Saturday, 10 February 2018 11:40

The Timeless Dancy by J. Carter Stephenson

The Timeless Dancy by J. Carter StephensonPhillip squeezed the brakes of his bike and skidded to a halt outside the shop.  Hanging in the window behind an assortment of dusty antiques was a mask made of black leather with bulbous glass eyes and a curving beak.  An alien probably – perfect for the costume competition at his homecoming dance.  The theme this year was outer space, and with something like this, he might actually win.

Chaining his bike to a railing, he went into the shop to find out how much it was.  The place was small, but crammed with exotic looking goods – wooden furniture covered in elaborate carvings, leather-bound books with raised bands on their spines, taxidermy animals in glass cases.  The light was dim and a faint smell of damp hung in the air. 

Phillip moved along the aisles and spotted a counter at the back, where an old man in spectacles was reading a book.  Dressed in a suit that was at least two sizes too big, he had a tangled grey beard and pointed ears.  Being careful not to touch anything, Phillip moved towards him.  His arrival seemed to have gone unnoticed, so he coughed politely.

The old man looked up from his book with a start. “Can I help you?”

“I’m interested in the alien mask in the window,” Phillip replied.

The old man opened his mouth to speak and then gave a loud sneeze.  He wiped his nose with the end of his beard.  “Sorry about that, I have a dust allergy.”

Phillip raised his eyebrows, around at the grimy surfaces around him.  Could there be a worse place for someone with a dust allergy to work?  “About the alien mask...”

“It’s a plague doctor mask, actually,” the man interrupted.  “It once belonged to the commedia dell’arte in Italy.  Have you heard of the commedia dell’arte?  I can sell you a book about them if you’d like.”

 

“I’m not really interested in the mask’s history,” Phillip told him.  “The important thing is how it will look with my costume.  Can I have a closer look at it?”

Nodding his head, the old man walked across the shop and lifted the mask out of the window.  As he did so, a little cloud of dust billowed up into his face.  He sneezed loudly and pressed the mask into Phillip’s hand, so he could wipe his nose again.

Turning the mask over, Phillip noticed a price tag on the back.  He smiled.  With the savings he had at home, he could easily afford it.  He asked the old man to keep the mask behind the counter for him and cycled away as fast as he could to raid his money box.

#

Phillip heard his mother calling to him as he entered his house, but he didn’t stop to talk to her.  There would be time enough for talking when the mask was paid for.  He darted up the stairs to his bedroom, counted out the money he needed and was back on his bike in less than five minutes.

The old man was getting ready to close the shop by the time he returned.  He looked up in surprise as Phillip walked through the door.  “I wasn’t sure if you’d come back,” he said, taking the plague doctor mask out from behind the counter and placing it next to the till.

Phillip held the mask in front of his face and looked at himself in a nearby mirror.  “Of course I came back.  This mask is...”  He broke off, feeling dizzy all of a sudden.  The mask fell from his hand and he grabbed hold of the counter to steady himself.

“Are you okay?” the old man asked.

The dizziness passed and Phillip let go of the counter.  “I’m fine.  I just had a funny turn.”

“It’s probably the dust,” said the old man, stifling another sneeze.  “There’s a lot of it about.”  He picked the mask up off the floor and put it into a paper bag.

“That’s as good an explanation as any, I guess,” said Phillip.  Then he took out his wallet, paid for the mask and left the shop.

#

When he got home, Philip took out the silver cloak he was planning on wearing to the dance and held it against the mask.  They looked perfect together.  Now all he needed was a date.  He glanced at a copy of the school magazine sticking out from under his bed. Their photographer, Melissa Tyler, would be peachy.  She wasn’t the slimmest or the prettiest girl at school, but her smile could light up a room.  How to ask her, though? 

An idea came to him when he heard one of her friends talking about Melissa’s sweet tooth.  At the first opportunity, he went to a bakery at the local mall and bought a freshly made cookie with “Homecoming?” written across it in chocolate icing.  Then he waited until she was alone by her locker the next morning and handed it to her in a little box.

She opened the box and stared at the cookie with a blank expression on her face.  “Is this your way of asking me to the homecoming dance?” she asked finally.

Phillip nodded, his heart pounding.  If she turned him down, he’d feel like such a fool.

A beaming smile spread across Melissa’s face.  “Of course I’ll go with you.”

Before he knew what he was doing, he had given her a big hug.  Her smile grew wider and she hugged him back.

#

Phillip couldn’t believe how neatly things had fallen into place and half-expected something to go wrong in the weeks that followed, but the day of the dance arrived without incident.  Putting on his mask and cloak, he looked at himself in the mirror on the door of his closet.  It was like looking at a real-life alien.  If he didn’t make it through to the final in the costume competition, he’d be amazed.

Suddenly, a horn sounded outside.  He walked to the window.  The limousine which his friend Lewis had hired to take them to the school was parked at the end of his drive.  Saying goodbye to his parents, he left his house and climbed into the back. 

The car was the ultimate in luxury with flat screen televisions, a music player and even a small bar.

“Isn’t it great?” said Lewis as Phillip settled into the padded seat next to him.  His voice was slightly muffled, because of the outfit he was wearing – a NASA spacesuit, complete with helmet.

“It sure is,” Phillip replied.  “Thanks for sharing it with me.”

Lewis handed him a can of soda.  “What are friends for?”  He leant forward to speak to the driver and the limousine pulled away.

The two boys spent the next half an hour cruising the streets, waving at people out of the windows.  Then they went to collect their dates.  Phillip smiled approvingly as he led Melissa to the car.  The robot costume she was wearing looked amazing.  It was made of foil and had flashing lights on it.  She’d even incorporated her camera into the design, disguising it as some kind of scanning device.

Melissa started to get into the limousine and then paused to take Phillip’s photograph.  Phillip held up his arms in a scary pose.  Melissa was about to take another picture, when Lewis stuck his head out of the window.  “Come on, you guys.  Bryony will be wondering where we are.” 

Phillip nodded, and he and Melissa climbed into the car.

As it happened, Lewis’s date, Bryony, was still getting ready when they arrived at her house.  She kept them waiting almost ten minutes, before hurrying down the drive to join them.  Like Lewis, she was dressed as an astronaut.  Lewis jumped out of the car to open the door for her and they continued on their way.

As the limousine made its way towards the school, Lewis turned on the music player and the four friends danced around in their seats.  Then Phillip’s vision grew blurry and he started to feel sick.  He shook his head and blinked a few times, hoping the feeling would go away.

The next thing he knew, his three friends had vanished and he was sitting in the back of a horse-drawn carriage with a lady in an old-fashioned dress and hooded cloak.  The road was very bumpy and he found himself being buffeted from side to side.  Outside, he could hear the rumble of thunder.

He peered around him, eyes wide.  “What’s going on?  Where am I?”

The lady in the hooded cloak turned towards him and he saw for the first time that she had no face.  Where her mouth, nose and eyes should have been, there was only skin.  He screamed and backed away from her as a flash of lightning lit up the carriage.

“Beware,” the woman said in a voice that seemed to come from very far away.

“Beware of what?” Phillip stammered.

The woman started to reply, but at that moment, the world shifted and Phillip found himself back in Lewis’ limousine.  Melissa and Lewis were leaning over him, looking concerned.  Melissa had removed the mask from his face and was holding a cup of water to his lips.

“What happened?” he asked.

Lewis shrugged.  “You tell us.  One minute, you were dancing, the next you were unconscious.”

“So she wasn’t real?” said Phillip with a sigh of relief.

“Who wasn’t?” Melissa asked.

“Forget it,” said Phillip, putting the plague doctor mask back onto his face.  “Let’s get to the dance and have some fun.  I feel fine now.”

#

When they reached the school, the four friends wasted no time going into the gymnasium to join the dance.  It was filled with space themed decorations – papier mache stars, banners with rockets and aliens on them. 

After they had spent some time chatting to their friends, the DJ began to play one of their favorite songs.  Phillip turned to Melissa and held out his hand.  “May I have this dance?”

Melissa nodded and they made their way to the dance floor.  It was a slow song, so Phillip put his arms around her waist, holding her close to him.  She rested her head against his chest and the smell of her perfume rose around him.  He inhaled deeply, closing his eyes.  He should kiss her.  There would never be a better opportunity.  What if he made a mess of it, though, in front of all these people?  No, that wasn’t going to happen.  It would be divine, those full lips of hers pressing... 

Suddenly, his head started to spin.  His eyes flicked open and he gave a loud shriek.  He was no longer dancing with Melissa, but the faceless woman from the horse-drawn carriage.  His surroundings had changed as well.  Instead of his school gymnasium, he was in a candlelit ballroom.  The walls of the room were hung with frowning portraits and the ceiling was decorated with painted angels.  Strange couples in colorful masks danced around him.  The clothes of these couples were at least two hundred years out of date and they moved in repeated patterns like mechanical toys.   

Phillip pulled away from the faceless lady and made for the exit.  Glancing over his shoulder, he saw her coming after him.

He froze as he passed through the door.  His surroundings had changed again.  It was a place he could not have imagined in his wildest dreams, seemingly outside, but actually enclosed by a huge dome.  A waterfall plunged into a glittering pool from a hole in the sky and there were holograms of bizarre looking plants around the edge.  As with the ballroom, there were masked dancers everywhere, only here they moved through the air as well as along the ground.  Their clothes were of a glowing white material and they had strange shaped heads.

As Phillip continued to stare around him, someone took hold of his hands.  He turned his head and saw the faceless woman standing in front of him.  “You again!”

The woman shook her head.  “Not again.  You and I are seeing each other for the first time, though you may have seen others like me.”  Her words were so clear that it took Phillip a moment to realize she wasn’t actually speaking; the voice he was hearing was inside his head.

Phillip was terrified.  He tried to pull away, but the woman held him close to her with a strength that was hard to believe.  “What do you want with me?”

“A dance,” the woman replied.  “That’s what we do here.”  With this, she carried him up into the air and forced him to start dancing. Backwards and forwards they floated, their bodies swaying in time to the music.

Unable to get away without falling from a great height, Phillip plied her for information, “Is this the future?”

Again, the woman shook her head. “This place exists outside of time. You are seeing my memories of the future, not the future itself.”

“I don’t understand,” said Phillip.

“Think of it as a timeless dance – a gathering of people from different eras in history,” the woman replied.  “It’s not a bad place to spend eternity.  I think you’ll like it here.”

Phillip felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.  “I’m not spending eternity here.”

“Of course you are,” the woman replied.  “You’re one of us now.”  She began to talk about the place in more detail, but Phillip stopped listening.  Their path through the air was taking them lower, which meant he had a chance to escape.  Pulling down sharply, he slipped out of the woman’s grasp and dropped towards the ground.

His fall couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds, but in that time, his surroundings changed again.  Landing with a jolt on a mosaic floor, he looked around.  The room he was in this time was filled with masked people in togas.  Some were dancing mechanically, others were lying on couches.  There were wall paintings and marble statues for decoration, and on the other side of a row of pillars, he could see a moonlit garden. 

A man with no face came into the room from the garden and walked towards Phillip.  He gestured at an empty couch.  “You must be our new companion.  Please be seated.  He’ll be here soon.”

Phillip’s first impulse was to run away, but he forced himself to ignore it.  He’d done enough running already.  He sat down.  “Who’ll be here soon?”

“The shopkeeper,” the faceless man replied.  “Hasn’t anyone told you about him?”

“All anyone has told me is that I’m at a timeless dance,” said Phillip.

The faceless man laughed.  “Timeless dance?  That’s an interesting way to describe it.  The word I would use is prison.  After he steals our faces with his magic mask, the shopkeeper leaves us here to rot.”

Phillip’s hand moved to the mask on his face.  “When you say magic mask, do you mean this mask?”

The man nodded. 

Phillip gulped.  “And what was that you said about stealing faces?”

“That’s the shopkeeper’s trade,” the faceless man replied.  “Demons need human faces to move through the world undetected and the shopkeeper provides them.  He looks like a sweet old man, but he’s really a time-travelling warlock.  I fell into his trap at a marketplace in Rome in the year 49 AD, and now, you have too.  Soon you’ll be just like me.”

Phillip shook his head.  An existence without a face?  It was unthinkable.  He had to stop it from happening, but how?  Then he remembered the mask.  If it had really brought him to this place, perhaps he could get away by removing it.  No sooner had the thought occurred to him, than he tore it away from his face.

He heaved a sigh of relief as the Roman villa faded away and he found himself back in his school gymnasium.  It looked exactly as it had earlier. He threaded his way through the crowd of dancing students and sat down on a chair to collect his thoughts.

Suddenly, he heard a familiar sneeze and realised to his shock that the old man who had sold him the mask was sitting next to him. The man’s lips curled upwards in a sinister smile.

“I know why you’re here,” said Phillip, “and you’re too late.  I’ve escaped your trap.”

“Guess again,” said the old man, taking a mirror from his pocket and holding it in front of Phillip’s face.

Phillip’s blood turned cold.  His eyes, mouth and nose had disappeared.  “What have you done with my face?” he shrieked.

The old man pointed at the mask in Phillip’s hand.  “It’s in there, along with the rest of my stock.”  He took hold of the mask and showed Phillip the back.  Sure enough, Phillip could see his face peering back at him from the leather surface.

“As for your supposed escape, that hasn’t happened either, I’m afraid,” the old man went on.  “When you put on the mask, you danced your way into a bubble of unreality belonging to Agares, the demon Lord of the Dance.”

“I’m not in a bubble of unreality,” said Phillip.  “I’m at a homecoming dance with my friends.”

“Are these your friends?” the old man asked.  “Or are they something else?”

Phillip looked at the people around him and began to shiver.  There was no spark of life in any of them.  They were mindless copies.  He screamed uncontrollably.

Smiling again, the old man disappeared in a puff of smoke, and the dance went on.

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: J. Carter Stephenson

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