The Mask

Page 1

Prologue

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 stone walls 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 scablike 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 h*ps 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!”

Silence.

“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 lizardlike 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 mouth, but that didn’t help much.

She saw flames at the far end of the cellar, and for an instant she thought she was already encircled and that all hope of rescue was gone. She cried out in despair, but then she realized the blaze hadn’t found its way into the other end of the room after all. The two points of fire that she was seeing were only the twin oil lamps that had provided her with light. The flames in the lamps were harmless, safely ensconced in tall glass chimneys.

She coughed violently again, and the pain in her head settled down behind her eyes. She found it difficult to concentrate. Her thoughts were like droplets of quicksilver, sliding over one another and changing shape so often and so fast that she couldn’t make sense of some of them.

She prayed silently and fervently.

Directly overhead, the ceiling groaned and appeared to shift. For a few seconds she held her breath, clenched her teeth, and stood with her hands fisted at her sides, waiting to be buried in rubble. But then she saw that the ceiling wasn’t going to collapse— not yet.

Trembling, whimpering softly, she scurried to the nearest of the four high-set windows, It was rectangular, approximately eight inches from sill to top and eighteen inches from sash to sash, much too small to provide her with a means of escape. The other three windows were identical to the first; there was no use even taking a closer look at them.

The air was becoming less breathable by the second. Laura’s sinuses ached and burned. Her mouth was filled with the revulsive, bitter taste of the smoke.

For too long she stood beneath the window, staring up in frustration and confusion at the meager, milky light that came through the dirty pane and through the haze of smoke that pressed tightly against the glass. She had the feeling she was overlooking an obvious and convenient escape hatch; in fact she was sure of it. There was a way out, and it had nothing to do with the windows, but she couldn’t get her mind off the windows; she was fixated on them, just as she had been fixated on the sight of the advancing flames a couple of minutes ago. The pain in her head and behind her eyes throbbed more powerfully than ever, and with each agonizing pulsation, her thoughts became more muddled.

I’m going to die here.

A frightening vision flashed through her mind. She saw herself afire, her dark hair turned blond by the flames that consumed it and standing straight up on her head as if it were not hair but the wick of a candle. In the vision, she saw her face melting like wax, bubbling and steaming and liquefying, the features flowing together until her face no longer resembled that of a human being, until it was the hideously twisted countenance of a leering demon with empty eye sockets.

No!

She shook her head, dispelling the vision.

She was dizzy and getting dizzier. She needed a draught of clean air to rinse out her polluted lungs, but with each breath she drew more smoke than she had drawn last time. Her chest ached.

Nearby, a rhythmic pounding began; the noise was even louder than her heartbeat, which drummed thunderously in her ears.

She turned in a circle, gagging and. coughing, searching for the source of the hammering sound, striving to regain control of herself, struggling hard to think.

The hammering stopped.

‘‘Laura . .

Above the incessant roar of the tire, she heard someone calling her name.

“Laura. .

“I’m down here.. . in the cellar!” she shouted. But the shout came out as nothing more than a whispered croak. Her throat was constricted and already raw from the harsh smoke and the fiercely hot air.

The effort required to stay on her feet became too great for her. She sank to her knees on the stone floor, slumped against the wall, and slid down until she was lying on her side.

“Laura..." . .

The pounding began again. A fist beating on a door.

Laura discovered that the air at floor level was cleaner than that which she had been breathing. She gasped frantically, grateful for this reprieve from suffocation.

For a few seconds the throbbing pain behind her eyes abated, and her thoughts cleared, and she remembered the outside entrance to the cellar, a pair of doors slant-set against the north wall of the house. They were locked from the inside, so that no one could get in to rescue her, in the panic and confusion she had forgotten about those doors. But now, if she kept her wits about her, she would be able to save herself.

“Laura!” It was Aunt Rachael’s voice.

Laura crawled to the northwest corner of the room, where the doors sloped down at the top of a short flight of steps. She kept her head low, breathing the tainted but adequate air near the floor. The edges of the mortared stones tore her dress and scraped skin off her knees.

To her left, the entire stairwell was burning now, and flames were spreading across the wooden ceiling. Refracted and diffused by the smoky air, the firelight glowed on all sides of Laura, creating the illusion that she was crawling through a narrow tunnel of flames. At the rate the blaze was spreading, the illusion would soon be fact.

Her eyes were swollen and watery, and she wiped at them as she inched toward escape. She couldn’t see very much. She used Aunt Rachael’s voice as a beacon and otherwise relied on instinct.

“Laura!” The voice was near. Right above her.

She felt along the wall until she located the setback in the stone. She moved into that recess, onto the first step, lifted her head, but could see nothing: the darkness here was seamless.

“Laura, answer me. Baby, are you in there?“

Rachael was hysterical, screaming so loudly and pounding on the outside doors with such persistence that she wouldn’t have heard a response even if Laura had been capable of making one.

Where was Mama? Why wasn’t Mama pounding on the door, too? Didn’t Mama care?

Crouching in that cramped, hot, lightless space, Laura reached up and put her hand against one of the two slant-set doors above her bead. The sturdy barrier quivered and rattled under the impact of Rachael’s small fists. Laura groped blindly for the latch. She put her hand over the warm metal fixture—and squarely over something else, too. Something strange and unexpected. Something that squirmed and was alive. Small but alive. She jerked convulsively and pulled her hand away. But the thing she touched had shifted its grip from the latch to her flesh, and it came away from the door when she withdrew her hand. It skittered out of her palm and over her thumb and across the back of her hand and along her wrist and under the sleeve of her dress before she could brush it away.

A spider.

She couldn’t see it, but she knew what it was. A spider. One of the really big ones, as large as her thumb, a plump black body that glistened like a fat drop of oil, inky black and ugly. For a moment she froze, unable even to draw a breath.

She felt the spider moving up her arm, and its bold advance snapped her into action. She slapped at it through the sleeve of her dress, but she missed. The spider bit her above the crook of her arm, and she winced at the tiny nip of pain, and the disgusting creature scurried into her armpit. It bit her there, too, and suddenly she felt as though she was living through her worst nightmare, for she feared spiders more than she feared anything else on earth—certainly more than she feared fire, for in her desperate attempt to kill the spider, she had forgotten all about the burning house that was dissolving into ruin above her— and she flailed in panic, lost her balance, rolled backwards off the steps, into the main room of the cellar, cracking one hip on the stone floor. The spider tickled its way along the inside of her bodice until it was

between her breasts. She screamed but could make no sound whatsoever. She put a hand to her bosom and pressed hard, and even through the fabric she could feel the spider squirming angrily against the palm of her hand, and she could feel its frenzied struggle even more directly on her bare breast, to which it was pressed, but she persisted until at last she crushed it, and she gagged again, but this time not merely because of the smoke.

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