There were a lot of things August had been expecting from the one-night-fright deal he'd been sent online. A few scares, maybe, and a reprieve from the constant ridicule of his friends. They were always ribbing him about his tall, spindly frame, his ghost-pale skin — all the things that made him a kind of ripoff Slender Man, really — and how it was therefore that much funnier that he was such a veritable scaredy-cat.
August, of course, preferred to think of it as a healthy dose of caution.
His self-preserving instincts had definitely gotten him out of a nasty scrape or two, and he wasn't ashamed that he knew when to escape a dodgy situation. But still, when they'd dared him to take up the random offer — an offer to spend Halloween night in a strange Victorian-esque hotel way out in the Yorkshire boonies — well, August's male pride had risen, near-dead, from the grave, and he'd agreed.
And now here he was, and yes, he'd expected a few things. A creepy leak he couldn't place, or perhaps an eerily flickering lamplight. Basic, tacky stuff.
What he hadn't expected was to be knee-deep in a discussion on the eco-friendliness of the hotel’s lighting with a very opinionated, very transparent young man.
"You’d think they'd realize by now!" The irate young fellow, dressed in a sharp waistcoat and trousers, crossed his arms and continued to pace. "It's the 21st century! Surely there's a certain conduct to be had when the very earth you walk on is heaving its last breaths."
"Er . . . yes. You would think so."
“CFLs at the very least, if you can’t be bothered to walk an aisle further down the shop to the LEDs. And they’re a fraction of the long-term cost of the incandescents, so I simply cannot fathom why the blasted manager continues to buy those musty old things.”
“Quite, uh, quite right.”
“Goodness. People really never change, do they? Always so selfish.” He adjusted his waistcoat crossly, and August eyed the — literally — see-through fabric of his wide sleeved shirt. “Surely some other species ought to have taken charge by now. Bonobos, perhaps. I’ve read that they’re quite an intelligent lot. At least they’d know better than to run the world into the ground while they’re still living on it!”
“Crows, too,” blurted August, before he could think any better of it. “Or dolphins. They're downright amazing, actually, and if you, uh … took a look … at the research … um.”
The young man had ceased pacing sometime during August’s word vomit, examining him with a curious tilt of his head. August immediately straightened, shifting in his spot at the edge of the rickety old bed and resisting the urge to fidget. Which, he realized, was a rather ridiculous reaction; he was talking to a ghost, who probably couldn’t care less about his posture.
“You’re rather talkative this evening, Thomas," said the ghost. "Usually you’re so quiet.” He leaned closer and squinted at August underneath his baseball cap. “And excuse my bluntness, but did you have that face the last time we spoke?”
The moon’s pale glow lights the courtyard of the little house. The place is more a bed-and-breakfast than a hotel, really, and August wishes he’d known that all that time ago when he’d first stayed the night. A B&B probably wouldn’t have been scary-sounding enough for his friends, and he would’ve never come. Or maybe he would have — he’d certainly been lonely enough to try — but at least it would’ve happened under different circumstances.
Although it’s too late to change things now, he supposes, as he wipes dirt off his hands. It’s Halloween again, and he wonders if the rush of it will ever get old. He glances up at the hotel windows, and a silhouette stares back down at him.
August jolts, knocking the shovel away from where he’d propped it against the wall. It lands on the earthy ground with a soft thud, right next to the body.
He thinks he hears a laugh.
The wind whistles against his skin, raising the hairs on his arms, and August sighs. He picks up the shovel, knocking some wayward dirt from the pale, waxy arm at his feet, and glances back up at the window.
The figure is gone. August takes that as his cue to get back to work.
August blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“Your face,” repeated the ghost. “It seems rather different this time round. Did you change it?”
“Have we, er,” August stammered, feeling the cool, familiar grip of fear wind itself around his throat. His ghostly counterpart appeared to only be in his twenties, more mouthy than malevolent. And yet. “Have we met before … sir?”
The ghost frowned at him. For a moment, August thought it was because he’d called him sir when he seemed barely older than August himself. It had felt strange saying it, after all, and maybe the ghost thought so too.
And then August remembered that it was a dead man frowning at him — one who’d probably seen several lifetimes, several people, pass in the ages after his death; who'd witnessed the turn of generations, of centuries; who was most definitely older than August, of course he was — and the liquid in his veins seemed to freeze into ice.
“You’re not Thomas.” It wasn’t a question, August noted, as the ghost stepped forward and bent to look at August directly. His youthful face shimmered as though it were a mirage, the deep brown of his eyes darkening into something close to black. August wanted to duck his face back under his hat, but instead he stared, transfixed, and tried to recall how he’d let his idiot friends goad him into this.
Then the ghost said, in a pretty voice that lilted like music, “Who are you, then, I wonder?” and August had never heard a scarier thing.
The arm is sticking out of the ground now, the rest of the body safely packed away under the dirt. August pants, leaning heavily on the shovel. He’d filled out a bit, no longer so thin and spindly — actually put on a bit of muscle, which was certainly an ego boost — but the shovelling is still hard work. He eyes the arm, shiny as it is in the moonlight, and debates whether he should go through the effort of hiding it better. Surely this was good enough?
“Just come back inside already,” says a voice behind him. August turns and sees Ezra leaning one shoulder against the doorframe, his copper hair fluttering lazily in the wind. “You’re looking more like Slender Man every day.” He scrunches up his face. “Or whoever it was you were talking about.”
August laughs, and the sound of it booms over the courtyard, startling him a little. Ezra smiles and shakes his head, but doesn’t poke fun at him for it. “Aren’t you cold?” he asks instead, gesturing at his threadbare clothing. August laughs again, leaning into the sound this time.
“I don’t get cold very often,” he says, the shovel slung over his shoulder as he approaches the entrance. “As you well know.”
Ezra’s gaze slides over him, eyeing his pale complexion and tall frame, and August just knows he’s practically glowing white under this full moon, his skin nearly translucent against his shock of pitch-dark hair. Ezra still doesn’t quite know who Slender Man is, but he’s said August looks like a devil plenty of times before. The way he’s staring at him now, August almost wants to believe him.
“Indeed I do,” Ezra says finally. He nods gracefully at the door to his back. “But go inside anyway. The last thing we need is for you to take ill.”
He disappears into the house, silent as a wraith, as a car rumbles down the long driveway. August glances at the group of people dismounting from the vehicle, giggling to themselves. He wonders if they can see him standing there, shrouded in the dark to the side of the porch. As they stumble up the steps to reception, not even glancing his way, August realizes that they cannot.
He grins, the shovel thudding against the ground, and follows the poor bastards inside.
August’s heart thrummed in his chest, beating hard and then harder against his ribcage, seeming to double its efforts to escape as his lungs tightened with panic.
“I’m, um. I’m August.” He managed not to launch into another slew of nervous, blurted speech as the ghost stared him down. “And you are?”
His friends were right. He really was unbearably awkward. Trading introductions with a ghost? Had he lost his mind?
Apparently, the ghost thought so, too, because not another five seconds passed before he was out the door, his footfalls silent as they carried him down the hall.
August exhaled. He slumped against the mattress, sure he’d gone mad. Sure he’d been imagining things. The ghost — or whatever, whoever he was — had just stormed into his room like he owned it and started raving like a madman. August didn’t think ghosts kept very up-to-date on eco-friendly lighting systems.
And was he really transparent? He couldn’t be. It was a trick of the light. A trick of the un-green, terribly wasteful incandescent lightbulbs.
Then the ghost was suddenly back in his room, and August shot upright again.
“The manager’s just told me Thomas quit.” The ghost snorted and made single-finger air quotes. “Apparently this place was just ‘too damned creepy’ for him. Shame. He really was a convenient listener.”
August blinked. “And . . . you thought I was him?”
The ghost turned to look him over again, and mimed August removing his cap. He did, certain his hair was sticking up wildly, but far too on edge to bother finger-combing through it. The ghost, however, seemed satisfied by what he saw.
“Yes. You have a rather strong resemblance to each other. Dark hair, pale skin, light eyes. Though I do suppose people’s faces tend to blur into one another after a while. My apologies for any confusion.” The ghost’s lips lifted into what, in any other scenario, August would classify as a smirk. “Seems like I’ve given you quite a fright.”
His pride made a sudden reappearance, and August found himself on his feet. “You didn’t give me anything but a reason to demand a refund,” he said, tone cross and heart pounding with latent adrenaline. “What sort of hotel is this, anyway?”
“The haunted kind.”
The ghost leaned forward. August took an involuntary step back.
The smile on his face looked like it belonged on a shark instead of a person. Ghost. Whatever he was. And as August stared into the face of the beast, he decided then and there that he would get his friends back for this if it was the last thing he did.
“What the fuck!” screams Bradley, scrambling back against the wall.
The others cower in similar poses, clutching each other and rearing away from the apparition in the centre of the room. A few moments pass in utter silence. Bradley’s girlfriend is the first to breach the quiet, a tentative laugh stuttering past her rouge-stained lips.
“Guys, it’s fine. It’s just a —” She steps forward and waves her hand through the illusion. She laughs again, her voice loud and shaky, when her fingers emerge unscathed. “It’s fake. A hologram, or something. That mirror mirage trick, I bet.”
August smiles from where he watches in the dark. The young woman, with pretty blue eyes and shiny coils of black hair, is costumed as Cleopatra and seems just as whip-smart as her namesake.
“That’s messed up, though,” says Drew, peering at the apparition, his date clinging to his arm nervously. The image of a young Victorian-era gentleman blinks back at him, dead-eyed and drenched in blood. “I get that this is s’posed to be a haunted hotel an’ all, but is all the bloody gore really necessary?”
Brad straightens and smooths down his wall-mussed hair. “It’s nothing. C’mon, we all know this is just for show. If bloody August could survive a night in here, well . . .” He takes another look at the phantom man and shudders. “No way we let ourselves be outdone by him. We’re staying the whole night.”
“Mate, have you even seen August recently?” Drew shifts his weight uneasily. “He can hold his own, y’know. Maybe you should, I dunno. Cut him some slack.”
Brad’s eyes shine in the spectre’s glow. He says nothing, and Drew’s gaze drops to his feet.
“Just sayin’,” Drew mumbles. August pities him — but only a little, not enough to be kind. “Whatever, then. We’ll stay the night.”
Tina, who’d been unusually quiet thus far, abruptly shakes her head. She’s jittery, August notes. Her eyes are darting around like she thinks she’s being watched. She’s always been the loud one in their little group. The extrovert. Impulsive in both her actions and her words. Now her voice is barely more than a whisper.
“No way.” She wraps her arms around herself as all heads turn to her. “No way. I’m leaving.”
Brad rolls his eyes. “Tina, it’s just one night.”
“No,” she repeats, staring at the apparition. “It’s like he’s . . . looking at me. Like he can see me.”
“It’s a trick, T. House of mirrors stuff, like Cleo said.”
“Guys, I’m telling you, there’s something off about —”
August flicks a switch. The lights in the lobby go out, plunging the room into pitch blackness. At the same moment, the glowing phantasm they’ve all been staring at vanishes into thin air, and a blood-curdling shriek rattles every corner of the room.
The ground shakes. The walls run red. The group screams in perfect unison.
Brad is out the door first. August smiles in the crimson light when he hears him stumble down the steps and shout in pure, unadulterated fear.
“Holy fuck, holy fuck, is that an arm?”
The absolute panic in Brad’s voice is worth every strenuous second of burying that fake body. August hears the manager shuffle around in his office down the hall, not even having bothered to check the group in. He must’ve known what August would do, what he was like. It was one of the reasons he’d hired August in the first place, all those months ago. His imagination. His creativity. His knack for knowing just the right buttons to push.
Ezra reappears somewhere beside him, making hardly any noise amidst the sounds of terror coming from the porch. He grins, still wearing copious amounts of fake blood, and holds up a red-tinted lightbulb.
“LEDs,” he says approvingly, nudging August with his shoulder. “Very nice, my little devil.”
August grins back at him, still enveloped by the room’s hellish, vermillion glow. He’s sure the red of Ezra’s bloodied clothing is reflected in his eyes, that the white of his teeth gleam like fangs in the shadow.
Ezra lays a hand on his shoulder, and as the blubbering of his old friends echo into the night, August revels in the feeling of being known.
“Um, you never did tell me your name.”
It was the only thing August could think to say, with the ghost staring at him like that. The young man straightened and blinked, the threat in the air momentarily forgotten.
“Your name. What is it?”
The ghost frowned at him, brown eyes squinting. “You aren’t afraid?”
“Of course I am. One ought to be afraid of anyone who speaks of LEDs with that much passion.”
The ghost barked a laugh, seeming as surprised as August to hear it. He shook his head, looking, by all accounts, a little sheepish.
“Right. I do tend to get caught up in all that. My, um. My apologies.”
The silence between them stretched until August cleared his throat again. When the ghost peered at him inquisitively, August made a vague, embarrassed gesture in his direction. The ghost’s eyebrows shot up in sudden understanding.
“Oh, yes,” he said, rubbing at his neck. “My name. It’s … Ezra.” He offered August a tentative smile. “Ezra Walker.”
He extended his hand for him to shake, and after a weighted moment, August reached out and grasped it. The relief that coursed through him was so strong he could have cried — the hand was solid, and real, and attached to a person with an honest-to-goodness name. A name August actually knew. A name he could probably say three times fast in the mirror without fear of ghostly retribution: Ezra, Ezra, Ezra. August figured that was a good sign.
And if Ezra’s touch was a little cold, and his eyes a little dark, and his hand a little softer and smoother than those August was used to shaking, well. That was something he could live with.
The group is piling back into the car when Ezra and August reenter the lobby. August has a hand on Ezra’s shoulder. It drops when they hear a strangled noise behind them.
Cleo is standing in the entrance, eyes wide. “August?” she whispers. Her gaze darts to Ezra by his side, and her eyes widen even further when he flickers in the red light.
August’s grin could cut glass.
Brad is calling for her, and he nods at the doorway. “Go on, Cleo. They’re waiting.” His voice is so low it seems to scrape the cool night air. “Let’s keep this our little secret, shall we?”
Without another word, she turns tail and runs back to the car. A few moments later they hear it peel off into the distance.
He turns to Ezra, who tosses the LED at him. As August screws it back into its socket, the crimson glow flaring over him once more, he’s never felt so at home.