With a sliding noise that made a sound like “falge” and was followed by a metallic “thunk”, the potato slicer spit out a handful of french-fries.
The old fireman operating the device, Ray Carroll, mopped sweat off his brow with a dirty rag. Offering a smile to George Hanover's wife, Kelly, who slid the pile into a basket to drop into the deep fryers, he leaned back against the table for a moment. The Fireman Fry Shack was the most popular attraction at the Coal Ridge Fourth of July Fireman’s Festival, and it helped to fund the all-volunteer department, but it was a hell of a lot of work. Picking up another potato, he placed it in the slicer and took a deep breath.
“We're six orders deep,” Andrea Cromwell called back, “but we've only got four orders down. I don't hear potatoes being cut back there.” Pulling the handle down, the slicer made its noise and spit out a small pile of fries. “That's better. Keep them coming.”
Every year, Ray volunteered to run the slicer and every year he had regrets. It was as if over the intervening months he forgot how much work it was and how demanding the ladies in the front could be. Falge. Thunk. His shoulder twinged as another potato became fries. The problem was that as older firemen were retiring, the younger ones weren't volunteering to work the shack, leaving it up to him and a couple others to keep it going for as long as they could. At some point there would be a festival without Fireman Fries. Whether out of pride or tradition, he didn't want to see that happen in his lifetime. Falge. Thunk.
A tap in his shoulder caused him to turn, but he didn’t see anyone.
“Hey,” a voice called from the other side.
The old fireman stepped back, startled.
“Geez Ray, you must be tired.” Mike Ramsey stood there with a lopsided grin on his face. Tapping the opposite shoulder from where he was standing was a childish prank, but Mike and his family had struggled over the past year, so Ray let it go.
Falge. Thunk. “Funny guy. You here to help?” That question usually caused people to go away.
“Actually. Yeah,” Mike replied, running his hand through his hair.
Ray stood there with a potato in his hand until Andrea yelled again about not hearing the slicer working. “Wait. What?”
“I'm here to help,” Mike repeated. “Me and Tony heard about you having trouble getting volunteers, so we came to lend a hand.”
“Ray! We need fries!”
He put the potato in the slicer. Falge. Thunk. “They're coming crazy lady!”
He turned back to Mike. “You want to deal with her. Fine by me, feel free to step in any time.”
Taking the potato from Ray's outstretched hand, Mike put it in the slicer. Falge. Thunk. A grin spread across his face, not unlike the one he wore earlier, and he nodded towards the festival. “Go on, I got this.”
“I'll stop back in fifteen minutes to check on you.”
“Make it an hour.”
“You got it,” Ray replied, the pain in his shoulder forgotten and a bounce in his step as he stepped out from behind the fry shack. I love this town.
* * *
Situated in the open field across from the city building, which held the police and fire departments, the festival brought out most residents of Coal Ridge and more than a few out-of-towners. It was an event the kids who had grown and moved away came back for, and every year held hundreds of mini reunions between old friends and classmates. Then again, some people only came for the spinning rides and the fries.
Danny Dean fit into the latter group—a homegrown resident who'd worked at the local grocery store since high school. Having remained through six ownership changes and four brand changes, most people in town knew him well enough to have friendly conversations, but he counted few among his friends. A proverbial homebody, he still lived with his Mom, making his own space down in the basement. When Mom was no longer able to handle things, he planned to “buy” the house from her, eventually moving his basement space upstairs, but not until after she'd gone.
Until then, he worked his job at Red Rider Grocery, saving what he didn't contribute to utilities, upkeep, and groceries.
“I liked the Value King the best,” he explained to the ride operator, a willowy man with greasy brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. “Ned Murphy was a great owner who cared about his employees.” What Danny didn't say was that Mr. Murphy had a promotional crown above the front registers, and on nights when he closed by himself, he'd wear it around pretending to be King Calyn from his favorite fantasy series.
The ride operator, a drifter named Todd who once thought the carny life would be glamorous, gave him a closed mouth grin and nod as the Whirly-Whirl began to slow. With this new foreman, seniority meant nothing at the carnival, any of them could be fired for not being polite to riders, so like always he pretended to listen while daydreaming about the young girls running around in their short shorts. Nodding again, he stepped away to usher off the recent riders, and get the next group loaded.
“This new store is my second favorite,” Danny continued, as the ride operator went about his duties, “the aprons have Red Rider on them. If you have to wear an apron, it's pretty cool.” Realizing that the man was no longer listening, he announced, “This is my most favorite ride at the festival. I like all of them that spin, but this one is my most favorite.”
His passenger was still talking about the ride being his most favorite when Todd finished checking the safety chains and made his way to the controls. Starting the ride, he set the timer and turned to see what girls were around when he noticed Scott Webb standing on the edge of the queue line, staring at him. “This is not good,” he mumbled to himself and put on his best grin as he walked over. Scott was the guy who hired the carnival company and one of three people all the carnies needed to be able to recognize by sight. If he was unhappy, a lot of people were going to be unhappy. “Um, everything alright, Mr. Webb?”
“A few of the parents have expressed concern over the way you leer at young girls,” he said crossing his arms over his chest. The serious look on his face was concerning, until it broke into a lopsided grin. “Come on man, you can look, just don't be creepy about it.”
Relief swept through him. “Yes, sir.”
Above them, the Whirly-Whirl was spinning up to its vertical position. There was a lot of fun screaming, but above them all were Danny's joyous shouts. Scott looked up, smiling. “How many times tonight?” he asked.
“This is his fifth,” Todd replied, knowing exactly to whom Mr. Webb was referring. After a short pause, he asked, “Is that guy, you know, retarded?”
Scott shook his head. There was a faraway look in his eyes. The ride was beginning it's to return to horizontal when he said. “Me and Danny grew up together. He was smart, quick…normal. Then I talked him into sitting in that chair.”
Needing to get to the controls, Todd nodded and backed away. For the first time since arriving in this little town, something besides the girls had his attention. Glancing back, he was disappointed, and a little relieved, to see Mr. Webb walking away. While he’d wanted to hear more about this chair that the kid had sat in, the less that guy was around, the better.
* * *
“Not doing the fries tonight, Ray?”
“Just taking a break,” he replied with a smile. It was the fifth time he'd been asked in the last five minutes, but to him it meant that people were paying attention and that felt good. “Mike Ramsey is back there now,” he added. It was important to give credit where it was due, that's how you got people to keep helping.
With a bounce in his step, Ray rounded the corner from food cart row to the courtside aisle where most of the carnival games were situated. Searching for his daughter Lucy and granddaughter Tori, he knew that his little princess loved to play the duck stream game. For the past several years, whenever he could get away from the shack, he’d happily paid a buck per attempt for her to pick up three little yellow floating ducks to reveal a prize.
Last year she'd won a pair of goldfish that lasted exactly four hours before becoming a snack for their cat.
Ray smiled often, but the one spreading across his face when he heard that voice was bigger and happier than all the rest. “There's my girl!” At eight, he was beginning to have some difficulty picking her up and spinning her around but didn't let that or the pain in his shoulder stop him. He was rewarded with a tight hug and squeals of joy.
“Momma said you had to do fries cause people in this town are self-centered and inconsiderate.”
Turning a frown on his daughter, he said, “Well, Mike Ramsey took over for me because he's a good and thoughtful person, like most everyone here in Coal Ridge.” Lucy was not a fan of their little town. When she was younger, she’d some trouble with her weight and so hadn't had the best high school experience.
On top of that, she'd been exposed to the conspiracy flyers from the late seventies and early eighties and became convinced that not only was the town haunted or cursed, but that there was an active effort to hide it by the authorities. The problem with that theory—aside from the supernatural mumbo jumbo—was that the authorities lacked the competence to hide much of anything. As part of the volunteer fire department since the mid-eighties, he'd seen three mayors and a change in police chief, to think that they might all be in on a plot to hide ghosts and ghouls from the people of the town was ludicrous. But as soon as she was able, Lucy had had moved to Heaton. They'd seen her a lot more since Tori came along, but before that it was only for the big holidays and, of course, the festival.
“I'm glad to hear that someone stepped up, Dad, but that doesn't change the fact that you have to run that potato slicer by yourself all the time.” Seeing the look on his face, she amended, “Okay, most of the time.” Stepping in close, she gave him a hug and kiss on the cheek. “This is actually perfect timing. Tori wants to ride that spinning monstrosity and that seems like the perfect job for Grandpa.”
Frowning, Ray glanced up at the Whirly-Whirl that was spinning up vertically, and from which came the vast majority of festival screams. “I thought she liked the Duck Stream?”
“That was last year Grandpa. This year I want to ride the Whirly.”
“The way I see it, this is you're doing.” At his questioning glance, she continued. “Who's the one always picking her up and spinning her around?”
* * *
When the retarded guy's shouts stopped, Todd noticed.
He noticed a lot of the things about the ride that few others would, like the way it wobbled. Over the years he'd found that by slightly underinflating the three drive tires, they made better contact with the rounded edge of the ride and gave him more speed control. Of course, there were trade-offs. Since the tires weren't holding the platform rigidly in place, the frame had a slight wobble to it. That was normal, a good wobble, as he often called it. The bad wobble happened in wind gusts and when the passenger load was not properly balanced.
The bad wobble could be catastrophic.
There was no wind tonight and he’d been running the ride long enough that he balanced the passengers out of habit. Still, he'd noticed a bad wobble. It was a small one. The riders probably wouldn't have noticed. Todd noticed. One small bad wobble and then nothing. Except that's also when he noticed the void where Danny's shouts should have been.
“You better not have had a heart attack,” he mumbled to himself. That had happened in Iowa, and it sucked. Even though it had nothing to do with her, the Whirly-Whirl was shut down for the rest of the festival and he'd been relegated to ticket sales and cleanup. Mostly cleanup. He hated cleanup.
As the ride started to return to horizontal, Todd found an empty place where Danny should have been. His stomach dropped. “There is no chance he fell out.” The words crossed his lips silently. He'd seen people fall off rides like this before. Contrary to popular belief they didn't go flying great distances, they typically landed within about twenty yards of the ride. And it was never silent. They were screaming. The people who saw them fall were screaming. The people around where they landed were screaming. “There is no chance he fell out.” This time the words had more conviction as they passed his lips, but as the ride slowed, that empty place stared back at him.
* * *
“Come-on Grandpa!” Tori squealed as they came around the corner of the fishing game. That game used magnets dangling on the end of a pole to catch a metal fish shaped like a yellow hockey puck. The prize was based on a number placed on the underside.
A lot of the games are based around that theme, he thought to himself and then replied, “What’s the rush? The ride isn’t going anywhere.”
His grin fell away as his gaze turned to the spinning ride. Holding his granddaughters’ hand to keep her from running ahead, Ray approached the Whirly-Whirl at an even pace. While she may have been in a hurry, he was trying to figure out if the bad feeling in the pit of his stomach was him not really wanting to ride it or something else. He sometimes got these feelings when out on a call, and bad things almost always happened. He had examples. The roof collapse in the abandoned house on Ridge road. The carbon monoxide deaths on Bur Oaks—that one had been really bad.
A shiver ran up his spine.
He shook it away, along with all the other examples that had come to mind. Having spent the last thirty-five years being one of the first on scene of accidents and fires had shown him things he could never forget, no matter how hard he tried.
As they approached the queue line, a groan arose in front of them. “We just need to do a quick safety check,” the ride operator was saying. “Give us about five minutes or so to check everything out and I'll get you going again.”
“I think we're going to have to pass on the Whirly-Whirl today, Princess.”
“No Grandpa, he said five minutes.”
“If there's a safety problem, we don't want to risk it.”
“There's no safety problem here, folks,” a new voice announced. “All rides just need a quick check over every so often. Give us a couple minutes and we'll get you going again.” The voice belonged to a largish man with greased back brown hair and a sloppy beard.
“See Grandpa, no safety problem.”
Ray didn't see the I-told-you-so grin she wore, he was focused on the ride operator and new arrival who moved quickly to the side of the ride, conveniently out of earshot of the people in line. Ignoring her protests, he pulled Tori along the edge of the small metal fence that surrounded the ride. By the time he found them, their discussion had turned into a heated argument. Too far away for him to hear what was being said, Ray was considering jumping the fence to get closer, when the larger man said something and the other stopped and stood silently for a moment, before acquiescing with a nod. Shoulders slumped, the ride operator quietly climbed under the frame, likely to check it over, while the other returned to the head of the queue line.
“Thank you, good people, for your patience,” he shouted, drawing the attention of those in line. “On that last ride, my highly trained ride operator heard a squeal. Now this ride was fully inspected this morning, and we agree that the sound most likely came from one of the side roads, but your safety is of paramount concern, so we are just going to inspect things and make a quick test run. After everything passes, we'll get you back on the Whirly Whirl.” He paused, looking at the faces of those in the queue line and gave them a big yellow smile. “It's important to us that you all enjoy our rides, but it's more important that we keep you safe while you ride.”
Any concern the people in line may have had fell away and the majority went back to looking at their smartphones. “He’s good,” Ray mumbled to himself, wondering about the real problem. Tori began pulling him back towards the queue line. “Whoa honey, let's stay away from this ride.”
“No Grandpa, I want to ride it!”
“It might not be safe.”
“The man just said that it was safe.”
“How about we go to the Mixer?”
“After the Whirly.”
Ray blinked at the little girl. “I meant instead of.”
“Oh,” she replied, her brow furling. “In that case, no.” Letting go of his hand, Ray's little Princess marched over to the queue line and stared at him.
* * *
“What am I even doing under here?” Todd mumbled to himself. “The problem isn't down here, it's whatever happened to that Danny guy.” That wasn’t right, the real problem was that he didn't have any evidence that Danny had disappeared off the ride. If he'd fallen off someone would have noticed. Things like that didn't go unnoticed, ever. So, what happened to him then?
That was what Earl had asked. It was a question to which he didn't have an answer.
Unsure of what else he should do, Todd checked the anchors, confirmed that they were solid, and climbed back out from under the ride. Before heading back to the controls, he ran a hand along the smooth edge of the Whirly-Whirl. “Come on sweetheart, be good. Don't make me regret this.”
Rounding the corner, he put on his best grin and announced. “She looks good, ladies and gents. Just a quick test run and we'll get you all loaded up.”
A whoop went up from those in the queue line.
Earl was close enough to watch without being in the way. The largish group that had gathered was starting to disperse, with many of them getting in line.
* * *
Ray had watched the test run closely, searching for the slightest trouble—anything that might even hint at a problem. He didn't see anything, but then he wasn't exactly an expert in amusement ride safety. “I'm not sure we should ride this, Tori.”
“It might not be safe.”
“Grandpa,” she said, taking his hand gently, “the festival people just said it was safe. It's okay to be scared. I'm a little scared too, but this is going to be fun.”
Ray blinked at the eight-year-old, at a complete loss for words. Someone behind them snickered.
“Alright folks are you ready to ride?” the carny asked. A delighted cheer ran through the queue line. “Then let's get you aboard.”
On their turn, Ray handed over the tickets Lucy had given him. “Are you sure everything's all right?” he asked the man, nodding down at his granddaughter.
“Don't worry, sir, we take good care of our riders,” he grinned and winked at Tori, and then turned back to Ray. “When we say that safety is our top concern, it ain't just bullsh—baloney, we mean it.”
“Thanks.” The man's words sounded convincing, but his smile didn't touch his eyes. That bothered him as they were ushered onto the ride. While he wanted to pick Tori up and carry her off, all he had was a feeling, and it was starting to feel a lot like overprotectiveness.
But, it’s my job to keep her safe.
“I'm so excited Grandpa!” the little girl squealed as she stepped into her place in the metal cage and clapped her hands together excitedly. “Thank you so much for coming with me.”
* * *
Sweat dripped off Todd's forehead as he stared at the control panel. All the riders were loaded, and they were balanced. He'd checked the security chains twice and had convincingly lied to the older man with his granddaughter or niece or whatever.
With his finger hovering over the go button he hesitated. He didn't want to start the ride. He didn't want to be the one responsible.
If something went wrong, it would be the same old song and dance. Earl would tell him that it wasn't his fault and that he did everything he could. He reported a potential problem, inspected the ride, and did a test run. Everything came back green, with no indication of trouble. Our highly trained ride operators did their due diligence, he would say to the press afterwards. The ride company would settle out of court and then go out of business only to be resurrected by someone else with the same business model and employees, because there wasn't really a change in ownership, it would just be made to look that way on the books.
Sweat dripped onto the control board.
Earl was watching him; he could feel it.
Taking a deep breath, Todd activated the ride and stepped back expecting to see her go flying off the axle and crush everyone in the queue line. She didn't. The Whirly-Whirl spun up exactly as she should and when she hit full speed, moved into her vertical position. The riders were hooting and screaming and having a great time. It wasn't until she was fully vertical, that she wobbled again. This one was more violent, causing the frame to buck.
All the eyes in the queue line looked up at her.
Those at the nearby games looked up at her.
She only wobbled the once, but it was enough.
With all those eyes, Todd was the only one who saw the old man and his granddaughter or niece or whatever disappear.
* * *
What the hell? The Whirly-Whirl had jerked to a halt and Ray smashed sideways into the cage. Even though the ride had stopped, his head was still spinning. Lying on his side with the safety chains digging into his hip, he wondered if he was bleeding as pain thumped through his head.
There was something clanking above him, but otherwise everything was quiet—much too quiet for the circumstances.
“Help.” It was Tori. There were other words, but that word awakened something in him, and he pushed his way through the dizziness, opening one eye.
The ride was vertical; they were halfway between the top and bottom when it had stopped, turning the concave cage into a shelf of sorts. Had it stopped any higher up, he would probably have rolled out with only the safety chain to catch him. The ride swayed, causing his stomach to drop. Looking down at the ground twenty some feet below, he noted that no one was at the control board. No one was in the queue line. No one was anywhere near the ride, and everything was so quiet. “What the hell?”
It was agonizing, but he turned his head and saw Tori's legs kicking in the air. She'd slipped out of the cage and had both arms wrapped around the safety chain, holding on for dear life. The rush of adrenaline brought him immediately awake and his training took over. Sitting up and dangling his legs off the cage to give himself a solid foundation and some leverage, he reached out and grabbed her by the waist. “Let go Tori, I got you.”
From experience, he knew that people in desperate situations we're rarely able to trust their lives to their rescuers. His granddaughter didn't hesitate, releasing the chain, just as the ride swayed again. Her weight almost unbalanced him, but he managed to use the movement to draw her back to him. The moment he had her, Tori reached for his neck, and when her head hit his shoulder, she began sobbing.
“I got you Princess. I got you.” Although he was upright, Ray was having a hard time thinking. Holding his granddaughter close, he leaned back to keep them steady. Having his legs hanging in the air felt strange, and the relief of pulling her to safety was short lived, because he knew that they weren't actually safe, yet.
The ride swayed again. There was no wind and they weren't moving, making him wonder what was making the ride move.
With her chin hanging over his shoulder, she asked, “What happened Grandpa? Where is everyone?”
He was trying to work that out for himself as he searched the festival grounds. “I'm not sure honey.” They were alone on the ride—hell, they looked to be the only people left at the festival. That meant that in the short time he was dazed, everyone else had gotten off the ride and the festival had been evacuated, leaving them behind.
None of that was even possible.
“Did they leave us?”
“No, there has to be an explanation,” Ray replied softly, shaking his head. The throbbing was still there, but it was more manageable. Try as he might, he couldn't make himself believe that rescuers would leave them behind, especially not here in Coal Ridge. He reached for his smart phone, and then remembered that he had given it to his daughter before heading towards the Whirly-Whirl. Dammit. Think old man, he told himself. If you eliminate the possible, whatever remains, however unlikely, must be the truth.
The notion of Lucy's conspiracies crossed his mind—he'd heard her talk about people disappearing into another place when she thought he wasn't paying attention. Blinking away that thought, he mumbled to himself, “I must have hit my head real hard.”
“What's that, Grandpa?”
“Nothing Princess, just thinking out loud.”
The ride swayed more violently this time, forcing him to let go of Tori with one hand and grab one of the handles that he'd been white knuckling while the ride was in motion.
“No, Grandpa, what's that?”
“The movement?” he asked, frowning. “I'm not sure.”
“Grandpa,” her tone was frustrated with a condescending note that should be a few years away yet, “what is that down there?” She turned and pointed down at the base of the ride.
With very little room to move, Ray shifted and turned to see where she was looking. At first, he didn't see anything, but as the figure came into focus, what he saw made his jaw clench and eyes go wide. It looked like the silhouette of a wild boar, with a bird's head, and long tentacles coming off its back. Several of the tentacles were wrapped around the framework of the ride and while he watched its front half lifted upright and began to shake it.
Grabbing the handle again, he held on as the Whirly-Whirl shuddered violently. Had he not known it was coming, that shaking would have almost certainly have dislodged them.
“Grandpa?” the little girl asked again after the shaking ceased.
“Um.” He didn't have an answer. None of this made any sense. He wanted to say something to ease the fear he heard in her voice, but his mind had gone blank. The creature, or whatever, was looking at them.
No, was staring right at him.
“Grandpa, what if it climbs up here?”
“I um,” he began, seeing it begin to do just that almost as if it had been listening. Wrapping tentacles around the upper supports, it pulled itself up into the passenger compartment and started to climb up the cages, using them like steps, while the quivering tentacles reached for them. Ray's mind was falling into a terrified fog, convincing himself that this was a nightmare. This can’t be real. Except that it felt real. Tori's weight on him was real and her panicking sobs sounded real.
Ray had willingly gone into burning homes, pulled people out of smashed cars, and climbed a utility pole to rescue a kitten off live electrical lines without losing his nerve. But here, when his granddaughter needed him the most, all he could do was stare, slack jawed as the creature drew closer.
Somewhere below him, someone began to shout, but the words made no sense.
* * *
Danny was hiding under the edge of the Birthday Game. Above him was the place where people laid a quarter down on a rail mounted strip that has months, colors, and holidays written on it. To win you had to correctly guess which would come up on a giant multi-sided die that a random player tossed. It was a fun game that he'd played often, partially because he could play four times for a dollar, but mostly because he liked to roll the big die.
Rolling over to peek out of the canvas bottom, he stifled a groan. His leg hurt a lot. The shadow monster had plucked him off the Whirly-Whirl after it stopped suddenly, holding him in one of its tentacles. He'd been certain that it was going to eat him, but after waving him around and squeezing him, it had simply tossed him aside. It was lucky that he hit the bouncy house instead of one of the other rides, but he'd landed awkwardly on his leg when he hit the ground.
After dragging himself under the tent of the Birthday Game, he did his best to keep an eye on the creature, lest it come after him again.
It was still hanging around the base of the Whirly-Whirl. The ride had been vertical when he was plucked off but seemed to strobe into other positions when the creature moved around it. There was also a weird glow around it, not from the lights, more like the way an elvish blade glowed when orcs were near. As best he could tell, since everyone seemed to have disappeared, the creature had pulled him into another dimension, like in that old Dungeons & Dragons cartoon.
The creature had seemed to be losing interest and looked like it might wander away when the ride really started to glow. When that had happened, it seemed to get really excited, so Danny ducked back down. From the bottom of the tent, he couldn't really see anything, so he rolled back and stayed quiet, until he heard the girl calling for her grandpa.
Popping his head up, he searched the ride and then mumbled to himself, “Well, well, two more members of my adventuring party." While lying there he'd begun to think that after all the hours daydreaming about being pulled into a fantasy world, it had finally happened.
This is how it always happens in the stories, he thought to himself, the main character gets pulled in and his heroic companions followed. The two people on the Whirly-Whirl were not in a good position. One of them, it looked like a small girl, was hanging off the safety chain, while the other, an older man that might be the fireman, Ray Carroll, was trying to rescue her. “This is way more Stephen King than Dungeons & Dragons,” he noted aloud, as the old man caught the little girl. “I'm probably going to have to save them,” he continued, standing up and grabbing the nearest thing to him. The giant birthday die.
Lifting the part of the counter with hinges, he moved out of the game tent and started limping towards the Whirly-Whirl. The creature had been shaking the ride, but the old man had a solid grip. When that didn’t work, it began to climb up after them. “They're sitting ducks,” he mumbled to himself and then making his voice as deep as he could, somewhat plagiarized Gandalf, "Be gone foul beast. Go back to the shadow from which you came! You shall not have them this day!”
The creature reached for them with its tentacles.
He heaved the die at it.
It bounced harmlessly away.
Next to him was the hot pretzel booth. He grabbed the tongs on the inside counter and threw them as hard as he could. They bounced harmlessly away.
“Crap!” He reached back and grabbed the napkin holder, shouting, “Hey, you, shadow demon!” as he launched it. The lid came off on impact and napkins rained down everywhere, but the creature kept going. Growling his frustration, he picked up a pretzel off the counter. “What do I have to do to get your attention?” he shouted, throwing it. Jerking back and dropping away from the old man and little girl when it hit, the creature turned towards him, its beak open in a silent scream.
Blinking, Danny turned back to look at the booth. “Your weakness is pretzels?” Shrugging, he gathered up all the pretzels he could carry and started limping towards the Whirly-Whirl, heaving them one at a time at the creature.
* * *
When the creature dropped back a step, Ray felt a moment of clarity, but the fog rushed back at him. Tori was sobbing on his shoulder, pleading for him to make the creature go away. Holding on to that, he fought against the stupor. It was tough at first, like swimming upstream, but something about the situation changed. Concentrating on her voice, he managed to shake off that fog. “I got you Tori,” he whispered through grit teeth. “We're going to get out of this.”
Sniffling, she squeezed him. “Okay.”
Below them, the person who had been shouting at the creature was now throwing things at it. No, not things, “Pretzels?”
“I like pretzels.” The little girl said, pulling her head off his shoulder and smacking her lips.
“I don't think that thing does,” he said watching it drop off the ride and move toward the person backing away. “And I think that's Danny Dean down there.”
“The funny man from the market?”
“It's not nice to call people that.”
“Why? He tells me funny jokes.”
Grinning, Ray squeezed her. I should have known that my granddaughter wouldn't say mean things about anyone. Watching the seen below, he saw that Danny had retreated around the Birthday Game. Each time he hit the creature with a pretzel, it would wince and slow, but the tentacles were beginning to coil. If it strikes like a snake, he’s gonna be in trouble. “Come on Tori, we're gonna climb down.”
While he’d initially been concerned about being able to climb down, maneuvering along the cages proved to be easier than a ladder. After lowering himself down, he was able to help Tori. It took no time for them to get to the lowest point where they were only about ten feet up. Lowering himself off the edge, he easily dropped down into the grass, catching his granddaughter when she jumped into his arms.
That hurt more than he wanted to admit.
A moment later, Danny came hobbling around the tent. “Mr. Carroll,” he said with a grin, “I'm glad you got down, but I'm almost out of pretzels and I think that thing is getting mad.” Looking down, he grinned. “Hi Tori.”
“Hi Mr. Danny.”
“We need to move, are you okay,” Ray asked, noting the way Danny limped.
“It threw me and I hit the bouncy house and it hurt, but I’m okay.”
Taking him under the shoulder, Ray began to move them away from the Whirly-Whirl and towards the front of the festival. “We need to get away from that thing. Do you know what's going on here Danny?”
“I think—um,” he had some ideas, but they all came from TV shows or movies, and it seemed dumb to bring those up to Mr. Carroll. “I'm not sure, but I think we're in a different place.”
“My daughter would agree with you,” Ray mumbled. “Are there anymore more of those pretzels?”
“Only unsalted ones, but those don't seem to bother it.”
With his head still thumping, Ray was still having trouble concentrating, but something about that seemed important.
“Why don't you just put salt on them?” Tori asked.
“That's a good idea,” Danny exclaimed. “Why didn't I think of that?”
Ray cursed himself, guiding them over to the pretzel booth. “I don't think it's the pretzels,” Ray decided, reaching up and grabbing the oversized shaker. It was a little more than half full. “I think it's the salt.”
“That make so much more sense,” Danny realized. “Having pretzels as a weakness is just too random, besides the demons on all the TV shows hate—”
A tentacle wrapped around his waist and ripped him upward. Ray reacted immediately. Pulling off the lid, he stepped in front of Tori, telling her to cover her eyes and tossed a handful into the air above them.
The first rule of rescue was don't put yourself into a position where you need to be rescued. Taking another big handful of salt, he threw it at the creature, who was on top of the pretzel booth.
It leapt backwards.
Danny's scream cut off as he dropped to the ground a short distance away.
“Mr. Danny!” Tori ran over to him as the creature retreated off the booth, its tentacles waving around wildly.
Unhappy that she’d rushed off, but proud that in a time of stress her concern was for someone else, Ray grabbed the other saltshaker and moved over to them.
“I think it busted my ribs,” Danny moaned as Tori held his hand.
“Can you fix Mr. Danny, Grandpa?”
With the corners of his lips turning up in a grin, Ray nodded. “I'll do my best Princess, but we have to get out of here first. If that thing wasn't angry before, it sure is now.” Tasking Tori with watching for it and holding one of the saltshakers, he helped Danny up to his feet. Between his winces and tender movements, broken ribs seemed about right. Had it been him or Tori that the creature had grabbed, it might have killed them.
That line of thought got him wondering about the creature as they moved. If it were a simple predator, it should have gone for me or Tori first—neither of them had shown the capacity to injure it and in nature, the young and old were ripe targets. That means that it acted thoughtfully, taking revenge for being hurt. While not common in the animal kingdom, it wasn’t unheard of either, and it gave him a clue as to how to deal with it.
“It's coming Grandpa!”
Following her pointing finger, Ray turned and saw it charging, the tentacles stretched out in front. Without having much time, he tossed the contents of the open shaker in the air in front of them. It stopped, the tentacles beginning to reach around the cloud. “Damn, its clever and fast,” he mumbled, realizing that they were overmatched. “We need someplace safe to figure out what to do.”
“We could go to the market,” Danny offered. “There's lots of salt there.”
“I want to go home Grandpa.”
Taking the other saltshaker from his granddaughter, Ray stepped to the left and side armed a handful right into the tentacle. It retreated away, but not far. The shaker was only about three quarters full; there wasn't enough salt in it to get them very far. They were near food cart row, but none of the stands looked like place where he would want to make a stand against the creature. He turned towards the fry stand and the answer loomed there, as obvious as the nose on his face. “We need to get to the city building.”
“That should be defensible,” Danny agreed. “There might even be weapons there.”
“Grandpa, I want to go home.”
“Me too Princess,” he said, dropping down on one knee, “but we need to get somewhere safe first, okay?”
Her lower lip quivered. “Okay.”
“Um, has anyone seen the creature?” Danny asked, as Ray stood and took his Granddaughters hand.
They all looked around. “You weren't watching it,” Ray asked.
“My ribs really hurt, Mr. Carroll,” Danny mumbled, looking away. “I was trying to catch my breath cause I know we gonna have to move quick.”
He'd meant Tori, as that was her task, but she was eight and this was a scary situation, so he let it go. “That's okay, Danny, I know you're doing your best.” Ray took him by the shoulder. “Just keep your head on a swivel and shout if you see it.” They started up past the BINGO pavilion, giving it a wide berth, just in case the creature was hiding up in the rafters, and moved into the parking lot. The open space it offered gave him plenty of time to react if it charged.
Doing his best to watch every direction, Danny was mentally beating himself up. This is my adventure. I was drawn here first and my task was to rescue them. I should be leading. But he let creature get to him and he had to be rescued, and then Mr. Carroll had figured out the salt thing which he should have figured out for himself. How could I think pretzels were its weakness? I'm so stupid.
Had his attention not been split between watching and self-loathing, he might have noticed the shadows on the road. He didn’t and stepped right into one. An agonized scream filled the air as his foot was twisted backwards.
In the same moment, Tori was enveloped in shadow and pushed up off the ground, while Ray was thrown sideways, landing hard in the grass. Tentacles raced at him. A shout started in his mouth but hadn’t made it past his lips before he was engulfed.
Throwing his arms out, reaching for his mangled ankle, Danny’s forearm hit the saltshaker. With his eyes shut tight and tears streaming down his face, he picked it up and swing it blindly, releasing a wave of salt as it arced across his body.
All the shadows recessed as the empty saltshaker clunked to the ground.
Pushing himself up to his knees, Ray saw the store clerk lying in a fetal position, both hands down by his feet and his shoulders heaving with sobs. “Tori!” She was lying on the pavement next to Danny.
Looking up, the little girl cried, “Grandpa?” She was up and in his arms a moment later.
“I got you,” he mumbled, holding her tight, releasing a deep breath. “I got you.” After a moment, he gently pushed her back. “Alright I need you to be brave so we can help Mr. Danny now. Okay?”
Looking behind them, Ray spied the creature in the shadows of the BINGO pavilion. He tried not to think about the damage it could do in there with all the friends and neighbors he'd grown to know and love over the years and tried to concentrate on Danny. His foot had been twisted completely backwards. Between that and the injuries to his back and ribs, Danny was in bad shape. On top of that, they didn't have any salt. Not that it mattered. It isn’t gonna let us get to the city building.
Ray had been an emergency responder for a long time and had been scared plenty of times, but he'd never had cause to panic. Even in the worst situations he always had his training, but nothing had prepared him for this. I might be able to get Tori over there, he thought, but that would mean leaving Danny behind.
“Take her and go, Mr. Carroll,” Danny managed between grit teeth.
“No! We can't leave Mr. Danny, Grandpa.”
There wasn’t any other choice, someday she would understand that. Hating himself for what he was about to do, Ray picked up his granddaughter.
“No grandpa! No!”
Outside of their own voices, it was the first sound they'd heard since being pulled into this place.
Turning in the direction of the sound, his gaze fell on the fry stand. All along, everything at the Festival had looked exactly as it did before, except that there were no people, sounds, or smells. But now, the fry stand looked different.
There was a purplish fog hovering over it, and he smelled lavender.
“Come on Danny,” he directed, setting Tori down.
“Now!” The store clerk was yanked up to a standing position. Pain exploded behind his eyes, causing him to lose consciousness as he was lifted off the ground.
“Do you know what they call this, Princess?”
“A fireman's carry!” she shouted, watching as her grandfather adjusted the young man across his shoulders.
This is gonna hurt tomorrow, Ray thought as he shifted Danny's weight, holding him at the thigh and shoulder. “Very good. We're going to the fry stand. You stay close and if I tell you to run, you go. No questions. Got it?” She nodded. He gave her a grin as they got started. “Is it still in the BINGO Pavilion?”
“It’s starting to come out.”
Dammit. “Go! Run! Now! Get in the back and wait for me”
After a moment’s hesitation, she took off running, while shouting, “I hate that thing!”
At one time, Ray would have been able to trot with this much weight on his shoulders, but that was more than a decade ago. While he'd been energized when he heard the potato slicer, because the sound gave him hope, it was fading. The creature moved too fast and was too smart, but he couldn't just leave Danny out there. That's not who I am. Besides, leaving someone behind to maybe save himself was not the last lesson he wanted to teach his granddaughter.
“Come on Grandpa!” the little girl screamed from behind the counter.
Moving as fast as he could with Danny on his shoulders, he couldn’t look back to see how close it was. They were close. Ten yards from the fry stand at most, when he was jerked to a stop. “At least I'll never see a festival without Fireman Fries,” he mumbled to himself as the shadow engulfed him.
The end that Ray expected didn't come, just a voice bellowing, “Get away from my Grandpa!”
The shadow retreated from around him.
Standing on the counter was his granddaughter, angrily hurling saltshakers at the creature.
It was enough to allow him to make it those last ten yards.
Stepping around the counter, he crashed down onto the flattened grass. Danny rolled away whimpering. Jumping down off the counter, Tori wrapped her arms around him.
“Thank you for saving Mr. Danny, Grandpa.”
“Throwing the saltshakers was very clever,” he whispered, holding her tight.
“She told me to do it.”
The name popped into his head and he whispered, “Elizabeth.” The stories of the angel in the retirement home came back to him as that purplish fog became a warm lavender cocoon.
“No, not her.”
Lavender gave way too an odor of recently turned gravel, with the happy echo of children at play in the distance. For a moment, Ray saw the old playground at Mary Shelley Elementary, but when he blinked Tori and he were on the ground in the open field where the school once stood. Danny lay on the ground nearby, still whimpering.
“I think we're safe now Princess,” he said, releasing her and moving to check on Danny. Once again, he wished that he hadn't left his phone with his daughter before getting on the ride. He and Lucy were going to have a lot to talk about after this, beginning with an apology from him.
“I know. Em told me we were gonna be safe.”
Seeing that Danny was hovering on the edge of consciousness, Ray was trying to set the ankle before he woke, and almost missed what she said. “Wait, who's Em?”
“The girl who told me to throw the saltshakers.”
Danny woke, his eyes going wide from the pain. Tending to him pushed everything else away for the moment, leaving Ray with yet another mystery in an evening of them.