Five Strips of Flesh
Published by Christopher Cox at Shakespir
Copyright 2017 Christopher Cox
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead, or undead, or to actual events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Reality is more terrifying than anything we can ever invent.
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There were only two rules at Frontier Family Funland: Treat every guest like they’re the only guest, and no one cries. Ever.
Of course, the second rule only applied to the staff. The guests could cry as much as they wanted to, if they felt the need. But if they ever saw the staff do it, they wouldn’t want to come back next time.
There were two main sections in the park. The original was built by Alfred Voss in 1974. It had two fast coasters- The Last Run and The Apocalypse. It had a couple tamer ones for the younger crowd, too. But mostly there were circular rides, like the Twister and Lasso. They could pack in a good amount of fun without taking up too much precious space. That real estate was needed for the concession stands and souvenir shops. Those were the real moneymakers of the park.
There was a children’s section, too: Little Buckaroos. Nothing went very fast in the kid’s area; even The Stampede, the frontier-themed merry go round, operated at a more of a leisurely pace than the name would suggest. And every hour on the hour there was a Wild West shootout between the cowboys (the good guys in white) and the bandits (who, to keep things simple, wore black). In the land of the Little Buckaroos, the heroes always won.
They added the other section a few years after Voss died, once the laws changed to allow it. Seeing an opportunity, the new owners bought the neighboring lot and built just one ride: the SuiCyclone.
The SuiCyclone was another fast coaster- technically the third in the park. Six riders at a time would be lifted up to the first peak, 1,670 feet up in the air, before rocketing 1,600 feet towards the ground at 200 miles per hour. Just 70 feet above the treetops, it would level out and hit seven tight invasions, each one smaller than the last. By the end of the three-minute ride, each one would be dead.
That last part, of course, was what they paid for. It was advertised on television and in print as being ‘a fun final ride,’ but it was the quick exit and lack of pain that attracted most of the guests.
“It’s the g-forces,” Todd had explained during training. He could tell Ollie didn’t really understand, so he tried again. “Cuts off the oxygen to the brain. They black out and they don’t wake up again. Do you understand?”
Ollie had nodded, but he didn’t understand. Even after a year at the park, he still didn’t know how the ride actually worked. But that wasn’t really his job. His job was very simple, and he took a great deal of pride in doing it well.
In the morning, before the ride opened, maintenance and upkeep. He’d give the sign at the station entrance a fresh coat of paint whether it needed it or not. Big, bright letters welcoming riders to the SuiCyclone. There was a picture on it, too- a silhouette of the coaster ending in a bright, colorful rendition of what Ollie assumed to be heaven. There were people in that afterlife, and they were all smiling. Ollie liked the sign and the message it presented, and he kept it as pristine as possible for the guests’ last ride.
Once the ride started running for the day, he’d move over to the body pit. That’s not what they called it in front of the guests, of course. That much was drilled into them from day one. As far as guests knew, those that cared to ask, it was the ‘Remains Recovery Area’- a covered building at the end of the final track where the deceased were removed from the cars and prepared for pickup.
“Remember, Ollie,” Todd had said as another train pulled into the shack. “These are people. Real people. They have loved ones that care about them, so we should, too. The least we can do is treat them with some dignity.”
He told Ollie that same thing more than once. It seemed to be important to him, so it became important to Ollie.
Ollie thought for a long moment. Death wasn’t as scary to him as it used to be; it was something that one could acclimate to, given enough time. But he still didn’t really understand it.
Todd waited. He knew that Ollie would need a few moments to gather his thoughts. He never rushed him; Ollie was self-conscious enough without yet another person pressing him.
“Why do people do it? Come here, I mean.”
Todd stopped what he was doing. He had a habit of giving everyone his fullest attention, no matter what else he was doing at the time. “To the SuiCyclone?”
“Yes,” Ollie nodded. “Here to die. Why?”
Todd thought for a moment. “They all have their reasons, I suppose. Some of them are dying already, and they want to go out on their own terms. Others, maybe they’re just ready to go for one reason or another. It’s not my place to judge; I just try to do right by them when they do.”
Ollie missed Todd. He still remembered the feeling of dream, when he saw him standing in line one day. He knew he had been sick, but he hadn’t realized just how sick he really was.
“Hey, Todd,” Ollie said. Employees weren’t supposed to talk to guests in line, but this seemed a little bit different. He figured that if he was wrong, Todd would let him know. he was on his lunch break, anyway, so the work would still get done.
“Going for a ride, huh?”
“Yeah,” Todd replied absently. “Going for a ride.”
Another car took off. The line moved a little bit closer, and Ollie followed Todd’s place in it. “Alex is working. She’ll take real good care of you.” Alex was the floater. She covered the pit when one of the workers went to lunch. Ollie liked it when she was working. She seemed to really care.
Todd nodded. “That’s good.” The line moved up again. Closer.
They made small talk until Todd reached the queue. Ollie was sad to see him go, but he did his best to hide that fact. He did what he always did: he remembered that sign and its promise of heaven. It helped.
“Goodbye, Todd,” he said. He forced a smile.
Ollie watched as his friend shuffled onto the car and was carefully strapped in by the somber, polite attendant, but he turned around before the car rocketed off towards the first rise. He couldn’t watch the rest. He already knew what would happen. He was just glad Todd waited for his break to do it.
As the days passed by, Ollie tried to remember that his friend was in a better place; tried to imagine him with the smiling people on the sign. It didn’t help much, but it helped a little.
Jackson Valence was hired on just a few days after Todd took his final ride. It wasn’t easy to find someone willing to work the pit and the bosses weren’t terribly picky anyway, so they ended up with the short, squat albino from southern California. All in all, he was an ugly man. Not just physically- he couldn’t help that and it would have been unfair to hold it against him. But he was ugly inside.
“Hey Opie,” Jackson called one day from the rear of the train.
“Ollie,” he corrected.
“Like I give a shit. Help me out with this fat fuck before the next train comes.”
Ollie didn’t rush. He never rushed. He was in the middle of moving a young woman over to an available slab. She couldn’t have been more than twenty; he wondered what had been wrong with her.
And so it went, ride after ride. Ollie would carefully remove the deceased from the car and lay them reverently on the slab, while Ollie would pull them free by whatever appendage he could grab and swear at them when they weren’t easy enough to move.
Often it would happen that the departed would void their bowels or the contents of their stomach at the moment of death; the stench could grow to the point of unbearable in the poorly-insulated room. Ollie didn’t blame the dead for that. It may have taken a while to overcome his gag reflex, but it was a necessary part of the job and something the riders certainly couldn’t help. Jackson, however, seemed to take personal offense at it.
“Goddamn, they shouldn’t let these assholes eat before they get on. But what do they care? They don’t have to clean up after themselves, do they Opie?”
Ollie sighed. He had given up on correcting Jackson. It was a lot easier to just ignore him.
Jackson snorted, and transitioned from complaining to Ollie to muttering under his breath. Ollie couldn’t tell if Jackson was complaining about the bodies or about him, but he didn’t really care. He had passengers to remove, then seats to wipe down and bodily fluids to spray out.
“Hello, Sir,” he whispered to the next passenger. He whispered because he was tired of Jackson’s cruel words when he could hear what he was saying. The dead can’t hear you, Jackson would say, but that didn’t matter to Ollie. “I hope you had a good ride. I’ll take good care of your body, okay?”
He reached in and unbuckled the man. He was a large man, and Ollie’s back was already sore from picking up Jackson’s slack.
The man groaned. It wasn’t loud, but it was definitely a groan.
Ollie recoiled, instinctively pushing himself away from the sound. His mind flipped over itself as he tried to make sense of what he had heard. He hardly noticed when he backed into Jackson, who dropped the body he had been dragging towards the slab.
“Goddamn it, retard. Be careful,” Jackson grumbled.
Jackson bent over to pick up the body again, but Ollie hardly noticed. He had far more pressing things on his mind. He leaned in close; maybe it was just his imagination. Maybe it was just the last bit of air being forced out of the lungs. Any number of things could cause what he had heard. Surely it wasn’t that.
A quick look to make sure Jackson wasn’t watching. He wasn’t, he was busy. A soft tap on the man’s shoulder. He didn’t move. A quiet moment to listen for breathing. It was hard to hear over Jackson’s angry swearing, but there was nothing.
“Excuse me? Sir?” Ollie whispered. “Are you alive?”
Another groan. The man’s eyelids fluttered. It wasn’t much, but there was some life left in him. That wasn’t good; that wasn’t the way things were supposed to go. But occasionally, very rarely it did. If the attendant didn’t properly manage the weight of the train or if one of the passengers were particularly hardy, sometimes it happened. It just hadn’t ever happened to Ollie.
He wished Todd were there. He would take care of everything. But, he reminded himself, Todd wasn’t there. And there was a protocol for such things. He took pride in knowing every single protocol for every single contingency. This one was simple: stabilize the guest’s neck (they were guests once again, because they were still alive) to prevent further injury. Hit the buzzer to close the ride. Call the park’s emergency line.
They had practiced it time and time again, but when it came time to finally do it, Ollie couldn’t. Jackson had ruined Ollie’s comfortable illusion the first time they practiced the procedure together.
“You think you’ll be helping them, doing this?” he had scoffed.
Ollie nodded. He was certain of it.
“You’re a special sort of stupid, you know that? If they’re still alive by the time they get here, it’s too late for them. All the dog and pony shit, that’s just to cover our asses. You think old man Elliott cares if they survive?”
Ollie nodded again, a little less certain than the last time.
“Bull. Shit. He just doesn’t want to get sued. They’re still going to die, but we can say we did everything we could to save them. They die a terrible, painful death and we get a mention in the Frontier Family Funland corporate newsletter.”
Ollie felt the color drain from his face. “Painful?” he repeated.
“Oh, yeah,” Jackson said with a devilish grin. “Terrible way to go. Poor bastards.”
Ollie did his best to collect himself and his thoughts. It was hard to pick out a coherent stream from the whirlwind in his mind. “But then why do they have us go through the effort? Why wouldn’t they just let them die?” he challenged.
Jackson shrugged. “Boss wants, boss gets. We’re playing with house money.”
The exchange echoed in Ollie’s ears. He didn’t trust Jackson for most things, but he had a feeling that the man knew a lot about suffering.
The guest’s eyelids fluttered again. He was trying to open his eyes.
Ollie leaned in close, whispering so quietly that even he couldn’t hear it. “I won’t let you suffer,” he promised.
The guest didn’t respond, but Ollie assumed he would be grateful for the sentiment. He pressed his strong, calloused hands against the guest’s cool lips, making sure that his index finger blocked both of his nostrils. The man didn’t have the strength to struggle, and Ollie kept his hand in place until he was certain that it was over. If the man couldn’t find heaven on his own, Ollie felt it was only right to take him there.
“What the fuck did you just do?”
Ollie jumped. It was Jackson’s voice. A small part of him held out hope that Jackson hadn’t actually seen what he had done, so he did his best to keep calm. On the outside, at least; Ollie’s insides were on fire.
“What? Nothing,” he lied.
“Bullshit, I saw what you did. That’s murder, you know that? Shit, I knew you were dumb, but I didn’t know you were that dumb.” Jackson was breathing heavy, either from nerves or exertion; his eyes were wild.
“No, he was already dead!” Ollie lied. “I swear I didn’t do nothin’!”
Jackson glared; it was as though he could see right through Ollie. “Liar. I’m calling Elliot. You’re going to jail,” he growled. He turned, making his way towards the faded red phone mounted on the far wall. The phone that rang directly to the park office.
Ollie didn’t remember picking up the metal pry bar, just like he didn’t remember rushing to catch Jackson before he reached the phone. But he remembered raising the bar over his head and bringing it crashing down. Jackson had turned around when he heard the noise behind him, but he couldn’t react quickly enough to do anything about it.
His eyes briefly focused on the metal bar falling towards him; his mouth opened to scream, but before he could, his skull was shattered by eighteen pounds of carbon steel. Bone fragments burrowed into his brain and his frontal lobe was turned into something resembling congealed jelly.
His eyes shifted towards Ollie, but there was nothing in them any longer. Jackson Valance, the short, fat albino from California, was dead before he hit the ground. Ollie watched it happen in slow motion, barely able to register what had happened before the creeping panic set in. The guest, he could have justified that. But Jackson? As repulsive as the man was, it was just murder. There was no way around it.
“Don’t panic,” Ollie reminded himself. It was good advice, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to follow it. He patted his forearm frantically; sometimes it comforted him a little. Not that time, but sometimes.
He looked around the shack; somehow, even with so many bodies waiting to be removed from the train or lined on the slabs, Jackson’s still corpse seemed out of place. The scent of death was suddenly overwhelming. The stillness of the air was suddenly suffocating.
What would Todd do? It was a question that had gotten Ollie through bad situations in the past. When the power washer nozzle jammed during the busy Christmas season, it was Todd that was able to find a replacement in between runs. Even after Todd’s passing, it was his careful tutelage that had allowed Ollie to scrounge up paint for a dented lead car and fix a broken lap bar with spare parts from the Apocalypse. True, this situation was a bit worse than the others, but it always helped in focus on what needed to be done.
He finished unloading the train by himself. It was a job for two, so he had to work twice as fast to finish before the generally inattentive attendant suddenly decided to become attentive. He washed out the floor and wiped down the seats, then hit the button to send the train back to the start.
“Ten seconds to get back to the start. Half a minute to load. Three minutes for the ride.” He knew the individual times by heart, but when he tried to add them together they no longer made any sense. “Four minutes,” he decided. If it was off, it was close enough. Plenty of time.
For the briefest of moments, with Jackson’s very still body lying on the precipice over the track, Ollie wondered if he were doing the right thing. He couldn’t be sure about that, but he knew he was doing the smart thing.
Ollie jumped; he hadn’t expected anyone to reply, especially to his own thoughts. And then there was a laugh, shrill and mocking. He knew that laugh: It was Jackson’s. But no, Jackson was dead. His body was right at his feet. It wasn’t moving, he wasn’t laughing.
“Get hold of yourself, Ollie,” he scolded himself. “You messed up, but you can fix it. It ain’t too late to fix it.”
The ground began to rumble. The next train was coming, and the rumble turned into a roar as it got closer. There wasn’t much time until it would pull into the shack. Ollie rested his foot against Jackson’s body, closed his eyes, and pushed.
The sound was something like fresh meat being sliced at a butcher’s shop. Or maybe that was just Ollie’s imagination. Whatever the case, the actual sight was much worse than he was ready for. Strips of flesh woven through the wheels and track, the bulk of the remains barely recognizable under the weight of the cars. And blood. Blood everywhere. It was amazing just how much of it the human body could hold.
He didn’t need to fake the fear in his voice when he picked up the phone. The same phone that Jackson had been trying to reach when… the same phone that Jackson had been moving towards. Ollie couldn’t bring himself to think about what had happened. Not yet. Not until it was all over. Then, maybe, he would think about what he had done.
“Mr. Elliot…” he said between unexpectedly sincere sobs. “There’s been a accident.”
There was no investigation. The ride wasn’t even closed down for very long, except for the time it took to bag up the chunks and rinse off the first few cars. By the time Alex took over his position full time, it was as if Jackson had never been there at all.
“So… Do you think it was suicide?” Alex asked, seemingly out of nowhere. She practically whispered the last word, as though it were some sort of taboo to even mention it. Strange, given their line of work. “I mean, we all know to stay away from the track. How do you just fall in?”
Ollie shoved his hands into his pockets. They had started shaking, and he didn’t want her, of all people, to notice. “Yeah, probably. He seemed pretty sad.”
“Not to me. I mean, we didn’t talk much, him and me. He always just seemed like an asshole. But he seemed content enough with that. And the way they found the body… It just doesn’t seem right.” She stood, staring at the track as though she thought she might see something the others had missed. And maybe she could.
The ground started to tremble. So did Ollie. He didn’t want her to find out what he had done; he didn’t want anyone to find out. More than anything, he didn’t want to hurt her, but the internal war waged on. His hand, as if by its own accord, crept closer to the very same metal bar that he had used before.
Except I didn’t want to, he reminded himself. Please don’t make me, Alex. Please.
Alex spun around very suddenly, all smiles and her usual self. “No sense in dwelling. I guess we’ll never know, huh? Come on, Ollie. We’ve got a train to unload.”
Ollie breathed a relieved sigh. He hadn’t realized he had been holding his breath, and fought to keep from panting. Panting would look suspicious. He didn’t want to look suspicious, not when he had managed to avoid it so far.
“Yup!” he agreed, getting right to work as the train pulled in. It was good to see another full load. Attendance had fallen for the few days following Jackson’s death. People were generally uncomfortable with unscheduled death.
A woman, elderly and frail. She had died with a smile on her face, which was the best one could ever hope for.
A younger man, no later than early 40s. He had dressed up in his final suit for the last ride. A shame, Ollie thought, that it had gotten ruined. But any decent dry cleaner could recover it, if the family wanted.
Jackson, with his pale skin and wild beard. Eyes bloodshot and angry.
Ollie blinked. Jackson. But Jackson was dead. And yet, there he was, in the unpigmented flesh. His mind didn’t know how to process that. He wanted to scream, but he couldn’t quite remember how.
“Ollie? What’s wrong?” Alex was concerned, and it was reflected in her voice.
Why isn’t she scared? Ollie couldn’t understand. Who was playing this cruel joke, and was Alex a part of it? He pointed. “Ja-Ja-Ja,” he stammered.
But Jackson was gone, as though he had never been there at all. Instead, the remains of a wholly unremarkable, bird-like woman sat strapped into the seat.
Ollie blinked heavily, trying to reject what he had seen. “Nothing,” he managed. “Nothing’s wrong.” He tried to force a smile, but it was insincere and Alex saw right through it.
“I’m sorry,” she said gently. “I didn’t think about how this much be bothering you. I mean, you were right here when it happened, weren’t you?”
Ollie nodded. He was shaking.
“Listen, this is the last train for the night. I’ll finish up here. Why don’t you take off early and clear your head.” She smiled again. She always smiled; when she did, the world was okay again.
Ollie smiled back. She was right. He just needed to clear his head.
The air was cool, and the sky was starting to change from bright orange to deep blue. The park was closed to guests, and only the last-shift employees and a few uncollected bodies remained. He was, for the most part, alone.
Ollie had never learned how to whistle, but it always relaxed him to try. When he did, it came out as light rush of air, rather than the musical notes that he intended. But, as with all things, he tried his best. He blew out three notes, the start of some half-remembered song from childhood.
The next three notes of the song echoed back, piercing the air with perfect pitch. Ollie wasn’t alone, after all.
He looked around, peering into the growing darkness that enveloped the still rides and various attractions. He certainly seemed to be by himself. But, then again, someone had whistled.
He stopped, not wanting to leave the relative comfort of the overhead path light that he had found, and tried again. Three more notes, as best he could manage, then he waited.
Nothing. He strained his ears, but no reply came.
Just someone messing around with me, that’s all. Or someone’s working late and just likes to whistle. It’s nothing. Get ahold of yourself.
Ollie walked on, a little bit faster than his usual pace. There was a nagging sense, something deep in the primal part of his simple mind, nagging at him. Danger, it said. And it only got louder as he got closer to the Frontier Funhouse.
The Frontier Fearhouse was, in many ways, the centerpiece of the original park. It was the first attraction built, and all paths literally led to it. It was still popular among the most diehard thrill-seekers and young men trying to impress dates with their bravery.
It wasn’t just the jump scares from spring-loaded ghosts and overenthusiastic actors. It wasn’t just the blind paths and false exits. And it wasn’t just the rumors and legends of burial grounds and construction deaths. There was something about the attraction itself that seemed somehow sinister. Plus, it was showing its age, which made it seem even more terrifying.
Ollie walked past, no intention of stopping. But three sharp sounds stopped him. Three perfect, whistled notes; the very same ones that he had waited for before. The sound seemed to come from inside the Fearhouse, even though it was as loud and as clear as if it had been right next to him.
One by one, the attraction lights came on. First the deep red glow from the sign over the entrance: “Can you Survive… THE FEARHOUSE?” it challenged. Next were the eyes of the demon; the demon with the gaping, toothy grin that doubled as the entrance. The music began to build- a slow funeral dirge floating from the speakers hidden in the landscaping.
“Hello?” Ollie called. Maybe, he reasoned, they were testing the attraction after hours. Or perhaps someone had inadvertently powered it on. He waited for a moment for a reply, but none came. “Anyone there?” he called again.
The demon screamed. So did Ollie.
After only a moment, Ollie realized that the inanimate demon decoration hadn’t actually screamed. It was the old wooden door creaking on its ancient hinges that had made the hideous sound. It seemed much louder in the otherwise quiet night.
The entryway light flickered into existence. The bright, white, and nearly blinding light was the only bare bulb in the entire attraction, designed to ruin the guest’s night vision before entering the near pitch darkness past the first door. Normally, it would flash only momentarily, but this time it stayed on. The message was very clear. ‘Come inside,’ it said.
There was absolutely no temptation on Ollie’s part.
“I’d haveta be stupid; go in there,” he muttered to himself.
He ran in the opposite direction, putting as much distance between himself and the demon’s invitation as he could. He didn’t stop running until he reached his small rented room. His sanctuary against an often overwhelming world. Only when he closed the door behind him did he feel safe again. And only when he felt safe again did he allow himself to catch his breath.
He left the light on that night, far too afraid to turn it off. He had no intention of going to bed, and instead sat up in his threadbare recliner. He had positioned it so he could watch the door, hoping to at least see death coming. Eventually, despite his best effort to stay awake, he fell into a chaotic sleep. Not long after that, he woke up to an even more chaotic reality.
His room, normally obsessively neat, had been demolished. The few books that he owned were no longer carefully arranged on the shelf, but had been torn and tossed onto the floor. Pictures, taken from their frames and torn. Debris, scattered across the floor. And there, on the wall, written in what Ollie could only assume was blood, the message.
Each word dripped ominously towards the floor, as if it was written while wet. Ollie stared, shocked into muteness. Who got in while I was asleep? How didn’t I wake up? But he knew they answer. He knew exactly who did it.
“I’m sorry!” he croaked. He said it again, louder. Shouting at the words for lack of a better recipient. His shout was answered only by a sharp pounding against the other side of the wall, but he ignored it. Tears started to sting at his eyes. “I didn’t mean to,” he sobbed. “I’m sorry.”
But no reply came, which was somehow even more terrifying than if one had. That meant it wasn’t over.
That fact was made very clear as the days went on. It continued; brief glimpses of albino flesh in the theme park crowds, which would only disappear when he tried to focus on it. Voices that only he could hear, whispering the same accusations in his ear, over and over again:
You murdered me.
He couldn’t sleep. Not for very long, anyway. Every time he tried, he was jerked awake by something horrible: a scream or a touch. His work suffered and those around him, of course, noticed. They all guessed that it was related to Jackson’s death, and Ollie readily agreed. In a very real sense, it was true.
And then one day it arrived. A small envelope waiting for him in his employee locker. Ollie opened it with shaking hands, and pulled out the small cardboard slip that had been neatly tucked inside. It was a single rider’s ticket to the SuiCyclone, printed and stamped that very morning.
As abhorrent as the idea would have been just a few days before, Ollie now understood. He understood why people came to Frontier Family Funland to die. They came because the pain wouldn’t end any other way; because they had no other way out. They come to the SuiCyclone because they couldn’t hope for anything beyond that ‘fun final ride’. And, deep down, that was all he wanted as well.
He checked the time stamped on the ticket. It was during Alex’s break time. The bastard thought of everything.
In a daze, he took his place in line. It was very different on the rider’s side of the chain; everyone was oddly quiet, perhaps making peace with their various gods or reflecting on the life that they were about to end. But Ollie wasn’t reflecting. Ollie was staring at Jackson’s translucent form just on the other side of the chain. Jackson stared back with empty, dead eyes.
Ollie wasn’t sure if he was winning by going out on his own terms, or losing by giving into Jackson’s demands. He only knew that his pain would soon be over; Jackson wouldn’t be able to hurt him anymore.
Another train pulled in; another load of passengers were loaded; another few steps forward. Jackson followed as Ollie moved closer to the platform. Waiting.
“Are you going to be there the whole time?” Ollie snapped.
A few nearby heads turned, but Jackson didn’t respond. He just kept staring at his accuser.
“Fine,” Ollie resigned. He turned his back to Jackson. It didn’t matter; he was waiting on the other side.
Ollie continued moving forward, getting closer to the station with each train load. He looked up at the sign- the one that he had cleaned and maintained so carefully. He wondered if it would keep its promise. Even an uncertain heaven was better than the hell he was escaping.
Finally, it was his turn. Or, more specifically, his group’s turn to go. They were all in it together, at that point. If the attendant recognized him, she didn’t give any indication of it. She treated him as though he were any other guest, with the same comforting reverence that they were famous for. She carefully strapped him in, checking to make sure the restraints were tight and that he was seated properly. They wouldn’t want him to get hurt before he died.
The train jerked forward suddenly as the chain caught the undercarriage, then moved towards the massive peak. Somehow, it looked much larger than it had from the ground once they started to climb. A woman somewhere in the back started praying loudly. The man next to Ollie started crying quietly. But no one changed their mind; no one screamed to get off or to stop the car. Each, as always, had made up their mind.
Ollie’s stomach dropped as they reached the top of the hill and fell freely down the other side. He could hear nervous and excited squeals of his fellow passengers as they hit the first inversion, followed immediately by another and another after that. It was as fun as dying could be.
When they hit the next inversion, the world lost its color and shrunk into a tight tunnel. Then it faded away completely. Finally, Ollie felt himself slip away.
Heaven was bright. Nearly blinding. And there, Ollie felt a peace that he had never known before. He had made it. The sign hadn’t lied. He wondered what eternity would feel like; if he had to spend it anywhere, at least he was in the right place.
“Ollie? Goddamn it, Ollie, what did you do?” It was Alex’s voice.
Alex? Why are you in –
Then the pain hit, physically and emotionally. He wasn’t in heaven. He was in the pit, and Alex was watching him die. Or, more frightening, survive. She wasn’t on break after all, but Ollie realized that Jackson had probably known that.
He did his best to form words- to ask for a merciful death- but it only came out as a weak moan. He remembered what Jackson had said, about the horrible suffering that surviving the ride would bring, but he had no strength left to protest.
“Don’t worry, Ollie. I’ll get help. You’ll be okay.”
He tried to open his eyes, but the pain was overwhelming. He could only listen as she tearfully spoke to Mr. Elliot, then returned to his side.
“Help’s on the way,” she promised. “Just hang in there.”
He forced his eyes open just a little bit. He could barely make out her silhouette against the bright.
Jackson, behind her, was much easier to make out. He leaned in close and whispered into Ollie’s ear:
It was a god damned 1986 Buick LeSabre.
The undercarriage was rusting through in spots and the shocks were shot. The rear passenger door didn’t open anymore, so anyone sitting in the back had to crawl in from the other side. And in the back, one side had a broken spring and the other side’s seatbelt only worked once in a while. It shook a little bit any time it went over fifty and it always seemed to have the faint scent of burning oil, even when it wasn’t running.
By any normal standards, it was a terrible car. But to Danny and Alex, it was the most beautiful thing that had ever hit the road. It represented something they hadn’t ever known before they went in together on it: freedom.
Danny was an army brat, four generations deep and the last of his line. His great-grandfather had fought in World War 2, and left his foot and a few fingers on the beaches of Normandy. His grandfather went to Vietnam three times. He died there. His father, Desert Storm and Shield.
Danny wanted to be a poet.
Alex had been raised exactly the opposite way. Anti-War. Fur is murder. Ban the bomb. Her entire upbringing was defined by the things she was against. She had enlisted in the Army at eighteen. Came home at nineteen. Some things weren’t meant to be.
Between her and Danny, they met in the middle on most things. They still screwed occasionally, too. Not often anymore, but once in a while.
Carl had the back seat all to himself, for whatever it was worth. He was new; they had picked him up outside of Kingston and they were taking him as far as Newport.
He was a very “Carl”-looking guy, with thick-rimmed glasses and a haircut that tried and failed to look cheap. He was pretty quiet, but always had a look on his face like he had something more to say.
He was homeless, he had told them, and had been sleeping under bridges and in doorways for a little over a year. His backpack had everything he owned in it; all the same, he was happy to share the bottles of water that he pulled from it. The cold water was refreshing in the heat, and of course the air conditioning didn’t work well enough to make a difference otherwise.
Alex turned in the front, knees pressed into the back of the seat and arms folded across the headrest. “So, how long were you standing out there?”
“Not long. Two hours, maybe.”
Alex whistled. “Two hours? And no one stopped to pick you up?” The idea seemed bizarre to her. They had left their small town years ago, but the small town never left her.
“Not until you guys.”
“Have you ever had to wait that long before? For a ride, I mean,” Alex asked. She was always genuinely interested in other people. They always have a story, she would say.
“Longer, sometimes,” he said with a shrug.
“Even two hours, that’s a long time. Isn’t that a long time, Danny?”
“A long time,” he agreed, keeping his eyes on the road.
“Isn’t it dangerous?” she asked.
Carl looked at her for a moment. “It can be, if you’re not careful. But I’ve been doing this for a while, so I know how to take care of myself. Had some close calls, too.”
Alex’s eyes got wide. “Tell me.”
Before he could, Danny spoke. “What are you running from, Carl?” He made eye contact in the rearview mirror.
Alex slapped Danny on the arm. “He doesn’t mean it, he’s always saying things. He’s just paranoid, go on.” She shot a sideways glance at Danny, who ignored it.
“I do mean it. You’re in our car, and if you’re running from something I need to know what it is. Damned if I want someone coming after us.”
Alex looked at Danny, then back to Carl. “Carl?”
Carl swallowed; his eyes darted from Alex to Danny. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you do.”
A long silence.
“How did you know?” Carl asked, resigned.
“The water, for one. It was cold. Plus your shoes,” Danny explained. “Your shoes ain’t dirty at all. And I saw the bottom when you crawled in, hardly used at all. Either you’re not someone that walks a lot, or you’re someone that gets new shoes when they wear out.”
“A lot of people get new shoes,” Carl replied. He was still defending his persona, more out of pride than any intention to deceive.
“Yeah, they do. But there’s your ass.”
“My ass?” he asked.
“His ass?” Alex echoed.
“Yeah. The seat of your pants; not worn down at all. Either new jeans, or you’ve been sitting comfortable.”
There was another long, full silence. A mile ticked past, then another.
“Shit,” Carl said, sinking back into his seat. “You’re not going to take me back, are you?”
“Depends on what’s waiting for you there.”
Carl looked down at his new shoes and clean jeans. When he finally answered, it was through dry lips. “My dad,” said, barely audible.
“What about him?” Alex asked. That was his story; like she always said, everyone had one.
Carl didn’t look at her; he didn’t reply. He slowly lifted up his shirt, showing his chest.
It was an old scar, healed over for years. Brown, smooth and shiny. It was in the shape of a triangle with small circles lining the edge, right over his heart. The nipple had been burnt away and the hair had never grown back.
“Jesus,” Alex whispered. Even Danny didn’t have anything to say.
“That was from a clothes iron, if you couldn’t tell by the shape. I burned his work shirt. This,” he said, rolling up his sleeve to display a deep, uneven scar, “I’m not sure what this was for, he didn’t tell me. There’s more, if you want to see. I got plenty.”
“No. No, we don’t,” Alex replied, answering for the both of them.
“So what are you going to do then? Are you taking me back or not?”
“We’re going to Newport, like we promised.”
Carl leaned bac and closed his eyes. For a moment, Alex and Danny thought he had fallen asleep. When he opened his eyes again, they were red and moist. “Thanks,” he said simply.
Alex smiled. It was acknowledgement enough.
They rode in silence. The miles ticked past and the radio changed from rock to static, but no one bothered to change it again. It was the magic hour, when the sun was just low enough to bathe everything in hues of pink and red. When the trees stood out in stark black contrast against the soft sky.
“So what’s in Newport?” Danny asked. He hated silence and always found a way to break it.
“A job. Hopefully a job, at least,” he answered.
“Yeah?” Alex asked, turning again. “What kind of job?”
His cheeks flashed red, the same color as the sky. “A friend of mine owns one of those bounce house places- you know, where you can rent these giant inflatable knockoffs of whatever cartoon character a kid might want. They do children’s parties, things like that. And, well, I do a little bit of magic.”
“You’re a magician?” Alex gasped. She said the last word, “magician”, with a sort of hushed reverence heard only from the sort of person that believed magic was real. On some level, she still did.
“Amateur magician,” he clarified.
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Five new tales from horror writer Christopher R. Cox. Suicyclone “The SuiCyclone was another fast coaster- technically the third in the park. Six riders at a time would be lifted up to the first peak, 1,670 feet up in the air, before rocketing 1,600 feet towards the ground at 200 miles per hour. Just 70 feet above the treetops, it would level out and hit seven tight invasions, each one smaller than the last. By the end of the three-minute ride, each rider would be dead.” Ollie didn’t understand how the ride worked. But then again, he didn’t need to. He worked in the body pit- more formally known as the remains recover area at the end of the ride- and his job was to prepare the riders for a dignified burial. Sometimes, not every rider is ready to be get off. The North Bay Bridge Club Three friends, each with a different reason for leaving their small home towns. They only need to make it as far as the next town over, but life has other plans. Dahmer Flu This is the original short story, later expanded into the full-length novel of the same name. Humanity’s bitter end was bloody and violent. In those final days, the air was filled with the smell of decay and the moans of the undead; it wasn't long before society crumbled entirely. Bradley Harris lost everything then. All he had left was his family, and he would do anything he had to do to keep his pregnant wife and two children alive. Whether on foot or on the road, they’ll keep pressing north, hoping to get above the snow line and wait out the apocalypse. The only problem is there’s no end in sight. This terrifying tale explores what happens when a family is forced to adapt to a changing world, or die trying. And when disaster strikes, they begin to wonder- can the living be worse than the undead? Shadows Death is a shadow. An ever-present, timeless force that lurks just outside of our vision. Always nearby, always waiting. When one of the many shadows becomes aware of itself, it finds that it can not only take the dead- it can also kill. Unlike most, Dante Inferno Quinn can see that shadow. When it takes someone closest to him, he’s powerless to stop it. Finding it again becomes an obsession, and he’ll do anything to prove to his wife that their child didn’t just die, but that their son was murdered. Anything. The Judas Goat Brett and Ella were the last two residents of Fairview. Everyone else left in the evacuations. Everyone else was now dead. That didn’t stop them from coming back home. Determined to survive, the pair holds their own by scavenging the surrounding towns. Forced further and further out, each trip becomes more dangerous than the last.