Rachel drove me down to the fair that night. We could have walked, but it’s cooler to have a ride. We were giddy with the anticipation of something new. This was the most fun to be had in our small town for a long time. At least it was something to do.
We wandered around, trying out the haunted house (lame), roller coaster (pretty lame) and the house of mirrors (funny). We saw some guys from school, but nobody interesting. I did notice, though, that there seemed to be more than the usual number of shifty characters around. I saw them, here and there, slinking through the crowds of excited kids, moving through the shadows beyond the garish lights of the rides.
As we came off the Tilt-a-Whirl, I noticed one of them lurking nearby. He caught my eye, and tilted his head slightly to the right, behind the ride.
“Let’s go over there,” I said, catching Rachel’s elbow. I don’t know why I said it, now, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.
As we came around behind the ride, I saw a small tent in the shadows. Slouching near its open door was a guy dressed in dirty T-shirt and jeans, a cigarette hanging from his lips. In front was one of those sandwich signs, with black letters proclaiming: ENTER. And beneath that: IF YOU DARE.
You’d think that a challenge like that would have attracted a crowd. But most of the people that walked by didn’t even give it a first glance, let alone a second. Mainly, there were just those sneaks, hanging around in the shadows.
Just then a guy approached the tent, and asked the carny in front a question. The man replied. The other guy looked startled, and then laughed. He strode purposefully into the tent, and was promptly swallowed up by the darkness. A sudden cold breeze made me shiver.
“Come on, Jan,” Rachel said. “Let’s try it!”
“It doesn’t say how many tickets,” I pointed out.
“Chicken. I’ll find out.” Rachel walked up to the door. I saw her ask the question, then stumble back a step when the guy answered. She turned and walked quickly back to me, her face white.
“So?” I asked.
She forced a laugh. “Never mind. It’s just stupid, anyway. Look, I gotta go. You wanna come, or what?”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I just gotta go, that’s all. Coming, or not?” She wrapped her arms around herself.
“No way. I’ll walk home. I’m not done here.”
“Fine.” She walked away, leaving me alone in front of the tent.
ENTER. IF YOU DARE.
The words enticed me, and I took a step closer. I noticed absentmindedly the presence of more of the slouching, shadowed sneaks around the tent. They seemed to be almost breathless, watching my every move. But my focus was not on them. The door loomed large, black upon black. I took another step.
“Hey, Jan, hi!”
Startled, I whirled to face the intruder, and inwardly groaned. Great. Meeting my eyes was the sincere blue gaze of Mike. Mike, whose dimple and thick blonde hair marked him as one of the cutest guys at school; Mike, whose self-proclaimed Christianity marked him as definitely not to be seen with. He peered at me, his smile fading as he leaned in closer. “Are you alright?” he asked, his hand falling lightly on my shoulder.
“Y-Y-Yeah,” I stammered, “I was just going to try that out...” I gestured back at the tent, and he looked over.
I turned and froze, heart hammering. It wasn’t there. No tent, no inviting sign. And all those sneaks, gone too. I whirled back to Mike, whose hand dropped off my shoulder, eyebrows lifting in surprise.
“N-n-nothing...I mean, uh....ahh, forget it.” I glanced back once more, and my heart turned to ice. It was back, tent, sign, and sneaks, who weren’t so sneaky anymore. They stood still, eyes blazing fury at Mike. Acting on impulse, I edged closer to Mike, linking my arm in his. At that instant, it was gone again. But not before I saw the main guy take a step towards us, the rest following in shadow.
Mike looked down at me, bemused.
“C’mon, Mike. Let’s look around,” I said, brightly. He smiled.
I kept close to Mike the rest of that night. He wasn’t so bad once I got to know him. Besides, it seemed safer that way.
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