The Takers by Andrea Auten
I’m terrified of masks. Don’t come calling on me if you’re wearing one.
Unless you want me hands-clawing, calling out in caterwauls (what my kids call the opera-yell).
Most times, I don’t want to reveal this morbid fear, for the greater worry that it might lead to pranks. I’ve endured occasions where the clever-minded have designed schemes to scare me right out of my skin. One such event occurred after midnight, while chatting with my dear friend when her husband crawled around the corner donning a ghoul’s mask and I nearly passed out. She scolded him back down to the basement.
I’m told he didn’t come back up until the next day. That’ll learn him.
Masked menaces in movies can set me off. I’ll turn away from a plot point just to escape their beady eyes.
The season of fright used to be once a year and something I could plan for, managing it with autumnal goodness. For every Freddy-gorrific bloodfest, I could carve the most artsy pumpkin, make homemade candy corn muffins, and hand paint oak leaves. But an onslaught of year-round horror films glutted the industry and the trend, I fear, has institutionalized. I’m having trouble hiding.
Children’s love of masks can also be problematic. Play with me, chuffs the young voice behind a Darth Vader mask, and I’m clutching at my heart, wondering if nitroglycerin comes in breath mints. I’ve also taught hundreds of students how to make plaster masks. I share their deep love for creating and bedazzling the hardened white shells.
I’ll hang masks around the art room, stand in piles of plaster dust, cutting more strips for your project. Just don’t put that mask on your face!
Ms. A, can you tell us why you’re so afraid of masks?
When you get through high school, college, or trade school, and get out into the world, pursuing who you’ve practiced to become, I will tell you.
* * *
I took a mask-making class while pursuing my BFA theatre degree. Lying flat, face greased, and straws up my nose, I was helpless as the instructor poured cement over my face. I’d been warned. Some people freak out. My classmates held my hands, rubbed my limbs, and assured me that I was doing fine. Their voices eventually abandoned me behind heavy mud. I was completely vulnerable: no mouth, no ears, no eyes. Only those two plastic tunnels for air. As the cement thickened, my senses were taken from me. I couldn’t read my surroundings, stay cautious, find the exits. Sweat rolled down my neck. My hands flailed in the blackness, begging for connection. I whimpered and tried to call out,
Somebody find me. I am alone– But the hardened cement entombed my mouth. Look for me down a long road, in the wood. Hurry! My mind skidded wildly. Someone joined their hand with mine. This brought only small comfort. It would take a long time for the cement to fully set. I settled into a restless examination of in saecula saeculorum.
Halloween changed. We used to wear dime store demi-masks shaped like the number 8 over our eyes. The holiday looks creepier and more elaborate than when I was trick-or-treating. We’d wear a cut out sheet or a veil: a ghost, or scary bride. Boys wore their masks along with cowboy boots and hats or Dracula make-up. Pillow cases served as candy bags. Mrs. Robinson gave out cartons of orange drink. Two streets over, we’d stand in a long line watching the cotton candy-making machine until it was our turn to nibble the sugar clouds. The Zois family gave kids quarters. When I was old enough to keep up the half-mile walk, we’d get far as Greenmount Boulevard.
That’s where he grabbed her.
* * *
On a crisp cool Thursday morning at 7:15 am, October 20th, a car rolled alongside a small 14-year-old girl. She walked down the sidewalk nearing our high school stadium when the car pulled up. The car stopped. A man got out to ask for directions.
He grabbed the girl. He pressed a knife to her throat. He pushed her into his car.
We didn’t know Beth was missing. The school day ended and practices began. Dinner, homework, shower, and bed by 11pm. Her mother had frantically waited for her that night. The next day, my legs shook while the police searched her locker three doors from mine. That night, the big football game played on. We weekend partied and cycled onward without candlelight vigil or teaming up to find a lost child. When they found Beth’s belongings countywide, the detectives looked grim. Our principal withered and lost his smile.
* * *
I noticed my drill coach’s fake smile. Get back in line, she snapped. What’s happened? Bile shot up into my throat. Do you want a demerit? My coach’s face betrayed her. I lunged forward and heaved by a car until she forced me back to practice. This is not the place or time, she whispered.
This is how I learned my childhood friend was dead.
My town erased Beth. We planted a tree in a far corner of the school. The funeral was moderately attended, held downtown. Students got pizza afterward. I watched how laughter returned that same afternoon. An artist series was to be set up in Beth’s honor. It began after we graduated. Future students didn’t know who she was, how she loved her two little brothers, her cats, and playing the clarinet, or how she had a husky laugh. At our graduation four years after her death, we had no moment of silence, no picture display, no speech to honor her. Her name wasn’t even mentioned.
This is what Beth’s taker said-
He drove around the city streets while she cried and recited The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want.
As I sat in my classes, lunched, and chatted, this taker kept driving, and had Beth write a ransom note on pink paper shaped like a heart. Anything to stop that crying. Wending his way toward county roads, he parked on a lonely stretch. There, in the car, he took her frail and tiny body and raped her.
He kept Beth for five hours.
Then he hid his face with a knitted mask, took her to the reserve, and tied her to a tree. Her wails forced him to untie her again and this time he made her pull her shirt over her face.
Tell my mother I’ll wait for her in heaven.
He stabbed little Beth multiple times and left her to die alone.
* * *
These 13 words rationalize a taker’s entitlement. Pulled from the Block Parole website, these are the words of Beth’s killer who remains incarcerated because—when the news hit that he might be released due to a legal loophole— we demanded state lawmakers keep him there. Law is supposed to work this way.
When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford retold the events of her taker, my solar plexus tightened. I flashed to my own high school weekends, seeing the Fair Isle sweaters again. The hometown paneled basements with plaid wall paper. Hands up shirts and down pants, beer breath kissing. Pretty girls retched in the bathroom while I held back their hair. We’d study each week for tests, raise hands and answer questions, write papers, all under intense social pressure to please our parents; successful professionals who served as awarded doctors, top attorneys, senators, CEO’s, and trophy mothers. Work dog hard, go ape shit, repeat. As long as you’re top of the class, first on the team, come highly recommended, we’re looking the other way.
To a taker, the message mutates: Have whatever you want. You deserve it. Decades later, an Olympian hopeful and rapist would emerge from my high school.
When I awoke to the foregone Supreme court judge affirmation, one beloved niece’s post claimed relief that the ‘lies hadn’t taken him down.’ She doesn’t recognize the male oppression she lives under nor the manipulation of lower income white voters. She’s a single mother, raising a dynamic, gifted girl, and as the highest court continues to politicize—which it was never intended to—I hope my grand-niece will have rights to assert power.
* * *
Was there a moment when you questioned why Beth didn’t fight her taker or try to flee?
Why Dr. Ford after a party and a drunk woman behind a college dumpster couldn’t free themselves from our Supreme court judge’s advances or an Olympian hopeful’s ‘twenty minutes of action’? Why were victors given the spoils after battle? Call up and get us some bitches for later tonight. This famous 17th C painting by Rubens is entitled, The Rape of the Sabine Women. (The one where the women are “abducted” while loved ones wail.)
There are 13 letters in the word: powerlessness. It is the inability to effect change. When we the people mobilize to abolish this long train of abuses, The Threatened manage us into our grateful corners. Sexism has personal, cultural, and institutional pillars to hold it firmly in place.
There are 13 letters in this phrase: Educate to vote. If you want to grow change, then help people learn to vote locally. Teach how local representation can in turn (even if indirectly) represent every voter in the national political forum.
Hunters found Beth’s ravaged body covered in a pile of leaves.
We were raised to respect power. Add fear and confusion and the combination gives a taker all advantage.
During the trial, a local newspaper interview was unearthed which has since been lost. But, for me, it is indelible: The taker explained he used masks to cover the victims faces when he raped them. The reporter realized the serial rapist she’d interviewed was in fact my little friend, Beth’s taker. This report along with grotesque coroner statements flooded my young eyes.
* * *
Only one former student has come back asking for an explanation about my morbid fear of masks. He held up his end of the deal: graduated college and landed a Hollywood internship. I couldn’t back out of my promise. We sat outside a café in Yellow Springs, OH waving at familiar passersby.
When I recounted the basic facts of what happened to my friend, he looked distraught. He wished he didn’t know. Curiosity is complicated. We’ve remained close and see each other frequently. He’s a grounded, good man, and a storyboard artist for an award-winning animated show starring a clever humanoid with a horse head.
Please, don’t come near me in one of those horse head masks, either.
Andrea Auten is a writer and a visual | performing artist. Her work can be found in Lunch Ticket and The Antioch Voice. The Communications and Outreach Coordinator for The Nasiona, she is currently working on a collection of short stories. She lives with her husband, sons, and beloved writing partner, Dusky, the family cat. Find her at andreaauten.com.