They found him several weeks after that night. His abandoned body lay in the remote woods, as alone in death as he was in life. The nights had been freezing and days barely above. The elements had slowed decomposition. I think it might’ve been better if it hadn’t.
I was more than his neighbor. I was part of the first response team that found him. I could still see his features and his eyes were perfectly intact. One side of his face was nibbled away, and revealed tell-tale pieces of sinew and bone. His gray skin had completely receded around his fingernails, and made it look like his nails were longer. The coroner didn’t like the looks of it, either; not at all. We’ve came across several similar dead bodies in several fields through the years. There aren’t ever any suspects, only dead ends and more dead ends.
His abysmal eyes looked far away into eternity. He looked like he’d just faced the greatest disappointment of his life. They all did. The hopeless voids still pleaded for help. They would forever beseech something that would never happen. His broken glasses still held to the bridge of his nose. Their coke-bottle lenses magnified the damage above.
The newspapers always craved such an exploitable crime. They always went into a frenzy with the juicy details. Their opinions about who and why were customarily carried out in a brutal manner. Who were his enemies? Who hated him enough to kill? All speculation became fair game and neighbors became celebrities. I couldn’t figure out how they got away with it. They maintained a consistent M.O. The victims were always beat to death, but there was never any connecting factor between victims. There had to be some connection.
As with all of these murders, we can expect hundreds of leads, opinions, and possibilities, none of which will hold any substance. It’s idle chatter of town gossips, new wine in old bottles. The same old story where the town outcast disappears, ends up the victim of foul play. I never knew my town had so many outcasts.
From what I recall, no one had ever taken the time to know Howard before. The grieving people will wear their shame in silence. In truth, they didn’t want to be anywhere near him when he was alive, and still don’t. Not much will change.
Those acquainted with him will be respectfully tearful. A few might be sincere, but most are not. I still can’t figure it out. Their funerals are always social occasions for parading around in new clothes and testing their acting abilities. They weren’t sad over Howard‘s death, they were never close to him. Most were secretly relieved they wouldn’t have to hide from him when they were outside. Those rueful few only mourned a loss of life, as they would a stranger.
I attended his funeral, just to see if I might be wrong about it. Sadly, I wasn’t. Whispers descended his coffin, the closed lid left curiosity to haunt the room. How did he die? While many knew it was brutal, few had bothered to read the details. They relied solely on the grapevine and shunned the newspaper reports. Reading about Howard consumed more time than they cared to invest.
Howard Newt had always been a different man. In his introversion, he appeared sneaky, almost conniving. His thick glasses with the brown plastic frames and his polyester clothing made his acquaintances assume he was merely a pity, not a real person.
Howard was invited to parties and informal dinners out of pity. No one wanted the community to think of them as hard or callused. Howard was the token outcast. The social graces of his hosts were that of morticians, all plastic smiles and empty eyes. Their condescending voices came from fake people, vacant of any substance.
The other guests never explained why they left parties so early, and the host of the gathering wouldn’t tell Howard where the actual party was. Where everyone went when they went out the front door and got into their cars. Usually, to the nearest hotel or bar.
Perhaps, no one was comfortable with Howard. I can’t say that I blame them, entirely. His eyes always darted nervously about behind those thick lenses, his dark hair was slicked down in an unfashionable manner. Surely, Howard sensed these things. Maybe he attended those functions out of his own sense of courtesy. I liked to think that maybe he pitied them, just as much.
Two Weeks Earlier
Howard always dreamed of being the life of the party, the one everyone looked forward to seeing. The one every person anticipated coming so the party could begin. The man who drove the ladies crazy.
He wanted women to notice him, to adoringly look at him. He longed for the charm of Burt Lancaster and the cool manner of Clark Gable. He wanted a long line of women waiting for his attention.
In life, he repelled women. They avoided him at all costs. It was as though he were knighted, “The Creep,” for all women called him that. It was his curse, that name. It was his mark of the loser, his brand of fate, he loathed that word (You creep). He hated hearing it from anyone, even if it was directed towards someone else (Hey, you stupid creep).
He felt the icy fingers of the word dig into his ears and send little shocks over his brain. It was the worst word in the world (You stupid creep). He heard it in his nightmares.
It reminded him of a snake. A slithering thing that everyone hated and talked about. A slithering, creeping, vile thing. He felt a strange rage every time he heard it. It boiled and churned, he heard the word over and over in his mind. He heard it until his head felt like it would explode with such force it would take the house with it.
He wanted to hit something, when he heard it. Just beat the life out of something or someone, just punch and punch, he couldn’t stop it. His furniture usually took the beatings, unless he was in his car. Then the dash was pounded until his fingers were swollen and bleeding.
He went to the mailbox one day, as usual. He expected the neighbors hid beside cars or behind bushes until the threat passed. He knew it. He just didn’t give a damn about them. It wasn’t like those were the people he cared to impress. He found a strange envelope among the bills and junk mail, a parchment envelope sealed with black wax. Oddly, it had no postal markings whatsoever. His name and address had been printed out in calligraphy and by a very experienced hand.
He walked through the front door, and opened the unusual piece of mail. There was a very old letter stuffed inside, or one which appeared to be old. It requested his presence at a formal party that celebrated the approaching Autumn.
He was thrilled; ecstatic beyond any comparison. It was a formal party and they requested his presence at the stately event with an invitation. He smiled widely at the thought of someone going to all that trouble over him. He felt his eyes well with tears of joy as he sat back down on the sofa. It was remarkable, it was exciting, and it was for him. He silently thanked the author. It wasn’t just a last-minute “You wanna come?” It was an honest-to-God invitation.
The event was scheduled for two weeks later, and he went through that time overtly happy. People noticed the change in his demeanor, the lift in his steps and the laugh in his eyes. He didn’t care. He was invited. He was important to someone, and that was all that mattered.
Howard was surprised at the swiftness of time. The two weeks whisked faster than they ever had. Usually when he looked forward to anything, time crept by. Time was never his friend. Not at all. Ever.
He carefully followed the directions in his car. This was an event he didn’t want to miss. He was important and wanted to someone. To a mysterious someone that wasn’t one of the assholes in his neighborhood. He drove through the back roads and by-ways, the remote road wound and stretched out. Behind him the sky grew darker as night approached. He worried he would miss the party.
He made the final turn and grew disheartened. It was another long stretch of nothingness. A vast array of trees that circled the small gravel road. Rocks popped and flew from beneath his tires. After the next turn, he would go back home, he couldn’t find it.
He rounded the turn and noticed a field ahead of him. Inside that pasture was a large circle of forest. A massive bonfire blazed within the woods. Hundreds of people danced and laughed around the roaring fire.
He felt enamored by just the sight of it. He pulled closer and barely noticed the absence of any other vehicle. Even though the meadow was flat, the tall grass still scraped and scratched beneath his car. He grew closer, but didn’t see anyone who looked familiar. Thank God.
He parked the car in front, he didn’t care if it looked strange. He was the guest of honor. He approached the entrance of the wooded area. He lifted his legs high to avoid being engulfed by the weeds. He stepped over the rye and the briars, he knew he was lucky not to have caught his polyester trousers on the prickly weeds.
The group moved quickly, everyone to their own tune. Although the drums were loud, the beat was missed. “Howard!” An unfamiliar masculine voice yelled. He turned to see a large man in a mask. It was a masquerade and he had no costume. Everyone wore plain white masks on their faces, that reached just below the nose. He didn’t see any familiar mouths around him.
“Howard!” A female voice yelled beside him. She whirled and planted a kiss on his cheek. He blushed and she laughed. She wore the same mask as the man. “Didn’t anyone tell you it was a masquerade?” She purred breathy words in his ear, as she reached her other hand to offer a mask. The same as everyone else wore.
Howard was given the mask of a jester, with purple, green, and gold colors. It was the only colorful mask in the ranks, but he was the guest of honor. It only made sense. The woman turned, “Hey, everyone, the fool has arrived!” The crowd of people grinned when they glanced at him, .
Greetings came from all parts of the crowd. It was impossible for Howard to keep up with the onslaught of voices. People were everywhere, and Howard couldn’t see anyone he knew. Yet, they all loved him. It wasn’t the fake warmth at all those other gatherings, it was a genuine acceptance and adoration. He’d never felt it before.
A large man stood upon an ancient stump and yelled to get the attention of all present. He smiled at Howard, and then addressed the mob, “Everyone, I would like to say the fool has arrived!”
The music suddenly stopped. The dancing stopped. The revelry halted. Bodies stood motionless. A strange silence circled the woods. “Here’s one for the fool,” came a voice behind Howard as something slammed across his forehead. Shocked and stunned, he looked back up. Everyone smiled at him and he didn’t know why.
Their hands slowly went to their masks, the white plastic pieces were removed. He held his breath in horror at the motley crowd before him. All with such damage to their faces, he couldn’t scream or run. He knew what they were.
He stared at one dead face after another, they all grinned too wide. He wanted to sprint away, to shriek at the monstrous atmosphere, and the ghastly faces that crowded around him.
“We love the fool,” claimed one man with another blow. Howard fell again.
“I have loved only fools,” said the woman as she pounded a log against his temple.
“I am the fool, too!” A tremendous roar came from man with a body to match. He was massive.
The last person Howard Newt heard was a man who declared, “The Fool is dead! Long live the Fool!”
In that moment, Howard knew what his party was. The gathering fit perfectly with his life. He would always be the life of a party with others who were known as the “creep.” He finally found himself. He was not the creep, he was the fool. As the blows returned again and again, Howard finally found a name he hated, even more being called a Creep.