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 cotton candy was a dark pink. Bobby hated pink.
“Do you have any blue?” he asked the woman running the booth.
Behind the splintered counter, Aunt Nancy perched on her stool. Paint peeled off her sign, peppering her white hair with faded colored flakes. Long, spindly arms rested on the counter in front of her, the skin papery thin and brittle. Despite appearances, Aunt Nancy was anything but weak.
“Sorry, all we have today is pink.” The old woman’s voice was a whisper, lost among the shouts and laughter of the Dark Carnival.
Bobby frowned and turned away. The carnival was full of food vendors. Why should he settle for girly-colored cotton candy when a booth on the other side of the Tilt-a-Whirl boasted popcorn in ten different flavors?
Inside her booth, the old woman watched Bobby walk towards her competitors. He was the third sale Aunt Nancy’s Cotton Candy lost that morning. All because of the color. If she had access to other colors, she would gladly use them. As it was, pink was the only color available. If she added more coloring, she might make it red. Would fair-goers eat red cotton candy or would they shy away from her wares more than they already did?
Aunt Nancy grabbed a handful of the sugary confection and stuffed it in her mouth. The taste was slightly off, a little bitter on the tip of her tongue, but no more than usual. The sweetness clinging to the roof of her mouth overpowered any lingering taste the coloring provided.
It wasn’t the best cotton candy, but it wasn’t the worst.
Small, blood-red dots fell from her lips onto the counter. They left behind strands of candy, connecting themselves to Aunt Nancy’s mouth. The old woman reached up and wiped at the stray pieces.
“There will be none of that,” she muttered.
In the darkness, she blinked. Black circular frames gave her an almost cartoonish look. Thick, uneven lenses magnified and multiplied her eyes. Each of these eyes, real and illusion alike, watched the festivities taking place around her.
Families out for the day laughed and fought over which rides to go on. Lovers, both young and old, strolled down the midway holding hands. Couples generally headed towards the Tunnel of Love or Ferris Wheel in hopes of getting some alone time.
Obscured in the shadows, Aunt Nancy lost her appeal to customers. Less flashy than the other rides and attractions, she had been tucked behind the Tilt-a-Whirl and Crazy Eights. Few people opted for the Tilt-a-Whirl when there were better rides to be ridden and the Crazy Eights constantly broke down, drawing only a handful of people to that corner of the fairgrounds.
Burning sugar wafting through the carnival and promising a sweet treat was all Aunt Nancy possessed to lure customers in. Once, it had been enough. Now there were too many distractions. Popcorn and hotdogs drowned out her sweeter offerings. The lights of the rollercoaster attracted the braver ones like moths. It was all Aunt Nancy could do to get by.
She considered moving her shop to another corner of the carnival, but the bright lights and loud noises were too much for her. She preferred her solitude.
A family approached the booth. A mother and father out for the day with their two pig-tailed daughters. The girls chatted away, the curl of their hair bouncing. In the weak light, their hair gleamed a dull gold.
“Two cotton candies,” the father said, pulling his wallet from his back pocket.
“Oh, Harold. I want one, too,” the mother said.
“What the heck. Make it four. Might as well all have the same opportunity to get sick.” He flashed Aunt Nancy a smile. She clicked her teeth together and handed him cones topped with spun sugar.
“What happened to your fingers?” one of the girls asked Aunt Nancy, staring at the spaces where most people had pinkies. With a slight hiss, the old woman withdrew her deformed limbs.
“Now, that’s not very polite,” the mother said.
“Sorry, but she’s missing two fingers. I only wanted to know why.”
“It’s ok. I was born without them,” Aunt Nancy clicked from her perch. She tried to smile, but the effort resulted in a grotesque twisting of her face.
“Here, girls,” the father said, turning away from the horrid display in the cotton candy booth.
“Thank you, Daddy!” the girls squealed, grabbing their treats from him. With a bubble of laughter, the girls took off toward the Crazy Eights. Their parents trailed after them, putting the first gobs of cotton candy into their mouths. The ride was closed as usual, but Aunt Nancy didn’t bother telling them. They’d find out soon enough, not that it would matter.
She waited a few minutes before putting up a sign stating she’d be back in a few minutes. Fresh ingredients were needed for a new batch of cotton candy. It took only a few moments to gather her materials and return to her booth. No one missed her or even knew she had left her station.
With no one else in line to buy her wares, Aunt Nancy settled herself into a dark corner. She pulled out a few bags and set about filling them, spinning her threads into the bags.Wouldn’t do to be out of stock when customers came.
She sat quietly, spinning her candy. Each batch was tinted pink with the secret ingredient kept hidden in the back. It was what made it extra sticky and sweet.
The sun went down. Inside the carnival, lights went on. Neons and bright whites, flashing on and off in random patterns designed to attract the rider’s eye. The stimulation was too much for Aunt Nancy. She tucked herself away in the darkness, waiting for the carnival to close for the night.
Four sales, that’s all she made. But four was much better than none. She’d take what she could get in order to survive. Four sales meant enough secret ingredient to last a few weeks. By then she’d make more sales and procure more ingredients. Aunt Nancy’s Cotton Candy wasn’t closing its doors yet.
Around the edges of the carnival, lights began to flicker out. Closing time.Time for shutters to be drawn and the empty remnants of the day to be swept up.
Lingering crowds shifted towards the exit. Groups of teenagers and lovers, trying to steal the last bit of fun before it was yanked away from them.
Aunt Nancy scuttled forward in her booth,eight long slender fingers tightening around the shutter’s pull cord.
“Wait up. I want to buy some candy before you close.” The boy from that morning ran to her, slamming his hands onto the counter before the shutter came down.
“Thought you didn’t like pink,” Aunt Nancy clicked between her teeth.
“Changed my mind. Isn’t a real carnival without cotton candy.” Bobby placed his money on the counter. The old woman grinned, her mouth creaking. She now had five sales.
The money disappeared from the counter, replaced by a bag of pink fluff.
Bobby took the candy, pulling some out and popping it in his mouth. “Sure is sticky.”
“It’s a special recipe.” Aunt Nancy leaned over the counter, her eyes all fastened on the boy.
“Well, thanks.” He turned to leave and stopped. Cotton candy filled his mouth and throat.
“Do you have any water?” he asked, the fluffy confection muffling his voice.
“Sorry. All I sell is cotton candy.” Saliva glistened at the corners of the old woman’s mouth as she watched Bobby gasp for air.
“Don’t fight it. Relax.” Aunt Nancy’s hands grasped the front of the counter, hauling the rest of her body up onto it.
Red dots, so tiny they were barely visible, ran through the candy. The piece of sugar he had stuck in his mouth was growing. It filled his mouth and throat. Threads of it slid down into his lungs. A spray of stickiness tumbled over his lips, sealing them shut.
Bobby tried to run. He needed to find safety somewhere. His legs wouldn’t move. No part of him, save his eyes, responded to his wishes.
Aunt Nancy escaped her booth and stood looking him over. Another week’s worth of ingredients, at least. With a satisfied nod, she dragged him over the counter and into the back of her booth. Burlap sectioned off part of the booth, forming a small room hidden from casual carnival-goers’ eyes. No flashy lights to attract them here.
In the gloom of the fading carnival lights, four bags hung from the booth’s ceiling. Red liquid dripped from each, collecting in buckets set below them. The curl of pigtails peeked out of a bag in the middle, the bounce long gone.
Standing Bobby in the center of the space, Aunt Nancy began spinning. Strands of sticky thread appeared from beneath Aunt Nancy’s faded cotton skirt. She spun the boy around with her arms, letting the threads bind him tighter with each rotation. His final thought before losing consciousness was how sugary-sweet his prison smelt.
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