The Paradise Lake Haunting
"I heard someone died there."
The voices of the townspeople, my classmates, and family blend into one as I sit upon the hood of my car, smoking my morning cigarette. Paradise Lake Cemetery stares back at me, tempting me with its gateless entrance, but I know better. I'm not new to Maltby, Washington. As I admire the cemetery from afar, I keep a close watch on the house sharing its property. A heavyset man steps out the backdoor, smoking his own cigarette as he, too, stares out at the graves. We share the same morning routine. I can't help but wonder what else we have in common, but I don't think I'll ever get a chance to find out. I toss my cigarette on the gravel road, straighten my black trench coat, and scramble into my car before he sees me – before he has the chance to lump me in with all the other goth teenagers that ogle at his cemetery. I take one last look at the graveyard before driving past the line of abandoned cars on the side of the road, speeding off to school.
By the time I make it to my first period class, my friends Emma and Peter are already huddled together in the back of the room, their jackets almost morphing into a single black blob. I slide my backpack off my shoulders as I take a seat beside them.
"You're still down for a Halloween movie marathon tonight, right, Danny?" Emma asks me, rotating in her seat to face me.
"Of course. I can't skip our annual tradition."
She smiles and I smile back, my cheeks flushing. Even if I didn't like horror movies, it'd be impossible to say no to that smile.
"So, my mom said she'll pay for the pizzas," Emma says. "What movies do you wanna – "
"Are you seriously planning a movie night on Halloween?" the boy sitting two desks away asks with a smirk. A trio of boys in black surrounds him, like he's the king of darkness – or at least wannabe goth kids - just as he wants to believe. He folds his arms behind his head and leans back in his chair.
Emma blushes and curls her fists, but she doesn't respond to him.
"Mind your own business, Jason," Peter says. "Emma's not your girlfriend anymore, so why do you care about her plans?"
"I don't care about Emma," Jason says with a cold laugh. "It's posers like you three that piss me off. It's like you don't even know what day it is today."
Jason rolls his eyes. "It's Halloween, duh."
"It's the 30th anniversary of Morgan Shelley's death," I say, giving him the stink eye. "We know what day it is. We just have the decency to not talk about it."
"Morgan Shelley was one of us." Jason cocks his head at his friends. "What better to do than honor a fellow goth than to follow in her footsteps down the crypt of the Paradise Lake Cemetery?" He turns up his nose. "It would be more than decent. It'd be respectful."
"Trespassing in a private cemetery is not respectful. It's literally part of the Doolittle family's backyard. If they catch you sneaking in, they'll arrest you."
"Don't you mean it's owned by Satanists?" one of Jason's friends asks, a goofy smile spread on his chapped lips. "That's why they built that spooky crypt with the 13 steps leading to hell."
"Yeah," another one says. "They say if you make it to the 13th step, you see your soul burning in hell. Everyone who's made it that far goes insane – or in Morgan's case, they die." He wiggles his fingers to emphasize the horrible spookiness of the crypt.
I hold my head in my black gloved palm. "No. The Doolittles aren't Satanists and the 13 steps don't exist anymore. They've been demolished years ago because of stupid bat kids or whatever the hell you label yourselves vandalizing the cemetery. All that's left is the dumb rumors about it being haunted. Everyone knows that Morgan died of alcohol poisoning because she, like all the other idiots who snuck into the cemetery, was drunk out of her mind."
Jason and his friends roar with laughter. Once he catches his breath, Jason says, "If you care so much about your little cemetery, then why don't you come with us and prove the rumors are fake?"
Emma squeezes my arm. "Don't listen to him. He's just trying to get a rise out of you."
It takes every ounce of willpower in my body to ignore her. The thought of Jason and his friends sneaking into the cemetery, doing God knows what to dig up the steps, is already haunting me, and I know it will keep bugging me all night long unless I am there with him. "Fine. I'll go with you."
"Wait, what?" Peter gapes at me with tennis ball eyes bulging through his dark bangs. "You're ditching movie night?"
I ignore him, too, my focus fixed on Jason. "Meet outside the cemetery at midnight."
Emma stares at me in disbelief, and the look remains as I give her a ride home from school that afternoon. She leans her head against the inside of the car, dangling her cigarette out the window between black painted fingernails, and she won't stop staring at me with those stunning blue eyes. "I can't believe you agreed to it," she says for the millionth time.
"Well, I can't believe you dated that asshole Jason for a year."
She bites her bottom lip. "Our high school has a limited selection of goth guys."
Wow. I guess Peter and I aren't good enough for her. I take a deep breath and try to hide my frustration, keeping my gaze on the road ahead of me.
"If you're trying to prove your gothiness or whatever to Jason – "
"That's not what I care about," I interrupt. I pull up to the side of the road, across the street from the cemetery, holding my cigarette out my window. "This is what I care about."
She sits up and peers outside, then turns to look at me, her bottle-black hair whipping around her face. "Is this the place?"
I nod. "I sit here every morning, just staring at it."
She furrows her brow. "Are you like. . ."
"I'm not crazy," I answer, predicting the rest of her question, "but I'm not stupid. I know our local lore. There's something weirdly alluring about a haunted cemetery."
"What, you actually believe in ghosts?" She laughs, but I know she doesn't think it's funny.
I stare out at the gravestones, carefully selecting my words. "I want to. I want to believe there's something else out there. Something bigger, something better. So I come here every morning, waiting for a sign. I know it's weird, but the thought of life after death is comforting to me." I can feel her eyes burning through my black jacket. "I lost my dad when I was twelve. Any sign that there's something out there, that I have a chance at seeing him again. . ." I take another deep breath. "While I want to believe in ghosts, I can't stand when people like Jason use rumors as an excuse to snoop around graves. If I can prove the rumors aren't true, maybe people will leave this cemetery alone. The thought of anyone hurting something so important to me is sickening."
She bows her head, her face hidden behind her bangs. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked."
Emma doesn't speak to me as we continue our drive. She doesn't look at me, either. To break the uncomfortable silence, I turn on the radio. A song by The Cure is playing and it makes her smile, but only for a moment. If I had known showing her the cemetery on the way home would take away her smile, I wouldn't have done it.
She keeps the conversation between us to a minimum as we watch movies at her house. While I hope we aren't making Peter feel too awkward, I’m more worried about Emma. I didn't think she'd be that affected by what I said, but she's still silent in the car ride to the cemetery, and Peter is still eating pizza in the backseat.
"I seriously think we should've just stayed at your place," he says to Emma. "We could've gotten more pizza. This box is almost out."
"You had like half the pizza," she mutters.
"That's because you guys hardly had any. I wasn't gonna let it go to waste."
We drive past a line of smashed cars, shoved into trees at the side of the road. Without those landmarks, it'd be impossible to find the cemetery, as it's tucked away in a forest, hidden from the public eye. I park my car behind Jason's. He's already standing outside the cemetery with his three goth cronies.
"You're late," he spits.
"It's twelve o' one," I say, rolling my eyes. I glance at the Doolittle house. Not a single window is illuminated by light. "C'mon. Let's get this over with."
The second I step foot on the cemetery's grass, I feel as if I'm crossing through an invisible veil of dread. After months of watching the cemetery, I'm finally across the street, and everything feels off. It's colder on this side of the road. I'm not supposed to be here and the tombstones know it. It's like they're watching me, shouting at the Doolittles to call the police. It doesn't help that every other tombstone belongs to a Doolittle, though there really aren't many tombstones period. Only a couple dozen, scattered about the grassy field. From across the street, the cemetery would always appear foreboding and enormous. But now that I stand on the inside, it seems so much smaller, more personal. Too personal. Like I'm not even in a cemetery, just the backyard of the Doolittle family. I'm not sure if I'm relieved there's nothing spooky here or disappointed.
"C-can we go?" Emma stutters, seizing my arm. "I keep on feeling hands touching my shoulders when no one is near me. It's freaking me out."
But before I can say anything, Jason shouts, "Guys! I think I found it!" He stands next to a cement slab tucked away in the tall grass. His fingers wrap around the rusty handle.
My heart drops into my stomach. "It's gonna be locked," I say. But to my dismay, he lifts the slab, revealing a staircase leading underground. We all stand around the hole in the ground, our jaws dropped in shock.
There are 13 cement steps.
For about a minute, no one speaks. I've always heard the steps were destroyed, but here they are, staring back at us, waiting for someone to make a move.
Jason clears his throat. "Well, Danny. You said you were gonna prove to me that the 13 steps aren't haunted. So prove it."
"Don't do it," Emma says, her tone firm. "It's not worth getting hurt over."
As much as I'd hate to worry her, I know I can't just stand back. I have to prove that the steps are not haunted, yet at the same time, part of me wants them to be. After staring at the cemetery day after day, waiting for a sign, this could finally be my chance to see for myself if the rumors are true. To see if there really is there really is some sort of life after death, that I will see my father again someday. For his sake and my own, I have to do it. I have to go down there. I look from Emma to Jason, then to the steps. "I won't get hurt," I assure her, peering down the staircase. At the bottom is cement floor, nothing else. At least, not that I can see. "I can't be hurt by something that doesn't exist."
I walk onto the first step. Then the second. So far, nothing's happening. I'm still sane on step three, four, five.
It's not until step six that I begin to feel lightheaded. It hits me out of nowhere. It's as if some terrible force sucked all the blood away from my head. I can't hear anything. I can't hear the worried whispers of the others, the wind rustling through the trees. I hold onto the cement wall for support as I reach step seven. My stomach churns, violent and angry, hating me for agreeing to come down here. My hands are freezing. My face, the inside of my body is freezing. I struggle to reach step eight, but when I do, I mind is flooded by anxiety. I'm overwhelmed by a sense of dread, terror, and incoming doom. I'm not sure what it is exactly that I'm afraid of, I just know that I am terrified and have every right to be. I can't breathe. I can't feel my legs. I feel like I'm dying.
But I can hear.
I cover my ears as my skull is filled with panicked, deafening screams. I can't take this anymore. I run as fast as my numb legs can take me, back up the stairs. With each step, my symptoms are immediately relieved, but the screaming continues. Once I get to the top of the stairs, I realize the screaming isn't in my head. It's Emma, Peter, Jason, and his friends, all in panic.
"Will you keep it down?" I whisper. "We're gonna get caught! Cops are always circling around this area at night!"
"Y-you disappeared!" Peter cries, clinging onto Emma. "When you made it to the sixth step, you were gone!"
I raise my eyebrow, my eyes widening, but I try to smile and stay calm. "What are you talking about? I was there the whole time."
"N-no, you weren't," Jason stammered. "Admit it, that shit is haunted!"
"It's not," I say. I can't let him know what I felt. If anyone – especially Jason – finds out the steps are in fact haunted, this cemetery will never be left in peace. "You guys were just imagining things."
"Liar!" Jason shouts. "It's haunted! It has to be! I saw you disappear! I'll go down there myself to prove it!"
"No, don't!" I blurt, but he and his three friends push past me, stomping down the steps.
Emma, Peter, and I all watch in horror as one of the friends disappears on step six, like he never existed. Jason and the other two make it to the thirteenth step, onto the floor.
And then, they scream.
I want to run, but I can't. My legs are immobilized by fear. Their screams, a mixture of terror and agony, are beyond anything I have ever heard in any horror movie. They twitch and thrash, like something is attacking them, but all I can see is the three boys fighting against something invisible. Emma's hands are clasped over her mouth and she's crying. Peter drops to his knees in a trembling mess.
"It's okay, guys," I say. "They're just faking to scare us." But I'm not fooling anyone.
One of the boys collapses to the ground, still as a doll. Jason and his other friend scramble up the stairs, the one that disappeared suddenly reappearing as they pass step six.
"What did you guys see?" Peter asks them.
Jason and his two remaining friends fail to answer. Their bodies shake in a violent frenzy, their faces sickeningly pale, their eyes wide and watery.
"Guys, he isn't moving!" Emma shrieks, pointing to the boy laying at the bottom of the crypt. "I-I think he's dead!"
"What the hell is going on out here?"
It's the heavyset man. He marches to us from across the lawn in his pajamas, his sagging face twisted with anger.
Jason and his friends don't even look back. They continue screaming as they rush out of the cemetery, into their car. But they don't make it far. The car swerves as Jason attempts to speed away, crashing full-force into a nearby tree on the side of the road, joining the collection of destroyed cars. The tree splits through the middle of the hood. Emma's sobs grow to a wail as she runs to the car, but her legs give out halfway through the cemetery, and she tumbles into the grass. She buries her face in her arms as she screams and cries Jason's name.
Three police cars pull up to the cemetery, their flashing lights blinding in the night. Cops pile out of the cars, some surrounding Jason's accident, the others running into the cemetery. I fall to my knees. Everything around me bleeds into a blur. A nightmare. The heavyset man continues to shout at us, more members of his family rushing out of the house. A firetruck and ambulance arrive at the scene of the crash, removing unrecognizable, bloody corpses from the demolished car. The police drag me and my friends into the back of a car, handcuffing our wrists behind our backs. Emma's screaming at me, claiming it's my fault that Jason died since I lied about the steps not being haunted. Tears continue to stream down her face as she threatens to never speak to me again, but I'm unfazed. None of it feels real, but I know it will tomorrow as my mom and stepdad punish me for my arrest, when Jason and his friends don't return to first period, when I remember how Emma cried over Jason's death, when she refuses to speak to me, when I don't return Paradise Lake Cemetery.
When I realize there's something else out there.