"We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others that in the end we become disguised to ourselves.”
-Francois de La Rochefoucauld
Miranda turned to say something to Richard and saw that he wasn't there. Only then did she realize she had no idea where she was.
She was standing on a patio attached to a house she didn't recognize. It was night, and the tide was coming in on the beach below, and the fog was coming with it. She hugged her bare arms and retreated inside, closing the French doors behind her.
The lights were off, but the room was lit by a dozen grinning jack-o-lanterns on a table. That's right, she thought, it's Halloween. But where am I? And where is Richard?
Miranda circled the room, looking for anything familiar, trailing her fingers over the tops of tables and along the pattern of the wallpaper, but it was no good. She could not remember how she came to be in this house.
She found the door and went into the hall. There were voices coming from somewhere nearby, and music. She followed the sounds.
She started when she passed a mirror and saw what she was wearing. She looked herself up and down, taking in the purple dress, the red and gold embroidered shawl, the white party mask, and the silver tiara she wore on top of her head. She smoothed her hands over the fabric, wondering where the costume had come from, as she didn't remember ever seeing it before.
She looked at the tiara. Am I princess, she thought, or a queen?
"Do you like it?" said a voice behind her. In the mirror she saw a tall man dressed all in red standing at her shoulder. He wore a red cape with a hood, and a mask of a skull over his face. She turned and threw her arms around him.
"Richard!" she said. "There you are. I was looking for you and—“
She stopped. The body of the man she was hugging was cold and rigid, like a statue. She backed away. The man in red nodded slightly.
"Oh, I'm sorry!" she said. "I thought you were someone I knew."
"I am," said the man. "I am not, however, your husband.” He took her hand and brought it up as if to kiss it, though his mask prevented it. She shivered and took her hand back. It was cold.
"Is this your house?" she said.
"Yes," said the stranger.
"Then I know this will sound strange," said Miranda, "but could you tell me what's going on? I really don't remember how I got here."
"That does not sound strange at all," said the man. "You are here because you are my guest at tonight's party. Which reminds me: It's time we both got back. Shall we?"
He took her by the arm and led her down the hall. She followed, bewildered. He opened a door and the sound of voices and music poured in. They came to a great room decorated all in blue: blue walls, blue carpet, blue upholstery on the furniture, a pulsing arrangement of strange blue lights, and a blue crystal chandelier hanging over it all. The man in red closed the door behind them. The room was full of people in costumes and masks, a swirling mass of colors and voices. Miranda felt suddenly dizzy at the sight of it all and put a hand on the strange man's arm for support, though he was unpleasant to touch
"Would you care for a drink?" said the stranger.
"No, thank you. Do you know if my husband is here? I'm afraid I don't know what he'd be wearing, but—"
"I know exactly what he's wearing, and I may even know where he is. Would you like for us to find him?"
Without waiting for an answer, he led her on. A troupe of faceless mummers marched past, and behind them a man in black with a wide-brimmed hat and a ghastly mask, and behind him a woman dressed as a cat, and then a soldier in full dress uniform, and then the Man in the Iron Mask, and on and on it went in a never-ending parade. Everything in the room seemed to spin and the music made her want to dance and dance and she had to stop herself from becoming lost in it.
"This is all so strange," she said.
"But that shouldn't bother you at all," said the stranger. “It's only Halloween."
Miranda's dress snagged on Poseidon's trident and she had to slow down to keep from ripping it. "Are you sure Richard is here?" she asked.
"Very sure," said the stranger. “I wouldn't forget meeting a man like that."
Richard sniffed the air and smoothed the wolf mask over his face. He counted his breaths and rolled his feet with each step to move quietly. He was hunting
There was a woman nearby. He could smell her. He could smell a great many things with the wolf mask on, thousand and thousands of distinctive, overlapping scents. Through the mask, colors looked brighter and objects appeared sharper and more distinct, and he could hear things too, so many sounds he had never even realized were there.
He'd left the main party downstairs. Miranda was out there somewhere, but he'd left her behind too, following the scent. The woman, whoever she was, had gone off alone, and Richard, curious, had followed her. The flickering faces of jack-o-lanterns were the only lights in the hallway, but it was enough for him to pick out her footprints in the dust. Such delicate little feet.
A sour smell wafted out of a doorway, distracting him. Curious, Richard looked and found a small room with a four-poster bed. A man dressed as a legionnaire, his mask torn and his costume covered in blood, lay on the bed, trying to stand but apparently lacking the strength. The comforter was soaked with blood too.
The soldier saw Richard and reached toward him. "Please help me," he said.
Richard closed the door and walked away.
He followed the scent of the woman's perfume down the hall. He came to a room that was all in yellow, and though it was a large room set up for the party there was no one here but the woman. She was wearing a gossamer white gown with some kind of elaborate headdress, and a white mask over her eyes.
"Are you the Big Bad Wolf?" she said. She was looking out the window. The glass was tinted red.
"I'm not that bad," he said. "Are you lost?"
"No," she said. "I came up here looking for something."
"What's that?" said Richard.
"I don't know," she said. "I can't remember. But the man in red said I'd find it here."
Richard closed the distance between them one step at a time.
"I like your costume," he said. "What are you supposed to be?"
"Dido, Queen of Carthage," she said. "Isn't it perfect? The man in red said that it suits me."
"He was right," said Richard. Now that he was closer he smelled what was under her perfume: fear, loneliness, regret, pride, and anger. His mouth watered.
"I think it suits me too," she said. “But I don't think I like it."
"Why not?" said Richard.
She frowned, and the smell of regret became stronger. "You know what happened to Dido, don't you?"
"No," said Richard. He was very close now.
"Nothing good," said the woman.
"Then it's the part you were born for," he said. And before she could scream, he grabbed her. He put his hand over her mouth and pushed her against the wall.
For a second he hesitated. And then he imagined that she was Miranda, and his hesitation went away.
Miranda was having trouble keeping up with the man in red. The crowd always parted for him but then it closed around her, and she was struggling against a sea of clowns, ghosts, devils, knights, lords, ladies, fairies, mermaids, and monsters. More than once she thought the mob would carry her away.
They'd left the Blue Room and passed through one similarly decked in green, and now he lead her on into a room of deep violet. Everywhere there was drinking and dancing and food and absolutely everyone wore a mask. The throbbing beat of the music unsettled Miranda, and she felt it was somehow pushing her back with every step she took.
A harlequin detached from the crowd and stood in her way. "Posso aiutarti?" he said. "Quale e il suo nome? Di dove sei?"
She tried to walk around him but several more masked men blocked her.
"She doesn't understand you, Arlechinno," said a man with a beaked mask and a loud voice.
"I was only trying to be polite," said the harlequin. “Are you alone at the party, little dolcezza? Do you need a chaperone?"
"Move," said Miranda, and the crowd burst into giggles.
"She's not your type," said a man in a bright red mask with a crocodile's snout. "She wants Fanfarone. All women want Fanfarone."
"Not Columbina!" said a voice in the crowd.
More laughter. Miranda was ready to make a break for it when the man in red stepped into the knot of partygoers and scattered them. "Away, away," he said. "This one is my guest."
The masked men left in a hurry. The stranger nodded at Miranda. "Excuse them, please," he said. "They are used to indulging themselves."
"You left me behind," she said.
"You did not keep up."
"It's not easy to run in this dress you know."
"I know," said the man. "You never did tell me if you liked it."
"Yes," said the man. "I picked it out just for your, Miranda. I picked everyone's costumes and I put a lot of thought into them. The only rules at my party are that you must come in costume and that you must keep your mask on at all times.”
"Wait a minute,” Miranda said. He was turning away, but she touched his sleeve to stop him. "Who are you? How do you know my name?"
"I told you: I'm someone you know."
"But who?" She peered into the eyes behind his mask. He stood up straight and raised his voice to be heard over the din of the crowd:
“'He was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. His vesture was dabbled in blood -- and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.’”
He looked at her, as if waiting. Miranda shook her head. “I don’t understand?”
“Isn’t it obvious?" said the man. “I am the Red Death.”
Richard had expected a struggle. In fact, he'd been looking forward to it. To his surprise, Dido threw her arms around him instead. He felt her nipples through the thin fabric of her costume.
"Finally," she said. "What took you so long?"
"I just got here?" said Richard.
"But I've been looking for you all night," she said. She kissed him under his mask and bit his lower lip. "It feels like I've been waiting for you forever. But it's fine now, so long as you're with me, and we'll be together always. We will be together, won't we?"
She smelled like fear and he heard her heartbeat accelerate, but he knew it was not him she was afraid of.
"You don't have to answer," she said. "Just love me. Please, love me."
He squeezed her ass with both hands. This time when she tried to kiss him he pushed her away. This seemed to excite her, and when she tried yet again he put a hand on her throat and forced her to her knees. She moaned and rolled her eyes, sucking his fingers into her mouth.
I cannot possibly be this lucky, he thought.
She tugged down the straps of her dress, squeezing her tits and shaking them. "Does this please you?" she said.
"I only want to please you," she said, running fingers around her erect nipples. "I would do anything for you, my hero, my champion, my lover. Tell me what you want and it's all yours."
Definitely nuts, he thought. She licked one of her own nipples and winked at him. "You know I'm a queen, but tonight I'll be your slave.”
He touched his mask, as if to remind himself it was there. Hers hid her eyes. For a second he wanted to turn and leave, to run away in fact, and go back and find Miranda and then leave this house altogether. But he remembered what the man in red told him about having a night to do what he wanted. All his life he never got to do what he wanted. He felt hunger gnawing inside, and he grabbed Dido by her hair. She moaned again.
"I want everything," he said.
The Red Death bowed, sweeping his cape back. Miranda frowned.
"The Red Death?" she said. "You mean like the Poe story?"
"Very much so," said the Red Death. "You recognize the motif, don't you? You'll find it all here: the colored rooms, the costumed guests, and the great black clock that tolls the hours. And me, of course."
"It's a strange idea for a party," she said. "And you still haven't told me anything. Who are you really? How did I get here? Where is my husband?"
"So many questions," said the Red Death. "Why don't you forget about all of that and enjoy yourself for a little while? You're my guest, and I'd like for you to exercise your liberty as long as you're here. Tonight I want you to do anything you want as long as it pleases you. I would like that very much."
"What I really want right now is to find Richard and leave," she said. She expected a rejoinder, but when she looked up the Red Death was gone. She turned around and around, but he'd vanished into the crowd.
"Oh hell," she said.
Miranda looked up the stairs, and then back the way they'd come. She could not see anything in either direction through the wall of people. Well, she thought, Richard is probably looking for me too, so maybe I should just wait in one spot. She found an empty corner of a couch along the wall of the Violet Room and sat down. It was almost a minute before he realized what was going on around her.
She looked at the couple next to her on the couch and did a double take when she saw that the woman, who was naked except for a grass skirt, a lei, and a feathered mask, was giving a blowjob to a turbaned man whose silver mask covered his entire face. Her lips slid over his naked cock and her tongue lolled out of her mouth, licking around and around the head, but her eyes were on Miranda, watching her. When the woman saw Miranda watching back she winked.
A foot down the long couch was another couple, an angel with black wings bobbing her head up and down on a pharaoh’s cock, and next to them a woman naked except for a mask over her eyes was on all fours between two men. The couch was a line of masked couples and trios in various states of undress and various states of intimacy.
Miranda realized she was staring, but did not look away. The music in the room was creeping into her again, and she noticed that the group’s movements were all in time to the beat. And then she realized that someone had sat down next to her and had a hand on her leg.
“Vieni qui e baciami,” said the harlequin. “Le tue labbra sono dolci come il miele.”
She jumped up and ran for the stairs. Hysterical laughter followed her.
I can’t wait to get out of here, she thought.
At the top of the stairs she found the Orange Room. The color scheme gave her a headache, but everyone here looked clothed, and no one had followed her. She stopped the first person she saw, a man dressed as Cyrano de Bergerac, his mask consisting of an enormous false nose.
"Excuse me," she said. "I'm looking for...well, I'm not sure who. Our host, I guess? The man in red?"
"Parlez-vous Francais?" said Cyrano. "Comment vous appellez-vous?"
Miranda blinked. "Oh. Excuse me," she said. She backed away and stumbled into a man dressed as a samurai, with a scowling war mask.
"Chotto matte kudasai," said the samurai. "John wo sagashite imasu."
"Sorry!" she said. She heard jingling bells and came face to face with a man in a manic, grinning mask and a jester's cap.
"Excuse me?" she said, "I'm sorry, I'm all mixed up here."
The man laughed. "That sir which serves and seeks for gain and follows but for form, will pack when it begins to rain, and leave thee in the storm!" he said.
"Um," said Miranda. "Well, thank you for that. I think I'll keep looking for my husband..."
"He's mad, that trusts in the tameness of a wolf," said the man. "Truly, madam, he holds Beelzebub at the staves’ end as well as a man in his case may do, but many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage."
Miranda heard a woman's voice in her ear: "Don't mind him, he's just a Fool."
A woman whose costume was an antique wedding dress with a veil that came down to just above her mouth took Miranda by the hand and pulled her to the edge of the crowd. The Fool ran after them, singing.
"Come away, come away, death, and in sad cypress let me be laid! Fly away, fly away breath, I am slain by a fair cruel maid!" he sang, and then he disappeared into the crowd, laughing.
"That was strange," said Miranda.
"It's that kind of night," said the woman.
"I know what you mean. I have no idea what's going on."
"No one seems to," said the woman. "It's the same story with every person I talk to: No one knows how they even got here. But I guess they don't care as long as there's a party." She smiled, and Miranda could make out two dark eyes behind the veil. "I'm Carmilla."
"Pleased to meet you," said Carmilla. "I'm trying to find the way out, how about you?"
"I'm trying to find my husband."
"Has he gone astray?" said Carmilla. "Or was he a stray to begin with? Well come on, we'll look for him together. That way if we get more lost at least we'll be lost with one another."
Carmilla squeezed Miranda's hand, and Miranda squeezed back. Together they made their way through the crowd, slipping away from the party down a hallway lit by rows of jack-o-lanterns.
Richard slid his cock into Dido's mouth, forcing her head to stay perfectly still. She gagged a little but offered no resistance. He growled, twining her hair around his fingers and pushing until he came to the back of her mouth. Her tongue was pinned, wriggling, under his shaft. He kept it there for a moment, letting her wet lips suck on the base, and then he pulled her head back until his cock popped free. She gasped, her lips forming a ring, and he waited until she was halfway through inhaling before sticking it back in. She choked, but still did not resist.
He had his back to the wall and she was on her knees, hands behind her. He pushed with his hips, fucking her mouth. Most of his costume was gone, but he kept the mask on. She reached up to put her arms around him and he slapped her hands away. The second time she did he twisted her arm and she screamed, but moaned right after.
He could tell she was afraid, but not of him. This annoyed him. He pushed himself all the way inside, filling her mouth, and then began fucking her throat with short thrusts, never taking himself out but instead grinding against her pouty lips. She moaned around him, her voice vibrating his shaft, and her mouth continued to make wet, obscene noises. She moved her head around and around in a circle, sometimes drawing him out so that he was forced to push it back in.
Richard felt himself growing angrier. His cock throbbed and his muscles tensed into knots. He dug his fingers into the flesh of his palms and clenched his jaw. She was taunting him, he thought. She wanted him to hurt her. But he didn't; that would be giving in. Instead he let her work, remaining perfectly still while she bobbed up and down, mechanically pumping him. He pulled her hair once, casually, but for the most part did not touch her.
Dido increased her pace. She reached up, not for him but to squeeze her own breasts, massaging them in circles. From one of the other rooms of the party Richard heard the rhythmic thump of music, and he realized that her movements and his were in time with it, and that even his heart seemed to beat to half-heard strains. He cupped her face in his hand, hard enough that she winced.
She licked her lips and said, "Was that enough for you? Or can I do more?"
He pushed her to the ground and ripped her dress off, leaving her in only her mask. He crouched over her, spreading her legs. She smelled like anger, and pity, and disdain.
"Now," she said, "are you going to be a little bitch, or are you going to be a real man?"
He glared at her.
"Show me then," she said, lips curling. "Show me."
He buried half the length of him inside of her with one thrust. She was incredibly wet, and he slid in without resistance. She rolled her eyes back into her head.
"Good," she said. "Again."
He gave another thrust, pushing the other half in. Her legs squeezed his body. She dragged her nails over the floorboards.
He started to pump her violently, rocking overt her body, pushing with all the force that his arched back and squared shoulders could exert.
He held onto her hips, fingers threatening to bruise her flesh. He drew all the way out and penetrated anew with each thrust, grunting and growling. Her naked back rubbed against the hardwood, but she did not ask him to slow or relent, instead panting over and over again:
"Harder! Harder! Harder!"
He clapped a hand over her mouth. He poured out exertion, trying to drown his thoughts in the rough, needy, desperate pounding. His muscles ached and sweat matted his hair. He couldn’t stop. His cock slammed into her again and again. Her pussy was saturated. He choked because he couldn’t slow down enough to take a breath.
She was completely naked, her entire sweaty, writhing body his for the taking, but he felt somehow that really she was completely hidden from him except for her eyes. Only her eyes, behind her mask, were truly visible. One moment he thought they were Dido’s eyes, and then they were Miranda’s, and now they were those of nameless, faceless women he’d been with in the past, or ones he’d dreamed about, or those he’d never met. Eventually he had to close his own eyes and then, in the dark, she was no woman at all, safe and anonymous.
He grabbed her thrashing, wriggling body and held it down, constricting her into the closest semblance of stillness that he could. He narrowed his focus down to the feeling of hot, flushed, sweaty, pliant flesh underneath him. He begins to cum, releasing a steady stream into the confines of her pussy. He gushed and she screamed, and she broke free of his grip, clawing him and biting him, swearing and snarling and convulsing. This went on until he was spent and then he pushed her away, standing and stretching.
He did not feel satisfied. His anger was still there. He dressed in silence. She watches him, still naked on the floor. She stroked his bare ankles and giggled when he kicked her away.
“That was fun,” she said. “When are you going to be ready for another round?”
Richard said nothing.
“Is your wife at the party?”
He looked at her.
“I can see the mark of the ring on your finger.” She shook her head. “I don’t mind. She should join us.”
He went to the door.
"You're leaving?" she said, sitting up.
"Yes," said Richard.
"Where are you going?”
"Away," he said.
“What about me?” she said.
“What about you?”
She sat on the floor, covering herself with the shredded remains of her costume. "Of course you're leaving," she said. "Dido's lover always leaves. And she stays. And then she...she..."
But Richard was already gone. He crept back down the hall, closing the door to the Yellow Room behind him. What does Dido do, he thought, when her lover leaves? It didn’t matter. He needed something else now, but he wasn’t sure what.
Richard passed the little bedroom again, and again stuck his head inside. The wounded soldier was still there. The blood was now overflowing onto the carpet. Richard thought the man must be dead, but when he came closer he saw that the soldier was taking shallow breaths, and every now and then he blinked.
"Doctor," he said, with much effort. "Get me...a doctor."
Richard looked him over. "I can if you want," he said. "But it looks too late to me."
The man groaned. "That fucking bitch. I can't believe she did it."
"This crazy bitch in a vampire costume," said the soldier. "She actually bit me! Oh Christ, it hurts!"
Richard saw something gleam on the bedspread. He found two pointed metal objects, covered in blood.
"You see?" said the soldier. "She broke her fucking fake fangs off on me. Can you believe that? What kind of a fucking psycho—?" He coughed up blood, drowning whatever he said next.
"Looks like she got you pretty good," said Richard. "I don't think you've got much longer."
"Should have stayed away," said the soldier. "Shouldn't even have come in. I don't even know how I got here..."
Richard counted to himself. After two minutes passed without the man taking a breath, he leaned in close to the body. The bite mark had a ragged edge. The entire room smelled of raw flesh. Richard's stomach growled. Before he knew what he was doing, he climbed up onto the bed, leaning over the dead man. He licked his lips and slid his tongue over his teeth, wondering if they were sharp enough to tear the meat.
As he reached out, he knocked his mask askew. As soon as he did, he jerked his hand away. The smell of blood became sour, and he felt dazed. What's going on, he thought; what am I doing?
A hand readjusted his mask for him. Once it was on straight, he felt normal again. He saw the Red Death at the bedside.
"Thanks," said Richard, smoothing the mask over his face again.
"My pleasure," said the Red Death. "Are you enjoying the party?"
"You bet," he said. "Sorry about this mess."
"It wasn‘t your fault," said the Red Death. "The vampire costume always causes problems. Although I see you've stained your pelt."
The Red Death waved a hand and Richard's costume and mask became spotless again.
"There," said the Red Death. "By the way, I thought I should let you know that your wife is looking for you."
Richard's ears perked up. "Miranda?"
"Yes. She asked me where you were. She‘s over in the east wing right now. I can take you to her, if you like?"
Richard climbed off the bed. "I‘ll find her on my own," he said.
"As you wish. This is your party, after all. Enjoy yourself however you see fit. I want you to do whatever pleases you tonight."
But Richard wasn't listening. He sniffed the air, searching for her scent. He licked his lips again. Ah, he thought, the thrill of the hunt.
As he went along, the Red Death followed him, too. He knew it was there, but was not afraid. It was a comfort knowing that death stayed behind him, and would be there when he found Miranda.
Miranda and Carmilla left the Green Room. Sounds of moaning and bodies pressing against each other followed. They went a ways down the hall, stopping amid a cluster of jack-o-lanterns and then bursting into giggles.
“Well,” said Carmilla, “that obviously wasn’t the right way. Although, it could be right, with the right company...”
Miranda blushed. “Do you have any idea where we are?”
“Not a one.”
Miranda looked around. “You know, I swear I’ve been through the Green Room already, but it was downstairs.”
“Maybe there’s more than one,” said Carmilla.
“No, it was the same room,” said Miranda. “I recognized it. But it wasn’t in the same place. Does that make sense?”
“Nope,” said Carmilla. Her veil moved a little when she talked. “I think it was probably just a different room entirely and that you’re mixed up. I can’t believe you were looking at the room at all. There was SO much else to look at.”
They laughed again. Despite their joking, Miranda did not feel cheerful. She was sure that it really had been the same room, and she was also sure that they were now going back the way they came but that nothing was the same. The music from the Green Room followed them, and she had to stop herself from walking in time with it. Her mask felt tight and restrictive.
“Maybe we shouldn’t leave,” said Carmilla. “I’m having a good time. When we find your husband, we should go back.”
“Well, not to that room,” said Carmilla. “But one of them.”
Miranda shuddered. “I don’t like this house, or this party. And I don’t like that man, the Red Death.”
“He is strange,” said Carmilla. “But did you hear his voice? To die for!”
Miranda said nothing. The hallway seemed to go on and on forever. Rows and rows of grinning, candlelit faces greeted them. They were quite lost by now, although she wondered what that even meant when you weren’t sure where you’d started in the first place. Miranda and Carmilla stood at the intersection of two hallways, looking each way.
"Just how big is this house anyway?" said Miranda.
Carmilla flopped down on a fainting couch in a nearby culvert. "Maybe we should have left a trail of breadcrumbs?"
"Wouldn't have helped," said Miranda, sitting next to her. "There are too many people in squirrel and pigeon costumes running around."
She raised her mask up to wipe the sweat off her forehead. Carmilla clucked her tongue.
"Not supposed to do that," she said. "Masks on at all times. Rules are rules."
"What are they going to do, kick us out?" said Miranda. "I'd thank them if they did. At least then we'd know where the front door was."
Carmilla sat up a little more. "You have the most beautiful eyes," she said.
"Thank you," said Miranda, putting her mask back on. Carmilla began rubbing Miranda's shoulders. Miranda shrugged.
“It’s really not so bad here,” said Carmilla.
“It’s horrible. Who are these people?”
“Folks like you and me,” said Carmilla.
“We deserve a better crowd.”
“At least we have each other.”
"Yes, but—" said Miranda, and then Carmilla kissed her. She was so surprised she almost fell over, but Carmilla twined her arms around her.
The kiss went on for some time. Miranda thought she should stop it, but by then almost a minute had already passed. Carmilla's lips were wet and their bodies were crushed together, the other woman's breasts pressed against hers. Carmilla's nails dragged over Miranda's bare arms and shoulders. Miranda's heartbeat quickened. Though they'd left the main party, she thought she heard music still. She felt it carrying her away, like it did for a moment on the dance floor in the Blue Room. She imagined laying Carmilla down on the couch, here in their private little nook and kissing her mouth, and neck, and breasts, and then drawing her skirts up.
The mask seemed to press tighter over her face, and Carmilla's teeth grazed her lips, and then—
"No," she said, standing up. Carmilla broke away and stood too, turning to face the wall.
"Oh my god," she said. "I don't know what came over me.”
"It's okay," said Miranda. She was glad Carmilla had turned around, so she couldn't see her blushing. "Don't worry about it."
"You must think I'm—" said Carmilla, and Miranda put a hand on her shoulder, though she was careful not to touch the bare skin.
"I got carried away for a second too," she said. “I don't think it's us. Anyway, no harm done." She smiled and Carmilla smiled back. Continuing on, they walked in silence, picking a corridor almost at random.
"Just think:" said Carmilla. "It's your husband we're looking for, but I'm the one dressed as a bride."
"It suits you," said Miranda.
"Yes, but I ruined it," said Carmilla. "I lost part of it earlier tonight."
"What do you mean?"
"I lost my fangs. See, I'm not just supposed to be a bride; I was a vampire too."
The trail was still fresh, but Richard lost it in the Green Room. Too many sweating bodies too close to one another; there was no chance of following her through this. He growled.
There was a sound of bells and he caught a whiff of Miranda's scent. Richard saw a man in a mask covered in diamonds and grabbed his arm. "I'm looking for a woman," he said. "My wife. I think you might have spoken to her?"
"Posso aiutarti?” said the harlequin. “Non ti preoccupare!”
Richard blinked. "Are you screwing with me?"
"Succhiami il cazzo,” said the harlequin.
Richard saw a closet and pushed the harlequin inside; the harlequin struggled, but Richard was stronger, and no one could hear the other man shouting. He switched the light on and closed the door, then took the other man’s mask off and threw it away. The man stood there, blinking in the light, looking stunned.
"Chi? Di che cosa...um...I'm sorry, I don't really know what's going on? Where am I? Who are you?"
Richard put his hands around the man's throat and squeezed. "Now, let's try this again," he said. "I'm looking for a woman..."
It seemed they had moved up another floor somehow, though Miranda did not remember any stairs. "This is the strangest house," she said.
"Do you hear that?" said Carmilla. Miranda listened, and heard a ticking noise. They looked into an open doorway and at first Miranda thought that the room was dark, but then she realized that no, it was just black: black walls, black ceiling, black carpets, black furniture. In the center of the room was a great black wooden cabinet nearly eight feet tall, and that was the source of the ticking.
"It's a grandfather clock," said Miranda. "Like in the story."
"Story?" said Carmilla.
"'The Masque of the Red Death.' This whole party is set up like it, with the colored rooms and everything. That ticking is odd, though..."
"It's not that odd for a clock to tick."
"But listen to it. It's like the music downstairs. It kind of gets in your head and...let's keep going."
They skirted past the Black Room. Across the hall was another open doorway.
"Looks like the White Room" said Miranda. "It's empty though. Do you think we should cut through here?"
"Wait!" said Carmilla, but Miranda stepped in and for a moment she was dazzled by what might have been a burst of light or might have just been the white interior of the room. The door slammed shut behind her.
When the spots faded from her eyes she saw that the room was now filled with people. Or perhaps they weren't people? They were gauzy and unreal, like a film projection on a wall, a crowd of ghostly white dancers almost invisible against the white-paneled walls. Their trailing hands brushed her clothes as they swept past.
There was music, and before she knew it she was swaying in time with it.
"Aren't they beautiful?" said the Red Death. He put his hand through one of the ghostly figures, scattering it and then watching it melt back together and dance away. "They're for you."
He stood next to her, and the ghostly men and women danced in a circle around them, and now Miranda was dancing too. The ghost dancers passed her from one partner to another, and she fell into step with them each in turn. She thought, for a moment, that perhaps something was terribly wrong here, but the light and the music and the touch of intangible hands on hers drowned those thoughts out.
"I really do love Halloween," said the Red Death. "It's a night when you feel like you can be anything. Maybe even the person you've always wanted to be?"
Miranda put her hands out and felt the touch of the ghostly people. It was cold, but comforting, like silk sheets or gentle rain.
"And what have you always wanted to be, Miranda?" said the Red Death. "A wife? A career woman? Or do you want more? For that matter, don't you deserve more?"
They were pulling her along now, a dozen spectral hands plucking at her gown and taking her to a sedan chair with lace curtains. They pulled her inside and laid her down, all white lace and white silk. She nodded her head from side to side and sighed, as if dreaming.
"That's why I made you a queen tonight," said the Red Death. "I made you a queen, and now I've brought your servants. They'll do anything you want, and give you all of the things that you deserve."
Miranda felt pleasantly drunk. She lolled on the silk cushions, enjoying the feel of the fabric on her bare skin. Ghostly hands touched her dress, pulling it down and off, allowing her to feel more. She rolled over, letting the fabric tickle her naked breasts.
The hands moved over her, caressing her hips, thighs, legs, and ankles. The tip of a finger glided along the smooth roundness of her backside and up the length of her spine. She felt content. A pair of cold lips kissed hers, and she kissed back. She heard a woman's voice giggle and was kissed again.
Gentle hands massaged her naked breasts, fingertips tweaking her nipples as they swelled and hardened. She gasped and felt herself flush. Someone (or something?) cupped the underside of her breasts and kissed them, cold lips tingling her hot skin. An invisible mouth began to suck, the wet flickering of a tongue sending chills up and down her as it teased her sensitive flesh.
"You see? It feels good to finally get the attention you deserve, doesn't it?" said the Red Death. "Good to finally be adored, admired, pampered, loved..."
Miranda opened her eyes and saw the pale face of a beautiful woman smiling at her, the woman's hair floating around her body, composed of shimmering, gauzy nothingness. The woman kissed Miranda and Miranda kissed back. The touch of the phantom lips made her even more lightheaded. Meanwhile, other figures attended to her, some trailing light kisses across her naked body, some massaging her neck, shoulders, or calves, and some running their fingers through her hair as it spilled across the pillows.
Miranda reached out to embrace the other woman but her arms went right through. She kissed the side of Miranda's neck. Miranda moaned and her eyes rolled back as the woman's mouth trailed down the front of her body, kissing the spot between her bare breasts, trailing along the flat plane of her stomach, teasing her belly button with the tip of a tongue before going lower, and lower, cold kisses gliding over her hip bones and then to the tops of her thighs.
Miranda licked her lips and said:
She spread her legs and cried out as a hand slid between them and then a mouth pressed against her. She began to moan. Another figure was holding her from behind, cradling her and massaging her breasts while the woman kissed her pussy, making it wet and hot. Every now and then her eyes fluttered open and she saw a dozen faces looking at her, each one smiling and adoring. It felt so good, just lying there, naked on the sheets, letting herself be touched. She bit her lip to keep from screaming as a tongue penetrated her, and then she screamed anyway as it began to flicker around and around in a circle. The sea of touches and caresses became more insistent, as though they couldn't get enough of her. When she reached out for them they vanished but were always there again a second later.
She grew wetter and wetter, the constant, lapping attention pushing her on. She ached and trembled.
"Isn't this what you really want?" said the Red Death. "Not your husband, not your job, not your life out there, but this: to be the most important person; to indulge your every want; to act instead of think?”
His voice hurt her. She tried to scream but couldn’t. The ghosts huddled around her, as if to protect her, kissing and fondling her with even greater attention.
"Isn't this the real you, Miranda?” said the Red Death. “Isn't the mask the real you after all?"
Miranda opened her eyes. She felt cold all over. She said:
The music stopped. The ghosts vanished. The light in the room dimmed.
"What did you say?" said the Red Death. He backed up a step.
"I said no." Miranda gathered up her costume and put it back on, covering herself before stepping out of the sedan chair. There was no one in the room now but her and the Red Death.
"I don't want to be waited on," she said. "I don't want to be worshipped. I don’t want everything.”
She threw her mask away. She threw the tiara down too. The Red Death's eyes widened.
"My, my," he said. "Miranda: You really are a thing to wonder at."
"I'm leaving," she said.
"I'm not sure that's a good idea," said the Red Death.
"Because it's late in the evening. And because you can't trust the tameness of a wolf."
"You're talking nonsense," said Miranda. "I don't have time for this."
"As you will," said the Red Death. The door opened again. The lights went out in the White Room and her heels clicked on the marble floor as she left.
She was back in the narrow hall. Carmilla was nowhere in sight. But she heard a door creak open and saw a leering, red-eyed wolf's head looking at her.
"Richard!" she said. "Oh my God, honey, I've been looking all over for you."
"I've been looking for you," said Richard. His arms circled her. The fur covering his costume scratched her, but she didn't care.
"We have to leave," she said, "I don't know what's going on, but I think we might really be in danger."
"Yes," said Richard, "there is danger." His embrace grew tighter.
"Richard, I'm serious," she said. "Something horrible is going to happen.”
"You're right," he said.
“Richard, are you listening to me?”
“Yes,” he said. “And I’m tired of it. I’m so tired of listening to you.”
Before she could react he had his hands around her throat. The pressure cut off her windpipe. She grabbed his wrists but couldn't push him away. She floundered.
"Is this what you meant?" said Richard, pushing her to the ground and climbing on top, his grip tightening. "Is this horrible? Is this what you were afraid of? Well, is it?"
Miranda opened her mouth but no sound came out. Richard bared his teeth under the wolf mask. Her vision began to blur.
"I bet you were never afraid of me before, were you? Well you should have been. If you knew what I was thinking every day you’d have been damn well terrified. Do you feel it yet? Do you?”
The world went red and then black, and Miranda's limbs became limp, and her body was heavy and sluggish. Her chest burned.
"I'm tired of just living next to you," said Richard. "I'm sick of people only seeing your success and only talking about how wonderful you are. Tonight it's about me. Tonight it's what I want." Tears ran down Richard's mask. His knuckles went white.
Miranda tried to sit up or push him off, but he was too strong, stronger than anyone possibly could be. She felt her face swelling red and she wanted to scream, but it was impossible.
"I'm sorry," Richard said, sobbing now. "I'm sorry, I don't want to do this, but I have to. I have to."
Miranda's eyes rolled back and she went limp. The weight of Richard's body pressed down on her. And then…
She heard a voice calling her name. The world swam back into focus for a moment and she saw Richard's eyes, wide and bloodshot and streaming with tears behind his mask. Her arms flopped back to life, and she reached up...
Richard screamed as se gripped the side of his head and dug her thumbs into his eyes. He released her and backed away, falling against a wall. She pulled herself to her feet and when Richard stood up again she kicked him between the legs for good measure. He doubled over, howling.
Someone was still calling Miranda's name and she ran toward the voice. Carmilla was at the bend of the hall, gaping, and Miranda grabbed her hand as she passed.
"Run!" she said.
She pulled Carmilla behind her and ducked into the first door she came to. It was a dining hall with a long oak table and expensive china and silver. Every surface was covered in dust and cobwebs. Miranda slammed the door and propped a heavy chair under the knob. Carmilla, breathless, leaned against it. "Are you okay?” she said.
Miranda tried to answer but the only sound that came out was a gargle.
"Shhh; be careful," said Carmilla. "Your throat is bruised pretty bad."
Miranda sagged against the wall next to her.
"Was that your husband?"
"I...I don't know," said Miranda.
"I don't think he's a keeper," said Carmilla.
Miranda felt tears at the corners of her eyes, but stopped them.
“The way you handled him was amazing, though” said Carmilla. “I could never do something like that.”
"That's not Richard," said Miranda. "He's not like that. I think it's the mask. You remember how we're not supposed to take them off? I think the masks are doing something to everyone. As soon as I took mine off I felt better.”
"No," said Carmilla. "It's not just the mask, it's the people. Didn't you feel it when you put yours on? It's like the mask knows you. Like it's your oldest friend and it knows everything about you without having to be told." She touched her veil.
"Mine didn't," said Miranda.
"I guess you're special…" said Carmilla.
The door shook as something banged against it from outside, and Miranda jumped.
"You know, I like this dress," said Carmilla. "It makes me feel beautiful but used up."
"Carmilla, help me move the table before he breaks the door down."
“And I liked being a vampire," said Carmilla, not listening. "I've always felt cold inside, and I never cared when I saw something bad happen to someone. I used to wonder if I really am a monster."
More banging on the door. "Do you see another way out of this room?" said Miranda.
"I wish I could be like you instead," said Carmilla.
"I think—" said Miranda, and then she felt a pain in her wrist. She jerked her hand up, and Carmilla backed away a few steps.
"Did you...did you just bite me?" said Miranda.
"I'm sorry," said Carmilla. "It would have worked if I hadn't broken my fangs earlier. We'll have to use this instead." She was holding a knife from off the table. She took a few steps forward.
Miranda backed away. "Carmilla, what are you doing?"
"Just hold still," said Carmilla. "I got carried away with the guy earlier, but I know what I'm doing now. I promise it won't hurt."
Miranda put the table between them. Carmilla edged along the side of it. Richard was hitting the door harder and harder and from somewhere nearby the sound of music and hysterical voices seeped through the walls.
"It's not my fault," said Carmilla. "I just want to be like you. You're beautiful, and brave, and strong, and I'm not. But if I have some of you inside me, maybe I will be. You wouldn't keep it all for yourself, would you? Friends share, don't they?”
Carmilla darted forward and Miranda ran. Carmilla stumbled and caught herself on the tablecloth, sending dishes crashing to the floor. Miranda was about to scream, but at that moment the door broke in and the chair went flying and Richard grabbed Carmilla from behind, throwing her to the floor.
"Richard, no!" said Miranda. She grabbed his mask and tore it off. His stood there, shaking and pale, eyes wide, frozen in place.
"Richard, can you hear me?” She shook him by the shoulders. "I need you to hear me. I need you to—"
Because her arms were up his slap only half-connected. She fell against the wall, and he took a second to put his mask on before coming at her. Then Carmilla jumped on his back and the two fell in a heap. Miranda watched them struggle, but when Richard pinned Carmilla down she turned and ran,
Carmilla's screams and Richard's howls following her down the hall.
She ran into the first door she came to and heard it slam behind her. She spun around and tugged at the knob but it wouldn't budge. She heard the ticking of the clock and felt the black walls closing in.
"Enjoying the party?" said the Red Death.
"What did you do to Richard?" said Miranda.
"Nothing," said the Red Death. He had one hand on the side of the grandfather clock. "I just gave him license. The rest he did himself."
"But I took his mask off," said Miranda.
"It's very late in the evening now," said the Red Death. "They won't need to wear their masks anymore. Did you think the masks were magic? It doesn't work like that. There's no need put people under a spell. Just tell them that they can do whatever they want and let them think that putting on a mask is like changing into another person and that's all the incitement they need. Can't you hear them now?"
Through the walls Miranda heard sounds: screaming, moaning, hysterical laughter, voices crying out in horrible ecstasy.
"What are they doing?" she said.
"Some of them want to act like monsters, and some of them want to be victims, and some of them want to be tragic, or even just fuck anything that moves,” said the Red Death.
"But you've tricked them," said Miranda. "You must have. People aren't all like that."
"The people I bring to my parties are. Except for you: I was wrong about you," he said. "You don't deserve to be here at all. It's very rare that I misjudge someone. So I'm going to do something else I almost never do: I'm going to let you go."
The door opened, and instead of the hall she saw the beach outside.
"That door will take you to freedom," said the Red Death. "Go now, before the last stroke of midnight."
"What happens then?" said Miranda.
"Haven't you read the story?" He recited in a sing-song voice: "'And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall, and Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion, over all.'"
"No!" said Miranda. "You can't!"
"It's already started."
"Because that's how the story ends. But it doesn't have to end that way for you. Go now. Run and don't look back."
Miranda grabbed his robes and shook him. She tore the skull mask off, and underneath it his hood was empty, and the red robes went limp in her hands, and the entire costume fell, vacant, to the floor.
"Run," said the voice of the Red Death, from all around her. "Run, Miranda. It's time."
The clock began to toll.
Miranda looked at the open door.
She went to the clock. She had to stop the chimes. She pulled on the door to the works, but it was stuck.
She looked around for something, anything, to break it with, but the room was empty.
She beat the glass with her hands.
"It's too late," said the voice of the Red Death.
"Not yet," said Miranda.
A breeze blew through the door. The red robes and mask fluttered around her feet.
Miranda picked them up. She turned the mask over in her hand.
"What are you doing?" said the Red Death.
"What you told me to do: Anything I want," she said.
She put the robes on. They were very cold. She held up the mask.
"I can be whoever I want tonight, right?" Miranda said. "I’ve decided I want to be you."
Miranda put the mask on. When she opened her eyes, she could see into every room in the house, and feel the walls and floors as though they were her own body. She stopped the clock just before the final stroke.
With a gesture she threw the doors open in every room. Mobs of frenzied partiers stopped in the midst of their revels. Every door now led outside.
"The party is over," Miranda said, her voice audible in every room. "Get out."
No one moved.
"Out!" Miranda said again, and then the walls shook and the floors rippled, mirrors and paintings falling as furniture overturned. People mobbed the exits, trampling each other as they poured out onto the foggy beach.
Miranda swooned and almost fainted, but forced herself to stay upright. The house was almost empty now. There was only one person left, a naked, frightened-looking man at her feet. She realized that it was Richard.
"Get out," she said.
He sobbed, rocking back and forth. Miranda took the mask off.
"Get out, Richard," she said. "Whatever you have to say—"
“Miranda, your hands!"
Miranda saw the red splotches on her palms. Blood flowed from her fingertips and she felt it gush from her nose and mouth. Her insides convulsed and she fell to her knees. Richard was staring, wide-eyed. She tried to crawl to the door, but her strength was fading.
"'His vesture was dabbled in blood — and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror,'" the voice of the Red Death said in her ear.
Miranda tried to speak, but her mouth was bleeding, and she lacked the strength. She collapsed, and the world went red, and then black, and then it was gone altogether.
It was morning. The party guests found themselves lying on the beach. Most of them still wore the tattered remains of their costumes. The house was nowhere in sight.
Some were hurt. A great many were hung over. A few remembered nothing of the previous night, and more wished that they didn't. They brushed the sand off and waded into the ocean, desperate to feel clean again.
Nearby, Miranda and the Red Death watched, unseen. She wore her own costume again, and he was dressed in his robes and mask.
"Well Miranda, you did it" he said. "You saved them. Most of them anyway. And all it cost you was your own life."
Miranda said nothing.
"Do you think it was worth it?" said the Red Death. "None of them would have done the same for you, you know. They're not good people."
"No," said Miranda. "But they can change. Everyone can change, except for the dead."
"Indeed," said the Red Death. "The dead never change. Isn't that right, Carmilla?" He addressed himself to a particularly morose-looking jack-o-lantern he carried. Miranda shuddered when she saw it.
Richard sat on the beach, holding the remains of his wolf mask. There was blood under his fingernails. He tried to clean them, but it wouldn't come out.
"What will happen to him?" said Miranda.
"He'll probably try to pretend that nothing happened for a while," said the Red Death. "And eventually the guilt will send him to the police. Then he'll spend the rest of his life in some institution. Or maybe it'll just be suicide instead; it's a hard thing to know yourself.”
"And what about me?" said Miranda.
"It's not for me to say," said the Red Death. "But I'm sure you'll get along well, whatever you do.”
The house loomed over them.
"So little time to get ready for next Halloween," he said. "So much work to do."
He brought the new jack-o-lanterns inside. Stopping in the doorway, he looked back at her.
"You are a remarkable woman, Miranda," he said. "I'm glad to have met you. If you ever wish to return, my door is always open."
The door slammed shut.
"But I know that you will not."
The house faded away, and so did the people. Miranda was alone, on the beach, in the fog. She walked to the waterline and kicked off her shoes, wading in up to her ankles. It felt good. She stripped off the rest of her costume and threw it away. She didn't mind the cold. It was refreshing.
She walked in no particular direction. She was free, and it was All Saints Day, and the only tracks in the sand were hers.