Hard to Believe Heroes (Short Story)

Hard to Believe Heroes

Chaplain Wallace let out a long sigh as he made his long walk through Nymphis General’s barren corridors in order to reach the hospital’s Behavioral Health Unit. His arms strained carrying the stack of Gideon Bibles on top of his clipboard of patients charts, and his glasses slid to the end of his nose as sweat ran down his face. Though he enjoyed the exercise of walking the long hallways of the hospital and ascending its seven floors, the march toward the very remote psych ward was an especially long one, lacking of any pleasant images of sign, windows, or anything but the white wash walls.

Wallace was called to Behavioral Health perhaps once a month at most, more accustom to running to real emergencies on the spectrum of death, be it imminent news or expiration. On eerily slow days, he’d round in the ICUs to introduce pastoral care, and on the brazen days he’d visit the always overpopulated ER that had no shortage of victims and perpetrators of violent crime and nefarious deeds that seemed to as of late plague the city. He had made sure to specifically avoid the ER on his double shift of Halloween—or the Harrowing, such as the city preferred to call it, a name he personally disdained—knowing no such profitable work could take place among the droves of lunatic and self-righteous “Masks.”

Wallace stopped at the locked, double doors leading to the unit, strained to press the page button near the door, and obediently looked up at the camera.

“How can I help you?” A disgruntled and annoyed voice asked him from the speaker just above the button.

“Chaplain Wallace, Pastoral Care, here to see that new patient.”

Wallace winced hearing a long sigh unmuted over the speaker.


“That’s the one. Bill Henny,” he said, remembering the name without looking at his chart.

“One moment please.”

After a few moments, the door gave out an alarming whir before popping open, and standing at the threshold to meet Wallace was a tall and burly nurse technician. He looked down at Wallace at first with an unimpressed glance before squinting and narrowing his eyes at the stack of Bibles.

“They’re for the other patients,” Wallace explained. “Your unit requests them every time I come up, just after I leave.”

The nurse tech snorted and gestured Wallace inside, holding the door open just enough for Wallace to squeeze inside with the Bibles, thereby promptly closing and locking the door behind them.

Wallace was well enough acquainted with the unit despite his few visits to the removed side of the hospital. The first room was a kind of “checkpoint” of two sets of locked doors, monitored by an aged and aloof security guard behind a booth. Beyond that was a U-shaped unit of patient rooms, each removed of their doors, each with a chair stationed just outside each room for a rotation of sitters. The U-shaped unit was always short staffed and manned by a handful of nurses and nurse techs, who behind the desk watched over the rooms and “lounge” of the unit where patients freely roamed about, read, or watched TV—strangely always tuned into the dismal local new channel. At the other end of the unit was a communal cafeteria for meals and sometimes used for support meetings varying in topic and utility.

The security guard waved the two through with flat affect, and the second set of doors swung open for Wallace and the nurse tech. The unit was as “busy” as Wallace imagined for a late afternoon, with patients shuffling and pacing back and forth through the unit, few stopping to talk to one another, save to exchange a mistrustful glance or mutter a subdued curse under their breath. Maddened chanting and muffled cries echoed out of only a few patients who had cloistered themselves either to their beds or to the communal couch and sofa; Wallace had felt relieved that the stereotyped ambience of madness befitting of an asylum was surprisingly absent, though he chalked the phenomena up to the unit’s chief psychiatrist…

Once Wallace approached the nurse’s deck, he could feel all eyes rest upon him and heard the shuffling of feet towards the desk. He plopped his stack of Bibles on the desk while the head nurse, a petite and older woman, looked up at him with a sweet smile. Wallace looked over to the young and overweight nurse tech that had answered the comm, seeing her tiredly glance up at him once before returning to her newspaper, flipping through headlines of turf wars, child kidnappings, and the rote dismal article published on their crime-ridden city; whereas Wallace tended to steer away from such content, he couldn’t help but notice how hungrily the nurse paged through it, as though the depressing stories echoed with something inside of her. The two nurses were a perfect pair of yin and yang, of hopeful optimism and burnout respectively that Wallace had experienced often in the healthcare field.

“Thank you for the Bibles, Chaplain,” the head nurse beamed.

Wallace could feel a drove of patients hovering about him and the desk. His first time up on the unit he’d naively interpreted the interest the patients gave to him as an opportunity to provide care. That day he’d left the unit with an hour of unpaid overtime, unable to leave, as a line of patients referred themselves to Pastoral Care. It wasn’t that Wallace thought their stories didn’t matter, or that their pain wasn’t real…

“They’re just bored,” the other nurse grumbled, taking the stack of Bibles and beginning to pass them out to the patients.

Wallace sighed to himself. He knew she was right. But that didn’t mean he blamed the patients for wanting to schedule impromptu visits with him. It was just impossible to give himself to every single one of them on a whim when his daily referral list always barely got done by punch out, to say nothing of the sporadic emergencies that were called over the loudspeaker that he was required to see to.

“I’m here to see—”

“He’s in your room,” the pessimistic nurse groaned, flashing her eyes down the other half of the unit.

Wallace cringed hearing it referred to as his room, as though there was an asylum reserved for him. That being said, the room, opposite of the chief Psychiatrist’s next to the cafeteria, was relatively unutilized save for the chaplains who visited the unit. It was a small room, exposed by a large window for passerbys and the front desk to see into, and one of the only rooms with a door. It had a table with two chairs, and between the chairs hung a simple painting of a potted flower.

“He’s quite pleasant,” the older nurse reassured with a smile. “Have a good visit.”

“Thank you, nurse.”

Wallace kept his eyes forward and passed through the lingering patients. He did not celebrate the fact that he’d learned to be so direct and unapproachable, though he knew how one simple greeting could lead to a rabbit hole of a visit for a chaplain who had trouble setting a boundary and saying, “I’m sorry, I have to go. Goodbye.” That being said, he marveled as the patients parted before him in a way of knowing, as though they anticipated he had to see someone, as though recognizing the need of one of their own above their own loneliness and listlessness.

On his way to his room, Wallace glanced left, spotting the lead psychiatrist, Dr. Christine Pax, through the window of her office which conveniently looked into Wallace’s meeting room. Dr. Pax kept her head down in her papers, paging through reports and charts with feigned focus. However, Wallace could feel her divided attention, having been hunted after by her each time he visited one of her patients, interrogated for his report.

Wallace turned to his room, surprised to see his referral sitting and staring blankly forward, not at all looking out the window in anticipation for him, wearing a blank and only slightly woebegone expression. He was a lean, middle-aged man, his head recently shaved with a bristle of hair sprouting from his receding hairline. He wore an enveloping blue hospital gown that overlapped his body once, free of strings, wholly covering the patient’s backside—Wallace preferred that design. Just outside the window, Wallace could make out scuffs and marks of bruising around the man’s crooked nose and bony knuckles, the tells of a brawler that Wallace had learned to pick up on.

Wallace ceremoniously knocked on the door despite knowing he was fully visible to the patient.

“Pastoral Care, may I come in?”


The patient’s voice was hoarse though full of life, and as Wallace entered the room, he could see the man’s eyes light up and grow wide as though to take Wallace in fully, though the creases of his mouth did not move.

“My name is Chaplain Wallace. You are Bill?”

“You can call me, Billy,” he said warmly, his eyes still peeled wide open. It was hard for Wallace to tell if the man’s alertness was indicative of excitement, his medication, or merely a baseline of some condition.

“May I have a seat, Billy?”

“Please, chaplain.”

Wallace sat down in his seat, folded his hands together, and shot him a subdued smile. Unless the patient or family of the patient were visibly distraught, Wallace usually began the visits with his routine introductions, “How are you feeling? What brings you here? How has your experience at the hospital been thus far?” In that particular unit, Wallace preferred to steer the conversation himself, knowing how fast a patient could spin such a question into a rabbit hole of an unrelated story.

“I apologize, I didn’t think to bring a Bible for you. Your residents probably have taken them all by now.”

Wallace knew it was an unconventional way for him to begin the visit, though his introduction had a method to it. The apology began to screen for the patient’s general regard towards others and their capacity of extending grace, the Bible was to explore the patient’s faith background or foundation of meaning and purpose, and the mentioning of the other residents was to establish he reality of the patient not being alone and explore how that patient was adjusting with his new environment.

“That’s alright. They’ll probably sell them all once they get out.”

Wallace blinked, subduing his surprise for such a candid response. He learned more from the patient with such a line that a medical chart simply could not communicate.

“Forgive me, Billy, but that sounds a little cynical. Is there something wrong?”

“You can’t give me a Bible, chaplain,” Billy responded flatly, though keeping his pleasant and lively tenor. “You can’t, because you and I both know they won’t let me keep one.”

Wallace waited before answering, and Billy held up his arms as though referencing his unique gown. Wallace knew that the stringless gown was indicative of patients with a history of violence or suicidal ideation. And the patient was right that Wallace knew the nursing staff wouldn’t let Billy keep the Bible, or any possession for that matter.

“What brings you to the hospital, Billy,” Wallace asked, gently gesturing to Billy’s gown with his eyes.

“You know why I’m here, chaplain,” Billy said, still in a pleasant voice.

“I don’t read the charts of my patients before visiting them, Billy.”

That was only half-true. Wallace read only the charts of patients he visited outside of that unit. He knew reading the notes of the medical staff tended to paint his view of the patients and their story.

Billy raised his eyebrows in an expression of what Wallace interpreted as commendation.

“What brings you here, Billy?”


Wallace raised an eyebrow.


“Yeah. Justice. Serving justice.”

“Care to elaborate?”

Wallace was surprised by the level of eye contact Billy employed as he told his story. He was used to patients staring off somewhere, looking up and about as they shared their story—fabricated or otherwise true, Wallace still had difficulty discerning which was which.

“My wife was killed a year ago, on Halloween, on the Harrowing. Ended up here in this hospital actually. She looked so bad they had trouble identifying her. I wasn’t notified until days later when they moved her to a nearby funeral’s morgue. When I reported to the police that she had gone missing, they finally identified her, and then they called me. The Russian mob, the Spades, they did it.”

Wallace leaned back in his chair, squinting with some suspicion as his patient told the story without any affect whatsoever.

“You lost your wife a year ago,” Wallace reflected. “I imagine that grief is fairly raw still, Billy.”

Billy shrugged only slightly.

“I deal with it in my own way. Like I said. I’m serving justice.”

Wallace stopped himself as he was tempted to pry into Billy’s writing off of grief, of crowbarring open his soul to get the man to cry. But the man seemed intent on the word ‘justice’, and Wallace decided to oblige.

“What do you mean serving justice?”

“Retribution, chaplain. I’m making those who killed my wife pay for their sins. I’ve been taking down the Spades, their sex trafficking rings. And I need your help, chaplain.”

Wallace put up a hand and squinted.

“The Spades killed your wife?”

It was hard for him to ask without a sliver of suspicion coming through in his question.

“They did,” Billy answered matter-of-factly. “Killed her, chaplain. She was going to uproot their whole system. Save a bunch of the girls trapped in their brothels and sex rings, put the dirty traffickers on trial. She was onto something big.”

Wallace felt silly for his curiosity, wondering if asking would only enable the fantastical tale. Though as he put his curiosity to words, he knew where his curiosity stemmed from; he knew the outset of the patient’s story was a gripping one, even if he suspected it to be fabricated.

 “How was she going to do all this, Billy?”

Billy broke eye contact, his eyes looking down and off to the side in what Wallace perceived as shame. He pursed his lips as though hesitant to answer. Wallace suspended his misgivings of the expression as a dramatic ruse, and leaned in.

“She got herself into trouble. Gambling problem. We were loaded with that debt. I didn’t approve, chaplain, but she gave herself up to them. Stripped and slept to pay off the debt. I was going to take another job, or two, to pay it off, but I couldn’t talk her out of her indenturing herself.”

Billy looked back up at Wallace, his eyes perking up with the familiar wideness.

“But maybe there’s a silver lining in there, chaplain? Maybe she was able to uncover the truth through her sin? Neither of us would have known how bad these poor girls had to suffer if she hadn’t worked in the trenches with them.”

Wallace bit his lip, knowing how far out of the room the two were. He did not enjoy talking about other people in his visits, not when the patient was the one stuck in the hospital with their own particular condition that required addressing, confronting, and even lamenting. Wallace composed himself, and wove his way out of the weeds of the tale.

“How does this relate to you being here? Is any of this connected to justice?”

Billy finally smiled, just a little.

“It is, chaplain. Almost a year after losing her I decided to do something about it. I decided to get justice for my sweet Mary. So I put on a mask, I took to the streets, and I went after the Spades.”

Billy closed his eyes so as to roll them behind his eye lids without incurring judgment.

“You’re a Mask, Billy?” Wallace asked flatly.

Wallace was familiar with the movement though wholly uninterested with it. He found it hard to follow which Mask was on which side, which one took money and which didn’t, which killed people and those who didn’t. Worse of all, Masks on both sides seemed to increase the patient population in the hospital, and that was just more unnecessary work for Wallace and the rest of the hospital.

“I am, chaplain. I was busy pummeling the Spades during the Harrowing, and I kept at it the next couple of days…until they caught me.”

“What’s your vigilante name, Billy?” Wallace asked, punctuating Billy’s own name in the question.

“The one I gave myself, or the one everyone gives me?”

Wallace blinked with surprise.

“You’ve been given one? Sounds like you’ve earned notoriety?”

“I’m afraid to say it. Maybe you’ll know then who I am.”

Wallace suppressed a chuckle at the insinuation.

“Billy, if I may be candid, I don’t pay attention to the Mask phenomena in our city. You can tell me whatever name you’d like, and I still probably won’t know who you are.”

“They call me Whitie.”

Wallace feigned a guttural chuckle for a cough.

“What was that?”

“Whitie, chaplain. They call me Whitie.”

Wallace blinked. Though the man was Caucasian, he knew there must have been more than race that had to do with the patient’s alias.

“How’d you earn that title?”

“Every Mask and vigilante in this city has a fancy costume, looking to either impress their fans or scare their enemies. Not me. I’m trying to spread the message. I want the naked truth exposed to this city of what’s really going on.”

“Do they call you Whitie because you do your crime-fighting in your skivvies?” Wallace asked pointedly.

“Well, my mask and my cape are also white. Tennis shoes too.”

Wallace closed his eyes and bit his tongue. He’d heard some crazy stories before on the unit. He was sure no subsequent visit to the behavioral health unit would top his visit to Billy.

“Don’t vigilantes need to cover up in order to do what they do, Billy? For protection?”

Wallace wasn’t quite sure why he’d asked the question, but he knew he’d been fully caught and trapped in the narrative.

“Well, I’m really hard to catch when I grease up.”

It was perhaps the most sane thing Wallace had heard in the course of their conversation.

“Again, chaplain, the message is what’s important. Our wives, sisters, and daughters are enslaved in this city to vile men who demand they take off their clothes. Once they get into the Spades’ strip joints, gentlemen’s clubs, and brothels, there’s no way out. They extort them, trap them, and give them debts they can never pay off. So I show them something—I admit—not so pleasant to look at, but the circumstances of our city are far much uglier than what people see when they look at me.”

Wallace nodded slowly. He hated to admit how poetic it sounded. Still, he needed to get the two of them off the streets and back into the hospital room.

“Why are you in the hospital, Billy?”

“Because I got caught.”

“Unless you’re here for those cuts and bruises, I’d imagine you’d be put in jail instead, where the rest of the caught Masks have been going.”

Billy sighed uncomfortably and looked up at the painting of the potted plant.

“They don’t think I’m right.”

“And what do you think, Billy?”

“I think I’m in the right, chaplain.”

Without breaking eye contact, Wallace could feel Dr. Pax peering in at the two of them. Wallace felt his watch ticking towards the end of his shift, which also happened to tick to the end of their visit. He knew the rabbit hole went much deeper, but he knew venturing much further would put him in a place in the conversation much harder to leave from.

“There was a consult to see you, Billy,” Wallace said directly. “You requested to see a chaplain. So, what can a chaplain do for you today, Billy?”

Billy put up two fingers.

“Two requests, chaplain.”

“I’m listening.”

“I wanted to ask if you think it’s wrong what I’m doing, if it’s sinful what I’m doing.”

Wallace chewed on his lip and stared pensively at the painting of the potted flower. His mind steered towards not entertaining the thought at all, to turning the question on its head, but he already knew Billy’s answer; Billy had already indicated he believed he was in the right. Perhaps, Wallace thought to himself, the man was merely looking for affirmation.

Wallace chuckled to himself as he was about to open his mouth to entertain the idea, realizing how uncouth it was to entertain what almost certainly seemed like mania. He knew answering would only fan Billy’s flame, perhaps billowing a real paranoia or delusion that existed behind the story.

Wallace looked back at Billy who waited patiently, eyes still large though with a starved look rather than true mania. Wallace sighed doing the simple math in his head. He was not a clinician, and therefore did not need to prove Billy’s sanity. He was not a judge, and did not need to pry into Billy’s conscience. He was a chaplain and asked merely to hold a mirror to the circumstances before him.

“It’s a hard to believe story, I’m going to admit, Billy.”

Billy nodded slowly, still staring wide-eyed, hungry for the rest of the answer.

“But assuming everything you’ve said is true,” Wallace began. He stopped himself and went through the story once more in his head and laughed to himself. “I suppose it’s hard to deny that our city has a crime problem, a kidnapping problem, a lot of problems. One only needs to turn on the news to see that. It’s frustrating at times, seeing it happen, feeling too powerless to do anything about it, except keep watching the news and getting bothered…”

Wallace paused, cringed as the headlines and newscasts replayed in his head from the nurse’s newspaper, from the morning radio. He shocked himself, feeling something begin to burn in his chest, his face unconsciously burrow into a glower of indignation. As he looked up he saw Billy’s eyes come alive, as though the man began to see something turning inside of Wallace.

Wallace blinked, imagining Billy no longer in his gown, but in his underwear, his face hardly covered by the white mask he spoke of, staring wide-eyed and vigilant in the dead of night while the city was asleep.

And then Wallace laughed.

“What is it, chaplain?”

“Whitie is a refreshing thought to all the madness, isn’t he? A half-naked man who runs through the streets beating up criminals. It’s admittedly a little crazy, isn’t it Billy? But that kind of crazy is oddly refreshing to what’s happening outside, isn’t it?”

Billy laughed limply.

“I suppose it is, chaplain.”

“I apologize. I’m probably being uncouth, Billy.”

“I appreciate your honest thoughts on the matter, chaplain.”

“Well, you asked for something else too, Billy?” Wallace said, looking back at his watch.

Billy leaned in, folded his hands over his mouth—as though also cognizant of the two being watched—and whispered.

“Help me get out.”

Wallace stiffened back in his seat.

“Billy,” Wallace began, the words coming out of his mouth in a robotic, programmed manner, “you’re in here for your health, wellbeing, and safety.”

“I’m not though. The Spades could have taken me out like my wife, and they chose not to. They suspected I might have information on them that could ruin them, the information my wife had collected. They knew calling me in, not to jail me, but to hospitalize me would undermine any testimony I could bring against them. They knew another body would just raise suspicion.”

“You don’t think your testimony is undermined by running around in your underwear, Billy?”

Billy shook his head.

“It’s about the message, chaplain. But I need your help. Please. Get me out of here.”

Wallace bit his lip. He’d heard the plea before. He’d heard it from not just patients in that part of the hospital, but from the confused, the elderly, from those waiting on a doctor or some tests who simply could not get out even Against Medical Advice.

“I’m a chaplain, Billy. I can’t discharge you. You and I both know that.”

“I know that, chaplain. But she will talk to you.”

 Wallace didn’t need to ask who he meant, nor did he need to look over to feel Dr. Pax’s stare.

He was undecided as to his recourse, but he knew failing to give Billy a positive or hopeful word would only keep him in the room that much longer.

“I’ll do what is in your best interests, Billy, as I do for all my patients.”

Wallace anticipated some resistance, some pressing from Billy as to what exactly the answer meant. Instead, he saw Billy nod slowly, and eventually lean back in his chair.

“I believe you, chaplain.”

“Good,” Wallace said, rising from his seat. “It was truly a pleasure talking with you, Billy.”

“Wait, chaplain.”

“Yes, Billy?”

“Aren’t you going to pray for me?”

Though it came as a given in his profession, Wallace had become accustom to not forcing prayer on the end of his visits. Such was especially case in the behavioral health unit where Wallace feared an intention or petition could unknowingly serve as fuel for a deluded narrative or distorted sense of reality based on how his patient heard it.

And yet, Wallace could never turn prayer down to those who asked for it with sincerity.

Wallace sat back down and saw Billy reach his hands to the center of the table. Against his instincts and reservations, Wallace allowed himself to place his hands in Billy’s.

Wallace closed his eyes, and bowed his head with Billy.

“Heavenly Father, we thank you for this opportunity of fellowship. Lord of mercy, look down upon us, your servants, and especially on your servant Billy. We ask that you liberate us and loose us from all infirmity and weakness, and that you speak wisdom into our minds and hearts for our edification and healing…”

Wallace paused, hearing Billy not audibly but in his heart repeating and chanting the word: “justice.” Though he was unaccustomed to the petition, he decided to speak towards his heart’s inclination.

“And, Lord, we ask for justice…for…for justice, Lord.”

“Amen,” Billy responded.

Wallace looked up, shocked to see tears streaming from Billy’s eyes. Wallace smiled sweetly. He’d always been told that tears at the end of a visit were indicative of a job well done. Though he felt at a loss for any more adequate words to pray on Billy’s behalf, he was warmed to see the man weep.

“God bless you, Billy.”

“And you as well. Thank you, chaplain.”

Wallace left Billy as he held his face in his hands, as the streams of tears continued to flow. Wallace walked stiffly and hastily through the U of the unit, feeling the eyes of every patient and staff member tracking him. He felt their looks, however, not in the usual way, indicative of those looking for something, but rather looking with awe. He couldn’t be sure how much could be heard outside the closed door of the room, or interpreted through the glass of the room, and yet he felt the staff and patients knew the nature of the conversation, and the nature of Billy.

“Oh Chaplain!”

Wallace paused and grit his teeth, hearing the shrill voice of Dr. Pax follow after him just as he reached the checkpoint of the unit. He turned seeing her smile at him, a feigned kind of smile of pleasantry and formality, a toothy grin that served as a façade of welcomeness behind a want for favor and control.

“Yes, doctor?” Wallace replied neutrally.

“Thank you for seeing Mr. Henny today.”

“I think he prefers to go by Billy.”

“Actually, he prefers to go by something else,” she said with a forced chortle.

Wallace smiled limply back.

“I’m not sure if you are privy to his history, chaplain?”

“I don’t read patient charts,” Wallace replied briskly. “Not unless I have to.”

“It might be good for you to do so, chaplain,” she said, her voice growing slightly sharper. “The man is likely a paranoid schizophrenic and has persisted in a narrative that the mob is out to get him. The police suspect a history of vandalism and assault as well.”

“Suspect?” Wallace asked.

“Nothing that’s been confirmed in court yet. I’m sure he told you about his little ‘crime-fighting esquepades’.”

Wallace refrained from answering directly.

“Why isn’t he in jail?” Wallace decided to ask.

Dr. Pax beamed.

“He came in Baker Acted by the police when they found him streaking in his underwear—again, something I’m sure he’s already shared with you. They found him in a state of madness, only confirmed when he shouted accusations at the cops that they too were connected to the mob. No charges have been pressed yet, despite having been picked up out of a porn shop wielding a crowbar. It’s a miracle he didn’t end up in jail. He seriously needs help.”

Wallace nodded, not so much in agreement as much as to indicate he heard the psychiatrist.

“Forgive me, doctor, but my shift is about up and I need to chart. Anything you need from me?”

“Anything you might have for me that might provide important insight into the patient’s condition?” Dr. Pax asked, cocking an eyebrow.

Wallace spun on his heel to leave.

“Nothing that you won’t see in the notes of my chart. Good day, doctor.”

Wallace took his time descending from the psych ward to his office, his finger glued pensively to his lip, considering what he truly thought, felt, and believed about his conversation with Billy, deliberating what he might log in his chart. He cringed as he played through the conversation again in his own mind, embarrassed at the thought of another staff member listening to him entertaining the story presented to him.

“I got sucked in, didn’t I?” Wallace grumbled to himself.

It was a rookie move. Unbecoming in his work to let the story outside the walls of the hospital to become the topic of discussion, to get away from the diagnosis and how it affected their sense of meaning & purpose, to explore relationships and means of coping in strife, to be nothing more than a pastoral presence.

And yet, he couldn’t shake the prying eyes of Dr. Pax from his mind, couldn’t help but sympathize for the patient after being interrogated by her. Wallace had learned the psychiatrist had extended the stay of many patients by her own orders, had made under functioning prisoners of the weak-willed patients that she’d sunk her talons into. Wallace had seen it before in ministry, a kind of toxic savior complex that sought to keep the flock nice and close for the reward itself of having others becoming dependent on you.

Wallace fell exhaustedly back into his chair once he arrived at his office, and he stared silently at the computer screen instead of immediately going to the hospital charting system. Though he was tempted to explore the patient’s chart, he felt nauseated by the thought, as though prying into the details would suddenly deflate and paint the story in an instant, that the psychiatrist’s verdict would suddenly become his gospel truth.

Instead, Wallace opened up his browser and searched “Mask Whitie.” Sure enough, multiple articles accompanied by stark photos popped up on his screen. Wallace leaned in, seeing Billy Henny, wielding a humble crowbar, wearing nothing but his underwear, a white domino mask, a pair of white tennis shoes, and a cape made of a strange fabric. Wallace leaned in and zoomed into the photo, studying the cape with some scrutiny, interpreting the cape as some fine fabric, something light and fluffy almost like scrap fabric belonging to a wedding dress. Wallace scrolled through the articles, seeing stories of a half-naked Mask vandalizing porn shops and liquor stores, causing bedlam in casinos and strip clubs, even assaulting individuals with Slavic sounding names befitting of the Red Spades recruiting pool.

Not all of it seemed as innocent to Wallace as Billy portrayed it, but Wallace had been in chaplaincy long enough to know man’s proclivity to portray details that either dignified or victimized the teller rather than self-incriminate. And yet, he knew there was even more to Billy’s story that he needed to know.

Wallace turned to his charting program and searched not for Bill Henny, but Maria Henny. But after a quick peck of the keyboard and click, he sighed and shook his head, seeing no such name come up.

Wallace drummed his fingers on his desk in annoyance, displeased to see a hole in the story that he admittedly wanted to be true. Without the dead wife, in Wallace’s eyes at least, Billy wasn’t just a maniac without a motive, but worse, a liar spinning tales to get others to join his crusade.

Just as Wallace was about to type in Billy’s name to write up a damning note, he stopped himself, considering one other alternative. He ran a report of the ER’s patient list on last year’s Halloween and scrolled through the names. Wallace scrolled through the “H’s” first incase the patient had gone by a different first name, but to no avail. And then he went to the “D’s,” and as he had suspected, a handful of “Jane Doe’s” popped up. He clicked through the different charts until he found one that had been pronounced dead, and Wallace eagerly opened the ER Physician’s note:

“Female patient in 30s admitted to ER with violent hemoptysis, acute repertory distress, and multiple injuries sustained to face and body. Patient’s pulse was in decline at emergency admittance. Compressions were administered for 32 minutes. Patient was unable to be identified, and staff could not establish an emergency contact or health care surrogate. A pulse could not be achieved. Time of expiration: 21:33.”

Wallace reclined back in his seat and let out a heavy sigh.

The skeptic in him told him that such circumstances were common enough to fabricate a story around, or that Billy merely could have been privy to the poor anonymous woman’s demise and wrote into his own mind a narrative that she was his dead wife. Believing Billy, on the other hand, that this woman was in fact his wife also required some mental gymnastics as he considered the grandiose nature of the story, considered the flat and manic-looking affect of his patient. Both conclusions required a leap for Wallace.

Wallace opened up Billy’s file and began to write his note. The cursor in the text box blinked annoyingly at him, begging him to pen his observations, his purpose in the visit, the outcome of the visit. As he stared at the blinking cursor, he thought of the still heart of the Jane Doe that came in, and the beating heart of Billy Henny. He couldn’t help but wonder how Billy was still alive after so many bold ventures, after chasing after criminals without any armor or proper weaponry.

The fact that Billy was still alive, the message his comical appearance conveyed, the spirit in which he spoke his story…it wasn’t in itself compelling, but it made him want to believe the story.

Wallace sat down at his desk, and penned his note:

“Pastoral Care visited patient per patient’s request relayed by nursing staff. Pastoral care provided pastoral and listening presence and explored patient’s feelings towards hospitalization and patient’s coping strategies. Patient shared feelings of discomfort being in hospital. Patient seems to use humor to cope hard circumstances. Patient communicates concern for those outside of himself and seems to find purpose in helping others. Patient requested prayer. Chaplain prayed with patient. Outcome of visit seemed to provide patient with solace and emotional release.”


The Next Day…

“Alert! Alert! Alert! Code Grey, East Seven!”

Chaplain Wallace stepped out of line for his coffee and shuffled off to the west side of the hospital, the immediacy of the PA’s alarm hardly coherent to hear what floor of the hospital in which the emergency took place. Code Greys—physical altercations started by patients or guests against staff—warranted no more than a check-in from a chaplain to touch base with the staff, to provide a sense of calm after security had wrestled down the culprit. Still, Wallace forced himself to check in on it, finding an excuse to see to the emergency for the sake of enjoying the sunrise over Nymphis’ bay.

Wallace took the stairwell instead of the elevator, knowing it would take some time for the lift to return to him after security was done ascending to whatever floor the code had been called. Wallace whistled to himself, taking in the morning sun as he passed by each floor’s window, the sun refreshing him with its rays as it pierced through the glistening towers of a morally decrepit city.

Wallace paused as a clamoring set of footsteps descended towards him, and a man dressed in what he thought he remembered to be the garb of another patient from the psych ward brush past him.

“Excuse me, pardon me.”

Wallace reached out and grabbed the man’s arm, and spun him. The man wore a pair of jeans and plaid shirt of a patient not under a Baker Act, and although an N-95 mask covered a great deal of his face, his bald head and large eyes did not get past Wallace.

“Billy?” Wallace asked.

“Chaplain,” Billy groaned, his body falling slack, as though surrendering under Wallace’s grasp. “Look, I can explain.”

“Please do! You’re responsible for that code?!”

Billy shrugged, and he spoke in a spirited way.

“I told my story. Again and again. A lot of other people are trapped up there for who knows how long, feeling like life is slipping by them. They wanted to do something. They liked the story. So they helped me get out.”

“How, pray tell?”

“They all became Whitie,” Billy said. “Got in their skivvies, wrapped bed sheets around their necks like capes, put on masks like these to cover their faces. Meanwhile, my next door neighbor leant me his clothes. Said he was going to watch for me every night outside his window till he got out or I got back in.”

Wallace shook his head.

“You disapprove, chaplain?” Billy asked.

“Your craziness is contagious, Billy.”

Wallace saw Billy look down at his feet sheepishly.

“Not a real fair way to talk about those guys and girls up in that unit, chaplain.”

“Not what I meant,” Wallace said, letting go of Billy. “You’ve got me sick with your story too. Get the hell out of here, Whitie.”

Billy returned to meet Wallace’s face, wearing his same flat and wide-eyed expression, giving not even a coy smile to the absurdity of the moment, but rather a dutiful nod as though he were being sent off to fight a new war.

Wallace heard the ground level door spring open and slam just as he heard a familiar and similar commotion a few floors above him. Wallace looked up, seeing two winded security guards hustle down the steps with Dr. Pax in tow.

“Chaplain!” Dr. Pax huffed, looking surprised to see him.

“Heard there was a code, doctor,” Wallace answered flatly.

The guards pushed past him and trampled down the stairwell. Dr. Pax took a moment to catch her breath, and paused to meet him at his level, her usually forced pleasantry smile suddenly narrowed with a look of betrayal.

“Your note was not very thorough for what appeared to be a significant conversation,” she snapped.

Wallace shrugged.

“They’re all just bored up there, ask your own staff. They just want someone to listen to them.”

“As it turns out, a lot of people listened to Mr. Henny,” she hissed, stepping inches within his face. “Turned out to be a kind of insurrection if you can believe it, chaplain.”

“Hard to believe, mam.”

The New Harrowing: Bo & The Equestrians

Halloween Night

Lenny proudly tied his brown rider’s cloak around his neck, smoothed out his jodhpurs breeches, and straightened out his equestrian helmet. He flashed a devilish smile at himself in his master dormitory suite’s full-length mirror, the same room and mirror belonging to his brother. He imagined his brother’s spirit standing over him, beaming down upon him a proud and equally impish grin, wearing the senior garb of the Epsilon Omicron Alpha house.

It had taken three humiliating years for Lenny to get there. Three diminutive years of hazing, obedience, and misdemeanor to stand in that room, to wear the Equestrian garb, to take the reins of Nymphis University’s Halloween, the inception of Nymphis’ Harrowing festivities.

“You wear it well, sire,” Rusty, his foal, complimented. “Colton would be proud.”

Lenny withheld the temptation to rebuke his foal for bringing up such a stinging and sentimental subject, and yet it warmed him to hear how his brother’s legacy lived on. His brother, Colton, died under the influence in an automobile accident just a year after his graduation, and Lenny had anticipated four years of shame and prejudice merely by association. What he experienced instead was favor and special treatment from the fraternity, an easier first three years than most, a brotherhood that placed high expectations on him to one day lead and leave his mark upon the ‘Greek Life’.

“Too bad he’s not here to see what he created,” Lenny sighed.

Lenny’s brother Colton was among the founders of the Epsilon Omicron Alpha house, or rather the usurpers. Eight years ago, a poor but rambunctious group of collegians had crashed their rival fraternity house’s Halloween party wearing horse masks, the namesake of their school’s football mascot. The damage incurred by them in their celebration forced the former fraternity to move and thereby disband, granting free residence to Colton and his cronies. The remnant of their rambunctious vandalism marked the fraternity building to that day, and stains of their revelry marking the old wallpaper and aged carpets remained untouched.

“It’s sundown, sire,” his foal reported. “The festivities are about to begin.”

Lenny turned around to face his foal, seeing him donning his ceremonial horse mask.

“Remind me, foal, why do we make you wear those masks in this house?”

“So that we never forget we are someone else’s foal, sire.”

Lenny shook his head and paced his room pensively.

“It serve that function, but it’s more than that. Every collegian has pent up energy, a burning to step out of the former constraints of one’s home and high school. The horse mask gives you that opportunity, to do as you would without reproach, to create bedlam not only for the university and city, but even for your peers. Still, you’re correct, it serves as a reminder of the wild horse within each of us, and that we all require a master.”

“Very good, sire.”

“Tonight you wear my cloak, foal. You’ll lose some anonymity in so doing, but you’ll gain the regard to do as you please under that hood. And tonight I shed it off along with my past.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing both, sire.”

“Come with me. I want to show you something first.”

From the fraternity master suite to the private library was a short walk. The old lighting flickered on lazily, revealing bookshelves of dated literature with torn and weathered spines. Save for its couches and armchairs, the entire room’s furniture was lined with dust and cobwebs. The room hadn’t been used for the purpose of an actual study since before Colton took the dormitory, and such a woebegone façade suited the fraternity’s goals.

“Now is as good a time as any,” Lenny said, walking his foal to the end of the library, and gently tugging on the faded spine of a book titled, “Horse Anatomy.”

The book shelf pivoted out gently, and Lenny looked back, seeing his foal shudder at the sudden movement of the trick bookcase. Lenny stepped between the wall and the bookshelf, shined his phone’s flashlight on a hidden cubby carved out of the wall of a hundred or so photo albums, each labeled with initials.

“Rusty Abrams,” Lenny said, pulling an “RA” from the hidden bookshelf.

Lenny sidled next to Rusty and opened the book to the first page, with a simple header titled, “Freshman Year: Pre-Halloween.”

“Remember this?” Lenny asked, pointing to a photo of Rusty captured three years ago.

His foal recoiled at the sight of the old photo of siphoning a keg of beer while wearing a cardboard costume fashioned out of beer cans and cases. Lenny relished the subtle squirms as the photos on the next page revealed only further impaired decision making, wearing far less than his armor of alcohol, the drunk French maid far more clothed than he. Lenny paged quickly through the subsequent pages of damning photos, cringing himself as he beheld parts of his foal he’d rather not have laid eyes on, until they came to the second heading, “Freshman Year: Initiation.”

“Please, sire,” Rusty begged.

“This is the last time we’ll have to walk through any of this,” Lenny reassured.

A chill went up Lenny’s spine seeing a hellish gathering in the fraternity’s main lounge, just before a lit fireplace. Lenny remembered his own initiation as he paged through Rusty’s, seeing the diaper clad men of the fraternity paired with the bikini-clad women of the sorority lined up like soldiers. Standing obediently stiff around them were the horse-clad Sophmores, of which Lenny could spot his own former self. Stretching out and forming a circle around the lower classmen were the Juniors, their faces shadowed by their long rider hoods and cloaks, holding their former horse masks in hand. Standing gathered before the fireplace were the Seniors, Equestrians, dressed in the same splendor that Lenny enjoyed that day, save for the diminutive cloak.

“What was that day?” Lenny asked.

“It was the saddling, sire,” Rusty said weakly.

“The day you were broken in. But you weren’t my foal yet.”

“I was…someone else’s, sire.”

Lenny made a face, paging to the next heading that read, “Sophmore Year.” He found a page where Rusty bowed down on all fours in the dining hall, obediently at the side of a feminine figure donned in the rider’s cloak, the creases of her frown barely visible behind her hood. It wasn’t customary for a member of the sorority to take a member of the fraternity as a foal, or vice-versa. And yet, both the fraternity and sorority seemed to understand advantages of maintaining their rigid hierarchies by allowing romantic relationships to exist between the houses and ranks.

“You haven’t heard from her since?” Lenny asked, paging boredly through photos of the two of them egging a rival house and milk jousting inside a supermarket.

“No, sire.”

Lenny stopped at first page without her, the first page that showed him hooded where the girl once stood, the two of them standing proudly above a pair of away team linebackers following their lost championship game.

“Wish that photo I could save,” Lenny sighed, slamming the book closed and tucking it back onto the shelf. “But rules are rules.”

“Any that you would save from your own, sire?”

Lenny squirmed at the thought of his own photo album, and took solace seeing it missing from the bookshelf. He remembered having to go through the shameful photos of his impulsive and humiliated past with his former rider and Equestrian, a subtle reminder of the importance of the hierarchy, a reminder of the danger that came with leaving…

“None,” Lenny answered. “Come now. Wouldn’t want to miss the big celebration for the two of us.”

The two solemnly walked out the library and down the dimly lit hallway.

“What ever happened to that cheerleader of yours?” Lenny asked.

“To Abigail?” Rusty asked.

“Yes. Abigail. Abigail Brewer. Your old rider. What happened to her?”

“She left town.”

“Left town, what?”

“Left town, sire,” Rusty corrected himself.

“We all know she left town, foal. But what really happened to her, Rusty?”

“I suppose she wanted out, sire.”

“She’d gone through the worst of the hazing. Her last two years would have been nothing. Why risk tarnishing her entire future and leave?”

“Perhaps she wasn’t as concerned with her photo album?”

Lenny scoffed.

“Remind me to show it to you when we are finished, Rusty. The things inside that thing make your ledger seem so tame.”

“You haven’t released it yet then? Her photo album?”

“With the hope that she’ll return and recant. But for now it keeps me company at my nightstand.”

The two descended the hall’s creaky staircase, ushering the entire longue to turn and address them both. The lineup was a familiar one: half-naked freshman kneeling at the center, horse-headed sophomores standing obediently at their side, an outer band of juniors still donning their horse masks in anticipation for their cloaks, and equestrian clad seniors standing ready at the fireplace each with a wineglass in hand. An empty podium and stack of photo albums sitting upon it separated the equestrians, dividing the sisters from the brothers. Lenny smiled and took his place at the center while his foal filed in with the rest of the horses.

Lenny cleared his throat and unfurled the scroll as all eyes lay upon him.

“In Vino Veritas,” he began, raising his glass. “En Oinos Alitheia, or, in wine lies the truth. Each of us came into this house through the libation, through becoming acquainted with our uninhibited self. Our predecessors showed us our wild horses, and we are reminded of those mavericks until we leave this house.”

Lenny turned to his fellow Seniors.

“Equestrians, fellow Seniors, tonight we shed our capes of shame and immolate the annals of our truth. Our time of being lorded over by our past shall wither in the hearth!”

Lenny then turned to the still horse-faced juniors.

“Juniors, tonight you shed your horse faces and don the cloak, learning authority, saddling your foal.”

Lenny arched forward, addressing the stiffly lined columns of horse-headed Sophomores.

“Sophmores, you will continue to wear your long faces, for you are still all wild horses. Your initiation is not over yet. But take courage, for in no time at all you will meet our ranks, and in the meantime you will carry the torch of revelry that has ignited this house so brightly. You will be set free upon our city as horsemen of the Harrowing, proudly rendering bedlam and carousal.”

Lenny stepped forward, coming to one of the freshmen, who seemed to shiver as Lenny’s shadow hovered over his naked body.

“As for you, Freshmen,” he said, pouring his drink over the head of the novice. “You will be shod, you will be branded, and you will be broken in until you are deemed worthy of this house. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, sire!” The freshmen obediently chimed in chorus.

Lenny waltzed back to his position behind the podium and threw his glass into the fire where it shattered in the heat.

“Every Equestrian begins by being broken in, made a fool and foal of him and herself. We cannot leave our pasts until we leave. We must pass through the fire of the Harrowing. We must don the mask, become our beast, have our drink, and subject ourselves to being mastered, before we become masters ourselves. Only then we are freed. But until we become lords of our houses, we are subjects to our shame.”

Lenny outstretched his arms out in a flamboyant and ritualistic manner, as though to embrace the whole student body.

“All, but the Freshmen, tonight, will be set free! Starting with the Juniors! Juniors, shed off your faces, and take up the mantle that we bestow on you!”

Lenny made a sweeping gesture with his hands, closed his eyes, and craned back his head in a dramatic fashion.

“Juniors! Take off your masks!”

What Lenny anticipated as a solemn moment of silence came to a sudden burst of gasps and indignant murmurs. He opened his eyes, seeing half the Juniors without their masks as intended, and the other half wearing sheep masks, with austere expressions crafted into their plastic mold.

The rest of the student body looked to Lenny in anticipation, and Lenny fumbled to produce some fitting response.

“What is the meaning of this? Some silly new prank!? Save it for the Harrowing! This is a solemn observance of our great tradition!”

But the sheep did not. They did not move. Instead their unnerving, quiet stares pierced Lenny.

Lenny looked over to where he knew Rusty had took his place, seeing him among the sheep. Lenny strode up to him, and came within inches of his face.

“Take that mask off immediately, foal,” Lenny hissed, “or I’ll send off your dirty little memory book this very night!”

“You have no power over him!” A feminine voice shouted from across the room.

Lenny looked up back towards the staircase, seeing another sheep staring at him from the banister, though dressed starkly different from the rest. She wore ragged shepherd’s clothing, harkening to customary garb worn in a mountainous village in the Balkans. In her hand, she carried what looked like a Bo staff, its steel sheen shimmering in the firelight of the hearth.

“And who are you supposed to be?” Lenny scoffed. “Little Bo Peep?”

“Something like that,” she replied.

“And you think you’ve made a mindless flock of my bold foals?”

“No,” she answered. “I’ve come to set them free of your blackmail, to release them from your perverted little cult.”

Lenny marveled at the grace of her movement, how she effortlessly vaulted over the banister, how she twirled her staff hypnotically in front of her, around her, over her, with helicopter like speed. The sheep parted away from her reflexively, the sorority fled, and a fraction of the fraternity of every class stood their ground.

“All pomp and no substance,” Lenny spat. “Take her down!”

Those loyal and brave enough to stand their ground enveloped the shepherd and raised their fists. The first that leapt forward took a hard thwack to the chin, and another a stiff prod to the sternum. Another handful charged, while the rest waited.

Bang. Smack. Crack.

Even the meatier linebackers of the fraternity fell like dead weight before the spins and strikes of the Bo staff.

Those initially bold to confront her had since sheepishly backed off, and stood nervously before the masked shepherd, giving her wide berth of the lounge.

“Any one of you cowards who does not take her down will have their photo albums released!” Lenny threatened.

“Are you sure about that?” The masked shepherd asked.

Lenny shot her a perplexed glare before he made out the smell of smoke and within seconds heard the blaring of the fire alarm.

“What the hell!?” Lenny swore.

“The library is on fire,” The masked shepherd proudly announced to the room as she slowly strode towards Lenny. “You are all now part of a new Harrowing. Your pasts are all being burned up. You are all free to leave not just this building, but this organization…for your own safety.”

She spun her Bo staff dramatically as she came within striking distance of Lenny.

“We’ll make this quick.”

Lenny glanced over, seeing the whole house vacate, save for his old foal, save for Rusty.

Lenny chuckled to himself.

“I don’t know that I’d be laughing,” she said, poising her staff towards him, “if I were on the receiving end of this very heavy stick.”

“I should’ve known it was you…that you’d return…Abigail.”

Lenny expected a dramatic flinch, a paralyzing moment for the sudden reveal. Instead, he marveled, seeing her gracefully remove the sheep mask from her face, and throw it into the fire.

“What gave me away?” Abigail asked with a subtle smirk.

“Never seen anyone work a pole like that,” Lenny said devilishly. “Which brings me to my next point. Are you sure you’ve set fire to all the photo albums?”

“You mean this one?” She asked, pulling from her a fold of her garment a photo album, initialed “A.B.”

Lenny remained unflinching as she took her album and tossed it carelessly into the hearth.

Lenny fell back, as the staff punched into his gut without warning. As he attempted to catch his breath, he watched as Abigail turned towards her former foal and hand to him the stack of photo albums from the podium.

“Go ahead, Rusty,” she told him. “Send these to the press. Make copies. Let the city, the whole internet, know about this place and its customs.”

“Are you sure about that?” Lenny choked, pulling out his phone and opening a saved draft of an e-mail.

He let his thumb hover over the send button, while he outstretched the screen to show the two of them a collection of photos awaiting to be sent to a handful of publishers of websites of ill-repute.

“Want to let the city, the whole internet, know, Abigail, about your own checkered past here?”

“Y-you saved her photos?” Rusty stammered. “That’s against the house’s conduct!”

Lenny rolled his eyes and chuckled.

“Do we really look like a house of rules, Rusty? We let you imbeciles parade around in horse masks so you could prank each other without consequence. We endorsed your bedlam and vandalism! You really think ceremony would keep me from saving your girlfriend’s delectable secrets? Don’t you—”

“Do it.”

Lenny blinked hearing her so sharply interrupt him, so immediately and with stone-face call his bluff.

“Go ahead. Scapegoat me for your scorched earth. You can try to destroy my future with my past. If that’s the price to pay for their freedom and to bring this system down, so be it.”

Lenny grit his teeth and pushed his thumb on his phone, sending her digital photo album off into the ether.

Abigail flashed a wide and pearly smile and slammed her staff into Lenny’s mouth. He coughed, feeling the debris of shattered enamel burst into his mouth and throat from the impact.

“Look on the bright side, Lenny,” she said, taking him by his ankle and dragging him from the house filling with smoke, “you’ll never smile again for another photo album. Happy Harrowing.”

The Spider & The Mantis

“The Spider & The Mantis”
A Masks Short Story

He watched her swim from their motel room’s porch balcony. The soft moonlight illumined the shimmering water, making her slim figure dance under water. She wore his favorite green two-piece which complimented nicely with her dyed, black hair. Her eyes remained closed and she wore a careless expression as she backstroked back and forth from one side of the pool to the other, while he drank up the sight of her, his insides ever boiling with envy for something he knew he never would enjoy.

“Quit staring and get in,” Sally cooed.

“Appointment will be here any minute now,” Frank grunted, nervously brushing his gelled, bleach-blonde hair.

“He’s keeping us waiting. Besides, you never get in,” she teased.

You know our arrangement, he wanted to say, though he knew better than to entertain the dialog any further, knowing that her persistent taunting would in fact lure him into the pool with her.

“I want us to leave town after this client,” Frank switched subjects.

Sally finished her lap to the side of the pool near him, and looked up with a consternated gaze.

“We have a good thing going, Frankie.”

“We’re running out of motels, Sally.”

“Then we leave Nymphis.”

“We’ve gotten lucky doing this routine in this crazy city. We pick up and move, people won’t think we’re vigilantes, or Masks, or whatever we are.”

“Is that what you think we are, Frankie?” She asked, batting her eyes at him. “Are we the good guys?”

Frankie bit his tongue. He at least pretended that they were. It helped him sleep at night when their work became difficult.

“Because I know that’s not what I am,” she said in a sultry voice, slowly pulling herself out from the pool. “And you were there to see it from the beginning.”

As she shot him a serious look, he remembered back to his freshman year in college, their first time ever exchanging words with one another, the one day he regretted the most of his entire life…

It was after one of his football games, after most teams and spectators had vacated the field. Frank had returned to the gridiron to look for his helmet, a symbolic totem he left on the bench in frustration for the lost game, for his failure as a linebacker.

“Should’ve left you out here,” he grumbled to his helmet, finding it on the bench.

“Should’ve just quit the game…”


That’s when he saw her, behind the bleachers, pinned to the turf by one of the away team’s running backs.

Seeing her struggle helplessly to buck the player twice her size, Frank did what he did best. He charged.

Frank tackled the running back full force, knocking the stranger off of her and crashing him to the turf. Frank winced hearing a crack and pop from his rival’s body snap against the ground, and the running back writhed on the grass, holding his shoulder and crying in pain.

“What the hell, man?!”

“Nobody ever teach you how to be a gentleman?” Frank growled.

“This isn’t your business! I paid her, man!”

Frank looked back, seeing Sally stand up and straighten out her cheerleader’s skirt

“Didn’t pay me for getting to home base!”

Frank blinked and his jaw dropped agape.

“You mean…he paid you to…”

“I owe you one, meathead,” Sally said, rummaging through the running back’s pockets and leaving the field with a wad of cash.

Frank hastily took his leave, not looking back in the hopes the other player might not see or remember his face. The whole rest of the night he wrestled with his conscience, proud and beaming for protecting the helpless dame, while also unable to totally reconcile with the circumstances from which he saved her, especially knowing that she walked off the field with a payment.

Frank had seen her the very next day in the campus cafeteria. While he hung his head low in a tinge of shame, Sally had no problem walking straight up to him.

“Want an easy hundred?” She asked him pointedly.

“Wh-what?” He stammered.

“One hundred dollars. I’m give you one hundred, literally just to stand somewhere and look tough.”

“Look, if this is about last night…”

“Fine,” she stormed off. “I’ll take my chances, and keep my share.”


But she didn’t, and he followed.

He couldn’t explain why he took her bait, why he silently followed her to her next “transaction.” A part of him liked to think that he saw her as defenseless and pursuing a legitimate and consensual transaction, but he could not help but shake the critic in the back of his head detecting something nefarious and dishonest about her aim.

It was a short walk to the men’s dorms, and Frank couldn’t help but feel implicated and embarrassed to walk in his own halls behind her. They stopped just outside a room two stories above his suite, and once again Frank looked over his shoulder, as though standing next to her implicated him in some way.

“Listen,” Sally said to him matter-of-factly in a low voice. “The guy in here is a half your size, and a total tool. Nymphis University ain’t cheap. When I scream help, I need you to barge in and do your thing.”

Frank blinked.

“Was last night staged?” Frank asked pointedly.

“No,” Sally whispered. “But that jock you took out had a lot on him, triple the amount he was supposed to give me. Now, I get you might have mixed feelings with me walking off with a profit from that incident, but you don’t know what it’s like being pinned by a frisky guy twice your size!”

“But you’re staging this?” Frank said, nodding to the door.

“I know what I am, but that also means I know the kind of guys that pay for a girl like me. Trust me, meathead, I’ve been around the block a few times, this isn’t my first rodeo. Stupid shit like last night doesn’t happen often, but I’m fed up with dirt bags like that, and I think it’s time someone tried turning the tables.”

“And I walk away from this, you don’t turn the tables?”

“What’s your name, meathead?” She asked, squinting at him while folding her arms.


“Ok, Frankie. What do you study?”

“I’m going for law.”

“That’s an expensive degree. Think you’ll have enough brain cells for it too after a career of playing football?”

“Good luck,” Frank said, spinning on his heel.

“Hey,” she said, putting her small hand upon his meaty shoulder. “Look, I saw last night’s game, and I saw you hang your head lowest for letting the other team break the line and sack your quarterback. I know you take pride in protecting others. Other guys would’ve walked away from me and that guy instead of do something about it.”

Frank turned and looked over his shoulder, seeing her eyes bore up at him with a puppy-dog plea.

“I need a hero, Frank. I’m not proud of the things I’ve had to do to just get here at this school, but I think I might catch a break if I have at least one guy looking out for me.”

Frank grimaced as he felt a fire of duty rekindle in his chest, burning him with zeal to do play his part.

“This guy is a creep?”

“He’s copped a feel in the cafeteria before. Mommy and daddy are covering his whole tuition, if that sweetens the deal.”

“Let’s get this over with.”

In five minutes Sally cried her cue, and Frank barged in without much resistance. The frail freshman was on the floor in two punches, and Sally had picked the room clean of its valuables in two minutes. The two made off with just under a grand, more than what Frank had expected for his take.

“We’re quite the team,” Sally told him afterwards.

“I hope you’re not implying we’ll be doing that again,” Frank replied suspiciously.

“Not here. There’s bigger fish to fry in Nymphis.”

From there, the two branched out of the university, going into areas of ill-repute in the city. Sally posed as an escort, Frank as her procurer, and the two went from street corner to street corner, motel to motel, luring desperate males, trapping them, mugging them, leaving them bruised where they lie.

The escalation eventually warranted a change of tactics and appearance as word got out of the con-artist couple. A new motel meant a new hair color, a new set of clothes, new temporary markings and tattoos, and new names.

“Nice tattoo,” Sally complimented him after they moved to a motel in Roseray, Nymphis’ Red Light District.

“Got a mask to compliment it,” Frank said, holding a balaclava with spider designs up next to his neck tattoo of a spider web.

“No football helmet?” Sally teased.

“Left that part of me behind. Besides, it’s not that easy to slip on in a pinch.”

“Why wear any mask in the first place?”

“The city has been catching onto us. We need to jump on this Mask bandwagon. After all, we’ve been hurting a lot of Johns. That makes us heroes, doesn’t it?”

“This city thinks we are heroes?” She scoffed. “Please.”

“Didn’t you call me your hero?” Frank asked.

“I did,” she said, kissing him platonically on the cheek. “But I have no intention to share you. Besides, Spider, my role in this doesn’t work well with a mask, not unless I get into the weird stuff.”

“That’s a shame. I had a name picked out for you and everything.”

Sally flashed him a curious grin.

“What’s my name?”

“Mantis,” he said, handing her a pair of green contacts and green lingerie. “The Man-Eater.”

“I’m not tied down to this city, Frank,” Sally said, toweling off. “Nymphis hasn’t give me anything but a lot of grief. We could easily do another year of this and be set for the next thirty years. Do the math.”

“We’re already set for a while, Sally,” Frank countered.

“Not with that last guy you shanked.”

Frank blinked away the dead face that looked back up at him, the one face that haunted him from their cons.

Their last client was different than the rest. He was a fighter, a Mask, and, worse of all, he was armed. When Frank barged in, the client pulled a knife on Sally’s throat. It was a messy altercation resulting in superficial stitches for both Frank and Sally, and ending in multiple stab wounds to the client once Frank muscled the blade from his grasp.

“I didn’t tell you, but taking care of the body cut into a lot of our savings,” Sally said.

“Just another reason to get out of this business,” Frank grunted.

“It was a fluke.”

“It was murder.”

“It was self-defense, Frankie.”

  “It’s a face I can’t forget.”

  “I thought you said that guy was with the Den.”

 “Doesn’t make the face any harder to forget.”

 Suddenly, the pool and walls of the motel lit up as a sedan pulled into a parking spot and beamed its brights at the two of them.

 “Better late than never,” Sally sighed, joining Frank at his side.

 “We could have walked away from this,” Frank grumbled.

“Hey, big guy,” Sally said, pecking him on the cheek, “every single dirtbag you’ve pummeled and stabbed had it coming. There’s a lot less John’s out there because of you, and a lot fewer girls being preyed upon after the shape you leave them in, after leaving them penniless. I know what I am, Frank, but you’re still my hero.”

“We’re leaving town after this one,” Frank said flatly. “And I don’t think it’s wise we keep playing our game with all our near-misses.”

“We’ll talk shop later, Frankie. For now let’s focus on what’s ahead of us. Clock me at three minutes and then come in and do your thing.”

“I thought we agreed sixty seconds,” Frank growled. “You almost didn’t make it out with a jugular last time you took that long.”

“Sixty seconds is way too short of time to ploy my wiles. Trust me, Frankie, I’ll be alright, I just need time.”

The sedan went dark, and out from it stepped a lanky young man, dressed in shorts and a button-down strolled up to the two of them.

“Damn, looking fine, girl,” the client said with a whistle, eyeing up Sally’s body.

“Care to shower to get things started?” Sally asked suggestively.

“That’s extra,” Frank said, holding out his hand.

“Whatever you say,” the client said, stuffing a wad of cash into Frank’s hand before taking Sally’s and leading her into the motel room.

Frank’s eyes immediately went to his watch once the door closed shut. He stuffed his hand in his pocket and nervously felt for his collapsible truncheon and spider balaclava, hoping that Sally would let out a premature scream. After all, waiting was the real torture of the operation.

 Though every ticking second filled Frank with dread that Sally’s well-being would come once again in jeopardy, the real anguish he felt in the delay of time was the pestering thought he had of the client setting himself onto Frank’s damsel. His heart would pound in a mixture of indignation and envy, his mind run frantic with monstrous and covetous thoughts. Perhaps, he thought, that is why Sally always had him wait instead of outright mug the client: to use his suppressed lust for her and his quickly stoked hatred for the client to stir him in getting the job done.

“Alright, you’ve had your time,” Frank said to himself as his watch reached three minutes.

With one hand he slipped the mask over his face, and the other he relinquished and flipped upon his truncheon. But as he opened the door to their room, he marveled seeing the lights off and the room quiet, save for the closed bathroom door that shone a sliver of light and hissed faintly with the sound of a running shower. Though it was unlike her to leave all lights off, Frank knew of instances when operating in total darkness had provided him the necessary edge, though always with the help of some sound.

 Frank cautiously stepped to the bathroom door, holding his truncheon tight in hand, over his head, while slowly opening the door with his other.

And to his surprise, the bathroom was empty.

Then, a blinding light pierced through the room’s windows accompanied by a flashing red and blue strobe, and Frank could make out nothing but the figure of the client stepping out from a closet space.

“That’s him!” Frank heard Sally shriek from somewhere in the room. “That’s the killer! That’s my captor!”

Frank did only what he knew to do. He charged.

He made it within striking distance before two pistol rounds pierced into his chest. He staggered for a second, the blood loss forcing him to his knees, and then collapsed back as the client’s heel struck him in the chest.

“This is Officer Bucik,” the figure began after barking into his radio. “Suspect is down and will need medical attention…if he makes it.”

“She,” Frank attempted to sputter as he felt blood fill his lungs. He slowly pointed his truncheon Sally, seeing her rise out from underneath the bed, the faintest crack of a smirk barely visible through the darkness.

“She’s the…the…the Ma…the Man…”

“Save it for a judge, meathead, if you live to see a courtroom,” the undercover cop spat. “Only good Mask, is a dead one.”