Tried and True
"No way! Check this out," Jrue said, running to the open door and going inside the corner store. I saw the banner in the window. It said in bright scrolling electronic letters, 'Face Masks. Tried and True. Cheap!'
Dave and I entered the building, excited to see the new items up close, but not nearly as much as Jrue. He was already checking out the display and shuffling through the Masks like an old guy digging through vinyl records. We joined him, just browsing, looking over the designs and shapes, commenting on how ugly or how badass each one was. I tried one on, slipped it over my hair and adjusted it to my chin in the mirror. Instantly I was transformed into a mannequin, an unrecognizable, faceless model of myself. I took it off, impressed but not enough to fork out the dough.
"These are so dope," Jrue said, trying one on after another, each time smearing his black face paint more and more.
"Hey, your face is showing," Dave said, voicing my concerns.
"Man, so?" Jrue asked. "There ain't no Hacks around here. Even if there were, what's the worse they could do? Drain my bank account?" He laughed, knowing his account was as empty as ours. Cash had made a comeback in a big way after the Hacks had started trending.
"Exactly. Nobody is going to waste their time Hacking us," I said. "So what you need a Face Mask for?" In reality I had always wanted a Mask. I thought they were the coolest thing I'd ever seen, especially the ones movie stars and athletes had customized for themselves. But that's just it, we were kids, living on the broke side of life and not on anybody's agenda.
Jrue didn't answer, so Dave and I dropped the subject. It was his money, his life. It wasn't for us to decide. After a few minutes that saw Jrue wearing twenty different faces, the store clerk came over and asked if we needed help. Dave and I said no, but Jrue turned to him.
He held up a Graphix Mask, one of their Rorschachs that didn't need any painting or maintenance--it did it all itself. He had tried it on first, then again, and again. "What's the story with this one?" he asked, spinning the thin material around his hand like pizza dough.
The clerk's eyes widened. "That's a Rorschach A230, one of the best models ever made. Completely rearranges every 24 hours, customizable schemes, downloadable designs. Basically the only Mask you'll ever need, and since it's Tried and True, you can get it today for only a hundred and seventy-five dollars."
"One seventy-five!" Dave and I said together, with equal shock and disgust. Had I held the Mask I would have tossed it on the shelf and never looked back. Jrue just kept spinning it.
"That's over seventy percent off," the clerk said matter-of-factly. "You won't find a better deal this side of China."
I opened my mouth to say something smart but Jrue cut me off. "What do you mean, Tried and True?"
"Well that just means it's been worn before and returned or donated back to the store. We guarantee it to be fully functional and as clean as a nuclear testing lab."
"Any idea who owned it before?" Jrue asked.
I could tell by the small grin and the look in his eyes he was imagining a superstar ball player or a billionaire actor slipping the mask on before heading out to practice or to a movie premier.
"No, there's no way to tell. All it said was Rorschach, never fails. When I reset it I found there were three usernames on the online store though, so it's been around the block." The store clerk started shuffling his feet, like he was wasting his time talking to a bunch of kids about a mask they would never buy.
I don't know who was most surprised when Jrue spoke again. "I'll take it."
I couldn't believe he really bought it. I saw him pull a wad of cash from his pocket and the clerk put the mask on a mannequin head and in a box, but I still couldn't believe it.
He could throw away all his Face Paint, would never have to rub the thick, oily liquid on his face again, would never smell the blubbery whale smell or have to pour saltwater over his eyes when some accidently got in there and burned like fire. All he had to do was slide the mask on, like a glove over his face, stick one electrode to his temple, and forget about it.
I was jealous.
I had known Jrue since elementary school. In fact, Dave and I were among the few that knew what his true face really looked like. I knew the rusty brown of his eyes, the upturn of his nose, the small scar that traced his cheekbone. Details like that were secret. The whole block knew Jrue sold drugs, and they all knew he dreamed of being a rapper once he graduated. Very few knew what he looked like.
Hacking had changed everything. Some company in China created a handheld facial recognition system that could literally access everything, everything the world knew about you. Street camera photos, ATM video reels, your behavior record from kindergarten. A good Hacker didn't even need to know your name. All he needed was a few seconds to scan your face and he had it all. Once they got you, even a rookie could clean out your bank account, leak photos from your smartphone, and add your name to the FBI's most wanted database, all before they finished their morning cup of coffee.
That's where Masks came in.
"This is so badass." Jrue slapped our hands and ran upstairs to his apartment, looking at the mask like it was a gift from God Himself. He disappeared inside and I knew he would spend the rest of the night programming it to his specs.
Dave and I lived down the street in the same apartment building, and on the walk there we were stopped twice and asked if we wanted to buy. The first guy was selling bootleg DVDs and MP3 cards. It was cheap, but much like the Masks, cheap was still too steep for us. We passed. The second guy said he had that Loud, that Kush, and he could have some dope in our hands in five minutes. We kept walking, used to the dealers badgering us. They probably didn't recognize us, either from using their own supply or from our painted faces. Honestly, it was hard to recognize anybody. Last time I got high, I saw myself in the mirror and thought some punk was trying to mug me in the club bathroom.
When we passed on the dope the dealer called after us, asking if we wanted to slang it instead. Dave yelled back that we already did, which was a lie, but was enough to shut the guy up. Jrue, Dave and I had decided to stay out of the game after we got jumped and almost killed over a couple ounces and a wad of crumpled fives. That was the night Jrue got the scar on his cheek.
I left Dave and went up to my room. Ma was asleep and Dad was, well, who knows? Not here. I shut the door and went to my mirror. My cleanser was running low and I had to squeeze the bottle to get enough on the rag to clean my face. It always took a minute to get used to the sight of my naked face. It was me, familiar and all, but it didn't look right, like after you shave a thick beard or the morning after you get a new tattoo. You expect to see it, but it still doesn't register immediately.
Then you blink a few times and it hits you, Oh yeah, that's what I really look like.
I went to sleep wondering what it would be like looking in the mirror after taking off a Rorschach.
Jrue came out of his apartment for school the next morning with his arms raised and a smile across his face. Well, across the Rorschach anyway. "You ain't got to tell me," he said. "I know it's fucking awesome."
And it really was. It was like looking at a completely different person. If he hadn't spoken I wouldn't have known it was my lifelong friend.
Every day for a week we walked to school together and every day Jrue was unrecognizable. Our classmates looked at him like he was wearing ice and breathing fire. It was like Christmas morning every time he walked in the classroom. Even the teachers seemed to look forward to seeing the new design on the Rorschach.
The one flaw, so small that it took me a week to notice, was a glitch on the right side just above his jawline. I noticed it, a break in the silk-like image of the Mask, in class one day while we were watching a video lesson on the Civil War. It flickered like a TV with a dead spot in one corner, a pixelated break in the picture, not enough to ruin the show but enough to notice.
Tried and True, my ass.
Jrue didn't seem to notice, or care. He was as happy as a Hacker on the Red Carpet praying for a face slip.
In fact, when we passed the store the next day he took a peek inside to see if there was anything new on the rack. "You know what would be sick," he said as we all walked over the railroad tracks headed home. "I saw online there were three Rorschachs made in a set. There's the A230." His face smiled and he pointed at it. "Then there's the B360 and the C720. If you guys got the B and C models we could be like..." He struggled for a term big enough to describe what we could be. In the end he settled for a head exploding gesture and made the sound of a bomb going off.
Dave and I laughed. It would be pretty cool. We'd walk into school like bandits and put all the rich kids with their designer face paints to shame. Girls would be trying to take selfies with us, maybe more.
The sound of a bullet in the chamber and seeing a gun in our faces was enough to bring us back to reality.
We were on the block not far from Jrue's place when the guy stepped out from an alley and shoved the gun in Jrue's face. "That's a nice Mask, homeboy," he said, pushing Jrue's head back with the barrel. "Bet that shit will look great on me."
"Go to Hell," Jrue said, knocking the gun to the side. It was hard to tell for sure, but I thought the guy was the same dealer that stopped Dave and I last week. His voice sounded the same but you could never tell.
"Oh, you got balls, huh?" The gun came back to Jrue's head. "You got some damn money to back it up?"
Jrue scoffed and made to keep walking. I don't know what he was thinking or if he understood he was being robbed, but he didn't act like he was. He waved for us to follow, but was pushed back and staring at the gun once more.
"Don't think I won't repo that Mask right off your face. Now you got some money or is this about to get messy?"
Jrue's Mask was unreadable. I couldn't tell if he was pissed, scared, or laughing. The Rorschach made those three emotions one and the same. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a rolled-up stack of 20s. He threw it to the ground and stared past the barrel at the guy.
For a second I was sure Jrue was dead. I imagined the gun going off and red splotches covering the Mask.
But with the twitchy speed of an addict, the man lunged for the money and disappeared back into the alley. He was gone and Jrue was walking home.
That night I got a message from Jrue. It was short and just said not to come get him for school tomorrow. No explanation. I said okay and asked if he was all right. No reply.
The next morning I met Dave and he said he got the same message. We agreed it wasn't like Jrue at all to ditch us or to toss money to muggers, but we didn't say anything else on the matter. We were both worried. Personally, I thought he was selling again. Or using.
When a family member is in danger or trouble, there's an instinct to get involved and protect them. We were family, Jrue, Dave, and I.
Dave and I passed the store on the way to school and saw the clerk trying on one of the Face Masks to show a customer. He saw us and waved, a living puppet staring blankly ahead, but moving like a real man. The empty black eyes on the liquid smooth white Mask were on me all the way to school.
After three days of no contact with Jrue, Dave and I went to his apartment after school and knocked. From behind the cracked-open door, his sister Ysa's face appeared. She was four years younger than us, just now starting middle school. We had known her since she was born. She looked anxious.
"Is Jrue around?" I asked.
Ysa glanced at the stairs but shook her head no.
"We haven't seen him in a while, is everything all right?" Dave asked.
Again, Ysa shook her head. "He's sick," she said, speaking up over some particularly heavy bass beating from upstairs.
"Oh." Dave looked at me. Neither of us bought it.
"Well, tell him we stopped by and to hit us up later," I said.
Ysa nodded and closed the door.
Dave stayed at my apartment that night. We spent the night watching TV and eating pizza in silence. A news story came on after the basketball game and I was about to change it when Dave jumped up and said, "Hold up. What's this?"
The feminine blonde reporter said, "A recent study at the University of Louisville shows that some of the popular Face Mask brands could have some very serious side effects. Picassos, HackSafe, and Venetias have been shown to cause increased fluctuations in users who have schizophrenia or bipolar personalities. There have also been cases of severe headaches, short term memory loss, and in one instance a seizure was recorded."
Her Mask was expressionless. "The researchers believe this comes from the transitive property of these Masks. The Masks seep lights and subliminal images into the brain which have been proven to influence behavior. Of the Masks tested, researchers found that many of the original brands are safe to use, but more recent, trending brands, especially the Rorschach series by Graphix, are extremely likely to seep these images. Users are advised to limit their exposure by switching between Masks and paints and are urged not to use the Rorschachs' built-in memory system. This system's temple electrode sets itself to the users most used and favorite designs and can put them on a loop, which exposes the user to..."
I shut the TV off. Dave's eyes were the size of golf balls. I imagined mine were just as big.
"You don't think..." I said.
"No way," Dave said, in a voice that nearly squeaked. His lying voice.
Something else bothered me. "You remember that iPod you found at the park a long time ago?"
"The pink and black one," he said. "What about it?"
"Remember how it was locked and set on repeat, playing that one band nonstop?"
"Foo Fighters," he said, remembering the old band neither of us had ever heard of until then.
"Remember how we couldn't stand it at first, but we kept listening and by the end of the day we knew half the songs by heart?"
"Yeah. Dude what's that got to do with anything?"
"Would you say that iPod was tried and true?"
He started to shake his head and argue, but light struck his eyes as he made the connection. "Who knows who that thing belonged to before we found it? We could have been listening to a serial killer's murder playlist. And we liked it."
"Whose eyes do you think Jrue is looking through right now?" I asked.
As if in response, the power went out and we were alone, nothing but screams in the dark.
Dave was gone, running through the apartment with nothing but his cell phone to light the way.
I stumbled over furniture, bashing my knee on the counter, making my way to the door. Late evening light spilled in once I opened it. "Dave! Come on, we have to check the breaker."
He didn't answer. The last I saw he was moving toward the kitchen but now the whole apartment seemed to be set on mute. All I heard was my own breath coming in and going out.
"Dave!" I stepped toward the kitchen, across the cry of the loose floorboard behind the couch. "Dave, where you at?"
The kitchen had no windows so from the hallway it looked like I was walking into an empty cave. My steps slowed while my heart began to race. "Dave," I said again, hardly above a whisper.
The kitchen table banged and screamed across the floor and footsteps raced toward me. I backpedaled and nearly punched Dave in the mouth when his face broke through the shadows. I pushed him anyway. "Why didn't you answer, ass?"
"My bad. I was looking for something." He raised a giant monkey wrench in one hand and a filet knife in the other.
I looked from one hand to the next. I pointed at the wrench. "What the hell is that for? You gonna tweak his nuts and bolt?"
"Whose?" he asked.
"Never mind, just come and help me with the breaker."
Together, we went outside onto the deserted street. The breaker was on the far side of the building and we crossed the yard to get there. Our breath hovered in front of us like tiny ghosts protecting our naked faces. I thought for a moment we might get Hacked out in the open without so much as a hat and shades on. One look around the empty streets and the rundown ghetto apartments, and the thought disappeared quickly. There were no Hackers here.
Tires squealed somewhere down the block, burning rubber beneath a roaring engine. I sped up a little.
Dave was already at the breaker when I turned the corner, tapping his ridiculous wrench on the outer box. His eyes were down. "Wires are cut," he said quietly.
"Shut up," I said.
"No seriously, look."
I looked and saw Dave wasn't pulling my leg. The wires were cut right down the middle, some hanging like vines and some standing like weeds, but none connected. It would be dark until the electric company came, probably sometime tomorrow. "What now?" I asked.
Dave was looking up the street and raised his wrench like a bulky arrow. "Lights on in 33G." That was Jrue's apartment.
We started walking toward the light, like moths to the only open flame on the block. It dawned on me that we were leaving my apartment out of fear and headed towards Jrue, who was partially what we were afraid of in the first place. Some strategy, avoid the sack and throw an interception.
Tires squealed again, this time behind us. Headlights came to life and cast our shadows over the pavement. We turned in time to see smoke rising from the spinning tires of an old red Camaro and hear the roar of the engine as the traction finally caught and the car lurched towards us. Our shadows stretched into deformed outlines of black giants.
"Run," I screamed, already tearing down the street with Dave a half step behind me. Jrue's place was close enough to see shadows moving through the windows, but the Camaro was moving fast. Our shadows had already faded in the brightness of the headlights and the smell of gasoline was stealing the air around us.
Without warning, the car roared louder than ever and the headlights blinked out. The noise was deafening as the car raced past us, stopping us in our tracks. It jumped in front of us, swerved, and fish tailed until we were looking at the tinted windshield and white racing stripe up the hood. The headlights blinded us completely. The doors opened.
Two men stepped out, both holding guns, both wearing Face Masks. From the looks of them, they were both Rorschachs. A third man stepped up, armed and Masked like the others. He walked to the front and stood before of us.
Even before he spoke, I knew it was him.
"Long time, no see," Jrue said from behind the mixed expressions of his Mask. "Missed you guys."
Dave smiled. "Been busy? When did you start driving Christine?"
Jrue laughed and tilted his head to the side. It was a familiar movement, one he always did when he heard stupid little jokes. He had caught the old movie reference and for a moment I saw his real smile creep across the Rorschach. But only for a moment. "Don't worry about that, kid, you worry about this right now." He held up the machine pistol, pointed it at his face. "You guys look like shit. No face paint?"
"Power's out," I said. "Didn't think anybody would notice."
Jrue nodded. "True enough. Let's cut to the chase. I trust you guys, you're like family to me, and that's something I don't see much these days. I want you two by my side. I've got some big plans and I could use my brothers. What do you say?"
"Care to give some details, Jrue?" Dave said, taking a step forward.
Jrue waved the gun and Dave stopped.
"You wouldn't understand, not right now anyway." He gestured at the two men behind him. "You see those Masks? That's B and C model Rorschachs, the complete set right here. I want you two to wear them, and I promise you you'll understand everything once you slide them on."
The other two men began to complain and protest giving their prized Faces away, but Jrue shut them up with a look.
"What happened Jrue?" I asked. "You know this ain't you. It's that Mask."
"No! That's what you don't understand, this is me. The real me. You've never felt the kind of freedom you feel behind one of these. Face paint is just a game, make believe for poor kids. This is the real deal. You can do anything, be anybody. Haven't you always wanted to be...somebody?"
"Depends on who that somebody is," Dave said. "Who are you right now?"
Jrue's Face Mask smiled, not his smile but the fake, animated version. "I can see you two aren't interested in my proposal. So--" He cocked the pistol and turned it to the man on his right. He fired three shots into his chest and the man slumped over.
The other man jumped and pointed his gun at Jrue, but Jrue ignored him, was too preoccupied ripping the Mask from his dead henchman's face. The image flickered at his touch and the man's real face appeared, though it was just as empty as the Mask now.
Jrue held the Mask up in one hand and aimed the pistol in the other. "There's one spot available on my team. Who wants to join? Dave?" He turned to me. "Baby Bro?" I flinched at the sound of the once affectionate nickname now gargled and spat like an insult in my face. "Come on, I promise you it'll all make sense when you put this Mask on."
While Jrue was looking at me, Dave had inched forward and behind the living henchman, who had backed away from Jrue when the other man was killed. Dave knocked the man sharply over the head with the wrench and took his gun, training it on Jrue, who turned his pistol on him. They faced off, a modern cowboy against a high tech bandit.
Jrue looked at the limp body of his second henchman. "Nice work, Dave." He held the Mask out, like a King offering the crown jewel to his heir.
Dave shook his head. "A couple weeks ago, I would have taken that Mask from you, Jrue. Taken it in a heartbeat. Not for power or freedom or whatever you think you have, but just because you asked. But you're not Jrue anymore."
Jrue sighed. "You're right, Dave." He pulled the trigger, shooting Dave clean in the chest.
The gun fell and the wrench landed with a huge clatter. Dave fell to his knees, staring with dying eyes at what was once family.
Jrue kneeled before him. "I'm just Rorschach now."
I watched as Jrue...Rorschach stood up and looked away while his old friend bled out.
I saw Dave's final mask creep over his face, lifeless and cold.
My best friend had just died at my oldest friend's hand. A million emotions swirled inside me, colliding, mixing, hurting. At that moment, I felt cold, lifeless, alone. It was like the bullet had struck Dave, but killed me instead. I was suddenly nobody, nothing to anybody.
Jrue turned to me, saw my naked face for what it was.
He took off the Mask. "I'm sorry Baby Bro." His eyes, his skin, the scar along his cheekbone, it really was Jrue.
I felt tears in my eyes and let them drip, if only to let some of my emotions out.
Jrue put a hand on my shoulder and pulled me into an older brother's embrace. I didn't fight it like I imagined I would.
After a moment, he let me go. Both of his hands were gloved by the two Rorschach masks and now that a new day was beginning, I could see the designs switching, like inkblots spreading over paper. I wondered what I would see in them when they finally took form.
Jrue held out the second Mask, the one he had taken off the first man he shot tonight.
I looked at Dave, his face a mask of death, then looked at the man Dave knocked out. I think he was still breathing, but either way, his face was the same as Dave's. Of everyone here, dead or alive, Jrue had the only uncovered, familiar face.
I took the Mask.