“MARLEY!” I snapped. My red-haired best friend glanced up, her wide green eyes and puzzled expression coaxing a laugh out of me. “Girl, do you have to be so loud?” I eyed her Mango Slush, already down to the last popping bubbles, scraps of mango, and ice with all the flavor sucked out of it. “And god, how are you almost done?”
She giggled, setting down her slush next to my half-finished bubble tea and each of our masks. Hers was bright yellow decorated with a unicorn emoji, whilst mine was black with the words sᴀʀᴄᴀsᴛɪᴄ ɴɪɴᴊᴀ printed on it in white. I remembered thanking Marley profusely when she got it for me on my birthday a couple months before—March 17th, 2020, a few days after school went digital due to COVID. If Marley was all rainbows and sunshine, I was all black clothes and fierce remarks. I took Karate with Marley every Saturday, so technically the ‘ninja’ joke could apply to both of us, but kicking people in the gut was more of my thing. “How are you not done, Calypso? So yummy.”
We both leaned back in our wicker chairs, soaking in the warm summer day. The outdoor mall near our college had opened back up by May, although everyone socially distanced so tables were scattered around. Only a few of the shops lining the cement courtyard were open anyways, but luckily Kung Fu Tea was one of them.
I snatched my iPhone, glimpsing my texts (nothing new—just my dad checking in on me [my third year of college, yet he still found it essential to be enough helicopter-parent-y to make up for Mom], my high-school-friend Keela asking if I would be returning home when school let out soonish, etc.) before sighing and pocketing my phone. I blowed a curl of strawberry blond hair that must’ve escaped my messy ponytail out of my face.
“Hey, is that Mrs. W?”
It took me a moment to register the name. Marley always insisted on calling my mother, Vivian West, ‘Mrs. W’ (something about wanting to be like those people in shows), even though I pointed out ‘W’ was literally more syllables than ‘Mrs. West’.
Was Marley actually referring to my mom?
Mom and I always had a rocky relationship. She was the ‘cool mom’ among my friends in a tough-as-nails kind of way, but we never got along. Vivian was loud, rude, and way too sassy for a 43-year-old. When she had me in her 20’s, she wasn’t responsible enough to be a good mother, so when Lil’ Grade-Skipping Me got accepted into college at age 16, I was more than ready to move out. (College was hard at first, but I made quick friends with Marley, who was also 16 at the time.)
Anyways, I had completely cut ties.
We didn’t like each other, so I moved out. Period. I hadn’t seen her in nearly 3 years—the last I heard of her was that she was vacationing in the Bahamas after her only child left for college.
I glanced up, and my jaw dropped.
The first thing I noticed was the Karen Cut. The infamous short-hair look donned by the craziest of Karens (no offense to all the innocent women actually named Karen. At least, no offense if they wore masks) was now decorating the blond head of my mother.
And oh my freakin’ bananas, it was my mother.
At a sunshine-splattered food court in late May, wearing a black mask, no makeup, and...grinning. (Or at least, her eyes were smiling. Couldn’t see the bottom of her face; stupid Corona.)
“Heyyy, Caly! Hey Mar-Mar!” she called, her voice a tad bit higher than a remembered as she waltzed over to us, watery blue eyes studying my face sweetly. When she saw our bewildered expressions, she added, “Y’all remember little ol’ me?”
I was officially weirded out.
Absolutely none of this made sense. It was my mom, just acting like she’d been shoved into those character-building reality shows, her personality twists and tweaked into this...non-Mom version of Vivian. Lots of wrinkle-touched grannies donning yellow clothes and pink smiles pulled off the I’m-so-nice-and-innocent look, but my mother didn’t wear it well. It was like she was aiming for sweet but turned sugarcoated.
I mean, Caly? Mar-Mar?
I was still speechless, but when Vivian attempted to sit down next to Marley and me, time unfroze. I hopped up and pushed her away. “Mom! What the heck are you doing?! We’re in the middle of a pandemic!”
“But I’m your mother,” she cooed.
“Yeah, but we’re not in a bubble together.” That was what people here called those who quarantined together. “The germs don’t care if we’re related.”
She pouted and stepped back. “But Mar-Mar is unmasked near you!”
I clenched my teeth behind my blood-red lipstick. “Marley, Mom. Marley. And that's because I moved in with her kind parents”—well, kind and paid-by-my-dad—“after everyone was kicked out of dorm rooms.”
“So you share germs with strangers but not me?” She started trying to sit down again, but I shoved her white-jeaned butt away.
“Mom, what’s up with you?” I said. “You were rude but you weren’t stupid, and now you’re...weird.”
“U-um, hey, Mrs. W,” Marley stammered as an awkward silence passed over. “How about you pull up a chair and sit six feet away?”
“Oki-dokis!” Vivian beamed.
Moments later, that was done, and it was time for the infinitely cringe conversation to start.
“Sooooooooooooo,” I said, “um, what have you been up to the last three years? After abandoning your minor child? Completely cutting ties with her, not that she wanted to connect? Have you been enjoying the beach? Undergoing a strange transition to become too kind? What have you been up to, Mom?”
Marley caught my eye and I could almost hear her inward sigh. I always got heated up thinking about my mom. I didn’t want her attention, her praise, her love, but the fact that she didn’t want to give it ticked me off for some reason. “What she meant, Mrs. W, was, have you been staying safe in Coronaville?”
“Yes,” Vivian replied coolly.
That’s all she said.
Not even batting a dimmed eye at my pretty-tame-for-a-Calypso-Rant outburst.
Just saying, yeah, I’ve been safe.
Got a Karen haircut.
Changed the essence of my life.
I swallowed. Um… “Did’ja do anything important over the last three years?”
Vivian peered into the horizon, her used-to-be-sharp gaze milky and dull. “Uh…” she drawled, “I don’t know.”
“You don’t remember...anything?” asked Marley.
“No, I don’t recall I do,” she said.
It was like Vivian was under a spell. In a daze. Forgetful.
“I’ve got to go to the bathroom real quick,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”
She stood up. Marley and I watched as she made her way to a food court staff. They exchanged a few words, and I watched her hand the dude a black mask identical to her own. Then she did the same to a few other assorted people, before finally disappearing into the slim alleyway between Cava and Fishy Fun.
“Is that the way to the bathroom?” I wondered to Marley.
My only reply was another shluuuurp as she finished the last dregs of her slushy.
By the time Mom returned, I had a mental list of questions about this new change.
I was still kind of in shock—I was chillin’ on a Sunday at the outdoor mall with Marley, and suddenly Vivian West had popped out of nowhere. That would be weird anyways, but the fact that Mom was so different was even weirder.
“So, Mom, just wondering...what’s up with the mask?” I asked. I knew a lot about my mother even after years apart, and one thing was how much she hated black. I thought of it as the natural color, no faux shades or forced smiles. Just darkness, an inky sky, the midnight frame of existence. I always thought you could blend in wearing black, but in a world of rainbows, you stood out. The stereotypical emo. I loved black because I felt safe in it, like black couldn’t hide anything from me. It was just...raw. Meanwhile, Vivian had given black nicknames like “Emo Delight” or “Essence of Angst” (*eyeroll*). So why the heck was she wearing a coal-hued mask?
“Oh, you know…”
“Just…” Her voice trailed off again as she fixed her line of vision everywhere but Marley and I’s faces.
“Don’t you hate black?” I pressed.
“Change of heart, I suppose.”
I narrowed my eyes. “‘Kay. But why were you giving them to random people?”
“I want to be kind,” she said slowly, running a finger down her black mask. The fabric made a nice hshhhrrr sound, like they do in ASMR videos. (I had started watching ASMR as a joke, but then I got really into it. Beebee ASMR and Latte ASMR were especially amazing. The one kind of ASMR I hated was when people ate food on camera. Mouth sounds were annoying in real life and even worse when they were made louder, zoomed in on, and with an added element of bright red lipstick.) Her bare nails surprised me almost as much as her makeup-less face—Vivian almost always wore cherry pink or violet acrylic nails.
“You never cared about that before, Mom,” I said.
“It’s a New Years resolution.”
“New Years was half a year ago.”
Marley gave a nervous laugh as Vivian’s smile-crinkled eyes glared. “Calypso, I know you looove interrogating your mom, but give it a rest, okay? C’mon, hug her.”
“No,” I hissed.
“Yesssss,” she insisted.
“You should totally,” Marley nodded.
Vivian laughed, but not a hearty belly laugh—another sugarcoated giggle-type thing.
Mom. Never. Giggled.
Marley and I locked eyes, and the mini, humorous staring contest began. After lots of practice, we were still staring thirty seconds later. Out concentration only broke when a gasp echoed across the food court.
I whirled around and my eyes widened. Someone had fainted, a teenage guy at a table with a girl. A few people had rushed to help him, (the girl seemed wary of the new people), and he looked like he would be fine, but what surprised me was that he was wearing that black mask my mom must’ve given him.
That’s just a coincidence, I told myself.
“I’ve got to go to the bathroom,” Vivian announced, getting up.
“Again?” Marley said. “I mean, sure, but…”
Vivian had already disappeared.
She wove through the crowd of people attending to the fainted boy. I watched her hand out more black masks then walk down the alleyway.
When she finally returned, I had a new batch of questions.
She still seemed forgetful, weirdly sweet, and out-of-character.
In a daze.
And fifteen minutes later, she had to go to the bathroom.
For the third time.
As Marley and I watched her do her routine of handing out masks then going to the supposed background, I sighed. “What is up with her?”
“She’s just changed a little,” Marley said.
“This isn’t a little,” I assured her. “And why’s she giving out masks, anyways.”
“Prolly just trying to be nice.”
Marley stood up with her empty bubble tea cup, putting on her mask again. “I’ve got to go to the bathroom this time. Want me to throw away your cup?” I nodded so she scooped it up.
“Thanks,” I called after her.
I watched as Marley walked up to an employee and asked where the bathrooms were. (I guess she doubted my mom’s alley passage.) I squinted at my friend as she started walking back to our table.
“Um, hi?” I said. “What?”
“Calypso,” Marley said carefully, “I asked the guy and he said the available bathrooms are over there.” She pointed to a restaurant opposite to the alley Vivian kept disappearing down. “So where’s your mom going?”
The warm chatter of the outdoor mall was sliced with a scream. I glanced up. God. Two more people had fainted, dozens of yards apart. But each donned a familiar black mask on their face.
The personality change.
The little quirks switched, like the color black.
The bathroom breaks.
Everything was adding up, I just didn’t understand the final puzzle yet.
Marley and I both stared at the dark passageway. “We’re following her,” I said.
I was always that girl.
Y’know? In every grade, there’s the crazy kid, the goofball-with-a-hint-of-psychopath who always chose ‘dare’ in Truth-or-Dare. They jumped in mud puddles, did the worm in the school bus aisle, and screamed for the heck of it.
Yeah. I was that kid.
And since I craved craziness, you can imagine how over COVID I was. Quarantine was chill, but also incredibly boring. So I was kind of excited for this mystery, this adventure.
Marley and I crept down the alleyway between the restaurants. It stretched on for a while, hung with shadows, dust dancing like confetti. The cerulean sky above us seemed tantalizingly far away.
A few moments later, we reached the end of the passway—or, at least, this one. Two more alleys framed the backs of Cava and Fishy Fun; our path split into two more ways directly horizontal to Marley and I.
“Which way should we go?” I whispered to Marley. The whole atmosphere of following my suspicious mom down a grim, dim alley made me lower my voice, as secretive things like this often did.
“Well, where did she go?”
We listened for a moment, then heard chatter towards our right. We turned onto that path and walked for forty seconds. The path took a sharp left, but I stopped Marley from walking further. The two voices were right next to us.
“And you’re sure no one is suspicious?” a man’s voice was saying.
“Yes. The people fainted flawlessly.”
My jaw dropped, and I saw Marley’s pink lips stretched open too. That was Vivian’s voice, speaking in a stiff monotone. What was Mom talking about?
“Explain,” the man pushed.
“They each accepted the masks without a doubt. They each fell unconscious. No one seems to have linked the masks to the fainting—they must think it was just from the summer heat. And, Sir, you’re sure the tainted masks won’t affect their brains permanently?”
“Of course,” the man assured Vivian. “It will simply knock them out as their minds accept the transformation, and the effect will completely dissolve after a few days without any orders.”
“Is that all the updates you have for me, Vivian?”
“Yes,” she said.
I silently motioned to Marley and we both peeked around the wall to see what was going on. My eyes shot open. The path dead-ended into a room, the brick walls stretching even higher. Only two people occupied it: a tall figure in a dark, hooded cape, face concealed by the shadows, and the petite form of my mother, sitting on a stool across from the man. I saw a pile of the black masks identical to hers (and the ones she handed out) in a corner, as well as a spray-bottle of strange pink liquid with an iridescent sheen. I squeezed Marley’s hand.
“Okay. Now leave,” the hooded dude ordered.
Mom didn’t reply at first, then in a shaky voice… “No.”
“I’m...I’m not going to do that.”
I clenched Marley’s hand tighter.
That’s when stuff got wild.
“What?!” the man growled.
Vivian jumped off her stool, hollering, “NO!”
“YES,” he snarled, advancing on her. Mom was almost pinned against the wall.
“You can’t control me,” she said bitterly.
“Really? Because I think we can.”
The hooded man gestured to the walls. Two figures seemed to melt straight out of the brick, humanoid forms draped in the pattern of the wall. They each shimmered and their brick-y outer coat transformed into midnight black, the same dark hood the first man was dressed in.
“Camo capes,” the original dude whispered.
Vivian backed into the wall as the two other people advanced. I resisted jumping into to her her, but Marley and I needed to hang back for now.
“I think her mask is a little dry,” Original Dude announced. “She needs another spritz.”
Vivian jumped for the exit (where we were), but before she could get far, the two other guys snatched the pink bottle and sprayed a dose of something on Vivian’s mask.
“Hello,” spoke my mother. Her shallow voice sent chills down my back, so unlike her normal, stark voice, even further from the strangely peppy one she had used all morning. She was changing at these people’s beck and call. Were they...controlling her? “I am sorry for my outburst. What would you like me to do, Sir?”
I ripped my eyes away and pulled Marley back from the wall. We needed to get out of here. Tell someone what was happening. Something.
But I stopped short and listened a moment longer.
I could almost hear Original Dude smile. “Oh, Vivian West, we have lots for you to do to help our cause. For now, take a seat. You did well during the acting.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
“Now, Goran and Zenobia, would you mind fetching our little uninvited guests?”
Wait, what were they talking about?
Then I glimpsed the hooded figures walking out of the room.
My heart sped up.
Skin turned clammy.
Before I could react, Marley and I were standing face-to-face with two cloaked people, their unseen faces staring down at us, and suddenly, a sickly sweet scent overloaded my senses. I crumpled to the damp floor, the world dimming as it got fuzzier and fuzzier. The last color I glimpsed was Marley’s fire-red hair, until even that was swallowed by the darkness.
To be continued....