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       Fiends SSC, p.16

           Richard Laymon
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  He smiled. ‘My buds. Right. I do appreciate your concern, really. Thanks. But it’s nothing. I’m just a little bit nervous about this gal I’ll be seeing tonight.’

  ‘Ah-ha!’ Shelly’s eyes gleamed. ‘A gal! Go for it, Romeo!’

  ‘That’s wonderful,’ Maureen said.

  ‘Anybody we know?’ Shelly asked.

  ‘I don’t even know her. Not exactly. She’s just somebody I met last weekend. At the movies. She sat across the aisle from me. We didn’t even talk. But if she’s there tonight..

  ‘Whoa!’ Shelly held up her hand. ‘Hold on. One second. She was at that midnight creepshow thing you go to on Saturday nights? And you don’t know her? So where do you think you’ll find her tonight?’ Allan felt heat wash over his face. This is what comes of lying, he thought. He shook his head and forced himself to laugh. ‘Geez, I don’t know. Guess I won’t be seeing her tonight. You’re right.’

  ‘Boy, you must have it bad. You don’t even know what day it is.’ She nudged Maureen with her elbow. ‘Looks like we’ve got a case of love at first sight.’

  ‘I don’t even know her,’ Allan protested.

  ‘She must be quite a fox.’

  ‘Quit teasing him,’ Maureen said. ‘Let him eat his lunch.’

  Shelly laughed. ‘So what’s she got that we ain’t got?’

  No face, Allan thought.

  But he only shrugged. Then Jake Hanson came to their table and the conversation turned to obnoxious students, as it often did. When the bell rang and Allan got up from the table, Shelly said, ‘Hey, good luck with the fox. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.’

  Allan headed for his fifth-period class, wishing he’d kept his mouth shut.


  Finally, the school day ended. On the way home, he stopped off at Blockbuster Video and picked up six tapes. Horror movies. Two of which he hadn’t already seen. They would help pass the time.

  He ran one during supper, but his mind was on the masked woman. He hardly noticed the movie. Then he tried to work on his vampire novel, but gave up after an hour. As he sat in his recliner to watch the next movie, he thought, What’s the use? I might as well stare at the wall.

  And then he had a very welcome thought.

  It came in the form of Shelly’s voice saying, ‘So where do you think you’ll find her tonight?’

  Shelly was right.

  Why get all worked up when I probably won’t find her tonight, anyway? We ran into each other on Saturday night. Why not wait for then?


  I’ll stay home tonight, enjoy my movies, go to bed at a reasonable hour…

  The feeling of relief was immense.


  Then Saturday arrived. The hours crept by. He told himself that he didn’t have to approach the masked woman. He could take a different route home from the theater, and avoid her. For that matter, he could stay home.

  And miss the midnight showing of The Cabinet of Dr Cahgari? He’d already seen the film six or seven times. A shame not to watch it again, though. He could always drive his car.

  No. I’ll walk. I’ll take my usual route. If I see her, I’ll apologize. And that will be the end of it.


  After supper that night, he sat in his recliner and watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, then I Spit on Your Grave. For minutes at a time, he was able to forget about the masked woman. When the movies were over, he took a shower. He shaved. He combed his hair and splashed some Chaps on his cheeks. Instead of wearing his favorite outfit for the midnight show - old blue jeans and his Bates Motel T-shirt - he put on a good pair of Dockers and a plaid sports shirt.

  In the bedroom mirror, he shook his head at himself.

  What the hell am I doing? You’d think I really did have a date.

  Hey, maybe she won’t recognize me dressed up like this. She couldn’t have gotten a very good look at my face.


  At a quarter past eleven, he left his apartment. He gave his parked car a long look as he walked by it.

  So much easier if I just drive.

  He couldn’t.

  He had to make an attempt to find her.

  Tense and shaky, he walked to the Palace. He usually bought nachos and a Pepsi at the refreshment counter. But tonight he had no appetite. He took his seat. He glanced about at the familiar crowd, fearing that she might’ve come to watch the movie. Then the lights dimmed. He rubbed his sweaty hands on the legs of his trousers, and faced the screen.

  The Cabinet of Dr Caligari began.

  He stared at it. But in his mind, he saw the masked woman. Saw himself approaching her. What if she’s bonkers? What if she’s dangerous? What if she lifts the mask to show me her face and it’s horrible? Worse than anything ever created by Tom Savini or Stan Winston? Worse than the ugliest fantasies of Clive Barker?

  He tried to calm himself.

  Maybe she won’t show up.

  He had never run into her before. Last Saturday night could have been a fluke. She might’ve been out on a special errand, or something.

  Maybe I’ll never see her again.

  As much as he dreaded the encounter, however, he found himself troubled by the idea of never seeing her again. It was more than a need to set matters right. He’d known that all along, he supposed.

  She frightened him, but he longed to learn her secrets.

  All the mysteries of the night, so eerie and tantalizing, seemed banal compared to the woman in the mask. She was the ultimate mystery.

  Mad or sane? What lurks beneath the mask? What possesses her to walk the empty streets? Does she have a tortured soul? What stories might she tell of children shrieking at the sight of her, of heartless abuse, of solitary years locked away from daylight? How does it feel to be shunned?

  He could learn the answers.


  The lights came up.

  Allan walked into the night. By the time he’d walked a block, he was alone.

  His mouth was dry. His heart thudded. His legs trembled.

  He gave no thought to the windows above the street, barely glanced through the accordion gates of the closed shops, paid no attention to passing cars, looked into dark entryways and the gaps between buildings and the alleys for no reason other than to search for her. As he hurried along, he noticed a few derelicts. He saw them, felt neither fear nor disgust, and turned his eyes away to look for the masked woman.

  Finally, he came to the block where he’d encountered her. The sidewalk stretched ahead of him, deserted. He slowed his pace. He gazed at the corner.

  Where are you?

  Maybe I’m early. No. If anything, Cabinet was five or six minutes longer than Nosferatu. Maybe I’m too late, then.

  But if she’d come this way, we should’ve run into each other already.

  Maybe she stayed home tonight. Or chose a different route.

  He stopped. It was just about here that he’d been halted by the sight of her. She’d appeared from the right, walked to the corner and turned her back to him as if intending to cross the street. It was here that he’d been standing when she turned around.

  He waited.

  Dribbles of sweat slid down his sides.

  I ought to just keep walking. If she doesn’t show, she doesn’t show.

  He checked his wristwatch. One twenty-eight.

  Give her five minutes.

  When he looked up from his watch, she was already past the corner and striding toward him.

  He gasped and staggered backward.

  Cool it! he told himself. This is it. You wanted to see her, here she is.

  The silver fabric shrouding her face shimmered and swayed as she walked. Her hair gleamed in the streetlights. Instead of shorts and a blouse like last week, she wore a dress. It looked purple and shiny. It hung from her shoulders by narrow straps, draped the swells of her breasts, tapered down to a sash at her waist, flared out at her hips and drifted against her striding thighs. It was very short. Her legs looked lo
ng and sleek. She wore sandals, not shoes and socks.

  Allan’s heart thundered.

  She’s gorgeous! Except for that damn mask. What horrors did it conceal?

  She must be mad. No sane woman would walk these streets at such an hour - and not in a dress like that!

  Don’t just stand here, gaping at her.

  He started walking toward her.

  Her sandals made soft clapping sounds on the concrete. Her skirt briefly took on the shape of each thigh that swept against it. The ends of the sash swung by her side. The silken fabric clinging to her breasts trembled and jiggled.

  Maybe she is a whore, after all.

  If so, she might wear the mask merely to conceal her identity. Or to make her look enigmatic. Her face might not be ghastly, after all.

  Now, only a few strides separated Allan from the woman.

  In the darkness behind the mask’s eye slots, he could see nothing except mere specks of reflected light. A vague hint of lips showed through the slot at her mouth.

  I’ve got to say something. Apologize. At least.

  He was walking straight toward her, so he angled to his right. Her head turned.

  He managed a smile.

  They passed each other.

  He breathed in her perfume. A scent so strange and delicious it forced him to sigh, to look back at her.

  She halted as if she felt his gaze.

  ‘Excuse me?’ he said. Damn, but he sounded like a scared kid! She turned around.

  ‘Do you remember me?’ he asked.

  ‘Oh, yes.’ Her voice was low, breathy. In spite of the narrow gap at her mouth, it stirred the mask like a soft breeze.

  ‘I… I guess I kind of… lost my cool last week. I’m really glad you came along.’ He shrugged. ‘I wanted to apologize.’

  ‘Apologize? For running from me?’ she asked.

  ‘I’m really sorry.’

  ‘What’s your name?’

  He hesitated. ‘Allan.’

  ‘Allan what?’

  She wants my last name? Good God, she’d be able to look me up, find me. ‘Hawthorne,’ he lied. ‘Allan Hawthorne.’

  She stepped toward him, mask and dress glimmering, and reached out her hand. Allan shook it. But when he tried to let go, her fingers tightened. She held him in a firm, warm grip. ‘I’m Ligeia,’ she said.

  The name surprised him. ‘Really? Ligeia? There’s a story by Poe…’

  ‘I know,’ she said in her strange, hushed voice.

  ‘I really like Poe.’

  ‘We have that in common, then. Come with me.’ She pulled him by the hand. And kept his hand in hers as she led him slowly down the sidewalk.

  ‘Uh… Where are we going?’

  ‘Does it matter?’

  ‘I don’t know.’

  ‘You’re free to leave, if that’s your wish.’

  ‘No. No, that’s okay.’

  She nodded slightly, then turned her head forward.

  Allan hoped to see under her mask, but it curved around the side of her face, hiding her almost to the ear. It hung from a headband, a folded scarf that was tied at the back. The way the silver cloth was tucked in over the top of the scarf, it flowed down smoothly except for a slight bump made by the tip of her nose. Her chin didn’t seem to touch the draping fabric at all.

  They walked in silence for a while.

  He wished she would say something.

  Finally, he broke the silence himself. ‘I really felt awful about running away.’

  She stopped and turned toward him. ‘It was this,’ she said. Her other hand came up. Her fingertips glided down the glossy mask, easing it inward. Ever so briefly as the fingers slid down, the mask took on the contours of her face. Though her eyes remained hidden, Allan glimpsed a veiled suggestion of slender nose and cheeks. Her lips appeared for an instant, bare in the opening. Her fingers drifted the fabric against a small bulge of chin. Then she breathed. The hints of her face dissolved behind a silver tremor.

  Allan tried to swallow. He wished his heart would slow down.

  ‘I frighten you, don’t I?’

  ‘A little,’ he whispered. ‘I guess.’

  ‘We fear the unknown,’ she said. ‘But we’re enthralled by it.’


  ‘Do I enthrall you, Allan?’

  He let out a small, nervous laugh. ‘I don’t know. You sure… make me curious.’

  ‘You wonder what the mask hides.’

  ‘Yes. And… and why you walk around at an hour like this.’

  ‘So I won’t be seen.’

  ‘But why?’

  ‘My face, of course. Come along.’ She turned away, pulling at his hand, and they resumed walking. ‘I like the night,’ she said. ‘It holds such secrets.’

  ‘But its dangerous.’

  ‘Not for me. The mask protects me. People keep their distance. They take me for a madwoman.’

  ‘I guess… I was afraid of that, myself.’

  ‘I know.’

  ‘You’re not, though.’

  ‘You don’t think so?’

  ‘Hope not.’

  Laughing softly, she squeezed his hand. ‘I think I like you, Allan.’

  ‘I think I like you, too.’

  ‘Shall we be friends?’

  ‘Sure,’ he said.

  She looked at him. ‘Are you sure?’

  ‘Yeah. I mean, why not?’

  ‘You’re still frightened of me, aren’t you?’

  ‘A little, maybe.’

  ‘I won’t hurt you.’

  ‘It’s just… you know, the mask. If I could see your face… Is it… is something wrong with it?’

  ‘My face is my own.’

  ‘How can we be friends if you’re hiding behind a mask, if you won’t let me see what you look like?’

  She gave no answer, but led him into an alley. His mouth went dry. His heart slammed. As they left the lights of the street behind, he peered into the darkness. High walls on both sides. Dumpsters ahead. But no lurking derelicts that he could see. Though the alley appeared deserted, he trembled with dread and excitement.

  Ligeia halted. She put her hands on his shoulders.

  ‘Is my face so important?’ she asked.

  Oh, God! She’s going to take off the mask. Now. Right here in the alley. In the dark.

  ‘Is it?’ she asked again.

  ‘Uh. I guess not. Not really.’

  ‘You said we can’t be friends unless you know what I look like.’

  ‘That isn’t quite what…’

  ‘Suppose I’m not pretty? Would you run from me again?’


  ‘Suppose I’m horribly ugly?’

  ‘Is that why you wear the mask?’

  ‘Perhaps.’ Gently, she rubbed his shoulders. ‘How important is my face to you, Allan? Does it need to be beautiful? Or can you accept me without… passing judgement on it?’

  He managed to whisper, ‘Yes.’

  ‘Yes what?’

  ‘I don’t need to see.’

  She glided forward, wrapped her arms around Allan and drew him close against her. He felt the heat of her body, the push of her breasts, the cool smoothness of the mask against his face. Her lips met his mouth.

  Her lips felt wonderful. Warm and moist.

  So long since the last time he’d held and kissed a woman. The feel of her shocked him with desire.

  But she must be hideous, or why…?

  He didn’t care. She smelled of strange, jungle blossoms. Her sweet breath filled him. He slid his tongue into her mouth and she sucked it in deep and writhed against him, rubbing him with her sleek body as her hands clutched his back.

  His own hands roamed Ligeia’s back, caressing the skin above the top of her dress, roaming lower, sliding the fabric against her, following her curves down past the sash. He filled his hands with the soft, firm mounds of her buttocks. And knew they were bare beneath the fragile veil of the skirt. Moaning into her mouth, he pulled the s
kirt up.

  Ligeia grabbed his wrists. She forced his hands down to his sides and leaned away, shaking her head. She breathed hard. The mask clung around her mouth, wet.

  ‘What’s wrong?’ Allan whispered.

  ‘Nothing. You’re… I’ve got to leave now.’

  He took a step toward her. She stopped him, hands against his chest.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘Perhaps we’ll see each other again.’ She backed away from him.

  ‘Don’t go.’

  Without another word, she whirled and fled.

  The moment she vanished from sight, Allan ran to the mouth of the alley. He spotted her to the right, dashing up the sidewalk, her shimmering dress afly, her arms pumping, her long bare legs striding out, her sandals clapping the concrete.

  ‘Ligeia!’ he cried out.

  She didn’t look back.

  What if I never see her again?

  Maybe that’d be for the best, he told himself. What sort of relationship could we have, anyway? She has to wear that mask. Too grotesque to go anywhere without it.

  I’d be better off…

  She darted around the corner.

  ‘No!’ he yelled into the night, and sprinted after her.

  The hell with the mask, he thought as he raced up the sidewalk. Who gives a shit! Who gives a shit what she looks like!

  He ran harder than he’d ever run before.

  Pounded around the corner.

  Skidded to a halt when he saw her no more than fifty feet away.

  Obviously, she hadn’t thought he would pursue her. She was walking slowly, head down, arms swaying limp at her sides, sandals scuffing along. She seemed lost in her thoughts, crushed by a burden of dejection.

  Ligeia, Allan thought. What have I done to you?

  He ached to rush forward and take her into his arms and make everything all right.

  That might only make matters worse.

  Is she upset because I got carried away in the alley? She’s the one who started it. And that dress! Nothing on under it. What did she expect?

  Maybe that isn’t it. Suppose she’s falling in love with me and knows it can’t work. Maybe that’s why she fled.

  Whatever the reason, she was probably in no mood for Allan to put in an appearance.

  He couldn’t just walk away, though.

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