Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre

Last year, the people in charge of the picnic blew us up. Every year it gets worse. That is, more people die. The Frost Mountain Picnic has always been a matter of uncertainty in our town, and the massacre is the worst part. Even the people whose picnic blankets were not laid out directly upon the bomb line were knocked unconscious by the airborne limbs of their neighbors, or at least had the black earth at the foot of Frost Mountain driven under their eyelids and fingernails and up into their sinuses. The apple dumpling carts and cotton candy stands and guess-your-weight booths that were not obliterated in the initial blasts leaned slowly into the new-formed craters, each settling with a limp, hollow crumple. The few people along the bomb line who survived the blast were at the very least blown into the trees.

The year before that, the boom of the polka band had obscured the scattered reports of far-off rifles. A grown man about to bite a caramel apple suddenly spun around wildly, as if propelled by the thin spray of blood from his neck. An old woman, holding her stomach, stumbled into a group of laughing teenagers. Someone fell forward into his funnel cake, and all day long we walked around as if we weren’t aware of what was happening.

One year, the muskets of the Revolutionary War Reenactment Society were somehow packed with live ammunition. Another year, all the children who played in the picnic’s Bouncy Castle died of radiation poisoning. Yet another year, it was discovered halfway through the picnic that a third of the port-a-potties contained poisonous snakes. The year we were offered free hot air balloon rides, none of the balloons that left—containing people laughing and waving from the baskets, snapping pictures as they ascended—ever returned.

Nevertheless, every year we still turn out in the hundreds to the quaint river quay in our marina district to await the boats that will take us to Frost Mountain. In a hilltop parking lot, we apply sunscreen to the noses of our children. We rifle through large canvas carryalls, taking inventory of fruit snacks, extra jelly sandals, Band-Aids, and juice boxes, trying to anticipate our children’s inevitable needs and restlessness in the twenty minutes that they will have to wait for the boats to be readied. Anxious to claim our place in line, we head down the hill in a rush toward the massive white boats aloft in the water.

We wait in a long, roped queue that doubles back on itself countless times before reaching the loading platform with its blue vinyl awning. Once it’s time to depart, the line will move forward, leading us to the platform, where the deckhands will divide us up evenly between the various boats. From there, we will be moved up river, to the north of our city, where Frost Mountain looms. From the decks, we will eventually see a lush, green field interrupted by brightly colored tents and flashing carnival rides, the whole scene contained by the incredible height of Frost Mountain, reaching into the sky with its cold, blue splendor.

The sight of the picnic at the foot of Frost Mountain is so appealing that most of us will, once again, convince ourselves that this year will be different, that all we have in store for us is a day full of leisure and amusements—but sooner or later, one of the rides will collapse, or a truck of propane will explode near one of the food tents, killing dozens.

• • • •

Of course, every year more people say they won’t come. Every year, there are town meetings during which we all condemn the Frost Mountain Picnic. We meet in the empty tennis courts of the Constituent Metro Park where we vow to forsake the free bags of peanuts, the free baked butternut squashes, the free beer, the free tractor rides and firework expositions.

We grow red in the face, swearing our eternal alignment against all the various committees, public offices, and obscure private interests in charge of organizing the picnic. Every year, there are more people at the meetings who are walking on crutches and wearing eye patches from the injuries they sustained the previous year. Every year, there are more people holding up pictures of dead loved ones and beating their chests. Every year, there are more people getting angry, interrupting one another, and asking the gathered crowd if they might be allowed to speak first. Every year, loyalty oaths are signed. Every year, pledges to abstain from the Frost Mountain Picnic are given and received freely and every single year, without exception, everyone ends up going to the picnic anyway.

Often, the people who are the most vocally opposed to the picnic are also the most eager to get there, the people most likely to cut in line for the boats, the people most disdainful toward the half-dozen zealots picketing in the parking lot.

• • • •

Waiting in line for the boats, our children rub their chins in the dirt and push their foreheads against our feet. They roll around on the ground and shout obscenities, then run in circles, screaming nonsense, while we play with the car keys in our pockets and gawk passively at the massive boats. Typically, we don’t allow our children to misbehave in this way. However, we do our best to understand. Their faces are in pain.

Our children’s cheeks begin to ache as they wait in line for the boats, and continue to ache until their faces are painted at the Frost Mountain Picnic. We’ve come to understand that all children are born with phantom cat whiskers. All children are born with phantom dog faces. All children are born with phantom American flag foreheads, rainbow-patterned jawbones and deep, curving pirate scars, the absence of which haunts them throughout their youth. We understand that all children are born with searing and trivial images hidden in their faces, the absence of which causes them a great deal of discomfort. It is a pain that only the brush of a face painter can alleviate, each stroke revealing the cryptic pictures in our children’s faces. Any good parent knows this.

• • • •

Ten years ago, the massacre came in the form of twenty-five silverback gorillas set loose at the height of the picnic. Among the fatalities, a young girl by the name of Louise Morris was torn to pieces. Perhaps it was Louise’s performance as Mary in the Christmas pageant of the preceding winter, or perhaps it was the grim look on the faces of the three silverback gorillas that tugged her arms and legs in opposite directions, or perhaps it was just that she was so much prettier and more well-behaved than the other children who were killed that day—but whatever the case, Louise Morris’s death had a profound impact on the community.

That year, the town meetings grew into full-blown rallies. Louise Morris’s picture ran on the front page of local newspapers every day for a month. We wore yellow ribbons to church and a local novelty shop began selling Remember Louise T-shirts, which were quickly fashionable. Under extreme pressure from the city council, the local zoo was forced to rid itself of its prized gorilla family, Gigi, Taffy and their newborn baby Jo-Jo, who were sold to the St. Louis Zoo, Calgary Zoo, and Cleveland Zoo, respectively.

The school board added a three-day weekend to the district calendar in memoriam of Louise and successfully carried out a protest campaign against a school two districts away, demanding that they change their mascot from the Brightonville Gorillas to the Brightonville Lightning Bolts. Without any formal action from the school board, the opposition to teaching evolution in public schools began to enjoy a sudden, regional popularity. Without any written mandate, with only the collective moral outcry of the community to guide them, teachers slowly began removing from their classrooms the laminated posters that pictured our supposed, all-too-gorilla-like ancestors as they lumbered their way across the primordial landscape.

The community’s reaction to Louise’s death was so strong that, in time, it was hard to keep track of all the changes it had engendered. It was difficult to know where one change ended and another began. Perhaps it was our hatred of gorillas that eventually gave way to our distrust of large men with bad posture, which led to the impeachment of Mayor Castlebach. Perhaps our general fear of distant countries, the forests of which were either known or suspected to support gorilla populations, had more to do with the deportation of those four Kenyan exchange students than any of us cared to admit. With all the changes connected to Louise’s death, there were many ins and outs, many complexities and half-attitudes, which made it difficult to calculate. In fact, the only thing that seemed at all the same was the Frost Mountain Picnic.

• • • •

When the public meetings die down, we begin to see advertisements for next year’s picnic. Naturally, the initial reaction is always more outrage. But after the advertisements persist for months and months, after we see them on more billboards and on the sides of buses, after we hear the radio jingles and watch the fluff pieces about the impending picnic on the local news, our attitudes invariably begin to soften. Though no one ever comes out and says it, the collective assumption seems to be that if the picnic can be advertised with so little reservation, then the problems surrounding it must have been solved. If such a pleasant jingle can be written for it, if the news anchor can discuss it with the meteorologist so vapidly, the picnic must be harmless. Our oaths against the impending picnic become difficult to maintain. Through the sheer optimism of those advertisements, the unfortunate events of the previous year are exorcized.

Those few citizens holding onto their anger are inevitably viewed as people who refuse to move on, people who thrive on discord. When they canvas neighborhoods and approach others on the streets with brochures containing facts about previous massacres, they are called conspiracy theorists and cranks. They’re accused of remembering events creatively, of cherry-picking facts in order to accommodate their paranoid fantasies. Or else, it might be said of them that they have some valid points, which would bear consideration, if only their methods weren’t so obnoxious, if only they didn’t insist on holding up signs at street corners and putting fliers under our windshield wipers, if only they didn’t look so self-righteous and affirmed in their opinions. Ultimately, the only thing that these dissenters ever manage to convince us is that to not attend the picnic is to exist outside of what is normal.

• • • •

Waiting in line for the boats, we wear our Remember Louise T-shirts. We stand in line and busily anticipate the free corndogs, the free ice cream cones, and the free party hats.

Our children bark and grab at the passing legs of the deckhands as they move through the line in their crisp uniforms. Pale-blue pants neatly pressed, matching ties tucked into short-sleeve button-downs, the men acknowledge our children with exaggerated smiles. A deckhand drops to one knee and places his flat, white cap on a child’s head. When the child screams, takes off the cap, and tries to tear it in half, the deckhand begins to laugh, as if the child has just said something delightful.

The charm of the deckhands is made all the more unbelievable by our children’s outrageous behavior. Desperate to have their faces painted, our children writhe on the ground and moan after the deckhands as they make their way to the loading platform. Once they reach their place beneath the awning, the deckhands occasionally look back at the long line and flash those same exaggerated smiles. They wave excitedly, a gesture that sends our children into a revitalized frenzy.

On various occasions, it has been suggested that perhaps the trouble with our children’s faces is only that we indulge them in it, that perhaps what they feel is not actually a physical discomfort, but an emotional discomfort similar to that of any child whose whims might be occasionally frustrated. It has been suggested that perhaps, as a rule, it may be better to do without face painting or, for that matter, anything that would cause them to act so wildly in its absence. It has been suggested that perhaps it would give our children more character if we were to let them suffer under the burden of the hidden images in their faces, forcing them to bring those images out gradually through the development of personal interests and pleasant dispositions, rather than having them only crudely painted on.

Though, in the end, it’s difficult for any of us to see it that way. After all, when the children wear their painted faces to school the next day, already smudged and fading, none of us wants our children to be the ones whose faces are bare. None of us wants our children to be the ones excluded or ridiculed. As good parents, we want our children to be successful, even if only in the most superficial way, as such small successes, we hope, might eventually lead to deeper, more meaningful ones. None of us wants our children to be accused of something arbitrary and most likely untrue due to the lack of some item of social significance. None of us has the confidence in our children to endure that type of thing. None of us wants our children to become outcasts. None of us wants our children to become criminals or perverts. None of us wants our children to begin smoking marijuana or masturbating excessively. None of us wants our children to become homeless or adopt strange fetishes, driving away perfectly good mates who simply don’t want to be peed on or tied down or have cigarettes put out on their backsides. None of us wants our children to begin hanging around public parks in order to steal people’s dogs for some dark, unimaginable purpose. None of us wants our children to wait around outside churches after morning mass in black trench coats in order to flash the departing congregation their bruised, over-sexed genitals, genitals which were once tiny and adorable to us, genitals which we had once tucked lovingly into cloth diapers. None of us wants our children dispersing crowds of elderly churchgoers with their newly-wretched privates, sending those churchgoers screaming, groaning in disgust, fumbling with the keys to their Cadillacs, shielding their eyes in vain.

It isn’t a judgment against people who have produced such children. It just isn’t something we would want for our own. Even the parents who are less involved in their children’s well-being are sick of paying the hospital bills when their unpainted children are pushed off the jungle gym or have their heads shoved into their jacket cubbies. Even those parents are sick of their kids getting nicknames like paintless, bare-face, and faggy-faggy-no-paint. Even those parents, for the most part, seem to understand.

Though the organizations and public offices in charge of the picnic remain vague and mysterious to us, it should be said that we are never directly denied information. It’s simply a matter of our not knowing the right questions to ask or where to ask them.

One year, after twenty young couples were electrocuted to death in the Tunnel of Love, many of us showed up to public and private offices in groups and demanded explanations. But in each instance, we were simply informed by a disinterested clerk that the office in question had nothing to do with the picnic, and so could offer no information. Or else we were told that it had played such a small part that the only document on hand was a form reserving the park site for that particular date or a carbon copy of the event’s temporary liquor license or some other trivial article.

When one of us asked where we could obtain more information or which office bore the most responsibility, the clerks offered us only a helpless look, as if to suggest that we were being unreasonable. And, truly, once we began to realize the gigantic apparatus of which each office was apparently only an incredibly small part, we had to admit that we were being unreasonable. It became clear that we were not dealing with an errant official or an ineffective ordinance, but an intersection between local government and private interests so complex that it was as if it was none of our business.

At the very most, a clerk referenced some huge, multi-national corporation said to be the primary orchestrator of the picnic. But what could be done with such information? Like that other apparatus, only on a much larger scale, such entities were too big to be properly held accountable for anything. The power of the people in charge of them was so far-reaching that by the time any one of their decisions had run its course, it was like trying to blame them for the weather. Also, because we already sensed ourselves to be a nuisance, we were reminded—a clerk pinching the bridge of his nose, and then replacing his glasses—that the walls of communication were built high around such people, and for good reason.

We wandered out of those offices in silence, our anger abated by our own embarrassment. Suddenly, we were afraid that the clerks had mistaken us for more conspiracy theorists and cranks. Mortified, we returned to those offices to apologize.

• • • •

Truth be told, as compelled as each of us is to attend the Frost Mountain Picnic, for our own sake as much as for our children’s, few of us ever really end up enjoying the aspects of the picnic which originally drew us there.

The craft tables, the petting zoos, the scores of musicians and wandering performers in their festively colored jerkins. Once obtained, all the much-anticipated amusements tend to seem a little trite. Even a thing as difficult to disapprove of as free food doesn’t usually satisfy any of us as much as we might pretend. The fried ice creams and elephant ears are all inevitably set aside by those of us who find ourselves feeling suddenly queasy, those of us who, while waiting in line for the boats, had only recently bragged of our hunger.

On the old, wilting merry-go-round, large groups of us sit with our tongues in our cheeks and almost before the ride starts, we wish for it to be over. Even the ironic enjoyment of a child’s ride seems belabored and fake. On the merry-go-round, we look to our fellow horsemen and strain forward, feigning attempts to pull ahead. Leaning dramatically from our horses, we clap hands, cheer and force out laughter so awkward and shapeless that it makes our throats ache, so high-toned and weak that it makes our eyes water.

We understand that the amusements of the Frost Mountain Picnic are supposed to entertain us. We understand that when we talk about the picnic’s amusements with others, we pretend as if they do. Around water coolers and in restaurants, we repeat stories about unfinished tins of caramel corn and slow, creaking rides on the witch’s wheel as if they are deeply cherished memories.

In anticipation of the free such and such, and the free such and such, we manage to convince ourselves that we are indeed looking forward to the picnic. In our minds, we falsely attach value to the items that will be given so generously. Or else, we attempt to see our participation as paying homage to something long past and romantic, a matter of heritage.

• • • •

Among the difficulties we face in attempting to extricate ourselves from the Frost Mountain Picnic, a problem which is never fully addressed at the town meetings, is the fact that—just as all those offices throughout the city perform simple tasks for the picnic, but then can claim no real knowledge or responsibility—most of us are involved with the picnic on many different levels, some of which might not even be completely known to us.

Any number of local businesses, social clubs, volunteer groups, local radio stations, television stations, and departments of municipal utility are either sponsored or underwritten or provided endowments by those in charge of the Frost Mountain Picnic. If we were to buy a bag of oranges from a local grocer, if we were to drop a quarter into the milk jug of the young boy standing by the automatic doors in his soccer uniform, if we were to listen to the Top Forty radio droning from the store’s speakers, if we were to flip on a light switch in our own home or flush a toilet, we would be contributing in one fashion or another to the Frost Mountain Picnic. Our role is not limited to our attendance, but extends to include our inclination to drink tap water, eat fresh fruit and go to the bathroom.

Moreover, even if we could deny ourselves these things, everywhere there are peculiar inconsistencies and non sequiturs, which, taken together, are ominous. Periodic bank errors are reported on our checking statements next to the letters FMP and, every week, strange, superfluous deductions are made from our paychecks by an unknown entity.

A Rotary Club, attempting to raise money for childhood leukemia, will later check their records only to find that a majority of the proceeds were somehow accidentally sent to a cotton candy distributor in New Jersey. When the highway patrol calls two weeks before the picnic to ask us if we’d care to donate to the Officers’ Widows Fund, the call, routed through Philadelphia, Mexico City, and Anchorage, appears on our phone bills as a $17 charge.

We might volunteer to take part in a committee to discuss the repair of potholes throughout the city only to wind up somehow duped into preparing large mailings in the basements of public buildings, mailings which have nothing to do with potholes, but which include brochures in foreign languages with pictures of families laughing, eating corndogs and playing carnival games next to large, boldly colored words like lustig and glücklich.

Several times a year, men in dark blue suits flood the city. Without notice, without any noticeable regularity in their visits, they turn up everywhere. They drive slowly across town in large motorcades of black sedans with tinted windows. Dozens of them stand in line at the post office, mailing identical packages wrapped neatly in brown paper and fixed with small blue address labels. They stand outside office buildings and talk into the sleeves of their suit coats. Large groups of them sit in restaurants amid clouds of hushed laughter and cigarette smoke. The men are mostly older, but well-groomed and tan, with magnificently white teeth and expensive watches. They sit three to a bench in public parks and are seen hunched over surveyor’s levels outside churches and hospitals and elementary schools. The men walk in and out of every imaginable type of building at every imaginable hour for days. Then, with even less warning than their arrival, they disappear.

One hardly knows what to do with such subtleties, such phenomena. One hardly knows how to combine them or how to separate them or how to consider them in relation to one another. But whatever their sum or difference, such occurrences tend to intensify the sensation that the Frost Mountain Picnic is, in fact, unavoidable. Though it’s never expressly stated, the general consensus seems to be that there’s nothing we can do which would ever come to any final good, which would ever change the picnic or the massacre or whatever machinations lie beneath either.

• • • •

While we ourselves feel powerless to avoid it, many of us often hope that our children might eventually outgrow the picnic. After the town meetings, most of us are already well aware that we will betray our own pledges and loyalty oaths. We leave the meetings, feeling sheepish and impotent. Though, some of us do take the opportunity to stop and talk quietly with one another about the possibility that the next generation might eventually rise up and break the pattern of our complacency.

On the way home from the picnic, with the ring of mortar fire still in our ears or the stink of gorillas or gun powder in our noses, we steal glances at our sleeping children in the back seats of our station wagons and minivans. Typically, we are bandaged from some close brush with the massacre, our arms in slings improvised out of our torn and battered Remember Louise T-shirts. Our lips split, our noses bloodied, our palms, sweaty on the steering wheel. We recall the first moments of the massacre, the first explosion, the first gunshot, the first creeping hum of the planes, the earth moving beneath our feet. We watch our children sleeping in the rear-view, moonlight passing over their peaceful faces. Through the unsightly globs of paint, we catch a glimpse of how our children seemed before the picnic endowed them with such an eager, selfish spirit.

When it comes time to leave the highway, as we drift slowly toward our exit, we are tempted to jerk the wheel in the other direction and speed off to some distant city, a place untouched by picnics. We know our husbands and wives wouldn’t say a word, wouldn’t ask for an explanation, wouldn’t even turn their heads to watch our exit as it passes, but would keep their eyes forward, like ours, a look of exhilaration on their faces.

However, these fantasies are as appealing as they are unlikely, and so our hope remains tied into our children. Our children, who took their first steps while waiting in line for the boats, who muttered their first words to the face painters and jugglers, who lost their first teeth in the picnic’s salt water taffy and red-rope licorice. Our children, who, as they grow older, begin to explain the picnic to us as if we don’t understand it. Our children, who have begun to scorn and mock us if we so much as mention Frost Mountain, snap their gum and laugh with their friends, as if our old age and presumed irrelevance threatens the very existence of the picnic.

• • • •

A horn sounds, signaling the line to move forward. No matter how long we wait for the boats, or how eager we might seem, there is always a slight pause between the sounding of the horn and the eventual lurching forward of the crowd. It is a moment in which we recall the year some of the boats sank as they left the picnic, how everyone aboard trusted the surprisingly bulky lifejackets and sank to the bottom of the river like stones. It is a moment of looking from side to side, a moment of coughing and shrugging.

On the opposite shore, a small orchestra of men in dark suits begins to play the second movement of Beethoven’s Eroica. Assembled under a large carnival tent, the men play expertly, ploddingly. Those whose parts have not yet come stand perfectly still or adjust the dark glasses on the bridge of their noses or speak slowly into the sleeves of their suit coats. The music sounds strange over the noise of the river and weighs heavily in the air.

It is a moment of clarity and anxiety, in which we hope that something will deliver us from our sense of obligation toward the picnic, the sense of embarrassment that would proceed from removing our children from the line, evoking tantrums so fierce as to be completely unimaginable. It is a moment in which we wait for some old emotion to well up in us, some passion our forefathers possessed that made them unafraid of change, no matter how radical or how dangerous or—the deckhands gesturing for us to move forward, their faces suddenly angry and impatient—how impossible.

Seth Fried

Seth Fried is the author of the novel The Municipalists (forthcoming from Penguin Books) and the short story collection The Great Frustration (Soft Skull Press). His stories have appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Tin House, One Story, McSweeney’s Quarterly ConcernVice, and many others.