You stop next to the single pump, dust from the gravel floating around your car. You count to ten, hoping it will settle enough to leave your formalwear unblemished, before opening the door. You gaze around for the price per gallon. If you’re lucky, your bank account will cover a quarter tank. The pump doesn’t have a dollar label, nor does the shed-sized shop with dark windows. There – a broken sign teeters in the wind, its letters strewn over the tall grass.
The place looks defunct. Still, you grab the nozzle, pry open your gas cap, and stick it in. It works. You’ll just have to watch the price as you pump. No doubt you look strange standing in the nicest clothes you own next to a rusted sedan, two of its windows broken and taped over with plastic sheeting. You’d better park it out of sight once you find the ball. This is your chance, and come hell or high water, you’re going to look like you belong.
Your folks told you to pursue your dreams, but apparently dropping out of college to work at a confectionary didn’t count. Years have passed, and your boss is no closer to listening to your ideas for the perfect chocolates. But Sean listened intently to everything you said. He gave you a rare invite to his masquerade, where the most prestigious chocolatiers will be gathered. He even offered to provide your mask – before you had to admit you couldn’t afford one. The event is supposed to be a “singular” experience, complete with a chocolate fountain. Not just a fountain of fondue, but a fountain built from solid dark chocolate that slowly melts into the liquid white chocolate pouring through it. It’s a world wonder you need to see – and consume – for yourself. Then if you keep up your “innovative enthusiasm,” as Sean called it, maybe he’ll hire you.
Your phone bursts into song, a janky tune that reminds you of drinking spiked sodas on sun-warmed docks. It’s Nia, your partner in bellowing janky tunes. She always wants to know how you’re doing at times like this. You conduct a search and rescue in your coat pockets to find your elusive device.
You answer. “I’m not there yet. I’m trying to figure out which way to go.”
“What’s the address? I’ll map it for you.”
“I don’t have an address, just directions.”
“He didn’t give you the address?”
“No, you can’t map it online anyway.”
You sigh and lean back against the car. That noncommittal tone always means the same thing: you aren’t going to like what she has to say. “Spit it out.”
“It’s just… maybe this party of his isn’t real.”
“Isn’t real? Why would he invite me to a party that doesn’t exist?”
“To get back at you for mouthing off during his grand opening.”
“He was impressed with my mouth – he said so. He’s going to make good use of it at the party.”
“He’s going to make good use of your mouth?”
“Not like that! I’ll be tasting the samples and giving my assessment.”
“So what you’re saying is that he invited you to his big fancy ball to tell a bunch of industry leaders how bad his chocolate is.”
You laugh. “You know me too well. But actually, his chocolate is excellent.”
“Excellent? After your rant about cocoa butter and emulsifiers, I thought you didn’t even want to call it chocolate.”
You open your mouth to correct the impression, but draw a blank. Somehow you don’t recall the qualities of Sean’s chocolate, not the proportion of cocoa solids, where the beans were sourced, or even how sweet it was. “I guess his invitation wiped everything else from my mind. But it’s still a job opportunity.”
“I just don’t think this Sean is everything he says he is.”
“Nia, he’s one of the biggest names in chocolate.”
“But you never heard of him until a month ago.”
“Please don’t pass that around.”
Nia sighs. “Alright, I’ll take your word for it. Just don’t get stranded in that rust bucket. And let me know when you get there. I’m going to worry now.”
Your stomach sinks as you end the call. Nia’s instincts are rarely wrong. If she thinks Sean gave you a fake invite, you’d better consider the possibility. But what if the party is real and you lose your one chance in the industry, all because you’re paranoid about some elaborate trick? You’ll never forget it. Sucker or not, you’re already out here, and you’re going to look for that ball.
You stop the pump and pay, cringing at how far you let the numbers climb. Too late now; you’ll deal with the overdraft fees later. You get in your car and head up the road. Since Sean said nothing about ocean views, you choose the tunnel into the forest.
The car plunges into deep shade, as though you’re driving downward. Branches close over you, stroking the roof like it’s a favorite pet. Fifty feet ahead, the road twists, obscuring your view. You round the curve and find another one. The way narrows, and the pavement breaks apart, transforming into a dirt trail and then two muddy divots. No public road is like this. Is this someone’s driveway? Branches are sliding along both sides of the car now; you can’t leave without driving backwards for who knows how long. Better to keep going until you see a place to turn around.
Bright colors glint through the branches as the makeshift road widens. This must be the right place after all; cars sit on both sides of the divots. The first car you pass, a gold pickup, is covered with leaves. A little red convertible is parked in a ditch at an odd angle, its front tire sinking into the mud. Does that minivan have a tree growing out of its hood? You slow down and stare, but in the low light you can’t tell if the tree is sprouting from the van or if it’s just on the other side. You could trudge through the leaves to find out, but it isn’t worth showing up to the ball with an extra layer of dirt on your fancy shoes.
Ahead, the road ends at an elaborate gate. There’s no place to hide your car; you have to mow through a thicket just to claim a spot. You step out and approach the gate. It’s a head taller than you; thorns grip the thick metal bars. You peek through them, but you don’t see the mansion that must lie beyond. You push the gate open, the rusted hinges protesting. A vine breaks, as though it grew there while the gate was closed. You look back at the vehicles to reassure yourself they’re recent arrivals. At least you can verify that your own vehicle, corroded and parked amidst a row of thorns, doesn’t look any newer than the rest.
You step through, and the gate clatters shut behind you. Overhead, a mass of threadlike twigs reaches down to stroke your hair, shedding thin yellow leaves that spin on their way down. Your breath is loud. You pull your coat tight as unease settles over you. Then you let your coat go. You enjoy walking through forests, and they’re usually quiet and empty. It’ll take more than that to spook you. You don’t see any other guests, but you’re not going to miss that legendary chocolate fountain because you didn’t look around.
Ahead, a footpath disappears under twisted limbs. You follow it as it hugs around a bouldered hill and descends in craggy steps. At the bottom, a quagmire awaits you. Thin trees cast hazy shadows over a low cover of mist. Roots web across the swampy undergrowth, rolling with mossy rocks and… covered in accessories. You halt. A silk shawl hangs off several branches, a tie lies covered in muck, and a fedora sits on the path ahead. Perhaps you’re late to the party, and everyone else is having a really good time.
A beaded purse sparkles on the moss a few paces from the path. You should check it for anything important. You step off the path, and the thick moss sinks silently underfoot. A cool flood washes through your toes, and your foot falls farther and farther as the moss continues to give way. You flail, grabbing for a branch that snaps in your hand, and fall back. You slide farther into the muck until your other hand finds a solid rock. On your back in the quagmire, you see something new.
A spiked heel sticks out from the moss. The shoe looks attached to something under the muck, something long and rounded, bound by roots. The shape bends gently where knees might bend, and again at the hips. You survey the strange rolling texture of the quagmire, and the lurid accessories peeking out, hinting at what’s under the surface. Are these elongated lumps more than rocks and dirt?
You feel movement against your back. Gasping, you scramble for the path, stopping only when you’re on solid ground. The branch you broke hangs where you were, shifting in the wind. You let out a breath and pull yourself onto your feet. Whatever this place is, it isn’t a high-class ball. You turn back toward the stone staircase, and a faint tinkle of laughter floats in behind you.
You turn and wait, peering through the trees. The laughter floats in again. The source can’t be far. You take a breath and examine the quagmire. Now that you have a better vantage point, the rolling texture doesn’t appear menacing; it’s just tree roots. Only imagination and adrenaline made you think otherwise.
What if you walk all the way back to your car, drive through the trees to the fork, and take the ocean road only to learn you were standing right there and didn’t take those last few steps… One look. You’ll cross the quagmire and make sure this isn’t the right place. Then you’ll go.
The path curves through the trees, leading to a small wooden bridge. The planks are softened with rot, but you reach the end without falling. Of course, it’s too late – you already fell and got mud on your fancy clothes. Maybe you can make a tale of it, a conversation piece. On the other side, the path turns sharply. You follow it a few more paces, and it widens into a small earthy clearing. An arch stretches over the space, dripping with a curtain of moss and vines.
You resist the temptation to rub your eyes. It’s a strange picture, Sean standing under the moss in his sharp suit.
“Come on.” He motions you forward. “I have something for you.”
“Where is everyone?”
“Already enjoying the ball.” Sean bends down to pick up something sitting behind the arch.
“Without their purses and heels?”
“Nothing they need.” He straightens, holding a neat black box. “Now, I owe you a mask.”
“Sorry, I think I might be missing something. The road here is barely passable, the cars parked back there look abandoned, and there’s a swamp amassing a few thousand dollars worth of personal items. And you’re saying no one needs those things.”
The corner of his mouth quirks up. “I told you it would be a singular experience, didn’t I?”
“What kind of experience?”
He holds out the box. “Accept this, and you’ll find out.”
“I will, but… there is a masquerade ball with a chocolate fountain nearby, isn’t there?”
“I promise.” Sean’s lips curve in a satisfied grin. “And you promised to help me take my chocolates to the next level. I’ll need your passion for the product.”
His eyes crinkle as though he’s laughing at a private joke, a joke on you. Nia was right; he’s planning something devious. But Sean has the power to make your career. If you just indulge his games, he’ll probably decide it’s worth keeping you around. With a boss and mentor, you’ll finally be on track to your dream. Maybe ten years from now, you’ll have your own chocolate line. If you give that up just because you’re feeling uneasy, you’ll regret it. You’re doing this thing, whatever it is.
“Yes, I’m honored help you.” You reach for the box.
He holds up a hand. “Not so fast. You have to give me the mask you’re wearing.”
You almost say you aren’t wearing one, but that’s silly. You feel along your chin and forehead to find its edges. The mask comes off with a light pop. You hand it over, the warm nose pressing down into your palm.
Sean holds it up admiringly. “I look forward to trying that mouth.” In his hand, the mask you were wearing looks incredibly familiar, like you’ve stared at its curves and crevices everyday of your life. Then you look again, and the shape of it seems strange.
He offers you the box. “I picked this one just for you.”
You gently put on your new mask; it fits seamlessly. Sean hands you a mirror, and you look into it. A handsome woman looks back. She has thick black hair, flecked with gray. Laugh lines crease her skin.
A faint tune pours through the trees. The woman in the mirror turns her head to listen. She almost recognizes the song; it’s tinny and sort of… janky. It’s coming from the swamp nearby. She vaguely remembers sliding into the cold muck, perhaps dropping something. She takes a step toward the tune.
“Ready for the ball?” Sean smiles and holds out an elbow.
She turns and blinks at him, surprised that she forgot the ball of all things. That must be where the music is coming from. The woman reaches to take Sean’s arm, but pauses. Her coat is bulky and covered in mud.
“Let me get that for you.” Sean slips the coat off her shoulders and lobs it over the trees.
That seems like a little much to her, but it’s an ugly coat, so she doesn’t complain.
Holding Sean’s arm, she glides down the path and through a brilliantly lit doorway. On the other side, violins play and dancers circle the granite floor. From high on the ceiling, chandeliers cast vibrant shards of light over the walls. A food table stands nearby, crowned with a fountain of swirling dark and white chocolate.
She hates chocolate.
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