It was some sort of banquet hall or ballroom, windowless and arrayed with candles, and containing thirty or forty people who turned toward me, staring. They stared at me as though they hoped they could fix me through staring, or at least stare me away. I felt a stickiness move across my skin, and because I could not shut their eyes I shut my own.
When I opened them, I was still standing in a large room with many other people. Nothing in the situation had changed or would change, however much I wished for it, and that seemed unbearable in a way that I supposed I would be bearing anyhow. There were small, delicate cakes and little heaps of berries. There were balloons floating up against the ceiling and wilting on the ground, colored shapes lying still in the dim and festive light.
I had arrived in costume, but it was not a costume party. Just a normal party, they said.
I looked down at my body as if for the first time. It seemed impossible to get an accurate view of myself without a mirror or camera, something on the outside to look in. From the perspective of my eyes, my shoulders and torso were huge. My legs began in knees, short and stubby, then suddenly there were shoes and it was all done. I was dressed entirely in white: a short, white vinyl dress and white stockings; short, white gloves and white heels. I had on a hat with a red cross at the front, and I was covered in fake blood.
I had come dressed as a sexy nurse: the blood was mostly incidental, mostly a way to keep from getting mixed up with the other sexy nurses that inevitably turn up at costume parties. But this was a normal party, and as such the blood was now a real liability. It was perhaps the one factor that made it truly unimaginable for me to blend in with the elegant people that fluttered around nearby, laughing lightly and staring at me like I was covered in blood, which I was.
"Is there someplace I could stow my coat?" I asked.
The thing was to behave as normally as possible, more normally than was possible, in order to balance out the blood. All the attention in the room was pooling at my feet, and I needed something big and alarming to draw it away from me, or conversely, something very ordinary to mask it. I went over to the table to find something to hold in my hands. Empty plastic cups measured out the emptiness in neat rows, waiting to be filled or moved or restacked. These objects were pieces, building up toward a whole I could not at all recognize.
"A little bit of detergent and ammonia, that's what I would use," said a woman's voice from behind me, whispered harshly. It appeared some people were having trouble telling the fake blood from real, and this might account for the coagulation of fear in the space surrounding me. I mixed alcohol, juice, and ice until it approximated the right color, and then I tried to figure out a way to stand. The light was strange in there, and it seemed conceivable that I could find a place and position that would render the bloodstains invisible, camouflaged, like a dappled shadow falling on the surface of grass.
But my movements in and out of the shadowy areas of the room, covered in blood as I was, made the other partygoers nervous. My dress gave off a loud and plasticky sound when I shifted even slightly, and there was the tendency of my costume toward drippage. The other guests hunched in toward one another as I wriggled in the corners, trying to cancel out the stains. "You just can't hide something like that," a man's voice said with audible disgust, coming from someplace I was unable to see.
The way things were, all I could do was make the situation worse.
There are times when any amount of being within the world is like rubbing bare skin against sandpaper, when any form of motion is a kind of abrasion leaving you raw and pink and vulnerable to the next thing. At these times, I prefer to close my eyes and be still, still like the cups or candles or crackers on the table, nerveless and open. I closed my eyes and tried to think of the thing farthest from my situation. I imagined a meadow and I populated it with sunlight, a small and rustic fence trailing toward the horizon, a little family of ducks and a couple of grazing sheep, a green and verdant field studded with small, white flowers, possibly clover blossoms. But before I knew it, blood was everywhere, though the sheep continued to munch along idyllically, tearing at the reddened tufts with small, calm movements and very white teeth.
When I opened my eyes, a man was standing next to me, watching me with curiosity, mostly. There was a shyness to his staring that I found bearable, if only in contrast to the other forms of staring that were going on around and at me. "Hello," he said. "Hi," I responded. "My name's Andrew," he said.
I nodded. Where was all this going?
"Well, I wanted to tell you first off that your fake blood looks great. Really realistic. Really scary, you know? But without being actually too scary. Really great."
I was flattered by his eye for detail: in fact I had spent a good amount of time getting the blood right, perfecting the proportions and cooking times as I made it from scratch. My recipe was a variant on the classic Karo syrup and red food coloring used in horror movies from the 1980s. Six pints of Karo syrup at room temperature, three ounces of red food coloring, nondairy creamer for opacity, arrowroot powder for texture, blue food coloring for depth, a bit of honey for the complexion, and vanilla extract to improve the scent. As with real blood, every element of the fake served a vital purpose.
It looked like Andrew had something else he wanted to say.
"Well, I don't mean to bother you. I guess I just noticed you standing by yourself and I just was wondering. I mean, you don't have to answer. But I was wondering. Are you part of the murder mystery, too?"
"Murder mystery?" I asked.
"Yeah, the one in the other room. In the kitchen or whatever. The guy with the ax in him."
"I'm not part of any murder mystery," I explained. "I just made a mistake."
A woman's voice came from my right. "Murder mystery?" it said. "Oh, how fun!"
I turned and looked at her.
"Well," she said, directing herself toward Andrew and avoiding my glare, "let's have a look! It's about time something interesting happened here."
The other room was a dining room, smaller and more intimate than the large hall we had been in before, but similarly windowless and dim. Objects were overturned on the table and floor in a way that suggested a struggle, but one that had been carefully choreographed. The candelabras and vases lay on their sides, gently, and long-stemmed roses were strewn evenly across the room with an executioner's precision. On the ground under some of the roses was a man sprawled flat on his front, his face buried in the carpet and a large ax sticking up from the middlethe exact middleof his back. A dark red substance pooled beneath his body.
Impressed sounds came from all around me.
"It's very realistic, don't you think?" "Looks very much like a murder." "John really went all out this year, that's for sure!" Who was John, and why was he letting this happen? And then: who was this man, and was he in on the joke or was he, like me, waiting it out, hoping that everyone would find something else to stare at?
In the lower center of my body, two feelings were swirling together. On the one hand, the scene was too grisly to be real, and I sensed my fists relaxing, going loose. On the other, I had never seen this much blood before, real or fake, and what did I know? It might be exactly grisly enough to be real.
"Are we very sure he's not really dead?" I asked.
A tall man in a gray suit strode over and stuck a finger in the red puddle. He rubbed the substance between his finger and thumb, sniffed it briefly, and declared, "Corn syrup. Definitely corn syrup, you can tell from the texture: slippery, thick, and sticky as hell. Smells sweet, too. I think our hosts are probably having a good laugh at our expense! The looks on our faces!"
I was still uneasy, but the unease was lifting slowly. The man looked competent, like a doctor. Or like someone who could have gotten into medical school. And then I wanted so badly to let it all be normal: for the first time that night, nobody seemed bothered by me. They hardly seemed to notice, they were so busy marveling at the accuracy of the carnage, dipping their fingers in the spreading liquid and playfully terrorizing their dates. I looked over at Andrew, and when he smiled at me I smiled back.
Just then there was a scream, followed by another scream, followed by nervous laughter.
The man who had identified the blood as corn syrup was facedown on the floor, surrounded by women who alternated between laughing tightly and murmuring quietly to each other. In the middle of his back was an ax much like the ax stuck in the first man, though with a different manufacturer's name on its handle.
"Um," I said. "What just happened?"
Nobody knew. One moment he had been upright; the next he was prostrate, and axed. Everyone agreed it was great showmanship. Some began to talk about how difficult it would be to remove the stains from the plush, beige carpet, how much it would cost.
"So, um," Andrew said, turning back toward me. "What sort of work do you do?"
I was a secretary, but also there on the rug the same dark substance was blossoming out from under the second axed man, and something about this bothered me immensely. I would never have considered myself an expert on real blood or murder mysteries or staged deaths or party etiquette, but I had a good deal of experience with fake blood; and this just did not look like genuine fake blood. There was a liveness to its flow, and it filled the room with a dark and indefinable scent.
"Andrew," I said. "I just don't feel comfortable with this."
He looked sad.
"I don't mean you. You've been very nice. But I'm worried about the guy with the ax. In him, I mean. The second one. It all happened so quickly. Don't you think we should check it again? Even if the first murder was staged, the second one could be real."
"Oh. That's a good idea," he said. He walked over and pulled the second ax out of the second man's back.
It looked pretty real.
"It looks pretty real," he said.
"But what does real look like?" I asked.
"Is anyone here a doctor?" Andrew asked, looking around the room. Nobody was a doctor, or if they were they were not admitting to it. If I wanted to know whether this situation was normal or abnormal, I would have to be the one to do something; and of all possible situations, this was perhaps the only one that I was actually qualified to deal with. I took the ax from Andrew's grasp and touched the wet blade with a fingertip. I drew my hand away and touched the fingertip to my tongue, tasting metal.
"Oh, my god," I said. "This is not fake. We are all in terrible danger." I tried to say this in a way that was both urgent and calm, but when I saw all the people staring at me, I realized that I had made them only more suspicious of me, the one living person there who was also covered in blood. I looked over at Andrew, and he looked away.
Another scream came from behind me, and when I turned around the woman I had glared at just a few minutes earlier was on the floor, an ax in her back.
"We need to move to another room," I said.
The other guests reluctantly followed me back to the banquet hall. What to do now? From the dining room, another scream: I already knew what I'd find if I went back there, and I thought to myself that if we followed the rules perhaps we'd all make it out fine. If we figured out the rules and then followed them. All around me people were beginning to panic, searching for exits.
As it turned out, there were no exits.
We pounded the walls and screamed, to no effect. Some guests went into hysterics, sobbing on the floor, until they realized that nothing at all was going to change. Then they stood, oddly calm. One man grabbed the hand of a woman. "I love you," he said, pulling her hand to his chest and pushing it up against his heart. "What's your name again?" she asked. "Jonathan," he said, "and I love you." A pause. "OK," she said. They clung to each other, balled up in a corner, and as they did others started to confess things, as well. "I need you." "I always hated you, but right now I don't mind you." "Would you please hold my head in your hands? Just hold it, really grab it, and tell me everything's going to be OK? Please?" Soon everyone was huddled in corners, except Andrew and me. I tried not to look at him too directly. If these were in fact the last moments of my life, I did not want to spend them in embarrassment.
It seemed like so much had happened, but still nothing had changed. I was back in the banquet hall, covered in fake blood, feeling left out, and looking for something to hold. Andrew was in the middle of the room, watching me, and I closed my eyes and thought about the meadow. This time, I would keep the sheep clean and snowy white. I added a stream and a large oak tree, birds coming to rest in its boughs. It was afternoon there, late afternoon, growing later.
I heard a noise and I opened my eyes. Andrew was down. Another ax.
The rules had changed: the banquet hall was no longer safe. And with Andrew gone, there was no longer any reason to stay.
"We have to move," I said loudly to the room. "We have to move on." The hall had only two doors: one led to the dining room, which was certainly unsafe, and one to the basement, which really seemed like a bad idea, but at least uncertainly so.
"I'm going to the basement," I said. "We can barricade ourselves in there." Nobody else said anything. I looked at them all one last time, balled up in their respective corners, and walked down the stairs.
The basement was both larger and cozier than I had expected. The ceilings went high, and the fluorescent lights far above buzzed in a way that reminded me of the outdoors, the outdoors during warmer months, when the air and the ground seemed bright all over with the lives of insects and plants. The space was cavernous, but it was full: there were piles of objects all around me, large piles reaching ten, twelve, fifteen feet into the air. They looked like they had been collected and sorted by someone very patient, someone with a lot of time on his hands. Or her hands. There was a large heap of flannel shirts, mostly plaid. A pile of Time magazines. A pile of athletic equipment, mostly football helmets. Wedding dresses. Gerbil cages.
By the time I found the pile of bloodied nurse costumes, almost nothing would have surprised me. This one reached nearly to the ceiling, hundreds or thousands of white vinyl dresses crumpled and stacked, strewn and sprawled, covered in blood. White nurses' caps stuck out at odd angles, studding the heap with crisp red crosses.
I found the costumes and I felt, for the first time since this whole thing began, that I truly belonged somewhere. I could crawl into this mountain of white and red, I could hide in it until the danger passed, or at least until the danger came to find me. All the mistakes I had made this night, everything from my nurse outfit to the way I had left things with Andrew: all of it seemed justified, purposeful, in light of this gigantic pile of bloody clothing.
I eased myself in, with some struggle and much noise. The vinyl surrounding me squealed against the vinyl on my body, making a sound like a thousand balloons rubbing together at once. The center of the pile was dark, slippery, and wet with blood, either real or fake. I hardly noticed the distinction anymore: sweet or salty, warm or cold, it was all horrible, and I curled up in it.
I thought about the events upstairs, and who the killer might have been. I thought about Andrew and how nice he had been to me, and how incredibly, unbelievably nice he probably was to people who were dressed normally in normal situations where nobody feared or resented them. What had he been thinking right before he was axed? Had he been thinking about me?
It was horrible, like I said, lying like a dead nurse among a pile of bloody costumes. It was horrible, but at the same time it was not so bad. It was not so bad, and at the same time it was horrible. But there was a feeling building in me now that I hadn't felt since I'd shown up at this stupid party: I was excited. Something was going to happen. Either this would work, or it wouldn't. Either I would be spared, or I would die. Either death was something that could be fooled, outwitted, outplayed, or it was not. However things ended, I would learn something about the world in which, for the moment, I continued to live.
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