In honor of Halloween, the season when we celebrate the ghoulish and gruesome, things that go bump in the night and send chills down your spine, I thought I’d share with this story inspired by years of watching The Twilight Zone. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it. Happy Halloween, my friends!
Clothes Make the Man
Max Stratton pulled the business card from the pocket of his gray Armani suit and double-checked the address. Clothes Make the Man, 22 Sentinel Lane. He looked again at the narrow store front with its blackened windows and wondered how long it had been since Vivian’s friend, who had recommended the costume shop, had actually shopped here.
“Trust me, Max. It’s the most amazing place. The man who runs it is darling– even if he is a trifle mad. The costumes are genuine antiques, yet he sells them for a pittance,” Natalie had said when she slipped the small, handwritten, business card into his palm.
Why the devil did Vivian decide they needed to throw a Halloween costume ball? They were adults, not children going out to trick or treat. But Vivian thought it was a fabulous idea; she adored the idea of playing dress up. After twenty years of marriage, Max knew better than to argue about Vivian’s parties — not if he wanted any peace in the coming year.
But where was he going to get a costume now? Clothes Make the Man seemed to have gone out of business. No mannequins modeling in the windows. No interior lights that Max could see. Not even a “Sorry – We’re closed sign” hung in plain sight. If it wasn’t for the number twenty-two painted in gold over the door frame, he would’ve sworn he was in the wrong place.
Annoyed at the wasted trip, Max shoved the business card back into his pocket and turned to leave.
Suddenly, bells jingled behind him as the door to the shop slowly opened. A tiny old man stepped out, wearing brown striped trousers with a matching vest and a white shirt with red garters holding up the sleeves. At six feet tall, Max towered over him by at least a foot. The man pushed a broom with a handle almost as tall as he was; he kept his head down, all his energy focused on sweeping the dirt away from the store front.
Max interrupted with a faked cough. “Excuse me. I’m looking for a costume shop called Clothes Make the Man. This seems to be the address, but…”
“Oh, you’ve got the right place, all right. Come in, come in,” the man said, looking up from his task as he motioned Max to follow him inside. A grin spread across his face revealing a mouth full of crooked yellow teeth, but there was child-like enthusiasm in his voice that surprised Max.
“The name’s Horace Barkley,” he said and reached out to shake Max’s hand. “I’m the proprietor of this fine establishment. What can I do for you today?”
“I need something special for a costume ball my wife’s throwing for Halloween. Your shop came highly recommended.”
“Yes, yes,” Horace said with good-natured pride, “We specialize in the extraordinary.”
Horace moved through the shop tugging on dangling strings connected to the overhead lamps, prattling on about how the failing economy put a damper on his business and how he’d lacked the extra cash for fripperies. As he lit each lamp, dim circles of light spilled over faceless mannequins dressed in costumes dating back hundreds of years. At a glance, Max saw a colonial minuteman, a cowboy, a Roman gladiator, and what appeared to be a member of the French aristocracy from the eighteenth century, complete with powdered wig. He moved closer, admiring the fine detail of the clothing.
“Impressive, Mr. Barkley. Everything looks so authentic.”
“Oh, it’s authentic, all right. Those aren’t costumes, Mister…ah, what did you say your name was?”
“Stratton. Max Stratton.”
“Mr. Stratton. No, sir, all my clothes are the genuine article. No reproductions.”
Max raised an eyebrow. “Indeed? In that case I imagine they must be extremely expensive. No wonder business has been slow.” If he thinks he’s going to make up his losses on me, he’d better think again, Max thought.
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. After all, we are talking about used goods. Certainly wouldn’t expect you to pay brand new prices for recycled clothing. No, sir, Mr. Stratton. That wouldn’t be right.”
Max’s eyebrow shot up again, but this time in surprise rather than cynicism. “Well, how much do you charge?”
“On the clothes, of course. And whether they make the man,” Horace Barkley said, scowling at what he obviously deemed a stupid question. “Look around. See what suits you. When you find something, let me know and we’ll discuss prices.”
Max nodded his approval and began browsing the merchandise.
The store was much bigger than it appeared from the outside, with two long rows of mannequins running down the middle of its narrow length. On close inspection, the costumes appeared to be genuine antiques, like something one might find in a museum; he was certain they were worth a small fortune. Well, Natalie had said the guy was crazy.
He studied each display, eliminating several at a glance. He certainly didn’t have the legs for the gladiator get-up or the highlander’s kilt. And nothing in the world would get him in the minstrel’s tights. Max did fancy the Louis XVI nobleman’s costume with its silk brocade jacket and jeweled buttons, but it looked made for someone much smaller than he was.
“Have you seen this one, Mr. Stratton?” Horace said, pointing to a figure wearing the gray uniform of a Confederate soldier. On its head was a regulation kepi with its linen havelock draping over the neck to protect the wearer from some long ago sunburn. A bulging haversack had been slung over its shoulder and a rifle, complete with deadly looking bayonet protruding from its muzzle, leaned against the crook of the faceless mannequin’s arm.
Max’s face lit with interest. The uniform, bathed in a pool of dim light, beckoned to him. He’d always been a Civil War buff and here was a chance to wear a uniform that some young Johnny Reb might have worn into battle.
“It’s incredible. It looks so real.”
“Told you before. It is real. Right down to the underwear.”
Max held his breath and reached forward with tentative fingers to remove the soldier’s hat. “May I?”
“Go right ahead.”
Horace watched Max adjust the hat and check out his image in the full-length mirror beside the dressing room.
“Well, the hat fits,” Max said, hopefully.
“Why don’t you try on the rest of it? Looks like it might be the right size to me.”
He nodded in giddy anticipation and wondered if what he was feeling was anything like what the soldier who originally owned the uniform might have felt before a skirmish.
“Good. Good,” Horace said, as he removed the rest of the uniform with amazing speed and nimble fingers, then ushered Max into a small dressing room. “There you go, Mr. Stratton. I have a feeling you’ve found something to suit you.” He giggled, an odd sound coming from such an old man, then drew the curtain to assure Max’s privacy as he changed clothes.
The dressing room barely had room to turn around in, but Max managed to remove his suit and hang it on one of the wall hooks. He looked at the garments Horace Barkley had hung on the other hook and saw the old man hadn’t been joking when he said it came complete with underwear. For a moment, Max considered leaving on his own tee-shirt and briefs, but decided to strip down to the buff and try on everything. In for a penny, in for a pound, he thought with dry amusement.
He fumbled with the buttons on the fly, amazed to find each one had CSA embossed on it. Must’ve been a real pain in the ass when you had to pee, Max thought, and made a mental note not to drink too much when he wore this to Vivian’s party. That startled him because, suddenly he knew in his gut no matter how much Barkley wanted for the uniform, he was going to have it.
Fully dressed, he stepped out of the cubicle and studied his reflection in the mirror, delighted by what he saw. The uniform fit as if it had been tailored to his exact measurements. He straightened to his full height – the trouser length was perfect and even the boots fit perfectly. Max turned to check out the side view and Horace thrust the bayoneted rifle into his hands.
“Here. You’ll need this.”
Max held the gun with both hands, momentarily surprised by its weight, then hefted it over his right shoulder, cupping the butt in a parade stance. He spoke down to Barkley’s diminutive reflection beside him in the mirror.
“How much? For everything.”
“Well, let’s see,” the storekeeper said, tapping his chin thoughtfully as he made mental calculations and mumbled to himself.
“Don’t jerk me around, Barkley. Name your bottom price and I’ll take it off your hands today.”
Horace crooked his neck to peer into Max’s face and grinned, this time keeping his lips tight together so Max wasn’t exposed to those awful teeth.
“I think thirty dollars will cover it.”
“What?” Max’s jaw dropped. “I must have misunderstood. I thought you just said ‘thirty dollars’.”
“I did. Most of that’s for the rifle which went for about twenty-five or so when it was new, but taking into account depreciation and wear and tear on the clothes… Yes, thirty dollars should do it.”
He is crazy, Max thought. “Sold.”
Before Barkley had a chance to change is mind and up the price, Max reached into the dressing room, grabbed his wallet from his own pants’ pocket, and handed the old man two twenty dollar bills. Horace headed away to the cash register to get change and Max went back inside the cubicle. He closed the curtain with one quick pull.
In that moment, an explosion boomed outside the cubicle, its force flinging him into the wall. He smashed the side of his face on the wall hook; he touched his cheek and saw his fingers covered with blood.
“What the hell?”
He heard shouting and wondered if he was in the middle of a terrorist attack. Then he remembered the shopkeeper. Max stood up and reached for the curtain, calling the old man’s name.
The shop had vanished behind a cloud of smoke which filled his lungs and triggered a coughing spasm. He smelled gun powder. Jesus, had the damn fanatics bombed the place? He covered his face with one arm and stepped further into the room. He couldn’t see a thing but he heard voices, lots of them. Some were yelling; he thought they were speaking English, but he couldn’t quite make out the words; others were screaming, shrieking in pain. Had someone else come into the shop when he wasn’t looking? Were the shouts paramedics already on the scene?
Another explosion shook the ground. Without thinking, Max threw himself to the floor and used both arms to protect his head. Something thudded to the ground next to him. He reached over to see what it was. For a brief moment he thought one of the mannequins had lost a leg, then he saw the ripped flesh and the blood and screamed.
“Hey! Somebody! Over here! I need help!”
Men were running all around him but none stopped to help. The dark was alive with sound, the loud retort of gunfire and the clanging of steel against steel. Unbelievable as it seemed, he was in a battlefield.
What the hell is going on? Max touched the sleeve confederate uniform he wore, now filthy and covered with his blood. It’s got to be a dream. There’s no other explanation. I banged my head in whatever that first explosion was and this is just some weird hallucination. That’s got to be it. If I can just get outside and into some fresh air, I’ll be all right.
Max dragged himself to his knees and started crawling in what he hoped was the direction of the exit. He focused all his thoughts on getting outside, trying desperately to ignore the sights and sounds of the battle raging all around him. He willed himself not to believe what his senses told him.
“Where do think you’re going, private?” Max froze in his tracks, trapped by the commanding voice of the confederate officer standing in front of him.
“There’s been some mistake — Sir,” Max added hastily.
“I’d say so. You’re heading in the wrong direction, private. The enemy’s that way.” The officer used his saber to point behind Max. “You wouldn’t be trying to desert in the middle of a battle now, would you, private?” The voice was low and filled with menace. Hallucination or not, it terrified Max.
“No, sir. I wasn’t deserting. I…I…I was looking for my rifle. I lost it in the fracas.” Where had that come from?
“Take another from one of the fallen and get your ass back there. And be quick about it or I’ll shoot you myself!”
“Yes, sir,” Max said, then searched the ground around him for a weapon. He thought about going back toward the dressing room for the rifle with the bayonet but he didn’t know where the damn dressing room was. The officer had disappeared in the smoke, probably busy fighting Yankees.
Max decided to make a run for it.
He hadn’t gone ten yards, when Max heard the officer’s voice shouting after him. “Stop right there, you cowardly bastard.”
Ahead, Max thought he saw a lighted doorway. He kept running, pushing himself as hard as he could. He felt something whiz past his ear, but he had no time to think about what it was. A little further and he knew the light was the dressing room; he could see the curtain he’d pulled back. There were more shouts but he kept his head down and sprinted forward.
Six feet from the doorway, where he could see his Armani suit hanging on the wall hook and the bayoneted rifle leaning against the wall, the bullet struck him in the back.
“Oh god, I’m dead,” he thought, then fell, face down, in the dirt.
Horace Barkley smiled as he showed the latest prospective customer his merchandise. With great pride, he informed him that each display contained authentic clothing from the time period and was not a costume. The gentleman seemed taken with a confederate uniform standing in the corner and asked the price.
“Oh, this one’s slightly damaged. See,” said Horace, pointing to the back of the gray coat. “There’s a bullet hole tear. I suppose I could let you have it — complete with accessories, of course — for oh, say twenty-five dollars?”