HELL'S MASK IS purple. The kind of purple which is violet in the light and brown in darkness. Now, it's somewhere in between. The window is open, but her room faces away from the sun this time of day. In the morning, I think, I'll have to come back. Just to watch the colors change.
They gave her clean margins, which give way to a little less than a centimeter of scaring around the edges. I find myself thankful they spared her eyes, her lips. The mask curves around the top of her cheekbones, running the slope on both sides only to meet at the bridge of her nose. My fingers skim the edges carefully—I think the fabric is velvet—while trying not to touch the raw, healing stretches of skin. I don't want to hurt her.
Hell has always had a pretty face, even before the masking. As a child, the high cheekbones, tall forehead, and permanently red-stained lips seemed odd. But then we turned twelve and she grew five inches, her face thinned, and boys started taking notice. Luckily for me, she wasn't interested. I think what caught my notice first was her eyelashes. They're are long and curl up at the ends—I remember almost failing out of the fourth grade because I was staring at them all day. There is—or, was—a small freckle hidden in the crease of the left side of her nose.
Hell still has the eyelashes; the cheekbones; the forehead; the lips. Fuck, the lips. But, at the same time, I can't let go of the knowledge that I'll be searching for that freckle until the day I no longer can. It's missing, most likely erased completely.
"Do you like it?"
Hell breaks the silence where I cannot. I came over here to console and congratulate her. When her mom called me this morning saying Hell could finally have visitors, I ran out with no regrets. Now, it seems that she has taken charge of the former, and that the latter has been forgotten completely.
As such, there is a pause before I can pull together the words to respond. I make myself take in the careful stitching and the gilded edges with a critical eye. Hell is an artist, she wants to know if the colors match or if the left side is a fraction of an inch tilted. Once I've made sure it isn't, I survey the scars. Those, I think, will fade against her brown skin until there is nothing but a few small scratches upon the surface. It's much better than the standard prognosis, but, then again, the Society is always improving it's Masking procedure.
"You're perfect," I say, and it's true.
We're sitting on the edge of her bed. It's placed in the middle of her medium-sized room. On the left side are two glass doors leading out onto a small balcony. On the right is a painted-white door to the main hallway. Hell and her mother live in one of the smaller apartments in the Masked District. It's nearer to the Dismissed Sector, but it costs less. They don't need the extra room, anyway, since Hell's dad… well, since he had to leave.
My legs sprawl out in front of us, twisting and jumping at whim. They're covered in baggy black jeans. Every so often, my booted feet connect with the wood floors with a thump. Next to them, Hell's legs are painfully still, crossed neatly at the ankle.
With us, calm meets chaos. And it likes the view.
I catch Hell peering over at the vanity. It's dark wood, with a rectangular mirror set in the center. It's silver handles match Hell's mask in the same way her bedroom walls do. The glass has been covered by a cream-colored sheet. She wants to look, I know.
"They said I'm adjusting well," Hell says offhandedly, still staring at the covered mirror. "I could just—"
"No!" I say sharply, turning back to her. "You're not ready."
Hell turns to me with a puppy dog look. "But, Lie..."
I shake my head, but let my voice soften. "Remember what happened to War? Anyway, you promised you'd wait for me," I reply, giving her a look of my own.
Turning her wistful eyes back at me, Hell nods slowly. There is a small, unprecedented silence, and I almost panic at the sheer oddity of it. Before, we never ran out of things to say. I want to think nothing had changed, but it has. What I'm not entirely sure of is if our new, divided state is permanent.
"What's it like?" I ask, breaking the silence. "The Masking."
Hell smiles softly, laying back against the mattress. She rests her hands over her stomach, turning her face towards the open window. The late afternoon sun is orange and yellow. Hell used to try drawing this exact view, on days when we'd go to the park and settle with her head in my lap and a fresh box of pencils between us. I'd use them for writing, and she for sketches. It got to the point where, every Saturday morning, I'd run down to the office supplies store on my street and buy another set. But, however many times Hell tried, she could never get the shading quite right.
I sit back next to her, taking her hand with ease. I wonder how badly my green hoodie clashes with her purple mask, making a mental note to get rid of any other green articles of clothing from my wardrobe when I get home. The purple is a permanent part of our lives, now. I have to adapt, as Hell has. She is wearing a grey tank top under an unbuttoned purple flannel shirt. Partially because she loves plaid; partially because any pullovers with necks smaller than the circumference of her head are out of the question until the scars heal. Her jeans match the tank top in color and style, molding to the curves of her body perfectly.
"What was it like?" Hell repeats. "I was nervous, at first. Like… like I always knew that everything was going to change, but then it was happening. The absolute certainty I'd allowed myself to feel for so long was just—gone. And it was the most beautifully terrifying feeling I will ever have. Now that it's gone, I have nothing to fear. Oblivion isn't a concept, Lie. It's the best thing you'll ever experience."
I let there be silence, this time. I need it, to comprehend what she is saying. "And what about the pain?"
Hell laughs at me. "It doesn't hurt, Lie. They give you painkillers, and for the big parts you're just… sleeping. Time melts and folds in on itself. I didn't even realize two weeks were gone until they were, you know?" She sighs, tugging at a curl and watching it spring back up. "But I missed you. That was the pain, I think. Sometimes, to make sure I was awake, they had to ask me questions. Like 'What's your favorite thing to do?' and 'Describe your best memory'. Some way or another, I always ended up talking about you." She laughs again. "By the last procedure, they just asked me to talk about you. It was the only time they didn't have to prompt me to keep going."
I laugh, too. It aggravates the fluttery feeling in my chest, making the weight lift for a brief, blissful second and then drop down harder, faster, and farther still. "Nice to know you were talking me up to the Society."
"Talking you up? Nah, I was telling them about the time you punched Heathen in the face and blamed it on War."
"They called you—"
"We were twelve. And she's called you worse for years."
I don't know what to say next. Sure, it's true, but at the time Hell was furious. Now, she is spacy, and light. I want her freeness, but at the same time I want the old Hell to come roaring back into my life and punch me in the face. She was filled with fire and rage. She had passion so deep it cut through walls and she led us through the spaces—together. But, at the same time, I know the lure of being so weightless of thought and of mind. I haven't known the feeling since I was a child, but now I am ready for the first time to chase it. And I think it will be worth the race.
"What are you thinking?" Hell asks.
I force a small laugh, but it doesn't cut the bitterness that seeps in like a poison. "You don't already know?"
She shrugs a shoulder, oblivious. "I think I'd like to be wrong. It might make things more interesting."
"You're Masked. I'm not. You're a girl who doesn't like the male anatomy. I'm a guy who wasn't born with the male anatomy. And, do I have to mention the fact that we have a dead friend? How much more interesting can it get?"
Hell nudges me. I gasp—her elbows are sharp.
"Crybaby," she teases. "Really, stop worrying. You'll be Masked, too, soon enough. And then we can be boring together."
"Your crybaby," I correct her. "And we don't know that. I could get Dismissed."
She scoffs, rolling onto her elbows to face me. "Over what? You're perfect." Hell kisses me briefly on the cheek, smiling.
I blink and her touch is just a memory, placed about two inches west of where I want it to be. "Really? I thought I was a crybaby?" I say, fainting confusion.
Hell lunges for a pillow, gabbing one and hitting me over the head with it in the same motion.
"Hey!" I yell as she laughs.
"What? In a couple months I won't be able to do that—you'll be healing from the Masking. I have to get it in now," she explains between breaths. It must still be difficult for her to breathe with the fabric surrounding her nose. There are holes for air to get in, of course, but they're significantly smaller than a person's nostrils.
"If they take me," I insist.
Hell hits me again. "Give me a real reason why they wouldn't take you," she dares me. "Then you can mope."
"They've never had someone who's trans before."
It comes out in a rush and settles like a thick grey fog. I've never said the words out loud before. Having my fears out in the air doesn't make them any less real, as I hoped it would.
Hell pauses. Her smile droops for a second before she can pick it back up. "Well, you'll be the first," she assures me. Her lightness dissipates before fading almost completely. She is not sure—not in the slightest.
"Yeah, you're right," I say quickly as Hell glances away. Her eyelashes poke out of the mask's eye holes, blinking rapidly. I think she's confused—I was, too, when I read the statistic. "I mean, I'm just perfect," I add, trying to lighten the mood.
Hell hits me again and I realize the pillow matches her face.
I LEAVE HELL'S a couple of hours later, when her mother comes in with a tray of salves, medicines, and inhibitors.
She smiles at me quickly, dark red lips turning up the corners of her pale pink mask. It's a soft fabric, like Hell's, but slippery. Silk. There are small, silver studs placed around the eyes. They sparkle and throw reflections of light into her irises.
"Sorry, hon. This might take a while," she informs me apologetically, coming in and setting the tray down on the dresser carefully. Hell has always looked like her, but the mask brings it out in both of them.
I nod, turning back to Hell. Her eyes are trained on where our hands intertwine. She is still laying down, head turned to the place where the sun used to be.
"I'll see you tomorrow, okay?" I say, willing her to look at me. She doesn't.
"Okay," Hell says, voice lowering. She lets go of my hand and I am gone.
The street is cold. It's almost Halloween—my favorite holiday by far. It's the one day of the year UnMasked are allowed to don removable pieces of fabric and silicon modeled after masks most of us will take one day. Any other day we are forced to wear our skin, like the Dismissed or, even worse, the Removed.
I rub my temples briefly, feeling a slight migraine coming on. I think it may be from the bright streetlights or the colorful buildings that line the cobbled roads. They're filled with people and sound., but the street is silent. Anyone who is out hurries for the UTS entrance and doesn't look back. It's supposed to snow tonight, which can be anywhere between detrimental and annoying to a Masked with a non-water resistant face. Treatment ranges from time to pills to removal.
Removal. I almost shutter at the thought, having already been forced to contemplate it too many times today. Any number of times is too many.
I rush into the Underground Transport Service, not wanting to be the lone oddball taking his time on the darkened streets. In seconds, I am descending the steps three at a time, worry turning to laughter as I almost trip.
The people look at me, masks turning from intrigue to suspicion. I look old enough to be Masked by now—the fact that my face is still skin makes them apprehensive. So, I stop running and look down, holding out my UTS card to the first guard I see. He inspects it carefully, noting the age with a sigh of relief. His midnight blue mask covers his whole face, but the frown turns into a grin faster than I'd thought possible.
I look up. "Park station, please."
He nods, punching numbers into a tablet they've embedded in the barrier. I don't understand why they do that; it isn't like we have to pay to ride. "Almost time, then?"
I start grinning at the thought. "Yes, sir. About a month."
"Good for you. And may the Mask reveal you." The guard spouts the traditional phrase automatically as he waves me through.
I take back my ID with a quick thank you before saying: "May the Mask reveal us all."
WHEN I GET home, my parents are sitting in the kitchen with cups of coffee cradled in their sleep-deprived hands. Both have office jobs in our part of the city; both have spent far too many nights laboring over spreadsheets lately.
The white granite countertop is made to contrast with the dark wood cabinets. We have an odd number of mirrors, clocks, false books, and other assorted knickknacks spread out around the apartment. People always say how strange and intriguing it is, like a treasure hunt in every room, but I think my parents are more interesting to look at.
Both took the mask at 18, a good five years before they had me: their only child. I've spent years wondering what they look like underneath the cloth layered so elegantly over their faces. Yet, all I have is what I've come up with in my head. You're not allowed to keep any pictures of yourself before the procedure. They say it heightens the chances of rejection.
This is what I know: my mother has stick-straight blonde hair and these watery blue eyes that just make you want to cry on sight. Her mask is a delicate grey color, shaped around her wide eyes and curving with the left side of her heart-shaped face until it reaches her chin. It's almost like a cartoon lightning bolt coming down from the edge of a smooth, rounded thunder cloud.
But, in my head, I imagine she has a freckle in the corner of her eyelid, like me, and a small, thin, pointed nose to match her small, thin, pouty lips. Her skin is smooth and pale—almost translucent. With her mask, she seems regal and cold. But she is lovely, none the less, in demeanor.
In contrast, my father's mask makes him look almost too much like himself. It's strong and simple, but there's something about the way the dark green leather meets the curve of his lips that gives him a permanent smile. I've never known him to shout, ice someone out, or even frown.
His mask extends from his hairline down to his upper lip—spare the underside of his nose—and keeps going on either side to make two sharp points at his jawline. His face is wider than my mother's, and his scars aren't as visible because he's naturally tan.
I think I'm a mix of both. I have my father 's dark hair and eyes but my mother's pale face. I'm slight but not small, with an ever-present smile that only goes away when I'm thinking too deeply. Which is a little too often some days, as Hell tells me.
My mask could be like them, too. We're not really supposed to plan what mask we will take, as it will be chosen for us in the end, anyway. But I think mine will be grayish leather with green stitching, pointing on one side but avoiding my mouth all together. Hell drew that style onto a picture of me, once. I've never had the heart to look, but she says I was made for the mask. I just hope the Society agrees.
Tonight, my parents are both staring down at a thick envelope that's been slapped onto the table. Instead of working, they just sit, grinning at each other in a way that's best described as stupid in love. Emphasis on 'stupid' and 'love'.
When they realize I'm here, they still say nothing. At first, I'm too shocked to speak, and they remain far too nervous. Either way, all three of us know what's in the envelope.
"It's here?" I ask, trying to keep my face neutral. "They sent back my application?"
My mother nods, biting the small curve of her lower lip. Sitting on the edge of her seat, she looks like a silver bird, poised for flight. To fly where, I wonder. Away from me, I guess, if I do get dismissed.
The Masked Society only send an application back to the sender for two reasons. One, they have been Dismissed: deemed unsuitable for the mask and left to live a life of skin. Two, the applicant is being reviewed for early admission.
The Dismissed are the outcasts of Society. They are laborers without families and friends; without comfort and belonging. They wear their shame on the unmarked skin of their faces until they can pay to have their application re-evaluated. Even then, few ever make it back into the folds of Society.
My breath catches in my throat as I take a step closer to the counter. "What if—?"
"You'll be fine, son," my father says, nodding and smiling like everything will be alright. And, somehow, he makes me believe everything will be alright. But he says nothing as I open the letter, and the kitchen is silent my eyes begin to skim the page.
To Lie Church,
Congratulations, future wearer of the Mask...
I sigh, relieved. "Early admission."
My parents begin to laugh and clap as I stand still, going back to the letter and letting their movements blur around me.
We have received your application and have decided to evaluate your person for early admission to the Masked Society. Please be at City Hall on the 15th of October at 9 A.M. to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and personal interview. Additional information can be found in the included packet.
May the Mask reveal you. May the Mask reveal us all.
"We're so proud of you," my mother says, rubbing my back lightly. "When's your interview?"
"Next Monday. But they also want me to get a psych consult."
My father nods, looking up from the letter, which he is now reading for himself. "They do that for everyone. Don't worry about it."
"Why don't you get some sleep, honey? Seeing Hell must have been a lot. You can look at all of these tomorrow," my mother offers softly, concerned-sounding.
I nod. "Okay. Goodnight."
My parents both nod in sync, reading the cream piece of paper together. It reminds me of the sheet Hell has draped over her vanity.