You’ve dared return to the Dark Carnival. How brave, yet foolish! Today, I can’t guarantee you’ll make it out alive. This next one is gruesome people, so hold on to your hats!
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Carnivals are magical. The swirling lights, the children who stare wide-eyed in awe of the sights and sounds, the pulse of the music blasting through the merry-go-round speakers. Each night, the fairground comes alive, filled with the smell of funnel cakes and deep fried oreos.
Until it ends.
Until the crowds start heading for their mini vans and the safety of their homes. Children yawn and clutch their treasured winnings, winnings destined to be discarded at the bottom of a toy chest and left to collect dust. But for that one night, it is magical.
Carnies aren’t the most trusting folk. Most of us had been brought up in this community, and it was rare that we ever hired on someone new. We never stayed more than one night per city, then we were gone, leavingonly traces of theprevious night. It can get exhausting. This particular morning, however, I felt especially refreshed.
“Hey, Donny! Get your lazy ass up and help me load up the game! I’m dying over here!” came a voice from inside the panel van. A jumble of curly brown hair peeked out the back as my older brother strained against the full weight of the Whack-A-Mole machine. “Yeah, yeah I’m coming”, I huffed.
Our family had been running the Whack-A-Mole game for as long as I can remember. Not the most glamorous part of the carnival, but people liked it. We made pretty good money at it too. The machine weighs a ton and is fairly beat up–my dad jokes that it’s just “well-loved”. I guess I’m pretty “well-loved” too considering I always seemed to wake up with new cuts and bruises I swear weren’t there when I went to sleep. However, breaking down tents in the middle of the night definitely leads to some aches and pains now and again.
After Rick and I got the machine loaded into the van, most of the other vehicles were already leaving us in the dust. Taking one last look around, I spotted the hammer for the game propped up against an empty cardboard box. We’d be screwed without that vital piece of the game, so I ran back and grabbed it. As soon as I grabbed it, a deep feeling of nostalgia washed over me. As ridiculous as it sounds, it’s like that hammer and me were old friends and it felt right in my hands, the weight exactly right and the handle rubbed smooth from so many people handling it. I remember as a child, barely being able to lift it to play the game. This thing was almost as old as I was, dark wood, splotchy and discolored from repeated use. “What’s taking so long??” Rick yelled over the running engine, shocking me back into reality. I jumped into the passenger seat, threw the hammer into the back and we were off. Apparently to San Diego.
I’d always daydreamed that San Diego girls were all tanned, hot and walked around in bikinis all day. Obviously I’d abandoned that teenage dream, but I was looking forward to seeing what they did walk around in. Sure, there were girls my age that worked at the carnival, but most of them avoided me for some reason. My brother said it was because I was intimidating and I guess I might have been, standing at about 6’4’’ and fairly well muscled due to years of hardwork. I think he was just being nice though, considering the girls were always batting their eyes at him.
After the few hours it took to drive to San Diego, we arrived at the new fairground and started unloading. My dad, tall and bearded, started walking towards us. “Glad you guys finally made it, some of us have been here for hours!” he exclaimed with a chuckle.
“Aw come on, Dad, cut us some slack. We had a long night.”
Turning grave, my father muttered under his breath, “I know. Why don’t you boys take the day off? Most of the tents are already up and Mike and I can unload the van. You deserve some time off. Plus, you don’t want to miss the beach!” he said with a wink.
“Seriously?” We rarely get a day off when there’s a carnival to put on that night. But I wasn’t going to ask twice.
“Yeah, go on, get out of here.”
We started heading towards the beach. Neither of us had been to this city before, but it was pretty obvious we were on the right path. Cyclists zoomed past us trailing beach towels and squealing kids. Most people were barefoot or in flip-flops and we looked totally out of place in our boots and jeans. We passed a group of giggling girls that looked to be around 20 and I flashed them a smile. Two of them blushed and looked away, while the blonde smiled right back at me, unafraid. I nudged my brother and started walking towards the group. The blonde stood up, smoothed her skirt and stuck out her hand.
“Hi, my names Rachel. Were you trying to get my attention?”
My face reddened and she laughed at my embarrassment. “Uh…yeah, I guess I was.” I stammered. I looked at Rick and he rolled his eyes. “My names Donny, nice to meet you. And this is my brother Rick. We’re only in town for the night.”
“Oh, well we were just discussing our plans for tonight.” Rachel looked behind her to the other girls, who were still giggling amongst themselves. “This is Natalie and Amelia.”
“We’re working tonight, remember Don?” Rick said, clearly not interested in the situation. Well screw him.
“Yeah, we work at the carnival that’s going up about a mile away. You girls interested in free tickets?” I’ll be damned if I let Rick ruin this for me.
“That’d be fun!” squeaked Natalie. Or maybe it was Amelia.
“Yeah, I think that would be fun. Thanks! Which booth do you work at so we can be sure to visit?” Rachel asked, turning towards me.
“The Whack-A-Mole booth. Here you go and hope to see you girls tonight.” I said as I handed over three tickets.
“We should probably get back. There’s only a few hours until opening.” Rick piped in.
“Thanks again for the tickets. See you tonight!” Natalie said as she did a small wave.
As we walked away, Rick elbowed me and said while chuckling, “Man, you need a serious lesson in smooth.”
“Ok, Romeo – thanks for the backup. If they show up tonight, that’s all that matters. She was into me, I can tell.” I said, half trying to convince myself as we trekked back to the festival site to help with what was left of setup.
The first half of the night was a bit of a drag, but it started picking up at around 9pm. I kept glancing over the crowd for Rachel’s flowing blond hair, but soon, my line filled up at the Whack-A-Mole booth and I didn’t have a moment to spare. At 11:30pm, with only 30 minutes until it was time to close up, I looked up and saw what I had been waiting for all night.
“Sorry I’m late! Natalie and Amelia dragged me to this bar, met some guys and wouldn’t leave! I grabbed a taxi over here, but traffic was terrible,” exclaimed Rachel, clearly out of breath.
Smiling, I said, “Well, at least you made it! And there might even be time for you to play a game or two.” I handed her the hammer and started up the machine. “Go for it!”
Biting her bottom lip in concentration, Rachel pulled the hammer up over her head and as soon as the game started, she squealed with delight as she brought the hammer down on plastic mole after mole. We were both laughing so hard by the end of it, there were tears streaming down our faces. “Oh, that was way too much fun!” she said while setting down the hammer and wiping some sweat off her forehead. “Whew, and exhausting!”
“Ha, ha, you did great! There’s still a bit of time left before we shut down if you’d like a quick tour.”
“Yeah, that’d be great. You sure you won’t get in trouble for leaving the booth?”
“Nah, it’ll be fine. Want some deep fried oreos?”
The next 30 minutes went by way too fast, as Rachel and I scarfed down some deep fried oreos and I showed her all the splendor that is the carnival. Seeing the flashing lights reflected in her blue eyes made me want to scoop her up and kiss her right there, but I held back – not wanting her to think I was desperate. Every other girl I had been this close to had run in the opposite direction sooner or later and I was determined not to screw up this time.
Soon, the booming voice over the speakers announced that it was time for the carnival-goers to be heading back to their cars…back to their normal, everyday lives. As we slowly walked back to the Whack-A-Mole tent, Rachel looked at me with a sorrowful look and muttered, “Well, I guess I should be heading home. I hate that I got here so late.”
Mustering up all my courage, I suggested, “Well, my brother might hate me in the morning, but how about I ditch the clean-up and we go for a walk – I know a really quiet place under the bleachers that won’t be taken down until tomorrow morning.”
Still smiling, but looking a little uneasy, Rachel said, “Ok…seems a bit creepy though. What if some creep tries to bother us or something?”
Picking up the Whack-A-Mole hammer and slinging it over my shoulder, I laughed, “Don’t worry about anything, I’ll take care of you. And it’s not too far away from the rest of the carnival.”
Once we reached the nearly abandoned bleachers, we slipped into the nearest opening and found a comfortable spot to sit and talk. I started experiencing this strange, uneasy feeling, but I ignored it. As I placed the hammer next to me, we started talking about where she went to school, how she lived with her parents, and all the things I wanted to know about her. I told her about traveling with the carnival and how it’s just like being around family all the time.
“Doesn’t that get annoying?”she said laughing. “That would drive me nuts!”
“It’s actually really comforting. Knowing that people would do anything for you. We have our share of problems, but everyone knows about them and in a strange sort of way, we help keep each other sane.”
“Huh, I never would have thought of it that way.”
As the conversation started dying down and Rachel yawned, I hesitantly suggested, “Do you want me to call you a taxi? I didn’t realize it was getting so late.”
Rachel seemed to think for a moment and then said, “I’m not normally this type of girl, I swear, but you really make me feel safe,” and before I even knew what was happening, Rachel leaned in and gently kissed me on the lips. As much as I was enjoying this, I couldn’t shake that sinking feeling that grew by the second but Rachel didn’t seem to have noticed anything was wrong. Rachel leaned in again, this time grabbing the back of my head as that feeling devolved into a rising rage I couldn’t control.
I tried to ignore it, and just enjoy the moment I’d been waiting for all night, but it was becoming too much. I yanked my head away, leaving Rachel with a confused look. “Sorry, but I don’t think I can do this.” I said nearly out of breath.
“Aw, you’re such a gentleman”, Rachel joked. “It’s really ok – I trust you”, leaning in again.
“I said NO!” I yelled as I shoved Rachel away from me. Feeling more and more sick by the second, my vision started clouding over, and a rising heat from within my body was taking over. Rachel looked horrified and started crawling backwards towards the entrance of the stadium seats.
“I’m sorry”, she stuttered, tears beginning to stream down her face. “I didn’t know.”
Looking at Rachel backing away from me made me want to laugh for some reason. “Well, that’s what you get for being a little slut, isn’t it??” Rachel turned around, crouching to get out of the enclosed space faster.
“Where do you think you’re going now?? I thought you said you trusted me??” I taunted, seeing her fumble over the rocky ground. She looked back with pure terror in her eyes and saw the hammer, which I unknowingly had begun twirling in my hand.
I reached out and grabbed her foot, yanking her back towards me. With a start, she lost her footing, slamming her head down onto a rock, the smell of blood filling the space.
The smell seemed to make my stomach growl with anticipation and my eyes landed on her gaping head wound, seeing the blood run into her panicked eyes. I could barely hear her whimpers over the sound of my own beating heart. I drug her out from under the bleachers, her body futilely thrashing against my hold. All she accomplished was wearing herself out further. When I let go, Rachel didn’t even move, just curling up into a choking, sobbing ball. She begged for me to stop, for someone to help.
I lifted the hammer like I had a million times before and brought it crashing down on Rachel’s head, a sickening crunch that coursed through my arms. Her body shook, spasming as the last vestiges of life left her. Then there was silence.
I casually nudged her with my foot, rolling her body over so I could look into her eyes – those beautiful blue eyes that had reflected the lights of the carnival not hours before. As blood trickled down her face, filling her nose and mouth, she looked all the more beautiful now.
I leaned down and caressedwhat was left of her head, running my hands through her matted, wet hair – covering myself in her blood.
Suddenly, everything was clear. I could hear voices. It took a second, but I realized they were calling my name. It sounded like my brother and father – why were they looking for me?
Feeling something warm drip onto my hand, I looked down and immediately grew faint. Without thinking, I dropped Rachel’s lifeless body. Looking beside her, I saw the hammer, dripping with something dark and wet. Then, looking down at my own hands, I saw they were covered in that same blood and it all came flooding back to me.
“NO!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. What had I done? What kind of sick freak am I?
“He’s over here!”I heard Rick shout. “Oh shit, and he’s not alone – hurry!”
I heard boots running towards me and I buried my head in my bloody hands, horrified at what I had done, but there was no use hiding it.
The footsteps came up short and I heard my brother drop to his knees, gasping for air. “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.” I looked up to see the look of disappointment and pity in my brother’s face, an odd reaction for seeing his brother crouched over the mangled body of a girl.
I looked up and saw my father running towards us and my brother stood up, shaking his head. He gestured towards Rachel’s bloody form. My father slowed and bent over her, searching for a pulse, but I knew better – there would never be one from her again.
“Oh god”, I choked out. “What have I done? I don’t know what happened – something set me off – I thought my head was going to explode! She made me so angry, I don’t know what came over me!”
“It’s alright son. We know you didn’t mean to. Let’s get this cleaned up.” My father said, resigned. What the hell was going on? Why were they so calm?
“I just KILLED someone! I just MURDERED someone! And all you can say is that it’s alright??” I screamed in their faces.
“Calm down, asshole – we’re trying to help you! Clean up your mess. Like we always do.” The last line almost inaudible, but I still heard it.
“What do you mean like you always do?” I said,feeling only fear, disgust and confusion. “Dad, what is he talking about? Has anything like this ever happened before?” I was almost too afraid to hear his answer.
Sighing, my father said “Son, let’s just get this cleaned up and we’ll explain everything back at the camp.” Instinctively, he grabbed a nearby tarp and started rolling it over Rachel’s body, something he seemed all too familiar with doing. I was shaking too badly to help and watched in horror as my father and brother rolled Rachel’s body up and slung it between them.
As we made our way back to the camp, I kept my eyes down, occasionally looking up when we passed some of the other workers. When they met my eyes, they immediately looked away and pretended not to notice us. What was going on with everyone? How can they not see what I’ve done?
When we reached the tent my father and mother slept in, my mother was waiting outside with tears in her eyes as if she already knew what to expect. She ran forward and hugged me, weeping into my shoulder. My head was spinning and my hands were shaking so badly, I just stood dumbfounded there as my family surrounded me with looks of pity. My father and brother gently laid down the tarp concealing Rachel’s body, which had already begun to leak through with her fresh blood.
I started gagging and didn’t make it far before I started retching so hard my eyes felt like they were about to pop out of my skull. I felt my mother’s hand patting me on the back and I whipped around, wiping vomit off my chin, screaming with rage, “What is wrong with all of you? Why can’t you say anything? What is happening to me??”
“Sit down and we’ll explain everything. Martha, get the tea ready.” My father said with a catch in his throat. She silently turned back into the tent and put the tea kettle on.
Moments later, my mother came out of the tent and handed me a cup of tea, still steaming. It reeked of chemicals and I didn’t have to ask what was in it. Something to make me calm down. Something I desperately wanted to do right then. Then, maybe I could grasp what was going on.
Staring into the eyes of my family, I took a deep breath and downed the tea in one gulp. At first nothing happened, but then the floor began falling towards me as I fell face first into the mud, not waking again until morning.
The next morning, I awoke to the familiar sounds of my fellow carnies packing up. I didn’t remember going to bed last night and I must have been in bad shape because my arm had fallen asleep underneath me and I had pounding headache.
“You awake yet, lazy ass?” I heard Rick’s voice come from outside the tent. I rose up and slipped on some shorts and stepped outside. Looking across the site, I saw two police cars stopped at the entrance, speaking to the manager. “Wonder what that’s about?” I said to no one in particular.
“Apparently some girl’s mom called and said her daughter was here last night but that she never came home. She probably just got drunk and ended up at a friend’s house.” Rick said, a little too quickly.
“Hmph. Oh well, hope they find her. Need help with anything?” Damn, my head hurt.
“Uh, nah I got this. Want to go check and see if anyone else needs anything?”
I found myself wandering over to where some guys were taking down the last of the stadium seating and loading it into trucks. I walked up and offered to help with the last of it, but they all just avoided my eyes and said they didn’t need my help. Whatever, less work for me. As I started walking away, I saw something out of the corner of my eye. I headed over and saw the hammer from the Whack-A-Mole machine standing up against a rock. It looked almost shiny in the morning light. “How’d you get all the way over here, little guy?” I said playfully as I picked it up. I slung it over my shoulder like I had a million times before and headed back to the van where my brother had just finished loading up the tents.
“Hey, look what I found?” I chuckled as I threw the hammer in the back of the van.
Rick cringed, I guess from the sound it made, and then gave me a half-smile. “Yeah, we wouldn’t want to leave that lying around, would we?”
As I hopped in the van beside Rick, I turned and looked out the rearview mirror one last time at the slowly emptying festival site. I saw the police lights circling in the distance, becoming blurry as we drove towards our next destination.
“Such a crazy life we lead….” Rick muttered, more to himself it seemed than to me.
“Yeah…but I wouldn’t wanna miss a second of it!” I chuckled to myself as I leaned my seat back, put my hands behind my head and closed my eyes as the sun beat in on my face. I started daydreaming about the carnival sounds, the flashing lights and the looks on beautiful girl’s faces when their eyes reflected it all.
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