By Michael Henson
The Boy had decided, finally, enough was enough. He and his sister were running away. They were with their third set of foster people since the County took them away and these were the worst yet. The parents were weird and the children were mean and Sissy cried herself to sleep every night.
So they left. A cousin in town told them their mother was in rehab up north in Ohio, so that was where they were headed. On the first night of summer, after everyone else had gone to sleep, they shushed the big foster family dog with the gift of a bone and stole out of the big foster family house and across the big foster family yard to the shed. They picked up their packs from behind the shed where they had stashed them and they walked through the woods all night to get as far away as they could. For nearly a week, they slept in the day and walked in the night to keep from being seen. If the Boy’s maps and calculations were right, they were almost out of Tennessee. Kentucky was so close it seemed he could smell it. From there, Ohio waited just across the river.
Descending from the mountains, they skirted the edge of a town towered over by a big, white crucifix. Fifty yards away, cars and trucks, even at this late hour, still rushed up and down the Interstate. The lights of the town were muted and dim and there were no houses here, just big, barn-like stores with big-lettered signs advertising PECANS and FIREWORKS. The Boy and his sister walked down an alleyway that ran alongside an old railroad track. The floor of the alley was a mix of gravel and clinkers that crunched amiably under their feet. There was nothing here to snag or trip them. He kept a few dog biscuits in his pocket and that was enough to quiet the guard dog that that hit the panels of someone’s backyard fence.
They continued along the alley as it passed the back side of an all-night service station that was lit up like a small city unto itself. The alley ended in a chain-link fence, so they would have to make a turn. The boy had begun to calculate which way to go when his sister shouted, “Look! Look!” She grabbed her brother’s arm and pointed. Behind the fence, dinosauric metal structures towered and teetered across a lot half the size of a football field. At the back of the lot, high up in the sugary light from the station, the ghostly gray outline of a Ferris wheel rose over the clutter of rusting contraptions.
“It’s a . . . It’s a . . . What-you-call-it?” asked Sissy. She was just six years old and did not always have the words for things.
“It’s a circus!” she said. “It’s a . . .”
“No,” he said. “It’s not a circus, it’s a . . .”
“It’s a fun place!”
“It’s an amusement park,” he told her. “But it’s closed.”
“Yes, a musement park,” she said. “Let’s go to the musement park.” She pulled him by the sleeve.
“It’s closed, Sissy. We can’t go in.” He wanted to get safely away from town and find a safe place to camp before dawn.
A car pulled into the lot of the all-night station and drew the Boy’s eye away from the Ferris wheel and the rusting amusement park. The pulse of its radio bumped and throbbed and seemed to shake the ground. The car passed by the gas pumps and drove around to the rear of the station near the dumpster. This worried the Boy and he whispered to his sister to stay quiet and to stay low.
But her eyes had gone wide. She pulled him down the cinderwalk by the hand.
“Sissy,” he said. “There’s nothing to go to. It’s closed.” He dragged himself slow to see if the people in the car had spotted them
Sissy let go his hand and ran ahead. Once she got to the end of the alley, she stopped and looked for a gate.
Behind the all-night station, two men, the driver and the man riding shotgun, got out right away and began to argue. A third man, from the back seat, opened his door and watched. The men were half in shadow, half in light; they slashed their hands through the air and pointed fingers at one another and at the man watching from the back seat and at the highway beyond and it all looked ugly and dangerous. But they were no danger to the Boy and his sister. So the Boy looked back to his sister who was standing at the fence.
“See, it’s closed,” he called ahead to her.
But Sissy had already found a hole. Someone before her had pried the rusted cleats out from where a gate had been fastened to its half-rotted fence posts.
She ducked herself low to slither through the gap and she did not look back.
It had taken months to get ready for this journey. They made their decision in late winter, but had to wait through the torrents of spring and into early June when it was warm enough but the mosquitos weren’t so bad. In the meantime, they got themselves ready. They collected and hid all the supplies they would need and the Boy set himself to learning everything he could. They saved their allowances; they stashed water purification tablets and power bars. They stashed extra clothes, bug spray, a compass, flashlights, storybooks he could read her, a first aid kit, and a map.
The foster people were preparing them for the time of Tribulation when all the allies of the Antichrist would face off against the Chosen in the final struggle. “The time is coming,” his Foster Mother said. The Boy had opinions about all this, but he kept his opinions to himself. He had given up debating or asking questions. He went to their home school classes and their Sunday School classes half in a daze. But when they started teaching survival skills he realized, they’re teaching me how to get up out of here.
So, from then on, the Boy paid close attention when he went off to orienteering classes and survivalist campouts with kids from other home-school families. He was twelve, so he got to do such things; his sister was just six, so she had to stay and sing Bible songs with the other little kids. The Boy set himself to learn how to use a compass, how to read a map, how to apply first aid, how to pitch a tent, how to pitch a tent in the rain, how to rig a back pack so it would ride easy, how to treat a snake bite or a cut or poison ivy, how to start a fire with a single match, how to start a fire with no match at all, how to dig a latrine, how to travel through an area and leave no trace behind, how to cook a meal over an open fire, how to trap a wild animal –how to kill it, skin it, gut it, and prepare to eat it. He learned how to tell a venomous snake from a harmless snake. He studied hard and earned as many badges as he could.
The Boy peered through the chain link fence. For the first time since they had started this journey, he could not see where his sister had got to. “Sissy,” he shouted in a whisper-shout, as loud as he could go. “Sissy, come back here. Wait up.”
He crouched on all fours to squeeze through the gap and the metal fence snagged on his backpack. “Sissy, wait up,” he called. He pulled off his pack, crawled through the gap, and plucked the pack loose from the snag. Then he stood and looked around. Sissy had disappeared among the rusting girders and rotted platforms and the ticket booths of warped and peeling plywood that had been painted over with mermaids and pirates, spacemen and aliens. Shoots of poke and ironweed rose among the molded plastic faces of the animals and clowns.
“Sissy,” he called again, louder this time. “Where are you?”
He heard a creak of rusting metal and warped wood and saw his little sister mounting the steps to the platform of the Tilt-a-Whirl.
“No, Sissy,” he called. “We got to go.”
But she had already balanced herself along the looping track and deposited herself in one of the donut-shaped cars.
She rocked herself forward and back and the whole contraption creaked and swayed with her.
“Okay, Sissy, that’s enough.”
But it was not enough for her. She patted the seat beside her to tell him to sit. He climbed up the rickety platform and sat down beside her and together they rocked so that the whole thing bucked and rattled and complained and creaked.
He was amazed at how the two of them could make the whole ancient machine rock and rattle. He had to admit, it was fun to hear it creak and grumble. After a minute, though, Sissy jumped out of the car and moved on to the next. “No, Sissy,” he said. “We got to be going.”
But, she had sat herself emphatically down and was not about to move until he sat with her. Together, they tested each of the cars in turn.
When they had boarded them all, he said, “Okay, Sissy, we got to get moving.”
But she popped up from her seat, monkeyed down from the Tilt-a-Whirl, and headed toward the Dodge-em car pavilion.
The dodge-em cars were scattered under an open-sided canopy. The floor was warped and broken. She hopped into the first car, jerked its steering wheel back and forth and made car noises –vroom, vroom, vroom—until she imagined a crash. She shouted out a crash noise and jumped to the next. After a dozen cars, she was done with dodge-em cars.
The teacups were locked down. She hopped from one to another but could not get the slightest movement from them. She tried each one; she rocked back and forth in each seat for a minute or more and got up, finally, from the last teacup and dizzily stumbled to the next ride.
At the kiddie train, she sat in the engineer’s seat. “You sit in the back,” she said. “I’ll drive the train.” She made train engine noises and rocked back and forth in her seat and leaned into the invisible curves and chugged mightily up the steep, imaginary mountain inclines.
At last, she came to the carousel. Arc lights from the highway illuminated some of the animals pinioned on their striped poles.
The first horse she came to was a dappled gray armored as if for battle. “Lift me up,” she shouted.
“Just for a minute,” he said. “We got to be going.” He set down their packs, took her by the waist, and boosted her into the saddle.
“You ride here,” she commanded him. In the highway light, his horse had a tint of green.
“Hiyahh, hiyahhh!” she cried. She rocked herself back and forth for over a minute. “Yip, yip, hyahh!”
From his horse, the Boy could see the lot of the all-night station. A second car had passed the gas pumps and pulled behind the station. A man from the first car stepped out of the shadows and, as the car pulled up, waved the second car to pull over next to the first. The second car’s engine and lights went off. Two men got out and began to talk with the others. Again, the Boy could not hear what they said, but the words sounded even more angry and urgent.
Sissy slid down from her horse. “Now, this one,” she commanded.
“Sissy, hush,” he whispered. He strained to hear what the people in the shadows were saying. He boosted her up into the saddle of a striding lion. The words from the shadows became still harsher, more like driven nails. Suddenly, the iron words stopped, replaced by thuds and thumps and grunts of pain. There was a flash of metallic light and one of the figures from the shadows fell, then another, and the ones who had come in the second car got back in and started the engine. The driver backed it up into the parking lot, the tires bit into the asphalt with a squeal, and the car took off. The headlights did not come on until the car had passed the carousel and came to a turning in the road.
The two forms in the dark of the station had not moved. The man who had been in the back seat the whole time got out, looked at the bodies, and quickly walked away.
“Come on, Sissy,” the Boy said. “We got to get moving.”
But, tired of waiting, she had figured out how to mount the figures on her own. She kicked up high enough to get her toe in the stirrup and gripped the saddle with her hands. She mounted a dolphin. She made piercing dolphin cries and sounds of the sea as she rocked back and forth. She hopped down and hopped up into the saddle of a zebra. There, she rocked and whinnied, rocked and whinnied. Then she moved on to a flamingo, to a sea horse, a kangaroo, a whale, and a unicorn with sounds appropriate to each. She held onto each pole with one hand and stretched out her free arm like a circus acrobat at the end of her act.
Across the highway, a blaze of red started to crest along the mountain top and the faces of the carousel animals seemed to awaken and look around.
The Boy looked back to the service station. A man in the uniform of the station had come around the corner with a plastic garbage bag in hand. He stopped and set the bag down to light a cigarette; he paused to inhale and to admire the morning light across the mountain ridge. In a moment, he would return to being a service station attendant. His little break would be over. He would pick the garbage bag back up and he would turn in the direction of the dumpster where the two bodies lay.
“Sissy,” the Boy whispered. “We got to go.”
But she had already jumped down from the unicorn. She stood and waited near a hole in the fence.
Michael Henson is author of four books of fiction and four collections of poetry. Maggie Boylan, a book of linked stories, was recognized for its depiction of the impact of the opioid epidemic. Secure the Shadow, a novel, is scheduled for release in the fall. Henson lives in Cincinnati.