Kentucky Rush

Kentucky Rush
by Samuel Marzioli

Megan entered the grocery store looking every bit the part of a homeless woman tramping through to escape the broiling summer heat. The thought even occurred to her when she passed the glass doors of the frozen foods aisle and sneaked a glance at her reflection. There wasn’t much she could do about it, so she swept her hand through the tangles of her hair to break apart the greasy stiffness, and then shrugged and carried on.

She pulled a mangled slip of notebook paper from her purse and read her grocery list from top to bottom. Most of the items had been written down at home during a rare energetic fit, but the feeling had quickly passed and the majority were crossed out on the drive over. Only sandwich ingredients remained, and that suited her just fine. Sandwiches were easy: just a few slices of bread and a slather of something sweet or tart for flavor, and the meal was finished.

After gathering peanut butter, jelly, mayonnaise, and some lunchmeat, Megan rolled her cart to the last stop: the bread aisle. That was when she saw something framed between the darkness of the endcap’s empty shelves. From a distance, it looked almost like a face, peering at her from around the corner, utterly black but for the whites of its eyes. She squinted, trying to extract detail, to clarify it as something more than just a blur, but her eyesight wasn’t what it used to be.

“Hello?” she said, taking a step forward.

From the size of its head, she knew its owner couldn’t be much older than ten or twelve. She wondered if it was a child playing a game with her and whether it was lost and scared and waiting for a parent.

“Tommy?” she said, though she didn’t know why.

When she drew within 20 feet of the aisle’s end, the shape moved at last, confirming at least some of her suspicions. She was wrong about one thing, though: it wasn’t a child, or anything remotely human. It shifted away from her advance, not so much turning as folding in on itself, the soft, doughy substance of its body twisting and pulling until it faced the other way. It stood in the light of the back aisle, its dark form lessened by a degree, revealing a subtle transparency, as if it were a shadow that had peeled itself from the ground and begun to walk upright.

It sidled to its left and slipped out of sight. She hurried after it, her curiosity proving stronger than her bewilderment.

With each step, the aisle lengthened before her, forming walls along the borders of her vision. Nervous energy bloomed within her, exploding into wild panic as she felt herself pulled forward and yanked into the air. Once she was hovering level with the fluorescent lighting, she screamed, flailing her limbs, struggling to free herself from the mysterious force that held her aloft.

“Help me!” she cried. “Please, someone help me!” and then—

She found herself on the floor again. Standing by the bread shelves. Still gripping her cart.

A few sideways glances revealed that no one had witnessed her hallucination, or mental breakdown, or whatever it had been. With a heavy sigh, she rolled her cart to the checkout stand, humming a tune to mask the frantic beating of her heart.

Megan awoke early the next day and toddled to the living room. She didn’t bother calling in sick for work. In fact, she hadn’t bothered calling in sick for a while. Her boss, Mr. White, had been accommodating for the most part.

“I’m sorry. What you’ve been through is just terrible,” he’d said. “If you need some time off, I fully understand.” But that understanding hadn’t stretched much farther than a month, and now she was pushing up against two.

She seemed to recall hearing an apologetic ultimatum at some point in the meantime: if she didn’t return to work, she was finished with the company. Maybe there had even been a phone call from Mr. White confirming her firing as recently as two weeks ago. She couldn’t remember and couldn’t quite bring herself to care.

For the rest of the morning, she watched TV, balling up slices of bread to eat because the time required to make a sandwich seemed too much to bother with. After five episodes of soap operas, talk shows, and one news program, she spotted the shadow-thing again, this time streaking by the glass of her sliding back door. She hurried to an open window and peered outside.

“Hello?” she shouted. “I know you’re there!”

She didn’t expect an answer. She only meant to convince whomever, or whatever, it was that she wasn’t afraid.

The longer she searched the wide expanse of her backyard, the more a series of smells wafted to her nose: meat sizzling on an open grill, fried dough, the sweet scent of cotton candy. Her vision darkened and her thoughts drifted back to the amusement park where she’d almost lost her life.

The memory of months past was just as hazy as the present, but she could easily picture that windy Santa Clara day—details so stark it raised gooseflesh across her arms and legs—and she breathed in the bay’s salty, briny scent. She remembered standing inside the fragmented shadow of the roller coaster, staring up at the bones of its frame, listening to all the helpless riders screaming.

“Don’t let it scare you,” Uncle Frank had said, noticing her hesitation. “The Kentucky Rush is harmless.”

He ruffled her hair, which was strange because he never ruffled her hair, not since she was a child. It must have worked its reassuring magic on her, because in that moment, she actually believed him. But experience soon taught her that her trust had been misplaced. The danger had been real.

A tickle on her lip broke her concentration. She lifted a hand to wipe the tears away, but froze when she caught a better glimpse of the shadow-thing at last. It stood beside the fence, darting to the outer edge of clarity before she could see it plain: some unknown quadruped that dropped on its ample haunches, slavering through a crop of tangled teeth, its eyes full and wide and staring.

Seven visits in seven days from the shadow-thing had taken a serious toll on Megan. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t sleep, and she longed for the comfort of empty dreams to save her from her waking life.

Still dressed in her pajamas, she sat on the bed, scanning the framed photos on her dresser. For some reason, she found it far more difficult to recall those days, those memories, than anything else from the past. The only thing she knew for sure was that they represented important moments in her life.

One showed a vacant playground with a swing caught mid-sway by some strong breeze. One showed her and Uncle Frank standing apart, their arms held out toward each other, but not touching. The last was a shot of her boyfriend Gabriel at the wharf, measuring the ocean air with the flat of his hand. The sight of them made her sad, churning her stomach until she nearly vomited. In fact, crying had become a regular occurrence ever since that shadow-thing had appeared. And always, thoughts of the amusement park bled into her mind.

She felt certain that incident on the Kentucky Rush had brought that creature to life, though she couldn’t piece together how or why. She remembered standing in line with Uncle Frank and Gabriel, how they had insisted she ride despite her protestations and the many hot tears sliding down her cheeks.

Once she was locked into her seat, the train had raced through a lightless tunnel and ascended the lift hill. She sucked in air. Then came the drop that knocked her breathless, even as the safety bar came loose and snatched away a scream. Each twist and turn thereafter crumbled hidden walls inside her mind, until nothing remained but the permeating black behind her eyelids, stretching longer than the infinite loop of tracks.

When the coaster came to a halt, she scrambled for the platform, scratching at the seams of its tightly knit planks until her fingernails broke and bled. She looked around. The world opened up to her. Only it was tainted, a touch of blur swallowing the details, everything cast in a darker shade.

That was when she saw it, black as coal, moving too fast to follow in her disoriented condition. She lost track of it once security came and brought her to the manager’s office. Hours passed before the police allowed her to leave. By then, it was nowhere to be seen and she promptly forgot about it.

Now she couldn’t think of anything else.

Megan remained shut in, afraid to leave her room. The shadow-thing continued prowling the perimeter of her house, rattling the bolted front door, pulling or pushing on each sealed window as if searching for a way in. And then on the tenth day, on its tenth visit, it found one.

It was in the early morning. While rushing through the hallway on her way to the toilet, Megan glanced through the doorway of the spare bedroom. There, among the clutter of taped boxes, filled plastic bags, and scattered toys, a crack appeared in the opposite wall, thin as a line drawn by felt marker, but deep enough to touch the outside air.

Her heart drubbed against her ribs and her muscles clenched. Somehow, she knew that crack would be wide enough to let the shadow-thing in. She wracked her brain, trying to think up quick fixes within her means: duct tape, crazy glue, a blanket and staples. Instead, she slammed the door and held it shut, knowing all too well that two inches of hollow wood were only a slightly better option.

Within seconds, a slowly mounting creak arose. A sudden, violent crack almost made her turn and run, but she held on tight, tugging at the knob, strengthened by an unshakable will to survive. Footsteps trailed closer, not the click of nails upon the floorboards that she expected, but the soft patter of feet, one step after the other. It drew up and thrust its weight into the door, causing the center to bow and crackle.

Megan gritted her teeth, bracing herself. Memories of the roller coaster emerged again. A high-pitched scream echoed in her ears, filling the emptiness of her insides with the same loss and isolation that had claimed her on the Kentucky Rush. But this time, it didn’t have the same subtle disconnected quality of her other trance-like memories. This time it came from a source mere inches from her face.

The knob twisted. She fell back and began scampering crablike away from the opening door. Once she found the entryway, she scrambled to her feet and fled the house, stopping only once to jump into her car before putting miles of road between her and home.

Megan called Gabriel and made plans for lunch at Westfield Center, a five-story mall that was among the busiest sites in San Francisco. After all that isolation, she wanted mobs, needed noise. But more than anything, she believed it to be a place the shadow-thing would never dare to follow. A small-town grocery store and a suburban house were one thing, but a bustling metropolis was quite another.

She remembered driving, and a sliver of her and Gabriel’s conversation, but little else in between until she spotted him traipsing down Market Street in her direction. He threw his arms around her before she had a chance to pull away. For a moment, she could smell herself: the sick, ripe scent of body odor. It made her gag, so she disengaged from their embrace quicker than he’d wanted.

“I didn’t know if I’d ever hear from you again,” he said into her ear.

“Let’s hurry,” she said, taking his hand and pulling him toward the crosswalk.

Though the streets seemed safer than her home, it still felt too exposed. Somewhere, drifting below the surface of her mind, she knew she was afraid. She also knew she could push that feeling deeper into her subconscious until it vanished beyond perception. In fact, she’d gotten quite good at it, and did so now to calm her mounting trembles.

“I’ve been meaning to call,” said Gabriel.

“It’s been a long week. I might not have answered.”

“I can’t even begin to imagine.” He stopped and examined her, taking in every inch.

“What?” said Megan, turning to face him, her cheeks reddening.

“Nothing. It’s just …” He shook his head and smiled. “There’s no good way to put this. You look terrible. I feel partially to blame; I know you told me you needed time and space to process everything that’s happened, but I should have been there for you. It’s not healthy for you to be by yourself, that much is obvious. From now on, I’m not leaving your side until you learn to put all this behind you.”

Megan’s fingers collapsed into a fist around his hand. She wanted to shout, “It’s only been two months, God damn it,” and jump on him, and scratch him, and tear and bite at every inch of that sympathetic expression. But something big and heavy coursed through the throng of people from behind, shoving them away as if they were limp rag dolls. Before she could gather her wits, the shadow-thing broke out into the open and lunged at her.

“Watch out!” she screamed.

Knocking Gabriel aside, she dived away, crashing headlong onto the pavement. She managed to prop herself up fast enough to see the backside of the creature, racing in the distance, a splotch of black that disappeared into the streaming masses.

It took some time before she noticed Gabriel, lying in the street, his head crushed by the wheel of a trolleybus.

In the panic that erupted from the gathering crowd, Megan slipped away unnoticed. How she got back to her car and on the road again, she didn’t have a clue. But she did know where she would head next. With Gabriel gone, Uncle Frank was the only one who could help her now.

She pulled into Uncle Frank’s driveway, beside his Buick, the same vehicle they had used to carpool to the amusement park. A quick glimpse of that day flooded her mind, with Uncle Frank behind the wheel, an inelegant chauffeur caterwauling some country tune, and in the back seat, her and Gabriel and … But the pain of Gabriel’s death yanked the thought away, and she stumbled from her car to the front porch.

Uncle Frank didn’t seem surprised when he opened up the door and found her standing on the doorstep, weeping. He just swept his arm out in welcome. She followed him to the living room where he dropped to his recliner, guzzling a bottle of whiskey and glancing sidelong between her and the wall.

She spent the next few minutes taking deep, stuttered breaths, to bring about some measure of calm.

“He’s dead,” she said at last.

Uncle Frank sighed. “Don’t you think I know that?”


“Look, Megan, if I were a stronger man, maybe I could let you talk about it for as long as you needed. But I’m not. Not today. Maybe not ever.”

She shook her head. Confusion rattled in her skull. Had she already told him about Gabriel on the phone? She didn’t remember making any calls, not that remembering meant anything anymore, since that skill had lapsed after her accident. She was about to ask what he’d meant, but she heard the shadow-thing’s scream and her throat locked around the words. Distorted by the distance, it sounded like a goat with its throat slit, pouring garbled bleats through the bleeding gash.

“Oh, God. It’s here,” she said, casting anxious looks around.

Uncle Frank rose from his chair, set the bottle down slowly. “What? What is it?” he said.

The scream came again, now much closer, spewing from the mouth of something just outside the house. She turned to Uncle Frank and they held each other’s gaze. Her bottom lip quivered.

“Hide,” she said.

Before either of them could move, the shadow-thing leapt through the curtains of an open window and pounced on Uncle Frank. Megan ran to the kitchen and grabbed a knife. She returned to find Uncle Frank on the floor, his shrieks smothered beneath the creature’s massive form, its razor-sharp claws ravaging his body.

She rushed at it, swinging her weapon with manic fervor, slicing down its flank and across its bulging eyes. One deep thrust into its cheek and it slinked away, back through the window and into the dark of night.

Once she regained her composure, she turned to Uncle Frank. Her jaw went slack when she saw his vacant eyes, the wounds covering his body, the many cuts extending deep into his chest and face. She’d been too slow to save him. And now she was alone.

Stuffed inside the thick foliage of a bush, Megan waited for the amusement park to close. Hours passed before the din of summer customers faded and silence finally settled over the lot. Carrying a metal pipe she’d found beneath a plastic tarp by the southern fence, she crawled from her hiding place and made her way across the asphalt to the Kentucky Rush.

As expected, she spotted the shadow-thing prowling a distant stretch of tracks—its birthplace and its home. While she knew confronting it was tantamount to suicide, she also knew she didn’t have any other choice. It had already taken Gabriel and Uncle Frank, and as long as it lived, she would never know peace again.

With a running start, she hopped the ride’s entrance gate, crossed the platform and began her ascent. Though the wooden cross-ties were closely spaced, she gripped each one like the tenuous holds of a cliff face, always looking up, never at the increasing drop between each rung.

The shadow-thing met her at the tallest peak, its white sclera deepening the blackness of its body. It didn’t charge as she expected; it simply slumped down against the tracks, waiting. Megan didn’t care why; the opportunity was all that mattered. She took a step up, raised the pipe, and swung. Her first blow caught the thing across its temple. Another found its mouth, shattering a row of teeth. One more against its front leg and it fell from its perch, plummeting down to the concrete foundation far below her.

Drained of energy, she collapsed to the cross-ties, unable to move. A sudden throbbing ache in her head made it difficult to think. She tasted blood. After taking a few sharp, shallow breaths, she tried to climb back down. The second her foot touched the next step, her leg, and then her entire body, exploded in agony. The world shifted piece by piece, assembling in a different order—

And she found herself smashed into the ground beside the hulking roller coaster.

In that moment, she remembered everything. Tommy was her son. He’d been in every photo on her dresser: on the swing, between her and Uncle Frank, beneath Gabriel’s hand at the wharf. The spare room had even been his bedroom before she’d stuffed his things in bags and boxes and pushed it out of sight.

What’s more, Tommy had been there with them in the roller coaster line. As they passed between the partition ropes, they chose to ignore his pleas, his tears, the abject fear in his expression. They had even laughed when he said the safety bar didn’t click, thinking he was just being chicken. But the bar snapped up at the first drop and he screamed as he was ripped from his seat beside her.

The shock of it had destroyed her. From then on, she refused to acknowledge Tommy, choosing to bury all thought of him to alleviate the torment of burying his body. Her mind was a mirror reflecting lies, but somewhere inside she’d always known the truth: that she, Uncle Frank, and Gabriel had been to blame for her son’s death.

Tommy crept up beside her, no longer a monster, now a little boy again. As he stared down at her, he glowed in the soft blue shade of moonlight pouring through his body.

“You … tricked me. You made me kill them,” she said, gagging on the blood pooling in her mouth. “And you made me kill me, too.”

Tommy fixed her with a cold, hard glare and nodded. His lips stretched into something like a smile, but there was no mirth in it.

Megan struggled to reach for him, but couldn’t move. She almost formed the words, “Oh baby. I’m so, so sorry,” but she knew it would be worthless. His face, all that hurt and pain and rage behind his eyes, said everything she needed to know. He’d never forgive her. He’d never forgive any of them.

Soon, her thoughts slipped away and her vision blurred. She closed her eyes, but she didn’t find the peace of all-encompassing darkness that she’d expected. Instead, there was only the Kentucky Rush. It took hold of her and dragged her along the endless length of its tracks, stretching beyond the limits of her sight and into the black void of the horizon.

Copyright © 2015 Samuel Marzioli