by Avril Adams
A Halloween Masque is the third place winner in our Halloween Mystery Short Story contest! Watch for the rest of the top 5 this week, and check those entries, including the winner, that have already gone up!
“The music committee is meeting at the table in the back. You’d better hurry, they’re voting,” said Robert, rushing past Bridget to the gymnasium stage. He carried, under his arm, the scarecrow she’d created the night before, a skeleton in overalls, bandanna and straw hat; an over-sized raven affixed to the crown, pecking at the skull. The scarecrow was a chimera, Bridget was proud to say, a Frankenstein offspring of E. A. Poe and The Grand Ole Opry. She was sure nobody at North Cromwell High had ever seen such a creature. She pushed her way through a row of folding chairs toward the back of the gym and realized, with disappointment, that the music committee had already recorded the vote. The motion, whatever it was, had carried.
“Well, what did you decide?” Bridget asked her friend, Elaine, as the committee adjourned. She hoped her resentment didn’t show.
“Sorry we didn’t wait for you, Bridget, but your vote wouldn’t have mattered, anyway. None of us could agree on anything else, so we chose Rock and Roll, from the fifties for the music. Ugh.”
“We did that last year.”
“Yeah, same. I know.”
“And look how that turned out.” Bridget frowned. She didn’t want to remember anything about last year. It was the worst year of her life.
“It’s pretty lame, I agree, but it’s easy and cheap to get that four piece cover band who played ‘Sleepwalk’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ last time. We don’t have that much in the kitty,” soothed Elaine, dodging the topic of the previous year’s dance. “Everything’s lame, this high school and everything in it. I can’t wait to graduate.”
“Me, either,” said Bridget. Julius Wells, the new transfer student, walked by them carrying two small Jack-o-lanterns. He smiled shyly at Bridget. She ignored him. “I wouldn’t come if I had a choice. My mother is forcing me.”
“She wants you to come out of your room sometimes, Bridg. So do I. You can’t study and listen to music all the time. You have to come up for air.”
“What’s the point?”
Elaine laughed, revealing the rubber bands stretched between her braces. “You made that great scarecrow, didn’t you? It’s pretty rad. People love it. Even the teachers.” Elaine pointed at the stage where Mr. Forster, the band teacher, was admiring Bridget’s handiwork. He’d been on the faculty for less than a year, long enough to make everyone dislike him. “Bridget, look, Mr. Foreskin likes Mr. Scarecrow. He’s fondling the overalls.” The girls snickered at their music teacher, whom they believed lived cryptically in his mother’s basement, eating Cheerios for every meal and keeping book lice as pets.
“Kindred spirits,” sighed Bridget.
“Do you have your costume ready?”
“Of course. I’m wearing the same thing I did last year. What could be more appropriate for a déjà vu dance?”
“That Bonnie and Clyde outfit? Are you sure that’s a good idea? I mean . . .”
“I didn’t get much use out of it last year, and I haven’t had time to make another.”
“Still,” argued Elaine, “it’s been in mothballs and the corsage is still pinned to it.”
“I don’t care,” Bridget’s eyes welled with tears.
“Who’s bringing you?”
“I don’t have a date.”
“Tommy Warren wanted to ask you,” offered Elaine. “He likes you.”
“I already told him no. It won’t be the same without Victor.” Bridget broke down and Elaine wrapped her arms around her friend. They hugged until one of the varsity boys yelled “Hey, lezzies, I’m available.” The girls pulled apart, blushing. Elaine flipped the bird at Varsity-Boy.
“What a dork,” said Elaine. “I can’t believe someone as cute as Melodie Hopkins would be seen with him.”
“High school beauty queens and football captains go together like peanut butter and jelly. Besides, he has a Mustang,” said Bridget acidly, certain that those facts explained everything anyone needed to know about the situation.
“Why don’t you go with Tommy?” said Bridget. “He’s nice, not bad looking.”
“He didn’t ask me, even as a runner-up,” Elaine sighed. She tapped her dental work. “It’s these, I think. I don’t care, though. We’ll both come stag.”
“Stag, it is,” sniffed Bridget.
At six p.m. on Friday night, Bridget picked up Elaine in her mother’s black Honda hatchback. She was surprised to see Elaine also dressed in the same outfit she had worn to the Halloween dance last year, a Catwoman costume, complete with mask and tail. She was touched by her friend’s sympathetic gesture. The cat suit was a slightly ill-fitting, striped body stocking. Elaine had to continuously adjust the bra to keep her breasts from sagging.
“You look nice,” said Bridget, as Elaine climbed into the passenger side.
“Thanks,” said Elaine, irritably. “Not bad for a Halle Berry re-tread.” She tugged again at the bra. She glanced at her friend who was wearing a tight wool skirt, form-fitting sweater and loose felt beret, which, with the exception of the mask, was the same as Bonnie Parker had worn the day she and Clyde Barrows were shot to pieces trying to outrun the Feds. “You found the cap,” she marveled. “That’s good.”
Bridget smiled. “I have the Tommy gun, too, like the one in the movie. I had to hunt for it. Mom put it in the attic last year.” Elaine glanced over the seat where a realistic looking plastic machine gun lay on the back seat nestled between straw baskets of red apples and several large bottles of apple juice.
Elaine laughed. “Cops better not see it. You know how that story ended. Two star crossed lovers pumped full of lead.”
“Ten to the face and twelve to the body, if I recall.” Bridget started the engine. “It’s a full moon tonight.
“Yeah, righteous. Very cool. It’s so big. I think it’s called a blue moon, the second one this month, after the harvest moon. The little witches and vampires won’t need flashlights to trick-or-treat tonight.”
“Full moon must be good luck,” said Bridget. “I’ll cross my fingers it is.”
“Last minute adjustment for the Halloween table. Mrs. Marshall insisted I bring them. Apparently, there’s a whole thing about apples for Halloween. She said it was something to do with something called Wicca. That’s where the word witches comes from, you know. She’s all about the Druids and the ancient lore of witchery. Oooooh. Spoooooky.”
“I like mulled apple cider, heavy on the cinnamon,” mused Elaine. “Is that what you’re making?”
“I like spiked apple cider,” retorted Bridget. “I’ll let you have a sip of my special brew.”
“You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mrs. Marshall’s a witch. I think she must be a widow or a spinster,” laughed Elaine.
“She can’t be a spinster if she’s a widow,” corrected Bridget. Elaine rolled down the window.
“Did you see that mole on her cheek?”
“You mean on her nose.”
“Between her cheek and her nose.”
“If her face were a planet, her nose would be The Himalayas and her mole would be like an ice cap.” The girls laughed.
Bridget drove a mile down the gravel road that ran parallel to the highway. She had almost forgotten about it as the shortcut to Cromwell. Bridget’s mother never took that road anymore, since the accident, but Bridget was in a hurry. When they curved around the first bend Bridget’s headlights illuminated a massive, twisted oak tree, its branches extending far across the road. There was a long, deep gash in the trunk of the tree where Victor’s car had veered into it that night last year on his way to the Junior Halloween dance. Bridget saw something moving in the brush beside the tree.
“Did you see that?” she croaked, almost losing control of the steering wheel.
“That thing moving in the bushes.”
“There was nothing in the bushes.”
“Yes, there was. It looked like a ghost.”
“It must have been the wind, Bridget. You’re edgy. We shouldn’t have come this way.”
Bridget’s eyes welled with tears. “No, we shouldn’t have. I don’t know what I was thinking. I never want to drive down this road again.”
The Cromwell High gym was festooned with orange and black letters announcing the senior Halloween dance. Bridget parked the hatchback as close to the back door as possible so she and Elaine wouldn’t have to walk too far with their baskets and bottles. Someone had already covered the tables with gingham print oil cloth and the girls placed the baskets of apples in the center of the largest one. She opened the bottles of apple juice and another student, dressed as Annie Oakley, took them to an electric crock pot to boil with the spices. The tart scent of cinnamon and cloves and tangy apples was soon in the air. The girls were laying out the plates and cutlery when Mrs. Marshall walked up to the tables.
“Lovely costumes, girls,” she said. “Popular culture can often preserve important moments in history.”
“Thanks. Where’s yours, Mrs. Marshall?” inquired Elaine.
“This is it,” smiled Mrs. Marshall. “I’m dressed as a teacher.”
“Nice,” said Bridget and then looked at Elaine who was busy mouthing the words “So lame”.
“Girls, when witches go to Halloween parties, do you think they dress as witches?”
“Yes,” answered Elaine. “It’s the one night they can be who they really are.”
“Of course not. Once a witch, always a witch, so witches look like everyone else. You can be sure if a witch looks like a witch, she isn’t one.” Someone in a witch costume walked by. “Not a witch,” smiled Mrs. Marshall.
Then, Mr. Forster strolled in pushing an electric piano for the band unpacking in the parking lot. “Witch,” cried Elaine.
“Maybe,” said Mrs. Marshall. She pulled a fat red apple out of the basket in the center of the table, turning it round and round in her hands. “Apples know everything,” she said. “The Druids and Romans used them for divination.” She picked up a sharp knife, poising it over the fruit. “The ancients believed apple trees were sacred in the land across the water where the dead are eternal. Tonight is the night when the living come as close as possible to the souls of the departed.”
“Uh Oh,” said Bridget, “not the Druids.” She rolled her eyes.
Mrs. Marshall looked down her nose through her glasses. “How long will you live, Elaine?”
“Either till tomorrow or forever,” giggled Elaine.
“Let’s ask the apple. The apple knows.” Mrs. Marshall took the knife and the blade bit into the apple skin, drawing a little fluid.
Elaine and Bridget watched with a combination of skepticism and fascination. The teacher began to peel, slowly and carefully. She cut one circle around the fruit without breaking the ribbon. The girls felt their bodies strain in response to the precision of the knife. The teacher completed another circuit of the apple. “So far, so good,” she whispered.
“How many years is that?” frowned Bridget.
“Twenty,” said Mrs. Marshall.
“Go another,” said Elaine. “I want to live a long time.”
Mrs. Marshall turned the apple, unwinding the skin ribbon until she had nearly reached the bottom. Her hand slipped and the fruit’s skin tore. “You’ll live a hundred years,” Mrs. Marshall said firmly, “but I can’t say if you’ll be happy.”
Elaine took the peeled apple, now white and wet. “Try Bridget,” she said.
Mrs. Marshall took another apple, the largest and most perfectly shaped she could find. “How long will you live, my dear?”
“Till Hell freezes over,” laughed Bridget. She felt drunk on excitement. She had no idea why she had said those words.
“Be careful what you wish for,” said Mrs. Marshall. She pricked the apple skin and began to peel. Her steady hands had just begun when someone slammed the gym door and she broke the peel. Bridget began to tremble.
“Do it again,” she demanded. “That wasn’t fair.”
Mrs. Marshall put the apple and the knife back on the table. She looked at Bridget sympathetically. “It’s just a parlor game, Bridget. Don’t take it so seriously.”
“I don’t. It’s just a game, like you said.”
While the girls were occupied with Mrs. Marshall, the four members of the rock and roll band, “Great Balls of Fire”, had strolled in with their instruments and music. They were in their late twenties but all were skinny and had long hair, de rigueur for a rock band. The snare drum player, the guitarist and the saxophone flirted with impromptu melodies led by the electric piano, tuning up noisily. The gym was nearly full now. There were a wide variety of costumes from beauty queens to space aliens, from dead presidents to cartoon characters.
“I forgot the Tommy gun,” said Bridget as she and Elaine were carrying the mulled cider to the table. “That’s part of my costume.”
“Okay, but hurry, the music is about to start.” In response to the first chord struck by the band, the lights were turned down low, and a few couples straggled on to the dance floor jumping to the tune, the eponymous hit, by Jerry Lee Lewis.
Bridget returned with the Tommy gun, this time, wearing her mask. She found Elaine in the dim light and scanned the room in search of familiar faces. Almost everyone was wearing a mask. It was hot in the gym already, even with the big fan spinning on its highest setting. She didn’t expect the dancers would wear their uncomfortable masks for long. For some reason, she entertained a macabre thought, about Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, in which the dancers at the end of the masquerade ball were unable to remove their masks while the costumed figure of Death circulated among them.
The band took the music down a notch for their next number. The first few chords sent a chill up her spine as the guitar player stepped to the mike for the vocal. The singer entered the music on a high note that almost stopped her heart. “Earth Angel, Earth Angel”, he began. It was the song she had last danced to with Victor when it had played on the radio. She began to sob quietly, not wanting to draw attention to herself. She wiped her eyes reaching for a plastic cup for a taste of the mulled cider. She felt a strong hand cover hers.
“Would you like to dance?” It was a boy in a brown wool suit, a mask covering his face, a fedora drawn low over his forehead. Bridget was annoyed at first, thinking it was Tommy Warren or Julius Wells. Julius Wells was a klutz and Tommy Warren was two inches shorter than she was. So she started to pull away, but the boy firmly but tenderly took her hand and pulled her into his arms. He fit her body so perfectly and embraced her so comfortably that she thought she might know him.
“I love this song,” he whispered, his breath warm and moist in her ear. She thought his breath purveyed the scent of warm, baked apples.
“I do, too,” said Bridget, resting her head against the boy’s shoulder. “It’s my favorite.” He pulled her closer.
“Do I know you?” she said. “You seem so familiar.” The boy didn’t answer but in a strong voice he spoke the words to the song into her ear.
“You really do.”
“I had to be here, tonight. I didn’t want to disappoint you again.”
“I brought a corsage, for the best girl.” He unpinned Bridget’s wilted corsage, replacing it with a floret of white gardenias. The scent was overpowering.
Bridget turned her head slightly. She thought she saw a dark stain around the boy’s suit collar. It seemed like an old suit, maybe a bit musty with mothballs, just like hers. The song ended but the boy held on, apparently waiting for the next tune. Elaine, who had been dancing with another girl across the room, stumbled up to them, giggling about something. “Let’s take a selfie,” she said, whipping out her I-phone. She stood between Bridget and her partner and snapped the picture. “Wait, you’re Bonnie and Clyde,” she said. “Let’s get a picture including the Tommy gun.” She ran, dragging her cat tail, to the table where Bridget had hidden the toy gun beneath the table cloth. She ran back, and posed again between them, handing the Tommy gun to Bridget. She snapped the photo.
“There,” she said. “Let’s see how they came out.”
While Elaine fiddled with the camera, the boy turned to Bridget. “Thanks for the dance, he said.” I hope to see you again soon.” He turned away.
“Wait,” said Bridget, but the boy was already walking out of the gym. She turned to Elaine. “What a sweet boy. And who’d have ever thought he would come as Clyde.”
“Good thing we got a picture,” said Elaine. She scrolled through the photos to see what she’d captured. “Funny,” she said, “It’s only me and you.”
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories, and more Halloween stories all month, in our mystery section.