Written by guest blogger, Chad Ryan.
Jayden’s boutonnière decorated his lapel—a single white rose on a bed of Baby’s Breath. He looks so handsome tonight, Chloe thought, impressed her boyfriend coordinated so well with the lavender tulle ruffles of her Homecoming dress. While he drove his grandfather’s silver Cadillac DeVille, she placed her hand on his and squeezed his fingers in anticipation. Finally going to do it. Make love. Her first time, as planned, after the big dance. Jayden, a senior, had been wanting to go all the way forever.
Chloe, a sophomore, was finally ready to take the next big step. Her mother taught her that giving yourself to somebody should be a special and sacred occasion.
A fairy-tale like tonight.
“Soooo…where are we going?” she asked, stroking his forearm on the center console. Her corsage was so beautiful on her wrist. Three white roses pinned to wax leaves.
Jayden laughed. “Don't trust me, huh?”
Chloe blushed, watching the electric skyline of Kilgore City fade in the sideview mirror. Trust. Oddly enough, she did trust him. Jayden was a good and worthy boyfriend.
The Cadillac sailed over a freshly paved road to a wide canal, crossed an access bridge, and soon streetlights returned to the road. A sign welcomed them to Clifton Downs—a newly-birthed suburban hydra-head of Kilgore City. The streets in Clifton Downs were empty; abandoned by construction crews for the weekend. They turned into a developing neighborhood lined with new-build homes, lumber skeletons with skin made from Styrofoam and chicken wire.
"Pick our love nest, Chlo," Jayden teased. "Plenty of spots available."
"You mean, we're parking here?”
"Why not? We'll slip into one of these empty garages so nobody’ll see us on the road.” They passed a cold crane and a row of vacant Porta-Potties. Jayden chuckled at the isolation. “Don't think many cops patrol out here yet, so we should be all good."
Chloe watched the half-built houses drift by. Each one had a dark, gaping two-car garage. Empty and filled with shadows. "I don't know which one to pick. They all look alike."
"Then, let's go right here!" Jayden spun the steering wheel, and the long Cadillac turned up a driveway between two industrial dumpsters. He pulled into the garage, far as he could. Once tucked away, he killed the headlights and then the engine. Only the glow of the radio to see by, cool blue station call letters on the dash. AP Newsbreak between songs:
"…and rescue crews work tirelessly through the night in Sandoval, Arizona, continuing to pull out survivors and remains from the wreckage near the Ghost River Nation—"
*Click!* Jayden flipped the station to some R&B. The mood settled into something sexier. What happened in Arizona was all anybody talked about these days.
Not tonight, though.
Tonight was for letting go of childish things.
In the spacious backseat of his grandfather’s DeVille, Jayden kissed her hard, and his hand drifted up her thigh beneath her lavender dress. She left her corsage on—so beautiful and unscathed by a night filled with dancing and kissing in dark doorways. There’d never be another one as pretty. Once it aged, withered and wilted, there was no way to get it back. Chloe felt a little sad about that. Everything had to grow up eventually and get left behind.
Even perfect flowers. Even silly dreams.
While he nosed her neck, she looked out of the window. The air was heavy and dark in the garage—a sea of shadow lapping at their bubble—and nothing felt special or sacred here.
"What’s wrong?” Jayden pulled back his lips from hers.
“I don’t know. Feels like we’re floating in space in here.”
Jayden shrugged, pulling a condom out of his jacket’s pocket.
“You afraid of the dark, baby? I’ll keep the ghosts away…”
Chloe gave in a little, tried to relax. She closed her eyes, kissed her boyfriend back, and felt his hands all over her. But the dark behind her eyelids was worse than the darkness in the empty garage. It prickled her, like hugging the skin of a cactus. She let out a desperate whimper, and Jayden separated from her again. This time: a little annoyed.
“What’s the matter, Chlo? You change your mind or something?”
“No.” She shook her head, tight curls bobbing. “I mean, I don’t know. Not about us. I want to be with you, Jay, but…I just don’t like it here. Feels like we’re trespassing.”
“That’s because we are!” Jayden laughed and then shook his head in resignation. After a moment, he smiled. “Alright. Let’s find another spot. This needs to feel right for you.”
She kissed his cheek. “Thanks, baby.”
“It’s cool. There’s a whole dead city for us to explore here—"
Jingle! Jangle! Pop! Pop! Detuned. Tinny. The bent chords of a dying organ grinder. Jayden snapped his head over the back seat when he heard it. Chloe followed.
“Who’s that?” she asked, gripping his wrist.
Parked at the edge of the driveway, a boxy truck stained with rust. A sun-faded illustration of a knight holding a dripping ice cream cone adorned it’s dented panels.
“What the hell?” Jayden whispered.
Chloe recognized a familiar icon from her youth. She loved getting an orange popsicle from the Sir Licks-A-Lot man in the summertime. She could still taste it.
What a strange thing to find her here.
“Jay, let’s just go.”
Her boyfriend didn’t move. “He’s blocking us in, Chlo.”
“Maybe he’s lost?”
“It’s the middle of the night.”
“You said nobody lives out here.”
“Then why is he—
“Chloe.” Jayden’s voice firmed up. “I don’t have any answers, OK? I like your idea about leaving though. But…we can’t go anywhere until he moves that damn truck.”
“What if he doesn’t move? His lights are off.”
“Well, he can’t arrest us for being here, so let’s wait a few minutes and see what happens. If he goes, he goes. If he doesn’t, I’ll go talk to him. No harm in asking him to move, is there?”
With each passing moment in the dark, waiting for the battered old ice cream truck to roll out of Clifton Downs, Chloe’s nerves frayed like ripped cotton. Jayden watched through the rearview window, still as a stone gargoyle, while crackly music warbled from the PA system on top of the filthy truck that blocked the drive. The intrusion killed his mood. Now, he was focused and flighty—similar to the way she’d seen him get psyched up before hitting the field on Friday Nights. A game face, he called it. Jayden put on his game face now.
“He’s not moving…” Chloe peeked her head over the backseat, her eyes keener in the dark. She squinted at the dirty, black windows of the truck.
“See anybody in there? I can’t see anybody…”
“Maybe we can drive around him? Is there room to squeeze by?”
“You know what? Fuck this guy.” Her boyfriend made a fist and punched the back of the driver’s seat.
“He needs to move.” Jayden grabbed the door handle.
“Wait! What’re you doing?” Chloe reached for him, but it was too late. He opened the door and slipped into the din of the garage. She watched him storm down the drive, past pallets of roof tile. Underneath his jacket, a vest unbuttoned from his crisp, white shirt.
“Hey!” Jayden called from the sidewalk. “Move your truck!” Nothing stirred or replied. The haunting circus music echoed on the empty street. “You hear me, man? Move!”
Bang! Bang! Bang! Jayden beat his fist on the rusty paneling.
“You’re blocking us in—”
Chloe shuddered in the backseat when the speaker on top of the truck blew out in a painful cry. Jayden froze too. He slowly pulled the palm of his hand away from the cloudy serving window, and the mesmeric shadows behind it swirled when the glass slid open.
Chloe found her bravery and popped open the Cadillac’s door to join him on the sidewalk. Her eyes adjusted to the darkness now. Her ears more in tune with the crinkling of plastic wrap that stretched across wooden beams in a sinewy, translucent web around her.
Jayden turned to see her approach. “Chlo, it’s cool. I’ve got this.”
“Who’s in there?” She wrapped her arms around his waist from behind.
Tink! Bright light spilled from the old ice cream truck's dingy interior, stretching their shadows across the drive. Standing in the window, a thin and grinning man in a white paper hat and red and white striped apron. Above him, a fluorescent light flickered while moths beat their fuzzy bodies against the pallid tube of white light. Chloe gasped to see the man’s wide smile. His teeth looked jagged and sharp—stained—like rusty metal shards.
“Sweets for the sweet?” the peculiar ice cream man asked, never blinking.
“I need you to move your truck, man.” Jayden’s tone grew weaker than it was before. He was scared too. Chloe could feel his pulse racing through his wrist.
“Lookey at what we have here!” Brown moths landed on the ice cream man’s skinny shoulders, scuttled across his eternally smiling face with tiny skulls printed on their paper-thin wings. Those teeth. Wet, crooked, and corroded like bent nails left outside for decades in the rain. His unblinking eyes, blood-red as his apron, landed on Chloe’s corsage. “White roses? Isn’t that something? Do you think you’re innocent, sweetling? Dressed up like the town hussy on the highway. Is it any wonder this boy’s got you being naughty in the dark? Look ‘atcha.”
Chloe gulped, not sure what to say.
“Move your fucking truck,” Jayden demanded.
“No. Be a gentleman and buy something for your lady friend.” The pale-skinned man studied Jayden, still smiling. “It’s tradition to split a malt after a date. One cup, two straws.”
“Man, we’re not hungry.” Chloe’s boyfriend found his spine and took a step toward the serving window.
“Your truck is blocking us in. Move it, or I will.”
“That so, Romeo?” The ice cream man beamed. “You challenging me to a duel?” His bloody eyes sized up Chloe. “How about the winner takes the damsel into the dark?”
Jayden frowned. “I’m gonna punch your lights out, asshole.”
The pale gremlin leaned closer to the window. His lips peeled away from those horrible, metal teeth.
“Guess it’s true what they say about this age of men,” he said. “Chivalry is dead.”
Pop! the lights in the truck shut off. The ice cream man folded into shadow as the serving window drifted shut again. The old truck rattled and shook with activity.
Chloe backed away. “What’s happening?”
“I don’t know. Let’s get the hell out of—”
Whhhrrrrrrr! Crack! The PA system on top of the decrepit truck burst to life with a rousing chorus of Turkey in the Straw. String lights blinked around the panel with the SIR LICKS-A-LOT knight thrusting his waffle cone in the air like Excalibur. Chloe saw the serving window open again. She pointed. “Jay! Something’s happening! Look!”
Her boyfriend turned back to see, eyes broken and confused when he felt the fire rip through his gut. The blow knocked him down, and his fingers danced helplessly around the fresh wound, staining his white shirt red. Chloe didn’t know what happened when he fell away from her. Now, he lay on the drive, blood on his fingers. A heavy steel bolt buried and jutting from his gut.
“Arrggghh,” he moaned, while Chloe’s voice shattered inside of a deafening scream.
Bam! The cargo doors on the back of the ice cream truck burst open. License plate: 4GEFLTH. A cloud of skull-backed moths spilled out of the smoky shadows.
Clank! Clank! Two riveted iron sabatons shielded by hammer-forged greaves landed on the night-drawn street. When he stepped around the open cargo door, Chloe saw the unbelievable. The ice cream man wore a full suit of plate armor, polished and oiled, with a bascinet helm with little more than slits for eyes, concealing the molten red glow within.
In one hand, Sir Licks-A-Lot carried a wooden crossbow.
In the other, a whetted broadsword that looked silver beneath the moon.
“Run!” is what her wounded boyfriend screamed when he rolled up and used his body to knock her away from the dread knight’s steady aim. Swick! The crossbow’s drawstring twanged, and the steel arrow pierced her Homecoming dress. Instead of her chest, she caught it in her thigh. She howled and limped up the driveway, propelled away from Jayden, who writhed on the concrete in a bed of sawdust and drywall particles. Sir Licks-A-Lot dropped his crossbow and clanged and clanked his way to him.
Chloe’s leg hurt terribly, and she wanted to cry for a lot of reasons. She wanted to turn back time most of all. When the broadsword descended, cleaving off Jayden’s raised hands and splitting the crook of his neck in two—
Does this occasion feel special yet? Sacred?
—all of the air rushed out of her lungs. He wasn’t moving anymore. He wasn’t screaming, laughing, or whispering sweet bullshit into her ear underneath the bleachers during a make-out session. The knight’s linked boot crushed his boutonnière when he pulled his bloody sword from Jayden’s corpse. Crimson splattered on the cement when he flicked his blade clean.
Chloe couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think in straight lines.
This needs to feel right for you.
Clank! Clank! Clank!
The demon knight marched toward her, ready to collect his dowry. She limped back into the dark garage, blood pouring down her thigh and calf muscle. She used the Cadillac to steady herself as she ran through the doorway to the dark interior of the partially-built home. Plastic wrap. Insulation. Wooden beams and exposed wires. It wasn’t a house; it was a maze with empty windows and exposed doorways to nothing but more wooden ribs and sawdusty halls.
You afraid of the dark, baby? I’ll keep the ghosts away…
Clank! Clank! Clank!
Sir Licks-A-Lot was everywhere behind her, spreading out in the shadows like fresh oil spilled on a lake. Chloe turned a corner, grimacing. A stairwell to the second story lie ahead. She hesitated, looked for another way to escape. There was nowhere left to go. Down the ribbed hallway, through stretched plastic, her childhood chased after her with a bloody sword.
When she limped up the stairs, her corsage ripped apart on exposed nails. White rose pedals fluttered behind her, leftover pieces from a time when little girls still believed in fairy tales.
Chad Ryan lives in the Arizona badlands. He grew up running the arid mountains, catching lizards and scorpions in a burgeoning suburb next to an Indian Reservation. He is a managing partner of Lost Boys Press, an independent publisher of daring fiction. He also runs the substack Broken Window, and his blog, Writing is War. When not writing dark, spooky, or fantastical tales, he enjoys fitness, craft beer, rock music, and video games.
Follow him on Twitter (@writingiswar) and make sure to check out his new novel, Ghost River.