by Ray Cluley and Michael Kelly
The moon is fat and bright, holding back the dark. A warm wind blows across the high summer grass, touching their faces, their sticky summer skin, and moves on, its faint summer song trailing and fading like summer itself. Dying.
The girls giggle, nervous, excited; their faces glow in the shine of the moon, wide and innocent still. The boys shuffle, kick at the dusty ground, snort, push and shove and laugh.
“Summer,” Mary-Ann says.
“Summer,” Alisha repeats, wistful.
“There’ll be others,” Ryan says.
“Other summers,” Josh agrees.
The high grass sways. They wait, giggling and sniggering. “Shush,” one of them says, and that gets them laughing.
Sixteen-years-old, all of them. Their skin smooth, eyes bright like glass marbles, hair thick and glossy, lips red as cherry popsicles. The four of them stand in the tall honey-grass, looking out beyond the field and the fat moon’s brilliance to the edge of darkness. Waiting.
“When?” Mary-Ann asks.
“When?” Alisha repeats, anxious.
“Soon,” Ryan says, staring into the dark.
“Real soon,” Josh agrees, licking his lips.
They are thin and bronzed, fidgeting, touching, all angles and questions. How? Why? Who? When?
Then, from the inky darkness, a sound, faint and growing. Music. An organ, an accordion, like a child’s wind-up toy. And as they watch, their thin bodies aquiver, coloured lights wink on, lighting the darkness in reds and blues, greens and yellows, like strands of Christmas lights strung across the night sky. Christmas in summer.
The warm wind carries the music, bright and cheerful, and brings the smell of popcorn and cotton candy, hot dogs and sweet corn, cola and sawdust and summer.
They smile their bright popsicle smiles.
“Now,” Mary-Ann says.
“Now,” Alisha repeats.
“Let’s go,” Ryan says.
“Yes, let’s go now,” Josh agrees.
Smiling, they move through the late-season grass that tickles the backs of their knees. Then down a dirt road, the contented moon at their backs smiling a benediction, toward the music and the lights to a gated entrance. But a simple chain fence isn’t going to keep them out, not on this night, and they slip through easily to the other side.
They tremble with excitement, huddle close, brush against each other, skin on skin, hot breath mingling in whispers and more summer laughter.
“Here we are,” Mary-Ann says.
“Again,” Alisha says.
“It never changes,” Ryan says.
“Some things don’t,” Josh says.
The music swells, fills the summer night with its melody, beckoning, pulling them toward it. A calliope, summer’s sweet instrument.
They glide down the centre of the midway, past the Ring Toss, imagining the red hoops clacking off the milk bottles, a sound like summer rain against a window. They pass the cotton candy machine and its sweet pinkness, and the ‘Test Your Strength’ booth. Ryan flexes his muscles, grins. Over there is the Mirror Maze and the House of Horrors. They walk past the sweet corn and the hot dogs spinning on their warming plates, past booths with stuffed animals and games of chance. They move past the Tunnel of Love, and Josh holds Alisha’s hand. Ryan wraps an arm around Mary-Ann, pulls her close.
“The best night of my life,” Mary-Ann says.
“The absolute best,” Alisha repeats.
“The four of us together,” Ryan says.
“Yes, together,” Josh agrees. “Always.”
They huddle close, the four of them, shuffle as one through the saw-dusty grounds, past canvas-flapped tents boasting bearded women, centipede men, and cabinets of countless curiosities. They imagine the barker with his megaphone, beckoning, “Come one, come all, to the fantastic Freakshow! The greatest show on earth!”
Still the calliope plays. Light and then dark, soft and then swelling, carried on the night breeze: the music of laughter and dark mystery; of carnivals and funerals; of life and death; of summer itself. Endless summer.
The sweet summer wind gusts, swirls past them, prickling their skin with gooseflesh, tickling their noses with carnival scents; French fries and ketchup, burgers and coke, peanuts, popcorn, and liquorice. It carries mystery and regret, sorrow and happiness, and all the hopes and dreams of children everywhere. Or so it seems to them, this night, at this moment.
Then, there it is, in front of them: the Merry-Go-Round. Quiet and still, though the music plays on, the lacquered horses are wide-eyed and open-mouthed, frozen, hooves raised, manes flowing.
The four of them, suddenly silent, step onto the platform and each climbs a horse. For a moment, their faces resemble those of the horses – stricken with fear. Then, slowly, the Merry-Go-Round stutters forward and they hoot and grin.
“Hurry!” says Mary-Ann, excited fit-to-burst now that the long ride has begun. She rocks back and forth on her horse, eager for more speed.
“Come on, let’s go!” Alisha says, urging her horse. She clutches at its neck and leans low, hair caught in the breeze of their new movement.
“We’re off!” Ryan announces. He holds both arms high, grips the bright horse with his thighs, and turns in the saddle to look behind.
“It’s begun!” says Josh. He holds his arms up like Ryan and increases the challenge by standing up in the stirrups.
Round and round they go, merrily, their wooden steeds rising and falling with the music.
“Faster!” Mary-Ann calls.
“Faster!” Alisha yells.
“Onward!” Ryan shouts.
“Yes, onward!” Josh cries.
The carousel rolls its calliope sounds in toots and whistles, melodies overlapping melodies to create an eternal chorus of rising, falling joy as bright as the stars, as bright as comets.
Mary-Ann looks at Ryan, pumping his arms and cheering. She will kiss him tonight. She has decided it lots of times. One day, she knows, he will take her to Lake Point in the truck he bought from working all summer at the gas station and she will kiss him then, too. He will be on the college football team and she will be a cheerleader and they will kiss in his truck under a full moon.
Mary-Ann cheers, “It’s wonderful!”
Alisha whispers into the ears of her horse, urges it on. It seems to hear her, to understand, because round and round they spin, faster and faster. The warm wind of a dry summer tousles her hair, carries the aroma of other summers, summers gone and summers soon to be. Summers of cut grass and fresh drinks and fireworks. She hears them soar and burst and sparkle and their light shines back from the bright colours of their horses, the golden poles, the pipes of the glorious organ that sounds its giddy anthem of summer. One day she will watch them whoosh, flash, fall, and she will be with someone who loves her and holds her and drapes his jacket over her shoulders and tells her things that make her smile and laugh and ooh and ahh.
Alisha says, “It’s perfect!”
Ryan hurries after the horses in front, fists in the air, never catching them but happy to chase, weaving up and down and around, around. He hears the calls of his friends, the cheers, and a new crowd of onlookers blurs as he passes them, and passes them again, and he knows that this is what a winning touchdown run feels like. He will slam the ball down to the ground and jump and others will catch him, lift him, parade him around and around as he punches his fists to the air with the same triumph he feels now.
Ryan exults, “It’s ours!”
Josh closes his eyes and grins as the carnival din washes over him, takes him, lifts him, lowers him. He rushes forward forever, knowing that one day he will catch Alisha and maybe take her to the prom. Yes, he will take her to the prom and buy her a corsage and she will wear it and look beautiful and he will look smart and they will dance together. They will move close to each other. Afterwards they will watch the fireworks. The sky will be sunshine-bright, alive with colours. He will tell her the poems he is too afraid to write and she will lean in close because she likes them.
Josh says, “Yes, it’s wonderful! It’s perfect!”
Horses grin and snarl and gallop and fall; they run away from what is, run towards what will be. Faster. Louder. Faster.
“Give us more.”
“Yes, give us more.”
Mary-Ann leans forward, cranes her neck, takes in the swirling lights, the swirling music, the swirling smells. She is giddy with it all. She grins, glances again at Ryan. Yes, she will kiss him, place her lips on his. They will be soft and wet and tender. With their chests pressed together her heart will thump against his. The summer wind will sing a love song, caress their flawless bronzed skin, prickle it in gooseflesh. Ryan will wrap a protective, warming arm around her and pull her closer. And even though she prides herself on the fact that she doesn’t need this boy, this man-to-be, to protect her or to keep her safe, she concedes that it would feel good to be wanted, to be loved. Yes, she thinks, yes. Maybe this time.
In front of her, two bright lights appear in the dark. Twin moons, growing.
Alisha leans forward, wraps her legs tight around the lacquered horse. She trembles, wonders what it would be like to wrap her legs around a man one day, maybe even Josh. The thought sends a tingle through her and she rubs herself against the hard sculpted surface of the saddle. She gasps, holds on tight and rocks with the speeding horse. The wind whips her hair. She stares at Josh. She will marry one day, perhaps even Josh, perhaps not. She’ll be a modern woman. There are plenty of jobs. She’ll meet someone, marry him, and they will travel the world together. And at night, in their hotel room, she will wrap her legs around him and buck against him, a free and modern woman. Yes, a stewardess. That’s what she’ll be. At least that’s what she thinks this year. Maybe this time it will happen. Please, she thinks, please. And she holds on tight, bucks against the horse, closes her eyes when the bright lights appear ahead, spearing the night. She thrashes and moans against the horse, against the lights. She catches the sharp smell of something new in the night, like hot tar and gasoline, anxiety and fear, and when she opens her eyes again they’re as wide as her horse’s.
“Yes,” Ryan repeats, but less enthusiastically this time, “it’s ours.” The Merry-Go-Round spins. In his head, images spin like those in a motion picture reel. He will score that winning touchdown and hear the adulation of the crowd. He will go to college, get his banking or drafting degree. He will become a banker, or an architect, and he will marry and have children, a handsome boy and a sweet girl. Maybe he will marry Mary-Ann. Sometimes he sees Mary-Ann alone, and sometimes they marry, and sometimes they don’t have children: summers are full of infinite possibilities. But this summer, this time, he sees his children. He reads to his daughter at night. He teaches his son to ice-skate. He kisses their cheeks, hugs them close, and tries not to cry each night as he stands in their doorway and just watches them, these precious gifts, sleeping soundly.
A car horn blared. Tires screeched. He smelled scorched rubber. He keened forward, stared, and was momentarily blinded by lights careening across his vision. He reached across the passenger seat, the carousel boards, feeling for Mary-Ann.
Josh will be a writer. Other summers he is other things. He will sell a few poems for little money, then he’ll sell some short stories to literary journals, and then he’ll write a novel about love and death and hate and grief, endless summer, a novel that will be well-received but sell very little copies, a novel that he knows is good and that he is proud to have written. And he will meet someone, a man this time, and they will become close and will share their lives together, but Josh will secretly weep for their secret life because they live in the age of shame. Oh, these endless summers, Josh thinks. Some sad, some happy.
A cry made him look up. A fierce light in the night blinded him. Then came the squeal of tires, the terrible shrieking crash, and the smell of burnt rubber and gasoline and smoke. Alisha, he thought. Alisha.
Alisha couldn’t breathe. She thought it was because she’d screamed it all out, but when she tried to inhale she only got smoke and heat and something sharp, something coppery. She knew these smells, knew all of them, knew them as well as she knew the candyfloss, the cola, the buttered pop-pop-popcorn, but those smells were gone now. The popping was not corn, she didn’t know what it was but it wasn’t popcorn, and it wasn’t good. She was dizzy, too, spinning around and around and around without moving. She didn’t want to move. It hurt. “Mary-Ann, it hurts.”
Mary-Ann held on tight. There was a funny taste in her mouth and her lips were red but not Popsicle, not toffee apple. Red and slick. There was a loud sound in her head like horses screaming but there were no horses. Then it was quiet and they were flying, fast, faster, round and round, but not the same way as before; up and round and round and down and round and round some more. They yelled together, friends in fear, crying a shared terror as they spun. Mary-Ann tried to call out for Ryan, where was Ryan, “Ryan?” and “Ryan!” but the only answer she got was a pain hard in the chest that thinned her breath to nothing.
Ryan fell, dropped, tumbled, and somehow he was outside when he used to be inside but he wasn’t sure where, only that he was not where he was meant to be. None of this was how it was meant to be: it was always this way. He heard someone scream and it sounded like Alisha, heard his name and it sounded like Mary-Ann. He couldn’t answer. The grass was under him, night-cool, dark and wet. What happened, Josh? Why? Why does it always happen?
Josh shielded his eyes but not from the lights; they were gone now. All of them. He didn’t want to see. He no longer rose and he no longer fell. Nothing turned. The music had stopped and the rest was silence until the fiery light of a bright false dawn came with a whoomph and whoosh of heat more intense than any summer.
“No more,” he says.
Alisha rests her face against the brass, caresses a painted mane, and looks to Mary-Ann.
Mary-Ann holds her piebald horse, reluctant to dismount, and looks back at Ryan.
Ryan lowers his arms. He nudges Josh.
Josh opens his eyes.
The moon was fat and bright, holding back the dark. A warm wind blew across the high summer grass, touched their faces, their sticky summer skin, and moved on, its faint summer song trailing and fading like summer itself.
Mary-Ann blinked, her eyes sticky with blood. She reached out, clutched at Ryan’s ruined hands. “Your car is wrecked,” she said, pulling a clot of hair and scalp from her face.
Ryan nodded, looked across the road at the couple staring at a truck that had flipped over. “Sorry about your truck,” he said.
“My dad’s truck,” said the boy. His name was Josh. “He’s going to be pissed.”
The girl, Alisha, reached up to Josh’s face, smoothed a flap of loose skin back into place. “Your dad will forgive you,” she said. “I’m sure.” She paused, and her body shook. “We were going to the fair.”
Mary-Ann smiled weakly. She squeezed Ryan’s hand. “So were we. It’s a summer tradition.”
Ryan said, “It isn’t far, maybe we could all still go.” He coughed wetly, spat something out he shouldn’t have. “I love the Merry-Go-Round.”
Josh grinned. “Yes. It would’ve been good.”
“The best night of our lives,” Mary-Ann whispered.
“The absolute best,” Alisha repeated.
“The four of us together,” Ryan said.
“Yes, together,” Josh agreed. “Always.”
The four of them move out into the field and stand in the tall honey-grass, looking out beyond the grassland and the fat moon’s brilliance to the edge of darkness. Then, from the inky night, a sound, faint and growing. Music. A calliope. As they watch, coloured lights wink on.
Mary-Ann blinks, rubs blood from her eyes. Her hands pass through like wind through fog and she shrugs, smiles weakly. “Summer,” she says.
Alisha coughs. She stares ahead. The carnival lights blur, wink in and out. A piece of gleaming red bone protrudes from her chest. She pushes it back inside, and she can see through her hand to the ground below. “Oh, summer,” she says.
Ryan sighs, pushes wet hair from his face. The girls are ahead of him, wavering like smoke. “There’ll be other summers,” he says.
Josh’s face is wet with blood and tears. He trembles, tries to bite his missing lower lip. “Yes,” he says, on the crest of weeping. “Other endless summers.”
The summer song swells. Soon, they know, the music will once again fade and vanish, like summer itself.
Together they move through the tall late-season grass toward a world of infinite possibilities…
And endless summer.
Michael Kelly has been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the British Fantasy Society Award. His fiction has appeared in Black Static, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror #21, Supernatural Tales, Postscripts, Tesseracts 13 & 16, and has been collected in Scratching the Surface, and Undertow & Other Laments. He also publishes and edits Shadows & Tall Trees, and is series editor for the Chilling Tales anthology series (EDGE Publications). His latest book (as editor), Chilling Tales: In Words, Alas, Drown I, will appear in October 2013. Learn more at Undertow Books.
Ray Cluley is a writer. It used to be that he was a teacher who said he was a writer, but now it’s actually true. His stories have appeared in various dark places. His most recent work has appeared in Black Static and Interzone from TTA Press, Shadows & Tall Trees from Undertow Books, and the Darker Minds anthology from Dark Minds Press. He has a story forthcoming in Crimewave and another in the Edgar Allan Poe anthology, Where Thy Dark Eye Glances, from Lethe Press. A novelette with Spectral Press is due in 2014. His story “At Night, When the Demons Come” was selected by Ellen Datlow for her Best Horror of the Year anthology, and ‘Night Fishing’ was selected by Steve Berman this year for Wilde Stories 2013. He writes non-fiction too, but generally he prefers to make stuff up. To learn more about his work visit him at probablymonsters.