"Whatever you do, stick to the script," John said, as if he were directing my thoughts too. Did he suspect something?
I focused on the shed's lone window without actually looking outside. Meanwhile, John's knuckles dug deeper into my back until I finally straightened and the clasp of my cloak snapped taut.
John grunted, satisfied. "Your uncle told you what happened to the boy who trailed off-path, didn't he?"
Obviously, I'd heard. What native of Tarrytown hadn't? The legends of the Headless Horseman haunted everything in town, including this morning's package of locally roasted coffee: You'll lose your head over our fresh brew—guaranteed! People flew in from all over the world because of those stories.
Oblivious of my silence, or maybe because of it, John came around front and looked me in the eyes as he straightened my collar. A raised pink scar that I hadn't noticed before trailed from his knuckles to wrist. "Found the boy myself," he said, "floating belly-down in the river with weeds sprouting from his headless neck."
Had I not been so focused, I would've laughed. He really thought I was a gullible kid, didn't he? But John didn't know how personal this performance was for me. I wasn't here for a job or his opinion. I was here for someone else.
Outside, fog seeped down the October hillside like ghostly drool. The beanie-and-scarf-wearing guests were propped against the chain-linked entrance, watching the fog until it finally escaped the line of yellow-green trees and drowned out the stable of neighing horses below.
As John adjusted the sleeves of my blue Hessian wool coat, the team chatter in my earpiece warmed up. The most experienced members would be coordinating the performance from the control booth inside the log cabin by the dirt parking lot. Others were hiding in engineered coves in the Pocantico Hills awaiting their signals. As the star-in-training, however, all eyes would be on me.
Finally, John topped my head with the pièce de résistance, a headless, bloody neck with hidden ear and eye slots behind tiny mesh screens. And my nerves really began to boil.
Silently, I thanked Uncle Frank again for convincing John to toss the list of applicants aside. Especially considering the risks of the role. Make a mistake and there won't be any going back.
But this is what I'd wanted. It still was.
"One last thing," John said, guiding me out of the shed and onto Gunpowder's saddle—mobility in this stuffy suit sucked. "That last pass, the jump over the bridge? Remember: trust Gunpowder. He's done this many times. If you signal the jump early, he's likely to snub the bridge and tumble into the river instead of sticking the underwater landing mat. And that'll certainly scare the hell out of the guests."
"Yeah, we wouldn't want that, would we?" I said.
"Smart ass. Drowning would be the least of your worries at that point."
"I won't lose my head."
As I waited near the top of the hill, I listened to team chatter and glanced down at Scare Point 1. A small clearing in the trees, it lay at the base of the hill just off the path leading up from the entrance gate.
Gunpowder huffed beneath me and stomped his hooves. Even my horse was anxious to play his part. Like the employees, and like our guests by proxy. It was a true town affair.
Before taking the job, Uncle Frank was my main source of exposure to the metanarrative the town upheld as an homage to Irving's story. As co-owner of Sleepy Hollow Horseback Tours, my uncle played the graying man with a limp who didn't linger in the woods, especially not in the complex's graveyard. He also observed each performance via video feed, and his assistants fetched his car keys and coffee. Mostly, he kept quiet, which was brilliant. Of course, the effect was trickle-down, and that manufactured fear spread like a lucrative virus, drawing in large numbers every year. Grady, who worked in the background, also played a significant part. He took vacation like clockwork during the Halloween holiday, when a visitation from the real Haunted Horseman was supposedly more likely. Said he didn't like the crowds. I hadn't met Grady. I also didn't think he existed outside of the rumor mill and, most likely, the company pen. If that wasn't fantastic marketing, I didn't know what was.
"Jed." John's voice in my single headphone. "That's your cue."