***Midway is a tie-in novella that complements The Harvesting, Book I in The Harvesting Series.***
Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, for the beginning of the end.
Carnie. Ride jockey. Roustabout. White trash. Tilt girl. Gypsy.
Cricket has been called a lot of things, but she never thought survivor of the zombie apocalypse would be one of them. One day she’s barking on the midway, and the next day, the world is eating itself alive. Cricket, along with Vella, a tarot reader, and Puck, Cricket’s mangy mutt, find themselves running for their lives, but where can you hide when mankind has fallen? Cricket will need help if she hopes to survive.
Luckily for her, we were never really alone, and apparently, magical forces want to keep this tilt girl alive.
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Melanie Karsak is the author of the Amazon best-selling steampunk series The Airship Racing Chronicles (Chasing the Star Garden and Chasing the Green Fairy) and the award-winning horror/dark fantasy Harvesting Series. She grew up in rural northwestern Pennsylvania and earned a Master’s degree in English from Gannon University. A steampunk connoisseur, white elephant collector, and zombie whisperer, the author currently lives in Florida with her husband and two children. She is an Instructor of English at Eastern Florida State College.
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“Tilt-a-whirl, tilt-a-whirl, tilt-a-whirl! Come on ride my tilt-a-whirl! I’ll whirl you round the world,” I barked to the mostly empty aisles at the Allegheny Fairgrounds.
I looked up and down the aisles. The place was like a ghost town. While bags of pink and blue cotton candy hung in the food joints, cherry red candy apples glistened in the sunlight, and over-grown stuffed purple monkeys hung at the game booths, ripe for winning, no one was around to stuff themselves with carnie delights. The smell of kettle corn still perfumed the air, but for a carnival that was usually packed with excited townies, I swore I wouldn’t be surprised if a tumbleweed blew down the row.
After a bit, two young boys came up to my line. They were the only kids around. The older looked to be about twelve. The younger, a good two inches under my height bar, had pulled himself up to full height and tried not to meet my eyes.
“Tickets,” I said to them.
Confidently, the older boy handed me his ticket and passed through. The younger boy hesitated. Guessing he’d be all right, I let him through. The older boy slapped him a high five when they thought they were out of earshot.
I turned the key and started the ride. The boys smiled at me. I waved to them.
“Hey Cricket,” Harv, the balloon-pop agent across the aisle, called to me. “Where is everyone? Allegheny Fairgrounds is usually packed. I’m gonna go hungry.”
I leaned over the gate and twirled my blonde braid, checking out the split ends. “I heard someone say it’s the flu keepin’ people home. You know they closed LAX? I hear it’s gettin’ real serious. You get a flu shot?”
“Naa. Damned thing always gives me the flu. You know, Bud’s got it. He’s been laid up in his RV all day.”
“Anyone been by to see him?”
Harv shrugged. “He’s grouchy when he feels good. I don’t imagine he’d be a barrel of laughs when he’s sick.”
“No man is. Even the common cold has you all actin’ like a bunch of babies.”
“This coming from a blonde,” Harv replied with a laugh.
“You better watch yourself. I’ll come pop your balloons.”
“Baby, a grenade couldn’t pop those balloons,” he said with a laugh.
I turned back to the boys. They were all smiles; round and round they spun. Since no one else was around, I let it run until they signaled they’d had enough.
Around nine o’clock that night, the owner, Mr. Marx, came by. I had not seen a soul on the fairway since the boys left. “Sorry, Cricket. We’re going to teardown to get ready for the jump to Cincinnati. We’re just burning juice and not making a dime. This place is dead; not a soul here.”
“All right then,” I replied, and Mr. Marx wandered off. I realized he hadn’t said a word about when he would pay us for Allegheny Fairgrounds, dead or not.
Moments after he left, the first of the evening fireworks shot across the sky. The dark sky was illuminated with gold and pink. I waited for a moment, expecting to hear the excited oohs and ahhs that usually followed what was a pretty measly fireworks display, but there was nothing, just the pop and crackle of the fireworks, followed by silence. Eerie.
I whistled for Puck, my mangy mixed breed and the only male I swore I would ever truly love. After a few minutes, the hound-shepherd mix with honey-colored eyes appeared looking dirty and happy. I found him about a year ago. Well, actually, he’d found me. We were getting ready to leave Crawford County Fairgrounds when he showed up at the tilt begging for scraps. I made the mistake of feeding him a leftover funnel cake, and after that, I couldn’t shake him. He was a mischievous little devil, and Vella, the tarot reader, gave me the idea for his name: Puck. She said it was the name of a rascally faerie creature. It fit him. From that moment on, Puck and I were always together. More than once, a growl and flash of teeth from Puck had gotten me out of a jam. I loved that mangy mutt.
“Up to no good, were ya?” I asked, scratching him on the head. He licked my hand and wagged his tail. I closed up my till and headed to the bunk house to look for some extra muscle to help with the teardown. As I passed through the midway I saw most of the other joints and booths were already closed. Mama Rosie was just closing up the snake show when I came by.
“Marx closed down everyone up here already?” I asked her.
“They’re all sick, Sug,” she replied as she dropped one of her small snakes into her bra. I shivered. Everyone loved Mama Rosie, but no one understood her relationship with her babies. She always had one hanging out of her bra, hanging around her neck, or stuffed in her clothes. Mama was a big woman who liked to wear baggy, loud-colored gowns. I hated sitting next to her at dinner. You never knew when one of the babies might suddenly slither out of her hibiscus-print dress.
I set my box down and helped her push the trailer door closed. “How about you, Mama? You feelin’ all right?”
“I think I ate something bad at lunch, but I’ll be fine. You headed back to the bunks?”
“I guess. I was hopin’ Beau and the boys would come give me a hand.”
“Sug, Beau would give you a hand, arm, leg, or toe if you asked. Why don’t you give that boy a chance?”
“Oh, Mama Rosie, I don’t feel nothin’ like that for him.”
“But you run off with townies often enough.”
“Well, we all have needs.”
Mama Rosie laughed loud. “You got that right. I thought maybe you were hoping someone would marry you out of the life.”
“And give up all this?”
Mama Rosie hooted again, her boisterous laughter filling the empty aisles.
While the smell of Chinese food, funnel cakes, and fried sausage still filled the air, there was no one around. Power was still on, so the midway sparkled in a rainbow of light, but the place was like a ghost town. I had never seen it like that, and since I’d practically grown up in the carnival, that was saying something. Several game booth agents had even left their plush hanging—now that was odd.
As Mama and I passed by Iago’s Traveling Torture show, Mr. Iago came out. I winced. After three years of traveling with Great Explorations carnival, I had yet to warm up to Mr. Iago. His show was creepy. I’d once had a look inside. The place was hung with all kinds of pictures of people being tortured, and he had old torture devices like the rack, an iron maiden, a wheel of fortune, and other small harmful contraptions. Mr. Iago was as creepy as his show. On the outside he looked normal enough, just a funny-looking little bald man with too-big-ears and a pointed nose, but it was what I felt coming from inside him that set me on edge. I never looked him in the eye.
“Mama Rosie, Cricket,” he called politely.
“You headed back too, Mr. Iago?” Mama called cheerfully.
“Yes, ma’am, I am,” he replied softly.
“You make any scratch today?” Mama asked him.
“Well, I don’t like to discuss finances,” he told her in his quiet manner.
“He don’t like to discuss finances,” Mama said mockingly to me. “All right, Mr. Iago. You just go on with yourself then.”
“No offense, Mama Rosie,” he replied quietly.
“Of course not,” she said and rolled her eyes at me.
When we got back to the bunk houses there were half a dozen people sitting outside at a picnic table listening to the radio. I spotted Mr. and Mrs. Chapman. They owned three of the grab joints; Mrs. Chapman waved to us. She was a biblical woman whose savory corndog breading had won top prize at a competition last year. If you didn’t mind hearing her recite verse all day, she was fine to be around. Red and Neil, two ride jockeys, were there as well. Red ran Big Eli; Neil ran the swings. The resident lot lizard, Cici, was snuggled up to Red. I was surprised to see Vella there as well. Vella, the tarot reader, was a Romanian immigrant who called herself the only authentic Roma, which she said meant gypsy, in America. Even though she was just a little older than me, Vella scared me. She’d never done anything to me and was really nice, but she scared me all the same. The others said she was dead-on accurate with her readings and often had bad news to give. I didn’t want to be around anything like that.
“What’s the news?” Mama Rosie asked.
“Lord, help us! This flu is something else. They have quarantined almost every city on the west coast: LA, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco. . .you name it. They got the national guard on the highways keeping people out,” Mrs. Chapman said.
She was quiet then. We listened: “And inside Portland Central Hospital, military personnel have opened fire on seemingly-rabid patients,” a female reporter was saying. “Reports from the scene indicate that a riot broke out at the hospital when patients, suffering from side-effects of what now seems to be a pandemic flu, began attacking other hospital patients and employees. CDC officials have confirmed that increased violence appears to be associated with the afflicted and continue to advise everyone to avoid direct physical contact with those with the illness. Martial law has been instituted in all major west coast cities and cities across the south. Cities across the northeast and central US have issued a curfew. There have been reports of runs on banks, grocery stores, and fueling stations.”
“What are they sayin’ on TV?” I asked.
Red shook his head. “We can’t get a signal in. No one’s dishes are working.”
“President was on the radio. Told everyone to be calm,” Cici said.
“Easy for him to say. They probably got him stashed in a bunker somewhere,” Mr. Chapman replied.
“Highways are gonna be backed up. And nobody’s gonna be interested in a fair, not at Allegheny and not in Cincinnati. But I bet if we don’t jump, Marx is gonna stiff us,” I told the others.
“Well, if y’all will give me a hand, I’ll pay back the favor,” I told Red and Neil.
“No problem, Cricket. You see Beau around?”
I shook my head. “I just came lookin’ for him.”
“He’s sick,” Vella said. She rarely spoke, so when she did, we all turned to her. “Leave him be,” she added, her voice still thick with her Romanian accent.
Vella had been shuffling her cards the whole time we’d been listening to the radio. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who noticed.
“What do the cards say about this flu, Vella? Should we hit the road? Stay put?” Mama Rosie asked.
“Devil’s work,” Mrs. Chapman whispered under her breath.
“They say the same thing over and over again: the Tower.” She laid out a card for us to see.
When Mr. Iago leaned in to look, I moved away. My skin crawled having him so close. I took a step toward the other end of the table and put my hand on Mrs. Chapman’s shoulder. She patted my fingers. On the card Vella had laid out was the image of a tower on fire, two naked people falling from it to the ground.
“What does it mean?” Mama Rosie asked.
“The end of a way of life. Chaos will pave the way in a new world for those who can survive the destruction.”
“That’s cheerful,” Red said.
Vella picked the card back up. She looked up at me. “Can you let me know when you’re going to head out? I’d like to caravan.”
I smiled and nodded. I wasn’t really interested in her gloom and doom, but I sure didn’t want to be on the road alone in a time like this.
Red, Neil, and I headed back to the rides and started the breakdown process. It wasn’t easy with just the three of us, but Neil was good with the lift, and I had the breakdown down-pat. We had the tilt loaded onto the flatbed in no time.
“I’ve never seen a girl as good with a wrench as you are, Cricket,” Red told me as we headed over to the swings.
“Don’t hurt none that my daddy put one in my hand about a minute after I was born,” I replied with a laugh.
“I met your daddy back in the 80s. We worked Maverick Carnival together for about a year.”
“For real? I didn’t know that.”
“Boy, your daddy, there wasn’t a mark he couldn’t clean out or a townie whose eye he couldn’t catch. I think your daddy was born for the carnie life.”
“He loved it. That’s the truth,” I replied. I loved talking about my daddy. Since he’d died three years ago, I felt so lonely for him. Anytime someone had a story to share about him I was all ears.
Daddy had just finally saved and borrowed enough to buy a used tilt-a-whirl when he started looking a little red in the cheeks from time to time. My daddy had always been a ride jockey, but now he would be a ride owner, and a “tilt man,” a title that made him proud. He liked the idea of tweaking the ride, playing with the gears and brakes. It was a dream for him. Not a month after getting the ride, however, I found him lying dead of a heart attack. He’d been working on one of the cars. Doctor said a life full of eating nothing but carnival food will do that to you. I’d thought about leaving the carnival, but after my daddy had worked so hard, I couldn’t. I became a tilt girl. The ride was like his living memorial. Every time a child smiled or laughed on that ride, I knew my daddy was smiling in heaven.
“I never did meet your mama,” Red told me then turned to Neil. “You ever meet her?”
Neil shook his head. “Someone said you look like her, Crick.”
“Yeah, I suppose so. I probably wouldn’t know her anymore. Last time I talked to her she said she’d dyed her hair red,” I replied. My mom and dad had split when I was young. She had married and started a new life. We rarely talked. She was like a stranger to me. I didn’t think on her much.
We worked on the swings. They were an easy break down, and we were done and packed in less than two hours. The Big Eli, as we called the Ferris Wheel, was another story altogether, and it was already after one in the morning.
“Let’s get it first thing tomorrow,” Red said. “I’m feeling my bones.”
Relieved, I nodded. I didn’t want the boys to know, but every muscle in my body was aching, and Puck had started whining for his dinner an hour before. I wasn’t going to argue. “Just knock in the mornin’,” I called to Red. “I’m over by the creek at the edge of the west parking lot. Wasn’t room left in the back when I got here,” I added.
“Well, that will teach you not to play around in town next jump,” Red replied with a laugh, and we went our separate ways, Neil and Red chatting as they went the other direction.
Back in the parking lot, I crawled into the cab of my truck, my home away from home. When I was a game agent, I used to drive a small RV, but I needed a semi to haul the tilt so I gave up my RV, managed to get a CDL license, and now lived in the cab of my truck. It wasn’t too bad, and if it started to feel real tight, I would stay in the bunk house.
I dug around until I found a can of food for Puck. I placed a small bowl on the ground and sat beside him, petting him while he ate, looking at the view. My spot by the creek wasn’t bad. I could hear the sound of the rushing water. Besides, the parking lot was dead. There wouldn’t be any noise.
After Puck had gobbled down his meal, he jumped in the cab, and we snuggled together on the small cot behind the seat. I pulled the curtain closed, and we called it a night.