The Unkown Land

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Chapter 2

“So Keith asked me to go with him on the outing to Adindorack Park!” Mary-Beth was talking to her best friend, Alice, and as expected, they both now started squealing and jumping up and down.

“And I was thinking I could wear my LNA green T-shirt and those great jeans of yours.”

“Oh yes, and we’ll do you some braids and a smoky eye and you’ll rock it!” Alice went across to the closet and threw open the doors.

“Shoes – which shoes?”

Mary-Beth joined her. “Well, there are my tech sneakers, and if we’re going to be doing a lot of walking I don’t want to drag in heels, although they will show off my butt better, don’t you think?”

“Yes, and if you do heels you have an excuse to do a lot of sitting down in quiet corners, if you get it.”

Tracy couldn’t resist throwing some cold water on the scene, mainly to just get them out of the room so that she could get some quiet.

“It’s just a school outing, so everyone will be with everyone. It’s not as if he’ll be taking you on a date. And, by the way, I heard he’d asked May and Macy and Mila as well – seems he’s working his way through the M’s right now and sounds as if you were the first to say yes.”

Alice came to her friend’s defense. “That’s just a rumor, and Keith really likes Mary-Beth. He’s carried her books twice and shared his I-Pod with her on the last bus ride. So there!”

Mary-Beth poked out her tongue. “You’re just jealous that no-one would ever ask you to even sit next to them.”

That stung. Tracy was well aware that the boys tended to save seats on outings for those they fancied, and she had never been one of them. Not surprising given the fact that her reddish hair was not a fashionable style or cut, her clothes tended to be from WalMart and chosen for comfort rather than style and generally either dark blue, grey or white, and she was more likely to want to talk about art rather than allow furtive groping. But knowing why she was alone and being reminded that she was were two different things, and she hated them for reminding her.

She gathered her homework and left with a parting shot, “Just as well, I wouldn’t want to catch whatever it is they are passing around to all of you!”

At least the dorm lounge, while still noisy, was large enough so that she could tune out whatever sounds there were. She read the math problem through again.

‘Find the greatest common divisor of 36, 148 and 532.’

She knew that it had something to do with factors, and breaking the numbers into factors. She started leafing through the textbook to find the page she seemed to remember that dealt with it. Yes, there it was. She lost herself in her homework.

The buses were about to turn into the parking lot of the amusement park. Over two hundred seniors from Lincoln High hung from the windows, cheering and waving, excited about this late autumn outing, the last before the winter exams and then the long winter vacation.

Before long they were pouring through the gates, ignoring last-minute instructions from the faculty members present, determined to extract every drop of enjoyment from the day.

For Tracy it was yet another chance to be alone. And while she normally preferred her own company, as she watched the boys and girls stream past her in pairs or groups, she had to stifle a pang of jealousy. Just once she would like to be asked to be part of the mainstream. Even the people from movement class, the people she trusted with her physical safety, had paired off or grouped together without thinking of asking her to join them.

Well, so what! She enjoyed her own company anyway. And she could now head for her favorite ride, the magic house. The moving walkways, rotating drums, ball pools, nets and the mirror maze always gave her the same release she felt while jumping and tumbling.

But first she had promised herself another try at the catchers. It was irrational, but she always felt she should try and rescue the fluffy toys trapped inside. She headed for arcades.

As usual, the violent video games had groups of boys crowded around, trying to outfight and outshoot each other, and the driving games had a whole bunch of guys and girls flirting and cheering each other on.

Even the dance machine had someone on it. A familiar someone. She was sure she had seen him somewhere, and as she watched him hit each mark she suddenly realized – he was the new boy she had met in front of Peever’s office. What was his name, Miles, no, Ned, Nick ?

And he had drawn some admirers as well, mainly because he was racking up a high score. Amber and Andre were watching and clapping as each level opened up. She watched from a distance for a while. The dance machine was not the most graceful of games, as it required you to jump and turn and tap one of eight arrows in response to the screen prompt, supposedly all set to some pop music. In reality you tended to flail around, yet, Neil, yes, that was his name, was looking like a dancer, and made the moves look effortless, as if the machine was following his lead. The music suddenly stopped, and he dropped off and waited for the tickets that came spewing out of the little metal slots. Then he draped his arm over Amber’s shoulders, beckoned to Andre and made his way across to the prize booth.

Intrigued, Tracy followed. He handed the tickets to Amber and said something that made her laugh, and got a smile from Andre.

Amber studied the prizes and then the tickets, and selected a fluffy Panda half as big as she was.

The three of them, Andre in the rear, moved away and out of the arcade.

That was weird, thought Tracy. Andre actually happy with a guy flirting with Amber? And where had they met? He’d only been in school a couple of days at most. Yet another puzzle in trying to figure out society. Being raised by as an only child, by parents who had to struggle to make ends meet, then losing a father and ending up in a school devoted to arts on a scholarship tended to isolate you from the herd. She knew that. And she knew that a lot of the kids would welcome her into the circle if she could only figure out when to keep her mouth shut or even lie, and when to react with smiles.

Oh hell, there was only so much self-pity you could wallow in before wanting to throw up. She pushed a dollar into the coin changer, got five tokens and set off for the catchers.

Soon she was busy fishing for a baby whale, made of improbable red and pink plush, clutching a yellow daisy. Her first token had been spent on using the claw to shift him from the side to the centre before he dropped, and now she had to make sure she got the tips under him, and balanced him just right so that the sudden stop at the top of the rise didn’t drop him again.

There, that should do it. She pressed the down button and the claw descended, closed around the toy and started to rise. The whale slipped, but she’d managed to get it so that the daisy was caught in one tine. Would it hold?

A hand slapped her back and she jumped, a shrill scream flying from her mouth.

“Geez, Tracy, what’s got you so nervous?” Amber’s brown eyes were scrunched up in surprise.

Neil, Amber and Andre stood behind her, and all looked at her as if she was demented.

“Sorry, sorry, but I was concentrating on the…”

“Whale?” Neil reached past her and into the opening where the toys came to rest if you were successful. He held up the ridiculous looking toy. “I was congratulating you on your catch, didn’t know that would make you jump like a shot deer. Here.” He proffered the toy and she took it, hand shaking. Luckily he didn’t seem to notice, and neither did the other two. In fact, Amber now spoke up, surprisingly complimentary, “You’re really good with that. I never manage to get anything.”

Tracy laughed briefly. “You have to be patient, that’s all.”

“Could you get me something? I love soft toys, as you can see, and Neil already got me this panda with his incredible dancing, but I’d love one of those puppies.” She waved a hand at the machine where a heap of white and brown long-eared puppies lay tangled. “I’ve got another three tokens, so that should be enough, or what do you think?”

Well, well, well, Tracy thought to herself, so I have some qualities that endear me. Who knew? Aloud she said, “Sure, let’s go try and get you one.”

Luckily one puppy lay in an almost ideal position – heavy head up in the air so that the tines could, possibly, grip at the neck – and three tries later Amber was cuddling it to the panda.

“So where are you going next, Tracy?” Neil stood close to Amber, but not touching her. “We’re going to ride the Red Ribbon coaster, and it’s always nicer if you can sit together with someone. Otherwise poor Andre will be sat next to some fat spotty girl.”

“I don’t like roller coasters, sorry. I always throw up on them and I’m sure the fat spotty girl will be better than that.”

Neil grinned. “Ah well, it was worth a shot. See ya.” And he strolled off, the twins in tow.

Tracy stuffed her whale into her backpack, and then set off for the fun house. She was still a bit shaken by the encounter, but determined to enjoy the sensations of uncontrolled tumbling, wallowing and searching for an exit to the full. She knew the loss of control was an illusion, but it felt good to pretend to some extent. And to know there was a safety net, and if anyone got in serious trouble the attendants would come to the rescue.

She passed her wrist band across the scanner and stepped through the turnstile. There were two choices – left or right. Left, she knew, led to the big drum, while right took you onto a rope bridge across the ball pool. Pool, she thought, let’s see if all of the movement class has helped with balance.

Soon she was swaying across the bridge, a thin strand of rope with two rope handrails. She found that she was more sure-footed, her body moving with the sway of the ropes, not against them as last time, when she had tumbled into the round foam balls after only two steps. She was more than halfway across, and slowly and surely the opposite side came closer. At last she stepped off into a corridor she hadn’t been in before.

After three steps, the floor started shaking back and forth, and she had to jump smartly to avoid losing her balance. Luckily it was only a small section, and then she realized she was now on a moving treadmill, one that was moving against the direction she wanted to take. She broke into a sprint and managed to gain some ground, then spotted the solid floor just beyond. A huge stride and she was standing on still, solid ground again.

She leaned against the wall and caught her breath. Wow, that was exhilarating, more than last time where the high came from battling and losing and laughing with all the others who had also tumbled or stumbled on some part of the structure. Now she was beating the traps! Go, Tracy!

She turned a corner and ducked under a curtain, and then she was in darkness. Keeping one hand on the wall she moved forward, felt a door in front of her and pushed through it and then into the light, and saw seven Tracys staring back at her. The mirror maze. And the door she had come in by was a mirror too.

Of course you always knew that the door behind you was the one you had entered by, but the point was to move forward and find your way out. She put one hand against the left wall and started moving. Soon she found the gap and stepped into the next room, and started moving around that in the same way. In the third room she stopped and listened, uneasy for some reason. Surely by now she should have seen someone else, or bumped into them as she entered a room? And why was it so quiet? You could always hear the music and the screams from the coasters and swings and other gravity rides.

She moved again, and then there was someone with her, a person who was more presence than form. So quickly that she had no time to cry out a hand was over her mouth and her arm was twisted behind her. She was pulled away from the wall, into the middle of the room, and with a quick, deft twist, her attacker swept her feet from under her. She lay on the ground, pinned by the weight, and now the hand over her mouth moved away, and as she drew breath to scream stuffed a handful of material into it. A muffled, choked sound emerged, and tears of rage and fear started pouring down her face.

Was this how she would die? In the middle of a fairground maze, choked to death. Her left arm was roughly yanked behind her and she felt a rope wrap around her wrists. She started using her tongue to try and get rid of the wad of the gag, but it was harder than she thought.

Then she was rolled over, and looking down at her was Neil. Wearing the same calm smile with which he had handed her the toy less than an hour before.

He knelt over her, carefully smoothing back the hair from her face, even though she shook her head, not wanting any touch from him. She tried to bring her legs around, to kick him, but he just pushed her down again, into the boards. She felt her backpack press into the small of her back, and her hands scraping, and then he pinched her nose shut and put the other hand over her mouth.

She struggled, fighting for breath, for life, fighting against his grip, but it was useless. She could feel herself sinking into weakness.

The mirrors glinted, shattering the light and the reflections. She was reflected in them, but the light was wavering, shifting, it felt almost like drowning, drifting down into a silver sea, mirror, water, mirror, water, flowing, rippling and then a fish darted past her. A red and pink plush whale with a yellow daisy. No, a silver shark. Which darted into a shoal of translucent pink fish. And there was a shell and rocks and coral and sand, and she was no longer bound but drifting in the silver sea, and then a wave lifted her and threw her onto the beach, where she fainted.

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