Three of us went into the woods that day. There was still so much woods back then, blanketing the hills and ravines that have since been delved into, flattened, filled in. Now you have to go somewhere to be able to wander into the woods and lose yourself all day, but not back then.
We did it a lot, and had our favorite spots; where the stream that split off from some river went trickling down over a bunch of boulders, where a lot of trees had fallen in a near-circle making a sort of clearing that protected from the Fall wind… we loved finding these strange little spots and making them our own.
This one day we went exploring in a direction we had wandered before, but we had never seen what we found then; there was a turnstile, sitting there in the middle of the underbrush. It was red with silver trimming, and there was a bar curving up out of the ground and back down again, making it look like… well, like a turnstile looks when you’re going into a place, this little path with bars across that you have to push against. Danny banged on it with a stick, but nothing came scurrying out, so it wasn’t playing host to any critters. It was Mike that found the coin half-buried in the dirt, and we all crowded in to look at it as he brushed it off. It shined up nice, like gold, and it felt heavy when he passed it around. There weren’t any words, but there was an etching of a roller coaster car on one side of it, and a top hat on the other.
Off in the trees there were large curving shapes that looked sort of like roller coaster tracks, but they looked ancient, rusting and broken and leaning against the trees like they’d been ridden so many times and now they were just tired and wanted to fall down. They made me feel uneasy, in that same sort of way that old people always made me uneasy when I was that age; I felt like I was looking at something that should have been strong and vital and instead here it was needing help just to keep its feet.
Since Mike found the coin, he went to the turnstile and jostled the metal arms once more, but they didn’t turn. Not until he stuck the coin in and pushed his stomach against the bar – it turned then, and smoothly, silently as if the hidden gears inside had been freshly oiled out here in the middle of nowhere. The bar in front of him moved, angling toward a slot in the side of the dirty red turnstile, while another emerged and slid up into place behind Mike with a soft click.
When he got to the other side, he just stopped dead, looking around at the trees and the rotting roller coaster track.
“Oh wow!” he burst out, startling us, “really? Thanks, mister!” I looked at Danny, and he looked at me, and we shrugged.
Mike took a few steps then stopped, turning to look in our direction as he called out, “Come on, guys, we get to-” He frowned, staring at us over the turnstile, except that he wasn’t really staring at us. His gaze was distant, like he was looking beyond us, but when I looked there was nothing behind us. “Guys?” He sounded uncertain, taken a step toward the turnstile.
Then his head whipped around, and with a whoop he broke into a run, dashing through the trees. I don’t mean running between them; Mike actually ran right through the trunks of the trees as if they weren’t really there.
Danny cursed, and I could feel myself going pale before we broke into a run after him. Feeling daring I tried to run through one of the trees like Mike did. Man, bark hurts like hell when you do something like that. I had a lumpy bruise on my forehead for almost a week.
We followed Mike, but we hit a point where there was a big patch of blackberry bushes, chest-high, and we couldn’t get past them. We could see, though, as Mike settled down into a round-nosed coaster cart that looked just like the one on the coin, except that it had big patches of rust, and looked like it should have collapsed under him. I wouldn’t have sat in it for fifty bucks, but Mike hopped right in like it was shining new. With a creak and a groan and a tick-tick-tick-tick-tick the cart started to move, and I could see Mike’s face for a moment as the cart started up the first unsteady rise of the track. He didn’t look terrified. He looked excited, like he had when his folks and mine took us all to the lakeside park in the next county and we got to ride the coaster there. He was looking all around him, as if he was seeing open space around a solid track, not like he was lurching upward past oaks and aspen on a track that was barely on its last legs.
Danny punched me in the arm and pointed further down the track and started yelling, and then I did too. “Mike!” we shrieked, “MIKE!” and shoved at the blackberry bushes. Danny grabbed a stick to try to beat them down as we pushed toward the track, screaming for our friend – wanting to get him off the cart, but he never even turned to look down at us. The cart crested that first hill, pushing up past branches into the sun, and there was a sickening dirty red gleam to it that made my stomach turn with a visceral recognition. Then it took off down the track, and it sounded like it was shrieking back at us as all of us were screaming, Danny and I almost incoherently and Mike with sheer delight as the cart thundered down, screed through the dip and rocketed back up.
Then it was still going, even though the track was gone, a big section of it fallen down into the underbrush. Maybe it was then that I’d started crying, watching the cart arc up and hang in the sun again just for a moment. Then it fell like it was being inhaled to the earth, and Danny and I weren’t screaming words any more, we were just screaming. Way too long it took us to get through all the bushes, running for the cart. There was nothing to find. I mean, it was there, in the same condition it had been when Mike got in, except for a new splash of red across the nose of it. I thought it was blood, it had to be blood, but I crept a little closer while Danny turned away to be sick against the bottom of an oak. It was just paint. Fresh, bright, red paint where before it had been a big dirtied patch of rust. And the cart was empty.
There was a flickering of shadow, and I looked up at the broken end of the track Mike had gone off of. It wasn’t the same though. It went higher now, becoming the crest of a hill where before it was broken off at an uphill, and looking around, the whole track looked a lot more… alert. More upright.
“Jordan,” Danny’s voice wobbled dangerously, and when I went to him he was pointing toward the dirt; something was glinting at the base of the tree next to the remains of his breakfast. Brushing at the dirt with my fingers, I got far enough to see the round edges of the gold coins and part of the etching of the coaster cart, and I uttered a curse that my dad would have whalloped me for even knowing, let alone saying. Jordan and I looked at each other, and the cart, and I grabbed the two coins, both of us dashing back toward the turnstile.
It hadn’t changed at all, and the bars still didn’t do anything more than clunk heavily inside the casing when I pushed at it. But Mike had gone through. Mike had used one of the coins.
Danny and I crouched together in front of the turnstile, and I reached up to drop in a coin. Together we reached out and pushed at the turnstile bar, slowly, and it slid forward. It wasn’t as noiseless as it had been when Mike went through. There was a thin squeal. It did not distract us from peering through, watching the woods beyond waver and disappear. It became a flat expanse of pavement, painfully bright and sunny, and arching over it was a roller coaster. It had the same hills and valleys as the one we saw, but it was pristine, nails and struts shining in the sun. There was a fence separating it from the pavement, painted gaily green with a dark design like a fruited vine climbing along it.
Abruptly the rail slid from our grasp and disappeared, the new one clicking into place, and the vision of the beautiful ride was gone, the forest firmly in place again with the roller coaster yawing dissolutely through it.
Danny and I stood up and turn to jog for home, glancing nervously backward occasionally. When Mike’s parents reported him missing we were grilled from everybody – our parents, his parents, even a police detective – but all we could really tell them was that we last saw Mike in the woods, that he went off without us, that we don’t know where he was going or if he was going to see anybody.
That last bit was a lie though, for me at least. Danny was blocked by where he had been crouching, but while we’d been pushing the turnstile and looking through at that weird, bright roller coaster, I had been able to see a man walking across the pavement. He was wearing a top hat and a dark suit, and just before the bar had clicked into place, he had turned and looked straight at me.
I’ve still got the other coin.
This piece of Nightmare Fuel was inspired by this picture, artist unknown.
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