You never know what's in the water
| The brightly colored billboard advertising the carnival could hardly be missed. The sign wasn’t really necessary, not in the tiny town of Hayes, Georgia. Everybody knew the carnival was coming; the sign just added to the excitement. The population was only about two thousand, and the town was out in the middle of nowhere. The idea of a carnival setting up right there in town caught the interest of everyone. In addition to the billboard, fliers were everywhere, advertising rides, sideshows, magicians, games, food, and fun for all ages. The days crept by slowly for kids and adults alike; everyone was eagerly anticipating the most fun this town had seen in many years.
Thursday finally came, and most of the town turned out to watch the arrival of the carnival. Truck after truck rolled down Main Street, and the crowds on the sidewalk cheered as they passed. It was the closest thing to a parade many of them had ever seen, at least without going to the city. Eric clapped Tim on the shoulder and pointed to a brightly colored trailer.
“Hey, check it out!” he said excitedly. “Funnel cakes! I bet I can eat more of them than you,” he challenged.
“Shit,” Tim retorted with a smile. “I’ll eat you under the table!”
“You’re on,” Eric grinned. He doubted that he could out-eat his best friend and roommate, but it would certainly be fun anyway. Tim had always been the better athlete, even back in high school, whether it was basketball or beer chugging.
An RV rolled past them, and Eric stared at the mural painted on the side. "Felix the Magician" was written in large black letters, outlined in red. The picture portrayed a tall slender man in a black tuxedo. His face was extremely pale and serious, his eyes were very dark, and his thin, blood red lips were pressed together in a slight frown. Looking at it gave Eric the creeps, and he shivered as he peeled his eyes away.
They watched as the convoy reached the edge of town and turned into a field. The carnival wouldn’t open until Friday afternoon, but there was a big party planned for that evening at the city park to welcome them to town. Tim, Eric, and two of their friends had a band that would be playing, and they still had to get set up for the performance. They walked back to the house that they shared to load the equipment into Eric’s truck.
It turned out to be a good party. Fred Gilson, who owned the only bar in town, brought out several kegs of beer and sold it by the cup. Most of the carnival crew showed up, as well as half the town folk. The band played a variety of cover tunes by artists like Bob Seger, Jakyl, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Neil Young, as well as some country songs so that people could slow dance. When it was over, Tim proclaimed it as their best concert ever, which everyone heartily agreed with.
Friday dawned clear and warm, and by afternoon the temperature had soared into the upper nineties. The heat and humidity didn’t keep anyone from coming to the carnival though, and by six o’clock that evening, everyone in town was there. Tim and Eric rode every ride that they could fit on after eating four funnel cakes apiece, each trying to make the other throw up. The midway was packed with people playing games and winning prizes. Clowns wandered about making balloon animals for the kids, and barkers called out to people as they passed, enticing them to shoot the ducks, or toss darts and win stuffed animals for their lady friends. At sunset, a man appeared in the doorway of a giant tent, holding a megaphone.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,” he called. “May I have your attention, please.” The rides stopped, and the music was shut off at each of the vendors’ stands. “It is time for the most fantastic display of magic on earth!” Everyone turned and began to gather in front of the tent, listening with growing anticipation. “Come one, come all,” the man continued, “and witness acts that defy reason, illusions thought to be impossible, things that you must see to believe!”
“Dude, this is gonna be awesome,” Eric whispered to Tim.
“Folks, I know it’s hot out here, and we appreciate you all showing up,” bellowed the man with the megaphone. “Therefore, as you enter the arena, you will find ice cold bottled water on each side of the entrance. Please, everyone take one, they are free!” He swept off his top hat in grand fashion and bowed as he stepped aside. Everyone cheered and began filing into the tent.
“Damn, that’s a lot of water,” exclaimed Tim as they entered. Huge troughs were filled with large bottles of water and ice. He grabbed them each a bottle as they passed, and hurried to get a front row seat.
Within minutes, everyone was inside and seated. The ice water was a welcome relief to them all after a day of sticky foods and hot sun. Eric gulped down almost half of his bottle at once, smacking his lips in satisfaction.
“Ah, now that’s some good water,” he said to Tim. “Awful nice of them to give it out for free.”
“Hell yeah,” Tim replied. “Looks like everybody was parched.” They looked around at the crowd. Upturned bottles covered most of the faces. “I think mine is leaking though,” he said, holding it up. He squeezed the bottle, and a tiny stream of water shot out the side.
“Hey, so is mine,” exclaimed Eric. He squeezed his bottle, spraying Tim.
The lights suddenly dimmed, and a man appeared in the center ring under a spotlight with a microphone.
“Good evening Hayes, Georgia!” he said. “How are you doing tonight?” The crowd erupted in cheers. “We have a great show for you, so sit back, relax, and enjoy that cold water! There will be ushers circulating with more, in case you run out. I must say, y’all keep it plenty hot down here!” An appreciative chuckle ran through the audience. “And now for our main event, please give a warm welcome to Felix the Magician!” he said grandly.
Eric heard the crowd as they began to clap and cheer, but he didn’t join in. He felt funny; not quite sick, but not quite right, either. His thoughts were slowing down, his heart was beating harder, and his stomach seemed to be vibrating. He found it increasingly difficult to focus on any particular thought.
Eric leaned over to Tim. “Dude,” he whispered. “I think I got a brain freeze.” He peered at Tim closely, noting that his head was moving around in circles. “Why are you weaving around like that?”
“What are you talking about?” Tim whispered back. A lady in a flesh-colored leotard was pushing a black box on wheels into the arena. “Check this honey out, she looks like she’s naked!”
“Damn,” Eric muttered in appreciation. “I gotta get one of those!” He realized that he was still looking at Tim, and with a great effort, turned his head back towards the center of the arena.
A magician in a black tuxedo strutted in behind the lady. They watched as he performed several tricks with large rings and hula hoops. Tim began to feel woozy after a few minutes, and wondered if he was getting a brain freeze, too. He watched the magician closely. The man was shimmering; not quite transparent, but almost. Tim closed his eyes hard, and then opened them again. Now everything seemed wavy, and the colors were ultra bright. Felix the Magician was doing something with his hat, but Tim couldn’t seem to pay attention to it. His head felt like it was floating on a string well above his body. He turned back to Eric.
“Dude, I feel like I’m fucked up,” he drawled. “Did you slip me some acid or something?” Eric turned towards him.
“Acid? I didn’t… man, your voice got deep,” Eric said. “Oh, mine did too…. It’s like when Will Ferrell shot himself with that tranquilizer dart in Old School or something. We’re talking all low and slow.” he said, drawing out the words. He waved his hand in front of his face. “Dude, I’m tripping pretty hard. What the hell’s going on?”
“Who cares?” laughed Tim. “This is some funny shit! Look around!”
Eric looked around at the crowd. It seemed that everybody was stoned in one fashion or another. Some people were laughing hysterically, and others were staring off into space lethargically. He jumped as the magician spoke into the microphone.
“Alright folks,” boomed Felix. “For my next trick, I shall need three volunteers from the audience.” Tim jumped to his feet and waved wildly, along with hundreds of other people.
“Well, well,” said the magician. “It looks like we have a participative audience tonight!” He looked around the crowd, and pointed at Tim. “You, come on down,” he said. He pointed out two others as Tim made his way to the floor. The first one was a heavyset woman of about forty with dark sweat stains around her armpits. The other one was an older man with thinning gray hair and a slender build. The lady he had chosen tripped as she entered the ring, and lay on the ground laughing.
“Right over here, ma’am,” Felix said, helping her to her feet. “Are you having a good time tonight?”
“Oh, yes! And I think I just pissed my pants,” she cackled into the microphone. “Isn’t that hilarious?”
The crowd roared with laughter. Eric stared at her, watching as she doubled, then tripled in size. As he looked around, everyone suddenly seemed huge to him; dark, hungry giants laughing in incredibly deep voices. The tent shrunk around him, and he felt the panic of claustrophobia rising in his throat. The magician lined up the three volunteers, putting Tim in the middle. He drew two shiny swords from the black box and handed one to the lady on the left of Tim, and the man on his right.
“Alright folks,” Felix shouted. “Watch in amazement as these incredibly sharp swords pass right through this gentleman!” He whispered something to the lady and man with the swords, and then stepped back. “I want everyone to help me count to three, ready?” The lady in the leotard held up a finger to start them.
“One!” the crowd yelled in unison.
“Two!” Eric held his breath.
The voices echoed in his head as he watched the two people plunge their swords into Tim. They pulled them out and stabbed him again and again. The crowd shrieked in approval as Tim fell to the ground, bleeding profusely. The woman raised the bloody sword over her head, listening to the swelling cheers, before swinging down with all her might, beheading Tim. The crowd went crazy and began chanting.
“We want more! We want more! We want more!”
“It’s your lucky day, folks!” cried Felix. He turned and pointed to his assistant, who was pushing a large covered rack to the center of the floor. She pulled the black silk sheet away, exposing hundreds of swords. “We have swords for everyone! Come on down, everyone gets to play!” He walked his assistant to the edge of the arena as the crowd surged to the rack.
Eric cowered in his seat as people rushed by him. He couldn’t seem to focus on anything. The sounds were loud and distorted, as if they were being played backwards on a cassette player. He finally made his way to his feet and staggered down the aisle towards the door. His throat was dry again, so he grabbed another bottle of water and sat down out of sight under the edge of the bleachers behind a trough and leaned against it. Something seemed very wrong about the situation, but he couldn’t seem to place it. He took a drink of water, then turned and peered through the bleachers.
Although most of the audience was now on the arena floor, he could see that quite a few people remained in their seats. Most of them had looks of shock and horror on their faces, though some simply looked bored or perplexed. A man in bib overalls and a cowboy hat managed to get a sword from the rack and walked back to the bleachers where he had been sitting. Eric finally recognized him as the high school auto shop teacher, and the seated woman he was approaching was his wife, the school secretary. Eric leaned over to get a better view of what was happening, and his shoulder pushed up against a cardboard box, knocking it over and spilling its contents all over the floor. He looked at it in surprise.
The box had been full of small glass bottles with flat rubber lids, and hypodermic needles, which were now scattered everywhere. Eric picked up one of the bottles and stared at the label, trying to focus on the tiny letters. They seemed to be swimming around on the paper, and he gave up on reading it after a moment. The bottle looked familiar though, as if he had seen one like it before. He tried to remember where he might have come across something like that. Thoughts and images danced randomly through his foggy mind, but he just couldn’t seem to connect them. Tiny bottles… needles… holes in the water bottles… people acting crazy…there’s got to be a connection, he thought dreamily. He kept going over and over the list in his mind, but he couldn’t put it together. The answer danced tauntingly just out of reach. He turned back to the bleachers and peeked out at the arena again.
People were sword fighting everywhere. Several bodies lay on the floor, and many of those standing were bleeding from numerous wounds. Eric couldn’t suppress the laugh that rose in his throat as he watched them wildly swinging their swords around. They looked like little kids playing pirate games. Then he noticed Felix the Magician standing in the far corner watching the melee grimly. A chill ran through Eric as his eyes settled on the faint smile that Felix wore, and his own laugh quickly died away. A dark cloud of hate seemed to radiate from Felix, so strong that Eric began to feel it burning in the pit of his stomach. He wrenched his eyes away and lay flat on the ground, gasping for breath.
He stayed there for a few minutes, staring blankly at the tangle of bottles and needles in front of him, and the stacked cases of water bottles a little further back. He closed his eyes for a minute and concentrated on his breathing. The dirt and grass felt good on his cheeks, and the smell reminded him of his grandpas’ barn. He clung to that image, remembering how he used to help his grandpa feed the horses and cows, and give them shots when they were sick. He sat bolt upright at the thought. Those tiny medicine bottles with the rubber cap, the kind you stuck the needle through instead of taking it off! He grabbed one of the bottles and looked at it again. He still couldn’t read it, but he was suddenly sure that it was some kind of medicine. He grabbed more of them.
The labels had different colors, but they were all the same size and shape. His eyes shifted to the needles again, and then to the water bottle beside him. He picked it up and squeezed it, and a tiny stream of water sprayed out the side. He looked back to the needles, picked one up, and stuck it in the side of the water bottle. When he pulled it back out, nothing happened. He squeezed the bottle, and two tiny streams of water sprayed out this time. He looked back at the medicine bottles, and then at the needle in his hand. Realization slowly began to dawn on him, struggling to surface through the haze in his mind. Drugs, he thought slowly. Someone drugged the water. He began to feel very afraid.
Eric made a determined effort to clear his mind of the fog that enveloped it. If the water was drugged, and the items used to drug it were right here, then it stood to reason that those who had drugged the water were also nearby. He thought about the possible suspects. Why would anyone want to drug the whole town? Who stood to gain from doing it? The drug-induced haze clung to him stubbornly, but he slowly began to put the pieces together. The carnival people had brought out all those swords, and he had seen Felix whisper to the two people that killed Tim… the thought hit him with suddenness. Tim was dead! The panic that followed the realization cleared his mind considerably. People were dying out there; drugged out of their mind and actually killing each other. As he grasped this information, the fear began to compound. He had to do something, but what?
The first thing that came to mind was to run. He was sitting right in the middle of the source of their power, surrounded by the drugs, needles, and water. If other people began to regain their senses, the carnival people would probably come here to get more water to pass out, and he would be caught. He thought about leaving, but if these people were intent upon seeing the whole town dead, then they undoubtedly had guards outside to prevent any escape. The best plan he could come up with was to get to the other end of the tent and find a place to hide.
He quickly rolled over to his hands and knees, and nearly passed out. The sudden movement made him quite dizzy, and he was forced to wait a few minutes for the world to stop spinning around him. Whatever this drug is, it’s a motherfucker to shake off, he muttered to himself. When the spell passed, he carefully began to crawl down the dark tunnel beneath the bleachers. The sounds coming from the center floor were sickening, and he tried to block them out. Surprisingly, there were very few screams, but the wet splattering sound of severed limbs hitting the ground made Eric nauseous, as did the cheers of triumph. He glanced behind him and out between the seats every few feet, sure that he was about to be discovered. There were fewer people standing now, he noticed, and the litter of bodies and body parts lying about was increasing dramatically. There was very little light under the bleachers, and he made it all the way to the end unnoticed.
He crawled into the corner and lay down, gasping for breath. A headache was beginning to form behind his eyes, and he could feel his pulse racing. He lay flat on his back and tried to calm down. The sound of the declining battle wasn’t quite as loud back here, much to his relief. He couldn’t see the floor from his new position, but he decided that he probably couldn’t be seen either, which was a good thing. As his breathing slowed down, he tried to figure out what to do next. There didn’t seem to be any way to stop the few people who were still alive from killing each other. If he tried to talk to any of the people who were still in the stands, he would probably be discovered.
The pounding of running footsteps jerked him away from the thought process. Several people were charging up the bleachers above him. A war cry rang out, followed by the unmistakable sound of a head being chopped off. Eric heard a muffled thump as it hit the seat and rolled off. The head fell through the gap in front of the footboard and landed in the dirt a few feet in front of him. He had to choke back a scream as the severed head lay there staring at him. The eyes were open, but had a dazed appearance. A second later there came another thump as the body fell over on its side, and a steady stream of blood began pouring down. Eric clamped a hand over his mouth as he began to gag, trying to remain silent. He was unable to hold back the vomit. The people above began to tromp loudly back down the bleachers as he spewed up water, and he reminded himself to say a prayer of thanks later. The spasms passed quickly, and he decided that he was probably better off getting rid of the tainted water, anyway. The blood was still trickling down a few feet away, and the head was still staring at him, and Eric decided it was time to move again.
Inside was just too dangerous, he decided, so he rolled over and cautiously lifted up the edge of the tent wall a few inches and looked outside. It was very dark, and the crescent moon shed little light. He was on the back side of the giant tent, away from the rest of the carnival. The only thing he could see was vehicles, and trees behind them, perhaps five hundred yards away. Trees! If I can make it to the woods, I got it made, he realized. He lifted up the heavy canvas wall a few more inches and began to worm his way out. Once he got outside, he carefully smoothed out the side of the tent and then lay still, listening intently. He could hear two men talking somewhere out in the parking area, but they seemed to be a good ways down the line. Eric rolled over on his belly and started low-crawling towards the nearest car.
“Hey, look at that!” a man yelled. Eric froze in terror as a spotlight was switched on, and bit his tongue to stop the scream that was coming. The light was pointed off to his left.
“Damn, he’s got a pretty decent rack,” another man replied. “You don’t see that too often on these little deer they grow down here. Most of them look more like goats.” The remark was followed by laughter. The light was switched off, and the voices began moving away.
Eric let out his breath, and almost broke into tears of relief. He thought his heart might explode if he had one more scare like that. He began crawling again. After what seemed like an eternity, he finally reached the first row of vehicles. He rose to his knees and looked around carefully. There was a pickup in the second row, and he made a squatting run for it. He dropped to his stomach, rolled underneath it, and held his breath again, listening for sounds of pursuit. The only sound was the chirping of the tree frogs in the woods. The tree line was closer now, perhaps three hundred yards away. After resting a few minutes, he crawled back out and made his way towards it, running from row to row of parked cars, hunched over as low as possible. The men with the light were nowhere to be seen, and he sprinted past the last two rows and into the edge of the dark forest. He stopped behind the first large tree he found and peered around it back at the parking area. He watched for almost a full minute, panting and gasping for air the whole time, but no one appeared. I made it, he thought, but with little satisfaction. I made it, but no one else did. What happens now?
He crept farther into the trees, desperately trying to move quietly among the dead leaves and fallen branches. Every step sounded incredibly loud in his ears. As he moved further into the dense forest, he began to feel less paranoid. It was almost pitch black in here, and even with a light, it would be almost impossible to find him. He stumbled onto a large fallen tree, and sat down beside it to rest and get his bearings.
The carnival was between the woods and town. He doubted if he could find his way around in the darkness, and he definitely didn’t want to get lost out here. He picked up a stick and scratched an arrow in the dirt pointing back the way he had come. His best bet would be to wait until daylight to move any farther, since he had never been in these woods. Leaning back against the rough bark of the fallen tree, he did his best to get comfortable for the long wait. He was pretty sure that most of the drugs had worn off now, but the nagging headache he had earlier was quickly becoming a migraine. His throat was dry again, and he groaned inwardly at the irony. Water had gotten him into all of this, and now he wished he’d brought some with him. He yawned, and massaged his temples in an effort to release the building pressure behind them.
Eric came to with a start as something hit him on the head, and he let out a small scream. He looked around rapidly, and saw that it was daytime. Something hit his shoulder and bounced into his lap, and he realized that it was an acorn. Looking up, he saw a pair of squirrels chasing each other around in the branches far overhead, and let out a sigh. He staggered to his feet. Somehow he had managed to sleep all night long against the tree. His back and neck were sore, so he stretched for a minute as he tried to decide what to do next.
Common sense told him that the first thing he should do would be to call the police. He knew the story would sound crazy on the phone, but they’d send someone to check it out anyway. The closest phone would be at the gas station on this end of town, which was on the other side of the carnival. A cell phone, he thought suddenly. There’s got to be a couple hundred cell phones at the carnival; half the people in town have one. It stood to reason that a lot of people had left them in their cars. All he had to do was walk back to the edge of the trees, find a car with a phone lying on the seat, and call in the cavalry. He glanced down at the crude arrow in the dirt, and started walking.
Traveling in the woods turned out to be much easier in the daylight. He went in a straight line back the way he had come, still taking precautions to make as little noise as possible. There was no telling what the carnival people were doing now, and the last thing he wanted to do was go charging right into the middle of them. After walking for over ten minutes, Eric began to realize that he had gone further than he thought last night. He began to question his direction, but at last he saw a glint of sunlight from a windshield up ahead. He stayed behind the trees as much as possible as he approached the edge of the forest. As the lines of parked cars became visible, he stopped behind a large tree to survey the situation. He sensed that something was different, but it took a moment to realize what it was. Then it hit him.
The carnival was gone. The tents, the rides, the trucks and RV’s, everything had vanished. The only thing left in the field was a heap of bodies out in the center, and the lines of cars. There wasn’t so much as a hotdog wrapper lying in the grass. Eric stumbled out of the trees in a daze, and slowly made his way towards the bodies. The cell phone plan was forgotten, along with any other rational thought. He reached the first body and stopped. A bloody sword lay beside it, and he bent down and picked it up. Looking around the mass of tangled corpses, he could see that there were no other swords left. It seemed that the carnival killers had overlooked something, after all. He looked at the sword, turning it back and forth and watching the sun climb the blade. He stood there for a while, as if in a trance, trying to comprehend everything that had happened in the last twenty-four hours. It was a lot to soak up.
Eric failed to hear the car pull up behind him as he stood there lost in thought. The voice on the bullhorn startled him out of his daze.
“Drop the weapon and turn around slowly, with your hands over your head,” the voice barked. “Put the sword on the ground, now!”
Eric dropped the sword and turned around; sure that Felix the Magician had come back for him. The sight of the state troopers standing there pointing their guns at him was a welcome relief.
“Oh, thank God,” he cried out. “I was just on my way to call you guys!”
“Take three steps forward and lay facedown,” the trooper closest to him yelled.
Eric dropped to his knees, and the two troopers rushed to him. One of them patted him down for weapons as the other one cuffed his hands behind his back.
“Hey, what’s going on?” Eric mumbled in protest.
“You believe this asshole?” the first trooper spat in disgust. “Read him his rights. Sick bastard,” he muttered as he walked back to the police car.
Eric lay there in the dirt, totally stunned as the second trooper recited his rights to him in a flat monotone voice. I’m being arrested for murder, he thought hysterically. They think I did this. He tried to protest his innocence, but the trooper silenced him as he jerked him to his feet.
“You’re best bet is going to be to keep your mouth shut,” the trooper said coldly. “Save your breath for court; you’re going to need it.”
He opened the rear door of the cruiser and shoved Eric inside. Alone again, Eric could only watch in growing horror as a line of emergency vehicles began rolling into the field. Pictures were taken, and fingers were pointed at him. He could see their lips moving, but he couldn’t hear anything as he retreated into a dark corner in his mind. He had one last conscious thought before he blacked out: I couldn’t have done all that, right? I’ll tell them about the carnival, and Felix the Magician… He looked out the window at an approaching detective. Felix the Magician, who was now Sergeant Felix the Detective, winked at him as he walked by. The door in Eric’s mind that sealed off access to reality slammed shut, and never opened again.
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