Saturday, November 29, 2014

"Outsiders" (Part Two)

        -------------------------> 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 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.

        A muffled crash ripped me from sleep. I tried to open my eyes, but the lids jolted with pain. Another crash made my head flinch, which indicated that I was no longer locked in the vice. I slowly pried my eyes open and looked towards the noises. Shapes and bodies tossed around in the shadows. It was Stan and Doc; they were fighting two people who remained hidden in the shadows. Whoever they were, they were skilled, since behind Stan and Doc laid two other unconscious mannequins, surely thrown there by the intruders.
        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.  

        It was cold, but an orange glow beside me kept me warm enough to hamper shivering. The orange glow crackled--it was a fire. Fire? 
        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.”
        “What? Seriously?”
        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. 

        My little alcove of shadow proved effective against the searching eyes of the mob. After the chaos had subsided, and the mob had made themselves at home, dawn had arrived. Since the opening in the fence was now void of the trampling horde, I slowly snuck along the fence and slipped through it. I ducked behind a shrub outside, still nervous about being spotted. I peeked through the shrub’s foliage and gasped.
        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”
        “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.

Monday, November 17, 2014

“Outsiders” (Part One)

        Past the wrought iron fence, covered in the dead and dried vines of autumn, stood the towering brick house. Coupled with its four story stature, the numerous marble balconies on the two uppermost levels adorned it with an extra dose of eminence. Like the gate, the red brick of the house was covered in prolific vines, making the entire building look like it was either emerging from the ground or about to be pulled back under. 
        The poshness of the premises seemed to attract a number of hapless souls, since a large amount of them converged on the fence, rattling and slamming the barrier with bloodied hands and faces riddled with spittle. They hurled pleas for someone to let them in, only to be left perpetually dejected by the persistent absence of help.
        I came to a spot of the fence where no one stood and peered through the metal pickets. The house glowed in the twilight, and through the windows the plethora of the house’s occupants could be seen strolling around. The music was loud, the laughter was inviting and the smell of fried chicken and beer perforated through the crisp autumn air. 
        Seeing the house’s glory for myself, a deep desire sprang up within me. I wanted in, so I reached out to test the fence’s strength. Yet as I reached for the nearest picket, part of the fence panel disappeared and an open gate stood in its place. I paused, blinked a few times and even put my arm through the opening to verify what I beheld. I looked around at the people, puzzled why no one came to use the entrance. A rather wild individual to my left happened to find a sledge hammer and was using it to beat on the fence.
        I waved at him. “There’s a gate here, man,” I said.
        “Yah!” He swung his implement and broke its handle on the fence. 
        “There’s an opening!” I yelled this time.
        He ran away, probably in search for another hammer.
        Shaking my head, I readdressed the house. The front door of the house stood ahead of me at the end of a cobblestone sidewalk. It was held open to me, revealing the tantalization inside. I cautiously walked through the gate and ventured across the cobblestones. I turned around to see only the fence--the gate was gone. 
        “Friend!” A man’s voice shouted from the house. 
        I pivoted and saw a slender man standing on the porch between two enormous marble pillars. He stood with arms out in a welcoming gesture.
        “Join us and warm your spirit from the bitter cold outside” he said.
        I slowly stepped towards him.
        “It’s all right,” he said. “You belong here.”
        As I drew closer to him, I noticed some activity on the left side of the house, up on one of the third floor balconies. A few individuals were throwing objects down to the yard, yelling obscenities and insults. At first, I thought they were playing a game, but then I noticed that they were targeting a group of people huddled around a campfire in the darkest region of the yard. These outsiders didn’t seem to mind this assailment; they kept warming themselves and talking quietly. Ignoring this drama, I continued down the sidewalk to the house.
        When I reached the top of the steps, I smiled and nodded at the slender man. His face was perfect, and I looked hard at it to try and see what made it so flawless. There was a type of gloss on his skin, and it gave him an angelic aura. My expression must have revealed my curiosity, since he promptly addressed what intrigued me. 
        “It’s a cosmetic mask.” He rubbed his cheek. “You’ll love it. But definitely grab some food first,” he looked and nodded towards the kitchen to my right, “and whatever else that tickles your desire.”
        “Thank you.”
        “Thank the Man.”
        “The Man, he invited you.”
        “I didn’t get an invite. I just happened to stop by and see--” 
        “Then he invited you! Now go, dig in!” 
        I wanted to ask him about the mysterious fence and disappearing gate, but he turned away and whispered something to an aid. Pushing away my own confusion, I stepped through the door. I was immediately bumped by a suggestively adorned girl, then by the man who was advancing on her. He turned to me with eyes glazed in euphoria. “Sorry, dude,” he said, before chasing his companion upstairs. 
        Everyone looked perfect, like the man at the door. They almost resembled mannequins, but ones whose faces can move. Every face I saw reminded me how out of place I was. I felt like I was missing something. I thought about leaving, but I was hungry and couldn’t pass up free food, so I made the decision to just eat and go. 
        Getting to the food proved treacherous in its own way. A mosh pit of the mannequins were pulsating on the floor in front of the amps and speakers, and I needed to shrug through them to get to the table of food. After giving the subwoofer permission to violate my eardrums, I came out on the other side of the mosh pit and eyed the food, which had been ravaged already. I was grateful, though, to find a few pieces of fried chicken hidden under the edge of the plate that held it. 
        I grabbed a plate and put them on it and moved along the buffet, constructing my meal. I managed to pilfer some mashed potatoes away from the flock of house flies that permeated the bowl. The coleslaw was warm and the cranberry sauce was mixed with the unintentional spills of other foods, but I still took some of each. I grabbed a few black olives and a slice of what looked like homemade bread to finish my plate. There was mostly alcohol to drink, but I chose lemonade; I wanted to keep a level head that night, but in the end, it didn’t matter anyway.
        “Lemonade?” Some guy asked incredulously. He nearly had to yell due to the music.
        “Yup.” I finished pouring my drink before looking over at him. 
        He was leaning against the wall, smoking a cigarette. His left hand held the cigarette and the right was tucked into the pocket of his leather jacket. Jeans from Buckle and spotless black loafers adorned his lower half. His hair was messed up, but I think he wanted it to look that way because that was the style back then. His face also looked like a mannequin, of course.
        His eyes traced over me carefully. “You look like an outsider.”       
        “Yeah, I just came in.”
        “No, I mean you look like those drabs outside. See ‘em?”
        “Around the fire? Yeah.” I threw a olive into my mouth. “Why they out there?”
        He looked hard at me. “Do you know anything about this place?”
        “No, and I’m still puzzled about how I got past the fence. A gate appeared out of no where and--”
        “The Man must want you here, then.”
        “Yeah, the guy at the door said that.” I scooped some coleslaw and half of it fell off the fork, but I shoved in my mouth anyway. “Who is he?”
        “No one knows--at least his name. He’s upstairs now, I think with a bunch o’ choice cuts.” 
        “Oh.” I looked at the homemade bread and saw a patch of green fuzz, so I nudged it away from the rest of my food. “Well, what about ‘the Man’? What makes him a big deal?”
        “Wow, you are clueless.” He drew a draught of smoke, held it with his eyes squinting at me, then blew it at me. “He’s the Man! What else is there to say? He sets the unspeakable rules. We’ve had a fair share of his like before. The last Man fell off a balcony and broke a bunch o’ bones. He was good in his own way, but dumb, a loose cannon. He’s gone now, Heaven knows where. Now the new Man, he’s chill, but that don’t mean he takes crap from anyone.”
        “Good to know.” 
        He looked at my face, but it felt like he was looking through me. “Name’s Stan,” he said. He didn’t offer me his hand. 
        “Drew.” I didn’t offer my hand either.  
        He twitched his head in a crisp nod. I’m assuming he was trying to say, ‘Nice to meet you,’ but then, I don’t know.
        “Let me show you something.” He pushed his back off the wall and turned towards the back of the house. 
        I didn’t want to follow him, but this guy made me curious. I left my lemonade on the table and trailed him into the kitchen. We went through a horde of more mannequins, both men and women. Their demeanors indicated desperation and anticipation. They were all testing each other, trying to determine how much of themselves they were willing to give away that night. I can still smell their hormones.
        Stan glanced back to see if I was still following, then pushed free from the bodies. He came to a closed door near the back door. “This is the heart of this place.” He opened it with a smile. “This is why those drabs are outside, you’ll see.”
        An odor of sweat and must wafted past me when the door swung open. It mixed with the smell of my food in the worst way, and I nearly left my plate upstairs. 
        “Ignore the smell, you adjust.” He began descending the steps. “You actually come to enjoy it.”
        The door revealed a descending flight of stairs that lead to the basement. Light from the main floor was swallowed in the shadows below, and I couldn’t see past a few steps. I kept my right hand on the railing as I continued stepping down. Segments of the railing made me cringe because my hand brushed over something gritty and pulpy; I still don’t know what it was. The steps creaked and murmured and the smell grew in potency. My appetite was now gone. 
        Another closed door stood at the bottom, and Stan, well ahead of me, opened it, unleashing a reddish light into the stairway. I could now see better, but the red light made me anxious; it seemed cultish. Stan went through the door, and when I could see past him, what I saw certainly looked like a cult. A dozen cloaked mannequins surrounded a woman, who was stretched out on a table in the middle of the room. Her eyes were rolled back in a trance and four of the mannequins held her in place while a fifth one braced her head in a vice. 
        Then, a man with a mask marked with various symbols stepped up to her with a scalpel in hand. A light turned on above the table, and the “doctor” proceeded. I’ll not divulge the details because I don’t want to describe how her face got peeled off. Yes, her face was removed--at least the skin on her face. She convulsed throughout the procedure, obviously, and the four figures pressed down on their allotted limbs to keep her still. She moaned and cried, but the creepy man slid his blade along.
        Stan stared at me the whole time, puffing smoke in my face; he probably thought I liked it with how much he did it.
        “Does she feel it?” I asked, still watching.
        “Duh.” He looked at her. “Well, she’s doped out too. That helps the pain.”
        “What is this?”
        “Our beginning,” Stan said, looking at me again. 
        The woman moaned from the pain, but Stan kept looking at me. 
        “This...” My voice cracked. “This is why those people are outside?”
        “You’re catching on!” He threw some more smoke at me. “Yeah, they refused to do the procedure. Fools.”
        “What’s wrong with them refusing?”
        Stan looked at me with his face lowered, as if to lament my apparent stupidity. “They came into the house only to reject us and our offer to be one with us. The Man let them inside, but they want nothing to do with us. They belong on the other side of the fence, with the mob, but they're stuck here now."
        The woman wailed as “Doc” pressed a mask against her skinless face while an aid stood beside him with some strange glue in their hand.  
        “It fits.” Doc said. His voice was pure in tone but toxic in feel. He removed the mask, grabbed the glue and squeezed a bunch on the inside. He gave the glue back to his helper and placed the mask to face of the woman. He pushed down and held it firmly, ushering the worst scream yet from his patient.
        “Easy,” he said softly. 
        The mask that had been placed on her resembled the masks on Stan and the slender man at the door. “You had this done too?” I asked Stan.
        “Uh, yeah.” He twitched his head with preppy sass. “We all did.”
        Doc spoke before I could answer Stan. “Remove her from the vice in ten minutes,” he said to the fifth mannequin, then walked away. 
        The lights went out again, and the red glow resumed.
        “Ready?” Stan said.
        He nodded.
        “Why? I’m not doing this.”
        He sighed. “You seriously gonna reject us? Reject the Man who called you into our midst?”
        “He doesn’t need to know. What’s the big deal? I’ll just leave. Kick me out if it’s--”
         Stan threw his cigarette down and grabbed me by the back of my the neck. “It’s not that easy.” 
        The four mannequins that held the woman joined Stan in manhandling me. I dropped my plate of food in the commotion, leaving it shattered and splattered on the cement floor.        
        Stan's face was now close to mine and I could smell his smoked breath. “Got him?” Stan asked the four mannequins. 
        They nodded. I glanced at them and noticed that their masks had a crease etched on their cheeks, resembling a permanent smile.
        “Come on!” I yelled. I tried kicking but the two figures grabbing my legs clenched them tighter.
        They hauled me up the stairs into the noise and hormones. Stan yelled for the mass of bodies in the kitchen to clear out, and many of them turned to eye me with smug smiles. We went through the entryway and ascended the stairs to the second level. We slalomed through more crowds, whose members continued to smile and laugh at my pitiful state.
        Past more hormones and perfume, we came to the third floor. Stan asked a girl where the Man was. She pointed up to the ceiling, to the fourth floor, so up we went. Nobody was in sight, and the quietness was welcoming, but it only reminded me that bad things happen when no one’s around.
        “Please, guys.” I said. “Just let me leave.”
        “Shut it,” Stan said. “Outsider, just like I said.” 
        “If I’m an outsider, let me go!”
        He grabbed my jaw and pinched it, hushing me. 
        We soon came to a door at the end of a hallway and stopped.
        “We can let him down. He’s not going anywhere now,” Stan said in a quiet voice. They placed me back on my feet but held me with their hands on my shoulders and waist.

        Stan took a breath and knocked a few times. While he waited, he looked at one of my captors with wide eyes. He looked scared, and if he was, I only dreaded what was in store for me. 

------------------> Read Part 2 Here <-------------------