The Price of Admission
Bill, Tina, Jennifer, and Zach piled out of Zach's pickup, laughing. The boys held brown glass bottles that glinted in the dim light of the parking lot. Bill took a swig of his, almost snarfing the cheap beer in response to another inane joke Zach cracked. The girls stayed close to each other, like static clung them together at the sleeves. A wicked wind swooped through the dirt lot, ruffling their sweatshirt hoods and hair. Tossing their empty bottles into the bed of the truck, the boys gestured for the girls to join them. “C'mon, you two, let's go!” Zach shouted, voice barely rising above the tempestuous wind. The girls stepped forward in sync, like Siamese twins, and each of the boys slipped an arm around one of their slender waists.
“Okay,” Tina sneered, voice pitched into a whine as she twisted in Zach's grip. “Are we really going to do this? I mean, isn't this a little juvenile?”
“What do you mean?” Bill insisted. “What else are we going to do on Halloween?”
“Would you prefer trick-or-treating?” Jennifer chimed in, and received a laugh from the two boys. Tina just glowered, tucking her delicately manicured hands into the pockets of her jacket. She shrugged, then responded,“Obviously no. I just thought we were all going to go to Bradley Mason's party tonight.” She pouted her crimson-lacquered lips for effect, looking like a disappointed Cupie doll. Zach sighed. “Babe, we are going to the party, later. But we wanted to do this first. Nothing like a good haunted house to start off Halloween.”
“Besides,” Jennifer added. “There's probably nobody even there yet. We'd look like losers walking in this early.”
Tina just sighed and rolled her eyes, the absolute picture of tried patience.
The foursome had reached the edge of the expansive, car-packed dirt lot now. Patches of dying weeds bordered the dirt, and a thin strip of crushed grass marked the trail up to the main attraction. A huge construction resembling a warehouse loomed in the distance, with a trailing, shifting line of people assembled in front, waiting for entry.
“Look at this place!” Bill remarked. “It must be awesome. Look at all the people waiting to get in!”
“Yeah, look at how long we'll have to wait in line,” Tina sniffed. Jennifer shot her a frown, which she carefully ignored. “Seriously, guys,” Tina pleaded. “We're gonna miss the party!”
“What's wrong, Tina? You scared the boogie-man might get you?” Bill chided.
“Nah,” Jennifer contributed. “She just can't wait to get with Bradley tonight.” Bill and Jennifer laughed at the barb, but Zach glowered, glancing first at Jennifer, then at Tina.
“Whatever!” Tina growled. “You guys are so stupid.”
“Oh, Bradley!” Jennifer sighed dramatically, planting an enthusiastic kiss on her boyfriend's lips.
“Shut up!” Tina squealed, hitting her friend sharply on the arm.
“Ow! Geez, would you lighten up?” Jennifer complained, rubbing her stinging arm.
“Come on, you guys,” Zach insisted, striding ahead and towing Tina along by the waist.
The ticket counter was a tiny little shack, with an equally tiny figure sitting behind a smudged window. “How many?” the kid asked. Its voice was muted both by the glass and by the rubber Halloween mask it wore, a wrinkled red thing with stubby horns that was supposed to look like a demon but gave more the effect of a burn victim with bad teeth. “Four,” Zach shouted at the form behind the window, and the figure busied itself with a roll of red tickets on the counter. “Cash or cans?” the kid asked, and Zach shook his head in confusion. “It's twelve dollars cash or two canned food donations per person,” the kid shouted back over the wind, which buffeted the window like a crazed animal. “Cash,” Bill offered, and Zach paid out the admission for the whole group. “Thanks, Zach,” Jennifer said, and the rest of the group hurriedly echoed the sentiment.
“No problem,” Zach muttered. “Let's go get in line.” The line was halfway back to the parking lot by now, and the erratically flashing headlights of more patrons pulling into the dirt lot lit up the sheet metal front of the warehouse like spotlights. The friends hurried to the back of the line and stood in a small huddle, shoulders hunched against the wind. “Geez, it's freezing out here,” Bill chattered.
“Yeah, well let's just hope it's worth this,” Tina griped, but this time nobody responded. The line was moving at a decent pace, and soon they drew close enough to the building to hear screams, howls, the roar of chain-saws and other mood-setting sounds echoing from the big building. Concert speakers set outside the main entrance played eerie music, and other patrons in the crowd among them were beginning to jostle to see up ahead.
“This is gonna be awesome,” Bill said, excitedly. The others nodded, except Tina, who was checking her lipstick in a compact mirror she had pulled from her jeans.
“Ugh, this wind is totally trashing my hair,” she muttered.
“What's the matter, Tina?” Jennifer teased. “Worried what Brad might say?”
“No,” Tina replied primly. “I just don't want to get to the party looking like the rest of you.”
“Owch,” Bill exclaimed, fluffing his hair like an awkward primadonna. “Is she saying my perm is unattractive?”
Zach laughed, shoving his friend. “No, just your face,” he retorted, and all four snickered at the joke.
Finally the four friends had reached the front of the line. A caped pale-faced actor stood at the entrance, collecting tickets and grimacing in the faces of the patrons, some of whom laughed good-naturedly while others squealed in exaggerated terror. As the friends drew near, the actor's pale hand reached out for Bill's ticket first. “Ticket, please,” he hissed, through a mouth stuffed with convincingly realistic fangs. “And your soul, of course!”
Bill laughed. “No problem, man. Here ya go!” The boy slapped his ticket into the vampire's hand, giving him a hearty hand-shake before releasing it.
The vampire repeated his tired line for each of them, and Jennifer and Zach followed suit, giving up their tickets and souls as agreeably as children at a carnival. Only Tina ignored the actor, depositing her ticket gingerly in the clammy hand without making eye contact. Attempting to pass the man, she gasped as he locked a grip on her arm. “Your soul, girl,” the vampire wheezed, glaring intently at her. “Okay, sure, whatever,” Tina snapped, yanking her hand out of the tight grip. “Freak!” she muttered, hurrying to catch up with the others.
Drawing back into the company of her friends, Tina caught the end of an extravagant speech given by a thick-set man who stood on a small stage raised slightly above the crowd. The man had a gory axe protruding from the crown of his head, and it flopped as he talked and gesticulated. Fake blood ran in clumpy chunks down his made-up face, and he was saying something about “welcome to the gates of Hell” and “enter at your own risk” and “kiss your souls goodbye.” Tina rolled her eyes.
The crowd pushed forward past the man, who resumed his speech for the next group, vaulted voice fading into the background. In front, Jennifer clung excitedly to Bill's arm, and Zach, noting that Tina had rejoined them, slipped an arm around her shoulders. “Don't worry, baby, I'll protect you,” he whispered, lips brushing against her ear and neck. She shifted irritably out of his grip. Zach frowned, snatching his arm back like he had been bitten, and busied himself with his surroundings. They were jostling along a skinny hallway formed by walls of black cloth, and lit only by a few black light bulbs overhead. Zach glanced at Tina again. Her blond hair glowed unnaturally in the black light, and her white tennis shoes stood out against the cement floor. She glanced at him questioningly, and he looked away. The hallway was gradually widening, and they jumped at a sudden scream up ahead. Jennifer pressed herself against Bill, and he grinned, teeth glowing in the dark like a Cheshire cat. The cause of the scream revealed itself as a hockey-masked actor wielding a butcher's knife at the patrons as they passed. He crouched in a niche of the hallway, surrounded by lumps of dripping meat that hung from the ceiling and sported an occasional recognizable limb-- a hand here, a foot there. Jennifer yelped as she passed the crouching figure and he took a swing at her with his blade, snarling. Close behind her, Tina hesitated, then stuck her chin in the air and strode confidently past the actor, carefully resisting the urge to flinch as he swung the realistic-looking knife toward her. She felt a light tug at her sweatshirt sleeve, and glanced back, but the figure was already menacing another customer.
Suddenly, Tina felt something light and sticky brush her forehead and she gave a short shriek. Jennifer and Bill glanced back at her and grinned maniacally. Zach laughed. Tina brushed at her forehead, glancing up. Fake cobwebs dotted with tiny plastic spiders were strewn across the ceiling. The strands that had brushed her head hung down into the walkway like a curtain. Tina huffed out a breath and impatiently crossed her arms. “This is so stupid,” she insisted. The others rolled their eyes at her and turned back around.
A reddish glow began to light the dark hallway, worried by the flashing white of a strobe light somewhere up ahead. She could hear the buzz of a chainsaw, and several more squeals and shrieks filled the air. The hallway opened up into the chamber lit by the erratic flickering light and fake flames. A gory scene met the patrons, with steel tables and benches strewn with bloody corpses, some of which were alive and reached feebly for the spectators with sawed-off limbs. A bald, blood-streaked man in a spattered white lab coat brandished a roaring chain-saw at the crowd, gleaning a few panicked yelps and gasps from his audience. The actors on the table and benches groaned feebly and beckoned for aid from the delighted spectators. As they watched and flinched, some emitting squeamish gags, the bald actor attacked one of his victims with the chain saw, hacking off a limb as the victim shrieked in pretended pain. The severed leg dropped wetly to the floor, and the actor playing the victim collapsed back onto the table while his attacker cackled evilly. “I think I'm going to be sick,” Tina shouted over the noise, grimacing. Zach opened his arms in offering, and she pressed herself against his chest.
“It's just a show,” he murmured into her ear.
“I know that!” Tina snapped, shuddering. “It's still disgusting.” Zach just smiled, nuzzling her neck with his cold nose, and she pushed him away. He wiggled his eyebrows at her, and she shot him a self-conscious grin, tucking her hair behind one ear, grabbing, his hand and turning to follow the crowd back into another dark, narrow hallway. A few apprehensive moments passed, and the spectators shuffled warily down the dim hallway, chattering amongst themselves. On one side, a lighted display featured a wrapped mummy in a glass case, and as a few people leaned over the display case for a closer look, the mummy's bandaged hands slammed against the glass, startling them and winning a shriek from a girl with red pigtails, whose friends promptly burst into laughter at her expense. A little further on, on their left, clawing hands exploded from the black walls and clutched at the passers-by. Desperate voices and screams came from behind the wall, pleading with the patrons for help from some unseen danger. One pale hand found purchase on Bill's face, and held on. “Ow!” Bill yelled, flailing at the attacker and succeeding only in whacking his girlfriend and a few others. “Dude, watch it!” He shoved the hand forcefully away from his face, and it retreated back into the darkness of its hole. Bill thumbed a thin line of blood on his cheek incredulously. “The idiot scratched me!” he exclaimed.
“It was probably just an accident,” Jennifer replied, inspecting the scratch. Bill just shook his head, glowering back at the arms which snaked from the black wall like pale blind serpents.
This section of the dark hallway was drafty, and Tina clutched her arms, rubbing roughly. Her thumb snagged in a small tear in her sweatshirt, and she twisted to inspect it. The edges were curled and cut clean through to her long-sleeve blouse underneath. She tugged at the tear, confused. Tapping Jennifer on the shoulder, she showed her friend the slit in the sweatshirt, which was now allowing the cold air to jet through to her arm. “Did I have this when I came in?” she asked. The brunette shrugged dismissively. “I don't think I did. In fact, I think that guy back there-- the one with the hockey mask-- I think he had a real knife! I felt it catch my shirt!”
Jennifer smirked in reply and rolled her eyes. “Come on, Tina, they can't use real knives in here! Do you know how many lawsuits they would get?” Bill turned and asked Jennifer what they were discussing. Briefly she explained Tina's misgivings, and he laughed out loud at her naiveté. “Right...” he sneered. “And that was a real chainsaw that guy just lopped the person's leg off with back there.” The couple laughed and turned to ignore her. Nonplussed, Tina showed the tear to Zach, who shrugged. “You probably just snagged it on something,” he offered, and Tina dropped the topic.
The next curve in the cramped hallway opened out into a wide open space, with dimly lit stairs at the far end. All around the patrons, random objects dotted the room, and the crowd had to thin out to move between the clutter. Occasionally a scream echoed from one corner or another. Tina and Jennifer both screamed in turn when a huge evil-looking clown loomed out from behind a collection of manikins and greeted them with a high-pitched giggle, raising an axe over it's flaming red hair. The friends parted, running around the specter, and broke for the stairs where the line resumed. “Good grief,” Jennifer puffed, leaning on her knees. “That was creepy.”
“Aw, it wasn't so bad,” Zach replied weakly, and Jennifer raised a mocking eyebrow at him. Bill watched them both with a crooked grin, leaning against the railing to catch his breath.
“Hey,” he chimed in. “Where's Tina?” The three glanced around them, searching the dim room for their friend. Most of their group was moving toward the stairs, and a few actors still prowled between the dark inanimate shapes. They couldn't distinguish Tina from among the remaining stragglers. In fact, she was nowhere to be seen.
“Maybe she got up the stairs ahead of us?” Zach suggested.
“Or maybe she decided to go back outside and wait,” Bill said snidely. “You know how she's just too good for the rest of us juvenile people.”
Jennifer smacked a feeble blow against Bill's chest. “Shut up, Bill. I'm worried about her, too. Where could she have gone?” Jennifer surveyed the room again, squinting against the darkness.
“Oh, come on, Jennifer, she's fine. Don't you start wimping out on us, too.” Bill gave the petite brunette's ponytail a playful tug.
“Yeah, she'll probably wait for us at the end,” Zach agreed. “Let's go. We're holding up the line.” They turned and climbed the flight of metal stairs, which clanged and echoed under their feet. The crowd swept them on into a bedroom scene, where they watched as a hideous creature slip from a closet and pounce on a young girl who slept in the bed. Her screams bounced around the chamber as it clawed at her. The hallway leading out of this scene was slightly wider than before, hung with big columns of something wet and slimy that forced the crowd to weave their way through it. Realizing what they were, Zach grunted in disgust and wiped his wet hands on his jeans. The things were body-bags, oozing reddish liquid. Occasionally a damp hand darted out of one and swiped at the patrons, eliciting appropriate reactions of surprise and fear.
Finally the hallway opened into another staircase, this one leading down into a deep, dark pit. The three strove to see past the dark cavern, but no lights were provided, save a few small LED things placed at intervals along the stairs to avoid accidents as people picked their way down. Upon reaching the bottom of the stairs, Bill groped a hand out for Jennifer who had been behind him. His hand landed on something soft and warm, and he heard a woman's voice-- not Jennifer's-- shriek. Grinning sheepishly, Bill pulled his hand back and stepped forward a few paces. He bumped into someone else in the dark, and Zach's voice said “Hey, man, watch where you're going.”
“Sorry,” Bill mumbled. “You seen Jennifer?”
“I haven't seen anyone. In case you haven't noticed, it's kind of dark in here.”
“Right,” Bill answered, feeling sheepish.
The dark tunnel began to lighten, and they felt themselves pushed along faster now by the flow of the crowd. The same flame effect from earlier began to light the hallway as they entered into a big cavern, realistically decorated to look like a convincing underground cavern. As the crowd thinned out, Bill glanced around for Jennifer. She didn't seem to be among those who had accompanied them into the dark tunnel. “Hey, man,” Bill said, prodding Zach. “Something weird's going on. Jennifer's gone now, too.” Zach glanced around, confirming Bill's observation. He frowned at his friend. “Maybe they're both outside?” he offered, knowing as well as his friend that it was unlikely they both would have slipped past the group and left without warning. Bill shook his head, brows knit in confusion. Zach shrugged, glancing around the room again.
A couple impish kids up ahead danced around in red leotards, the red paint on their faces split into wide, fanged grins. Holding onto the bars of a big gate, they ushered the crowd through, in a morbid imitation of a welcoming committee. Little iridescent bat-wings and thin barbed tails fluttered behind them, and realistic horns coiled delicately up from their foreheads. These two must have spent a fortune on their costumes, and they flaunted it, parading on their delicate goat-feet like satyrs. Bill and Zach allowed themselves to be swept through the gates. Glancing up, Zach saw a rustic sign marked with charred black letters. “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” the last line read. Zach frowned again, rolling his eyes.
“Welcome!” boomed a sudden voice, echoing off the fake stone walls like a megaphone at a football game. “Welcome to Hell!” a great creature loomed up from what appeared to be a chasm of lava, and it's ruddy skin glowed in the heated light. The spectators shrieked in delight as the creature swung massive clawed hands over the crowd.
“Must be animatronic,” Bill heard a man behind them remark. He inspected the thing critically. If it was mechanical, it was miraculously well done. The thing's movements were smooth and catlike, and it's glowing yellow eyes twitched and blinked down on the crowd like a giant inspecting its meal. Huge folded arcs of flesh heaved behind its back, wings topped with wicked black barbs. The thing looked real. Bill glanced around them. All around the crowd little pockets of demonic imps were pulling away people from the crowd—probably planted actors, he reasoned-- who screamed and struggled against their new-found captors. The little devils pranced off, dragging their victims to rock outcroppings and pits, dropping some into the depths and tormenting others with what looked like heated metal brands. Zach heard a familiar voice and craned his neck to see around the people who surrounded him, pressing in on every side, some still laughing and pointing in entertainment, others pale-faced and silent. This was beginning to feel a little less like lighthearted fun.
Zach finally saw the source of the voice, which was now peaked in a long, tormented wail. Tina was ten feet from the throng of onlookers, held captive between several imps while one prodded her with a glowing orange rod that sizzled when it met her flesh. She sent up a bloodcurdling scream that reverberated off the ceiling. Immediately, Zach pushed his way to the outside of the crowd. Two preteen boys stood pointing at Tina and laughing. “Shut up!” Zach screamed frantically, shoving them. “Shut up! That's my girlfriend!” Zach started to run toward her, but another demon grabbed his leg with surprisingly strong claws and felled him like a dead tree. Screaming like a child, Zach felt himself lifted from the stony floor and propelled by reeking demons back toward the gate. Writhing vainly, he was handed off to the evil axe-bearing clown who clasped him by the shirt collar and dragged him back down the pitch black corridor. The last things he heard before blacking out were Bill's pleading cries and a woman's long scream.
Zach awoke on a metal table. He blinked. Flashing lights were all around him, and he wondered briefly if he were in an ambulance. Had he been hurt? Then he heard the noise, the mechanical buzzing undercut by shrieks and laughter, coming hazily into focus. Lifting his head weakly, he glanced toward the source. A throng of people stood at the far end of the room, gazing raptly at him. As though drugged, his eyesight seemed bleary, hard to focus in that wild, frenetic light. He heard the buzzing noise coming closer, and he lifted a hand, trying to shade his eyes. Jennifer lay limp on another bench, eyes closed. Zach strained to call her name through a raw throat, but she didn't move. Where was that buzzing coming from? He craned his neck to see. A flash of white and red caught his eye. He looked up to the left, squinting hard to focus. A man stood over him, brandishing some kind of box with a slender metal part protruding from it. The man seemed happy, a broad smile cut across his bald head, and Zach felt momentarily cheered by his face. Then he remembered.
The chainsaw began to come down. Zach shook his head, reached a pleading hand to the spectators. “No... no!” he moaned. The chainsaw bit into his leg.
The audience screamed with delight.