The Illinois State Fair in Springfield was the inspiration for this story. When I was a kid, we'd go almost every year because my older sisters were in the 4-H club and their projects usually got state or alternate. Mine, on the other hand, usually just got blue ribbons. One of my brothers and I would wander the midway together and ride the rides. One year, there was really a barker calling out "She has four...she has more!" and there was a dark ride too. Just like this one.
“The Dark Ride”
Copyright 2009 Carey Burns
Copyright 2009 Carey Burns
Jane kicked at a dirt-covered chunk of lemon, the remnant of some long-discarded shake-up, and sent it bouncing into the grass along the gravel path. Her sister’s words replayed in her mind and she scowled.
“Get lost, Plain Jane. Hope you get abducted.” She mimicked Breck’s voice, adding a higher, nasally pitch to it and sunk her hands into the front pockets of her jean shorts with a huff. “She’s the one that should be abducted.” She mumbled, eyes cast down in a perfect adolescent girl sulk.
“Just because her melons won at the county fair, Breck thinks she’s hot stuff. I hope they rot and she loses.” Jane rambled on to herself, not caring if anyone saw or heard her because she was in her own head, the place she always retreated when reality was just too much.
Jane wandered down the path, her too-long legs unsteady on the deep gravel. As she stumbled over a loose patch, she could almost hear Breck (named after their mother’s favorite shampoo) laugh.
She passed by the white aluminum buildings that held the livestock exhibits and the smell of cow manure hung on the air, forcing Jane to pick up her pace to escape it. She hurried past the next exhibit hall, past Breck’s cross-stitch replica of “The Scream” by Edvard Munch. “I hope she loses for that one too.”
Deep down, she knew Breck would win the grand prize for both of her entries, just like she’d won the Fair Queen pageant. Winning always came easy to Breck, a real-life replica of a Betty Page farm girl pinup, only a bit shorter. Jane, on the other hand, was a jumble of long and lanky arms and legs with mousy brown hair that hung past her shoulders like Spanish moss. She was utterly forgettable when compared to Breck.
Jane meandered through clusters of fairgoers, following the scent of hot grease that floated on the air, beckoning her to the food aisles. She stood at the head of the aisle and surveyed the line of wagons and carts until she found what she craved: elephant ears. Jane reached into her front pocket and pulled out a neatly folded bundle of cash, her life’s savings, and searched through the bills until she found a five then cautiously tucked the rest back into the safety of her pocket.
She stepped in line and waited as two girls she knew from Breck’s 4H club ordered ahead of her. Jane envied their curvaceous hips and perfectly made-up faces and their confident smiles. She stared at the blonde, Jessica, wondering if she’d ever have boobs as big as hers.
“Take a picture, it’ll last longer, creep.” Jessica sneered, sipping at her straw. “Let’s get outta here before Breck’s lesbian sister tries to make the moves on me.” Jessica and her friend laughed as they swaggered down the aisle and out of sight.
Jane stared at her feet, unsure what a lesbian was, but certain Jessica didn’t mean it as a compliment.
“Miss? Can I take your order?”
“No. I’m not hungry anymore.” She turned and wandered down the path past the other vendors and the souvenir booths and stopped at the entrance of the carnival.
The air was sticky with the vaporized grease from all the deep-fried concoctions of the food aisle and it mingled with the perpetual dust from the paths, hanging in a brownish haze over the midway.
Layers of sound filled Jane’s ears: the roar of the rides, a chorus of screams, and the din of too many crappy speakers playing different rock songs all at once. In the distance, she heard a man’s voice piped over a crackling speaker and followed the sound deeper into the carnival as if he was some Pied Piper.
Jane ambled past the games of strength and skill, where carnies heckled the players if they lost and forked out cheap knick-knacks if they won, smiling because they knew the prizes were worth a lot less than the money they were raking in. She ignored their hoots and crass attempts to lure her to their booths and followed the voice.
She pressed on, avoiding the clusters of teens and not daring to meet their eyes for fear that Jessica had somehow told everyone that she was a lesbian. As she neared the sideshow barker, the source of the voice, her eyes took in the long faded canvas that showed all of the exotic attractions waiting inside the tent.
“It’s the lovely Veronica!” His nasal tone filled the air. “She has four…she has more!”
Jane cocked her head to the side, wondering what Veronica had four of until she spied a caricature on the canvas of a beautiful brunette wearing two bikini tops. Her cheeks turned a deep shade of crimson and she sunk her own flat chest even further in; jealous of Veronica’s four when she herself didn’t even really have two yet.
She crept towards the barker, her wide eyes taking in his costume. He wore a three piece suit that may have been fashionable in the late 1800’s and a curlicue moustache that looked more like two thin ropes of black licorice swirled and glued to his upper lip completed his odd ensemble. He winked at Jane from behind his huge antique microphone and shook his head from side to side, eyes twinkling in mischief.
“See the Amazing Krog, strong man of Siberia!” He leaned away from the microphone and turned to Jane. “This show ain’t for kiddies, darlin’. Best skedaddle before you get me in deep with the big boss man…” He smiled and raised his brow in the direction of another tent next door. “Stop over there, that’s something every girl your age wants.”
Jane frowned, unsure why his gentle rebuff hurt her, but let her eye follow the arch of his brow to a dingy tent next to the side show. The canvas was ratty but beautiful flags in jewel-tones lined the front on both sides of its darkened entrance. A faded sign promised fortunes revealed for ten dollars and Jane stepped forward, her legs wobbly with anticipation. As she drew nearer, a gorgeous woman slipped through the entrance, a peaceful smile on her red lips.
Her red hair cascaded in graceful waves down her back and her dark purple gown reminded Jane of something Maid Marion would have worn. Jane stood before her and opened her balled-up fist to reveal a crumpled ten dollar bill.
“Are you sure you want to ruin the surprise?” She smiled, awaiting Jane’s nod before plucking the money from her hand and tucking it into the waist of her dress.
Jane followed the woman into the tent, her eyes adjusting in the dim light. All around her, luscious fabrics draped the tent walls and a soft carpet muffled her footsteps. Two carved ebony chairs faced each other from opposite sides of a round table and Jane followed the fortune teller’s gesture to sit. An altar of sorts snugged up against the opposite wall, draped in a black velvet cloth and lined with candles and crystals and items Jane couldn’t discern.
She listened as the woman hummed a lilting tune and cleared her throat. “Do…do you live here?”
The woman chuckled, settling down across the table and motioning for Jane’s hands while she moved a candelabrum closer on the table. “No, I’ve got a trailer on the grounds. Now, let me see what the future holds for you…”
She held Jane’s hands in hers and closed her eyes, smiling as she sensed Jane’s confusion. “I’m psychic mostly, the palm reading supplements what I feel from your energy.” Her voice sounded sleepy and her head drooped just a shade to her right as she focused on Jane.
“You are a moon in eclipse, but you must remember that even a moon can block out the brightest sun…” She tightened her grip on Jane’s hand, her brow knitted as she fought through the murky psychic lines. “I must read your palm now.”
Jane trembled, a chill quivering down her back and anchoring her into her chair as the woman studied her right palm.
“This is your dominant hand, correct?” She searched Jane’s face until she nodded in response. “My dear, you are in danger. I saw a vision of you driving a convertible, there was a horrible accident where you slammed head-on into a wall…and here, your life line ends much too soon.” She nibbled at her lower lip, tracing the line with her perfectly-polished fingernail. “How old are you?”
“Thirteen.” Her face felt warm. “How old do you see me as…in your vision?” A worm of dread burrowed into her stomach.
“Not much older than you are now, I’m afraid.” She studied Jane’s other palm in silence, shaking her head. She hated this part of her job.
Jane’s shoulders sagged as she stared at her palm and tried to see what the fortune teller saw without any luck. She pulled her hands back and hugged her torso. “This is all a load of baloney, you’re just making things up to scare me but it won’t work.” Jane stood, chin held aloft in defiance. “You’re just a…a…con artist.” She turned on her heel took off through the tent flap.
She ran from the tent and into the crowd, jostling her way through the press of bodies until she reached the farthest end of the carnival and stopped next to a trailer. She tiptoed over a crisscross of heavy electrical cables and leaned against the trailer wall to catch her breath.
“That can’t be real.” She reasoned to herself, eyes closed in a half-wish. “Even if it is, I’ll just never get into a convertible. I’ll be fine.”
The trailer door opened with a squeak and Jane shrank against the wall.
“Who’s out here? Tess, is that you?” A man dressed in gray wool trousers and a gray short-sleeved dress shirt peeked out from the door and studied Jane’s face. “Well, you’re not Tess. Are you lost, little girl? Do you need me to have your parents paged?”
Jane stared into the man’s soft blue eyes, the corners of his eyes deeply creased from years of smiling and laughing. “No sir, I’m just…”
He winked. “I bet I know, you just need a moment to be by yourself, is that it? Someone say something that got you riled up?”
She nodded, a frown itching the corners of her mouth.
“Well, I could let you mope around here, but this isn’t the safest spot to mope, no way. I tell you what; would it cheer you up to take a ride in our haunted house? It ain’t scary, but I dare say it might put a smile on that sweet little face of yours…what do you say?” He stepped out of the trailer and stood before her, an eager smile on his face.
She reached into her pocket and pulled out her money, her frown blossomed into a full-grown scowl. “But I haven’t even bought tickets yet and the line probably is packed by now.”
He closed his hand around hers, trapping her money in her fist. “It’s on the house. Come with me.” He released her hand and adjusted his shirt as he strode over the cables. “I’m Rastus, by the way. What’s your name?”
“Jane.” She followed Rastus, feeling a little better. When they reached the haunted house, Jane stared gape-jawed at the walls and shivered.
“Neat, huh? See, this is what we call a dark ride. It isn’t really a building, see?” He pointed out the seams where large sheets of plywood met. “This is all connected to a trailer and we can kind of fold it in when we need to travel. There are four cars inside that follow a track through some pretty spooky things. What do you say, are you game?”
She studied the faded mural of the haunted house, a black monster of a house complete with ghouls and beasties baring their fangs and raising their clawed hands and shrugged. “Okay.”
He clapped his hands together, eyes shining. “Well, step right up! Have a seat in the car right here…” He led her up metal steps and onto a platform next to the row of cars. “Let’s get you secured.” He pressed a button on the control panel and the safety bars of each car lowered. “Please keep your hands, feet, and valuables in the car at all times. Don’t touch anything and it won’t touch you.”
Jane felt the bar press into her thighs and settled into the car, staring at the silver foil streamers that hung over the entrance to the ride. “Aren’t you going to see if anyone else wants a ride?” She looked down the midway at the distant crowd as a shiver of fear worked its way out of her throat.
“Nah, everybody wants big thrills, not this kind of thing anymore. Get ready, because here…you…go!” He pressed another button and the cars lurched forward, clicking along the track.
Jane’s heart sputtered in her chest and she clutched the safety bar until her knuckles ached as the streamers tickled across her face and she was inside the dark ride.
The air hung over her like a warm coat, suffocating in the darkness. The car click-clacked along the metal track but the rest of the ride was dead quiet as her eyes slowly adjusted to the gloom. The ceiling, walls, and floor were painted black and Jane couldn’t shake the feeling that they were closing in on her.
As the car crept forward, another wave of streamers, this time black ones, rippled across her face, sending chills down her back and arms. A dim, yellow light illuminated an empty chicken wire cage to her right and as she dared to peek inside, a huge gorilla lunged at her and shook the wire. Jane shrieked and squeezed herself against the left side of her car and a jet of air blew against her face.
Trembling, she sat ramrod straight in the center of the car, dreading the next ‘spooky’ thing that would happen. The car inched forward and on the left, a skeleton hung from shackles against a dungeon wall, its head drooped onto its chest plate. She scooted to the right; certain someone would jump at her again, only to have someone’s hand stroke her cheek in the darkness.
Tears welled up in her eyes. Didn’t he say if she didn’t touch them that they wouldn’t touch her? She wanted the ride to stop so she could find her mom and sister. She did not like the dark ride.
Eyes scanning the dark walls, she yelped as the car tilted an impossible angle and climbed upward into more dark mysteries. She lurched forward, the bar squeezing into her thighs as the car leveled off. Strobe lights jarred her vision and ghostly white figures tumbled in front of the car, their maniacal expressions even more exaggerated. They followed alongside her car while she hugged her chest and cowered as low as she could go, afraid of what they might do. In an instant, they disappeared into the blackness and the car clacked along the track.
Tears streamed down her cheeks and Jane blubbered a pitiful plea, hoping the carnie would hear her. “I wanna stop now. Rastus, can you make it stop?” The only response was the rhythmic click-clacking of the car and the heavy darkness.
The car lurched through another wall of black streamers and Jane lowered her head, sickened by the way they slid over her cheeks. A car horn screamed to her right and she flinched as a set of headlights sped toward the car and stopped just short of crashing. She screamed, spittle flying from her lips and in an instant she saw a brick wall blocking the track before her. Eyes bulging, she pushed against the safety bar but it wouldn’t budge. Frantic, she ducked her head and braced herself against the bar, ready for impact.
Canned screams and malicious laughter peeling from the speakers of the haunted house drown out Jane’s screams. Rastus leaned against the control panel, grinning to himself as he chewed nibbled at a hangnail on his pinkie. As the cars click-clacked back to the platform, he turned his gaze and saw the wall of silver streamers part to reveal four empty cars. With the push of a button, the ride clattered to a stop and he stooped next to the control panel, hefting a bucket full of soapy water. He whistled to himself as he washed away the smears of blood from the seat and got the car ready for its next passenger.