A carnival sets up shop outside of town with sinister intentions.
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The young pup clutched the ticket in his hand paw. It didn't cost him a dime. That was the most amazing thing about it. The barker, a bear dressed up as a clown, stood near the ticket booth. He was wearing a top hat customized just right for his round ears to peak through. "That's right, no money whatsoever! Step right up, come right in and enjoy yourselves children, cause it's not going to cost you a dime!" he said in that magical sing song voice that all the best barkers seem to have.
And to his amazement, they didn't. Didn't charge a thing. The coyote in the booth just handed out the tickets to every hand paw that was thrust in front of them. His eyes were alight with joy as children herded in from all over the city to pass through.
When he arrived, it was well past dark. Past his bedtime. He didn't even ask to come. He knew, that if he had, his parents would have said no. Sometimes it was better to ask forgiveness than permission. He figured that out long ago. Sometimes the punishment was worth it.
The young pup stood near the ticket booth. "Where are you Jerry," he grumbled, his ears folding flat. It was dark now. The lights from the midway seemed to illuminate the entire sky like day. Each booth seemed to call to him. The Feat of Strength, where you hit a weight with a mallet, and it rang a bell for a prize. The ring toss. The milk bottle toss, just to name a few. It looked like rows and rows of the booths. So many that you could get lost in them for days.
Pups, kittens, colts and other kids of all shapes and sizes ran from booth to booth, carrying large stuffed animals or goldfish that they'd won from each one. Behind them rides beckoned. A Ferris sat near the center, lit up with amazing neon lights. Behind it a plastic serpent rolled over twin steel peaks of a roller coaster, with the occasional screams of delight from the children aboard.
"Maybe you're inside already," he mumbled to himself, wandering into the maze of booths. Jerry's skinny brown ears stood head and shoulders above just about everyone else around, so he'd be easy to spot. Or so he thought. He ran up to at least half a dozen rabbits inside, all with nearly the same fur pattern as Jerry himself. "Maybe I should just play something and wait for him to call me," he mumbled as he looked at the maze of games.
He looked up at two booths. One was a take on a dart game. You threw the dart at a peg board and won whatever was in the balloon you hit. They kept saying that it was a game of 'great skill' but everyone seemed to be winning. The other was a water game. You used the squirt gun to fill a balloon that would burst and give you a prize. But everyone was getting the prizes. Beings walked away with stuffed animals, fake gold watches, some kids even got video games. All just for playing. His eyes gazed from each booth as he stepped forward to stand between them as he tried to make up his mind.
"Come'ere kid. Don't tuck your tail like that, get over here pup when I'm talkin to ya," The old carny said. His fur was so old it was gray. Loose skin hung off of his features. Long ago his tall ears and long nose might have looked dignified. Now, it just made the carnival worker's face that much scarier. Twisting and warping his features by association into a face that was certain to be nightmare fuel for the young pup.
He hung his head and stepped closer. The sounds of the midway drifting downward around him as he walked between the booths. "Me sir?" He asked, leaning against a wooden table of a carnival game that he was just about to play.
"Yes, kid you. You, uh, haven't picked up any of these yet, have you?" He asked. His eyes were clouded over, but it still seemed as if he could look right down into the young pup, who now had his ears tucked, and head down, as if he was being scolded. He shook his head, his large ears flopping left and right as he did so.
The old carny smiled. "That's good child, that's good. There's still time. Listen, you ever heard of a free carnival?"
The kid shook his head again.
"What's the matter kid, lost your voice," He asked, annoyed.
"Mom told me to never talk to strangers," the pup replied.
"That's good, that's a good pup. Well, most folks around here call me Jack. Er, well, they used to," he mumbled looking down. "Now though, I guess I ain't got no name anymore."
The name Jack buzzed in the back of his mind. It was a name he'd heard before. A name that he knew must have come from something he should know, but for some reason, he just couldn't recall where. "I'm Francis. Everyone calls me Frankie," The child replied almost automatically.
"Well Frankie, I'll let you call me Jack. How's that?" He replied.
Frankie looked back into the carnival. It seemed so exciting! There was toys and games and rides all around. A Merry-go-round that had real moving booths and animals. Large wooden booths with games of chance, that seemed to be almost too easy for a pup to win! The best part was that there were no adults in sight. Kids ran all over, this way and that. Racing from the concession stands back over to the ancient wooden booths to play more games or go on the Ferris wheel or roller coaster again.
Every child seemed to see it, hear it, smell it from all over the old city. Drawing them outward from their beds calling them to the ancient lot at the edge of town. No adult seemed to see it. Every car drove right on by. No one questioned the children out wandering at the edge of town, walking the roads and sidewalks, dirt paths, cutting through yards and playgrounds and school grounds to get here.
"I was like you once, ya know." The carny said, leaning against the wall of his booth. His long stringy tail swatted gently at a horse fly or two as he spoke. "I was innocent. A nae little colt who didn't listen to his parents when they told him a dang thing. Just like every single child here."
Frankie's eyes looked towards the Ferris Wheel. It appeared to have a dragon on it! That could breathe real fire! And the food! And the games! His parents didn't miss him at all. What was the harm in playing just one game?
"Look at me, when I'm talking child." The carny growled. His lips pulled back into a snarl revealing large yellow teeth that almost looked like fangs. Frankie flinched.
"I'll tell you a story. Then you determine if you still wish to be here or not. Once upon a time, I was like you. This carnival appeared in a lot by my town. It was practically outside of my house. It seemed to call to me. My parents had no clue to what I was talking about. Couldn't hear a single thing. So, when they tucked me in, I pretended to sleep. I wanted to sleep. Yes, I wanted to be a good little boy like you. But, I wasn't.
"I snuck out in the middle of the night. Came upon this place, and thought it was paradise. No money needed they said! Can't take it! Just play any game you like,"
"But, nothing in this carnival is for free. Everything has a cost alright, and it costs something more than money," Jack snarled. "I played games all night. Ate cotton candy and fantastic hot dogs until I was about sick. Even had food I'd never heard of before, like pizza and funnel cake. It was so good, that I never noticed when the sun began to rise."
"When the sun touched the hills in the distance, I raced for the gate. I didn't want to be in trouble with my mom and dad. But when I reached it, I couldn't cross. Something was holding me back," Jack shuddered a moment as he spoke. "I won't speak of what happened. But I never saw home again. I never saw mom and dad again. I'm telling you kid, if you value your life you'll get out of here now. Don't eat a single thing. Don't play a game. Run home, before the sun rises, and this carnival closes."
"I'm sorry sir, you seem nice, and a little crazy," Frankie said. "But I kind of want to ride on the Ferris wheel. I kind of want a slice of pizza before I leave. One ride and one slice of pizza couldn't hurt no one, right?"
Frankie was looking at the Ferris Wheel when he spoke. He felt a bony hand grab his should and spin him around. "Do I still look crazy to you?!" He snarled. Where the old equine's face was, now only bones remained. A sick blue flame burned within the eye sockets of the skull. It was wearing the tattered old carny outfit he had been wearing, a faded red and white striped shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a black pair of pants with several moth holes eaten through.
Frankie gasped, and tucked his tail, yelping. "Take a good look at the carnival Frankie! Still want to ride?!" Jack shouted. The Ferris wheel was gone. In its place was a wheel of sorts, with cages. Pups, kittens, colts, children of all species and kinds was crammed inside. A dragon stood outside spinning the wheel, hungrily drooling over each cage as it rolled around. A real serpent, the largest that Frankie had ever seen, slithered behind the Ferris wheel on a track that no longer looks like it was built for a roller coaster. The food court wasn't serving actual food. Empty plates and cups that looked as if they'd been dug out of a garbage bin somewhere sat in front of each being on ancient wooden picnic tables.
Even the games of chance were wrong. The ring toss had no bottles. The Feat of Strength had a hammer, but no actual bell and no meter. A thin minotaur no older than Frankie himself stood by with the hammer in his hand paws. He struck the ground. A small cloud of dust rose up around him. "Winner!" announced a skeleton that must have at one point in time been an elephant of some sort. He handed the happy bouncing minotaur a ragged doll with half its stuffing already pulled out of it. The minotaur hugged it happily, seeing only a huge teddy bear.
Frankie looked back at Jack, backing away now, fear in his eyes. "Run home, Frankie! Don't come back!" he shouted.
The canine bolted, racing as hard as he could. His heart pounded in his ears. Beneath the laughter and the music, he could hear it now. The screams and howls of something. "Come here kid, try your luck," one skeleton shouted, offering him a rock that might have looked like a baseball or a ring to another customer. He only raced harder, running for the entrance that must have been around somewhere.
It was as if the booths were turning. Shifting somehow, changing their direction, on him. "Oh lord help me," he muttered, as he came to an intersection. It didn't seem to end. One way was nothing but booths. In another direction was more booths. And finally the third was the way to the concession stand, selling empty plates. Pups, Kittens, and children of all kinds were running this way and that. It was impossible to see which side they were entering from.
Frankie lifted his nose and sniffed. The wind shifted slightly. The sickening smell of garbage and rot faded just enough to tell him to go.... left. The canine raced; his tail tucked firmly between his legs. He looked upwards at the sky. The deep black had slowly faded into a pale blue to announce the approaching dawn. He didn't have much time left.
Frankie ran as fast as his legs could carry him towards the scent of exhaust, cars, the outside. He ducked over and around children who came running in, racing in hopes to get one game or two in before school started. He could see the large bear in the distance. He was still wearing the same suit, the same jacket and pants and top hat. As he came closer, he could see that the bear didn't look right. His right eye was rotted out. Loose skin flapped from around his jaw, exposing rotted flesh beneath.
"Times almost up!" The bear shouted in glee to the incoming crowd. A pair of thin, large brown ears peered above everyone else. Frankie ran as hard as he could, racing towards them. He pushed through the crowd, running up to Jerry, and never slowing down.
"Wha," The rabbit had time to say before Frankie tackled him as hard as he could, shoving them both outside of the carnival. They collapsed into a tangle of limbs, ears and tails. The rabbit bounding up to his feet first. "What was that for?!" He shouted.
"It's a trap!" Frankie screamed, waving his arms for all the kids to hear. "Don't go in there! It's a trap!"
The bear grinned evilly down at Frankie, then turned and walked into the gate. As he did so, the first rays of the new day touched the city, and the carnival vanished in a faint echo of screams. "What happened," Jerry asked, stunned. His ears were folded back in shock.
"I dunno," Frankie mumbled, standing up and brushing himself off.
"It's like the legend," Jerry whispered in awe.
"What legend," Frankie asked.
"The legend of Jack Parker. About a hundred fifty years ago, this carnival appears out of nowhere. No one saw it arrive, no one saw it set up. And none of the adults could even see or hear it. So, late one night, the carnival just starts right up, and the kids begin to wander inside. Jack Parker was one of them. He was a colt, who they say lived next door. In the early hours of the morning, the legend goes that Jack was standing at the gate screaming for everyone to run home before it was too late. Kids left to get the sheriff then, but when the sheriff arrived it was morning already, and Jack and the carnival was gone." Jerry and Frankie stood at the edge of the now empty lot. Only grass remained.
"Thanks Jack," Frankie whispered, before turning to go back home.