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.
Night had fallen, but even in the shadows I could see a large number of hapless souls forming a mob outside the fence. At first it was their odd murmuring that made me curious, but then I noticed many of them use their bodies to bash against the immovable pickets. Hesitant, but unable to turn away, I ventured closer.
The more composed ones, if they could be described so, merely gnawed and clawed at the vines, losing teeth and nails. Blood covered their desperate hands, and spittle dripped on the pickets from the continual exertion.
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.
So ordinary was the sight–I’d seen many parties since moving to college–that I had to wonder why this particular party drew so many. Yet it beckoned to me the longer I stared. I didn’t know the precise moment I made the choice, but I remember reaching out to test the fence’s strength.
Suddenly the section before me transformed into an open gate. I paused, blinked a few times, then put my arm through the opening to be sure of 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.
I leaned closer. “There’s an opening!”
He glanced at me, growling with barred teeth. I recoiled, thinking he would jump at me, but then he ran away.
I shook my head and readdressed the house. A cobblestone sidewalk laid before me, leading 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 gathered around a campfire in the darkest region of the yard. But the huddled group didn’t seem to mind. They kept to themselves.
Once at the stoop I 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 glass, 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.
“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 dig in!”
I was immediately bumped by a girl minimally adorned, then by a man in pursuit. He turned to me with glazed eyes.
“Sorry, dude,” he said before chasing 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. My five o’clock shadow and shade of skin were rags at a wedding. But no one seemed to notice.
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. It had already been ravaged, and flies danced from dish to dish, but I was grateful to find a few pieces of fried chicken hidden under the outside of the plate that held them.
I grabbed a plate and moved along the meager buffet to construct my meal. I repeatedly scraped the inside of the mashed potato bowl just to garner a few spoonfuls. 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.
“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 leaned 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 that way. His face was as glossed as the others.
He 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. See ‘em?”
“Around the fire? Yeah.” I threw an olive into my mouth. “What about them?”
He looked hard at me. “I better give you the rundown. 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, holding it with his eyes squinting at me, then bathed me in it.
“He’s the Man!” He said. “What else is there to say? He sets the 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. 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.” My hand didn’t move either.
“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 whose hormones reeked of desperation as they pushed their limits on another.
Stan glanced back to see if I was still following, then pushed free from the bodies. He came to a closed door at the far side of the kitchen.
“This is the heart of this place.” He opened it with a grin.
Stairs descended into darkness. An odor of sweat and must wafted past me. It mixed with the smell of my food in the worst way.
“Ignore the smell, you’ll adjust.” He took one step before adding, “I’ve actually come to enjoy it.”
The old wooden steps creaked as we descended. The stench intensified. I kept my right hand on the railing as I continued stepping down. I cringed as my hand brushed over something gritty and pulpy.
A red 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 and arms as she squirmed.
“Looks like they haven’t fixed the restraining straps yet,” Stan said, watching the five helpers. “Big dude broke ’em last week.”
A man with crooked symbols on his mask strolled out of the shadows and stopped beside the woman, scalpel in hand. A light turned on above the table, and the “doctor” proceeded. He started at the top of her forehead with the blade.
I’ll not divulge the details on how her face got peeled off. She convulsed, moaned, screamed, but Doc kept his instrument sliding. It only took about five minutes.
Stan stared at me the whole time, puffing his smoke.
“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?” I asked.
Stan looked at me again. “Her beginning,”
Doc mumbled something to his aids. His voice was pure in tone but toxic in timbre.
The woman’s wails interrupted him. 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.”
“You reject the Man after he let you in?”
“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. “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 sweat 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. I welcomed the peace but it did nothing to alleviate the squirming inside.
“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,” Stan said in a quiet voice. “He’s not going anywhere now,”
They set me on my feet with 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.
He 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 certainly the Man.
“What’s wrong, honey?” He asked me in a dry, quivering voice. “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. It’s what the outsiders don’t understand.”
I nodded slowly, wondering how I’d get out of there.
“What’s wrong with them refusing?” I said.
The Man lowered his face. “They rejected us, so we rejected them.”
“Why don’t you let them out?”
He pursed his lips. “No one leaves.”
It was hard to keep my face from revealing the sink in my chest.
“Why not?” I said.
“House rules,” he said with a quick shake of his head. “Understand this: to reject us is to suffer outside.”
“Then that’s what I choose.”
“Drew…” He wrapped his arm around my shoulder.
I bit my lip to avoid gagging at the odor.
“Didn’t you come through the fence for a reason?” He said. “Didn’t you want to belong? 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 chose you.”
“I open the hidden gate. I choose who deserves to be inside. I know the ones that belong here. They’re just a bunch of potential humans until I let them in.”
I glanced around the room behind him. An oversized bed, nearly the size of two Kings, sat in the center of the room buried in red silk pillows. Dim yellow lamps scattered along the walls were the only lights.
“I’ve had to learn the hard way,” the Man said, bringing me back to his face. “Dozens of mistakes. All those Outsiders I let inside, thinking they were one of us. I regret them.” He got a little agitated, but kept it on a simmer. “It’s so hard to predict, you know, how they’ll be once I give them life. All you see are desperate faces through the iron bars.”
I was trying to comprehend how all this worked–the house, the Man, the gate–when the Man shuffled his feet.
“Do you have regrets, Drew?”
“Don’t we all?”
“I hate regrets.”
He gripped the opposite side of the doorframe and seemed to admire the way his wrist tendons popped.
“Let me tell you a little secret,” he continued, still watching his wrist. “I don’t normally tell someone like you what our plans are. But…I think this may sway your decision. If you truly wish to leave us, I cannot guarantee your survival.”
“Sir,” Stan said, stepping forward.
“No, I know what I’m doing,” the Man looked at him with a sharp glare, then faced me. “Their loitering days are over.”
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, “it’s time we bury our regrets.”
I didn’t move.
“Breathe,” he whispered. “No more confusion.”
I shuffled awkwardly, trying to figure out my next move. Run?
“This is what you want,” he said. “I see it. I know you. I know you think for yourself, standing up to me like that,” the Man said, “and that’s why I know you belong here.”
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.
A single, clear image of myself belonging to others took control. No more would I hide in myself.
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 silenced my 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.
“Again,” the Man said.
I inhaled another draught. My vision lagged, making everyone’s movements string together. My ears seemed to plug, and when the Man tried to tell me something, his voice was muffled and indiscernible. My limbs went loose as I collapsed in comfort. My mind yielded to euphoria, and the hollow place inside was now full.
The Man leaned closer so I could hear. “No more regrets.”
I looked at him, but I couldn’t focus. “No…”
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…”
“You belong,” he said, raising my head with his hand. He then stepped back into his room. “He’s ready, Stan.”
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.
The applause began quietly, but then it progressed, gaining volume as we descended. Soon shouts of acclamation joined in. When we reached the main floor, some members near the entryway began a chant in some obscure language. Others joined in, and it soon mutated into a manic anthem.
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 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 protest but my voice was quiet and garbled.
“It’s OK,” Stan said, smiling at me. “Just relax, enjoy it.”
“Wait,” I said, 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 came too hoarse. 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 open my eyes and looked toward the noises. Shapes and bodies tossed around in the shadows. It was Stan and Doc, 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, apparently thrown there by the intruders.
Stan howled in pain and fell to the ground beside the others. He tried getting back up, but his attacker leapt onto him and smacked his head, silencing him.
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 for a mess. His beard was simple, hardly longer than a five o’clock shadow, and filling the rest of his face was a tattoo of bird wings, each one 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.
“Please, I didn’t want…” 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.
“We’re too late,” the young one said.
“No,” the old one replied, looping his arms under my armpits. “We take him,” his voice was like diesel itching to rev.
“Very well,” the young man said as he grabbed my thighs.
They hoisted me and brought me into the darkness. They kept walking, and, judging by the echo, we were in a tunnel. My eyes felt sore so I closed them. There was nothing to see anyway.
I kept them closed until a door opened and cold air hit me. Quiet conversation grew louder as we approached the glow of a fire.
I opened my eyes. Tree branches canopied above, twitching from the firelight’s flares, as they set me down on a blanket.
I looked around to see the faces of two dozen people. The Outsiders.
The older rescuer stepped around the fire to sit directly across from me, staring at me through the flames. His peering eyes made it hard to know if he was a friend or an enemy.
“Hostage?” said a man beside me.
“He’s not a hostage, Steven,” the older man said, still staring at me, “he’s one of us.”
“He sure doesn’t look like it,” Steven said.
At that, the older man stood up quickly 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 first?”
“Uh, bad news.”
“Bor,” Lark said to a man who sat near me. It was the young man from the basement.
Bor handed a small mirror to Lark.
“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. Most of the time they’re too far gone, absorbed into the house.”
“How am I free?” I asked. “We can’t get out.”
“One moment,” Lark held a finger up, then turned towards the fire so all could hear him. “There is a key to freedom.”
The fire crackled and the house still boomed with music and laughter, but the Outsiders remained silent. They didn’t seem to understand.
“You’ve spent all this time searching for a way to escape, probing the fence for weakness,” Lark said, “but the secret is within.”
“What do you mean?” Bor asked.
“Consider Drew,” Lark said, pointing at me. “He is broken and has now seen the house as the farce that it is.”
My eyes bulged. I was about to protest but Steven interjected.
“How?” He said as he eyed me.
“We’re defined at our end. Only then can we see the solution.” Lark said. “Or I should say lack of a solution. Defeat.”
“Defeat?” Steven stood up, arms outstretched and scanning the Outsiders. “I think we already found that.”
“There are always greater depths to which we can sink, Steven,” Lark said.
Steven and Lark stared at each other. I sensed a bitter history between the two.
“If that’s the game you’re playing,” Steven said, “then let’s do it now.” Steven huffed into the darkness.
“Lark, what’s he going to do?” a lady said.
“Nothing good,” Lark said as he bolted into the darkness after him.
The Outsiders were left murmuring, and Bor came over to sit beside me.
“Where’s he going?” I asked.
“Cellar door that leads to the basement. Underground hallway and everything.”
“What is this place?” I said.
Bor looked at me with a relaxed smirk of sympathy. “The house is cruel, Drew. We all fell for its lies and it now imprisons us here. Except Lark. He seems to know a bit more than the average person.”
Soon after, the music stopped and the house went silent. A shout and a gunshot broke the stillness. The Outsiders were speechless, watching and waiting. Some stood up and began pacing around the fire.
“Steven actually shot the Man!” someone said finally.
“We don’t know that,” another said.
“But where did he get a gun?” said another.
“Someone could have shot Steven,” the first woman said.
Suddenly, footsteps came from the darkness. Steven’s face came into the firelight.
“Lark’s been shot!” he said.
The Outsiders clamored, but then the sound of shattering glass from the house silenced them again. One of the fourth floor balcony doors had been thrown open with such force that its 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 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 out of the line of fire.
Bor pulled me to my feet, shocking my body into action.
Many of the Outsiders huddled in the shrubbery around the outskirts of the lawn, but Bor led me to a large ash tree whose trunk and low branches cast a concealing shadow.
“Bor!” Steven appeared suddenly, grabbing Bor’s arm. “We gotta get Lark.”
“He’s dead,” Bor said without stopping or even looking at him. “Thanks to you.”
I caught a glimpse of Steven’s face. It seemed to reveal an understanding of his role in Lark’s martyr.
Gunshots continued to resound, but I didn’t bother looking where or whom the bullets hit.
I looked to the fence, and not knowing what else to do, I grabbed a picket. I watched the iron as I did so, expecting it to be just like normal iron, but I recoiled when it moved like clay.
“Whoh!” I said.
“It’s all a lie,” Bor said, watching my hand.
“Exactly my point!” I smiled. “All a lie, from the beginning.”
Bor turned away, face sullen.
Steven’s face changed from anguish to hopeful curiosity. He grabbed the picket and it bent for him too.
“No way…” he said quietly. “Bor, come check this out.”
“I have eyes,” he said, still facing the house.
“Just grab it and you’ll see,” I said.
“I see just fine, Drew,” Bor said with a bite in his voice.
I ignored his tone and grabbed an adjacent picket. “I’ll make it big enough.”
Steven helped pull the opposite side until there was a gap large enough to squeeze through.
“Bor, see it now?” Steven said.
Bor slowly turned back.
“It’s an optical illusion,” he said before quickly returning his attention to the house. “The fence plays tricks, just like the house. I’ve seen it before.”
Steven tapped my shoulder. “Let’s get out of here,” he said before slipping outside.
But I couldn’t leave yet. It was all unfair–me free and everyone left to die.
The snipers continued to fire on the scattering targets, but now I noticed something else: an army of mannequins poured out of the house. They all held clubs and other bludgeoning implements, and were now converging on the scattered Outsiders.
The chaos trapped my eyes, refusing to let me turn away. I crouched beside Bor in the cover of the ash tree’s shadow 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.
“Everyone’s dead…” I said.
“Not everyone,” Bor said, pointing to the balcony. “Look.”
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.
Suddenly a spotlight blinded me from somewhere in the backyard.
“Hey!” he yelled. “A straggler!”
The congregation in the front turned and spotted me in the light. They whooped and laughed as they pattered across the grass in my direction.
“Let’s go,” I said, grabbing Bor’s shoulder.
“There’s nowhere to go.”
“Just look, I’ll prove it. Steven got out.”
“Of course he did. He always gets his way.”
I clenched my teeth, turned from Bor and dashed to the gap in the pickets when snarls and moans mad eye halt. Out of the darkness, just on the other side of the fence, emerged the desperate faces of the mob. They had seen our opening.
I took a step back just before their limbs shot through. They clawed in every direction, grasping for a way in.
The thundering steps of the mannequins, complete with their uproar, gave me an idea.
I stepped as close as I dared to the fence.
“You want in?” I yelled through it as I grabbed a picket in each hand and stepped backwards, pulling it until it snapped like an old rope. I fell to the ground, but the opening in the fence had grown.
A few of the mob’s heads now popped through. I leapt back to the fence and jumped to its top rail. My hands clenched the metal and, like the pickets, it bent as I fell back to the ground. The result was an inward-leaning fence, with me directly below it.
As if on cue, the mob pressed against it, sending tremors through the metal. Their saliva rained through the gaps and dripped on my face. I scrambled out from under the metal and clambered to Bor’s side, whose face told me he finally saw what was happening to the fence.
“See?” I said. “It’s–”
“What have you done?” he said, fleeing into the shadows farther along the fence.
The juggernaut mob worked themselves into a rhythm, using their bodies as a collective battering ram. They assailed it at regular intervals.
I glanced back to the mannequin army. They had seen the mob, and most of them had already turned to retreat back inside.
The fence was angled inward enough for the first four souls to scurry over and dart to the house. Shortly after came the whole mass, whose weight brought the fence to the ground.
They gushed like a tsunami. The lawn immediately filled with the clamor of their desperation while they besieged the house.
The mannequins now cowering inside behind locked doors–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 stream of bodies, only a few feet away, kept flowing in. They forced me to cower, burying my head into my knees to wait it out.
A banging noise beckoned me from my crouch and I followed its source to the house. The mob had apparently found a bench and used it to bludgeon the front door. It only took a few raps to break through.
A few gunshots rang out once they poured in, but the mob was too many.
A group of mannequins fled out the backdoor only to get lost in the waiting horde on the lawn. There were screams on both sides, one of glee and the other of horror, but silence quickly reigned.
After the chaos subsided, and the mob had made themselves at home, dawn arrived. Finally, I sauntered over the collapsed fence and ducked behind a shrub outside, still nervous about somehow getting roped back inside.
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 from my vantage. The collapsed fence was now a simple gate, and a dirt pathway passed underneath it.
The house was also different, retaining the same shape, but it was dark and 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 considered it a waste of rays.
I surveyed the landscape as daylight grew. 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.
“Freedom will do that to you. New skin.”
My face! I brought my hand up to my cheek, hesitating, then touched it. I felt skin–my skin.
“This place is strange,” Lark said in response to my puzzled frown. “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 of the Outsiders began rustling. One by one, they all rolled to their feet as if waking up.
“So it wasn’t just me that lives again,” Lark said.
“No kidding, I thought you died.”
I turned to him with wide eyes.
“The house doesn’t understand Death. It only offers life, but I don’t think it cares whether that life is good or not. Death is out of its control. It’s always been the weakness in its facade.”
I pondered this as we watched Bor approach the fence, along with a few other Outsiders. They held the pickets on the gate and longingly looked out at us.
“Bor still doesn’t see the opening,” I said. “And the others…if death is the weakness, then why can’t they all see the facade?”
“There are different deaths, but only one opens the eyes.” Lark said, before adding, “after all, you didn’t die and yet here you are. You are dead, in a sense, for new life to sprout. Only a broken seed can grow. No one finds new life if they keep seeing themselves as either inside or outside.”
“How do we get them out?”
“Brokenness? That doesn’t sound like a convincing word.”
“It’s not supposed to convince anyone. It’s supposed to free them. Only the freed can be convinced.”
I scanned the forest for Steven.
“Where did Steven go?” I said. “He got out too.”
“Maybe he took his freedom and ran with it. I wouldn’t blame him. Many of them do.”
Suddenly I caught a purple flash spring from the bushes nearby. It was the Man. In the sunlight his skin resembled the pale skin of a corpse. He dashed at the fence and threw himself against it.
The iron was immovable. He staggered back, only to try again.
“What in the–” I said before someone else came out of the bushes.
It was Stan. He likewise sprinted at the iron barrier and found the same result.
“And just like that, the cycle begins again,” Lark said. “Soon there will be a new Man–or Woman–to call the shots. There will be new Insiders and Outsiders.” He turned to me with a small smile. “And I must get back to work.” He tipped his head in farewell and marched to the gate, opened it, and never looked back.
The Man and Stan watched him slip through, and their ramming efforts grew more desperate.
And so I was left alone with the sun warming my back, calling me to imitate Steven–to take my new life and run.
But the weight of freedom drew me back inside. I knew what I had to do.
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