Markos Koszjan sits alone on Halloween night and watches himself on the heavy wood-sided TV. On the screen, he is a darkened monolith, his black suit an empty doorway that sucks up all the light, tapering from his broad shoulders to his waist, naturally narrow and cinched tighter by an unseen girdle.
At the ends of those black sleeves are his hands, the same hands that now rest on the arms of his chair, their knuckles buzzing with arthritic pain. On the screen, though, they are alive in a way that they haven’t been for years. Pale spiders crawling out of black stovepipes, skittering at the soft-focus necks of pretty young starlets who scream and swoon in backalleys and boudoirs and basement labs.
When his face is shown, it is often obscured by makeup, but only partly. There to accentuate rather than hide his own features—the prominence of his forehead and jaw, the depth of his bright but sunken eyes, the way his bones seem to lie too close and wrong-shaped beneath his skin.
Sometimes he plays mad scientists or sinister mesmerists, and then he is allowed to give speeches, his delivery addled by an accent he could have shed but was encouraged to keep. Not merely keep, but play up. People were afraid of foreigners back then. He guesses they still are.
Around him in the living room are framed posters and publicity stills, sitting on the floor and leaning against the wall where he has never yet gotten around to hanging them. They almost say his name, but not quite.
Zander Markos as the Monster, as the Creeper, as the Maniac, as the Brute Strangler. Zander Markos, the name foisted on him by the studio. So close to his own, and yet so far away.
Outside, someone is setting off fireworks at the wrong time of year. He can hear the staccato cracks through the thin walls, see the flowers in the sky if he just turns his head to look out the high-set window.
The view beyond should be of black sky speckled with familiar diamond stars, but the city pollutes the air with toxins and with light, and the night sky is a faded copy of itself, like the pictures he watches on the old TV.
Faded by time and by neglect. Gone the crisp, dark shadows that he remembers from the movie palaces. All of it gone now, lost to time, to memory, to cobwebs and creeping things that will soon be forgotten in their turn.
In the van three doors down, in a haze of smoke fenced in by rolled up windows, Darius and Mason sit smoking and talking. Or rather, Mason is talking, as he is always talking, especially when he’s also been smoking.
“Did you know that the stars are millions of light-years away?” he is saying, for the third time tonight. He pauses to take another hit. “A light-year isn’t time, like it sounds, it’s distance. But it’s also time, man, the time it takes for light to travel in a year.”
That this last sentence doesn’t make sense seems lost on him, and Darius doesn’t push it. “So what?” he asks instead, though he has already heard so what; he already knows.
“So the light we see from the stars,” and here Mason gestures with the burning pointer of the joint, through the windshield and the haze in the air toward the stars that are barely visible, even when they aren’t muted down to nothing by the flash of a firework going off from one or two streets over, “the light we see from the stars is light that shined all those years ago, and it just took it that long to get here. When we look up at the sky, we’re not looking at now at all, man, we’re looking at then.”
Darius gets that; he remembers learning it in school. Remembers Mr. Iglesias telling him that the stars we see might even have burned out hundreds or thousands of years ago. But tonight, Darius isn’t concerned with then, only with now. Now there are two shotguns behind the seats of the van, there is a pistol resting on the floorboard between his feet, and, according to Mason, there is a fortune just a few doors away.
It is that fortune that Darius is thinking about now; it is the only light he needs, and it doesn’t take years for it to reach him. Just the few terrible minutes between the door of the van and the back door of the house. The fumbling of the lock. The dark, muffled heat of the crinkly plastic masks that wait, still in their boxes and cellophane.
“And you’re sure this guy’s rich?” Darius asks, gesturing at the houses that surround them, low bungalows not much better, not much different, than the one where he lives with his mother and his little sister.
“No, man,” Mason replies from behind a cloud of smoke. “Dude’s not rich. If he was rich, he wouldn’t be living in this neighborhood. He’s a movie guy, or he was. Monster movie guy, back in the ’30s. And he’s still got the stuff, you know? The props and things from those old movies. And Kelly, he says that those props and posters and shit they sell for thousands to collectors.”
Darius thinks about that. About the backyard of the bungalow house, the low wire fence, the back door. About the old man who is presumably somewhere in the house, in the living room, the silver-gray flicker of the TV on to some old black-and-white horror picture, what all the TVs are tuned to tonight.
“And Kelly is paying us, right. Not fencing. Paying, straight up.”
“Forty percent of what he thinks it’ll bring,” Mason replies. “Straight up.”
Darius reaches down, between his knees, and feels the cool metal of the gun in the hot, smoky dark of the van. Outside, another flower bursts in the sky, and for a moment it decimates the stars.
That is not the crack-pause-crack of the fireworks one or two streets over. That is the sound of someone knocking on the front door, though it is late now, getting on toward midnight. “The witching hour,” he remembers intoning in his heavily-accented voice on some talk show or another a decade gone now, when people still cared who he was.
He rises from his chair and it is like rising from a coffin. His arms and legs feel heavy, bound in chains, as he was in The Secret Door. He can feel them dragging along behind him as he struggles across the hardwood floor, into the narrow hall. On the TV at his back, he is walking the other way, up a set of stairs cast in chiaroscuro.
The bungalow house is small, much smaller than the one he left behind in the Hollywood Hills. The halls feel tiny to his famously wide shoulders and he imagines, as he walks, that he is scraping across each one. He remembers a cartoon character obviously drawn as, what, an homage, a parody, a simple theft of any one of his many monstrous figures? It was essentially a black triangle balanced upside-down on a pair of legs; its shoulders like Gothic balconies affixed to the tops of its long and dangling arms.
That is how he pictures himself, that tipped-up cathedral lumbering down the narrow hall, and in his distraction he stumbles against the hall table and tips off his keys which clatter on the wood floor.
His porchlight is on, though he has received no trick-or-treaters this year. It isn’t a bad neighborhood, he doesn’t think, but it also isn’t a good one. That’s why there is an iron gate outside the door. Like a cemetery gate, banging in the wind. But not the wind. Someone is banging on the door. Someone on the porch.
On his side, the door looks solid and yellow, the porch light seeping in through two small windows set high, throwing the shadow of that cemetery gate on the floor of the hall, where he hasn’t bothered to turn on the light because he was distracted in his reminiscences. Who is at the door at this hour, on Halloween night?
Markos Koszjan feels a tingle of fear in his gut, and he is immediately resentful of it. He is supposed to be fear. He is the one who creeps in the night, the one who opens gates, who climbs in through windows. His is the shadow thrown long and sharp against the bedroom wall.
At the same time, though, he knows that he is not those things, not anymore. He doesn’t know what makes the young ladies snuggle closer to their boyfriends these days, but he knows that it is not him. He is old now, and he should be afraid in this not-bad-but-not-good-either neighborhood, in this small house with no one else at home.
What pride he still has he takes in the fact that he doesn’t have to stretch up on his tippy-toes to peer through the high windows. Time has taken much from him, but it has left him his height, his long, raw bones. He can still look down through the windows at the young man who stands on the front porch.
The young man is holding a bag in his hands—a long pillowcase, perhaps—and he wears a crinkly plastic mask on his face. Is he trick-or-treating? No; he may be a young man, but he is already far too old for that.
As Markos Koszjan opens the front door, another firework goes off in the night sky, masking the sound of the back door opening at the far end of the house.
The house is dark, the only light what comes in through the high-set windows and what spills in from the living room, where a bare-bulbed lamp burns and the TV is still on, the sound of organ music droning from within. The back door opens onto a kitchen, which Darius passes through as silently as he can.
He could have sworn he heard words spoken from the front of the house—some that may have been Mason’s voice, some in a thick accent—but they could have been from the TV.
In the hall off the kitchen there are photographs on the wall. A tall man, wide-shouldered but somehow gaunt, his face like a skull, his hands knobby and gray, posing next to people who look like they should be famous but who Darius can’t identify. He thinks one of them might be a singer that his mom used to like.
From where Darius stands now there is only one turn and he will be in the hall off the living room, the one that leads to the front door. A moment ago, when he was still in the kitchen, there was a strange sound, something that he couldn’t place. A gasp, maybe, a sudden intake of breath, impossibly loud and rattling. Was there the beginning of a scream, cut suddenly short, or was that only the TV?
Now he hears nothing, and he doesn’t know if Mason succeeded in drawing the old man to the door or not. He leans one shoulder against the wall. He can hear the TV, but the volume is turned low. An announcer is talking now, saying something about the old movie that has just been playing, or the one that is about to start.
The light from the living room spills onto the floor in front of him. On the wall opposite, he can see the reflected flicker of the TV. When he turns the corner, the living room will be to his left, the front door straight ahead of him.
He leans there for a moment, letting the wall support his weight, his hands gripped tight on the shotgun, the plastic mask rasping against his face. He doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be, some creep painted gray from some old movie, but it looks like the man in the pictures in the hall, and that makes him feel superstitious.
Relax, he thinks to himself. He’s just an old man. For all you know, he’s still asleep in front of the tube. He pulls in a breath, hears it rattle against the cheap plastic mask. He wipes one hand against his jeans, then the other. He grips the gun, he turns the corner, and he sees the monster.
The monster is backlit, painted in flickering silver strobes by the light of the TV in the next room. Its skin is gray and chalky and stretching, contorting, one long, pale arm snaking out, longer, longer, the fingers like spiders, the arm a serpent wrapping around Darius’s shoulder, around his waist, raising his feet up off the ground as his finger spasms on the trigger and the shotgun goes off, blowing a black hole in the lathe and plaster wall.
The arm raises him toward the monster’s mouth, and Darius recognizes it from the pictures in the hall, but now that skull-like jaw is opening wider, wider, wider than it could ever possibly open.
In the rows of blunt teeth that line that dark cavern, Darius sees bits of fabric the color of Mason’s sweater. He tries to raise the gun, but it has fallen nerveless from his fingers. Instead, he simply opens his mouth to scream, like the young ladies in the old black-and-white movies, but the plastic of his mask has sucked into his mouth and he chokes instead, and then it is too late.
He smells the odor of loamy earth and geraniums before he is simply gone.
The neighbors call the police about the fireworks. They say that one was so loud it sounded like it was coming from right next door.
The police don’t bother the odd but quiet old man who lives in the next house over, though Markos Koszjan sees their lights flashing against the living room wall. He has turned out his own light now and is sitting in the dark. The television remains on, still playing its all-night horror marathon, but it is no longer one of his movies on the screen.
Still, Markos Koszjan smiles a contented smile because the boy who came around the corner with the gun in his hand wore a mask of his face, and because now his stomach is full and it seems, for this one night at least, that there must still be a little of the old Zander Markos left in him after all.