The scalding sun beat down upon the crowds. Peak season had been reached and people were headed to Family Fun Land in droves.
My skin was red and moist. I dripped the last of my water down my throat. I was sweating so much under my security uniform that its colour started to permanently change. I never thought that standing in one spot all day would prove so difficult.
The only refuge on a day like that was to hide under the narrow shadows of the Ferris wheel. It’s constantly circulating beams provided the most protection available while we waited for the occasional refreshing refreshing gust of wind to come off the ocean.
Family Fun Land was a small theme park built around an old pier on the coast of Western Australia. It wasn’t anything special– a collection of carnival-style rides, games, and kiosks permanently stationed along the sea. I think it benefited more from lack of competition rather than its own entertainment merit.
I’d been working there since the spring and had nestled myself into a position on permanent front end security. The job’s sole purpose was waiting behind the ticket booth and making sure that no one tried to sneak or push past the gates without paying. What it really consisted of was a lot of standing, staring, and praying for the shift to end. My lower back would always start to ache in the last hour or so and leave me wondering if I could last past my thirtieth birthday at the end of the summer.
The task wasn’t impossible. My partner on the job was an old security veteran well into his sixties with greased back, thinning grey hair. Everyone called him Smokey. I’m not sure why exactly this was, but I never cared enough to ask him his real name.
As far as I could see, Smokey wasn’t friendly with anyone else on staff. He didn’t talk much nor was he ever a whole lot of fun to be around. For whatever reason, the guy seemed pretty hell-bent on sticking things out on the job well past the normal age of retirement. I think they put him on front end security to limit his interaction with both staff and guests alike. Maybe they stuck me there along with him as some kind of hazing ritual for the new guy.
That summer day was as boring as any other. Both of us leaned against the guardrail, not doing anything particularly useful. Smokey scribbled away on one of his many crossword puzzles, where he’d fill in a word or two, fold it into his back pocket, then survey the crowd for a good five minutes before attacking the next.
I’d become somewhat of a professional people-watcher in my time posted under the Ferris wheel. I found it the best way to pass the time. I liked to take note of the many different types of people coming through. I’d profile them and try to picture what they were really like in their personal lives. Sometimes, I’d make up little backstories with full histories that led them all the way up to the moment where they visited Family Fun Land.
I’m not sure who picked up on it first, but there was a quick shift in energy between us– something that had never happened on the job before. Smokey clumsily stuffed the crossword book in his back pocket and let the pen fall by his feet.
The disturbance wasn’t coming from line to enter the gate in front of us. Rather, it was in the mix of people already inside the park and on the main corridor our right. Among all the sounds of different people talking and yelling, there were separate and distinct sounds of distress that stood out from the mass.
My eyes darted around all the different faces, trying to pinpoint exactly what it was and where it was coming from. I finally found it, dead-center in the constantly shifting crowd.
A bald man, maybe forty-five, pushed two kids in front of him. One boy and one girl. He gripped their shoulders and led them through the hordes of oncoming people and towards the exit gate. The kids winced and tried to drag their feet to slow him down.
It was clear the children were not on board with whatever that bald man had in mind. Maybe it was just time to leave or standard parental punishment for bad behaviour. It was subtle enough that the three of them didn’t stick out from the crowd nor grab the attention of anyone, save for the two very observant front end security guards.
Disputes happened every day at Family Fun Land. Technically, there was no legitimate cause for concern. Yet, something scratched a nervous itch in my throat about that man. I couldn’t help but feel there was something more sinister than what met the eye.
I turned to Smokey and grabbed his shoulder.
“You seeing this?”
Smokey didn’t acknowledge. I noticed that his gaze had shifted above the crowd and away from the man pushing the kids. He was looking into the bleachers of the outdoor auditorium at the halfway point of the main corridor. Acrobatic shows and circus acts were held there periodically throughout the day.
Smokey didn’t blink. Clearly, something up there had caught his attention.
It was just past noon. The next act wouldn’t be on until one thirty. The stands should have been empty and already cleaned at that point in the day. I shouldn’t have been able to see what I eventually spotted there.
A man stood alone in the row second to the top. He wore a long trench coat and a black cap. He should have never been able to get past security and go up there.
A long case rested on the seat next to him. He surveyed the crowd, paused on us for a few seconds, as if we knew we were watching him, then turned his attention to the case. He flipped the top open and pulled something out.
It was a rifle. The shape was indistinguishable. There was no questioning what it was, not even from a distance. It was long and narrow at the top with a tiny scope resting atop the base.
The man swiftly brought the gun up to his shoulder and pivoted his body so he looked over the crowd again. He leaned forward and pressed his eye against the scope.
It had all happened so fast. Smokey had already dashed towards the auditorium and was pushing his way through the crowd of people before I could even react.
“Code Red! Code Red! Hostile in the auditorium!” I screamed into my radio. That was our maximum emergency signal– something I never expected to hear let alone use myself while on the job. The guys in the administration office would call 0-0-0 the moment they heard it. All security staff on hand were meant to head towards the auditorium.
It took me a few seconds to go, but armed with only a small baton, I ran full tilt towards that auditorium. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do when I got there.
I weaved through the crowd, screaming for everyone to get out of the way. I ran into people and knocked them over– not stopping, not caring. People stepped out of the way, hushed and terrified from seeing a security guard in such distress.
I heaved in big gasps of air when I finally staggered up the entrance to the auditorium. A few members of the security team had reached the area first and were looking around bewildered. They huddled around me when I reached them, asking what exactly I’d seen and where I’d seen it.
I was too out of breath to talk, so I pointed up to the top row of the stands. I may as well have pointed at the sky because nothing was there except empty seats.
The man, along with his rifle and his case, were gone.
There was no way out except for the way all we’d all come in. It would have been impossible for him to get there before we did.
I had to explain myself and what I thought I saw to everyone on the security staff and then to my manager later on. I spat out the same bullshit-sounding story on my own, asking for Smokey to come and back me up.
That didn’t happen because Smokey never made it to the auditorium. He wasn’t even in the park after all the commotion had calmed.
The old coward had gone home.
I didn’t even have twenty-four hours rest to try and get over the embarrassment before my next shift. I still hadn’t decided if what I thought I’d seen was actually real or some kind of mirage. Something must have been there. Or else Smokey wouldn’t have taken off.
I’d played my confrontational conversation with him over in my head in the shower before work and had myself convinced it was going to play out the way I’d had it planned.
Smokey’s shift started an hour before mine. It was another hot summer day and he was no other place than leaning against the rail in front of the Ferris wheel, reading over what I thought was another one of his stupid crossword puzzles.
Smack. I knocked it out of his hands.
“The fuck is your problem?” I said. “Where the hell did you go the other day?”
He looked up at me like he had no idea what I was talking about.
“You saw the man up there. I know you did. How could you run away like that?”
“Didn’t run home, Ted,” he said. His voice was casual, like he thought I was making a big deal out of nothing.
“Well, you sure as hell weren’t in the auditorium when push came to shove. Everyone was there but you. Quite frankly… you’re the one with the least to lose.”
I thought that last remark had probably taken it too far, but still, his facial expression didn’t change. He remained looking disinterested.
“How did it make you feel when he wasn’t there?” Smokey asked me. “The other guys push you around a little?”
“What do you mean?”
“When you showed up, and the old sniper man wasn’t there waiting for you in the stands, how did it make you feel?”
“Like an idiot.”
“Felt the same way the first time I charged after em too. Felt just the same way every other damn time I went chasing him after that.”
I squinted at him, seeing if I could get him to tip me off on whatever bullshit he was spewing. His face stayed cold. He ushered me towards him with his fingers.
He handed me what I originally thought was a crossword but discovered was actually that day’s paper. In big bold letters across the top read the headline LOCAL FATHER ABDUCTS AND MURDERS CHILDREN. I tried to read about how the man had taken the children from his Ex-Wife’s home on hours he wasn’t allowed to see him and brought them out for a day of fun before ultimately driving to the interior and shooting them and then himself inside the car.
My eyes couldn’t help but be drawn to the picture of the smiling man they’d used for their front cover story. That bald head, those skinny, almost impoverished looking facial features. Unmistakably the man I’d seen pushing the children before my attention was diverted to the sniper in the stands.
“Familiar face?” Smokey asked.
“Yes. How did you…”
“The second I saw that man with those kids, I knew the sniper would show up,” Smokey said.
“The hell are you talking about?”
“Been working here for thirty-six years, Teddy boy. That ghost has been here off ‘n on for all that time and I imagine a well before my time as well.”
“Not expecting you to believe me. And I ain’t gonna waste both of our time tryin’ to get you to. Tried that before. Not worth the effort.”
“Who was the man up there with the rifle?”
“Wasn’t a man, Ted. Was nothing more than a warnin’.”
“A warning of what?”
“That something terrible is going to happen. If you’re smart and you plan on stickin’ around here, you’ll pay close attention from here on out. You see that sniper, you look around for where the threat really is. Snowball’s chance in hell you’ll be able to stop it, but maybe if you can find the right people at the right time, you can prevent somethin’ real bad from happenin’.”
“Where did you go when all of us ran to the auditorium?”
“Tried to go after baldy with those two kids.”
“Lost em in the crowd. Couldn’t find em in the parking lot. Couldn’t find em while driving all around the area the next few hours.”
I turned to the crowds of people coming through the gates we were supposed to be monitoring.
“Never been able to stop it in all the years I’ve been here. Only reason I’m still here is to try and make a difference. Even if it’s just once,” Smokey said from behind me. “You see that sniper, you bet your ass something bad is happenin’.”
The next few shifts passed with no major disturbance. We didn’t speak of the sniper again after that discussion, but I found myself spending the dragging hours on the job toying with Smokey’s words inside my mind.
It was about convincing myself that what I was so sure I’d seen wasn’t real and what Smokey said wasn’t true. I wanted to believe that he was simply a senile old man with nothing better to do with his time than to tell tall tales of a sniper I’d seen so vividly proof of up in the bleachers.
There was no denying the scare had heightened my focused and increased my people watching ten times over. Vigilant all the time, my eyes darted from face to face within the oncoming crowds, always watching for that little sign of something out of place. That one person or situation going unnoticed in all the festivity of the park.
Time progressed far enough for me to lose the edge and start to feel that everything was under control. Forget the fact that I could only see people entering and leaving, along with the others walking the main corridor. They were only a small fraction of the park attendees. There were many nooks and crannies on the premises completely out of sight and out of mind from where I was posted.
I thought I was going to be ready the day the sniper made his eventual return. That time, it was me, not Smokey, who had noticed him first. I saw him look up from his crossword puzzle out of the corner of my eye and follow my gaze over the crowd. There was no disturbance among any of the patrons to catch my attention first. That time, the sniper had presented himself unprompted.
He stood alone on the little pier that jutted out from the main boardwalk. It was built between two of the food kiosks and was nothing more than a short walk out to a dead end. The view overlooking the ocean was nice, but nothing any different than you would see strolling casually down the boardwalk and looking over the water from there. It wasn’t a part of the park that people were particularly attracted to.
The sniper leaned back against the railing with a gentle ocean breeze running through the flaps of his coat. The long case was at his feet. Once again, he stared out over the crowd towards us, as if he was distinctly aware of our presence.
Like he knew, that we knew, he was there.
Smokey and I exchanged a glance and both took off. Being his junior by thirty or so years, I sped way ahead of him. I darted through the families and couples holding hands, trying not to knock anyone over, trying not to take my eyes of the sniper.
Right before I was about to break out of the crowd, the sniper became blocked by a woman’s head in passing. It was for only a fraction of a second, but it was all he needed to disappear. It was like he’d used the opportunity to splice himself out of reality and leave nothing but an empty space at the end of the dock.
I looked over the railing in the spot where he stood only seconds before, praying I’d see him swimming away or hiding trying to hide under on the splintered wooden supports.
Nothing was there. Only the gentle tide and a little white foam atop the surface.
Smokey emerged from the crowd behind. He staggered while he held his chest and looked up at the sky. He almost made it to me before dropping to his knees.
I reached a hand to help him up and he pushed it away. The old man hadn’t collapsed out of exhaustion, but rather despair. His eyes glossed over and he dropped his head to try and hide them from me.
“We’ll never catch ‘em,” he whispered under his breath.
“Needs to end.”
I’d never heard him talk that way before. His voice cracked like a boy hitting puberty.
I heard a gentle splash and some bumping from the ocean below us. I turned and checked in the same spot in the water where I’d just been looking for the sniper.
A young boy’s body was face down and floating. The skin on the back of his neck was red and blistered like it had been out in the sun for days. The drowned child washed up against the supports and slipped back when the waves receded.
Later that night I would sit and watch the evening news over dinner and see the story of the same boy who’d disappeared while swimming off his parents dock a little further up the coast the day before. He looked so much happier and full of life in all the pictures they were showing.
Smokey and I were both given extended leaves of absence after that day. Our Security Manager essentially told us that it was mandatory that we took a few weeks off to recoup and had already begun scheduling other guys on our shifts.
The idea was good in principle. It would have worked had I actually used the time to think and try and process what exactly I’d seen both times I’d run after that elusive sniper. The truth was that my time off was spent mostly lying flat on my bed, ordering pizza, and staring at the ceiling fan.
Boredom and paranoia don’t mix well. Although I was scared putting the uniform on for my first shift back at work after three weeks, I was happy to have moved on from that short and painful phase in my life.
Before I could clock in to start, my manager called me into his office and told me that Smokey had tendered his resignation and wouldn’t be coming back to work. It appeared that the incident on the dock had been the final straw. The old man had been broken and his long overdue retirement had begun.
His departure left me with an increased sense of duty. His replacement was a pimply-faced teenager still in high school who I elected not to share my sniper stories with. Being the sole “protector” of Family Fun Land felt like a duty I could handle. Though, in reality, I knew there was very little I could do when the time came.
It was another couple weeks before the sniper made an appearance again. Like before, the time in between was so mundane and uneventful, it almost started to feel like he was gone and all of us were safe once more.
He’d originally caught my eye by accident. The lines of people outside the gate had morphed into the same boring personalities they always did, so I’d lost focus and looked over them. Right above the welcome sign, something piqued my attention in a spot where things rarely changed.
It was on the row of buildings on the other side of the street beyond the parking lot. Most of them were the old-style downtown buildings with individual storefronts on the main floor and apartments built on top. None of them were higher than three stories on the entire block. Some of them had little makeshift terraces with gardens and barbecues on the roof.
It was in one of those rooftops where I noticed him. People were typically out there on cooler days or in the evenings when it was actually pleasant enough to lounge outside. Yet, on one the middle buildings, on such a hot day, there was a small black figure standing on the nearest edge and looking over the park. Perhaps if someone less meticulous had been looking, they wouldn’t have even noticed.
There was no doubt in my mind about who that figure was. Just as I’m sure there was no doubt he was looking back at me as well. Like the first time I had seen him, I didn’t know exactly what my plan was when I left my post to head in his direction. Still armed with only our mandatory baton, I left the teenager to man our useless position, cut through the crowds, and headed for the exit gate.
I jogged through the parking lot, keeping my eyes on the figure until I hit the road. I crossed during a break in cars and went down the alley alongside the building to the fire escape. The metal pieces groaned beneath me while I climbed.
I was shocked to see the sniper still standing at the edge of the terrace when I reached the top. It was the closest I’d ever seen him. His attention wasn’t on me. He still looked over the crowd.
I loosened the baton from my belt and tip-toed behind him. Little pebbles scratched beneath my feet while I approached, surely loud enough for him to hear.
He did not turn until I was almost right behind him.
His skin was old and weathered. Just like Smokey’s. He looked like any old man you would see on the street. No striking detail to make me think he was anything else.
He didn’t pose a threat nor suggest he fretted over me harming him. From inside his trench coat, he pulled out a piece of paper. He held it out to me, the wind ripping it back and forth between his fingers.
I knew the author. It was those same block letters I’d seen Smokey fill out on all those crossword puzzles while we stood around under the Ferris wheel for all those wasted hours.
Sniper will ever leave. Only way to make him go is for us to go. Finally my chance to make a difference.
I looked up from the paper to see that the sniper had once again vanished without me even noticing. I stepped forward and looked over the crowd, just as he’d been doing before I got there.
Something peculiar was taking place on the main corridor. Something I’d never seen before. A space in the crowd grew halfway down of the path. It was right in the busiest part where people crisscrossed heading to different parts of the park.
Smokey stood as the lone figure in the middle in the middle. I could tell it was him just from his posture, even from the distance where I was. He wore a long trench coat, one not so different than the sniper’s.
People’s screams pierced into the air while they dashed away. The space around him stretched away in all directions.
Smokey opened his coat and flapped the sides behind him. Long black cylinders were lined a belt around his waist. A thin wire ran down from his back to a little detonator he held.
I could have sworn that before he pressed it, he looked up and was aware of my presence in his final moments.
The main corridor became engulfed in a cloud of grey and orange. Smokey and two hundred and thirty-six Family Fun Land Patrons ceased in the greatest act of terror I would ever see.
The sniper had fairly warned us once again.