by Ghost Writer
“You want us to set up a haunted house?” Simon asked his live-in girlfriend, Darla.
“Sure. Why not?” she asked.
Darla affected a late-model goth look. Dyed-black hair. Black t-shirt with cut-off sleeves showing her voluminous tattoos. Black jeans and boots.
The tattoos were of striking colors. Purple and red.
“The question, hon, isn’t, ‘Why not?’ but, ‘Why?'”
Darla stared at him for a full minute, strong blue eyes in a very-white face. He’d always appreciated her artistic appearance. She was, in fact, an artist.
Darla stood up from the long sunken sofa they sprawled over and walked to a clouded window.
“The McGuffey place,” she said. “Look at it! What is it good for? Abandoned by whoever owns it.”
A tall Victorian-era house rose at the end of the block, the spires brown and green like overgrown weeds.
The young couple lived on a block with few houses, at the edge of town. The remains of a crack neighborhood. Which meant, cheap rent.
“I’ve chased neighborhood kids away from it–” Darla told him.
“Hon, why bother?” Simon said.
“–in a few months, maybe sooner, it’ll have broken windows. Rats will come in–“
“If they’re not there already,” Simon added.
“We’ve seen it happen– too many times,” Darla said. “The decline of our neighborhood.”
She turned her blue-eyed gaze back upon him. The bearded young intellectual adjusted his eyeglasses. He enjoyed her stare.
“What is the house good for?” she asked. “To scare people! At ten dollars a head. October 7th is tomorrow. Almost three weeks until Halloween. We have time to get in there and clean it up–“
“–and chase out the rats–“
“I’m serious!” she nearly screamed.
“Hon, hon, you’ve been reading too much horror fiction. Like that!”
Simon pointed to a book on the sofa.
“No, not a house like that,” Darla insisted. “A house for amusements. Scares. Fun!”
“They always start that way, don’t they?”
Simon carried the classic hipster’s in-bred cynicism. But Darla’s eyes were entranced with her dream. She saw their haunted house– in lights! Simultaneously she counted the dollars. Their tastes in food, beer, and pot were expensive.
Darla turned her blue eyes back toward the window.
Simon found her later in her studio, staring at knives.
“Do you use these for your art?”
After Darla left, Simon opened a drawer in their bedroom and took out a locked box buried under clothes. With a key he opened the box. Inside were yellowed press clippings about a murder in his family twenty years ago, when he was a small child. He’d never quite gotten over the tragedy.
Simon stared at the books Darla read, stacked in a corner of the room or under the bed. Then he perused what was on her Kindle. All her books were violent thrillers. Their theme: murder.
“HORROR HOUSE” a large sign said a week later.
Dripping red letters on a black-and-white backdrop. Local yokels lined up to be scared.
The abandoned house was creepy enough. They’d rigged a variety of tricks inside it to enhance the thrills.
For instance, open a door, and a body dropped from the ceiling. A stuffed dummy, painted with shocking white face and lavishly applied red paint.
There were also a variety of sound effects. Echoed voices murmuring. Sudden screams. Notes of creepy music– excerpts of “Peer Gynt” and other works.
These in addition to the rattling windows and creaky floorboards that came with the place.
“Four-hundred dollars,” Darla counted. “At ten dollars a head. Not bad for the first night. The flyers worked.”
“It’s already paid for what we’ve invested in this project,” Simon admitted.
They had waited in an upstairs room as the evening sky dropped and the first tentative patrons walked up the sidewalk. Victims– of a financial variety.
Simon studied his girlfriend’s face as she recounted the cash money, then recounted it again. Lovely green bills. He wondered if she were too entranced with Horror House.
They hired a local character, Homeless Hal, to pull the various fake dropped bodies and suddenly appearing faces back into place. The sound effects were on a computerized schedule. Having Hal simply walking through the house provided fright value– he was the subject of several local legends. Cadaverish in appearance, with the stupid grin of a movie serial killer, Hal looked the part.
That most serial killers in reality appeared as respectable as Simon and Darla– well, maybe not Darla– added to the irony of the situation. Or so Simon thought.
Trouble appeared on the beginning of the third night.
“Pickles!” Simon exclaimed.
Darla had seldom seen Simon so enthusiastic. Usually he was totally laid back. Ultimate zen. The definition of the word “relax.”
Pickles was Simon’s ex-girlfriend, a ditzy blonde with frowzy hair. Her eyes scattered all over the place when she spoke to you– as disarrayed as her hair. She spoke her words in a baby voice.
“Ohmygosh!” Pickles shouted. “This–is–really–your house? It’s so fabulous! Awesome. I haven’t like even gone into it yet and I’m already frightened. And Darla! There you are. How ARE you?”
Pickles looked cross-eyed as she noticed Darla’s existence, squeezing her hand.
“Guys, this is the most FABulously fantastic idea, it’s like, I–just–can’t–believe it! Simon, you’re a genius!”
Pickles’ new boyfriend ran up. A mousey young man half-a-foot shorter than her. He had short-cut punk hair. The only thing they had in common, Simon thought, was that his eyes were as shifty as hers.
“Bret?” Simon asked.
“Brad,” the fellow corrected.
“Oh, um, yeah, sure.”
“Well let’s go in!” Pickles said to Brad as they stood on the cold and broken sidewalk, the orange sun vanishing; a larger orange moon soon to replace it.
“Ten bucks,” Darla reminded them. “EACH.”
Brad paid up and the couple disappeared into the spooky house.
Darla and Simon separated and went into the house from different directions, Darla at the front, Simon around back. They needed to ready for their audience.
Normally Darla would quickly be at the front door, to collect the entrance fee. This evening a few would-be customers lingered on the front porch.
“Drat!” a woman said after trying the front door.
The door was locked. Her name was Abigail Zippendoodle, middle-aged wife of the town’s wealthiest citizen. Usually referred to as Mrs. Z. She’d arrived at the house out of curiosity. She wasn’t sure such a house was healthy for the community, and had to see for herself.
A giant pumpkin sat on the porch:
Meanwhile, Pickles and her punky boyfriend, Brad, stepped carefully up narrow wooden stairs which had only a thin layer of worn carpeting over them. Brad fell behind, his girlfriend a moving shadow above him.
“Which way–?” he heard Pickles say at the next landing, many yards away from him.
He heard her but couldn’t see her.
When Brad arrived at the landing there were three possible directions in which to turn. Pickles was gone.
As Simon walked through the house, he saw light coming through a window in a high-up room. A giant, ominous moon.
Suddenly, a floor below, the sound of voices.
Homeless Hal opened the front door for the waiting customers. He was not about to have Darla get mad at him. How much time had passed? Ten minutes? It seemed longer.
Hal wondered what he should say. Normally Darla was here to tell him what to do.
“Welcome to Horror House,” Hal said in foreboding tones.
His hands were red. From paint– or something else?
“Egads!” Mrs. Z said. “I presume they’re trying for authenticity– but this is altogether too much.”
She tried to push her way beyond him, but whether from obstinance or laziness, Hal wouldn’t budge. His forehead wrinkled.
“Do you know who I am?” the woman demanded.
“Er, umph,” Hal said. “Ten bucks.”
He was not about to have Darla get mad at him.
“I am NOT giving you ten dollars!” Mrs. Zippendoodle insisted.
What she meant was, “I am not giving YOU ten dollars.”
Just then blue lights on a local police car flashed as the vehicle pulled up in front of the house. Mrs. Z had touched, intentionally or accidentally, the emergency button on her smart phone. The dispatcher on duty at City Hall notified the town’s on-duty cop, who was in the vicinity anyway. Officer Joe, a local character, stepped out, service belt weighed down by flashlight, handcuffs, and service revolver, the belt sliding down his hips. Officer Joe gave the impression not of efficiency, but sloppiness.
“Calm down, folks. Calm down.”
Darla had arrived on the porch, materializing seemingly out of the air. Commotion for several moments as Mrs. Z fulminated about Homeless Hal, who fumbled for words.
“She’s gone!” Sharp words cut through the tumult.
Brad the young punk had stepped through the front door.
“WHO’s gone?” the several persons on the porch asked in unison.
“Pickles!” Brad said. “I lost her inside the house.”
Darla wasn’t worried about the presence of Officer Joe. She and Simon had shared their weed with him on more than one occasion. They’d drank local craft beers with him once at a local saloon.
“Shouldn’t you be on patrol?” Simon asked him.
“Hey, it’s dangerous out there,” Officer Joe said.
A search party consisting of Darla, Brad, Mrs. Z, Homeless Hal and Officer Joe made their way through the enormous house. They must’ve traveled in a circle, because soon they were back where they started. An existential puzzle. Simon joined them.They explained what they were doing. He looked puzzled, and not a little disheveled.
“I was readying props,” he said.
“What’s that smell?” Mrs. Z demanded.
A prominent odor came to them from the lower levels of the house. They hadn’t noticed the smell before. A chill ran through most of them. Officer Joe removed the large Maglite five-cell flashlight from his belt.
“Let’s investigate,” Joe said.
They formed a conga line, each individual hanging onto the person in front of them, Homeless Hal at the rear. He appeared more frightened than any of them.
“What if this place is truly haunted?” Brad asked, suddenly reluctant to find his girlfriend.
“I’ve heard weird noises,” Hal told him. “I heard them tonight! Someone–“
“What’s that?” Mrs. Z demanded. “What are you saying?”
“He said people have been killed in this house,” Brad answered.
No doubt, each one of them thought. No doubt.
Though they were too deep inside the house to see the moon, the mystical orange orb in a black sky communicated to them its insanity.
In a side room in the basement, the smell became very intense. Very noticeable. Impossible to ignore. The smell of death. Of a rat? An animal? Or a human being.
“This is the kind of room,” Homeless Hal said, “where bodies are buried.”
“I am NOT going in there,” Mrs. Z insisted.
Yet when Officer Joe, Darla, and Simon plunged into the darkness, she refused to be left behind. Joe’s flashlight had turned off. Only stray light from another part of the basement drifted to them.
“Darn batteries,” Joe said. “I knew I should’ve changed them.”
As their eyes adjusted to the spacious room, they saw on one side the outlines of a cabinet. On the cabinet they saw– a spherical object. The size of a human head. Eye level.
“Eek!” Mrs. Z said.
“NO!” Darla shouted.
Mrs. Z grabbed onto Officer Joe as he struggled to turn on the flashlight.
“HELLPPP!!” Mrs. Z screamed. “It’s a human head. We’re going to be killed.”
The object on the shelf stared directly at them, with two sunken holes where eyes should’ve been. The flashlight turned on. Darla gasped– in a way which Simon, thinking back on events later, thought noticeably insincere. They saw:
Everyone of them jumped back a full step, until they realized it was only a bowling ball.
“Who put that there?” Simon asked.
“Let’s get ourselves under control, folks,” Officer Joe said. “This object in question is indisputably a bowling ball. Exhibit A that we’re letting our imagination run wild. I’m sure we’ll find Pickles around here somewhere.”
“But in what condition?” Mrs. Z asked. “How can you be so casual?”
“Maybe Pickles is playing a bad joke on us,” Darla said. “I wouldn’t doubt she’d like to ruin our project.”
“Hon!” Simon exclaimed. “That’s so unfair.”
“Where’s Hal?” Mrs. Z asked in an accusatory voice.
“He ran off,” Brad said. “His final words were, ‘They don’t pay me enough for this.'”
Without another word, Brad vanished as well.
“Note the time,” Officer Joe said.
He couldn’t answer.
Hal unlocked the front door and ran in fright down the sidewalk, away from the house. Brad followed soon after.
“Wow!” a girl on the walk remarked. “Must be a really scary house.”
“Hal likely went to buy a bottle with his hard-earned wages,” Officer Joe said. “Which on reflection is not a bad idea.”
“My taxes pay your salary,” Mrs. Z reminded him. “You’re not going anywhere.”
Officer Joe adjusted his falling-down pants, looked at his flashlight and resumed the search, the remainder of the “team” close behind.
They located the source of the smell. Stench, really. Damp moldy rags in a corner, beneath a dripping pipe. Nearby, a decomposing dead mouse in a trap.
“Yike!” Mrs. Z said. “Disgusting.”
As she looked around for plastic bags, and Officer Joe grabbed a nearby mop, Darla and Simon stepped away and looked suspiciously at each other. They made their way to another room, deep in the bowels of the house. They faced each other like cautious opponents.
“You killed Pickles,” Darla told him. “I know you did.”
“Me! I thought you did.”
“I never knew you,” Darla said. “Beneath your beard and your eyeglasses, your smug exterior– you don’t like people. You’re too calculating. I know you carry dark secrets.”
“We all carry secrets,” Simon told her.
“You’re scarred. You killed her.”
“But why, Darla? Why would I do such a thing?”
“To ruin this. Because it’s my project,” she decided.
From out of nowhere Darla pulled out a large, blood-spattered knife. Simon couldn’t tell if it was a real knife or a prop knife.
“I always knew you were psycho,” Simon said.
“I’m not psycho!” Darla screamed irrationally.
The game had become real. Simon ran in the direction of the stairway. Darla knew the house better than he did. She cut off his exit.
“You won’t catch me off guard,” she told him.
“Um, kind of not a fair fight!” Simon pleaded.
The knife looked huge in her hand. Simon saw his death in front of him. He looked around, noticing gray walls and cobwebs, in the faint light of a naked lightbulb. His body and blood would add to the artistic effect. Blood streaks on the wall. Death by knife made a striking exit. Darla always was, before anything else, an artist.
A sudden creak on the stairway. They turned.
“Hey guys. There you are!”
Pickles! Alive and well. Darla dropped the prop.
“Where were you!!” they demanded as Pickles stumbled down stairs.
“Well, this is like such a like big gi-normous house. Upstairs I found this really cool back room with this old Victorian bed in it, so I flopped on the bed. Before I knew it I’d nodded off!”
Darla and Simon looked at each other, then at Pickles, who had not a care in the world. They looked at each other again and at Pickles again.
“We could kill you!” they shouted.
Ghost Writer joins us from a plane beyond the everyday consciousness.