Steve couldn’t believe Davy’s skepticism. “I can’t believe you won’t meet me here on this!”
“There’s nothing special about it. It’s just a golf club.”
“But you saw what it did to those mutants!” Steve was adamant. “You destroyed them! It’s got to be an artifact of Ribosome or whatever.”
“Yeah, because they were, like, three feet tall.” Steve held up the golf club. “And this is a blunt, metal object.”
Steve threw his hands in the air. “All right, fine. But don’t throw it away or anything. That was pretty cool back there.”
“Oh no, I’m keeping this. It’s not magic, but I can still hit stuff with it.” Davy suddenly realized he was thirsty. “Hey, it’s really hot. You want to get some water?”
The afternoon sun was blaring down on the both of them. Bayou City was always unbearably hot in the afternoon, but it was even more so in the middle of August. The city was situated in the middle of a sprawling swampland, but it was otherwise so urbanized, it was easy for residents to forget this fact. Most of Davy’s day was spent either in an air-conditioned building or in an air-conditioned car.
If Davy and Steve hadn’t been following Connie earlier, neither of them would have been walking now. In addition to the heat, the city was just not built with pedestrians in mind. Outside the central downtown area, there were virtually no sidewalks to accompany the multilane freeways that intersected the whole city. So now, Davy and Steve found themselves walking on the grass at the edge of a busy road. There was nowhere nearby where they could get water.
“Uggghh, let’s just go back to my house,” Steve groaned.
“You mean your restaurant?” Davy asked.
“Shut up and let me dehydrate in peace.”
When they finally got back to Steve’s restaurant-house, they were disappointed to find it had been replaced with a circus tent.
“What happened to my house?” Steve shouted.
The tent was adorned with red and yellow striped. It looked old, like it had been retired years ago and put back into use by someone who had no business doing so. The entire area was devoid of people. Even the lot with the tent was sparse. There was nothing set up outside the tent, except a small popcorn machine. Above what was presumably the entrance was a wooden sign, upon which was the phrase “Barnaby Willacre’s House of Hideous Horrors.”
Davy and Steve looked up at the sign. “Hideous House of Horrors?” he asked. “Can you believe this?”
“I know, that’s some alliteration,” Davy replied.
“My home has been replaced by a Hideous House of Horrors? Who would do this!?”
“I would!” shouted a voice from within the tent. The entrance flap flew open and a lanky man walked out. Davy watched the man as he sauntered over to the two of them.
He wore a bright red ringmaster’s suit. He had short, but scant dark hair across his head. His hair looked less like hair and more like the thick chitinous fuzz that Davy saw on insects. Or maybe a tarantula. He had a ‘bushy’ mustache that seemed to be made of the same substance. He also wore a pair of dark, round shades that seemed to be covering up the fact that his shades had nothing to cover up. The man casually sidled up to them.
“My name is Barnaby Willacre,” the man said. “And this is my House of Horrors!”
“Were you waiting behind the tent flap for us?” asked Steve.
Barnaby Willacre leaned back a little. “What? What are you talking about?”
“So I said, ‘Who would do this to my house?’ or something like that,” Steve said. “And then you shouted ‘I would!,’ right? So were you, like, standing behind that tent flap this whole time, just waiting for an opportunity to shout some line and approach us all dramatically?”
Barnaby Willacre tried to compose himself. “What!? I don’t know what you’re talking about!” he said. “Shut up,” he added.
“So then what’s the deal?” Steve asked. You put you’re dumb circus tent up where my house used to be. You out to spook me or something?”
“What, this was your house? Why were you living in a restaurant?” Barnaby asked.
“Look, I’m getting tired of people judging my life choices.” Steve was clearly getting fed up.
Davy decided to step in. Partly out of kindness for his friend, but also mostly because circuses made Davy uncomfortable. Circuses were the worst.
“So, Mr. Willacre,” he said. “Can we call you that? Anyway, my friend here is just upset, because this was his home. We’ve also had a long day looking for magical artifacts of Rebisome, so if you could move your whole circus-type-deal somewhere else, we’d–”
Barnaby leapt in surprise. “Did you say Artifact of Rebisome!?”
Davy shrugged. “Yeah, but we haven’t found any.”
Barnaby’s mouth morphed into a wide, nauseating smile. Davy could see Barnaby’s sharp, pointed teeth. His teeth were spaced widely apart, with a mass of empty gums between them. There were also two rows of teeth.
Barnaby leaned in towards Davy and Steve. “It just so happens I have one of these artifacts…”
Davy noticed the smell of old peaches. He took a step back. “No thanks, the last guy who just serendipitous offered us an artifact out of nowhere turned out to be hustling us.”
“I still think it’s real…” Steve muttered.
Barnaby leaned in even closer to Davy and Steve. “Oh, but I can prove it. Let me reach into my pocket.”
Barnaby’s hand shot into his pants. Davy and Steve saw this and immediately turned around and began walking away.
“Okay, you want to see if there’s a movie showing somewhere?” Davy asked.
“Sure, let’s go. Let’s go anywhere that is away from here.” Steve replied.
“Behold! The Ember Sack of Unrelenting Sorrow!” Barnaby shouted behind them.
Davy and Steve picked up their pace. “Okay, let’s get out of here,” Steve said briskly before turning to see Davy sitting on the concrete behind him. Steve looked back at Barnaby who was holding a dilapidated burlap sack. There was a black, gaseous mass emitting from the sack that had apparently wandered towards Davy and had engulfed him.
“Oh, so it’s a literal sack,” Steve said.
Davy, for his part, felt like crap. As he saw this black substance float around him, he felt an increasing feeling of sore fatigued take hold throughout his body. This whole quest was dumb, he thought. He had no idea what he was looking for, he let himself get hustled earlier, and now this jerk had taken his friend’s home. What made him so important that he would be tasked to collect these Artifacts of Whatever, anyway? He felt an overwhelming urge to just get in bed and go to sleep.
Then the black gas disappeared. Davy stood up. He suddenly felt like eating an ice cream sandwich.
“Have I proven my worth to you?” asked Barnaby, closing up the sack as the two of them walked back towards the tent.
“Sure, I guess so,” said Steve. He looked at Davy. “What happened?”
Davy shrugged again. “Eh, felt kind of crappy, you know. Wanted to go home and watch TV for a few hours.”
“Dang, that’s kind of heavy.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Davy said. “Kind of want some ice cream though.”
Barnaby chuckled. “I see you’ve been introduced to the Ember Sack of Unrelenting Sorrow.” He held up the sack. “And it’s all yours, if you pass my test…”
Steve looked at the sack. “Let me guess, you want us to go through your dumb House of Horrors.”
“Come on Steve, it’s a Hideous House of Horrors. It’s completely different,” Davy chided.
Barnaby frowned. “I thought enduring the Ember Sack of Unrelenting Sorrow would have affected you more deeply,” he said.
“Sure, it made we want to go home and take a nap. Honestly, that’s like Tuesday for me,” Davy replied, laughing on the outside (but crying on the inside).
“Hey man, you okay?” Steve asked.
“Oh sure, no worries,” Davy replied. I’m all for getting this sack though.
“Okay, sounds good to me.” Steve turned to Barnaby. “So we go through your Hideous House of Horrors. Then we get the sack?”
Barnaby clearly wasn’t having any of this. “Sure, yes, you get the sack. The Ember Sack of Unrelenting Sorrow.” He tried to muster up some of his lost gravitas. “But the real question is…” He took an unnecessarily melodramatic pause. “Can you bring yourself to withstand the horrors that lurk within?”
“Maybe,” Davy answered. “I mean, what’s the catch?”
Barnaby’s gravitas was lost again. “What do you mean, the catch?”
“I mean, this sounds like one of those things that could lead to a fate worse than death kind of situation,” Davy said. He looked at Steve. “You know what I’m talking about?”
“Oh, like unsuspecting dude finds otherworldly figure who offers something valuable, tricks him into accepting challenge?” Steve replied.
“Yeah, but then the guy bites off more than he can chew…” Davy began.
“Sure, and then like, he spends the rest of eternity as a painting or some junk, right?”
Davy nodded. “Yeah, so, maybe it’s just me, but I’m getting the feeling that we walk into the House of Horrors, and we end up in some alternate universe until the end of time, and we’re on fire and stuff.”
“No, I get you completely,” Steve said. He turned back to Barnaby. “You heard all that. Is this some trick where we end up in eternal torment?”
Barnaby looked mildly offended. “What, no! All this is is my Haunted House with really scary stuff in it. Sure, you’ll confront your greatest fears, but nothing is going to kill you.” He tried to regain his composure again, though it definitely wasn’t working. “The only thing stopping you from enduring my challenge is your own fear…”
Steve and Davy looked at each other again. “So, nothing in the Haunted House will hurt us….” Steve said.
Davy wiped his nose. “Sure, let’s do it.” He turned back to Barnaby. “So, two tickets to the, uh, Hideous House of Horrors…is that how I do this?”
Barnaby grinned again. “Sure, young fellow. That will be two hundred dollars.”
Barnaby and Davy looked at Steve.