By Alan Haehnel
Clipboard in hand, Delia stands in front of her gang of sliced, mangled, dead and dying volunteers. “Look, guys, the point of a spook alley is to be--guess what?” she prompts. Liz the zombie, entrails dangling from her shirt, says the word with Delia: “Spooky.” Only while Delia shouts the word, trying to marshal her troops, Liz’s delivery is drawled, bored.
“What is your problem?” Delia asks. Liz just pops three blood capsules, bites them, and lets the gore drool down her chin. “Cute,” Delia says. Liz cocks her head and grins bloodily. “Come on!” Delia yells, hating that she’s sounding whiny. “I just walked through what was supposed to be a completely terrifying experience, one surprise after another, and all I got was...deadness!” She regrets her word choice even before Kevin, with his blue-white painted face, says, “I thought I was supposed to be dead.” Laughter. Delia takes a deep breath.
“Listen. This is for an important cause, okay? We look great. Everybody’s done a good job with their costumes. The gym doesn’t even look like the gym, right? The lighting, the decorations…” (All my doing, Delia thinks) “…they’re awesome. We just need to put more effort into playing our roles, into being, you know, scary.”
“What difference does it make?” This from Serena or Sarah--Delia can’t remember everybody’s name. She lied about the costumes. All S. has brought is a sheet smeared with something resembling chocolate; she’s wearing it like a toga. When Delia walked through the spook alley, S. was sitting under a tangle of spider webs that had taken Delia over an hour to create—just sitting there, texting. S. says, “I’m just doing this to get my community service hours so I can frigging graduate, okay?” The undead and mangled murmur in agreement.
“The difference it makes is that if we make this a good event, a truly scary event, word will get out, people will come, and we’ll raise lots of money. If we don’t, we won’t, and that will suck. Get it?”
“And if it sucks,” Liz says, “our fearless leader here won’t be able to say she organized a highly-successful fund-raiser for refugees, and maybe, just maybe, she won’t get into Princeton.”
“What, so trying to help out the needy is suddenly a terrible thing?”
“Which needy? The refugees in war-torn Syria or you, Delia?”
“Where the hell is Syria, anyway?” shouts a vampire from the back of the group.
“All right, people, look. Maybe this isn’t your favorite activity in the world and maybe you don’t care about refugees and maybe you think I’m just...whatever! We’re here! We open this spook alley tomorrow, and I’ve got some notes. So listen to me. Please.”
Liz spits out a piece of plastic from the blood capsule. Delia decides she’ll have to sort out what’s eating Liz later. If she’s still resenting my supposedly taking too much credit for the chemistry lab, thinks Delia, she’s just going to have to get over herself. With most of my applications due in less than two weeks, with all of my college essay drafts sounding way too clichéd, I don’t have time for her shit.
Delia shifts her focus back to the group at large. “Okay, where is my girl with the slit throat?” A gray hand raises. “Hi. So, you do a great job of lying in the coffin, but when somebody passes by, I want you to open your eyes really suddenly. And every few seconds, you should sit up and reach out, maybe even touch the people. Use your judgment, but just make it startling.”
“Startling. Got it,” the slit-throat girl mumbles.
“And maybe you could make your gash a little more jagged.”
“Sure. I’ll get right on that.”
“Good,” says Delia, ignoring the sarcasm, and forges on with her list. “Hanging dude in the closet--I like the legs shaking, but you could definitely play it up more. And make some gagging sounds, too. It’s got to be more realistic. Hanging dude?” Delia scans the group for the kid wearing the noose. “Where is he? Where is…”
“His name’s Jeff,” says the girl with the bullet hole in her forehead.
“Jeff, right. Where is he?”
“I’ll get him,” bullet girl says and heads back through the entrance to the spook alley.
“The main thing is,” Delia continues, “you guys, you have to get into it. You have to think about the audience walking through. Be unpredictable. Make them scream!”
Dale, his werewolf mask shoved up on top of his head, chimes in with one of his typical comments: “Hey, Mrs. Tarantino, I’m having a hard time figuring out my motivation. Do I kill because I love to or because I need to?”
Bullet girl comes bursting out of the spook alley, screaming, “Oh, my God! You guys, you guys! Oh, my God!” She gets to Delia and pukes on her shoes.
“That is disgusting and not even vaguely funny! If that doesn’t come out of the fabric, you are going to…” Then the smell hits, and Delia knows bullet girl isn’t faking.
“Haley, what’s the matter? Where’s Jeff?” asks the guy with the knife protruding from his chest. Delia is about to tell Haley she should go home if she’s feeling sick, that she needs to recover before the opening tomorrow, when Haley stops crying long enough to shout, “Help him! I think he’s dead! Really dead!”
Half a minute later, everyone stands in front of the closet where Jeff was supposed to be pretending to hang himself, where Jeff lost his footing in the dark and accidentally, actually hanged himself. They all stand—still, silent, shocked—looking at him. Liz sniffs. Delia doesn’t have to turn to know that tears are running down her face. Liz whispers, “Oh, no. What should we do?”
Delia stares at blue-lipped, tongue-protruding Jeff for two more seconds, and then she knows exactly what has to be done. “Liz, call 9-1-1. Now.” Liz runs to get her cell. Delia scans her crowd of fake traumas to find someone whose name she knows. “Dale!”
“I’m here. What?” he asks, no longer the smart ass.
“I need you to run and get Mr. Cochran. He’s in his room.”
Dale takes off to get Mr. Cochran, Delia’s faculty advisor for the project who will most likely not have his job much longer. “You, you and you,” she says, pointing to the mummy, the vampire and toga girl, “help me get Jeff down.”
“Do you think we should touch him?” asks the mummy. “Maybe we’re supposed to wait.”
“Wait? Wait for what? He needs help! Let’s go!” Delia is lifting up on Jeff’s legs. “Do I have to do this by myself? What is the matter with you people?”
Once Jeff is down and lying on the floor, Delia tries to loosen his noose. The rope is practically embedded in his neck. “You, Mummy!” she yells. “Get me some scissors!”
“But nothing! Hurry!”
Mummy just stands there, her strips of sheet unraveling. Delia kneels beside Jeff and starts chest compressions. She’s taking careful mental notes of every detail around her. A few seconds ago, Jeff’s neck was cold and clammy. The rope was smooth, white, probably clothesline, not like the splintery brown rope they hang people with in the Westerns. Jeff is wearing a brown suit with subtle pin-stripes, quite a nice suit, actually, probably a wool blend. He’s also wearing basketball sneakers—a wrong choice Delia had been planning to tell him about. The mummy hasn’t moved. Three of her toes peek through the frayed wrapping around her foot. The big toenail is painted red; the next two, green. Christmas colors for Halloween.
Delia’s arms are getting tired, but she will not stop until the ambulance arrives. She has decided that the paramedics will have to bodily remove her from trying to save Jeff. “Isn’t he, I mean, he’s…he’s already dead,” Mummy says. Delia keep pushing on Jeff’s chest—hard, regular compressions like she learned in CPR class. She looks up to see that a couple kids have pulled out their cell phones to video the action. Perfect. Delia readies herself, steadies herself, takes a deep breath so she can get her words out though she’s getting winded.
“I am not…going to…give up!” Delia starts, projecting as best she can. “I am in charge…of this project. Jeff put…” (This is harder than she thought, pumping on his chest and delivering a speech.) “…his trust in me. He deserves…everything…I’ve got to keep…to keep him alive! Everyone needs…needs someone…to pull for them no…matter…what!”
Now it’s time for the mouth-to-mouth. Delia pushes Jeff’s tongue back into place and leans down. Behind her, someone says, “Oh, God, how can she do that?”
One bit of wisdom Delia is learning right now will definitely not appear in her kick-ass college essay: Getting a good seal on a corpse’s lips is hard…when you’re smiling.