You’ve dared return to the Dark Carnival. How daring yet foolish. Because today, I can’t guarantee you’ll make it out alive.
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The Whites of Their Eyes
I lean on the counter, watching the people move in sweating, red-faced streams.
Everyone’s heard about the Carnival. What exactly they know varies from person to person, town to town. We’ve been around long enough that some of the places are repeats, though the last time we were in this particular city was at least ten years ago. They know to come in groups, not to make eye contact, walk with confidence. It would be better if they stayed away all together.
But that’s the thing. They can’t.
Nobody can resist the allure of the one place they shouldn’t be. It’s what the Carnival banks on and how it makes its money. Every ad campaign, every flier, every billboard remind people that the Carnival isn’t safe, that they should stay away – but if they come, there will be thrills beyond anything they could imagine. The Carnival’s danger is what the rules and the sub rules are founded on.
1) Don’t set foot on Carnival grounds.
2) If you trespass on Carnival grounds, you have to follow Carnival rules. Those rules are as follows:
a) Don’t look a Carnival employee in the eye.
b) If you are alone, you are fair game for the employees to do anything they want.
c) By playing the games, you release the Carnival from all liability for you or your possessions.
d) Do not cheat, lie, or steal from or in the Carnival.
e) There is no recourse against the actions of the employees, or the Carnival itself. You acknowledge by entering the Carnival that you will abide by Carnival rules, and that you have no legal ability to contest or seek recrimination for anything that happens to you on Carnival grounds.
3) Never speak about what happens to you at the Carnival.
There are, of course, consequences for infractions of any of the rules or sub rules. Law and order wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for punishment. Most people ignore rule one. I’m pretty sure that rule was only created so everyone would be compelled to break it. It’s the other rules that matter, once people have entered the Carnival, and it’s those rules that haunt the ones who make it out again. I would have thought that when the first people were taken – when it became obvious that the rules, and their consequences, are very much real, and real life is much messier than imaginary things – that people would have stopped coming.
I would have stopped coming, if I had the choice. But something bigger than rules, and very much like consequences, both brought me and keeps me here. The rules, the unspoken laws everyone silently agrees to by being born into the world, didn’t hold up out there. It’s both my consequence and the world’s that I ended up here.
Come to the carnival. Come to play. Come to stay – longer than you think.
The Midway is relatively empty. I think it’s the heat keeping the numbers down for today. We took a record number of people yesterday, according to the Grand Master, but that’s never kept people away before.
I learned that in my first year with the Carnival. I joined to escape danger; to make it for others, instead of being subject to it myself. After losing Mattie, I had no desire to be vulnerable ever again. The Carnival was the ideal place to burn away every part of myself that could be wounded. So it was to my astonishment I learned that people – hordes of them, masses and scores of them, couples on first dates and families with small children – came to the Carnival because of the danger.
The things that have happened to other people won’t happen to them, the rules that have ensnared so many others will pass them by. And just to prove it, they come. And inevitably they fall into the same trap.
I wait, sweat running down my neck, knowing it won’t be long until the rules capture another wrongdoer for me. This time, it’s only about five minutes. A father makes the mistake of looking my way. I point, and Loren goes to them, seizing their daughter by the arm. She must be six or seven, with long golden curls.
The mother starts bawling immediately, wailing and flinging her arms around, saying they made a mistake.
But that’s the thing. There are rules at the carnival. And if you want to play, you better be ready to lose.
The little girl goes into the first box. Each shooter’s cube has a door to lock behind them, and walls on the other two sides so they can’t see the other shooters. Every child gets ear protection and a silver pistol. It comes pre-loaded.
For a little while, the traffic on the Midway thins. It always does after we take one. But they always come back again.
The next child presents himself, a willing sacrifice. He runs into me, short chubby legs and a red-striped shirt, too busy looking up at the balloon dancing on the end of the string to watch where he’s walking.
This father takes a swing at Loren, but Loren is much bigger and flattens him with a single blow. Striped-Shirt boy is number two.
Numbers three and four arrive much faster than usual. The first is another little girl. Loren waits outside the bathrooms sometimes, counting. He always chooses number twenty-seven. He’s never told me why.
The twenty-seventh bathroom visitor is wearing a blue sundress and has chocolate pigtails that swing energetically as she walks. The instant she emerges Loren seizes her arm and propels her to me without comment. Her parents don’t even notice at first.
A second boy joins them when the afternoon bells go off. He looks up to find them, and meets my eyes instead. His mother sees it happen, she goes pale and stiffens but Loren is already on his way towards them.
The rules are the rules. Everyone knows them before they walk through the gates. Once they’re here, everything hinges on them.
Come to the carnival. Come to play. Come to stay – longer than you think.
We have four. One more to go and we can get started.
I lean my elbows on the wooden counter and wait. Two of the kids are crying, trying to get out of their cubes and run to their mothers.
The shooting cubes can withstand much more than the attempts of children to beat them down.
The striped shirt boy is sitting on the ground, staring at the gun in his hand. He turns it, around and around, staring with fascination at his own reflection in the barrel.
If he gets started too soon, we’ll have to wait until we find a replacement for him as well. I keep an eye on him. If he goes for the trigger, I’ll have it out of his hands in a moment.
The last little girl meets my gaze.
Her pigtails are drooping; one of them is loose and wild from her struggle with Loren. She doesn’t cry or look vacant, and she says nothing. She stares at me.
She looks like Mattie.
For all I know, this is where her killer came. Came to practice hitting targets, boom-boom-boom, knocking each one over with a single shot, an explosion of flames. I still don’t know if he had planned on shooting whoever he found at home, or if it was a reaction in the heat of the moment. It doesn’t much matter. Mattie is dead because a man felt like robbery, because Mom was gone and my show was on, and I sent her to answer the door instead of going myself. These are the sorts of things kids do – momentary decisions that change the world. In many ways, my game actually saves the kids. Some futures aren’t worth living to see.
It’s getting gray along the horizon and I’m afraid we’ll be here until tomorrow, waiting for number five to arrive.
I leave my post and stroll along the Midway, watching the people spinning on rides, guzzling lemonade, and kissing in the shadows of the bathroom structure. The crowds part ways for me, like Moses through the Red Sea.
I see her then, and at once I know she will be number five. I could call her out now, but I wait.
She’s only four, maybe five, just a little slip of a thing with speedy hands and nimble fingers. Her parents are talking with Alexei over the countertop, but the cotton candy is within her reach. One cone is directly in front of her face, top heavy with lightly spun sweetened air. Her hand darts out, captures a pinch, shoots up to her mouth.
Alexei screams his rage before the bite is even dissolved on her tongue. It’s the mirrors that told him. Mirrors line the entire ceiling of his stand, all the way out to the very edge of the roofline. Every angle is revealed, every secret laid bare, every action projected across a thousand slates of glass. Of course the little thing’s action does not go unnoticed.
Loren is with them in seconds, so I return to my booth. It’s time.
The mother and father are both clinging to Loren’s arms, trying to wrestle their daughter out of his hands, trying to slow his progress, but none of it is any use.
“A thief,” Alexei says, flinging the girl into my legs. “Had her mouth stuffed with candy when I saw her.”
“We were going to pay!” The mother says, cheeks stained with tears.
“I had my wallet out! Look, I still have it. Here, here you can have everything in it, take it!” The father shoves a wad of cash into Alexei’s chest, roaring when it hits the ground untouched.
Loren grabs the man’s arms and pulls them behind. If you break the rules, you shouldn’t be compounding it by fighting the consequences. That’s another rule.
“I don’t care about your money.” Alexei does have a magnificent sneer. “It was not in my hand before the candy was in her mouth. She’s a thief. She plays.”
Loren is still occupied with the father so I pull the girl over to the fifth shooter’s box myself, wrestle her inside and slam the door shut, twisting the padlock closed. The kid will have to figure out the ear protection herself, if she wants to wear it.
I flip the switch, goosebumps shuddering to life up and down my skin as the game bursts into a thousand brilliant lights.
The music squeals out through the speakers overhead, crashing into a crescendo and falling low again.
“It’s a game of chance and a game of skill. You won’t know the winner until the last round is fired!” It’s my voice, recorded over ten years ago now. How very many of these games those same phrases have presided over.
The targets come to life against the far wall, shimmying and dancing. They are painted children, all in primary colors, each one with a ghastly grin etched across its tin face.
The shooter’s boxes move.
They are in random patterns, chosen by the machine the moment I flip the switch. I never know how they will arrange themselves, though I’ve run the game long enough to recognize them all now.
This is pattern twenty-three. Shooting Star.
The little girls with the dark pigtails and inscrutable eyes looks me dead-on, lifts her chin.
The parents scream as if they are one unit, racing forward and pressing themselves against the plexiglass wall now separating them from their sweet babies. There’s no way in.
Those are the rules. Come to the carnival. Come to play. Come to stay – much longer than you think.
Their keening echoes over the music. The muted sounds of their hands striking the glass plays a bass line. Loren stands apart from them, arms folded. He’ll catch the ones that faint.
I flip another switch and the platforms inside the shooter’s boxes rise. Now everyone can see plainly the additional targets, hovering over each shooter’s head.
“The rules are simple,” I say. “Hit all the targets that match your color. The winner walks away free. Missing your targets or refusing to shoot are not options for you. The game opens up only when someone wins.”
I drop onto the cushioned seat on the operator’s stand. The music ratchets up a few notches. It runs across the scale, faster and faster, the lights blink on and off, on again, flickering against the maelstrom of melody.
“Take your mark.”
I flip the switch.
Jamie likes to think of herself as a renaissance writer – she’s written MG, YA, and NA novels as well as numerous short stories. When she’s not writing, she’s working and trying to get through graduate school. She lives off of coffee, hot chocolate, and chocolate chip pancakes, is trying to train for a 5k, has a cute-shoe problem, and thinks the perfect day would be staying in her pajamas reading books and trading stories with friends.
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