by JOSH SHIBEN
arge fat drops fell from the sky, bludgeoning Glen’s scalp with their icy caress. He shivered, and pulling his soaked-through coat up tightly around his shoulders, continued his march. His water-logged shoes squelched in the mud of the poorly-maintained shoulder as he struggled to see through the deep blackness of the night. He was getting close, now. He was sure of it. With a crack, a spider web of lightning briefly silhouetted the forest around him, for an instant turning the invisible trees into reaching arms and clawing limbs, before plunging the world back into darkness. The pale beam of the flashlight in Glen’s hand panned the road, feebly attempting to penetrate the darkness of the night in its search for obstructions.
The car was lost. Sinking into the rushing river behind him, it could afford no shelter from the storm. Only by chance had Glen happened to note that telltale yellow glow of electricity before the crash, but it was now his only hope of shelter and rescue from the ravages of an angry sky. The rain continued its assault, with drops so heavy they felt solid as they buffeted him mercilessly.
His light fell on a mailbox seemingly hidden from the road by a tangle of underbrush. Beside it, a narrow, muddy driveway stretched deep into the forest and out of sight, nearly washed out from downpour. From somewhere deep in the woods, a faint illumination of electric lights pierced the night, promising warmth and shelter. The yellow light of the windows peaked through the skeletal arms of the bare trees like a tiny sun that refused to rise. Without hesitation, Glen turned off of the road and began trudging through the mud of the driveway, sinking nearly to his ankles and having to fight the cloying suction of the soft earth.
The driveway sloped down a hill from the main road, deeper into the suffocating blackness of the trees. Glen followed it carefully, its descent into the darkness seemingly lasting forever. As he continued his journey down, the house he sought loomed massively in the gloom, and in the darkness Glen found himself unable to tell if it was slowly rising up out of a pit or if he was falling down towards it. It glowed in an almost reverent silence as the wind about it howled and roared with fury.
The building was awe inspiring in the darkness – twin stone turrets stretched into the overgrown tree-line, bracing the monstrous structure. Large arched windows glowed yellow in the darkness, and through the rain, Glen could see movement inside. The entire structure was faced with a grey limestone, and appeared to be almost as much of a castle as a home. Overgrown ivy and tangles of briars clung to the sides of it, while the gardens in the front lay dead from neglect. The wind whipped rain against the building, battering it tirelessly, but it promised shelter from the worst that the sky could muster.
Glen trudged to the entryway, his feet heavy with mud and his clothing soaked through from the icy rain. He felt frozen to his very core, like a corpse in the coffin-like cold chambers of a morgue. With a shivering hand, he reached up to knock on the heavy wooden door before him, only to be shocked as it silently swung open on its own. A smartly dressed man stood in the glow of the doorway, holding the portal open and peering out at Glen. The first thing that struck Glen was the man’s shape – he was impossibly lean, with long pencil-thin limbs and sharp features. The man seemed somewhat older, although his exact age was impossible to guess, as he wore a white mask which covered the upper half of his face. The porcelain mask was expressionless, lineless and smooth like sun-bleached bones polished in the sands of some forgotten desert. Beneath the mask, the man’s mouth was held tightly shut in an impassive scowl.
The scowl parted, and the man almost seemed to smile before he spoke. “Welcome, Mr. Barrows. Excellent timing. The party has just begun.” He seemed to have an air of satisfaction to his words – his deep voice almost vacillated between reverence and relief.
“I’m… That’s not my name,” replied Glen confusedly. “I’m Glen Tillman and I’ve been in an accident.” He gestured out towards the storm before turning to look longingly into the warmth and shelter of the building. “Please… I need help.” The man in the doorway assessed Glen quietly for a moment, and Glen began to worry he may be turned away. They wouldn’t let him freeze to death out here, would they? He tried to look into the doorman’s eyes to guess as to his thoughts, but the passionless mask rendered any kind of assessment impossible. Finally, the man’s lips parted into a narrow smile revealing shocking white teeth.
“Of course, sir. Please come in and we will get you whatever you want.” The doorman’s long arm opened the door fully, while his other gestured into the warm glow of the interior. Glen entered the building and inspected the immaculate foyer, painfully aware of the mud on his shoes and water dripping from his body. The room was illuminated by several small electric lights which glowed in the ceiling, but provided no real warmth. Solid marble slabs made up the floor, polished into a milky pearl, while large stone arches curved up to an almost impossibly high ceiling. The entire structure had the feeling of a cathedral buried in the mountains. Despite its size and grandeur, the room was still cool, and Glen had to work to keep his teeth from chattering.
“I don’t mean to be any trouble. Please, I just need a phone.” His words echoed strangely in the room, where every sound seemed magnified.
“Of course, sir,” replied the doorman as he effortlessly shut the door. Then, sliding past Glen, he soundlessly strode through an open door and down the narrow hallway beyond. “The phone is just this way, Mr. Barrows. Please follow me. ” Glen didn’t bother to correct the strange man, only thankful to be out of the rain – he was still freezing, but at least here he could begin to dry. He turned and began following, wincing as his own footfalls echoed loudly behind him.
The corridor was narrow, and Glen had to hurry to keep up with the doorman, who moved quickly and silently. His movements almost reminded Glen of a cat – elegant and smooth, loose, as if his joints were fluid instead of bones and sinew. As they walked deeper into the building, Glen began to hear music and voices. Laughter and dancing seemed to tumble through the halls like memories. Glen began to get nervous – to where was he being led?
He almost crashed into the man when he stopped abruptly at a large double door. Wordlessly, the stranger opened the doors, revealing a massive ballroom. Inside, dozens of masked men and women glided slowly to the march of a waltz. Warmth billowed from the room, carrying with it the scent of perfumes and flowers. Glen stood dumbfounded, as he watched masked acrobats churn in large silk banners hung from the rafters, seeming to roll themselves up against gravity and slide back down, all in time to the music. Finally he tore his eyes away from the hall and turned to the doorman. “I think there’s been a mistake. I’m not supposed to be here, and I need a phone. Please, my car sunk into a river and-”
“I understand, sir. There’s been no mistake. Please wait here where it’s warm while I fetch a telephone.” He gestured into the room, beckoning Glen inside.
“I’m not dressed for this. I hate to intrude.”
“No intrusion. Please sir, make yourself at home. I’ll return at once with a phone.” With that, the doorman bowed deeply and left him there. Glen paused, unsure of how to proceed. He wasn’t confident he could find his way back the way he came, and was even less confident he wanted to.
He took an awkward step into the ballroom, attempting to draw as little attention to himself as possible. The room was dimly lit from chandeliers hanging high above the dancers, but the light was adequate for Glen to survey the room. The hall was large, and similarly to the foyer, also had polished marble floors. The décor spoke of impossible wealth, with dark wooden walls accented by golden trim and leaves. A string quartet was assembled near the dancers, coaxing songs from their instruments. The guests were dressed elegantly, the men in three-piece suits, while the women wore evening gowns of all colors and shapes. Each of their faces was hidden by a unique mask. Glen counted several ornate birds, a laughing jester, a whole host of animals of varying degrees of realness, and a multitude of various frozen faces.
He watched quietly as the masked dancers moved, their steps elegant with practiced ease, and Glen wondered who these masqueraders were. He scanned the dancing throng, looking for clues, but could make little out about any of them. They were all obviously wealthy, or at least appeared to be, and all were young and apparently healthy, but he could tell nothing about any of the personalities under the masks. Glen suppressed a shiver as he realized he was still cold, despite the warmth of the ballroom. The rain seemed to have frozen him to his very core, and he wondered briefly if he should be worried.
A soft tap on his shoulder startled him from his reverie, and he turned, expecting to see the long limbed doorman from before. Instead, he found himself standing face to face with an intoxicating masked woman. She wore a flowing red gown with a plunging neckline, and long matching gloves that reached past her elbows. Her flawless skin was a soft cream color, and her body was perfectly proportioned, giving her the appearance of a marble statue come to life. She wore a simple mask about her eyes, colored in the same deep crimson as her dress, complete with frilled black-lace trim. Her eyes were dark and seemingly bottomless – like the deepest reaches of the sea, where even color cannot penetrate. She held him with her gaze as she circled around to his front, and with a thrill, Glen briefly felt like a doe being circled by a wolf.
“And who are we?” she whispered, her hand never leaving Glen’s shoulder as she glided around him. Something about her seemed familiar. Had he met her before? Was she someone famous? He wished she would take her mask off so he could see. Perhaps her face would jog his memory.
Glen realized she had asked him a question and swallowed. “I-I’m…” he began before she hushed him with a gloved finger to his lips.
“No, no. Don’t tell me,” she murmured still circling him slowly, almost seeming to evaluate him. Then she stopped and smiled broadly, her white teeth almost shining in the light. “Oh, darling,” she sighed, leaning in close. “You always find the most wonderful costumes.”
Glen began babbling, attempting to free himself from her embrace. “No, no I’m Glen. Tillman. My car broke down and I’m-”
“Of course you are, darling. Now come and dance with me.” She dragged him onto the floor, where the band was just beginning another number.
“I’m not who you think I am,” whispered Glen, now realizing that she was expecting him to know how to dance. He had no idea what any of the steps were, and even if he did, he was confident that he would disappoint the lithe dancers around him. “I don’t know how.”
“Of course not,” she whispered to him, placing his hand about her waist and taking his other in her own. He looked at her in confusion, until she locked eyes with him and he found himself moving gracefully along with her, in perfect step. She smiled at him mischievously through her red mask. They continued to dance, and Glen felt his body pivoting with grace he had never known he possessed -it was as if his body knew where to go, even as his mind panicked. A muscle memory he had never learned. He kept his eyes focused on hers, certain that if he were to tear them away the spell would be shattered, and his legs would throw him to the ground in a heap. They swept through the hall like a whirling tornado, the tempo of the song accelerating their movements as they seemingly fed off of the energy of the quartet. They were moving in perfect harmony, twisting and swooping across the dance floor like a single organism, their eyes locked on one another’s.
Glen didn’t understand what was happening, but was happy enough to allow his body to move miraculously. He found that he danced most fluidly when he stared into those deep orbs, allowing his legs to move unimpeded by his brain. They passed under a set of shining lights from above, and for the briefest of moments the light caught her eyes, and Glen saw her irises reflect it back. They shone silver, like an animal in the moonlight. He suddenly realized that his arm was still cold – even as it wrapped around her. No warmth radiated from her. His breath caught, and he dropped her to the ground – the spell was broken. The music came to a halt, and Glen felt the masked faces turn to him in unison as he stared down at the woman on the floor. She stared back at him, her face unreadable in the red mask. Glen took a backwards step towards the door, suddenly aware that his footfall was the only sound in the room – it was absolute silence. No one breathed, or coughed or smiled. They merely regarded him in graven stillness as he backed his way to the door. “What are you?” he whispered to the masks.
“They are the guests,” The reply came from behind him. It was the doorman, who had noiselessly pushed a large cart with an ornate covering. The doorman maneuvered the cart into the room, stopping several feet inside, and turned it such that it faced the masked crowd.
“I want to leave,” said Glen, attempting to keep his eyes on both the crowd behind him and the doorman now standing between himself and the exit. “I’ll take my chances with the storm.”
“Of course, sir. You are free to leave,” the doorman bowed and turned towards the door respectfully. Glen took a step in that direction before he felt a hand on his shoulder. He spun, only to find himself face-to-face with the woman in red again. She had risen from the dance floor and silently crossed the twenty paces to Glen in an instant. Her perfume assaulted his senses again, but he now sensed under it the slight scent of decay and rot – putrefaction hidden deep inside the beauty.
“You can’t leave already,” she purred. “We’ve yet to eat.” She gestured to the cart. Glen tried to step away from her, but his feet were frozen to the spot in terror, his eyes fixed on her. She smiled coldly, her dark eyes gleaming from behind the mask. Then slowly, and with the grace of a spider spinning its web, she reached to Glen’s chin and turned his head to the cart. The doorman had opened the cart’s lid, revealing a bound man inside.
“Dinner is served, sir,” the masked man murmured quietly with another bow. Glen stepped to the cart in a stunned silence, his terror turning to disbelief as he approached the cart and recognized the bound form.
“It’s me. I’m in the cart…” He spun round to the red woman in confusion. “Why does he look like me?” She slithered beside him like a snake, almost seeming to float through the air.
“Perhaps it’s you that looks like him,” she whispered. “The flesh is malleable, you know.” The phrase sounded familiar to him, almost as if he had uttered it before. A creeping doubt began to enter Glen’s mind.
“What are you saying?” he asked as he backed slowly away from the doorman and the woman. He realized he was still cold. Freezing, even in the warmth of the room. The woman took a step towards Glen, driving him towards the silent crowd on the dance floor.
“You’re a worn identity. A mask.”
“No! I’m Glen Tillman! I wrecked my car and now I’m here!” He was panicking, his breath short and coming in gasps as he stumbled backwards among the still bodies. The masked crowd stared at him impassively, unmoving and silent. “Listen! I’m real. I’m me. I’m not some mask!” He was almost pleading with the crowd. “I’ve got memories! Dreams! Can a mask dream?”
“Mister Barrows, it’s time to unmask,” said the doorman quietly. As one, the figures all reached to their faces and removed the masks. Dark eyes twinkled in the dim lighting around Glen and he screamed for one last time. He felt himself unravel, and as oblivion took him Glen could only wonder if masks really could dream.
Josh Shiben lives in Fredericksburg, VA with his wife Erin, where he works as an engineer. His horror novel Dreams of Eschaton is available through amazon's kindle now. He blogs at poetmoreate.blogspot.com
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