From my perspective, it’s an uneventful evening. At some point during the movies, Regina and I wake up to discover that we’ve fallen asleep on each other, and decide that that’s probably a good sign to call it a night. She grabs me a spare blanket and pillow before retreating to the bedroom, and I stretch out on the couch and resume watching the movie for probably another ten minutes before sleep claims me.
My dreams suck. I’ve had trouble with them ever since this superpower nonsense shoved its way into my life. This is no real surprise, since my first experience with the powers ended with me beating a guy to death, more or less. In self defense, sure, but it turns out that doesn’t really make you feel a lot better about having blood on your hands. Since then, I’ve been responsible for at least one more death — and probably more if Vince’s clones count, which I think they do. I’ve been shot, bludgeoned and beaten, and had to watch the same happen to my friends because of me. I’ve been hit by a car, struck by lightning and trapped in a burning building. So yeah, it’s no wonder that my dreams are kind of a cavalcade of horror these days.
All that said, these are bad even by those standards. I’ve grown sort of used to dreams of constant fighting, dreams of pain and blood. I routinely see my self-doubts play out in scenarios where I’m the aggressor, relentlessly pursuing people who are only trying to escape my pointless wrath. After all, that’s how I feel about the people chasing me, but they always believe they’re in the right, and how can I say for sure that they’re wrong?
But the crop of dreams I’m dealing with tonight is nothing so blatant as that, nothing to be examined and analyzed. Instead, it’s just a series of small hurts and disappointments, getting steadily sharper as the night goes on. In one, I’m meeting a friend for coffee at By the Beans, but they never show up. I look up from my phone every time I hear the front door jingle, but it’s always a stranger, looking at my expectant face with a mix of pity and disgust.
In another, I’m being fired from Børger by Matt, who’s looking at me with regret. “I really wanted to give you a chance, Dan,” he says. “I thought everyone else was wrong about you. But I’ve done all I can here.”
Then it’s my parents, kicking me out of the house I rent from them. They won’t say why, but I can see anger and sadness hidden in their expressions. I don’t know why, but I know I deserve it.
It goes on and on. Everyone I’ve known is revealed to have harbored a secret dislike for me. Those who I already knew disliked me make cameos with expressions of vindication, gleeful that finally the rest of the world can see what they always saw. And throughout it all, the ever-increasing feeling in my own gut that I am terrible, I am worthless, and I deserve this.
Usually when I wake up, it’s in the middle of a dream. I often can barely remember it, but I know that there was a story going on. This time, though, when I open my eyes around 5 AM, I feel certain that the dreams had faded away into greyness long before. For the last couple of hours of sleep, I’ve just been staring into a featureless fog of shame and self-loathing. When I wake up to look blankly at the ceiling of an unfamiliar apartment, it feels very much like that’s just continued on into the real world, and that it might never stop.
I stay like this, staring upwards without moving, for probably half an hour or so before the front door opens. Brian comes in, trying to move quietly, so to avoid making his life any harder, I say, “Hey.”
“Oh, you’re awake! Good, dude, ’cause I was going to run into something trying to sneak around here in the dark, you know?” He flips on a light, then recoils. “Whoa! Geez, man. What’s that about?”
“What’s what about?”
“The mask. What’d you do that for?”
I touch my face, and sure enough, I’ve grown a mask overnight. “Who’s it of?”
Brian starts to talk, then grimaces. “You might just want to go look, dude. It’s something else.”
I sit up and pull on my jeans before walking to the bathroom to see what I’ve done to weird Brian out so much. When I turn on the light there, I physically take a step back at the sight in the mirror.
The mask is of me, my face. It’s completely recognizable; there’s no question that it’s me. Which is impressive, since every feature is distorted into a horrible parody of humanity. The brow scowls, a thick ridge over deepset hollows for eyes. The nose is sharp and hatchet-like. The ears lay flush against the skull, slightly pointed and pressed back like those of an angry cat. The mouth is fleshy and gives the impression of being overlarge, something made to drool while it overeats. The wrinkles are deep canyons, poisonous choices etched into the skin.
It’s the face that matches my dreams. A face made to neglect and disappoint, a face of untrustworthiness and idiot malice. It’s the face of filth, and it fits.
I wander back out of the bathroom, and Brian shudders again. “Dude, can you take that off? It’s seriously creepy.”
I shrug. “I dunno. Kinda suits how I feel.”
“Man, what? What do you even mean by that?”
“I dunno. Kinda seems like you guys would be better off without me.”
Brian pauses, then says, “Okay, so I’m just getting off of a long shift, so maybe I’m not gonna put this in the nicest way: shut up and quit feeling sorry for yourself.”
“What?” I ask, shocked.
“Dude. You’re a good guy. That’s just an objective fact. You’ve got your problems, sure, but basically if everyone were like you the only problems we’d have in the world would be sloth and diabetes.”
I laugh, and he continues, “So how come you let this Tanger guy get under your skin at every single opportunity?”
“What? No, this isn’t him. These aren’t his ideas. He hasn’t been anywhere near here.”
“Yeah?” asks Brian. “I think he’s been just about everywhere.”
Retrieving his backpack, he fishes around in the outer pocket and produces a folded square of paper. “These are up all over the city right now.”
I unfold it to find my own face staring back at me in a full-color photo. “WANTED FOR VANDALISM,” reads the caption, followed by a bunch of legalese involving law codes and jail time. I feel a fresh wave of disgust for myself, followed immediately by confusion. Why am I blaming myself over this? I haven’t vandalized anything. But if it’s Tanger who put the sign up….
“Dude, that mask is creepy expressive,” says Brian. “I can actually see the dawning realization on your stupid face. This isn’t you. Get that through your thick skull, would you?”
I look down at the poster in my hands again. “Man, he must have spent all night putting these up.”
Brian nods. “Yeah, I saw them everywhere on the drive home. If they’re all loaded like that one is, and I think it’s safe to assume that they are, then pretty much everyone’s going to be against you right now.”
“Yeah, probably,” I say, “but that’s not what I’m thinking about right now. If he’s been up all night, then he’s not going to be operating at peak efficiency.”
“So?” asks Brian.
“So this is the best time to take the fight to him,” I say. “He’s tired and more likely to slip up. This is where I can nail him.”
I grab my phone and dial.
“Answering service for Mr. Tanger, would you like to go to voicemail or leave a message with me?”
“Do whatever you want. Just tell him this is Dan Everton, and that he’s going to have to try a lot harder than that to get to me.” I pause, then add, “And if he wants to see some vandalism, he’s going to see some vandalism.”
“Sir, threats –” the man on the other end begins, but I’ve already hung up.
“There! That ought to keep him stirred up. At least enough to remain on alert, instead of napping to catch up on sleep.”
“Dude,” says Brian. “Seriously, go take that mask off. That grin is one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever seen. You look like you just ran something over with your car and are about to go eat it.”
“That’s a remarkably specific expression.”
“Yeah, I couldn’t have told you what it looked like before just now, but it’s a specifically gross mask. Go take it off, man.”