Masked – The Drawbridge (15)

The story begins with Masked – The Fortress (1).  To access installments in narrative sequence, click on an entry title, then click on “Next” at the end of that installment.

 

He went back to the Fortress on the following day. Never mind how he had done at aping Sean, returning to work truly tested his acting skills. Tasks that he had performed automatically before now required conscious attention because he wanted to look ‘normal.’ He wiped down the countertops. He told the kids how much the soda and chips would cost when they wanted to refuel between card tournament rounds. He updated the calendar of events. He smiled. Again and again he tightened the corners of his lips to stretch them and reveal his teeth, and each time, he felt like a cornered animal. Either no one recognized John’s smile as forced, or no one thought it worth commenting on. At least Lenny had gotten the power working again. “Have a nice day,” he said absently, about three minutes after a customer had left the building.

“Who? Me?” said Amica with cheer as she and Sean walked in.

“You all right, man? You look pale like a sheet,” Sean commented. He did not seem the least bit perturbed despite having been possessed about 36 hours previously.

“Yes, yes. I’m fine. A little tired, maybe. In need of something?” Of course, John had no idea as to how a person who had been possessed should be expected to act. Disconcerted? Maybe Sean could fake ‘normal’ better than John could.

“Buying some minis for a birthday present,” Amica responded.

John didn’t need to look at her to remember every inch of her body. “Well, you know where they’re at. I’ll be here to ring you up.” He made a show of bending down to fiddle with the lock at the back of a display case; a tableful of tournament kids exploded with glee as an underdog won a match, but John barely noticed. Standing up again, he tracked Amica and Sean in his peripheral vision and listened to their conversation.

“…still think Warren would appreciate something pre-painted. You know he’s too lazy to do a good job himself.”

“Yeah, but it’ll give him something to do while he’s waiting for Amanda to answer his Friend request…”

John shook his head. How could they carry on, exactly the same as before? They passed outside of easy listening radius. One of the kids bought a foil-wrapped pack of cards, probably hoping for something good to swap in for the next round. John forced himself to count the change out, and the dimes shone in the kid’s small brown hand. Like nothing had happened. How many other people secretly faked their way through life like this? How many victims had Aum claimed?

“…outdated password! You’re a clone, I’m sure of it!” Walking backwards to face Sean, Amica reached up and tweaked his nose.

“Don’t talk about it in front of Kosearas, please hon? It’s ridiculous…”

“Talk about what?” John felt confident his voice had not shaken with his inquiry.

“Never mind, man.” Sean scowled.

“You really don’t remember, do you?” Amica sounded puzzled.

For the rest of his life, John would wonder if he should have just rung up the purchase and sent them on their way, but in that moment, he could not resist speaking. Everyone wants to know how the magician did the card trick. “Tell her the password is ‘Floyd,’ Sean. It’s the only way to throw the Clone Police off your trail.” And so help him, he winked at her.

 

Thank you for reading!  In the next installment, Bloodwater congratulates himself.

Previous Aum stories include Globe Without Goodbye.

If you have been enjoying Masked, please support my writing on Patreon.

Masked – The Morning After (14)

The story begins with Masked – The Fortress (1).  To access installments in narrative sequence, click on an entry title, then click on “Next” at the end of that installment.

 

He woke with his face mere inches from the bloodied lock and Ruby’s tiny body, mashed against the top of his desk. No light glowed inside the transparent beetle perched on top of the little corpse. No part of the beetle moved, not even its antennae.   Dawn shone through the room’s Venetian blinds. The old loneliness stabbed at him.

He picked up the beetle by one of its limbs. Inanimate, it dangled awkwardly from between his thumb and forefinger. He traced its lines with the index finger of his other hand. What had just happened? Could he use any rubric to justify what he had done? He remembered how Amica had looked and smelled. Then he remembered her response to his question of jealousy: We’re in this together. John might not have coerced her, but he had definitely deceived her. Coercion-one-step-removed. He could not reconcile that with what he knew of himself.

Making a strangled noise deep in his throat, he slammed the beetle down on his desk, picked up the padlock again, and pressed it down against the beetle’s back. Just like he had done to Ruby’s skull a few hours before, in another life it seemed. The lock crushed the brittle beetle instantly. He set it down next to Ruby and looked at the ruined beetle fragments; making that same strangled noise, he tried to jam the splinters back into place. He wanted to hold her again! He wanted Sean’s life! Pieces of the beetle stuck in the skin of his fingers as he pressed to no avail. The magic had gone. John wondered how this looked to Bloodwater, lying on his pale cushion in Aum. Did it warm the old man’s watery heart?

John lay down on his narrow bed, still wearing his work pants and the T-shirt that stuck to his side. He felt like crying again but didn’t want to give Bloodwater any sense of satisfaction. At some point in the future, he might be able to shake the feeling of being watched, but right now he felt on stage, a spotlight framing his every movement as a crowd of Bloodwaters jeered. He decided to call in sick to work that day despite the dire consequences that Lenny might bring down. He needed to feel more normal before facing his little life again. A small voice within told him that a frog that has seen the ocean will never appreciate the bottom of a well again, but he needed to try.

 

Thank you for reading!  In the next installment, John goes back to work.

Previous Aum stories include Globe Without Goodbye.

If you have been enjoying Masked, please support my writing on Patreon.

 

 

Masked – The Rendezvous, continued (13)

The story begins with Masked – The Fortress (1).  To access installments in narrative sequence, click on an entry title, then click on “Next” at the end of that installment.

 

Hiding unsteadiness, he stood, reached out, and ran two fingertips through her chin-length hair caught in the light from the window behind the bed. He had absolutely no idea how Sean went about this sort of thing and had begun to care less about pretending. Amica seemed curious about his hesitation, but placed one hand on the back of his head and pulled him in for a kiss. The last thing she had eaten must have been yogurt.

He had an idea. He pulled away from her mouth to say, “Why don’t you pretend I’m him?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Pretend you’re who?”

He felt himself get more nervous. “John. You know, the clerk. Just pretend. Just this once.”

“What?”

“You said you have a crush on him. Why don’t you pretend I’m him? It’ll be fun.” He resisted the urge to cross his fingers behind his back.

She responded immediately. “Well it’s certainly not the strangest thing you’ve asked me to do in bed, Mr. Squeal-like-a-Dolphin!” She kissed him more forcefully, raked her fingernails down his spine, and went for the fly of his jeans.

He’d always prided himself on paying close attention to cues in bed, and the fact that she took the lead made it easier. She had energy and enthusiasm but less grace than he had imagined. She tasted good. They started out hurriedly, but hit a stride with him on his back. She felt even better than she tasted. Afterward, he wished she’d gotten more vocal about it, but knew he’d done well.

She leaned down to rest her head on the pillow, breathing hard against his neck. “You were right, that was fun. Let’s do it again sometime.”

He took up the teasing tone she’d had earlier. “I don’t know, Mickey, it wasn’t too memorable for me. I might not even remember it at all if you ask me about it later.” Ha ha, only serious.

She lifted up and moved to lie beside him, resting her head on her palm. “You are just full of surprises tonight!”

He felt himself grow drowsy, and wondered if the beetle would let him wake up next to her.

 

Thank you for reading!  In the next installment, John feels remorse.

Previous Aum stories include Globe Without Goodbye.

If you have been enjoying Masked, please support my writing on Patreon.

Masked – The Rendezvous, continued (12)

The story begins with Masked – The Fortress (1).  To access installments in narrative sequence, click on an entry title, then click on “Next” at the end of that installment.

 

He kept his tone neutral, bored even. “Did they have the player’s guide?”

“Nah, John said something about not being able to source it through their distributors.” She paused. “The power was out again.”

How would Sean react to this news? “Again? That place is on its last legs, I swear.”

“It’s a real shame… I mean, how will I get to see John again if it goes under?” Her tone had turned teasing again.

“See John again?” He hoped his curiosity didn’t shine through.

Amica reached across him to pick up the pillow not in use and thumped him on the head with it. “Come off it! You know I’ve got a crush on that guy that is a mile wide and two miles deep!” She continued whacking him with the pillow.

He forced himself to laugh as he protected his head from the onslaught. Should he portray Sean as jealous? “I don’t understand what you see in him.”

Amica tossed the pillow back onto the other side of the bed. “I don’t understand it either. I guess I’m just a sucker for helpful clerks who know the d20 system inside and out.” She nipped him lightly on the shoulder.

Bloodwater hadn’t lied. She really did feel the same way as John. He decided to ask for a cue. “Should I be jealous?”

Amica shrugged. “I saw you first. Now we’re in this together. It would take a lot more than a crush for me to walk away.”

He turned on the bed to face her. What would Sean say to that? The words spilled out much more easily than he could have predicted: “I love you, Amica.”

He saw her eyes sparkle in the bedroom’s darkness. “ ‘ Amica’? So formal! Call me ‘Mickey’ and I’ll believe you.”

“I love you, Mickey.” He’d never heard Sean use the nickname before. For a moment, he felt like an intruder, but the moment passed. He slung his arm over her waist.

She edged closer to him until her body pressed against his. “Feeling better?”

“Huh?” He remembered the conversation had started with concern over his vomiting. “Yeah, I feel okay.” How much longer did he have before whatever Bloodwater had done would wear off? He pulled her tight to him. “Better than okay, actually.”

“It’s been a few days, hasn’t it?” She slipped away from him, stood up, moved to the foot of the bed, and winked at him before tugging off her sundress. As she reached behind her back to unclasp her bra, he felt déjà vu. Of course, he realized as she discarded the undergarment beside her, he had seen this before. On Bloodwater’s wall. Hands on hips, she tilted her head and smiled at him, completely at ease.

 

Thank you for reading!  In the next installment, John crafts a hall of mirrors.

Previous Aum stories include Globe Without Goodbye.

If you are enjoying Masked, please support my writing on Patreon.