Flashing colored lights, bursting sounds, flagrant odors; all flickering before her eyes, her mind reeling. The sounds hammer on her ears, the lights and colors burn her eyes, and the odors fill her nostrils. She can barely breathe, she cannot think, she can do nothing but turn in the circles as those around her dance, laugh, and make merry. Her eyes feel like they are being stabbed with a hot poker as the lights and colors fade from her sight. Her head feels a weight upon her shoulders, pulling her down into the dark. Her mind tumbles from the awareness of the world. As she falls, her mind registers a blue and black spot hitting the floor before she does.
Out of the corner of his eyes, he sees a masked woman teetering before those around her notice. He runs, aiming to catch her before she hits the ground, leaving behind another woman. Startled, she stares after him, and slowly follows. She watches as her date slips and slides on the wet stones in the square, until he finally reaches the masked woman, her blue-feathered mask falling from her face. The falling woman does not seem to register that she herself is falling, or that anyone has caught her. But under her, the man keeps her from the ground, dirtying his own costume.
The left date heads to the man, but is blocked by the crowd as they cluster around him and the fallen lady. She can hear his voice try to wake the unconscious woman, but she cannot see him.
Slowly, she turns away, lifting her hand to her mouth, chewing on her nail. She turns to try and find a way into the crowd, but there is none.
Beneath an overhang, a second man stands, watching the commotion as people rush towards the crowd. But the man does not seem to be interested in the crowd or the unconscious woman. His eyes, though partly shrouded by his haunting mask, are on her. As she notices him, he motions for her to approach. Shaking, she slowly moves toward him. His lips show a hint of a smile as he holds out his hand.
“Take my hand and come with me,” he murmurs to her, his smile never fading. Hesitantly, she places her hand in his, and he leads her into the doorway behind him. He leads her into a room full of light, covered in beautifully crafted rugs.
The man lets go of her hand, faces her, and spreads his arms, his eyes cloaked by the mask. “Welcome to the Masque’s Manor, my manor.”
She glances around, eyes wide. As she watches the walls bend and waver, she asks, “Am I dreaming?”
That gentle smile remains on his face as he evades the question, “We can supply anything your heart desires, but the consequences can be dire. I have brought you here to fulfill your greatest desire.”
She does not comprehend. “My greatest desire?”
The man nods. “I know what it is,” his voice is no louder than a whisper, yet it feels like a shout, “and you know as well. Would you like the Manor to fulfill your desire?”
She does, but she only manages to say, “Tell me what you think my desire is.”
The man’s smile barely moves as he says, “Of course.”
Leaning on the hospital windowsill, the man breaths in the night air, filling his lungs with the sweet smells. He gazes out the window, the sights and sounds of the Carnival below. Glancing behind him, he listens to the beep of the various machines. The heart monitor dances, the cardio-regulator plays the clarinet, and the drip plays the chimes. Drip…beep…chirp…, a constant, small band in the confined room.
Then there is the woman sleeping among the white hospital sheets, her eyes lightly closed, her lips crinkled with the hint of a smile, and the muscles the very picture of relaxation. The man smiles to himself; she is beautiful, he had to admit. There is something about her that draws him in, but he cannot place it. He knows it is not because he saved her, or because she is so helpless before him. But he cannot identify it.
There was something about this that made him chuckle. Logos tells him he should be gone; the hospital would care for her. However, pathos tells him he should stay; to be sure she wasn’t injured in the fall. Confusion spears his heart; what he should do escapes him.
He will wait for this woman to wake, he decides.
For the first time in a while, the once-masked woman wakes to the beeping of machines. Her eyes open slowly, and she is met by the bright lights of a white room. Groaning, she shuts her eyes tight.
She moans inside, denying this fact, telling herself she is dreaming, she is not in the hospital. She cannot be in the hospital.
A clearing of the throat jolts her, her eyes flying open in her shock. There, standing by the open window, is a tall, handsome man with short hair. There are bags of exhaustion beneath his eyes; was he waiting for her, she wonders briefly.
“I’m glad you’re awake,” comes the cliché greeting. She nods, rolling her head away from him. “Well…the doctors assure me you’ll be up in no time. I was rather worried when you collapsed at the Carnival.”
She shrugs. “I’m enochlophobic.”
He blinks. “You’re…what?”
Sighing, she turns her head back to him. “The fear of crowds.”
Tilting his head like a dog, he asks, “Then why were you at the Carnival? That’s the most crowded place to go.”
“I wanted to see it,” she murmurs, “before I die.”
“What, are you thanatophobic, too?” He means it as a joke; she can tell.
“No,” she sits up slowly, glaring at the white sheets. “I don’t fear death, I just wanted to see the Carnival.”
He shrugs. “Alright, but you shouldn’t push yourself.”
“Why would you care?”
He smiles. “Because I care about everyone.”
So handsome, yet so naïve; she shakes her head. “Whatever suits you.”
A rich, bell-like laugh escapes his throat, causing her to shake her head once more.
“Well?” the abandoned date asks, glancing at the masked man.
“It’s done,” the man’s lips still bear that illusion of a smile. “Just kiss him when next you see him.”
She sighs. “Will he notice the change?”
“Perhaps,” the man replies, “however, it will not be for some time.”
Nodding, she pauses to glance at a pendant in a glass case. “When will you collect your…payment?”
“Now.” The man strides to her, his hand hovering above her chest. “Are you prepared to give this up?”
She nods. “For him.”
“Very well.” Without hesitation, he plunges his hand into her chest, as if his hand is that of a ghost’s. Burning pain spikes up her spine, a scream loosed from her throat.
Then the sensation is gone. She stands before the man, breathing heavily, but otherwise perfectly fine. She gazes at the man with wide eyes. In his hand, her payment beats steadily, the muscles of the red and blue organ tremor in sync with the pulse in her veins.
A heart. No, her heart.
A knock on the door alerts the two to the entrance of the left behind woman.
“I knew you would be here,” her smile broadens when she sees the man, still standing by the window.
His eyes widen. “Oh, Em, I’m sorry I left, I just wasn’t thinking-”
The woman shakes her head, laughing. “Its okay, don’t worry about it.”
The man sighs with relief. “Thanks, I mean it.”
Again, she laughs. “You shouldn’t be thanking me; you should be kissing me.”
Laughing with her, he slaps his forehead in ignorance. He strides from the window, wraps his arms around the woman’s abdomen, and kisses her passionately.
The woman on the hospital bed looks away. She berates herself; she should have known a man like that would have someone. There was no hope for her failing body.
“So when’s the wedding?” she asks between clenched teeth.
“Wedding?” the woman asks innocently enough.
“Next year,” the man responds with a broad smile on his face, “Some time in spring.”
“I’m happy for them,” she lies to herself, forcing a smile.
Nevertheless, she cannot deceive herself; her mind knows. Her heart races, thumping in her ears. It drowns out the sounds of the hospital machines.
There is a sharp pain in her chest; she gasps, her shoulders shaking as she bows over her legs, twisting in the agony. Her eyes are wide, her breath coming in gasps. The room spins, the lights are too bright, her lungs cannot hold-
Then it stops. Everything. The machines behind her drone out their tune, their ending line.
However, no one is in the room to care.