Monday, October 12, 2015

Friday Night at the Gargantuan House of Terror (a short story of 2,774 words)

Over four hundred people had been through the Gargantuan House of Terror so far tonight, according to the gate counter, and all of them had been startled by the mirror effect except the serious-looking girl dressed more appropriately for a heavy metal video than for being terrified. Lefty Callahan blinked. He turned to the customer who was just entering. He had sent her away earlier, because she had been walking a gargantuan dog which was not officially designated as a service animal. Lefty thought it might have been a great dane. It seemed friendly, with slobbery jowls and a dank damp odor, but it looked like the kind of animal that could do serious damage to the props without trying very hard.

She had replaced the dog with a boyfriend. One with a wild nest of hair and a scraggly beard. Lefty couldn’t help but shake his head disapprovingly, since she was such a pretty girl, with auburn hair bouncing to her shoulders. She had a pointed, catlike face, and for a moment, while Lefty was looking at her, she actually morphed into a cat, with vertical pupils and soft-looking fur on the bridge of her nose. He blinked and she became a normal teenage girl again, with terrible taste in boys. Lefty waved them both through. They were metal too, festooned with band symbols and jagged jewelry.

Not a bad take for a Friday evening this early in October. He had a good location on Frontage Road, right off the Interstate, and a big colorful sign that faced rush hour traffic, telling them all about the maze of doom, and the zombie gauntlet, and the ghastly graveyard.  For only eight bucks, you could spend fifteen to thirty minutes walking through it, depending on how fast you walked. Lefty had a stalwart crew of a dozen kids who seriously loved their job and spent their off-time thinking of ways to make the House more terrifying. He had Bebe, a gray-haired lady with fading tattoos of punk band logos all over her arms, who came up with the d├ęcor and layout. All he had to do was rent the space and pay for the insurance and advertising and talk his way through the permit. He could do that, on a good day.

Today wasn’t a good day. Two of his zombies got barfed on and had to leave early, and a guest had pitched a seizure in the alien operating room, despite a very visible sign saying that seizure-prone individuals shouldn’t even go into the House at all. The guest had signed a waiver, in any case, and didn’t want an ambulance, but he did want to sit around for half an hour drinking tea with Zoe, who played the sexy witch in the cauldron room. 

Lefty also had an assistant manager named Bob, who would be covering for him during the next three days. Normally Lefty didn’t take long weekends during the season, but Harlow Freitas was going to be in town, and Hit Miller had decided this was the perfect occasion to take his decrepit cabin cruiser up the coast so it could sit on a trailer in his brother-in-law’s field until someone got around to fixing it. Lefty was going along to help crew and drink beer, and so were JoJo Bumatai and Steve Davis.  Hit had sworn to them all that his vessel was seaworthy enough to crawl thirty miles north, but he had insisted they leave at three in the morning for some reason having to do with the tides. That was just a few hours away.

Lefty had to watch the door all the way until midnight, even though he was pretty certain nobody was going to roll in at eleven-thirty for a bedtime scare. After he locked up he scurried around picking up trash, and collecting the gate, and using extra bleach on the barf stain, and then ventilating the area.

He went out to get the big sandwich-board sign that sat out in the parking lot and noticed a funky-looking van, with some kind of custom paint job. He didn’t recognize it. Most of his workers drove beaters, or suburban family vehicles borrowed from their parents. Bebe drove a small battered pickup truck with various random junk cluttering up the back. Lefty drove a nice comfortable sedan he’d purchased at an auction for a liquidated rental car fleet. He imagined it made him look far less broke than he actually was.

He felt something watching him as he headed back inside to check on the bleach fumes. The hair on the back of his neck stood up and he whirled around. A low, rumbling growl issued from the shadows. The dog. She must have tied it up out there.

That meant they were still somewhere in the house. Lefty sighed. This happened; Lefty imagined kids had been daring each other to spend the night in haunted houses for quite a long time. He went to the breaker box and hit all the switches, flooding the venue with harsh overhead light. Moments after he did that the breakers popped, and the small battery-operated emergency light attached to the wall automatically lit up.

Lefty swore and tugged at the breakers. The main didn’t want to come back on, and he started testing the subs individually. Probably the hidden AC unit that supplied cold chills to the funeral parlor scene. He had a big flashlight stashed behind a styrofoam tombstone, both for rescuing scaredy cats and self-defense. He picked it up, switched it on and headed into the darkness.

He passed the mirror effect that would have substituted his head for a skull if the backlight had been working. He worked his way through the House, switching off lights, and fans that blew fake cobwebs into peoples’ faces, and speakers that broadcast terrifying sound effects from concealed iPods.

He finally located the short, in a motorized rig that gently agitated a rack of menacing zombies. This was one of Lefty’s favorite effects. There was a prop wall with a real window set into it, overlooking the real wall, which was painted to look like the sky outside, on a gloomy rainy day. Faint simulated sunlight illuminated the zombies from above, throwing the rods and gears beneath them into shadows, while a recirculating pump drove rain past the window. If the dry ice rig was working he could add fog to the scene.

He was unplugging the zombie rig when something fell with a loud crash, in some other section of the House. Lefty straightened his back too rapidly and bonked heads with a zombie. As he stood rubbing his forehead he could hear footsteps scurrying away. Then he heard a second set of footsteps, scurrying through a different part of the House.

“You kids quit messing around and go on home, do you hear me?” Lefty waved his flashlight for emphasis. “Don’t make me call the police on you.”

The footsteps stopped scurrying. Lefty stomped into the next room, waving his light. He thought he caught a flash of movement in the room ahead and he headed there, keeping to the path that would be faintly illuminated with little orange pumpkins every six feet, had the lights been working. Keeping the path clear at all times was one of the main rules at the House, and therefore he didn’t expect to trip over something lying right in the middle of it, but that’s exactly what he did.

He landed with a little twist that made his back flame with pain. It wasn’t exactly what he’d call a bad back, not yet, but occasionally it let him know that it had the potential to be one. A few more spills like that would make it a fact. Lefty lay still and groaned for a couple of minutes. He had dropped his flashlight and it had rolled about a yard away, throwing a round white disc of light onto a blank wall.

As he lay there, it occurred to Lefty that his leg was damp. He rolled onto his back, gingerly and with great care, and now the wetness was spreading across the backs of his legs. He wondered if he’d peed his pants during the fall, and he patted at the crotch of his pants. It was dry.

He moved his hand lower, touching the wetness. He couldn’t see his hand very well in the dark, but he could feel the familiar stickiness. Corn syrup. They mixed it with red food coloring to make fake blood. He reached down and touched it with his other hand. A big puddle of the stuff, and somebody was going to have to clean it up before the House could open tomorrow.

Lefty dragged himself out of the puddle, toward his flashlight. His back grudgingly agreed to this action with only a slight amount of pain. As he was reaching for the flashlight he heard the scampering footsteps again, and then he saw something move, very quickly. It knocked the flashlight out of his way, sending it into the next room.

“You kids are trespassers!” Lefty bellowed. He sat up, slowly.  “That’s against the law,” he added.

He could hear them whispering. He distinctly heard a man’s voice say, “Yikes,” slightly louder. More footsteps, as another one approached.

Lefty fiddled his phone out of his pocket and popped the power button. For a brief horrible moment he wondered if he’d broken it in the fall, but it lit up like normal and he left bright red thumbprints on the screen when he entered his passcode. He was well aware of the fact there was absolutely no phone reception in the middle of this room. You could get a good signal out by the front door but the ceiling of the warehouse this place had once been did a good job of sealing the outside world out. That was one of the reasons Lefty had liked the property in the first place.

He didn’t head for the phone app itself. Instead, he triggered the built-in flashlight. The voices in the next room all reacted but the thing that immediately got Lefty’s attention was the terrified expression on the bloody corpse lying on the floor.

Half a minute later, he recognized it as one he’d painted. While watching the Seahawks game. And eating a chili dog.  He had done a commendable job, as it startled him long enough for them to approach him and lasso him with a rope that he also recognized, from the gallows near the exit. There were two of them; the guy with the scraggly beard and a bigger guy with a leather hat and wide shoulders. Their faces were angular in the shadows thrown by the dim light from Lefty’s phone, which was still dangling from his hand as they wrapped the rope around and around his arms and chest. 

This was crazy. They were crazy. They were probably going to kill him or torture him in some gruesome manner. That’s what kids did these days, you saw it every time you logged onto the internet, every time you turned on the television.  Lefty’s heart did a rapid mambo against his ribcage. 

Then the strobing light from his dangling hand lit up a new face. Pale and white, and deathly serious. Except now she was smiling, wide enough to display her teeth. The incisors were white and sharp, and twice as long as the rest of her teeth. “I am Allessandra Darkwylde, and I am very pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Lefty took a rapid step back, and only the stickiness of the corn syrup coating his shoes saved him from falling again. The big guy steadied him and stepped back, and then, for a moment, he morphed into a big humanoid cat. Then he was a girl again, the same one who had left her dog parked outside.

Except it wasn’t outside. The scraggly-bearded guy was turning into it. Werewolf, Lefty’s brain helpfully informed him. Werewolf! Werewolf! And a vampire!

The light from his phone flickered and died. Low battery. Lefty worked it back into his pocket while the metal kids argued, all three of them talking at the same time. Finally the shapeshifter broke off and fetched the flashlight. “I can’t see in the dark like you guys can,” she complained. “Not in all my forms, anyway.”

“What do you kids want?” Lefty finally said, which temporarily shut them up.

“Did you post this ad?” Ms. Serious thrust a tattered piece of newsprint at him while the shapeshifter illuminated it. A copy of the Shopper’s Gazette, featuring an ad for the Gargantuan House of Terror. 

“Yup. That’s my ad.” He watched the shapeshifter’s face temporarily shift into cat again. That made hm nervous, so he looked at Allessandra instead. Her eyes were somehow addictive. Once you met them it was hard to look away.

“Where did you find this symbol?” Allessandra held his gaze as she pointed at the corner of the ad, where a spider was spinning a convoluted web. It did look like some kind of a symbol.

“On the internet.” Lefty shifted his position. He hoped they wouldn’t make him stand for a long time before killing him. “Google images, probably.”

The kids didn’t like that answer. They exchanged looks and glares. The dog morphed back into a human and shot the other two an exasperated look before saying, “So, I guess you’re not the leader of the Mysterium Monstratorium Sinistrus, an ancient cult dedicated to turning werewolves into vampire werebats in order to fulfull a thousand year old prophecy regarding bringing darkness to all existence.”

Lefty shifted his jaw around and made a few different contemplative expressions before answering, because he didn’t want them to think he wasn’t taking their question seriously. “Nope.”

“Pull his face,” demanded the shapeshifter. Allessandra rolled her eyes and reached up, pinching Lefty’s cheek. She tugged. Her fingernails, painted with tiny bats and full moons, dug into his flesh.

“Ouch,” Lefty said.

“That’s his real face.” Allessandra glared down at the shapeshifter, who was currently a bipedal and angry-looking cat.  “It’s not a mask.  It doesn’t peel off.”

“No cults here,” Lefty said. “Just a Gargantuan House of Terror.  About a month from now, it’ll be Kris Kringle’s Yuletime Forest.”

“We …. um, we’re INK.  It stands for Initiates of Nighttime Knowledge.” Scraggly smiled modestly. “We are a metal band, and we also solve mysteries. Like the time everyone thought there was a deadly shadowbeast stalking the abandoned chocolate factory and we proved it was really a real estate developer trying to get the land extra cheap. And that time everyone thought there was a killer clown in the abandoned amusement park, and we proved it was really old man Blackstone, trying to get the widow to sell it.  And then there was the abandoned toy factory --”

“We have a lot of abandoned structures,” Allessandra explained. “It’s a vampire thing. We’ve never tried solving any mysteries out here. Where the humans live. Before.”

She turned her addictive eyes on catgirl, who let out an angry yowl.

“I don’t think we’ll be doing it again,” Scraggly said just before morphing back into dog form.

Catgirl reached out a claw and slashed through Lefty’s bindings, her ears laid back against her skull. “Unless you want to kill him. Make sure he doesn’t talk.”

“That is not how mystery solving works,” Allessandra snapped. She turned back to Lefty and gazed at him sadly. “If only you’d been a venerable undead priest of the Mysterium Monstratorium Sinistrus wearing a plastic human face. It would have made a great mystery.”

“That would have been swell.” Lefty gazed into her swirling eyes, unable to disagree.

“You won’t remember any of this,” she said.

“No, I won’t.” He slowly shook his head as he stretched his arms in order to help the rope fall away faster.

The cat turned and swatted the dog’s rear, then shot toward the exit. The dog yelped in surprise before tearing after it. Allessandra gave Lefty one last sorrowful look before transforming into a bat and flying away. 

By the time Lefty got the House cleaned up, and got home, and cleaned his phone, and charged it, it was four in the morning. Missed calls marched across the screen, which still bore traces of red food coloring.

It was that moment that he realized that he would have gotten aweigh, with Hit. If only it hadn’t been for those metal INK kids.

© 2015 Charon Dunn

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