The Halloween Mask
by Gary L Morton

Janice bit her lip, finding the taste of her life sour, and at a time when she really wanted something sweet and different, like Halloween candy. Mainly life was the middle-class illusion her husband Frank wanted it to be. She had fame as an actress but no one knew her real secrets. Frank had built her a self-image that was so polished everyone saw it instead of her face. On rare days when she thought of the grime of life, of its grim misfortunes, she equated it all with the crooked monsters lurking in her stained past. The past Frank liked to talk about . . . pills, prostitution, and the vomit of back-street poverty. Frank didn't like anything that couldn't be polished clean, and he saw her past that way. He thought it would be nice if computers somewhere would sand the rough edges off life. Perhaps turn all the gray hairs to fine silver and rubbish into pretty autumn leaves. It would be that way in the future. The way Frank saw it the future would be heaven and heaven was a clean suburb from beginning to end. A sanitized place where wealthy young married couples could frown at the misfits presented on American TV shows and complain about high taxes and poor people who took government handouts but no responsibility for the mess they'd made of their lives.

Janice knew Frank saw her as a throwaway model who adjusted well to his whims. He believed she'd been lucky to hook a husband like him . . . a driving force that had made her a star -- if you considered a small weekly spot in a Canadian sitcom stardom. She also believed she had been lucky -- many women put out romance ads that asked for a man like Frank . . . executive, body builder, blue eyes, believes in Power Talk, sport cars and money. No woman would ever need a robot as long as society kept tossing guys like him off the assembly line. It brought a cynical smile to her face and she jogged up the path, now thinking of how his sexual performance never varied, but in the way the performance of a cyborg never varied. Frank really believed he was like all those men in fast fiction stories; guys with copper balls and penile implants of flexible steel. But he wasn't because even those shallow characters had some feelings and he didn't have any except for the anger and resentment he felt if she brought the subject up. And she supposed that anger would turn to fury when he found out she was leaving him. She even feared murder; her new lover was a musician, who didn't work or have an income. Frank could never bear the humiliation of it. But too bad for Frank, her lucky prince charming locked in his armour, whose luck had run out. She would find a way.

Sunset was falling from crimson to mauve, tinting the suburban perfection of her world. Runner's exaltation lifted her and she could've dashed right through the twilight to the golden mannequins of the moon. Janice could've gone that far if she was a little more agile. But she wasn't and a root hooked her foot, wrenched her ankle and threw her down mercilessly. She went skidding in wood chips and dust. A roll left her beside an enormous log, a smashed nature mural of autumn golds spinning in her mind. She touched her bleeding nose, and then the rest of the world lost its sanitized glow and evil appeared.

A grotesque mask looked down from above. She could see it hidden in the foliage and limbs of a gnarled oak. Wind-tossed shadows made it impossible to see if it had a body, but it twitched like a living face. The fire of sunset reflected in its eyes and brought back memories. As a teenager she'd had a Halloween mask just like it - a handmade thing with the same features. She'd believed in witchcraft then and had fancied herself a white witch. It was laughable now, a silly teenage fantasy -- she used to set it so smoke would drift from its mouth and scare her friends when she cast a spell. Nowadays she never thought long enough to believe or disbelieve in anything. Religion and the real occult were too heavy to contemplate, but she knew she didn't believe in Halloween. Witchcraft, well, she wasn't sure: she'd been a teen gal living in a rundown house with alcoholic parents while all her friends were rich. At least as a witch her friends would visit and be enthralled by things other than the shabbiness of her room. Dreams of all the things she lacked had always been there in the flickering of candles.

True, there was nothing worth believing in any more, maybe her musician for a while -- Janice was a woman who wanted attention all the time, and Frank did provide that, though in a negative way. She supposed her musician would be all love and attention for a while and when it was gone she'd have to leave him, too.

With that settled her vision cleared and the mask was still there in the tree -- looking impossibly alive . . . so regardless of what she wanted to believe in she had no choice but to believe in it. It was just plain ugly, a Halloween thing; how could she have liked it as a teenager? But she'd been a different person when she was young, full of vigor and superstitions; remembering it made her feel like someone else. She had changed so much she'd practically died.

Its stare was hypnotic, she felt haunted right through to her bones - something pressing and paralyzing like an invisible web or grid of steel wire touched her. Her horror turned to fascination and she watched without gasping or screaming. It began to move and now she could see that it was more animal than gargoyle mask - the semi-human face was like some bizarre form of camouflage . . . like the faces that would form in its smoke in her teenage years. The body didn't have any final form, seeming to be more effect than physical reality. It moved in the branches with the agility of a cat or squirrel, though it looked to be as big as a bear. On the way down it slid on the trunk like a snake or a lizard, stripping off loose leaves in its path. Some moments it had the shimmer of wet fur and others the gleam of snakeskin and armour. When it came up close it seemed to be crawling out of another blurred dimension -- the hair-raising electric slithering noises it made lending power to that illusion.

With the quickness of death and horror it leapt on her, seeming to shrink as it smothered her face. She began to choke, her head filling with a foul odor that made her think of bear piss, and she felt a sharp object, a needle drive through her skull. Then the creature slithered off her face, like a soaked pelt, trailing blood and brain matter as it moved to her thighs.

Nestled there it was wet, sharp and cold. She could feel nothing but it, and the heat was an emanation from its fiery eyes. The stare was as hard as diamond drills and cruel. With certainty she knew this thing was much more intelligent than her. It had cunning and knowledge, a mind of charcoal, shadows and secrets.

Her secrets! These were her own eyes. Deep bat-clouded caves. Now she screamed, a lung-ripping scream that brought raw pain to every nerve, and sent her mind tumbling into a slime-slippery tunnel.

She'd gained sudden and terrible knowledge and she knew the thing had passed it to her. It had sucked out parts of her brain and used them to build a cave; a place that contained every foul moment and every vile deed. It was a cave made of the black half of her soul. A dark Halloween where creatures could hide, watch and exult as she cowered and retched before the torn viscera that remained of her life.

Footsteps thundered; a maggot-dripping corpse walked in the blowing cobwebs. It was a man; her husband, Frank, and he had really died a long time ago when he stopped loving her. His eyes were black -- pits sucking her down, reading her mind. She felt fury devouring her, because now he was laughing at the secrets she'd so painstakingly hidden. She longed to destroy him, only the Halloween thing made her aware . . . that Frank was destroying her. It showed her every petty thing he'd ever done and from the first when he'd been a john with the idea of making her an actress. It was a parched and crushed world he'd given her, as hollow as the emptiness of his dreams. Without words, with silence, the thing showed her how he had made her shallow, loveless and emotionally dead. Then it let her see her body and how he was destroying it . . . lines, wrinkles . . . .

Flowered with blood, rot and torn flesh, her body writhed. The thing moved, then Frank vanished from her mind and the cave loomed up again. She saw the gargoyle face, a mask of bone and hide that'd been unhinged and tilted back, revealing green eyes set in blue-veined tissue. Enormous white tongues spilling from a black orifice slithered on her skin from her thigh to her throat. Her body was bleeding and she understood that the creature was cleansing her.

"God, what are you?" she gasped.

"Be me," it whispered, and for a moment she became a strange animal, licking blood from her body with a hundred tongues. Then she saw it suck its tongues in, press its face up and hinge it back on.

Cool air dried the moisture on her skin as it slithered away into the trees, climbed the branches and took form as a mask. Its eyes flared with autumn twilight and it made her remember . . . remember her spells, pentagrams, and how as a teenager she'd created it and used it. The mask had been her pet, it had done evil for her, and then one day after she'd run away from home it had left her. And she had entered the misery of adulthood and vanquished all memory of it from her mind.

Now the mask was back, it was Halloween again, and it had returned because Janice was its goddess and creator. When she stood up she was naked, and healed. She was a teenager again. Frank was no longer part of her body or her soul. And it didn't seem strange. For a time she'd been in the mind of the masked thing, and knew it was better to be loathsome than shallow, bland and weak. She grinned then she bent down and picked up a stone and a piece of broken glass. Twilight filtered through the leaves and she looked up, enraptured. It was a lovely evening; she could already hear the gleeful voices of kids trick-or-treating . . . an evening perfect for strolling naked in the woods and just the right time for killing Frank. Tonight she would wait for him in the garage, beat him with the rock, use the glass to tear out his eyes and bring his corpse as food for her Halloween thing. His head would make a fine ceremonial skull. Grinning, she thought that perhaps her little demon mask, the thing, had turned her into another thing, and the same could be said for Frank because he was a monster about to become a corpse thing