“Rules” By C. A. Brown (Short Story)

Joanne sat back on the wine-stained sofa and tapped her phone: ‘So, are you going to this Halloween do at the union next week? I think there are still tickets available.’

A lager can hissed. Toby shrugged: ‘Dunno. Still can’t think of a good idea for a costume. I mean, have you seen the number of rules about it?’

Joanne laughed: ‘You’ve been reading the tabloids again, haven’t you? They always exaggerate these things. Every year, they pick one university with an especially zealous student’s union and then claim that their rules are some kind of universal law. It’s a sales tactic. If they don’t make their readers’ blood boil every day, they’ll go out of business.’

‘I think it might be our university they were writing about.’ Toby took a solemn swig of lager. ‘I was stupid enough to look at their website earlier. Seriously, there are dictatorships with less…’

Joanne laughed: ‘Well, of course they’re going to ban tasteless costumes. This is 2018, after all. What were you thinking of going as?’

Toby leant over and whispered something in Joanne’s ear. If she wasn’t already sitting on the sofa then she would have collapsed with laughter. When she got her breath back, she said: ‘Oh god, you wouldn’t have to worry about the union staff making a fuss. The police would have arrested you first.’

‘Seriously? Even without the… Oh, I see what you mean.’

‘Look, it isn’t too difficult to think of a costume. I don’t know, just go as Hannibal Lecter or Jason Voorhees or…’

Toby shook his head: ‘Rules won’t allow it. The union is worried about copyright.’

Joanne raised an eyebrow: ‘Please tell me you made that up. Well, that’s my costume down the drain.’ She put her phone down and reached for a bottle. After a couple of swigs, she said: ‘Ok, then. We’ll go with the classics. You can’t go wrong with a zombie or a vampire.’

Toby tapped his phone and shook his head: ‘Apparently you can. And I quote: “Costumes involving the undead may provoke fear and therefore are not permitted” .’

Joanne downed half of the bottle: ‘Isn’t that the whole point?

‘Apparently not.’

‘Ok, then. How about a trident and a pair of horns?’

‘Sharp objects policy.’ Toby finished his lager. ‘Apparently, it’s been extended to include anything that even resembles a point.’

‘What about a werewolf?’ Joanne tried to howl, but ended up belching instead.

Toby shook his head and was about to read from his phone when Joanne said: ‘You know, we should just go to one of the nightclubs in town. I bet they don’t have a huge list of rules about everything.’

‘Normally, I’d agree. But, I like a challenge. And, you know, I might just have thought of a good idea for a costume.’

A week later, Joanne shivered at the back of the queue snaking from the mouth of the student union building. It moved slowly, with the bouncers checking for drugs and the union’s officers carefully evaluating each costume afterwards.

A chill ran down Joanne’s spine. Even in her copyright-free pumpkin costume, she still felt a little nervous. And where the hell was Toby? She was about to phone him when she heard something rustle in the distance.

A large rectangle emerged from the darkness. As it got closer, she saw that Toby was wearing some kind of large board painted to look like a smartphone with a social media feed on the screen. He grinned at her. She looked puzzled: ‘It’s well-made. But, it isn’t exactly Halloween. I mean, what’s creepy about that?

‘Think about it. What has turned the world into the authoritarian panopticon of Nineteen Eighty-Four and the mindlessly superficial dystopia of Brave New World?’

Joanne was speechless. Finally, she stuttered: ‘Wow… That’s… Unusually literate of you.’

Toby shrugged and fumbled behind his board for his phone. He tapped the screen a couple of times and held it up: ‘Yeah, someone posted it online. Sounds pretty impressive, right? I’m not sure what the ’80s and a heavy metal album have got to do with smartphones though. Still, it should amuse the people at the door.’

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