• Dream of Shadows

Their Heads All Come Off by Evan Marcroft (September 2020)

Nora didn’t want to come here.

Her boyfriend, Derrick, he’s the Wambaugh World maniac. Collects the pins and everything. Knows the Loony Luau songs by heart. Nora, on the other hand, had avoided the place like it was a tropical Chernobyl. But Derrick, he pleaded for months until she finally broke down. What could she say? She loved the guy. She told herself she could grin and bear it.

Only now she’s here, roasting to death beneath Florida’s mid-day sun, and she realizes she’s a better liar than she thought she was, and even more gullible. Wambaugh World is everything Nora dreaded, humid as a dead man’s armpit, the air saturated with the greasy stink of fake popcorn butter. Wolf urine, she calls it. One hundred percent cancer-causing chemicals and MSG, so thick she can feel it in her pores. She can’t think over the music blaring from speakers hidden in every fake plant, nostalgic hits from the animated canon subliminally juicing mommies and daddies to go spend, spend, spend. At least Derrick is all smiles, a Mister Mannersby ice cream bar melting over his wrist as he drags her from ride to ride. For him, she staples on a smile as fake as a silicone tit.

Nora didn’t always hate this place. First time she came, she was six; she was so excited. Her mom bought her a big clip-on bowtie just like that goofy butler Mister Mannersby wore in all her favorite VHS cartoons, and she wore it everywhere. But then she saw Oodle the Poodle twist off her head in the bathroom, and the wrinkled old man underneath licked his scabby lips and asked if a little girl like her knew how to touch a man yet. Nora ran out of there in tears, leaving her bowtie on the floor.

Ever since, the façade of it all has revolted her. The rubbery cheese on the stale nachos. The lead-tainted paint peeling off rusting roller-coaster girders. Artificiality slathered over the truth of everything. All this place wants is her love as expressed through money. It is a twisted hand reaching for her wallet through a white cartoon glove. Sharp teeth beneath a plastic grin.

In Wambaugh World, everything’s head comes off.

But for Derrick she said okay, and so she’s condemned to scream her throat raw on the Hotel Hijincks Outta-Control-O-Coaster and ralph into a plastic bush while he holds her hair and laughs. She eats at the Patty Pantry, where they charge seven bucks for microwaved fries, soggy and limp as Derrick’s dick after sex. She realizes then that it’s all about her. Her boyfriend’s been here a million times, ridden all the rides, snarfed all the snacks, but filtered through her, it can all taste fresh again. He’s force-feeding her fun through a tube, fattening her up like a foie gras goose so that he can butcher her for treasured memories.

And now he wants to take a picture.

At the Photo Spot behind the Wacky Wail-o-Vater, Nora finds Mister Mannersby, the Wambaugh mascot himself, waiting for her. The costume isn’t very good. His butler’s tux, rubbed shiny in places by years of hugs, hangs like loose cat skin off the minimum wage slave inside it. His head is a bulbous plastic helmet with a big gin-blossom nose and painted-on eyes that are halfway flaked off. He beckons her with swollen white glove-hand, and Nora instinctively takes a step back. That swollen skull sags to one side, pantomiming disappointment. The face, of course, stays smiling.

“Get in close,” the cameraman wheedles. “Put your arm around him.” Nora watches fat pearls of sweat dew up on the peak of his bald scalp, moistening crusts of sunburnt skin and slithering past dark, lascivious eyes.

Derrick’s already got his arm slung over Mister Mannersby’s shoulders like an old friend. “Come on,” he says, waving her over, “it’ll just take a second.”

Nora doesn’t want to touch him, or her, or it. If she does, that’s permission for them to touch her. Her stomach wrings itself out at the thought of those gloves creeping down her spine. She can too easily imagine the fingers inside tickling and squeezing like a spider writhing in its egg sac. But everyone’s staring at her now. There’s a line of kids growing impatient behind her; any minute they’ll start screaming, and it will be her fault.

“Just give him a hug,” the cameraman implores.

Derrick is starting to look hurt, like after everything she’s already done for him today, this is the only thing that matters.

Fine. She can do it. It’ll be over in a camera flash. It’s what a good girlfriend would do.

Nora sidles alongside Mister Mannersby, refusing to look him in those depthless eyes.

“Say cheese,” the cameraman bleats, and she reluctantly places her hand on the mascot’s back.

She wasn’t ready for it. The solidity. The body heat. Nora can feel the bile in her belly lunge up her throat. She knows, rationally, that beneath the tuxedo is just some teenage part-timer, but that plastic mask had given her subconscious a kernel of deniability. A small part of her still believed, and now even that threadbare illusion has been clawed away. There is a person inside of this thing, wearing the flayed face of her childhood nostalgia. Her hand is on his body. She is touching him.

And something is wrong. Nora is more certain with every passing heartbeat – the body inside the costume is incorrect. Through that greasy fabric she feels skin corrugated like the hide of a reptile. Her thumb tracks a ridge of serrated something snaking blindly across its flank. In all her years alive she’d explored her share of bodies, but the subtle spasms of that apparatus of bone and ligament within her grasp are an alien language. Nora’s hand has wandered somewhere it shouldn’t have, insulated from the utter truth only by a thin layer of cotton. The camera goes click click click and she is turned to stone by the fear that the next blast of light will shine through that costume like an x-ray and show her in vivid silhouette exactly what’s inside.

She glances at Derrick, begging him to be in this with her even as all the words she knows crumble into the abyss of all she doesn’t know, but his eyes are crucified to the flashing camera, his smile stapled to his ears. He doesn’t know what Nora does because he doesn’t care — the rosy-cheeked false face of Wambaugh World is his entire reality. In this island of space, this single frame of time, she is all alone.

Something stirs beneath her hand. A solidity swells from within that squamous hide, prodding at the outside like a fetus kicking at a nightmare in the womb. It seems to divide, squirming into pieces between her knuckles and budding into stalks. Nora cannot move, cannot breathe, for she is in the grip of a second gravity, the same force that attracts deer to oncoming headlights.

Fingers close around her hand and dig their nails in.

Nora tears herself away with a scream and runs, sprinting for the closest bathroom. There’s no-one inside and thank God, she’s already turning herself out into the sink. Undigested corndog chunks splatter porcelain gone brown as a smoker’s teeth. She marvels at all that ugliness she’s already let inside her.

That’s it, she tells herself, that’s fucking it. She’s made the boyfriend happy. She’s put in her time as Good Girlfriend. Now she can tell Derrick that she wants to leave, not just the park but this whole godforsaken state – him, if he even so much as hesitates. And she wants to run, as fast as she can, because in between here and the parking lot are Oodle the Poodle and Maid Mimsy and all the Wambaugh World pals, and she does not know what’s inside them.

Nora drowns herself in soapy water, hoping in vain to wash the wolf urine out of her skin because she knows insanely that it’s how they’d track her. As soon as she’s out of here, she’ll leap on the earliest plane home and fly straight into the sun, where shadows cannot exist, because she understands now that there is something wrong living here, a subcutaneous cancer even blacker than greed. Not the rot beneath the wallpaper, but the crawling things inside it.

She hears the door creak open. Someone comes into the bathroom with her.

It must be Derrick, she thinks, palming the soap from her eyes. Despite all the shit he’d hauled her through, she’s in love with him all over again because at least, in this moment, he cares. They’ll go away together, faster than the memories of this place can hound them, and everything will be okay.

Nora looks up into the mirror. Mister Mannersby is behind her.

As the door swings shut behind him, she watches him reach up and begin to take his head off.




Evan Marcroft is an aspiring speculative fiction writer from Sacramento California, who uses his expensive degree in literary criticism to do menial data entry. Currently based out of Chicago, Evan dreams of writing for video games, but will settle for literature instead. His work can be found in a variety of venues, such as Pseudopod, Strange Horizons and Metaphorosis.

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