The Eyes Behind the Mask

By R.Y. Brockway

The city has changed in my absence; I almost don’t recognize it. Like running into a childhood friend you haven’t seen in years, it takes a moment before recollection returns, bringing with it the realization that time has also changed you. I wonder, does the city still know me? I feel the urge to return to the rooftops and exclaim: “It’s me, The Nightmare, I used to be your protector.”

~~~~~

The carpeted halls of the Convention Center are new to the Nightmare. When she left the city its waterfront had been the home to outcasts, vagrants, and thieves. Now it’s a bustle of urban renewal. People have returned. The Nightmare is just one of the multitudes.

Slipping between the crowds like a wisp of early-morning fog, The Nightmare attempts to blend in. But she stands out amongst the brightly colored spandex that surrounds her. She considers the fact that civilian clothes may not have been the right decision. She is not like these others playing in costumes. The Nightmare knows the weight that comes with those frivolous disguises. She has sworn never to wear a mask again.

Her destination is in the back of the largest exhibit hall. A line has already formed when she reaches it. Taking her place, she tries not to look anxious as she waits.

In the bustling crowd The Nightmare makes out the rough impersonations of a dozen Cimmerians, a handful of Dark Eclipses. Crude effigies of other heroes whose names she remembers from the old days. There are even a few Nightmares, though they appear to have taken more liberties with their attire. The real Nightmare’s uniform was never so revealing; heels were never practical when she patrolled the rooftops of the city.

~~~~~

I used to see everything in black and white. There were only two ways: right and wrong. Now the world appears to me in shades of grey. Perhaps it was the mask that clouded my vision in those early years. But now that I see clearly, I can no longer pass judgment.

~~~~~

 When she reaches the head of the line a man with a ponytail greets The Nightmare from between two towers of books. His t-shirt is adorned with a picture of The Dark Eclipse, though the face is warped where the fabric is pulled taut over a wide belly.

“So it’s true then?” The Nightmare says aloud, though she is speaking only to herself. The Dark Eclipse stares back at her from the cover of the book she has just picked up. The mask he wears can’t hide the fact he has always had soft eyes.

“Tickets to the press conference where the true identities of The Dark Eclipse and his allies will be revealed are three hundred dollars,” the man states in a monotone voice. “You get an advance copy of the book free with the purchase.”

He is distracted, glancing at a tall buxom woman signing autographs just a few feet away. The Nightmare stifles an internal cringe when she recognizes who the woman is impersonating. Is this the way the world remembers her?

“No.” She makes a distraction by setting her bag on top of the table. With a covert motion, she tucks a copy of the book into her waistband. “I just wanted to see it for myself.”

The ponytailed man looks at her askance then shrugs, turning his attention to the next customer in line as The Nightmare slips back out the way she came. No one the wiser that one of their idols has been in their midst.

~~~~~

Hotels used to bother me. So many identical floors, so many identical rooms. You can get lost in such places; danger can lie just around the corner. Now, I take comfort in them. Anonymity is the best disguise.

~~~~~

The Nightmare can hear the air whistling from the crack beneath the door as she swipes her keycard. She is not surprised when she enters the room and sees the balcony door is ajar. Turning on the light, she sets her bag and the book on the desk by the television. Only then does she turn to address The Cimmerian.

“Have you read it?” she asks.

The Cimmerian rises from the chair in the corner. He is not in in his uniform, but is still clad in head-to-toe black. The dark clothing highlights the grey that has seeped into the sides of his once jet-black hair. The Nightmare can’t help but notice how much he has aged since the last time she saw him.

“No,” he says, “I have not.”

The control in his voice chills her, it always has. She has never been able to figure out what exactly he’s holding back. She has accepted this fact long ago: The Cimmerian is not the kind of man who can be understood. He will always be a mystery, even to himself.

~~~~~

You can lose yourself when you put on a mask. You can hide the part of you that is weak and make yourself an island. But when you take off the mask you must face who you really are, accept that the body and the soul are not impenetrable.

~~~~~

The Nightmare pulls back the sheer curtains. Below, the streets of the city are dark scars among the high-rises. She walks out onto the balcony. Gripping the railing, she breathes the night air. The smell is like perfume, triggering memories of who she used to be.

“I’m afraid,” she says to the shadow in the doorway behind her. “I don’t think I can reinvent myself again. What will happen to us once everyone knows who we are?”

The Cimmerian places his large hands on either side of hers. The Nightmare feels small in his embrace, but she also feels safe. She remembers a time when they had been a team, the trust she had put in him. He could tell her to leap from the tallest skyscraper and she wouldn’t bat an eye. The memory of the sensation of wind rushing across her face still tickles her skin like latent electricity.

“I don’t know,” he whispers above her head. The city lights burn before them, distant beacons crowding the horizon.

She turns and entwines her arms about him. When she presses herself against his chest The Cimmerian sucks a stream of air through his teeth.

“What’s wrong?” She pulls at the hem of his shirt with sudden concern. He doesn’t stop her as she exposes the fresh wound in his side bleeding through its bandage. “I thought you retired.”

~~~~~

Adrenaline can be addictive. Fear, the syringe that mainlines the drug to your system. I thought for the longest time it was death that scared me most. When I finally faced that possibility it left me feeling cold and empty. What scares me now is losing control.

~~~~~

The Nightmare dabs at the wound with a terry cloth towel. She removes the bandage and begins to apply sutures, careful not to put too much pressure on the swollen pink edges of the torn skin.

The Cimmerian allows her to do this, to mend him. When she finishes he takes hold of her fingers and after holding them for a moment kisses their tips. The gesture is gentle but he might as well have gripped The Nightmare tight by the arm. She cannot pull away from him. She can feel his loneliness in the touch, her loneliness, the loneliness of the entire world. Once again it is pulling them together.

His lips find her tender places. She yields to him. She is letting go. But she knows it’s only a momentary salvation.

~~~~~

Betrayal is a harsh word, but it is fitting. It is an emotion that lives in the heart, which is why it is felt so strongly. We did not mean to betray The Dark Eclipse, The Cimmerian and I. But it makes no difference. Betrayal doesn’t have to be intentional to cut deep.

~~~~~

The flickering light of the television is enough to raise The Nightmare from her slumbers. The silhouette of her lover is framed in the electronic glow. He is naked, and in this moment The Nightmare can see the extent of his scars, the knots in his muscles that were never there before. The Cimmerian has not fared well these years on his own.

She sits up, drapes a crumpled sheet around her, and moves to stand beside the silent sentinel. She can see now what he is watching; the eleven o’clock news is doing a story on The Dark Eclipse. The image of the screen is reflected in his eyes. When she reaches out to place a hand on his shoulder he flinches.

“I thought you knew I was here.”

The Cimmerian shudders as he switches off the TV. “I taught him everything I knew. There was a time I trusted him more than anyone. What does he hope to gain by exposing us?”

The Nightmare looks away. He still doesn’t understand, she thinks. They are so much alike, holding each other to unreachable standards, turning cold when the other fails to achieve them. Why, she thinks, is neither able to see that? She collects The Cimmerian’s clothes and hands them to him.

“I think it’s time for you to go.”

He looks at the pile she has amassed.

“Come with me.” There is a pleading in his voice she has never heard before. “We can be a team again.”

“No,” she looks out over the city, “we are on two separate paths.” She does not add that she left his road long before she left the city. He had just been too focused to notice.

~~~~~

Regret, it seems to follow me now like a shadow, an umbra that falls across my mind when all other thoughts have gone quiet. There are some things I knew I must pay for as I was doing them. I bear that penance with patience. But there are other crimes, ones I did not know I was committing, but of which I am still guilty. Hindsight is no reprieve; apologies are only words. We cannot undo what has been done. We must live with the consequences.

~~~~~

The Nightmare sits in the rented ballroom waiting for the moment her life will be turned upside down. She wasn’t planning on coming; she purloined a press pass at the last moment. But The Cimmerian’s visit has left her shaken, and she wonders if maybe her presence in the crowd might stir the same reaction in The Dark Eclipse. Maybe he will see her and remember there was a time they had been friends, allies.

The room grows increasingly stuffy as the minutes pass. Her nostrils are assaulted by the odor of stale coffee on hot breath, of human sweat and cheap cologne. As the temperature in the room rises the crowd around her fidgets in their stiff-backed seats.

The Nightmare turns her attention back to the book in her lap.

The page is earmarked, the chapter title simply states: The End. The Nightmare reads in The Dark Eclipse’s own words about the night when everything fell apart, when The Dark Eclipse had his accident.

She can find no fault in the sequence of events — the explosion, the fall, the terrifying moments before The Nightmare could reach him. But his description is lacking. It is like looking at the ocean from the surface instead of from its depths.

She wonders if it was a conscious decision on the part of The Dark Eclipse, the omission of their conversation before he went on without her. Is this his way of protecting her, by not mentioning the confession about the affair with The Cimmerian?

The descriptions of his bodily pain are so vivid, but there is no mention of the pain in his heart. Maybe he had believed her after all when she told him she hadn’t meant for any of it to happen, that it just had. When she held his hand and tried not to look at his bent body.

There is a stirring in the seats around The Nightmare. She looks up and realizes her vision is blurred by tears. She has to blink before the figure walking across the stage comes into focus. It is the man from the book table, his t-shirt replaced by a mismatched jacket and tie. He approaches the podium and lays two heavy hands on its sides. When he speaks, it is with disappointment. The Dark Eclipse, he informs the audience, has changed his mind.

~~~~~

The people of the city, they are the ones who called us heroes, they gave us our names. Perhaps that’s why it all went wrong. It was easy to forget we were still only human under all that prestige. Did they not realize the costumes we wore were just the insignias of the ideals they held us to? Fabric and leather, it was only a matter of time before they began to fray.

~~~~~

Long after the room has emptied out, The Nightmare still sits in her chair unable to move. She hasn’t thought past this moment. What does she do now?

Behind her one of the doors to the ballroom opens. The events crew, she thinks, here to clear the chairs and sweep up the debris. She begins to gather her things then stops when she realizes there is someone waiting at the end of her row.

“Donna?”

She looks up and is caught by a pair of soft eyes staring back at her. For a moment she is locked in their gaze as she struggles with what to say. The last time she saw The Dark Eclipse he had still been in a hospital bed. The words she had poured out then had been lost on unconscious ears.

“Adrian!” is all she can manage.

He begins to move and she sees for the first time the cane, the stiffness in his back where the vertebrae have been fused. She bursts forward, stumbling over her own feet to get to him before he takes another labored step.

She wants to touch him, but can’t bring herself to do it.

“I had a visit last night from our mutual friend. It didn’t go well.” There is a heaviness to his words and The Nightmare feels her stomach drop. She thinks about the wound in The Cimmerian’s side. But there doesn’t appear to be a scratch on The Dark Eclipse. There are only the old wounds, the traumas which would never fully heal.

“You changed your mind?”

The Dark Eclipse reaches out to take the book from her hand and looks at it frowning.

“I had to get it out,” he says. “After you left I had no one left to confide in. I thought, maybe…”

She waits for him to continue. The air between them has grown incredibly still, as if there wasn’t another soul in the entire city.

“I knew about you and Dane before you told me. It was just hearing it aloud … it was too much. It blinded me. I had to get away. It was my own mistake, going on ahead of you.”

The Nightmare covers her mouth as the emotions well up inside her. “Adrian, I’m so sorry, I never meant…”

The Dark Eclipse raises his hand to stop her before she can go on.

“A hundred thousand words give or take,” he weighs the book in his hand, “and still I couldn’t figure out what I was feeling in that moment. But ten minutes alone with that man.” The Dark Eclipse shakes his head and lets out a wry chuckle. “We are all so vulnerable. I realize that now. It was my own fear of being left behind, of being cut out, that drove my anger. Once I understood that I knew I couldn’t go through with the press conference. There would be nothing to gain by exposing the truth. We are good enough at hurting ourselves already.”

There is a slight grin in the corner of the Dark Eclipse’s mouth, a knowing grin that is contagious. Shared by the only two people who know what it’s like to be burdened by the Cimmerian’s confidence, who have lived in his shadow.

“He’ll never change.”

“I suppose you’re right.” The Dark Eclipse looks up at the vacant stage, at the banners displaying his concealed face. In profile, The Nightmare notices the wrinkles that have formed in the corners of his eyes. They are like anchors, giving his face a steadiness that hadn’t been there before.

“I’ll never see a penny of the profits now, but I think I got my worth out of it.” He sighs, turning back to face her.

“Well then,” The Nightmare takes the book back from him and lays it on an empty seat, “maybe you’ll let an old friend buy you a drink?”

Arm in arm, The Nightmare leads the Dark Eclipse back through the convention hall. He leans against her as they pass through the sliding glass doors, leaving behind them their past and the other attendees still wearing their masks.

~~~~~

~~~~~

R.Y. Brockway writes short stories with the intent to entertain and thrill her readers. A lover of both the mundane and the macabre, she explores aspects of both in her writing, if not necessarily at the same time. She lives with her husband in Virginia. You can find more of her work here on Fiction Vortex, as well as in the anthology Another 100 Horrors and the upcoming Pick your Punk edition of Fictionvale.

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