Neither/Nor

By Cristina Vega

He begins to set up his workstation. He brushes his bed with his hands to remove the plaster that sometimes flakes off the ceiling as though it’s shedding. Some of it clings to his hair, eliciting a smile from him as he jerks his hand in his locks and watches the flakes shower on the floor. He spreads a newspaper like a sheet on one side of the bed. A paper cup filled with water serves as his cleaner. His tools are unpacked from a stained pencil case. They’re crude and worn: a chisel with newspaper for the handle and a rust-bitten razor as its edge, held by thread he plucked from his underwear, and brushes made new with a fresh supply of his hair. His paints are made of soap shavings he scrapes with his chisel, and food coloring. He binds the colors with grease he cajoles from the kitchen workers, and smears the crude paints on aluminum foil that he washes in the sink after each session.

He hears footsteps, and try as he might to ignore them, to feign interest in the newspaper he’s laid out or swirl his paints with his brush, he’s consumed by queasy fear that darkens his skin. He doesn’t look up to face the guards—two, always two—that stand close to one another, their postures conspiratorial. His mind’s blocked. He can’t remember what to do next, until his eyes slide to a towel hanging off the side of his bed. Choking down an exclamation, he snatches it and drapes it across his knees to form a kind of crude tarp. He reaches over to a well-worn table and plucks a wrapped bundle from a tower of books and toiletries. With careful fingers, he peels back the layers of cloth and reveals a mask.

“Motley,” says one of the guards. “That your new face?”

The man known as Motley considers the mask on his lap with a slow, careful look, as though it might run. It’s plump and round like well-ripened fruit. A wide grin curls into itself, pushing dimples up into the surface, widening the nostrils and magnifying the wrinkles that cup the eyes. Its skin is a deep golden brown, softened here with shades of pink, blue, and black to mimic shadows and skin-stains brought by acne or age. A patch of donated hair sits on a receding hairline, black and flecked with gray like bits of ash.

“That your new face?” The other guard presses closer, into the bars.

The man known as Motley picks up his chisel, clenches it tightly. He scratches the blade into the mask, etches the many little marks on the forehead followed by deeper furrows that make up the laugh lines. Slivers of the cast come off in shreds that he wipes with his thumb. He pauses to bring up his brush, looks up for a moment to see the guards’ disconcerting smiles, crossed arms, fists like idle rocks. He exhales slowly, hot air passing beneath his nostrils through a tight-lipped expression. The brush, wet with black paint, is brought to the mask in quick jerky movements as though he’s plucking out hairs with tweezers. He doesn’t blow on the mask to make the paint dry out faster. He simply holds it by the ears like a child and peers at it while the guards cry, “Try it on!”

The mask is cold and earthy against his skin, like the mud he used to apply to himself out on the grounds, only when the mask hardens it doesn’t disintegrate and flake off his face. The eyeholes are smaller, forcing him to squint, blurring the grays and whites and browns into a soft palette. He smiles and inhales the ripe heady green of pine and dirt that lifts off the newspaper and plaster. Heat falls across his face like sunlight. He leans back against the wall and slowly stretches his arms. He imagines himself adrift on the grass, belly taut with salmon and crackers, sugary-sweet Coke still drying on his lips. The sun’s rays press down on him like a blanket. He wants to take his shoes off and run, feel the wet dewy grass between his toes, roll in it like a puppy.

He jerks as a nightstick rattles the bars. “Where you going, Motley?” says one of the guards, but they are so closely pressed that they resemble conjoined twins. Lips pulp together, noses broad like muzzles, white teeth flashing and pulled in grimaces. Limbs jerk and convulse, jutting from a blue uniform that stretches out like a jumpsuit. The man known as Motley swells and stretches against them. His smile matches the mask. He gazes at them through the eyeholes and flattens his hands against his stomach. His body is his own. He is content.

The guards press into the bars until the steel slides back. The man known as Motley tenses before he springs, like a rubber band that’s been held taut before it snaps. He flails in wild, untrained blows. The guards quickly encase him in sweat and heat, unimpressed by his struggles. A hand closes over his face and tears it off.

Cold, dead air slaps his exposed flesh. His eyes slide down to the guards’ greasy, heavy boots. The mask falls to their feet like a dead leaf, but that isn’t right because he’s the one quivering, he’s the one with no strength as a boot closes over the nose and mouth. The guards seem to lean in unison, the boot swirling and pressing down, down, down, until the face gives in. The snapping sound comes to his ears like a gunshot, and he sags on his knees as he becomes weightless, void.

“Where you going, Motley?” says a guard, scraping his boot on the side of the wall.

“Nowhere, Sir,” he replies.


Cristina Vega grew up in the inhospitable desert of Las Vegas, and now lives in the rainy forests of Sweden. She has a Bachelors in English from the University of Malmö. Currently working as a freelance writer, she has been published in Halfway Down the Stairs and Hello Horror to name a few. Her work is currently ongoing.