by Tom Buck
"Come on in ... if you dare."
The Fun House
A Short Story By Tom Buck
Illustration by Heather Buckley
It happened a year ago today, on Johnny's birthday. I can't imagine how many times I've replayed the events in my mind since then. My life would be different now had I trusted my intuition. Through the year, my feelings of guilt and remorse have intensified. I hope telling this story will help, without making the warning come true.
* * *The three of us sat on our bikes in front of school after classes had let out for the week. We were discussing our weekend plans when I again brought up an idea I had been pushing for months.
"I dare you," I finally challenged Johnny.
"C'mon Kevin. What if we get caught?"
"We won't. The place is abandoned. They're going to tear the whole park down. Nobody cares."
I changed the subject when I saw one of my teachers approaching. The others caught on and we were discussing a movie we had seen when she neared.
"Have a nice weekend," she said as she passed.
"You too," I responded.
When the teacher was out of earshot, Becky said, "It's haunted, you know."
"What's haunted?" Johnny asked.
"The Fun House," Becky responded. "Kids in my class said so."
"Even better," I said, looking at Johnny. "We'll be famous. Let's do it tomorrow after your party."
"At night?" he asked.
"Of course at night. We'll start your sixteenth birthday with a bang."
"Becky and I swore we wouldn't do anything like that again," Johnny said.
"I'll go," Becky said.
"We don't need a girl tagging along," I said. "And, you're only fourteen."
"A girl who kicked your sixteen-year-old ass a few months ago," Becky fired back.
"That wasn't a fair fight." I knew Becky could handle herself.
Johnny interrupted before we could continue. "I'll go if Becky goes."
I looked up and closed my eyes, as if deep in thought. After enjoying the warm October sunshine on my face for a few seconds, I looked at Becky. "Okay," I said. "But if you run out screaming, you're on your own."
She narrowed her eyes, glared at me, and said, "I can take care of myself."
"We'll meet at the usual place, at midnight," I said, putting out my right hand. Johnny placed his on top of mine, and Becky followed suit, a ritual we started many years before.
I felt excited while we biked home. Once again, I had gotten my way with my lifelong friends, which was the norm, since I was the oldest. I also knew that they trusted me.
Early Saturday morning, I rode the mile to the amusement park on a scouting expedition. While biking through the parking lot, I saw the top of the giant clown head marking the entrance to The Fun House. I started having doubts while a strange feeling crept through my body. No quitting now, I thought when I pulled up to the chain link fence surrounding the park. Along with other advice, a large sign told me to Keep Out.
I spent an hour walking the perimeter. I couldn't find any openings in the fence and didn't see evidence of anyone having been there recently. Each time I got a peek at the clown head, I had an eerie sensation, but I saw no reason to abort the mission.
After finishing my chores that afternoon, I dug through my dad's toolbox and gathered items we'd need for our adventure. Then I searched the house and found three flashlights. I put everything into my army surplus backpack, hid it behind the garage, and spent the rest of the afternoon sketching a map of the inside of The Fun House from memory.
That night at the party, I couldn't shake the feeling I'd made a mistake, but I couldn't force myself to back down. "Of course we're still on," I whispered to Becky while Johnny opened his presents. "Are you wimping out?"
"No way," she said.
After most of the party guests had left, I confirmed with Johnny. "One hour, twenty minutes and counting."
Johnny nodded in agreement, but he looked scared.
During the forty minutes I had until I'd climb out my bedroom window, I studied the map. Time passed slowly, heightening my fears and doubts.
At midnight, I arrived at the convenience store a block from my house. While sitting on my bike in the dimly lit parking lot, I had flashbacks of our last adventure. One of our friends had told us about a broken gate at the back of a neighborhood cemetery. I checked it out, and then talked Johnny and Becky into a late night bike ride around the graveyard. I had managed to appear calm that night, but I now felt clammy while recalling how fear had gripped me after a flashlight beam appeared out of nowhere and someone called out to us. We were lucky not to get caught, especially since we had to help Johnny untangle his bike from a row of hedges he ran into during our scramble to get out. That excursion now seemed like child's play compared to this one. I wiped my sweaty palms on my pants while hoping they wouldn't show up.
After looking at my watch, I saw movement under a street lamp. A few seconds later Johnny pulled-up beside me. "You're three minutes late," I said.
"So what. Where's Becky?"
"She's not here yet. Happy birthday. We're the same age for another month."
I showed Johnny the map while we waited. "Five more minutes," I finally said after hearing thunder in the distance. "If she's not here, we go without her."
"I said I'd go if she goes."
I thought there might be a graceful way out, but then I saw Becky heading our way. "Sorry," she said after braking to a stop. "My mom was up late."
"Let's get moving," I said. "I heard the weatherman say a storm's coming through in the middle of the night. We need to hustle."
On the trip to the park, I had an overwhelming sense of dread. I looked over at Becky riding next to me and felt guilty for tricking her into inviting herself.
"We'll leave our bikes here," I said when we arrived at the main entrance. "I'll cut the fence behind those bushes to the right."
"That's a crime," Johnny whined.
"Shut up," I said. "Reach in my backpack and get the flashlights and wire cutter."
It took me five minutes to open a hole wide enough to squeeze through.
"You first," I said to Johnny. "Becky next, then me."
I focused my flashlight on Johnny while he knelt down and went head first through the opening, ripping his shirt and jeans in the process.
After Becky and I slid through, we stood next to Johnny while he examined the damage. "I knew this was a bad idea," he said. "I'm bleeding. My mom's gonna be mad."
"Maybe if you didn't eat so much, you'd have gotten in as easily as we did," I said. Becky giggled, as she usually did when I teased Johnny about his weight.
"I'd still think it's a bad idea," Johnny responded.
"You won't be saying that when you're bragging to the girls at school about this," I said.
Johnny kept quiet while we continued our journey. Even in the dark, I sensed he was pouting.
After fighting our way through overgrown shrubbery beneath the trestles supporting the roller coaster tracks, we walked down the center of the midway toward our destination. A thick cloud cover gave us enough reflected light to see The Fun House at the far end. Flashes of lightning in the distance added dashes of spice to the scene.
"That clown head always scares me," Becky said.
"Remember the first time we went there?" I said. "You peed yourself."
"Screw you, Kevin." She punched my arm.
Johnny's laughter broke the tension, but my stomach squeezed tighter with each step.
"Look," Becky said, pointing straight ahead. "The 'F' is missing."
In the faint light, I could see the letters on top of the building spelling The un House. I wanted to go home.
I tried to focus on how good we'd feel walking back after achieving our goal. At the same time, I hoped the tools in my backpack wouldn't get us inside the building that loomed before us. It looked more foreboding than ever with our flashlight beams crisscrossing its façade. I thought I saw one of the clown's eyes open wider.
Thunder rumbled when we passed the ticket booth. I started to say, "Let's go back," but the words didn't come out. I stopped and stared into the clown's face.
Johnny broke my trance. "You go first." He pointed his flashlight up the ramp leading to the clown's mouth, which served as the entrance.
"It's probably locked," I said while walking up the ramp and staring at a set of gigantic white teeth glowing in the dark. I stepped inside the mouth and waited to be swallowed.
"Go on," Becky said. "Let's get this over with."
I walked forward and then felt my body tremble when I saw past a set of double-doors and into the building.
"It's open," Johnny exclaimed over my shoulder.
"I can see that, idiot."
My heart pounded when I reached the point where the floor met a wooden slide waiting to take me into the depths of The Fun House. I froze while trying to think of a reason for us to turn around and leave as fast as we could.
"What are you waiting for?" Becky asked.
"Gimme some light," I said after sitting down. This time, no grotesquely dressed attendant stood behind my back, waiting to give me a shove. A few seconds later, my bottom hit hard on a concrete floor. The thick pad that normally rested at the bottom of the slide was gone.
While rubbing my wounded backside and helping Johnny and Becky to land more softly than I did, a foul odor demanded my attention. I wondered if we could crawl up the slide and get out.
"Smells like something died in here," Becky said.
A wave of nausea attacked me while I shone my light up the slide. Again I started to order a retreat, but instead I turned my flashlight toward the short hallway that led to The Mirror Maze. "Let's go," I said.
"Wait," Johnny blurted. "Look." His flashlight lit a partially opened door.
I walked over and pushed it with my foot. My flashlight beam illuminated an area filled with electronic devices and TV monitors. "It's a control room. This is where they made everything happen."
I stepped in, fascinated by the array of buttons and levers. I swept the cobwebs from a large microphone, picked it up, and mimicked the laughter that used to make us cringe.
"Hey look," Becky said. She was standing near a large handle labeled Main Power. She shoved it to the On position before I could stop her. Nothing happened.
"Did you think the place was going to light up?" I asked, glad that it didn't. "There's no electricity. We need to get moving."
"Do you feel that?" Johnny asked. "Something's vibrating."
"It's your imagination," I said, although I did feel it. I squeezed by Becky and pulled the handle to Off. The movement didn't stop.
"Did you hear that?" Becky asked.
While we stood still, I heard a scratching sound coming from behind a pile of boxes stacked in a corner. "Probably a rat," I said, although there was room for something larger. "We need to get moving."
With three flashlight beams dancing off the distorted mirrors, The Mirror Maze proved challenging. "Stay close together," I kept repeating, knowing that something didn't feel right.
Johnny and I finally stepped from the maze into Dracula's Castle. "Where's Becky?" I asked. "She was behind you."
"I ... don't know."
"Great," I said. I started back into the maze, but a voice came from ahead of us.
"C'mon guys." It was Becky.
I caught a glimpse of her blond hair when I turned my flashlight in her direction. "Hey," I called out. "We're supposed to stick together. Stay there."
While walking through the castle, I nearly dropped dead from fright when we passed a coffin. It popped open, lit up, and an awful replica of Count Dracula sat up and grinned at us.
"Holy Jesus," Johnny yelled. "You said there was no power."
"Maybe we tripped something," I said, now convinced I had made a monumental mistake.
My worries over Dracula ended when I heard a scream. "That's Becky."
"Let's get out of here," Johnny whispered.
"Soon as we find Becky."
Halfway through the castle, I turned off my flashlight and told Johnny to do the same. As I expected, a dimly lit scene from a nightmare replaced what should have been blackness.
"The lights are on," Johnny said.
"No kidding, Einstein."
I called Becky's name when we reached The Barrel O' Fun. While waiting for a response, a panel in the wall opened behind us, and a mummy popped up. Johnny cursed and hit the ground.
Becky's answer to my call was a terrifying scream that came from the other side of the rotating barrel. I threw off my backpack and stepped inside, losing my balance immediately.
While I tumbled through the cylinder, Becky's cries for help became more frantic. After a few hard knocks, I rolled out, stood up, and looked around. I didn't see Becky, and I heard only the whirr of a motor.
I turned around and yelled, "You can make it." Johnny didn't respond. Are they playing a trick on me?
I kept calling to Johnny as the speed of the barrel roll continued to accelerate, to the point where I couldn't go back.
While I tried to figure out what to do, another scream from Becky rang out. Now it was coming from the sound system. A haunting laugh followed. Could Becky have gone back to the control room?
"Hey guys, cut it out," I shouted. "This isn't funny." My voice sounded as if it came from a scared little girl.
My legs felt like putty while I stumbled through The Slanted House with both Becky and Johnny calling my name and crying for help. When I reached the top of a set of crooked stairs that moved beneath my feet, Becky's pleas reached a new level.
"Something's got my hair!" she shrieked. "Help me!"
My stomach felt as if it had been churned like a milk shake when I walked into The Spider Room. I had flashbacks of making fun of Becky's fear in this room while passing under the huge tarantula. The only sound came from its over-sized legs clicking on the wooden floor all around me. For the second time in less than an hour, I expected to be eaten.
I heard Johnny sobbing while I maneuvered through The Alien Habitat. In a daze, I bumped into a paper-mache version of E.T., knocking him over. Feeling frustrated, I stomped him to pieces.
I sat down on the floor to get my bearings and come up with a plan. I pulled the map from my pocket, opened it, and traced the remainder of the route with my finger. If memory served me correctly, I had two more rooms and a long hallway to conquer. Not being able to come up with a better option than trying to escape, I got up and continued on while listening to Johnny cry and mumble for help. I thought my state of fear might be playing tricks on me. Maybe it's an elaborate stunt. If so, Becky has to be behind it.
When I entered Satan's Graveyard, I was already scared way beyond what anything in that room could dish out. I had even become accustomed to the awful smell that followed along with me. My panic level grew while wondering if I would be able to leave in the normal fashion by taking the slide leading outside to ground level. I wanted to get out and clear my head.
The sound system went silent while I walked softly through The Werewolf's Den, but I had an odd sense of being watched. I whirled around, expecting to find someone lurking behind me. I felt relieved when I saw an empty pathway, but I slowly looked around the cave-like room to be certain I was alone. My eye caught a tiny red light above the entrance to the room. While I walked toward it, I saw that it came from a camera that moved slightly as I approached. Someone is watching. I turned around and took a long stride forward, fighting off an urge to run.
A chill ran through my body after I rounded a turn and saw the werewolf standing near the exit to the room. Its outstretched arms, white fangs, and yellow eyes were accentuated by a spotlight made to look like a full moon. I stepped up my pace, held my breath, and made it past him while expecting to feel claws ripping through my back.
When I crept toward the end of The Hall of Horrors, the sobbing stopped and the lights went out. My hands trembled as I reached for the flashlight I had stuck in my belt. Sheer terror ran through my body when I couldn't find it.
While I groped my way along a wall in total darkness and silence, I felt the air turn cold, and I sensed something following close behind me. It felt like death breathing down my neck.
Reaching the point where the wall ended, I knew I had entered the small room where someone dressed like a zombie once encouraged us to, "Leave now ... or else."
While feeling my way around, my worst fear came true. I felt a cold, metal door blocking the exit. I pushed and pulled, but it wouldn't budge.
I slumped down with my back against the door, feeling trapped and awaiting my fate. I stopped breathing when icy fingers surrounded my neck. Lashing out with my hands, I became overwhelmed with panic. A scream forced its way past my lips when the sound system and lighting came to life again. I let out a gasp of relief when I saw that I was alone in the room, but Johnny and Becky now yelled at the top of their lungs, causing me to jump up. Is something horrible really happening to them?
I stood frozen by indecision when Johnny cried, "It's coming. It's coming." Then silence, as if someone flipped a switch. After what felt like an eternity, I nervously called out for them, not expecting a response. Taking a deep breath, I started retracing my steps. I didn't get far.
"I dare you!" The booming voice made me stop cold. When I started backing up, maniacal laughter filled the room.
Again nearing the exit, I froze in my tracks when a new voice delivered a warning. Then I heard something moving behind me. Turning around, I saw the metal door sliding open. It's letting me out!
Diving onto the slide, I hit the ground in seconds. I ran to the front of the building and waited, hoping my friends would appear, and we would run to our bikes laughing. I prepared to act as if I knew it was a joke.
I gasped when the building came alive. It lit up, music filled the air, and familiar laughter poured forth as if from the clown's mouth. Then I heard, "Come on in, if you dare ... Kevin." I turned and ran, fearing for my life. A few moments later, the words of warning echoed down the midway.
I looked back once as I bolted, only seeing the glowing red letters flashing The un House and mocking me. The sound faded away while I ran through the bushes toward the fence.
Cracks of thunder chased me home. My feet pumped as if my life depended on my speed. I expected to be struck by lightning while laughter rang from the sky.
I lay in bed while the full force of the storm shook the house. I didn't sleep, trying to think through all possibilities, and praying that Johnny and Becky somehow made it home safely.
When the storm subsided, I got up and crept toward my parents' bedroom, planning on waking them and telling them everything. On the way, I imagined what might have happened to my friends. I took a detour, went into the bathroom, and emptied my stomach. Then I went back to my room shaking from fright.
As usual on Sunday morning, my dad knocked on my door at 7:15. "Thirty minutes," he said. I felt delirious, wishing I had been dreaming.
Before we left, I caught my dad alone and asked, "Can we talk for a minute?"
"When we get back," he answered. "We're running late."
We went to church and then to breakfast. I didn't eat, saying I felt sick to my stomach.
Returning home, I saw four police cars down the block, in front of Becky's house. Oh, no! This isn't a joke.
"I'll see what's going on," my dad said after parking in our driveway. I went inside carrying a knot in my chest and a ball of fire in my stomach. I couldn't have been more frightened if I had found the Devil himself waiting for me in the living room.
After my dad had given us an update, he asked if I still wanted to discuss something.
"No," I answered. "I just wanted to say I didn't feel well."
That afternoon, a policeman came to our house. "I'd like to ask your son a few questions," I heard him say while I listened with an ear against my bedroom door.
I wondered if a person could pack a bag before being taken to jail while I sat in the living room with my parents and the policeman. He asked me questions. I nodded and gave short answers, most of them lies. I wanted to tell everything I knew, but each time I started to open my mouth, fear kept it shut. I couldn't get those final words out of my head. If something happened to Johnny and Becky, I was in big trouble, one way or another. I do remember the policeman saying, "We'll find your friends," after he closed his notebook.
An intense hunt went on for days. My dad helped to search the amusement park after the bikes were found.
"They're not there," he reported, after he arrived home.
"Did they look everywhere?" I asked.
"Every inch of the place," he answered.
I had more questions, but I let them remain unanswered.
A somber calm settled over our house during the months following the event, only disrupted by my dad throwing one of his tantrums when he couldn't find a flashlight.
On the six-month anniversary of their disappearance, the families held a memorial service for Johnny and Becky. I sat and prayed they would walk through the door. I could hardly stand the crying and hugging. No one consoled me for "my loss."
One day last month, I overheard my dad talking to my mom after he arrived home from work. "They're finally tearing down the amusement park," he said.
"Good," my mom responded. "There was something wrong with that place."
"I know," he said. "I get the creeps whenever I pass it."
The next morning, I biked to the park while trying to shake the memories of my last visit. Entering the parking lot, I saw a wrecking ball dangling from a huge crane. I stopped under a tree on the outer edge of the lot and watched it take out large sections of the roller coaster with each swing. When I finally broke the hypnotic trance, I looked for the top of the clown's head across the treetops. I didn't see it, and figured it had already met its fate.
I watched large dump trucks filled with debris rumble out of the entrance and roll past me. When the thought struck me that parts of Johnny and Becky could be in any one of them, I threw up in the dead grass and then slowly pedaled home.
* * *The experience haunts me every day. I have recurring nightmares where I'm back in The un House. Johnny and Becky appear often, along with a cast of unsavory characters. Sometimes I even hear their screams while I'm awake.
I can't help wondering if I could have saved them. Although we only teased about it, I did believe I would someday marry Becky, and Johnny would be my best man.
I ask myself questions to which I have no answers, such as, Is something worse going to happen to me?
Not a day goes by when I don't imagine the soft, singsong voice repeating the prophetic words I heard before escaping from that evil place. The words that kept me quiet until now.
"If you tell, you'll go to Hell."
"If you tell, you'll go to Hell."
Thanks for reading The Fun House. I welcome any and all comments - firstname.lastname@example.org