art by Shasta Lawton
It was a hot afternoon and her fingers were slick with sweat as she worked the shears along the edges of the glaring face. Today and tomorrow, it was Chun’s job to cut the faces from the dangling sheet of rubber.
Some factories had machines that did all that, her cellmate Bao-Yu had said. “But here we are the machines.” Bao-Yu was across the room from her, touching up the masks with spray paint. Chun wished they could talk, while they worked, but she wasn’t allowed to leave her station for hours yet.
They were in a Shen Yang labor camp, after all, not a regular manufacturing site, though in truth conditions weren’t much better in those other places. People got paid a little more, in an ordinary factory, and they worked perhaps twelve hours a day instead of the fifteen Chun and the others worked. And they weren’t likely to be beaten.
There was a hand operated machine in the main workshed that pressed out forms for the Halloween Masks, before they came here to Chun and Bao-Yu and the other girls; here the masks were trimmed, and connected to the straps that held them on the wearer’s head. The masks, it was said, were for the American custom of Halloween, and sometimes they reminded Chun a little of the images displayed during the Festival of Hungry Ghosts, to placate the lost ghosts of ancestors. But the American Halloween seemed to Chun to be something else entirely. This mask, intended for export to America, didn’t have the plaintive, pitiful look of a hungry ghost. This monster’s face was angry, cruel, wild, and absurd all at once. It was a furred man, partly wolf, its mouth agape to show fangs, its pointed ears tufted, the deep lines of its face suggesting it was straining with all its will to leap into the real world and kill whatever stood in its way.
She would have to trim more than a thousand of these today. Yesterday it had been a green-faced demon with bright red lips; the day before she’d assembled the plastic bones of dancing, mockingly hateful skeletons with glowing red eyes.
Today she seemed to feel the three years she’d been imprisoned here, and the three years that awaited her, like crushing weights. Her arms ached; it was mid afternoon, a long time till the twenty minute dinner break. Her mouth was dry. The Halloween masks were not just made of rubber, there were other chemicals in them too, and working around them for five days made her eyes burn, her fingers swollen.
Sometimes when she was feeling tired and sick it seemed to her that the Halloween masks sensed her vulnerability; and then, from the corners of her eyes, she could catch them looking directly at her, waiting for her weakness to increase. As if they were waiting for the right moment when they would snap their jaws at her…
The wearier Chun grew, the sharper the smell of rubber and chemicals, till she thought she might throw up. But last time she’d vomited on the job the supervisor had shouted at her, slapped the back of her head and said to stop malingering. If she slowed down her work too much, or went to the bathroom more than once a shift, he would jab her in the belly with his baton.
Did the people across the sea know how these masks were made? Did they know about the labor camps, and the factories where more such decorations were made…where those strange horrible bearded “Christmas” figures were sewn together, with the blow-up man in the white and red suit and black boots: the “Santa” who lived inside a transparent plastic globe, seeming to delight in a perpetual blizzard. Or the eyeless reindeer made of blinking lights. Did the Americans know about the people who worked so long, worked until they sickened, for so little, making these bizarre trinkets destined for garage boxes or landfills?
Chun reached up with her clippers to trim another face free of the sheet, feeling her joints grinding with the motion. She snipped it out and laid the limp, bestial face on the work table, face down, so that its inverted inner face watched her. She started to attach the flexible straps…and then the scene darkened, shrank to a murky picture at the end of a tunnel. She felt herself swaying, close to falling. She heard the supervisor shouting at her, telling her to stop pretending or he would get the electric shocker and really wake her up and…
She tried to focus her eyes. She was rushing down the tunnel, toward the mask on the table; toward its wide-open black mouth.
She didn’t really believe in the old ancestral worship her grandfather had practiced. But she didn’t believe in the People’s Republic, either. She had no one but her grandfather to call upon for help. No one but grandfather, and the ancestors, the lonely ghosts who looked for a chance to help so they would be set free from this coarse world…
So she cried out to them.
Use your strength, grandmothers, grandfathers—your strength is great! Use your strength to defend me!
Flying through whirling darkness, Chun called with all her soul, all the energy of her anger and all her frustration. She called to those who wait beyond the darkness…
The tunnel ended. She was back in the shed, still standing, staring at the face on the table.
Its mouth was moving. It was speaking to her…
“You have been heard. For many years they have called to us, without knowing it. Now your call has lifted their voices, so that we hear them clearly; it has lifted their masks of summoning. Oh how they tantalized us! Their icons cried out to us, but we could not respond. It was never quite enough. Something more was needed.
“But now we answer. You have given us what was needed. And now we will respond. You have called us and we will come to you.”
The Ouija board was a big-ass fail. Just a tired old disappointment. Maura got annoyed when Julie tried to force the planchet to form messages from her ex-boyfriend who wasn’t even dead. Apart from that zoggy bullshit nothing happened with the Ouija board.
“Ohhhh well, let’s do shots,” Gwen said, but that was pretty much her answer for any boredom challenge.
They were in the basement of Maura’s house, with the lights out and candles lit. All three of them in their lame costumes, sitting with big ol’ Gwen, the hefty Goth girl—not really fat, exactly, just big, with the bulk of a linebacker. And little Julie, a Filipino girl who was almost small enough to be a midget.
Cliff had said, “You could fit two Julies in a Gwen, you totally should, and have two friends in one, and save on ticket prices and shit.” Then he’d made that donkey sound he called laughing.
Mom had gone to a Halloween Party, one that Maura so totally did not want to go to, at the Stephenson’s house. It would be mostly middle-aged people playing old Alice Cooper songs and wearing costumes rented from shops. And anyway, Maura didn’t want to see her mom get drunk and whorey. Especially not at a party. Mom waited exactly one month after the divorce to start whoring around and sloppily draping herself on guys at parties. It was gross.
Then Mom would be hung over and insist on their going to Sunday mass so she could skulk into confession. Anybody within ten yards of the confessional could hear Mom crying in there. A real drama queen.
No, uh uh, not that party. But this wasn’t much better. Three teen girls wishing they were with three college boys instead of each other. Maura stuck in her Green Man costume, tights and a plastic mask with some fake plants stapled to it. The costume was left over from the school play, where they’d said, “You’re going to be the Green Man” and she’d said, “Can’t I be the Green Girl?” and they said no, that’s not the legend.
“We have lame costumes,” Maura said, looking at Gwen’s. “Julie’s is kinda okay but…mostly just lame.” Everyone was sick of zombies by now…
Gwen had wedged herself into a ridiculous Catwoman outfit from Batman Rising, a costume she’d mostly made herself that was only going to make guys snigger behind her back. And Julie was in her Evil Fairy outfit—she looked like Tinkerbell gone all zombie. They were drinking Jagermeister shots, which always made Julie sick. “If you drink enough shots, Julie,” Maura said, “you could throw up on yourself and it’d make your costume better.”
They all laughed at that. But somehow today Maura couldn’t feel like she was part of anything even while she was laughing along with her friends. Gwen and Julie both looked so loser. Julie was so eager to try to be “edgy” with them but really she was just another Catholic girl, planning to go to Community college, have a job in a dentist’s office, and then get married and have kids.
Who’s the losiest loser here? Julie asked herself, thinking of the song by Princess Doggie.
Who’s the Losiest Loser here
Who’s the one with facebook fake up
Who’s the Losiest Loser here
Who’s the one with fucked up makeup
“Maybe me,” Maura said, taking a shot of tequila from the bottle sitting on the Ouija board.
“Maybe you what?” Julie asked.
“Maybe I’ll get sick from mixing Jagermeister and tequila.” She did a shot. “Oh yuck, that didn’t go down good.” Her stomach felt like some hand was wrenching at it.
“What if your mom comes home early?”
Maura shrugged. “So what? She’ll be so drunk she won’t notice what we’re doing. Or she’ll pretend she doesn’t.”
“We could find a party, there’s some, um, somewhere,” Julie said.
“I don’t know. But there have to be. We can call around. There’s that Laura Ginsler party but she’s such a Miss Thang snobby-ass.”
“She is, too,” Maura said. “All T no shade.”
“I’ve still got half of that Hawaiian hesh ciggie,” Gwen said.
“Ciggie? Who calls them ciggies?” Maura said, rolling her eyes.
“You’re, all, like, in a bad mood,” Gwen said, rooting around in her pocket sized black taffeta trimmed purse.
“Yeah I am in a bad mood. You should like that, you being all Goth and stuff. Goths dress like bad moods.”
“No, that’s not what it is.” Gwen ran her stubby fingers through her red and black streaked hair. Then she went into one of her jolting changes of topic. “Oh! Let’s go on the roof!”
Julie blinked at her. “The roof?”
“Yeah! We can smoke up there and watch people on the street. We could throw water balloons at people. We might get some guys to come and check it out.”
“Oh god, listen to her,” Maura laughed. “You’re a worse whore than my mom.”
“Not worse than mine.”
“Your mom just sleeps with your dad.”
“Uh, hello, that’s what you think. Do you have a ladder?”
It was a little cold on the roof, but it wasn’t raining, and was, actually, pretty tight up there, Maura thought.
There was just one cloud in the blue-black night sky. “That cloud is shaped like a band aid,” Gwen said. And it was. The thin dirty-looking cloud was stretched over the blister-like moon but didn’t hide much. The cloud gave the moon a red halo, like blood on a bandage, and seemed to make the face of the man in the moon stand out more sharply, so you could see every bit of it, even the crinkle lines at the corners of his eyes…
Or maybe it was just the Hawaiian weed making it seemed that way. She saw the lips of the man in the moon move, then. Yeah, the hesh, probably.
She sighed and turned to look at Gwen and Julie. Gwen’s four water balloons were sacrifices made from the four condoms she kept in her purse. She’d carried them for months; hopelessly, really, so not much of a sacrifice. Gwen and Julie sat cross legged just above the front edge of the roof, their feet right by the rain gutter, looking down at the street. Across the street two groups of small children were walking along in costume, shepherded by parents and older siblings. The children tittered and waved their plastic candy bags. Some of them ran, and skidded to a stop when they were reined in by their parents. Orange glows studded rows of houses, irregularly, where people had put out Jack O’Lanterns. Across the street the Castlemans had a more elaborate display, with Styrofoam tombstones and one of those dancing skeletons with the glowing bones and red eyes.
“What if they dug down under those fake tombstones,” Maura said, “and found real bodies under each one?”
“Ha-a-a,” Gwen cackled. “That’d be awesome…”
“Who said that” Maura asked, looking down in the bushes. She half expected to see Cliff there, trolling them.
“Said what?” Julie asked, looking at her.
“I thought I heard a man’s voice say awesome after Gwen did.”
“She’s going crazy crazy cra-zyyyyy, ” Gwen chanted, making a scared face and pointing at Maura.
They all three cracked up at that. When that calmed down, Maura said, “That hesh is good. Is there any left?”
“Just a whatsit, what my dad calls it…a roach.” Gwen held it up in her black gloved fingers and looked at it so close her eyes almost crossed. “Teensy.”
“That skeleton can dance, like on a motor,” Julie said. “I didn’t know they could do that.”
“Oh yeah they got all kinds that move around now,” Maura said, suddenly bored again. “Skeletons that come down on strings and shit. Wish I hadn’t mixed Jager and tequila. I’m like, about to spout orange goo.”
“You feel sick?” Julie asked. “You should drink a glass of water.” Her mom was a nurse and some of it had rubbed off.
“You could suck the water out of one of these condoms,” Gwen said, holding it up seductively in her palm.
Maura laughed and then said, “Don’t make me laugh, I might puke.”
But that made them laugh more.
Maura looked back at the dancing skeleton Halloween decoration, and saw it was now dancing to the edge of the Castleman’s yard. “Wow it can move forward and backwards too, look…”
They stared. Gwen said, “Whaaaaaat? It must be on a rail or something.”
“Wow, that’s a good illusion,” Julie said. “Really really good. Looks so real.”
“I think you said the same thing three times, Julie…Oh! Here comes Cliff, get the condoms ready…”
“Eee-ewww, with Cliff?” Gwen asked, screwing up her face.
“I mean the balloons, retard.”
“I know you did. Here’s one balloon for you and one for you.”
Cliff was walking down the sidewalk toward Maura’s house. He was tall and awkward; he had narrow shoulders and wide hips and the sagging pants he wore, to be all hip-hop, just made his hips look worse. He had his hair teased up in a faux hawk and he was wearing his worn out Oakland Raiders jacket open over a Necro t-shirt. He had one hand in his coat, where he concealed a bottle in a paper sack, probably a forty of that horrible ale he liked. As he walked, Cliff kept staring at that dancing skeleton in the Castleman’s yard. The Halloween decoration looked like it was making little warning runs at him, as if it was preparing to rush him. He just looked at it and laughed. Even from here Maura knew he was stoned, the way he gaped and stared and laughed.
“He hasn’t seen us,” Julie said.
Gwen put a finger over her lips to signal for quiet, and then crept across the roof, hunched down, toward the porch, carrying the condom water balloon. She raised the balloon; it jiggled obscenely in her hand as Cliff walked across the lawn, just missing a patch of dog waste, toward the front door.
Then Julie giggled and Cliff looked up—he saw her. “Whoa, are you guys having a—”
Whatever stupid thing he was going to say was cut short by the impact of a water balloon, hitting him just above the crotch and bursting nicely. “My aim is truuuuuue!” Gwen shouted triumphantly.
Maura and Julie were throwing theirs; Julie missed, was probably not really trying to hit Cliff. Maura got him in the left leg as he backed away, hollering, “Oh that blows! You guys buh-low!”
“Trick or fucking treat, Cliff!” Maura yelled, laughing.
Then, backing up, he blundered right into the dog poo, and knew it immediately. German shepherd poo. Big. “Oh fuuuuuuuck! That so blows! Oh my fucking God! You bitches made me step in dog shit!”
The girls laughed, Julie with her hand clamped over her mouth, Gwen almost falling off the roof in her mirth.
“Use the hose to wash it off!” Julie shouted, tittering between words, pointing at the hose by the front door. “The hose!”
“No way! You guys are gonna nail me again!”
“We’re out of condoms, you’re safe, retard!” Maura yelled. “If we’re out of condoms we’re not safe,” Gwen said, as Cliff went to use the hose. “So sad. So sad.”
As if Gwen ever needs one, Maura thought.
She looked at Julie who was automatically covering her braces with her hand as she laughed at Cliff—he was hopping around on one foot trying to use the hose to spray the poop off a shoe.
A few minutes later, Cliff was on the roof, sitting with them, hugging his wet legs, his forty of cheap ale beside him. He’d gotten most of the poo off so he only smelled like it a little and the cloud of marijuana smoke he brought made it go away. He passed them his pipe; Maura and Gwen took a hit. Julie said, “Nuh uh, I had enough already. I would but I’m afraid I might fall off! I mean we’re on a roof…”
“’She paid the price of smoking dope’,” Cliff brayed. “’Girl falls off roof, news at eleven!’”
He and Gwen laughed and Julie smiled, covering her braces with her hand again but Maura was feeling depressed and cold, all of a sudden. She looked down at the Castleman’s yard. Something was missing. No skeleton. “Where’s that skeleton gone? Did they take it in?”
Gwen looked at the house where the skeleton had capered. “Must’ve. He’s gone! That sucks ass. He was the cutest guy around here.”
Julie laughed and said, “Don’t be mean to Cliff…”
She said something else too, and Cliff replied, but Maura didn’t really hear what any of them said, now. A feeling of pressure was spreading, pushing down on her from above, as if the atmospheric pressure was suddenly all mad heavy; sounds were hushed and distant, as if they couldn’t push through the thick, laden air.
A movement drew her to look, with difficulty, to the left—and she saw the skeleton from the Castleman’s yard climbing up onto the roof of the porch.
Hallucination. The dope.
But she didn’t believe it was the dope. Especially when Gwen yelled, loud enough to penetrate the thick air. “How’d they make that thing climb up here!” Even that shout came out muted, like a voice heard when you’re swimming underwater.
As Maura watched, the skeleton pulled itself up like a gymnast from Cirque du Soleil: up and then a flip and it landed neatly on the roof—but it didn’t come at them, though Cliff and Julie were screaming and Gwen was laughing hysterically. It kept going upward. It jumped into the air, spinning around, a perfect ballet pirouette, its bony fingers waving like ribbons in a wind, singing to itself in some forgotten language. It sounded like some guttural old language from Europe, like you’d expect Vikings to talk.
Up the wicked skeleton went, dancing its way into the air, defying gravity. Was it a flying machine, a balloon?
She knew it wasn’t. Something was whispering to her…something was explaining…
She heard Cliff shout, “Awesome, fucking awesome!”
And the whispering male voice said, as it had before, “Awesome…”
But it meant something else. Maura felt awe when she saw those the skeleton summoned…
She stood up to watch as the air filled with dark forms, shapes in black and red and bone white, glittering eyes and clutching hands…
And a thumping came from somewhere and everywhere, regular as a dance beat. The summoned throng descended, and they capered in dance.
All around Maura’s house, the dark spirits danced. And Maura, standing now, simply watched, swaying to the beat from the drum that was a thrumming of the air itself.
“Oh,” she said. She couldn’t hear her own voice. But she was saying, “Oh. Oh.”
The skeleton’s dance was a summoning, every turn drawing ever more furies from the stunned and sickly air, the pregnant density of the atmosphere birthing cannibalistic witches and vicious, sparklefree vampires and icy-eyed slashers in ski masks and masks of human skin and hockey masks. Demons formed and slid down the sky, as if sliding on invisible stalactites; white winged angels turned black and cruel; friendly ghosts became hatefully unfriendly; wolf faced men gnashed and howled.
A great, swelling crowd of lunatic figures danced around Maura—figures that had once been ornaments on Halloween lawns, and had once been costumes, and had once been images in movies and in posters and in books, dancing now in mad Samhain glee; in Dionysian delight: obscenely, profanely, mockingly, satirically, but in deadly earnest, surrounding her house. Some detached from the crowd to chase a car down the street, leaping on it, covering it, tearing open the steel roof as if it were thin cardboard, laughing at the screams from within as it crashed, jigging in the flames rising from the burning car…
She looked over at Gwen who was standing, mouth open, shaking her head as she stared at the thronging masquerade of dark spirits, smiling and then frowning and then smiling and then frowning again. Clinging to Gwen, Julie was weeping, her shoulders shaking.
The thickness was still pressing in on Maura, and she felt it whisper urgently to her.
“Give them to us, and thus sign your pledge. Give them to us, before we rise and take them. Give them to us and you may join us.”
Maura thought about her mother, and that party and the priest who’d put his hand up her dress when she was twelve, and her father not returning her calls, and her teachers who wanted the class to be over even more than the students did, and her friends whom she didn’t really like much…
“Okay,” she said. She could barely hear her own voice. “Sure.”
“You know what to do.”
“Yes.” She moved toward Gwen and Julie, finding it hard to push through the thick air, but she came up behind them, Julie turning a questioning, startled face toward her—
She shoved them both. Julie had a good grip on Gwen, and they both went quite neatly off the roof, falling into the macabre throng.
His face squeezed into its own Halloween mask of terror, Cliff was just getting up, swinging a fist at her. It hit her glancingly. She hardly felt it.
She squatted, grabbed the forty by its neck, smashed it on the roof, swung the broken end up into Cliff’s belly. She felt it cut through his shirt, his skin, his muscles…
Not a killing blow, but it didn’t matter, he staggered back, mouth open, a red hole yowling…
And he fell into the throng.
Maura looked down, saw the crowd tearing at Julie and Gwen and Cliff, pulling their limbs off as cruel children pull wings off flies…
Then the air thickened even more, crushing in around her, squeezing…
And it squeezed her out of her body. She felt herself fired up, into the sky, like a pressed pip, flying upward, arcing down—and then rushing headlong into a flying cannibal witch, that was opening its mouth wide...wider, and wider…
She flew into that rubbery maw, and down, spun about inside.
Then she found she was in a new body, a form corporeal and incorporeal at once; a body that flew as she willed it to, upward, along with many other dark spirits, sweeping into the sky, heading to the East.
It was not quite dawn, but Chun was awake. Something had whispered to her.
“We are here,” it said in Mandarin.
“Who?” she asked hoarsely, getting out of bed, to stand in the weakening darkness.
“Those whom you called! The ancestors heard, and brought your cry to us, and now we descend, because of your merit and trueness, and because the Earth and the planets turned within the lock of the sky to open the gate. But your cry was the key. And when you called us, we came to you. Now—come and see.”
Chun walked stiffly to the door. It should’ve been locked, but as she approached it, the door swung open, all on its own.
Muscles still aching from the previous day’s work, she walked through the door, though she wore only threadbare pajamas, and went barefoot out into the gray dawn.
She stopped, freezing in place with a mingling of horror and exaltation, when she saw the throng in the sky; it was like a gigantic flock of starlings, swirling and turning in the air, but the dark spirits had replaced the starlings, and she saw many faces amongst the spirits she knew; faces she’d clipped from their rubber backdrop. But now they were not empty masks. They had been given form.
The throng’s chorused shrieking woke the guards, who came clamoring from their posts and their barracks, guns in hand, some of them firing erratically and uselessly at the laughing nightmares who swooped down upon them…
Chun watched, gasping, as the dark spirits swarmed over the guards; as they ripped and bit and killed…
Then the spirits rose from the ravaged corpses, spreading wings of ectoplasm and shadow to sweep over the camp; they darted down, and broke locked doors with contemptuous flicks of their hands; they knocked down gates. Then they flew up, and into the nearby city, to lay waste to any who would keep Chun and the other prisoners from their freedom.
As the dark throng departed, Chun sat herself on the cold ground, to wait, and watch. Others came out, murmuring, to gaze about them in wonder…
Not quite a full hour later the throng reeled away from the city, and up over the half-shattered buildings. Chun saw the throng go, in the distance: a tornado of cruel laughter, into the sky.
She stood, and went stiffly to put on her clothes. Then, with Bao-Yu and the others, Chun walked into the burning town. Chun wished to find one of the few old shrines that the Republic still allowed, so that they could thank their ancestors.