THE QUINTS IN MASKS
Our grandmother died, which was not entirely unexpected, so we invited most of the senior class over to her house for a party. Of course, it wouldn’t be a tea party or some such prissy bullshit, but we hoped for something civilized enough that the night wouldn’t end with people smearing shit all over the walls. Was it so wrong, our grandmother freshly dead, to hope for something that would make us happy without ruining the world?
Before we even arrived at the house, the key snatched from our grieving parents, we found a window shattered, the drapes ripped from the rod, and the Quints, five fingers of a steel fist, already inside the house. They had taken the drapes, green and purple paisley, the fabric a heavy burlap, and fashioned them into masks. They razored open ragged eye slits and secured the masks with safety pins. They looked like scarecrows buried and then dug up. They had made themselves terrifyingly identical. “We’re early,” they said when we stepped into the living room, the door now unlocked and wide open. There were splatters of blood from one of the Quints, the one who had made an opening in the glass, no attempt to clean it up. The shards of glass were scattered across the carpet like hard candies, and we were too overwhelmed by their primitive masks to do anything about it. They had found the only alcohol in the house, a case of cherry brandy, and they were drinking it so furiously that their mouths dripped gore and fright.
There were three of us against the five of them, and, as it was anytime we were outnumbered by the Quints, there was a real tension within our bodies, a fear that, at any time, they would overpower us and do any number of unseemly things to our secret spaces. They were an army that acted without fear of reprisal. They had invaded our country and ransacked our supplies. More people were coming, and we only hoped it would be enough to repel them. We kept the keg hidden in the back of our truck, knowing it would not be safe from their overwhelming desires.
The Quints, buzzing on the old lady high of fruity liquor, devised a simple plan that proved to be more effective than we had anticipated. They tore through the house and fashioned a few weapons, meat tenderizers tied awkwardly to broomsticks, fine china snapped into sharp edges and then attached to the ripped-out cord of a vacuum cleaner. They took these weapons to the front door, along with any number of miscellaneous fabrics, and accosted each person that walked inside. “Wear this,” they would shout, their intent hidden by the burlap masks, stained blood-red from the cherry brandy, their breath like a dragon in Candy Land. With the razors that they kept on their key chains, they made eyes in everything they touched. Pillowcases became hoods, nightgowns became balaclavas, and scarves became domino masks. We became anonymous, our faces obscured, the beer weak but plentiful, our clothes, the longer we stayed in the house, reeking of mothballs and cinnamon candy. We were bashful, secure in these strange lodgings, our faces disfigured with fabric, so badly needing to rub against each other, to turn metal into rust. We ate potpourri and pretended we were Quints. We danced so furiously that the needle on the record player skipped in such a rhythm that the Glen Miller Orchestra turned into the staticky death of warplanes.
And then our grandmother showed up, hospital gowned and surgical masked. Her feet were bruised up from the pavement, and she hobbled to the front door, but the Quints were on her in seconds. “Those are my panties,” she shouted at us, but we assured her that it was a t-shirt, though now we were not so sure. We were happy to be masked, to say the least. “You are supposed to be dead,” one of the Quints said. Our grandmother nodded. “I was,” she replied, “but I came back. I came back so hard that I busted their machines and they had no choice but to let me leave.” They handed her a bottle of cherry brandy and she downed it in three gulps. Our grandmother seemed fond of the Quints, marveled at their weapons and ran her finger along the unraveling fringe of their masks. They leaned against the suggestion of her body and purred like overfed kittens.
By this point, we had tapped the keg and, as people walked out of the house, they dropped their masks into a heap at the door. We asked our grandmother if she was mad at us, and she said that she wasn’t. “Dying has flattened out my emotions,” she said. By now, the Quints were in a brandy coma, their sighing sleep like a table saw. Our grandmother, with a few simple gestures, had adopted them. The Quints, we now realized, would receive this house when she died, if dying had any hold on her now. We did not begrudge them this windfall. Their faces, twisted in the awful shapes of their dreams, were a masked horror. They would outlive us but lose limbs to gangrene. We straightened what we could and let ourselves out, still masked, rolling the empty keg along the sidewalk.
We feared the police would stop us, and wondered if masking one’s face was a crime. But we did not take off the scraps that hid our identities. We did not, not just yet, want to know ourselves. We wanted to remain a mystery, our faces overheated and itchy, our eyes rubbed raw by the inexpert slits, our drool and sweat soaked up and plastered to our skin. We wanted to be anonymous so that our bad decisions could be delayed for just one more night. Perhaps, we reasoned, the world would spit you back into existence if you ruined your body enough that it had to be refused.