If traffic wasn’t so backed up on the interstate, I’d never have tried to take the back roads. But after an hour of inching forward, the kids were getting difficult and my wife’s temper was fraying. I decided even the illusion of progress was better than this. I joined the line of trucks exiting onto Highway 52, figuring the truckers knew what they were doing.
Minutes later we were flying along down the two lane road. The kids settled down, as much as four and five year old kids can settle down on a long trip. My wife leaned back and closed her eyes in relief. The relief lasted almost 20 minutes. Then the kids spotted the carnival up ahead. Any parent knows what happened next.
“Daddy! Daddy!” shouted Ben, the youngest. “Look!”
“Use your indoor voice, Ben,” I said. “I can hear you just fine. What am I supposed to look at?”
“Rides and stuff!” He was still yelling. “Can we stop and ride some rides? Please?”
“Please?” added Nancy, the five year old.
I looked over at Alice, “Looks like a little traveling carnival. What do you think?”
“Why not? We’re supposed to be on vacation,” she said. “Besides, maybe it’ll tire them out enough that they’ll take a nap.”
“Does that mean yes,” Ben asked.
“Yes, it does,” I answered, to cheers from the back seat.
A minute later I pulled off the road into a dirt parking lot. The lot was empty, which seemed odd. We were on the outskirts of a town and I’d have thought at least some of the locals would have brought their kids out here. I had second thoughts then, but the kids were so excited I decided to at least look around. Even if it was a crappy carnival, it would let the kids burn off some energy.
Climbing out of the car, something seemed wrong. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Nancy and Ben didn’t notice a thing. They were yelling and jumping up and down and acting like kids at, well, a carnival. Without waiting for Alice or me, they dashed off towards the carnival. I was about to call them back when Alice laid a hand on my arm.
“Let them go, Ron,” she said. “It’s not like they can go…”
Alice trailed off as both of us figured out what had been bothering us. There was no sound other than our two children. No music from rides. No carnival barkers. No noise at all. Without a word, we both started running after the children.
“Nancy! Ben!” I shouted. “Stop and wait for your mother and me!”
Either they didn’t hear us or they ignored us. Who can tell with kids at that age? Still shrieking in delight, Nancy and Ben dashed into the carnival and made a beeline for the merry-go-round. No one stopped them. No one asked for a ticket. No one even seemed to be manning the ride. But as soon as they clambered onto horses, the ride began to turn. Silently, eerily, round and round it went, the only sound the laughter from my children. I got ready to jump onto the ride and remove the kids.
That’s when the ride attendant appeared, and I do mean appeared. One second he wasn’t there and the next he stood between me and the ride. He was on the far side of middle aged, had a face that had been browned by years in the sun and clothing that looked at least fifty years out of fashion. He didn’t speak, only smiled, perhaps a bit sadly, and pointed to a sign that read For Your Safety, No Boarding A Moving Ride. I tried to push past him, but somehow he was always between me and the ride. I was about to punch his smiling face in when the ride slowed to a stop.
Eyes shining, Nancy and Ben hopped off the merry-go-round. Alice and I tried to grab them but they dodged around us and ran deeper into the carnival. And just like that, the carnival was manned. There were attendants at every ride. People running games and food stalls. Barkers before attraction tents. And it was still totally silent.
Alice and I exchanged concerned glances and hurried after our children. Before we could catch them, Nancy and Ben had climbed onto the tilt-a-whirl. As before, the ride started as soon as they were on it. But then we noticed they weren’t alone on the ride. A young woman was riding with a boy and a girl who looked to be about the same age as our two. The sight of another family eased our concern somewhat. The carnival was still eerie, but it seemed less threatening with another family there.
Again, Nancy and Ben shrieked in delight at the ride. The other mother wore a smile on her face as her two children shrieked in delight as well. Shrieked silently. Mouths moved and the mother responded as if her children had actually spoken. But there was only silence. Concern turned to worry and mounted swiftly towards panic.
“Alice, we’ve got to get the children out of here,” I said. “I don’t know what this place is, but it scares the Hell out of me.”
Alice only nodded, never once taking her eyes off of Nancy and Ben. When the ride stopped this time, we were ready. We each grabbed a child as they came off the tilt-a-whirl and turned to go.
“Put me down!” demanded Nancy. “There’s lots more stuff to ride!”
“Yeah,” added Ben, “we were having fun!”
“Fun time is over,” I said. “It’s time to go.”
And that set off the tantrums. Both of them were kicking and screaming as we moved toward the exit, watched by dozens of silent carnies.
“You’re a big meany!” said Nancy. “We didn’t even get any popcorn or cotton candy. We always get popcorn or cotton candy at the carnival!”
“Well, I don’t see anybody selling popcorn or-“ I stopped.
Right before us, a man was holding out cotton candy toward both children. He smiled sadly, dressed as far out of fashion as the first attendant. As everyone, I realized.
“Oh boy, cotton candy!” said Ben, reaching for it.
“I don’t think so-“ I began.
“If you get the cotton candy, will you go back to the car quietly?” Alice asked. “No fights. No arguments? No complaints?”
Seeing a chance to get something out of this, both children nodded.
“All right, then. You can have it this one time,” Alice said.
Nancy and Ben grabbed the cotton candy and were about to take big bites out of it when the cotton candy was slapped out of both their hands. Startled more than hurt, both of them started crying. An old man with a cane stood before us. We hadn’t even noticed him, with everything else that was going on. The old man had a strange, almost triumphant look on his face.
Handing the still crying Nancy over to Alice, I said, “Take the kids to the car, Alice. I’ll be there in a minute.”
As Alice hustled the children towards the parking lot, I turned on the old man.
“Just what the Hell do you think you’re doing?” I demanded. “You make a habit out of smacking other people’s children.”
“Only if those children are about to eat food here,” the man answered.
“Oh, so you’re the local health inspector?” I was angry at the old man even while I was relieved to have my family out of the carnival.
“No. Not the health inspector. Just an old man keeping an old promise to himself,” the man said, sounding weary and sad and defeated.
“What kind of promise?” I asked, my anger fading.
Waving a hand toward the silent family on the tilt-a-whirl, he answered, “A promise I made to myself. To make sure no one else ever ended up like them.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Not surprised, young fellow. Took me a while to figure it out, myself. You in the mood to listen or you just want to punch me in the nose and get on out of here? Personally, I recommend punching and running. I wish I’d had that choice,” the old man told me. I realized tears were shining in his eyes.
“The woman and the two children. Who are they?” I asked.
The man bent his head over his hands and a small sob escaped. “My wife and children. They’ve been riding that ride for forty-six years and they’ll keep riding it forever.
“You see, there hasn’t been a carnival around here for nearly sixty years,” the old man explained.
I looked around, bewildered at how he could say something like that.
“Oh, I know, you can see a carnival, but it’s not really there. Fifty-eight years ago today, the carnival you see was ripped apart by a tornado. None of the carnies survived. It was just luck that they were still setting up or lots of townsfolk would have been killed, too.
“Townsfolk don’t really believe the carnival comes back each year on the same date it was destroyed. It took me a while to figure out but it seems like only people who are passing through, people with children, ever see the carnival. Doesn’t make much sense to me, but the whole idea of a ghost carnival doesn’t make much sense, either.
“I didn’t live here back when the tornado ripped through. I never even planned to live here. My family and I were passing through, just like you, I expect. The kids were getting antsy and my wife and I were trying to figure out some way to settle them down when we saw this carnival.
“Just like you, we stopped. Just like you, my wife and I got spooked. Just like you, we grabbed the children and started to leave. And, just like you, the man with the cotton candy appeared and offered some to my children.
“Son,” the old man said, “you can’t eat the food of the dead without joining them. Our two little ones took a bite each and just slipped out of our arms. We couldn’t hold them. Couldn’t talk to them. Couldn’t do anything but watch as the day ended and the carnival faded away, taking our children with it.
“My wife and me, we both went a little crazy after that. We couldn’t leave, of course. Over the next year we tried everything we could think of to get our children back. Preachers, miracle workers, psychics and more charlatans willing to make a fast buck off of someone else’s pain than you ever want to know exist. Nothing worked.
“The next year, we both came back out here before dawn. Watched the sun come up and the carnival slowly appear around us. And there were our two children, just as they had been the year before, silently riding the tilt-a-whirl. That broke it for my wife. She grabbed up some cotton candy, took a bite and has been riding with our babies ever since.
“I lost everything to this carnival, young fellow. Everything. And I swore no one else would ever have that happen. I’ve been out here every year for the last forty-six years watching the family I no longer have and watching for people like you. There’ve been a few over the years, though not so many since they built the interstate. Counting yours, I’ve stopped thirteen families from losing their kids to this place. Most of them punched me in the nose before they left, but at least they left.
“Don’t know how much longer I’ve got till I’m gone, but I’m going to have a few questions for God when I finally get past the pearly gates!”
Tears were streaming down the old man’s face as he finished his tale. And who could blame him?
“Go on, now, young fellow. That pretty wife of yours is probably wondering why it’s taking so long to punch an old man in the nose,” he told me, trying to smile through a lifetime of pain.
“No, sir,” I replied, “I think I’ll just stay right here for a while.”
“Whatever for? You don’t want your kids around here, man! Get out while the getting is good!” the old man said.
“I’ll send Alice into town with the kids,” I told him. “She can come back and get me after dark, when the carnival is gone. Besides, she hates to have me around when she talks to real estate people.”
“Real estate people? You aren’t just passing through?”
“We were,” I answered, “but I think it’s time you got to rest. I’ll take over guarding the carnival from now on. Maybe you can find some peace before you have that talk with God.”
“Y-you really mean that, young fellow? You’d really do that for me?”
“I think it’s the least I can do for the man who saved my children,” I answered. “Now why don’t you go on home.”
“Home? Yeah, you’ll need one,” said the old man as he reached into his pocket and pulled out some keys. “Here, you can have mine. Just tell Tom down at the bank that you won the keys at the carnival. He thinks I’m crazy, but he’ll know what to do.”
“But where are you going to live?” I asked.
“I’m not, young fellow. I’m not.”
As he said that, the old man took some cotton candy from the vendor who had reappeared next to us. Before I could do or say anything, he took a bite and let the rest fall to the ground. He turned and started hobbling toward the tilt-a-whirl. He hadn’t taken five steps before he dropped the cane. After ten, his back had straightened and his step had lightened. By the time he reached the tilt-a-whirl, forty-six years had dropped off of him. Smiling broadly, he joined his family on the ride.
I turned toward the parking lot, trying to figure out how I would explain all this to Alice. It was then that I heard the first and last sound I would ever hear from that carnival.
“Daddy!” a little girl’s voice whispered. “We’ve been waiting for you!”