble had been shaved off recently. The clothes he wore were different too. He was wearing soft tan pants and his shirt was a white dress shirt. The first two buttons of his shirt were undone as well as the last two. It was untucked and loose. He was so still, he either looked unconscious or dead.

I sat down on the bed half expecting to wake him up, but he didn’t move.

I yawned and my eyelids drooped. I sat there for a few minutes thinking things over before I realized how much those past six rooms had tired me out. Drowsiness overtook me and I rested my head on Loring’s arm near the edge of the bed. Would he wake up? He didn’t move.

Warm and safe, I slept.

And when I woke up, I didn’t even have to open my eyes before I knew that the room had been taken over by darkness. Loring’s arm was gone. Had he fled the room? I batted my eyelids and forced myself awake. I had to find him and tell him who the ghosts in the dark part of the house were. They were Evander’s memories, not dead people haunting an empty house. I had to help him understand that what was happening couldn’t hurt him. I turned my head toward the mos-eye-ic and did a double-take. When I saw that the paintings changed and moved in the darkness, I knew I was wrong. Those shadowy memories could hurt him and they squeezed at his heart constantly.

There was an eye on each square of canvas. The first one was bulging with hideous red veins through the whites of the eye. The second one was black, with a dribble of blood crying down the gray face. The eye after that looked like it was gouged out. The next eye was having all of its eyelashes pulled out by a pair of tweezers.

I swallowed a lump in my throat. It was just like all those crazy repetitions he had inscribed on his wall in the last room, only worse. I thought he must have gotten better since he came to live with Emi and Vincent. It was a lie. Evander hadn’t healed at all and the painting was one of the symptoms.

I turned around to find the second door that led into the white part of the house. Every room was supposed to have at least two doors. I could only see one—the one I came in through. I started pawing over the room, looking for that little golden door handle. I couldn’t find anything, so I started feeling across the wall by the bed until I came to the corner and there crouched on the ground by the foot of the bed was Loring. His curly blond hair fell over his face in a tangled mop.

“Loring,” I said with relief.

He didn’t answer me.

“Loring,” I tried again. “Wake up! I’ve got to talk to you!” I put my hand on his shoulder and his figure fell over.

I gasped. When he tumbled over, his limbs disconnected from each other. His body had been made up of objects. His arms and back were made of baseball bats stuffed into a white shirt. His feet were made of footballs and his head had been a pitcher’s mitt with a wig perched on top of it.

“What is this?” I shrieked, picking up a golf glove that had been his hand. Pulling the heap apart, I saw nothing human there. Had Loring turned into that heap of objects? Or had he been fake all along?

I got up and searched more carefully for the door handle, but I couldn’t find anything. The only door that I could find led me back into the sixth room and I didn’t want to go back there. I wanted out of the whole house!

It was then that I got the most curious sensation that someone was watching me. Shivering, I looked over my shoulder and saw that the mos-eye-ic was looking at me. When I moved, the eyes followed me. Some of them blinked. Suddenly, the painting started to sway. The colors began to swirl and change until the background of all the pictures turned black. The remaining lines moved and moved until they came together to form the image of a person—a man. Then Darach’s brown eyes appeared and then his scornful smile. His fingers appeared and soon every detail of him came into focus. When he was fully formed, he stepped out onto the carpet and regarded me with fascination.

“Have you figured this place out yet? Have there been enough clues for you?”

I wanted to run, but trembling slightly I held my ground. After all, it was still Evander. “There aren’t any ghosts,” I said, my mouth incredibly dry. “Those apparitions aren’t caused by dead people. They’re just memories. They would never attack anyone. They’re trapped in their rooms, aren’t they?”

“Trapped,” Darach agreed.

“Where’s Loring?” I asked cautiously.

He regarded the pile of sporting equipment with contempt. “That’s him.”

“Why?”

He glared at me impatiently. “You haven’t figured out this place. If that’s the case, then you definitely haven’t figured me out.”

He began caressing my cheek. His touch felt as smooth as a snake’s skin. His eyes were so dark, they held no reflection, even though the eyes on the wall shimmered and flickered orange and yellow like a fire. My calves were pushed against the edge of the mattress. With one push, I’d be on the bed on my back. That wasn’t Evander’s style. Darach bent to kiss me.

I piped up even though it felt like I was swallowing the paper Evander’s book was printed on. “I know what you are.”

“So you know?” he said, smacking his lips centimeters from mine.

I refused to recoil. “Yeah. I know. You’re Evander’s worst fears about himself! He’s afraid he’s going to turn out to be like his dad. Evander made you up for the book he wrote. You’re not even real.” When I finished talking I expected Darach to be paralyzed like almost everyone else I’d ever spoken to about reality while I was in the book. I planned to run off into room six while he stood there like a mannequin. No such luck.

Instead, he stood there with his lips pale as chalk. He spoke as though he was the real Evander and it didn’t matter to him if I thought he wasn’t real. “No woman can resist my father. If I want a girlfriend; I have to be just like him.”

“I’m sure some women find Reg repulsive,” I suggested, knowing it to be true. “A girl would have to be crazy to find him attractive…” I stopped, realizing my mistake.

He caught it. His face turned gray. “Like my mother?”

“I didn’t mean that,” I back-peddled.

“Whatever,” he said, dismissing me to stride across the narrow room. “Don’t act like you know everything just because you were intrusive enough to go into my rooms. You don’t understand. You don’t even understand that loser who fell to pieces on the floor,” he said, giving the heap that once was Loring a kick.

Then I figured it out. Like the tick of a clock, I clicked. “You mean you’re living in the past and he was living in the future?”

Darach seemed like a balloon that had just lost its air, but he didn’t deflate the way Loring had turned into baseball bats. I reached out and grabbed him before he fell down. He felt firm in my arms and I held onto him tightly.

“That’s the truth. I know it. That’s why there’s nothing to eat here. You can’t eat anything in the past, because the food is already gone and you don’t eat anything in the future because the future hasn’t happened yet. The rooms are what happened in the past and the pictures in the drawing-room are me and what havoc I’ve wreaked while in your book. And Loring here is …” I looked at the blond wig. “Gone …” I stopped, realizing another terrible implication. If Loring was dead, it meant Evander had no future.

Darach turned his head and coughed black ooze into his palm. “I’m sick,” he mumbled, trying to hide his face from me.

“Why?” I hollered, turning him toward me. His hair was still dark, but he was becoming more like the Evander I knew with every passing second. “Why do you have to die?”

“Because there’s no future for me. Every time I look ahead I see myself waiting endlessly for a woman who will never come. No one will ever come for me. Who would want to team up with a whining infant who can’t forgive his father for being a prick, who can’t forget his pathetic mother, and still keeps her favorite dress in his closet like a skeleton? I’m someone with no family. No ambition to make money to impress a woman or keep her comfortable. I have floppy, ugly hair and eyes as brown as a cow’s.” As he said those words the pigment slipped out of his hair like magic. “The only thing for me is to buck up and become another version of my dad or stop trying and die. Both sound like the same death sentence to me. I can’t be like that miserable sack of…”

I grabbed his face in both my hands and brought his eyes to mine. “You’re wrong. I like you and I like you when you act like yourself. All this garbage about your dad is what’s poisoning you. Spit it out. Spit it all out. I’ll be here for you until every drop is out of your system, but you aren’t like him! You’re you. I’ll stay with you and spoil you until the pain goes away.”

He put his hand on mine and pushed it away from his face. “Friendship. That’s what you’re offering me and that’s not what I want. If we’re friends, one day you’ll meet someone like my fool father who sets your blood on fire and I’ll have to watch you walk down my mother’s path. If I accept your kindness, I’ll put myself completely at your mercy and suffer for the rest of my life. After you leave, I won’t be able to put my life back on track by myself. You’ll leave me exactly where I am at this moment. Don’t do me any favors.”

“No. I love you!” I screamed.

“Yeah, like you love your sister. Save it for her. She’s going to need it when Reg is through with her.”

“It’s not like that. I am in love with you.”

He stared at me expectantly. “Then prove it.”

My stomach rolled over. What did he want from me?

“Didn’t I prove it in the last two stories?”

“You proved you’re my friend and I believe it. I wouldn’t even be having this conversation with you if I didn’t believe that much. You would go far for a friend, wouldn’t you?”

I wasn’t going to be able to convince him with anything past. I needed to win him over with something new. I crunched my fingers together in a fist. “Though I’m not sure what you had in mind for me to prove to you that I love you. I’m going to show you in my own way. There’s time for everything in our new relationship.”

He looked at me quizzically.

“There’s time for everything we want in our romance. Everything. Everything will come to us in its proper order, even the deep sort of love you want so desperately.” I took his hand in mine and thought about what I imagined when I first came to the mansion. I thought I had to save Loring from the demon, who turned out to be Darach. I could see now that Darach was Evander in a way that Loring never was. He was the one who needed saving and more than anything, he needed real love and not the way he was angling to get it.

“Right now,” I said, continuing, “I need you to do what you said you would do.”

“What’s that?” he gawked, clearly remembering nothing of his past promises.

“I need you to trust me,” I said clearly, holding his gaze.

He looked uncomfortable.

I insisted and went on talking. “It’s time we both had a little more respect for ourselves. I’m going to stop thinking of myself as the poor girl from crack town that doesn’t have a damn thing to offer and you are going to stop thinking you have to be a womanizer to get the love and affection you need.”

“And how are you going to make those things happen?”

I snatched his hand and dragged him bodily into room six. Room six was the one with the pen marks all over the wall. Once inside, I could see the sharpie moving against the paint and I could hear the yelling still going on outside the door. I pitched my voice loudly and shouted, “Reg, you’re a total creep. Can’t you be faithful to your wife? Can’t you show her a little kindness to make up for the way you treated Autiny? Laurie, kick him out! He deserves it!” Then I got quieter and whispered, “Evander, I would suffer this with you. I would suffer every step of this with you if I could, but instead, I’m going to pull you out!”

“What?” I heard two voices say.

I smiled. One voice was blond Darach and the other was the Evander that was working the sharpie. I saw it stop moving. Then I saw him. He was the seventeen-year-old gray ghost of Evander.

“Come with me!” I invited both of them.

Teenage Evander gazed at me for a moment before he dropped his sharpie and hovering, behind Darach, he seemed inclined to come along. Gaining energy, I moved into room five.

It was the room that used to belong to his mother in his grandma’s house. The ghost was hiding under the covers. I didn’t let go of Darach’s hand, but I dropped myself on the bed and put my palm on what looked like his shoulder, even though I still couldn’t see him. “I’m so sorry about what happened to your mother,” I said timidly. “I know she loved you. I’m the girl who loves you right now and I would never ask you to forget her or throw out that last dress you keep in your closet. It’s not a skeleton. Don’t throw it away. Bring it with you and come along with me.”

Then he appeared. Evander’s ghost was younger still and he was holding a pink dress in his arms like a security blanket. His face was streaked in silvery tears, but he stopped crying when he saw me.

I extended to him my free hand. “Come with me.”

He didn’t take my hand, but floated free over my head and settled behind the seventeen-year-old Evander from the sixth room. He wiped his tears and gave me a half-smile.

I pushed forward and advanced into room four. It was the bedroom that was really an entryway. It had been empty of ghosts when I came through the first time. I realized I had to find him.

“Where are you?” I whispered, but there was no answer. Checking out the shoes, I wondered if tween Evander had his feet in a pair of them. Then I checked the bed.

“He’s not here,” Darach informed me briefly.

“Right. If this was your bedroom, would you hang out here? He’s probably in the living room. Well, we can’t go get him because no part of this room connects to the rest of his grandma’s house. Do you have any ideas?”

Darach looked sick. “Don’t ask me.”

“Okay.” I scanned my memory and tried to think of something to yell that would make him come back. My first inclination was to invite him in because his mom was with us, but I knew that was wrong. She wasn’t with us and tricking him into coming wouldn’t win his heart. And at that point in his life, I wasn’t anything to him. What could I say?

Then I remembered something Loring had told me. He said he had built rooms in Thistle Comb waiting for someone to visit him, but no one ever did. Had no one come to see Evander when he lived there either?

I brightened up and chirped loudly, “Evander! Your friends are here to see you. They’re waiting in your room!”

It worked. I could hear stomping as twelve-year-old feet raced to the door. “Who’s here?” he sang. The door swung open and there stood tween Evander panting like he was out of breath. He looked at me strangely.

Better not blow it. “I’m Sarah,” I said. “Do you want to come and play with us?”

He nodded happily and got in line. I exhaled in relief. I never would have guessed it would have been half so simple.

I smiled at them all in a row and went into room three. It was one of the rooms where there was yelling outside the door, just like room six, except it was Autiny fighting with Reg instead of Laurie. Evander was in bed, I could see the lump, but I didn’t know what to do. The problems were getting harder as I went on. What could you say to a child who was crushed because his parents constantly argued?

I stood there and scratched my head with one hand and kept a death-grip on Darach with the other. He couldn’t help me, and one glance at the group behind me was evidence enough—they couldn’t help either.

When I was in room three the first time, I had tried a few things, but I hadn’t been able to get through to him. I had to think about the problem. How old was Evander? He was in elementary school. I had to babysit kids that age many times, but I was having a hard time envisioning what distracted them. They liked to talk.

“Evander,” I said shakily, less confident than ever before. “What TV show are you missing right now because your parents are fighting?” I tried to remember what cartoons were on TV twelve years ago when I was four. “Were you trying to watch Pokemon or Spiderman?”

“Dragon Ball Z!” came a strangled voice.

“Ah, Goku,” I said, having seen the show a few times.

Immediately Evander came into focus. Wow! He was cute. He was the most adorable child I had ever seen. His eyes were huge and his cheeks were pudgy. It was what he looked like right before all his teeth fell out and he got gawky looking. I stared in wonder.

“You must be disappointed. Do you want to play with us instead?”

He nodded emphatically and got in line.

We continued to room two. It was another room I thought to be empty. It belonged to Evander when he was a toddler. As I entered I glanced at Darach. His expression was blank.

“What’s wrong?” I asked him.

“It’s been so long since I saw this room looking like this. I barely remember it, like a dream I woke up from and can’t recall the details. Yeah, it looked exactly like this. That stuffed elephant was there. The wooden letters that spell Evander are on the bookshelf. It’s hard to believe these walls were later viciously vandalized. Was I ever this clean?”

“Yeah,” I said softly. “And walking through these rooms and remembering this part of you is making you cleaner.”

“But no one is here.”

“There will be.”

“How are you going to get him to appear? The Evander in this room is three years old and hardly talks.”

“Even if he doesn’t, I’ll bet he sings.” I took a deep breath in and started singing You are My Sunshine, followed by I’m a Little Teapot. The door opened and in came strutting the most lovable toddler I had ever seen in my life. My heart ached as he proudly walked up to me and did the motions to make himself into a little mime teapot.

I nearly let go of Darach’s hand to throw both my arms around him, but that little guy wasn’t like the others. He wasn’t in bed with the covers over his head crying. He was brave and strong. He was the kind of little man who wasn’t afraid of the dark and picked up spiders with his bare fingers just to see what they looked like close up. He walked straight to the back of the line and gave the Evander just older than him a high five.

A little tear fell down my face, but I forced myself to pull it together and went into the last room—the first room.

Inside, the rocking chair was creaking and instantly I could see Autiny rocking back and forth holding baby Evander in her arms. The ghosts broke their line and rushed to her shouting, “Mother!” They surrounded her, crowding her feet and hands. Some even stood behind her in order to be closer to her when other places were taken, but Darach did not let go of my hand.

At first, Autiny didn’t seem to notice me. She was looking at each one of the boys, touching their cheeks with her free hand and smiling at them. She was beautiful. That was where Evander got his blond curly hair—from her. Her eyes were hazel and her cheeks shone with the most magical pink glow. I had never seen anyone so happy—like an angel.

Immediately, I forgot myself entirely and asked without shame, “May I see your baby?”

She smiled and turned him for me to see his sleeping face. He was so new, his face was a little mushed, but his cheeks looked softer than silk and his hair was made up of wisps around his forehead.

“You must be a really happy mother,” I said shyly.

“This is the best boy in the world,” she said candidly. “And it breaks my heart to let him go, but…” she paused, pain crossing her face like an invisible wind crossed it. “That’s the nature of babies. They grow up and become men. It’s frightening not to be there at the crucial time, but I have faith that someone will be there for him. Maybe someone will be there for the rest of his life.” She stood up.

For a moment it seemed like she was going to give me lovely baby Evander, but instead, she suddenly motioned for Darach to take him. He shifted my hand to his elbow and whispered in my ear, “Don’t let go.” Then he took the baby in his arms like he had always known exactly how to hold an infant.

“This is the most precious thing I have ever possessed. Nothing could ever be more valuable. I love you more than anything.” She reached out and brushed the hair out of Darach’s eyes.

“Mother I…” he stuttered. “I’m sorry… Reg…”

She turned like she didn’t hear him. Then she embraced each of the little ghost Evanders and ushered them toward Darach and me. Blowing us one final kiss, she disappeared. Then each of the Evanders disappeared too, but not into thin air. The teenager from room six looked like he was going to try to hold the baby, but he couldn’t pick it up and instead fell forward, melting into Darach. The preteen tried to pull on Darach’s other elbow but ended up falling into him as well. The child one hugged his leg and fell inside. The one with the dress had held it firmly and watched his mother until the very last second, then walking backward he ended up backing into Darach and vanishing. That left only the toddler, who turned to smile at me—a big baby tooth smile. He too stepped into Darach and was gone.

“Can I hold him?” I asked Darach.

“Yes,” Darach said, pulling the baby into his chest until it too was part of him. At that moment, the character of Darach was gone. The Evander I knew and loved was the only one who was left, and he filled his arms with only me.

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Author’s Notes: Hello Ink Drinkers! Thanks for reading! Right now, I have a new book out called ‘If I Tie U Down’. I’m looking for readers to review the book. If you’re interested, please click on the link to download your free copy. Happy reading! https://booksprout.co/arc/64054/if-i-tie-u-down

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