"Doesn't matter who you are or what you believe. Everybody has a ghost story."
My father said those words to me as a child whenever I would question his life's work. Scratch that. His life's obsession.
I came to learn that he was right. Everybody has had at least one of those moments when their insides say something's happening that's far outside of normal. A fleeting second when something is seen moving out of the corner of their eye. A prick at the back of the neck alerting them to a presence. A location that for no discernible reason fills them with dread.
I had plenty of my own stories of ghosts and the paranormal. As Maia Peters, daughter of the famous Malcolm and Carmen Peters, it was to be expected. I thought I knew everything there was to know about the paranormal. One warm night in New York City, I found out just how wrong I was.
A sign just inches from my face read "YOU WILL BE TERRIFIED" in a scrawled typeface. The words were blood red, splattered in a sloppy fashion across a plank of rotted wood.
I looked at the sign not with suspicion or doubt, just weariness. It was the third such sign to be thrust in my face since my friends and I had stepped into the line. It might have seemed more authentic had "Ghost Town®" not been printed in the bottom right corner of the faux wood.
"There was always this one closet at my grandparents' house that gave me the creeps when I was growing up," said Jill, rubbing her gloved hands together both to keep warm and—I assumed— out of nervousness. "It was a linen closet in the bathroom at the back of the house, and it was really dark inside. Whenever I looked in there ... I don't know. It made me feel cold all over."
Jill had been my roommate at Columbia University for our sophomore and junior years. For our senior year, I was paying extra for solo on-campus housing.
Angela, meanwhile, was Jill's best friend since high school. She was similarly coifed with long, straight hair, and talked so much like Jill that I often thought their brains were psychically linked. At Jill's words, Angela shivered slightly but smiled. "I've got one," she said, glancing around to make sure none of the other amusement park patrons in this line were listening too closely. "When I was like nine or ten, sometimes my great-aunt would pick me up after school and I'd stay at her house for a couple of hours until my dad got off work. Her husband was this really mean old guy who'd done all these awful, evil things to her, but he died before I was born. She kept this old recliner in the house that belonged to him, and I hated it. It was ratty and nasty, and it smelled funny. And when I was in the room with it alone ... I swear sometimes I could see a figure out of the corner of my eye. When I'd turn to look, there was nobody there. But for just a second, it was like this guy was standing right there watching me, and he wasn't moving. It terrified me to death, even though I eventually figured it was all in my head."
"Wow," said Jill, her eyes wide and sincere.
"Here's the really crazy part. After a few years, my aunt decided to finally get rid of that chair. And would you believe—after it was gone, I never saw the figure again."
"Ooooh," said Jill, not quite grinning but still enthusiastic. I saw Angela and her glance my direction, hoping for a response.
I think they were frustrated when I didn't react to either story. I couldn't help it; I was bored and distracted by thoughts of the beginning of classes in a few days. I leaned out and inspected the line the three of us stood in, estimating there were at least a hundred people in front of us, waiting to enter the ride. It was going to be a long night.
Jill and Angela were hardly my closest friends, if I even had anyone in my life who qualified. But Jill always paid her portion of the dorm room rent on time and never threw any parties—she just attended them elsewhere with Angela—so I found it hard to complain about the two of them. Even if I wasn't all that compatible with them, personality-wise.
They'd gone out of their way to invite me on this little presenior-
year jaunt, even though, as Angela had not so delicately put it, "We realize this isn't something you're dying to do, because of ... well, you know."
It was an unspoken but absolute rule in the dorm that no one ever talked about my upbringing. I wasn't ashamed of it, or even made uncomfortable talking about it. It wasn't some big trauma, either. It was just ... out of the ordinary. Way out. And I wasn't interested in looking back. I only wanted to look ahead.
But I had impulsively agreed to come along with them, and the pleasantly surprised faces that Jill and Angela displayed when I said yes were all too genuine, and I knew why. I was serious about my studies and my chosen major, and I wanted very badly to be taken seriously. But senior year hadn't yet begun, and as crass as I knew this silly trip would probably be, the truth was, I longed for a little company. My last friendship had ended badly, and I was surprised at how much I missed the companionship and solidarity of having someone around. It was something I'd never expected to need, but once it was gone, I wanted it more than ever.
"So what's your biggest fear?" asked Jill, trying to keep the conversation going.
"Um," ventured Angela, "forgetting to wear clothes to class?"
Jill laughed. "That's not scary, that's just embarrassing! I'm talking about knee-quivering, pee-inducing, 'I-want-my-mommy' kind of terrified. What scares you that bad?"
"I don't know," replied Angela as the three of us wormed through the zig-zagging line and I took another peek at the line's progress, trying subtly to distance myself from this conversation. "The thought of being chased through the woods by a crazed ax murderer?" Angela finally answered.
Jill laughed again. "Well, it's a cliché, but it's scary, I'll give you that. Personally, I don't think there's anything worse than a creepy little girl. I mean, think about all those old movies and video games where some bizarre, detached little girl with haunted eyes just stares blankly at everyone while terrible things happen to them. It's like she has no soul. It freaks me out just thinking about it!"
We turned another corner in the line and my eyes found a new sign. This one warned, "YOU MIGHT VOMIT."
Jill and Angela laughed nervously at the sight, but then Angela turned to me. "What about you, Maia? What's the scariest thing you've ever seen?"
My mind slowed down for a moment, and my eyes shifted slowly to Angela as an answer came immediately to mind. "Uh ... I don't think I should say."
Both girls watched me with sudden caution. Their demeanors betrayed that they knew they'd suddenly trodden into unwanted territory. "Why not?" Angela almost whispered.
The only answer I could give was the honest one.
"Because if I told you, you would wish I hadn't."
I looked away from their stunned expressions, trying to act nonchalant. Finally, after a long pause, I heard Jill exhale quickly in a halfhearted attempt at laughter, but it came out awkwardly and sounded like a nervous cough.
They quickly changed the subject. "Did you hear about that children's advocacy group that's suing Ghost Town because its rides are so scary?" asked Jill.
"That's so stupid!" replied Angela. "I mean, if you're dumb enough to bring your kids someplace like this, you deserve whatever you get."
I'd heard about it, too. It was big news. Having opened just six months ago, Ghost Town amusement park had become the hottest ticket in America. Fright junkies from all over the world were drawn to its state-of-the-art thrills and chills, which were reported to contain the most realistic recreations of the paranormal ever fashioned. I doubted that claim very much, having seen the paranormal firsthand, and knowing it to be nothing like the over-the-top digital effects displayed in Hollywood horror films.
Truth was always stranger than fiction, after all.
But the place was a source of intrigue, I had to admit. Almost as soon as it had opened, Ghost Town had landed at the center of controversy. There were endless reports of attendees suffering ongoing terrors by the things they'd experienced here, some supposedly even requiring psychiatric counseling—which of course only added to the place's popularity. The crown jewel in Ghost Town's arsenal was the Haunted House, which was supposed to be unlike any other haunted house ever built. It aimed to become known as "the definitive paranormal experience"—a guided walkthrough tour that promised a face-to-face with the most authentic depiction of ghosts and apparitions ever seen. The Haunted House ride was the most popular attraction at the park, it was the main reason for all of the controversy, and it was the very ride that the three of us were in line waiting to enter.
As our place in line moved up and we read more of the foreboding signs, each increasing in its dire predictions, I couldn't help noticing that Jill and Angela were growing progressively more anxious. Their laughs were more nervous and their jokes cracked at a higher volume.
I was no more nervous now than I was at any other time in my life. I just couldn't be.
Growing up, I'd seen and done things that these two weren't equipped to imagine. I knew it would take more than a fun house to rattle me—a lot more—no matter how technologically advanced it was.
I wondered again why I'd agreed to come along, when I had so much prep to do for school.
Angela and Jill were looking extra nervous now, but fortunately Angela could always be counted on to fill any awkward silence.
"You know that thing when you walk from a bright room into a dark room and you think you see, like, a faint light that shouldn't be in there?"
Jill had her mouth open to respond when I spoke first. I didn't mean it to come out sounding condescending, but there was a clinical tone to my voice. "It's a retinal afterimage. A trick of the eye. An impression of residual light after the light's source has left your field of vision."
"I know," replied Angela, who smiled. "But it's still creepy."
I chuckled without humor, shaking my head.
"Yeah," added Jill, "and if the dark room has a mirror, it's even more—"
Jill's words were interrupted when something lunged at the three of us from the right of the line, emitting a terrifying, otherworldly sound.
Jill and Angela both screamed at the top of their lungs, clutching at each other. It was a spectral form that glowed with a jaundiced iridescence. But it was just a fancy fake, an advanced animatronic with billowing black fabric robes and a face made to look like authentically rotting flesh that had been partially peeled off to reveal the bones underneath. It moved with smooth grace, spiraling around us, on some kind of hidden magnetic track in the ground. Its mouth looked remarkably real as it opened wide to let out its chilling scream.
But no matter how real it looked, it was just another part of the park.
We watched as it raised a single hand to point at the three of us while it "flew" away backwards on its hidden rails, off to scare some other poor souls elsewhere in the park.
My friends were pale white, but laughing now, as were half a dozen others in line on either side of us. I think it took a few moments for Jill to realize that I hadn't screamed like they had. And that I wasn't nearly as amused by all this as they were. I felt like the Grinch who stole Halloween.
"That didn't scare you at all?" Jill moaned.
My arms were crossed and had never unfolded as the "specter" attacked us. I replied, "I saw it coming." I nodded behind Jill and Angela, in the direction the animatronic creature had come from.
Jill and Angela seemed put out by my inability to be frightened, and I suddenly wondered if my lack of outward enthusiasm might be misinterpreted as being ungrateful for the invite. I decided to put some effort into perking up for their benefit.
The line moved again just then, and I caught my first glimpse of the Haunted House as the three of us rounded a corner. "Is that it?" I asked, doing my best to sound at least a little intimidated by the looks of it.
Truth be told, it wasn't what I'd expected. With the out-ofcontrol hype surrounding this walk-through "ride," I had pictured some huge monstrosity made to look like an ornate mansion that Bela Lugosi might come wafting out of in his full Dracula cape. I'd imagined seeing candles and creepy old lampposts layered with cobwebs adorning the outer edges of the attraction, a creaking, rusted iron gate that sealed off the property, and a chimney coughing out black smoke.
Ghost World's Haunted House had none of these things.
The most surprising aspect of it was its size. The Haunted House was remarkably small, made to resemble a ramshackle condemned house with no more than five or six rooms. It looked weathered and old—at least fifty years and seemingly more. It had only one level, and all its windows were boarded up, with no light escaping from inside. There was no precision to its appearance; every part of it looked like the whole structure was barely holding together. The pieces of metal and wood attached to its sides and roof were various shades of black or gray or muddy brown. It looked like something one of the hillbillies in Deliverance might have cobbled together up on a lonely mountain.
A basic screen door on the side of the house served as the entrance, resting at the end point of the line in which we stood.
It was all smoke and mirrors, of course, and I imagined that the peeling paint around the windows, the chipped mortar, and rotted wood were some sort of composite materials crafted intentionally to look weathered by decades of decay.
One final sign caught our attention. It read, "YOU MAY HAVE NIGHT TERRORS."
I had to look away in order to conceal a yawn I couldn't quite swallow.
A female amusement park worker in a blood-stained white apron smiled as she handed the three of us complimentary barf bags with the Ghost Town logo emblazoned on them. "Just in case," she said cheerfully.
I saw Angela and Jill glance at one another, their faces betraying a severe unease. The Haunted House was less than fifty feet directly ahead now, and I noticed that it had been intentionally hidden from visitors out wandering through the park by clever use of foliage and the wooden fencing surrounding the line to get in.
No doubt to add to its mystique, I thought.
One of the reasons the line was so long for the Haunted House ride was that large groups could not enter at one time. Ghost Town policy was for no more than four individuals to take the Haunted House tour together, so entrance was staggered as a few tourists were let in every few minutes.
Jill opted to keep our group to just the three of us, so when our turn finally came and the dark kitchen door creaked open by itself, only Jill, Angela, and I stepped inside.
It was almost completely dark in this first room, but the musty smell of mold and mildew saturated my senses at once. The exterior door slammed shut, seemingly on its own, and Angela and Jill jumped. Now it was totally dark and completely silent.
After a long twenty seconds of waiting, nothing happened, and all three of us were still standing in the same spot.
"Are we supposed to do something?" whispered Angela, breaking the silence.
As if in response, a deep, gravelly voice that was half whispering and half groaning spoke. The voice was distant, as if coming from somewhere else in the building, yet it was undeniably directed at us as it slowly intoned, "You ... don't ... belong ... here."
I heard my two companions holding their breath as a pair of red pinpoint lights appeared in the middle of the room and fixed on each of us in turn, disembodied eyes sizing the three of us up.
I glanced to my left and saw in the darkness that Angela and Jill had sidestepped instinctively toward each other for safety.
The deep, throaty voice spoke again, louder this time, as the two eye-lights burned brighter in intensity. "GET ... OUT ... OF ... THIS ... PLACE!"
A door across the room leading farther into the building was flung open with a bang, and without waiting to be told again, Jill and Angela fled the kitchen to enter the next room. I hesitated, appraising the two red lights, which had fixed on me now and, remarkably, followed me as I walked toward the next room.
It was a nifty effect.
Inside the next room, the kitchen door behind me shut itself silently this time. Angela and Jill were practically hugging each other in the small dining room of the house, around which were six chairs. And in each one of the chairs sat what I assumed were holographic projections of ghostly figures. The clothes or rags they wore billowed and flowed around them as if they were underwater, and the figures themselves gave off a slightly bluish glow, the only light in the room.
The figures were incredibly detailed and three-dimensional, but my opinion of the ride's quality plummeted at the sight. Real apparitions never looked anything like this. These "ghosts" were pure Hollywood magic.
My companions were far more convinced than I was. Especially when the spirit at the head of the table, an elderly man with craggy fingers and clothes that hung from his bones, turned and locked his sunken eyes directly on to Jill. His eyes were filled with hate, and seemed to pierce right through whatever remaining courage Jill was holding on to. His gaze grew in intensity and vitriol until Jill inexplicably shouted, "I'm sorry!"
I still have no idea what Jill was apologizing for, but I knew at the time that it was a knee-jerk response to something Jill found terrifying. The "spirit" looked down on her as if she lived in a gutter, judgment and fury burning in his eyes. The expression was a bit chilling, I had to admit.
The old-man apparition bared his teeth, which were broken and black, to her and opened his mouth wider and wider until it went far past the point at which a human mouth could be opened. It grew bigger and longer, and ever so slowly, he rose from his place at the table and started gliding across the floor toward her.
Jill's hand reached out and grasped Angela's just as Angela was about to slide away, leaving Jill on her own. As the old man came closer to her, but never moving at more than a snail's pace, the other five apparitions at the table rose from their seats and began inching toward both Jill and Angela.
Angela screamed as the old man came close enough to touch her, and suddenly everything went dark and a cold gust of wind blew through the room, whipping up all around us.
I was starting to understand why this place was so popular. But nothing I'd experienced had brought me remotely close to feeling fear. It was all extremely well done, using advanced technologies to astounding effect. But it was too perfect, too scripted down to the last detail, to elicit the desired response. At least from me.
I knew better.
After a bathroom, a brief detour into the basement where numerous things jumped out at us, and a bedroom, where the bed and all the furniture hung from the ceiling, we entered a long, narrow hallway. The house's power attempted to surge to life, but managed only halfhearted blinks and flickers before going out completely. Once all was quiet, something resembling a guttural growl filled the hall, and it began to shake violently, nearly forcing the three of us off our feet.
It was clever, this techno-paranormal wizardry.
I walked at a brisk pace, mostly to keep up with my terrified and sprinting friends, in an attempt to keep them from feeling ridiculous. I felt no fear at anything we'd seen or done. It was all too much like being inside a special effects–filled movie on the big screen. It may have contained a few vague references to the reality of the paranormal—evidence of someone's attempt at real-
world research—but there was nothing genuinely supernatural about any of it.
The hallway grew narrower at the far end, and I followed Jill and Angela through a small door, spilling out into yet another dark room. This one was decorated as the house's living room.
I knew we had to be near the end of the attraction, as double front doors lay directly ahead of us. But first, of course, we would have to face whatever artificial "thrills" awaited us here.
From their pale-white faces and wide-eyed expressions, I could see that my friends were ready to get out of there. I knew that in another minute or two, they would be outside in the warm night air, laughing it all off, pretending to have never been afraid at all. But right now I was sure they were sweating.
Which I suddenly realized was odd, because I was feeling a distinct cold sensation running through my entire body, hair to toenails. I had an abrupt chill, but resisted the urge to hug myself, knowing this was probably just a cleverly directed airflow built into the room.
Still, it felt oddly authentic, just like a cold spot. A real cold spot, a phenomenon I knew very well.
No lights ever came on in the room, but my eyes had adjusted enough to the darkness by now that I could make out most of the room's mundane details—a dilapidated rocking chair, a crumbling fireplace against one wall, curtains barely clinging to the windows on either side of the front doors.
I was taken aback for the first time when a mist suddenly entered the room and began to swirl about. It didn't come down through the chimney or blow in through a crack in the windows, it passed through the wall to my left. Yet this white mist didn't billow or blow, it flowed with intention, like living wind. It swirled up all around me like a tiny whirlwind, and I was surprised to find that it was no hologram or trick of lights. It was a tangible substance that I could feel touching my skin, ever so lightly.
Only a few times before had I experienced anything like it, and those occasions were genuine hauntings.
Okay, Ghost Town, I thought as the mist swirled through my hair, moving it about. I don't know how you're pulling this off, but bravo. This is your best trick yet.
A faint voice whispered in my ear, a female voice. I couldn't make out what it was saying, but if it was a special effect, it was impossibly good, because it couldn't have been coming from speakers hidden in the ceiling or the walls. It was right beside me, in the center of the room.
My heart thumped heavily as I rewound the voice in my head and thought for just a moment that it might have said my name. I instinctively grabbed my own chest, trying to coax my heart to keep beating.
My breath was visible as I exhaled, almost gasping.
The mist suddenly twisted and flew away from me and then doubled back, bearing straight down on me. Just as it was about to touch me again, it coalesced for a fraction of a second, a three-dimensional white face emerging from the vapor before the entire cloud passed through me.
I froze in place, trying to breathe, but it was as if my lungs had been submerged in ice. At the same moment the fog passed through my body, the very same moment I saw the face in the cloud, I heard the female voice whisper one last time, so faint I knew I must've been the only one to hear it. It was as if a pair of lips were less than an inch from my right ear.
"The nightmare is coming," the voice breathed in a terrified pitch.
The mist dissipated into nothing as floodlights suddenly came up and the front double doors flung themselves open. The ride was over.
Angela and Jill fled out into the safety of the amusement park, but I stood stock still, the sensations and sounds and sights I'd just experienced refusing to leave my senses.
Because the girl's voice I'd heard whispering and the face I'd seen in the mist for a fraction of a second ... I was certain that they both belonged to someone I knew.
Someone I hadn't seen or heard from in months.
Someone named Jordin Cole.