It has been years since I left my hometown, and I don't think I'll ever return.
I do miss the timeless idyll of the country, the sultry, gently undulating hills and the cool, quiet sanctuary of the woods. I can still picture the night sky in my mind's eye—the endless black canvas speckled with glittering stars, so vivid and clear they seemed within easy reach of your hand. Even now, the remembrance of the lonesome, poignant howls that would sometimes emerge at night from within the darkened grove stirs within me a deep desire to return.
But I have sworn never to step foot within that cursed town again. Not after what happened.
Travelling circuses or carnivals are a common sight if you live in a town like mine—too small to warrant a permanent establishment of its own, but too big to pass up as a business opportunity, especially in the summer months. Large, colorful banners in the town center, usually put up weeks in advance, would herald the coming of a new attraction; smaller black-and-white posters, sometimes so poorly photocopied that you could barely make out the words, much less the images, festooned the streets, a constant reminder that FUN and LAUGHTER would soon grace the prosaic place we called home.
To be honest, I think the adults were often just as excited as the kids. Living in a small town has its perks, but having interesting preoccupations isn't usually one of them. Most of the townsfolk were poorly educated farmers fortunate enough to inherit a piece of fertile farmland (or a healthy herd of cattle) from their forebears. Life was a constant drudgery of chores and backbreaking labor with little in the way of entertainment. The television had only a handful channels (assuming you had a TV set to begin with), and the one social event that happened with any regularity was church on Sunday. The pub enjoyed a booming business though.
And so we all rubbed our hands in glee when one late spring morning we awoke to see workmen putting up a giant cloth banner that screamed, in crimson letters, "THE CARNIVAL OF LIGHTS AWAITS YOU". My family owned a small shop in the town center selling provisions and we lived in the quarters directly above, so we were among the first to witness the thrilling sight. Word spread, and soon some of the workmen were accosted by eager teenagers wanting to find out more about the carnival. You see, the roving funfairs that had visited us in the past were well known operators. Not the big-timers perhaps, but their names were not unfamiliar. But no one had heard of the Carnival of Lights. What the workers could tell us was that they had been contracted by some company in a nearby city, a company they themselves were working with for the first time. And no, they weren't told when exactly the carnival would be setting up in our town.
The air of mystery about the whole affair only heightened our anticipation. We told ourselves that it had to be a new entrant to the carnival scene, a hitherto-unheard player making its debut. Possibly from the continent, a few of the older folks ventured, nodding sagely. The words "debut" and "the continent" were incomprehensible to us kids, but the exoticism they connoted and promised were not lost on us. There were a few quiet utterances of skepticism among the adults as to why any newcomer would choose, of all places, this humble backwater, but they were soon shushed with indignant admonitions not to rain on the town's parade.
The days lengthened and summer drifted in like a warm breeze, bringing with it the joyous cries of children freed from the shackles of school. Impatient for the carnival to arrive, my friends and I would sprint, every morning, to the open field near the outskirts where any funfair, circus or carnival would customarily set up shop. Disappointment met us each day, until one morning a marvelous scene greeted us.
They must have started during the night, for the frames of the rides could already be seen peeking through the scaffolding that enveloped them. The whole place was a hive of activity, and before our awe-struck eyes we saw the carnival slowly take form. There was a roller-coaster, the biggest we had ever seen, and in our hearts we immediately knew where we'd be making our first stop once the gates opened.
As we ran, madly whooping at the top of our lungs, back into town, a different banner awaited our goggling eyes. "OPEN TONIGHT!" it triumphantly declared, and we high-fived one another, drunk with happiness. The rest of the day seemed to drag on interminably, so much so that by late afternoon we were each unceremoniously booted from our homes on account of our incessant whining, our pockets jingling with coins that our harried parents had gladly parted with in order to buy some peace and quiet.
We reached our destination well before dusk had fallen, but already a thick, bustling crowd was thronging the unopened entrance. "Oh, man!" complained my friend Henry, a tall, spindly boy whom puberty had caught early, and rather awkwardly. "Well, perhaps they'll have VIP tickets for sale," he said, jiggling his bulging pockets, which were clearly fuller than any of ours. His father owned the pub, which meant he was always the one with the new bike or shoes, but not the modesty to refrain from rubbing it in our faces. Still, he was not ungenerous when it came to sharing, possibly the sole reason we grudgingly accepted him as one of the gang, though there were many times I felt like kicking him in the shin.
Of the three, I considered Gregory my best friend. He was a rather quiet boy, unwilling to proffer any view unless pressed, though often his remarks turned out to be the most intelligent of the lot. Having never fully shed his baby fat from his face and body, he was a frequent target of snide remarks from the rest of the class. No one ever laid a finger on him though. James, the brash leader of our little quartet with outsized arms, saw to that.
As twilight fell, it soon became apparent why the carnival was so named. Lanterns, hundreds and hundreds of them, each giving off a lurid red, came to life with the dying of the day. The scarlet spots of light did little to brighten up the area, instead casting a bloody sheen on every angle they caught.
"Fantastic!" cried Henry appreciatively, clapping his knee enthusiastically. A murmur of approval rustled through the crowd, which had fallen silent at the arresting sight.
"It looks kinda creepy," squeaked Greg as he sidled up to me, trying not to let Henry hear him. "I didn't know it was supposed to be horror-themed."
"I didn't either." A certain repulsion had risen within me, driving out all the earlier excitement. If it had been just Greg and I, we surely would have turned around and left, but some of Henry's enthusiasm seemed to have spilt over to James.
"Come on, you guys." I felt his strong arms pushing me into the surging crowd. The gates had opened. "If we don't hurry, there'll be a line at the roller coaster for sure."
Herded in like a pair of clueless calves, Greg and I glanced around wildly at our surroundings. Loud music, somewhat cheerfully discordant, blared from speakers. It was difficult to see where we were going, for the shadows clung on stubbornly to every corner like cobwebs. It was a horror theme park all right. The staff all wore white, expressionless masks, the kind that evokes a visceral, unexplainable discomfort from the pits of your psyche. Blood splattered signs promised horrifying experiences: the Boat Ride to Nowhere, the Silent Hall of Mirrors, etc. All the clichéd stuff.
"There! The Guillotine Coaster!" Henry jabbed a finger excitedly at a sign composed of letters with wickedly jagged edges. Without turning to see if we were following, he dashed off in the direction the sign pointed. We stumbled behind him reluctantly, practically being pulled along by an eager James, who had an iron grip on our wrists.
As expected, there was already a long queue ahead of us. Mr Moneybags craned his neck to see if there was an express line for those willing to pay for a VIP ticket, only to settle back down with a crestfallen frown on his face. As the queue crawled along, the two ebullient boys each expertly gave his prediction on how stomach-churning the ride was going to be, based on what they could observe of the tracks from where we stood. My buddy and I could only exchange glum glances as the air was punctuated by screams every now and then, screams that sounded way more terrified than exhilarated. We both loved rollercoaster rides, but the eerie atmosphere of the park had diminished our appetite.
As our turn drew closer, a safety warning came into view.
ATTENTION: You must be this tall—to
A red, bloody gash on the sign marked the minimum height required to take the ride. We stared at it, mouths agape. None of us had ever seen such a sign before. You must remember that this took place decades ago, back when common sense was thought to be a lot more common, and safety regulations existed only for the most dangerous of activities.
I was suddenly aware of the looks my friends were giving me. I had always known myself to be the shortest among my friends, and even when I took rollercoaster rides previously my head barely poked through the harness; but never had I thought it to be a problem. I ran towards the sign, refusing to believe it. The closer I came, the further the blood-red line floated up defiantly. At last the truth was staring me in the face—I was too short to ride.
It's strange, how human psychology works. The moment something is off limits, it instantly becomes desirable. All the dread and reluctance I had harbored towards the ride vanished the moment I realized I wouldn't be allowed to ride it.
"Hide me," I begged my friends, elbowing my way into the middle of the group. Greg stared at me in surprise.
"Y-y-ou know, I can stay here with you if you don't want to wait alone." His plump face shone at me hopefully.
I shook my head vigorously. "No way. I'm coming along." Ignoring his obvious chagrin, I shuffled my feet to maintain my inconspicuous—or so I hoped—position between my friends as the queue hustled forward. The rollercoaster was back, its seats empty.
"What?" cried Henry in surprise. "Where're the passengers?"
The employee at the turnstile turned towards us, his eyes looking oddly alive behind the stiff white mask. "You alight on the other side," he informed us gruffly, pointing to the further end of the ride, where the tracks disappeared ominously into a dark cavern.
I wanted to kick the big-mouth, hard. He just had to draw attention to us—no, me. Keeping my head down and fingers crossed, I tried to scurry through the turnstile as unsuspiciously as possible. With my back foot nearly clearing the threshold, the hallelujahs were already on the tip of my tongue—
"HOLD IT." I nearly jumped out of my skin as the behemoth of a voice struck my ears like a sledgehammer. Mr Gruff White Mask had my shoulder in a painful, vice-like grip. "You're too short to go on this ride, pal," he growled, sounding anything but pally.
"Oh come on, mister," I pleaded, "I've sat on other rollercoasters before. I'll be okay, I tell you." I met his flinty gaze beseechingly, hoping his hard brown eyes would soften.
"Out." The verdict announced, the unsympathetic carnival-goers behind me began prodding me aside with sharp elbows, heedless of the gross injustice that had befallen me.
Dejected, I looked on sadly as my friends scrambled for the best seats—well, Henry and James did, anyway. Greg wandered around like a lost child before reluctantly sitting down beside a fat, sweaty dude who was alone. As the machinery hummed and creaked and the cars began to inch forward, he threw me a look of desolation, tinged with fear, as if he were a ghost fresh on his way to Hades.
As it turned out, that was the last time I ever saw them alive.
The rollercoaster disappeared with a loud whoosh, and remembering what the turnstile employee had said about the ride ending on the other side, I left the boarding platform and trudged alongside the tracks across the grassy field. Strident screaming followed by the low rumble of wheels on tracks would greet my ears every time before the screeching train of terror and its captive passengers hurtled past me for yet another round. Torn between relief and petulant anger at being left out, I kicked up divots of dirt as I made my way towards the gaping cavern at the far end.
Something about the large, maw-like opening stirred up a deep sense of unease within me, though, especially the way it seemed to swallow up the screaming humans each time they plummeted helplessly into its inky void. Nearing my destination, I stopped to observe the rollercoaster looming towards me, seemingly slowing, as it began to make that steep ascent that preceded the plunge into the waiting jaws of the man-made grotto. The hullaballoo had somewhat subsided, no doubt because the hoarse throats on board were taking a much needed rest.
I gasped. As the first car crested the peak, the hollow of the cavern came alit with a red, hungry glow. The riders must have seen it too, for the hollering—almost appreciative—returned in a sharp crescendo. I felt a desperate, despairing horror grip my heart—something felt distinctly wrong. Without knowing why, I started sprinting. The train, nearing full throttle by now, was streaking further and further away. That was when I heard it: the screams turned up several pitches, now possessing a tenor of genuine fear—
Silence. A deep, empty silence.
My lungs nearly bursting, I raced into the cave, which was still awash in that eerie red glow I will never forget for as long as I live. Bedazzled by my sudden dive into the light, I squinted around in confusion. The passengers were sitting stock-still in their seats, mute and frozen. The ground was strewn with balloons, or so I thought. What a weird way to end the ride, was the only thought my dazed mind could sputter out.
A sudden movement behind the stationary rollercoaster caught my eye. A plank of some sort was being lifted up towards the roof. I rubbed my eyes, urging the stars in my eyes to go away. No, not a plank—far thinner, and sharper. As my eyes slowly adjusted to the light, a sickening realization ripped through my shuddering body. It was a blade, a monstrous three-yard-long blade.
That had passed through each sobbing, throbbing throat like a hot knife through butter…
I turned and ran. And ran. All sense had been shot clean from my head, leaving only a primal fear that powered my legs beyond endurance, and consciousness. One moment I was dashing blindly through the darkness, the very next I was out like a light.
They had assumed I was dead, one of the many to have been senselessly slaughtered in the accursed carnival, until they found me in the bordering woods. I was told it was the work of some demented cult, seeking to sacrifice as many as they could before they did themselves in. I never got round to hearing the details, though, mainly because my mouth would widen into a scream anytime someone spoke of it.
It's been years and years since, and I've been through countless therapists, to little effect. Even now, I hardly make it through a night without recalling the blood-red scene in the cavern, and worst of all, the abominable sign that had, ironically, saved my life.
ATTENTION: You must be this tall—to