Mentor High School
Instructor: Kathleen Valentic
Cast of Characters
The Lights: The stage lights who follow me wherever I go on stage, watch me as they please, and guide The Audience towards the center of attention.
The Two-Faced Mask: My "mask," my confidence, my inner voice.
The Audience: Guided by The Lights, they are the eyes of the people and of the heavens. Whenever I'm onstage, they follow me and take note of every move, word, and whisper... the motivation of the act itself. They. Are. Everyone.
Me: ... Underneath The Two-Faced Mask... do I really know who I am?
The heat of the stage lights made my head pound.
I could feel the white warmth around me like a halo. An entire aura. It buzzed with power, demanding the attention of any eye that laid upon it. My smile thinned and widened. My head tilted up just a hair, my lips inching up my face. My fingers flexed. My knees bent. The poise didn't flaunter as I moved across the stage with each, my feet hardly lifted above the ground. I pirouetted and pliéd. The words danced out of my mouth in perfect strings that flew around me and over me until they were succumbing to the audience like a large, lazy python.
When you're on stage, you are the center of everything. Right when the lights focus on you, your heartbeat starts thumping loudly against your chest, and you know it's time to do what you were born to do. But then as your heart races, your head does too. You start getting thoughts…
What am I doing?
What should I say?
What should I do?
...Until your mind clicks and you get back on script, twirling around and trying to tell yourself that what you're saying is the truth and nothing but the truth, because you have to put on a good show.
(END OF ACT)
I stand in the closet with The Lights turned off. It's dark in here, but I don't mind. The cold, musty air fills my nostrils with dust. The sky should be streaked with gold right now, but my only light comes from the slits in the door, striping my face with artificial beams.
My fingers skim across the fabrics, both the soft and the rough. I wrap myself in the wools. I dance with the silks. I flow in the cottons, closing my eyes and imagining myself somewhere else. A future that awaits me elsewhere, and where The Lights follow me as a spotlight.
Costumes are a vital part of the process.
The Two-Faced Mask whispers in my ear. I can feel its breath against my cheeks, and its warmth against my face. What would they like today?
It coddles me in false comfort. It tells me that everything will be alright, as long as I do what it wants me to do. That everyone will love me and that my dreams will be mine, and I can grab at the cloud that I've been chasing for so long.
You don't have to stay strong, it tells me, you only have to pretend that you are.
The Audience can't have that I crack under pressure, or that I rupture right on stage. The Two-Faced Mask wraps me in a hug. Its arms keep my together in one piece, so that my two halves don't fall. My smile needs to stay vibrant. My eyes need to stay clear. And that's what The Two-Faced Mask gives me; a strong, confident young person, put together with poise.
The Mask wraps its fingers around my wrist and guides my touch towards my costume selection.
If The Audience doesn't like it, it whispers to me, then no one will like it, and it's The Audience alone that matters.
(END OF SCENE)
"How are you doing?"
"I'm doing good. What about you?"
The answer is mechanical through my lips. My mouth has memorized the way it moves for the words to escape. It's the script, after all. It's just enough to pour out the faux confidence and lie with ease.
There are no lies in acting.
The Mask keeps up the smiles. I keep up the words. The script never fails the both of us, because I have it all memorized deep in my mind, in my heart, and in my entire being. It comes out as swiftly as the melody on a flute, flowy, melodious, and perfect.
Don't break, The Two-Faced Mask whispers. Don't miss a beat.
And I don't.
I'm ready to enter - enter reality outside of my confined quarters. The Light yawns and rolls over into the sleepy realm of the stage. It focuses on me now, like a halo of golden power. The other characters begin to enter stage, and I decide to open the door with my backpack slung across my shoulder to board the bus.
Put on a show, says The Mask. Because if The Audience doesn't like it, then no one will like it, and it's The Audience alone that matters. (END OF ACT)
Entering stage isn't as easy as it sounds.
When I'm offstage, I forget about the effects of reality of sometimes.
I feel the pressure that weighs itself down upon my shoulders. I feel the eyes. The expectations...
I'm forced to say some words, sometimes. Just to prove that I know what I'm doing. But sometimes I'm forced to say the opposite, when people expect better of me.
In these times, my lips twitch downward, and my mouth starts to form words. Into foreign shapes and circles. Syllables escape me that I don't know of, and that I've never said before. I check my calculations, once, twice, but nothing adds up to anything that makes any sense. A script malfunction.
I don't know.
The bell rings. I can hear The Two-Faced Mask tut with disproval. I walk away before another word can be spoken.
The Light's halo burns into my skin. It brands me with Failure.
I smile when I talk to other people. I laugh. When I walk, I hold my chin up high, and I hold the serenity on my face for everyone to see. I radiate confidence that is not mine, and The Light follows me wherever I go. The Audience watches. Everyone in the halls, in my classes... anyone. Everyone.
You tread dangerous waters, The Two-Faced Mask tells me. Remember. If The Audience doesn't like it, it whispers to me, then no one will like it, and it's The Audience alone that matters. (END OF SCENE)
I am in the bathroom.
I stare at myself in the mirror.
The cheeks, the nose, the lips.
I turn on the faucet. I watch as the water fills the bowl, until my reflection on the other side is cloaked in milky fog. The vapors swim around the air, kissing my skin like hot ashes raining upon me.
When the water is scalding, I rub my face with my fingers. The pain sizzles across my pores. It bites into my lies. I feel the tears, hot and boiling, threatening to drop from the sky, but my eyes are dry. They are red and they are dry, and they do not allow me to cry. When I open my eyes, I do not know who I'm staring at in the mirror, because it is not me.
The stranger wears The Two-Faced Mask, who holds a finger to my fake lips, and points to The Lights affixed to the ceiling with another. It hands me a paper towel and points to the door, where footsteps echo just outside in the hall, ready to grip at the handle.
The Mask smiles at me.
It's The Audience alone that matters.
(END OF ACT)
Exist stage right.
The yellow bus drops me off at my destination.
When I walk, my feet make puddles in the concrete.
It ripples until it reaches the indefinite end. The Light starts to fade around me into a sky of rosy violets.
I turn my doorknob and enter my house, my room, my confined quarters where not a soul resides at this hour. I resign to my bed and wrap my arms around my knees, and close my eyes so tight that The Light is nonexistent, and I only live in the pitch dark.
I put my face in my palm, and I feel my fingers curl an object. I pry off The Mask with all my strength and all of my remaining energy, because there is none left. Loneliness starts to envelop, filling in the places that The Mask was supposed to protect. The places that were the most vulnerable.
I stare at The Two-Faced Mask in my fingers as it disintegrates into nothingness, like nothing was ever in my grasp in the first place. Its whispers are replaced with a voice - my voice - quiet, from deep inside my mind.
You don't have to stay strong, I tell myself, you only have to pretend that you are.
I can't take my mask off. There's nothing behind there but a hollow shell, and that's a character that no one will like. If nobody likes it, then The Audience won't like it, and it's The Audience alone that matters.
But right now, I am off stage, and The Audience isn't here to see me.
The Legends of Atruviia
The Legends of Atruviia
Serenity was gripping Lukas tightly by the time she felt her weight settle in, like she'd fallen to Earth from the moon.
She opened her eyes with caution, creeping open her left before her right.
Her brother was unfazed by her nails digging into his arm; and for a moment, it seemed as if he was unfazed by anything at all. She let go, with a gasp of relief escaping her lips. The grasses of the warehouse's field grazed at her ankles as she stood before the massive Grand Cannon. The Aesria and the other beings were still connected together in a circle with both Steve and his ancient 1960s minivan. They had left the dead, chemical-eaten wasteland to appear out of thin air in civilization, where they seemed genuinely misplaced.
It seemed that they had walked in on what looked like a crime scene.
The warehouse doors were blocked off by police vehicles. The very area Serenity and the others were standing in was cut off with strips of caution tape on wooden posts. Outside were white hovering vans marked with the names of local television stations. Reporters in dashing suits and pristine dresses pressed onto their earpieces that illuminated their voices, speaking into video cameras.
"... Stay with us for an interview with two of our world-renowned Panelists, mother and father of the two siblings who have been missing since…"
The forensic scientists froze in their gloves as they walked down the warehouse steps. The videographers dropped their cameras to the ground, compelling the strings of words from the reporters to fall silent as everyone turned around to a quiet world.
Serenity's face was taken over by a shadow.
Plitter, platter, plitter, platter, plitter, platter!
The sky was overtaken by what seemed like thousands of charred, skeletal bugs - if only those bugs could be five feet tall.
They were too late.
With the fear that glued her shoes to the floor, Serenity's mind sparked with anger. Why did no one listen to her? Everything that the legend said had unfolded right before their eyes. They'd destroyed the planet since those 500 years ago, stealing the land of the creatures that were supposed to protect them. The creatures - the colorful, finned, winged, guardians of all of Atruviia, now lived in a wasteland. The humans had taken lives… so many, many lives…
Serenity fingered the tiny mechanism in her pocket - the same one that had been there from the beginning.
"Valley, wake!" she shouted, as those guardian creatures of Atruviia rose into the air.
The people had not moved. The teenagers who had disappeared days ago were right there in front of them, with mythical and legendary creatures that weren't supposed to exist — not to mention a 1966 hippie van.
Serenity could understand their stupor. But they had to fight.
Lukas ran, picking up one of the stakes that the caution tape was tied to as he swung it at a moirinian that had just attempted to decapitate him. Serenity did the same, going as fast as she could with her wobbly legs - but at least she could try.
It took a while for the people of Atruviia to get out of their daze. Some ran, others gathering any supplies from the warehouse that were normally never supposed to be in the public's clutches. Someone used a freeze ray, and someone else filled an empty canister with leuphanium.
Whatever they did, it worked.
The colors in the sky grew stronger - and as that strengthened, so did the people. Reunited once more, after 500 years, were the humans and the creatures of Atruviia, fighting alongside each other instead of having anyone hide. Serenity didn't know how much the stories of the past had changed throughout the years - but the emotion was still the same. The persistence was still the same. The devotion was still the same. And the hope was still the same.
Whatever they were going to do, they were going to make this right. Whether it was for the people, for the creatures, or for the earth… everything was going to be made right, and that was a promise.
Yes, they were fighting. But Serenity never felt so alive in her life.
An arm wrapped around her, and just as she was about to batter the moirinian behind her with the post, she turned to see her mother, tear-ridden and holding a metal rod used for production in the factory. Serenity's arms lowered, and her lips moved with words, but before she could say anything, she was pressed into a hug.
It felt good. A foreign gesture to her.
She exhaled, allowing a flow of sentiment into her heart and brain without any type of gate to stop them. Her eyes filled with hot salty water that she didn't want to name as she wept, her vision blurry as she tried to ward off the threateningly close moirinains with a stick.
She pushed away. "I have to go," she whispered, gesturing to the chaos around them.
Her mother nodded.
Her entire body shook as she wobbled away, swinging her wooden post like a baseball bat, until she could no longer take her own weight.
She collapsed, and she didn't know who caught her. But all she knew was that she had to get back up, and that she did. She was too tired.
Her fingers grabbed the mechanism out of her pocket - the same one that had started this entire wild goose chase - throwing it up in the sky with all of her frustration and might. It hit a moirinian in the sky, and it exploded in a cloud of charcoal dust.
The mechanism worked.
It buzzed around, flying up and down and everywhere around, striking the moirinians in the sky everywhere and anywhere. Once they turned to see what hit them, it was gone; and they couldn't catch it no matter how much they tried. The silly creatures just twisted and turned with confusion, and that was all it took.
"Valley, wake!" Serenity called out again as the beams of light in the sky grew to a point where they were almost blinding.
They did it, she thought.
They did it.
The humans of Atruviia were all sitting around the lake when Aria had left, clutching each other tightly as they wept out all of their worries. They all needed a moment to take a breath before they left back to travel across the nation, back to their homes. Many uttered their thank-yous and deep appreciation, while others tended to each other's wounds.
Aria highly doubted that their trauma would ever leave, and that's how she felt about herself. Tomorrow would be the celebration; the time when they would all come out of their daze to say, We made it! But Aria highly doubted that a sticker that said "I survived the moirinian apocalypse" would hardly make any matters better.
She wouldn't be there to join them. She was standing in front of the house of the Doyens, a giant old-fashioned Greek-styled mansion that was grand and intimidating. Perhaps she should've been surprised that the entire building was still standing after all of its cracks and weathering, but her mind was running with other things.
What would her parents say?
How would she explain Atruviia?
Maybe seeing all of the families hugging each other dearly and crying in each other's arms after the attack was enough to make Aria ready to go to the home of the Doyens… and to go home herself. Maybe, she thought, that a hard time could truly make everything better.
But she was still having second thoughts as she stood in the shadow of the building. Her feet wouldn't inch forward so that she could go inside; it was like she was stuck right there, not able to move.
"Go ahead," the Squirrelette said softly.
Aria shook her head.
Everyone was looking at her - Winny, Day… and even the Squirrelette's brothers. Today, they had their heads ducking in respect, their beady eyes glinting with something that reminded Aria of sadness.
"You have to go alone," Winny reminded her gently as she nudged her closer to the grand structure.
"Why can't you come with me?" Aria asked as she turned to her.
Winny shook her head. "It'll be better if you face this alone."
Aria gulped, taking a shaky breath. Right as she was about to turn to the building, however, she flipped around, pulling Winny, Day - and even the squirrels - into a hug.
"I'm going to miss you," she said, her tone high-pitched as she sniffled.
"Us too, Aria darling," Winny said, her voice cracking. "But we have to do this. You know we have to."
No goodbye could have possibly been used that day to make anything feel like closure. But Aria truly tried as she melted into the hug with the group, eventually having to pull away as she faced the house.
"Bye," she said to Day as she took off his hat and ruffled his hair.
"Bye." Day smiled back.
She turned to Winny, who had to avert her eyes to make sure Aria didn't see her tears - but Aria noticed, alright.
"Such a journey it was," Winny sighed. "Time to start your next one."
The squirrels walked closer to her on two of their legs, and with a glance at each other, the two boys presented her with something.
It was her backpack. Except…
"You fixed it?" she asked quietly.
The two squirrels nodded.
"It's the least we could do," the Squirrelete said.
With a deep breath and their last goodbyes, Aria turned back to see the best people she ever knew. And then she had to leave them as she pushed through the grand doors of the house of the Doyens, getting ready to enter her own world.
And to exit theirs.
She didn't think she was ready, but she stood before the people who would take her back… who would take her to her own world.
The Doyens were old people, with wispy gray hair. They sat on thrones taller than Aria herself, making her feel smaller than she ever had before. Her eyes examined them, going from the leftmost to the right.
Her eyes froze.
"M… Mr. Hendrickson?" Aria asked as her eyes met the last figure, gray-haired and old… and most importantly, her neighbor. The last person she spoke to before the darkness of the manhole took her over.
"It's time for you to go home," Mr. Hendrickson said, his voice no longer sounding like it had when this entire journey had started. It was strong and firm, and it made Aria feel weirdly sleepy. "Wake up, Aria."
But in the last sentence, the man's voice merged with another's - the voice of a woman's, and a woman that Aria knew well. The world started to swirl around her eyes, and Aria just had time to whisper a single word before her vision focused.
And the next thing she knew, she was staring at a ceiling. A beeping sound made itself prominent next to her, and she realized that her head was pounding hard - harder than it had back in Atruviia.
"Wake up, Aria."
"M… Mr. Hendrickson?" Aria croaked out.
"She's awake… she's awake!"
Sobs of joy overtook the room as arms were thrown around her. Her parents, friends, and schoolmates she had never before thought twice about.
"You mean… you missed me?" Aria asked… but she let it go. It didn't matter anymore.
The only thing that mattered was that she was back. The doctors rushed over to her, scooting the crowd out of her room before checking her vitals as the world started fading out again.
Her parents didn't care about that C+ marked on her test on the day she disappeared. They didn't care about her clumsiness when she fell into the manhole.
The only thing they cared about was that she was okay.
Sooner than later, she was being taken home. As her mom and dad pushed her wheelchair across the sidewalk, she could see that the manhole had been boarded up - and there was no more construction anywhere near them. A large "For Sale" sign hung up in front of Mr. Hendrickson's house, and any remnant of the fact that Aria had ever been to Atruviia only rested in her.
Over time, as her memories of Atruviia began to grow fuzzier and fuzzier, she began to wonder if the entire new world was only a dream… a delusion birthed from her remaining senses. Maybe it was only a figment of her imagination and her mind, and maybe no such world ever existed.
But every so often, at night, Aria could see Jack's star glowing up in the sky, twinkling in a hello. She could see shapes in Mr. Hendrickson's abandoned house, one that resembled a pig's ears, a baseball cap, and a bushy squirrel's tail.
That day, it was time to go home. Aria was right back where she began - the destination of a journey that had started right there.
Jack's footsteps resounded across the floor of the Children's Home, his finger trailing across the walls. It was dark, after all, and the light of the sconces wasn't the most reliable thing.
But that didn't matter.
Even without the light, he had memorized the direction by heart.
Turn left from the bedrooms,
10 steps forward,
Turn left again until a hallway's hit.
Move 30 steps until you hit a cross of two halls,
Turn right and move until-
He felt a ridge in one of the smooth stones in the wall with his left hand, right before another turn.
A notch in the stone is found.
He turned around the left bend, his hand still against the wall as he leaped down a flight of creaky steps. And of course, he didn't care if anyone saw him at this point, because there was nobody in the house.
He passed through a half-enclosed area, most of the right-hand side being closed off with animal horn. Passing through this peculiar hallway, Jack pushed open a wooden, plain brown door, turning to slowly latch it closed before he went down a couple of more steps to a lower level.
The room, after charred destruction, was still one of the most spectacular things in his life. The animal horn window in the back was torn in half. He watched the light reflect off of the shiny metal objects and be soaked in by the couple books that had survived. Bookshelves lined the walls with collections of fables and fiction that he'd never had the opportunity to read.
Perhaps the most spectacular thing, however, was how the back window was stained. It told torn stories of deer and fish, and blooming flowers and forestry. They weren't as vibrant as they'd always been, but Jack would've stared at it a bit longer if he could.
As he entered the room, no one greeted him anymore.
Half of the walls beyond this point were down, the straw roof dotted with holes.
No one had come back to the Children's Home besides him.
They would have to rebuild the city in time.
Haul was happy with his family, having found people that loved him.
The villagers would settle, soon to rebuild the place they lived.
And Master Alfred and the kids of the Children's Home were out there somewhere. He knew it.
Somehow, Master Alfred had known what Jack was going to do. That he was the one to help wake the valley and put the moirinians at rest. It had hurt so much to have to leave like this… but now, he was thankful for it.
He traced the surviving books on the walls, leaving all of them in place. He wanted to keep this room as close as it was to how it had looked before the moirinian attack. Even though the entire village looked like it had been in flames, he wanted at least something to stand in remembrance of everybody.
The band had been kind enough to let him have his moment alone, and to survey the damage of his own home before he had to leave. The truth was, Jack didn't want to leave - he wanted to stay here forever, and sleep in the ruins of his home.
But change had to come.
He said his last goodbyes to a place he knew, and to a place where he lived. And right now, it was time to go.
As he left the Children's Home and the village, Jack reminded himself of Haul. Haul had found his people, after all - and Jack refused to think of anything other than that. It was time he found his own people, too.
He boarded the pirate ship with his sack slung across his shoulder, and Beth and Albert gave him his space as he sat down on a bench, his head in his hands.
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
Beth and Albert sat down next to him when Jack thought he was ready.
"Do you truly have nobody?" Beth asked gently.
Jack shook his head. The couple looked at each other in a silent exchange.
Albert placed a hand on his shoulder. "What if we could change that?"
Jack's eyes darted. "Really?" he asked, feeling like he was about to sob again. "Will you… will you be my family?"
The two looked at each other with joy:
The three melted into an embrace, sobbing in each others' arms as Jack thought of a new start. Because this wasn't the end… It was a new beginning.
Jack was wrong all along.
Because after all this time, Jack had found family.