"That'll be two dollars."
I fished out the money from my bag and paid the surly food truck owner. Pocketing the cash in her apron, she handed over an ice-cream cone to me. Thanking her, I walked away from the truck and sauntered down the desolate alleys of Willow Street.
It was a dark evening with the wind whistling furiously through the narrow, dimly lit road. The wan moon peeked from behind the clouds and the air crackled with ozone, signaling a brewing storm. I could hear the distant echoes of the food truck thundering towards the city. Soon, the street was silent again. I looked around. There was not a single living soul in sight.
Ignoring the empty windswept streets, I continued strolling in the path towards my house. It sounds dangerous, but I love walking on quiet lanes, especially during evenings like this. I get to be alone with my thoughts, away from home and college. As I slurped the sweet vanilla ice-cream, I felt the last vestiges of my worries melting away.
Absorbed in my musings, I kicked a pebble aimlessly. It landed on a willow tree before me. Its leaves rustled ominously. An owl screeched. Suddenly, I stopped in my tracks.
In the pale streetlight, I glimpsed the silhouette of a dark figure behind the tree. I shivered. The wind howled as the sky clouded over. In a flash, the figure disappeared!
In curious trepidation, I tiptoed towards the tree. Cautiously, I peered behind its trunk. Suddenly, a tall man stepped out of the shadows like an apparition. I yelped and dropped my ice-cream.
"Damn! I'm so sorry! I did not mean to scare you like that!", he claimed apologetically.
I shot a hostile glare at him.
"It's all right, not much of a problem," I spat, my tone laced with barely veiled sarcasm.
"I am really very sorry. If you don't mind, can I please buy you another one?", he beseeched, stepping out into the light. Seeing him clearly for the first time, I gasped. He was a quintessential tall, dark, handsome man, with coal black eyes and glossy dark hair. He smiled sheepishly at me, his dimples twinkling attractively.
"No need, it's all right," I grumbled, slightly less icily than before.
The skies rumbled. Heavy gusts of wind tore down the road and the trees lining the pavement swayed till they touched the tarmac. I glanced at the threatening clouds and furtively started to walk away from the man.
"Umm, sorry to bother you. I was wondering if you could tell me the way to the pier. I'm new here, so I got lost...", he trailed off, gazing at me hopefully.
"Walk straight for two blocks and take the right turn from the florist at the corner. The entrance to the pier will be a stone's throw from there," I quickly replied, indicating the directions with my hands.
"Okay! Thanks a lot! Really sorry again!", he said and flashed another bewitching smile at me. Turning on his heel, he slipped off, disappearing into the shadows again.
Fat droplets of rain began to splatter on my head, and I could feel them soaking into my skin.
"Some peaceful evening this was", I muttered, as torrents of rain now poured down my back. Sighing at the melting ice-cream lying on the road, I ran home.
"I want the purple one! Buy me that teddy, Daddy!"
"Babe, are you sure you enjoyed that ride? You look ill."
"Corn dogs for five dollars! Popcorn for three dollars!"
I grinned. The lights and bustling crowds of the carnival on the pier had always excited me. As a child, I would come here every evening, enjoy nearly all rides, play all the games in the arcade, and eat ice-cream to my heart's content while watching the ships from atop the lighthouse. This was my favourite place in the whole world. Being here felt amazing! It was so different from the dreariness of college, and the gloomy lanes of Willow Street. I felt invigorated and alive!
I was contemplating a ride on the giant ferris wheel, when -
I spun around, and to my surprise, there he was. That mystery man who scared me into dropping my ice-cream yesterday. From the gaming arcade, a loud alarm roaring "Game Over!" penetrated my ears, suggesting that Blinky had finally managed to catch Pac-man.
"This is a nice coincidence!", he beamed excitedly.
"Hello. What are you doing here?", I replied evenly.
"I work here," he said, pointing towards the ball-and-bucket toss counter behind him.
"Right, that's fascinating," I remarked, noticing his bright-yellow onesie, with a big smiley face stitched on the shirt pocket. He vaguely resembled a large banana. I wondered how he managed to look charming in it.
"So...I guess you're hanging out here, all by yourself?", he asked expectantly.
"Yes, I am", I replied with a small smile. He looked almost harmless in that silly uniform. Maybe, my initial judgment of him was slightly harsh. "Not to mention, he looks cute", I smirked to myself. Without much ado, I consider giving him the benefit of doubt.
"You know I'm new here. It would be fun to explore this place with someone from this town...do you want to try some of the rides with me? Please?", he implored with an endearing puppy-dog expression. I chuckled quietly. The light from the ferris wheel caught his eyes. For a moment, they glowed red.
"What about your counter? Do you not have any work to do?", I asked, raising my eyebrows quizzically.
"Sure, I do have work, but the counter is closed for a while," he smiled and added, "can I tempt you with a vanilla ice-cream? I believe I owe you one."
Well, he made an offer I could not refuse. I shrugged and walked along with him. Most women would probably not have done that, but I decided to give him a chance. Secretly, I was curious to see where it could all lead to.
"By the way, my name is Dexter. What's yours?", he asked, extending his hand towards me.
"Lilith," I answered, shaking his hand. I felt a jolt sparking up my arm, and I withdrew it almost instantly.
Unfazed by my reaction, he continued, "do you live near the street we met at? How long have you been here for? Do you go to college?". Still reeling from that uncanny spark, I replied in monosyllables.
"Where are you from?", I asked, finding my voice finally.
He picked up a map of the carnival and studied it; it seemed as if he had not heard my question. I repeated it, but he continued to examine the map with great interest. I began to get irritated.
"Oh wow, they have a Haunted House of Horrors here! Let's go!", he exclaimed, looking up at me. I was stumped by his suggestion. Ignoring my expression, he yanked my hand and lugged me towards the ticket counter.
"Dexter! Let go of my hand!", I protested.
"Are you scared? C'mon now Lilith, do you really believe that ghosts exist?", he taunted, his dark eyes gleaming. His lips had curled into a sinister smile.
My arm prickled with goosebumps. Irrespective of ghosts possibly existing, these 'scary houses' have always spooked me to no end. It is the one place I make sure to avoid in my visits here.
"I'll be with you, don't you worry", he insisted. I gulped. His cold fingers clenched my hand tightly.
Before I could process the situation or object to his ideas, Dexter had already purchased two tickets. In no time, we were standing before the large wooden door of an ugly, dilapidated mansion. He lifted the heavy brass knocker, and it banged against the door loudly. I twitched in fright. The door shuddered and creaked open slowly. The sounds of the carnival faded as he nudged me inside.
We found ourselves inside an enormous dark room. I trembled. With great difficulty, I spotted a red arrow faintly blinking towards a lean corridor on our left. Dexter's grip constricted my arm. It made the trembling worse.
A peculiar smell assaulted my nostrils as we moved towards the corridor warily. Suddenly, a line of grotesque dummies appeared below the flickering arrow. They growled menacingly. I jumped back in fear. My palms were clammy, and I could feel my heart pounding louder than drums.
Dexter tugged my arm and pulled me towards the long, winding corridor, with barely any room for the both of us to walk aside each other. I heard his soft footsteps behind me, his hands clutching my shoulders. My head grazed the low ceiling as we plunged deeper into the corridor. I felt the familiar stirring of claustrophobia. It was impossible to turn around and run away.
A ear-splitting shriek pierced the air. My blood turned cold. Loud wailing echoed through the corridor, followed by a deafening crash.
I froze. Dexter slackened his grip and I felt his hands fall away from me.
Nervously, I turned to face him.
It was pitch dark. I could barely see the outline of his face.
"Keep walking Lilith, don't stop", he rasped. The dread in his voice chilled me to the bone.
Tentatively, I took a step forward, without tearing my eyes from his face. The floorboards groaned under our weight. I could hear Dexter's shallow breathing near my ears, over the sound of blood pumping in them.
A pair of huge red eyes glinted in the dark behind his head. The air felt colder and heavier.
"Loo-look behind you, D-Dexter...", I stuttered. The eyes crept closer, hovering malevolently.
Dexter rotated his neck backwards slowly. In a flash, the eyes smoldered and stormed towards us.
He seized my hand again and tore off in the darkness. I blindly followed, as heavy footfalls reverberated closer behind us. Panting, we raced through the serpentine corridor. My legs felt heavy. That nauseating smell lingered in the air and suffocated me. My lungs felt as if they would collapse any moment. I could hear chains clanking and the solid footfalls inching even closer.
We entered a small room, tinged with an eerie green light. Before us, stood a group of bizarrely dressed clowns, with blood spewing from their slit throats. Large smiles were plastered to their melting faces, and they glared daggers at me.
Feeling sick, I wrestled away my hand from Dexter and sped off, in search of the nearest exit. The heavy footfalls trailed closely behind. I heard evil cackling and turned around. The hair at the back of my neck stood up. Some of those undead clowns were on my tail. I sprinted faster like my life depended on it.
Tears pricked the corner of my eyes. Groping for a way out, I slipped on the floorboard and lost my balance. I fell over and landed on my head. It hurt as if my skull was split open on a rock. For a moment, the footfalls paused. The maniacal laughter vanished, and the room was deathly silent. I could smell the sea and hear its waves crashing against the pier at a distance.
I looked up, wildly inspecting my surroundings, and realized that my back was pushed against a wall. A gigantic shadow loomed over me. I was cornered.
Squinting in the spectral green light, I saw a mutilated ghoul with glowing red eyes, stalking towards me. His feet were fettered in heavy, rusted chains, and they dragged behind him noisily. Slowly, he raised his decomposing talons, preparing to pounce on me.
I tried to scream for help, but my throat was dry. A pathetic whimper escaped my lips. I was paralyzed with fear.
I could hear Dexter shouting, calling out my name. The ghoul leered at me. Chills ran down my spine. I was quaking in terror.
Suddenly, I went numb. Darkness enclosed upon me. I felt weightless and soon, all was black.
I see Dexter running around the carnival, like a madman. His bright-yellow uniform is now filthy. His sharp features are etched with confusion and worry.
"Did you see the girl with me?", he asked the passersby. Some ignored him, some giggled, while some others just stared as if he was crazy.
A bearded man stops him and shakes him by his shoulders.
"Mate, I'm telling you, there is no girl inside my Haunted House of Horrors. She is not in the corridor or that small green room. My 'ghoul' tells me that he was chasing no one except you, in there," he states with conviction.
"B-b-but I took her inside with me....I was holding her the whole time to comfort her...she was so scared...we were being chased inside...bloody clowns...she ran away...," he stammered. His dark hair was matted with sweat. He was about to have a nervous meltdown.
The bearded man shook his head in disbelief.
"THERE WAS A GIRL!", bellowed Dexter angrily, "you have to find her, she is in trouble!"
"All right, all right! Tell us what she looks like, we'll search for her again", the bearded man asked placatingly.
"She's short. Has olive skin, long black hair and grey eyes. Very pretty," whispered Dexter, looking white, "she's wearing a black frock with a white collar. Her name is Lilith," he finished, drawing a deep breath in.
The bearded man gaped at him. After a long pause, he gravely intoned, "a girl called Lilith died here in the pier, around five years ago. She had lived in this town all her life and used to come here every other day. People say that on one stormy night, she sneaked up to the lighthouse to watch the ships, after stealing ice-cream from a food truck. Some witnesses had claimed that her foot slipped from the top window, so she lost her balance and had fallen headfirst onto the rocks. They could not find her remains there. The cops suspect her body was swept away in the storm. You see, they still have not recovered it. Ever since, I've heard stories of her spirit haunting this pier and Willow Street nearby."
Dexter looked dumbstruck. He nearly sank to his knees in shock. The bearded man helped him up, patted his back, and walked away, shaking his head.
In a daze, Dexter dragged his feet back to his ball-and-bucket toss counter. Slowly, he turned to look at the top window of the lighthouse. I smiled and waved at him from there. To no one's surprise, he collapsed.