Halloween 2021: Mask

See Content Warnings
General horror, murder, audible gun violence, violence

Here’s another Halloween bonus episode for you.  The listener-prompt for this one was “masks,” though I’ve taken the liberty of converting the plural to the singular.  This one was written by me, Jeremy Enfinger.  Hope you enjoy.

The act of donning a mask can be literal or metaphorical.  When we put on masks, that is the literal kind, there’s enough evidence to sustain the belief that normal behavior of the individual wearing it can change.  For many, it’s providing an element of anonymity, making it easier for the morally conscious to make choices and conduct themselves in a manner that is outside of their normal character.  For the sake of argument, you could say that this could change a person’s behavior to be better or potentially worse.

This begs the question, did the person wearing the mask have this atypical behavior already contained within them, or did the mask itself somehow influence the individual. One other possibility has been recently suggested, and that is the mask allows for a means to an end.  It grants the ability or the freedom to fulfill a purpose.  Whose purpose is difficult to say.

I’ll let you decide after hearing this account from a distant relative. I should note that no one in our family knew the true names of the people in this story that has been handed down the generations except for my twice great aunt, who has recently passed away.  Now we’ll never know, but I took the liberty of giving each of the people pseudonyms.  

My aunt, who’s name was Mildred, was just two years old when her family settled in the area.  They were pioneers who claimed stake to forty acres of land on which they built their home and grew crops.  She was the youngest of six siblings.  By age ten, the surrounding land had been settled by people much like them, and their closest neighbor had built their home fairly close to Mildred’s, as each was close to their prospective property lines.  

Mildred’s neighbors had a similarly sized family, and she befriended several of the children.  She knew their parents very well also.  The father’s name was Malachai and his wife was Sarah.  Malachai was a hardworking blacksmith with his own shop in town just a few miles away.  He came home after sunset often, but he was never too tired to play with his children for just a while before heading inside for supper, and he always included Mildred and any of her brothers and sisters that happened to be playing with them.  Mildred always admired his belt buckle, which was obviously something he crafted himself.  It was an oval-shaped bronze piece with a horse drawn wagon in the center.  It was truly unique and quite the work of art.

One evening, just after sunset, Mildred was fetching a pail of water from the well when she saw Malachai in the distance on horseback, heading home.  He had stopped just outside of his property line and was approached by another man on horseback whom Mildred didn’t recognize.  Malachai’s children and Mildred and some of her siblings stopped what they were doing to watch.  Their meeting didn’t last long, but Malachai didn’t play with the children that day.  He just dismounted from his horse and walked slowly towards his home, seemingly oblivious to the children.  He went inside and sat down at his table with Sarah to talk.

Mildred and several other children tried to listen from outside their window, but couldn’t hear much of the conversation.  She remembered him mentioning something about their land and the railroad.  He sounded despondent.  The children quickly scattered like roaches when Malachai looked up at the window and saw several sets of watchful eyes peering back at him.

Mildred had difficulty putting what she witnessed out of her mind, so she told her father about what she had witnessed.  Her father, who’s name was Earnest, gathered Mildred and her siblings before bed that night and said they had something very important to tell them.  He explained that the Payton family, who owned much of the neighboring land, had made a deal with the government to allow the railroad to be built going right through all of his property.  Mr. Payton had already approached him about buying his property, and that was also the man that Malachai had been speaking to earlier.

Earnest explained that the Paytons had offered them a large sum of money for their property, which excited the children quite a bit, but he appeared solemn.  Mildred noticed this and asked, “Isn’t that a good thing, poppa?”

Earnest smiled and said normally it would be, but the offer also came with a threat.  He told the children that Mr. Payton gave him two options.  The first was to sell and the second was going to be “not as nice.”  He didn’t like his choices, and he had worked hard to build what they had, but the law wasn’t necessarily present in those days, and Earnest didn’t wish to risk the safety of his family.  He told the children he negotiated for an even higher price than what was offered, and he had already found another property further West with a river on it that he was interested in.  He said they would begin harvesting their crops and preparing for the move the following morning, noting it would take several days to pack and load everything.

The following day, as Mildred’s family was harvesting their crops, Mr. Peyton approached Malachai’s home on horseback.  When Earnest saw that the children had stopped what they were doing and were watching Peyton ride up to Malachai in front of their home, he told the children to stay where they were.  Apparently Malachai hadn’t ridden into town to his shop that day.  Earnest began running toward Peyton and Malachai, but as he approached, Mildred saw Peyton’s outstretched arm emit a large puff of smoke toward Malachai.  A second later, Mildred heard the crack of a pistol and saw Malachai take two steps backwards before falling on his back.

Peyton, still on his horse, rode up next to Malachai and tossed a burlap sack on his chest.  Earnest began running toward Malachai as Peyton rode off toward the horizon.  All the children followed Earnest and stopped when they got close enough to see Malachai.  By that time, Sarah and her children were surrounding Malachai’s body.  Dark liquid began spreading out from underneath him and soaking into the dirt around him.  Sarah looked at Earnest through tears and said, “He refused to sell.”  

Earnest opened up the burlap sack that had been resting on Malachai’s chest, now soaked in blood.  It contained two things.  A large sum of money, which was later determined as the original asking price for Malachai’s property, and a bunch of his hand tools he used for his blacksmith work.  It consisted of various types of what looked to Mildred like hammers, chisels, and a few other things that she didn’t know the technical names for.  Sarah instructed her children to go into the house.  When they did, Mildred watched her take the money out of the sack, and she left the tools in the bloodstained burlap next to Malachai’s body.  Two of Mildred’s older brothers and Earnest spent the rest of the day burying Malachai.

Just eleven days later, Mildred’s and the late Malachai’s families were both packed and as the remaining sunlight faded, all the children watched their homes get smaller and smaller as they began to make the short journey into town.  Earnest had agreed to help Malachai’s family relocate, offering them a place to stay with his own family until they had everything sorted.  The plan was to ride six miles into town and stay at the hotel before beginning the seventy mile trek the next morning.  

Mildred specifically remembered that night for many reasons.  The first was because, as they rode away, she was the last of the children to be watching the homes in the distance.  When they got small enough to be covered up by her thumbnail, which she had been using to gauge distance, she saw someone walking in front of the house that used to be Malachai’s.  Whoever it was, Mildred said, was not wearing a hat, but had something over their head.  She tried to point the person out to some of her siblings, but they just ignored her.

Not long after that, seemingly out of nowhere, a huge thunderstorm began pelting the families as they traveled the remaining few miles to the hotel.  They made it, but not before suffering bitterly-cold weather that was unusual for that time of year.  Each family checked into the hotel, and two rooms were rented, one for each family.  As the families were being issued the keys to their rooms, the lobby door opened and Sarah was the first to stop in her tracks.  Her face turned to rage and her eyes welled up.  Mildred turned around to see Mr. Peyton closing the door behind him.  

Peyton developed a smug grin and squeezed his way through the children making his way toward the front desk.  Sarah didn’t move though.  They stood for a moment, face to face, until Peyton removed his hat, revealing his matted gray hair, and finally spoke up. 

“You made the right decision to leave, and I hope you find your rooms to be hospitable.” 

He motioned to the woman at the desk and said, “Give these folks their money back, and give them some extra clean linens… no charge.”  

A display of confusion landed on Sarah’s face until he spoke again.  “I guess you might not have heard.  I just bought this hotel today.  You enjoy your night now.”

Sarah’s open right hand landed with a loud smack across Peyton’s left cheek, causing him to lunge to the side.  When he turned his head toward Sarah, his grin had left his face, which was now turning red.  He lifted his right hand in preparation to return the blow, but before he could land it, Earnest’s grip around Peyton’s wrist prevented it.  At that point, two young men who had been standing unnoticed by the doorway stepped forward with their hands on their pistols clinging to their hips.  

Earnest stared hard at Peyton, whose face changed once again back to a smug grin, only slightly smaller this time. 

“Have you met my boys, Earnest?” Peyton said.

They stared at one another for what seemed like an eternity, but Earnest eventually let go and told everyone to hurry up and get to the rooms.  As the families were climbing the stairs, Mildred turned around to witness Peyton and his two sons each getting keys to their own separate rooms.  They were going to be staying at the hotel as well.

Later that night, Mildred had trouble sleeping.  The thunder and lightning from the storm had intensified.  Normally, she found the rain peaceful, but she couldn’t shake an unsettling feeling she had.  Whether it was because of the situation they were in, or the fact that a murderer slept under the same roof as them, she was awake most of the night.

Not long after the lanterns were out and everyone else had drifted to sleep, Mildred laid facing the doorway to their room.  Her attention was drawn toward the faint light coming from underneath it, likely put off by the fire still burning in the lobby fireplace.  When she saw shadows blocking out that light, she knew someone had stopped outside their door.  Their footsteps didn’t make a sound, but they lingered, shifting back and forth for a while before moving down the hall.  Whoever it was never twisted the door handle, and she thought it odd that someone would stop there for so long without trying to knock or enter.

A few minutes later, as Mildred waited intently to see if the person would return, she heard someone knock on one of the doors down the hall.  It was too far away to be Sarah’s room.  Shortly after, she heard a strange noise.  It was faint, but repetitious.  It sounded like someone was punching a pillow.  The noise went on for several minutes, which only added to Mildred’s inability to sleep.  Once the noise stopped, she heard the door down the hall open quietly, and then latch closed.  She waited anxiously to see if the shadows of feet walked past the crack under the door again, which was located near the top of the stairs.  Again, without a sound, she saw the shadows again.  They didn’t stop this time.  They just kept walking toward the stairs.  

After enough time had gone by to ensure whoever it was would be well on their way down the stairs, Mildred couldn’t fight the urge to know who it was that had been stealthily navigating the hotel.  She knew that if she waited too long, she would never be able to get a glimpse of them, so she walked quickly, but quietly to the door and opened it.  She had just barely opened it when she looked to the right and saw the figure of a man descending the stairwell toward the lobby.  Not being able to see any identifying features, she decided there was enough distance between them to go out to the railing outside the door for a better look, and she could easily make it back inside the hotel room if the person turned around and started to run.  

As she approached the railing, the doorway continued to slowly swing open.  She saw the man reach the bottom of the stairs and turn toward the hotel doorway as he passed by the fire, now with nearly exhausted flames.  It emitted enough light, however, for Mildred to see the man’s hands were covered in blood.  About the same time she realized this and started to panic, the door made a creaking sound as it stopped swinging.  

Mildred looked back at the door, and through it she glimpsed her family, still asleep.  When she turned to look back over the railing, the man stood in the middle of the lobby, staring up at her.  She couldn’t identify the person because he was wearing a burlap sack over his head, stained with blood.  Mildred tried to scream but nothing came out except a weak wheeze, which was all she could muster.  As she watched the man, she also noticed a glint coming from his waist.  The light was low, but Mildred was almost certain it was the belt buckle of Malachai’s that she so admired.  The one he was wearing when he was buried.

Thoughts of the supernatural, of ghosts and demons, and of the dead swirled in Mildred’s head.  She wasn’t scared of the man that stood below her in the hotel lobby anymore, but she wondered how she could be witness to such a thing.  The man then turned toward the hotel entryway and exited the door into the night and Mildred returned to her room and closed the door.  She was eventually able to fall asleep, but only felt like she had just closed her eyes when her father, Earnest woke her up.  

By the time both families made it to their wagons, which were soaking wet from the storm the night before, the sun had barely risen.  About three hours after their departure from the hotel, a rider approached the wagons from behind.  Earnest stopped and turned around to address the man as he slowed his horse to a trot, and the man flashed a silver badge.  He was the Sheriff of the town we left behind, and he asked the adults some questions mainly about whether or not they heard anything throughout the night… any noises at all.  He asked to see their hands, and then asked to look at the children, which he did briefly.  What he did not do was ask the children if they heard anything.  Mildred had learned early on not to speak to adults or offer any information more than what was asked.  It was the way she was raised.

As the Sheriff scanned the children with his eyes, Mildred started twitching her fingers, which he seemed to notice, but then moved his gaze to the other children.  Thankful to have been glossed over, Mildred looked at Sarah, who had been staring straight at her.  She didn’t think anything of it at the time, and Sarah never mentioned it.  When Earnest asked what this was all about, the Sheriff tried to speak quietly, but all of the children heard him.  He said someone had broken into three rooms at the hotel the previous night and murdered the people staying in them with what he believed to be a blunt object, possibly a hammer.  

He asked the adults if they knew the Peytons.  Earnest said, “Why yes, we just sold our land to them.”

At this, the Sheriff perked up as if he considered them to be suspects.  Then Sarah said, “Yes, what a lovely man!  He even offered to give us our rooms for free on our way to our new land.  I’m sure you can check the clerk’s log at the hotel.”

The Sheriff squinted for a moment, then relieved some tension in his body before saying, “I’ll do that.  Sorry to bother you folks, but I wanted to check with you before you got too far away from town.  Safe travels!”

Then he galloped away in the direction he came from.  It took three days to get to the new land, which had modest housing already built.  After Mildred’s family unpacked, Earnest sent Mildred to Sarah to see if she needed any help with anything, and to invite them to supper.  Sarah was grateful for the offer, but said they were almost done.  She had been carrying one of the last of her items into her bedroom.  It was a chest of some kind with the symbol of a hammer and anvil etched into the lid.  

She tripped and nearly fell on a small container she couldn’t see while carrying the chest, and for a split second, the chest lid opened.  It was quickly closed by Sarah once she regained her footing. 

“It’s just some of Malachai’s old things,” she said.

Mildred nodded, then told her that her dad said if you need anything, just holler.  Sarah gave Mildred a look of discernment before Mildred turned around and ran home as fast as she could.

Eventually, Sarah remarried, but the families remained close and their new property was handed down generations and stayed in each of their families.  This story had been told by Mildred so much that everyone in our family could recite it by the time she passed, but she always left one part out of it.  Mildred was able to see some of the contents of that chest that Sarah dropped.  I don’t know why she shared the full story with me before she died.  Maybe it’s because she knows I’m into this kind of thing.  But when that chest lid popped open, Mildred told me she saw some of Malachai’s blacksmith tools along with that blood-stained burlap sack.  It was the same sack that she witnessed Payton throw on Malachai’s body when he was murdered, and it was also the sack that she saw on the man in the hotel that night.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this additional Halloween bonus episode… we’re not done yet!  We’ve still got more bonus treats in store for you, and maybe even a trick or two.





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