Graduation is supposed to be happy. I think it’s a burden. My family expects me to be an overnight success. With a degree in film and television, they think I’ll be a famous actor. Imagine their faces when they find out I’m working as a production assistant, on a children’s TV show. Dougie The Cat Detective, a program about a humanoid feline who dresses like a knock-off Sherlock Holmes.

I saw em’ on stage a few times but never out of costume. Rumor is, he or she, never takes it off. The production crew have a wager going; whoever can snap a photo of Dougie without the mask gets $500. Might not mean much to them, but for me it makes all the difference. Hell, or high water, I’m going to get that picture. I’m setting up the catering table, when I hear a loud buzz, and the snap of a clapperboard. “Silence on the stage. ACTION!” Everyone stops in place like mannequins. Blue and yellow lights fix on the red cardboard door, with glitter ordaining the frame.

I take notice of the empty seats in front of the set, no live audience. Zachary, one of the interns, comes over and whispers, “He doesn’t like kids or people as far as I know. They add applause and laughs later, you know? Like a laugh track.” The intro theme plays, blaring out the speaker. The door opens and Dougie walks in, waving at the phantom audience. Dougie ‘s fur is grey, he’s wearing a deerstalker hat, and white gloves. When he speaks, the animatronic mouth flaps, in sync with every word.

After placing all the sodas on the table in slow motion, I turn around to catch Dougie staring at me from across the room, those big soulless eyes, never blinking. Suddenly I feel light-headed. As if all the happiness in the world disappeared. The worst memories I can recall rush to the front of my mind. My girlfriend’s cheating on me, my father dying on the side of the road, and the shame of my family for obtaining a useless degree. I shake away the thoughts and get a drink of water. After forty minutes, the director yells, “That’s a wrap. Good job everyone, thank you for all your hard work.”

Dougie exits through the same door. Zachary trails close behind. I press my back against the wall, concealing myself behind the pillars. Man, I can sure use that $500. I’m not gonna let Zachary beat me to the punch. Zachary tiptoes, moving only when Dougie goes through a curtain or bends the corner. His pace gradually increases, along with the clutter polluting the hallway, wooden slats, empty bins, spools of thick cable, and wardrobe racks. The place is a maze. Fluorescent tube lights flicker, and dim. Dougie and Zachary are gone.

I’m at an intersection, rooms align the narrow hall on both sides. The paint on the walls peeling, bricks loose and disordered, as if removed, and put back in a rush. I dare not think about what’s behind them. The AC vents above rattle and hum. In a low voice, I call out to Zachary. “Zach. Psst, Zach. It’s me, Marcus.” A strange odor seeps into my nostrils, hints of ammonia and burnt hot dogs, I try not to cough. Out the corner of my eye, something moves at the end of the corridor. A large shadow casts on the dingy wall, its silhouette matching the cat detective himself, Dougie. I could see the gloved hand beckoning to me. “Oh, hell no, fuck that.”

I go back the way I came, retracing my steps. those posters on the wall couldn’t have been there before? Each one is black and white, some torn and wrinkled. As I make my way past them, the images play out like a flip book, kids dancing around Dougie in a circle. “What the hell is that?” In the proceeding frames, the children shrink. Their round faces sink in, the hair on their heads grey, and soon their bodies are husks, with large clothes hanging on them. Their expressions cemented in pain, like the mummies of Pompeii. A familiar jingle echoes through the hall, jolting me back to my surroundings. This time the tune is slower.

My fingers twitch and I’m sweating profusely. I grab my phone and dial Zach. There’s a rumbling on the linoleum floor. He must have dropped it. The rumble grows louder. Peeking around the corner, I discover a terrible scene. Zach, or what’s left of him, curled in the fetal position. His face locked in a perpetual state of fear. The hairs on my neck stand on end. Someone….is behind me. In a panic, I jab my elbow backwards, striking what felt like a chest. No reaction. I raise my fists, preparing to fight. Dougie throws up his hands signaling me to stop.

He places them on the side of the head piece, turning it left, then right. A clicking noise emits as he lifts up the helmet. What I see makes my neck cramp, the muscles in my body atrophy. My brain is shriveling into a rubbery gob. I remain conscious, in the darkness, the void wrapping around me. There is no sadness, no worry, only pure serenity. Tropical breeze fabric softener is the scent I take with me, as my limbs fold on each other.

It’s glorious, grotesque, ancient, it’s beautiful, and repulsing all at once. Zach feels the same, he tells me as much when I arrive on the set. Only this time I sit in the stands. The ones we believed empty, when our vision as human shells were clouded. No more. We are together now and bear witness to his gaze for all eternity. We love Dougie and he loves us.

Without him, we are nothing. We are Husk!

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