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Carousel Nightmare
About the Author: Max Jason Peterson holds a Master’s in English literature. This award-winning author has published in Analog (forthcoming), Virginia Is for Mysteries, Vol. 3: A State of Murder (forthcoming), Strange Horizons, Flash Fiction Online, PodCastle, Seascape:The Best New England Crime Stories 2019, and A Study in Lavender: Queering Sherlock Holmes, among others.

Orson helped his mother into the swan carriage. This October, the historic Hampton Carousel featured Haunted Horse Rides. The merry-go-round sported skeletons and spooks riding horses and carriages. Cobwebs and black streamers festooned the carousel poles. Once the carousel got going, one might find the Headless Horseman prancing up behind.

“How’s this, Mother?”

Mrs. Erstwell cackled, patting the skeleton riding to her right. She placed its grisly hand on her knee. “Like I’m being courted by Grim Death!”

She smoothed the worn velvet cushion in invitation. Orson swung into the seat, only to jump right up again. His mother guffawed and lifted a bony foot.

Orson chuckled and sat gingerly, his back tingling. “It’s not every day I get goosed by a skeleton.”

“Well, then, today’s your lucky day, boy!”

“All tucked in, Mother?” He smoothed the embroidered Halloween blanket around her.

“Stop fussing.” She slapped his hands lightly, the way his orange tabby swatted while playing.

“Mother, it’s getting chilly.”

Mrs. Erstwell called gaily to the attendant, “Tell this young man to keep his hands to himself!”

“Aw, Mother,” he said. Even so, at fifty years old, it was nice to hear someone call him young.

Orson settled uncomfortably, stretching an arm along the seatback. He was a big man, and he didn’t want to crush his increasingly tiny mother.

The carousel started up. Mrs. Erstwell leaned into Orson’s side. “I asked him to play the carillon for us,” she confided.

“Thanks, Mother. My favorite. Just like when we were kids.”

She cackled. “Like I was ever a kid with you.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Just enjoy the music.” She tapped her rings on the sled, pretending her arm was part of the skeleton.

The ride picked up speed. Pumpkins, skeletons, owls, and black cats streamed past. Decorations hung from the pavilion windows. They perched atop the curio cabinet and lounged on the cashier’s stand. Some rested on the gazebo’s benches, looking for all the world like living souls.

As he’d hoped, Mathilde Erstwell began talking about his father.

“Your dad and I used to ride this carousel when it lived at Buckroe Beach. Back then it was a nickel a ride, not a dollar like it is now. We’d spend all day at the shore. I’d pack a picnic lunch. You remember our big dog, Sam. He saved a little girl from drowning.”

As she recited familiar details, the carousel flew by a stack of red skulls. A ghostly woman paraded in stately, funeral black—without a head. Organ music rose, grand and grim. As twilight fell, the scene glowed garishly under Halloween lights. A fuzzy black cat yowled from the rafters.

Each October, Orson and Mathilde revisited haunts they loved: ghost walks at the Hampton History Museum and Fort Monroe, Howl-o-Scream at Busch Gardens, the pumpkin patch at Green Hand Farm in Gloucester. Hampton’s Main Library held an evening devoted to Edgar Allan Poe—a man who’d experienced enough heartbreak to understand how Orson felt.

“How did Dad die?” Orson asked suddenly.

His mother broke off mid-story. One shrewd green eye pierced him like a needle. The other wandered. “Why, Orson, I thought you knew.”

The truth was, he wanted to hear her say it. Each time, the story changed. Since age six, he’d been listening for the truth behind her words. And trying to discover why memories of his father scared him so.

He caught a flutter of black and glanced over his shoulder. The Headless Horseman seemed to be gaining.

“The paper says he ‘died suddenly,’ ” Orson said. “That often means suicide.”

“No. It’s a mistake to believe that.”

“I remember that day at the beach. A picnic. Dad choked on a chicken bone. You saved him. It was the day Sam rescued that girl.” For a lonely son growing up, she’d transformed such details into reasons. The more outlandish the tale, the more Orson wondered sadly how horrible the truth must be.

“Mysterious circumstances,” Mrs. Erstwell said faintly.

Clip-clop, clippety-clop—hoofbeats, catching up. Spooked, Orson twisted round. He caught a flash of white—his mother’s face—a skull—

Swallowing a scream, Orson stared down the Horseman. The cloaked figure loomed as his black horse rose and fell.

This story appears in our OCT 2021 Issue
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Reader Discussion

Good story, but creepy!
By Jen Biggs

Ah ooooh! A mysterious story for Halloween time. Yikes! Great description and a twist or two… It’s got the Ghoulish going on. I enjoyed the story.
By Tina

A great, "scary" story. Great for Halloween fans. Kudos to the author.
By Frances Dunn

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