You’ve dared return to the Dark Carnival. How brave, yet foolish! Today, I can’t guarantee you’ll make it out alive.
You can see the live list of participants and their posts dates on this link.
Follow the buzz on twitter using the official hashtag #DarkCarnival. Oh, and don’t forget to scroll to the bottom of this post for a giveaway!
The Devil’s Game
The scrolling letters painted on the gypsy-esque wagon called it The Puppet Dance—a game in which twelve wooden dolls with swirling red capes spun round and round on a black and white wheel, their heads bent back upon their bodies so their faces turned upright then downwrong, and their cunning eyes beckoned with seductive promise while their grins that were more than grins stretched wide open and wicked, daring you to toss your marble straight into their hollowed depths.
The hundreds of swinging puppets framing the giant wheel within the gilded wagon were rumored to have been fashioned from human bones and hair, the same bones and hair from those who’d landed all three tosses.
But that was just a rumor.
The Ladies of Grace Ministry Group called the game an abomination. The parents in our small town called for its removal every year, but the city council called it revenue and refused. The kids who weren’t allowed to play called it unfair, and those too scared to play called it stupid.
Those who dared called it by its true name.
“Michelle!” Jessica bounced over to my locker, her dark eyes bright with morbid excitement. “Where were you at lunch today?”
“In the library.” I stuffed my Algebra book in my bag.
“Well, you missed the juice. David’s playing tonight.”
A frisson of alarm swept through me. “Playing what?”
“Duh. The Devil’s Game.” She tossed her curling black mane and leaned in closer. “Everyone was talking about it, about how he’d waited to do it until his senior year on Halloween. Just like Daniel.”
I swallowed hard. David’s older brother, Daniel, had been the all-star quarterback and golden boy of Whispering Vale High until the night of his tragic accident; the night he and his fellow graduates celebrated the end of their high school careers. His car had smashed right through the iron railing of Falling Hill Bridge and kept on going, down and down and down until the raging depths of the river swallowed him whole.
Along with my sister, Katie.
My best friend only just remembered this. “Oh, God, Michelle. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I lied, slamming my locker shut. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” I slipped through the side entrance and ran to my car.
With shaking hands I unlocked the door and threw my stuff across the seat and looked up. David leaned against the hood of his red Camaro parked three spaces away, the black racing stripes seeming angry at sitting idle. A number of his friends surrounded him, laughing, yelling, energized, while he remained silent—the center of a raging storm. His blond hair shone nearly white in the last of the October sun, and his eyes, a pale, piercing blue, could freeze or melt a heart with a single glance. He may have resembled his brother, but he was no golden boy. He was wild and dangerous and his smile promised all kinds of hell.
Was he aware I knew what he planned? In our parallel existence we merely circled each other and the lines between sixteen and eighteen, sophomore and senior, and the line of his girlfriend’s sight, divided us. But a single thread bound us, a glistening strand of fate spun finer than a spider’s web, wrapping us together in pain and loss and shadow.
As if sensing my questioning gaze, he turned his head. I should have looked away, I always looked away, because he was breathtaking and untouchable and I was unremarkably broken. But this time I didn’t. The bar piercing his right eyebrow winked, flashing silver and defiant before his blue gaze met mine and held it. I froze, or melted, I couldn’t tell which. The ground vanished beneath my feet and my heart swelled to ten times its normal size so it cracked my ribs and my lungs shred to ribbons as I fought to breathe.
He shifted as if he meant to push away from his car and break all the universal laws by walking over to me, but I broke eye contact, and with flushed cheeks and tattered nerves I got in my car and somehow managed to drive home. But once in my room I trembled and paced and failed to shake the feeling of dread rising inside me. David’s playing tonight. Jessica’s words haunted me. I opened my laptop and there it was for all the world to see. News of The Devil’s Game had been crawling along the web of social media for years, spinning macabre tales from one town to another. Someone always knew of someone who’d played.
And now, those who remembered Daniel had placed bets on David—whether he’d really play or not, and if he did, whether he’d win or not, and if he did, whether he’d live or not.
I sent Jessica a text. Pick me up on your way to the carnival.
She answered immediately. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?
I’d been thirteen the last time I bought a ticket and crossed the margins into the realm of neon lights and screaming roller coasters, walked through the rich miasma of funnel cakes and corn dogs. Bold and reckless and blissfully ignorant of the shadowed world in which I tread, I hopped on every ride I’d been frightened of the year before, and snuck along the alleyway sipping beer from Katie’s cup. She’d looked at me and said, “Not such a baby sister anymore,” and I’d glowed from her attention.
Then she met up with Daniel and they played The Devil’s Game.
No, I sent back. And then, I’ll meet you out front.
Mom and Dad knew only what other adults knew regarding the game, which was nothing really. They also didn’t know Daniel had tossed all three marbles with perfect precision into those yawning mouths exactly seven months before his death, and that Katie had stood with him, kissing each marble for luck.
If I’d thought about it, I might have told them, and maybe they would’ve believed me. Maybe they would’ve stopped me from going and we could have gone to David’s house and stopped him from going. But I didn’t think about it and so I didn’t tell them. Instead, I met Jessica at the end of my drive-way and got in her car.
“I can’t believe you’re going after all these years. You-” She looked at me full on. “You look like shit.”
“Thanks.” I lowered the sun visor and flipped up the mirror covering.
“Here.” She tossed her purse in my lap.
I pulled my tangled hair into a bun then pulled out a tissue and wiped the smeared mascara from beneath my eyes. Was David already at the carnival? Had he already played? Please, God, I prayed, don’t let him play. “When is he playing?”
Jessica shrugged. “Right. Like I have a clue.”
When we pulled into the lot across from the carnival, the sky had turned a deep blue twilight laced with pink and lavender. The autumn wind went skip tripping past us and crimson and amber leaves ran tumbling after, crackling around our feet and sailing straight through the entrance. I slid further into my jacket.
“We have to find him,” I said.
Jessica linked her arm through mine. “Not to be a bitch, but he barely knows you exist. What are you planning to do, beg him not to play?”
“If I have to,” I said.
“You don’t really believe what they say about it, do you? It’s just a game.”
But it wasn’t and I knew it so we bought our tickets and took off down the midway. A strange aroma permeated the air. Not the raspberry smell of cotton candy or the woodsy spice of cinnamon or the saccharine scent of caramel and syrup. No, it was the sickly sweet odor of burning flesh. And over the clanging, clashing, and high-pitched whirring from the game booths, the surround speakers prophesied “Lose Your Soul” by Dead Man’s Bones.
Please, don’t let me be too late.
We passed very few families. Tonight, while parents and children reveled in sugary innocence, trick-or-treating to their hearts’ content, the carnival played host to darker elements. And in mockery of this hallowed eve, had invited the denizens of Hell.
This time I saw them immediately. Their empty eyes, their crooked limbs, their stilted gait. They twisted and coiled as they stalked their victims, unseen, unheard, unfelt. Except by me. Tainted with belief, the magic of illusion eluded me. Their hunger assaulted me, slithered along my skin, nipping, tasting, feeding. Fear slid hot and metallic down my throat and knotted my belly, and I wanted to run, needed to run, but somehow I knew they’d give chase. A rainbow clown not ten steps away drew my attention. He sniffed the air, nostrils flaring, and captured someone’s scent.
His rabid eyes glittered. My blood froze and the fine hairs along the back of my neck stood on end, tingling my spine. His barbed tongue unrolled between rows of tiny, serrated fangs, then he dropped to all fours, his body contorting with a grotesque snapping of sinew and bone, and slowly crept toward me.
Jessica tugged my arm. “What’s wrong with you?”
I hadn’t realized I’d stopped and, to her, stared at nothing. I clenched my teeth to keep from screaming. “Nothing.”
“Then let’s go.”
We pushed and shoved our way through the crowd, ignoring curses and hurled insults. I looked back to see the demon clown had found new prey, snaking its tongue out to sting a woman’s ankle. She gasped and walked on, her gaze darting forward and back, knowing but not knowing. Bile rose to my throat. We turned right and passed the carousel, its discordant melody a haunting torment, its creatures bleeding scarlet tears while their riders laughed in terror. We passed the game booths and entered a darkened alleyway. The Devil’s Game sat where it always had, in a far corner away from the lights and noise. Red silk lanterns festooned the ancient wagon, swaying, twirling, their beaded tassels click clacking and tinkling. A crowd gathered before it.
Within, I saw the hanging puppets swinging and the wooden wheel spinning with its hideous spinning dolls and in the center of it all loomed the Puppet Master.
Jessica shivered beside me. “That old man gives me the creeps,” she whispered.
Only he wasn’t the old man I remembered from years before. In fact, he wasn’t an old man at all, but a young one. A beautiful and deadly young man. His hair glittered black as jet under a black top hat and his eyes gleamed gold as an autumn leaf, and when I met his stare, cunning and beckoning with seductive promise, he grinned, only his grin was more than a grin, it stretched wide open and wicked. He pulled aside the lapel of his red frock coat and on his black and white striped shirt a sticker read: Hello, my name is Lucien. He winked at me then as if we shared a secret, he and I, and this frightened me more than anything. I pushed my way through to David, heedless of his friends standing round and his girlfriend by his side.
I grabbed the front of his hoodie and said his name. He looked confused at first, then recognition hit. His hands rose to cover mine, sending an electric shock through us both. I gasped. His normally pale eyes looked cobalt in the darkness, like the sea beneath shadows. His girlfriend said something but we ignored her and she stormed off.
“You never look at me,” he said.
I could barely speak through the fear choking my throat. “Please, don’t play.”
“You never look at me,” he said again.
“Yes, I do,” I whispered.
He smiled sadly. “No. You don’t.”
“I’m looking now. Please, David, don’t do this. It’s real, you know it’s real.”
But he ignored my plea, and leaning down, whispered, “I’ve always looked at you.”
My heart stuttered then flew as the lines dividing us crissed and crossed and blurred and dissolved. David touched my cheek, feather light, then stepped forward. I wanted to scream, to pull him away, but that glistening strand of fate tugged and tightened, and I turned, helpless against it, to see the Puppet Master waiting.
“Are you ready now?” he asked David politely.
“I know how to beat you,” David said, just as polite.
“Then buy your tosses, boy,” the Puppet Master said with a slow grin, “and play my game.”
David placed his money on the ledge and the crowd behind us fell silent. Three marbles, one red, one black, one white, placed atop a flat silver disk, rolled of their own volition into his waiting hand. I looked up and the blood drained from my face and pooled in my feet. A whimper made its way up my throat then shriveled and died. Two puppets, damp and bloated, their mouths in a rictus of pain, dangled from the left side of the wagon. I pointed.
David didn’t look but turned to me and grabbed my arms. “I know,” he said. “Michelle, look at me.” I did, with tears sliding down my face. “Do you trust me?”
I had no voice but my heart spoke for me. Despite the terror soaking my clothes and numbing my hands and screaming in my head, I trusted him. He turned back to the game, his face blank as a fresh canvas before the artist’s first stroke. The Puppet Master stepped off to the side, the wicked grin back on his perfect face and cunning back in his golden eyes. The black and white wheel spun in dizzying circles and I shut my eyes.
I heard the marbles land, each one with perfect finality.
I looked up. The Puppet Master’s expression gleamed feral. Someone slapped David on the back and the crowd rippled with excitement, surged with low murmurs and hushed expectancy.
I couldn’t breathe.
“Congratulations,” the Puppet Master drawled. “You’ve earned your wish. So what will it be?” He opened his arms wide as if offering the world. “Fame and riches? The heart of a fair maiden?” He slid his gaze to me then back to David. “The wisdom of the ages? Come now, don’t be shy. Your darkest desire is my deepest joy.” He held up a finger before David could speak. “But remember, nothing is free.”
And then I truly understood. You purchased your chance to prove your worth and won your wish at the cost of your soul. This was it then, the end, the finale. I’d not been too late, but I’d done nothing, and now I’d lose him.
David smiled darkly. “No, thanks.”
Two words and the world stopped spinning and the wheel stopped spinning and the dolls stopped spinning and time ceased to exist altogether.
The Puppet Master blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“I said, ‘No thanks’. ”
The crowd and the carnival and the lights and the noise, all disappeared. All but we three. I looked from the Puppet Master to David and back again.
“That’s not how the game’s played, boy. Now make your wish, or I promise you, there’ll be all kinds of hell to pay.”
“This game’s over,” David said. “I want nothing from you.”
Relief, cool as an ocean breeze, flooded me.
The Puppet Master cocked his head with a thoughtful expression. “Bravo, boy,” he said. “Too bad you didn’t play first tonight.”
And then the world exploded.
Flames reared and coiled and hissed and scorched and the heat of a dragon’s breath knocked us to the ground. The crowd screamed and scattered in every direction. David pulled me to my feet, pulled me away from the furnace that had once been a wagon housing a game that had fueled my nightmares for years. We watched it burn, watched it melt, heard the Devil laugh.
“What happened?” This from one of David’s friends, Gavin, who stared in awe. “Did you torch the bitch or what?”
David ignored him and pulled me close to his side. “Are you hurt?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“Wish this sucker had blown up when Clint played,” Gavin said.
David paled and turned to his friend. “What? Did he win?”
“Yeah, man. Never seen two people in one night-”
David grabbed him by the front of his shirt. “What did he ask for?” He shook him hard. “What the fuck did he ask for?”
“Easy, bro, it’s just a game. Asshole wanted you out of the way. You know he’s got a thing for Shelley.”
Shelley. David’s girlfriend.
“We have to get out of here,” I said, pulling on David’s arm.
A series of earsplitting pops burst from the inferno as we ran. Fire rained every which way, alighting on booths and people and generators. Glass exploded, tents blazed, and the stench of fried electrical cords rose. The tide of chaos swept us along the midway and David’s grip on my hand tightened.
A booth collapsed before us, its stuffed animals now balls of fire rolling, rolling, gone. We turned to go around it and there stood the Devil, basking in his fiery empire and staring straight at us. He tipped his black top hat as if in farewell just as a car from the Ferris wheel slipped, broke free, and came crashing, stumbling, bouncing our way.
With no time to move and nowhere to hide, David pulled me into his arms.
The Whispering Vale Daily News Journal
November 1, 2013
A five-alarm fire swept through the carnival grounds last night. When fire trucks arrived, the entire entertainment facility was fully engulfed, resulting in its complete destruction. Scores of carnival-goers were admitted to Grace Ministry Hospital for multiple injuries, including second- and third- degree burns. Miraculously, only two fatalities were reported. The names of the deceased have been withheld pending notification of next of kin.
The Whispering Vale Daily News Journal
November 10, 2013
The reclusive billionaire philanthropist, Lucien Santaniri, whose subsidiary company, Mephisto Enterprises, owned The Faustian Carnivale, offered his sincere condolences to the families of the two teenagers killed and paid restitution to each. His press statement earlier in the week confirmed his decision to close the carnival indefinitely, thus ending its century long tour of the New England States, as well as Whispering Vale’s tradition of hosting the carnival in its final week.
Mr. Santaniri has also begun construction of a one-acre park to be erected on the carnival grounds, complete with cobblestone paths, wrought-iron benches, and a large wishing fountain at its center in memory of the deceased.
The Whispering Vale Daily News Journal
November 31, 2013
Following the catastrophe that occurred Halloween night, authorities investigating the carnival grounds found several fragments of human bones at the site where the fire allegedly started. Chief of Police John Cumberland states no new deaths have been reported and no foul play is suspected. A forensic analysis dated a number of these samples as far back as 1742. Despite further investigation, the mystery of how these bone fragments came to be here remains unsolved.
To be continued…
Step right up! Try your luck!
Anyone may enter the giveaway. This includes the artist and writers contributing to the Dark Carnival, as well as the readers of the stories. Enjoy!