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The Kill (Chapter 4)

Words flashed through Jenny's mind. Did I ever tell you about this amusement park nightmare I had when I was a kid-?"

"Listen." She turned around abruptly. "Besides Michael, has anybody else had amusement park nightmares?"

Audrey stopped, flashlight drooping. After a moment she said in a subdued voice, "I have."

Dee said quietly, "Me, too."

"And so have I," Jenny said. "Maybe it's one of those universal things-"

"An archetype," Michael interrupted pugnaciously, his voice wobbling slightly. "But so what? That doesn't mean anything… ."

Jenny realized then just how bad his dreams must have been.

"Don't be silly, Michael," Audrey said, very gently. She reached out and Michael snuck a finger into her hand. "You think?" she said to Jenny.

"I don't know. It's nothing like I expected. It looks like Joyland, but-"

"But Julian can make anything look like anything," Audrey finished crisply.

Dee looked around, then chuckled. "All right! Listen, you idiots," she said, turning back to them. "This is good. If it is the Shadow World-or part of it-it's a place we've been. We'll have an advantage, because we know the terrain. And it's better than blue-and-green blizzards, or whatever Jenny saw out that window last time, right?"

Audrey nodded without enthusiasm. Michael didn't move.

"And if it's not the Shadow World, we're in real trouble. Because it means we've blown our chance to find Tom and Zach. Maybe our only chance."

"Cest juste," Audrey said. "I forgot."

Jenny hadn't forgotten. "We'd better check around. See if this is the real Joyland or-" She didn't need to finish the sentence.

She didn't know exactly how they were supposed to tell. The place certainly looked authentic. They crept through the silent park, heading automatically for the front gates, passing a restaurant, dark and still.

"What's that?" Audrey hissed. "I hear something."

It was the sound of water. Faint, coming from up ahead.

"It's the Fish Pond," Jenny said.

She recognized the booth with its red-shingle roof. It was dark, like the other attractions. But when they reached it, she saw that the opaque water was swirling around its circular channel.

"They wouldn't leave that on all night," Audrey said, needle-sharp. "Would they? Would they?"

Jenny's pulse, which had been beating erratically, settled into a slow, heavy thumping.

"You know what, Toto? I don't think we're in Kansas anymore," she whispered.

"Well, well," Dee said, stepping forward. "How about this?"

There was a fishing pole leaning against the booth. Dee hooked an index finger around it.

"Ah. Now. I have a very bad feeling about that," Michael said. It was the first time he'd spoken in minutes.

Jenny understood what he meant. It was too obvious, too inviting. But they didn't know they weren't in Joyland. It was possible that the park might leave the water going at night. Maybe it kept algae from growing or something.

"Shall I?" Dee said, twirling the pole. "Or shall I?"

"You're enjoying yourself, aren't you?" Michael said, and there was something flatly resentful about his voice. "But there's other people here, you know. Whatever trouble you make affects us, too…."

"Oh, come on, you guys. It's the only way to find out, isn't it?"

Jenny chewed her lip. Sometimes Dee's recklessness went out-of-bounds, and nobody but Jenny could stop her. If Jenny didn't say anything, Dee would do it.

Jenny hesitated.

Dee lowered the line into the dark, rushing water.

Jenny realized that she and Audrey and Michael were all braced. None of them was stupid. If this was the Shadow World, something bad would happen. Something bad.

The line dangled in the water, slack. Dee jiggled the pole while Jenny thought of all the things that might come up. Dead kittens. Severed hands. Mutant marine life.

Julian knew what you were thinking. He took things from your mind and made them real. So if they were in the Shadow World, then the worst thing-the worst thing that any of them was thinking-

"A bite," Dee said. "No, maybe it's just caught."

She leaned over to look, catching the thick yarnlike line in her bare hand and tugging.

"Dee-"

"Come on, come on." Dee tugged, then reached into the water to grope. "What's wrong with-"

"Dee, don't-"

Audrey screamed.

The water erupted.

Jenny had seen a geyser once, not Old Faithful, but a smaller one. This looked just the same. There was an explosion of mud-colored water, straight up. It splattered across Jenny's face and beaded on her windbreaker. Then it just stayed there, until Jenny suddenly realized that it wasn't water at all, it was something that had come out of the water. Something that had come out and grabbed hold of Dee.

A man-it had hands like a man that were around Dee's throat. But something kept Jenny's brain from recognizing it as a man. In another instant she saw what it was.

The thing had no head.

Its body ended at the shoulders with the stump of a neck. The thing had volition, though, even if it didn't have a brain. It was trying to drag Dee under the water.

All this passed through Jenny's mind in less than a second. Plenty long enough, though, for the thing to wrestle Dee almost to the water's surface.

I'm not brave. I don't know how to fight. But she was grabbing at the thing's arm with both hands. To her horror, her fingernails sank in, penetrating the arm beneath the tatter of a sleeve.

It smelled. It smelled incredibly. Something terrible had happened to the flesh, turning it into a kind of white, waxy stuff that quivered loosely on its bones.

Like-like that clammy clinging stuff novelty stores use for flesh. Jenny's little brother Joey had a fake snake made out of it. But this creature's flesh was nothing fake. When Jenny involuntarily snatched her hand back, she saw that her nails were full of it.

Everyone was shouting. Somebody was screaming, and after another second Jenny recognized her own voice. With both legs trapped up against the booth and Michael and Audrey hanging on to her, Dee didn't have room to kick. She was fumbling with the knife at her belt.

She got it free and her arm went up-and then Michael yanked her and the wicked-looking river knife fell into the swirling water.

"Her shirt! Her shirt! Her shirt!" Michael was yelling. The body now had Dee by the collar. Michael was trying to pull Dee out of the shirt, but the buttons in front were holding.

Jenny didn't want to touch the headless thing with her bare hands again. She didn't, she didn't-but then the thing wrestled Dee's head almost into the water, and Jenny found herself grabbing its rubbery arm again. It was bent over, dunking Dee's head like someone dunking wash in a river, and Jenny stared directly into its neck-stump. Nothing about its body was nice to look at. What flesh could be seen through the rags of clothes was grotesque-bloated and

swollen until it looked like a Kewpie doll that had been boiled and then inflated with a bicycle pump.

The screaming and shouting were still going on. None of their pulling was doing any good. Without conscious thought, Jenny found herself scrambling over the wall of the booth, over the channel. One leg dangled in the rushing water, then she was standing in the booth behind the headless thing.

"Pull, Michael! Pull!" Jenny grabbed the thing from behind, arms closing around its waist just above the water level. The waist squashed, like an overripe peach. She could feel things shifting inside the dripping clothes. Her cheek was pressed up against the back of its wet shirt. She locked one of her hands around the opposite wrist and pulled harder.

Oh, God-the smell. She opened her mouth to scream again at Michael and gagged instead She couldn't see anything that was going on in front. All she could do was hang on and keep pulling backward.

The thing seemed to be rooted in the water. She couldn't drag it out. It was a ghastly tug-of-war, with her pulling at the body and Michael and Audrey pulling at Dee. But suddenly she felt something give. The body lurched backward, the tension was gone. Dee was free.

Jenny let go and staggered into the wall of prizes behind her. The thing's arms flailed for a moment, coming in contact with nothing but air. Then, as if something had grabbed its feet and jerked it sharply downward, it disappeared into the dark water.

Everything was silent again.

Jenny was sitting in a litter of plastic whistles, cellophane leis, Matchbox cars, and stuffed koalas. She picked herself up, swaying, and looked over the water channel.

Dee was sprawled almost on Michael's lap. Audrey was half kneeling, half crouching beside them. Everyone was breathing hard.

Dee looked up first. "Jump over quick," she said in the voice of someone who's had strep throat for a week. "I don't think it can see, but it can feel when you touch the water."

Jenny jumped over quick, discovering in the process that she'd hurt her ankle sometime, and then all four of them just sat on the asphalt for a while. They were too tired and stunned to talk.

"Whatever it was, it wasn't human," Audrey said at last. "I mean-apart from the head-a human body couldn't look like that."

"Adipocere," Michael got out. "It's what human flesh turns to after a while under water. It's almost like soap. My dad had a mask like that once-he got rid of it because it freaked me out." Michael's father wrote science fiction and had a collection of masks and costumes.

"Then that whole thing was your fault," Dee said unkindly, voice still hoarse. "Your nightmare."

Michael, surprisingly, looked hopeful. "You think so? Then maybe I don't have to worry anymore. Maybe the worst's over-for me."

"If your dad had a mask, it wasn't headless, was it?" Jenny said.

"No. What?" Michael looked confused.

"I mean that monster wasn't exactly what you had nightmares about. I think Julian is putting his own little twist on things this time. Besides …" Something had been nagging at Jenny since the figure had come shooting up out of the water. A feeling of familiarity. But how could she be familiar with something as monstrous and repulsive as that? Audrey was right, it hadn't even looked human, except that it had two legs and two arms and wore clothes. …

Wore clothes … dank and stinking … tattered and dark with water … but familiar. A long flannel shirt, black-and-blue plaid, unbuttoned.

"Oh, my God. Oh, my God, oh, my God-" Jenny had gotten to her knees, her voice shrill. "Oh, my God, no, it was Slug! Don't you see? It was Slug, it was Slug…"

She was almost screaming. The others were staring at her with sick horror in their eyes. Slug Martell and P. C. Serrani were the two tough guys who had stolen the paper house from Jenny's living room-and disappeared into the Shadow World. None of Jenny's friends had much sympathy for them, but this … nobody deserved this.

"It wasn't Slug," Audrey whispered.

"It was. It was!"

"Okay." Dee, eyes wide, scrambled on her knees over to Jenny. She put her arms, slim but hard as a boy's, around Jenny. "Just stay cool."

"No, don't you see?" Jenny's voice was wild and keening. "Don't you see? That was Slug, without a head. In Michael's dream he saw Summer's head. What if we find Summer's body, like that? What if we find Summer?"

"Damn." Dee pulled back and looked at Jenny. "I know you think it's somehow your fault that Summer died-"

"But what if she's not dead? What if she's wandering around here-" Jenny could feel herself spiraling out of control. She was hyperventilating, hands frozen into claws at chest level.

Dee slapped her.

It was clearly meant to be restorative and it worked, mainly because Jenny was utterly shocked. Dee often threatened physical violence but never, ever used it except in self-defense. Never. Jenny gave a sort of hiccup and stopped having hysterics.

"It's bad," Dee said, her dark eyes with their slightly amber-tinted pupils close to Jenny's and unwavering. "It's really bad, and nobody's saying it isn't." She fingered her throat. "But we have to stay calm, because otherwise we're dead. Obviously we're in the Shadow World-I guess nobody is going to argue about that"-she glanced behind her at Audrey and Michael-"and this is some new Game Julian has dreamed up for us. We don't know what to expect, we don't even know the rules. But one thing we do know: If we let it get to us, we're dead before we start. Right?" She shook Jenny a little. "Right?"

Jenny looked into those eyes with their lashes thick as spring grass and black as soot. It was true. Jenny had to get a grip, for the sake of the rest of them. For Tom's sake. She couldn't afford to go crazy right now.

She hiccuped again and unsteadily said, "Right."

"We all have to stay calm," Dee said, with another glance at Michael and Audrey. "And we need some

weapons. I lost my knife, and if there are any more of those things around…"

Jenny realized suddenly that she'd never even thought of getting Tom's Swiss Army knife out of her fanny pack. She wasn't used to fighting. She quickly unzipped the pack and reached in to make sure the knife was safe.

"I've got this," she said, holding it out to Dee.

"Okay, but it's too small. We need something big to fight those suckers."

Audrey spoke up in a small, controlled voice. "There were picks and things in the mine ride today. I saw them this afternoon."

"She's right!" Michael said, excited. "They had all those scenes with miners-with axes and shovels and all sorts of stuff. Let's go."

Jenny got up slowly. "I need to get cleaned up first. There's got to be a bathroom around here somewhere." Her jeans were wet from the channel water, but even worse was the stinking ooze on her windbreaker and hands.

There was a bathroom beside the restaurant, and it was open. Jenny washed her jeans as best she could. The windbreaker she threw in the trash, along with her damp sweater. She washed her hands and face over and over and then stood under the blower trying to dry her shirt and jeans.

She and Dee guarded the rest room entrance while Michael and Audrey took their turn washing, and Jenny noticed a squashed cigarette butt on the ground. She stared at it for several minutes, the night breeze cool on her damp jeans. Every detail, she thought. Julian must have re-created everything in the real park, making it realistic down to the tiniest detail.

Which didn't mean there weren't nasty, unrealistic surprises around any given corner. They'd only been here half an hour, and already one of them had nearly died. On his own ground Julian's illusions were real-or real enough that no amount of disbelief would shake them. In the Shadow World he was the master. Jenny had the feeling that all her worst amusement park nightmares were about to come true.

And we haven't even seen Julian yet, she thought. He's got to be here, somewhere, laughing himself sick at us.

As they set off for the mine ride, Audrey said, "I hear music."

The music seemed to be coming from a distant corner of the park-somewhere in back, maybe near the arcade. For an instant Jenny saw lights glimmering through the trees. But the rides they passed were dark and still. The bumper cars were motionless humps like frozen cattle, and Jenny got a whiff of the graphite that kept the metal floor slippery.

What is it about amusement parks? she wondered as the bulk of a roller coaster blotted out the stars. What makes them give people nightmares?

It's because there's something mystical about them, she thought. About some of them, anyway-not the really new, totally sanitized, Hallmark-Pepsi-Colgate kind, but some of the older ones, or the ones that had older sections. In some of those there was something mystical, ancient-significant. Something more than met the eye.

The lights twinkled like will-o'-the-wisps up ahead, but Jenny and the others never seemed to get

any closer to them. The music was so faint that she couldn't make out the tune.

Then she heard a new sound, a slap-pad, slap-pad like quick bare footsteps. Dee whirled instantly to face it. Jenny clutched Tom's knife. An hour ago she would have been afraid to walk around with it open-it was sharp-and now she was afraid to close it.

Four flashlights swept the manicured shrubbery, illuminating nothing more sinister than a clock made of flowers. Then Michael shouted, "There!"

Something was scampering across a path on the other side of the shrubbery. The flashlights picked out a slate-colored figure. It was moving too fast for Jenny to get a good look at it, but her impression was of something very small and impossibly deformed. Something like a withered gray fetus.

It disappeared behind-or into-the Whip.

"Should we go after it?" Dee asked.

Dee was asking? She must be half dead, Jenny thought. She said, "No. It's not bothering us, and we're not armed yet." It gave her a vaguely military and important feeling to say armed. "Let's get to the mine ride first."

"But what was it?" Audrey said.

"It looked like a monkey," said Michael.

"It was little," Jenny said-and then she thought of something. Her dream. The little man in the elevator, the man with the mask.

Can we take you? We can carry you.

The Shadow Men might ask something like that-but that wizened thing couldn't have been a Shadow Man. The Shadow Men were beautiful, frighteningly and heartbreakingly beautiful.

"Whatever it was, we'd better watch our backs," Dee said. "There might be more of them."

The mine ride was as dark as everything else. Jenny shined her flashlight on the freestanding control box with its little lights and switches.

"We don't have to use that, do we?" Michael said.

"No, I don't think so," said Jenny. She glanced behind her at the miniature train that stood waiting by the loading platform, then turned her flashlight on the track. "I think the train runs on its own power-see how the track looks just like a regular train track?-but it doesn't matter. I think we should walk."

Audrey opened her mouth as if to protest, then shut it again. All four flashlights converged on the mouth of the "cave" where the track disappeared. In the ordinary park this cave was a dark and fanciful gold mine full of ghostly miners, flooded shafts, skeletons, bats, and dynamite. In the Shadow Park, it might hold anything.

"Let's do it," Jenny said.

Going into the cave was like being swallowed. As they walked slowly along the track, Jenny glanced back and saw a circle of lighter black behind them-the outside world, getting smaller and smaller.

At about this point in the ordinary ride there had been colored lights and mist around the train, probably meant to show you were going back in time to gold mining days. Tonight, there was just a musty damp smell.

There were no lights to illuminate the scenes in the cave, either, and it gave Jenny a jolt when her flashlight caught a figure in the shadows. It was a mustached miner with rolled-up sleeves, loading dynamite into a hole in the rock while two other miners watched.

"That one's holding a sledgehammer," Dee said.

"Yeah, but it's way too heavy. None of us could even pick it up," Jenny said. "We'd better see what's farther down. I do remember pickaxes and things."

"We can't get lost as long as we follow the track," Michael added. Jenny noticed he seemed almost cheerful now.

Dee shrugged and they went on. The next scene showed what happened after the dynamite went off-a cave-in that left the three miners trapped beneath a wall of boulders. In the ordinary ride there had been screams and moans of "Let me out!" and "Help me!" It was almost scarier without the sound effects, Jenny thought. The figures in the boulders were scary as waxworks, while the flashlights made shadows leap on the cave wall behind them. Jenny found herself staring at one clawed hand reaching above the tumbled rocks.

"Are they moving?"

"It's your hand shaking," Audrey said in an edged voice.

"It's all just papier-mache," Michael said and thumped the cave wall. It sounded like hitting a surfboard. "Ow. I lied. It's fiberglass."

There were more scenes: a flooded shaft with real water, a hanging, even a wilderness saloon with

skeletons as patrons. They climbed up to examine the saloon.

"These bottles might work," Dee said, taking one from a bony hand. Strange, Jenny realized-the bottle didn't look like modern glass. It was thick and milky with age and it said crown distilleries co. on the front.

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