Their high school friends had gone on ahead, laughing and teasing one another, yet the thought of entering the Fall Festival’s “Howl-O-Scream” terrified her. It was the not knowing what lurked in the darkened corners that bothered her the most. She hated being surprised.
“Are you ready?” her boyfriend asked.
Boyfriend. What an insubstantial word for what he meant to her. She loved him beyond measure.
“I’m not sure,” she replied, reaching for his hand.
“You don’t have to go,” he said, nuzzling her forehead with his own. “I’ll stay here with you.”
Gamely, she shook her head and smiled at him. He cradled her chin with one hand and gave her a kiss that still curled her toes.
“I’ll be all right,” she conceded, looking apprehensively at the towering structure.
While they walked down the woodland path to the haunted house, she shared with him the last gooey bites of buttery caramel, luxuriously wrapped around a crisp Granny Smith apple. In turn, he fed her large chunks of funnel cake, topped with whipped cream and a caramel drizzle.
Dusk fell swiftly.
She sensed shadowy figures on the fringes of the fallow field from the corner of her eye; whether they brought her good cheer or meant her harm was indeterminate. She had a fairly good idea what was going to happen in the haunted house, but there was enough uncertainty to slow her step.
Her boyfriend stopped up short and looked directly into her eyes. “Look. We don’t have to go. We can ride the Ferris wheel or the Tilt-A-Whirl.”
“I want to go,” she said, fooling neither of them. Their friends would mock her mercilessly.
“Okay, we’ll go” he replied. “And I’ll be right by you. You trust me?”
“I do,” she said. More than life itself. “But what if someone or something pops out of the wall and I pee myself?”
“Is that likely?”
“And what if I get really scared and poop my pants?”
“Is THAT likely? I mean, we can stop at the bathroom if you need to—”
“Ugh! I’m being ridiculous. Let’s just go.”
Warm and reassuring in the late October chill, his strong arm encircled both of her thin shoulders.
“Hey. Remember. If you get scared? Keep your eyes on me,” he said.
She nodded. That would be easy to do. Ever since she first saw him in elementary school, she thought he was the most beautiful boy in the whole world. Little had changed since.
Now settled on the matter, there was just the path forward.
There was no turning back.
🜋 🜋 🜋
As they approached the attraction, he held her hand as they climbed the endless staircase to the top of the old mill, converted each fall into the popular horror show. She could hear screams—immediately followed by loud laughter—from both inside the mill and all around the “Howl-O-Scream” grounds.
A vampire with bleeding eyeballs motioned them to the entrance. A crowd expectantly waited, only a few sent in at a time.
“Does anyone have any cold medicine? I’m coffin too much,” the vampire joked.
Her boyfriend snickered. She stood stone faced.
“Maybe some fruit? I just love neck-tarines…”
The crowd chuckled good naturedly as it moved forward.
“I’m a bad artist,” the vampire continued. “I can only draw—blood.”
This time, she joined her boyfriend in giggling at the bad puns.
This was fun. It would be all right.
🜋 🜋 🜋
Five minutes later, she had dug her fingernails into her boyfriend’s arm.
“No! No! NO!” she shrieked, when they walked into the Mad Doctor’s Operating Room. The deranged patient lay supine on the surgical table, hacking off his own leg with a hatchet. Gouts of fake blood spewed everywhere. A ditzy nurse with a knife in her back gleefully mopped the floor.
“He’s chopping his leg! He’s chopping his leg!” his girlfriend repeated over and over, each time more shrill.
“Hey, it’s just an animal bone. Not a femur, I promise,” her boyfriend explained. “See? His real leg is tucked underneath the table.”
The next room was worse: the medieval torture chamber. A girl about her age was lashed to a rack, writhing in pain as a masked man ratcheted the wheel. A little farther down, another young girl was displayed, impaled in a solid iron cabinet with a hinged front and spike-covered interior.
“Behold, the maiden in the Iron Maiden!” announced her tormentor. He threw a bucket full of clear liquid that had the word “ACID” emblazoned on the front.
“Oh my god!” she howled, when they entered the Inferno, devils dancing in a demonic disco, all decorated in Day-Glo paint, illuminated by the black lights.
Her boyfriend just put his arm more tightly around her.
After a few more terrifying rooms, they finally exited the mill into an empty clearing. After the hay bale maze, all they had to do was to walk to the end of the lane where their friends awaited, no doubt drinking hot chocolate around a bonfire.
But the lane was lined with large oak trees, the perfect jump-scare alley.
“We’re almost through, okay?”
“Okay,” she said, blinking back hot tears.
They walked arm in arm.
In a flash, a werewolf loped over to them, long white fake fangs bared.
“GAH!” she screeched, dissolving into a gibbering mess, faced pressed into his shoulder.
“Look, Wolfman. Fuck off, okay?”
“Mwahahaha…” the wolf man laughed menacingly, returning to the woods.
“And you,” he said to his girlfriend. Girlfriend. What an inadequate word to call the love of his life. He would take her to prom. He would marry her. “Keep your eyes on me, okay?”
“But what if—”
He looked sternly at her.
“But what if—” she repeated.
“But what if—you give me this dance?” he said, fumbling with his iPhone, queuing up their favorite song. The first twangy chords of her parents’ wedding dance soothed her immediately. By the time Anne Murray crooned her country ballad, her boyfriend had taken her into his arms, faux-waltzing her through one horror after another.
A mummy staggered over, muttering ancient curses, but she was lost in her boyfriend’s eyes.
Frankenstein and his bride attempted to stop their progress, but he tucked a lock of hair behind her ear.
While Freddy Kruger and Jason Voorhees stood with dripping knives high overhead, even they paused to see the lovely young couple, enraptured, slow dancing down a lane of mayhem.
By the end of their dance, all the creatures and monsters and villains had come from the edges, applauding as a couple finished their dance, turning a night of tricks and treats into a veritable Valentine’s Day.