It was a simple idea: clever and insidious like most of what proceeds from misguided and ill-informed genius. Born of equal measures of desperation and avarice, it required few materials, low costs, and a short turnaround; in terms of both execution and outcome. It was an idea arising from darkness, fermented in the company of narcissistic misery, gestated in wickedness.
Raph and Nobby had been friends since high school where they enjoyed the exclusivity of each other’s company, indulging in alcohol and boredom-fuelled misadventure. Occasionally other miscreants were drawn into their orbit for varying periods of time and or devious projects, but their bond was stronger than generosity or kindness.
‘All the doctor’s surgeries are insisting on these masks now,’ said Nobby. ‘The other day I walked in for an appointment wearing my Panthers mask, but I was told to replace it with an approved surgical mask.’ He threw his hands around to underline his irritation.
‘They’re supposed to be single use masks, said Raph, ‘so if people aren’t washing their own cloth ones – like you don’t – then it’s kind of self-defeating.’
Nobby pulled the Panthers mask in question from his pocket, tossed it on the table. ‘Anyway, the point is no matter how many home-made masks are out there, or how many mass-produced designer jobs come on the market, these surgical masks are always going to maintain their status as the gold standard.’
Raph smiled. ‘Big score for us.’
‘The problem is,’ said Nobby, scratching one of his knees from where his nickname was derived. ‘We don’t have access to mass production facilities. We can make some here, but not many. It’ll take ages, and then there’s the issue of getting them approved. These masks aren’t a new thing, nor are the companies producing them. Sure, thanks to the pandemic, their sales have skyrocketed but the point is they’re already in this space. How can we get into it?’
Raph’s smile slid off his face like butter in a hot pan. He stood, ran his hand through his hair, stared at the floor, turned, finally, to his old friend. ‘I guess we need to think small this time.’
‘Micro not macro.’
‘Right,’ said Raph. ‘Okay, let’s lay it out.’
‘The problem is that people don’t like wearing masks, but public health orders mean they must. We’ve got a few rebels running around who chose to believe conspiracy theories, and spout rousing homilies about personal freedom, but by and large we’re a society of responsible citizens who do what we’re told.’
‘Hey Nobby,’ said Raph. ‘Remember when it started, the boffins determined the virus was only transmitted by touch.’
‘And the exchange of fluids,’ added Nobby.
‘All viruses are transmitted by exchanging fluids. That’s why we suddenly had a designated sneezing method implemented.’
Nobby laughed. ‘Like people didn’t know not to sneeze at other people.’
‘Except that butthead friend of yours,’ said Raph. ‘What was his name? The guy who sneezed in your face and thought it was great joke. What was his name?’
‘Yeah. What a tosser!’
‘He was only in for a while,’ said Nobby. ‘Like everyone else who isn’t you and me. I mean there’s only so much a man can endure, right?’
‘Funny how we found each other, wasn’t it?’ said Raph. ‘What luck!’
‘Luck’s for schmucks mate.’ Nobby smiled at his friend. ‘God brought us together to do great things.’
Raph frowned. ‘You reckon?’
‘You know it,’ said Nobby emphatically. ‘Now let’s get back to work. You keep running off on these tangents and we’ll have spent the day doing nothing at all, let alone anything great.’
‘Roger that,’ said Raph. ‘At the beginning there were no masks. The focus was on handwashing and sneezing into your sleeve. I never had cleaner hands in all my life, but now masks are mandatory. Lockdowns are a thing of the past but masks are here to stay. People don’t like wearing them.’
‘So, what we want is a mask which is more wearable.’
‘More user friendly,’ agreed Raph. ‘Even desirable.’
‘Imagine choosing the right mask being as important as the right belt or handbag?’ said Nobby.
‘The mask we want to produce is not just a virus prophylactic, but a fashion accessory. It doesn’t just keep your germs contained and protect you from breathing in those of others, but it says something about who you are.’
Raph shook his head. ‘I’m disappointed mate. You used germs to describe the virus. Technically germs refers only to bacteria.’
‘Nonetheless, it’s true what I said. Whether it’s viral or bacterial it can still make you sick if you breath it on or ingest it.’
‘Agreed,’ said Raph. ‘So, we want our masks to look good. If people got so used to the masks that they had to have the right mask, not just any mask, then we’d be tapping into the same drives involved in clothes shopping. This is what’s already happened with people making or buying cloth masks with all sorts of patterns and images on them to reflect their individual tastes. That’s natural.’
Nobby nodded. ‘Cloth is not as safe or effective, so we need to combine the best design elements of cloth with the medical strengths of surgical masks. Okay. What else don’t people like about masks?’
Raph though for a moment. ‘They can’t breathe. Every time, I get to take mine off, once I hit the fresh air, I make exaggerated gasping sounds and rub my mouth and suck the air like it’s life giving.’
‘It is life giving,’ said Nobby.
‘You know what I mean.’
‘The masks need to not irritate the skin, especially the nose, and they must be breathable. Light and porous enough to allow air in but keep the virus out. A filter.’
Raph shook his head. ‘That would require pretty sophisticated technology. Maybe a little beyond us, don’t you think?’
‘What about if we found a way to offset those negatives,’ said Nobby. ‘If we can’t fiddle too much with the design, I mean the structure, then maybe we can add something to make it less uncomfortable to wear.
Raphs face lit up. ‘A nice fragrance. A salty ocean? A field of flowers? A freshly cut lawn?’
Nobby laughed. ‘Are you going to rub grass cuttings into the mask to get the aroma in to the material? How would you get them off? Or out? I’m sure most people don’t like grass up their hooter even if they do like the smell of it. And the ocean? How’re we going to capture that? We’re not chemists, mate.’
It was a simple idea; clever and optimistic like most of what proceeds from exuberant and naive genius. Born of equal measures of boredom and mental hyperactivity. It required expertise they didn’t possess and materials they couldn’t afford to purchase even if they did know what to do with them. It was an idea arising from an undefined and unacknowledged desire to contribute, fermented in hope, gestated in altruistic ambition.
Raph shood his head ruefully. ‘I overreach sometimes, don’t I?’
‘Just a little,’ said Nobby. ‘Listen, we can experiment with different scents. Essential oils. You know? See how well the material absorbs them, test their evaporation rates, measure how long the fragrance endures, explore the portions. One drop or two? We just need to be a bit more realistic.’
‘You’re right,’ conceded Raph. ‘We can’t manufacture masks, but we can upgrade them, improve them and resell them.’
‘Like after market options on a car.’
‘That’s it,’ said Raph.
After scribbling out a quick shopping list, they searched online for the prices and availability of the items they needed, then added the prices to the list. Better at maths than Raph, Nobby tallied the numbers as he wrote them down. ‘Sixty three seventy,’ he said.
‘Do we have enough?’ said Raph.
Nobby nodded. ‘Let’s go.’
At the chemist, Nobby put on his Panthers mask while Raph checked in, then checked himself in. Raph opted for a mask featuring a wide grinning mouth with lots of perfectly formed white teeth. He had quite a collection, but this was his favourite.
Once a relatively obscure item which you had to ask for, face masks were now in prominent positions in store, together with hand sanitizer, where they could not be missed. Raph and Nobby agreed to buy a box of masks after they had the essential oils, as it would take some time for them to locate and choose the right ones. The ones they wanted for their experiment.
Eventually, with some help from a staff member, they found the oils, then conservatively choose lemongrass, lavender, and vanilla. On a whim, they purchased some aloe vera extract which pushed them over budget, but they reasoned it was a worthwhile inclusion. Nobby confirmed the value of aloe by referencing the tissues he used which he said were very soft and most appreciated by his nose.
On the way home they bought a couple of large Whopper meals from Hungry Jacks, which they ate while watching an episode of The X-Files before settling down to work on the project. They soldiered away until they got hungry again then having permeated several masks with what they believed was the right combination of oils and aloe, decided they’d done enough and called it quits. Raph went home. Nobby found some leftovers in the fridge and spent the evening with agents Mulder and Scully.
The next day, Raph showed up early at Nobby’s place, and had to bang on his door for five minutes to get his friend out of bed.
‘Take it easy, champion,’ called Nobby, stumbling to door. When he opened the door, he found a sombre looking Raph. ‘What’s up?’
‘I had a dream about masks,’ said Raph. ‘A bad one.’
Nobby turned away, walked down the hall towards the kitchen with Raph in tow, after he’d shut the door.
‘I walked into the chemist and everyone was masked,’ said Raph.
‘Wow,’ said Nobby, switching the kettle on and loading some coffee and sugar into a mug. ‘That’s frightening!’
Ignoring the sarcasm, Raph continued. ‘All the masks were the same but they were different from any mask I’d seen before. They were white, like brilliant white, almost shining like they had an internal light.
‘Do you want a coffee?’
‘Go on then,’ said Nobby. ‘It’s getting more interesting now.’
‘I got close to someone to have a good look and was shocked to see the mask formed the exact shape of the person’s face. Like it was moulded. Cast to fit that individual perfectly. This person, a woman, noticed me staring, gave me a get lost, you creep glare, then moved away. I needed to see more so I went to the next person, trying to be less obvious about my inspection. The mask was stitched on. I didn’t notice that at first because the stitching was the same colour as the material of the mask. I touched my own mask, felt for the stitching and sure enough, it was sewn to my face. I tried to move it, but it wouldn’t budge. It was stuck, like glued and sewed. It was permanent, mate. I started to panic, tried to pull it off but I may as well have been trying to pull my skin off. There was a real strong smell of cut grass, then I looked around and people had collapsed – unconscious or dead, I didn’t know, but they weren’t moving, then I screamed and woke up.’
Nobby’s mouth hung open. Finally, he made his jaw function normally. ‘Are you serious? That’s almost funny, but hell spooky too.’
The two friends looked at each other for a few moments, before Nobby resumed making coffee, adding instant grains and sugar to a second mug, then pouring water. He dumped milk in both mugs, stirred one briefly, handed it to Raph.
‘Do you think it means anything?’ said Raph.
‘The dream. Do you think it means anything?’
Nobby shook his head. ‘Drink your coffee and we’ll get ready. We need some more masks. I was thinking we could offer some free samples to generate some interest in the product.’
Raph put his mug down. ‘I was thinking that maybe someone else has been thinking about how to enhance the masks but not in a good way.’
‘What? What for?’
‘To hurt people.’
‘Raph,’ said Nobby, struggling to keep the exasperation out of his voice. ‘You had a bad dream. We’re not conspiracy nuts. Think about what you’re saying. Who would do that? And why now? The masks have been around for nearly two years now. Why now?’ He finished his coffee in one violent gulp. ‘Why are we talking about this. It’s loopy bulldust. Let’s go.’
Raph sat still, staring into his mug.
‘Seriously, mate,’ said Nobby. ‘Forget about it. Let’s go make some money and save the world.’
At the chemist, they discovered a section of the carpark was cordoned off, occupied only by a handful of vehicles, including several police cars and two ambulances. Nobby parked where he could and hurried over to the chemist. Raph followed him, though his throat was constricted with fear and his feet leaden. A knot of dread tightened in his stomach. They reached the police tape just as a person was being carried out. Although their view was obscured, both Raph and Nobby caught a glimpse of the bright white mask covering the person’s face.