The Dark Carnival has arrived.
Now, the most important task is upon us…try to stay alive.
You can see the live list of participants and their posts dates on this link.
Oh, and don’t forget to scroll to the bottom of this post for a giveaway!
The Gaffer’s Tent
by Kai Kiriyama
The sounds of the carnival fill your ears. Screams of delight and controlled fear drift over you from the midway. Dainty music and ringing bells from the carnival games play over the shouts of the vendors as they attempt to entice you to try their wares. Your feet are tired from walking across the grounds, and your stomach is happily full of fried foods and cotton candy. It has been a long time since you’ve actually gone to a carnival. You haven’t seen one in your hometown for years, and you’re not quite sure why, but you felt particularly drawn to this one, almost as though you were summoned.
You’ve come to the carnival alone, your so-called fiends were too cynical to join you, they were all far too mature to indulge in such foolish, childish behaviour. You feel that you’re better off without them anyway. You got to ride all of your favourite rides, and no one made fun of you for opting out of the Zipper, the Gravitron and the Drop of Doom. You also didn’t feel so bad when you failed miserably at the ring toss, and when all you won from the fishing game was a temporary tattoo of an anchor that you immediately put on your forearm. You smile, looking down at the tattoo on your skin. Who cares that you’re here alone? You’re having fun.
Slowly, you walk past the blinking lights and ringing bells. It’s a warm evening, and you’re pleasantly tired, though you know that in about ten minutes you’ll be absolutely buzzing from adrenaline and the sugar rush from the cotton candy you’ve eaten. A scream nearby startles you. You jump and clutch a shaking hand to your chest as a maniacal laughter taunts you. You glare at the towering haunted house and move on. You’re not in the mood to throw up from fear.
You find yourself walking away from the bright lights and milling crowds. You don’t realise how far you’ve walked until the background noise of the bustling carnival is no longer in the foreground of your thoughts. You stop. The lights here are dim, and far between. You groan to yourself, you’re not the kind of person to visit the spooky attractions and let’s face it, carnivals are already creepy enough without the horror for haunted houses and death shows and all the other macabre spectacles that seem to fill every carnival nowadays. A stiff wind picks up, cold and bristling with the first suggestion of autumn. You shudder and turn back, meaning to head back toward the bright lights and the warmth of the midway.
You stop, though, and you’re not quite sure why. There’s something, standing just outside the field of your vision. You didn’t notice it before and you turn to face it.
A small smile creeps across your ruddied face and you run a hand through your hair. This is what you remember from your childhood. The rustle of the yellow and red striped canvas is a smooth hiss across the dirt ground. The freestanding tents, so suggestive of the big top of the circus. The flickering lights, flashing in patterns. Hurdy-gurdy music boxes, trilling out the forlorn music of nursery rhymes. Masters of Ceremony calling from every tent, beseeching you to step right up and have a look at the wonders of the world. The podium outside where the ticket taker would make sure you paid your fare. The hand painted signs, touched up a hundred thousand times, touched up for every event, the paint thick and glossy on the faded canvas.
Only… this isn’t quite what you remember. The lights here are din, some are missing from their sockets, the holes int he string of lights more pronounced as the others flicker in order. There is no music box playing, not even any chimes. Just the wind and the rustle of the tents as they move to the beck and call of the breeze. The stripes are faded, no longer red and yellow, more cream and brown, like watery rust and old blood. The signs are faded to the point of illegibility. This tent has seen better days.
You turn to leave but something stops you. Something tells you that you need to look closer at this tent, that this is exactly why you’re here. The ground here is hard-packed, just like the rest of the fairground, but oddly free of litter. It’s as if no one has been here for a long, long time. The ticket taker’s podium is chipping, the paint is peeling and you reach out to place a hand against the rough wood.
You jump in fright and you feel the immediate churn of the abundance of fried fatty junk food in your gut, the sick feeling threatening to overwhelm you and send you rushing for a toilet, or a bush. You take a step back as the man who had addressed you unfolds himself from where he had been sitting behind the podium. You hadn’t seen him until he spoke and you huffed an irritated sigh at the fact that you let yourself be startled.
The man is even more strange than the other carnies. He is tall and slender, with limbs that seem both impossibly long and yet not quite long enough for his gnarled frame. He wears a ratty jacket of black velvet. You can tell that it must have been a very fine article of clothing at one point, but it has succumbed to the ravages of age and lack of care. The man’s face seems bloated and saggy, disproportionate to the leanness of the rest of him. His eyes are yellowing, as though he was suffering a late stage of jaundice and his skin looks ashen and grey in the dirty lights. His hair was long and stringy and it hung around his shoulders in greasy clumps.
“Ah, a guest,” the man hisses, the ‘s’ in ‘guest’ too long. He smiled and his teeth are pointed.
You vaguely wonder how much the dental operation to have your teeth filed like that would cost, and how a ragged carny like this man could possibly afford it.
“You seem like you might be lost,” the man continues, grinning a shark’s grin at you.
You suppress a shudder at the sight of his perfectly white, pointed teeth gleaming in the grey, bloated face.
“No worries,” he croons. “Would you like to step into my tent? It’s only a quarter and I can guarantee that you’ve never seen anything like what I have behind my fabric walls!”
You smile politely and shake your head. “I’m not a fan of horror,” you stammer weakly.
“What horror?” he asks you. “It’s only wonders, the like of which no mortal has ever seen!”
You give the man an incredulous stare.
“I have Jackalopes?” the man offers. “And mermaids all the way from the crystal waters of the Caribbean!”
“You have Fiji mermaids?” you ask, shaking your head.
“Not impressed?” he asks, the word seeming to take more syllables than actually needed.
“I can’t tell you all of my wonders!” the man whines. “That would ruin the surprise, and you haven’t even given me a quarter.”
He stares at you with his yellowed eyes and you notice, for the first time, that his irises are even yellow. You feel a shiver pass through your spine as he pleads with you, making puppy dog eyes. You groan and reach into your pocket, fishing for change. You find a quarter, luckily, and you hold it out to the creepy man.
He snatches the quarter from you and he bites it between his shark teeth like he was checking for gold. You shrug it off as nothing as he hobbles across the short space to the tent flaps. He wraps his long fingers around the heavy canvas and he pulls it back.
“Enjoy the secrets within,” he croons as he shoves you forward into the darkness.
The tent flap closes behind you and you find yourself completely enveloped in the darkness. It’s warm inside the tent, too warm. And stuffy. It’s definitely like a museum in there and you find yourself feeling more claustrophobic than you’ve ever felt. You can’t see anything and you’re afraid to move, lest you knock a rare specimen of taxidermy over and end up having to replace it. The darkness is oppressive. You feel as though the entire tent is resting on your shoulders and that the whole thing could come crashing down on your head at any given moment.
There’s no sound inside the tent, just your breathing and the sound of your own heart hammering in your ears. You shiver, despite the comforting warmth. Despite your fear you have to admit that the warm darkness is enough to make you want to curl up for a nap on the floor. You shake your head, clearing your mind and stretch your hands out, trying to feel something, trying to find your way in the tent. You grope blindly around you, hands finding nothing.
“Hey? Hello?” you call, your voice is raspy as your mouth is suddenly dry. “Hey! There’s no lights in here!”
You move your hands again and you feel something prickly touch you. You snap your arms back to your sides, afraid that you had just knocked something over. You wince and you wait for a crash that doesn’t come. You hear a scuffling noise and you can’t pinpoint where it’s coming from. You swallow again, your breath feeling heavy in your chest. Gingerly, you take a cautious step forward…
…the lights flash on in blinding brilliance and the entire tent seems to come to life. The orange glow of the bulbs fills your field of vision and you raise a hand to shield your eyes against the unexpected luminescent intrusion. Squinting against the light you can’t help but let yourself smile as you realise that there’s very little that you could have knocked over. Everything is encased in glass displays and the tent is arranged to make a cattle chute path straight through. You breathe a sigh of relief and you begin your journey forward, you were damn well going to get your quarter’s worth. Besides, it was warm in the tent.
You spend a few minutes looking at the first few attractions. A jackalope, a giant bat. Nothing that you haven’t seen in taxidermy shops. You move forward, eyeing things floating in glass jars on the shelves. Two-headed snake. A cockatrice. You’re unimpressed with the gaffs. They seem old and dusty and less taken care of than the ticket taker’s jacket. You can even see the seams where the unfortunate creatures had been sewn together so many years ago.
You shake your head as you pass a griffin made of a chicken and a cat and you head into the next room of the tent.
This room is dark again and you sigh, momentarily freezing in place. You reach forward, just to make sure that you’re not going to run into something and you step forward, expecting the lights to come on again. You bump into a low table and you mutter a curse word under your breath as the shooting pins and needles creep across your lower extremities. You rub absently at your leg, a biting sensation soon replacing the tingle and a strange numbness passing over you. You feel momentarily dizzy and you close your eyes to let it pass.
That scuffling noise that you heard before snaps you out of the delusion of a moment of rest and you blink, groggily. The lights have come on and you find yourself leaning against a display table. Here is where they keep the “aquatic beasts.” You smile momentarily as you see the Fiji mermaid in it’s tank, it’s ugly chimpanzee face glaring at you. You move on, staring at the grotesque horrors of the so-called beasts of the deep. You almost laugh as you see one that resembles a fish made from a human hand and you shake your head at the fake blood still swirling in the murky waters.
Another room calls to you and you make your way through, stepping into the now-familiar darkness. You like the showmanship, the surprise of what awaits you in the next room, and the next. This time you don’t move. You just wait, as you know that the lights will come on. It seems like forever and the same stinging sensation bites into your side this time. You have to wonder if you’ve gotten fleas from the exhibits.
The lights come on and only the left half of the room is illuminated. You’re dizzy and feeling kind of far away. Detached, almost, as you wander through this new exhibit in a haze. Here they have heads mounted on the walls that have been modified to appear as though they were were-creatures, half-human and half-animal. You stop at one and stare intently. It’s a lizard, and though you’re not particularly fond of lizards, this one is dripping blood, as though it had been freshly mounted, and you notice it has the same colour of eyes as you do.
“That’s a nice touch,” you slur as you stumble forward into the next space.
This time the darkness grips you like a long lost lover. You sink into its embrace and the warmth of the room soothes your dizzy, disoriented mind. You can hear the sounds of the carnival again. Far off, distant and you smile. You decide that the next ride you go on is going to be the Tilt-a-Whirl because it was always your favourite. You step forward and feel the edge of a table smack you in the leg. You wince but the sturdiness of the wood beneath your hands comforts you, it’s a solid thing to hold onto in the immaterial darkness. You feel your legs begin to shake. Something isn’t quite right. You’re not feeling very good all of a sudden and you can’t feel your right hand.
You try to move your fingers against the table but they aren’t responding. You feel your heartbeat pounding in your chest. Is this a stroke? You lean forward against the table in the dark, panicking. Your right hand feels like it’s gone and your wrist, oh God, your wrist is on fire. It stings, like a million insects are biting at the flesh there. You feel a warmth against your cheek, you didn’t even realise that you were crying.
You try to call for help but the words are lost in a mumbled garble and you sink to your knees. Your left hand scrabbles against the table top, looking for purchase but you can’t find any. You fall to the floor in a heap, numb and shaking. The lights slowly come on as you stare at the top of the tent, but only the left side of the room is illuminated. A shadow approaches you, snaking from the darkness of the right side of the room, menacing and too large. Meaty hands grab you and lift you and you feel the hard, cold surface of the table beneath you. Your head lolls to the side, you have no strength left.
And then you see. And you know, suddenly, what fate has befallen you.
You see the pinprick wounds in your flesh from the needles that numbed you. You see, reflected in the mirrored surfaces what you’re missing. Your right hand isn’t disabled, it is gone. You feel bile rise up in your throat as you recall the fish. You close your eyes, willing the image of your ruined face to disappear but it’s there. The room isn’t only half illuminated, your eye is gone.
You try to scream as those big meaty hands grab you again, but you can’t. The drugs filling your body, making you numb, they have taken away your ability to scream.
“You shouldn’t have laughed at my mermaid,” the hissing voice of the ticket taker whispers in your ear.
Then everything is black and you feel nothing ever again.
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! Muahahahahaha! Ahem. I mean good luck.
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