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Ariana Cimino, Staff Writer

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Keeping up appearances is more than important when one works in the retail industry, even more so when one runs a Halloween store that seems to spontaneously appear in a derelict warehouse each fall. Keeping up appearances to a high standard was what Aspen lived by, and with each store that opened, she aimed a little bit higher. Whether it was adding more decorations here and there, more fake blood, more attractive workers to catch people’s eyes, she felt she could do it.  

When it got to the sixth Halloween Haven store she had opened that week with a stunningly discouraging lack of customers, she began to wonder what she was doing wrong. Perhaps kids weren’t as interested in Halloween as they used to be; maybe they had more to worry about, like finishing late work or going to parties. She also began to notice the shadows lurking in the corners of the sixth store.  

At first, she surmised that it was all in her head — she often lacked a full eight hours of sleep due to the demands of daily life. Only did she begin to worry when she noticed them moving. It was subtle, at first – a quick shifting in the lighting, or the far-off rustle of boxes and costumes being tossed aside. She consulted one of her coworkers about it, asking if he’d seen them, too; he had brushed it off nonchalantly, chuckling out a joke wrapped in the barbed wire of an insult. Aspen wondered if she should have taken a different career path.  

Aspen’s boss — the founder of the company, a multi-millionaire that somehow nobody seemed to know existed — came to visit the store sometimes, which was to be expected. Seeing it as a good opportunity to find an answer for her strange visions, she approached him on the matter one day. His answer seemed as vague as any, his tone dripping with cues that he knew more than he let on. Aspen didn’t push the subject any further once he gave her a dismissive wave of his hand. There were a lot of other questions she had for him, other things she’d learned not to push — things like her not being allowed in the break room, or any employee for that matter. It was odd, but she learned not to push it. Her livelihood depended on her ability to kill her curiosity, and so that’s exactly what she did. 

One day, as Aspen was locking up the sixth store at its closing time of midnight and preparing to head home, she could have sworn she saw a shadowy shape in the front window of the store — if only for a second, but it was there, she was positive. A cold sweat crept up her spine, suffocated her, and held a grip around her throat; she felt as if she’d die. She’d die if she didn’t go back into the store to investigate, but maybe worse would happen if she did. 

Against her better judgement, Aspen went back into the store, took a deep breath, flicked on her phone flashlight and set out searching the store for something that may not have even existed. In retrospect, it was probably a bad idea to have all energy sources in the store turn off for the six hours after closing, but it sure saved some serious money. It wasn’t like they had anything to keep cold, or like they needed lights; however, in her current situation, Aspen wished they did.  

The metallic clanking of a shoved-aside costume rack jolted Aspen out of her thoughts. She stood up straighter, pointed her flashlight cautiously, and tried to ignore the racing of her heart inside her chest; she needed to calm down, she told herself, it was probably just some dumb teenager playing a prank! She had a fleeting thought that she should turn around and leave the store before she had to call the police on some dumb kid, and then she could have a good laugh about it later — fleeting because of the massive black and red figure that emerged from behind one of the displays and stared right at her. 

Terror ran cold like ice through Aspen’s blood. The creature advanced, an indescribable low noise escaping from its throat; Aspen had never seen anything like it, not even in the gruesome décor she kept in her store, and she was rather glad she hadn’t. Aspen wished she could run, but her body betrayed her, and she was held in place by a force something like horror. Her heart near stopped when she heard a similar noise from behind her. Then to her left, and her right shortly after. What had happened? She had been so focused on vanity that she hadn’t noticed something like this in her store. Something clicked in her mind, and a sensible answer to her lack of customers emerged. A now-familiar sense of dread suffocated her when she realized what she’d find in the off-limits backroom of the store. There had been a rapid increase in missing persons reports since her store opened, after all.  

Aspen’s head whipped around when one of the noisier displays they had stocked went off in the background; the creatures paid no mind and continued moving closer. Other displays joined in, and it seemed almost as if they were taunting her. Aspen felt hot tears run down her face and fear clog her thought process. She couldn’t run. She couldn’t hide. The displays and the creatures and her good-for-nothing boss knew that. She should have followed her instincts. She should have chosen a different career path after all. 

Keeping up appearances of the Halloween Haven store chain was difficult with the new addition to the missing person posters slapped against every shadow-filled window in town.