The alarm screeched in her ears, a telltale sign that lights were streaking the sky and the sun was just shy of full bloom. It must be a beautiful sight, the girl thought as she hit the snooze button.
It was only an hour later did she stumble out of bed, cursing beneath her breath. The cold shower arose all her senses, sending her teeth clattering by the time she was dressed in her impeccable work outfit—a sharp blue jacket and a tight fitting skirt.
She stole a quick glanced at the ticking clock, poised on top of the wall and her anxiety doubled. There was a shipment coming in this morning and she was late.
Naravy rushed towards the vanity table and pulled out the drawer. Inside was a white mask, customized to fit the length of her face. It had two almond shaped holes for her eyes, a slightly protruding front to fit the bridge of her nose and a thin slit for her mouth. She slipped it on and secured it with the strings that were dangling from the mask. Immediately, she felt better—safer.
However, she cannot say the same for her drive to work. Craning her head out the rolled-down window, she groaned at the stagnant lines of cars; some heading out to work, others to fulfill their daily errands. The same line also trailed from behind.
Her fingers drummed incessantly against the steering wheel, imploring the lines to move forward, even just an inch.
After another hour of frustration, she finally rolled into her company’s parking lot. Her heels clicked anxiously against the concrete pavement as she rushed through the glass double doors—designed to be non-reflective. She found her boss waiting at the lobby, the woman’s equally loud stiletto heels tapping against the whitewashed tiles.
Naravy could not see beneath her boss’s mask. However, her body language—the way she folded her arms and rested her weight on one foot told Naravy enough.
As soon as she spotted Naravy across the lobby, the woman dropped her arms and rested one of them against her hip. Not a good sign.
“Good morning, boss,” Naravy said cheerfully, making an attempt to assuage the older woman.
“Naravy.” Her voice was clipped and exact, as if she did not want to waste a breath on another syllable. “Might I ask where you have been this entire morning?”
Naravy lowered her gaze. “In a line of traffic, ma’am.”
“And I was in the line of getting fired,” her boss growled. She shoved a clipboard towards Naravy and on it were the details concerning the latest shipment of masks.
Her boss continued, “I expect you will stay past your work hour to make sure they are all safely delivered?”
Naravy nodded, “I won’t disappoint you again.” With a click of tongue, her boss turned away, leaving her subordinate to oversee the warehouse, which was where Naravy found herself, a few moments later.
Boxes were stacked atop each other, a mountain of unattended work. Naravy spent hours, ordering forklifts and workers to and fro, loading and unloading boxes onto trucks, signing documents that guarantees the quality of face masks being sent out to the awaiting children; those who were coming of age or those who were outgrowing their current ones.
Naravy herself, had received her mask at six, the age to attend school. There was a kid who had shown up to class without wearing one and Naravy shuddered at the memory of what happened to him that day.
It was unthinkable—to go out without your mask. That was why she made sure that each of the orders would go to the right address so no children would suffer the type of humiliation she had witnessed.
That mindset fueled her to continue working; to walk from aisles to aisles in her painful heels, to scream at the slow moving workers whom she swore were glaring at her beneath their masks.
Slowly but surely, the mountain of work began to dwindle. And by the time the warehouse was swept clean, the sun had nearly vanished behind the stretching horizon. She hadn’t seen the sunset once this year, Naravy realized. But the knowledge did not bother her much. As long as she does her job well, keep her mask on, life would eventually work out.
She was so absorbed in that thought that she had nearly ran into her two coworkers on her way out.
“Careful there,” one exclaimed. The girl’s hand immediately flew to her own mask, making sure it hadn’t fallen off.
“I am so sorry,” Naravy said, abashed. As a token of her apology, Naravy had asked to drive them back, even if it was on the other side of town; she knew it was a long walk to the bus station.
“Take a left at the intersection up there,” said one of the girls, sitting beside Naravy. The streetlights illuminated the quiet road ahead, casting an orange glow on the pavement as they drove past. At the intersection, her other coworker cried out.
“Look at that!”
Naravy slowed the car.
A crowd of people was surrounding something and their distant shouting could be heard all the way to her car. It took a little bit of squinting but what she saw had almost stopped the car in its track. The crowd was surrounding a figure crouching behind the shadow of the lamppost. The figure was mask-less.
“Someone should call the authority and take him away,” the coworker behind Naravy, seethed.
The girl in front unbuckled her seatbelt. “Stop the car.”
Before Naravy could protest, she threw open the door and stepped out into the biting wind, the other coworker following suit.
Naravy shouted after them but they did not turn back. Exasperated, she killed the ignition and followed; she could only hope the car would not be towed away when they get back.
By the time she reached them, the two girls had joined the crowd in surrounding the figure on the ground.
“Have you no shame?” Someone was saying.
“It’s people like you that threaten the peace in our society,” declared a masked face amongst the crowd.
“You should just kill yourself,” roared another. Naravy lost her two coworkers in the dense swarm of people. She elbowed herself in, eyes searching for them and before long, she found herself at the front of the crowd, looking down at a man in the center.
His clothes were tattered, hair disheveled but that was not the most shocking thing about his feature. Naravy stared and stared at the bareness of his face. His cheeks were slightly sunken, his dried lips were pale from the cold and his skin was drooping—perhaps from age.
She looked at the crowd around her, angry slurs pouring out from the thin slits on their faces. When she turned back to the man, she was surprised to find him looking at her. She knew she should feel disgusted—appalled even. But what she felt was—
Suddenly, someone tugged at her sleeve. She turned and saw a mask staring back. It was only when the mask spoke did Naravy recognized it was one of her coworker.
“Let’s go, this is too upsetting.”
Naravy nodded but she could not help stealing another glance at the man, kneeling on the ground, whose eyes—despite the cold of the evening wind—were blazing with defiance.
Fortunately, the car was still where Naravy had parked it. The drive to her coworker’s house was filled with colorful swearing and angry recounts of other similar incidents in their past.
However, drive back was quiet. She could only hear the sound of gravels scraping against the wheels. At the very same intersection, Naravy found herself slowing.
The street was empty as darkness of the evening began to settle. The crowd was gone, too.
A lonely figure sat underneath the circle of light from one of the lamppost; the very same figure that stood against the angry crowd just moments before.
Naravy’s car came to a complete stop and she found herself throwing the door open.
The man looked up as he heard her approach. Naravy did not dare to go too close so she stayed outside the circle of light, where she felt safer.
The man said nothing, only looked curiously at her. Finally, Naravy swallowed.
“Why did you take off your mask?”
The man thought for a moment and said, “I wanted to know what I look like.”
Naravy frowned. It was impossible to know what one looked like, even without the mask. Mirrors or reflective surfaces were prohibited and no longer manufactured in this era.
When Naravy did not reply, the man continued: “It is not a crime to go without a mask—only different.” He smiled.
“Day after day, the mask grew more suffocating. I found myself trying to understand what other people were feeling because I could not see it on their face. Sometimes, even I don’t know what I was feeling.”
His hand rose to his face. “I want to know when others are angry, sad or even happy. I want to be able to see it.”
He turned to face Naravy who was still clothed in darkness. His mouth stretched up, showing rows of yellow stained teeth. “This is called a smile. Have you seen it before?”
Naravy slowly nodded. “The young kids in the playground, those who aren’t old enough for a mask yet. They make that face.”
The man broadened his smile. “Do you want to see what yours look like?” He turned, rummaging through a small bag at his side and took out a water bottle. Still smiling, he emptied its content on the ground, creating a small puddle. He then beckoned her over.
At first, she wanted to run back to her car. The man was insane. Why should she listen to someone without a mask?
Someone so different.
And yet, this stranger wore his own face like a badge of honor. Perhaps it was the need to understand why this man did what he did or perhaps she wanted to feel the wind in her face because slowly, she found her hands untying the strings that held the mask in place. It slid loose and dropped to the ground with a soft thud.
Naravy stepped into the circle, squinting slightly against the onslaught of light. The man smiled up at her and gestured to the small shining surface of light on an otherwise dull road. The walk towards the small puddle was a slow one—as if time had stilled.
Naravy knelt down and took a long swig of air.
Then she peered in.
The face that stared back at her was foreign—a face of a stranger. It was still too dim to clearly see her features but she made out a pair of sharp eyes, a stout nose and a thin set of lips. She touched those features; real shapes—real and soft.
“This is me,” she whispered.
“That is you,” he agreed.
Naravy looked up, suddenly. “I don’t look like you.”
“No,” the man chuckled, “you look better than me though.”
His eyes flew to the mask, hidden in the shroud of darkness.
“There is a place, far away, filled with people like me—people like us.” His voice was suddenly distant. “A place where differences are celebrated, not discriminated; where it is okay to be yourself.”
Naravy looked back towards her reflection. “How do I go there?”
He shrugged. “You are already on your way there,” he gestured to the fallen mask. “But it will only get tougher from here. People won’t accept you as easily as you have accepted me.”
He stood up, taking his bag with him. “But you will find that a little bit of courage goes a long way.”
Naravy smiled at him.
Really smiled at him.
“I think I have a little bit of that.”