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Part One

  Olivia hadn’t even wanted to go to the “Barn Party” in the first place; she thought it was a bad idea to host any kind of festivity when the police had discovered the burned bodies of campers just a few days ago. But her parents were out of town for the weekend, she didn’t really know anyone in her new school, and it seemed like a good way to stave off boredom and socialize with her peers away from the stifling gaze of teachers.

  Plus, she didn’t feel safe all alone in her home. During the week, she had felt someone was watching her. She’d look out the living room window and see the same young, ringlet-haired woman walking just a bit too slowly on the sidewalk in front of the house. In classes, she’d let her gaze wander and find herself staring at a hazy, human-like shape that would manage to disappear between blinks. Her parents assured her that it wasn’t anything to worry about, that she was just having trouble adjusting from the busy urban environment to a quieter, suburban one.

  The barn itself had long been abandoned; although the field between it and the high school was still being utilized for corn, the rickety building had been mostly cleared out. From what Olivia gleaned from conversational snippets, the owner largely ignored the building’s annual use as an early October party venue. The non-verbal agreement was that teens could use it for whatever purposes they saw fit, provided no one got hurt enough to warrant calling the police.

  The decorations were a mix of old and new Halloween dressings, glittering in the tiki-torchlight. Over the years, the barn had collected a medley of furniture: chairs, couches, and even a pool table had made the migration. Olivia didn’t quite understand how parents could let such things go missing without some kind of investigation, but no one else seemed to care enough to answer should she ask. Instead of pursuing the mystery further, she stood at the barn door’s threshold and watched as people swarmed in around her, availed themselves of the contents of one of several coolers, and proceeded to do whatever it is one does at parties. After soaking up the sight for as long as she could without being labeled as creepy, she made her way inside.

  Things went well for the first hour or so. She chatted with a group of boys and girls playing an incredibly laid-back game of pool for a bit. She tried dancing to the pounding music pouring from someone’s portable speaker system. She ventured up to the loft, only to immediately flee when she realized it was for couples in various stages of undress. And then, finally, she settled onto the less dusty of two old beanbag chairs next to the ladder to the loft and people watched between furtive glances through the windows at the night sky.

  She had just made up her mind to leave when a muscular, sandy blond boy in a letterman’s jacket sauntered up to her. She had seen him around school from time to time, always surrounded by people, handsome face nearly always adorned with a too-knowing smile. She never thought—nor truly cared if—he would give her the time of day. “Olivia, right?” he asked, pointing at her with the same hand in which he held a red plastic cup.

   She smiled politely and nodded. “That’s me.”

  “Cool,” he said before flopping into the beanbag’s dustier mate. With a whump, a cloud of powder erupted from the chair, making the boy go completely rigid as Olivia laughed and covered her mouth. After several moments, he allowed himself to relax. “Well, that wasn’t supposed to happen.”

  Olivia shook her head. “Oh, no, it was very smooth.”

  “What brings the new girl to a place like this?” he asked, leaning back into the squishy furniture.

  She shrugged. “Seemed like something all the kids were doing.”

  “And here I thought that ghost stories would have kept you away.”

  “Ghost stories?” she asked with a smirk. “Haven’t heard anything about ghosts.”

  The boy gave a dismissive wave of his hand while taking a sip of his drink. He struggled to swallow and ended up coughing the first several words of his response: “The campers they found.”

  Olivia cocked an eyebrow and smirked. “That’s hardly a ghost story.”

  “Ah, come on,” he goaded. “It’s totally campfire crap. Fake news to keep the kids in line.”

  She gave a cautious, though disbelieving, laugh. “That’s not really what’s meant by fake news.”

  Now it was his turn to show disbelief. With an eyeroll, he leaned forward. “I just think it’s fishy it happens the week of this party.”

  “Are you suggesting that the adults of this town would stage a murder to get you to cancel…” She gestured to the barn revelers. “… this?”

  “Why not?”

  “Because that’s literally the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard?”

  He leaned forward ominously. “No, man. The mayor’s been after this tradition since he was pantsed here back in the seventies.”

  “You don’t say.”

  “It’s true!” he said, mockingly. “Guy was a total loser in high school. All the parents who don’t suck have been fighting to keep this thing going.” He pointed to himself in grand reference. “My dad’s the one who made him walk home with his pants around his ankles and the one who paid for all the brews.” He leaned back in the beanbag and gestured broadly to Olivia. “You’re welcome.”

  Olivia nodded quietly, then stood. “I think I’ve had enough fun for the night.”

  Her companion struggled to get to his feet. “Hey, wa—”

  With a startling slam, one of the barn doors rebounded off its frame, jerking the attendees’ attention toward it as the other door was working its way shut. Several teens pulled away from the crowd in an attempt to keep the exit open, but failed. All they could do was push against the doors.

  The boy who had been talking to Olivia dropped his cup on the ground and authoritatively marched across the barn. With the flat of his hand, he banged mightily on the wood and called out, “Jacob, I know this is you, you asshat!” He punched the door for punctuation. “Let us out and we won’t beat your ass!”

  Murmurs of discontent broke out. Some asked questions. Others reiterated anger.

  “Chet, what’s going on, man?” someone yelled from the loft. Olivia looked to see a sweaty, bare-chested lad throw his arms in the air quizzically.

  “It’s that fucking loser Jacob!” Chet—apparently, anyway—responded. He immediately turned and punched the door again. “Who I am going to fucking kill when I get out of here!

  Olivia folded her arms and sighed. Just my luck to go to a party hosted by the town bullies, she thought bitterly.

  “Do you think he called the cops?” one of the girls asked nervously. “My mom’s going to take away my car if I’m caught again!” She pulled her phone from her back pocket. “Is anyone getting a signal?”

  “Jesus, Becca, shut up,” Shirtless grumbled as he made his way down the ladder. He stood by Olivia and looked her over. “Hey,” he said nonchalantly.

  “Hey, I guess,” she said looking back at him. And then, through the open-air window far to his left, she saw the silhouette of someone stride past. Despite the darkness, streaks of the shadow’s outfit glinted in the torchlight as though outfitted with reflector strips. The misshapen outline of its head was without immediate explanation. Even though she couldn’t immediately make the connection, she felt as though the figure was the one who had been watching her at school.

  The movement had stunned her, though she recovered quickly. She put her hand on the nearest boy’s shoulder and pointed out the window. “Someone’s out there!” she inadvertently yelled, adrenaline giving her voice an extra-percussive tinge.

  That was all Chet needed to hear to peel himself away from the doors. “I’m coming for you, asshole!” he yelled as he neared the window.

  It happened in one impossibly blurry motion: the figure lurched into the frame; it produced a long rod with a barbed hook at the end; Chet jerked to a stop as the instrument swept forward; it surged past his shoulder only to stop and yank back, sinking the hook into his flesh; he screamed and was pulled off his feet toward the window.

  Olivia couldn’t even find the wherewithal to scream at the suddenness of it all, even remaining silent as Chet managed to plant a defiant hand on the sill, keeping his flailing legs in the barn. Others were not so burdened by the shock, and proceeded to voice it in a cavalcade of swearing and panicked shrieks.

  Shirtless surged forward and grabbed onto one of Chet’s legs. “I got you, man!” he assured. As though responding to it, the assailant gave a vicious tug. Chet screamed something unintelligible, and his would-be rescuer nearly lost his footing.

  Olivia moved to the other flailing leg and grabbed hold, trying not to think about the fact that poor Chet’s shoulder was likely going to end up mangled beyond repair. She planted her foot on the wall of the barn and pulled as hard as she could on the squirming leg.

  The boy to her left lost grip, and Olivia caught the wildly kicking foot with the side of her head. Her own grasp faltered and she fell to the ground.

  “No!” Shirtless screamed, diving through the window after Chet.

  “Stop!” Olivia weakly demanded through her haze, trying to push herself upright.

  Then, the boy jerked and went limp, falling back into the barn. Olivia barely realized something warm and wet spattered her face as the more pressing concern of the headless body was processed by her brain.

  The first real scream at this revelation came from the loft, although those below joined in soon thereafter. Olivia was torn on how to react, as her limbs and mind had become paralyzed. Her heart slammed against her ribs, and only quickened when the acrid stench of gasoline pricked her nose.

  “Ga—” she tried to warn, only for a bright white light from the rear of the barn to scramble her senses.

  When she came to on the floor, flames licked their way up the walls of the barn. The whine in her ears lowered to allow the panicked shouts and screams of the others filter in. Olivia painfully looked up at the loft, discovering that whatever didn’t collapse was completely engulfed in flames. She didn’t linger over the details for fear of finding arms and legs twisted amongst the wreckage.

  “Is anyone’s cellphone working?” a girl—Becca—shouted. “I can’t get a signal!”

  Someone she could barely see helped her to her feet and began to lead her to the still-closed front doors. Her peers were throwing their weight against the wood, finding that it would yield ever-so-tantalizingly with their combined weight. Olivia, realizing this was likely the best shot at escape, contributed. When the doors parted enough, a girl wedged herself into the gap.

  “Keep pushing!” she demanded between grunts of exertion.

  Olivia didn’t know why she felt compelled to look back at the loft wreckage. Something, some unknowable darkness, compelled the edges of her mind to gaze back. Striding over the wreckage was a figure, a fire ax in one hand and a pike pole in the other, ambling with a slow assuredness through the conflagration. The gait was discordant with the situation, inhumanly calm as flame danced upward around it. Even though it wore firefighting gear in a convincing facsimile of anthropomorphism, there was something inherently wrong about it. As Olivia took in more details—the tattered nature of the reflective coat, the oxygen mask with a disconnected hose, dirty hand prints that spoke of desperate clawing, the apparent re-engineering of the hook and ax blade—the more she was convinced of some inconceivable inhumanity.

  It was only after several seconds that she realized that the face—hidden behind an opaque window in the oxygen mask—was turned toward her. Even though she could not see its eyes, she became irrevocably convinced in that moment that they were trained on her.

  Someone else saw the approaching figure and must not have either noticed or cared about its irregularities. In a panic, the boy peeled away from the others and rushed, babbling about needing help getting the door open. Belying the steady pace, the figure flung the fire ax with terrible speed. With a wet thunk and an unanticipated orange spark, the head imbedded deep in his chest and he fell back to the floor, dead, as his blood hissed and spattered against the metal.

  “Fucking push!” Olivia roared.

  The figure gripped the ax’s handle and squelched it free of its morbid mooring without breaking stride.

  With a final surge of adrenaline, Olivia threw herself into the door, and the girl who had been wedged was now free, stumbling into the night. Immediately, the teens still on the inside demanded that she return the favor.

  “I need something to cut the rope!” she shouted, desperate to be heard above the shrieking commands. Then, something distracted her from up the dirt road. She turned back to the others. “Someone’s coming!”

  Olivia turned back to the figure, who stalked ever closer. Its hands flexed excitedly over the handles of its weapons. Somewhere, she heard sirens.

  “Um, they’re not slowing down,” the girl on the outside shouted. And then, a moment later, she concluded with an ultimatum: “Get out of the way!

  The kids closest to the gap between the doors were the first to peel away, grasping at those who couldn’t see outside. Others, including Olivia, followed suit. The siren reached a crescendo, and suddenly the doors burst as a police cruiser shot through, splintering the wood and sending it in every direction.

  Before the car even stopped, the former revelers were running through the new exit, taking a brief moment to evaluate their burning cars, and continuing onward through the woods beyond. Olivia, however, was rooted to her spot as the car collided with the figure, the hood crushing in on itself like it had hit a wall. The force was effective, though, catapulting the monstrous silhouette back into the burning wreckage.

  The woman who stepped out of the cruiser did not appear to be an officer—if her tattered jeans and leather jacket didn’t give it away, the handcuffs dangling from one wrist certainly did. As she reached into the wrecked car, dark ringlets cascaded down the side of her face, illuminated by firelight. With shock, Olivia recognized her as the one who had so frequently walked by her house.

  Smoothly, the woman re-emerged with a pump-action shotgun. She leveled it at the rising figure and fired, sending it back to the flames. She chambered a new shell and fired at the squirming form. Once more, and she tossed the gun away before turning on her heel and running toward the gaping hole in the barn.

  She slowed when she saw Olivia. “Why are you still here?” she demanded. Without stopping, she grabbed the girl’s arm and yanked her outside. “Where’s the closest building with a landline?” she asked.

  “The school, I think,” Olivia answered.

  This prompted them to stop moving. “Where?” Olivia gazed back into the swirling fire as a chunk of the barn’s roof collapsed, sending a mushroom of smoke into the sky. “Where, Olivia?” the woman demanded.

  Olivia pointed past the inferno, through the cornfield. With a new, painful yank, they were running again.

  “How do you know my name?”

  The woman did not answer.

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