Crossroads and Carousels
by Alan Baxter
Mark Cooper lay under a light sheet, wishing a breeze would blow in through the open window. Not a breath stirred the curtains and the hot night lay heavy like a shroud. He sighed, rolled over, kicked off the sheet. Even that seemed to smother him. As he settled, the silence of the night covering him again, he heard blues guitar, faint as a whisper of hope in a dark cell. He held his breath, turning one ear to catch the strains. The sound of his cheek on the pillowcase drowned out the notes. As he began to think he’d imagined it, the music drifted over him again, gossamer faint but beautiful. The way he wished he could play.
He slipped from the bed, stood by the window, straining his ears to hear. The melody was distant, heart wrenching in its perfection. He pulled on shorts and went out into the night. Standing on the front porch he heard it more clearly, though still it seemed a universe away. He walked to the gate, out onto the quiet country road. The night was still and close, the air heavy with summer, yet the song slipped through like a cool rain. The pauses between the notes, sublimely perfect, gave him goosebumps.
Without thinking Mark started up the road, following the sound. Who would be playing guitar at this time of night, here in the middle of nowhere? His feet stirred up dust on the still-warm bitumen. No rain had washed these quiet, broken streets for weeks. He passed his neighbours houses, hundreds of metres apart, flaking paint and rusting tin roofs. A wet-eyed cow in the paddock opposite watched him with wary disinterest.
The music grew louder as he walked, the most soulful blues licks he’d ever heard. He imagined standing on stage with his band, turning out chops like that, and shivered despite the oppressive heat. He turned right, heading towards the coast road. He saw a figure sitting on the paddock fence up ahead, bathed in moonlight. The guitar in the figure’s hands reflected a deep red in the colourless whitewash of the moon.
Mark paused, the notes floating to him more clearly, the guitar singing like an angel. Where’s he plugged in?
Mark found himself walking forward again. The figure on the fence looked up, smiled. His teeth were bright in the night. He stopped playing and Mark felt as though his heart had been punched. ‘Hey man.’
Mark smiled back. ‘Hey.’
Mark nodded, not sure what else to say. Nick seemed young, maybe mid-twenties, scruffy in a dashing way. He had tousled, jet black hair, bright eyes. Mark eyed the blood red guitar, smooth maple neck, scuffs from years of fingertips caressing out notes.
‘You play?’ asked Nick.
‘Yeah. But nothing like you.’
Nick half-smiled. ‘Ah, I do okay.’
‘Where did you learn to play like that?’ Mark asked, still admiring the beautiful guitar.
Nick ignored the question, hefted his instrument instead. ‘You like it? She’s a beauty, eh?’
‘Where’s your amp?’ Mark leaned over the fence, looking for a cord. He saw none.
‘You could play like this if you wanted,’ Nick said, that bright smile again.
Mark’s eyes narrowed. He looked from the guitar to Nick, and beyond to the street. Another road crossed it, heading back towards Maker’s Farm and north towards town. Nick perched on the fence at the corner of the paddock. Mark laughed, shaking his head. ‘I’m dreaming.’
Mark laughed again, louder this time. ‘I’m dreaming, right? A fantastic guitar player? At a crossroads?’
Nick grinned. ‘Pinch yourself.’
‘Yeah, sure. Wake myself up.’ He took an inch of forearm skin and pinched. It hurt, but nothing changed. His smile changed to a frown and he pinched again, twisting. ‘Ow, dammit.’
‘Not dreaming,’ Nick said, still smiling.
They stared at each other for a long time. Nick sat on the fence, relaxed. Mark grew increasingly uncomfortable. Eventually he said, ‘No way, man. This can’t be real.’
‘How badly do you want to play like me?’ Nick asked.
‘Not that badly, dude.’
Nick picked up the guitar from across his knees and his fingers began to glide across the strings and frets. The music pushed tears from Mark’s eyes in an instant, every note and every pause touched his soul. He turned and ran, his feet whacking dryly against the bitumen.
When he slammed his front door, pouring sweat and gasping for breath, the song still carried through the night.
Mark stumbled through his day at the factory, grumbling along with everyone else about the heat and the lack of rain. They all knew moaning about it wouldn’t do any good, but still they cursed gods they didn’t believe in and beseeched others.
When the whistle blew he trudged out into the sunshine with his fellow wage slaves. A few raised their hands and waved in the car park, wishing each other good weekends. Mark returned the sentiments and drove for the coast and Saltspray City. The only escape from the oppressive summer was the occasional sea breeze and the air whistling around the Waltzers and rollercoasters. This was his playground, his sanctuary. He strolled the boardwalk, breathing deep of the dust and diesel. Maniacal music of carousels and flashing coloured bulbs assaulted his senses. Candy and popcorn, laughs and screams, thousands of sweat-sheened faces smiling through the hundred-year-old mechanical fun factory along the beach road. Music and funfairs, Mark’s heart and soul.
He went into an arcade, drawn by the promise of giant fans working overtime and dollars to be made from the one-armed bandits. If you knew how to tease them you could switch roles and be the bandit yourself. Music blared and coins crashed and Mark let the place swallow him up.
He smiled as golden dollars cascaded into the metal tray with a rattle of riches. As he scooped them out a hand slapped on his shoulder.
‘Marky Mark! What you doing tonight, man?’
Mark turned to see Greg and Craig standing behind him, flexing in their white singlets and board shorts, grinning under sun-bleached hair. ‘I dunno, guys, whatever. You?’
‘Just hanging at the carnivale, my friend, as usual. Fuck all else to do, huh?’ Greg’s teeth were bright in his tanned face as coloured neon danced across his skin.
Craig leaned forward to be heard over the din. ‘We’re gonna ride the Ghost Train. Goose the pretty girls and make ‘em scream. Coming?’
Mark laughed, tipped his haul of coins into a pocket and followed them out into the dusty strip of shooting galleries and hooplas. They swaggered with the confidence of locals, standing proud among the tourists and day-trippers. We’re here all the time, their walk said. But you folks have fun now, you hear.
After one ride through the cardboard and papier-mache of the Ghost Train, Greg slipped away tailing a pretty blonde in tight denim shorts. Craig and Mark wasted a few dollars shooting dented metal targets with air rifles, threw wooden balls at coconuts they didn’t want to win, chased after teenage city girls on holiday.
Mark looked at his watch. ‘I gotta go, man.’
Craig frowned. ‘It’s early. You sick or something?’
‘No, man, I got a gig. Palisade, every Friday and Saturday for the last two years. How long have you known me?’
Craig’s frown melted into a grin. ‘Cool! I’ll come and watch. Well, I’ll come and get drunk, but I like to listen to you guys knocking out twelve bars while I drink.’
As they passed the switchback Mark watched the swirl of screaming faces in a blur of bright lights and blasting technopop. For a moment one pair of eyes caught his, frozen in time for a second, her scream spreading into a smile. She was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen, deep green eyes and long, chestnut hair.
Craig dragged at his shoulder. ‘Come on, dude, you got me thirsting for a beer now.’
Mark followed, the beauty lost in a rush of spinning lights and colour.
His band arrived at the Palisade in dribs and drabs as usual, taking the stage a bit after ten to a roomful of drunk locals and guarded holidaymakers. They pounded out their blues beats and worked up a sweat, the usual handful of hardcore fans grinding in front of the stage. Twice a week for two years they’d brought the Delta to the Palisade and Mark lived for it. But he wanted more. He wanted to play for crowds of thousands. He wanted to make music like Nick, sitting on the farm fence playing for no one. Well, no one but Mark, it seemed. He must have dreamed it, surely.
The thought of the strange young man and his perfect blues kept rising in Mark’s mind, causing his bandmates to flick him concerned glances as he tripped over runs. Flustered, he dropped more notes, and their looks became annoyed. He shook the memory of the strange guitar player from his mind and rallied, but the gig was average at best.
As the night wore on and the cheap beer soaked in, he saw her again, the beauty from the fair. She watched him playing and his fingers flew as their eyes locked. He dredged up something special from the root of his being and closed out the set with a blistering cascade of sound.
His bandmates forgave him his earlier transgressions, slapping him on the back as they packed up their gear. But when he stepped off stage, the girl was nowhere to be found.
Lying in bed that night, wishing again for a breeze through the window, Mark heard the strains of Nick’s guitar flying softly through the dark. He whimpered, covered his head with his pillow, and ground his teeth until a fitful sleep took him.
The weekend arrived hot and bright like the week that birthed it, but a soft breeze carried some relief from the south. Mark rose late, made coffee, lazed on the veranda in nothing but shorts. He read comic books and practiced his guitar licks, determined the entire next gig would be like the end of the night before and nothing like the start. By the time the afternoon sun cleared its zenith and began to soak the veranda in molten, golden heat, he dragged himself inside, dressed, and carried his battered guitar case out to the car.
He drove to the amusement park, Welcome To Saltspray City, habit and ritual to avoid the inland afternoon swelter. Striped booths and painted clowns surrounded him as he lost himself among the sideshows, wondering about Nick and his promise. Was it possible? An offer at a crossroads in the middle of the night. Had it really happened? What would he be giving up if he agreed? What would he get?
He flicked a dollar to Sam in the glass booth at the foot of the big wheel. The wheel that had kept on turning for decades, carrying laughing people up for a view of the ocean, beach and town, spread out below them like a satellite map. He climbed into a split vinyl seat and let the wheel carry him up into the cool air a hundred feet above the carnival, the raucous sounds sliding quiet as he rose, swelling back with the descent.
At the top of the second rotation he leaned his elbows on the safety bar, letting the cool high air wash over the back of his neck, and looked down into the miniature tracks and weather worn buildings. Cracks covered the roof of the dodgem arcade, power cables snaked through the air between fibro huts, balloons and pennons fluttered and danced in the soft, warmer breeze below.
And he saw her looking up at him. Her dark brown hair lay over her shoulders like a cape as she shaded her emerald eyes and smiled. So tiny, so far away, yet the only thing not lost in the blur. As the big wheel swept around, carrying him down, Mark stood against the bar. ‘Sammy! Hey, Sammy, you gotta let me off.’
Sam leaned forward in his worn, strained seat, the dark stains under the arms of his t-shirt. He grinned and stabbed a button with one meaty finger and the wheel paused. Mark flicked him a wink of thanks and lifted the bar, hopping free of the chair. The wheel began to slide by him as he walked casually down the aluminium steps. She waited for him, still smiling.
‘I thought that was you,’ she said. ‘I saw you yesterday.’
Mark nodded. ‘Yeah, you were on the switchback. Then you came to the Palisade and watched us play, right?’
‘What’s your name?’
She looked up at him under a dark, feathered fringe. ‘Let’s not worry about names. I prefer strangers.’
Mark raised an eyebrow. ‘Really? Okay. You wanna grab a drink? Something to eat?’
They spent the afternoon eating cotton candy and hot dogs, riding on the carousel and the switchback and the rollercoaster. They laughed and joked, played tricks on unsuspecting tourists. Mark asked if she was on holiday or if she lived nearby, but she refused to say, playing games with him as much as everyone else. He didn’t mind, her company thrilled him. He showed her the tiled coolness of Tony’s, smelling of antiseptic and buzzing with needleguns, where he’d got his tattoos. ‘It’s a kind of ritual self-torture. You got any?’
She dipped her eyes, didn’t answer.
The afternoon dimmed, cooled into evening and the evening wore on and Mark started checking his watch. She smiled at him after the third time. ‘Am I boring you?’
‘No! No, quite the opposite. I want to hang out with you, but I’ve got to go soon.’
‘Ah, playing at the Palisade again, right?’
‘Yeah, you gonna come down? We could have a drink or two afterwards.’
She smiled. ‘Maybe. Hey look!’
She spun away, catching his hand as she went and dragged him up creaking wooden steps to a booth. He smiled to himself as he read the words painted in pinks and reds, Tunnel Of Love.
She pushed coins into the scratched plastic tray. ‘Give me two, mister.’
Old Bill Denton, all grey stubble and yellow teeth, gave Mark a strange look as he took her coins, slipped two short tickets back to her. Mark grinned, still holding her hand, and let her lead him into a poor imitation of an Italian gondola. They rattled and wobbled through heavy velvet curtains into the darkness of the ride, soft reds and blues lighting romantic vistas poorly cut from cardboard and plywood. Soft music played, half drowned by the distant throb of the cacophony outside. She turned to him and slipped one leg over his knee and her arms around his neck and kissed him. Mark returned the kiss, enjoying the anonymous excitement of it.
When the shoddy gondola emerged into the noisy evening of the amusement park mere seconds and a lifetime later, Mark felt as though something had changed inside him. They stepped out of the ride, holding hands back to the strip and the lights and the noise. Mark led her between sideshows, away from the bustling crowds, determined to enjoy more of what she’d given him on the ride, this perfect angel.
‘Don’t you need to get going?’ she asked, pulling him to a stop between a dirty white prefab wall and a rumbling diesel generator.
He looked at his watch, wincing at the time. He would be late. ‘Yeah, I guess so. Come with me!’
She reached behind her neck, undid the clasp on a silver chain. She pulled a locket from her smooth cleavage and held it up between them. It turned gently, reflecting a hundred colours from a thousand stuttering bulbs. He tipped his head to one side, confused. As he opened his mouth to ask questions, she kissed him, silencing him with her tongue. He felt her hand slip into his pocket.
She broke off the kiss, left him feeling like she’d taken his breath away with her. He gasped air into his lungs as she walked back towards the crowded strip.
‘Hey!’ he called after her. ‘Come to the gig tonight, please? I’ll buy you a drink afterwards.’
She looked back over her shoulder, blew him a kiss. He could have run after her, caught up and made her promise to come along, but something made him stay.
‘If you don’t come to the gig, I’ll see you here again tomorrow maybe?’ His voice was lost in the noise of the generator as she slipped into the passing crowd like the sun swallowed by clouds.
He pulled her silver locket out, wondering if maybe her phone number was in it. When he popped it open he found nothing but a tiny dried flower tucked under the delicate folded silver edges.
The Palisade seemed both busy and empty as Mark tried to find the high point from the night before. He watched the crowd but saw no sign of her shining chestnut hair or glittering green eyes.
The music was dead and empty, disappointed like his soul, and the crowd thinned before closing time. His fingers were clumsy through the last songs and he couldn’t wait for the end. If only he could find that high from the night before, the closing symphony of blues that had washed away three hours of mistakes and missed rhythms. If only he could play like Nick on the farm fence.
He ground his teeth and endured the berating of his mates after the gig. He made excuses about tiredness, too much heat, working too hard. Clive, the tall, rangy bass player, made a snide remark about needing to get laid or something, and Mark winced at the inadvertent truth of the observation.
That night, alone in the heat, frustrated and disappointed, he heard Nick’s guitar again, calling out across the paddocks. With a snarl of anger he turned his stereo on, drowning out the mocking talent with strident throbs of Led Zeppelin. Eventually a troubled sleep took him.
Mark spent all day and all evening Sunday searching through the carousels and arcades, looking everywhere for a sweep of shining brown hair. He knew he wouldn’t find her, but searched all the same, hoping against hope. His friends found him a couple of times and he brushed them off, ignoring their confused, hurt faces.
As the amusement park began shutting down and turning off for the night, lights going out, boards filling booth windows, Mark sat on railings, chin in his hand. The ocean shushed the sand at his back and people thinned out until nothing was left but the comatose carnival, all closed wooden eyes and shadows, waiting for the return of the people that were its lifeblood.
Mark slipped off the railing and scuffed his shoes along the seafront, staring at the concrete sliding by, feeling like a fool.
He found himself back at home in the early hours of the morning, tired and miserable. He hung the locket from the corner of the mirror in his bedroom and fell onto the bed. He would be a zombie at the factory the next day, dangerously fatigued. He didn’t care. Nothing mattered but the girl without a name and he didn’t know why. Would he ever get his blues back without her? Had she stolen more than his heart? He’d had flings with girls on holiday a hundred times, one of the reasons he hung out at the fair so much. But this girl had been special.
The sound of Nick’s guitar drifting through the still night air didn’t make him angry any more. Just resigned. He pulled himself off the bed and walked with heavy steps through the house, across the veranda, along the dusty road.
Nick sat on the fence in the moonlight, playing his blood red guitar. Mark approached and stood there, head tipped back to the sky, tears pouring down his cheeks as Nick’s magic floated up through the stars.
Eventually one last note slipped away into the night, sustained for minutes before nothing but dark silence accompanied the two men.
‘I knew you’d come back,’ Nick said softly, his voice kind.
‘What will it cost me?’ Mark asked. ‘To play like you.’
‘I think you know.’ Nick laid his guitar across his knees, looking at Mark with soft eyes.
Mark’s own eyes were still wet, his cheeks glistening. ‘It’s too high,’ he said in a thin voice. ‘That’s too high a price.’
‘Is it? For such a gift?’
They were silent again, the zephyr breeze gently caressing their hair. ‘What made you change your mind?’ Nick asked. ‘Why did you come back tonight?’
‘I feel like I already lost… something. All I have is my music.’
Mark sniffed, looked Nick right in the eyes. ‘A girl,’ he said, still stunned that she’d had such an effect on him. ‘I can live without her if I have the music. I can live without anything if I have that music. Your music. But your price is too high.’ He turned to leave.
‘Wait.’ Nick’s eyes were dark, almost black. He reached into the pocket of his pale denim shirt and pulled something free. ‘What if I gave you her as well?’
Fresh tears started from Mark’s eyes as he watched the silver locket turn slowly, reflecting pure white moonlight.
Alan Baxter is a Ditmar Award-nominated British-Australian author living on the south coast of NSW, Australia. He writes dark fantasy, sci-fi and horror, rides a motorcycle and loves his dog. He also teaches Kung Fu. He is the author of the contemporary dark fantasy novels, RealmShift and MageSign, and his short fiction has appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies in Australia, the US, the UK and France, including the Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror. Read extracts from his novels, a novella and short stories at his website – www.alanbaxteronline.com – or find him on Twitter @AlanBaxter, and feel free to tell him what you think. About anything.
Don’t forget our current serial is Alan Baxter’s The Darkest Shade Of Grey, free to read here or available as an ebook for $1.99.
© 2012 All rights reserved Alan Baxter.