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.
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