“Masks,” a genre short story by Dan J. Fiore, is the Grand Prize winner of the 82nd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition.
Jay turns, following his wife's eyes behind him to the front door across the diner.
Three men in wet ski masks and camo hunting gear stand holding guns, their barrels dripping rain. "Phones, wallets, whatever," the man in the orange mask says. "Put all that shit on the table."
Turning back to his wife, Jay raises his hands, fingers spread just above the table, and looks in his wife's eyes. "Syl," he says, his voice a pointed whisper. "Syl."
Her eyes float slowly from the gunmen to her husband. Tears sit locked and quivering between her lashes.
Jay says, "It's gonna be alright." He places a hand over hers. He nods.
Syl blinks and a single tear falls. Removing her hand from under his, she wipes her cheek with her sleeve.
Jay unlatches the watch from his wrist and drops it on the paper place mat in front of him.
Syl, with trembling hands, twists at her finger, removing and setting down between them her silver wedding ring.
Two gunmen—one holding a revolver and the other a hunting rifle—spread through the opposite end of the diner. The gunman in the orange ski mask glances at Jay and Syl as he walks past their table to a family sitting in the corner. With the man’s eyes on him, Jay pulls the wallet from his pocket and places it on the table.
Turning to the family’s table, the orange-masked man scoops whatever's there into a pillow sack while a young boy sitting in the booth watches him, huddled in his mother's arms.
With the gunman looking down at the little boy, Jay quickly but smoothly grabs up his fork. He slides it under the table, holding it in a tight fist between his knees. Jay notices Syl watching him with her mouth and eyes wide with worry. Before Jay can do anything to calm his wife, the gunman turns away from the boy and heads toward their table.
Syl shrinks in her booth, hunching over.
As the gunman begins gathering their things on the table, his eyes lock on Jay.
Jay stares back, still and calm.
Having taken everything from the table but Syl's wedding ring, the gunman lingers. Jay's ring is still wrapped around one of the five fingers gripping the fork under the table. The two men glare at one another as the man's hold on his pistol pulsates at his hip, his fist like Jay's pounding heart.
The gunman sighs. He clears his throat. Looking down, he shakes his gun and leaves the table.
Jay turns to Syl. She sits frozen, mouth gaping as she watches the gunman walk away. Tear tracks streak down her cheeks. Her shoulders quake.
“Syl,” Jay says.
Her eyes once again drift to meet his. They’re empty. Hollow.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “Nothin’s gonna happen.”
“What do you want?”
“Nothing,” she said. “I'm not hungry.”
“Order something.” Jay handed her a menu.
“I don't want anything.”
“Okay.” He looked over the menu, eyebrows raised. “Well,” he said, “I'm gonna order something.”
“Do whatever you want.”
Through his teeth, he said, “Don’t have to say it like that.”
Syl shrugged and Jay followed her eyes out the window to a broken-down Impala across the road.
“Should we start back home?” she asked.
“The rain,” she said.
“Didn’t see no clouds.” He glanced back at her.
“They’re behind you, up across town.” Nibbling on the ragged cuff of her sweatshirt, Syl looked down at Jay’s hands. “We should leave.”
“We didn’t even order.” His eyes dropped to his own scar-crossed knuckles. Leaning back, he set the menu flat on the table and slid his hands to his lap where neither of them could see.
“But the rain...”
“I want pie,” he said. He lowered his head and studied the menu. “It’s Sunday. It’s tradition.”
Barely a breath later, she pleaded, “Let’s just go.”
“I don’t even see no clouds,” he said without looking up from the menu.
The waitress came. “The usual, Jay?” she asked smiling. He nodded and told her what pie he wanted.
She turned to Syl. “And for you, Sylvia?”
“Nothing.” She gave a weak smile. “Thanks.”
“’Least get a coffee,” Jay said. “Somethin’.”
“A coffee?” the waitress asked, raising her drawn-on eyebrows.
Syl nodded and stared back out the window.
“The fuck you say?” a voice calls out.
Syl’s ice-blue eyes widen.
Jay turns around in his booth. The man in the orange mask stares right at him. He shouts, “You givin’ me shit?”
Jay looks around, tightening his fingers around the slick metal between them.
The gunman marches toward him.
Whimpers and gasps spread through the diner as the man raises his gun in Jay’s face.
“I didn’t say nothin’,” Jay says, getting up. “We don’t---“
The butt end of the man’s pistol sends him sprawling back into his booth. By the time Jay sits up again, the man has Syl on her feet with his arm wrapped around her neck. “Say shit now,” the gunman says. “Do something.” His barrel’s buried in her golden blonde hair. “Come on, man. Fuckin’ do something,” he says. “Do it.”
Jay raises his empty hand as blood rolls down into his beard. “I didn’t say nothin’. We don’t want no trouble. Just, let her go. Please.”
The man turns the gun on Jay. His hand trembles holding it there, aimed right at Jay’s bloodied eye.
Syl’s unblinking stare locks on Jay. Her chewed-up fingernails dig into the gunman’s forearm at her neck, clinging as if she might fall.
For a moment, the room freezes in cold silence, filled only with the rattle of the vent above them and the trickling patter of rain against the roof and windows.
Jay waits, his heartbeat doubling.
The gunman thumbs back the pistol's hammer.
Jay's fingers tighten around the fork held hidden under the table. Then—
A child across the room, the one huddled in his mother's arms, begins to cry.
A long breath escapes the orange-masked man’s nostrils. He lowers the pistol and says to no one, “She’s coming with us.”
Syl blurts out, “What?” And the masked man pulls her toward the exit.
“Wait,” Jay says. But the man continues to the front door with Syl shuffling alongside him, her bewildered eyes staring back at Jay over the man’s shoulder.
“I hate you,” Syl said stirring her coffee.
Jay threw down his fork. Rhubarb flung across the table and onto the sleeve of the bulky sweater Syl sat wrapped in.
A couple looked over from the other side of the diner. Jay forced a smile.
“Stop talkin' like that,” he said to his wife.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“To just eat my pie.” He picked his fork back up.
“No. What do you want?”
He said nothing and instead looked out the window and down the road, following a car as it shrunk toward the flatlands outside town. What once was a raccoon lay heaped, mangled and decaying on the roadside gravel. Jay spooned more rhubarb into his mouth. He looked elsewhere.
The waitress came and, before she could refill their coffees, Jay said, “We’re fine,” and the waitress walked away.
Tears sat in Syl’s eyes. “You’re such a stubborn asshole," she said. "Things're gonna end bad for you. All just 'cause you don't know when it’s goddamn time to quit.”
Still looking out the window, he said, “Your coffee’s gettin’ cold.”
Jay waits until the gunmen walk out the door before getting out of his booth.
As he moves through the diner, he watches them cross the parking lot to their van. A crew of cooks and waitresses stare up at him from under the front counter as he passes.
“Please,” the manager says from the kitchen doorway. “Just stay inside, you dumbass!”
With the fork clenched prongs-down in his hand, Jay pushes through the front door and into the rain. The entrance bell chimes, startling Jay into a full-on sprint.
The last gunman stops as the other two keep heading for the van. But by the time he turns to inspect the sound, Jay’s already bearing down on him. As the gunman stumbles backward, struggling to pull the revolver from his belt, Jay digs the fork deep into the man’s right eye. Blood explodes from behind the mask and the gunman squeals, falling to the rain-puddled ground.
Keeping his momentum, Jay crouches and drives his shoulder into the gut of the orange-masked man while the rifleman hurries Syl into the van from the other side. The hit slams the man in the orange mask’s head into the side mirror, sending him heavily to the pavement as Jay’s shoulder pops out of place.
Coming around the back bumper, the rifleman fires a shot from his hip. The slug tears through Jay’s side, knocking him back. Jay grabs the van’s hood to steady himself as he takes long, deep breaths. He doesn’t look down at his wound.
Rushing to reload, the rifleman fumbles with the bolt as Jay steadies his footing. He stumbles up to the rifleman, grabs the barrel, and, taking one more deep breath, drives the heel of his boot down into the man’s left knee, folding it sideways with a thick, muddy snap. A savage yell erupts from the man’s throat as he teeters over. Jay grabs up the rifle and punches the bolt back into place. He staggers, turning around dizzily, and takes aim.
But from the ground the man in the orange mask has his pistol already fixed on Jay.
“Alex!” Syl screams from inside the van. “Don’t!”
“Please!” she continues, banging on the window. “I changed my mind! Please!”
Lowering the rifle, Jay looks up at Syl. She stares back at him through the rain-glazed window, her face a mess of emotions. He begins to say something. But the gunshot cuts him off.
“I just wish you’d think about it,” she said. “I mean, really, really think about it. What are you holding onto here?”
Rain blew against the window, blurring the landscape outside.
“I thought we were done with this,” he said.
“You know what I mean.”
“We can both be done,” she said. “We can both be happy.”
Jay said, “You don’t know that.”
Syl said, “You’re a coward.”
“‘Til death do us part, Syl.”
“Sure,” she said. “Keep that promise.”
“Can I just eat my damn pie?”
“I need you to really think about this, Jay,” she said, her voice wavering as her eyes narrowed. “Please. Before it’s too late.”
"Where's all this even comin' from?" He asked her. “What is all this?”
“It’s nothing.” She broke then, saying through sobs, “It’s all nothing, Jay. You just don’t have the goddamn balls to admit it.”
“Then go.” He waved a hand. “I ain’t giving up. I won’t sign no papers. But if all this is nothing to you,” he said, “then just leave. Walk out the fuckin’ door. Walk home right now, pack up and leave.”
“I can’t.” Syl buried her eyes into the sleeves stretched over her hands. “It’s raining. We waited too long.”
“So wait longer.” Jay looked out at the flatlands in the distance as the front door chimed behind him. “The rain’ll stop eventually.”