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This was seriously going to suck. And that was saying a lot, considering some of the massively sucky things Eric Fortrell had done in his life.
He sighed. It was one of those big, deep sighs that he reserved for times when he had no choice but to resign himself to something he really, really didn’t want to do.
He was standing beside his silver PT Cruiser, staring at the imposing form of the building before him. It wasn’t much to look at from the parking lot. Blocky, mostly windowless, it kind of resembled an enormous barn, really, with its featureless, tin exterior. It was big, but from this angle, it was perfectly unremarkable.
The horrors were all inside.
And they were substantial.
Even if he could somehow avoid going in there, there was nowhere else to go. There was nothing else here. Behind him was the highway, but everything else was open pastures bordered by forests, as if he were a million miles from civilization.
It was all an illusion, of course. He was less than half a mile from the city limit sign. Pasoken, Wisconsin and its population of twelve thousand lay just beyond that strip of woods to the west. But he might as well be in the middle of the Sahara because whether he liked it or not, he was going to have to go in there.
And he’d put it off too long already.
He opened the Cruiser’s lift gate and stared at the huge bundle of colorful, bobbing balloons and the two huge, plastic sacks containing all the goody bags Karen and Holly had assembled the night before, each one stuffed with candy, party favors and a homemade cookie.
An eight-year-old child’s birthday party.
He’d almost rather drive back to Hedge Lake and go for another swim.
He felt a blush creep up his neck as traffic sped by on the highway. It was silly, but things like this always made him feel extremely self-conscious. He hated the idea of people staring at him. It sounded weird, he knew. He was a high school teacher, after all. He spent all day in front of a classroom. But somehow that was different. They were his students. It was supposed to be that way. It was natural. But the idea of complete strangers looking at him, judging him… It was unnerving. He didn’t even like it when he was mowing his lawn and people drove past on the street. It was irrational, but it was real. He couldn’t help it.
And why wouldn’t every passing driver be staring at him right now? They couldn’t possibly miss him. All these bright balloons were like a rainbow-colored beacon, irresistibly drawing everyone’s eyes straight to him.
He knew nobody was laughing at him. Lots of people had their kids’ birthday parties here. No one would give him a second thought. Just like no one thought anything about a man mowing his lawn. But he just couldn’t help it. It was who he was.
Everyone deserved to have their own peculiarities, right? (Although he supposed he might have claimed more than his fair share…)
He fumbled the lift gate closed again and started across the parking lot toward the main doors. Four hours, he told himself. It’s only four hours. How bad can it possibly be for just four hours?
But he wasn’t fooling himself.
It was going to suck.
It was going to suck for four… Long… Hours…
He stared at the sign over the glass doors as he approached.
Bellylaugh Playland was one of those little Wisconsin treasures you sometimes read about in travel pamphlets. A family entertainment center containing a three story, indoor playland (like the ones you found in McDonald’s restaurants all over the place, but on mega-steroids) with plenty of slides, tunnels, bridges, obstacles and climbing nets. There was also an attached mirror maze, a large ball pit and a two story arcade. For the grownups, there was a full restaurant and bar attached, but they weren’t open on weekends.
Back in the eighties and nineties, it was a major family attraction. Open seven days a week, people brought their kids from all over the Midwest to eat and play. Over the years, however, the place had aged and lost some of its charm. Prices went up. Visitor numbers went down. (And the owners had grown too old to keep up with it all, he’d heard.) Now it was only open for private events and an extremely popular all-you-can-eat Friday night fish fry.
As soon as he opened the door, his ears were accosted with the sounds of children screaming their heads off. And most of the guests hadn’t even arrived yet. The actual party didn’t start until eleven o’clock, more than half an hour from now.
His four hours hadn’t even begun and already he felt a dull pain beginning to blossom in his right temple. He hoped Karen still had aspirin in her purse. He was going to need some before this day was over.
But the children and all their noise didn’t bother him quite as much as the clown that met him as he entered the building.
Six and a half feet tall, made of plaster and in need of fresh paint, the goofy, overexcited greeter was obviously supposed to look fun and friendly. Even his proportions were made to look silly, with too-big eyes and ears and a spindly little neck and hands that looked like Mickey Mouse gloves. And to some, he probably did appear endearing. (There were plenty of weirdos out there who actually liked clowns for some reason.) But to Eric, that huge, cartoon grin was less inviting than it was hungry and menacing.
As far as he was concerned, any kid that didn’t burst into tears at the sight of that thing needed therapy. Immediately.
And it wasn’t the only creepy statue in the building. Bellylaugh Playland was full of frightful and lifeless clowns. They were scattered all over the place, standing against walls, leaning against posts and perched over doorways, watching the children play and eat with their huge, dull eyes. There was even one guarding the doors to the restroom. (Good luck making it past that abomination if you were already doing the pee dance.) Some, like the one guarding the entrance, were freakishly tall, towering over the children and even most of the adults. Others were comically short, only about four feet tall. With very few exceptions, the tall ones were long and skinny and the short ones were squat and fat.
There weren’t any real clowns, thankfully. At least, no fully-dressed, rainbow wig, baggy trousers, big shoes, horror-makeup-wearing clowns. (Karen had assured him of that.) But the staff here all wore those big, red clown noses all the time for some reason.
God, he hated clowns. He always did. Even when he was young. They creeped him out for some reason.
He was standing on one side of the party room. It was little more than a large, open space filled with tables and booths, surrounded by festively painted, circus themed walls and dotted with those god-awful clown statues. From where he stood, he could see Karen putting her considerable decorating skills to work at the cake table by the far wall.
He shot the plaster bozo one last dirty look and then made his way over to his wife, careful not to pop any of the balloons on the low-hanging light fixtures overhead.
His cell phone rang in his pocket, but he ignored it. He didn’t have a free hand to answer it with. And besides that, he didn’t even like the stupid thing. Cell phones were annoying devices worshiped by idiotic people who couldn’t bear to remain unentertained for more than thirty seconds at a stretch. He didn’t tolerate them in his classroom and would never have owned one if Karen hadn’t insisted that he have it in case of an emergency. (And so that she could always reach him, of course.) So yes, he had one of the stupid things, but that didn’t mean he used it everywhere he went. He refused to be one of those obnoxious people in the grocery store with their phones perpetually glued to the sides of their heads.
It was no secret that he felt this way. Anyone who actually had his number knew this, so it was probably either a wrong number or one of those damned recorded messages instructing him to call about an urgent matter with a nonexistent credit card. (He’d been getting more of those just lately, and it annoyed the hell out of him.)
They’d leave a message. Or they wouldn’t. It didn’t really matter to him.
Either way, the ringing stopped.
Karen was talking with two women. One was a skinny, older blonde, the other a very short, younger brunette. They looked enough alike to be related, mother and daughter, perhaps, or maybe even sisters. It was hard to say for sure. Eric didn’t recognize either of them. He didn’t expect to. Karen was catering this party for a friend of her mother. Even she didn’t know anybody here.
Both women walked away as he stepped up beside her. “Your balloons,” he said.
“Finally!” She turned and looked them over without sparing him a glance. “What took so long?”
Eric almost never lied to her. And he didn’t this time, either. “I didn’t want to come,” he told her.
She wasn’t amused. The look she gave him said so in no uncertain terms. But he met her humorless gaze without flinching. It didn’t scare him. On the contrary, he found that look perfectly adorable.
(She had another look that she sometimes gave him that was considerably less adorable. It was a little bit scary. But not this one.)
Without dropping his gaze, he lifted the plastic sacks and said, “I grabbed your goodies.”
That almost earned him a smile. It was there for just an instant. Not on her lips, where anyone else could see it, of course, but in her pretty, brown eyes.
She took the sacks from him without a word and immediately began arranging the goody bags on the table around the cake. It was going to look fantastic when she was done. It always did. Karen had an incredible eye for detail.
He watched her for a moment, then glanced across the room at one of the creepy clown statues. “Doesn’t this place scare the kids?”
“Not everyone shares your weird clown phobia,” she told him.
“It’s not a phobia. I just don’t like them. There’s a difference.”
“Where do you want me to put these balloons?”
“Just give them to Holly.”
“Where is she?” But as soon as he turned around she was there, already reaching out for them. To his extreme disappointment, she was wearing clown makeup. “Not you, too,” he said.
She stared back at him for a moment, confused. “What?”
It wasn’t so bad, really. It wasn’t the whole costume. Not even the hair. For the most part, she looked perfectly nice. All she’d done was paint her face with a few clownish details. Her lips were bright red, with lines extending from the corners to exaggerate her mouth. There was a little red heart on the tip of her nose, some blue eyeshadow, little circles of pink blush on her cheeks. And she’d drawn a number of small, swirly lines and dots beneath her eyes, exaggerating her long eyelashes and simulating little freckles on her cheekbones. It was really well done, too. Neat lines, smooth colors. She actually made a damn pretty clown.
But she was a clown…
“He’s afraid of clowns,” Karen told her.
“Oh…” She pressed one hand against her heart, as if wounded. “I’m so sorry.”
“I’m not afraid of them,” grumbled Eric, embarrassed. “I just don’t like them.”
“What’s not to like?” asked Holly. “Clowns are adorable.”
“Ever heard of John Wayne Gacy?”
“Oh stop,” said Karen.
“I’m just saying.”
Holly took the balloons and set off to finish decorating. As she walked away, a tall, athletic-looking woman with a deep tan and short, spiky hair walked up to the table. “Karen, can we put the refreshments out now, or do we have to wait until eleven?”
“I think we can have them whenever we’re ready for them. I’ll go check on it as soon as I’m done here.”
Karen supplied the cake and the treats, but the kitchen was supposed to supply the pizza and soda. She would’ve happily provided all the food and refreshments, drawing on all of her many talents in the kitchen to whip up a fantastic spread of delicious and healthy, kid-friendly snacks and her own homemade punch—sugar-free, of course—but the birthday child wanted pizza and soda. Eric, for one, was relieved. She was already taking this far too seriously.
A little boy, about three years old, ran over to the tall woman and seized the hem of her skirt. He looked upset about something.
The woman bent over him, concerned. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t like the clown!”
Eric glanced over at Karen, smirking, but she was making a point of ignoring him.
“They’re just decoration, sweetie. They’re not going to hurt you.”
But the boy shook his head. “Not them. The one in there.” He pointed across the floor toward the mirror maze.
“There aren’t any real clowns here,” she insisted. “They’re all just decorations.”
But the boy wouldn’t let go of her skirt.
Finally, she straightened up. “Fine. Let’s go see.”
The little boy didn’t look too thrilled with the idea, but he allowed himself to be led away.
Eric watched them go and then glanced over at Karen again.
She still didn’t look at him. “Don’t say it,” she warned.
“I’m telling you, clowns are evil. It’s not just me.”
“He’s a little boy. I’m sure he’s afraid of lots of things. I’d expect a little more from someone your age.”
Again, his cell phone started ringing. Again, he ignored it.
“Doesn’t matter what age you are. Clowns are creepy.”
“Just because you think they’re creepy doesn’t mean they’re evil.”
“I’m pretty sure it does.”
She rolled her eyes. “Just stop it. I’ve got work to do.”
“Speaking of evil...” he said, glancing over his shoulder. “She-devils at four o’clock.”
Karen glanced over to see her mother and sister walking through the door. “Oh goody…”
“Well, on the bright side, the clowns suddenly look a little less demonic.”
“You be nice,” she snapped.
“Me? I’m always nice. You’re the one who starts all the fights.”
She didn’t argue with him. He was right, of course. He wasn’t particularly fond of his in-laws. He thought they were all a little stuck-up. And he didn’t appreciate how critical they were of Karen, of course. But they’d never been openly rude to him and he’d always remained civil to them.
“Go check on the soda,” she told him. “See if we can have it brought out now.”
He glanced around the empty party room, confused. “Uh…where do I do that?”
“At the bar. It’s at the back of the dining room in the restaurant, right through the arcade.”
She didn’t have to ask twice. He walked away, happy for an excuse to not be present for the impending family reunion.
“Ladies,” he greeted as he walked past his in-laws.
Karen’s sister gave him an obligatory smile and a polite, “Hi,” which was about all he ever got from her.
“Good morning, Eric,” said Karen’s mother. “How are you?”
Peachy, he thought. Aloud, he said, “I’m just fine, thank you. Yourself?”
“Oh, I can’t complain.”
Eric smiled politely and continued on with his task without telling her that he was pretty sure she could complain. And would. About everything. And poor Karen was going to have to listen to it all.
She’d always had a tense relationship with her parents. Her older sister, Joyce, was practically perfect in every way. (According to them, that was.) She was thin, beautiful, popular and intelligent. By contrast, Karen was chubby, awkward, shy and combative. Her parents—particularly her mother—never missed an opportunity to let her know how much they wished she would be more like her sister.
As a result, she’d developed something of a mild eating disorder as a teenager, dieting to an extreme degree, eating as little as she could get away with. And when she went off to college, more than a hundred pounds lighter than she left middle school, she rebelled in a big way. Ironically, she and Eric met for the first time when she picked him up with the intention of having her first one-night stand.
They’d been together ever since.
She no longer worried about her weight. She redirected her energy and cultivated her skills in the kitchen. Instead of starving herself, she began making much healthier choices in her cooking and was much happier with herself in spite of gaining back some of that much-hated weight. And he couldn’t possibly love her more. As far as he was concerned, she was perfectly flawless.
(And for the record, he’d have picked her over her stuck-up, fake older sister any day.)
These days, Karen didn’t live under Joyce’s shadow or her parents’ scrutiny. But those relationships remained strained, especially when it came to her mother. She still felt compelled to prove herself. So when Blanche Dashton called her daughter to ask if she’d plan and cater a birthday party for her friend’s grandchild, Karen took it as a challenge.
And that was how Eric ended up here.
He crossed the floor, pausing only to let three hyper boys run across his path, shouting at each other that the zombies were right behind them. (What was everybody’s deal with zombies, anyway?) Once the boys had run off again in search of a safe place to ride out the apocalypse, he continued on into the arcade.
From here, the screaming from the playland was a little more muffled, but now he was surrounded by loud, overlapping music and muffled, recorded voices from the dozens of brightly lit arcade machines that were all continuously competing for everyone’s attention. It was difficult to decide which was worse.
His cell phone rang again. Who the hell kept calling him? Nobody ever called him. He reached into his pocket to look at the number, but before he could pull it out, he was distracted by the sound of someone calling his name.
He turned and looked around. There were a couple kids playing with the machines. Not playing the machines, but playing with them. They didn’t seem to have any money to actually play a game, so they were just sitting behind the steering wheels of a racing game, pretending to play. They weren’t paying any attention to him. And there was no one else there.
On the far side of the room, he could see a very bored-looking college-age kid standing behind the prize counter, playing with his cell phone and wearing one of those stupid clown noses. (He had no idea how they could stand wearing those all day. It’d drive him nuts.)
It must’ve been his imagination. A random recording from one of the machines that he misheard.
Maybe there was a character named Eric in one of the games.
He continued on, but quickly stopped again and turned to stare at a game screen next to him. It was some kind of zombie shooter. (Them again?) It was playing a demo of a scene in a dark hallway. But for a second there, in the corner of his eye as he walked by, it’d looked all wrong somehow. It wasn’t a crisp, colorful image like the one he was seeing now. It was grainy, distorted, more like a weak video feed.
It was probably just a part of the game. Maybe a creepy title screen of some sort. But for that one, brief moment it had struck him as incredibly unsettling. As crazy as it sounded, it seemed like something was staring out at him from that screen…
His imagination. It was probably those stupid clowns. They made everything a million times creepier.
He continued on through the arcade, past the doors on the far side and into the restaurant. There were windows here, on the far side of the room, but the blinds were all closed. The lights were out. The dining area was dark and uninviting.
And yet the atmosphere here was considerably nicer than in the rest of the building. It still maintained the circus theme, but in a classier, more nostalgic way. There were vintage circus posters hung on the walls, along with all manner of antique carnival memorabilia and countless photographs of acrobats and elephant trainers, circus tents and Ferris wheels, midways and clowns. There was also a miniature circus train that traveled around the entire dining area on an overhead track and a decorative carousel behind the hostess station by the main entrance.
Overall, a far less obnoxious take on the theme, in his opinion.
He could see the bar in the back corner, by the restroom sign, but there didn’t appear to be anyone over there. Now what was he supposed to do?
His cell phone rang again. He started to reach for it, but was again distracted by a voice. This time, it wasn’t his imagination.
“What’re you doing?”
He turned to find a young boy standing in the doorway he’d just entered. He looked to be about seven, with shaggy, blond hair and big, blue eyes. “What?”
“What’re you doing?” the boy asked again.
“I’m looking for someone to open the bar,” he replied.
The boy squinted at him. “Isn’t it a little early to be drinking?”
Eric frowned. “Aren’t you a little young to be the booze police?”
He shrugged. “I’m just saying.”
Eric chuckled. “Right. Well, I’m supposed to ask somebody about the soda for the party,” he explained. “I was told there’d be someone at the bar.”
He turned and looked around, but there was no one in sight.
“Maybe you should check the kitchen.”
Eric looked back at the boy. “Kitchen?”
He pointed toward the corner of the room, to Eric’s far left.
The layout of the room made it impossible to see that corner from where he stood, so he walked farther out into the restaurant. Sure enough, there was a door back there. A light was shining through the window. That was where they’d be making the pizzas soon, if they hadn’t already started. “Ah,” he said. “Thanks.”
“You’ll need the key to find her.”
He stopped and looked back at the boy, confused. “What?”
“Not a regular key. It’s something else. I don’t know what, but you won’t be able to find her without it.”
Eric stared at him. Find who? The bartender?
“And if you don’t find her, you can’t save them.”
This conversation was getting stranger by the second. “Save who?”
The kitchen door opened and a young, dark-haired woman stepped out into the dining room She was nicely dressed and wearing a bright-red clown nose. As soon as she saw him standing there, she stopped, startled. “Can I help you with something?”
He looked over at her, still puzzled. “Uh… Yeah. Sorry. I was sent to ask if they can put the soda out now.”
“Oh.” Over her initial (and perfectly understandable) surprise at finding a grown man lurking in a dark, unopen restaurant, she relaxed and offered him a polite and professional smile. “Of course. I’ll get it right out.”
“You’re very welcome.” She turned and vanished back into the kitchen again.
He turned back to the boy, but he was gone. He must’ve run back out into the arcade while the woman was talking.
There was no one else in the room.
The cell phone rang again. This time he removed it from his pocket and saw that it was Isabelle.
“Oh my god!” she yelled as soon as he lifted it to his ear. “Answer your phone!”
Eric cringed at the volume of her voice. “Okay. It’s answered. What do you want?”
“It’s not your imagination. Something is seriously wrong with that place!”