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It wasn’t my dream job, but it was going to be a good stepping stone.

You know, you go to acting school, you want to believe that you’re going to come right out, hit the ground running, and get starring roles. Movies, definitely. Television, if I have to. Stage, when I want to really show off my chops, get back to my roots. At worst I’ll take a few gigs in commercials or do some voice-over work. You know, to keep the lights on, and maybe pay for some new headshots.

I got off the bus in Hollywood with one suitcase and $200 in my checking account, a walking cliche with a head full of dreams.

Six months later, I was bussing tables at one of those 1950s diner-themed restaurants. You know the type, right? Plays into some sort of absurd Boomer nostalgia that things were better back then. Someone puts a nickel in the tabletop jukebox, and everyone’s got to stop and sing along. Even the bussers! I don’t think it’s fair, you’ve got the servers in their poodle skirts and leather jackets, at least they’re raking in tip money for the song. (They’re supposed to split it with the back-of-house, but they always pocket some before they do.) It’s one thing to make them sing, but I’m trying to hoist a tray full of half-eaten Rebel With Cheddar Slaw burgers and you’re gonna make me belt out “My Boyfriend’s Back”? Ten years of vocal lessons for this.

Anyways, I was thrilled when the theme park gig came around. A year earlier, I wouldn’t have been able to imagine saying that to my classmates. But least I was going to be out there making people happy, and I wasn’t going to have to scrape any more plates. Besides, who would know it was me inside that costume?

During training, they set out the rules: never take the head off in front of the kids. Always be cheerful, even if they’re hitting you. Pose for pictures whenever anyone asks. And never, ever take the costume off park grounds.

My first day out in the park was a nightmare. I got socked in the crotch so much I lost count. It got so hot in the costume I nearly passed out. And even with this big heavy suit on, the dads would try to grab my ass when we posed for pictures. Maybe it’s a fetish? Who knows. That was all survivable, until a kid threw up an entire Icee on me. A lot of the costume’s white, and it was stained bright red.

“You’re going to be in so much trouble,” one of the others whispered in the locker room. “We’re not allowed to stain the costumes!”

“They can clean it,” I stammered.

“I heard one of the princesses ripped her skirt, and they charged her to replace the whole costume - five thousand dollars.”

I broke into a cold sweat at that thought. I had twenty-six dollars in my account until the first payday, and I was already dodging the landlord’s requests for the rent money. If they charged me for this costume, I was ruined. I stuffed it into a trash bag.

“I’ll fix this.”

I clutched the bag on the bus ride home like it was the last thing I had left. I sprinted to the laundromat, and stuffed it all - head and everything - into the biggest washer they had. I waited, and waited. When I opened the door, I knew I was ruined. It had fallen apart completely.

My Hollywood dreams were over, and I was going to be on a bus back home with a hefty debt to pay. I sobbed.

Then, through my tears, I looked up, and saw a small notice on the laundromat’s bulletin board. “Costumes Cheap. Any character.” I dialed the number, my hands shaking.

The next morning, I was in a small shop down a darkened alleyway in a part of town I never knew existed. A mysterious, wiry old man sat, surrounded by heads of every character. They looked good.

“How much to replace it?”

“One hundred and fifty dollars.”

“That’s amazing!” How could that be possible? The originals cost thousands.

“But you must understand how these have come to be. I was the theme park owner’s original costume-maker. I crafted the original characters myself. We had a falling-out, though. He ruined me, and ruined my career. So I placed a curse upon his park. You may have the costume - wear it on Hollywood Boulevard, do whatever sort of ‘thing’ people do in costumes these days. But never, ever set foot in that park wearing it.”

I scoffed to myself, but nodded. Whatever, old man.

It was ready within hours, and it looked perfect. I rushed to work - made it in just five minutes late.

“Did you fix it?” my friend asked.

“Good as new,” I smiled, pulling it from my bag.

“You’re lucky.”

“I’m smart,” I said, pulling on the head.

It was a weird day. Fewer kids punched me, and I was getting used to the weight of the thing, but I kept hearing funny noises that day. Almost like someone screaming in the distance. I was happy for my first break. Stepped into the locker room alone, pulled my sandwich out. Went to remove the head.

It wouldn’t come off.

I pulled harder, but it didn’t budge.

The screams grew louder. I screamed myself, but I could tell no one could hear me.

I ran.

I still hear the screams now.