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.”
Lizzy gestures to the area around her and, as if the crowd isn’t tight enough already, you feel a surge of movement behind you and find yourself in nearly suffocating proximity to everyone else, nearly on top of the stage. Normally, this closeness would make your skin crawl but, right now, you feel comforted, protected, at home.
As soon as the crowd settles, Lizzy brings forth the book. Some oohs and ahhs permeate the silence, followed by more eager laughter.
Lizzy starts to read.
“Sally Mae was scared when she heard the news about the crazed killer loose in her town. Then she found out the killer, Slasher Sam, stole souls, not lives…”
Immediately, your eyes glaze over and you’re lost in Lizzy’s story.
Twenty minutes pass in a heartbeat, and suddenly you can feel Lizzy’s tone change, indicating the end of her reading.
“...Sally pushed open the closet door, wincing at the god-awful squeal of the hinges even though Sam was gone. The backs of her parents’ heads invited her to call to them, but she knew they wouldn’t answer. She would have been more scared if they had.
“Still, when she came around to see their faces, Sally screamed. Because her parents weren’t dead.
“Death would have been easy compared to this.”
Lizzy snaps the book shut with a thwap. You are not the only one to jump. But then everyone lets loose a collective sigh, releasing the tension that had been building since Lizzy started reading. In a way, it’s a relief that she stopped, but you also yearn to have her new book in your hands right now, to keep reading and do nothing else until you’ve finished.
You’re buzzing with excitement again.
Lizzy lifts her head, looks beyond the crowd, and nods slightly. She brings her hands together and bows as the lights come up in the room.
“Thank you for coming,” she says.
You and the crowd clap for the Queen as she steps closer to the front of the stage.
Closer to you.
“Do we have any questions?
Your hand shoots up before the self-conscious part of your brain can stop you.
“Yes, little lady?” Lizzy asks. “I love your sweatshirt, by the way. Normal people can’t be trusted, can they?”
You take a moment, star-struck, struggling to register the fact that Lizzy Lafayette is talking to you, that she noticed and loved your sweatshirt. You could bask in this moment for eternity and be happy. Then you realize too many seconds have passed without you speaking and so, you start to ask your question, stuttering nervously until you stop, regroup, and clear your throat. When you speak again the words are clear, but they’re loud. Too loud. You wince.
“How do you capture the soul of your characters so perfectly?” you ask and, blushing, add that you are a bit of an aspiring writer yourself. You purposely don’t mention the part where you dream all day and night that you will grow up to be just like her.
Lizzy smiles. “You’re too kind. Word of advice? Drop the ‘aspiring’ part. If you write, you’re a writer! As for your question…”
Lizzy pauses, squishing her face into a quizzical look that transforms suddenly into a grin. For you alone, it seems. You nearly faint.
“When I write,” she says finally, “I treat my characters like my children.”
“More like puppets!” A man in the back yells, to some nervous crowd laughter.
Lizzy smiles politely, showing no visible annoyance, but you feel your temperature rise at the audacity of the interruption.
“My characters are my children. Which gives me special, intimate insight into who they are, from sweet Sally Mae to the evil incarnate, Slasher Sam. Because, once I take the time to learn who these characters are, I can let them run wild. At that point, it’s as much their story as it is mine. They do the walking and talking, and I follow along as best I can. They have minds of their own.
“But, occasionally, I do have to rein them in. Or give them a vicious obstacle. Remind them who they work for.”
Lizzy tips you a wink, then asks, “Does that answer your question?”
You nod vigorously. “Oh, yes, thank you so much!”
Lizzy answers several more questions, then bows again. She steps back as Freddie, the bookstore manager, rushes up onstage from the side with a small folding table and chair.
Lizzy sits and Freddie yells, “Form a line!” before disappearing offstage again.
Naturally, the crowd forms a line behind you because you’re directly in front of the table. Lizzy nods to you, and you step up to your hero, hesitant.
“Hi there again, little lady. What’s your name?”
“Umm, hi Lizzy—Ms. Lafayette,” you stammer, then tell her your name.
“Lizzy is fine. And no need to be nervous, you’ve done great so far. That was a wonderful question you asked before. Truly.”
Lizzy smiles at you, all sweetness.
“Thank you,” you say, afraid the red rising in your cheeks will become permanent.
“Do you have something for me to sign?”
“Oh, yes!” You swing your bag around and yank it open to retrieve your beloved copy of LAKE ASYLUM—suddenly, painfully aware of everyone waiting behind you.
Lizzy does not seem to care at all. She gives you the impression she has all the time in the world, just for you. It makes your heart swell.
You hand the book to her. She examines it, running a finger along the creases in the spine, the worn corners.
“Looks like you’ve read this one a time or two.”
“Thirteen times,” you say seriously. “It’s my all-time favorite book.”
“That’s impressive. I’m honored. Truly.”
“Thanks,” is all you can manage.
“Can I ask you something? Are you here by yourself?”
You look to your feet. “Yeah…”
“Let me guess. Disapproving parent?”
Your eyes grow wide. “How did you know?”
Lizzy waves a hand. “Oh, nothing magical, I assure you. Let’s just say it’s not the first time I’ve heard this story. So, you snuck out to come see me?”
“Oh, of course. How could I not? There was no way I was going to miss seeing you in person,” you say.
“As a mother myself, I can’t condone disobeying your own…”
Your stomach drops.
“However,” Lizzy raises a finger. “You’re a girl who knows what she wants and refuses to accept otherwise—a trait I admire greatly.”
You could die. Right this moment.
“You know what? I think you would make an excellent character in one of my stories.”
“You really think so?” you whisper.
Lizzy sets your book on the table, flips open the cover. She scribbles something on the page, closes the cover, and passes the book back to you.
You want more than anything to read what she wrote, but you’re not sure you can handle it right now. You tuck the book in your bag. “Thank you so much.”
“My pleasure. Now, run on home before your mother catches you.” That wink again.
You don’t want this moment to ever end, but you know she’s right. You nod, then turn to go.
Lizzy calls out to you.
You spin back, cutting off the next person in line. He gives you a glare, and you can feel your good standing with these people wearing thin.
But, you don’t care. Lizzy called for you.
“I have something for you,” she says.
She pulls a flat, circular object from her pocket. It’s a little bigger than a half dollar in size and black in color, but it’s otherwise featureless. Lizzy feels along the edge, then pries the object open. You realize it’s a fold-up pocket mirror. Lizzy holds it up to her face, staring at her reflection.
That’s not quite right. She’s staring into the mirror, but it looks like she’s seeing through it. Past her reflection. Her lips are moving slightly, like a cat that’d just spotted a bird.
Like she’s talking to the mirror.
You don’t know if one second or five minutes have passed, but then Lizzy looks back to you, closing the mirror. She presses it into your hand.
“I want you to have this.”
You look up at her, questioning, noticing for the first time that certain shade of green Lizzy’s eyes hold. Gleaming, like a hungry crocodile. “A mirror?”
Lizzy nods. “I’ve had this mirror for a long time. I got it when I was much younger, early in my writing career. And, crazy as it sounds, it helped me through so many of my struggles. All I had to do was look into the mirror to see my reflection. Doing so grounded me, reminded me of who I am and what I’m trying to accomplish.
“I can see you’re motivated, and you won’t let anyone or anything stop you. But, there will come a time when you feel stuck. When you need help or inspiration. Use this. Open it and stare deeply into your reflection. Remember this night. Remember that you’re capable of anything.”
An electric chill courses through your bones. Into your soul. You fight the urge to shudder.
“Are you sure you want me to have it? It’s your mirror.”
“Never surer. It helped me tremendously, but now it’s time to pay it forward. I’m certain it will help you.”
You nod solemnly and feed the mirror into your pocket like it’s your prized possession. Because it is.
“Thank you,” you whisper again.
Then you leave your hero behind.
You run home, but you might as well have teleported. You can’t recall a single detail from your return trip.
It’s 12:30 AM by the time you settle into bed, your book on your left, the pocket mirror on your right.
You sit up in bed, listening for a couple minutes. You hear nothing. Perfect.
You think: I did it. I snuck out to meet my hero and got away with it.
Finally, you pick up your book and flip back the cover to read the inscription left by Lizzy.
To my new favorite character. - LL -
The corners of your mouth must be touching your ears. You’re certain of it. And a thought blooms in your head, warm and thrilling.
What if she writes a character based on me in her next book? How unbelievable would that be?
You set the book aside, briefly wondering if your Mother will ever see the message from Lizzy and if you’ll end up getting in trouble. You doubt that would happen but, even if it did, you don’t care. Any amount of discipline would be so worth it to you.
You pick up the mirror, feeling its light, but not insignificant weight.
Talking to Lizzy made you feel something you’ve never felt before. Had she seen something in you tonight? Something you weren’t aware that you possessed?
You open the mirror and see…
Your freckles. Your hooded eyes. Nothing more or less than ever before. Despite everything that has happened tonight, you feel disappointment creep in.
Then you see movement. A flicker.
Your face takes up the entire mirror so, at first, you think it’s just a trick of your eyes. Blinking or twitching or something. But then you see the flicker again.
Behind your eyes.
You yip like a hit mutt, snapping the mirror shut. Your breathing comes heavy with the thud of your heart.
“I must be seeing things,” you say. “I need sleep.”
Suddenly, you want to toss the mirror into the back of your closet, disturbed by what you saw in there, even though you’re still mostly sure that it wasn’t real.
You grip it tight though, deciding the better option is to hold it closed rather than to leave it alone in the closet to find its way open, releasing whatever lurks inside.
You’re exhausted now, but sleep won’t come easily.
Eventually, you do fall asleep, holding the mirror. Your last thought is the message from Lizzy Lafayette.
To my new favorite character.
It should give you a warm, nurturing feeling. Instead, in that final second before sleep, the words burrow deep inside and spin a web around your soul.
Morning comes, but not for you. You’re awake, but not in regard to sleep. You’ve awakened in your new world.
Welcome to the realm. And congratulations, for in a way, your life has been renewed.
You may wonder what lies ahead. I do, too. I’m certain you’ll be a wonderful character, though. And I promise I’ll allow you free rein. Act as you will, please.
However, I cannot promise you’ll survive.
I know we’ll have some fun together. I will, at least. But I hope you do, too. For a long time to come. A new best-selling series, perhaps?
If not, well, then you should have listened to your Mother.
- LL -
ALEX EBENSTEIN [eb-en-stine] went to school for environmental science and geography. His mapmaking career helps support his nighttime addiction of writing horror and other sorts of dark speculative fiction. He lives in Michigan with his wife, son, and dog. Find him on Twitter @AlexEbenstein.
TRACY WHITESIDE is an internationally published Chicago-area photographer specializing in creative images for humans. Her work can be seen in over 50 different publications in just the last year. Check out her portfolio at https://tracywhiteside.myportfolio.com.
A photographer for over 15 years, Tracy works in many genres. You can enjoy her "irrational, mixed bag of images" on Instagram @whitesidetracy.