UPDATE: Made some general changes here. Nothing major, mostly just making it flow better and fixing some really awkward diction in places. Plus, as usual, typos.
Here is another new WIP, something I’ve had rattling around for a while. It is the very first draft, so it definitely needs some revision. I think the bare bones of the plot are there, but the transitions and pacing could probably use some work. I considered a journal style entry for this, but I feel that would just be a cop out. So, we’ll at least try this and see if I can get it to work. 🙂
Before I begin, it is critically important that you know one thing. Yesterday, I was alive.
I had the mask since I was five years old. It was a prized possession when I was younger, and a dusty decoration as I grew older. Solid white porcelain, about twenty tiny holes equally spaced along the edge—to tie the mask onto your face, I assumed. I threaded those holes with pink satin ribbon, and set it on my bookshelf. Empty eyes, a stoic mouth, and a sharply angled nose. I remember wearing it on occasion, only to be disappointed by the oversized mask hanging from my face while I bumped into walls.
I had forgotten where it came from, because rational thought demanded it. But now I remember. When I was five, you see, my only dream was to be a dancer. I wanted to be a ballerina, beautiful and graceful under the stage lights. My mother refused to let me sign up, and so I begged. I pleaded, I made promises, I cried, I demanded, I used every skill my five years of life had provided, but she was unmovable. So, one night, I tried what my best friend Jackie had to get her baby brother. I prayed.
I think it’s important to state that my family was not religious. I did not know how to pray, but I knew it meant asking. Jackie told me she knelt by her window at night and prayed, so that’s what I did. It was cold by my window, and terribly dark. It must have been a new moon, because I remember being scared to kneel in such thick darkness. And I prayed, though I didn’t know who I was praying to. I just mumbled something about wanting more than anything to dance for the rest of my life. That I would give anything just to dance. And I fell asleep by my window pleading to whoever would listen.
That night, I dreamed about a tea party. I was dressed stylishly in a pink tutu, my dreams come true, serving esteemed guests invisible tea. The usual crowd was there, Raggedy Ann, Grumpy my teddy bear, and Hoppy the rabbit. But there was another man. He was dressed in a gray suit, neatly seated with his knees just below his chin in the tiny chair. Atop his head balanced a dapper top hat, covering his bald head. His eyes were bright, smiling from underneath bushy white eyebrows, eyebrows that matched his bushy white mustache. I remember thinking of him in a grandfatherly sense, that he was a friendly old man come for a spot of tea. He held his teacup carefully, sipped the tea slowly, and then placed it on the table with a smile.
“Jennifer, how about we get down to business.”
I nodded, feigning an air of gravity and grace. “Certainly. I want to be a ballerina,” I stated, a hint of a pout in my voice, well trained after such discussions with my mother.
He smiled widely. “Of course. But, is that what you truly want? Would you really give up anything to dance?” he asked, parroting my prayerful pleas.
“Yes! I want to dance forever!”
“Forever is a long time. Will you dance for me forever, Jennifer?”
I nodded eagerly. “All I ever want to do is dance,” I chimed, with childish exuberance and fixation.
“Then you can. Tomorrow, your mother will have a moment of clarity. You can dance, but do remember what we agreed. I don’t work such magic just to be forgotten.”
The dream descends into relative chaos at that point. I do believe Grumpy and I left the party shortly after to buy a puppy. But, the next morning, the mask was on my bedside, and my mother crumpled to my well-constructed pleas. A ballerina I would be.
It was years before I saw the man again, and until today I didn’t even realize it had been him. But I’m sure of it now. It was during the last performance of what had turned out to be my decidedly lackluster career. I was 26, dancing the lead in a local community theater. It was a paid gig, at least, but not one that paid well. There was only so long one could live on dancing patience and barista wages, and I was nearly to that limit. But, despite the heartache such a profession promised, I loved it. So, that night, I got on stage and danced my heart out, like any other night. Captivated as I was by the movement and dance of the performance, I remember seeing a man seated in the middle of the small auditorium, far enough back that I could see him beyond the glare of the lights, but not far enough to lose him in the shadows. He was dressed far too formally for the crumbling community theater, sitting patiently in a top hat and charcoal grey suit. While I did not put it together at the time, I have had ample opportunity to study that face now, and I can certainly attest that the kindly grandfather from my dream was seated in the audience that night. He appeared far less kindly without the veil of childhood naivete to shroud my perception. He watched me dance as a bored expression danced across his face, checking his watch every few moments as if this was the most trying ordeal of his life. And then, as the show was ending, it all went to hell.
I slipped. I felt my ankle roll, then twist, then a snap. I had sprained my ankle more than my fair share of times, as is common in such a field, but this was different. I tried to stand, to finish the act, but it was excruciating. I limped to the curtains, and as I did I saw the man exit his row, smiling. broadly as he tipped his hat toward the stage. At the time, I didn’t think much of him or his response, focused mainly on keeping my tears in check, but as I look back, I see how ensnared I already was in his shadowed trap.
I quit the company a few weeks after my injury, finally coming to terms with the fact that ballet was not going to be my ticket to fame. While it was heartbreaking to me to finally admit to myself that I had to step away, it also provided impetus to make something else of my life. I began researching college course in my area, considering what “grown-up” career I might be able to stomach after the beauty and art of a life of dance. However, college diplomas do not magically materialize from thin air, so I began working more and longer shifts at the run down coffee shop, hoping to save up just enough to get my feet firmly planted. Thus I found myself walking home after a late shift at the coffee shop, the first time I had made the walk since the injury. Now, my walk home was not a long one, but it travels through some fairly empty parts of the city. There’s a large commercial district, but at the time of night I was going through, it was deserted. The city can be so revitalizing at that time of night, lying still and quite. It can also be terrifying, the impending sense of dread as every empty storefront and darkened high rise window glares down. Today, the buildings leered at my progress through the empty streets. I turned the corner towards my apartment, only a few more blocks to go before I could collapse into the comfort of my tiny studio, but stopped in my tracks. Under the dim, hazy light of the streetlight stood a man. He was standing with a woman, her hands grasped in his in a traditional ballroom hold. I saw the charcoal coat, the dusty top hat. Initially, it meant nothing. But then, he began to dance with the woman, and her body began to loll about.
Her hair was long, mahogany colored just like mine, drifting over the faded fabric of a once-white summer dress. Just like mine. Her feet were wrapped in the tattered remains of ballet slippers, the bottoms worn away and her feet leaving bloody trails as the dragged along the pavement. But worst of all was the mask on her face, the one I knew so well. In that moment, I knew the man on the street corner and I knew the man in the theater all those nights ago. She wore my mask, the pink ribbon replaced by thick, dark twine. It was stitched to her face, dried blood caking the edges of the mask. The eyes were empty, simply black holes that drilled right into her skull, a ring of dried blood acting as some despicable liner. Rotted skin flapped with their dance, and her jaw snapped open and closed beneath the stoic face with each step. They danced and spun to music I could not hear, but as he spun around, as those smiling eyes found mine, I saw terror grinning back at me.
I ran, as I’m sure most reasonable people would, even though it did mean going back into a boot for a few weeks. I ran until I was certain there was no one behind me, no dancing duo dogging my path, and then I called the police. They sent a car to pick me up from the dusty phone booth–one of the few left in operation, I suppose. After making sure I was not hurt, they had me show them the corner where it happened. Only, when we arrived, there was no one there, no blood on the pavement, and, most disturbingly, no evidence of anyone but me on the security cameras.
I wish my story ended there, but he refused to leave me be after that night. I saw him time and again, a haunted shadow that trailed behind me with a grim spectacle. Anytime I was alone, soon they would both appear to resume their danse macabre in whatever locale I happened to be. Once I watched them tango between the patrons of the coffee shop, no one lifting an eye as the gentleman sashayed with his corpse. Worst than that, however, were the times they appeared in my apartment, staining my floors with blood and decay as they spun in perfect harmony. I considered calling the cops again, but I was barely making ends meet, and getting labeled as crazy would not benefit my finances, if I was even able to get help. Plus, I knew what I saw was real even if no one else would. I had the mask to prove it.
While it never became comforting to see the two of them flitting in and out of my vision, it did become less jarring. On occasion,I found myself simply watching them, abject horror and morbid curiosity waging a war that kept my eyes locked intently on the spinning figures. I began to notice something odd going on with her. She changed minutely each time they appeared. The differences were subtle at first, but marked by the time I realized what was happening. Her hair grew steadily more neatly combed, and her dress shone a bit whiter. Eventually her shoes were whole, the only blood that staining the edges of the mask and eyes.
Most disturbingly, yesterday, she was alive. I could hear her muffled screaming behind the mask, watch as her hands tore at the man. I saw the same black eyes, somehow knowing I was there despite the empty sockets. He did not stop smiling at me from his cold eyes, watching me intently with a devious smile on his lips as he basked in the knowledge that his unwilling partner had no such luxury.
Today, he was in my apartment, alone. Today, I learned that the mask fit perfectly. Today, I screamed and fought with him, only to have him smile and sigh.
“Come now, a ballerina must be refined and stoic, at all times. We can’t have such a show.” And then he stitched the mask to my face with thick, grimy twine. I scream against the unmoving lips of the mask as the needle darted in and out. He grumbled during his task. “Stop moving,” he grunted, ” you’ll mess my stitching.” He finished the stitches, and I gazed at him from behind the mask, pure terror in my eyes and muffled voice. He smiled at his handiwork, and looked into my eyes. The smile vanished as he grumbled again. “Can’t expect me to dance if you’re going to look at me like that. Not befitting such a dancer.”
Yesterday, I was alive
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.