Masks: Fiction from CG Inglis, Part 5
Sci-Fi-O-Rama presents the fifth installment of “A Colour Like Orange: Stories from a Broken World“, a series of interlocking stories from Toronto writer CG Inglis.
In this month’s story, a night of partying takes a strange turn for a group of friends after they add powder to the mix. When they stumble upon a box of masks, will they choose to wear them? Or is it the other way around?
CG Inglis takes us deep into concealed mysteries in “Masks“.
The mushrooms were almost weightless. In my palm were three stems and two mid-sized caps. The colour of dead skin, here and there veins of soft, powdery blue were interwoven through the stalks. They appeared to be waiting on me. Reaching a decision, I threw them into my mouth and chewed. My face tightened as a cloying, earthy taste spread along my tongue and into the back of my throat. I went on chewing until nothing was left but a pulpy mass. Swallowing, the muscles in my jaw relaxed. Adam was laughing at me.
“Don’t throw up on the floor alright?”
I nodded, reaching for my water.
“It’s not just the taste,” I said, sucking back on a few loose bits that had gotten stuck to my teeth. “It’s the fear.”
“Yes!” Mark chimed in. “There is fear. Popping those things, it’s like – here we go!”
“Fear of losing control.”
Mark shot a finger at me. He was seated on the couch with one arm draped behind his head. He looked very comfortable there, as if the room was an extension of his body.
“Exactly,” he said. “You might lose control. Let’s say you do. Where does it go once you’ve lost it?”
“Just because you lose something doesn’t mean it’s gone anywhere.”
Mark seemed to consider that. I laughed, unsure myself whether or not the statement had any value. It was a game, stringing words together to see how they clicked. We all talked that way.
I took another drink of water. It felt very pleasant going down my throat. Already something was working at the base of my spine. The edges of my thoughts went loose. Like running ink, one bled into the next. Mark’s living room, that odd collection of mismatched furniture and vintage art he’d either bought at garage sales or rescued from the street, took on a new gravity. Observing the change, my chair threatened to consume me, and I stood up and went into the kitchen.
Over the moldering stack of dishes I noticed a single drop of water hanging from the mouth of the faucet. The transparent bead caught the light, and warped it, trembling. Gently it elongated, until at last the bead hung by an almost invisible thread. My heart reacted badly to this, and I turned away rather than watch it fall. A stone landed on my shoulder, squeezing me: Mark’s hand, and his broad face, wide open.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I kind of got lost for a minute.”
“It’s just the kitchen.”
“That’s enough sometimes, you know?”
He laughed. The sound warmed me. He had a generous laugh. It’s the thing about him I miss the most.
“I managed to get it,” I told him. A raised eyebrow greeted this announcement. I nodded, and reached for the bag I’d been keeping in reserve in my back pocket. Recognizing this for what it was, Mark steered me back in the direction of the living room. I threw the bag on the table. The light of the overhead lamp was hard, the orange contents of the bag almost painfully bright. The couch reached up to take me. Adam was already examining the powder.
“Where’d you get this?”
“Miner friend of Ashley’s.”
“Straight from underground,” Adam muttered.
“So how do we take it?” Mark asked.
I retrieved the bag from Adam and dumped the powder into his glass. It did not dissolve in the water, but sort of hung there, suspended. It was some time before it began to settle.
“Little orange galaxy huh?” Adam remarked. He took the glass and drank half the contents. Confusion swept over his face.
He never finished the sentence. Mark polished off what remained of the water and nodded to himself, twice. There was still a lot of the stuff left at the bottom of the glass, like a layer of rust-coloured silt. I dipped my index finger into this, and dragged the wet sludge onto my waiting tongue. It was rotten metal, a razor’s edge of overripe fruit, exactly as Ashley had said.
It felt good to do it from the same glass. It felt right, synching our intentions.
“You guys up for a walk?”
There was a general assent, and a migration from the living room to the hallway. We put on our boots and our jackets without speaking, and cleared the hall and the stairwell single file. Mark’s shoulder sent the front door bursting open. The night rushed up to embrace us. The pavement in front of Mark’s apartment was a vast, orange-lit expanse, dappled with the shadows of trees. The street was ours, and Mark walked in the lead, his head upturned, sky-gazing. He was making his way to the campus. Adam cast a reassuring shadow at my right.
“How’s it supposed to hit?” he asked. I’d asked Ashley the same.
“She said it won’t. Unless it’s a feeling of being watched.”
“Puts eyes on you, huh?”
“Apparently, but she couldn’t say whose.”
“That’s some responsibility.”
“To be worth watching.”
I could care less. It wasn’t up to me or any of us to justify our existence, unless it was in our own eyes. I should take the stuff and sit in a room in the dark and see how that would go over, whether anyone would bother watching then.
“Man tripping in a room,” I said. Adam looked at me.
“The title of a painting.”
“Never heard of it,” he mumbled.
Mark was waiting for us under the waving arms of a towering maple. He had his back to the trunk, his gaze still skyward. We all craned our necks. The branches moved, crumbling from one point to another, an earth-toned shimmering of dying leaves. One or two dropped from the branches and enacted their long, lilting fall to earth. Adam drifted off, and in due course we followed him. When we reached the campus I left Mark and crossed the deserted road. It was very bright in the glare of the street lamp. My shadow went ahead of me, its shape carved from the pavement. To my right was the brick façade of the Earth Sciences building. There was a doorway in the near wall, which led to a circular courtyard. In the middle of this space a small forest had been planted. Bronze plaques engraved with the names of genus and species were situated in front of certain trees. Other plaques were lost in the undergrowth; I doubted anyone had tended to the place in years.
A path of loam bisected the canopy. Glancing in any direction revealed glimpses of the building’s walls through the trees. At the end of the path was a bench, and sitting on this was a cardboard box.
I walked toward the bench. The soft earth absorbed the sound of my feet. Nothing moved. Reaching down, I lifted the box’s lid.
Cradled in packing foam was a face. I shook my head, blinking; it was an ovoid block of wood with two holes for eyes. Stunned, it took me several seconds to assign the thing a name: an iteration mask, I realized, obviously old, and by the look of it, authentic. I had seen pictures of these in high school. They were used across the greater sea, worn by those who’d been touched by the unrevealed god: ascetics, sages, prophets. It was an otherworldly object, a treasure, and unlike anything I had ever encountered before.
A presence edged the space at my left. I looked at Mark. His face mirrored my confusion. I watched his brow working.
“A mask,” he said.
His shoulder twitched, and a worm of panic moved in my gut; I reached for the mask before he could take it. Little white puffs of packing material came with it, dropping noiselessly to the ground. In my hands the mask was like a hole ripped out of the world.
“There’s two more.”
I looked at Mark. Adam was with him, and their arms were in the box. In an instant they were both masked. Mark’s face was now a black square with tubes to signify his eyes, while Adam’s was off-white and fat-lipped. Laughter rang in the courtyard. It came from the masks.
It seemed the air had thickened. The sound of my breath was very loud in my ears. Later I understood I was wearing the mask.
No matter how many times I look back on it, I’ve never been able to recall the moment when I put the thing on. The sequence of events grew hazy. We started out in one place, but by the time I realized we were there, the setting had already changed. Neither can I remember taking the mask off; when we entered a restaurant near 4th Bridge, starving, all frantic motion and disjointed voices, I was carrying it in my hand. Adam and Mark continued wearing theirs, their new faces hard-edged in the fluorescent light.
“I know one thing,” came a voice I recognized as Adam’s. “You never find masks!”
Though many other details have been lost over the years, those words have remained, far more powerful than they have any right to be. Even now I can still hear them.
That night I couldn’t sleep. The share house I lived in was rarely quiet, and I lay in bed and relentlessly tracked the progress of someone busying themselves in the kitchen – opening and closing cupboards, running the tap. Nervousness sat on my chest without fully making itself known; I experienced it as a shortness of breath. Dry air filled my nostrils. I rolled on the confines of the mattress, too wired for sleep and too exhausted for anything else.
I had put the mask on a chair by the window, and throughout the night I glanced at its backlit shadow. When its eye-holes encircled the blue light of dawn, I decided it was better to suffer upright than continue to do so in bed. I removed myself to the shower. The reflection in the bathroom mirror was that of a stranger, blank-eyed and weakened. We regarded each other for a moment, and parted in silence.
Returning to my room, water dripping from my legs and onto the carpet, the mask was waiting for me. This was a mild shock. I’d half expected it to be gone, though I couldn’t have said why. The light that entered through the eyes had transformed to muted gray. The sky beyond the window threatened snow.
Sick of my own thoughts, I put on some clothes and went down the hall to Adam’s room. It was unlikely he was awake, but I knocked anyway.
“Yeah?” he called. His voice had a muffled quality, as if reaching me through a sheet of glass. I opened the door. He sat in a chair facing me, still wearing the mask. Smiling lips underscored a benign expression. I sat down on the floor with my back to his bed frame.
“Can’t sleep either?” I asked.
There was something off about his voice, a sonorous, lyrical quality I had never heard in it before. I thought it must have been because he was speaking through a mouth hole, but looking closer I saw that his mask had no holes of any kind; instead, the surface ballooned in convex bulbs, offering only the suggestion of eyes. He’d been walking blind all night, and sitting in his room the same way.
“You been up all night?”
The mask tilted. Adam’s fingers moved over the fabric of his pants at his knees.
He must still have been high. I closed my eyes. The house was blessedly quiet, and I drifted into an uneven sleep. When I jerked awake some time later, I was alone. The light from the window was full, and there was an awful pain in my neck, as if a metal rod or pin had been surgically inserted there. Rubbing it with one hand, I stood up. Through the window I caught sight of Adam, still masked, out on the lawn in front of the share house. He sort of turned, or lifted his head in my direction. I waved at him, forgetting that he couldn’t see me.
I went down to collect him. He shouldn’t be out there on his own, and we could probably both use something to eat. In the hall I threw on my jacket and boots and stepped onto the porch. The yard was empty. I walked a little ways from the house, but there was no sign of Adam. The streets were barren. Wind stirred in clusters of leaves that hung like shredded flesh from the trees. I had the sensation I was being watched, but when I turned around no one was there.
I called Mark to ask if he’d heard anything from Adam.
“Not since last night.” His voice was hoarse. There was a pained edge to it, as if he was holding himself back from crying.
“You alright?” I asked.
“You up for some coffee?”
“Sure,” he replied, and hung up. For a second, I stared at my phone. That hadn’t sounded like Mark. I decided I should get over to his place as quickly as possible, but the way seemed strangely long. Maybe I was moving more slowly than usual. I felt somehow diminished, like a microbe under a lens. I kept telling myself that no one was watching. Who would care? Still, the feeling remained.
When I reached Mark’s building, I found him waiting for me at the door. He looked worse than he’d sounded on the phone. His eyes were bloodshot, his skin drawn and pale. Stubble covered the lower part of his face. He swallowed and nodded rather than speaking, and held the door open by way of welcome. We climbed the decaying stairwell in silence. His room was at the end of a hallway painted the colour of an open palm.
I took off my boots and followed Mark into the apartment. He crossed the space to his bedroom, where he slouched on the edge of his mattress, absently reaching for a cigarette. He’d supposedly quit, but I refrained from commenting. Once he got the thing lit, the smoke made a single, uninterrupted line to the ceiling. By now, the silence had grown into something monolithic. To break it took an enormous effort of will.
“I take it you didn’t put any coffee on,” I said. I’d meant it as a joke, but Mark shook his head sadly.
“I had it by the door,” he answered. “It demanded to be moved.”
“The coffee pot?”
He looked at me then.
“I mean, it didn’t speak. But the result was the same. I knew what it meant.”
“What are we talking about again?”
“The mask. Of course the mask. What else? I thought I was dreaming at first, because I was dreaming. That was obvious. Everything was loose and watery, the way it is when you dream. You know.”
“Sure. Dreams aren’t real. I hear you.”
He ignored the sarcasm, nodding and dragging from his cigarette, which he then examined from both ends, as if he expected to find something written there. At length he set it down in an ashtray.
“This dream was different. You understand? I was dreaming, but something else was in there with me.”
“The mask didn’t want to be here, that’s all I can say.”
“Fair enough. So where is it?”
“I threw it out.”
“In the middle of the night?”
“Yes. Or no. It was light out already. I don’t know.”
“You need to sleep.”
Some life returned to his face; there was the suggestion of a smile. Talking seemed to be helping him.
“I sound insane right?”
“You don’t sound good.”
“Why did we have to add powder on top of everything else?”
I didn’t respond. He knew the answer as well as I did. We wanted to know what would happen. We were young, and hungry for experience. Any kind would do, as long as it brought us out of ourselves. The two of us sat in silence awhile.
“You know,” I said at length. “That mask is probably worth something.”
“You want it you can have it.”
“At least we should look into it right? Get it appraised. But in the meantime, food. You up for some breakfast?”
He shook his head.
“I should probably try to sleep,” he replied. “Like you said.”
“Alright. I’ll call you later.”
I got up and offered a hand. He slapped it absently. I left him sitting on the edge of the bed. His eyes were on the floor. There was a slight buzzing in the air, as if some small piece of the building’s electrical system was malfunctioning. A prickling sensation crawled along the back of my neck as I turned and left the room. I was happy to shut the door behind me.
Outside, I rounded the corner and rooted through the trash bins in the alley. The black mask was there, resting on a plastic shopping bag. It looked undamaged. I slung it under my arm and went home.
That night a voice dragged me from a dreamless sleep. It spoke no words, or at least none that I could understand. A muttered incantation or chant, it stopped as I hauled myself upright. A dark mass occupied the space at the foot of my bed. In front of it were the two masks, illuminated in the orange haze from the street lamp outside my window. The masks had been set together at the base of the far wall, about a meter apart.
As I watched, the shadow in my room began to move; a pale crescent revealed itself. Lamp-washed, the turning face was lifeless. It was Adam, or at least it was a man wearing Adam’s mask. I had a hard time reconciling the precision of his movements with those of my friend. I had to remind myself that I was not looking at a stranger.
“What’s going on man?”
There was no response. He uncoiled himself from the floor. His lidless eyes appeared to stare at me. Then, without speaking, he gathered up the other masks and left the room.
I thought about calling him back, but I was too tired. I told myself that whatever he was doing could wait until morning, but the next day Adam was nowhere to be found and all three of the masks were gone.
I tried calling him, and so did Mark, but he never picked up. In the end, the brief encounter at the end of my bed was the last I ever saw of him; within a month his phone line was disconnected. I managed to get in touch with his parents, and was relieved to hear that Adam had moved back home. His mother told me not to worry, that he was doing fine, but as far I as know he never returned to school. Mark and I wondered if he’d suffered some kind of breakdown. It seemed the likeliest explanation.
I was angry that he’ d stolen the masks. We’d found them together, and I couldn’t help seeing it as a betrayal. His family was well-off, and he didn’t need the money. I also couldn’t picture him as a thief. Something must have happened to him that night, some essential piece wound up warped or dislodged by the powder we’d taken. I clutched firmly to the fact of the drugs. It was safer than acknowledging the suspicion that everything had started when we put on the masks.
I did some research, but it quickly became obvious that the pantheon of the unrevealed god is vast. There are thousands of iterations, many of which have no name, and there is no definitive catalogue. New cults and interpretations of the god-head frequently blossom on the low continent, and just as quickly wither away. It took some work just to track down the masks that Mark and I had claimed. Apparently they were within the top 500 or so most common iterations, embodied in many towns and villages during regular festival plays. My mask was Adec, ‘inwardly turned’, while Mark’s was Manor, ‘questioning gaze.’ The details were scant. The author of one of the books I read noted that translation was notoriously difficult, as the meaning of an iteration could change based on anything from the sect of the wearer to local tradition.
Identifying Adam’s mask proved even more difficult. I must have burned through every book or journal article in the school’s library searching for it. At last I reached out to a professor in the capital who specialized in the religion. She agreed to meet with me, and I took a train into the city the following week.
Her office was a ratty little closet on the 10th floor of the university library. She was younger than I expected, in her early thirties, with blue stains on the index fingers of both hands. After some brief small talk, she spent a few seconds examining my face.
“I hope you’ll forgive me if I’m being rude, but it’s not everyday I get contacted for research purposes. Can I ask why you’re so interested?”
“A friend traveled to the low continent,” I lied. “He showed me some pictures of a festival. It looked amazing, and I got stuck on one of the masks. Anything you know would be helpful.”
“The masks are fascinating,” she agreed. Bending down, she began to rummage through a storage box on the shelf behind her. She set a poorly bound book on the desk in front of me. It appeared self-published, with only the title, ‘Iteration Masks of the Low Continent’, typed on the front.
“This isn’t a complete list of course, but it’s better than most.”
I flipped through the book. Each page included a number of masks with their names and a short description of their significance. The quality of the printing was bad. All the images were in grayscale, with the grainy resolution of repeated photocopies. After a few minutes browsing, I hit on a mask that might have been Adam’s.
“I think it’s this one,” I said, pointing. The professor raised an eyebrow.
“Pardet, an ‘uncoupling of time’,” she read aloud. “Your friend was very lucky to see this. I never have. There was a Pardet mask in the capital museum’s collection, but that was way before my time.”
“What happened to it?”
“Reported stolen years ago. That type of thing does happen I’m afraid.”
There didn’t seem to be anything further to say, so I thanked the professor and left. With nothing else to do, I went home. Over time, the anger or resentment I’d been carrying towards Adam began to fade. I focused on my classes. Sometimes I saw Mark. We talked, but without much enthusiasm. We were like actors playing the roles of ourselves, and I think we were both relieved when the other made an excuse to leave. Eventually we stopped getting together. Around a year later I heard Adam had been arrested on some vaguely drug-related offense. Mark is the manager of a bike store now. I haven’t spoken to either of them in years.
Visit us again next month for “The Agent“, the next installment in “A Colour Like Orange: Stories from a Broken World“, by CG Inglis.
Follow CG Inglis on Twitter @viscereal