“Really?” I sigh as we join the back of the huge queue. “What a drain.”
Heather scoffs and raises her eyebrows. “We’d be in there already if you hadn’t taken so long parking.”
Ugh, I’d hoped she’d grown up a little over the summer, but she’s just as annoying as she was at school. How am I gonna put up with her crap in this heat?
“Well, when you’ve passed you can park wherever you want,” I sing at her through clenched teeth, trying to keep my anger under control. If our mums weren’t best mates I could’ve dumped her straight after limo day. The queue moves but she doesn’t budge, too busy smirking at me to notice. “Move forward.” I shove her.
“You know,” she says, her signature know-it-all-tone already in place. “It won’t be as easy for me to pass; my dad’s not an instructor.”
“What?” A flash flood of heat sears through my head. Who the hell does she think she is? “You think I had it easier than anyone else?”
“I’m just saying, it must’ve helped.” She crosses her arms. “Did you even pay for lessons?”
My nails are cutting into my sweaty palms I’m clenching them so tight. I force a smile at her annoying face and look away. All I really want to do is slap her, someone needs to, but it’s not worth the agro I’d get from mum. Besides, her mum’s a hairdresser but I don’t sulk every time she gets the latest cut and colour. Hypocrite.
Who the hell does she think she is? I almost turn to her, my hand rising to reach for her face, but I hold it by my side and press my lips tightly together. I’ve always had to grin and bear it with this girl, but it’s never been this bad before. I guess I’ve matured over the summer, left her even further behind.
The queue moves up and I take the four steps gladly. Heather’s right at my heels though, yapping on and on about something pointless, but I’m not listening. She’s like that stupid little dog my aunt has; annoying and yappy and always wanting more attention.
About twenty more people have joined the queue behind us. I wish I’d picked up a drink on the way in, but there’s no going back now, we’ve moved too far. My back and shoulders are sizzling in the sun. I push my vest and bra straps down so I don’t get tan lines.
“Oh my God! Oh my God!” Heather’s tugging at my arm. She’s all out of breath like she’s been running.
I look over at where she’s pointing and see a guy walking past the carousel towards us.
“Oh my God, he’s coming over here! What do I do? What do I do?” Heather’s almost hyperventilating. “Paige, why’s he smiling at you?”
I should’ve told her already, but it’s too late now. I might even feel guilty if I could think of anything but how incredible Jamie looks in a tight t-shirt and shorts. I smile back at him while my knees become jelly. I’ll have time to worry about walking later.
Jamie stops beside me on the other side of the barrier.
“I’m not sure you’re familiar with carparks,” he says, the corners of his mouth curling up, dimpling his cheeks. “I saw you driving round and round for like ten minutes.”
“Oh, you saw that?” My face flushes and I realise my jaw aches. I must have been clenching my teeth trying to put up with Heather, but my days certainly looking up now. I look at Heather and her stunned, pale face drags me back to reality.
I really should’ve told her.
“You said you were busy tonight?” I ask him.
“I was, but then I heard this new ride’s got people really freaked. Thought I’d come along with you.” He winks.
I feel myself blush over the heat of my already burnt face. “Thanks.” He’s so thoughtful. “We’ll meet you at the back.” I go to walk past the people behind us, but Jamie puts his hand up.
“Nah,” he says, and jumps over the barrier. The people queueing behind all give us dirty looks, but no one says anything.
Jamie’s just standing there, looking like he owns the world, flicking his hair from his eyes and smiling. This would be the perfect moment for our first kiss, if it weren’t for Heather. The queue moves up and I go to walk on ahead with Jamie, but she grabs my arm, keeps me back.
“Paige, what’s going on?” her voice is frantic, her fingers digging in my skin. She’s definitely like my aunt’s dog; always getting under my feet, then whimpering when I tread on its tail.
The last thing I need is for her to make a scene right now. “He asked me out,” I whisper and snatch my arm free. “What was I supposed to do?”
She steps back, her mouth slackens and her eyes full on spin as she works through the info I’ve given her.
Jamie’s motioning at the empty space we should be moving into.
“We’re just coming,” I tell him, feeling the weight of the rest of the queue pushing at my back. I need to do this like removing a plaster, quick and hopefully painless. “Look,” I whisper to Heather, “you and Jamie were never gonna happen. He told me. You need to get over it.”
Heather’s face crumples into something I’ve never seen before. She stares at me, and I’m waiting for her to cry or scream or storm off, but she just stares, a melting mess like those Dali clocks we were made to draw in art. Then her eyes clamp closed and without a sound she mouths something.
“You’re my best friend.”
I take a deep breath and walk to Jamie. It’s not like I’ve broken any friendship rules; he’s not her ex, he was never even into her. It’s not my fault she’s had an insane crush on him ever since our first day at school, back when he was short and freckled and funny. But now he’s tall and really cute, and he’s in a band.
What was I supposed to do?
I risk a look back at her. She’s staring down at her pumps.
This will be good for her, a practice in disappointment, ‘a life lesson’ as my dad always says.
I look up at Jamie, smiling. He flicks his eyes at her and then back to me, raising an eyebrows.
“She’s having a rough day,” I say.
He nods and lifts his arm, checking the time. He’s got one of those chunky rubber watches all the boys are wearing. I’ve never seen a baby blue one before. It matches his eyes.
“Thanks, limited edition.” He’s grinning, bouncing up and down on his tiptoes. “It’s cool our town’s finally getting some decent rides.”
“It’s not a ride, mate.” The guy in front turns around. “It’s an experience. You walk through and stuff jumps out at you, like a horror film.”
I can’t see Jamie’s face but I imagine it’s lit up.
“Wow, you’ve been through already?” he asks.
“Not this one, but they’re all real intense.” The guy takes a look at me. “You and your girl will love it.”
The guy nods and turns back to his friends.
It’s weird how guys can just make friends anywhere, in a way girls never could.
We turn the next bend in the queue and snake along the outer edge. Ahead a crowd of kids with ugly backpacks huddle together around something by the barrier. When we move again I see what they were looking at. There’s a big lump of stone in the centre, shaped like a hideous face, eyes closed and mouth stretched open.
The guy in front and his friends read whatever’s written on its forehead, laugh and move on. When we reach it I read the inscription aloud.
“If your life be free of sin,
Come and place your right hand in.
If you’re telling me a lie,
I will bite and you will die.”
I turn to Jamie.
“No way, I’ve done far too many questionable things to be putting my hand in that.”
I roll my eyes and lean down, reaching my hand out towards the stone mouth.
“You sure you’re free of sin?” Heather’s voice makes me jump. I’d almost forgotten she was with us. She’s standing right beside me, rolling up her shirt sleeve.
I step to the side. “Go ahead.”
She squats down and shoves her hand in the stone mouth.
She juts her chin out and grins up at me. “At least one of us has a clean conscience.”
“Whatever.” I don’t know how much longer I’m gonna be able to put up with her crap. The queue moves again and I walk up a few paces.
Then she screams.
As I spin back round I see her pull her hand from the mouth. “It cut me!” She’s waving it through the air like it’s on fire.
I grab her wrist and pull her hand towards me. There’s a small blob of blood on the end of her index finger. Such an attention seeker, it’s just a scratch.
“Guess you’re not so squeaky clean after all,” I tell her, dropping her hand. She’s ranting on about HIV and STDs, and I’m trying my best not to listen.
“You can’t get STDs from a scratch,” Jamie tells her, screwing up his eyes like he thinks she’s an idiot. I push my lips together to stop from laughing.
Heather’s gone all quiet.
We’re almost there now, at a one level building made from thin strips of crate metal and no windows. I’ve heard the ride assistant shouting out the same instructions for the last half hour. Now we’ve reach the front I know it by heart.
“Next six, stand here.”
We filter into a separate lane. It reminds me of those metal things horses are kept in just before a race starts. The guy who spoke to Jamie and his two friends are in front. Then Jamie, me, and Heather.
“You alright going last?” I ask Heather out of habit.
“I’m used to it.”
God, how long’s she’s gonna milk this?
“Follow the person in front of you at all times,” the assistant shouts. He’s pacing with his arms behind his back like he thinks he’s in the army. “Keep to the path. Do not stop. Do not turn back.” He gives us each a mask. They’re shiny and black with freakishly long noses.
“You must wear the masks provided at all times.”
I take the ugly piece of plastic and fan my face and neck with it, then slide it on.
“Place your hands on the person in front of you. Do not let them go.”
I reach my hands out, taking a firm hold of Jamie’s waist, happy for the excuse to touch him. Heather’s hands eventually take my hips.
“No photography is permitted inside the Demented Masquerade. Photobooks can be purchased at the exit.”
One of Jamie’s hands comes back, glides up my skinny jeans and rests on my bum. Heather’s hands quickly jump to my shoulders. Great, another thing for her to hate me for.
“Remember,” the assistant shouts. “Do not let go. Do not stop. Do not turn back.”
I peek around Jamie to see the big doors we’ve been queueing for. In the top right corner there’s a red light. It starts to flash. The assistant counts down.
With all the Heather drama I didn’t stop to think about what we’re doing. Now my hands are shaking. Jamie must think I’m ridiculous.
“Eight, seven, six…”
Jamie’s hand lifts off my bum and back onto the shoulder of the guy in front. He shifts his weight from one foot to the other like he’s preparing himself.
The red light flashes faster.
“Three, two, one.”
The light turns from red to green. For a moment nothing happens. Nothing. Then a siren goes off and the double doors slide open.
“Go! Go! Go!”
Our line of six move and I’m herded along with them, into the black hole of the open doors.
I can’t see anything, just my outstretched arms reaching into dark fog. There’s laughter, cackles all around. Over and over. It’s just as hot in here as outside, and it stinks, like sweating people and something sickeningly sweet. The fog gradually diffuses, or maybe my eyes adjust, and I can make out Jamie. My body instantly feels lighter and I realise I’m holding his waist real hard, so I loosen my grip a little. My forehead’s clammy under the masks.
We’re in a hallway. Fake candles are staggered along the walls, electric flames dancing inside tongues of plastic, eerily lighting up the clouded air. Long lines of suits of armour stand to attention along either side. I search them as we pass between, looking for eyes that could be staring back from inside supposedly hollow helmets. Then, ahead, one of the suits moves. Just a twitch, just a little, but I see it. The fog near its helmet is swirling. It’s breathing.
There’s someone inside it.
We keep walking along the hallway. Why hasn’t it jumped out yet?
I’m getting closer.
I’m almost right beside it.
Just as I lift my leg to pass it by, it takes a hard step forward and shrieks in my ear. Even though I knew it was coming I still cower into Jamie’s back and scream, trying to make myself as small as possible. The armoured guy’s still right next to me, walking along with his face shoved into mine, his metal clothing clanking with every motorised movement.
“Get your own air,” I tell him, making sure my voice doesn’t shake. I push into Jamie, hoping it will help everyone move faster, but they keep to the same slow, steady pace.
Just look forward, pretend he’s not there.
Don’t look at him. Don’t let him know he’s freaking you out.
Finally he takes a step back and slips into line against the wall with the others.
Before I can relax there are cries from the front. Another armoured guy has jumped out ahead and I’m pulled along as finally everyone runs. We reach a door at the end of the hall, just a plastic flap, and push through.
A large room. Candelabras hang from ropes on the ceiling. A piano tune plays, slow and old-fashioned, but I can’t see a piano anywhere. The laughing and fog have gone. Couples are dancing in tuxedoes and ball gowns with the same masks as ours; black with huge noses. The women have ringlets in their hair, probably wigs. They smile, their mouths wide and unnatural, like they’re dolls and that’s the only expression their creator gave them.
We walk in a wide curve around them as they dance. A couple come close to us, the woman trying to get up in my face. She gets even closer and I shut my eyes.
“Stay for a dance,” she whispers.
Ready to give her the same advice I gave the guy in armour, I open my eyes. She’s gone, and for some reason I find myself laughing.
We shift into a darker, dirtier light as we follow the curved wall into another part of the room. The guys at the front gasp, but I can’t see why yet. Now they’re laughing. The piano music here is out of tune, high pitched and whining. The lights are moving, flashing dark then light and dark again. I look up. The candelabras are swinging and covered in red.
I’m digging my fingers into Jamie, I can’t help it.
The curve opens into a room. Couples are dancing again, but all the women’s dresses are torn, their wigs lopsided and messy, make-up smudged. They’re covered in splatters of red. Most of the men are headless, and the rest are skeletons with strips of black jackets and bow ties hanging from their ribs, swirling into the air as they’re flung to the tuneless melody of the music.
Someone’s standing still in the middle of it all, a hunched figure all in red. Its hat has three points jutting out, each with a bell on the end. It’s facing down at the floor, but its eyes are looking up, following us in turn as we pass by.
I hate clowns.
My body tightens, my legs getting ready to run, but I have to stay in line.
None of the others seem bothered by this freak staring at them. They’re all looking at the grotesque dancing couples. Maybe they haven’t spotted it.
Then its gaze jumps to me, too quickly. I stop breathing. I couldn’t even go to the circus when I was younger, but I may as well have, because this clown’s creepier than any other, even the ones in my imagination.
Why’s it still looking at me? Why isn’t it looking at Heather?
A noise I know isn’t real builds in my ears, ringing and chiming, faster, building with my panic. The clown’s head tilts up to show a manic smile on its painted face. It knows how much it’s freaking me out. It’s loving it.
It’s just a game.
But I can’t look away.
The clown turns its head from side to side and starts to shake. Faster and faster. The bells on its hat chime as it convulses, making a noise undecipherable against the ringing in my head.
And yet I can still see its eyes looking at me.
Heather’s hands rest so lightly on my shoulders. I don’t think she’s even flinched once.
We all turn at an angle and I have to look away. We’re walking towards a blank wall, no door, no way out. Where are we gonna go? I glance back at the mayhem of the room behind. I can see the demented couples dancing, and the red clown moving between them, jutting out its legs and elbows to a rhythm completely different to that of the whining piano music. I turn back just in time to see the first guy in our line duck down, and realise there must be a stupidly low door at the base of the wall.
I look back again, past Heather, and at first I can’t find the red figure amid the chaos. Then I realise it’s over the far side of the room, completely still, staring down once again, like it’s gone back to its starting position ready for the next group of six.
Just as I’m about to look away, its head snaps up and its eyes lock straight onto me.
It’s running full pelt straight for us.
“Jamie, move!” I push into him, but all he does is look behind, smiling and searching for whatever’s got me so freaked out. “The clown, it’s coming!” I yell at him.
Jamie squints at me. “What clown?”
Before I can answer he’s ducking under the door and I lose hold of him.
I follow quickly and feel Heather’s hands come away from my shoulders. Everything’s completely black. But I’d take darkness over that freaky clown any day.
I reach forward and my hands find Jamie. I squeeze into his sides, and feel one of his hands stroke my fingers. Then Heather’s hands come down on my shoulders, hard. I’d almost forgotten about her, again.
We shuffle forward. Something brushes my elbow. I jump away and hear the bells again, ringing in my head. Something touches me on the other side. I squeeze my eyes shut, ignoring the chimes of my freaked-out mind, and make my shaking legs walk.
This is fake, all fake.
Light colours my eyelids a pale orange and I open my eyes. We’re walking between rails of clothes. Ball gowns and petticoats, tuxedoes and bow ties, stockings and shoes. We’re in a dressing room. Finally, something normal. And yet my head’s still chiming like crazy.
After a few more steps the rails end and the walls become mirrors. Mirrors everywhere, even on the ceiling. I glance at my reflection and my heart shoots through my throat.
The clown’s behind me.
The clowns behind me, holding my shoulders.
I jump and scream, letting go of Jamie, and run to the side of the room. I can’t focus on anything but the clown. I can’t get away; I’m backed right up against a mirror.
The clown stands motionless and grinning, its head tilted to one side, its eyes wide open, staring at me. Then it shakes its head, letting the bells on each point of its hat chime.
It takes four fast steps towards me and I cower into the mirror.
“Took you long enough, love,” a man voice says from behind the painted face, heavy with a cockney accent. Then he turns and runs, into the darkness from where we came, giggling and jutting out his arms and legs to that unknown rhythm.
I put my hand on my heart.
“Heather?” I step away from the mirrored wall and spin around, searching for her through all the reflections. “Heather?”
Hands take my waist from behind and I gasp, flinching away.
“It’s just me.” Jamie says. “The group’s moving. Hey, where’s your friend?”
“I don’t know!” I hold my head. “I don’t know.”
“You’re sexy when you’re scared.”
“What?” I’m so freaked out I can’t even register his words. Where the hell is Heather?
Jamie lifts his mask from his face and takes my hands, pulling me towards him. Then his lips come down on mine.
I can’t move.
I need to find Heather.
Jamie steps back and heaves out a sigh. “Alright, I’ll go find her.” He pulls his mask back down. “Be right back.” He walks away, his perfect form scattering in several mirrors before he disappears into the blackness between the rails.
I look around for the group. They’re walking away. I run after them, reaching my hands out for the last guy’s shoulders, and run straight into a mirror. My hands shoot up the polished surface with a squeal and my face hits. The nose of my mask crumples, flattening to one side. My teeth bite my lower lip and pain bursts along my jaw. I can taste blood. I stumble back, bring my hands up and cradle my face.
This can’t be happening to me. Whoever’s outside, watching me through the cameras, must be laughing their heads off. Or worse, they’re gonna come in and get me. They’re gonna shut this whole thing down because of me, the girl who head-butted a mirror.
What will Jamie think of me then?
I feel sick.
I lift one hand above my head and give a thumbs-up in all directions. Please let the cameras see I’m alright. Please, please don’t come in and get me.
Nothing happens. No bright lights or actresses in ripped dresses come to escort me out.
I take a few shallow breaths and search the mirrors. The three guys at the front are in so many of them, walking in every direction. I don’t know which ones of them are real. I think I see a flash of Heather’s checked shirt glide past, but then it’s gone.
What way do I go?
I’m spinning in circles. The mirrors look like they’re jumping. My heats beating so hard it’s jolting my vision.
Hundreds of my panicked face stare back at me, my bottom lip red with blood. My throat closes up and I choke down a lump of saliva.
Stop freaking out.
This is just a game.
I take as deep a breath as I can and search the mirrors again. All the ones I’m not in are blank now. I feel like I’m gonna throw up. I wobble and look down, ready to be sick, but a yellow line by my feet stops me.
The path. I take a wild guess at which way I think I should go and walk. If I’m wrong I’ll bump into Jamie and Heather, or a pissed off member of staff. And if I’m right I’ll find the exit.
Please let me find the exit.
The mirrors end and I walk into absolute black. My hands reach into the dark, find the warm surface of the curved wall and I feel my way along. My fingers have pins and needles and my legs may as well be liquid.
I’m walking into light and towards a noise, a banging. It’s getting louder with every step. I don’t want to see what it is, but there’s nowhere else to go.
I let go of the wall and walk into a room, hugging my arms tight. I wish I had someone to hold onto. Why did Heather have to get herself lost? She’s probably with Jamie right now, and I’m here all alone.
Maybe that’s what she wanted all along?
The room’s full of beds and flickering yellow lanterns. A man is gagged on a bed to the right, his arms twisted, wrists bound to the headboard. He’s struggling, trying to get free. The bed beside him is covered in a pool of dark red. Between the banging I hear screams. A man’s screaming somewhere, crying out for help. It’s curling my stomach, like the screams of torture scenes in films.
The path curves and I see the reason for the banging. A tux man’s sprawled out on a bed with a ball gowned woman squatting over him, whacking him over and over with a hammer. His shirt’s open and his chest’s caved in. I can barely look, but then as I get closer I see he’s not real, just a dummy, his smashed insides a mess of plastic and rubber.
The curved yellow line leads past the last few beds and to a door. There’s white light around the sides of it.
The three guys in my group are standing right in front, looking at the last bed.
I break into a run, reaching them and grabbing onto the last guy’s shoulders. He barely notices, too busy cringing and wheezing, biting his fist to hold back laughter. Or vomit. On the bed is a masked woman in a ball gown, pummelling the side of a tux man’s head with the high heel of her shoe.
The tux man’s eyes have been hacked out and his head is smashed, all blood and bone and gristle. The hands of the woman are covered in red. She hits him again and a mist sprays out at us. We jump back, and the guys all laugh. I laugh with them. Then we turn and push through the door.
I pull my mask off and throw it in a hamper by the exit. I jog as far as my legs will take me before collapsing down on the hot tarmac. My head’s killing me, but my hearts slowed some and I’m starting to feel my hands. I curl and uncurl my fingers. I can’t believe I let it get me so freaked out. Jamie was right; it’s all part of the game. I’m such an idiot.
The guy and his friends are over by the photo counter high-fiving each other. I can’t see Jamie or Heather yet. They must still be in there, or maybe they went all the way back out the start.
“Hey, was it any good?”
A girl in the queue’s leaning towards me. I’ve seen her at school, a year or so below. She’s leaning on that stupid stone head Heather put her hand in.
I swallow hard, my dry throat struggling to gulp down the grit that’s formed in my mouth. “Yeah, it’s worth the wait,” I say, trying to sound cool and aloof. The girl smiles widely and turns back to her friends.
I grab the back of the stone head and pull myself up. My fingers brush indentations.
There’s more writing on the back.
“If your blood is black with hate,
Let me guide you to your fate,
Just one taste and you will be,
Cold and strong and stone as me.”
“Here’s your photobook.” The guy who spoke to Jamie shoves a flimsy leaflet into my hand. “It was buy one get one free. I figured you’d go halves, £7 each?”
I nod and squeeze my hand into my jean pocket, pull out my purse. “I’ve only got notes.”
“I got change.” The guy takes my note and give me a load of coins. I don’t bother counting them. “Hey, where’s your bloke?”
“I dunno.” I shrug, trying to hide how freaked out I still am.
The guy looks at me, the edges of his mouth turning down at the ends. Then his friends call to him and he turns, walks away.
I hear screams as another group of six run from the exit. Where the hell are Heather and Jamie? I’m too thirsty to wait. I walk towards the refreshment stand at the entrance of the park and flip through the photobook.
In the first load of photos I’m squeezing up against Jamie. Heather’s behind me, and even with the mask on I can tell she’s got that couldn’t-care-less blank face on. She’s staring right at the camera.
I flick to the next page. Couples are dancing in the ballroom, before and after it gets all demented. I spot the clown in one photo, but he just looks like a man now, not a frenzied creature. Heather’s still staring up at the camera. Maybe they had a red light by them or something, but I didn’t see any. I keep flicking through the book, and in every single photo Heather’s staring into the lens. It’s starting to get to me, freaking me out how her eyes are looking at me from the pages of the book.
Then I turn the page and she’s gone.
I lost her when I ducked into the dressing room, when the clown took my shoulders.
Where did she go? Did she know the clown had taken her place? Was this all part of the game?
I keep flicking through the book. There’s a photo where Jamie’s trying to kiss me. My hands are against his arms, almost pushing him away. God, I’m an idiot. In the next few photo’s I’m alone, freaking out.
At least there isn’t one of me head-butting a mirror.
There’s a night vision shot where I’m feeling my way along the black hallway, and then the final photo of me looking all relieved with the group again, next to the last bed. That one looked so real. Even in this tiny photo I can see how the limp hands of the tux man are so life-like, with lines and nails and a watch.
A baby blue watch.
I squint and turn the book on its side. The masked woman’s hair isn’t all crazy like the others. It’s layered and coloured in the latest style.
“Here you are.”
I jump and drop the book. Heather’s standing in front of me. Her hands are clasped together, gripping her mask. She winds it through her fingers, pinging the huge nose and picking at a clump of dried blood on her skin.
“Let’s go again?”
© 2016 Rebecca Delphine
Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.