I lowered the glass. “I guess I’m just not a wine or blood enthusiast. And I’m sorry, what are your names, again?”
“Bad, worse and worst,” Brad’s voice interrupted from behind me. He knocked into my hand, threatening to spill the wine.
It’s Brad vs. Bad.
“Now that would be a loss, wouldn’t it?” he sneered at the woman in the red scarf. “C’mon. You’re going.” He pulled be back, away from the three women. They watched us with luminous eyes empty of anything but a glint of animosity. Brad took my glass of wine and lowered it into a trash bin, glass and all.
“Hey, wait—” I protested.
“I wouldn’t feed my dogs out of that glass,” he replied coldly at the women staring after us.
How long have I been here? Jesus, I think I’m starting to sober up.
Brad pulled me into the coat room and opened the trunk case in the center of the bed with one swift move. “I figured out why I thought you were her earlier.”
I stayed next to the door. “Great.”
“You see ghosts?”
I did all the time when I was kid, but that wasn’t this guy’s business. “Not recently.”
“People rarely do after a certain age. The brain learns to cover up any aberrant sensory input like an apparition. Just like, the dot that moves into your blind spot. Your brain will fill in the details. Wait,” he looked up from his case. “Is that how it works?”
“Not exactly,” I reluctantly answered.
Brad shrugged and stood straight, crossed his arms and closed his eyes.
I waited for him to continue. Awkward butterfly.
“Sweet, party favors,” said a terribly typical man in a button down and blazer as he meandered into the room, drink in hand. He must’ve dressed correspondingly to some woman’s L.B.D.
He pulled a rubber mule mask from the case and regarded it. I couldn’t help but see the resemblance as the man pulled it on and danced out of the room. Antennae man joined him and they danced together.
Did that mask fuse to his face? I shook my head, tried to get a closer look without stepping out of the coat room.
The man started braying, the mask’s teeth gnashing as he danced.
Everyone seemed to notice, but no one seemed to care.
I turned to Brad. “Are you behind Tony Ten Wives?”
Brad looked sheepish. “Well, it’s a mixer, isn’t it? I’m just fighting the good fight. I like you, so go get your friend.” He gave me an apologetic look. “If you can. She may be got, and that’s not something I can undo.”
“What do you me—” Brad was gone again. A disappearing act similar to the woman in the red scarf.
“Hey!” I said, then backed out of the coat room. “Unfortunately she is playing wasted ping pong,” I said, leaning against the wall. “No one wants to be the last staggering survivors of celebration.” Being scared was sobering me up right quick. I started down the back hall but froze when I saw something all too familiar to my childhood self.
The closet doorknob rattled insistently.
Please let that be the blond chick’s tryst gone awry.
The doorknob turned. And turned, and turned.
Like someone trying to get out but they couldn’t work the knob.
Too drunk, or too dead?
I sighed. I was too old for this. I jerked the closet door open.
It was full of things, but empty of people.
I closed the door.
“Go,” Brad stood behind the door, making me jump. “Before it gets bad.”
“What’s going on?” I asked in a low voice.
Brad nodded beyond me. I turned to see the Ass, Antennae Man and Tony Ten Wives dancing together before the big screen TV. “They’re having fun, aren’t they?”
“Now, look,” Brad took my wrist and led me to the other end of the hallway, where black dresses and button downs were looking down noses and laughing at, well, the people in the TV room.
“I call it the black mold,” Brad said as the company turned to look at us.
A feeling crept up between my toes, slid under the cuff of my jeans. A cold, cold feeling, that something was Wrong here. More than just my run of the mill monachopsis.
C’mon, sober up, sober up. I willed myself. There is safety in sobriety.
Brad continued. “I’m very busy here, and you’re throwing my game off. Forget your buddy, have a nice walk. Here,” he pulled a scarf out of his pocket like a magician. It was black and covered with gray lettering. He wrapped it around my neck. “Beats bat wings, doesn’t it? Go on. Before I or my rival get you.”
“Hey guys, we’re playing party games!” a lady in a black dress and striped stockings bounded up to us.
Brad smiled, turned and kissed me on the cheek. I frowned in reply.
“She’s headed out but I’ll come play, let’s go!” Brad grinned as he took her hand and followed.
Awww, man. She’s got a tail.
I have to get Mary. She’s my friend. I can’t leave her here.
I reached for the scarf around my neck, and trudged once more back into the party. I froze in the fight room-turned-dance-floor.
A man with no eyes was break dancing on the coffee table. In place of eyes, he bore two hollow, skin covered divots. Didn’t dampen his groove, though.
“Oh, wow,” said the perpetually new husband to the ass-mask, “that’s a nice trick. Say, uh, have you met my wife, Jenny?”
How deep does blindness go?
I don’t know, how deep are your eyes?
I scooted through the kitchen toward the back door of the house, searching for Mary. People crowded the porch and the steps down to the garage. The game had degenerated to people sitting their drinks on the table and chitchatting.
Jesus, is that her? No. Be still, my inebriated brain.
I sidled up next to the woman who ought to by my roomie.
“Did you change?”
Mary wore a little black dress that came down to her knees. It didn’t match her sporty Velcro shoes.
Mary looked down. “You helped me pick it out, remember? What are you talking about?”
“Mary, would I seriously have any meaningful commentary to offer on a little black dress?”
Mary shrugged. “Suit yourself.” Then she and the other ping pongers burst into laughter.
I didn’t get it.
What’s happening to us? What evil line had been drawn across the threshold of this house?
“We gotta go.” I took Mary’s hand and tugged her toward the porch door.
The woman in the red scarf appeared before us, blocking our exit. She yanked Mary from my grip. “Oh, don’t worry. She’ll be the wiser for it.”
I backed up until my shoulders hit a wall of a man. He pushed me forward. Bells chimed somewhere in the neighborhood. What did they say, when bells ring a fairy is born? An angel gets their wings?
The woman with the red cowl gave me a curious look. All I could think was how lovely she looked in red.
She spoke in a smooth, low tone, like the word intimate. “People dedicate so much time and energy wondering where they go when they die. Where do people go during life? I can answer that. People go to work, then they go home. Then work, then home. Like they should.”
“Maybe that’s why people wonder where we go when we die,” I shot back. “Because they never went anywhere when they lived.”
She tilted her head at me.
“I mean, if you’re real, why not Santa Claus?”
Brad, rescue me!
He’s not the good guy. Look at ass hat.
She smiled. “You over estimate the goodness of the universe.”
“I always thought it would be a sort of balance.”
She laughed as I broke free of the man-handle. I raced back into the kitchen.
Brad stood by the island, talking to party goers.
“Brad!” I grabbed his elbow to turn him around. “You and your little foe here need to move on. These people are not the battleground for your personal war!” I jabbed my finger into his shoulder and he jerked back. He eyed me with concern.
The eyeliner’s gone.
A man who looked like my Brad gave me a slightly drunk look of dude-incredulity. “Do I know you?” His glasses were tucked between the first and second buttons of his blue plaid shirt.
“Oh, whoops. Wrong Brad, sorry.” I backed up. Brad and the two dudes followed me with their eyes.
Mary was on her own. I was on my own.
I have to get out.
I looked down to find a little black dress enshrouding me, a bland glass of red wine in one hand, melba toast and shaved ham trimmings in the other.
“Oh, great, Sandra. Let me introduce you to my wife. This is Sandra.”
“Hi,” I said.
Animal beings. They feed. They reproduce. They herd together in cold or inclement weather. They protect their young from predators.
And then there are wolves.
And then there’s the joker.
Antennae man, Ass Mask and No Eyes silently regarded me from the doorway. Well, except for No Eyes. He wasn’t regarding much of anything.
Ass mask held out a box of matches.
I stepped into the coat room and met her eyes. Lovely blue orbs encircled in red.
The real American Dream.
“Is this what a woman looks like?” I asked flatly, plucking at the black chiffon clinging to my waist. Like a plaintive child. Or a chain. Or a bell.
“Clothes don’t make a man,” she said. “Well, actually, they do.”
My hands drifted to my chest. A bit of word-wrapped black fabric still rested there. I fingered the fabric. Trying to remember.
There was something tucked in the folds of the scarf. A small cardboard rectangle with a strike side.
A large black case sat closed on the bed between us.
“You know who my favorite band really is?” I asked as I flipped Brad’s case open with one swift motion. I extricated the matches from my scarf, turned the box over in my hands. “Talking Heads.”
I struck the match and dropped it into the case. Flames whipped out and rolled over the sea of trusting purses like lips. Lips licking pursed puree.
I smiled as her eyes filled with concern. “I’m not your battleground. No one here is. They shouldn’t have to be.”
I’d say the party got weird when Death showed up.