Written by Shuangge (Gloria) Zhang
Earned an Honorable Mention in the 2021 Scholastic Art and Writing Competition
I stand in front of the mirror with a face in my trembling hand.
There are only a few minutes left until the sun rises. I look through my window. The city sleeps quietly under its soft blanket of thick, milky-morning mist. A few people have started walking on the streets already, far away silhouettes, shadows on the pavement. What they look like doesn’t matter to me anyways.
“How many secrets lay beneath your mist? Do you ever feel gloomy being concealed? Or are you chuckling now because of all your hidden mysteries?” I murmur to the city streets below, as if they can hear me.
Of course, I don’t expect an answer.
I giggle and hold the mask in front of my face.
It is a flawless face, not nearly perfect, but perfectly perfect. 1:1.618, everything on the face strictly and carefully follows the golden ratio. The large artificial eyes are like opal, reflecting different shades of blue, but they are empty and lack liveliness, nothing close to an ocean glimmering under the summer sun.
The nose is elegantly tall and straight, and painted on the tender lips with a perfect curve is the most popular lipstick color on the market. The wheat-colored skin is supposed to look attractive and healthy, according to the aesthetic experts, hired by the companies of course.
I stare at my pale skin in the mirror as it crumbles like the white paint on these old walls surrounding me. A result of staying inside for too long.
I’m beginning to believe those frauds.
No one in 2019 imagined a future like this when the virus first appeared. No one took it seriously, until it became a deadly pandemic. WHO named the virus Corymb-19, a botanic term given after its shape, though I wonder what is wrong with the scientists to compare a vicious virus to a beautiful flower.
No one would think the situation could get worse, until Corymb-19 started mutating at a terrifying rate. Then the terminology took its current form: Corymb-19-MCMXXXIX, denoting a total of 1939 mutations that have happened to the RNA of the virus in the past ten years.
When hopeless vaccine companies closed down, bankrupt from exhausting federal reserves, capitalism stepped in once again to save the world —- if there is a need, there is a market —- mask companies began to thrive.
At first there were only boring white and blue surgical masks, just utility products to keep people safe. Then companies who saw the business opportunity began to make prettier ones, with graphics, tie dye, and floral print.
Increasing with the price of the mask was people’s vanity.
Eventually, the invention of the P-Mask was unexpected and unprecedented. The upstart company claimed to give people a perfect second face while simultaneously protecting them from the terror of the virus.
The mask I hold now is the P-Mask 10. The name is pretty self-explanatory: the 10th in the series. Over the past few years, the P-Mask has evolved from ear-loop to whole-face. It is now able to detect the exact facial expression the user wants to show at any moment.
Trust humanity to integrate vanity in a world-wide pandemic.
I was terrified when my friends started to wear the P-mask all the time, and when the streets became full of disturbingly perfect faces. I managed to avoid this very moment for exactly eight years, hiding in this secret apartment, abandoned by the rest of the world.
The P-Mask is now something far beyond a material, a protective covering, even a way to be pretty —- it has become a ticket to participate in society, and it is one that you have to pay for. Without it, you are either ignored, or laughed at. With it – well, let’s just say that’s what has kept me away from it so long.
“Hey, it’s nothing.” I try to calm myself, but my hand keeps trembling more and more. And really, who talks to themselves out loud? Someone who is not well.
I try to think of what other people have told me.
“You are doing this everyday already. Have you never put on a fake smile for your family?”
“Don’t be so stubborn, everyone else has already done it. This is perfectly fine, even better than before!”
“Oh my gosh you will look so pretty with this mask!”
“No one can see you cry behind this mask.”
I took in all these comments and now they swirl around my head like some sinister commercial on repeat.
“But… but no one will see my real face anymore…Will I still be me?”
There is no turning back.
And then the sun rises.
The city reveals himself when the first light of morning pierces through the mist.
In the mirror, the lively face I once had is replaced by an unfamiliar face as I lower the mask downward. It’s on. And I have chosen.