The Horror Zine
The Midway
Melanie Tem

The July Editor's Pick Story is by Melanie Tem

Please feel free to visit Melanie at:

Melanie Tem


by Melanie Tem

My daughter Rachel always loved carnivals, and she'd have been delighted by this one. A seedy, smelly, gaudy, two-truck affair, it set up last Saturday in the little park near our house. I'm sure they don't have a permit. I'm sure they're violating all kinds of ordinances, not to mention the boundaries of good taste. Rachel would have been charmed by all that.

There are more people here than I expected. A lot of people I know—neighbors, the day clerk from the 7-11, the relief mail carrier. I don't know many of their names anymore, but I remember their faces and most of their stories. This one's husband was killed in a car accident. That one is dying of cancer of the prostate, liver, bowel. I hardly believe in their sorrow, and it angers me to have it presented as though it mattered, as though it gives us something in common. None of them lost Rachel.

That one, passing now in front of me, has never had anything bad happen in her life, a story that seems far more plausible to me than the others, easier to accept. I smile at her and raise a hand in greeting. She waves back. Her bouquet of balloons both obscures and magnifies her face.

Unlike many children, Rachel never was afraid of clowns or barkers, the Ferris Wheel or the Tilt-a-Whirl or the roller coaster, speed or height or centrifugal force or things that are
not what they seem. The world for her was a good place, and only going to get better.

Which is why, thirteen-and-a-half years ago at the age of twenty-one, she died. Brian James Dempsey killed her.

Killed and raped her, I remind myself diligently; it seems especially important to be precise tonight. Killed and raped and mutilated her. Along with, depending on which theory
you subscribe to, fourteen or thirty-seven or a hundred other pretty young women with long dark hair.

A clown skips by. The orange yarn of his wig is raveling and he's lost the middle button of his polka-dot blouse, so that you can see the gray hair and the gray sweatshirt underneath. He bows elaborately to me and I bow back, laughing a little, a little bit scared.

Unless there's another stay, which at this point doesn't seem likely, Brian Dempsey will die in the Florida electric chair at five o'clock tomorrow morning, our time, for the only murder they've been able to convict him of. Not Rachel's.


At the end booth is a fortune-teller. She's dressed, of course, like a cartoon gypsy—bangles on her wrists and ankles, a black lace shawl over her head. Maybe she really is
a gypsy. Maybe she really is a fortune-teller, come to this.

She's reading the palm of Mrs. McCutheon, who used to babysit for me when Rachel was a baby. Foolishly, I wonder if the gypsy could have foretold Rachel's death, or the death of Mrs. McCutheon's daughter Libby, a grown woman with a husband and children, of a heart attack two years ago. I wonder if now she can see whether Brian Dempsey really will die tomorrow morning, and how it is that I could have lived after my daughter's death, and how I will go on living after her murderer's execution.

When Mrs. McCutheon gets up from the fortune teller's table, she is crying. Her tears offend me, whether they're for me or for herself. She doesn't know me at first; we haven't seen each other in a long time, and I've changed. When she realizes who I am, she gasps, “Oh, hello, dear,” and looks at me as if she thinks she should say more. But I don't encourage her. Especially tonight, my grief is too good to share. Finally. Mrs. McCutheon just shakes her head and goes
off down the midway.

The gypsy mistakes my hesitation for interest. “Come and see into your fu-tah!” she cries in a hoarse, heavy accent. “Fortunes one dollah only!”

“I can already see into my future.” I tell her, “Thanks anyway.” She shrugs and turns to another, likelier prospect. I went to a medium once in those first desperate weeks after Rachel died, but I knew before I went that the woman would be a fake.

When the execution date was finally set, I called the governor's office to ask if I could come and watch. Be a witness to Brian Dempsey's extermination. Bear witness to what he did to my daughter, what he did to me. But Florida allows only official visitors at its executions. The woman on the phone sounded very young, younger than Rachel would be now, and she hardly gave me the time of day.

I couldn't stay home alone tonight counting the hours. I tried to find out what his last meal would be, but they won't release that information till tomorrow, so I fixed for myself what I thought he might have: a hamburger, French fries, baked beans. He'll talk to his mother tonight. He'll dream. I couldn't stay home alone, trying to imagine all that, so I walked over here. It seems a fitting place for a vigil. Rachel loved carnivals, and this tacky little traveling sideshow will stay open all night.

“Hey, lady, win a dancing bear!” calls a barker in a dirty red-and-white striped shirt from under a tattered red awning. “Flip the switch and it dances, just like Brian Dempsey!”

The plywood counter in front of him is crowded with the chintzy gadgets. The midway lights make him and them and me, I suppose, look ghoulish. The toys are about the size of my clenched fists, and they make a tinny whirring sound when you turn them on. Actually, they look more like slightly melted human beings than like bears. All around me people are clapping, hooting, laughing appreciatively. I appreciate the gag, too. I laugh, too.

“Three chances to win for just one dollar, lady! Take home a souvenir of this great day in history to your kids and grandkids!”

Rachel was my only child, so all my grandchildren died with her. A few years afterward, when there were still no real suspects in her murder but serial killer Brian Dempsey had just started making the news, a young man I'd never heard of called me one afternoon from California. His voice breaking, he told me he'd been in love with my daughter and planned to marry her. Now he was married to someone else and his wife was expecting their first baby. If it was a girl, they wanted to name her Rachel.

I don't know why he called me. For my blessing, maybe; my permission, at least. I had none to give. I have no interest since Rachel died in other people's happiness, or in their pain.

I wait in the short line to pay the man my dollar. He takes it with a practiced gesture much like palming, and he doesn't look at my face or react to the condition of my hand. Probably he's seen worse. He offers me the bucket of multicolored balls and I take three. It doesn't matter which three, and it doesn't matter how I throw them, since the game is of course rigged.

I come close on two of my throws but don't hit anything. I've lost most of my dexterity and grip; my thumbs scarcely oppose anymore. The tall kid next to me wins. I can't remember his name, but he's been living in foster homes since his mother shot his father and then herself when he was five or six. I wonder what he's doing here, how he dares be seen in public. His bear writhes and hops in his hands. Someone in the crowd yells. “Hey, Brian, it won't be long now!” and, briefly, I feel as if I've won something after all.

Over and over I've imagined what must have happened. At first I could hardly stand it, but I told myself I owed it to her; if she could go through it, the least I could do was think about it. So I've read everything that's ever been written about him watched the TV movie four times, seen interviews, studied psychological theories about sociopaths. For a long time now, imagining in detail what must have happened to my daughter Rachel has been a daily habit; those are the first thoughts in my head when I wake up if I've been able to sleep, and they give me energy and reason to face the day.

Speed and height and centrifugal force, and things that aren't what they seem. He'd have been quick—quick-thinking, quick with his hands and his words, though probably not quick, the experts have said, with his killing. Quick with his handsome smile. Even after all these years on Death Row, he has a quick and handsome smile. His approach to her that early, snowy morning thirteen-and-a-half years ago—his offer of a ride to the bus stop, his thermos of steaming coffee—would have seemed to her an innocuous little adventure in a thoroughly adventurous world.

While he drove her into the mountains, he'd have kept up his patter, his pleasant jokes, his intelligent observations. Once she realized she was in terrible danger, she'd have thought of me. I was on my way to work by then, worried about a committee report that wasn't done. Things are not what they seem; she was already dead before I even knew she was missing.

That isn't going to happen to me this time. I'm going to know the exact moment Brian James Dempsey dies. I'm going to be wide awake and cheering. Then, I don't know what I'll do.

He didn't take her very far into the mountains. The roads were snow-packed, and he wouldn't have wanted to risk an accident. He dumped her nude body into the shaft of an abandoned silver mine just outside Idaho Springs; they didn't find it until nine weeks later. Most of his other victims, the ones he killed in summer, he buried; I suppose the ground was too frozen for him to bury Rachel, or maybe he'd forgotten his gloves.

The crowd is thinning. I'm approaching the end of this improvised midway; beyond it is the rest of the park, and the darkened houses of people with their own tragedies. Here's a guy swallowing fire. I watch him for a while and can't see the trick. His throat and lungs and chest must burn, like mine. I have a fleeting image of him setting all those houses on fire, one by one by one.

I check my watch, wind it. If the guy who flips the switch isn't late to work or the governor's heart doesn't start bleeding again at the last minute, Brian James Dempsey will be dead in five hours and ten minutes. Noticing a vague pain, I raise chilled fingers to loosen my lower lip from under my canine teeth. There's blood, but not much; I wipe it on my jacket, and nobody will notice.

This booth sells cotton candy. I'm one of a handful of customers. The kid behind the counter has an enormous “Fryin’ Brian” button pinned to the bill of his cap, and an empty sleeve. As he hands me a large cone and, then, change, his glance inadvertently cuts across my face, and he does an obvious double-take. But this is a traveling sideshow, after all, and it's nearly midnight; he probably sees all manner of strange and deformed creatures.

“Where'd you get the pin?” I ask him. It's one I don't have.

He doesn't hear me because he's already saying very loudly, not exactly to me but to the whole little crowd of us, “Hey, didja hear that Brian Dempsey didn't know tomorrow was Tuesday?”

One of the teenage girls behind me, who have been blatantly flirting with him, yells back as if this were a rehearsed routine, “No! Why?”

“Because he thought it was Fry Day!”

The girls shriek with laughter. I laugh, too, and wave the gaudy blue cotton candy as if it were a pompon. As I turn away from the counter toward the end of the midway, I think deliberately about those three pretty girls and the young man behind the counter, and I imagine in quick detail how he might lure them away from the carnival tonight, kill and rape and mutilate them. The fantasy calms me a little. The cotton candy sticks like clots of hair to my teeth.

There's even a freakshow. I thought freakshows were illegal. I walk slowly past the tents and cages lined up across the end of the midway, staring at everything.

Siamese twin girls joined at the top of the head. Both of them stare back at me and give little shrieks, as if I frighten them. I stand in front of their tent for a long time, probably longer than my quarter entitles me to, savoring their distress and my own.

A boy with fur all over his body. wolf boy, one sign declares. dog boy, says another. He's sitting in an armchair reading Time magazine by the display light over his head, taking no notice at all of me. I long to be in there with him, to have my arms around his hairy neck, my teeth at his throat. I'd make him notice. I'd make us both a display. I'd make the world acknowledge this awful thing that has ruined my life. But others must have had the same impulse, because bars and mesh make a cage around the Wolf/Dog Boy, protecting him from me.

A Two-Headed Calf, asleep in its straw, all four eyes closed. A Fat Lady whose flesh oozes toward me as if it had a life and a purpose of its own. A woman with six fingers on each hand; since otherwise she looks quite ordinary, she makes sure you notice her deformity by leaning far forward on her stool and pressing her hands against the screen that shields her from anything other than the stares and words of the audience. The palms and all twelve fingers have hatch marks on them from the screen.

Rachel would have hated this part of the carnival. People being unkind to each other; people exploiting their own misfortunes. Thinking of her disapproval, I start to turn away. Then fury at her propels me back. Rachel is dead. She let herself be killed, raped, mutilated. She brought this horror into my life and will make it stay forever. I owe her nothing.

But there's nothing more to see. I've come to the end of the freakshow already. It must be hard to staff these days, when people accept so much. Reluctantly, I move away from the almost-silent row of tents and cages toward the carousel on the other side of the midway.

The carousel is unstable. I watch it make a couple of rotations, remembering Rachel in pigtails on a pink horse, and the platform is noticeably lopsided and rickety. The same two or three bars of its tune are endlessly repeating, as if the tape is stuck. The old man who apparently runs the ride is asleep on his bench, legs stretched out in front of him, arms folded crookedly across his belly. At first I think he might be dead, but then I hear him snoring. The painted animals go around and around, up and down, without anybody on them.

I step over the old man's feet and duck under the rope. When my chance comes, I leap up onto the merry-go-round. It creaks and tilts under my weight.

I prowl among the animals. There are no pets here, no horses or noble St. Bernards, only lions with teeth-lined gaping mouths, giant cats perpetually stiff-tailed and ready to pounce, snakes with coils piled higher than my waist and fangs dripping venom as peeling yellow paint.

The three variations—lion, tiger, snake—are repeated to fill up the little merry-go-round with perhaps a dozen wooden animals to ride. I've seen them all. I sit down near the edge of the platform and, with curved upraised arms and crossed legs, make another place where somebody could ride. A child, maybe. A pretty little girl. Her parents would let her on this ride because, unlike the teetering Ferris Wheel at the other end of the midway or the roller coaster whose scaffolding is obviously listing, it would not seem dangerous. She would spot me right away and curious about what sort of animal I was supposed to be, she would come and sit in my lap. After a few rotations, a few stuck bars of the music, I would tighten my arms and legs around her until neither of us could breathe, and I'd never let her go.

“Fifty cents for the ride, lady,” comes the stern, cracked voice.

Dirty hands on gaunt hips, the old man glares at me as his carousel takes me slowly past him, but he doesn't stop it. Maybe the control is stuck, so that it will only stop if it's dismantled. I get awkwardly to my knee, leaning into the turning motion, and fish in my hip pocket, on my next trip around hand him an assortment of nickels and dimes.

“See here,” he says, and with unsettling agility leaps up beside me. “You missed the best one.”

I can feel my nostrils flare at his odors: coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, dirt and cold sweat. Under the ragged jacket, his new-looking bright blue sweatshirt reads, burn Brian burn.

He takes my forearm in his horny fingers and leads me toward the center pole, which is unevenly striped and nowhere near vertical. With his other hand, he points. “There now, ain't she a beauty? Made her myself.” Seeing at once what it is, I catch my breath.

A heavy wooden chair, tall as my head and wide as my shoulders, sturdy and polished, its surfaces reflecting the carnival lights. Leather straps across the back, seat, arms; shiny metal buckles. On the plank between the front legs, two inverted metal cones: electrodes. The cord, snaking so cleverly away that you have to look closely to see that it isn't plugged in. I prefer to pretend that it is.

“Gettin’ a lot of business this week,” the old man says with satisfaction. “Just like I thought.”

Thrilled, I'm almost afraid to ask, “May I try it?”

He squints at me in a caricature of shrewdness. “Fifty cents extra.”

I pay him without argument and take my place in the chair. The old man straps me in—one thong too tight across my breasts, another too low across my abdomen. He's just finished fastening the sharp buckles at my wrists when I notice that his jacket pockets are stuffed with trinkets, tiny replicas of this chair. “Wait,” I say breathlessly. “Those are wonderful.”

He chuckles and extracts a glittering handful. “Special shipment di-rect from Florida. Quarter apiece.”

“I'll take them all.”

He peers at me. I can tell that this is the first time he's noticed my face, but he doesn't seem particularly interested.

“All? Must be a couple hundred here. Wasn't such a hot item as I thought. Might be some market for ’em tomorrow, after— ”

“He killed my daughter.” Killed and raped and...

There is a pause. We've made a complete rotation together, although here near the center it's harder to feel the motion. The magician across the way is still trying to get his frayed scarves untangled. “Well,” the old man says, “I guess you're entitled.”


“Let's say twenty cents apiece since it's quantity. Forty bucks.”

“The money's in my back pocket.” I manage to lift my hip off the seat of the electric chair long enough for him to slide his hand in and out of my pocket. I have no idea how much he takes. It doesn't matter. He empties his pockets of all the little electric chairs and piles them on the platform at my feet.

“Enjoy the ride,” he tells me. He's leaning close over me, and my head is secured so that I can't avoid his rancid breath. He could avoid mine, as most people do, but he doesn't seem to mind. He's grinning. So am I. “Not much business this late, so you can stay on as long as you like.”

Absurdly grateful, I try to nod my thanks, forgetting for the moment that my head won't move. He hasn't shaved my head, of course, but I can easily imagine that for myself. When I try to speak, my voice cracks and growls. He waves a twisted hand at me as if he knows what I want to say. Then he makes his way expertly among the silent and forever raging beasts and off the carousel, out of my restricted line of vision.

I'm alone. I can't see my watch anymore, but it must be nearing one o'clock. Brian Dempsey will die in a chair like this in four hours. The carousel keeps turning; before long, even
its jerks and bumps have melded into a somnolent pattern.

I'm in my house, in my back yard filled with flowers. Rachel loved flowers. Under the rose arbor is a chair, so polished it glows, so sturdy I know it has rooted to my garden. In it is tied a handsome young man. He's crying. They're going to execute him.

I go to him, kneel, smell the roses, put my arms around him. His body stiffens as if he would pull away from me if he could: I look at his face and see that he's afraid of me, and I know that he has reason to be. I hold him. I can feel his heartbeat, the pulse in his temple. The executioner is approaching, from the back door of my house, a whole parade of executioners each wearing a party hat and swallowing fire. They're going to kill him. I'm not trying to stop it. I just want to comfort him. I hold him close and am suffused with sorrow for us all.

I wake up enraged. I've been betrayed by my own dreams. It's still pitch dark. I'm aware of a steady rotation, and of music that is scarcely music anymore, and of lights, and of hands at my wrists and under my arms. “Wake up, lady,” says the voice of the old man, not, I think, for the first time. “It's time.”

“Oh. God, what time is it?”

“It's five o'clock.”

Then from all up and down the midway comes a ragged cheer, and the triumphant cry of “Brian Dempsey is dead!” I imagine the Siamese twins saying it to each other, the Wolf Boy snarling it through bared teeth, the fire swallower spitting it up. I say it, too: “Brian Dempsey is dead!” Saying those words makes me tremble as though an electric shock has gone through me, although I don't recognize them coming out of my mouth and I hardly know what it means.

The old man is staring at me. He's not frightened, and he's certainly not surprised, but he can't seem quite to take in what he's seeing. I raise my hands to my face, but neither my face nor my hands are there anymore in any recognizable form.

He lifts me out of the chair. I can hardly walk; I stumble over the scattered trinkets as if they were bits of bone. My spine has bent at a sharp angle; my feet hurt too much to bear my weight.

The old man picks me up in his arms, finds places finally to hold onto my body. He steps off the still-turning platform of the carousel, and without effort takes me the short distance to the end of the midway to the row of tents and cages that make up the freakshow.

Next to the Two-Headed Calf, on the very edge of the carnival where the park leads to other people's houses, a cage is empty, except for a chair like the one I dreamed in. The old man drops me into it but doesn't bother to strap me down. He leaves, clangs the door shut behind him but doesn't lock it.

An early-morning line of watchers and revelers, celebrating the execution, is already starting to form outside my cage. They've come to see what I've turned into, what Brian Dempsey has made me, what they all can turn into if they try.






Melanie Tem's solo novels are Prodigal (recipient of the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement, First Novel), Blood Moon, Wilding, Revenant, Desmodus, The Tides, Black River, Pioneer, Slain in the Spirit, and The Deceiver.

Collaborative novels are Making Love and Witch-Light with Nancy Holder, and Daughters and The Man on the Ceiling with Steve Rasnic Tem.  The novella The Man on the Ceiling won the 2001 Bram Stoker, International Horror Guild, and World Fantasy Awards, and the novel of the same name was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award. The award-winning multi-media CD-ROM Imagination Box was also a collaborative project with Steve Rasnic Tem. 

Melanie Tem’s short stories have appeared in the collection The Ice Downstream and in numerous magazines (including Colorado State Review, Black Maria, Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Cemetery Dance) and anthologies (including Snow White Blood Red, Little Deaths, Gathering the Bones, Hot Blood, Acquainted with the Night, Poe). Stories will soon appear in Portals, Werewolves and Shapeshifters, Blood and Other Cravings, and Black Wings II. She has also published non-fiction articles and poetry.

Recipient of a 2001-2002 associate-ship from the Rocky Mountain Women's Institute, Tem has had productions of two of her plays. She is also an oral storyteller.

An adoption social worker, Tem lives in Denver with her husband, writer and editor Steve Rasnic Tem. They have four children and four granddaughters.




In Concert






























































































































































Prodigal Revenant In Concert