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Mary Alice Brannigan sat on the roof of the Dreamland carousel at twenty minutes to midnight and considered her work in the light from the lamp on her yellow miner’s hat.
It was good.
FunFun, the redheaded clown sitting cross-legged next to her on the roof’s peak, was fully restored again. Of all the clowns in the park, including the beautiful seven-foot ironclad Fun at the Dreamland entrance, this wooden one was her favorite: exuberantly happy, one yellow-gloved hand pulling back his striped blue-green coat to show off his orange-and-gold-checked waistcoat, the other flung above his head, reaching for the gold panpipes he’d lost long ago.
“Don’t worry, baby,” she said to him, patting her work bag between them. “I got your pipes right here.”
He grinned crookedly down at her, or at least down toward the ground as a breeze picked up, biting with the chill of the Ohio October night. Mab pulled her canvas painting coat closer around her and looked out over the newly restored jewel box of an amusement park. It had taken her thirty-nine years, but now she was not only in Dreamland, she’d saved it. Once I finish the Fortune-Telling Machine, I will have put this place back the way it was at the very beginning. I will belong here. I rock.
And the best part was that she was surveying it all at night with no—
“You up there, Mab?” Glenda yelled.
—people around to spoil the moment.
“Stop what you’re doing and come down here,” Glenda called, the cheer in her voice sounding as platinum bright as her hair, and about as authentic. “We’ll walk you back to the Dream Cream, see you get upstairs to bed. You need your sleep, honey.”
Mab gritted her teeth. This was what she got for taking a break to gloat over her work: people showed up and shouted at her.
She pulled her bag closer and took out the pipes, careful not to scratch any of the five little golden cylinders. Then she fished a tube of fast-set glue out of the bag, stood up carefully, and reached to glue the pipes into the FunFun’s empty fingers, tilting her head back so the light from her miner’s cap shone on the hand.
A small black raven swooped down and perched on the clown’s head.
“Beat it, Frankie,” Mab whispered to the bird, trying to brush it away without dropping the pipes or falling to her death.
Frankie flapped his wings and rose above the clown and then settled down on the upflung hand, cawing at her like a cheese-grater dragged across a fire escape.
Cinderella got bluebirds doing her hair, Mab thought. I get ravens screwing with my work.
From below, Mab heard the raspy voice of Glenda’s friend Delpha, an echo of Frankie’s: “She’s up there, Glenda. Frankie knows.”
“I know, too,” Glenda said, and then she raised her voice. “I’m not kidding, Mab, stop whatever you’re doing up there right now.”
Mab leaned in, holding on to the glue with one hand and the pipes with the other, and looked Frankie right in the eye.
“These pipes are going in that hand, bird,” she told him, serious as death. “Do not get between me and my work.”
Frankie watched her for a moment, his eyes steady and bright with intelligence, and then he cawed again, the sound going down Mab’s spine like a rasp, and flapped off.
“Okay, then.” Mab checked for the side of the pipes with the broken metal rod on it, reached up and squirted a generous shot of glue into the hole in the FunFun’s palm, and slotted the broken rod into it. She held it for sixty seconds, ignoring demands to quit from down below, and then wiggled it a little to see if it had set.
The pipes clicked, the sound sharp in the night, as if the metal rod had moved into place, engaged a gear or something.
What the hell?
“Okay, that’s it,” Glenda said, the brightness gone from her voice. “I’m coming up there.”
At fifty-nine, Glenda was probably in better shape than Mab was at thirty-nine, but it was dark, and Glenda liked a cocktail or three after six, and while she was often annoying, Mab didn’t want her dead, so . . .
“Hold on.” Mab capped her glue and put it in her paint bag and eased down the turquoise-and-blue-striped carousel roof to peer over the edge, gripping the gold scalloped trim for insurance.
Glenda stood on the flagstone below in the spotlight cast from the lamp on Mab’s hat, one hand on her capri-clad hip, the other waving a cigarette, her spiky white hair glowing over her pink angora sweater. Beside her, ancient, black-eyed little Delpha looked up from under lowered brows, her improbably black hair slicked down on both sides of her sunken face like two strokes of black paint over a skull, the rest of her swathed in a dark blue shawl that blended into the night.
Frankie flapped down to sit on Delpha’s shoulder.
Death’s parrot, Mab thought. “Glenda, I’m almost done—”
“Done?” Glenda smiled up at her, tense for some reason. “But, honey, you shouldn’t be doing anything up there—”
Somebody staggered out of the night and lurched into Glenda, who bumped into Delpha, who stumbled back and dislodged Frankie, who went for the staggerer, who screamed and batted at him.
Frankie flew to sit on the edge of the carousel roof beside Mab, and the guy looked up.
Mab saw brown hair, bleary eyes, and a dense five o’clock shadow over an orange Bengals shirt: Drunk Dave, one of the Beer Pavilion regulars who should have been out of the park when it had closed forty-five minutes before. He’d probably stumbled off to pee in the trees that rimmed the island and gotten lost. Again.
“Whassat?” Drunk Dave squinted up at her, and Mab realized that to him, she was just a big light in the black sky.
“This is God, Dave. Go home, sober up, get a job, and never get drunk again. Or you’ll go to hell.”
Drunk Dave’s mouth dropped open, making him look even more slack-jawed than usual.
“Go home, Dave, the park’s closed,” Glenda said.
“Okay,” Dave said, and staggered on.
“Come down, Mab, and we’ll walk you back to the Dream Cream,” Glenda said. “It’s not safe for you to wander around alone.”
“I’ve been walking around this park alone for months, and now you tell me it’s not safe?”
“Well, there’s Dave.”
“I can take care of Drunk Dave with one hand wrapped around FunFun.”
“And there’s danger.” Glenda waved her cigarette around vaguely. “It’s . . . October.”
“Right. The dangerous month.” Mab shook her head, which made the light from the lamp on her hat swing wildly, and then she crawled back up the striped metal roof. The park people were just odd; that was all there was to it. It probably came from living on the grounds. You lived full-time in Dreamland, you got strange.
“Mab, get down here right now!”
She fastened the flap on her work bag, made her way back to the ladder on the opposite side of the carousel, and climbed down to the flagstones that covered most of the park. Tomorrow she’d come out in the daylight and see the wood FunFun in all its finished glory, and then she’d move on to the Fortune-Telling Machine—
Something hard ran into her, and she lost her hat as she went down and smacked her head on the stone. “Ouch!” she said, and grabbed her hat and put it back on so that the light on it would stun the moron who’d knocked her down. “Damn it, Dave—”
Huge turquoise eyes gleamed down under iron-hard red-orange curls. A stiff turquoise striped coat loomed over her, metal protesting as it bent. Then the thing brought its red-orange lips together slowly and ground out “Mmmm” and then spread them apart with the sound of rending metal to say, “ab,” its smile widening and its cheeks splitting as it jerkily held out its yellow iron-gloved hand to help her up.
“FunFun?” Mab said faintly.
The thing nodded, its head moving slowly up and down with a metallic squeaking sound.
Ethan John Wayne stared across the causeway at the locked iron gates that led to Dreamland as the sound of his taxi faded into the darkness. Something was missing on the other side of the gate, but it had been a long time since he’d been home, and he couldn’t figure out what it was. Well, maybe they’d moved something. A lot of things changed in twenty years.
He rubbed his chest, feeling the scar that covered the Taliban bullet pressing on his heart. Dreamland was as good a place to die as any, and he had family here, which counted for something. What, he wasn’t quite sure.
He dropped his rucksack to the ground, pulled out a leather flask, and took a good, long slug. Then he put the flask away and squared his shoulders to go back into the park. It wasn’t much of a home, he thought, but at least it was peaceful, no people around to—
A scream rent the night. Ethan threw his vest on, grabbed his .45-caliber pistol from the pack, and sprinted for the entrance. He leapt as he reached the ten-foot-high wrought-iron gate, free hand reaching for the crossbar just below the top, and fell right onto his butt.
Cursing, he got to his feet and approached the gate, factoring in his inebriated state. Mission planning, sir. He tucked the gun inside his Kevlar vest so he could use both hands. It took longer to climb the damn thing than it should have, and when he got to the top of the gate, he tottered and almost fell again, but then he lowered himself and dropped the few remaining feet to the ground, narrowly missing the line of golf carts parked there. He drew his gun and ran across the causeway and down the midway toward the carousel, where he could see three people gathered.
He came to an abrupt halt when he saw his mother standing with her arm around a woman dressed like a bag lady in a long, bulky, paint-splotched coat and a yellow miner’s hat.
“What’s going on?” he demanded.
His mother turned, and her face lit up like it was Christmas. “Ethan!” she said, and flung herself at him, hugging him so tight that he couldn’t get a breath. “What’s this?” She pulled back and knocked her knuckles on his chest, testing out his body armor and making him wince, since she was banging right over his bullet. “Oh, I don’t care, you’re home!”
She flung her arms around him again, and Ethan patted the back of her fuzzy sweater and looked over her shoulder to see Delpha staring at him, with Frankie on her shoulder staring, too. “So you have returned,” Delpha said. A flicker of a smile touched her thin lips, gone as quickly as it had appeared, but for her, it was like Glenda’s bear hug.
“Yep,” Ethan said. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw old Gus come limping up from the back of the park.
“ ’Bout time you came home,” Gus said gruffly in an overly loud voice, but he pounded Ethan on the shoulder just the same. “Good to see you, boy. You’re just in time.”
For what? Ethan wondered.
Glenda raised a tearstained face. “How long can you stay? You have to stay a long time.”
“I quit the Army. I’m staying,” Ethan said, and Glenda looked startled, but then she must have decided not to look a gift son in the mouth because she let go of him and patted his chest again.
“I’m so glad.” Her eyes welled up again. “Oh, I’m so glad. We even have a job for you! You can help Gus with security!”
“I don’t want a job, Mom. I just want some peace and quiet.” He looked around at them. “Who screamed?”
“I did,” the bag lady said. “Sorry. Usually I’m very calm, but I got run down by a clown.” She touched the back of her miner’s hat gingerly. “I hit my head.”
“Someone hit you?” Ethan said, feeling something that would have been outrage once. “Where is he?”
“No, it ran into me. . . .” She stopped, taking her hat off. “I think there’s blood.”
“Which way did he go?” Ethan said, and she said, “I don’t know” at the same time Glenda said, “Let it go, Ethan.”
Ethan started to speak and got one of his mother’s famous Don’t Argue looks.
“She hit her head and hallucinated the clown,” Glenda said, enunciating each word clearly. Then she turned to the bag lady. “You hallucinated it.”
The woman blinked at her and then said, “Yes. I did.”
“Okay,” Ethan said, and reached toward her. “Let me check your head.”
She stepped back. “I’m gonna say no on that.”
“Mab, Ethan has been in the military,” Glenda said proudly. “Ethan, this is Mab, she’s restoring the park.” She looked from Ethan to Mab and her smile faded. “You look . . . so much alike,” she said, and then shook her head. “Never mind, I’m just so glad you’re here.”
Ethan looked at the bag lady. If he looked like that, he was closer to death than he’d thought. He said to the woman, “I’m trained in first aid,” trying to move the whole thing along before he passed out from exhaustion and alcohol.
“No, thank you,” she said.
Ethan circled around her to look at the back of her head. Her hair was a thick, red-brown choppy tangle—it looked like she hacked it off with a knife—but he couldn’t see much blood, so it was probably just a scratch, not a scalp wound or else it would have been a mess. Scalp wounds were bad, hard to stop the bleeding. And then if the bullet hit bone . . . Ethan closed his eyes for a second.
“What are you doing?” the woman said, turning to look at him.
“You’ll be fine. Who hit you?”
“A FunFun ran into me.” She looked up at the carousel roof. “I was working on the FunFun up there, but he’s still there, and anyway he’s made of wood. The one that ran into me was a big metal-covered one, like the iron one by the gate. Did you see it when you came in?”
“No,” Ethan said, now realizing what had been missing. The damn clown statue.
“Then it was probably that one. Of course, that’s insane. I’m not insane.”
“Right,” Ethan said, glancing at his mother, who looked sane but worried.
“I told her to get off that roof,” Glenda said, as if he’d accused her of not helping. “I told her to stop working.” Whatever had rattled her before was gone, possibly because she’d gotten a grip and realized they didn’t look alike.
Gus grabbed his arm and his attention. “Come on, I’ll show you how to do the Dragon run. Now that you’re here for good, you can take over.”
“See,” Glenda said to the woman, patting her arm. “Everything’s fine now. Gus is going to do the midnight Dragon run, just like always. Everything’s normal. No big iron, uh, robot clowns.”
“Robot clowns?” the woman said. “This park has robot clowns?”
“No, no.” Glenda patted again.
Patting, Ethan realized, was his mother’s main form of communication. That and a wide array of looks.
“I’ll take you back to the Dream Cream,” Glenda told her. “We’ll get that blood cleaned up, make you a cup of tea, you’ll be good as new.”
She gave Delpha a look, and Delpha nodded at her and then faded away from the carousel.
Glenda smiled at Ethan. “As for you, young man, you come right to my trailer when you’re done with Gus. Tomorrow I’ll get Hank’s old trailer cleaned out and made up for you. You’ll have a place of your own.” Her eyes welled up again. “I’m so happy you’re home, Ethan.”
“Right,” Ethan said. “Don’t clean up the trailer, I’d rather sleep in the woods. Are you sure you’re all right walking around here? If somebody’s in the park—”
“We’re fine,” his mother said firmly, and he thought, She knows who it was. “I’m so glad you’re back,” she added.
“Me too, Mom,” he lied, and made plans to get whatever the hell was going on out of Glenda once they were alone.
Once he was away from the carousel, the park seemed darker than Ethan remembered it, and he realized it was because there was orange cellophane over the streetlights for the park’s Screamland weekends, the reason for the skeletons somebody had strewn around along with—
A ghost flew in his face, empty-eyed and openmouthed, and he held off on drawing his gun as the pulley it was on yanked it back into the tree he’d just passed, not a ghost, just a skull beneath some white stuff that looked like fog but was probably cheesecloth.
“Geez,” he said to Gus, and Gus nodded.
“Mab knows how to make a ghost,” Gus said, and Ethan thought, I know how to make ghosts, too, as he relaxed his grip on his pistol.
He looked closer at the fence and saw the flickering red light of the infrared beam that had tripped the ghost, the same thing he’d seen in Afghanistan trip explosives. He shivered.
“Mab’s uncle got her the job,” Gus said as they headed down the midway to the back of the park. “Glenda wasn’t too sure about her, since her uncle’s Ray Brannigan, and you know them Brannigans, but once Mab got here, it was fine. Hard worker.”
“Brannigans?” Ethan said, keeping an eye out for more trip-wire ghosts among the skeletons and giant spiders, which wasn’t easy, given his current alcohol content.
“Yeah, you know, that crazy family, always trying to shut us down.”
Ethan bumped into the fence and another ghost flew at him. He batted it out of the way as its pulley yanked it back into the trees. “Of all the times I could have picked to come home, I had to come for Screamland.”
“What’s that?” Gus said, cocking his head.
“I had to come home for Screamland,” Ethan said in a louder voice.
“ ’Course you did,” Gus said. “Big party planned for Halloween ’cause that’s when the park’s gonna be all restored. We got media coming in Friday after next, get it on the news so a lotta people’ll come.” He sounded proud, like he talked about the media all the time.
“Great,” Ethan said in a normal voice and noticed that Gus didn’t hear. Well, he was old, and running the damn Dragon Coaster couldn’t be easy on the ears.
The good news was the park would close after Halloween and stay closed until spring. He could stand two more weekends of the park full of screaming people and cheesecloth ghosts to spend whatever months he had left in solitude and quiet.
They passed the paddleboat dock. A figure moved in the shadows out there, watching them, and Ethan’s hand again went toward the gun tucked into his vest.
Excerpted from Wild Ride by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer.
Copyright © 2010 by Argh Ink, LLC.
Published in March 2010 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.