Sun. Feb 5th, 2023

This story had to be 3,000 words and written in five days. It had to be set in Paris, have the character of a bank robber, and feature the object of a wooden mask. This story got an honorable mention, which paid out winnings of $50.

Curiosités Maléfiques

Morning light filtered through charred pieces of wood and hit the sleeping face of Bryan Laroux. He opened his eyes and squinted at the sun, silently cursing at it for having the nerve to start another day without his permission. Coffee. He needed coffee. Bryan stepped out of his sleeping bag and got to his feet with a crack of knees and a stretch of back. The place he called home had burned down many years ago and had been left to neglect by the city of Paris like a rotten tooth they were too afraid to pull. It used to be a bank until a robbery went south. Someone had the bright idea to try and hold it up with a homemade flamethrower, which went about as well as you’d expect. Many people died that day, and ever since, people had given the old bank on Rue Diable a wide berth.

Bryan had originally come to France to study abroad, with his tuition paid for by the US military. That didn’t last long. He dropped out and started living on the streets instead, unable to keep jobs or form long-lasting relationships. Bryan didn’t mind so much. People were temporary things anyway. It seemed almost romantic to be a bum on the streets of Paris. Like some figure from a sad, old poem that teaches you a hard life lesson. But hey, at least the wine was good. It made for a classier kind of drunk. It also helped to numb the memories of Iraq.

            “Help me. I don’t want to die.”

            Bryan could see his old buddy Tom on the floor as clear as the Eiffel Tower rising above the landscape. He wore his military fatigues and bled out not on the floor of an old bank but on the sands of Fallujah. Tom tried to push his blood back into a hole in his neck, but death already had one hand on his heart and was fixing to squeeze. A red stain grew beneath him and crept outwards to where Bryan stood. Bryan couldn’t rush to the aid of his friend because a sniper had him pinned down behind the cover of a Humvee. At least, that was how it went 15 years ago.

            “Sorry, Tom. I wish I could change the past, but you’re already dead.”

     Bryan didn’t mind sleeping in a building where so many people had died because he took his own ghosts with him wherever he went. He left Tom dying and collected some change he had begged up yesterday to go get himself a coffee and croissant. When he returned, the bank where he slept had disappeared. Bryan looked left and right to make sure it was the right spot, and there was no mistake. He’d only been gone for twenty minutes, and in that time, a brand new building had sprouted up where the bank used to be. Something called Curiosités Maléfiques. The sign hand painted onto wood in beautiful cursive. It didn’t exactly fit in with the street’s run-down and neglected aesthetic. Less crack den, more ye olde shoppe. Bryan didn’t have much stuff, but all the stuff he had left in the world, he had left in the ruins of that bank. Now some asshole had gone and magicked a building there. Of course, Bryan knew his mind wasn’t as sharp as it used to be. There could be a logical explanation for a building appearing out of nowhere that he hadn’t thought of yet. He entered Curiosités Maléfiques, and the jingle of a bell above the door announced his presence to anyone lurking inside.

“Je suis a vous dans une seconde,” came the voice of an elderly-sounding man. Bryan had limited French despite his years in Paris, but he knew enough to know that the shopkeeper said he’d be with him in a second, so he waited and took in his surroundings.

            This wasn’t like any place of business that Bryan had seen before. It smelled like the inside of an old second-hand book with the faint whiff of incense. They stocked no one thing in particular and never the same thing twice. Some items were thrown on shelves in no particular order, while others were piled on the floor in stacks that verged on becoming a dangerous hazard. He saw monkey paws, ancient scrolls, lost maps, intricate puzzle boxes, dinosaur bones, taxidermied beasts closer to myth than Darwin, and even a pickled punk swimming in a jar of formaldehyde. An old man pottered from out behind a shelf with a fresh box of junk that he dumped onto the floor for lack of anywhere else to put it. He had a long, white beard and dressed in simple robes. The glasses he wore magnified his grey eyes to almost cartoon proportions.

            “Bonjour!” he said as he dusted off his hands. “Comment puis je vous aider?”

            Bryan stared at the shopkeeper blankly.

            “English?” the old man asked with a slight sneer of disgust.

            “American,” said Bryan.

            “Ah, yes! American! Bien! Elvis Presley, no? Marilyn Monroe – hubba, hubba,” he said as he made the shape of a woman with his hands.

            “Yes, those were Americans.”

            “Were? Have they died? Merde! What year is it outside?”

            “It’s 2022,” said Bryan with a look of utter confusion.

            “I’ve been away much longer than I thought. That’s going to put me behind on my quotas. Oh well, never mind that. How can I help you, mon ami?”

            “I’m sorry, who are you exactly?”

            “I’m just a small business owner trying to make his way in this cruel, unforgiving world one transaction at a time. My mother called me Jaques, but I called her a whore,” Jaques said as he spat on the ground. “You may also call me Jaques if you wish. I won’t hold it against you, for you are not my mother. She’s a long time dead now. I think I still have her skull here somewhere. No one has bought it yet. Would you like to buy a skull?”

            “Um, no, thank you. I’m here because this is kind of my home. I don’t know how you put a building on top of it so fast, but I was here first, and I need you to leave and take your mother’s skull with you.”

            “Is lodging all you seek? A place to rest your weary head? No, I think you aspire to more than that, or else I would not be here. I am drawn to the magic of seekers, dreamers, and lovers. Take a look around my boutique and pick out a single item if it calls to you. What is meant for you will not allow you to pass it by; this I promise.”

            “I don’t have any money. I don’t have anything.”

            “You have breath in your lungs and life in your heart. I trust that your fortunes will soon change because they change for every person who enters this boutique. Pick any item, and I will defer payment until your situation has improved. Do we have a deal?”

            “I guess so.”

            “Then pick something and know so.”

            Bryan moved between the dusty shelves and ran his eyes over the assortment of items, each more eccentric than the last. He stopped in front of a simple mask carved out of wood. It didn’t look particularly remarkable, but something about it spoke to Bryan. It radiated power and seemed to reach out with an invitation for him to try it on.

            “You have exquisite taste,” said Jaques. “That is the mask of Chronos. A dear and personal friend of mine.”

            “Does it do anything?”

            The old man cackled.

            “You could say that. Wood has a memory. It lives and endures where men perish and die. That mask was carved from a branch taken from the forbidden tree in the garden of Eden. It is one of seven such masks. It possesses a power that man was not supposed to have, yet now you hold it in your hands as Eve once held an apple. Put that mask on your face, and you will see through the veil of time.”

            “You don’t need to give me the carny spiel.”

            “Put it on if you don’t believe me. This location used to be a bank. Do you know when it burned down?”

            “About 15 years ago, from what I’ve been told.”

            “Think about where you were 15 years ago. I want you to hold that memory in your head and use it as an anchor in time. While you do that, put on the mask.”

            Bryan saw Tom dying. He cried out for help, gargling on his own blood. For 15 years, it had been the same memory on loop. The task set by Jaques was easy because Bryan couldn’t think about anything else but where he was 15 years ago.

The mask touched his face, and Bryan looked through its eyes. The store and its eccentric shopkeeper faded from view to be replaced by the interior of a bank. The same bank where Bryan spent his nights, only now it was an actual bank and not a husk of what used to be. Customers went about their business making lodgements and withdrawals as Bryan looked around in awe and wonder.

He tried to get the attention of a passing lady, but she ignored him and kept walking. “Pardon?” he said to a man, but the man walked straight through him as though Bryan were a ghost. Bryan backed up against the wall, and his back went through the wall. He stumbled and fell into a bank vault filled to the brim with thousands of euros and other valuable items. He had never seen so much money gathered in one place before. He reached out for one of the money stacks, and his hand passed right through it. He tried again, this time focusing on a memory where he once held a lot of money in his hand after a good day at the track. It worked. A 10k stack lifted and stayed in his grasp. Bryan took off the wooden mask, and his body transported right back to the store with the old man.

“Having fun?” Jaques asked with a teasing smile. Bryan looked down and saw 10,000 euros sitting in his hand. He had become a bank robber, stealing money from another time from a bank that no longer existed.

“How much for the mask? I have money to pay you with now.”

Jaques shook his head.

“I want nothing as common as money. Everyone has money, whether it be a little or a lot. I seek things that are one of a kind. Find me something worth trading for, and the mask is yours. Keep the money. Finders keepers, as you Americans say.”

Bryan put the money in his pocket before Jaques could change his mind. He wanted to keep the mask too, but he didn’t have anything that was one of a kind to offer in exchange. Perhaps he could pull something out of the past while he had the mask on loan. He put it back on, and the bank appeared again. Bryan resisted the urge to go and take as much money from the vault as he could carry back with him. He instead looked around and observed all of the people who came and went, hoping to see something he could swipe that might be of interest to the shopkeeper for a trade. Sadly, nothing struck him as being out of the ordinary.

Then, a man entered the bank wearing a wooden mask that looked much like the one Bryan wore, only carved in a slightly different shape. Under the mask, a priest’s collar could be seen. The masked priest didn’t ask for any money. He didn’t make any demands. He just raised his hands and out of his fingertips shot searing hot flames that consumed the security guard who approached him. The priest cackled maniacally as the security guard screamed and fell to the floor dead.

“The time of judgement has come!” the masked priest proclaimed over the burning body. “You will all burn!”

Bryan could feel his heart pounding in his chest. He could hear bullets he knew weren’t there whizzing past his head. The sniper had him pinned down.

“Help me,” said Tom. “I don’t want to die.”

The pyromaniac priest pointed his fingers at a shrieking woman, and Bryan sprang into action. He grabbed hold of the woman before the flames could engulf her and took off his mask. He landed back in the shop with a startled, screaming French lady in his arms. She spoke panicked questions at a speed that was too fast for Bryan to translate.

“Interesting,” said Jaques with a stoke of his long, white beard. “Yes, this trade will suffice.”

“Trade? No, I was just saving her from dying. She’s not part of our arrangement.”

“You do realise that she won’t be able to leave this boutique.”

“And why the hell not?”

“Because she’s supposed to be dead and doesn’t exist in this timeline. My magic stops her corruption from spreading to this reality, but if she were to step outside, the world as you know it would cease to be. I can keep her here as one of my oddities. She will be well taken care of.”

“No. Absolutely not.”

The woman knew she was being talked about but didn’t appear to understand English.

“The only alternative is to take her back to her own time and leave her where you found her.”

“But she’ll die.”

“She already did. It will be nothing for her to die again.”

“The man who tried to kill her has a mask like mine, but slightly different. He didn’t have a flamethrower, as the news reported. He shot flames out of his fingers.”

Jaques’s eyes lit up at the mention of the other mask.

“If you went back, do you think you could take this mask from him?”

“I could give it a shot.”

“Then perhaps there is a way to save this woman. Take the mask from the killer before he can use it, and no one dies. The timeline will naturally alter, and no damage will be done to the universe.”

“I can do that,” said Bryan as he went to put the mask back on.

“Don’t forget to take her with you,” said Jaques with a dismissive wave of his hand. Bryan grabbed hold of the protesting woman and finished putting the mask on. She came right back with him, and when they arrived, she ran away screaming, drawing the eyes of every person in the bank. Bryan left her be. He had remembered the moment when the other masked man entered the bank and had come back to that point in time.

Bryan tried to sneak up on him as he entered, hoping to be invisible to this man like he was to all the others. He managed to get pretty close and was a hair away from grabbing the mask, but at the last moment, the priest spotted him in his periphery. He turned and shot the flames from his fingers. The bank patrons screamed and ran for cover as Bryan rolled out of the way like he was re-enacting an Indiana Jones movie. He bounded back up to his feet, charged, and tackled the priest before he could get another shot off. While he held him on the ground, Bryan took off his own mask and dragged the priest back with him to the present day, where he couldn’t harm all those people. The priest’s eyes went wide at the sight of the shopkeeper.

“It’s you!” he exclaimed.

“It’s me,” Jaques confirmed with a playful smile on his lips.

“Please, let me go,” said the priest as Bryan held him down. “You don’t know what he is.”

Jaques crouched over the priest and removed the wooden mask from his face.

“I believe this is the mask of Prometheus. He who gave fire to all mankind. Can’t be sure though. There’s only one way to authenticate it.”

Jaques put the mask on, and Bryan rolled out of the way when he realised what was happening. Jaques threw a fireball that reduced the priest to ash but miraculously did no damage to the store.

“I can now confirm that this is the mask of Prometheus. A wonderful piece. This is an acceptable trade for the mask you currently hold.”

“What did he mean that I don’t know who you are?”

“You know who I am. I am Jaques. A small business owner trying to make his way in this world. But if you are asking me if there is anything you should know, I will tell you that all items that leave here are unnatural and can attract the interest of other unnatural things. That leads some to believe they are cursed. They may be right. However, I like to think that what you get from these items is what you put into them. This man was not a good man and used his gift for pain and destruction. What will you use yours for, I wonder?”

When Bryan left the store with the mask in hand, he turned back to see that it had already disappeared. In its place was the bank, but not the burned down one where he slept. This bank had never burned down, and those people never died. All because the mask had changed the course of events.

At the airport, Bryan reached the front of the queue and took some money from his stolen bank stack.

“One first-class ticket to Fallujah. I’m going to see an old friend.”

JUDGE FEEDBACK

Dear Michael,

            Thank you so much for participating in our One-Year Anniversary Challenge. We thought you did an excellent job with your story, “Curiosités Maléfiques.” We liked how you opened by setting the scene of this burned down old bank, and Bryan waking up from his sleeping bag. We were very intrigued by the story of the bank robbery gone wrong, and curious what led this man to take this place up as residence. That was a strong hook as we were eager to read on to learn more.

            You did a great job creating empathy for Bryan and really pulling us into this story. It is sad to see how his trauma has led to his life on the streets of Paris, and really heartbreaking to get a glimpse of what he had been through, witnessing the death of his friend Tom. You did a nice job capturing the horror of that experience and really making us feel emotionally invested in the character and what he had been through.

            It was a really interesting twist when he returned to the bank after only being gone for twenty minutes and a new building stood in its place. You use some wonderful descriptive language and vivid imagery to really bring it to life and we particularly enjoyed the detail: “The glasses he wore magnified his grey eyes to almost cartoon proportions.” That was a nice touch and you really made it all easy to visualize, and without beating us to death with over-descriptions. The shopkeeper was a great character. We got a good laugh out of the line, “Marilyn Monroe – hubba, hubba.” His personality was very charming and he had a few very funny lines.

            Overall, we thought that this piece was very well written. We thought the plot was very well crafted. It was super cool how the mask enabled him to travel through time, and how he retrieved the other mask from the robber and saved the bank from being burned down. And then, we also loved the ending, and how it implies he is going to go save his friend. Everything was very clear and came together very well. It was well balanced with descriptive language and strong dialogue; the action was exciting and it kept us engaged from beginning to end. It was a very difficult decision and this piece was in consideration right up to the end. It was a pleasure to read. Nice work and keep writing!

Thanks again for participating in this challenge. You did a nice job incorporating the prompts and you should be proud of what you accomplished over such a short period of time. We hope you enjoyed this experience, and hope that you will sign up again so we can read some more of your work in the future.

By Michael