Mother Night by Elizabeth Beck and Brandon Fritts

Diana was completely out of ideas and Halloween Night was only hours away. She hated the mass-produced junk at the pop-up stores that took over empty buildings in her town. They were a reminder of all the small shops that had shuttered in the drawn-out death of economic downturn. She preferred to spend time finding all the perfect components for the perfect costume, even though usually nobody but she knew the attention to detail. This year had been a failure. Time and money had been stretched and her creative well was a couple drops from dry. With a sigh, she resigned herself to plastic and one-piece getups two feet too short.  At least with her long black hair, she could easily accessorize herself into a witch.  Since she had determined this would be her last Halloween trick-or-treating, to say she was disappointed would have been an incredible understatement.

She turned her bike down the block that lead to the Halloween store when her chain suddenly snapped, almost throwing her over the handlebars.  As she hopped off to assess the damage, she heard faint music coming from somewhere nearby.  Diana quickly swiveled her head to try and pinpoint the origin of the fairly eerie music-box tune and wheeled her bike to the next shop up.  Trenshaw’s Treasures.  Huh.  She hadn’t heard about the new thrift shop.  It was definitely worth an investigation.

She locked her bike up to the nearest rack, once again reexamining the damage to the chain. It would need to be replaced. With a frown, she grabbed her backpack from the rear basket and headed toward the shop’s entrance. Pewter cauldrons of varying sizes adorned the window display, rubber spiders perched on some of the tops; brooms hung above in zig-zagging formations. Perhaps a bit kitschy, but Diana had not been here before, and she was too short on time to be picky. She opened the door and walked in.

The shop had that embarrassing tell-tale bell above the door frame, triggering as Diana made her way through.  She braced herself for eager salespeople, but when none approached, she felt relief.  There were rows and rows of slightly dusty items on what reminded her of old library bookshelves.  She made her way down the center aisle and was surprised to find a rather large desk at the end of the very last row.

“The owners must not be too concerned with shoplifting,” she mused.

A lone figure sat at the desk absorbed in a book.  He was a lean and tall man, with stooped shoulders, as if his physique had grown used to apologizing for its size.  Fine features in what one might call a hungry face.  Not unlike popular representations of the charming Eastern European undead.  Diana was struck by the realization that she was alone, in a place she had never heard mentioned before, and that no one knew where she was.  She unconsciously shifted her weight to her back foot, perhaps intending on retreat, when she noticed the title of the book he was reading.  It was a Danielle Steele.  Diana giggled, but quickly stopped as the man’s baleful eyes met her gaze.

“May I help you?”

She bit her lip in hesitation, and didn’t speak for several seconds. The shop owner lifted a single eyebrow, and seemed ready to ask another question when Diana abruptly blurted out,

“I need a costume.”

What compelled her to vocalize this, she didn’t know. But she had decided to take a chance on the shopkeeper, and hope for the best. The shopkeeper allowed himself a slight grin. His eyebrow was still raised.

“Well, you’re certainly in a good place to start. What sort of costume were you looking for?”

Ah, the one question Diana was unprepared for. “I’m not exactly sure…”

The man gestured sweepingly with his book. “You’re not short of options here.”  She took stock of the preponderance of decorations, accessories, and old, old things.

“How long have you all been here? I was down here last week and this was an empty storefront.  Are you seasonal?”

He smiled, obviously amused, “Yes, I suppose you could say that.”  If there was a joke, Diana wasn’t in on it.  He grasped her hand and shook it. “Mr. Trenshaw.  And you are?”  She hesitated, for some reason, she wasn’t comfortable having this man know her name.  “Diana, isn’t it?”  She had enough control of herself that she didn’t jump too far, though she felt as if she had had an electric current run through her.

“How did…” He gestured toward her black uniform shirt. She was still wearing her barista name tag.  Why was this man, this store, producing such strange reactions?

Mr. Trenshaw slowly withdrew his hand.  “As I said, you are in the right place.” He put his romance novel on the desk and stood up from the chair.  He was even taller than she had thought.  Moving toward the nearest shelf, he began rifling through the stacks.  “What kind of Halloween is it for you?  Ghost? Goblin? Witch? Princess? Warrior? Vampire?” At the last, he flourished a large silk-lined cape, shaking the dust off.  Diana couldn’t help but touch it.  It was a beautiful costume piece, almost too good to even be costume.  Certainly she couldn’t afford such a wonderful cape.  Sensing her hesitation, he slowly folded it back on his arms and stood there, looking at her, analyzing her.  “Perhaps this is not what you are looking for.”

She let out a small sigh. “Yeah, I guess I was looking for something a little more simple.”

He nodded his head, his eyes busy calculating, and put the cape back on the shelf.  “Simple.”  He strode towards his desk again and beckoned her with one crooked finger.  “Follow me.”

Though she wasn’t sure exactly why, she did as he bid.  Behind the desk, through what looked to be an office door.  Inside was a small but lavishly furnished bedroom.  So Mr. Trenshaw slept here as well.  She was suddenly nervous, but her nascent fears calmed when he went immediately to a large standing safe.

“I keep my favorite pieces in here.” He glanced at her over his shoulder while his narrow, tapered fingers clicked the lock back and forth in practiced rhythm. “And I can tell that you are a connoisseur.”

Upon finishing the combination, Trenshaw opened the safe door and gestured for Diana to enter.

“Ladies first.”

Diana took an audible gulp, but nevertheless was inclined to step forward into the safe.

“Masks?”

In the safe there were two large shelves, one on either side of the room. Lining these shelves were a voluminous variety of costume masks. All were rubber, and eerily convincing in their appearance of authenticity. Was that real horse hair for the mane? Those rabbit teeth don’t look like rubber or silicon. And surely that couldn’t be real blood staining the vampire’s chin. Diana was enthralled. She knew that neither her inexplicable fear of Trenshaw nor her questions regarding the details of the masks’ construction could dissuade her. She was leaving with one of them.

She was overwhelmed with choices when one in the back just caught her eye.  It sparkled darkly…dangerously.  She reached past three horrifyingly delicious specimens, tugged a bit, and brought it forward.  She gasped.  It was made of the most beautiful fabric she had ever seen, but she couldn’t quite name the color.  At first she had wanted to say it was black, but turned slightly one way or another, she knew that wasn’t true.  It shimmered with a rainbow of colors but with each turn, some would hide and others would shine.  Other than the remarkable fabric, the mask was quite plain; a vaguely humanoid face with dull features.  There weren’t even openings for the eyes or mouth.  Just how was one supposed to breathe in this thing?

The shopkeeper had been watching her closely.  “I see you have a very good eye.  You’ve selected one of my favorites.  It’s called…” and here he paused for dramatic flourish, “Mother Night.”  Diana stood there, unconsciously rubbing her fingers over the velvety fabric.  He nudged her elbow.  “Go ahead.  Try it on.”  She slipped it over her face and shivered as it settled into place.  For a moment, she would’ve sworn to anybody willing to listen that it had molded to her features.  It sure was a snug fit, if nothing else.  Surprisingly, she could see right through the fabric, and breathe, thank goodness.

“How does it look?” She was shocked at the strange way the mask changed her voice.  Made it sound low and husky, like a silver screen siren.  Oh yes.  This was the mask for her.

Mr. Trenshaw tipped it back so it rested on top of her curly black hair.  “Well, it seems to suit you perfectly, my dear.”  He drew his hand along the side of her face with an expression that looked almost wistful.  Diana chuckled nervously at the blatant invasion of her personal space.  She should be getting on her way, but she was afraid to ask the one necessary question.

“How much is it, sir?”

In response, he left the vault and began making his way to the front desk and she followed suit.  He pulled out an extremely large book from under the cash register.  He saw her questioning look.  “This is my receipt book for collector’s items.”  Diana stifled a groan.  There was no way she was going to be able to afford this.  He wet a pencil, turned a large vellum page, and began scratching.  “Name?”

“Oh, uh, Diana Highsmith.”

He nodded.  “Uh-huh, uh-huh. Age?”

“Sixteen, sir.”

“Contents of your messenger bag, there?”

“Why do you need…”

He sighed in a put-upon way.  “Part of the deal, Ms. Highsmith.  No questions, I’m afraid.  I don’t like haggling.”

“All right then.”  She plopped the canvas bag on the desk.  “I have a new tin of mints, a copy of Jekyll and Hyde, and twenty dollars.”

 Mr. Trenshaw finished jotting down the details. “What kind of mints?”  This had officially become the strangest day in Diana Highsmith’s life.

“Spearmint.”

He made a tic mark.  “All right.  For the Mother Night?  I’ll take half.”

Diana was severely confused.  “Half of what?”

He rolled his eyes in frustration.  “Everything of course.”

“So, ten dollars, half of my mints and…”

“Half of your book, yes, yes.  Do we have a deal?”

Diana could hardly believe her good fortune.  Her very weird but very good fortune.  “Yes, of course!”

“Perfection!  Now, if you’ll just sign here, next to the itemized list.”  He spun the book around to face her, set a pen on top, and dove into her bag.  “Let me see, I can make change for the 20 and oh yes, the mints, hee-hee, lovely.”

She heard the rattle of the tin as he took his share and the ripping of pages.  He was coming up for air just as she finished signing.  He gave her ten dollars back from the register and plopped a mint in his mouth, shuddering with pleasure.

“One last question, Ms. Highsmith…”  Oh.  She just knew there had to be a catch.  He carefully removed the mask from the top of her head.

“Paper or plastic?”  He grinned maniacally.

Once outside the shop, she realized she had never found the origin of the music that had drawn her in.  She furtively glanced back into the shop, but decided that on the whole, maybe it was best left a mystery.  She carefully placed the package in her bike’s basket and began walking it home, failing to notice the few faint notes that drifted from deep inside – muffled by tissue.