This is a piece in an ongoing series of artistic explorations and personal reflections on electronic cigarettes and vaping. This series will include fiction, journalism, and personal essays. Feedback is welcome. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you have an e-cigarette experience worth sharing.
The rain began to fall just before the Haunted Way opened on a late October night. It was going to be a slow one, with few guests to scare and mostly time for me to think.
When I started working at the Haunted Way I was a boy. They put white powder on my face and made me wander a barn singing in my high unchanged voice, nursery rhymes with twisted endings, giving me little more than a role to add to the atmosphere. Creepy but not yet terrifying.
The year after I started working there, I changed a lot. I grew half a foot, the bottom fell out of my voice, and in a span of months I was suddenly a man. By the time Halloween came, the Haunted Way let me become what I wanted to be all along - someone who earned respect by frightening the world. It didn’t take long for me to feel that power outside of the haunted house too, as I had outgrown several of the bullies who bugged me in those days.
As I grew bulkier as a man, that respect grew inside and outside the Haunted Way, and I got better roles at work and beyond it. Now ten years into my job there, I was stationed at the end of the guests’ path. I was the big final scare to end the scares - a butcher surrounded by fake flayed body parts and headless chickens I was pretending to eat raw.
At first that night I felt a small amount of joy that I would be able to relax, not work too hard, space out, even vape during the dead minutes as we waited for a few wet people to frighten. As the last light fell away into the black, I felt no fear at all. I felt what comes when I feel the safest - bored.
One thing about an outdoor haunted "house" is that you hear the scares in the distance, and so hear the guests' fear loudening as they approach you. Usually the actors taunted or sang or did whatever felt off-putting and weird to them, so the only consistency to the noise is that it gets steadily louder one weird exclamation at a time.
But something felt different fairly early in the night, when the blackness around us had just settled in. I heard each person sound off, but every time all I hear were screams, sheer and cutting ones that split the night. Maybe in the rain, and with barely any victims walking through, the actors were playing a sort of game to keep from falling asleep out of boredom.
Finally the last actor before me sounded off, another blood curdling shriek and what sounded almost like a gurgle. Then, only silence. The place really was dead that night. From all this noise a set of guests seemed to be nearing me. It was time. My role had been cued.
But no one came through. Instead I stood with a giant cleaver in my hand and no one to chase and swing at. I put the cleaver down. More silence. Complete silence. Dead for almost ten minutes.
I knew how long it was because I had a habit on rainy days of softly singing to my self. I kept it to old folk songs so that if someone came and it was time to scare, the song might frighten them. That night I was singing the “Long Black Veil”, that traditional song Johnny Cash covered. I knew it was about four minutes long, so when I got through it, I had a sense of how much time passed since the final scream. For some reason that night instead of moving on to another tune, I sang it again. So after two runs I knew the park was empty. The lack of sound said as much.
Knowing the Haunted Way was nearly free of guests and done with my singing for the time being, I really began to relax. I sighed and checked my messages and emails. Still - nothing.
I looked in both directions, as if about to cross the street. Then I pulled out a vaping pen and sucked down some e-juice through several puffs. Years before I might have had a cigarette in that moment, but I was older and had moved on to another phase of life, with electronic cigarettes and student loan payments - dealing with my needs responsibly.
The pen produced huge vape clouds and I liked to think it made my whole butcher act scarier, like a smoke machine in a witch's cauldron. The place was so dark just then that lights fading in and out on the vaping pen seemed to color everything red with each pull. I could even hear the crackle of the coil on the e-juice. It was dead all around me.
Then, in the middle of exhaling, two young women appeared. They were clearly terrified, and I wondered what could have scared them if I had heard nothing leading up to me. One guest was tall and thin with dark hair and thick but not gross eyebrows. The other guest looked like she had been sucking on a lemon the whole way through, and with her yellow hair and round body almost looked like a lemon herself. Both looked almost green with disgust and were visibly shaking.
I quickly pocketed my e-cigarette and ran at them, swinging my meat cleaver. Around my waist were dismembered hands that looked quite real. I split the air with my cleaver, and asked, “You'll need a hand to stop me!” Then I threw that body part their way. They looked no more scared than before I started, as if they had been too scared for anything I did to frighten them.
"Fucked up place," the Lemon said as she walked past me and through the door frame that was the way out. "Never seen a haunted house where all the acts were just dead and mangled dummies."
I thought a lot then, hearing this guest. I thought about the shrieks and the silences. Was one person after another being attacked? I thought about the people I loved working with me. I had been there so long that many people felt like family. The idea of their peril and death terrified me. And I thought about my own life, wondering if I was next.
While starting to shake, I turned to look down the path of the Haunted Way. No sooner was my back o the guests than I heard two more shrieks after several huge thwacks. I looked back, just over my shoulder, and saw there was someone there, so I turned to see who it was.
The murderer had beige nylon pulled over his head and a tan trench coat, and all of him was splattered with blood. I dropped my cleaver and froze. I wanted to run so bad but couldn't. I had grown into someone who could change situations by frightening people, but not in that kind of situation. In the distance, the sirens began to rise. Cops were coming for the murderer, thank God. I just had to stall him until they got there and not get killed.
But the axe murderer didn’t want to kill me. Instead, the man just smiled, smiled so wide I could see it through the nylon pantyhose over this head. Then with gloved hands he shoved the bloody murder weapon into my bare hands, turned and ran into the cloak of the night. By then the sirens were screeching, but for a moment, all I could hear was a ringing in my ears. I don't know why but my ears rang. Some kind of shock.
The cops approached, and I felt how grave this was, how likely they were to think me the killer, so I dropped the axe and I flew, I ran and ran the wrong direction through the Haunted Way, corpse after corpse of dead friends at my feet, ran as if there were a way to outrun death and consequences.
I kept thinking about that nylon-covered smile of the killer as he framed me with a handoff, that axe pushed into my hands, making me into a suspected killer instead of a pretend one. Now the cops out were out for even more blood than there already was. A shot rang, and it occurred to me that I might be the target.
Right where I was, near the body of an old buddy who never brushed his hair, I collapsed, played dead like I was trying to escape a bear. And as I fell, all I could see was that messy haired corpse, a small teen with eyes wide and dead and never to close again by his own doing. There was another gun shot, closer this time, more sounds of footsteps approaching.
And only then, at sound of a third shot, the rain stopped, and I began to cry.