Jacinta Meredith

< Back to Issue Seven

FICTION

Masks

“You aren’t the man I married.”

My wife had thrown that at me three weeks ago as she walked out the door. I resented the statement, but couldn’t argue. Sitting in my home office, the words played over and over in my head as I tried to concentrate on the presentation I had to finish before work tomorrow. It was always in the evenings I realized how empty my house was without her.

My gaze drifted to the picture still next to my computer. Making our vows to never leave. I gritted my teeth. Grabbing the picture, I swung around and hurled it at the wall. The satisfying crunch of glass released my tension and I turned back to the computer. What right had she to criticize me? After all, I’d only become the man I’d promised to be. Someone who could provide anything she ever wanted. That was who I should be. Wasn’t it?

A knock sounded and my housekeeper, Maria, poked her head in. “I’m headed out for the day, Mr. Dallan. I’ll be back tomorrow at seven.”

I barely looked up. “Thanks.”

“Oh, and this came.”

My eyes focused on the small, gold box she held out. “Who sent it?”

“I don’t know, sir. It was just sitting on the doorstep.”

I tilted my head toward the filing cabinet. “Just set it there.”

“Yes, sir.” She walked over to set the box down and I watched her eyes travel to the broken glass on the floor. I pressed my lips together, but she didn’t say anything as she left, closing the door after her.

I turned back to my computer, twisting my neck from side to side to loosen the strained muscles. Okay, no more thinking. It was time to concentrate. One more night of work, a few more tweaks to the presentation, and tomorrow I’d be ready to sell my investors on making my company international.

I got all of one more slide done before a glint caught my eye. I turned and frowned at the box, gleaming at me. What was it? I rose and went over to pick it up. No labels. Nothing. Just a plain, gold box. Why was it on my doorstep? I began to lift the lid, and paused, an irrational wave of anxiety washing over me. What was wrong with me? Shaking my head, I finished lifting it, and almost dropped the box as a I stifled a cry. It took a moment to realize the face in front of me was not real.

It was a mask. Dark brown wood, with a mocking smile, and slanted bushy eyebrows protruding above the eye openings. I picked it up and started. A second mask lay beneath it, and I saw the outlines of yet another beneath that. I frowned as I examined the first mask, flipping it over, looking for some type of explanation. It had a small word printed near the top. Aletheia. As I read the word, a shiver ran through me, although I had no idea what it meant.

Setting it down, I picked up the second mask, this one silver metal. Unlike the derisive first mask, its mouth was set in a straight line, with the slightest upturn, as if in expectation. I turned it over and read Elpis.

The third mask was golden copper. Its deep-set, slanted eyebrows and sad mouth somehow gave the impression of sorrow and understanding all at once. Agape.

I shuddered, grabbed the other two masks, and thrust them all back in the box. Putting the lid on, I dropped it to the file cabinet and took a breath. In and out.

This was absurd. I was Sean Dallan, CEO. I wasn’t going to be scared of some masks. It was clearly a prank. Probably Jack trying to undermine the presentation. I’d tell Maria to throw them out tomorrow.

***

As my eyes opened at first light, they landed on the box of masks, sitting on my dresser. Waiting for me. I stared. How had it gotten there? Maria must have gotten in early this morning and put it there when she was cleaning my office. Though she’d never before opened my door while I was in the bedroom. I threw off the covers and hurried to dress, keeping my eyes averted. Looping my tie into a full Windsor knot, I straightened my shoulders and strode to the box, intending to throw it into the trash on my way out the door. As soon as I touched it, I paused, a sudden desire welling up to see the masks again. Just once. I swallowed. What could it hurt? I lifted the lid and gazed down at the wooden mask. Aletheia.

I lifted it out, tracing the wooden eyebrows, fighting an abrupt impulse to try it on. My eyes drifted to the mirror next to my dresser, and I couldn’t seem to stop myself as I raised the mask and put it to my face, my gray eyes peering eerily through the eyeholes. And just like that, the mask began to meld onto me. I froze for only a moment before my fingers flew to the edges, scraping at it. There was nothing to grasp. I gasped as I tried to find a grip, an opening—anything to pull it off, but there was nothing. Just like that, it was like molten glass, as fitted to my face as a glove.

“Maria! Maria!” Was she even here? My hands continued to rove the mask, feeling for—anything. A soft knock sounded, and she hurried in without waiting for me to answer.

“Is everything all right?”

“I can’t get it off!” I began pounding at it. Maybe I could break it.

“Pardon me?”

“The mask—it won’t come off!” Irritation sparked through me at her density.

She looked around the room and then back at me, caution peeking out of her eyes. “Mask?”

My hands dropped and I spun to face her as the realization struck. “Can’t you see it?”

“I… I’m sorry, Mr. Dallan. But—see what?”

“The—the mask I’m wearing?” Dread began to wind around my stomach. Was I going insane?

Marie stepped closer to the door. “Are you feeling well? Perhaps you should see a doctor.” She glanced behind her as if to make sure she had a clear escape in case I lunged at her.

I gaped at her and then looked back at the mirror. It was definitely there. Set onto my face like it had been carved into it. Every brown wooden inch of it. I turned back, but her expression betrayed only confusion and fear.

“No.” I swallowed, trying to calm my heartbeat. “I—I’ll be all right.” If I was going insane, I certainly wouldn’t let her see it.

“Are you sure, Mr. Dallan? Perhaps—perhaps you should check for a fever.” She took another step back, out of the room.

“No. Just leave me.”

She fled and I half expected to get her resignation by the end of the day. I stared into the mirror. The strange mask stared back, showing only my own eyes and mouth. I touched my face. Definitely there. Definitely wooden. But somehow…edgeless. It was a part of my face. What was I supposed to do now? I had to go into the office. If I missed that meeting, I might never have another chance to bring the company international. I took several deep breaths, pulled on my suit jacket, and headed for garage.

***

I paused as I entered the office, peering around me, waiting for the scoffs and stares.

“Good morning, Mr. Dallan.”

The secretary’s bright smile greeted me. What was her name? Susan. I swallowed and took a step toward her. She lifted her eyebrows. “Can I help you?”

I licked my lips, feeling the wooden edges catch. “Um, do you see anything—”

And that’s when it happened.

Something…deepened and her smile shifted away to reveal…misery. I blinked and her smile came back into focus. But somehow the misery was still there. And I knew as surely as if she had told me that she was sad…beyond sad. Unhappiness was choking her.

Panic swept through me and I stepped away. “Never mind.”

I hurried through the floor, but, just like that, the experience began repeating itself. Over and over. Everyone smiled and nodded at me as I passed, but when I looked them in the face, I knew, without a doubt, what they were feeling. Not their thoughts. Just their emotions. Depression, sorrow, joy, irritation…one after another, they walked by me. At first, I stared at them, open-mouthed, and doubtless starting juicy office gossip, but as it happened over and over again, I turned my eyes to the ground and avoided looking at all. This couldn’t be happening. It was impossible.

I reached the conference room and halted, swallowing hard. Stop it. I shook my head. I was a full-grown man. I’d been working on this deal for months. I was not going to screw it up because something had gone haywire in my head. Drawing in a breath, I stepped inside. And stumbled backwards as a full force of emotions hit me from all sides. Anger. Pride. Eagerness. Animosity. Greed. Impatience. It was like a quick flurry of punches.

“Hey, you okay?” Several voices spoke at once, and one arm reached out and grabbed me.

“Sean, what happened?”

I blinked, turning to look at Jack, my partner of many years. His concern immediately melted into his true feelings. Satisfaction. What? I spent another moment looking into his eyes, despite my impulse to turn away, and recognized betrayal, anger, self-deprecation, and most of all, bitterness. Towards me.

But why? We’d worked together for years. When had he grown to hate me? As though in answer to the question, the first I’d bothered to ask myself, a volley of memories hit me. I saw myself gloating over my advancements, which usually came before his, the times I’d given myself bigger cuts than him, putting him down in front of people I wanted to impress, and a whole world of other images I had long dismissed, had I even realized they existed. I pulled free of him and sat heavily in my chair.

Holding in a shuddering breath, I forced myself to look up, preparing for another bombardment, but now they came more slowly, in quantities I could deal with. I kept my eyes focused on the others, away from Jack. I couldn’t look him in the face again. Even his profile filled me with memories I didn’t like to dwell on. He’d started this company with me. Been at my side for years. And I’d treated him like the picture I had shattered the night before.

***

Entering the house at the end of that awful day, I threw myself onto my king-sized bed, and wept for the first time in twenty years. I’d seen more suffering in that day than I knew existed. And to make matters worse, any time I posed the question why, I got any answers that related to me. Everything I had ever done to wrong another person in that office had played in my head that day. Was it possible to collapse under the weight of shame? How could I have been so blind all these years? The name of the mask floated through my head. Aletheia. I knew now what it meant. Truth. Awful, soul-wracking truth. I could see myself for who I truly was. No wonder my wife had left me.

***

When I finally dragged myself out of bed the next day, my shoulders felt heavy, leaving me hopeless and dreading the day ahead. I changed, moving more slowly than I had since I was a boy avoiding school. Only after I finished dressing did I force my eyes to the mirror. I gasped. The mask was gone! My hands flew up and touched my skin, pressing into the soft flesh. It was really gone! I looked on the bed, under the pillows, but there was no sign of it. It had vanished as thoroughly as if it was made of water. I sagged onto the bed. It was over. I’d never have to see all those emotions again. I frowned, surprised at a sudden hesitation. As terrible as the truth had been, there was something about actually knowing that was…refreshing. How would I know now if people actually hated me? How would I know…who I really was?

I stepped to the door and stopped as forcefully as if something had blocked my path. I swallowed, my eyes turning to the box. There had been three masks. There were two left. I closed my eyes and tried to take another step forward, but couldn’t. Again and again I tried, but it was no use. My shoulders slumped. I reached for the box and took out the silver mask. Elpis. Lifting my chin, I held it to my face. It molded around me just as the other one had. It was just as strange a sensation, but this time I didn’t resist, though I couldn’t stop a tremble as I left the room in search of Maria.

When I finally found her in the laundry room, folding clothes, she glanced at me, her eyebrows furrowing.

“Can I help you, Mr. Dallan?” She hung a shirt on a hanger.

“Please look at me, Maria.”

She turned, frowning at me.

I didn’t have the same intense reaction I had the day before, but even with the other mask gone, I was somehow more sensitive to truth. I could see both impatience and disgust in her eyes. But there was something more than that. There was wistfulness. A dream of something gone, but still possible. Something she was still living for.

“Yes, Mr. Dallan?”

“Oh, sorry. I—wanted to tell you I’m leaving early today.”

“Have a good day.” She quirked an eyebrow as she turned away.

Once at the office, I took a breath, and walked straight up to Susan.

“How can I help you, Mr. Dallan?” She smiled.

I still saw the sadness in her eyes from the day before, but now I saw something more. Determination. For what? The answer flashed through my head. To make it through. She was having a hard time with something, but she was determined to make it through.

Her eyebrows furrowed, and I refocused. “Are you all right, Susan?” I flinched as the words came out, knowing how strange it must sound coming from me, an egotistical jerk.

She faltered. “Pardon me?”

“You…you look…” I twitched, forcing the words out. “You look sad.”

I pulled back as her eyes filled with tears and I saw a new emotion. Relief.

“I’m so sorry, sir. I just—I didn’t know it showed.” She swiped at her eyes, looking down.

“Are you going through something? At home?” I was surprised to realize I actually wanted to know the answer.

She shrugged. “I—I’m having some trouble with…with my husband.”

“Do you need help?” I straightened.

“Oh no, sir.” She shook her head. “Nothing like that. It’s just…well, we’re working through some things.”

“That can be hard.” If there was one thing I actually knew, it was that.

She looked up and I recognized gratefulness. “It is. But it’s worth it.”

I swallowed hard, pushing aside thoughts of my own failed marriage, and nodded. “Let me know if you need anything.”

Determined. To make her marriage work.

I walked to my office, choosing a roundabout path to avoid Jack. After seeing the truth yesterday, I wasn’t sure I had the courage to face him. But face him I did. He was already waiting in my office when I walked in.

“Oh, good, you’re here.” He shuffled the papers in his lap. “Listen, Sean, you kind of freaked everyone out yesterday. Is everything okay?” He looked up, and I recognized the same emotions as yesterday. All of them, though not quite as strong. But I saw a couple new ones as well. There was actual concern, though whether it was for me or for the company, I wasn’t sure. And there was…peace. And happiness. Yes, that was it. He was happy about something despite his misery in my presence.

“Yeah.” I cleared my throat and pulled my chair out from behind my desk. “Everything’s fine. Listen, Jack, can we talk?”

“Uh, isn’t that what we’re doing?”

“I mean really talk.” I sat next to him, and alarm immediately radiated from him.

“What’s going on? Are you firing me? This is my company as much as it is yours, and if you don’t realize—” His expression had moved from alarm to anger so fast my mask was having difficulty registering the changing emotions.

“Hang on, Jack.” I turned a hand palm up. “I’m not firing you. This company is ours. We built it together. I’ll never forget that.”

Confusion replaced everything else. “What?”

I swallowed. “I—I treated you wrong. And I’m sorry.”

“What?” His mouth dropped open.

“And, as an apology, I want to give you 15% more of the company. You’ll own more than half of it. Technically, you will be the owner.”

“What?”

I almost laughed as he repeated the word. But I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t serious. “You worked hard right next to me all these years, and all I did was undermine you and cheat you. I want to make it right. But I want you to do something for me too.”

His eyes narrowed. “I’m listening.”

“I want you to tell me why you’re happy.”

His brow furrowed and he stared at me.

How could I explain it? “I know you’re angry. I know you’ve been miserable here. But you’re also happy. I can…see it. How can you be both at once? What…what keeps you going?” The need to understand enveloped me. Maybe if I understood…maybe I could find peace myself.

He searched my face as though waiting for the joke before finally answering. “I met someone.” His face softened. “About a month ago. She makes me happy. And everything I go through here is worth it because at the end of the day, I get to go see her.”

My shoulders slumped, the loss of my own wife sweeping through. “Oh.”

“Sean, what’s going on here?”

What could I say to that? “I’m just…figuring some things out.”

His face said he didn’t believe me as he retreated to his office.

I didn’t get much work done the rest of the day. Instead, I walked around, looking into people’s faces. I mostly saw the same emotions I had the day before, but with…more. Something that kept them going despite the hardships in their lives. By the end of the day, after scaring most of my employees half to death by prying into their lives, I had finally figured out this mask’s name too.

Hope.

Which led to one question. What was my hope? What kept me going at the end of the day? My chest ached as I thought about it. I knew what it had been.

My wife. Soon to be ex-wife. Laura. She had once been my hope. She was the reason I’d started the business in the first place—so I could give her anything she wanted. Except me, as it turned out. I’d been so busy giving her things, I’d forgotten to give her me. So, what was my hope now?

Nothing. I knew immediately it was true. I had no hope for the future. Money hadn’t made me happy. Power had given me superficial happiness. But now? I wanted more than anything to feel the same hope I had witnessed in so many other lives today. A reason to live. A reason to keep going through the hardships of life.

That night, I dreamt of Laura. Of our life together before the company had become a success. Of the days we used to spend just dreaming together. Hoping.

***

I didn’t hesitate to put on the third mask. Agape. Maybe this one would give me some answers. The reason behind all of this.

It was Maria’s day off, apparently, because she wasn’t in the house. Either that or I’d finally scared her into quitting.

Susan shifted in her seat when I approached her desk, probably thinking I was going to make fun of her for the day before. I could still see her emotions, though significantly faded. But this time, as I looked, I didn’t experience a new emotion of hers. Instead, I experienced one of my own. An overwhelming, all-encompassing love. Not love like I felt for Laura, but just for…her. Susan, as a person.

“It’ll be all right, Susan,” My voice was thick, and I cleared my throat, but continued. “I know you’re going through a rough time, but I know you’ll make it.”

“Thank you,” she whispered.

If it took me most of the previous day to figure out what that mask did, I understood this one almost immediately. For every person I encountered, I experienced such an overwhelming sense of love that I had to keep swallowing back tears. I just wanted to help them. To show them love. Every single one of them. I couldn’t help it.

So I did. Throughout the entire day, I took one after another into the conference room and talked to them. Coaxing their problems out of them. Encouraging them. I knew I would give anything, even my company, to help them. Every now and then I caught a glimpse of Jack passing in the hall, stopping to gape at the glass windows of the conference room while I sat in there with some person previously below my notice, but I didn’t care. And by the time I left the office, there was only one person left to talk to.

***

The surprise in Laura’s face was mixed with displeasure when I showed up at her apartment unannounced that evening.

“What is it?” Her voice was laced with frustration, but when I looked into her eyes, I could see shimmers of hurt. Sadness. Loss. And, maybe, just the slightest hint of joy. If I felt overwhelmed by love for everyone else, now it took all my strength not to fly into pieces.

“Laura,” I breathed.

Her eyes opened wide at the emotion that flowed from that simple word. Love, sorrow, regret, hope—it all came out in one tumbled mix.

“Yes?” She whispered, uncertainty replacing her frustration.

I swallowed and a tear crept out and fell down my cheek.

“Forgive me.” My voice shook. “You were—you are—the love of my life. No job will ever replace that. Nothing I ever say or do will make up for how I treated you. But I’m begging you. Forgive me.”

I fell on my knees before her and wept as I had after the day with the first mask.

Laura looked down at me. If there was any doubt in her that I meant it, it didn’t show. She knelt and took my hands. Then she lifted my trembling chin and forced me to look at her. And to my amazement, I saw hope. And love.

She cleared her throat. “Do you promise to love me? To honor me and keep me in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, all the days of our lives?” Her voice trembled as she spoke our vows, asking again for the promise I’d once given her.

I lifted her soft hands to my lips and kissed them.

“I do.” I choked out the words, knowing I didn’t deserve this second chance.

“I do too.” A tear fell down her own cheek.

I traced its path tentatively, wonderingly, and as the corners of her lips turned up just slightly, I pulled her into my arms.


Jacinta Meredith is a writer living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. She loves writing stories that help readers find hope in difficult circumstances, and spends her free time devouring as many books as possible. She can be found at www.jacintameredith.com.


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