Behind His Mask

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Chapter 22 - Orange Sky

Darach was gone.

Evander and I held each other. His hand was on the small of my back and his other hand cradled my neck, but as sweet as the moment was, it couldn’t last forever. BANG! A picture fell from the wall. The wooden letters that spelled Evander fell from their places and clattered to the floor. I stretched my neck to see what happened.

“What was that?”

“I don’t know,” Evander said, shushing me with a finger to his mouth and listening intently.

It was quiet for several moments and then the carpet under my feet moved, like someone had pulled it, but it wasn’t a throw rug. There was no one around, other than Evander and me. “Are there really ghosts here?” I whispered.

“I think they’re gone,” Evander said pleasantly.

There was a snap, and I felt a board crack under my foot through the carpet, like I was about to fall through the floor. “Really?”

“Yeah,” he said, leaning his elbow against the wall. As soon as his weight hit the wall, he broke right through the drywall like it was paper. He fell, but I reached out and caught him. “What’s going on?” he yelled as he recovered himself.

“I—”

The door abruptly fell off its hinges and the window on the other side of the room fell backward. I heard the glass shatter as it hit the ground. I ran over to see what was out that window, but all I saw was blank white space with a broken window frame lying flat far below. Being a little scared of heights, I backed up. The shattered glass showed it had fallen a long way. I backed up into what felt like huge jelly worms on my back. I spun around and saw the crib. The bars had lost their form and were falling into a squishy mess.

“The house is collapsing?” Evander asked. His eyes rolled upward and suddenly he pulled me out of the way as the light fixture fell, smashing on the floor where I just stood.

“You saved me,” I gasped.

“We have to get out of here,” he said as he dragged me out of the room by the hand.

In the hallway, the house looked more stable. The carpet wasn’t moving and the banister on the staircase wasn’t melting. I thought it was a good sign.

Puzzled, Evander looked around. “How do we get out of here?”

“You don’t know?” I gasped in disbelief.

He twitched. “How should I know? This isn’t even real. I wrote all this and frankly, I didn’t write a scene where the house fell apart. It’s just another phony version of my book.”

“It’s not phony!” I snapped. “This is very real. I’ve burned myself in your book. I’ve received severe nerve damage in your book. If the rest of the house falls apart, it could collapse with us in it. We could really die if we don’t think of a way to get out of here, but if this is your dream, how do you wake up?”

“Slap me.”

SMACK! Wow. I was surprised at myself. I didn’t even hesitate. But nothing happened. We were still in the house.

“Kay. That hurt,” he muttered as he nursed his wounded cheek.

“But we’re still here.”

“We’ll have to think of another way. How did you get out of the book before?”

“I didn’t. I just came to the end of the story and it let me out on its own.”

“Okay, well is there anything you haven’t finished? That ought to lend you a clue.”

“No. I can’t think of anything. The plot is resolved. The only thing that is still here is the setting,” I breathed. Then I glanced into what was once room one. All that was left through that door was a white space, like the few empty pages at the end of every book left mysteriously empty.

Then a ceiling tile fell on the carpet between our feet.

“Let’s go.” Evander took my hand and we started toward the stairs. “I remember what I was thinking when I wrote this. The entrance on the light side of the house is symbolic of my feelings that there is no future for me, so going out that door would be certain death. Do you think we could die if we went out the wrong door?”

“M-Maybe,” I stuttered. “One of them has to be the way out. If the door on the light side leads to emptiness, where does the one on the dark side lead to?”

Evander took a deep despairing breath. “I think the other one leads to nothing too.”

“It can’t.”

“I’m afraid it does. Think about it. There’s no future going through the past. Out the front door, it’s all black, thus symbolizing the only way out is through death. But what comes before that? What came before my life began? Oblivion?”

“No,” I said excitedly, “the beginning. We need to go back to the start.”

“How can we do that? The things that happened in this side of the house are things that actually happened. We can’t go back in time and change them. This doesn’t make any sense.”

I took his other hand and standing in front of him, I started walking backward and leading him toward the entrance to the dark side—the past. “You’re right. We can’t change the past, but we can change how we think about it. This doorway leads into darkness, but it’s not the same as nothing. I think it resembles the night sky in Edmonton during the winter. The streetlights pour yellow light onto the snow and it reflects back up and makes the clouds that hang above the city look orange. You’ve seen it, haven’t you?”

“Of course,” he said weakly as he allowed himself to be led by me.

The house was breaking apart. The pictures had all fallen from the walls; both the ones where I suffered for him and the ones where he suffered alone. The furniture melted like ink dripping from an inkwell into black puddles on the floor. The staircase cracked and splintered like matchsticks. Then the carpet and floor jostled beneath our feet.

Taking the door in one hand, I threw it open and attempted to push Evander through the entrance. At first, he resisted me. “You can’t change the past,” I said. “It happened whether we like it or not, but to deny the past will only make it more frightening.”

“Is it really safe to go through there?” he asked uneasily.

“Is it really safe to stay in here?” I pointed to the inside of the crumbling mansion.

He gave way and stepped onto the terrace.

After one step, he exhaled and his breath turned to curling white vapor. The cold was setting in. He pulled me into a hug to stay warm. “Well, we didn’t die passing through the door. That’s a good sign.”

I smiled. “This terrace probably isn’t going to last after the rest of the house has folded itself up.”

“Folded itself up?” he repeated.

“You know, it’s as if the house itself is made up of the pages of a book, now that the story is over, we close the book and put it on the shelf.”

“So, what do you suggest we do? Jump off the edge into oblivion?” he joked.

“Yes,” I whispered, holding his gaze. “Before the terrace caves in. We need to do it now—together.”

He stared at me. “Really? What makes you think that’s what we need to do?”

“The ends of the other stories. In the first story, I chose to let Murmur dangle my bleeding hand over a sea full of blood-hungry capricorns in order to keep your trust. It seemed like certain death, but I made it through, and actually... that was the only way to make it through. It worked the same way in the second story. I was going to be burned at the stake. You saved me, but then I went back into the flames to get you. I’m positive—the one and only way is to jump off the edge of these steps. Now.”

He smiled. “This is only a story.”

“Maybe for you. Ready?”

“See you when I wake up,” he murmured pleasantly, before wrapping his arms around me and putting his right leg over the empty expanse.

I stuck out my foot too, and together—we fell.

***

It was warm. It was really warm and soft around me. Blankets were covering me like I’d slept all night without loosening the cocoon of covers tucked around me. I woke up in my own room, but suddenly realized I wasn’t alone in my bed. I was so warm because there was someone next to me holding my hand. I jolted awake and opened my eyes.

And there I saw Evander.

Next to me.

Sleeping peacefully.

Everything was all right. I passed the test and as my reward, I got to have him all to myself. But at the moment, his body heat was stifling me and I was thirsty, so I slipped out of the covers.

Outside my bedroom, I got another surprise. Lying on the couch in the living room was none other than Carly. I knew she was there as soon as I stepped into the hallway. I could smell cigarette smoke. She was staring at the ceiling like death personified, knocking her ashes into a tea saucer.

I got a drink of water and joined her in the living room. “Did mom let you in?”

“No. Rachel did,” she answered before picking something off the tip of her tongue and depositing it in the ashtray.

“How come? Weren’t you staying at her place?”

Carly took a shaky drag on her smoke. “She kicked me out. There was an accident.”

“Did you burn a hole in her carpet?”

“Holy!” she exclaimed angrily. “News travels fast.”

I glared at her. “She didn’t tell me anything. I guessed.”

“Snap! When did you get so damn smart?”

Seeing how my older sister had deteriorated, I suffered. Her hair was filthy and completely matted to her skull—she’d probably been too busy partying to wash it. Her skin was gray and there were circles under her eyes. The nails of her hands were unkempt. There was chipped black nail polish on some of them. Others were broken and uneven. She looked like she was about to spit something black into a handkerchief.

While I studied her, she tried her best to ignore me, but after a minute or so, she lost her nerve. “What are you staring at? I’m not a circus show.”

“Clearly,” I said patiently. “Tell me, Carly. When did you stop taking care of yourself? Did something bad happen to you?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Were you raped or abused in some way you never told us?”

“And if I was?” she questioned, her expression completely indifferent.

“I’d like to know. You could spare me the gory details, but I’d like to know why you thought it was a good idea to pursue Reg Cheney when he had a wife and kids.”

Her head snapped around. “How do you know about that?”

“In the end, I don’t think anything can stay secret,” I said.

“No. Really? How do you know that?” she screamed rising off the couch in fury.

“I’m dating his son, Evander. He is asleep in the next room, so quiet down,” I advised, putting a finger to my lips.

She flopped back on the cushions like a rag doll. “Life is frickin’ weird. Do you know that? But why ask me that? If you’re dating his son, then you must know his dad is hot stuff. It was animal attraction or whatever.”

“Evander’s not like his dad. He hates him.”

“How could anyone hate him? Hell, the guy is so lovable his own wife forgives him for playing around.”

“Don’t be so sure,” I warned.

“Great. I hope she divorces his ass,” Carly chuckled.

I growled. “Don’t you care about anyone other than yourself? I realize that two people might have their reasons for getting divorced but why mess with a married man? What if we could have had a father, Carly? Did you ever think of that?”

“Shut up, Sarah. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

But I couldn’t stop. “Is your lust really more important than a child’s feelings? You’ll get over him, probably very soon. On the other hand, the kids will be scarred for life. Evander isn’t Laurie’s kid, Carly. Laurie was Reg’s mistress when he was married to Evander’s mom. And better still, do you honestly think that a guy who cheats on repeat is going to be faithful to you? How stupid can you be? What did you even like about him to begin with? I’ve met him. He’s sleazy.”

Carly was staring at me. I wasn’t sure if she wanted to rip out my tongue or if she was totally transfixed by my rampage. I had never told her off before. But even if it felt freeing to get all that off my chest, I needed to calm down. I paused and proceeded in a softer tone. “Look, how long do you think it would take you to get over him? A week? A month? A year? A year is nothing in your life. If you break a family apart, granted Reg can do that without your help, it will mess up the kids for their whole lives. Do you really want to do that much damage? What happened to you that makes you think you can do that to someone else?”

“So you think I was raped or something?” she asked slowly, taking a drag.

“Weren’t you?”

“Not really,” she said vacantly. Then she turned and looked me right in the eye. “No one raped me.”

“Then why do you act like this? Like nothing matters and like you’re not worth more?”

She looked at me lifelessly. “Stop. You’re making me gag. When did you get so forceful and cheesy? It’s weird. What have you been doing lately? Did you join a community outreach program or something? Are you the voice on the other end of the emergency helpline?”

“No.”

“Really? Could have fooled me. Shut up.”

“What?”

“Shut up and listen! I don’t know how you felt growing up like this, living in places like this, but I’ll tell you how I felt—like garbage. I wore rags to school. I couldn’t make friends with anyone who had any standards because even though you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, everyone does it. The kids who did pot and kept flasks under their desks were nice to me. Fitting in with them was a million times easier than doing things the right way. After a while, I think I even fell in love with the idea of being homeless—like a gypsy.” Carly squeezed her eyelids shut and noisily spilled the details. “I thought I could live the rest of my life like that if I could only get away from mom. I went out to Vancouver where it’s warmer and I found out I couldn’t make it work. My friends weren’t there, it’s expensive and wet. It rains twenty-four/seven. I ran out of money and Reg bailed me out. I didn’t know he was married until I found his wedding ring. It fell out of his pocket. I didn’t think he’d leave his wife for me. I didn’t even want him to. I was planning to be cool about the whole thing... like sex with a stranger couldn’t hurt me. It doesn’t hurt in the movies.” She was crying and the tears were plugging up her nose.

I put my hand out to touch her, but she knocked it away.

“Don’t touch me! I hate being touched. And just so you understand, Reg won’t see me anymore. And Rachel, my only real friend in the world, is pissed at me. I’m so frigging alone and desperate that I’m spewing out my troubles to a bleeding kid who can’t do jack to help me.”

Then a voice came from the hallway. “Yes, she can.” It was Evander. “She can help you because she has helped me.”

“Is that so?” Carly snarled, wiping her tears with her plaid sleeve and lighting a new cigarette.

“Yeah.”

She glared at him. “I’m sure she could help a kid her own age, but I’m nineteen. Sorry.”

“I’m nineteen, or did Sarah fail to mention it? And in a lot of ways, I’m like you. Let her help you.”

“Okay Sarah, what would you do to help me since you’ve got everything figured out?” The condescension in her voice was palpable.

“I’d talk to mom for you.”

It was amazing, but Carly actually sighed and said, “That would probably help. Rachel swore she wouldn’t and I can’t get beg mom without someone to hold my hand. It’s just disgusting that I have to rely on my kid sister.”

“It’s not disgusting,” I reassured her.

“Whatever. Now you! Boy thunder.”

“Boy thunder?” Evander repeated incredulously.

“Yeah, you. Go home. I can’t stand your face.” Carly flopped over on the couch so she was facing the wall. “The door’s over there.”

I glanced at Evander. I agreed with Carly. This was a family matter and he shouldn’t really be involved in the scenes that would follow. After all, it would be a while before Carly was better, even if my family could find a way to help her heal.

“In a minute. I have to give him something.” I got up and grabbed his hand. “Follow me.”

Back in my room, I took out the brown book Emi had made for me and the one Evander had written himself. I showed him the brown hardcover book and asked, “Have you ever seen this before?”

He took it and turned it in his hands. “No. I thought there weren’t any hardcovers printed. Was this a complimentary edition or something?”

“No,” I said. “This is my version of your book. This is the project I told you I was working on. This is what I would have done if I were Sarafina, Serissa, and Serena. I hope it makes you feel better.”

“I haven’t even read it and it already makes me feel better. Thank you, but how did you get it printed like this? Are there more of them?”

I smiled. “You should really ask Emi about that.”

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Author’s Notes: Thanks for coming to read. The next chapter will be the last. Look forward to it and if you’re curious about my other books, please check out my website:https://tigrix1.wixsite.com/stephanievanorman. Right now I'm looking for ARC readers for a new book of mine. It's free. If you're interested, please click the link!

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