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I’m sure many of you who were kids in the 2000’s like I was had and perhaps still have a certain fondness for stores like Party City, Spirit Halloween, iParty, Toys R’ Us, and other similar retailers. There was always a sense of excitement to having your parents take you to one of them, wandering around and looking at all the colorful products that you knew deep down you were unlikely to get your hands on, but which still felt somehow in reach if you could simply badger your parent enough for them to concede. Even if you walked away empty-handed, there was always the simple pleasure of existing in these spaces. When you’re a kid, these stores feel enormous, like places you can get lost in. My parents kept a pretty tight leash on me whenever we’d go to larger retail and department stores like Ocean State Job Lot or Walmart, but when it came to places like Spirit or Party City, I was free to roam since they weren’t very big.

They were big to me, though. Sprawling, even. I always felt like there were these little nooks that I could slip into, sections in the corners that somehow felt separate from the rest of the store, usually devoid of many other customers. A lot of the time they were the equivalent of the bargain bin, not really the sorts of goods most people shopping would care for. To a kid who didn’t have any notion of purchasing things for himself, though, they were exciting just because they were there, it gave me a real sense of adventure and discovery, like these stores somehow went on forever.

Then there was this local party store we had, the town I grew up in was sort of isolated so there wasn’t as much competition from the bigger retail chains. Usually, we had to go to the much bigger town a few miles away for the bigger chain stores. This place was nice though. It was called Marty’s Party Goods. Marty’s was a small place, a bit smaller than most other stores like it. It was tucked away in what I think was supposed to be a strip mall. It was pretty sad, though, consisting of only five or so spaces, and about half of them being closed and/or abandoned at any given time. Marty’s was the only one that stuck around, so 99% of the actual business the place got was for Marty’s.

My father was the main breadwinner for the family, and so during days off from school and summer vacations it’d mostly be me and my mother since I didn’t hang out with my friends outside of school very much. No particular reason, really, just tended not to think of it beyond birthday parties and other events. As a result, when we didn’t have much to do, my mom would bring me to Marty’s to kill an hour or two. We rarely left having bought something, I just enjoyed exploring a lot and she sometimes browsed what they had.

At some point, however, I think it was either 2008 or 2009, I developed this petrifying fear of the place. My parents tell me that around the end of the decade something happened where I just refused to step foot in the place. My mother told me that it had been while we were shopping there for my Halloween costume, since it was October and Marty’s had, like most other party stores, gotten appropriately dressed up and stocked for the approaching holiday. She said that I had gotten lost, and when she found me again, I was crying and begging her to go home, unable to explain what it was had happened while I was wandering that made me so afraid.

The fact that I had even gotten lost in the first place was strange given the store’s size. Children have a knack for getting lost in just about any store where there can be distance between them and their guardians, but it couldn’t have just been that. After all, it wouldn’t have taken even five minutes of idly walking around and calling out for my mom to have heard me or for me to have found my mom. She told me she couldn’t find me for about twenty. She’d found me right when she was starting to worry that I’d gone outside.

I’d always found it strange that I couldn’t remember when this happened. You’d think that such a big event—at least, big for a small child—would have stuck in my brain, if nothing else as something half-remembered, but for years it was just a story my mother told me about sometimes. We never did go back to Marty’s after that. In retrospect I think a lot of my memories of Spirit Halloween were of traveling to the next town over to do our Halloween shopping after I grew too scared to go back.

Something had always bothered me about this story, beyond my lack of memory of it. What could have possibly happened for me to be that scared of a simple party store? How had I gone missing for nearly half an hour? I didn’t think about it often, it usually just popped into my head every now and again, and I’d wonder about it for a few minutes before something distracted me and I forgot all about it again. It was like that for a long time, well into my college years, that was until recently.

I’d just finished my second year at college and decided to head back to my hometown for a week to unwind after the joint stress of finals and work, and to see my parents again since I hadn’t since Christmas. In December I hadn’t been back for long enough to do much nostalgic sight-seeing, but something that had surprised me on the drive to my childhood home was that Marty’s was still in business. It was maybe a little worse for wear, with the sign out front being kind of faded, chipped and peeling in a few places, but it was otherwise as I remembered it. Coming back this time, I definitely wanted to do more sight-seeing, and Marty’s was high on my list. Not a very exciting list, but it wasn’t a very exciting town.

I ended up going there on my second day of the trip. Inside it was arranged a bit differently from how I remembered, but I hadn’t been since I was in the fourth grade so that was to be expected. I still didn’t see what could have possibly frightened me so badly when I was younger, but then I headed a bit deeper in, and I saw it. There was this one area, at a slightly lower elevation than the rest of the place with a little ramp leading down into it. It was small, a room about a quarter of the size of the rest of the place, much paler in hue than the other parts of the store. Most of Marty’s had this slightly yellowish paint, I guess to give it kind of a festive feel, maybe, but the walls in there were eggshell white. Even the fluorescent lights in the ceiling seemed harsher somehow. The contents of the room itself were unremarkable, really. There were two rows of clothing racks on either side spanning nearly the entire length, with some space on both ends to move around them, and hanging from them were costumes, each one in vacuum sealed, clear plastic bags. It was some kind of bargain bin area for cheap costumes, from the looks of it.

Just staring at this part of the store, however, I suddenly felt this tightening in my chest, like someone was about to give me some terrible news and I could somehow sense their impending arrival. I couldn’t begin to explain why, and then I remembered the story. Me missing for twenty minutes and my mother finding me in a state of inconsolable terror. That was when it came back to me. Not all at once, but I could see in my mind’s eye, standing there in that corner of the store which felt so much bigger than it actually was. Yes, me and my mother were there for our usual Halloween shopping, and I think I had been drawn to this part of the store I’d never given much thought before. Or maybe I had, but this time it was different?

I could recall myself, wandering inside, nobody but me in this little area, and for some reason I could have sworn it was much bigger than the area I was looking at now. Instead of a small room, it was a big hallway, and the costume racks were arranged like aisles. It was a lot like being in one of those employees only storage areas, and maybe that was part of the appeal for me, that this normally forbidden part of most stores was open to me, empty enough of people to feel special somehow. But as I kept exploring, I eventually realized that I didn’t know where the way back to the rest of the store was.

That must have been when I started calling out to my mom, but I was too far away for her to hear me. I was starting to remember more of it, too. Or at least, details were coming to me which I felt pretty sure of, but not fully. At some point I had reached the back, which was lined up with even more racks, all along the wall. I couldn’t remember any in specific, though, just a blur of nebulous outfits encased in those plastic seals. I had to step outside at this point, beginning to feel a bit dizzy, like too much was coming back to me at once and I needed some fresh air to help process it.

The memory continued, more details. I could see some of the costumes had fallen from their hangers, a few of them spilling out of their bags. I stepped over these piles, continuing to search for an exit. I tried hugging the wall and moving along it to find the exit, but it just kept going on and on, and I eventually gave up on it, back to wandering. According to my mother it was just twenty minutes, but in my steadily blossoming memory it felt so much longer, like I’d been stuck there for hours, a full day, even. There was something else, too, something that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as it returned to me with everything else.

I wasn’t alone in that impossible area. At some point I developed a strong feeling that there was someone else there with me. An adult to hopefully lead me back out would have been nice, but it wasn’t like that. It felt like, whoever it was, they knew I was there, and they had been watching me for a while. Maybe not the whole time, but at some point, they’d become aware of me. Or it, if I’m being honest with myself. I know it sounds silly, but this part feels so vivid to me even now, I have a hard time waving it away. I think I saw it, too. While trying to find the way out, I could hear this shuffling noise, just beyond one of the aisles I was standing next to. There was another one of those piles, this one more like a heap, except- it was moving slightly, the heap. It looked a bit like when you wade through a pile of autumn leaves that reach up past your ankles, a few masks and other accessories being shoved aside. I couldn’t see feet, though. But, I saw something else.

I saw an eye, staring back at me through one of the gaps between the hanging costumes. It wasn’t a human eye, though, nor the eye of some terrible monster, but instead, the fake eye of a rubber mask. I don’t remember exactly what the mask was, it looked kind of reptilian, like some kind of lizard costume, maybe. It wasn’t hanging from one of the hangers, though, because there was a slight movement to it, the kind you get with someone trying to remain still, but the body still shakes a little bit. No breathing, no sound except for the light shuffling of the costumes moving beneath its unseen feet, as it stared back at me.

I don’t remember how I found my way out; I think I just wandered until it came to me. Whatever it was that I saw, it didn’t chase me. It just stared at me, and that was the only look at it I got. I probably ran after I saw it, though. The rest came to me naturally. I remembered my mother, looking worried and briefly chastising me before seeing how scared I was. I remember crying, hugging her tight, and I remember her carrying me out to the car. Not much after that, though, the memory tapers off as most from that long ago tend to. I think maybe she rented a movie for us on demand to make me feel better.

I still don’t know how to process that memory, honestly. It’s easy to pass it off as a dream but even now it feels too real for me to just dismiss it. It’s like I saw something I shouldn’t have, in a way. Of course, Marty’s is a normal party store, just like any other. Curiosity got the better of me and I ended up going back the next day after I’d given myself time to collect my thoughts. The little side room was just as it had been the day before, even after I tentatively went inside. No mysterious hallways, no staring eyes, nothing. I didn’t tell my mom about it, either. She’d just have dismissed it as a nightmare, and really who wouldn’t?

I think the thing that makes me sure that on some level it wasn’t a dream was that I’d blocked it out for nearly 15 years. If it were just a bad dream, would my brain even have had the instinct to suppress it? I don’t know, really. I’m thinking about making an excuse to visit again in October, find a weekend that isn’t so busy and see my parents for a day or two. It was, after all, October when it happened. I’m not sure what I’m hoping to find, exactly, but I can’t help it. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what I saw, and I need some sort of resolution now. I don’t think anything will happen, but it can’t hurt to see, right? Maybe, just maybe, I’ll go, and there’ll be that big, open space again. Maybe I’ll see it, the figure looming in the distance. I’m sure that if I see it, it will see me, as it did when I was a child, through that old, worn out mask of its.

Written by Reggygeggy
Content is available under CC BY-SA