I hadn’t been to the fair since I was a little girl — six, maybe seven years old. Back when I still thought crap like that was cool.
So it figured that was exactly how I’d be spending my first Friday night as a high-schooler. Not at the mall. Not hanging out with friends and definitely not watching a movie with some cute boy — but being dragged to the 145th annual Cedar Falls county fair by my parents for some “Cramer family quality bonding time.” I could barely contain my excitement.
My parents traveled for work. A lot. So whenever they had a moment’s reprieve they’d try and cram this big ass marathon session of familial bonding into as short a time span as they could. You know, to make up for all that missed time at school plays or soccer games or anywhere parents who genuinely loved spending time with their children convened during the week.
We got to the fairgrounds around eight at night. A ferris wheel that turned slowly against the sky and an old painted sign that said, “Welcome to the Cedar Falls County Fair” greeted us at the main gate.
Folding my arms as we weaved our way among the fairgoers. Doe-eyed children and lovestruck couples and wrinkled old people pointing and reminiscing. Ugh. Damn them for still having fun at a place like this. Everything was pretty much like I remembered except the people and attractions looked way less charming and a whole lot seedier: The old lady who could guess my age and weight, for example? No longer some mystical clairvoyant; just a lucky guessing con-artist. The man stacking bottles in the nearby pitchtent who offered me the prize of a lifetime for knocking them down with a softball; just a trickster devising his latest hoax. Even the cotton candy vendors weren’t exempt from my judgment. No longer did they peddle ambrosia from the deities; they were but greedy swine trying to fatten me up with their sugar-laden diabetes cones. I guess that was part of growing up. Like Christmas, the stuff you once adored lost its luster once you learned the real story.
We passed concession stands redolent of sweet-smelling fried dough and candy apples so lacquered they glowed like red-hot coals and grimy, unshaven looking people asking me to “Step right up,” with the rows of stuffed animals hanging behind them on guy-wire nodding and turning like skinned fowl in a marketplace.
The first place we all clustered around at my father’s volition was some dumb water gun game where you filled balloons by squirting a target. First person to pop their balloon won. I would have rather aimed my squirt gun at the head of the smug looking carney b---h behind the counter with the split ends and cigarette stained teeth who kept telling me, “It’s so easy a cavewoman could play” but by some act of divine mercy they decided to let me explore the place for myself. As much as they’d allow of course.
Dad placed a hand on my shoulder, finger waving as he said, “Now Emily, make sure you meet us back here in forty-five minutes. We’re all going to watch the fireworks together, pumpkin. They’re really gonna be something this year.” A grin on his face so enormous it looked painted on.
Right, the fireworks. They were what Dad took Mom to see on their first date and where they shared their first kiss. How could I forget? What with them telling me every five seconds and everything.
“Oh, I can’t wait,” Mom said, clapping her hands. “It’ll be so much fun. We never get to spend enough time together like this as a family.”
And whose fault was that, mother dearest? “Thirty-five minutes, gotcha,” I said, purposely skewing the time. “Hasta luego.”
I turned at a near sprint and weaved my way through the crowds of fair-goers; veering from the main path. Around the next bend a throng of children stared gape-mouthed at a fumblesome clown on stilts juggling oversized bowling pins and behind them an amusement ride shaped like a flying saucer wheeled about in crazed ellipses — just watching it made me nauseous. I took the long way around it, hopped a mass of jumbled wires that crisscrossed into the backs of pitch-tents and came to a dirt road.
A voice said, “Hey Emily.”
I turned to look. Tall kid off in the distance with a cigarette dangling like a limp worm between his lips and his hands in his pockets. Brown hair slicked back, and his chin canted up. Not quite looking straight at me, not quite looking off to the side, real cool-like. It was Billy Brogans from 2nd period Algebra.
When I didn’t reply he laughed and said, “Don’t think I’ve ever seen someone who looked like they wanted to be here less.”
I shrugged. “Yeah, well my rents dragged me here.”
He was standing beside a little clapboard structure. Like some old barn that had been left to rot; weeds cropping up everywhere on the front floorboards and copper colored vines choking up the side chimney and the windowpanes bleary and blemished with splotches that might have been grease.
“Never knew you worked here, Billy.”
He shuffled around in his pocket, produced a rumpled carton of cigarettes, held them in front of me. I shook my head no and he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Yeah. Ain’t too bad a gig, really. They actually pay me to trick people into playing these rigged as s--t games and then make fun of ’em when they can’t win. Oh yeah — I get to smell like cabbage. More so than usual anyways.” Smiling at me again.
I smiled back this time. Billy was cute in that rugged, “dangerous” way that girls my age seemed to go apeshit over. He was the only kid in our freshman class that could already grow a beard without it coming in all patchy and terrible looking, which must have added to the appeal. He paused, rubbed his chin. A hint of red coming in along his cheeks. He said, “Hey, what’re you doing in a little bit? I only gotta watch the door here for another 30 minutes or so and then I’m done for the night.”
“Oh, Nothing really,” I said. Purposely neglecting my parents’ request and lying my ass off. “Why do you ask?”
“Tight,” he said. “Wanna go grab some pizza together? I know a nice stand ’round the corner we can hit up. I’m friends with the owner. Funny little Greek guy like four feet tall but he still makes the best tasting ‘za this side of the Mississippi.”
“I guess I could do that,” I said, feigning my best bit of nonchalance. Even though I was excited as… myself at the fair eight years ago.
“While you wait,” he said, nodding behind him, “you can even kill some time and check out what’s in here.”
“This is actually part of the fair? I thought you were just making a drug deal for the Cedar Falls cartel.”
He chuckled. “Nah, it’s one of them haunted house maze-type deals. Except you win like $250 or something for getting through it the fastest.”
I arched a brow. “Really now?” 250 bones was more than enough for some cute new shoes, a few designer outfits, a cell phone payment. You know, the essentials in life.
“Yeah,” he said. “Couple of kids from school are already in there right now, actually.”
“So what’s the catch? You trap me in there forever, lock the door, and throw away the key? Or some guy in the basement pulls a lever and the walls change places?”
He shook his head. “Nothing like that. It’s tough, but it’s mad fun. Probably the coolest attraction here if you want my humble opinion.”
I looked past him at the derelict building. Yeah right. Stumbling around in that s--t shack was hardly my idea of fun, even for twice that amount of money.
Perhaps he sensed my hesitance. He leaned in close, whispered, “Look, just go on in there. I’ll let you win and we can split the money or something. Just don’t tell nobody or they’ll have my ass. Just go inside and there’s a staircase. Meet me up top.”
I paused. Looking at him. At his corny little smirk, the roguish glimmer in his eyes. He was a pretty good salesman, I had to give him that.
* * *
A few minutes later, after Billy explained some ground rules — don’t press up too hard against any walls because they were old, don’t go through any taped off areas, and don’t impale yourself on anything pointy — I was through the front door.
I made my way through the main foyer. Inside the walls were a faded network of cracked paint and defaced plaster and wallpaper hanging every which way like foliage. As I walked, a constant dripping sound followed me, like old rainwater singing everywhere in the weatherworn halls. Coming to a hallway, an old bathroom to my right wherein a jagged porcelain chunk stood like a giant white urn in place of a toilet right in the middle and the tiles all mismatched and some mashed to a bizarre powder.
To my left, a graveyard of shattered lightbulbs. When I stepped around them I bumped into something that let out a blood-curdling shriek. I jumped back and a set of hands grabbed me. Hard, right around the waist. So tight now. The harder I struggled the more pressure they put on me. I was telling them over and over to let me go, practically screaming now. I couldn’t move…
But what the hell had me?
“Emily, chill. You gonna stop freaking out? It’s just us; Alex and Megan.”
Whoever had me had let me go, was smoothing his palms over his tight grey t-shirt. Tall and muscular frame. Alex Summers. Captain of the freshman football team. Star quarterback and class president. Next to him was his girlfriend, Megan Grey, head cheerleader. Blonde, chewing bubblegum, bimbo-ish. Could it have been any more cliched?
“Watch where you’re going next time,” Megan said with a haughty tilt of her head. A brush of long blonde hair from her face. “It’s like dark as s--t in this place and we don’t need you stumbling around and getting in our way.”
I was about to tell her off when Alex put a hand on my shoulder. “Hey, lighten up Meg. She’s doing her best. We all are. Come on, I think way out is over here.” He coaxed me to the left side of the room, hand hovering near my lower back.
Megan made a scoffing sound and walked in between us, arms folded. “Let’s just get out of here, Alex,” she said. I’m tired and I want to go home. Now.”
Down a long hallway. A waterstained ceiling that looked moments away from collapsing. Various paintings framed along either wall cracked and missing pieces, like jigsaw puzzles unfinished.
The longer we explored, the darker the place grew. Megan lit a match from her purse, the walls which materialized around us like some uncharted cave’s, the tattered curtains here black and cold as stone and various shapes along the ceilings and walls that may have been upside down bats roosting, lizards scuttling about the wet walls, or spiders with their needlesharp fangs.
Finally, we came to the base of a stairway. I remembered what Billy had said about meeting him upstairs. I didn’t care about sharing the money anymore. I just wanted to get the hell out there.
“You remember that kid outside?” I said. Megan and Alex looked confused. “Billy from school?” They just looked at each other so I pushed my way past them. “Look, he told me to meet him upstairs and he’d share the prize money with me. This has to be the right way.”
They tried to hear something but I couldn’t make out what it was. Something about yellow nape. Yellow tape? Whatever. I made my way up the stairs. Groping blindly in front of me at a banister that was just bits of crooked wood sprouting up at random. Shadows raced up on the walls beside me and then sucked back just as quick like some dark ocean tide.
I heard a shriek from downstairs. A sound of scuffling footsteps now, angry yelling. Before I could turn back around I felt very lightheaded. Something was holding a rag to my face, strong metallic odor. I wanted to say something but the words were jumbled even in my head. I kneeled, put my hands up against the wall. A voice was telling me to rest. I sat there very quietly and closed my eyes.
I woke to darkness, my head ringing. Overpowering reek of must like some dingy basement. I went to stand and thick ropes gnawed at my wrists and ankles, brought me creaking back against the spindles of a wooden chair-back.
I said, “Oh God,” but it came out muffled, taste of sweat and oil secreted from the gag over my mouth. What’d they use some plumber’s handkerchief to gag me?
A lightbulb flickered, lit up with a fixed crackling sound. Tiny shadows of insects flitting about the fissured glass dispersed suddenly when a hand reached to steady it in place.
I squinted to see better. In the broken pieces of light I saw a lopsided circle of chairs in which sat Alex and Megan, their heads down like penitents in mid-prayer. For some strange reason they weren’t tied down but it didn’t seem to matter, as motionless as they were.
Beside them, a figure in a grey suit. Perhaps a man, but it was hard to tell, such was the desiccation of the scowling green face. The hair in thin tufts on the warped skull and the flesh rotted and paperthin. An enormous slash mark fringed in a black crust went slantwise through the tattered dress shirt.
Alex and Megan began to wake up. Looking around the room dumbly, red-eyed, shivering with cold. They rose queerly, barefooted, tottered around the room. Blindly groping and making muted sounds of panic. Like laboratory mice suddenly loosed in a maze.
Then they emerged. Hulking shapes, two of them. Moving single file through the doorway and then branching in opposite directions and then coming together again as if they might be tricks on the eye. Steam coming in thin strings from their mouths. No — they were covered. Wearing something. Masks. They were wearing masks. The biggest one wore one that resembled a human skull carved from stone, that grey and coarselooking and he moved so stiffly, so vigorously, that he seemed a creature quarried from the rocks themselves.
The sound of someone tapping a microphone, a voice blaring now throughout the house. A familiar voice.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the 145th annual Cedar Falls county fair,” the voice said, singsong and rehearsed, like a ring announcer’s. “Welcome to tonight’s main event. You already know our two contestants from Cedar Falls High School, but what of our champions?” The announcer stepped into the center of the room and took a bow. It was Billy. He seemed strangely nonchalant about the whole situation. “Why, here they are now.”
The one with the skull mask stepped into the light. “Standing six foot, four inches tall and weighing in at a massive two hundred sixty five pounds. The one, the only — Golem!”
The one next to him wore a spiked helmet that glinted when it caught the light. A metal plated pickelhaube with a faceplate that covered his whole face save for large ovoid eyeholes and beneath them and all along the jawline metal ridges embossed in such a way that they resembled enormous teeth in a rictus grin. As if he found some hilarity in the events to come. He was holding a long, curved sickle in one hand that he spun slowly in turn, left to right and back again.
“And from parts unknown, the reigning champion — the metal maniac himself: Sindustry.”
Alex crouched, looking past him, as if he might try to make his way past the two “champions” and Megan was pleading with him and saying the word “help” in a crazed chant. Alex looked towards the eastern wall, his eyes glinting with sudden recognition as he spied a window. He grabbed Megan’s hand and sprinted towards it.
The one with the stone mask came up sideways on them. He swung the cudgel in a wide arc and it sunk into the center of Alex’s neck and Alex fell, stumbled down crookedly and landed without a cry. Just laying there, not moving save every few moments for the few spasmodic kicks of his legs. Like roadkill, freshly stricken.
I wanted to scream — but all that came out was a little muffled mewl against the gag.
“Ouch, it looks like big man on campus himself, Alex Summers won’t be making that home game next week after all, folks,” said Billy. “Nice one, Golem.”
Megan turned to run, flinging her hands up and shrieking. She ran face first into the one with the metal-mask and recoiled. Making little pleading motions with her hands and saying, “Please God no.” Sindustry drove his fist into her stomach and the sickleblade winked in a bright flash and there was a soft scraping sound, perhaps the sharp edge catching on part of the ribcage. Sindustry tugged his hand back but his hand stopped short. Again, then a third time, tugging hard and placing his other hand on her shoulder for leverage, and when he pried it free Megan fell, hands cupped over her stomach and blood coming in dark gouts from between the cracks of her fingers and her mouth snapping open and shut like a turtle’s.
“Not quite fast enough, Megan. Too bad, so sad.”
Sindustry turned, his mask and chest mottled with blood. Moving towards me, steady and plodding gait. He brought the sickle up and I screamed hard into the gag. Closed my eyes and screamed until I felt my throat seize up.
When I opened my eyes back up I could hear laughter. My dad and mom were there, untying me. Both of them grinning, looking at each other every few seconds and then nodding their heads up and down when they turned back to me.
“We told you about those fireworks, right Emily?” Dad said. “A Cramer family tradition. Sure are something, aren’t they pumpkin?”