by Doug Ferguson
The black-haired boy sped from the school-yard, weaving through the trees toward the street. The sound of children's voices faded beneath the banging of fenders and chain-guard as his bike turned and climbed onto the sidewalk. It was too small for him. Billy glanced down at the rocket ship that was the bike's headlight and noticed for the first time that rust was beginning to pepper the lid. A block later he veered off the sidewalk, stood on the pedals as the front wheel dropped off the curb to the street, and leaned into a turn. Overhead, the trees formed a brown and orange canopy through which the late afternoon sun fired arrows of flame. Houses that seemed ancient to Billy showed their faces between high, thick hedges caught turning brown. Occasionally he passed narrow alleys leading to little shaded alcoves and service paths that passed unseen behind backyard fences, secret places he knew well from his many explorations.
The weather was pleasant today, but when fall came to Flecter's Well, it was usually sudden and short, vacating quickly to make room for winter. Billy had a good distance to ride, but it would be worth the effort for another encounter with his obsession before the cold fell.
The bicycle's clatter transposed itself to the rumble of large machinery as Billy steered with his imagination. Round a bend where the rows of houses ended, through an undeveloped subdivision he rode until a single wooded lot stood between him and his destination. Just above the trees, a white, curved framework shown brightly against the late afternoon sky. He hopped the curb and threaded his way through the undeveloped lot, following a rough path he had discovered years ago. Emerging from the copse, he brushed away strands of spiders' webs from his shirt, then skidded his bike slid to a stop amid wet leaves. Flipping the kick-stand down, he hopped off in a single motion. There before him was an amusement park.
It stood empty and still, but its sounds echoed loudly in his memory. Red letters on the side of the roller coaster's lift hill proclaimed it the Comet, and he could hear the rattle of the chain lift, the screams of the riders as an invisible train raced down the first drop. To the right of it were the kiddy rides, which he had finally outgrown, erupting with children's high-pitched squeals. On the left were larger rides - a Ferris Wheel, Caterpillar, Tilt-a-Whirl, and a tall Aeroplane Swing which traced a course parallel to the ground when it was at its fastest. Billy imagined the screams and laughter, and wondered if he'd ever muster the courage to ride.
It was the machinery that fascinated him. Whenever he came to the park, he stood as close as the railings would allow, staring into the works, carefully watching the operation of every visible part. At home he had built models of most every ride here with his Erector Set, attempting to make each one work just as its inspiration did. He spent hours playing with them, imagining what the real experience must be like.
The thing that brought Billy here on this particular afternoon, however, was curiosity over a novelty. During the last half of summer, an addition to the park began to take shape - a large metal building with a wood-frame front, sandwiched between the ball-toss booth and the shooting gallery. It had to be some sort of ride, but no one seemed to know anything about it. Work had continued since the park closed after Labor Day, and the outside was finally beginning to look finished. The front was elevated, a large porch with stairs at both ends leading up. On either side of the porch were pairs of large doors leading inside.
As he entertained private theories about it, Billy saw two men emerge from the alley beside the ride. One gestured toward the edge of the park, and nudged his companion. In a few moments, a freight delivery truck trundled up the midway and came to a stop when it reached them.
Billy lowered himself onto the carpet of leaves, oblivious of the wetness soaking into his jeans. As he watched, the workers opened the back doors of the truck, and with the driver's help began removing a set of metal letters. He decided they were designed to light up, because he could see electrical junction boxes on each one. The three men laid the letters out in their proper order, leaned them against the porch, and stood back to admire them. Billy read the completed sign aloud in a puzzled voice.
"Laugh In The Dark?"
The 1956 Bel-Air coupe slowed and pulled into the driveway, carefully avoiding the grass on either side of and between the twin concrete strips. It eased to a stop, and its headlights went dark. Gerald Mason opened the door slowly, picked up his satchel, and climbed out of the driver's seat. He looked tired. At the side of the white frame house, the porch light came on and the kitchen door opened. A slender hand pushed open the porch screen, and a woman's head peered out into the darkness.
Allison watched as her husband walked toward her. She could see something was wrong, and knew immediately what it was. He climbed the stairs to the kitchen, and she allowed him to pass by her through the door, silently waiting. Slowly, he placed his briefcase on the kitchen table, removed his hat, pulled out a chair, and sat.
"The plant is closing. The final decision was made today."
Allison sighed. "Gerry, I- "
"No. Nothing anyone can do." He leaned against the tabletop and looked into Allison's eyes, his finger tapping the side of his briefcase.
"For ten years you've been there... it's not right for them to..." She halted, her conviction failing.
"We've been over this. Let's not start again."
In silence, Allison turned to the stove and continued to prepare dinner. Her shoulders drooped, but her face was unreadable.
"Love," said Gerry, "it isn't the end of the line. It happens all the time. If I didn't feel confident I could find work, I'd be a lot worse off than I am."
Allison put down a spoon, and it dripped on the stovetop. Without thinking, she tore off a paper towel, wet it under the faucet and wiped up the spill.
"I know," said Allison, "it just takes a while. Bear with me." She tossed the towel in the trash, and smiled briefly. "My only worry is Billy..."
Suddenly, there was a clatter from the driveway, followed by a succession of familiar sounds. The boy bounded up the stairs, yanked open the screen door, and then stopped short when he saw his parents. Something was wrong, and he knew by looking at their faces that his tardiness was not the real problem.
"The factory is closing, son." Gerry wasted no time on preface when speaking to Billy. He never had.
"We will probably have to leave Flecter's Well. It may take some time for me to find work elsewhere. In the meantime, there won't be much money to spare. I expect you to help around the house more. Do you understand? Your mother will be needing your help."
Billy felt great disappointment. He had ridden his bike far and wide around Flecter's Well and discovered all the hidden places where he could go to act out his quiet fantasies. The town was his entire world, and except for his grandfather's farm in Haguesville where he had spent short vacations, it was all he knew. He wanted to say something, but knew it would not do any good, so he just stood staring at the floor.
Gerry looked at the boy, who finally nodded numbly.
In silence, the family ate dinner. Billy finished, went upstairs to his room, fretted through his homework, and put away his books. Absently, he began playing with his toys, and part of him seemed completely asleep. Finally, there was a knock on the door, and his father opened it.
"Son," he said, moving to sit on the bed, "there is something I want to discuss with you."
Billy sat on the floor, the stage for his fantasy world. The serious look on his father's face caused the real world to pour into his play land, and the wooden floor seemed harder beneath him.
"Billy, when we move, I will expect you to begin associating more with your schoolmates. In all the time you've been in school, you have made only two, maybe three friends. You never go to any of your class parties, and you never play with the boys and girls in the neighborhood. It's not healthy for someone your age to hide in his room all the time. We'll get you in a good scout troop, and you'll learn."
Billy closed his eyes. He had heard this speech from his mother several times, but now the change was actually coming, and he resented it. Most of his schoolmates he considered silly or brutish, and the scouts he knew would have nothing to do with him. Billy stared down at his toys, for he considered these his best friends.
Gerry watched as his son sat in silence. In a while he left, closing the door quietly before he turned down the hall toward the master bedroom. He simply did not know how to deal with Billy when he withdrew like this, and he was in no mood for an incident.
It seemed cooler in the house, and Gerry pushed the thermostat higher as he passed it. He saw no point in allowing himself the luxury of brooding, so he sat on the side of the bed, picked up the classified ads, and read as the gas floor furnace thumped and popped.
Billy looked at the closed door for a few moments, then picked up a school tablet and pencil. He was determined to draw something, but all he could think to do was doodle. Eventually, an entire page was covered with wiggly lines and spirals, all tangled up together. With a sigh, he tossed the pad into the corner, crawled into bed, and pulled the covers over his head.
Allison carefully opened the door to Billy's room, looked in, shook her head, turned out the light, and closed the door again. She went to the bedroom, put her arms around Gerry, and the pair sat together for a long time in silence.
Billy eased his bike's front tire between two dull gray pipes of the rack, slid a lock through the spokes of the wheel, and clicked it shut. He realized he was late - the school yard was empty. Listlessly, he plodded toward the old school building, not caring what he would face as he passed the office. With effort, he climbed the stairs and slipped through the door. The principal stood waiting for him just inside.
"William Mason. I simply cannot believe you are late again," said Mrs. Burg, horn-rimmed glasses slid low on the bridge of her nose. "I don't suppose you have an excuse, do you?" Her stern, pale face was framed by a sharp arch of fiery red hair pulled back into a tight bun.
Billy merely shook his head. He could not meet the imposing woman's gaze, and looked toward the door. He wanted to run, to go somewhere he could be alone.
"You already know you will be suspended, and your parents will be very angry. This is the last time I will warn you."
"Yes mam." Billy dug in his pockets, fingering his change, keys and knife nervously.
"Don't you care about your life? Remember what we talked about last Tuesday? School is your work. Your father is responsible enough to be on time for his work. When I have to call your parents, it puts a burden on them. You must learn to be responsible, Billy." Mrs. Burg felt she was doing her best to be sensible, but the severe image she presented to Billy was anything but reassuring. "Go on to class now. Remember, this is the last warning I will give you."
"Yes mam," he repeated, his voice completely devoid of emotion.
In the two weeks since his father broke the news about his job, school had become an alien place for him. At home, life was uncomfortable. His entire little world would soon be lost, and everything seemed meaningless. He had indeed been late for school several times, and the inevitable family meetings with the principal only put more distance between him and his parents. One day, in acute ennui, he had turned away from school and driven to the fallow amusement park to watch the new ride being completed, for it was one of the few things that still held interest for him.
Class time dragged by until the noon bell rang. Billy wasn't hungry, and instead of heading for the lunchroom, he pushed open the hall doors and went out into the playground behind the school. Severe stone walls gave way to a concrete apron which was arranged for basketball and volleyball, painted with lines and circles.
He walked onto the hard field, treading the yellow court boundary as though it were a tightrope. His thoughts were miles away at the amusement park, wondering why anyone would want to "laugh in the dark." From behind him came the sound of footsteps, and he turned, his reverie broken.
"Billy... hold up!" The speaker was a golden-haired boy with a tan jacket. Beside him was another young student wearing a gray windbreaker, his hair cut so short that it was impossible to accurately determine the color.
"What, Chris?" Billy turned, his attention now back in the school-yard. He was annoyed at having been disturbed.
"Randy says you... you've been going to Farley Park to watch that new thing they're building." The boy next to Chris nodded in agreement, and seemed pleased that his friend was quoting him.
"I... yeah." Billy wanted them both to go away, but he hadn't expected this to come up. Curiosity prickled him, and he faced Randy square on. "What do you know about it?"
Randy just grinned, and Chris stepped close to Billy.
"Well, the thing is, we're going to have a good look. See, we've been watching it too. There's a back door on that thing. They don't even keep it locked," said Chris in a soft, conspiratorial voice. Randy nodded, still obviously pleased.
"How? You mean you're gonna go inside? Without asking?" Billy was now hooked, and his friend knew it.
Chris chuckled. "Yeah, why not?"
"We can all go. Together. Don'tcha wanna see inside it?" Randy seemed especially eager.
"It's gotta be dark in there..." Billy replied.
"Naah, they got lights inside. We seen... saw..."
"I know where the switch is!" Randy interrupted Chris and got a hard nudge for his trouble.
Billy felt odd. Here were two who seemed to know more than he did about his favorite subject. Jealousy needled him, but he couldn't resist becoming involved.
"Well, anyway," said Chris, "it'll be easy. We'll just go in, have a look, and leave. Everybody'll be green when we tell 'em we did it."
Randy smiled and nodded his agreement.
"So, when are you gonna do it?" Billy had already knew he had to go, but he wanted more information first. "I don't wanna get caught. I'm already in enough trouble." He looked down, hesitated for a moment, then kicked a pebble out to the center of the playing field. It skidded into the mid-court circle, about a foot away from the center.
"Friday, after school. They leave early on Friday - the men, I mean." Chris picked up a pebble, and placed it before his shoe. He knew the little ritual well: closest to center was the leader.
Randy just stood watching. He was younger, and knew he wasn't allowed to participate. Chris kicked the rock, and it spun and wobbled toward the circle, finally tapping Billy's stone and passing it. He grinned widely, clearly pleased with his luck. Billy merely shrugged.
"Okay. We'll meet at the bike rack. Friday." Chris stood erect, assuming the leadership he had won. "Randy, bring your flashlight. Billy, you bring one, too. Fresh batteries, guys. Remember."
School simply didn't exist for the rest of the afternoon. All Billy could think of was the expedition. Wasn't he the one who had spent so much time studying the park? Why hadn't he thought of sneaking around for a look at the back? Inspired by the desire to make up for his oversight, he realized that he might score a point with Chris by doing a little extra scouting on his way home. It was as good as done.
Billy's bike lay on its side in the leaves, which were dry now and scattering in the wind. It was quite cool, and the sun was lowering to the treetops. He stood at his observation post across from the park, viewing the reward of his effort. The front of the ride had changed since last he came. A wooden façade had been erected, not unlike the ones on buildings Billy had seen in westerns at the movies. It made the ride seem much bigger, and all over it were paintings of cartoon characters, bizarre monsters, and laughing faces. The sign was also up, attached to a metal frame atop the awning over the porch, its letters all tilted at different angles.
Once again, a truck was unloading in front of Laugh In The Dark. On a ramp set against the rear of the truck, small yellow cars were being wheeled down. These reminded Billy of the ones in the bumper-car ride, except that they lacked steering wheels. One at a time, a fork lift took them from the ground to the porch, where they were fitted onto a single rail track that entered the ride beneath the doors on either side. After all five cars were mounted, the worker pushed each of them into the building through the doors on the right. Billy decided that there wasn't any power connected to the track yet.
Suddenly, one of the men looked right at him and waved. Billy hesitated - he had foolishly thought himself invisible. Finally, he smiled weakly and waved back. A good spy would never have let himself be seen, but surely this would not hurt their chances on Friday. After the man returned to his work, Billy picked up his bike. He had all the news he needed, and he didn't see why he had to admit to Chris and Randy that he had been observed.
A cold wind was behind him all the way home. He shivered in his light jacket, and pumped harder. Five minutes later he arrived, bumping down the sidewalk, weaving around his father's car, and finally stowing his bike in the garage amid the gardening tools. After pulling down the overhead door, he walked to the kitchen stairs and found Allison standing there, looking down at him. The expression on her face was hard.
"Son," she said, "come inside and sit down. We have to settle this."
The despondent boy climbed the stairs slowly. Without finishing his sentence, he walked into the kitchen and dropped into a chair next to the table.
"Billy, Mrs. Burg called this afternoon. Again. Why were you late for school? Where have you been this time?" She walked to the sink, filled a glass with water, and set it on the table before the boy. He took a sip and stared at the floor.
"I don't know." The words were barely audible.
"You... don't know." Allison breathed out the echo as a sigh. "Billy, you are a different boy than the one we knew before your father lost his job. What has happened to you? What aren't you telling us, son?"
Billy honestly didn't know. He had no mirror to hold up to himself. All he could think of was the park and the ride. His family had become a mere abstraction to him. As before, he remained silent.
"Don't you understand that we love you? Please show us some in return. Please."
Billy never had understood exactly what his parents meant by love. He had heard endless talk about it, and knew from watching movies that romance was supposed to involve love, but he was not sure he had ever really felt it. All he could guess was that it involved obligations, things one was expected to do. Her words made him feel uncomfortable, and when he got to a certain point in his thoughts, there was a closed door. He decided not to open it.
"Yes, I love you." His voice was flat.
"Don't force yourself, son." Allison looked hurt.
"Can I go to my room?"
She sighed again, but her tone became determined. "Most certainly not. You are going to listen to me right now. Since pleading does not work with you, punishment will. From now on, I will take you to school and pick you up afterward. You will be supervised while doing your homework, and there will be no play until all your schoolwork and chores are done. Believe me, I do not want to do this, but you give me no choice."
Billy winced. She had closed the route to his Friday objective neatly, the only thing that really concerned him.
"Now, you will march to your room, and get out your books, and study."
Allison was stern, and ushered her son along with a hand on his shoulder. He moved as stiffly as an automaton. In complete silence, he spent the evening with his books, his feelings hidden. When he had finished, he was sent to bed early. After the lights were turned out, he welcomed the dark...
Billy stood on a ledge, with night all around him. Down below, on a wide plain were massive structures of open metal and wood, all lifeless. He could hear the faint sound of wind whistling around and through them. In the distance, darkness swallowed the valley and whatever lay beyond it. Above, the sky was the black of winter midnight, devoid of moon or stars. The only light came from below, a dim blue-violet glow that seemed to cling to every object in the valley. Off to his left a path led down, and as he followed it with his eyes he realized that he was looking at a huge amusement park, which seemed completely abandoned.
This baffled him. What had happened here? Finally, he noticed that there was an open place in the desolation, outlined by darkness. In the midst of it, lit from behind by the dim glow, was a low, featureless black structure. It was the only thing in the entire scene that seemed different. Billy felt drawn toward it, but curiosity suddenly gave way to fear.
He tried to take a step backward, but stumbled and fell forward...
With a crash, Billy tumbled out of bed amidst his toys, twisting a carefully built roller coaster model into a flattened, useless tangle. He screamed as the impact woke him, hands flailing and scattering toys in every direction. Several of them broke as they impacted the wall. Within a few seconds there were rapid footfalls in the hall.
The door burst open, and his father ran in, with Allison behind him. After picking Billy up from the littered floor, Gerry sat him back on the bed, watching as his breathing began to calm.
"Son, what happened? Did you have a bad dream?"
Billy was staring at the wall, eyes wide. He hadn't yet reacted to his parents' presence. Slowly, he came to his senses, and saw what had happened to his precious possessions.
"NO!" Billy shouted. "My toys! All my toys!"
Gerry and Allison just looked at him, and shook their heads. The boy stood up, cleared a place on the floor with his feet, and kneeled to gather up his broken things. There were tears in his eyes.
"Son, I believe you actually love things more than you love us." His father stood with his arms folded. "I feel sorry for you, but we have done all we can to help you. It's time you saw a doctor."
Billy's face went blank. He slumped, pulled his knees to his chest and withdrew. Allison and Gerry watched him for a few minutes, feeling totally helpless. In exasperation, they left him there until the time came for school.
His mother waited as he dressed, gathered his books for him, and brought him to school after dropping Gerry off at the plant. Billy offered no resistance to any directions she gave, but showed no signs of any connection to what was going on around him. When she let the boy out, he walked away without so much as a good-bye, climbed the front steps of the building, and disappeared inside.
As she watched him go, Allison's first thought made her cringe. A voice inside her whispered that it didn't care if Billy ever came home again. The pressure of dealing with the boy's erratic behavior was getting to her. It wasn't the first time her love for him had been severely tested, and it had not been easy to be constant.
"I love you, son," she whispered. Somehow, just being able to say it was enough to reassure her.
Billy sat under the tallest tree in the school-yard. The ancient oak's gnarled bark had done its best to resist the ravages of students' fingers, but it was clearly losing the war. Here and there were bald patches and weather-worn inscriptions carved with pocket knives. On the bare earth in the shadows, the silent boy chewed at his sandwich without tasting it, and ignored the other children who were engaged in noisy play elsewhere in the yard. Something bounced off his knee, hard. As he looked up, he saw Chris and Randy standing over him, their hands full of acorns.
"Well, tomorrow's Friday." Chris grinned, pitched an acorn toward the monkey bars, and it bounced off the top rung with a resonant ting.
Billy looked at him with a long face. "It's off. My mother punished me. I can't go." These were the first words he had spoken all day.
Randy tried to imitate Chris' feat, and missed entirely.
"Whaddaya mean? Punished? For what?" Chris dropped his acorns in a pile before Billy's crossed legs.
"Being late for school. Mrs. Burg called them again. I don't care, though." He bit off some sandwich, chewed slowly, then swallowed. "Mom won't let me out of the house."
"Heh.." Chris chuckled, "Run away from home. I wouldn't let my parents do that to me and get away with it." It was empty bragging, and he knew it.
"You could come to my house..." Randy started.
Billy frowned thoughtfully. He pushed himself to his feet, his hands behind him, inching up the bark of the tree.
"Chris, you have an old bike, right?"
"Bring it with you on Friday. I'm going anyway."
"Well, good!" The idea of an added risk appealed to Chris, and he just grinned wider. "We'll leave out the back gate. No one will notice."
"There's something else, too," Billy added. As determination took hold, he remembered his spy mission. "I rode over there yesterday after school. They put a front on it, a big one. It's all painted up with weird faces, kinda laughing..."
Randy was listening, standing close beside Chris.
"...and they brought in these little yellow cars and put 'em on a track that goes in the doors. It's a ride, for sure. I guess it's supposed to make people laugh."
"Mm. Well, that settles it. We know what it is." Chris rubbed his chin. "Uh, Randy, tell Billy what you told me."
The younger boy felt the attention fasten on him, and he straightened up.
"Last night my mom and dad had company, some friend of theirs - and you know how you're s'posta be polite, and listen..."
Billy nodded impatiently.
"Well... he started talking about this big amusement park called Scarsvale, or something... and I raised my hand. I told him all about the building we been watching. He said that it's gonna be to scare people. I said, 'Why?' He says, 'because they enjoy it.' I told him I wouldn't enjoy that much. He kinda laughed, and I got confused. I asked him what was funny, and he said I should see the one at Scarsvale."
"What's it like?" Billy asked, afire with curiosity. "Did he say?"
"He said it was really big, and that every year it was a little different. When I asked him what was in it, he told me sometimes things jumped out of the dark at you. I asked him more, but all he did was grin, like he didn't want to say. Maybe he never really went on it." Randy looked over at Chris, uncertainty all over his face. "I'm not sure I wanna go with you guys. It scares me."
"You little coward," Chris chided him, "I figured that guy had you spooked. Look, there's three of us, and the thing isn't finished. Nobody'll be alone. All we're going to do is look inside for a minute. Besides, we'll have the lights on. You saw the light switch, remember? We'll all know what's in there, and everyone else'll have to ride it to find out."
"Okay," he said quietly. Randy shuffled his feet slowly on the dark soil, looking down as he did so. Despite his fear, he didn't want the dreaded label coward applied to him.
"I just don't figure," said Billy, "why they call it Laugh in the Dark."
"'Cause they want to fool people, silly," replied Chris.
"Sounds kinda mean, to me." Billy threw the unfinished sandwich in a trash barrel.
"You ever figure out grownups, you tell me about it," Chris said with a wry smile. "I guess they like to play jokes on people, too."
"Some joke," Billy replied.
Allison left Billy doing homework, crossed her fingers against the chance she was taking, and drove to the plant to pick up Gerry. Billy seemed to have recovered somewhat from his depression, and she was thankful for it. Still, there was definitely something wrong. Tomorrow she would have to call the doctor and arrange for a visit. This was no ordinary childhood malaise he was suffering from, and the single implication was precisely the last one she wished to face. She did not trust psychiatrists at all, and she was almost certain Billy's pediatrician would recommend that he be sent to one. There was something else on her mind as well - something that had been worrying her for years. She'd have to raise the subject with Gerry again tonight, and knew it would likely provoke an argument.
When she got home, she was relieved to find Billy in his room, still doing his homework. He didn't look up until addressed, and then merely answered her questions without elaboration. Allison was not happy with this distance between the two of them, but she knew no way to cross it.
Returning to the kitchen, she smiled at Gerry through the door to the dining room, where he sat silently at the dinner table, the newspaper open to the classified ads in front of him. He returned her smile naturally, as if nothing at all were wrong. Sensing an opportunity for the talk she wanted to have, Allison decided to seize it. She walked into the dining room and took a chair across from her husband.
"Gerry, I know we've discussed this before - more than once - and I know very well how you feel. But with all that has happened, I think it's time we... thought about telling him."
Her voice was quiet, and her husband took the cue. She could tell he was controlling himself with effort.
"Allison, it would do more harm than good right now... look how withdrawn he is. You think telling him that is going to make him cheer up? He'll end up hating both of us."
"I... don't know why I say it, other than I feel we ought to show him we can be totally honest with him. He already resents me. I guess he wants some kind of reassurance, but I can't give it to him, not in the way he wants. Why should it be so hard for a child to face a move to another city?"
"Love, you are his only contact while I am at work, his only source of affection at home. I'm not the best at fathering - I do the best I can - but he needs your love, especially. I know that when we married, you weren't so happy about having a child to care for all of a sudden. But Hon, Billy is part of your life with me. You knew that when I proposed."
"Gerry, yes, I know. It will never be the same with me as it might have been with her. It's almost like he knows the truth somehow without being told. How can you be so sure he doesn't remember her?"
"I know, trust me. Billy has no memories at all of the time before it happened. When I've made references to things that happened before the... before Sue died, he can't recall them," said Gerry, running his hand back across his head. "You know that, anyway."
"Well, maybe he realizes something is wrong now. What if he remembers before we tell him?"
Gerry put his hands on the table, palms down, and leaned forward. It was clear he had decided not to change his mind.
"Then, at that point, we'll just have to deal with it. For now, at least for tonight, we'll not discuss it further," he said, his voice revealing more frustration than authority.
Billy eased himself off the hall floor, careful not to make a sound. His socks glided silently over the hardwood as he returned to his room. The conversation had shocked him at first, but he quickly became numb again. He knew of no early memories, as his father had said, but he was determined to look for them now. He wanted to remember his mother badly - it was a powerful revelation to him that Allison was only his stepmother. He had no feelings at all for her, and now he knew why. So, his father and stepmother hadn't ever seen fit to tell him the truth. Tomorrow, he decided, he would get even with both of them.
The memories did not return that evening, but the dream did.
Once again, he stood on the steep, rocky ledge surrounding the dark valley. Below was the big park, just as it had appeared before - with one exception. This time, in front of the mysterious black structure was a figure, tall and pale. When Billy saw it, a chill raced through him.
It appeared to be staring off into the distance, scanning the rocky walls that surrounded the ruins. Suddenly, the specter started off in a run toward him, shouting something as it disappeared from view in the maze of abandoned rides. He had been seen! The cry echoed off the rocky walls, doubling back on itself, and intensifying into a multitude of echoes. Billy could not make out words, but the tone seemed urgent. Alone, exposed and frightened, the boy panicked. As before, he tried to step backward but fell forward, plummeting down toward the scene below...
From within a deep sleep, Gerry heard the muted scream. He did not awaken immediately. Instead, the dream in which he was immersed began to mutate into a tableau he had seen too many times before. He stood in a huge, cavernous room, in the center of which was a black coffin. Despite the urgency of his son's cry, he walked slowly toward the dark bier, hand outstretched and reaching for the lid.
As he was about to touch it, it sprung open. Up lurched a burnt, blackened corpse, its withered arm sweeping around to point a bony finger at his face. A scream stuck in his throat as horror gripped him. He could not look away, nor could he move. The accusation in the awful eyes wilted him, and he collapsed silent and helpless to the floor...
Allison awoke to Billy's scream, and as she turned to wake Gerry, she found him drenched in sweat, his hands gripping the sheets. When she reached over and shook him, it had no effect. She became frightened - this was too much for her after all she had experienced recently, and for a moment she was paralyzed in indecision. Finally, she heard Billy begin to weep, and she jumped out of bed, running toward his room.
By the time she opened the door, Billy had gathered up the covers and hidden beneath them. His things on the floor were in disarray, evidence that he had once again fallen out of bed. Allison approached slowly, calling his name. He continued weeping, and as she touched him to comfort him, he withdrew into a ball. Her heart sank, and she could bear it no longer. She, too, began to cry softly.
Meanwhile, Gerry awakened. The nightmare had been more vivid than ever before, and his fingers ached as he relaxed them. He dismissed the recurrent dream as he always had, refusing to think about it at all. When he realized that Allison was gone, he got out of bed and walked into the hall to find her. Billy's door was open, and when he went in, he found two figures on the bed, each wrapped in its own misery. Helplessly he stood in the doorway and watched, unable to say a word.
Presently, a teary-eyed Allison looked up at him, shook her head in disgust, and stamped her foot in frustration. She rose, pushed her way past him through the door, and walked slowly toward the kitchen. Gerry wiped his face with his hands and felt the cold sweat on his brow. He took a step toward Billy, faltered, caught himself, and swung around to sit on the bed. He pulled the covers down and lifted his son to a sitting position.
"Billy, what on earth is wrong?"
With a distorted face, the boy glared at him.
"You liar! You awful liar!" Billy blurted out. He had never before spoken to his father like this, but the feelings he had been hiding all night escaped past his weakened defenses.
"Son? What are you talking about? Please calm down and talk to me."
"No." sputtered Billy. "Go away. Just... go away." He began to cry again.
Now it was Gerry's turn to be pulled between two poles. He thought of Allison and the night before, and of his refusal to discuss things. Reluctantly, he stood, touched the resentful boy on the shoulder gently, and turned to the door. Behind him, his son pulled the covers over himself again, and sobbed quietly.
When he reached the kitchen, he found Allison sitting at the kitchen table, head buried in her hands.
"Love, I am sorry. Terribly sorry," he said, feeling totally inadequate. "We'll sit down tonight, the three of us, and get it all out in the open. This has gone on long enough, and it is my fault. I admit it."
She looked up, her face an echo of Billy's. Her eyes were blood red.
"I admit I was wrong," repeated Gerry. "Forgive me. Please, love." His face was forlorn, but his voice remained calm and quiet as ever. "Please?"
Allison stood, and threw her arms around him, sobbing bitterly and clutching at his back. They stood together holding one another, unable to express their emotions in words.
Billy had stopped crying, and his feelings once again shrank down inside him. He sent them away, much as his father had done when he had awakened. The boy went to the bathroom and stripped off his pajamas, climbed into the shower and let warm water wash over him, carrying off the last of the pain. He knew now what he was going to do after his expedition with Chris and Randy, and thinking of it caused him no regret. There wasn't a lot he would have to pack, either - it seemed that everything he valued was broken.
"It's a long way 'round back of the park, but we won't be seen. We can take the dirt road behind the lumber mill, follow the river up to Sawyer Highway, and go into the woods here..." Chris said, pointing to the references on his penciled map. He had gone to pains to make it look important and official. "...and we can walk our bikes to right here and leave 'em. I know a way to stay hidden until just before we get to the yard behind the Laugh."
In the dirt, Randy had drawn his own version of the map, and was busy elaborating it.
As he watched and listened, Billy leaned against his school satchel, which he had filled with an extra change of clothes, a flashlight, his toothbrush and a few other odds and ends. He had been careful not to let Allison see what he was doing as he packed it. The boy was not sure where he would be spending the night, but considered himself prepared for anything.
"You brought the bike?" Billy asked.
"Yep. It's over in the rack. Kinda rusty, but I oiled the chain last night. Tires look okay, too. It'll work good enough," replied Chris.
"We better leave quick, soon as the bell rings," said Randy, "or else Billy's mother might see us."
"She isn't my mother," Billy growled.
"What?"" The two were both surprised.
Billy tossed a large rock, and it bounced across the yard. "Yeah. I heard my parents talking last night. My real mother's name was Sue, and I don't remember her at all. I don't even know how she died."
"Gee... I'm sorry..." stammered Chris. "They never told you at all?"
"No, they didn't..." Billy paused for a moment, then became determined. "Well, I'm gonna remember somehow. I'm not gonna go back home tonight, though. I don't want to see either of them ever again." Billy picked up a twig and decisively drew an X in the center of Randy's sketch of the ride.
Randy stared at Billy's face, not knowing how to reply.
"I'll tell my mom you want to spend the night with me. I'll tell her your... stepmother said it's okay. My mom always believes me," Chris said proudly.
"You're lucky," said Billy, planting the twig like a spear with his fist in the center of the X.
The closing bell rang, and the school building began to empty. Joyous cries of weekend emancipation filled the air as children scattered to the four winds on wheel and on foot. Out in back, the three explorers steered their bikes to the street, then rode off as fast as they could manage in the direction of the lumber mill. Randy trailed behind, panting as he strove to keep pace with the two older boys. Overhead, the sky was gray, and clouds were massing from the east. Billy felt alternating gusts of warm and cold air whipping around him as he rode.
"I bet we're gonna get wet before this is over. I didn't think about raincoats," he said.
Chris looked over his shoulder and frowned.
"You ain't gonna worry about a little rain when we're going on an adventure, are you? If you're worried about wet clothes, I can have my mom dry yours when we get back. We got work to do, guys." Chris was watching the sky himself, and despite his words he picked up the pace.
It took them about half an hour to reach the river from the mill, and then the going got a good bit rougher. In the East, the boys could see a line of rain falling, probably on Cooperstown about ten miles away. By the time they had reached the highway, they were sore and exhausted. Billy rested against a tree while Chris wielded a wrench, making a few adjustments to the old bike Billy had been riding. The uneven dirt path had shaken the handlebars out of position and loosened the chain.
"It's not much farther," said Chris to a frowning Randy. "I promise. But we have to go this way. Can't allow ourselves to be seen, ya know. We'll be inside before the rain ever gets to us."
Randy nodded, but was unconvinced. He picked up his bike. Chris handed Billy his re-adjusted mount, and in a moment they were underway again. After about half a mile, Chris led the way into the trees where it was still clear enough to ride. When the undergrowth got thick, the three dismounted and locked up their bikes. The first of the big clouds hung overhead, blocking the afternoon sunlight.
"All right. We hafta be quiet from here on. Follow me, and I'll lead us right to the back door."
Chris was enjoying himself. He took his flashlight out, stuck it in his belt and reached into a pocket for his knife. Cutting the twigs off a limb from a dead tree, he made a walking stick for himself. Billy and Randy did their best to imitate him, with less satisfactory results. Progress was slow, but eventually the white silhouette of the Comet could be seen through the brush. After a bit of weaving along a twisted path, they could see the back wall of Laugh in the Dark. Off in the distance, thunder could now be heard distinctly from the direction of Cooperstown. Chris brought the party to a halt, and spoke in a whisper.
"Okay... we hafta sneak from here. We can hide in that crop of bushes over there until the men have gone. They always leave together in the same truck. Keep your eyes open and duck down if they come outside."
Despite their best efforts, they could not move through the underbrush in silence. This irritated Chris, but he realized that there was nothing he could do about it. In a tight group they crouched in the weeds, scratching themselves and brushing away the occasional insect from their clothes. Before long, the workers walked out of the back door in a group. Chris nudged both of his companions, and chuckled softly.
"Just like I planned it! When they drive off, we move. Quiet, now..."
Gordon stowed the cutting pliers and electrical tape in his tool belt. He was satisfied with the day's progress, but was a bit frustrated that the power company's electrician hadn't shown up to connect the three-phase lines to the track's breaker box. The situation was silly - he knew he could have easily done the work himself. Everything else worked, though, and thanks to the home-brew relay board he had built, it had been possible to test all the animated figures the team had installed. Behind him, Andy coiled up a length of cable that was part of the track circuit and stowed it next to the big junction box just inside the door. Mark, the tallest of the three, put a hand on Gordon's arm to get his attention.
"Gord, it looks like we may beat the rain home. Hey - you ain't really serious about those kids, are you?"
He laughed. "Well, maybe not. Still, they're out there watching us, just waiting. Remember how you were when you were a kid, though. You saw something unusual, and couldn't be satisfied until you had a gander at it up close. That black-headed kid's been here at least once a week since we started building this thing. If I hadn't seen the other two sneaking around out back in the woods last week, I'd 've never thought about it."
Andy stood up, gave the coil of wire a final kick to snug it against the wall, and joined the others.
"We're gonna lock up the door from now on. Heck, we been locking it ever since the statues came three days ago. I doubt if these kids even know how to break in," he said. "If they come trespassing on park property, it's a simple matter to call the county sheriff's department."
"That isn't what I have in mind, Andy," said Gordon. "Listen - when I was a kid, I got cured of bein' nosy for good when I sneaked into the lumber mill one night. The night watchman hid behind a stack of boards wearing a white drop cloth over his head and scared the living prunes out of me! He thought it was one heck of a good joke, and my father whomped the tar out of me when the sheriff brought me home. I never did anything like that again!"
Andy snickered. "Well, I had the same kinda thing happen to me in a furniture warehouse once. But it wasn't a guard in a sheet, it was a rat in a panic. And I ran all the way home - three whole miles. When my father saw the look on my face, he just didn't even ask questions. I guess he figured I'd had enough."
"Look, here's what we oughta do," said Gordon. "We drive off like we're leaving, park over behind the workshop and watch. Kids usually ain't too cautious, and if they're gonna do it, they won't waste any time trying. We leave the lock off, and when they go in, we close the door behind them and latch it. You get the idea. I can kill the lights from the main breaker box outside, and with a little luck I can even trigger off some of the mechanical stuff to put the fear of God into them." He rapped his knuckles against the door frame, still grinning.
"Heh! This'll be worth getting wet to watch!" said Mark, a twinkle in his eye.
As the truck drove off, Chris stood up. Using his walking stick to lift the bottom strand of the barbed wire fence, he motioned the others to climb under it. He followed with the assistance of Billy, and the three broke into a run toward the back door. Billy reached it first, and flattened himself against the wall with a thump. Randy was last to arrive, and he squatted between the older boys, panting for breath.
"All right... now. Randy, you hafta show me where the switch is, 'cause I never saw it. You better be right," said Chris, looking down at him.
"It's inside, on the right, on the wall next to the door. It's one of those boxes with a handle on the side, like you push up to turn it on."
"A Square-D switch," said Billy. "I know what those are. There's tube-shaped fuses inside."
"Right. Okay, let's get moving." Chris walked up three wooden steps, swung an unlocked hasp on the metal door aside, and then opened it easily on its new hinges. Inside, the ride building was dark as he had expected, and he could just barely make out some large, rectangular shapes farther in. He yanked the flashlight from his belt, switched it on, and swept beam over the floor revealing traces of sawdust and occasional drops of black paint. Cautiously, he stepped inside, and made a beckoning gesture over his shoulder. The boys followed him warily into the darkness.
The air smelled of paint, freshly cut wood, and metal. Chris moved to his right, and scanned the beam across the wall. The switch box was exactly where Randy had said it would be. Without hesitation, he lifted the handle, and a row of overhead light bulbs came on. Billy noticed that they were suspended from their power lines, as if someone had hung them quickly. Obviously, they were not meant to be seen by patrons.
Chris pointed. "The track - over there. Cars pass by here on their way through. And see that big box right by the track? I want a closer look."
Billy spoke up. "Chris, one of us ought to stay by the door in case somebody comes."
The storm was unmistakably close now. Billy watched as lightning illuminated the woods in blue-white brilliance, then counted the seconds until the thunder came. It was less than two miles away.
"I don't wanna be alone," said Randy, after the noise had subsided.
Chris exhaled, a bit frustrated that his troops were becoming overly cautious. "Guys, just close the door and come on. You've seen plenty thunderstorms, right? No big deal. We'll be fine. It'll only take a few minutes to walk the track, then we can leave and get under cover somewhere else."
Randy turned to walk back to the door, and as he did so, it slammed shut. Frozen in their tracks, the three boys heard someone outside latching it. Immediately, the lights went out. Chris was startled, and before he could recover, he dropped his flashlight. It went dark as it hit the floor and rolled. Billy fumbled for his, and when he pushed the switch, the beam was very dim. Before anyone could speak, a loud voice boomed from deep within the ride.
"Foolish mortals! You have ventured into the halls of doom! Now you will never escape - alive!"
Randy screamed and ran, crashing headlong into a wall. Billy swept his flashlight around, managed to find the frightened boy, caught him, and held him still. "We'll get out! There's got to be a way..."
"They've locked us in! We been seen! Now they'll probably call the cops on us!" shouted Chris. "We gotta get out now!" He was scared of the dark, and didn't want to show it. Down on his hands and knees, he searched for his dropped flashlight and finally found it. When he shook it and tried the switch, he discovered to his dismay that the bulb had broken.
"Let's just stay here by the door. They aren't gonna call the cops - it's just a trick," Billy said. He was very upset as well, but he knew the ordeal could not last forever. He was surprised at how quickly Chris had lost his confidence.
Randy began to sniffle and whimper. "I wanna go home!
"I don't think they'd leave us... in here...." Chris stammered.
"Guys...we'll get out. Maybe the front doors are unlocked. Maybe we just have to get all the way through it..." Billy took the lead, shining his dim light on the floor in front of him, intending to find the track and follow it. He had only gone a few feet when the batteries in his flashlight failed altogether, leaving them in darkness again.
"Oh, great. Just great!" shouted Chris, sharp accusation in his tone. "I told you guys to bring fresh batteries, and Randy, you didn't even see fit to bring a flashlight! You idiots!"
"Look, Chris... we have the good batteries in your flashlight. Give them to me and I'll put them in this one."
The older boy began working nervously at the task. Just as he had accomplished it, an enormous clap of thunder boomed from outside. One battery went flying as he reached up to cover his ears.
"I... I dropped..." His voice was shaky.
Billy searched the floor desperately, but was unable to locate it.
"Chris! Come on - help me find it!"
There was no reply. Billy felt around and discovered his friend frozen in place, with Randy cowering beside him. Chris was shaking, and Billy could feel the cold sweat on his skin.
"Chris...take it easy! Let's just follow the walls. It's got to work," said Billy. Suddenly, the leadership had fallen to him, and he was surprised to find himself relatively calm.
With both boys clinging to his arms, Billy did his best to feel his way toward the track, intent on following it out. His toe struck it, and he turned carefully, guiding his friends. From the distance, he heard a familiar sound - the click, whir and muted rattle of an air compressor, just like the one at a filling station. Randy was shaking badly, and Billy put an arm around him.
"Let's just keep going..."
Immediately, a spotlight illuminated a large wooden chest. The boys stopped in their tracks, eyes wide. With a hiss of air, the lid flew open and a tall skeleton jumped up out of it, accompanied by wicked laughter.
Screams erupted, and three boys ran in three directions. Billy covered his ears and closed his eyes tightly while he bolted away from the frightening scene. As the others ran, Billy could not help but hear their cries echo as they were accosted by things he refused to imagine. In the darkness, he collided with something...
Gordon was laughing so hard he had doubled over, hands on his knees. Behind him, Mark and Andy were in a similar state as the racket inside filtered its way to their ears. The plan had worked spectacularly, and they had no desire to end the fun just yet. Above, more thunder exploded, adding to the chaos inside.
At last, rain begin to fall, and it quickly became a downpour. Gordon realized that it was probably time to call the whole thing off.
"Let's let 'em out, guys. Go unlock the door - it's getting nasty out here." He had stopped laughing now.
The two men ran off toward the back of the ride. As they did so, they felt a tingle on their skin, and knew what it meant. A deafening explosion broke the air as they flattened themselves to the ground. Above and to the west of the ride, lighting struck the lift hill of the Comet. Timbers cracked like straw, and the wooden tower fed an inferno. The men got to their feet and sped toward the disaster, the boys inside the new ride momentarily forgotten. The storm lashed the air again, and struck a tree, splitting it down the center...
Billy felt himself being pushed back by what he had hit. He stumbled, recovered, uncovered his ears, opened his eyes, and found himself staring up straight into the face of a tall ghost, arms outstretched. A chilling moan came from behind it, and froze him in sheer terror. He fainted...
The workshop was still cluttered and messy from the construction, and none of the workmen had bothered to finish cleaning it up. As Mark and Andy searched frantically for fire extinguishers, Gordon snatched the receiver off the wall phone. He discovered to his chagrin that there was no dial tone, gave up in resignation, and joined the others in their search. At last, they located three, one of which seemed to be only half charged.
They made haste out the door and broke into a run. Across the midway, the Comet was already too far gone to be helped by extinguishers. All they could hope to do was contain the fire as it tried to spread to other rides. Reaching the loading platform, they circled to the motor house where pieces of flaming timber were already falling on the roof. Mark loosed his extinguisher on the burning fragments as he kicked them away from the oily environment of the machinery.
From behind them, there was a another great flash of intense blue-white light, and another explosion - this time, the impact point was square in the center of Laugh In The Dark. The resultant shock wave toppled all three men, and as they lay on the ground, more of the Comet was knocked loose to fall on the far side of the track. Weakened by the blast, the entire top of the lift hill shuddered, collapsed and littered down on the motor house, smashing its roof to pieces and collapsing the walls. The deluge began to extinguish the scattered kindling, but by that time the three workers lay completely still, buried beneath smoking debris.
Inside the ride building, the boys lay on the floor in the separate places to which they had run, knocked out by the concussion alone. The ride was now inert, its power supply another victim of the storm. Smashed wooden partitions beneath the hole where the bolt had struck the roof were beginning to burn, and smoke billowed everywhere.
In the distance, the familiar sirens of the fire department wailed - but not a soul at Farley Park heard them.
Billy opened his eyes. The specter was still standing over him, but it looked different somehow. This time he did not scream, although he was very much afraid. The tall ghost bent down, extending a hand in silence. It was a man, and the expression on his face was kind. Patiently, the apparition waited, and at last Billy reached out to him and took the offered hand. It was not cold and insubstantial, but warm and alive somehow. When Billy saw his own hand he gasped, for he, too was ghostly. Without a word, his rescuer led him safely through the smoking ruins and stopped when they reached the back door. With the slightest touch, the ghost opened it as if the hasp had been dissolved away. Outside, it was bright, terribly bright. Billy blinked, and felt two reassuring hands on his shoulders, urging him forward.
Calmly, he walked through the doorway...
In a chair beside the hospital bed, Allison slept. She had been up for two days and a night, and was very weak. The nurse had her back to him and did not see Billy stir, but she heard his breathing deepen. When she turned around, his eyes opened and stared up at her, blinking in the light that poured down from above. The sight startled her so that she didn't even address him. Quickly, she ran out into the hall toward the nurses' station. The boy had been in a coma since he was found, and had not been expected to live.
"Justine, call the intern on duty! Our burn victim in 212-A is awake!"
There was a bustle of activity, and the nurse walked back into the room. Allison had been awakened by the noise, and was staring wide eyed at her stepson.
"Billy! Thank God!" The relief in her voice was enormous. She knew she could not hug him, bandaged as he was, but she took his one unburned hand, the one she had held for so many hours during the ordeal, and gripped it tightly.
Billy tried to move, and felt the pain from far away, through a haze of medication. He turned his head and looked at his hand, thinking the apparition still held it. He saw Allison through a blur, and then noticed his arm, which was covered with gauze.
"Am I...alive?" he asked in a harsh voice.
"Yes, dear heart, oh, yes!" Allison had never sounded so sincere. Billy closed his eyes, and her hand gripped tighter, adding meaning to the words. "I must call your father! I will be right back - I won't leave you!" There were tears on her face that Billy couldn't see, but he heard them in her voice.
She released his hand, and he sighed. He realized where he was, and what had occurred. Thankfully, the pain could not reach him, and he allowed himself to sleep. When he relaxed, the expression on his face was peaceful.
A month later, the family passed the burned ruins in Farley Park on their way out of town. Half of the Comet was destroyed, despite all the rain that had fallen that evening. Laugh In The Dark was blackened, the front of it streaked by dark smoke.
A week after the fire, the local paper had run a full-page special on the disaster, detailing what had happened. It questioned whether the Farley family had been properly insured against the huge loss, and raised the possibility of the park being taken over by a new owner, or perhaps closing forever. The writer had also interviewed the families of the human casualties: Mark Simmons and Andy Gardener had been killed by falling timber and third degree burns. Gordon Mansfield suffered a broken leg and many lacerations, having just barely survived. Chris Stuart and Randy Mulligan remained in comas, but it revealed that Billy Mason had been released from care.
The reporter had discovered that the three boys had been found locked in the ride building, and she probed a bit further. Gordon revealed his part in the prank, and made a statement in the article explaining his actions, but he made it clear that he took full responsibility. Charges were withheld pending the outcome of the boys' hospitalization, and it was unclear just what legal action the families might take when they had recovered from the shock.
As he watched out the car window, Billy remembered the afternoon the reporter had visited him at home and asked what he had been doing in the ride. He answered truthfully that he had simply been curious. He explained that he had not seen who had actually locked them in, and listed all the factual details he could remember.
He told no one, however, about the kindly specter who was now inhabiting his dreams, his new secret friend. Three nights after the fire, Billy had returned to the dark valley park...
Billy stood waiting, no longer afraid, and let the ghost approach. Once again, with outstretched hand, the tall stranger met him. This time, he spoke.
"Hello, Billy. It is good to see you. Are you better?"
The boy looked up into the kind eyes, and they shook hands. The grip felt warm as it had on the occasion of their first meeting.
"Yes, much better... the burns hurt, but they aren't that bad, I guess..." When Billy saw his own arm, he realized he was a ghost again. "Thank you... I would've never made it out of there..."
The man nodded, and silenced him with a gesture. "Good. I want you to see this place," he said. "I'm actually rather proud of it. Follow me down, and watch your step. The way is steep."
"Tell me... What happened here?"
The two ghosts descended the narrow trail, the older one leading. For a long time the man did not answer, and seemed to be considering what to say. At last he stopped where the path took a sharp turn, and pointed down to a group of dark towers and spires just below.
"See that? That was once a place called Luna Park. It's a rather recent arrival, actually... Over there, just next to it, that was once called Dreamland Park. I suspect Steeplechase Park will be along, eventually." He looked back at Billy. "They came from a place called Coney Island, and taught the entire world what an amusement park could be. It is hard to believe they were once so brightly lit they would have dazzled you."
Billy had read of Coney Island in a book at school, but it had made no mention of these places.
"They all burned, all these rides?"
"Some did, and others were just torn down. Unfortunate," said the older ghost, "but one man cannot restore all that was lost. It's beyond me." After a moment of silence, his tone lightened. "You would have loved Coney Island. A pity you weren't there to see the bright years."
Billy looked down. There was still a long way to walk.
"Can't ghosts fly?"
The man chuckled. "Not I. And I think not you, either."
"I'm not really a ghost, you know..."
"Of course not. Neither am I. We both know there's no such thing." He winked.
Billy mused on this for a moment, and shrugged. Finally, they reached the bottom of the path, where a great arch stood across the way leading into the ruins.
"I put this up. Nice touch, I think. Gives the place the look of a monument." The pale man spread his arms wide, hands open, palms up. "Any little improvement helps."
Billy admired it - the big entryway was well over 30 feet tall, covered with carvings, scrollwork, and elaborate detail. In the middle of the arch, where the keystone would be, was the head of an elephant, trunk upraised. His guide led the way in, but Billy felt himself drifting off...
"I tried to copy the original architectural design of... Ah! Good morning, then," said the ghost, amiably. He seemed to realize what was happening.
"Wait - who...are...you?" Billy fought to hold onto the dream.
The last thing Billy saw was his smile.
Other dreams followed. Every night, Billy saw a bit more of the great abandoned amusement park, his tour resuming where it had left off previously. He never knew that so many parks had disappeared, or had ever existed at all. Fascinated by what he saw, he didn't think to ask questions about anything but the rides and shows they passed as they wove their way through the dark avenues. The ghostly man was always kind and patient, waiting while Billy wandered closer for a careful look at the great old machines. In the dream that came the night before the family left, something happened that left Billy intensely curious...
"...and over here, you see, is the very first Caterpillar ride. Created quite a rage in those days, it did; because after the ride had started, a cover came down over the passengers, who could then embrace each other and kiss, all without being observed." He chuckled and smiled, as if the memory were fond to him. After walking up to the platform, he demonstrated by hand the operation of the torn cloth shroud that remained. "It's in shabby shape now, but perhaps someday I'll get to it... maybe fix it up a bit."
As Billy examined the ride, the specter scratched his head as if puzzled, and frowned slightly. He walked up behind the boy, placing a hand on his shoulder.
"Billy... tell me something. Is it true you are about to move somewhere?"
The boy turned. "How did you know that?"
"I... don't really know how I know - It's odd. But I am right?"
"Yes. We're moving to Martinsville. It has lots of trees..."
The elder ghost scratched his head again. "I feel strange, of a sudden. I seem to remember something..." He froze, and his jaw dropped. "Oh, my - I can hardly believe it!"
"Billy, I must go now... I'll be back, I promise..." This time, he began to fade.
"Wait! I want to know..."
Before he could finish, the hazy figure of his friend was gone, and Billy fell into a deep, dreamless sleep....
The family was half-way to Martinsville. Gerry had found a new house at their destination, but due to the closing of the largest industrial facility in Flecter's Well, selling the old house would prove difficult. Gerry remained typically optimistic, and Allison took his resolution on faith.
Billy looked across the back of the front seat at his stepmother, and smiled. His relationship with her had transformed since his stay in the hospital. She turned and rubbed the top of his head, returning the smile. What happened to his two friends had upset him badly, but Allison listened to him, and helped him face it. The kindness his parents had shown after what he had done amazed him, but the thing that had amazed him most was how Allison defended him when she met with the parents of his two stricken friends.
He had listened from his room as they accused him of being behind the mischief that led to disaster, and to his stepmother's reply as she pointed out that the lightning and the workers had a lot more to do with the outcome than her stepson possibly could have. She had taken Billy at his word that Chris had suggested the expedition, and stood her ground. Eventually, he came to peep around the door frame as Allison carefully turned her defense to sympathy with a deftness even he could sense; and by the end of the intense meeting, the distressed parents had become friends with her. They left with embraces, promising to keep in touch regarding the condition of their sons.
For the first time, Billy felt the phrase I love you rise automatically to his lips as he had hugged her. He finally understood what it meant.
As they drove through low, rolling hills covered with trees, here and there houses began to appear, set back off the road in the deep shade. A sign announced they had entered the city limits of Martinsville. Allison had a map out, following it with care, although they had already been to inspect their new home and mostly remembered the way.
After a few more miles and many turns, Gerry pulled into a long driveway. The house before them was modest, but amid the tall trees it looked very inviting. Billy already approved of it, and could smell a chance for exploration in the air. In the afternoon, a truck arrived with the furniture, and unpacking began as soon as the movers finished their work.
That evening, as Billy busied himself arranging his room, his parents wandered in, smiling. His burns were still red and sore, but he looked happy. It seemed ironic that it had taken such a tragedy to bring them closer together, but there was no desire on either of their parts to analyze the best thing: Billy seemed well in spirit.
"Mom! Dad! How do you like my room?" The grin was wide, and the voice was hoarse but enthusiastic.
"It appears you're all moved in, son," replied his father, ever more lighthearted than Billy could remember him being in the past. "I do believe you're a neater housekeeper than I ever was."
"I second that," said Allison, grinning at her husband.
Gerry looked around the room at the carefully arranged toys, some of them repaired with his help, and smiled. The change was more than he could have asked for, and there seemed no reason to push any action on his son at present. He resolved to wait and see how the boy took to his new school environment, and counsel him slowly as it seemed necessary. The most important thing, he decided, was to listen to his son; and this meant they would need to spend more time together. With relief, Gerry realized that Billy was no longer a wedge straining his marriage, but was producing a stronger bond between Allison and himself. Hearing Billy use the word mom when addressing her made his evening.
The three of them sat in Billy's room and talked for a while before bed. The discussion ran from his father's new job to the distance he'd be riding to school every day. Allison became sleepy, and excused herself, kissing Billy goodnight. Gerry remained behind.
"Son, you don't know how glad we are that you are still with us," he said. It would have been a cold world without you."
Billy smiled, and looked down. He felt inadequate to answer such a statement, for he had never heard his father talk like that in the past.
"I guess I owe you an explanation of how your mother died. Would you like to hear it?"
Billy's became serious. "I'd like to know... a little bit about her. I feel like I never knew her at all. I still don't remember anything. Why didn't you ever tell me?"
Gerry pushed his hair back, and closed his eyes briefly, as if gathering his courage.
"I was afraid you'd hate me for bringing back painful memories," he replied slowly, "because I thought you'd suddenly remember the accident, the whole scene. You see, she died in a car wreck, and you nearly died with her. I guess I wanted to forget it as fast as I could, and since you didn't remember anything, I never spoke of it." He knelt down and hugged his son. "I'll stop if this hurts to hear. Just let me know."
"It's okay." Billy nodded, and waited.
"Susan was a wonderful woman, Billy. I was so busy making ends meet that she raised you practically by herself for your first three years. You seemed to love her so much..."
Now Billy had his eyes shut, trying to remember.
"Susan was a little shorter than Allison, and had beautiful long hair the color of yours. She was really very pretty." Gerry paused, controlling his emotions. "Well, about how it happened - one night on the way home from a family outing, we were driving down a long, deserted highway, and a big truck pulled out from a crossing. The driver made a bad turn, and ended up in the wrong lane. I tried to miss him, but couldn't, and he hit us from the side..." He cleared his throat, and continued, "...you and I were thrown out when our doors flew open, but Susan was trapped inside. I was... unable to rescue her, and the car burned. I'm sorry, son, I really am."
"I still don't remember at all, dad. I'm sorry, too. Thanks for telling me." Billy looked into his father's eyes as he spoke.
"I should also tell you that I met Allison shortly after the wreck. You spent a lot of time with sitters, and you probably remember the lie I told you - that your mother had been away for a long time, but was coming back home sometime soon. Well, Allison and I married quietly, because I realized you needed a new mother as soon as possible. I knew something was not right, though, when you didn't react to her very well. It was my fault for putting it all off, and thinking the past would just go away."
Billy embraced his father again. "She's the only mom I know."
Gerry nodded. "Thank you for being so nice to her. You don't know how much it means to both of us."
"Dad," said Billy, "do you miss Susan a lot?"
"Yes. Sometimes it really hurts."
Billy climbed from the floor to his bed, all the while considering something. As he pulled his covers down and slid under them, he looked at Gerry again.
"There's something I should tell you, too. It's gonna sound strange, and I thought maybe I'd keep it a secret, but since you told me... you know..."
"You can tell me anything you'd like, son. I won't be upset."
"Well, the night I was trapped in that ride, somebody rescued me, somehow. I was lying there, and then I opened my eyes and saw this... man, kinda like a ghost. He took my hand and led me to the door, and I walked through, and then I was there in the hospital."
Gerry smiled. "You were dreaming, son. You were unconscious for nearly two days. Didn't we tell you?"
"Yes... but there's more. See, before it all happened, I started dreaming of this strange place - it's all dark and deserted, and there's all these old, abandoned rides, down in this big valley..."
Gerry nodded and listened, still smiling.
"...and ever since the fire, I've been seeing this man in my dreams. He takes care of all the rides, but hasn't got time to fix them. Well, last night he asked me all of a sudden if we were moving somewhere!"
His father sat next to him and put his arm around him.
"Did he, now? And did you tell him?"
"Yeah. But then, he said that something was odd, and he didn't know what it was. Before, I always woke up and left him waiting for me there, but this time he disappeared first. He said he'd be back, though... maybe I'll see him again tonight."
"Well, sometimes things in our dreams come from things we see all around us - I know how much you love amusement rides. The important question is: are these dreams upsetting you?"
"No, not really. They're fun. But I never had lots of dreams in the same place before. And I never talked to anybody in a dream like that, either. He's really friendly, too."
"Like Casper, but a lot older?" His father winked.
"Yeah, I guess." Billy seemed to appreciate the humor, but could not communicate to his father how important this new relationship had become to him. "Anyway, I wanted to tell you."
Gerry stood. "Son, you sleep well, and if you see this ghost again, tell him your father said hi."
"I will! Thanks, dad. I love you."
"Goodnight, son - we both love you very much!" Gerry closed the door and turned out the light, leaving a peaceful Billy alone to rest.
"It's so strange. Nowhere else in all of this place is there such a sight. When the water is very still, it looks as if you could jump off into space."
A black winter darkness still hung above, but there in the great pool were stars, the reflection of an unseen. sky. Billy sat on an ornate bench overlooking it, as the caretaker leaned on a pillared railing before him. He looked back at Billy.
"This was Dreamland Park, all around us. See that big chute at the other end? They used to launch boats full of guests sliding down it to splash into the water. Now, that wasn't truly original, you see, because Captain Boynton did it first, just down the street from here. Fred Thompson and Skip Dundy bought him out a few years later to build Luna Park on the same site. But this place was amazing. People felt as if they were entering another world."
"Isn't this whole place... a dreamland?" Billy suddenly remembered he was dreaming, and the sensation tingled him.
His friend nodded. "Until our last visit I hadn't realized it. I promised I would explain what confused me, and now I shall."
Billy leaned forward, listening intently.
"First of all, I do have a name. You may call me John."
"John? I kinda expected a... movie sort of name," said Billy.
He chuckled. "I am sorry that I could not produce a more romantic one. My mother called me John, and John it is."
"What about how you knew me?"
"Yes. Well, when I had to leave, it is because I woke up. You see, we're both dreaming. Not only that, but we are now living in the same town. When you said 'Martinsville,' that was what made me remember I was dreaming. As for why I knew about you, and how I got to you in that ride, I'm still not sure. I promise you I am going to find out."
"This is fantastic! Who are you when you are awake?"
"I am much the same person as you see now. I run a ride that I helped build years ago. Now that you are in Martinsville, you will hear all about it soon enough. I should think your new school chums will tell you first. I ask you, though, not to tell anyone about our little meetings. It might... complicate matters for both of us."
Billy grinned. "Ah, yeah. But no one would believe me, even if I..."
"I want you to promise."
"Oh, well, sure. I promise..." Billy held up his right hand, his face serious. "Wait... last night, I told my father. Will that hurt?"
"Mm. I should think not."
"He teased me and said to tell you 'hi'. He thinks it's just a dream."
"It is." John grinned tightly, and Billy laughed.
"His name is Gerry Mason, and my stepmother is Allison. My real mother died in a bad wreck."
"I'm sorry to hear that," said John.
"If it hadn't been for that fire, I would have run away from home. I finally found out how much they both love me after I almost died."
"It takes that, sometimes. People get very scared, and they think hard about things. Your parents took you for granted, and now they do not, I think."
"Scared," said Billy, as if tasting the word. "That's what I want to know. Why do people build awful things like Laugh in the Dark?"
"Dark rides," said specter John, knowingly. We've passed a few here, but I knew the subject might bother you, and I have avoided pointing them out on our little tour. To answer your question: you have doubtless heard the phrase Tunnel of Love? Well, that is how it all started, just boats for lovers that sailed through a dark tunnel. Then some enterprising soul added scenes to set the mood, and it seemed that if one presented the customers with something a bit... well, unsettling, it actually improved business. Personally, I believe that most of those who ride actually enjoy being scared in the dark, although I don't see many people riding alone these days... "
"Wait a minute... you mean...?"
"I am afraid I have tipped my hand, as they say. I am one of those awful people who built one." John shrugged, then became a bit bemused. "You will find this especially interesting: The one here in Dreamland Park caught fire and burned the entire place to the ground in one night. I don't think the owners liked dark rides very much after that, either.
"Wow," said Billy. "But I don't think I'll ever be able to go in one of those things again. I - I hope you're not mad at me."
"Angry? Of course not. But if you should become curious, just tell your parents to bring you to Scarsvale Amusement Park this spring. You will find my ride easily enough."
"Well, I could just come there and look at it, I guess. I want to meet you before spring, though. You know my address."
"Perhaps we can arrange that. Let me give it some thought - I believe you are in a new neighborhood I am not familiar with, and I need to look up the street on a city map."
As he nodded, Billy looked back toward the pool again. John saw where he was staring, and could see the stars in the pool reflected in the boy's eyes.
"I really like it here. I'm glad you found me."
He put his arm around the boy, and patted his shoulder. "The feeling is mutual, Billy. It gets lonely sometimes, believe it or not." His mood changed quickly, and his tone became light again. "Come along, now. There's so much to see here, all this important history right at our fingertips, and we've only got all night..."
The pair walked off, skirting the edge of the pool, John resuming his tour narration. Neither of them, however, saw the dark figure emerge from its hiding place to follow them silently, blending into the shadows...
The new school was pleasant enough, surrounded by woods much as Billy's new home was. Most of the children were friendly, and by the end of his first day, he had indeed heard all about John's ride. It turned out to be the subject of a controversy.
There was a mystery surrounding the whole story - it seemed that no two patrons had the same experience on the ride. What was more, a single individual seldom had the same experience on two consecutive rides. When several friends had compared notes, they knew something odd was going on. Soon afterward, so did the local newspaper.
A few riders had been badly frightened, and one fainted in a ride car. The operator, Mr. John Travis, had refused to comment on how he had done it, and a furor was rising among a small but vocal group of people in the community. The curious had been coming in droves, however, and the park was making a great deal of money on the mysterious attraction by the end of the season.
As Billy rode home, he realized that the dreams he shared with John Travis must be involved in this somehow, and he was anxious to discuss the matter with his friend. In the meantime, he decided he would explore his new neighborhood when he had completed his afternoon studies.
He found it hard to keep his mind on his work, and kept glancing out the window as if John might walk up to it and find him. The more he thought about the situation, the more it excited him. When at long last he had finished, he went to the kitchen, put down his re-packed books, and found Allison sorting out groceries on the table.
"Hello, son! Out for an adventure?" She stopped and embraced him.
"Yes, mom... I think I'm going to go and explore for a while. I'll be back in time for dinner."
"You have a couple of hours yet. That should be plenty of time." She nodded. "If you go into the woods, please be careful, okay? You're still healing, and I don't want you hurting yourself again."
"I will, mom. Thanks!"
The boy bounded out the back door full of energy, heading straight for the trees. They were spaced well apart, and there was not much undergrowth, but he slowed down as he entered. Billy zippered his jacket against the cool air, and put his hands in the pockets over his stomach to protect them. Kicking his way through fallen leaves was quite pleasant, and he kept thinking about the ride as he wandered. After a while he began to see light where the woods gave way, and he quickened his step.
The ground fell away just as the trees ended, and he pulled himself up short. Below him was a huge amusement park, so much like the scene in the dream that it took him totally by surprise. He had found Scarsvale Park, and it was virtually in his back yard. Not a soul was in sight; it was obviously closed up for the winter. His gaze swept down, and there, just below where he stood was a large black building: It had to be John's ride. Immediately, he recalled the mysterious dark structure he had seen while standing on the ledge in his second dream. Torn between curiosity and responsibility, Billy wondered if it would be worth the risk to scramble down the hillside for a closer look. What he saw next decided the matter for him. A door opened on the back of the building, and out stepped John Travis - Billy recognized him immediately.
"Mr. Travis!" he called down the slope. The distant figure looked up and saw him.
"Billy Mason?" It was very faint, but the boy heard him. "Is that you? What an incredible coincidence!"
"Yes! It's me. I need to talk to you!" He scrambled over the edge, and eased himself down, feet first.
"Be careful. I believe the rocks are a bit unreliable..."
"I'll be okay. Just wait! I can't believe I found you!"
It took him some time to climb down while protecting his burned hand, and after nearly falling several times, he arrived at the bottom safely. Billy brushed his jeans off, and walked down a narrow service path by the fence toward his friend, who was standing at a small gate.
"I find this amazing," said Mr. Travis. "It's not every day you meet someone for the first time whom you already know." The grin on his face was very familiar.
Billy just stood staring at him, almost in awe, until he put out his hand and the boy took it in greeting.
"Well, now you see what the shouting is all about. It looks rather ordinary on the outside, I'm afraid. I gather you heard all about it at school, just as I said?"
"Yes... I thought about it a lot today. All this has something to do with the dream, doesn't it?"
Mr. Travis nodded. "Believe me, I know it does now. I haven't had enough time to tell you everything I know yet, but I will. To begin with, this ride exists both in dream and in fact. You must have seen it from the cliff-top in the dream when I first saw you." Billy nodded, and he continued. "I am still sorting all of this out, and I can tell you that I am just as confounded by it as you are. I should tell you that I didn't always remember what I was doing in my dreams - before we met, that is."
"I hadn't thought about that," said Billy. "This is all so weird."
"Singularly strange, yes. All that you heard about people having different experiences inside my ride - there's a reason for it. You see, I have always made little changes to my attraction every season, to keep it fresh, to keep customers coming back. But just before this past season, it seems that some of my work got done in the dream. I would wake up, come to work, and find impossible modifications made to the machinery. I thought I must be losing my mind, and then you came along."
"It's going to be hard to keep this a secret, Mr. Travis."
"Remember what I said. You did promise, remember?"
"Yes. I meant it. I'm not a Scout, but on my honor."
"Good. Would you like to have a look at the machinery?"
"Gosh... uh, I have to be home for dinner... My house is up there, just a walk through the woods... "
Mr. Travis smiled. "So you do. There will be another time." He realized that Billy was still wary of his ride. "I'll probably see you tonight, anyway."
"That's right... I almost forgot!" Billy grinned. "Tonight. We gotta talk about this!"
"We will, I assure you."
Billy waved good-bye as he clambered up the hill.
The three sat in the living room, relaxing after dinner. Gerry leafed through the newspaper while Billy played with his construction set on the floor. The boy had ceased confining his imagination to his room, and Allison, who sat reading a copy of New Homes Magazine, couldn't have been happier.
"What are you building, son?" she asked, looking up.
Billy set down his tools. He had been randomly assembling pieces into nondescript widgets, but as yet nothing recognizable had taken shape.
"I can't seem to think of anything to build." He shrugged. "I guess you can't do everything you want to with toy parts."
She grinned. "Well, it won't be long before you'll be helping Gerry around the house. There will be real tools to use, and you can help us fix the place up. We're planning to open up the wall to the empty room next to yours and give you a bigger place to play, and you can help us."
Gerry smiled as he read. Billy brightened and stood up.
"Wow, mom! Thanks!" He was already imagining what having so much extra space would allow him to do. "I guess I won't need these so much now," he added, looking at the toy set on the floor.
After Billy had gathered his parts into their carton, Gerry suddenly began to read aloud from an article in the paper.
"Mm. Listen to this: 'Today, two members of the Martinsville Chamber of Commerce officially approached the owners of Scarsvale Amusement Park, Mr. Adrian Tydwell, and officially requested that their attraction, the 'Dark Ride' be modified in such a way as to reduce the "terror" experienced by patrons. Private sources revealed that if Tydwell refused the request, the city would send inspectors to examine the ride, at the request of the city Department of Health, in order to prove that the attraction is safe and fit for public consumption.
"'Insiders in the Chamber of Commerce refused comment, with the exception of one anonymous member, who reported that pressure from religious and social groups had prompted the action. The source revealed that there was a good deal of opposition to the move among members who felt that the attraction was bringing extra business to Martinsville, but the majority voted to follow the "wave of public opinion," and approach Tydwell, who has been given a week to make a statement of intent.'
"Well, I'll be... Seems we have a little controversy brewing. Looks like this has been on the burner for some time now... yes," he commented, still reading. "Took nearly all summer, it says here. I'd love to see the thing that caused all this ruckus."
Billy had his mouth open, all ready to blurt out the news of his discovery, but he silenced himself. It wouldn't be easy to keep other things secret once he had admitted finding the park.
"That place must be closed now, anyway, dad. School is open."
"I know. We'll have to wait until next summer, won't we? I know how much you like rides - I bet if you ask around, you can find out all about it for me. I'd guess this has you curious, eh?" Gerry smiled.
"Um, sure. It does. But I bet it's just some scary stuffed monster in there that did it."
"It takes more than a stuffed monster to make people act like this," his father replied.
"I guess so..." said Billy, finding it very difficult to hedge, "...but it's all just machines, isn't it?"
"Probably. But they're doing amazing things with machinery these days. I read something last week about how Walt Disney is making robots now." Gerry winked at Billy.
"Really?" said Billy, relieved by the change of subject.
"Yep. I bet you didn't know that. It's going to be just like looking at another person, they say. Heh... I could get scared looking at a copy of myself, I guess. I think I might see a few things I wouldn't care for."
"Uh, me too." Billy imagined the prospect vividly, and remembered the mirror-like pool from Dreamland Park. What would he see if he looked down into it at himself? He brushed the notion away immediately.
Gerry stood. "Well, folks, I'm tired. I'm heading for bed." He tossed the paper into the chair, and Allison went to his side.
"Well, that makes it unanimous. Let's all get some good sleep. I'm sorry it's so early, son," said his stepmother.
"That's okay," said Billy, almost cheerfully.
"Well, now," said Gerry, "that's a first - my son turning in early without complaint! I couldn't ask for more cooperation than that... Oh, by the way, son - did you see your ghost friend again last night?"
"Uh... well, not last night." Billy was so cautious about his secret that the lie escaped quickly.
"Ghost?" asked Allison, somewhat amused. "What ghost?"
"Our son has a new imaginary friend in his dreams," said Gerry to his wife, with a wink. He turned back to Billy. "Well, remember - just say hello for me when you do."
"Sure, dad." The boy forced a smile.
"You'll find this very interesting, Billy."
Mr. Travis led him around a corner, and into a wide avenue. Flanking them on both sides of it were dark rides, as far as he could see down the road. The sight had its effect on the boy.
"So many of them - it's hard to believe. Look... all of these first ones are Laugh in the Dark!"
His mentor nodded and grinned. "Yes, I'm afraid so. The name is rather popular. The one on the far corner there... that one dates back to the 1930's, from California, I believe. It takes up nearly a quarter of a city block, and is a continuous tunnel- not inside a building, you see. The entire fence around it is its sign. I do imagine it drew a goodly crowd in its time."
He led Billy down to the corner where the entrance was, and let him look in at the cars.
"It still works, believe it or not," said John with a smile.
"No thanks," replied Billy, grinning.
Side by side they walked, stopping only occasionally to note an exceptional example of Ghost Train, or Spook House. Eventually, the darkness at the end of the lane revealed its contents. Billy recognized the building quickly.
"It's your ride, John, isn't it?"
"Yes, that it is."
The familiar scene returned to Gerry, but this time with embellishments. He stood facing the coffin, as he always had, but the surrounding was now a graveyard. Unable to depart from his usual pattern, he walked toward the bier, reaching out. As he did so, he noticed that a ghostly Allison was standing beside him, watching with wide eyes...
"I wish I could convince you to ride," said John Travis.
He and Billy stood before the black building, which was outlined dramatically against the dimly glowing backdrop of old Luna Park.
"I'm sorry, John. I can't. Not yet, anyway."
"Very well, but I want to show you the machinery before we get to our discussion. I have a few ideas about..."
Then both of them heard the screams.
The corpse was pointing at Gerry, again. "Murderer!" it yowled.
As Allison watched in horror, the rotted figure rose from the coffin and walked toward him, clawing with blackened hands. Gerry stepped back, attempting to flee, but found himself weak. The zombie put its hands around his neck, and began to strangle him. As fear gurgled in his throat, two other ghosts entered the scene at a run, and drew up short.
"Dad! Mom!" Billy yelled.
In unison, the corpse, Allison and Gerry turned toward the boy and his friend, frozen in a bizarre diorama.
"What on earth is going on here? I don't remember a cemetery..." John turned instantly to Billy. "These are your parents? My heavens!"
Like characters in an interrupted play, the figures stood looking at each other in bewilderment. Suddenly, the corpse crumbled to dust where it stood, leaving Gerry's hands pushing against empty air. From the distance, ghostly laughter echoed and then faded - the laughter of a young woman.
"Ah... well, yes," said John, clearing his throat. "I'm quite sorry for the foul reception - not my idea at all. Please accept my apologies. I am John Travis." He nudged Billy, whose thoughts were far from parlor etiquette.
"Oh - ah, this is Gerry Mason, and this..." He moved to his startled stepmother's side, took her hand, and continued, "...is Allison, my mom."
"Lovely to meet you both." Mr. Travis smiled.
"Billy...?" Allison was wide-eyed in disbelief.
"Mom, this is my ghost friend, the one you asked dad about."
"Mrs. Mason, please relax. You were both having a grisly nightmare, which I just had the good fortune of disrupting before it got totally out of hand, in a manner of speaking."
"We... are..." Gerry stammered, looking at his pale arms. Suddenly, both he and Allison began fading away.
"Dad... mom.... wait!"
Billy's admonition was of no use. In a few moments, the two friends were left standing in the cemetery, staring at each other.
"They woke up, I guess. I wonder if they'll remember," said Billy, as John looked carefully around them at the headstones.
"I'm not sure they will. If they don't, it probably isn't time to tell them. One of my vague feelings again, alas. However, we do need to be concerned with what brought them here. That corpse was no accidental guest."
"I don't remember mom or dad saying anything about having nightmares. They've both been so happy lately. Maybe it was just a..."
Mr. Travis shook his head slowly, and led Billy to a wrought iron arch over the entrance to the cemetery. "There is something else going on. This graveyard," he said, pointing at the sign affixed to the arch, "is in Martinsville."
When he awoke, John Travis showered and dressed quickly. Last night's memories were vivid in every detail, unclouded by any mist of disbelief. His 1948 Ford pickup swung out of the driveway and moved off toward the edge of town, gaining speed as it went. After breezing through several stop signs with crossed fingers, he reached the Lumber Belt Road intersection, and swung a hard right turn. Gravel flew and the rear tires skidded in a fishtail, searching for traction. There was sweat on his brow now, despite the cool weather; something was haunting him, and the implications of it stung him. Just ahead, a side road appeared, leading out of town. He turned into the forest with another shower of gravel, and flew down the dirt trail, lurching and bouncing, until he reached a clearing on the right. The truck skidded to a stop, and Mr. Travis jumped out of the cab, leaving the engine running.
He stood in front of the same graveyard that had arrived in the dream. Nothing seemed odd about it - no coffin stood over an open grave, but the site of the night encounter was unmistakably there. He walked into the cemetery, slowly and deliberately circling the plot. Remembering the scene with Scrooge from Dickens, he finally approached the headstone that marked the grave and knelt before it. Painfully, he read the inscription aloud:
"Susan Gayle Mason"
As if weights had fallen on his shoulders, he collapsed face down on the grave and sobbed.
Billy's parents had remembered nothing. When he found them in the kitchen chatting over coffee, they made no reference to any dream, and behaved in their usual cheerful manner. Was it because he and Mr. Travis had both imagined them being there? His stepmother's hand had felt warm, though - wasn't that a sign she was real? Was John simply imagining the cemetery in the dream? He wasn't sure at all.
As Allison fixed his breakfast, he behaved as nonchalantly as his memories would permit. On his way to school, he pondered the whole affair, and realized with frustration that he had not thought to propose a rendezvous with Mr. Travis for the afternoon. He knew that his parents would be back in the dream again, probably tonight, and he didn't feel ready for it at all. He wanted his friend's advice.
After school, he sped to a filling station and begged a map from the attendant, explaining that he was new in town. Map in hand, he went to the pay phone and thumbed through the local directory, looking for the name Travis. In a few moments, he had the address: 4667 Old Border Drive. With the help of the map, he located it.
The ride took him half an hour, and after several wrong turns, he arrived at his friend's home. The place was well-kept and clean, the lawn freshly mowed. A large garage was wide open in the back, and John stood at a workbench, tinkering with something. Billy rode up to the driveway gate and dismounted.
"Mr. Travis! I need to talk to you!"
His friend turned, put a finger to his lips, and walked swiftly down the drive to let the excited boy in.
"I thought you might find me. You are clever enough," he said quietly. "I had intended to schedule a meeting, but forgot, alas. Let's go inside and talk."
John Travis was pleasant but more sober than Billy remembered him in the dreams. Something was affecting his demeanor, and the boy could sense it. They entered by the back door, and walked down a hall to the living room. On the dark wood-paneled walls were several pictures of his ride, all taken in different years of its operation. One incarnation even bore the familiar Laugh In The Dark title over its porch. Billy was momentarily fascinated by these, but his friend patted his shoulder, and led him to a chair.
"Billy," he said, his voice soft, "I believe I now know something about what has brought us together." He scratched his head, and then drew his hand down over his face, momentarily covering his eyes. "The corpse in the dream - it was your mother, Susan."
"My mother? But why would she strangle him like that? He loved her very much."
"I am sure he did, my boy. But there is something else, and I can't explain it just now. I had better save that for tonight, when your parents come to us again."
"Susan," said Billy, caught in a realization. "I don't remember telling you her name."
"You didn't. It was on a headstone in the very graveyard we saw last night. I went there this morning, you see."
"Oh." The boy looked briefly at the floor, and then met his eyes directly. "Why is she buried here, and not in Flecter's Well?"
"I am not sure," said Mr. Travis, "but she grew up here..."
"You knew her?" Billy asked, suddenly on the edge of his chair.
The ride operator realized that he had let it slip too soon.
"Yes - I will tell you this in advance. Susan Gayle - her maiden name - was a regular patron of the park and my ride, so I knew her on a first name basis, as I do many of my best customers. A lovely girl she was, with long, dark hair and deep brown eyes. She... disappeared one season and never returned, though. I heard nothing about her marriage to your father."
Billy pursed his lips, actively thinking.
"Well, maybe... no, she's dead, though. We're not really ghosts in the dream... but what is she?"
"That," said the operator, with determination in his voice, "is what we shall attempt to discover tonight. I will need your help, however."
"What do you want me to do?" asked the boy.
"It's so strange," said Gerry, after sipping from a cup of hot cocoa. "I got this odd urge to drive by Sue's grave this morning on my way to work."
"You never told me where she was buried, Gerry," said Allison. "I have always wondered why you avoided going back to see the plot. Why today?"
"No reason I can think of - I just did it. She's in a two-bit cemetery that her parents insisted on using. I was furious, but couldn't do a thing." He rolled his eyes upward. "I guess before now, I just didn't want to see the wretched place again."
"Where is it?"
"On the outskirts of town, out off the lumber loop. Shoot, when I drove up to it there was some old guy out there looking around for a grave to visit, and I didn't have the heart to disturb him - the place is so small. I just drove by and came back in about ten minutes, found him gone, and went on in. Her headstone is a miserable little thing."
"If you'd like to have a more attractive one carved, love..."
"No, I'd better let it go. No use keeping the past alive."
"Gerry, it'd be mostly for you." She put her arm around him where he sat. "Something tells me this really bothers you. Perhaps you'd feel better if you took some action."
"Okay. I'll let it drop." Allison smiled. "It's not worth a fuss."
Gerry stood and kissed her just as Billy walked in.
"Son! Where have you been?" asked Allison.
"Ah... at a friend's. A kid from school wanted to show me his... his train set."
"And why didn't you call?"
"Because I forgot. I'm sorry, mom. I won't do it again, I promise."
Gerry looked at him. "What's your friend's name?"
"Uh, John..." Billy fumbled, "John Smith."
Gerry laughed. "There's actually a kid named John Smith?"
Billy forced a grin. "Well, yes..."
"Billy, where were you, really?" Allison looked sober. "Please don't lie. There's no need to. Were you off exploring in the woods again? I found out that there's an amusement park back there built in a big gravel quarry. I know you've been to look, and I'm surprised you didn't tell me all about it, as much as you love those places."
"Well, mom... I wasn't there. I promise."
"Where were you?" Allison persisted.
"Like I said, at a friend's."
"Named John Smith."
"Why are you afraid to tell me his name?"
Billy felt the truth edging out of him, almost as if by force.
"It's... John Travis. He's a grownup. He... he operates a ride in the park - the one that the big fuss is over. We were talking about it..."
Gerry's mouth opened slightly, and for a moment, he seemed dizzy. When he managed to knock over his cup of cocoa, Allison and Billy turned to look at him. He began to slump forward slowly, and ended up with his head resting on the table as if asleep. Allison shook him gently.
"Gerry? What's wrong?"
"Hunh?" He sat up, and rubbed his eyes. "What happened just now?"
"Nothing... we were just talking to Billy."
"I don't even remember.... wait.... Billy, you said something about... John. John who?"
Gerry pinched his forehead, frowned, and fell silent.
"Gerry, what is it?" Allison looked concerned.
"Something I had... forgotten. Not really important." He looked up at his son. "Billy, that man is going to have more than he can deal with, soon. I want you to stop bothering him with questions. I want you home after school." The tone of his voice was firm, and his eyes were narrow.
"Yes, dad." Billy knew something was wrong. His father had never looked at him that way before.
The family finished supper in silence, and soon prepared for bed. Billy realized his one advantage was that his parents had not connected his ghostly friend with John Travis. His one concern was whether or not he'd be able to get to sleep quickly enough to beat them to the cemetery...
"They both know your name, now. I had to tell them, because they asked. They just don't know you're here."
John and Billy sat on a bench overlooking the graveyard. To their left, just down the way, the great moon-wheels over Luna Park's front gate spun slowly in the breeze. The older man smiled, and rubbed the boy's head.
"It doesn't matter now - I understand. Are you ready?"
"Yes, mostly. John, I'm afraid of that... of Susan."
"It's not really Susan."
"How do you know?"
"Another of my feelings, Billy. You will just have to trust me. I'm sure you can manage to do that one more time." He winked.
"Yeah. I guess," said Billy.
The dark cemetery was quiet, save for the distant rattle of leaves, as it was surrounded by shadows of the trees it knew in the waking world. Billy could hear insects and even smell the cold autumn air. He rose from the bench and began pacing slowly back and forth in front of the iron gateway as John knitted his fingers. Mr. Travis also seemed anxious about the meeting, and Billy wondered if his reassurance was certain. He thought about coming so close to what might actually be a real ghost, and as he mentally rehearsed the scheme the two of them had planned earlier, he shivered.
The other parties did not arrive when expected, so the two friends passed time with small talk about the history of several important amusement parks, now long residents of the dream-world. John was becoming more concerned as the night wore on, and kept glancing around the cemetery between narratives. At length, he stood and walked over beside his pupil.
"I'm going into the graveyard, Billy. Something is wrong here. I have no idea if this will work, but we must try - soon the night will be gone."
John stepped under the entrance arch, and slowly wound his way toward the plot where last Susan had appeared. He looked down, and saw that the grave was covered over with sod, as he had seen it in the morning. Small marks were visible where he had knelt, and this did not surprise him at all. He stooped and ran his finger over the letters of Susan's name on the stone. Suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder, small and light. He tried to wheel around, but lost his footing and fell over on his side.
"Billy....?" Mr. Travis looked up, but instead of his young associate, he saw a ghostly woman, apparently in her early twenties. "Susan!"
She was just as he remembered her from not so very long ago, before she had run away - before...
"Hello, John. I see you remember me now." Her voice was hard and cold.
"Sue..." He stood, and heard Billy's footsteps running toward them.
"I thought I might ask some questions - one in particular." She seemed to be ignoring the boy, who stood almost between them now.
"Ah, and what might that be?" John looked rather uncomfortable, and stole a glance at Billy.
"Mother?" said the boy, "Is that you?" It was the phrase he had rehearsed.
The young woman did not look at him, but kept her eyes on John. "Billy," she said, "you listen now. Mr. Travis here is going to tell you who he really is," she said, glaring at the ride keeper, "aren't you, John?"
Mr. Travis lowered his gaze to the ground. As he did so, Billy took one of the girl's arms in his hand, as if to get her attention. It felt cold - he had found out what he needed to know.
"I want you to listen carefully, Billy." She glanced at the boy, who released her arm quickly. When she looked back at John, her eyes burned with anger.
Billy had his thumb pointed down, and was frowning. Mr. Travis saw the agreed-upon signal, and held his ground.
"I will not say a word, Susan, until you let Gerry and Allison Mason in here. I know that you are keeping them away - I can sense it."
"I will not make any deals with you. You don't deserve such consideration." The specter crossed her arms. "How could you abandon me?"
"I didn't abandon anyone, Susan. You never came back."
"LIAR!" She stomped impatiently. "Tell him now, or I will!"
"It's the truth, Susan. You know it," John interrupted, calmly. "You left that fall for school, and never telephoned. I never heard a word of any kind. I am not the liar here, I am afraid. Why were you trying to kill Gerry Mason last night? Explain that to us, would you please?"
For a moment she looked uncertain, and her face clouded. Billy remained silent, for he saw John's returned signal - an extended forefinger.
"He is a murderer," she said, growling the words. "He deserves to die. Hasn't my... hasn't Billy told you that yet?" As she spoke, she began to age noticeably.
"No, he has not. He said only that you died in an automobile accident. Suppose you tell me."
Slowly, the girl's ghost became a blackened corpse again, her skin withering and wrinkling horribly. Billy winced, but didn't run.
"He... he... left me in the car. He could... have... saved..." The voice was a harsh croak. "He saved... "
"He saved his son, didn't he?"
John's words were insistent, but came too late. The corpse was dissolving slowly, and the dust wafted off in the cool breeze. Billy looked at his friend, and then turned to his mother's grave. Nothing had changed.
"Billy, your father saved you from the fire, and I am sure that he would have saved Susan if he could. I am suspicious about her ghost, though. We already know it is... different."
Billy made eye contact with John again, and nodded. "What was the other thing she was talking about? What happened? I know you wouldn't abandon anybody..."
"No, and I was not lying. I don't think your parents will be here tonight, and I would rather save the details for when we are all present. Will you be upset if I wait?"
"No, John. I trust you." The boy took his hand and squeezed it.
"You have no idea how good that makes me feel." Mr. Travis smiled.
Gerry's car pulled into the parking lot beside a large metal and brick building. The sign in front was spartan, and in hand-painted letters it read Overland Excavation and Construction Co. Behind the building, large power shovels, graders, and other heavy equipment sat waiting for work. He got out, locked his door, walked slowly toward the employee entrance on the side, and went in. The whole place was basic and functional - drably painted walls with black stenciled signs, gray metal filing cabinets and desks, and racks full of brown clipboards comprised the decor. His office door was only a few feet down the hall on the left, and below his name upon the door was his title: Manager, Excavations.
The only thing this job had in common with his former one in Flecter's Well was management, but Gerry had proved in his first week that he knew how to adapt to new situations quickly, and his superiors had been pleased. With the new position had come the responsibility brought on by a federal highway contract, and he was still in the process of organizing his staff for the initial work of clearing the right-of-way.
His desk was piled with reports and folders, and in the midst of it all he made enough space to set the morning paper, which was folded open to an article he had intended to finish reading. Last night had been restless, but he couldn't remember waking up, or being unable to sleep. So tired, he thought... he rubbed his eyes, and things remained blurred. He found himself lowering his head to the desktop, just to rest for a moment...
"Mr. Mason, are you all right? Didn't you sleep well?"
He woke with a start, to find his secretary standing over him. By the clock, he could tell that over half an hour had passed. She saw him blush with embarrassment.
"I'm sorry, Meredith - I'm just not in top form today. Don't tell anyone, okay?"
She winked. "Just this once."
As she turned to go, she noticed that there was an article torn out of the paper in front of him, and remembered which one it was from reading it at home. She considered asking him what he thought of the Dark Ride controversy, but in view of his situation, she left the office quietly and went back to her work.
Gerry was finally wide awake. He swept the newspaper off his desk and into the trash without a glance, and began his work.
Allison sipped hot tea and stared at the top of the kitchen table. Billy had left for school over an hour before, and the house was quiet. Something was bothering her, and she didn't quite know what it was. Her stepson seemed quieter than he had been, and he was showing some of his old behavior from before the disaster: wandering off after school and keeping secrets from her. Gerry, too, was somehow different. Breakfast had gone normally, but she had sensed a tense atmosphere that made her uncomfortable.
She went to the back window, looked out at the trees behind the house, and finally, it struck her: The big amusement park... and that man, Mr. Travis... Slowly, she remembered the dream scene which she had repressed, and felt a slight chill. Why had she dreamed about Gerry being strangled by a hideous monster? With that, she remembered the oddest part: her son standing next to the mature man, who had introduced himself as...
She found the phone book, opened it on the table, and looked up the name. A minute later, she dialed the number.
John Travis was busying himself in order to clear his head. All morning he had been considering how to proceed after last night's encounter with Susan's ghost. Before him, on his workbench, lay a completed set of two stout steel bars which he intended to install on the front doors of his ride against the chance that someone might try to break into it out of curiosity, or perhaps even in hostility. He heard the phone ring in the house, and walked quickly to the back door to answer it. When he picked up the receiver and said hello, there was a vaguely familiar voice on the other end.
"This is he."
"I have a son named Billy Mason. Was he by any chance at your house yesterday afternoon."
"Why, yes, he was. I am sorry I didn't have him call you. My fault, I fear. I knew he was on the way home from school..."
"May I ask how you met him?"
"All the children in this community know my name by now, what with all the articles in the paper. I am sure he just looked up my address and came over. He is crazy about amusement parks - you must know that. Why? Is something wrong?"
"Well, something... yes, something is wrong. It's going to sound awfully strange. I had this dream..." She stopped, as if embarrassed to tell the story.
He caught himself nodding. "And in it, we met."
There was dead silence on the other end of the line.
"Mrs. Mason, may I come over there and talk to you? I believe I can explain."
"This is... impossible... I - " She fumbled for words, and failed.
"Please, either let me come there, or I will meet you wherever you want."
"You can come here, I suppose... I feel... terribly scared."
"Don't be, please. I am quite harmless, I assure you, and I believe I can help."
She gave him the same address Billy had given. After locking up his workshop, Mr. Travis went immediately to his truck, carrying the door-bars he had made. He dropped them into the pickup bed, and sped off toward her house.
Billy found John's home locked up, and the owner was nowhere in sight. He had wanted to talk to his friend again, to make plans, but he could not afford to wait and be late again. He knew he was disobeying his father, but under the circumstances, he felt it was necessary to disregard the instructions Gerry had given him. In resignation, he hopped on his bike and threaded his way through the streets that led home.
As he turned the corner to his block, there in front of his house was a familiar sight: Mr. Travis' old black pickup truck. In an instant, he guessed what must have happened. He turned up the driveway, left his bike by the door, and went inside to find John and Allison in the living room, in the midst of an intense conversation.
"Hello, Billy," said John, calmly. "Your mother remembered what happened two nights ago, and she called me this afternoon, not knowing what else to do. I believe we can make some progress now."
Billy glanced at Allison, who looked a bit pale. "You told her everything, Mr. Travis?"
He nodded. "Sit down, Billy, so we can talk. I will need your help again tonight, and we must make new plans."
"Son, this is incredible. I'm not sure I can deal with this dream land of yours, but from what your friend tells me, there seems little choice," said Allison.
"We believe your father is in pain and may not know the reason why. We also believe that Susan's ghost - or whatever it really is - is to blame. She may be keeping both of your parents out of the dream intentionally, and our aim will be to force her to yield and let them back in; tonight, if possible."
Allison got up, came over to sit with her stepson, and hugged him tightly.
"I'll do whatever I can to help, mom. I love you and dad both."
Mr. Travis leaned forward, smiling. "You have an excellent son, Mrs. Mason. I am proud to be his friend."
She looked back at the ride operator, and there were tears in her eyes.
"I know," she whispered.
After Mr. Travis had left, Allison and Billy were sitting at the kitchen table, talking softly. He had explained to them that he was going to the park to bar the doors to his ride before returning home, but had asked that he be called if any problems arose. When they heard sounds from the driveway, they exchanged meaningful glances.
"Remember, there is nothing wrong. If your father begins to act strange and asks pointed questions, we know nothing, and nothing at all happened this afternoon," said Allison quietly. "It won't be easy, but let's try to act cheerful."
Billy nodded and smiled. "I've been doing it for several days, remember? It will work, mom."
Out of respect for his self-confidence, Allison refrained from telling him that she had noticed his act immediately.
The front door opened, followed by the sound of footsteps on the floor; but as they listened, they realized that there were now two people in the living room.
"Allison... Billy... I'm home. Come on out - I have someone with me that I want you both to meet." Something about his voice was different, and Allison could not pin it down. He had never brought anyone home without calling ahead to warn her, and she became cautious immediately.
She appeared in the living room door smiling, with her stepson by her side.
"Hello, love! Who is your friend?"
Standing next to her husband was a portly man in a suit, who looked pleasant enough. He bowed slightly as Gerry introduced him.
"This is Mr. Ramone. I, ah, had the good luck of running across him at lunch and we struck up a conversation. I thought you should hear what he has to say. I didn't think you'd believe me if I told you myself." Gerry seemed intense, and he spoke slowly, as if with effort.
"Mrs. Mason," said Mr. Ramone, "and Billy. Gerry spoke very well of you both, and I can see he was right."
"Thank you," said Allison, pleasantly.
"Let's all sit down for a while, and I will tell you what I told your husband," he said.
When they had all found seats, Mr. Ramone turned to Billy, who had already guessed where this might be leading.
"Your father tells me you have met John Travis."
Billy nodded slowly.
"Well, my boy, there are some things you should know about this man." He turned to face Allison. "First of all, I should tell you that I represent an organized group, the Concerned Citizens of Martinsville. We keep a watchful eye on community affairs, looking for signs of corruption in public officials and industry. We have evidence that something is truly rotten at Scarsvale Amusement Park, and we know that the source is the 'Dark Ride,' the construction of which was supervised by this Mr. Travis. My information is based, not on hearsay, but upon reports of several of our members who rode it specifically to find out. There are some things the paper hasn't revealed - typical of the Times, actually," he added with disdain, "and I thought you should know about them before you become further involved with this man. You see, we looked into his past as well."
Billy squirmed slightly in his seat, and glanced meaningfully at Allison as their guest continued.
"First of all, our investigators saw things in that ride that were personal to them. Very personal, and horrible. I shall give you a sample: One mother saw her child in there, mutilated and bleeding, just beyond her reach. Another man saw his own mother being tortured. The list goes on, but I believe you see the, ah, trend."
Allison raised an eyebrow, and looked appropriately disturbed.
"I hate to say it, because I have personally never believed in such things, but there seems to be something unnatural about it all - something perhaps even... supernatural. Several church groups are up in arms after hearing our information, as you can well understand.
"Now, as to the author of this business, Travis. We know he is a 'carney,' a life-long showman, and naturally, his morals are loose. He wasn't born here. He started out his career in that festering sore of New York City, Coney Island. Good people up there used to refer to it as 'Sodom by the Sea.'" Mr. Ramone cleared his throat and continued, "We have discovered that he has some, ah, bad traits of character. For one, he is lecherous. He has had affairs with several young women over the years he has been in this community, and a few who knew him actually came forward and admitted it. He is, further, irreligious. In the past, when the park had been criticized by the community of faith for catering to indulgence, he was the first to come forward and shout down the accusers. We now regard these reactions as a clear sign of his guilt."
The attack seemed unfair to Billy, yet how could he be sure these were all fabrications? The kind of things Mr. Ramone had described as being seen in the ride seemed quite plausible, given his experience. How else could he account for the horror of Susan's ghost? Had Mr. Travis been responsible for it all along?
"We are doing everything we can to see that this thing is dismantled before the park re-opens in the spring. The community does not need such a well of wickedness in its midst. I am sure you can sympathize with us now that you know the facts. Whether or not this man is actually practicing any kind of black magic, we want him out of business - for good."
Allison had several objections which she would have voiced under other circumstances. She knew well that Gerry was normally a thorough skeptic when confronted by other people like Mr. Ramone, yet here he was, advocating the man's position by his silence. She managed to remain diplomatic despite her feelings.
"This is quite interesting, Mr. Ramone. I appreciate you taking the time to tell us about it," she said.
"You're quite welcome, Mrs. Mason. It is our duty to keep people informed, and on their guard. You can be assured that we will work for everyone's best interest." He stood. "Gerry, it has been wonderful meeting your family. I must be off to our weekly committee meeting now, however, for we need to discuss our next move."
"Thank you, Mr. Ramone," said Gerry, and they shook hands. "We'll speak again, I'm sure."
When the unexpected guest had departed, Allison looked over at Billy and nodded to him. He smiled faintly while his father locked the front door.
The rest of the evening was quiet. Gerry seemed to relax after the little meeting was over, almost as if he were relieved. He made no epilogue to the conversation, beyond a comment that it was all very interesting and the offer of an apology for not calling home in advance. He seemed much more himself, right down to the normal early yawns as he read the evening paper.
Billy went quietly to his room, and Allison followed him a little while later.
"Son," she said in a whisper, "If I see you tonight in the dream, remember that I am on your side. I don't understand a lot of this, but I'll do what I can to help. As for your friend, I am sure that things will eventually become clear enough for us to see the truth for ourselves." She kissed him. "Goodnight. And say hello for me if I don't make it." With a wink, she left to prepare for sleep.
Billy lay on his bed, and he looked after her with a great deal of admiration. He could not imagine being without his new mother, for she had totally won his heart. Her attitude so bolstered him that he began to look on this night as a great adventure, and he was determined to bring her into his new world again as soon as he could find a way.
Hugging a pillow tightly against his chest, he closed his eyes and began to relax...
"John, do you know a Mr. Ramone?"
Mr. Travis sat on a low headstone only a few feet away from Susan's.
"Well, now," he sighed, "that is a name I could do without ever hearing again."
"He's with the..."
"I know who he is with," said John, irritation evident. "Don't tell me he came crawling out of the woodwork, too. One wretched corpse is enough to deal with." He lightened a bit. "I'm sorry - I did not mean to cut you off."
"He said a lot of things about you. I couldn't keep from telling you. He called your ride a.. 'well of wickedness.'"
"I bet he did. I will also bet that he called me every derogatory name he could think of."
"Not really - he was polite. He spoke kinda fancy, almost like you do."
John grinned tightly. "Well, he knows how to be civil, or he would not have achieved the position he holds."
"Are you really a car... carney?"
The old moniker elicited a laugh. "Yes, I guess I might be called that. It refers to people who work in traveling carnivals. I did that for a few years. Did the old fish tell you I was from New York?"
"Yes. He didn't care for Coney Island at all."
"I suspect not. He would not set foot on my ride, and I think perhaps the ride feels the same way about him. What precisely did he tell you, Billy?"
In a few minutes, the boy did his best to cover the gist of the lecture. Mr. Travis sighed occasionally, and nodded as he listened. When Billy had finished, he leaned forward and looked into his eyes.
"Now tell me - does any of it bother you particularly?"
"The truth, please." Again, the tight grin.
"Well... the part about you being... lecher..."
"Lecherous. Well, I thought so. And?"
"Well, the stuff about the supernatural, and the awful things the people saw on the ride. I wondered if you maybe..."
He dismounted the short headstone, sat on the ground behind it, and leaned back against it, drawing his knees up before him. He was now directly facing Susan's grave.
"Not at all. I don't fool with what I don't believe in. Regarding the little horrors, you've seen the corpse of your mother, and you have dealt with that rather well. I promise that I did not engineer anything beyond the new machinery in the ride. That, as I have discovered, has a mind of its own. As for the part about the young women - including Susan - I will give you a full explanation soon. For now, I want you to know some other things that will help you understand me better."
Suddenly, they were not alone anymore.
"Well, now," said the ghostly young woman as she emerged from the trees, "this will be an interesting bit of fiction." The voice dripped sarcasm. She strode forward and leaned against her own gravestone, legs crossed. "Do continue."
Allison awoke when her hand thumped hard against the night stand beside the bed. After she was alert enough to realize what had happened, she sat up carefully and discovered she was thirsty. When she returned from getting a glass of water, she saw Gerry's arm moving almost deliberately, as if to nudge her in bed, had she been there. He was clearly asleep - she could tell by his breathing. Out of curiosity, she watched for a while, and the same nudging move occurred again. She now knew what was keeping her out of the dream. Carefully, she picked up her pillow, and went to the living room to sleep on the sofa...
Billy quickly interposed himself between John and the ghostly image of Susan.
"You aren't my mother," he said, his voice firm. "Why are you here?"
"Don't be ridiculous."
Billy moved forward until he stood just before her, looking directly up at her face.
"Let my mom and dad in right now, or I will..."
"Or you will what?" There was mocking laughter in the voice.
"My real mother would never do this to me," Billy said quietly. The conversation was taking the form he and Mr. Travis had anticipated.
"You didn't even remember me before I came here. You forgot me entirely after I was gone! How do you know anything about me?" The tone changed to one of self-pity.
"I just know."
By this time, John had risen to his feet, and walked up behind Billy.
"He knows, and furthermore, I know," said Mr. Travis, his arms crossed. "Shortly after you made your accusations regarding Gerry, you vanished. I want to know why you left so quickly."
"And so do I." The glowing form of Allison stepped into the graveyard through the arch. Her face was stern, and she walked quickly to Billy's side.
Mom! You came!" Billy was elated.
Allison moved so close to the figure of Susan that their noses were almost touching. For a moment, the specter was caught off guard.
"How did you get in...?" she started.
"I manage to do a lot of things when I need to. We are going to have this out here and now. You are playing with my husband, and I am weary of it. You will let him in here right now, or I will personally beat the living sin out of you." Allison was the image of explosive force barely contained.
The younger woman started laughing hysterically. Immediately, her form began to change to a column of white vapor which poured itself upward into the starless black sky. The voice grew louder and deeper, booming around the others from all directions.
"You have no control over me! Gerry was and is mine, and you have no right to command me!" The tone of arrogance was overpowering.
"You lost your happiness, and now no one else is allowed theirs. I see," said Allison, quite in control of herself. "How mature of you."
"Do not mock me!" The enormous voice was almost an octave lower. "You will live to regret it!" With a tremendous clap of thunder, the cold ghost vanished once again.
The three remaining ghosts looked at each other without saying a word. Finally, Mr. Travis motioned his guests out of the graveyard and into the avenue next to the shadowy walls of Luna Park. Allison and Billy sat on the bench, and John remained standing.
"I promised both of you an explanation, and now I will give it," he said. "Some of this will not be very pleasant, but it is the truth. Do you still want me to tell you?"
"Please," said Allison.
"Very well. First of all, I believe I understand one of the reasons why I am in this place to begin with. I am older than I look, perhaps - I am well past sixty. Way back in the second decade of this century, I was a young lad working in Dreamland Park helping to ready a dark ride known as Hell Gate for the opening of the season. Regrettably, a bit of foolishness on my part started a fire that burned the entire park to the ground, and took two very dear friends of mine with it."
"You told me about the fire, but I never thought..." said Billy, and Mr. Travis nodded.
"Allison, that park is here in the dream world still, and Billy has seen it. I have been dreaming here since that night, although I didn't think about the implications of it until I met your son."
"It must have really hurt you badly," said Allison, "for this to continue for so long."
He nodded with a soft smile. "Yes, I am afraid so. I am beginning to deal with it now, however. May I sit?"
The boy and his stepmother made a space between them on the bench for him, and he took it gratefully.
"Now, the other bit of pain. This will be hard to take," he said, looking down. "From all the evidence I have been able to collect, I now know that Gerry is not Billy's real father."
Both were staring at him with open mouths, and neither said a word.
"I know who his father is," he added quietly.
"Who?" urged Allison.
"I am afraid it is I."
"John?" Billy was incredulous.
Mr. Travis' eyes were closed tightly, and he nodded slowly. "Yes. Shall I go on?"
The three sat silently, and finally the ride operator continued.
"Your Mr. Ramone was not lying about the young women whom I loved. He was interested in two of them himself, and was on fire with jealousy - perhaps now you see his motive. I have never been married, and never sensed the need to be until I became an older man. It was mostly the loneliness, I can tell you that. What Mr. Ramone will never believe is that most all of these 'affairs' were rather circumspect and civil. I was never one to hop from bed to bed, as it were. When a man reaches the age I was during those romances, the fires of desire burn low, and the wisdom of years speaks loudly. The truth is, when any relationship went as far as a proposal, it ended, and not by my choice.
"Susan Gayle was a different love story, and the last. I had it in my heart that she was the one. She and I were, first of all, good friends, and by all appearances she seemed to love me deeply. Perhaps I was merely an old fool, but I let her lead me too far into... well, into a relationship that I should have known was doomed from the start. When she left me suddenly, I had no idea she had conceived a child - I was so far past my prime that I did not think it possible. As I told Billy several nights ago, once she left me, I never heard any news. That tore my heart apart for a long while. I assure both of you that, had I known, I would have offered marriage and made provision for my mistake as best I could."
He paused and let the silence hang for a moment, then looked directly at Allison.
"Perhaps she told Gerry who the father was, and perhaps not; but given the situation, I believe she did. Gerry must have married her partly out of sympathy for Billy - that is only my guess. What I am asking is your forgiveness, and of course, that of Gerry."
Billy broke the silence. "I had two mothers.... and so I guess I can have two fathers. You've been wonderful to me, and if I didn't have a father, I would have picked you anyway." The boy took his hand and held it. "I love you... dad."
Allison watched her stepson with appreciation for the depth he had found. She turned to put an arm around the ride keeper, and saw that tears were streaming down his cheeks.
"You have courage, John Travis. Thank you for your honesty. Consider yourself forgiven."
The newly extended family embraced each other until morning called them from sleep.
Gerry appeared weary for the second day in a row. The chair's springs creaked as he leaned back at his desk, and closed his eyes. After a few moments he sat up with a determined look upon his face. His eyes narrowed, and he nodded to himself. The intercom popped as he pressed the talk bar.
"Meredith, send Mr. Newton to my office."
"Yes sir," came the reply, "shall I tell him what this is in regard to?"
His face showed impatience.
"No need." The reply was unusually curt, and there was a pause on the other end of the line.
"Ah, Yes, Mr. Mason."
Gerry distractedly arranged things on his desk, and after a few moments a slight grin formed just at the corners of his mouth. He went to obtain two cups of coffee from the break room down the hall, and returned to his office to find Mr. Newton waiting at the door.
"Come on in, Oliver. We'll talk inside."
When they were both seated with steaming cups in hand, Gerry leaned forward to look at him intently.
"I want to get the stuff we need for blasting our way around that hill lined up first. I think we can start as early as next week, if we move on it. What's our policy on inventory, again?"
Mr. Newton had been with the firm for many years, and had never seen a new boss in such a hurry. He knew this contract was firm, and there seemed to him no need for haste. He took off his glasses, pushed his thin, gray hair back off his ears, and looked at Gerry.
"Mr. Mason, we don't usually keep those supplies on the grounds, for safety reasons. I thought you knew that. What's the big hurry? You're only pressuring yourself."
Gerry darkened for a moment and recovered.
"Sorry, I guess I forgot. To answer your question..." he took a sip of coffee, and continued, "I guess I just want to make a good first impression."
"Frankly, Gerry, you already have them impressed. This advice comes from an old hand: take it easy. I've been here forever, and there's not going to be any problem if you don't rush it. The crew will appreciate it, too." He smiled in a fatherly manner.
"Well, I should have thought of that. It won't hurt to call and set things up with the supplier, though. We'll have it all squared so that if they have to order anything special for us, they can. We can call ahead and reserve what we need, correct?"
"Yes, that's the usual procedure. You want me to get things in motion now?"
"Please. You have talked with the project leader about the details?"
"Yes, I have a very good idea what is required. I'll call the supplier right away."
"Good. By the way, what's the name of the supply house?"
"LaMarcus Mining Materials. They're local - we've always used them. Do you want me to look elsewhere for better prices?"
Gerry shook his head.
"That's quite all right. Go with them again for this phase."
Mr. Newton nodded as he stood and walked to the door. With his hand on the knob, he turned to face the desk again.
"Mr. Mason, you've looked tired for the last couple of days. If you don't mind my asking, is everything all right?"
"Yes, quite." The smile looked forced.
"Very well. Call if you need anything. Anything at all." There was real concern in the voice.
"Thanks. But I'm fine, really."
Mr. Newton left with a smile and a nod, but was totally unconvinced.
After the door closed, Gerry pulled a folded newspaper article from his shirt pocket, opened it, and set it before him on the desk. On it was a circled name and a handwritten phone number, which he began dialing.
"Hello," said a familiar voice.
"Mr. Ramone, this is Gerry Mason again. I believe I am in a position to help you and your friends now."
"Most interesting," said the other. "Meet me at Ruby's Grill on Maple Street at 12:30. I want to hear all the details." The inflection betrayed a certain relish.
Allison was not sure how much longer she could cope with what was happening to Gerry. At breakfast, he had once again betrayed no signs that anything was wrong, but looked exhausted as he had the previous two mornings. If anything was to be revealed to Gerry, she knew it would have to happen in the context of the dream, but she had no idea how to deal with the irrational ghost which could change form at will.
In the afternoon, not long before Billy was due home from school, the phone rang.
"Mrs. Mason, this is John Travis."
"Are you all right?"
"Yes, just fine, thank you. I wanted to see how you were doing after last night."
"All things considered, I am doing fairly well - but it has been rough keeping my composure around Gerry."
"That is certainly understandable, and I appreciate your position keenly. I don't mean to add to your troubles, but if you don't mind, there is something I would like you to do as a favor to me."
"Of course. I'll do what I can."
"Since Mr. Ramone is involved with your husband, I would like you to let me know if you discover anything passing between them. Given the behavior of our renegade ghost, I have a suspicion that she may somehow have Gerry's private ear, as the saying goes."
"That thought has crossed my mind several times, I admit."
"Ah, indeed. We both know Ramone's goal. I am trying to protect my property... well, actually, there may be more at stake than a building full of silly machinery. I believe I told you that my ride is the only thing that exists both in the dream and in reality, save for us and that graveyard."
"Yes, I remember," she said.
"As you know, I often have strong feelings about situations that later prove to be true. If harm should come to my ride, I am not entirely sure what will happen, either to those responsible, or to us. We must protect it."
"Excellent. Keep my number handy, and if anything happens, call me immediately. Otherwise, I hope to see you tonight."
She concluded the call, and sat at the table feeling somewhat frustrated. She could not question her husband directly, for she didn't want him to have any suspicion that she was in league with John Travis. All she could do was observe. To keep from brooding, she made a pot of coffee, poured herself a cup and went out into the back yard to walk and think. A bit later, Billy appeared at the kitchen door and came to her side. She hugged him, and explained what his friend had said on the phone.
"I'll help the best I can, mom. Sometimes I can get away with being nosy when you can't, you know."
She smiled at him and chuckled. "Very good observation. You're right, son. Let's go inside and just relax for a while. We need a little rest, if not a good dreamless sleep."
He went with her, holding her hand tenderly.
Gerry arrived home from work at the usual time, and he seemed more like his normal self, if still a little tired. As the family ate, he looked up at Allison.
"Hon, I forgot to mention it, but someone from work is going to pass by in a little bit to pick up some papers from me. I'll just run out to the car and give them to him. It won't take but a minute."
When he resumed his meal, Allison's eyes met Billy's. They both had the same suspicion.
After about fifteen minutes, a car horn sounded in front of the house.
"I'll be right back," said Gerry, and went toward the living room.
Allison nodded at Billy, who followed and waited at the entrance to the living room. When the front door closed, he went quickly to the window and peeked out between the curtains. His suspicion was confirmed. Mr. Ramone was leaning against the side of his car, waiting with the trunk opened. Gerry spoke with him briefly, and they both went to the trunk of Gerry's car and opened it as well. Gingerly, they lifted out a large cardboard box, moved it to the other trunk, and carefully lowered it into position. Mr. Ramone closed the trunk very carefully, leaning on it until it latched with a click. Billy went quickly back to the kitchen and told Allison what he had seen.
"We can't call Mr. Travis now. We'll have to wait for the dream," Billy said quietly. "I wonder what was in the box."
"Let's hope it didn't belong to Pandora," said Allison.
"John, do you think Susan's ghost would be able to hear us if we couldn't see her?"
"A good question. I would think that unless she made her presence known, she could not."
"One of your feelings?"
"Alas, no. I wish that it were."
"Well, I need to tell you what I saw tonight. Mom may not be along for a while. She's going to try to move to the sofa again so she can dream."
The two sat on the bench across from the cemetery again, watching as they spoke. Billy revealed what he had observed in front of his house, and John frowned.
"A box, one with fragile contents. I will bet that it did not contain dishes," he said.
"It doesn't make sense," Billy replied.
"Perhaps it does..." He thought for a moment, and then shrugged. "I believe that these people will make their move very soon, whatever it may be. Mr. Ramone is bent on revenge, I think."
"Over two girls?" said Billy.
John chuckled. "You would be amazed how little it takes to prompt such behavior in people. It is not merely that, though. Something else is causing him pain, and deep down inside he feels that if my ride is gone, it will transfer that pain off of him and put it on me."
"That's stupid," said Billy.
"Yes, but you wouldn't believe how often it happens. People get uncomfortable when they think about their own motives, so they don't spend much time doing it. It would be better for them if they got brave and looked inside every so often."
"Mm. It's almost like people have little dark rides inside them."
"Heh... that's not a bad way of putting it," said John. "Now, before we go on to other things, I need to tell you what I have decided to do. I doubt seriously if these people will try anything in broad daylight, so I intend to nap during the day and spend most of the night at my ride building. This will mean that I won't see you in the dream for a while. It will be interesting to see if you come there by yourself. Can you handle that if it happens?"
"I... I guess so. How can I get in touch with you?"
"You can always call me during the day. I have a phone by my bed."
"What if something happens in the evening?"
"You know how to get to the ride. Bring your flashlight and come find me. Just be careful climbing down that slope. I'll either be down in the machinery room or walking around outside. If we don't see your stepmother tonight, tell her what I told you."
Neither Allison nor the ghost made an appearance, although father and son tried entering the graveyard and calling out for both. They passed the remaining hours discussing rides and exchanging stories until the daylight took them back.
The morning passed, another strained but normal awakening. Allison managed to find Billy alone in his room and explained her absence in the night. Gerry had draped an arm over her in his sleep, and she had been afraid to awaken him. Billy told her what Mr. Travis had said, and she replied that there was little she could do but report any news she heard. Billy understood, and she bundled him off to school before Gerry left. After she kissed her husband good-bye, she begin to think about him again.
The entire situation had come about in such a short time, and she was still a bit in shock. In only three days, Gerry had become a different person. She would never stop loving him, but she found it difficult to live with someone who held a veil of secrecy before him, as her son had not so long ago. More than that, Gerry seemed to be keeping secrets from himself. In the early afternoon, she spent several hours running household errands, but her thoughts were haunted by the apparition of Susan.
Just after dinner, the phone rang. Allison picked it up.
"My name is Oliver Newton. I work with your husband. Is he in the room with you now?"
"I need for this call to be private. If you have another phone, go to it - tell him it is one of your new friends. If not, simply answer no."
"Ah, hello! Yes!" She began acting immediately, all smiles. After excusing herself using the method he had suggested, she walked to the bedroom, and waited for the phone to be hung up in the kitchen before talking.
"Mrs. Mason, I would not normally call you like this, but something seems to be wrong with Gerry. Yesterday, he did something that could have caused him to lose his job if his superiors had found out. Does he seem... different to you lately?"
She was silent for a moment.
"Yes, I am afraid so."
"Well, I went into his office for a folder in his file cabinet, and I saw a familiar looking box in the corner of the room. It was from a supplier that I usually deal with, and when I looked at it closely, I saw that someone had covered the warning notices on the side. Before I could find a way to remove it privately, he had taken it out of the office, probably to his car." He sighed. "Mrs. Mason, it is a box of explosives, the kind we use to blast rock when clearing for roads. I believe he took it home with him last night. If he isn't careful, he could kill himself and perhaps many others."
"Oh, my," she said, keeping her voice low.
"If you find the box, call me at home..."
"Mr. Newton, Gerry gave that box away last night. I had no idea what was in it - my son saw the exchange. Please let me deal with it from my end. If I need the police, I will call them, don't worry. I am trying to keep Gerry out of trouble. I know what may be going on."
"I will respect that, Mrs. Mason. However, you should know that he just gave someone the ability to destroy a large warehouse. Please be very cautious."
"Trust me, I will. Thank you so very much for calling."
John Travis sat on the stairs leading up to the front porch of his Dark Ride. His flashlight sat next to him, and he looked around in the growing darkness. It reminded him so much of the dream, all the rides falling under a blanket of shadow cast by the trees. After the sun had set, he stood, picked up the flashlight, walked to the loading platform, unlocked the cover on the control panel, and turned on the interior work lights. He left the outside lights off intentionally.
A small access door was set into the wall next to the main entrance, and after unlocking it, he went inside the ride. It seemed totally bare except for the passageway and the steel power rail that was the track. As he walked through to inspect the corridor, there were no animated clowns, no statuary monsters, no dusty coffins - just featureless black walls. At the exit doors, he checked the newly installed bar that supplemented the single hasp and padlock. Everything seemed secure, and he backtracked, checking the route a second time before exiting.
He reflected on how different the ride looked inside when the works were activated, on how closely the atmosphere resembled that of his dream-world. The machinery obviously effected some kind of translation, but the method was beyond his conscious knowledge entirely. He still had not a single memory of the dreams in which he had constructed it.
Flashlight in hand, he walked around the structure to the back door, and let himself in. Just below the floor of the ride, the machine room was set into the ground like a half-basement, with a set of wooden stairs leading down into it. The glare of his flashlight cast shadows on the mass of mechanical objects that ran the length of the ride. He still marveled at the strange geometry of many of the pieces - in places, moving parts seemed to pass through each other or to merge in impossible ways. Suddenly, he had a strong feeling that he should close the master breaker connected to the machinery. Without questioning it, he did so.
Outside, the moan of the machinery was barely audible, but Billy heard it as he scrambled down the rocky wall of the old quarry. It reminded him of the crying of the wind in a winter storm - a plaintive, ethereal voice calling to him. When he reached the path, he broke into a run and reached the back gate of the park, which John had left unlocked. He passed through it and pounded on the back door. In a few moments, John opened it to find Billy standing there, almost out of breath.
"Mr. Travis - I got here as fast as I could. Mom told Gerry that I was going to a friend's house for help with homework. Something bad is going on. Something really bad."
"Let's go to the front. We will talk while we watch."
He twisted a key in the large bolt lock on the machine room door and heard it slide home securely. Staying close to the wall of the ride, the two made their way to the platform. The dim glow of the controls was the only light there.
John unlocked a chain and pulled a heavy canvas cover off the lead car. They sat in it together, using it for a bench.
"We can see anyone approaching the front from here," said John. "The door on the machine room is strong, and I am not too worried about it. Now, tell me what has happened."
"That box Mr. Ramone got from Gerry - it's explosives. Enough to destroy the ride!" said Billy, with awe in his voice.
"Ahh," said John. "I knew they were desperate, but I had no idea they would do something this radical. If the people of this city knew how their self-appointed guardians of public morals were behaving, they would be outraged."
"We're in real danger, aren't we?"
"Indeed we are."
"What can we do?"
"I have but one idea." He got out of the car, went to the access door, walked in and unlocked the main entrance, then came back to Billy. "If they bring explosives, they will have to take them inside to do a thorough job of destroying this building," he said.
He walked to the panel and slapped a large button marked Animation Start. The sound of the machinery shifted and became a deep throbbing which could be felt through the floor.
"There." He resumed his seat in the lead car beside Billy. "Only fearful people attempt to destroy what they do not understand. If the schemers go inside, I believe this old ride will defend itself."
"What if they get to the machine room somehow?"
"I will make sure they do not," Mr. Travis said.
Gerry looked up from his paper and across the room to where Allison sat, working a crossword puzzle.
"I'm about ready for bed, love. You'd better call Billy home. I bet he's through studying and is just talking to his friend."
She stood. "I'll just walk around the block and get him. I want to meet his friend's mother, anyway. I know so few neighbors yet."
"Okay. If I'm asleep when you get home, just be quiet. I need some good sleep - I've been feeling really rotten."
Nodding, she went to the door. "Very well, love. We will be back before long, I think."
Allison went around the house quietly, and took a small flashlight from her pocket. With care, she moved into the trees, hiding the beam of light by keeping it directly before her feet. This was her first walk to the back of the park, and she was at a disadvantage. Clouds covered the moon, and the sky was dark. All she had to guide her were the highway lights strung out before Scarsvale Amusement Park like grounded stars. With but a few stumbles, she reached the edge of the wood and stood overlooking the quarry. Everything was dark below, and it was impossible to make out the ride building with only a dim pocket light. As she was deciding what to do, she saw a parade of headlights pull into the parking lot on the other side of the park. It could only mean one thing, and there was no time to run to a phone and call for help.
She began to scramble desperately down the rough quarry wall, causing a shower of gravel to plummet into the dark chasm beneath her. Half way down, she lost her footing and slid, tearing her slacks at the knees, and scraping the skin beneath. She muffled her cry of pain, and checked the fall, cutting her palms badly. Her feet slid around, searching for a ledge to stand on without success. The pain in her hands was too intense to bear, and she lost her grip. Allison fell, sliding down the hard gravel face until she hit the walk below. Rocks fell on top of the already bruised woman and one hit her square on the head, knocking her unconscious. She lay helpless and still on the little path, less than a block from the entrance gate behind the ride.
As the first flashlight beams flickered on the ground just down the midway, Mr. Travis reached over to the console and pounded a round button with his fist, as if he were using a gavel. Overhead, three rows of deep blue ultraviolet tubes flickered to life, imparting an unearthly glow to their clothes, but leaving their skin dark and ghostly. The sign above the platform glowed from behind, boldly announcing their location.
The leader of the party of intruders held up his hand to halt them.
"Well, now, Travis," he cried in a haughty voice, "I see you have stooped to taking hostages. It won't work."
There was a murmur from his followers, all of them men. Some held axes, and others carried cutting tools. Two carried a dark box between them, which Billy recognized immediately. Flashlight beams swept over the two faces that peered off the porch, revealing grim and determined expressions.
"You men guard the steps. We don't want either of them running off," said Mr. Ramone to his followers.
"We're not leaving," yelled Billy, with clenched fists.
"I don't think you get the picture." Mr. Ramone reached into his coat and pulled out a revolver, which he aimed directly at John. "Boy, if you value the life of this wretched ghoul, you will do nothing at all to resist us."
"Ahh," said Mr. Travis, "I see. You are a cowardly imbecile."
"Don't tempt me," he yelled. "Down, now!" He jerked the gun in the direction he intended them to move in.
Billy looked up at John and spoke softly. "Into the ride?"
"No," said his father, in a whisper. "We must go with them for now. If you get a chance, run inside. They will not hurt you - they want me."
Together, they walked down off the platform, and were immediately surrounded by five men. Mr. Ramone broke the circle, his gun leveled at John, his empty hand outstretched.
"The keys to the door in back - I want them right now."
Without a word, Mr. Travis placed a large key ring in his palm.
"All right, bring the two of them with us. We don't have all night."
The mob escorted them to the machine room door, and while father and son watched, Mr. Ramone opened the bolt and pulled the door wide. The odd, throbbing whine of the machinery sent a chill down his spine.
"Go down and shut it off. If you try to run or hide, I will kill you."
There was a soft murmur of protest from the men who surrounded them, but Ramone ignored it.
He prodded the operator with the barrel. Billy stood helpless as his father walked down the stairs toward the main switch. When he reached the bottom, John stopped next to the handle, and crossed his arms.
"Travis, either you are going to shut it off, or I will," yelled Ramone.
He began to climb down, keeping his gun leveled at John, and he ordered the men bearing the box of explosives to follow him. When all had reached the floor, he stood next to the operator, pressing the gun barrel against his ribs...
Gerry tossed and turned in his sleep, unaware of what was going on not far away... unaware, except for the one little part of him that was still in very deep pain. It flowed into the dream world, and the sleeper's body relaxed, sprawled like a corpse upon the bed...
"Where are the lights?" Ramone asked, unable to see clearly in the dim blue glow emanating from the ride's works.
"At the foot of the stairs," his captive answered softly.
The men set the box down, and one of them flipped the switch. When the lights came on, the men froze, staring at the shadowy machinery, which was twisting and undulating as if alive. Mr. Ramone scowled and reached for the lever on the large breaker box, slamming it down as if executing a criminal. The eerie whine slowly died as the machinery crawled to a stop...
Allison's glowing form stood out in the darkness. Her head ached, but her mind was clear. Directly in front of her stood the ghost of Susan, which stared at her, a gloating expression on its face.
"It's all over now. Soon John Travis will lose his most precious possession, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. His punishment is deserved. Now," she said, "you will watch as I deal justice to my murderer, and share the punishment for stealing his heart from me."
In the shadows behind the young woman's apparition, Gerry Mason's ghost materialized, standing mute and motionless.
"You don't understand," said Allison in a calm voice. "Listen to me carefully. Billy is there at the ride with John. Those explosives are very powerful. Your son could be killed, if only by accident."
"Gerry... left me to save that woeful child. Billy belongs to the wretch that abandoned me, and John Travis can save him, for all I care."
Allison hesitated, thought quickly, and acted on a new suspicion.
"Susan, show me exactly what happened the night of the accident. I don't believe you are telling the truth." She spoke it as a challenge.
"Very well, I shall," she said. "Watch carefully and learn what kind of man your precious husband truly is!"
Immediately, the space around them became a dark highway, and they stood on the side of it. Down the road, a car approached, and as it did so, the driver of a truck pulled out of a side road without seeing it. Brakes squealed as the car tried to stop, but it was too late. With a deafening crash, the two vehicles collided...
"Place those charges, wire up the blasting caps and set the timers. Get moving," Ramone barked to his crew as he went to the stairs, ready to leave. In a few minutes, they finished and joined him. "Travis, you can stay down here and die with your wickedness, or you can come out now and take your punishment. The choice is yours."
The ride operator stood motionless. He looked up the stairs and saw Billy standing directly before the door, completely unrestrained. With his eyes directly on his son, he said one word: "Now!"
Billy understood immediately, and ran as fast as he could around the mob, which let him pass unhindered. As the boy sprinted for the front of the ride, Ramone howled from below and ran up the stairs, followed by his men.
As several men set off in pursuit of his son, John reached over and closed the big circuit breaker again. The obedient machinery whined back to life, and he ducked out of sight, scrambling toward the nearest detonator. At the top of the stairs, Mr. Ramone yelled down at him.
"Tamper with the bombs, and they will go off immediately. I am not about to tell you how to disarm them."
Slowly, helplessly, John Travis walked back to the foot of the stairs and looked up again, his face set in a horrified grimace.
"You would... kill... my son? You monster!" He was enraged.
"Your son? So I was correct. Is there no end to your transgressions? If the boy goes inside this thing to hide, he dies. As for you..." He finished his sentence by firing his gun. The bullet tore into John's chest, knocking him backwards to the floor. Ramone locked the door shut, leaving Billy's father to his death.
The boy scrambled up the stairs, followed closely by several of Ramone's men. He rounded the corner and plunged through the entry doors without hesitation. Behind him, his pursuers halted, unwilling to go further. As they looked at each other, their faces grew pale...
Billy felt a familiar atmosphere as he ran deeper into the ride. The pulsing darkness that flowed around him seemed to be directing him in his flight. Ahead there was a pool of light, and within it he saw a vaguely familiar scene materialize. He heard a distant gunshot, followed by a terrible crash. Painful memories came rushing back...
Billy walked up behind Allison's ghost, his eyes wide and full of terror as he watched the past repeat itself. The car rolled over and spun around on its top in slow motion as the doors on the driver's side flew open. The young child was thrown from the rear seat, followed by Gerry from the front. The man's image rolled and came to a stop in the tall grass beside the road as the car burst into flames. Only a few feet away, the young child lay screaming as the fire began to engulf him. As they all watched, Gerry's image staggered to its feet, bruised and limping with a broken foot. His wife was trapped in the car, and her screams were horrifying.
Gerry watched in silent agony as his younger self scooped the child out of the flames, carried him away from the car, and laid him safely in the grass. Immediately, the car was swallowed by a massive fireball, and the crippled man fell on top of the boy to protect him. There had been no time for him to reach his wife...
Susan's apparition stood motionless as the image faded, leaving all of them in darkness again. Four blue ghosts looked around at each other without words. At last, Allison broke the silence.
"You see, it is true. You share Gerry's memories, don't you?"
"Yes," said Susan, I... do. I don't know why I... I didn't remember..."
"I believe I do," said a kindly, familiar voice, "but it doesn't matter now."
Into their midst walked a glowing John Travis. Over his chest, his shirt bore a gaping hole; but on the skin beneath there was not even a scar.
"I'm sorry about my appearance, but I simply did not have a chance to change clothes. You will all forgive me, I'm sure." He was smiling, and he winked.
"Dad...?" said Billy, and John nodded pleasantly at him.
Susan's ghost stared at him slack jawed. "Y-you're... dead... and I... I caused..."
Her image began to fade again, while Gerry blinked as if awakening from a dream within a dream. John Travis reached out and took the beautiful young ghost's hand. As he did so, a bit of his glow flowed into her, and the image solidified again.
"Susan, please don't go. I believe it would be best if you stayed with me this time," said John.
She blinked, and her eyes widened. "Where am I?"
"You are at the park, Susan. Remember my ride? It used to be your favorite one."
"But... it was destroyed..." stammered Gerry.
"No," said Mr. Travis, still smiling, "it wasn't."
The mob had turned on its leader. Ramone was arguing vehemently with a group of men who had him surrounded.
"We have less than a minute to run, you idiots!"
"You killed a man and left a boy in there to die, you monster! Go back in there and disarm the bombs!" yelled one.
Another grabbed the keys from him and took off in a run for the machine room. He was followed by a number of others, but before any of them had time to reach the door, the ground shook with a dull boom.
Instead of the expected concussion, the ride's walls seemed to twist, turn and melt, and a wave of darkness flowed out from the building, swallowing them all. Their screams were muffled in pulsing black fluid, and the few remaining lights went out...
"We're dead, aren't we?" Gerry looked at Allison, and glanced from the corner of his eye at John.
"On the contrary, you are both quite alive. Mr. Mason, take your wife's hand," said Mr. Travis, who was standing with his arm around Susan.
Gerry did, and it was warm.
"You are asleep, dreaming, but you should wake soon. You will find her physical body at the bottom of the quarry wall behind your house, rather bruised, but otherwise quite alive. She will need your help, I believe."
"It was rather a bad fall," said the spectral Allison, looking at her husband. "I don't relish feeling the pain when I awake." She looked at John again. "What about Billy? He isn't asleep..."
"No, said John, "he is simply... here. He can leave the same way he came in, whenever he pleases. He is quite safe."
Billy walked over and stood with his foster parents.
"What about you, John?" he asked.
John held his palms open to the ceiling. "I am vital enough, although I will never again visit the waking world. Susan's company will be good for me, however." He smiled at her, then turned to the family again. "You are all invited to visit us here any time you wish. I believe the choice will be yours from now on."
"What about Ramone and his men? Are they..." Gerry looked worried.
John chuckled. "They will be lying on the ground, I expect, sleeping the whole thing off. The police will find no corpse, and the ride is completely unharmed. If you let nature take its course, there will be no further trouble from any of them, I assure you."
"What will happen when you are found to be missing?" asked Allison.
"That situation will take care of itself as well." Again, the wink.
Gerry faded from the dream after saying his good-byes, and not long after that, Allison dissolved away. Theirs would be a rough morning, Billy realized, and they would both need his help.
"I just walk outside, and that's it - I'm back?" asked the boy.
John nodded. "Yes, that's all there is to it. Go now, and be with your parents. We'll meet again tonight, if you wish. Right now, I have much to discuss with Susan."
The lovely ghost looked up into John's eyes, and although she still seemed confused, she waited patiently. Billy began walking slowly back in the direction the entrance doors, which were visible as a pale outline in the darkness. His shoulders drooped a bit, and John understood immediately.
"She isn't here to replace you, you know. No one can do that, son."
The boy turned and looked back. Susan and John were both smiling. He blushed and faltered.
"You never had a time to become friends with your mother," said John. "You will have that chance now."
"She's really my...?"
"This time, I believe so." Beside him, Susan nodded agreement.
Billy's gloom melted a bit, and he waved as he turned toward the entrance again. "I'll see you both tonight, mom and dad. We hafta talk!" There was a small grin on his face as he said it.
"Be careful, son" said his father's ghost, "It's still dark back in the waking world. Don't trip over any of the sleepers on your way home!"
Later that night, Susan looked into the great pool of Dreamland Park, and gasped in surprise as she discovered who she truly was. When she turned to John, there was a question in her eyes. He nodded in affirmation, as if he had read her mind.
"Go ahead, you can do it."
In wonder, she turned back to the pool and raised her arms, stretching them out over the water. When she looked up, the sky was lit with a million diamond points of light, and the moon rose before her over the rim of the dark valley. John stared at her silhouette, entranced. Around them, Dreamland Park lit up like a jeweled crown, and from its tall tower, a brilliant beacon swept out beyond the horizon.
"I am more alive now than ever before," he said, light falling warm on his face. "You cannot imagine how many times I have tried to restore this dark place without success. I did not realize that I needed you to do it for me."
"What will we do now?" she asked, marveling at the glittering spectacle all around her.
"Why, we will open up for the season, of course. There is nothing more forlorn than an amusement park devoid of patrons."
"John Travis," she said with a wry smile, "I believe you love me."
"You always did have a talent for understatement, my dear soul." He saw himself reflected in her eyes, and his voice became very soft. "Of course I do."
Billy returned to the dream world on the very next night. Possessed of an inspiration, he searched the avenue of dark rides and discovered a familiar new arrival. Inside its corridors, he found two young boys cowering on the floor, whom he led to the exit. A week later, Allison received gratifying letters from two jubilant families living in Flecter's Well.
Scarsvale Amusement Park continued to prosper when it opened in the spring of the following year. John Travis seemed to have disappeared, and was listed simply as 'missing' by the police. A new maintenance engineer was hired to attend to the Dark Ride, and after a day of being totally baffled, he quickly picked up with amazing enthusiasm where Mr. Travis had left off. Public curiosity never flagged, and the park's owner was very pleased indeed.
John Travis and Susan began to have company - only a few patrons at first, but before long, Dreamland Park positively thronged with dreamers. At the height of the season, a spectacular public wedding took place, in the grand tradition of Coney Island.
Billy's foster family prospered in its endeavors. Gerry's handling of the federal road contract proved exemplary, and he found himself promoted to plant manager within two years. Allison attended night school, and earned a degree in counseling which she put to good use, eventually setting up a private practice. When her son had grown to young manhood, he assisted in the care and preservation of his father's ride as a hobby while he studied mechanical engineering at a nearby college.
William Mason never left Martinsville. In his mature years, he formed a small corporation which bought Scarsvale Amusement Park from the Tydwell family, when they had lost interest in keeping it open. Just before he retired, he was often seen with an eager young apprentice, who assumed his duties afterward.
The Dark Ride is still open for business.