“Buy something or be banished to the fiery bowels of the underworld!”
Jack observed the “demon” before him: a middle-aged man in a cheap rubber mask wielding a cheap plastic pitchfork.
“I’m waiting on a couple friends,” Jack replied, motioning toward the changing rooms. “It’ll just be a minute.”
“I know how to use this,” the demon threatened, shaking his pitchfork more like a farmer than a ghoul of the underworld.
“Please…don’t.” For a thirteen-year-old, Jack could lay the sarcasm on pretty thick.
“Look, kid, Halloween is my busiest time of the year. My only busy time, actually, and I’ve got a lot of paying customers waiting outside. You catch my drift?”
“Got it. The moment my friends are ready, I’m out of here.”
“That’s a good boy.” The demon-man patted Jack on the head and then his face suddenly twitched. He stormed toward a young girl trying on a cowboy hat, adjusted himself to her level, and screeched, “You wear it, you buy it!”
Jack’s eyes widened as he wondered how unfulfilling the costume shop manager’s life must have been.
Just then, two changing room doors flung open simultaneously, revealing Helen Offtroy and Paul Amoeba.
Helen Offtroy was both the most beautiful and most mischievous girl in school. Her eyes were like blue sapphires and her tongue was sharp as a razor. She was in talks concerning the purchase of a timeshare in the principal’s office. Jack was madly in love with her. But his adolescent heart wasn’t about to admit to it.
Paul Amoeba had been Jack’s best friend since they were in diapers. He was exceedingly intelligent--a prodigy, really. Unfortunately, when it came to women, he was as clueless as every other thirteen-year-old boy on earth. He was allergic to every form of matter and what you’d call “a bit husky.” He was far from the coolest or the toughest friend, but he was loyal. And that’s all Jack could ask for.
“Whatdya think?” Helen asked, spinning around like a fashion model, knowing full well how good she looked.
Jack’s jaw dropped and his tongue unfurled like he was in a cartoon. Helen Offtroy in a pair of tights was the most beautiful sight of his young life. He silently thanked God and then squeaked, “Good.”
“You think Craig Thompson will like it?”
“Craig Thompson?” Jack said like someone had smashed into his gut with a battering ram.
“Yeah. Jackie Aaronson told me that Leah Swenson said Craig was dressing up as Mr. Extraordinary. You know? That stupid superhero on steroids? So, I thought I’d ‘randomly,’” she made quotes with her fingers, “dress up as his sidekick. Then he’d be like, ‘Oh, what a coincidence. I can’t believe we totally match unintentionally. You should go to the dance with me and I’ll buy you that Jane Seymour Open Hearts Collection necklace.’ Good plan or great plan?”
Paul interjected, “But Mr. Extraordinary doesn’t have a sidekick. His extraordinary level is already dangerously high as it is.”
“Okay, I don’t want to be Mr. Extraordinary’s sidekick. I want to be Craig’s sidekick. And Craig will be intrigued by the matching color schemes of our costumes. It’s an icebreaker.”
“I don’t know. I think he’d want to maintain the integrity of the comic.”
“You really don’t understand the middle school relationship, little man. What do you think, Jack?”
Jack said the only thing he could: “Craig Thompson?”
“Yeah. Don’t you think he’s cute?”
Paul, very aware of the pain being inflicted on his best friend, changed the subject with this little ditty: “I think this costume’s giving me a rash.”
Eyes shifted over to Paul, who was stuffed into a black unitard with a human skeleton painted on the front. His stomach bulge hindered the human skeleton illusion slightly. Jack and Helen just stared, not quite knowing what to say.
The costume shop owner, apparently finished harassing little girls, did know what to say: “You rash it, you buy it.” Then he studied Paul from skull to toe bone. “A trifle pudgy to be pulling off a skeleton, aren’t we, my little cream puff?”
“Look who’s talking,” Jack shot back.
“Yeah,” added Helen, “Looks like you’re carrying a spare tire for a monster truck.”
The owner jiggled his gut and a frown appeared beneath his mask. “Ah, the arrogance of youth. One day your metabolism will slow down, as will your tongues.”
“What is he talking about?” Jack whispered to his cohorts.
“We’re going to get old and fat,” Paul replied matter-of-factly.
“That’s right, kids. Take a good look,” the owner announced, spreading his arms. “This is your future. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m running a business here, not some hibbity dibbity hee-haw factory. I’ll see you at the cash register. Bring your wallets.”
“Nice guy,” Jack muttered as the owner waddled away like a giant penguin.
Helen smiled. “Yeah. You should invite him to your Bar Mitzvah, Paul.”
“I’m sure my parents would love him,” Paul said, scratching a blotchy red spot on his chest. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to pay for this little guy,” he said, tugging at the elastic costume, “before this little guy,” he pointed to his rash, “spreads to the rest of my body.” He made his way toward the cash register, parting with these words: “Not a fan of Mama Amoeba’s ointment cabinet.”
Helen and Jack shared awkward adolescent giggles. Once the uncomfortable giggling had died down to an uncomfortable silence, Helen observed Jack, who wore nothing resembling a Halloween costume. “Nice costume,” she smirked. “Let me guess, you’re a kid with no imagination, right?”
“Actually, I’ve got the best costume this world has ever known.”
“That a fact?”
“Yep. I’m a shape-shifter. This is the current form I have chosen,” he said, puffing out his chest.
Helen studied him from the ground up. “So, you could be anything in the world and you chose to be a nerdy thirteen-year-old?”
Jack was slightly offended but he knew she was only jesting. Or he hoped. “Nerdy?” he scoffed. “I am anything but. I’m so cool, I have to be measured in Kelvin. I’m so bomb, I’m not allowed on airplanes. I’m so boss, I passed you over for another promotion.”
Helen, who hadn’t listened to a word he said, had something else on her mind. “Could you do something for me?” she asked.
Jack’s mind raced with thoughts of what that “something” might be. Before his brain could analyze the situation, his mouth said, “Sure.”
She smiled a cunning fox smile. “Could you,” she batted her eyelashes, “try this on?” She snatched a random costume from a nearby rack and shoved it into Jack’s chest.
Jack furrowed his brow. “What?” he said.
“You see Chubby Checker over there?” she said, nodding at the costume shop manager. “He gets suspicious when kids are just standing around. Thinks they’re stealing something. So, I need you to put his mind at ease while I steal a couple things.”
“Are you serious?”
“This guy needs to be taught a lesson.”
“And what exactly is that lesson?”
“That Halloween isn’t about making money. It’s about having fun and being a kid and--”
“Well, I added that part myself. I mean, this guy’s a jerk. He’s totally killing the spirit of Halloween. I can’t let him get away with it. I need to hit him where it hurts: his checkbook.”
“Have you ever heard the expression ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’?”
“Yeah. Kind of like ‘wait twenty minutes after eating before you go swimming,’ right?”
“Not so much, no.”
“One time I ate a gallon of ice-cream before swimming in my aunt’s pool.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Rules are meant to be broken. Sometimes it’s the only way to bring true justice.”
“The logic of women...”
“Look, you don’t have to help me. It would really mean a lot if you did, though.” Helen batted her lashes like a life-size Barbie doll.
Every ounce of Jack knew that it was wrong, but he couldn’t say no to that face. Or that body. Curse those spandex tights, he thought. “Fine,” he groaned.
“Great. So, just go into the changing room, try on the costume, and come out. By then, these magic hands will have done their job.”
“Wait a minute,” he said, observing the plastic-encased costume in his hands. “This is a fairy princess costume. And it’s for ages four to seven.”
“What better to deflect attention away from me than a gender-confused boy?”
“If my parents ever hear about this, you do know I’m going to therapy.”
A giggle crept up Helen’s throat. “You don’t have to try it on, genius. Just make sure the owner sees you taking that costume into that changing room. Wait a couple minutes, come out, put the costume back on the rack, and meet me outside. Okay?”
Helen watched Jack stand as motionless as a mannequin. “Well, what are you waiting for?”
“All the changing rooms are full.”
“What about that one?” Helen asked, placing her hand on his lower back and pushing him toward a closed door with a sign reading, “Out of order. Enter at your own risk.”
“The sign says it’s out of order,” Jack contested. He acted as if he was putting up a fight, though, truth be told, he really liked having her hand on his lower back, even if it meant being an accessory to theft.
“How can a changing room be out of order?” Helen replied. “It’s a door and four walls.”
Jack could think of a few reasons why a changing room might be out of order, most of them involving bodily fluids, but, before he could protest, he found himself being shoved into the small room with the door slamming behind him.
To his pleasant surprise, the room was free of bodily fluids. In fact, it was your typical changing room for the most part: a thinly carpeted floor, a bench, and a mirror. The only oddity was the fact that the mirror was shaped like a giant tombstone. Being the Halloween season, Jack attributed this interior design to the owner’s quirkiness. What happened next changed his opinion and his life forever.
Jack had been watching his reflection in the mirror, chuckling at himself and what he’d do for a pretty girl. And it wouldn’t be the last time. That much he knew.
Suddenly, his reflection dissolved and the mirror displayed a graveyard. Not a picture of a graveyard. An actual graveyard. He could hear the rusty gates moaning and feel the wind whipping at his face. He could even smell the decaying corpses. He squinted at the newly discovered dimension and a piercing howl echoed from the cemetery. A four-legged beast with jagged teeth raced through the darkness and Jack recoiled. The room got very cold all of the sudden and Jack’s breath was a vapory mist.
His eyes ready to pop out of his head, Jack reached for the door, but it was too late: a hairy half hand/half claw reached through the mirror, grabbed his wrist, and pulled him into the living nightmare.
Jack ditched the fairy princess costume as he was passing into the alternate universe. He didn’t care to explain that one to whatever was waiting on the other side.