The wooden roller coaster hurtled toward the heavens, creaking and groaning as it made its shambling way. It sounded like it was going to break, like this or that car would finally prove too much for the track to bear, and the whole rickety edifice would crash to the earth. Perhaps the weight of the coaster would be so great that it would carve a hole into the earth as it fell; perhaps it would plunge into the abyss forever.
But it always sounded like that. Fifth Oldest Roller Coaster in the Country announced a placard at its base. It was the oldest bar none in the Midwest. The placard also bore a seal of approval; a national organization for roller coaster enthusiasts had anointed the machine, and the park that housed it, with its blessing.
There, before the coaster, Reginald stood with a wad of cotton candy in his mouth. He gnawed the sticky mass, grinding it between his teeth and swallowing most of it. Some stayed behind, taking up lodging amid his molars. Soon all he had left was the paper cone it came in, which he threw into the trash. It was always a thrill to watch the coaster make its ascent, and part of him hoped he would be there when it fell. When: it seemed inevitable, though over the course of nearly a century the coaster had not collapsed even once. When it did, though, he would be ready and waiting, cotton candy in hand.
Living near an amusement park makes one cruel. This observation had long ago occurred to Reginald and stuck with him ever since as an incontrovertible fact. Living here, as he did, puts one in touch with the lowest forms of humanity—both those who work at and those who frequent amusement parks—and their petty enthusiasms and personality defects. The town of Pete’s Pass sheltered about one thousand residents; in the summer, it entertained many hundreds of visitors per day who flooded the park, the nearby lake, and the cabins and hotels. The craven masses—selfish, ugly, crass, tightfisted, and poorly dressed—would descend on the park every summer and transform the town completely. Ill-bred, surly teenagers flocked from every town within an hour’s drive or so for the chance to help flog tickets and plastic junk to the guests of the park. All the shops that sat dormant and dark for half the year would blink to life, and fluorescent lights would shine once more on tacky trinkets and ugly t-shirts and stinking, oil-sodden food. The souvenir t-shirts—bearing slogans like Pete’s Pass, Your Pass to Adventure!—soon covered up gurgling stomachs, which revolted against the cheap hot dogs that bled bright crimson onto starchy stale buns and the chemically flavored candies and sodas. Every summer, the food’s artificial smells and the ripe sharp bouquet of so many perspiring bodies would flood Pete’s Pass; there would be no escape.
That summer, Reginald found himself a reluctant prisoner of the park. His master’s degree in history appeared to have led him much further than his parents’ house, back just in time to witness the horde’s arrival once more. (Then again, he could hear his adviser’s voice, noting that his truculent choice of thesis subject—certain occult tomes describing the provenance of beings whose native unearthly region intersected now and then with our own—did not do much to suggest Reginald’s employability.) His preference would have been, while looking for work, to dwell on the mess his life had turned out to be, the dreary town, the appalling park. But he felt forced to find more lucrative alternatives, especially after his parents had clarified that the opportunity to stay in their home was not without strings. After a string of failures, he found work as a temporary employee at Pete’s Pass. But perhaps some merit after all lay in his choice of employment: Enthusiasts of autoerotic asphyxiation must delicately arrange a plastic bag over the head, careful to cut off enough air to stir erotic pleasure but not enough to die. In the same way, he exposed himself to just enough of the dregs of his species to stoke his misanthropy but not enough to cause himself too much harm. At least, such was the case at first.
Reginald threw away his cotton candy cone. His break was over. He turned away from the coaster and headed toward the game area, where he took up his post. He oversaw a series of squirt guns that children could wield to shoot various targets in moving concentric circles in exchange for tokens. Soon, a ruddy-faced woman with a tightly curled perm and an oversized, faded Bugs Bunny t-shirt approached him, two gangly, unscrubbed children trailing in her wake. “Hurry,” she said, throwing her head to one side but not quite looking back. “Up!” The two words emerged as though they bore no relation to each other. She pronounced each heavily, with a great deal of effort. But the children did not oblige.
She barked at Reginald, explaining that she wanted to play.
“Do you already have a ticket, ma’am?” he asked.
“How many does it take?
“It’s three tickets to play. Or five for two games.” he said, glancing at the two kids.
“Three it is. I’m the one who’s playing,” she said.
She fell onto the nearest stool and grasped the gun. Immediately, she proved herself to be a good shot—shockingly so. The needles of water hit the bullseye every time as her kids cheered. She played several games in a row, her prowess earning her a small bucketful of tokens that she seized from Reginald with a smirk. Indeed, the gloating glances she threw his way while she played suggested that her pleasure lay in a perceived victory over the park rather than in the game itself. She seemed to feel that she had fleeced them. Reginald wondered whether he should make his indifference clear and chose to do so, maintaining a look of apathy and directing her to the token exchange in a monotone. She left with her kids in a huff.
He spent several more hours in the booth as children, mostly, took their turns on the stools and shot the water pistols. None displayed nearly as much prowess as the woman in the cartoon t-shirt. At the end of his shift, Reginald took a shortcut to his car, past the lake. This required him to retrace his steps toward the roller coaster, taking a shortcut around the ride and then a leap off a low hill. It might have been dangerous to get so near the coaster, ducking around and behind the small booth that struggled above the earth on its stubby stilts, within which bored teens and disillusioned adults like him took turns ensuring that all riders were sufficiently tall. But surely this route presented no greater danger than the aging machine itself. He tried his luck, ducking and weaving quickly and jumping off the hill. It was a little higher than he had remembered, and as his feet pounded the earth a funny pain resounded in his legs and feet.
It took him some seconds to recover. As he stood there, he heard a noise: the same bepermed, crack-shot woman coarsely shouting, loud enough that it made him turn his head. He heard, “—roller coaster!” presumably the tail end of some admonishment to her ugly children. But when he looked back, a flash of color caught his eye: something beneath the attendant’s booth that sat on the base of the coaster. His vantage point on this side of the hill allowed him to look straight ahead into the small alcove beneath it.
That was where he saw it. Immediately, he knew he should have taken a distant route. But curiosity forced him to look, and as soon as he looked he knew exactly what lay there.
He saw a body. It resembled a human body, but it looked wrong. The general shape of the body hewed close to the human, but the arm closest to Reginald looked misshapen, as though a wax appendage had melted and been poorly reshaped. In fact, the whole body looked like that—slightly melted. It lay at the entrance to an endless darkened landscape, impossibly wide-open beneath the booth. Reginald might have been peering through a window at a vast, imposing prospect. He saw a mountain range, a burnished orange in color, beneath a sky whose color seemed as wrong as the body, not blue but a sickly pink.
Reginald stared at the body and the landscape it had evidently rolled out of, and then the body twitched. It moved a little. The body had a face, and the face made a noise, a gurgle that was probably intended to request some help.
Reginald knew precisely where the booth led and what it was he was seeing, if not precisely whom he was looking at. He turned tail and headed for the lake. His shift was over; he was going home.
En route to the lake, Reginald didn’t think at all about what he had seen. Whatever he wished not to regard, to consider more closely than necessary, he attempted always to push to the darker, more distant reaches of his mind, there to remain and gather dust until he chose—if he chose—to dig it out and ponder it once more; he had a powerful talent for compartmentalization. And so he simply disregarded it all and moved closer to the dirty lake that was now in full view.
He stood a few yards from the shore, hands resting on his lower back, and began to feel comforted by the familiar rhythms of his misanthropy.
The lake had always seemed to him a place of special horror. A natural body, very deep and still very blue, though no doubt hopelessly polluted, it housed in the summer months far more than its share of bodies. To swim in the lake was nearly impossible at such times; to wade involved treading nearly shoulder-to-shoulder with the masses who congregated here. The shore likewise remained fully occupied. A fleet of large and expensive motorboats formed a perimeter around the lake, and occasionally those boats would fart and groan and burp their way further in, mostly avoiding the swimmers; within the lake’s interior the boats’ crews of one or two or three would sit and gaze at the crowded shore, whining about the heat or their hunger or the crowd’s immutable density and size, to which they felt they were not contributing.
Such was the view before him now: the bodies, the boat, the impossibility of ever enjoying the lake for what it was, absent of humans to degrade and despoil it. He felt certain that the lake was chemically treated to remain a perfect blue. And sometimes he wondered—as now—what lay at the lake’s bottom: thick layers of detritus, of soda cans and plastic wrappers and shoes, must cover the silt or whatever it was down there. No, the cans and wrappers and so on were ever-drifting, slowly coalescing into a golem, a malevolent creature that thrashed in the deep. Ordinarily such a thought would amuse him, but now he felt shaken, vulnerable even. The image of a trash-golem at the bottom of the lake—summoned to serve as a vessel for certain malevolent forces in need of one—melded in his head with what he’d seen beneath the booth: he had a vision of the portal opening wider and the creature destroying the park, tossing the roller coaster to the ground before plunging back into the fetid waters. He balked, turning away and heading for his car.
He wove through a vast parking lot and cut through the rows of gift shops and restaurants. Once inside his car, he pulled the foil visor away from the windshield and tossed it in the back. He started the engine and drove away from the park. Why, he thought, am I here, anyway? His mind drifted from the ruinous lake to the ugly woman and her ugly children and then the shadowy slice of darkness that opened up beneath the booth. His talent for compartmentalization was faltering.
Pounding the steering wheel now with the flat of one hand, he cursed. Soon he was back at his parents’ house, empty now; he would be alone. He pulled into the driveway and sighed.
It was a couple of days after that, or perhaps a little more, that he came down to the kitchen to find his mother at the table, wearing black.
It was late morning, early for him, on a weekend. His mother had a cup of coffee beside her and a newspaper open before her.
“What’s the occasion, mom?” he asked.
“A funeral,” she said. Her eyes were dark; her voice sounded hoarse, as though she’d been crying.
It would be a service for a man, she said, whom they had known from school. “We haven’t seen him in years,” she told him, “but he just up and died. We feel so sorry for her. Too young to die. Younger than we are.”
“What happened?” Reginald asked. He took a seat at the table.
She took off her glasses and looked at her son. “That’s the thing. Nobody can really explain it. Well—maybe you didn’t see—but there was a story on the news the other day. They, uh, they found him at Pete’s Pass?” He nodded, waiting for her to continue. “They found him at the park somewhere, and he was … well, they don’t really know what happened. They got him to the hospital, but he died there. Died of exposure, or so they said.”
“Exposure?” he said. He had begun to fidget.
“Mm hmm. But I heard that wasn’t the whole story. But, well, it’s just so sad. And it’s weird. What was he doing at the park anyway?”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry, mom.”
They sat in silence, each nursing a cup of coffee.
Then Reginald asked, “What’s his name?”
His mother looked up from her newspaper. “What?”
“The man who—the man whose service you’re going to? What did you say his name was?”
“Oh. I don’t think I did. Clive. Clive Furnish. Why d’you ask?”
“No reason. Just wondered.”
She nodded and returned to the paper.
Soon, Reginald finished the coffee and returned to his bedroom, where he opened his laptop and googled Clive’s name. He found an obituary and several articles. He checked the dates; the timeline, he noticed, made sense. Clive’s body was discovered the same day that he went to the park. Online, a grainy picture showed Clive in younger days; Reginald tried to square it with the face he’d seen in the park with its melted-candle aspect; he couldn’t be sure that they matched, given how briefly he’d glimpsed the body, but it also seemed delusional to deny it.
For the rest of the day, he lurked and stewed in his childhood bedroom. He flopped onto the bed. He felt helpless and childish, too. All around him lay the totems of a vanished youth: action figures standing upright on their bases, posters for movies that had once obsessed him but which he hadn’t thought about in years, a few trophies or plaques indicating former achievements in spelling or citizenship. Nearby, too, lay the books he had used for his thesis on the books produced by one member of a minor occult circle based in the Midwest. It was not so long ago when he had immersed himself fully in the research and considerably longer when those books’ author came to certain conclusions about this very pocket of the country, writing of his certainty that Pete’s Pass lay on a transitional zone.
The park clouded all his thoughts, seemed to pull him in—inside the same darkness he’d glimpsed in that alcove. He didn’t feel like a child but like the teenager he had been nearly a decade ago, during his second summer working at the park. He was on cleanup duty, and he stayed late by himself after his boss had referred to a mess beneath one of the ticket booths that he needed to take care of before he went home. Reginald braced himself. In his tenure thus far, he believed had encountered every possible bodily fluid except one, and he hoped not to fill in his bingo card tonight.
In the dark, with only a flashlight to guide his way, he looked into that dark maw and noticed the dim light glinting off something that, with one tentative gloved hand, he tried to pull out. A grotesque blue in color, the dark purple-blue of a bruise, it seemed to belong to a living thing—or to have belonged. It was an appendage there beneath the booth. The body to which it belonged lay in the shadows, at the threshold of nowhere Reginald knew. The body was clothed in normal clothes, a shirt and blue jeans. Probably it did not look so different than Clive Furnish, years later.
For the rest of his life, Reginald could never fail to close his eyes and see it perfectly, the contours of the body and the landscape behind it. He pictured the appendage, the arm that appeared human at the shoulder but ended in—well, to describe it as a half-melted appendage was not the most accurate way to put it but probably close enough. The body had screamed, or tried, a muffled moaning issuing from a misshapen mouth.
Reginald called the park’s emergency line first, and he remembered well how quickly management had worked to cover it up, swear Reginald to secrecy, and bribe him with extra pay. Even a body thrashed out of life by extradimensional beings can be swept under the rug for the right price. He could not help but notice, too, the speed with which they had done it all, as though this process were not new. Later, his boss tried to get him to agree to continue doing what he called “special clean-up,” and Reginald did it, just once more, and then refused. He didn’t work there again after that summer and swore he would not go back. At some point later on, he also wondered whether liquified flesh counted as a bodily fluid.
Long ago, an arrow had sprung from a distant region of the sky—not from his sky but that far-off, unknowable region’s, where vast beings dreamed of our own with wickedness in their hearts and bile in their gullets—and pierced the weak and mewling mammal called his life. It was far too late to remove it. The wound lingered on, festered. Here was the problem: Reginald had to go on with his life, to act as though he had never seen an impossible thing, a wrong thing, that repulsed and amazed him. It was a wound that he would never be able to cauterize. Did knowledge help? It did not; it did not help to know what the occultist had believed—had known—about the park, to be able to give a name to some of the things that occasionally trespassed from out of their world and into ours by way of Pete’s Pass.
When he took the job at Pete’s Pass now, he thought that desperation and hard-won knowledge would prove sufficient safeguards, enabling him to stomach his own memories and his awareness of what the park sheltered. As it turns out, all it took was one fresh corpse to prove him wrong. While some part of him felt vindicated in his conviction that Pete’s Pass was one of the planet’s wrong places, it really didn’t help that much.
A few days later, after a wooden box containing the remains of Clive Furnish was lowered into the earth, a surge of late-summer attendees forced Reginald to stay late. Earlier in the day, he thought he passed by the same trio from earlier—the sharpshooter and her two kids. Though it wasn’t uncommon to see families spend multiple days at the park, he shrugged it off and went about his work. They didn’t cross his mind again.
As the crowds began to thin and then at last forcibly, sometimes rudely, depart, the crew worked to shut it all down, collecting the cash, sweeping the floors, dumping the trash, making sure no children or hormone-soaked teenagers had strayed into the buildings they intended to lock. Reginald joined a few coworkers to close up section C, which included the roller coaster. He worked as quickly as he could, keeping his mind on his work and enjoying the spirit of camaraderie born of everyone’s desperate wish to leave.
In the roller coaster booth, he ducked his head under the counter to look for detritus, hastily swept the floor with a broom, and prepared to leave when he heard a scream.
One of the teenagers stood beneath the booth. “What is that?” she said. She looked close to tears.
Reginald leaped down and started to ask a question, but she cut him off. “Look!” She pointed underneath the booth, flashlight in hand. The beam of his own joined hers.
One of the sharpshooter’s children lay beneath, or what remained of the child, a melted-looking puddle in a vaguely human shape. He could just make out the boy’s face, remembering his thrilled expression as he observed his mother’s skill.
He already knew how it would all unfold, knew this young woman—whose name he couldn’t even remember—was doomed to join a very special group of people. It surprised him when she said, “Damn it! This is my third one this summer.” He sighed and called the emergency line.
“Help’s on the way,” he told her. “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”
— Daniel David Froid is a writer who lives in Arizona and has published fiction in The Masters Review, Lightspeed, Black Warrior Review, Post Road, and elsewhere.