TWENTY-THREE

The McKinley Tri-Centennial Fair, as the name suggested, celebrated the town's third century of existence, though as was often the case with this sort of celebration, large chunks of the town's history were often tactfully ignored. Its humble beginnings as Beaversport, originally a trading post for fur trappers, was proudly acknowledged, as evidenced by the buckskin-clad men in coonskin caps that welcomed people through the wooden palisade gates into the park where it was being held.

The town's role as a staunch supporter of the colony's rebellion against British rule was well documented by the "colonial village" that had been set up around the park pond. Blacksmiths in traditional garb shod horses that didn't need shoeing and made black iron shackles and other period novelties. Women in enormous bonnets and tight fitting bodices churned butter and stitched quilts. Young girls with braces and acne sold funnel cake, candy apples and other "olde time" treats from quaint, half timbered kiosks with McKinley Area Department of Health certificates mounted prominently in antique pictures frames.

Unsurprisingly however, the fact that the trappers that founded the village took the land by the simple expedient of slaughtering its original occupants, a tribe of Iroquois, down to the last man, woman and child was not highlighted. Nor was there any mention of the hundred years of brisk trade with pirates who raided British, Spanish and French ships in the Caribbean, and sold their goods to the "honest" people of Beaversport. The McKinley brothers' various shady dealings, financial shenanigans, and less than savory business partners were never mentioned, and neither were the generations of stolen childhoods, as hundreds upon hundreds of child laborers were chewed up and spat out in the steaming, mechanized hell of the textile mills, dying young to build the McKinley fortune. There was also no celebration of the fact that the town survived the depression by serving as a port for Canadian bootleggers, with Connor McKinley taking a financial bite out of every passing barrel.

Instead, rosy cheeked, tow headed tots in buckle shoes and tri-corner hats ran around with balloons, and mechanics, accountants and firemen, dressed in buff and green colonial militia uniforms and armed with flintlocks and muskets, re-enacted dubiously historical battles in which they fought high school teachers, shopkeepers and television repairmen dressed in lobster red uniforms with bright brass buttons.

In addition to the faux colonial village, there were all the usual entertainments found at small town fairs: carnival rides and midway games, hot dog, pizza, kettle corn, and fried chicken stands, the Future Farmers of America livestock show, local garage bands performing the latest from Good Charlotte and the White Stripes, a square dancing competition with no competitors under sixty years of age, local radio stations giving away T-shirts, buttons and CDs, and, of course, after the sun went down, a fireworks display.

All strata of McKinley society mingled and rubbed elbows at the fair. Aerobicized yuppie moms pushing expensive, high tech strollers, and blue-collar dads with laughing sons bouncing on their broad shoulders. Sticky fingered kids mouthing cotton candy, and uncertain old folks with their blankets and picnic baskets making their slow and careful way to the big field to watch the fireworks. History buffs in colonial garb comparing cap and ball pistols, and uniformed police officers talking shop about Heckler and Koch's new cutting edge compacts, wound ballistics and the latest in non-lethal technology. Gangs of slouching teenage boys trying not to cough around their cigarettes, hiding contraband beers and looking for trouble. Gangs of giggling teenage girls sucking on ice-pops and looking for boys. Young couples who saw nothing but each other, and older married couples who hadn't noticed one another in years. Everyone was there, breathing in the rich and contradictory smells of hay, horseshit, gunpowder, cotton candy and frying meat.

Kevin closed his cell phone and put it back in his jacket pocket. He looked around at the Tri-Centennial celebration as if it had suddenly turned into a pit of vipers. There seemed to be danger everywhere, particularly behind him. The captain of the security detail had placed him at the barricade that blocked off the area where pyrotechnicians were setting up the night's fireworks display. He watched them nervously, eyes drawn from one lethal item to another.

Dozens of metal mortar tubes lay together like cigarettes in a pack, bolted into sturdy wooden frames, red and yellow wires spilling from their far ends. The technicians attached the wires to a series of "electronic match" igniters and then hooked the igniters to a computer notebook that sat on a card table nearby. Some of the mortar frames were staked into the ground. Others sat on a small, two-wheeled trailer. A metal rod was placed below the trailer hitch to keep it level.

One of the technicians, an old man in faded green coveralls with "Celli and Sons Fireworks" stitched on the back, lifted a heavy oblong firework package out of a crate marked "DANGER-HIGH EXPLOSIVES" and stenciled with a skull and crossbones and a fire icon. He carried it, cradled in his arms like a baby, to a mortar frame, and lowered it gingerly into the tube, fuse end down.

Kevin blinked. For a moment the ends of the mortars all looked like the wide gaping maws of some sort of hungry eels on the Discovery Channel. He was letting his imagination get completely out of hand, but the danger was real, no doubt about that. Each one of those fire-breathing throats could be the instrument of his demise. He had a sudden, almost overwhelming urge to throw off his security jacket and run as fast and as far as he could from this stupid Tri-centennial celebration, from the town of McKinley, and from all of this endless, grinding fear, but he couldn't run, he couldn't.

Julie was next, or one of her friends, and he had to try to save them first. It would destroy Wendy if anything happened to Julie, and Kevin could no more allow that than he could allow Wendy to be killed. His own life was the least of his worries. He had to stay, for her. Only after he knew without a doubt that she was safe, would he be able to think about himself. He looked back down at his cell phone. Was she ok? Why wasn't she here yet? Could there have been some sort of…

He shook his head. No, if the order was right, and so far they had no reason to think it wasn't, then nothing could happen to Wendy while he was alive. So in a way, watching out for himself was watching out for her. He glanced back at the mortar tubes. He just wished she would hurry up and get here.

Wendy was pushing her truck up to sixty-five when she hit Old Mill Road, the twisting, potholed street that was the only way to get to the isolated fairground. The Ranger was no sports car and took the turns like a lumbering buffalo, forcing Wendy to slow to below fifty as she dragged the truck around a narrow hairpin left. Anxiety bristled inside her, raking its nails along her spine and squeezing her pounding heart. She was terrified for vulnerable Julie. All Death had to do to her was give her a good scare and her poor limping heart would seize up on her and do Death's work for him. Wendy had called Julie's cell phone a hundred times, but every time it went straight to voicemail. Julie had probably forgotten to charge it, as usual. The anxiety around Wendy's spine coiled tighter and she nudged the protesting truck up to sixty.

In a flash, a pale, lanky shape bounded out into Wendy's headlights. She let out a tight, airless little scream and slammed on the breaks, swerving hard to the right.

Dog? She thought as the creature turned flashing green eyes on her.

She slowed to a skidding stop on the shoulder, gravel spraying out from beneath the truck's tires in a noisy patter. The animal she'd nearly hit was standing in the middle of the road, looking at her. It had to be some kind of husky or malamute or something like that, but it was huge and gawky, its leg and snout way too long. No collar. Really it looked more like a wolf. Ridiculous, since there had not been wild wolves in McKinley in over a hundred years. Must be one of those wolf-dog hybrids people were breeding now. Whatever it was, she did not like the way it was looking at her.

The animal –wolf, dog, whatever- turned its snout and bounded away into the dark woods bordering the old road. Wendy shook her head and put the truck in gear, pulling back out into the road, when suddenly all her dashboard lights went black. The seemingly lifeless radio burst into sudden, staticky life, making her jump in her seat. She slowed the truck down to a ten-mile an hour crawl, tapping the dash. Nothing. Then a song surfaced from beneath the static. Not just any song, but that same corny song that had started playing on the radio in Kevin's truck right before…

"There is someone walking behind you," the voice in the darkened radio sang. "Turn around. Look at me."

Fear flushed like freon through Wendy's veins, and her gaze flicked up to her rearview mirror. There was a car coming around the hairpin turn, just two dots of light in the distance.

Following her?

Then, something inexplicable happened. A formless wave of inky black rippled across the narrow face of her rearview mirror, erasing the image of the headlights behind her.

What the hell was happening? Was Death toying with her again, playing with her and delaying her just to make her suffer, before she arrived too late to save anyone? Or worse, had Julie and Kevin already been killed? Was this it? Was it her turn?

She stomped on the accelerator and bit down hard on the tender meat inside her lower lip, hard enough to draw blood. With that hot penny taste in her mouth, she sped down the road towards the fair. She did not look in the rearview mirror again.

A couple of twelve year-old boys, a redhead and a blond, charged out of the Tri-Centennial fair crowd toward Kevin, mock sword-fighting with hissing, spitting sparklers. Before Kevin could react, the redhead trapped the blond against the barricade. The blond ducked under and the redhead made to follow. Kevin's blood ran cold.

"Hey," he shouted, running over and grabbing their arms. "Dude. Get out of here with those things. You want to set that shit off?"

He gestured to the mortar tubes. The kids looked around at the huge array of fireworks, and grinned like cute little angels.

"That would fuckin' rock," said the redhead.

"Fuckin' A," said the blond.

"Jesus," Kevin said. "I got news for you kids, getting your face blown off does not fuckin' rock. In fact, it fuckin' sucks. Get the hell out of here willya?"

"Fuck you," said the redhead, and ran off with the blond kid, still sword fighting with the white hot sticks.

Kevin swallowed and passed a hand over his eyes. There was one potential death avoided. He started scanning the crowd again as he tried to push his heartbeat back down closer to normal. He wondered where Julie was. He scanned the ever-moving crowd, trying to pick out her petite, curvy figure from the sea of petite, curvy figures that strolled through the fairground. Why did all girls in McKinley have to dress exactly the same? Was there a bulletin that was posted somewhere? This week we all wear bright colored hoodys, hip hugger jeans, baby tees, and pink sandals with plastic flowers on the toes.

Was that Julie? Three girls were goofing around with Mylar balloons, bouncing them off the heads of three boys, but Kevin couldn't get a good enough look at the girls. He stood on tiptoe. One of the boys grabbed a balloon and rubbed it on the baby fine blonde hair of one of the girls.

"Ah," she cried, jerking away. "It shocked me. Get off."

She pushed the boy's arm away and the static of the balloon caused her hair to stick to it, rising up off her head like the Bride of Frankenstein. Her friends laughed, then all started rubbing the balloons on each other's hair. None of them, however, was Julie.

Kevin cursed. Where was she? He wished he could leave his post, but orders were orders. Surely she had to walk by sometime. The fair wasn't all that big. He just wanted it to happen now. He had to warn Julie about the danger she was facing before it was too late, though he didn't know what he was going to tell her. Without Wendy's pictures to back up the story, it all sounded pretty lame. And what was supposed to happen to Julie anyway? Wendy hadn't told him any details about Julie's picture. Christ. It could be anything. Anything.

A loud voice beside him made him jump.

"The British are coming! The British are coming!"

Kevin spun around. An actor dressed as Paul Revere was spurring his horse through the crowd, holding aloft an old style lantern with a bright, modern, sixty watt bulb inside it. Well, yes, he thought, as Revere dismounted and tied his skittish horse to a metal, six foot T-post, that was an option. Julie could be the first person in McKinley in over a century to be trampled to death by a horse. Or…

There were so many deaths to choose from. Across the way a fat, red-faced barbeque chef was crying his wares from his kiosk.

"Ribs," he cried. "Polish sausage. Shish kebab. Get 'em while they're hot."

The chef hefted a large, raw slab of dripping ribs and laid it across a black, cut in half oil can barbeque grill. Kevin had a sudden vivid flashback to the slab of human ribs he had seen at the scene of the roller coaster crash. The smoky aroma of charring meat from the grill sent waves of powerful nausea through Kevin's belly, closing his throat and filling his mouth with a hot gush of metallic saliva. He squeezed his eyes shut and concentrated every ounce of effort he had on not puking.

When Kevin was able to open his eyes and swallow normally again, he looked back over at the barbeque chef. The fat man stood over his grill, a long, wicked, steel fork gripped in one hand. He wore a stained apron emblazoned with stylized flames and chilli peppers that read: "HOTTER THAN HELL!" Distorted behind the heat waves coming off the grill, he looked like some greasy, obese devil presiding over a lake of fire. The tines of the fork and the tips of the shish kebab skewers glinted menacingly in the twilight. As Kevin watched, the chef turned the knob of the portable propane tank under the grill. Death by impalement. Death by fire.

Next to him, a burly, bearded man dressed as a colonial blacksmith pounded on a white-hot horse-shoe while holding it steady with iron forceps. Sparks flew and bounced and scattered all over the place, dropping into the straw at his feet. His left foot pumped the bellows of a glowing forge. It roared like a dragon. Another death by fire.

Further down the way, two younger guys dressed as colonial militiamen were stacking heavy iron cannon balls into triangular stacks beside their field pieces. Behind them, a squad of uniformed soldiers marched in time to a young boy rapping out a beat on a drum. Each of the soldiers carried a gun, but Kevin had no idea if they were actual working firearms or just replicas. Their sergeant drew his razor-sharp sabre as he called out company halt. Death by cannon ball. Death by gun fire. Death by sword.

An eerie flapping sound like the beat of a giant bird's wings made Kevin spin around. A chubby Ben Franklin impersonator in a bad wig and granny glasses was paying out the string of a big kite while a crowd of onlookers craned their necks to watch it rise. Ben was standing next to a spherical contraption of glass, brass and steel. He grinned at his audience.

"Now," he said. "Let's hope for some lightning."

Death by electrocution. Kevin groaned.

"Great," he muttered. "Thanks, Ben."

He returned to scanning the crowd. Julie had to be there somewhere.

Wendy slammed on the brakes of her truck as an old couple in a Buick in front of her came to a sudden stop. She was in the lot of the park where the Tri-Centennial celebration was being held, and it was jam packed with morons of every stripe. The old geezer in the Buick was apparently waiting for the lady in the mini-van to pull out of the space on the left, even though there were clearly more open spaces just a little further down the row. Wendy pounded the steering wheel. Now the lady in the mini-van was arguing with the kids in the back seat. She hadn't even started her car yet.

What a nightmare. Wendy had to get into the fair. She had to find Julie. She looked to the left and right. There wasn't enough room to get around the Buick so she laid on the horn, frustration building. The old guy in the Buick ignored her, but the lady in the mini-van gave her a dirty look. Fine, whatever. As long as she got moving, she could give all the dirty looks in the world. The lady put her seat belt on with deliberate slowness, then backed carefully out of the space, and at last put her van in first and drove away. The old guy in the Buick signaled left, and then eased in with all the speed and caution of a space shuttle pilot docking with the MIR. Wendy's hands white-knuckled the wheel. Were these more of Death's playful delaying tactics? Was it enjoying her torment, as it tossed one obstacle after another into her path?

The Buick finally edged into the parking space and Wendy roared ahead, then slammed on her brakes again as she nearly ran down an entire family dressed like pilgrims. There was an irony she didn't need. Killing five people on the way to saving her sister from imminent death. The pilgrims passed, cheerful and oblivious, and Wendy surged ahead again, then slewed into a parking space, stomped on the parking brake, and slammed out of her door.

As she hurried across the crowded parking lot, she remembered the car behind her, the song and the blacked out rearview mirror. She looked back over her shoulder. There were tons of cars, tons of people. She had no idea if one of them might be the one that had been following her. She ran on toward the bright lights of the fair.

A pair of colonial soldiers walked past Kevin as he continued to scan the crowd. They were carrying flagpoles topped with large and ornate brass eagle finials. The poles had the banner of the McKinley Minutemen stretched between them: a coiled snake on a blood red background, with the motto "Liberty or Death" emblazoned upon it. As they marched up the low rise toward the drilling soldiers and the cannon, Kevin saw, partially obscured by the banner, three girls walking and flirting with three guys. He ducked his head to look under the banner. Success. The girl in the middle was Julie.

Kevin looked around to make sure nobody was about to rush the barricade, and then wove swiftly through the crowd toward the six kids. Behind him, from the corner of a tent, officers Clark and Polanski watched him intently. Polanski pointed at Julie. Clark nodded.

Kevin stopped in front of the six kids. He felt a flush of embarrassment as he noticed that Julie was dressed in a very sexy outfit, a microscopic skirt and a sheer scrap of a top that accentuated rather than covered her abundant endowments. She was not wearing a bra. He fought to keep his eyes on her defiant face as he pointed to her, Amber and Perry.

"You three have to come with me," he said, hoping his voice sounded more authoritative than he felt.

"What for?" Julie asked. Kevin knew Julie could tell he was flustered by her braless display and was working it for all it was worth. She was hot and she knew it. She grinned and crossed her arms beneath her breasts, lifting them until they seemed to be straining towards him. "We didn't do nothing."

"Yeah," Perry echoed. "We didn't do nothing."

"Look," Kevin said keeping his gaze averted from Julie's nipples like they were the eyes of the Gorgon. "I'll explain that after you come with me, okay?"

"Well," Amber said. "We're not coming with you until you explain."

The three boys closed in around the girls, suddenly territorial. The tallest of the three was a good-looking kid with a wiseass smirk and a brown and orange trucker hat that read "Original Soul Brother," even though he was as white as Ian McKinley.

"Fuck off, rent a cop," he said. "They don't have to go nowhere with you."

His two underlings slapped hands and made toadying noises of agreement. Kevin ignored him, staying focused on Julie.

"It's for your own safety, Julie," Kevin said. "Can you please just trust me on this?"

"My…" Julie narrowed her eyes at him. "Is this some paranoid crap my sister put you up to? There aren't any stupid rides here, okay? I'm not going to have a fucking heart attack. I'm just walking around."

Unnoticed behind them as they argued, one of the colonial soldiers put a final cannon ball on top of a pyramid of shot and turned around to build another one. While his back was turned, the weight of the top cannon ball pushed the three below it apart and it plopped down onto the grass, then rolled down the slope toward the fireworks mortars. It traveled under the plastic barricade and continued on toward the two wheeled, flatbed trailer with the double bank of mortars mounted on it. The fireworks technicians didn't notice it. They were too busy talking on their walkie-talkies and making final preparations for the big show.

"Ten seconds to go time," one of the technicians said.

"Roger," said another. "Primed and ready."

The cannonball slowed as the ground leveled and it began to lose impetus. It rolled slower and slower until it finally came to a stop, clunking against the metal rod that was propped under the flatbed and which held it steady. It wasn't a hard rap, but it was enough. The metal rod was knocked out of position and fell with a thump in the grass next to the cannon ball. Above it, the flatbed trailer teetered slightly downward in the direction of the crowd.

"This has got nothing to do with heart attacks," Kevin said. "You just have to trust me. You're in danger and I need to get you out of here."

"That's total bullshit, dude," the Original Soul Brother said. "You're just trying to mack on our chicks."

"Yeah," said one of the lesser boys.

"Yeah, right," said the other. "You're, like, totally abusing your power, dude. Go find your own hook up."

"Seven seconds," said the firework technician.

Kevin ignored the boys and took Julie's arm. "Julie, please," he said. "Just come with me and I…"

"Get the fuck off me!" She yanked her arm away from him. "I'm not going anywhere."

Kevin made to grab her arm again. Unbeknownst to him, Officers Polanski and Clark had spotted the scuffle, exchanged a look, and started toward Kevin.

Further down the path, Wendy was cutting through the crowd, head high, looking in every direction at once. She finally spotted Kevin, and then, as she focused on him, she also saw Julie.

"Kevin!" she shouted. "Julie!"

She started pushing faster through the crowd toward them, moving as quickly as she could, but before she was able to reach them, all the lights in the fair dimmed to black and a loud voice echoed from the public system.

"Ladies and gentlemen," said a booming, friendly voice, "Welcome to the McKinley Tri-Centennial Celebration Fireworks Extravaganza. And away we go!"

The crowd cheered, and people began surging for the picnic field to find seats. Wendy was jostled and knocked this way and that as the flow of the crowd suddenly reversed. She fought against the tide of bodies, stumbling over a kid in the dark, and cursing under her breath.

On the flatbed, an electronic match fired, and with a loud hiss, a firework rocketed out of a mortar tube and shot into the air. Following Newton's third law, which states that every action causes an equal and opposite reaction, the now unstable flatbed trailer tilted down under the pressure of the rocket's exhaust, and the bank of mortars lowered a few more inches toward the crowd on the path.

The firework exploded in the sky, blossoming into a glittering red, white and blue flower of fire, to the applause of the crowd. The scene lit up before Wendy in harsh black and white –Kevin trying to pull Julie away. Paul Revere's horse, tethered near Kevin and Julie, jerking skittishly and backing up at the noise, officers Clark and Polanski moving in like sharks. Then all was darkness again. She pushed forward, shouting but unheard.

One of the boys with Julie, Amber and Perry noticed the frightened horse, and nudged the others. He pulled an M80 firecracker out of his pocket and held it up. The Original Soul Brother grinned maliciously and nodded. The first boy lit the M80 and threw it under the horse's feet. It went off just as another firework went off overhead. The horse screamed and reared, then tried to bolt. The rope tethering him to the T-post pulled taut, then he yanked it out of the ground. The horse charged through the crowd, as people threw themselves out of its way. The T-post bounced violently across the uneven ground, banging into people's shins and elbows. Two men tried to grab the horse's reins, but just then another firework exploded and the horse reared and reversed directions, heading back the way it had come.

Wendy dodged around a family that stood gawking in the center of the path, staring upward, slack jawed, at the fireworks bursting in the sky. She had almost reached Kevin and Julie. Julie was ripping her arm away from Kevin, furious, as Clark and Polanski got closer.

"Let me put it this way," Julie shouted at Kevin. "Maybe you'll be able to understand."

She raised the middle fingers of both hands to give him the double bird, glitter polished nails raised and tongue out.

Wendy sucked in a startled gasp. Julie had recreated exactly the image in the photo Wendy had taken of her at the amusement park that awful night. A firework erupted above them, illuminating the scene as if a flash bulb had gone off. Wendy felt the presence of death all around her.

"Julie. Look out," she screamed, just as Clark and Polanski took Kevin firmly by both arms, shouting in his ear over the whistling roar of the fireworks.

Julie clearly didn't hear her. Wendy hurried forward again, but the terrified horse charged past her, nearly knocking her flat. Clark and Polanski saw it coming and pulled Kevin out of the way and threw him down. Julie looked up and dived to the ground at the last second as Clark and Polanski tried to grab the horse. The horse reared, just like the image on Julie's T-shirt in her photo.

The horse raced past, easily dodging the cops. Julie raised herself up on her elbows and looked around. The T-post at the end of the horse's rope was bouncing toward her, point first. She ducked, and it spun over her head, but the rope caught her across the neck and wrapped around. Julie choked as she was jerked backward and dragged behind the horse.

"No!" Wendy screamed. "Julie. Kevin. Stop that horse!"

Kevin jumped to his feet and lunged for the horse, but another concussive firework went off, spooking the horse and causing it to change direction once again. The rope slackened around Julie's neck, and she raised her hand to pull the rope away, but before she could get it off, the horse charged away again, and the loop of rope tightened around her arm as well as her neck. The horse dragged her in this awkward position toward an exhibit of colonial farm tools. Screaming in pain and fear, Julie saw an antique hay bailer, all sharp meshing steel rods and heavy gears gaping like the mouth of an iron dragon.

"Julie!" Kevin cried. He turned and ripped the saber from a passing Minuteman's sheath. He raced after the horse, slashing down at the rope with the sword and chopping through it. Julie skidded to a stop only inches from the hay bailer's iron teeth. The horse plunged on, knocking colonial farmers left and right, and veered toward some tents. Julie gagged and choked, and tried to regain her breath.

The Minuteman ran after Kevin. "Hey, give that back," he shouted, gesturing to the sword.

Officers Clark and Polanski finally managed to get in the way of the horse. Clark caught the rope and Polanski caught the bridle, and they slowed the panicked horse, while behind him, Wendy, Amber and Perry ran to Julie and crowded around her. Kevin argued with the minuteman.

"Tie it off," Polanski said. "Our first priority is that kid."

Clark nodded and quickly lashed the horse to one of the poles that held up the "Liberty or Death" banner.

Wendy knelt beside Julie and lifted her head into her lap. "Julie," she said. "Are you okay?"

Julie's face was sweaty and pale with high, red blotches like theatrical rouge on her paper white cheeks. She clutched weakly at the left side of her chest, gasping.

"I need…" she whispered through clenched teeth. "Meds… My purse…"

"Shit," Wendy cursed, looking all around them. "Where's Julie's purse?"

"She must have dropped it," Amber said.

"Is it her heart?" Perry asked in a small, terrified voice.

"Yes," Wendy said, struggling to stay calm. "Run back to where you were standing and see if you can find her purse. Quickly now."

"Julie," Wendy said. "Stay with me kiddo. Come on, I need you to keep breathing."

She looked down at Julie's chest and saw she was wearing her heart shaped necklace with the FIGHTER side facing up. Julie's eyes were glassy, unfocused.

"Come on! Come on! Come on! Come on!" Wendy said, panic, fear and frustration all piling up inside her. "Julie, be a fighter, I need you to…"

Another firework exploded directly overhead, drowning out the end of her sentence.

Behind her, the horse reared and charged again, trying to get away from the frightening sounds. The flagpole bent like a bow as the horse pulled on the rope, then as the pressure became too much, it ripped out of the ground and launched like a javelin past the horse, banner fluttering behind it like a wing.

Perry appeared at that moment, triumphant with Julie's tacky, pink, plastic purse.

"I found it," she said. "Julie, Wendy, I found the purse!"

Wendy did not get a chance to respond. Before she could open her mouth, something flashed through the air behind Perry's shoulder. Suddenly, a brass eagle erupted from Perry's sternum, spackling Julie and Wendy with blood and bits of bone. The eagle's wings were caked with gore and spongy lung tissue. Blood dripped from the pointed tip of the decorative finial.

Perry gaped down at the metal sticking out of her body, tottering on her knees as her bodily functions bean to shut down. The pink purse slipped from her fingers and fell into the bloody dirt.

"Oh Julie," she said. "It…"

She collapsed sideways and sprawled on the grass, the flag draping over her. Blood began to soak through the words "Liberty or Death."

Wendy stared at Perry's body, horrified as this latest brutality dovetailed perfectly into the deadly pattern. An eagle and a flag, just like the design on her T-shirt in the photo. Wendy shook her head and snapped herself forcibly out of it. Reaching for the gore-slicked purse, she fumbled with the catch and began frantically sorting through the mess inside. Julie was always so disorganized. Wendy tossed aside gum and lipstick, Julie's cell phone (uncharged, of course), pens and scraps of paper, crumpled receipts and keys, and a single condom in a bright foil wrapper.

Condom? Wendy couldn't help but think. Why would Julie need a condom?

Finally, at the very bottom of the bag, Wendy's fingers found the orange plastic vial that held Julie's emergency meds. She pawed at the childproof cap, struggling to open the damn thing until finally it popped open, spilling the jaunty, candycolored pills in the grass around her knees. She scrabbled in the dirt for one and then another and forced them between Julie's bluish lips.

"Swallow," Wendy said. "Come on, you need your meds, Julie."

Julie obediently dry swallowed the pills and for a few moments, the two of them were alone in the still eye of the storm.

"Are you okay?" Wendy asked, stroking Julie's sweaty hair.

Julie didn't respond. Her breathing was returning to normal, but she couldn't take her eyes from the eagle protruding from her friend's chest.

"Julie," Wendy said again, shaking her sister. "Look at me."

Julie turned her head to look up into Wendy's face and gripped Wendy's hand. For all her sexy clothes and make-up, and her precocious attitude, she looked exactly like she had when she was five, getting ready to be wheeled in for a new round of surgeries and clutching at Wendy's fingers.

"What the hell is happening?" Julie asked.

"It's complicated," Wendy said. "Listen to me. I know you were on Devil's Flight with us that night. I'm not mad about that now, but I need to know –Perry was on the ride with you, wasn't she? It's extremely important."

Julie looked up at her, confused. "What does that matter now?" Julie asked. "She… Wendy, she's dead. Perry's dead!"

"I know, Julie," Wendy replied. "I know. And I'm sorry, but please, answer the question. It's important."

Julie looked very close to complete hysterical disintegration, but Wendy could see her trying to focus.

"Yes," she admitted finally. "We got on the roller coaster, then got off when you started screaming about stuff."

Wendy clenched her fists, air hissing between her teeth. Perry was part of the order, but what did it mean? Was she supposed to die before or after Julie? Had Kevin saved Julie from her fate? It certainly seemed like it. Or was Julie next? Or was Kevin… She looked up suddenly. Where was Kevin? She craned her neck and scanned the area, suddenly terribly afraid for him.

The fairground was washed with brilliant, colorful light again as more fireworks exploded across the sky, and she saw Kevin, Polanski and Clark dancing around the maddened white horse as they tried to catch its rope again.

Amber stumbled over to Julie, a blank look of shock across her simple features.

"Julie… Perry… Oh my God."

Wendy grabbed Amber's arm and pulled her down beside them.

"Stay with Julie," Wendy hissed. "Kevin," she cried, jumping up and racing toward him. "Be careful."

Kevin didn't hear her. He made a lunge for the rope, but the horse turned away from him, bucking and shooting out its hind legs. An iron-shod hoof caught Kevin square in the chest and kicked him back five yards, lifting him completely off his feet. Kevin crashed into the barbeque tent, flattening a folding table piled high with plates and utensils, and sending them flying in every direction as he rolled to a stop next to the grill. A barbeque fork spun through the air and punctured the fuel line of the propane tank under the flaming grill. Propane sprayed everywhere.

The grill and everything around it burst into flames, setting the fat, sweating cook on fire. Kevin's face was brightly lit as it reflected the flames. He looked terrified, almost exactly like he had when Wendy had taken his picture at the amusement park. He sucked unsuccessfully for air, but the horse's kick had collapsed one of his lungs and he couldn't fill it. His arms and legs would not obey him as he tried to make them work in coordination and get himself away from there.

Bits of burning paper plates floated down toward the open fuel line. Kevin's eyes widened. It was going to blow. He tried again to struggle to his feet. He managed, but his head was spinning so bad he wasn't able to walk more than a few short steps. The fuel line began to shoot flame. Someone grabbed the back of his security jacket and hauled him back. It was Wendy. He was so glad to see her alive and well that he forgot all about the pain in his chest. He was shocked when she threw her arms around him, and felt a hot sheet of pain flair up as she yanked him down on top of her. Behind them the propane tank erupted in a ball of blue-white flame. Kevin and Wendy rolled away from the flames, barely escaping the edges of the deadly explosion. The tank shot off at an angle like a rocket, missing Kevin by inches.

Wendy and Kevin continued to roll away, hair and clothes smoking. When they came to a stop, Wendy sat up slowly and looked around. Her hair was crisped on one side. The barbeque tent was on fire and the cook was rolling on the ground, trying to put himself out. On the other side of the path Clark and Polanski had recaptured the escaped horse and were lashing it to a sturdy lamp post. Julie was curled up in a fetal position beside Amber, covering her head and weeping. Amber was patting her back over and over like a broken robot, staring off into space with unseeing eyes.

"Come on, Kevin," Wendy said, looking at him. "We have to get Julie and get the hell out of here."

But Kevin was barely listening. He was staring up at the sky, his eyes glazed, wheezing like an asthmatic old man. His face was singed. He had blisters on his left cheek. His hair was smoking. His hand was pressed to his chest.

"Kevin?" Wendy asked. "Kevin, are you okay?"

"Just… just need to catch… my breath," he said. "Christ, that hurts."

"Hang on Kevin," Wendy said. "I'll see if I can find a paramedic for you, and for Julie."

She craned her neck, looking around again. People were rushing away from the burning barbeque tent now. Others, official men in uniforms, were rushing towards it. Still others were simply staring at it, their attention pulled away from the fireworks in the sky by the earthbound explosion.

"Can somebody help us?" she cried, reluctant to leave Kevin's side. "Can somebody get a paramedic?"

Nobody looked her way. Everyone was focused on the blazing tent. Everyone except…

A figure in the center of the crowd was staring right at her. She focused on him, reaching out her arm. It was Ian McKinley. His eyes were wild with reflected fire. Wendy's arm dropped. She frowned at him, confused. Why was he staring at her like that? He took a step toward her. Had it been Ian who followed her? Suddenly she was horribly sure it had been.

"Kevin?" she said, looking down, filled with dread and unease.

"Yeah, I'm good," said Kevin. "Let's go."

He tried to push himself up, but his arms wouldn't support his weight.

Wendy turned toward Julie and Amber. Julie was sitting up now and Amber was getting to her feet.

"Amber. Julie," she called. "Help me. Kevin needs help."

Julie looked up at her with wide, wet eyes. "What's happening?" she sobbed. "Why is everything going crazy?"

"I'll explain it once we get out of here, I promise," she said. "Amber, help me get Kevin on his feet. We have to go."

Julie staggered to her feet and leaned against a tent pole while Amber stumbled over to them. The redheaded girl took Kevin's left arm as Wendy took his right, and they hauled him up. Kevin blinked around, dazed, trying to focus his eyes. He frowned.

"What is McKinley doing here?" he slurred. "He hates his family and everything about this town."

Wendy froze, and almost let go of Kevin. "McKinley," she said. "Oh my God. McKinley. Of course!"

Kevin wove on his feet and nearly fell. Wendy clutched him again and got his arm over her shoulder.

"We need to leave here now," she said. Her voice was sharp and hard. "Julie, come on!"

Kevin turned to look at her, blinking and confused. "Huh?" he asked. "What's the deal?"

Wendy whispered in his ear. "Ian followed me," she said. "In my picture. The one where I'm standing with Jason, we are wearing the McKinley grad night shirts. The way Jason's hand is on my shoulder it looks like he's pointing to the word McKinley. Ian McKinley."

Kevin's mouth dropped open. "Holy shit," he said. "Come on. Let's move. The first aid station, there'll be security."

He leaned forward and Wendy and Amber guided him down the path while Julie followed close behind. Ian watched them, and changed his course to pace them. They moved slowly down the slope toward the fireworks launch area and the security tent beyond.

Julie frowned as she struggled to keep up with Wendy, Amber and Kevin.

"What are you guys talking about?" she asked. "McKinley grad night shirt? I don't get it."

"It's a long story," Wendy said over her shoulder, talking loudly over the constant explosions of the fireworks. "It sounds goofy as hell, but haven't you noticed how everybody who got off Devil's Flight before it crashed has died. In order?"

Julie's eyes went blank as she thought about it, then they widened as she was hit by a realization.

"And I was on the roller coaster," she cried. "Next to Perry. That means I'm…"

Wendy shook her head. "Maybe not," she said. "It looks like Kevin saved you. You might be safe."

"Then you saved Kevin," Julie said. She stopped walking suddenly, and Amber stopped too, almost toppling Kevin. Julie stared at Wendy, eyes growing huge in her still too pale face. "But, that means you… you…"

"That means I'm next," Wendy said. "Right. And the other half of the weirdness is the pictures I took that night. They all seem to give clues on how the people in the pictures are going to die. Ashley and Ashlyn looked like they were on fire in theirs. Lewis looked like his head was going to be crushed. Frank had a fan that looked like it was slicing through his neck. Kevin's photo was all over exposed like a bomb went off in his face…"

"And you were wearing a McKinley T-shirt," said Julie, getting it. "With Jason pointing to the name McKinley. Oh my God."

"What are we talking about, kids?" asked Ian, appearing beside them suddenly. He sounded as cheerful as a kindergarten teacher, but there was a demented glint in his eyes.

Kevin glared at him. "Get the fuck out of here, McKinley," he shouted over the noise. "I've had more than enough of your shit for one night."

Ian made a shocked face. "What? Have I offended?" he asked, with mock sincerity. "I'm just here to celebrate our beloved town's Tri-Centennial, like the rest of our happy citizens."

"You followed me," Wendy said, eyes narrow and hard.

"Who? Moi?" Ian said. "You're getting paranoid." He laughed, a nasty sound. "Of course, I guess you've got reason to be. I saw everything that happened just now, and you're next, aren't you? Kevin saved your sister. You saved Kevin. So you're number's up, isn't it? You're the end of it. When you're gone, it's done. Unless somebody saves you."

"I thought you said you didn't believe me," Wendy said bitterly.

"Seeing is believing," Ian replied. "Twenty nails through Erin's face was pretty fucking convincing." The veins in his neck were pulsing.

"Well if you believe me," she said, "you have to stay away from me."

"Yeah, asshole," Kevin said, voice more breathless than badass. "Beat it."

"I have to stay away from you?" Ian said, frowning. "Who died and made you Death's stage manager? Why do I…?" He paused, as a realization struck him. "Wait a minute. Do I… Do I cause your death? No way." He laughed hysterically. "Well, isn't that poetic justice? Isn't that just a perfect fucking circle?" He snarled at Wendy. "Tit for tat, right, eye for an eye. I cause your death, the way you caused Erin's!"

They all jumped as three mortars fired right next to them, fireworks whooshing up into the sky. They had reached the plastic barricades that had been Kevin's post before all the chaos had begun. None of them noticed that the flatbed trailer was angling down a little more every time one of its mortars fired.

Ian shouted as the fireworks exploded overhead. "Was I in one of your visions, Wendy? What did you see?"

Wendy tried desperately to ignore him. She looked forward, toward the first aid station, only twenty yards ahead. Paramedics and security officers were carrying Perry's body, and the body of the burned cook inside, while others with minor injuries waited outside. Wendy thought of shouting to the guards for help, but they wouldn't hear her over all the explosions. She kept walking, doggedly urging Kevin forward.

Ian looked ahead and saw where they were heading. He stepped in front of them, blocking their path. Amber gasped and stepped back, letting go of Kevin. Wendy staggered as Kevin's full weight hit her, but she bore it up, angry now, chin up and defiant.

"Was I in one of your magic photos, Wendy?" Ian asked. "Was I in your photo? Was I in front of a tent?"

Wendy veered Kevin to the right, angling away from the fireworks launch area as Amber and Julie tried to edge around Ian.

He shuffled in front of them again, laughing.

"Come on, Wendy," Ian said. "Isn't this exciting? Isn't the tension killing you? Don't you want to finish it? Just tell me how I start it off. Let's…" His moment of villainous menace was marred somewhat when a clump of loose Mylar balloons bumped into him and hugged his face. He batted them angrily away. "Goddamn it. Let's get it over with!"

Most of the jaunty balloons drifted behind him, bobbing over the plastic barricaded and then drooping and rolling across the ground toward the flatbed mounted mortars. One hung around Wendy's legs like a needy puppy.

"It'll be over if you just stay away from me," Wendy said, pleading. "Then it'll all be over and none of us will have to worry anymore."

The Mylar balloons bumped against the flatbed trailer. A gust of wind pushed them up and they bounced toward the electronic matches. The matches were bare wires screwed into a plank, with simple open switches waiting for a pulse of electricity to complete the circuit and light the fuse. One of the balloons landed lightly on both sides of one switch, and the silver coating of the Mylar balloon closed the circuit. Sparks flew, popping the balloons, and a fuse lit.

"It's already over for me," Ian said. "It skipped me. I'm not dying, but I don't want it to be over for you."

"You're sick," Wendy said, grimacing. "I didn't do anything to you."

Flames belched from the largest mortar on the flatbed. Wendy jumped and looked behind her. The forlorn Mylar balloon blocked her view, and then floated in front of her. She pushed at it, annoyed, and froze as she saw in its mirror finish the reflection of herself standing, with Kevin draping hid arm over her shoulder. She recognized the pose, but where from? It struck her. She had been standing in exactly the same pose with Jason in her grad night picture. A shiver of nauseous dread ran through her. Her death was near, it had to be, but where?

The force of the big firework's exhaust at last unbalanced the flat bed completely, and it tipped down to the ground like a seesaw. The heavy mortar frame slid down the incline and tipped over until the mortar tubes were parallel with the ground, and the openings were pointing right at Wendy, Kevin, Amber and Julie's backs. The flaccid Mylar balloons settled across all the electronic matches on the board. Sparks flew. And all the remaining fuses lit at once.

Wendy turned at the hiss of the fuses, just in time to see four mortar tubes erupt with flame, launching fireworks straight at her. She screamed and dropped, dragging Kevin and Julie with her. They collapsed in a pile on the grass as the four rockets screamed over them, cascading sparks, and shot directly at Ian. He froze in shock, eyes wide, but at the last second, the fireworks veered up and arced into the sky, missing him by inches.

Wendy, Kevin and Julie looked up, amazed to see Ian still standing. Down near the security tent, Clark and Polanski looked up at the sudden noise and light.

Ian remained motionless for a moment, deeply unnerved by his close call, but then he relaxed and grinned, pointing a triumphant finger at Wendy.

"See?" he said, cackling maliciously. "See? I'm not going to die. It's you, Wendy. You're next. You're dead!"

The four fireworks exploded together next to the towering cherry picker crane holding the large McKinley Tri-Centennial sign high over Ian's head. The blast shered the cable holding the cherry picker's basket, over which the sign was draped, and the basket dropped, straight toward Ian. He looked up and raised his hands over his head, wrists crossing in the shape of an X.

The basket hit him square in the forehead and pile-drove him into the ground. Blood welled up around the frame of the basket, which had buried itself two feet deep into the soft earth. One of Ian's pale hands poked limply out from the side of the basket until the sign fluttered down and covered it, the word McKinley marking Ian's final resting place in yard high letters.

Wendy, Kevin and Julie got slowly to their feet, staring at yet another gruesome accident and edging away. Amber was edging back and then suddenly bolted away into the crowd. As Wendy stepped back, her foot hit something hard. She looked down. The yearbook camera that Julie had borrowed earlier lay at her feet. She picked it up as warily as if picking up a tarantula.

Julie looked at it and flinched. "I didn't take any pictures. I swear!" she said. "I'll take it back Monday."

Wendy hesitated, then shook her head. She threw it down again and stomped on it. It cracked and bent with a snapping of plastic and metal as she ground it under her heel.

"Forget it," Wendy said. "It's broken."

Julie nodded and exchanged a half smile with her sister.

"Good fucking riddance," Kevin said.

Wendy looked at him and slipped under his arm again. "You all right?" she asked.

He nodded as Julie tucked under his other arm and they limped forward. "Yeah," he said. "I'll be fine as long as you're fine. Everything's under control now, Wendy. It's over."

As they limped toward the first aid tent, a pair of paramedics hurried toward them, and Clark and Polanski ran toward the cherry picker basket and Ian's body. Wendy breathed a sigh of relief. The feeling of foreboding was gone. The nightmare was over. Kevin was right. Everything was under control again. All she had to worry about from now on was plain old ordinary life.

A sudden, bright white light flashed behind her. She paused and looked back. The crushed camera's lens winked at her. The electronic flash was fading to red.

Her blood ran cold. This couldn't be happening. It was over. Everybody that got off the roller coaster had already had their brush with death, and either died or survived. It had skipped her and Julie and Kevin and… and…

A sudden horrible realization nearly stopped her heart. Ian had thought it skipped him, but he had died after all, hands up in the shape of an X, just like in his photo. Maybe it didn't skip anyone. Maybe the order of deaths was still preserved. She thought back to what Ian had said in the Home Land warehouse. There was no reason to think that the people on the roller coaster had died in the exact order they were sitting. Some of them might have hung on for a few seconds or even minutes before their hearts stopped and their higher brain functions ceased. Even though Perry was sitting behind Ian and Erin, Ian might have hung on just a little bit longer, long enough to have breathed his last just seconds after she did. And if that was the case, then Julie and Kevin and Wendy were still fair game. Worse, they no longer had any idea who was going to die first. It could be any of them.

It wasn't over after all.

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And it is over. Yes, there is no part of the train like in the movie, since all that scene was added after the novel was finished and delivered.

Transcribing all this novel was a challenge for me, since it was not online anywhere and I really like the main characters, Wendy (and partly, also because it is played by the great Mary Elizabeth Winstead.) and Kevin.

Being honest, the film is quite mediocre, it's just about deaths and nothing else (Although I don't think it's the worst in the franchise, that's the fourth installment.) And after reading all those differences that the book had, indicated in the Final Destination wikia, I decided to get it, transcribe it and everyone could read it.

Again, the entire book was written by the author, Christa Faust. She deserves all the credit.

And if you got to this point, I can only say, thank you. ~July 2, 2018.