The surf shushed and hissed against the distant beach, pressing against Piper’s ears as she whirled, then again, her sneakers grinding on the pier’s weathered planking as she strove to keep panic from her voice.
“Mike? Honey, where are you?”
Gulls shrieked. The afternoon sun cast stark shadows along the ancient arcade, dark alleys and pass-throughs between padlocked doors and CLOSED banners. Blackness stared from behind cracked and dirty windows. Wooden signs, once brightly colored to shout at passing eyes, had long since lost the fight to wind and rain and now barely gasped faded words: The Maritime Mystery Museum, Ski-Ball―20 Lanes, Kiddie Karousel, The Mirror Maze!
The birds, the faint ruba of people and music back in the midway nearly buried in the hushing surf beneath the pier, and under it all her own heart, beating fast and gaining speed.
“Right here, Mom!”
She spun, following the voice away from the crowds, out to the very end of the pier. Michael emerged from the shadows beside the last ramshackle shed before the arcade’s terminal rail, a much repaired set of two-by-sixes nailed across the inner side of the posts with what looked to Piper like railroad spikes. Beyond it was nothing but sea and sky until they met at the edge of the world. He stepped into the sun, avoiding a discarded plastic bucket and a tipped over milk box leaning against the flimsy wall with the unconscious grace of childhood, his sturdy frame so reminiscent of his father’s—not overly tall for ten years old, but stocky and athletic, like a little wrestler. It hurt her heart a little, for she both loved and hated her ex-husband by turns, depending on what he’d done lately.
Mike raised a hand to shield his eyes. “Jeez, chill. I was only gone a minute.”
Her heart slowed, but she kept her voice firm. “I don’t care if it was a minute or a second. I only agreed to explore out here because you agreed to stay with me, and that means in my sight, young man.”
This was not exactly true. Her father had brought her to this park often as a child, and even though back then this section had been open for business, he’d always avoided it. There’s nothing fun out there, he’d said when she was little. Then, when she was older, he admitted that as far from the main drag as it sat, it was an excellent place to get mugged. He’d done his fatherly duty well enough that all through her teen years and into her twenties (then early thirties as she continued the tradition, bringing Michael to the park now and again) she’d never wandered out to this part of the old pier.
Today, however, armored with the knowledge that this section of the boardwalk had been closed for years, and the rest of Carmelli’s Coastal Carnival was slated to shutter its doors forever at the end of the summer, when Michael had suggested exploring the old place her curiosity was piqued. Piper had thought, It’s not like it’s nighttime or anything. Why not?
Now she knew why not. Though there had been a rough barrier, more of those handy two-by-sixes and spikes marked Section Closed, there had been nothing reading Keep Out or Danger: Condemned. Still, she had no problem, sunny day or not, imagining one of these awful shacks collapsing, or even some of the thick railroad tie planking giving way underfoot and plunging one or both of them into the frothy waves smashing the pilings thirty feet below.
“I think we’ve seen enough,” she said, beckoning. “It’s all a wreck. Let’s head back. I’ll get you a hot dog before we go.”
“Not all of it.” He ignored her flapping hand, disappearing back into the shadows. “There’s this cool old thing back here. You have to see!”
“Michael!” She eyed the structure he was moving around, more of a lean-to than an actual shack, so weather-beaten she couldn’t tell if it had half-collapsed already or had been designed that way. Not a speck of paint remained on the sign out front, but the sun picked out lettering barely carved into the surface:
Fortunes Read~ZOLTAR the SAGE~Futures Told
“Couldn’t see this place was failing, though, could you?” she muttered.
“Come on, Mom!”
“You be careful in there.” She avoided the bucket and box with less surety than her son and followed him into the shadows. The chill stepping out of the sunshine was startling, as if with a single stride she’d slipped from early autumn to early winter. She rubbed at goose flesh on her sleeveless arms, slowing to let her eyes adjust to the dim. “Mike? Where’d you go?”
She rounded the corner to the rear of the old venue to find Mike gazing up at an ancient arcade game, a four-foot-tall glass box sitting on its three-foot wooden plinth. Tucked away here in its own little shed built onto the back of the shack, the old machine had been protected from the worst of the wind and rain, and the sun must have barely touched it, for the metal scrollwork sealing all the edges and corners of the box still looked vaguely like brass or gold. And the paint dressing out its glass and wood—all reds, blues, and yellows, the eye-catchingest of colors—maintained a faded vestige of its former glory. Inside the glass sat a huge crystal ball, calligraphic script scrawled across the outside proclaiming it The Fate Machine!
“Isn’t it cool?” Mike smeared the glass with palms and nose to peer closely inside, then glanced back over his shoulder. “What is it?”
“It’s a fortune-telling machine . . .”