The Haunted Carousel
Donovan Schneider put the Nova in park and sneered across the front seat at Mark. “Don't be such a girl. Ghosts don't bite. Besides, they're only going to be pushing the car, not chasing us through the orange groves.”
Jillian sat in the middle, squished between their shoulders. Donovan didn't have a problem seeing over the cloud of her red hair.
“Hey. I'm a girl, and I'm not scared.” Jillian elbowed Donovan in the ribs.
Mark scowled. One arm hung out the open window, a cigarette tucked lazily in his knuckles. “Bite me, Donovan. I've never even heard of Gravity Hill, anyway. Nothing's gonna happen.”
“Well, we're here. So we'll find out soon enough.” Donovan gestured out the windshield where he'd brought the car to a stop in the middle of the road. On either side, orange groves crowded close to the asphalt. Straight ahead, they could see glimpses of the sprawling city of Corona, which looked like an ocean of glittering lights now that night had fallen.
Behind them, another car filled with friends stopped thirty feet back. They cut their headlights, plunging both vehicles into the dark.
“Okay, so tell me what's supposed to happen again,” Mark said, shaping the words through an exhale.
The gothic punk outfit Mark had worn to the Halloween party earlier somehow suited him, Donovan thought. Leather, ripped jeans, chains around his wrists and throat. The spiked mohawk was a special touch.
“Legend has it that if you put your car in neutral, ghosts will push you forward.” Donovan glanced in the rear view mirror, like he expected apparitions to suddenly appear. What made the legend exceptional was that this particular spot in the road only went uphill. The gentle incline was nevertheless an incline, so rolling forward had the potential to be eerie on the first visit or two.
Donovan had done this better than ten times. The effect had lost its appeal long ago.
“The road goes up, man. There's no way,” Mark said, shaking his head.
“And I heard,” Jillian added, “That if you're really quiet, sometimes you can hear them drag their nails along the side of the car.” She'd pulled the black and white bride of Frankenstein wig off after the party and ran her fingers through her hair to remove the remaining pins.
Mark snorted. “That's bullshit. Ghosts don't have nails.”
“Dude, it's true. I've heard it. They also say that you can hear their footsteps while they push.” Donovan tried to muffle a snicker behind his hand. He put the Nova in neutral and took his foot off the brake. Dressed as Frankenstein to Jillian's Bride, he'd already pulled off the mask and discarded the square shouldered, heavy jacket that made him look twice as big as he already was.
Jillian, his girlfriend of two years, slanted him a sly grin. He wagged his brows and waited for the inevitable. In the back seat, Cory, Brian and Deeter were too busy laughing about the prank they'd pulled on the carload of friends behind them to engage in the ghost conversation.
“Shhh, be quiet. Mark won't be able to hear nothin' with you guys cackling like hyenas back there,” Donovan said.
“Yeah, Ohhhkay.” Deeter drew the word out and suffered a smack to his chest from Jillian, which only served to kick up another round of snickering.
The Nova, so far, hadn't moved an inch. Crickets chirruped happy cricket songs and somewhere, an owl hooted.
Mark, a transferee from Mira Loma at the beginning of their Senior year at Corona High, had fit in well with their group. All the boys—triathletes, every single one—played hard, studied hard, and partied hard. The only thing Donovan didn't like about Mark were the cigarettes. He consumed one after the other like smoke had replaced the oxygen he needed to breathe. As long as Mark kept it hanging out the window and didn't suffocate them in here, he wouldn't say anything about it.
Jarrett stuck his head out the window of the car behind them and started making rude ghost noises at a decibel that shut all the crickets and even the owl up.
“Oh god, tell him to be quiet! No one's gonna hear anything with him howling at the moon like that,” Jillian complained.
“Jillian said to shut it, Jarrett.” Donovan called the command back and received two honks and three expletives in return.
Jillian rolled her eyes.
In the three second silence that ensued, the Nova started to roll forward.
Mark glanced out the window and sat up in his seat. The cigarette fell out of his hand onto the ground. Under the tread of the tires, gravel crunched and cracked.
Donovan started grinning and looked over to see the open suspicion and doubt on Mark's face. And, if one listened close enough, it did sound like there were footsteps at the back of the car.
Mark craned his head out the window and looked back. “No way.”
The Nova, against all logistical odds, inched up the low-grade hill.
“See man? Toldja.” Donovan shared a knowing look in the rear view mirror with Deeter, Cory and Brian.
“It's totally one of the guys from the other car,” Mark said.
“You'd see 'em. There's no one back there. Look, Jarrett and Dane are leaning out the windows and they can probably see Poundcake from the space station.” Donovan made a vague gesture with his hand behind them. True to his word, Jarrett and Dane were hanging half out of the windows. Ross Kelly, otherwise affectionately known as Poundcake, was roughly the size of a small car. Starting linebacker on the football team, his pound-'em-into-the-ground status was legendary. Even Donovan could see his and Wesley's faces in the back seat of Jarrett's vehicle. Everyone was accounted for.
Still, the Nova rolled forward. Someone could stroll by and outpace them, but there was no doubt they were moving.
“Listen! What was that?” Jillian leaned over him and wrenched a look out the window.
“What was what?” Donovan asked. She was setting Mark up for the nail scratches. He'd bet his last beer on it.
“I heard scratching.”
“That's crap,” Mark said, plopping the right way in his seat. “I don't see nothin' back there.”
Jillian smelled like cinnamon, jasmine and apples. Donovan let her lean across him to peer down the side of the car.
“No seriously. Didn't you hear that?”
“It ain't nothin',” Mark insisted.
The Nova rolled forward a little faster. Donovan snapped on the headlights. They illuminated the slope of the incline.
“I think there are scratches on the car, Donovan,” Jillian said.
Donovan felt her shaking with laughter against his chest.
“Better not be. I'll break someone's head.”
“The paint job looks like someone applied it with sandpaper,” Mark pointed out.
Donovan laughed, because it did. If the Nova got scratched anywhere, no one would be able to tell.
From Mark's side of the car came a distinct scrape of what sounded like nails on metal. Mark jumped and jerked his head around to look.
Jarrett, who had apparently snuck out of the other car when they were distracted, lunged and shouted at the passenger window.
Mark twitched backward in surprise, crushing Jillian against Donovan.
“Oooo...Oooo...” Jarrett loomed in the window, laughing and taunting Mark.
“Shithead,” Mark spat. Elbowed by a laughing and complaining Jillian, he bapped Jarrett with the heel of his hand on the forehead.
Jarrett, snickering, arched back and then draped his arms on the sill to peer inside. The car rolled forward slowly, though no one pushed it. Dane, Poundcake and Wesley joined him, two on each side of the Nova. They walked while the car moved, undaunted, unafraid.
“So, okay. Let's make it real,” Jarrett said. “Let's take Mark up to Skyline.”
“Ooh, man. Are you crazy?” Dane said. Decked out as a rapper, he adjusted his backwards baseball cap and stared through the car at Jarrett.
“You're talkin' about the Pitchford place, aren'tcha?” Brian asked from the backseat.
“Of course. What, you think I meant to meander along the road, looking at the scenery?” Jarrett scoffed, reaching in to knuckle Brian's head.
“What's the Pitchford place?” Mark asked, digging out another cigarette.
“Perry Pitchford. Owns a hundred or so acres up there--”
“Owned,” Wesley corrected.
“Owned,” Donovan rolled his eyes and continued. “Anyway. There's this old carousel way back behind the house--”
“You want me to go see some kiddy carousel?” Mark, just about to light the cigarette, protested when Jarrett snatched it out of his mouth and tossed it somewhere behind him. “Hey man.”
“Don't you know that'll slow you down?” Unrepentant, Jarrett shrugged and picked up where Donovan left off. “It's not just a kiddy ride. There's some real cool things besides horses on it. Gargoyles, a Mime, a Jester. Like that. Eccentric freak that Perry was, he bought it somewhere in Europe and had it shipped piece by piece all the way out here.”
* * * *
Ramona looked up from her hand held GPS when she heard Tom mutter. He only did that when he was either impatient or annoyed. The road looked clear—no traffic jams—and she couldn't detect what else might have set off the spate of incoherent whisperings. The air conditioning was working, the music was low and set to a station he preferred, and his bottle of water was still cold enough to make condensation drip down the outside.
“What?” she asked.
“I think we passed it.”
“We haven't passed it. According to what I read, there's no way you can be on this road and miss it.” She eyed the GPS one more time and turned it off.
“Well, there was a sign back there that said Middle Road, two miles, and we know we've gone too far if we hit it. What's the GPS say?”
“That we're coming up to it shortly.”
“I hope so.” Tom reached over and grabbed the bottle of water. Using his teeth, he pulled the spout up and took a long drink.
Ramona watched him for another minute and then looked back out the front window. She hoped he wasn't going to be cranky the whole time. Married six years, dating for eight, she was still getting used to his unpredictable moods.
Sycamore Canyon Road wound through the wooded terrain of Big Sur, giving her plenty of distraction. Trees on either side of the street rose so high she couldn't see the tops from inside the Escalade. Even when she pressed her cheek against the cool glass of her passenger window. There was something majestic about the woodland here, how the mist clung to the landscape this early in the morning. She could almost imagine they were the first pioneers to travel through this particular stretch, though of course thousands had come before them.
Still. She itched to get out and wander, put her hands on the Redwood bark. There was a sweet, green smell to the air that she found refreshing and calming. No great photographer or artist, she found the strange urge to draw, paint and photograph the wonders around her. Some of the trunks of the trees were as wide as their car. It was her first trip—their first trip—up from L.A.
Ramona didn't miss the congestion and the smog at all.
“Look at that,” Tom said with no little wonder in his voice.
Ramona drug her attention back to the present and spotted the place that had drawn them up north to begin with: Surlee's.
And as she'd read, it was impossible to miss. The shop itself, carved of wood with a tin roof, wasn't all that big. It was the items Surlee's had for sale that made her gasp. Pieces of petrified wood flanked the store, spreading out to both sides and for at least an acre behind. They weren't just random chunks—these were carvings done by the owner, brilliantly lifelike inasmuch as petrified would could be, most in the shape of humans. They reminded her of a sea of totem poles sticking up from the ground. Through the clinging mist, they looked eerie, surreal.
Tom pulled the Escalade into one of the parking spots in front of the store. Two other cars parked a few spots down were empty. He turned off the engine and slid the keys from the ignition.
“If they're anything as good as they look from the road, we're getting two.” Pacified now that they were here, he slanted a smile across the vehicle at her and got out.
Ramona, pleased to be here and to be able to stretch her legs from the long drive, climbed out after him.
“Looks like they're already open,” she said, gesturing toward an orange neon sign in the window.
“Yeah. Good. We won't have to come back.” Tom snagged her hand and veered off for the pieces scattered around.
Ramona let him tow her, content to see whatever pieces struck him first. Brushing dark bangs off her forehead, she paused when she glimpsed another carving on her right. It was so compelling in periphery that she tugged on his hand to divert him that way.
“Wait, I have to—oh my God. Tom, look at that.” Ramona half bent over to get a better view of the statuette. On its knees, the woman crouched with her hands clutched against her chest, face tipped up toward the sky. What got Ramona was the expression on her face. How the carver captured such a look of utter agony and pain was beyond her. Streamers of hair flowed halfway down the woman's back, appearing a little wilder and unruly due to the petrification process.
“I've never seen anything like it,” Tom admitted. He too got closer to get a better look.
“How do you think he does it?”
“Who? The guy who makes them? I have no idea. I guess like any other person carves marble or stone or wood.”
And there were others. Some peaceful looking, faces slack and neutral, eyes closed. One woman held a bouquet of wilting flowers; another had her mouth open in a silent plea or cry. Men were represented, too, tall and powerful with their faces distorted in rage or that eerie calm like some of the women. The colors—reds, umbers, teal, oxide, green—only added to the strange allure.
One of her friends had told Ramona about Surlee's and its unusual conversation pieces and she had to admit they didn't disappoint.
“Can I help you?” said a voice from behind them.
Whatever Ramona expected, it wasn't the rather thin, hollow looking man staring at them with a polite, paper thin smile. She was only five-foot-seven and he was shorter than her. Spectacles over his blue-green eyes, hair soft brown and cropped close in layers, he seemed incapable of carving, much less moving, the petrified statues around her.
“Oh, hello. We were just looking at your amazing sculptures,” she said.
“Excellent, excellent.” He had a voice to match his appearance; reedy, somewhat weak. “What do you think? Have you spotted a favorite piece?”
“We haven't seen them all yet. Can we look around a little more?” Tom asked.
“Of course. Take all the time you need.” He held out his long fingered hand. “I'm Surlee Bauer.”
“Surlee?” Ramona asked, confused. “But I thought Surlee built this place in the nineteen-twenties. We're Tom and Ramona.”
Tom shook the man's hand and Ramona followed suit. His grip wasn't strong, like she expected, but borderline frail.
“It was. I'm Surlee the Third.” Surlee smile and retracted his hand. “My great-grandfather first purchased this land in the late eighteen hundreds and we've had it ever since. He named his son Surlee for Big Sur, and for his father, whose name was Lee.”
Ah, thought Ramona. Now the name makes sense. She'd wondered if there was some story behind it or if it had just been a play on words.
“They passed their talent for carving down, too?” Tom asked, pushing his hands into his jean pockets.
Surlee nodded. “Yes. It seems to run in the family, lucky for us. I've taught my own son, too.”
Tom whistled and nodded. “Impressive.”
“Where do you get the inspiration for your designs?” Ramona asked.
“Why...from my customers, Miss Ramona. I get so many interesting visitors.” That time, when he smiled, he showed a row of teeth. “Please. Explore at your leisure.”
* * * *
My day starts when light slants in the tall windows of the ballroom, painting Isobel in autumn colors, bringing out slivers of red in her dark hair. It does interesting things to her equally dark eyes and the impressive, floor length gown that clings snug against her bosom but flares around her ankles. It's the palest blue you can imagine, with airy ruffles and a swaying hem.
Her Ginger Rogers gown, I call it.
She's a delicate woman, with fragile wrists and a beautiful, sloping throat that I like to drag my fingers down.
I've been in love with her since I was sixteen.
I'm always at my beloved piano when the dancing begins. In this room, with its rich red walls, gilt trim, and mirrors on the opposite wall from where I'm sitting, I am reminded of old romance, new love, and timeless elegance.
The glossy black and white checkered floor reflects my Isobel as she stands poised, the same as every other afternoon, arms artfully positioned in the air. Graceful, as elegant as the ballroom I made just for her.
She wears a smile that I created; loving, adoring, affectionate. Her eyes never leave me, not even when my hands fly over the keys and she dances around the whole piano, a wide circle of pirouettes and whimsical turns. I know this because the cleverly placed mirrors tell me so.
With masterful precision, I guide the melody through a dramatic crescendo and then wind it down to something high and sweet. A trickle of notes, too fine for anyone but her. Always pristine in her arches and perfect in her symmetry.
I love to watch her.
Debonaire in my black suit, dark hair combed away from my face, I play passionately while she spins, floating like her dress. The hands of a clock tick in the same direction as her rotations, but she's much less mechanical. This is our time together, stolen moments that last as long as the song does. I relish every single second.
We never speak during our dance. We don't have to. Our expressions say everything. The intense way our eyes meet across the ballroom reminds me of two people desperate to be alone, full of need and repressed desire.
I am her piano man, and she is my ballerina.
We were destined to be together forever. I told her so the day that I met her. Intertwined, connected, tangled like the loose weave of her favorite crocheted blanket.
Nothing could ever tear us apart.
Not even death.
* * * *
I Am Ellis Moore
Gloom stretches both ways down the narrow, dusty corridor. It's windowless, lightless. The only slices of illumination come from between skinny crevices of hidden doorways. I stand in front of one, listening for movement on the other side. My naked toes dig into the cold concrete until pain shoots up the bones of my shins.
It makes me nervous, this waiting. This listening.
I never know if one of them will be on the other side.
They have invaded my house, my sanctuary, and now I have to creep around, confined to the hidden passageway in the walls. The only good thing about them being here is the food in the kitchen.
It’s real food. Sometimes I forget what it tastes like.
That’s where I am right now, on the other side of the hidden door in the large pantry, listening for sounds of them in my kitchen.
I hear nothing, not even the scurry of rats. They are what my main diet consists of when Moore Manor sits empty. It’s not bad, getting used to the taste of them. What I don’t like is how the tail lashes around my lips, quivering and panicked, when I take the first bite.
I’ve noticed there’s been a decrease in the rat population. The new owners of my manor have worked hard to eradicate them.
I cannot allow this.
I cannot allow it because when I make the new owners leave, I will need the rats once more.
I press my ear to the wall; silence.
With practiced caution, I push against the secret door, moving it an inch so I can hear better. The pantry, I determine, is empty. It’s so dark that I know the other door, leading into the kitchen, is closed.
Creating enough space to emit me, I slip into the small room. Shelves filled with boxes and cans line the walls. I can make out the labels with ease. I wonder sometimes why I am able to see so well in the dark.
Tonight, I don’t feel confident enough to steal into the kitchen itself to raid that thing called a 'fridge'. I choose a box of crackers instead and slide one of the sleeves out. I pinch and pull at the plastic until it tears. Between the pads of my long fingers, I crumble three crackers and let the remains spill onto the shelf and the floor.
The owners will think the rats did it.
I must feed my friends, so that later, my friends will feed me.
As tempting as it is to take the whole sleeve, I only pry five crackers out for myself. Cuddling them against my skeletal chest, I snub my nose at the asparagus, spinach and pickled beets.
I'm starving, but not starving enough to eat that.
There is a small can of crunchy peanut butter behind the mayonnaise that makes sneaking into the pantry worth it. I can almost tolerate them in my house for this prize alone. It will last for at least two weeks.
Giddy, I add the peanut butter to my collection of five crackers. A King's ransom, I have.
I fumble all of it when the refrigerator door opens out in the kitchen. Bottles and other condiments rattle against each other while someone searches the shelves. It might be the potty-mouthed wife or the spoiled daughter with the whiny voice.
Sneering at the closed door separating us, I huddle my food items against me. My teeth feel long and thick in my mouth. Like my gums have receded too far. Like I have horse teeth.
Disconcerted, I creep into the hidden passageway and close the door as quietly as I can. A screech of wood on concrete makes me wince. Pausing, I listen to determine if the sound carried through the pantry into the kitchen.
I’m always listening.
I don’t hear anyone come to investigate and I breathe a sigh of relief. That was close. They cannot know I live here.
A moment later, annoyed, I sneer again. This is my house. I used to sleep upstairs in the room where the spoiled daughter stays. It’s a nice room, with a good view out the window. Now I have to stay in the cramped, hidden passageway.
Scuttling away, I take my hoard through the twisting, winding passage to the dusty stairs leading down. Spiderwebs spread across my face and get stuck in my eyelashes.
It tickles and makes me snicker.
Coming to the arch leading into the basement, I pause. It's even darker down here. Cold. The stone walls are a gateway underground. To get to the small, square window I want, I have to pass the dark corner I hate. Zhena's corner.
Clutching the food against my chest, I poise, crouched, waiting for the perfect moment. There is no clock to tell me when to go. I just go. As fast and as low to the ground as I can. A scuttling creature of bowed, bent legs, knots of bone for knuckles, and a shank of greasy hair that I chew the ends from so I can see.
Even though I promise myself not to look, I can still see her eyes from the corners of my own. Evil eyes. Slanted, like a cat. Lined in black. Mean eyes.
“Ellis,” Zhena whispers.
The sound that comes out of my mouth is not a scream, but it's more than a whimper. With a clunk, the peanut butter hits the ground and rolls ahead, lost in the darkness. The crackers break apart between my thin fingers and fall like snowflakes over my equally thin toes.
Incensed by my loss, I glance over to the wall near her corner.
I glare at her. She glares at me.
Hateful gypsy witch. Giver of curses. I don't remember why I hate her so much, only that I do. The clown grease I used to paint her portrait glistens even in the dark. On the wall, Zhena the witch has red lips, hollow cheeks and blue-black hair that reminds me of slithering snakes. It's wild all around her head.
She's had the same stare, the same wicked crook at the edge of her mouth since I first painted her in 1887.
* * * *
Thaddeus Grey stared at the coffee pot and resisted the sudden urge to pitch it across the kitchen. He snapped the on-off button up and down. Up, down.
No red light. No light at all.
Bracing his hands against the edge of the counter, he hung his head and counted to ten. He was pretty sure his ex-wife had somehow rigged it to break right after she walked out of his life just to remind him how much he would miss her. Coffee in the mornings, after all, had been their special ritual.
He opened the cupboard overhead and looked for an alternative. Screw the coffee, and screw Desiree. He would start a new ritual. Rifling through several brands of exotic tea, he plucked a colorful packet from a small basket that appealed to him for the wrapping more than the name: Chameleon.
Unusual flavors of tea, purchased from some local mamba queen, had been her vice, not his. Which made no difference to him when the coffee pot was broken and he wanted something hot. Thumbing the scaly, green pouch, he grunted and closed the cupboard.
Ten minutes later, the small bag bobbed in steamy water while he changed into a black jogging suit and a pristine pair of running shoes.
New day, new ritual, new life.
Back in the kitchen, he eyed the incandescent sheen atop the greenish-brown colored brew and tossed the spent teabag away. Maybe scale of Chameleon was some kind of aphrodisiac and he'd get lucky with some cute blonde who was endlessly attracted to his tawny, Ivy League good looks. If she could get past the hook in his nose, the slightly crooked set of his eyes and the natural curl in his hair that turned into boyish corkscrews if he let it get too long. Annoying.
At thirty-four, he was all man and hardly out of his prime. There was time to start over. Time to find the right woman and have the family he'd always wanted. Ignoring the inner exhaustion at the mere thought of going through the process again, he sipped the tea and threw out all the old mail piling up on the table.
Draining the exotic brew to the dregs, he walked the mug to the sink and snorted. She'd probably paid five bucks for that one packet and he couldn't tell a bit of difference. Rinsing the sheen out, he turned it upside down in the drainer and stretched his arms on the way to the door.
Grabbing his keys and his wallet, he stepped out onto the sunny porch and used a key to engage all the locks. Securing the loose items in the pockets of his running suit, he took a deep breath and jogged down the stairs to the sidewalk.
“Hey, Thaddeus! How's it going, man?” his elderly neighbor called.
“Hatch, nice to see you. Beautiful day, isn't it?”
“Nothin' like fall in New York City,” Hatch said, grinning a gap toothed smile.
Thaddeus laughed, raised a hand and set a slow pace away from his town home. Pedestrians were already out in droves, clogging the street corners at the intersections. He avoided the worst of it and passed out smiles to anyone who glanced his way.
New day, new ritual, new life.
The brisk bite in the air and the rasping tongues of dead leaves rolling across the concrete heralded the onset of a new season, which Thaddeus thought fitting. He turned right at the second corner and left at the light, waiting for the green before jogging to the other side. A half block down, he slowed his pace when he came abreast of an old basketball court situated between two buildings. What stalled him was the easy camaraderie he detected between the mixed ethnic group shooting hoops. Too often he saw just the opposite. Today blacks and whites and two boys of asian descent competed against each other with only one apparent focus; to have fun.
“Hey man, you want in?” one of the boys asked.
Thaddeus realized he was talking to him.
“Me? I haven't played since college--”
“It's like riding a bike,” he said, and flicked the faded basketball through the air.
Thaddeus caught it with a grin. The energy between the boys encouraged him to charge into their game without reserve. He ducked and dodged and spun through bodies, skin prickling with an odd sensation, until he went up to let the ball roll off his fingertips into the drooping net.
The addictive sense of competition swept over him like a wave. He returned high fives to his teammates and jogged backwards, picking a man to cover.
Before he knew it, he was as sweaty and out of breath as they were, batting the ball away from reaching hands, running the court with sharp whistles and shouts. A lava-like heat curled through his body, unusual and unexpected even with the uptick in exercise. Intense sensations seemed to come out of nowhere; joy, exuberance, adrenaline, pride. Thaddeus caught these expressions on some of the boys on the court in fleeting, strange glimpses.
At the end of the game, he traded fist-clasps and chest bumps with every single player. Grinning, he thanked them for letting him join and reluctantly parted ways.
Immediately, the strong feelings passed. That eerie belonging was gone.