“Frankenstein, Palmer, Michigan”

When my brother was little, he used to go everywhere with a mask of Frankenstein’s monster. It looked kind of real too. I remember him begging for it as an Easter present. My dad is a hard-core atheist and my mom’s a soft-core agnostic, but they always celebrated every Christian holiday with presents, which me and my brother didn’t mind one bit. We’d make up lists for Ash Wednesday and Pentecost. My mother was a certified registered nurse anesthetist assistant, so she always had at least some money. My dad was a painter, so he always had no money. And I don’t mean a painter like Rembrandt and whoever is another famous person who did paintings; I’m talking about painting houses. He’d come home and there’d be blue in his hair. He’d have a yellow mustache, a red beard. My dad would take a shower, come out and eat, and then go and take a second shower to remove all the spots where he missed. They were always on the cusp of divorce. Maybe that’s why my brother wanted the mask.

He’d take it to church and to funerals and to birthdays and to the movies and to the doctor’s and to sleep. He’d usually wear it on the top of his head, but if things ever got tense you’d see him slowly slide it down over his face. I always wondered what was going on under there when he did that. I wondered if he started looking like Frankenstein’s monster or if he got all calm and peaceful or if he made faces at the world underneath his face that never moved. The mask was always green and angry and sleepy and scarred.

One day my dad told him the mask was banned and dad took it and hid it in the garage. About an hour later my brother and the mask were both gone. My father called neighbors, then relatives, then the police, and by the end of the day it was like the entire city of Palmer was looking for him.

We lived in a mining town. We lived in a town with a mound of ore so huge that it blocked a good chunk of the sky. And the mountain of ore keeps getting bigger every year. I had a feeling my brother was there. It was where he liked to go when things got really bad. And just like the ore mountain, it seemed like the tension in our family was rising every month, every week, every hour. The thing about the medical field is that you see a lot of death, so my mom would come home and want to talk about it and we’d be trying to sleep and we’d pretend like we weren’t hearing anything, but through the walls would come stories of brain injuries and comas. There’d be vomit and more vomit and seizures where the person looked like their bones were being electrocuted. She’d tell my father about patients who never woke up. It wasn’t her fault. It’s just a fact that people die and my mother would cry and not cry and describe it all with strange details like they had one librarian woman who had feces underneath all her fingernails and an ex-con grandfather who had a tattoo that said MASTURBATORS across his stomach. Nothing made sense and my dad would tell her to stop. Some nights he didn’t want to hear it and he’d say that we were probably awake and we’d hear him coming to the room and there would be this great tension to make sure we looked like we were dead, because if we seemed awake anything could happen, so we would hold our breaths and freeze like the Arctic and then he’d slowly close the door again. And my brother would sometimes run away, and I knew that he’d often go to the mines.

So that’s where I went.

The danger with the mines is that there were sink holes. There were spots in the earth where the ground would just cave in. We had fence around the town that warned us not to go beyond the city. We always would anyway. We’d walk normal, not even tiptoeing, as if we were playing with God to take us. And we’d head to the mine and explore the mounds. Walking on them, you’d get turned orange—your shoes, your socks, your hands, your insides, everything. We’d have to throw our clothes away sometimes. Nothing made my father angrier than if we went to the mines.

I looked up and my brother was at the peak. He had his mask on. He wasn’t moving. Night was coming. He looked like a devil on a hill overlooking hell. I didn’t want to go up there. I had to.

I slipped and fell and climbed and slid back and continued on. My brother never moved. I wondered if he was going mad under the mask. I looked down at my hands and they had transformed. My shoes would never look the same again. I could taste ore in my mouth and didn’t know how it had gotten in there.

When I reached the top, I sat next to my brother. I looked at his monstrous forehead. Whoever made the mask did a good job of making it seem like it was made from several different human faces stitched together. I wanted to burn it. I wanted to yank it off his face, but I let my brother sit like that, staring in the direction of our house. It was a small house. The houses in Palmer were always small. The largest building was the fire department, a full two stories. Everything else was just one floor. There weren’t even basements. It was just boxes and rectangles. It was the simplicity of Michigan. A neighbor had drunk herself to death. That happened right around Easter too, right when the mask appeared. I remember my brother unwrapping it and screaming. He’d scream when he was really happy.

I noticed a dead squirrel next to my brother.

“What’s that?” I said.

My brother shrugged.

“Did you do that?” I asked.

My brother shook his head no.

There was too much death in the world. It was like it was caked to us, as if you couldn’t wash it away, even with constant showers.

I put my hand on my brother’s shoulder. You could feel his skeleton underneath.

“Can I wear your mask?” I asked. It came out before I knew why.

He shook his head yes and took the mask off.

I looked out at the town and then I put the mask on. Sound muffled. There was so much darkness in so many places. It was warm and made you want to itch and felt good. We sat there like that until the sun went down. And then we walked home in the dark. I don’t even remember who had the mask on as we walked. I just remember feeling close to somebody and that seemed to happen so rarely. We disappeared into the shadows of our house.

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About Ron Riekki

Ron Riekki's books include U.P.: a novel (nominated for the Sewanee Writers Series and Great Michigan Read), The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (2014 Michigan Notable Book awarded by the Library of Michigan, Eric Hoffer Book Award finalist, Midwest Book Award finalist, Foreword Book of the Year finalist, and Next Generation Indie Book Award finalist), and Here: Women Writing on Michigan's Upper Peninsula (2016 IPPY/Independent Publisher Book Award Gold Medal Great Lakes—Best Regional Fiction and Next Generation Indie Book Award—Short Story finalist).