When the trap door swung down, the girl received it with her entire body. I saw it happen before I disappeared. It wasn’t intentional, and I knew I was in trouble. The door wasn’t engineered to hurt people. It was meant to hinge downward, hold the weight of a terrifying girl, and then swing back into the darkness. It covered me so I could return to the rafters, slow and steady, while our guests wandered through the halls below.
Nobody was supposed to see the outline in the ceiling. The lights were engineered to flicker. A door opened to a bedroom where a distressed lover would emerge from a quilt and summarily disappear. The walls moaned, and the smell of polyurethane clung to the bedposts like the scent of death.
Fathers tossed their children over their shoulders, many dressed as witches, wolves, and top-heavy figures with synthetic, lopsided faces. Teenagers clutched each other’s shirtsleeves and pulled themselves against the floral wallpaper, pressing forward in love and in horror and into the unknown.
But when the door broke with an ache and a splinter, I flung my body across the mouth of my hideout. This was instinct; this is what they taught you in improv class. This was all going so fucking wrong. This was all I could do to fix it, because I couldn’t come down from the ceiling without Nick’s ladder, even if I wanted to.
Then came the wailing. I wanted to look, but I couldn’t look, because I couldn’t break character more than I already had, leaning my body over the hole, the fabric of my sweatshirt billowing like a sail. So I laid there and listened for somebody to come.
Sprawled out like that, I imagined myself as driftwood in a churning sea. Ahead of me, I watched the sound booth like a shore. There was the top of Nick’s illuminated head moving back and forth, a walkie talkie pressed to his ear. He looked upset, his back hunched. I heard the churn and the fizz of the radio signal, and then he disappeared from view.
It was two days until Halloween, two more days in the scare racket. There was so much work to do as we approached the busiest nights of the season. I had been perfecting my look in a clamshell mirror. I opened my mouth as wide and as large as an animal, but the curve of my jaw softened the scare into parody. Even as the undead, the pudge of childhood clouded my horror. Supine, curled in the ceiling, I worked to become the nightmare I believed myself to be. A girl, murdered by her father at the turn of the century, forever entombed in the rafters of his house.
The wailing continued. Long moans punctuated by high, tinny gasps. Almost like sex noises, but sadder. It reminded me of the porn that would arrive as links in chat rooms, the corners of early-internet caves intended for poems and ghost stories. I clicked when I wanted to feel anonymous and excessive, placing a finger inside myself to feel the warmth and the stick. I learned to watch with the sound on mute. I knew it was better that way.
I had no understanding of actual sex at thirteen—the farthest I had ever gone was with a transfer student in seventh grade, his thumb sliding in the waistband of my underwear and his tongue poking my teeth. My hand had gone blindly for his belt buckle, but he swatted it away. A good thing, really, because back then I’d have pulled it out and done nothing but hold tight.
The house lights flicked on; there were footsteps on the basement stairs. I allowed myself to peek below. There was the broken trap door, and there was a man, pacing. There was Nick, on all fours with a roll of paper towels. And there was the girl on the floor, making sounds of distress and dressed as a little witch.
When the girl looked up to find her attacker, her face muddled by blood and sawdust, I felt stunned and sickened. I also felt a little proud. I pulled a pillow over the hole and sat in silence, listening to the hushed voices below. I needed to make this up to Nick. I needed him to know I was serious.
I felt sorry that the girl had come here alone, but then again, so had I.
For the month of October, the ceiling hideout was my preferred home. I decorated with puffy stickers and posters of leather-crotched boy bands. Propped against the far wall, I kept a dry-erase board for poetry dedicated to Nick. I wrote the good ones in a journal. By Halloween, I wanted to kiss Nick on the mouth.
Nick had just begun high school, and the Skillman House was his morbid little baby. He was tall and gaunt and had an earring. He clattered when he walked because he kept his wallet on a chain. We all knew he was dating the girl in the mausoleum. Her name was Caroline, another ninth grader. Caroline had intimidating breasts and black-glitter fingers. She once took an egg from Nick’s refrigerator and squeezed it as hard as she could, saying that eggs could never break in the grip of a person’s hand like that. But then she dug her nail into the top of the egg, splattering the goop everywhere, and she laughed and laughed and then tossed the mess into the woods.
I made no money in this work. Instead, I was paid in pepperoni pizza and fun-size candy bars. I did my homework on the bus, during lunch, or not at all. Every evening, as the sun dipped over the cornfields, I walked across the street to Nick’s house. I smeared white cream across my face, and I peered into a reflective orb hung from his garage ceiling. Nick kept an arsenal of eye pencils that we used to hollow out our sockets. Taller, scarier ghosts wafted around, scraping melted cheese from paper plates.
I never cared for acting in school plays (the girls were too popular, too desperate), but haunted house work was different. You had to be smarter, maybe even braver, unless you were Caroline and decided to fuck the artistic director. People in this world paid to be frightened, somehow implying that the world itself wasn’t terrifying enough. As the youngest girl in the cast, I was posted in the ceiling, but Nick promised I could work my way to the graveyard if I tried hard enough.
I tried, and tried, and tried, yawning my mouth into the darkness, growling at the spiders that skittered by. I was never promoted, but that was fine. I realized I liked watching Nick, his head bobbing back and forth like a stupid buoy out to sea.
The night after the accident, we had a celebration. The deli donated a six-foot sub that was destroyed at the hands of the dead. Nick stood on a folding chair gave a toast with a cup of cherry Coke.
“Tonight is an auspicious night!” Nick held his drink toward the crowd, his other arm raised in triumph. “Tonight, the town of Skillman has acknowledged through the charity of roast beef and seeded bread that we’re all the real deal you guys!”
The garage filled with cheers and whooping sounds, and Nick drank deeply from his cup. He was wearing this black sweatshirt that said “SCARE CITY” in goopy glitter pen. A gift from Caroline, but it screamed of bad farmgirl art project. We basically lived in the country, a hundred miles south of New York.
“Remember guys, it’s our biggest night of the year, the day before Halloween,” Nick continued. “The line’s gonna be around the block. We’ll scare the shit out of the locals. We’ll serve the best damn punch this side of the canal! We’ll do death in here better than they do it out there!”
A hush fell over the garage. I glared at Nick in hopes he’d notice, but he was distracted by the transgressive nature of his idiot words. A trio of goblins began a slow clap that built into a roar.
Nick stepped from the chair and joined Caroline near a pile of boogie boards. Melissa, a senior dressed in a blood-stained housedress, said “that’s not funny Nick,” and shoved him in the shoulder. He shrugged, and Caroline bit his ear.
“He didn’t mean it,” she said. “We’re just playing dead, you know.”
Melissa nodded. “Whatever you say, Caroline.” She slithered a gummy worm into her mouth, avoiding the blackness of her lips, and walked away.
Nick went to the stereo and cranked the music—Return of the Fly by the Misfits. Death was up for discussion in here, because it’s what we dabbled in, or maybe it was just the simulation that we really got off on. We approximated the afterlife with fake cobwebs shot from an airgun and through rubberized old-man busts that screamed if you got too close to them.
But interrogating death as it referred to anything outside Nick’s house was to be avoided. That’s because it was real out there, coming for the town with the intensity of a plague, and nobody knew how to stop it.
In August, it began with the school nurse, toppled by a wave of bloody noses and fainting spells that she insisted were the product of allergies. They found her in her car, pale as milk. Then there was the mailman who drove his truck into the canal, arms gripped to the wheel but his face serene. The baseball coach dead in the McDonald’s drive-thru, the butcher on the bed of the barber’s truck.
Many more followed through early autumn. Good, healthy people with their bodies broken. Men in suits swarmed the town, knocking on doors and coming inside. They drank Yoohoos and scotch and took fingerprints and photographs. The investigations were inconclusive. People had simply lost the will to live.
Wanting to give our horror a name, the kids whispered tales of The Empty Man: a white-hooded figure with a yawning, toothless mouth. He could pass through you like air, a specter of suburban ennui who left in his wake a windfall of death.
We spoke of him in the corners of locker rooms and on walks to Alfonso’s after school. There, with mouths of garlic knots and greasy lips, we whispered of revolution. So far, he had only attacked the adults.
We felt safe, and we felt powerful.
When Caroline left to change into costume, I went to Nick. “Nice look,” I said, pointing at his sweatshirt.
He tugged at the hem and nodded. “Very thoughtful of her, right? Apparently I have to wash it inside-out.”
“It’s seasonally appropriate,” I said.
Nick snorted. “You hate it.”
I shrugged. The spacing of the letters was off, but I didn’t mention it.
We had been friends since grade school, playing video games and racing bikes as the sun fattened on the horizon. From my bedroom window I would watch him do layups in the halo of his garage light. In the summers, we’d eat brown cows on the curb, our fingers sticky and sweet, waving at the geese that flew in daggers across the sky.
“So are you ready for tonight?” he asked. “Not gonna actually try and kill anyone this time?”
I shook my head yes and then I shook my head no. “It’s gonna be a great night tonight.”
Nick smiled. “Right on,” he said. “Make sure you save some energy for the cast party after we close.” He leaned down and whispered into my ear. “My folks left for the Poconos, and we scored some beer and a few handles, so it’s gonna be a rager. I’m gonna do my Danzig impression all night long.”
Apparently it didn’t matter to Nick that it was a Tuesday, that we all had school in the morning. Suddenly, it didn’t quite matter to me. “I’ll stay late,” I said. “My parents won’t notice I’m gone.”
Nick gave me a little pat on the head. “Thatta girl,” he said.
Mercifully, I didn’t kill anyone during the Tuesday night run—Nick had come for my door with a screw gun and a can of paint. But Caleb, one of the faceless guys in the black light hall, got punched in the nose by an overzealous dad. That happened sometimes, the figures coming out of nowhere and the men displaying their violence as an act of fear. So many men punching and swinging at the air, heaving their bodies at the emptiness that threatened them.
Sometime after midnight, I was very drunk. I sat on the grass with a cup of vodka while Nick played pyrotechnics with Caroline. She dangled a match into the center of the fire pit while he double-fisted canisters of lighter fluid. Nick wielded them like guns as he squirted from the hip, going pow, pow, pow!
The flames got pretty big pretty fast. Nick threw all sorts of things in there: spare lumber, a stack of magazines, and a headlight from an old car that turned the fire blue. I felt my eyes water and my nostrils sting, but nobody else seemed to care.
True to his word, Nick had rat-nested his hair across his face, and his eyes hung blackened like a mask. He wore pleather pants and a T-shirt ripped up with so many holes that I could see his nipple in the glow of the fire.
The lawn pulsed with insect-deterring tiki torches, giving us an air of primal cultishness—if we wanted a sacrifice, we sure had the mood lighting set. Most of us had changed out of costume, but a few cast members just tossed a jacket over their disheveled ghost clothing, their hair still fritzed with white spray-on. Derek, the lighting designer, had his arm around Regina from the haunted forest. A bit of blood was crusted to her ear. Zoey and Caleb sat on the porch stairs, their heads pressed to a pair of headphones. There was a blue-black splotch inching over Caleb’s nose, making him look tougher and stranger and somehow more alive.
A bunch of older kids arrived with beer and a stack of pizzas. Some guy in a trench coat had yanked Nick’s drums from the garage and was pounding on the bass and screaming. Bad Brains heaved from a radio. Cars edged into the horseshoe driveway, and the moon hung low and full and bright.
I tipped my vodka into the grass and tightened the hood of my sweatshirt. I was waiting to make my move, waiting for Caroline to get too drunk and too stupid and maybe just disappear into the woods, maybe never come back, god help us.
Melissa drifted about the yard serving jello shots, a puffer jacket zipped over her house dress. “Pick your poison—red, yellow, or green?” She lowered the tray to my nose and giggled. “I can’t remember the kind of booze in here, but green seems to be the fan favorite.”
“Green is good,” I said, plucking shot and slurping it. It tasted like shit, like sweet-candy-apple with a battery acid aftertaste. “Ooh yeah, real good.”
“Green’s a good aura. Known to ward off creeps and attract the ones you truly desire.” Melissa started cackling some more—she wasn’t very good at managing her booze. I noticed her black lipstick had faded to a stain across her mouth.
“Keeps you full,” she said, winking.
“We’re all kids here,” I said. “I’m not really worried.”
Melissa’s face fell flat. “Moira, none of us are kids are kids here. How old are you again?”
“Close to a kid, but not quite.” She handed me a red jello shot for the road and headed toward a group of zombies beneath a tree.
This jello shot tasted better, like celebration and sin. “Fuck it,” I muttered, pulling myself up from the ground. “Fuck it fuck it fuck it.”
I approached the fire as though I belonged. Caroline sat on top of a milk crate with a cigarette between her lips. Nick was eating his pizza from the crust up.
“What’s up baby girl? Having fun?” Caroline offered me a cigarette and I took it. It was long and pink and looked like candy.
“I’m having all the fun in the world. Nick, why are you eating your pizza like an asshole?”
“Because I am, in fact, a total asshole,” he said, his mouth full. Nick’s eyes sparkled with flames like a man possessed. He managed a grin and gestured for me to sit.
I sat. Then I lit the cigarette and wove it between my three middle fingers, because this was my first time trying to be a person who smoked.
“No, no, like this,” said Caroline, prying my fingers apart. “And you have to suck it in twice. Once to get it into your mouth, and then a second time to get it into your blood. Like a proper bitch.” She clasped her hands as I inhaled. My lips tingled and my head pulled back like a balloon. Then I coughed and coughed and spat something dark into the grass.
When Caroline went to find pizza, I moved closer to Nick and put my head on his shoulder. His skin was warm, and everything smelled like smoke.
“Do you think that girl’s okay?” I asked. “The girl, from last night I mean.”
I had forgotten about the cigarette in my hands, this strange pink object I didn’t quite know what to do with. A shelf of ash fell to the ground, and when Nick put his arm around my waist, I flinched.
“We’re in a dangerous business, kid. Turns out she just needed a few stitches.” Nick took the cigarette and threw it into the fire. “Don’t try to be like Caroline. This shit doesn’t suit you.”
We sat like that for a while, staring into the woods and imagining the eyes that gazed back at us. Something was out there, something strange and cold and hollow and fierce. Something we hoped to keep at bay with the light of our torches. A thing that would never come for us, so long as we remained the kids we imagined ourselves to be.
The party raged and throbbed. A shadow moved through the woods that we could not see. And as we sat on the edge of it all, I thought I heard the leaves scratching at the air, tumbling one by one into the blanket of darkness.
I had been drunk before, but not like this. Before, it was cheap stuff, easy stuff. I used to take my father’s Budweisers and get online.
I was better at being invisible, but I let a man hear my voice just once. I talked to him about the varsity tennis team I wasn’t on, the breasts I didn’t have. I told him I liked to be bent over backwards with the music turned up real loud.
He told me he could give me that. That he wanted to eat my asshole like soft serve. That he would do things no man in the history of men had ever dared to do.
I got a little wet, and I logged off to eat nachos. The next day, I blocked him. I suspect there were many others like this, like me, like him.
Nick was making the rounds like a good host. Time slipped backwards, but nobody cared. The woods moved, everybody moved.
I went into the house to pee. Most of the lights were off, save for a bulb over the kitchen sink. In the living room, someone had left the start screen to Goldeneye blinking on the television. There was no toilet paper in the bathroom, so I ripped the cardboard tube from its holder and wiped. My body felt like a burden, like a sack of rocks moving through water.
Wanting to be alone, I climbed the stairs and wandered into the first open door I found. Nick’s parents’ room. It was weirdly devoid of furniture: just a bed and a dresser against the far wall. The bed was enormous. It was one of those California Kings elevated too high off the ground. I crawled up and laid myself in the middle. My limbs sank and my face buzzed. I closed my eyes, thinking of Nick and his stupid hair and his stupid face sucking mine in the darkness.
In the woods, the shadow pooled across a bed of leaves. The ripe odor of death came from the ground. The trees shook and the fire burned.
Our town wasn’t known for anything glamorous. We had sixteen pizza shops, eleven nail salons, and two Dunkin Donuts that sold out of crullers by dinnertime. The football team was drunk with arrogance, and the farmers had begun selling their land to developers. The video store, with its curtain separating the pure from the profane, gave way to a Blockbuster—a space that would, like most things, become a bank.
More people moved in. More people were found. The school placed classroom trailers on the lawn. They tried widening the highway on the north side of town, but when the crews cracked the asphalt near the cemetery, the ground resisted. The men realized they had dug into the roots of the dead, a substratum far greater than the planning documents had suggested.
The adults were frightened. They lost sleep and began to move in packs. They clustered in frozen food aisles and bus stations, pressing into the fences of playgrounds and swimming pools. Every day and every night, they wore each other like amulets.
I don’t know for how long I was unconscious, but I woke to the presence of someone in the room.
“Who the fuck is in my bed?” I shot up as the lights flicked on, and there was Caroline, lurched in the doorway, her eyes bloodshot. She had this look that screamed murder, rampage, teen girl terror to the max. I scrambled off the bed, twisting an ankle as I hit the carpet.
“Fucking bitch,” she mumbled, kicking off her sneakers. “Party’s over. Get out of my room.”
There was a rumor last year that Caroline bit a guy’s ear so hard during sex that he had to go to the hospital for stitches. That while he screamed and writhed in pain, Caroline sucked some of the blood onto her tongue and her teeth, telling him she liked the way he tasted in her mouth.
Caroline was the type of girl who could probably, literally murder you. She looked like an animal standing in the door like that. I darted out of the room and slammed the door behind me. To my right was the bathroom. After staring into the center of a potpourri bowl, I lurched toward the toilet and vomited.
A wall clock said it was three in the morning. Witching hour. I was hungry. I made a mental note to scrounge for more pizza, that maybe Nick would share some cold slices on the porch.
The house was quiet. At the other end of the hall, Nick’s door was ajar. A little light crept out, yellow and inviting.
I could have knocked, but I chose not to. Nick was folded into the corner of his bed, eating tortilla chips and reading.
I hadn’t been in Nick’s room in many years. The last time, we were just kids: watching a VHS copy of Jumanji and sharing soda with two straws. Things were different now. Where there had once been wall, there was a mess of paper. Ticket stubs, polaroid photos, doodles ripped from sketchbooks. An enormous fold-out of NOFX’s Heavy Petting Zoo loomed over the bed—a tableau where a man reached around a docile sheep, fingering her. It was fucking weird, but I tried not to stare.
“Good book?” I bit my lip a little. I had found some Listerine in the bathroom sink, but my mouth still tasted old and stale.
“Real good.” Nick tossed the hardcover across the room, and it landed at my feet. Dreamcatcher, by Stephen King. “It’s a book where a lot of bad shit happens in the woods,” he said. “Just came out this year. Familiar, huh?”
The cover was decorated with a pack of glittering animals. I picked it up and brought it with me to the edge of the bed. Kicking off my sneakers, I sat cross-legged, my toes touching Nick’s heels beneath the comforter. He had removed his makeup, but his eyes looked sunken. “You actually believe in that shit?”
“Sure,” he said. “I like whatever makes the season spookier. It’s a real inspiration for what we’re doing in here, don’t you think?”
“I guess so,” I said. I was beginning to wonder why I had walked in here in the first place. My stomach rumbled. The sheep above Nick’s bed looked straight through me. “You know Caroline is sleeping in your parents’ room, right?”
Nick scrunched up his face and rubbed his temples. “I didn’t know that. I actually thought she’d gone home. We had a fight, that’s all.”
“Right,” I said. I took a chip and ground it between my teeth.
“Come lay down with me.” Nick had his arm outstretched, and he wiggled his fingers.
I took another chip and waved it in the air. “Honestly, I’ve got a hunger for pizza. If there’s no pizza, I’ll come back for these guys.” I stood up and reached for my shoes, but then Nick’s hand was on my lower back, tugging at my belt loop.
“Just for a little bit. Please.”
Nick looked so sad and so stupid, but I obeyed. I ate the chip as loud as I could. “There we go,” he said. “This is really, really nice.”
There was this game we used to play that, if you did it right, left you floating in the air. I can’t remember a sleepover where we didn’t work to make each other fly. You’d lie in the middle of a circle of girls, pull your muscles tight, and do your best to leave your body. The girls would chant in unison. Light as a feather, stiff as a board. Light as a feather, stiff as a board. Then they’d place their fingertips beneath your ankles and your neck. In theory, if you imagined yourself as a rigid and hollow thing, and if the moon was just right and the air was just so, you’d be granted the gift of wafting away.
Many girls reported a feeling of weightlessness, of tiny hands pushing up from the floor. Some girls said the air got cold, others broke into a fearsome sweat. Once, I swear to god, I watched a nightgown froth from the carpet of a darkened basement.
I never levitated, but you shouldn’t question the power of a girl-circle. The hum of our voices was enough to make anyone think that you’d floated up from your bones. It had a way of getting under your skin, and then some.
So when I left my body, lying there in the crook of Nick’s arm, I was surprised that I had conjured the power on my own. I noticed the stars stuck to the ceiling, carefully placed in constellations. Orion and Cassiopeia murmured their faraway language in phosphorescent plastic. A breeze came in through the window, smelling faintly of manure. I tried to make my face look calm, as calm and as placid as if I weren’t a person at all.
And while I was on the outside, staring at the signs above me, I heard the soft clink of metal on metal. I heard a car on the road, the radio on, as Nick guided my hand toward the zipper of his pants. He twitched into the limp claw of my fingers.
“It’s okay,” said Nick. “Caroline will never know.”
I did not do what my body did, which is what the recently possessed like to say when they can’t look back at their mistakes. Their hands, the hands of others, the bodies of other people and the spirit of the devil dance in the face of the moon. That’s at least how they go, summoning monsters and jerking them off in the middle of the night.
Hours later, I watched the sunrise while eating a slice of Hawaiian pizza. I was happy to be alive. It was a godsend to be alone among the extinguished tiki torches and the empty plastic cups.
The air was warm and still. The corn was ready for the cows, hard as teeth and swaddled in their husks. I thought about how it would feel to take Nick’s face and crush it beneath a stone, the little pop pop pop of everything breaking. I thought about his stupid hands beneath his stupid pictures and the chips all over the floor. I bit my tongue so hard that I made the stale crust red.
I was thinking about death when he arrived, which is to say I often wonder if I willed him there like a siren. He stank of mildew and hot milk breath and dirt, this thing that was so large and sudden that his nothingness, the supreme void of his yowling mouth, took the sky and became it. I felt my toenails curl back, the lurch of a fist in my stomach. He was there, all over everything.
I didn’t know where to look, so I looked at my hands. Then I looked at my hands as they opened the door, and I looked at the door as he eclipsed the sun, the smell of death moving quietly and curiously into the house.
Fraylie Nord lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has appeared in Catapult, Tin House, Cosmonauts Avenue, Armchair/Shotgun, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Luna Luna Magazine, and Bridge Eight.