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Wednesday, October 2, 2019

The Mask, Chapter 2

2.
Wednesday, October 2nd, 2019
6:45 PM

Margret Ann Seaver flipped over the last of her seventh grade students' poorly written essays on potential and kinetic energy. With a sigh, she closed her grade-book, shuffled the essays into a manila folder, then closed the folder and pushed it aside. She picked up the bottle of Johnny Walker Black, which had been waiting patiently for her to finish grading, and gurgled two fingers into the tumbler sitting next to her right hand.

She screwed the cap back onto the bottle. Picked up the tumbler and tossed the whiskey back. She closed her eyes and savored its warmth working toward her stomach, where it settled into a pleasant glow.

It had been an awful two days. The worst since the start of the school year. Maybe the worst she'd endured in three years. Seventh graders never proved to be the most studious of sorts, but this year's crop had turned into one of the worst she'd weathered in a while. None of them could sit still; not if their lives depended on it.

And their writing? Especially those who claimed not to have a computer or printer at home, and had to write by hand? God. She knew traditional penmanship was no longer taught at the elementary level (a piss-poor sign of the times, that), but she couldn't believe half of these students had been allowed to write in such illegible chicken-scratch. She thought it unconscionable. Unethical, even. What the hell were those primary teachers doing these days? Securing the self-esteem of generations of students by pandering to individual whims, at the expense of academic rigor?

She sighed and rubbed her forehead, dismayed at the venom pulsing in her thoughts. She'd always promised herself she'd retire rather than become a cynical old bat who no longer saw the good in her students, no longer took a simple joy from teaching. Her students were kids. They were to be expected to act as such. None of their sneering dismissiveness or their crude behavior was personal. And she knew the elementary school teachers in Clifton Heights were doing their best. She just couldn't seem to keep from feeling vindictive when she got tired like this.

Of course, the desk situation in her classroom hadn't helped. A new student from Webb County Junior High had transferred to Clifton Heights a week ago. Guidance placed him - Scott Carter - into her class two days ago, making 8th period General Science 25 students large. Problem was, she only had 24 desks.

At the end of the day, she'd requested a new desk from Principal Stedman who, in usual fashion, kicked the matter to William Donovan, head custodian. Donovan had gruffly (almost reluctantly, she thought, as if put out by the idea of doing his job) promised she would have 25 total desks by the start of school yesterday morning.

But she'd never gotten said desk. When she went to the office yesterday on her lunch break to ask why, she'd been waved aside by an uncharacteristically curt Stedman. Apparently, a custodian hadn't come to work, or had come to work and then left before school started without telling anyone, leaving a laundry list of tasks uncompleted. She'd been told, in no uncertain terms, the desk she needed wasn't a priority.

8th period General Science proved to be a disaster. The new student, Scott Carter, didn't seem to be a bad sort; not really. In fact, though she'd only known him for two days, Margaret sensed a quick mind and engaging personality hiding behind his disinterested facade.

Unfortunately, not only was he committed to maintaining that facade at all costs, he also couldn't sit still...even worse than his classmates. He was always moving, fidgeting, and chatting with students near him. Because he didn't have a desk, he'd been sitting on the heater in the back of the class. That wasn't working. She spent most of class today trying to contain him, and very little time on her planned lesson.

She looked at the bottle of Johnny Walker. Weighed the pros and cons of another drink, or returning the bottle to the liquor cabinet. Eventually she settled on a compromise, pouring only one finger of whiskey, which she quickly knocked back. Her mouth stung less this time, but the glow in her belly lightened by several degrees.

Being a widower at age fifty-five was only making things worse. She didn't struggle with the grief these days, not really. Though Steve's heart attack three years ago had been unexpected, she'd moved past it better than she'd imagined she would in those first few awful, wrenching days.

No, what she struggled with now was simply the lack of Steve as a sounding board. A quiet and simple man who'd worked construction, Stephen Seaver had been a marvelous listener. She couldn't count the days she'd come home from school feeling as she did now, but after only ten minutes of pouring it out to Steve's quiet and drinking ears, she felt ready to tackle another school day. And minus the jolt of liquid courage, too. Without Steve, however, she'd been coming home from work and stewing alone in her own juices for the past three years, and drinking just a little bit more every year.

Things couldn't go on like this. She had to get her act together. Write her resignation letter and retire. She'd turned eligible this year, and suspected Stedman would rather hire a young graduate for a pittance than continue paying her 30+ years salary. It was just so hard to let go, to make herself believe it was all over...

Something creaked, down the hall.

Margaret looked up, unconcerned at first. It was probably Macy, her stuck-up Siamese. Or maybe Tufty, Macy's rambunctious tabby-cat roommate. They were always waking her up at night, chasing mice, their claws clicking against bare wood floors way past midnight...

Her thoughts trailed off.

As she stared at her front door, which had somehow opened all the way. At first she couldn't comprehend the sight. She'd locked it. Hadn't she? And if she hadn't locked it, how had it opened? Who had opened it? How long had it been open, while she'd sat at the table in the den, oblivious, numbly grading essays? It occurred to her, then, with deep cold spike to her stomach.

The creaking sound.

Had come from behind her. From the hall leading to the bedroom, bath, the guest room...

Behind me!

She tried to bolt out of her chair, but the whiskey combined with her fatigue slowed her down. She didn't even get close to straightening her legs before two hands yanked her by the shoulders out of the chair. She was thrown - like a limp bag of laundry - the floor. She landed hard enough to shiver the walls and knock two pictures down. Their glassy shattering seemed distant and far away.

A dark form knelt over her. Icy terror gripped her heart. Her lungs fluttered as she gasped for breath, and her bladder gave away completely. The man kneeling over her, the man holding what looked like a gigantic butcher knife, was wearing a mask...and the mask seemed worse than everything else. Long, stringy, very real hair exploded in all directions. The rubber face had a sickly gray pallor, which also looked real..though that of a terminally ill man. Eyes bulged in different directions at the same time, and a wide, black maw screamed soundlessly.

She opened her mouth - to plead what, she didn't know - but before she could utter a sound, the masked man's arm pistoned back and slammed the butcher knife deep into her belly. Unimaginable pain exploded and radiated all over her abdomen. She jerked and vomited blood in a rush, arms and legs twitching.

The man wearing the mask leaned into the blade, digging it around her guts. She tried to scream, to cry, or just whisper - Why? - but blood clogged her throat, cutting off speech, and air. She gagged up more gouts of blood, but it didn't matter, her throat remained clogged.

Very quickly, her vision telescoped down a long, dark tunnel. Her eyelids fluttered. She felt pain leaching away, replaced by bone-deep numbness. She wasn't sure which she preferred. Numbness meant she was dying. However, it also meant no more pain.

Life began to slip away. And as it did, the man in the mask did the oddest thing. The very last thing Margaret Seaver saw before hopefully going to join Steve. It raised bloody and savaged hands to its neck, (the backs of them looked like they been slashed multiple times with razors blades) and began peeling away what looked like flesh.

She realized, as the lights dimmed, the man was pulling off his mask (though experiencing great difficulty, tugging and grunting, as if it had somehow grown roots into his face), and, as her synapses fired their last, realized with a sense of confused amazement that the man was reaching toward her, mask in hand, and was slipping it over her head, and where the rubber touched her skin, it burned, and was the last thing she ever felt.

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