The Mask

His hands are driven by the fervor of obsession. It is the same unrelenting force that drives a drug addict to push the needle into his flesh and a gambler to hemorrhage her funds on the chance that he might, someday, see some benefit. It’s the same toxic pressure that forces an obsessive-compulsive to repeat the same act fifteen times in a row before she can move on. It’s the poisonous need that drives a weak-willed teenage boy to pleasure himself so frequently that he rubs himself raw.

It began with a dream that he can’t quite recall. Only impressions of it still lay within his mind: of red light, enveloping and pressing against him in a suffocating fashion; of a door opening; of a dark, empty void which suffused his body with an icy cold and drew the air from his lungs. In the last vestiges of the dream, lurking within the bits that still trailed behind as he shifted violently awake, a figure reached out toward him, its pale fingers brushing his face.

He carves. He has never worked with wood before, and yet now here he is, in his basement, using a table never meant for this task, for before now he didn’t even possess the tools. He bought them online, this set of carving tools. He had to look up video tutorials on how to use them. Still, after weeks of effort, he is unpracticed.

The figure’s face haunts him. The image of it has stained his mind. It hovers, omnipresent, in that space which his imagination haunts. Sometimes he feels he sees it more clearly than that which lies before him, and he blinks, trying to clear it away so that he can focus on realizing it within the wood at his fingertips.

His hands hurt. He is unaccustomed to rougher work. He sits at a computer most of the day, whether it be his own or the one in his office. Standing here, at the desk he has conscripted for carving, has made his legs and backs sore as well. He rolls his shoulders frequently, and shifts his weight from foot to foot, all in an effort to offset the weight of his discomfort.

Still the image of that visage impels him to bring it forth. When he tries to latch on to which aspects of it have attached it so firmly to his consciousness, the image that persists in his mind’s eye becomes less clear. The discarded, imperfect masks which clutter one side of the desk tell a story. If he stacked them chronologically, it would be clear which was the first and which was the last. As he works, his skill improves. Despite this, the masks he carves are blank and featureless.

He knows he hasn’t gotten it right. Not yet. The crease down the center, the masks’s only feature, is offset on some, or too pronounced. Some of the masks have cracked where he tried to work the wood too thin. Some of the edges are imperfect: they are too square, or too circular, or simply lacking in symmetry.

The mask he works on now will be the closest. He feels the rightness of it down to his bones. Each swipe he makes with his carving knife brings it closer to true. He grimaces, and not only with the pain of his aching muscles and his sore, abused fingers. Every cut he makes brings a fear that the rightness will disappear, and he’ll have to discard this one, as well, condemning him to hours more chipping and scraping and cutting at the wood in an attempt to align it with his dream.

The dream runs through his mind again, playing like a movie run with twice the speed and half the frames, though it is somehow just as vivid as it comes when he is asleep. It clouds his vision of the world before him. The figure in the darkness reaches out to him, its cold, dry hand not just brushing his face, but pressing hard against it, hard enough that his eyes ache from the pressure of its palm.

Then the vision is gone and reality snaps back into focus with the fiery-hot pain of his carving knife opening the flesh between his thumb and forefinger. He gasps, dropping knife and mask alike to apply pressure to the wound with his other hand. Both clatter against the table’s surface. The mask stares up at him, somehow observing him silently despite its lack of eyes.

It is done. As surely as he feels the pain in his own hand, he knows the pain of the masks’s completion. His task of the last month has finished, and now only one more lies before him. He releases the pressure on his hand, ignoring the blood that flows freely onto his table. It doesn’t matter anymore. He takes the mask reverently in both hands, trembling from anticipation and terror.

Slowly, his body vibrating as it and the majority of his mind resist, he turns the mask around. He raises it to his face. The inside, like the outside, is smooth and featureless. There are no holes for his eyes, nose, or mouth. As it approaches his face, there is only darkness.

It touches his face, and everything he once knew is replaced by a sizzling, melting pain. He feels himself drain away, liquifying as surely as ice when met with hot steel. Then there is only the mask, and he is nothing.

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