It’s been three nights since they took George. Sleep comes in fits and starts; I wake at every creak, crack and crumble, hearing whispers on the freezing wind and the coarse gasps of malevolent creatures stalking ever closer to my hiding place.
Redmond’s Fair was ours – bright and beautiful, safe and sanctuary. But now I hide at the heart of the carousel alone, waiting for them to realise their mistake.
Waiting for the monsters to come back for me, too.
We came to the fair at the setting of the sun. Flashing lights and the smell of cotton candy beckoned us like moths to the flame – it was as though we were being summoned, lured in by the sounds of bumper cars, slot machines and laughter carried to Oakridge on the late-summer’s breeze. That place had a pull on us like magnets.
If only we’d known what was to come.
Our last night together started the same as any other Saturday. The same as the very first in fact, all those years ago. That sultry-warm night of neon, nerves and Rock Me Amadeus.
Redmond’s Fair, 22nd August 1987 – our first date.
I was all jitters before we met. Dad dropped me off a safe distance down the road, his beat-up Caravelle and reliable tendency of yelling at me through the window ever an embarrassment I sought to avoid.
“Be safe, Madeline,” he shouted as I strode towards the park gates. “Ten thirty on the dot, remember?”
“Alright Dad, love you!” I replied, never looking back.
The car sped off to the screech of wheel spin – Dad always did fancy himself a petrol-head – leaving the road to Redmond’s Fair bathed in darkness. I took a deep breath, tightened my scarf and set off towards the pulsing pink glow at the end of the road.
The muddled sound of music and prize klaxons grew louder as I closed in on the park gates. Light spilled out from them to paint lines of shifting, throbbing colour on the world outside, hinting at the wonders held within. I remember thinking that they looked like the gates of some fantastical prison, one where thoughts of escape would scarcely cross your mind.
I stopped dead as the light touched my feet. This was where we were supposed to meet, this was where we promised we’d wait for each other, but he was nowhere to be seen. My watch read five past seven – he was late, and had surely stood me up. Couples came and went all around me, happy and laughing. Everyone around me seemed to have someone to hold, someone to love, and there I was, alone and abandoned, on show and obvious. I could feel myself starting to hyperventilate.
But then I saw his outline, a tall and wiry silhouette against a backdrop of dazzling bulbs, and my heart leapt.
“Maddie? I thought I was early, but here you are.” He beamed. “We did say half past, right?”
“Right,” I said, voice shuddering as my breath returned to something like normal. I’m not sure if we did say seven or half past, but in that moment what did I care? George Wilson, the boy I had secretly loved since who-knows-when, was finally taking me out.
We in stood in silence for a moment as if in awe, both swaying on our heels. George was a scrawny slip of a boy, all jutting angles and pale skin topped with a flop of lank, jet black hair. His cheeks dimpled and blushed whenever I looked him in the eye. We were both so nervous back then, so wide eyed and fumbling.
George broke first. “Starting to get cold out,” he said, his eyes flickering in and out of contact with mine. “It’ll be warmer once we’re inside I bet.” He held out his hand. “Shall we?”
My heart beat faster again as our fingers intertwined and we walked through the gates. I’d lived in Oakridge all my life, but that night was the first time I’d been in Redmond’s after dark. By light of day, it was a drab and forgettable park, all rusting gates and peeling benches. But on fair nights it transformed into something else entirely; another world, George called it. A world bathed in darkness and vibrant colour all at once, a mysterious world laced with surprise and wonder.
Our world, George would say, made for the two of us alone.
It was warmer inside, or it at least felt that way to my prickled skin. Maybe it was the heat from the food stalls, the people around us or all those bright lights (“Where do you think they so many blubs, anyway?” George once asked me, smirking). Perhaps it was just the warmth from holding his hand, that potent mixture of embarrassment and hormones combining to form a powerful source of heat.
We rode on the pirate ship first, or was it the tea cups? It has been so very long since that first, beautiful night that I often forget the order of things. But I do remember how I felt as we picked our way through the crowds, sharing cotton candy and memories, dancing together as time stood still all around us.
And oh, how we danced! My strongest memory of that night (besides George, of course) is how we moved to the music that chaperoned us at every step. It had been a long, sticky summer of empty days and late nights, soundtracked by sumptuous pop songs that now drifted out all around us from rides with wild names like the Delirium Trigger, Rolling Thunder and Cowboy Blitz.
George never missed his chance to complain about the state of music back then; he was the quintessential rocker, after all, and the very mention of Hall and Oates or Falco would send him into an endearing rant. And there was no song he loathed more than Never Gonna Give You Up, which was unfortunate given we must have heard it ten times or more that night.
How many times have we heard it since, I wonder? Hundreds? Thousands? The soundtrack is a blur to me now.
George always said how much he hated Rick Astley. “It’s not even true pop music,” he told me once, as the song blared out from one of the seemingly endless array of game stands. “Listen to Inbetween Days or Just Like Heaven and tell me Never Gonna Give You Up is real pop music. Robert Smith runs circles around that joker Astley.”
I would laugh and tell him he was right, but in truth I loved that song, loved what it meant to us. It was always there in the background, an audible cue for our dates and our love. Our secret soundtrack. I think George probably felt that way about it too, really.
I wish I could ask him now, but he’s gone.
Our confidence swelled with the music that night. “Come on!” George shouted, taking my hand to pull me into a run. We laughed and screamed as we dodged in and out of the crowds, music growing ever louder.
Never Gonna Give You Up…our soundtrack, Rick Astley on infinite repeat.
The Ferris wheel loomed ahead of us, the peaceful guardian watching over the fair, protecting us. “Let’s save that ‘til the end,” George said, smiling, “the big finish!”
A lump in my throat. Heights – ever my not-so-secret nemesis. But I knew how important the Ferris wheel was, knew what it meant – first kisses, high above Oakridge. A rite of passage for any self-respecting teen. “Can’t wait!” I said, voice quivering.
The rest of that night is a blur to me now, all colour and warmth and kissing and noise, all endings and beginnings. Redmond’s Fair and its magic had claimed us, made us its own. We promised that night that we’d come back forever.
So we did. We returned to Redmond’s every Saturday as the sun set, and we ran and we laughed and we screamed and we danced and we were in love. Redmond’s was as much a part of that as the air we breathed, the sun in the sky or the moon greeting us each date night, the Ferris wheel watching us, guiding our every step. It was perfect.
Only…with all the time that came to pass between us, I had begun to feel a little…well, bored. Who can claim to never have wondered – what would life be like if things had gone differently? What would it be like if I weren’t at Redmond’s Fair with George and the rides, the cotton candy, the kissing and our love? What would it be like if I were somewhere else?
With someone else?
But now George is gone and it feels like Redmond’s has been drained of colour. Everything is grey, from the burst and broken neon lights to the rusting dodgems. I hide huddled between rows of weathered horses, their paint cracked and peeling. Moth-eaten prizes are strewn here and there, bears with their eyes torn out discarded across a carpet of broken coconut shells. How long until the monsters return, I wonder, eyes wide.
I don’t have to wait long to find out.
They come at night, just like before. The rattle of their car’s bumper is the first I hear of them as they clatter down the road towards Redmond’s, then the grumbling engine. Fumes spew from the exhaust, filling the air with cloying smog.
The car comes to a halt outside Carlyle Manor, Redmond’s very own haunted house. I don’t breathe as the doors open and the monsters pull themselves out into the open one by one.
They wear filthy, oil-smeared overalls, like the uniform of some grim regiment. Goggles sit atop each of their heads, jet black and gleaming. The world seems to grow silent as they assess the fair. The blood in my veins feels like ice.
George was out in front of the carousel when they first came for us. I spotted them before he did – foul demons creeping closer, vulnerable prey caught in their sights. I could have called out to him, tried to create a distraction, tried to buy him some time. But I froze, and before I knew it I was crouched and trembling behind the Cosmic Speedline. I had never liked that ride, yet in that moment I couldn’t bring myself to move from its side.
George’s screams were agonising.
I edge closer to them this time, urging myself to be brave. I need to find out what they did to him, need to find out if he can be saved.
There are three of them. The tallest leans over to open the boot of their car then starts rooting around for something, sending an array of unusual objects clattering over its shoulder.
The shortest monster leans back on the bonnet. “Anything I can do to help break our priceless, one-of-a-kind equipment, Ray?” it says. “Or have you got it covered?”
The tallest monster stops and turns. “Oh, of course not, Peter. I can see how terribly busy you are; you should get some rest really, put your feet up.”
“Funny, Ray. Real funny.”
The third monster shambles between the two. “Just try to be gentle, please. The instruments are incredibly sensitive; you have to treat them right.” It crouches down, picking up one of the objects. It looks like a small, grey anchor. “I mean, look. There’s no point in us being here if the meter doesn’t work.”
The short monster steps forward and snatches the object. “Sometimes you just need to give these things a little…shove…in the right…direction…” it says, banging the object on the side of the car.
“Et voila.” The short monster hands the object back, lights now flashing on its surface.
What do those lights mean? I creep towards the monsters.
The third monster turns it over in its hands. “You got lucky,” it says, before turning its attention to the object. It begins pressing buttons on the device before pausing again. “Right. I think…I think we actually have something!”
I edge closer, desperate to see what it’s showing them. Could it be George?
“Wow, already?” the tall monster says. “Spooky old Redmond’s Fair, coming up with the goods right off the bat. New record, right?”
“Hush, Ray, you know how he needs silence when he’s calculating!” the short monster says, patting the third on the back.
The third monster ignores him, slowly turning on the spot. I edge closer still.
“If I’m right…”
Closer…I can see that a screen on the object is showing numbers and words, but they are just out of focus.
“If my readings are accurate, it should be right…” He turns towards me and I freeze. “…there!”
None of us move. They are looking at me and I’m looking at them, all of us caught in time, locked in place. And then I’m running, desperately scrambling away between overturned stands and fairground detritus. I can hear the monsters shouting in my wake. I know this place so, so well, yet in this moment it feels like a maze, a labyrinth designed to trap me in the clutches of the monsters. My eyes dart everywhere, desperate for somewhere safe, somewhere to hide. I can feel myself starting to panic, the shouting behind me growing louder.
But then I spot the Ferris wheel and somehow I know that’s where I’ll be safe. The Ferris wheel, our silent guardian, the place where we declared our love on that first wonderful night.
We left it ‘til last. I still remember how excited I felt. I remember how he held me tightly, how he promised me that he loved me and would always love me, promised me that he would never let me go.
But how can anyone promise that, really? How can anyone promise they’ll hold on forever?
I dive into the Ferris wheel’s ticket booth and crumple to the floor, breath held. Did they follow me? I listen out for the tell-tale sound of the monsters rushing towards me, but Redmond’s is silent. I let out a trembling whimper.
The booth is cramped and dusty, its floor carpeted by unspooled reels of pale pink ride tickets. I rip one off and inspect its faded text – ‘admit one’ it says, bordered in black.
George insisted on buying our tickets for the Ferris wheel on our first date. “I want it to feel special,” he said as he pressed a ticket into my palm, closing my hand around it. “We’ll be able to see the whole town from the top. C’mon!”
We skipped through the barrier and into one of the swaying passenger carts. I couldn’t stop myself grabbing the edge as we sat down, cart creaking and knuckles white. “Shouldn’t there be safety belts or something?” I asked, regretting the hideously uncool words the moment they were released from my lips.
“Don’t worry,” George said, “I’ll keep you safe up there. Promise.” He took my hand as the wheel jolted into action and began to raise us up into the black sky.
We really could see the whole town from the top. George pointed out landmarks one by one, the cart’s rocking having no visible effect on his composure. Then he had stopped talking and his face was moving towards mine, eyes half closed. I took in a deep, juddering breath and closed my eyes as our lips touched, and for a moment I forgot where we were, forgot about the fair and the fear and everything but George and our locked lips, the two of us as one.
But then my scarf caught the wind and my instincts took hold, my arm swiping out to catch it. The cart rocked violently and I lurched forward, George throwing out his arms to catch me, grabbing my hand.
He promised me that he would keep holding on until the end. I promised too, I remember that now. I promised over the noise and the lights and the smells, despite the watching eyes and pointing fingers, the people screaming and my streaming eyes. I promised that I loved him and would do forever.
Then my hand slipped from his and George pitched forward after me. Our world tilted and fell away. And…
…and I still do love him, my beautiful George. Never gonna give you up…
And just like that I know what I have to do.
My scream pierces the night as I swoop out of the ticket booth, charging at the monsters, demanding that they let my George go free. I can feel Redmond’s shake all around me, can feel the world tremble under the weight of my rage. And I can feel their fear, can see it clearly in their eyes as I bear down on them.
Neon signs crackle back to life, bulbs flash and burst.
“What the hell do we do, Ray?” the short monster shouts over the din. But the only response it gets is more screaming, this time from its allies, now crying out in terror.
I won’t let them take Redmond’s from us. George might be gone, but he loved this place and he loved me. So I’ll light it up and he’ll find his way back to me, I know it.
Lights flare, fireworks explode in the sky, the air crackles with electricity. Redmond’s is alive again around me and I am marching towards the monsters, facing them head on, screaming at them to get out, to leave.
The tall monster shouts something at his companions, and the smallest throws a strange box down on the ground between us, but it is too late for them now, I’m closing in on them and I know that everything will be –
Redmond’s is gone, or I’m gone – maybe both. It’s cold and it’s dark and I am alone, so alone.
“Hello?” I cry out, my voice echoing throughout the void around me. I don’t expect a response, which is just as well because the void doesn’t offer one.
I take a few steps forward into nothing.
Is this it, then? Everyone has someone to hold, someone to love, and here I am, alone and abandoned.
But then I see his outline, a tall and wiry silhouette against a backdrop of nothing in particular. I start to call his name, but he is already turning towards me, like he knows I’m here, knows I’ve been looking for him, waiting for him.
Never gonna give you up…
He’s always known.
And then he is looking at me and the world around us is lighting up, this cold, dark place filling with lights and laughter, sounds and smells, promises and love. We’re running now, reaching out to each other, coming ever closer yet somehow kept apart. But I know we’ll be together soon.
My heart, my George, my once and always. I know I’ll never let him go, know that I’ll keep holding on, that I’ll keep him close in the darkness –
– until the very end.