I must have been six when I first saw the Mask Troupe.
Yeah, it had to be six, my mom and I were walking home from kindergarten and she was asking me what I wanted for dinner. I probably said something like mac n cheese or McDonald’s, but that’s not important, because it was then we passed the performers.
They’d monopolized an entire corner of the nearby park and attracted quite a crowd. My mother was definitely familiar with them, with how she grinned from ear to ear and clapped. “Oh, they’re back! They’re finally back! Tommy, look at the people with the masks!”
And by god, there was an assortment of masks. Animal masks ranging from tiger to mouse, along with some more human appearing ones. Currently a zebra was reading out some sort of dramatic monologue while a white lady mask seemed to dab away at nonexistent tears on her cheeks. It all came to an end when the tiger bowled the zebra over and the two had a mock wrestling match that ended with the zebra pulling the tiger’s arm behind his back and not releasing until the tiger cried out uncle.
The masks weren’t made of any kind of plastic or leather, they were made from wood. They were incredibly detailed and ornate, the actors just tilting their heads in a slightly different position would entirely change their expression from sad to glad to mad. Yes, the animal ones too.
It didn’t really have my attention so much as my mom, who was filled with childlike glee. At the end of the show she took me up to one of the male actors. He wore one of the human masks, meant to appear as some kind of king judging by the gold crown on the mask’s forehead.
I’m sure words were exchanged between my mom and the actor, but I was more distracted by the actors loading up a van with all their props. Not their masks though, no, they kept those on. But what really got my attention was the girl sitting in the passenger seat of the van. She was skinny, her stringy hair hanging crookedly by her shoulders, almost like she cut it herself. Our eyes met and she just seemed… sad. I wanted to go up and say hi to her but right before I was about to my mom gently pushed me forward towards the King.
The King knelt down to my level and took my hand. I couldn’t tell if he was happy to see me or not, but he squeezed my hand tightly before standing and walking back to the van. They all piled in the back and the van drove away with the little girl. I never once exchanged words with her, but the memory of her sitting all alone in the passenger seat was burned into my mind.
My mother passed away shortly afterwards. She was always troubled, so although my grandmother insisted it was ‘just an accident’, I have a feeling she purposefully jumped in front of the train that took her life. I lived with grandmother after that. She was strict and honestly I was glad when I turned eighteen a few months back and could finally get the hell out of her house.
I moved back to my hometown. I reconnected with a lot of my childhood friends, managed to find a cheap apartment and a decent job while I scrapped up the cash to maybe one day go to college.
It was starting to rain when I saw the troupe again.
It was the Tiger and the Zebra, setting up a small stage in the park. I hadn’t thought about the Mask Troupe in so long, but seeing them again made those memories flash back to the forefront of my mind. Without even realizing it I was walking to the park, standing in front of the stage. I could almost feel my mom’s hand in mine again, remember the warm autumn sun on my face.
I felt eyes on me and I turned around to see another one of the actors. Another human faced mask, but this one gave off the feel of a porcelain doll, with rosy cheeks and ruby painted lips.
But somehow I just knew that gaze on me.
“I’m sorry, this is weird, but… have you been with this group since you were a kid?” God, I felt awkward asking, but I had to know.
The girl cocked her head to the side before nodding once.
“I think I saw you then. Sitting in the van. You probably don’t remember me-”
She took my hand and shook her head before gesturing to the spot next to me, tugging at her hair afterwards. It took me a second to realize what she meant. “You remember my mom?” I asked breathlessly.
The mask might’ve hid her expression but I could feel her smile.
“She died. About a month or so after that.”
The girl stood still before bowing her head in respect. With that, she reached into her pocket and pulled out a notebook, scrawling out two words before turning it to me.
She quickly wadded up the paper and threw it away, it bouncing off the ground. It took me a second to realize what she meant. “Cerys, is that your name?” I asked.
She nodded again and took my hand in hers. We walked together until we ended up at a nearby cafe, where two other masked actors were, the Lion and the Rabbit. It was then I realized each of the masks had a slit where the mouth was, just large enough to allow them to eat.
That was just the beginning of my discoveries about the Mask Troupe. For one thing, they never spoke off stage, occasionally using hand gestures to indicate what they wanted. If that didn’t do it, Cerys would write down one or two words on a piece of paper before throwing it away as fast as she could. Yes, they could speak, but it seemed it was not something they did outside of their shows.
Cerys ordered me hot cocoa and listened to me talk about how my life had been going since my mom passed. She tugged at her friend’s clothes and drew a line across her forehead. Somehow that was enough for them to understand that I once saw their show and they ended up buying me a dozen pastries to take home.
When I left, she wrote down her phone number on my hand before hurrying over to the stage that was now set up. I stuck around to catch a glimpse of the show, figuring I’d head home after an act or two.
I stayed for the whole thing. There were skits, plays, jokes… and Cerys sung. And when she sung, I think the world stopped for a second. All I could hear was her. Her beautiful voice, clear as crystal.
I think it’s pretty obvious by now that I immediately got a crush on Cerys. She was just amazing. We hung out whenever I had a free moment and I went to every performance I could. On my nights off, Cerys would invite me to go drink with the troupe. They’d buy all my drinks and I’d learned quickly enough if I wanted one of their attention, I’d just basically call out whatever their mask is, it’d get their attention at least.
I’m not sure how many people are apart of it, but it’s a lot more than I thought. I approximated maybe six, I think there’s easily almost forty people apart of the Mask Troupe. Each person has their own unique mask, and they never take them off. They’re easy to spot around town, I’ll tell you that much.
They also don’t like people recording or photographing their shows. If they catch you, and by god they have a radar for it, all the actors go immediately silent and turn to face the opposite direction. They won’t continue until the camera or phone is put away. I tried once recording Cerys by putting my phone in my bag and turning on record, and somehow they still figured it out. She was pretty ticked at me for a while, and make all the silent treatment jokes you want, I felt pretty bad. I promised never to try that again.
I made friends with them. They were different, but that was their way of life. After some digging I came to find out they’ve been coming here every few years since the sixties. It’s why people don’t really give a shit when they show up I guess, it’s just… normal.
But they’re not normal. I knew something was always different. After all, people who always hide behind a mask have something more to hide than their faces, I’ll tell you that.
Although most of the town was cool with them, there were a few hecklers, a few whisperers about how damn creepy the Mask Troupe was.
One night I was heading back from work when I saw a few of the Troupe- Cerys, Tiger, Rabbit, and Doe, a tall woman with a deer mask who always told jokes on stage. I was about to call out to them and say hello when I saw they were in a hurry to get away from someone- someone who was drunk as hell and being the worst kind of drunk as well. If he wasn’t saying some sort of lewd comment to Cerys or Doe, he was calling them freaks or weirdos.
It came to a head when he grabbed Rabbit by one of her ears, yanking her down. She didn’t make a sound as she attempted to squirm herself free, but Tiger grabbed the prick’s arm and yanked it away. The women all hid behind Tiger, who might’ve been getting old but he was still one big guy.
“Did you fucking touch me?” The drunk slurred, and it was only then I saw the bottle in his hand. “Fuck you, ya creepy bastard!”
He brought down the bottle on Tiger’s head, breaking it. Tiger went down hard, I heard his head crack into the cement. I didn’t think it was so bad at first until I saw the pool of blood forming beside Tiger’s head.
Cerys rolled him over and gasped as his mask tilted. I’d never seen those masks even twitch when they’re doing the most active of scenes, he’d really been hit hard if it was coming off. Her head shook no repeatedly until the mask finally slid off, landing on the ground with a soft thunk.
In the flickering light of the dying street lamp I saw how unnaturally pale Tiger’s face was. How the skin was uncomfortably moist and wrinkled, like how your fingers get when they’ve been in water for long enough. His eyes were glazed over pale.
Cerys tried to put the mask back on again and again but it wouldn’t stick, it’d just slip off again. Doe threw her head back and screamed at the top of her lungs, joined shortly by Rabbit, the sound truly of anguish and pain.
The drunk stumbled away, holding up his hands. “I… I didn’t hit him that hard-”
was all he got out before Cerys pounced.
She grabbed him and with strength I didn’t know she had, slammed him into the nearby wall of a closed mom and pop diner. Doe pinned his left arm against the brick and Rabbit joined her, pinning his right. Both women held him still as Cerys picked the mask off the ground.
“Wai-wait! It was an accident! I’m sorry! What are you doing!? Put that mask down!”
Cerys’ mask grinned eerily in the yellowing light as she placed the tiger mask on his face. The drunk screeched in agony as I saw the edges of the mask glow like hot coals and seal to his cheeks and jaw, his knuckles going bone white as his hands clenched.
Then he went still. Doe and Rabbit released him and the man stood under his own power, looking at the other masked members of the troupe. Rabbit clapped his shoulder and Doe shook his hand, welcoming him into their ranks.
Then Cerys turned and saw me. The only other person on this empty street.
I ran. I ran like hell. I locked the door and hid in my room with a baseball bat, expecting people I thought were my friends turn on me for seeing… whatever the hell that was.
I got a dozen texts from Cerys, none I read. I didn’t know what to do. I was half tempted to high tail it back to Grandma’s, tell her the job didn’t work out and that I needed some help.
They came for me last night. Zebra, Doe, and the new Tiger. They knocked on the door and waited for me to come out. They didn’t barge in. They just knew I had nowhere else to go.
I didn’t resist as they escorted me to one of the motels they tended to take up whenever they stayed in town. No words were spoken, a silence I usually found comforting with the troupe but now felt was choking me. I was afraid. Were they going to kill me? Or would they make me wear a mask too?
Cerys was waiting outside the door of room 111. Her head was bowed and she looked like a mess, her hair tangled and clothes rumpled like she’d slept in them. I imagine if I could see her face I’d see bags under her eyes, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see under her mask.
She opened the door to the room and I was gestured inside. The door closed behind me and I saw I wasn’t alone.
There was a man on the bed, and it took me only a second to remember the man with the King mask. He was much older now, frail, bone thin with only a few strands of gray hair left on his scalp. The only reason I knew he was alive was because his chest was slowly rising and falling.
“Come in, Tommy. Sit next to me, please.”
Other than the screaming from the night Tiger died, I never heard one of the troupe speak off stage before. Trembling, I walked over to the bed and took a seat.
“Do you remember me?”
I nodded before realizing he probably couldn’t see me all that well. “Yeah. You were the member of the troupe my mom talked to,” I said.
The King laughed, which came out more like a wheeze. “You don’t remember who she said I was?” He asked.
I shook my head. “No, did she?”
I did think. And it took a bit of digging, but given how closely I linked that memory with trauma, it took me a minute before I remembered what my mom said when she pushed me towards the King.
“Here, Tommy. This is your father.”
I almost couldn’t breathe. The King’s shaky hand reached over and grabbed mine, squeezing as tightly as he could. “You’ve grown well. By the time we came back to this town, Valerie had already passed on, and you were with her mother. And well, your grandmother never liked me much. Didn’t understand why we did what we did,” He said.
“What…” I swallowed, my mouth dry, “What do you do? Are you… are you even you?”
“To an extent.” The King stared up at the ceiling. “I changed very much when I became the King, but so did my father. We all do, once we put on our masks and join the show.”
I squeezed his hand back. “Am I supposed to put on a mask now? So I won’t talk about what I saw? What you did to to the drunk that killed Tiger?”
“We needed a replacement, and his body would do. But you’re not going to put on any mask, my son.” His head slowly turned back to me, and I swear I saw the corners of the mask’s lips turn upwards into a grin.
“You’re going to be a King. You’re my only heir. And it’s now your responsibility to lead the troupe, to wear this mask, until the curtains close.”
I think I can leave whenever I want. Judging by the heart wrenching wails I’m hearing in the motel room next to mine, my dad just passed away.
I think I can leave whenever I want. But this is not something I should be running away from.
The show must go on, and it’s my duty to make sure it does.