It was about twelve feet high, give or take. It might have been taller, were the support beams made of a sturdier wood. As it was, Sarah had no idea how the skinny planks were holding their own weight, let alone the massive black tarp's. The requisite tombstones and blood covered ghosts decorated the outside, fairly well made, but still chipped in places that revealed harmless cardboard underneath. The only thing remotely frightening was the music playing over the loudspeakers, and if Sarah didn't recognize it as the score of a lackluster slasher film she'd watched last week, the slow and ominous strings might have got her shivering.
She pulled her light fitting jacket closer around her body, covering the low cut corset top of her witch costume, and eyeballed the petite angel next to her.
"You sure you want to do this, Maggie?"
Maggie glanced up over her crooked halo, self made using pipe cleaners and a large quantity of glue, her face set with determination as she scoffed loudly.
"Oh please, Sarah, don't tell me you're scared."
Sarah frowned, not liking her roommate's tone all too much. She let it slide, choosing to focus on the more important issue at hand.
"Of course not," she answered in as dry and even a tone as possible to keep Maggie from accusing her of lying. "I have no problem going into a Haunted House. This one is just… well, it's kind of… you know…"
As she trailed off, a loud snapping sound as heard as the third member of their party let the large bubble she'd blown pop.
"Lame," she said slowly after using her tongue to scoop the gum back into her mouth. "Just say 'Lame' Sarah, it's what we're all thinking."
"I'm not," the affronted Maggie declared, placing her hands on her hips like a petulant child. "And I don't appreciate that, Melissa. My cousin helped make this you know, and they put a lot of work into it!"
Melissa blew another bubble and conspicuously eyed the black curtains, one of which had a large tear in the top right corner, as well as the one painted ghost that wasn't properly secured to the ground and kept toppling over to reveal a FedEx logo on the back.
"Clearly," was her flat response.
Maggie growled, and Sarah inwardly prayed that she wouldn't have to break up a shouting match between her two good friends. Again. Luckily, it seemed Maggie wasn't in a fighting mood tonight, she merely glared at the disinterested Melissa before turned her gaze back to the Haunted House.
"Well, whether you like it or not, this is the only Haunted House in town this year, and I don't know about you two, but I'm not about to spend Halloween night driving ten miles to the next town all for five measley minutes in the House of Fright."
"Don't talk down the House of Fright," Melissa grumbled. "My cousin got his skunk stripe in there."
"Anyway," Sarah was sure she could see a vein popping out of Maggie's forehead. "The rules are that everyone goes in one at a time. My cousin is going to take us to the front of the line, so we won't have to wait very long."
"If it's longer than three minutes, it's not worth it."
"Alright!" Sarah's voice cut through the air like a knife, stopping both her friends in their tracks as they stared at her. "We're here to have fun, so let's just go already."
If Melissa wanted to make a snarky comment regarding Sarah's usage of the word 'fun,' she thankfully didn't. Sarah had to be extra careful as they followed Maggie to where her cousin was standing, not to show any outward signs of frustration at their endless bickering. It seemed once every other day, those two were going at it, fighting over every little thing from Maggie's new hair piece to Melissa's preference in radio stations. Had she not seen the old school pictures, she'd never had believed those two had been best friends since kindergarten.
It was like dealing with slightly more intelligent (and cleaner) versions of the goblins. Or at least, what she remembered of them from six years ago. Come to think about it, she'd forgotten to call Hoggle, Sir Didymus and Ludo before to wish them a Happy Halloween. Even though they didn't celebrate the Holiday in the Underground, they'd always been excited to hear about her world's customs and traditions. Halloween was no exception.
For a very brief moment, another denizen of the Underground crossed her mind, and Sarah's stomach did an unwanted flip flop as she wondered what he would think of such a holiday. Knowing him, it likely wasn't any good.
Her eye twitched involuntarily, and she took a deep breath and forced herself to shift her focus from those bothersome thoughts and the image of his smirking face that was always fresh in her mind no matter how much time passed, to the smiling face of Maggie's cousin as he greeted them. The young man was clothed in a black cloak with a hood, he held a tall, plastic scythe in one hand, and a rubber skull mask in the other. He lead them to the front of the line, which wasn't very long to begin with, and ignored the disgruntled protests this action got in favor of request for someone to go first.
"I'll go," Melissa volunteered despite sounding bored as ever. "Might as well get it over with fast."
"Your bravery will do you no good," Maggie's cousin said in a low, grizzly voice that greatly contrasted the naturally high-pitched one he'd spoken with before. "But go ahead and enter… if you dare."
Melissa gave him a half smile and started walking, not bothering to stop or even look at Maggie's cousin as she lazily pointed at his face.
"You have some snot hanging out your nose, might want to clean that up."
She strode through the tattered curtains while the red faced young man spun around, wiping furiously at his nose while Sarah tried not to giggle.
Melissa exited the structure two minutes later, looking exactly as unimpressed as when she'd gone in. Gliding passed them elegantly in her Elvira costume, she non-discreetly leaned over when she was close enough to Maggie, a smug smirk playing at her lips.
"Laaaame," she sang.
Sarah placed a hand on Maggie's shoulder, sensing the inevitable explosion and doing her part in averting it. Though clearly still annoyed, Maggie brushed Melissa of and entered the Haunted House as the prerecorded music switched from horror movie songs to stock scary noises like screams and creaking floorboards.
Her exit was markedly different from Melissa's. Whereas the latter hadn't been even a tiny bit creeped out, Maggie's eyes were practically falling out of her skull, and her mouth was wide open in a silent scream.
"Oh My God!" she said far louder than necessary considering Sarah was only a foot or so away. "That was the scariest thing I've even seen in my life! I think I might be scarred for life, it's so terrifying! Certainly worth the 2.99 entrance fee for an incredible experience in fear!"
Sarah had to wonder if Maggie was being paid to blatantly false advertise, or if she was just being a good cousin. Either way, nobody looked all that convinced by her display, least of all Melissa.
"Terrible performance," she said, shaking her head. "The lead actress has no charisma and her acting is more wooden than a tree. Two thumbs waaaaay down."
Maggie's lips tightened as she let out a loud and long exhale. Turning to Sarah, her deamour brightened up almost instantly, catching Sarah off guard with her wide, enthusiastic smile and sparkling eyes.
"Alright, Sarah, your turn!" she gently pushed Sarah towards the entrance, patted her on the shoulder to encourage further movement. "Have fun!"
'Not so sure about that,' Sarah eyed the shabby props one final time as she thought this, before swallowing her doubts and offering the excitable angel a smile.
With no further hesitation, Sarah took two stepped, the fringed curtains sliding up the length of her body by the second one. The shiny cloth was smooth against her face, and briefly covered her eyes from the plastic torches lit up by tiny light bulbs that hung on either side of the wall. Sarah passed by quickly, not sparing them a second glance and mouthing along with Vincent Price as his monologue from Thriller filtered out through the speakers.
'Seriously, who put this soundtrack together?'
She made it to the end of the hallway and rounded the corner on the right, coming face to face with another set of curtains, these solid with no noticeable tearing. She pushed passed it without a care or a thought, and found herself in darkened room, just enough light coming from florescent light bulbs for her to see vague shapes on the wall closest to her. As if running on clockwork, the dim lights brightened significantly, as deep laughter emitted from a static-y radio hidden somewhere she couldn't see. With the new lighting, Sarah could perfectly make out more fake ghosts. Most of them had their arms raised and grinned twisted, wicked grins that filled up their entire faces. They looked better than the ones outside, but still, nothing all that frightening about them. You see one 'spooky' Casper-like white ghost, you've seen them all.
Sarah crossed the room, where even more curtains waited to guide her into the next little room. The first thing Sarah noted was that unlike the first one, this room was already lit up. The difference was that this one's source of illumination came solely from the multitude of Jack-O-Lantern's littered around the floor. Many of them had traditional scary faces on them, and she had to admit, they were a little creepy when grouped together like that. Almost like they were a group of ghouls staring up at her, waiting for the proper moment to strike. Unfortunately, the other Jack-O-Lanterns that had the faces of Batman, Bart Simpson, and Daffy Duck crudely craved into them dulled the effect.
Sarah approached the next set of curtains and by extension, the third and hopefully final room. She reached out as she got close, her fingertips were a hairs breath away from grazing them, when an enormous clap of thunder sent her heart all the way into her throat.
Sarah gasped and whirled around, finding nothing but more pumpkins and a speaker nailed to the wall. She examined it carefully, mentally kicking herself for getting so freaked out by what was more than likely just more stock sounds. The weather was completely calm tonight, the odds of a storm hitting so quickly and suddenly were slim to none. Plus, wouldn't she have heard raindrops preceding it? It wasn't like the sound system was that loud.
Satisfied with this reasoning, Sarah eased her way back around and went again for the curtain, mentally noting that while jump scares were a good source of fear, even the worst horror films could do the same, so it didn't really count. This time around, she got as far as grasping one end of it in her hand before yet another sound effect made her insides freeze. This one was softer, and not at all like a clap of thunder, but for Sarah, it was more heart stopping than all the thunder in the world combined.
The low, unmistakable hoot of an owl.
Sarah struggled to steady her breathing, those thoughts from before charging at full force to the front of her mind. She could see him again. His eyes, his hair, his smirk…
'Stop it, Sarah,' she rubbed her temples as if staving off a headache. One would come if she let herself keep thinking these things. 'It's just a coincidence. It has nothing to do with him. He is NOT here. At all. Ever.'
Sarah groaned audibly and pushed through the curtains before anything else could come out of those speakers and drudge up unpleasant memories from her childhood. This third room was darker, like the first one, and didn't appear to have anything in it at first glance. Sarah stayed vigilant, her eyes darting in one direction after another once they'd adjusted. When she found nothing, Sarah began to assume that this room had been left empty, perhaps as a pathetic attempt at setting up a 'use your imagination' type of scare. That hadn't worked in The Blair Witch Project, and it certainly wouldn't work now.
Then something appeared in the corner of her eye, a blue-ish light that came out of nowhere. Sarah turned her head slightly, finding a figure wrapped in ripped up pieces of cloth that formed a robe. It was tall, taller than anyone had a right to be, and in place of a face was a black void. It's 'head' was tilting slightly to one side, as if studying her much smaller form. Sarah stared at it for an amount of time she couldn't discern. She didn't know what it was, but something about this dummy was incredibly eerie. Maybe the sudden lack of sound had something to do with it, or the fact that it appeared to be staring at her somehow.
Whatever it was, Sarah had to commend the Haunted House for finally managing to creep her out. If only a little bit. She gave a nod, breathing in deeply and walking with purpose to the next, and most likely final, set of curtains.
The first thing Sarah realized when she passed through the makeshift doorway was that everything was dark. A pitch black with not even a shred of light to be found. Sarah stood rigid, glancing around blindly for something, anything discernable in the room. She could see and hear nothing. A wave of unease overcame her, she took a step, and was immediately hit with an ice cold gust of wind that sent her stumbling back. She regained her balance before she could topple over, and decided her best course of action was to simply leave the way she came. She had no idea what the people working this thing thought they were doing with a room like this, but she was in no mood to potentially trip over a Styrofoam tombstone or plastic witches head. Adjusting her own pointed hat, Sarah turned on a heel, fully expecting to find the sheer black curtains were she had left them.
All she saw was more darkness.
She stared into the void, unsure at first if she was actually seeing this and it wasn't just her mind playing tricks on her. She raised a shaking hand, feeling out for the cloth that made up the walls and finding nothing but air. She took an involuntary step back, her heart rate increasing rapidly along with her breathing.
"Calm down," she said aloud, a pathetic attempt at calming her frazzled nerves that would have her running any second now otherwise. "Calm down, it's just a trick. It's a game. I don't know how they are doing this, but it's not real."
The laughter started the second the final word passed through her lips. Sarah felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand. Another wind hit her, but this one was warmer, gentler even. And it was accompanied by a smooth leather hand on her shoulder. Her breath caught in her throat, and he must have liked that sound, as his low chuckling grew louder.
"Not real?" his voice was as dark as she remembered, and Sarah shivered once again. "Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, don't you know that everything is real tonight?"
Sarah heard a roaring in her eyes, but it didn't drown him out, nor her sharp intakes of air.
"You're not here," she hissed, clenching her eyes shut. "You can't be here. I beat you. I won. You can't be here."
"But Sarah," if she didn't know any better, she'd think he sounded hurt. "You wound me so. I could never forget you. You haunt my dreams just as I know I haunt yours."
"You're not here," she said louder, trying to convince herself now more than him.
His grip tightened for a fraction of a second, then instantly let up. She heard him take a breath of his own, and felt his other hand snake up her opposite arm, stopping at her wrist and taking hold.
"Don't be frightened," he told her, and she had no idea just how ironic that statement was supposed to be. "It's nothing more than a trick, after all."
He laughed again, a jovial laugh with only the smallest hint of something more sinister. Sarah swallowed, her body becoming numb to the fear all of a sudden. He moved closer, causing her to instinctively step away from him. When he did it a second time, and then a third time, she caught on to what he was doing and, with a degree of reluctance, allowed him to guide her through the abyss to God only knows where.
Sarah's lips parted, but she couldn't find her voice. There were so many things she wanted to say to him. So many questions and snide remarks and insults and screaming rants, and she couldn't find it in her to say anything. When she finally could, after they'd been walking for longer than she would ever know, only one question would form coherently in her mind.
"Why? Why after all this time did you come back?"
She knew he was grinning, it didn't matter that she couldn't see her own hand, let alone his face. Though she expected him to, he didn't laugh, but instead slowly raised her arm straight out.
"Tonight is a very special night, Sarah," he answered softly. "And you are a very special young woman."
Sarah blinked, but she had no time to go any further in the awkward conversation, as she suddenly felt the now achingly familiar texture of the curtains. Her heart soared as relief spread through her body, washing away the fear with it's calming warmth. The pressure on her arm disappeared, but his other hand was still firm on her shoulder. Sarah wondered what he was going to do now, a thousand horrible answers filling her mind, with a few not-so-horrible ones scattered in as well. His body moved closer, pressing up against her back as his face moved closer to hers. She could feel his breath on her ear, and it sent a chill up and down her spine that she couldn't guarantee was fear related. His voice in her ear was so soft, she almost didn't hear him.
"Until next time… Happy Halloween, Sarah."
Then he let go, and Sarah wasted no time in throwing the curtain aside. She closed her eyes again when the light hit her. Having spent all that time in the dark, she would need a few minutes to adjust to the light again. Once she was sure she was back in the real world and could hear people talking just outside the exit, Sarah whirled back around and raised the curtain again. She was only half surprised to find that he was gone. Only more darkness, albeit a less endless one than she recalled stared back at her.
She remained only a few seconds more, not wanting to get too wrapped up in what had just happened. In fact, it would be great if she could forget it ever happened, and that she'd seen (or heard anyway) him again after six years of nothing and believing he had forgotten about her and went back to whatever else he did besides kidnapping children. Sarah told herself this all the way out and back to her waiting friends.
"So how was it?" Maggie accosted her immediately. "Were you scared? You were scared, right?"
"You realize you're talking to a girl who didn't find The Exorcist scary, right?"
"You weren't scared of it either, Melissa."
"Yeah, and this Haunted House absolutely terrified me."
Sarah didn't bother to prevent the fight this time. She stood quietly to the side and let Maggie and Melissa run their course, shouting at each other for awhile before Maggie declared that she would never speak to Melissa again and Melissa happily agreeing. By tomorrow, they'd be holed up in the corner of Maggie and Sarah's apartment, laughing at the most recent episode of Friends and arguing over which of the main characters had the best hair or something.
When it was over, they began the long walk back to their building, Sarah making small talk with Maggie while Melissa chewed her gum loud as ever. After a while, and much to Sarah's displeasure, Maggie managed to steer the conversation back to the Haunted House and got back to grilling Sarah for what she found the scariest.
"It was the banshee woman in the third room, wasn't it!" she guessed, not waiting for an answer before rambling further. "It would have been better in the little radio that played her moaning hadn't broken, but it looked scary enough on it's own, right?"
"I guess so," Sarah answered, staring off into the distance at the rows of trees. "But I guess… well, that fourth room was pretty scary."
"Fourth room?" Maggie asked after a pause. "Sarah, what are you talking about?"
That got Sarah's attention right away. Stopping short, she snapped her head to Maggie, taking in her look of genuine confusion with a growing sense of unease.
"You know," she said slowly as to keep from stammering. "The room after the banshee room. You went in there, right?"
Maggie glanced at Melissa, who wasn't listening or else didn't care to.
"There are only three rooms. I know, I helped my cousin and his friends design it."
Sarah stared at her, somehow able to walk without hitting anything even though all her focus was on Maggie. The other girl had since brightened up considerably, deciding that the Haunted House had been so scary that it had caused Sarah to hallucinate a fourth room and gloating at Melissa over this apparent success. Sarah slowly moved her eyes away, instead staring hard at the cement of the sidewalk. She absently rubbed her wrist, remembering the feel of his gloved hand on it with perfect clarity. Another memory of him that would never fade away, it seemed.
Something got her to look up right then. Sarah had to crane her neck up as far as it would go, but even with only the full moon and some dying streetlights, she could clearly see the white owl perched on a high tree branch. It gazed back at her with eyes that were far beyond an ordinary animal's.
Then it rose up, spreading it's wings as far as they could go and lifting it's feather covered head.
'Next time,' those two words rang in her ears above everything else he'd said. Sarah didn't know why the implications didn't bother her. If anything, she felt excited. Maybe this was what people meant when they said it was fun to be scared.
She watched it take off, soaring into the night sky towards the moon, she never once took her eyes off him. When Sarah next spoke, it was a whisper low enough that only she could hear and not her friends. She felt that he'd hear it no matter what.
"Happy Halloween, Jareth."
His avian form grew smaller and smaller. Another bout of wind hit the small group, forcing Sarah to blink her eyes.
When she opened them again, the owl was gone.