Fun House

by

J. Alan Brown




"Dad, I wanna go in the fun house!"

Oh, Christ! Matt Hendrickson suppressed a heavy sigh and looked at his five-year old son, Evan. The boy was tugging on Matt's arm and pointing with his free hand to the building ahead.

"Do you want to go, Evan?" asked his wife, Shannon Hendrickson, on his other side.

Typical woman, he thought. Ask if the kid wants to do something that he just said he wants to do.

"It looks like fun," she said, shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand.

"Hold on, hold on," said Matt. "How much does it cost?"

"Well, let's go see," said Shannon, and as the three of them approached the Fun House, Matt took it in with a glance.

God, what an eyesore.

Smilin' Sam's Sudsy Hotel was a garish plywood structure that towered over the visitors of the Texas State Fair. The October sunshine made the harsh pink, orange, and lavender paint job almost painful to the eyes. It was designed to resemble a cheery hotel, but the trapezoidal windows and odd angles in the roof and gables made it look as if it had been blueprinted by last year's star pupil of the Picasso School of Architecture. Across the front of the building, at street level, were the customary warped mirrors that either smashed viewers into human tanks or stretched them into walking beanpoles. On the second story, a shuttered window opened periodically, and a mechanical hobo clown with a stoned grin emerged spewing bubbles out of a corncob pipe. The bubbles scattered in the breeze, and the hobo retreated back behind the shutters. More bubbles were released slowly out of mock chimneys and stove pipes.

But the main attraction was apparently Smilin' Sam himself. For some reason an antique bathtub with claw feet was attached to the side of the Fun House directly over the entrance. Seated in the tub was another mechanical clown, this one dressed in a loud orange-and-green checked sport coat and a pink bowler hat. From the top of the hat stood a yellow daisy nodding in all directions. Sam's legs were hanging over the side of the tub, and his feet slowly waggled up and down, as if he had walked backward across his bathroom and plopped into the tub butt-first. He must not have minded much, because he wore an 'ain't-I-a-stinker' grin. Spilling over the sides of the tub were more bubbles, only sudsy like dishwashing foam. Clumps of suds plopped wetly to the ground to be trampled underfoot.

Those in hearing range were being loudly greeted by Smilin' Sam, the clumsy clown, through what was obviously a hidden speaker. "Hey there, boys and girls!" the tinny voice shouted. "Be sure to check in Smilin' Sam's Sudsy Hotel and check out the fun! You'll have the tiiiiiiime of your lives with me, Smilin' Sam, and the rest of my pals. Every room comes with its own bath! Ha ha heeeee!" The last part of the laugh was accompanied by the sound of a splash, as if he just dropped himself into the tub that he was already sitting in.

"I don't know, bud," said Matt, pushing his glasses up on his nose. "It looks pretty goofy to me."

"I wanna go!" said Evan. His brown curls cast a reddish tint in the morning sunshine.

"Let's go see how much it costs," said Shannon. "Come on, Evan," she said, taking the boy's hand, and they walked up to the main entrance.

Here we go, taking charge again, Matt said silently to his wife's back. Meanwhile I'll just schlep along behind you, right?

The entrance to the fun house was a large door that pushed inward. As he walked up, Matt saw a girl a little older than Evan push her way through. Behind the door was darkness. Silently the door closed behind her, and the girl was completely out of sight. Her smiling parents sauntered to the smaller door labeled EXIT roughly ten yards to the right to wait for her.

Seated in a director's chair in front of the entrance was an older man who did not look like a graduate of a Dale Carnegie charisma course. He slumped in his chair and surly took kid's fair tickets and then slipped them into a dirty white ten-gallon bucket with a slot cut into the lid. Occasionally he took a sip from a straw in a plastic bottle under his chair. On his shirt was a monogrammed label reading, "Lester." Matt was surprised to see dark moisture stains under the man's arms. Apparently he sweated quite a bit for what looked to be the easiest job in the park. He didn't have to sling burgers or fill drink orders, or buckle squirmy kids into bumper cars. He wasn't even trying to coax people into plunking down cash to win a cheap stuffed dog like the guys running the ring-toss or balloon pop on the Midway. Smilin' Sam was doing enough hawking for the both of them.

"How much for the fun house?" asked Shannon just as Matt caught up behind her.

"Ten tickets," the man rasped over the sound of Smilin' Sam's voice.

"Ten tickets?" said Matt, open-mouthed. "That's five dollars! For this?" he said, waving a hand at the pink and purple plywood.

The attendant shrugged. "The kids like it all right." Matt inwardly recoiled at the man's tobacco-stained teeth. Without looking, the attendant reached down and grabbed his bottle, taking another sip through the straw.

"Oh, give me a break," said Matt and he turned his back and started to walk away, then stopped after five steps when he realized his wife wasn't following. She was still standing at the entrance, holding Evan's hand, both of them looking at him. With an exasperated sigh, he walked back.

"What's wrong?" she asked. "Can't he go?"

"Shannon, it's five dollars for a fun house. It's not worth it."

"Well, it is to him."

"You have got to be kidding me. Ten tickets? It'll be over before you know it. Look!" he said, pointing.

The little girl that Matt had watched walking into the fun house was just now emerging. Apparently the last part of the fun house involved suds, for the girl came out of the exit door covered in foam up to her chest. She was squealing and waving her arms, watching the suds drip off. Her parents laughed. The father scooped up some of the suds off her stomach and swiped them on the girl's grinning face and on top of her head. Soon she looked like Santa Claus with pigtails. Mom squatted down to snap a picture. Evan was holding Shannon's hand, watching the girl and her parents with open longing.

"See?" said Matt. "She was out in about a minute. Five dollars for one minute of big thrills."

"So?" said Shannon, her voice rising ever so slightly.

"That's crazy to pay that much. I'd have to make three hundred dollars an hour to make it worthwhile."

She exhaled, a sharp brief sound, and shook her head slightly. That look said, When did you become such a pathetic asshole?

Immediately, Matt felt a pang of regret. Just a small one. He was thinking that his wife would be with him on this, but not only was she arguing on behalf of Evan, now she looked disgusted with him. Matt still didn't like the idea of paying so much. But I'm not handling this very well, am I?

The attendant was looking at him from his chair with a steady gaze, and Matt didn't like the taste of mild hostility that rolled underneath that glare.

He looked down at his son, and Evan seemed to feel his eyes. He looked away from the girl, now half-skipping away hand-in-hand between her parents, and looked up at his father. He screwed up his face into an apologetic smile, like some Dickensian orphan. I'm sorry to have to beg like this, good sir, but I've not eaten in three days.

"Oh, whatever," Matt breathed out, completely defeated. Immediately, Evan pumped his fist and said, "Yesss!" in that universal gesture that kids use whenever they score a small victory. He bolted for the front door of the fun house without looking back.

"Wait. Wait!" said Shannon. "We have to pay for you to get in first." Evan skidded to a stop just in time and turned around expectantly. Matt stepped up while fishing in his shirt pocket for his tickets. Shannon held back.

"Is he tall enough to get in?" Matt asked Lester.

"Prob'ly." He pointed to Evan. "Stand up against that wall, kiddo." Lester made no move to get out of his chair. Next to the front door leading into the fun house was a painted caricature of a valet holding out a white-gloved palm parallel to the ground. "You must be at least this tall to enter," read a sign over the valet's head. Evan planted his feet against the wall and stretched every inch in his five-year-old frame underneath the mark. He held his arms rigidly to his sides, looking for all the world like a human rocket about to launch. The crown of his head just barely humped over the mark.

"Yeah, he's okay. Ten tickets, sport," Lester said to Evan. The boy looked up at his dad expectantly, and there was perhaps a twinge of nervousness in his face, fearing that perhaps Dad was going to renege on the deal after all.

Matt counted out his tickets by twos and was not at all surprised to discover that ten tickets was exactly all he had. Just great. I bought twenty dollars worth when we got here, thinking they would last all day, and now they're gone in less than two hours. With a knowing sniff he started to hand the tickets to Lester, the rotted-tooth chair-sitter.

"I wanna pay!" Evan suddenly shouted. Matt grinned in spite of his sour mood and handed the tickets to his son instead. Evan took them and was about to give them up, when he paused with a queer look on his face. "Is it scary?" he asked Lester with a much smaller voice this time.

"Naahh," said Lester with a wave of the hand. "Don'chu worry, kiddo. You'll love it. This place is a scream!" He tossed a heavy wink toward Matt, and once again Matt felt that undercurrent of disgust, this time emanating from Lester.

Encouraged, Evan handed the tickets over, then bolted for the front door, pushing it open with both hands. Matt peered over his son's head and still saw nothing but darkness, not even strobe lights. "Take your time, bud!" he shouted at Evan's back. "Slow down and make it last!" Like a half an hour or so. The door swung shut, and Evan was completely out of sight.

Matt walked back to where Shannon was standing by the exit. He slipped an arm around her shoulders and immediately felt like he was gripping a refrigerated slab of meat. He let his arm drop on the pretense of scratching an ant bite on his ankle and then crossed his arms in frustration.

"I'm sorry," he said.

She didn't rise to the bait. "Why are you being like this? We didn't come here to just walk around. We came here to have fun, right?"

"We are having fun," he said in automatic defense. "This place is just so expensive, that's all."

"You knew that before we came here. Every year we go through the same thing. I have to drag you here against your will, and all the time you bellyache."

"I do not."

"Oh really? So how come we can't ride the Ferris wheel?"

"Didn't you see that line?" he almost shouted. "That was easily a one-hour line for what amounts to a two-minute ride. That's a thirty-to-one ratio. Evan would go crazy waiting in a line like that."

"There he is," Shannon said with a softer voice. She looked up and waved.

Matt followed her gaze and saw Evan again. He had stepped out onto a small balcony on the second floor and was waving his arm frantically, grinning down at his small parents far below. Matt smirked a grin and waved back, then Evan turned and was gone in a streak.

"Well, we want to play some carnival games," she continued, and the heat was back in her voice.

"God almighty, no! Those are nothing but rip-offs. You end up paying twenty bucks to win a five-dollar doll. That's a profit margin for them of 300 percent! I know how these guys operate and I guarantee it they're not losing money. If you want him to have some stupid stuffed dog, then go to Target and just buy him one."

"Don't you get it? It's not about winning the prize. It's about having fun."

"Fun? How much fun is it for a five-year old boy to toss a baseball at some cans and not win anything? Does that sound like fun to you?"

"Oh, forget it," she said, then went on in complete contradiction to herself. "You've complained about everything since we got here. You act like you've never been here before. You knew how expensive it was."

"Like the food, you mean? Holy crow, I paid twelve dollars for a couple of hot dogs and some fries. There's a monopoly for you, right there. They're charging two-fifty for a bottle of water. Two-fifty. I should have had you pack a lunch in a cooler."

"I did not come to the fair to eat a bologna sandwich."

"I tell you, if this keeps up, by the end of the day this will have cost me a hundred bucks. Do you have any idea how much that is compounded?"

She turned and looked at him until Matt met her gaze, and he suddenly decided he did not like what he saw. "So let me get this straight," she said in an even voice that gave him a chill. "You won't let us ride any rides, eat any food, or do anything else that's fun. Just what exactly are we supposed to do here?

Matt deflated again. "Look, honey. Things are just tight right now, with my new job and all. I promise, in a couple of years, I'll be able to get my own practice started, and then we'll be set. When I get things off the ground, we'll come to the fair and you guys can do whatever you want."

"Somehow, Matt, I strongly doubt that." She turned to leave. "I'm going to get something to drink."

"Here," he said, reaching for his wallet. "You'll need to buy some more--"

"I'll pay for it myself," she said, and she was gone.

Matt turned back to the fun house and smoldered. Typical woman. I'm either not home enough, or I'm not making enough. He glared at Lester. The man was sitting in his chair, knees spread wide apart as if he had something valuable to show off between his legs. The man was leering at Matt like he had heard every word of the argument. Lester casually reached for his bottle and took another sip.

What do you have in the bottle, asshole? With all the sweating you're doing, I'll bet it's not lemonade.

Matt inhaled deeply, trying to squash his rising temper. His boss at the accounting firm had made an off-hand remark about Matt's temper once or twice, and Matt was trying not to let it escalate out of hand. He watched another boy approach Lester with tickets in hand, and the kinky-haired blond kid darted into the door of the fun house and was gone.

Too much was riding on him getting his CPA and opening his own office, and he needed to be able to lure a handful of clients with him. Otherwise, it would be Dirt City. Control your temper, he said. He took a sidestep and looked at his reflection in the fun house mirror. That's me, all right. Stretched. Stretched like the taffy they make here, where you watch the taffy pulling machines pull back and forth, over and over. The stuff they charge six-fifty for one freaking box!

Control your temper,
he repeated. Control your temper. His heart was pounding, and from the heat in his face he imagined he must be red as a beet. I'm lashing out at everything and everyone. Sorry about that, everybody, he mentally announced. It's not your fault. I shouldn't have snapped at all of you. It's just that I happened to be married to a dominating, stubborn, selfish bitch!

"Where's Evan?"

Matt jerked at the sound of his wife's voice. She had appeared at his side again, holding a drink, and he blinked at her.

"What?"

"Where's Evan?" she repeated.

"He's in the fun house, where do you think?"

"He should have been out by now."

Matt looked back at the exit, pushing his glasses back on his nose. The kinky-haired blonde was just emerging, laughing and up to his armpits in suds, where his mother was waiting for him. Jesus, that kid went in a couple of minutes AFTER Evan did. How did he get out first?

Matt twirled around, but Evan wasn't in sight. "I was watching the whole time. I haven't seen him come out."

"Is he still in there?" Shannon's voice had just acquired an edge of shrill.

"I guess so. Maybe there's other stuff to do in there. You know, bounce rooms and things."

Shannon's eyes were getting bigger. Now another kid who was not Evan was exiting, covered in suds. "Honey?" Shannon said in a quiet, panicky voice, and a goose walked across his grave.

"Hey," Matt said to the girl who had just emerged from the fun house. He stepped up to her and put a hand on her shoulder. "Did you see my boy in there? He's got brown hair and he was wearing a blue shirt--"

"It's a red shirt!" Shannon yelled behind him.

"Red shirt. Have you seen him?" The little girl looked up at him and her eyes got as large of golf balls. She shrank from him as if he was drooling from exposed fangs.

"Hey!" said the girl's mother. The woman batted Matt's hand off the girl's shoulder. The two of them walked away, the mother tossing dark glances over her shoulder at him.

Christ! He looked at the exit, and the door remained closed. Overhead, Smilin' Sam was still shouting. "You'll have the tiiiiiiiime of your lives with me!"

Oh, shut up! He stepped up to Lester who was still slurping on that straw. "Hey! My kid hasn't come out yet. How long is this supposed to take?"

Lester shrugged hugely. "Dunno. Kids can take as long as they want. Makes no never mind to me." He hissed laughter, and Matt felt a fresh wave of loathing at his brown teeth.

"My son should have been out by now. Other kids have gone in and out, and mine hasn't come out yet." He felt an animal of frustration waken inside him, beginning to stir and stretch. Why am I trying to reason with this idiot?

Lester peered at the entry door, as if he could see through the door and the walls and God-knows-what-else was inside. "Don't hear nothin. He's prob'ly all right. Mebbe he just laid down and took a nap."

Holy Christ! I wouldn't trust this guy to deliver me a pizza, and here I just walked up and handed my kid over to him. He spun around. "Shannon." She didn't seem to hear him. She was staring a hole into the exit door, rubbing her left arm with her hand. The drink cup in her hand quivered.

"Shannon!" he yelled. She turned her wide eyes to him. "Stay there and wait for him to come out. I'll go in and see if he's okay." God, he's probably hiding, thinking it's some big joke. He'll think something else when I find him.

"Hey," said Lester. "You can't go in there. You're too tall!"

"Shut the hell up," said Matt, and he punched the entrance door open with the heel of his palm.

"All right, but like I told your brat, it's going to be a scream!" The last Matt heard from Lester was his high, cackling laughter just as the door closed behind him.

Immediately, Matt found himself plunged into thick darkness. The smell of plywood and paint and heat slammed into his nose. Behind him, he could see a thin line of light from ceiling to floor from the crack in the door. He turned around again, and in a few seconds his pupils dilated enough to make out low light from up ahead. He heard a mechanical grinding noise. In front of him a staircase rocked back and forth, undulating as if inside a house going through a massive earthquake. His mind recalled that video he had seen of some suspension bridge, one lone car abandoned on it, and the bridge swayed and bucked as if made of rubber. Was that a real earthquake, or was it just a Hollywood fake?

Who cares! he screamed at himself. The staircase was the only way up and on. He gripped the handrails tight with both hands and stepped onto the first riser.

He nearly slipped and fell on the second step. The staircase wasn't shifting; it was the individual risers that were sliding back and forth in opposite directions of each other. The handrails were lock solid against the walls, and he was grateful for that. His feet sawed back and forth, and he held to the low handrails with white knuckles. He supposed something like this would be hilarious to a little kid, trying to navigate up stairs moving sideways.

No, it would be a scream, he thought sourly.

He finally made it to the top of the stairs and had to make a sharp right turn. The light was better. He looked around into a larger room designed to be a macabre version of a hotel lobby. Against one wall was a mockup front desk, and behind the desk was another mechanical version of Smilin' Sam, he who stumbles into bathtubs. Only now he was behind the desk, ready to check guests in. He still wore that prankster's grin, and one stiff arm was hammering up and down on a ringer slow and steady.

Ding. Ding. Ding.

"Welcome, boys and girls!" said Smilin' Sam in a mechanical voice. "Hope you enjoy your stay! You're going to have the tiiiiiiime of your life!" As soon as the voice stretched out 'time,' the hand started banging on the bell in a rapid tattoo, as if summoning bellhops from another dimension.

dingdingdingdingdingdingding--

As the bell clanged, Smilin' Sam's head slowly started to turn to the right, then kept on turning and turning until it was facing completely backwards It kept turning, completing the circle, and Matt heard a sound of squealing metal as the head continued to twist. After three complete revolutions, the head held in a dreadful tension, then rapidly unwound with a buzzing sound, around and around as fast as a propeller.

God almighty, they let little kids in this place? Evan's going to have nightmares!

Still there was no sign of his son. He started forward past the front desk with the dinging bell and the Linda Blair hotel manager and passed through a low doorway. He had to duck to clear it, and ahead he could see a dim hallway with more light at the end.

"Evan!" he called out. "Evan, can you hear me?"

He took two steps down the hallway and fell to the floor, his breath whooshing out of him. He bit his tongue painfully when his chin hit the ground, but he was more surprised to feel the floor give slightly beneath his hands. The floor beneath him was squirming, and he felt a jolt of hot panic as he imagined himself falling onto the back of some disturbed beast.

It took a moment to realize it was the floor itself was moving underneath him. He carefully picked himself up and supported himself against the walls. Each half of the hallway was shifting like the stair risers; only here it was forward and back, forward and back. Standing with his feet at shoulder width, his legs rode the floor forward and back like a stationary cross country skier. Once he had his balance, he could stand safely enough. His tongue throbbed painfully.

OSHA would have this place shut down in a hot minute.

Still holding the walls, he minced his way carefully forward until he reached the end of the hall. To the right was bright daylight, and he peered out, blinking in the sunshine. This was the balcony, the place where Evan had popped out with a grin and a wave. Matt was too tall to step out onto the balcony, but he could look down and see Shannon. She hadn't moved. She only stared at the exit as if burning a hole into it with heat vision.

He STILL hasn't come out? Where is he?

Turning back around, he saw another doorway, leading away from the false front of the fun house and deeper in. The door was painted like a zany elevator, more of the odd angles and garish colors. Again he ducked his head and pushed open the door and stepped through.

The next room was not as dark as before, but the light was muted and eerie. This room was made up to look like a hotel suite. He saw a canopy bed painted onto the wall, and an old-fashioned wardrobe stood sentry. A doorway led into a brass-fixtured bathroom, but it was a false picture, as two-dimensional as the bed and other furnishings. He looked around carefully, not wanting to miss any side passages or shadows a five-year old boy could hide in, but there was nothing. Just an empty room.

"Evan!" he shouted. "Are you in here?" Matt heard his voice echo. He held his breath and listened, and he finally heard something.

"Daaaaaaaaaaad!"

Evan called out from up ahead. Evan's voice didn't sound like he was hurt or in trouble. No, in fact, it sounded as if the boy was trying to tease him, trying to draw him out. It was a come-and-find-me voice, like the way Evan would give Matt a hint about where he was hiding when the two of them played hide-and-seek and Evan was getting impatient to be found.

"DAAAAAA-aaaaaad!" Matt couldn't place how far away his son was, but it didn't sound nearby.

How big is this place?

"Evan!" Matt called again. "Come on, bud, this isn't funny. Mom's waiting for you."

Evan didn't answer. For a long moment, Matt heard nothing. Then, from behind him, he heard something else that made gooseflesh pop out on his arms. Far behind him, as if yards and yards away, he heard the giggling of children.

Great. More kids are following me in. They'll probably freak when they see a six-foot adult in here. He was torn between pressing further on to find Evan and waiting to let the kids catch up and pass him. Maybe they would lead him to wherever Evan was hiding.

He opted to wait. Somehow the thought of someone coming up behind him gave him the shivers in the bizarre hotel. It would have been just a kid, but something deep down, something instinctive, did not want his back turned to anyone He waited and waited, listening to the laughter of the children grow louder.

Something's wrong.

From the sound, he imagined about a dozen children were bunched up, working their way up the crazy stairs, past Smilin' Sam and his

dingdingdingding--

spinning head, on to the skiing floor. But they weren't talking with each other, or shouting, or anything else. Just laughing. Endless laughing.

When they come through that door, the elevator door across from the balcony and see me, they're probably going to scream, and I think I'll be struggling not to scream myself.

Louder and louder, the laughing continued until it sounded like they were just behind the entrance into the room. There had to be twenty, no, fifty kids on the other side of that door, all of them laughing and laughing, the sounds running together until it merged into a mind-splitting noise.

Is this some class field trip? He backed away from the door, not wanting to be struck by it when it swung open, and he expected to see children march in one-by-one, each one tied to a rope around the waist. Oh, God, it's Saturday. What class has a field trip on Saturday?

Suddenly the laughter was in the room with him, but the door never opened. All around him, a hundred children's voices swirled about, laughing and laughing

(Hidden speakers?)

and he had to cover his ears to block out the din. His heart was pounding and he wanted to scream, to run out of the room but he felt pressed down by all that noise--

The laughter stopped. As if someone had pulled the plug, the children's voices were suddenly strangled. The silence that followed was nearly as suffocating as all that laughter. He felt cold sweat pop out across his forehead and he suddenly spasmed in a violent shiver.

Jesus, what a freak show this place is.

He recalled what Smilin' Sam had said outside with his rear plopped down in the bathtub. "Be sure to check in Smilin' Sam's Sudsy Hotel and check out the fun!

Check out the fun, right. I don't usually get scared in haunted houses. How could any kid come out of this place enjoying it?

He waited for his heart to calm down a bit. His glasses were slipping down his nose from sweat, and he pushed them back up again.

"Daaaaaad!"

Evan again, but this time there was no teasing behind it. This time he sounded hurt, lost and afraid, and Evan's voice sounded hollow and distant, as if he were calling up from the bottom of a well.

"Evan!"

Matt's voice echoed back at him. The room he was in was not that big, but he could have been standing in an empty concert hall for all the echoes. "EVAN! --VAN!! --N!! WHERE ARE YOU! --YOU! --OU!"

"Daddyyyyyyyyyy!"

Now Evan's voice was rising higher and higher, until it came out as a squeal, a high-pitched shrieking like a hog being slaughtered. At once Matt decided to hell with standing around. It was time to move!

He crossed the faux hotel suite to another low doorway and ducked through. With his arms spread out before him, he made another sharp left and skidded to a stop. In front of him was yet another fun-filled "feature" of Smilin' Sam's Sudsy Hotel. He was standing at the end of another hallway, but this one was filled with a rotating barrel tipped on its side. To get through, anyone would have to walk into the end of the barrel and navigate down the length of it while it rotated counterclockwise. The "fun" part would be to keep from tumbling over and over like a tennis shoe in a laundry dryer. The barrel came up to his chest. Evan and most other kids would have had plenty of headroom, but Matt knew he would have to crouch.

"I'm coming, Evan! Stay where you are!"

He bent down and stepped into the barrel--and immediately was tumbled to the rounded floor. He tried to get to his knees, but the inside of the rotating barrel was slick, and he was thrown onto his back like an overturned turtle. For one moment he goggled at what a spectacle he must have looked like. The barrel continued to spin, and he was righted again on his hands and knees. He got up and tried to duck-walk on the balls of his feet, but the barrel was too swift and he found himself somersaulting forward. The back of his head slammed into the wall painfully. He got to his hands and knees, and this time, he kept them moving, slipping them into a lower place before they could rotate up and over again. He continued a sort of sideways-crawl with a bit of forward motion thrown in, looking like a hound dog that had lapped up too much spilled beer. Finally he reached the end of the barrel, and he tumbled out ungracefully to the padded floor onto his back.

Cary Grant would not have handled it like that, and what the hell am I thinking about him for?

He stood up, listening for Evan's voice, but he heard nothing except the grinding of the barrel behind him and the pounding of his heart.

"Evan!"

"DAD!" This time Evan sounded close. Matt looked toward his son's disembodied voice and saw another doorway with a pair of curtains drawn closed as a door. He saw a thin purplish line down the center of the doorway. Matt rushed forward expecting to tear through those curtains and was punched in the face by a giant fist.

He rocked backward to the floor and felt his glasses fly off his face, skittering across the floor in some direction. His forehead was a bright locus of pain, and stars burst harshly in his vision. Tears ran down his cheeks into his ears. He blinked at the ceiling above him until his vision cleared.

What happened?

He sat back up and groaned as his head seemed to swell like a rotten October pumpkin. He felt more tears run down the sides of his nose and he wiped them with the back of his hand in a fierce gesture of frustration. Carefully he picked himself back up. Pawing carefully on the floor, he finally found his discarded glasses and put them on. They cantered forward and nearly fell off. He took them off his face and examined them.

Damn!

One of the earpieces was splayed upward at a harsh angle. The right lens was starred as if struck by a bullet.

When I find Evan and get out of here, I'm going to sue whoever runs this mad house till their balls turn blue!

He folded his glasses as best he could and slipped them into his shirt pocket. His forehead throbbed painfully. He wiped more tears off his face. He seemed to be leaking fluid, but his eyes felt dry now. He licked his lips and tasted blood. He held up his hands into the light and saw they were streaked with red.

Damn!

Carefully, as if playing a macabre game with himself, he picked his fingertips across his face, searching for damage. He winced when his index finger touched his hairline and a sharp pain creased across his head like a razorblade slash. After more gentle probing, he discovered a vertical cut about an inch long from the center of his forehead up into his hairline. It felt wide and deep, and blood dribbled across his fingers as he explored.

That feels like it's going to need stitches.

He staunched the blood with a handkerchief from his back pocket. Carefully this time, he stepped up to the curtained doorway, the place where someone standing behind it was swinging baseball bats. He pushed on the left curtain with his free hand and let in more of the eerie purple light. Then his hand bumped against the right curtain. It wasn't a curtain at all, but thick plywood painted black. He had charged into that centerline and clipped the corner, smashing his face into plywood like one of the Three Stooges. At once his anger melted away, and he felt a sob of anguish fill up inside him.

Just let me find Evan and get out of here.

He drew back the left curtain and stepped into another room with purple lights hidden behind sconces. A step away he saw a set of stairs leading down into a room-sized tub filled with something purple and twinkling, like psychedelic fog. Something wet plopped onto his head, and his heart nearly burst as he imagined some animal looking down on him and drooling. This time he tasted soap. "Suds!" he cried out. That was good. That meant he was close to the end. The other kids had come out covered in suds, as if they had waded through them. He must be close to the end, and since he hadn't seen Evan, maybe the boy was already outside, having the breath squeezed out of him by his mother with a fierce hug--

"Daaaaaaad!"

Now Evan's voice was coming from behind him. How can that be? He whirled around uselessly. There were no side exits, no other places to go. He had followed the path from room to room, and Evan was nowhere to be found. Worse, Evan's last cry had a pitiful hitch to it that made Matt's heart ache.

Oh, please God, let my little boy be all right.

"Evan! Keep calling and I'll come find you!" he shouted. "Keep yelling!"

(This place is a scream!)

"Evan!"

He walked back through the half-door, careful to stay to the right, still pressing his handkerchief to his forehead, his free arm thrust out ahead of him to warn him of any more surprises. He saw the rotating barrel again, still grinding away, then he heard Evan again--off to his right.

"Daddddyyyyyyyy!"

"Evan!" Must be a false door here, or loose floorboards he fell down into. He turned toward Evan's voice, stepping carefully, waving his arm around manically.

"Can you hear me?" Matt shouted.

"I can hear you just fine, mister!" The voice of Smilin' Sam echoed in the room. "Ha ha heeeeeee!"

"Shut up, you bastard!" Matt yelled, and now his anger was back with full fury. "Give me back my--"

dingdingdingdingding--

"--son, you filthy prick!"

"Like I told you, you cheap son of a whore," Smilin' Sam heckled from the darkness. "You're going to have the tiiiiiiiime of your life!"

The floor opened out from under Matt, just as Evan finally emerged into the sunshine up to his chin in suds. Matt fell with a shout as Shannon scooped up her son--unhurt, but with a heart fluttering like a trapped bird. Now Matt really got his money's worth from Smilin' Sam's Sudsy Hotel. His line-to-ride ratio rode straight up that rocket line toward infinity as he fell. Shannon slipped a pair of hundreds to Lester who just as quickly slipped them into his shirt pocket. She walked away, hand in hand with Evan to get an ice cream cone.

Matt kept on screaming as he tumbled over and over into the blackness.

THE END



2005 by J. Alan Brown

Bio: J. Alan Brown's work has appeared in EOTU E-zine, Byline Magazine, Into the Black, and Aphelion ( Followed by Fire, February 2005). His novellette "Leptimon" appears in Chaos Theory: Tales Askew, Issue #6

NEWS FLASH: J. Alan Brown has won first prize in the 2005 Ralan.com Spectravaganza Clincher contest! Entrants submitted the final 500 (or so) words of a story -- the 'clincher'. Ten finalists were then selected by Ralan Conley, Robert J. Santa (winner of first AND second places in last year's 'grabber' contest), and Eric M. Witchey (winner of third place in last year's 'grabber' contest). The final judging was done by Sheila Williams (of Asimov's) and Stanley Schmidt (of Analog). The full text of the story will be available at Ralan's Spectravaganza later this month.


E-mail: J. Alan Brown

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