By Dustin Mendel
“Now, who would like to be our monster?”
A dozen tiny hands spring into the air, their thin, suntanned arms waving and stretching uncomfortably above the sea of heads. The two men at the front of the room scan the crowd, smiling the same smile, the black thing folded over the forearms of the man on the right.
Your dad raises his hand next to you, surely just stretching, but it stays up, a dark blot of sweat in the armpit of his t-shirt just in your periphery. You pivot on the bleacher, giving him what has become your trademark look of embarrassment and disgust, but his eyes stay fixed at the front of the room, a smirk on his face.
You realize that his hand isn’t up; a single finger is, and it’s pointing down at you.
You grab for his hand to pull it down or swat it away, but he raises it out of your reach just in time, just like he would when you were small. You twist sideways in your seat, trying to disappear behind a bony shoulder and a curtain of hair, but it’s too late. The men at the front see your dad, and now they see you. Their smile doesn’t change but their eyes do, and you know from experience that it’s a look that means trouble. You’d seen that same Cheshire grin from boys at school, and you knew it meant not to sit in front of them in class or to take the quick way home. You knew without looking that your dad would be smiling the same smile.
“The little lady at the very back,” the man without the thing in his hands says, “come on down.” Every head in the room twists to look at you, and a few small voices let out groans of disappointment. You glance behind you, confirming that the bleachers you’re sitting on butt up against the wall. No dark pit to throw yourself down, which leaves only fleeing through the crowd. Before you can, your dad places a damp palm between your shoulder blades.
“Break a leg,” he says, applying just enough pressure to your back until you stand up, because what else are you going to do? Everyone is watching; the man at the front is waving you up and people are beginning to clap. You subtly swat at your dad’s arm and begin awkwardly stepping through the crowd.
You pin the edges of your skirt to your legs as you step between shoulders and around hands, sweaty skin pressing against your legs with each step. You feel a bright rash of embarrassment blooming across your cheeks, and you focus on your feet to avoid the gaze of what feels like hundreds of pairs of eyes watching you.
All you’d wanted was to get out of the sun. This whole day had been a sweaty, endless nightmare, whether it was the deafening old-man rock your dad insisted on listening to the entire drive, the burger place you stopped at for lunch, despite Mom reminding him multiple times in the lead up to the trip that you’re a vegan now, or your time at the theme park. Three hours (and counting) of exhausting Florida sun, a steady tea kettle whistle of screaming kids and you shaking your head no at every ride, every souvenir stand, and every fried dough or turkey leg truck you passed. Through all of it, you’d heard the same thing again and again, what had become your dad’s catchphrase:
You used to love this.
No matter how many times he said it, though, it never quite occurred to him that in the time since he’d last noticed you, you’d stopped being six years old.
Since picking you up that morning, he’d had either one of two looks: a kind of helpless, bug-eyed panic, or, whenever he caught you watching him, a manic, unconvincing smile. You had wondered, while picking at your coleslaw lunch, if maybe he was dying, and then felt bad for thinking it.
It wasn’t your intention to be a bitch all day, and when he had suggested lining up for one of the stage shows, you had said it sounded like a great idea, and that time his smile had been genuine, but all you’d wanted was to get out of the heat. You don’t care about old-timey movies, and you certainly don’t care about old-timey movie monsters, and yet here you are, about to be stuffed inside an old rubber monster suit, for reasons you still don’t understand.
The man that had summoned you is still clapping when you step onto the stage next to him.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?”
He’s wearing the kind of microphone they use in fast food places, and he covers it with his hand when he calls you sweetheart. You tell him.
You don’t bother to correct him.
“Well, I think you might be a bit tall, but we’ll make it work,” he says with a wink, and the other guy laughs, which means the audience laughs.
“Tyler is going to take Anna backstage to get ready for her big debut, and we’ll see her a little bit later. Give her another big round of applause!”
The guy holding the suit (Tyler, apparently) gestures to the far corner of the stage and walks just behind you like you’re being led out of a courtroom after a sentencing. You glance at the crowd, hoping to give your dad one final dirty look, but you can’t find your seat in the crowd before you reach the curtain.
You’re in darkness for a moment, but the man behind you keeps guiding you forward until you find yourself in a bright, empty hallway with gray walls that disappear up into the lights. You can still hear the show on the other side of the curtain, but the sound bounces around in the space above you, making it impossible to understand what anyone is saying. You didn’t notice the ceiling being this high when you were sitting on the bleachers.
At the far end, the hallway cuts left and disappears, and a group of guys are standing in a loose circle and laughing about something.
“Randy!” Tyler yells over your shoulder, startling you. The biggest of the men turns to look at you and begins heading your way; a lanyard around his neck bounces off his ample gut as he walks. Randy has a big, flat face and a neck like those cups you eat soft-boiled eggs out of, it just seems to continue straight down from under his ears to his collarbones.
“Here you go,” Tyler says, flopping the suit across Randy’s forearms, “and here you go,” he repeats, guiding you towards Randy with the tips of his fingers in the middle of your back.
“Have fun,” he calls over his shoulder as he disappears back into the darkness, and a moment later you hear his voice echoing above you and you also hear laughter from the crowd. You look back at Randy, and he’s watching you, smiling one of those whenever-you’re-ready smiles.
“Alright,” he says, holding up the thing in his hands, “rule number one: I’m not allowed to say that this suit is more valuable than your life, but for as long as it is in your possession, you need to treat it like it is. This is a piece of movie history, classic Hollywood, so as excited as you may be to wear it, watch your fingernails, watch where you’re walking, no throwing up in the suit, no falling down—”
“No falling down?”
“—any rips, tears or stains and it’s going to be a problem for everyone, understood?”
What is happening right now? You wonder if it’s worth mentioning to Randy that you have zero interest in taking on such a responsibility, that none of this was your idea, that you didn’t appreciate being threatened and that you absolutely were not excited to wear this thing. In the distance you hear more distorted laughing, followed by applause.
You find yourself nodding.
“Good,” Randy says, crossing his wrists to turn the suit so that it’s facing the right way on you. He shakes it gently, indicating to you to take it. You grab a hold of the shoulders and nearly drop it, surprised by the weight.
Looking down at it, you can’t make out what it’s supposed to be, and if it was explained during the show, you weren’t paying attention. It looks to you like a diving wetsuit wrapped in eel skin, and there’s a tackiness to it beneath your fingers. All over the suit there are what looks like flakes of black-green paint peeling up from it, and a wave of panic washes over you, thinking for just a moment that you’ll be blamed for this, until you realize that it’s meant to look that way, whether it’s supposed to represent feathers or scales, you can’t tell. The headpiece is attached at the throat to the body and is hinged forward to rest flat against the chest.
“Shoes off,” Randy instructs, leaning back against the wall and folding his arms over his stomach. You slow dance with the suit, trying to find somewhere acceptable to put it down, before kicking your shoes off, bouncing them against the wall.
“Is there a chair or something I can use?”
Randy looks back the way you came, and then down the hall towards the men.
“Doesn’t look like it. Nobody else needed a chair, but I can help if you want.”
The back of the suit is open from the neck to the middle, so you wrap your arms around the suit’s waist, draping the top half over your forearms just like Tyler had on stage, allowing you to lift one leg into the suit. The suit itself isn’t warm to the touch but the air inside somehow is, like you’re stepping into a lit chimney or the throat of an animal. The rubber squeals against your bare leg as you wiggle your foot deeper, but with every inch of progress, your skirt begins riding up your thigh. You pause for a moment to peel the fabric away from the suit, pasting it against your leg with a clammy hand. Reaching down and taking hold of the leg on either side of your knee, you pull, but as if by magnets, your skirt begins to drift up your leg again.
“That’s not going to work,” Randy says.
“I can see that,” you say, brushing your hair out of your eyes with your shoulder. Your triceps are already beginning to tremble, either from exertion or embarrassment.
“You’ll have to take it off,” he says.
“OK, sorry,” you say, awkwardly hopping your foot out of the hole. Your ankle feels slick with sweat, and you try to casually wipe it off on your other ankle by crossing them. Why did you apologize to him? You haven’t done anything wrong, you wanted nothing to do with any of this. Of all the things to want in your life, Randy’s approval is at the absolute bottom. You hold the suit out for him to take, but he doesn’t uncross his arms.
“I’ll just go sit back down—”
“I wasn’t talking about the suit; I was talking about what you’re wearing. It’s not going to work.”
You and Randy blink at each other for a moment as you repeat what he said to yourself, making absolutely sure you haven’t misunderstood. Your face flushes hot again, but now it isn’t just embarrassment you’re feeling.
“I am not getting undressed in front of you.”
Randy uncrosses his arms and pushes away from the wall, and you recoil quickly, bumping the back of your head on the wall behind you. Somehow, you don’t drop the suit.
“Listen, do you hear that?” Randy points towards the curtain you came through, and as if on cue, there’s a roar of laughter that sounds like it’s coming from underwater.
“Six minutes from now, they’re going to play a video, and then that’s the point in the show where the monster comes out, and today that’s you. Someone has been getting into that suit since before I started here, later today it’ll be someone else, and tomorrow it’ll be someone else again, but for now, you’re the monster, because you wanted to be.”
“I didn’t! My dad—”
“Doesn’t matter. You’re here now, every show has a monster and it’s too late for it to be anyone else but you. Now I’m going to turn around, obviously, and no one is going to look at you while you get ready. You have five minutes, please hurry.”
Randy turns his back to you, facing down the hallway. The men are looking at him, and you’re sure he’s mouthing something or making a face because they all start smirking, and as big as Randy is, you still feel completely exposed. You move quickly, unzipping your skirt and letting it fall to the floor. You bend forward awkwardly, stepping out of your skirt and gathering it up in your hands, not sure what to do with it. You don’t realize you’re crying until two tears drip onto the material, and you angrily wipe at your eyes before tossing your skirt on the ground next to you.
You work one leg into the suit, then the other, pausing to shake free whenever the rubber bites into you.
“Careful,” Randy says, and of course he’s looking over his shoulder.
You wriggle the suit up your legs until you’re waist deep in the thing. You’ve seen videos of people walking waist deep in swamps, and you’re sure this is what it would feel like. Despite the sickening warmth, at least you’re covered up, the worst surely behind you.
The top half of the suit is folded forward against your legs, and you search for the left armhole. For the first time you see that the arms of the suit end in huge, black-green fins, segmented by splayed black fingers. They dwarf your own hands, and it’s impossible to tell where, exactly, your fingers are meant to fit inside of it. You reach your left arm into the hole, until the tips of your fingers feel rubber. You feel around for finger holes, but the space inside feels completely closed off.
“There you go, just a bit more,” Randy says, and suddenly he’s beside you, taking hold of the suit and pulling it up your arm. With nowhere to go, your fingers bend at the second knuckle and curl inward.
“Wait, hang on, I can’t—”
“No that’s exactly right, now the other arm. Four minutes.”
Randy holds the other armhole open for you, and you have to pinch your shoulder to your ear to stop his breath from blowing across your neck. You plunge your hand into the suit, desperate to no longer need his help, desperate for all of this to be over. Your forearm catches against the elbow of the suit, the fine hairs you’d always been self-conscious of ripped away, but all you’re worrying about is tearing this fucking suit. You feel the tingling of sweat running down your knees, and you try to twist your hips to give the sweat somewhere for it to go, but the legs of the suit move with you.
“There we go,” Randy says, pulling the suit up around your shoulders. You hold up the flippers in front of your face, still trying to find a way of straightening out your fingers, but there’s nowhere for them to go. Despite your struggling, you can’t see so much as an outline of your fingers through the rubber.
You hadn’t noticed a zipper before stepping into the suit, but with it pulled up around your shoulders, it feels tight against your back, as if it has sealed itself around you. The men down the hall are still smirking at you, like wolves watching something small and helpless drift from the herd.
“Just the head now,” Randy says, taking the back lip of the head from against your chest and stretching it open. You can see the eyes in the dark of the mask, filmy and yellow either by design or from age.
“Ready?” Before you can answer, you feel the warmth and weight of his palm on the back of your head, pushing you forward as the top of the mask is pulled over your head, driving you into darkness. The rubber snaps audibly against the nape of your neck and you wince and try to straighten up. It feels like you have a resistance band under your feet and around the top of your head, pulling you down, making it impossible to straighten your neck. The guy on stage was right, you’re too big for the suit, and the pressure driving your head down feels dangerous.
“Can you see OK?” Randy asks, and you realize your eyes are closed. You open them and can barely make out the floor in front of you through the milky, yellowed lenses. The color is uneven, almost brown in the corners of the eyes, and a scratch runs diagonally through the left eye.
“Barely,” you say, your voice loud and hot against your face. If there is a mouth in the suit, it’s too small for you to notice. Already the smell of sweat, your breath and something earthen and sour overpowers you, and a steady trickle of sweat runs from your temples. You reach up to the mouth of the mask and your vision disappears behind the clumsy flippers, pawing uselessly at the face. Your curled fingers press against the inside of the fins, feeling for a mouth hole you could pull open, but everything is smooth and tight.
“What are you doing, can you see or not?” Randy asks, pulling your hands away. Your chin rests against your chest, your neck already aching. You go to pull your elbow free of the suit, desperate to have the dexterity needed to find an airhole or to pull your head free, but the arm of the suit moves with you. It is your arm now, the rubber formed tightly to your skin. The rubber is clinging to the sweat of your skin, drinking it. You reach back with your new hands, feeling the back of your new head for an opening, but you only feel endless rubber from the back of your head to your shoulders.
“Please help, I need help, please get me out of this thing, it hurts.”
“Hun, I can’t hear you, does it feel OK?”
You press off with the balls of your feet and stretch as hard as you can, the muscles of your neck trembling as you stretch, no longer caring if the suit tears in half. If you can just alleviate the pressure, you can take a breath and find a way out of this thing. The rubber screams in protest, but you can feel it giving, ever so slightly. You’re panting now, every part of you shaking with exertion, and the pressure on the top of your head gives just enough so that you can stand up, but you’re not strong enough, the pressure doesn’t give enough, and your neck gives again with a pop, the back of your head nearly touching your shoulders, your throat open and exposed to the suit.
“Stop! You’re going to ruin it!”
You try to speak but it comes out a braying sob. All you can see is the bloom of the lights above you, and when you close your eyes, tears overflow and spill down your cheeks. You can still see the lights, two spots burnt into your eyelids like eyes. You try to speak again, but the suit touches your cheeks and sides of your mouth, clinging to them. This thing has eaten you; you’re never getting free.
You feel Randy grabbing at your wrists, and you twist away, and you stumble down the hallway, using the ceiling as a guide. You flail your flippers in front of you, feeling for anything, hoping you’re not headed towards the men that were watching you. Why didn’t they help? Couldn’t they tell something was wrong? You just need to get back to your dad, he’ll see you and know right away that you need him.
You trip, falling to your knees, the suit pulling tighter to your face with every ragged breath. You inhale deep and feel the rubber intruding past your lips, rubbing against your teeth. You bite down, pulling and grinding at the rubber but it doesn’t give. You crawl blindly, your neck craning back, sure that with just a few more breaths you’ll be out of air. The lights disappear as you swim through black curtains and then you’re on the soundstage again, the darkness above you opening up in every direction. You scream for help, for your dad.
“I guess our monster is ready a bit early,” you hear one of the men say. “Let’s give it a big round of applause.”
You try to get to your feet, but the suit has constricted around your new shape. You paw pitifully at your face, reach out at an audience you can’t see, but everything just brings more applause. Why isn’t your dad coming to help you, is he still out there? Is he watching? You cry out for dad again, but whatever the crowd hears through the suit, it only makes them clap harder.
The studio lights burn against your skin, the suit, your new skin. Something is changing, you can hear the rubber crinkling like bacon in a hot pan, the rubber contracting and twisting, bubbling against your skin. The back of your head is pulled against the space between your shoulders, and you arch forward, your chin almost touching the floor, to try to find your dad in the crowd. All you can see are dozens of children, their faces blurred through the eyes of the mask, their hands a flurry of movement, all of them wishing they were you.
You find yourself wondering if they will continue to display this suit with you still inside it, after you’re gone. You wonder if the next girl to be picked from the crowd will find your bones when she steps inside, or if she’ll even notice.