“You really should take off the mask, Nicolai, it’s November now. Halloween is over.”
Gregory walked around the back of Nicolai and reached over, picking up the sugar. As was common whenever he got close to his best friend, he felt the coldness Nicolai carried everywhere with him like suddenly being dipped in chill water.
“It’s pretty good though,” Imelda said. She glanced up from her phone and, just for a moment, allowed herself to really take in Nicolai’s face. The harsh white cheek bones, the deep sockets of his eyes, the lipless jaw adorned with bright white teeth. It was odd, but it had a charm.
“You think?” said Nicolai, and his eyes lit up as if he was smiling though, of course, without the aid of fleshy cheeks his friends could only infer his happiness.
“Oh, no doubt,” said Gregory, who pulled his long fringe out of his eyes as he went to sugaring his coffee to a diabetes-inducing state.
The road just beyond the boundary of the cafe’s little fence seemed then to conspire with fate, and traffic slowed so that the birds in the autumn trees could be detected, and the leaves that still clung there could be heard to sigh..
“I’ve got something to tell you,” Nicolai said. He put his pink hands on the table and then, with a great breath, announced: “I am wearing a mask, you’re right. Kind of. I’ve been wearing a mask for a long time. But now I don’t want to anymore. The thing is, see, the thing is…”
Nicolai dipped his pink finger in Imelda’s orange juice. “Here! That’s minging that. You’re gonna have to buy me another one.”
“I will, I will, just watch.”
“What? What am I meant to be watching? Are you…” Gregory stopped mid sip of his coffee. The orange juice in which Nicolai had plunged his finger had begun to cloud as though something were denaturing in there, slowly eroding and mixing with the liquid.
“It has to be water resistant, of course, the body paint. But it’s not that good. That’s why I usually try to stay out of the rain. It’s why I’ve never gone swimming with you.” He withdrew his finger, and beneath it was a strange black and bone white digit.
“Woah, how did you do that?” Imelda said, her eyes wide with excitement. “Can you show me? That would well freak my mum out.”
“It’s not a trick,” said Nicolai. “It’s me.” He removed his baseball cap to show that, where usually there was a shock of blonde hair, now the hair was black and bristle like. “I was born…different. Different face. Different body, see? And my family have been hiding it for years. But on Halloween, every Halloween, I don’t have to hide. For one night, it’s okay to be seen.”
“This is starting to freak me out,” said Imelda.
“Bullshit!” cried Gregory. “Prove it? This skin stuff, that’s…you can do that with good body paint. Show us proof.”
“I thought you’d believe me. I thought…you’d be happy for me.”
Imelda, with an uncertain hand, reached for Nikolai. She touched his wrist, but not that finger. “It’s just, what you’re saying is a bit…out there. You know? Are you serious?”
“Yes,” said Nicolai. He sat a few moments, lost in thought. How could he prove to them that what he was saying was true without, you know, stripping off and allowing himself to be prodded in such an undignified way? Not that he’d necessarily dislike being prodded by Imelda, but that was for another day.
Well, Nicolai realised at last, he did have one other secret. One special thing he alone could do.
He glanced around. The cafe was quiet. While he’d been getting glances all afternoon, people had quickly written it off: after an initial surprise, a young lad in fancy dress was easy to ignore. This would be more conspicuous, but he decided to do it anyway.
Nicolai turned his face to the sky, he opened his jaw and he began to sing. Without lips, of course, it wasn’t a song he articulated so much as released, but it was beautiful and soaring, filled with deep, velvety notes that were entirely his. And the leaves on the trees turned their colours back, browns and golds restored to verdant greens, and the birds began to sing their lovesongs in chorus, and Nicolai laughed, for it felt good to feel the sunshine upon his face.
When the song was over, he looked to his friends.
They stared back at him open-mouthed. And then…