(In case you missed it, here’s part 1)
Stan knocked again.
“What?” A man’s muffled voice came through the door.
“Another one,” Stan said. His voice was tense with shallow strength.
Footsteps approached the other side of the door. It opened, and the man who stood before us wore only purple yoga pants. His mask extended past his face and covered his entire body, making him look like an actual mannequin. He was the Man.
“What’s wrong, honey?” He asked me in a dry, quivering voice–as if he had just ran a 5K while smoking a cuban. “You don’t like it here?”
“No, it’s great, I just–”
“You just what? Want out?”
“Yeah, I don’t jive with that whole cosmetic thing.”
He stepped close to me. His cologne smelt like a stagnant delicatessen. “The masks?”
I nodded and lowered my eyes.
“It’s not all about cosmetics…uh, what’s your name?”
“Drew.” I looked up again.
“Drew, the mask is only a symbol of something deeper. Didn’t you come through the fence for a reason? Didn’t you want to belong? You know, I believe that you do belong here–that’s why I let you in.” He stepped back and leaned against the doorframe.
I lifted my chin up and frowned.
“Yes, I saw you, beyond the fence,” he said. “And I wanted you here. So I let you in.
Something deep within me, which had been stowed away and forgotten, had been dislodged. It was embedded so deep, that even the slightest tug was enough to wrench my entire being. I could finally belong.
“Let me tell you a little secret,” the Man looked at Stan, then back at me. “I don’t normally tell someone like you what our plans are. But…I think this may sway your decision.
“You may already know this, but the outsiders–those in the yard by the fire–are trapped inside the fence, even though they belong beyond, with the mob of nobodies,” he said. “They’ve been nothing to us but thorns, simply because they’re here. If you truly wish to leave, I cannot guarantee your survival. For now that you’re inside, you cannot leave.”
“Sir,” Stan said, stepping forward.
“No, I know what I’m doing,” the Man looked at him with a sharp glare, then returned to me. “We are going to eradicate the outsiders, Drew. I beg you, don’t join them.”
Eradicate? No one leaves? “They’re trapped in here?” I said. “How is that possible?”
“This house has its own secrets, and we simply don’t argue with them.” He shrugged himself off the doorframe and took a step back into his room. “We must live in harmony with it.” He then slid into his room before I could respond. After rummaging around, and striking a match to light something, he returned with a steaming hookah.
“Here,” he said, offering me the hose, “there’s more where this came from.”
My first impulse was to refuse, but then the fear kicked in. Thinking of the outsiders, in the cold, soon to be eradicated…it was enough to tip the scale.
“Breathe,” he whispered.
I took the hose, put it in my mouth, then drew in the vapor. It had a yeasty, fruity taste. My eyes watered, legs quivered and spine tingled. I exhaled the moist smoke, which left me feeling hollow. My mind raced with panicked thoughts: Wait! What am I doing? What’s in that? Why am I–?
“Another one,” the Man said as he caressed my hair.
I drew more vapor, this time it coursed through me and made me forget to panic. My knees buckled, and Stan and another mannequin helped me stay upright. The hollowness departed, almost as if something else was filling it up.
I inhaled another draught. My vision lagged, making everyone’s movements string together in a blur. My ears felt plugged, and when the Man tried to tell me something, his voice was muffled and indiscernible. Every part of me was loose, relaxed and glazed in comfort. My mind had yielded to euphoria, and the hollow place inside was now full.
The Man leaning closer so I could hear. “How do you feel?”
I looked at him, but I couldn’t focus. “Wow…”
Stan put his hand on my shoulder, followed by the other mannequins. “You belong,” they all said in a sporadic fashion.
The Man also put his hands on my shoulders. “Do you belong with us, Drew?”
I went to nod, but my head drooped under its own weight, so I spoke instead. “Yes…”
“Yes, you do belong,” he said, raising my head with his hand. “He’s ready, Stan. Take him down.”
The Man took the hose from me, but I grabbed it back and took another draught of vapor. A surge of ecstasy sent me stumbling to the floor.
“Wow. He’ll fit right in here,” the Man said with a chuckle; his voice was distant and deep.
Stan and one of my escorts each grabbed an arm and helped me up. We passed through crowds, but all I could recognize was the blurred images of their masks.
My escorts kept their hands on me as we all walked down the hall to the stairway. We descended the first flight of stairs, and a mannequin noticed that I walked freely. “Hey!” He shouted, pointing at me. “The newcomer stays!”
Those around him began applauding quietly, but then it progressed into shouts of acclamation as more glossy faces joined in. When we reached the main floor, some members near the entryway began a chant in Latin. Others joined in, and it soon mutated into an anthem–an anthem only a psych ward would concoct.
We came through the kitchen and descended into the red glow of the basement. Doc stood beside the table, cleaning his scalpel. He set it down and cleared the table when he saw us. Stan went to a switch on the wall and the light above the table turned on.
“Put him on up!” Doc said as rapped the table with his fist.
My escorts each grabbed a limb and placed me on the table while Stan locked my head in the vice. The vice! I then realized what I had done. My vision had started to clear up, and my mind returned to me, along with the panic. The mask! No! I opened my mouth to say, “Wait,” but my voice was quiet and garbled.
“It’s OK,” Stan said, smiling at me. “Just relax, enjoy those tingles.”
“Wait,” I repeated, finally sounding discernible.
“What?” Stan brought his ear close to my mouth.
“I changed my mind,” I whispered.
“What’s he saying?” Doc asked.
Stan brought his head up and looked at Doc. “He wants to be drugged out.”
“Wait!” My voice was barely above a whisper. I thrashed my arms and legs.
“Easy!” Stan said while he and the other mannequins held my limbs down. “Don’t strain yourself.”
“You sure he wants this?” Doc asked.
“Yeah, he’s just nervous,” Stan chuckled.
“No!” I said as loud as I could, but it was too hoarse to be understood.
I tried to struggle free, but a jab in my neck stopped me.
“Lights out,” Doc said.
My body weakened, and the light above the table faded from my sight until all was black.
A muffled crash ripped me from sleep. I tried to open my eyes, but the lids jolted with pain. Another crash made my head flinch, which indicated that I was no longer locked in the vice. I slowly pried my eyes open and looked toward the noises. Shapes and bodies tossed around in the shadows. It was Stan and Doc; they were fighting two people who remained hidden in the dark side of the room. Whoever they were, they were skilled, since behind Stan and Doc laid two other unconscious mannequins, surely thrown there by the intruders.
Stan howled in pain and fell to the ground beside the other mannequins. He tried getting back up, but his attacker leapt onto him and smacked his head, rendering him unconscious. Still crouching over Stan, the attacker slowly raised his head and locked his gaze on me. He stood up and stepped into the light with a relaxed speed. He was middle-aged, had hair just long enough to get messy, but short enough for the mess to look intentional. His beard was simple, hardly longer than a five o’clock shadow. Filling the part of his face that wasn’t already covered in facial hair were two tattoos of bird wings, each stemming outward from his nose.
The other intruder clobbered Doc with a wooden object, then also stepped up to me and stood beside the tattooed man. The second one was younger, and clean-shaven with black hair combed to the side.
“Out…” My jaw jolted with pain. “Outsiders?”
They remained silent; their faces were tight, creased with subtle scowls.
I wanted them to get me out of there. “Please, I…” Another pang ran through my jaw and my eyes watered.
The older man brought his head close to me. His eyes were like windows into a blue lagoon. He held his hand up to the younger man, then flicked two fingers in a subtle beckon.
“Lark, you sure?” the young one said.
“Yup,” Lark replied, picking up a bottle of anesthetic. His voice was like diesel, full of rough power and itching to rev.
“Very well.” The young man went out of view, then walked up with a hypodermic needle.
Lark took the needle, extracted the anesthetic, and placed his hand on my eyes.
I flinched, but he pressed harder.
“Be still,” he said.
He jabbed my right arm with the needle. Strength and feeling left my arm, shoulder, then weeded into my chest and head. Lark kept his hand on my face as my whole body eased into stillness, then darkness.
It was cold, but an orange glow beside me kept me warm enough to hamper shivering. The orange glow crackled–a fire. Fire?
I opened my eyes. Tree branches canopied above; they twitched from the firelight’s flares. I looked around me to see the orange glow illuminating the faces of two dozen people; they were the outsiders. Lark sat directly across the fire, staring at me through the flames. His peering eyes made it hard to know if he was a friend or an enemy.
“The hostage is up,” said a man beside me.
“He’s not a hostage, Steven,” Lark said, still staring at me, “he’s one of us.”
“Well, he sure doesn’t look like it,” Steven said.
Lark stood up and came over to me, kneeling so I could see his face in the firelight. “I’m Lark.”
“Drew,” I said, but only a whisper came out.
“Drew, do you want the good news or bad news?”
“Uh, bad news.”
“Bor,” Lark said to a man who sat near me; it was the young man from the basement.
Bor held out a small mirror to Lark, who took it.
“Don’t be alarmed,” Lark said as he gave the mirror to me.
My hands were shaking, but I managed to steady it. I angled my head so the fire could illumine my face. I appeared glossy in the reflection, so I brought the mirror closer. Then I saw my faceless face, the fabrication of skin–the mask.
I dropped my arm to the ground, released the mirror and clutched my face with both hands. A pang of sobs jostled my chest, while tears clogged behind my eyes as if the sockets were too small for the flow.
Lark placed his hand on my shoulder. “The good news is that you’re free. Bor and I have freed many outsiders from those inside, but you’re the first masked one we’ve saved.”
“How am I free?” I asked “I’m still inside the fence.”
“One moment,” Lark held a finger up, then turned towards the fire so all could hear him. “I gave Drew the heart.”
Gasps and mumbled laments trickled through the gathering.
“I know that I promised–” Lark began.
“You broke your promise!” Steven yelled.
“I did not,” Lark said with a calm tone. “I promised it to the most needful.”
“But he’s one of them!”
“Are you blind, Steven?” Lark frowned at him. “Can’t you see–”
“When did you become our leader anyway?” He said with his hands wedged into his waist.
“Steven,” a woman said, “listen to Lark.”
“I’m done listening. All promises, no action.” Steven stood up and went into the shadows.
“Steven, let me explain.”
I craned my neck up to look at Steven, but the shadows eclipsed him.
“I got the guts to do what you can’t,” Steven shouted. The sound of a wooden door being opened came from the shadows.
“Steven, if you go back insi–” Lark said.
The door shut.
“Lark,” Bor said, “he’s gonna…”
“I know,” Lark leapt up, “just keep them calm.” He sprinted after Steven, disappearing into the darkness, opened the door and went through.
The fire crackled and the house still boomed with music and laughter, but the outsiders remained silent. I glanced around at their faces, most were downcast and were frozen with empty stares at the fire. Others held frowns, staring at me–at my mask.
“You’re lucky,” a woman said from across the fire; she was looking at me. “You’re the only one who can get out of here now.”
“How?” I said, barely audible.
“The heart,” Bor said, “Lark gave you a new heart.”
He shrugged. “Maybe he pitied you,” he looked at my face, and I could tell he was referring to my mask. “I really don’t know, he has his reasons.”
As I stared at the fire, I brought my hand under my shirt. There was a large patch of gauze strapped over my ribcage. I pressed down on it, eliciting pain.
Bor looked at me, with hard eyes at first, but then they loosened into a relaxed smirk of sympathy. “The house is cruel, Drew. It entices and entraps all who enter. We all fell for its lies; we’re all stuck here. The house welcomed us like old friends only to betray us and suck the life out of us.”
“Yeah, I felt something get taken from me, when I…” A pang of guilt sprung up when I recalled the house.
“Look, Drew, I don’t care how far you went before you changed your mind, but you’re free now, like new.”
The music stopped and the house went silent. A shout and a gunshot broke the stillness. The outsiders murmured, watching and waiting. Some stood up and began shuffling around the fire.
“Lark’s been shot!” someone said.
“We don’t know that,” another said.
“Could be Steven,” the first woman said.
“Lark’s shot!” Steven yelled as he ran out of the door in the shadows.
The outsiders clamored, but then the sound of shattering glass from the house silenced them. One of the fourth floor balcony doors had been thrown open with such force that it’s glass panes broke. The Man came to the balcony railing with an entourage in tow. Lark stood in the front, head slumped to his chest; Stan and Doc were holding him upright.
“Outsiders!” the Man shouted. “Behold your Lark!”
Doc and Stan, who were holding Lark upright, tossed him over the railing. A cord had been tied around his chest, and it went taut, snapping him into a lifeless pendulum.
A mannequin appeared behind the Man’s entourage with rifles. He handed them to Doc, Stan and two other mannequins.
“Guns!” One of us shouted.
Spotlights from the house clicked on, illuminating us like nocturnal criminals. A series of loud cracks and muzzle flashes came from the balcony. I saw three outsiders clutch various spots on their bodies before collapsing. We scattered. Some stumbled in panic, but most sprinted alongside the fence in an attempt to stay as far away from the bullets as possible.
Bor pulled me to my feet, shocking my body into action. To my surprise, I was able to walk and trot as if I had never had surgery. Bor led me to a large ash tree whose trunk and low branches cast a concealing shadow.
“Bor!” Steven said, grabbing Bor’s arm. “We gotta get Lark!”
“He’s dead,” he said without stopping or even looking at him. “Thanks to you.”
Gunshots continued to resound, but I didn’t bother looking where or whom the bullets hit. Throughout the yard I heard screams and moans of pain, but Bor and I were able to reach the fence unscathed.
“You’re free,” he said with a hand on a fence picket.
“How? How do I get out? No one leaves, remember!”
“Your heart!” He took a few steps along the fence, then glanced back. “Now, go. You owe it to him to go. Leave before it’s too late. Otherwise Lark died for nothing.” He sprinted alongside the fence, periodically checking outsiders that laid on the ground.
I looked to the fence, and not knowing what else to do, I grabbed a picket. The iron felt soft in my hand. I pulled at it, and it bent. I grabbed the adjacent picket and was able to bend it as well, creating an opening large enough for me to squeeze through.
I glanced back at the house. The snipers continued to fire on the scattering targets, but now I noticed something else: a horde of mannequins poured out of the house; they all held clubs and other types of bludgeoning implements, and were now converging on the scattered outsiders.
The chaos trapped my eyes, refusing to let me turn away. It was all unfair–me free and everyone left to die. I crouched in the cover of the ash tree’s shadow with tears trickling as the gunshots lessened and more outsiders were prone and motionless on the grass.
Soon, the Man’s entourage on the balcony left, and an idle congregation of mannequins formed in the front lawn, since there was no one left to clobber.
Then, a flash of light blinded me from somewhere in the backyard. A mannequin had been shining in the shadows for cowering outsiders and was now illuminating me.
“Hey!” he yelled. “There’s one!”
The congregation in the front turned and spotted me in the light. They whooped and laughed as they all pattered across the grass, converging on me.
Time to go! I pivoted to the fence, but I did a double-take when movement on the fourth floor balcony caught my attention. Suspended from the railing was Lark, but he was no longer motionless. He wriggled and writhed, attempting to free himself from the cord. I stood up, compelled to race to the house and free him, but how could I? To try was to fail.
I clenched my teeth, turned from Lark and stuck my head through the opened pickets when snarls and moans startled me. I looked up, and out of the darkness emerged the hapless mob; they were sprinting towards the new opening in the fence–towards me.
I pushed through to get out quickly, but my shoulders caught on the pickets. My feet dug into the grass and I heaved myself forward, but the fence held me tight.
The mob whooped. Their hands were extended towards me, ready for whatever it took to get me out of the way.
There was no time. I pulled out, back into the yard, and hatched a new idea. I grabbed the two bent pickets and stepped backwards, pulling them until they each snapped like an old rope.
I could hear the mannequin army behind me, but I refused to panic. I ran to the fence and leapt to its top rail. My hands clenched the metal and, like the pickets, it bent as I fell back to the ground. A small section of the fence now stood leaning inward towards the house.
The mob collided with it, sending tremors through the metal. Their saliva rained through the gaps and pelted my face. I ducked to the side and hoped my plan would work.
The mannequins army halted when they saw the leaning fence and mob beyond.
The juggernaut mob worked themselves into a rhythm. They used their bodies as a collective battering ram by throwing themselves against the fence at regular intervals.
One by one, the mannequin army retreated to the house as the fence bent further inward.
The fence was soon angled inward enough for the first four desperate souls to scurry over and dart to the house. Then the whole mass followed them and leapt onto the fence, bringing it fully to the ground. The mob gushed in like a tsunami. The lawn was soon filled with the clamor of desperation, besieging the house with the mannequins cowering inside–trapped in their own paradise.
I eyed the fourth floor balcony for Lark, but all I saw was the cord dangling from the railing. He was nowhere in sight; who moved him? The screaming stream of bodies, only a few feet away, forced me to return my attention to matters of self-preservation, so I just dug my head into my knees and waited for the mob to finish their flow.
The mob soon found a bench and rammed in through the front door. A few gunshots rang from inside, but they were ineffective against the juggernaut. A number of mannequins fled out the backdoor, but the mob in the lawn converged on them and beat them down with their desperate fists.
My little alcove of shadow proved effective against the searching eyes of the mob. After the chaos had subsided, and the mob had made themselves at home, dawn had arrived. I snuck along the fence and sauntered over the collapsed section. I ducked behind a shrub outside, still nervous about being spotted. I peeked through the shrub’s foliage and gasped.
The fence had disappeared, and in its place stood a row of flowering shrubs, which nearly eclipsed the house. The collapsed fence was now a simple gate, and a dirt pathway passed underneath it.
The house was also different; it retained the same shape, but it was dark, full of moss and black mold. As the sun crept higher, everything was covered in its yellow light, but the house held its shadow, as if the sun didn’t want to waste its rays on it.
I surveyed the landscape as daylight illuminated it. Mist hovered along the troughs in the land, robins chirped and countless silver spiderwebs radiated in the light with each rustle of wind. It was no longer autumn, but summer.
“Quite something, isn’t it?” came the voice like diesel behind me.
“You’re alive!” I said before I even turned around.
“I’m glad you noticed,” Lark smiled, walking along the pathway.
I frowned and looked beyond him to the house. “What is this place? It just changed!”
“Perhaps you’re the one that changed.”
I looked at him, perplexed.
“Your heart, remember?”
I glanced down at my chest and brought my hand up to feel it, but it felt normal. I tucked my hand underneath my clothes and felt no stitches or gauze. “I dreamed it all?”
“Nope.” He kicked a pebble off the path and ruffled his hair. “Can’t one thing be two things at once?”
“Yeah, I suppose…”
“Houses can wear masks too, you know.”
My mask! I brought my hand up to my face, hesitating, then touched my cheek. All I felt was skin; my mask was gone.
“This place is a mystery,” Lark said. “I wouldn’t bother trying to wrap your mind around it; the things of the heart seldom translate for the mind’s convenience.”
Movement inside the fence caught my attention. The bodies on the lawn, those of the outsiders, began rustling. One by one, they all sat up or rolled over, then stood up.
“But they were shot,” I said with my mouth gaped.
“The Man was given the power to open the invisible gate–the one you first came through. That made him like a god to the insiders, but he has always been just the house’s puppet. He went against its orders by assuming the role of executioner when he slaughtered the outsiders. He elevated himself above the house, and so the house reset everything.”
“The house is…on our side?”
“Of course not!”
Steven and Bor, along with several others, walked up to where the pathway met the line of shrubs. They stopped at the gate, held out their hands to grab it, but didn’t open it.
“Why don’t they come out?”
“The house is still their master. That gate is still invisible to them,” he said, turning back to me. “As I said, everything is being reset. The mob is now the house’s new inhabitants, and the house is now deciding which one of them will be the new Man, or Woman. And soon there will be a new mob beyond the fence dying to feast on what’s inside. Just like before.”
He looked back at the premises. “You see, the house isn’t on anybody’s side. It lies to everyone, offering itself like a poisoned plate of food to all who see it. It gives people all they want yet takes everything from them in the process. Once people lay their eyes on it they’re doomed. That’s why the mob outside the fence couldn’t rest until they got in. Those who love the house become insiders, and those who want to leave become the outsiders. But because they fell for the house’s lie and gave it permission to own them, they’re still trapped inside.”
Steven frowned, then walked away. Bor had tears in his eyes, but he held a small grin.
Lark nodded at him.
“So how do we get them out?” I asked.
“Give them new hearts–hearts that beat with blood that doesn’t listen to the house.” He pivoted and walked towards the gate.
“Wasn’t there just one heart? Wait…” My chest tightened at the realization. “Lark…where did you get my new heart?”
“Drew, a man may only have one heart,” he gently rubbed his hand on his chest, “but since when does that mean he can only give it away once?” He winked, then continued down the path.