The Jones family had lost the property in foreclosure when Mr. Jones lost his position as head of IT at the local bank. Most who knew him were quite surprised that a man who worked for a bank didn't have enough money saved away to survive a few months of unemployment. Apparently, the Jones' debts were deep. Mr. Jones had no proclivity to sprucing up as he was being evicted. Nevertheless, the home sold quickly.
The new owner moved in quietly on a chilly October morning. The U-Haul pulled into the driveway and disappeared early the following day, even before the neighbors were awake and sipping their morning coffee.
Rose and Sara had been friends since high school. Both were now in their late 40s, but their bond was as strong as ever and kept them living as neighbors.
Rose had been married but divorced a decade later when her husband fell into alcoholism. When she realized she, too, was beginning to drink herself into a stupor every night, she decided enough was enough. And when she confronted her husband and asked that he quit drinking with her, he made it clear in no uncertain terms whose company he preferred. It wasn't hers. He much preferred to spend his nights with Grandma. That was his pet name for Grand Marnier, his favorite cognac. After the divorce, Rose dated, but nothing serious blossomed. The ensuing years of loneliness and regret took their toll. Her once-youthful appearance faded quickly, and premature gray roots took hold where once her black hair had grown.
Sara, on the other hand, was still happily married. She had two children, twin boys. Both now attending university. With the children gone, she could have easily returned to the workforce, but she decided to remain a homemaker. Her husband was an attorney and made more than enough money, so for her, working was optional.
Sara walked into Rose's house without knocking. She never knocked unless she knew Rose had company. And Rose didn't mind. Sara was the closest thing she had to family.
"Did you see the new guy that moved into the old Jones house?" asked Sara.
"No," said Rose. "I haven't seen him yet. Have you?"
"Only for a moment, when he was wheeling out his trash bin yesterday morning."
"Yeah, so, what does he look like?"
"Handsome," said Sara. "He's tall and really quite good-looking."
"Really?" Rose perked up. "How old is he?"
"His hair is a bit gray. I think he's maybe in his late forties."
"Hmm…" Rose smiled and raised her eyebrows seductively.
"Why don't you go over and welcome him to the neighborhood?" asked Sara.
Rose's expression changed as she thought about it. Rose didn't consider herself especially attractive, and the fact that she had packed on an extra thirty pounds since her divorce reinforced the feeling.
"He wouldn't be interested in me," said Rose.
"Well, if you won't go over, I will," said Sara. "Maybe I'll bring him some of my famous peanut butter cookies as a welcome gift."
"Oh no, not your pot cookies!"
Sara giggled. "No silly, no pot cookies for him until I know him better."
The next day Sara knocked on the new neighbor's door with a plate of freshly baked cookies. After a moment, the door opened, and a tall, handsome man with brown hair and a hint of gray stood in the doorway. His attire, while not a suit, was neat and professional, with a pressed shirt, long sleeves, buttoned cuffs, and a cashmere v-neck pullover sleeveless sweater.
"Oh, hi," said Sara with a smile. "I'm your neighbor, Sara. I live three houses down. I'm just stopping by to say hello and welcome you to the neighborhood."
The man stood motionless in the doorway for a long moment as Sara stood smiling and holding the plate of cookies waiting for the man to invite her in.
"That's so kind of you," said the man. "My name is Marcus. Very pleased to make your acquaintance." He held out his hand for Sara to shake.
"I baked you some cookies. Can I come in?"
"This isn't a very good time," Marcus stammered. "I'm still busy unpacking."
"Oh, that's okay. I don't mind if it's messy."
"No, really, this isn't a good time. But thank you for the very nice gesture."
No longer smiling, Sara stood in the doorway, confused. Was he shy? Maybe he wasn't alone. A quick glance down at his hand confirmed that he wasn't married. Sara leaned to the right and tried to look inside. She could see a few boxes and two large mahogany tribal masks hanging on the wall. They were grotesque yet beautiful, with sharp teeth and a menacing appearance.
Marcus leaned to his left to block the nosy neighbor's view. "Thank you so much for the plate of cookies. I shall enjoy them." He took the plate from her, smiled, and closed the door.
Sara stood staring at the closed door for a moment. Then turned and walked back to her home.
"So," said Rose. "What's he like?"
"Strange," said Sara. "He wouldn't let me in. He was polite and all. But he didn't seem interested in talking. I don't know. Maybe he's just shy."
A few days passed, and Rose and Sara met each morning for their daily gab session. Marcus's name came up on several occasions, but he had not been seen recently, and Sara wondered if she should go back to his house to ask for the return of her cookie plate. Surely he must have eaten them all by now. She could try again to see if he would invite her in.
On the morning of the fifth day, Sara walked into Rose's kitchen as she usually did. But today, she carried a relatively large brown cardboard box with her, which she placed on Rose's kitchen counter.
"What's in the box?" asked Rose.
"It's something for you, I would imagine," said Sara. "The postal drone dropped it on your doorstep."
"I'm not expecting anything," said Rose.
Rose looked at the box. It was just a plain brown cardboard box with no logo or lettering save for the top. A handwritten address on the top of the box was accompanied by a plethora of postage stamps.
"Oh my God," said Rose. "Look at all the stamps! There must be fifty of them."
Sara ran her finger over the stamps. "Oh wow, those aren't US stamps. Look at this. They're from Romania. Wait, this isn't your address. It's addressed to Marcus, 47 King Street. You're 74. The postman screwed up programming the address into the drone."
"Well," said Sara. "Now you have an excuse to check out Marcus when you bring his package over." Sara laughed.
Rose lifted the package and gently shook it. "I wonder what it is." She shook it again, then abruptly stopped. "Something's vibrating inside. I swear, I just felt something. It's like a cat purring."
"No way. You think there's an animal in there?"
"I don't know." She gently shook it again. "I can still feel it."
"You know what I think?" said Rose. She set the package down on the counter and fetched a pair of scissors from a drawer. "I think I'm going to take a peek inside."
"Are you sure you want to do that? He'll know you opened it."
"No, he won't. I'll be careful, and I'll tape it back up. Besides, packages come open all the time in the mail."
Rose gently snipped the clear packing tape holding the box closed, then lifted the lid. Inside was some yellowed and crumpled-up Romanian newspaper. And beneath the layers of paper lay a porcelain mask.
"Oh my God," exclaimed Sara. "It's beautiful!"
Rose lifted the mask from the box, and the two women admired and looked it over. The mask held the face of a beautiful young woman with silky white skin and ruby-red lips and was trimmed out with gold and lace.
Rose placed the mask back into the box. "I'll reseal it later," she said. And the two women sat and enjoyed their morning coffee.
Ding-dong! The doorbell rang. Rose seldom had any visitors, especially in the evening, other than maybe Sara. So she jumped in surprise at the sound of the doorbell.
"Hello," said the tall man in the doorway. "I'm your neighbor from a few doors up. My name is Marcus."
Rose tried to hide her panic. The opened package was still sitting out of view on her kitchen counter alongside the scissors.
"I just wanted to stop by and introduce myself. You haven't seen a package by any chance?"
"A package? What kind of package?"
"Just a package. It's something very important to me. Apparently, it was shipped, but I never received it. The post office says they delivered it. I'm really hoping it turns up."
"Oh. If I see it, I'll be sure to tell you." Rose did her best to sound convincing and to look directly into Marcus's eyes as she spoke. She knew that if you look away from someone when you lie to them, they can often tell. She prayed that she wasn't sweating or blushing. Those, too, were dead giveaways.
Marcus looked at Rose for a moment, judging her truthfulness, or so Rose thought.
"It's very fragile." Marcus hesitated for a moment. "Perhaps I should explain. I must find it. You see, I'm a collector of masks. And the package I'm seeking contains a precious - and dangerous - mask."
"Dangerous?" asked Rose. "In what way?"
"It's cursed," said Marcus.
Rose looked at him with a grin. "Really, a cursed mask?"
"The mask belonged to Elizabeth Bathory," said Marcus.
Rose shook her head. "Who?"
"Elizabeth Bathory. She was Dracula's bride."
"Ahh, okay." Rose gave Marcus an incredulous look. "Well, I'm sure it will turn up," said Rose.
Marcus hesitated, looking past Rose into the living room. Rose stood with one hand on the door. "It was nice meeting you, Marcus."
Marcus thanked her, then turned to leave. Rose closed the door and sank to the floor. She felt relieved he was gone and panicked that she might get caught in her lie.
Rose stood in her kitchen, staring blankly at the box and the mask inside. "I'll return it tomorrow," she said to herself. "I just need to come up with an excuse of how I came by it."
She lifted the mask from the box. Her fingers tingled. The mask had a faint glow under the fluorescent kitchen light.
"I'm not stealing it," she said to herself. "I'm just - borrowing it. That's it. I'm just borrowing it for a day. There's no harm in that, right?" She spoke out loud as if speaking to the mask.
Rose turned the mask over and looked at the back of it. The inside was covered in light tan colored leather. She ran her finger over the inside of the mask and across the leather, and again her finger tingled as if she were stroking someone's skin. Then she lifted the mask and held it to her face.
When she put the mask down, she realized it was later than she thought it was. Rose went upstairs and prepared for bed. She went into the bathroom to brush her teeth and wash her face. When Rose looked in the mirror, she gasped. The reflection was her, but she looked ten years younger. The crow's feet that had recently begun to form on the corners of her eyes were gone. The skin of her neck no longer looked wrinkled. Instead, it was soft and smooth. She ran her hands across her cheeks and smiled.
The following day Sara came over for her usual 8 am coffee. Rose was in the kitchen.
"Oh boy, somebody's feeling good. Did you meet Marcus? You must have because you're glowing like a woman in love!" Sara giggled.
"He stopped by last night. But only for a minute," said Rose.
"Oh, come on. I bet he just left, didn't he." Sara laughed as she kidded with her friend.
Rose chuckled. "No, seriously, he was only here for a few minutes, then he left. He was looking for his package."
"Yeah, I bet you were looking for his package, too," Sara joked.
Rose blushed, then laughed.
"You really look good today," said Sara. "Doing something nice for someone agrees with you."
"Something nice?" asked Rose.
"Giving him his package," said Sara.
Rose didn't say anything and instead poured the two cups of coffee.
"You did give it back to him, didn't you?" asked Sara.
"Not yet," said Rose. "Tomorrow."
"Huh, you didn't give it to him!"
"I didn't have it taped up when he came by. It's not a big deal. I'll tape it up today and bring it to him tomorrow."
"He also stopped by my house last night," said Sara. "He's very upset about losing it."
"I'm going to tell him I had it but stuck it away without looking at the address label."
"You think he'll believe you?"
"I don't think it matters as long as he gets it back. I think he'll be grateful," said Rose.
Later that afternoon, Rose placed the box on her kitchen countertop, along with a roll of packing tape. But rather than taping the box shut, she lifted the mask and held it in her hands for a long moment. Then once more, she placed it against her face.
When Rose awoke, she was seated on her living room sofa. It was just past midnight. The TV and all the lights in the house were off. She reached over and turned on a lamp beside the sofa. She was naked. Not a stitch of clothing was on her body. Then she noticed her hands and arms were covered in blood. Horrified, Rose jumped up and quickly sprinted up the stairs into the bathroom. As she turned on the sink faucet, she glanced into the mirror and was transfixed in a combination of horror and amazement. Her mouth and chest were covered in glistening blood. It dripped down from her chin onto her breasts and then ran down onto her belly. She examined herself in the mirror but somehow knew instinctively that it was not her blood. But what was even more startling was the reflection of herself. She was beautiful. No more than twenty years old. Her skin and hair were soft and supple. Her breasts were firm. Her tummy was tight, with hardly an ounce of fat. Rose stared in amazement, then slowly turned to view her profile and rear.
She turned off the faucet and instead stepped into the shower without any further thought to the origin of the blood.
Rose slept naked that night, relishing the sensation of the sheets against her newly rejuvenated young body. She slept soundly and dreamlessly and woke feeling fresh.
She found that her clothes no longer fit. She didn't care. Wearing nothing but a button-up flannel shirt, she went downstairs to make the morning coffee. There was a sound of sirens coming up King Street and stopping somewhere near, but Rose hardly noticed. She was engrossed in thoughts of the mask and her new-found youth. She knew it was the mask that had done it. She knew she could not return it. Marcus would realize she had used it if he saw her. And then she began to wonder. Sara had seen masks hanging on the walls of Marcus's home. Was what Marcus said, about this being the mask of Elizabeth Bathory, true? Could it have belonged to Dracula's bride?
Rose poured herself a cup of black coffee and sat on the stool at the kitchen counter. She inhaled a long whiff of the coffee before taking a sip. The scent of the freshly brewed coffee was delicious - her sense of smell, taste, eyesight, and hearing were all heightened.
How much more beautiful could she become? She lifted the mask from the box, then let out a scream and dropped it back in. The mask was no longer beautiful. It was contorted into a scream. And even more frightening, the mask now looked like her as she had been. Old, overweight, tired, and wrinkled. The mask was a sponge, drawing the worst out of her. Then she had an idea. She reached into the kitchen drawer and produced a claw hammer. She would use the mask one more time, then destroy it. If the mask were smashed, the ugliness would be destroyed with it.
Rose lifted the mask from the box and placed it against her face. The sensation of the soft leather tingled against her cheeks. She moaned in ecstasy. Then she slowly removed and examined it. The mask had grown even more hideous. She could barely stand to look at it.
The front door suddenly flew open. Marcus burst into the room just as Rose held the hammer in the air, preparing to strike.
"No!" Marcus shouted in panic. "Don't destroy it!"
Rose brought the hammer down hard, and the hammer struck and then exploded upward out of Rose's hand in a blinding flash of light.
Rose opened her eyes. Her last memory was of striking the mask with a hammer. But she was no longer in her kitchen. Instead, she was in a hospital room. A doctor and a nurse stood in front of her. A man was behind her holding her arms. She looked down to see a hospital gown covering her body. Then she saw her reflection in a mirror on the wall and screamed. The reflection in the mirror was her as she had been before the mask. Only much, much worse. She was hideous.
"No! My beauty!"
"Quick," the doctor yelled to the nurse. "Sedate her!"
The nurse jabbed the needle into her arm, and Rose slipped unconscious.
Marcus gently hung the beautiful porcelain mask in its place on the wall.