Sharon swiped her chestnut curls from in front of her mouth before stuffing it with a hot dog. Through a drool of relish and hardened meat-like product, she said “Can’t we go home now? I’m sick of this place.”
Earl glanced at her sideways and pretended he couldn’t hear her over the merry-go-round music, chatter, and screams of people on the Bullet Dog and Rocket Razoo Ride. But to show her he cared, he pulled her arm to his side and fondled her bicep.
“Nah. Let’s wait until after dark.”
“These rides are stupid. They haven’t put any new ones here for years. I’m not a baby.” To prove it, she kicked at an abandoned Pepsi in their path, spraying the fluid and ice chips across the asphalt.
Earl smirked and looked at her wet shoe. He repressed saying anything and starting a fight, as their marriage counselor had been adamant that he take her point of view before opening his mouth. “They got some new ones at the edge of the park, but they don’t light up until dark. Let’s sit for a bit and cuddle. My feet are killing me,” he said. He watched Sharon’s face twitch as she struggled to repress whatever retort she had in mind.
They located a bench overlooking a duck pond and watched some kids toss in bits of bread. The birds fought over the tidbits as the children giggled.
Earl removed his sneaker and massaged his foot.
“Oh, gross! Didn’t you change your socks this week?” Sharon covered her nose. “Strawberry!” She laughed.
“Hey, you’re not supposed to use our ‘safe word’ unless we’re in a fight. Our shrink said so.” Earl scowled at her, then extended his foot across her lap. She eeked and scooted down the bench. “So, are you asking for a fight?” Earl shrugged, chuckled, and removed his foot.
Looking across a lawn toward the park perimeter, Sharon noted a sign firing up.
“There’s one of the new ones coming up, I think. Have you seen it before?”
Earl craned his neck over his shoulder, then turned sideways on the bench. “What does it say?”
“I can’t read it from here, but the sign looks like a big Rubic’s Cube going in and out.”
Earl put his shoe on and they headed across the lawn.
As they neared, a sign under the flashing, inverting cube said Puzzle Box. A smaller sign in chipped paint said BUILD YOUR IDEAL PARTNER. Even smaller printing said COUPLES ONLY. A long line of people had already gathered at the entrance, and near the back of the ride laughing and squealing couples exited. Some seemed to be laughing so hard they were crying, doubled over as tears streamed down their faces.
“Hey this looks fun!” Sharon sped up, dragging Earl to get them in line.
“Yeah, but, it’s so long. Maybe we should find another one.” Earl swung his head around looking for other lights.
“No, I want this one.”
“I don’t want to stand in line so long. My feet hurt.”
“Look, it’s moving. Maybe we’ll get in.”
Sharon’s hand slid up the railing as they moved forward to enter the ride. Beyond the gate, a curtain was drawn across the entrance to a building. She strained to peek inside, but failed. “I guess it isn’t a ride. I wonder what it is?” she said.
Just as they approached the gate, it closed in front of them. A pimply youth said “Sorry.”
“Aw.” Sharon pouted.
A man preparing to enter the curtain chose that moment to heave forth a concoction of candy and cherry soda. As his wife squealed and dodged, the boy showed them the way to the exit.
“Your lucky day,” said Pimples and ushered Sharon and Earl inside.
Sharon’s heart raced as Earl held back the curtain for her to enter. She had always been drawn to mysteries, and couldn’t wait to discover what the puzzle box was about.
As soon as they were in, an older man escorted Earl through another curtain, and Sharon was moved to the last spot in a series of five counters. Twenty-four other women stood in lines of five each at each of the counters, so there was a square of five women by five women. Above each of the five counters a glass panel extended about two feet up.
A man in overly exaggerated and bright carny garb climbed to a barrel in front of them. A large cube appeared in the air over his head, giving the setup a game-show atmosphere. “Ladies and ladies!” he shouted. “Now is your chance to build the man of your dreams. We’re going to take you on a ride through time, where all things are possible. When the cubes come up, you’ll have a chance to choose just the person you’ve always wanted! But you have to be fast, or the woman next to you might choose first!” Sharon glanced at the woman next to her and grinned.
The room dimmed, and the glass began to glow. In front of each woman, a hologram of a cube appeared on the glass. In each of the twenty-five spots on the cube, was the face of one of the husbands who had been chosen to go behind the second curtain. Sharon easily spotted Earl.
“Get ready ladies. Notice the clock above my head. You’ll have two seconds. Ready, set, …go!”
“This is stupid,” Sharon muttered, then she got it. She could choose from any of the men there, to build her ideal. Gads. There was a really good looking hunk up two and over one. She hit the button containing his face. A small stick man appeared on the glass next to the cube, which then held the face of the man Sharon had chosen.
The men all laughed, then the large hologram behind the carny shimmered. The three-dimensional projection shifted into planck frames of 3-D space. A tesseract formed, and the images of the men shifted through the plancks—reassembling with the body-parts their wives had chosen.
Sharon’s guts burned as horror heated through her midsection. She watched Earl’s face scream as it was ripped from his body and shifted to the obese neck of another woman’s spouse in another spot on the cube.
“Who did that? Who did that?” screamed one of the women.
“Now ladies, you don’t have time to think about it. The next choice is here…right…now!” The carny shouted. His mouth seemed wider than possible, in a grotesque smile.
“I just won’t play!” shouted one of the women.
“If you don’t play, you’re stuck with what you get!” The carny seemed to be growing fangs.
A series of feet appeared in the hologram.
Sharon quickly scanned, looking for Earl’s tennies, but couldn’t spot his Nikes among all the others. The bell went off, and a pair of feet appeared by default on the little stick-man image. Earl’s head screamed again, as the tesseract rearranged the men in space and time.
Numbness and terror drew the moisture from her mouth as she fought to contain hysteria. Sharon attempted to scream to the carny, but could barely issue a breath. “Will we have another chance to get the heads back?”
The carny laughed. “It’s all a game, ladies. We’ll go through it twice, to be sure you get what you want.
In shock, but propelled by survival instinct, Sharon continued to punch the buttons. At last, the second round came. When it came time for the heads, she heard Earl’s plaintive voice calling “Strawberry! Strawberry!” Ready to murder any woman in the rows who wanted her husband’s head, her fist zipped with the white energy of determination and punched the button containing Earl’s face.
At last, her little stick man was complete.
The men were ushered to a holding room, where their wives joined them.
Laughing and crying, they held to each other in passion and shock as they exited the building. Others lined up at the Puzzle Box, ready to see what was so much fun.
They had left the park and were driving home, two wooden figures unable to talk as the horror still clung. They pulled into the driveway, stopped, and looked at the house, equally wooden.
Earl swung his legs from the car and stared down at his feet. His voice came out in a whisper. “Sharon? My—shoes—are wrong.”
Sharon worked her throat for a minute, then the words came out. “You said your feet hurt.”
Instead of his size nines, Earl now sported a nice set of basketball Nikes in a thirteen.
“I was only trying to help.”
The scream in Earl’s mind, at that moment, sounded a bit like strawberry!