The Travelling Arcade of Other Worlds (1)
[This is the first in a series of posts for a short story I’ve been developing inspired heavily by Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. If you read it, great! Feel free to leave notes about things that you don’t like too! Oh and that’s a placeholder title, still searching for the right one]
Saturday was, of course, a rare day for church. But on the first Saturday in November, church convened in the convention hall by the river. The hall slithered along the waterfront like a giant, metal snake, a boardwalk full of eateries, ice-cream and pizza and the things that make your thighs wobble when you walk. Each of its seven piers jutted out of its flank like arrows lodged deep beneath scales. The sun, growing hotter in November, awoke the creature from its slumber and it opened its gaping jaws to the masses.
As the jaws unlocked, the church bells rang. They sang the rattatattat of machine guns firing, the melodic ching of coins collected and the schlink of swords unsheathed. They tolled excitement. Wonder. Overwhelming colour. The kind of colour that envelopes you until it’s stamped onto your skin.
The bells clattered for an entire generation.
Church, in session.
You see, you meet all manner of person at church. There’s the devout, quiet in the pews, eyes closed, listening intently for advice — seeking guidance. There’s the beasts in human skin asking for atonement with clasped hands. You can find the damned, arms already stretching upward, waiting to go. You can find the forgotten, full of prayers and you undoubtedly meet those who slink in once the sermon has started, the first time they’ve seen the preacher in a decade.
Saints and sinners, the lot of ‘em.
On this particular Saturday, in this particular church, two children met a man, dancing sick with heavy shadows and they were no longer just children any more.
I — Church on a Saturday
The seller of masks arrived ahead of the human tide, wading through the empty queue. He had come to Southbank with a bag wider and taller than he attached to his back, strapped over his shoulders and around his chest. His knees bent as he walked. They bent further as he came to a stop at the front of the queue.
Affixed randomly to his baggage were masks of all shapes and sizes, made of clay and metal and old wood. A handful of the masks smiled as the jangled against one another. Some clattered against his thick golden necklace, moaning and whistling.
Approaching the front of the queue, the mask salesman bent doubly over, almost stumbling. His gaze fell upon two children underneath an embossed ‘QUEUE BEGINS HERE’ sign.
They were of like size and shape, but little else. The first — a girl — sat cross-legged, her fingers flicking away at a handheld, stabbing. Black hair hung down across her face, obscuring her eyes. A shot of electric blue scorched into her fringe. It fell across her left cheek. She didn’t look up.
The boy’s short blond hair was tame in comparison. He sat straight against a pole, eyes wide with wonder as the mask salesman approached.
‘Howdy guys’ said the man, masks mutely echoing his greeting, ‘looks like you’re the first ones here.’
The boy nodded, smiling. Not a crooked tooth in sight. Snow-white hair softly brushing against his forehead.
The girl was unmoved.
- Wait, she may have moved.
- Yes, she definitely did.
She moved closer to her handheld and her hair clamoured to obscure her face even more.
‘Can I interest you in one of these fine masks? I got a few hand-made and a few I’ve traded for, but they’re all for sale, each and every one of ‘em!’
The girl tilted her head further away from the salesman. She put the handheld down at her side and threw her head back as if the muscles in her neck had given up holding her skull. She had tired eyes that she squeezed shut with the corners of her mouth.
‘We don’t have any money we aren’t already spending in there.’ She pointed at the doors with a crooked finger.
“In there” was the famous Halloway and Williams Travelling Arcade of Other Worlds, the single biggest video game convention on the planet. For the next week, the colossal convention hall in Southbank was its gracious host. Within the next hour the queue room would be full of children, adults, journalists, developers and personalities from all over the world.
The masks scowled as the salesman leant over as far as gravity would allow, catching the gaze of the boy. His eyes were pools of deep blue as if oceans resided beneath them. It caught the salesman off guard.
‘What do they call you two then hey?’
‘I’m Oliver, but ev’ryone just calls me Red. That’s Blue.’
The salesman’s eyes ballooned wide, ready to burst.
‘Red and Blue hey? But of course! Red and Blue! On this day, after recently coming into possession of this perfect duo of masks I meet you and… Oh! I seem to have met with an excellent fate! A truly astounding fate! I have just the masks for you.’ The mask salesman unclasped the bag from his chest and it fell to the ground with a resounding thud. The masks sighed. He danced on his toes with excitement, shuffling around the bag, plucking masks like books off a shelf and piling them high.
‘Here they are! Red and Blue, for Red and Blue!’
Blue, ignorant of the salesman’s plea until now, opened her eyes and assessed the masks.
‘Whoa… Red, these are… awesome…’
The masks were wooden, with large circular holes cut over the mouth and eyes. The mouth hole bent down in a frown, plastered with horror. The masks looked like they were screaming, hollow heads frozen in time before they were cleaved clean off former bodies. A thin black line ran down their centre, dividing the masks in half, one side red, the other blue. The colours on each mask were on opposite sides. There were fine etchings over the blue half, scratchings of star-maps and ancient tongues, looming moons and lightning strikes. The red half was untouched, as if it was painted only hours ago. Delicate hands must have worked it over, polished it, smoothed out any burrs. It reflected the lights from the ceiling, the QUEUE BEGINS HERE sign and the bewildered faces of two children.
The salesman held them out in either hand.
Muscles in Red’s throat twitched.
‘I’m sorry, sir, but you see, we don’t really have any money for these and we — ‘
‘Ah, my dear boy, that’s quite okay. What’s a couple of youngsters like you doing coming to the famous Halloway and Williams Travelling Arcade of Other Worlds, wow ain’t that a mouthful, without a costume anyway? These are on the house!’
‘But, you — ‘
‘Would you shut it, Red’ Blue interjected.
She snatched away the masks as if waiting a moment longer would see the man’s hands clamp shut like a shark’s maw, the masks disappearing forever. She threw one to Red but he fumbled it, dropping it onto his shoe. It swirled on its edge until it rested face up, staring at the sky.
‘So where do these come from? Don’t tell me you made ’em yourself? They look ancient…
‘Observant, young lady. These are indeed ancient, some of the most ancient masks in this man’s wandering store.’
‘Why would you give them to us, then?’
‘Why? Well, what good is a mask without a face to wear! What kind of mask wishes to be strapped to a salesman’s rucksack and carried for miles, I ask! Masks yearn to be worn! Fresh masks know little of faces, but the more ancient, the more profound the longing! These have been without faces for years, maybe more, and they’ll protect you in there! You need a mask to walk these halls. You need a mask to walk out there! We’re all wearing masks, kids, we’re all wearing something!’
Blue was hypnotised, turning the mask over in her hands. Her spidery fingers traced their way along the shallow wooden interior. The corner of her mouth curled up into her cheek. She placed the mask over her face.
An ear-bludgeoning scream echoed throughout the hall. The procession of attendees that had trickled in as the mask salesman made his pitch all turned their heads to Blue. Surprise pulled Red’s eyes and mouth wide open, while Fear froze them in place. Blue’s hands held the mask to her face, fighting a titanic battle to rip the carving off her face.
Then the scream turned into a chorus of laughter, bouncing around inside Blue’s mask.
‘I got you good, Red.’
‘You’re a … you’re a real jerk.’
‘Hahah! That is one way to use it, Mrs. Blue!’
The church bells chimed behind the closed doors. A robotic voice announced ’In 10 minutes, the Travelling Arcade will be open, please ensure you have your tickets ready for presentation at the door. Don’t forget to try the cake.’
Red and Blue hadn’t noticed the amount of people filing in behind them. The queue room had become a beating mass of life. The smell of sweat creeped up on them, the sound of enthusiasm filled their ears.
‘Well, it looks like the show’s about to start guys. That’s my cue!’
‘But you never told us what these masks are really for?’
The mask salesman laughed.
‘You seemed to have found use for them already, Blue, far be it from me to tell you their purpose or meaning. When all the world is mad, a mask is worth all the world. Now you’ll really have to excuse me guys, I’ve a long day ahead of me and plenty of masks to sell.’
The salesman began to repack his rucksack, throwing masks inside and pinning them outside. Jangling again, they clanked and moaned as they touched. Blue thought she heard the man tell them to be quiet, but she couldn’t be sure. She picked up her handheld and put it in her back pocket.
The mask salesman threw his bag over his shoulders and reclamped around his chest.
Red continued to examine the masks, turning, unturning, returning. The mask looked heavy in his hands, like it had a weight to it that on size alone should have been impossible. Blue examined Red. She could tell he wished he had a magnifying glass to assess just what he was holding. That was like Red. Always needing to know.
‘It’s just a mask, Red, and it’s free… At least no one will think it’s our first time here now!’
Red plucked his phone from his pocket, googling ancient masks, hoping to find an explanation.
‘Come on, Red, there’s no need for that. Let’s just put them on! We might even be able to scare some of the real little kids here! Can you imagine?’
Blue let out one of those laughs that slinks into bed with mischief. The kind of laugh that runs across a tongue and slaloms around teeth before escaping with a part of your soul, the murderous thief.
‘Please have your tickets ready, Halloway and Williams Travelling Arcade of Other Worlds is now opening!
Welcome… to the Other World.’
Red and Blue put on their masks.