A surprising prize at the carnival
|“PLAY STUPID GAMES, WIN STUPID PRIZES! COME ON UP AND TEST YOUR LUCK!”
We could hear him belting out his greeting before we ever rounded the corner to the row of games. After a lackluster hall of mirrors and a funhouse that smelled of old shoes, sweaty children, and far-off cigar smoke, I was beginning to feel the effects of fatigue. Of course my slowly failing kidney also was part of the problem.
Sheila and I had decided to come to this carnival because I wasn’t sure how much longer I’d even be able to walk let alone live an active lifestyle. Without a transplant soon, life was likely to spiral out of control within the next few months. This had seemed like a potentially fun outing when the carnival had been announced, but now I almost wished we’d done the (arguably cliche) hand-in-hand walk down the quiet beach. It would have at least helped me avoid the ball of popcorn, hot dogs, and cotton candy that was sitting like an anvil in my stomach.
Sheila squeezed my hand as she saw all of the games lined up in a row. The voice of the “stupid games” hawker of course dominated all others. I smirked wondering what the point of his stand even was. If they were stupid prizes, who would want to pay for them? Ironically his simple marketing pitch was working. I was oddly curious. So we headed over to the stand to see what all the fuss was about.
It was a stupid game. I could tell that much before he even explained. There was a bottle and above it was a coin hanging on a string. On the counter were three hatchets and on the back wall of the stand there was a torn-up poster resembling trees with shooting targets.
I heard the intake of breath from the hawker as he prepared to bellow once more and decided to beat him to it. I didn’t feel like having my headache intensified. “So throw the hatchet, cut the string, and get the coin to drop in the bottle?”
“That about sums it up,” said the carny, thumbing his suspenders with a smug look on his face. Part of his expression said that since I didn’t take his bait he was going to make it extra hard on me for interrupting his pitch that the whole county would have heard.
“You know that’s basically impossible right?” said Sheila in a low voice. The force of anything cutting that string is going to make the coin fall way behind the bottle. It’s literally not going to work. I mean you could have the sharpest knife in the world and not be able to do this.”
“Yeah but I am a really good axe-thrower. I used to do it when we’d go camping…” I was egging her on. I had no intention of wasting my money on it. But it was fun to tease her. Then I saw something. There was a book of matches sticking out of the breast pocket of his purple striped vest. I looked at all the signage all over the stand. Not one bit of it said anything about hatchets. It all said coin-in-the-bottle. I realized I had a moment of genius to impress Shelia with.
“So for five dollars I get three axe throws? That seems a little excessive…”
“Correct. You only get one. If you’re a horrible shot I’ll give you a second one for $2.50. But if you miss that one too, well I don’t reward poor skill so the third one will be full price.”
I shrugged. “That’s fair. Hey what say you to me paying the five dollars to play, but you give me one of those matches?”
His expression darkened but he also grinned. “Who snitched? You run into that girl from a few nights ago that figured it out?”
“Nope. I just watch a lot of detective shows.”
Sheila snorted and shook her head.
“Well, fair’s fair, five dollars and you have yourself a match,“ he said, reaching into the book of matches and pulling one out.
I lit the expensive match on the rough wood counter, the smell of it biting at my nose and reached out far over the counter to gently light the string. It took a matter of seconds to light, then the coin dropped with a tink in the bottle and the string embered into nothing as the flame climbed up to the metal pole from which it hung.
“Ring ding. Time to pick a prize.” He reached below the counter to retrieve a wooden crate full of something that clamored with metal and plastic sounds.
“Oh wow,” said Shelia with a sarcastic laugh. “You really hit the jackpot on this one.”
The crate was filled with crappy action figures that were so ridiculously generic that they probably were not made by a manufacturer that anyone had ever even heard of. I imagined most of these having parts that would come off and choke little children silently in their rooms during playtime. I rifled through the contents and saw a samurai figure that actually was rather cool looking, although I had a hunch the level of lead in the paint was likely toxic.
“I’ll go with this one.” I said, holding it up. It was shiny and metallic with a samurai sword that looked impressively realistic. The traditional armor and mask were as intimidating as the real thing.
“Pleasure doing business with you. Appreciate it if you don’t share the secret with anyone else.”
“Will do,” I said as we turned away. We were barely ten feet away before he again bellowed “PLAY STUPID GAMES, WIN STUPID PRIZES! COME ON UP AND TEST YOUR LUCK!”
I returned home that night exhausted, the taste of Sheila’s kiss still on my lips as I emptied my pockets onto my desk in my tiny little flat. A receipt, a ticket stub, a couple dollars, and the little samurai figure I’d won. I pricked my finger on the sword as I pulled it out of my pocket and was surprised it did not draw blood. I set him on a small ledge near my window, then undressed and took a quick shower.
Standing in the shower took most of my remaining energy and I found myself begging to be off my feet by the time I threw on some boxers and shuffled to my bed. Mortality has a way of grinding its point home through pain. Add the fact that death would be not far beyond the short horizon if my condition did not improve and things looked even more bleak. Drifting off to sleep every night was both a relief as well as a frightening proposition. Thus each day was something to not be taken for granted. I would spend as much time as I could with Sheila. Our future remained unknown but if it was a short future, I wanted to at least make it memorable.
It was unclear when I fell asleep but my dreams felt vivid and intensely realistic despite the heavy dose of surrealism. I was on an operating table, clearly receiving my kidney transplant. What’s more I was awake and chatting up a storm with the surgeon. He was mentioning something about having a grilled cheese for lunch, how his wife would surely blame him for clogging up his arteries and how he should eat better as a doctor. I told him “Hey you only live once.”
With a belly laugh he replied, “Yes and in your case that might only be for a few minutes more!”
At first, I was massively insulted, then found myself overcome with uncontrollable laughter and started laughing up a storm right along with him. All the while faintly terrified by the fact that his body was jerking though each belly laugh that erupted from his mouth while he sliced into my side.
My laughs were abruptly cut short as the pain begin to lance into my side and in my dream-induced state, the pressure and sawing motion I felt was hardly realistic considering it was normally a laparoscopic surgery. I couldn’t see down there because of the sheet blocking my view but the motions of his arms had become downright violent and the pain was increasing sharply.
“Hey,” I said. Suddenly alarmed as I watched a manic look rise up in his eyes, “This isn’t right! I’m not supposed to be feeling all of this!” He simply continued to cut away, focused on his job.
Part of me, that part that exists in every dreamer who can’t let go of what they perceive as full control of their dreams, knew that something was likely wrong with me in real life. I knew it was likely I was probably having some sort of flare-up related to my failing kidney. I knew I would wake up and likely be sweating and running a fever, and possibly even need to go to the emergency room. What I didn’t know was how long I was going to be stuck in this hellish dream.
Then the lights in the operatory blinked out. The pain momentarily stopped and my bed began floating, no rolling, downwards it seemed. It was pitch black but it felt like I was rolling down a hill as though I was in some madcap, hospital-themed soapbox derby, sans helmet or steering wheel.
My rolling slowed and the pinpricks of light that I at first assumed to be stars started to fade into existence. Their colorful shades soon revealed they were not stars at all but actually the lights from the carnival at night. My bed came to a stop. I seemed unable to sit up, so I turned my head to my left to see a familiar face. It was that of the carny that had sold me a match and a samurai for five dollars. He pulled at his suspenders a little and walked towards me.
“Pretty stupid huh?” he said as he neared me. He pulled a match out of the same book in his pocket and stuck it between his teeth like a toothpick.
“What do you mean? What’s stupid?”
He smirked. “Stupid games, stupid prizes. Life’s the same way. Life’s a big long game we play and what’s our prize at the end? A dark deep hole in the ground. Ding ding! You won the prize! Step right up and meet the reaper!”
“Yeah but what about the rest along the way? What about having a family? What about leaving a legacy behind? It’s not all the bleak.”
“That’s the case for most people, but see the problem is you owe me now Chuck.”
Ludicrously I opened my mouth to say my name wasn’t Chuck. But I watched him bite down on the match and the tip sticking out of his lips lit up like a devilish cigar. He took the match from his mouth and lowered it towards my side where the doctor had been stabbing me.
“No don’t!” I pleaded.
“This won’t hurt that bad. And trust me it won’t be nearly as bad when you wake up. But I need you to remember something. I’ve done something for you. You may not like it. But I did you a favor. And you accepted that favor, no matter what way you look at it. You could have just played along. You could have just thrown an axe, said ah well better luck next time, and moved along five bucks poorer. But you were too smart for your own good. You played detective. And your reward for being oh so clever was to earn my favor. Someone else might eventually need a favor from me as well. And when that happens, I may just need you to help me out. So keep an eye out Chuck.”
I felt the heat from the flame lance into my side as he thrust it towards me and then the sheet around me began to catch fire, I tried to pat it out, but it spread at an alarming rate. Soon the entire bed was on fire and I was helpless to move, what’s more despite being covered in flames, I felt no pain but in my side. I screamed and with the first scream the light around the carny snuffed out and the colored lights followed soon after. I screamed again, fearing I would be stuck in this insanity forever, and this time the flames blinked out in an instant. My own scream rang in my ears in the ensuing silence, while I smelled the acrid smoke still in the air. Then I opened my eyes and gasped for the cool fresh air of my apartment.
My heartbeat was painfully fast but far worse was my side. I could barely move. Just as I suspected something was wrong with my kidney. It was probably failing. Or worse I was minutes from death. I struggled to turn on my bedside lamp. The sheets were damp with my sweat. I flicked it on and looked towards my side and saw a crimson pool under the sheets. I can only imagine my face went pale.
I pulled the sheet back and saw a horrific site. There was a slice in my side that had been jaggedly stitched back together as though by a child. The skin around it was puffy and had not been cleaned well. However perhaps the most frightening part of it all was that my samurai figurine lay a small distance away on the bed, his sword drenched in my own still wet blood. Under it was a note hastily scribbled. I picked it up and read it:
Since you took home my little friend today, I decided to have him help you out a little. He is fiercely loyal to me and will pretty much do anything I say. Remember that old sad sack of a kidney you used to have? Down the garbage disposal it went and now you’ve got yourself a brand new bona fide Grade A kidney inside you! You’ll want to take it easy for a few days, since you’ll have to heal up. Trust me it will heal, no rejection, no complications, no pain. Well, there actually will be quite a bit of a pain for a while (pardon my insensitive pun). Please don’t ask where the kidney came from. I have a lot of deals with a lot of people and quite a large network. Let’s just make this a don’t ask, don’t tell kind of policy. BUT…when it comes time for you to do me a favor, I expect you to follow through. My little friend might be needed elsewhere and I will likely rely on you to get him there. My little carnival game isn’t my only method of business. Until then, hope all is well! -Your pal
So now, as I heal, I wait. Every day gets a little better. Coming up with the lies to cover why I cannot be seen by anyone until I fully am healed is difficult. Plus explaining how I am miraculously cured, that in itself will be a challenge. But all of those issues pale in comparison as I wait for the inevitable call, letter, or other arcane method by which I might be contacted. And every day I stare at the motionless samurai statue sitting by my window, waiting until I deliver him to carry out his next dark deed.
My advice: don’t play stupid games.
Word Count: 2601