You! I remember you! You’ve come back to the Dark Carnival! Well, welcome back. I hope you’re having a great time. After all, the Dark Carnival is such a scream, isn’t it?
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The metal grates creaked and groaned beneath the weight of my steps. Steam billowed up from the motor below. Already I was on edge and the ride hadn’t even begun. I clutched the railing at my side as I climbed the steps to the platform. The air within the gravitational spinner was heavy. I shuddered, feeling the presence of death.
Matt led the way―my big, strong warrior. Every few steps my reflection gazed back at me from the outlining mirrors. The girl looking back was unrecognizable, death having taken up residency behind her eyes.
I leaned forward and whispered, “Why did I let you talk me into this? These fly-by-night carnival rides are so not safe. They’re ready to fly apart from the moment the switch is flipped.”
“It’s part of their allure.” He smiled at me wickedly, grabbed my hand, and pulled me around the circle to two empty spots with our names on them.
I gulped, then blinked. It was my imagination playing tricks on me. Had to be. Our names couldn’t really be written inside the ride. I blinked again, then let out a sigh of relief. The back wall was blank. Just grey metal. Of course there was no writing. That would be beyond creepy. Things did have a way of keeping you on your toes in this place, though.
“I thought we were going to ride the Ferris wheel? This one freaks me out,” I said. Matt leered over me and made wild eyes, then pretended to gnaw at my neck. I laughed sharply and swatted him away. I loved the attention, but had to play a little hard to get. It was only our second date, after all. “But doesn’t it bother you that no matter what direction we took to the Ferris wheel we ended up here?”
Matt shrugged. “Makes for a more exciting night.” He ran the tip of his cold nose along the side of my cheek. I shivered. The fact that the ride was open to the night air had nothing to do with it.
Overhead the light flickered, then blew. It was a theatrical display of sparks. A terribly odd coincidence, I thought. A few of the sparks dropped on my arm. My skin burned, but only mildly so. I nudged Matt and pointed. “If that’s a sign of things to come maybe we should find something else to do.”
He laughed. “Don’t be scared, babe. I’ll protect you.” He stepped into the bay beside me and latched his harness. I swallowed my fear and did the same. I tried not to think about the inconsistencies. He was probably right, I most likely counted wrong. It’s the only thing that made sense. How else could a ride end with fewer participants than it started with. Yeah, that’s it. I counted wrong. I have nothing to fear.
The ride operator popped up in my face, his rotting breath turning my stomach. Three days overdue for a shower, his hair hung from his head like wet clumps of yarn and his clothing reeked of beer and tobacco. He pulled and jiggled my harness. “All good?” he asked.
“Yeah. It’s just a ride. Nothing out of the ordinary here,” I mumbled, keeping my gaze down.
“You think?” he retorted. “The carnival wouldn’t have gotten its reputation if it was normal. “ He moved away.
I looked up, but he was gone. A panic took root deep within my belly. It was nausea, bubbling up my esophagus. That was it. I wanted off. Only it was too late. The ride lurched and we began to spin. Slowly at first, then picking up speed with each rotation.
Other riders blurred out of sight. I reached for Matt’s hand, flailing in the dark until I found it. It was cold and clammy. It made my skin crawl. I flipped my head toward him and met a rotting corpse staring back at me. His eyes were blue like Matt’s, and the hair falling from his scalp was the same dirty blond. My scream erupted, ripping up my throat and out of my mouth faster than I could drop his hand.
“Don’t worry, babe. I’ll protect you,” he said. Words almost lost to the sounds of a bizarre musical track and an insane combination of screams and savage laughter.
My head snapped forward and I scream again. I wanted to run and get away, but the ride moved at top speed and my body melted to the wall with the gravitational spin. Cold encased me, molded itself around me, and pain splintered through my chest from the speed of my heart. “Only my imagination,” I whispered, trying to sooth my mind. But it was useless. The back wall seeped in around me, held me in its grip with chilly, harsh claws.
I’m going to die.
The thought landed in my gut like a RV in a minefield. It left a bitter taste in my mouth. I wasn’t ready to die. Not yet. Grasping at the handles, I held out for hope―a chance I’d make it out with my sanity.
Matt shouted. I didn’t understand what he was saying and I refused to look at him. He was a monster―an ugly symbol of death. Instead, I focused on tobacco and beer. The strange guy who ran the ride. He had to know. What was it he’d said…If the carnival had been normal, it wouldn’t have gotten its reputation. Something like that, anyways. What had he meant by that? Had he said something else? My heart sped up, then stopped.
Breath rose and hitched in my chest time and time again. I was going to hyperventilate.
And something was clutching at my ankle!
What in Hell’s Gates could be moving at my feet at this top speed? I tried to look. It was like my head was strapped in place, fighting against the force of the gravity. Fire flared up and down my neck along the muscle as I pressed forward, determined to see my feet. My arms and shoulders ached from the strain. And that something continued to scratch at me as it climbed up my legs, causing fear to freeze every muscle.
That’s when I saw it, saw her. She was me, only dead. Like the dead Matt in the bay beside me. She dragged her torn and bloodied body up mine until our eyes met. Then I squeezed mine tight, refusing to look.
Her voice rang out in my head, “You can’t run―”
That’s it! I remember what the guy said. He was walking away from me. Why had I forgotten? Was there some reason I didn’t want to remember?
My body unglued from the back wall with a pop and the ride came to a crawl. I opened my eyes as we slowly spun to a stop. She was gone and Matt was normal again.
A tremble shuddered through me. I’d made it.
What had the ride operator said? Shows you truths you refuse. Right. And that scared me most of all.
A nervous giggle bubbled up and out as I stepped from the ride. I slipped my hand in Matt’s and pulled him close. “Hated that,” I said, and laid my head against his chest as I stared out at the crowd. The couples, the families, the kids with their balloons.
He kissed the top of my head. “It wasn’t that bad. A lot better than our first date. Remember that? That damn big rig ruined everything.”
I stared at all the kids with their Mylar balloons and the dead versions of Matt and me that reflected back.
“Shows you the truths you refuse,” that guy had said.
That’s right. I died that night―our first date. Time I accepted it.
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