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First Faces

Over the past thirty-odd years, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold adult and YA novels and more than 300 short stories. Her works have been finalists for the World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, and Endeavour awards. Her novel The Thread that Binds the Bones won a Stoker award, and her short story "Trophy Wives" won a Nebula Award.

Her middle-school novel Thresholds was published by Viking in 2010, and its sequel, Meetings, came out in 2011. A collection of her short stories, Permeable Borders, was published by Fairwood Press in 2012.

Nina does production work for the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and teaches short story writing through Lane Community College. She lives in Eugene, Oregon, with several cats and many toys.

For a list of Nina's publications, check out: ofearna.us/books/hoffman.html.

I love October. That's when I can wear the mask and people ask the right kinds of questions, like who made it, where'd I get it, and what it's supposed to be.
The answers vary according to my mood. I never tell the truth--an ancestor made it, it's come down from mother to oldest daughter for more than two hundred years, and it's not what it looks like but what it does that matters.
If I wear the mask other times of year, people ask, "What is that ugly thing, and why is it on your face?" I've come up with answers: "It's better than my real face," or "I'm having a bad face day," or, "It's a face-hugging alien and it's sucking out my brain. Back off before it jumps to your face." If I say things like that, though, folks think I'm peculiar.
The inside of the mask is hairy, like the outside of a coconut shell. It smells like the beach--salt air, tanning oil. Once I put it on, I don't notice the rough surface, and the smell is faint. Green crystal ovals cover the eyeholes. They're what I love about the mask. When I look through the eyes, the world's transformed. Intangible beings drift here and there. Plants have extra shadows made of light. Animals trail second selves.
And people? People wear their first faces over their second ones, the faces they really are, not the faces they want you to see.
Many of my relationships change in October, altered by what I see.
I wore the mask to the office Halloween party. The other secretary, Helen, who was dressed as a sexy red devil woman, said, "Penny, again? This is the third year in a row you've worn the same thing! Penny Dreadful! I hate looking at that awful, twisted face! Why don't you get a new costume?" Her first face was pinched, narrow-eyed and sharp-nosed, unlike her gentle, rounded second face, but it wore an extra-wide smile when she thought something was funny. I liked Helen.
I modeled my new tiger-and-jungle tattoo sleeves, and the giant bejeweled spider ring. "These are new."
"Steps in the right direction," said Helen, "but still with the same black wispy witch costume? And that horrible matted-hair wig?" She wrinkled her nose.
I shrugged. "Where's the boss?"
She pointed a red-claw-tipped finger. "Came as a demon this year, so it's like every day in the office. He brought a new girlfriend."
Mr. Jimson's first face, a leering lecher with too-large features, hovered above a muscular body in a blue-black body stocking, with black bat wings, a pointy tail, black leather pants, and black knee-high leather boots. He held a red trident in his left hand. His right hand gripped the wrist of something I had never seen before.
Its body looked misty through the mask's eyes, shifting from fox to snake to sprite, its only solid part the limb the boss grasped.
"Girlfriend?" I asked faintly.
"Doesn't she look like some poor Eastern European girl a Russian mobster shipped over here to sell into prostitution?"
"Hey, Penny," said one of the cubicle slaves, Cliff, dressed this year as a Roman gladiator, but with the same first face as last year, a cross between a rat and a weasel. "How about a kiss?"
"You'd kiss that mouth?" Helen said. "You must be drinking."
Cliff waved his can of Coors.
"Sorry, Cliff. Gotta go." I headed toward the boss. At office parties, he pretended to be jolly and friendly and caring. It was creepy, but better than his everyday self. He expected everyone to greet him and thank him for the party. Once I got that chore out of the way, I could focus on studying everyone I worked with. On Halloween, with the mask's help, I got enough juicy details about my coworkers to keep me going the rest of the year.
"Yikes! An evil witch!" said the boss when I approached. Then he guffawed. "It's you, isn't it, Penny? Looking better than usual!"
"Thanks, Mr. Jimson." He made the same joke every year. Maybe he meant it, though. I was grateful he didn't look at me twice on normal days. My clothes covered my body in neutral colors. I left my face naked and kept my hair short to discourage his interest, and it worked. He treated me like a useful robot. Better than he treated Helen. "Who's your friend?" I asked.
"This is Morana Bosko. She's with Kowalski Toolcraft. She's never been to a Halloween party before."
Up close, I still couldn't see Morana's second face. Her first face looked like a fox, then a cat, then a fairy. The fairy face smiled. "What are you?" she asked. Her voice was warm, deep, and smoky.
"I'm a secretary," I said. What was she?
"Fascinating," she said, with just a hint of accent. She wrenched free of the boss's grip and slipped her arm through mine. "Let us get beverages together."
The boss reached for her, but she evaded him. Her arm was cold, and she smelled like wood smoke and nettles. My mouth went dry. Cold gripped me.
I had seen many things through the mask's eyes, but none scared me more than Morana did.
She led me toward the refreshment tables, then past them and down the hall.
She pushed me into the reception room, where Helen and I worked during the day. Our desks stood abandoned, the lights off except for a nightlight. The rogue jade plant in the corner loomed, its many-leaved shadow huge and menacing. "The mask," Morana said. "Will you show it to me?"
"Um, no?" I stepped back. Her hand on my arm felt like metal pliers.
She reached for the mask. I turned my head.
Her hand dropped. "What would convince you to let me examine it?"
"Tell me what you are."
"Ah," she said. "So that's what it does. I am not human. More than that, I will not say."
"What do you want with me?"
"Only a look through your mask's eyes."
I took off my mask. To my daytime eyes, Morana looked like an exotic but beautiful woman, with a broad, pale face, large dark eyes, and a wide, thin-lipped mouth. Her hair was dark gray, worn loose. Her dress was gray-green, with silver woven into it. She plucked the mask from my hand and put it over her face.
I'd never looked in a mirror while wearing it. It was like fissured tree bark, the crystal lenses like sap blisters, the mouth a protruding O, the nose hooked. She stared at me. "Ah," she said, her voice muffled. "Yes. Very good." She took the mask off, and then she kissed me.
My mother had never told me why we had the mask, who made it, or where it came from. Maybe she didn't know that those who wear the mask have certain unusual skills.
I work for Morana Soulreaper now. I wear the mask while working.
Now I know what to look for.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, April 15th, 2016

Author Comments

I wrote "First Faces" in response to a prompt from my writing group, the Wordos, for our annual Halloween short-short story read-aloud meeting. This year's prompt was "Mask."

- Nina Kiriki Hoffman
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