By Nell Quinn-Gibney
© 2018 by the author
October 1st. The magical date. Every year, as soon as September rolled around, it was one of the primary topics of conversation at Coates High: when are you going? Who are you going with? Did you get tickets for opening? Is your boyfriend taking you? No? Well, who’s he going with, then?
No one could quite remember when Hill’s Haunted House had been transformed from an abandoned boarding school to the Halloween hot spot it had become. “Oh, back when I was younger,” parents would say, but no one had an exact year, or an exact memory. They remembered the school, and then they remembered the haunted house, nothing in between.
None of the high schoolers were too interested in that, though. That was so long ago. It had nothing to do with them. All that mattered was the present: if you had friends to go with, or better yet, a significant other. If your parents gave you enough of an allowance that you could get tickets to opening. If you had an older cousin who could get you a six-pack to drink in the parking lot beforehand. How tough you would be going through the House. It was a microcosm of the entire high school experience, and everyone took it very seriously.
The first few weeks of school, Jay could barely keep his mouth shut about his secret. But the coolest thing by far would be to play it off, wait until he was asked about it, and then say, so casually, as if he hadn’t been literally dreaming about it for weeks, “Oh, yeah, I’m not going this year. No, actually, I’m working there.”
It had to be the best job a high schooler could get. It paid fifty cents above minimum wage. It was just a few evenings a week, Thursday through Sunday. You got to dress up in the nastiest costumes and the wildest makeup and make little kids cry with terror. And most importantly, the cool factor – the social currency – was incomparable. One week after Virginia Harrison had asked if he was going with anyone, he had gone from a middle-of-the-pack nobody to one of the coolest kids at Coates. Everyone wanted him to get them a discount, to get them in after hours, to come to their party to tell stories.
The training itself was a little less cool than he’d imagined. A bored looking man in khakis walked him through the house with the fluorescents on bright, illuminating the dirty floors and plastic spiders and nasty dangling cotton cobwebs. “This coffin pops.” “This bookshelf turns.” “You’ll spend a lot of time in this secret passage.” Mack, the manager, was skilled at making the most exciting statements sound like they were from a furniture manual.
Still, the costuming was pretty cool. A pretty girl with more piercings than he’d seen on anyone before took his measurements then started piling torn shirts and bloody pants and black gloves in his arms. Pretty soon, he was staring in the mirror at someone he didn’t recognize – a butler, with greasepaint stretching his mouth from ear to ear, dark makeup sinking his eyes into his head, and a rubber prosthetic stump pressing his ear down and matting his hair with blood. A rubber ear was placed under a dish for him to present to guests.
“Pretty good, right?” the girl said, clearly satisfied with herself.
“Terrifying,” he answered.
“Alright, well, you can go ahead and get undressed now, but you’d better get used to that look. That’s you for the rest of the month.”
And now: October 1st. The day the whole high school had been waiting for, no one more eagerly than Jay. Hill’s first open evening.
“Don’t worry too much,” a werewolf named Bill told Jay as he led him through the front hallway. “It’s pretty hard to mess it up. If the dialogue or the subtle stuff is too tough for you, jumping out from behind someone is always pretty effective.”
“Thanks,” Jay said. He was feeling a bit nervous, actually. What if he got fired his first day? That would be, like, the most embarrassing thing he could imagine. But Bill just clapped him on his back and stopped at the top of a staircase.
“You’re down in the basement for the first hour,” Bill said. “You remember all the hidey holes?”
“Behind the boiler, the fireplace, and the wood stack.”
“Yeah, and the medical equipment shelf.”
“Great. I’ll swap with you after the hour and you can take the attic. See ya later, Jay. Have fun.” With that, Bill disappeared up the spiral staircase and Jay was left staring down the concrete stairs, lit only by a dangling bulb at the bottom. Medical equipment? He knew there was a bunch of creepy stuff in the second floor bathroom, but he didn’t remember any in the basement. Probably Bill had meant the taxidermy shelf. He pushed off a shudder – admitting he didn’t know the floor layout was career suicide.
He headed down the stairs and surveyed his domain. One big room with a bathroom jutting off one side and the cellar on the other. The cellar led back up and outside. He was the last stop on the house tour. A girl in a brightly colored doll dress with a huge splash of blood emerged from the bathroom and smiled at him. With a blush, he realized he wasn’t totally sure of her name - Taylor, maybe?
“Ready to scare them shitless?” she asked him. She pulled a little carton of blood out of her pocket, dipped her fingers in it and wiped them across her mouth. “You could use a little more too.”
She stepped across the room towards him, dipped her finger back in the blood, and pressed it against the corner of his mouth, letting the warm liquid drip down his chin. He was suddenly very, very glad his face was caked with a layer of white makeup.
“Do you want the bathroom?” he asked. “Or the cellar, or this room – I can go wherever.”
“Sure,” she shrugged. “Let’s see where the night takes us.”
He nodded and ducked back into the crawlspace behind the wood pile that connected to several other spots in the room. A bell tolled twelve times – midnight. Usually they started admitting people at 8 pm, but for opening, they always waited till midnight for the extra scare factor.
“Here we go,” Taylor called out. Her voice echoed through the room so he couldn’t quite tell where it was coming from. He shivered again, with excitement this time.
It felt like an eternity that he was crouched there waiting in silence, when all of a sudden a scream and a peal of laughter echoed through the room, along with the sound of feet pounding down the footsteps. It occurred to him, very distantly, that the house was extremely well sound-proofed, but he didn’t have much time to dwell on it as he leapt from his spot directly in front of a gaggle of shrieking, joyful, hysterical girls, who clutched at each other and tried not to fall over backwards. He took a step to the side and lifted the cover off the tray to show them the ear.
“Holy shit,” one girl said.
“These special effects are wild!” another said.
“Let’s get out of here,” a third said. She was shaking and holding onto another girl, looking as if she might fall unsupported.
He groaned and lurched at them; they turned and raced for the cellar in another chorus of screams. Pleased, he stretched out his cramped leg and adjusted his ear in the bed of fake lettuce, then ducked back into his hiding space.
“Nice going,” Taylor’s voice came again. This time it sounded like it was coming from somewhere else in the crawl space. “You got them real good.”
“I think they go to school with me,” Jay answered. “But I don’t think they even recognized me!”
“Fun, right?” Taylor asked. “Wanna come help me out over here? I think we’re about to get another few.”
“Sure,” Jay said, and starting moving, hunched almost in two, through the narrow hallway.
“Over here,” Taylor’s voice said, and he noticed suddenly a side exit, heavily shadowed.
Suddenly he paused, anxious. Had he been this way in the tour? But he must have, actually, this must have been the path that connected to the bathroom – he felt goosebumps rising and rolled his eyes at himself. He had wanted to work in a haunted house, hadn’t he? And now he was scaring himself. He ground his teeth and turned down the side hallway. It was only a few feet long.
“Definitely the bathroom,” he thought with relief, and stepped out into a surgery chamber.
For a second he felt light headed and wondered if he was going to faint, then the room snapped back into focus. A metal hospital bed was in the middle of the room, a drain on the floor right below it. There was a large fluorescent light directly above it, and several trays around the room holding saws, needles, pliers, pinchers, the works.
“Bill mentioned this,” he thought, and that thought managed to ground him. He hadn’t seen this room before. It hadn’t been on his tour. But Bill, the werewolf, just a few minutes ago had mentioned the secret passageway that led to the medical chamber. So this was just a room that he had missed somehow. But something was still jabbing at him – and then he realized that he was surrounded by walls, the only entrance was the small tunnel labelled “Staff Only” behind him.
“Very funny,” he said out loud. “Taylor?” Then he realized he wasn’t even sure if that was actually her name.
“We have a similar sense of humor, I see,” her voice came, and he still couldn’t see her. She was behind him, in the tunnel, the only exit out of the room. He felt his palms start to sweat.
“Is this – what is this room?” he asked.
“A funny room,” she said, and her voice was louder, almost definitely behind him. He took a step further into the room, further away from the door. He ran a tongue over his cracked lips and didn’t taste fake-blood-sweet but instead copper. His mind jumped; her finger pressing against the corner of his mouth. His heart was the loudest sound he could hear and without deciding too, he was stepping forward and picking up one of the saws. All of the weapons in the house were blunted, completely harmless, but somehow, he wasn’t surprised when he touched his finger to the rusty blade and instantly knew that this saw would cut whatever it was pressed to.
“Nice toy,” Taylor said. She couldn’t have come into the room, not without him seeing her, but suddenly her voice was no longer in the hallway but instead echoing around the room. “Want to play?”
And then there a sound behind him, a footstep, and he ran. He dove for the tiny hallway, saw stretched in front of him as he staggered down the cramped hallway, cold bricks on either side of his shoulders, laughter pealing behind him. She was closer, closer, he knew it, his breath was tearing through his entire body and he couldn’t help but think, with a ludicrous sense of detachment – “I haven’t done my section of the group project” – and then her hand was grabbing at the back of his neck but he was spilling out of the hallway and through the wood pile, diving forward, the world around him a blur, a heavy thunk, a scream, something wet around his hand.
The boy on the floor went to Jay’s high school. Played on the soccer team. They’d sat next to each other in class; their last names started with the same letter. And now, he lay on the floor next to him a saw sticking jaggedly from his neck and blood spilling, on his chest, on his floor, on Jay’s hand around the blade, and a girl was disappearing out the entrance.
“Funny,” Taylor said.