Katie doesn’t like this house. It smells of cigarettes and all of the windows are covered with thick, dark brown curtains. Her father drinks a beer with his new boss Terry at a round, wooden table covered in glass ashtrays and tall bottles. She sits underneath with her legs crossed staring at her father’s boots.
Her mother gave her strict instructions to be on her best behavior, and she’s trying, but the house doesn’t seem to like her either. The off-white tiled floor burns icy cold beneath her thin dress and shadows creep along the walls with spidery quickness. She wraps her arms around her father’s warm leg and hopes they can leave soon.
A sharp scratching interrupts the dull sounds of the men talking and Terry stands to pull back one of the thick curtains. A huge, black dog barks and jumps at a muddy sliding glass door. Katie yelps and climbs onto her father’s lap as Terry unlatches the door and pulls it along an uneven track to let the dog inside.
Katie’s seen many dogs in her 5 years of life. Tiny dogs with watery eyes peeking out of the purses of old ladies at the grocery store. Big brown dogs chasing after tennis balls with long wagging tails at the park. Old scruffy dogs who sniff the air when she walks by their yard.
This dog isn’t like any of those. It’s large and hairy and smells exactly like the old mud puddle behind her kindergarten classroom. Foxtails poke out all over its matted fur and it’s got a deep growling bark reminding her of a bear or a lion. Its movements are quick and jerky. Suddenly, it darts at her.
With a snarl, it tears off a strip of lace from the bottom of her pink dress and runs with the fabric in its mouth to a spot in front of the refrigerator. It rips and tears and growls. Katie curls up as small as she can on her father’s lap and tries not to cry. He rubs her back in a circle with his large, warm hand.
Terry laughs loudly and harshly, a sound Katie dislikes as much as the dog’s bark. He grabs her father’s shoulder and leans close enough Katie can see he’s got yellow teeth and small grey eyes with flecks of crust stuck in the corners.
“Say hi to Fluffy,” Terry says. “I think she likes you.”
Katie knows she’s supposed to do what adults say, but she doesn’t want to. Her father stays silent, which Katie understands means she must listen. Mother said it’s important for Terry to like her father. Be on your best behavior. She looks in the direction of the scary dog and speaks as low as she can hoping it doesn’t actually hear her.
The dog responds with a large bark and a lunge. Katie jumps from her father’s lap onto the table, knocking over several empty beer bottles, one with beer still inside. The mess spills and drips onto the floor, but none of the bottles break. Terry laughs and grabs the collar of Fluffy who snarls and snaps at the air while wagging its long tail.
Katie stands in the center of the table in her black patent leather shoes almost as if she might do a dance. Terry pulls the dog over to the counter and rummages around in a drawer until he finds a large rawhide bone. The dog rips it from his hand and runs off into the darkness of the house. Katie doesn’t like not knowing where the dog went but allows her father to lower her back onto his lap.
Terry returns his hand to her father’s shoulder and smiles at Katie. It’s not the sort of smile Katie likes. It reminds her of the boy in class who put a beetle in her lunchbox and pinched her arm hard enough to leave a bruise when the teacher wasn’t looking.
“Katie, I want to show you something special. It’s not like anything you’ve seen before and you are going to love it.”
He laughs again, this time it’s a short hard laugh. Her father doesn’t say anything, but he stands and sets Katie on the floor. She looks at Terry’s bare feet and notices his big toes are covered in thick black hair. My father works for a monster, she thinks, and now we have to follow him to his lair.
Keeping her eyes peeled for Fluffy, she and her father follow Terry through a curtain of clinking, brown beads into a short hallway without any light at all. She grabs her father’s hand and he squeezes it. Her stomach burns and aches. No, she thinks. My dad needs this job.
Terry opens the door with a flourish saying “voila, my study!” as if he’s a magician instead of a monster. Katie knows some people can be both. She squeezes her father’s hand tighter.
Lit by a single green lamp in the far corner, the room consists of a large wooden desk cluttered with paper, two shelves filled with old books, and an orange couch covered in black dog hair. Terry pulls a bottle of dark liquid and two glasses out from a drawer in his desk and fills each about halfway.
“Whiskey makes everything better.”
He hands her father a glass and the two men clink them together and drink. Terry appears to have forgotten what he wants to show Katie and, for a few minutes, the two men talk about work while Katie stands near the couch with her eye on the half-open door in case Fluffy decides to make another run at her dress.
After a few minutes, Terry’s eyes land on Katie and he gives her the same smile as he did in the kitchen. She runs to her father’s side trying to disappear under his plaid woolen jacket and Terry laughs. His belly moves up and down as he does.
“I almost forgot! Katie, come here. I want you to meet someone.”
She shakes her head, but her father pulls her so she’s standing in front of him. Terry moves behind his desk and points at a purple cloth hanging on the wall. It’s covering a lumpy, dark shape and Katie feels the burning in her belly turn into a living thing. Fear.
Before she can react to this change within herself, Terry grabs the cloth with a quick, exaggerated flourish and throws it into the air. It floats to the floor. Magician and monster.
On the brown wood panel wall sits a horribly ugly mask—an old witch with huge bulbous eyes, stringy white hair, and bright orange lips. Dark wrinkles line its too-real face and Katie screams and hides behind her father. Her fear grows fangs.
“Don’t be scared, Katie. Helga’s an old friend of mine and she wants to say hello to you.”
Katie feels exactly the same way she did the day a boy at school pushed her off the swings, a horrible soaring feeling she knows will end with pain. Her father pulls her to the front of him, lifts her into his arms, and places her on the desk facing the mask. Katie keeps her eyes squeezed tightly closed. Fear growls.
“I don’t want to see it! I don’t like it!”
Her father keeps his hands on her shoulders, aiming her at the mask. Terry touches her on the arm and she tries to jump, but her father won’t let her move. Her body shakes and fear rattles around inside her. It rumbles.
“Don’t be rude to Helga, Katie. You are a guest in her house.”
Terry sounds mad and Katie decides she has no choice but to open her eyes. The witch instantly comes to life. It blinks its eyes and laughs a terrible “cackle, cackle, cackle” then does the most horrible thing Katie could have imagined. It spits water in her face.
“Stop!” she screams.
It’s at this instant the fear inside her leaves. She’s not sure how it gets out, but she feels it wiggle free and move across the room. Terry is laughing so hard he’s bent at the waist, gasping with the force of it. Her father isn’t laughing, but he is looking at Katie. He knows exactly what happened.
With a gentle movement, he pulls her off the desk and says they must be leaving. Terry looks angry and says “it was just a joke,” but her father doesn’t respond. In fact, neither of them speaks until she’s buckled into her booster seat.
“I’m sorry, daddy. I really tried.”
His hands are shaking and he’s got tears in his eyes.
“It’s okay, Katie-Bear. He had it coming. I can find another job.”
Terry slams the door and finds Fluffy curled up in front of the now dead fireplace, chewing on her bone. He’s angry at how things went with his co-worker. People can’t take a joke these days. Soft. Weak. Snowflakes. He shouldn’t have let him bring the kid.
He goes into the garage and gathers up several Duraflame logs and throws them into the fireplace. Using the zippo from his pants pocket, he lights the fire and pats Fluffy on the head.
“Good dog,” he says.
Returning to his office, he pours himself a large glass of whiskey and stares at the Halloween mask he got last year at a discount store. It’s his favorite thing. You pull the scarf and it spits. It’s hilarious. The stupid kid isn’t going to make it in this world being so jumpy and weak. Her dad better start smacking her around a bit. Toughen her up.
He raises his glass to the mask before settling into his chair to work on invoices for Monday’s big merger meeting. He’d hoped Greg would help him, but now he will have to fire the poor bastard. Can’t have someone soft on the payroll.
A blast of water suddenly hits the back of his head and he spins around. The witch mask blinks, the mechanics sounding louder than usual, and laughs. He laughs too.
“What the fuck, Helga!”
At first, he thinks he must have snagged the scarf with his chair and set it off, but the mask continues to laugh. Terry looks around the room, thinking maybe he’s being pranked, but he lives alone and nobody’s around. He swallows the rest of the whiskey in his glass and stands up.
The mask blinks at him and continues to laugh, but the sound has changed. It’s no longer the same “cackle, cackle, cackle,” but rather more like a human laugh. A child’s laugh.
“What the fuck!”
Terry stares at the witch’s bulging eyes as they grow bigger and rounder. He’s about to grab the mask from the wall when it spits in his face. Not a short blast of water, no. A steady stream of dark, red liquid. It drips onto his white t-shirt and then onto the floor. It’s warm and he has the horrible feeling it’s blood.
Roaring in anger, he grabs the mask off the wall and smashes it to the floor. He stomps on it over and over until the laughing stops and he’s out of breath. He slinks onto the floor and feels a tingly burning sensation crawling up his arm and into his mouth. He tries to spit it out quickly, but it’s too late.
Fear has crawled inside Terry and he falls onto his side and cries as it sings to him of all the darkness of the world. He’s a speck of nothing in a vast universe, an old piece of stardust rotting in the night. Every moment of pain he’s inflicted on others plays through his mind, poking at his heart until it seizes up, and stops. Terry lies motionless on the floor. Dead.
Katie wakes in her bed as the piece of fear crawls across the dark room and lands on the pillow beside her. She knows she should feel bad, but she doesn’t. Instead, she scoops up the little spark, swallows it, and goes back to sleep.
Author’s note: This story idea came from a real-life incident from my childhood. I decided it was time to take back my fear and grow from it. If you are interested, here’s the actual mask which still haunts me today.