“Guys, check out this weird picture.”
“Is it a picture of your mom?” JD snarked, making his way over to his hunched-over friend.
“Shut up, man. It’s probably a picture of your mom with how ugly this thing is.” Benson wiped off what dust he could on the old Polaroid picture before handing it over to his friend.
“Hey guys, it’s getting late. We should probably head out here soon. I think we’ve been here long enough.” Max’s voice came out higher and even more nasally than it normally was.
Benson and JD rolled their eyes when they heard Max’s plea. They only put up with the kid since he was quite useful when they got caught somewhere they shouldn’t be. People had a much harder time yelling at a frail, nerdy kid with humongous glasses. He didn’t have any other friends so they let him tag along on occasion.
They had been spending the latter part of their summer exploring the numerous old, abandoned homes that littered their town. Dawsonville seemed to be in high supply of these ancient homes full of knick-knacks only young teenage boys would consider treasures. JD’s dad told him the empty homes were due to all the people who left to fight in World War I and never came back. Benson and Max didn’t know if there was any truth behind this, but it didn’t matter much since the old houses gave them something to do. Fists of Fury, the hottest new fighting video game of the summer, held the boys over for the beginning of the hot months, but the game got dull after they mastered all the button combos and stole all the neighborhood kids’ allowance money after beating them in local tournaments held by Flapjack’s Arcade, the local video game shop.
“What the heck is this? A baby wearing some jacked-up mask?” After squinting at the faded photo for a few seconds, JD lifted his head and gave a cruel smile. “Check this photo out, Max. This will give you nightmares for weeks. Your mom is gonna get sick of changing your sheets after you wet them every night”.
JD held the photo in his outstretched arm and started chasing Max around the large basement room. “Check it out, scaredy pants. This is definitely what your kids are gonna look like. Especially if you marry that Bethany chick you think is hot.”
“Knock it off JD, let me see that photo again.” Benson snatched the photo from JD’s hand as the predator and prey ran past him. He didn’t stop the charade to protect Max from JD’s antics, but rather to get a closer look at the photo again. He didn’t notice it the first time he held the photo, but there were some scribbles written on the back of it.
The Mask of the Damned. A weird thing for someone to write on the back of a photo. Even weirder that it looked like it was written in blood — maybe it was just smeared red ink; Benson tried not to let his thoughts run too wild. Benson flipped the image back over to try and get a better look at what the photographer was attempting to capture. It really did look like some sort of child with a demonic-looking mask on. It could have been an old, feeble individual rather than a child; the human aspect of the photo was too blurry to tell for sure. The mask in the photo was much clearer. It was a black and white photo so the colors of the mask couldn’t be discerned, but it appeared to be made of a thin layer of wood. Two narrow slits were placed where someone would look out of the mask, and two wooden nubs on each side resembling horns protruded from the top. The weirdest part was under the narrow slits of the mask where tears were carved in a way that depicted a falling stream. A simple frown shape at the bottom completed the mask features and made it clear that the mask was not intended to bring joy to anybody in sight.
“Alright, let’s listen to the nerd. He’s probably right — this time anyways. Besides, my mom usually has dinner ready around this time.” Benson threw the strange photo into the open toolbox next to his feet. This is where they stored all the trinkets and goodies they found during their trips, and it also doubled as a good excuse when people asked what he had in it when they saw the boys out in the streets. It’s hard to argue with a kid that claims he’s carrying around tools after helping his grandma fix her broken headboard. The boys climbed their way over the fallen furniture and climbed out the back window where they had cleared away all the glass from the already broken window.
“Don’t forget you’re in charge of bringing the snacks tomorrow, Max,” JD said.
“I’m always in charge of bringing food,” Max whined.
“Yeah, obviously,” JD retorted, “your mom always buys all the good stuff for her ‘Lil Maxxy Waxxy boy’.”
Benson noticed a brief moment where Max thought about making a rare stand against the much bigger JD but quickly thought better of it. The previous attempts never ended well for him.
“Whatever. Fine, I’ll bring them,” said Max defeatedly. He trotted away back to his home a few blocks down from the home they claimed as their last victim.
Benson and JD walked together in the opposite direction. They lived a few houses down from each other; one of the many reasons for their quick friendship. JD had lived in Dawsonville his whole life, but Benson and his family moved in during his first year of kindergarten. The two created an instant bond the day he moved in thanks to JD’s parents offering to help Benson’s family move in.
“You ever think about cutting Max a break?” Benson broke the silence with his question.
“Nah, man. I’m definitely not going to start bringing the food. Do you want to? The kid is lucky we even let him hang with us.”
“Whatever. I can tell you’re getting soft with him. I might even say you’re starting to like the kid. You didn’t even take the last piece of jerky out of the bag like you normally do, you let Max eat it.”
“Yeah, that was a fluke. Guess I was just focusing more on what I was gonna snag from the house we were about to explore.”
“Sure. Whatever you say, JD.” Benson pushed JD in a playful manner as the pair broke off in their own directions. The walk always went a lot faster when the two were able to joke around.
. . .
The next morning, the boys met at their usual spot. They always started their day at Flapjack’s Arcade to see if the owner, Mr. Pederson, had gotten any new arcade cabinets in. It rarely happened, but when it did, it provided the boys with a few solid days of entertainment.
“Hey boys, nothing new today”. The old man never turned around from the nacho machine he was in the middle of repairing.
“Aww man, c’mon Mr. Pederson. The last game you got was on the first day of summer,” complained JD.
“Blame Rodney for that. The kid broke the game the second day I got it in. I don’t make enough money off these blasted machines to keep bringing in new ones for you kids. The money I do make goes back into fixing all the old junk around here.” Mr. Pederson turned around to look at the boys, twirling the end of his gray mustache. “So you kids want some nachos or what?”
JD and Benson simultaneously looked over at Max.
“Alright fine,” Max muttered, sliding two worn bills across the table. This was the cost for a single serving, but Mr. Pederson was always generous. He’d always fill up two paper nacho trays with extra cheese.
“Remind me to give Rodney a knuckle sandwich next time we see that punk,” JD said as the trio walked over to their usual table.
“I’ll hold him, JD,” Max said.
“You can’t even change your own diaper yet. You know Benson does the holding,” JD replied.
“How about we don’t beat up anyone and check out the house we were at yesterday again,” Benson interjected.
“But Benson, isn’t that against your own rules?” said Max, pushing up his glasses.
“Yeah Benson, what are you talking about man? That’s how we’ve always gotten busted in the past. We never hit the same house twice, even if it’s in a quiet neighborhood.”
“I know, I know. But there was a floorboard loose near that picture we found last time. I couldn’t stop thinking about it last night. I think something valuable might be hidden under it.”
“Why didn’t you check it yesterday then, doofus?” JD asked.
“Maybe because I had to stop you from killing Max. Besides, I was getting hungry”
“Well, it better be worth it. If it’s not, I’m going to have Rodney hold you while Max slaps you silly.”
After the boys finished throwing their chips at each other — eating probably only one of the nacho trays — they made their way back to the old house they had scavenged the day before.
“Alright, let’s get this over with. There’s another house on my radar I passed by the other day. It was dark when I looked through the windows, but it looked like lots of stuff was left behind in that one,” JD said.
“It won’t be long. I just want to check the spot real fast. We’ll be out of here as fast as we came.” Benson led his two friends back in through the window they had entered the previous day, winding their way over the broken furniture and taking the rickety stairs back down to the basement.
“Anybody got a crowbar?” Benson asked jokingly.
“Uhm, yeah. I do.” Max stepped into a pile of rubble in one of the corners and pulled out a crowbar.
“Dang. That’s convenient.” Benson took the crowbar from Max and started prying the loose floorboard up. After a few minutes of effort, the floorboard snapped, revealing the contents stored below.
“Dibs!” said JD as he reached down into the hole. “I knew we should have come back.” Three golden coins reflected the dim sunlight allowed into the room by the filthy windows.
It wasn’t the gold coins that caught Benson’s attention, however. Next to the coins laid a wooden mask eerily similar to the one depicted in the old photo the boys had found the day before.
“Hey JD, does that mask look familiar to you?” Benson said quietly.
“Not sure, dude. Looks kind of cool, though.” Before Benson or Max could say anything else, JD reached down into the cavity and retrieved the mask, sliding it over his face.
“Better run Max, the dev—” Whatever JD was about to attempt was quickly halted by a series of severe convulsions. His body flopped to the ground, twisting in ways Benson had only seen represented by dead spiders. After what seemed like an hour — but in reality was only a few seconds — JD’s body came to a lifeless rest next to the now vacant hole.
Benson rushed to JD’s side, ripping the mask off his face as quickly as he could. Max stood by in complete shock, his mouth hanging wide open. JD’s face had a mischievous look on it — no doubt the face he had as he slid the mask on — but now his face was pale white and frozen in place. His eyes were opened wide, revealing the change that took place to them. The once blue eyes were no longer there. His eye sockets weren’t empty though; Two shiny, black orbs now sat in the skull.
“What do we do, Benson?” Max squeaked.
“I don’t know, Max. I don’t know.”
. . .
The momentary flash of white light faded away from JD’s view. When his eyes had finally adjusted to the hazy lighting, he noticed he was sitting in a subway station.
“Wassup little dude.”
JD turned his head to see where the voice was coming from. An older teenage boy three seats down from JD was staring at him. The boy had spiky black hair and gauged ears. Two plastic strings fell from his two ears down into his iPod.
“Oh, uh, hey man,” JD responded, shuffling his feet nervously.
“So what did you touch, dude?” The spiky-haired boy pulled out one of his earbuds and scooted a seat closer to JD.
“What do you mean?” JD said
“Let me back up. I’m being rude, my man. The name’s Mason.” Mason extended his hand towards JD. Several tattoos covered Mason’s skinny arm, as well as a spiked bracelet. JD shook his hand.
“So I’ve been here a while. People keep dropping in like you just did, little man. They usually take the train after a bit.” Mason waved his hand in a presenting motion. JD wasn’t sure how he didn’t notice it before, but a giant subway train sat on the tracks before the two boys. It was the fanciest subway train JD had seen in his life. The base color was midnight black, but it was adorned in gold metal shaped in fancy geometric designs. Next to the subway train door stood an attendant. His appearance was quite clean, which contrasted greatly with the red eyes that peered out from under his cap. “That’s Daemon. Nice guy. Doesn’t talk much. He’s pretty good about opening that door for people, though.” Mason waved at Daemon. The subway attendant nodded his head in reply.
“Anyways, enough of that. So back to my question. People usually touch something right before they get zipped here. So I want to know, what did you touch, little man? Was it a jack-in-the-box? A creepy clown doll? One guy told me it was a dead rat. Why that guy touched a dead rat is beyond me.”
“I touched—” JD felt a solid clump in his pocket. Reaching in, he pulled out the three gold coins he had found in the hole.
“Nah, that’s not it, kid. The stuff that sends you here doesn’t come with ya. What did you touch after that.”
“Well, I put on a mask. A wooden mask I found next to these coins.”
“Ooh, nice. Haven’t had that one before. Next question, what was the warning?”
“Yeah kid, people always get some sort of warning about the item. Usually like ‘something of the damned’ type of thing. Rat guy found a book under a sofa he picked up from the trash. Rat of the Damned. Now that won’t ever be a New York Times Bestseller, I can tell you that.”
“Well, there was a picture we had found the day before. A picture with like a baby thing wearing the mask I found. The back may have said something, but I didn’t get a good look at it. My friend grabbed it from me.”
“Oof, tough break dude. Sounds like you took the fall for your buddy.”
“Wait, if he puts on the mask, will he come here too?”
“Not sure. My theory is no. I haven’t ever seen two people come in at a time. Think the items are only a one-way ticket.”
JD sat for a minute thinking about everything Mason had just thrown at him. “How long have you been here, then? Sounds like you’ve seen a lot of people?”
“Not sure, man. The time on this iPod hasn’t changed since I’ve been here. The cool thing about my frozen iPod is the battery doesn’t die, though. Unlimited music, my dude. It’s a good life.”
“Can I go back? Back to where I was?” JD’s voice quivered at the end, the reality of things starting to set in.
“Not likely. People only leave by that train. One dude in a fancy suit tried going elsewhere. This fog around us is thick. Whenever I saw him disappear, he’d pop right back into the seat you’re on.” Mason made a few popping sounds with his mouth.
“Where does the train go?”
“Eh, probably not anywhere great based on our buddy Daemon over there.”
“Does he talk at all?”
“How do you know his name?”
“He’s got a name tag, dude. You’ll see it when you get closer.”
JD got up from the seat and approached the subway attendant. The closer he got to the strange man, the more unsettled he became. Sure enough, on a little golden name tag read ‘Daemon’. Daemon stepped to the side of the doors, motioning for JD to enter as the doors slid open. Inside, red velvet seats lined the train. JD found out they were as comfortable as they looked when he plopped himself in a seat next to the window. Outside he could still make out the shape of Mason, his silhouette waving through the fog.
The subway train smoothly started gaining acceleration. After a few minutes, an overhead speaker turned on broadcasting a pleasant, female voice. “Thank you for choosing our Styx Service Line. Welcome to the rest of eternity.”