The following story is a prequel to last year’s Halloween short, “The Hollow Sleep.” While you don’t need to read the first one to understand this, you may enjoy the connections.
All artwork courtesy of Bev Parypinski.
ALL IN THE SUIT THAT YOU WEAR
© Joanna Parypinski
Bryan swept bits of dead leaves tracked into the funeral home on the soles of black shoes.
He discreetly swept these into a dustpan and tapped the debris into the garbage. As soon as the viewing in room 3 was over, he could clean up in there, then call it a day. He hadn’t eaten lunch, and his gray uniform sagged around him.
He would have eaten, but he’d spent his lunch break asking again when Mr. and Mrs. Peterson were going to give him that raise. They smiled—the sad, sympathetic smile ubiquitous to funeral directors—and said if he would only hold on a little longer, they were sure business would pick up in the new year, now that it was likely Dixon Funeral Services would close. They ushered him out the door, thanking him profusely.
It wasn’t the first time they’d asked him to hold out at minimum wage. But it was getting cold now, and his trailer wasn’t too good at keeping heat. He wanted to buy a space heater as the chill of late October fell, but those were expensive.
He kept sweeping in the corner, though there was nothing left to sweep. Those few people had been in room 3 for a while. Not very many of them. The dead man must not have been well-liked.
Hoping to speed things along, Bryan slipped into the viewing room and stood near the back, toying with his ring of keys and sweeping dust along the hardwood floor. Three people stood around the open casket. They looked unhappy, but not in the way people normally did when grieving. One woman, frowning, pulled out a cigarette and lit it. Bryan was going to tell her that there was no smoking in here, but instead he kept quiet.
At last the handful of people left, muttering to each other in muted angry tones. They hadn’t left anything of a mess behind, like some folks did, so Bryan put down his broom. He glanced left and right before heading toward the casket, curious to see who was in there.
They’d chosen the simplest wooden casket on offer, with a white velvet interior. The man within was old, with ghostly liver-spotted skin and thin wisps of gray hair. He leaned in closer, curious about the man, about his unhappy turnout, and saw he was wearing an old gray suit—
He whirled around, heart leaping into his throat. It was Mr. Peterson, leaning casually in the doorway.
“The last of them just left. We’ll be heading out now. Be a help and close up that casket when you’re finished cleaning. We’re burying it first thing tomorrow—no ceremony, I guess. Thanks, Bryan.” He turned back down the hall. “Don’t forget to lock up when you’re done!”
Bryan listened to the patter of Mr. and Mrs. Peterson’s shoes down the hall and out the front door.
He turned back to the man in the casket and noticed, again, the suit.
It had an older style, like something you might find at a vintage clothing store, and it was dark gray. The weave was thick and coarse—wool. Tweed, maybe. Bryan didn’t know much about suits. He’d never owned one. Most of his clothes were ripped jeans and sweat-stained t-shirts, plus this janitor’s uniform he wore to work. He never liked to go anywhere around town. He was always worried the women would sneer at him, at his clothes.
There was something about the suit he liked, though. It was old but dignified. Might do a good job keeping its wearer warm in these chilly dying months of the year.
What did that corpse need to keep warm for, anyway?
Bryan looked around. He was the only one left in the building. The Petersons had turned off some of the lights, and he stood in semi-darkness.
He hadn’t stolen anything since he was a kid, when he used to pilfer packs of gum and bottles of soda pop from the convenience store.
It was awkward, trying to pull the corpse’s arms out of the sleeves, but he managed. Getting the pants off was easier once he opened the rest of the casket lid all the way. When he was done, the old man lay in his underwear and undershirt, his hairy bare legs looking thin and sad.
Bryan folded the suit and closed up the casket.
It was full dark when he got home. The stars were bright and the crescent moon was grinning. He’d passed increasingly decrepit houses as he’d made his way to his end of town. Some sported colored lights and jack-o-lanterns.
He had no decorations for his trailer. When he got inside, he popped open a beer and unfolded the stolen suit on his couch. He ran his hands over it. The seams were fraying slightly, but it held together well. His fingers kept roving, and he found a name etched onto the inside of the collar—Adlai.
Bryan was pretty sure the dead man’s name had not been Adlai. Maybe it wasn’t the man’s suit. Thinking this, he stood in front of the mirror and pulled it on.
The material was thick and warm, but he felt cold. This wasn’t right. He’d never stolen from a dead body before. Bryan respected the dead. But, now that he had it on him, he realized how well the suit fit, as if it had been tailored for him. For the first time, he looked smart. Snappy.
He grinned into the mirror.
A movie called Beetlejuice had come out earlier that year. He’d liked it a lot.
He held up his hands, imagining the gray suit separating into black and white stripes, and said, “It’s showtime!”
* * *
He spent the rest of the evening watching television in his new suit. It smelled a little of mothballs, as if it had been closed up in someone’s attic for a while, and he tried not to think about how a dead man had worn it only hours ago. Strangely, the longer he sat there and the more beer he drank, the colder he became. The damn trailer must have some kind of insulation problem, and even this thick suit couldn’t help.
Occasionally, he found himself zoning out. He would blink at the TV and realize he’d simply been sitting there, staring and blank, for the past thirty minutes.
He fell asleep on the couch, still wearing the suit.
When he woke, it was the middle of the night. He stood up, turned off the TV. Went in front of the mirror. He stared at his reflection, and for a moment, he did not recognize himself. The man he saw was pale with dark circles under his eyes. He opened his mouth, without even intending to, and croaked out—
“I will not be forgotten.”
Blinking, wondering why he had said that, Bryan shrugged out of the jacket and draped it over the couch. He pulled off the pants and staggered off to bed, feeling feverish and ill.
* * *
The next morning they buried the man whose name was not Adlai.
Bryan helped move the casket, his heart pounding, thinking they would open it at some point—but of course they didn’t. No one wanted to see the dead man. His casket was lowered into the earth under an overcast sky, and no one knew what Bryan had taken.
His mind drifted as he worked.
He thought he might wear it to visit his father. He hadn’t been to see the man in years. Had been too afraid, really, but now he wanted to go. To show off his new suit. To show him that he wasn’t like his father, that he was better than his father.
The gravediggers sweated even in the cool air. Autumnal colors littered the cemetery from overhanging trees, red and orange leaves falling faster than the groundskeeper could remove them. They landed over graves and around headstones, onto the mound of dirt displaced by this newly dug grave for the man who wasn’t Adlai.
When he walked home that day, jingling his ring of keys in an imitation of John Carpenter’s Halloween theme (the original, not the third sequel that was in theaters right now), a boy rode past him on his bike, wearing a clown mask. As he passed, he called over his shoulder, “Nice janitor costume!”
That’s right. This was just a costume. He wasn’t really a 28-year-old janitor paid minimum wage at a funeral home and living by himself in a trailer. His real clothing was at home. His real clothing was a nicely-tailored tweed suit, vintage, like a professor might wear. And his name wasn’t really Bryan.
A little blonde girl, maybe four or five, chased after the boy on the bike, shouting, “Clayton! Wait up for me! Hey!” She wore cat ears on a headband and had whiskers drawn onto her face in marker. She tripped on the unevenly-laid sidewalk, skinning her knees. To her credit, she didn’t cry.
Bryan took her little arm and pulled her to her feet. “You better catch up to your brother,” he said.
She looked up at him and seemed to see something in his face she didn’t like. Slipping her arm out of his grasp, she stumbled back, still staring at him, then turned and took off again down the sidewalk.
“You’re welcome,” he muttered, continuing toward home.
When he got there, he took off his uniform and put on the suit. It fit so well, even better than his worn-in jeans that he’d had for years. It fit him like his own skin.
Over the next few days, he formed a habit where he put on the suit as soon as he got home from work. Sometimes he didn’t even turn on the TV but simply sat there, still, silent, and staring. He usually wore it straight through the night, dozing, until he inevitably woke up on the couch, disoriented and feverish. Sometimes he had nightmares. In them, the suit got up and walked around the cemetery, empty and headless, passing dead trees and stopping beside the grave of the old man whose name was not Adlai. He always woke from these dreams in a cold sweat, his skin itching as though the fibers in the wool were fusing to his skin. That’s when he would take it off and go to bed, but he could still sense where he’d left it, sitting, watching, waiting to be filled.
* * *
Saturday arrived, and he decided he couldn’t just sit around at home wearing a suit of this caliber. It was time to pay his father a visit.
He caught a bus uptown, along a winding road that cut through a forest of shedding trees, then changed to another bus that took him well outside the town’s limits, into the countryside, past apple orchards smelling of cider and pumpkin farms with fields of orange gourds.
It was over an hour and a half before he arrived at the prison.
Gated in by chain-link fences, the plain cement-hued building looked ominous and out of place against the peaceful country backdrop. He entered the visitors’ area and gave them his father’s name.
They sat him at a table in a room where prisoners sat talking to civilians. Bryan waited. He thought he would be nervous, but the suit instilled a calm confidence in him that made him sit completely still until his father was guided to his table, wearing an orange jumpsuit.
He looked old and haggard, black scruff growing on his chin, his black hair turning gray. His cheeks were sunken, but his eyes still had their same mean glint.
“Well, look what the fucking cat dragged in,” he said, his voice a low smoker’s growl. “Thought you forgot about me. Why’d you finally decide to come pay your old man a visit?”
Bryan stared at him and realized he had no idea what to say. As a child, he’d usually remained quiet and docile while his father wailed on him. Now, some of that old fear crept up, but it was tempered by the chill seeping into his heart, by some osmosis through his skin, from the wool.
“Ain’t you gonna say something, you little shit?”
Bryan glanced down at himself, then slowly looked up at his father. “How do you like my new suit?”
“It’s a fucking suit. Looks like an outdated piece of shit. Where’d you find that thing, in a dumpster?”
Something was filling him from the inside, like a black smoke suffusing his organs. There were two of him now: Bryan, who wore his janitor uniform, and the other one who wore the suit. He stared at his father, and for the first time, the old man averted his eyes, looking uneasy.
“You should respect me,” said Bryan.
His father leaned back, frowning. The mean glint was gone from his eyes. “What…?”
The prison seemed to darken. All Bryan felt was a cold rage, an emotion he’d never felt before. It was as though the feeling belonged to someone else, and he was just borrowing it.
He stood up and slammed his fist into his father’s face.
The old man toppled over, and Bryan came around the table, grabbed him by the collar, and hit him again. Blood spurted up from the man’s nose, streaked down over his broken lips and teeth.
Guards descended on them, pulling Bryan off of his father and out of the visiting room. He turned his head as he was led away to watch the bloodied prisoner pulled up by two guards and hauled off, his knees dragging on the floor. The look he gave Bryan just before he vanished around a corner was not a look he’d ever seen on his father’s face before, and it gave him great satisfaction.
The old man had looked afraid.
Bryan was deposited unceremoniously outside of the prison and told not to return. The next bus wouldn’t be coming by for a while, so he straightened his suit and started to walk.
It was a long trek to the next bus stop. Over an hour. He walked calmly, though, and after a short while he noticed the bloodstains speckling the suit. His father’s blood. The fabric absorbed it well, and it darkened until it was almost unnoticeable, as though it were part of the wool.
Rather than worrying that his new garment was ruined, Bryan was pleased, because the Other was pleased.
* * *
On Sunday, he put his janitor uniform into a trash can outside his trailer, poured in a little whiskey, and set it aflame. He watched the golden embers race across the cheap material, burning black holes in it. The jumpsuit curled in on itself, smoldering away until it was unrecognizable.
On Monday, he wore the suit to work.
The adjacent cemetery was quiet, but today was the day before Halloween. Mischief Night, the kids called it. He knew that later, after they closed down and darkness swallowed the sun, costumed teenagers would hop the fence and roam the grounds, throwing toilet paper and daring each other to wander alone among the graves.
For now, though, it was quiet. The air was that rare mix of cool and warm that only happened on sunny October days. He felt it, distantly, beyond the numbing effect of the tweed suit.
When he entered the building, Mr. and Mrs. Peterson called him into their office. They sat at their joint desk, wearing fine black attire, and smiled identical sad, sympathetic funeral director smiles.
“What happened to your uniform, Bryan?” asked Mr. Peterson.
He straightened the jacket, feeling the etched name burning into the back of his neck. “Don’t you like my new suit?”
“It’s… it’s very nice,” said Mrs. Peterson. “But… it isn’t really something that a janitor should wear to work, you understand?”
He stared at the two of them behind their polished mahogany desk. He was again divided. There was him—timid, pushover Bryan—and there was the dark presence of the Other.
“We can get you a new uniform,” said Mr. Peterson, smiling. “A nicer one. We can even have your name sewn onto it. How would you like that?”
He didn’t move. “I like this one.”
“If this is about the raise—”
He flattened the key ring in his palm, carefully sliding a key between each knuckle so that they jutted out from his curled fist like talons.
“It’s about the suit.”
Before either of the Petersons could speak, he lunged forward and threw a right hook into Mr. Peterson’s neck. The keys protruding between his fingers pierced the skin. Mr. Peterson fell to the floor and cried out, blood soaking his collar. He grabbed Mrs. Peterson by her long hair and yanked her out of her seat.
He brought his foot down on Mr. Peterson’s face, and the man fell still. Mrs. Peterson, screaming, kicked out her feet as she was dragged backwards by the hair, one of her high-heeled shoes sliding off. He dragged her out of the office, to the back stairwell, which led down to a dim basement room. She sobbed and pleaded, but he ignored her.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked, trying to pull free. “Please, Bryan. Don’t do this!”
That made him pause. That name. He turned to look at her.
“I’m not Bryan.”
Mrs. Peterson’s puffy red face transformed from desperate to confused. “Then who are you?”
Bryan was there, but he was only an idle viewer. Attending the funeral, observing the others, but not participating. The Other was in charge now, and it was the Other who responded in a low, creaking voice entirely unlike Bryan’s.
“My name is Adlai.”
He grabbed a bottle of embalming fluid and a syringe.
She screamed again and continued screaming even as he injected it into her, again and again. He quieted her by stuffing a mop head into her mouth. Holding it there, suffocating her, he injected more embalming fluid until her eyes rolled back, she convulsed, and her tissue turned necrotic around the injection sites.
He brought the dead Mrs. Peterson and the unconscious Mr. Peterson to the display room—an arduous task—and picked out a casket for each of them. He laid them inside, smoothing Mrs. Peterson’s hair against the lush velvet, before closing and locking the lids.
There were several newly-dug graves in the cemetery, prepped for some recently-deceased folks who would soon inhabit their chosen plots. He had no trouble pulling back the tarps covering them. What he did have trouble with, however, was lowering the caskets into the graves by himself. Still, he got the job done, and he covered them with a layer of dirt to hide them, then pulled the tarps back over.
He left work early.
When he got home, he took off the suit.
Bryan started to shake. He paced left and right, then went to the bathroom to throw up. Crusted flakes of Mr. Peterson’s blood clung to his knuckles. With trembling hands, he folded the suit, but he kept seeing Mrs. Peterson’s hair tangled in his fingers.
The Other told him to put the suit back on. He would feel better.
Instead, mind swimming and stomach churning, he went to Goodwill and handed them the suit. They asked if it was a donation. He said yes, take it. Take it.
He bought a rope at the hardware store.
He stopped at the library and looked up how to tie a noose.
When he got home, he sat in his trailer, wrapping the rope around and around his hands, staring into the blank television screen and intermittently crying out or laughing. He sat like that for a while and realized that he was like his father. He was just like his father.
He sat like that through nightfall, afraid to fall asleep in case the suit returned in his dreams, hollow and hungry for flesh. He sat like that throughout the following day, until trick-or-treaters knocked on his door and saw him and ran away screaming. And he would sit like that until someone found him, staring and starving and babbling about a haunted suit, and called the authorities, and locked him up where he belonged.