The chainsaw's engine snarl rips the air like animal teeth, growling a path through the crowd. People ripple apart with the consistency of fluid. They shuffle in lines behind metal fenceposts, below the floodlights—an arena where they'd have rodeo shows, or horse shows, or some other shows. The dirt is hard-packed under Ash's sneakers and she feels hot, flushed from nerves, fingers unsticking her shirt collar from her neck.

"That's a real chainsaw?" Jamie cranes up on tip-toes for a better look, riveted.

"He shouldn't be so close," Ash says. "Don't you think he's way too close? Jesus."

"Relax. It's not real. He looks like some demented redneck from here, and I'll bet that chainsaw doesn't even have a chain on the track. It's got to be against a law or something."

"How do you know?"

Ash's fingers unstick her sleeves; she frowns at the sweat gathered along the bow of her spine. She tries to unstick that, but it's harder to reach around.

"We're almost there." Jamie swings her arms over the fencepost. "So do you know what it's about? I just picked the shortest line. It said Next of Kin."

"Yeah," Ash lies. She watches instead the lazy prowling of the Chainsaw Man, tall and spindly in jean overalls, smeared swipes of grease and dirt and holes to complete the ensemble. His skin is freckled and red like a strawberry patch. He grins when he passes and the open maw of his mouth reveals tiny black spaces where teeth should be. She stares too hard and long and he grins that jack-o-lantern shape, hefts his chainsaw up, kicks the motor and a knot of girls begin to screech. Ash whips around and enmeshes herself out of view. Jamie laughs and turns forward. "Chicken. He's an actor. He's paid. You're afraid of everything."

"I don't believe in ghosts—or demons or anything—but I believe in axe murderers."

"You mean, psychopaths."

"Every axe murderer is a psychopath."

"Not every psychopath is an axe murderer."

"Okay," Ash says. "How do you know?

The entrance opens into infinity. Ash stands facing it, picking up the tail-end of a group of six, Jamie included. The guide (overalls, greasy nest of hair, blacked-out teeth, sallow skin, abducted look) skims down a list of rules:

DO NOT touch the actors, sets, or props – violators may be prosecuted

NO weapons

NO masks

NO running or pushing

NO flashlights, lasers, lighters or matches

NO smoking, except in designated areas

DO NOT carry small children inside haunts

PLEASE SECURE your personal belongings

YOU MAY BE EXPOSED TO INTENSE AUDIO AND VISUAL EFFECTS including sudden, loud noises, low visibility, strobe lights and graphic scenes

Jamie is talking again. "Did you know Andy works here? He auditioned. He just had to act really animated. Tons of high school dropouts work here, too."

"He's here? Tonight?"

"That's what he said." Jamie smiles. Nothing but black greets them as they enter from the designated door. Three haunted houses, one warehouse. Over 16,000 square feet of horror. The last she hears is the distant, dying snarl of the Chainsaw Man carving rifts through the crowd.

They find Andy in the third room. They pass through two to get here, and three long empty corridors where they seek corners in order to proceed. The first room features a kitchen soaked in red ambient light, dirty dish piles, fat plastic roaches over all surfaces, an actress hidden in a fridge that opens into the middle of the room (perfect scare vantage), stained linoleum, peeling daisy wallpaint. The second, a living room: it holds only a threadbare couch and a television set stuck on static, fuzzing and glowing dimly to illuminate their way. An actor lunges off the couch when they circle the perimeter; Ash screams and shoves him back, the look on his face translating underpaid frustration. A high school dropout with tiny black spaces where his teeth should be. "Don't worry," Jamie tells her.

She's still shaking when they find Andy in the third room.

It's a meat locker. Reflective, metallic panels enclose the room, and Andy is dressed sloppily like a butcher, fake bones in his fists he uses to rattle the walls as people pass through covering their faces.

"Hey," Jamie says and takes her by the arm. "Let's hang back."

"I don't want to."

"You've got time until the next group comes." It's Andy who speaks. He grins through the haze of machine-smoke, strobe lights providing a dizzy backdrop as their original group shuffles away without them, down the next passage. "You know what? I think it's my break. A solid ten minutes, what a party."

"Lucky us," Jamie says.

"You missed me." Andy slings an arm around her shoulders; his skin is darkened by cosmetics, blotched purple and black like bruising. "How long's it been? Months or something?"

"More like. I don't know, since high school."

"You hear what they're doing tonight? We'll see it happen. A firecracker makes a loud bang."

"I'm not involved," Jamie says. "Besides, they'll get caught."

"This way," Andy says, disappearing into the darkness of a gap in the paneled wall. Jamie follows, dragging Ash, Andy's voice buoyant in the black around them, saying "this way, this way, this—way—" until it ceases to sound like anything. The warehouse ceiling spans high above. Ash looks up into the endless chasm of it, no longer distracted by actors and props and blinding visual effects. She's never seen so much dark collected and contained in one place. Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" grinds on loop from far off, manufactured fog curling airborne like gray ghosts lost in the atmosphere. Everything is separated and sectioned by tall plywood walls, a labyrinth of rooms they walk beyond, navigating an escape route.

Andy delivers them to a small circular break area that empties into a parking lot. Other sweat-drenched actors stand talking, crunching soda cans and water bottles in thirsty gulps.

"—should've seen this asshole, man, they're not fun when they're drunk. You could fuckin breathe it on him and he got in close. Just laughed."

"They trip themselves getting out."

"You know who's the funniest? The kids? —no, they just get scared. Makes me feel like I stole their fuckin candy."

"That's the point."

"Scaredand scared are different," a gangly man with scratchy sideburns and a beard, older than the majority, stamps emphasis on the word: scared. "There's scared, I'm-gonna-fuckin-shit-my-pants, then there's scared, holy-shit-I-fuckin-love-this."

"Whatever, drunks and kids aside, who's the funniest?"

"Teenage girls. Screechers. I'm serious. Scared of their own damn shadow."

Ash leans her weight on the heels of her feet and wants to leave. She doesn't know what she's doing here, black and Johnny Cash at her back, actors with fake-bruise rings around their eyes ahead. "Jamie, come on. Jamie."

The group notices them for the first time. She's baldly aware of her lack of costume, sinking back as Andy grins and takes someone's bottle, refilling it from a jug. "Guys," he says, tips his head, "this is Jamie and Ash. They're getting VIP behind-the-scenes treatment tonight."

"Hey," someone else says, not the bearded one. Not to her, to Jamie. He resembles a pitbull, unsmiling, skin too heavy for his skeleton. "I know you. We've met." It comes dimly to her they're the only girls here. "You get scared easy?"

"I guess," Jamie says. "Well—no. Not really."

"Remember what I was saying to you, huh?" It's bearded guy, like their shepherd, wizened, herding them, arms tucked over the pouch of a beer belly. "Screechers."

"Screeching bitch, that's more accurate. Scott told me about her."

"What? Scott?" Jamie's voice adopts shrillness "No, like I care. Who are you again?"

"Fuck off. She's with me," Andy says to the Pitbull, involving himself.

"Trying to start something again, Andy?"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," someone says as Andy steps to slam his fist across the Pitbull's sagging face, synced with Jamie's shout and the Bearded Man's gurgled cheer. One of Andy's friends flanks him, a human shield intoxicated on the high of violence in Andy's wake. They lay into the Pitbull with the solemn resolve of boys playing war soldiers.

She's never seen one of Andy's fights. She's heard their bloody exploits from Jamie's lips, vivid verbal recollections painted like glory tributes, stitched with certain threads of reverence. She's never wanted to see one of Andy's fights.

Once, he took to the defense of a friend in the parking lot of a movie theater. He beat someone with a bat until he heard cracks like snapping chicken bones, victory in the absence of vitriol until his opponent could not speak.

Once, he robbed a drunken homeless man who fell onto the tracks of an oncoming train. Or that's what he said, drunken-homeless-man, one word strung together like three notes on a guitar.

Then he got a girlfriend. Jacquelyn. But they broke up, and Jamie swore Jackie now wore dentures for all the adult teeth she lost in the relationship.

Ash runs into darkness. She zigzags between thin membranes of plywood, Jamie's voice drowned as others rise around her, Johnny Cash ahead of the procession. An amalgamation of screams overtakes the inner sanctity of the warehouse. She's lost around the bend of a corner, her eyes following walls for signs, and as she passes the back of an open fridge (bruised and bloody actress huddled there, in the red light, ready to leap) she finds one—NEXT OF KIN—scrawled in white print.

She wedges her fingers into the loose panel and peers into a black passageway, spying huddled backs close to the floor, a lit match, frantic shuffling, low-toned whispers. She sees a firecracker in one upturned teenage palm. They lean to speak in the sacrosanct quiet of their duty.

I'm not involved.

Ash replaces the panel and continues to run.

Around the next corner, she recalls the actor from the second room, the one she pushed, felt the clammy skin of cold sweat and grit of powder under her nails. Violators may be prosecuted. She picks up a half-mask from a work table, porcelain painted by a child's clumsy brushstrokes. It fits over her eyes like a moon's crescent.

I'm not involved.

Another corner, she sees a figure haloed by the commercial glow of vending machines. It's a man; when she approaches, rabbit steps of caution, he extends one hand.

"Thirsty? No problem. It's on me."

The emaciated face of the Chainsaw Man steadies into focus, lips split over the black spaces where his teeth should be. His chainsaw lies across a nearby table. Ash accepts the tall aluminum can between her palms, pops it open for the chemical tang and finds it lukewarm.

"My break's about up. There's a fan over by the chair. Feel free to monopolize it." The Chainsaw Man wipes his brow with the back of one glove, leaving a stripe of grease above his eyes in a shadowy slash. He walks toward his chainsaw, then stops, head craning around. "I was wondering. From an outside perspective. Does it come across well? I helped the design team."

"What?" she says, and finds she's no longer shaking.

"Next of Kin. House of inbreds visited by space aliens. They learn to coexist. They get on with their lives, alien and human alike."

She interrupts, "Is there a chain on it?"

The Chainsaw Man lifts his chainsaw and cradles it like a newborn, taps the long steel throat and grips its sturdy handle. "That would be pretty dangerous."

Behind him, the red burning flare of the firecracker rockets up in a shower of sparks, over the height of plywood walls. The rusty voice of the Chainsaw Man abates as they watch wood catch fire in unison, smoke curling skyward, into the void darkness above.