Makenzie whipped back around to the sound of creaking wood about twenty feet down the track, but the rollercoaster cart had disappeared into the dark. When she looked back towards the stairs, she saw that yellow crooked smile: sharp teeth shining back at her and long muddy black hair covering most of the figure’s face. It was wearing a Pleasure Park t-shirt that was about three sizes too big for its lanky body. The figure stood beside the ride controls, blocking the stairs. Blocking the only way down. Makenzie wanted to scream, but let out something closer to a wheeze.
“Ride. Ride. Ride,” the figure repeated in a raspy voice.
Makenzie had no trouble screaming this time and ran at the figure. She kicked at knees causing the figure’s leg to buckle backwards. It caught itself on the railing, hardly skipping a beat in its repetitive chant. “Ride. Ride. Ride.”
While she had the chance, Makenzie darted past the figure just as it was regaining its balance, jumped over the missing stair, then sprinted down the winding staircase. The figure’s voice continued, but sounded further and further away. It wasn’t following her. As Makenzie made her way down the stairs, the amusement park sounded off revived music and saw its flashing lights. Airy flute-led tunes rang out from the surrounding rides. Red, green, and yellow lights flashed out of sync from the music, breaking through the overgrowth that had long constrained them. It was like the park wanted to switch back on: like it had been waiting for this moment with a certain eagerness and it was keen to not waste this opportunity.
As Makenzie neared the bottom of the staircase, she heard muffled voices coming from below. She stopped short on the last platform and held her breath, attempting to pinpoint where the voices were coming from, but she couldn’t. They were coming from everywhere. She looked back up the staircase; the figure had still not followed her down. “Jeet?” Makenzie called out. “Zane? Are you guys out there?”
She skipped down the last few stairs, then scanned the park around her, which was only illuminated by the rhythmically flashing lights. The voices were more pronounced now, ringing out like a monotone choir. As if things couldn’t get worse, over a dozen sets of eyes flickered against the next wave of ride lights, then disappeared when they flashed out. “Ride. Ride. Ride,” they chanted together.
The coaster zipped down the track, breaking through clusters of leaves. It rocked and creaked with the occasional but ominous twang of popping rusted screws. Zane and Jeet screamed and tried to grab onto something – anything to brace for the cart’s eventual impact. “Someone, stop this thing!” Zane hopelessly called out. They could see nothing ahead and nothing behind. All they could think of was their impending death and that horrifying yellow smile.
The rollercoaster raced up a hill, then dipped down steeply toward the ground. Another few popping thwacks rang out and the ancient wooden supports finally failed their latest test. Just before the rollercoaster gained altitude again, the spherical cart slipped off the tracks and soared through the air, tossing the boys in every direction inside. It then slammed into a tree, snapping every branch in its path and making a metallic crashing sound like a 1950s car accident. The cart’s aged shatter-resistant glass could hardly stand the force of impact against the enormous oak tree. The glass cracked, but didn’t shatter. Instead, the crack groaned as it branched out like rivers from the point of impact around the whole sphere. The boys weren’t screaming anymore, but only because the wind had been knocked out of them. The cart rolled down the side of the tree trunk, then nestled into a muddy patch at its base.
The boys were rattled and most likely concussed, but they were still alive even if it took a moment for them to realize that. Zane looked at the backs of his hands, then turned them over to look at his palms. He felt his face. His whole body was bruised and there may have been a broken bone or two, but it was all still there. Zane and Jeet panted and stared at each other, both pale in the face. It was a look of unanimous consent to disband their adventuring group effective immediately. They were humbled in a way a teenager rarely experiences: like they had been beat up by every bully in a twenty-mile radius at the same time. They had poked at the sleeping giant and it duly responded.
Jeet kicked at the door, which was now somewhat dislodged from the fall. After a few kicks, the door came loose and fell off the cart. Jeet climbed out, then turned around to give Zane a hand. Zane hobbled over to the side of the cart, then tried to stand. He winced and let go of Jeet’s hand to grab at his thigh – there was a piece of glass about an inch wide lodged in his leg. He didn’t feel it so much at first, but when he saw the wound, Zane felt the pain zap through his whole body. “Go find Makenzie and get help,” Zane said. “I don’t think I can walk.”
“No,” Jeet protested. “I can’t leave you here. It isn’t safe.”
“It’s just an amusement park. I’ll be fine,” Zane said.
Jeet understood his reasoning, but his gut told him the night wasn’t quite over yet. He rotated his body and took the next step, nearly rolling his ankle. The arch of his foot landed on something long and rounded, crackling when he put pressure on it. Jeet felt a cold sweat overtake his body. He took out his phone, trying to open his flashlight app with a sort of conscious poise. The phone’s light flashed on, and Jeet pointed it at his feet. There were millions of shards of off-white rock – no…bones. Jeet spun around toward Zane who had seen it too, and suddenly gained the adrenaline-induced strength to stand. Jeet’s jaw fell open. “We need to go. Now.”
“Ride. Ride. Ride.”
Makenzie darted every which way, searching for her next move but paralyzed by fear. The eyes in the dark stepped inwards, almost in unison. As they made their ways out of the shadows, Makenzie got a better look at her attackers. They wore dirtied sneakers, which dragged in the mud: the type of casual running shoe one might wear for a long day at the amusement park. Some of them were wearing baseball caps, others wore novelty glasses, and they all wore a shirt that looked like it’d been pulled straight from the Pleasure Park giftshop. One shirt said “I survived the Rapture Coaster!” And another read “Pleasure Park: Home of the Wheel in the Sky”. It was like they were a cult of super fans – zealous worshippers of the old park. They continued moving toward her like zombies. The lights continued in their pattern. Every time they flashed, the circle seemed to close significantly tighter around Makenzie’s position.
“Ride. Ride. Ride.”
Makenzie spotted a nearby tent with a faded wooden sign reading “MEET GRADY WILSON: THE HUMAN LOBSTER”. She had no idea what this meant, and the title gave her the creeps. But when Makenzie looked around the featureless forest past the crowd closing around her, she decided anything was better than her current position. She darted between a couple of them toward the red tent’s sagging entrance. When she passed by the people, they turned toward her, but didn’t even try to grab at her. It was as if they were too confident of catching her to bother exerting energy.
Inside the tent, the sides occasionally lit up in a muted glow from the flashing lights outside but it was otherwise as dark as a cave. Makenzie was usually afraid of the dark, but now it offered her sanctuary – or so she thought. The tent was filled with nailed-up wooden boxes and rusted bleachers surrounding the old pit where they kept the freaks. Gross, Makenzie thought. Even in her moment of peril, the idea of freakshows as a form of entertainment agitated her to the core.
She looked up to see another sign: it sported a cartoon lobster with a human head. The cartoon face stared blankly back at her. Makenzie looked at it as if they were competing in a staring contest as she backed up until she hit into a wooden crate, which made a loud thumping sound in the otherwise silent tent. Makenzie squeezed her eyes shut and whimpered, angry with herself that she could be so careless. Then something scampered between the bleachers, breathing heavily.
“Hello?” Mackenzie called out. No answer. She spotted another rapid movement from the bleachers to a few boxes that were slightly closer to her. “Jeet? Zane? Is that you?” she said. “Hello?” Makenzie said again, quieter this time. She couldn’t decide if calling for help or avoiding attention was the better idea.
The tune outside had changed slightly – it was still electronic flute tones, but this time it was joined by a kazoo and sounded like a whining version of that juggling tune that always plays at circuses. But the tune was somewhat muffled by the rain that had start to patter against the roof of the already sagging tent.
The silhouette darted through the darkness again, growing even closer. Makenzie’s whole body shivered. She knew it wasn’t the boys.
Suddenly, a hand stretched out from behind one of the crates and scraped against the ground. Makenzie covered her mouth and whimpered. In the dark the hand looked to be bizarrely cupped: like the thumb and four fingers were positioned as far apart as possible creating a ‘U’ shape.
And then Makenzie remembered that creepy crooked sign. It wasn’t a hand at all: it was a claw. She stumbled to her feet, placing a palm against the fungus-covered ground and pushed off. “Help me,” a voice croaked out. Makenzie sprinted away back toward the entrance of the tent, hoping the mob would have dissipated by now. She ran through the front of the tent, which flapped in the gaining wind. She thought she was in the clear, but then the lights flashed again. At least a dozen of the Pleasure Park cult members had closed in on the tent’s entrance – waiting for her to emerge.
Everywhere the boys stepped, there were bones on the ground. The crunching beneath their feet made Zane so tense, he practically pulled a muscle in his back. They both gritted their teeth, dreading the morbid sound of each step. “Wait. Wait one minute. Stop moving,” Jeet whispered.
Zane stopped, but it took a second for the crunching to stop echoing off the nearby trees. “What is it?” Zane said.
Jeet didn’t answer for a moment, holding a single finger up to signal for Zane’s patience. He heard something else. Something besides the kazooing music and falling rain. Something dragging. It sounded like clanging metal, being pulled at a snail’s pace across the mud – like a farmer lazily sowing his crops by hand.
Zane heard it too. “What is that?”
It was coming from behind them, and was soon followed by the same crunching of bones they had just walked over. Jeet turned around slowly to see it – a towering man somewhere near seven feet tall with a face covered in clown makeup and wearing a red foam nose that looked like it had been dipped in mud. He was wearing a polka-dotted jumpsuit and giant cartoonish red shoes. Neither of them was particularly afraid of clowns, but this one dragged a scythe behind him. “Run!” Jeet shouted. The boys broke into a full-on sprint toward the center of the park where the Ferris wheel broke over the forest canopy. They couldn’t see anything more than a couple inches in front of their faces as they darted through the darkness. Zane ran with his head ducked slightly, trying to see what he could of the ground and avoiding the possible branch thwacking him in the face.
Jeet’s toe smashed into a root and he tumbled over, scraping both elbows and banging up his knees. He hissed at the throbbing pain. Zane put both hands under Jeet’s shoulders and lifted him up. “Come on, lets go!” he cried. Zane looked back to see the distant red nose slowly gaining on them. The clown wasn’t running, but it seemed to be catching up regardless. It was mumbling something – a single word the boys didn’t want to take the time to figure out.
After about a hundred more paces, they broke out into a clearing. A sign flashed and buzzed, fizzing when the rain hit the separated wires. It read, “WHEEL IN THE SKY AHEAD”. The boys stopped running for a second to listen to something in front of them. While they did so, Jeet picked up a piece of sharp wood, which presumably had fallen from the dilapidated sign overhead. “What are you doing with that?” Zane asked.
“It’s for protection,” Jeet said.
The boys grinned at each other, making out voices through the thick rain fall and irritating music. “Makenzie?” Jeet yelled. The two of them hobbled toward the voices. Maybe she had found help.
Makenzie was exhausted – delirious from being hit over the head by one of the crazies. Her head was pounding and the high-pitched music wasn’t helping. Two of them dragged her through a large chanting crowd toward a Ferris wheel labeled “WHEEL IN THE SKY”. A gangly figure stood by the ride controls at the base. Makenzie tried to look around for an escape, but could hardly lift her head up. She felt too weak to struggle – like her body had already given up. “Ride. Ride. Ride. Ride,” they chanted together. The closer the two people dragged her toward the Ferris wheel, the louder the crowd chanted.
The bone-thin woman at the controls stared at Makenzie as she approached. Her black hair covered most of her face, and when she grinned, Makenzie recognized the woman’s sharp yellow teeth. She started to squirm, but it was no use against the iron grip of the two men dragging her up to the platform. The ride screeched with every rusted rotation. The seats swayed upward and Makenzie looked to them. It appeared the wheel was already occupied: packed, in fact. But when she reached the top of the steps, she finally got a closer look: they were all dead. Usually in pairs of two, sometimes three, body after body broke through the darkness as it descended on the spinning wheel. They were all in varying states of decay: sometimes they were being ravaged by rats or maggots, some of them were bloated and pale from the harsh weather, and the older ones were nothing more than a pile of bones loosely stacked on the seats.
Makenzie squirmed more vehemently now. “No! No!” she screamed. “Let me go!”
“Ride. Ride. Ride,” the cult continued. They were going to sacrifice her. It all made sense to her now in a sickening way: they saw the park as a god and took “Wheel in the Sky” to have some sort of religious connotation. She remembered the shirts saying “I survived the Rapture Coaster!” She was just going to be added in – stacked in the ever-spinning wheel of sacrificial victims. But she couldn’t break loose of their grips. The harder she fought, the harder they held on.
The woman with the pointy grin pulled the lever and the wheel stopped, with one cart neatly positioned at the bottom, waiting for its next rider. “No! No!” Makenzie cried, tears streaming down her face and mixing with the rain that soaked her skin.
“Ride. Ride. Ride.” The crowd raised their arms now toward the top of the ride. Their eyes rolled to the backs of their skulls and they shook together in some kind of religious fervor. The woman shuffled over to the cart. She lifted the bar over the seat, then stepped aside, welcoming Makenzie in. She then waltzed back to the control panel. The two men dragged Makenzie toward the seat and forced her to get inside. She wiggled and thrashed at the men, but they hardly reacted. They mumbled along with the chorus of psychopaths. “Ride. Ride. Ride.” Once she was seated, one held her down and the other started to lower the bar over her lap.
But just then, a shrill shriek rung out, breaking over the chanting crowd. Makenzie looked back toward the woman to see blood spurting out of her abdomen. She tries to hold onto her stomach, as if that was going to stifle the profuse bleeding. She leaned against the control panel, beginning to collapse to the metal-grated floor.
“Come on, let’s go!” Jeet said.
Makenzie kicked at the man who was lowering the bar over her lap while he was distracted, then threw her elbows into the other with renewed confidence. The three friends ran behind the wheel into the forest as the shrieks and kazoo tunes continued to pierce through the night. Their running was rather directionless, but at least it was away from Pleasure Park.
After a long way, the three of them reached an unfamiliar road. It only took a few minutes for a car to come by, its headlights beaming down on them. Makenzie stepped into the middle of the road and began waving her arms while Zane and Jeet nursed their wounds on the side of the road. “Hey!” Makenzie called out to the car. “Hey! Hey stop! Help us!”
The car slowed down, and turned slightly to avoid hitting Makenzie, then rolled to a calm stop with squealing old brakes. It was a man chewing on a smelly bit of tobacco beneath his beard and wearing a worn tan baseball cap. “You kids alright? You shouldn’t be out here so late.”
“Please, help us,” Makenzie whined. “My friends are hurt and we need to get back home. Please.”
The man’s expression dropped once he realized the severity of their situation. “Yeah, of course.” He nodded. “Get in. I can take you to town.”
The three of them climbed in the back seat of his truck, finally free of the rain and more importantly, free of that cult. Jeet strapped his seat buckle on and clicked it into place with a sigh. The three of them looked at each other and chortled in relief as the car began rolling off toward town.
It only took about five minutes for Zane and Jeet to drift off to sleep, but Makenzie couldn’t. They were all tired, but she wasn’t the type to fall asleep so quickly, especially with the thwacking windshield wipers going strong. As she looked out the window at the rainy dark nothingness, something caught her ear: a low eerie orchestra of kazoos and flutes, but it wasn’t from the park: it was coming from inside the car. She turned toward the front of the car with subdued breathing. Makenzie looked up to the rearview mirror and saw the driver’s sinister eyes staring back at her beneath his cap. He tightened his grip on the wheel, then began driving faster.