[WP] "The Mask Collector is coming to town. You do have your mask, don't you?"

"I'd never forget it," I said reassuringly. Every year, my mother asked the same question as if the answer would change. As if it wasn't something that had eventually become incorporated into our school curriculum since the first time it occurred. Since his first visit.

The Mask Collector's first appearance happened seven years ago. His arrival was announced on a cold November day. The air was crisp and the roads covered with a thin layer of frost. "The Herald", we call him now, strutted fearlessly down the street decked in an outfit comprised of cyan, magenta, and black diamonds and wearing a mask. It was a porcelain mask, or appeared to be at any rate, and had been painted with a long and crooked smile. There was nothing otherworldly about, but there wasn't anything we could see about him either.

He'd marched into the town hall effortlessly and demanded a live broadcast of his message at precisely seven o'clock pm. The broadcast interrupted every television show and every radio broadcast and was even streamed, so nearly everyone saw it. The Herald announced the coming of the Mask Collector, described what would happen in great detail, gave us instructions on what to do, and wished us all good fortune. The broadcast only lasted ten minutes, but it's affected our town for the last seven years.

According to The Herald, we were being giving the warning two weeks early in order to prepare for arrival. Without getting into the nitty and gritty details, we had to wear masks on the night he was set to arrive or he'd take our souls. Almost no one believed it; it sounded ridiculous. But the mayor insisted we do as The Herald requested, for our own safety. To this day, we still don't know how the mayor knew it was a serious threat, but its better for us that he did.

I can remember clearly when he arrived in our house. The clock read 9:16 when the door flew open soundlessly. A creature like fog drifted in the house, wearing a large mask painted with a smile on its face. The room temperature had dropped several degrees and I could hear the stifled breaths throughout the den. I remember the feeling of my heart stopping in my chest as it floated closer to us. It turned its "eyes" on all of us and when it was satisfied by all our masks, it took them and drifted right back out. That night over two hundred people in our small two died of "natural causes." Another hundred people moved out by the end of that year.

When the Herald arrived again on the same day the next year, everyone took the threat seriously. Every store sold masks that year, and a lot of stores sold out of them. The people who couldn't afford masks made them. There were almost no deaths that year; only the people who had procrastinated or forgot were taken.

Not long after his second appearance, the speculation began. Many people claimed he was an angel of death come to reap the sinners. They claimed he judged the contents of your soul by your face and that masks were able to protect you. Some people who wanted to sound "knowledgeable" would claim that they'd heard myths or legends about the Mask Collector. Some even made really believable ones up, too. There was, of course, the few who claimed it was aliens, but few people listened to them.

And so began a tradition in our town. Every year, at the same time, we would all begin preparing for the arrival of the Mask Collector. Art classes at school would use it as an excuse to have us all make papier-mâché masks as a little lazy lesson that most of us knew by then. It was big in the tiny art community and they'd even hold a little "Mask Festival" where they'd sell artsy masks that they'd been making the entire year. The community theater was even planning to host a play based on one of the "legends" of the Mask Collector. It was as if it had become a holiday. But, I suppose the best way for some people to handle fear is to wrap it with a bow and call it fascination.

That year I held another mask in my hand that was made in art class. It was nice. I'd painted it gold, decorated it with a ribbon trim and pieces of sheet music, and glued a button shaped like a star on it for no reason. Even though got taken from us every year, our logic was to at least present him something nice for accepting a mask instead of our souls. And it was a for a grade in class. And yet, as nice as the mask look and much as I'd done to fit it properly, there were a frantic beating in my heart.

Seven, six, even three years ago, I would've never considered it. I was too terrified of what might happen, but now my curiosity plagued me too greatly. I would lay in bed some nights and ponder it. I even wrote a short story about what might happen if I did. My parents would kill me if they knew what I was thinking.

"The Mask Collector is coming to town. You do have your mask, don't you?" my mother asked. She already put hers on. I could tell she'd bought it from the Mask Festival; it was blue, sparkly, adorned with peacock feathers, and had and odd geometric design to it.

"I'd never forget it," I reassured her, putting my mask on just to sate her. "Do you mind if I go to my room to wait on him? I have some homework I need to do."

"Go right ahead honey. It's not like he's going to miss you or anything." I could almost see the smile on her lips like she'd told some little joke, despite how morbid the words actually were.

I climbed up the stairs and shut the door to my room. It was only a matter of time. Probably even a few minutes; it was already 9:10. I pulled the mask off my face, tossing it only a pile of clothes in the corner and went over to my computer. I pretended to do something to pass the time, but I really only stared blankly at the screen. Of course, I didn't hear the Mask Collector enter, but I certainly felt it. My body went cold and I felt numb and weak suddenly. The feeling of my heart stopping in my chest as it had the first night almost kept me from turning to face him. I was finally going to see him. No speculation, no false legend. The Mask Collector himself without anything to protect me.

"You're wearing a mask, but I cannot take it," he said to me. His voice was wind through a cracked shutter and the chill of a winter morning. "How is this?"

"Don't you see? I'm still wearing one." I was stunned that I could even speak, let alone give a proper answer. The M

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