The Mask Read online
This book is dedicated to Willo and Dave Roberts
and to Carol and Don McQuinn who have no faults-
except that they live too far away from us
A dirge for her, the doubly dead, in that she died so young.
-Edgar Allan Poe. "Lenore"
And much of Madness, and more of Sin, And Horror the soul of the plot.
-Edgar Allan Poe, "The Conqueror Worm"
Extreme terror gives us back the gestures of our childhood.
LAURA was in the cellar, doing some spring cleaning and hating every minute of it. She didn't dislike the work itself; she was by nature an industrious girl who was happiest when she had chores to do. But she was afraid of the cellar.
For one thing, the place was gloomy. The four narrow windows, set high in the walls, were hardly larger than embrasures, and the dust-filmed panes of glass permitted only weak, chalky light to enter. Even brightened by a pair of lamps, the big room held on tenaciously to its shadows, unwilling to be completely disrobed. The flickering amber light from the lamps revealed damp stonewalls and a hulking, coal-fired furnace that was cold and unused on this fine, warm May afternoon. On a series of long shelves, row upon row of quart jars reflected splinters of light, but their contents-home-canned fruit and vegetables that had been stored here for the past nine months-remained unilluminated. The corners of the morn were all dark, and the low, open-beamed ceiling was hung with shadows like long banners of funeral crepe.
The cellar always had a mildly unpleasant odor, too. It was musty, rather like a limestone cave. In the spring and summer, when the humidity was high, a mottled gray-green fungus sometimes sprang up in the corners, a disgusting scab like growth, fringed with hundreds of tiny white spores that resembled insect eggs; that grotesquery added its own thin but nonetheless displeasing fragrance to the cellar air.
However, neither the gloom nor the offending odors nor the fungus gave rise to Laura's fears; it was the spiders that frightened her. Spiders ruled the cellar. Some of them were small, brown, and quick; others were charcoal gray, a bit bigger than the brown ones, but just as fast-moving as their smaller cousins. There were even a few blue-black giants as large as Laura's thumb.
As she wiped dust and a few cobwebs from the jars of home-canned food, always alert for the scuttling movement of spiders, Laura grew increasingly angry with her mother. Mama could have let her clean some of the upstairs rooms instead of the cellar Aunt Rachael or Mama herself could have cleaned down here because neither of them worried about spiders. But Mama knew that Laura was afraid of the cellar, and Mama was in the mood to punish her. It was a terrible mood, black as thunderclouds. Laura had seen it before. Too often. It descended over Mama more frequently with every passing year, and when she was in its thrall, she was a different person from the smiling, always singing woman that she was at other times. Although Laura loved her mother, she did not love the short-tempered, mean-spirited woman that her mother sometimes became. She did not love the hateful woman who had sent her down into the cellar with the spiders.
Dusting the jars of peaches, pears, tomatoes, beets, beans, and pickled squash, nervously awaiting the inevitable appearance of a spider, wishing she were grown up and married and on her own, Laura was startled by a sudden, sharp sound that pierced the dank basement air. At first it was like the distant, forlorn wail of an exotic bird, but it quickly became louder and more urgent. She stopped dusting, looked up at the dark ceiling, and listened closely to the eerie ululation that came from overhead. After a moment she realized that it was her Aunt Rachael's voice and that it was a cry of alarm.
Upstairs, something fell over with a crash. It sounded like shattering porcelain. It must have been Mama's peacock vase, If it was the vase, Mama would be in an extremely foul mood for the rest of the week.
Laura stepped away from the shelves of canned goods and started toward the cellar stairs, but she stopped abruptly when she heard Mama scream. It wasn't a scream of rage over the loss of the vase; there was a note of terror in it.
Footsteps thumped across the living room floor, toward the front door of the house. The screen door opened with the familiar singing of its long spring, then banged shut. Rachael was outside now, shouting, her words unintelligible but still conveying her fear.
Laura smelled smoke.
She hurried to the stairs and saw pale tongues of fire at the top. The smoke wasn't heavy, but it had an acrid stench.
Heart pounding, Laura climbed to the uppermost step. Waves of heat forced her to squint, but she could see into the kitchen. The wall of fire wasn't solid. There was a narrow route of escape, a corridor of cool safety; the door to the back porch was at the far end.
She lifted her long skirt and pulled it tight across her hips and thighs, bunching it in both hands to prevent it from trailing in the flames. She moved gingerly onto the fire-ringed landing, which creaked under her, but before she reached the open door, the kitchen exploded in yellow-blue flames that quickly turned orange. From wall to wall, floor to ceiling, the room was an inferno; there was no longer a path through the blaze. Crazily, the fire-choked doorway brought to Laura's mind the image of a glittering eye in a jack-o'-lantern.
In the kitchen, windows exploded, and the fire eddied in the sudden change of drafts, pushing through the cellar door, lashing at Laura. Startled, she stumbled backwards, off the landing. She fell. Turning, she grabbed at the railing, missed it, and stumbled down the short flight, cracking her head against the stone floor at the bottom.
She held on to consciousness as if it were a raft and she a drowning swimmer. When she was certain she wouldn't faint, she got to her feet. Pain coruscated across the top of her head. She raised one hand to her brow and found a trickle of blood, a small abrasion. She was dizzy and confused.
During the minute or less that she had been incapacitated; fire had spread across the entire landing at the head of the stairs. It was moving down onto the first step.
She couldn't keep her eyes focused. The rising stairs and the descending fire repeatedly blurred together in an orange haze.
Ghosts of smoke drifted down the stairwell. They reached out with long, insubstantial arms, as if to embrace Laura.
She cupped her hands around her mouth. "Help!"
No one answered.
"Somebody help me! I'm in the cellar!"
"Aunt Rachael! Mama! For God's sake, somebody help me!"
The only response was the steadily increasing roar of the fire.
Laura had never felt so alone before. In spite of the tides of heat washing over her, she felt cold inside. She shivered.
Although her head throbbed worse than ever, and although the abrasion above her right eye continued to weep blood, at least she was having less trouble keeping her eyes focused. The problem was that she didn't like what she saw.
She stood statue-still, transfixed by the deadly spectacle of the flames. Fire crawled lizard like down the steps, one by one, and it slithered up the rail posts, then crept down the rail with a crisp, chuckling sound.
The smoke reached the bottom of the steps and enfolded her. She coughed, and the coughing aggravated the pain in her head, making her dizzy again. She put one hand against the wall to steady herself.
Everything was happening too fast. The house was going up like a pile of well-seasoned tinder.
I'm going to die here.
That thought jolted her out of her trance. She wasn't ready to die. She was far too young. There
was so much of life ahead of her, so many wonderful things to do, things she had long dreamed about doing. It wasn't fair. She refused to die.
She gagged on the smoke. Turning away from the burning stairs, she put a hand over her nose and