The sun had set hours ago, but heat still radiated from the sidewalks inside the park. Barkers lazed inside their booths, waiting out the last half hour until the park would officially close. Josh followed Tina, their linked fingers dragging him in her wake as she wove between kiosks. "We have to find the perfect ride to finish the night," she said over her shoulder. He could hear the irritation at his dawdling, almost buried under her dogged enthusiasm.Perfect ride, perfect end to a perfect evening, right? Josh wanted to feel good about that. But she'd been pretty friendly with Greg Halloway when they ran into him and Dean. Then she'd slipped Josh's grip when they got fried dough and it had taken him an hour to get hold of her hand again. He glanced around, restless. There had to be some way to catch her interest again. After all, she'd agreed to this date in the first place, so it wasn't like he had zero chance with her. He caught sight of a Haunted Manor ride, lights dark with a chain across the gate. He stopped, and their arms jerked taut between them. "Hey, Tina, wait up. What about that one?" She followed his look, her eyebrows rising. "It's closed. See the sign?" "I know it's closed, but I bet we could get in." "And do what? It's dead." "Just walk around, I guess. I wonder if it's really haunted." She stepped in, closer to him. "Want to find out?" Her mouth slipped into an uncertain half smile. He led the way this time, and she kept close on his heels, laughing and whispering protests. They stepped over the low-slung "Ride Closed" sign and went up the wooden stairs, glancing back to make sure no one was watching. With Josh leading, they slipped past the derelict cars and onto the tracks. Stepping carefully from tie to tie, they moved into the dark tunnel at the beginning of the ride. It smelled moldy, and the air was warm and clinging. Once they were well past the entry, Josh turned on the miniature flashlight on his keychain to illuminate their steps. "We can't do this." Tina sounded a little breathless. "We'll get caught." "No, we won't. Just stay quiet and hope the ghosts don't notice us." She giggled, and smothered the sound with her hand. In the first room, Josh paused to let the flashlight play over the scenery. A skeleton sat in a rocker, beside a chest propped open to show off bloody plastic body parts. The skeleton held an axe handle like a cane, with the axe's red-stained head balanced on the floor. In the dimness it was hard to tell which cobwebs were props and which were real, but here and there glimmering spiders skittered across the scene. Tina wrapped her free hand around Josh's arm, her breath hot and quick against his neck. Her front foot shared a tie with his back foot, her body so close to his that he could smell the fruity exuberance of her perfume, cutting through the dust and stagnation. He squeezed her hand in reassurance, his confidence soaring, and led onward. The second room was made up like a graveyard, with hands reaching from the earth between the scattered headstones. "Doesn?t look like a very logical progression." Josh's voice was quickly swallowed by the humid dark. "No wonder it got shut down." "Boring," Tina agreed. Through her hands he felt her shiver. "Let's keep going." He took another step, and suddenly a long, whining creak came from somewhere up ahead. Somewhere in the building, a radio crackled to life, and a canned voice began to laugh. Tina's hand twitched in his. "What's that?" Josh licked his lips. "It's nothing. It's just part of the ride." "The ride is supposed to be dead." Beside them, earth shifted. Josh swept his flashlight beam toward the sound, and the light landed on one of the hands, scrabbling at a tombstone. Bits of dirt sifted from its mound as the fingernails scored the false granite face. "Let's go back," Tina moaned. Her fingers dug at him, too much like the hand from the grave. "Josh, please, let's just go." He turned, pushing her hand from his arm. "All right. We're going. Go on." Beneath their feet the tracks shuddered, the ride purring to life. Tina stumbled, and Josh caught her shoulders to steady her. "Get going," he prompted her, and she moved forward. He played the flashlight across the track in front of her, and followed her hunched, anxious form. As they reached the doorway, something dropped toward them from the ceiling. Josh whipped the flashlight upward, to show a huge spider descending. "Fake," he rasped, as Tina screamed and wrapped her arms around him. The spider jerked, bouncing upward on it string. "It's just a joke." Her fingernails dug in, scoring his back through his damp T-shirt, and he could feel her heartbeat against his own chest. He felt a surge of frustration, fear and inappropriate desire. He shoved her away from him, hanging on to her arms long enough to steady her on her feet once more. "Go on, we're getting out of here." In the next room, the cart trundled slowly toward them. An opaque gray fog obscured the seats. Tina stopped, trembling. Josh ground his teeth together. "Climb over it." She jerked her head in a spasmodic denial. "You first." So he brushed past her, electricity sparking between their bodies as they made contact. Then, he shoved his flashlight and keys back into his jeans, reached out to grasp the near handle of the cart as it came, and clambered over into the fog. He plunged into a gray world, the fog immediately obscuring his vision. It filled his nose with the reek of rotting flesh and his hands fell onto what felt like a person's shoulders and chest. His feet slipped down legs, onto sneakers. "Sorry," he muttered, and almost gagged. There was no reply, no movement under him. He climbed, reaching for unoccupied spaces. As he cleared the first seatback his head broke the top of the fog. He took a deep breath, and the air was free of the deathly stench. "Come on," he called over his shoulder to Tina. "We get over the cart and we're practically out." A sudden shriek made him turn to look back. Tina had her hands on the front bar of the cart, but she had frozen there and was staring to the side, toward the skeleton in the chair. "You'll get run over," Josh told her. "Hurry up." But he followed her gaze, and any further suggestions dried in his mouth. The skeleton in the rocking chair had begun to fill out. Flesh rippled over its hands, and swelled under its shirt. Skin began to seep upward from its collar, creating the neck as it went. One hand tightened on the axe, hefting it slowly as the arm regained strength. Tina turned her wide-eyed stare to Josh. Her mouth hung open, not even forming words. A rasping sound like the ghost of a scream issued from her lips, and nothing more. Then she began to fall, and the cart slowed, bumping against her feet and legs. Josh glanced toward the door. Light glimmered beyond, the shape of the opening--visible in silvery gray. He could tell everyone she blew him off, and that he didn't know where she'd gone. Greg and Dean, at least, had seen her disinterest in him. After the way she's been acting, who wouldn't believe him? You wouldn't believe it. The voice seemed to originate in the pit of his stomach somewhere, right in next to the fear. Deep and honest. He sighed. He crawled back, and grabbed Tina's arms as her fingers let go of the bar on the cart. He heaved at her, hauling her up, and after a moment of struggle her nails bit into his arms and she started to help, panting and scrabbling. Her feet popped free, and he hoisted her into the fog beside him. He couldn't see her, but once again her arms went around him, tight as a constrictor. "My shoes," she sobbed. "I think I'm--I'm bleeding. I can't--can't--" The axe sliced through the fog with a whistle, and embedded itself with a thunk into the seat beside them. The seat splintered. The axe shone, visible through the gray, crimson blood dripping from its edge. Tina screamed again, and the axe was yanked upward. It tore apart the fog as it moved, leaving ragged, open streaks of air. Josh grabbed Tina's hand and pulled her after him, scrambling over the bodies. The axe followed them, eating away their cover and revealing people--silent, staring, dead but undecayed despite the smell. Warm, unmoving bodies. The axe took a dead man in the side of the neck and he crumpled with the blow. Josh realized, his stomach dropping away, that with the cart moving against them they weren't making any progress toward the door. And as the fog drifted away, each attempt to hack them apart could only get more precise. He paused, rearing his head up into the clear air. "Keep going," he hissed, and pushed Tina past him. The skeleton--no longer a skeleton, but a man now--leering, red-eyed--stood over them, swinging the axe around his head for another blow. His gaze fixed on Josh and his mouth split into a wide grin. Josh jumped from the cart. He tucked, rolling across the floor of the room through cotton cobwebs. Something crunched under his back, and the man turned with a rumbling laugh. Josh leapt to his feet, desperately pushing cobwebs from his arms. He cast around for a weapon, an escape route. Anything. Here, at the back of the room, it had been only sparsely decorated. He had rolled through the cobwebs between a toy chest and a woodstove. There was a fire alarm on the near wall. He ducked behind the woodstove, and the next blow of the axe clanged off iron. He darted for the fire alarm and pulled it, hoping it might bring rescue or at least help, but instead of the expected siren sound he heard a muffled whoosh and the doorway to the second room lit with an orange glow. The man with the axe snickered. Josh took refuge behind the woodstove once more and again it protected him. At least his opponent wasn't fast, he thought. He stole a glance beyond the madman and saw Tina stumble from the back end of the cart. She was visibly shaking, and blood trickled from one gashed ankle. She limped toward the door, as Josh dodged another blow. The skeleton man rounded the woodstove, and he ran. He grabbed a hunk of plastic leg from the chest and threw it at the man, realizing only as it left his hand that it hadn't felt like plastic at all--had been squishy, warm. It slapped the man's chest and he paused for a moment, stepped back a pace. Then he came on. Josh could feel the heat of the next room's fire at his back. He put the skeleton's rocker between himself and the axe. A single blow shattered the chair. He grabbed a hand from the heap of body parts, ignoring the oozing blood against his palm. The jutting bone of the severed forearm dug against his own wrist. He threw the hand at his attacker, aiming better this time. It hit the man's face. And clung there. The axe went up, flailing. Dead fingers scratched across the man's cheeks toward his eyes. Seeing his chance, Josh hefted the seat of the rocking chair with its sharp, splintered spindles. He drove the points toward the man's chest, running at him to put as much weight as he could behind the impact. The axe man fell backward with a crash. Josh whirled. Body parts were beginning to crawl from their heap. He jumped, clearing the writhing mound. He landed in the last seat of the cart, once again submerged in the putrid fog. Behind him, he could hear the fire crackling, as he pushed himself up and over the last bodies and onto the tracks. The cart caught fire as Josh fled. Behind him, the tracks groaned, and under him they shifted. He overtook Tina in the last dark passage close to the exit and helped her reach the open night and the safety of the wooden platform outside the ride. They hurried down the stairs, and he had to lift her over the chain with its hanging sign. Behind them, the building went up in flames. Then the alarms sounded, all across the park. They hurried, as fast as Tina could limp, toward the exit, joined by other stragglers and most of the park staff. They made it to Josh's car before either of them spoke. He helped her into her seat. Her eyes were blank, shocked. But when he went around and got into the driver's seat she shivered and shook her head. "What am I going to tell my dad?" she said. Josh turned the key in the ignition. "It's not that late." "I mean about my shoes." She let out a sound between a sob and a laugh. "And the blood." He looked down at his own hands. There was a scrape on his wrist, where the severed bone had dug in, and a few drops of blood welled up through the torn skin. But his hands and arms weren't coated with the stuff, the way he'd expected after all he'd touched. Tina's leg was bleeding pretty well, though. "You can just tell him you got hurt on a ride." She smiled, blinking. "And you saved me." "Right." She put a hand on his knee, and his mouth was suddenly as dry as it had been in the haunted manor. Tina leaned close, and after all the death and smoke she still smelled sweet, fruity, and store bought. "My hero," she whispered, and laid a kiss on the edge of his open mouth. She straightened up and fastened her seat belt. "But we are never going near a closed ride again." Josh swallowed, nodded, put the car in gear. Worth it this time, though, said the little voice from the pit of his stomach. He decided not to share the thought.
x x x
Haunted carnival rides are a staple of horror stories. I?ve read many, but few as unrelentingly frenetic as this one. It's scary treatment of a mundane theme won it the place of honor for a horror tale (October's offering). What do you think of it? Tell me on our BBS. - GM