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The Mask

Mary sighed, pulling the basement door opened. The air was freezing, and made her thin, aging body quiver in the cold. She took a deep breath, and started the long descent down the stairs. Her hands groped at the side of the wall, looking for the light switch.

The light was dim, a meager bulb that seemed to be choked by the darkness. Mary sighed again. Ever since her last child left for college or to start their own families, her house had quickly fallen into disarray, and she couldn't keep up with it in her old age, especially with her husband long deceased. She moved through the basement, looking for the last bit of flour she could use to make some bread. She really needed to get groceries. Her hand brushed against something rough and hairy.

Mary yelped, imagining a giant rat nibbling at her fingers. Instead, she heard a thump as the thing fell to the ground. She looked closely, and realized it was an old Halloween mask. Curious, she put it on. The mask fit surprisingly well—it almost felt like a second skin. Her phone bleeped, and Mary sighed. She needed to get to the groceries before it closed. She'd just have to buy flour there. She hurried up the stairs—pausing for a breather—and then started her car, driving to the nearby grocery store.

Her mind was still preoccupied with other things that she didn't see the young man walk up to her.
"Hey, beautiful." She looked at him, shocked.
"How dare you refer to your elders like that?" He frowned.
"Babe, what are you talking about? I was just-'
Mary sped off, confused, but even more confused by the fact that she felt very attracted to him. What was going on? She passed by a row of handheld mirrors, and gasped, picking one up. Her reflection showed someone else who was most definitely not Mary. Instead, a beautiful, young woman looked back at her, with full eyes and lips. And, looking down with the mirror, she could see her body had been transformed into a thin, curvaceous figure with full breasts. It was the mask! She had forgotten to take it off. Somehow, it melded into her skin, changing her looks and personality. She was now a hot and sexy woman.

An attractive young man stepped around the corner, pausing a moment to glance at her, his eyes riding her body. Mary took a deep breath. The mask mustn't done more than just change her body. She could feel a animistic drive to lock her arms around the man and kiss him, something she hadn't felt ever since her husband passed away. She walked over to the man, who was trying very hard not to look.
"Kiss me. You know you want to."
"W-what? I-" She kissed him full on the lips. He yelped, and then had one hand in her hair with another underneath her shirt. She pushed him back, pulling him to her car, opened the doors, and threw him in, falling on top of him. She locked the doors.

The marriage happened a month later to the surprise to friends, family and herself. At first, Mary would take off the mask in private, but she found that became more and more accustomed to it, and rarely took it off for anything. She was beautiful, and that's all she really ever wanted.

A few years passed by and one night they were both underneath their covers, bodies touching, the fan blowing idly above. Her husband, Jack, shuffled beside her. He seemed uncomfortable. She wrapped her arms around him.
"What's wrong? You seem kind of tense." She listened to her own voice. So sweet, and yet so interesting, full of youthfulness… Jack was saying something. She looked up sleepily.
"Hmm? What was that, Jack?" He stretches his arms, sitting up in the bed.
"You don't seem to care about me anymore. You love my fricking body, not me."
"What? What are you talking about? Of course I love-"
"Spare me. When I first saw you, I was in love with you, too. But it wasn't even you. I fell in love with your body, your face. Not you."
"Jack I don't understand."
"I've been thinking about this for a long time. I'm leaving Mary. This is goodbye." He stood up, grabbed an already-packed suitcase and walked out the door. She was stunned, unsure what to think. She sat in bed for the entire night. As the morning sun filtered into the dark room, Ruth peeled off her mask. She would have not met Jack had it not been for the mask, but maybe that would've been for the best. She had been living a lie, not even a fantasy. She had been desperate for true love, from any source. She was now realizing that true love didn't come from a pretty face. She looked down at the mask, and threw it in the garbage, where it belonged.

Part 2

Jim hated going garbage diving. It was pathetic and embarrassing, and hardly panned out. Most people thought that the hobos on the streets were all delinquents, retards, and Jim was neither. Unfortunately, that didn't change the fact that he didn't have enough money to buy a Happy Meal from McDonald's, much less a shower and something decent to wear to a job interview. Every day, he lived in fear that the police would pull up to his bench and haul him off, all because he couldn't afford a proper home. He wouldn't be missed by anyone, either, except for maybe his ex-wife, Ruth.

Jim stuck his hand into the garbage container, searching for the hard cold metal of soda cans, ignoring the mushy texture of rotten fruit and garbage. His hands wrapped around something solid and fuzzy, like it had little hairs over it. Frowning, Jim pulled the item free. It was some sort of ape mask, with little pieces of food and hair still clinging to it. Jim frowned, pocketing the mask in his jacket pocket before beginning the long walk to the library.

He stepped inside, ignoring the odd looks from the librarians and the other occupants. He looked a little out of place in the virtually luxurious public building with his ratty clothing and questionable odor. He pulled up to one of the computers, charging it up and pulling up an internet browser. He started to look through the internet for a job, but he already knew he wasn't going to find anything. He had searched for months with no success.

He shuck his head in hopelessness, looking around. He couldn't take this anymore. All the stares, the drudgery of looking for scraps every day. Anything would be better than this life. He left the library and went down the dirty unkempt streets to a small rundown liquor store. He would rob the store witch was know to have thousand of dollars locked in a safe. He would have money again, and perhaps he would get Ruth back. He reached for his gun, inside his jacket, but hesitated. What about Ruth? If this didn't pan out, she would be left alone if was killed in the robbery. He shook his head. She'd be better off without him. At least, with welfare, she might do better. He grabbed the mask and put it on.

The world changed. It didn't physically change, exactly, but everything seemed so much clearer to him. Suddenly, things made sense that Jim had no idea about. For some strange reason he started beating his chest. He put away the gun, but kept the mask on. He went into the liqueur store with and handed the clerk his last $5 bill to buy a lottery ticket. Impulsive sure, he almost never payed the lottery, but today it paid off. It payed off big. A $25,000 dollar winning ticket. That lottery ticket changed his life, or was it the mask? He wasn't sure, he kept the mask on to be safe.

Jim started to play the stock market with his new lottery winnings, and parleyed the $25,000 into almost a half-million dollars. The money began to pour in. Soon he started making hundreds, thousands of dollars without a thought. His wife was back. He paid off old debts, bought a beautiful house in the Pacific Palisades, even had a few exotic animals on the estate. With the extra money left over, he started his own investment firm, and within a year, his profits skyrocketed to the millions. He was the toast of wall street, at least for the moment. However, it only took one night for everything to come crumbling down.

Ruth twisted in the bed beside Jim. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"It's…it's nothing. Just my mind getting antsy."
"What do you mean?" He inquired.
"Well all this money is great and all, but I just feel like…like it's never enough. I'm missing something, but I don't know what."
"Have you taken your pills for your depression? It's usually the worst right around now." Ruth shook her head.
"No, I think I forgot it." She moved to stand.
"Don't worry about," Jim said. "I'll get it. I need to check on my stocks anyway."
Jim stepped out of bed, walking down the stairs. He pocketed Ruth's medicine and then booted up his computer, pulling to his stock management website. He looked in shock to see all his stocks, were almost worthless. The whole market had crashed, and Jim had been sleeping through it! All the money, almost gone.

Their lives dramatically changed after that. They had to foreclose on their house, and sell most of their belonging. For each thing they sold, Jim felt a little pull at his heart as he realized he was getting closer and closer to what he had once been. Ruth's depression grew worse. Jim watched her anxiously as she sluggishly went about her daily tasks. He felt so powerless to help. The last time he had been so desperate, he was about to walk into a liquor store with a gun. Now, he didn't see any other choice but to pull out a bigger gun. With the limited wealth he still had in stocks, he conned his way stealing millions of dollars from his investors in a well engineered ponzi scheme. He knew it wouldn't last, but it wen't own for almost 5 years.

When the FBI pulled up to his front lawn, Jim was out there to greet them. Ruth was there, crying. Jim, sighed, peeling off his mask which he hadn't taken off in years. His real face felt strange, alien. He handed the mask to Ruth.
"Maybe it will help." The officials pushed him into the car, handcuffed, and drove off. Money had given them happiness, true, but it couldn't last. That wasn't the way. He just hoped Ruth would be better off without him. He was sentenced to prison For 7 1/2 Years.

Part 3

Ruth tossed and turned in her bed. She reached for the pill bottle at the side of the bed with quivering fingers. Her body felt cold, but if she tried to pull the covers around her, she burned. Sleeping was a torment, and the ghost of Jim’s warm body beside her haunted her every night ever since he was taken away by the police. She sighed, throwing the covers off and standing up. She wondered how Jim was sleeping. It was completely his fault that he was arrested, but Ruth had just found it hard to care about what happened to him. After the market crash, she knew he was doing something illegal, but she really could’ve hardly cared less. Jim had really been what had kept her going, kept from succumbing to her depression, not the money. Now that he was gone, she found it difficult just to stay afloat.

She wandered around the house, trying to put off going to bed again for as long as she could, but she knew she couldn’t hide from her problems forever. She picked up something from off the floor. It was the mask Jim had given her when he was arrested. She had almost completely forgotten about. It seemed like such a stupid and pointless thing to give to someone as a parting gift. Why had Jim given it to her? Still it was something. She was about to visit him in the penitentiary in about a week. He might ask about it. She supposed there was no harm in putting it on. The mask melded into her skin, and suddenly Ruth felt an immense weight taken off her shoulders. Suddenly, the world didn’t seem so gloomy anymore. In fact, the problems didn’t even seem to exist anymore. They were hidden from her mind. She could do this. She slept well that night. The months passed, and Ruth felt completely different, and people noticed, too. She was happier, more talkative, and friendlier. Her depression seemed to be a thing of the past.

When Ruth walked into the room to talk with Jim, he was already there, sitting on the other side of the glass.
"Hey, sweetie," he said, his eyes brightening at the sight of her. He had the phone leading to the other side in his hands, but his eyes were solely on her. She grinned.
"Hey. How are you doing?" He grunted, rubbing his shoulder.
"Not too good. The guys here are kind of rough. Most of them are pretty chill, but some of them can get pretty mean, and I’m not a bodybuilder like these guys."
"Oh, that’s good."
He looked up. "What? What did you say?"
"You seem like you’re doing well."
"But I just said-"
"Have a good day, Jim. Have a pleasant time."
"Wait! Ruth! Ruth, don’t leave-" Ruth hung up the phone, and walked away.

Part of her knew that something was wrong. Why did she act so calloused towards Jim? No, it wasn’t even callousness. She was just happy, why should she care about Jim, he was a loser anyway. Plus, it wasn’t like Jim was having a problem in the prison. That didn’t make any sense. He just said he was in trouble, but obviously he was fine. She groaned, getting to her car. Her whole mind was messed up. She was so happy, but she didn’t feel anything. A boy walked out in front of her, in the middle of the street. Ruth swerved, and narrowly missed him. She laughed, stepping outside.

"Did you see how close that was?" Ruth said with a smile. The boy’s mother, who had her arms wrapped around the wide-eyed boy, looked up at her.
"Are you insane miss? You could have killed him!"
"But I didn’t. Everything is peachy, and we can all move on."
"You need to wake up, crazy woman." Ruth shrugged, and got into her car. She threw her keys on the table, yawning. She needed a nap. As she got onto the couch, however, Ruth found that she couldn’t sleep. The mother’s words echoed in her mind. There was something wrong with her. She reached up, and peeled off the mask. The world changed again, and Ruth suddenly felt tired, and deflated. The magnitude of what had happened hit her. She had been acting crazy, completely brushed off Jim, and nearly killed a child. She needed to learn how to accept life and not mask it. She throws the mask into trash...

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