Turn To Page 98: A Short Story

TURN TO PAGE 98

I was born in ‘87, and by the mid-nineties, R. L. Stine had a monopoly on the kids and pre-teens horror genre. He might not appreciate being called the Stephen King of kids books, but I mean that as a big compliment. My parents and I used to go to these outdoor markets when I was a kid, and there, they always had boxes upon boxes of — usually used — R. L. Stine’s ‘Goosebumps’ books. I don’t think that I ever read them all, there were just so many, but when the ‘Give Yourself Goosebumps’ series came out, that was a game-changer. This story is my homage to Stine. Thank you, sir.


    The Scars Harbor outdoor market had the best selection of used R. L. Stine Goosebumps books little Jack Alden had ever seen. Jack’s father would drive them up there, drink his fill of gypsy-made cider, thereby forcing Jack’s mother to drive back in the dark, which she hated.

    Scars Harbor had all the classics: The Haunted Mask, The Horror at Camp Jellyjam, The Curse of Camp Cold Lake, and of course, Night of the Living Dummy. And, as if it were some sort of dark magic trick, any kid rifling through the rows of cardboard boxes, each filled to bursting with those books and their vividly illustrated covers, could find one he had not read yet. Jack Alden’s latest obsession was the Give Yourself Goosebumps series, in which the reader was placed into the story and given choices in order to advance the plot one way or another. And on this visit, the pickings were good.

    “Hey,” Jack said, hastily thumbing through one of the books, “how come this one is half price?” He held it out to the stallholder, who was simultaneously fat and thin in all the wrong places.

    The stallholder shrugged, “I just sell ‘em. My wife prices ‘em. Prolly because of all that crap-” a large woman smoking a cigarette elbowed him in the back, “all that dirt on the cover, there.” The book did look more than used, its corners were curled and fuzzy and along the top edge, reddish-brown dirt had worked its way into tiny cracks which looked like the strained capillaries of an old diabetic.

    “Wheels, Squeals and Automobiles,” Jack said, reading the book’s title. The cover illustration showed a night-time stretch of road, as seen from the backseat of a car. The front seats framed the windshield, which in turn framed the road, on which stood a young woman in a white dress. Her eyes wide, her arms outstretched, she looked startled, dazzled, as though the car were about to hit her. A boy sat in the backseat, just the back of his head and shoulder showing, he was wearing a green sport coat, which Jack realized was, as near as makes no difference, the same color as his own.

    “Jack, don’t get lost, I’ve told you,” Jack’s mother said, taking him by the hand.

    “I’ll take it,” Jack said. He threw a handful of coins on the folding table in front of the man and woman, “Keep the change.”

    “Will do,” the fat thin man said.

***

    Jack’s father had found the gypsy cider van, and was now holding up the line by drinking two cups before he had even paid; then he would order two more. The place was packed, barely enough room to edge a hand into your shopping bag, if you were an adult of average height. For a kid, Scars Harbor was a sea of musty-jacketed midsections and cheap plastic carrier bags which came at you swinging, full of knitting yarn and frequently, hunks of meat. Normally, Jack did not mind, he would always be too busy stuffing cinder toffee or mint-chocolate fudge into his mouth, enough to give himself a sugar headache. But they had not stopped for treats this time, nor had Jack pressed them to. He walked, head down, trying to flick through Wheels, Squeals and Automobiles. Old ladies bumped him, plastic bags rustled in his ears and when he did catch a sentence, the words shifted and slipped with the motion of the crowd, as if the letters were on ice.

    A lapse in the crowd, and Jack caught a snippet from page 17: ‘You narrowly avoid a soaking, as blood gushes from the sky and comes splashing, clattering around your feet. It splatters your shoes and a woman shrieks something about a murder…’

    “Ew, gross,” Jack said. “Mom, look—” an elderly woman in a pastel blue coat that smelled like mothballs bumped Jack’s hand and the book closed, the yellowed pages seemed to sigh down on top of one and other.  

    “Jack? Jack!” Jack’s mother stuck a gloved hand through the crowd and motioned for him to take it. He grabbed his mother’s hand and she pulled, momentarily clearing a space, into which a gush of cold blood poured as if from a bucket held out of an upstairs window. The blood coated one man from the back of his head, down to his shoes, his smooth white hair now slicked a vibrant red. Jack looked up, his mouth wide open, past the jacketed midsections, past the flared nostrils, past his mother and to the sky. There was nothing, the blood had not fallen from the sky, it had come from the butcher’s truck. Somehow, packs of blood — usually bought by the Polish women for making black soup — had fallen from the truck’s rising loader platform and ended up on top of the stall’s waterproof cover. From there, the packs had split and rolled off into the crowd like a prop from some cheap carnival scarehouse.

    “Mom!” Jack said, “The book said that would happen. I mean, there was no old lady, bu-”

    She pulled him through the crowd, “It’s all over your damn shoes. Come on, we need to find a bathroom.”

    The Scars Harbor bathrooms were patronized by two extremes: those who were desperate, and those who for some reason, got a kick out of being as disgusting as possible in public bathrooms. The toilet paper was the single-ply kind, and while his mother tore and folded it to wipe his shoes, Jack looked for page 17. He landed instead, on page 20:

    ‘You’re wondering whether the lock on the bathroom door will hold. You saw a lot of blood out there, and there are bound to be lots of angry people. Pressing your free foot against the door, you start to feel dizzy, the smell is nauseating, isn’t it?’ Jack’s breathing was shallow, he was lightheaded. He looked over his mother who was crouching in front of him, his free foot was wedged hard against the plastic door.

    There was a knock at the door, polite at first, then more insistent, “Hold on,” Jack’s mother said. Another knock, “hold on, damn it.” Now banging, more like someone was slapping the door, “Jesus, would you hold on?”

    ‘Dad has caused a scene and the police are on the way. You fight back the urge to vomit as your mom dumps wads of bloodied toilet paper into the bowl.’

    Jack’s mother dumped the bloodied wads and pressed down the lever, “This had better be good,” she said to the knocker.

    ‘There are too many wads to flush. The water is foul, red and brown, it’s making you really sick now. What do you do?

    Wait for her to flush again… Turn to page 35.

    Insist that you leave right now… Turn to page 80.’

    Jack did not turn to page 80, but he did insist, “Can we please go? I don’t feel good. Please?” The lock jammed a little, then gave, Jack’s father was standing outside the stall, he was breathless and his shirt was torn underneath the right arm.

    “We have to go, I think,” he said, wiping sweat and mud from his palms onto his jeans. “What happened to you two?”

    Nobody spoke on the ten-minute walk back to the car. New shoppers were still arriving and the rattling of generators and the gasoline-fuelled smell of cooking hot dogs was everywhere. Rows of ducks passed between a large pond and the picnic area, and back in the car, Jack would realize that he had stepped in some of their mess. It was quiet in the car, silent, no generators, no sizzling hot dogs and no ducks. Jack’s heart began to beat faster, a dizzying combination of book-induced fear and nerves, aching nervousness at what he knew was coming.  

    “How many did you have?” Jack’s mother asked.

    “What?” Jack’s father replied. “What? No, it’s ok. No.”

    “How much did you drink? What did you do?”

    “You mean because of this?” He flicked at the hole in his shirt. “Just one. I only had one and then some tea, it’s really fine, it’s ok.”

    “You really are selfish,” Jack’s mother said. It was not the book scaring him now, it was their arguing. It was bad now, and it would get worse. They would fight all the way home, and when they got there, then they would really go at it. Jack would listen from the stairs, his mouth feeling as if it were full of cotton balls, his stomach in knots, then silence. Nothing else for the rest of the evening, and dinner would be late if it came at all. The car started up and Jack’s mother pulled away, sending several ducks running and quacking for their lives.

    They did not argue. They drove in silence for the first forty minutes, and as Jack began to relax, he opened the book:

    ‘The sun is setting and it’s getting harder to make out what’s on the horizon. Water towers look like living alien hideouts and you wonder why nobody but you realizes this, and why the military doesn’t do something about it. It starts to rain and your mom hasn’t noticed because she’s still so angry at your dad for making a scene. Do you tell her?

    Yes, you tell her to switch the wipers on… Turn to page 29.

    No, you keep your mouth shut… Turn to page 50.’

    The fear returned. With numb fingers, Jack turned the curled pages back until he reached the one marked with a tiny, black 29 in italics.

    ‘Say these words, Jack: ‘Mom, you ought to turn on your wipers, or you could have an accident.’ Do it.’

    Jack’s blood pounded in his ears. Outside, tires thumped as the car drifted onto the center line and over the cat’s eyes, “Mom,” he said, ”you ought to turn on your wipers, or you could have an accident.” Suddenly, she became aware of the rain which had begun to beat heavily on the windshield. She switched on the wipers. Jack’s father had fallen asleep, his mouth hung open lazily

    ‘Dad is dreaming now,’ the book said. ‘He’s dreaming of a time before he met your mother, before you even existed. He’s building a motorbike out of parts he scavenged himself. He can’t do that anymore because your mother doesn’t let him, and because he thinks you’re no good at that sort of stuff. It’s true, isn’t it?

    Yes, it’s true… Turn to page 100

    No, it’s not true… Turn to page 101.’

    Jack almost tore the page out of the book turning to page 101. Not true, not true, not true, he thought.

    ‘It is true,’ the book said at the top of page 101. ‘Sometimes what’s true and what isn’t true are so close together it’s hard to tell them apart, but this is true. What are you going to do about it? Your daddy drinks because he likes to dream. He likes to have long, selfish dreams about motorbikes and girls he knew when he was ten years older than you are now. What are you going to do about it? Don’t you feel bad, Jackie?

    Tell mom she should go easier on dad… Turn to page 68.

    Apologize to her for even being born… Turn to page 57.’

    The space behind Jack’s nose and eyes began to fizz and swell, the way it does when someone punches you there, or when you get hit with a football. What kind of book was this? he wondered. He folded it in half along its length, pressing into it with all of his strength, trying to kill it, trying to make it stop. But it was just a book. It bent, and the laminated cover made a little squeaking noise under Jack’s sweaty palms, but it was just a book.

    “Mom,” Jack said. She was scowling, hunched over the wheel, straining to see the way through the rain. She was not wearing her glasses, something she knew she should do, but something which neither Jack nor her husband would call her on, even if they had noticed.

    “Hmm,” she said.

    “I think dad is sorry,” Jack said. “I mean, I think he’s—”

    “Jack,” his mother snapped, “not another word about your father right now, or I swear to God there will be trouble. Do you hear me?” Her voice had become nasal and stuffy through the onset of threatening tears.

    “Sorry,” Jack said. He turned to page 57.

    ‘Boy, can’t you do anything right? So, now what? Are you going to try and make it up to her? You made your mother cry, Jack. Maybe you should suggest the two of you play a game. How about it?

    Pick I Spy… Turn to page 190.

    Pick 20 Questions… Turn to page 193.’

    Jack pulled up the collar on his green sport coat and readied himself, “Mom,” he said weakly, “would you like to play a game?”

    The reaction was worse than he expected. She whirled around to face him, her eyes were puffy and red, and she screamed, “I don’t want to play any fucking games, Jack. I’m sick to death of hearing it all, and,” Jack’s terrified gaze turned from his mother’s screaming face to the road.

***

    The woman’s white dress got brighter, and she got bigger, more real as the car sped toward her, capturing her with its headlights. She raised her hands out in front, and now she was close enough, real enough for Jack to see her eyes, which were big and black. Her mouth opened in what looked like a silent scream, then the back of her head hit the windshield. In a fraction of a second the car had ripped the woman from the ground, flipping her upside-down before smashing into her head and back. Jack’s mother was whipped around by the force of it all, just in time to see the woman land and go tumbling end-over-end into some bushes. She slammed on the brakes.

    In the passenger seat, Jack’s father was shocked awake, he did not say anything, he just sat with his eyes bleary and wide, blinking until he found the spider-webbed windshield. Jack’s mother gripped the steering wheel, she was breathing heavily.

    “Was it a deer?” Jack’s father asked, wiping his face. “Was it a deer or something?”

    “Mom,” Jack said, “she’s hurt. Mom, go back, she’s hurt.” The woman in the white dress was dead. What Jack could see out the rear window, still visible but barely by the car’s tail lights, was the first dead body he had ever seen. The zipper on his sport coat scratched as his neck and he pushed it away with his chin, “She’s really hurt, we have to go back.”

    But she did not go back. She did not open the door. Jack’s mother put the car in first and pulled away, the car juddered as she brought up the clutch too quickly, then the tires screeched and they were away.

    “Was it a fucking deer?” Jack’s father asked.

    “Shut up!” she shouted. “Shut up, shut up, shut up, both of you, right now!”

    They picked up speed along the now completely dark road, and the car began to whine. Underneath the front corner of the car, where the woman had struck, something was grinding, jarring as though it were compressed and yet still being forced to move, the car began to list to one side. She straightened it up and wiped a tear from her cheek. The car listed, she straightened, it listed, she straightened. The grinding was getting worse, the car sounded as if it were in pain. Out the rear window, all Jack could see were the first ten feet of road, then a black expanse. The woman in the white dress was still out there, bent and broken and dead. Her shoes had flown off on impact and were now separated by forty feet of cold, night-time tarmac. Jack grabbed the book, he looked at its cover, at the woman in the white dress, at her big black eyes and her silent, screaming mouth. He looked at the boy in the backseat and knew that is was him. His mother floored the gas and took the car up past 80, 90, 100…

    The front tire burst with a crack loud enough to send a ringing through Jack’s head.

    Jack screamed. He opened the book, looking for answers, looking for what to do next. The words were swimming again, just like at the market, they were on ice, tumbling left and right, up and down, all over the page making them impossible to read.

    “Please!” Jack cried. The car swerved from one side of the road to the other.

    “The brakes!” Jack’s mother shouted, “The brakes aren’t working!” She pumped at them and the pedal clunked uselessly against the floor of the car.

    “Oh, please, please!” Jack said. He held the book open and curled himself into a tight little ball, focusing only on that one page.

    ‘The car is swerving, going wild, haywire, crazy, bonkers, woo-woo! Who needs brakes when you can have this much fun without ‘em? Oh, what? You do need them? Party pooper. Well, alright, but first you have to say the magic words.

    Find the magic words, make the car stop… Turn to page 98.

    Carry on having fun, fun, fun… Turn to page 60.’

    Jack flipped the pages, one dirty, yellow bunch at a time until he reached 87, 92, 94, come on, he thought, come on — 96, 97, 100. No. He turned back, 97, 100, 97, 100, 97, 100.

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