The Black Mask
By: Steve Carr

At two in the morning, Dave, the last patron to leave The Dragonfly Bar, stumbles out onto the sidewalk bringing with him an odoriferous fog of beer and whiskey. The lamppost standing on the curb with a dying bulb flashes hazy light on the pavement. It comes on, and then off, and then on again, adding animation to the shadows, like the staccato black and white images in an early silent movie. Squinting, his eyes adjusting to the change from the fluorescent and neon light inside the bar, to the dim, flickering light of the lamppost bulb, he looks up at the light and tries to focus on the swarm of moths and other flying insects that encircle it; bugs of any kind fascinate him. They always have.

He leans against a row of cracked and broken bricks that make up the corner of the bar's wall, unzips his pants, and releases a stream of urine into an adjacent alleyway. The noise startles a large gray rat that jumps from the top of an overflowing dumpster and scurries across the cobblestones into a hole at the base of the wall in the building next door. There is a body, a man, lying on his side on the ground, facing that same wall. The figure is obscured by the darkness, but judging by the shoes that are visible, it's definitely a man. There's an object lying near the man that looks like some kind of mask. A black mask. In the darkness it's hard to tell. Dave zips up his pants and turns away from the alley. He hastily shuts out the image of the man from his intoxicated brain and begins his walk home.

It's a hot night and the sweat that runs in rivulets down Dave's chest and spine acts like glue, adhering his shirt to his skin. He always means to work out more, to be more physical, but it never happens, so it doesn't take long before he's winded. Dehydrated by the alcohol in his system, his unused muscles rebel against the strain of movement; his legs cramp and his back bows. Three blocks from the bar he stops at a street corner and leans against a streetlight pole, wheezing. A black car that resembles a remodeled limousine slowly passes by. The driver, hidden in the shadows inside the car, stares out the open window, only his bulging eyes clearly visible, resembling glowing marbles, surrounded by black circles, like a raccoon's or a fly's. Dave observes the car and the eyes that watch him until it's out of sight, and then he crosses the street.

In the doorway of a store on the corner is a man in a black t–shirt, black pants and wearing a black mask; a mask just like the one in the alley. Dave can see it clearly. It's a mask that could be purchased at any novelty or costume shop. A simple black mask, a party mask, a burglar's mask, a mask worn across the eyes with holes to see out. The man in the black mask stands perfectly still, his arms crossed. Dave walks past the man, nods at him but gets no response, and then continues on. "Another freak polluting this city," he mutters when out of hearing range of the man.

On the street where he lives in a three–story apartment building, Dave's uneven, drunken gait creates irregularly timed echoes from his plodding footsteps that reverberate in the otherwise rare urban silence. The streetlights are out and only pale moonlight from a slice of the moon that cuts into the night sky like an open wound, illuminates the way. Only one window in the rows of apartment buildings that line both sides of the street is lit by yellowish lamplight from within the apartment. As he nears the building with the one shining light, he sees someone is standing at the window, looking out. And then the light is extinguished. At the bottom of the stairs leading up to the apartment building he lives in lies a black mask, a mask exactly like the one worn by the man standing in the store doorway. Its eye holes stare upward. Dave picks it up, turns it over in his hands several times, examining it like he would a dead butterfly or spider, and then shoves it into his front pants pocket. He climbs the stairs and stops at the top, his heart thumping loudly, his temples pounding. He leans over the railing and vomits into the outside stairwell leading into the basement apartment. It gives him a little relief just before he enters the building and climbs the inside stairs to his third–floor apartment. Just inside his apartment door he flicks the switch to turn on the lights. Nothing comes on. He walks through his apartment on his way to his bedroom testing lamps and wall switches. He hears the hum of the refrigerator as he passes the kitchen, and the light on the electric clock on the wall glows as always. It's only the lights that have no power. In his bedroom he kicks off his shoes, steps over a mound of blankets lying on the floor, and lies down on his unmade bed, and passes out.

#

There was no reason to get out of bed, which suits Dave just fine. Although it's Tuesday, he has no job to go to or anyone to see. During the daylight hours the sounds of vehicles on the street, sirens in the distance, the voices of children coming home from school and the television blaring in the apartment below his enters his state of restless sleep like gnats buzzing around his ears. When he at last opens his eyes he stares bleary–eyed out the open window and sees the dark reds and purples of the twilight sky. The aromas that he immediately becomes aware of are from him: dried sweat, crusted vomit on his shirt, and the smell of the bar that still clings to his skin and clothes. The other smell in the air is something more putrid, an odor that is embedded in every part of the room. He slowly sits up on the edge of the bed and remains still for several moments to allow the dizziness to subside. His eyes burn like embers. When he stands, he has to convince himself that the floor beneath his socked feet isn't moving. The bedroom is getting dark fast as night quickly approaches. The lamp won't come on and the ceiling light doesn't work either. Now he remembers. He goes through the apartment changing light bulbs, flipping switches, and then flipping them again. Everything that should provide light, still doesn't. Even the bulb in the refrigerator doesn't come on. He digs out the candles from the back of the kitchen closet, lights them, and sets them around the apartment. It's only when he sits a lit candle on the dresser in his bedroom that he looks out the window. Light shines in the windows of many of the apartment buildings across the street. Standing at the window in the building directly across from his is a young woman. She's wearing a black blouse, black skirt and black mask. In the moment he sees her, the light in her apartment goes out. He wants to think he just imagined seeing her, like a mirage. She had the same build as Laurie.

He showers, washing the night before from his skin. When he comes out of the bathroom, nighttime is being held at bay by the flickering candles. He dresses while sitting on the sofa and turns on the television, filling his living room with bluish light, but there's no picture or sound. He can't recall when he last paid his cable bill, so he decides to save himself the embarrassment of calling the cable television company just to be told he owes them money. He owes everyone money. He had put his dead cellphone in the kitchen utility drawer the week before for that very reason, but it didn't really matter. There was no one he wanted to call except Laurie, but she told him to never call her again. With the candles still burning he leaves his apartment building and steps into the hot wind that blows bits of trash down the street. There are fewer windows in the apartment buildings aglow with lamplight. He walks quickly — quickly for him — down the street, turns the corner, and heads for the diner where he eats every evening.

The sign above the door of the Carnival Diner has images of balloons, a Ferris wheel, ice cream cones, and clowns on it that surround the rainbow colors of the sign's lettering. The light that pours through its large plate glass windows is harsh and stands out like the light of an atomic blast in the darkness that surrounds it. As Dave walks in front of one of the windows, large water bugs and millipedes crunch under his shoes. He enters the diner and sees sitting in the same seat in the booth at the far end of restaurant a man and woman dressed in black and wearing black masks. They stare straight ahead, possibly at him, possibly not. He sits on a stool at the counter, picks up a menu, the same menu he's scanned a hundred times before, and then looks to where the couple are seated. Were seated; they're no longer there.

The only other customer is a teenage girl who is seated alone in another booth. She is quietly crying into a wad of napkins.

Marilyn, the waitress, comes out of the kitchen through the swinging door, picks up a glass coffee pot from a metal warming plate and walks to where Dave is seated. Her pure white hair is stacked on top of her head like swirls of whipped cream. Her makeup doesn't hide her numerous wrinkles. "You look like hell warmed over," she says to him as she turns a coffee cup over and pours coffee into it. Her handshakes slightly, spilling a small amount of it over the edge of the cup. The smell of cigarette smoke wafts from her cotton candy–pink uniform.

"Your lights been working okay?" he says as he picks up the cup.

"My lights?"

He takes a sip and grimaces. Any time that Marilyn works, the coffee is terrible. "The ones at home."

She gives him a suspicious look, anticipating that he is about to tell an offensive joke, something to do with the lights being out. She has never liked his jokes, or him, for that matter. He never leaves a tip. "They're working just fine. Why?"

"I just wondered," he says.

"You seen Laurie recently?" she asks.

"Not since she broke up with me."

They are silent for several moments. "Did you hear about the man they found in the alley next to The Dragonfly Bar?" she asks. "His throat had been slit sometime last night."

He shakes his head and pours sugar into the coffee. Lots of sugar. "Give me a steak and fries."

She places a napkin, steak knife, and fork in front of him and walks away from the counter. At the window to the kitchen she yells the order into the cook.

Dave stared at the cover of the menu as if seeing it for the first time. On it is a picture of trick knife thrower holding a dagger in readiness to throw it at a young woman standing with her arms and legs spread in front of a large target, the kind of act found in some carnivals. The knife thrower is dressed all in black and wearing a black mask.

The teenage girl passes behind him, leaving a trail of flowery perfume in her wake, and goes out the door.

The lights inside the diner go out for a moment, and then return.

#

Dave stands on the curb and spits the greasy aftertaste of the steak and fries into the gutter. He longs for a drink, but it's still too early to go to The Dragonfly Bar. He doesn't like crowded places, and before midnight the bar is packed. In a matter of minutes after leaving the diner the heat has him sweating. His hair sticks to his forehead. There are no vehicles on the street, strange even for a Tuesday night. Caught in the steady hot breeze, a Styrofoam cup dances down the street's white line, like a tightrope walker. Before the breakup with Laurie, he might have gone to the movies with her, but now there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, so he turns and begins to walk, aimlessly.

Two blocks down, after passing the darkened recesses of dozens of storefront entrance ways and the flickering lights in display windows, he sees the girl from the diner sitting on a bus stop bench. She is trapped in an orb of light cast by a streetlamp like a science class dung beetle seen under the light of a microscope. She is absorbed in watching whatever it is she sees across the street; nothing that he can see. A few yards away from her he clears his throat. The last thing he wants is to be accused of sneaking up on her. Laurie always complained that he snuck up on her like a demented cat. Without stepping any closer, he asks, "Are you okay? I saw you crying in the diner."

She faces him and nods as if her head was attached to puppet strings. "My boyfriend broke up with me." She catches a stifled sob in her throat, and then swallows it.

"I'm sorry," he says. He doesn't mention his own experience. Another complaint Laurie had about him was that he never talked about his feelings. At this moment he can't even identify what his feelings are. He looks up the street, at the long stretch of stillness. "If you're waiting on a bus, they're never on schedule along this route." Dave follows her gaze when she turns her head and looks across the street. In the shadows under a store awning stands a man in black, wearing a black mask. "I think someone opened the gates to the asylum," he says, nervously.

She turns her head and looks down the street. "I think I see the bus coming."

He looks too but sees nothing.

#

Hours later, it's almost closing time for The Dragonfly bar when Dave staggers out. The heat has cooked the garbage in the trash cans that stand along the curb, forming a noxious brew. He looks up and watches bat–sized moths dive–bomb the bulb at the top of the lamppost. The light suddenly surges in intensity as if overcharged with electricity, and then goes out with a popping sound. Shrouded in darkness, he walks by the alleyway where yellow crime–scene tape blocks the entrance. Wanting nothing more than to get home and crawl into bed as quickly as possible, he unsteadily places one foot after the other until he reaches the corner three blocks away. What looks like the same man in the black mask seen the night before, stands on the opposite corner. From within the holes of his mask, his eyes glow a fiery red.

"Who are you?" Dave shouts as he steadies himself by holding onto the pole with the street sign: Cricket Avenue.

The man turns, walks into the shadows of the store entranceway, and disappears.

Dave rushes across the street, his heart thumping, and dashes headlong down the sidewalk until he reaches the street he lives on. Lights in some of the windows of the apartment buildings go on and off as if light switches were being repeatedly flicked, giving brief glimpses of people standing at the windows, looking out. In front of his apartment building there is a fire truck, several police cars and an ambulance. Firefighters and police are milling about in the street. He makes his way to his building. Lying on the ground at the base of the stairs to his building is a black mask. He picks it up and thrusts it into the same pants pocket that holds the steak knife from the diner and then slowly, drunkenly, climbs the outside and inside stairs to the open door of his apartment. Two firefighters step aside and let him enter. He looks around, sees the melted wax of the candles and the burnt remains of several pieces of furniture. A thin cloud of smoke hangs in the air. The lights are on.

A police sergeant comes out the bedroom holding one of the blankets Dave had used to cover Laurie's body. There are maggots crawling on it. "Do you live here?" he asks.

Dave nods, unable to look away from the maggots.

"Do you know the woman we found in the bedroom?"

"Yes, she was my girlfriend. I told her I'd put her lights out for good if she tried to leave me."

Two paramedics come out of the bedroom with Laurie's body on a gurney. She's covered by a sheet. The sergeant stops them when they reach the front door and pulls back the sheet enough to reveal Laurie's head. The slash across her neck is crawling with maggots. Black and blue bruises circle both of her eyes like a mask, a simple black mask, a party mask, a burglar's mask, a mask worn across the eyes with holes to see out.

Another policeman comes to the top of the stairs. "They just found a girl with her throat cut on a bus bench over on Monarch Street," he tells the sergeant.

Dave pulls the steak knife stained with blood from his pocket and hands it to the sergeant. He then frantically searches his empty pocket.

"What are you looking for?" the Sergeant asks him.

"The black mask."

The End

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