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Following this blog’s tradition, this is this year’s Halloween story. Enjoy!

Never Better

African Mask | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

African Mask Print by S.J. Fleck (fineartamerica.com)

“Hey, Pat.”

The sun in my eyes blinds me as I squint to see Anne approach. “Hey.”

She throws her bag onto the grass and sits down beside me with a little hop. “So, are you going to Sarah’s Halloween party?”

I let out a growl and roll my eyes to remind Anne how I feel about my nemesis. “Sure.”

“What are you dressing up as? I’ll dress up as Vampirela,” she continues at her usual machinegun speed before I can answer. She claws her fingers to strike a threatening pose. “Argh!”

I chuckle, her silly mirth contagious. “I haven’t picked up anything yet.”

“Well, you’d better hurry. Only three days left till Saturday. Why don’t you—” A bell’s shrill ring interrupts her. “Oops, gotta fly. Don’t wanna be late for math. Later!”

She flies off as I stagger to my feet and hoist my bag around my shoulder. I don’t care about being late, especially for math. Don’t care about school, don’t care about Sarah’s stupid party, either. She only invited me out of pity. Or to spite me. Everyone knows I have a monster crush on her boyfriend. Now that she and Jason are together, she wastes no opportunity to rub it in my face. Nah, this is one party I don’t care if I miss.

And let her know she got under your skin? a voice inside my head asks.

I recognize it immediately; it’s the voice of my prickled ego. What do I care what she thinks? She’s a cow.

And the rest of the class? You want everyone to know she beat you at your own game?

Screw them all. They’re a bunch of morons.

Whatever, the voice says. I can hear in its tone it knows the truth: it’s already won the argument. I’m going to the stupid party.

***

Saturday morning, I’m walking down to the mall. I still haven’t figured out what to wear. Just before leaving, my overbearing stepmother suggested I dress up as a ghost. She scrunched her perfect nose when I explained it made me look like an oversized tampon. She still had that disapproving look when I stormed out of the house.

Ooh, maybe you can dress up as one of the models from your brother’s magazines. You know, the ones he hides under his bed.

The thought of me in knee-high leather boots fails to impress me, although a riding crop might be useful for when I meet Sarah. I break into a naughty giggle. As I reject the silly thought, I glance at a store window. When did this shop open?

I step back and take in the rundown building. My brow furrows. Wasn’t this a coffee shop? Halloween masks, costumes, and antiques beckon me from inside the store. Without much thought, I push the door open and cross the threshold.

“Welcome to my shop, young lady,” an ancient voice wheezes. “The place where your dreams come true.”

I swirl around to find the storekeeper staring at me, rubbing his hands like a fly that has just spotted a particularly juicy insect. He looks like he just came from an audition for the lead part in Return of the Mummy. I stifle a sneeze. He smells like a mummy, too. In fact, the whole place stinks of ancient mold and dust.

I force a smile on my face. “Just browsing, thank you.” I sidestep him, taking care not to accidentally touch him, and run my fingers through gossamer fabrics so old they look like they might come apart in my hand.

I am about to leave when an African mask catches my eye. It is the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen; an elongated black oval face with puffy, slit eyes. Brown leather covers the nose and eyes. Thin knotted strips drape it, starting from right under the ears and continuing all the way down to the chin. It looks like it’s made of leather and wood. I cringe away. The thing gives me the creeps.

Which makes it perfect for Halloween.

I scrape away my disgust and pick it up. Surprisingly, no dust covers it, unlike pretty much everything else in the store. I turn it around to have a look at the interior. It is soft and surprisingly supple under my fingers. “How much for this?”

The storekeeper yanks it away. “That’s not for sale, young lady.” He places it behind the counter. “Masks are not to be put on lightly. Especially this one.” He lifts bloodshot eyes at me. “Now, can I interest you in something else? A zombie costume, perhaps?”

I almost shout at him that I want the mask, but something tells me he won’t budge. At the corner of the shop I spot a couple of dust-covered vampire suits, more gray than black, but pretend not to have noticed them. “Sure,” I say and wear my sweetest smile. “But do you have any vampire costumes instead?”

His face beams. “Of course.” He emerges from behind the counter to make his arthritic way to the tacky suits.

As soon as he turns his back to me, I snatch the mask and shove it into my bag, throwing a crumbled twenty on the counter. “On second thought, never mind. I gotta run.” I rush out  the door as he is standing in the middle of the shop with a confused look on his wrinkly face. “Bye,” I cry out and step out into the street.

I can’t believe I just did that! The rush overwhelms me. I break into uncontrollable giggles as I hurry down the street. As soon as I turn a corner, I stop and lean against the wall to catch my breath. I open my bag. The mask is even uglier in the daylight. Good. Perhaps it’ll scare Sarah.

I hop back to the house, my mission for the day complete.

***

Anne tugs at my arm. “Come on, show me your mask already, will you?”

“Just gimme a sec.” I fish it out from my bag with a dramatic flourish of my hand, savoring her gasp.

“That’s so… ugly,” she squeals and claps her hands. “It’s perfect! Where did you get it?”

“A new place on High Street. Where a coffee shop used to be?” Her frown reveals she doesn’t know what I’m talking about. “Never mind,” I say with a shrug. “What’s important is, it’s mine.”

“It’s so gonna freak everyone out,” she says, her eyes bright with anticipation. Her gaze travels down to her Vampirela costume and a look of disappointment washes over her face.

She pats down the flimsy fabric. If it was meant to be sexy, she’s definitely overpaid: it looks like an ordinary red T-shirt, only with a smudge supposed to be bloodied vampire teeth stamped on. I pity her for a moment, but my excitement over my perfect mask soon puts that to rest.

I turn the mask around and push it against my face. It feels warmer than I expected and pulses for a moment as if alive. It clings to my face like a second skin. I almost tear it off in shock, then shake my head, surprised by how natural it feels. “This is so cool,” I tell Anne, enjoying her envious look. “I can almost forget it’s there.”

“Let’s go inside already,” she snaps at me and pulls me away from the driveway and toward Sarah’s house. Loud music booms rhythmically, shaking the pavement in a furious beat reminiscent of African drums.

You must feel right at home, I tell the mask and I giggle as I cross the door into the house. A wave of euphoria hits me. Even seeing Sarah dressed like a slutty nurse and Jason as a very handsome sailor fails to jar me. Wait, are they arguing?

My heart skips a beat. I start a beeline toward them—very casually, of course—but Anne pulls me to the dance floor. “I wouldn’t know who you are if it wasn’t for your hair,” she shouts to be heard over the thundering beat.

I run my fingers through my curls and shake them loose, letting them drape over my shoulders. My blond hair is my signature; I want everyone to know who the girl with the coolest mask in the room is. I follow her to the dance floor and start dancing like I’ve never danced before.

Out of the corner of my eye, I catch Jason gawking at me. I put some extra sway in my hips, and his gaze travels down my body, catching at my twirling pelvis. Sarah turns her head to follow his eyes. Her face turns all crimson and she starts yelling at him. I can’t hear what she’s saying, but he throws his hands in the air in an exasperated way and storms out of the house.

I push away writhing bodies and rush behind him, catching up with him in the garden. The fresh air feels cool after the dance floor’s heat. He turns to face me, the fury in his eyes softening as soon as he recognizes me. “Jeez, Pat,” he says. “I almost didn’t know you with that mask.” His fingers trace the mask’s leather. “Where on earth did you come up with that thing?”

I laugh a warm laugh that starts at my belly and brings heat to my face. “Does it matter?”

He leans toward me and takes my hand. My breath catches as his lips brush against my ear. “Not at all,” he whispers. “But how could I kiss you if I wanted to?”

A feverish shiver tickles my spine. I place one finger under my chin to remove the mask, then realize my face will probably be a sweaty mess from all the dancing. “I’ll be back in a flash,” I say in a choking voice.

His eyes sparkle with promise. “Hurry up.”

I tremble as I find my way back into the house. Sarah’s crying in a corner, two of her best friends consoling her. She glares at me, her eyes shooting poison darts as I head into the bathroom. I ignore her and shut the door behind me, then drop my bag on the sink top and fish out my lipstick and makeup. I almost scare myself as I glance at the image in the mirror, the mask contorted in a terrible grimace.

I place my thumbs under my chin and push the leather away. It refuses to budge. I use more force until my skin feels like it is coming apart. With a satisfying sllllurp-plop, I finally pry the mask off. I let it drop into the sink, then grab the makeup.

The mask stares back at me from the mirror.

My fingers touch my face. Instead of my skin, they graze the mask’s leather. Behind the narrow slits, my eyebrows meet in a confused frown. My gaze travels downward, where the mask in the sink is still grimacing at me.

A second layer must have been glued underneath, I realize. Drowning a sigh, I use the base of my palm to pry it off my face. I push it away as my thoughts drift to Jason and what I will be doing to him in a short while. Sllllurp-plop. The second layer crashes against the mirror and lands atop the first one. There.

The mask is still staring back at me from the mirror.

My mind freezes.

Furious fingers scratch my face, leaving traces on the mask’s leather.

I howl in rage.

Just come off, you stupid thing! Jason’s waiting!

I push it away with all my force. Sllllurp-plop.

The mask is staring back at me from the mirror.

Sllllurp-plop.

Sllllurp-plop.

Sllllurp-plop.

Soon, the bathroom is filled with masks. They all seem to be laughing at me.

I scream and yank the door open. I crash into Anne.

“Hey, is everything all right?” she asks as she tries to sneak a look inside the bathroom.

I shove her away and rush downstairs, ignoring the stunned looks.

Jason is still waiting for me. He rushes to me as I storm outside. “Hey, Pat, is—”

“Shut up,” I cry out and run to my car.

I slam the pedal and screech away toward downtown. I swerve to avoid running over a bunch of kids dressed up as ghouls and zombies. I need to find the shop and ask the old geezer what the hell is going on. He has to get this thing off my face.

Moments later, I reach the place. I slam the brakes and almost lose control of the car, narrowly avoiding crashing into an empty bus stop. Where the old man’s shop was, the familiar coffee shop now stands. Where is it?

I shut my eyes, count to ten, and open them again. The coffee shop is still sitting there, its neon welcome sign mocking me. I jump out of the car and yank the shop’s door open. A pimply guy is gawking at me. The place is almost empty, save for an old woman sipping her coffee.

“Cool mask,” pimple-face says.

His eyes open wide as I grab his shirt and pull him to me. “Where’s the old man?” I scream.

“What old man?” he stammers. “Mr. Simmons,” he cries out, “there’s someone for you.”

I let him go. He runs behind the counter and cowers as a middle-aged man comes through a door at the back. “Is everything all right here?” he asks in an authoritative voice.

“Does it look like everything’s all right?” I holler at him, pointing at my face. “Where’s the ancient dude? What’d you do with him?”

“Calm down, young woman,” he says in a hushed voice and takes me by the arm, glancing at the customers. “You’re making a scene.”

I jerk his hand away. “Do I look like I care?”

He grabs me again, more forcefully this time, and pulls me to a corner near the old woman, who seems to be enjoying the unexpected show. “Look, I can’t help you if I don’t understand what the problem is. Just take a breath, will you?”

I follow his advice and draw deep breaths. They do nothing to slow down my thumping heart. “There was a shop here. Had old costumes and stuff.”

He points at the floor. “Here?”

I, too, point at the floor. “Here.”

His brow creases. “When?”

“This morning. It was run by an ancient dude.”

“Ooh, that sounds like Mr. Wilson,” the old woman chimes in. “His shop used to be right here. He had the loveliest antiques, he did.”

“That can’t be right,” Simmons says, shaking his head. “We’ve been around for over twenty years now, and I don’t remember any such place.”

The old woman’s chuckle reminds me of crackling paper. “That’s because it closed when I was still this young woman’s age.” She lets out a sigh and leans back in her chair. “Ah, that Mr. Wilson. He loved his Halloween pranks, he did. Always scared us little things silly. Would have loved your mask.”

“I don’t care about your trip down memory lane,” I snap at her. “Where can I find him?”

She tilts her head the way dogs do when you blow one of those weird whistles—the ones no one else hears. “The cemetery, I’ll bet. I told you, he was already an old man when I was your age.”

“You’re lying,” I screech and push my hands against my ears. “You’re all lying.”

I barrel out of the shop before anyone can stop me. Tears fly from my eyes, blinding me. I crash into a bike that sends me flying into the air. I thump my head on the coffee shop’s glass window and black out for a moment.

“Are you all right?” an anxious voice is asking over and over again, breaking through the fog in my head.

I moan to get its owner to stop asking me that darned question. I sit up with an old man’s groan. My whole left side is on fire. I rub it gently to get a feel of the damage. “What happened?”

“You ran out of the coffee shop and into my bike.”

The rest of his words fade away along with my pain as I stare into the sweetest pair of brown eyes; eyes filled with worry. A gorgeous guy is hovering over me, his hands patting me down. Were it anyone else, I’d jerk them away. In this case, I long to lose myself in his arms. My eyes trip up on the sharp angles of his face and scarlet heat warms my cheeks.

I toss my head and push a runaway lock of my hair behind my ear. My finger stumbles on the mask’s edge and a curse hisses past my lips.

“Here,” he says and reaches for the mask. “Let me help you.”

Icy panic claws at my heart. “No,” I shriek. Before I can stop him, he pries away the awful thing from my face.

His eyes widen and a smile crawls up his lips. “Now, what’s such a beautiful girl doing with such an ugly mask?” He tosses it to the pavement. “There. You don’t need that.” He takes my hand and helps me to my feet.

My gaze travels from his handsome face to the horrible thing on the pavement and back. “It’s… off?” I stammer.

He frowns in the cutest way and places a warm palm over my brow as if checking my temperature. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

I cup his palm with trembling fingers. I swear that I feel a spark the moment I touch him. My lips part in a wide grin. “Never better.”

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