An empty cart rattled along its tracks into the first of a series of rooms displaying scenes of monsters and ghouls. Thunder rolled from hidden speakers; papier-mache owls hooted from a dusty tree branch, glowing eyes shifting to illuminate the artificial fog drifting in banks across the painted landscape. Without the weight of a body, the plexiglass cart wobbled slowly along the tracks until its carriage pushed through the swinging doors. Here, in the next room, the cart was greeted by a trio of bloody-lipped vampire brides, their tongues moving clumsily against plastic fangs.
“VELCOM– Hey! What the hell, Rodney?” One of the vampires spat into her walkie-talkie, retrieved from behind a styrofoam tomb, “nobody’s in the car.”
“What?” Rodney’s voice crackled from the speaker, “If it’s empty just push it through to the next room.”
The three women lifted their tattered shrouds to their knees as they stepped onto the tracks and helped move the cart along its way.
Skeletons danced along to the hollow pings of a xylophone, their bony hands carrying sets of glowing teeth chattering like castanets.
“Hey, we got nobody in this car, y’all lose somebody in there?” A skeleton called back to the neighboring room of vampires, who had returned to their folding chairs obscured behind a plywood mausoleum. The vampire nearest to the door nudged it open with the toe of her black sneaker.
“Push it through.”
Music continued as the cart slowed to a crawl, wheels moving in fits and starts, choreographed with monologues and stories for each passing room.
Unwatched, the creatures returned to the tasks with which they passed time between scenes: solitaire, reading crumpled paperback novels stuffed into the tangled netting draped on a grave, filling in crosswords in the dim light of a paper owl’s eyes.
The cart rambled past devils and banshees, forward through the swamp and the mad scientist’s laboratory, slowing to a stop in each room, waiting for actors to growl and moan, to hiss and claw at people conspicuously missing from its vinyl seats. With each new room, it met not a character stirring the depths of someone’s innermost fears, but rather nothing more than a human being dressed elaborately in grease paint. A costume to be left on a labeled hook at the end of a workday.
A woman balanced two dummy heads on her shoulders, fastened to a board and dressed with auburn wigs, dyed to match her color. The ruffled collar of a hand-sewn dress laced around the three necks, obscuring the prop strapped to the woman, providing the illusion that, in a room dim enough, the figure approaching the cart possessed three heads working independently of one another. The actress was supposed to mouth along with one of the three voices broadcast over the speakers; but as the car stilled and angled slightly toward its next destination, all three pairs of lips remained closed.
As she held her breath and stepped closer to her mark–the cross of tape on the floor where she was to swipe violently at anyone who might be waiting, terrified, in the seats of the cart–she reached instead into darkness, her hand shaking as it moved through the empty air. The car shuddered and once again began moving through the final set of swinging doors. Here, the ticket-taker pulled the brakes and unlatched the long bar from across the laps of missing passengers.
The lights came on, the spookhouse closed; the actors began to undress. Vampires removed their fangs and grey-streaked wigs, skeletons retired their bones and the swamp creature untangled himself from his suit of dangling seaweed. As she untied her extra heads and wiped the makeup from her face, the three-headed woman listened nervously for the voices of other actors moving up and down the corridors outside her dressing room, taking care to finish quickly, hoping to ensure she would not be the final person left inside. As she hung her costume she told herself she was being foolish, that the empty cart’s voyage had been a simple mistake, a wrong button pushed or lever pulled. She pulled her sweater over her head and took a final look into her makeup mirror before shutting off the lights and quickly closing the door behind her, mentally listing the reasons she had nothing to be afraid of.
Having surrounded herself with bumps in the night and dark figures in every corner, possessing the knowledge that a monster takes out its teeth and hangs up its scales to go home and sleep in a soft bed, only to return and redress the following morning, she now found herself horrified by the most seemingly insignificant occurrences: a faucet dribbling in an empty washroom, a shrunken hive of bees long abandoned in a tree. She needed to tell herself each night that when the row of empty carriages gave the faintest moan in settling, that it was only that– oiled wheels rolling against their iron rails– and not a sigh of relief coming from the spookhouse itself, satisfied with another night’s accomplishments. She prickled at the odd memory of seeing the doors swing open to reveal the empty car. Doubling her pace, she walked as though what was missing from that carriage might only be a few paces behind her. There’s nothing there, she let herself think, picturing flashes of the empty seats she had reached out to. Nothing there, she repeated, more fearfully than before, nothing inside. Had anyone seen her making her way through the parking lot out to the empty glass enclosure where her bus would stop, they would not have assumed she had been in league with a coven of witches or a wicked group of fanged beasts, they would not guess that she herself wore two additional heads, or that her livelihood was made watching young children squirm and cry out for their mothers as she approached them, but certainly, they would have known she had seen a ghost.
Alex Ebel is a writer living in Boston, where he is currently receiving his MFA at Emerson College. He has work featured or forthcoming in Hobart, The Rumpus, American Chordata, Santa Ana River Review, Hello Mr, and elsewhere. He can be found online @alexsebel