The Mask

Oct 24, 2018–Note: As a treat for the season, here is a story that won a newspaper Halloween writing contest. While written in 1982, it now feels uncomfortably true.

It was uncomfortable inside the mask.

Though the cool autumn air swirled through George’s thin clothes, sweat rolled down his brow and stung his eyes. Not that he could see that well anyway, inside the mask. The eyeholes were cut too low, so his view of those around him was limited to the waist down. To see anyone face to face he had to lean back, stick out his chin, and push the mask up on his forehead. Even then he felt as if he was looking through two keyholes.

“Rrrr foofoo hink wozoog hex?” The noise came from behind.

“Huh?” he asked as he twisted his head backward and sideways, tugging on the mask to bring the two holes to his eyes.

“I said,” repeated Chad slowly, ‘Where do you think we should go next, George? It’s already 8 o’clock and we’ve only been to three houses.”

“Yeah,” added Russ. “All I’ve got are two dry cookies and some green taffy that’s stuck to the bottom of my sack.”

“Right,” agreed Chad. “Let’s go over to those apartments by the shopping center where they give out real candy bars.”

George pulled one eyehole to his mouth. “We’ve got to go to Mrs. Beckley’s,” he pronounced, pointing to a small frame house sitting at the end of a cul-de-sac.

“Oh, no!” cried Russ in mock alarm. “Not another old lady! I can’t take any more mushy pears!”

“Or stale popcorn balls!” chimed in Chad, sending the two boys into a fit of laughter.

Come on, guys,” George said impatiently, brushing past his giggling companions. “She’s not so bad.” He pulled the mask up so the eyeholes were once again over his eyes and led the way up the sidewalk.

“Trick or treat!” three voices yelled as the door swung open.

There appeared an elderly woman with sparkling eyes and silver hair pulled neatly back.

“Why, hello, boys,” she said sweetly. “My, aren’t we dressed wickedly this evening. That wrinkled old face looks so realistic,” she added, gazing fondly at George.

“Come in, come in. Sit down over there,” she said, pointing to an old couch. “I have the treats, so you can save your tricks for someone else,” she chuckled as she disappeared into the kitchen.

The boys looked at each other and Russ wrinkled up his nose to indicate his guess as to what this lady would bring from her kitchen. George shot a warning glance, then realized that no one could see his face inside the mask.

“Here we are,” Mrs. Beckley sang as she swung into the room, carrying a tray with three steaming cups of hot chocolate. Russ and Chad leaned forward in anticipation.

“I thought I’d warm you up from the inside out tonight,” she said. “I do hope you like hot chocolate,” she added with a twinkle.

As she set the tray before them, Russ and Chad managed only a hurried “thank you” before raising the steaming drink to their lips.

“Here’s a straw for you,” she said, almost tenderly it seemed, to George. He thanked her, pulled one eyehole to his mouth, and started sipping the hot liquid gratefully.

A wave of relaxation swept over him as he finished the drink. He set his cup on the tray and sank back on the wide couch.

The mask seemed to be growing tighter, pinching his nose and chafing the skin at the back of his neck. He started to remove it, but after one half-hearted tug, the effort seemed too great.

He closed his eyes and soaked up the atmosphere while the others finished. The fading odors of hot chocolate mixed with the sweet mustiness that always lingers in old people’s houses. He nestled deeper into the cushions. Far off the faint good-byes of little boys and the muffled thud of a heavy door closing found their way to his ears. Soon only the sound of his gentle breathing and the rhythm of his pulse echoed inside the mask.

###

“Wake up, George. Wake up.”

Someone was jostling him from far away.

“Come on, George, you can’t be that worn out from Halloween.”

George opened his eyes and saw Mrs. Beckley hovering over him.

“You promised me you would help clean up this morning,” she said curtly. “It’s the least you could do, since you fell asleep on the couch last night and left me to answer the door all evening.”

George lifted himself groggily off the couch, surprised at the ache deep in his body, as if the bones were protesting some vigorous exercise he didn’t remember doing. Surely trick or treating couldn’t be that strenuous.

“I’ve started the water for you,” the lady continued, steering him to the bathroom. “A hot bath will perk you up.”

Meekly, George let himself be guided into the bathroom where he leaned on the sink and looked in the mirror. His head spun as he tried focusing on the reflection. As the haze cleared, he jumped back in surprise. A pale, wrinkled face stared blinking from the mirror. He had forgotten about the mask.

“My goodness, how hideous,” he murmured, slowly reaching up to pull it off. His hands felt only warm, yielding flesh, flecked with an overnight growth of stubble.

“What are you mumbling about?” The lady’s face appeared in the mirror behind him.

He stared dumbly at their reflections framed in the tiny mirror; a grey, old woman peering over the shoulder of a withered old man. A lifetime raced past, leaving wisps of memory dissipating in the steam of the bath.

“Nothing, dear,” he finally answered, looking quickly down at the floor.

He turned and hugged his wife for a long time.