The Lady Who Laughs looks like a haunted house, but she isn’t.
They say a girl died on the ride back in the 50’s, when the Lady was still in operation.
They say after the carnival took off, abandoning all seventeen tons of her in a field miles from any major road, some kids paid her a visit and were never seen again.
They say even now, if you go to the field where she stands and walk her maze of track, the papier-mâché dummy at the end of the ride – the Lady herself – will lunge forward to gobble you up.
They say if she doesn’t, she’ll answer any question you bring her.
Who knows how these rumors get started?
They say these things, and they come anyhow.
The Lady knows the woman stumbling through the stand of balsam firs. When she’d come before, the boy pawing her tits had called her Meredith. To count the years between that night and this one, the Lady must examine Meredith for clues. The new crease between her brows. The tight, white line of a mouth that on her last visit had been so pink and eager. Hair duller, flatter. Backside broader. Fingers calloused. The eyes are the same, almost black, twin blades glinting in the dusk. The Lady feels those eyes on her, grazing the tips of her turrets, dragging over her body for signs of danger, or signs of life. I’m here, the Lady would say, if she had a mouth to speak.
Of the three hundred dark rides built by Shiner & Co. in the early twentieth century, only two remain: the Lady Who Laughs and her brother, the Hell Hound.
Her brother’s spent the last sixty years in some dinky West Virginia amusement park. Sometimes, if she concentrates, she can see the Hound, though no one calls him that anymore. Years back, the park painted a blue sky over his black body, traded his flames for cotton-puff clouds. The fading sign that tops him reads OvEr ThE HiLLs AnD fAr AwAy! Smiling garden gnomes and forest critters fill the scenes along his track, so brightly lit you could scarcely call him a dark ride any longer.
The Hound was never much for conversation, but when he’d been himself, he would at least growl and pant and bark. The Lady hasn’t heard a peep from him since the remodel. At first she tried goading him, and when that didn’t work, she begged. Nothing ever came back to her, only the tra-la-la of the happy tune piped through his chambers, peals of laughter that ought to be screams.
Meredith’s fingers skim across a beam. The Lady wants to give her a splinter, just a little one to startle her. What she really wants is electricity. She can feel something like it at the heart of her, a current of magic she doesn’t understand, but it’s not the kind of juice she’d need to really wake up. Imagine it, after all these years, for someone to hear that hum and go slack-jawed at the sight of one rusted cart squeaking forward, eager to bear them inside.
But if Meredith is afraid, it’s not of the Lady. She steps over the first-story railing, powers on her cell phone’s flashlight, and follows the track into darkness.
Past the threshold, the track climbs steadily up to the second story before winding down through the Lady’s guts. Little remains of the old adornments. No more skeletons popping out of walls. No more smiling severed heads, dangling ghosts, grasping mummies. All looted, ages ago. Broken beer bottles, wrappers, and animal bones carpet her floors. Her walls are clogged with bullet holes and graffiti. TERRANCE + KIM 1994. R.I.P. KODY. FRANKIE J. WUZ HERE. FUCK. SHIT. YO MOMMA. Every letter is a scar. Each one still smarts if she thinks on it for too long.
Meredith turns the last corner of track, where her flashlight finally illuminates a row of grinning teeth and a nest of dark curls. The Lady, if she could, would squirm. She hates this part.
“There you are,” Meredith whispers, but it isn’t true. The Lady is not this lady, though it’s an easy mistake to make; it’s why the laughing dummy remains the one piece of her no one has dared to molest. The true Lady is everywhere, all of it, track and tunnels and graffiti’d walls, rusted carts and, yes, the laughing dummy, too, but only just a little, in the way that a person is also their own big toe.
With a swipe, Meredith ups the flashlight’s brightness, revealing the rotting black lace of the dummy’s gown and the mold-dappled fingers that clutch its belly. Breath steady, she waits. For what? Movement? Sound? Does she expect the fingers to reach for her? For the mouth to stretch wide enough to swallow her whole? A footstep? The rustle of a dress? It’s too bad, thinks the Lady, because thinking is all she can do.
A minute passes. Another. Another. Meredith checks the time on her phone’s screen then asks her question: “How do I get out?”
There ought to be more to it, surely, some clarification forthcoming. When others visit, mostly they over-explain, so that by the time they’ve run out of words either they no longer care about their question or have worked out the answer for themselves. Not Meredith. Her sharp eyes scan the tunnel impatiently. It feels like a test, as if the answer will only be worth a damn if the Lady can puzzle out the finer points of the question. Not that an answer is possible. She’s a carnival ride, not even a haunted one. Get out of what? she’d like to ask, if only for her own edification. There’s a gold band on Meredith’s left hand and spit-up down her right sleeve, but there are plenty of traps a woman could find herself in, predicaments the Lady, settled in her field, can only guess at, some she cannot even imagine.
Outside the crickets are chirping. An owl beats its wings against the air. Miles away, a chainsaw sputters to life. The Lady knows Meredith’s ears are reaching past those sounds, eager to pluck out language beneath the chatter. In this moment, the Lady would say anything at all, just to be heard.
A boy did almost die here, once.
This was years before Meredith, one summer afternoon. The boy and his friend had driven out to explore and to get high. They’d made it halfway inside when the boy stumbled and impaled himself on a broken piece of track. The Lady remembers the warmth of slipping inside his guts, not just the heat of blood and viscera but the sensation of contact. Connection. She would’ve liked to stay inside him forever, but his friend pulled him free and held him, weeping, as he called an ambulance.
Days later, some men in suits came to inspect. They talked about bulldozing her finally, maybe just burning her down. The boy had died from blood loss on the way to the hospital. A pity, and a waste. If he had to die, the Lady wishes he’d have died in her arms. She would’ve welcomed the company.
Meredith’s car is out of sight, but the Lady hears its engine rev to life and the crunch of gravel beneath its tires. She follows the sound until it disappears, until there are only the night sounds and the bruised twilight sky and the firs stretching up to meet it.
More than six hundred miles lay between the Lady and the Hound. In the stillness, she reaches across them. Can you hear me, brother? She can see him there beneath the park lights, in the hours before closing time. Tonight he is inundated with sticky-fingered children chaperoned by doting parents, young lovers, squealing friends. They wind through his tunnels like marching ants. Happy. They are all so sickeningly happy. Happy as his gnomes and his critters. Happy as his tra-la-la music.
The Lady pushes all of it aside and reaches for the black mongrel heart of him, for the flames beneath the painted clouds. There, under everything, she would swear she can hear him breathe.
Sutton Strother is a writer and English instructor living in New York. Her work has been featured in SmokeLong Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, Jellyfish Review, CHEAP POP, and elsewhere. You can find more of her work at suttonstrother.wordpress.com