You’ve dared return to the Dark Carnival. How brave, yet foolish! Today, I can’t guarantee you’ll make it out alive.
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Nothing But Net
For Jolene and Kristen, a muse by any other name would not be as inspiring.
Corey Johnson checked his watch for what felt like the thousandth time. Fifteen minutes until the carnival closed. Finally. He wouldn’t have even come if it wasn’t for Will—his brother’s best friend. The guy was a solid wall of muscle who had played power forward before graduating this past summer. It was the same date Corey’s brother, Roderick, should have graduated too.
They passed the Tilt-A-Whirl as the last of the patrons exited. One guy stumbled on shaky legs, apparently dizzy. It had been Roddy’s favorite. The realization was like a punch to Corey’s gut.
“Man,” Will said, as if feeling the same sensation, “I wish your brother was here.”
Corey walked on, his head and heart elsewhere.
“He was the best basketball player our state had seen in a long time. Maybe ever,” Will continued.
“Yeah,” Corey agreed. “I miss him. Being here on the anniversary of his disappearance was a bad idea.”
Will gave him a playful push. “What’s the matter, Mr. Hot Shot, you too good to honor your brother’s memory by having some fun at his favorite carnival? I saw you flirting with that community college chick. Your brother would have been happy.”
They walked past the funnel cake stand. The mouthwatering aroma of fried dough hung in the air like a sugary mist. Corey inhaled deeply knowing his brother would have made them stop to get one. Tinkling music sailed on the autumn breeze as an ancient carousel slowed before jerking to a stop a short distance away. A kid from Corey’s school—Dave Neiderman–wrapped his arm around a blonde underclassman. They were sharing a box of popcorn and staring intently into each other’s eyes. If only she knew about Dave’s other girlfriend.
“I don’t see how this is honoring Roddy? I mean, we stay here all night pretending he’s still alive…then what?” Corey motioned around the tent lined perimeter of the carnival. “It’s not like we’ll find him here playing games or pigging out on funnel cake.”
“Shut up, Corey. Don’t say that. Don’t even think it.”
Corey shoved his friend hard enough to knock him back a few steps. Everyone always walked on egg shells around him. A guy could only take so much. “Don’t say what? That Roddy’s probably dead? That some drunken hillbilly probably ran him down after the carnival last year because he couldn’t pick out the shape of a black kid walking down the side of a dimly lit road?”
Will opened his mouth but snapped it shut and glared for a long moment. “He’s not dead. You’re his brother for Christ’s sake. How can you say that?”
“You saw the way folks treated him—how they treat me now. They only tolerate me because I can ball. Without me our team—this town–would be a joke. The only reason I stayed was for Roddy. He’s gone. It’s time for everyone else to move on too.”
Will moved closer and pulled Corey into his meaty arms. “It’s okay, bro. I miss him too.”
Corey didn’t want to cry but he did. Right there in front of all the carnival workers and anyone else. He felt so small, like he had been wearing shoes that were two sizes too big. His brother’s shoes.
A middle aged couple walked around the two teens craning their heads to see what was going on as they passed. Nobody cared if Corey was okay, not really. All they cared about was winning the next game and another state championship. Step right up and watch the freak show, Corey thought.
Will patted Corey’s back. “I know what’ll make you feel better.”
Corey wiped his eyes on the sleeve of his letterman’s jacket. “What’s that?”
“Old Man Twombly is manning the beer tent. Every time he sees me he gives me a hug asks how Lorna’s doing. I think the old guy is losing it.” He jabbed Corey in the ribs. “I’ll walk in, offer to help him clean up, and after I’m done we’ll split a case of long necks. Whaddyasay, bro?”
Corey didn’t have to think very hard to know that getting caught with alcohol was a bad idea. He could lose his scholarship. Plus, the last thing he wanted was to end up like his brother. “Nah, I’m good.”
“You sure?” Will said, pulling Corey toward the beer tent.
“I’m sure. But you go ahead. Just make sure you raise a toast to Roddy.”
“A-fucking-men to that, brother.” With a grin the size of the Mississippi, Will disappeared into the darkened bowels of the carnival.
Corey walked past the House of Mirrors and saw his reflection twist to freakish proportions. Two steps later, some guy yelled for him to knock a stack of bottles down with a ball for a prize. He didn’t really pay much attention until the wind picked up. There was a frigid sharpness to it, almost like it had teeth. Corey shivered and zipped up his jacket.
A man stepped in front of Corey, forcing him take a quick step aside. “Sink a shot, win a prize!”
“No thanks, I think I’ve had enough fun for one evening,” Cory responded without bothering to look up.
“Whoa, what’s got you so down? I know this is the Dark Carnival, but you’re supposed to be having fun. Tell you what,” the man said in a deep, gruff voice, “since it’s the end of the night I’ll make you a special deal.”
Corey stopped, looked up. He was in front of a game stall titled Hot Shot Hoops. The corn maze was just beyond. If he cut through there he’d be home in forty-five minutes. He looked from the corn to stall and back again.
“What kind of deal?”
The vendor was tall, maybe six five, and dribbled a basketball with ease. His long dreads were pulled back in a band and his eyes radiated superiority. Without looking, he sank a shot. Nothing but net. “I’ll give you a prize for every shot you sink.” The guy’s red track suit with black trim looked brand new and fit him like a glove. He smiled but it wasn’t a jolly expression. It was cocky; a dare.
Corey motioned for a ball. The guy tossed one. Corey snatched it out of the air, dribbled it behind his back, between his legs, and finally crossed the fool over without breaking a sweat.
“Not bad, kid.”
“You like that? Wait till you see me use my good hand.”
The guy walked behind the small counter and motioned to rows upon rows of stuffed prizes. The place was littered with them. “Take a look. There has to be something here you like. Something you’ve been searching for.”
Corey looked and saw stuffed bananas with tongues sticking out, penguins in all different shapes and sizes, a huge purple elephant, and a row of Rasta SpongeBobs. Nothing interesting. Just as he turned to leave he thought he saw a purple letterman jacket with white and gold striped sleeves in a darkened upper corner. It looked exactly like the one he was wearing. He squinted to be sure.
“I knew you’d find something.” The guy stretched an arm up and grabbed the doll. He carefully sat it on the counter.
Corey rubbed his eyes. No matter how hard he tried to convince himself otherwise, he recognized the spitting image of his brother. The jacket even had the name Roddy sewn above the breast. Somehow, impossibly, the doll had the same scar running parallel to its left eyebrow just like the one Roddy got when he cracked his head on the curb when he was ten. The doll didn’t just look like his brother; it was him…only miniature.
“Where’d you get that?”
The guy sucked his teeth. “I suppose it was about a year ago. I won a bet.”
Corey took a step back as the words sank in. His brother had disappeared around the same time. He wanted to leave but was unable to take his eyes off the doll. As he stared, the doll’s expression changed from indifference to sorrow, eyes drooping and face sagging under an unseen weight. It moved. All by itself. Corey wasn’t sure what to believe anymore.
Maybe it was a voodoo doll? And maybe this guy knew something about his brother.
All around the Hot Shot Hoops stall lights were powering down. The tinkling of distant music ceased. The carnival was over and would be gone until next year. Corey looked from side to side seeing only darkness and little else. He was suddenly aware of how vulnerable and alone he felt. Indecision stabbed at him. Stay, or go? Maybe he should come back with Will.
“Last chance, young buck. Five in a row and you can have any prize you see, even this one,” he said pointing to stuffed Roddy.
“You some kind of voodoo priest, or something?”
With another easy smile, the guy pointed to some stitching above his right breast. “They call me Big Lou. I suppose you could call me a voodoo shaman. I collect…things.”
Big Lou pointed toward the empty space where stuffed Roddy had been. He banged on the wall and a fluorescent bulb buzzed, flickered, and illuminated after a few moments. Corey’s mouth dropped. They all looked like people, only doll shaped.
“You down for my challenge? Five shots. Five buckets. One prize.”
Stuffed Roddy was up on his feet now shaking his head, waving his arms. He pointed at Corey and motioned him away, like he wanted him to leave. Corey’s eyes widened. Either Big Lou was the best ventriloquist ever, or something strange was going on.
“Let me put this little guy back so you can think without any distractions.” Big Lou grabbed stuffed Roddy, his little arms and legs flailing in protest, and set him under the counter.
“Is that—“ Corey couldn’t bring himself to finish the sentence. His heart was rumbling in his chest like a tornado through a trailer park. This couldn’t be real. People couldn’t be changed into dolls. It was impossible.
Yet, somehow, he knew what he had seen was real.
“Why ask what you already know?” Big Lou held Corey’s eyes hostage with the intensity of his stare. He had the look of man with supreme confidence, someone who never lost. Just as Cory’s heart sank, Big Lou’s eyes changed color—from brown to yellow, yellow to green, green to blue, blue to red, red to black, and all in an instant. Then, just as fast, they morphed into what appeared to be cold, flat lizard eyes.
Big Lou blinked. “Boo!” He laughed as Corey jumped. “Ah, man, that never gets old.”
Corey shook his head in a constant slow motion, sweeping it back and forth disbelieving what he had just seen. “That’s not possible.”
“Forget about me. You came here to find Roddy, right?”
At the mention of his brother’s name, Corey’s head stopped. He winced as if hit by an unseen blow. Big Lou—this…thing—had his brother. And Corey had a chance to get him back.
“I hope you can shoot as well as you dribble. Feeling lucky?” There was that cocky smile again, like a slap to Corey’s face.
“Five in a row and I get any prize, right?”
“You have my word.”
“I also want your word that you won’t interfere. No trick balls. No sudden gusts of wind. Don’t even move until I’m done shooting.”
Big Lou’s smile lost some of its luster. “You’re smarter than your brother, kid. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you what’ll happen if you fail.”
Corey looked up at the row of doll sized people and swallowed. “I understand.”
“I won’t interfere.” With an index finger he made an X over his heart. “Cross my heart.”
Movement from the prize shelf caught Corey’s attention. All the stuffed people were frantically motioning him away. He knew he couldn’t trust this guy, or whatever he was, but he didn’t have much of a choice. This was his one chance to find out what happened to his brother.
“So, do we have a deal?” Big Lou moved forward and extended a hand. Corey saw for the first time that he had fingernails as thick and sharp as a demon. The word stuck in his mind.
Any fool could see he should run and get the cops. The cops probably wouldn’t believe him though. Hell, he barely believed it and he was living it. For some reason, it felt like making a deal with the devil. Corey looked from Big Lou’s eyes to his hand and back again, hesitant. He licked his lips. What if he missed? No. He could make five free throws with his eyes closed. Basketball was his life.
Corey grabbed Big Lou’s hand and squeezed noticing the searing heat of his skin. “You’ve got yourself a deal.”
There was a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder.
Much to Corey’s surprise, Big Lou didn’t snicker, laugh, or gloat. He simply walked behind the counter and bounced a few balls. When he found one he liked, he tossed it over. “You’ve got five minutes. Time starts after you take the first shot.”
Corey nodded, bouncing the ball a few times to steady his nerves. These weren’t the free throws that would win a state championship. He had a suspicious feeling they were soul saving baskets. Instead of feeling the pressure, a sense of clarity settled over Corey. It was like being in the eye of the storm.
“I got this,” Corey mumbled. He walked behind the line and readied himself.
Corey jumped at the noise. It was then that he noticed four inch horns poking up from the top of Big Lou’s forehead, one on each side of his head. Definitely a demon.
Corey shot Big Lou a dark look. “Not a word, remember?”
“You haven’t started yet.” A forked tongue darted in and out of his mouth as he spoke probing the air the same way a snake would.
Corey ignored the image and let his first shot fly. A second later the net snapped as the ball passed through the center of the hoop. The row of miniature people threw their hands up, cheering Corey on.
One down, four to go.
Corey’s next shot hit the front of the rim with a loud thud. It sat therefor a split second before rolling in nearly giving him a heart attack.
Sweat dotted Corey’s head even though it was only fifty degrees. Three more shots and he was home free. The next two shots both went in as easy as the first. He checked the timer: three minutes left. He looked at Big Lou and smiled—the same overconfident way Lou had been smiling all night.
Big Lou’s eyes flashed red but he didn’t move or speak.
Corey got into position to shoot when the shrill trumpeting sound of an elephant shattered the silence. Corey jerked, nearly dropping the ball. He watched as a four foot purple elephant charged over the counter. It tore across the pavement moving faster than any elephant should until slamming head first into Corey’s shin. Instead of soft stuffing, bone met bone.
The elephant’s head moved with fury, goring Corey’s calf with it’s all too real tusks. Corey punched it again and again. His foot connected with the thing’s jaw, stunning it. He limped back. His eyes flicked to Big Lou who stood calmly by, watching.
“You gave your word,” Corey spat.
Big Lou pointed to his mouth and shook his head. Then he pointed up to the timer. Less than two minutes remained.
The elephant rumbled toward Corey a second time. Corey spun away at the last possible second as the elephant thundered by. On its way past he noticed a lone figure clinging to the tail, climbing until it was on the possessed elephant’s back. Stuffed Roddy jumped on the rampaging elephant’s face, punching and kicking.
Corey limped over to the shooting line, leaving a trail of crimson. Leaning on his good leg he dribbled the ball three times. The elephant shrieked a protest from behind.
He let the ball fly.
Big Lou was straining to see the outcome. The elephant roared as the timer ticked down. Twenty seconds. Nineteen. Eighteen.
Corey turned, narrowly avoiding another charge. He kicked the back of the elephant’s leg and watched as the two carnival prizes tumbled over one another in a tangle of flailing limbs. They came to rest with one of the elephant’s tusks jutting through stuffed Roddy’s back. Everyone froze at the sound of nylon snapping.
“Nothing but net, motherfucker!”
The elephant went limp.
A sound—much like thunder–echoed throughout the small clearing. Over and over it boomed. After a moment, Corey looked over to see Big Lou clapping.
“I’m impressed. You really are a hot shot.”
Corey fell to his knees clutching the shredded meat of his calf. “You weren’t supposed to interfere,” he said through grit teeth.
“And I kept my word. You’ve got to understand that I work for certain…people. They were expecting a full shipment of…dolls. Thanks to your shooting skills I’m one short.” Big Lou walked over and offered Corey a hand. His lips parted revealing rows of sharpened teeth where once normal teeth had been. It was the same cocky grin Corey wanted to slap from his face. “I believe I owe you a prize.”
Corey didn’t need to think about which prize he wanted. “Just give me back my brother.”
With a curt nod, Big Lou waved a hand and stuffed Roddy grew to normal size. Corey watched as stitching and stuffing gave way to flesh and bone, a look of horror washed the thrill of victory from his face. Roddy, human now, struggled to breathe. He coughed, choking on a mouthful of blood. Just below Roddy’s sternum Corey saw a gaping, tusk shaped hole.
“No,” Corey said in little more than a breathless whisper. “No…God, no.”
Roddy stretched a hand toward his brother. “Thank…you.”
Corey grasped his brother’s hand. “Don’t leave me,” he begged.
Roddy struggled to take a breath. He smiled. “You…freed…me.” His eye lids fluttered before closing a final time.
Corey pulled his big brother onto his lap and cradled him there oblivious to anything else. All he wanted for the past year was to find his brother. He’d gotten his wish and now Roddy was dead. He choked the bitterness down. Eventually the sound of squawking pierced his grief and he looked up to see an empty field where the carnival had been.
A piece of paper fluttered on a chilled breeze and came to rest on Corey’s arm. He grabbed it and read the words: Catch the Dark Carnival again next October. See you then!
A murder of crows exploded from the nearby cornfield blackening out the beginnings of the new day. Corey wasn’t sure, be he could have sworn their cawing sounded like laughing.
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