So you want to hear a scary story, do you? One that thrills your anxious nerves and excites the depths of your imagination? A mysterious tale set in the ambiguous climate of autumn? Coincidentally, this fine rainy evening has put me much in the mood for telling such a story, and I happen to know a very haunting tale of a skeleton named Ned Theodore Ed and the time whence he visited the Seven Levels of Hell, one unsettling October eve.
The funny thing is, Ned Theodore Ed did not particularly like Halloween. In fact, he had always had a strong aversion to the holiday, much in the same way that turkeys generally dislike Thanksgiving or how Native Americans don’t feel warm and fuzzy on Columbus Day. N.T. Ed probably wouldn’t have thought twice about Halloween, if it weren’t for the fact that he was a skeleton, and so felt rather uncomfortable and ill at ease during Halloween festivities, which often boasted mock skeletons in a decorative, insensitive manners.
However, in recent years, N.T. had been making significant progress with his issues; he occasionally chatted with an online therapist, and the physical distance which he had created between his hometown Spinesville and his log cabin in the mountain (which loomed above Spinesville, the city now only a small blip at its mighty foot) and thus he was effectively able to “opt out” of society and its peculiar annual traditions.
So N.T. was a little surprised one day when he took a break from chopping wood and checked his mailbox, that he had received a letter which contained two tickets to a haunted farmyard named “Seven Levels of Hell” and a letter congratulating him for winning a giveaway. The letter contained atrocious grammar, several words misspelled and sentences poorly constructed. Puzzling over the letter on his front porch, N.T. wracked his cranium but couldn’t recall ever signing up for such a giveaway; he wondered if his friend Margaret or Reid had used his contact information as an extra entry. Either way, he had no interest in attending such a spectacle and texted Reid, offering them to him instead.
NOT SURE WHY THESE TICKETS WERE SENT TO ME, BUT WOULD YOU LIKE THEM? YOU CAN TAKE SHEILA, N.T. wrote in his text, and later Reid responded that Sheila would be out of town the coming weekend, but that he’d take the tickets anyway, if N.T. didn’t want them. Reid figured he could find someone else to go with him, but when he stopped by N.T.’s cabin to pick up the tickets a few days later, he admitted that no one else was able to go with him, and hesitantly asked N.T. if he’d want to go together.
“I know it’s not at all your cup of tea, but maybe it could be fun?” Reid asked, raising his eyebrows and shrugging. They were seated on N.T.’s couch, a kettle on the stove in the next room and a low flame burning in the fireplace. Rain pattered upon the windowpane and playing cards lay spread out in front of them on the coffee table.
Even though N.T.’s gut reaction (or, because N.T. actually didn’t have guts, his spine reaction) was to politely decline the offer and spend that Saturday evening in the quiet safety of his own warm home, he considered it. He had been working on “facing his fears” in therapy and pushing himself to try new things, especially getting out of his comfort zone. Perhaps this could potentially be not only a bonding opportunity for him and Reid, but also a chance for him to confront his anxiety concerning Halloween.
I DON’T KNOW, I’M SCARED, N.T. signed to Reid.
Although N.T. was not yet proficient at sign language, he had spent several months taking an online course and was getting better at it. Because he was a skeleton without a voice box, he had never been able to speak and for most his life relied on writing messages on paper and showing them to people; however, earlier that year, his friends had all announced to N.T. that they all wanted to learn sign language together so that N.T. could communicate with them better, and now they were able to largely get by on signing alone, although every now and then N.T. had to break out the pen and paper for phrases they didn’t know yet.
“That’s okay. Honestly, I’ll be scared, too. I haven’t been to a haunted house since I was a teenager,” Reid responded to N.T. “If you don’t want to go, that’s okay. But just think it over and let me know later. It’d be something different.”
It was a decision that weighed on N.T. the rest of the week. Each day leading up to that weekend, he teetered back and forth between whether or not he would go. One moment, he’d courageously decide that it was fate testing him by sending the tickets, and that he must go and prove himself! But the next moment, he shriveled at the thought of the crowd that would be there and wondered if Reid would just want to come over and play board games in his cabin instead. Unless Reid was getting bored of hanging out with N.T. in his cabin? They did spend an awful lot of time lounging about his home, since N.T. didn’t drive. He didn’t want Reid to think that he was lame, stuck to his routines, which he had perfected, much like an elderly man.
Finally, on the day of the haunted house, in a surge of bravery, N.T. committed to going, and that evening Reid picked up N.T. in his silver Kia and they were gliding down the highway, weaving the twists and and turns of Mount Eve towards the outskirts of Spinesville. The Temptations sang on the radio and Reid hummed along, occasionally uttering a lyric or taking a drink from his water bottle. N.T. swallowed his nervousness as he watched the turning autumn leaves fly by in an immaculate leafy collage of reds, oranges, and yellows. He wished he could lose himself in this beautiful moment, riding shotgun with his best friend on this magical autumn evening, but his pervasive anxiety about the night demanded N.T.’s full attention and consequent dread.
Once at the bottom of the mountain, it was another twenty-five minutes of driving down dirt roads surrounded by forests. As the golden sunlight retreated beyond the mountains, Reid’s GPS pinged and they beheld the farm at which these supposed Seven Levels of Hell resided. Other cars pulled in ahead of and behind them. Reid pulled into its gravel driveway and was flagged by a short woman in a reflective vest to park in the field, and he followed the parade of cars also out for a wholesome night of visiting hell. The car rocked upon the uneven ground as Reid maneuvered it over the grassy field and parked it parallel to another car.
When the engine turned off, Reid and N.T. sat for a moment and looked around at their destination. “Gotta say, this is kinda creepy. Bad things always happen in the middle of nowhere,” Reid laughed nervously. He put his keys in his jeans pocket and checked to make sure he also had the tickets, his wallet, and phone in his hoodie pocket, which was a green hoodie that said “THE PINES” across the front in white letters.
Before Reid had picked him up the hour before, N.T. had faced a wardrobe dilemma: What to wear? He wasn’t sure what people wore to haunted houses—did they dress up in costume too? N.T. was already a skeleton, and by Halloween standards, that in and of itself was a “costume,” but it wasn’t something he necessarily wanted to draw attention to. Whereas his skeletal appearance often attracted strangers’ unapologetic gaping, N.T. would have much preferred being invisible. Thus, he opted for a pair of black jeans and a black pullover hoodie.
They got out of the car and walked further up the driveway and beneath a lit-up archway that said “Welcome to Hell,” the early dusk darkening in the sky. N.T. was tempted to grab Reid’s hand so that they didn’t lose each other in the crowd of people streaming towards the ticket booths, but Spinesville was quite a conservative town, and a black man and a skeleton holding hands seemed like it would inadvertently draw more trouble than it saved, even if it was merely platonic. N.T. had to remind himself that he wasn’t in his pines anymore; he was in public. They joined the line of people waiting for admission. N.T. tried to ignore the loud whispers of children pointing him out to their parents.
Slowly they inched forward in line, and eventually they made it to the small building’s window and presented their tickets. The woman inside the booth—a skinny woman in a winter jacket, scarf, and headband—glanced at the tickets before doing a double-take and raising her eyebrows.
“Everything okay?” Reid asked through the window. “We got them—“
The woman was staring behind Reid at N.T., her thin lips parted as she studied him. Then she shook her head and looked back to Reid. “No, no! Everything’s fine, enjoy your haunted experience,” she briskly said. As she returned the tickets, now stamped, to Reid, a tall man in a baseball hat who was pacing behind the window workers paused and looked out at Reid and N.T. His baseball hat was pulled snugly over his large head and obscured his eyes with the shadow of its bill. For a brief, awkward moment, the four of them were suspended there, looking among one another, until Reid finally took the tickets and turned, him and N.T. stepping away from the window.
“That was weird,” Reid muttered as they joined another line waiting for the hayride.
PEOPLE ALWAYS STARE AT ME, N.T. signed back. He pulled up the hood on his sweatshirt and hunched his shoulders.
“Yeah but that’s so rude,” Reid replied, and shot a glare at a teenager behind N.T. who was attempting to take a picture of him. The teenager glared back at Reid, and, giving up since N.T.’s back was turned, turned back to their friend group.
From the ticket booth, the crowd was directed towards another line, which zigzagged in anticipation of a hay ride which would shuttle them to the haunted houses. After fifteen minutes of waiting, Reid and N.T. boarded the covered wagon hooked up to a tractor, choosing a seat near the back. They sat close to each other on the bench and watched the other passengers amble up the aisle, picking out their seats. The outer edge of the wagon was open except for a couple horizontal bars, and a cool breeze kicked through the wagon, chilling N.T. as he sat on the outer side of the seat, Reid to his left on the aisle side. Reid began fading from N.T.’s sight as daylight recoiled and the darkness of night set in, obscuring the wheat fields surrounding them.
“Okay, this is kind of freaky,” Reid said, laughing. “I’ve seen Children of the Corn, I know how this goes.”
“Nah, you’ll be fine,” a chummy voice responded from across the aisle of the wagon. It was a middle-aged man in a purple flannel which was tight against beer belly, the man’s balding head gleaming. “This is the third time I’ve taken my daughter to this place and she’s eleven.” He motioned to his other side and Reid and N.T. saw a young girl in the seat beside him, staring at a phone screen that illuminated her face in a blue glow. “Safe as can be. The employees aren’t even allowed to touch us. All jump scares.”
Reid hesitantly thanked him for this intel.
Catching sight of N.T., the man awed. “Whoa, cool costume!”
NOT A COSTUME, N.T. signed, shaking his head. Although, perhaps it would be better if he led people to believe it was a costume? He was usually rather conflicted about this matter; he didn’t want to hide his “true self,” but it was also an annoying process confirming his skeletal existence because it prolonged these unsolicited interactions.
Thankfully, Reid was practiced at being N.T.’s friend. “Oh, that’s not a costume. He’s a skeleton, and he has feelings, too.”
The man’s eyes enlarged as he processed this information, squinting a bit closer at N.T. in the darkness. “Wow,” he finally said. “I’m really sorry about the mix-up. Cool, er, skeleton, my friend.”
N.T. gestured from his chin forward to indicate “Thanks,” and, turning away from the man, Reid signaled that they were done indulging his conversation.
Soon, the tractor’s engine kicked on and the wagon lurched as they began moving forward. N.T. balled his skeletal fingers in his hoodie sleeve and huddled close to Reid. The anticipation of fear was perhaps the most unbearable aspect of this, and N.T.’s imagination flitted to his nightmares. But he was slightly comforted by the stranger’s encouragement—if that little girl could endure this three times, then he felt a little reassured that he could do it once.
After a little ways, the tractor unexpectedly came to a stop in the middle of the field. N.T. wasn’t able to see anything up ahead, and he looked about the wagon, concerned.
“Why did we stop?” Reid whispered, and he and N.T. drew nearer.
Suddenly the entire wagon lit up and white light washed over them at the same moment a wailing horn blared, and if N.T. could have shrieked, his voice would have howled to the rising moon. Others in the wagon screamed; on their left, the headlights of a train faced them, and the honking train raged again. Reid gasped and N.T. covered his head, and only when they heard the man across the aisle from them laughing did they realize it was an orchestrated jump scare.
Reid couldn’t help but laugh to himself when the initial panic subsided. The tractor lurched into motion again, and the headlights flicked off, cloaking the sight in shadows once again. As they rode on, N.T. vaguely appreciated the execution, and couldn’t help but think, Good one.
But soon, the tractor had stopped again, and the wagon wobbled as a dark figure boarded and began slowly proceeding down the aisle with growling gnashes.
“What the… Oh man, no way. No way!” Reid mumbled as he watched the cloaked figure near them, so that they could see its disfigured face dripping with pseudo blood as it jeered at the riders, bringing its face inches away from theirs with rapid, jerky movements. Reid inched closer to N.T., who also scooted towards away.
Then, a low cry ripped through the night from over N.T.’s right shoulder, and he practically jumped into Reid’s lap as an arm reached into the wagon from the outside, waving where N.T. had previously sat. The bleeding figure in the aisle noticed this significant display of fear from both Reid and N.T. and took the opportunity to provoke them closer, taunting his ghoulish characteristics in their faces. Both Reid and N.T. covered their faces and shivered in place, and soon enough the figures grew bored of them and retreated, and then the wagon lurched and accelerated once more.
“You okay?” the balding man whispered to Reid and N.T. as they uncoiled from each other and settled back into their original places.
Reid cleared his throat and pulled up his hood. “Yeah, I’m good,” he said quickly, and then shook his head to N.T. “Ned?”
N.T., his bones knocking together beneath his clothes, gave a trembling thumbs up.
After a few more tortuous stops amidst the corn field, some which abruptly lit up sceneries of gory graveyards or murderous zombies with chainsaws emerging from broken down mobile homes, the tractor pulled up to a barn which was well-illuminated from floodlights and food trucks parked outside. A fence surrounded the area and as passengers exited the wagon, they were funneled towards the vendors and the barn’s entrance, which had a banner hung upon it further welcoming customers to hell.
Reid and N.T. eyed the food trucks, inhaling scents of fryer oil and caramel-dipped apples watching people smile over styrofoam cups of not chocolate and guzzling handfuls of kettle corn. Wearily, N.T. wondered if any of the vendors had hot cider. There was also a large merchandise booth which offered a variety of designs on black shirts and black hoodies that printed phrases like “SEVEN LEVELS OF HELL” and “I’VE BEEN TO HELL AND BACK.” Sample shirts hung upon the booth’s walls.
Surrounding this hub of concession and socializing, there was nothing but cornfields. The tractor had already deposited all its riders and now headed back up the same path, going for more people. Reid and N.T. considered the booths—“You sure? I have a $20.”—but ultimately agreed that they would rather not draw this out longer than it needed to be, and they headed towards the barn’s entrance.
The line moved slowly, admitting only a couple people at a time so to stagger their entrance. A skinny, pale teenager with acne and a witch hat sat on a folding chair, staring at their phone and intermittently and monotonously saying, “Next small group proceed. No more than four at a time. Please do not punch the employees.” The pot-bellied, balding man from the wagon and his disinterested daughter were a few people behind Reid and N.T.; Reid heard the man chattering with another person behind them, and when Reid glanced back to see, the man caught his eye and nodded at him. Apparently they had visited the merchandise booth, because his daughter was now wearing an extremely large black t-shirt that read “FEAR MEANS YOU’RE STILL ALIVE” over her sweatshirt. Her twiggy legs protruded from somewhere within the draping shirt.
N.T. kept his eyes on the ground, attempting not to make eye contact with anyone and occupying his mind by studying the Converse of the teenagers ahead of them in line. Eventually, after some moments, Reid and N.T. were told to enter, and with a nervous deep breath, they plunged into the abyss which swallowed them through the door.
For a moment, neither of them could see. Their hands found each other, and slowly, they advanced forward, taking small, self-conscious steps, not even able to see the ground beneath them. Ahead, they felt that their path was obstructed by a wall, and made out that the hallway now veered left. Pushing through a curtain, they entered another section which featured a jail cell to their left, and as they realized the scene, a man sprung forward and grabbed towards them through the jail bars, causing Reid and N.T. to jolt backwards, which prompted another person in ragged clothing to reach at them through their jail cell on the opposing wall, who Reid and N.T. hadn’t previously noticed.
Panicked, Reid and N.T. rushed forward and through another set of curtains.
This room was illuminated in neon lights, and the walls and ceiling around them were splattered erratically with streaks of bright pink, yellow, and green paint. Battered baby heads were mounted on the walls, shafts of light spun about rapidly, producing a dizzying effect, and screaming emerged from the depths of the room in a symphonic flood.
This isn’t real, this isn’t real, N.T. recited in his head as they shuffled onward, but his thoughts were devoid of any logic and pulsed only with his being’s panic. He was acutely aware that at any moment, someone or something could jump out at him, and even his marrow felt on edge.
Gradually they progressed through the maze of darkness and shrieks, grotesque props arranged in demented set-ups. Who’s crazy enough to come up with these rooms, fake or not? Reid wondered with each new horrifying section.
About halfway through, Reid and N.T. could hear muttering up ahead in the darkness, and before they realized from whence it came, they were bumping into bodies in their path. A few teenage kids became apparent in the flickering light and when they laid eyes upon N.T.’s skull, illuminated in harsh flashes from the room’s manic lighting fixtures, the group of teenagers screamed and they shoved quickly forward, leaving N.T. and Reid behind.
Reid began laughing. “They’re scared of you,” he said, “Even though you’re probably the nicest person here.” N.T. shrugged, hoping already to forget it. This wasn’t the first time someone had screamed at the sight of him, although he wished it would be the last.
They nearly came to the end of the labyrinth when the last room held a zoo-like exhibit in which rabid animals were set up. As Reid was apprehensively admiring—rather disgraced at the sight—a raven suspended above them with a decapitated human head in its talons, a large, evil-eyed tortoise snapped at the air near Reid’s pant leg. He yelped a little and backed away, remarking, “Wow, some of these props are so lifelike.” As he studied the tortoise closer, the blood around its fanged beak shimmered in the dim light, and Reid frowned as N.T. gently pulled him away, eager to burst out into the fresh fluorescent-lit air.
The light was shocking to their eyes as they adjusted to the bright floodlights and cloudy, rusty gray night sky above. The barn’s exit deposited them in another fenced-in area with more booths and a couple concession stands between them and the next haunted barn. A few portapotties lined up along the fence, and beyond, more cornfields.
N.T. didn’t want to be a party pooper, but something in his bone marrow told him that they’d experienced enough. He wasn’t even remotely curious in what clever jump scares or creative sets of horror awaited them; he was sufficiently scared and didn’t care to endure much more. Rather than feeling frightened, he felt annoyed—this whole debacle of haunted houses were far too over-the-top and frankly, grossly insensitive. It was then that he truly began to regret their decision to attend. I THINK I’D LIKE TO GO HOME NOW N.T. signed.
Another friend may have called N.T. a wimp, or pressured him to give it more time, or asked him why he came all the way out here just to change his mind halfway through. However, Reid understood that N.T. was quite a docile creature and was incredibly sensitive to others’ pain and suffering, and so rather than taunt N.T., he only nodded earnestly and replied, “I feel you. I’m more scared that I’m going to have a heart attack than anything.” Truth be told, Reid didn’t remember haunted houses being so lifelike. The few times he had gone as a teenager, they’d been more gimmicky, and it was easier to see that it was all an act. But he had to hand it to this Seven Levels of Hell—their attractions were quite thorough; he was well shaken from just the hay ride and the first barn. (Fleetingly, he wondered, Does this mean I’m old now?)
Now resolved to call it quits and head back—after all, the tickets had been free—they looked around for a place to exit, but the only clear path was either back through the haunted barn they had just exited, or to keep going through the next one. Small groups of people huddled around, eating their food or laughing in conversation, other people cut through to the next building’s scary thrills.
“Hang on, lemme go ask someone—“ Reid stepped away from N.T. for a moment and approached a woman working the merchandise booth; after a brief exchange with her, Reid came back shaking his head and frowning. “Apparently you can’t turn back! You have to go through all the courses to leave! Isn’t that terrible?”
After ruminating over this misfortune for a moment and how it seemed a rather poor design (“What if some kid pees his pants and has a meltdown? His parents are just supposed to make him keep going?”), they conferred that they would continue through the attractions briskly and try their best to enjoy it. They waited in line outside the next barn, which was taller than the last barn, and when it was their turn to enter, they were directed to board a single cart which was attached to a track, much like a kiddie roller coaster at a county fair. N.T. and Reid got into the cart, and they both reached to buckle their individual seat belts; Reid’s clicked immediately, but N.T. struggled with his. Every time he tried to click the straps together, they fell back out loosely, never clicking.
Before he could wave over the attendant, their cart lurched into movement and began scraping along the track. N.T. panicked a bit and grasped the cart.
They traveled along the track with a clunky, metallic lurching, and they were carried along a line with more hallways of horror. Some platforms around them had people on ledges who gesticulated wildly and made bestial noises at them. Another section contained a myriad of funhome mirrors refracting their image distorted a thousand times upon the walls and ceiling.
Their cart ascended a dark hill. It was an odd sensation to ride a vehicle through complete darkness, trusting that the path was clear. At the very top, just when N.T. felt like this may actually be an enjoyable ride, all things considered, he felt a breeze to his right and suddenly he realized that the cart had split in half, and both he and Reid were now tumbling downhill upon separate tracks in different directions. N.T. heard Reid’s shouting, but his own nonexistent voice sucked empty through the night. The roller coaster now zigzagged back and forth, riding through curtains and occasionally crossing paths with Reid’s cart, then parting in an opposite direction once again. He clung to the left of his cart, for the right side was wide open and his lightweight bony figure tossed about easily.
Then N.T. entered a section comprised of malicious jack-o-lantern grins and headless horsemen laughing maniacally. As he awed at the orangey flicker of candles illuminating the set, he felt himself being lifted from the cart! Whipping to see his captor, he saw that it was a shadowed body in spandex with a large, bulbous head! N.T. thrashed, fighting to break free, but he was lifted to the platform beside the tracks and pulled towards a dark recess shaped like a doorway.
Struggling, N.T. twisted his bony arm sharply and broke free, scrambling back to the tracks. The figure grabbed at his ankle and N.T. was thrown to the ground with his own momentum and fell among the props laid out. He knocked over a candle and the flame licked the fabric draped upon the ground, and N.T. was released as the figure cursed and scrambled to put it out. Released, N.T. scrambled away, but his cart had moved on without him, and he now heard another cart approaching. Quickly he ran along the tracks, struggling to maintain steady footing in the shadowy building.
When N.T. finally emerged, Reid was already standing outside, hands in his hoodie pocket and looking for N.T. “There you are!” he said, relieved at first, though concern wrinkling his brow as he saw N.T.’s shaken manner.
Looking behind him to see if anyone was still pursuing him, N.T. signed, SOMEONE GRABBED ME OUT OF THE CART!
Scratching at his head beneath his hood, Reid said, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you mean?”
N.T. conveyed the word “KIDNAPPED.”
“What?” Reid asked, leaning closer. N.T. once again scanned the crowd, making sure that no actor with a pumpkin head was running towards him.
I WAS ATTACKED, he elaborated. TAKEN. DRAGGED. I ESCAPED.
“I don’t understand, why would someone do that?” Reid asked.
I HAVE NO IDEA.
Fishing in his pocket, Reid pulled out his cell phone, but groaned when he saw that he had no cell service. He stared at the screen for a moment in thought. What now?
Their conversation was interrupted by a mustached man at a nearby food truck shouting, “Hey there! Why don’t you boys come get something to eat? Jump in line!” Reid and N.T. looked at him, leaning out of a window in his grease-splattered white apron, waving them over with a large smile. There were five people milling around the truck, either staring at the menu or waiting for their order.
Glancing at the food vendor, Reid and N.T. ignored his shouts and turned back to each other. “Okay Ned, we’ve got to get out of here.” They headed urgently toward the next barn.
“Hey wait! We’ve got pizza!”
N.T. didn’t know why he had been snatched from his cart, couldn’t conceive why anyone would capture him for any reason other than to harm him for some reason. He had been bullied as a youngling many times by peers in school, and even his own foster family, but this time, it just didn’t make sense to him. Unless the person who grabbed him thought he wasn’t real, just a skeleton prop sent in a cart as a joke—this, he considered. What if his captor didn’t know that he was alive? Or what if they thought N.T. was a worker on a joy ride?
As he began to have doubts about that peculiar altercation, Reid and N.T. were waved into the barn, and in the enveloping darkness he reached for Reid’s hand, terrified of losing his one true ally in this barn. They made their way forward, and screams erupted from speakers, followed by pounding, scratching, and other fanatic banging. A glaringly bright strobe light began flickering, and the complete darkness that consumed the room between each pulse gave every movement the effect of stop-animation, action revealing itself in jerky intervals: one moment, a woman with tangled hair obscuring her face and a blood-spattered and torn white night gown stood against the wall, and with each subsequent moment, she grew larger and closer until—
N.T. cringed away from the demented patient, and he and Reid hurried forward. More asylum inmates in white hospital gowns emerged from the shadows, all closing in around Reid and N.T. For a moment, they seemed to fall away as the two of them pushed forward, but then N.T. felt someone grabbing on his hoodie, pulling him towards the walls. He struggled against them, and then he felt more pulling.
Reid still held his left skeleton hand, and felt N.T. being resisted. “Hey, what’s going on! You’re not supposed to touch us!” Reid shouted, helping N.T. pull away. They pushed onward, batting away grabbing arms and swatting faces. “GET AWAY!” Reid shouted.
N.T., rather than paralyzed by the fear he had experienced much of the evening, miraculously shed his anxieties and tapped into a very instinctual fight-or-flight mode. Deftly, he and Reid navigated through the pseudo asylum and into the second half, which contained an enchanted creatures portion in which a black unicorn neighed angrily at them from with a cage, dwarves in cloaks swung machetes, and witches cackled over steaming cauldrons.
“What the heck was that!” Reid shouted as they burst through the exit. “They were grabbing all over us! They really were trying to kidnap you! Are you good?”
Behind this barn was only cornfield. N.T. looked back at the barn, but it appeared as though no one was following them outside. Although rattled, N.T. was actually more angry than scared. All he wanted was to have a good night with his friend Reid, and whoever these people were, they were trying to abduct him? For what cause? Was Reid also in danger? He nodded, but also shook his head a bit.
There was only one food vendor in this lot, and now “hell” proceeded to the cornfield; an opening in the stalks was posted with an individual wearing a clown mask, monitoring the rate at which customers entered the corn field. N.T. and Reid joined the short line.
“How many more of these are left before it’s over?” Reid wondered, mentally tallying the courses they’d been through.
As if waiting for Reid to ask such a question, the man from the wagon popped up.
“This is the grand finale!” he announced, taking a cheesy bite of pepperoni pizza, his daughter standing nearby looking bored out into the corn field.
Reid startled a little at him, and put his hand to his chest. “Oh! Uh… thank you. Wait, this is Seven Levels of Hell but there are only four attractions?”
“Five, if you count the hayride!” the man laughed, chewing happily.
Conjuring an ironic laugh, Reid chuckled. “Wow, well, thank goodness for that,” he said, and the clown-masked person at the entrance informed Reid and N.T. they were permitted to enter now. As they walked forward, following a path cleared amongst the corn stalks, they could hear the clown chiding the man, “Come on, you know there’s no food allowed in the maze. Finish it or throw it out…”
Once among the corn, the barn’s floodlights faded away and they were alone among the quiet rustling of the stalks, shadowy beneath the murky sky. They could barely see where they were supposed to walk, and the ground was soft and muddy from where other people had trampled before them, the ground sucking at their shoes.
Twenty yards in, laughter rippled through the corn, and voices began whispering and growling, faint yet nearby, coming from all around. The two of them hurried their walking, avoiding the edges of the corn.
“No matter what, we can’t let them separate us,” Reid whispered to N.T., and they followed the curve of the path. N.T. could hear shuffling from behind them, and at first he was afraid to look back, but as he felt a shadow growing above him, he peeked over his shoulder and leapt at the looming cloaked creature following closely behind them. Reid turned and yelped as well, and they both took off running as the creature remained in his spot, laughing aggressively.
Breathing heavy, they ran, the stalks whipping by them. Reid pulled out his cell phone, but he cursed because he still didn’t have cell phone service, and instead turned on the flash. Footsteps pounded behind them, and as arms reached out of the cornstalks at them, then legs, then zombies, Reid grabbed N.T.’s bony wrist and yanked him into the corn, using his flashlight to guide him. They dodged between gaps, never looking back.
After beating their way through for quite a distance, they emerged into a circular clearing and Reid shut off his flash so they would be harder to see. A scarecrow was posted above them on a stake, and Reid and N.T. took a moment to regroup.
WHICH WAY IS OUT? N.T. asked. He tried to find the moon in the sky, but the clouds were thick and the breeze howled.
Reid panted, squatting down to the ground. He looked around them, exhaled, and replied, “Uh… Yeah, I don’t know if that was the smartest thing to do. I just acted on instinct.”
“Oh! Oh! Excuse me!” a voice called, and they both turned to the scarecrow. Reid leapt up from his spot and backed away cautiously.
“No, no, it’s okay! I actually need you guys to save me! Get me down from here!” They could only see the muddled silhouette of the scarecrow wriggling gently upon the post, but the voice was soft and begging.
As Reid and N.T. hesitated, looking to each other, the scarecrow continued pleading. “They kidnapped me, and put me up here! Please, free me!”
“Who put you up there?” Reid asked. I THINK WE SHOULD LET HER GO, N.T. signed, and the only way Reid was able to see N.T.’s hands was because they were so white. They approached the scarecrow to untie the ropes securing the figure to the stake. Reid pulled out phone to use the flash again, illuminating while N.T.’s bones picked at the knotted ropes.
“The farmer who owns this place!” the straw person whispered now. “He’s been kidnapping all types of creatures and forcing them to work here.”The legs now free. N.T., being an agile fellow, scampered up the wooden post and untied the straw hands, the rope falling into the shadows.
“What do you mean?” Reid asked.
Both of them leapt to the ground and the three of them faced one another. It was still difficult to see, but the scarecrow grinned and waved their stuffed hand at them and grinned largely. “Thank you so much!” Letting out a contented sigh, the straw person began stretching, spreading out their arms and rolling out their neck. “Well, he blackmails and enslaves mystical or unexplainable entities and forces them to work in his horror shops so that he’ll have the best haunted house in the tri-state area… You know, money hungry capitalist, yadda yadda.”
Just then, the clouds cleared briefly and allowed moonlight to shine unfiltered, and the scarecrow squinted at N.T.’s glinting porcelain skull. “Whoa!” the straw face exclaimed. “Are you a mystic, too?”
Unfamiliar with this term “mystic,” N.T. shrugged and removed his hood, revealing his full skull.
“Well shoot, that’s a yes! So they’re probably trying to get you, too! What’s your guys’ names? I’m Bankles and I’m a straw person.”
Having been properly sized up by Bankles in the moon’s light, Reid and N.T. now briefly studied Bankles. The scarecrow had bright red yarn-like hair protruding from a well-worn garden hat, and their body was a canvas textured with sporadic tufts of straw poking out. They were dressed in dark blue overalls over a large green shirt and had bare straw feet.
N.T. formed his initials and Reid introduced them. “I’m Reid, this is N.T. I think you’re right—I think they’re after N.T. Also, you don’t happen to know sign language, do you?”
Bankles considered this and shook their head. “No, but I’m a quick learner!” they said, smiling their large grin.
“Well, we need to keep moving. We’re trying to get out of here,” Reid explained, not entirely keen on mingling with Bankles when they were being pursued by masked monsters—
“Wait, what sort of mystical entities do they have—“
Reid was suddenly interrupted by shuffling and the three of them fell silent. Corn stalks snapped and hysterical high-pitched giggling erupted from far away, followed by the whine of a small engine, which sounded unfortunately similar to a chainsaw.
With no words necessary, the three of them darted in the opposite direction of the noises, diving back into the corn. They pushed their way through, panting, stumbling, running, fanning out, until they broke into a clearing and N.T. pilastered full force into a rather bulbous and sturdy body clothed in a flannel. His bones went tumbling back to the ground, and with some confused voices, N.T. heard a familiar man say, “What on earth is going on?”
“There’s somebody trying to kidnap N.T., and I find it awful coincidental that we keep running into you,” Reid snapped, breathing heavy. Bankles stood back amongst the corn, weary of the man and the little girl who stood behind him, the moon having now retreated behind the clouds once again.
“Son, it’s a haunted house. It’s their job to scare you,” the man said reasonably, his face shadowed.
At this, Bankles emerged fully and piped up. “I can actually attest to this. I was kidnapped by the farmer, and I’m not the only one. He’s got others like me and—“ Bankles gestured at N.T.—“him.”
The balding man looked between them all for a moment, before he began nodding. “I was afraid so.”
“What do you mean?” Reid asked, looking around, hearing growling grow closer to them. “You knew this was going on?”
With a deep sigh, he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a wallet containing a badge which flashed dully in the darkness. “I’m Officer Steve Wells, and a few weeks ago I came here with my daughter. I happened to notice this odd fella—he had a pumpkin for a head, and he seemed up to no good—so I was keeping an eye on him, because, well, you never know.”
“We better keep this moving,” Bankles suggested, and the group now continued along the cornstalks at a quick gait.
“Go on,” Reid prompted.
“But I misjudged the situation. The pumpkin head guy, he wasn’t trying to get into any trouble. Something happened in one of the barns, and I can’t explain it, but he was with some lass and she seemed real troubled, and he was nowhere to be seen. I had this hunch that something bad happened, but I don’t know what, so I’ve been coming back every week to try and gain more information.”
N.T. flipped his hood back up as they followed the muddy path, until something dawned on him. He tapped on Reid’s arm, but he was asking Steve, “Wait, so is that why you’ve been following us? And you’re the one who sent us the tickets?”
The veered right at a fork in the maze, and Reid glanced at N.T.’s hands. JACK!
“Uh, tickets? I don’t know what you mean about that bit, but yeah, once I noticed your buddy here, uh, was a… A skeleton, I guess, I figured you might be good bait to see if it happened again,” Steve explained, breathing heavy.
N.T. stopped, and demanded Reid’s full attention. Bankles watched the still shadows around them and the officer wheezed. The little girl was staring at N.T. and spoke up. “Jack, who’s Jack?” she asked.
N.T. continued. PUMPKIN HEAD! MY FRIEND! I THINK I SAW HIM!
If you’ve been a friend of N.T. Ed’s for quite a while, then you may know of this fellow Jack, whom N.T. was referring to. Some years ago, this pumpkin-headed trickster tried to pull his Halloween shenanigans on the skeletal lad, but was discovered and lectured by riled N.T., and because he is a forgiving soul, some time later when Jack sought N.T.’s forgiveness for his tormenting, the two became friends. (You can read about Jack here and here.)
As N.T. stood in that corn field of terror, what he realized was this: many figures had tried to abduct him that night, but there was only one whom he recognized, and whose grip was slightly lighter, a bit more familial, and that was the bulbous-headed individual in the roller coaster barn—Jack!
And as N.T. pieced this together, still not quite so sure why the tickets ended up at his address, or why Jack had been kidnapped in the first place, or what the heck they were all about to do to get out of there now, he considered the possibility that if this evil farmer had both Jack and Bankles, and was now trying to capture N.T., what other “mystics” did he have imprisoned?
Because, dear reader, if you know N.T., then you know that the forest of pine trees surrounding N.T.’s cabin on Mount Eve is somewhat of a mystical forest, containing a plethora of ethereal existences, many of which N.T. has befriend. And if Evil Farmer had N.T.’s address and knew just how to lure him to this very accurately named “Seven Levels of Hell,” then that meant he wasn’t the only enchanted being susceptible to his clutches.
WE HAVE TO SHUT HIM DOWN, N.T. declared to the group. Now that this was larger than him—now that he better understood the scale of this operation—N.T. mustered newfound resolve and felt an overwhelming purpose to solider on.
“How?” Reid asked.
Steve spoke up, “If we get back to my car—I can radio for backup.”
THEN WE NEED TO GET OUT OF THIS CORN FIELD, N.T. replied.
Bankles waved their straw arms frantically. “Hey y’all! Uh, I think we need to go, now.” There was rustling and muddy splashing coming from behind them, and Bankles hissed, “Follow me!” taking the lead.
Having spent a few weeks studying the lay of the corn field from their post, Bankles had a keen sense of direction for the corn field, even in the dark. Through the husky labyrinth they hustled, the sounds of horror behind them fading away.
Then, Bankles squealed, and N.T., a few paces behind, panicked—until he realized they were delighted squeals, and they emerged from the corn and into a grassy clearing. The parking lot and entrance lay on the other side of the field, floodlights illuminating their destination across the way. Fog lurked, crawling ominously low to the ground.
Reid and Steve emitted noises of victory, and the group began trudging through the field towards the parking lot. Just then, from a shed shrouded by a grouping of trees to their right, a door burst open and a tall man revved a chainsaw, lumbering towards them with long, powerful strides. The group ran faster, but he quickly overcame them and was soon on their tail. N.T.’s foot stepped into a dip in the land, and his ankle wavered, causing him to trip to the ground. His friends noticed he had fallen behind, and stopped.
The man now waved his chainsaw above N.T., swinging it tauntingly near him. “You’re not going anywhere!” he bellowed, and then reeled back as he was smacked in the head by a small shoe.
“Bullseye!” Steve’s daughter shouted, one socked foot on the damp earth.
At that moment, Steve shuffled up to N.T. and pulled out his gun, holding it up to the man with the chainsaw.
“Freeze! Farmer Smith, I don’t know what kind of a joint you’re running here, but you are under arrest. Drop the chainsaw immediately.”
The man sneered. “You’re not doing anything! None of you are leaving!” N.T. suddenly recognized him as the man in the ticket booth earlier, except he wasn’t wearing a baseball hat anymore.
But even though Farmer Smith had a chainsaw, he was outnumbered. Bankles slowly crept behind him, and when he raised his chainsaw yet again, she ran up behind him and kicked him on the rear, which startled him enough to whip around while she dove out of reach. N.T., who scrambled up from the ground, approached the girl and began yanking at the giant black shirt she wore. Confused for a moment, she shimmied out of it.
Meanwhile, Steve still had the gun pointed at Farmer Smith, continuing to yell. “Sir! This is an order! Set down the chainsaw immediately! I mean it!”
Reid noticed N.T. with the girl’s shirt and with a flash of his hands, N.T. conveyed a plan to Reid. He shook his head, but shouted at Steve, “Wait, don’t shoot him!”
The mad farmer had lost Bankles in the darkness and was now angrily reeling towards the officer. “You don’t have any authority over me! This is my land!” His chainsaw gunned towards Steve, and just as his finger was about to pull the trigger, N.T. leapt at Farmer Smith from behind, whipping the shirt over his face to obscure his sight. N.T.’s agile figure clung to the bulky muscle of the farmer’s shoulder, and as the man teetered backwards with the shock, he tripped backwards over Reid, who was crouched on the ground beneath him.
It was a risk, admittedly. N.T.’s plan could have failed in a number of ways—both of them could have been crushed beneath the giant farmer, for one. His chainsaw could have uncontrollably landed on anyone one of them, easily severing their limbs or bones. And for what? So that Steve wouldn’t shoot the man—the man who was mercilessly hunting human and mystic creature alike for his own selfish amusement and monetary gain?
I guess the only thing to say is, that’s just how N.T. was. And miraculously, it worked—N.T. sprung out of the way just in time, the chainsaw went flying away from them, and Reid scampered before the farmer could kick him in the head. And as the tall figure lay groaning on the ground, Steve swooped in with a pair of handcuffs and bound the man’s hands behind his back.
“Will somebody,” Steve said, “Please go get my car.”
He tossed his keys to Reid.
In the weeks that followed this event, it came out that while Farmer Smith had committed a number of immoral and deviant acts, he had not been the one to send N.T. the free tickets. That was the bit that hadn’t made sense to N.T.—if he was the sort of maddened, irrational man to pursue a cop, a man, a little girl, and two mystical beings with a chainsaw, why had he went to the trouble of luring N.T. to his haunted house when he clearly had his address?
No, that didn’t quite make sense, because, after Jack was freed from the farm of horrors, he came to visit N.T. and thank him for saving them.
Apparently, it was Jack who sent the tickets.
“I knew you’d come save me!” he exclaimed, hugging the skeleton in greeting as he entered N.T.’s cabin. Right away, he flung himself upon the couch and propped up his feet on the coffee table. “My plan worked!”
When prompted to clarify, Jack replied, “My note! And the tickets! There was a code in the letter, you deciphered it, used the tickets, and broke me out! Well, you did resist me and almost burn down the farm, which wouldn’t have been all bad, but I would’ve been slaughtered by that crazy farmer for burning down his set. You know, he kept a tight ship, er, metaphorically speaking.”
During the interrogation with Farmer Smith, he had admitted that the first time he learned of N.T.’s existence was at that ticket booth, and his employees in the third barn and the corn field had been notified to abduct him, but before they had tried to get him, Jack had attempted.
“I was just trying to catch you to have a word with you! I work in the dang roller coaster barn, which is the lamest of all the attractions, might I add—it tries to be scary, what with the whole cart-splitting bit, but the whole thing is quite mild—but you were much more scrappy than I figured you’d be. I guess I forgot how feisty you are, ya sack of bones!” Jack had now flipped on N.T.’s TV and was browsing through the cable stations.
SO WHAT WERE YOU GOING TO DO WITH ME IF I HADN’T RESISTED? N.T. wrote and showed Jack. (Jack hadn’t been a part of the sign language classes.)
Jack glanced at the paper and shrugged. “I don’t know, I was going to see what you thought and if you had any ideas on how to escape. But boy, did you ever! Bringing in the cops! Who woulda thought? I’d never have thought they’d take our side on a case like this, woulda thought they’d defend ol’ Maniac Smith! Lucky you found that Steve guy, not one of the old boys in Smith’s pocket.”
Hours later, after N.T. had politely yet sternly insisted that Jack, after spending the entire afternoon on N.T.’s couch eating his snacks and watching his television, head out, N.T. heard a knock at his door to discover Reid with a board game in his arms.
“Hey! Thought you might want to try out this new game I got?” he asked, N.T. letting him inside. They hadn’t seen much of each other since the night of horrors a couple weeks ago, and both of them were happy to catch up.
At N.T.’s kitchen table, Reid set up the board while N.T. put on a kettle. “Sheila was going crazy when she heard about what happened,” Reid said, laughing. “She was all, ‘I leave you for one weekend and you get into all kinds of trouble!’”
N.T. smiled, coming to sit across from Reid.
“But actually, it was kind of a good thing that we went, even though it was without a doubt the most traumatic night of my life,” Reid went on. “But,” he began, looking up, “I’m sorry that I made you go. I mean, I know I didn’t make you go, but I’m sorry that you would have never been subjected to any of that if I hadn’t offered. Especially since you made it clear that wasn’t your cup of tea.” He sheepishly looked to N.T.
But N.T. wasn’t mad about it. Of course, he had never felt so close to dying as he had that night, but at the same time, he was incredibly proud of himself. He had no idea he was putting himself in that much danger by going to that “Seven Levels of Hell,” yet he had risen to the occasion once again and helped out his friend Jack and countless other creatures, and made a new friend in Bankles. He would have so much to tell his therapist next time they met.
NO, he signed, I’M GLAD YOU DID. YOU’RE A GOOD FRIEND.
Reid smiled. “Thanks, N.T. Now, have you ever played Trouble before?”
To read more about N.T. Ed, visit the Tales of N.T. Ed page.
Author’s note: Bankles’ gender is intentionally neutral and they are referred to using they/them pronouns.