Joel had lost to his brother yet again and he knew it. Naturally light-hearted, he struggled on a daily basis to find the cunning that was required of him, but was outwitted by Daniel at every turn. That afternoon, feeling the trip wire taut against his ankle, he had cursed his luck in the split second before the water drenched him.
By the time the two boys found themselves marauding around the fairground of their small town, Joel had reverted to the deference of a younger sibling, but the shame of defeat still stung him. Striding ahead of their parents, the brothers (one markedly taller than the other) waited for darkness to arrive and offset the flashing lights. They trampled the uneven grass in happy defiance, sucking sausage fumes deep into their lungs. The blue and red awnings of the carousel pirouetted as they passed and Joel idly thought of the future contraptions he would invent.
As the music swept them along in its hurdy gurdy waves, Daniel outdid the organ-grinder with his pubescent voice, its dark undertones pierced with shrillness, ‘I dare you to come on that with me.’ Following the trajectory of his brother’s finger, Joel found the gaping mouth of the ghost train – putrid teeth dripping seaweed, daemonic eyes swivelling in a blackened head – and knew that he would have to comply. Muffled screams preceded them as inadvertent legs delivered Joel to his fate and an empty carriage juddered to a halt at the entrance.
Daniel signalled his intentions to their lagging parents and pushed his younger brother into one of the two front seats, quickly buckling himself in alongside. Behind them, the small train filled up with others of similar ages and Joel watched as a girl from his class approached, her blonde hair bobbing merrily as she took a seat. When all the places were occupied, an unseen hand ushered them on their way, rubberised fronds of seaweed slithering across their cheeks as they entered.
The small train jolted along the rails, quickly leaving the muted light of evening behind, and Joel closed his eyes to find the darkness no more or less absolute. In the dank air, nervous giggles reached him from a great distance and blood pounded in his head. Every sinew of his body was braced to run and hide in the perfumed sanctuary of his newly-laundered bed. Instead, trapped in the moment of the bedroom light being switched off, half an eternity passed and he held his breath.
Where holy thoughts failed to find him on irregular Sundays in church, transported into this peculiar temple, Joel’s worst imaginings squeezed themselves into his pulsating head. Eyes open or closed, nothing could stop the fiends that raced across the back of his mind, running from the beasts that tormented them. All shapes and sizes, they hopped and slithered, fleeing from fear, while Joel sat, immobile. As the darkness persisted, the creatures became flesh and he could feel them breathing in the space around him. A bristled hand extended towards him in the pitch black and Joel turned to where his brother should be in order to blame him. Far away, he knew that, for once, Daniel was too trapped within his own terror to antagonise others.
When glimpses of shapes offered themselves through the darkness, Joel at first believed that he had brought them into being. Little by little, he realised that the bats plummeting from the ceiling and the monsters insinuating themselves from the corners were actually the workings of the ghost train. As the carriage trundled on, a neon flash shot through the darkness, lighting up a zombie to their right. Girls screamed and Joel stared, picking out the dishevelled threads of the undead. The figure shuddered towards them with outstretched hands, letting an inhuman groan escape from the swathes of skin that quivered from its jagged face. When the zombie was almost upon them, the carriage ground to a halt and the screams reached their crescendo.
Small in his seat, warm relief spread over Joel that this simulated gore was so inferior to his imagined horrors. He had no idea what had conjured the creatures in his youthful mind but, in that moment, he seemed to understand fear and death. His heart raced as the zombie stared down at him through lifeless eyes, but he silently mocked its latex pretensions. In the ultraviolet, he caught sight of his brother, transfixed with terror, and felt triumphant. And then the theatre lights, which had amplified the eeriness tenfold, were flicked off and the train tugged itself out of harm’s way.
An orifice of daylight expanded as they approached it and the carriage slapped its terrorised passengers through rubber flaps. Around the corner from the main entrance, children undid their harnesses, sharing raised chatter in an attempt to make light of their experiences. The girl from Joel’s class blanched as she walked, unsteadily, away while some of the younger ones scuttled, sobbing, to their parents.
Joel relished the moment he looked over at his brother, slowly unclasping his buckle and turning his body around to face him fully. Just before bravado was restored, Joel discovered a fragment of fear in his brother’s widened eyes. Daniel looked back at him, searching for ammunition and, finding none, he ejected himself from the seat of the tiny train and hurried towards the nearest hot dog stand.
Commissioned by Peter Geschwind for’Automatic’, Fargfabriken, Stockholm, 2006.