Past the wrought iron fence stood the towering brick house. Marble balconies adorned the third and fourth floors, adding girth to an already inflated structure. The dead and dried vines of autumn consumed both fence and house, creating the illusion that the whole property was being pulled underground.
A number of hapless souls formed a mob outside the fence, railing against its immovable pickets like a starving horde of zombies. They gnawed and clawed at the vines, losing teeth and nails. Blood covered their desperate hands, spittle dripped on the pickets from the continual exertion and pleading to be let inside.
I weaseled through the mob and peered through the iron barrier to see what caused the ruckus. The house glowed in the twilight, and through the windows the plethora of the house’s occupants could be seen strolling around. The music was loud, the laughter was inviting and the smell of fried chicken and beer perforated through the crisp air.
It beckoned to me, and I wanted in. I reached out to test the fence’s strength when the section before me transformed into an open gate. I paused, blinked a few times, then put my arm through the opening to verify what I saw.
The mob didn’t even notice. A wild man to my left happened to find a sledge hammer and was using it to beat the fence.
I waved at him. “There’s a gate here, man,” I said.
“Yah!” He swung his implement and broke its handle on the fence.
“There’s an opening!”
He glanced at me, growling with barred teeth, then ran away.
I shook my head and readdressed the house. A cobblestone sidewalk laid before me, beckoning me to the front stoop. Its door was held open as if to say, “Your move.”
I cautiously went through the gate, then glanced back; the opening was gone, now replaced with the immovable pickets.
“Friend!” A man’s voice pulled my eyes to the house.
I pivoted and saw a slender man standing on the porch between two enormous marble pillars. His arms were outstretched in a welcoming gesture.
“Join us and warm your spirit from the bitter cold outside” he said.
I slowly stepped along the cobblestones.
“It’s all right,” he said. “You belong here.”
As I drew to the stoop, activity on one of the balconies on the third floor caught my eyes. A few individuals were throwing objects to the yard, yelling obscenities and insults; they were targeting a group of people huddled around a campfire in the darkest region of the yard. Those outside didn’t seem to mind this assailment. They kept to themselves.
I strolled to the stoop and smiled and nodded at the slender man. His face was perfect, and I looked hard to see what made it so flawless. His skin was like gloss, giving it an angelic aura. My expression must have revealed my curiosity, since he promptly addressed it.
“It’s a cosmetic mask.” He rubbed his cheek. “You’ll love it. But definitely grab some food first,” he looked and nodded towards the kitchen to my right, “and whatever else that tickles your desire.”
“Thank the Man.”
“The Man, he invited you.”
“I didn’t get an invite. I just happened to stop by and see–”
“If you walked through a gate, he invited you! Now go, dig in!”
I was immediately bumped by a girl adorned in minimal attire, then by a man in pursuit. He turned to me with glazed eyes. “Sorry, dude,” he said, then chased his prey upstairs.
Everyone was glossed, perfect and unified with flawless faces–like walking mannequins. Every face reminded me how out of place I was–how obvious my five o’clock shadow and shade of skin was–but everyone was too enthralled with one another.
Getting to the food proved treacherous. A mannequin mosh pit was pulsating on the floor in front of the amps and speakers, and I needed to shrug through them to get to the food table. After giving the subwoofer permission to violate my eardrums, I came out on the other side of the pit and eyed the food, which had already been ravaged. I was grateful, though, to find a few pieces of fried chicken hidden under the edge of the plate that held it.
I grabbed a plate and put them on it and moved along the buffet, constructing my meal. I managed to pilfer some mashed potatoes away from the flock of house flies that permeated the bowl. The coleslaw was warm and the cranberry sauce was mixed with the unintentional spills of other foods, but I still took some of each. I grabbed a few black olives and a slice of what looked like homemade bread to finish my plate. There was mostly alcohol to drink, but I chose lemonade because I wasn’t ready to commit to a loss of sobriety.
“Lemonade?” Some guy, clearly incredulous, yelled over the thumping woofer and shouting faces.
“Yup.” I finished pouring my drink before eyeing my new friend.
He was leaning against the wall, smoking a cigarette. His left hand held the cancer wad while the right was tucked into the pocket of his leather jacket. Buckle Jeans and spotless black loafers adorned his lower half. His hair was messed up, but I think he wanted it to look that way because that was the style. His face also looked like a mannequin, of course.
His eyes traced over me carefully. “You look like an outsider.”
“Yeah, I just came in.”
“No, I mean you look like those drabs in the yard outside. See ‘em?”
“Around the fire? Yeah.” I threw an olive into my mouth. “What about them?”
He looked hard at me. “I better let you in on this place.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“The Man wants you here.”
“Yeah, the guy at the door said that.” I scooped some coleslaw and half of it fell off the fork, but I shoved in my mouth anyway. “Who is he?”
“No one knows–at least his name. He’s upstairs now, I think with a bunch o’ choice cuts.”
“Oh.” I looked at the homemade bread and saw a patch of green fuzz, so I nudged it away from the rest of my food. “Well, what about ‘the Man’? What makes him a big deal?”
He drew a draught of smoke, held it with his eyes squinting at me, then blew it at me. “He’s the Man! What else is there to say? He sets the unspeakable rules. We’ve had a fair share of his kind before. The last Man fell off a balcony and broke a bunch o’ bones, so we ended him–he was a loose cannon, unfit for us. The new Man, he’s chill, but that don’t mean he takes crap from anyone.”
“Good to know.”
He looked at my face, but it felt like he was looking through me. “Name’s Stan,” he said. He didn’t offer me his hand.
“Drew.” I returned his rudeness and kept my hands to myself too.
He twitched his head in a crisp nod. I’m assuming he was trying to say, ‘Nice to meet you,’ but then, I don’t know.
“Let me show you something.” He pushed his back off the wall and turned towards the back of the house.
I left my lemonade on the table and trailed him into the kitchen. We went through another horde of mannequins. Their hormones reeked of desperation; the men and women prodding at each others’ souls with the hope of finding a small bit of heaven in th
Stan glanced back to see if I was still following, then pushed free from the bodies. He came to a closed door near the back door. “This is the heart of this place.” He opened it with a smile. “You’ll understand soon.”
An odor of sweat and must wafted past me when the door swung open. It mixed with the smell of my food in the worst way.
“Ignore the smell, you’ll adjust.” He began descending the steps. “You’ll actually come to enjoy it.”
The door revealed a descending flight of stairs that lead to the basement. Light from the main floor was swallowed in the shadows below, and I couldn’t see past a few steps. The old wooden steps creaked. The smell of musty sweat grew in potency. I kept my right hand on the railing as I continued stepping down. I cringed as my hand brushed over something gritty and pulpy–I still don’t know what it was.
A red, cultish light seeped into the stairwell as Stan opened a door at the bottom.
I followed him into the glow to find a dozen cloaked mannequins surrounding a woman, who was stretched out on a table in the middle of the room. Her head was locked in a vice, her eyes were rolled back, and five mannequins stood around the table, holding her legs an arms as she squirmed.
A man with a mask marked with crooked symbols strolled out of the shadows and stopped beside her, scalpel in hand. A light turned on above the table, and the “doctor” proceeded. I’ll not divulge the details because I don’t want to describe how her face got peeled off. Yes, her face was removed. She convulsed, moaned, screamed, but “Doc” kept his blade sliding along.
Stan stared at me the whole time, puffing smoke in my face.
“Does she feel it?” I asked, eyes locked on the ritual.
“Duh.” He looked at her. “Well, she’s doped out too, that helps the pain.”
“What is this?”
Stan looked at me again. “Our beginning,”
Doc mumbled something to his aids. His voice was pure in tone, but toxic in feel.
“This…” My voice cracked. “This is why those people are outside?”
“You’re catching on!” He threw some more smoke at me. “Yeah, they refused to do the procedure. Fools.”
“What’s wrong with them refusing?”
Stan looked at me with his face lowered. “They rejected us, so we rejected them. They should’ve never been let through the fence.”
“Why don’t they leave?”
He smiled. “No one leaves.”
The woman’s wails interrupted me before I could respond. Doc pressed a mask against her skinless face while an aid stood beside him with some strange glue in his hand.
“It fits,” Doc said, taking the mask off her face. He grabbed the glue and squeezed a bunch on the inside, handed the glue back, then placed the mask back on the woman. He pushed down and held it firmly, ushering her worst screams.
“Easy,” he said softly. “Remove her from the vice in ten minutes,” he said to one of the mannequins, then walked away.
The light above the table went out, and the red glow returned.
“Ready?” Stan said, placing his hand on my shoulder.
“Why? I’m not doing this.”
He sighed. “Everyone does it.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Are you willing to defy the Man?”
“He doesn’t need to know. What’s the big deal? I’ll just leave. Kick me out if it’s–”
Stan threw his cigarette down and grabbed me by the back of my the neck. “It’s not that easy.”
Four of the mannequins that held the woman joined Stan in manhandling me. I dropped my plate of food in the commotion, leaving it shattered and splattered on the cement floor.
Stan’s face was now close to mine and I could smell his smoked breath. “I told you no one leaves.”
“Come on!” I yelled. I tried kicking but the two mannequins grabbing my legs clenched tighter.
They hauled me up the stairs, into the noise and hormones. Stan yelled for the mass of bodies in the kitchen to clear out, and many of them turned to eye me with smug smiles. We went through the entryway and ascended the stairs to the second level. We slalomed through more crowds, where more mannequins continued to smile and laugh at me.
Past more hormones and perfume, we came to the third floor. Stan asked a girl where the Man was. She pointed up to the ceiling, to the fourth floor, so up we went.
The top floor was vacant and quiet. The peace was welcome, but it still unsettled my nerves.
“Please, guys.” I said.
“Shut it,” Stan said. “Outsider, just like I said.”
“If I am, just let me go outside!”
He grabbed my jaw and upper lip and pinched them together. “Not yet.”
We came to a door at the end of a hallway and stopped.
“Let him down. He’s not going anywhere now,” Stan said in a quiet voice. They placed me on my feet but their hands on my shoulders and waist.
Stan took a breath and knocked a few times. While he waited, he looked at one of my captors with wide eyes. He looked scared, and if he was, I only dreaded what was in store for me.
Continued in Part 2