My cousin Ethan and I grew up together, but I never liked him very much. His family was rich, so he always had the best stuff. Mine wasn’t. I didn’t.
On Halloween, 1985, we were going trick-or-treating together. I was the Terminator, he was Freddy Krueger. His mask cost almost a hundred dollars and it looked exactly like Freddy’s face. The scars, the sneer; everything was just right.
I didn’t have a mask. My parents couldn’t afford one. I had torn aluminum foil taped to the side of my face. It was meant to look like the Terminator after some of its skin had been ripped off. A few splotches of ketchup on the foil were supposed to look like blood. As soon as it dried, it looked very little like dried blood and very much like dried ketchup.
Despite my terrible costume, I was still excited to trick-or-treat. We didn’t have candy very often at home, except maybe on Easter. My parents encouraged me to go to as many houses as I wanted to get all the candy I’d be able to eat. It felt good to know they wanted me to be happy.
Ethan and I went out at sundown and visited house after house. Every time, the homeowners would gush over Ethan’s mask. They’d tell him how scary it was. How realistic. Then they’d turn to me and ask who I was supposed to be. I’d answer, then they’d say something like, “oh of course, how could I have missed it!” I could tell they felt sorry for me. One even handed me an extra few pieces of candy.
When we were done, our pillowcases stuffed with treats of every sort, we began the long walk home. As we went, Ethan rooted around in his bag of loot. I could hear him grumbling and complaining through his mask. Then he started throwing candy on the street. Stuff he didn’t like.
“Go ahead and pick it up if you want it, Bill,” he called out, heaving handful after handful into the gutter. “I know you can’t afford to let anything go to waste.”
I didn’t say anything, but I reached into my pocket and pulled out the lighter and one of the two cigarettes I’d stolen from my dad. I’d been smoking on-and-off for the last few months, and even at 13, I knew it was bad for me. I just didn’t care. It made me feel good.
I stayed a few steps behind Ethan as he tossed more candy away, and as much as I hated myself for it, I ended up picking a few pieces off the ground and putting them in my bag. Ethan caught me once and laughed. “You’re going to be as fat as your mom if you eat all that.” I kept my mouth shut.
“Is that why she got fired from the restaurant? Did she eat a customer’s food?”
I knew Ethan was joking. He did it often. I’m sure in his mind, he thought he was being harmless and playful. Still, I’d told him more than a few times to leave Mom out of the jokes. She had diabetes. And she hadn’t mentioned it to anyone other than my dad and me, but the doctor told her she might end up losing her foot. That’s why the restaurant let her go. She couldn’t walk around and wait tables anymore.
“Change the subject, Ethan,” I said. I knew he heard me, and he didn’t talk for another minute or so. Until he did again.
“You think her and your dad still fuck? I wonder how he manages to get it in there.” He cackled, then insisted, “ok, ok, ok, I’m sorry, I’m done. Promise.”
I seethed as we took a shortcut through the elementary school soccer field.
“Let’s stop here for a minute,” Ethan said. We’d gotten to the school’s playground. “I bet I could scare the shit out of some kids if they come by.”
He sat on one of the swings with his pillowcase on his lap. He kicked his legs and the swing moved back and forth. I stood there, hating him.
“I think I see some kids coming over the hill,” I told Ethan. “I’m going to hide behind the slide and sneak up on them if they come over to you.”
“Go for it,” Ethan told me, his voice deep and distorted through the mask.
I left Ethan on the swing set and walked over to the slide. I watched him swing as his hateful words rang in my ears. Tears came to my eyes as I remembered Mom smiling from her spot on the couch as she encouraged me to go out and have fun. She was such a good person. So, so good. She’d never said anything negative about Ethan. In fact, she’d always complimented him on his grades and his wins in basketball and even his looks. “You’re going to be a handsome man, Ethan,” she told him. “I bet we’ll see your face in a magazine someday.”
Even after her kindnesses, Ethan still felt it was okay to trash her.
I heard him laughing to himself from across the playground. I didn’t know why, exactly, but I had a pretty good idea. I reached in my jacket for the other cigarette, knowing the smoke would calm me down. But it had come apart. My pocket was full of loose tobacco and paper. Loose tobacco, paper, and the lighter.
Ethan was still laughing as I fingered the lighter in my pocket for a second, then pulled it out. I walked up behind him. He didn’t know I was there as he shouted out, “ok, one more thing and I’ll never say anything about her again – but unless your dad’s got a big dick, he’ll never manage to –”
I flicked the lighter near the back of Ethan’s neck, right where his hair and mask met. The hair went up quickly, using his hairspray as an accelerant. Then something happened that I didn’t expect. The mask burst into flames.
Ethan jumped off the swing and ran in a loose circle, trying to pull the mask off his head. I saw it ripping under his fingers. He couldn’t get a grip. The material bubbled. His screams, barely muffled as the molten chemicals clung to his skin, echoed off the brick walls of the elementary school.
After a few seconds, he fell and rolled around on playground, pushing his head into the sand to put out the fire. And he succeeded. But the damage was done.
He turned over on his back, no longer screaming, but gasping in shallow, hyperventilated breaths. In the moonlight, I saw the mask was completely fused to what remained of his skin. One of his eyes had apparently burst, but his other darted around almost like he was confused and wondering where he was.
I saw something moving on the other side of the field. Kids were coming. I yelled to them to call an ambulance, and I waited, unsure of how I felt, until the paramedics got there.
I took complete responsibility for setting Ethan on fire. I said I’d been sneaking up to scare him by flicking the lighter near his face. And yes, I got in a lot of trouble. But everyone believed it was an accident.
Ethan’s face was destroyed. He had skin grafts and bone grafts and all sorts of reconstructive surgery. He never recovered. Not physically, not emotionally. He killed himself in 1990. His parents had a very expensive funeral. I was invited. They’d forgiven me for my part in his accident years before. In fact, their subsequent lawsuit against the mask company is the reason why Halloween masks are now made of flame-retardant materials.
Mom died a few years before Ethan, but not before complications from her diabetes took her left leg. Dad and I were with her in the hospital at the same time Ethan’s parents were there to see him through another round of reconstructive surgery. They visited Mom, Dad, and I while Ethan was still under, recovering after a successful set of grafts.
We chatted for a little while about Mom’s hopes for recovery, and then the topic moved to Ethan. Ethan’s mom was gushing about a plastic surgeon that had recently joined the hospital after working in Switzerland. He was the best, apparently. He’d taken on Ethan’s case earlier in the year, albeit remotely, and wrote a substantial article about the new techniques he’d be employing. In the world of plastic surgery, it made a big splash, if only for its ambition.
Ethan’s mom reached into her purse and pulled out the publication. She flipped it open to the page that showed various photographs of Ethan’s burns and the notes and explanations the surgeon had written to accompany the article. I could tell Mom was holding back tears. I knew why, too. Her eyes met mine, and she couldn’t hold back any longer. She began to weep. Dad and Ethan’s mother held her while she cried. I just watched.
Mom was thinking that she’d been right all those years ago. She’d been right for all the wrong reasons, but right nonetheless. Just like she’d predicted, Ethan’s face had finally made it into a magazine.