The Masks We Wear

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This story is a collaboration between MsCherylTerra and Bebop3. It was a pleasure to write and a rewarding experiment. The authors hope you enjoy the story.

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The Masks We Wear

HIM

I was sitting in a chair at a large wooden table when he walked in, sending my stomach south. I considered ducking out the rear exit while he looked around trying to spot me. My laptop and six books were on the table and there was no way I could get the books to the librarian and my laptop in the bag before he noticed. Instead, I looked around to make sure I was alone and then checked the ceiling corners to see if there were any cameras mounted.

There was no one too close, but I certainly wasn’t alone. About a dozen other students were nearby, all with their heads in their books or tablets.

Frank Dellacore was striding towards me before I could come up with an exit strategy, so I remained where I was, stared at him and tried to look composed. He ignored the people watching him. I guessed that he was used to it. Frank was the university’s best linebacker in a generation and if anyone was a star on campus, he was it.

Turning a chair around so he could sit like a tough guy, he leaned forward. His odious cologne overpowered the weird mix of cleaning supplies and musty books that I found so appealing.

Like the cliché he was, there was a sneer on his face as he began. “Let me explain something to you. There is no world anywhere in the universe where you take my girlfriend out for pizza like it’s some sort of date. Are you out of your damned mind?”

Michelle Calzaghi and I were in two classes together. One was Dr. Gholmite’s “The Crusades East and West 1095-1230” and the second was Dr. Bajin’s “Econ 159, Game Theory”. She was completely lost in Game Theory and I took it because I could ace it easily and was planning on going for a M.Sc. in Data Analytics. She was way, way out of my league and I knew it, which made it a lot easier for me to agree to some informal tutoring. Since it wouldn’t go anywhere in a million years, there wasn’t any pressure.

It seemed that Frank had found out about our getting pizza after hitting the books and wasn’t too happy.

Without waiting for me to confirm or deny that I was actually out of my damned mind, he continued. “I get it. You couldn’t possibly get your own girl, so you want pussy by proximity. If you’re not getting any, at least you can hang out with someone like Michelle and pick up a whiff of what I’m getting. You’re a smart guy. Use that fucking brain of yours to figure out what I’m going to do if you piss me off. You help her with her class? Do it here, in the library. When you’re done? Get up and walk away. Your time with Michelle ends the moment you step out the door. Got it?”

When I didn’t reply, he answered his own question. “Yeah, you got it.”

As he stood up, he smacked me in the back of the head, hard. He was about five feet from the table before I finally spoke up.

“Hey, Frank, you hunt?”

Stopping, he turned to look at me. “What?”

“You hunt? I do. Since I was a kid. Usually deer, but sometimes feral hogs. Those things can be vicious, I’ll tell ya. Never been? In a way, the oddest part is when you’re essentially done. After you get the animal back to the cabin or whatever you’re using as a base, you string it up by the back legs and hoist it off the ground. You ever see a Gunther NP, Frank? It’s a knife, about so big.”

I held my hands about ten inches apart.

“Well, that’s what I use, anyway. You slit the animal’s throat and let it bleed out. You have to be careful; the blood gets everywhere. Then you slice it open from stem to stern. Sort of from here,” I gestured to my navel and then to my sternum. “to here and remove the offal. Now here’s the weird thing, in October or November, the heat released from the carcass causes a visible… I don’t know, steam almost, that rises into the air. Sort of like a final breath or soul or something. It’s oddly peaceful, as if I’ve helped the animal on its final journey.”

Frank looked around the library, and then back to me, clearly thinking that I was nuts.

I tried not to blink as I spoke, hoping to add to the creep factor. “It’s nice, in a way. Like a signal that everything is complete and finally done. The animal’s life is over, and you can skin it and take the meat. Frank, if you ever put your hands on me again, it will be the last time you touch anyone.”

Looking around again as if to see if there were witnesses to my bizarre threat, he just shook his head and walked out.

I didn’t have to be a detective to know that Frank was from Chicago. Everyone at the University had heard his bio enough times to cause low level nausea whenever it was brought up again. I had never heard any mention of hunting, fishing, hiking or anything similar.

So, I lied.

Gunther NP was made ataşehir escort bayan up and the closest I had ever gotten to hunting was doing research and watching some videos for a paper I had to turn in. I had gotten an A, so I had that going for me. My story must have been convincing, as Michelle didn’t mention anything to me, and Frank never bothered me again.

I turned to the closest book. The page was a jumble of nonsensical letters as I sat there trying to slow my heart rate. My movements were slow and deliberate, which I hoped passed for calm and I flipped a few pages as I pretended to read. After half an hour, I packed up my stuff and got ready to leave. I could probably outrun Frank over a long distance, but if it was ten yards or less, he’d destroy me.

Frank went out the main entrance, so I was going to try the rear. They had one check-out desk back there, but I’d wait on a line if it would help in avoiding the hyper-aggressive jock. I was jostling books in my backpack when I heard her. Mandy had an almost sing-song stereotypical SoCal voice and was going on and on about some regatta they were having on campus with balsa wood boats the students painted and constructed.

She’d been on me like glue for the past few months and I was suffocating. Mandy was nice enough, but unrelentingly cheery and seemed almost obsessive. Grateful I hadn’t been noticed, I turned around and risked the dangers of the front exit.

Madison was checking out a book as I approached the huge wooden counter with what I wanted to take back to the dorm. She was pretty and nice enough, but quiet. I liked her, but I didn’t know if she thought we were friends. We studied together and I’d always wanted to get to know her better, but didn’t know much about her other than that she was really smart and really reserved. Mrs. Havisham was handing her “Cultural Terrorist” as I put my books on the desk.

“Hey, Madison. Sociology?”

She was bent forward slightly, her light brown hair obscuring her face. “Yeah.”

“Cool. You set for Thursday?”

“I think so. I read ‘Advanced Number Theory’ last summer. Covers a lot of it.”

Madison was a soft talker and I had to lean in to make sure I heard her clearly. “Was that by Cohn?” I smiled. “So, this is all sort of a brush-up for what you already know?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, thanks. I’ll check it out.”

“Okay. I… Bye, Craig.”

“See ya, Madison.”

After checking out my books, I stepped out of the library, looked around and headed back to my dorm. No steroidal freaks came flying out of the hedges and I breathed a sigh of relief as I closed the door behind me.

*****

HER

It was surprising how much I liked him.

Him, of all people.

Him.

I had never felt that way about anyone. More importantly, I had never wanted to feel that way about anyone. Feelings were… complicated. Feelings were scary. Feelings made people do things and say things and act in ways that weren’t logical. Feelings took good people and turned them into… well, I wouldn’t say monsters. Not all of them. But enough of them.

So, I let people and feelings and monsters pass by, let them drift past and plod along while I focused on a world that made more sense. They moved around me, and I ignored them, choosing books and numbers and facts instead of joining a rat race where the only prize was pain.

But then he sprinted past and hadn’t stopped running through my mind since.

No book in the world had given me the words to describe him. He was smart, warm and beguiling. He was ambitious and dedicated. He was beautiful. He was so many things that I couldn’t possibly have begun to name, and it infuriated me that I couldn’t find the words.

It terrified me that I wanted to find the words.

I knew better than to feel the way I did. He was too good to be true. Men always were. Once upon a time, my mother had missed the warning bells that should have gone off when she met my father. She missed them when he asked her to be his girlfriend, and again when he asked her to be his wife, and still again when he put me in her stomach and again when I popped out nine months later. Since she missed all those bells, I got to watch as he broke her down, as the shining star of a woman she was supposed to be was extinguished at the hand of a man who said he loved her.

Somehow, I hadn’t learned my lesson from that. It had taken no less than three stupid boys to teach me a lesson I’d already witnessed every day of my life.

Three stupid boys, three horrible heartbreaks, and I still hadn’t managed to experience the one thing that I had heard might make men worth it. Based on the hurt they’d caused even without giving up my virginity, I thought that it was pretty unlikely that it was actually worth it.

Maybe there were men who weren’t like that, but I didn’t want to take the risk of finding out.

Until him.

I wanted to tell him. I wanted to talk to escort kadıköy him and tell him I liked him. I wanted him to take me on a date, to talk about books and computers and whatever else people might talk about on dates. I wanted to kiss him, to touch his hair, to… well, other things. Things I didn’t have words for, either.

I doubted he wanted any of those things, though. It might have been easier if he didn’t even know I existed, but he did. He knew my name and he knew me from the classes we shared, and if he knew anything else about me, that would have been a surprise.

Just because I wanted to tell him and touch him and do all those other things didn’t mean I had the capacity to act on it. I could barely get through a conversation with him without my mouth drying up, my fingers and toes tingling numbly as my heart raced fast enough that I was sure it was nearly visible through my chest.

And what if he didn’t reciprocate my feelings? What if he took one look at me and laughed?

I wanted his attention, and didn’t. I wanted to talk to him, and couldn’t. I wanted to just get over him, just move on and go back to my life of books and numbers and grades.

If I could just be someone else, just… put on a mask and admit all those things, tell him how amazing I thought he was, admit all my feelings and then disappear, maybe it would help me get past him.

It was that thought that made me do it.

It was an exercise, I reasoned. Just… a weird kind of exercise to help myself work through those feelings. It wasn’t a crazy idea. I had taken a psychology class in high school, and roleplay was a legitimate method of working through emotions.

I didn’t have a mask, but I had a wig left over from a costume party my father insisted I attend the year before. It was long and dark, and I felt silly putting it on, but I thought it would help me be someone else, the person I wanted to be and couldn’t.

Talking to myself in the middle of my empty apartment felt weird, though, so I turned on my computer and recorded myself as though I was making a confessional. Just to help with the realism, I told myself.

When I watched the video back, it didn’t really help. It just looked like me, wearing a wig.

But I could change that.

*****

HIM

“I’m making grilled cheese with ham. Want one?”

Looking up from my text, I rubbed my eyes and looked at the clock. Fuck, it was almost 4 PM. “Uh, yeah, thanks.”

I’d been sitting there for five hours. Getting up, I stretched, went to the bathroom and grabbed a water. Tim had an electric griddle thing his mother bought him. He kept it in a canvas bag labeled “gym laundry” so the RA didn’t find it. As he was cooking up our contraband supper, my phone rang.

My eye rolling provoked guilt even though she couldn’t see it. “Hey, Mom. What’s up?”

“Something has to be up for me to talk to my only son?”

“Hold on one sec, Ma. Tim! Can you throw pickles on mine?” He grunted something in response. “So, how’s dad?”

We spoke about my father. We spoke about Mom’s bursitis. We spoke about Mr. Fluffernutter, our aged cat. We spoke about everything under the sun as I ran over my class notes and mostly let Mom do the talking.

“Are you still running, Craig?”

“Every morning.”

“What about volleyball?”

“What about it?”

“Well, running is so… alone.”

“Yeah, that’s why I like it. I get out there and I can hear myself think.”

“You’re alone too much. How are you going to meet any girls if you’re running everywhere?”

“I’m… Look, Mom, I’m fine”

“You’re not fine. I’m your mother, I know these things. This is when you should be spreading your wings and meeting people and getting your nose out of those books. You know, they have co-ed volleyball teams. You liked it in High School.”

“In gym class.” I sighed. “It… Mom, I’m good, really.”

“Co-ed means there’ll be girls.”

“I know what co-ed means, Mom.”

“Of course you do. I’m sorry, honey. I just worry. You just need to socialize more.”

Tim called out. “Craig!”

“Okay, I appreciate that, Mom, but I’m fine. Really.”

She sighed. “Your sister sends her love. She says one of her friends has a younger sister.”

Tim yelled out again. “Craig!”

“I’m sure she’s really nice, but I’m sort of busy at college three states away. Mom, Tim is calling. Can I call you back tomorrow?”

“Are you really going to call?”

“Yeah, Ma.”

“Okay, tomorrow then.”

She hung up after telling me she loved me, and Tim called out again.

“Craig, is she talking about you?”

“Who?”

“Her.”

He tilted his laptop and I saw a stunning brunette speaking into the screen. She likely had a vlog, but it was on the unofficial University of Chicago YouTube page. Her green eyes were piercing, and she was possibly the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen, yet she somehow seemed familiar.

“Hold maltepe escort on, I’ll restart it.”

I sat down and watched from the start.

“Hi! I’m Casey Arlington and this is UC Watch. It seems that a certain student athlete thought it would be a good idea to mark his territory and let one of UC’s most academically gifted students know that he shouldn’t have pizza with the athlete’s girlfriend. Because, as we all know, pizza is a gateway carb and always leads to sex and woman can’t be trusted to not cheat when confronted with the allure of dough, marinara and mozzarella.

“The athlete quickly found out that he bit off more than he could chew when the stand-out mathematician calmly explained how he dressed a slaughtered hog after killing it. Mr. Linebacker seemed to realize the difference between sacking a quarterback and trifling with someone who is used to killing for his meals.

“If you see a certain gifted student out for his morning runs, wave hello and thank him for standing up to a bully who every person intelligent enough to care about something other than football can’t stand. In the meantime, let’s hope Ms. Uber Popular can keep her legs closed when confronted with an extra cheese and pepperoni aphrodisiac.”

I sat there staring at the screen. “What the hell?”

“Dude, she’s super-hot. You know her?”

“No and I’m hoping she didn’t just get me killed. Where’s my sandwich?”

*****

HER

I never intended for things to snowball the way they did.

It’s just, I did a really good job on that video.

The first iteration of the video looked like one of those things that goes around at Christmas, where an office full of people upload a picture of themselves that gets superimposed onto a dancing cartoon elf. The elf-office worker hybrid then dances around the screen to some kind of Christmas rap and the workers are delighted, laughing hysterically as they share it to Facebook where no one watches it because they’ve already seen the video, just with faces they care about more already on the elves.

Suffice to say, it was disappointingly terrible. Emotional exercise or not, it didn’t meet the standards I upheld for myself.

I spent the night trying to improve it. I bought 12 hours of high-performance computing from Amazon Web Services and that made a huge difference. It was a puzzle, a challenge, an itch that needed just the right combination of technology and art to be scratched. I recorded a second video, a shorter one, telling the story of him and the way his mind worked, a story I wanted people to know so they could appreciate everything he was.

I took a face that wasn’t mine and made it my own. At the time, I didn’t consider just how creepy that sounded. I didn’t see it like Silence of the Lambs or Face Off. I felt like a spy or a hacker or something far more badass than a nerd behind a computer digitally masking her face using Deepfake technology.

Yeah. Deepfake. I didn’t really consider the, uh, moral implications at the time. It was still just an exercise, just a way to challenge myself. The best minds answer questions by asking their own. They ask, “what if?” and then they don’t stop until they know.

It’s just, when I finished the video and I saw how flawlessly I made her face into mine and how funny she was and how… not me it was, I wanted to know what other people thought.

I mean, I hadn’t named anyone in the video. Well, except her. I gave her a name because she needed a name. Something that wasn’t mine. But I didn’t name anyone real in the video.

My heart hammered in my chest as I uploaded it to the YouTube channel. I thought maybe a few people would see it and laugh, maybe leave a couple of comments about it. I didn’t expect… I didn’t think it would go the way it did.

After what seemed like the millionth share on every single one of the social media platforms the school used, I realized he was going to see it. Not if, not “he might,” but he was going to see it.

The comments were atrocious. Not about him, but about the bully he’d obliterated with only his words. People shared stories far too similar to the one I told, stories of aggressive jealousy and idle threats, stories without a hero to take down the villain, stories where people silently accepted the actions of a pig and let him get away with them.

I made him the hero. I told a story that people needed to hear, gave them a point to rally around. I never named him, but I was sure people suspected. They plotted and debated, trying to figure out who the mathematician was, abuzz with conspiracy and delighted by the mystery.

Watching quietly, I felt a sick sense of pride in what I had accomplished by sharing the story. I watched people come together, band together against that scumbag, and knew they would never suspect it was me behind the video. I had left no trace of myself, erasing everything that made me the small nothing that I was, free to witness the reverberations of my actions.

The only downside was not knowing what he thought and having no way to ask.

I resolved to let it lie, to keep the secret to myself, and to let it fade away into the recesses of the internet’s memory, no one the wiser to who the girl in the video was.

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