The Mask

By Matthew Johnson

Six months after my grandfather’s gruesome murder my brother, Jimmy, and I were cleaning out Pa-Pa Willy’s belongings, before the house was auctioned off. No one wanted it in the family after what happened in the front bedroom. Jimmy was packing Pa-Pa Willy’s clothes in that bedroom and I was in the attic above him.

 I opened a box marked Memories containing old photographs of my mother when she was a child, Pa-pa Willy and Ma-Ma Lucy’s wedding, and even some of Jim and me. Behind the Memories box was another box taped up so tightly with duct tape, I had to use my pocket knife to cut it away. I peeled back the flaps and peered inside. I shrieked and dropped the box.

“Everything alright up there?” I heard Jimmy shout at the bottom of the attic stairs.

“Yeah,” I said, the word choked with dust. I cleared my throat and repeated it louder. “Just saw a black widow crawling up my pant leg.”

“Be careful not to get bit,” Jimmy said and I heard his voice fade on the last syllable.

No, I don’t want to get bit by this, I thought, reaching for the box again. Staring up at me from its dark, eyeless voids was my old Halloween mask. Ten years ago I wore it to Carolyn’s, my then girlfriend, Halloween party. That was the only time I remembered putting it on.

I had wanted a realistic Werewolf mask and found one on-line at a Halloween mask store. I wasn’t disappointed. The hair was long, coarse like I imagined a wolf’s fur would feel. The inner lining felt different from the soft vinyl lining I was used to, more like leather. Even the snarl was true to life with hard teeth made of what I thought was hard plastic. Only the blank eye sockets told me it wasn’t a real, living wolf.

The mask was so hideous that my mother didn’t want to look at it and told me she didn’t want to see it lying around the house.

Alone in the attic, I lifted the mask out of its seclusion, holding it by the edges to keep well away from those teeth. It felt like a writing thing trying to bend around to get a hold on me. The feel of it brought back memories of the Halloween party.

A part of me was reticent to trying the mask on before the party. I attributed it to my mother’s reaction. Outside Carolyn’s home I slipped the mask on. It conformed to my face as easily as my own skin. I noticed a change that I put down to imagination. Looking out of the masks holes, the colors began to change, the red of the brick and yellow of the light sharpened, while everything else darkened to a bruised blue, nearly black.

Carolyn opened the door dressed as Dorothy with pigtails and glittering red ruby slippers reminding me of blood. I thought I could smell her sweat, both repulsive and enticing. Loud music played behind her and the thumping of bass hurt my ears. My imagination was getting away from me.

“Oh!” Carolyn said and took a step back upon seeing me.

“It’s me, John,” I said in a growling voice.

“You scared me,” she said smacking my arm. “That’s such an ugly mask. I wished you would’ve been the Scare Crow.”

I followed her through the house, becoming increasingly overwhelmed by the smells and loud noise going on inside. By the time we reached her parents, dressed as Frankenstein’s monster and the Bride of Frankenstein, my head was pounding so much I want to howl.

I saw their revulsion at the mask and sensed their fear. An impulse to bite them had to be restrained. After the quick greeting I hurried to the sliding glass door leading to the back yard. The strange urge to bite people subsided once the cool night air hit my face. I tried to pull the werewolf mask off, but it was stuck. I gave up, able to breathe better outside.

On the back porch there were two boys, friends of Carolyn’s younger brother, dunking their face into a metal tub of water with floating apples. One came up, face dripping wet and an apple caught between his plastic vampire teeth. They giggled until they looked at me. Their faces paled and they slipped ran around the side of the house.  I heard the side gate slam and the shrill laughter of relief.

The back of my hands itched and I rubbed them furtively on my jeans. Maybe I was allergic to the mask? Again, I tried to pull it off.  It felt like my skin was being pulled up with the mask. My hands itched maddeningly.

I looked at them, expecting to see hives. Instead I saw hair.

When the door behind me opened, I jumped, almost giving a howl. Carolyn stood there with a disgusted look on her face.

“John, take the thing off.” She smiled, looking around the yard and stepped hesitantly closer. In a low voice she added, “We can’t make out with that beast between us.”

Her musky scent sent a spike of desire down in my belly. The need to bite her, chew on her soft flesh became unbearable.

“I have to go,” I said, my voice growling. Before she could answer I ran out the side gate, hearing her voice trail behind. I didn’t dare turn back or else my urge would’ve over powered me. I ran through the streets wondering what was happening to me. My mind blanked out and I was swallowed by animal needs.

The next morning I woke in my own bed. My body hurt from running home, but I was happily surprised to find the mask off my face and no hair on my hands. Just a terrible dream, I thought.

Jimmy burst into the room, his face bright with excitement.

“Did you hear?” he asked.

“No. What?”

“Sally Schmidt’s body was torn apart last night by a mountain lion or something.”

I went cold all over. Sally Schmidt was an eight year old girl who lived two houses up the street.

“I feel how you look, come down to breakfast. If you don’t want to eat, we can watch the news for more about Sally.” Jim left me, thankfully shutting the door.

I looked at the floor and saw the mask by the side of my bed. The white teeth were streaked with red. I took it into the hall bathroom, spending an hour cleaning it until the red faded to the color of paint. Then I threw the mask into the top of my closet as I thought about how to dispose of it.

I never did dispose of it. For nearly nine years I had mysterious blackout spells and woke to find the mask by my bed, teeth streaked red and fur matted. Finally I boxed it up and hid it far away at my grandparent’s home. The blackouts stopped for a year, but dreams of biting people haunted me at night.

Six months later I stayed at a hotel for my Ma-Ma Lucy’s funeral. The hotel was next to my Pa-Pa’s home. The creature that murdered my Pa-Pa was never found. I was as sure as I saw the red ichors staining the teeth that my blackouts started again.

The mask felt good on my face; like it was my real skin. My hands itched again. In Pa-Pa’s room below I smelled Jimmy’s sweat. God help me, but I needed to bite something.