After all the hard work he’d put into the place, he should at least be able to enjoy the show. No one did Halloween quite like Lance Young, and he raised his own personal bar each successive year. This year, however, the muses who’d left him particularly inspired had also inspired a force much more menacing, pressing it to put its hand in the pot and give it a good and tainted stir. While the local youths screamed and pissed their pants and ran from his property in delighted panic, the esteemed Mr. Young crouched in his cellar a confused mess of disbelief and raw horror.
He could hear the specters nearing once more, seeking him out. Where else was there to run? When he eyed the short stacks of boxes, the broken antique cabinet he’d been meaning for far too long to refurbish, the cobwebs collecting dust overhead, the realization that he’d cornered himself in a place devoid of hiding spots hit him like a shock to the chest. They’d corralled him, directed him there with purpose so he’d have no escape. Did he dare make an attempt at breaking past them?
Did he have any other options?
The slam of what sounded like a dozen fists hitting the attic door made him jump. Why he’d bothered to take cover behind a few boxes, he didn’t know. There was no logic to the act. People did irrational things, stupid things, when put under that kind of stress. Sometimes, the body just went on autopilot, all reasonable thought stalled regardless of the consequences.
The hands slapped and knocked against the sturdy wood as if the physical barrier might actually hold them back, but Lance knew it was all for effect. They could slip through it any time they wanted, and with much less effort than it would take to break through. Their movements waned, the clamor behind the door going fainter, and finally they went silent.
Then the faint red glow took hold.
Lance peeked around the stack of boxes, still crouched in an attempt to make himself as small and undetectable as possible, struggling to keep his breaths slow and steady while the door absorbed the demonic energy. It took time, he’d found, for the specters to transform their physical features into the ethereal ones, which could permeate and pass through the doors and walls—and it took just as long for them to pry their ghostly forms back out. Once back in the open, though, they were able to take on the various physical forms of his nightmares, each just as capable of causing bodily harm.
Lance had the gashes to prove it.
Luckily, he’d been quick enough to pull away just as the creature reached him. It could have been much worse; it had raked open a row of lacerations just deep enough to make the injury look worse than it was. Ruined a good pair of jeans, but at least he still had a functioning leg. Had he been a second slower, the outcome would have been much more dire.
The red glow permeated into the adjacent walls then spread outward in all directions like a ring of hellfire. The first of the faces peeked through the unfinished wooden surface, grimacing with the effort, still migrating toward him within the expanding wave of ectoplasm. Their eyes were hollow and black, unblinking and wide, and their mouths contorted and sneering while they moaned their dirges of the damned.
When one noticed him, they all did, and those empty eyes fixed on him while they wriggled their hands free, then their arms, some of them hanging from the rafters while others stripped themselves from the nearby walls.
Some of the ones dangling overhead saturated the cobwebs, soaking them in red. Crimson spiders slipped downward along glowing silken strands, taking their time. Apparently, they too liked to savor the moment, drinking in his horror slowly, drawing out the experience. He understood their perspective. Evoking genuine fear took a special kind of talent, but it was also a means to a very satisfying end. Doing so for the sake of entertainment was one thing; torturing a soul with the promise of certain death was an altogether different beast.
People had a good idea of what to expect when they came to his house, and they subjected themselves to his handiwork willingly. Fabricated fear—which one expects when watching a horror movie in the dark or moving through an attraction such as Lance’s yard—was all in good fun. When the night was over and all was said and done, everyone knew there was never any haunted graveyard or werewolf or mummy popping out if its sarcophagus. Not really.
That he got off on their screams didn’t make him a bad person, although he did often wish there were a way he might keep the fun going year round. One Halloween night each year always felt so fleeting. Granted, the preparation exhausted him to no end, even more profoundly now that middle age had taken hold, but it was always worth it to see a tween girl reduced to tears or a family looming just beyond, mom or dad pushing a child dressed as Superman or Batman to make use of his superhero strength and brave the house of horrors just long enough to snatch a bar of jumbo-sized candy from the cauldron sitting so innocently on the front porch.
But to get there, they would need first to pass through the creaky iron gate that swayed and clamored despite a notable absence of wind. From there, they would need to trudge across a misty graveyard. Lance had made each of the gravestones himself, carved them out of blocks of dense, heavy wood then painted them to look like aged marble. Two dozen in all, the markers gave an authentic experience. The dry ice he’d packed into their flower holders (seemingly smaller than they actually were, the larger part of each receptacle hidden underground) created a ground-level fog that spanned well beyond the graveyard.
Between the graveyard and the Victorian’s rickety veranda, an old oak tree supported the hanging bodies of three surprisingly realistic witches. Each of the women, also products of Lance’s artistic skill, wore flowing black skirts, striped leggings, and pointed hats that inexplicably clung to the tops of their heads. Their skin was unnaturally white with a tinge of green, their necks twisted in impossible angles, and their swollen tongues lolled out of their mouths. Lance had rigged them animatronically to start kicking and grasping at the air whenever anyone crossed a motion detector. They were always good for a scream.
Opposite the tree, something with claws was just barely visible from within a bush. Along the house’s exterior, a projector created the shadowy images of bats and, every once in a while, that of a man transforming into a wolf and running toward the graveyard. A Dracula-like vampire swooped over anyone brave enough to get to the front steps, where files of creepy, ambient music played through speakers hidden behind pots of writhing mutant Venus’s flytraps with leaves big enough to catch and hold a human child.
Lance had wrapped himself head to toe in gauze, offering the final surprise to those lucky few who reached his candy cauldron. The plan had been for him to lie in a sarcophagus, fashioned lightweight for easy exit. A camera fixed onto the front porch provided live feed to his tablet, so he could thrust aside the lid and pop out at just the right moment.
No one made it that far. He waited for over an hour before he decided he couldn’t handle the confinement any longer.
He fell into a panic when the lid refused to budge. Could someone have crept up there and done something without the camera catching it? Ghosts, he thought with a chuckle.
His amusement dissolved, however, when he made a few good attempts at forcing the lid. “Hey!” he yelled, slapping the stone-painted wood. “Anyone out there? Help!”
It must still have been tacky when he’d shut himself in. The sarcophagus became an actual coffin within his mind, and he’d been buried alive. If the thing had been painted shut, was there even a decent air exchange in there? Was it possible for him to suffocate in this stupid decoration?
For a moment, anger beat out fear. This had officially ruined his night. Even if someone happened to get to the front porch, how could he enjoy it now? Life could be a bitch—he knew this—but to knock him down during the one night he truly shone was just plain sadistic. Someone upstairs (or maybe downstairs?) was having a nice, cruel laugh at his expense.
He spent at least twenty minutes throwing every possible body part against the lid, until finally a good kick loosened the lower half. Cool air came rushing through, and he took it in with long, satisfying breaths. His mind clearer, he was able to hear the random squeal and scream. The taste of freedom and the sounds of victory inspired him to try giving the lid a punch, and he withdrew his crumpled hand with a whimper. He resumed kicking, fury fueling his determination, and finally threw the lid aside.
As soon as he sat up, he could sense something was wrong. He looked around, noticed the nearest attraction, the Venus’s flytraps, one of which stood only a few feet away. One of the pronged leaves had been triggered and now held something large in its trap, an action Lance hadn’t set them up to do. Whatever was inside it—a dog or a cat, maybe, which in and of itself was enough to elicit a shudder—it raked and pressed against the inner surfaces in a futile attempt at an escape.
Why would someone go to such lengths to catch an animal and secure it in there? Even more, what kind of person would think of doing something so cold? Lance noticed a fleeting shimmer of red rush across the plant, a faint sheen that appeared when he viewed it at a particular angle. Upon closer inspection, he could confirm this was not the plastic conversation piece he’d placed there. This was a live plant, but just as large, and while Lance had heard stories about carnivorous plants growing large enough to devour their keepers, they were far from real. The largest leaf a living Venus’s flytrap could produce might span an inch or two at the very most. This was impossible.
Allowing a suspension of reality dictate his next move, he went for the leaf and tore at it from its prongs, which had threaded together to enclose the terrified animal. He succeeded in creating a small tear, just large enough to see that the plant had somehow snagged an opossum. A beady eye poked through the tear with hisses following, and the animal even snapped at Lance when he ignored the warning and worked a little more on the thick leaf. He backed off just as the plant seized his legs with a lower trap, and he dropped to the whitewashed wood beneath him while the opossum tore the rest of the way free, used his back as a landing mat, and then skittered off into the night.
Certain he was in a nightmare, gave himself a forceful pinch.
Hurt like hell.
Almost as much as the sudden squeezing across his legs.
He kicked at the tough membrane, finding that tearing at it from the inside was far more difficult than destroying it from the outside. He grabbed hold of the prongs while the thing did its best to suck more of him in. It had him by the hips, about as far as it could swallow him, before he was able to disable it. By then, another had snapped at his head, prongs digging into his throat and the leaves themselves blocking his vision. He pulled and tore, the prongs meant to trap its prey inside leaving lacerations across his face when he managed to slip free. He scuttled backward, the thing snapping with its remaining traps, just out of reach.
He took a moment to catch his breath, looking around to ensure none of the other plants were close enough to come at him from another angle. He sat, dazed, taking in the unbelievable sights on either side of him with as much awe as he had fear. Was it possible this was a gift for all the hard work he’d put into his yearly production, a blessing from whichever deities had appreciated the extra attention?
If so, he hoped the plants would take care of the rat problem, but not rid the area of local toms. He wouldn’t tolerate pet eaters on his property.
Lance eased back to his feet and left the veranda when he noticed the witches’ movements were flailing out of control. He made his way to the tree, nauseating weakness threatening to take him back down the moment he got a close enough look. All three were alive, but just barely. They kicked and retched, unbound hands thrashing uselessly in attempts to gain hold of the ropes and ease the tightness around their throats. Their faces were varying degrees of blue and red, and their tongues had swelled to unreal proportions. One had bitten part of hers off, blood streaming down her chin. Another had lost all hold of her bodily functions.
The ropes hung too high for Lance to reach from the ground, and his first thought was to run to the shed for a ladder and pruning shears. “I’ll be back!” he tried to assure the three before taking off toward the back of the house. He only got as far as turning the corner when a barrage of bats whisked by, little webbed fingers brushing across him from every angle, tiny rodent fingernails snagging on the rags and gauze secured around his body. Screeches filled his ears. The wind from flapping wings fanned his face. He crouched to protect as much of himself as he could while he slapped the creatures away.
He looked up when the swarm had passed, a strange thrill overcoming him when the animals crossed the sky in a perfect arc, constructing a picturesque line of silhouettes against the light of the full moon. Lance felt between a few layers of gauze for his cell phone and snapped a handful of pictures for social media fodder.
A growl emanated from a patch of bushes nearby. Lance turned, camera still aimed and shooting, while the animal darted out of the bushes, a fiery red sheen glistening across its coat. It went straight for Lance, who jumped the veranda railing with about as much grace as a swan out of water, landing flat on his back. The wolf tried to reach him with a lunge straight through the wooden slats, managing to break through far enough to get its head stuck, buying Lance enough time to jump to his feet and make a split decision: Continue his dash toward the shed or head for the much closer front door?
The witches were still kicking and coughing, but Lance suspected at this point that they would continue to do so no matter how long they wound up hanging there. Real or not, their suffering had been placed there for a one-man audience, and whatever had it out for him was willing to use every prop at its disposal. His stomach tightened when he turned his back on the hanging women, but he had no real choice. He’d never outrun the werewolf, and the railing holding it back cracked and gave a little more with each passing second.
He rushed to the front door, two Venus’s flytraps snapping at him along the way, then engaged the deadbolt as soon as he had it shut behind him. After taking a few moments to regain his bearings, he moved to the nearest window and peeked out as discretely as he could. The werewolf slammed into the pane, nails scraping down the glass with chalkboard pitch.
Lance’s first thought was to cross to the backdoor and flee from there, but now that the wolf was on the veranda, it would likely be halfway around the house by the time he had the door open—and little chance he’d outrun the beast again. Instead, he backed to the staircase, his thoughts already gravitating toward all those times he’d watched idiot protagonists in horror films opt to hide upstairs: Who in his right mind would go up the damn stairs?
He turned the corner as soon as he reached the second-story landing, then stopped and peeked down the stairs when no additional attempts against the window came. Had the thing given up so easily? Or might safety actually lie within these walls, the uninvited proving incapable of crossing its thresholds? He watched, waited.
The moment’s relief made him realize how weak his legs had become, and he slumped down with his side to the wall and one foot on the highest step. He wiped the sweat from his face and laughed—at the insanity that had taken hold of the evening, at his desire to slip back into disbelief and return to his post, at the thought of having faced something truly supernatural and lived to tell about it.
Then he first noticed the glow. It began on the wall between the window and the door, a small spot at first, almost dismissible. It expanded swiftly, however, and soon it looked as though molten lava had oozed in through invisible pores, taking up half the wall. Lance considered the possibility that this demonic force had opted to burn down the house, but he didn’t smell any smoke and didn’t see any actual flames.
The music he’d set to play out front turned inward, the walls taking place of the speakers, so that the chilling dissonance of pipe organs, violins, and bass drum emanated from the house itself. Lance could feel his heart move into synch with the drum, throbbing painfully against his chest. Another rush of sweat beaded down his temples and across his face. The beat picked up, and so did the thump, thump, thump thrashing through the core of his body. His hands trembled, also slick with sweat.
The mass of red began to migrate, shifting and writhing, from the wall to the floor, and Lance sat transfixed while it made its way up the staircase. Whatever this was, it knew he was there, and it had decided to come for him. His mind said run, but his limbs refused to heed him. Perhaps a sick fascination had taken hold, some desire to see what would become of him once the glow finally reached his body. Maybe it was something even more primal than that; the evil craved him, and he craved it back.
His mind became a battlefield while he watched the anomaly near. Get up … no, stay. Fight it … no, just give up. Do something, damn it … no, see it through.
The mass slowed when it reached just beyond the halfway point, the steps glistening in lava red. When the first face broke free, with those empty black eyes, pale skin, and gaping mouth, Lance backed up. He slammed into an adjacent wall, almost surprised to hit another barrier so quickly, and he stared, stunned, for another moment as the first one’s head emerged. The thing mumbled and moaned while it worked on its freeing its hands, poking the tips of its claws through first. Its movements suggested that whatever this thing was emerging from, it had to feel akin to sloshing through mud.
At least he had that much going for him.
Two or three more faces pressed through, turning the otherworldly surface into a writhing mass of eyes and mouths. Though they too found the transformation from ectoplasm to physical form a slow endeavor, all of them would eventually emerge—however many of them there were—and then they’d all be on him.
A fresh wave of adrenaline hit Lance, and he shot to his feet and ran down the hall. He stopped when he reached the attic door, making the split decision to pull it open and deploy the ladder. By the time he was ready to climb, one of the creatures had freed itself of the floor and came dodging toward him, claws at the ready. It stood about four feet tall, but it had an incredibly long reach due to a set of ten-inch claws. Other than its eyes and mouth, the creature was a vaguely human mass of ghostly white skin with a translucence that exposed the branching streaks of red veins pulsating down its face and through its lanky limbs. It resembled nothing Lance had set out in his yard; this one had come purely out of his own personal stock of nightmares.
Lance scrambled up, but a lunge and a swipe was enough for the thing to graze his calf. He pulled himself up. The creature caught the bottom rung while he retracted the ladder. Another one came bouncing behind him, just missing the ladder and opting instead to grab hold of the first one’s legs. The ladder shot back down, knocking the creatures off, and in another quick move, Lance had the ladder up and the door closed. He threw over a nearby chair, laying it lengthwise across the doorway, and tied the weighted chord to a rung in the back support to prevent his pursuers from yanking the ladder back down.
With the new barrier between them, he’d bought himself another few minutes, but those few minutes passed quickly and his options remained few. Ectoplasm saturated the doorway. One of the nearer creatures had nearly solidified, its feet all that held it back. Two others were out up to their chests, and nearby movement suggested even more of them were on their way.
Lance went for the attic window, grabbed the first solid object within reach, and tossed it through the glass. The shatter’s high pitch caused even the creatures to pause a few seconds, but Lance moved quickly, knocking out a few lingering bits with a bunched-up sheet before hurrying through. The roof was much steeper than he’d expected, and he slid a couple of times, each slip taking him a foot or two closer to the edge. He headed toward the giant oak tree, his movements growing a little more calculated with each near-fall.
By the time he reached it, his feet had nearly reached the gutter and three of the creatures were on the roof with him. Although their movements were more nimble than his, Lance had loosened several of the shingles, leaving them with an unsteady surface to cross. He found a solid branch, tested it, and then began his descent. He’d climbed this tree numerous times back when he was a kid, and the big oak was one of the easier trees to get down. He only had to slide down a few portions of trunks, the most nerve-wracking part, his feet nearly missing only one of the lower branches. One miss, one moment of lost balance, and all the remaining branches would serve only to break his fall.
He wanted to kiss the ground when he finally reached it, but there was always a chance the werewolf was around, and the sight of the still-writhing witches sent him on a dash for the wrought-iron gate. He stumbled through the cool, knee-high fog, both relieved and disappointed that he couldn’t spot anyone else there. He brushed into one of the headstones, its unexpected weight and sturdiness throwing him. He stopped long enough to feel the marble with his fingertips before continuing his retreat.
An unexpected bump in the grass tripped him and sent him diving. He slid into the grass, almost far enough to hit his head on the next stone ahead. When he got to his knees, he noticed the red glow beneath him. He looked all around, his head spinning at the dizzying view of red swallowing the cemetery.
A hand, crusted with dirt and slime, broke through the grass and grabbed him by the ankle. He grabbed at it, searching for a weakness, any angle he could twist or hit the digits to make them ease their grip. Another set of hands broke free and locked around his calf while he still fought to free himself of the first. Another found a handful of gauze and latched on with a supernatural strength that somehow defied the degree of rot that had eaten it away, its other hand digging at the earth. More hands punched through nearby, all focusing on pulling up the rest of their bodies rather than trying yet to reach their prey.
He watched helplessly while the creatures emerged and lumbered toward him. “Zombies … how fucking predictable.”
One reached him, then another. They had him on the ground, and another half dozen jumped in. He screamed at first while rotting jaws tore away strips of his skin, each of them ravenous to get its fill.
Very soon, however, the screams evolved into fits of laughter.
Tears ran along the creases of his wide, transfixed eyes and a giddy calm washed over him. “I’ve truly outdone myself this year.”
No longer did his thoughts cling to questions about how this madness had come to pass, but rather the awe of accepting and understanding his place in it all.
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