Yancey grew up in the house directly across the street from Tabitha’s house. Their houses were like mirror images of each other until, when Yancey was twelve, his dad chose the cheapest product available when he decided to give the house a new coat of paint. A year later and ever since, Yancey’s house could best be identified as the one with the white paint peeling off of it in tiny flakes, then in big chunks, then in massive strips.
Yancey and Tabitha were on friendly terms, though they never went out of their ways to spend time together. After high school, a lot of Yancey’s friends left town, but he noticed that Tabitha was still around, still living at home. Just like him. Sometimes he’d see her walking from her car to the front door of her house. Or walking from the front door of her house to the mailbox and back. Yancey had no romantic interest in Tabitha, but he did feel a specific kind of attraction to her. He didn’t want to be her boyfriend, but he often found himself wishing that, whatever it was she was involved with, he could be involved with it too. Tabitha hadn’t left Multioak either, but she didn’t seem like someone who would just live at home, work a mundane job, and play video games in the evening, which was all Yancey ever did. She seemed like someone who would be up to something.
And then, one Thursday evening after Yancey had just gotten home from his job at the Diamond Foods, Tabitha knocked on the front door. She told Yancey that she was going to design and build a haunted house for Halloween. She told him that she wanted him to be her assistant. Her reasoning, she said, was that Yancey seemed like he would follow orders without question or delay. She said it like a compliment and Yancey took it as one. He accepted the position on the spot.
Tabitha and Yancey, along with a rotating crew of laborers, had designed and built a new haunted house for every one of the six Halloweens since the spectacular success of that first haunted house. Each new haunted house was more ambitious, more elaborate, and more horrifying than the one that preceded it. Each year, Tabitha found a way to up the ante with her design and Yancey did everything in his power to help make that design a reality. It was a perfect partnership.
Word of the amazing, bizarre, and terrifying annual haunted house in Multioak spread. People came from all over the county, then from neighboring counties, then from all over the state. Some people even came from other states. Tabitha and Yancey were forced to begin limiting access to their haunted houses by only making a set number of tickets available online for each night. Tabitha didn’t want to be forced to make concessions in her designs in order to accommodate greater numbers of visitors. Besides, how scared could you really feel in the midst of a huge crowd of giggly, yelpy tweens? Tabitha also imposed an age restriction on the haunted houses. Visitors had to be at least 16 years and four months old. Yancey agreed with Tabitha on the numbers restriction and the age restriction and everything else. She was the genius. She knew best. It was that simple. The mere fact that she was willing to share even some of the credit with him was astounding to Yancey.
Tabitha hated dealing with the public, so Yancey took it upon himself to speak on her behalf. When people complained about controversial elements of the haunted houses, Yancey made impassioned arguments for Tabitha’s designs. When visitors claimed they hadn’t been scared to the degree they’d expected, Yancey chastised them for their narrow perspectives concerning the goals of haunted houses and encouraged them to withhold judgment until they’d given what they’d experienced in the haunted house time to sink in. When a well-known haunted house blogger named Doc Deadeyes gave Tabitha and Yancey’s fourth haunted house an unfavorable review because he found its “Banal Terror” theme “unfocused and incoherent,” Yancey got into an internet flame war with him that lasted for months. Yancey never resented the work. He truly believed in Tabitha’s expertise, in her process, in her rigorously critical approach to her own work. When people doubted the haunted houses, they were wrong. They were just wrong.
At 4 in the morning on November 1st after the final night of their seventh haunted house, Tabitha and Yancey sat in Yancey’s parents’ basement and drank painfully hot apple cider. They were both physically exhausted, but Yancey could tell Tabitha’s mind was racing. She kept falling silent in mid-sentence and staring down at her own right shoulder, a sign that Yancey had come to realize meant she was working her way through something that was troubling her. He stopped trying to make conversation and waited for her to come out with her conclusion. Or not, if she didn’t wish to share it with him. That was up to her. Yancey took another sip of his cider. The surface of his tongue was scorched. He turned his eyes to the TV as if it were broadcasting something interesting, which it was not because it was turned off.
“I’m bored with my own brain,” said Tabitha.
Yancey looked at her. She looked sad, but she always got a little sad right after a haunted house concluded. “The excitement will come back,” said Yancey. “It always does. Give it a couple of weeks.”
“I want a new brain to design with,” said Tabitha. “I want a brand new batch of experiences and sensibilities to draw from. I’m so tired of trying to wring fresh material out of my same old brain.”
“You’ll get more ideas,” said Yancey. “They’ll come to you.”
“I know I will!” said Tabitha. “I’ll get tons of ideas! But I don’t want those ideas!”
“Oh,” said Yancey. “Well, I don’t have any ideas, so…”
“I’m not asking for ideas, Yancey.”
Yancey said nothing just to be on the safe side.
“I’m going home,” said Tabitha. “I’ll be in touch.” She stood up and put on her coat, pulling its hood up and heading for the stairs on weary feet.
“I’ll be ready,” said Yancey. “As always.”
Yancey didn’t hear from Tabitha for two months. Tabitha’s silence troubled him, but he didn’t feel comfortable trying to visit her or calling her. When she was ready for his assistance in the past, she had always reached out to him. That’s how the partnership had started and that’s how it had continued and Yancey did not want to violate any unspoken terms of the partnership by crossing any implied boundaries. But he did worry about Tabitha. If he hadn’t heard from her, then that probably meant that she hadn’t yet begun working on the design for the next haunted house, which meant she was already behind schedule, which could potentially lead to the production of a haunted house that was below her usual standards, which could possibly cause its visitors to unfairly question her commitment or her genius. They might whisper that she was losing her touch, that she was going soft, that she was washed up. Yancey hoped and prayed that he would hear from Tabitha soon or, if not, that she was at least over there working on something. It would hurt him to be out of the loop now that he was so accustomed to being in the loop, but it would hurt even more to discover that the loop no longer existed and that no one had bothered to inform him.
Then, just after the New Year, Tabitha called Yancey in the middle of the night. “Someone else’s brain,” she said. “It can be done. I’ll design with someone else’s brain. I met someone who can help us.”
“Hiram Tyler Promuelle. He’s a disgraced hypnotherapist.”
Yancey was confused, but he had also just woken up. “And he has good ideas for a haunted house?”
“No!” said Tabitha. “I’m not using someone else’s ideas. This is my idea.”
“I’ll just be honest,” said Yancey. “I don’t get it.”
“We’ll meet in your basement tomorrow night,” said Tabitha. “I’ll bring Hiram Tyler Promuelle and we’ll discuss try-outs.”
“For whose brain I’ll be designing with! Forget it, I’ll explain it tomorrow.”
“Good night,” said Yancey to the mouthpiece of his connected-to-no-one phone.
The following night at 12:30, an hour after his parents had gone to bed without saying good night, Tabitha called Yancey and told him she and Hiram Tyler Promuelle were at the back door and to hurry up because they were freezing. Yancey went to the back door and found Tabitha on the step with a small, badly-bearded man in his early 60s lurking just behind her. As soon as they stepped into the kitchen, Hiram stepped up to Yancey, peered straight into his face, and said, “Tabitha, cancel the search. Our search is over. This is our mind.”
Yancey was confused, but his first concern was not waking his parents. They were openly irritated with him for continuing to live at home and they did not like Tabitha and they did not like haunted houses of any kind and, most pertinent at the moment, they did not like being disturbed once they’d gone to bed. “Keep it down,” whispered Yancey. “We’ll talk in the basement.”
Hiram turned to Tabitha. “This is everything we need, I tell you. Right here! Right under your nose this whole time! Your own assistant!” He made no effort to keep his voice down.
“Shh! Shh!” Yancey hustled Hiram towards the basement stairs. He didn’t know what Hiram was talking about, but it sounded both exciting and worrying.
In the basement, Tabitha and Hiram sat side by side on the couch. When Hiram leaned back, the heels of his wet, brown loafers lifted off of the carpet. As Tabitha and Hiram spoke to each other in low tones, Yancey dragged a grayish green recliner into the middle of the room, faced it towards the couch, and sat down.
Tabitha shushed Hiram and looked at Yancey for a moment. Then she said, “Remember what I told you after the last haunted house? About wanting to design with someone else’s brain?”
Yancey just nodded. He didn’t want to say the wrong thing.
“Well, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I’ve been consumed with the idea. And so I began to search for a way to make it happen. And, after many false leads, I found Hiram. With Hiram’s help, I can do it. I can design a haunted house with the brain of another person. He knows how to get me inside a different brain.”
“Oh,” said Yancey, knowing he was making a mistake before he even finished speaking. “So you can use some of their ideas?”
Tabitha said nothing but Yancey could tell she was furious. He didn’t blame her. He now realized that his question was ridiculous, though he wasn’t exactly sure in what way or ways.
“No,” Tabitha finally said. “The ideas will be my own. The other person’s brain will be the source of the raw material from which my ideas will spring. I honestly am not trying to be mean, Yancey, but do you know what an idea even is?”
“I do,” said Yancey. “Sorry, it was a dumb question. Sorry.”
“OK,” said Tabitha. “I just want it to be clear that even though I will be designing with another person’s mind, this will still be my design. It’s like I’m a musician who only plays songs on the alto saxophone. But then, one day, I borrow someone’s tenor saxophone. And I play a song on that instead. See? Or a movie director who makes a film based on a true story. The raw material doesn’t belong to the director, but the film is still very much the director’s work. See?”
“That’s clear,” said Yancey. “Clear to me anyway. There’ll probably be a bunch of idiots who don’t get it, though. As usual.”
“I’m sure,” said Tabitha. Her tone had layers. Yancey heard them but chose not to attempt to analyze them. “So,” Tabitha went on. “We came over here tonight so that I could task you with setting up some kind of casting call to find someone whose mind I could design with. Hiram was going to explain the specific kinds of people you would have been searching for, specific traits to look for, specific backgrounds, that kind of thing. That way you could have narrowed down the search for us so we wouldn’t have had to examine everyone who volunteered.”
“I’ll be happy to do all of that,” said Yancey. “Just tell me what I need to know. Hold on, let me find my notepad.”
“No,” said Tabitha. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. That’s what we intended to do here tonight, but now we don’t have to. Hiram says that you are the perfect candidate.”
Hiram nodded. “I knew it the moment I saw you. Everything we’re looking for. Everything we need. A deep well of raw material for Tabitha to transform into brilliant ideas.”
“Me?” asked Yancey. “You see that in me?” He looked at Tabitha. “You want to design the next haunted house using my brain?”
“Why not?” asked Tabitha. “You’re my assistant, after all. You’ve been with me since the beginning. It’s perfect. And, of course, Hiram insists that you’re the ideal candidate.”
“I’m happy to help,” said Yancey. “I’m always happy to assist you however I can. But I don’t understand why I’m the perfect candidate for this. I mean, why am I the perfect candidate again?”
Hiram leaned forward on the couch, curving his hands into crescent shapes in front of his face as he spoke, looking at Yancey with nearly-religious fervor. “Son, you are the ideal candidate because you have horror within you just waiting to be drawn out. Deep, rich reserves of horror, untapped and unexplored. I can see it in you. Yes, right there. There it is again.”
“No offense,” said Yancey. “But I don’t know if you’re, well, right, really. I mean, I don’t feel like I’ve got any rich horror reserves or whatever. I feel pretty normal most of the time. I sleep all right. I don’t ever feel too scared.”
“That means nothing,” said Hiram. “In fact, that confirms what I had already discerned about you which, of course, did not require confirmation, but nonetheless, it is confirmed. This horror within you is not something of which you would be conscious, son. If you were, it would undoubtedly drive you to madness. You deal with it only on the deepest levels. Perhaps in the form of a recurring dream which you do not remember upon waking. Perhaps in the form of habits which correspond in ways beyond your comprehension to the substance of the horror. Perhaps in the form of bizarre expressions that you cannot feel which contort your features when you’re alone and unaware. What is your favorite number, 408 or 409?”
“Um,” said Yancey, trying to remember which one of those two numbers was his favorite. “409!” He said it with confidence in an effort to feel that confident.
“Ah, of course,” said Hiram. “409.”
“Yancey,” said Tabitha. “We’re going to try to access your deep horror reserves now. While you’re in the trance, we’re going to search until we find it so that I can study it and use it to design the next haunted house. Do you understand?”
“What trance?” asked Yancey.
“The one you’re in now,” said Hiram. “The one you entered when you chose your favorite number. 409, remember?”
“I remember 409,” said Yancey. “My all-time favorite number.” Everyone stood up and Yancey took his shirt off and lay down on the couch, his feet propped up on the arm rest and his head on a pillow. Hiram knelt next to him and took out a scalpel, opening Yancey from the middle of his chest to his belly button with one smooth cut. Then, without putting on gloves, Hiram began to gently paw through Yancey’s exposed guts while Tabitha stood over them, looking down with an expression of fascination mixed with mild disgust.
“Here it is,” said Hiram, and he pulled a sticky, pinkish orb out of Yancey’s body, holding it up between his thumb and ring finger.
“What is that thing?” asked Yancey.
“It’s your sclupura sac.”
“I didn’t know people had those.”
“‘People’ don’t have them,” said Hiram. “You do. And a few others, maybe. Don’t worry about having it removed. It’s like tonsils or a gall bladder but much, much less dull.”
Hiram stood up and handed the sclupura sac to Tabitha. “This is perfect,” said Tabitha. “Exactly what I need.”
“Go ahead and take it,” said Yancey. “If it’ll help.”
“Thank you,” said Tabitha. She said it like she didn’t feel Yancey’s permission was really necessary.
Hiram stood up and cracked his spindly little neck.
“Are you going to sew me up?” asked Yancey.
“Do you really think that’s the best use of time?” asked Tabitha. “Even in a trance?”
“I guess not,” said Yancey, feeling foolish.
When he woke up, it was 3:34 a.m. and he was not in a trance. He was stretched out on the couch. Hiram and Tabitha were gone and the lights were off in the basement. Someone had draped a blanket over him. “That was thoughtful,” said Yancey to the blanket itself, which was utterly incapable of hearing his words.
The following afternoon, Tabitha informed Yancey over the phone that he was finished with his contribution to that year’s haunted house. “You’ve assisted so much already, Yancey. I don’t need any more from you. The material we got from your brain is very inspiring.”
“But I want to help out with more stuff,” said Yancey. “I don’t really feel like I’ve done anything.”
“It all happened while you were in the trance,” said Tabitha. “You talked and talked. You described your hidden horror to us in vivid detail. Trust me, you’ve done plenty.”
“I can help build it, though,” said Yancey. “I can pick up supplies, I can help with the marketing, I can source flyer layouts. I can talk to the press. All my usual jobs.”
“No, Yancey. Hiram tells me that it wouldn’t be safe for you to be closely involved with this haunted house on a conscious level. There’s a reason you’ve kept this horror hidden and it might be dangerous for you to confront a physical manifestation of it.”
“Wait, wait,” said Yancey. “Are you telling me that you’re using my mind to design it and I can’t even see it? I don’t even get to go through it?”
“No, Yancey. Definitely not. Hiram doesn’t know how you’d react. You might have a total breakdown.”
Yancey felt as if he might cry. “So. But. What can I do?”
“You’ve already done it,” said Tabitha. “Don’t be upset, Yancey. You’re the star! I’m even naming it after you.”
“What are you naming it?”
“I haven’t decided yet,” said Tabitha. “But it’ll have your name in it.”
“Can I name it?” asked Yancey.
“No,” said Tabitha. “I’ve got plenty of ideas for the name. Trust me.”
Yancey spent the rest of the evening browsing the internet for a new power cord for his laptop just in case his current power cord stopped working. He didn’t buy one.
Yancey was adrift. Weeks and months passed. The winter, the spring, the summer. Whenever Yancey called Tabitha, she patiently answered his questions concerning the progress of the haunted house in the most general possible terms, not wanting to give him any inkling of the specific details for fear that they would cause him irreparable psychological harm. “Just tell me,” Yancey said. “I’ll be fine. It came from my brain! I have a right to know stuff that came from my brain.”
“No,” said Tabitha. “Hiram said it’s dangerous and he knows much more about it than you do. You don’t know anything about it.”
Yancey twice tried to visit the empty former nursing home on the south side of Multioak where the haunted house was under construction, but both times Tabitha herself turned him away at the door, clearly exasperated with his refusal to understand that she had only his own well-being in mind.
“You can’t,” said Tabitha. “You just can’t, Yancey. I’m sorry. I wish you could. I could really use your expert assistance right now, but your contribution to this year’s haunted house is already complete. Please. The best thing you can do to assist me is stop making me have to deal with you.”
In August, Tabitha informed Yancey via text message that she had decided to name the haunted house Yancey. She asked him if she and a photographer could come by sometime to take a picture of him. Yancey agreed.
The photographer was an overweight young man whose face had no clear shape.
“What’s the picture for?” asked Yancey. They were in his parents’ basement.
“I wish we could do something about the light down here,” said the photographer.
“Promotional purposes,” said Tabitha. “I want people to see your face. I want people to see the face of the man from whose brain came the raw material that I used to design the haunted house.”
“The face of the one man who isn’t even allowed to hear about the haunted house,” said Yancey.
“Stop pouting,” said Tabitha. “I’m sure you’ll hear about it once people have gone through it.”
“So what if I get psychologically harmed then?”
“I hope you won’t,” said Tabitha. “Hiram said there’s a chance that only hearing about it won’t trouble you too much. Maybe not at all. A verbal account of something that to you is entirely imagistic may not affect you in the slightest. But I’m not going to take that risk.”
“But there is a risk. Great. Thanks a lot.”
“You assumed that level of risk yourself when you agreed to let me use your brain.”
“I’m being exploited,” said Yancey.
“Would you rather I design the haunted house using someone else’s brain?” asked Tabitha.
“No!” said Yancey, surprised at the vehemence of his response.
Tabitha, however, did not seem surprised, which irritated Yancey. “Then let us take your picture, please. Don’t smile. Eyes a little wider. Lips slightly parted. Straight into the camera. Tilt your chin down some more. More.”
“I’m going to look disturbed,” said Yancey.
Tabitha didn’t deny it.
Yancey the haunted house, not the man, was a rousing success. Tabitha insisted that Yancey the man was also a rousing success by association, but he didn’t feel like a rousing success. He felt like he was out of the loop. Out of touch.
“People ask about you every night,” said Tabitha. “Everyone asks about you. People want to meet you.”
Yancey sat on the couch in his parents’ basement and watched a DVRed football game at four times the regular speed. The sound was also muted. And he wasn’t really watching it. “Why would they want to meet me?”
“Because the haunted house scared them so much,” said Tabitha. “It’s named after you, Yancey. Your mind is the source of the raw material that became this haunted house. You are, in many ways, synonymous with this haunted house which many are calling our best ever. Did you read Doc Deadeyes’ review? Let me read you a quote. ‘Yancey’s almost offensively surreal visions taken on their own would feel like bad art installations, but when refined by Tabitha’s exquisite aptitude for forward-thinking haunted house design, they become just palatable enough to allow the visitor a distant glimpse of genuine horror, the kind that transcends seasonal entertainment and provides haunted house aficionados with a uniquely sickening sensation powerful enough to linger in the soul for days.’”
“Congratulations,” said Yancey, sounding exactly as petulant as he meant to.
“I’m calling to congratulate you, Yancey.”
“Well, don’t,” said Yancey. “You keep telling me how important I am to this haunted house, but whatever, I don’t feel important. I didn’t do anything. You used a part of me that I didn’t even know I had and I still don’t know what it was. It might as well have come from someone else. I felt way prouder of the haunted houses where I was ordering supplies and talking to safety inspectors and fetching hot tea for you, Tabitha.”
“Yancey,” said Tabitha. “You’re a very good assistant. But there are other people in the world, probably even in this town, who could assist me in the ways you just described as well as you do. But no one else could have contributed the raw material that I used for this haunted house except for you. You are the only possible source in the whole world. I’m sorry if you can’t take pride in that, but you should.”
“But it’s not a talent,” said Yancey. “It’s not a skill, it’s not even a choice. It was just in me. Like a weird organ. A little sclupura sac stashed inside of me for some arbitrary reason. It might not even be mine. Maybe someone else was just keeping it there temporarily.”
“Some of the words you’re using sound like nonsense,” said Tabitha. “But the material I used for this haunted house is not inside of you for no reason, Yancey. It’s there for a purpose, I know it is. It’s yours. It is distinctly a product of all that is you. That’s what makes it so valuable. And so scary.”
“I’m not scary,” said Yancey, and he hung up the phone.
He had no idea that the silent, sped up touchdown catch playing on the TV in front of his eyes had just broken a record many thought to be unbreakable.
It was 4 in the morning on November 1st and Yancey the haunted house had been closed for the year for two hours. Around noon, a clean-up crew would come in to begin disassembling it. But for now, the parking lot was empty and so, presumably, was the haunted house. Yancey parked his car in the lot and walked to the front door, a flashlight in one hand and a key in the other. Tabitha and Yancey’s last four haunted houses had been located in the old nursing home, and as Tabitha’s assistant, Yancey had always had a key of his own. Even though he hadn’t assisted in his usual capacity this year, no one had asked Yancey to return the key so he hadn’t. In fact, he’d forgotten he still had it until tonight.
He opened the front door and slipped inside. Everything was dark, switched off, powered down. Yancey turned on his flashlight and shone it around the staging area where the visitors had waited to be sent through the heavy black door and into the haunted house in staggered groups of two or three. The entrance to the haunted house, the black door, had a framed portrait of Yancey hanging on it. Yancey recognized the picture as one of those the photographer had taken in his basement. At the time, Yancey had been worried he would look disturbed, which was probably what Tabitha had been hoping for, but seeing the picture here, Yancey thought he just looked silly. There was no furniture in the staging area except a card table with a stack of leaflets on it. The leaflets had that same picture of him on them. Yancey picked up one of the leaflets and skimmed the text. It was all about how Hiram Tyler Promuelle had used his innovative techniques to put Yancey into a trance and tap into his deep horror reserve which Tabitha then drew on to generate frightening new ideas for the haunted house. The leaflet went on and on about the process in some pretty flowery language, explaining and re-explaining. The closing line was, “Prepare yourself, for what you are about to experience is a deftly arranged distillation of the actual content of a previously unexplored corner of psyche of a very real, seemingly average, local man named Yancey.” Yancey tossed the leaflet to the ground and, ignoring the foolish gaze of his own portrait, opened the heavy black door and entered the haunted house.
Maybe it would have been different with the power on. Maybe it would have been different with the sound track playing through the hidden PA system, with the actors present and in costume and playing their obsessively rehearsed roles. Maybe it would have been different if he’d been part of a group with one or two other people. But as it was - just Yancey and his flashlight in the dark, making his way through the maze of strange settings and displays - Yancey did not find the haunted house scary. Nor did he find it psychologically troubling. Really, the only response the haunted house provoked in him was one of irritation. After all the drama, all the arguing with Tabitha, all the speeches about the dangers of Yancey being exposed to this haunted house, it was just another haunted house. Weird, yes, but not appreciably more weird than year three’s “Look to the Always,” theme, which Yancey had never fully understood no matter how many times Tabitha had repeated the phrase, “horror of the continuous.”
None of what Yancey was seeing in the haunted house that bore his name resonated in an exceptional way. There was a lot of a dark yellow color that Yancey couldn’t put a more specific name to and, to his knowledge, had never seemed important to him before and didn’t seem important to him now either. Neither did he get the significance of the narrow hallways covered on all sides with thick layers of saran wrap, the pit half-filled with a dark liquid with capsized toy boats floating on its surface, the rusty iron cages packed full of wadded up bed sheets wrapped in saran wrap. What was the deal with saran wrap? Yancey supposed that was probably a question visitors had wanted to ask him, but he didn’t know the answer. He didn’t think he’d even be able to make up an answer. Not one that would satisfy people, anyway.
Yancey wandered through the haunted house for what felt like hours, shining his flashlight on all sides, looking for anything familiar. Even one thing. Sometimes he would recognize a certain scene, like the wooden stools of widely disparate heights circled around a birdcage covered in a filmy, gray material and labeled “honeymoon,” but then he would realize he only recognized it because he’d already passed it once, not because it was an image from his subconscious mind that had drifted up to his conscious mind at some point in the past. He began to wonder if something had been lost in translation. Maybe when he in his trance had described the contents of his deep horror reserve to Tabitha, some miscommunication had occurred. Undoubtedly his fault, of course. He’d never been that good with words. Or maybe – he didn’t want to consider this possibility – but maybe he hadn’t given Tabitha anything at all. Maybe these were just her ideas formed from the raw material of her own brain, just like usual, but she was telling people it all originated from Yancey’s deep horror reserve in order to cause people to view it in a different light, to cause people who had been to her previous haunted houses to approach this one from a fresh perspective, to re-allow themselves to be really scared while under the illusion that they were seeing the kind of horror which could be implanted deep within them as well, for all they knew.
Maybe that’s why Tabitha hadn’t wanted Yancey to see the haunted house or hear anything about it until it was over. She knew none of it would mean anything to him and thus the authenticity of the whole conceit of the haunted house would be called into question. Yancey’s heart began to pound, not from fright, but from a rising sense of injustice. He walked faster, the beam of his flashlight darting crazily in front of him as if trying to evade him. Yancey walked down a long, dark yellow hall lined on both sides with the portrait of a man in his mid-twenties looking straight into the camera, unsmiling, eyes wide, lips slightly parted, chin tilted down. Just by looking, Yancey could tell there was something deeply wrong with the man in the picture.
Yancey finally found what he thought was the haunted house’s exit, but when he walked through it, he found that he was back in the staging area. He’d emerged from the haunted house through the entrance. It was still dark outside. Yancey let the heavy black door swing closed behind him. He could feel the man in the picture glowering at his back, glowering up at him from the leaflets on the table. He left the old nursing home without locking it behind him. He drove recklessly through the streets of Multioak, honking the car horn in a repeated arrhythmic pattern. He skidded to a stop on Tabitha’s front lawn. He threw Tabitha’s mother’s birdbath through the living room window and clambered after it into the house, cutting his hands and knees on broken glass as he staggered to his feet.
“Tabitha!” he bellowed. “I’m here to assist you!” It was never too early to start planning for next year.