Under the Mask

Priscilla ran for the witches’ house. The red cape of her costume fluttered and snapped behind her, caught up in the late October wind that tore down the poorly lit street. If she really was the super hero she was dressed up as she would have taken to the skies and flown away with how fast she was running. Of course, if she really was the super hero she was dressed up as, she wouldn’t be gripped by mortal terror at the things she’d seen crawling out of the sewer gratings.

Trick or Treating was supposed to be all about the treats. She’d waited all year, or at least since last Thursday to dress up and get her annual load of chocolate and sugary snacks. That’s what Halloween was about. The treats. People weren’t supposed to play tricks, that was just part of the saying, the magic words that people agreed on for conjuring forth Snickers and KitKats and Twix.

Someone had said the wrong magic words though, and that had conjured things that should never have been called into the world.

Some of the things had risen from the sewers, some had descended from the skies, and some had shaken off the disguises they wore that made them look like everyday normal people.

It was the things from the sewers that had gotten Priscilla’s father. They’d been going door to door when they saw a pack of little kids running and screaming. Her father had laughed. Halloween was the one holiday where screaming packs of children were both expected and encouraged.

He’d stopped laughing though when an arm made out of fishing line and old rags wrapped around his leg. He’d fought with the thing, punching at the arm as it knocked him down and dragged him towards the storm grating. The last thing he screamed at Priscilla before creature pulled him under was for her to run and she’d followed that command with every ounce of strength she had.

At first she hadn’t had anywhere to run, danger was everywhere, so she’d fled blindly, dropping candy and getting tangled up when her cape snagged on a thorny bush. She’d pulled herself from that when she saw the winged shapes filling the starry skies above. They were too big to be birds and too irregular to be machines. The creatures floated through the air as though they were held aloft by strings. There was no beating of their wings, no movement of their body at all except to drift in circles as though they were hunting for some particular thing.

Priscilla wanted to creep under a tree, or a bush or a car to hide from the flying things but, before she could, she saw a person coming down the road towards her. He looked like a man but he didn’t move like one. Every step he took was a painful lurching jerk, but each one brought him much closer to her than it should have, like he was stepping through a little more space with each tortured stride than his legs should have covered.

Between the monsters below her and the ones above, the sight of something so alien coming at her left Priscilla paralyzed with fear. Behind the man, the lights turned strange. Flashing bursts of red and blue that took her terrorized mind three shuddering breaths to put together.

The police had arrived!

Priscilla’s pulse started up again after a perilous pause. She knew if a police car was here that someone would save her. And then they would save her father. And shoot the scary things out of the sky.

She looked past the staggering, jerking man to see the police car cruising down the street. She was afraid for a moment that they wouldn’t see the man, or wouldn’t see her, but that was impossible. The beams from their headlights were shining on both of them.

But the police car was traveling so slowly.

Maybe they weren’t going to catch the weird man? Priscilla thought. Maybe he would get to her first? Except the police car wasn’t traveling slightly faster than that.

It caught up to the man.

Then it passed him.

Then it caught up to her and she was able to look inside it.

The front doors were missing. They looked like they’d been torn off.

And no one was driving it.

Priscilla watched as the car drifted past her and crashed gently into the telephone pole where the road turned. The light attached to the pole sputtered and went out a moment after the cruiser crashed. With only moonlight left to illuminate the street, it looked to Priscilla like the weird man started moving faster.

After that, running from him didn’t take conscious thought. Her body was in motion before she was even aware that she’d chosen to move. That was how she found herself running towards the witches’ house.

Priscilla’s neighborhood had always had witches, the same as most neighborhoods did. A house with a woman or two in it that the children could invent all kinds of spooky myths about. No one knew where the myths had started but Priscilla’s playmates agreed that if you talked to the witches in the big black house at the end of the street you’d be cursed. They weren’t sure exactly what the curse would do, but it obviously had to be bad. Make your teeth fall out? Make you fail your next three tests? Turn you into a toad?

Whatever it was, it meant that the witches had power though. Some primal part of Priscilla’s mind reasoned that it was worth being cursed if it meant being safe from the creatures that were stalking the night.

In her blind flight, she gotten turned around and lost, but the tall spires on the witches’ house made it easy to find even from a couple of streets away. As she ran for the big black house, Priscilla thought about going home. That felt impossible. She couldn’t go home without her father. She couldn’t lead all the monsters back there. The world seemed so upside down that there was no chance that home could be safe and she couldn’t face that.

Better that home not even be a part of this. Better that her mother be perfectly safe and sound. Or at least better that she was able to believe that might be true.

The witches’ house, unlike the rest of the houses on the street, was flushed with illumination and music when Priscilla reach it. She saw candle flames dancing in every window and in every color of the rainbow. From the rooftop spires, a gargoyle chorus sang a wordless tune that was riveting, exciting and terrifying all at the same time.

Before her, the iron gate to the house was swung open and on the porch an old brass bell stood with a sign on it that read “Pull Me!”.

Priscilla checked her running and came to a dead stop at the threshold of the iron gate. Going further meant talking to the witches and there was no going back from that. The monsters were terrifying but they were also new. They might be gone as quickly as they’d come. The witches, on the other hand, were old. They’d been in the neighborhood forever. For Priscilla’s whole life. They were definitely going to be there in the morning.

Turning away from the iron gate showed Priscilla only darkness though. All of the street lights were out. All of the lights in the houses were too.

And it was quiet. Apart from the music at the witches’ house there was nothing making any noise in the empty night outside the gates. Priscilla tried to face that. She tried to tell herself that if nothing was making noise that there was nothing to be afraid of.

She tried, but she couldn’t make that lie stand.

She crossed the threshold, ran to the bell and pulled it before she gave herself time to think about it any further.

The door to the house creaked open but instead of the old lady that Priscilla had expected, a high school girl greeted her.

“Hello Priscilla” the youngest witch of the house said. “Would you like to come in?”

Priscilla nodded. The witch knew her name. How did the witch know her name? Priscilla was sure that meant she was going to be eaten or worse, but the youngest witch led her to a room where a dozen other children were waiting.

“I’m sorry,” a grown up woman said as she walked into the room with a bowl filled with candy and snacks. “I wanted to have homemade cookies but the first batch turned out like bricks, so it’s just the store bought stuff.”

The grown up woman put the bowl down on the table in the center of the room and turned around to look at the children and inspect their costumes.

“Would you like to join us for goodies?” she asked as she opened the wrapper on a Tootsie Roll and bit into it.

Terrified though they were, the mandate of Halloween still held sway over the children and they all moved forward to grab some of the sugary loot before the bowl was empty. All except for Priscilla.

“There’s monsters out there,” she said to no one in particular.

“Would you like us to help with that?” an old lady asked her.

Priscilla hadn’t seen the old woman but there was no mystery to her arrival. She’d entered through the same door that Priscilla had and had come with an armful of water bottles for the kids to take.

“Yes,” Priscilla said. “I think.”

“Or do you want to fix things up yourselves?” the old woman asked.

“How could I fix things?” Priscilla asked, shocked at the mere thought of it.

“Yeah, how could we fix things? There are monster out there!” one of the boys who’d already gotten his candy said.

“Tonight’s a night when the normal rules are bent and magic roams the land,” the grown up lady said.

“So if there are monsters out there,” the teenage witch said. “Then there must be heroes in here.”

“How could we be heroes?” Priscilla asked. “We’re just little kids.”

“You’d have to take off your masks,” the old woman said.

“But before you do, you should know that you may not be able to put them back on afterwards,” the grownup lady said. “Or if you do, they might not fit quite perfectly anymore.”

“But my costume doesn’t have a mask,” Priscilla said.

“Oh, you’re all wearing masks,” the teenage witch said.

“No I’m not,” Priscilla said.

“Your name, your face, who you think you are, those are all masks,” the grownup lady said. “The real you is inside all of that and, tonight, she can be whoever she wants to be.”

“How do we do that?” one of the other boys asked.

“Give us your name,” the old lady said. “Then tell us who you really are.”

***

Later that night, as dawn began to tickle the horizon, a weary super hero flew back to the witches house. The monsters were gone, the people they’d taken rescued and order and safety restored to the world.

It had been a long night.

The superhero was tired and all she could think about was one thing.

Getting home.

“Can you change me back?” she asked the witches, sipping on the warm tea they had waiting for her.

“Not entirely,” the oldest said.

“You can be Priscilla again,” the youngest said.

“But you’ll never forget what you were tonight,” the middle one said.

“What happens if I stay like that?” the super hero said.

“Then you’ll always be a superhero,” the oldest said.

“But you’ll never be Priscilla again,” the youngest said.

“But do you really want to be her?” the middle asked.

The super hero thought about that. Flying was marvelous. Heat vision was amazing and being super strong was out of this world.

But there were too many parts of Priscilla’s life that she couldn’t let go. She didn’t want to give up her parents, or her family, or her friends.

“Yes, I do.” she said.

Priscilla walked out of the witches door as the young girl she’d been the night before, but she knew she’d been cursed after all. There was more in her than she’d ever imagined and while she might pretend to be just an ordinary girl for a while, she no longer believed there was any such thing.

 

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