Masks



A man, fed up with his life, walks out at night to end it but ends up in a secret place where his life changes forever.
Reading time: 17 minutes.


Masks

XTales.net xtalesnet beastboysuraj Suraj Singh Sisodia

Chapter One — Not Allowed to be Normal


"So, got any plans for tonight?" asked Charlie.

"Nah, just the usual. Falling asleep on the couch in front of the TV," Stanley replied in a tired voice.

"Come on," said Charlie, picking up a king and placing it on an empty slot. He was playing solitaire on his computer instead of working. "It's Friday night, and Halloween is coming. I think it's gonna be twice as crazy out there tonight."

"This is Crime City, Charlie. Every night here is Halloween night, and crazy is kinda your thing. I'm good at normal," Stanley said without looking at Charlie, who was sitting on his right. He was instead focused on the report he had to submit before the end of the day.

"Exactly, this is Crime City, and nobody is allowed to be normal here. This is against the city's spirit," Charlie said funnily.

And that was the problem with being normal in Crime City. Nobody expected that of you. Everyone just believed that everyone was a criminal, small or big. Everyone just assumed this about everyone else. Stanley, the poor guy, came to this city for a promising life, without any financial trouble, which he eventually got, but at what cost? He was innocent and was not suited for life in a city like this. Many of his fellow employees desperately hoped for him to be a secret spy or something, but Stanley was just Stanley. The boring guy he had always been.

"By the way, if you like being normal, maybe you can dress up as the assassin on Halloween. Wait, now that I think of that, that's not normal either. Haha."

"Yes, I was gonna say that."

'Yes, the assassin,' Stanley thought. How can he ever be like him? It was the most amazing thing that had happened since he had come to this city. A few months ago, a hooded man had started attacking the drugs and weapons deals that went on at night. He got famous as the 'Mafia Killer'. Stanley saw him on the television and got so happy that there was finally someone fighting crime. After about a week, he died trying to kill a drug lord. He did take him with him, though. They both fell off a cliff in a car into the sea. He was never seen again, so he was assumed dead, but Stanley hoped in his heart that he survived, somehow, anyhow.

How can he or Charlie compare him to that great assassin?

Stanley looked at Charlie, who was enjoying his own little joke he just cracked. He didn't try to persuade Stanley further, so Stanley got busy with his work.

A few hours later, Stanley was about to finish his work when his boss, Pamela, walked in. She was a short woman with dark hair and a mean face, and she had a temper. Everybody in the office was sure that Pamela worked for the underworld. They would whisper their doubts to each other in the restroom or out of the office because they were so afraid of her that they suspected she might hear them, and the next day, they would be dead or missing.

Pamela walked up to Stanley's desk and stood there for a good minute, but she didn't say anything. Stanley didn't notice her for the next minute, then he looked to his left and jumped.

"Oh, uh—hey Pamela, what's—um—what's up?"

"God, Stanley, are you blind?" she said in her loud voice.

"I—I—um—I—"

"I don't have time for this. Have you finished your report?"

"I am almost done. Just five more—"

"Almost?" Pamela interrupted. "I don't want 'almost'! Oh god, Stanley, are you even capable of this work? How much more time do you need? A monkey could have done it faster than you?" She went on to humiliate Stanley for a few minutes until she went out of breath. "I don't care how much time it takes you to finish this report. You're not going home until you do." And then she marched back into her office.

It took Stanley a mere five more minutes to finish that report. He printed it and took it into Pamela's office.

She looked at him and said, "Oh, now you are finished. Only if you could do it without me pushing you."

Stanley put the file on her desk and left but not without saying, "Have a nice weekend, see you on Monday."

To which Pamela replied, "Yeah, yeah, whatever."

Stanley got back to his home, changed out of his office clothes and fell on the couch. He switched on the television, but he wasn't watching. He was thinking about the humiliation he had received in the office that day and many more before that. It was one of the many things that he didn't like. Though he had gotten used to everything else but not being humiliated. He thought of every single thing Pamela had called him. He remembered every animal she had compared him with. His eyes teared up. 'What kind of life am I living?' he asked himself. 'And for what? Money? I can't do this. I can't sell off my respect for money.' He decided that he would resign from his job.

He had made up his mind, but the thought was heavy. After dinner, he did something nobody should do in Crime City, nobody innocent anyway, not at night. He walked out of his apartment. He was lost in his thoughts. He was walking on the sidewalk thinking about what he would do after resigning when he reached what seemed a darker part of the alley. Then suddenly—

"Don't try anything smart! Take out everything you got! NOW!"



Chapter Two — Not Living Your Life


Stanley casually looked at his right. A man appeared out of the shadows holding a knife in his hand. Stanley just ignored him and kept walking. This must have come to the man as a shock because, for a few seconds, nothing happened, but then he crossed Stanley, came in front of him, held his knife to Stanley's throat and said,

"You think this is funny? 'cause it isn't. This is not a Halloween prank. Now hand over your wallet if you wanna live." He pushed his knife just a little to intimidate Stanley. "Do you wanna live?"

'That's an intelligent question,' Stanley thought. 'Do I want to live? After all, life didn't turn out to be what I had expected.' The man was trying to scare Stanley with what would, in fact, be relieving for him. 'Oh, this poor guy, he doesn't even have a clue,' he thought and, without any notice, Stanley burst into laughter.

The man's face fell. He was now looking like a kid whose Halloween candy got stolen. This was Crime City; he must've had encounters with larger fishes, but it was evident that nobody had ever laughed at him. He was about to run but then Stanley, who was laughing till now, started crying. He sat on his toes, and he was sobbing so hard that his whole body was shaking with each sob.

What happened next had never happened anywhere in the world and probably would never happen. The man sat beside Stanley and asked, "Hey man, you okay?"

"What?" Even Stanley was surprised.

"Look, I'm sorry."

Stanley wiped his face with his hands. "Just kill me," he said.

"Whoa, you gotta be the first suicidal man I've seen in Crime City. Come on, man, what's wrong?"

"I hate my life!"

"Bro, I don't know a lot, but I know this much that if you hate your life, you are not living it." The man then stood up. "Let's go," he said.

"Where?" asked Stanley, looking up at the man.

"Just come with me. I'll take you to a secret place. If you don't like it and still wanna die, I'll kill you."

Stanley didn't even think twice. He stood up and started walking with the stranger, who not only had just met him but also tried to mug him. He didn't care about anything anymore.

They both were walking silently, so the man broke the ice. "Hey, what's your name?"

"Stanley."

"Oh, so you are not from here. I'm Raghu. Bro, can I ask you what's wrong? Is it about a girl?"

"What's wrong? You should ask what's right, and the answer would be nothing. I came to this city hoping it would be better than—I thought I'd be successful here."

"You are not? Seriously? So you are also the first man in Crime City who is not successful."

"Oh, and you are what an entrepreneur?"

"You kidding? I couldn't be more successful."

"How? Who do you even mug? Nobody steps out at night in Crime City. Well, except for criminals."

"Dude, what world do you live in? That's just what people say. Crime City is not more alive than at night. But yeah, you are right. Only criminals step out at night, but the thing is that everybody in Crime City is a criminal. A guy sells coke just around the corner. He is an accountant in a bank."

"What?"

"Yeah."

"If he's an accountant, then why does he do it?"

"You're kidding, right? He makes as much in one night as his whole month's salary."

"And how do you know that?"

"Ha, I am the security guard in the same bank."

Stanley was surprised, and so was Raghu.

"I mean, you must know that. What do you do at night?" Raghu asked.

"Uh—sleeping."

"Really? Well, that explains a lot. So what were you doing out at night on that sidewalk?"

"I don't know."

Nobody spoke for the next few minutes. They both walked silently. Stanley still didn't care to ask where they were going, but the silence felt a little awkward to him.

"So, how much do you make in one night?" Stanley asked.

"Enough. It's been a good year. Well, except for about a week a few months back when that hooded guy started killing the people of the mafia. Everyone was afraid to go out. You remember that, right?"

"Oh yeah, that is still the best thing that has happened in Crime City. I was just happy that at least someone was fighting against the crimes."

"What the hell are you talking about? Fighting against?" Raghu let out a peal of mean laughter. "He wasn't fighting the criminals. He was just another fish, a bigger one," he said.

"No, he wasn't. He was good."

"Oh yeah, he was. He was just another thief. He was just running solo, and I get it. It was good for him. He didn't need anyone anyway. But he was just another criminal of Crime City."

"No, you are lying."

"Dude, what's it to you? Why do you care?"

"I don't know. I just do. You are lying."

"No, man, I'm not."

"How do you know that? Huh? How are you so sure?"

"Because I saw him."

Stanley didn't say anything. He kept walking in silence.

Raghu continued, "It had to be one of his earliest strikes. I saw him kill all those people and then leave with all of their drugs and money. I get it that he meant something to you, but he was not what you think he was. I'm sorry."

"It's okay. You don't have to be sorry. I just don't believe it."

"Don't think about it. Let it go. 'cause we're here."

They both stopped in front of an old abandoned military base.

"Isn't this the hidden military base that they had to leave after Crime City became—?" Stanley began to ask.

"Yeah. They couldn't have kept it hidden long enough so close to Crime City, so they left it overnight."

"But why are we here?"

"You'll see." Raghu walked to the entrance and knocked on the security guard's cabin window.

A man opened the door. He wore a mask on his face. He looked at Raghu. "Mask?" he asked.

Raghu reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out an old wooden mask. He then put the mask on his face. The man stepped aside. Raghu gestured at Stanley to follow him and entered the base. Stanley followed him, but the masked man blocked his path. "Mask?" he asked again.

"Oh, no, no, he's new," Raghu said.

The man stepped aside and pointed at the wall.

Stanley entered and looked at the wall. There were dozens of masks hanging on the wall. Some of them were just simple and plain, like the one Raghu and the man himself wore. Others had shapes of different animals and various features carved on them.

"Pick one," the man said.

Stanley took a simple mask and put it on his face.

"Come along," said Raghu.

Stanley followed him into a dark corridor. A faint reverberation of loud music struck his ears; there was a large crowd somewhere in that building. They reached the end of the corridor.

Raghu pushed the door, and while he did that, he looked at Stanley and said, "Now this is life."



Chapter Three — Not Afraid of Myself


The deafening music almost made Stanley put his hands on his ears. The colourful lights bouncing off of the walls and the floor and the people made his eyes hurt for a few seconds. When Stanley finally adjusted to the lights, he turned his head all-around what looked like a hanger. It was crowded with people; all of them were wearing masks. Some bars were set up; a few of them had bartenders, and the rest were open. Everyone Stanley laid his eyes on was drunk up to a point where they couldn't tell the floor and the ceiling apart. Stanley saw one guy throwing up a little into his hands and then swallowing it back again. It almost made Stanley throw up himself, but he looked away.

"Welcome to real Crime City," shouted Raghu.

"Whose party is this?" asked Stanley, matching up to Raghu's volume, and even then, nobody else heard him.

"This is Crime City's party, open for everyone. It's the biggest party in this city. It goes on until Sunday morning."

"But I meant who organised this?"

"Do you care? Get yourself a drink and get comfortable. You might get lucky tonight. No, no, let me rephrase that; you will get lucky tonight." And then Raghu disappeared into the crowd.

Stanley started to signal him to stop, but he gave up. He was now standing among drunk, dancing people nervously. He then made his way through the crowd to an ice bucket and picked up a beer. He had been to parties before with Charlie, who took him forcibly. He used to sit in a corner silently drinking his beer when half-drunk Charlie would keep asking him to come dance. 'It's a good thing Charlie is not here,' he thought.

He looked around but couldn't find a place to sit. So he just stood there leaning against the wall. When he finished his beer, he tried to find a trash can or something else where he could put his empty bottle. He didn't want to just throw it away, not because it was his first time and he was nervous, but because he wouldn't do it anywhere, not even in his own apartment. He didn't want to ask anybody either, so he just stood there with the empty bottle in his hand, looking for a hint. He looked around to find someone with a bottle in their hand so he could see what they would do. Then he spotted one. A man who wore a split mask, the lower half of which was dangling below his chin. He must've taken it down to be able to drink. He came closer to Stanley and the ice bucket, then he put his empty bottle back in and took a new one. It was then Stanley noticed there were already some empty bottles in the bucket. He waited for the man to leave, and then he put his bottle back and picked up a new one. He did it so casually as if he already knew what to do. He was still very nervous. After some time, a man came pushing himself through the crowd. He had a carton full of beers in his hand. The man took the empty bottles out of the ice bucket and put some new, full ones. Stanley finished his second beer and started third.

After some time, when Stanley was on his fifth beer and still was not in the mood to dance when he was just looking at people, someone tapped on his shoulder. He turned back and looked at the woman who wore a ballerina's mask and had a lowball glass in her hand with a green drink in it.

"You're not dancing?" she asked, loudly though nobody heard except for Stanley.

"No, no, I—I don't dance."

"Hm, me neither. Are you new?"

"How did you know?"

"I've been watching you from over there. You didn't move at all. You are only drinking beer; that's your fifth beer."

"Well, yeah, it's my first night."

"Yup. I remember my first night. Changed my life. You'll see it's gonna change your life too but first, rules. One, no taking off the mask. Two, no names, and there's a third one, but I'm too drunk to remember it."

"Oh, okay, thanks. Hey, do you know who organised this?"

"Yeah, but first, let's get somewhere we can talk and let's get you a real drink. Follow me."

Stanley followed her through a different door and a few different dimly lit corridors. A few people crossed them on the way. Stanley couldn't remember where he had come from. It all looked like a puzzle to him. They entered a different hanger. It looked exactly the same, but there were a few major differences. First, there was no loud music playing. Second, since there was no music, there was no need for colourful lights. It was dimly lit with lamps and candescent bulbs. Third and last, there was plenty of space to sit. There were countless couches and chairs. There were a few similarities too. People in this room were just as drunk, but they were just sitting and talking. They all had a mask on their faces too.

The woman took Stanley to a bar and said to the bartender, "He's new. Make him a real drink and a refill for me."

The bartender nodded and started making the drinks while the woman turned to Stanley.

"So, how'd you find out about this place?"

"Uh—that's a little crazy. A mugger brought me here. He tried to mug me, but I—I sort of broke down."

"That's not crazy at all. That's actually perfect. Yes, that's the third rule, you find someone who needs to be here, you bring them here."

"Wait, how many parties are going on here?"

"Just the one, why?"

"Then, is it the same party?"

"Yes, that's the same party but for different kinds of people. Wait till you get to see the naked ones. Why do you think we need a god damned abandoned military base? I don't think anybody's ever been to all of them."

"So back to my question, who organises these?"

"Do you really care that much? But okay, just in case you do, a bunch of rich party maniacs of Crime City gather here every weekend and drink their money off. You satisfied now?"

Stanley didn't have to say anything because their drinks had arrived, and he quickly took a sip. It felt as if fire and ice rolled down his throat together. He could feel the toxins dissolving in his blood. He concluded that the same thing had happened with the woman because none of them spoke a word for a few minutes. Then Stanley finally broke the silence.

"Hey, can I ask you something? Why the masks?"

"These are not masks. These are our real faces," she replied mysteriously.

"What?"

"Yes. The face beneath this mask, that's the real puzzle, a fa├žade, that's the real mask," she began to explain. "This mask represents our lives in Crime City. We all wear masks. Nobody knows anybody's real face. We all are masquerading our true selves. So no matter if we are here at this party at night or out there in the city in broad daylight, we are all wearing masks, each one of us."

"Not me," Stanley said without even thinking. Actually, that was the one thing he didn't have to think about, "I don't wear any masks. I am not one of those people, and I am sure there are others not afraid either."

"Afraid? Afraid of what?"

"Themselves. They don't wear masks to hide from others; they do it to hide from themselves. They are afraid that they would look in the mirror and see someone else, a demon, controlling their bodies, playing with their minds, making them someone they don't want to be. So they put on a face and a fake smile or, like you said, a 'Mask' to fool not the people but themselves that they are still in control and I am not one of those people. When I look into the mirror, I see myself, no matter how much of a failure, how much of a loser, but I still see myself. I am still in control of my body and my mind. I am not afraid."

And as he said that, he slowly started to slide his mask off to prove his point, but the woman grabbed his hand, and in doing that, she pulled herself closer to Stanley.

"Wow, every word, every single word you said is true," she said softly. Stanley could hear her breath on his mask. "You somehow saw through all of our masks and faces. You are the most interesting person I've met in my entire life."

Then she came even closer, and Stanley's lips met hers. It felt like fire touched fire, and more fire erupted. After a minute, she was dragging him through the dark corridors. Everything was just lights, colours and shapes to Stanley, which swirled past his eyes. They were probably in the dormitory now because there were rooms with beds in them, some of whose doors were shut. They still couldn't keep the noise of what was happening behind the doors down.

Stanley heard a door shut and felt being pushed on the bed, and then the world was just a cocktail of sweat and saliva, lust and desires, mixed with alcohol and blood for the next few hours or maybe days; who cared?



"Good morning Charlie," Stanley said to Charlie as soon as he entered the office.

"Hey, good morning buddy, how was your weekend? Don't ask me; I still can't remember."

"Uh—the same. You know me," he said, but when he walked towards Pamela's office with his resignation letter in his hand, he started thinking. 'Did I just lie? Did I too—put on a mask?' He entered Pamela's office, but she wasn't there. He decided to wait outside, so he turned but bumped into Pamela, trying to get in. All the papers she was holding fell on the floor.

"Stanley, you idiot!" she cried.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Let me help you." He started picking up the papers along with Pamela.

"Ugh—you can't work, you can't walk, you can't even see. Why are you even here?"

'Funny she asked that,' he thought. "I'm sorry."

"I've to staple them up. I'll get these papers; you get the stapler from the drawer."

"Oh, okay." Stanley stood up and saw the half of a ballerina tattoo on Pamela's lower back peeking from under her skirt. He had seen that tattoo somewhere. He tried to remember but couldn't put his finger on it. 'No, it can't be,' he thought. 'I'm just being ridiculous; maybe I'm still hungover.' He walked up to the desk and pulled the drawer. He didn't see the stapler, so he pulled the bottom drawer and saw, along with the stapler, a few crumpled up papers and some old coins—a ballerina mask.

"Come on, quick! Can't you do anything?"

"Oh yes, here." He handed her the stapler and started walking out.

"Wait," why did you—what—what were you doing in my office?"

"Nothing, nothing, just—" he said, balling up his resignation letter in his hand behind his back, "—just wanted to say, uh—good morning."

He smiled and left Pamela puzzled.

'I was the most useless person in the world for her. The moment I put on a mask, I became the most interesting person she had ever met.' Stanley was thinking while walking back to his desk. Maybe masks don't hide our true selves. Instead, they reveal something that's hidden deep within, a new face. A new self. The woman was right, his first night at that party did change his life, and at that moment, Stanley had put on a mask.



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