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 wasn’t a religious thing or that I disliked being scared, either. Far from it. I’ve always enjoyed a decent horror film.
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. They cheapen a good scare. Ruin a good myth. I’m willing to bet half the Draculas stumbling up and down the streets on any October 31st think Bram Stoker was 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 with the house keys. They promise that their party will be amazing, as if ‘amazing’ hinges on them smearing makeup over their aging faces and acting like an overweight, drunken Ziggy Stardust all night. I’d managed to avoid every single invitation until this year when, sadly, my lucky streak came to an end: my fiancée was forcing me to attend her office Halloween party.
We’d been going through a long string of rough patches as our wedding fast approached and, as much I hated 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. 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.
It appeared 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 the seating plans and scouting for venues, we’d unwittingly entered a stress test capable of bringing down the strongest of relationships. We fought like cats and dogs over suits, flowers and cakes. Ushers, first dances and vows. The bureaucracy of romance was turning our every decision into a demonstration in the art of hostage negotiation.
The party had appeared on our radar thanks to her marketing firm, who started representing some well-established costume shop in town. It was her boss’ bright idea to throw a Halloween themed party to celebrate. Seeing as my fiancée was in charge of the account, she’d insisted we go.
It was fine. The party was due to start as I finished work on a Friday, so I’d simply chalk my lack of a costume up to a lack of time to change. When the night came, 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 it off and asked him where the drinks were being served.
“Oh, I see. You’ve come as a clueless waiter.”
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 both and helped myself to a large glass of red from 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.”
“Like your costume.”
“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 flabby jowls. He was clutching a crystal ball in one hand and a glass of brandy in the other.
He raised the ball and peered through it as I approached.
“What a hideous mask!” he declared in a voice that belonged in Monty Python sketch. “What did you come as? 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 we both watched it smash 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, 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. Instead, I’d woke up tired and aching. I’d woken up cold. Not just cold, in fact, but numb.
I rolled over and felt…well, nothing. This wasn’t the stinging pressure of pins of needles. No, this was something else. My face had turned 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 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 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. The only downside was that I had to turn the temperature right up. She must have turned it 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.
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. 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 as if 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. 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 where, again, I could barely feel the water on my face. 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 on my phone. Most of my friends spent their weekends with family. 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 that. The ex might’ve called them already. Which meant they’d only want to blame me for everything. They always took her side.
I 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 stuff 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 went back to the lounge. I turned 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.
He didn’t seem to have an answer 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 last night. 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 to my shaking fingers. Misshapen and uneven. Hollow, weak, pockmarked.
I flinched my fingers away.
Around me, the house was too quiet, 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, telling me that they were having a roast tonight and I was more than welcome to join them. At least it would be some kind of company.
I stumbled to the bathroom. My legs 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 strangely 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 marched myself in there and sat down. Not that I sat facing the TV this time. No, I sat on the armchair near the window. Her seat. It felt like it had barely ever been used.
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 in The Dales. But it wasn’t the sight of her that hurt. No, it was me. My face in those photos. 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 but, close up, the effect was more obvious. More terrifying. It wasn’t my imagination. My face didn’t look like me 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 emails and did what I could. It was all pretty routine. Dull and boring, but they kept the mania at bay for a while. They kept it there until I started to wonder what I was doing. I’d done degrees for this. 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. The void the memories were leaving in their wake was numb to the touch. I ended up being driven out the house early by my unease.
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 added fuel to the fire. The heat building under my numb skin.
“Where’s Sarah?” my mother asked.
“Oh, she couldn’t make it,” I told her, my voice sounding hollow in my ears.
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. Let alone the fact neither of them is naturally blonde.
I couldn’t see myself in any of the photos they 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 had fled.
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.
“What?” I asked with baited breath.
“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.
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 to 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 blink 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. 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.
“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.
“Carl? …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. It’s unacceptable. Maybe I should hire those children of yours and start training them now.”
“…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. Lovely little things. Seemed terrified of you. My office, first thing Monday morning. We need to discuss your work.”
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 were.
I quickly logged in quickly to get 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’ve 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 tight hat. It slid back, just an inch, but I know 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 to wear I found that 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 underneath 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 said you should be ashamed of yourself. The way you treated Sarah, ruining her big night like that. Acting the fool. Spending your girls’ child support on that stupid suit and drinking yourself insensible. She was celebrating her biggest success before you turned up and started a fight with her boss.”
“…I wasn’t drunk.”
“You could barely stand.”
“I was tired and angry, but I wasn’t drunk.”
“Got a little lost under our mask, did we?”
“This suit…this suit isn’t a costume?”
Except I couldn’t be sure any longer. It’d 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.”
“But I never…”
“That account would’ve been something special. Their costumes were top of the line. They use genuine antiques, not 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?
“Look at you. Still pretending you’re something you’re not.”
She stormed away, victorious. I couldn’t think straight. 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 and 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 started hacking 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 ears. They were 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 on their head.
When that was done, I ran a finger over my face to find the joins in the mask. People started to appear; 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 peeled 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, someone else fainted. I carried on. Focusing on the gloves next. I had to do them finger by finger, as they wouldn’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. I 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 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 my problems. Some of them manage not to throw up the first time they see me.
The other residents here have parties for Christmas, Easter and Halloween. The staff think it’s best for me to stay in my room during them. Especially the one at Halloween. They get no complaints from me. Ask anyone. I’ve never been a fan of Halloween parties.