It doesn't matter where in America you lived. Chances are you grew up with somewhere like this place. I think every town and every city has at least one place like it. A bad place. A place you’re either told to stay away from or instinctively know to stay away from because of the stories that surround it or because of the vibe you get from it.
It might be an old empty house at the end of the street. Or a rotting old barn on a patch of farmland. For us, the bad place was easy to find. For us, the bad place was the Pink Castle.
No one could remember where it came from or when it was put there. Or if they could they wouldn't talk about it. But every kid in town knew about it and knew how to find it. As much as our parents might wish we didn't.
The woods around our town were always oddly silent. Few birds or insects to make much noise. But when you were getting close to the Pink Castle you would hear it, being carried on the breeze. This odd jaunty upbeat little music. Sweet and charming and yet also strangely off-putting as well, as if some part of you knew just how fundamentally wrong this place was.
And then you'd see it. Right there, in the woods was a giant pink castle.
Now when I say castle I don't mean some crumbling medieval structure. The Pink Castle was made of plastic and wood and metal. It looked like it had once been a theme park or fairground of some kind. There was a "Moat" around it and a wooden bridge that led you through a drawbridge to where you would purchase your tickets. Visible just through the archway was what looked like some kind of courtyard with a large fountain in the centre of it. It looked like some kind of sculpture made of glass or plastic towered over the fountain. Though to see it more clearly you would have to go inside.
And very few of us wanted to do that.
The music came from speakers somewhere within the Pink Castle. How the place could still have power after all these years made no sense. How it could still be playing the same tune day in and day out was unknown. But no matter what time of day you went into the woods and followed the trail down to the Pink Castle you would hear that same strange enticing tune, drawing you closer and beckoning you in.
Of course, that wasn't all you could hear, so the stories went. Supposedly if you went there at night you would hear something else. You would hear the sound of children, laughing and playing somewhere within the Pink Castle.
Any attempt to talk to our parents about the place always proved fruitless. No one in town wanted to talk about it. No one wanted to say where it had come from or when it had been put up. Whether it had been part of some fair or carnival that had come to town and been left behind (Though why choose such a strange spot for a carnival?) or if at one point a theme park had stood there (Though why build a theme park in the middle of the woods?).
The location of the place was as baffling as the nature of it. It was as if it had just sprung up one day fully formed. No trees grew near where it stood as if the forest had grown around the Pink Castle. Or as if nature itself wanted to keep its distance. But while our parents did all they could to avoid talking about the Pink Castle and its history I think everyone in town, child and adult alike, knew what it was. It was a bad place.
Because sometimes, children would go missing.
It would happen every couple of years. And it would always follow a pattern. There would never be any sign of forced entry. Never any clues left behind as to who had taken the child. The town we lived in was small. There weren't what you would call a lot of potential suspects. The police would round up anyone "different" enough to be of interest. The loners, the alcoholics, the tweakers, the goth kids. They'd never find anything useful from any of them. No arrests would ever be made because I think the police knew deep down that none of them did it. I think everyone knew deep down where the kids had gone.
They'd gone into the woods. They'd gone to the Pink Castle.
The drive back to my hometown took me five hours. I stopped at a diner along the way and choked down greasy eggs and fatty bacon and washed it down with coffee that tasted like ditch water. I paid and left a tip and made my way out to the car, checking my phone messages along the way. I had a new one from Jane that just read "Where R U? Nearly here?"
I quickly texted back saying I was on my way. I wondered if she would recognise me. We'd been as close as sisters once upon a time. I wondered if she'd have changed as much as I had. Or if the old place would still be the same, for better or for worse.
It was the kids who came back that were the worst.
The ones that stayed missing you could maybe hope that they were okay. Maybe they'd run away from home. Maybe things had been bad. Sure their parents seemed loving, seemed friendly but who knew what went on behind closed doors? That was something I would grow up to learn working as a child psychiatrist. A billion terrible things can be hidden behind a friendly smile and a white picket fence.
So with the kids who didn't come back you could hope that maybe they were safe. Maybe they were better off.
Everyone knew what happened to the kids who came back. The adults did anyway. And after a while I think most of us figured it out as well.
Susie Mason was the first one that was recent enough that you heard about it. She was the subject of plenty of local ghost stories that older kids would tell us to frighten us. She'd vanished in October of 75. Shown back up in December of that same year. Still dressed in the same clothes she was wearing when she'd disappeared. Despite being gone for months she didn't seem malnourished. There were no signs of injury or abuse.
And she wouldn't say a word about where she'd been or who had taken her. In fact, she wouldn't say much at all. Supposedly, when she did talk much she would do it in this strange little sing-song voice. She'd recite some godawful nursery rhyme or poem that there were a hundred variations of. Whether any of them were accurate who can say.
But kids would sing it while they played jump rope and you'd see it scratched into walls and desks. Like Susie Mason it had entered into the folklore of the town.
"As you lay you down to sleep,
Underneath your skin they creep,
As you lay you on your bed,
They can see inside your head,
Down the hall and through the door,
Teeth and bone upon the floor,
As you lay you down to sleep,
In your room they softly creep,
As you lay you in your bed,
Pray to god you'll soon be dead."
There were more verses and different variations on the verse but it was all the same. Slimy, bony, blood drenched things lurking in the dark. Endless horrible things being done to you by things with finger bones like razors and eyes like black empty pits.
Susie Mason murdered both her parents on January the 5th the next year. She tied them both to their bed while they slept and proceeded to remove their hands and feet with a knife from the kitchen. It took them sixteen hours to die. Then Susie just sat there in her parents' blood and waited. When the cops came to check out if things were okay when Mr. Mason didn't show up at work for a few days and Susie didn't show up at school they found the scene waiting for them. So the story went: one of the sheriff’s deputies left the force the very next day. Didn't even quit so much as they just got in their car and drove as far away from town as they could.
Susie Mason spent the rest of her days in a mental institution. They say she killed herself there. Though there were stories about that too. Stories that said she didn't die. She went missing. The orderly came round with her pills one day and opened her cell door and Susie Mason was gone. Like she'd vanished in a puff of smoke.
Then there was John Booth.
He vanished in '77. Out playing with his friends when supposedly he just took off without a word. Went into the woods and didn't come back. Not until seven months later when he was spotted walking down the pavement heading back to his house. His shirt and pants were covered in blood. None of it was his.
The cops and social workers and psychologists all tried to quiz him on where he'd been. They got nothing out of him. Nothing they could use.
It would be less than a month later that he set his parents’ house on fire with them inside it.
It would always be the same. Three or four kids would go missing. One would come back. And the one that came back came back wrong. They'd seen something or something had happened to them, something had been done to them. Whatever happened during the months they were missing everyone knew what would happen when they came back. No one would admit it but everyone knew. The ones that came back weren't the same as the ones who had left. And it was only a matter of time until they did something terrible.
Everyone knew it just like everyone knew where they'd been. Everyone knew they'd been in the Pink Castle.
My car came to a stop outside Jane's house and I got out. I took a deep breath and walked up to the front door. Before I even got the chance to ring the bell it swung inwards and I was greeted by Jane's smiling face. I had worried how she would react. While I saw surprise in her eyes there was no judgement. If the sight of me there with my rainbow coloured hair, my tattoos and piercings had shocked her she recovered quickly.
"Well damn. You look amazing," she said, and as we hugged I told her that she didn't look so bad herself. That wasn't entirely true of course. She looked like she hadn't had a decent night’s sleep in weeks. But I wasn't about to say that. Besides I already knew what was keeping her up at night. We both knew that this wasn't a social call. I'd not come back to this town in close to ten years. I wasn't here now to just catch up with an old friend.
I was here because her neighbour’s son had vanished two weeks ago.
"Come inside, I'll put a pot of coffee on. And we can...you know. Talk," she said. I nodded. What we had to discuss was better off discussed in private. Actually, it was better off not discussed at all but we both knew where that lead. We both knew what was going to happen next.
Jane's house had a feeling of emptiness to it that hit me the minute I walked through the door. There weren't many pictures on the walls. Little in the way of decoration. I sat myself down in her lounge and noted that apart from a TV, a stereo, a clock and a couple of snow globes there wasn't much to look at. There was a small bookcase with maybe a half a dozen paperbacks on its shelves.
If a place can be said to feel lonely that was the way this place felt. When Jane returned with the coffee I could already guess the answer to my question but still I asked her if she was all by herself here. She nodded and gave me the saddest little smile I think I'd ever seen.
"No one special?"
"Not a whole lot of dating opportunities for...people like us, around here. Not like in the city I'm sure," she said and nodded her head toward the double Venus tattoo that was visible above my chest. She asked if I had someone and I told her that my girlfriend and I were getting married in the spring of next year.
"That's good, Katie. It's good that you found someone who makes things better," she told me. Like her smile her words were tinged with sadness. I wondered how many days Jane just spent in this lonely little house all by herself. I wondered if anyone else had bothered to keep in touch or if the reason she'd called me wasn't just because we'd been friends but because I was the only one of her friends who still spoke to her.
It was there in her words when she said, "Not like in the city." It wasn't just sadness at her own isolation here. It was a touch of bitterness too. "You got out. You all got to leave. I didn't."
Everyone else in our friend circle had followed my lead and moved as far away as they could from this place as soon as we could. Not Jane though. Jane's mom was sick. And Jane was all she had. Her husband had passed away. She had no other kids no other family. Jane needed to stay, needed to look after her mother. And even now, even with her mother having passed away a couple years back here Jane still was. I wondered if maybe it was just that she'd spent so long in this place that the thought of leaving it behind was as frightening as the thought of staying.
I asked her how things had been. She shrugged and replied that I, of all people, should know the answer to that one. I nodded. I supposed I did. Very little in this town ever seemed to change. The same people worked the same jobs and then their kids grew up and worked the same jobs their parents had and their grandparents before them. Everything stayed the way it had always been. Including the secrets.
"So when did it happen?" I asked.
"A couple of weeks ago, like I said. He's...he's a good kid. Never causes any trouble. His parents are....their nice, you know? Decent people."
I nodded. "Unlike everyone else in this shitty town" was the unspoken conclusion to that statement.
"And it's definitely..." I began but Jane cut me off.
"You know what it is, Katie. We both do. Hell I think everyone does. They're all just waiting to see what happens next."
We both knew what happened next. Better than most.
I'd been thirteen and Jane had been fourteen when it happened. We'd been out with our friends. Dean, Roger and Hannah. Roger was the oldest, one year older than all of us. Dean was the youngest at twelve. We all lived next door to each other and I suppose we'd all had the same awkwardness about us that made it harder to fit in with most of the other kids at school. In my and Jane's case I think we both knew the root of that awkwardness even if back then we'd never say it. In Dean's case it was that his family was dirt poor. Joan was painfully shy and quite. And Roger...well Roger was Roger.
His parents weren't bad people. But his dad was the town sheriff. He was strict and unyielding and expected Roger to be the Model Son. Good grades, good at sports, popular. And I think Roger lashed out against that as much as he could. Got into fights at school. Deliberately did all he could to be the opposite of what his parents wanted him to be. And I think maybe hanging out with us was another part of that rebellion. His father wanted him to be "popular"? He'd go ahead and hang out with the least popular kids in the whole school.
He wasn't a bad person. And he was always good to us. Stood up for us whenever someone tried to start something. He had his problems but he had a good heart. No one remembers that about Roger now, if they remember him at all. They only remember the bad.
We were out in the woods. It was getting late and we knew we'd have to head home soon. But we also knew we couldn't. Not yet. Not until we saw it.
Hannah heard the music first. She was terrified, we could all see that. I suggested turning back but Dean interrupted. Said he could hear it too. He walked on ahead of us and we all followed reluctantly. Soon we could all hear it. This quiet little melody playing from somewhere just up ahead. We made our way through the otherwise eerily silent woods, twigs cracking underfoot. And finally we came to the clearing where it stood.
A colossal pink castle. The shiny pink plastic of its construction looked like it could be brand new. An old wooden sign dangled in the archway. The lettering was faded and hard to read but it had at one time probably been a sign welcoming visitors to this place. Peering inside I could make out the fountain in the courtyard. I could just about see what looked like a carousel off to the side and stairs leading up and around the interior of the park.
"It's real..." I muttered.
"Okay, it's real. Can we go back now? It’s freezing," Dean said. The way we were all shivering had nothing to do with the weather. The music continued to play from somewhere inside the castle. This gentle fairy-tale melody.
Fairy tales. It's funny that when we hear the word we think of wholesome, Walt Disney-ish stories. Helpful little talking animals. Plucky princesses overcoming adversity and marrying their prince charming. Good triumphing over evil and a happily ever after. Because if you actually look at what fairies are like in the stories most cultures tell about them that's about the furthest thing from the truth.
Jane and I were halfway through the woods when she asked me if I ever thought about this place. If I remembered how it felt growing up in this town knowing that it was out here. Knowing that if we went out there into the woods we'd see it there waiting for us.
"Honestly, before you called, I hadn't thought about this place in years," I lied. She nodded.
"Must be nice," she said and her tone told me she didn't believe me.
"Have you ever thought about just...leaving?" I asked.
"All the time."
"So why don't you?"
She stopped dead.
I looked back at her. She stood there silently. Her expression was hard to read but I got the impression I had said the wrong thing.
"It's not so easy for some of us, you know."
I wanted to tell her that it wasn't easy for me either. I wanted to tell her a lot of things. Instead I walked on ahead and after a while I heard her following along behind me. Neither of us said anything else to each other for the next few minutes. I think we both knew it was better that way. And besides we already knew what we were thinking right now. We were both thinking about Roger.
It was Dean who dared one of us to go inside.
I said no way right away. Jane nodded in agreement and Hannah just shook her head and backed away. None of us wanted to go in there. But Roger took the dare. Roger would always take the dare. No matter how stupid or dangerous. He walked up to the arch and looked back at us with a grin. He stepped through it into the courtyard and called out to us. He was grinning like an idiot and he gave the walls a good kick.
"Blooooody Maaaaaaary come out to plaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!" he called out into the courtyard. Jane gripped my hand. Hannah had balled her hands into little fists. Dean was smirking humourlessly.
"Okay, that's enough, man," Dean called out.
"Ohhhhhhhhhh am I scaring you guys? Is Freddy Kreuger gonna come get me? Jason Vorhees maybe?" he asked us. He was laughing his ass off. The reluctance was gone. He stepped into the courtyard and we could see him round the corner as we called out to him that he'd made his point. He'd proven that he was braver than all of us combined. We were all big chickens and he was the Bravest Guy Who Ever Lived so he could stop messing around and come back out and join us.
He didn't say anything.
"Roger stop being a jerk! Get out here!" I called out.
"It's not funny anymore!" I added after a while.
"He's just messing around with us. He's fine," Jane said. The others nodded. Everyone except me and Hannah.
"What if...what if he's hurt," Hannah suggested.
"By what? GHOSTS?" Dean asked mockingly.
"Or maybe he tripped. Or...or something bit him or...or..." she said. She looked really frightened. She looked at me and Jane. We were the oldest now. God help us we were the ones who were meant to responsible. Meant to make the right call. I looked at that archway. At that ludicrous structure. During the day it would be fine, I told myself. What was there to be scared of? Just a weird old fairground in a strange place. In the daylight I could have been brave. In the daylight I could have been Mature and Responsible and Strong and said, "Let's go in after him, make sure he's okay."
You’re probably reading this and thinking "What's so scary about an old pink castle". Right? Just an old kiddy adventure park left to rust and rot in the middle of nowhere. Cartoonish fake bricks and a make believe moat and a big grey plastic drawbridge. Ridiculous. Laughable. Like something from some Disney knock-off adventure land.
But that fucking music playing from the speakers. And the way the place made you feel when you looked at it. All that and the stories we'd grown up hearing about this place. This was a place where bad things happened. Terrible things. Unspeakable things. This was a place that wasn't just dangerous. This place was wrong.
"Fine Roger," I called out into the park
"If you wanna be like that we'll see you later!"
And I convinced the others to go back. Leave him there. That he would catch up with us later.
Jane and I reached the spot just as it was starting to get dark. It was still there. And that music was still playing from somewhere inside. That weird little fairy-tale tune. You could imagine the opening credits of a kid’s film playing across it as the opening. Or some star struck princess waltzing with her One True Love as it played over the closing scenes of the film. Evil Queen or Wicked Witch defeated and done away with. Everyone happy and safe.
So why did nothing about it sound happy or safe to us?
It looked old and grimy and rundown. Maybe time was finally catching up with the place. Maybe we were seeing it through adult’s eyes. Maybe both. Maybe neither. It was still bright pink. Still had that old rotten wooden sign. Looking at it I could make out the words "Bobby Bozo's Comical Castle" written on it. The name of this place when it opened, maybe. If it had ever been open at all.
"You really think he's in there?" I asked. Jane nodded. I didn't try and talk her out of this.
"You brought the gun?" I asked her. She gave me another nod. She didn't ask if I had mine. She'd already told me to bring it when we discussed this. We both knew how this was going to end.
"We could call the cops," I suggested.
"They won't do shit," Jane replied. She was right about that. The two of us walked through the arch.
Roger was in my bedroom that night. The night we dared him to go into the Pink Castle.
Not like that. I guess that does sound kind of bad, doesn't it?
No he was just sat at the foot of my bed. He was hunched over. I sat up straight and asked him why the hell he had to scare us like that. Why he had to play such a mean prank. His face was flushed. He had a hell of a bruise under one eye. I assumed his dad had given him the back of his hand for being home so late. He looked like he'd been crying. He didn't look at me the whole time he spoke. Kept his eyes on the floor in front of him.
"It's bad there.
"Where they go.
"It's... its worse. Worse than you'd think. So much worse."
I asked him what he was talking about. He looked back at me in the dark. I couldn't make out his face well. I could see his mouth opening and closing like a fish. He was fidgeting and twitching like his body had too much energy and didn't know what to do with it.
"I'm just scared, you know?
I just don't wanna go back, you know?"
I thought he was talking about going back home. I figured that he was in real trouble with his parents this time. Roger was always getting in trouble with his folks and while his dad wasn't a monster he was no saint either. Roger had pushed him to his limits with a lot of the pranks and stunts he'd pulled over the years and at the same time his dad had no goddamn idea how to really be a dad. He didn't know how to relate to Roger. From what I heard then and what I found out later it seemed like Roger's grandfather had been a mean son of a bitch. And Roger's dad wasn't as bad. But that didn't mean he was exactly GOOD either. He didn't know how to just be a parent. Felt like he had to live up to some impossible standard that Roger had to reach to.
So between the two of them they didn't even have half of a good father-son relationship. I figured that this time Roger had really made his dad lose it. That something bad had happened and that now Roger was terrified of going home to whatever was waiting for him.
"They're gonna make me do it. I can't...
"I'm not brave enough. Not brave enough not to do it" Roger said. He picked up one of my stuffed animals and placed it near me.
"Don't come to school tomorrow.
"Don't do it, Katie-kat."
It was a pet name my parents had for me that my friends knew about and knew I absolutely hated. They normally used it to tease me. This time he just sounded so damn sad. He sounded like he was about to cry. He climbed out my window down the ladder he'd used to get in and off he went into the night.
I wish I'd taken his advice.
Me and Jane made our way into the courtyard of the Pink Castle. In the centre of it was what had once been a fountain. The water stank. It had this godawful odour to it that made me think of open sewers and plugged up drains. You couldn't breathe it in for more than second or two without gagging. Atop the fountain was a statue made of glass. It looked like a princess. Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty maybe. A long flowing gown. Lovingly carved features. Posed daintily as if she was blessing the fountain. The rest of the courtyard was mostly empty. There was a knocked over sign with a painted arrow on it that read "Snacks This Way". A few old wooden toad stools upon one of which sat a Mad Hatter-like figure. Rain and rust and rot had left them looking as if they'd crumble at the slightest touch. A carousel.
"The kids name is Jack, right?" I asked. She nodded. I remembered. I just asked to break the silence. My voice seemed to echo around us.
"We don't split up," Jane insisted. I didn't need to be told that.
The courtyard was clearly vacant apart from us. So we began to climb up the stairs that lead towards one of the higher sections of the park. I glanced down. The carousel looked different from above. There was something...off about it. I peered closer.
The figures on the carousel didn't look like Woodland Critters anymore. The material they were made of didn't look like cheap plastic or painted wood. It looked slick. And the way they were positioned looked wrong.
I could hear Jane calling out to me as I went down the stairs. I walked towards the carousel.
Each figure was sculpted of something like black latex or PVC. No, not sculpted. Wrapped in. The figures were moving. The cartoonish deer. It was banging its stumpy little metal hooves against the wood and metal below. The horse was twisting and jerking its heads back and forth. The eyes on the side of its head. They were bloodshot. Bloodshot and bleeding with wire and stitching threading into them. The reindeer was sobbing softly as the harnesses that were lashed to its black and red and brown form cut through the tight material and into what was beneath.
And what was beneath...
Beneath the fabric things were squirming.
Thick heaving motions. Flesh pulsating and twitching and growing like oozing tumours.
Like a body infested with worms its flesh bursting outwards straining against the wrapping that held back the thick viscous mass...
The voice snapped me out of it.
Jane was stood behind me. She looked pissed off. Pissed off and a little afraid. The carousel was made of wood and plastic and metal. The figures were cheap shitty animatronics.
"Sorry," I repeated. Jane didn't ask me any questions as we went back up the stairs.
The day it happened we were both just minding our own business. Me and Jane. Two kids, still thinking about the future. Still oblivious to how easily something could snuff it out. Roger showed up to school that day and he was quiet. Sullen. More angry than we'd ever seen him. Roger could be a brat. But he never got as bad as he did at the start of that day. It was like he'd just stopped caring. About us. About anything. Like someone had flipped a switch and he'd stopped feeling anything.
At recess I went over to him. Wanted to ask if he was okay. He looked at his feet.
"They showed me it again. Just... just showed me it."
I asked him what he meant. I couldn't understand what was wrong with him.
"The Razor Room. The place they take their eyes out. They showed me what they do when they open them up and put stuff inside.
"They showed me what they do. They showed me what they do to their skin.
"So I gotta.
"I gotta do it.
"Or else I go back there."
I didn't see the gun in his hand. I heard the first shot. I heard the screams. I felt him shove me to the ground. And then I heard the shots that came after. And the screams that came after as well.
He'd stolen his dad’s gun. And he killed four students and one teacher that day. Five students if you count him. He turned the gun on himself and pulled the trigger. His dad killed himself not long after.
His mom too, in a way. Just drank herself to death. A bottle of whiskey a day. Then two bottles of whiskey a day. Then three. Until she just stopped being able to drink anything at all. No one thinks of Roger as being one of the ones who came back wrong from Pink Castle. They just think he flipped out one day. That his parents didn't love him enough. Or that they were hitting him or touching him. People say he was a Satanist. Or on drugs.
It was like Pink Castle wanted to hurt him that little bit worse. The other kids who came back wrong, people around town know why they did what they did. They don't say it. But they know that the kids who came back weren't the same kids who went missing. With Roger, Pink Castle sent him back straight away. Like it knew what it was doing. Or they knew what they were doing. Whoever the hell they were.
The first room me and Jane checked was empty. Just dust and spider webs. Some graffiti here and there. Weird little marks and symbols drawn on the walls.
"Gang signs," Jane said. Neither of us believed that.
The next room we checked had this thick musty smell to it. The floor and walls had marks running along it. Little lines running across the plastic and wood. Four or five in straight or diagonal lines. Like something had dug in and then been dragged across the material. The room terminated in a long and twisting slide. It, like the rest of the structure, was bright pink. Except...
I pulled out my phone. Hit the flashlight app.
The pink slide was streaked with red. Long streaks of red leading down the slide and off into the dark. The kind of red you only got from one source.
I pulled back and dropped the phone to the ground. The noise made Jane jump.
"Jesus! Can you keep it together?" she asked me. I looked over and her and pointed toward the slide. She walked over and looked down at it.
"Yeah. And?" she asked.
I pointed the flashlight at it. The slide was grimy and old. But the long red streaks leading off into the black were gone.
"Your starting to worry me more than this place does," she said. I took a few deep breaths. I promised her I was fine. We continued looking through the park.
The next room made us both stop dead.
"Tell me you see this too?"
"I see it too."
The room was full of long thin wire. The floor of the room was coated in black and red stains. The wire itself was stained red in multiple places.
"The razor wire room," I remembered Roger saying. I remembered his voice. So cold. So vacant of emotion. Like he'd seen something so bad that he'd just gone numb.
"What the fuck happened in here..." Jane muttered. Neither of us wanted to think about it. But we couldn't stop our minds dwelling on it. What this wire had been used for. Who it had been used on.
"Everyone knows bad things happen there" that's what people used to say, in the stories. Don't go to the Pink Castle. The Pink Castle is where bad things happen.
"Come on. He's not in here," Jane said. I hoped to god he never had been. We continued down the hall and I looked out into the courtyard below.
Something was off. Something was wrong.
"Do you hear that?" Jane asked me. I took my eyes off the courtyard to glance over at her.
"The music. It stopped."
She was right. That strange little jingle had stopped playing. I looked back at the courtyard. I realised what was wrong.
The glass statue of the princess was gone.
"Look maybe..." I began to say but Jane stopped me.
"Maybe we should what? Go?
You would though, wouldn't you? You'd leave. You know he's here and you would just..."
"We don't know anything! Look maybe he's not here. Maybe this is just some...some weird old place. Some screwed up leftover of... of shit that happened years ago. Maybe it has nothing to do with what happened to this kid."
"EVERYONE KNOWS HE'S HERE!" Jane screamed at me. Her hands were fists. Her nails were digging into her palms. Her whole body was tensed up like she was about to take a swing at me.
"Everyone knows he's fucking here. Just like they did with every other kid who didn't come back. They knew they were here all this time and they did nothing! Nothing!"
"And that's not our fault. It's not my fault. It's not your fault."
She stared at me.
"You really don’t remember, do you?"
I asked her what she meant. And she just turned and walked off ahead. I followed behind her. Thoughts of leaving pushed down for now. I followed her further down the hall. We made our way through the dusty corridors. I tried not to think about the footprints in the dust. Or how some were far too small to belong to an adult. I tried not to think about the smell. That awful smell that seemed to pervade the whole building.
Some of the rooms we came to were empty. Others had old carnival games, gathering dust. There was an old fortune telling machine stood in the corner of one room. It was still illuminated. The figure inside was attached to cables and wires. They were dressed in this little red and gold and green suit with oversized buttons for eyes and what looked like two red felt patches sewed onto the cheeks like the kind of makeup you saw a clown wear.
The smell in this room was even worse.
"I've never seen one of these. Outside of movies, I mean" I said. I wanted to break the awkward silence. The place was dark and smelt foul and the godawful silence was worse than it had been when that music was playing from somewhere in the park. I wished Jane would say something. Even if she just yelled at me again.
"It's plugged into something," Jane said. She pointed down at the ground.
The figure in the booth sprang to life. A little melody started to play from the booth. I recognised it. "Ode to Joy"
I could hear gears and cogs whirring from somewhere inside the machinery. The wires were tugging the figures arms up and down and manoeuvring its head.
"Jane...please tell me that isn't what I think it is."
But it was. Of course it was.
The thing in the booth wasn't a doll. It wasn't a puppet or an animatronic. It was a child.
The skin on its body had been removed and then re-stitched to the body. With a few alterations. The smell coming from the booth was probably whatever preserving agent had been used to keep the body from rotting. That's what I assumed. The wires were embedded in its flesh. As it moved slowly and jerkily inside the booth I backed away with my hand pressed over my mouth. I could feel vomit rising up in the back of my throat.
"Oh Jesus... it's not dead."
I looked over at Jane. I looked back at the figure. Its mouth was moving. Opening and closing. Ode to Joy played from the booths speakers. Its body wasn't just moving when the wires pulled and tugged at it. Parts of it were moving on their own. My heart was pounding. My eyes were stinging. I realised that tears were trickling down my face.
Of course I did. I just didn't want to remember.
It hadn't been Dean who had dared one of us to go inside the Pink Castle. It had been me. Me and Jane. And it hadn't been just a dare. We'd mocked Dean and then Hannah for not taking the dare. And Roger... Roger could never stand being called a coward. Could never stand being challenged. If it was something he wasn't supposed to do he'd do it. If it was something no one else was brave or stupid enough to try he'd do it. But he hadn't wanted to go past the archway. He'd looked back at us. Asked if he'd gone in far enough.
It's so nice to remember ourselves how we want to. To think that good people were always good and bad people were always bad. And that we were Always The Good People. Never cruel. Never petty. Never mean spirited. Perhaps that's why movies about childhood are so popular with adults. It's so nice to remember ourselves like the heroes of those stories. Brave and true and loyal and always good to our friends. It's so nice to think we were never bullies ourselves. Never hurt anyone. Never let anyone down.
We laughed and mocked and teased at Roger. And shaking, trembling with fear he'd gone further into the Pink Castle. We'd waited a while. We'd called out to him. The others had wanted to go in after him. Make sure he was okay. But I'd refused. The others had listened to me. Even Jane had listened to me, despite the fact she told us the whole way home that we should go back. We should go and check that Roger was okay.
When I'd seen him in my room that night I'd been relieved.
And when he did what he did the next day I hadn't said a word about what had happened before. Neither had Jane. Neither had Dean or Hannah. Because we'd all known, of course. We knew who was to blame. We might as well have been the ones who held that gun to Roger's head and pulled the trigger.
I could hear Jane telling me that it was going to be okay as I backed away from that room. We both knew it wasn't going to be okay. We both knew nothing was okay. I threw up down the front of my shirt. My hands shook. My legs refused to work. Like boneless sacks of jelly they wouldn't let me get back up on my feet.
"Is that... is that..."
Jane shook her head. Whoever was in that case wasn't the boy we'd come here to find. I felt relieved and then disgusted with myself. What did it matter who was in there?
And then Jane went still.
At the end of the hallway was the Glass Princess.
From somewhere within the building the music started up again. That upbeat fairy-tale tune playing from all around us. I realised that I hadn't seen any speakers since we arrived. There was no way to tell where the music was coming from. Ahead of us the hallway was darkening. The buzzing bulbs overhead were dimming. One by one they were going out.
A sound like something cold and hard dragging against the pink plastic around it. Like fingers of glass scraping slowly along the walls. Producing a high pitched screeching sound like nails dragging down a chalkboard. Something that glinted in the darkness was coming toward us.
Jane and I took off running. My legs finally obeyed me. I got up on my feet and the two of us ran. Behind us I could hear this terrible cacophony. Something behind us was pursuing. Something that I knew would be made of shiny clear glass. In my mind I pictured that fairy-tale princess splashed with red. The fountains water turning a deep crimson. Jets of blood cascading up and down around it. The princess made of glass twirling and twisting amid the red.
Something tackled Jane. A hard shove sent her flipping over the side and toward the courtyard below. I heard her give a yelp and then there was silence. I stopped dead. The thing that had attacked her was in front of me now. It was looking at me now. Its body was covered in tight black and red latex. It looked as if in places it had been sewn into the things skin. Or sewn into its body in place of skin. Its hands ended in useless little stumps. Its fingers had been snipped away. Its mouth was zipped shut. It was making soft noises. It might have been laughing. Or crying. Or just struggling to breathe.
Through the holes in its mask I could see its eyes. They were hooked open. Hooked open and bloody as if every blood vessel had burst. It looked as if something had been inserted into them and they seemed to bulge unnaturally from its sockets. It was thin. Horribly thin. Like photos I'd seen of children starving in Africa or patients in hospitals wasting away slowly. Like there was nothing to it but bone and skin. No fat, no muscle. Its feet and legs had been broken in several places from the look of them. Broken and welded into what looked like metal goat hooves.
It was grunting at me.
The thing behind me had stopped pursuing. I glanced back. The Glass Princess stood silent and still. I could feel those sightless glass eyes somehow fixed upon me. Studying me. Watching to see what I would do. Or what this thing would do.
It began to lurch down the corridor toward me. Stomping its metal feet on the ground. It looked as if every step was hurting it. As if the mere act of moving its body was agony. Red tears were trickling down its black latex mask from those bulging horrible eyes. I should have felt sorry for it. I was too busy feeling terrified of what was going to happen when it got closer to me. I had the gun in my hand. It was loaded. The safety was off. Could I pull the trigger? I'd never shot anything more than a beer bottle. Never even gone hunting.
It was down in front of me. The think stank. Coppery and wrong. Like it was rotting while still alive. Like its organs were liquefying inside that suit. I wondered if that suit was the only thing holding it together
It grunted something at me. The stink of its diseased flesh. The sound of its ragged breathing. Those horrible dissected eyes somehow still looking at me. Somehow still seeing me.
It motioned towards the zipper over its mouth. No. The zipper that was its mouth. I gagged. I shook my head.
"Please. Please no..." I muttered. It motioned again. It didn't seem to want to attack me. I didn't know what it wanted.
"Please... I just came here to help... to help a friend..." I said. It shook its head. It motioned to the zipper again.
Holding back the urge to vomit once again I moved my hand to the zipper keeping its mouth closed. I tugged on it. The thing let out a muffled sound of pain. It was in agony. I could see that easily. I pulled harder. The zipper came undone. It freed the things mouth.
Its teeth had been pulled out and then wired back into its gums. Its tongue was black. The stink of its breath was even worse than the smell of its decaying skin. It opened and closed its mouth a few times. As if it was unused to the motion.
"Ahm... suh... ruh"
The noises it made didn't make sense to me at first. I told it over and over that I didn't know what it wanted me to do. It didn't seem to want to hurt me but that made no sense. It seemed to want something from me.
Its hand clutched mine in those stubby not-fingers. The hand that held the gun. It slowly guided it up. Until the barrel was pressed against its head.
"Ahm... suh.... ruh... Kaht... tuh...."
"Oh God... Oh Jesus Christ... Roger...?"
The second the name was passed my lips it shuddered. Convulsed. The tears flowed down from its eyes. That pleading gaze.
My finger was against the trigger.
"Where's the boy Roger... where's the boy?" I asked.
He shook his head.
The gunshot was loud. I felt something spatter my face. Blood but blood that stank like motor oil and battery acid. Roger's body jerked back and slumped down on the floor. It lay still. I dropped the gun to the ground my fingers as useless as my legs had been earlier. I looked down at the thing that lay on the floor. There was a thick yellow liquid pooling around the body.
I heard it behind me.
The sound of something forcing itself down the hallway. Hissing like a snake.
I ran. I ran down the hall, down the stairs. I came to a stop at where Jane lay. Unconscious. One of her legs broken for sure. But breathing. Alive. I wondered if that had been the thing that had been Roger's intent. Get her to safety the quickest way it could. Or perhaps that was overestimating its ability to reason or think. Maybe there wasn't enough left to think that far ahead.
I lifted Jane up off the ground. Took as much of her weight on my shoulders as I could. She started to stir as I dragged her out of the castle. Away from this place. I could hear her mumbling something. I knew what she was asking. Just like I knew why she hadn't left. She knew if she stayed here long enough it would happen again. Another kid gone. Another child snatched up by this place. Another chance. An opportunity to bring them home safe.
There was no bringing anyone taken by that place home. What went in didn't come out.
I rested Jane against a tree and sat down beside her.
"The kid... we have to find the kid..."
"He's gone Jane."
What was one more lie?
Maybe it wasn't a lie at all.
I remembered back when we grew up here. When the kids went missing. The ones who didn't come back. How you hoped maybe they were okay. Maybe they were still alive.
I prayed that kid wasn't.
Night had fallen. We'd sit a while and then go back to the car. Jane had lapsed back into unconsciousness. I'd get her home. Make sure she was safe. Get the hell out of this town and never come back.
The music played from the speakers. And louder than the music was the sound of soft laughter coming from somewhere within its halls.
Written by Alice Thompson29