Still in my high school punk rock phase, so when I showed up Ralph said I already looked scary. Every October, I worked at a haunted Halloween corn maze on the outskirts of town because I had to pay for my car insurance. There were folding tables with tons of makeup on them. It was here where everyone came to get ready for the night. Cardboard boxes sat waiting with every child’s nightmares: Ghostface, Jason, Freddie, and other freaky but untrademarked faces. I opted for the makeup, since these boxes were God-knows how old and were stored in God-knows what condition and smelled like weed, vomit, sweat, and cornfield.
My friend Liz brought over black and white face paint to transform me. She was an artsy tomboy, forever in dark eyeliner with lots of jangly bracelets and black jeans. She bustled around and did everyone’s makeup except for the jocks, who squeezed fake blood on their hands and then played some form of slapsies until they were covered in red handprints. Stupid, but pretty effective. While she did my makeup, Ralph, who owned the farm, gave us our nightly pep talk. This one consisted of some red-faced yelling about not smoking weed or leaving beer cans around.
“It ruins the illusion,” he said, stalking off, but not before one of the jocks gave him a friendly pat on the back, leaving a red palm on his jacket.
“How is the usual first day of the season madness?” I asked Liz. She went to the high school across town, West. I went to East.
“Sheer chaos. They didn’t take any of my suggestions like labeling the boxes or getting plastic Tupperware. Pretty sure there’s a family of mice living in, like, all of the coffins, so don’t get stuck jumping out of one.”
“I’m going for the chainsaw this year.”
“You always say that. And then you can’t start the chainsaw. And then the guests laugh at you, and then you get all insecure.” She had finished covering my face in lotion and started painting it corpse white.
“Last year I was lulling them with a false sense of safety. They were more scared of the next monster after I fumbled my scare,” I said. The truth was I just didn’t have the upper body strength to start the chainsaw.
“Uh huh. Psychological warfare. I get it. It’s like when I’m nice to my stepmother on Thursdays and then I’m a total cunt the entire weekend. Close your eyes.”
I kept my eyes closed as she switched to black, which had a heavier texture than the corpse white. She hollowed out my cheeks and painted all around my eyes. She was a pro at turning out corpses at this point.
“So itchy,” I said.
“Would you rather stick your face in one of those masks?”
“Okay then, time for the lips. Open your eyes.”
When I opened them, I saw Katie, who I knew through Liz, sitting at our table with a guy I did not recognize, but kids from all over the area came to work here. He was around my age. Katie had a round face painted to look like there was blood coming out of her eyes and her mouth. She growled at Liz and made a hungry-snapping noise at me.
“Are you scared?” she croaked out.
“I did your makeup, Katie, so no,” Liz said. “You should bring that energy to the school play.” Katie was a drama kid, like Liz.
“The Crucible but zombies,” the guy said. He had this big nose that dominated his face. Kind of a girly voice. His hair was buzzed short and he had two little stud earrings in each ear. He looked like a stoner, like one of those kids who blazed up in the back of the auditorium and said “cool” a lot.
“Oh, that’d be awesome. Try to eat John Proctor,” I said. “I’m Mike.”
“Sorry, I forgot you and Anthony don’t know each other.” Liz said, now using a Q-tip to brush black lipstick onto me. “Mike works here every year. Anthony goes to West with Katie and me. He does behind the scenes with me in the plays.”
“But like not makeup,” Anthony said. “Like sets and sound and stuff.”
Katie nodded and gestured at the two of them. “The dream team, Liz does my makeup and Anthony does my mic.” She squeezed his arm, obviously crushing. I stood to the side, the sole member of the group who went to East.
I nodded. “Nice. So you didn’t work here last year, right?”
“No,” Anthony said. “Liz told me about it.”
“Where in the fields are you all?”
Katie growled again. “I’m with Liz, sort of by the front, with the vampire cultists. As always, shotgun cult leader.”
“Sounds about right,” I said. “I’m with the serial killers and the chainsaws over by the haunted shack and apple cider.”
Anthony was over there too. I told him once he got his makeup on we could walk over together. I’d show him the best hiding spots to really freak people out.
“No makeup for me. I’ll wear a mask.”
The girls started to walk over with us and then we parted ways, deeper into the fields. Anthony told me he needed this job to pay for his car. He spent the evenings that weren’t weekends delivering pizza. He lived in the Kings Grant apartments and his mother was a flight attendant so was never home. Dad was gone. If he wanted spending money, he’d sure as shit earn it himself.
It was still daylight out, so it was easy to weave in and out of the maze, just following the arrows to our spot. Without the arrows, we would have gotten lost. The maze seemed endless. Anthony and I had an isolated little area toward the end, festively decorated with a small scaffold and a two of dummies hanging from nooses, meant to look like our victims. The two of us grabbed the extra ropes and whipped the dummies, watched them sway. He left his mask off, saying he’d put it on when the first few people came through. In the dimming light, while I was pretending to strangle him, I noticed he had very nice lips.
“So you do theater tech?”
He looked at me for a long minute. “What are you trying to say?”
“I’m not trying to say anything. I’m asking if you do it. Like, could you build a scaffold like this?”
He grinned. “Probably better. It should really have a trap door that pulls out. So yeah. If you got me the right wood, I could build.”
“Cool. I mean, I don’t need one. But that’s cool.”
He laughed and held out his hand. I gave him a high five. He shook his head. “No. Like feel my hand. Feel how calloused. That’s your proof I could build a scaffold since you don’t want one.”
“Oh, oh yeah,” I said. “I feel.” It occurred to me that we were sort of holding hands. Is that what he wanted? Or was I walking a thin line to getting my ass kicked?
“Yours feel soft.” He poked where my fingers met my hand. He caught my eye for a second and then looked away. “Now that it’s darker you look kinda creepy. I’m not sure I’d recognize you with your makeup off.”
“I’ll say hi, then you’ll know,” I said.
“I’m just kidding. I can tell what you look like.” He caught my eye again.
“Anyway, the makeup is better than that mask. They store them like, in the same dank shed on the farm somewhere. Next time you should just do the makeup.”
He shook his head. “I don’t want anyone to see me.”
“Well,” Anthony bit his lip and turned the lights on over our swaying victims. It was darker now. “When I started delivering pizzas, a few kids noticed and started, you know, being shitty about it at school. So I started like, wearing a hoodie and a hat and stuff so no one can see me. This job it’s even easier to hide.”
I grinned stupidly. “I see you.”
“You’re like, mad cheesy.” He bumped me with his shoulder. Ralph drove by on a little green Gator to tell us guests would be coming by soon. The front had opened; the sun had gone down. It was early in the season though, so it wouldn’t be too crowded. That didn’t mean we should get lazy, though. He got off the Gator and looked around the scaffold for any empty beer cans and thanked us for being the only sober ones this deep into the field. Then he drove off, leaving the smell of car fumes in the otherwise clear and sweet corn.
“So speaking of sober, do you wanna smoke? Just a little. Like I don’t wanna freak out at the corn maze. Imagine if we were more scared than the customers. That would be so—” He snapped his fingers and paused.
“Yeah! Ironic. That would be ironic. Smoke?”
We walked a few feet into the corn maze, but not so far that we’d get lost. It was so tight that we were pressed close to each other, face to face. I could smell Anthony’s cologne, one of those body sprays people keep in their cars if they can’t shower. We passed the joint back and forth.
“So you’re smart? You do well in school?” He said, exhaling over my shoulder.
“I don’t know. I do okay.”
“I mean, you knew about ironic.”
We finished the joint, but we still stood there, the corn swayed and pressed against us, as if nudging us closer.
“We should head back. I think I hear—” I said.
“Do you mind if I pee first?”
“I don’t wanna walk back alone. Can you wait?”
“Okay. I have to pee too.”
We unzipped, and peed. I caught him looking down and watching me, and then he caught me watching, too. He pressed his lips together.
“Sorry. Weed always does this to me. You?” He sounded shaky.
Weed didn’t do that to me, but the sight of Anthony’s mouth and his dick out in the dim corn maze did. I didn’t say that though. “Yeah. Me too.”
He looked side to side and slid closer to me. The corn caressed against us, and I swallowed nervously but extended my hand. We pulled at each other for the first time that night. A few customers were walking by and couldn’t see us in the dark corn, but I could overhear them wondering if someone was going to jump out and scare them.
Anthony finally gasped, wet and sappy in my hands. “I think I hear something out there,” one of the girls said, and that made us laugh so hard, which freaked them out, and they ran off. My hands were sticky with him the rest of the night while we scared other teenagers, although I’d wiped them on the sharp edge of a corn’s bladed leaf.
We exchanged numbers and started texting each other all week. Stupid stuff, like what we were doing and how boring class was. A few times, I told him about all the trouble I was getting into at home for not going to church. He’d tell me about being alone all the time, eating cereal for dinner. He called me his new best friend.
But being friends didn’t stop us. We touched in the cornfields again and again, a few times a night most of October. He sucked me behind the scaffolding. The two dummies watched with bulging eyes, as if they were shocked. I tried to kiss him after the last customer came through and we were alone out there, but I’d barely leaned in before Ralph’s Gator puttered up.
Anthony invited me to come over his house the next day after work to watch a scary movie. He asked if I could bring something to eat so I picked up a pizza, with his favorite toppings, and a two liter of coke. It felt like a date. I squeezed into a small shirt I almost never wore and shaved the peach fuzz off my chin. It looked more angular now, a new face.
He lived in a horseshoe apartment on the second floor that got no light. He had this mattress in the living room and a pile of dirty clothes in the bedroom. He did his homework on the little patio but always forgot to bring the notebooks and crap inside, so it was perpetually damp and moldy. He had a TV but it wasn’t up on a stand or anything—it just sat on the ground. There were bowls full of dry cat food, no cat in sight.
“I can’t fall asleep without the TV, but mom gets mad if she comes home and the TV is in my room. So I just bring my mattress out here.”
That seemed like a classic example of what my mother called, “teenager logic.” He lived without any adult supervision. I was jealous, and at the same time, I couldn’t imagine being so alone, waking up on the mattress in the blue light of the TV.
We chilled there for a bit and tried to watch the movie. Anthony started feeling me up and we pretty quickly shifted activities. Instead of going right for the touching, I leaned in and he let me kiss him. His lips felt as nice as they looked. We stripped down, and I marveled at being naked with another person. He produced a condom in a golden wrapper and handed it to me. In theory, I knew what to do with one of these. But in practice, not so much. My ex and I had a hurried relationship, quick handjobs in the front seats of his car.
“Do you want to? “Anthony said, turning over onto his stomach.
From what I’d seen on the internet, this was my cue to hold Anthony down, roll on the condom, and start savagely thrashing like a WWE wrestler. Somehow, though, that didn’t seem correct. I had no idea what I was doing. My palms were sweating so much I couldn’t get the condom wrapper open.
“Yeah—” I said, finally getting the condom and rolling it on. I pushed myself against Anthony and he yelped. I pushed a little harder and he crawled away, shoving me off him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. His body disappeared as he pulled his pants back up. His face was bright red. “”I can’t do it.”
“You don’t have to be sorry,” I said. “I’ll go slow. You tell me what to do.” I hadn’t gotten to do much, but I decided I definitely wanted to do more.
He held his head in his hands. “I can’t. No way. I’m not—I’m not like that.”
“I—I don’t know. Just forget this ever happened.”
“Okay.” I said, not wanting to, but I could see he would start crying any second. I yanked the condom off and slipped my pants back on. He turned away from me and hit play on the movie. Every time I tried to catch his eye, he looked away. He didn’t invite me to crash, so I got to my car and imagined him, falling asleep to the credits, the opened condom wrapper gleaming golden on the floor. What had I done wrong?
When the weekend finally ended it was like he disappeared. I only knew he was still coming in to work because Liz told me.
“Why?” she texted.
“What do you mean, why?” I wrote back.
“Like, why are you asking if he’s coming in today? You want me to give him a message or something? We have gym together later.”
I told her no. No message. Why bother? He hadn’t responded to any of the texts I’d sent.
Before work on Friday, I drove past his place. I’d say it was on the way, but it wasn’t. I went past the third light and turned off Route 73 and into his development. He wasn’t home, but I peeked up through the open curtains when I parked my car. The mattress was still on the floor. His cat had finally come out, and was staring back at me like a gargoyle. Only other thing I could see was the empty pizza box and the TV.
I drove off. He’d have to talk to me at work.
I got there just in time for the sun to be that autumn orange just before it sets. When you walked onto the farm from the side entrance, it looked beautiful. The corn swayed and you couldn’t see any Halloween decorations at all. It was just quiet and breezy and bright.
Of course, not far down the path the jocks were, once again, squirting themselves with blood. Liz, in some heavy corpse makeup, was at her usual station. Katie was talking her ear off, all set to be a vampire cultist again. I spotted Anthony digging though the dirty pile of masks. I thought he was stupid for wanting to wear one, now I think I missed the point.
“Hey everyone. Ready for another night of it?” I said.
“Scaring people is our passion,” Liz said, and I couldn’t tell whether she meant it or not.
Anthony must have found his mask because he started trotting over to sit with us. He put his arm around Katie and seemed intent on staring at the lobe of her ear or the jocks just over my shoulder.
“Hey,” I said.
“Yeah, hey,” he said.
Katie smiled a stupid big smile and the two of them kissed. On the lips. I made eye contact with Liz and she shrugged.
“I’m gonna be with you tonight so the lovebirds can be together,” she said.
“But Anthony’s not dressed like a vampire cultist,” I said, gesturing at his dark jeans and mask. He didn’t tell me he and Katie were dating. Dating. After literally spending half of the month touching each other, and the other half of the month texting about touching each other.
“Mike’s right. We should get you in character, babe,” Katie said. “Wouldn’t want to break the illusion,” she lowered her voice and did her best Ralph imitation.
“Needs blood, fangs—not sure why you went and grabbed a mask. That doesn’t scream vampire cultist, like, at all,” I said, grabbing his monster mask and pulling it over my head.
“Chill,” Anthony said, yanking it off me. “No one is putting makeup on me. I’m wearing a mask. I’ll be a vampire who wears masks. It could happen.”
Liz frowned thoughtfully. “Maybe.”
“No,” I said. “That’s idiocy. How’s he gonna suck blood through his mask?”
“I’ll suck blood before I put my mask on,” he said, putting his arms around Katie and nibbling at her neck. She squealed appropriately.
I could feel myself getting hot. I rolled my eyes. “Gross,” I said, glaring at Katie, who did not seem to care about the daggers I was sending. Liz squinted at me when I looked at her for commiseration. Anthony, who one week ago had handed me a condom and offered me his ass was now nibbling at my friend’s ear lobe. And all I could do was stare.
“Really nice,” I said, louder. I’d get so loud I’d scare the crows if I wanted to. “Tried to have sex with me a week ago, then disappear back into some hole in the ground, then make me watch you make out with someone else. Fuck this.”
Apparently I’d gotten the attention of the jocks, who stopped squirting each other with blood to oooooh and ahhhh at Katie. They assumed I meant her. She looked confused. Then, in unison, she and Liz both understood. I had been talking to Anthony.
Anthony, who threw on his mask and bolted into the corn maze. The jocks, still thinking I had meant Katie, called after him. Don’t worry about that whore! Plenty of other biters around here! That’s tough my booooy!
Only the four of us knew what I’d really meant. Katie sprang up, stoic in the face of all the cat calls, to go after Anthony.
Liz sucked her teeth at me, her skeleton makeup only underscoring the severity of her expression. “That was a shit thing to do.”
“What? Me? What about him?”
She just shook her head and walked away, not saying anything.
Weeks passed. The maze still seemed endless. Katie held Anthony’s hand in a gentle, performative way, though I could tell they weren’t dating. Anthony wore his mask all the time around me now, and its long eyes looked more sad than frightening. Even Liz painted my face in frowning silence. For the rest of that season, none of my friends would talk to me. It wasn’t until years later that I understood why.