When the nausea passed, I crawled a few feet away and flopped onto my back, blinking at the stars, catching my breath, trying to find the strength to go on.
It was four-fifty in the morning. The orange sun of dawn was no more than an hour away.
That thought brought to mind the sightless orange eye in Joel Tuck’s forehead. Joel Tuck . . . he had spirited the body out of the Dodgem Car pavilion and had buried it, which might have been the act of someone who knew the goblins for what they were and wanted to help me. Almost certainly Joel Tuck also had been the one who had come into the trailer where I was sleeping the previous night and had left the two passes—one to the Dodgem Cars and one to the Ferris wheel—on my folded jeans. He had been trying to tell me that he knew what had happened at the Dodgem Cars and that he also knew, as I did, that something was going to happen at the Ferris wheel. He saw the goblins, and to some extent he sensed the malignant energies around the Ferris wheel, though his own psychic talent was probably not as strong as mine.
This was the first time I had ever encountered anyone with any genuine psychic abilities, and it was certainly the first time I had come across anyone who saw the goblins for what they truly were. For a moment I was overcome with a sense of brotherhood, a kinship so poignant and so desperately desired that it brought tears to my eyes. I was not alone.
But why did Joel resort to indirection? Why was he reluctant to let me know about the brotherhood we shared? Obviously it was because he did not want me to know who he was. But why not? Because . . . he was not a friend. It suddenly occurred to me that Joel Tuck might consider himself neutral in the battle between mankind and the goblin race. After all, he had been treated worse by ordinary humankind than he had by goblins, if only because he had encounters with human beings every day and with goblins only on occasion. An outcast, rejected and even reviled by society at large, allowed no dignity except within the sanctuary of the carnival, he might well feel that he had no reason to oppose the goblins’ war against marks. If that was the case, he had assisted me with the dead body and had pointed me toward the oncoming danger at the Ferris wheel solely because those goblin schemes directly affected carnies, the only people to whom he did owe allegiance in this secret war. He did not want to approach me openly because he sensed that my vendetta against the demons was not restricted by the boundaries of the carnival, and he did not want to be drawn into a wider conflict; he was willing to fight the war only when it came to him.
He had helped me once, but he would not always help me.
When you came right down to it, I was still pretty much alone.
The moon had set. The night was very dark.
Exhausted, I got up from the grass and goldenrod and returned to the locker room beneath the grandstand, where I scrubbed my hands, spent fifteen minutes digging the dirt out from beneath my fingernails, and showered. Then I went down to the trailer in the meadow where I had been assigned quarters.
My roommate, Barney Quadlow, was snoring loudly.
I undressed and got into bed. I felt physically and mentally numb.
The comfort I had taken—and given—with Rya Raines was only a dim memory, though we had been together less than two hours ago; the recent horror was more vivid, and like a newer coat of paint it overlaid the joy that had been. Now, of my time with Rya, I more clearly recalled her moodiness, her deep and inexplicable sadness, because I knew that Rya would sooner or later be the cause of another crisis with which I would have to deal.
So much on my shoulders.
I was only seventeen.
I wept quietly for Oregon, for lost sisters and a mother’s love too far removed.
I longed for sleep.
I desperately needed to get some rest.
Yontsdown was less than two days away.
At eight-thirty Saturday morning, after little more than two hours of sleep, I woke from a nightmare unlike any that I had ever known before.
In the dream I was in a vast graveyard that sloped down a long and apparently endless series of hills, a place crowded with granite and marble monuments of all sizes and shapes, some cracked and many canted, in rows without end, in numbers beyond counting, the very cemetery of Rya’s own dreams. Rya was there, too, running away from me, through the snow, under the black branches of barren trees. I was chasing her, and the weird thing was that I felt both love and loathing for her, and I did not know exactly what I was going to do when I caught her. A part of me wanted to cover her face with kisses and make love to her, but another part of me wanted to throttle her until her eyes bulged and her face turned black and her lovely blue eyes clouded with death. This savage fury, directed toward someone I loved, scared the hell out of me, and more than once I stopped. But each time that I halted, she halted, too, waiting for me among the tombstones on the slope below, as if she wanted me to catch her. I tried to warn her that this was not a lover’s game, that something was wrong with me, that I might lose control of myself when I caught her, but I could not will my lips and tongue to form the words. Each time I stopped, she waved me on, and I found myself pursuing her once more. And then I knew what must be wrong with me. There must be a goblin in me! One of the demonkind had entered me, had taken control of me, destroying my mind and soul, leaving nothing but my flesh, which was now its flesh, but Rya was not aware of this; she still saw only Slim, just her loving Slim MacKenzie; she did not realize what terrible danger she was in, did not understand that Slim was dead and gone, that his living body served an unhuman creature now, and if that creature caught her, it would choke the life out of her, and now it was gaining on her, and she glanced back at it-me, laughing—she looked so beautiful, beautiful and doomed—and now it-me was within ten feet of her, eight, six, four, and then I grabbed hold of her, swung her around—
—and when I awoke, I could still feel her throat collapsing in my iron hands.
I sat straight up in bed, listening to the furious beat of my heart and to my ragged breathing, trying to clear my mind of the nightmare. I blinked in the morning light and desperately tried to assure myself that, as vivid and powerful as the scene had been, nevertheless it had been only a dream, not a premonition of things to come.
Not a premonition.
The show call was for eleven o’clock, which left me with a couple of hours on my hands, hours in which I might wind up contemplating the blood that was also on my hands if I did not, for God’s sake, find something to occupy myself. The fairgrounds were on the edge of the county seat, a burg of about seven or eight thousand souls, so I walked into town and had breakfast in a coffee shop, then went next door to a men’s store and bought two pair of jeans and a couple of shirts. I saw no goblins during the entire visit, and the day was so August-perfect that I gradually began to feel that everything might turn out all right—me and Rya, the week in Yontsdown—if I just kept my wits about me and did not lose hope.
I returned to the fairgrounds at ten-thirty, put the new jeans and shirts in the trailer, and was on the midway by a quarter of eleven. I had the high-striker ready for business before show call and had just sat down on the stool beside it to await the first marks when Rya appeared.
Golden girl. Bare, tanned legs. Yellow shorts. Four different shades of yellow in a horizontally striped T-shirt. She was wearing a bra on the midway because this was 1963, and bralessness in public would have been shocking to the marks, regardless of how acceptable it was in the trailer town, among carnies. Her hair was held back from her face with a knotted yellow bandanna. Radiant.
I stood, attempted to put my hands on her shoulders, tried to kiss her cheek, but she put one hand against my chest, restraining me, and said, “I don’t want any misunderstanding.”
“What could I possibly misunderstand about that?”
“What it means.”
“What does it mean?”
She was frowning. “It means I like you—”
“—and it means we can give each other pleasure—”
“—but it doesn’t mean I’m your girl or anything like that.”
“You sure look like a girl to me,” I said.
“On the midway I’m still your boss.”
“And you’re the employee.”
“Ah,” I said.
Jesus, I thought.
She said, “And I don’t want any unusual . . . familiarity on the midway.”
“God forbid. But we do still get to be unusually familiar off the midway?”
She was utterly unaware of the offensiveness of her approach and tone, and did not understand the humiliation that her words inflicted; therefore, she was not sure what my flippancy indicated, but she risked a smile. She said, “That’s right. Off the midway I expect you to be just as unusually familiar as you want.”
“Sounds as if I’ve got two jobs, the way you put it. Did you hire me for my talent as a pitchman—or for my body too?”
Her smile faltered. “For your pitch, of course.”
“Because, boss, I wouldn’t want to think you’re taking advantage of this poor, lowly hired man.”
“I’m serious, Slim.”
“So why are you making jokes?”
“It’s a socially acceptable alternative.”
“Huh? To what?”
“Yelling, shouting, rash insults.”
“You’re mad at me.”
“Ah, you’re as perceptive as you are beautiful, boss.”
“There’s no reason for you to get angry.”
“No. I guess I’m just a hothead.”
“I’m only trying to get things straight between us.”
“Very businesslike. I admire that.”
“Look, Slim, all I’m saying is that whatever happens between us in private is one thing—and what happens here on the midway is another.”
“Good heavens, I would never suggest we do it right here on the midway,” I said.
“You’re being difficult.”
“You, on the other hand, are a paragon of diplomacy.”
“See, some guys, if they got in the boss’s pants, they’d figure they didn’t have to pull their share of the load at work anymore.”
“Do I seem like that kind of guy?” I asked.
“I hope not.”
“That didn’t exactly sound like a vote of confidence.”
“I don’t want you to be angry with me,” she said.
“I’m not,” I said, although I was.
I knew that she had difficulty relating to people on a one-to-one basis. Because of my psychic perception I had a special appreciation for the sadness, loneliness, and uncertainty—and resultant defiant bravura—that shaped her character, and I was as sorry for her as I was angry.
“You are,” she said. “You’re angry.”
“It’s all right,” I said. “Now I got to get to work.” I pointed to the far end of the concourse. “Here come the marks.”
“Are we straight?” she asked.
“See you later,” she said.
I watched her walk away, and I loved her and hated her, but mostly I loved her, this touchingly fragile Amazon. There was no point in being angry with her; she was an inevitable, elemental force; it made as much sense to be angry with the wind or the winter cold or the summer heat, for neither they nor she could be changed by anger.
At one o’clock Marco relieved me for thirty minutes, then for a three-hour break starting at five. Both times I thought about paying a visit to Shockville and having a word with the enigmatic Joel Tuck, and both times I decided against rash action. This was the biggest day of the engagement, and the crowd was three or four times as large as it had been during the week, and what I had to say to Joel was nothing that could be said in front of marks. Besides, I was afraid—in fact, certain—that he would clam up if I pressed him too hard or fast. He might deny any knowledge of goblins and secret burials in the dead of night, and then I would not know how to proceed. I believed I had a valuable potential ally in the freak—ally and friend and, strangely, father figure—and I was concerned that a premature confrontation would drive him away from me. I sensed that it was wiser to let him get to know me better, give him more time to make up his mind about me. I was probably the first person he had ever met who could see the goblins that he saw, just as he was the first I had ever met with that same thankless ability, so sooner or later his curiosity would overcome his reticence. Until then I would have to be patient.
Therefore, after a bite of supper, I went down to the meadow, to the trailer where I had my room, and sacked out for two hours. This time there were no nightmares. I was too tired to dream.
I was back at the high-striker before eight o’clock. The last five hours of the engagement passed quickly and profitably in a dry rain of many-colored light that splashed and drizzled over everything, including the thundering amusement rides, and was punctuated by peals of brassy laughter. Pointing, chattering, gaping marks surged past the high-striker, like water overflowing gutters, and in that flood was a swept-along litter of paper money and coins, some of which I strained out and kept for Rya Raines. Finally, by one o’clock in the morning, the midway began to shut down.
To carnies the last night of a stand is “slough night,” and they look forward to it because there is an irrepressible Gypsy spirit in all of them. The carnival sheds the town much like a snake sloughs off its old skin, and as the snake is renewed by the mere act of change, so is the carny and carnival reborn through the promise of new places and new pockets to be relieved of new money.
Marco came around to collect the day’s take so I could start dismantling the high-striker without delay. While I attended to that job, a few hundred other carnies—concessionaires, jointees, jam auctioneers, animal trainers, stunt acts, wheelmen, pitchmen, midgets, dwarves, strippers, short-order cooks, roughies, everyone but the children (who were in bed) and those watching over the children—were at work, too, tearing down and packing the rides and hanky-panks and sideshows and grab-stands and other joints, illuminated by the giant generator-powered midway lights. The small roller coaster, a rarity in traveling carnivals, constructed entirely of steel pipes, came apart with a ceaseless clank-pong-clink-spang! that was initially irritating but that soon seemed like a strange atonal music, not entirely unpleasant, and eventually became such a part of the background noise that it ceased to be noticeable. At the fun house the clown’s face fractured and came down in four parts, the fourth being the huge yellow nose, which hung for a while alone in the night as if it were the proboscis of a gargantuan, mocking Cheshire cat, as given to bizarre vanishing acts as its cousin who had taunted Alice. Something of dinosaurian proportions, with an appetite to match, had taken a bite out of the Ferris wheel. At Shockville they lowered the fifteen-foot-high canvases portraying the twisted forms and faces of the human oddities; as those billowing and curling banners slid down their mooring poles with a creak of pulley wheels, the painted two-dimensional portraits acquired the illusion of three-dimensional life, winking-grinning-leering-snarling-laughing at the laboring carnies below, then folding up with a kiss of canvas lips to painted foreheads, their depthless eyes now contemplating nothing more than their own noses, two-dimensional reality swiftly replacing the brief imitation of life. Two bites were gone from the Ferris wheel. When I finished at the high-striker, I helped pack up Rya Raines’s other concessions, then moved around the collapsing midway, pitching in wherever I was needed. We unbolted wooden wall panels, folded tents into parachute bundles for the drop to Yontsdown, disassembled beams and braces, told jokes as we worked, skinned knuckles, strained muscles, cut fingers, nailed shut the lids of crates, hefted crates into trucks, tore up the plank floor of the Dodgem Car pavilion, grunted, sweated, cursed, laughed, guzzled soda, poured down cold beers, dodged the two elephants that were rolling the larger beams to the trucks, sang a few songs (including some that had been written by Buddy Holly, already dead four and a half years, his body compacted with that of a Beechcraft Bonanza on the lonely frozen field of a farm between Clear Lake, Iowa, and Fargo, North Dakota), and we unscrewed screws, unnailed nails, untied ropes, coiled up a few miles of electric cables, and the next time I looked toward the Ferris wheel, I discovered that it had been eaten up entirely, not even one small bone remaining.