Thank you so much for joining us for another feature of the Dark Carnival.
You can see the live list of participants and their posts dates on this link.
Now that the Dark Carnival has arrived, our next game stall that has opened is called Until It Pops. Step right up folks. I’m sure you’ll love it! Don’t forget to follow the buzz on twitter using the official hashtag #DarkCarnival.
Oh, and don’t forget to scroll to the bottom of this post for a giveaway!
Until It Pops
by Lucas Hargis
The whoosh of the nearby Tilt-a-Whirl blows Maisie’s hair back from her cute, little face. She sticks out her tongue and drops the last tuft of cotton candy onto it. The floss melts away into dark blue that matches the sugary stains on her lips.
“You’re a mess,” I say with a smile. I wave the strip of tickets in front of her. “No more stalling with carnival goodies. I already bought these and you have to ride something. It’s big brother law.”
Maisie frowns as she wipes her sticky hands on her favorite purple-sparkle shirt. “I hate when the bars squish down.”
With deflection skills beyond her five years, Maisie’s sticky hands tug me to the Ring Toss booth. Her eyes widen at the stuffed ponies dangling overhead.
“Please, Cody, can I play? Pleaaase. I wanna win one, and when we get home you can add a horn to make it a unicorn.”
“Nice try,” I say. “The Mega Slide doesn’t have a retaining bar.After you ride the slide, you can play a game.”
It takes her two days to trudge up the stairs, but once she’s ten feet into the untethered slipping of burlap over plastic, her squeals begin and don’t stop. My cheeks ache from grinning as Maisie quickly uses up all the tickets and begs for more.
I scoop her up. “That wasn’t fun at all, was it?”
“Not as fun as winning a pony’s going to be!”
I piggyback her to the Ring Toss where a dozen players dish out dollar after dollar. For five minutes we watch the red rings ping and skitter off the tops of the bottles. Not a single one hits its mark and slips around a bottle’s neck. “
This one’s rigged,” I whisper over my shoulder. “Nobody wins.”
Her soft breath tickles my ear. “That man taking the money’s a big cheater. And he looks mean, like he might hurt me.”
My guts twist at the thought. “That’ll never happen. I’ll protect you forever and ever.”
She twists around my side so we’re face-to-face. Her curly lashes don’t blink as she asks, “Even if you get hurt while protecting me?”
“I thought so,” she says, then kisses my nose.
“Let’s find another game withponies and better chances.”
She lets go and drops to her feet. “One we can’t lose?”
“Exactly. Keep your eyes open for a good one.”
Like always, Maisie hooks her finger into my belt loop so we don’t get separated as we push into the crowd. It’s warmer in the midst of the other revelers, taking the bite from the October night air. The scents of strangers and perfume mix with that of funnel cake and deep-fried cheese. I scan the sidelines for an easy game either Maisie can win or one I can win for her.
She lets go of my jeans and points. “Cody, look! A winner every time!”
I pluck a chunk of candied apple off her sleeve—a souvenir from carnival treat number one of three.
“Do they have ponies?” I ask.
She answers by dashing to the Until It Pops game and perching herself on a stool. The other sevenseats are unoccupied, and if itstays that way I can let her win.I take the stool next to Maisie and test-swivel the water gun. Brightly painted clown heads gape at us with wide open maws. The prizes of plush ponies, boy-band posters, rubber food, inflatable aliens, and foam hats hang above them.
Way up, all alone on the top shelf, sits a prize unlike the cheap toys. Faceted, purple crystals swirl over the hand-carved wood of the horse’s flanks. The tail and mane look velvet-soft. But it’s the twisted horn glittering on the sculpture’s forehead that matters the most.
Without taking my eyes off it, I lean towards Maisie. “Do you see it?”
She doesn’t answer.
Her jaw hangs open. Her eyes shine big and round, sparkling like an anime girl.
A shadow falls over Maisie as a creepo clown blocks her view of the unicorn. And by clown I mean an old lady who accidentally looks like one. Her sunken and saggy face is slathered thick with makeup. She’s miserably failing at her attempt to look sixty years younger.Bright-orange hair frizzes out from her too-skinny head. It gets worse below the neck where a midriff tank showcases the old lady’s pierced navel and flabby bat-wing arms. A money apron, thankfully, hangs lower than her cut-off jean shorts.
She open-mouth chews bubble gum—toothless—like she forgot to put in her dentures.“Y’all gonna play or just stare at the pretties?”
Maisie sits up straight and responds in her best-manners voice, “What are the rules?”
Clown Lady twirls her ratty hair. “First, you pay me five bucks each.”
Her mascara-caked lashes wink as I hand her the money.
“Once the buzzer sounds, you squirt the juice in the clown’s mouth to fill that tiny balloon underneath until it pops.” Clown Lady calls over our heads to the passing crowd, “Step right up! Plenty of seats left!”
Maisie slides her hands into the pair of knight’s-armor-gloves attached to the gun. “There’s a winner every time?”
“Bet your bottom,” Clown Lady answers. Then she barks at the midway again, “A winner every time!”
The massive gloves swallow Maisie’s tiny hands.
“How do they fit?” I ask her.
“They’re kinda big, but I can reach the buttons. Where’s the water come from?”
I help her kneel on the stool. “The water flows from that metal pipe, through the clear tube,and up to the gun.”
A white-haired couple ease themselves onto the stools on the far side of Maisie. The grandpa pays Clown Lady as the grandma dotes on my sister. “You remind me of my granddaughter. You’re a big girl, though. I bet you’re going to beat me and win a big ol’ prize!”
A deep voice intrudes from behind me. “I’m gonna beat you all.”
A bearded guy about my Dad’s age, and twice his weight, plops next to me. Now we’ve only got a two in five chance of Maisie winning. I pivot my stool towards bearded guy, who’s gawking at the unicorn.
I hold out a five-dollar bill.”Will you let my sister win?”
His eyes sparkle for a second, then turn dark. “Hell no. That antique unicorn’s going home with me.”
“What do you want with it? You’re like forty years old. Unicorns are her favorite and she really wants that one.”
“I really want it more. I’ll have it listed online and sold before the carnival shuts down for the night.” He stretches behind me. “Good luck, little girl, but that unicorn’s mine.”
The bearded man, now officially Jerkhole, steals the cash out of my hand and waves it at Clown Lady. “Hey, carnie. You gonna come get this or not?”
Clown Lady saunters to him swinging her non-existent hips and wobbling in her high heels. “This carnie has a name.”
“Is it Bozo or Krusty?”
She grabs his forearm and lifts it like she going to kiss it. She bares her black-rot gums. ”You can call me Leech.”
In a flash, she latches onto his arm with her mouth .Jerkholetries to yank his fat arm out of her grip, but Leech hangs on like a sucker fish.
“What the hell? Get off me, freak!”
She finally disengages, but leaves a bright-pink hickey marring Jerkhole’s skin. Leech snatches his cash—my cash—and shoves it in her apron. She flashes a crazy-eyed, toothless grin, blows a bubble, then flicks her tongue at him. She wobbles back to the far left side of the booth to a panel of over-sized switches straight out of Frankenstein.
“Squirt your gun and fill your balloon until it pops. The first one wins.”
Leech flips a switch. A buzzer sounds, followed by music that would ooze out of a dying ice cream truck. She flips another switch, the buzzer sounds again, and water trickles from our gun barrels. I shove my hands into the gloves and squeeze the triggers.
Down the line, water arcs out from all five squirters. Maisie’s concentration face is in full effect: eyes intense, jaw tight, tongue hanging out of her mouth.
A third buzzer sounds. My gun jerks in response and the gloves tighten around my wrists. It’s uncomfortable, but the snugness might be better for Maisie. She’s doing great, pumping every drop straight into her clown’s mouth. I back off my triggers a bit and check out the competition. The old couple obviously don’t care about winning. They’re giggling and playfully squirting back & forth into each other’s clown. Jerkhole is way ahead, his balloon swelling faster than Maisie’s.
I swivel my gun and aim for her target.
Jerkhole whines, “That’s cheating! Bozo Leech! The kids are disqualified!”
She smacks her gum. “There aint no rule against it.”
Maisie’s balloon droops heavy like a cow’s udder past due for milking, stretching tight, quivering with the weight and tension of the liquid inside.
I try to let go of the gun, but my hands are locked in place. I jerk against the death grip of the metal gloves, but they’re shackles clamped around my wrists.
Jerkhole’s balloon explodes, sending cold spray all over me.
Maisie’s still screaming, louder than the twisted ice cream music.
“Hush child!” Leech barks. She hits the three switches in unison.
The water stops pumping, the eerie music dies, and the gloves release their stranglehold. The grandma’s already rocking Maisie before I can even get off my stool.
“What the hell was that?” I yell at Leech.
“The gloves have a mind of their own sometimes,” she says, popping her gum. “A leftover from when this used to be the Deadly Knights game.”
“Told y’all I’d win,” Jerkhole announces. “I’ll take that top-shelf unicorn.”
Leech cackles. “You wish, hot shot. You can pick something from the bottom row.”
“I don’t want that cheesy Made In China crap.”
“Then I’ll choose.” Leech selects a squeaky, rubber hamburger and line-drives it at his forehead.
Maisie rubs her wrists and asks, very business-like, “How many little prizes does it take to trade for the unicorn?”
The ancient carnie leans in. Close-up, I can see the thick layers of make-up crammed into her wrinkles like spackle. For the first time since we entered the booth, she stops chewing her gum.
“You can’t trade-up for the unicorn. That’s a special prize that’s been with me a long, long time. Many have tried to win it, but all have failed.”
I don’t like the way Leech is looking at her; like she’s hungry, like she gums little kids to death. I force myself between them. Leech smells like old pennies.
“What does it take to win it?” I ask.
“A special game.” She turns her back to us.“One that costs a lot more than money.”
Jerkhole stands up. “I’ll pay whatever it costs.”
Leech peers over her bony shoulder and licks her chapped lips. “It costs a payment worthy of the unicorn.” She opens her mouth and scrapes her tongue against her top row of rotten gums. “I’ve tasted you already.You can’t afford it.”
“The old-timers are in,” the grandma says. She pats Maisie’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, honey. If one of us wins it, we’ll give it right to you because I know you’ll love it forever.”
Jerkhole shoves his meaty hand into his pocket. “I’ll buy it outright. Do you take plastic? Of course not, you’re a backwoods carnie. Cash then. I’ve got eight hundred on me and can get more.”
Leech pulls a tube of lipstick from her apron and smears on even more bright-red. “The unicorn’s not for sale. It can only be won.”
Maisie pleads with me, eyes big as the moon. “Can we play again, Cody? I’ll give you all my birthday money when we get home.”
I peer deep into her baby blues. “We’re walking out of here with that unicorn.”
Maisie throws her arms around my neck and squeezes like the gloves.
“One of you might,” Leech smirks. “But I doubt it.”
She plucks off the used balloons and replaces them with fresh ones. “If any of you can walk out of here, I swear by the Dark Carnival you can take my unicorn with you.”
For the first time, the grandpa speaks. “Did she say if we can walk—”
“Last chance!” Leech punctuates the warning with a pop of her gum. Her knobby fingers wrap around another one of her switches. “Once I pull this, there aint no mind-changing. Stay seated if you want to play Leech’s special version of Until It Pops.”
Jerkhole bounces the rubber cheeseburger off her chest. “How much cash will it cost us to play, swindler?”
Leech’s voice comes out low and gravelly. “Not a dime.”
“Then pull the damn switch already.”
Heavy, red drapes slide closed behind us, separating us from the carnival beyond. The music, laughter, and whoosh of the rides fall dead silent as the two halves of the fabric smash together. The air in the space instantly feels thicker, heavier, older somehow. I grab Maisie’s arm. Unicorn or not, we’re getting the hell out.
A buzzer pierces the silence. The tinny ice-cream-truck music is tangible. It clanks through the closed space and sways the stuffed animals like it’s generating its own wind.
“Grab your guns,” Leech orders.
The air vibrates with ickiness, like the feeling you get when your face smacks into a spider’s web. My brain screams for me to grab Maisie and rush to the safety of the midway, the warmth of the crowd, the open air thick with the scent of fried things on a stick. My hands shake as they slip into the gloves and grip the cold triggers.
Maisie stares intently at the gaping clown head in front of her. I focus on my own and aim my barrel. Leech flips the second buzzer-rigged switch, but it doesn’t trigger water to trickle from the guns this time. Instead, the gloves constrict and clamp down even harder than before. Maisie muffles her screech behind tight, cotton-candy-blue lips.
“Stay calm,” I say, fighting to keep the fear out of my voice. “Focus on winning the unicorn. Nothing else matters, okay? Fill that balloon as quick as you can—until it pops.”
Her eyes sparkle with tears. Her bottom lip trembles as she nods.
“What are you doing?” the grandpa cries.
I look over, but Leech has already side-stepped away from him and in front of the grandma.
The grandma lifts her chin. “You are not sticking that in my arm. I no longer want to play. Set us free this instant.”
Leech pinches the woman’s lips shut. “It’s much too late for that decision.”
Her crooked hand traces the top of the water gun, slides down the tube, and to the pipe. She plucks the clear tube from its water source. Wet rust covers the tube’s pointy, metal tip. Like a skilled nurse, Leech stills Grandma’s wiggling arm, punctures her skin, and shoves the tip into a vein.
Leech moves to her next and strokes her curly hair.
I grit my teeth and strain against the gloves until my wrists feel like they’re gonna rip out by the roots.
“Sunshine,” Leech says, “don’t worry. I’m not gonna stick you.”
Leech pops her gum. “Not yet, at least. We’re going oldest to youngest.”
Jerkhole squirms on his stool, kicking his legs wildly. “Don’t fucking touch me, old hag.”
“But you said you’d pay whatever it costs to get my unicorn. Now’s your chance to put your money where your loud mouth is.”
He wails a high-pitched scream. “This bitch is crazy! Somebody help us!”
“Yell all you want,” Leech chides. “My curtain muffles your sissy-girl screams. Can’t nobody hear you and can’t nobody help you.”
She thrusts the metal into his arm hickey.
“Motherfucker, motherfucker! Shit! Shit! Shit!”
The wrinkly carnie stretches out her over-chewed gum and lets the pink strand hang from her mouth like a foot long worm. She winks at me with a crow’s feet eye, and tickles my forearm with the nasty, spit-tainted crap dangling from her lips. I won’t recoil. I refuse to cringe. Maisie’s watching and I have to stay strong. I don’t know how Leech’s game is going to end. I just need to make sure Maisie somehow gets back home to Mom and Dad, her rainbow-painted room, her tiny bed piled high with stuffed unicorns.
Leech slowly sucks her gum back in. The cold, wet point of the tube rests against my skin.
The eerie ice-cream-man music thumps in my head like a pulse.
“How is this game different than the other?” I ask. Ten minutes too late.
“Isn’t it obvious? You’re playing for my most prized possession.” The rusty needle bites my flesh. Burning pain shoots through me. “Just like last time, you’ll fill the balloon until it pops.”
I’m dizzy. Fire and ice thrash inside my veins. Blood leaks out of me, into the clear tube leading to my gun. The cheap toys and stuffed animals hanging across from me blur into a swirl of neon. I want to grab my head, steady it, but my hands are clinched tight by vice of the gloves.
A little girl cries. Maisie.
I slough through the fog in my brain, fight my way back to her. Leech’s craggy fingers caress her tiny, pale arm.
“Cody, does it hurt?”
“Yes,” I say, “it does.”
“For the pretty unicorn,” she says, squeezing her eyes shut.
Liquid red eases into her tube. My precious Maisie’s blood flows like cherry syrup sucked through a straw. Tears stream down my cheeks. If she squeezes the triggers, her tiny body will drain in seconds.
Leech moseys to her panel of switches. With one hand, she flicks the belly button ring dangling from her saggy stomach. With the other, she engages a handle and the buzzer sounds.
“As with the previous game, there’s a winner every time, but in this version, the winner is always me. Mercy! I forgot one very important rule: you must be alive to claim your prize.”
She juts out her tongue, forming a bubble. “Fill that balloon until it…”
A flash of red catches my eye. At the end of Maisie’s gun, her precious blood is already trickling out.
“Don’t squeeze your triggers!” I tell her.
Then swiveling my gun towards the clown in front of Maisie, I squeeze hard on both of mine.
The tube in my arm jerks taut from the pressure. Blood arcs out in a stream and into the clown’s mouth. It runs down its throat and into the clear balloon hanging beneath it.
“No!” Maisie cries.
“Cheater!”Jerkhole yells as his blood arcs into his own balloon.
Leech stomps towards me, a gnarled finger wagging. “No cheating!”
The grandma barks at Leech, “You said there’s no rule against it.”
Grandpa stretches over, and the old couple share a kiss. Then two red streams join mine in filling Maisie’s balloon.
“No fucking fair!” Jerkhole yells.
His balloon is the size of a sad strawberry. Maisie’s grows heavy, drooping like a juicy, ripe apple ready to drop. Blackness creeps into the edge of my vision. My head is floating, like it’s pumped full of helium.
“Leech,” I rasp. My mouth is so dry. “My sister goes free—with the unicorn.”
Leech spits out her gum and smears her lipstick across her face. “I always win.”
Jerkhole’s stream stops. He slumps forward on his gun.
Only two dying arcs feed Maisie’s swollen balloon. The grandpa is gone, too.
“You swore,” I manage.
“By the Dark Carnival,” Maisie whimpers.
My bloodstream is the only one left.
Leech crosses her arms. “So be it.”
Cotton candy stains Maisie’s face.
“Your lips are blue,” I say.
“Yours are too,” she answers.
“I love you.”
“Forever and ever.”
The dying-ice-cream-truck sings inside the vacuum of my head.Buzzers echo through my empty body. My heart gives a final thump. Its last drop spent.
The gloves no longer hurt.
I swell bigger than the booth.
The last thing I see: Maisie’s eyes glittering like the horn of the unicorn.
The last thing I feel: wet warmth splattering my face.
The last thing I hear: pop.
Lucas Hargis is a gypsy, nerdfighter, YA writer, artist, furniture designer, spreadsheet guru, and lover of all things weird. With published articles, poetry, shorts stories, and illustrations, he is currently seeking the perfect agent to represent his fourth novel, Phreak Show. Being a phreak isn’t about looks; it’s a frame of mind. And Lucas proudly embraces his inner phreakiness. Website Twitter: @LucasMight
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