“Time to go,” said the impossibly tall man standing in the corner of Lawrence’s dressing room. Lawrence leaned back in his chair and stared down the unwelcome guest, twirling his mustache.
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Lawrence did his best to never take his eyes off the figure, even if he couldn’t see his opponent’s eyes for himself. They were shrouded in a shadow cast over his face from the old threadbare traveler’s hat resting on his head. The only identifying mark that Lawrence could make out was the long, grey beard poking out from the darkness. It looked like a tumbleweed covered in dust. Lawrence felt his left hand tremble, so he stuffed it inside the pocket of his smoking jacket.
“Oh, yes you do.” The stranger was like a statue, completely still. Even though Lawrence couldn’t see those eyes, he knew they were staring daggers into him. Those eyes behind the shadow must have been a deep yellow, like buried treasure. On top of being petrified, Lawrence was also confused. Lawrence knew why he had come. He was here to collect his dues. It was what he meant when he said “time to go” that had Lawrence’s brain twisted in knots.
“I’m not going anywhere,” spat Lawrence, surprised at how boldly he spoke in spite of his entire body shaking. He could feel beads of sweat rising up at the edge of his hairline. “I understand I still owe a debt, and I’m a man of my word. You’ll get your money, but can’t this wait until after the show? It’s ten minutes before curtain call.” The stranger shook his head, the first movement he’d made since appearing in the corner.
“I am not here for money, Lawrence Granger.” Somehow, his voice had grown deeper, darker. Lawrence clenched his hidden hands into fists.
“Then what is it? What do you want?” cried Lawrence. His voice was shaking, on the verge of tears. He cursed the day the figure in the corner entered his life.
It was ten years ago. He was a young street magician just barely keeping a roof over his and Caroline’s heads, but it wasn’t the street magic that was bringing in the bills. Both of them worked two part-time jobs, while every weekend, Lawrence stood on the street, doing his best to grasp the attention of passers-by, and Caroline sat in her shop, making custom embroidery. They worked themselves to the bone, received pennies and scraps in exchange for blood, sweat, and tears. They should have been miserable, but they were not, because after everything settled, they still had each other.
But there was a darkness hidden away in Lawrence’s heart named regret. Every night, while Caroline slept next to him in the small studio apartment they could barely afford, Lawrence stared at the ceiling and thought about every opportunity he let slip through his fingers. He had multiple colleagues who had gotten bookings and stage deals with agents. Each of them offered to find a way in for him, but something always went wrong. Lawrence couldn’t talk to showbiz people like his friends could. As his buddy Alwyn once put it, the only way anyone gets anywhere in entertainment is by playing the game, and Lawrence simply couldn’t play the game. He could, but he didn’t want to. Every time he met with a showbiz agent, they were always concerned with how to improve his act to make it more palatable to an audience. Lawrence didn’t want to be palatable. He just wanted to be good.
“Maybe they’re right, Lawrence,” Caroline said one night, “maybe you just need to incorporate some good business strategies into your art.”
“Business is the death of art,” muttered Lawrence, turning away from her. That was the first night he fell asleep before she did.
The man appeared to him, face shrouded by the shadow of his hat, a tattered cloak wrapped around his tall, thin frame, a chain wrapped around his waist, where a small chest bounced at his side.
“If you want to get anywhere in this business, you have to play the game,” the stranger parroted Alywn’s words, “wouldn’t you agree Lawrence?” Lawrence said nothing. The stranger continued. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could beat them at their own game? Imagine the next meeting you have with a stuffed shirt who could care less about art? Instead of your own face, why not another?” The stranger opened the chest with a long, clawed hand and revealed a featureless mask. “They will see your face, but it will not be your own. They’ll think you’re agreeing to their terms when really it’s your’s. The mask will do all the work. Now, let’s talk about payment.”
When Lawrence woke up, he couldn’t remember what happened at the end, but everything about the dream seemed too real. It turned out to be more real than he thought when he opened his dresser drawer and found the mask staring up at him. It fit like a second skin. When he looked in the mirror, he saw nothing different at all. It was his own face looking back at him. He felt ridiculous putting it on before his first big meeting two days later, but as soon as the meeting began, he realized the power of what he had inherited. The meeting five minutes before the owner agreed to book his show.
For a while, that was all they needed. Lawrence was finally getting paid for his art, which gave Caroline more time to work on her own. From there, another dream came true when Caroline told him they were having a baby. They were making the dream come true.
Now that his name was up in lights, Lawrence realized he needed more time to himself to think of new tricks. Different ways to entertain the audience, his new muse, the one that showered him with praise day in and day out. On a day when Lawrence really couldn’t stand to think about his family’s concerns, he put the mask on before spending time with them. That day, he was able to think of nothing but his act, while the mask spent all the time in the world with his family. No one knew the difference and as far as he could tell, so what was the harm in it?
Soon, his entire life was taken on by the mask, except when he was on stage. He finally had time for the only thing in life he cared about. He always thought that it was the magic, but it turned out to be the thunder of applause.
“I want what you promised me,” growled the man, waking Lawrence from his daydreams of the stage light’s glow.
“What would that be?” sneered Lawrence. He’d had it with the stranger. He didn’t have time for mind games. The man outstretched his arms. Lawrence suddenly became aware of a multitude of sagging, old masks hanging by chains around the chest resting at the stranger’s side. The man grasped the box and opened it up. A strong wind blew through the room. Lawrence felt a pressure against his face. The pull became so strong he was dragged from his chair and fell to the floor. The sucking became unbearable. Lawrence let out a scream, but it was drowned out by the deafening wind that filled the room. The box, it was pulling at his face. He put his hands to his ears, but it was no use. In one fell swoop, Lawrence felt skin rip from muscle, and his face flew across the room, filled with abject horror. But the pain was far from over. Lawrence felt the tear again and again. He looked up to see hundreds of faces swirling above him, each with a different expression, each he had used for his own personal gain, to escape from businessmen with no morals, and eventually, his own wife and child. Soon, there were countless faces swimming around the room, and the edges of Lawrence’s vision began to fade. The faces swirled into a tornado that was sucked down into the stranger’s box. Once the last face was inside, the stranger slammed the top shut, and normal pressure was restored to the room. The stranger held the box close to his chest.
“Thank you,” he whispered to Lawrence before everything went black.
The stagehand was already frustrated with Lawrence when he stormed down the hallway to the dressing room to let the magician know he was supposed to be on stage five minutes ago, but he forgot all about that when he opened the door to find what he could only assume was Lawrence Granger’s body lying on the floor. The body may have looked like Granger, but it was missing a very vital piece of identification. Where a face should have been, there was nothing but smooth smooth skin, as empty as a thumb without a fingerprint.