photo of guy in werewolf mask sneaking up behind a woman

Forty Years Later: You Probably Heard about It on the News by Ron Riekki

I needed the work. I was forty-nine. Months away from digging holes. That’s in my past. My back broke. Or not broke, but too quick to fail.

I, myself, was broke, though, and a job at a haunted hayride sounded perfect. I couldn’t believe it paid. I asked the guy if I was too old and he said, “The older, the better. You ever notice how when people get older they look more like monsters?”

I think he was trying to charm me. I felt like a boy. I felt like a flower. I looked over fifty. I looked like a dead king. Decapitated. Days rotting in the sun.

I got the job.

It was Monday through Saturday. He said we didn’t work Sundays because he got picketed in the past when he did that. He said the publicity helped, but he was too worried they’d burn it down. They did that to an abortion clinic in town. A foggy night, I remembered seeing the flames in the distance. Planned Parenthood had not planned for that.

The famine of our city. Its narrow pathway anger.

An old mining town.

An old agriculture town.

Both dead.

The men here have whiskers in their teens. Thieves’ faces.

The first night was like falling down. A vacuum. Barely any customers. Early October. We were hungry. No emotion to the ghosts. The vampires high on some unknown drug. Cat tranquilizers, I heard. Stolen from a vet clinic. I was supposed to be a chainsaw man. They handed me an ax. I chased a woman. A perpetual rape scene. The repetition of it. Over and over. Her screaming into the sleepless night. Her white dress all scarred. The money of this. The knife mark. The non-nightmare fake blood. Dreams deferred. Her, Jamaican-American. An actress. In a town with no theaters. Not even movies. Just Waffle Houses and churches. Gas and a Walmart that was struck by lightning.

During the breaks, I found the false howling wind so peaceful. Something calming in the Doppler effect of screams.

It happened on the fifth night. The drowning sound of explosions. In the corn. The other side. Between the zombie hospital and the haunted prison.

I forget the statistics, that a gunshot accident happens every five minutes in America. I’m probably wrong. I know it’s an incredible stat though. The intervals. The unfolding of blood.

I heard more pops. Convinced it was part of some new show.

I held my ground, listened.

It is harder than you think to tell a fake scream from a real scream.

I felt amputated from the world, listening.

The actress clung to her rapist, asking what that was.

We listened. Like cats.

Another gunshot, and then silence.

The cornfield was unending.

I looked up at the stars. The ocean chasing itself into its black.

She yanked my arm, and we walked. To the silence.

Dinari ran up to us, his scarecrow mask flicked up to the top of his head, said, “Shot. Eric killed like eight people.”

I talked over him while he said something along the lines of we were all supposed to go to the main tent but that he wasn’t going to do it. He was going to circle around back to the parking lot and get in his car and go home. He said there could be another shooter, and the actress left with him.

I walked into the silence.

This was the Bible Belt.

I’m not from the South.

I felt like an indestructible carpetbagger.

I walked by the insane clowns. All hidden behind circus props. Barrels. A cannon.

“Don’t go that way,” a voice said, “Wait with us here.”

If this was the Bible Belt, we were about precisely in the Bible bellybutton. Definitely above the Bible groin. Not so far north as to be part of the Bible bra.

I saw a body on the ground. I walked up to it. I kicked at it. I stepped on it. My foot went through the weak clothing, straw, plastic. Whatever it was made of.

I looked down the curving path before me. Its comma. The narrow turn.

I could feel something in my bones.

I kept going. Sure I was about to see something like Hell.

Ron Riekki‘s books include U.P.: a novel and The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (selected by the Library of Michigan as a 2014 Michigan Notable Book). He’s been nominated for the Pushcart twice and for Best of the Net once. He’s at work on a novel. (He also once sat next to Muhammad Ali in an airport.)

Lead image“Totem Pole Campground Haunted Hayride” (via Flickr user Brandon Tucker)