Ihp's Talebox 2

Interlude 2: Masquerade

Takes place immediately after Losing the Plot

Music played over the speakers of The Witch's Hut costume shop. Laura Ashbrooke had chosen it specifically for how unsettling it was; it may have scared off some customers, but Jane's It's a Fine Day sent the perfect ambiance for Halloween. The holiday was also her birthday, and she loved the spooky season more than anything.

She grinned at the customers flooding into and out of the store. It was odd, seeing so many people picking up costumes last-minute. Everyone should have been prepared for the season, Halloween was big in Sloth's Pit. She chewed this thought as the line briefly vanished, turning to her boyfriend. "Hey, Ed?"

"Hmm?" Edward Valentine looked up from a newspaper that showed absolutely no political news on its front page. "What's up?"

"How come there are so many people in here today? It's a school day. You'd think more people would be doing homework or something."

"People don't do homework anymore, now that all the schools have gone digital." He frowned. "Why… why did they go digital?"

"Something about…" Laura frowned, her brow furrowing. "You know, I can't really remember. Must've been a policy by the Plastics People."

Edward nodded, turning to the comics. "Garfield's kinda funny today."

"We're living in a fantasy, then." Laura laughed as the next customer came up.


The final customer of the day stayed for ten minutes after they closed. It was an older man, who had been trying to find a gorilla costume that fit him just right, but he only wanted the body and not the mask.

"What's this costume for?" Laura asked as she rang him up.

"I'm going as Ro-Man from Robot Monster." The man laughed, but it was an old laugh, one that made him cough and double over. "Ever see it?"

Laura scooted away from him coughing. "Only the Mystery Science Theater version. Looked kinda cheesy."

"I used to think that's what people were scared of. Can you believe it? Boy, I was dumb as a kid." He looked around. "You have any astronaut helmets?"

"Side wall, third row down, beneath the fox masks."

Laura sighed as he departed walking slowly, grabbing a handful of sanitizing wipes and wiping off the counter where he had spat. She paused mid-wipe, frowning. It was good practice to sanitize, but she typically only did it at lulls or after they closed, not while serving a customer. And since when were the wipes right beneath the counter?

She knelt beneath it, inspecting what else was there. There was a small, white cardboard box that looked like it was impossible to keep closed, containing several individually-wrapped paper masks. She didn't remember buying it. Did she? Why would she need to? They had masks like this in the store, sure, for doctor and nurse costumes, but those were hardly medical-grade.

bzzt

She knelt beneath it, finding another roll of sanitizing wipes and some paper towels. Nothing too out of the ordinary.

"Weird." Laura stood up, coming face-to-face with a being that had a helmet with a pair of antennae sticking out of it.

"SHABOOGLY!" the old man yelled, extending his hands like claws.

Laura looked unimpressed, and just rung him up.

"Eh, that used to kill 'em in Arkansas." The man took off the helmet and laughed. "Oh, hey do you think visibility will be affected if I wore a mask underneath?"

Laura frowned. "You mean, like, the gorilla mask?"

"No, like a paper mask—" He paused. "Y'know what, nothing, nothing, nevermind. Keep the change." He put a $100 bill onto the counter and took his merchandise, laughing. "Nothing, nothing at all."

Laura frowned at this whole odd display, before moving to lock and shutter the doors. She needed to talk to Ed, it had been a long day and she required cuddles.


"You shouldn't be worried, hon." Edward frowned as Laura dug into her Chinese food. "Just a whackadoo customer. That's all."

"Still." She frowned, and looked around the dining room uneasily. Two years ago, they had gotten a massive payday, and had managed to move into a fairly spacious house at the outskirts of town, by the reservoir. It was big enough that Laura had four separate rooms she could practice her craft in; it almost felt too big at times. "I dunno, but it creeped me out."

Ed shrugged and dug into his sweet-and-sour shrimp. "God, I forgot how good this was. Why don't we ever go to Three Kingdoms anymore?"

Laura began to answer, before frowning deeply. "That… I don't know. It's been open for business, hasn't it?"

bzzt

Laura answered, "They've been remodeling their dining room forever, remember?"

"Oh, yeah." It was Ed's turn to frown. "Why am I getting a sense of Deja Vu?"

"Probably because we've had this exact conversation every time we've ordered Chinese food for the past eight months?" Laura took the last bit of pork from her tin. "We've been doing that a lot. Maybe go to the grocery store tomorrow."

"Yeah, it is getting a bit pricey, eating out all the time." He looked at the fridge and sighed. "Whatever happened to you wanting to try baking?"

Laura raised a brow. "I… don't know what you're talking about."

"I coulda sworn I helped you make sourdough starter, around the Jam Jam." Ed frowned. "Nevermind. You wouldn't have had time with the shop and all."


Starlow Grocery was oddly quiet when Laura and Ed entered. It only had a handful of employees, one cashier and a person to man the deli and bakery each, but it had an anxious energy in the air that neither of them could pinpoint the cause of.

"Hey, Luc." Laura greeted Lucius Bell as they came in with the shopping cart, pausing and looking at him. "…you good?"

Lucius looked up from his magazine, staring at the pair of them like they were crazy. He was wearing a paper mask over his mouth, and while they couldn't see the judgmental quirk of the mouth beneath it, they sure as hell felt it. "Fine," he said, in a flat tone. "Enjoy your day at Starlow Grocery."

Ed and Laura of them looked at each other, and made their way through the aisles. But as they turned down the aisle that normally contained toilet paper, they were met with an odd sight— shelves that were completely barren with no explanation. "The hell?" Ed frowned. "They've never been out of TP before."

bzzt

But as they turned down the aisle that normally contained toilet paper, they were met with an odd sight— shelves that were completely barren with no explanation. "The hell?" Ed frowned. "They've never been out of TP before."

Bzzt

But as they turned down the aisle that normally contained toilet paper, they were met with an odd sight— shelves that were completely barren with no explanation.

"Ed?" Laura swallowed. "I think something's wrong—"

BZZT

Ed and Laura blinked. The two of them were in their car, their groceries in the back seat. Ed's hand immediately went for his phone, dialing #-1-1— the emergency contact number for the S & C Plastics building. A woman's voice came from the other end. "Plastics building, what is your emergency?"

"I—"

bzzt

"—had the weirdest damn nightmare." Edward Valentine rubbed his face as he sat at the kitchen table, nursing a warm mug of tea. "Sorry for waking you up."

"Was having trouble sleeping anyway." Laura sat across from him and sighed, rubbing her face. "Feels like a whole lot of something happened, and I don't know what."

"Ignorance is bliss," Ed chuckled. "We really should go grocery shopping tomorrow, though."

Laura blinked. "Didn't we do that today?"

The pair of them looked at each other. Both of them had anxious sweat on their faces. Ed swallowed, getting up and walking to the living room; Laura followed.

Two years ago, Laura and Edward had both fallen under the influence of something calling itself the Pit Sloth. To make sure it didn't happen again, the Plastics Building had given them, of all things, a CD to be played in case they feared they were under the influence of something else. They hadn't needed it before now.

Ed carefully stuck the CD into a very expensive stereo system, and sat on the couch next to Laura as it began playing. There was a three note chime, and then a woman's voice played. "This is a Memetic Defragmentation Audio Disk. If you have been exposed to a cognitohazardous, memetic, infohazardous, or otherwise mentally harmful anomaly, this will serve as both a detection tool and a means to administer several counteragents. At the tone, playback will begin."