“This is a bad idea, you guys,” Noah informed the group, as he looked stoically up at the ghoulish and bloodied figures hanging from the veranda above them. The five of them stood at the entrance of Henrietta’s one and only official Halloween attraction, a creaky old mansion on the outskirts of town that was decked out every October in full haunted house regalia. Actors dressed as ghosts, zombies, vampires, and other creatures of the night lurked inside, waiting for fresh meat.
Blue thought the whole thing was kind of ridiculous. “I can’t believe we’re paying people to jump out and scream at us,” she complained, rubbing away the gooseflesh that had risen on her arms from the chilly breeze. “I’ve been scared enough times in the last few months for an entire lifetime.”
“Technically, I’m paying,” Gansey said. He was dressed more for a dinner at a nice steak restaurant rather than a jog through a house full of corpses. “And there’s no reason to be frightened. It's just normal people in there."
“Unless it's not,” Noah murmured, more than a little forebodingly.
Ronan leaned against one of the peeling wooden porch supports, looking profoundly disinterested. “Why are we doing this, again?”
“Because it’s historical,” Adam said. His hands were in his pockets, but they all heard the air quotes around the word.
Gansey nodded enthusiastically. “Precisely. The Higby house has been here since 1810; it’s absolutely full of historic value.”
“And termites, probably,” Ronan said. “You don’t have to lie. We all know you dragged us here because of your hard-on for Halloween-related activities.”
Gansey raised an eyebrow. “Scared, Lynch?”
Ronan just looked at him, ignoring the bait. “You can see a ghost anytime you want, you know.” He jerked his head toward Noah, who whirled around to look behind himself, startled.
Blue couldn’t help but laugh. She reached over to take Noah’s cold hand. “C’mon. We can hold hands.” He smiled ruefully at her.
“Shall we?” Gansey said cheerfully, bouncing on the balls of his feet. His face was alight with excitement in a way that was utterly boyish and charming.
As they opened the door and entered the foyer, Adam leaned over to mutter to Blue, “This is his favorite holiday, if you couldn’t tell.”
Inside, a dim chandelier strung with fake – or possibly real? – dusty cobwebs hung from the ceiling, painting the room with a sickly yellow glow. A ticket booth was set up near a statue of a life-sized marble lion, and an honest to god suit of armor stood next to a sweeping staircase. There was also a collection of remarkably realistic-looking skeletons and ghastly figurines covered in fake blood posed about the room.
“Very impressive,” Ronan muttered, sounding decidedly unimpressed. Noah gazed up the stairs, looking a bit hazy around the edges, and Adam, hands still in his pockets, studied a cracked oil painting of a stern man on the wall.
Gansey paused to rope Blue into a selfie with one of the skeletons, grinning broadly, and then paid the teenage girl staffing the ticket booth. She pointed wearily at a door to their left.
“Do we just…wander through the house?” Blue asked the girl, recognizing her as a sophomore at Mountain View. She wondered offhandedly how much this gig paid.
“The way is pretty obvious,” the girl said bluntly, and then recited tonelessly, “Enter at your own risk. Follow the open doors. Don’t touch the actors and they won’t touch you.”
“Thank you,” Gansey said, and the five of them turned to stare at the door. For the first time, Blue detected a hint of uncertainty in Gansey’s expression. “Who wants to go first?”
For a moment, no one volunteered. “Pussies,” Ronan said, finally. “I’ll do it.”
Blue punched him hard on the arm. “Derogatory language!”
Ronan rolled his eyes. “Pansies. Wusses. Blubbering infants.” He raised a sarcastic eyebrow at her. “Better?”
Blue smacked him again for good measure. “Lead the way then, valiant asshole.”
As Ronan opened the door to reveal the dark room beyond them, Noah balked a little, and Blue squeezed his hand tightly. The five of them poured slowly into the room. Blue squinted, trying to make her eyes adjust faster to the dimness.
It was hard to make out details of the room, but Blue thought it might be a study. Wingbacked chairs covered in white sheets skulked in the corners and heavy brocade curtains covered the windows. The only light came from a set of brass candelabras on the walls. It was all very Haunted House 101.
For a minute, they all stood there, waiting for something to happen. Nothing did. “Um,” Blue said to the empty room. “Are the ghosts on a coffee break?”
As a unit, they moved forward through the room. Nothing stirred, but the darkness felt heavy and watchful.
“This place is giving me the screaming heebies, but I guess that’s kind of the point,” Blue commented thoughtfully. “Nice job.”
Gansey was squinting down at the wall trim. “Do you suppose this is the original wainscoting?”
“For fuck’s sake, Gansey,” Ronan said conversationally.
They moved toward the other side of the room where a door stood open like a gilded invitation. “Do you suppose we just –” Blue started, and then there was a thing in front of them, materializing out of seemingly nowhere. It looked like a person, but it moved wrongly, crawling toward them out of the darkness like a broken-legged spider. Ronan let out a high shriek, as the thing was coming right at him, and they all broke into a run into the hallway beyond the room, leaving the thing (the actor, Blue reminded herself fiercely) behind.
“This has higher production value than I expected,” Gansey said, slightly breathlessly.
Blue’s heart was pounding hard, and she laughed, poking Ronan in the side. “What was that sound you made?”
Ronan glowered at her. “It surprised me.”
“Pansy. Wuss. Blubbering infant,” Blue taunted, and he bared his teeth, looking ready to launch into a profanity-laced diatribe.
“Sargent,” Gansey said, sounding a bit out of breath himself. “Why don’t you go in front, then?”
“I don’t want to be second!” Noah cried, tightening his hand around Blue’s.
“Oh, honestly,” Adam said, grabbing Noah’s other hand. “Here, go behind me.”
In a single-file line, they moved down the hall: Blue, Ronan, Gansey, Adam, and finally Noah. Blue was skilled at acting braver than she actually felt, and she sort of missed the reassuring tug of Noah’s hand on hers. A loud bang from further down the hall made them all jump, and Blue felt Ronan’s hand briefly touch her back. She took a breath and pressed onward, reminding herself that there were only other living people in this house. Probably. Maybe.
There were oil portraits lining the walls, and Blue glanced at them as she moved slowly past. It was cliché, but she could swear some of the eyes were following her. Up ahead, an open door beckoned them forward. She glanced back briefly at her boys – Noah was following Adam so closely he was nearly on top of him, and Gansey was clutching the back of Ronan’s shirt – and then moved quickly through the doorway.
This room was brighter than the previous one, but barely. It was a small ballroom with a polished wooden floor and a grand piano sitting next to floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out on the dark woods beyond. Most of the floor space was taken up by a scattering of antique-looking coffins, all of which were closed. “This one’s a little less subtle,” Blue stated.
“Gansey’s got a vampire kink, so he’s probably really enjoying this,” Ronan said loudly.
“Quiet, you,” came Gansey’s retort. “It was one book series.”
“It was Twilight,” Ronan said in Blue’s ear, and she laughed delightedly.
“Oh, Gansey, it wasn’t.”
“It was Anne Rice!” Gansey protested, and then was abruptly silenced by the sound of a long, slow, creak.
“Guys,” Noah whined, and Blue looked back to see him pointing at the coffin to his left. The lid was lifting slowly, but it was too dark to see inside.
“Let’s keep going?” Adam suggested. Blue was already moving forward, a delighted thrill going through her as she noticed the other coffin lids slowly rising as well. A low, guttural moan came from directly beside her and she bolted forward.
“Zombies, not vampires!” Blue yelled breathlessly, as a dirty and rotted-looking hand grabbed at her ankle.
“Shitfuck!” Ronan yelled back, as a very convincing zombie burst from the shadows to their right and stumbled toward them. “Go go go!”
Blue broke into a sprint, reaching behind her to grab Ronan’s hand and drag him along, catching him doing the same to Gansey out of the corner of her eye. They peeled out of the room in a human chain, and Noah slammed the door behind them. “Zombies are gross,” he said, matter-of-factly. “All that rotting. Unsanitary.”
Blue was laughing again, and let go of Ronan’s hand to shove her bangs out of her eyes. Gansey looked ruffled, his face red. “I wasn’t expecting there to be this much exertion.”
Adam was the only one of them who didn’t look equal parts terrified and thrilled. He looked back at the closed door thoughtfully, and then forward. “Let’s see what’s next.”
This room was clearly a library, with long bookcases stretching along the walls and bisecting the center of the room into aisles. “There must be several thousand books here,” Gansey said wonderingly, stepping out of their line to run his fingers lightly over the dusty spines. “Surely someone should be taking better care of them than this.”
“They’re just props,” Ronan told him. “Don’t try to adopt the books, Gansey. You have enough.”
Adam moved forward to take a closer look at the titles with Gansey, his shoulder brushing Ronan’s. “Shouldn’t we be scoping out the creepy room, not the books, guys?” Blue asked.
“In a second,” Gansey said distractedly, pulling a large volume from the shelf.
Noah gasped, drawing everyone’s attention forward. A barefoot little girl stood at the end of the row of shelves. It must have been a trick of the light, but her eyes looked like empty black hollows, and her arms were streaked with dark liquid. Fresh adrenaline shot through Blue; the girl’s costume and makeup was very well done, and a sense of despair seemed to emanate from her.
“Nope,” Ronan said succinctly, immediately backpedaling. Blue wholeheartedly agreed. Gansey shoved the book back on the shelf with uncharacteristic lack of care and they all tore around the shelves to the other side of the room.
The girl was gone, but a woman with long tangled dark hair knelt in the nearest corner, her shoulders heaving with silent sobs. Something about the way her back was hunched was incredibly disturbing.
“Oh,” Gansey said uselessly. The woman was between the five of them and the next open door.
Ronan whispered something harshly that Blue couldn’t make out. His dark skin looked a few shades paler even in the dim light. Noah had his eyes shut tightly.
“I don’t like this,” Adam murmured, sounding deeply uncomfortable. “Is there another way we can go?”
“Back to the zombies?” Blue suggested, a little hysterically. The woman’s shoulders had stopped shaking, and she was slowly turning her head toward them.
“That way,” Noah said, pointing at a bookcase against the wall. His eyes were still shut.
“That’s not a way,” Ronan growled, edging slowly backward. He looked angry, which meant he was suppressing another emotion. It wasn’t hard to guess what. Something about the crying woman was just wrong.
“Yes, it is,” Noah insisted. The crying woman was staring at them now. She had the same dark, empty eyes as the little girl. She slowly began to open her mouth, wider and wider and wider.
Noah suddenly slid sideways through the bookshelf, and a second later, the bookshelf glided away from the wall with a screech of hinges, revealing a dark doorway. Blue had a second to think I thought those were only in the movies before all of them tumbled through the doorway.