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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The Ring Toss
Jace closed his eyes, letting his other senses describe the carnival to him. The voices of the other carnies, calling the few visitors at this early hour to the games and shows. The ring of bells and sirens alerting all to a winner. He smelled smoke from cigarettes, the grease of the fried food and the sugary sweetness of the nearby cotton candy machine. The air around him was cooling down as night set in, with no hint of rain in it.
He smiled. It would be a good night for the carnival. For his carnival.
Well, all right, it wasn’t really his yet. He worked for the owner and ringmaster, Ruben Trent, but that was just for now. He’d have it all one day. He’d show his whole family, all his supposed friends back in Williams, how wrong they’d been.
Only Helen, his little sister, had believed in him. She loved the carnival almost as much as he did. She’d told him to go, when Ruben’s had been packing up to leave their town. She’d come in, all of twelve, and told him to grab his stuff and go with them, that she’d cover him with Mom and Dad long enough to get away, even if she had to lie.
Jace opened his eyes, not wanting to get caught up in his favorite fantasy, going back to Williams as the ringmaster of his own carnival. He’d invite Helen to come with him when he left that time. He didn’t care what she decided to do as part of the carnival. He just wanted her to have the chance to live her dreams as he was. The chance she’d given him.
Movement drew his eyes, a mother and young son, perhaps eight, approaching his booth. The child’s expression held a familiar excitement. The ring toss had been Jace’s favorite game when he’d been the boy’s age. He’d had worked long and hard to perfect his technique.Even now, he knew he could drop a ring onto any bottle in the field he wanted. He smiled in welcome at the boy, while taking a few bills from the mother.
The clink of plastic on glass came next. He loved the sound, loved watching the kids try for the biggest prizes. The younger ones were so earnest about it, unlike lots of others he saw. Some nights, it was all he could do to keep from snickering at the teenage guys, playing it cool while trying to impress their girls with their skills. Jace had always want to impress the girls too, but at least he could in this game.
The mother led her son away after two rounds, a small stuffed tiger held tight in his hands. There wasn’t another customer in sight, but Jace wasn’t worried. It was early still. The sky had only just begun to darken toward night. There would be plenty of people later. It was Friday night, after all.
“You stare after them like you know them, Jace.”
He jumped and one of his arms knocked over a few bottles from the edge of their table as he whirled to see who had spoken.
Lilia stood by the other end of the booth, her fortuneteller’s costume looking a little silly to Jace, right down to the red scarf that held her black curls back. Yet he wouldn’t have pointed it out to her. The truth was she creeped him out, especially the way she was always staring at him. This was the first time she’d spoken to him though. Her voice had an element to it that was almost entrancing. He didn’t believe in fortune telling, but he suspected that tone worked well on those who did.
“Do you know them?”
Finding his voice with difficulty, he said, “No. I don’t know anyone outside of Williams except an aunt in Montana.”
She leaned against the post. “Then why watch them leave like that?”
Jace hesitated. “I was that kid once.”
“Not so long ago, either.”
“What are you implying?” He tried not to freeze, to keep his tone natural.
Lilia’s grey eyes were merry as she took a step closer. “Ruben might have bought your line about being eighteen but I’m not fooled.”
He turned and bent to pick up the bottles he’d knocked over, wanting a chance to hide his reaction. “You’re barking up the wrong tree, Lilia.”
“Try that on someone else.”
Irritated, he turned back. “Look, I’m here and pulling my weight, so I don’t think Ruben’s going to care, even if you do tell him this story of yours. Now, is there something else you wanted?”
She laughed. “Actually, I stopped by to ask if you’re happy.Is this really what you dreamed about for all those years?”
Before he could stop himself, he said, “How do you-“
Her laugh deepened for a second, new overtones coming into it that sent shivers up his spine. “You don’t have to believe for me to have power, Jace. And you might like the ring toss, but this isn’t what you joined us for.”
“I was looking for work and this seemed like fun. That’s all.”
“More lies,” she said as she hitched her long, loose skirt up and sat on the low counter. “How long do you think it’ll take you to work your way to the top, Jace? Ten years? Fifteen?”
He shrugged, not willing to say that he thought even those might be optimistic guesses. But it was his dream, so he’d do what he had to. He replaced the bottles and began gathering up the rings that were strewn across the ground. Lilia’s next words brought his head up.
“It could happen sooner, if you knew the right path to walk.”
He stared into her eyes. In the growing darkness, they’d become almost black. He hesitated, trying to figure out how to answer and if she meant what he thought she did. “I do know the path. I’ll work hard and learn everything I can. I’ll make friends and eventually find the backing I need. It’ll happen. I just have to keep at it.”
She shook her head, a low chuckle drifting across the booth to him. “Such a long, difficult road you’re proposing to travel. I have an alternative, if you want something better.”
She looked off into the distance then. Was she giving him time to think about it?He didn’t really believe she had a faster way or even that there was one, but she sounded so certain.
“I don’t really see how there could be.”
Lilia turned back, smiling. “Two years, Jace. You could lead this very carnival, be its ringmaster in two short years.”
He laughed, unable to help himself. “Impossible.”
“And a seventeen year old boy knows everything that’s possible in the world?”
Her words had been spoken lightly, but the glint in those now-black eyes was more than challenging. It was menacing. Jace wondered what the hell he was in the middle of and decided he’d play along at least until he could get away from her or she lost interest.
“Well, what are you suggesting? Are you going to tell me how to do that?”
“It doesn’t work that way.” Instead of leaving, she slid closer, enough that he could feel the heat of her body. Another half inch and she’d be brushing up against him. He wanted to back away, but there was nowhere to go without tripping over the half-wall of the booth. His mouth dried up.
“You’ll know the next step when it comes up. Think of it like a dance through the dark. You’ll feel it when it’s time, even if you don’t know what comes after.”
“And what would it cost me, this path?” God, was he really considering this? Really taking her seriously enough to ask that?
“The path costs less than doing it your way. Two years versus ten, Jace. Versus twenty, or even thirty.”
“And you’d give this to me, what, out of the goodness of your heart?”
Lilia threw her head back and laughed as if he’d told the best joke ever. Again, that chilling edge came into the sound. He moved back involuntarily, banging his heel into the wall behind him and jumping.
“What is it you think I’m after?”
He didn’t want to say what he was thinking. He knew it was stupid, the result of watching too much TV before he left home. But her eyes bore in on him, her amused half smile teasing him into saying something. “My soul.”
She shook her head. “Doesn’t even interest me.”
“Oh. Then what?”
“Nothing of yourself. I have other interests.”
Jace waited for her to say more, and when she didn’t, he asked, “So, let’s say I believe you. How does this work?”
“You only have to say that you accept my offer.”
“And the first step of the path will make itself known.”
She smiled at him, her eyes now the deepest black imaginable.
He hesitated again, trying to think clearly but the brilliant image unfolding in his head made that hard and it wouldn’t be denied. Himself, young, not even twenty, standing in the center under the big tent. The crowd watching him, the mic in his hand. He looked so handsome in the ringmaster’s suit that he knew the girls would pay attention at last. Him, Jace, the youngest ringmaster in history. He was barely aware of his lips moving as he contemplated this image.
“And it would be that easy?”
It shouldn’t be. There was no way what she offered could be possible. And yet it was so tempting, the vision so vivid.
“Yes, but only if you accept the offer.”
He turned it over, wanting to consider it from all angles. It would be too easy to get sucked into this vision and not look for whatever strings might be attached. Yet in the vision, he began introducing the performers, only to be cut off by the crowd’s applause and roaring approval for him. That it was unrealistic didn’t seem to change the allure that grew by the second.
“Well, Jace? Do you want it or not?”
As soon as she uttered that last word, the vision disappeared, popping like a balloon. He blinked, bereft already at the loss. “Yes, I want it. I accept your offer. Now bring it back.”
Her laugh rang out in the night, dark and frightening this time. It came not from Lilia but from all around her. He couldn’t understand how she could make such a sound, as it grated on his ears. “You’ll be living it in no time at all. You don’t need that vision to distract you from the path. Now, go about your business. I’m sure you’ll find the first step in no time, maybe even tonight.”
Without another word or glance at him, she slipped off the counter and walked into the night in the direction of her tent.
Jace stared after her, trying to figure out what had just happened. If there had been any humor in her laughter, he’d have decided it was all a joke. Could she mean what she’d said? He didn’t feel any different, didn’t know anything more so far as he could tell, but she’d said he wouldn’t know the next step until it was time.
More laughter broke his consideration of Lilia and her offer, but this time it wasn’t her. A large group of teens were walking along the aisle. One pointed at his booth and they all came over. For the first time since joining Ruben’s, Jace wished they’d just leave. He wanted time to think about what he’d just done. It might not be too late to change his mind, but from her last comment, he thought the time to do so was short. If it had all been real, that was, rather than a prank of some sort.
The teens were into their sixth round of rings, his impatience growing with each minute, when a hand landed on his shoulder. He flinched and looked around, expecting midnight eyes surrounded by pale skin. Instead of Lilia, Andy was there, his hand dropping back to his side. Ruben’s second in command looked surprised and distressed all at once.
“You okay, Jace? Didn’t mean to startle you.”
It took a moment for him to find his voice again. “Sorry. Got caught up in something. What do you need?”
“You’re going to have to close up the ring toss for the night. There’s more important stuff to do, things that can’t wait and the boss thinks you’re the guy for the job.”
Confused, Jace opened his mouth to ask what Andy was talking about, then closed it as his attention was consumed by a single thought. Rather than argue or ask questions, he had to agree, because Ruben needed him to assist with the performance tonight. Jace knew this without a single doubt, and understood. This was the first step, the one he’d been promised he’d know.
Before he could answer, he heard another clink, metal on glass and looked down. A silver circle shone in the lights that had come up while the teens had been playing. It was too big for the game, and would have fallen through to the ground, except the bottle it had landed on stood touching another, no space between them for the ring to pass through.
The silver circle was familiar, but before he could figure out why, he saw a drop of something on it, dark and red. It couldn’t be blood, could it? Then he realized what the large ring was and looked around. He found Lilia, who was again watching him from the side of the next booth over. He wanted to ask how she’d gotten Helen’s bracelet, but realized he already knew. She’d taken his sister. He didn’t need to ask whose blood it was, because that was obvious: Helen’s.
The fortuneteller’s voice whispered in his ear as her lips moved slightly. “She’s mine now. She was what I sought. You have no idea what I will make of her.”
He was too frozen in horror to even shake his head, let alone speak. He wanted to accuse her of lying but she answered him before he could form the words.
“I only said I wanted nothing of yourself. And know that refusing the path won’t get her back. I promised knowledge, not results.”
Just as Jace thought this moment couldn’t get any worse, Lilia shimmered and in her place, a middle-aged man appeared, grinning, his eyes glowing blue. “Your sister and I are going to do great things together. She’ll create a darker carnival than you can imagine and the world will flock to hand us their money and their souls.”
A scream was building in Jace’s chest, but before he could unlock his throat enough to get it out, the man shimmered again and vanished. Jace looked back down at Helen’s bracelet, the one he’d saved up for months to buy her. He could see the last word of the inscription on the inside clearly, as the whole of it ran through his mind. For my high-flying sister. Dream big.
“Jace? Are you coming or not?”
He’d almost forgotten Andy standing beside him. The first step. It was there, waiting for him. He glanced at the spot where Lilia, if it had ever really been her, had vanished. For a moment, he considered throwing it all away anyway, leaving to try to find them. Somehow, he knew it was already too late. Even if he found Helen, that creature would have already done its work on her and she wouldn’t be his sister anymore.
He snatched the bracelet up and tucked it into his pocket, trying not to cry as he spoke the words he knew would lead him on the path he’d paid for.
“Anything the boss needs, Andy. You know that. Tell me what to do.”
“It’s your lucky day,” Andy said, grinning big enough that Jace wanted to punch him. “Might even be your big break at this carnival, if you do this right.”
And he would do it right. Jace knew it, because that would be part of the path too.He’d know every bitter step as it came to carry him to his one-time dream, the one he could never share with Helen now.
Born in Toronto, Ontario, Julie Elizabeth Hill exported herself to Vancouver, British Columbia after many years of staring longingly at the map following every snowfall. For as long as she can remember, she’s been making up stories, but it wasn’t until high school that someone suggested writing them down. Since then, she’s been hopelessly in love with story crafting, often forgetting about everything else in the process.
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