Itchy (Halloween story entry)

“Lou, I think that’s ‘nuff,” the gaunt man said, looking around nervously. “Yer goin’ to get caught.”

“Enough on this costume, yeah. Gotta spread it out a bit,” Lou replied. “Still safe, Tommy?”

“Yeah, she ain’t lookin’,” Tommy nodded, still looking jittery. Then again, Tommy always looked jittery. He was tall and thin to the point of emaciation, his eyes deep in their sockets, his skin greyish and loose around his face. He wasn’t starving: it’s just the way Tommy was. Tommy could eat more than anyone Lou knew. Tommy had won the chili-eating contest in the small mid-western town of Boofe 5 times. In a large city, someone might’ve gone through the ringer and a dozen doctors to find out how someone could eat that much and still look like he was starving. But this was a small mid-western town, and people just were the way they were, and Tommy’s genetic thyroid affliction would remain undiscovered until his untimely death 14 minutes later.

“Good,” Lou said, holding open a Black Widow costume and shaking some powder into it. “Henry said this stuff would make for some unbearable itchin’. He made it himself, y’know. Henry’s real smart like that. Works in that lab just outside town.” Lou was a hard-faced man, with a perpetual stubble and a perpetually creased brow. Maybe it was that face that had caused the townsfolk to quickly flock from his costume shop to this pop-up store that suddenly arose less than a month before Halloween. Maybe it was his demeanour, which his face seemed to have grown to match; hard and frequently unpleasant, with a short temper. He’d told himself not to worry about some pop-up junkpile. He’d told his wife not to worry about it either. Boofe folk don’t want some fancy out-of-towner’s shit, he’d said. But it appeared Boofe folk did want fancy out-of-towner shit, and what was usually the busiest time of the year turned to empty aisles and an emptier registry for Lou’s Prop Shop.

It was Lou’s wife who had pushed him into doing something about the pop-up store. “These snot nosed city jews think they all high ‘n mighty, they gotta be taught a lesson not to come ‘round these parts and be takin’ your business, Lou! So do somethin’! If not for me, than for Lucy!” Lucy was their teenage daughter, who could not care less about her father’s reputation or his failing shop. It hadn’t stopped Lou’s wife from using her to lay into him. “Your little girl is not gonna get Christmas presents if her good-for-nothing dad can’t manage to drive off a bunch of jews! Be a man about it for a change, for cryin’ out loud!” Lou had nodded, sighed, and imagined bashing the woman’s head in on the corner of the table. Instead, though, he’d asked his brother-in-law Henry to have a drink with him and brainstorm a bit. One gin led to another and before they knew it, they’d drawn up a plan to drive the crowds away from the pop-up store and back into Lou’s. “Can’t go wrong with the classics, Lou,” Henry had said. “Old ways are the best ways.”

“Henry,” Lou had replied incredulously, “you a scientist. Old ways are, like, the opposite o’ what you do.”

Henry had waved him away. “That’s different. Though, it doesn’t have to be. I bet I can whip up a really effective itching powder. All you have to do is put it in their costumes and wait. Word spreads faster than wildfire in this town, and no one will want to buy from a costume shop that makes people itch something awful.”

“Won’t nobody get hurt from that stuff?”

“Nah, maybe some people a bit of eczema, but you want it to be effective right?” Henry had stood up, clapped him on the shoulder and said: “Just wait, Lou, in a couple of hours I’ll get you the best itching powder you’ve ever heard of!”

Lou hadn’t expected the man back at all, considering his inebriation, but sure enough, a couple of hours later he’d been on his porch, holding a sealed container and appearing both giddy and even more drunk than before. “‘S itchy as fuck,” he’d giggled, and he’d taken off, wavering slightly from left to right across the sidewalk.

Now, with most of a large rack infected with the powder and the shaker pretty much empty, Tommy made to leave, but Lou stopped him. “I wanna see whether this as good as Henry says,” he hissed. “C’mon, we don’t stand out in back of the store.” He pulled the gangly man along. The back of the store was indeed a good place to hide and observe. There it was clearer that this store had been hastily constructed for Halloween, not in the least because of the lack of proper lighting as well as some shoddy temporary dressing booths.

Tommy and Lou stood facing the racks of clothing, trying their best to look like they were browsing the children’s outfits, when a gaggle of giggling girls passed behind them. They went into the booths behind the two men and pulled the curtains shut. “This lighting is, like, terrible,” one of the girls complained. Another bit of giggling. Lou felt exasperated, and a little guilty, but the deed was done at this point. He couldn’t stop them without giving himself away. Besides, what was a bout of itching right? They’d be right as rain in the morning.

Behind him, the curtains of one of the booths opened. He heard another girl’s voice say: “Aren’t you two done yet? I had the hardest costume to put on, you know!”

The voice was familiar. Intimately familiar.

“And it’s pretty itchy, too… Might have to use talc or something in this thing…”

Lou pivoted around. Despite the dim lighting, there was no mistaking the long chestnut hair and sharp features of his daughter. She didn’t immediately see him as she made to peek into one of the other booths. “Come on, Wonder Slowpoke,” she giggled, and laughed out loud as her friend yelped and pulled the curtain shut. Then she grunted and scratched over the black stretchy outfit she was wearing. Lou recognized it at once as the Black Widow costume. “Lucy!” he exclaimed. Now Tommy turned around too.

“Dad?!” Lucy whipped to face them so fast she nearly sprained her neck. “What are… What… I can explain!” She seemed torn between defending herself being there and attacking him for the same reason. But after a moment of indecisive silence, she decided on what the best defense was. “What are you even doing here, dad? You hate this place!” She scratched more vigorously now, one hand scratching under her breast, the other reaching into her neckline to scratch her shoulder.

“I… I was just checking on the competition, young lady!” He might not have the best intentions for that competition, Lou thought, but he certainly wasn’t going to let his teenage daughter mouth off at him under any circumstances. “What is your excuse, huh?! I have a store full of costumes! You’ve always been allowed to just take your pick! Why would you do this to me?!”

“Well your costumes are old and ugly,” Lucy said. “Fuck, this itch! What the hell?!”

“Language, young lady!” Lou said, but his increasing worry was sapping the power from his words. His throat seemed to close up. Lucy’s attempts to scratch were intensifying still.

“Dad, help me out of this! Please!” she begged suddenly. She turned around, reached behind her back and pulled on a cord attached to the zipper. It slid down, the fake leather splaying open to reveal his daughter’s bare back. Even in the dim light, Lou saw red streaks and welts blotching her skin. “I’m sorry daddy! I’m sorry!” She was sobbing now, trying to scratch all over her body. “It’s itching so much, daddy! Please!” She begun to hyperventilate as her shaking hands couldn’t decide between pulling off the costume and scratching herself everywhere.

“Lou, for God’s sake, we gotta help her, man!” Tommy said suddenly. An employee was quickly approaching from the front of the store, her friends were peeking out from their booths. One of them asked: “Luce? What’s the matter?” The other just looked horrified.

Tommy stepped forwards and helped Lucy pull her arms from the sleeves of the costume. When she was freed, the top half of the one-piece hun down from her waist as if hanging from a clothesline. She had not worn a bra in the outfit. Lucy stood gasping and sobbing and shivering and scratching, scratching, scratching all over. Angry red blotches covered her entire upper body, a patchwork of infected skin and raised red welts where her nails had dug deep. And still she was scratching deeper. “It’s not helping!” she shrieked. She was drawing blood now. Droplets flew off her furiously working fingers, leaving red dots on the floor, the surrounding costumed, and on Tommy as well.

Lou dimly registered the two girls had stepped out of their booths entirely. One was wearing half a Wonder Woman outfit and was beginning to scratch herself as well. The other was in her underwear and was unconsciously picking at a welt on her palm. The employee had run back to the front saying something about 911. Lou broke out of his trance, pushed Tommy aside and grabbed his daughter by the wrists. “Lucy! Pull yourself together! Let’s get you in your own clothes and go back home to shower!”

“I can’t I can’t I can’t!” Lucy was panting and squirming, trying to pull herself free. Lou tightened his grip. “Dad you’re hurting me! It’s too much! Everything’s itchin’ me! MY FLESH IS ITCHING ME!” She wrenched herself away, breaking Lou’s grip this time. A droplet flew off and caught Lou right in the eye and he yelped in pain and surprise. Lucy tried to run towards the front of the store, her incessant scratching opening new wounds across her skin. She was howling now, screaming in pain and panic. She tripped over the sleeves of the onesie and went sprawling. She rolled over the floor, leaving splashes of red everywhere. She dug her fingers into her side, grasped and pulled. With a sickening tearing sound, a chunk of her flesh tore loose. Blood gushed onto the linoleum floor. More people started screaming. Her grasping nails dug in again, tearing loose another strip of muscle and throwing it aside as if it could explode at any moment.

Lou made to hurry over to his daughter, who was screaming out of sight, but Tommy suddenly yelled: “Lou! Help me!” Tommy was clawing at his neck, scratching with all his might. “She touched my neck when I… Fucking shit, Lou, what the fuck was this stuff?!” Behind him, the girl who’d put on half a Wonder Woman costume was crying and scratching madly while clumsily pulling the garments off, and the other stood sobbing in her underwear, blood oozing from her palm as her fingers kept digging deeper and deeper.

“Just stop scratching, you idiot,” Lou said, but he wondered for how long he could follow his own advice. Already his own palms began to itch. His eye burned and pulsed.

Tommy nodded, but did not stop. His fingers worked faster and faster, crimson staining his fingers. His eyes were huge and bloodshot, terrified, shaking in their sockets. “Tommy, STOP!” Lou yelled. But it was too late. Tommy’s fingers disappeared into his own throat, grabbed and pulled. Blood gushed like a geyser, drenching Lou’s trousers. Lou screamed and jumped back. Tommy slowly sank to his knees, keeled over, and was still.

Lou cursed and turned around. People were screaming in the front of the store. Was one of them still Lucy? He couldn’t tell anymore. He sprinted out of the dim back and into the light. A woman was vigorously scratching her ankles on the windowsill. A man in a brown suit ran out the front door, screaming something about chemicals. The employee who had run off to call emergency services was curled up behind the counter, breathing ragged, panicked breaths.

On the floor, in the middle of the shop, lay Lucy’s body. Her abdomen looked like a bear had torn into her. A loop of intestine drooped onto the floor. Chunks of her flesh were spread around her, blood still oozing. “Lucy!” Lou cried. He fell to his knees, his daughter’s blood springing up around his knees as they hit the floor. He sobbed hysterically, but he couldn’t bring himself to grab her lifeless body. His hands were too busy scratching each other. And through his gushing tears, he noticed just how terribly his afflicted eye was itching, as his shaking hand reached up towards his head.

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