This story was written for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2021, in which I placed 2nd.
Max 1,000 words in 48 hours
Location: costume shop
Object: ziplock bag
“I need you to turn me into someone else.” The young man had a quiet voice and earnest eyes.
Henry put his book down on the display counter full of wounds, temporary tattoos, fake teeth, and jewelry, and looked over his reading glasses. “Who do you need to be?”
He had owned the tiny costume shop for over a decade, and had seen a few nervous customers come in for hair dye, clothing, and fake blemishes, who might’ve been evading some kind of capture. But none of them had asked for his assistance so directly. It was just a vague hunch he had about them, anyway.
The young man’s collared shirt was clean but very wrinkled. His shoelaces were almost broken.
“What kind of trouble are you in, son?”
“It’s not like that.” He looked out the glass door, tilted his head to see between the scarecrow and gargoyle in the window. Then he took a paper from his pocket, unfolded it, and pushed it toward Henry.
Henry looked down through his reading glasses and saw in poor handwriting: Please. I am not dangerous. I will not hurt you. I will pay $175 for you to close your store and help me personally for one hour. I have done nothing illegal. Please. -Andrew
Andrew smiled a little through wet eyes.
This was either the strangest trick ever pulled on Henry, or the most direct call for help he’d ever seen. He wished his son Tom had been as forthright about asking when he needed it. When Tom’s baby came, he’d sent Henry an email with a photo, a beautiful little girl. Henry drove out to surprise them, but they weren’t there. The rental agency said Tom and his girlfriend were evicted for months of unpaid rent. Too embarrassed or proud to ask for help. Emails to Tom’s address bounced back as undeliverable. Spending his days in the costume shop, Henry wondered if Tom had disguised himself and was somewhere out there, hidden in plain sight.
This young man wasn’t Tom, of course.
Andrew pulled a ratty ziplock bag from the pocket of his jeans, opened it, and removed two fifties, three twenties, a ten, and a five. Some coins remained when the bag went back in his pocket.
Henry looked him in the eyes and waited. When Andrew didn’t look away, Henry went to the front door and flipped the sign to CLOSED.
“Lock it, please.”
“If you’ve got a death wish, son, I want no part of it.”
“I’d feel safer.”
The back door was a one-way lock; Henry thought to keep that path clear in case something happened. He locked the front door. “Good?”
Andrew looked at the ceiling. “Do you have cameras?”
“Yes, I do. And I’m keeping them on.”
“Good. Do they record sound?”
“They don’t.” Henry regretted this answer without knowing why.
Henry looked at his watch, “One hour,” and stepped behind the counter.
Andrew stared at a basket of glow sticks for a long time. “I hear a voice.”
“There’s no one else here.”
“No, I mean in my head.”
The detail of “in his head” made Henry liken it to Tom’s “depression.” He picked up the bills, rolled them into his pocket, and stayed a step back with his arms folded. “What’d the voice tell ya today? To kill the manager of a struggling costume shop?”
“It’s not like that. The voice only hurts me.”
“If the voice is in your head, a disguise won’t fool it.”
“I want to become it.”
He stared. “That’s one way to take charge. What does this… voice look like?”
A corner of Andrew’s mouth lifted. “I’ve never seen it.”
“Well, that’s a wrench in the gears, isn’t it?”
“It says disgusting things about me. Calls me a creep. Says I’m worthless.”
“Sounds like a bully. Is that it, a big bully?”
“Yes, but not strong I don’t think. Inside he’s a coward.”
Henry sighed. “Let’s see what I’ve got.”
They started with clothes. From several costume racks Andrew pieced together a baggy shirt and pants, a thin chain necklace, a wallet chain on his belt loop, a wig of bleached hair, and a baseball cap with the bill curled tightly around the eyes. It resembled an outfit Tom had insisted on wearing to school when he was struggling to fit in. Henry had used the phrase “punk weenie” to describe Tom’s appearance, and Tom didn’t look him in the eye for three days.
When they got to makeup, Henry was surprised to find that despite never having seen the voice, Andrew had very specific ideas about its face. He asked for a long, narrow nose, “As if it’s always pointing a finger at you,” he said.
Henry tried to remember a trick he’d seen back when he had a makeup person working at the shop. He swirled the sponge on the pad of makeup. Andrew twitched when it touched his nose, then closed his eyes and held his breath. Henry dabbed carefully. He became very aware of the whistling in his own nose.
Andrew said, “Make my eyes look smaller, if you can. Like they emit judgment but absorb nothing.”
“I’ll… give that a shot.”
He drew a deep wrinkle into Andrew’s brow, and added concealer to cover Andrew’s slight eye bags and flatten the sockets—far from perfect, but not a failure.
Andrew said, “This is very good. Do you have a full mirror?”
“In the dressing room. Be right with you, I’m going to the restroom.”
Andrew’s eyes welled up again. “Thank you.”
Minutes later, Henry emerged from the restroom and heard grunting. He pulled the curtain to find Andrew standing at the mirror. Blood drizzled from his crushed nose, and fresh bruises glowed on his jaw and cheeks. His eyes wheeled to find their reflection.
“Jesus!” Henry wrapped his arms around Andrew to stop his fists. “Don’t do that, son. You don’t wanna do that.”