Nina Shepardson

The May Editor's Pick Writer is Nina Shepardson

Please feel free to email Nina at: nmallozzi@gmail.com


by Nina Shepardson

I used to love ghost stories. By that I mean not just visitations of the deceased, but any kind of story that purported to describe an encounter with the supernatural: dreams that later came true, creatures like the Jersey Devil and the Loch Ness Monster, you name it.

Then one of those stories happened to me.

I had just started living off-campus like pretty much everyone did as soon as they got the chance. Every morning I trudged up the steep hill from my apartment to the dining hall for breakfast, and every evening after dinner or choral rehearsal, I walked back down. Other apartment buildings and a couple of school facilities lined the road, nestled in close to each other, except for one empty lot.

Well, not entirely empty. Three concrete steps led up to a foot-high stone wall that had clearly once been part of a house. Now, grass and dandelions sprouted up inside it, and the only inhabitants were mice and sparrows.

It was an uncharacteristically warm spring day, and the lush grass and cheerful dandelions gave the empty space inside the foundation an inviting atmosphere. My classes had finished early that day, and I was planning to go back to my apartment and get some physics reading done before supper. Sitting and reading outside was more appealing than doing the same in my apartment, so I crossed the road and climbed the concrete steps. 

I sat down in the grass with my back against the sun-warmed surface of the truncated wall and patted the pocket of my slacks to make sure the medallion was still there. My boyfriend was taking a lab course in metallurgy this semester, and he’d scored my initials into the rectangular ingot of iron after casting it.

He’d given it to me that day at lunch, and I was planning to put it on my desk next to the computer, where I could look at it often. Instead, I still had the medallion, and it was comforting to touch it.

I opened my physics textbook and started to read. I’ve always found physics unbearably boring, not to mention borderline incomprehensible, so after a few minutes of reading about Gauss’s Law, my mind started to wander and my eyelids drooped. The book slipped from my hands and splayed open on my lap as I fell asleep.

When I woke up, I wasn’t outside anymore, nor was I sitting on soft grass. Instead, I was in a large, dreary room made of stone, with guttering torches and faded banners on the walls. The floor was stone too, and the wall against my back stretched up fifteen feet before meeting an arched ceiling.

I didn’t spring to my feet. My heart didn’t start hammering. By all rights, I should have been scared out of my wits; I should have been assuming this was some kind of kidnapping scenario like you’d see on CSI, but I wasn't. All I felt was a mild curiosity.

There were two doors in the room, both wooden. One was in about the place where a door would have been in the no-longer-intact house, and the other was directly across from it. Instead of getting out of there like any sensible person would, I walked over to the door that wasn’t a possible escape route and gave it a gentle push. It swung open without resistance, revealing a long hallway with a number of doors on either side. The floor was adorned by a thick carpet, and lamps along both walls filled it with a rich, buttery light.

I started to tiptoe down the hall, opening doors as I went. Some led into bedrooms furnished with magnificent four-poster beds and writing desks stacked with sheets of what looked like parchment. Some revealed parlors with couches, armchairs, and in one case, a piano. Others were libraries or game rooms, although the games laid out in the latter didn't look like any I’d ever played. I paused at the doors of the libraries, wondering if the books within were as strange as the games, but in the end stuck to the hallway. I also hesitated outside a bedroom whose features struck me as familiar, though I couldn't have said why.

Every so often, another corridor intersected with mine. Most were identical, with luxurious carpeting and ample light, but there were a few where the floors were bare stone and widely spaced torches afforded only dim, forlorn pools of illumination. I could hear echoes of dripping water down some of them, as if the roof was in poor repair.

I began to hear the sound of voices, faint at first but getting louder the further down the hallway I went. There was nothing ominous about the voices themselves; as I got close enough to distinguish tone, I could tell that they were engaged in laughter and cheerful conversation.

The hallway abruptly terminated in yet another wooden door, behind which the voices continued their animated chatter. I shoved at the door like I had all the others, and like all the others, it immediately swung open.

The room beyond was the kind of banquet hall you’d expect to see in a medieval castle. Huge chandeliers sporting dozens of candles hung from the ceiling.  A wooden table stretched the length of the room, with people seated at it elbow to elbow. Every inch of the table was covered with food: red meat and poultry and fish, tureens of soup, baskets of bread, and platters of fruit and cheese.

More extraordinary than the feast, though, were the feasters. There were both men and women, clothed in elaborate but antiquated garments. I couldn’t see any of their faces because they all wore masks.

All the masks depicted the faces of people I knew.

My father and mother sat near the head of the table, as did my boyfriend and my best friend from high school. Farther along were my roommate, my neighbors, and the other members of the choral group I sang with. At the foot of the table, close to where I was standing, I saw my professors and the boy I’d had a crush on throughout high school but had never actually gotten to date.

One person sat in a gilded chair at the head of the table, and from this I assumed that he or she was the owner of this place. I couldn’t tell whether the individual was male or female, even when the person stood and addressed me.

“Welcome,” the person said in an androgynous voice. “Please, take a seat at our table and partake of our food and drink.”

Too stunned to answer, I merely stared. The owner’s mask was a perfect reflection of my own face.

The other diners paused their discussions to look at me as I entered the room. Now they chorused: “Yes, yes! Join us!”

My throat had gone dry, but I managed to croak out an answer, because some part of my mind warned me to avoid giving offense. “I’m honored by your invitation, but I’m afraid I can’t accept. I’m expected elsewhere, and I’m already late.”

“Nonsense!” the person wearing my face said. “Who could possibly have a greater claim upon you than we do?”

Almost anyone, seeing as how I’ve never met any of you before. I must be dreaming…that’s it, this is all a dream.

I backed slowly toward the door through which I’d entered.

One of the people near the foot of the table, the one who wore the mask of my chemistry professor, exclaimed, “But you can’t leave now that you’ve found your way back here! This is where you belong!”

“That’s right,” agreed someone further up the table. A mask in the image of the grandfather who’d died when I was in middle school bobbed up and down as the person behind it nodded. “You were born here. This is your home.”

“Here,” the choral director said, plucking an apricot off a plate of fruit and holding it out to me. “These used to be your favorite when you were little; don’t you remember?”

“Come and sit down,” urged the boy I’d had a crush on in high school. He reached out and grabbed my wrist, not hard enough to hurt but with the clear intention of pulling me down onto the bench beside him.

I don’t know what made me reach for the medallion. Instinct? Memory? Whatever it was, I plunged my hand into the pocket and pulled out the piece of iron with my initials carved into the surface, brandishing it like a knife.  

Did you know that most things we might think of as being made of iron actually aren’t? They’re almost all steel, which is an alloy of iron with carbon and other elements. The girders in the walls of buildings, kitchen utensils, a host of other metallic items―all steel. It’s stronger than pure iron and can be made in such a way that it doesn’t rust. The point is, it’s entirely plausible to go twenty years without coming into extended contact with unalloyed iron. 

And while steel may be better than iron for most applications, there are still some things you need plain, unadulterated iron for.

The boy from high school drew back as if I’d shoved a rattlesnake in his face. The choral director quickly withdrew the offered apricot.

The person with my face shook its head. “All this is what happens after death for people who wear masks. You wear one just like it. Unless you can find your real self, you will be back here sooner or later.”

I turned and ran, the medallion still clutched in my fist. I sprinted back down the long hallway, sparing no glances for the rooms or intersecting corridors this time. Reaching the entrance hall, I barreled through the outer door with such force that I heard it smack against the wall. I jumped over the steps and ran like the proverbial bat out of hell down the street. I didn’t stop, or even slow down, until I reached my apartment building.

Once inside my apartment, I locked both the ordinary door lock and the deadbolt and engaged the safety chain. Then I collapsed on my bed.

I tried to convince myself that the whole thing was a nightmare I’d had after I fell asleep while doing my physics reading. But I heard the door hit the wall on my way out, and I was definitely awake then; I was running! I rationalized it as a simple case of hypnagogic hallucination, the same phenomenon that made people think aliens had abducted them out of their beds. But no matter how much I tried to convince myself of that, I didn’t believe it.

As I kept turning the events over in my mind, prodding at them like the components of a Rubik’s Cube, I absentmindedly scratched at the palm of my right hand. It was itchy. Looking down, I saw that it was red and blotchy. It almost seemed like some kind of allergic reaction.

But from what? I hadn’t worn anything unusual, eaten any new foods, touched any strange materials…except for the iron medallion. Because it’s entirely plausible to go twenty years without coming into extended contact with unalloyed iron.

The medallion. It showed me a future I didn’t want.

The next morning, I took a different route up to campus. I spent $214 on a new physics textbook rather than go back to pick up the one I’d left on the grass (and it was grass, it must have been, not stone). Something tells me that if I were to glance over at the moldering foundation in those minutes when the world hovers between day and night, I’d see a tall building all of stone, with a wooden double door left just slightly ajar, giving the barest hint of the hall inside. That same something tells me I would be the only one to see it.

I’ve handled the iron medallion a few times since then, and every time it’s raised an itchy redness like a rash. I’ve thought about that one room that seemed familiar, and the memory is stuck there in the back of my mind, like a word on the tip of my tongue. I’ve stared at myself in the mirror and recalled what the person wearing my face said about masks. 

I’ve tried to keep the normal routine of my life as uninterrupted as possible. I go to all my classes, study for exams, show up to choir rehearsals, unwind on the weekends at frat parties or outings with my friends. But sometimes, when I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, I wonder about things. I ask myself questions.

What will happen to the girl whose face I wear like a mask, the girl the world thinks I am?

Nina Shepardson is a scientist who lives in the northeastern USA with her husband. Her horror story “And Elm Do Hate” was published in the 2016 issue of Nightscript. Her other short speculative fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including Allegory, Electric Spec, and Devilfish Review. She’s a first reader at Spark: A Creative Anthology and writes book reviews at ninashepardson.wordpress.com.