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The power. I feel it seeping into my bones from the moment I wake up. I thrive on it. That’s why they appointed me as head of the Masks. Our little secret society is ignored by the teachers. We don’t bother them. They don’t bother us.
The Masks are a legend, and I intend on making my name associated with that legend. Back in 1963 when St. Bartholomew’s School for Boys opened up, an unintentional pact was made between the students and the teachers. The Masks serve as the discipline of the school. A little fear goes a long way. You couldn’t understand until you’ve seen the panic-stricken face of some nerd and heard the whimpering and the pleading. Knowing you caused a person to feel that way is enough.
When Tommy Jones walked past me in the hallway for the first time, I knew he would make the perfect victim. He was tall, gangly, holding his AP Statistics textbook close to his chest, his thick-rimmed glasses slipping to the tip of his nose. Perfect.
I kept my footsteps in tune with his as he rushed down the barren hallway towards his classroom. The late bell had already rung. He glanced around at the stone walls. I grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around. “Behind the bleachers. Today after school” was all I said, but it was all I needed to say. I don’t think anyone could pull this off better than me. They worship me, the Masks.
Nodding frantically, he hurried off down the hallway. Tripping, he sent his glasses flying across the chipped wood floor. I turned and left. With every step I took I felt that power growing inside me, clawing its way up my throat. Perfect.
I strolled down the hallway, ignoring classes. “You there! What are you doing in the hallway?” I turned to see the sneering face of Mrs. Shirmpkin. Her beady eyes looked down at me over her triangular glasses. I ran.
I can run. The reason why I’m a football player is because I can run. My cleats dig into the grassy soil, wind rushing past me, the end zone getting closer and closer.
It felt almost as if my feet weren’t touching the wooden floor as I ran to take refuge in the bathroom.
A toilet flushed behind me. I switched onto Mask mode and awaited my prey. The broad hulking form of Sean Kidd emerged. He was still zipping up his khakis. His beady eyes found mine. “Oh hey, Richie.”
“Sean,” I nodded. Sean Kidd was one of my main guys.
“Oh yeah, Richie,” He scratched his head. “I sorta have something to tell ya.”
“What is it?”
“Well, I overheard this kid, Tommy Jones.” He scratched his head. “I heard him talking to Dr. Richmond. He told him about us.”
“What do you mean, Sean?”
“He told him about the Masks.” I sucked in a deep breath. “Hey, Richie,” he scratched his head. “I know I was supposed to tell you and all, but I don’t really know what this means.”
“Shhhhh!” He covered his mouth and nodded, eyes bulging out of his square head.
I ducked my head down to check for feet underneath the stalls. Once I was convinced nobody was listening to our conversation, I turned to Sean.
“You can uncover your mouth now.”
“Oh yeah, ok.” Sean was always very simple-minded, but he did have that tough, malicious streak. “Well Richie, want me to go rough him up?” He was being perfectly honest. Sean doesn’t lie. I’m not sure he has the mental capability of lying.
“No. We need to wait for his next move.”
I lingered on my short walk home. Soon, the familiar red brick and matching shutters came into view. I walked up the path to the third house in the row. I pulled open the screen-door and was engulfed by the smell of alcohol and smoke. I felt my throat close, due to the lack of clean oxygen in the air.
“Nancy! Where’s my grits?”
“Make them yourself!”
“I married you for two reasons. One, because you got pregnant with that kid and two because you’re supposed to make me food!” Ah yes, just the hostile environment every kid dreams of growing up in.
“Hey Dad.” I said tentatively not daring to make eye contact.
“Well look what the flea infested feline dragged in. Did you do anything useful today, boy?”
“Just what I thought. If you weren’t good at football you wouldn’t even be goin’ to that fancy private school.” He was right. My family was poor, trash. I’m lucky that I go to St. Bartholomew’s and I know it.
“You really should leave the kid alone, Bill!”
“Get me my grits!”
“Get a shower!” I climbed down the steps to the basement, ignoring the shouting. I cleaned up a little bit, but left enough clothes and such out to give my room an effortlessly messy look. I called a Mask meeting tonight.
The first knock came ten minutes earlier than expected. It must be Dominick. I pulled open the door to reveal the tall, well-built figure of Dominick Caine. “Richie.” He stuck out his hand to shake. I took it and watched his muscles ripple as his arm moved up and down. “Sorry I’m early, man, I just didn’t want to miss anything.” He stood there awkwardly for a moment, and then sat down in a faded orange armchair.
More and more filed in until all 13 of us were comfortably sitting or standing. I walked to the center of the room. “Thank you all for attending on such short notice. We seem to have a situation –“
“A code red!” Sean shouted from my green and blue patterned sofa in the back. The whole room of people began to whisper between each other.
“Enough.” They all looked expectedly at me. “There is a code red. A boy, Tommy Jones is trying to reveal us. I need you guys to keep tabs on him. Sampson, you watch him first half of the school day. Carlos, watch him at lunch. Wheeler and DiPillo, get him the second half of the school day. Copozza, watch him go home. If he goes anywhere out of the ordinary, contact Sean or Dominick. Report back to me after each shift. The rest of you just keep your eyes open.” The boys noted their jobs and then dispersed. Once the last person left, which was Dominick because he didn’t want to miss anything, I went to my futon and pulled out the bed to sleep.
After a few uneventful days, Friday arrived. I told my guys to watch him closer than before. If anything were to happen, it would be today. That frightened, nerdy boy I had tormented in the hallway proved that there was more to him than I thought. He was a fighter.
Today was the last day of the marking period and awards assembly day. I never got any awards; my dad never lets me forget that.
When we were all ushered into the auditorium, I took my usual seat in the very back. At first, no one sat anywhere near me. To my sadistic pleasure, all I received were nervous glances. I had already arranged for the rest of the Masks to sit throughout the room, just in case Tommy tried something. The seats around me did fill as more and more students came in and fewer and fewer options were available.
Dr. Richmond got up on the stage and walked to the podium. “Welcome. I don’t do introductions. The first award,” he boomed, “for most academic success goes to—Thomas Jones.” Tommy stood up from his seat near the front and walked up to the stage. He better not try anything. Sean turned around to look at me from a few rows ahead. I shook my head no, and he turned around, disappointed.
Tommy reached the podium looking extremely nervous. His hand shook as he took the paper, and his eyes darted around. In one fluid movement, he jumped and grabbed the microphone.
“I know you’ve all heard of them.” He was talking fast and frantically. I waited a moment, but that moment was too long. “They bully people. I don’t know why, but they do. Apparently it’s been going on for years.” I was speechless, stunned. “We have to stop them. Who’s with me? Let’s all stand up against these bullies—these Masks!” I snapped back into focus when he said the name Masks.
“That little punk!” I turned to the short, chunky kid sitting next to me. His eyes froze when they met mine. He fiddled with his pencil. “I can’t believe he would mention the Masks at a school assembly. He will pay.” I deliberately looked the chunky boy right in the eyes. Panic flashed across his cherubic face. I allowed a grin to play across mine. “I seem to owe my friend Tommy up there a visit. I’m sure I’ll see you again.” I flashed the most heartless smile at the boy and then scooted out of my chair.
People pulled their legs up in order to make my ‘walking down the aisle experience’ the most enjoyable possible. I pretended not to notice. I passed a few of my fellow Masks as well. They too stood and followed me, their leader, to the brightly lit stage. Our somber procession passed through the aisles with ease. As we climbed the steps, our black, patent leather uniform shoes squeaked on the polished wood floor.
I nodded my head, and my two main guys, Sean and Dominick, each grabbed one of Tommy’s arms and took him away from the podium. “Hey! You can’t do this!” He attempted to break free. “Dr. Richmond do something!” Dr. Richmond simply stared back silently. Tommy kicked his legs and flailed his arms. “How can you just stand there – all of you? You have to realize this is wrong!” I snapped my fingers and Sean covered Tommy’s mouth with his broad, thick hand. Silence ensued. People coughed. Shoes squeaked. I cleared my throat and confidently stepped up to the podium.
“It seems like my friend Tommy over there has brought up a rather difficult topic to discuss. It’s the sort of thing we all know about, but never bring up. Why that young man over there,” I gestured towards Tommy, “decided that he was allowed to break that invisible pact, I don’t know.”
“Everyone has their place in this school, whether you are a teacher or student, athlete or club leader. We all have our places in the social hierarchy of our school. When the balance of this hierarchy is upset, somebody has to intervene.” Nobody stirred. My voice rang through the auditorium. I cleared my throat, commanding the attention of the room.
“I’m not here to lecture you, but I want to make one point clear: there are leaders.” I paused for a moment, savoring the power. “And there are followers, like Tommy over there. I believe that I am fair. I tried to be inconspicuous in my actions, but apparently,” my voice reached a crescendo, “that isn’t enough. Well, if that’s what you want, then fine. Things are going to change around here, starting with you Tommy.” I nodded my head, and my two main guys took Tommy off stage. I looked out at the teachers and students alike staring back at me, waiting, watching for my next move. I turned and followed tall, gangly Tommy.
The crisp autumn air made the little hairs on my arm stand on end. I unrolled my shirt sleeves. We walked down towards the faded blue bleachers looming over the football field. Other Mask members joined us as we trudged through the grass.
Soon, we reached our destination. Sean and Dominick dropped Tommy to the ground. The Masks formed a circle with Tommy and me in the center.
“Tommy, I don’t think you realize what you’ve done. The Masks aren’t meant to be publicized.”
“I don’t know who you guys are trying to impress, but it’s not working on anyone.”
“We already heard your speech, Jones.” Carlos spoke up. I couldn’t even tell where he was. The faces around me all blended together.
“Want me to rough him up?” That had to be Sean, wherever he was.
“Not yet, he needs to learn his lesson and admit he was wrong. Isn’t that right, Tommy?” He stared at me, his jaw squared in an attempt to look defiant. I could see the pure terror in his eyes. “Tommy, why didn’t you just take the beating?”
“Because?” I was toying with him and that threw him off guard.
“Because it’s not right. You guys shouldn’t beat people up!”
“You’ve already said that. I think you need some more facts to back up your argument.”
“We have feelings!” He stamped his foot like a child.
“But, what if it makes me feel good? Don’t I have a right to be happy?” I smiled innocently.
“Then there is something wrong with you!”
“Ouch, Tommy, that hurt my feelings.” A chuckle went around the circle of faceless boys.
“Did someone use to beat you up? Is that why you do this, Richie?”
My smile faded. My father’s face flashed across my mind. He was drunk. He pulled his belt off, and all I can remember is the repeated flashes of pain across my back as he yelled and screamed.
“How dare you.” I turned my pain into anger. “How dare you!” I took a step towards him.
“Stop! Please! I didn’t mean anything.” He began backing up and tripped over a rock in the grass. He hit the ground, and the laughter echoed around us.
“Richie, I don’t know what I said that hurt you, but I didn’t mean it. I can help you.” He pleaded from the ground, but I wasn’t listening.
He struggled to get up, shaking in fear. He stood, unbalanced, on two feet again. I grabbed his shoulders and slammed him down into the grass.
“There’s nothing you can do.” I turned away from him and broke through the circle. As I walked away I heard Tommy’s pathetic squeals of pain. I knew he was suffering for what he said. He deserved it.
Ever since then, I haven’t felt that power, at least not in the same way. For whatever reason, Tommy found a way past my cold, tough mask and reached the raw, tender part of me, scarred by my father. I had buried it down deep, hidden from onlookers.
I’ve never laid a hand on anyone since that day. I don’t plan on growing up to be like my dad. The world can’t afford to have to another man like that roaming around, hurting people. Even so, Tommy’s yelps of terror still brought a smile to my face.