Everyone, both the young and the old, went about their lives as usual on the day of the Mask Festival. The downtown streets were covered with colored leaves and Mr. Burkett still waved at children and swept in front of his storefront. Mrs. Farley still clucked to Mrs. Durant on how the new teachers at the old school would not and could not teach their children anything. And the policemen still ate lunch at the Morrison Deli on Main. Normality ruled with benevolent routine. But still, as the leaves fell, and the stage was erected, the people of Haskins braced quietly for their most insistent tradition.
At the fairgrounds, Jennifer arrived early to help set the stage. Her eye sockets hung loose and rubbery around her blue eyes. She was the first Jennifer to have blue eyes. The mane on top of her head was coarse and tawny. Flies buzzed in her stomach and she was thankful she was Jennifer because Jennifer always had to stay busy. Cindy was already there, cross-legged and cutting orange leaves out of construction paper, looking prim and sweet in her blue dress.
She nodded to Cindy as she found a pair of scissors. When Cindy did not return the movement, Jennifer decided that her eyelets must be misaligned.
“Hey,” she said, gaining her attention.
Cindy looked up from a pile of construction paper. “Good morning,” she said between ragged breaths. She always complained of being overheated. “Are you excited?”
Cindy’s voice was low this year, deep. She was tall and muscular, but Jennifer always gave her credit for her commitment to Cindy’s primary traits—innocence and geniality. They were best friends.
“Yes, in a way,” she said.
Cindy’s scissors made ripping sounds as they ate through the construction paper. “Are you worried?”
She was talking about Rance and Rance was a key aspect of Jennifer. They fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Jennifer was a cheerleader and Rance was the high school quarterback. He had a shock of blond horsetail hair on the top of his rubber scalp. His mask was loose and shook back and forth like a great Jell-O mold when he spoke. They were to be married the day after the Mask Festival.
She froze for a moment. “No,” said Jennifer, wondering how much of herself she should share. “Rance and I will be very happy.”
“We’ll be very happy,” she said again. Because right now, she was Jennifer, and that is something Jennifer would say.
The stage was decorated with cornucopias and browning sunflowers—symbols of the season. Orange and brown paper leaves decorated the backdrop, frozen in mid-fall. The people of Haskins shuffled in quietly, some enthusiastically. Others came with an expression of boredom, of toe-tapping impatience. Haskins was a small town, but it contained all sorts.
Jennifer snuck down from the stage as twilight struck and the big sky above the small town glowed with gold and crimson ribbons. The people were drinking their ciders, wiping the grease from the lips of their masks as they devoured turkey legs through the slits that made up their mouths.
She found Rance sitting on a hay bale, his legs resting on a large pumpkin with a blue ribbon. She said his name and he reacted in mock exaggeration, pretending to fall from his spot. Rance had always been a jokester—for the last three dozen years, at least. Before, he was cruel—a bully—but time had softened his demeanor. He was now something of a class clown. Even in Haskins, times change.
“There she is, my beautiful.” He stood up and touched her waist. He was shorter than her and the way he looked up into her eyes made him seem like a child looking up at the stars in the night sky. She could see him, his eyes behind the rubber curves, big and brown, pointing up to an endless sky with infantile delight.
They mashed their faces together, crumpling into each other as their masks folded into sweating slabs of rubber. Their tongues found their way out of their mouth-slits, tasting each other’s flesh.
They held on for as long as they could. Rance found his head on her shoulder. He would not say what he wanted to say, but she could hear the choke in his voice all the same. She could divine his meaning.
She pulled apart from him and looked down, grabbing his half-drank cup of cider for a sip. “We’re getting married tomorrow,” she said.
He swallowed, a noise that seemed to echo behind his mask. “Yes, I know.”
Behind them, past the tents and merchants, folks began to gather. A horn blared.
“Could we just—”
She stopped herself. It was not Jennifer speaking.
Rance sniffed and took her by the arm. “We should head up,” he said. “They’ll start without us.”
They pulled each other through the crowd and stood to the far side near the stage where they could see Mayor Granger adjusting his cufflinks. He preened in the expected manner, debuting a new suit with extravagant embroidery for the occasion. Mayor Granger was always wearing the finest clothes.
“Alright, yes,” he began. “Okay, well, here we are. This is the Mask Festival. The Festival of Masks. An old tradition, a very old tradition, indeed.” Mayor Granger’s speech ran out of steam before it began, as it often did in the last year, so instead of continuing, he straightened his silk tie and smiled. “Let’s begin,” he said, finally.
Through the wings of the stage, two farm boys with rubber jowls pushed a wooden cart with a large pumpkin on top of it. Granger clapped his hands and let out a nervous sigh. The two boys hoisted the pumpkin’s top off together, struggling under its weight.
Jennifer and Rance held hands as they watched Mayor Granger close his eyes and reach into the pumpkin. When his hand came back with two slips of paper, the festival began.
“Connie and Delmont,” he called. “Please come up to the stage and make your exchange.”
A small woman with a snug mask trotted up on stage, she carried with her a wicker basket of flowers. She curtsied before the audience. On the other side, a mechanic in overalls with long black hair stomped with heavy boots to the center of the stage. They turned to each other and bowed, then walked to the rear of the stage, their backs to the audience. With both hands they removed their masks, then, without looking, held them out to the other. The new Connie’s mask was so tight that her features seemed to pop out of the eyelets. Delmont was slight and wiry, but the wearer had begun to learn his movements, raising his feet in great destructive arcs. The crowd cheered and the new Connie skipped heavily back into the crowd and disappeared.
Before long, Mayor Granger’s name was called too. His change was extravagant, of course. He danced to the back of the stage and when he came back his voice grew more resinous, his stature more assured. The old Granger disappeared into the crowd wearing Jim Brown’s face and drinking sweet liquor with Jim Brown’s loud friends.
Jennifer held Rance’s hand until he had to leave for the stage. He met with Susan Hickens, a girl a year below them, and they swapped faces. When Rance came back to Jennifer, he was taller. Susan held her face in her hands as she was embraced by her family. For just a moment, Jennifer saw her look back at her, the black holes of her eyes an implacable enigma. She was always known to be shy.
The new Rance put his arm around her—in a way that was so unlike the old Rance that it made her skin crawl. She told herself that it was okay, that they were to be married and that this was a perfectly apt display of affection. It was only that—Rance used to hold her hand. He did not usually wrap his arms around her casually, she was used to feeling his fingers between hers. She wriggled out of the embrace and grabbed his hands, demonstrating the protocols of their relationship in a discreet way. His hands were rough and large. He turned his head toward her, bright hazel eyes hidden behind eyelets. She thought she detected a nod of understanding. He held her hand and watched the stage.
Mayor Granger dug his hand into the pumpkin and came out with two slips of paper. He squinted his eyes, one hand tugging a finger into his eyelet, spreading it so that he could read. “Cole Drewson and Jennifer Maisey. Come on up!”
Her heart shivered, palpitating in erratic bursts of electric anxiety. She unhooked her hand from Rance and felt a chill. She looked at him briefly, to see his eyes, but they were not the eyes she knew. She seemed to float to the stage, dragged along by an inevitable leash. Mayor Granger took both of their hands and raised them. He was adding to the spectacle, he was making decisions. She reflected that this was indeed in line with Granger’s character, and she wondered why no one considered taking the hands of those on the stage and raising them before. It added a sort of spectacle to the event, and historically, Mayor Granger was spectacle incarnate.
Granger joined their hands and for just a moment, she felt as if the hand in hers was Rance’s. The Rance she knew. But the palm in hers was sweating and Rance never sweated from his hands. She and Cole walked to the back of the stage—an eternity—and she looked straight ahead as she took off her mask.
Cole was doing the same beside her.
She wondered if he felt the same rush she did when she removed it. I’m still Jennifer I’m still Jennifer I’m still Jennifer, she thought. Her face was naked and she was still Jennifer. She panicked. Her heart kicked her sternum. She did not feel any different. She liked being Jennifer. She was still her. Jennifer was who she should be, and why now should Cole get to be Jennifer? Why now should she have to be Cole?
She tried to catch her breath and reach some sort of compromise with herself as Cole pulled off his mask and held it out to her.
Her body failed her. It had become too accustomed to the ways of Haskins. She reached out with her mask and they exchanged without looking at each other. She pulled on Cole Drewson’s face and felt the sweat and stink of another human and she began to pray—that she would be Cole, that she would forget what it was like to be Jennifer, what it was like to love Rance, her Rance.
They both turned around and Cole Drewson waved weakly to the audience and went down the opposite side of the stage. Jennifer found Rance and they put their arms around each other and embraced.
In the back of the fairgrounds, Cole found himself in the men’s room, staring at his new face. Long jawed, with a mustache. Stubble dotted his chin. A trucker hat covered his black hair. His creases were long and deep like knife cuts.
Behind him, a boy he could not see left a bathroom stall and walked out the door. When he was alone in the surgical teal bathroom, Cole whispered his old name.
The next month was a period of adjustment for everyone. Cole woke up in his new home and learned his old habits. His wife, Pauline, was a quick study. She would cower in fear whenever he entered the room, although she would do so in a pathetic, approval-seeking way.
Cole was more lethargic, less vigorous in his anger than usual, but he made his threats, he spat between the lips of his mask and cursed. He drank the same beer, although he had not been able to drink as much as he used to. Most nights, when trying, he fell asleep in the white light of the television while Pauline stepped lightly out the front door to meet their neighbor.
When he’d wake, he’d go to his job at the plant, where he learned to speak crudely with the other men at work. His tone was high and girlish but they accepted him with backslaps and unhinged laughter.
He did not feel like Cole, but he did appreciate that the others felt like he was playing his part. Cole was a difficult role, he demanded a certain physicality that was difficult to match at first. And although, behind the rubber of his face, he still felt like Jennifer, he was beginning to appreciate the inherent violence of his new identity.
He’d begun to get comfortable slapping Pauline when he was angry. The first hit had been a surprise to them both, but it was very much in line with what Cole would do. She looked up at him, having fallen to the floor and rubbing her cheek, and she looked almost appreciative.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he muttered.
The incident happened after he came home late. He told her he’d gone to the bar, but really he’d gone down to the old high school to watch the football game. He’d brought a bottle with him. It was gone by the time he got back. She only had to ask him where he’d been and it was enough. It took only a second for his rage to show its face.
After, of course, he felt sick. As Pauline hid the rest of the night, he became preoccupied with the dimensions of his mask. He drank until he fell asleep.
Cole was not known as a sports fan, but it was certainly not so out of sorts for a drunk and a wifebeater to enjoy football. Cole considered this to be an aspect of the Cole character he could develop. What are games but an excuse to drink? What violences could he commit to Pauline when the home team lost? At first, it seemed strange for Cole to go see the local team play every Friday, but then as his work friends came around, it didn’t seem so strange at all. And besides, if Rance could now put his arms around Jennifer rather than hold her hand, why couldn’t Cole like football?
“You like that cheerleader? The one with the legs?”
Cole shook his head. He did not care for the cheerleaders. He was not looking at them. His eyes were always on the crowd, looking for a young girl with brown hair that always fell in front of her mask. But Susan Hickens was shy and he didn’t know why he thought she might decide to come to the game.
He took off his hat and rubbed his mane of hair. He punched the side of his head impotently.
“Yeah, fine. Watching the game.”
Rance, the quarterback, completed a thirty-yard pass and the crowd erupted in unhinged ecstasy. Cole put his hand on his head and said, “I’m gonna head out. I wanna go fishing in the morning.”
His friends booed and waved their bottles in mock disapproval, but fishing had been another recent addition to Cole’s canon, and he was allowed to leave. He balled his fists in the cuffs of his coat, cursing under his mask, stealing glances at the field. They were going to be newlyweds, he reminded himself. He got into his car and rubbed at the rubber covering his face. He rubbed it into himself, tried to make it melt into his flesh.
When he got home, he greeted Pauline by cracking her jaw.
She threw her hands up in front of her, but her eyes showed the same twisted sort of glee she always shared whenever Cole played his part well. She braced for the next hit and when she got it, her head snapped back into the cupboard behind her.
Blood flowed from the slit of her lips. He heard whimpering from inside of her mask. Cole stepped over her body to get a beer from the fridge.
She got on all fours, she was trying to stand. “Cole,” she started.
He wound up and kicked her in the ribs. She dropped back to the floor, moaning as she gripped her sides.
Cole stood over her, sweating. In a shaky voice, he said, “Don’t ever call me that again.”
When she tried to speak again, he stomped down on the back of her neck until he felt something crack.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
Her legs were shaking, twitching.
“It’s just—I’m not Cole.”
They stopped moving, and because he was supposed to be Cole, he could only do what Cole would do, so he stomped his boot down hard once more; again and again until her spasms ceased.
Cole had never killed anyone before. There would be side-eyes and gossip, as Haskins generally appreciated its townsfolk to maintain the status quo—but Cole was always a violent man. This was as true an ending to Pauline’s story as any, he told himself.
He placed his head against the wood of the pantry and tried to think. Yes, this was a fine ending. True to character. People had died in Haskins before. Not many, but it has happened.
The body would be discovered eventually, perhaps by a mailman or a friend of a friend. He would be locked up when it was discovered, but he felt no real urgency regarding these truths. He would perhaps have days, maybe weeks to continue on unfettered. Cole sat down beside Pauline and stroked away the hair on her mask. Blood leaked through its nostrils. It was not a pretty mask: it was far too large on her, as most masks were.
Cole wondered what would have happened if he had been Pauline. If Cole would have killed him in the kitchen, if he would have been so sniveling and grateful as the world blackened around him. He yanked on her hair and saw a bit of skin, real skin, beneath. The idea of it was so alluring, so mysterious. He pulled again to free her head and he pulled until Pauline’s face was limp in his own hands, stretched into a long liquid yawn. Cole turned her head, the head of a young man with light brown hair buzzed short. His face was covered in bruises, a kaleidoscope of greens, yellows, browns, and purples. Cole took off his own mask as well and rubbed his fists into his eyes. This is not something Cole would do, he realized, crying harder. He was not Cole.
After work, he and his buddies went to the game like they always did. Such was their lot. They all drank, but by now Cole was used to drinking. They didn’t realize he was drinking less, but then again, it didn’t matter how much he drank because drink pervaded his being. He smelled perpetually of whiskey. And no one questioned whether Cole was drunk because of course he was. He’s Cole. And just as everyone assumed he had been drinking, no one asked about his wife. Because Cole never talked about her anyways. It just wasn’t done.
“You lookin’ at those cheerleaders, Cole?”
“Too old for me,” said Cole, his voice flat. “I like ‘em young,”
His face was pointed toward the announcer’s box. He was squinting as his friends howled.
“Oh yeah? How young?”
“Real fucking young.”
They liked that. They screamed in joy. And as they screamed, he squinted his eyes to see the shy girl with brown hair keeping score a world away.
When the game ended, he waved them off. “I gotta go fishing in the morning,” he said.
The crowd was clearing out and he disappeared within them—several hundred rubber faces adorned with wigs and eyeglasses. The girl was climbing down from the announcer’s box and he started to quicken his pace. Susan was unassuming, her back turned toward the fence, ready to slip out unnoticed now that her obligation had finished. Cole jogged lightly, not so fast as to draw attention—just the pace of a man eager to get home.
She passed through a split in the chain-link fence and began walking down the sidewalk with her nose in a book. Susan was always reading. Cole followed, a block back at first. If anyone was watching, they’d see him fumbling with his keys, looking for his car.
Susan lived near the school, the ward of bookish parents with large rubber noses and glassless spectacles. She spent most of her time at home and she was no doubt eager now to return. Susan portrayed this well when she first heard Cole shout her old name.
“Rance,” he said. “Wait.”
She stopped, moving her shoulders as if she were breathing deep, frightened. She turned at a glacier’s pace, her mask turned downward toward the pavement.
“I’ve got to get home. It’s late.”
“It’s not late,” said Cole.
“I’ve got to go.”
“We were supposed to be married.”
“I’m Susan,” she said. “We don’t talk. You’re too old to talk to me. I’m just a girl.”
Cole ground his teeth, sweat dripped into his eye. He thought of Pauline and her face of mashed cherries. “I want you to come home with me tonight, Rance.”
“No—I really can’t—”
“It’s Jennifer. I’m still Jennifer, Rance. Please, come with me. This is me speaking, I want you to come with me because I still love you. We’re supposed to be married.”
“Rance and Jennifer are getting married next year, the day after the festival. Not us.” Her voice quivered when she said it.
Cole was a fast man, quick—a coiled spring. And when he bound toward Susan, she froze. That was a very Susan thing to do. She was not good under pressure and she was so much smaller than Cole.
He wrestled her to the ground and did what came most natural; an open hand pressed to her mouth, then a stranglehold around her neck. He felt her soft, sweating flesh. “Please,” he said, whispering through her nostril holes, “come with me.”
Like in any small town, a death causes an uproar.
A dead girl on the side of the road, bleeding out her mask.
And just like in any small town, time marches on.
“You don’t usually have people over, is that true?”
The two had never been here before, a fact they seemed self-conscious of—still, they remained as chipper as they could, considering. They pointed at the elk’s head on the wall and asked Cole if he hunted. They complimented Pauline on the furniture, their aesthetics as well as comfort.
Pauline bowed extravagantly, an ironic affectation. “The house was such a mess before. We’re trying to be better about that.”
Through the kitchen doorway came Cole, holding a tray of cocktails. “Please, help yourself, plenty more where that came from.” He lowered the drinks on the table and poured himself a glass of club soda.
“You’re not drinking?”
“Oh no, I’m a monster on that stuff. I’m turning a new leaf. I found God, I guess. The grain spoke to me. The seeds were sown. The old scarecrow came home to tend to the blackbirds in the field. All that jazz, you know?”
Pauline rubbed his shoulder, she kissed the back of his head. “He’s been doing really good. Great.”
There was a moment of silence, a pregnant pause. Pauline reached a hand out to their guests—a man and a woman, with large noses and glasses. “Awful what happened to Susan.”
The man nodded solemnly and Cole huffed in sympathy. Snow began to fall and the gray light outside penetrated every inch of their humble home.
“Haskins isn’t perfect,” said the woman. “But then again, no place is.” They stared at each other, through each other for a long moment. Pauline’s brown eyelets shined like glossy caramels by the fire as she took Cole by the hand and held it ever so tight.