Fern felt Brook making slow circles with his hand over her upper back. Acid burned her throat and mouth, making it hard to breathe and swallow. She was also blinded by tears and knocked back by the smell of undigested food.
‘It’s all right, but come on now,’ Brook was urging her.
She felt him tug on the sleeve of her t-shirt. She couldn’t move.
‘Fern? Come on,’ he spoke louder.
Something banged down in the café and Fern jumped. She looked through the door and saw a huge shadow developing out of the darkness and coming towards her. Panic filtered down to her legs and feet. She moved back into Brook, who grabbed her and turned her. A screaming voice rose up behind them and Fern caught a stream of foul words.
Brook scooped her up, grabbing her behind the legs and at the waist. Fern felt a rush of air on her face which grew as Brook ran down the street with her in his arms. Fern put her arms around his neck and peered over his shoulder. Behind them the café door exploded open and a mountain in a dress stormed out into the night.
‘She’s coming!’ Fern shouted.
Brook hefted her up more and broke into a full run. Fern pressed her forehead to his shoulder, feeling sick in her stomach again. She took in deep breaths and smelt Brook’s cigarette and earthy scent that clung to his t-shirt. Oddly the scent comforted her. The wind whipped around them then died as Brook tumbled to a stop and they both fell to the floor.
Gasping for breath, Fern wiggled her fingers and toes before struggling upwards. Everything seemed to spin before her, there were dancing flashing lights in her vision and old pop music in her ears. She felt her palms scrapping across the road. Rubbing her eyes, she gathered herself before looking for Brook.
He was climbing off the floor after landing face down. His shocking red hair was messed up badly and swept it back as he stood up. He dusted himself off and came over to her. Whispering voice followed him, though they seemed to be questioning each other rather than them. Brook offered Fern his hand and she took it.
‘You’re heavy,’ he said pulling her to her feet.
‘Thanks!’ she snapped and shoved him away.
Dusting herself off, she glanced to her right and saw they were outside of the arcade. Four teenage boys were staring at them from behind a claw machine. They were quietly questioning what had happened amongst themselves. Fern shot them a disgruntled look and stomped over to them. The boys scattered as she got close and dived into the dimness of the arcade.
‘Stop making trouble!’ Brook yelled from behind her.
Fern turned around and slammed into his chest.
‘You started all of this!’ she bawled at him.
Brook grabbed her hands as she went to slap him and swept her off to the side. Fern’s back hit an ancient and broken Fortune Telling machine. The red tatty curtains shook and the Madam Zasha dummy trembled. Fern felt the cold glass and wood press against her back. She stopped struggling against Brook’s grip.
‘Look,’ he hissed, ‘we mustn’t draw attention to ourselves. You have to get use to wearing the mask. Wait here and I’ll get someone.’
He gave her a further shove backwards, let go of her hands and walked off. Fern watched him go, rubbing her sore wrists. She dug in her pockets of a tissue, but found nothing. She wiped her face on her arm then looked to see if she could see a toilet. A blue neon sign directed her to one in the back corner opposite her.
Fern stalked over, ignoring Brook’s command. The red plush carpet was soft under her feet and the air smelt like lemon cleaning spray, sweat and sea salt. Game machines called to her with their theme music and demos. She passed some coin slot machines, a ski simulator, Tomb Raider and House of the Dead III. A roped off area come up on her left, declaring the gambling machines for over twenty-one’s only.
She paused. There was a young man sitting at one of the machines. He had on an old blue t-shirt that advertised the promenade’s crazy golf course. His long black hair was tied back in a neat ponytail and he tutted loudly as he got two bells and a cherry on the machine’s display. He began to turn and Fern hurriedly walked away, but not before he saw her retreating back.
She passed the prize counter and manager’s office, which was plastered with warning posters about stealing, CCTV, the gambling law and no refunds of any kinds. Now in front of the toilet door, she walked in with a quick glance over her shoulder.
There was just one toilet and one sink in the large space that would have fitted about three of each in. Fern locked the door and took in a deep breath of stale urine, rusty pipes and mould. She went to the sink and splashed water on her face and arms. Cupping her hands under the tap, she drank some water and liked the sweet coldness in her throat. She felt better and turned to the hand drier, which didn’t work. Pulling a face, she grabbed some toilet paper and patted herself dry with that inside. She dropped the paper in an over flowing bin and stepped out again.
Fern peered into the manager’s office window and saw an old wizarded man asleep in a vintage red leather desk chair. He had his slippered feet up on the desk, which was scattered with different kinds of papers. She imaged that he had a smoking jacket and a pipe off to the side. Giggling, Fern pressed a hand to her mouth and turned.
‘You want something? Money changed?’
Fern dropped her hand and stared up at the man she had passed on the gambling machine moments ago. The front of his blue t-shirt was just the same as the back and he had on torn stone washed faded jeans with scruffy grey trainers. He was thin, but the right weight for his very tall frame and broad shoulders.
His face drew strangers in straight away and Fern felt a wobble in her stomach at she looked into his large electric blue eyes. Black stubble covered his soft angled lower face and the gap between his straight nose and lush pearl pink lips. His flat cheeks had a slight tint of colour and his black eyebrows were perked up. Fern’s eyes dropped to fix on the floor.
‘No. I’m waiting for a…friend,’ she muttered.
‘Lucky friend,’ he whispered.
Fern shot him a look and found him smiling down at her.
‘I’m Dacian. I sort of work here and the golf course,’ he said plucking at the bottom edge of his top.
Fern nodded, ‘I’m visiting…I should go.’
Fern bit her lip, ‘maybe, I’ll see you around?’
‘Sure,’ Dacian stated with a small shrug.
Trying not to look at him again, Fern slipped passed him and hurried over to the broken fortune machine.