The Beach Episode, Part 2 (83)

The first order of business was tickets, since that was where Hyacinth was waiting for them. (Also she had Erik’s eye in her purse and he wanted it back.) There were several booths scattered throughout the park, but the front-most was the largest and busiest. She and Bethany had made it to about mid-queue by the time the rest of the household showed up. Hyacinth blew another one of those sharp unladylike whistles which cleared a little space around her and made her quite obvious, then she cupped both hands around her mouth and shouted, “Everyone throw money at me! I’ll get one of those big packages where they give you a discount and we can divide it up!”

One hundred tickets came with five-percent off, as well as a coupon for two free cotton candies at the stand by the carousel and half-price mozzarella sticks at Cafe a la Mode. Everyone agreed that Cafe a la Mode would be a fine place to purchase ice cream, divide up the tickets, plot tactics and find out what the hell a ‘mozzarella stick’ was.

They ate outside. They sort of had to. Calliope had to be very gently picked up and carried out of Cafe a la Mode by Ann and Sanaam when she encountered a full-wall mural of Min-Min the ant.

I hate him!

“I know dear. I know. You’ve mentioned it. She has mentioned it,” Ann told Sanaam, aside. “At great length. You just haven’t been here. What did you say it was, dear?”

“He’s a commercial shill!” Calliope snarled. “The putrid core of all that is wrong with advertising and mass consumption! A crime against the laws of man and nature and aesthetics! A camel designed by a committee! A freakish homunculus inseminated by focus groups and incubated in a dungheap of kawaii culture!”

“Yes, I thought it was something like that,” Ann said.

“That’s an awful lot to put on an ant,” Sanaam said.

And may it crush him!” She was still squirming and trying to get away, but at least she had stopped kicking. “Just let me vandalize him a little, you guys! I’ve got a pencil! They won’t notice!”

“I think the screaming may have made them a little suspicious,” Sanaam said.

“I think it’s best to hate him from afar, dear,” Ann said. “Perhaps you can fill out a comment card later. What would you like for lunch? I’ll get it for you.”

“…Burger,” she said sullenly. “Frites… and a rootbeer float.”

“Er, that would be a Min-Min brand rootbeer, Calliope, do you know that?”

He’s not on the damn cups is he?

“…I’ll just check and see.”

He was not on the damn cups. Calliope did not appear overly-thrilled with her lunch and she was still intermittently muttering about commercialism, but at least she was eating. Bethany demanded Mordecai scrape every trace of relish from her hamburger bun before she would.

“Is it the taste? You don’t like the taste? Because I can fix that!”

“Rabbits pee on vegetables,” Bethany said miserably. “And eggs come from a chicken’s butt.”

“Hyacinth, I thought you were kidding about scarring her for life,” Mordecai said.

“Yeah, I thought I was, too,” Hyacinth said.

Bethany flagged down a young man with a striped shirt and name tag who was clearing the tables, “Excuse me, mister, where do your mozzarella sticks come from?”

“Uh… A distributor.”

“Okay.” She ate one.

“They’re like… mutant frites,” Hyacinth opined. She broke one in two. There were not enough ‘sticks’ for everybody to have one each. “Oh! They’re soft. Wow. Look at that.”

“Yew,” said Bethany. A snot-like filament of cheese was stretching between the two pieces. “Don’t play with ’em, Miss Hyacinth!”

“Mordecai, you want some of this?”

“Not in the least,” he said. He took half. Sanaam and the General also split one, and Ann and Calliope. The children were allowed separate sticks.

“Aw, there’s none left for Milo,” Calliope said.

“I don’t think he minds,” Ann said.

ANN, HOW COULD YOU EAT THAT? IT LOOKS LIKE A DISEASE!

“…and I don’t think they’d be very nice warmed up at home.”

“I don’t think they were very nice warmed up here,” Maggie said.

“Nah, they’re okay,” Erik said. “Like cheese on potato wedges, except we didn’t have any potatoes.”

“Sir, is that thing about making me forget the concept of cheese still on offer?” Sanaam said.

“No,” said the General.

Hyacinth ended up keeping most of the tickets — she had a purse, and an inclination to explore the park, unlike the other purse people. Sanaam and Mordecai could visit her for refills. Ann had volunteered to carry the big bag with the towels and keep Calliope company. Wandering up and down the boardwalk and looking in the shops would probably be quite enough park for Calliope, but they took a couple of tickets on the off chance she could fit into a dark ride. The General wanted no tickets at all. “I will keep myself busy,” she said.

“Not more seagulls, Mom,” said Maggie.

“Only as a last resort,” the General said.

A yellow man with a little white-haired girl clinging around his neck pulled Mordecai aside as he was attempting to spot-clean Erik and Bethany with napkins near the trash can. The little girl had a knee-length white dress, a floppy sun hat, and a green balloon tied around her wrist with string. She appeared quite done with her park experience.

“Hey, listen, they’ve got a petting zoo set up over by the bumper cars…”

“I like petting things!” Bethany cried.

The man shook his head. “Ponies.” He shifted the girl in his arms and walked on towards the pier.

“Aw, man, c’mon,” said Bethany. She kicked the ground. Erik was similarly disappointed. Not only no petting things, no bumper cars, either.

“Should we boycott the racist petting zoo and the bumper cars, Daddy?” Maggie asked in a low voice.

“I don’t know… Maybe unless there’s something Erik and Mordecai and Bethany want to do that we don’t.”

“Are the teacups too close, do you think?” Erik said.

“I’m not sure about the petting zoo,” said Mordecai, “but I think they’re too close to the hamburgers and the hot fudge sundae.” He was hoping to at least postpone the vomiting.

“What about the Sea Breeze?”

“I think that would be perfect,” Mordecai said. There was bound to be a line, because of the magic, and plenty of time to digest. The ride itself didn’t involve spinning around in a tight circle as fast as the zero-impulse-control child with you wanted to go, too.

———

Late summer was the season for magic rides, when attendance and maintenance and weather coincided to keep them briefly profitable. If not for the storms, and the strikes that loved tall, narrow objects and were capable of taking out every intricate enchantment in one blow, it might have been worth keeping them up all year — even through freezing temperatures and snow. Magic was capable of providing a wide variety of effects, both subtle and sublime. Fast speeds and sharp turns that physical material and physics itself could not hold up to. Cars that climbed up vertical walls, or switched to the undersides of tracks. Frictionless gears and cables and impossible methods of propulsion — such as on the Gravity Drop, which had nothing at all to do with gravity and was forced down faster than it would’ve fallen if punted out of an airship at the same height. Repeatedly.

And then there was the Sea Breeze, which, during its two-month span, unequivocally crushed the Ferris wheel for ocean views and acrophobia, as well as providing a cool breeze on even the hottest days.

“Is it optical magic, Maggie?” Erik asked, pointing. (Maggie had gotten quite a few lessons in optical magic earlier in the year, when Ann’s performance in a play with special effects provided an excuse.) “Do they just hide the chains and stuff?” The WindRider, a smaller, non-magical version of the same concept that operated year-round, offered a clear visual comparison of where chains and metal scaffolding ought to be. On the Sea Breeze the swing seats, which were double occupancy, dangled in mid air with only the sky above and an alternating pattern of pavement, sand and ocean below.

“Uh-uh,” Maggie said. “I mean, you could, but it’d be really hard. It’s all the motion and the angles. The whole thing spins.” She gestured with both hands, following the motion of the seats above. “It would be really hard to hide the edges. It’s much easier just to code where they are in relative space and anchor them somewhere. The chairs, I mean. I think they’re hooked up to that little wheel on the top, there.” At the top of the central spire, there was a small metal wheel that would be thoroughly inadequate to support the weight of the seats or the span of the motion if they had been attached in physical reality. “It’s kinda safer that way, too, because there’s no metal fatigue or moving parts. The magic won’t come unglued unless you damage the physical anchors enough that it can’t recognize them anymore.”

“Which is the sort of thing that would be incredibly obvious and then we would not get on the ride,” said Mordecai. He had never considered the possibility that there was no support system there at all. Well, not a real one. “Right, Magnificent?”

Maggie nodded expansively. “Oh, yeah. You’d hafta go after ’em with a sledgehammer.” She grinned. “Or Miss Hyacinth could do it, if she climbed up there and put a hand on it…”

“Which she will not,” said Mordecai, glaring at Hyacinth’s evident amusement. “Because she does not kill things.”

“…or just one magic strike,” Maggie went on. “Everyone’d go fly-y-y-ing!”

“Which never happens in September,” said Mordecai. “Don’t worry, Erik.”

Erik did not appear too terribly worried. “I think it’s… neat!”

“Centripetal force,” Maggie said, nodding.

There was, at least, a physical chain that the ride operator drew across their laps. ‘Lap,’ in Sanaam’s case, as his proportions often left him a one-man double occupancy. This bumped Maggie into a chair with Bethany and left Hyacinth sharing a seat with a nervous woman who kept saying, “I’ve never done this before! Are you sure it’s safe?”

“You can hold my hand if you like,” said Hyacinth.

“All right, Erik?” Mordecai said.

“Shh,” Erik said. You’re ruining the moment, he might’ve added, if he were a little older and a lot more articulate. He closed his eyes.

He could hear and feel the low bass rumble of the motor powering the physical parts of the ride under everything. Above that was the constant babble of voices, an orchestra in every pitch — words, laughter and regular swells of screaming from the other rides. The high-pitched shrieks of excited children were particularly obvious, sometimes blending with the cries of the gulls. Somewhere in the middle and much fainter was the hiss of the wind and the sea. Woven through this tapestry were the sounds of music, a lot of the rides played music. He could pick out the organs on the carousel and by the dance floor/skating rink, snatches of familiar melody that never went on long enough for him to place, as well as the programmed boops and blips of the foreign-sounding geartunes that played before the Aladdin’s Lamp and the Xinese Ladder started up. This was punctuated with booming simulated laughter from the direction of the boardwalk, the sound of the big waving clown on the roof of the Laff in the Dark funhouse.

The scents were equally varied. The ocean, obviously. The ocean was unavoidable. But equally strong was the smell of everything fried and frying — fish, chicken, potatoes, corn dogs, fritters and cakes, and other things that ought not to be fryable at all. (Cherry Min-Min on a stick was popular this season.) Buttered popcorn and sweet caramel made an inedible yet still somehow tantalizing counterpoint with the petting zoo animals, their leavings and accouterments — dusty hay and pungent droppings were detectable even at this distance.

All of this swelled and faded, carried on the wind, blocked and billowed by moving bodies and rides. It was as if the park were a living thing, breathing and circling around him.

Then the operator’s fuzzy amplified voice asked them please not to rock the swings while the ride was in motion and they took off.

There was motion: subtle at first, and increasing. The swing was pulled sideways and Erik was nudged gently against his uncle’s hip as the ride sped up. The sounds and the smells all melted away, and then it was only the wind. It was a little like Maggie’s atmospheric effect, except way better because it was more.

I’m flying, Erik thought. He stretched out the his hand. (That was okay. It wasn’t like the rollercoaster with scaffolding that could take your arm off.) The wind felt like a solid thing. Soft, cold, and a little bouncy. Firm enough to carry him. Not like Maggie, who really could fly — she had to work for it. It was effortless. Of course, he had to trade going wherever he wanted for however long he wanted and just circle around a pole for five minutes instead, but he was okay with that. He smiled and he opened his eyes so he could look around for the rest of the time. The ground was a brown and gray smear beneath his wiggling shoes and the sky above was like a blue and white porcelain bowl.

Mordecai reached forward and firmly wrapped his fingers around the back of Erik’s shirt collar. The boy was leaning forward with both arms spread like he thought it might be a good idea to jump. His butt was still firmly in the seat, but Maggie’s guess at the ride mechanics had left Mordecai feeling a little paranoid — and he really couldn’t make out any chains or scaffolding up there. Not even a safety line, like for a mountain climber. An occupation which seemed a great deal less risky at the moment. Nobody needed to oil the mountain, or put rivets in it.

How much are they paying the people that maintenance these things? thought Mordecai. Enough? Do they like doing this or are they just trying to get through the day so they can go home and put their feet up? ‘Sure, I think those bolts are tight enough for fifty scints an hour!’

“Hey,” Erik said mildly. He reached back and brushed his uncle’s hand away. It was a little bit scolding, but he was still smiling. Like when he’d been a lot younger and Mordecai had to explain to him about petting animals gently — at a nice, safe, pony-free attraction.

‘Not too much,’ thought Mordecai. He sighed and folded his hands in his lap. ‘They don’t like that.’

Erik sat back and contented himself with running a single hand through the breeze for the remainder of the ride.

It was over all too soon — for most parties involved. A cute little girl in bathing suit with pink hearts on it for whom Mordecai thankfully did not feel responsible staggered and threw up as soon as she got out of her seat. There was already sawdust on the ground. The ride operator dispensed a little more of it from a bucket.

“You know, it can’t be exactly like Maggie said or else the seats wouldn’t swing out like that,” Erik said contemplatively. “They’d stay where the magic said and just turn with the wheel.”

“You’re very smart, dear one,” Mordecai said.

“Didn’t Mom used to do countermagic during the war?” Maggie asked. “That’s how you guys met, right?”

“The story has been told,” Sanaam said, nodding.

Maggie did not seem particularly interested in hearing it again. She nodded, too. “Yeah. Mom could probably break that whenever she wanted.” She indicated the ride. “She wouldn’t even have to touch it like Hyacinth.”

Sanaam blinked and stared at the vulnerable, completely unattached seats which moved at high speeds. He felt a sudden, overwhelming sympathy for the ignorant people who got mad at his daughter’s simple shower curtain, and other incidences of magic in public.

It’s like waving a gun around, he thought. ‘Hi, everybody! I could kill you if I wanted! I’m not right now, but I totally could!’ I’m only all right with it because I know she won’t… Probably.

The woman who had been sitting next to Hyacinth apologized profusely. “Oh, don’t be silly,” said Hyacinth. She pressed a fist to the side of her head with thumb and smallest finger extended and mouthed call me at the departing woman’s back, not so the woman could see her, but Sanaam and Mordecai did. Sanaam laughed and Mordecai shook his head at the sky.

“What now?” Maggie said.

“Teacups! Teacups!” Bethany cried, dancing a small circle like a victorious warrior.

“We’ll see about the teacups,” Mordecai said.

“Yay!” said Bethany… and Erik, and Maggie. And Sanaam, too.

———

Ann was standing in front of a shop window and appeared transfixed. This time it wasn’t shoes or dresses or shiny objects but a dull metal machine.

“You like salt water taffy, Ann?” Calliope said beside her. Their faces were reflected in the glass front of Battaglia’s Fine Sweets, wreathed in old-timey gold font with a logo of a striped peppermint in the middle.

Ann twitched an embarrassed smile and pointed in the window. “Milo likes the machine. He’d like to break it and take it apart, but he knows he can’t do that.” She said this last part a little too firmly, as if Milo did not quite know that.

“It’s neat how it moves,” Calliope said, nodding. “Like a sleight-of-hand artist.” She made a few mystic passes in imitation and whipped out her empty hand, “Voila! The Ace of Spades! Is this your card?”

“Sometimes I do wonder, but I’d much prefer the Queen of Hearts,” Ann muttered. She shook her head, turned away from the window and smiled. “I’m sorry, Calliope, dear. I must really be boring you. Would you like to go in and have a look at all the candy?” They had already looked at stuffed animals, refrigerator magnets and postcards. Calliope had purchased two of the latter, pre-stamped, for eventual sending to her parents. One had an endless succession of farmers climbing a mountain-sized potato with the aid of a pickaxe, captioned: ‘Pretty Fair Harvest This Year!’ The other had a comparatively-stationary cat sitting in a fruit bowl. This was captioned, in uneven print: ‘I iz a fuzzie oranje!’ Every once in a while the cat blinked, to unnerving effect.

“I like candy,” Calliope said. She frowned at Ann, “But I don’t like you carrying it around the whole day.” Ann already had the bag with the towels, and Sanaam’s pack. And she was carrying the big hat, since the boardwalk was shaded and the hat was kind of annoying and people kept bumping into it.

“I really don’t…”

Calliope grinned and snatched Ann by the arm. “Let’s go over by the dance floor and see if they still have the me!”

“I’m terribly sorry, dear,” Ann said. “The… the what?”

It works on steam, Ann! That’s why!

Calliope dragged her.

There was still an automatic steam-powered pipe organ (otherwise known as a ‘me’) by the dance floor, however it was not still a dance floor. Not when the magic rides were up.

‘Ouch’less Ice! the sweeping banner informed them. Numerous small signs which had been affixed to the low metal fence around the perimeter added a warning in red letters: The ‘ice’ is ouchless, the people are not. Please control your speed and be courteous to others.

A cackling teenager whizzed by on the opposite side of the fence, dodging the slower and more-uncertain crowd. At least no small children were present, they had twenty minutes reserved out of every hour. The teenager slipped in attempting to negotiate around a woman in high-heels and a bustled dress, landed hard on his backside, bounced three times in rapid succession like an acrobat on a trampoline and came to rest against the knees of a disapproving gentleman in a tan suit. This caused no abatement in the cackling. Several others had fallen and bounced less dramatically over the past few moments. Some of them were also laughing and few appeared skeptical of the effect.

A loud whistle blew, audible over the other whistling which was coming from the direction of the calliope (also Ann and Calliope). “Five minutes!

“Oh, no. Where’s my shoe?” the teenager said.

“Isn’t it great, Ann?” Calliope said, not in the direction of the ouchless ice. She climbed up two steps and flung a grandiose gesture at the pipe organ, which certainly deserved it. It was on a round raised platform, surrounded by a gilded cage, so you could watch it ‘perform.’ Everything was preprogrammed, of course, the majority of it on long paper rolls with punches, like a player piano that could go for days. The loud music and the steam escaping the pipes was naturally theatrical. To this had been added bright paint, ornate carvings, and animated figures that danced or conducted or bowed. At night, there were colored lights that blinked on and off, synchronized with the music and the bulbs strung around the dance floor to illuminate it.

“Do you like the fancy ladies?” Calliope asked. She pulled out an imaginary skirt with one hand and sketched a curtsey. There were two fancy ladies, one on each side of the organ, who were doing likewise, though more stiffly. They were not quite life-sized, with three-foot-high powdered hairstyles. The gentlemen accompanying them, resplendent in knee-breeches and tailcoats, bowed in response to each curtsey. They were stuck in an endless loop and never got around to dancing like their friends above them on the display. In the center, with his back to the steaming pipes, a man with a tricorn hat and a staff was directing them all. Every motion produced a faint ‘click.’ Under the music, at a near enough distance, the calliope sounded like a typewriter.

Ann was not quite able to take in the fancy ladies. Milo was too excited about the mechanics to shut up and let her look at the decorations. He’d never seen the thing moving before! There was a bellows! Where was the heat coming from?

“It’s, um, it’s very very nice, dear!” Ann said. She straightened reflexively to free up her diaphragm and raised her voice to Black Orchid levels to be heard above the racket. The calliope was in the middle of ‘The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down,’ possibly making fun of the carousel, which could be vaguely heard from here.

Ann, let’s break it! Tell them I can come back later and fix it!

Milo, no. No.

They won’t notice!

That’s not the point!

Ann’s smile was somewhat strained.

The attendants were clearing the ‘ice’ with more blowing of whistles, over multiple protestations of lost shoes (“We put them all in the bin at the end of the rink.”). The ‘skaters’ were pouring out of the gates on either side of the calliope, laughing, talking and admiring it. Some of them turned right around to get back in line and go again. Others were limping up to the bin with the lost shoes.

The music ended with a flourish. The calliope rattled like a rusted hinge, clacked and spooled a new song. A few people paused to see which it would be.

Ann shrieked and danced a few steps in place like a little girl presented with a kitten wearing a satin bow, “‘Mr. Blue Sky!’

Calliope laughed and examined the sky. “Oh, wow. That’s terrible.” There was some blue up there, little dots and threads of it like a pattern on fancy dishes — and occasionally even some unobstructed sunlight! — but it was a lot more like Mr. Depressing Clotted Gray and White Sky.

Ann ran up the steps to the raised platform, spread out her arms and cheerfully lied to everyone in full voice, “…It’s a beautiful new day! Hey-ey! Runnin’ down the avenue, see how the sun shines brightly! In the city — on the streets where once was pity — Mister Blue — Sky!… is living here today! Hey-ey!”

Some people cheered and clapped in preemptive approval. Calliope backed up a few paces, grinning and also applauding, and gave Ann room to walk around.

Ann dropped both bags and put on Calliope’s hat. This was not quite her usual night club outfit, the effect was ridiculous, but still very dramatic. She couldn’t match the organ in volume and appearance, she had to go for originality. “Hey, there, Mister Blue, we’re so pleased to be with you! Look around, see what you do! Everybody smiles at you! Mister Blue Sky… Mister Blue Sky… Mister Blue Sky…” When the lyrics ran out she refused to be silenced and followed along with the whistling steam, “Da-da, ba-da-da-ba, da-da, ba-da-da-ba, da-da, ba-da-da-ba, da-a-a-a, -da-a-a-a…” This engendered more cheering and applause. Ann didn’t have steam-powered mechanical lungs that never ran out. Still, she was not the slightest bit winded when it was time to draw everything to a close. She removed the hat, looked skywards and gave one last wistful, “Mister Blue Sky…” At this point, only briefly, the sun broke through. It had been doing that all day and even a couple times during the song, but in this particular instance it set the crowd off like a real miracle.

Ann grinned and bowed and accepted credit for a random act of nature. The calliope clacked and ratcheted and spooled up another song. The other Calliope clapped and jumped up and down. “Do this one! Do this one!” It was ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz,’ and Ann did know it, but she shook her head and demurred. “No, darling. I cannot possibly upstage the sun.”

Maybe someday, she thought proudly. Ah, and Milo had finally shut up about the damned bellows and the servo motors. That was a plus! She collected both bags, tucked the hat under her arm and departed the stage to mingled applause and noises of disappointment. My gods, that woman is tall, someone said. A child’s voice added, She’s so pretty!

“Could you sing it if you really wanted, though?” Calliope said.

Ann paused and sang at a much more conversational volume, “If you’re blue and you don’t know where to go to why don’t you go where fashion sits… puttin’ on the Ritz…” She set down the bag of towels, picked up Calliope’s hand, gently spun her to the music and then caught her around the middle.

Calliope beamed at her. “Oh, wow, I wish it was still a dance floor over there!”

“We’ll see about coming back in the spring, dear,” Ann said.

———

Bethany threw up a lemonade, a strawberry sundae, a hamburger with no lettuce, tomato or relish, and a mozzarella stick.

Mordecai had a hand on her back and a handkerchief ready and waiting, but he couldn’t stop his mouth from scolding, “Honestly, Bethany. There is no earthly reason you needed to go so fast!”

“It’s fun,” Bethany said.

“Is this fun? Are you enjoying this activity with the public toilets and the projectile vomit on your shoes?”

“Not this part…”

Erik was pale and pointedly not looking, but he had managed to keep hold of his lunch. For the moment.

Sanaam came out of the men’s room wiping his mouth with a paper towel.

“Daddy, you didn’t have to go that fast,” Maggie said.

“Mag-Pirate, it’s fun,” Sanaam said.

“I’m hungry again!” Bethany said.

———

The General examined the photos of happy, smiling people clutching ridiculous stuffed animals and worked to untangle the scrawl of their hastily-written missives.

An arcade, once you got through with the pointless diversions and down to the brass tacks of skill-based challenges which earned a reward, was a difficult prospect when a little time and effort could rewire reality itself to any advantage. Arcades ran on the firm assumption that there weren’t all that many really skilled, really dangerous magic-users out there. Not enough that the loss from their fleecing would eat into the bottom line all that much. Pictures, information and suspicion circulated through back-channels and the ‘we reserve the right to refuse service’ clause might be enforced before anyone walked off with the entire contents of the ticket exchange. There were some basic protections applied at the factory (and some extras home-brewed at the arcades themselves) that prevented anything too obvious from being done, and minor losses were graciously absorbed. (Casinos functioned similarly, both with magic-users and card-counters.) The trust issues that could put an arcade (or a casino) out of business were all on the consumer end. There was a limited amount of skilled magic-users, but an arcade had an unlimited amount of time to find some and put them to use, and magical effects could be subtle and not easily-discerned by the average skee-ball player. In other words, it was possible to rig a whole arcade so no one could ever win anything, ever.

Hence, the Winners’ Circle. (Though it was called different things in different places.) A prominent display of visible proof that people did win things at this arcade — all the time! Perhaps even some of your friends and family! Oh, look, Cousin Eddie won a stuffed bear last week! Well, if Cousin Eddie won a stuffed bear, it must be an honest arcade. Apart from the photographs, there were also cards and little slips of paper that had been signed and dated, some of them affixed to the photos of their authors. Finally got the ROLLER SKATES! Played Breakdown for two years! ’74-’76SLAM DUNK so easy and fun!Won cuddly monkey for MY cuddly monkey AIMEE (heart)(heart)(heart) I luv U! 19-4-76HI SCORE! 1,239,400!Fred Halsey 18/7 BEST ARCADE EVARRR!!

The General frowned. She did recognize a few faces from pension day, everything appeared to be in order and she had no reason to suspect (besides a lifetime of suspicion) that the Papillon Island Fun Zone would fabricate an entire wall of endorsement. But just because some people won some games sometimes, that didn’t mean every game was operated fairly every time. Giving up an easy victory to lull the enemy into a false sense of security was so ancient a tactic she could hardly fathom how it continued to work.

Countermagic (as opposed to anti-magic, which was a blanket effect so simple it was stupid) was a frustrating, time-consuming and precise area of skill. The General was excellent at it. Rather than blow up the Sea Breeze in mid-operation and kill lots of people, she had decided to investigate whether the target-shooting game was legitimate. (She had no desire to ‘play’ any of the others. Shooting was a useful occupation, not ‘playing’ at all.) The interplay of spell and counterspell was much like a competitive game of cat’s cradle, with one disingenuous player whose goal was to collapse every proffered design so completely it could never be repaired — taking special care not to collapse the rest of the universe around it. Countermagic was not a hammer that smashed everything or a bomb to produce area denial but a scalpel that could excise even a single cell if required. The first step was to establish whether surgery was required at all. She approached the metal console of the shooting game, laid a hand on it and muttered, “Show me.

(This was a complicated spell with metaphysical and visible effects, so there was no shame in hooking it up to a verbal trigger. It was much more efficient in what was frequently an emergency situation.)

The machine and the area around it lit up in an intersecting pattern of lines, many of them solid and white, some colored and blinking. The spell offered more information than was capable of being expressed with blinky light bars, but eagles were visual creatures and it allowed her to rapidly sort through which areas needed attention and which could be ignored. In fact, ‘show me,’ minus the light bars, was similar to a physician’s ‘touch-know,’ a simple representative interface with a complex system. Both Hyacinth and the General were ignorant of this. Hyacinth had been imprecise in her language when trying to explain it and the General had no patience for imprecise people.

A machine displaying multiple magical interactions which needed to be untangled, however, was as tantalizing as a ball of string to a cat.

“Huh?” said the boy who had been playing the machine. He had stopped shooting.

“I am investigating the metaphysical nature of this device,” the General said. “I apologize and will pay for your next attempt if I have caused you to fail this one.” (Something as simple as flashing lights should not interfere at all with one’s ability to aim and fire, not when shrapnel and bullets also needed to be ignored, but this was a child.) “However, I may wish to go next.” She set a penny on the lip of the console near the glassed-in front.

“Do you work for the arcade?” said the boy.

“No,” said the General.

The machine emitted a disappointed sound, flashed GAME OVER on the glass front, ratcheted and reset the metal targets inside. Wordlessly, the General handed the boy another penny. After a moment’s hesitation, he deposited it.

Most of the spellwork here was elementary and reasonable. Simple precautions against people fooling the machine into registering a coin deposit when there was none, or disobeying the mechanics of the game itself — like pressing the muzzle of the gun directly against the glass shield to provide a distance advantage, breaking the glass shield, or running off with the gun, presumably to a scrap metal dealer, since it couldn’t fire real bullets and was too light to be useful as a bludgeon. There was a suspicious addition to the scoring mechanism which also recorded the ages and genders of the players, perhaps meant to provide demographic information to the game manufacturers. People are unaware that they are revealing these details, and they might not if they were aware… She removed it, while careful to leave the scoring and the listed high scores intact. (The gun didn’t do any damage, how else was she supposed to judge her accuracy?)

“S’it work all right?” the boy asked her. He had finished his turn and if the game was broken it might make him feel a little better about his score. He had garnered a measly two tickets.

“Reasonably,” the General said. She nodded to him. “The light-gun appears damaged, the barrel is not straight and the sights are off, but we must give the arcade the benefit of the doubt and assume it was accidental. I am acquainted with a woman who might be able to repair it to my standards, but in her absence I will merely adjust my technique. Are you quite through?”

He handed her the gun. She deposited her penny and sighted down the barrel. “You may wish to amuse yourself elsewhere instead of waiting for this particular machine to become free,” she said. She selected a target and fired.

———

Hyacinth, we want more tickets!” Mordecai was waving both hands and trying to be louder than the music in an attempt to distract her from the ouchless ice, and he could damn well see her. He thought she was pretending she couldn’t see him. He didn’t want to stand around for the next fifteen minutes watching her amuse herself and then try to get hold of her. “Hyacinth!

Sanaam, whose shadow eclipsed Mordecai like a tiny moon, cupped both hands to his mouth and bellowed, “Clear a path, please, for the lovely lady with the blonde ponytail and the gray dress!” This was not quite a standard nautical command (“Trim the sails, ya scurvy dogs!”) but the inflection was identical and the results were similar.

Hyacinth could no longer pretend she couldn’t hear them, and such a long, wide space provided a fine opportunity for her to build up a head of steam. She had preemptively solved the “oh, no, where’s my shoe?” problem by removing both and tucking them in her purse. In her socking feet, she looked like a little kid playing on a waxed floor. She skidded sideways, and when it was well past time to apply to the brakes she turned and threw herself backwards, bouncing so high she might’ve dropped both her feet and stood up if she had timed it right. As it was, she bounced twice more and bumped into the low metal fence at Sanaam’s feet. “What?” she said, grinning.

Sanaam bent at the waist and offered a hand up. “More tickets, if you would be so kind, Miss Hyacinth.”

Mordecai felt a tug on the edge of his coat and looked down to find Erik, appearing most unsettled and unhappy.

Dead animal? Mordecai wondered. Escaped pony? Did he see someone yell at their child, or slap them? It was pointless to make suggestions. Erik had a hard enough time without people talking over him. “It’s all right, dear one. I’m listening. Take as long as you need.”

Erik nodded. He took several deep breaths and let them out slowly, like he was trying to cure the hiccups. “Cousin Violet says get in line for the Gravity Drop right now,” he managed at reasonable speed.

Mordecai shuddered and shook his head. “Violet?

Erik nodded sickly.

“She didn’t happen to say why, did she?” Not that you could trust Violet to be truthful about such things, not when she wanted something to happen.

Erik shook his head. “But she… knows I can… see her and she gets… mad if I… pretend I don’t.”

“Oh, gods.” Mordecai sat down on the pavement and put his head in his hands.

“What is it?” Sanaam said, clutching a handful of tickets.

“Cousin Violet wants us all in the line for the Gravity Drop for some reason — it’s not your fault, Erik,” he added. “She would’ve got it done somehow if she didn’t have you to push around.” Erik shook his head, but it didn’t look much like agreement.

Sanaam laughed. “It’s not as if she’s planning to snap it off the scaffolding and crush us all, is it?” There was no answering laughter and he sobered reluctantly. “Uh, is it?”

“That’s not really her style,” said Mordecai. “Usually.” He accepted Sanaam’s hand up.

They stuck Hyacinth with Bethany. It was just about time for the kids-only run on the ouchless ice anyway.

The line for the Gravity Drop was prodigious and daunting. This was the very last day for magic rides this year and it was functioning fairly consistently — a rare treat. The big wheel with the harnesses accepted sixteen at a time, in eight segments of two like some kind of cheerful torture daisy. Each one had to be strapped in and secured, with particular attention to the ladies’ skirts so they didn’t fly up and cause a scandal. There was a shelf of cubbies with numbered bins for purses, watches, hats, change and other loose items. The ride itself was fairly short, a series of randomized drops, ending with at least one (and for some lucky riders, two) of the full one-hundred-foot distance. All sixteen victims always seemed to be perfectly ready to leave when it was time to get off, and some of them dropped to their knees and kissed the ground. (It varied per individual whether this was sarcastic or sincere.) Occasionally some of the more sensitive people fainted and were carried away on stretchers. Vomit was handled by automated deconstruction spells, with extreme prejudice. (In his delinquent youth, Mordecai had concealed an entire hot dog and tossed it off the original, pre-war Gravity Drop at the top of the scaffold. It disintegrated.)

She’s got us in a box, Mordecai though, entering the line at the extreme end, beyond even the temporary metal gates that compressed the waiting crowd into a stacked shape. It could be hours. He had no idea what Violet intended, but his best guess was that a bomb was going to go off in the park somewhere and she either wanted them killed by it or away from it. He felt both jealous of and concerned for Hyacinth and Bethany and Ann and Calliope.

Violet wouldn’t kill Erik, would she? thought Mordecai. He regarded the boy. He has such boundless potential for torment…

No, she wouldn’t kill him, he decided. But it doesn’t mean she won’t mess him up a little more.

Five minutes in, and ten feet deeper into the line with people before and behind them and a metal gate to either side to make exiting particularly impossible, the Gravity Drop broke. The wheel of people stalled halfway down and stuck there. There were screams, and the amplified voice of a ride attendant (prerecorded!) informed everyone that this was a temporary malfunction and all would be well. Nobody bought it, least of all the sixteen people who might be stuck in stiff harnesses for hours unending — or possibly dropped and splattered on the sandy ground. Even the ride attendants on the ground were already putting up a sandwich-board that said, Closed — Sorry! with a frowny-face on it.

Oh, thank gods, thought Mordecai. Briefly. He frowned. No. She might not even have wanted us on the ride in the first place…

A purple man with a tool belt and overalls arrived at a run like the Silver Streak, saluted the people stuck on the ride, gave them a thumbs up and then started climbing the scaffolding. The people in line took this as the final death-knell and began grumbling and wandering off from both ends. “I dunno,” one of the ride attendants replied repeatedly. “Could be ten minutes. Could be the rest of the day.”

“Well, I guess that’s it,” Sanaam said. He’d heard Violet was petty.

“Uh-uh,” Erik said. He pointed to where he could see her, standing at the head off the line — she was grinning and shaking her head. “She says not yet.”

“She wants us to stand here and watch them fix it for an hour?” Maggie said.

“Uh-uh. There.” Erik indicated the head of the line, which they were steadily approaching as more people gave up and walked off.

Oh, my gods, she really is going to snap it off and crush us, thought Mordecai.

The purple man had climbed up about three storeys, there appeared to be some kind of fusebox or something at that height. He opened it, selected a large wrench from the toolbelt and whacked the box on the top several times in sharp succession. He flicked or turned something inside the box, closed it again and gave the trapped people another thumbs up. He began a rapid descent, sliding most of the way with no safety-line. Then again, he obviously knew magic, so maybe he didn’t need one. “Okay, Freddie, hit the reset!” he called over, then he ducked rapidly out of the way. The wheel was ascending to its full height to automatically perform the final drop.

“That can’t have fixed it,” Mordecai said aloud. “I am not going on a ride where something like that fixes it!”

“Really?” Erik said, stricken.

“Well…”

The screaming for this drop was particularly poignant. At ground level, the harnesses unlatched and the wheel settled with a somehow smug sighing of steam-filled pistons. There was a lot more ground-kissing this time. The ride attendants passed out conciliatory coupons from large rolls. The man in the overalls walked around re-latching all the harnesses. “Test it, fellas,” he advised, once the passengers were clear.

The ride performed perfectly. Five random drops and a sixth from full height before sighing to a stop and releasing the harnesses. The man in the overalls removed the Closed — Sorry! sign with a grin.

“Ya know, we coulda done that, Bobby,” one of the attendant said, indicating the fusebox, or whatever it was. “What do they pay you for?”

Bobby lifted his wrench and made a precise gesture with it. “For knowing exactly where to hit it and how many times!”

“That is an, uh, awesome job!” Erik said. Though he wasn’t quite willing to say it was better than playing violin on street-corners.

Bobby beamed at him. “You big enough for the wagon on this hayride, kiddo?” He pointed the wrench at the harnesses.

Erik nodded. “…Yeah!”

“You want on?”

The crowd had dwindled, and a very few people had stayed, perhaps twenty in all. Mordecai, Erik, Maggie and Sanaam were right at the head of the line. They had been waiting maybe fifteen minutes.

Erik looked up at his uncle. “…Yeah?”

Mordecai sighed and put a hand to his head. “Yes. Yes. Okay.”

“Yay!” said all other parties concerned.

At the top of the scaffolding, after rotating steadily all the way up to give you a lovely view of the park, this new, post-war Gravity Drop (which Mordecai had never been on) tilted the passengers forward a subtle fifteen degrees and pointed them at the ground. Then it just let them hang out like that, reconsidering the life choices which had led to this moment.

“…scary,” Erik confessed softly. He had taken his eye out to put in the bin with his uncle’s pocket change and he felt half-dressed. (“Ooh, no depth perception, Erik!” Maggie said. “Your ride’s gonna be better!”)

“It’s…” said Mordecai, and then the Gravity Drop… dropped.

He screamed. Everyone screamed. You couldn’t… not. There was no dignity or restraint or consent involved here at all. A horror movie was kinder than this, because you were sitting in a nice, stationary chair looking at a big flat screen and you had to suspend your disbelief. (Okay, I will buy that’s a real vampire and real ladies getting killed if you promise to tell a good story and keep me entertained.) There was no need of that here! You will believe you are falling faster than physically possible and the ground is right fucking there because it actually is!

It’s a short ride, Mordecai endeavored to tell himself. It… The ride stopped at five additional feet of height and brought them down to ground level before yanking them up hard again. Another scream. It was like a hand reached down his throat and pulled it out, and maybe his stomach or a kidney or two while it was in there. Hey, you don’t need all these organs, do ya, pal?

“It’s on random!” Sanaam’s voice cackled madly, as if explaining the function of a jukebox. Mordecai could faintly hear it over the howl of his own blood-pressure skyrocketing.

Oh, gods, he thought, why did I let Erik… “A-a-a-h!” How many times does it… “A-a-a-h!” How does… “Oh, damn it, my ti-e-e-e-e!” It had come untucked from his vest and was now slapping him repeatedly in the face, as if afraid he might faint. He didn’t really notice it. Everything got very, very simple when you were falling at a million miles an hour. No rational thought, no consequences, not even the fear of death. No friends or family or responsibilities. No world at all. Just a single man experiencing a sensation (I’m falling!) and screaming about it. Not as an opinion, not because it was good or bad or indifferent, just because that was what you had to do.

“Oh, gods, it’s the big one,” someone said. There was enough time on the ascent to say that.

“Mother, should I trust the Gravity Drop?” said someone else. (In retrospect, he was pretty sure that was him. That was his sense of humor.) Nobody in the audience was considerate enough to yell, “No!” There wasn’t time. Then it was just falling and screaming. He wasn’t even certain he could hear the screaming, or maybe he wasn’t processing it. It only was, like the perfect point of infinity before the universe exploded. Falling… Ground…

And then the pistons sighed like a satisfied lover and the harnesses came unlatched. It was so loud. Everything was too bright and too sharp and too loud, like some badly-processed film. There were birds! How had he not noticed the birds? He stumbled towards the exit, put a hand on the metal gate and bowed his head.

“Hey, Erik, you okay?” Maggie asked behind him.

Erik was pale and wide-eyed and sweat-soaked and smiling. After a long consideration he lifted his hand and signed Okay! at her like Milo. He didn’t think he was gonna be able to talk about this for a year. He reclaimed his eye from the bin marked #7 and pocketed the double handful of change and the strip of tickets on behalf of his uncle, who might be trying not to throw up over there, Erik wasn’t sure. There was also a coupon for a free soda which he knew hadn’t been in there before they went on the ride. Bobby with the overalls and the big wrench caught his attention and signed him a triumphant thumbs up, which Erik returned, grinning. It’s fun being a grape soda vortex!

“Mordecai, are you all right?” Sanaam said.

Mordecai lifted his head and smiled. “The rollercoaster.”

“Huh?”

He waved at Erik and Maggie, “You guys! Let’s do the rollercoaster! It’s not magic! There won’t be a line!”

Erik laughed and nodded. He didn’t think he’d seen his uncle smile like that all day — you know, actually happy about something instead of he caught someone looking and thought he better look like he was enjoying himself to keep from ruining everyone’s fun. I guess Violet just wanted him to have fun, too…

Mordecai cackled like a mad scientist and fisted both hands. “I hope you’re enjoying yourself with Bethany, Hyacinth! We’re gonna ride the big kid rides!

…Or she wanted to drive him crazy. I guess we’ll find out. Erik shrugged and followed his uncle to the rollercoaster.

———

“Bethany, didn’t you already do the teacups with Mordecai?” said Hyacinth.

“….No,” said Bethany.

“Well, okay. Finish your cotton candy and we’ll go.”

———

“I’ve never seen it go so fast,” someone said. There were quite a lot of people watching by this point and she ignored them.

“Lady, you’re gonna burn out the motor!”

That, she decided, was worth addressing, “The programming allows for infinite escalation. If the machinery cannot handle it, that is a design flaw. You should complain to the manufacturer.” She nailed a flat metal dove right through the eye in the split second it was visible.

Headshots were worth more on this machine, like most of its kin, rather than aiming through the center of mass as was practical. She had easily adjusted to this aspect of bargain, civilian-oriented target-shooting, as well as the lack of weight and recoil in light-guns and pellet rifles. She feared it might prove a bit of a hindrance upon a return to military service, but it was better than not practicing at all.

The machine was developing a faint odor of smoke. It had long since vomited all of its tickets into a pile, but she would not be placated so easily.

A metal deer whizzed by at lightning speed and she blew its brains out.

———

Ann was waiting patiently near the toilets at the back of the carousel, with all of the bags. However, Milo was a little less than patient with being so near the operating carousel but not close enough to see the gears, so Ann had abandoned the bags behind a park bench and hopped over a low hedge to get closer. There was still a brass railing between her and the carousel itself, so it had to be safe. She could (theoretically) still see the bags. Calliope was in the bathroom (Again. “It’s for my new art project. I’m doing a retrospective of public toilets,” she said sheepishly.), so it wasn’t inconsiderate to be staring at a carousel for an extended period. Ann was willing to humor Milo in this case. She had to crouch so he could see under the canopy.

What are those things? Those crooked, janky-looking things that lift the horses?

I have no idea, Milo. We’ll have to look it up.

We have to ride the carousel, Ann. You can see the band organ! There’s a… a brass ring dispenser!

Only if Calliope wants to, Milo. It might be a little hard for her to get on a horse.

There’s chariots!

A male voice cleared its throat from an uncomfortably near distance and a large hand was laid on her shoulder. Ann dropped a hand on her purse and undid the clasp, prepared to defend herself with the hatpin.

A smiling man met her frowning expression, “Can I help you, little…?” and she stood up. “…Big. Big lady. Incredibly big lady.” She was about six-foot-three, in ‘sensible’ wedge-shaped espadrilles, and taller than him.

Ann smiled. “Why, yes, actually. I was wondering if you might tell me how the carousel works?”

“Oh, it runs on cotton candy and the dreams of small children. At night we take the horses off and feed them and put them to bed.”

Ann narrowed her eyes. “Yes…” She did not stop smiling, but it had quite a different quality. Milo, will you back me up on this, please?

Blow him out of the water, Ann.

“Actually, I was wondering if the rotational motion of the central shaft was transferred from the primary motor via a series of drive belts so as to power the… the… well, I don’t know the exact word — May I say ‘crankshafts?’ — from which the horses depend…”

“Uh, we just call those ‘horse hangers.'”

“I see. …Or is there some secondary means of propulsion, perhaps concealed behind the ornate carvings around the band organ or in the canopy?”

The man was blinking as if she’d just set off a flash bulb in his face. Ann was still smiling. “Lady, there are two big buttons labeled START, and STOP. I just press ’em.”

“Oh, I quite understand. Is there anyone competent I might speak to, or shall I just be on my way?”

“I guess I’ll see if Bobby’s around,” the man said. He turned and ambled away without waiting for a response.

“Oh, thank you!” Ann said. “That’s so very kind of you.” She drew a handkerchief out of her purse and waved it at his departing back. “Toodle-oo!”

“Ann that was awesome,” Calliope said. She had been watching for some time, from the other side of the hedge. She figured Milo liked the carousel like he liked the taffy machine.

Ann undid her kerchief and smoothed back her hair. “That was Milo, dear. He would like to ride the carousel later, but only if you don’t mind.”

“I bet I could fit in that swan boat!”

“Thank you, Calliope. He’s glad. Oh, look, that must be Bobby!” The man who did nothing but press buttons all day was approaching with a purple gentleman in overalls. She waved the kerchief from her hair. “Hello, Bobby!”

———

They met up on the boardwalk at eight-thirty, more or less, for the fireworks. Sporadic contact had been made during the day, at restrooms and food stands and for the exchange of tickets (it turned out Calliope could fit on a dark ride) and Ann and Calliope and Hyacinth and Bethany had met up for dinner at Cafe a la Mode. (Mordecai and Sanaam’s group opted to eat hot dogs and watch people fall on the ouchless ice.)

Fireworks were promptly at nine. All the park lights were turned off, barring a few strings of white bulbs that allowed for navigation, and they would not be turned back on. It was Papillon Island’s polite way of saying, Okay, go home now!

Calliope dropped a small shopping bag with candy and her sketchpad and a newspaper-wrapped glitter lamp in it. (Calliope liked the lamp in the arcade window. Milo hacked a machine. Ann and Calliope took turns throwing two dozen skee balls which each registered 100! no matter where they landed. They left the machine that way for the kids.) “Em! Erik!” She hadn’t seen them since lunch, and it had been a long day. She couldn’t even feel how her feet hurt anymore, there was just a general, okay-stop-now kind of soreness, but she still didn’t want to. “I pet a wallaby!” she said. She held up her hand, as if it might still have wallaby-brand fairydust clinging to it. “I don’t even know what one of those is!”

“It’s a marsupial,” Erik said sadly. He had an idea Maggie and Sanaam had sneaked off to the petting zoo, too, but they didn’t talk about it. He managed a smile. They’d done lots of other fun stuff without wallabies, and Calliope wasn’t trying to be mean.

“It’s like a rabbit with something seriously wrong with it!” Calliope agreed, nodding. She hugged Mordecai and Sanaam, and then Erik and Maggie which was harder because of the leaning over involved. Erik stood on his toes and tried to be taller. “Ann sang for everyone!” she told them. “She was so amazing, you should’ve seen it! And I taught her how to do the Time Warp! The carousel was playing it! They used to do the Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight showings in Ansalem. There was this old guy who knew how to do VFM on the piano. Hey, Em, did you ever…?”

“Yes,” he preempted her. “Until I got hit in the head with a roll of cheap toilet paper and I demanded hazard pay and they said I didn’t have to play it at all anymore.”

“It’s awesome, right?” Calliope said.

“Mom!” cried Maggie. She jumped up and waved. The General had a shopping bag similar to Calliope’s but much larger, with Papillon Island Fun Zone emblazoned on the side. “What did you win?”

The General set the bag on the ground and nudged it with a shoe. “Tickets, Magnificent,” she said wearily. “I refused to purchase a ridiculous stuffed animal for the photo, so they insisted upon one with the tickets.” Her endorsement card, awaiting the photo’s development to be placed in the Winners’ Circle, read simply: Your light-guns require maintenance. 15/9/76.

“I think you could buy half the park with these,” Maggie said. She lifted the bag. It was heavy.

“Unfortunately, arcade tickets cannot be exchanged for real estate, only penny candy, useless knick-knacks and the aforementioned stuffed animals. Perhaps I will purchase your birthday present with them, Captain,” she added.

“I want the gorilla,” Sanaam replied. “I want the five-foot-tall plush gorilla with the yellow sunglasses holding the heart-shaped pillow that says ‘You Drive Me Wild’ and I will accept nothing less.”

“And will that do for your birthday and Yule?” the General said sweetly.

Sanaam scowled. “Sir, I will fight you. And lose. And then you will feel terrible.”

“So that’s two completely pointless stuffed animals for my completely pointless stuffed animal, then?”

“Please,” Sanaam said.

“Okay, kiddo, here’s a bench,” Hyacinth said. She was carrying Bethany, which could not last for long. Bethany had a red balloon with a star on it. “Hey, you guys, balloon guy says fireworks in twenty minutes. We got a minor medical emergency over here.”

“Oh, poor Bethany,” Ann said. She added Calliope’s bag to all the others, and the huge hat, rustled over to the bench and set everything down. “What happened, dear?”

“Let’s see it, kid.”

Bethany pulled off her shoe and displayed a white blister on her pink heel. The balloon was tied to her wrist and allowed full freedom of movement without engaging the dreaded Hysterical Tears of the Overtired Child. There was also a stack of pennies merged to the string. Just in case.

Oh,” Ann said.

“This is what we get for walking around in sandy shoes with no socks all day and not telling anyone it hurts,” said Hyacinth. “I could’ve just given you a bandage. Now I gotta poke you.”

“Can’t you just fix it with metal?” Bethany said.

Hyacinth pulled the first aid kit out of her purse. “Well, the lancet is metal…”

Mordecai excused himself and coughed into a folded up length of toilet paper. He’d run out of tissues ages ago. September days were hot and humid; September nights were no less humid, but increasingly cold. He hadn’t brought his greatcoat, he didn’t want to be carrying that around all day. He should have brought more tissues.

Erik took hold of his hand. “Do you wanna go back on Il Inferno?” Il Inferno was a dark ride promising its passengers a trip “Straight to Hell!!” It was a bit north of there, really, but it blasted the riders with warm air to improve the atmosphere. Erik was starting to get a little sick of the demons, but it helped his uncle breathe better and, anyway, they’d already done the rollercoaster four times before the sun went down.

“No, dear one,” said Mordecai. “I don’t think there’s time. We’d have to buy more tickets.” He smiled and squeezed Erik’s hand. “We’ll be home soon, don’t worry.”

Bethany cried out. So did Hyacinth. “Ow! Holy shit, that kid has a mean right hook! Ann, are my teeth still in?” The ‘holy shit’ was genuine — she’d smacked Hyacinth right in the steel plate — the ‘are my teeth still in’ was to make Bethany feel better. It had the desired effect. She giggled and grinned.

“Erik, what about a balloon?” said Mordecai.

“Do they have purple ones with stars like that, Auntie Hyacinth?” Erik asked.

“What? What’s that?” Hyacinth blindly stretched out a hand and felt around. “I hear a faint voice, but all I see are flashing lights in a black void!”

“Hyacinth is notoriously hard of hearing when she is amusing herself,” Mordecai said. He took Erik to investigate the balloons.

By the time they returned, delayed by the need to stop and look up and go ‘ooh’ every couple minutes, the fireworks were already in progress and everyone had moved from the boardwalk, which was covered, to the pier, which was not — and had plenty of viewing space. Erik had a purple balloon with a… something on it. He thought it might be a flower, but it was done in black on a dark balloon and all the lights were out. He’d examine it at home when he could see.

Hyacinth was leaning on the weathered railing and watching the reflections on the water with a wistful expression. She acknowledged Mordecai without turning, “Barnaby is burning the house down even as we speak.” She sighed. “And I have no idea where I’m going to get ice cream at nine o’clock on a Sun’s Day.”

Mordecai put his hand on her arm. “Yes, it’s lovely, isn’t it?”

“Mm.”

“I bet the mozzarella stick people will let you in if you bang on the door and say it’s an emergency!” Bethany posited.

“Or you could get some at the drugstore in the morning and hope he gets mixed up about when you bought it,” Erik added, with a desire to avoid conflict.

Maggie, Sanaam and the General had formed another family group nearby. Sanaam had hoisted Maggie onto his shoulder to improve her view, although she was nearly too big for it. She let him, even though it was a little uncomfortable, and laid her hand on his bald head.

“So, you’ve had a productive day,” Sanaam said to his wife, who seemed bored with the concept of unnecessary signal flares.

“Arcade tickets are an unfortunate side-effect, not a desired product. I do believe I could have purchased a large toy gorilla with actual money if you truly required one,” the General said.

“You’ve improved your seagull score. Twenty-six!”

“Mm, yes. But I am uncertain whether I should count it, as Calliope felt it appropriate to place each potato chip individually and this took approximately fifteen minutes.”

“Fireworks are pretty!” Sanaam snapped finally. Above him, Maggie snickered.

“I suppose,” the General allowed, and she did not qualify it further. Sanaam put his arm around her shoulders and she also allowed this.

Ann had her arm around Calliope’s shoulders, too. She felt it necessary; it was cold. Calliope had both her arms around Ann’s corseted waist and this was more of an affection thing, which both of them were enjoying.

“It’s really lovely, isn’t it, dear? I like the big golden ones that look like chrysanthemums. It seems like they last forever!”

“Shh, Ann,” Calliope said. She held a little tighter.

They watched the sky blossom with carnations and asters and zinnias and chrysanthemums until all the lights went out and it was time to go home.

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