I pressed my forehead to the steering wheel, trying somehow to will away my stomachache. It was a quarter past six. If he didn’t show up in the next five minutes, I was going to drive away. Maybe I could still do something worthwhile with my evening.
No such fucking luck.
He tapped on the passenger’s seat window, and I groaned as I unlocked the door. I heard him unzipping his jacket as I pulled out,
“You look great,” he remarked, “you doing better?”
“No,” I answered, my voice flat and my eyes trained on the road in front of me as we left his neighborhood, “my insides feel like they’re going to fall out, and I’m trying really hard right now not to throw up,”
“We don’t have to do this if you’re not feeling well.” A tempting offer, but now that he’d shown up, I was seeing this through,
“We’re fucking doing this.” The argument, if you could even call it that, ended then and there. It was another fifteen minutes to the repurposed warehouse. I drove down the highway, concrete office buildings perched like oversized vultures on the side of the road. When we got there, we made our way through the expansive parking lot, past clowns with fangs and lion tamers with black-ringed eyes, joining the line in front of the entrance,
“This isn’t the one you took me to the year before last, is it?” He asked,
“No. They did that awful ‘mental hospital’ gimmick, so I skipped it,”
“So creepy circuses are fine, but mental hospitals are where you draw the line?” For the fist time that evening, I turned and looked him in the eye,
“I’m sorry, are you offended by their portrayal of clowns?”
“This isn’t a good idea,” he said as we moved forward in the line, a costumed actor juggling plastic skulls to entertain the people behind us,
“It was your idea,” I retorted,
“I just said we should meet up again,”
“No,” I replied, “you said ‘we should go out like we used to’, and this is what we used to do, well, before,”
“Yeah, and I fucking hated it,” he scoffed,
“Then you should have been more careful with your choice of words,” I said. He also should have been more careful with some other things, too, but there was hardly time to bring any of that up. We had reached the front of the line and I handed over our tickets to a man in a top hat and white makeup who introduced himself as “The Ringmaster”. A sign near the entrance laid out the typical warnings about strobe lights and disturbing content. In front of us, smoke machines created a synthetic haze and above us, a fake corpse hung over a trapeze bar,
“We don’t have to sign a waiver?” He asked, blessedly difficult to hear over the music,
“Nope,” I answered, “they don’t touch you at this one.” When we emerged on the other side of the artificial cloud, an actor swallowed a sword, then regurgitated it along with a stream of fake blood. He recoiled, I laughed,
“You really that freaked out by a little blood? It’s not even real!”
“Fucking weird,” he replied as we moved on. The flashing red lights above us intermittently illuminated the grimace on his face.
It wasn’t just the thrill, or, in this case, the schadenfreude, that drew me to haunted attractions. There was an artistry to it, the ability to take pleasant or mundane things and render them sinister, to turn a drama student from the local college into a grotesque and nightmarish figure. When a man with fake claws and and wonderfully hideous lion facepaint jumped into our line of sight, I may have pulled back at first. But as he stalked across the concrete floor in front of us, I took just a moment to marvel.
A few years prior, we might have held hands as we made our way through the warehouse. But I wasn’t interested in offering any semblance of comfort. Instead, I found myself smiling whenever his face twisted up in disgust, darting ahead when his fear drove him to hesitate. It must have been funny to watch, me, at a whopping five feet tall, grinning with wide-eyed with misplaced wonder while he followed reluctantly behind. Not that we were the spectacle. And it was nice that we weren’t. I’d had my fair share of being gawked at and fawned over and asked inappropriate questions over the preceding year.
All in all, it wasn’t that scary. We came out on the other side looking no different, save for maybe a patch or two of glitter on our clothes. This wasn’t one of the more intense haunts, and for a minute, I wished we’d gone to one, if only because he would have hated it more.
The warehouse hadn’t been warm, but it was still jarring to step back into the cold October night. An employee in a black corset and tutu invited us to take a picture with a sign proclaiming we'd “survived” this year’s attraction. We declined.
I didn’t go straight back to the car. Instead, I went to the edge of the parking lot. Beyond the expanse of discolored grass lay another warehouse. Judging by the trucks in the loading bay, it still served its original purpose. Some things and some people got to do what they were always meant to do. Others got altered and appropriated and retrofitted for some other goal,
“You okay?” He asked. Right. I was his ride home. He had a vested interest in me being okay,
“Should be asking you,” I retorted, not turning around to look at him, “you were really scared in there,” he put his hand on my shoulder. It was the first time all night he had touched me,
“Never my thing,” he said, “was always yours. But happy to come along,”
“My thing, but you’re happy to come along,” I echoed, “good to know,”
“Still feel like throwing up?” He asked,
“Nah,” I answered. He laughed,
“You must be the only person in the damn world who feels less nauseous after going through that,” he said,
“So what if I am?” I asked. The music from the haunted house seemed far away now, dulled by distance and by the chatter and noise in the parking lot,
“How’s Makenna?” At this, I turned around to look at him,
“She’s fine,” I said,
“Who’s watching her?”
“You going to take her trick-or-treating?” He asked,
“Damn right I am,” I answered. he put his hands in his pockets,
“I saw this really cute little bumblebee costume the other day,”
“It’s too late,” I interrupted
“I’ve already picked out her costume. She’s going to be a vampire,” I said. He shrugged,
“Okay, then. Just thought I’d suggest it.”
“Maybe next year she can be a bumblebee,” I said, “or the year after that. Or the year after that. You’ll have to wait. This year she’s going to be a vampire and you don’t get to come along and change that.” My words had no more bite or venom. I’d turned my attention back to the warehouse in the distance,
“Wasn’t trying to change anyone’s mind,” he said,
“You’re trying to change mine,” I said, “isn’t that why we’re here?”
“And I clearly haven’t succeeded,” he said. He took me by the arm and I let him, “let’s go home. You okay to drive?”
“It’s my damn car,” I said as we went back into the parking lot, “I’ll be okay.”