Authors: Todd Russell
"Unmasked you won't, no."
Regina's mask dangled threateningly in Harry's hand.
"Regina's mask is for me?"
"Get your hands off me!" Linda cried as Stag and her burst into the room.
"No," Harry said, "it is for
Harry pushed the mask over Linda's face and her screams were muffled as the heinous interweaving of flesh and mask began.
"You son of a b—"
The constriction on his throat tightened.
Harry moved over and kneeled before Damon. "I never thought you were the greatest, DENNY."
Damon's eyes bulged. At last the Illusion's host became obvious. His stepdad who had disappeared years ago in search of a fantasy.
"I thought the bastard was dead."
"That's what people think when you join the carnival, Damon." Harry said. "We cling to a life of our own. Literally."
Linda fell to the ground, whimpering as the mask slowly devoured her face.
"Please let her go, take it off, she's not part of this."
"Oh, but she is, DENNY. You wanted to show them how you did it. Tonight you planned to demonstrate."
"You told me that the Illusion escaped."
"Denny wanted to show how this transference was possible. We don't know how the Illusion works. Only you do."
"Denny isn't only in my painful memories. I tore off that mask and he is fading as we speak."
"NO! The process is weakening, yes, but a new mask will help reverse the process. It is all in the name of the Illusion."
"Who's mask?" Damon asked.
Harry motioned Stag to hold Damon's arms.
Harry reached up to his chin and started ripping it free.
Stag held Damon's arms.
The mask removed, Harry's eyes drooped and sagged. A vile red-green fluid rained off his face. "We die without the mask, Damon. It's how we embrace the dream."
"It's how you embrace the nightmare! Stop this, please!"
"You weren't the best, DENNY. I was. Now I'll show them."
"PLEASE, NO! PLEASE! NOT AGAIN!"
Harry shoved the mask over Damon's face.
"Now we'll work together again, Denny! You and I showing them how it's done!"
Stag removed the billy club and cracked Damon's skull. Damon felt the flesh wriggling and burrowing, interweaving the flesh and fantasy again.
"GET IT OFF! PLEASE! PLEASE!!"
"I'm going to join my station for tonight's show, Denny. I will reclaim what's mine when this is over." Harry walked to the door as Damon kept cringing in pain. "Stag, I trust you'll ensure our fine illusionist and new number one assistant are ready? Don't you dare botch this."
Stag grunted approval.
The door slammed and locked.
Stag let Damon fall to the floor.
"Take it off! PLEASE!"
He tried to raise quavering fingers to the mask but he couldn't. With the remainder of Denny's mask and Harry's new mask the procedure's intensity was magnified. He shook on the floor.
Stag watched Damon and Linda, flinching.
"Help me, Stag...please...PLEASE."
"You wanted to be the illusionist, take it, TAKE IT! PLEASE!"
Damon reached out and felt her hand. "Linda, it's Damon! Your husband! It's ME! Please! DO you remember?"
"These masks suck our identities. We won't know who we are soon. I want...you to know...I love you more than anything."
"I love you too. This hurts, Damon."
"I know, I know honey. I just want...you to know...the dream wasn't worth it...okay? Okay? PLEASE... whatever we become, I will always love you."
"The show goes on in five minutes," Stag interrupted. "Time to get dressed you two."
"Stag, please help us! Don't let Harry and Denny control you forever!"
Linda finally joined Damon in crying, "PLEASE STAG!"
Damon raised his hand feebly.
Stag reached for Damon's hand and they both felt the brief beating of Denny's coal-black heart. Then there was the horrible arctic feeling of the complete absence of humanity. Gone. Nobody alive anywhere, no dreams, no realities. No one.
They travelled across the states via buses, trains, airplanes, cars—one had even hitchhiked. They appeared to the naked eye as normal as those living primarily by daylight, but clung helplessly to the night. They were a clever converse breed of reality. They were like those rooted with a passion for the dream, but finding no solace in reality. A grim and ironic realism which had thrived and existed for eons. Tonight they came for the golden gateway key between dimensions.
Harry stood dressed in a diamond studded tuxedo on the edge of the stage, a cordless microphone in hand, calling the action. Stag stood just out of audience view, his hand trembling above his holstered billy club. Regina had dressed in a short red dress. Linda wore a long flowing red dress. The simpler illusions required her dress to conceal the truth behind the lie.
Damon stood before them in his black suit, bowing to the sudden outbursts of applause as he ran through the illusions, one by one. The Illusions loved him for the rumors of what they believed he'd done and what they believed he'd become. He'd become an icon in their society. A martyr with the courage and conviction to shatter the sacred gateway.
"And now for his brilliant sleight of hand!" Harry announced the final illusions, and Damon took out a hat and started removing items from it: flowers, cards, white rabbits.
Damon stopped after reaching into the hat for the last item. An intense heat overtook him like the stage lights beating down on his forehead. He turned and locked eyes dreamily with Stag.
Suddenly he was walking down the aisle in the church and he saw Denny rise from the church pew. Impossible! Denny had long departed his world.
Denny raised his hand and snapped his fingers.
"What are you doing here?" Damon said.
"I've come for passage back."
Damon looked around and the procession had frozen. The sound of the organ was stuck on an E chord. EEEEEEEEEEEEEE. All heads were locked with varying expressions.
"What do you want from me, Denny? What have I ever done to you?"
"You've shown me how dream exists. Now that I've been there, I want back! Your mother told me to go to hell. It's her fault."
"So it's Mom's fault that you went away?"
"I loved your mother, Damon."
"You are sick. You needed help then, and you still do now."
"She loved you more than me, Damon."
"It's no wonder why. You destroyed her. You killed her!"
"You're almost gone, Damon. Pull it out of the hat and learn your destiny."
Damon reached deeper into the hat.
He felt it snapping his fingers like twigs.
SNAP! SNAP! SNAP!
(mousetraps mousetraps, everywhere mousetraps)
The scream welled in his throat.
The crowd applauded as Damon's arm was sucked inside the hat.
"NO, GODDAMNIT NOT NOT NOT DOWN THERE!" Damon cried as his arm was inside the hat up to his elbow. Suddenly the hat opened hungrily and began to devour his body. The snake-like hinge of the hat's hole engulfed Damon, then shrunk quickly back to its original size. The hat stared at the crowd, a motionless illusion.
The crowd roared its approval.
Stag raced onto the stage. "Wait!"
The crowd's applause waned.
"This is wrong!" Stag cried. "Denny has shown me the gateway!"
In the background Regina and Linda looked on in a zombie state.
"Stag is a supplicant, disregard him!" Harry shook his fist.
"To hell with you, Harry! This is not what they think."
A small commotion began.
"Silence!" Harry yelled. "I order you back to your post, Stag."
Stag turned to the crowd. "Please, this is not what you think it is. Denny didn't find the key to reality. He misled you, all of you."
The commotion began anew.
"Denny is enacting his revenge. Yes, vengeance is all this was ever about."
"No!" Harry said, shaking his head forcefully.
Illusions in the audience began to rise, grumbling.
"Harry won't admit it, but I will. I've wanted to be among you, but you wouldn't accept me. Now I'll die for exposing this, but this man," Stag pointed to the hat on the stage, "and this woman," he pointed at Linda, "they shouldn't be part of this."
"STAG I DEMAND YOU SILENCE YOUR—"
Stag reached for his throat and started gulping for air.
Several Illusions were on their feet and moving toward the stage.
"STAG IS LYING TO YOU! LYING!"
Stag moved his hands to his face and started ripping away the mask he'd removed from Damon's face. He held the hate-filled mask before the crowd as Harry crushed his vocal chords.
The Illusions turned and rushed toward the stage. They seized Harry and the microphone fell, popping and s-s-s-s-sinng beneath wild, trampling feet.
The Illusion mob enacted their own ghoulish vengeance. They tore and ripped and shredded Harry's tuxedo and then set to work on his flesh. Handfuls of flesh, hair and skin were scraped and clawed and torn and ripped. More joined the angry mob, pulling, ripping, tearing. A swarming, enraged sickening tug of war.
Stag fought for his throat, turning blue faced. He moved toward the hat on the stage reaching...
Harry's strength weakening over Linda and Regina, they both lunged for the hat too.
"He's mine!" Regina screamed, pulling Linda's hair.
"NO! MINE!" Linda turned and bit Regina's hand.
Stag's vessels on his throat bulged and then burst, blood pouring from his neck. As the seething mob reduced Harry's flesh to ribbons, Stag's throat expelled hot crimson. He fell over, his body twitching and convulsing and creating a dreamy pool of death for his final wistful plunge from reality and fantasy. His last expression was a smile.
Regina reclaimed Linda's hair and pounded her face into the stage.
"He's my dream! MINE MINE MINE!"
Linda slapped her, raking her nails across her face.
"MY reality!" Linda lunged forward on the stage and grabbed the hat.
Regina grabbed and ripped Linda's dress away. She jumped and held onto her leg.
The Illusion mob had completely stampeded Harry. Their bloodcurdling wails filled the tent.
Linda reached inside the hat and the biting began.
Regina clung to Linda's legs, "PLEASE DON'T LEAVE ME HERRRRRRREEEE!"
(Mousetraps, mousetraps, everywhere mice)
Behind Damon and Denny, the door to the church opened. A cold draft curled inside along with dozens of frantic scurrying mice.
"So this is where you've been, Denny? Haunting my dream world?"
"Yes," Denny said, nodding. "Unfortunately for you I will be the only one who wakes up."
"You always wanted a better life, Denny. Jealousy is your weakness."
"You opened the door last night. And it feels
good inside you, but now I must make my exit."
Denny started out of the church pew row he was in. He reached the aisle and stopped staring at the doorway, eyes suddenly widening.
Damon turned and his jaw slacked also.
"Clarisse!—MOM!" Denny and Damon said simultaneously.
The EEEEEEE chord sang on and on.
"Leave my ssss-son alone, Denny."
"He welcomed me back, he was tired of his reality."
"You tricked him, you know there are rulessss." Clarisse said, but her voice wasn't Damon's mother. It was serpentine; a slow and steady hiss. "You tried to connect the other ssss-side."
"Oh, and what a splendid illusion that would be, Clarisse!" Denny moved closer, his fists clenching. Tight coarse knots grew on the outside of his neck.
"Go Damon, now, while there'sssss sss-still time."
Damon moved toward the front door and Clarisse's hand briefly stopped and felt his shoulder. It was a hot bubble bath soaking him pleasurably. He didn't want to leave the soothing touch. His mother had come to his wedding before her death. It was the last thing she'd ever done before cancer had ravaged her.
"No," Clarisse pointed to the front of the church where his loving bride waited for his eternal promise. "
is the only way, Damon. It will be different."
"I hate you!" Denny raced with outstretched hands for Clarisse's throat.
She opened her arms and welcomed Denny, the cancerous growths emerging from her body and entangling Denny like a hungry venus flytrap. He screamed as it snapped and then systematically crushed every bone in his body.
Damon moved toward the front of the church and turned the bride toward him. He missed his wife dearly, he longed for her lips. He missed his mother, but knew she was right. There was only one way.
He started to kiss Linda and stopped, stunned.
"I love you too," Regina said, and locked his lips.
IT WILL BE DIFFERENT.
Damon awoke with a start, reaching for Linda's body, but grabbing the air instead.
WILL BE DIFFERENT.
He looked around, rubbed his eyes, focused, rubbed, focused.
He was sitting in front of his laptop computer. Had he dreamed this all? NO, the pain, the eerie realness of it all was too much for a storybook cliché'. He'd visited hell. Or someplace worse. Now he was stuck with whatever he'd returned to.
THE ONLY WAY. IT WILL BE DIFFERENT.
Turning he saw the outline of the person sleeping in his bed, but the covers were pulled up and concealed the occupant's head. And identity. A mask!
"No...please...no..." He walked over to the side of the bed, reaching for the covers. He hadn't brought Regina back, no, he couldn't have. He was satisfied with what he had. An existence of stability was better than the hellish fantasy he'd been sucked into.