After The Mask received some positive feedback, I decided to give it a continuation. Enjoy.
She is dissatisfied. She has been for years, but previously, it has been a sort of comfortable dissatisfaction: unpleasant, yet familiar, and therefore less uncomfortable than perhaps it should have been. Her life up to this point has been bland and flavorless. There’s nothing remarkable about it. She feels that she has failed her childhood self, who, when asked what she wanted to be when she got older, said only, “remarkable.”
She is not particularly beautiful. She is old enough, now, that her flesh has begun to lose its tension in important places. She pokes and prods these places in the mirror. Sometimes she slaps them, hoping that somehow the pain will tighten them. She doesn’t know where she got this idea from. It doesn’t seem to work.
She is not particularly fit. She tells herself she could be, if she tried, but she doesn’t have the drive to do it. A few times a week, she does a half-assed workout in the morning, doing a few stretches and calling it “yoga.” That’s all. She doesn’t feel like there’s a point to any more. Her life isn’t exciting enough to call for her being fit.
Certainly her husband isn’t attractive enough that she feels like she has to try on his behalf. He doesn’t put much effort into himself, either. He really doesn’t put much effort into her. They exchange a few words at dinner. They talk about their weekend plans, if they have any. They never do. They sleep next to each other in bed, but they don’t sleep together.
They’re just two people who exist together, remaining with one another out of convenience more than any remaining love for one another. What little love she still held for him has turned, this past month, into something like disdain. The disappointment she feels is not new, nor is the exasperation. Now, though, they have congealed into something greater.
He is in the basement again. When he bought the carving tools, she thought, “Good. Maybe he’ll actually have a hobby for once.” She thought he learn a skill other than those required to do his job. Instead, he just spends all of his free time down there, making the same thing over and over again, insisting that he can’t get it perfect.
It’s not even something interesting or attractive. It’s plain, blank mask without any features. No eyes. No details of any kind. He told her he saw it in a dream. She remembers how she laughed, thinking he was making a joke. The faint chill that descended on her when she realized he was serious still clings to her when she thinks about him working down there in the dark.
From the couch, where she likes to read after dinner, she can hear the faint sound of his carving. The thunks as his tools tap the wood echo through the quiet house, providing an unfavorable accompaniment to the words on her page. If she was the type to listen to music, she would now, to drown out his work, but no music ever suits her fancy.
She hears a gasp and a clatter. It is enough to make her put her book down, for fear that he has injured himself again. She worries that this time, it will be bad enough that she’ll have to drive him to the clinic. She sighs at the thought. She’s not dressed for an excursion. She would want to fix her hair up, first, and put on better clothes.
She stands. “Are you alright?” She tries to keep the annoyance from her voice, but she knows she has failed as soon as she speaks.
He doesn’t answer. She sighs again, this time at a volume meant to play up the drama, because she knows he can hear her speaking. The talk between the levels of their home frequently. The volume at which she needs to speak to be heard down the stairs is well-established.
She walks to the edge of the stairs, her fingers piercing the pages of her book, ready to open it once more, should he not need her help. “Hey,” she calls. The basement is dim, but not dark. The lamp at his makeshift carving station illuminates the stairs with a golden light. There is no rhythmic thunking, as there has been for what felt like every empty minute of the last month. There is no vocal response, either.
There is, to her consternation, a loud sizzling sound, like raw chicken being dropped into hot bacon grease. Her face creases into a frown. There’s nothing he could be cooking, down there. There’s nothing to cook with in the basement, for that matter. The sounds swells, then suddenly fades to nothing.
“Hey,” she says again. Her voice is weaker this time. She realizes she is shaking. Her knees have gone weak. Her body is experiencing the symptoms of terror. Belatedly, her mind recognizes this and catches up, though she can’t tell yet why, exactly, she is afraid. “Are you alright?”
She tells herself there is nothing to fear. She would have heard someone else enter the house. If anything is wrong, it’s that her husband has cut himself. She can’t run, though something deep inside of her is screaming at her to do so. She has to push forward.
She is a quarter of the way down the steps when he rounds the corner, coming toward the base of the stairs. She cuts off her own scream with a hand clamped firmly over her mouth. It presses against the backs of her eyes, bulging them outward. She slips on the wooden stairs, landing hard on her buttock, but the pain is nothing next to the adrenaline now coursing through her.
She turns, scrambling upward. A weapon. She needs a weapon, and the only ones in the house are the kitchen knives. She scampers up the stairs, heart pounding. Light footsteps follow her own. They are not those of her husband. They sound nothing like the cadence of his walk or even his run.
He wears the mask. The one he carved. There’s something wrong with it, though. It’s as though the color and depth have gone out of it, leaving it flat and grey and looking nothing like the wood from which it was wrought. It covered his visage with its blank, eyeless facade, transforming him from her husband into something else entirely.
Has he sensed her disdain, all this time? Has he finally given up on their marriage? Has there been a frustration in him, under the surface, that’s he’s kept hidden from her until now?
Her life has never been threatened, but she felt it. That raw, visceral sense that someone means to harm you. It leaked out of him like a found aroma, accompanied by the sense that he was looking at her, and watching her, despite the fact that there’s no way he could have seen her.
She reaches the kitchen first. She grabs the largest knife from the block and turns to face him, holding it in both hands. What she sees when she turns gives her pause, for the figure standing before her looks nothing like her husband. Its hair has fallen from its head, leaving a trail behind it. Its shorts have fallen to the ground, slipping away from thin, emaciated hips so unlike her husband’s round, soft, fleshy body.
“What are you?” she screams. This is not her husband. It’s not. It’s wearing his shirt, and it’s in his house, but it’s not him. It can’t be.
It raises its hands, and for the first time she notices that it holds something there. No, she can’t just have noticed it. It had nothing, and now it has something. A mask, like the one it wears, but different. It’s formed of gleaming silver, not wood. Though its face is blank as the one her once-husband now wears, from the temples extends a ring of metal which almost looks like… a halo?
It advances, and she gives ground, though it has no weapon. “What do you want?” Her voice is ragged. Has she ever had cause to scream like this before? “I’m not putting that on. Get away.”
She brandishes the knife. The being shows no fear. Soon, she has backed into the kitchen’s corner. She has no choice. She fears using the knife, fears that this will all end up being some horrid joke and she’ll end up stabbing her own husband for no reason, but she’ll be damned if she lets that mask touch her face.
Sobbing, she thrusts the knife forth. She closes her eyes. She can’t bear to look. She imagines the knife piercing the being’s chest, and a wave of nausea passes through her. But the knife meets with only air. Something brushes against the sleeve of her shirt. She opens her eyes, rolling them about in panic. The creature sidestepped her blow. It stands beside her, now, practically pressed up against her.
If it had breath, she could have felt it. Her own body moves in slow motion, but the thing in the mask continues on at full speed. With one bony hand, it grasps her throat. With the other, it forces the gleaming silver mask toward her face. She cries out again, but it makes no difference. The mask covers her, and, in a few short, sizzling seconds, she is gone.