THE COSTUME PARTY

As I slipped on the jacket and struggled with the tie, I realised I’d never been a fan of Halloween parties.  I didn’t even go in for trick or treating as a kid.  The whole season had always seemed a little tacky to me.  It was never a religious thing or anything to do with hating being scared.  Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you I’ve always enjoyed a decent horror movie.  

   Halloween is simply a little too touristy.  All those plastic pitchforks and crumpled, cardboard witch hats.  The face paint that rinses off with a little party sweat and the fangs that fall out mid-sentence.  It all cheapens a good scare.  Ruins a good myth.  I’m willing to bet half the Draculas stumbling up and down the streets on October 31st think Bram Stoker is a wrestler.    
   
   As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found it mystifying that I still get invited to Halloween costume parties.  I’ve found it even more mystifying that all those invites come from adults.  People my own age.  They sidle up to me around mid-September, grinning like their parents have left them alone with the house keys, promising that their party will be an amazing night.  As if an amazing night hinges on them smearing makeup over their aging faces and acting like an overweight, drunken Ziggy Stardust.  I’d managed to avoid every single one until this year when, sadly, my lucky streak came to an end and my fiancée forced me to attend her work party.  
   
   We’d been going through a long string of rough patches as our wedding fast approached and, as much I hate to admit it, this wasn’t the first time she’d guilt tripped me into accommodating her.  I’d let her brother stay with us over the summer and hadn’t even complained when he’d brought his yappy little dog with him.  I’d gone to the opera with her parents and managed not to look bored as we entered hour three of whatever insane Italian massacre we were witnessing whilst dressed in our Sunday best.  Now, as the final insult, I’d been coerced into relaxing my rule on Halloween parties.
   
   Don’t get me wrong, me and my future wife had enjoyed some good time as well.  It’s just that nothing took the fun out of love like arranging a wedding.  The proposal was all sweetness and poetry but, once we’d started on seating plans and scouting for venues, we went for each other’s throats time and again.  We had unwittingly ended up on a stress test capable of bringing down any relationship, no matter how strong it might seem on the outside.  We fought like cats and dogs over suits, flowers and cakes.  Ushers, first dances and vows.  The bureaucracy of romance had turned our every decision into a demonstration in the art of expert hostage negotiation.
   
   The party had appeared on our radar thanks to her marketing firm starting to represent some well-established costume shop in town.  It was her boss who’d had the bright idea to throw a Halloween themed party to celebrate the contract.  Seeing as my fiancée was in charge of the account, she’d insisted we go.  
   
   There had been something about her tone of voice that night, when she’d told me we were going.  That mix of assumption and assertion that had pushed me far past the point of being reasonable.  I snapped and we had a fight that managed to put all of our past efforts to shame.  I may have hit her, but she had slapped me so hard that my teeth rattled.
   
   As we caught our breath and nursed our wounds, I knew my actions had left me with no choice.  I was going to my first Halloween party.  I decided, then and there, that was no way I’d be purchasing a costume for it.  Not that I told her.  It was fine.  The party was due to start as I finished work on a Friday. I’d simply chalk my lack of a costume up to a lack of time to change.
   
   That night, I went straight from the office to the party.  The first person who saw me as I walked in the door grinned at the sight of me.
   
   “Nice costume, mate.”
   
   The middle-aged cretin was dressed as a blood splattered doctor and holding some bubbling concoction I guessed was an expensive cocktail.  I did my best to laugh off his rebuke and asked him where the drinks were being served.
   
   “Oh, I see.  You’ve come as a clueless waiter then.”
   
   I bit my tongue and followed where he eventually pointed a gore drenched finger.  On the way, an overweight Catwoman and an overzealous Ghostbuster both managed to make some sloppy remark about my lack of a costume.  I ignored them and helped myself to a large glass of red wine at the free bar.
   
   It was barely seven o’clock and my fiancée’s colleagues were already getting messy.  I saw Frankenstein’s monster fail to work his decomposing charms on a grey haired schoolgirl whilst, over in the corner, Conan was having his wig held back by Elvis as he threw up into a bin.
   
   I left them to it and tried to find my fiancée.  The few people I asked about her whereabouts said the same thing.  Some clever variation of
   
   “Like your mask.”
   Or
   “Like your costume.”
   Or
   “Who are you meant to be then?”
   
   What made it worse was that I couldn’t find my fiancée anywhere.  I texted her but didn’t get an answer.  I tried calling her, but got her voicemail.  There was no sign of her.  Meanwhile, everywhere I turned, someone had something to say about the suit.  I was a low rent James Bond or the worst Bruce Wayne they’d ever seen. 
   
   I did my best not to say anything too harsh.  I tried to be nice.  I really did.  I managed to control myself until my fiancée’s MD spotted me.  He was dressed an old gypsy woman, hunching his back and wearing had a ragged old scarf wrapped around his jowls.  He was clutching a crystal ball in one hand and a glass of brandy in the other.  
   
   He raised his crystal ball up and peered through it as I approached.
   
   “What a hideous mask!” he declared in a voice that belonged in Monty Python sketch. 
   
   I’d always had a sneaking suspicion the old man didn’t like me.  It was possible he’d overheard me calling him Mr Toad’s perverted, inbred cousin at a Christmas party once.  It was either that or my fiancée had told him about some of our darker times.  She did like to talk after she’d had a few.
   
   “What did you come as?” he asked. “The most boring man at my party?”
   
   I’m not proud of the things I said to him.  I don’t even remember some of them.  You know how it is.  I know people stopped talking as I started yelling.  I know they started to turn and watch.  
   
   For a moment, I thought I’d silenced the old sod, but he shook his crystal ball at me and cursed me.  The goddamn nerve.  I knocked it out his hand and it smashed on the ground.
   
   Before I knew it, security had me outside.  That was where I saw my wife kissing Santa Claus.  A young, tanned, muscular Santa Claus.  She tried to say something about it not being what it looked like, but it was too late.  I turned and stormed away.
   
   “That mask you’re wearing isn’t fooling anyone,” she called after me.
   
   I just kept walking.  She didn’t come home.
   
   Saturday, I didn’t stir until midmorning, which was unusual for me.  I’m normally up at eight and off to the gym to get the day started.  Instead, I’d woke up tired and aching.  I’d woken up cold.  Not just cold, in fact.  Numb.  
   
   I rolled over and felt…well, nothing.  It wasn’t like the stinging pressure of pins of needles.  This was something else.  My face was completely lifeless.
   
   I raised a hand and pressed it at my cheek.  There was no sensation at all.  The shock of it made me sit up.  
   
   Numbness, I thought, isn’t that the sign of a stroke?  
   
   I couldn’t remember.  I knew that something fatal turned you numb as it struck, but couldn’t remember what it was.
   
   I ended up having to knead at my face for a good couple of minutes before the feeling came back.  I can’t quite describe the relief when my cheeks were warm again.  It allowed me to breath, to take in how peaceful my empty house was.  I had the whole day to myself.  No more menu planning.  No long trawls through websites for just the right kind of wedding favours.  No boring meetings at the church.
   
   The thought made me smile.  I got up and took a long, hot shower.  I didn’t have to worry about her banging on the door, steaming up the mirrors or leaving the seat up.  I could take my time.  Just like I could every other morning from now on.  
   
   The only downside was that I had to turn the temperature up.  She must have turned it right down yesterday.  It was either that or I was still cold from last night.  I couldn’t feel the water on my face at first.
   
   After my shower, I dressed and took a walk to the gym.  As I got started on my usual routine, I nodded to some of regulars.  All of them stared right through me like I’d never been there before.  They only seemed to recognise me once I spoke to them.
   
   I tried to tell myself it was nothing, but then one of the girls on the staff asked if I wanted to become a full-time member.  
   
   “I am a full-time member,” I told her.
   
   She smiled apologetically.  
   
   “Sorry, Sir.  Didn’t recognise you for a moment.”
   
   I powered through the rest of my routine, feeling that numb sensation creep back into my cheeks.  Where was that coming from?  
   
   As always, I ended with a blast on the treadmill.  A good sprint, looking at myself in the mirror with the music in my headphones turned up high enough to drown out everything else.  It normally felt great.  Today, however, it didn’t go to plan.  My earphones kept falling out and it was an awkward fumble to get them back in.  It was like my ears weren’t able to accept them.  
   
   Not only that but, as I pushed myself, my reflection started to look wrong.  I would’ve said my vision was blurring, but the rest of the reflection looked fine.  It was just me.  It was just my face.  It wasn’t quite right.  Maybe it was the lighting but, as ridiculous as it sounds, my face looked fake.  
   I headed to the showers.  I could barely feel the water on my face again.  I had to press hard to know my fingers were on my cheeks and brow.  Something clearly wasn’t right.
   
   On the way home, I wondered what I should do.  This could be stress related or maybe the exercise had exacerbated a health problem I wasn’t aware of before. 
   
   I knew I should probably talk to someone about it, but it wasn’t like I had a huge list of potential candidates waiting on my phone.  Most of my friends spent their weekends with their families.  They had wives, partners, children.  They didn’t have time for me and my mild panic attack.
   
   The only people I could think of calling were my parents, but I couldn’t face it.  The ex might have called them already.  Which meant they’d only want to blame me for everything.  They always took her side.
   
   I put the phone away and headed home.  As I stepped through the front door, I saw nothing I really liked in my home.  The shoe rack.  The hat stand.  The cheap Impressionist print in the clip frame.  This had all been hers.  The colour of the carpets.  The feature walls and the Suede poster in the kitchen.  This had never been my life, even if it was stored in my home.  It was all one big costume.
   
   Even the DVDs on the shelves in the lounge weren’t to my taste.  Where had all this Disney come from?  All these Hugh Grant movies.  I couldn’t remember wanting any of this under my roof.  I couldn’t remember the moment I’d agreed to let it any of it in through the front door.
   
   There was that numbness again.  Spreading through my face.  Heading down my neck.  My breathing began to sound louder in my ears.
   
   I made myself a cup of tea and headed back into the lounge.  I put the TV on, but I didn’t watch it.  Not really.  I found myself watching my reflection on the screen.  The man struggling to keep any sort of figure these days.  The man who was wearing the sort of clothes he used to laugh at when he was younger.  The man who was starting to suspect he’d been playing a part his entire life.
   
   What was it they’d all said the night before?  Nice costume.  Nice mask.  Who’re you supposed to be?
   
   “Are you supposed to be?” I asked the man reflected in my TV screen.
   
   He didn’t seem to have an answer for as he clutched his drink.  If anything, he looked like he had a few questions of his own.
   
   My head was spinning.  I switched off the TV and headed upstairs.  I lay down on the bed with the curtains closed.  I could hear my breathing thundering in my ears again and there was a heat rising under my skin that felt trapped.
   
   When it became clear I couldn’t sleep, I perched on the edge on the bed, touching my dead cheek.  The feeling wasn’t coming back this time.
   
   “What’s wrong with me?” I asked the floor.
   
   I could see that crystal ball breaking on that floor last night.  My face reflected in all those shattered fragments.  I could hear all those mocking voices.
   
   Nice costume.
   Nice mask.
   Who are you supposed to be? 
   
    I pushed the fingers up towards my eye, following the bone beneath my skin.  Feeling it.  Tracing the shape of the skull that formed the foundation of my face.  The face that kept betraying me today.  It felt imperfect under my shaking fingers.  Misshapen and uneven.  Hollow, weak and pockmarked.  
   
   I flinched my fingers away.
   
   Around me, the house felt too quiet, like a struck set.  A theatre before the audience took their sears.  Except there wasn’t any peace to be found in this silence.  There was only expectation.  An unanswered question.  
   
   Who are you supposed to be?  
   
   I snatched up my phone and texted my parents, searching for an invite.  They replied quickly, telling me that they were having a roast and I was more than welcome to join them.  At least it would be some kind of company.
   
   I stumbled as I headed to the bathroom.  My legs felt unresponsive, dead to the world.  It must have been the extra work out at the gym, I told myself.
   
   In the bathroom, I had a quick shave.  I didn’t notice I’d cut myself until I rinsed the razor in the water and saw a red tint of blood curling away in ripples.  When I rinsed my face, I found the cut was long slice that ran over my lower jaw line.  I couldn’t feel the skin around it at all and the cut looked neat.  Squared edged.  I had the sudden, overpowering urge impulse to pull at it.
   
   Downstairs, I thought about avoiding the lounge, but that was childish.  This was all just some emotional glitch.  I couldn’t start acting like it actually meant something.  
   
   I poured myself a glass of orange juice from the fridge and marched myself in there.  Not that I sat facing the TV.  No, I sat on the armchair near the window.  Her seat.  It felt like it had barely ever been sat in.  
   
   I lasted nearly two minutes before the photos on the wall got to me.  Me and my ex-fiancée on holiday.  At her brother’s twenty first.  That wedding we went to in The Dales.  But it wasn’t the sight of her that hurt.  No, it was me.  My face in those photos.  It was like I couldn’t focus on it.  It looked as if the glass was smeared over my face.  Just my face.  Like the mirror at the gym.  
   
   I got up, inspected them.  There was no mark there.  
   
   Close up, the effect was more obvious.  More terrifying.  It wasn’t my imagination.  My face didn’t look like my face in any of those photographs.
   
   The panic overwhelmed me.  I took them down and threw them in the bin.  Then I turned to the only distraction I could think of, work.  We had a big job coming up and we’d all been given the opportunity to earn some overtime.  
   
   I headed up to the spare room and switched the computer on.  I logged into my work emails and did what I could.  It was all pretty routine.  Dull and boring, but distracting. They kept the mania at bay for a while.  They kept it there until I started to wonder what I was doing.  I had done degrees for this work.  I’d trained for it, attended courses and conferences.  I’d spent nights revising for exams, but I couldn’t remember them.  In the same way I couldn’t remember agreeing to let my future brother in law use my spare room or agreeing to go to some drizzle infested wedding in The Dales. I could barely even remember proposing.
   
   Sitting, staring at those spreadsheets, I could feel my memories fading.  Blurring out of focus, like my face in all those photographs downstairs.  The void the memories were leaving in their wake was numb to the touch.  It drove me out the house early.  
   
   I tried to downplay my edgy tone when I arrived at my parents’, but I could see it in their eyes.  They knew something was wrong.  Their unspoken concern was more fuel to the fire.  The heat building under my numb skin.  My voice sounded hollow to my ears.
   
   “Where’s Sarah?” my mother asked. 
   
   “She couldn’t make it,” I said.
   
   She appeared to believe me.   
   
   I sat in the kitchen with them whilst they cooked.  They told me about a family friend who wasn’t doing well, but I didn’t take it in.  I was too busy looking at their faces.  I didn’t look like either of them.  Surely, that wasn’t right.  Normally, you share the shape of your nose or your eyeline with your parents.  Even just hair colour.  Not me.  I’m clearly taller than both of my parents and paler as well.  Neither of them were blonde either.
   
   I couldn’t see myself in any of the photos they currently had on display.  There were only photos of them.  I swear they used to have photos of me around the house.  Graduation.  Early birthday parties.  My christening.
   
   Leaving them to a debate a great aunt’s age, I snuck upstairs to the back bedroom and then up the ladder to the attic.  My fingers starting to feel so numb that I could barely use the ladder as I clambered up amongst the cobwebs and the dust.  
   
   I dug out the photo albums from the boxes and flipped through the heavy, plastic pages to find some evidence of myself.  I needed to see a familiar memory to anchor my nerves.  Even just a school photo.  Not that I could remember the name of my school anymore.  Or any of the kids in my class.  More memories that’d fled to the void.
   
   As I kept flipping through the pages, photos come loose and fell to the boarded floor.  Spiders scuttled across them.  Working back through the albums, the photos began to fade into fogs of indistinct sepia browns and yellows.  I failed to find one of me.
   
   “What’re you doing up here?” my dad asked, his head appearing through the hatch. His features looking haunted in the glow of the bare bulb I’d switched on. “Dinner’s nearly ready.”
   
   I showed him the album I was holding.
   
   “I can’t find any photos of me.”  
   
   I watched as he scanned through the pages and tutted.
   
   “You know what this means?” he asked as he held up a faded, ghostly image of a faceless baby in a high chair. “Bloody roof must be leaking again.”
   
   I stayed with my parents for as long as I could before I retreated home.  Back inside, with the door locked, I couldn’t settle.  For the first time in thirty something years, I thought about sleeping with the bedroom lights on.  Not that I got any sleep.
   
   I buried myself under the covers and lay there, trying to remember what day it was.  Trying to remember what I was meant to be doing.  
   
   I started to feel claustrophobically hot.  The heat drove me into the bathroom.  I ran a sink of water and splashed it over my skin in the dark.  I barely registered the sensation.  I rubbed the skin and found myself feeling the bone again.  The outline of the skull.  As I worked down towards my mouth, the jaw felt open even if my mouth was closed.  It was as if I was silently screaming under the surface of my skin.
   
   The sensation caused me to switch on the light and blinked away the glare.  My face on the mirror was cloaked under a smudge.  I reached out with a trembling hand and wiped it clear.  The face that stared back at me was screaming.  No skin covering the surface.  A torn pattern of flesh, frayed at the edges.  I could see sinew and bone.  I could see eyes loose in their wet sockets.
   
   A trembling finger reached up and came away from my face coated in something warm, wet and red.
   
   That was when I woke up.  
   
   My phone ringing beside my bed.  As I went to answer it I thought my fingertip still looked vaguely red.
   
   “…hello?”
   
   “I’ve heard of parents doing their children’s homework,” the voice snarled down the phone. “But I’ve never heard of parents getting their children to do their work for them.”
   
   It was my boss.  
   
   I sat up, still groggy, barely able to hold the phone.  My face so numb that I can’t feel my lips move.
   
   “Sir?  …what time is it?”
   
   “Never mind what time it is.  I’m going over everything for next week and I just saw the spreadsheet you’d been working on today.  The standard of work is unacceptable.  Maybe I should hire those children of yours.”
   
   “…but I don’t have any children.”
   
   “Don’t be a fool.  I met your girls one weekend when you had them off their mother, Sarah or something.  Lovely little things.  Seemed terrified of you.  My office, first thing on Monday.”
   
   The line went dead.
   
   It didn’t make any sense.  I’d never had children.  I lived here alone until my fiancée moved in.  My fiancée…wait, what was her name?  Why couldn’t I remember her name? 
   
   Unnerved, I staggered out of bed and into the spare room.  I switched on the computer and logged on, ready to check my work.  Two smiling girls were smiling out from my home screen.  I didn’t know who they are.
   
   I quickly logged in past them and looked at my work.  My boss was right.  It looked like a complete novice had done this.  Someone who had never trained a day of their life to do my job.
   
   …what was my job again?
   
   The question seeded something under my clammy skin.  I couldn’t remember going to university.  Not properly.  The memory was paper thin.  It was like trying to remember a quickly conjured lie.  The more I chased it, the faster it fled from reach.
   
   Only this wasn’t some piece of trivia.  This was my life.  Why couldn’t I remember my life?  It wasn’t some sham or cheap disguise.  It was my life…wasn’t it?
   
   My phone buzzed.  There was a voicemail waiting.  I dialled up and listened.  It was my ex.
   
   “You changed,” she sobbed down the phone. “You bought that suit and now I can’t tell who…”
   
   I quickly deleted the message before it could finish and headed for the shower.  All of me felt numb now.  Numb, but hot.
   
   Washing my scalp, I felt my hair give.  As one.  Like a wig or a hat.  It slid back, just an inch, but I knew what I felt.  I switched off the shower and stood there, gasping.  My breath still sounded too loud in my ears.
   
   When I got back into the bedroom to find myself something wear I found that all my suits bar the one from the other night were gone.  No, not gone.  There was no space for them.  There were only old t shirts and faded jeans hanging there.  A few ratty shirts.  Unable to face wearing any of it, I put on the suit I wore to the party and headed out of the house.  I switched off the lights as I went and looked back at the front door.  It looked empty in the darkness.  A blank space.
   
   Outside, I walked right past my car before I recognised it.  Looking in at the back seat, I saw two small children’s car seats.
   
   In the end, I walked into town on numb, tremor ridden legs.  I couldn’t think straight for the sound of my heavy breathing.  I couldn’t relax for the heat percolating under my senseless skin.
   
   I didn’t notice the woman marching over until she was glaring down at me
   
   “You should be ashamed of yourself,” she shouted.
   
   “I’m sorry?”
   
   “I said you should be ashamed of yourself.  The way you treated Sarah, ruining her big night like that.  Acting the fool.  Spending your girls’ monthly money on that stupid suit and drinking yourself insensible.  She was celebrating her biggest success then you turn up and start a fight with her boss.”
   
   “I wasn’t drunk.”
   
   “You could barely stand.”
   
   “I was tired and I was angry, but I wasn’t drunk.”
   
   “Got a little lost under our mask, did we?”
   
   “But that suit…that suit wasn’t a costume?”
   
   Only I couldn’t be sure any longer.  It had all seemed so clear when I’d put it on, but when had that been?  Where had I changed?  How I gotten to the party?  I’d gone from work…only what had I been doing at work?  What was my job again?
   
   …who was I supposed to be?
   
   “We lost the account,” the woman said through gritted teeth. “They didn’t want the bad press.  You’re damn lucky Mr Andrews didn’t press charges.  He should.  Sarah should.”
   
   “But I never…”
   
   “That account would’ve been something special.  Their costumes were top of the line.  They use genuine antiques.  It wasn’t cheap tat.  That crystal ball you smashed had been around for centuries.”
   
   That crystal ball, smashed to pieces of the floor.  All those versions of myself.  Had even one of them really looked like me?
   
   “I…”
   
   “Look at you.  Still pretending you’re something you’re not.”
   
   She stormed away victorious.  I couldn’t think straight after she’d gone.  I hated costume parties.  I hadn’t wanted to wear a costume or a mask.  I went as myself, after work.  I went as myself.
   
   I’m not just a costume.
   
   I pulled out my phone, barely able to hold it as I dialled my parents.  When my father answered, he didn’t recognise my voice.  He hung up on me.
   
   I could see it now.  There was no other choice left.
   
   I walked to a nearby supermarket to picked up a cheap kitchen knife set and some scissors.  It was time to return the costume.  
   
   It took me a while to find the costume shop.  It was out of the way.  Down some back streets, hidden in the old side of town.  It was locked up for the night, but that didn’t stop me.  
   
   I smashed a window and climbed in amongst the cheap monsters and the broken glass.  I chose a spot and tried the wig.  It wouldn’t come off, so I took up the scissors and start cutting it off, piece by piece.  It wasn’t easy without a mirror, but I persevered.  It wasn’t like it hurt when I caught the scalp or my ears.  It was only plastic. 
    
   The hair that fell off me looked like material.  Cheap, manmade fibres.  No trace of tone.  Just a painted yellow blonde.  Like an action figure would have. 
   
   When that was done, I ran a finger over my face to find the joins in the mask.  People started to come over; called over by the alarm I’d set off, no doubt.  I didn’t stop.  I unpacked one of the smaller knives and loosen the seams with long, straight cuts.  It felt good.  It felt like all that heat was finally starting to escape.
   
   Once the seams were loosened, I took another knife and started to cut the mask free.  As I carved under the plastic, my fingers got slippery with fake blood.  I didn’t stop.
   
   Someone screamed as the mask began to fall to the floor.  After I was free of it, I saw someone had fainted.  I carried on.  Focusing on the gloves next.  I had to do them finger by finger, as they didn’t come off whole.  It felt better when my red, wet fingers could breathe again.  
   
   Next it was the sleeves, neck and chest piece, which meant taking my shirt off.  Exposing the costume under the costume.  
   
   People were on their phones by now.  Some were filming me.  I heard someone say something about police.
   
   I thought about telling them not to panic, but then I remembered the tongue needed returning, as well as the teeth.  They were stuck fast.  I had to use the bigger knives, digging past nerves, muscle and roots.  It was all very realistic.  I had to ignore the sobs that leapt past my twitching, sinewy gums.  I really had been playing this part for too long.
   
   After I got the ears off, the sounds around me didn’t matter so much.  Exhausted, I sat down and didn’t feel the broken glass beneath me.  
   
   The world blurred as blue lights came close.  Figures rushed forward.  A voice looped through the haze and asked me my name.  When I started laughing, they all took a step back. 
   
   That was a long time ago now.  These days, they look after me here.  They look after me and tend to my scars.  They don’t let me look at mirrors and I get to meet a lot of students who want to understand about my problems.  Some of them manage not to throw up when they first see me.
   
   The other residents have parties for Christmas, Easter and Halloween.  The staff think it’s best that I stay in my room during them.  Especially the one at Halloween.  They’ll get no complaints from me.  Ask anyone.  I’ve never been a fan of Halloween parties.