David no longer felt pain on the outside. The extra skin on his body formed a protective layer that only hurt on the inside. He was long accustomed to the formations on his face, but that didn’t mean others ever became used to them. Mycobacterium leprae kept David holed up in his cabin, safely out of sight and away from contact with the world.
His surname was Hachaturyan, common in the nation he had left behind, but no one could pronounce that here. So, after he was diagnosed, he took the last name of the man who’d identified the bacterium and went by David Hansen.
He heard about a colony on the island of Molokai, but he didn’t want to leave the mainland. He never opened the door, except to receive food deliveries. After the years of solitude depleted him, he decided to let people in on the day when they looked more like him: Halloween.
On that special day, he filled his bowl with care. With gloves, he snipped open a large canvas bag of taffy and dumped it in. He wrapped the bag around his neck and jaw to hide his flaps from the little visitors, and he donned a broad-brimmed hat. He placed the bowl at the entryway of his door. He waited in his leather club chair for the knocks.
“Come in,” he said when the first ones arrived.
The door creaked open, and three small heads peered into his dimly lit cabin.
“Trick or treat,” they said in unison.
“Help yourselves to the bowl.”
“Why are you over there?” one said.
“Oh, I just like sitting in my comfy chair.”
As they leaned to the bowl, he had a better look at them. No costumes.
“Tell me, why haven’t you dressed up for this magnificent day?”
They giggled, each grabbed a piece of taffy and scurried out the door. From the window, he saw them skip to their parents just beyond his short picket fence. The parents wore dresses or trousers, fall tweed jackets, and everyday hats, but nothing that made him feel good about himself.
He stoked the fire as the night continued to fall. The next knocks were louder.
“Trick or treat,” the slightly huskier voices said. When they entered, he figured they were perhaps middle schoolers. It bothered him that he could see their faces.
“Where are your masks?”
“Ha!” one responded.
“Why aren’t you at the door?” another asked.
“I like to watch you all have fun from a distance. Why haven’t you dressed up?” he repeated.
A set of laughs and snickers was the only response. They took pieces from the bowl and closed the door behind them.
In the late evening, bigger kids showed up. By their size and voices, he could tell they were almost adults. There was nothing scary about their appearance. He again sat and watched from his chair, but he didn’t say anything this time.
The last one paused and peered back at him. David loosened the canvas sack from his face and tipped back his hat, hoping to give the visitor a scare. It was Halloween after all; they couldn’t take that from him, too.
The young man looked closer. “Nice costume, Mister, real original.”
David sat motionless as the door shut. He took a sip of his tea and followed with a nibble of a sugar cube, a calming ritual he brought with him from the Old Country. Halloween had not been Halloween. No one, it seemed, was taking part. The greedy kids just wanted my candy, he surmised.
Then, a late-night knock on the door. Stragglers. Still in his chair, he called for them to enter.
“Mr. Hansen,” a familiar voice said, “sorry we’re dropping by so late. We’re running behind with little Tammy this evening. Are you still giving candy?”
“Of course,” David said. It was the family from the hollow down the way. Before they walked in, he already knew what to expect: none of them were dressed up. Tammy, still in her school clothes, simply held a jack-o-lantern bucket.
“Take what’s left,” David said. “You must be the last ones.”
He didn’t bother asking about their lack of holiday spirit. They thanked him and closed the door.
He went to the window. As they neared his fence, Tammy’s father seemed to pull something off his head. Her mother did the same. Stocking caps, perhaps.
“You can take it off now, Tammy,” the mother said. “We’re done for the night.”
By now, Tammy was near the lamp on his fence post. She reached under her neckline and peeled off her face. It hung from her tiny hand, bearing near-perfect human features in every way.
Tammy accidentally dropped her bucket, and as she bent to pick it up, David could see her unmasked head in the lamplight. She had pink patches and flaps, like his. Tammy’s parents came back to her. They also had patches and lesions, swollen noses, and drooping ears.
He hurried to the door and threw it open. “Wait, come back!”
But they were already gone.
He closed the door and returned to his chair. He finished the tea and sugar cube, turned his cup upside down, and placed it on the saucer.
The fire sparked next to him, shooting a charred wood fragment through the metal screen onto the stone hearth beside him.
He took off his hat. He unraveled the sack from his neck and face, opened the screen, and threw it in the fire. The blaze intensified.
He thought about tomorrow, where he’d go, and who he’d see. He thought about the hands he’d shake, the backs he’d pat. He thought about how he would handle his new life, a life without pain on the inside.
The wood fragment continued to sizzle next to him. A moment later, it popped, revealing its glowing core.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Carter is a writer from the Western United States. He’s also an occasional photographer, a Space Camp alum, and a volcanic-eruption survivor. He can be found at www.michaelcarter.ink and @mcmichaelcarter.