By Sarah Charbonneau

“The Mask”

Ally draped herself across her sleeping brother’s feet again, squinting at the mask on the wall.  She wiped fluffy strands of morning hair out of her face, scrunching her eyes shut and opening them wide, trying to see it differently. She had rarely seen anything so glamorous, with its faded opal base, full red lips, and glittery-blue crosses circling the eyeholes. But something about it made her uneasy. Perhaps because there were no ears or eyes behind it, just a blank wall. Ever since Nana had hung it up in Peter’s room, saying it would watch what was going on so she didn’t have to, Ally had been transfixed.

“Alfalfa,” came Peter’s muffled voice from the other end of the bed, “we’ve talked about this. You’re not supposed to come in here before eight.” Her brother groaned and rolled over, tipping Ally on her side, away from the mask.

“I did! I was in my room ‘till 8:05, when Bridge said I could come in.”

Peter patted the space next to him and lifted his head, glancing at the pillow next to his. “Yeah? Where is she?”

Ally knew Peter liked Bridget best, more than Nana, his best friend (though Peter didn’t use words like “best friend” because he said it was childish), or even Ally herself. But it was okay; Ally understood why. Bridget could braid better than anyone Ally knew, certainly better than Nana, and she could quote almost any movie from start to finish. Bridget was a year older than Peter and would be starting college in California in the fall, but she had promised to send Ally lots of postcards.

Best of all, Bridget was staying with them while her parents were in the Bahamas, which meant more Bridget-time and free ice cream. Bridget worked at the ice cream shop with Peter and gave Ally an unlimited supply- as long as Ally didn’t tell Mom or Nana that Bridget wasn’t sleeping in the guest room. Bridget had stayed with them before, sometimes because her parents were off somewhere and sometimes because she had climbed through Peter’s window just as Ally was going to sleep. Ally could always hear Peter’s voice through the wall on nights when Bridget hadn’t used the door, “It’s okay, shhh … you’re okay. She’s mad at him, not you…” His voice made Ally feel safe.

“O-out!” Ally said now in a singsong voice, turning back over to look at the mask again, wondering whether or not she should draw some eyes to go behind it.

Peter pushed himself out of bed and extracted a pair of crumpled chino shorts from his dresser.

“Mom would say ‘iron those,” Ally said helpfully.

“Mom would say iron those,” Peter muttered in his Ally-voice under his breath.

“Hey!”

“For horses!” Peter said, tossing on the shorts and walking out the door, leaving her with the mask.

*

After lunch, Ally twisted her feet into her sneakers without undoing the laces and hopscotched down the driveway. She examined the chalk ocean she had started yesterday with Peter and Bridget. Ally sat down with her legs sprawled out in front of her and drew eyes on all the fish Peter had only outlined. She thought about what kind of eyes to draw for the mask in his bedroom. (googly eyes were out of the question). When the chalk became so ingrained in her palms that she could not read her lifelines, she decided she could use a treat and skipped into town towards the ice cream shop. Ally needed an adult to go to the beach, but tourist season was as safe as it got, so she could go from the house to the playground to town without anyone worrying, as long as she was home by dinner time.

The shop was already packed, with the line of people looping the edges of the store and stretching out past the sunglasses boutique next-door. By the time she reached the front, anticipation had taken over, leaving her completely unable to decide which flavor to pick.

“What’ll it be, sugar-pie?”  Bridget asked, flourishing her hand over the ice cream case like a queen.

Ally, balancing on her tiptoes to better peer at the ice cream from the top of the case (as if looking at it from a different angle would make the commitment to one flavor over another any easier), debated aloud, “Peanut butter or double fudge?”

“How about both?” Bridget said with a wink of a dark blue eye.

“Oh! Yeah, yeah, yeah, both!” Ally felt a hand on her shoulder and turned around to see Peter, who gave her a look. “Please and thank you!” she added.

“A little lax with our manners today, eh Als?” Peter joked, but he wasn’t looking at her.

Ally followed his gaze to Bridget, who had turned from the counter and was sashaying to the back wall. A boy who was a little taller than Peter and holding a skateboard along with a pink striped visor that matched Peter’s and Bridget’s was leaning against the wall next to the cones. As Bridget grabbed a cone, the boy touched her arm, just for a second, and Peter scowled. He cleared his throat.

Ally reached up and tugged Peter’s visor to the side of his head. “Your uniform looks silly.”

“You look silly, you goon,” Peter said gruffly, readjusting his visor.

As Bridget approached the counter again, Peter cocked his eyebrow at her and uttered, “Why’d you let him do that?”

“He’s new; he doesn’t know any better. You know everyone gets one free pass with me,” she answered lightly, handing Ally her ice cream.

Peter cracked his knuckles irritably and then said, “’Kay Al, break’s over. See ya at home.” He ducked back behind the counter and let his hand rest on the small of Bridget’s back, the place where Ally always felt itchy when she was too hot, before he helped their next customer. Backing away from the counter as the crowd pushed her towards the door, Ally saw Peter kiss Bridget’s cheek and Bridget whisper something into his ear that made him smile.

*

Ally set the table and had just gotten her colored pencils out to draw eyes for the mask when she had an idea. She hopped like a frog upstairs and into Peter’s room. Stretching her arms as high as she could, she lifted the mask off the wall. She admired it in her hands before carefully stepping off his bed and tiptoeing over to the mirror on his door. She brought it up to her face and looked through it. The holes were slightly too small and she couldn’t see out of the corners of her eyes. But she liked what she could see- she looked like a princess at a ball. Just then, she heard Bridget and Peter’s voices. They were laughing about something the new kid did that Ally couldn’t quite make out between the gasps and guffaws. She quickly put the mask back on its hook on the wall and ran downstairs, thinking she now knew exactly what to draw for behind the mask.

During dinner, Nana offered Bridget a second helping of brown rice, complaining that she was too skinny, and Bridget took it but ate only a few bites. Peter joked that it was amazing they hadn’t all gained forty pounds with all the free ice cream they ate and declared that Bridget was perfect no matter what she weighed.

“Have you heard from your mother this week, dear?” Nana asked Bridget.

Bridget shook her head. She wore a tight smile and blinked a few times, looking up.

Ally looked at the ceiling and blinked, too, but she couldn’t see what Bridget was looking at. “You got that post card last week though, the one with the dolphins!” Ally said. She had found it in the trash. All it had said was, Darling, will you be spending the winter with me or your father? Ally didn’t know what that meant, but didn’t think she should ask.

“Shut up, Al,” Peter hissed.

Ally felt her face get hot. She hit her milk with her elbow and it spilled all over the table straight into Nana’s lap, who shrieked and decided they should all be sent outside as she always did when Ally made a mess of things. Peter complained that he had to study for the SATs, and Nana told him he could stay in just long enough to get his book.

The girls put on their shoes and Peter met them at the door, fat book in hand. Bridget took both their hands and led them outside, down the path to the road. As they passed Ally’s friend Lila’s house, Ally saw her playing in her yard and asked her if she wanted to walk with them. Lila lived in the biggest house on their street and consistently wore pigtails so high and so tight that she always looked like she was going to be pulled up off her feet. After running inside to ask her dad, Ally and Lila pranced ahead. They stopped as they were supposed to, waiting for Bridget and Peter at the rickety gate that led to the footbridge and the ocean.

Lila looked at the flies dancing ahead, but Ally observed Bridget and Peter. He plucked a blue hydrangea from a bush and tucked it behind Bridget’s ear. She kissed him longer than Ally felt comfortable watching before he ran to the gate shouting, “Sorry, Als!”

Once their feet touched sand, Ally tried to outline the shape of the mask with a stick while Lila built a castle. Bridget and Peter dug a moat with their heels, Bridget quizzing Peter about the meanings of words from his book. When Bridget convinced Ally to join them, Lila wanted to make the castle higher than Ally did, and Ally wanted it to have more turrets than Lila did, so Peter flattened the castle, and they played giants crushing the castle instead.

A tanned girl, who wore what Nana would have referred to as “a barely-there suit,” sauntered over to the sandy mess and asked Peter and Bridget if they wanted to “crash a party at the golf course when you’re done playing house.” Peter shook his head and Bridget shrugged at the skimpy-swimsuit girl before asking Peter to use solipsistic in a sentence. Ally was bored of giants and listening to Peter stutter on about words she didn’t understand, so she announced that she wanted to go to the park. The sunset was always best from the tower there. Peter and Bridget walked the girls off the beach, and Bridget remarked that she might check out the party. Peter said he should study more at home. They all walked back through the gate and off in opposite directions.

*

Ally lay on the platform above the slide, her thumb hooked with Lila’s, looking at the sky as orange streaks disappeared above them. They were silent and tired, the keepers of the playground. A familiar chuckle made Ally’s ears perk up and she sat up, scanning her kingdom below.

Bridget was perched on a swing, and sipping something in a red cup, her feet drawing little lines in the wood chips between herself and the boy Ally had seen earlier, the one with the skateboard. He was pulling on the chain of Bridget’s swing, bringing her closer to him and letting go, jerking her sideways and away. Bridget laughed again and dropped the cup. Ally felt something tugging in her stomach. She pushed Lila into the tunnel next to the platform and looked through the two of the tunnel’s secret eyeholes. The cool plastic on her nose felt like the mask had earlier. She pointed at Bridget.

Lila whispered, “How come you aren’t saying hello?”

Ally shook her head. The boy was spinning Bridget now, wrapping the chains of the swing around each other. Ally could see the blue hydrangea twirling, too, tucked behind Bridget’s ear, where Peter had placed it. The boy let go and Bridget squealed. After she was done spinning, she grabbed the boy’s hands and drew him into her. Ally saw their noses touch and looked away, dropping Lila’s hand.

She sat on the tunnel floor and Lila did the same. They did not say anything to each other for a long time. Finally, Lila crawled over Ally and out of the tunnel. She crooked her finger at Ally. Ally cocked her head to the side. Lila tapped her foot and jutted out her chin. Ally stood up with her front half hunched over and shuffled out of the tunnel. No one else was in the park now. They soberly climbed down from their tower and walked over to the swings. The hydrangea peeked out from the wood chips under the swing where Bridget had sat. Ally glowered at it, and determined the mask had no need for eyes after all.

 


10171297_10152009675695264_6620380009289909927_nSarah Charbonneau is a psychology major and English minor at Mount Holyoke College (class of 2014). Throughout her time at Mount Holyoke, Sarah enjoyed assisting in developmental psychology research, working for the Speaking, Arguing, and Writing Program, and playing Ultimate Frisbee. She served as web co-editor for The Blackstick Review. Sarah plans to pursue a career in clinical psychology and hopes to continue to write, wherever that may take her.

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