Let's All Go to the Carnival
Written by JRT McMahon
“How did you hear about this place?” My voice broke the long-established silence, a silence that had been building since we snuck out of our houses. It was almost like Marty thought his mother would still be able to hear him despite the hour of walking we put between us.
“You know, those like, internet rabbit hole type site.” He replied in a quick tone that almost sounded like he was trying to hush me. I had initially been excited when he brought of the proposition of some festival hidden deep in the nearby woods. “I found this invite online, don’t worry I checked it out, it’s legit.” Those words continued to rattle in my brain.
The woods weren’t particularly dense and it was easy enough to find your way back to our little town, just listen for the water, find it and follow it upstream. I had, however, never been so deep in the woods and never that late at night. The moon punctured the trees canopies lighting our way with a scarcity of natural spotlights.
“How are you holding up?” I questioned Marty not wanting the silence to settle back in as I had no idea how long we still had to go. The night atmosphere and isolation of the forest were admittedly starting to give me the creeps.
“I’m alright.” His whisper quite responds only audible thanks to the still forest. He knew what I was referring to, I could see it when he reached up and gripped his sleeve covered arm. “We should be getting close now.”
‘Thank god’ I thought, I was getting sick of getting playful branches whipped across my face and the foliage was making my thighs sticky. His words rang truer than either of us could have imagined as after only a few minutes we saw the silhouette peeking through the clearing in the trees. A prominent and mysterious mass of shadows saw just a few feet in front of us.
“Well shit,” I spoke more to myself than anyone. With each step bringing the place further into view I was filled with more and more disbelief despite it being right in front of me. Marty’s footsteps started to pick up and I could hear his walk becoming a jubilant jaunt around the trees and before had a chance to reconsider, we were there. Standing in a large circular clearing in the forest, devoid of trees or up reaching foliage was the imposing shaping of Carnival Vivacity.
The miniature city before up was completely shrouded in shadow, the light beaming through holes in the clouds being the only reprisal. “Did we miss it?” I addressed the Carnival that lacked any signs of life.
“Let’s just check it out? We’re already here.” Marty spoke taking small and timid steps towards the towering tents in front of us.
“Okay, but I’m not to keen on being eaten by Lions,” I remarked, I heard Marty mimic the sound of a Lion growling up ahead. I didn’t want to say it out loud but my nerves were standing on the edge, something about a darkened Carnival refused to sit right with me. It wasn’t a secret that Marty was nervous too, despite it being pretty high in the nineties he was visibly shaking under his long sleeve shirt. I wanted to tell him to wear something more appropriate, he told me he didn’t really own short-sleeve shirts anymore.
We got into the grounds without meeting any resistance, the Carnival was like a long-abandoned ghost town as we walked through it. Empty food stalls sat unmanned and the three large tents around us were devoid of the chaos you’d expect from them. “This is cool man, but maybe we should come back another time?”
“No way.” Marty spat out almost irritated at the thought. “This is my last chance, Andrew.” He more calmly stated while looking around like he was trying to find someone.
“Last chance for wha-” My question was quickly halted in my mouth as the Carnival Vivacity sprang to life without warning around us. Like a switch had been flipped we were suddenly surrounded by a cacophony of colored lights resembling a Christmas tree. Powerful beams of orange illumination reached out from the openings of the tents. We didn’t pay it any mind then, we were too focused on the surprise light show but, just like the lights, conversations suddenly started as well.
There were people around us when the lights turned on, I was almost unable to really comprehend their sudden appearance, it felt like my brain accepted it as normal. “Hello, Miyazaki,” Marty said aloud with drawn-out syllables as he looked around the newly lit up Carnival ground with complete awe.
His smile was so wide I thought he would fit right in with some of the clowns I witnessed trotting around in my peripherals. “So what do we do first?” I asked, surprised that the first thing out of my mouth wasn’t, “Let’s leave right now.”
Marty lifted his hand and rested it gently on his stomach as he feverously eyed a nearby food stand with steam from a grill pouring out of it. “I’m feeling pretty hungry,” I said, even though it was so outwardly expressed Marty was never going to say he was hungry. I can’t imagine what he got for dinner that night if anything at all. He knew though, that I knew and he turned to me with a smile and made his way to the stand.
I walked behind him, mildly vexed when I saw that no one was manning the stand and in fact, no one else was there at all. Sitting on the small round stools in front of the stand I peered over looking for someone who could help serves us. When I didn’t see anyone I began turning to Marty to bring up how odd it was when a worked appeared out of the corner of my eye.
Surprised I went to look at the man approaching us but when I did he had vanished into thin air leaving only a vacancy. Marty started to speak beside me but I only registered what he said after I had already come to the same conclusion. I could see a crowd of people walking around the Carnival but they were only there when in my peripherals if I turned to look at them, they’d be gone.
“You can only see them directly if you’re one of them.” Those were the words that slowly registered. One of them? I thought about that sentence all the way up until it was closing time. “I’d like whatever you recommend,” Marty spoke to the spectral worker, if I looked straight ahead it was just a steaming pile of meat, but through the sides of my vision a cook was working around the stove flipping the meat and seasoning it. “One for my friend too.”
I took the time to look around the Carnival with a more observant eye, everywhere I turned the tightly packed crowd would vanish when meeting my direct eye line. We were alone and completely surrounded at the same time. All but for one, I saw him only for a moment initially. A long flowing red duster that blended in with the surrounding tent. A tall black hat rested on his head and just as I caught sight of him he ducked under a flap of the tent but not before flashing me a quick glance. There was something immediately off-putting in his glance.
Slightly shaken I started turning back to Marty when the clink of a porcelain plate meeting the bar in front of me roused my interest. A steaming plate of meat and vegetables on top of a flour tortilla shell filled my nostrils with a heavenly smell. Marty was already wolfing down his food like he had been hunting it all night. The food made my mouth salivate and forcibly pushed and thoughts of suspicion or anxiety from my mind.
The food was exquisite, I had never and likely will never taste something as good as what the Carnival offered us. When I thought about asking for more I was pleasantly surprised to find that I felt full despite eating fairly little. Marty too let out a huff that told me he was stuffed. Once the food was gone though I was once again unsettled. “Okay, this is super cool I admit, but maybe we should go it’s- not normal.”
I had tried to keep it together for Marty’s sake, I hadn’t seen him this happy in a long time and the smile on his face was something I almost forgot he could do. “It’s only here for tonight. It is harmless.” He retorted. “Once it’s gone, like the people, you won’t be able to see it.” He turned his head around the grounds before his sights landed on the tent. “Besides we at least have to check out the show right?” He was beaming. The light cascading from the tent perfectly framed his content, and I surrendered to it.
With a quick nod of approval we rose up from our seats, I turned back and said a quick thank you to the cook, a whispy ‘you’re welcome’ crept into my head. Not like it was said by anyone it felt just like a thought I would have. We made our way to the tent, my steps were cautious as I kept thinking I was going to run into someone. Marty’s were full of anticipation, he was sneaking up on the tent ready to see it’s contents.
When we parted the flaps and walked inside I saw the man in the red coat standing in the middle of a dirt ring. Out of the corners of my eyes, I saw an audience seated and ready for the show to start, I could feel that they were waiting on us. “This is incredible,” Marty whispered as we slowly made our way to the only two open seats we could find and claimed them as our own.
“Welcome to Carnival Vivacity!” The ringleader’s voiced boomed throughout the tent, his words were said instead of heard in my thoughts. Even though I could see him when I looked directly at him, his face was difficult to look at for any extended period of time. His features would constantly shift creating this blurring effect. He was warping between a culmination of every face that I had ever committed to memory.
As he spoke, welcoming the crowd and describing the night’s events I watched the familiar features of my parents, kids from school and even Marty’s sunken eyes appear on his face. Then the Ringleader rose his hand and I could feel the metal seat I was in trembling, the whole tent, in fact, was shaking. I turned my head hoping to catch whatever was causing it in my peripheral
And then I saw it clearly.
It was unbelievable, I had seen them in textbooks before when were would study our ancestors but there it was. A massive Woolie Mammoth had waltzed into the middle of the ring, I could see both the creature and Marty’s infatuation with the whole ordeal in one scene.
A few more things played out. A group of people in acrobatic attire walked out and began swinging off ropes hanging from the high ceiling. There was a gasp from the crowd that flooded my thoughts when one of the performers dropped to the dirt. I could see her body fold on impact and become twisted and mangled, bones poking out from her knee. Then the girl lifted her hand and gave a thumbs up accompanied by a wicked smile.
Everyone laughed, everyone but me. I watched in horror as the girl manipulated her body and put it back together. I hadn’t gotten to take it all in but the girl sparked a notion in me, that everyone around us looked so conventionally attractive. Each one sculpted from perfection belonging on the front of a magazine. Marty no doubt noticed it too, I would catch him touching the bags under his eyes or running his hands through his scraggly hair.
After watching a Tiger jumping through rings of green fire, a fire that would cast a light on the Tiger revealing it’s true decaying self, I decided I had enough. “And now I just need a volunteer!” The Ringleader asserted nearly gluing me to my seat.
I knew it was going to happen before I had time to try and stop it, Marty’s boney arms slipped right through my grasp. His lanky body was already standing up and shuffling through the crowd, I could hear him offering apologies to the people he passed by on his way to the stage. They all just cheered in my head creating an obnoxious buzzing noise.
It all happened so fucking fast. Before I had a chance to protest or try to storm the stage, hell who am I kidding I wouldn’t have the nerve to do something like that. As Marty stepped into the ring and the Leader asked the crowd to applaud the young man I watched with my every breath stuck in my throat.
“Thank you for volunteering, this won’t hurt a bit.” The Ringleader affirmed as he reached into his pocket. The whole time Marty stood there, smiling and bowing at the roaring crowd he continued to scan. Then his eyes landed on me. He mouthed something, something that was only for me as I sat surrounded by people I couldn’t see.
My eyes became hot and stingy as I read his lips and before I knew it my fingers that were gripping the seat tensed up. There was no time process what was going to happen before the Ringleader made his move. Pulling his hand out of the duster he put a revolver up to Marty’s head and without an ounce of hesitation, pulled the trigger.
Once a spattering of red was thrown onto the dark brown circle of dirt I could feel my body lifting from the chair. I rose and Marty fell. He fell to the dirt at the Ringleader’s feet. I thought my emotions were running hot enough to evaporate the tears on my cheeks as I rushed through the set of chairs offering no apologies.
Even though looking at his face created an intense urge to vomit I stormed right up to the Ringleader ready to- I don’t know honestly, I was stopped before it got that far. “It’s okay Andrew!” My eyes were still fixated on the Ringleader, his face continued to shift but his body was unmoving. I kept my gaze on the Leader, hoping he could feel what I was feeling but out of the corner of my eye Marty started to stir.
Slowly he rose to his feet, I couldn’t see any sign of the gunshot but the blood still rested on the ground behind him. “We’re fucking leaving.” I scowled being more assertive at that moment than I ever had been before. “Are we free to leave?” I asked the Ringleader.
“You’re free to go, Andrew.” The Ringleader responded through ever-changing lips, his calm voice almost a mockery of my emotions. “I do hope you enjoyed your time.” Those words were like a punch to the gut, like he was so far above me that he couldn’t care less about my swelling rage.
“Come on Marty.” I quickly turned around and began to storm out of the tent, looking over my shoulder to confirm that Marty was following me. He was, walking much slower than me with head shoulder hanging heavy. I didn’t want to stop, all the while as I made my way out of the tent and back to the grounds, every so often turning my head to make sure Marty was still there.
The trees came into view as I shuffled through the invisible crowd that only appeared as the passed by my sides, I could feel their shoulders and arms brushing up against mine. “Andrew,” Marty spoke behind me.
“We’re almost out don’t worry,” I replied, not even looking back to make sure that he could hear me.
“Andrew.” His tone was the same but it was quieter, no not quite, I was just further away like he had stopped walking. All the sudden my body felt like a rock, like a was a statue planted into the ground and each part of me feared to turn around as the realization punctured my lungs like cutting knives. I could feel his presence behind me, I could feel him standing several feet back and suddenly the night became quiet.
There were a few guests in my peripheral that had stopped their meandering and stood completely still around me. “Please don’t,” I said in a whisper to no one in particular. Perhaps a plea to the orchestrating higher powers. My face was becoming wet again, cool streaking tears running down my face on the verge of a manic break.
“Andrew, it’s okay.” Marty’s voice was soft. As his words were a warm blanket wrapping around me on a stormy night. It reached me, Andrew, you’re feelings reached me. My lead foot slipped from the patch of grass it had flattened allowing my body to begin its pivot. I swiveled around until I had turned to face Marty.
And I was alone.
The lights were off and the crowd was gone. My head became heavy as it rolled back and my eyes closed pushing the well of forming water out. The breath that I had been holding in my chest all this time came out in whining spurts. My lips moved, mouthing words I couldn’t even decipher. I dropped to my knees in the large empty field, it was just me.
My emotions dripped off my face and watered the warm blades of grass that hugged my legs as I let it all out. In those woods is where I left my sorrow, it’s where I let all the pain seep out of my chest and become one with the forest.
As the sun started to peak above the horizon I too lifted myself up and made the hike back into town. A town that in time would forget Marty. His mother would pretend to care for a few days until the public eye was taken off of her. Very few people knew the kind of monster she was to Marty after his dad passed away. Marty saw a chance, a chance to be well fed and to see the world, be a part of a family. To do something that only a person at their lowest could accomplish. Seeing the world beyond the showmanship.
There were search efforts to find him. I was put into counseling and questioning at the same time as I was his only real connection to this town. I couldn’t tell them, it would seem like a fever dream to anyone who wasn’t there but Marty, he was gone. And all I had left of him was the words he mouthed to me the final time I was able to look him right in the eyes.
“Thank you, for being my friend.”
Credit: JRT McMahon