The Reading of Your Life by Alex Ebenstein

Going to the reading will change your life. Lizzy Lafayette, the Queen of Terror, reading an excerpt from her upcoming book? With an opportunity to meet her and get an autograph in your loved and worn copy of LAKE ASYLUM, your favorite book of all-time?

Seriously, how could it not?

You aren’t supposed to go. Expressly forbidden, to be exact. Mother exclaims a litany of reasons why you’re not to go. Much too young. Past your bedtime. School night. Horror is childish and disgusting. That Lindsay Whatsername is a heathen, a devil worshipper.

You have an answer for every claim. I’m sixteen years old, nearly an adult. I’m much too old for a bedtime. My homework is already done. Horror is mature and empathetic. Her name is Lizzy Lafayette, Mom, and she’s a saint. Don’t you dare say otherwise.

A resounding NO, followed by stern words, retorts, screaming, and slammed doors.

But no crying. You don’t want to get carried away. You need just enough to convince Mother you’ll be locked in your room for the night because your mind was set well before you asked. Either Mother was going to drive you to the reading, or you would sneak out and walk.

So, you wait the customary twenty minutes after the argument for Mother to come knocking at your door to hash things out. She’ll apologize if she deems it necessary, or fish for an apology from you if not. You give the standard responses that Mother knows roughly translates to: I’m not over this, but in the morning I will be. Just leave me alone.

She buys what you’re selling, and the plan is in motion.

The reading is scheduled to start at 11:00 pm, a special late-night event at Booktopia, to take full advantage of the “spooky nighttime ambiance.”

No, seriously. That’s what the flyer says.

See Lizzy Lafayette read from her upcoming novel SLASHER SOCIETY.

Special after-hours event for a spooky nighttime ambiance.

11:00 PM - Midnight

It’s a lame attempt to sell the event, but you do not need to be sold. From the moment you saw the flyer taped to the front door of Booktopia, you knew you would be there. You wouldn’t dare to miss seeing your favorite author in person.

You slip out of your bedroom window and immediately feel the nip of the October night. The unexpectedly warm day quickly turned, with plummeting temperatures and a rising wind—one with teeth. You live in Michigan, after all.

You’re wearing a pullover sweatshirt, which you realize now is not enough layers, but you look back at your window and know it’s too risky to climb back in and out again for your jacket. You wouldn’t want to cover up your favorite sweatshirt, anyway. It’s the one that says NORMAL PEOPLE SCARE ME, and you’re secretly hoping Lizzy Lafayette will notice you because of it. And besides, your anxious energy will keep you warm enough.

You check the time and see its half past ten, a half hour to walk the twelve blocks to Booktopia up on the corner of Maple and Third. Not that you need all that time. Before you reach the second block, you’re practically running down the sidewalk because you’re too excited to take a leisurely stroll.

About halfway, you reach Riverview Park. Mother told you never to come here at night because weirdos hang out in the park gazebo after dark. But going through Riverview Park is the shortest route to Booktopia. Going around would add several minutes to your trip, and you’re not afraid of these make-believe weirdos Mother talks about.

You are, however, terrified of the made-up creatures from your imagination—the creatures from your mind that lurk in the sewers or the shadows of the trees.

Like right now. As you speed walk along the edge of the woods, you sense the trees leaning towards you, overhanging branches reaching down to brush your shoulder.

You hear the rattle of dry bones from above. Except, in the daylight, you know they’re really only cottonwood leaves, and they shouldn’t sound anything like bones. But it’s nighttime and, in the dark, things don’t look or sound the same.

A gust of wind sends a stray twig skitter-scratching across the dirt to your left. You try to quell the yip that lets loose from your lips but fail.

You make the mistake of glancing over your shoulder. Darkness rushes you, trailing at your heel like it’s your shadow.

So, you run. Your drawstring bag carrying LAKE ASYLUM flaps and thuds against your back like a jockey on a horse.

The wind in your ears becomes a howl. It’s the forest ghosts, screaming at you, urging you to run faster. Or, demanding you stop and join them among the trees? You run faster, and it feels like when you have to retrieve something from your basement at night, and you turn off that last light at the bottom of the stairs and suddenly, the blackness feels too close and suffocating and you want nothing more than to be up and out of the tomb-like basement and into the—

Light. You’ve escaped the park. Only four, well-lit blocks left. Easy street.

The bookstore doors open right when you arrive, but there’s already a line snaking out along the east side of the building past Fourth Street. Are you too late? You’re worried, jittery, tapping your toe on the cracked concrete. You do that thing where you tug at your earlobe with your right hand and incessantly stroke your hair with the left, yanking strands out in droves, and you know if Mother was there she’d do her thing where she smacks the back of your head to make you stop.

But she’s not there. You’re alone in a line of adults. Strangers. That’s okay, though, because a fan of Lizzy is a fan of yours. And you find that they are fans of you, too. They spare the disapproving looks that you, a kid, expect, but rather show appreciation for your fervor and fandom.

Your worries turn out to be unnecessary. You make it inside in time and, while the bookstore offers little space beyond narrow aisles between rows of bookshelves, your new friends help usher you forward through the growing crowd up to the small alcove at the far side of the room. They want you to have a prime vantage point, and you manage to make it to the very front.

There are no chairs set up, so everyone stands around the poor excuse for a stage and files in among the shelves, chatting in that manner where each group thinks they’re being quiet, but altogether the crowd generates an incredible drone. The stage is empty. Not a table, not a podium.

You check the time again and see 10:59 PM. You wonder if Lizzy will be on—

The lights go out.

A few people scream in surprise, resulting in a wave of nervous laughter. Then everyone is silent. You can’t see a thing, it’s so dark. But you can feel the collective

breath of the crowd, the room quietly seething. It tickles your skin, unpleasantly, like a tick crawling through the tiny hairs on the back of your neck.

A single spotlight pierces the darkness, revealing the Queen of Terror onstage, dressed in black slacks and a blouse the blue-black color of night sky. Her long, silver hair frames her soft and dagger-like eyes. The slight upturn at the corner of her mouth suggests she’s smiling, but you get the sense she could be feeling any of a hundred emotions right now. You know she’s not much taller than you, but there before you, not five feet away, Lizzy Lafayette looks bigger than life. In her left hand, she holds a book. You could squeal with excitement if you weren’t terrified of embarrassing yourself.

“Please, come closer. Gather ‘round.”