Haunted Attractions with your Other Father by Norman Prentiss is the sequel to his Odd Adventures with your Other Father, and continues the horror/fantasy road trip adventures of Jack and Shawn as they fight monsters and homophobia in the ’80s. Cemetery Dance is proud to publish this new novel (with an e-book version now on sale at Amazon for 0.99!), and to celebrate we’re serializing a new novella featuring the characters from the books!
When we last saw Jack and Shawn, they were visiting a roadside attraction that promised lizards (and dinosaurs!). By projecting a distracting illusion into his partner’s mind, Jack was able to help Shawn win a bet with the proprietor, securing free tickets to the “dinosaur safari” tour.
THE CANYON OF TERRIBLE LIZARDS, PART 3
(A HAUNTED ATTRACTION WITH YOUR OTHER FATHER)
BY NORMAN PRENTISS
With a show of great reluctance, the shopkeeper handed over our free tickets to the tour. “Join the paying customers over there,” he said, pointing to an unmarked exit where Barb and Kenneth waited.
The photocopied tickets were cut the size of dollar bills, and a thick font announced the “Dinosaur Safari.” An outline of a dinosaur skull filled the right half of the ticket. Someone had taken the trouble to draw scales on the skull, and had shaded it by hand with a green pencil. The paper was thin and felt damp.
Despite the spectacle of the rattlesnake wager, the reptile cages seemed mostly empty, lowering any expectations for the “safari” to come. I expected the shopkeeper to usher us past a few crude dioramas rejected from a Natural History museum, reading encyclopedia facts off index cards and mispronouncing any dinosaur name longer than two syllables.
Imagine my surprise when a separate tour guide showed up — “Troy,” according to the name-patch on his denim mechanic’s jacket. He took us outside and led us along a rocky footpath that stretched behind the store. After a while the path took a steep dip. The air began to feel more tropical as we descended.
“A bit of a hike,” the guide said by way of apology. “This isolation explains how the prehistoric animals survived here. They’re so far out of the way, they were protected from the scrutiny of curiosity seekers.”
A prepared speech. An older relative probably wore the “Troy” jacket a decade earlier; more recently, a weekend guide could borrow the jacket and script to conduct the matinee tours.
“The air you feel now creates a kind of hothouse effect,” he continued. “Helps plants to grow, keeping all the moisture in the soil. And the lizards grow big in this spot, too. Real big.”
“I believe you.” Jack’s nod of support to the guide contained no trace of irony. Usually he assumed the role of skeptic, and I attributed Jack’s current gullibility to the guide’s broad shoulders and the impressive arm muscles beneath the tight-fitting sleeves of his jacket.
I struggled not to roll my eyes. Next thing, I expected, we’d stumble across some pre-arranged setup that “supported” the guide’s claims.
On cue, the guide spread his arms wide to keep anyone in our small group from rushing around a bend in the path. “Watch your step.” He lowered his arms slowly, then waved us onward single file. “Looks like one of our larger residents passed this way recently.”
Recently? The impression in the ground obviously wasn’t from the Cretaceous period, but it hadn’t happened in the past twenty-four hours, either.
“I think he’s right, Shawn. This is just how big a footprint we’d get from a grown Tyrannosaurus. Or an especially big Allosaurus, maybe.”
The effect was obviously hardened into the ground, more of a carving than a convincing footprint. Of course, it made no sense that there’d be only one. There should be another depression nearby, indicating the measure of the tremendous lizard’s stride. Also, maybe a rut dragging between the spread footprints, caused by the dinosaur’s tail.
If I were planning the attraction, that’s how I would have done it.
I made that comment to Jack, normal voice, and he shushed me. He didn’t want me to upset our guide…which almost made me want to speak louder, listing more implausibilities.
Because there were plenty of them, especially when we reached a large rusted shed that I assumed was the final destination of the “safari.” We stepped inside a simulation of a museum alcove, with edge-curled posters of dinosaur movies on the walls, plastic copies of fossils glued to wooden pedestals, and the action-figure dioramas I’d anticipated. I noticed dust on the back-plates of a Stegosaurus model, and a strand of cobweb stretched from one horn of a Triceratops to the spear of an attacking caveman — a clear historical anachronism, perhaps intended as a subliminal hint that “real” dinosaurs could exist, impossible and unpublicized, on the grounds of this off-road attraction.
As Troy directed the four of us to different exhibits, he continued his prepared remarks. I found it hard to listen, not because his comments were so inaccurate, but because the wind had picked up, whistling through the metal slats of the rusted shelter. The forceful breeze didn’t cool us inside the shed. I felt like I was standing under a bathroom’s hand dryer.
And didn’t dinosaur bones all look alike — especially fake ones? Troy took us to a third set of random fossils. It looked like someone had dropped a porcelain teapot and glued the shattered pieces to a board.
“I used to daydream about stuff like this when I was a kid,” Jack said. “Maybe I’d dig in our backyard and find a bone, and it would turn out I’d discovered some new dinosaur species.”
“That’s cute,” the guide responded.
Jack’s face flushed red. He’s so pale-skinned, it’s really too easy to tell when he’s embarrassed.
After we’d finished with the exhibits, the guide offered each of us a small paper cup. He extracted a thermos from the mesh side-pocket of his backpack. “A free drink comes with the tour, courtesy of my Uncle Willis. Fermented in his own backyard still. I should warn you, it’s got a bit of a kick.”
The warning didn’t deter any of us, though the brew’s strong, moldy aroma might have. Normally I would have declined, but I felt like I needed some fortification for our hike back to the store. I drank quickly, worried the liquid would eat through the cup like acid.
The kick was pretty powerful. I saw Jack trying not to sputter and cough. Of the other couple, the woman waved a hand over her mouth as if trying to put out a fire. Like Jack, her partner tried to play it cool, but a quick choking fit broke the guy’s calm demeanor.
“You get used to it,” Troy said before tossing back his own cupful.
There might have been more in the thermos, but nobody requested a refill.
I was ready to head back, when Troy slid a large cooler chest from beneath the shed’s central diorama. He spun a three-wheel combination lock then opened the chest.
“Now, this part is where I usually tell people about the dangers of the tour, if you’re pregnant or have a bad back or you’re a tiny little kid. There’s a shaded bench you can wait under until the rest of us get back, or you’re welcome to head back to the store. But you all look the right age, and seem fit enough.”
Oh God, there’s more?
Jack nodded, said “Sure.” His voice had grown even deeper, like he thought he was on some TV sports challenge.
Then he saw what was in the trunk: small, inflatable life jackets. The guide handed them to me and Jack, then to the Barbie-and-Ken couple. Next, he offered to store any of our valuables in the chest while we were on the trail. “I’ve also got some plastic bags here, if you want to zip up your cameras to keep them safe.”
“We should have brought the insta-matic,” I said, but I noticed Jack’s face was unusually pale, even for him. He was staring at the opposite end of the shed, where Troy had pulled open a back door.
Turned out I was wrong about the wind noise. The sound was actually caused by a rushing river that passed behind the shed, winding away in the distance between tall rocks and overhanging trees.
A large inflatable raft waited outside the door, attached by a rope to a small wooden pier.
(Celia, I don’t need to remind you how much Jack hated water.
But, he didn’t want to appear less manly in front of the guide.
On one level, I thought: this is poetic justice for the trick Jack played on me with the snake. The cosmos enacting revenge on my behalf. At the same time, I knew how bad Jack’s phobia was, and felt sorry for him.
So I tried to help him quit the tour gracefully.)
I offered a slow protest, ready to express how I hadn’t expected the course to be so physically demanding, that maybe the heat was getting to me, or the grain alcohol, so Jack and I should head back to the convenience shop.
I put my hand to my forehead, assuming a lady-in-distress pose, and began a low exhale that Jack would instantly recognize as my trademark sigh of exasperation — he’d triggered it himself many times, on our journeys together.
Before I’d let all the breath out, before I could begin my planned litany of excuses, Jack had slipped his yellow lifejacket over his head and pulled the straps tight to his torso. He slapped the jacket I held slack, indicating I should follow suit.
“We’re doing this,” he said through clenched teeth.
I wasn’t sure why. Perhaps he maintained his lingering, semi-comical desire to “impress” our handsome tour guide. Or there might be something about this absurd place that struck a nerve with Jack: the ridiculous store with its fast-striking snake; the pathetic menagerie of death-bed chameleons; the fabricated pre-tour with a sculpted footprint, historically inaccurate dioramas, and a jumble of plaster-cast fossils. Was there something here that Jack’s instincts recognized as authentic? Some reason he’d chose to risk a fresh-water rafting ride?
Well, it was his choice. I was fine for the trip, might at least get a bit of zip-line thrill out of it, considering the unlikely chance of any wildlife excitement.
I put on my lifejacket, let it hang loose over my chest, and followed Troy through the door and into the waiting raft.
In roller coaster lore, the rear car is considered the most exciting. The position adds a tantalizing delay to the drop, and the car shifts more dramatically, as if threatening to twist itself off the rail. On our tour, Jack’s hesitance would likely put him at the back end of the raft, but I pushed ahead of the other couple and took a spot at the middle, coaxing Jack to take position beside me. The center of gravity would make for a calmer ride.
Not that the river current would be that rough — as I’m sure Jack was telling himself at the edge of the raft, retreating into a mantra of calm, deep breaths. Distracting himself, maybe, listing a mental catalogue of dinosaurs he wouldn’t see during our fruitless adventure.
Jack almost fell over getting in. Troy was busy acting the stereotypical gentleman, holding Barb’s arm as she lowered into the raft, and Jack was like a kitten startled in a filled bathtub, his first foot surprised by the springy response of the inflatable raft, and the next foot overcompensating into a trampoline effect that nearly bounced the rest of us into the water.
“Whoa, whoa,” Troy said, dropping the lady’s arm and rushing to steady Jack in the raft. “Take it easy there, sport.” Here, our guide adopted a tone intended to control overeager children. The fact that he wrapped this particular oversized child in a brief, steadying bear hug might have offered some consolation to Jack’s wounded pride.
As we all secured ourselves in our seats, Troy went about the business of untying the mooring rope and preparing to launch the raft. I let my gaze drift over the river, judging the distance from shore to shore, speculating on the water’s depth. The opposite bank seemed an easy swimming distance — about a hundred feet. The water itself was muddy, and small islands of entangled twigs dotted the surface. Since I couldn’t see the bottom, I dropped one hand overboard and dragged my fingers through, dispersing a cloud of mud and sand. The gritty water was cooler than I expected, and when I lifted my hand the breeze on my palm felt refreshing.
When I again turned my attention to the opposite shore, it seemed farther away. Troy hadn’t lowered himself into the raft yet, but we were moving, the bank receding on both sides, the mooring rope dangling loose from the dock. Troy stood on the wooden pier, waving his arms as if he could row the raft from a distance, as if he wasn’t shrinking to a doll, then a dot, as our unpiloted raft rushed adrift to the center of a wide river, the waters frothing into peaks of brown foam, and the shores receding farther and farther away, so we might as well be stranded in the middle of the ocean, sun beating down from overhead, waves getting rougher, the raft beginning to sway with the sea’s violent motion.
“Damn it, Jack!” Because I realized that I’d been rocking back and forth where I sat on the raft, which was steady and still beside the pier. My motion had been prompted by Jack’s anxieties, a dizzying vision that he’d unconsciously projected into my mind.
“What?” Jack shouted his indignant response, then added in a whisper: “I’m not doing anything.”
Barb tapped me lightly on the shoulder. “Do you mind holding still? Thanks.”
This was going to be a long ride.
To be continued…
For this installment, I thought I’d say a bit about my experience with writing a series. I know a lot of authors plan a trilogy or whatnot in advance, but my initial plan was simply to tell a single story. About a decade ago, before gay marriage was legal across the US, I had the idea for a story about a male couple, closeted and not permitted to marry, who received some supernatural compensation — a mental connection, when they were denied a legal one. Since I’m a horror writer, I added a catch to the couples’ ability to share mental images: the glamours only went in one direction, and the images all had to be scary instead of pleasant.
I hadn’t written much of that story past the title, “Union,” and it remained in a file with other story ideas. Several years later, I started a different story, and the “Union” idea came back to me. The difference this time is that I set the couple’s adventures in the past, and added the adopted daughter, Celia. That story, “Conversion Therapy,” began like this:
“You weren’t supposed to find that picture, Celia. Certainly, there’s a story behind it. There’s a story behind all the souvenirs I saved from that year of travels with your other father…”
Once I had this story idea, I started rethinking the earlier one, and decided I might have a series of short story adventures I could write. I wrote two more adventures (“Beneath their Shoulders” and “The Manikin’s Revenge”), and at some point I realized the family connection with Celia could provide a larger frame story connecting the adventures. As I wrote that frame, I realized I needed an origin story, to show when Jack first discovered his mind-projecting powers: I went back to the idea of “Union,” and expanded it into a story I called “Breadcrumbs” — four adventures in the ’80s, and a modern-day frame story comprising my first novel, Odd Adventures with your Other Father.
The initial plan was for a single, self-contained book, and Odd Adventures works that way. But even as I was finishing that book, I knew I had more stories to tell with the same characters (and I even annoyed a few readers by referencing adventures that hadn’t been written…yet).
But there was one big problem with further books in the series: I’d deliberately made Jack’s powers limited, so that the images he created only affected his partner, Shawn. I intended these limitations as a metaphor for a close relationship, when a couple essentially shuts out the rest of the world. There were only a handful of ways Jack’s limited powers could help solve an adventure (sending a distress signal, breaking a spell, encouraging a specific action from Shawn), and I think I exhausted all of them in the first book. What to do next?
As I was thinking about that limitation, I wrote a brief side-story called “Boardwalk Thrill Ride,” where Jack’s powers got a temporary boost from a haunted house ride (based on Trimper’s Haunted House in Ocean City, Maryland: https://trimpershauntedhouse.com/). From there, I got the idea that some other settings might amplify Jack’s power, adding more variation to the possible adventures. “Boardwalk Thrill Ride” became the first location in Haunted Attraction with your Other Father (the others being an actual haunted house, a haunted theater, and a replica of Stonehenge in Michigan).
So the series that didn’t start out to be a series, finally has its second book…with a third one currently in progress. But what about “The Canyon of Terrible Lizards” that you’re currently reading? After the Boardwalk story, this dinosaur park idea was intended as an early adventure/attraction for Jack and Shawn to visit in the second book. In my author note to the next installment, I’ll explain in more detail why I removed “Terrible Lizards” from the manuscript.
See you there, I hope!