When the carnival came to North Lakes during the week of fall break, it seemed like a sign. Usually, I would go with my dad or my friends, looking to have some fun, but not this year. This year, I went looking for a job.
I still remember walking through the carnival grounds while all the carnies were setting everything up. It was a bleak, gray day, and the air was cold and damp. I shoved my hands in the pockets of my jeans and walked towards the trailer marked “Office” at the side of the grounds. Around me, all the merry-go-rounds, game booths, concessions and ticket stands were in varying degrees of assembly. The bright colors stuck out in stark contrast to the somber faces of the people putting them together.
All throughout the place loomed a feeling I didn’t like, hanging like a shroud in the air. It felt like something was wrong here, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. I should have taken that as a sign and turned on my heel to march out of there. But I was broke, and my car needed to be fixed, so I told myself I was being stupid and kept going. No one spoke to me until I reached the office trailer and climbed the steps. I didn’t know whether or not I should knock, so I stood there awkwardly for a minute before the door swung outwards.
A large man with a potbelly and slicked-back hair grinned down at me with a jovial expression.
“Hello!” he said. His voice was full of pep and verve and tried to match his smile. “I’m sorry, son, but the carnival doesn’t open until tomorrow night, I’m afraid.”
“Oh,” I said, “I’m not here for that. Are you the carnival director, by any chance?”
The man’s smile broadened, and he swept his arms out to the sides. “I am the master of all you can see,” he joked. “What can I do for you?”
I pulled my hands out of my pockets. “Actually, I was wondering if you had any job openings while you’re in town?”
His smile didn’t flag, but something about his peppiness seemed to wane, something behind his eyes went dim. He gestured for me to follow him inside the trailer, and I complied.
“I might have something,” he said once the door had slammed behind him.
He lumbered toward a cheap wooden desk strewn with papers and colorful paperclips, but that was the least remarkable thing in the space. Every square inch of the wall was covered in newspaper clippings—some were yellowed with age, some fresh and crisp, some with pictures, many with headlines. I scanned a few of the headlines and noticed they all had something to do with the carnival in various states and cities. I didn’t read the stories that went with them, but looking back, I wish I had.
The carnival director plopped down into a padded office chair behind his desk. “What’s your name, son?” he asked.
“And how old are you, Sam Tyler? You look awful young.” He chuckled as he shuffled some papers around on his desk.
It was true, I had a young face; I couldn’t have looked more than eighteen, and even that was generous. My mom used to say that my face matched my naivete, which I always thought was rude but probably true. “I’m twenty-one,” I said.
“Well, in that case, I might just have a job for you. My Ferris wheel operator couldn’t come all the way out here to North Lakes, and we could use someone to do that.”
“Yeah, that sounds great,” I said.
I arrived early the next evening to learn how to run the Ferris wheel. The day was every bit as gray as it had been the day before, but at least now almost all the game booths and rides had been set up. Official-looking people rode around on golf carts barking orders, and almost everyone was busy.
I felt kind of awkward since I didn’t know exactly who I was supposed to be meeting or what I was supposed to be doing yet. As I walked through the damp grass, I noticed a stale, unfriendly feeling in the air. The people all around me talked in hushed voices whenever I passed by, and whenever I looked at someone directly, their eyes would flit away. I glanced down at myself to be sure my shirt wasn’t inside out or something but found nothing wrong. As I passed one of the water gun games, two women sitting on barstools openly pointed at me and snickered, whispering to each other. Their faces were painted garishly with blood-red lips and deathly pale skin and eyes ringed with smudged black kohl, emphasizing every distasteful word. I looked away quickly and scurried to the Ferris wheel.
A girl in a leather jacket and biker boots perched on the aluminum fence that surrounded the Ferris wheel. She couldn’t have been much older than me, though her heavy stage makeup made guessing her age difficult. She was braiding her fiery, chili-pepper-red hair in two plaits when I reached her.
“You Sam?” she asked without looking up.
She hopped off the fence and gestured for me to follow her. “I’m Mackenzie,” she said, “but everyone calls me Mac.” She shot me a sidelong glance, but her gaze wasn’t like the looks the women at the game booth had shot my way. She didn’t look at me long enough for me to register the color of her eyes.
I, being a guy with half a brain, couldn’t help but notice how pretty she was. Her features were angular and sharp—some might even call them harsh—but they were offset by the perfect amount of roundness in her cheeks and fullness in her lips. I swallowed and jogged a few steps to keep up with her.
“Have you been with the carnival long?” I asked, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Too long.” She pushed the aluminum gate open and led the way into the Ferris wheel control box.
“Listen,” she said, suddenly turning to face me, “you seem nice and all, but I don’t think you’re going to fit in all that well here. I think maybe you should try and find a job somewhere else.”
I felt like I’d been sucker punched. My brow furrowed, and my mouth worked for several seconds before I was able to make any words come out.
“Where’d that come from?” I finally managed.
Mac shoved one of her braids over her shoulder and shifted her weight, her eyes scanning all around. “It’s not personal,” she ground out through gritted teeth. “But strange things happen to the people who work at this carnival.”
“What, like people who work here die?” I joked. But when she met my eyes, my smile dripped from my face like melted wax. “Mac,” I said, concern building, “what exactly are you saying?”
She had a haunted look in her eyes, like someone who had seen more than a person should and couldn’t escape it. “It’s just . . . the Ferris wheel is—”
“There will be time for chatting when the work is done,” a voice called from behind me. Mac’s face drained of all color, and she spun around to open the control box. I looked over my shoulder to see the director, smiling and whistling a tune as he walked by the games and inspected the work going on. When I tried to get more out of Mac, she wouldn’t say a word. I had to push the uneasy thoughts out of my mind. She was probably just being dramatic, I reasoned. That had to be it.
After receiving some training on the Ferris wheel operation procedures (it was pretty straightforward), I did a couple test runs, and suddenly it was time for the carnival to open. From where I worked in the center of the fairgrounds, I could already see the thick line of people—children in costumes, bemused parents, teenagers with their friends—wrapped around the perimeter of the place.
Then six o’clock struck. The floodgates opened, and people started pouring in. All the bleak grayness of the place I had noted earlier had vanished, replaced by flashing lights, Coney Island-esque music, and vibrant veneers in reds and greens and violets. The line for the Ferris wheel filled almost immediately, and I started taking tickets and loading people in one car at a time.
I can’t say exactly when I first noticed the boy, but I think I must have seen him as I loaded the Ferris wheel that first time. I was busy taking tickets, piling four people in a car, then moving the wheel along so the next car was at the loading station to do it all again; I hardly had a second to breathe. But somewhere in there, something red caught my eye. I only saw him for a second, but the image is seared in my brain now, and I don’t think I’ll forget that image for as long as I live.
He was just standing there, his red hoodie standing out against the blur of people clad in blacks and grays. He couldn’t have been more than ten years old, and yet his expression made him seem so much older. No one around him looked at him, but they all parted around him. He stared at me with these dark eyes and an almost hollow expression. But then a gaggle of girls walked in front of him, and when they passed, he was just gone.
I put the strange sight out of my head for the time being; there was too much work to do. I didn’t mind the quick pace or the stress of working with so many impatient people, but even if I had, the carnival director was paying me the kind of money I really couldn’t afford to pass up.
Every now and again, as I worked, I’d catch glimpses of that red hoodie, standing still in the blur of moving people, but it was always gone by the time I had a second to really look.
By the end of the night, the masses of carnival-goers had dispersed, and the carnival started to feel like a ghost town after the hustle and bustle earlier. I had just hoisted myself to sit on the fence like Mac had done earlier when a small voice caught me off guard.
“One for the Ferris wheel, please.”
I looked over, and there he was, with that hollow expression and those deep-set eyes and that bright red hoodie. He was holding a pink ticket out to me. Unease prickled at the back of my neck, but I hopped off the fence and looked around anyway.
“Where are your parents, buddy?”
“One for the Ferris wheel, please,” he asked again in the same monotone.
I didn’t see any sign of anyone looking for their kid, so reluctantly, I took his ticket.
“Hop on in,” I said. He didn’t look excited as he clambered into the Ferris wheel car and pulled the safety bar over his lap. I checked he was in securely and turned to the control box, keeping an eye out for anyone that might be missing their little boy.
The Ferris wheel started its ascent, and I watched the boy rise higher and higher into the air, transfixed by his blank expression.
“What are you doing?” Mac’s voice startled me, and I jerked my attention away from the boy and looked at her. She was staring up at the Ferris wheel, eyes wide, brow furrowed, face stricken with horror. I stepped toward her, unsure of how to react.
“Just letting my last customer finish up his ride,” I said. “What’s wrong?”
Slowly, Mac tore her eyes away from the Ferris wheel car and met my eyes. Tears sparkled in her eyes, reflecting the flashing lights of the carnival around us.
“You shouldn’t have stayed,” she said. “You should have listened to me, but now it’s too late.”
My brow furrowed. “What are you talking about?” I asked. “Everything’s gone great, and now it’s just this last kid taking a ride, and then I’ll shut it down.”
She shook her head, and I saw shadows of dark memories play behind her eyes. “There’s no one in the Ferris wheel, Sam.”
My brow furrowed. “Of course there is,” I said. “It’s a little boy, he’s right up there—” but when I pointed to the car the boy had climbed in only moments before, he was gone.
I raced to the control box and slowed the ride to a crawl so I could inspect each car, but the boy in the red hoodie was nowhere to be seen.
“He was just here, I swear!” I said, but Mac turned away from me. I reached out to grab her shoulder, but she dodged my grip without even looking at me. “Mac, he was here.”
“He’s not here,” she said, voice breaking. “There’s no one here.”
I couldn’t stand still; my heart was hammering in my chest. I ran a hand through my hair. It didn’t make sense, none of it made any kind of sense. What was happening?
“He must have fallen,” I said, and the thought shot ice through my chest. Had I checked the safety bar in his lap? I jumped off the control platform and ran around the base of the Ferris wheel, its lights and merry music still in full swing. I raked my eyes over the ground, and my hands were shaking so hard I could barely open the gate to get to the other side of the aluminum fence. The damp grass under the Ferris wheel was littered with popcorn and ticket stubs and discarded cups, but there was no sign of a little boy.
I’m not crazy, I thought, but my heart was thundering so loudly in my ears, I could hardly form a rational thought.
“The director,” I said, seizing on the idea. “He’ll know what to do.” I was already running towards the office trailer when Mac started to call after me, but whatever she was saying, I didn’t hear.
I zigzagged between game booths and food stands that were being shut off and closed, not listening to a thing around me. There had to be a logical explanation. When I reached the trailer, I jumped up the four steps and banged on the door.
“Hey!” I yelled through the door. “Hey, we need some help out here!”
The door swung open, and there he stood with his potbelly and greased-back hair and ever-smiling expression.
“Sam Tyler,” he greeted me, but I didn’t wait for him to continue. I barged into the trailer and sucked in a deep breath.
“There’s a boy,” I huffed out. “He was on the Ferris wheel and—and he just—he fell.”
The director looked at me for a moment, concern etched in his features. “A boy fell from the Ferris wheel?”
I nodded, trying to suck in a breath. “He was at the top and somehow he fell, but I couldn’t find him and—” I couldn’t finish the statement. I knew it sounded ridiculous, but I didn’t expect the director to laugh. He doubled over, wheezing a horrible laughter that grated on my ears and felt like cold fingers in the night. I couldn’t move, rooted to the spot.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” he said finally, straightening with a chuckle. “That’s just little Charlie.”
“What? Little who?”
The director was already digging through the stack of papers on his desk. He found the one he was looking for and held it out to me. I took it, feeling the thin, yellowing newspaper almost crumbling in my hand.
“Boy Falls from Ferris Wheel, Nine Years Old.”
The picture that accompanied the headline was of a boy with dark hair and deep-set eyes and a toothy smile. But the sight that sent chills down my spine was what he was wearing: a bright red hoodie with a silver zipper. A red hoodie that was, I now noticed, the exact color of Mac’s braids.
For a second, I was confused, but slowly, my heart crept to my throat. I looked from the clipping in my hand to one on the wall nearest me and read: “Girl Maimed in Carnival Game, Died in Hospital.” My eyes shot from one headline to another, the terrible realization dawning.
“Man’s Carnival Disappearance Leaves Police Baffled.”
“Woman Drowns in Carnival Lazy Lagoon.”
“Spears Twins’ Death at Fair Ruled Accidental.”
Hundreds of headlines from hundreds of cities, and only one common thread.
My eyes landed on another one, this one with a picture, and my eyes almost roved over it before I realized I recognized those angular features, those full lips. “College Student Vanishes at Circus, Suspected Runaway.”
I realized I wasn’t breathing as my eyes slid from the walls of the trailer to the director’s face.
“What’s happened here?” I muttered, and the director laughed.
“Oh, my dear boy, I think you already know.”
And as I watched, his skin drained of all color and effused a pale light. I stared in shock as his entire body shifted from something solid and tangible to something translucent, skin like cobwebs shining in the moonlight.
His grin widened when he saw the realization click in my brain. “It’s all coming together in that perfect little head of yours, isn’t it?” he said, taking a miniscule step towards me.
I inched backward to the door. “You’re dead,” I said. “You’re . . . a ghost? You’re all ghosts?” It seemed so obvious now—the pale skin, the scratchy, dry voices, even Mac’s aversion to the slightest contact.
“Not a good memo for carnival publicity,” he chortled, and I took another step backward until I could feel the door pressing into my back. My heart was thrumming loudly in my head, and I had to force my breathing to be slow just so I could hear anything. My hand reached for the handle.
“Oh, I suppose I should have mentioned,” the director said, “it’s too late for you to run. There’s really no point.”
“You never know,” I said, but the director just laughed.
“Oh my, that’s what they all say when they put it together, but I assure you, I know.” He squealed a boyish laugh, and his guffaws turned to a howl.
The sound scraped against my bones, and I did the only thing I could think to do—I ran.
Shoving open the trailer door, I sprinted from his office. As soon as my feet hit the damp grass, however, I slammed headfirst into something solid and freezing. I looked up into the face of one of the carnival workers and chills skittered down my spine. I watched in horror as his skin flickered to something nearly transparent. His grip around my wrist solidified like ice as he dragged me towards the center of the carnival ground. All around us stood the other carnies, a spectral army with blank expressions fading to near transparency. I kicked and screamed, yanking my arm to pull it from the phantom’s grip, but to no avail. The director’s laughter followed us all the way to the Ferris wheel, and when the apparition pulled me onto one of the benches, I slammed my fist into its face. My hand sailed right through.
The Ferris wheel started slowly rising, and every time a new seat reached the bottom, another carnie clambered in until all of the twenty-six benches were full.
“Please,” I begged, my muscles burning with the effort to pull free, “please let me go.” My voice broke.
And then the Ferris wheel was full, and I could see all the way down to the control box where the director stood, face pulled into a maniacal smile in the moonlight. The Ferris wheel gathered speed, going faster and faster until I thought I would be sick. This wasn’t how it was supposed to end. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
“Welcome to the Carnival,” the director called as the Ferris wheel’s peppy music grew louder in my ears. Tears stung my eyes as I pulled my arms and kicked my feet to get away, but nothing would loosen the iron-clamped grip around my wrists. The lights of the Carnival swam below, and the Ferris wheel spun faster than any ride ever should. I felt my dinner coming up.
With one more concerted effort, I yanked my arms. My body shot free, and the force of my yank shoved me backward, and I fell.
As the ground sped towards me, I saw gray streaks following suit, shadowy phantoms leaping out of the Ferris wheel behind me with banshee shrieks. And at the bottom hovered a translucent little boy in a hoodie, grinning as I hurtled toward him.
I am part of the Carnival now.