Josh Dale

f i c t i o n

Gimmicks Wear Pink

I tore the box open with a penknife and pried the retail package out.

 

“Blackhole Mask Feel the difference!”

 

“How tacky,” I said. “It was only ten bucks, though.”

 

I’m a cynic at heart. As fads on the television and internet get savvier, and I grow older, reluctance has formed on my forehead. Scowls, lots of scowls. I pass teenagers in the mall, weaving in and out of the As Seen on TV store with meaningless junk. Dollar stores aren’t exempt either; I can’t stand the construction down the road of a new Dollar Tree. It wasn’t until I got a strange outbreak of blackheads that I decided to give a hokey charcoal mask a try one night, and I mean a massive outbreak. My nose, cheeks, and chin. Why did it happen? Was it from the concrete I was pouring all week? Even I wasn’t sure.

 

The mask was in a tube, which was shoddily wrapped in plastic; some of the material was dried on it. I groaned, prying the elastic splotch away and unscrewing the cap. Immediately, a flowing stench of raspberries penetrated my nostrils.

 

I chuckled. “That damn Geico commercial.” I guessed they were onto something.

 

I squeezed the viscous material out onto my hands. Its lifeless form sat like a rock and had no shape. However, it truly was dark like space; no light refracted from the glob.

 

“Ok, here goes nothing.”

 

Molding it with both hands, I painted my face. My finger swipes left occasional air bubbles, which I went back and smoothed out. I rubbed in on my bare cheeks and burnt-red nose. The forehead was easy, aside from the occasional skim of my eyebrows. My chin was last. I curled my bottom lip making sure all the pigments were blacked out. The mirror provided me with a final look-over to assure my face was completely covered. I looked like an alien with pearly-white teeth. However, things changed drastically. Within seconds of completion, I felt a vacuum on every pore. The mask wrinkled, then with an obscene slurp, tightened.

 

“What the fuck?” I said in mild discomfort. For starters, I tried to pick at the mask, but it wasn’t stretching at all. Panic set in as I drove my nails into it, but it was impervious. My hands then reached for the sink, turning it to hot, and splashing it on. Surprisingly, I couldn’t feel the water at all!

 

“Get off!”

 

I reached for everything: shower curtain, toothbrush, plunger, to no avail. My head was spinning and eyes blurred. I toppled into the bathtub, hitting my head on the PVC enclosure. It was then that the mask wrinkled and the peculiar stench of raspberries returned. I inhaled it and plummeted into a euphoria. I don’t remember what occurred during, but when I came to, I was slouched in the bathroom and birds chirping in the dawn. I shook my head and rubbed my eyes to find the mask was frayed and partially removed. Shriveled pieces laid on the floor. I assured myself that all pieces were removed from my face, which was slightly reddened. All the blackheads were gone and my crow’s feet were minimized even.

 

“What a strange thing, shit.”

 

My next instinct was to read the tube for ingredients and side effects. I was tempted to believe I had a severe allergic reaction. I rolled the cap-less tube in my hands and read the very fine print. None of the ingredients stuck out, but there was plenty of scientific ones that had more syllables than I cared for. There was a warning label, though:

 

ONLY USE ONCE A WEEK!

 

“Well, they sure are explicit with the uppercase,” I said while spitting into the drain. Thankfully, it was Saturday so I had no obligations. I picked up the pieces, tightened the cap, and stored it in the medicine cabinet. I was glad that I tried it but was anxious to try it again. I made some eggs and bacon and grabbed a handful of raspberries on the side.

***

 

Monday arrived and I was back to pouring more concrete for the site. Clouds of it protruded my nostrils, clinging to my shirt and pants. It smelled chalky and irritated my pores. Lunch came around and my crew sat in the shade.

 

“Ham and cheese again?” I said to another contractor. I was eating a peanut butter and raspberry jam sandwich.

 

“Yep, that’s what I have every day, save for Friday I get a chicken parmigiana.” He pointed at me. “Say, you got something on your shirt.”

 

I looked down at a magenta glob of jam sliding down. It had specks of gray in it. I took a finger and licked it up.

 

My coworker yowled.

 

“What? This shit is expensive. Can’t let it go to waste.”

 

“But, it had concrete in it.”

 

“So?”

 

“It’s toxic, you moron.”

 

“We breathe this shit in every day,” I said, “frankly, by now, we must be ten-percent concrete.”

 

“Whatever you say, man,” he said, staggering up to use the port-o-potty. We didn’t talk again till after our shift.

 

I went home, showered, and ate the entire jar of jam. With my recliner turned toward the bathroom, I stared at the door contemplating another mask.

 

“Not yet.”

***

 

I took an early leave from work on Friday and went right back to the bathroom. The tube awaited me and me for it. This time, I showered first before applying it. This time, the raspberry scent was not as alarming. The vacuum process went on—which still freaked me out a bit—then I sat on my recliner. Once I cooled down, I felt a blind go down in my frontal lobe and decided to watch television. My vision was hued; magenta auras surrounded all the people and objects I laid eyes on. The news was covering an accident on the highway and the burning SUV became a hot-pink bonfire surrounded by gray trees. The news anchors, smiling through the carnage with pink teeth, made me giggle. None of it made sense, the ability to perceive the gravity of the situation, so I continued to laugh.

 

I laughed at the infomercials, the gimmicks, the domestic abuse awareness, just all of it until the television itself morphed into a rectangular magenta blob. Time vanished before me. I rubbed my eyes and saw that it was already nearing midnight already. I felt my face and the mask fractured with the lightest touch; I sighed and reluctantly peeled it off.

***

 

“Dude, you eat one more raspberry and I swear—”

 

“Yo, if the foreman catches you, you’ll be in big trouble.”

 

My coworkers weren’t fond of my habit of eating raspberries on the job. To be honest, it wasn’t sterile, but I did it anyway. I swapped out my fluorescent green shirt for a pink one to wear under my sand-blasted vest. They said I looked gay. I told them to mind their fucking business, with or without a mouthful of puree in my mouth. A gallon of raspberry tea glared at me from the tool shed even when I wasn’t thirsty. Occasionally, I picked the skin on my sunburnt forehead. At the end of the shift on Wednesday, the foreman called me into the trailer.

 

“Have a seat,” he said with a frown. I stuck out like a sore thumb among the white-paneled trailer and other neutral palettes. His white collared shirt was unblemished.

 

“What’s going on, Adam?”

 

“With what?” I said averting my gaze from his eyes to a photo of the building rendering. It glowed slightly.

 

“Your performance! I mean, come on. You’re pouring isn’t level, you eat on the job, and your supervisor told me that you’ve wasted a couple bags of admixtures.”

 

My fingers found their way to my forehead. They remained there for a while.

 

“And stop doing that. Much of the crew is complaining.”

 

“Let them. I’m just doing my job,” I said uninterested.

 

“Am I going to have to piss test you?” he said while jotting down incomprehensible notes.

 

“No, you won’t,” I said. I took my hand off my peeling forehead and put it on my lap in a balled fist.

 

“Well, consider this your second strike. Now, get some good shuteye and be in at 6:30.”

 

The foreman shooed me out into the humidity. Did I care about his remarks? Partially. He didn’t even compliment my smooth complexion! I went home that night and masked again. I ended up being late the next morning, and subsequently, without a job.

 

My final paycheck was spent on bushels of raspberries, jelly, pie, and of course, more masks, lots more. I spent that weekend measuring out the paste and determined I had enough masks to last me until Christmas. As I masked more frequently, I desired to paint my entire house pink. Granted, my funding wouldn’t permit the exterior, so I was able to snag refuse pink paint from a shelter and went to town. I started with the bathroom—I liked to call it “ground zero”—and worked into the living room and kitchen. Varying shades of pink lined my walls, but they blended nicely once dry. I decided one day that I was going to put the paste onto other parts of my body like my neck, shoulders, and inner thighs. It wasn’t the same reaction as what occurred with my face, but a warming sensation laced my body. Particularly my inner thighs, which made masturbation more sublime than ever before. I rationed enough tubes for that area alone after the first bout. All those hard days out in the field melted away, as well as the days and weeks.

***

 

“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” I said, kicking empty tubes around my home. The trash was overflowing from the corners. “I swore I had at least one more.”

 

My home was rank. I ran out of savings to pay the bills. The times I would get a phone call, I would huddle next to the couch in my mask, darting my beady, bloodshot eyes from side to side until it ceased, then my high would return. I would stay inside for days, practically masked every waking hour. After every come-down, I would scrub the walls down—as much as I physically could—and pander around. The tingling was all over now and it demanded my attention once it came back. Once I found my last few tubes, I placed them on the bathroom counter and decided to listen to my mind for a change and get some fresh air. The sun was out and it made my skin writhe. My neighbor was cutting grass and paused when he saw me; the lawnmower engine dying abruptly.

 

“Adam?”

 

“Hey, uh, there, Scott.”

 

He grimaced, rubbing his arms together.

 

“So, are you getting a tan?”

 

“No, why?” I said sharply.

 

“It’s just, well, I’d hate to say it, but your skin…”

 

I looked at my grapefruit-hued flesh for the first time in many days. I felt wriggling and biting underneath, but there was nothing. Not even my arm hairs grew anymore.

 

“I’m, like, sick or something. I needed to get some sunlight.”

 

“Good, vitamin D is helpful.” Scott started backing away to his idle lawnmower. I didn’t realize why he was shaking.

 

“Ok, back to mowing this gigantic lawn, whew! Get well soon, Adam!” he said departing for good. I shook my head and looked directly at the sun. It was red and my eyes did not respond. After a minute or so, I ended up inside with a mask on my face. I blacked out again.

***

 

It wasn’t long until my home became a health hazard. The garbage spilled out to the yard; patches of browned grass were suffocated by black trash bags. All my neighbors complained, well, those that could make it to my front door. My relatives were probably calling my dead landline but never bothered to come by. I was completely pink and down to my last tube. I was forced to eat ramen and other non-perishables anymore. My body convulsed multiple times a day, and when I masked, it lasted a few minutes anymore. The walls were littered with holes. One day, a stern knock on the door alarmed me.

 

“Police, open up.”

 

There was nothing I could do yet nothing to hide. I cracked the door to reveal two rigid and alert policemen.

 

“What? The problem is?” I mumbled.

 

“Sir, we are here on behalf of a welfare check. Your family hasn’t heard from you in weeks they claim.”

 

“Yea, so the issue is?”

 

“We just need to confirm—oh, dear lord!” one officer cried out as a rotten smell spewed out of my house. I couldn’t smell it.

 

“You guys, what’s the issue?”

 

One officer mumbled into a receiver, the other shifted his head to glance inside. My pink arm slid up the door jamb. He looked at it and frowned.

 

“Sir, we recommend you be admitted to the hospital. May we call an ambulance for you?”

 

“No, there are problems elsewhere,”

 

“May we take a look?”

 

“No,” I said flatly.

 

More mumbles into the receiver, more police cars arrived, lights shining. I was still at the door, using my body to block the vision of my shithole house. Neighbors stepped out to see the commotion. Kids stood on their porch across the road with a cautious parental hand on their shoulders. Still, I had a narrow field of vision and my body was craving the masks again.

 

“Sir, please. Let’s make this easy for all of us. Is there anyone else in the house?”

 

My eyes twitched. Strips of shriveled mask clung to my cherry face. The officers stepped back, hands on their gun holsters.

 

“Show your hands!” they yelled in unison. I still had no clue what the fuck was the big deal.

 

“No,” I said again. My legs performed another twitch which made the police take a step back. I flung open the door, breathing heavily and hunched forward with daunting bulging veins in my arms. I lunged forward. They drew their guns.

 

“On the ground, now!”

 

“Can’t help it. I need mask. Do any got?”

 

They kept repeating their demand, my feet crept closer. Screams from the neighbors rang out. The sun was out and everything was red.

 

“My feet hurt,” I said.

 

They weren’t having it. My chest was throbbing and I felt pins enter my back. I needed the mask bad. My eyes—which were bloodshot I could imagine—darted to one of their belts. I saw what looked like a tube on it and my body reached for it. I heard a few shouts and two pronounced bangs. They shot me in the shoulder and leg. I don’t remember anything else aside from falling face forward onto the concrete, staring at a crimson pool and harbored breathing.

***

 

Hours later, I awoke in the hospital bandaged and weary. A throbbing pain in my leg and shoulder kept me pinned down, yet my body writhed. A beeping sounded a nurse to my room.

 

“Sir, please calm down!”

 

All I could say was a scream.

 

I felt a calming fluid enter my IV, like the mask. It kept my body tranquil, allowing the blood to circulate through my skin, turning it back into a typical tan. However, things weren’t as fine as I hoped. The raspberry scent remained and pervaded my nostrils. I was also very drowsy. My vision faded in and out once the doctor arrived. I heard him talking to the nurse, but only made out bits and pieces:

 

“Status, nurse?”

 

“His vitals…elevated. High…cell count…fever has…reduced.”

 

“…conscious? Hello…hear me?”

 

“He’s…unresponsive…vision…okay.”

 

“Blood…bullets removed?”

 

“Yes”

 

“Permanent…brain?”

 

“May quite be so…”

 

“Those masks…recalled I heard.”

 

The pair looked back at me together, their foreheads creased. I could only imagine what their pursed lips were speaking behind their surgical masks. They vacated my room and the lights dimmed, leaving me with my thoughts. As mute as I was, my mind remained keen. I stared at my bandaged hand and commanded it to rise as if I had psychic powers. Sweat beaded on my forehead as my arm inched closer to the nightstand where a notepad and pen sat. I grunted as my limp left arm collided with it. Somehow, I managed to slide it off and onto my lap, where I managed to use my intact right hand to write. It took all that I could to jot the simplest note. My fingers couldn’t hold the pen right anymore, my brain couldn’t remember letters properly. It took me twenty minutes to leave my note. I don’t remember much after that, but at least I was able to jot down my request:

 

I want a refund.

Josh Dale is a bicyclist, beer enthusiast, Bengal cat dad, open mic goer, and an MA candidate at Saint Joseph's University. His work and press have appeared in Breadcrumbs Mag, Drunk Monkeys, Huffington Post, Page & Spine, vox poetica, and others. He’s the founder and editor-in-chief of Thirty West Publishing House with two chapbooks and a poetry collection, DUALITY LIES BENEATH (Thirty West 2016). He can be found on Twitter and Instagram @jdalewrites and at thirtywestph.com/masthead

© 2018 by Azia Archer

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