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Four Masks

by Chris Castle

They walked through the woods, the sound of branches breaking underfoot. They walked in silence so there was only the sound of their feet, their breathing. He stayed at the back, watching the other three.

Masks hung on their backs; a pig, a wolf, a dog. He felt his own slap against his back, over and over, a steady drum. And they walked on and on, the three faces keeping track of him as he moved.

It had started in the first days of summer: a group of boys who stood on corners, in the park. He noticed them quickly, for he had no-one to distract him. He followed them from a distance, remembered the patterns of where they stayed; a corner by shops one day, a car park the next. He watched them meet, one becoming two becoming three.

But what he noticed most was how they barely spoke to one another. They simply nodded, followed, found their answer in one another’s faces. And he watched them, longing to belong to people who didn’t speak but still understood.

He walked closer to them over a few days, a week. They began to catch sight of him, nod when he made his way by. At the end of the first week, one of them called to him, just after he had passed.

He walked back, his face tilted and low, mimicking them as best he could, as best he practised for hours each night. They spoke, passed on names. He waited, gave them his own. They agreed to meet at a place the next day, one he already knew they met in, but he did not say he knew. And that night he did not sleep but instead closed his eyes, quietly repeating stances, replicating nods and gestures.

They met in the park the following day. They sat in the sun, moving as the hours passed so they could drain every last drop from the sun. When it began to fall they led him to another place, an alleyway, where they could skate, smoke. They drew alcohol from a rucksack and he joined them until he could barely stand; his legs light and unreliable.

And they broke apart when the moon was full and the streetlights and the stars burned brightest. And he waved them away, and he made his way on, happy for maybe the first time.

The summer went on like this; taking the heat from the day, expelling it with the hours in the dark. They began to test each other in unspoken, hard ways; their skateboard tricks trickier and trickier until they fell, drew blood, knowing they were trying the near-impossible.

They threw a ball, higher and harder until their palms stung and could no longer grip the ball. Each of them drank, one by one vomiting and passing out, spilling closely guarded secrets before being picked up and led back to the park grasses to sober up.

And he followed them, did as they did; but he did not reveal the secrets. While one by one he heard of crushes, abuse, fears, dreams, hopes, he simply drank and drank until he could take no more and then they stepped forward, propped him up, held back his hair and emptied him by the gates, leaving his forehead to cool against the metal pipes.

But it was the silences he enjoyed most of all. The long moments where they simply sat close by each other, watching people pass, each making sure the other knew when a pretty girl passed by, a friend, an enemy.

The times when above them the sky pulled in different directions until downpours fell, causing them to run into cafes, newsagents. The long hours when the heat struck them down and they simply lay, defenceless and weak, trapped by the sun. Those moments when you could almost be alone but then hear others’ breathing telling you that the world has not forgotten you, not quite.

They found the house by accident when the park was closed for repairs. They walked to the nearby woods, found it sitting there, dilapidated and defeated out in a clearing. It was falling to pieces; the roof at a slant, the porch shot through and ugly. The windows mostly put out. A house that was forgotten.

They walked toward it, slipping into single file, though they didn’t know why. They stepped up to the front door, pushed it open, though it was already ajar. They went from room to room, investigating every part of it, each drawer, above each cupboard.

There were traces of what had been there before: cans in the kitchen cupboards, a few pieces of cutlery in the drawer. A ball of string and a knitting needle underneath a living room chair.

Eventually they went back out to the porch, sat on it, showing each other what they had found. Then they began to make up stories, reasons for its state, the terrible things that had occurred and driven them out, leaving the house to rot.

And then they walked away, pitching stones through the remaining windows, each throwing up and down in their palms whatever keepsakes they had stolen, before stuffing them into their pockets. And they walked in silence, the seeds of what had just taken place beginning to bubble in their minds, quieten their throats.

They sat together that night, passing the bottle, their conversation still tinged with the afternoon, what they had seen and done. It took the edges off their teasing, stopped them from drinking until they screamed, fell into fits of teary laughter. And it went on until he found himself holding onto the bottle, clutching it, outlining what they should do next, how next to invade a property, a house.

He explained the process, the need to monitor routines and patterns; how they needed to infiltrate other people’s lives to get what they wanted. He watched them all follow what he said until they began to nod in agreement, high five with promises, until at last he pitched back the bottle and they took to it feverishly, having made their pact.

They scouted large houses on the edge of the town; the richest, most isolated places, both remote and easily accessible. They took turns in staking them out, noting down when the car left, the inhabitants, what security they held.

The notebook was dutifully passed between the four of them throughout the day, the first of them tucking it into his bag along with breakfast, the last of them taking it out of the hands and placing it next to the flashlight, the sleeping bag. They earmarked four and called them by their own names.

The first property they hit the day before the storm. The warning was everywhere, signposts, destined to be destroyed, warned of gales. The four of them sat on the hill, watching the estate car pull out, away, down right past them, so they could even see the man driving, the girl in the back seat listening to her music and looking desperately out of the window.

They waited an hour and then they made their way, each holding one page of the notepad, their duties and instructions listed in bold capital letters. And they walked closer, drawing down their masks, knowing where the cameras were, if there were any, their cans of spray-paint flipped and caught in their free hand.

They agreed to spend one night in each house. As soon as they were in and their chores completed, they laid the masks on the largest table. They changed into the clothes in their bags. They put their own drink on the table. They used their own glasses and plates, sat together and enjoyed the meal they had brought, sitting at either side and the top and bottom of the table.

They toasted themselves and slowly forgot to whisper. Then they went through the house, each beginning in one room, one hour, and then moving to the next. They were allowed to take one item each, no more no less. Nothing of value, nothing sexual, nothing of sentiment; just something they could explain to each other and wonder if the families would miss.

When it was over they reconvened at the table for their evening meal, each laying down their item next to the masks. They would explain as they ate, as they drank, why they did what they did, took what they took. And this would lead to something else and something else, until all the bottles ran dry, their word turned to laughter and each alarm was set for the morning. Exactly 24 hours.

The weeks passed. They invaded the second house soon after the first but had to wait for the third for a much longer time. They grew restless as they waited, began to squabble, fight. They almost risked breaking in, outvoted three to one.

None of them could explain why they were so desperate, edgy. They couldn’t reason what they did. So instead they waited, the sun burning their skins instead of shading them, the drink making them lethargic instead of energised.

They stormed the third house almost as soon as the car pulled down the driveway. It was only then their skin cooled under the impossibly high rafters, only them their drinks were warm and enjoyable and brought smiles to their faces.

They went through their procedures, their games, adding a little more each time on his insistence. In the second house they had each left a piece of paper somewhere in the house; nothing to reveal themselves, nothing to threaten or scare. Instead a message, a thought, a sketch, or a belief. And a secret to themselves and not shared over the evening meal. Each paper was concealed so it could be found only by accident and not any time soon; only if someone were redecorating or moving away. Or a loss, a death.

At the third house they did the same, but each used two scraps of paper, each admitting their minds were working overtime and a single sheet was not enough.

The last week of summer the four of them were starting their lives over again: jobs, education. It was their time. Anxiously they waited, picking fingers until they bled, pulling nails to the core.

There was uncertainty on this last property; the back door, which they could not access from any position, was used regularly. The woman kept uneven, unpredictable hours.

He made the decision for them, a day before the summer was over. They agreed, though with reservations; their plan was not as airtight, their preparation not as thorough. But they said this through gritted teeth, slightly shaking hands, knowing they could not give up this last opportunity, not even if they wanted to. And he pushed them until they walked through the woods, their masks on their backs and ready.

He led them in, easing the lock, dismantling the codes and cameras. They went inside, they went about their business. Outside the sun was staying higher and longer than it had done for weeks, giving them natural light to work with. They moved through the rooms, catching each other from time to time, smiling sadly, shrugging, knowing it was soon going to be over.

They took their items, took their pages from the notebook. They sat around the table for the last time, with extra bottles, with more food, trying to draw it out for as long as they could. They agreed that even though there were many rooms, there seemed to be only three people in the house, and one room was almost untouched, and flecked with dust. They each surmised on a story, gave their reasons, and talked until the sun finally gave up and the night began.

They left at the agreed hour, each of them looking back at the last house. They walked to the park gates, lingering as the sun came out. Each of them looked as the grasses slowly became bathed in light, the trees swaying but not shedding their leaves, not quite yet.

They shook hands and one by one they lay their masks on the top of the gates, their summer faces impaled on the spikes; a wolf, a dog, a pig and a devil. And they looked at themselves, buried on the iron, and then stepped away one by one, until there was nothing left but the masks on the gates, their features growing dark and unknowable by the long shadows cast by the sun.

He woke hours later, after he had laid down his rucksack, drawn the curtains in his room. He walked to the bathroom, splashed water onto his face. The phone rang as he dressed, and he walked down to the cellar.

He carefully took the ladder, climbed up to retrieve the framed photos from above the boiler. He walked back to the living room and put them back where they belonged. He walked upstairs to his late sister’s room and put the photo of her and himself back at the bedside.

He went to his mother’s room, put the two pictures back on her wall and her cabinet. The answering machine snapped on, and his mother’s voice filled the house, telling him she would be back by seven tonight.

He poured a glass of milk and wondered: was the ladder where he had left it? Had one of them used it and found the photos? He shrugged, drank the milk. Then he pulled his shoes on and walked back to his sister’s room.

He pulled out the two pieces of paper he had left there, read aloud what he had written. Then he folded the papers, pushed them into his back pocket and began to search for the other six sheets, his skin prickling with anticipation of what they might say.

Copyright © 2010 by Chris Castle

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