Autumn has a certain feel in the Midwest, a quality that slips away and turns on the wind.
It’s not something you can experience in the big cities of steel and asphalt, where the smog hangs low like an angry sea, waves of dirty cloud rolling through street and alley.
On the west coast, and in the south, you’ll miss it entirely. Warm winds and fair weather mute the effect, like watching a storm on television, or turning your face away from a flash of lightning. You might see the dark space behind your eyelids light up, and hear the echoing thunder, but you’ve already missed the source.
On the east coast, you might catch a hint, though it’s similar to having an idea that your mind can only grasp the edges of, unseen fingers pressing and clutching for a seam or a crack in a smooth surface, trying to pry open its secrets, spill its name. You might feel the bite of winter on the wind, and see the leaves slip their greens, but the color and the chill are muted by the pounding cacophony of hundreds of thousands, of millions, of people packed together. In the end, it slips by like a dream. Ephemeral and fleeting, it’s replaced by the bitter knife of winter’s edge.
The Midwest knows, though. When October’s in the chair, a hush falls over the country. An underlying silence slips into the small places in the road, and waits.
St. Croix is a small town nestled between farmland and forest, the sign at the city limits proclaiming a population of 2500, and the ‘Home of the Class C Girls’ Volleyball Champions’. A river the color of dark mud flows through the town, wending its way from the northern side to the eastern edge, before it switches back and cuts under the bridge on Main Street. On the west side of the street, just past a small riverside park, it meets a dam, and slips through the sluice gates before it pools briefly below. It churns and eddies there just before it moves south again, the waters flowing in a slow, lazy dance.
You could fish there, below the dam, though you’d be better off buying fish from the grocery store across the river. Most everyone knew carp were poor eating, but that didn’t stop some from catching them simply out of boredom. Not much else took to the waters of the Pine, and as far as the older folk were concerned, it was for the best. Those with long lives and long memory knew how treacherous she could be, the placid water above hiding a vicious undertow.
Just past the bridge, Main would climb up a steep hill, and if you stood on the river side of the road at the top, you could see most of the town laid out below – a white-steeple church, the row of businesses flanking Main, their facades well-kept and clean, and the grocery store. On a good day, you could see even further, to the schools in the distance, and the gas station at the end of the road before it curved away and turned into suburbs.
Trees lined the streets and dotted back yards, tall maple and oak and dogwood, remnants of the forest that had been pushed back to make room for civilization. On warm afternoons, the sun would hang in a lazy haze above the town, and you could feel the last dregs of summer clutching at the day, its grip weak in the face of the cool wind that blew more frequently as the days wore on. The wind that blew would shake the leaves on their branches, leaves that were turning orange and red and gold and threatening to break from the branch in a final act.
The wind blew down from the forest and across fields filled with tall dry stalks of corn, rattling the cobs in their husks, the sound like the warning of a rattlesnake. It blew across the face of the river, picking up moisture and the smell of damp earth from its banks. The scents mixed together, water and field and tree, blowing through town, down alley and street, past the church, and up Main, up the hill, and past, until it swept out into the country again.
Caleb took a breath as the wind swept into the park. He could smell the rich loam of the river, warm chaff from the fields that had been warmed by the sunshine and swept up in the breeze, and fresh-cut grass and gasoline. Summer still clung to the air stubbornly, though not for much longer. He felt the wind tousle his hair, like an old friend, or the way his grandmother did when she was feeling fond of him. He smiled a bit at that last, and let the thought go, drifting away with the wind.
He turned his attention back to the school across the street, three stories tall, brick and glass, large block letters across the front spelling ‘St. Croix High School’. Another building sat to its left, almost as large, a skyway connecting the two. Flanking the main building were two parking lots. There was still a week before school, but the lots were full regardless. Large trucks with brightly painted trailers occupied the spaces, a bustle of activity surrounding them as the drivers and passengers occupied themselves with the business of setting up.
Caleb took a bite of the apple he was holding, and read the words on the trailers.
TRAVELLING SHOW AND MENAGERIE
MYSTERY HORROR FORTUNES
He rolled his eyes and blew a breath out. It had to be a joke. No one had advertised like that since the 19th century. In the lot to the north of the school, the trucks had been lined up closest to the river, and tents and machines were going up, following a plan only known to the men and women who worked the show. Cables snaked back and forth, to the trucks and the school, water and power and even compressed air, looking like a fungal growth that was slowly taking over the lot.
There was a loud clang, and a tent frame that had been going up tipped over, the metal poles hitting the asphalt like crazed chimes. A flurry of curses went up from that area, and a man in a black suit looked up from the makeshift desk he had set up in the shadow of the school. Caleb watched him close his laptop, and walk over to the mess. He beckoned one of the workers over, and they spoke, heads bent close together. When they finished, the worker looked around sheepishly, and went back to work with his head hung a little lower.
The man in the suit watched for another minute, until it seemed he was satisfied, and turned to go back to his desk. Halfway there, he stopped, and glanced in Caleb’s direction. He smiled, and gave a wave, his pale white hand like a flag in the wind. Caleb made to put his apple down, and return the wave, when he felt something warm and wet slither its way across his fingers. He looked at the apple, his thoughts interrupted.
A fat brown worm, its segments glistening in the late afternoon sun, was working its way from the core of the apple. It wavered back and forth in the air, as if raising itself up to catch a scent. A small cry escaped Caleb, and he tossed the apple away. It hit the grass with a small thunk, and rolled into the shadow of a shrub. He wiped his hand on his pants, and looked back up, but the man in the suit had gone back to work, typing away on his laptop.
Caleb glared at the spot where the apple had fallen, and rubbed his hand once more for good measure. After a minute, he decided he had better things to do than watch the carnies set up, and stood from the picnic table. He stretched for a moment, letting his muscles unknot from the long sit, and began to make his way home. Behind him, the sounds of air hammers and the occasional cough from a truck engine faded as he walked, along with the scents of diesel and old canvas and carnival fryers heating up.
After two blocks, the carnival was a hint on the air, after three, a shadow on the wind.
When he got home, the big front door closing behind him and cutting off the scents and sounds of the town in autumn, he kicked off his shoes, and started to make his way up the stairs to his room. His grandmother’s voice drifted to him from the kitchen, and he stopped a quarter ways up the stairs, his hand on the railing.
“Caleb, come here for a minute.”
He sighed, and walked back down. He had hoped to spend a bit reading, or maybe playing a game, but he knew better than to pretend he hadn’t heard. He padded into the kitchen, and found his grandmother sitting at the little round kitchen table, her hair back in a ponytail, a cup of tea in her hand. She pushed a twenty across the table to him.
“Here.” She said. “You’re going to the carnival tomorrow.”
He sighed again, though internally this time. As far as he was concerned, he was too old for carnivals. There was nothing new under the sun for him there, nothing he hadn’t seen every summer before, despite the name of this one, he was sure. Run-down machines and rides, just barely keeping the rust at bay, greasy carnies, and the intermingled stink of carnival foods and machine grease and body odor drifting in the air.
“All day, or just a couple of hours?” He asked, though he knew the answer. He was hoping to get away with an hour, maybe two, and pocket the leftover cash.
“All day.” She said, her blue eyes narrowing a bit
Caleb nodded, and pocketed the money. He turned to go, and stopped. Despite the inconvenience, he was still man of the house. That carried certain responsibilities.
“You’re welcome. Now stop looking like I kicked your puppy. You might have fun. Don’t worry. It won’t kill you.”
He smiled at his grandmother, and left, taking the stairs to his room.
At the top of the flight, he pushed the door open, and stepped inside. He tossed his keys and the cash on his dresser, and grabbed the book he had been reading from the night stand before flopping unceremoniously on the bed. He paged to his book mark, and replaced it with his finger. He made it a whole paragraph before his mind drifted off into other things.
It wasn’t that he disliked doing things when his grandmother asked. It was just that the older he got, the more he valued his free time. Even as he had the thought, a wave of guilt washed over him. The thought felt selfish as it rattled around his head, and he hated himself just a little for it.
He thought of the people that had slipped out of his life – his grandfather when he was ten, his parents, killed in a car crash five years later. Time had helped heal the loss a bit, though he still felt a dull ache in his chest when a memory slipped through, as though someone had wrapped his heart in felt and hit it with a hammer.
He wondered what that must feel like for his grandmother then, to lose a husband, and a child, within the space of five years. He wondered at the strength it must take, if his heart was young, and able to withstand those hammer blows, how his grandmother’s must be chipped and cracked under the stress of pain and age.
He replaced the bookmark in his book and laid it back on his night stand, then lay back on the bed, and threw an arm over his eyes. Later, he’d go down, and apologize, and make dinner.
Later, when the ache in his heart, and the weight of his own guilt let up a little.
Caleb sat at the kitchen table and dished out a chicken breast and a helping of macaroni and cheese to his grandmother. She smiled at him, and took her plate, then watched him get his. When it was full, he set it down in front of him, but didn’t eat just yet. Instead, he looked over at her.
She was still watching him with her sky blue eyes; her grey hair pulled back in a loose braid that hung over one shoulder. Crow’s feet and laugh lines marked her face in gentle lines, and her eyes shone with an inner amusement, despite what she had been through.
He cleared his throat. “I figure I owe you an apology.” He said.
She frowned slightly, a tiny line appearing between her eyebrows. “For what?”
He looked down at his plate. “I was a bit selfish earlier. I know you’re just trying to keep me happy.”
She waved it off, and loaded her fork with macaroni. “Psh. I know you’re getting too old for things like carnivals. I just thought you might like one more before you’re too old. Who knows, maybe you’ll meet a girl.” She looked up, her eyes laughing, a small smirk trying to sneak its way past her lips.
Caleb laughed. “Oh man. Good luck with that.”
His grandmother made a gesture he had come to recognize as meaning moving on. “Anyways, your parents loved carnivals. No matter how old they were, they would get excited when one came to town. Your dad used to say a good carnival was one of the last places on earth you could still find real magic.”
Caleb started a bit when his grandmother mentioned his parents. It wasn’t something she did very often, so when it came up, he knew it was important. If to no one else, then to her, and that made it important to him. He nodded, and tried to ignore the ache that threatened to creep back in on him.
“When you put it that way, I’m always up for a bit of magic.”
His grandmother nodded. “Good.” She smiled. “Now eat before all this work you did gets cold.”
They tucked into their meals, and when they were finished, went to sit on the porch for a bit, neither speaking, just enjoying the silence. It was a comfortable quiet, the kind that only seems to creep in on lovers or family. It was the kind of silence you don’t fight when it comes along, a stillness that carries unspoken words, only understood by the heart.
Caleb woke late the next morning, the early autumn chill already bleeding out of the air. He showered, threw on some clothes, and wandered downstairs for some breakfast, expecting his grandmother to be up already.
The kitchen was empty when he got there, late morning light slanting through the window over the sink, and filtering through the curtains on the door. He walked to the fridge and considered grabbing an apple. He thought again of the worm, and his stomach threatened to turn over.
A note was stuck to the fridge door, and he pulled it down.
‘Running errands. Be back later. Have fun! – Gran’
Caleb laid the note on the counter, wandered around the house a bit to wake up, and made up his mind. He went upstairs, grabbed the cash and his keys, and left. He started down the sidewalk, humming to himself as he took a couple of deep breaths of fresh cool air.
It was crisp, and clean, and smelled of dry leaves and still-damp grass. The late morning sun filtered between the branches overhead, and peeked around the shadows of houses, lending a warm yellow glow to the day.
For a minute, he could believe that maybe there was magic in the air.
Sawhorses had been set up along Pine and Elm streets, cutting off traffic around the park and the school, allowing visitors to the carnival to walk in unimpeded. The path leading through the park had been marked off as well, low ropes strung between vendor tents, to discourage people from walking between and behind and helping themselves to whatever they found there.
Caleb crossed the street into the park, and it was like stepping into another world. Tents lined the smooth asphalt path that wound through the park, turning it into an impromptu bazaar of hand-crafted goods and foods that would be considered exotic for a small town. Bright colors marked signs hung from tent canopies, and people pressed around them, picking up an item, or haggling with the craftsman.
He took his time as he walked, catching the spicy scent of Chinese noodles and Mongolian stir-fry, of cinnamon and warm sugar, and the savory smells of hot dogs and lamb. He was surprised at the fact the scents didn’t intermingle as much as he’d feared they might, and his stomach growled lazily.
He made his way through the stalls one by one, looking over what they had to offer. He was aware of the twenty in his pocket, and he wanted to put it to good use. He knew he’d have to get lunch, and he might want to check out a ride or game, but most of all, he wanted to buy his grandmother a gift, a way of thanking her, however small, for the day, and the advice.
The booths there were selling what you’d expect from a small-town fair, many of the craftsmen hobbyists from in town. He saw wood plaques engraved and burned with last names, with a wire attached to the back so you could hang them from your door. He saw sewn quilts and crocheted hats, wooden toys and stone sculptures. He even found a booth selling emu oil.
He was about to give up hope and return to the wooden plaques, when he came across the last booth. It was simple, like the others down the line, a canopy set up over a folding table covered in white paper. An old man sat behind the table, a green cashbox at his side. His skin was weathered and dark, like mahogany, and deep brown eyes rested beneath bushy white eyebrows. When Caleb stepped up to the table, he raised a gnarled hand, and Caleb could see the faint traces of old scars that ran from his palms and halfway up his forearms.
“Take a look. Made ’em myself.” He gestured at the table.
Caleb looked down at the table, noticing for the first time the collection that was arrayed there. Glass figures, none larger than his palm, set on mirrors in neat rows up and down the table. He bent to get a closer look, and saw tiny pigs and swans, elephants and lions and tigers. Here and there, slightly larger than the others, was a dragon, or a unicorn, and among them all, perfect spheres of glass tinted one color or another, and resting on small glass tripods. The whole table sparkled and shone in the light, catching it and throwing it back in a million rainbows and glints.
“How much?” Caleb asked.
The old man didn’t reply right away. He looked Caleb up and down, his eyebrows nearly hiding his eyes. He reached up, and ran a hand over his smooth scalp.
“Used to be a saying, you know.” He said, as if he hadn’t heard. “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”
Caleb’s heart sank. It must’ve shown on his face, because the old man chuckled.
“Always thought that was a bit of horseshit, myself.” He gestured at the table. “When you find one, make me an offer. We’ll work from there.”
Caleb nodded, and bent close to the figurines again. He looked them over more carefully. He liked the swan, but its slender neck looked like it wouldn’t take a sneeze. The tigers were nice, too, but he didn’t see his grandmother as a tiger person. Pigs were too kitschy. He was about to stand back up and thank the man, when a glint of color caught his eye. He turned toward it, and stopped.
It was one of the colored spheres, and for a minute he wondered if the old man had put it up when he wasn’t looking. Green the color of summer grass swirled in a light haze under a sky blue, and when the light caught it, it seemed to glint off flecks of gold caught between the colors. At its heart was a light orb of yellow, and for a moment, it reminded Caleb of nothing more than a summer day. He stood and pointed at it.
“That one, please.” He thought for a moment. “Um. Eight dollars.”
The old man eyed him again. “Hmm.” He said.
“Eight-fifty?” Caleb hedged. He didn’t want to insult the man.
The old man seemed to reach a decision, and reached under the table. He pulled out a small white box and tissue paper, and began to pack the orb away. He smiled up at Caleb as he did.
“Eight is fine, young man. Eight is fine.”
When he had finished packing it away, Caleb handed him the twenty, and the old man made change. Caleb handed him an extra dollar, and the man looked at it for a minute.
“Can you hold it until I come back?”
The man passed the dollar back. “Sure. What’s your name?”
Caleb told him, and he wrote it on the box with a Sharpie, and then slipped the box back under the table. When he was done, he held out his hand, and Caleb took it and shook it.
“Nice doing business with you, Caleb.” The man said. “I’m Jove, should you need to know.”
Caleb smiled at the man, thanked him again, and walked into the carnival proper, his step just a bit lighter. Behind him, he could hear Jove already bargaining with another customer.
There’s a feeling in a fall carnival. It’s the feeling of bodies pressed nearly together in narrow walkways, of ambient electricity and heat in the air from thousands of glowing bulbs and whirring machinery. It’s a feeling that hangs in the air near the rides and the haunted house, near the games of chance and around groups of young men and women as they pass each other. Caleb could feel it, a low thrum of tension and excitement that seemed to permeate the air and seep into his pores; pleasant, languorous electricity that trickled through his limbs and up his spine.
He wandered the narrow aisles between tall machines with glass fronts where you dropped a penny down a chute and hoped a toy bulldozer would push a bigger pile of pennies from the ledge inside. He wandered past crane games and air guns where you had to shoot balloons, and newer electronic games that resembled Tetris. At the end of the aisle, the path turned a corner, and the machines gave way to a double-row of booths, each with a carnie attending, calling out to the crowd as they passed.
“Hey big man! You look like you’ve got a good arm!”
“Step up, try your luck! Yeah, you look like you play sports – take a shot!”
“Five balls, five darts! Five balls, five darts! C’mon man, only three bucks!”
Mixed in with all of this, he could hear couples chatting and laughing, mixing with the sounds of the games, and a mother yelling for her child.
Caleb passed them, not really interested. He had been to enough carnivals, and was old enough to figure out the games were rigged. Underinflated balloons, cork softballs, weighted pins, and undersized rings made winning a zero sum game, and he wasn’t interested in throwing his money away just yet.
He pushed his way past tangles of people stopped in front of the booths, the sounds of balls hitting cans, and rings clinking against the mouths of bottles. The path turned left again, and he realized the carnival was set in a loose spiral, funneling people towards the center. It opened up as he reached the center, where a ring of tents were set up. A small sign with neat lettering stood in front of the entrance to each. In the center was a smaller tent, the entrance roped off. Caleb began a slow clockwise walk around the circle, checking out each tent.
The first he came to was striped, like a traditional circus. Its flaps were tied back, and warm air and the scents of hay and animal wafted out. The sign to the right of the entrance read:
Menagerie: Lions and Tigers and Bears!
(The Unicorn is Ill)
Caleb almost laughed at that last. It seemed this was a carnival with a sense of humor. He moved on to the next tent. It was painted a deep purple, with yellow moons and stars decorating it. To the side, the sign read:
Palm Reading, Tarot Cards, Divination
(No Curses, Love Potions, or Resurrection)
He did chuckle at that. He moved onto the next tent, and the next, the signs reading respectively:
(No children under 13)
House of Mirrors
(Epileptics be advised)
He finished his circuit of the center of the carnival, and wandered over to the tent in the center. It was nearly a perfect square, though not very large, and painted a deep black. Unlike the other tents, it was not decorated with stars or skeletons or stripes, and Caleb thought it must be very hot inside. He looked at the sign next to the roped-off entrance.
Mr. Black, Esq.
He turned to go, thinking he would get his fortune read, and satisfy his curiosity about what a Danse Macabre was. He nearly ran nose-first into the man standing behind him. Caleb looked up from the chest of the man he was standing nearly toe-to-toe with, and took a step back so he could get a better look.
The man was tall – Caleb was just under six foot, and his eyes came only to the man’s collarbones. He was dressed in an immaculate three-piece suit that made Caleb want to break out in a sweat just looking at it, all of black cloth, with white cuffs and shirt collar. The man was thin to the point of being gaunt, though his grey hair was thick and firm on his head, and his skin looked healthy, despite its paleness. Glittering blue eyes looked out from under heavy brows, and above high cheekbones and a sharp nose. Full lips rested below a strong chin, and they were turned up in a half-smile.
“Careful there, young man.” He said, and reached out a hand, its flesh mottled and red, to steady Caleb.
Caleb stifled the urge to shy away, and allowed the man to grab his shoulder and steady him. When he was steadied, the other man pulled his hand away and slipped it behind his back. It was quickly replaced with his right, which he held out for Caleb to shake.
“Mr. Black.” He said, and nodded at the sign behind Caleb.
Caleb took his hand and shook it.
“I hope you’re not looking for a refund, Caleb.” He walked past and tapped the sign.
Caleb shook his head. “No sir.”
Mr. Black cocked an eyebrow at him. “Sneaking into tents, then?”
“I uh – no?”
The eyebrow dropped. “Good.” Mr. Black turned his back on Caleb, and unclipped the rope from in front of his tent with a flourish.
“You’re just in time, then. Step right up, son.” Said Mr. Black. “I’ve sights to show you. All the whirling lights and all the burning suns. The dark of the moon. All things, great and small. All right here, for a pittance.”
Then, with no more theatrics, he lifted the tent flap, and disappeared inside. Caleb looked after him for a moment. The crowd from the midway chattered behind him, a low roar of voices and laughter that played counterpoint to the sounds of the weekend town – lawnmowers and cars driving the streets. Standing between the two, the sounds and scents intermingling around him, and the closed tent flap in front, Caleb felt on the threshold of a great door.
He knew some steps, you can’t take back – they lead you from the edge of a sheer cliff. Others, lead you down a road that winds for mile on mile, and along the way, you might see something special, something unique. He looked around, then back at the black tent with its waiting flap, and the sign out front. He took in the surrounding tents, and the path out of the carnival. He knew that sometimes those doors just led to another room, and from there, just another day. More than any of those things, he knew that if you didn’t open the door in the first place, you’d never find out anyways.
He reached out, and flipped the tent flap open. The warm smell of spices and canvas drifted out to him. He took a breath, and stepped through.
The inside of the tent was warm and dim. Almost no light filtered in through the canvas walls due to the color, and it took a moment for Caleb’s eyes to adjust. Where there was no natural light, it was replaced by a warm yellow glow from camp lamps placed on small tables spaced evenly around the interior of the tent.
The interior was larger than it looked from the outside, with room enough for a desk, two chairs, short shelves flanking them, and a velvet curtain that partitioned off and hid the back of the tent. The desk was a disarray of papers, with a cup for pens and pencils near one edge, and a small plaque that read ‘Aldous Black, Esq’. The chairs, in front and behind it, were comfortable-looking, and well-padded, with velvet cushions punctuated by oversized buttons that pinned the fabric in place.
The tent appeared empty, though Caleb could hear movement in the back, behind the curtain, accompanied by a low, rhythmic tap tap that reminded him of a large clock, or a bongo being tapped. The side shelves caught his eye, and he wandered over.
Books lined the first two shelves. The collection looked like refugees from a library, hard covers next to paperbacks, next to thick pamphlets stuffed between the two. Some of the books had the worn look of being read several times, while other looked like they could have just come off the shelves of Barnes and Noble. The titles were equally eclectic.
The Origin of the Species, MBA for Dummies, and Fahrenheit 451 decorated the shelves in no particular order next to more esoteric books, including Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and The Golden Bough. Caleb ran a finger over the spines, noticing a lack of dust, and picked one out, and flipped through the pages. The book was marked with a language and symbols he didn’t understand, and he replaced it.
He moved on, finding the last two shelves packed full of glass equipment. Beakers and pipettes, flasks and vials and even a rack of stoppered test tubes lined the shelves, liquid in some of them catching the light and throwing it back in muted tones. A rustle of fabric, and the rasp of a shoe against the canvas floor of the tent roused him from his inspection, and drew his attention to the velvet curtain in the back.
Mr. Black stepped from behind the curtain, drawing it closed behind him as he did so. Caleb caught the flash of brass and glass from behind it, but it was gone too soon for him to make out any details. Mr. Black turned to him and smiled, rubbing his hands together briskly.
“First things first. The pittance.” He wandered over to his desk and dropped himself into the chair behind it, and after a moment, produced a small green cash box. He flipped open the lid. He appeared to study something written on the inside, and then looked up over it.
Caleb reached into his pocket, and pulled out a rolled-up five. He handed it over the table, and Mr. Black reached out. His pale fingers, long and gaunt, the skin pulled tight over the bone, closed around it. The memory of a pale hand in the air and a worm squirming in an apple flashed to the front of Caleb’s memory, and he let go of the five as though it were hot. Mr. Black took it and tucked it away, a smile still on his lips.
He closed the box and hid it away again, then leaned back in his chair. He gestured for Caleb to sit. Caleb didn’t move. Mr. Black’s face darkened, an almost imperceptible amount, like the shadow of a cloud passing over the sun, and he leaned forward.
“Sit down, boy.”
Caleb found himself moving toward the chair, his legs folding as though the strength had gone out of them. He sat, the soft velvet cradling him.
The smile returned to Mr. Black’s face. “Better.” He said. “Now, do you want to see the show?”
Caleb wasn’t so sure he did anymore. Something, a small nagging feeling, told him things were off here. Mr. Black held his eyes, and he felt his will stripped. The old man nodded, and Caleb found himself nodding in time with him. Mr. Black pushed the papers and the nameplate aside, until the dark wood of the desktop was exposed. He laid his left hand on the table, and rolled up his sleeve.
The red of his hand spread in veins along his wrist, thinning and fading until they disappeared at his elbow. Each vein of red was twisted round with vines of black ink. Leaves and thorns sprouted from the vines, and where the tip of each touched pale flesh, ripples spread outward as though they were resting on water. Among the leaves and thorns, blossoms, like those of a lotus, bloomed in red ink. In the center of each was a small black spiral.
Caleb leaned in for a closer look, and saw the spirals were dotted with orbs colored in whites and blues and reds and more, each a tiny galaxy in the center of a lotus.
“Do you see them, Caleb?”
In a distant part of his mind, it occurred to him that he hadn’t told Mr. Black his name. The forefront of his mind though, was preoccupied with the galaxies in the center of the flowers. Mr. Black flexed his hand, and the vines writhed. Muscle shifted under his skin, and the lotus blossoms appeared the stir in a breeze, and at the heart of each, the galaxies started to slowly spin.
“A hundred thousand worlds in the head of a pin, a trillion stars, a billion lives. And behind it all…”
He trailed off, and Caleb could hear the ticking in the tent, the sound from behind the curtain, louder than before. It pounded in his ears like the beat of heart, like the slow circuit of gears hidden behind the world.
Caleb was drawn in, leaning closer still, and he saw in the spinning of the galaxies, the movement of stars and suns, and worlds spinning around those. He saw them whirl by, and grow closer, and as they did, the black between the stars grew deeper and further. He turned his attention to the black, and saw it ripple and shift, as though a veil were being pulled aside.
Something deep inside him began to call out in a panicked voice, and for a moment, the illusion wavered. He started to pull away, and Mr. Black’s voice came to him again.
“Look, boy. LOOK.”
Caleb felt himself struggling inside. He tried to scream, to thrash free, but something in the vision was fighting him. He saw the black ripple again, and begin to open. Behind was nothing, and something vast and ancient moved in the nothing. He sucked in a breath, and with an effort that felt as though he were ripping his eyes from his sockets, managed to look away, and scream at the same time.
Like that, the spell was broken, and he was inside the tent again, sitting across from a pale, angry old man. Caleb bolted to his feet, and knocked the chair over. He turned, and ran for the tent flap.
Behind him, Mr. Black shouted. “You can’t! You can’t! This is not allowed!” When it was clear Caleb wasn’t turning back, he changed his tone, and the last thing Caleb heard before bolting into the late sunshine of the day was Mr. Black stating in a calm tone: “No refunds, son. No refunds.”
Caleb ran. He tore through the tent flap and into the Fall sunshine, the canvas brushing past his face and head, touching lightly on his shoulders as he passed. His feet found asphalt, and he dug in, following the path between tents that led out of the carnival. It took only a minute to run through the fenced-off corridor, and then he exploded out onto the street, pausing only a moment to check his trajectory, before he made a beeline for home.
He ran the entire distance, his body falling into a familiar rhythm as he did, his breathing and heartbeat steadying, his mind slipping into a half-focus that dulled exhaustion and pain. He could still hear his breath in his ears, though it didn’t sound as ragged as before, and he could hear his shoes hitting the pavement, though not as frantic.
In a few short moments, he was home again, leaning against the inside of the front door, his hands on his knees, while he tried to get his breath back. Movement from the kitchen caught his attention, the sound of a plate against the counter, and he took one more deep breath and straightened, then pushed his hair from his eyes.
“Caleb?” His grandmother’s voice drifted into the hallway. He realized he had forgotten her gift at the fair, and felt a moment of shame. In the cool quiet of the house, with the familiar scents and sounds of home, his panic started to look foolish to him.
He headed toward the kitchen, when a knock came at the door. He froze, and held his breath. The knock came again, and from the other end of the hall, his grandmother appeared. She was drying her hands on a towel.
“Oh, you are here. Thought you forgot your key again.” The knock came again, insistent, firm. She nodded at the door. “Can you get that? I’m cleaning strawberries.”
He stood, seemingly unable to reply or move in either direction – toward the safety of family, or in the face of his fear, and the door. He shook his head, and hated that he did it. His fear was climbing his spine like a snake on a branch, threatening to poison his thoughts.
A small line appeared between his grandmother’s eyebrows, and her mouth turned down a bit. Something on his face must have given him away, because her expression softened, and the line smoothed away. She smiled.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ve got it.” She walked down the hall past him, and patted him lightly on the shoulder. A small, irrational part of him wanted to tackle her, to shout at her to back away, to not open the door to the thing on the step, to not give the thing wearing a man suit any excuse.
She reached the door, and Caleb watched, the fear that had been running with soft steps down his spine earlier now stomping its way into his nervous system, paralyzing him. She opened it, and light, orange like a pumpkin, flooded into the entry. He was blinded for a heartbeat, and the blood in his ears reached what he could only describe as jet taxiing levels as his anxiety peaked.
“Oh, hello.” His grandmother said, and his eyes adjusted to the light. Standing silhouetted in the doorway was a small black man, holding a white cardboard box. He looked over her shoulder, and nodded to Caleb, and like that, he was free to move again.
Caleb walked to the door, and took the box when Jove offered it. “Thanks.” He said. Jove nodded again.
“Welcome. Saw you take off in a hurry, and well, I was closin’ shop. Figured I could at least run this by, since you paid for it, and all.”
“Would you like to come in?” Caleb’s grandmother asked. He had almost forgotten she was standing there.
Jove shook his head. “No, thank you, ma’am. I’ve got to get back and tie up a few more things. Just wanted to make sure your boy got that.” He turned to go. “You have a good night.”
“You too.” Caleb and his grandmother said in near unison.
They watched Jove walk down the sidewalk, then back toward the park, his gait easy. He paused to look out at the sunset, and then moved on. When he was gone, Caleb’s grandmother closed the door, and turned to him.
She quirked one eyebrow up, and folded her arms under her breasts. “What was that about? ‘You left in a hurry’?”
He couldn’t lie to her. Not for the least of reasons that she’d see through it right away, but because he didn’t believe in it. Not for her. They’d both been through too much together for that. Instead, he tried to distract her. He held out the box, his name scrawled across the top in black marker.
She took it, her expression becoming bemused. She turned the box over in her hands, and lifted the lid. She looked inside for a long moment; studying the glass ball that Caleb knew was nestled in tissue paper and cotton. He worried for a moment that she wouldn’t like it, but a part of him knew even if it were true, she’d never tell him that.
She lifted the glass out, and held it to the hall light. It caught the light and reflected it back, yellows and blues and greens. She let out a gasp, and Caleb felt his heart lurch for a second time. She was looking at the wall, and he turned to join her.
Painted on the wall by the reflection was a perfect summer scene – tall trees growing from green grass, the yellow ball of the sun peeking behind the branches, hung in a blue sky. It wasn’t a perfect work of art, but it was impressive, like a watercolor abstract trapped in glass and light. His grandmother held it up for a good minute, then two, and finally, slipped it back into the box with a bit of reluctance. The room seemed to darken by a hair when she did, and Caleb felt a momentary pang of loss.
She leaned in, and wrapped Caleb in her arms. He could smell lilac and coffee. After a moment, she leaned back, smoothed his hair back, and smiled.
“Thank you.” She said. “It’ll go in the living room, I think, in the big window, so we always have summer in the house.”
“You’re welcome.” He said. It was enough.
“So, why did you leave in a hurry?” Gran asked, as they ate dinner.
Caleb groaned internally. He was hoping she had forgotten since the afternoon. He searched for an answer that wouldn’t be a lie, but wouldn’t tell the whole truth.
“I got spooked.”
“Oh yeah?” She asked. The corner of her mouth lifted a bit. She pushed a piece of meatloaf around on her plate, toying with it. Caleb pitied the meatloaf. When Gran got in a playful mood, she could torment with the best of them. “Clown?”
Caleb blushed. She was practically laughing already. He looked down at his plate and shrugged. “There was a funhouse. I didn’t care for it there.” Not exactly a lie. There was a funhouse. He didn’t like it at the carnival.
Gran nodded sagely. “So, clown in the funhouse?” She did laugh that time, a short sound like a hiccup.
Caleb tried to play along. He looked up with what he hoped was a sheepish grin. “Something like that, yeah.”
She did laugh then, from her belly, and before long, Caleb couldn’t help but join her. Her laugh was infectious, and regardless of the circumstances, or the truth, he loved her, so he joined in. For a while, they forgot the outside world, the pain of loss, and the inevitable cold of winter creeping in, and Caleb was able to push the man in black to the back of his mind.
After the dishes were put away, and the heat and light had faded from the day, they sat on the front porch and watched the stars come out. They sat in silence – not from anger or lack of conversation, but silence brought on by a simple understanding of each other. When a chill began to slip into the evening, they went back inside, said their goodnights, and went off to bed.
Caleb climbed in under the covers and flipped off the light. Normally, he would have stayed up a bit, reading until he could no longer hold his eyes open, but the day had sapped him, and he wanted nothing more than to drift off for a solid seven or eight hours. He laid his head down, closed his eyes, and before he could think of summer in the glass, or the man in black, sleep closed in.
Dreams came in a black wave of twisted thorns and the space between stars. In them, Caleb saw the veil threaten to split, and felt the pressure of a mind so vast it viewed his as the equivalent of an insect. He turned away, tried to block it from his mind, tried to run, and saw row upon row of reflections of himself. He stepped forward, and they shifted and danced.
A small shape, a child, stepped forward from somewhere in the dark, his reflection joining Caleb’s. In the distance, a woman’s voice called a boy’s name, but he didn’t seem to notice. Caleb thought he must be lost, but for the moment, the boy seemed unconcerned, fascinated by his reflection. He reached out and touched a mirror, and his fingers came away with the silver, sticking to him like spider web. The boy cried out, and Caleb moved forward to help, hoping to reach him, to pull him free.
Every corner and new path he reached however, was a false wall, every step forward only dug him deeper into the maze, and as he watched, helpless from a distance, the boy was drawn inevitably into the mirror. The surface rippled, like the surface as a pond, indifferent to the boy’s screams. When it was done, the surface of the mirror smoothed, and became placid again, and the maze was quiet.
Caleb put his head down and arms up, and crashed through the nearest mirror, heedless of the danger. He needed to find the boy, to free him. Pressed to say why, he was sure he couldn’t, other than that it was the right thing to do.
He found himself in a black so complete he could not see even his own hand when he held it up. Behind him, that vast presence in the dark turned its attention forward, and he felt it. With sudden surety, he knew what it wanted, what it needed, and he went cold all over.
He began to run, his legs pumping, lungs heaving, but in the dark, there was no impression of progress, and behind him, he imagined breath like that of a chill wind on his neck, so close he could nearly smell the ice on it.
He screamed, and then snapped awake.
Caleb woke in the chill of an early dawn, the sky still a deep purple outside his window. He made his way out of bed, and took care of business in the bathroom before heading downstairs. Once there, he padded around the empty rooms on bare feet, and tried to make as little noise as possible.
The house was quiet in the small hours, furniture and decorations shadows in the dark. Caleb wandered over to one of the overstuffed chairs in the living room, and stared out of the front window at the street outside. Somewhere in the dark of the house, one of his grandmother’s clocks ticked away the hours, sending lonely echoes through the halls. Memory of Black’s tent tugged at him, that dull persistent throb, and he pushed it down.
Outside, trees made black silhouettes against the sky, and pavement and concrete reflected dull glows in pools of light thrown by the street lamps. Sometimes, after a bad dream, Caleb would come down here, and watch the street, like now, imagining that at any moment, his parents would return, that the world would be right again.
He knew it for what it was, a dream brought on by loss, and a bittersweet one at that, but some days, it came regardless, and while it lasted, he allowed it. When it was over, sometimes he cried, sometimes he simply packed it away, but he never mistook it for what anything other than what it was.
He didn’t remember much of either of them, though he had seen pictures. They had both been tall, beautiful in their own ways. His mother was blonde, like his grandmother had been, with deep blue eyes, and a constant smile that played around her lips. Even in the photos, he could see smile lines already forming on her face. His father was dark and big, his eyes intense. A touch of grey was creeping into his hair, but beside that, he held Caleb’s mother in the photos as though she were china, the most precious thing he had ever been near.
Caleb’s grandmother told stories of them sometimes, usually on a late night, after a glass of wine or two. She would laugh and talk about how they seemed right, despite anything anyone else had said. She would talk about how they believed in doing right as well, even if it hurt them, because there just wasn’t enough of that in the world.
While he looked out, his mind fighting between the dream he harbored and the nightmare he’d had, his eyes drifted, and fell on the glass globe on the sill. He looked at it, its colors muted in the dark, nothing more than shadowed ink in the dim light. He remembered the bright forest and the sunlight inside, and stood. He picked it up. For a moment, he considered leaving his grandmother a note, but he thought if she knew she would worry. Then, he remembered her stories, and thought more importantly, that she would understand.
He left the room, and went back upstairs. It only took him a few moments to dress in the dark, and then he was on his way, back down the stairs, and out the front door. He closed it behind him as quietly as possible, waiting for the soft click of the latch in the frame. Then he was moving, down the front walk, and the sidewalk, and toward whatever waited beyond.
As he walked, the image of the boy being devoured by the thing in the mirror played through his mind. He wondered if it was true, if the thing in the carnival, and its puppet, Mr. Black, devoured children. He thought it entirely possible. He wondered how many children had been drawn into the black depths of those tattoos, swallowed by the mirrors, lost in the darkness. He shuddered, and shook his head to clear it.
He considered the possibility he was wrong. He considered the idea that what he was doing was dangerous, and stupid. The picture in his head, and the surety of youth pushed those thoughts down, and he continued on.
He kept an eye out for cars or other walkers passing by. The last thing he needed was to be recognized, or worse, delayed, by someone he knew. He knew his intentions, and the cause behind them, but those who would see him or stop him wouldn’t. Worse, if he were seen, he might have to abandon his plan, an option he didn’t feel good about, and wasn’t sure he could live with.
Fifteen minutes later, twice as long as it would normally take him to get to the park, but made necessary by avoiding light patches and the occasional early riser, he was standing in front of the entrance. He glanced to his left and right, past the barriers marking off traffic, and over the hedges, to make sure no one was coming. The park was quiet, and beyond that, the carnival lay silent as well, the machines and trucks and rides still and dark as a graveyard.
A low fence had been strung up around the park to keep people from sneaking in and causing mischief. The entrance to the park was marked by a break in the fencing and closed off with a gate that had been shut and secured with a padlock. Caleb gave the fence an experimental push, and it swayed gently. He gave it more pressure, and the fence held, refusing to move much more than an inch or two.
He looked around one more time, took a breath, and started to scale the fence, his fingers and the toes of his shoes finding easy purchase in the large links. As he climbed, the fence let out a gentle chime of metal on metal, and shook as though a breeze passed by, but it held. Then he was over, dropping to the grass of the park, the fence vibrating one last time with the sound of metallic chimes.
Caleb lay in the grass and held his breath, waiting for a full minute, then two. When he was sure no one was coming to investigate the sound, he stood and moved to the shadow of the trees in the park, slipping past the roped-off area between exhibitor tents. In the dark they were pale ghosts of canvas that fluttered and rippled gently when the wind moved by.
He moved through the park, silent on the soft grass. Free from the winding path of the vendor exhibits, he was able to make short work of it, and found himself at the other end of the park, the fence wrapping around and stopping his progress. He stood in the shadow of one of the great elms there and looked between the links. The carnival slept, rows of machines and food booths silent and dark. Somewhere in that maze lay Mr. Black, the thought tried to form a knot in his gut. He forced it back, and moved on.
He sidled between the last two tents in the row, returning to the path. Jove’s tent was just to the right of him, though the old man was, of course, absent, and all his glass wonders packed away. Caleb moved on, the entrance to the carnival proper open from this approach, and entered the maze of machines and games.
He trod carefully as he walked, doing his best not to trip on the occasional stray hose or cord that lay across the path, like fat black snakes in the dark. He sincerely hoped the machines weren’t motion activated, or that a carnie wasn’t suffering insomnia or on night duty and wandering around.
When he cleared the machines, he let out a small breath. So far, he had managed to move in the carnival without any notice. He crept on, moving into the shadows and open lanes of the bigger booths – the ring toss, the rifle range, balloon pop, and others. There was more room to move here, and plenty of places to hide, either between or in booths, should someone pass by.
The empty carnival reminded him of a ghost town. Once bustling streets and shops closed for business, the people gone like chaff in the wind. Open pavilions gaped in the night, and their contents seemed like the remnants of a lost civilization, with bottles stacked in haphazard rows and stuffed toys clipped to their walls.
Somewhere deeper in the tangle of trucks and campers that made up the temporary living quarters of the carnival, someone coughed, and the sound of a bottle clinking against concrete echoed in the night. Caleb froze, his heart ramping up to third gear. He held his breath, and waited for the sound to come again. When it didn’t, he slipped between a tent where players shot water into a clown’s mouth to inflate a balloon, and a cotton candy cart. Crouched low, a mild sweat breaking on his forehead, he waited a full five minutes before he felt safe enough to move on again.
He made it to the end of the path, where it narrowed down and spiraled into the small collection of tents. Caleb paused for a moment and reached into his pocket, feeling the small glass globe he had brought along. Its weight reassured him, and as he held it, he imagined warmth radiating from the glass into his hand. He let it go with some reluctance, and stepped forward.
He had a plan. Well, a plan of sorts. He had no desire to disturb the animals in the menagerie, though if it came to it, he might be able to let them loose in order to create a distraction. Likewise with the fortune teller or the tent marked as Danse Macabre. None of those seemed to have much to do with his dream or his plan, and he thought it best to avoid those in case the performers were around.
He walked the semicircle of tents for the second time in as many days, glancing at the name plates and listening at the tent flaps for signs of life. He stopped at the House of Mirrors, and pursed his lips, a small line forming between his eyebrows as he thought.
He figured the heart of the carnival had to be in Mr. Black’s tent, the nerve center so to speak. He still hadn’t figured out how he would confront the man, though he knew it had to be done. The thought alone sent a chill up his spine, walking with icy feet that left gooseflesh on his back. The House of Mirrors on the other hand, was a simple solution. He had to break it; bring the whole thing down. His only concern there was the noise it would raise, and the resulting response.
He considered it for another moment, his thoughts spinning in circles. No one takes on a task and thinks maybe this will kill me. What they hope is that the thing they’ve chosen to do is right, and the world will bear them up. He held onto that hope, and steeled himself.
From the shadows beyond the tents, a low shuffle, like the sole of a shoe on concrete, whispered across the lot to him. He froze, his heart trying to match its earlier pace. He waited for a full five beats before it came again, a low scuff of leather on stone.
The sound crystallized his intent, and he turned to the black tent in the center of the ring, the one with the sign out front that read-
Mr. Black, Esq.
He moved toward the front of the tent as quickly as he dared to without making sound. When he reached it, he took the thin canvas of the flap in his hand. It reminded him of the skin of the very old, dry and papery, and made his own skin crawl. The scuffing came again, and he pushed the revulsion away and stepped inside.
The flap closed behind him with the whisper of spider legs on paper, and Caleb suppressed another bout of disgust. In the early hours of dawn and missing the lights that had been present the day before, the air inside the tent was nearly the color of pitch. Caleb waited it out, his eyes adjusting to the gloom until he could make out the vague outlines of furniture. In the back of the tent, behind the curtain that was a mass of folded black in the dark, that ticking, beating sound droned in steady rhythm.
He began to pick his way through the dark, stepping carefully so as not to trip on a chair leg or a shelf. Once, halfway through the tent, he strayed too close to the side, and barked his shin on one of the small stands there. He stopped moving, biting back a curse that would’ve turned his Gran’s hair blue while he waited out the Charley horse. When the pain had faded to a dull throb, he moved on, absently rubbing the muscle as he crept.
Outside, the shuffling, scuffing sound had resolved to full footsteps, and Caleb knew with a sinking feeling someone was coming. He moved as quickly as he dared, barely dodging two more pieces of furniture before coming to the curtain at the end of the tent. The ticking had grown louder the closer he got, becoming a clear beat, like that of heart. He reached up and grabbed the curtain, intending to tear it away, when a spear of light transfixed his hand. He froze in place.
Behind him, a deep voice tsked. “You disappoint me, boy. You reject gifts, lie, sneak, and cheat.”
Caleb turned, and saw Mr. Black, silhouetted behind the beam of a flashlight. Caleb raised a hand to ward off the light, and Black turned it off. A chill slipped through Caleb. He didn’t like the idea of being in a dark space alone with this man. Black began to advance, and Caleb stepped back, the folds of the curtain at his back, the velvet brushing the nape of his neck.
“Well?” Mr. Black asked.
Caleb didn’t reply. He began to gather the curtain in his fists behind him.
“Did you come for a refund?” Small pinpricks of cold light glittered in the dark, and Caleb realized with a start they were Black’s eyes. “Hmm. Maybe you returned for the rest of your gift?”
The man was still walking forward as he talked. Caleb bunched the muscles of his arms and shoulders, tensed, and prepared to yank the curtain down and confront whatever was back there. He saw movement in the dark, and realized Black was rolling up his sleeve to expose his tattoo.
“No. Not for that.” he said, and pulled the curtain as hard as he could. It resisted, the rod on which it hung bending and flexing. Then it ripped, a sound like the world tearing. The curtain came down, black folds cascading to the floor in a ripple of fabric. Light, the color of honey and blood, filled the room, and Caleb turned. Behind him, even Mr. Black had halted his advance.
The back of the tent was filled with foot upon of foot of glass and brass tubing, snaking into oddly shaped boxes and under the tent wall. Glass boxes with numerical displays, like an odometer, ticked along on some of the pipes, while in others, fluids the color of window cleaner and blood and honey slipped through the glass. Light spilled from some of these tubes and displays, and more light still shone from the glass vat at the center of it all, the fluid inside an amalgam of all the others.
The tubes and pipes originated there, pumping and siphoning, creating the beating sound that had begun to grow stronger and fill the tent. Inside, suspended and pierced and grafted, beat a heart the color of roses, blue veins striating its surface.
Caleb took an involuntary step back, and was stopped by Black’s hand on his shoulder. The man’s touch was icy and dry, even through his clothes, and beneath his fingers, Caleb could feel his skin trying to shrivel in fear. He felt Black’s breath on his neck, smelt the stench of things that should be long dead.
“I have the heart of a small boy, Caleb. I keep it in my office.” He cackled at this, and Caleb felt himself leaving the ground, the air rushing past him. It ended a short time later as he hit the ground, the breath knocked out of him. Mr. Black followed, seeming to flow across the ground as he did so. He stopped a foot from Caleb, and looked down. Caleb thought he saw pity in the man’s eyes, and when he spoke, it was preceded by a heavy sigh.
“It really is fortunate for me. This one was just running out of…juice. I had hoped you would be something more, but you turned out to be…stupid.”
He aimed a kick for Caleb’s ribs, and the boy managed to roll away in time. He was still sucking in breath, though not as deeply as before. He held up a hand, an idea forming in his head. Black stopped, curiosity replacing the pity in his eyes.
“Yes?” He said. He was patient, if nothing else.
Caleb tried not to look to his right, to give anything away. He had managed to roll close enough to the shelves full of glassware, and he had a hunch the things in the tubes stored there weren’t all pleasant.
“What if – what if I said I wanted to see?” He said. He was stalling, and was hoping Black was as arrogant as he was old.
A smile lifted the corners of Black’s mouth. “What if I told you it’s too late?” He said.
Caleb groaned, and rolled a bit further to his right.
“Oh, dear boy. I’m sor-” He didn’t get the chance to finish.
Caleb hurled the handful of glass tubes at the man even as he forced himself to his feet, and began to sprint for the back of the tent. He didn’t look back, but was still rewarded with the sound of fragile glass breaking as it struck bone. There was a scream, pitched higher than he would have thought the man capable of, and the smell of sulfur filled the air.
Caleb reached the machine, and grabbed one of the tubes leading into the jar. Behind him, Black had switched to an angry roar, a sound like a wounded animal. He heard the passage of air, and a smell like charred meat drew close. With strength borne of desperation, he yanked on the tube, and snapped it to the side. It broke free with a hiss and a squeal, dumping a viscous brown fluid on the floor. Caleb grabbed another, and repeated the process, dumping more liquids, shutting down the machine.
In the back of his mind, a crazy thought rose to the surface, and he fought the urge to giggle.
Oh man, these shoes are ruined. He pushed it away, and went back to work.
The light in the jar flickered and the heart stuttered. Caleb felt fingers brush his shirt, thought the touch felt weak, passing. He lashed a foot out at the jar, and it cracked. Mr. Black howled again, though in anguish, this time. He kicked again, and the glass finally gave way, spilling its contents. Almost immediately, the steady beat that had filled the tent stopped, and the light went out. The air was filled with the scent of ozone, as though lightning had struck not a moment before.
The work done, Caleb turned back, searching out Mr. Black in the dark. He found himself alone, and wondered where the man had gone – a thought that didn’t have time to stick around and panic him as he considered the noise they had made. He figured he had five minutes at the most before the area was swarmed by carnies, and possibly the police.
He ran out of the tent, ignoring the cries that were already going up around the carnival, and darted for the House of Mirrors. From the corner of his vision, he saw the flap to the tent marked ‘Danse Macabre’ stir, and something mottled and grey began to emerge. He poured on speed, and threw the flap to the funhouse open. The sounds outside immediately died, and he stopped abruptly, confronted by an image of himself.
He considered. This should be easy. Tip the mirrors over like dominos, and run like hell. He eyed the mirror, and watched his reflection watching him. He was already eager to be rid of these things. He reached out, and his dream flashed through his mind, the image of the boy trapped by the mirror. He pulled his hands back.
He looked around; searching for anything he could use to attack the mirrors. He fought the feeling of panic rising inside. He was only a few short feet inside the tent, in the dark, with the entrance flap at his back. He felt vulnerable and small, knowing anyone could catch him at any time, and stop him. He closed his eyes, despite his instinct not to, and took three slow, deep breaths. He felt his pulse slow, and his mind focus.
He opened his eyes, and looked around again. At first, in the dark, he saw only the reflection in front of him, and shadows deeper in, lining the walls and floor. Against one wall, he saw a shadow, long and thin. He walked over, his reflection following him, and bent to pick it up. It was heavy and cold, and about the length of his forearm. He hefted it, and felt the flattened head at the end. Realization struck him. It was a tent peg, left behind by one of the workers. Probably an extra.
He walked over to the mirror, and reached out with the spike. The cold metal made a chiming sound when it touched the mirror, but went no further. He breathed a sigh of relief. He had been worried the surface would just ripple and give when touched. Maybe it only reacted to skin.
He shrugged, and set himself. He was past over-thinking things. He cranked his arm back, and threw the spike. It tumbled end over end, a black missile slung by David at Goliath in the dark. It struck the mirror, and the surface spider webbed. For a brief second, purple light peeked through the cracks, and a sound like the earth groaning crept through. Then the pieces fell, and carpeted the tent floor.
Behind it, another mirror cracked, and fell. The sound continued in the dark, each mirror shattering and falling, filling the air with brief flashes of light and the tinkling sound of a thousand chimes. It seemed to go on forever, and Caleb considered leaving, maybe letting the animals loose, and running home. A nagging feeling kept him there though, the memory of the boy falling into the silver.
He stepped forward instead, deeper into the dark. As he moved, it seemed to grow blacker, deeper still, and even the sound of glass crunching under his shoes came to him in muffled chimes of sound. Behind him, nothing stirred, and no sound came through the canvas of the tent.
He had reached what he felt had to be the center, though he could no longer see the walls or the bowing ceiling. A sound ahead of him, where none should be, echoed in the dark, and he stopped. He waited, wondering what to do next. He turned in a slow circle, torn between the need to leave and the instinct that something needed to be set right here.
A hand fell on his shoulder, and he let out a short yelp, and pulled away. He spun, putting the threat in front of him. Looming in the murk of the tent was Mr. Black. His flesh, where it had not burned away and exposed something black and hard, like an insect’s carapace, glowed with a weak pale light. He moved toward Caleb, the action disjointed, as though he were a puppet on a string. He opened his mouth, as if to speak. Caleb shrunk back again at the sight. Teeth, arranged in rings and sharp as razors, lined the inside of the man’s mouth, in rows of twos and threes.
Caleb reached inside his pocket, the thing that had been Mr. Black lurching ever forward. His fingers closed around the globe there, and he felt its warmth. Shaking, he pulled it out, and held it high. Light, golden and green and blue shone out from it, bright in the dark.
Black shrunk back, his whole body retreating with a jellyfish like spasm. In the light of the globe, Caleb could see into the dark. He realized he was no longer in the tent, but somewhere else, somewhere the law of reality didn’t matter. The tent was gone, and all around him, the black stretched on forever. In the distance, he could see things, great and terrible, turning in the dark, slumbering.
He pulled his gaze away, and noticed Mr. Black in the light. He was held up by what looked to be a dozen or more tentacles, each connected to his back and skull and limbs. They were dark, with the iridescence of an oil slick. They undulated gently, as though caught in a gentle tide, and as they did, Mr. Black would twitch and jerk.
Caleb followed the tentacles up, up, towards a vast black mass with that same strange coloring – like a rainbow trapped in the night. it seemed to fill the sky, and even as he watched, its surface rippled, and eyes, the yellow of bile, with vast slits for pupils opened. He felt it regarding him, and shuddered.
The thought crashed into him like a wave, and he dropped to his knees. His mind threatened to white out, to forget everything. Something in him was able to keep hold of the glass, and he kept it high.
BEND, CHILD. SERVE.
The white out threatened again, and Caleb forced his eyes from the beast above. He wrenched his gaze away with an effort, and it felt like something tore loose in his mind. His head threatened to split with the pain. He did his best to ignore it, and turned his attention to the glass, tears leaking from his eyes. Inside, the yellow of the sun seemed to have consumed the other colors, burning them away with a purifying light. He felt his head clear, though he was still unable to move.
The command came a third time; though it was no longer urgent, and Caleb thought he could detect a hint of petulance in it. From the corner of his eye, the puppet came at him again, and he forced himself to his feet with an effort of will that sapped him, then stepped back. He raised the glass over his head.
“Leave. Leave and never come back.” He said. The glass globe was hot in his hand.
Nothing. Its power was waning in his defiance, and it knew it. It forced the Black puppet at him, jaws scissoring as it came forward. Caleb stepped back one last time, and threw the globe against the ground.
It shattered, glass falling away like an eggshell, and light bloomed in the dark. It was a light so bright and terrible Caleb cried out and fell to his knees once more, throwing an arm up to shield his eyes. In the face of the light, something old and terrible screamed, the sound like a thousand steel nails on glass, and he feared his eardrums would shatter. Then, it was over, and the light and the noise and the once-man Mr. Black were gone, and he could feel canvas under his knees again.
He left the carnival without having to free the animals. Despite the earlier noise and chaos in the distance, the carnival was quiet again. It was as though for a moment, everyone had woken from a nightmare, and finding it gone, returned to a peaceful sleep.
Outside of the tent, to his surprise, it was still early dawn, and he was able to simply walk out through the exit path, scale the gate, and make the trip home. It felt like he had been gone a hundred years. He was tired, and sore, and knew a part of him would never be quite right after what he’d seen.
He felt a pang of sorrow at the lost boy – lost children – and he hoped what he had done would serve their memories in some way. He’d done the right thing. He hoped it was enough.
He made no attempt to avoid notice on the way home. He was beginning to suspect no one would even remember the carnival had even been here in a day. When he reached the front step of his porch, a small white box lay on the second riser. It caught his eye, and he stooped to pick it up. His name was scrawled in black marker on the lid.
Inside was a small globe, color swirled in a familiar pattern inside. He held it up to the shy light that was just beginning to peek over the horizon, and inside, saw reds and golds and greens, with a pale yellow in the center. He suspected if you held it to the light, you’d see trees, dressed in red and gold and green, under a pale blue sky. Autumn in a glass.
The wind blew, and it carried a chill, the first true edge of fall. It ruffled his hair, and blew leaves from the branches of the maples and oaks, spun loose piles in eddied circles, and then slipped on down the street. He looked after it for a moment, then turned back to the house, and began to climb the steps to the door.
He smiled – a tired, contented smile – and slipped the globe in his pocket, then went inside.