By Benjamin Henry
I wasn’t always a member of my family, although I think that’s the case with everyone. You aren’t really a member of your family until you’re born, right? But I joined my family much later in life, like someone being born-again, you might say. That is not to say I’m a born-again Christian, some member of the Seventh Day Adventists or revival-tent Baptists that pickets outside an abortion clinic. I would just like to make myself abundantly clear on this point. I’m very much an atheist, much to the disappointment of my biological parents.
I didn’t even meet a member of my birth family until I was well out of high school. Were you to open the 2020 Hinsdale Central High School yearbook, you, unfortunately, would be unable to find me in any of the team pictures for field hockey or volleyball. Nor would you find my likeness appearing with marching band or the National Honors Society — of which I was not a member, but regardless, still not shown. My photo isn’t even included in the class gallery. I had missed picture day thanks to a little something called COVID-19, and instead of taking my picture with an iPhone against an off-white, cinder block wall, the yearbook staff opted to label “Nessa, Shivani” as a grayed-out, amorphous blob. The official record of my passage of time as a senior in high school. Go Devils!
The only place where you could momentarily glimpse some iota of my being was on the spread for fall homecoming. On spirit day, the homecoming committee encouraged everyone to dress to impress with their best costumes. While the jocks dressed up as sexy cats, the nerds went as Princess Leias, and the teachers went as their usual Ms. Frizzles, I came dressed as Samara Morgan. What can I say, I took the mandate literally. I wanted to dress to impress, and to me, there’s no better way to leave an impression on someone than by scaring the hell out of them. Thus, my only existence in the yearbook is a picture of me standing barefoot in a dingy white nightgown with dyed black hair swallowing up my face entirely.
I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love horror. For as long as I can remember, I wished I were a little goblin or a witch. Somewhere, there is a home video of me being interviewed by some disembodied, offscreen, voice; they asked me what I want to be when I grow up; I replied “Vlad the Impaler.” When we read Charlotte’s Web in the fourth grade, I raised my hand to ask if the spider was going to come back to life, and if she did, would this Zombie Charlotte seek vengeance on all the humans in the book, spinning a web so large that she could trap them and feed them to her young? Or would she simply devour Wilbur as an easy target? I was sent home for causing several of my classmates to erupt in unrelenting sobs, which I was okay with, as I could then continue reading from the contraband collection of overdue Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books I hid in my toy chest. By the time a middle school teacher naively introduced me to some author named Stephen King, there was simply no stopping me.
At first, mom and dad thought my fascination with the macabre was something endearing, a little childish fad that I would grow out of after a year or so. They believed, mistakenly, that perhaps having something interesting about me would help me get friends. Their approach was treating me like a feral, abandoned dog at the shelter with a tragic backstory and not a tweenage girl who fell asleep to her comfort movie, Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Now, they are less than pleased with this trait. I want to tell them that it isn’t a trait; it is my sole signifying identity. But every time I tried to tell them, they — in soft woolen sweaters and clean, ironed khakis they purchased from the Gap — looked at me — in a second-hand graphic t-shirt of “Saturn Devouring His Son” and JNCO jeans — I knew they would never understand, no matter how hard I tried. Now, we happily coexist separately. They’re not really my family.
Which brings me to working at Spirit Halloween, where my life finally began to make sense. When the BigLots down the street from my house went under the summer after my senior year of high school, we all wondered what would take its place. It sat vacant for months, collecting dust, graffiti, and a reputation as a stellar place to both hook- and shoot-up, respectively. For me, the building was already perfect; no notes. But that all changed in early September when the shattered windows, soiled twin mattress, and an army of rats were replaced with an eye-catching neon orange sign proclaiming that Halloween, the most wonderful time of the year, was now in session. I had no choice but to apply.
Cheap labor was a no-brainer for my manager, but the joke was on him; I happily would’ve worked all my solo shifts for free. Can one put a price on spending time with your idols? Seeing chainsaw after chainsaw for sale for promising little Jasons, trying on mask after mask of William Shatner’s face, over-inflating a legion of blood-red helium balloons for murderous clowns; it was hell on earth to me. I was even encouraged to dress up during my nocturnal shifts to inspire potential customers. Thus, every night from five to ten, you could find me sitting at our register dressed as the Bride of Frankenstein, Nancy Wheeler, the Girl with the Green Ribbon. I even put a novelty, ceramic jack-o-lantern on the desk to add a touch of “spoopy with a p” whimsy to the scene; this misdirection often amplified the horror, something I was pleased to discover after jumping out from behind the desk in full Carrie White makeup and sending an elderly man into convulsions.
There I was, alone in the store, behind the register, perched on a stool, head deep in my third or fourth re-read of ‘Salem’s Lot, dressed to the nines in my Coraline costume, lost in my mansion of murder, when noticed the faintest movement out of the corner of my eye. Something was barely visible through the window, barely tangible through the inky blackness laying just beyond. I spatchcocked my novel — easily done as the spine was already suffering an extreme case of scoliosis due to years of reading and studying — and went to investigate.
To investigate…nothing. Popping out from behind the counter, I waded out past the automatic sliding doors and came face to face with the empty parking lot, a single shopping cart left driverless beneath the floodlight. My spirits fell. I was hoping for someone. I relished every chance I had to perfectly craft each guest’s experience in finding their scariest inner self. I was a gore guru, Satan’s shaman. “Hello?” I called into the abyss. “It’s fine! You’re allowed to come in! I’m more than happy to help you find a costume!” The shopping cart shifted slightly with an intense gust of night air, but nobody replied. I sighed, shoved my hands into my gummy yellow raincoat, tossed my blue wig, and made my way back inside.
Were my life a movie, or even a cheap, daytime soap opera, a glorious symphony would have sounded at that very moment. Not an angelic one like “Ode to Joy.” A gothic, bombastic one like “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” heavy on the organ. Bats erupting, full moon glowing, the smell of fire and brimstone. For you see, dear reader, that was the instant my life had changed; it was the moment I met her. Standing there, radiant in her pitch-black hoodie and chunky, Frankenstein wedges and gaunt, skeletal face perfectly framed by a halo of ghostly black hair, I couldn’t look away. She was blinding and alluring and confusing all at once. For the first time since my eyes fell upon an Edward Gorey book, I was utterly captivated.
“Um…hi?” She smiled with dazzling white teeth. Staring at them felt both dangerous and exciting, like the feeling you get playing with liquid mercury.
I realized I hadn’t said anything to this woman. All I’d done was shriek in surprise and stared like a newborn baby at her for several seconds. I did a cartoonish shake of my head and regained my composure, or at least all I could gather at the moment.
“Hi, sorry, er… I didn’t know we had anyone in here.”
“That’s quite alright,” she said, her voice lingering on the S, sending me into a spiral of serpentine-esque seduction. She raised her hand and held up a pair of silicon Dracula fangs, fake blood matted to the canines. “I’m ready to check out, though.”
“Sure thing, cool,” I said, tripping over a spring-loaded coffin on my way back to the register. “Um… not to be mean or anything, but do we know each other from somewhere or?”
“School,” she said flippantly, handing over her credit card.
“Oh, that’s cool. I didn’t talk to a lot of people when I was there. And I’m pretty bad with names and faces. Were you in the grade below me or?”
“Sure,” she said, smiling as she looked down to enter her PIN. “Nice book.” She raised her eyebrows to the facedown novel. “Nothing beats the King.” There was a hint of something in her voice. It wasn’t teasing; it felt more like my dad on Easter morning saying thinly veiled clues as to the location of the eggs. I haven’t heard you play piano in a while, Shivani…wink. He would say the wink and smile; I would find the egg and frown, having opened it to find a few Skittles or nickels and not what I hoped for: dead insects or baby teeth. But her voice seemed less gimmicky; perhaps she actually had a few tarantulas in her pockets.
“Thanks,” I said, my pale face blushing against my will. “I can’t count how many times I’ve read it.”
“Can’t count, you say?” she said, her words toying with me like a gnat in a venus fly trap. “Well, that’s certainly a first.”
“Oh, definitely.” I chuckled slightly, not sure what else to do, knowing immediately that chuckling was not it.
“Listen, sweetie,” she said, leaning in close over the counter. I could smell her musky perfume, unlike anything I had ever smelled before. “I think you and I are pretty similar. That we live similar…” She searched for the word, “lifestyles. If you know what I mean.” She winked.
Nervous sweat began to pulse out from underneath my blue wig. “I’m, uh, not sure what you—”
The mysterious creature held up her hand, politely silencing me. My vocal cords went silent, almost as if they dried up and were incapable of speaking. A smolder appeared on her face. “I know how hard it can be, trust me. But you know as well as I do that we didn’t choose to live this way, we were called to it.” She held up her novelty fangs. “We were born into it, if you know what I mean?”
The blacklight clicked in my brain and I finally understood what she meant. Horror, simple bloody gothic bone-chilling Shirley Jackson horror. Another kindred spirit. A stormy sea amidst the banality of safe harbors. A Freddy to my Jason, someone who understood the constant ache in my belly to see someone get hacked to pieces with a chainsaw.
“Oh! Yes, I know exactly what you mean,” I said confidently. I even winked in return. We were no longer shopkeeper and patron, or schoolmate and forgotten schoolmate; we were now co-conspirators of the Darkness.
Her lips curled once more into a knowing smile. “Good. I thought I had done my research, but you can never really be sure until you know. Am I right?”
I blew a raspberry. “Psh, oh yeah, totally.” I nodded my head profusely as if I were listening to a song by Black Sabbath, wanting to personify my enthusiasm. “You can never be too careful. The ultra-religious types? They loathe people like us. Think we’re corrupting souls and turning their kids into sex fiends. As if.” As if? Fuck me.
“The persecution has been so high recently,” she said. “Although, still not as bad as it was after that Rice novel came out.” She gave me an eye-roll big enough to crush a Toyota Prius. “But it’s much easier with like-minded people. There’s no need to hide that part of yourself.”
“Yeah, for sure,” I said, feeling my heart soar and then immediately plummet back to earth, crash-landing in a parking lot in suburban Chicago. I, for one, did not have this group of like-minded people. As fun as it was to share in Halloween costumes and American horror culture and the difficulties that came with living your life devoted to the haunted with a complete stranger, they were still a stranger. My smile momentarily faltered.
She noticed — of course, she did. She reached into the butt pocket of her skinny jeans and pulled out a single slip of black paper. “You know, you should visit sometime,” she said, handing me the paper. On it was an address written in almost imperceptibly dark ruby ink. When I took it, the numbers and letters glittered in the humming fluorescent lights of the store, as if it were still wet, written in jelly pen ink. “Swing by tomorrow night. Meet the family. I have a feeling you’ll like it there.”
“Wait, seriously?” I asked, trying to tamp down my enthusiasm before I was uninvited. “I mean, thanks.” Then, as if compelled by some brain parasite, I said, “Should I bring a movie or drinks o—”
“Oh Shivani, just bring your adorable, undead little self,” she said in that familiar teasing note. “And come hungry. We’re catering.”
“Okay, come hungry, I can do that.”
“Beautiful,” she said, dropping the Dracula teeth into her blackened leather purse. “When you get there, tell them Greta sent you.” She winked and turned towards the door.
A moment passed before something dawned on me. “Hey, how’d you know my name?” I called to her retreating figure.
“Your name tag.”
“Oh! That makes sense!” I looked down. I wasn’t wearing my name tag.
I looked up. Greta was gone, leaving only a gust of wind in her wake.
When I arrived, wiping my feet on the Ouija board doormat, I thought my decision to go as Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice was a prudent one. No better way to make a strong impression with new, scary-loving friends than by wearing her sanguine wedding dress with spiky, jarring hair. I rang the doorbell, which played the theme from The Twilight Zone in a synthetic chime arrangement. The door swung open, and I came face to face with a man whose skin was so olive, you could drag a piece of pita bread through it and be thoroughly satiated. His black eyes looked down upon me, questioning my appearance as if I were a possum who happened their way to the front step.
“Hello?” he said, his voice smeared in a rich, Greek accent.
“Hi, uh,” I said, trying not to stare too intensely at his pencil-thin goatee. “Greta sent me?”
At this, the man transformed in front of me. His eyes widened and softened, causing a few errant crow’s feet to become visible, a lifelong dedication to laughing. “Oh, yes! Our honored guest. We’re so happy to have you. Please, come in, come in.” He stood to the side and held out his hand, humbling himself to me as if he were the footman of the building and not the owner.
“Thanks, I’m happy to be here,” I said, stepping past him and catching his scent — the same worn by Greta. I had only a second to consider this thought before I was assaulted by the sensory overload of what would eventually become my living room. If someone were to take a distillation of my brain — all its deep crevices and runnels and tunnels and folds and gray matter — analyze the findings, and convert it into a physical space, this was it. It put the Spirit Halloween interior designers to shame.
It seemed as if everything in the room was dunked into a bucket of garnet paint, red seeping out of every nook and cranny. The books on the shelves, all of which reshelved in beautiful, crimson dust jackets, were a veritable gospel of the macabre. The VHS collection was much the same, ranging from slashers to demonic to animals seeking revenge to the Twilight saga (which seemed particularly well worn). Candles and candelabras poked out from a random assortment of objects, casting the nearby surroundings in faint golden light. Overhead, a mobile of plastic bats jittered up and down as they flew perpetually in a circle, disturbed by my entrance. Thick, creamy, red velvet curtains draped across the windows, blocking out any hope of light from the outside world, perfect for becoming a creature of the night. A roaring fire blazed, next to which I saw Greta sitting cross-legged on a suede loveseat, watching my every move since I arrived.
“Hey stranger,” she cooed, rising to meet me. She was dressed in a Mariana Trench deep-cut black dress with black lipstick and extravagant, raging hair. Either she was dressed as Elvira, or she oozed gothic sex appeal with ease. Considering everyone else seemed to be rocking the same sort of aesthetic, making me feel very much both overdressed and overstated, I sided with the latter. “You look terrifying.”
“I, er, yeah,” I stammered. My tongue felt about four times larger than normal.
Greta got up and patted me on the shoulder and squeezed, a flood of warm blood rushing to the spot like heat-seeking missiles. “Let me introduce you to the family, Shiv.” I liked the way she shortened my name like I was a dagger and lethal in the right hands. Her right hands.
I love my family. Every single member. None of us look alike, but it’s on the inside that counts, right? There’s Odessa and her collection of Snapple bottle caps that go clunk when you press them. Humbert, who secretly has watched every single Hallmark Christmas movie and keeps a diary ranking them hidden in the house. The twins, Wicker and Zip, who look like mirrors of one another, perfect copies. Dot, who is too tall, and Javier, who is too short, but together make one another complete. And Panio, our collective dad, whose only negative trait is his attachment to his goatee. All of them with an undying love of the occult, the gory, and the scary.
Once Greta finished showing me off like an award-winning pony — of which I happily played my part, champing at the bit — they welcomed me into their game of fuck-marry-kill. I was happy just to be in this room with these people on this night being fucked, married, or killed. I would have let them kill me over and over again.
After, they peppered me with questions.
“How long have you known?”
“Oh, since I was very little. There wasn’t like a ‘the clouds clear’ moment or anything, just sort of became aware.”
“Do your parents have it?”
“Psh, no. They don’t understand, either. But they’re not like against it, per se. They just kinda let me do my own thing, as long as it doesn’t embarrass them.”
“And Greta tells us that you haven’t been approached by any other groups before?”
“Uh, I guess? I tried to start something with a guy I knew in middle school — Nathan — but he changed schools before we were able to sink our teeth into anything substantial. If that makes sense.”
“How are you with blood?”
“I’d care to venture I enjoy a good Slasher and Splatter as much as any of you.”
As the night grew on and the fireplace grew dim, our shadows grew long and monstrous in the dying light. The questions posed to me gradually fell away, and instead, we regaled one another with talk of all things scary. It was the first time I can remember having a genuine discussion about the things I cared about most in this world. My parents tried, once, to engage me in a talk about Alfred Hitchcock, but they soon realized I was out of their league, too far gone for them to keep pace. No, for the first time since I ignited that fire within me, someone was able to keep that flame glowing. Not just someone, a whole family of people. And not just keep it glowing, they poured gasoline on it, stoking it in a way I had never imagined possible.
The doorbell rang. Ding-DING-ding-ding ding-DING-ding-ding ding-DING-ding-ding ding-DING-ding-ding.
“Finally,” Panio sighed, flying up and sweeping his way towards the door. “I thought the caterer would never show.”
I had completely forgotten about the food; I was just happy to be a part of something bigger than me, a gothic Michael Collins. That said, if my stomach was any indication, everyone else was probably starving.
Panio grabbed a paper by the door and flipped through it, seemingly pulling up his invoice for the meal. After finding what he was looking for, he turned back towards all of us, gave a nod, and flew open the door.
“Gordy Wilcox?” Panio said, looking down at his sheet for confirmation.
“Yeah…” Gordy Wilcox said hesitantly. “You called. Said there was an issue was my tax return.”
“Indeed, yes. Please, come in.”
Gordy Wilcox strolled in, not carrying a velcro pizza warmer or several paper bags full of tortilla chips. Instead, he was just some middle-aged guy in a suit with bags under his eyes and a five-o-clock shadow. He glanced around the room, eyeing me and my future brothers and sisters. His face quickly paled as he reversed towards Panio, whose bulking frame was blocking the door.
“I believe there’s been some sort of mistake.”
“No,” Greta said, causing Gordy to turn in our direction “We don’t make mistakes.”
I was about to side with Gordy, that is until Panio lunged forward and bit him just above the shoulder blade.
As soon as Gordy stopped being Gordy and became a human-sized juice box, there was an immense flurry of activity — plenty of screaming, blood squirting hither and yon as more sets of fangs dug into the newcomer, hot wax spilling onto the carpet that would take days to refurbish. In this, I decided to make a mental pros and cons list of my current situation, and quickly. It was something like this:
Pro: They love horror like me.
Con: Maybe more than me?
Pro: Greta is very cute.
Con: Perhaps too cute?
Pro: They seem to like me.
Con: They are all vampires.
Pro: They are all vampires.
In the end, I decided to get up and join them at the now lifeless bottle of Sunny G, pretending to nibble and suck like a kitten without any teeth. As blood spouted from him like a whale breaching the ocean surface, Panio lifted his head towards me with the most radiant, welcoming, bloodsoaked smile. “It goes without saying, we would like to welcome you to the family, Shivani,” he said, his eyes twinkling in the candlelight, his goatee morphed into a fully grown, carrot-top beard.
It was then I made up my mind for good. “Happy to be here.”
“Everyone! Let’s welcome Shivani to the family,” he announced before chowing down once again.
The next day I told my parents I had finally found a place to live — they put up no protest, having practically begged me to move out so as to get rid of the prop ax I had affixed to my bedroom door — packed my meager belongings into a duffle bag, worked my night shift, and returned. I found everyone in a state of general euphoria, on their hands and knees, bottles of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, lemon juice, and OxyClean, scrubbing the blood out of the carpet from last night’s activities.
Greta shot up to greet me, her hands covered in squeaky yellow gloves, her black hair tied back in a tight pony. She looked like the perfect picture of sixties domesticity, minus the bloodstains and crop top exposing her pierced midriff. I immediately blushed, thankful for my tanned complexion for vaguely hiding it from her. I had to look at the carpet or else I was afraid my face would turn the same color as the wall.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you last night,” she said, kneeling down and spraying a bottle of orange-scented on a particularly stubborn stain. By the looks of it, it appeared to be where our caterer relieved himself amid the chaos. “You’re my new roommate.”
Unconsciously, my body emitted a sound reminiscent of a malfunctioning calculator. Afraid to subject myself to any more embarrassment, I knelt down and helped clean.
“So, uh… what do you — we — do with the, uh, leftovers?”
Greta leaned back on her heels. From smothered in a complete stranger’s blood to dressing like a maid, she looked smoking. I hope to look even half as decent. “Wicker and Zip are on a curling team with another set of twins who’re werewolves. They’re like the freegan kind that only eats something that is already dead or has been sustainably farmed or something like that, so we hook them up.”
“No, Shiv. We throw it into Lake Michigan. Werewolves don’t exist.” She winked. “You’re cute. Naive, but cute.”
I asked Odessa about the selection process.
“We only order catering from a select, highly vetted list of candidates. One of the biggest stereotypes I hate about us is that we can ‘smell the innocent and have an insatiable appetite.’” She held up her gloved fingers, wriggling them like a warlock bewitching someone. She rolled her eyes. “It’s tiring. But, I get it. Our people’s history hasn’t been the cleanest, so we take care to really get it right. No parents, no do-gooders, no orphans. Real scum.” I soon learned that this meant kid diddlers, hedge fund managers, and annoying MLM social media influencers. Essentially, people that nobody would miss, nobody would report, and nobody would consider a good person.
That was fine by me.
“How do you get them here?”
“It changes every time,” Humbert said, doing his best to re-melt the dried wax out of the carpet. “Some we use the tax return bit, others have won the lottery and need to come here to pick it up, or that an ex has died and they’ve left them something in their will, you know, stuff that attracts the clientele. We’ve had a few that were actually delivery guys. We just order from their restaurants the nights we know they’re working.”
“That’s quite the system,” I said. “What do you do if the wrong dude shows up.”
He shrugged. “Hasn’t happened yet. We’re very thorough in our research.”
“That you are. That you are.”
It’s been several months now, and it’s getting harder to keep my secret, I have to admit. My stash of food is a constant stressor. I’m only able to smuggle in items I find working my night shifts at Spirit Halloween. Danishes and Goldfish crackers and anything else that can blend in with the shape of my figure. I store them in the hollowed-out bottom of my casket, which is becoming increasingly full of cellophane wrappers and ants. But what I endure with ants I make up for in vitamin deficiencies. I am extremely malnourished. Surviving on break-room vending machine food, believe it or not, does not have all the necessary amino acids you need to live. It’s causing my skin to wrinkle faster than a grandmother in a jacuzzi.
I’ve also been bending the rules more at work, more than usual. I have resorted to shining a blacklight on me behind the desk, which does wonders for my rickets but also forces me to see a Jackson Pollock of bodily fluids I’ve unknowingly been working alongside. It’s a mixed bag. The light sometimes gets too hot and causes my skin to blister and burn. Still, it’s easier for me to handle than the blood capsules I have to keep hidden in my jowls before dinner. When it’s time to dig in, I bite down hard, causing a cascade of gelatinous, cloying liquid to ooze out of my mouth, giving my family the much-needed assurance that I’m going to town on the jugular of whatever blood sack we have ordered in.
Overall, though, things have been to die for. Pun intended. Spooky, scary, and, dare I say, a little steamy? There is certainly some chemistry between me and Greta. Our glances during game night linger far beyond the boundaries of just friends. I seek her out and kill her first when playing Murder in the Dark; she does likewise, and I feel her cold, lifeless, beautiful finger slice my throat. One morning before bed, we pushed our coffins together because she told me she was “scared of the light.” Yeah, right. I didn’t protest, although I would have preferred to simplify things and just share a coffin, feel her silken lining. Pun intended.
For next Halloween, we plan on dressing up as vampires. I bought everyone a pair of novelty fangs, the kind Greta bought the day I met her. They all had a good laugh. I superglued mine to my gums, committing myself to burn in hell with each and every one of them, as one does with family.
Benjamin Henry conned a BA in English from the Ohio State University and an MA from the University of Toledo, where his work was published in several journals. Benjamin lives in Dayton, OH with his partner, their Victorian-child of a dog, and the ghosts of the Wright Brothers.