Wild Ride: Chapter One
Mary Alice Brannigan sat on the roof of the Dreamland carousel at twenty minutes to midnight and considered her work in the light from the lamp on her yellow miner’s hat.
It was good.
FunFun, the redheaded wood clown sitting cross-legged next to her on the roof’s peak, was fully restored and authentic again. Of all the clowns in the park, including the Fun-head-topped waste cans and the eight-foot iron-clad Fun at the Dreamland entrance, this one was her favorite: exuberantly happy, one yellow-gloved hand pulling back his striped blue-green coat to show off his orange-and-gold-checked waistcoat, the other flung above his head, reaching into empty air for the gold pan pipes he’d lost long ago.
“Don’t worry, baby,” she said to him, patting her work bag between them. “I got your pipes right here.”
He grinned crookedly down at her, or at least down toward the ground as a breeze picked up, biting with the chill of the Ohio October night. Mab pulled her bulky canvas painting coat closer around her and looked out over the newly restored jewel-box of an amusement park. It had taken her thirty-nine years, but now she was not only in the park, she’d saved it. Once I finish the Fortunetelling Machine, I will have put this place back the way it was at the very beginning. I will belong here. I rock.
And the best part was that she was surveying it all at night, beautiful, peaceful night, with no--
“You up there, Mab?” Glenda yelled.
--people around to spoil the moment.
“Stop what you’re doing and come down here,” Glenda called, the cheer in her voice sounding as platinum bright as her hair and about as authentic. “We’ll walk you back to the Dream Cream, see you get upstairs to bed. You need your sleep, honey."
Mab gritted her teeth. This was what she got for taking a break to gloat over her work: people showed up and shouted at her.
She pulled her bag closer and took out the pipe, careful not to scratch any of the five little golden cylinders that were carved together in one block. Then she fished a tube of fast-set glue out of the bag, stood up carefully, and reached to glue the pipe back into the FunFun’s empty fingers, tilting her head back so the light from her miner’s cap shone on the hand.
A small black raven swooped down and perched on the clown’s head.
“Beat it, Frankie,” she whispered to the bird, trying to brush it away without dropping the flute or the glue or falling to her death.
Frankie flapped his wings and rose above the clown and then settled down on the up-flung hand, cawing at her like a cheese-grater dragged across a fire escape.
Cinderella got bluebirds doing her hair, Mab thought. I get ravens screwing with my work.
From below, Mab heard the raspy voice of Glenda’s friend Delpha, an echo of Frankie’s: “She’s up there, Glenda. Frankie knows.”
“I know, too,” Glenda said, and then she raised her voice and said, “I’m not kidding, Mab, stop whatever you’re doing up there right now.”
Mab leaned in, holding onto the glue with one hand and the flute with the other, and looked Frankie right in the eye.
“This flute is going in that hand, bird,” she told him, serious as death. “Do not get between me and my work.”
Frankie watched her for a minute, his eyes steady and bright with intelligence, and then he cawed again, the sound going down Mab’s spine like a rasp, and flapped off.
“Okay, then.” Mab checked for the side of the flute with the broken metal rod on it, reached up and squirted a generous shot of glue into the hole in the FunFun’s palm, and slotted the broken rod into it. She held it for sixty seconds, ignoring demands to quit from down below, and then wiggled it a little to see if it had set.
The flute clicked, the sound sharp in the night, as if the metal rod had moved into place, engaged a gear or something.
What the hell? she thought.
“Okay, that’s it,” Glenda said, the brightness gone from her voice. “I’m coming up there.”
At fifty-nine, Glenda was probably in better shape than Mab was at thirty-nine, but it was dark, and Glenda liked a cocktail or three after six, and while she was often annoying, Mab didn’t want her dead, so . . .
“Hold on.” Mab capped her glue and put it in her paint bag and eased her way down the turquoise and blue striped carousel roof to peer over the edge, gripping the gold scalloped trim as insurance.
Glenda stood on the flagstone below in the spotlight cast from the lamp on Mab’s hat, one hand on her capri-clad hip, the other waving a cigarette, her spiky white hair glowing over her pink angora sweater. Beside her, ancient, black-eyed little Delpha looked up from under lowered brows, her improbably black hair slicked down on both sides of her sunken face like two strokes of black paint over a skull, the rest of her swathed in a dark blue shawl that blended into the night.
Frankie flapped down to sit on Delpha’s shoulder.
Death’s parrot, Mab thought. “Glenda, I’m almost done--”
“Done?” Glenda smiled up at her, clearly tense for some reason. “But honey, you shouldn’t be doing anything up there--”
Somebody staggered out of the night and lurched into Glenda, who bumped into Delpha, who stumbled back and dislodged Frankie, who went for the staggerer, who screamed and batted at him.
Frankie flapped up to sit on the edge of the carousel roof beside Mab, and the guy looked up.
Mab saw brown hair, bleary eyes, and a dense five-o-clock shadow over an orange Bengals’ shirt: Drunk Dave, one of the beer pavilion regulars who should have been out of the park when it had closed forty-five minutes before. He’d probably stumbled off to pee in the trees that rimmed the island and gotten lost. Again.
“Whassat?” Drunk Dave squinted up at her, and Mab realized that to him, she was just a big light in the black sky.
“This is God, Dave. Go home, sober up, get a job, and never get drunk again. Or you’ll go to hell.”
Drunk Dave’s mouth dropped open, making him look even more slack-jawed than usual.
“Go home, Dave, the park’s closed,” Glenda said.
“Okay,” Dave said, and staggered on.
“Come down, Mab, and we’ll walk you back to the Dream Cream,” Glenda said. “It’s not safe for you to wander around alone.”
“I’ve been walking around this park alone for months, and now you tell me it’s not safe?”
“Well, there’s Dave.”
“I can take care of Drunk Dave with one hand wrapped around FunFun.”
“And there’s danger.” Glenda waved her cigarette around vaguely. “It’s . . . October.”
“Right. The dangerous month.” Mab shook her head, which made the light from the lamp on her hat swing wildly, and then she crawled back up the striped metal roof. The park people were just odd, that was all there was to it. It probably came from living on the grounds. You lived fulltime in Dreamland, you got strange.
“Mab, get down here right now!”
She fastened the flap on her work bag, made her way back to the ladder on the opposite side of the carousel, and climbed down to the flagstones that covered most of the park. Tomorrow she’d come out in the daylight and see the carousel wood FunFun in all its finished glory, and then she’d move on to the Fortunetelling Machine—
Something hard ran into her, and she lost her hat as she went down and smacked her head on the stone. “Ouch!” she said, and grabbed her hat and put it back on so that the light on it would stun the moron who’d knocked her down. “Damn it, Dave—”
Huge turquoise eyes gleamed down under iron-hard red-orange curls. A stiff turquoise-striped coat loomed over her, metal protesting as it bent. Then the thing brought its red-orange lips together slowly and ground out “Mmmm” and then spread them apart with the sound of rending metal to say, “ab,” its smile widening and its cheeks splitting as it jerkily held out its yellow iron-gloved hand to help her up.
“FunFun?” Mab said faintly.
The thing nodded, its head moving slowly up and down with a metallic squeaking sound.
Ethan John Wayne stared across the causeway at the locked iron gates that led to to Dreamland as the sound of his taxi faded into the darkness. Something was missing on the other side of the gate, but it had been a long time since he’d been home, and he couldn’t figure out what it was. Well, maybe they’d moved something. A lot of things changed in twenty years.
He rubbed his chest, feeling the scar that covered the Taliban bullet pressing on his heart. Dreamland was as good a place to die as any, and he had family here, which counted for something. What, he wasn’t quite sure.
He dropped his rucksack to the ground, pulled out a leather flask, and tilted it up to his lips, taking a good, long slug. Then he put the flask back and squared his shoulders to go back into the park. It wasn’t much of a home, he thought, but at least it was peaceful, no people around to--
A scream rent the night, coming from somewhere inside the park. Ethan threw his vest on, grabbed his .45 caliber pistol from the pack, and sprinted for the entrance. He leapt as he reached the ten foot high wrought iron gate, free hand grasping for a cross-bar just below the top, feet scrambling for a hold, and fell right onto his butt.
Cursing, he got to his feet and approached climbing the gate while factoring in his inebriated state. Mission planning, sir. He tucked the gun inside his Kevlar vest so he could use both hands. It took longer to climb the damn thing than it should have, and when he got to the top of the gate, he tottered and almost fell, but then he lowered himself and dropped the few remaining feet to the ground, narrowly missing the line of golf carts parked there. He drew his gun and went running across the causeway and down the midway toward the carousel where he could see three people gathered.
He came to an abrupt halt when he saw his mother standing with her arm around a woman dressed like a bag lady in a long, bulky, paint-splotched coat and a yellow miner’s hat.
“What’s going on?” he demanded.
His mother turned and her face lit up like it was Christmas. “Ethan!” she said and flung herself at him, hugging him so tight that he couldn’t get a breath. “What’s this?” she said, pulling back and knocking her knuckles on his chest, testing out his body armor and making him wince since she was banging right over his bullet. “Oh, I don’t care, you’re home!”
She flung her arms around him again, and Ethan patted the back of her fuzzy sweater and looked over her shoulder to see Delpha staring at him, with Frankie on her shoulder staring, too. “So you have returned,” Delpha said. A flicker of a smile touched her thin lips, gone as quickly as it had appeared, but for her, it was like Glenda’s bear hug.
“Yep,” Ethan said. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw old Gus come limping up from the back of the park.
“Bout time you came home,” Gus said gruffly in an overly loud voice, but he pounded Ethan on the shoulder just the same. “Good to see you, boy. You’re just in time.”
For what? Ethan wondered.
Glenda raised a tear-stained face. “How long can you stay? You have to stay a long time.”
“I quit the Army. I’m staying,” Ethan said, and Glenda looked startled, but then she must have decided not to look a gift son in the mouth because she let go of him and patted his chest again.
“I’m so glad.” Her eyes welled up again. “Oh, I’m so glad. We even have a job for you! You can help Gus with security!”
“I don’t want a job, Mom. I just want some peace and quiet.” He looked around at them. “Who screamed?”
“I did,” the bag lady said. “Sorry. Usually I’m very calm, but I got run down by a clown.” She touched the back of her miner’s hat gingerly. “I hit my head.”
“Someone hit you?” Ethan said, feeling something that would have been outrage once. “Where is he?”
“No, it ran into me . . .” she stopped, taking her hat off. “I think there’s blood.”
“Which way did he go?” Ethan said, and she said, “I don’t know” at the same time Glenda said, “Let it go, Ethan.”
Ethan started to speak and got one of his mother’s famous Don’t Argue looks.
“She hit her head and hallucinated the clown,” Glenda said, enunciating each word clearly. Then she turned to the bag lady. “You hallucinated it.”
The woman blinked at her and then said, “Yes. I did.”
“Okay,” Ethan said, and reached toward her. “Let me check your head.”
She stepped back, nostrils flaring as if she were catching wind of something. “I’m gonna say no on that.”
“Mab, Ethan has been in the military,” Glenda said proudly. “Ethan, this is Mab, she’s restoring the park.” She looked from Ethan to Mab and her smile faded.
“What’s wrong?” Ethan said.
“You look . . . so much alike,” she said, and then shook her head. “Never mind, I’m just so glad you’re here.”
Ethan looked at the bag lady. If he looked like that, he was closer to death than he’d thought. He said to the woman, “I’m trained in first aid,” trying to move the whole thing along before he passed out from exhaustion and alcohol.
“No, thank you,” she said.
Ethan circled around her to look at the back of her head. Her hair was a thick, red-brown choppy mess—it looked like she hacked it off with a knife—but he couldn’t see much blood so it was probably just a scratch, not a scalp wound or else it would have been a mess. Scalp wounds were bad, hard to stop the bleeding. And then if the bullet hit bone . . . Ethan closed his eyes for a second.
“What are you doing?” the woman said.
“You’ll be fine. Who hit you?”
“A FunFun ran into me.” She looked up at the carousel roof. “I was working on the FunFun up there, but he’s still there, and anyway he’s made of wood. The one that ran into me was a big metal-covered one, like the iron one by the gate. Did you see it when you came in?”
“No,” Ethan said, now realizing what had been missing. The damn clown statue.
“Then it was probably that one. Of course, that’s insane. I’m not insane.”
“Right,” Ethan said, glancing at his mother who looked sane but worried at the moment.
“I told her to get off that roof,” Glenda said, as if he’d accused her of not helping. “I told her to stop working.”
Whatever had rattled her before was gone, possibly because she’d gotten a grip and realized they didn’t look alike. Or possibly, she was just nuts.
Gus grabbed his arm and his attention. “Come on, I’ll show you how to do the Dragon run. Now that you’re here for good, you can take over.”
“See,” Glenda said to the woman, patting her arm. “Everything’s fine now. Gus is going to do the midnight Dragon run, just like always. Everything’s normal. No big iron, uh, robot clowns.”
“Robot clowns?” the woman said, flatly. “This park has robot clowns?”
“No, no.” Glenda patted again.
Patting, Ethan realized, was his mother’s main form of communication. That and a wide array of looks.
“I’ll take you back to the Dream Cream,” Glenda told her. “We’ll get that blood cleaned up, make you a cup of tea, you’ll be good as new.”
She gave Delpha a look, and Delpha nodded at her and then faded away from the carousel.
Glenda smiled at Ethan. “As for you, young man, you come right to my trailer when you’re done with Gus. Tomorrow I’ll get Hank’s old trailer cleaned out and made up for you. You’ll have a place of your own.” Her eyes welled up again. “I’m so happy you’re home, Ethan.”
“Right,” Ethan said. “Don’t clean up the trailer, I’d rather sleep in the woods. Are you sure you’re all right walking around here? If somebody’s in the park--”
“We’re fine,” his mother said firmly, and he thought, She knows who it was. “I’m so glad you’re back,” she added.
“Me, too, Mom,” he lied and made plans to get whatever the hell was going on out of Glenda once they were alone.
Once away from the carousel, the park seemed darker than Ethan remembered it, and he realized it was because there was orange cellophane over the streetlights for the park’s Screamland weekends, the reason for the skeletons somebody had strewn around along with—
A ghost flew in his face, empty-eyed and open-mouthed, and he held off on drawing his gun as the pulley it was on yanked it back into the tree he’d just passed, not a ghost, just a skull beneath some white stuff that looked like fog but was probably cheesecloth.
“Geez,” he said to Gus and Gus nodded.
“Mab knows how to make a ghost,” Gus said, and Ethan thought, I know how to make ghosts, too, as he relaxed his grip on his pistol.
He looked closer at the fence and saw the flickering red light of the infrared beam that had tripped the ghost, the same thing he’d seen in Afghanistan trip explosives. He shivered.
“Mab’s uncle got her the job,” Gus said as they headed down the midway to the back of the park. “Glenda wasn’t too sure about her since her uncle’s Ray Brannigan and you know them Brannigans, but once Mab got here, it was fine. Hard worker.”
“Brannigans?” Ethan said, keeping an eye out for more trip wire ghosts among the skeletons and giant spiders, which wasn’t easy, given his current alcohol content.
“Yeah, you know, that crazy family, always trying to shut us down.”
Ethan staggered a few steps and bumped into the fence and another ghost flew at him. He batted it out of the way as its pulley yanked it back into the trees. “Of all the times I could have picked to come home, I had to come for Screamland.”
“What’s that?” Gus said, cocking his head.
“I had to come home for Screamland,” Ethan said in a louder voice.
“‘Course you did,” Gus said. “Big party planned for Halloween cause that’s when the park’s gonna be all restored. We got media coming in Friday after next, get it on the news so a lotta people’ll come.” He sounded proud, like he talked about the media all the time.
“Great,” Ethan said in a normal voice and noticed that Gus didn’t hear. Well, he was old and running the damn Dragon Coaster couldn’t be easy on the ears.
The good news was the park would close after Halloween and stay closed until spring. He could stand two more weekends of the park full of screaming people and cheesecloth ghosts to spend whatever months he had left in solitude and quiet.
They passed the paddle boat dock. A figure moved in the shadows out there, watching them, and Ethan’s hand again went toward the gun tucked into his vest.
“That’s Young Fred,” Gus said.
Ethan relaxed. “Related to Old Fred?”
“Grandson. Old Fred died ‘bout seven years ago. Young Fred took over. He was only fifteen, but he stepped up.” Gus raised his voice to call out to the boy on the dock. “What are you doing out here?”
Young Fred shrugged as he came closer. “Heard the commotion from upstairs. Everything okay?”
“Mab fell down,” Gus said. “We gotta go run the Dragon.” He jerked his thumb toward Ethan. “This here is Ethan, Glenda’s boy.”
On that, Young Fred came all the way down to the beginning of the dock. “I heard about you,” he said to Ethan, admiration in his voice. “Big military hero. Navy SEAL.”
“Special Forces,” Ethan said, taking a dislike to Young Fred.
“Huh?” Young Fred said.
“Green Berets,” Ethan amplified.
“What are you doing here, man?” Young Fred said, dismissing that. “You got out of here. Why would you come back?”
“He came back cause this is his home,” Gus said sounding peeved. “We gotta go. You get on up to your place now.”
Young Fred took a last incredulous look at Ethan and went back to the boat dock house.
“He lives up there,” Gus said. “Keeps an eye on the place. Good boy.” He sounded doubtful on the last part.
Ethan looked past the dock to the Keep, the dark tower looming in the center of the paddle-boat lake. The drawbridge which usually touched down on the end of the dock was up and there were no lights on in the restaurant on the main floor, which, if memory served him right, was unusual. Of course, his memory was temporarily being sat on by many slugs of Jack.
They passed the battered Fortunetelling Machine that he had learned early was a complete crock, and Delpha’s tent-shaped booth that he’d carved a hole in the back of so he could listen to Delpha tell fortunes, which were not a crock. Then the Double Ferris Wheel, where he’d grabbed his first kiss, and the Pirate Ship with its dozen jolly plastic pirates looking brand new which was a testament to that Brannigan woman’s skill; they’d been in pretty bad shape since the glorious afternoon when he was twelve that he’d beat the crap out of them with a wooden sword and declared himself King of the Pirates. Then the games—Carl’s Whack-A-Mole was still there--and the food booths--if he never had another funnel cake again it was too soon--and finally the struts and tracks of the Dragon Coaster, with its massive wooden dragon tunnel arching over the highest loop waiting to swallow the cars on their last ascent, and the seven-foot iron-clad orange strongman statue in front of the Test Your Strength machine next to the entrance to the Coaster, now patched and painted and looking better than new. The whole thing looked great except for the dragon tunnel at the top of the coaster that was still missing the eye it had lost before Ethan could remember.
Gus climbed the stairs onto the wooden platform and went into the small booth that controlled the ride. He threw a switch and the thousands of tiny green lightbulbs that lined the course of the ride came alive.
Lit now, it looked smaller than Ethan remembered from all the times he’d snuck out of Glenda’s trailer at midnight to watch the Dragon soar, the times that Gus had told him stories of demons in the park and made him count the number of times the cars rattled at the end when they hit the dragon’s tail. Five meant the park was safe, he remembered now. Demons all locked up. Gus had even given the demons names. Tura, the one that looked like a mermaid: Ethan had had some fantasies about her. Fufluns, the good-time demon. Two others he couldn’t remember. And Kharos, the Devil.
It was a miracle he’d never had nightmares. At least not from his childhood.
The freshly painted blue and green cars were ready to go, their scales gleaming in the green lights on the tracks. Ethan stood with Gus on the platform as the old man pulled out his pocket watch and flipped open the lid.
“It’s time.” Gus shut the watch, stuffed it back into a pocket on his vest, entered the small control booth, and hit the controls.
With a shudder, the cars began moving, heading toward the first turn, gleaming in the lights as they shuddered their way up the incline over the Keep lake, the entire ride rattling as if it were going to fall apart any second, then swooping down into the curves. Ethan watched it in silence until the cars were slowly crawling up toward the pinnacle of the last loop, the dragon tunnel, at least a hundred feet into the air, the wooden struts supporting the track shivering and creaking in protest. The Dragon wouldn’t set any records for height. Or length. Or safety, Ethan thought, mesmerized by the creaking cars that sounded like they were going to collapse at any second. Perhaps they shouldn’t be running it any more than they had to.
Gus waved him off, walked to the end of the platform and unhooked the chain that closed off the service walkway. He stepped onto the walkway and then leaned over, putting the right side of his head right on top of one of the rails.
“Geez, Gus, that’s dangerous,” Ethan said, but the old man couldn’t hear him, focused on the vibration of the coaster. Ethan walked over and stood on the walkway, prepared to snatch Gus out of the way if the old man didn’t move before the Dragon came home.
The coaster went through the tunnel and roared down, racing into the high bank corkscrew turn called the Dragon’s Tail. The cars slammed back and forth on the rails and then splashed through the shallow water at the bottom toward the long straightaway leading back to the platform, and Gus stood up as it came in, his face grim in the light from the control booth.
“What’s wrong?” Ethan asked, worried the old man was going to have a heart attack.
“Only four rattles.” Gus headed back to the control booth, and Ethan followed close behind.
The Dragon pulled up to the platform, and Gus threw the lever, stopping it. The bars that kept people from falling out automatically lifted. He threw switches, powering down the ride, turning off the thousands of lights that lined the edge of the tracks, the pinpoint reflections in the water flashing out and leaving the lake lifeless. The park plunged back into darkness, a few streetlamps dotted here and there casting lonely cones of orange light through Glenda’s cellophane.
Ethan put his hand on Gus’s shoulder. “Come on. Let’s go back to the trailers--”
He stopped, suddenly alert.
Nineteen years of Special Operations duty in the Army and three plus years in combat: no amount of alcohol could wash those instincts away. Ethan fumbled for the pistol, finally pulling it out, the grip sweaty in his left hand. He blinked trying to focus, searching back and forth, the muzzle of the gun following his eyes as he tried to see into the dark shadows. He grabbed Gus’s arm. “Come on now,” he said and saw Gus looking at his chest, frowning.
He looked down and saw the tiny red dot of an infrared laser sight.
Oh, crap, he thought and then the round hit him.