Fiction / Posted on

Try On a Mask

Written By Douglas Ford

In the daytime, the masks lining the wall of Clyde’s Barber Shop garner little, if any notice. At night, on the other hand, they draw the eye. Maybe it’s the lighting. During closing hours, Clyde keeps a single light burning, positioned to maximize the illumination of the masks, causing their faces to jump out in the darkness. They stop people in their tracks.

Just ask the sheriff’s department about those after-hours calls. “No, sir, those are not decapitated heads on the wall. No, Clyde the Barber ain’t no serial killer. He’s just a barber, and those are just rubber masks on Styrofoam. Yeah, I’m sure. Go home and sleep it off, ok?”

Those calls get irritating, especially since no one says boo about those masks in the afternoon hours. Come in to Clyde’s shop for a shave and a haircut, and you might not even notice them up there, lining the shelf on the north wall. You practically have to point them out to patrons as they slip Clyde an extra $5 for doing a good job on the neckline or for using a hot towel after a straight-razor shave. Those shaves keep people coming in and have made Clyde the Barber famous. Those shaves feel mighty fine and make customers feel so relaxed that you can hardly blame them for not paying attention to the masks. Some customers might even forget that they didn’t come in alone, that someone waits for them, someone not immune to the lure of the masks. “Huh,” says one dad when his kid tugs on his arm and points up at the shelf. “Oh, those are just masks, kiddo. See, that one’s Elvis. That one’s John Wayne. And that one is—wait, I don’t know. Who’s that one, Clyde, the one with the hair?”

Clyde the Barber scratches his chin and says, “Oh, that one?  Let me think.” Then he snaps his fingers as if he’s just remembered, not that anyone would buy this performance. “That one’s Harpo Marx. You know the Marx Brothers?”

He says this to the boy who only knows the names of Pokemon characters, as one would expect from the state of things. Speaking of names, the boy goes by Sam, his dad, Roger.

Not knowing the answer to Clyde’s question, Sam still appears charmed and expresses a desire to try on the mask.

“Now, that’s a big request to make,” says Clyde. “Those masks have lined the wall ever since I ran a magic shop inside these doors.  I’ll bet your dad remembers those days.”

“Roger that,” the father says. He likes to use his own name to answer in the affirmative, and despite the state of things, he feels good right now. He feels renewed, no matter what else is going on, and he owes it to Clyde’s famous towel shave. In reality, he doesn’t remember any magic shop, though he’s heard talk from the older generation that Clyde did in fact used to run such a shop where a few pennies could buy you a deck of magic cards or a trick coin. Where the masks sit now once stood a stage where Clyde would perform his own magic in the after-hours, a show that culminated in him sawing a girl in half.  Word had it that once he “reassembled” her, she’d lose her clothes and come out in her birthday suit, and the old timers would wiggle their eyebrows when they hinted at what came next. Apparently, the end of those good old days necessitated that Clyde settle down to something more respectable. More useful. He made reinventing himself look like another magic trick.

Clyde says, “I’ll make a deal with you and your daddy. If either of you can tell me what these faces all have in common with each other, I’ll take down old Harpo here and let you try him on.”

The boy and his father look at Clyde, and then they look at each other. No way will the boy know. He says, “I don’t even know who any of them are.”

“That’s a clue, actually,” says Clyde the Barber, and he looks at the father meaningfully.

The father bristles a bit at this pressure. It feels all too much like school, the source of some humiliating moments when his teachers asked him questions he could not answer—not because of stupidity, mind you, but mostly because his own father insisted he spend a good many hours learning to work with his hands, and who has time for a Marx Brothers movie when you feel so exhausted after a day of raking and mowing and hoisting that you can barely keep your eyes open, much less study or pay attention to some old movie. Not this guy.

Sensing the tension, the boy pipes in with an answer. He doesn’t want his dad getting stroppy with this nice man who cuts hair so well. In fact, that gives him his answer. “They all need haircuts.”

“Well, now,” Clyde says, his eyes going wide, “that is an intelligent answer. I must say I am impressed by your acumen.” His eyes drift toward Roger, conveying a message that Roger loathes. He’s calling me stupid, he thinks, right in front of my own son. “That’s not the answer I had in mind, but I’ll grant you,” says Clyde, pointing up at the line of masks, seventeen of them total, “indeed, I will grant you that they certainly do need haircuts. As astute as your answer may be, I’m at pains to say whether or not that’s sufficient to get me to take down the mask so you can wear it.”

Later, Roger plans to recount to his buddies how this barber talks. Everyone talks about how great those hot towel shaves feel, how close he gets with that razor, but has anyone really engaged this barber in conversation before and learned what a stuck-up creep he sounded like?  A normal barber has a ball game going and you can talk a little politics, as long as things don’t get too controversial. No way should your barber sound smarter than you, just like no way should a son sounds smarter than his father. Just how things ought to go, or so his old man taught him. He remembered how his own dad would say it: Live by these simple rules:  one, don’t mouth off.  Two, wipe your own ass. And three, never try to be someone you’re not.

Having endured enough of this conversation, Roger almost pulls Sam’s arm toward the door, when the boy speaks up again.

“They’re all dead?”

Clyde the Barber positively beams now.

“That’s the answer. Precisely the right answer. Now, bear with me as I go get a ladder.  You’ve earned the right to wear the mask, something that hardly ever happens. You’ll have to assist me though since, as you’ve already observed, it does need a haircut.”

~~~

To understand how different Clyde’s Barber Shop looks at night, it helps to remember that he used to sell magic, not haircuts. When the sun goes down, and Clyde turns off all the lights but the ones that illuminate the masks, it seems to revert to its original purpose.  It becomes a portal to the past. Just imagine its effect on the inebriated.

At a certain hour, only the inebriated pass by the window and take a look in.

Most of the businesses that make up the west side of main street sit under one roof, at one point that of an old Spanish-style hotel that served visitors in the early 1920s. The Great Depression led to the hotel closing, and its windows remained boarded up for two decades before someone got the idea of revitalizing the area by leasing out the building for shops, restaurants, and bars, with the latter achieving the most longevity. Clyde’s magic store didn’t quite make it, though some of the older citizens recall the performances Clyde arranged with a great deal of fondness. Take these reminisces with a grain of salt, however, as these old-timers recollect seeing these shows at a young age, and while estimates of Clyde’s current age remain uncertain, he can’t be that old.

Alcohol blurs memory, dulls one’s perception of ordinary reality. All that jazz.

Consider the drunk calling the sheriff’s office. “Those ain’t masks,” he said to the deputy who tried to speak rationally to him. “Those are faces.  Real faces. And they’re moving around the shop like they have business to do. Place is full of smoke, and I think maybe it’s on fire. But when I get closer I figure that no, Clyde has some kind of after-hours party going on.”

“It’s almost Halloween,” the deputy said. “I bet that’s exactly what you’ve come across.”  The deputy even made a note on the writing pad next to him, reminding himself that he ought to go down there and make sure no laws were being broken.

The caller brushed this off. “I thought of that.  But I pushed my face up against the glass, thinking they got a little bit of that old hoochie coochie going on with a fog machine or something.” The caller paused to stifle a burp. “Only something came up out of the smoke or fog or whatever it was and pressed their face right back against my own.”

The deputy tapped his pen on the pad of paper, waiting to hear whatever else the drunk had to say. “That it?” he asked when the silence went on for too long.

“No. The face was one I knew. It didn’t look right at first because the body didn’t fit the head right. The arms and legs looked all out of proportion. The eyes of the masks looked all black—not like black holes, but moving, rolling, twitching darkness. The face, though, I recognized. It was that kid who got sick and died.”

~~~

The boy gets his choice of mask, and he considers his options carefully. Clyde the Barber shows no evidence of impatience as the seconds tick by. Standing on top of his step ladder, he picks up each mask and extends his arms down so the boy can scrutinize each one. He studies five of them up close before settling on the Harpo mask.

“Excellent choice,” says Clyde. “He needs a haircut more than any of the others.” He removes the mask from the Styrofoam head as the boy and his father watch. The father can detect nothing funny about the mask. With its long pointed nose and empty wide eyes, it looks like some kind of demented old witch, not a funny man from black and white movies. “Are you ready to help?” Clyde says to the boy, and before the boy’s father can ask what that would entail exactly, the boy nods, and Clyde slips the mask over the boy’s head.

Topping the child’s body, the mask makes his head look comically large. It reminds Roger of the one time he went to happy hour with Dennis, a guy at work he knew only casually. Returning from the bathroom he saw someone sitting on his barstool he vacated only temporarily, right next to Dennis, and instead of just acting casual about it, he gave the interloper a good hard poke on the shoulder. The face that turned to meet his looked startled, but also somehow inflated, with comically bugged-out eyes and a turned-up nose, and Roger couldn’t help but laugh as this person jumped off the stool and slumped away. Who’s the leper? he said when he resumed his seat, too late to process Dennis’ shady look. That’s my fucking son, Dennis said, practically spitting. No more happy hours with Dennis after that, and Roger continued to know very little about his co-worker, except what he said to Louise when he came home.  How could I have known he had a retard for a son? To which she replied, Because you’re emotionally dead inside, just a dead, dead shell.

Wearing the mask makes the boy look alien, but Clyde doesn’t hesitate, plopping the booster onto the barber chair. “Saddle up,” he says, and the boy trots over as commanded.  Roger wonders how he can see with that big thing covering his head. The eye holes hang down closer to his cheeks—not that he can see anything flesh colored. Only blackness fills those holes.

Clyde the barber positions himself behind the mask while the dad decides what the hell and sits down with a copy of Sports Illustrated. He struggles to concentrate on the magazine’s contents, just flips through pages mindlessly, not really seeing anything, drawn instead by how Clyde welds his scissors. When he begins cutting, his arms move in liquescent motion. Maybe because of the angle of his view, it looks to the boy’s father that the scissors don’t make actual contact with the hair. Nevertheless, the blond locks glued to the mask fly off with amazing frequency.

When Clyde the barber finishes, he can’t stand the sight of his son. He also can’t look away.

Barely any hair remains on the Harpo mask, just short wisps and clumps. It looks like no one—in fact, no thing—the father has ever seen. The mask appears decadent, ugly. If an actual person bore that face, it would be impossible to consider him alive. Somehow the hair cut has changed the mouth. He could have sworn that the mask held a grin not long ago, but it now turns down at the corners and seems to gape wider.

On a living person, that face would suggest something that lived on human flesh, thinks the father.

He reprimands himself for such ridiculous thoughts when he sees the boy’s response.  Sam tilts and turns his face in the mirrors. He holds up his hand in a thumbs-up gesture when Clyde stands behind him with a hand mirror so he can study the back.

When the boy jumps off the chair, Roger catches him by the arm. “Time to give it back, ok?”

But the boy pulls away and says something muffled by the mask, Roger knowing defiance when he sees it. He starts in with a threat about what will happen if he doesn’t take that mask off right now and give it back.

Only Clyde the barber interrupts by placing a hand on the father’s shoulder. “It’s ok,” says Clyde, “he can wear it home. I’m not worried about it.  In fact, it doesn’t even need to come back—provided of course that I can procure a replacement.”

“You need another mask, you’re saying? You expect me to buy one?”

Clyde the barber shrugs. “Masks of this quality are rare today. I don’t see how you could.”

Still trying to pull away, the boy grunts and growls. He manages to inch closer to the door and open it partially with his foot. The mask doesn’t look like quality to Roger. It looks ruined, the face even more witchlike than before.

“Just let him wear it home,” Clyde says with a shrug. “I’ll settle up with you later.”

Before Roger can reply, Sam breaks his grip and dashes outside, running up the thoroughfare to Main Street. The boy’s speed surprises the father. For so long, he has wished for a son who shows some sign of athletic prowess or inclination, but the boy’s lack of interest, not to mention his clumsy slowness and his proneness to broken bones and injuries, has left that desire unfulfilled. Now he ducks and weaves around pedestrians taking a Saturday stroll along the sidewalk, the father doing his best to catch up. “Grrrr,” the boy says as he looks up at a random face before breaking off in a new direction, pausing briefly to look up at a different face.  “Grrrr.” Some of the adults react with feigned horror; others appear to find him genuinely unnerving. The father hears himself wheeze. Decades ago, as a running back, he led Vissaria High to its best season ever, but too many beers and smokes have turned him into wheezing, overweight shadow of his former self. Still, a sense of exhilaration mixes with his frustration as he struggles to stay in pursuit. Each time he comes close enough to touch the boy’s shirt, Sam jukes in a new direction, stopping again before yet another adult. “Grrrr.” Prior to this the kid would barely run at all, fearing a fall, a rip, or tear, and now Roger can’t tell if he wants to throttle him or cheer him on.

By now, a small audience has formed. In the middle of that crowd, the boy stops dead in his tracks, turns, and faces his father. When Roger catches up, still huffing, he reaches out, still not sure if he wants to pound him or slap him on the back, or both. What the boy does next doesn’t help.

Sam reaches out with his own hand, as if to grasp his father’s.

Turns out he doesn’t want a handshake.

It’s bait.

When Roger reaches out to grab his son’s hand, Sam hooks his leg over the outstretched hand and crosses his arms over his chest.

And the audience cheers.

Roger drops Sam’s leg and begins to stammer, half telling the crowd to pipe it, half telling his son to cut the shit. To everyone, it looks like part of the show, so they clap louder, and Sam takes a bow.

When they finally disperse, Roger grabs Sam’s arm to walk him in the direction of the car.

But first the mask. It needs to come off. It needs to be returned to Clyde the barber.

When Roger reaches for it, he feels something bite him.

Not Sam. Sam can’t bite him through that thing.

He can’t shake the feeling that the mask has bitten him.

For now, he decides, Sam can wear it. He’ll deal with the mask later.

~~~

During dinner, Sam refuses to remove it. Before him sits an untouched plate of pork chops, mashed potatoes, and mixed greens.

His father knows a protest when he sees one, but he can’t tell if the boy is rejecting the food because of the mask, or if he won’t remove the mask as a consequence of his rejection of food. The situation would strike him as comical if not for the bite marks on his hand. He still can’t piece together how that happened, what with the way the mouth of the mask hangs at neck level. Time for his mom to deal with the problem.

Only she doesn’t eat either. Elbow on the table, her face in her palm, she studies the mask. “Who’s it supposed to be again?” she says.

“Harpo,” says Roger.

“I don’t know who that is.”

“Old time funny guy. Played a harp, I think.”

“Huh,” she says. “You got anything funny to say, Harpo?”

The mask looks at Diane, the boy’s mother. “Grrrr,” it says.

“I don’t find that funny at all.” To Roger, she says, “You think that’s funny?”

Instead of answering, Roger holds up his hand, now marked with red and purple indentations.

“Ouch,” Diane says. “You do that to Daddy, Harpo?”

Instead of flesh colored, the mask looks increasingly gray, as if the exposure to the humid outdoors released it from eternal preservation and brought on accelerated rot. It seems to have lost more elasticity too, the jowls drooping and the skin over the eyes hanging in thick rolls. No voice responds. The mother and father eat slowly and do not look at each other.

“You hardly spend any time with him, and when you do, you bring him home wearing this,” Diane says.

“He wants to swelter behind that thing, let him.”

“You should take it off.” Diane speaks without looking at the boy. “Roger, you should make him take it off.”

“Your turn to get bitten.”

Diane looks like she might reach for the mask, but her hand remains still.

“Where’s my beautiful boy?” she says.

Then a thought seems to form, as if a voice has whispered an answer in her ear. She puts down her fork and looks at Roger with a sharpened expression. He knows this look. It happens more and more frequently, building to something he knows will prove liberating and terrible at the same time. He hears no voice, but somehow he can read the thought before she can state it.

“It’s really him,” says Roger. “I swear. That’s his shirt. That’s the birthmark on his index finger. You think I’d what? Grab some kid off the street and play some kind of joke?”

“You’d do it. You know how much it would hurt me.”

~~~

After Sam turned two months old, Diane began suffering from a recurring nightmare that they brought the wrong baby home from the hospital. Sometimes she awoke screaming, and in her half-awake state, she accused Roger of deliberately engineering the mix-up. Instead of a baby, what they had was a tiny old man, with a wrinkled malformed face and rheumy yellow eyes. Roger tried to defuse this fantasy by observing that all babies looked like old men, theirs included. Rather than finding this funny or reassuring, Diane dared him to look in the crib at that moment and tell her what he saw. For no good reason, he hesitated, but he fervently denied harboring any doubts of his own. For one week, she refused to touch the kid, and every day Roger came home to find him screaming and wearing an unchained diaper. Pleas and threats did no good, she just wouldn’t snap out of it, and just before Roger resorted to harsher measures, she suddenly went back to normal:  the delusions suddenly went away, and they each silently vowed never to speak of it again—though Roger privately wondered if that week of neglect held some blame for his son’s diminutive size. In subsequent weeks, Diane poured through the pediatric reference book they received at a baby shower, trying to diagnose a reason for his slight stature.  Finally, Roger couldn’t stand it anymore, and during a brief and very regrettable moment, he lost control, grabbing the book from her and throwing it on the bar-b-que grill and dousing it with lighter fluid. An angry silence governed their time after that, but at least they learned to accept Sam’s brittleness as a sad fact of nature.

~~~

Dinner finishes quickly without further discussion and no further effort to remove the mask and cajole Sam to eat anything. Through tacit agreement, Roger and Diane decide that one missed meal won’t hurt the kid, nor would one night without brushing his teeth cause any extra tooth decay. The mask remains on as they watch game shows before bedtime, the light of the tube creating a strobe effect on the rubber thing still fixed to Sam’s face where he sits in the middle of the floor, the eye holes turned toward the flickering images, though Roger still can’t imagine the boy can see much because of the positioning on his face. Sam responds to any touch, any word with that growl, which seems to grow deeper and hoarser as the night goes on. Only a touch brings the growl, the boy remaining obedient and compliant about everything short of removing the mask altogether.

When bedtime comes and Diane announces the hour, Sam offers none of his usual complaints or entreaties for just a few minutes more. Normally, Roger lets Diane handle the tucking in and all the other bedtime rituals, but tonight he follows the pair down the hallway, and he stands in the doorway as Diane pulls the covers up the chin of the mask. The bedside lamp creates a pool of light that does nothing to illuminate the eyeholes, only makes them seem darker and deeper, and when Diane throws the switch, the ensuing darkness seems to spill directly from those empty holes. When Diane leaves the room, she pulls the door closed behind her as Roger takes in one last gaze of the mask before it leaves his view altogether.

~~~

The screaming happens before sunrise. It awakens Roger from a dream that will linger vaguely until its full recollection hits him days later. Once that happens, he’ll find it impossible to shake off. In this dream, they have lost their house, but instead of becoming homeless and forced to live on the street, they move into a much bigger home than the two-bedroom house they have known for so long. The house contains many floors and many rooms, but mold covers the walls and dust covers the furniture, none of which appears familiar to him. Uneven floors cause him to slip and stagger as he leads Sam by the hand toward the topmost floor where they hope to find a swimming pool. A harsh wind causes the walls to vibrate, and as they continue to ascend, the floors become thick with puddles of muck and dirt, sucking their shoes and making their feet difficult to lift. Don’t worry, says Roger, that’s because we’re getting closer to the swimming pool. A light above them indicates that they will soon reach the top, but once they reach the final landing, he somehow loses Sam. The boy simply disappears, and instead of stairs he comes upon a mountain of bones and gravedirt. As he climbs, a coffin becomes visible, and he realizes that the light he sees comes from candles, not sunlight, and he knows even before he can get close enough to see that he will find his son in that coffin.

With the screaming the dream vanishes, and at first he thinks that the awful sound comes from his own lips. He doesn’t understand at first why he would be screaming, and only when he sees Diane sitting next to him, eyes wide and terrified, does he understand that the sounds come from the other bedroom. Someone’s gotten in, he thinks, because no way would a small kid’s throat produce such a low, bellowing scream.

Turning on the bedroom light, they find Sam sitting up in bed, his hands pulling at the mask. The rubber has stretched even further since dinner. It hangs in a gray heap from the boy’s head, reaching his chest, the eyes now empty shapeless blackness. The room feels hot, and Diane shouts something about the mask suffocating him, so Roger reaches out to pull the mask off. Again, it bites him, the same hand, and he jerks it back, bleeding fresh again, and the screams grow louder and hollower, and Diane shouts at him to do something, do something, so he reaches forth again, this time with both hands, right into what he judges to be the mouth, so hard to tell for sure now, but when he feels the biting again he knows for sure—only this time he doesn’t jerk back. Instead, he begins to tear the rubber flesh, ripping it shreds and pulling it piece by piece from the boy’s face. Eventually, he sees Sam’s face come into view, only it looks like nothing like him. Somehow he is wearing a different mask underneath that one, the face of an old man, and Roger can only wonder who the fuck is this as Diane’s yelling grows into screaming as she struggles to stop him from tearing at the boy’s wrinkled, sagging flesh to find the real him underneath.

~~~

Rapid decline follows diagnosis. The doctors cannot explain why it took so long to identify the problem. They say, Usually signs of progeria show up much earlier—the first two years in fact. They show them pictures of other children suffering from this premature aging disease, their hairless heads oversized on small, frail bodies, wrinkled and veined.  Many of them, like Sam did after the last pieces of mask came off, suffer from blindness despite their prominent eyes. They say, It’s just rare to see these effects come on so quickly and then to have the victim go terminal so fast. They say, It’s small consolation, but signs were there: the frailty and poor motor control. They say, You gave him as full a life as you could.

Roger looks at the old man face in the casket and says over and over to himself, That’s not my son, that’s not my son. The boy’s face looks dried and withered with a pointy witch’s nose. Mourning alone, he stands in the funeral home while Diane sleeps through a cocktail of sedatives. He almost doesn’t hear Clyde the Barber breathing behind him.

“My sympathies,” says Clyde. One of his hands holds a satchel.

For a moment, Roger just glares at him. He wants to scream and rail at the barber. For days he has plotted his murder, even though the doctors swore up and down that no, it wasn’t the mask at all, this was the result of a defect in his son’s proteins, and then the explanation became so complex that Roger stopped understanding. Somehow, he knows the mask did it.

“I sense I’m unwelcome,” Clyde says.

“You can say that.”

“I don’t want to intrude. But I’m here because of the mask.”

Roger’s fists clench. He waits because he senses an explanation coming. Clyde approaches the casket, and Roger turns to look down with him.

Clyde sighs and puts a hand on Roger’s shoulder. Roger’s fists remain at his side.

“Am I correct that the mask is no more?”

Roger’s teeth grind before he can answer. “Yeah, it’s torn up.”

“It was old. Very old.  But you do remember what I said. That I would need to procure a replacement.”  He touches the boy’s face. “His will do.” He sets down the satchel and opens it. “You know what a death mask is?”

Roger watches Clyde the barber remove latex, silicone, plaster of paris.

“This won’t take long. Not when you don’t have to worry about breathing. You can watch everything I do. Later, you can come in and see it. I’ve left that space open. You know exactly where it’ll be. When you see it will have hair. Lots of it.”

Roger’s fists clench and unclench, but he does not use them. He watches the barber go to work.

“When it’s all done,” says Clyde the barber, “you can even try it on.”

Author Bio

Douglas Ford lives and works on the west coast of Florida, just off an exit made famous by a Jack Ketchum short story. He is the author of a recent collection of weird fiction, Ape in the Ring and Other Tales of the Macabre and Uncanny. His short stories have appeared in such venues as Dark Moon Digest, Tales to Terrify, Weird City, along with The Best Hardcore Horror, Volumes Three and Four. His novella, The Reattachment, was published in 2019 through Madness Heart Press, while his novel, The Beasts of Vissaria County, will appear in 2021 courtesy of D&T Publishing. In the harsh light of day, he sprinkles a little darkness into the lives of his students at the State College of Florida, and he lives with a Hovawart (that’s a kind of dog) who fiercely protects him from the unseen creatures living in the wooded area next to his house. His three cats merely tolerate him, but his wife is decidedly fond of him, as he is of her.