The Fair Beneath The Ice
by A. P. Maynard
Matt’s snowball spun through the dark line of fir trees and struck Sophia hard upon her cheek.
When he called her name, the rocky slope and the pine-scented trees distorted the sound of his voice, scattering it into a thousand shards, so it sounded like it came from everywhere at once. She heard his friend Ricky snicker, then hiss, “Fat bitch,” and suddenly, it felt like the cold all around her was sinking into her bones. She didn’t like Ricky. He was vicious and kind of fat himself, and there was something sly about his eyes when he looked at her that made her feel like a trapped animal.
Footsteps crunched through the snow. A figure in a red parka appeared between the trees—Ricky, his face hidden in the shadow of his hood. Even though she couldn’t see his face, she knew he was grinning. She thought she could see his eyes, bright and glinting like knives.
“Leave me alone,” Sophia yelled, and Ricky echoed her.
“Leave me alone.” He copied her Californian accent, strengthened to Valley Girl heights. “You fat bitch.”
“Yeah,” she said, rolling her eyes. “You said that already. Got anything new, dumbass?”
“What did you call me?”
Sophia swallowed, forced her lips into a rictus of a grin. Fuck it; she was tougher than this shithead. “I’m sorry, is it Mr. Dumbass?” Anger lent her courage, and she laughed at him. “Seriously, you think I’m, like, scared of you? Really?”
“Yeah.” He took another step, and Sophia realized how tall he was compared to her. The parka made him look even bigger. “I think you’re, like, scared. I think you’re terrified. Because you know what I can do to you.”
A blue shadow danced across the snow. “Ricky?” Matt’s voice sounded uncertain, and Sophia glanced toward her half-brother, emerging from the trees.
“Matt, I’ll tell Dad.”
“Hear that, Matt?” Ricky mocked. “She’s gonna tell Daddy. Are you scared?”
“Hell no,” Matt said. He still sounded nervous, but there was an edge to his voice.
Sophia’s heart plummeted. They’d both been drinking; Ricky had swiped a bottle of cheap vodka from his parents’ liquor cabinet. The empty bottle had been the first thing Ricky had flung at her, as she’d walked through the trees toward town, desperate to get away from the chalet and the grating sound of her stepmother’s voice. Luckily, it had missed her by several feet, but the boys hadn’t been ready to leave it at that.
“Matt,” she said, and now she couldn’t hide the fear from her voice. She knew it was a mistake; it was what they wanted, especially Ricky. There was something bad in the air in this town, something ugly and mean. She’d been able to taste it the moment they’d driven over the bridge and crossed the border. Spite and hatred had soaked into the walls of the buildings. You’d inhale it if you breathed the air, like it was poison or something, and it had infected Ricky. It was starting to affect Matt, as well. He’d always had a mean streak, but he wasn’t really dangerous; in this town, she didn’t think that was true.
“Seriously, it’s gone far enough,” she said.
“You’re right about that.” Ricky’s voice was casual and friendly, but something about it gave Sophia warning. When he came toward her, she fled. She pounded through the snow, ducked between the fir trees and into the dark shadow of the forest. She ran downhill, picking up speed until it felt like she was hurtling, and she wasn’t sure she’d be able to stop herself from running right off a cliff.
But it still wasn’t fast enough.
Ricky grabbed her ponytail and jerked her back, so hard it felt like her hair had been yanked out by the roots. He couldn’t stop his own momentum, and he crashed into her back, sent her tumbling forward down the slope. She landed so hard, the wind got knocked out of her. Her face slammed into the snow and Ricky fell on top of her, driving her face down deeper. She lay stunned, felt his hand clutch the back of her head and slam it down. His knee pressed into the small of her back as he pinched hard at her flesh through her clothes, hissing insults in her ears.
His voice sounded like it was coming from far away. She closed her eyes, wishing he would shut up, because she thought she could hear music, the harsh, whirligig sound of an organ. It drifted up the slope, and she wished Ricky would shut up so she could listen.
Then he jerked her back up by her hair, and her world coalesced into a haze of pain. He rolled her over and punched her when she tried, feebly, to push him away.
Sophia tried to call out to her brother, spat blood over her lips—and a tooth. She could smell alcohol on Ricky’s breath—the sour stink of hatred hovering around him, so thick it seemed to be coming off him like steam.
“Matt,” she croaked and saw him over Ricky’s shoulder. His hood was back, but his face, she saw with dawning terror, was twisted and contorted just like Ricky’s.
“Hey.” Ricky broke off his tirade to bark at Matt. “What the fuck you doing? Help me, bro. Hold her down.”
“Matt. No. Please—”
“And cover up her mouth.” Ricky gave a single bark of laughter. “I swear, if I have to listen to that goddamn whining for one more second…”
Matt stood frozen, but Sophia could already see he wasn’t going to help her. He looked sick, drunk, his breath frosting in the air as he inhaled, sucking the poison—as much as he could take—into his lungs. When he took a step toward her, Sophia dug her hand down through the snow and felt a rock. She closed her hand around it and swung it at Ricky’s head.
Something crunched. He fell away, and she jerked out from underneath him, swinging the rock again. Blood splattered dark upon the snow. Sophia backed away, holding the stone as if it could ward off the boys. Ricky straightened up, blood streaming down his face. His mouth hung slack; one of the blows from the rock had shattered his front teeth and split his lip. He drew the back of his hand across his mouth, smearing blood over his cheek.
He tried to speak, but the words came out slurred, confused. He blinked, tried again, but it was still garbled, like he was speaking another language.
Sophia heard the sound of the fairground organ again, louder now, stronger. She took a deep breath and pointed at Ricky. “You touch me again,” she said. “I dare you.”
“Ricky?” Matt looked worried now, which made Sophia want to scream and fling the rock at his head, too. “Are you all right, man?” He looked at Sophia, eyes wide and suddenly frightened. “I think you hurt him.”
“I hope he dies.”
“Sophia.” He reached out to grab her, and she wrenched her arm away. She was crying now and hated herself for doing so. The tears burned her cheeks. “We need to call an ambulance. We need to get back.”
“Would you have called one for me?”
He looked confused. Sophia dropped the rock in the snow. She turned her back and started up the slope, following the music. Matt called her name, but she ignored him, wiping the last few tears from her frozen cheeks. She swore he would never make her cry again.
Soon, Matt was lost somewhere behind her, among the trees. She reached the crest of the hill. Through the trees, bright colors glowed against the darkening sky. She could hear the shrieks of children, the raucous music of a fairground.
Flurries of snow fell from the trees around her as she emerged. Her gloved hand rested against the trunk of a tree, her breath misting in the chill air.
Brightly colored booths were spread out in the wide, flat valley below. A carousel whirled, and crowds moved between the booths, bundled up against the cold. Sophia stared, entranced.
Why hadn’t she known about this before? Why had no one told her?
“Are you all right?”
She jerked away from the tree, her heart thumping. “Who’s there?”
“Hey.” A young man stepped towards her, holding up his hands. He was bareheaded; his ragged brown hair was dusted with fresh flakes of snow. “It’s okay.” But then he looked closer, and his expression shifted, twisting into concern. “Did someone hit you?”
Sophia blinked, held her hand to her nose and felt a spike of pain drive up into her skull. She winced and felt blood sticky on her fingers. “Yeah,” she said, but her thoughts felt sticky, too. Ricky, she thought and shook her head, trying to clear a sudden buzzing. “Someone did.”
The young man came closer. She flinched, but he spread his fingers again, flashed a disarming smile. He wasn’t wearing gloves, and his clothes were thin, peculiarly unsuited for the weather. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he told her softly. His fingers brushed against her cheek; they felt warm, almost hot to the touch, and Sophia felt a shiver of heat ripple through her body. He was maybe eighteen, she thought, as she stared up into the young man’s face, while he stepped closer still, moving his body scant inches from hers.
“Did you come for the fair?” he asked.
“I didn’t know it was here,” Sophia admitted.
He grinned. “It’s a well-kept secret.” He raised his finger to his lips. “So don’t tell anyone.”
“I promise I won’t.” She swallowed, felt her cheeks warming. “What’s your name?”
He tilted his head, his gaze drifting over her face. “Joshua,” he said, and although his lips twitched with faint amusement, Sophia did not feel her courage falter. She didn’t think he was laughing at her.
“Then come, Sophia.” He held out his hand. “Will you let me show you the fair?”
She hesitated, only for a moment, to glance back into the trees. The thought of Ricky bleeding out on the cold snow made her smile. She took hold of Joshua’s hand and let him lead her down the rocky slope towards the fair.
She eyed the flat expanse of snow, puzzled. As they drew closer, she realized why it was so smooth and flat; the fair was set up on a frozen lake. She hesitated, and Joshua looked back at her. “Is something wrong?”
“It’s…on a lake,” she said. “Is it safe? What if the ice breaks?”
“It won’t break,” he promised. His hand brushed over her hair, smoothing it down. His eyes were filled with scattered pinpoints of color—red, yellow, and green. They seemed to dance, mesmerizing her, and it took her a few moments to realize they were reflections from the carnival lights.
But he’s got his back to the carnival, a very distant, very quiet voice inside her pointed out. She ignored it. Joshua drew closer still. He cupped her cheeks. She held her breath; his lips were inches from hers. “You can go back,” he breathed, “if you wish.”
Mute, she shook her head. She wanted to see the carnival. She wanted him to show her the carnival. She wanted him to kiss her.
His lips brushed against hers, feathery soft. She closed her eyes, tilted her head back, melting into the kiss. Her first kiss, she thought, and it was with an older boy she’d only just met. Maybe she had learned something from her stepmother after all. When he held out his hand again, she followed him down the last of the slope and onto the layer of freshly fallen snow that covered the ice. She tried not to think about the frozen surface of the lake beneath her—how thick it was, whether cracks were already forming. She stared up at the sky, where the reflected lights of the carnival danced on the clouds like aurora borealis.
Joshua squeezed her hand. “You don’t need to be afraid,” he told her. He slipped his arm around her shoulders, and she nestled into him. “The carnival has always been here.”
“How come Dad never said anything? We thought there wasn’t anything to do in this town, except, like, ski and stuff. And I don’t ski.” She laughed, but it sounded unnatural and forced. They passed the first of the booths, a hoop tossing game. The interior was hidden deeply in shadows, despite the twinkling lights surrounding the booth.
Something isn’t right.
The thought buzzed in her ear like trapped water. She shook her head and looked around. Time seemed to slip and slide around her. The only constant was the young man pressed against her side and the show of lights dancing overhead. The crowd streamed through the carnival, a seething mass of shapes, but she couldn’t seem to pick out individuals. They were shadowy, amorphous; only the carnival workers stood out. Even the ones who wore dark, shabby clothes seemed to shine with the color of the carnival.
Sophia and Joshua moved past a tent advertising a bare-knuckled boxing match.
Joshua led her deeper still, past a baroque cage in which a woman crouched, her skin blue from cold, her naked shoulders shivering. She held her arms crossed over her breasts. Her hair was patchwork ragged, and when she lifted her head, Sophia saw the woman’s expression was twisted into a bestial snarl.
The crack of breaking ice sounded like a gunshot, echoing from the steep valley walls. Sophia froze, tugging back on Joshua’s hand.
This isn’t right, she thought. This isn’t—
Then she met Joshua’s eyes and instantly relaxed. She could smell him, the sweet scent that rose from his body in waves. She recognized it, vaguely, as the smell she had noticed when they’d first arrived at the town.
She wanted to laugh at herself. How could I have ever thought that smell was dangerous?
“Do you trust me?” Joshua asked. Over his shoulder, she could see the tents and constructions plunging beneath the breaking ice.
He grinned. She could no longer see the pupils or the whites of his eyes, but only the colors of the fair. “No,” he admitted. “Probably not. I can’t be trusted around pretty young girls.”
Sophia laughed and took his hand. He thinks I’m pretty. “I trust you,” she said, as the tents nearby sank beneath the surface. Joshua pulled her into his arms as the ice broke with a splintering sound beneath her feet, and she fell. It should have been freezing beneath the surface, but instead, clasped in his arms, she felt warm and happy, safer than she’d ever felt in her life. She closed her eyes, buried her face in his chest, and inhaled his scent deep into her lungs.
The organ music melded together, discordant notes mashing into a droning buzz that resonated in her bones. Her feet touched the bottom of the lake, and she pulled away from Joshua.
She could breathe. She couldn’t feel the water against her skin, but her hair, freed from its ponytail, waved in the air around her like the fronds of a fern. She batted at it, pulled it back, laughing, and looked up at the sky, which now seemed impossibly far overhead.
“This is—” She broke off and looked at Joshua. Her eyes grew wide.
This isn’t real. It can’t be.
Maybe she had bashed her head on a rock when she fell and was hallucinating. Or maybe she had slipped into a fugue state because Ricky was actually raping her, right at that moment.
She sucked in a breath and tasted lake water on her tongue. No, she decided, glancing at the smiling Joshua. This has to be real.
Beneath the surface of the lake, she could hardly see the crowd anymore, only slight outlines, like a heat haze.
They paused outside a tent to watch a woman tattooed with snakeskin dance with a python wrapped around her slender body. Sophia shivered, pressing herself closer to Joshua. The snake woman looked at Sophia, her lip twisting in disdain. Sophia gasped as the woman’s bifurcated tongue flickered out between her black lips. A dwarf emerged from the tent, carrying a cage filled with white mice. The woman smiled, unhooked the door of the cage, her gaze lingering seductively on Sophia as she reached inside and drew out a squeaking, wriggling mouse.
Sophia felt Joshua’s hot breath on her ear, heard him murmur something reassuring, but she couldn’t tell what he said. She stared in horrified fascination as the woman lifted the mouse up and dropped her head back, mouth opening wide. Her scaled throat worked reflexively. Her tongue tasted the air as she dangled the mouse ever closer.
Sophie forced her gaze away. She pulled free from Joshua and shoved her way through the invisible crowd as he called her name. The air seemed to be thickening around her, making her movements slow and sluggish.
Because I’m moving through water, she thought, feeling the urge to laugh in disbelief.
When Joshua touched her shoulder, she turned towards him. “What are you?” she demanded. “What is this place? And why—” She swallowed. Why did you bring me here?
“This is the fair,” he told her softly. “The carnival. And I brought you here because it’s what you wanted. Isn’t it, Sophia? Look.” He took her gently by the shoulders and turned her around. Someone was being dragged past the tents by a group of carnival workers, someone with frightened eyes who kicked and fought.
Sophia started. “Matt!”
His eyes widened at the sight of her, but his lips bulged around a ball gag. The two men dragging him—one enormous and stooped, the other painfully skinny with multiple piercings—shoved him to the ground. He scrambled to his feet as the carnival workers closed in on her half-brother. Joshua took hold of Sophia’s hand. His grip was firm and forceful as he pulled her in to close the circle around Matt. “It’s okay,” he murmured in her ear. “We’re all friends here.”
Matt stared at her, his eyes filled with pleading.
She stared at him, frightened and confused. When she started forward, Joshua’s arm closed viselike around her shoulders. “Remember what he did, Sophia,” he whispered. “What he would have done.” His fingers brushed against her throat, and pain shot through her. She felt Matt’s hands clamped around her throat, felt him tearing into her—his eyes filled with loathing, his spittle flecking her cheeks.
She cried out and twisted away. “It didn’t happen,” she screamed. She wiped the back of her hand across her mouth and saw it smeared with blood. The pain in her nose returned with full force as Joshua looked at her. His eyes were cold now, empty and black, yet they still reflected the colored lights.
“You’ve disappointed me, Sophia” he said, his voice soft. She saw his teeth were sharp. “I thought you were special. I really did.” Behind him, the circle closed in. Sophia heard Matt’s screams, rising above the constant droning of the organ.
“Such a shame.”
She spun and ran, fled past tents, past the caged woman who watched her with hungry eyes. Behind her, Matt’s screams reached a crescendo and were suddenly cut short. She stopped and looked back; her heart felt like it would tear free of her chest, then she ducked between two pitches, past a carousel where all the horses had bared teeth and wildly staring eyes. A stitch stabbed her side. The air thickened in her lungs, choking her. She could hear Joshua calling softly to her, his voice gentle and deeply sad. She yearned to go to him, to let him envelop her in his arms—then she’d feel safe, for a little while, at least.
She was about to walk out between the tents before she caught herself and pressed her body back into the shadows.
The air thickened in her lungs. She coughed up sputum and lake water. It tasted foul.
Behind her, the carousel burst into creaking life. Music twirling, picking up the tempo, the ride began to spin, faster and faster, until she felt dizzy. Suddenly, she saw shapes seated on the horses, heard the laughter of children and their cries—
She’s over here! Here she is! Found you, found you!
Sophia turned and froze. Joshua blocked her way. The lights from the carousel danced across his face, but his eyes remained black. Empty. Blood stained his mouth.
She coughed again and bent double. She could feel the water against her face now, could feel the gentle currants of the lake tugging at her body. She dropped her head back and stared at the surface of the lake, far above.
Sophia jumped. She kicked out her legs, certain she would drop straight back down, but instead she felt resistance in the air. Joshua howled in rage behind her, and then she was swimming, kicking upwards towards the surface of the lake.
It felt like flying.
Deep below her, the lights of the carnival dimmed and darkened. She wanted to laugh, wanted to scream in triumph, but the air wasn’t air anymore. She held her breath and swam upwards out of the gloom.
I’m going to make it, she thought. And she kept thinking it, right up until the moment her hands pressed against the underside of the ice.
©A. P. Maynard