Midnight Paradise: Part I

"Anders," A young child ran forth, loose pants hanging around narrow hips. A young man looked up from a report he was reading, pale hair falling around his face in gentle, soft waves. The man, Anders, smiled. The child paused at the front of the desk, words frozen in his mouth as he absently dug the heel of one foot into the hard, stone floor. "Anders, I, uh, I was hoping..."

Anders set aside the folder he was reading, and folded his hands on the desk. "Yes, child?"

"Can we go outside, tonight?"

Anders smiled; the young boy froze, for the dark gleam in the man's eye was anything but nice.

Snow whirled through the darkened parking lot, a storm of white-clad dancers spinning out of control. Ansel Darryl stood by Bianca, his Ram 1500, with one hand pressed to the black backdoor on the driver's side. The metal was cooling, now that the engine was off; out in this storm, it wouldn't have mattered if he left it on. There was no one around to care that he had parked upon the grounds of a condemned, abandoned amusement park; save the ghosts of the past, perhaps.

As he stepped away from Bianca, he pulled his cell out of his back pocket; there was only one new voicemail on the phone, patiently waiting. He tapped his Bluetooth earpiece, activating it as he turned on the voicemail. There was a moment of static, the sharp hissing and crackling of white noise, and then she was there. His wife, a godsend in a world so cold.

"Ansel, it's Christmas." Diana's voice was soft, pleading. Ansel retrieved a cigarette from his jacket pocket, lighting it as Diana drew in a deep, uneven breath. She had been crying, then. He made his way towards the front gates of the amusement park, bypassing the empty booths and turnstiles. A trail of smoke curled through the winter air as Diana's gentle, warm voice echoed in his ear, "I want him home as bad as you do, but this is reckless! You can't take the law upon yourself. Please, Ansel. By God, Ansel, please come home..."

Then there was static, and Ansel frowned around his cigarette. He inhaled, filling his lungs with smoked tobacco as the background of the recording changed. His eyes narrowed as he made his way into the front of the amusement park as the faint, quiet cries of children whispered into his ear followed by broken, robotic laughter.

His wife's voice was a repeating, broken record taunting him with each fragmented word. It echoed, louder and louder, as the child's stifled whimpers faded until only Diana's voice was there. Ansel listened, thumb brushing over the pocket housing his cell. Somewhere behind him, a dodge Ram 1500 waited.

It would be warm; he could turn back, call the police, and wait as they scoured the grounds.

He could wait, but so many helpless lives–

They would die. The children, they would never make it. Nine young lives, all helpless and on the cusp of a world of darkness. It was a place children should never venture into. Nine souls, wavering on the tightrope of a nightmare; the beckoning light of dreams and warmth, they were running out. If they weren't dead already; but, no, Noah was a tool, a lure to draw him in. Ansel knew this. Until he found his son, the others would be kept alive. It was how the game was played.

Ansel exhaled; only one of those lives mattered, only one had drawn him here. The other eight, they were unfortunate souls caught in a game. He wondered if he had seen any of them on the news or in the local newspaper. So many missing. As he pressed on, he knew the truth: the police would never make it.

Ansel narrowed his gaze on the shadowy park ahead of him. How long had it been, since he had stepped through the gates of this place? Of all places, this one was the most like. No, the police would never make it.

But I can.

In his ear, the disjointed message became clear. "Ansel— reckless—bad—you can't—come home."

Standing in the snow, he stared straight ahead. He removed his earpiece, tossing it onto the stones as he made his way past a sign reading 'Welcome to Midnight Paradise.' His attention shifted to the stores, their windows dark and cold. This part of the park, it was familiar. Midnight Plaza; he recalled this place, when it was once open. Thousands of people had once flocked to this place, alive with wonder and interest as they ventured into restaurants and stores.

He could almost see himself, his mother walking calmly behind him, his young brother's hand clasped in hers, as they made their way down a path leading away from one of the many hotels. He saw its shadow in the distance, a towering form of darkness overlooking the dulling colors of the Plaza. Ansel turned down one of the streets, broken glass crunching under his boots, small shards littering the cracked stones sheltered from the winter weather by covered walkways.

He saw himself turning, grinning widely, to call out to his mother and brother; then there was only the cold and the winter wind and the broken, empty streets. Ansel ran one hand along the wall, his gaze on the alleyways around him. A town within an amusement park. Hotels resting upon hills overlooking the town and parks, once colorful and lively and now dead and listless.

Noah; where was he, in this place? Was his son trapped in some dark corner, frightened and hungry and cold? Ansel walked between the buildings, gaze shifting from one dark shadow to another. Somewhere in this broken park, his son waited. He could think of no other place for his son to be, not with how things had fallen apart during the days of his young, crazy youth.

When he had danced the line of madness and destruction, wild and free and so very happy; Ansel drew in another tobacco-laden breath, the cigarette caught between thin, chapped lights burning crimson on the end before greying. He flicked the ash off the end, and took another drag. Smoke raged through the filter, polluting his lungs.

The flickering, red end and the smoke, they drove back the encroaching darkness.

Midnight Plaza, a place of many roads and pathways to tread. Ansel walked, snow crunching under his boots and dusting the shoulders of his black trench coat white. He kept to his silence, gaze cutting across the quiet streets and dark alleys. A stray wind sent snow whirling through the air, a twisting tornado of white flurries.

Ansel blew out a curling stream of smoke, exhaling and relishing the cool air wrapping around him. It was difficult, to know how long he walked. The streets blurred together; broken ladders ascended to rooftops, stairwells descended into inky darkness and the rest of the park – it was nothing more than a twisting maze, streets overlapping and alleyways ending at high walls.

Time seemed to drag, the minutes melting into hours as he drifted from one shop into another. Counters rested, unused. A table was overturned here, a wall of broken glass there; it was almost as if the entire park had suddenly ceased to operate, the souls vanishing in a single burst of light and smoke. Exhaling, Ansel eyed his surroundings.

Making his way further down the street, a voice rose: "Pick up the knife."

Ansel froze, his senses straining as he listened to the echoing voice breaking the thick silence of a place left to decay. The demand echoed, and Ansel turned, gaze shifting from one shop to another. Knife. Was a child near? Was his son? Ansel turned down an alleyway, and stumbed down a flight of stairs hidden under untouched, pure snow.

In the distance, he heard it again: "Just wrap your fingers around the hilt. That's good, my child. Now place the blade to your forearm –"

Ansel caught a flicker of movement from his peripheral. He turned, gaze zoning onto the alleyway leading down another shadowed place. He took off; he eased out of the alleyway, gaze shifting from the left to his right. Then, there, a shift in color: a low, hissing sound of static and what looked like a static-filled television set, both emerging from a building with bashed-in front windows.

His gaze narrowed on the object of his interest.

Was this a shop? No, this was the Bella Luna, a bed and breakfast. Ansel paused on the threshold, listening as the sound of a young man echoed from the depths of the inn resting before him.

"You need not be frightened, child." Ansel's skin crawled, the hairs on the back of his neck rising as he snuffed the cigarette on a wall, the head caving in upon itself as he drove it onto the wall. He tossed it aside, leaving it to smolder within the snow, before entering the building. "As long as you do as I say, never will you want for anything..."

Ansel heard the whispering, crooning voice somewhere in the facility. It echoed, almost as if it was moving from one room to another. He stepped through a door, blinking through the gloom of a dark hallway and a distant, rickety staircase. From somewhere upstairs, the voice came again.

"There. A small pain, no?" Where was that coming from? Ansel took the steps three at a time, his jaw grit as he paused on the landing. Was his son somewhere, being told to place a knife to his wrist? Was some small child cutting into herself, crying as skin split and innocent flesh marred by the whims of a madman? "See the red, see how it stands out against your skin? Isn't it beautiful?"

There were many a word to describe what he was hearing, but beautiful was not one of them. As he stood in the silence of a darkened corridor, he felt a chill creep along his spine. This place, it was familiar. Had he been in this hallway, once upon a time? Had they walked upon the old, aged wood as they laughed and joked and giggled?

A crash resounded from behind him. Ansel whipped around, surroundings spinning. A door was ajar, at the back of the hall. Ansel made his way there, and pushed his way inside; it was a study of a sort, a hint of white noise lingering in the air. As he inched across the room, careful where he stepped, he spied a recorder resting upon an old, wooden desk.

He picked it up, and then turned his gaze to a set of cassettes resting by it. Dates were the only thing scribbled on the white bands, deep red ink a sharp contrast to the black-and-white files. He shoved these into his jacket, careful to keep the cassettes in their container.

A low growl echoed through the room, then. Ansel turned, barely quick enough to see a dark form dart out of the room. It barreled through the decaying door, splintering wood spraying into the air as it escaped into the hallway beyond. With a shout, Ansel took chase. He shouldered his way through the broken plants of a door, stumbling as he fell through into the hallway beyond.

His head whipped to the left. Nothing. To the right, something was racing down the stairs. Ansel took after it, the floor groaning under forced upon it. Floorboards sagged under him, and the stairs trembled as he raced down them. The door crashed open, sending snow whirling through the dining room and across the old floor and tables dressed in soiled, frayed coverings.

Ansel followed it outside, into the night snow and cold winds. He shuddered as the chill swept over him, freezing him from within. His gaze swept over the area, trying to pinpoint what had just been within the building; he saw it a moment later, a massive hound of dark proportions.

Eyeless, it watched him. What brings one of the cu'sitha into this darkened land? Ansel stepped closer, slowly. Ansel eyed the canine, one of many harbingers of death. He watched as its shadowy form wavered inches above snow-covered streets, sightless gaze focused upon him.

Ansel felt it watching. The cu'sith stared him down, as if apprising the man who dared, once more, to step upon grounds once scared. He felt it in the air all around him, a chill unnatural even in the dead of winter. He felt it as surely as he tasted it in the air; like some ancient fermented fruit-based wine, the cu'sith took off to the right, vanishing into a darkened alleyway.

Ansel paused where it had stood moments before, the snow free of paw prints. He blinked. Where had it gone? He turned in circles, the buildings blurring and rising and twisting as he tried to see a glimpse of a fabled creature. Was he going mad? No, he had seen it.

Where had it gone? That was the question, wasn't it? Where had the cu'sith gone, and why was it wondering the grounds of this blackened heaven? Ansel drew in a breath, shaking his head. He itched for another cigarette, to feel the hot smoke staining the inside of his lungs.

'Here, Ansel...'

The man paused, gaze slowly lifting from the winter grounds to the dark shadow of what appeared to be a teenager. For a moment, all he could do was stare. First a cu'sith, and now this? Perhaps he was mad, but, when the teen turned, Ansel stepped forward.

Across from him, the teen cocked his head to the side. Ansel couldn't see the lad's eyes, but he caught a glimpse of the slow smile stretching too-wide across a thin, pale face. Had it been this boy who had called out to him in a hushed whisper, or was this young male no more than a figment of his tired, worn mind?

The teen stepped backward, each step matched with Ansel's slow advance. Perhaps this youth had seen his son; maybe he knew where the children, and thus Noah, were being held. His pace picked up, and the teen leapt backwards, almost as if he was dancing, and then he was turning. A sharp burst of movement, and then the young teen was darting away.

Ansel chased the teenager, teeth grit as he pursued. The lean figure jumped a fence, vanishing into the bright lights of a carousel spinning round. He leapt the fence, and ran across the snow-laden ground and grabbed a passing pole of rusting silver. Ansel hauled himself on, careless to the broken metal and fragmented music.

As he was pulled into the churning dance, and the world began to turn. The teenager, he was nowhere to be seen. Ansel squinted, trying to see through the muddled lights of a ride once broken. The carousel groaned and creaked with each turn, the painted animals faded and chipping as they rose and fell with hisses and grunts.

"Mother, can we go again? Can we?" Ansel stilled, the soft childish laughter ringing in the back of his mind as he turned. He saw a phantom memory of his younger brother on the back of a silver horse, the saddle and reins blue and violet. His mother would be standing on the right, towards the edges of the ride, and Ansel – he had sat upon the back of a sleek, black panther. "Please, ma?"

The carousel's shrieking, rusting gears smoothed out. The music rose, loud and clear and divine, and the winter snow melted away in the planes of his mind. He saw his mother and his brother, the two of them holding hands while a younger Ansel watched them from the shade of a tree.

His mother was turning, and, when he saw her eyes, saw them widening, the memory shimmered and faded away, leaving only the rusted carousel behind. Ansel exhaled, shivering as he stood in under the rusted, domed roof of a ride abandoned. Turning, his gaze shifted to the grounds around the ride, to the countless, small footprints circling the ride in impossible numbers.