The yellow and pink neon lights on the 300-foot Ferris Wheel lit up the empty black sky as it rotated lazily over Ebensburg. Twinkling lights beneath it in a rainbow of colors pulsated to a stream of high-pitched tinkling music that called upon the town residents and led them like the Pied Piper to the mysterious tented attraction that seemed to appear out of nowhere in the usually barren field earlier that day.
The sleepy town’s residents hadn’t seen carnival workers pitching tents or setting up rides. No large truck had hauled in the big pink seats that hung from the Ferris Wheel. They hadn’t heard hammers reverberating in the quiet summer sun indicating the construction of game booths, or the echoes of carnies yelling instructions or jokes at one another. In fact, the sleepy town of Ebensburg had wandered through the humid Friday afternoon as it had any other Friday afternoon. Adam Jefferies wrote a human-interest story for the Sun Gazette about the local animal shelter offering free pet adoptions. Jane Winthrop filed her nails and client briefs in the law office on the tenth floor of the Webster building. John Mills came through the door of his meager two-bedroom home to his wife Suzanne and four children exhausted after working a 12-hour shift at the paper mill. Still, he played horsey in their 6x4 yard in the sticky, damp air as sweat beaded on his brow and his squealing children slapped at his kidneys.
“Ok, kids,” Suzanne laughed from the front porch. “Give Daddy a rest and go wash up for dinner.”
The three boys ages eight, seven, and five, as well as the little girl with bright red curls, age three, scampered inside.
“Boys help your sister,” Suzanne called out behind her.
John heaved himself up from the lush green grass stiff from long hours in his blue jeans and scruffy white t-shirt.
“Thanks for calling them off. I think I was fighting a losing battle,” he said as he climbed the few stairs onto the porch.
“You were outnumbered,” Suzanne said as she kissed his stubble covered cheek. “Say, John, did you see that big Ferris Wheel over on the far side of town?”
“See it? How could I miss it? It’s huge.”
“You know, we’ve never had a carnival come here before. I wondered…”
“Money is tight Suzy. I’m not sure we can afford to go galivanting around some carnival.”
“I know,” Suzanne hung her head. “I just thought maybe we could walk around. Check it out. I already asked Emily Schaffer to babysit. She said she’d do it if I watch Bobby and Bill next Saturday.”
John rolled his eyes and ran a frustrated hand through the coffee colored hair that had fallen over his blue eyes. “Not those two. Suzy, those kids are wild animals.”
“I know,” she grimaced, “but we never go anywhere. Please.”
“Alright. Just to look around. Maybe one ride. That’s it.”
Suzanne clapped her hands like an excited child and scurried into the house. She put dinner on the table for the children and John, cabbage rolled with fried hamburger topped with tomato sauce, and then rushed to doll herself up.
It was true, with four children and only one working parent times were tough. It was rare that she and John ventured out on their own. Rare that they enjoyed quality time together like the days before the children had come along. Suzanne felt guilty when those thoughts appeared. She never regretted her children. She regretted she couldn’t give them more. More than a rickety two-bedroom home, cabbage for dinner three times a week, a ten-year old car with a hole in the floorboard. They were happy, though. She could give them that. Was she wrong for wanting a night of happiness, a night of adventure?
Suzanne emerged from the tiny pink and blue tiled bathroom with her scarlet red hair perched high up on her head in victory rolls. Her eyelids sparkled with a dash of glittery gold shadow and her cheeks were a rosy pink, as if great-aunt Millie had pinched them too hard. Her lips matched her hair and made her smile look young and awake and vibrant.
“Mommy pretty,” little Emma said pointing from John’s arms.
“Yes, she is.”
John walked over and leaned in to kiss her cheek. Suzanne turned her head quickly and caught his instead leaving a big red lipstick mark on his face.
“Now, you’re mine,” Suzanne laughed.
“I was already yours,” John said. “Now, if you would take Emma, I can attempt to look half as good as you.”
The bright, multicolored neon lights of the carnival and the manic music that floated upon the summer breeze increased the anticipation of the spectators waiting in the long line in front of the one-man ticket booth. The tiny structure sat ominously between two big arches from which dangled long red satin curtains. On one arch the word “Cosmic” was scrawled, and on the other the word “Amusements”. The little booth was decorated with a shell-cut overhang that was red and white striped like a circus tent. It was painted a glittery gold that sparkled in the reflection of the lights from the carnival that danced and twirled and sang just beyond it. A silver microphone on a short stand sat upon the stand’s counter, waiting patiently for a host to announce the commencement of festivities.
It looked like nearly the entire town had shown up to attend the curious carnival. The line stretched deep into the field where people had parked their precious Fords, Chryslers, and Chevys; trophies of wealth and status. They leaned over each other and gawked passed the front arches, hoping to get a better view of the fun that waited beyond the odd gates.
John and Suzanne parked their rusty ’39 Ford at the far end of the field. Suzanne’s red heels dug into the dry dirt as they walked to the end of the extensive line. John rubbed the dusty sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.
“Look at this line. It’ll take all night just to get in,” John said.
“Oh, don’t be a spoil sport. I’m sure once it gets moving we’ll be in lickity-split.”
“Say,” John said tapping the shoulder of the man in front of him. “How much to get in?”
“Two bucks a head, buddy,” the man said barely turning around. “Better be worth it.”
“Two dollars,” John whispered to Suzanne.
“Just one night.”
A loud squeak boomed, hissed, and faded. A man cleared his throat. Everyone in line shifted and leaned, stood on their toes to see what was happening. A tall, thin man had entered the ticket booth. He had silvery hair parted down the middle that curled at the ends. A thick mustache hovered above his upper lip like a push-broom. Sky blue eyes reflected the glow of the neon. He wore strange, old-fashioned clothes. A white button up with black cuffs around his biceps, and a red and gold vest with a pocket watch chain dangling against his chest. He seemed to emit his own glittery essence as he stood holding the silver microphone, still attached to the stand.
“Welcome to Cosmic Amusements’ Carnival! One night only! Come one, come all and celebrate the time of your life. We’ve got rides to tantalize, wonders to amaze, games to excite. All for the low, low price of two dollars! You’ll never experience anything like it, and some of you just might get lucky!”
He threw his hands up in the air, and, as if by magic, the two large satin curtains dropped to the ground revealing a Tilt-A-Whirl, cotton candy stand, a Museum of Wonders, a long row of games, and so much more.
The odd man put down the microphone and waved the first people in line up. He smiled to reveal his stained yellow teeth were the only thing about him that didn’t sparkle. The excited patrons handed him their cash, he gave them each two red tickets and waved them through the gates. He repeated the process over and over as the line dwindled, until Adam Jefferies stepped up to the ticket counter.
“Two bucks huh, Mack?”
“Yes, sir. A small price for a night you won’t forget,” the ticket man said.
“Still, pretty steep for entrance into a carnival, buddy. Do I get anything with my ticket or do I gotta pay for everything else once I’m in?”
“The ticket is admittance. You can purchase tokens at the booth inside,” the man smiled, his yellow mottled teeth reflecting pink neon.
“Sheesh fella. I ain’t rich ya know.”
“I’ll make you a deal,” the ticket man leaned in. He pulled one shiny brass token from under the counter. “This token will get you one free game or ride of your choice. How’s that?”
“Well, it’s better than nothing,” Jefferies grumbled and snatched the token, then handed over his two dollars.
The ticket man stood up straight and smiled. “Alright then,” he winked. “Use it wisely.”
Jefferies walked through the gates and the gray-haired man grinned and waved up the next people standing in line. More cash exchanged for more of the crisp red tickets.
As the line dwindled, the commotion from inside the carnival began to rise. Voices got louder, floating along with the music came high pitched laughter, buzzers began to ring out as people won or lost games.
A pretty brunette with long eyelashes and a sleeveless floral dress stepped up to the ticket booth with two squawking girlfriends. She was chomping noisily on a piece of bubble gum.
“Good evening, Miss. Beautiful night, isn’t it?” The ticket man said from behind the counter.
Jane Winthrop didn’t even look at him. She shoved her two dollars at him and said, “Here.”
“I see,” the ticket man said lowering his head. He took the money and handed back to her one red ticket and one brass token. “You can use that token for any game or ride you’d like.”
She looked at it and sneered, “Yeah, sure. Ok.”
He leaned over the counter and watched as she walked away muttering.
John and Suzanne were the last patrons lingering at the back of the line. When their turn finally came at the ticket stand Suzanne was still smiling broadly in anticipation. John had his brawny arm wrapped around her waist.
“Good evening my fine explorers,” the ticket man boasted.
“Good evening,” Suzanne smiled.
“Well, don’t you look fancy.”
“Oh, this old dress,” Suzanne blushed, “we almost never get to go out. We have four kids at home. Your little carnival gave me an excuse to get dolled up for a little while.”
“Looks like a fun place,” John said.
“Lot of entertainment inside. It’s worth the fee. You won’t soon forget it.”
“We’re just going to look around,” Suzanne told him. “We don’t have much, but we are excited to see it, anyway.”
“Well, with four children, I imagine things get tight,” the man behind the counter said thoughtfully. He reached down and produced two of the brass coins. “Here, two free tokens. Your choice. Any game or ride you wish with these. On the house.”
“Oh,” John said. “We couldn’t.”
“It’s my pleasure. Really.”
Suzanne smiled, “Thank you. Thank you so much.”
John handed the man the money for their tickets and thanked him once again for his generosity.
“Go on, show your wife a nice time.”
John and Suzanne walked through the arches. John turned to wave one last thanks to the ticket booth salesman, but when he did the booth was dark and the man had disappeared.
The inside of the carnival was a bustling, noisy place. The atmosphere was boisterous and joyful, but somehow seemed disjointed and hazy. Dust from the thirsty field blew up in the summer wind creating clouds of thick air that choked the patrons and slapped at their faces. It dimmed the neon lights as if the electrical currents were unstable and they were flickering from loss of energy.
Flocks of people crowded around to be let inside the Museum of Wonders and then exited looking pallid and green. Some holding their stomachs as if they might lose the corn dogs and cotton candy they had just consumed right there at the exit. People stumbled from the Tilt-A-Whirl like children who had done too many somersaults. Men tested their strength, their throwing accuracy, and other feats of manliness for cooing women and on-lookers at game booths.
Adam Jefferies was one of those men. He stepped up to a bright blue and silver booth decorated to look like a seascape. Behind the counter were an unbelievable number of tiny bowls holding shimmering goldfish. An elderly woman with thin white hair approached him. She had one glowing amber eye, the other socket was empty and the lids were sewn shut. She spoke with a husky, hoarse voice.
“Try your luck, sir?”
“What is this all about?”
“It’s a simple game. You simply throw a little ball at the jars. If you make it in, you get to take home a new pet.”
“A goldfish? The prize is a goldfish?”
“Oh yes, they’re lovely animals. Very calming. You get three chances. All for the price of one token.”
“Who needs three chances? What nincompoop can’t make a throw into one of those jars? Better yet, who in their right mind wants a dumb goldfish?”
“It’s more difficult than it looks,” she said. Then she turned away, “But if you’re not sure you can do it.”
“Oh, I can do it,” Adam Jefferies dug the free token out of his pocket. “Here, they gave me this free upfront. Won’t waste one I paid for on this stupid game. I’ll just flush the thing if I win.”
The woman behind the booth took the token and handed Adam three small white ping-pong balls. Adam tossed one carelessly. It bounced and landed in the grass next to the fish.
He took a little more care in aiming the second ball and tossed it lightly toward the glass jars. They sat motionless but reflected the movement of the yellow and pink lights of the Ferris Wheel as it rotated over the carnival. The ball bounced once on the center jar and hit the booth’s shimmery blue silk backdrop.
“Last chance,” the old woman taunted.
“Shut up,” Jefferies said. “I got this one.”
He closed one eye and held the ball between his thumb and index finger. His tongue darted in and out of his mouth as he took aim. His hand shot back and forth, back and forth. Finally, he released. The ball arched high and descended like a parachuter slowly falling from space. It landed with a plop in one of the glass jars.
“We have a winner!” The old woman shouted and hobbled to hit a loud buzzer that rebounded down the breezeway.
“Yeah, yeah. Just give me the dumb fish.”
She gently placed the little fish in a plastic bag and handed it to Adam Jefferies. “Take care of him. He’ll live a nice long life if you do.”
“It’s a goldfish lady,” he said as he stomped off.
John and Suzanne stood in line for the Ferris Wheel behind Jane Winthrop’s gaggle of gossiping girlfriend’s. They were mocking the hunched man working the gears and taking tokens.
“Ew,” a short blonde in a low-cut orange blouse said, “I hope he doesn’t accidentally touch me. What if he has fleas?”
“What if he has the plague,” a stout brunette poked the blonde.
“You too are ridiculous,” Jane told them looking unamused.
Suzanne watched them carry on this way as the man began loading new passengers and said to John, “How terrible. Those girls are being so nasty.”
“Just ignore them, Suze,” John shook his head.
It came time for girls to be loaded into one of the shiny pink cars. The man opened the safety bar and offered his hand to Jane Winthrop.
“Good evening, Miss. Let me help you in.”
“Ew, no,” she said pulling her hand away in disgust. “Don’t touch me.”
Jane tossed her token onto the control panel and walked passed the man seating herself in the car. Her companions followed suit tossing their silver tokens next to Jane’s brass one.
“I see you were lucky enough to get a free token at the gate,” the man said to Jane.
“Well, good luck tends to follow me.”
“Yes, a pretty girl like you surely has plenty to be thankful for.”
“If you’re trying to come on to me, I’m not interested.”
“Simply an observation,” the hunchback man mumbled. “Enjoy your ride.”
He closed the safety bar and shuffled over to the control panel. He rotated the Ferris Wheel so that the next empty car appeared, and he opened the bar for John and Suzanne, waving them over with a gap-toothed smile.
“Hello,” John said.
“Evening, sir. Enjoying your night?”
“Very much,” John smiled. “It’s quite a thrill to get out. We don’t often get the chance.”
John held out their two brass tokens.
“Is this your lovely wife?”
“Yes sir. She gets more beautiful every day.”
“John stop,” Suzanne blushed. “Thank you, you’re very kind.” She reached out to shake the operator’s hand. He took it. “I’ve never ridden one of these. Does it go very fast?”
“Only for a little while. It’s very pleasant, if you aren’t afraid of heights.”
“Oh no, I love a pretty view.”
“Then, you’ll find it very enjoyable,” he smiled. He looked at the two brass coins in John’s hand. “Two more winners of free tokens. Well, how about I only take one? Use the other for something else.”
“Oh,” Suzanne said, “that wouldn’t be fair.”
“It’s ok,” he winked, “our secret.”
Suzanne did enjoy her ride on the Ferris Wheel. Every time it came to its peek she looked out upon the little town of Ebensburg and admired the twinkling lights that indicated the cozy homes where people were nestled in with their families. Well, the ones who weren’t packed into the carnival. She looked out at the mountains of the Alleghenies and the night sky spotted with stars and summer constellations, the big dipper was always easy to find, and thought of all the possibilities their lives could still hold. As the wind whipped her face she smiled and looked at the neon lights mirrored in John’s eyes and new this night, this moment, would stay with her forever.
John and Suzanne spent the rest of the night wondering around the carnival. They enjoyed being spectators as they watched other people spin and twist on rickety rides. They enjoyed the sweet aroma of greasy funnel cake powdered sugar. They people watched while they held hands on an iron bench next to the Museum of Wonders. As the night slowly wound down, and sleep began to show on Suzanne’s face, they wandered down the breezeway where some lingering patrons spent the last of their tokens on games.
“Say,” Suzanne mused, “why don’t you try the strong man game?”
“Will you be disappointed if I don’t win you the giant teddy bear?”
“No, the medium sized one is fine,” she laughed.
They walked over to the game where a lean, tall man with a thick black beard sat on a stool next to a sledge hammer and a tall gauge with an empty aluminum pipe on the side. His jaw worked endlessly as he chewed tobacco.
“Hi,” John said. “How does the game work?”
“Simple,” he grunted. “Hit the pad with the sledge hammer. The harder you hit, the higher the gauge goes. The higher the number you hit, the better the prize. If you ring the bell you get a big one.”
“Sounds easy enough. Can I give it a try?”
“Sure. One token.”
“I have this one. The man at the ticket booth gave it to me.”
“A free one,” the bearded man said. “They only give a few of these away.”
John smiled, “That’s what we’ve been told. We were so grateful. Your carnival has been wonderful.”
“Well,” the man indicated the sledgehammer. “Go ahead and take a swing.”
John picked up the black weathered hammer and grunted as he heaved it over his shoulder. He smiled a wide, toothy grin at Suzanne and laid the thing down on the platform that sent the aluminum cylinder up up up the high shaft. It climbed higher and higher until it struck the old, rusted bronze bell at the very top. Then, it sped down and landed with a thump.
“Looks like we have a big winner,” the game attendant said.
“Honey, I didn’t know you had it in you,” Suzanne chuckled and nudged John’s shoulder.
The attendant handed John an enormous stuffed teddy bear with a sparkly red bow around its neck. “Congratulations, pal. I don’t give out many of these things.”
“Thanks. Thanks a lot. The kids will love this,” John and Suzanne both took turns saying. “Have a wonderful night.”
“Say,” John said. “Is this really one night only? Seems a lot of work to only stay for a day.”
“Yeah, we go where the boss tells us. Stay for as long as we need to. Apparently, Ebensburg is just a one-nighter. Take care.”
John and Suzanne waved good-bye and walked through the discarded food wrappers, left-over bites of hot dog, dropped and dirty purple cotton candy, and made their way through the nearly empty parking lot back to their old Ford. The bear almost didn’t fit inside.
The next day as the sun rose over a pink and orange sky that looked like some dystopian Martian scene, the field that had been alive with music and lights and laughter only hours before was now as deserted as the Mohave. The humid summer wind blew up the dirt that had been trampled by hundreds of eager, excited feet, but not a piece of garbage nor a single scarlet red ticket remained as evidence of the carnival’s existence.
Adam Jefferies stared out his apartment window at the vacant field as his coffee percolated filling the kitchen with the bitter scent of a too strong brew. The goldfish he had been determined to win the night before still floated lazily in the plastic bag the old woman had put in.
“I don’t care what anyone says, that’s just weird,” Jefferies said out loud to himself. “What kind of carnival only stays one night?”
He poured himself a cup of coffee and slurped it so that he wouldn’t scald his lips. He walked to the table where the goldfish hovered near the surface of the water. It didn’t move much, but its scales caught the reflection of the sun as it peeked between gray clouds.
“What the hell am I supposed to do with you? I should go ahead and flush you now,” Jefferies said sticking his face up to the bag where the fish hovered.
He eyed the fish suspiciously. It hadn’t been darting back and forth as it was the night before. In fact, as he got closer, his nose nearly pressing against the cool plastic surface, he saw the tiny fish’s gills were struggling. Its body was starting to float diagonally. The fish’s eyes, already wide, almost seemed to bulge out of its head. It shuddered.
Then, Adam Jefferies felt an odd sensation in his chest. At first it felt like a tickling inside his lungs, as if there was an itch that he couldn’t scratch. A tingling as his bronchial tubes, his larynx began to swell. He coughed. He tried to clear his throat. He looked down at the goldfish. It’s tail twitched. Jefferies took a sip of coffee hoping to move whatever was constricting his airway. The liquid became lodged and he coughed and hacked until he vomited the acidic liquid onto his newly installed beige carpet. It was black and bloody. Jefferies dropped the mug shattering glass and caustic liquid all around his feet. The goldfish went limp and floated to the surface of the water. Jefferies grabbed and tugged at his shirt collar. He scratched at his neck, but no air would come. The vessels in his eyes constricted and burst as he struggled, and his chest burned like Hell fire. Then the world was black and Adam Jefferies, much like the goldfish, was no more.
By Monday, when Adam Jefferies didn’t show up for work and a co-worker would discover his body, Jane Winthrop had all but forgotten her evening at the carnival. She arrived at work at 8:30 a.m. and scurried in wearing her usual four-inch heels. Jane rushed through the empty lobby of the Webster building where most people had already passed through and made their way to their respective offices. Jane was never on time. She was also pretty, and petite, and had a useful flirtation with her boss; she was seldom reprimanded for her absence.
As Jane scampered across the mirrored lobby she gazed at her reflection; snow white skin, shiny brown hair, perfectly plucked brows, and admired how well she’d maintained her appearance. The elevator door dinged loudly, snapping her back to reality. Her head jerked, and she saw the empty car, the doors open waiting for her. She hurried across the bright white tile floor to catch it. Just as Jane was about to step inside with her patent leather black pump, her heel caught on a groove in the floor. Jane plummeted to the ground, half inside and half outside the elevator car. Her wrist snapped loudly when she tried to catch herself, making a noise that turned her stomach and causing a surge of pain that radiated through her forearm and then into the rest of her torso. Jane lay on the floor, mascara staining her cheeks, as she cried for help. Quickly, and without warning, the silver doors of the elevator closed and the car began to rise. Jane soon found herself split, a vibrant red pool enveloped both halves of her. The one that made it to work, and the one that never got off the ground.
John and Suzanne went on with their lives after the carnival, always remembering the lilting music, the bright lights, and wind in their faces as they observed the view from the Ferris Wheel. Their four children snuggled the giant bear John had won thanks to their free token. They pulled it into the yard, used it as a landing pad when they leapt from the couch, and as a reclining chair to cuddle on when they were sleepy.
Months later the thing had begun to show significant wear because it had received so much love. As the children napped after a long day playing in the snow, Suzanne decided to use some old fabric and mend some worn spots on the bear’s backside. She sat down next to the giant thing on the floor, a needle and thread, scissors, and some sunflower printed fabric lay next to her. She positioned the bear and began to inspect it. Suzanne noticed it was stuffed with something odd. She poked her finger through a little hole in the fabric and wiggled it around inside. The bear wasn’t stuffed with cotton or down, but something else. She trapped a bit of it and slid it out gently. When she unraveled the thing, she could see that it was a ten dollar bill. Suzanne looked at it and furrowed her brow, then looked back at the bear. She stuck her finger in again and, this time, pulled out a five dollar bill. She repeated the process until the bear was empty.
“Honey,” John called as he opened the door. “Where is everyone.”
“In here, John,” Suzanne called with a shaky voice from the living room.
John entered the dimly lit living room in his dirty work clothes smelling of over-cooked sauerkraut; another long day at the paper mill. Suzanne sat on the floor. The bear was now re-stuffed and mended with the sunflower fabric, the children playing as they had everyday since their parents had brought it home. Suzanne’s face was tear stained, but she smiled at John.
“What’s going on, Suze?”
“John, you’ll never believe it.”
“The bear,” Suzanne walked John to the kitchen where she had put all the bills she had pulled from the bear. “Ten thousand dollars, John. The bear was stuffed with ten thousand dollars.”
John’s eyes went wide and glistened as he looked from Suzanne to the money and back. “Some of you might just get lucky,” he said.
#HumpdayHorror #TheCarnival Copyright 2018 Kira McKinney
Welcome to my blog. Sit back and enjoy a short story, a poem, or some flash fiction--whatever I have recently cooked up. I will post a new piece as often as possible. Check back once a week to see what's new.