Trash blows in the breeze like paper tumbleweeds, and there is graffiti on a few of the buildings, evidence that we certainly aren’t the first here. TURN BACK, is written in artful red and black. DROP DEAD is painted directly beneath it in glowing orange. And then, at the very bottom, painted in eerie, morbid white, is DEATH COMES TO US ALL. I don’t bother mentioning that my brother painted that one.
“Interesting,” Dare says slowly, as he pivots in a circle. “But I wouldn’t say it’s creepier than a funeral home.”
“That’s because this isn’t what I want to show you,” I tell him mischievously. He glances down at me.
“Well, I’m ever ready,” he announces. “Lead on.”
I giggle at his formal tone, which even still is sexy with his accent, and without thinking, I reach behind and grab his hand in the dark. I almost startle at the contact, at the feel of his warm fingers and strong hands. He’s surprised by it, but he doesn’t shirk away. Instead, he grips my hand firmly, yet softly, and I pull him along, enjoying the very idea that I’m touching him right now.
I’m holding hands with Dare DuBray.
We walk through the dead center of the Midway, past the Old Mill boat ride, with it’s rotting boats bobbing in the murky moat, past the hanging swings, their chains creaking as they move in the wind, and past the bumper cars, with the defunct cars all shoved together in the middle.
I stop in front of Nocte, Joyland’s version of a house of horrors.
Dare reads the dark sign, the black letters that seem to drip with blood. “Nocte, huh?”
I nod. “It means by night in Latin. Finn used to love this place. And I think it’s what started his love of Latin.”
I don’t mention my theory that Finn loved this place because the grotesque horror of it made even him feel sane. That’s why we still come, because it still has the same effect, maybe even more so. The atmosphere of abandonment adds to the horror, making it seem real, somehow. So when he walks through it, he’s the sanest thing in the room, aside from me.
Dare and I stand staring up the winding drive, toward the deserted mansion that seems to leer at us from above, some of its windows broken out and winking. Plants line the drive, and weeping trees form a canopy, creating a shadowy walkway.
Dare glances at me. “Ok. It’s creepy.”
I smile, even as chills already form along my spine. “You haven’t seen anything yet.”
I tug on his hand, and we start up the drive. “When this was running, they used to have ghosts and zombies jumping out along the way, scaring you, telling you to turn back.” I pause, staring up at him. “Do you want to turn back, Dare?”
My voice contains a flirty challenge, and he hears it. He turns to me, grinning.
“Not on your life.” The moonlight shines down on him, illuminating the dark stubble that lines his jawline, and glinting off the ends of his hair. He seems to shine, for a moment, and I itch to reach up and touch his face.
But I don’t.
Instead, I smile. “Let’s do it, then.”
We climb the creaky stairs of the porch, cross the creaking boards, then turn the brass handle of the door. Dare steps fearlessly over the threshold.
“Which way?” he turns to me. I pull out my flashlight and shine it around the familiar foyer. Red velvet lines the walls, hanging in an ominous way reminiscent of blood. It smells musty and old in here, oxygen deprived and dusty.
“That way,” I point to the right, toward the hall that I know leads to the bedrooms.
Because suddenly, I just have to be close to him. It’s a need, not a want. An unconscious pull, a call that I desperately want to answer.
We inch along the hall, with every other step creaking, and I catch Dare glancing behind us several times.
“Scared?” I ask cheekily.
“Not at all,” he answers calmly, stepping around a mannequin lying in a pool of fake blood. The mannequin seems to stare up at me with lifeless eyes, eyes that seem too knowing to be glass, too real to be fake. It’s part of the draw of this place. It’s creepily real. And now, since it’s abandoned and dark, it’s scarier than they ever meant for it to be.
As we walk, I know without looking where Dare is. It’s like I’m a planet and he’s my axis… or my sun. I feel his heat, I feel his presence, and I ache to lean into it, to fold into him, to absorb his strength.
It’s a sudden urge, and I’m startled with the intensity of it.
I’m startled because I’ve never felt it before, not like this. It’s enough to make me feel guilty, because it distracts me from other feelings that have overwhelmed me lately…the blinding grief.
I swallow hard as I lead him to the first bedroom.
Stepping inside, I shine the light around, at the mannequin lying on the bed, with the rope around its neck and the knife in its chest. She stares at me accusingly with matted blond hair, like she wants to know what the hell we’re doing with this intrusion.
I don’t know what I’m doing.
That’s the truth of it. What I know is that I like the way Dare makes me feel. I like being distracted from pain. I like the way my heart flutters and my stomach flips whenever he’s around. That’s what I know.
I turn my attention from the mannequin to her surroundings. The bed-sheets are splattered with ‘blood’ and on the wall, THE GOOD DIE HERE, drips in ominous red, supposedly written by the murderer’s finger dipped in the victim’s own blood.
“Are you?” I ask Dare with a smirk. “Good, I mean?”
He looks at me sharply, then his mouth tilts into a smile. “I’ve had no complaints.”
I shake my head because obviously that isn’t what I meant, but it’s funny so I laugh anyway.
“Hmmm. Then we might be in danger. If you’re good, I mean.”
I scoot closer to him and suddenly, I’m in his personal space. I’m pressed against his chest, and the rock hard solidity of it surprises me. He’s lithe and slender, so I didn’t expect him to be so…immovable, so muscular and hard.
I take a deep breath, inhaling his masculine smell, and stare up at him.
He’s staring down at me, his gaze connected to mine, just like the first day I saw him. But this time, there’s something in his eyes that wasn’t there before, there’s an expression there that I’ve only seen in my dreams. Want. For me. It shakes me to my core, causing my breath to linger on my lips.