It's time again for another Eric Fortrell adventure!
Rushed: All Fun and Games
The sixth book in the Rushed series finds Eric facing some
of his greatest fears when his wife, Karen, drags him to an eight-year-old
child’s birthday party at the circus-themed family entertainment center called
Bellylaugh Playland. Almost immediately, he discovers something horrifyingly
amiss with the building and is hurled into a life-or-death race against the
clock to save everyone from an ancient, slumbering evil. The ghostly children
and temperamental décor he thinks he can handle. It’s the clowns that are
really freaking him out.
Available May 31!
Can't wait? That's okay. Read the first chapter right now! My treat.
This was seriously going
to suck. And that was saying a lot,
considering some of the massively sucky things Eric Fortrell had done in his
He sighed. It was one of those big, deep sighs that he
reserved for times when he had no choice but to resign himself to something he
really, really didn’t want to
He was standing beside
his silver PT Cruiser, staring at the imposing form of the building before
him. It wasn’t much to look at from the
parking lot. Blocky, mostly windowless,
it kind of resembled an enormous barn, really, with its featureless, tin
exterior. It was big, but from this angle, it was perfectly unremarkable.
The horrors were all inside.
And they were substantial.
Even if he could somehow
avoid going in there, there was nowhere else to go. There was nothing else here. Behind him was the highway, but everything
else was open pastures bordered by forests, as if he were a million miles from
It was all an illusion,
of course. He was less than half a mile
from the city limit sign. Pasoken,
Wisconsin and its population of twelve thousand lay just beyond that strip of
woods to the west. But he might as well
be in the middle of the Sahara because whether he liked it or not, he was going
to have to go in there.
And he’d put it off too
He opened the Cruiser’s
lift gate and stared at the huge bundle of colorful, bobbing balloons and the two
huge, plastic sacks containing all the goody bags Karen and Holly had assembled
the night before, each one stuffed with candy, party favors and a homemade
An eight-year-old child’s
He’d almost rather drive
back to Hedge Lake and go for another swim.
He felt a blush creep up
his neck as traffic sped by on the highway.
It was silly, but things like this always made him feel extremely self-conscious. He hated the idea of people staring at
him. It sounded weird, he knew. He was a high school teacher, after all. He spent all day in front of a
classroom. But somehow that was
different. They were his students. It was supposed to be that way. It was natural. But the idea of complete strangers looking at
him, judging him… It was unnerving. He didn’t even like it when he was mowing his
lawn and people drove past on the street.
It was irrational, but it was real.
He couldn’t help it.
And why wouldn’t every
passing driver be staring at him right now?
They couldn’t possibly miss him.
All these bright balloons were like a rainbow-colored beacon,
irresistibly drawing everyone’s eyes straight to him.
He knew nobody was
laughing at him. Lots of people had
their kids’ birthday parties here. No
one would give him a second thought. Just
like no one thought anything about a man mowing his lawn. But he just couldn’t help it. It was who he was.
Everyone deserved to have
their own peculiarities, right? (Although
he supposed he might have claimed more than his fair share…)
He fumbled the lift gate
closed again and started across the parking lot toward the main doors. Four
hours, he told himself. It’s only four hours. How bad can it possibly be for just four
But he wasn’t fooling
It was going to
It was going to suck for four…
He stared at the sign over
the glass doors as he approached.
Bellylaugh Playland was one
of those little Wisconsin treasures you sometimes read about in travel
pamphlets. A family entertainment center
containing a three story, indoor playland (like the ones you found in
McDonald’s restaurants all over the place, but on mega-steroids) with plenty of
slides, tunnels, bridges, obstacles and climbing nets. There was also an attached mirror maze, a large
ball pit and a two story arcade. For the
grownups, there was a full restaurant and bar attached, but they weren’t open on
Back in the eighties and
nineties, it was a major family attraction.
Open seven days a week, people brought their kids from all over the
Midwest to eat and play. Over the years,
however, the place had aged and lost some of its charm. Prices went up. Visitor numbers went down. (And the owners had grown too old to keep up
with it all, he’d heard.) Now it was
only open for private events and an extremely popular all-you-can-eat Friday
night fish fry.
As soon as he opened the
door, his ears were accosted with the sounds of children screaming their heads
off. And most of the guests hadn’t even
arrived yet. The actual party didn’t
start until eleven o’clock, more than half an hour from now.
His four hours hadn’t
even begun and already he felt a dull pain beginning to blossom in his right
temple. He hoped Karen still had aspirin
in her purse. He was going to need some
before this day was over.
But the children and all
their noise didn’t bother him quite as much as the clown that met him as he
entered the building.
Six and a half feet tall,
made of plaster and in need of fresh paint, the goofy, overexcited greeter was
obviously supposed to look fun and friendly.
Even his proportions were made to look silly, with too-big eyes and ears
and a spindly little neck and hands that looked like Mickey Mouse gloves. And to some, he probably did appear endearing. (There
were plenty of weirdos out there who actually liked clowns for some
reason.) But to Eric, that huge, cartoon
grin was less inviting than it was hungry and menacing.
As far as he was
concerned, any kid that didn’t burst into tears at the sight of that thing
needed therapy. Immediately.
And it wasn’t the only
creepy statue in the building. Bellylaugh
Playland was full of frightful and lifeless clowns. They were scattered all over the place, standing
against walls, leaning against posts and perched over doorways, watching the
children play and eat with their huge, dull eyes. There was even one guarding the doors to the
restroom. (Good luck making it past that
abomination if you were already doing the pee dance.) Some, like the one guarding the entrance,
were freakishly tall, towering over the children and even most of the
adults. Others were comically short,
only about four feet tall. With very few
exceptions, the tall ones were long and skinny and the short ones were squat
There weren’t any real clowns, thankfully. At least, no fully-dressed, rainbow wig,
baggy trousers, big shoes, horror-makeup-wearing clowns. (Karen had assured him of that.) But the staff here all wore those big, red
clown noses all the time for some reason.
God, he hated
clowns. He always did. Even when he was young. They creeped him out for some reason.
He was standing on one
side of the party room. It was little
more than a large, open space filled with tables and booths, surrounded by
festively painted, circus themed walls and dotted with those god-awful clown
statues. From where he stood, he could
see Karen putting her considerable decorating skills to work at the cake table
by the far wall.
He shot the plaster bozo
one last dirty look and then made his way over to his wife, careful not to pop
any of the balloons on the low-hanging light fixtures overhead.
His cell phone rang in
his pocket, but he ignored it. He didn’t
have a free hand to answer it with. And
besides that, he didn’t even like the stupid thing. Cell phones were annoying devices worshiped
by idiotic people who couldn’t bear to remain unentertained for more than
thirty seconds at a stretch. He didn’t
tolerate them in his classroom and would never have owned one if Karen hadn’t
insisted that he have it in case of an emergency. (And so that she could always reach him, of
course.) So yes, he had one of the
stupid things, but that didn’t mean he used it everywhere he went. He refused to be one of those obnoxious
people in the grocery store with their phones perpetually glued to the sides of
It was no secret that he
felt this way. Anyone who actually had
his number knew this, so it was probably either a wrong number or one of those
damned recorded messages instructing him to call about an urgent matter with a
nonexistent credit card. (He’d been
getting more of those just lately, and it annoyed the hell out of him.)
They’d leave a
message. Or they wouldn’t. It didn’t really matter to him.
Either way, the ringing
Karen was talking with
two women. One was a skinny, older
blonde, the other a very short, younger brunette. They looked enough alike to be related,
mother and daughter, perhaps, or maybe even sisters. It was hard to say for sure. Eric didn’t recognize either of them. He didn’t expect to. Karen was catering this party for a friend of
her mother. Even she didn’t know anybody here.
Both women walked away as
he stepped up beside her. “Your balloons,”
“Finally!” She turned and looked them over without
sparing him a glance. “What took so long?”
Eric almost never lied to
her. And he didn’t this time,
either. “I didn’t want to come,” he told
She wasn’t amused. The look she gave him said so in no uncertain
terms. But he met her humorless gaze
without flinching. It didn’t scare him. On the contrary, he found that look perfectly
(She had another look
that she sometimes gave him that was considerably less adorable. It was a little
bit scary. But not this one.)
Without dropping his
gaze, he lifted the plastic sacks and said, “I grabbed your goodies.”
That almost earned him a smile.
It was there for just an instant.
Not on her lips, where anyone else could see it, of course, but in her
pretty, brown eyes.
She took the sacks from
him without a word and immediately began arranging the goody bags on the table
around the cake. It was going to look
fantastic when she was done. It always
did. Karen had an incredible eye for
He watched her for a
moment, then glanced across the room at one of the creepy clown statues. “Doesn’t this place scare the kids?”
“Not everyone shares your
weird clown phobia,” she told him.
“It’s not a phobia. I just don’t like them. There’s a difference.”
“Where do you want me to
put these balloons?”
“Just give them to Holly.”
“Where is she?” But as soon as he turned around she was
there, already reaching out for them. To
his extreme disappointment, she was wearing clown makeup. “Not you, too,” he said.
She stared back at him
for a moment, confused. “What?”
It wasn’t so bad,
really. It wasn’t the whole
costume. Not even the hair. For the most part, she looked perfectly
nice. All she’d done was paint her face with
a few clownish details. Her lips were
bright red, with lines extending from the corners to exaggerate her mouth. There was a little red heart on the tip of
her nose, some blue eyeshadow, little circles of pink blush on her cheeks. And she’d drawn a number of small, swirly
lines and dots beneath her eyes, exaggerating her long eyelashes and simulating
little freckles on her cheekbones. It
was really well done, too. Neat lines,
smooth colors. She actually made a damn
But she was a clown…
“He’s afraid of clowns,”
Karen told her.
“Oh…” She pressed one hand against her heart, as if
wounded. “I’m so sorry.”
“I’m not afraid of them,” grumbled Eric,
embarrassed. “I just don’t like
“What’s not to like?”
asked Holly. “Clowns are adorable.”
“Ever heard of John Wayne
“Oh stop,” said Karen.
“I’m just saying.”
Holly took the balloons
and set off to finish decorating. As she
walked away, a tall, athletic-looking woman with a deep tan and short, spiky
hair walked up to the table. “Karen, can
we put the refreshments out now, or do we have to wait until eleven?”
“I think we can have them
whenever we’re ready for them. I’ll go
check on it as soon as I’m done here.”
Karen supplied the cake
and the treats, but the kitchen was supposed to supply the pizza and soda. She would’ve happily provided all the food
and refreshments, drawing on all of her many talents in the kitchen to whip up
a fantastic spread of delicious and healthy, kid-friendly snacks and her own
homemade punch—sugar-free, of course—but the birthday child wanted pizza and
soda. Eric, for one, was relieved. She was already taking this far too
A little boy, about three
years old, ran over to the tall woman and seized the hem of her skirt. He looked upset about something.
The woman bent over him,
concerned. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t like the clown!”
Eric glanced over at
Karen, smirking, but she was making a point of ignoring him.
“They’re just decoration,
sweetie. They’re not going to hurt you.”
But the boy shook his
head. “Not them. The one in
there.” He pointed across the floor toward
the mirror maze.
“There aren’t any real
clowns here,” she insisted. “They’re all
But the boy wouldn’t let
go of her skirt.
Finally, she straightened
up. “Fine. Let’s go see.”
The little boy didn’t
look too thrilled with the idea, but he allowed himself to be led away.
Eric watched them go and
then glanced over at Karen again.
She still didn’t look at
him. “Don’t say it,” she warned.
“I’m telling you, clowns
are evil. It’s not just me.”
“He’s a little boy. I’m sure he’s afraid of lots of things. I’d expect a little more from someone your age.”
Again, his cell phone
started ringing. Again, he ignored
“Doesn’t matter what age
you are. Clowns are creepy.”
“Just because you think they’re creepy doesn’t mean
“I’m pretty sure it
She rolled her eyes. “Just stop it. I’ve got work to do.”
“Speaking of evil...” he
said, glancing over his shoulder.
“She-devils at four o’clock.”
Karen glanced over to see
her mother and sister walking through the door.
“Well, on the bright
side, the clowns suddenly look a little less
“You be nice,” she
“Me? I’m always nice. You’re the
one who starts all the fights.”
She didn’t argue with
him. He was right, of course. He wasn’t particularly fond of his
in-laws. He thought they were all a
little stuck-up. And he didn’t
appreciate how critical they were of Karen, of course. But they’d never been openly rude to him and
he’d always remained civil to them.
“Go check on the soda,”
she told him. “See if we can have it
brought out now.”
He glanced around the
empty party room, confused. “Uh…where do
I do that?”
“At the bar. It’s at the back of the dining room in the
restaurant, right through the arcade.”
She didn’t have to ask
twice. He walked away, happy for an
excuse to not be present for the impending family reunion.
“Ladies,” he greeted as
he walked past his in-laws.
Karen’s sister gave him
an obligatory smile and a polite, “Hi,” which was about all he ever got from
“Good morning, Eric,”
said Karen’s mother. “How are you?”
he thought. Aloud, he said, “I’m just
fine, thank you. Yourself?”
“Oh, I can’t
Eric smiled politely and
continued on with his task without telling her that he was pretty sure she could complain. And would. About everything. And poor Karen was going to have to listen to
She’d always had a tense
relationship with her parents. Her older
sister, Joyce, was practically perfect in every way. (According to them, that was.) She was
thin, beautiful, popular and intelligent.
By contrast, Karen was chubby, awkward, shy and combative. Her parents—particularly her mother—never
missed an opportunity to let her know how much they wished she would be more
like her sister.
As a result, she’d
developed something of a mild eating disorder as a teenager, dieting to an
extreme degree, eating as little as she could get away with. And when she went off to college, more than a
hundred pounds lighter than she left middle school, she rebelled in a big
way. Ironically, she and Eric met for
the first time when she picked him up with the intention of having her first
They’d been together ever
She no longer worried
about her weight. She redirected her
energy and cultivated her skills in the kitchen. Instead of starving herself, she began making
much healthier choices in her cooking and was much happier with herself in
spite of gaining back some of that much-hated weight. And he couldn’t possibly love her more. As far as he was concerned, she was perfectly
(And for the record, he’d
have picked her over her stuck-up, fake older sister any day.)
These days, Karen didn’t
live under Joyce’s shadow or her parents’ scrutiny. But those relationships remained strained,
especially when it came to her mother.
She still felt compelled to prove herself. So when Blanche Dashton called her daughter
to ask if she’d plan and cater a birthday party for her friend’s grandchild,
Karen took it as a challenge.
And that was how Eric
ended up here.
He crossed the floor,
pausing only to let three hyper boys run across his path, shouting at each
other that the zombies were right behind them.
(What was everybody’s deal with zombies, anyway?) Once the boys had run off again in search of
a safe place to ride out the apocalypse, he continued on into the arcade.
From here, the screaming from the playland was
a little more muffled, but now he was surrounded by loud, overlapping music and
muffled, recorded voices from the dozens of brightly lit arcade machines that
were all continuously competing for everyone’s attention. It was difficult to decide which was
His cell phone rang
again. Who the hell kept calling
him? Nobody ever called him. He reached into his pocket to look at the
number, but before he could pull it out, he was distracted by the sound of
someone calling his name.
He turned and looked
around. There were a couple kids playing
with the machines. Not playing the machines, but playing with them. They didn’t seem to have any money to
actually play a game, so they were just sitting behind the steering wheels of a
racing game, pretending to play. They weren’t paying any attention to
him. And there was no one else there.
On the far side of the
room, he could see a very bored-looking college-age kid standing behind the
prize counter, playing with his cell phone and wearing one of those stupid
clown noses. (He had no idea how they could
stand wearing those all day. It’d drive
It must’ve been his
imagination. A random recording from one
of the machines that he misheard.
Maybe there was a
character named Eric in one of the games.
He continued on, but
quickly stopped again and turned to stare at a game screen next to him. It was some kind of zombie shooter. (Them again?)
It was playing a demo of a scene in a dark hallway. But for a second there, in the corner of his
eye as he walked by, it’d looked all wrong somehow. It wasn’t a crisp, colorful image like the
one he was seeing now. It was grainy,
distorted, more like a weak video feed.
It was probably just a
part of the game. Maybe a creepy title
screen of some sort. But for that one,
brief moment it had struck him as incredibly unsettling. As crazy as it sounded, it seemed like
something was staring out at him from that screen…
His imagination. It was probably those stupid clowns. They made everything a million times
He continued on through
the arcade, past the doors on the far side and into the restaurant. There were windows here, on the far side of
the room, but the blinds were all closed.
The lights were out. The dining
area was dark and uninviting.
And yet the atmosphere
here was considerably nicer than in the rest of the building. It still maintained the circus theme, but in
a classier, more nostalgic way. There
were vintage circus posters hung on the walls, along with all manner of antique
carnival memorabilia and countless photographs of acrobats and elephant
trainers, circus tents and Ferris wheels, midways and clowns. There was also a miniature circus train that
traveled around the entire dining area on an overhead track and a decorative
carousel behind the hostess station by the main entrance.
Overall, a far less
obnoxious take on the theme, in his opinion.
He could see the bar in
the back corner, by the restroom sign, but there didn’t appear to be anyone
over there. Now what was he supposed to
His cell phone rang
again. He started to reach for it, but
was again distracted by a voice. This
time, it wasn’t his imagination.
“What’re you doing?”
He turned to find a young
boy standing in the doorway he’d just entered.
He looked to be about seven, with shaggy, blond hair and big, blue
“What’re you doing?” the
boy asked again.
“I’m looking for someone
to open the bar,” he replied.
The boy squinted at
him. “Isn’t it a little early to be
Eric frowned. “Aren’t you a little young to be the booze
He shrugged. “I’m just saying.”
Eric chuckled. “Right.
Well, I’m supposed to ask somebody about the soda for the party,” he
explained. “I was told there’d be
someone at the bar.”
He turned and looked
around, but there was no one in sight.
“Maybe you should check
Eric looked back at the
He pointed toward the
corner of the room, to Eric’s far left.
The layout of the room
made it impossible to see that corner from where he stood, so he walked farther
out into the restaurant. Sure enough,
there was a door back there. A light was
shining through the window. That was
where they’d be making the pizzas soon, if they hadn’t already started. “Ah,” he said. “Thanks.”
“You’ll need the key to
He stopped and looked
back at the boy, confused. “What?”
“Not a regular key. It’s something else. I don’t know what, but you won’t be able to
find her without it.”
Eric stared at him. Find who?
“And if you don’t find
her, you can’t save them.”
This conversation was
getting stranger by the second. “Save who?”
The kitchen door opened
and a young, dark-haired woman stepped out into the dining room She was nicely
dressed and wearing a bright-red clown nose.
As soon as she saw him standing there, she stopped, startled. “Can I help you with something?”
He looked over at her,
still puzzled. “Uh… Yeah.
Sorry. I was sent to ask if they
can put the soda out now.”
“Oh.” Over her initial (and perfectly
understandable) surprise at finding a grown man lurking in a dark, unopen
restaurant, she relaxed and offered him a polite and professional smile. “Of course.
I’ll get it right out.”
welcome.” She turned and vanished back
into the kitchen again.
He turned back to the
boy, but he was gone. He must’ve run
back out into the arcade while the woman was talking.
There was no one else in
The cell phone rang
again. This time he removed it from his
pocket and saw that it was Isabelle.
“Oh my god!” she yelled
as soon as he lifted it to his ear. “Answer
Eric cringed at the
volume of her voice. “Okay.
It’s answered. What do you want?”
“It’s not your
imagination. Something is seriously wrong with that place!”
Find out what happens on May 31! Available at all major ebook retailers!