The man with the terrible eyes stands across the parking lot from a traveling carnival and watches.
It is misty out. Rain had fallen earlier that morning and wasn't entirely certain it was done just yet. Above, the sky is overcast and over-bright. Even through his sunglasses, he finds himself squinting in the light and wishing he had a hat.
The carnival is set up on the local fairgrounds. There's a tall wooden and chain-link fence covered in creeping plants that blocks most of the carnival from view. Out front, at the grounds entrance, they'd put up balloon arches. The arches waft and wave in the slight breeze, and grow larger as he gets closer.
Alan has not been to a carnival or fair since he was twelve. Hazy memories of brightly colored game stands, fried food, and a roller coaster with a dragon head flit though his mind. Some part of him is telling him not to go. This is stupid. It's a waste of money. He should be hiding. However another part of him is already at the ticket stand, handing the operator a 20$.
According to the painted price board, it's twenty tickets for 19$, or an all-day pass for 20$.
Alan has a sudden jolt of memory. He has seen this exact deal before, the last time he was at a carnival. Last time, he'd gotten confused and had bought the tickets, only to run out partway through the day.
The ticket salesman, a smiling man in candystripe pants and a yellow, western shirt, tries to hand him some tickets.
"No," says Alan. "I'd like the pass, please."
"Nooo problem," says the ticket man, dragging the words out slightly in a theatrical way. He takes back the tickets and motions for Alan to put his hand up into the counter. Quickly, the man snaps a paper bracelet around Alan's wrist, then ushers him on.
"Enjoy your stay," the ticket man says.
Feeling a little proud, a little anxious, and a little silly, Alan walks through the balloon arches and enters the carnival in silence.
* * * * *
The world seems brighter inside the carnival, but not in a bad way. The sky that had been carpeted with fat clouds and searing light is suddenly a little clearer, a little sunnier, beyond the balloon arches. There are stands and rides and little huts selling odds and ends, and everything is painted in yellows and reds and blues and greens-- cheerful, bold colors that make the day even brighter. The air is warm, but with a crisp breeze. The place is busy, but not unbearably so; there are families with children, and there are couples, and there are older groups of friends-- college or high school kids. He appears to be the only one traveling alone, but he is used to that.
He passes the row of food stands, taking in the smells. Funnel cakes, kettle corn, a stand selling entire turkey legs, and a large hot dog sand at the end that has an awning and shade. Beyond those are the game stands. Ping-pong toss, ring toss, throwing balls at metal bowling pins, something to do with a fishing rod? He's tempted to go and see what the game is, but there's a group of college kids in university sweaters there, and he doesn't want to get too close. He walks through the stands, taking in the sights but feeling no temptation to eat or play. Maybe later.
Everyone he passes smiles at him.
At first, he averts his eyes, looking down at his feet when they pass. Even with the sunglasses, he doesn't want to risk upsetting anyone.
But they smile. Some people, other customers, say hello. He isn't used to this, and despite himself, he smiles back weakly.
There's a row of stands selling souvenirs-- teddy bears in different sizes and colors for people who didn't want to try winning one to the games. Wooden figurines of goats and clowns. Pretend swords made of wood. He stops and looks at the swords, feeling stupid for wanting one. He's just considering asking about the price when he hears screams.
He does not run, but, as if by instinct, he finds himself walking briskly towards the source of the noise. Heat rises in his hands and in his eyes; there's nothing visibly different yet, but the power is there if he needs it.
When he finds the cause of the screams, he laughs in relief, and the power in his hands and eyes disperses.
In front of him is a roller coaster.
The roller coaster is small, but that made sense after a second's thought. The track is yellow and doesn't go in any loops, but it swerves and swoops in one big figure eight-- perfect for children and people with easily upset stomachs. The coaches are shaped to look like the body of a wormy green dragon, with the head at the front, tail at the end, and little painted arms along the middle. Now that he is looking, he can see the lines and hinges on the platform where the whole setup folds in on itself for travel.
"You wanna get on?" says a familiar voice behind him.
"Thinking about it," Alan says. "We had one like this when I was a kid."
"Go ahead," says the ticket man, moving to his side. "Nobody here will judge you."
Alan keeps himself facing forward, but flicks his eyes to the side towards the stranger. "Weren't you selling tickets before?"
The man still smiles. "I do a lot around here. Consider me your operator for the day." There's a strange weight to the word, and the hair on Alan's neck rises. The man hand him a flyer and says, "Have fun, sport."
Alan watches him leave, noticing that none of the other customers have received flyers.
The flyer is for a show. Giovanni the Jaguar, Man Eater! Times: noon, two, and five.
He folds the flyer and shoves it in his pocket. There's plenty of time before that. He turns his attention back to the roller coaster and sees that there are adults on the ride now. Everyone on the ride is smiling widely and laughing. He smiles, too. Everyone is enjoying themselves, and it's contagious.
Maybe I'll give it a shot.
He gets in line by the short gate and arrives as the last ride ends. The couples and families and groups of friends get off, leaving through the back gate. Alan flashes his wristband at the ride operator, who then waves him on. He tucks himself into the back seat-- he'd read somewhere something about that being the best place on a ride-- and soon the dragon is full. The ride starts.
For a ride aimed at mostly-kids, it's surprisingly rough. It swoops and curves and goes up and down in ways he hadn't thought it would, despite watching the track earlier. His stomach jumps with every dip, and all too soon, the ride screeches to a stop.
People start shuffling out. he stays seated, waiting for the dizziness to ebb.
"Ready to go again?" the ride attendant asks.
Alan holds his head, the dizziness quickly turning to nausea. "Don't-- Don't I have to wait in line?"
The attendant shrugs. "Nah, there's no line."
Alan squints and sees there isn't. He's the only one left on the ride, and there's nobody else stopping to get on. His head is killing him. He really shouldn't.
"Sure," he says.
There’s a loud metallic thunk-thunk as the attendant pulls some levers, and the ride starts. He goes again.
This time, the ride seems longer. Maybe it's because it's his second go around, maybe it's the headache, or maybe it's be cause he's by himself, but the turns seem more extreme, the slopes more inclined, the ride more swift. When it's over, he feels like he could vomit, but doesn't. He slumps forward as the ride slows to a stop, resting his head on the hand bar.
"You alright?" the ride attendant says, coming over.
Alan looks up blearily. "Yeah," he mumbles. "'S'all good."
The ride operator tilts his head. "Huh," he says.
Alan frowns, unsure of what the man is looking at. Then he touches his face, and his eyes widen.
At some point on the ride, he's lost his sun glasses. He has no idea how or when-- why didn't he notice? Shouldn't he have noticed? He silently curses himself and looks down at his hands, afraid of frightening the carnie.
"Well?" the ride operator says.
Alan peers up at him, heart beating wildly.
"Did you want to go on again?"
No says his stomach.
"Yeah," says his mouth.
The man gets back behind the gate, pulls the lever, and the ride goes around for the third time.
* * * * *
After the fourth time, Alan can stand it no more and forces himself off the ride. Some small part of him is entirely convinced that, had he not gotten off when he did, he would have stayed on the ride all day and into the night, riding in circles forever. This part of him is thoroughly ignored by the rest of him, who just wants to have a nice day for once.
Unfortunately, things in the carnival are becoming off.
The clean, bright colors are starting to become more faded and bedraggled. There's dust and splotches of dirt, old stains where there had been none before. The sky isn't quite as clear or as blue as it had been. People are still smiling, still laughing, but the smiles aren't reaching their eyes, and their laughs don't sound exactly happy anymore.
Maybe he is just imagining it.
It's probably just the headache.
After passing the row of games again, he loops around, past the rides, and into an area with tents. According to the signs and posters, the tents have shows going on inside. For a split second, he thinks he sees strange shadows on the sides of the tents, like human figures, but they're gone in the blink of an eye.
He stops. He's never seen a carnival show before. The one from his childhood hadn't had any. He takes out the flyer the Operator had given him earlier. Giovanni the Jaguar isn't for a while yet, but he sees the tent where the show will be. It's the largest of them all, decked out in red and gold ribbons.
I'll catch the second show, he thinks. Not the one at noon. That way, he'll be able to have lunch first.
He passes through the rows of tents, and one at the end catches his eye. The tent is smaller than the others, and rather than having stripes, it is patterned to look like scales. The sandwich board sign in front of the entrance says,
"SUCCUMB TO SIRENIA, THE SUBLIME SERPENT SUCCUBUS"
The man with the Terrible Eyes does not know what a "succubus" is, but the sandwich board shows a pretty lady in a slinky dress standing in the mouth of a giant snake, so he assumes it must be the species of snake, or maybe the snake's name.
Curiosity drives him on. He enters the tent.
Inside, the air is smokey and smells of incense. The lights around the edges of the room are dim, but the stage at the center is well lit. There's one seat left on the back row, close to the exit, and he takes it.
The show is already in progress when he arrives.
The woman on stage is as advertised in the poster; a pretty, dark-haired lady in a green, sequinned dress that sparkles under the stage lights. She waves a baton as she makes a circuit of the stage, pointing at the audience members and saying something Alan cannot quite hear.
While she's walking and pointing and thrusting occasionally with her hips and causing the sequins on her dress to explode with light, a snake slithers onto the stage, its mottled green and brown skin gleaming. The woman picks past the snake as it follows her, gracefully avoiding stepping on it as it weaves between her feet like an eager dog.
Interested, Alan wonders what the act will be. Will she just show the snake around? Does it do tricks? What kind of tricks could a snake do, anyway? He sits forward and waits.
The woman bows to the audience, blows a kiss, then drops to her knees. She prostrates herself before the snake, who languidly makes its way to her front. The snake arches upwards, opening its until-then hidden hood. It stands taller and taller, until it is taller than the woman was while standing. But, even though it is straightening itself, the rest of its body on the stage remains the same length. In fact, there appears to be even more of it now, more snake coiled up on the plywood. . .
It takes a moment for Alan to understand what his eyes are telling him. The snake is growing. Slowly at first, almost imperceptibly, but now rapidly, it expands outwards until its coiled body is too large for the stage, and part of it falls into the aisle with a thud. It looms above the woman and now has to bend forward so as not to bump into the roof of the tent. It opens its mouth, and its several-foot-long fangs drip venom.
The audience gasps. A few people cheer. At least one screams. Mostly, there is a tittering of laughter and excited giggling, and Alan feels a cold, hollow weight drop into his stomach. He tries to rise, but can't. It’s as though every muscle from the neck down has gone nerve-dead, and no amount of thought can make them go. He can’t even struggle, all he can do is watch helplessly as the show goes on.
On the stage, the snake, apparently done posing for the audience, darts forward and, with little ceremony, plucks the woman up in its jaws. It's large enough now that it doesn't even need to unhinge itself; it gets the first half of her in with ease, so her legs are dangling from its semi-open mouth. Then it tilts its head back and gulps repeatedly. There’s a sickening sight of her body jerking awkwardly as the snake moves its head, but it’s over soon, and only a matter of seconds until she's gone entirely.
The audience goes mad. They leap out of their seats in thunderous applause.
The snake sinks downward, lowering its head and hiding its hood, shrinking from being supernaturally large to merely unusually large. While the snake in its giant form had looked no different for eating the woman, the snake as its smaller self has an enormous, unmistakably human-sized bulge in its torso.
The snake slithers sluggishly off stage and out of sight. The audience cheers. Alan watches them and sees that many of them are crying, despite their wide smiles and applause.
The lights flicker. For a second, the briefest moment, he does not see a happy, smiling audience. He sees people with their eyes and mouths held open by clips. He sees blood trickling down from where the metal clips, glinting in the light, are piercing through the skin. He sees men, women, and children with mouthfuls of blood dribbling down their chins, and eyes that are mingling blood and tears.
Then the lights come back on steady as before, and everyone has returned to normal.
When it becomes clear that neither she nor the snake are coming out for a bow, people begin filing out of the tent.
Alan stays where he is, arms crossed, leaning back in the folding chair. When everyone else has gone, a big man in a vest comes up to him.
"Leave," the man grunts.
"Next show's in thirty minutes," Alan says. "I'm gonna stay. I missed the first part."
The man look at him and says nothing. Feeling bolder now, Alan looks directly back at him. The man still says nothing, but after a moment, he leaves.
The tent fills with guests once again, and he cannot tell if they are the same people or different ones. They smile, but every so often he catches glimpses out of the corner of his eyes of blood-splattered and tear-stained faces. The lights in the tent fade out, leaving only the ones illuminating the stage.
Again, the dark haired woman comes out onto the stage. Again she walks around, pointing at the audience with the baton, and again the snake crawls out to meet her. Once again she is eaten, and once again the audience cheers wildly while crying. This time, Alan stands with the rest of the cheering crowd. He hoots and hollers as loud as any of them while sidling slowly past the other guests and out of the row.
When the snake vanishes behind the side curtain, Alan follows.
* * * * *
The snake either does not know he’s following it, or it does not care. He makes no move to hide himself, and the animal ignores him completely, focused on getting to its destination. It slowly slides over the dirt floor, carrying the enormous human-bulge in its belly like luggage. It leads him to one of the tent’s back exits, and from there a short trip away from an open trailer.
He hesitates at the exit. Ahead, the snake is slithering its way up the steps into the trailer, but for a moment, Alan is filled with unease. This carnival is clearly getting weird, but even so, he’s now behind the fenced off area not permitted to guests, he’s clearly trespassing, and he doesn’t have Dog with him should things go awry. . .
Feeling like a thief, he presses forward and steps quietly into the trailer. He only has a moment to take in the interior.
There are hanging decorations on the walls. Fairy lights strung around. A bed, piled high with quilts, taking up the side as though it were built into the trailer-- which it might be. The snake is on the bed, partially coiled except for the bulge that was once a pretty, dark-haired woman. Piles of clothes are on every available surface, and there is a small closet with several shimmering dresses hanging up.
But what he notices most clearly is the enormous vanity taking up the back wall. The mirror is high, almost going to the ceiling, and he wonders how they fit it in. The top of the mirror has lights, the desk-like part of the vanity is as long as the bed is, if not longer, and sitting in front of it is a dark haired woman in a shining green dress.
He has a split second urge to turn around and run back to the tent, to pretend that he’d never intruded, but he’s too slow. She turns, and Alan sees that she is the same pretty, dark-haired woman from the show.
She smiles at him and he knows instinctively that if cats could smile at mice, this is how they would look.
“Hello,” she says. “Lost?”
His eyes flick to the snake on the bed, then back to her.
“Sorry,” he says. “Just curious.”
She chuckles. “I bet.”
Somewhere in his mind, Alan knows this isn’t right. Women, even performers used to attention, don’t tend to like strange men coming unannounced into their trailers. In the real world, people get vases thrown at them and escorted off premises for this sort of thing. She should be yelling at him to leave, he should be horribly embarrassed for coming here at all-- but that doesn’t happen.
The fog inside his head, the mind-fog enveloping the entire carnival, makes it seem as though this is not only normal, but it was expected. Of course he was going to follow the snake. Of course he was going to wind up here.
And of course this woman, who was now rising from her vanity chair, would say,
“Would you like to see how it’s done?”
“Yes,” he says without missing a beat.
She laughs-- a false, theatrical sound-- and rises. She gestures for him to stand back, and she takes her place in the middle of the floor, the only clean spot, and she holds her arms out to the side.
The change can be heard before it can be seen. Numerous small cracking sounds, a sickening staccato as her arms, then torso, and then neck and begin to bend and twist. Her skin strains and stretches over whatever nauseating change is happening inside, and for a brief moment, her skin moves as though something is crawling beneath it. Large and small bulges move beneath her skin while the cracks continue, and it takes him a moment to realize that it's coming from her bones. Her bones are cracking inside her, breaking and moving, and that's what's causing her skin to move; the bones beneath are rearranging themselves. Through it, she is still watching Alan with bright, excited eyes that he only now notices are yellow.
Then, she rips herself apart.
The tear starts where her neck meets her right shoulder. Like a plastic bag, her skin stretches and pulls until the tension is too much and it finally splits open. The rip spreads down her shoulder, across her chest, where it plunges down her neckline to places where he cannot see. Then the two pieces pull apart. One goes to one side, the other to the other. They look like they shouldn't be able to balance-- each half has only one foot.
There should be blood. He has seen people get torn into two pieces before, and there should be blood. There should be bones, and torn muscles, and unnaturally gray organs that are, in reality, entirely too natural for comfort. But there’s not. Instead, she looks like she’s made of flesh-colored playdough, and that someone has just taken a piece away from her to make something else. There's no organs or bones or any usual innards he can see, just the pulled-apart strands of two chunks of soft clay. The wo halves stand side by side for a moment, their protruding, torn-away edges far enough away not to graze each other.
Then, the two halves fill in. The fleshy-colored frayed edges smooth and lengthen, bulging and rounding and growing until instead of one torn up woman, there are now two whole ones.
The identical, partially nude women turn to look at him, smiles wide, yellow eyes bright, and fangs visible.
Did she have fangs before? The thought flitters by. Were her pupils always slitted?
“Well?” says one of the women.
He feels his face burning, and he looks at the floor. Slowly, he raises his hand, and flashes them a thumbs up.
“Cool trick,” he says.
Then he turns and leaves. Nobody stops him on his way to the tent, back the way he came in.
Well that’s alright then, he thinks.
* * * * *
There is a fun house. He knows it is a fun house because it says so on the side. The front of the building, one of those fake fronts that are much larger than the actual building, is brightly colored with swirly patterns and blinking lights.
He walks up the rickety steps and to the entry platform, where a carny in blood-splattered overalls is there waiting with a sack full of ticket stubs. Her yellow ponytail is stiff and red on the ends, like it has been dipped in blood.
"Hello hello," the woman says. "Going in?"
Alan nods, flashes his paper bracelet, and walks in.
The fun house starts with a maze of mirrors and glass. The path is small and cramped, and in places are are mirrors, and in other places there are plain glass panels, making the distinction between the actual path and dead ends harder to see. Though there are small LED light ropes on the ceiling and at the base of the mirrors, the farther into the maze he goes, the darker it seems to get.
This is supposed to be fun, based on the name, but instead he feels a rising tide of anxiety. His skin feels too hot, but when he touches his arms, they're ice cold, and the face looking back at him from all the mirrors is unusually pale.
The urge to break out hits him like a wave. In the mirrors, he can see small yellow-white sparks flickering around his clenched fists, and it's all he can do to stop himself from letting loose and breaking the entire place apart.
It's a fun house! he internally yells at himself. Little kids do this!
Fueled now by anger at himself, rather than any fear, he blunders his way through the maze, determined to reach the end.
Eventually, the mirror maze ends. A space he'd thought had clear paneling is actually clear, and he gratefully falls through, out of the maze and into a narrow, but blessedly straight and straightforward, hallway. Like the maze, the hall has hollow-sounding wooden floors and the walls are lined with framed mirrors. At the end is a door, and he assumes-- he hopes-- that it is the exit.
He walks past the wall mirrors at a brisk pace, impatient to get to the end, but his attention is caught by the sight of scarlet out of the corner of his eye. He looks at the mirror.
The reflection looking back at him has its throat slit.
In all other ways, it is normal, matching his movements and expression, but there's a deep gash going across his neck. Dried, blackened blood paints the front of his reflection's clothing.
Slowly, he moves away from the mirror and on to the next.
The next one has a hole where his heart out to be, with the viscera and ribs exposed. The reflection of his lungs breathes in time with his actual breathing. As an experiment, he holds his breath, and the lungs in the mirror freeze.
In the next mirror, he is hanging from the top, a noose around his bloated and mottled-purple neck. The next one has him looking like a drowned man, his skin sick and pale and swollen, water dribbling from his reflection's open mouth.
He passes the mirrors in silence, taking in the different scenes of death. In that one, he's charred and burned as if roasted in a fire. In that one he's been torn open, as though by some enormous animal. In that one, he looks normal, but he's surrounded by looming, shadowy figures. He has to look away from the one with the vivisection scene-- it's too close for comfort.
On and on they go. The hallway stretches out far longer than it seems to have been before, in what feels to be a longer length than the entirety of the Fun House setup.
He stops in front of the last mirror.
The reflection there looks like himself. No blood, no wounds, nothing unusual except for the eyes. Instead of his normal (well, normal to him, at least) dark-ish, blue-ish eyes, the eyes in it are black, smoking pits. He tilts his head this way and that, watching the wisps of black smoke adjust. He waves his hands over his face, and the smoke is disturbed by the movement long enough for him to see the inside of the black holes where his eyes should be.
Nothing. A vast and empty darkness greets his gaze.
Sometimes, when he is riding the bus from town to town, not paying much attention to anything, Alan absently clicks his teeth. He clicks them, wiggles his jaw around, and sometimes manages to get the teeth on his lower jaw to go outside of his upper teeth. Sometimes when he does that, he is filled with the intense desire to push his teeth against each other until they crack. During those times, he knows that if he does it, if he extends just a bit more effort, he will be capable of breaking his teeth. Maybe their roots will be ripped from his jaw. Maybe they'll crack at the tops. he can't guess what will give first, but he knows that whatever happens, the end result is the same: he'll be eating meals through a straw.
He never does it, but the frightening urge to do so is there, and each time, he must actively fight against the desire.
Now, looking into the abyss where his eyes should be, he feels the same urge. The same, mindless desire to keep looking into that nothing within, to stare and fall forward into nothing. Just as he is certain he can break his teeth, he's equally certain now that if he looks too long, he will die. He doesn't know how, or why, but he knows that looking too long in the mirror will irrevocably destroy some part of him.
Then, the reflection blinks.
The movement is so fast, Alan's not entirely sure he really sees it, but the spell is broken. Slowly, he backs away from the mirror -- he hadn't notice how close he'd gotten-- and goes to the exit. When he looks over his shoulder at the rest of the mirrors, he sees that the hall of mirrors has become much shorter, back to the reasonable length it had first appeared.
He crosses the exit and steps onto the gated platform outside. The wood creaks under his weight, and the brightness of the overcast sky stings his eyes. He winces. Had he been inside long?
"You get lost in there?" says a familiar and entirely too-close voice behind him.
Alan whirls around and sees the ticket-taker, the Operator. The other man leans against the wall by the exit. In his hands are large needle and a spool of thread. Alan takes a hasty step backwards.
"No," he says. "Just looking around."
"What do you think of the place?" the Operator says. He tucks then needle and thread into his pockets, and gestures for Alan to go down the platform steps first.
Alan does so and considers the question.
"Everything is a lot shorter than I remembered," he says honestly.
The Operator looks at him for a moment, smile and eyes both wide. "Isn't it always?" he says. The man peers at Alan curiously, then his grin grows even wider, reaching beneath his eyes in a way that seems unnatural.
"But, hey!" the Operator says. "You're no ordinary customer, are you?"
A family of four walk past. Their eyes are bleeding. Their lips have been torn off, revealing their bleeding gums and too-bright teeth, and their smiles have been sewn open wide. The smallest of them has a red balloon tied to her wrist, and Alan notices that the balloon's ribbon isn't holding on with a knot, but with jagged teeth that cut into her skin.
"Depends on your definition of ordinary," he says, watching them go. "No such thing as normal."
The Operator chuckles. "Right, right, I’ve seen that shirt somewhere. Maybe it was on a mug. So. Seen any shows yet?”
Alan nods. “One so far. The snake lady.”
“Ah yes, Sirenia. Lovely young woman, though I swear sometimes she seems uncertain about the road show.”
Alan frowns. “Really?”
“Oh yes.” the Operator giggles. “Sometimes it seems she’s. . . of two minds.”
Alan blinks. Then, face still, voice deadpan, he says, “I know what you mean. She seemed really torn up after the last act.”
The Operator’s smile falters. For a moment, he looks legitimately shocked. Then he throws back his head and howls with laughter. He hunches over, clutching his ribs as though he’s just heard the joke of the century. Alan is flattered for the first few seconds, but quickly grows uncomfortable.
Do I stand, or do I leave, or. . . ?
“You’ve got jokes, kid,” the Operator says, composing himself. “Not many guests do around here.”
Privately, Alan doesn't think it was much of a joke, but he doesn't say that. Instead, he says, “What, no fun in Funland?”
“Oh, lot’s of fun here. Just not the kind that ends in jokes.”
Alan’s not sure what to say to that, so he smiles and gives an ‘oh well’ shrug.
There's a chorus of terrified screams somewhere in the park, and the Operator sighs.
"Duty calls. Any questions before I go?"
"Yeah," says Alan. He looks around. "Which way to the food stands? I don't recognize this part."
It's true. The Fun House has spit him out in an entirely new area, which is strange, as he had circled the entire park earlier.
"Down that way," the Operator says pointing to an opening that is suddenly there between the game stands. “I recommend the hot dogs. They’re like no other.” He says this theatrically and, with a flourish, he turns to go.
Alan's stomach grumbles, and he goes off to find something to eat.
* * * * *
Down the path, on the corner, there's the shaded hot dog stand, with a brightly colored awning and posters of cartoon hot dogs dancing around.
"One, please," he tells the vendor, a chubby man with four-o-clock shadow and an oddly intense and toothy grin.
The vendor wordlessly hands him a hot dog wrapped in foil paper, and he hands him back a fiver. He gets his change, then looks for a place to sit. There's a bench directly across the stand, though it's not the best spot; it's right in front of a ride, and it's directly in the sun, but it's better than standing. He sits down, settles in, and unwraps his hot dog.
The hot dog is covered in insects.
Black and shiny beetles spawn from between the bun and dog, crawling over his hand in a writhing mass. He feels them tread over condiments and track ketchup and mustard on his skin. They make no noise, and appear not to notice him except as a thing to walk on.
He holds still for a moment, then says, "Hello?"
The beetles do not respond.
He raises his hand closer to his face and says quietly, "Are you guys related to Bugsy?"
The beetles do not respond.
He watches them nibble the hot dog. They look like Bugsy's crew, but they don't. . . feel like them. It's something in the way they act, in the way they walk, in the way they move that he can't quite name. The longer he watches them, the more certain he is that not only have these bugs nothing to do with his bugs, but that they are not intelligent like Bugsy and the others at all.
Gently, he puts the hot dog down onto the bench and scrapes the beetles off his arm, careful not to hurt any of them. They are interested only in the hot dog, so getting them off isn't as difficult as it could've been. Then he gets up and goes back to the stand.
"Hey," he says to the vendor's back. The vendor turns slowly, butcher knife in his hand, and grins at him in silence.
"Can I have another? Bugs ate mine."
The vendor and gives him another one, this one unwrapped. Alan takes it and intentionally looks away, then looks back to see if more bugs will magically appear, but they do not. It’s just a hot dog.
"Thanks," he says.
He doesn't go sit down this time. Instead, he takes a bite then and there in front of the stand. Immediately, his mouth is full of the hot, coppery taste of blood.
He spits. The hot dog is bleeding. Globs of blood, both fresh-red and clotted-black trickle out of the hot dog, as though there had been no meat inside the sausage skin, just vacuum sealed blood. He wipes his mouth with the back of his free hand and winds up smearing blood all over his face.
The vendor watches him, smile wide, but eyes cold and calculating.
Alan glares at the vendor and says, "Is this clean?"
The vendor tilts his head, face still grinning.
"Is this blood clean?" Alan says again. "Is it even real blood?"
The vendor's eye twitches.
"I want my money back," Alan says.
The vendor remains silent.
"I paid in cash, not tickets, and I want my money back. You sold me a hot dog that I couldn't even eat!"
The vendor silently taps a sign behind him. It says, in colorful block print, "NO REFUNDS"
Disgusted, Alan turns away from the stand. The beetles are still at the bench, eating the remains of the first hot dog. Alan places the bloody hot dog next to them, and they scurry over to eat it, too.
"Fucking ripoff," he mutters under his breath.
* * * * *
The day is only partway over, but it feels like he's been here for ages. The headache that has been silently following him around all day, that had quieted somewhat, has returned in full force. On top of that, he's hungry, thirsty, and starting to dislike the constant, unnatural smiling.
A man and woman pass, their eyes stapled open and their mouths sewn in smiles. Alan finds himself acutely missing Dog. Instead of looking at the couple, he squints at the over-bright sky and tries to guess what time it is. He can feel the folded up flyer in his pocket.
Just one more show, he thinks, moving towards the area with the show-tents. Then I'll start heading out.
He stops in front of the biggest tent in the center of the tents. The sign on the front says, "Giovanni the Jaguar! The Amazing Maneater!" And features a poster of a muscular bald man with blood on his beard and talons for hands.
"Cost is two tickets," says the woman in front of the entrance.
Alan mutely shows her the wrist band, and she ushers him in.
"Enjoy the show," she says.
The inside of the tent is not well-lit. There is a stage up front and seats in the center. Unlike the snake woman show, almost of these seats are full. There's only one spot he can see, it it's the front row, center.
He makes a face and steps back, partially in the threshold and off to the side so as not to block anyone else who wants to come in. There's no way he wants to deal with getting to the front, walking in front of people, dealing with the audience surrounding him.
On the stage, the Operator appears. Alan blinks, surprised. He hadn't see him come in despite standing near the entrance.
The Operator waves to the audience and lifts his hand. Out of thin air, a baton appears, very much like the one Sirenia had at her act. The Operator twirls the baton in his hands while he speaks.
"Welcome ladies and gentlemen," he says, "to a show that's simply to die for! It may very well be the last show you will ever see!"
The audience chuckles through their stapled-on smiles. Alan does not.
"Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I give you, Giovanni the Jaguar!"
The curtains draw back and reveal a large, burly man. The Operator hops off the stage and struts towards the back, towards Alan. The new man, Giovanni, smiles at the audience and waves. Then, without a word, he leaps into the crowd.
Though a man had been the one to jump, a man is not what lands. Despite the name of the show, the gargantuan creature tearing through the seated audience is not a jaguar, though it has some features of one. It is not a boar, though it has some features of that was well. It is also not a crocodile, hawk, or bear, though it has parts of all of them.
The enormous monstrosity rips through the crowd, and the audience all remain in their seats. Even as they scream, as the creature tears off their flesh and pulls off their limbs, the audience doesn't get up. Nobody runs. The aisles are clear, except for where the monster has made a mess.
Alan moves to go in and help them, but finds he can't pass more that a few steps forward. Some invisible force stops him.
"You didn't get a seat," says the Operator.
"Let me in," Alan says, sounding like a drunk man.
The Operator shakes his head. "No standing room, kiddo. It's a safety hazard."
Alan looks at the man. People are still screaming, but their screams are mingled with laughter.
"They're enjoying it," Alan says, only half-noticing that he's said it.
"Of course," says the Operator. "It's a carnival. Everyone has fun at a carnival."
Some part of Alan feels as though he should argue. Shouldn't he be horrified? Everything here was horrifying. He should burn the place to the ground, save everyone, or at least kill the man in front of him. But. . .
But he can't muster up enough energy to care. The dreamy fog hanging over the place has seeped into his head, and nothing here feels urgent.
All the same, he should probably leave.
He turns to the exit. There's no force stopping him, and he crosses the threshold without issue. The moment he's outside of the tent, the sounds of screaming and animal roars stop. Some part of him knows that the show is still going on, but out here, there's no trace of it.
Nervously, he glances at the other silent show tents. How many of them have something equally horrible happening inside them?
He heads out past the tents, past the games and shops and food stands, past the grinning hot dog vendor, and onto the main throughway leading to the park's entrance. Up ahead, he can see the balloon arches wobbling in the breeze.
“Whoa there, sport!”
Alan turns and sees the Operator jogging up to him.
“Where do you think you’re going?” the man says.
“Day’s done for me,” Alan says, a little curtly. “Just heading out.”
“Aww, don’t tell me you’re leaving so soon? We all loved having you around.”
Silently from the shadows, from behind stands and out of stalls, the different carnies come out. Some are ones he'd spoken too, many are not. They are the people he'd seen, but never interacted with, who had apparently been watching him more closely than he'd been watching them.
Heat builds in his hands and behind his eyes, preparing for a fight, and it must show on his face somehow, because the Operator laughs. "Whoa now, sport! No need for that."
"What do you want?" Alan says, his voice harsher than he'd intended.
"Take it easy," grunts the bouncer from the snake show.
"We were wondering if you'd like to join us," he said.
"Join you?" Alan says.
"Oh yes" says Sirenia. "You've got a spark."
"We think you'd be a great addition to the crew," growls Giovanni.
"I don't have an act,” Alan says.
"Can you juggle?" says the woman with the bloody ponytail.
"I try not to."
"I'm sure we could fix something up for you," says the Operator. “You any good at lifting? You could help with the setup. Operate one of the rides. Work a snack stand.”
It occurs to Alan that they are, each and every one of them, entirely sincere.
"Oh man,” Alan says, the heat fading from his hands. He scratches the back of his head. “Jeez. I really appreciate the offer, but I don’t think I can. Sorry. I'm sorta trying to find myself right now, you know? And I don't think this place is right for me at the moment."
Small sounds of disappointment flit through the group.
"We understand," says the snake woman.
"You gotta do what's best for you," says the cannibal.
There's some murmured agreement.
"But if you ever change your mind, we'll be waiting for you," says the Operator. "We'll always be waiting."
"Thanks," Alan says He walks past the crew and heads towards the parking lot. He can feel their eyes follow him as he goes, but he does not look back. Somewhere behind him, in the carnival proper, several people scream and are suddenly silenced. He doesn't let it bother him.
Once he gets to the parking lot, Dog materializes beside him.
"Hey, Dog," he says.
Dog whimpers and nuzzles his hand.
Only when he reaches the opposite end of the parking lot does he turn around to face the carnival.
It is entirely deserted. There are no people, no lights, no tops of tents or balloon arches. The windows of the few small buildings there are boarded, and the entrance is blocked by yellow caution tape.
"Was any of that even real?" he says.
Alan look down at Dog, who looks back up at him and tilts his head, looking confused. Tentatively, Dog gives a small wag of his tail.
"Well, I don't know about you, but I'm starving," he says.
Dog wags his tail emphatically in apparent agreement.
The two turn away from the empty lot, cross the empty parking lot, and go to find some lunch.