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County Fair by Ray Printer Friendly

He walks slowly, making sure to look like he’s enjoying himself. The jeans he’s wearing are uncomfortable, too tight in the wrong places and too solid—he usually wears pants, which give his crotch some breathing room and allow him to bend his knees without giving himself a hernia. He wants to run away from this place, back to Cali, away from all these shitkickers and goofballs, back to civilization.

These clothes, aside from being downright ugly, make him feel more than a bit claustrophobic. Too tight, too restricting in all the wrong places, what is wrong with these people? Besides having IQ’s of about ten. He looks around the fair grounds, looks around at what they do for fun. For fun for Pete’s sake! Without even trying, he can think of about a hundred thousand different things he would rather do for fun than run around a pasture, sniffing pig shit.

“How you doin’?” he asks a mother that’s passing by with a baby carriage. She looks like she could have been pretty at one time, maybe before she plopped out her three children, before she decided that the only thing she needed to do with her life was marry her abusive high school sweetheart, and breed white trash. Two in the carriage, one trailing behind, it’s face all dirty and snotty, the clothes stained and disgusting—something that the Salvation Army would scoff at. She looks to be all of about nineteen.

She nods her head, smiles at him, and wanders off into the crowd.

It’s his third year in this business, and contrary to what one might think, this is actually the hardest part.

County fairs. One of the most convincing arguments for evolution—these people haven’t even begun to evolve from monkeys. One thing, though, is the food is good. It would almost have to be, considering the size of these people. He looks around, the smile still firmly glued to his face, and does an internal head-shake at the obesity of these people. Perhaps living in L.A. has spoiled him, but still. People should really know when to stop eating.

He’s just arrived, and he intentionally parked his car on the far side of the fairgrounds—away from the animal showing areas, away from the stalls and pens where the animals are fed and kept until show time. It’s like a horrible nightmare, where all of the characters from Charlotte’s Web have come alive, and they’re all shitting. When the wind blows, you’re immediately covered head to toe in dust, and in your head, there’s this voice telling you that at least 95% of that dust that you just inhaled is the feces of one kind of animal or another.

He shudders, and looks a little harder—better to get this business over with. The parade isn’t until tomorrow, and that’s when they’ll tally the vote for the beauty pageant—Ms. Kansas cornpone or whatever—and she’ll ride down the street on the float, waving all pretty at everyone. That’s usually when he moves in, is that night at the fair, when she’s feeling at the top of her game, when she’s feeling that maybe she is something special.

But if he can find someone tonight, even if she isn’t quite as pretty, he’ll take her and go.

He hears the rumbling of thunder in the distance, and mentally curses. If the fair gets rained out tonight, he’ll for sure have to stay another day, and if the rain continues through the parade and tomorrow night, this entire trip is wasted. Nothing worse than going back busted.

He picks up the pace a little. Not too much, though, because a man walking fast around a county fair is more memorable—you’re supposed to be having a good time, just mosey around and enjoy yourself. If you’re walking fast, that means there’s something wrong, and if there’s something wrong, people tend to remember you.

He strolls by the concession stand a picks up a cotton candy—a pink cloud of sugar wrapped on top of a big paper cone. He’s found out that for some reason, women seem more comfortable talking to a guy that’s eating cotton candy. He heads towards the ferris wheel, the children’s laughter raking his nerves like knuckles across a cheese grater. He smiles and nods friendly to everyone he passes, which feels fake and obvious but he knows it looks like the real deal.

He passes the game booths—dart-throw, shooting gallery, basketball toss. None of these games are fixed—this thing isn’t really about making money, it’s just something the community does every year. Sure, they probably make some cash, but the main objective is to let people have some fun. He passes the ticket booth, and looks at the two old women inside. They’re talking and laughing, and they occasionally look up to make sure that no one is waiting in line for tickets.

Tickets aren’t in too high demand right now—mostly people buy all the tickets they’ll need the first night of the fair. There’s a small roller coaster—at it’s peak, it rises perhaps eight feet off the ground—the ferris wheel, a miniature train that takes its passengers in a wide circle around the fair grounds, and something called “The Bullet,” which looks like an uppercase “I.” People sit in compartments at what would be the top and the bottom of the “I,” and then the entire thing starts spinning around in a clockwise motion. A few minutes later, it stops, and then start spinning counter-clockwise. There are also a few rides for the kids, mostly little boats, cars, or helicopters that go around and around in circles for about three minutes while the crappy calliope music plays.

The rides are as unimpressive as the people, basically, which means that there isn’t all that much use for the tickets.

The ferris wheel is on the other side of the ticket booth, and there seems to be a line, mostly full of children, which is not what he was hoping for at all, but is pretty much what he expected. He avoids the line, and instead goes and stands next to the fence that circles the wheel. It’s a small picket fence, about three feet high, supposed to be painted white, but it hasn’t been repainted in some time, and it’s got specks of mud and grass all over it. It would have been better if it had been clean, so that he could lean theatrically on it, but again, he knew what to expect. He stands close, looking up at the ferris wheel, and zones out. No need to pay attention to the goings on around him—it’s now a waiting game.

This trick doesn’t always work—occasionally, some thick-necked, small-penised country boy will feel a need to prove his masculinity, so he’ll meander up and explain how that he don’t like the way this stranger is lookin’ at the ferris wheel. Instead of any kind of confrontation, it’s best just to apologize, explain that you were “wool gathering” (an expression he had never heard until he started this gig), and go on about your business. That doesn’t happen often, though, and besides, that’s how you play the game. It either works or it doesn’t. But he’s got a good feeling about tonight.

In fact, he catches movement out of the corner of his eye after only a short while, and he’s pretty sure she’s just what he’s looking for. After a few years in this business, you get a knack for reading both people and situations. How to read them and how to play them.

She’s a shy one, not really willing to talk, at first. She stands next to him for a minute, working up some courage. He lets her. You can’t force things, or the final sale is that much more difficult. You let it seem like they instigated everything, and they’re much more likely to jump on a plane and ride out West with you.

“How you doin’?” She finally asks. He jumps, just a little, just enough to show that he had no idea she was there, that’s how deep in thought he was.

“I’m, uh…I’m good. How are you?”

“I’m doin’ good. You look pretty serious about that ferris wheel. Didn’t anyone ever tell ya that they’re for fun, not for serious?”

He laughs a little, but makes sure that a bit of sadness shows through. “Yeah. I was, you know, just zoning out.”

“You been standin’ there for ‘bout ten minutes,” she says. He looks at his watch—twenty two, actually, but he figures he can let it slide.

“Yeah, I just…sometimes I just like to watch it turn, you know? Watch the people smile and laugh and have fun. It reminds me of- You know what? Not important.” He shakes his head a little, like he’s trying to clear out a couple of cobwebs, and then holds out his hand. “My name’s Andy Dillon, by the way.”

“I’m Mandy. Mandy Mae Roop.” She smiles her beautiful country-girl smile, and shakes his hand. Mandy Mae Roop, and a smile like that, the camera will love her, it will positively eat her up.

“Nice to meet you, Mandy Mae Roop.”

“It’s just Mandy. People ‘round here, they call me Mandy Mae, but I don’t like it too much.”

“Oh?”

“Mandy Mae? It’s so hick! Just call me Mandy, ‘kay?”

“Sure thing.”

“So, you’re not from here—I’d know. And I doubt you’re from Crystal Springs, either—too clean cut. So where you from?”

“California.”

“California? Where at in California?”

“As cliché as it sounds, Hollywood.”

“No way!”

‘Yep.”

“What are you doin’ all the way out here in Bumfuck, Kansas?”

He allows himself a little laugh at her joke, like it’s something original, even though he’s heard it thousands of times. “My wife was from here.”

Her smile drops. “Oh, you’re married?”

“Was. She…passed away.” He shrugs, an indication that although it still hurts, he tries not to let it ruin his life.

“Oh, I am so sorry.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it—you couldn’t have known.”

“It’s just…shit, I’m always doin’ stuff like that!”

“Listen, don’t worry about it. It was a while back. You never really get over it, but the hurt mellows, you know?”

“How long ago was it? Oh, sorry, that’s none of my business. It’s just that, you know, you don’t look that old.”

He knows that he doesn’t look that old—maybe an old eighteen or a young nineteen. That’s part of what makes him so good at his job. That, and his gift of being able to read people so well. Of course, this one, you wouldn’t even need to be able to read people to know that she wants in his pants. Even more after finding out about his deceased wife. He’s never been married, of course, but some girls feel…what is it? Charitable? Nurturing? Something. Whatever it is, you can practically smell their panties when they hear the romantic story about how your wife died. With some of them, he actually has to get into the heart-warming tale of how he and his wife met, or even go as far as their parting conversation. With others, none of this bullshit works, they see through it and either screw him because he’s good looking or they go their separate ways. And that’s fine, although it’s not the point.

The point is to get them on that plane, get them out to Cali, and get them into the “movie” business. Once they’re on the plane, it’s usually easy going. Sometimes they still back out, but not very often. They get out to the coast, away from everything they’ve ever known, away from everything they’ve ever been taught to believe, and you show them around, show them a good time, show them a world that they never could have imagined.

You introduce them to people, you let them make friends with your friends. And you make that first movie, that one where she’s at some party, poolside, just an extra, but when she sees herself on screen, she’s addicted. Sure it’s a direct-to-DVD horror flick that will only be seen by a bunch of lonely single men who need something to beat off to on a Wednesday night, but that’s not the point. The point is, she’s in the movies now, and there’s nowhere to go but up.

“I’m twenty-three. We were married when we were eighteen, right out of high-school. I was living out in California, but my dad wanted me to come out here to get a summer of harvesting under my belt—‘real work’ is what he called it. He’s from around these parts, and my uncle has a farm out on the other side of Crystal Falls.” He doesn’t know this area, but he heard her mention the name before, and he wants to keep things familiar to her. Even though he’s a stranger, they have something in common—this Crystal Falls place—so he’s not such a stranger, anymore. Like that.

“I was working on the farm, and me and some of the other hands came over here for the fair, and that’s where I met her. I hemmed and hawed, flirted with her a little, and I finally got brave enough to ask her to ride the ferris wheel with me. She said yes, and when we stopped at the top, she kissed me. And that was happily ever after, right up until her plane went down two years ago.” He let a tear slide from his eye, but quickly wiped it away. They both acted like she hadn’t seen it.

He stood in silence, and she let him. After what would be substantial time to get his emotions under control, he spoke again. “I, you know…come back and…I don’t know, remember.”

“I’m so sorry,” she says. And she means it—her eyes are a little watery, too.

“Ah, shit, it’s…it’s okay, you know?” He makes sure his voice is a little unsteady, but not too much. Enough to show deep emotion, but still a strong, masculine, man. Thin line between being the movie star in a romantic movie and ending up back in your motel all alone, while she’s in a car with some of her friends somewhere, giggling and saying, “And then he started crying!

He gets just the right amount. “Anyway, so I’ll be heading back tomorrow, and I just thought I would, you know, come back and reminisce.”

“And then some stupid country girl had to come up and bother you, huh?”

“No! No, not at all! I’m, you know, glad you came over. Thinking about the past is lonely work.” He brightens up, and she brightens right up with him. “I don’t want to be forward or anything, but would you, uh, like to go for a ride with me? On the ferris wheel, I mean?”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah,” he says. “Why not? I mean, I got tickets.” He pulls out a hand full of tickets—more than he could ever use. He laughs at the amount, and she laughs right along with him. “I’m used to Disneyland, you know? You go there, you don’t want to run out of tickets.”

“I’ve never been.”

“Really? What about to Disney World?

“Nope.”

“That’s criminal,” he says, laughing. “How old are you?”

“Eighteen.” Lying. Maybe seventeen, probably sixteen.

“And you’ve never been to a Disney theme park?”

“I’ve never been anywhere. Bumfuck, Kansas, that’s all I ever been to, and probably that’s as far as I’ll ever get.”

“Ah, don’t say that. You can do anything you want.” By this time, they’re standing in line. “Look at me: I started in a small town, too—not out here, but probably about the same size—and I ended up with my own film company.”

“Nu-uh!”

“Yeah. It’s not huge, you know, it’s not like Warner Brothers or TCF, but-”

“What’s TCF?”

“Oh, sorry—Twentieth Century Fox. Nobody out west says the whole thing—takes too long.” He laughs, kind of self-deprecating.

“So you own your own movie company?”

“Actually, no—not anymore. I did, though. I always wanted to make movies, you know? So I saved my money, got a few grants, got a few loans, ended up making a couple flicks and starting up my own production company. But I only had those two ideas in me, I guess. I realized that I should leave it up to people who know what they’re doing. I ended up selling the company, but they kept me on as a talent scout. See, the thing is, my movies weren’t so great, but the actors and actresses I picked were terrific. So I sold the company for a bunch of money, and now I just travel around the world, looking for new talent.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yep. In fact, I flew into Denver from Rome three days ago.”

“That’s awesome!”

“You know, it really is. But I didn’t tell you that to brag. I’m just saying, you know—reach for the stars and all that.” It was their turn to climb into the seat, and when they had settled down for the ride, he saw that her hand was sitting remarkably close to his on the handrail. He looked at her and grinned—an innocent grin, one that made him look like a boy that’s just happy to be on the ride. She giggled, and although she didn’t say it, he knew exactly what she was thinking: “Oh, he’s so cute! Just like a little boy, with that smile.”

Cute as hell, sure enough: puppies, babies, and porn scouts.

Once she’s seen herself in the movies, she’s willing to do a little more to stay in them. The next time, maybe she’ll play one of the reckless teenagers that doesn’t pay attention to the legends about the deserted lake. This time, she has a few lines, and she also removes her shirt in a scene where she’s making out with the guy who is supposed to be her boyfriend in the movie, shortly before they both get killed. You don’t really see anything—just a quick flash of nipple, and it’s only because that’s what the studio demands. All in good fun.

Maybe it takes a little bit longer to get her to agree to go full frontal, but by this time, he’s already gone—off to find the next new talent. He still gets a percentage, though, unbeknownst to her. He’s a cameo player in her life, now, someone who is always too busy, just as she is.

By the time she realizes that she’s a porn actress, she’s already too ashamed of herself to go back to Kansas. After the one brief letter about being a movie star, she can’t go back and explain to everyone that she was just a set of tits and a flash of bush. She can’t stand that kind of humiliation, but if she doesn’t do what the “studio” is now demanding of her, she won’t be able to pay rent, she won’t be able to live. Maybe she’ll fight it at first, maybe she’ll get a job waitressing, or cleaning motel rooms, but in the end, she’ll break down and do it. Or heck, maybe she’ll like it. It happens, sometimes. They get out into the world, shed their inhibitions, and are mad to take on the world. Either way.

Just one guy at first, in a higher-budget flick with a real title and everything. And she’ll either make it as a porn star or she’ll fail. It either works or it doesn’t. If it does, she’ll have money, implants, and fame. If it doesn’t, she’ll end up as a cheap throw-away reel for free internet porn sites, the girl with a dead look on her face while three guys fuck her as quick as possible and then bust all over her face. And after she falls from there? Well, it’s better not to think of that.

For the most part, the company he scouts for is legit—if you consider the pornography industry as legitimate. Not major players, but they’ve got a good little business going. But there have been a few times when he’ll get a check, a very large check, and he knows better than to ask how this girl that’s been sucking dick on the internet—a hundred bucks per ejaculation—somehow rocketed into the circle of fame where just his percentage check alone is fifteen hundred bucks. Better not to ask, better not to think about it. And if he never sees her again, never hears about her again? Probably went back to Kansas.

“How do you know?” She asks.

“How do I know what?” he asks, even though he knows exactly what she’s talking about.

“How do you know who’s going to be a star?”

“It’s just one of those things,” he says, which is actually one of the only truths he’s told her all night. “I can just read people really well, I know what they’re capable of.”

“So have you looked around here at all?”

“Here? Nah. I generally avoid small places like this—small towns, close families, it’s usually more difficult to get people to come with you. Either that, or they get out west and freak out. There are guys that are always coming out here, thinking they’re going to find the next superstar, the next big name, the next whoever, you know? And they end up with some crying girl—or boy, for that matter—that just wants to come back home to Kansas. The way I figure it is that people who want to act come from all over the country to get to California. They come from all over the world to get to California, you know? What’s the point of going across the country when you can just walk into a diner down the street and find someone that’s actually looking for you too, you know?”

“That makes sense,” she says, and she looks a little sad, but she’s trying not to show it.

“Not that there’s not talent out here,” he adds. “It’s just…well, like I said—most of the people out here don’t want to leave, and if they leave, they can’t handle it.”

“Man, if I could get out of this town, I would never look back.” She’s looking out over the handrail, out at the town, and not with fondness. He knows right then, knows for sure, she’s in, she’s a winner. Thank goodness, they can be on a plane tomorrow morning, back to the sun, away from the smell of cow shit, and pig shit, and whatever else kind of animals shit all over the place out here. He looks at her face and knows she wants away from the shit almost as much as he does.

“You don’t mean that,” he tells her.

“The hell I don’t!” She glares at the town, then turns back to him. “You know what? You just might see me out there someday, or in some movie someday, and when you do, I just want you to know that you’re the reason.”

“Beg pardon?”

“I really can make it, I bet.”

“Of course you can.”

“Someday,” she says, and then rests her chin on the rail in front of them. The ferris wheel ride is over, and it’s a slow process unloading and reloading passengers. They have perhaps five minutes before their ride is over.

“Are you serious?” he asks her.

“What?” she sits up, looks at him hopefully.

“I mean, do you really want to come out to Cali?”

“Yeah! Yeah, I do.” He knows what she’s thinking—that he’s going to tell her to save her money, come on out, he’ll set her up with a gig of some kind. But those aren’t the stakes, those aren’t even the rules of the game.

“Listen, I…oh, maybe this isn’t such a good idea. I mean, maybe I should just give you the number of a director I know or something—he might be looking for some help later, if you ever make it out there.”

“No, what? What were you going to say?”

“The thing is, I was supposed to pick up a guy when I was overseas, but he didn’t want to wait, and it’s a whole long story. The thing is, he’s not going to be flying back, and we have an extra ticket. I don’t think it would be hard to transfer it, you know, if you wanted to come. But, you know, I know that’s a huge decision to make on top of a ferris wheel with some stranger.”

He can tell she’s excited. Nervous and scared, but mostly excited. All her life, she’s probably heard horror stories about girls just like herself getting kidnapped by guys just like him. But no, not quite. Those guys that kidnap, they aren’t guys like him—he’s too nice, too clean-cut, too sweet-looking. And the girls that get kidnapped, they aren’t like her—she’s smarter than that, she’s tougher than that.

“I don’t know,” he says, looking flustered. “Maybe it’s better if you just forget I said anything. It was just, you know, being so close to someone, being able to talk to someone. I mean, I’m around people all the time, but you’re the first person I’ve actually talked to in a long time.” He laughs that self-deprecating laugh again. “And you’re just so, you know, so pretty.”

“You think I’m pretty?”

“I know you’re pretty. That part isn’t even in question.” And then, before he can say more, she leans over and kisses him. Perfect timing. He knows, too, knew it was coming. Because the two of them right now, they’re at the very top of the ferris wheel, and he knows exactly what she’s thinking.

She’s thinking this will be a love story, this will be a movie some day, and it will be ever so romantic because that’s where he first kissed his wife, up on top of the ferris wheel, and now here he is—getting a second chance. And she’s getting out of town. It’s like they’re rescuing each other, and that’s so beautiful, so sweet, so romantic.

The kiss ends when the wheel starts turning again. “I’ll go,” she says. “I’ll go with you.”

“Are you sure? Don’t say it unless you’re sure. I mean, you can always come back, but…people aren’t always forgiving, you know?”

“Oh, don’t I know it.” He doesn’t know exactly what she’s thinking of, not specifically, but he knows it probably had to do with some stupid argument she had with her parents about curfew or dating boys—something like that. “I’m going for it,” she says.

They’ve reached the bottom of the ferris wheel now, and the man at the bottom unsnaps the rail and opens it for the two of them to step out.

“This is going to be so cool!” She squeals. He doesn’t like it when chicks do that squealing thing, but she’s getting him out of here a day earlier, so he figures it’s okay for now. “I can’t wait!”

“Listen to me, though,” he says. He stops walking, turns her gently to look at him. “I have to leave tomorrow. I mean, I have to leave Denver tomorrow. That’s what, six hours from here?”

“Yeah,” she says, understanding dawning.

“My flight is at…” he pulls a paper out of his jeans pocket, it’s a list of movies he want to order from Netflix when he gets back home, but she doesn’t need to know that. “It’s at ten fifteen.”

“That means you have to leave tonight.”

He looks at her sadly. “It means I have to leave tonight. You won’t even get to sleep on it, Mandy.” He stresses her name, very subtly, so that she realizes that he didn’t call her Mandy Mae, but only deep down in her brain, maybe in her heart. Somewhere inside, she’ll realize that this is her chance to be a grown-up, to be an adult. This is a chance to grab hold of her dreams, and she knows that if she doesn’t do it now, she never will.

“Is there any way you can reschedule your flight?”

He shakes his head, slow, sad. “I wish I could. But the people out there, the activity, it’s not like around here, you know? Life’s always going, and if you don’t do your part, they get someone who will. I mean, I’m good, but there are twenty guys just waiting to take my spot, you know?”

“Yeah.” She stares at the ground, contemplating. Thinking with a child’s mind, unable to see the future, unable to see that she’s about to make a mistake that she will never be able to repair. She looks back up. “I’m going. Can I run home, grab some clothes and stuff?”

“Sure thing. You know the Terryfield Motel?”

“Yeah—only motel in town,” she laughs a nervous laugh.

“Yeah,” he laughs with her, nervous as well. Of course, he’s not nervous. He’s excited, and ready to get the hell out of this shit-kicker town. “That’s where I’m staying. Room 101. I’ll be there until about two in the morning. If you want to come, just be there before then, okay?”

“I’ll be there.” They’ve walked out into the darkness of the parking area now. It’s not a real parking lot—just a dirt road lined with pickup trucks. “This is my car,” she says. Which he knew. He’s actually been letting her lead the way, and the fact that she led them to her car is the most convincing evidence that she’s ready to go.

They kiss again, slow, romantic, whatever. The kiss ends, she gets into her car, and he walks into the dark, listening to her junker turn over. It takes three times, but it finally catches. By the time her headlights snap on, he’s already hidden in the shadows. He waits for her to drive away, then he heads pack to the other side of the fairgrounds, picking up a pretzel on the way. These hillbillies are stupid, but they sure can make a hellacious pretzel.

.

“Mandy Mae Roop.”

“How do you spell that last name?”

“Shit, Harv, I don’t know. Probably two O’s. Just do your best—if it’s spelled a little wrong, the airline will think that they just had a typo.”

“And she’s how old?”

“She said eighteen, but I think she’s lying. My guess is a late sixteen, almost seventeen.”

“That could be good, we get her into production quick enough.”

“I don’t want to hear about that shit, Harv. I just want to hear that the tickets are waiting, and that I’ll be in L.A. by breakfast.”

“Yeah, Andy, no sweat. No sweat. You want the confirmation number?”

“Email it to me.”

“Too bad you couldn’t get any pictures of her.”

“Trust me, Harv. She’s just what you’re looking for. The camera will love this girl. It will eat her up.”

Eat her up and spit her out.

“She better be a good one—these plane tickets don’t buy themselves, you know.”

“For fuck’s sake, Harv, have I ever let you down?”

“There’s always a first time.”

He hangs up the phone. Harv is always trying to act like a big-shot, rather than what he really is, which is basically a secretary.

.

It’s a few minutes after two, and he’s starting to doubt that she’ll show up. But he’s never been wrong before, and he knew she was going to come with him, knew it. He doesn’t want to even think about what will happen if he’s starting to lose his touch.

He decides to wait another five minutes, and then he’s out, girl or no girl. The plane tickets are bought, he’s already got himself revved to get out of Shitsville, and the worst that’s going to happen if he goes back empty-handed is that he’ll have to pay back the cost of both plane tickets, and listen to that annoying little dick Harv whine at him.

He’s just grabbing his suitcase off the bad when he hears a knock at the door. He opens it and finds her standing there. “Sorry I’m late,” she says. “I almost chickened out.”

“Mandy, if you don’t-”

“No, I want to go. Believe me, I want to go. But just ‘cause I want to, that don’t make it less scary.”

“It’s okay,” he tells her. He puts down his suitcase and wraps his arms around her, holds her, and then kisses her on the forehead. “You ready to do this?”

“Yep.”

.

He lets her talk. She’s nervous as hell, which makes her a chatterbox, but that’s fine. The only thing on the radio out here is country music, and he would rather listen to cats screw than listen to country music. He’s attentive, keeping an ear open for emotional ammunition, just in case he needs something else to push her with at the airport. Out of all the places to have her change her mind, the airport is the absolute worst. You don’t want to get caught smuggling an underage girl across the country, especially if she’s crying and rambling on about being in the movies. That can become a bad scene real quick.

She isn’t showing any indication of backing out, though. She’s talking a mile a minute, but it’s all about what she’s gonna do when she gets there, how everyone back home is gonna be so jealous, how she just can’t wait.

He stares ahead, trying to keep his eyes from freaking out. Driving through Kansas on a moonless night is like shining a flashlight at a television that’s been turned off, while sitting in an all-black room, with the lights turned off. Even if you could see, there isn’t shit to see. His eyes follow the white line in the middle of the road, solid, broken, solid, broken. Don’t pass, Pass, Don’t Pass, Pass. Highway hypnosis, and he realizes that not only has she stopped talking, but he’s also about to doze off.

He snaps his head up, glances at the worried look on her face. How long have they been driving? An hour? Two? He doesn’t know. Things are fuzzy, and that’s bad. Can’t stay on top of your game with a fuzzy head. Shit gets confused, lies start crossing each other, and that can ruin everything. Maintain he screams inside his head. Can’t be more than a couple of hours away from Denver. Just stay in control until you get on the plane, and then go to sleep, no matter how much she wants to talk.

“Are you okay?” She asks.

He starts to tell her that he’s fine, but a wave of dizziness rolls over him, and he can barely keep the car on the road. “Might need to pull over for a second, get some fresh air.”

And did she smile? No. No, it’s just his head. Images are blurry, practically spinning. He pulls over and sees that she just looks concerned. Worried. About him some, sure. Mostly, though, she’s seeing her dreams of being a movie star going down the drain. She’s seeing a trip to the emergency room, she’s seeing her parents showing up, taking her back to Bumfuck, Kansas.

“I’m fine,” he tells her as he opens the door. “Just…just got really sleepy all of the sudden, you know?”

“Sure,” she says, opening her door, too. “It happens to a lot of the truckers out here—they just go for too long, and then the sleep just knocks ‘em out.”

Sure. He hasn’t had more than four hours of sleep in the last two days, it’s just catching up with him, is all. But that’s not right, is it? He got plenty of sleep last night. And besides, he hasn’t ever really needed much sleep. In L.A., he stays out until five in the morning and is back at work by eight, and he can keep that up for two weeks solid.

He staggers out of the car, fighting to keep his eyes open. He holds on to the roof, but his knees are buckling. He tumbles to the ground, expecting her to rush over to make sure he’s okay.

“You’re really good,” she says, strolling around the back of the car casually. “I mean, you’re really good. At first, I thought you might be one of us.”

“What?” He’s asleep already, that must be it. What the hell is she talking about?

“I mean, the way you were saying exactly what you were supposed to, and you even had a bit of the scent.”

“What? What scent?”

The scent. Helps people to believe what they know they shouldn’t believe. It’s what we use to separate our prey.” His eyes clear for just a second—at least he thinks they do, but that can’t be right—and he sees her canine teeth jutting out of her mouth, and they seem to be too long, and pointing at him. “You know all about prey, don’t you, Andy?”

“I’m…I don’t know what you mean. I’m just…have to get to…Denver, you know?”

“Yes, I know. I know all about Denver, and I know all about California. Lucrative business you’ve got going on out there. Quite an elaborate scheme to make snuff films, don’t you think?”

“Not snuff films…real…movies.” He doesn’t even know how he’s still talking. His mind is spinning, images in his head all violent and churning, like boiling sewage, and every few seconds he feels a sting inside, someone taking a pair of tweezers to his brain.

“You think?” She laughs. “I can see into your head, Andy. That gift you have for reading people, I have that but a hundred times sharper. I know what’s going on in your mind, and I know about the things you’ve done. And more importantly, you know about the things you’ve done. You can try to pretend that you don’t know. You can try to pretend that the worst thing you’re guilty of is being some sort of sexual predator. But you know, deep down, that they all die.”

“No…”

“Yes. And you know it.”

And of course he does. Images being put back into his head, more violent than the ones extracted, girls being raped and slaughtered, men with cameras, some sort of beast tearing flesh apart. But where did that one come from?

“What?” he whispers, his strength gone.

“That last one, that’s just so you’ll know,” she says, smiling, and then opens her mouth wide, and he sees nothing but sharp teeth.


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