“October 26. That’s the day I got my mask.
“That morning, daylight illuminated a brand new day while also shedding light on the bruised life I was living, for the whole world to see. I covered my neck with a scarf and tried to hide the cuts and bruises on my face with makeup. Joel’s begging for forgiveness fell on deaf ears. His tears fell on a flower that was already cut down.
“He drove me to work for the last time. I sat in his patrol car, ignoring him completely as I finished grading the cut-out masks I had my freshman class design for our Halloween party that was coming up. The assignment was to design masks based on their biggest fears. I told them that the best way to beat fear is to—”
“Hide safely behind it.”
“Correct. One of my kids, Jason, had drawn his father’s face.
“I remember when I first assigned the project and explained the deeper meaning behind it, Jason interrupted me and asked why I taught art instead of literature. My answer was simple: art and literature are twin siblings. One would just rather keep their hands clean and use words to paint pictures.
“A work of art, no matter its quality, is always a clear window into an artist’s mind. So when I saw Jason’s drawing, when I saw his father’s face in such great detail, it broke me even more. It was the boot that crunched my already shattered pieces.
“I had to talk to him. I planned to after class that morning. But… there was no after class. There wasn’t even a class left.”
“The dead got to them?”
“No. God, no. Jason. He got to them.”
“He gunned them all down, wearing his dad’s cut-out face. No one even got the chance to fight back. The only fighting was between the screams and gunshots. The thought of playing dead crossed my mind, but I just couldn’t do it. At that moment, I was willing to accept death. I didn’t run. I… stood right in front of his line of fire. But he just looked into my eyes and said he wasn’t going to kill me. I remember his words perfectly. ‘I can see through your mask,’ he said. ‘I can see the broken person you are. You’re just like me.’ He pointed out my cuts and bruises and told me that instead of hiding them, I should let the world see them, let the world see that despite all the pain inflicted by so-called ‘loved ones,’ I’m still standing.
“He escaped through the window, leaving me with nothing but the corpses of my hopes and motivation. Petrified like a weeping headstone in the memory of my kids, I felt the pain of every single one of their names being carved into my heart.
“Outside, the city started to cry. Its blaring emergency sirens became a chilling chorus of unearthly wails.
“The window gave me a private screening of a horror movie written and directed by the devil, starring the residents of Orchard. They were… eating each other alive. Bodies were left behind on the sidewalks and streets… like empty bowls of different colors, shapes, and sizes. I would soon be cast in that very horror.
“The bullet-riddled corpses of my kids were standing upright, hiding behind ghoulish masks assigned to them by the devil. They had beaten death and were slowly relearning the motions of life. One stumbling step at a time, they inched towards me. Speech was something they couldn’t grasp with their outstretched fingers. Indecipherable moans and guttural sounds are all that came out of their permanently-yawning mouths.
“I quickly armed myself with a blade I detached from a large paper cutter by my desk. But even with that… I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t hurt my kids.
“So I locked myself in the supply closet. I sat on the floor, drowning myself in my own tears. My heart and the door became the beating drums of a song performed by my kids’ restless hunger and agony—they had become nothing more than open-holed instruments for the demons that were playing them.
“The tears that distorted my vision blurred my perception of time and place. Still armed with my blade, I found myself back in the bathroom I had locked myself in the night before, sitting in a tub filled with gallons of water and sorrow waiting to drown me. The monster behind the door was screaming out my name, over and over, feverishly pounding on wood. That monster had risen from the grave of my hopes for true love five years ago. He was a monster that hid behind a police badge.
“Joel broke in and reached his hands out towards me—the weapons he would always keep unholstered. I refused to let him touch me again. He would never hurt me again. Before he could open his mouth, I opened one on his neck, and let his final words pour out all over the floor. Reality flayed the walls around me, and I was back in that supply closet with his corpse at my feet.
“Like I had told my kids, the best way to beat fear is to—”
“Hide safely behind it.”
“Correct. So I cut out Joel’s face and wore it like a mask.”