-------------------------> Click Here For Part One <----------------------------
Stan knocked again.
“What?” A man’s muffled voice came from the other side of the door.
“Another one,” Stan said. His tone was one of contrived strength.
Footsteps approached from the other side of the door. It opened, and the man who stood before us wore only purple yoga pants. His mask extended past his face and covered his entire body, making him look like an actual mannequin. He was certainly the Man.
“What’s wrong, honey?” He asked me in a dry, quivering voice--as if he had just smoked a Cuban while running a 5K. “You don’t like it here?”
“No, it’s great, I just--”
“You just what? Want out?”
“Yeah, I don’t jive with that whole cosmetic thing.”
He stepped close to me. His cologne smelt like a stagnant delicatessen. “The masks?”
I nodded and lowered my eyes.
“It’s not all about cosmetics...uh, what’s your name?”
“Drew.” I looked up again.
“Drew, the mask is only a symbol of something deeper. Didn’t you come through the fence for a reason? Didn’t you want to belong? I let you through the fence because I want you here.” He stepped back and leaned against the doorframe. “You don’t want to end up shivering in the cold outside, do you? That’s the alternative, you know; I would cast you out.”
Something deep within me, which had been stowed away and forgotten, had been dislodged. It was embedded so deep, that even the slightest tug was enough to wrench my entire being. It was a desire to belong. I didn’t want to go outside and be taunted and abused by those inside; I wanted to be inside, to be someone.
“Let me tell you a little secret,” the Man looked at Stan, then back at me. “I don’t normally tell someone like you what our plans are. But...I think this may sway your decision.
“You may already know this, but the outsiders are trapped inside the fence, even though they are unwanted here,” he explained, “but they’ve been nothing to us but thorns, simply because they’re here. If you wish to leave us, I cannot guarantee your survival.”
“Sir,” Stan said, stepping forward.
“No, I know what I’m doing,” the Man looked at him with a sharp glare, then returned to me. “We are going to eradicate the outsiders, Drew. I beg you, don’t join them.”
Eradicate? Am I trapped inside the fence too? “They’re trapped in here?” I said. “How is that possible?”
“This house has its own secrets, and we simply don’t argue with them.” He shrugged himself off the doorframe and took a step back into his room. “Do you like narcotics?” He then slid into his room before I could respond. After rummaging around, and striking a match to light something, he returned with a steaming hookah.
“Here,” he said, offering me the hose, “there’s more where this came from.”
My first impulse was to refuse, but then the deep pull within anchored me tight. Then the fear came: being an outsider, in the cold, soon to be eradicated...it was enough to tip the scale.
“Breathe,” he whispered.
I took the hose, put it in my mouth, then drew in the vapor. It had a yeasty, fruity taste. My eyes watered, legs quivered and spine tingled. When I exhaled the moist smoke, I felt like a part of me left with it, leaving me with a hollow feeling. My mind raced with panicked thoughts: Wait! What am I doing? What’s in that? Why am I--?
“Another one,” the Man said as he caressed my hair.
I drew more vapor, ignoring the hollowness and panic. My knees buckled, and Stan and another mannequin helped me stay upright. The panic eased into a tranquil sleep, and the hollowness numbed, like it was either leaving or filling back up.
I inhaled another draught. My vision lagged, making everyone’s movements string together in a blur. My ears felt plugged, and when the Man tried to tell me something, his voice was muffled and indiscernible. Every part of me was loose, relaxed and glazed in comfort. My panicked mind had yielded to euphoria, and the hollow place inside was now full.
The Man leaning closer so I could hear. “How do you feel?”
I looked at him, but I couldn’t focus. “Wow...”
Stan put his hand on my shoulder, followed by the other mannequins. “You belong,” they all said in a sporadic fashion.
The Man put his hands on my shoulders. “Do you belong with us, Drew?”
I went to nod, but my head drooped under its own weight, so I spoke instead with my head on my chest. “Yes...”
“Yes, you do belong,” he said, raising my head with his hand. “He’s ready, Stan. Take him down.”
The Man took the hose from me, but I grabbed it back and took another draught of vapor. A surge of ecstasy sent me stumbling to the floor.
“Wow. He’ll fit right in here,” the Man said with a chuckle; his voice was distant and deep.
Stan and one of my escorts each grabbed an arm and helped me up as I continued along in the euphoric stupor. We passed through crowds, but all I could recognize was the blurred images of their masks.
My escorts kept their hands on me as we all walked down the hall to the stairway. We descended the first flight of stairs, and a mannequin noticed that I walked freely. “Hey!” He shouted, pointing at me. “The newcomer stays!”
Those around him began applauding quietly, but then it progressed into shouts of acclamation as more joined in as we continued our descent. When we reached the main floor, some members near the entryway began a chant in Latin. Others joined in, and it soon mutated into an anthem--an anthem that only a psych ward would concoct.
We came through the kitchen and descended into the red glow of the basement. Doc stood beside the table, cleaning his scalpel, but he set it down and cleared the table when he saw us. Stan went to a switch on the wall and the light above the table turned on.
“Put him on up!” Doc said as rapped the table with his fist.
My escorts each grabbed a limb and placed me on the table while Stan locked my head in the vice. The vice! I realized what I had done. My vision had started to clear up, and my mind returned to me, along with the panic. The mask! No! I opened my mouth to say, “Wait,” but my voice was quiet and garbled.
“It’s OK,” Stan said, smiling at me. “Just relax, enjoy those tingles.”
“Wait,” I repeated, finally sounding discernible.
“What?” Stan brought his ear close to my mouth.
“I changed my mind,” I whispered.
“What’s he saying?” Doc asked.
Stan brought his head away and looked at Doc. “He wants to be drugged out.”
“Wait!” My voice was barely above a whisper. I thrashed my arms and legs.
“Easy!” Stan said while he and the other mannequins held my limbs down. “Don’t strain yourself.”
“You sure he wants this?” Doc asked.
“Yeah, he’s just nervous,” Stan chuckled.
“No!” I said as loud as I could, still barely louder than a whisper, but Stan coughed to mask it.
I tried to struggle free, but a jab in my neck stopped me.
“Lights out,” Doc said.
My body weakened, and the light above the table faded from my sight until all was black.
Stan howled in pain and fell to the ground beside the other mannequins. He tried getting back up, but his attacker leapt onto him and smacked his head, rendering him unconscious. Still crouching over Stan, the attacker slowly raised his head and locked his gaze on me. He stood up and stepped into the light with a relaxed speed. He was middle-aged, had hair just long enough to get messy, but short enough for the mess to look intentional. His beard was simple, hardly longer than a five o’clock shadow. On each of his cheeks were tattoos of bird wings, which covered all visible skin under his eyes that wasn’t already covered with the beard.
Doc soon succumbed to the same fate once his assailant clobbered him with a wooden object. The other intruder also stepped up to me and stood beside the older man. He was younger, and clean-shaven with black hair combed to the side.
“Out...” My jaw jolted with pain. “Outsiders?”
They remained silent; their faces were tight, creased with subtle scowls.
I wanted them to get me out of there. “Please, I...” Another pang ran through my jaw and my eyes watered.
The older man brought his head close to me. His eyes were blue enough to be windows into a lagoon. He held his hand up to the younger man, then flicked two fingers in a subtle beckon.
“Lark, you sure?” the young one said.
“Yup,” Lark replied, picking up a bottle of anesthetic. His voice had the coarseness of a diesel engine.
“Very well.” The young man went out of view, then walked up with a hypodermic needle.
Lark took the needle, extracted the anesthetic, and placed his hand on my eyes.
I flinched, but he pressed harder.
“Be still,” he said.
He jabbed my right arm with the needle. Strength and feeling left my arm, shoulder, then weeded into my chest and head. Lark kept his hand on my face as my whole body eased into stillness, then darkness.
I opened my eyes. Tree branches canopied above; the shadows of their branches quivered from the firelight’s flares. I looked around me. The orange glow illuminated the faces of two dozen people; they were the outsiders. Lark sat directly across the fire, staring at me through the flames. His peering eyes made it hard to know if he was an enemy or friend.
“The hostage is up,” said a man who sat beside me.
“He’s not a hostage, Steven,” Lark said, still staring at me, “he’s one of us.”
“Well, he sure doesn’t look like it,” Steven said.
Lark stood up and came over to me, kneeling so I could see his face in the firelight. “I’m Lark.”
“Drew,” I said, but only a whisper came out.
“Drew, do you want the good news or bad news?”
“Uh, bad news.”
“Bor,” Lark said to a man who sat near me; it was the young man from the basement.
Bor held out a small mirror to Lark, who took it.
“Don’t be alarmed,” Lark said as he gave the mirror to me.
My hands were shaking, but I managed to steady it. I angled my head so the fire could illumine my face. I appeared glossy in the reflection, so I brought the mirror closer. Then I saw my faceless face, the fabrication of skin--the mask.
I dropped my arm to the ground, released the mirror and clutched my face with both hands. A pang of sobs jostled my chest, while tears wedged themselves behind my eyes as if the sockets were too small for the flow.
Lark placed his hand on my shoulder. “The good news is that you’re free. Bor and I have freed many outsiders from those inside, but you're the first one we've saved who wears a mask.”
“How am I free?" I asked "I'm still inside the fence.”
"I'll explain in a moment." Lark turned towards the fire so all could hear him. “I gave Drew the heart.”
Heart? What heart?
Gasps and mumbled laments trickled through the gathering.
“I know that I promised--” Lark began.
“You broke your promise!” Steven yelled.
“I did not,” Lark said with a calm tone. “Don’t you remember? I promised it to the one among you who needs it.”
“But he’s one of them!”
“Are you blind, Steven? Can’t you see--”
“When did you become our leader anyway?”
“Steven,” a woman said, “listen to Lark.”
“I’m done listening. All promises, no action.” Steven stood up and went into the shadows.
“Steven, let me explain.”
I craned my neck up to look at Steven, but the shadows eclipsed him.
There was the sound of a wooden door opening. “I got the guts to do what you can’t,” Steven shouted.
“Steven, if you--”
The door shut, and Steven’s footsteps faded away. It was apparently an underground passage into the house.
“Lark,” Bor said, “he’s gonna...”
“I know,” Lark leapt up, “just keep them calm.” He sprinted after Steven, disappearing into the darkness and through the door.
The fire crackled and the house still boomed with music and laughter, but the outsiders remained silent. I glanced around at their faces, most were downcast and were frozen with empty stares at the fire. Others held frowns, staring at me--at my mask.
“You’re lucky,” a woman said from across the fire; she was looking at me. “You’re the only one who can get out of here.”
“How?” I said, barely audible.
“The heart,” Bor said, “Lark gave you a new heart.”
He shrugged. “Maybe he pitied you,” he looked at my face, and I could tell he was referring to my mask. “I don’t know, he has his reasons.”
As I stared at the fire, I brought my hand under my shirt. There was a large patch of gauze strapped over my ribcage. I pressed down on it, eliciting pain.
Bor looked at me, with hard eyes at first, but then they loosened into a relaxed smirk of sympathy. “The house is cruel, Drew. It entices and entraps all who enter. We all fell for its lies; we’re all stuck here. The house welcomed us like old friends only to betray us and suck the life out of us.”
“Yeah, I felt something get taken from me, when I...” A pang of guilt sprung up when I recalled the house.
“Look, Drew, I don’t care how far you went before you changed your mind, but you’re free now. As good as new.”
The music stopped and the house went silent. A shout and a gunshot. The outsiders murmured, watching and waiting. Some stood up and began shuffling around the fire.
“Lark’s been shot!” someone said.
“We don’t know that,” another said.
“Could be Steven,” the first woman said.
“Lark’s shot!” Steven yelled as he ran out of the shadows behind us.
The outsiders clamored, but then the sound of shattering glass from the house silenced them. One of the fourth floor balcony doors had been thrown open with such force that it’s glass pane broke. The Man came to the balcony railing with an entourage in tow. Lark stood in the front, head slumped to his chest; Stan and Doc were holding him upright.
“Outsiders!” the Man shouted. “Behold your Lark!”
Doc and Stan, who were holding Lark upright, tossed him over the railing. He fell lifelessly. After a short distance, a cord that had been tied around his chest went taut and left him swinging him like a pendulum from the marble railing.
A mannequin appeared behind the Man’s entourage with rifles. He handed them to Doc, Stan and two other mannequins.
“Guns!” One of us shouted.
Spotlights from the house clicked on, illuminating us like nocturnal criminals. A series of loud cracks and muzzle flashes came from the balcony. I saw three outsiders clutch various spots on their bodies before collapsing. We scattered. Some stumbled in panic, but most sprinted alongside the fence, flanking it in an attempt to stay as far away from the bullets as possible.
Bor pulled me to my feet, shocking my body into action. My heart surgery didn’t seem to affect my mobility, since I was able to walk and trot, and keep up with Bor as we snuck towards a large ash tree whose trunk and low branches cast a concealing shadow.
“Bor!” Steven said, grabbing Bor’s arm. “We gotta get Lark!”
“He’s dead,” he said without stopping or even looking at him. “Thanks to you.”
Gunshots continued to resound, but I didn’t bother looking where or whom the bullets hit. Throughout the yard I heard screams and moans of pain, but Bor and I were able to reach the fence unscathed.
“You’re free,” he said with a hand on a fence picket.
“Your heart! Remember?” He took a few steps along the fence, then glanced back. “Now, go. You owe it to him to go. Leave before it’s too late. Otherwise Lark died for nothing.” He sprinted alongside the fence, periodically checking outsiders that laid on the ground.
I looked to the fence, and not knowing what else to do, I grabbed a picket. The iron felt soft in my hand. I pulled at it, and it bent! I grabbed the picket beside it and was able to pull it also, creating an opening large enough for me to squeeze through. Somehow my heart gave me powers, or strength, but the more I searched for an explanation, the less convincing they became.
I glanced back at the house. The snipers continued to fire on the scattering targets, but now I noticed something else: a horde of mannequins poured out of the house; they all held clubs and other types of bludgeoning implements, and were now converging on the scattered outsiders.
The chaos trapped my eyes, refusing to let me turn away. It was all unfair. I was free, yet the only ones who deserved to be free were being slaughtered--slaughtered by the very people whose visage I shared. I couldn’t leave the fence, not without doing something. Yet no idea came to me; any attempt to save the outsiders would’ve been futile. As Bor told me, if I died, Lark’s death was meaningless.
Yet I still couldn’t turn away. I crouched and watched the chaos from the cover of the ash tree’s shadow. Tears trickled out of me as I heard less gunshots and saw less outsiders alive. Soon, the Man’s entourage on the balcony had left, and a congregation of mannequins formed in the front lawn. Most of the outsiders had apparently been slaughtered.
Then, a flash of light blinded me from somewhere in the backyard. A mannequin had been shining in the shadows for cowering outsiders.
“Hey!” he yelled. “There’s one!”
The congregation in the front turned and spotted me as the snitch illuminated me. They whooped and laughed as they all crept across the grass, converging on me.
Time to go! I pivoted to go back to the fence, but I did a double-take when movement on the fourth floor balcony caught my attention. Suspended from the railing was Lark, but he was no longer motionless. He wriggled and writhed, attempting to free himself from the cord. I stood up, compelled to race to the house and free him, but then, how could I? To try was to fail with the mannequins converging on me.
I gritted my teeth, turned from Lark and stuck my head through the opened pickets when snarls and moans startled me. I looked up, and out of the darkness emerged the mob; they had seen the opening I made. I pushed through, but my shoulders caught on the pickets.
I was the cork in their bottle that was ready to explode, and I needed to act quickly if I wanted to live. I pulled out of the pickets and bent them farther apart so I could fit through, but then I had another idea. I glanced back to monitor the converging mannequins, who were still far enough away, and I leapt up and grabbed the top fence rail. As I fell back to the ground with the rail still in my grasp, it bent, but also cleaved from the pickets. I took the rail and arched it until it snapped in two. Then, I grabbed the lower rail, pulled it free from the pickets and snapped it in two as well. With both rails in hand, I pulled them along the fence until a dozen pickets were left freestanding, without the rails’ support.
The mob collided into the weakened fence, sending tremors through it, which wrenched the rails from my hands. I leapt to the side and tucked myself into the shadows, where I remained in a motionless crouch, fearing that the mob would treat me like an “insider.”
The converging mannequins halted when they saw the mob heaving against the weakened fence. Then, one by one, they all retreated to the house.
The juggernaut bent the pickets in at various rates. Soon, they were angled inward enough for the first four desperate souls to weave through and dart towards the house. Then more pickets bent, which let another six through.
I slyly peeked at the fourth floor balcony to watch for Lark, but all I saw was the cord dangling from the railing. He was nowhere in sight. The stream of bodies, only a few feet from me, didn’t give me much license to keep looking for him if I wanted to remain unseen, so I just dug my head into my knees and waited, hoping he was OK.
The pickets finally bent completely to the ground, and the full force of the mob gushed in like a tsunami. Soon the lawn was filled with the clamor of desperation, besieging the house of mannequins, who were now trapped in their own paradise.
The mob rammed the front door open with a bench they had found somewhere in the lawn. A few gunshots rang from inside, but they were ineffective against the juggernaut. The mannequins fled out the backdoor, but the mob’s ubiquitousness denied them any chance of escape. The hunters were now hunted down, thrown to the lawn in defeat while the new occupants of the house overwhelmed the premises like ants.
The fence had disappeared, and in its place stood a row of flowering shrubs, which nearly eclipsed the house. I could only see the house through the opening I had just come through, which was now a simple dirt pathway through the shrubbery. The house was also different; it retained the same shape, but it was dark, full of moss and black mold. As the sun crept higher, everything was covered in its yellow light, but the house held its shadow, as if the sun had no business shining on it.
I looked around as the sun brightened the landscape. Mist hovered along the troughs in the land, robins chirped their morning songs and countless silver spiderwebs radiated the sunlight with each rustle of wind. It was no longer autumn, but summer.
“Quite something, isn’t it?” came the voice like diesel behind me.
“You’re alive!” I said before I even turned around.
“I’m glad you noticed,” Lark smiled, walking along the pathway.
I frowned and looked beyond him to the house. “What is this place? It just changed!”
“Are you sure it wasn’t you that changed?”
I looked at him, perplexed.
“Your heart, remember?”
I glanced down at my chest and brought my hand up to feel it, but it felt normal. I tucked my hand underneath my clothes and felt no stitches or gauze. “So I dreamed it all?”
“Of course not.” He kicked a pebble off the path and ruffled his hair. “Can’t one thing be two things at once?”
“Yeah, I suppose...”
“Houses can wear masks too, you know.”
My mask! I brought my hand up to my face, hesitating, then touched my cheek. All I felt was skin; my mask was gone.
“This place is a mystery,” Lark said. “I wouldn’t bother trying to wrap your mind around it; the things of the heart seldom translate for the mind’s convenience.”
Movement inside the fence caught my attention. The bodies on the lawn, those of the outsiders, began rustling. One by one, they all sat up or rolled over, then stood up.
“But they were shot,” I said with my mouth gaped.
“So was I,” he said, still looking at me. “Like I said, the house a mystery, and so are its physics. Even death itself can backtrack if it contradicts the house’s wishes. The Man had the ability to open the fence, but that didn’t make him lord over the house. He thought that his ability gave him power to do what he wanted with the outsiders, but he was wrong.”
I saw Steven and Bor, along with several others, walk up to where the pathway met the line of shrubs. They stopped and held out their hands and grabbed something, as if they thought the fence was still there.
“Why don’t they come out?”
Lark turned to look. “Because they don’t have a new heart like you do.”
“But there’s a clear opening now! I opened the fence for them. The mob came through from outside, so why can’t they come out through the same way?”
“The same reason why it’s easier to fall than to fly,” he said, turning back to me.
“So they’re trapped...how?”
“Everyone who believes the house’s lie is trapped by the fence. The house deceives everyone, whether its the mob who wants to get in or the few who actually make it in.” He looked back at the house. “As soon as they want to get into the house, even if they never get past the fence, they’re trapped by its lie.”
Steven frowned at us, then walked away. Bor had tears in his eyes, but he held a small grin. He closed his eyes and nodded, as if he had hope.
Lark nodded back.
“What about you? You see it for what it is, since you’re able to just walk out.”
“The fence is only visible to those who believe the lie, yet I never have. I don’t even see the fence.”
“So, how do we get them out?”
“Give them new hearts, just like you.” He pivoted and walked back down the path. “You’re free to join me.”
“Wasn’t there just one heart? Wait...” My chest tightened at the realization. “Lark...where did you get my heart?”
“Drew, a man may only have one heart,” he gently rubbed his hand on his chest, directly over his heart, “but since when does that mean he can only give it away once?” He winked, then continued down the path.