2. Brown Mask

TL: This isn’t the story I wanted to write today.

“Brunette you say?”

“Well, is it really brunette for a guy?”

“I suppose,” said Bea, scribbling on the pad. These were rough reports to put together. Some measure of understanding was necessary for the client’s sake, but they weren’t to know what was, and wasn’t important.

“Yeah, I – I think that’s the impo- I mean, that’s the thing that they call it. That it’s just brown. Brown hair, all kinda cut short. I remember,” a pause, a snuffle, and the client went on. “remember walking in here and seeing him,” he stopped himself, resting his hand on the sideboard, taking up a large candle, unburned. Probably some ornamental gift offered by a relative to a family member who didn’t actually burn candles, with a row of scratches at the top. “Sorry,” he said.

Bea shook boyish-cut hair and tapped the wooden end of her paint-brush against her lips. The fine fabrics near the page took on a curve, a swell. He had rounded cheeks, didn’t he? And an expression that seemed to always be a smile…

The client hadn’t said, but Bea knew. Looking up again, Bea tried to bring herself back to this moment, this client. What wasn’t said was often just as important as what was said, and the client was notsaying a lot.

Bea sat in the client’s kitchen. A second-storey townhouse room with a huge window in the kitchen that let in too much heat and not enough wind, it was an echo of a dozen houses like it in visual distance. The client, a brown-haired man with spectacles and an olde-world politeness about him that meant despite being only in his thirties, he called his glasses spectacles, stood in the subtle daze of sadness that follows personal tragedy.

It had only been last night that this client – Thomas, apparently – had lost the mark.


Bea knew her art from her mother, who had learned it from her father and so on up and down a faily line that made many points of stretching all the way back to the Mayflower, as if it was somehow meaningful to be amongst the first wave of illegal immigrants. The art had always been, to her understanding, about crafting a soul.

The metaphysics of it never were well-explained. old books with the family crest on them said things about the magic one could weave with a soul; the way that a soul could be reduced from the tales and meaningful impact of a person’s life; and in one dark tome, the discussion of what the soul was.

According to it, the soul was not some ethereal spirit, of a entity that existed parallel to this world while not being of it. It was not some thing that sat inside a person’s body’s space like a prisoner in a cage, nor was it an organ that lay connected to that flesh and that breath. Rather, the book argued, the soul is the transcendental experience of us. It is the feeling, the book said, that we leave behind, caught in ways that hint at what we are, or truly were.

The client shifted nervously, holding his coffee-cup holding nothing but cool water. “I, uh,” he said, raising it. Bea realised she’d drifted from him, thinking about what she did, rather than what she was doing. “I’m sorry, is this useful?” Setting down the candle awkwardly, he heaved a sigh. Bea was not the kind of rat-trap mind that knew that he’d sighed thirteen times, but had she the presence of mind to record that, instead of the notsaid details about a cheeky smile, a ravenous appetite.

“It’s really useful, it is. And I’m sorry, I mean, I can leave you alone if you’d like-”

“No, it’s okay. It’s really the best I talk about it, I guess, and an arts student volunteering is probably better value for my money than a psychiatrist.”

“It’s… fairly normal, you know. To need help like this.”

“You’d know, right?” Thomas said, giving a little sad smile. Lips tugged up at the edges, but ‘twixt was nothing but wobble. “I mean, I’m not the first person you’ve spoken to like this who’s, well, lost someone.”

Bea nodded, refusing to say aloud they don’t all use that euphemism for a death, though. “Yeah – and so, like I said. it’s not bad to talk about it. It can help a lot.”

“Thanks, again,” Thomas said. Hand on the countertop, he let the candle rest in its place, tracing fingertips over where the scratches had been made around the edges. It was a notsaid story, the sort of thing her dad would be amazing at weaselling out of a client. Client. Always so nice – mom and dad considered it part of mother’s art, and therefore the people who shared their stories, who talked about freshly-dead grandmother or grandfather, or, in one chilling experience to understand later, one recently-deceased son, were part of the process of creation, the muses.

Bea didn’t like to think of them like that. In her mind, she was giving them a little something for their effort, and they just considered her a wonderful, slightly strange person who was able to listen to them as they talked about the relative that passed.

Sometimes they spoke of confusion, where they didn’t quite work out why the person ended their life when they did, or why they didn’t do this or that before they died. Often it was resentment, but that resentment always was the hottest the day of the death and darkened every day that followed. Most often, though, the universal experience was the same. Sadness. Such sadness as the life that had been twined to theirs was now unravelled, a kite on the breeze. They could tell themselves stories about where the kite would go, but they all knew, as solid a truth as it could ever be, that the important thing was the kite was gone.

Bea shifted a little. Jeans and ridiculously skinny frame worked together to create the impression of a very long stalk of corn that grew up out of the ground, somehow avoided puberty, and then slouched its way off to a liberal arts diploma, and possibly a witch girlfriend. Man, that was an assumption that people notsaid a lot. Hell, Thomas had notsaid it in their first conversation.

Looking up at Thomas again, Bea gave him a similar smile. “Just… tell me anything you like.” she said. The picture was done. She’d drawn Amos from his notsaid words and the signs around the house and that crushing, soul-ripping sadness that filled this room. It wasn’t a perfect picture, no – it never would be. It was just a picture that, when looked at by those who knew Amos, would always remind them of his cheeky smile, his desire for attention, his energetic morning personality and his perpetual, nagging cough, the cough that had plagued him his whole life, unto the end. A lopsided smile, and dark brown eyes that seemed to know where something was hidden – this was Amos, in this picture.

She asked, not because she needed to hear more of what he notsaid, nor to ask so simple a statement as to add details to the painting, but to get Thomas to talk. This was the payment she offered, in exchange for the souls of the departed, these essences, these possible memories, and the memes that shaped them. She asked the questions that got the answers that started people on the path to peace of mind.

“Well…” began Thomas.

Pushing her way into her attic apartment, Bea dropped her cloth bag by the door, threw keys in the bowl, pushed hand through her hair, and ran her tongue over her labret in the expression of the bored and irritated not-quite-as-simple-as-she-seemed. Hidden depths were nice and all but right now she just wanted to unload the emotional burden that sat on her shoulders.

The attic had three rooms; a kitchenette, a study, and the main room, in which her sofa bed, never made, lay. The sofa cushions were on the floor, and a flat piece of wood was slid into place atop the springs of the sofa to make a makeshift desk; she could go from a yoga sit while she ate her midnight cereal and waited for her hormone pills to feel like they’d done their jobs, and playing games on Steam, to flopped down sideways ‘in bed’ without her ass ever shifting location.

The study was therefore free for other things.

Dropping onto a knee, Bea pulled the picture of Amos from her bag. It was a simple sheet of cartridge paper, treated to prevent bleeding, from a hobby lobby, whose puritanical staff would no doub crap themselves at the top tiers if they knew about a person like Bea using their products. Hell, she was close to being a witch wit hthis project. Was that weird to say? It was a little weird to say.

Bea shouldered the study door open, and put Amos in his place, the image of a soul in place alongside the souls of others. So many pictures. Dozens at this point – Mother had had a room like this, like a sort of drawn mausoleum, with images of the dead in the sepialine style she favoured. She’d introduced a new picture to everyone when she put it in place, and did so with a moroseness. “The soul of madam Enda Bexley,” she’d begun the list, with her first, and gone down throughout.

Bea didn’t. How would you introduce someone? Most of them wouldn’t even like each other. Mother had had her dying and ancient patriarchs and matriarchs, pinning these souls to paper in deference to rituals older than her home country, with never any proof of the magical power those books claimed to have. Mother had believed that it was like building up a dam, you had to fill the room with magical energy and you’d have a charge based on it – the assistance of thousands of souls.

Mother had been positively apopletic about that shit.

Bea fixed Amos’ picture in amongst the others. That smile. That sweet look in the eye, the darker hair around the back, the brownness. Of course, he’d had a brown mask, too – it was just what it meant, to be a sable. Looking around the room, at the other pictures, Bea smiled a little sadly to herself. Hello Fido, hello Brownies, hello Kubrick, hello Pasta Batman, hello, hello, hello… and hello, now, Amos.

They had all been loved. They were all missed. If there was power to be had, after all, it would be had here.

Bea closed her eyes and gave a sad little sigh, an acknowledgement to herself that this arts project and fulfillment of a family tradition was somehow a bit more of one than the other, and the balance was probably wrong to exist in a normal, sane, rational world with news programs and iPods and a global economy.

Maybe she’d smile tomorrow. Maybe. These pets weren’t bringing her what she wanted in her life – weren’t filling that hole – but she lived this project anyway. There was something mroe to it, something pure. She was a catcher in the rye to these people – protecting them from far worse, supernaturally-themed hooligans who would fleece them heartlessly.

The door closed behind Bea, just in that moment when the first spark of something very, very old rattled back into life.

On the pages, a dozen pets, the memory of those pets, the love that the owners had had, the shape of the pets in the memories of those around them and the memories of Bea, family members on four legs or two wings or even no limbs at all, all seemed to pulse on their page, as if the drawing of a single, interested, eager breath.

The world stirred.

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