Keep Your Mask On

I’m cheating by posting an edited version of an older story instead of writing something completely new. But I am keeping my promise by using the title of the story for the title of the post.

            We woke in a dark, subterranean room with only my phone’s flashlight to see by. Elbert glanced at it bit wisely chose not to complain about me not letting him own his own.

“We’re fucking stupid,” he said instead. “We were tricked into taking off our masks.”

  “Language!” I warned. “Doctor Brown says you have Asperger’s, not Tourette’s.”

            “It’s in context, Dad,” he continued. “And it doesn’t make me wrong.”

“Where’s your sister?” I asked, holding my head.    

I welcomed his focus, because at that moment, I couldn’t concentrate. The last thing I remembered was laughing myself silly and thinking of Skrillex.

            “Bertha didn’t come down with us,” Elbert reminded me and took my phone to examine the cramped, cold and clammy basement room of the Sheepwash County’s Quiescent Cavern and Mineral Museum. “You didn’t have to, either.”

            It took a long time after the divorce for me to find a suitable two-bedroom apartment so I could have my weekends with the two of them. I thought a celebratory road-trip to check out my sister’s food truck would be an exciting adventure, but my Hyundai Accent was awfully quiet on the three-hour drive north to Sheepwash County. Their mother didn’t mind – she took the opportunity to spend the weekend camping with her new boyfriend (she hated going camping when we were married).

            Once we arrived, Bertha leapt at the chance to hang out and help at her Auntie Louise’s Vegan Caravan and I lost Elbert to an eager tour guide.

            Louise, with her new pixie cut of amethyst hair and short, stocky build of a biker queen, saw Elbert escape and pulled me aside.

            “Go with him,” she whispered. “I’ll keep Bertha busy.”

            I remembered following Elbert and his teenaged, Hawaiian shirted, cargo pants wearing, bespectacled, face masked, tour guide down narrow, rickety stairs lined with shelves of rodent skulls and ancient, fossilized teeth under glass, to a basement room, looking for an opportunity to connect with one of my kids.

            “What’s the last thing you remember?” I asked Elbert.

            “I remember everything.”

            “Then remembering the last thing should be easy.”

            He sighed.

“Wint-O-Green Life Savers. Elijah showed how they glowed in the dark when you bit down.”

            That’s when Elijah suggested we remove our masks to see it better.

            “Then he went behind that plexi-glass,” Elbert said. He walked to the back of the small room, my phone’s LED reflecting back a searing white light off the nearly floor length pane of thick, scratched plexi-glass.

            Elbert wanted to imitate how our tour guide shined different wavelengths of ultraviolet light to cause the rocks on the shelves behind the glass to fluoresce different colours, but the flashlights were gone. He did find a waist high cylinder with a knob that looked like it came from a backyard water tap. He turned it on then off.

            “What are you doing?!”

            “Did you hear that hissing? I’m pretty sure that’s gas. Dad, you said you giggled?”

            The glowing rocks reminded me of raves, which now explained why I thought of Skrillex.

            “He showed us how using acid differentiates calcite and quartz. Remember?”

            I recalled how one of the two white crystalline chunks smoked when he dropped liquid from an eyedropper onto them.

            “I admit, it’s a stretch, but he may have extracted diethyl ether from sulphuric acid. This place could buy in bulk and not raise any suspicions. He took a huge risk using it in such a small space.”

            “Acid?”

            “Ether. Laughing gas.”

            That’s why I giggled. “But why?”

            “Who knows? I’m only piecing together how I would have done it.”

            “So, you’re a sociopath now?”

            He ignored me and asked to shine my light at the tank. Our captor had run clear tubing anchored with flimsy hooks pressed into the flaking stone walls from behind the plexi-glass enclosure to middle of the low ceiling. The dark room made the setup invisible. Elbert started to unravel it.

            I tucked my phone in my front pocket and stopped him from trying to lift the heavy cylinder.

            “What are you doing?”

            “Acting fast. If it were me, I’d monitor us with night vision cameras and motion sensors. If we woke up too soon, there wouldn’t be time to come in here to turn the gas back on. He might have a backup plan.”

            “And you plan to knock him out with this?”

            “I need the cylinder closer. Direct the gas at the door hinges. If we compressed the end of the tube with two rocks from the shelf, we could maybe freeze them and knock the door down.”

            “You know MacGyver’s not real, right?”

            “You have any better ideas?”

            I held the phone in my mouth and pointed the LED down to avoid blinding myself as I tilted the cylinder to roll it into position on its edge until the tube reached close enough for us to spray the hinge.

            “Closer, Dad.”

            “Elbert, don’t pull.”

            Just as he did, the tube came free of the cylinder nozzle. I fell backward, my phone crashing on the stone floor as the door opened outward and Elbert fell through it and into the open, ample and tattooed arms of my younger sister.

            “Annie Lou!” He shouted, calling her by the name he used as a kid and hugged her hard.

            She’d stopped the kid from hiding the Hyundai under a pile of brush and made short work of “convincing” him to confess. The museum owners who hired him didn’t question his enthusiasm and were thrilled with his knowledge – there weren’t many teenagers prospecting for tour guide jobs in the small mining town of Sheepwash County – and didn’t figure on him being a budding serial killer. She’d tied him up and used her food truck as a paddy wagon while we waited for the OPP.

            “You picked a helluva way to bond with your son,” Lou observed. “and you shoulda worn your mask.”

            “Yeah, we were fucking stupid.”

            “Dad!” The kids barked. “Language!”

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