Tom woke up in a gutter on what he was pretty sure was still Mardi Gras. For a moment, the streets were eerily, unnaturally quiet, but it only lasted for as long as it took him to dispel his drunkenness by force of will, climb to his feet, and remember, albeit vaguely, where he was. As soon as he recognized the New Orleans neighborhood again, it erupted as if into a riot. Fellow revelers overwhelmed his disoriented presence, seemingly pouring in from every adjacent street to converge on his location, cheering and yelping and welcoming him back into the party that his consciousness had so suddenly departed earlier in the evening.
Although the drums and stomping feet shook his body and tested his already unsteady balance, and although the whistles and shouting cut roughly through his aching mind, the sudden chaos made him feel somehow more at home, much unlike the brief, alien silence to which had had awoken.
How long had he been passed out on the roadside, he wondered. Apparently long enough to have raised any serious concern among partygoers and passersby. Not long enough for the night to have passed away into morning, heralding the beginning of the Lenten season, when everyone would be more sober of mind and body, or pretend to be. The omnipresent clamor of celebration helped him to achieve remarkable clarity on the other side of his blackout, and he was eager to take advantage of the newly raucous surroundings to squeeze every ounce of joy out of this experience, presumably the last moments of Fat Tuesday.
He could only assume that his coming-to on that particular corner had been a wild coincidence, but as the crowd assembled, it didn’t seem that way. No one else had been there when he awoke, but now that the entire parade had borne down upon him, it seemed keen to absorb him into itself before moving on. A half dozen people, whom he took to be young ladies in spite of their practically featureless, alabaster masks, quickly flattered him with their attention, clapping their hands and dancing circles around him, and reaching out their arms so as to help him keep his footing even as his senses were confused and overwhelmed.
When they had passed on, a brief procession of men and women clapped him on the back, passing by in the same direction before turning and gesturing for him to follow. He supposed that they were smiling as they did so, but each member of the procession was also masked, with most of them wearing the same perfectly smooth, milk-white façade as was worn by the girls who preceded them. As he surveyed a sea of hidden faces, each uniquely embellished with a different sort of painted blush in the cheeks or shadowing around the eyes, he came to feel as though he was being invited into a club but deprived of its mandatory uniform.
However, the slight sense of alienation was not enough to keep Tom from giving loud voice to his newly inflamed passions or leaping into the crowd to join it in raising Hell wherever they happened to be going. For although the members of this parade had arrived at his gutter-bed by different routes, they all now seemed to move on with unity of purpose, and he soon found himself carried along by their procession as if by a rushing river, the current of which he would not have been able to fight if he’d wanted to.
Several minutes passed like this before Tom’s keen excitement began to fade, overtaken by curiosity about how he had come to be here and how he would be getting back to his hotel. But other people continued to dance and clap their hands with lustful abandon, and he felt compelled to do the same. Even so, he was eager to arrive at some place where there the cacophony could give way to conversation, where there would be food and drink and a place to rest.
He began to wonder whether anyone was actually leading this procession, especially when he looking past the crowd to see storefronts and apartments that he was sure they had passed ten minutes earlier. Images flashed into his mind of a line of ants, which, once looped upon itself head-to-foot, will continue to walk in circles until every member starves. But he quickly pushed such thoughts from his mind, reminding himself that this parade had never turned to round even one block, and couldn’t possibly be going in circles.
This, of course, made it more difficult for Tom to explain his growing certainty that they were marching past repeating backgrounds, as if in some low-budget cartoon. And as he strained his eyes to better examine the surroundings, he noticed something else, as well. Not only did the buildings seem to be recurring; they seemed empty. Although it must have been very late at night – he still wasn’t sure of the hour – it seemed impossible that there would be a parade going on with no one to greet it, or even to look down on it disapprovingly from their windows.
Pushed along by the crowd, Tom began to look around with increasingly obvious confusion, looking for someone, anyone who was not part of this masked procession, or who had not been a part of it when it greeted him at the curb.
Nearby marchers seemed unconcerned by his searching eyes and his efforts to jostle his way to the edge of the overladen street. But there heedlessness was no indication that they’d failed to notice the change. A number of revelers regarded him for a long moment, but whether it was with concern, curiosity, or derision Tom could not say, since their masks concealed any human expression. One man with purple bags painted under the eyes of his mask grasped him briefly by the arm and asked, “Having a good time?”
“It’s fine, but where the fuck are we going?” Tom replied. But by the time the words had left his mouth, the man had walked on ahead to be swallowed and made invisible by the crowd. Wheeling back toward the nearest side of the street, Tom stumbled momentarily but was pushed back to his feet by a handful of people repeating the role that had been played by the young women he encountered at the start. In their haste to help him keep moving forward, they obstructed his vision and prevented him from getting more than the briefest of glances at what appeared to be a crumpled human figure just past the edge of the parade route.
He tried to look back, but found it impossible to fight the human current, and resolved himself to the assumption that if there was indeed someone lying on the ground behind him, another good Samaritan would check to see if was all right. After all, they had done it for him, hadn’t they?
Several more minutes passed and his growing annoyance was counterbalanced by a sense of pride in his own stamina. Considering all the alcohol that must have still been in his system, he’d expected himself to have grown exhausted from all this marching. But he felt fine. Or rather, he didn’t feel much of anything: no weakness or muscle ache in his legs; no tiredness or hangover; but also none of the elation that he would normally expect from the mass outpouring of joy and reckless abandon that he was now a part of.
The music being played in the crowd had by now ceased to inspire rhythm in his movement, so he instead regarded it as a fairly dull, persistent hum. His eyes had grown exhausted from the vivid colors of costumes and painted masks, and the initially exciting festivities began to look almost drab.
He felt increasingly certain that he needed to take a break from this aimless procession, not because of physical exhaustion but on account of an unfamiliar spiritual fatigue. Over time, he’d been pushed back toward the center of the crowd, but with newfound understanding of his undiminished strength, he felt confident that he could carve a path to the sidewalk, take shelter in a doorway, and rest for a while as he considered whether to rejoin the party or call it a night.
He sank into his weight and started to move diagonally across the street. Tom immediately found himself being battered by the crowd, and he could not help but suspect that this was deliberate on their part. There was, however, no evident malice in the behavior of anyone who collided with him, and his shouts of “excuse me” were only met with excited, drunken, and meaningless screaming. After a long moment, he was able to see the sidewalk beckoning to him behind a sea of marching feet, and he strengthened his resolve even as the crowd seemed to strengthen its oblivious assaults.
With less than five yards to go before he escaped from the masses, he once again caught sight of a motionless human figure lying just at the edge of the street. “I think someone’s hurt!” he yelled, pointing to the spot and resolving this time to undermining the crowd’s indecipherable single-mindedness. Yet not one marcher acknowledged his cries, and so he tucked his chin to his chest and charged forward like a bull in order to reach the place on his own.
As Tom burst through the last row of unrelenting masked figures, he finally lost his balance, prompting him to instinctively reach out for any source of stability, whereupon his hand caught the mask worn by a nearby dancer and tore it roughly from his face. His eyes remained focused on the ground ahead of him as he considered how close he’d come to cracking his skull upon the curb. But he was aware of the slight weight in his right hand, and the slick sensation on the underside of the mask, no doubt caused by hours of accumulated sweat.
In his peripheral vision, he noticed that the feet belonging to the mask’s owner had moved over to his left side and stood waiting. But before turning his eyes that way, his gaze shifted from the ground to the mask, which he passed to his left hand in order to offer it back to the reveler with a murmured apology. As he did so, he noted that the fingers of his right were coated in a layer not of sweat but of blood. Rubbing them together, he confirmed that it was not his own, and began at last to turn toward the unmasked marcher, intending to ask, “Hey, are you all right?”
Barely the hint of a breath had escaped his throat before it caught there and his eyes bulged wide with terror. For in between the reveler’s tricorn hat and collared finery was not the annoyed or intoxicated red-faced expression of another tourist, but rather a grotesque skull staring vacantly through one eye sitting loose in its right socket. Hideous strands of bloody tissue hung down from the places where the skull had been pressed into the ceramic mask, its darkly shaded eyes and colorful, swirling patterns now seeming like an absurdly understated caricature of the emptiness and lingering gore that the mask had concealed.
Worse still, the ghoulish figure’s teeth were ground sharp, and between an upper and lower set of deformed fangs, a thick, muscular, but half-rotten tongue lolled side to side in a serpentine fashion. After a brief moment, the creature opened its awful mouth still further, in a gesture that could have prefaced either speech or attack. Standing before it, Tom did not wait to discern its intentions but, forgetting what had drawn him to this particular spot in the first place, scrambled backward and promptly tripped over the figure lying beside the road.
As he collapsed to the ground, his foot caught beneath the torso of the face-down figure, so that Tom inadvertently rolled it onto its back. His eyes remained fixed upon the skeletal creature standing above him, which advanced forward a step, in a gesture that seemed more curious than malevolent. So it took a moment for the broader scene to penetrate his senses and for his gaze to drift tentatively toward the collapsed figure that lay in the gutter, appearing at first to stare at him with its own expression of horror until he realized, first, that it was the face of a person quite dead, and second, that beneath the warped rictus of death, it was his own face.
There he lay, in the same spot that he had laid when the parade arrived to claim him. But this time, his mouth dripped with a horrid mass of booze-filled vomit, his head with a half-congealed trickle of blood, which also stained the curb just beside him. Within his other self – his living self – the rising tide of terror finally broke its damn and flooded the scene with a piercing scream, which was nonetheless lost amidst another, celebratory cry brought forth from the still-marching crowd, as if in a mocking response.
While he screamed, the fanged skull continued to advance and then leaned over the man’s dead body to regard Tom’s liberated spirit. When it spoke, the words rattled within whatever remained of its throat, and were pushed languidly past its quivering tongue.
“You didn’t know,” it said. “But we know.”
“What is this?” Tom demanded feebly, shivering with fear and revulsion. He shrank away from the looming figure and searched the distance in every direction for a way out of this place, while his mind flooded with old memories of Sunday school, teasing him with the thought of how very different this was from what was supposed to happen to you at death.
As if reading his thoughts, the skeletal figure answered: “The gates you look for… They are closed to us. You see, this is both the price and the reward of departing life on the day when sin weighs most heavily – and most carelessly – upon your soul. For us, the party need never end. And indeed, it never will.”
Still trembling on the ground and pulling himself away from the terrible reminder of his own death, he looked back to the mass of people still marching and cheering beside him, and stretching forward and back as far as his eye could see. To all outward appearances, they were each filled with joy and devoid of worry. But what can be said of outward appearances when every face is hidden behind cold and lifeless coverings?
“When you’re ready,” the creature continued, pressing its monstrous tongue to the backside of the ceramic lips and guiding it back behind its teeth before fixing the mask in place once again, “join us.”
The creature turned to depart but then paused and brought forth its otherworldly voice again from behind the ceramic. “Oh, and take this,” it said, reaching beneath its costume to produce another mask, which he handed to Tom without looking at him. “We assure you, in time you will need it.”
Many thanks to Jeannette Andromeda, whose “Fat Tuesday” illustration provided the inspiration for this story. See it here: