The door closed with a bang and the blanket of darkness encased them, wrapping them tightly in her grasp. The air was cold and heavy like an underground cellar, the lights and noises from the carnival were gone.
No turning back now.
Riley nudged Abby forwards, but the other woman refused to budge. ‘Don’t want to go first?’ Riley asked.
‘Not a chance,’ Abby didn’t even pause in her whispered response. ‘You’re the one who isn’t afraid of these Halloween theme parks.’
Riley’s smirk went unseen as she tucked a curl of chestnut hair behind her ear and stepped away from the safety of the door. Abby followed quickly, huddling close.
Her blue eyes adjusted, their surroundings taking shape: an upholstered chesterfield lounge suite; one mahogany chair that lay in rotting pieces in a corner; an end table with three curved legs and one jagged stump where a fourth had been; and a huge, ornately carved fireplace with a grimy mirror above it. The musty smell of old furniture permeated the room and Riley could feel the dust hanging in the air, invading her nostrils. Persian carpets so threadbare in places she could see scuffed floorboards beneath them. Wood-panelled walls were home to dim lights, held in place by sconces. She could just make out their detail: stained glass shades, and stems crafted into fanged children.
Okay, they made the setting genuinely creepy. Bonus points for the set designers.
A small glint in the darkness caught Riley’s notice and she saw a large painting crooked on the opposite wall: the profile view showcased an austere older woman with a square jaw and dark hair bound in a tight bun. A knife was embedded in the canvas, the light reflecting faintly off the blade.
Great. That’s a real knife. Somebody should probably get fired for that.
Screams travelled back to them from up ahead, followed by strained laughter. A door slammed and the noises faded. The ticking of a clock resonated in the silence like a death echo.
Riley’s jaw ached from muscles pulled too tight.
The stillness was the worst. She much preferred high-action horror houses.
As they edged through the lounge, the hair rose on the back of Riley’s neck. Abby wrapped her fingers in her friend’s shirt, holding on tight. Riley looked around to see if there were any horror actors hiding, but she saw nothing. As they got closer to the opposite door, a light flickered to life and shone on the painting of the stern woman. She was now facing the two women directly, black eyes staring at them.
Riley took a step backwards and stumbled into Abby, trying to push her in front. Her breath was coming in short, sharp pants.
‘Don’t. Stop it. You’re freaking me out.’
‘You go first, Abby, please? I feel like that woman can see right into my soul,’ Riley tried to manhandle Abby to the front.
‘No way, you’re already there, you keep going. I don’t want her seeing mine,’ Abby struggled against Riley, but managed to remain behind, huddling against her back for protection. An involuntary shiver trickled down Riley’s spine as she looked into the inky black eyes again. She took a deep breath and shrugged off the taunting fear, cursing internally.
This is fucking ridiculous. It’s a carnival. Haunted houses at carnivals aren’t scary. Damn paranoia.
Girls screamed up ahead and Riley bolstered, leading the way forwards.
The sharp metallic smell hung over the room like a carcass dangling from a meat hook. Dominating the space to their right was a large wooden bed: the bedcovers torn and bloody; a dull drip, drip, drip of blood onto the carpet was almost deafening in the dead quiet. Riley heard Abby draw a quick breath. A mutilated corpse lay propped up against the bed, just a head and torso with the entrails smeared on the floor around it. The lower half of the body was a metre away, slumped halfway down the stairs beneath an open hatch in the floor, feet hidden from view and naked legs sprawled. The carpet was mottled dark with blood. Riley felt her friend’s nails split the skin of her forearm to stop her leaning forwards. She ignored the pain to get a closer look, but pulled back, wrinkling her nose. She didn’t want to know how they had made it look so damn real. And she really didn’t want to know what was down that trap door, waiting to scare her.
Abby screamed and clutched Riley’s hand with both of her own, forcing Riley to stand out in front while she pressed herself tight against her friend.
Ragged breathing could be heard and Riley froze, staring unseeing at the trapdoor. Did she really want to know what was to their left, hiding in the shadows? The decision was made for her when the smell of death hit her like a fist, rancid breath tousling her hair. To the women’s left there was a barred window not to outside, but to a dark room: one that was probably meant to look hidden, if the moth-eaten curtains on either side were any indication. On the other side of the bars was a man. His eyes were vacant, his breathing heavy, and his unkempt hair hung over his skeletal face like a veil, a terrifying, drooling three-toothed grin further distorting his features. His hand was wrapped around one of the bars holding him in and the other was reaching towards the two women, fingers clenching and unclenching in the air.
Riley backed away quickly, heart thundering against her ribs as she stared into the haggard face. The deathly image remained in her mind even after she’d turned away.
She was officially freaked out. Maybe even a little scared.
She blinked, clearing her head, and stepped forwards, away from the window and towards the next door, only to stop dead when another scream cut doubt into her resolve to proceed. The sound was nearer this time and was followed by a definitely distinguishable cry for help.
That wasn’t a real cry for help, was it?
Riley and Abby traded nervous glances and jumped when it sounded again, followed by pounding footsteps, coming closer.
Closer, closer, closer.
A rush of adrenaline took over and, pushing aside her sudden fear, she grabbed Abby and checked for hidden surprises before hunkering down behind a musty reading chair in the corner. Neither of them spoke, though they both jumped when a woman flew through the door and collapsed to her hands and knees, one hand yanking at her collar, heaving for breath through her tears.
The two women, huddled in the corner, tensed as an imposing silhouette appeared in the doorway behind the woman on the floor. She appeared not to notice the man as he pulled a knife from behind him, slowly leaning over her, blade poised, before plunging it hard through her shoulder blades. The crunch of metal on bone seemed to almost project, like surround sound speakers, around the room. The woman didn’t even scream as she slumped to the ground. Riley suppressed a gag as he yanked the knife from her back with a sickening squelch, and nearby murmurs drifted up through the wall behind the two women’s hiding spot: a new group was coming through.
Shit, this is bad. And it’s very, very real now.
Riley looked to Abby as her friend sat frozen, palm flat against her open mouth, dark hair framing her face and her eyes wet and wide with terror. She had to get Abby out. Looking back at the man with the knife, she saw that he was staring straight at the door the new voices were filtering through, the knife now out of view.
The voices came nearer.
He couldn’t kill another person at this carnival, not while she watched in the darkness as life ebbed from their body like the blood steadily creeping across the floor. There was barely time to think before the door behind her began to open. She vaulted out of her hiding spot and charged straight at the man with the knife, stopping a metre away in case he lashed out. The party coming through the door stood frozen, staring at the scene with wide eyes. The knife came out from behind the man’s back, the tip now pointing directly at Riley’s chest. The group in the doorway screamed.
Riley’s eyes never left the burnished blade. ‘Get out of here. This isn’t an act. He just killed this woman! Actors in these places aren’t allowed to touch people.’
Seeing the body, the man with the knife, and the terror on Riley’s face, the group scrambled to get out at once, wasting no time to second-guess the truth. Riley felt, more than saw, Abby fly past her from her hiding spot in the corner.
She should’ve followed. Seconds later they were gone and Riley had lost her chance. She was alone with the death-wielding man.
‘You bitch,’ his voice was a low gravelly sound and despite his good looks, he had the appearance of a crazed man with dark hair, mussed as if by vicious winds, and a menacing smile. ‘You think you can get away with ruining my fun? I’ve been planning this for months and there’s no way you’re forcing me back through that trapdoor,’ there was a gleam of something threatening in his blue eyes. ‘I’ve got more than one trick up my sleeve, and you’re about to find out which ones I prefer.’ ensnaring her gaze, he stepped over the body of the dead woman, following Riley as she backed away.
She was out of ideas, and trapped now that she’d let the others escape. With her hand feeling behind her for the door back to the entrance, she wrenched it open and flew out, through the room with the man behind the bars, he howled and grabbed frantically at her as she passed. Through the derelict lounge room, coughing as dust filled her lungs. Towards the front door. Almost out.
Stretching her fingers out to the handle, the coolness slipped between them as pain flared inside her skull. Crying out as she pitched forward onto the tattered rug, an old boot fell to the floor next to her. She rolled over in time to have the man land on top of her, pinning her hips. With her arms still free, she grabbed at anything she could to make him let up some weight. Bucking from left to right, she knocked him off-kilter, and thrust a knee into his groin. He gasped and Riley flung herself as far away from him as possible. Her fingers caught on the handle just as she was once more trapped beneath his weight, but the latch unlocked with a click and the door swayed out, revealing the cold night.
‘Freeze!’ the sound of the police command was a welcome relief for Riley, but the reprieve burned to ash as she heard the man with the knife, too close to her ear for comfort.
‘I’ve got her,’ he said as he picked himself up off of her, hauling her up with him. Riley struggled in his grasp, but to no avail.
‘It’s not me, it’s him.’ her desperation was palpable, her voice quavering. She saw nothing but several figures silhouetted against a sea of flashing red and blue fog ten metres away. One figure stepped closer, and then another. Two police officers had their guns trained on Abby; her arm was outstretched and waving haphazardly.
‘Put the knife down and don’t move. This is your last chance, Ma’am.’
Had she snatched the knife from the painting when she had escaped? She whirled around and instantly locked eyes on Riley, still encircled in the murderer’s arms. She leaned over slowly and placed the knife on the asphalt before taking a step forwards.
Her eyes wide, she opened her mouth to speak but the words never escaped.
A shot cut through the night and Riley could almost hear the lead whistling through the air, stopping only when it hit its target.
Abby dropped to the ground and lay still.
A young cop had emerged from the cover of the flashing lights. His arm trembled and he stared at his gun in horror.
Chaos erupted as several people rushed towards Abby. The young cop’s knees gave out, sending him sprawling on the asphalt.
Riley started forwards without thinking, but the man jerked her back against his chest.
His breath tickled the curls at her ear. ‘Wait.’
He shifted his grip to her shoulders and turned her around so she faced him. He wasn’t looking at her, but over her head, and his face was blank. After a few seconds, the flashing lights bathing the house went dark and he nodded almost imperceptibly. Gently pushing Riley, he led her backwards. He announced each step as it came and she had no choice but to trust him.
They came to a stop in the middle of the asphalt and he finally released his hold on her. Riley took a big step back, out of reach and looked up, brow furrowed as she hesitantly met his eyes, perplexed.
‘Hi. I’m Kirk, Abby’s boyfriend.’ he smiled at her. Riley backed away further, her mouth gaping.
Confused and eager to get away, she turned, wondering what the hell was happening and if she’d somehow gone crazy.
There stood Abby, alive and unharmed. A small group of people stood behind her.
‘What the fuck is going on?’ Riley’s eyes were ablaze as she turned from Abby to Kirk then back again, before pointing an accusatory finger. ‘You’re not dead.’
‘Nope,’ Abby beamed, apparently nonplussed by the fury on her friend’s face. ‘Surprise. You remember that time you said Halloween-themed things sucked because they were never scary anyway? Well, I wanted to make a scary one this year, and at the same time introduce you to Kirk. His brother is an actor, he helped us out. As an added bonus, I got to spend an exorbitant amount of Kirk’s over-paid salary on this prank.’
The punch to Abby’s face came hard and fast. She stumbled backwards and Kirk grabbed her, stopping her fall. She brought a hand up to tenderly touch her cheekbone, a glare on her face.
‘Well Kirk. I’ve heard so much about you. Unfortunately, none of it was to tell me how much of a bastard you are,’ Riley turned to Abby. ‘You’re lucky if I speak to you at all for the next goddamn month, you’d better be fucking careful.’
‘I was almost doubtful at first, for about five seconds. Does that excuse me?’ the fierce look in response was enough to shut Kirk up and he lowered his gaze to the ground. Riley gave him a derisive snort and stalked off.
Abby looked at Kirk and shrugged. ‘She’ll get over it. Tell your brother and his friends thanks, but I’d better sort her out.’ she grinned at him and followed after Riley at a jog.