Editor's Note

Bruce Willis, speaking about Samuel Jackson’s acting, remarked appreciatively that once Jackson was done with a role, it was impossible to imagine the role being played any other way or by any one else. Some stories are similarly connected to their settings. It is impossible, I believe, to imagine Dream Girls as being set anywhere other than the USA. It is quintessentially Americana. And what makes it so is the charming, alabaster presence of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Her pop-culture influence on Americans is hard to explain. For those who’ve watched her “Up all night” Halloween TV specials in the 80s, explanations are superfluous; for those who haven’t, any explanation would be inadequate.

From a writer’s point of view, introducing a famous character (real or fictional) into a story is risky because it can reduce the other characters to bit players. There is only so much life force to go around. But in M. C. Schmidt’s story, Elvira is something of a wampeter, an off-stage object, as Kurt Vonnegut put it, around which the lives of otherwise unrelated people revolve. She’s important but not central. She induces relationships among the characters and thus makes them more real. Her influence is sufficient, not necessary. She could be replaced by Elvis, say. What matters is that the characters are passionate people living ordinary lives, and the things they are passionate about or not allowed to be passionate about, gives them all the life energy their story needs. This truth isn’t restricted to the USA. It is true of characters and lives and stories anywhere.  It just so happens Schmidt’s use of the Mistress of the Dark demonstrates this truth in a particularly illuminating way.

— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine

After Mom’s funeral I would drive to Cleveland to meet Elvira, The Mistress of the Dark. We’d bought the convention tickets online, Mom and me, and printed them on the laser printer. Mom hung them on the refrigerator with a magnet that I picked up for her at a gift shop in Colonial Williamsburg. It was Bill Murray from Stripes, pointing like Uncle Sam above the text, You’re Fucking Awesome. She was. Mom was effing awesome. Her heart wasn’t good, though, and it gave out nine days before we were scheduled to leave. 

It was late May and Ohio was finally warming, so I felt okay about leaving Cassandra in the car during the service. That way, we could get on the road right after. 

At the graveside, I bowed my head and wept, tossed dirt, and hugged and thanked the neighbors. Mr. Flores held me and joked that a burglar could have a field day on our block, going from one empty house to another, since everyone was at the cemetery to see her off. That’s how beloved Mom was. 

When the last of the mourners had gone, I buckled up and asked Cassandra, “Are you ready for Cleveland?” I checked her seatbelt again to make sure it was snug against her plastic jar. It was just the two of us now.

At forty-three, I had never experienced a major death before, and the grief hadn’t hit me the way I’d imagined. Rather than an avalanche, it proved much more slippery in its comings and goings. For entire days, I would be fine. Then, out of nowhere, I could be overcome by her favorite hunky weatherman or the rise and fall of the Powerball jackpot. I could experience pure joy trading stories about her on the sidewalk, and then walk into the kitchen to be laid low by a new kitchen sponge that she’d never gotten around to opening. Sometimes, it was comforting to see the world march on without her. Sometimes, that was the saddest thing of all.

For the road trip, I’d brought three Pure Leaf ice teas and a Party Size! bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. It was a four-hour drive, and my goal was to only stop once for lunch and to pee. Half an hour up the highway, though, I realized that Cheeto dust was an impediment while driving. After eating only five or six, my fingers were already stained red, and they still felt grungy after I licked the color off and wiped my hand on the receipt from my last oil change. I rubbed in some hand sanitizer from the little bottle I kept in the car and then hit play on a John Carpenter soundtrack, hungry and hoping for distraction. 

I was only ten when Mom first showed me Elvira, and she became my lifelong love, the ideal woman. Mom had loved her for way longer, ever since she caught Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death on the late-night Movie Macabre. That’s the one she showed me first too. Mom and I had that in common. Taking nothing away from her looks, which were obviously tops, it was Elvira’s personality that won me, her sense of humor. She would pop into scary movies with a quip to remind you that it was all pretend, that it was just good fun. That was important to me as a kid. And her jokes were so simple and so bad that I couldn’t help but be charmed by them. They were dad jokes, but from a woman. Mom jokes, maybe. Through Elvira, I learned to love horror. Never as much as Mom did, though. Mom was a horror junkie. She even named me Boris after Karloff, the monster himself. 

My hunger became distracting in Columbus. I’d only been on the road for ninety minutes, but my snack was a bust, so I gunned one of the teas to give myself more of a justification to stop, and then I began looking for an exit that advertised gas and food. 

I chose a Sunoco with a footprint the length of a city block, with two built-in fast food places—a Taco Bell and a Fry Buddy. I peed and bought some Combos and Twizzlers for the road and then stood between the two fast food queues deciding which I wanted. While I studied the enormous menu that was posted above the cashier’s head, a family of five with three tiny, screaming children joined the wait for Taco Bell. I stepped to my right. Fry Buddy, it was. 

As the queue inched forward, I debated between a Number One and a Number Three, considering which would be less messy to scarf it down in the parking lot. When I was next in line, I realized that the cashier looked familiar to me. I didn’t know anyone in Columbus, but I was sure I knew this woman. I was still trying to work it out when the customer in front of me peeled out of the line with two paper sacks. The cashier glanced up and immediately beamed a knowing smile at me, as unphased as if we’d made plans to meet at her counter.

“Oh, my God! Boris?” she squealed. Her voice was high and girlish, despite her looking roughly as old as me. “Do you remember me? It’s Audra from high school.” 

That was it: she was Audra, from high school.

She narrowed her eyes and bit the inside of her cheek. “You don’t remember me, do you?”

“No, I do,” I said. “I placed you right away.”

“Really? Whew. I was going to say. I didn’t think I looked that old.” 

“You look the same,” I said, awkward as I always was when force into small talk. It was a kind lie, because she did look her age. She was still rail thin, though, with the same round face and giant brown eyes. How she recognized me, I wasn’t sure. I’d put on forty pounds since I’d last seen her, an unfortunate amount of which had taken home in my cheeks and neck.

“Nice suit,” she said. “Do you live up here?”

“No, I’m just passing through. I still live back home. You made it out though.”

Audra snorted and tweaked the yam-shaped nametag that was pinned to her shirt. “Yup, and won’t all the haters back home be jealous?”

I wasn’t sure what to say to this, and so I said nothing.

During the short pause that followed, a manager with a caterpillar moustache approached Audra’s register from her rear. He acknowledged me by saying, “Afternoon, sir,” before angling his body away from me and leaning in close to her. “Is there a problem here, Audra? Your line is backed up. I’ve been watching, and it hasn’t moved in five minutes.” I was pretty sure that was hyperbole, that I hadn’t been at the register for more than a minute or two. It gave me the creeps, how close he stood to her.

“It’s fine, Derek. I was answering a question for him about the menu. He was just about to order when you interrupted.” 

He took a step back and raised his hands in the air like she’d accused him of a crime. “Hey,” he said, “I’m not the bad guy here. I just need you to get this line moving.”

“I know,” she hissed. “I am.” She raised her head and levelled her eyes at me. In a professional tone she asked, “What was it that you wanted sir?”

“Oh, uh…Number One, please.” I smiled apologetically at Derek.

He turned away and said, “I’m back there watching, Audra. Let’s get this line in shape. These people are hungry.” This last part, he said loud like the hero of the queue. 

When he was no longer in sight, Audra raised an eyebrow at me and said, “You got me in trouble.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to,” I said. My wallet was in my hand. I wanted so much to get out of there. 

“Don’t worry about it.” She placed an empty cup on the counter and pointed to a self-serve drink station. “You get your drink there. Your total is six dollars.” Her mood had shifted, and she seemed almost surly as she moved from the stack of wrapped sandwiches to the fries, filling a paper sack with my order. When she returned, I kept my eyes on the counter and handed her my card. She slid it back to me and said, “You’re all set.”

I laid my fingers on the card and said, “Well…it was good to see you. I’m sorry that I got you got in trouble.”

“You’re fine. It was really good to see you, Boris. Really good.”

I met her eyes as I grabbed my food and my empty cup. I would have sworn that she was on the verge of tears.

When I got back to the car, Cassandra was lit up by a ray of sun. She looked bubbly and content. “You’ll never believe what happened to me in there,” I told her. “I think we crossed over into the Twilight Zone.”

I laid a paper napkin on my lap and dug into my food. I’d put a new horror soundtrack on the stereo to get myself back in the right headspace. Audra was on my mind, though, and she was hard to shake.

Before I got old and let my body go, I’d had a few girlfriends, and every one of them had been exceedingly, vociferously Christian. Jesus’s girls, Mom called them, as in: “Are you going to watch Fright Night with me, or do you have plans tonight with one of Jesus’s girls?” She didn’t mean any harm. She was always nice to them, face to face, because they were nice girls. That’s what I liked about them. They had boundaries. I could take them bowling or to the movies with no fear that the evening would go anywhere uncomfortable for me. I blamed movies for my fear of intimacy because it was indistinguishable from my fear of shirts-and-skins basketball games—i.e., the fear of my unclothed body being seen by any human being at any time, for any reason. Luckily, gym teachers proved to be a shade less sadistic than eighties teen comedies had suggested. Based on the bragging of other boys, though, relationships were just as fraught as I feared. 

My solution had been Jesus’s girls. They saved me from getting mocked or beaten up, and I repaid them by being the nicest asexual boyfriend any good girl could dream of. It was a fine arrangement until I got tired of the youth groups and the praying and the Sunday mornings lost to sitting awkwardly next to some nice girl’s nice parents as I mimed words I didn’t believe. When that phase of my life ended, I never dated again. I was happy on my own, and I had Mom and the neighbors for company. It suited me fine.

On the last day of the tenth grade, I was cleaning out my locker when a freshman girl from my lunch table approached me and asked if she could sign my yearbook. I’d never spoken to her, but as a kid without many friends, I was happy to be seen in the halls with anyone who wanted to talk to me. I gave her the book and she had me turn so that she could use my back as a writing surface. She took ages, so long that the halls began to clear. 

Finally, when we were the only two left in that hall, she slapped the book shut and handed it to me. “Read this after I’m gone,” she said. I remember her looking like a child, so skinny and shapeless. She breathed out performatively and then hurried away from my locker. 

I opened the book and flipped through it, wondering how many pages she’d taken up. There was plenty of available room. As it turned out, for all the time she’d taken, she had only written two lines on the very last page: There’s something about you, Boris. I wish I knew what it was. – Love, Audra. Beneath these words, she had written her phone number.

I never called her. She was cute in the way of a pet or a plush toy, but she wasn’t attractive to me in the other way. Anyway, I was terrified by the idea of someone liking me for real, where that interest might lead. When the new school year started, I barely ever saw her in the halls. A boy I had been close with in grade school went out with her a few times, and through him I heard stories of conquest. Eventually, she switched schools, and I heard rumors of drug rehabs and unwed mother’s homes that played perfectly into the script of my movie-addled brain. I was too immature to understand that they were probably lies, insensitive and cruel like any reckless gossip. 

All of this flooded back to me as I ate my Fry Buddy Number One. 

I was rooting through the bottom of the paper sack, picking out every stray fry, when I was startled by a loud knocking on the driver’s-side window. I jolted and dropped the bag, my body reflexively angling away from the potential danger, a fry hanging from my mouth. Through the window I saw Audra, leaning down to look at me and smiling broadly. One of her hands waved furiously. The other held a large-sized Fry Buddy paper cup.

I let out a breath so forcefully that it shot the fry from between my lips and down into the well of the floorboard. After a hesitation, I powered down the window.

“Hi again,” she chirped, her somberness evidently gone. “I brought your milkshake.” She pushed it through the opening and held it at my chest. “It’s sweet potato pie flavor. They’re a real good seller.”

“Oh,” I said, confused, “I don’t think I ordered a milkshake.” I was certain that I hadn’t, of course, but I was so averse to confrontation that I couldn’t tell her outright that she had made a mistake.

“You didn’t,” she said. “It’s a gift from me. To say thank you. Here.” She waggled the cup in front of me until I took it from her.

“Thank you for what?”

“For giving me a lift home. Which reminds me,” she said, “can you give me a lift home?” With the sun on her face, she had to squint to see me. She’d laid a hand on the windowsill, her thin fingers crossing the barrier from the outside into what was provincially mine.

I responded with a croak of uncertainty.

“It isn’t far.” She aimed a pleading smile at me. She was missing one tooth in the back. “So, will you? Please?”

“Yes, okay,” I said weakly. “But can you leave now? Your shift is over?”

She rose from the window and flitted her hand. “Oh, no. I quit. I got into it with Derek after you left. I go, ‘don’t disrespect me in front of the customers. Just because you don’t have friends doesn’t mean I can’t spend thirty seconds catching up with mine.’ He’s a goon. I’ll tell you more on the way. Thank you, by the way.”

She jogged around the front of the car and pulled on the door handle before it occurred to me to unlock it. I hit the button, and the door swung open. “What do you want me to do with your stuff?” she asked, seeing that the seat was occupied. Without waiting for an answer, she grabbed the manilla folder in which I’d secured the convention tickets and slid Cassandra’s jar up out of the seatbelt.

At the site of the jar in her hand, I balled my fists and pulled them back toward me. 

Audra plopped down into the seat on top of the fastened seatbelt. “What is this?” she asked, raising Cassandra to look more closely at her.

“A sourdough starter. She’s very delicate, so…”

“Oh, wow. You’re a baker?” This, for some reason, seemed to delight her. With the jar in her right hand, Audra secured the manilla folder under her thigh with her left and then reached across her body to close the door.”

“No, I’m not a baker. I mean, I’m just a home baker. She was my mom’s, really. She kept her alive for forty years, so she’s very important.”

Hearing the anxiety in my voice, Audra said, “No, I get it. Look: two hands.” She settled the jar on her lap and laced her fingers around it. “I’ll protect her. It’s a her, right? Does she have a name?”

“Cassandra,” I said. I was so unused to speaking about her to anyone but Mom, that it felt like an admission.

“Oh my God, that’s so flipping sweet.” She moved her hands, stacking them primly on top of Cassandra’s lid. After a moment of staring quietly through the passenger window, she said, “Oh, sorry. My apartment is that way. Go out this exit over here.”

The route to Audra’s took us farther from the highway than I had hoped. I wasn’t familiar-enough with Columbus to recognize the streets she was leading me down, and I knew I would need to use my phone to map my way to the nearest onramp. 

“Sorry about Derek,” she said along the way. “I mean, I hung out with him, like, four times, and I knew right away it wouldn’t go anywhere, so I was like, ‘I’m good. Thank you, but no thank you.’ I was super honest and upfront with him, but he still got all pissed off, and he’s been on this power trip ever since. He’s a little younger, though, and he’s a guy, so I get it. Me, though? Do I want to put a bunch of effort into someone that’s never going to care about me? Uh, no. I’m too old for that. These days, I’d rather stay in.”

“It still seems kind of extreme to quit your job like that.”

“That job? Please. Anyway, I’m going to call the HR hotline and tell them he was harassing me. Then we’ll see which one of us ends up out of a job. I mean, he’s been there for three years, and I just started, so it will probably still be me. But, still.”

“Am I going the right way,” I asked.

“Oh, yeah. Keep going straight. So, what about you?”

“I…don’t know,” I said, unsure of what she was asking.

“You don’t know about you? So, like, do you have kids, are you married, do you have a job?”

“No kids,” I said. “I’ve never been married. I do have a job.” Anticipating her next question, I said, “I’m a project coordinator for storm water retention vaults.”

“Oh, dang. That sounds like an important job.”

“It isn’t.”

“It sounds like it pays well though.”

“It’s okay. It’s just me now, and the house is paid off.” 



“Will you marry me?” she asked. I could feel her aiming those giant eyes at me.

I tried to swallow and choked on my saliva.

“I’m kidding,” she said, slapping me lightly on the arm. “Don’t be goofy. And turn left up here. We’re getting close. That’s the store I go to. Oh, and you never told me: why you in Columbus?”

With some prodding, she got me to tell her about Mom, about Elvira, about the horror convention. I finished recounting my recent life to her just as I pulled into the parking lot behind her building. It was a tall, brick building, five or six stories high, with trash and battered children’s toys strewn across a narrow tract of grass. 

“Park anywhere,” she said. “Well, no, not here. A space further down, maybe.”

I drove to the opposite end of the lot and backed into a space. It had been a ten-minute drive, and it had left me feeling emotionally exhausted. 

“So,” Audra said, as we sat idling.

I nodded and gave her a polite smile.

“You’ll want this back.” I accepted Cassandra from her. It was warm from her body. “It was nice to meet you, Cassandra,” she said. I tipped the jar slightly toward her in a little bow. “And you’ll want this.” She raised her left leg and withdrew the manilla folder from beneath it. As she did, the printed tickets slid from the folder and landed at her feet. “Sorry,” she said, bending to retrieve them. She studied them for several seconds before returning them to the folder. “These are for your horror thing?”

I nodded.

“You brought your mom’s ticket too?”

I felt my face redden. “I, um…yeah. It’s dumb, but it seemed like…it just made it feel like she was still going with me.”

Audra put a hand over her mouth like an actress in a classic film. “Boris, that’s not dumb at all. That is, like, the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”

For just a second, I worried that I might not be able to hold back my tears. I swallowed, though, and sniffled, and kept it together. “Thank you, Audra,” I said.

She cocked her head at me as she handed me the folder. “You’re still a good guy. I think that’s what I always found so interesting about you.” She hesitated and then moved to unlatch the passenger door. Abruptly, she turned back to me and asked, “Will you give me your number? I know you’re not in the city and we’ll never see each other again. But, still, will you give it to me?”

Her face was so plaintive, like if I refused it might be one sadness too many for her to handle in a day. “I don’t really—”

“Forget it,” she interrupted. “I’m being dumb. Of course, you don’t want to give me your number. I mean, what a prize, right: a forty-one-year-old, broke, unemployed woman that lives in another city? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, trust me. Get away, Boris, while you still can.”

“No, wait,” I said. 

She had one foot outside the car when she turned to look back at me. “That’s not what I meant,” I lied. “I’m happy to give it to you. I just meant that I don’t really…”

“Date? Is that all?” She touched her chest to demonstrate her relief. “That’s a plus in my book, Boris. I’ve met men who date. I’ve dated men who date. Trust me, they’re not all they’re cracked up to be.” She wrestled the phone from her back pocket and offered it to me. “Will you add yourself to my contacts.”

There were a few people from the block or from work who I texted from time to time, but they were few enough in number that I’d never programmed any of them into my phone. I had no idea how to do it. “Here,” I said instead, raising up to withdraw my wallet. “Let me just give you one of my cards.”

“You have a business card?” She received it reverently as if I’d handed her some delicate newborn animal. 

I felt a small well of pride that anyone would be impressed by me, even if the impression was unwarranted. “It’s the bottom number. That’s my cell.”

“This one?” she asked, running her fingers over the raised text. “Did I ask you already if you would marry me?”

I chuckled and said, “I better go.”

“You better go,” Audra agreed. “Thanks for the lift, Boris. I’ll see you.” She got out of the car and slammed the door, then looked back and waggled her fingers at me before disappearing up a flight of external stairs. 

At the parking lot exit, I stopped and used a voice command on my phone to map the way back to the highway. It was still routing when the screen went black and a phone number displayed. I took the call, realizing that the Bluetooth was still connected to the car stereo when her voice roared, “Boris? It’s Audra.”

I lowered my head and squeezed my eyes shut. “Hi, Audra,” I said in a voice that was higher than my own.

I was adjusting the volume of the stereo as she said, “Boris, listen. I know this is crazy, but can I ask you a question? Do you believe in fate?”

Shoot, I thought. Shoot. “Well, I—”

“Because I do. And I don’t want to overstep because I didn’t know your mom. But, I mean, what are the chances, you know?”

“The chances of what?”

“Really? You don’t see it. Well, it’s too big to put into words. I’ll just say this: I should go with you to your horror thing. I should use your mom’s ticket.”

“Audra, no.”

“I should. I should come. I’ll meet Elvira with you.” I was still thinking through how to dissuade her when she said, “I’m coming down. Give me five minutes. No! Wait! Fifteen.”

“Do you even know who Elvira is?” I asked. The tone of the question sounded more petulant than I intended.

“Sure, I do. She’s from those old beer commercials. The vampire with the great rack. I’m coming, okay? Wait for me, please? Please wait for me, or I’ll be devastated.”

 “I—” I began.

“Boris,” she commanded like the voice of God from my speakers. 


“Do you smoke pot?”

I’d lowered the phone and was trying to back into the parking lot, out of the way of a car that had pulled up behind me.

“That’s smart. Don’t say anything on a cell phone. Don’t worry, though, I’ve got you.”

A series of bleeps announced that the call had ended, and then the sweet, English voice of my phone app purred from the speakers, “You are thirteen minutes from your destination in light traffic.”

The hotel reservation was at the same Holiday Inn Express that was hosting the convention. When we arrived, the entrance was already swarmed with fans. They stood in clusters, talking and laughing, smoking or not. Many were in costume, others sported unusual hair and an abundance of tattoos that announced their love of the genre here as well as in civilian life. 

“Oh my God,” Audra said as I pulled up to the check-in entrance, “is this a cosplay thing?”

“Not everyone dresses up, I don’t think. There were lots of photos on the website. Plenty of people were just in their regular clothes.”

“Were you going to dress?” She sounded distressed.


“And your mom was?”

I nodded.

Audra slumped in the passenger seat, her arms curled around Cassandra, her chin resting on the lid of her jar. 

“It isn’t a big deal,” I assured her. “We can go just like this.”

Abruptly, she sat up and grasped my arm with both hands. “Did you bring your mom’s costume with you? Like the ticket?” 

I flicked my eyes away from her. 

“Oh, you did, didn’t you?” she said in a pouty voice. “That would be weird, though, right? I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have suggested that.”

“It’s not,” I began, unsure exactly how to say it delicately. “Her Elvira costume is in the trunk. But it’s not that I don’t want you to wear it. I’m sure Mom would want you too. It’s just that you’re so…”

“I’m so what?”

“Just, you’re so slim and everything. Mom was a plus-size lady. She had to sew it herself. Do you see what I mean?

She was chewing on her thumb, staring at the joyful mob whose numbers were growing. “Yes, I see. Can we try it, though, if you don’t mind? I’ll bet I can make it work.”

“It’s silly. It really isn’t a big deal.”

“You want to dress up,” she insisted, “and I don’t want to be the reason for you not to get what you want. But I need a costume too. I’m not being selfish. I just want us to match. I want it to be like we’re here together.” She blinked at me, waiting for my answer.

“Sure,” I said, “okay. We can try.” I was certain, though, that there was no point.  

I left her in the car while I went inside to check in. Together, we carried up the bags and the cooler, Audra insisting on carrying one item more than me to make up for the cost of the ticket. The extra item was Mom’s garment bag, which she had to carry over her head to keep it from dragging on the floor. “Also,” she said in the elevator, “I want to buy you something while we’re here. It can’t be anything big, but I want to get you something.” When I told her that wasn’t necessary, she pinched me playfully on my love handle. It tickled so much that I audibly squealed. 

By the time we got to the room, it was after six o’clock. Audra dropped her load on the floor and collapsed on the nearest of the two beds. I lifted the small cooler onto the other and unhooked the bungee cords I’d wrapped around it on account of its bad seal. Audra lifted onto an elbow to watch me. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“Feeding Cassandra,” I said, distracted. “I feed her at six. I’m late.”

She watched me as I withdrew the plastic shopping bag from the cooler and carried it into the bathroom. On the counter beside Cassandra, I laid out a sandwich bag of flour, a spoon, a scale, and a second plastic container that was identical to hers. “You have two of them?” Audra asked. She rose and came to the bathroom door to watch me.

“Sort of,” I said. “This one has her discard. It’s a whole thing, but I take some out when I feed her, and I keep it to flavor pancakes and pizza dough and things like that.”

“Aw, Cassandra’s babies.” In a way, she was right. The characterization made me smile. “So, can I open up that garment bag?”

“Yes, sure,” I said. I was weighing a plastic cup of water. “There’s a wig box too. I laid it with the other things between the beds.” 

I finished the feeding and cleaned up and returned everything to the plastic bag. When I came back into the main room, Audra turned to me from the full-length mirror with tears in her eyes. Her body was lost in Mom’s Elvira dress, which she was holding up by the bosom with both hands like a potato sack. “You could fit three of me in here!” she sobbed. “No offense to your mom. You can look down and see all the way to my feet.”

I was far enough back from her that I couldn’t see that. The pants and Fry Buddy uniform shirt that she’d left strewn across her bed were all I needed to cause my entire body to blush. “You look great,” I squeaked. “I’ll go back in here until you’re through.” I darted into the bathroom and kicked the door closed. 

“Boris, I can’t wear this!” she called.

“Okay. Just change into regular clothes, then. We don’t have to dress up.”

“Yes, we do!” I could hear that she had moved outside the bathroom door.

“Then, just wear the bouffant wig. It’s fine.”

“Who will I say I am?”

“Pricilla Presley?”

“No,” she whined.

“Oh,” I said, remembering. “There’s white body paint too. Wear the wig and the paint. Everyone will think you’re a zombie.”

“Is there a zombie with hair like that?”

“I mean, probably. There are a million zombie movies. No one will ask.” I waited for a full minute with my ear to the door, hoping this suggestion had satisfied her. “Audra?” I called.

“It’s okay,” she said in a voice that sounded calmer. “I’m decent. You can come out.”

“Are you sure?”

“Boris, I’m not laying a trap to show you my breasts. Come out here.”

“Okay,” I said, “I’m opening the door.” I counted five and then pulled it open.

She was sitting on the side of the bed, facing me. She was dressed in a t-shirt and shorts that she’d brought with her in a tote bag. “Hey,” she said.

“Hi. Are…you okay?”

“I took an edible to relax. It’ll kick in soon. I laid one on the nightstand for you too.” She pointed behind her at a flat square of candy in gold foil. She seemed surprisingly sedate after making such a fuss. “And I laid out your costume on the other bed. Who is it of?”

“Leatherface,” I said.

“Is that, like, Elvira’s son?”

“Uh, no. They’re not related characters. He’s just a villain who has a similar physique to me. He’s non-verbal. He’s cool.” I ran my hand self-consciously down my belly.

“Your physique looks great,” she said. “But, listen, I think I’m going to skip the convention tonight, and then maybe we can meet up after for dinner or something. How long are we here, by the way? I didn’t even ask.”

“Two nights. Today’s special guest is Elvira. Tomorrow’s is Heather Langenkamp from A Nightmare on Elm Street. You should go the way you are. You look fine.”

She rose from the bed and made a face that dismissed the suggestion. “I don’t want to look fine. That’s not how I imagined it. We’ll figure out a costume for me for tomorrow, and I’ll come down with you then. Tonight, I’m just going to go out for a walk. Whenever you’re done, come up and we’ll figure something fun to do.”

I tensed when she approached me. I was still as a startled deer when she lifted onto her toes and kissed me on the cheek. 

“Go have a good time,” she said as she walked toward the door. “Don’t worry about me. I have my keycard. Oh, and try that edible. Just do a corner if you’re not used to it.”

I was still standing in the bathroom doorway, staring at that gold foil when I heard the door to the room close behind her.

I felt somber as I put on my Leatherface costume. It was just a mask and suit that was not much different from the funeral clothes I changed out of. After checking myself in the mirror, I grabbed my mask and the other keycard and one of the tickets from the manilla folder. I took a last look at Mom’s dress. Audra had returned it to the garment bag, so I had to unzip it first. Before I left, I took the gold candy off the nightstand and slipped it in my pocket.

I expected to run into her in the hallway, or in the elevator, or milling around on the first floor. I didn’t, though. She was nowhere around. 

The convention was contained in one giant room: row after row of folding tables where merchants were selling trading cards and figurines and other movie memorabilia, and the occasional booth where bit players in cult films sold photos and autographs. Only Elvira was cordoned off in a separate room, a star so big that you had to pay extra even to get a glimpse of her. From one vendor, I bought a tabletop cutout of her for thirty-five dollars, something she could sign for me, then strolled around the tables, passing known characters and made up characters and people in plain clothes. “Hey, Leatherface,” a pair of women said to me in near perfect unison. They were holding hands and enjoying themselves. They were both dressed like Harley Quinn. I bowed to them, suave with my mask on. I felt cooler than myself with the edible in my pocket, as if I were the kind of person who might regularly walk around with an edible in his pocket. It was nice, feeling like someone else.

At a table selling vintage magazine, I flipped through several boxes of comic books, hoping not to scare the young boy beside me who was pleading with is mother to buy him an old issue of Strange Tales. “Let me know if we can help you find anything,” the vendor said to me. She was sitting behind the table with her husband or boyfriend or brother. Staying in character as a mute, I nodded to her and noticed, as I did, that she and the man had matching piercings in their cheeks and eyebrows. 

It was at this table that I came across something that seemed so unbelieve to me that it caused my heart to pound in my ears. I pulled it out and laid it on top of the carboard comics box. It was from the sixties, a trash comic titled, Zombie Mama and the Love Street Pimp Adventure. Right in the center of the cover was the zombie mama herself, with skin as white as paper and a giant black bouffant hairdo. Sensing my interest, the vendor stood and approached the table.

“Do you like that one?” she asked. 

I pulled off my mask. The coolness of the air on my face gave me a hint at how sweaty I’d become. “I do,” I said. “How much is it?”

“Ordinarily, seventy-five. But since I love Chainsaw Massacre, I’ll give it to you for fifty.”

“Seriously?” I said, wincing at the price.

“It’s a rare find.”

“Okay,” I said, grudgingly, “I’ll take it.”

“Excellent,” she said, sliding the magazine into a paper cover. “This is the first book we’ve sold today. I don’t know if you believe in fate, but we almost left this box in the van. We had a heck of a time making everything fit on this little table.”

I paid and thanked her. 

At the entrance to the convention room, I took out my phone and texted Audra: You’ll never believe what I found. Meet me in the lobby.

I waited for ten minutes, watching the elevator doors and repeatedly checking my phone. The thought occurred to me that maybe she’d taken off. Maybe she would never come back. She could cause me real trouble, if so. Images ran through my head of being questioned by the police while dressed as a chainsaw murderer, of having Derek from Fry Buddy point me out of a line up. “It’s him, the fat one,” he’d say. “He was the last one to see her alive.”

“Boris?” came a voice from behind me. 

I turned to see a plus-sized Elvira with her arms outstretched for me to behold her.

“Well,” she asked, barely able to contain her excitement, “how do I look?” She looked ridiculous. She looked terrible. The obvious effort she’d made, though, was adorable.

“How did you do this, Audra?”

She smiled, cracking a line of paint on one cheek. “Towels. And blankets. And the comforters from both of our beds. I used those bungee cords to hold them on. Did you notice my bosoms?” She bent over a little for me to see, as if they weren’t obvious. Filling out the chest of Mom’s dress were two plastic jars jutting out like torpedoes. Cassandra and her babies. “I hope that’s okay. I made sure the tops were screwed on real tight.”

“It’s fine,” I smiled. It wasn’t okay, but I would let it go. “Did you get my text? I bought you something.”

“Nope. No pockets. That’s so sweet, though. I’d hug you but there’s about nine inches between my body and the outside of this dress. I got you something too, though. Look.” She held up a plastic keychain of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. “It’s a frog, I think.” I thanked her and she said, “Show me my present after. There’s too much going on in here. Anyway, I want to go show Elvira what a real woman looks like.”

“The line is ridiculous,” I warned her.

“I’ve got the time if you do.”

I pointed the way, and we headed to join the queue. Everyone stared as we passed them, me and this bizarre Elvira. Audra noticed and seemed pleased with herself.

“So,” she said, “after all this work I did, will you please let this be a date now?”

I blushed and smiled back at everyone who was smiling at us. Then I pulled down my mask, an infamous mute, and I took her hand.


Image credits: @ Mike Bell. For more of Mike’s work, check out his website Belldog Studio and follow him on Insta @mikebelldog.

Editor Jigar Brahmbhatt shepherded the story through at TBLM.


M.C. Schmidt is an American writer whose recent short fiction has appeared in Southern Humanities Review, EVENT, Coolest American Stories 2024, and elsewhere. He is the author of the novel, The Decadents (Library Tales Publishing, 2022).

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