Off the beaten-path is a road winding around a hill, across a plain and through a forest, ending in a small town. A town of old buildings and no history. A town of quiet, sinister madness. A town where people wear masks and become their true selves, free of the pressure that is normally restricting their spirit. It is unfortunate that the true self of many men, if not every man, is evil in the full sense of the word.
Stanley Baker is one of the unlucky few who took a wrong turn there with his two friends, Harvey and Ethan. With a bad sense of direction and poor map-reading, it is easy for a group to end up in all sorts of places. Stanley read the sign for the town, noticing there was no name, only four words.
Here, you are free.
Stanley Baker thought of those words as the buildings flanked the sides of the car, feeling anything but free. It was when they slowed to a stop in the town that they realised their mistake.
Harvey and Ethan argued with each other while Stanley surveyed the town. The buildings weren’t in the best condition and without signs of movement, the town seemed to be abandoned. Stanley opened the door and stepped out onto the road, exploring the town with the others, under the watch of many unseen eyes.
It was when Stanley saw the flickering of light that he approached one building, looking through the window towards a TV screen in a dim living room. It seemed to be playing a still picture of a man in a chair, the lines on the screen indicating the age of the tape. Stanley was so focused on the video, he didn’t notice the man in the room until he waved at the peeping traveller.
Stanley was frozen in place.
The man that stood in the corner of the room wore a pastel shirt and tie, pressed trousers and smart shoes. Yet, his unruly, elbow-length hair, perfectly framed the disturbing mask he wore. It was a rabbit mask, scratched and aged. As the man walked towards the window, Stanley walked backwards. He saw the dirt, the grunge and the stains that covered the shirt and trousers.
Worst of all, Stanely saw how the mask was set in the man’s face. Flesh covered the edges, overlapping. It was as if the man had never taken the mask off for many years and he simply grew around it. These conclusions were not cut off, even when the masked man closed the curtains sharply. Stanley turned to walk back to the car, when he ran straight into another masked stranger, this time a woman with a skull mask.
Stanley stumbled, falling at her feet. He shook a little as he pushed himself up, shocked when the woman helped him up. She didn’t say anything, she only stared at him for a moment and walked on, going about her business. Stanley jogged back to the car, finding only Harvey in the front seat with his cellphone.
Stanley could see he was filming all the masked people coming out of their homes and walking around. The people bought papers from sellers, they drove old cars, they did everything anyone else would, but there were subtle differences. Nobody spoke, they only stared at each other. Whatever meaning they conveyed, it seemed to be understood, as some would part happily while others would storm off.
Harvey began to describe one scene he saw to Stanley, but Stanley stopped him with a question. Where was Ethan?
Unable to provide a real answer, the two left the car in search of their friend. Keeping their distance from the masked ones, the travellers soon found themselves walking the length of the small town, past the old stores and buildings, without a sign of their friend. It was only out of pure desperation that one suggested they ask one of the townsfolk.
Stanley approached the most normal looking person they could find and asked him if they had seen their friend. The man stared at Stanley, his eyes unblinking behind a disfigured mask. With their patience running thin, the two almost walked away, but then the masked man pointed at a street. With nothing else to go on, Harvey and Stanley marched onwards, growing more uncomfortable by the minute.
Harvey remarked at how naked he felt not wearing a mask in such a town. Stanley agreed, but kept that information to himself.
Further down the indicated road, Harvey heard a scuffle between two buildings. He turned to see Ethan running out from the shadows, his clothing cut and blood beginning to stain. Harvey approached his friend to help, but immediately froze as he saw the masked men behind him with knives.
Ethan stumbled between Stanley and Harvey, looking back at his assailants. The masked men didn’t stop, their bloody kitchen knives at the ready to finish what they started. The three friends didn’t stay to fight, they simply ran for their car. It was only when they turned down the road they parked their car on did they realise it had been moved.
With no car in sight, the three were half tempted to run all the way to the next town.
Looking back, they saw the masked men with knives were still walking towards them, while the other masked people didn’t seem to notice, or care. Finding the fight within himself, Harvey decided to confront the two masked men, his attacks effective. Knocking one to the ground, Harvey then focused on the second. Finding their own courage, Ethan and Stanley joined Harvey.
After disarming one, Harvey was caught by surprise as the other drove a knife into his shoulder. The pain only urged Harvey to act more aggressively, eventually wrenching the mask painfully from the assailant.
Behind the mask was a face beyond the imagination of the three travellers. Having only slits for nostrils and a mouth which was crossed with stitches of flesh, as if the lips were growing into each other, the unmasked man started with horror. He was not scared of the three travellers, but of the rest of the masked people as they seemed to home in on him.
The three friends backed away from the man as the whole town surrounded him as he writhed on the ground. His pale, underdeveloped face he tried to cover with the mask, but it kept falling off. More townspeople surrounded the unmasked one and a silent signal triggered them all. It was like piranhas swarming a piece of bloody meat.
The mask townspeople attacked the man. Unable to see beyond the backs of the people, the travellers had only the screams to understand the unspeakable things they masked ones did to him. In that burning light of day, with not much reason to stay, the three friends jogged towards the town exit. It was there they found their car, parked at the very edge.
Standing by their car was the woman with the skull mask. The three friends didn’t approach her. Ethan was badly injured and Harvey was worse off. The woman in the skull mask through the car keys towards Ethan, who caught them gratefully. Harvey and Ethan climbed into the car, still keeping their distance from the masked woman. Ethan smiled as the engine revved to life.
Stanley approached the car, but the masked woman stepped between him and the door. The masked woman seemed to sense something from Stanley and she clutched his wrist. Stanley pulled away only for a moment, but stopped when she placed a mask in his hand. He stared down, understanding. The masked woman walked back towards town, stopping at the edge, waiting for him
Stanley Baker looked back at the town, reading the sign once more.
Here, you are free.