fear
adult

The Merry-Go-Round

by Harrison Demchick
District of Columbia, United States
genre: Horror

Toby was just getting into the steady rise and fall of the gold and black cheetah beneath him when the lights of the merry-go-round started to flicker.

It wasn’t all of them. Grasping onto the copper pole that held the cheetah and looking forward, Toby could see the unsteady blinking in two lines of little yellow lights, from the center of the ride outward toward the edges like a giant slice of pizza. The kids underneath didn’t seem to notice, holding on and giggling as the elephants and sea lions and red pandas lifted up and down and round and round through the warm night air. But below the cacophony of calliopes and bells, Toby could hear unmistakably the intermittent crackle of electricity.

Then the lights flickered again and the electricity buzzed and the kids were gone.

Toby startled, hugging tightly to the pole in front of him. In the slice of darkness just ahead he could still see the animals, bobbing along—a hippo, an orangutan, a sea turtle he had almost chosen himself before he saw the cheetah—but the frizzy-haired girl in front of him had disappeared, and the twins had disappeared, and the older boy with his unlaced shoelaces dangling all the way to the floor had disappeared. A scent lingered in the air, like cinder, or the smoking wick of the ninth birthday candle he’d snuffed out three weeks prior.

Looking out at the rails surrounding the merry-go-round, Toby saw grown-ups smiling and taking pictures on their phones. Aunt Maggie too, waving at him in her flower sundress. He saw other kids waiting in line. He passed by the freckle-faced ride operator, who stood by the controls, and past all of them when the ride pointed Toby in the right direction were boys and girls and dads and moms in shorts and sunglasses and plastic tiger ears walking to and fro down the zoo’s main stretch.

How had they not noticed? How hadn’t anyone else noticed?

Then he heard the crackle again, and when he looked up he saw the lights surrounding the next slice of the merry-go-round flashing quick and erratic. The kids up ahead hadn’t noticed what happened behind them. One was leaning back on her crocodile, hair dangling back onto the flaking paint of its tail. Another tried to reach out his fingertips to the rider beside him. They seemed to blink in and out in time with the lights.

Toby’s heart skipped, and then they were gone too.

Now Toby started to panic, the cinder stinging his nostrils as he searched to the right and the left and behind him. He spotted his aunt and wanted to call to her, but he didn’t know what to say and nothing came out and the ride turned too fast anyway. Still no one cried or pointed or protested or stopped the ride. No one did anything at all.

Once more the electricity crackled and he saw impressions of light flashing and vanishing from the section on the other side of the merry-go-round, pulses of lightning in a distant storm, and when the light disappeared and the sound stopped and only the darkness remained he could tell, though he couldn’t see clearly through the rotating pillar in the center of the ride, that the kids there were gone too.

The scent grew sharper, heavier. Smoldering ashes in the wake of a dying flame.

Toby had to do something.

He spun as best he could on his cheetah to look at the kids in the section behind him, with their walruses and brown bears and spider monkeys, and beckoned them wide-eyed toward him.

“You need to run!” he said. “You need to run this way!”

But they didn’t hear him. He was too quiet and the music was too loud.

Holding carefully to the pole, he started to lower himself onto the baseboards of the merry-go-round so he could run back, warn them, yell at them, pull them down, something—but the moment the toe of his right sneaker hit the base of the pole, he heard the buzzing once more. It was happening faster, he realized. It was happening faster every time.

The electricity buzzed and the lights flickered and the smell of burning filled the air as the section behind him—he could see it clearly now, standing on the floor of the merry-go-round and staring head-on—blinked into darkness. All that remained was the steady lift and descent of forlorn tortoises and jaguars.

“We have to get off!” Toby shouted to the handful of kids in his own section. It was the only one left. There were four other kids, and only one paid him any mind, staring at him like the gecko he rode. Toby spun around in place and the merry-go-round spun around him, and he felt dizzy as he tried to catch the attention of the adults. Aunt Maggie, who was chatting now with some other parent and not even watching. The freckle-faced ride operator, checking her watch.

“Stop the ride!” said Toby. “Stop the ride!”

She didn’t. She didn’t even look up.

And then, with a low but unmistakable buzz, the lights started to flicker.

Desperate now, Toby spun and stopped and started, nearly colliding with his own cheetah on its way down. As it lifted he saw the open space in the middle of the merry-go-round between the spinning column and the floor, and that’s where he went, slipping around the cheetah and around the tail of the walrus until he stepped and stumbled down into the center where the machinery rumbled and the ground was still.

The lights blinked off and the rest of the kids disappeared.

The dark, empty merry-go-round spun on, animals rising and falling in solemn parade to a marching band of bells and calliopes there was no one left to hear. Standing in the center of the ride, barely able to see the people surrounding or the zoo at all, Toby wondered if it would ever stop. He wondered if he would be trapped here in the middle forever.

Then he smelled again the odor of burning, and the lights began to flicker once more. The electricity buzzed, and the lights blinked, and suddenly the entire merry-go-ground lit up brightly with all the kids right back exactly where they had been at the start of the ride. As the machinery hummed and the ride began to slow, Toby felt relief flowing steady and warm through his veins.

But then he realized they were staring at him.

The frizzy-haired girl stared at him. The twins stared at him. And so did the gecko boy, and the girl on the crocodile, and the older kid with his shoes untied.

All the kids, every one, with open-mouthed smiles much too wide for their little faces.

The ride hissed and came to a slow, gentle stop, the cheetah and all the other animals caught mid-wave. The music continued as the kids climbed off the animals at once, as one, their feet landing on the floorboards at the same moment, walking in lockstep off the ride and toward the exit gate with the ride operator just beside it. Toby stepped back onto the floor, watching them as they went.

And they watched him too. The smiles never leaving their faces.

Aunt Maggie stood by the gate gesturing Toby forward. The ride operator looked over at him, waiting with worn irritation.

Just behind them in the shadows the kids stood aligned like crows on a wire, staring back at Toby with jack-o-lantern grins.

Because there was nowhere else to go—and isn’t that how it was, with merry-go-rounds—Toby started moving forward, slowly, legs rising and falling, rising and falling. Soon he was at the edge of it, and then on the gravel, and then through the gate, where he took his aunt’s hand and squeezed it tight and, head down to the toes of his shoes and the cement beneath them, dragged her past the other kids toward the main road where the animals were.

“What’s wrong?” she said, and he felt his hand shaking inside hers. “Are you cold?”

As Toby guided them away from the glow of the merry-go-round, its calliope music still wafting through the humid nighttime, he could feel them watching him. He could feel their spotlight smiles, burning across his back like cinder. But he kept his eyes forward, legs rising and legs falling, past the bears and the birds and the prairie dogs. And as the machinery started up again, and as the next set of kids laughed and giggled, he held his breath and squeezed his aunt’s hand and pretended not to hear at all the electricity crackling through the air.

Up and down, up and down, round and round again.


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