by Myles Abroad
We all wear a mask. What does it take to drop it?
Word Count: 2000
Beneath this Mask
Friggin' corn. Endless golden acres roll by as the Greyhound draws me closer home. Mile after gut-tingling mile. Cornfields give way to pier and beam homes until the bus cruises into town. Closing my eyes, I take a shuddering breath: Maryville, population, 4064. Now, 4063. Mom. The master manipulator. Even in death, she still pulls my strings. Enough to drag me back to Hicksville, USA. Welcome freakin' home, Sally.
Two-story red brick buildings line the street as we slow in traffic. Early evening sunlight catches Dollar General's panes when a familiar-looking white-haired crone emerges through the sliding doors, cradling a brown paper bag. Despite the air conditioning, sweat blooms in my armpits.
"Sal, ain't that Mrs. Crandle?" Jeremy whispers over my shoulder as though afraid the aging teacher will hear him. "She sure set the tone our senior year."
I tap a black-painted nail against the window, that hag's raspy voice droning in my head. Why, Sally Spencer, you're more trouble than you're worth. Cheekbone to jawline, my fingertips trace the puckered burn scar disfiguring my cheek. Disgusted, I rake my long emo bangs to hide my shame. Guess I proved her right.
I throw my friend a sideways glance, and his swarthy face splits in a lopsided grin. Drawing knees to chin, Jeremy crosses his gangly legs and hugs them. Black dreadlock extensions hang like sparse bangs over his eyes. Being different in Maryville's hard, and I'm just weird. Jeremy's weird and black. He's not showing it, but he must be jumpy. "You think?"
Across the aisle, a middle-aged woman gives me a curious stare before returning to her magazine. I clench my jaw. I'm used to those strange looks. At least the ones painted with revulsion, but I can't stand pity.
A serious expression crosses Jeremy's face. "Sal, it's been three years. People move on--"
"Don't be stupid, Jer. No one forgets," I say as the bus pulls into its stop. "I'm leavin' once I take care of business."
"Maybe it's you that don't forget," Jeremy says, untangling himself to shift down the aisle.
As I shoulder my duffle bag, our snooping neighbor casts me another snooty look. Aaaagh! Yanking my hair aside, I shove my melted flesh inches from her face and hiss, "You wanna take a good look?" She recoils, muffling a yelp, and I stomp after my stunned friend waiting at the front of the bus. I brush past him and step down into a wall of damp-heat where gawking teenagers block the sidewalk. Hands jammed deep into my pants pockets, I growl, "Move!" before I cut a path through them, daring to grind their feet under my thick-soled boots.
Jeremy catches up, wheezing, "What'd you do that for? The poor woman--"
"Poor woman?" I blaze, drawing to a halt. "I'm sick of people staring and whispering, calling me names. I've had it all my life. Smelly Sally. Ugly Sally. Stupid Sally..." My face burns with shame. "...Sally, Slut." Tears sting my eyes, and I cover my face. Reed Jackson. My sixteen-year-old crush. I gave him everything just so he'd like me. Then he blabbed it on Facebook. From then on...
"Easy, Sal. I know you've had it hard--"
"Hard?" I pinch my disfigured cheek. "No, Jer, this is hard. Who'd ever wanna be close to me?"
Jeremy faces me, his stare never faltering over my scars, but penetrating my soul. "I do. Always have. Always will."
Tears leak from my eyes. "Jer, you're the only one who ever sees me as I am."
"Cause you hide behind your tough-act and won't let anyone else in, Sal. That ain't you." Before I can hug him, Jeremy nods towards a parked Buick where old man Mertson sits, gaping open-mouthed at us. "Better not feed the freak show. Let's go."
I give the nosey old codger the finger and stride after Jeremy. Sweat scores my face by the time I catch my friend. At least the heat drove most indoors. A woman steps from the coffee shop ahead of us, and my heart thumps. "Oh, God, no." Rachael "Ms. Prissy Popular" Armstrong. Snob!
Glaring ahead, I march on, but Rachael's eyes widen when we draw close. "Sally?"
"Bitch!" I hiss without breaking stride. A grin twists my lips when Racheal shrills, "Really?"
Relief floods Jeremy's face once we round the corner of 3rd. "What the hell, Sal? You won't mend any fences doin' that."
"I came to bury Mom, not mend fences. C'mom. The funeral parlor's just down the street."
My feet sink into thick brown carpet as cool, incensed air washes over me. A hush settles on us, as though intruders in an empty, soundless sanctuary. Mom's casket awaits in the center of the room. I insisted on no-frills, no-extras, and it's what we got. We never had that in life. Why start now?
Shoulders hunched, Jeremy approaches Mom in a muted shuffle and leans over, mouthing a tender whisper. Times like these, I wish my heart was as big as his. Taking a deep breath, I join him.
The nurse said she died in her sleep, and it's soothing to see her face no longer ravaged by addictions. Peace at last. Someone had brought in her red dress and the gold locket Dad gave her. An old memory of Mom and Dad dancing to some honkytonk medley fills my mind as I straighten her collar and run my fingers through her grey, wispy hair. Staring into her lined face, I see the woman I worshiped as a kid. Before Dad died, before the booze took over, before the words, before the disappointments...
I grind my teeth and sigh. Don't know what I expected. Maybe grief? Anger? Most times I think of Mom, I'm angry. Even nauseated. But to feel nothing? What does that mean?
I cup her clasped hands, wishing for a shred of warmth. Instead, she feels empty, husk-like. "Guess you were right, Mom. I'm just a selfish bitch, no feeling for anyone. You knew all along, and now I do, too. Pity you died before I figured that out. We'd have somethin' to agree about."
A sad smile creases Jeremy's face. "She didn't believe that, and neither do I."
Before we leave, the visitor book draws my attention, and I'm surprised to find a handful of names. Most are neighbors doing their duty, but one catches my eye. Betty Callendar.
"Hey, Jer. Your Mom was here." My subdued friend sidles beside me, our shoulders almost touching. He squints at the entries before a low whistle escapes his lips. "I never figured that."
"You think they patched things up?" Jeremy's sad eyes lock mine, longing written on his face. "You wanna see her again, don't you?"
He nods and mutters, "You?"
A hollow pang coils in my chest. Jeremy's mom mothered me when mine couldn't. Until I ruined it. Now she hates me. "Yeah, but she'll never forgive me."
Twilight settles as I let myself into Mom's dingy, clapboard house. When I switch on the lights, I'm stunned. A fresh lavender scent hangs in the air as I drop my bag on the grey, spotless carpet, riveted by the new furniture and dust-free bookshelves. The kitchen's gleam draws me where Lysol rules over sparkling counters and appliances, years of grime vanished.
Hands-on-hips, I whistle. "What you make of this, Jer?"
My loafing friend flops onto the sofa, his head sinking into a cushion. "I ain't never seen it so clean. You think your mom turned her life around?"
I roll my eyes. "You gotta be kiddin'. No. Someone else--"
Headlights glare against the house as a car eases into the driveway, drawing us to peer through the window. A large woman struggles from the car, manhandling a bag of groceries. When she waddles under the porch light, my chest tightens. "Jer, it's your Mom," I gasp.
Wringing his hands, Jeremy's eyes dart towards the door. "She don't know I'm here. You talk to her," he pants, before disappearing down the hallway.
My stomach jittering, I whisper after him, "Please, don't leave me." Heart hammering, I muss my hair to hide my scars. Oh, God, what does she want? Steeling myself, I open the door.
Betty Callendar's face beams. "Sally! Welcome home, hun." Her smile fades. "Sorry about your mom..." Dumbfounded, I gape, and the light in Betty's eyes dims. "I caught you at a bad time. I'll leave these groceries--"
I shake my head, forcing a smile. "You just surprised me is all. Uh, come in."
Her grin returns as she bustles the groceries into the kitchen to stock the fridge. "I've been wantin' to see you for so long, Sally. So was your Mom. You know, a year ago, she found God's peace. We both did."
My jaw unhinges. "What... She did?"
"Uh-huh. I wish you'd 'ave seen her before she went to be with the Lord. She kept tryin' to reach you. Guess you just wasn't ready to talk. I kept tellin' her, it's all in the Lord's timin' and not to fret--"
My mouth clicks shut. "Uh, what's goin' on?"
Chuckling, she closes the fridge and takes my hand. "I'm a silly old woman. Here I go runnin' at the mouth and leave you wonderin' what I'm talkin' about. Here, let's sit and talk." Mrs. Callendar steers me to the sofa where we sit, facing each other. "Now go on, ask."
"Uh, last time I saw you, you said you never wanted to lay eyes on me again. I don't blame you, no ma'am. I took Jer from you..."
Pain blooms in Betty's eyes before dropping her head. When she looks up, the spark's returned. A sad smile furrows her face, reminding me of Jeremy. "That's true, Sally. And I did say them terrible words. Months later, I understood what you did for my Jeremy. From when he was a little tyke, you was his only friend. When he was picked on, you stood up for him, and Lord knows, he did the same for you. You was part of his life in a way I could never be. The day of the accident, you was both drunk, and you was at the wheel only cause he passed out. I lost a son that day." As tears trail down Betty's cheeks, my head rings with the shriek of twisting metal and shattering glass. Mrs. Callendar cups my mutilated cheek, her caress soft and cool. "You lost your soul mate. And suffer so much more."
Blinking tears from my eyes, I shake my head. "No. Jer's with me. We left town together."
Betty's face blanches. She takes a deep breath and grips my hands. "Honey, listen. Jeremy was trapped in that car." The living room spins. I wake by the side of the road. The car rests on its roof, Jeremy's arm splayed through the shattered window. Flames glow inside the car. Screaming, I reach into the wreck, pulling my trapped friend, begging him to wake...
Squeezing my fingers, Mrs. Callendar pleads, "Sally, Jeremy died in the accident."
"No!" I scream, standing up. "He's here. He's--" I claw my face. Flames lick Jeremy's clothing. I beat at them while my friend's sightless eyes stare through me. An explosion whooshes before heat sears my face... Dropping to my knees, I retch. Strong arms hug me, and I snuggle against her bosom, heaving until I gasp, "Oh, God, forgive me. I killed him."
"Honey, He's forgiven you, and so do I," my soul mate's mother whispers.
When I open my eyes, Jeremy kneels before me, grinning his goofy smile. "You'll be okay now. See you around, Sal." He winks and fades.
A gaping hole opens in my heart. It scorches my soul, erupting in a gut-wrenching wail, "I'm all alone."
"You don't have to hide no more, darlin'." Betty whispers, her rocking embrace easing my pain. "Let me in."