“Are ya gonna scratch?”
The Scratch masks were suddenly everywhere on October 1st. They instantaneously filled the shelves in department store Halloween goods and costumes aisles, and were the top listed Halloween item on Amazon along with every other online retailer that sold Halloween masks. Within hours they were displayed on the faces of teenagers and young adults in television commercials that ran continuously on every network and cable channels and in all the social media formats with videos. They were everywhere on YouTube and TikTok. The “Are ya gonna scratch” meme suddenly skyrocketed as the top mentions and trends. Scratch groups and clubs were instantly formed in virtual networks based on the meme, racking up millions of hits on Twitter and Facebook. They sprang up in local communities, and on high school, college and university campuses, in any place where Halloween would be celebrated. Wherever and whenever Scratch was mentioned, it was accompanied with the advisory ‘not recommended for children.’ Everyone was talking about the Scratch masks.
What made a Scratch mask so different, unusual or scarier than any other brand of Halloween mask? Absolutely nothing. There were 31 different masks to choose from, most of them the common monster or alien variety. Nothing anyone hadn’t seen before. What made them so unusual and intriguing, why they instantly began to sell like hotcakes, was the promise that on Halloween night the owner and wearer of a Scratch mask would get the Halloween thrill of their life. Thus, in the next twenty-four hours after it first appeared, the mask and the meme hit the stratosphere of national and international conversation.
“Are ya gonna scratch,” was born, seemingly out of nowhere.
John Del Ray, called John-D by his Alpa Athlos Tau fraternity brothers at the University of Cincinnati, first heard of the Scratch meme when he crawled out of bed late and slightly hung over on the morning of October 1, took a quick piss, and then sat at his desk and opened his laptop. He had a dozen emails from fraternity brothers and other students asking him, “Are ya gonna scratch?” He had no idea what they were talking about, and didn’t really care. He had no intention of answering the emails. He rarely did anyway. But out of curiosity he Googled the scratch meme and found a long list of sites at the top of the listings where the meme was repeated and the masks were shown. He quickly browsed through the top sites, mostly retail sites offering the masks at ridiculously low costs, some as cheap as a buck a piece, almost all offering fast and free shipping. He was curious, but unimpressed with the masks, so he closed his laptop, and picked up his cellphone. He had several text messages with the Scratch meme. He tossed the phone onto his bed, stripped out of his boxers, wrapped a towel around his waist, and left his room to take a shower in the bathroom down the hall.
Sunday morning in the Clifton area around the university was quiet. John-D carried his gym bag with the U of C logo on its side over his shoulder and walked quickly up Clifton Avenue, taking long strides, the fallen leaves crunching under his Air Jordan high tops. The air was brisk but not chilly enough to make him regret wearing nylon gym shorts instead of sweatpants or his usual camouflage cargo pants. He had his cellphone in the pouch of his hooded sweatshirt and the earphones in his ears connected to it, listening to swing house music. His choice of music frequently drew derisive guffaws from his fraternity brothers.
“You make being called a jock highly questionable,” they said.
“Fuck you,” he replied.
He still had two blocks to go before he reached the entrance to the campus that led to the school’s sports complex, which included the gym. It was then he stopped and looked up and saw an airplane flying low over the Clifton neighborhood, a banner attached to its tail that flapped in the wind. On it, in bold red lettering was the phrase, Are ya gonna Scratch?
A hatch on the underbelly of the plane opened and thousands of objects dropped out. Caught by the wind, most of the objects blew out beyond the boundaries of the Clifton area, but those that rained down on the university campus and the surrounding streets and neighborhood, landed like wounded birds on the streets, sidewalks, lawns, rooftops and in the trees. One landed at John’s feet. He bent down and picked it up. It was a Halloween mask; a goblin, with green skin, a bumpy wart-like complexion, and a long, crooked nose. There was a Scratch label stuck on its pointed chin. ‘Not Recommended for Children‘ was printed on the inside forehead. He stuffed the mask in his gym bag and then slowly jogged the rest of the way to the gym.
John-D’s Scratch mask hung by its string on the headboard of his bed. Sitting cross-legged on his bed facing the headboard with his Environmental Studies textbook spread open in his lap, studying from it for an exam that would be given the next day, he occasionally glanced up at the mask, certain he could feel eyes staring at him through its eye holes. It was the 15th of October and the look – whatever had been watching him from the moment he hung it on his bed – felt like an old friend keeping watch over him; nothing about the mild grotesqueness of the mask was the least bit scary. The knock on his door distracted him from his thoughts about the mask, and the book.
“Ya gonna scratch?” he called out. He closed his book and set it aside.
“Sure am,” came Travis Lew’s voice from the other side. “Are ya gonna scratch?”
John-D swung his legs around and sat on the edge of his bed. “Wassup?”
Travis opened the door and walked in. His mask, that of the Frankenstein monster, hung around his neck. “I came to tell you that Andy Young has been assigned to you.”
John-D groaned. “Oh man, why did I get him? He’s such a dweeb. I don’t even know why we’re even considering letting a guy not into sports – not even synchronized swimming – into this fraternity.”
“He comes from money,” Travis replied. “Alpa Athlos Tau could use some of it. Things are fallin’ apart around here if you haven’t noticed. All of our parents said they were already tapped-out even before this semester began.”
“I know,” John-D said. “What about that nude frat boys calendar idea Jas mentioned to make some money?”
“It’s been done to death, and not all of us look like you or are comfortable with showin’ off our . . . equipment.” He raised the mask to his face and held it there. “Anyway, pledging will all be over Halloween night and then let the hazing begin.” He tilted his head back and rendered a crescendoing, “bwa ha ha.”
As John-D did arm curls with twenty-pound free weights while sitting on the edge of a workout bench, Andy paced back and forth in front of him. John-D’s responsibility to see that Andy made it into the fraternity included having the nerdish Andy practically joined to his hip until he was voted in or out of the fraternity on Halloween night. As Andy walked to-and-fro, his unruly thick red hair dripping with sweat, John-D couldn’t take his eyes off of Andy’s toothpick-thin legs that looked almost too fragile to even hold up the guy’s nearly emaciated upper body, wondering, How does someone go through life without muscles?
“No one knows who’s manufacturing the masks and nearly every government on Earth is trying to find where they are being made and the distribution channels. Following the money has led to millions of different banks that will take months, if not years, to link together if it can be done,” Andy said, stopping to raise his baggy gym shorts that were sliding down his bony hips.
“So?” replied John-D, losing count of the number of reps he had done with his arm.
“So!” Andy screeched. “Did you ever see the movie, The Birds? The birds suddenly went crazy and no one figured out why and a town was destroyed by them. Lots of people died.”
“The masks aren’t pecking our eyes out.”
Andy started pacing again. “You’re missing the point. I’ve seen your mask. Don’t you ever wonder where it came from? Who made it?”
“It was dropped from an airplane and the Scratch company made it.”
Andy threw up his arms. “Yeah but who is . . .? Oh, never mind. I’m going to go get dressed.” He stormed off, headed toward the locker room.
“Shower first,” John-D called after him.
A week before Halloween there were reports that up to three billion people worldwide, mostly in the 15-24 age group, owned a Scratch mask. In a house meeting, Andy was almost kicked out as a pledge candidate for screaming the threat the Scratch masks meant to the entire fraternity, as most of them, like everyone else who owned them, wore them all the time.
“Look what the masks are doing to you guys. It’s a fuckin’ freak show in here,” he yelled at the top of his lungs.
John-D rushed Andy out of the room, not because he had any fondness for the bookish pledge, but because it looked bad that he wasn’t keeping him under control. “You get kicked out of Alpa Athlos Tau and there’s not another fraternity of the campus that will even consider you. No fraternity and you’re sunk,” he told Andy who was nearly bawling brought on by the stress and anger.
“Don’t you get it, John-D, this is bigger than me, than you, than this fraternity?”
Five days before Halloween, John-D walked into his room, threw his gym bag on the bed, removed his mask, and hung it on the bed headboard. He stood staring at it for several moments, for the first time really thinking about Andy’s warnings. He wasn’t wired to be afraid of anything, let alone a harmless Halloween mask, but he had to admit that seeing almost every student on campus wearing a Scratch mask as if it was natural – and it had became just that very quickly – was really eerie and at times gave him chills. Not wanting to damage his image as a super-jock, a powerhouse on and off the football field, in and out of the boxing ring, he said nothing. And though he put on his mask like everyone else who wore them even when they slept, he only wore his when he left his room. He understood why the Scratch masks were more than just a Halloween novelty. Its warmth, its comfort, its soothing, calming influence, was like being cradled . . .
His cellphone buzzed. He picked it up from the bed and flipped it open. There was a text message. The university campus was on emergency lockdown. Everyone was to shelter in place. He stared at it for several moments, glad that he no longer lived on campus, hadn’t lived there since his Freshman year, before becoming a member of Alpa Athlos Tau. Just another overreaction to someone with a water pistol, he thought. He tossed the phone back on the bed, unzipped his gym bag and took out a smelly t-shirt, boxing shorts, jock strap and a pair of socks and tossed them into the laundry basket setting by the closet door.
He then sat on the bed and opened his Intro to Medical Botany textbook.
At that moment, Travis burst into the room. “I just sprinted from the campus. Saw it all,” he said, breathlessly, panting.
“That crazy pledge assigned to you . . .” pant, pant, pant.
“Yeah, that Andy, he . . .” wheeze, cough.
“Shot a whole bunch of people on campus. With an AK47.”
Stunned, John-D, stared at Travis. In disbelief, he said, “Why would he do that?”
“They were wearing masks. He shot just those with masks on. Other students.”
John-D could feel his stomach lurch. “What about An . . .?”
“Campus police shot him. Killed him.”
John-D turned, grabbed his gym bag and vomited in it.
Wearing a gladiator costume with the Scratch gargoyle mask felt as silly as it looked, as John stood in front of the mirror and flexed his biceps. He always wore a gladiator costume, had worn one since junior high when he first realized that showing off his evolving muscles attracted girls. There were never any girls invited to fraternity initiation night – the hazing that went on wasn’t seen by anyone outside of the fraternity – but showing off his muscles was part of his trademark. “Doing a John-D,” was synonymous among the fraternity brothers with flexing one’s muscles just to show them off. Staring at his reflection through the mask eyeholes he couldn’t get his thoughts off of Andy. He had never grown to like him, but, geeze going crazy over some goofy masks is really sad.
A knock on the door was followed by the ubiquitous, “Are ya gonna scratch?” He adjusted his tin breastplate, opened the door to see Travis dressed in drag. John-D had his suspicions about Travis’ sexuality, and could care less, but even wearing the Frankenstein mask Travis looked pretty enough in the long blonde wig, spiked heels, and short skirt to take out on a date. They didn’t have far to go. Just to the basement where the initiations always took place.
Excitedly Travis grabbed John-D’s arm and pulled out of the room. “We’re going to be late.”
“Late for what?”
“You know. Scratch time.”
The time when whatever was going to happen to the Scratch masks had never been given, but when John-D and Travis climbed down the stairs into the candlelit basement, where burning candles flickered from every available surface, the anticipatory tension among the sixteen young men circled around the three pledges was palpable. Awaiting the hazing to begin, the three new inductees were the only ones not wearing masks. They were on their knees, blindfolded, their pants pulled down, bent over a pentagram hastily drawn in chalk.
John-D and Travis were handed opened beers, ping pong paddles, and hurriedly rushed to the circle of other brothers.
“Man, just think of it, this waiting on Scratch is happening everywhere,” Travis shouted into John-D’s ear, trying to be heard over the boisterous din of excited, loud male voices.
“This is getting too weird,” John-D replied. “My mask is coming off.” He reached up to remove it just as his and the mask on every face around him began to glow a vibrant, neon green. The glow from the masks lit the room for a moment, overpowering the candlelight, during which the men quietened other than a few oohs and wows.
In that moment during which his mask shone, John-D felt the sensation of love like he had never felt before. A love of life, for his fellow beings, for the Earth itself, radiated through his entire body, gently warming his flowing blood.
Then all the masks went dark at the same time. The instantaneous loss of the rush of love was emotionally crushing, like air suddenly escaping a burst balloon. It felt like a bandage ripped from every hurt or bit of sadness, depression, fear, they had ever felt.
“Was that it?” Travis exclaimed angrily.
John-D reached up to remove his mask, thinking how wrong Andy had been about the masks. Their only danger was the moment of elation, the brief sensation of euphoria, they injected into his, and everyone else’s body, and that was it. He gripped the edge of his mask just as the itching began.
“What’s happening?” he heard one of the others say.
“I can’t get my mask off,” another one called out.
The itching beneath the masks that no one could remove – as if they had been glued to their faces by a super adhesive – quickly intensified. The itching turned to scratching, like claws ripping at their skin, shredding their cheeks, the tender flesh around their nostrils, under their eyes, their anxiously quivering lips. Blood pooled inside their masks. They screamed. They shrieked in pain. They howled in horror. They tore at their masks, ripping their fingernails off trying to rip the masks from their faces. Through their eyeholes, eyes clouded by tears and nearly blinded by the agony, they saw what those around them were experiencing, the same thing as every Scratch mask wearer everywhere.
Only John-D, among them, was silent as his flesh beneath his mask dissolved. Nothing was going to make him scream. He bit into his tongue to keep from joining the horrifically terrified, pain-filled voices all around him. His teeth sunk deeper into his tongue.
Nothing was going to make him scream.
He was John-D, goddammit. Nothing was going to make him scr . . .
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 630 short stories – new and reprints –published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. A Map of Humanity, his eighth collection, published by Hear Our Voice LLC Publishers came out in January, 2022. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.