Alicia's world has no color, art, music, books or emotion - it's all forbidden by the government. Citizens are doomed to a life behind a mask from the day they are born. Alicia doesn't realize she's slowly dying inside...until she meets Jaden. He steals the forbidden and he does it all for her. Will Alicia return to the life she knew before? Or will she shed her mask for good?
A sea of blank, plastic faces surge around me; not a human face can be found amidst the crowd. People bump against my elbows as we jostle each other to get to our assigned jobs. We are nothing more than worker bees in gray jumpsuits for the government, never allowed to stray from the paths chosen for us.
Things that incite any sort of feelings are prohibited in Canus. No color, books, art, music, emotion – all have been forbidden for decades. No one knows why the Patriarch, young and hot headed so many years ago, suddenly outlawed dozens of things that had brought pleasure; for fear of the death penalty, no one dares to speculate aloud. Only gray steel walls are permitted to surround us now as we go about our lives, gray like our suits, gray like ghosts, gray like us.
My mask makes my face itch and I shove my hands into my pockets to keep from fiddling with the hot, stuffy plastic. For years, the mask was nothing more than a second layer of skin. One summer when I was very little and the heat index was well over one hundred, I had tried to take my mask off. My parents, their pasty white faces blinding me in the light of the sun, reprimanded me with flat words, echoing through their masks. Threats of punishment, even death, made me tremble with fear. My sobs and tears were forbidden, something my parents could be executed for simply witnessing. I never tried to take it off again…until I met him.
I quicken my pace at the thought of Jaden, jostling past a few people and escaping the cramped main street by ducking into an empty alleyway.
It all started with Jaden and I knew I was spinning out of control. I could be killed for consorting with a traitor against the government but I didn’t care. I had grown accustomed to the realization that disaster was in my future but I couldn’t stop myself. I didn’t want to. There was sweet freedom in my destruction.
I round another corner and there sits an abandoned warehouse. I duck inside. Specks of dust swirl in a stray shaft of sunlight that spills through a hole in the roof.
“Thought you’d never get here.”
A pleasant feeling grips my stomach at the sight of Jaden in his paint splattered jeans and plaid shirt. The first time I felt the little flutter over two years ago, Jaden had given it a name: happiness. I only ever felt it when I was with him…or without my mask.
“There were more police on the streets today,” I explain. I glance past him and glimpse a large sheet spread across the floor with pans of bright colored paints. It baffles me how much of the forbidden he manages to find.
“What are you working on today?” I ask.
He grins and rocks back on his heels. “Something new; something I need your help on.”
The flutter in my stomach springs to life again. Jaden reaches towards me and I let him pull off my mask. He doesn’t give it a second glance as he flings it in the corner like a piece of trash. He chucks me under the chin and shoves a pair of jeans and an old white t-shirt into my hands.
“Go change - hurry up.”
I scurry off to a back room and shed my jump suit. “Where did you get the paint?”
“I’ve been collecting for a few months now, one or two buckets here and there,” Jaden replies. “I had to go outside the city for the yellow paint.”
Tugging the shirt over my head, I run back and stare at him. “You went outside the city? What’s it like?”
He shrugs a shoulder and cocks his head to one side, searching for the right words. “Full of color and wide open spaces. You can almost taste the air, it’s practically sweet. You would love it Alicia.”
I drink in every word, partly amazed at the risk he took to go outside the city limits and partly jealous that I wasn’t able to go with him.
“Don’t give me that look,” he teases. “When I find a safer, easier way to get in and out, you’ll be the first I take with me.”
He grabs my hand and pulls me towards the sheet. “Now come on, help me out.”
My disappointment vanishes like smoke and I follow along behind him. He steps into a pan of red paint and slides around to coat his bare feet then steps onto the sheet. He turns around and motions for me to do the same.
I glance at the various pans of paint spread across the floor. Purple, red, green, blue and yellow; so many colors in one place I have never seen before. I step into the yellow paint, the one color Jaden retrieved from outside of the city. The paint squelches in between my toes and I gasp in delight. A delicious thrill runs through me. I feel dangerous somehow, standing in the paint that seems to come from another world, a world of freedom and emotions I’ve never experienced before - forbidden things, wonderful things.
Jaden holds out his hand to me with a wry smirk on his face. “May I have this dance?”
I frown, confused. “What?”
“I found a book about it. Years ago, a man would ask a woman to dance. It’s a sort of expressive movement to music.”
I suddenly feel as if a pin has stabbed my bubble of enthusiasm. “Jaden, you’re starting to scare me. Stealing all these things - you could get caught.”
Jaden lowers his hand back to his side, the sparkle of excitement in his eyes quickly fading away.
“I have to do it Alicia. I thought you understood that. I thought you were the only one who understood that.”
“I do but…”
“But what?” he demands. The playfulness in his voice has vanished and he lifts his chin a little with the defiant tilt I know all too well. When he mocks the police or steals books and paints from under the government’s nose, I loved that look on his face, the look that said, “What of it? Try and stop me.”
Not now. Now it scares me.
“I just want you to be safe,” I plead.
His expression softens and he grabs both of my hands. “I know and I’m sorry. I just get so excited for everything I find and I don’t ever want to stop, not for fear, not for the law, not for anything.”
I glance away, for the first time wishing that I had my mask to hide behind. The question was out before I knew the thought had even crossed my mind.
“Would you stop for me?”
Jaden drops my hands and sighs. I hate the look of disappointment on his face but I despise myself more for putting it there.
“Please don’t ask me that Alicia. I’m not sure either of us would like the answer.”
I turn my back on him and start to walk away but he catches my hand.
“Alicia, no. Please don’t be mad at me. I can’t…” He pauses, struggling for the right words. “I can’t live behind a mask. It hurts. It hurts to see all this beauty to be forbidden. Don’t you ever wonder why?”
“Sometimes,” I mumble.
“You want to know why I can’t quit?” he asks.
“I can’t quit because I want to show it all to you. I want to give you everything. I want to see you smile. I want to dance with you.”
Jaden pulls me closer and places his hand on my waist. My face grows warm and my indignation seems to melt away.
“Just follow my lead,” he whispers.
As I open my mouth to ask more questions, Jaden starts to hum a soft, lilting tune and we move as one, around and around, gliding along on our painted feet. I stumble a few times, stepping on Jaden’s toes but he laughs and continues guiding me in loose, dreamy circles until we grow dizzy.
Jaden stops and we stare at each for several long moments.
“Thank you,” I say, breathless.
He steps back and we gaze at the waltz we have painted together. My yellow footsteps stumbling and stuttering intertwined amongst Jaden’s red long sweeping strides.
A soft footstep behind me makes my body turn rigid with fear. I whip around. Two mice scurry off into a corner. Jaden snickers softly but I ignore him. Something doesn’t feel right….
“I need to get you out of this city Alicia, you’re far too jumpy.”
“Someone around here has to take things seriously and it’s obviously not you,” I retort. Just as I decide that I can relax again, a barrage of gunshots explodes in the silence. Jaden shoves me to the ground, shielding me with his body as bullets crunch into the cement wall of the warehouse. Showers of chipped concrete rain down on us, falling in our hair, eyes and mouths.
This is it, I think. We have finally been caught. My nightmares have come true.
Jaden rolls off of me, grimacing in pain and I fight against a wave of panic.
“Jaden? Jaden, don’t….”
My words catch in my throat as two deep red stains begin to grow across his plaid shirt.
“You have to go Alicia, now,” he wheezes, each breath rattling in his throat.
I shake my head and press my trembling hands to the wounds. “Too bad, I’m not leaving.”
He reaches up and brushes my cheek. “Not this time sweetheart. You have to show the world what I’ve shown you.”
Charging footsteps hammer outside the warehouse. The police will take me if I don’t go now. Within the hour, I will be executed. But how could I leave Jaden?
Jaden coughs and splatters of blood stain his teeth. His face turns a ghostly shade of gray before my eyes as the life begins to ebb from him. “Please go,” he whispers. “Do it for me.”
I sob and tear myself away from him just as a swarm of police officers begin pouring through the door. I duck out a broken window, leaving nothing but my mask and my yellow footprints behind.
Everything blurs together in my tears of rage and fear. One alleyway looks the same as the next and I quickly find myself lost but I don’t care. All I can see is Jaden, bleeding out on the cold concrete, alone.
I catch myself wishing for the comfort of my mask again so I won’t have to feel this pain flaring through me but I push the thought away, ashamed and disgusted for even considering it. Jaden risked his life countless times to share with me and here I am longing for my pathetic little security blanket again.
In my blind panic, I burst onto Canus’ bustling main street. People turn to stare at my naked face and I cringe. As I take in the silently accusing stares of the crowd, a pang of loneliness threatens to strangle me. I didn’t realize how much I looked forward to seeing another human face when I visited Jaden.
I start to take a step back then pause as one person amidst the crowd rips off her mask. Her eyes sparkle with a daring mischief suppressed for far too long. A certain measure of comfort washes over me in seeing the woman’s face, the aura of calm that seems to surround her like a bubble of protection.
Three police officers forge through the mass of people and grab the woman. One of the officers breaks off and raises his gun, aiming at me but I take off into the crowd, sticking to the edges where the surge of people seems thinner.
The woman haunts my thoughts as I plunge out of the crowd and make my way back to the deserted sections of the city. One woman rid herself of her own safety, her own security to bring comfort to me, a complete stranger.
I’m not the only one who wants to rid the world of its mask.
I push myself to run a little harder as I grasp the thin tendril of hope that Jaden and I may not have been the only ones who want to rebel against the government.
Shouts vibrate off the walls around me and I skid to a stop, frantic to find a place to hide before the police overtake me. The alleys are empty save for a tarp, fluttering in a light breeze. I steal a quick look over my shoulder and see the flicker of an officer’s uniform.
I dive under the tarp and pull my knees up to my chin, tucking the tarp around me. A small hole in the tarp shows two officers march into the street, inches away from my head. I don’t dare breath for fear of giving myself away.
“She’s not here, let’s go,” one officer says.
“I could have sworn I saw her though,” the other replies.
“We’ll keep looking. She’s probably….”
The buzz of static cuts the officer off and I can see him unclip a handheld radio from his belt.
“Sturgen here, sir.”
A scratchy, metallic voice responds from the radio. “New orders regarding the infidel: Shoot on sight – repeat - shoot on sight. The infidel has been in contact with too much of the forbidden, she is fully contaminated.”
The words seem to echo in my ears like a cruel song as the officers leave the alley to continue their search.
I curl myself as far into the shadows as possible, every muscle frozen in fear. I’m safe, for now, but they’ll be back soon. I need to get out of here.
As I continue to debate on what my next move will be, I shift positions and something smooth brushes against my hand. I hold it up to the pinhole of light that streams through my tarp. A pale mask stares back at me. Piles of masks, broken, worn out and discarded, are strewn under the tarp. I dig through the pile and find a stained pillow case. I begin stuffing it with masks.
An hour later, the pillow case is bulging with masks. I sling it over my shoulder and begin to climb the ladder of Canus’s water tower, the highest point in the city. A small metal basket for maintenance men waits for me at the top.
I risk a quick glance below but no officers have spotted me yet. A few blank people turn to watch my climb, their eyes nothing more than lifeless pools of darkness. I make sure they see my face, unmasked.
My grip soon grows slippery with sweat. I force myself to concentrate on grabbing the next rung on the ladder, and the next and the next. Nagging doubts torture my mind and make me tremble with fear. Any minute, I expect a swarm of police to shoot me down and I would tumble to my death.
As the top of the ladder draws nearer, the shriek of an alarm makes me jump. Officers come pouring out of the buildings, streaming through the crowd in the street. I push myself faster as a dozen guns are aimed at me.
A spray of shots whizz past me as I scramble over the top of the ladder and into the basket. I clap my hands over my ears and let out a shriek as the gunshots hammer against the metal. My fingers tremble as I struggle to open the pillow case. I take a few steadying breaths and close my eyes.
“This one’s for you Jaden,” I say.
Silence descends on Canus as the police stop shooting. I spring up and dump the bag. A rain of masks flutter down into the street.
Every eye is trained on me now, watching my blatant disregard for the rules – my public show of grief for my lost love. All the forbidden now open for scrutiny.
One by one, the sea of white faces sheds their masks.