Just like the 13 Days, the Day of the Dead bonus post is back! And today we have another 13 Days newbie - Steve Bernardi! Check out his story, “The October Carnival”...for those who want October to last just that much longer...
The October Carnival
By Steve Bernardi
The town of Whisper Falls would not be celebrating Halloween this year. It was a decision which had been almost universally reviled, but still the city council held firm. The decision could be traced back to last Halloween, during which no less than three tragedies took place. To some it was a comfort to believe they were all related, with one malevolent trickster being the cause. The alternative was to accept that the wickedness which persisted in their town was legion, or simply that the random chance of the universe could allow such misfortune at any time.
The first tragedy was the least complicated. Ray Brady, aged eleven, had disappeared without a trace. He had been eager to go out with his friends to get candy, his parents reported, but neither of them had been available to drive him. Despite their firm instruction that he was to stay home and watch Halloween specials on TV, he had set out to make the journey himself on foot. None of his friends had seen him, meaning something had happened to him along the way. Whether he had been snatched in the night or merely vanished into thin air, not a soul could say.
The second tragedy was the second most harmful. Multiple groups of teenagers had independently decided to try and make a name for themselves as master pranksters, making an innocent bet with one another when their activities overlapped to see who could pull off the most elaborate pranks by midnight. What was surely just a nuisance at first turned into a malicious game of one-upmanship, which ended in three hospitalizations, dozens of police reports, and thousands of dollars in property damage. No arrests were made and no reprisals were dealt out on account of every perpetrator wearing a mask.
While not counted amongst the tragedies which occurred that October 31st, it is worthy of note that those involved in the prank wars had all simultaneously removed their costumes and discarded them in a river which ran through the heart of the town. The decision was hasty, conceived from a mixture of exhaustion, fear of consequence, and a nasty sugar rush which rivalled the fiercest intoxication. The buildup of fabric and cheap plastic clogged the waterways, causing flooding in several areas and killing off a population of salmon which was in the middle of its annual migration.
And then there was the final tragedy. A batch of tainted candy, homemade, had poisoned dozens of trick-or-treaters. Had the matter ended there it would have been one thing, but there was an additional side-effect to these treats, one which caused those who consumed them to, well…the less said about it the better. Suffice it to say, one suburban household was destroyed, and countless sidewalks were irrevocably stained from the evening’s carnage.
The media fallout was heinous, with everyone falling over themselves with the sheer volume of ways they were able to ask how such an awful night was allowed to happen. Fingers were pointed, names were thrown under the bus by those looking for someone to blame. The small town whose most exciting export was drywall suddenly found itself on the national news, with words like ‘irresponsible’ and ‘cataclysmic’ slapped on it, because what’s a wound without a little salt to liven things up a little?
The notion of cancelling Halloween was floated around for several weeks before the motion carried. There may have been more opposition to it, had it not been for the collective trauma of Whisper Falls. Nobody wanted to even think about Halloween, and any reminders served only to turn their eyes away. They tried to distract themselves with preparations for Christmas, but that December which should have been warmed by festive lights and good cheer was just cold.
There weren’t even that many on the city council who wanted to cancel Halloween. But there were eyes on them, and they were expected to do SOMETHING to show they were trying to prevent another disaster. By the time it got far enough to actually happen it was too late; if they backed down now it would make them look weak, and open the town up to more scrutiny. When the decision was made, each politician involved privately absolved themselves of guilt with potent denial, maintaining that cancelling the holiday was really the best thing for their community.
Local businesses felt the hit coming first. Stock which had been ordered almost a year in advance had to be sent back at cost to the retailers. Hefty fines were issued to anyone promoting Halloween or trick-or-treating. Any candy packaged in seasonally dark wrapping, or costumes of any kind, were targets on the back of every small grocer and big box store. A few thought they could still make a profit by accepting these fines and selling festive merchandise anyway, but there was no one heretical enough to buy it.
It had been a grey September in more ways than one that year. Heavy rainfall beat down on Whisper Falls, painting the sky in bleak tones which mirrored the way more and more people seemed to feel. Christmas music came early from a few stores; a fitting death knell for the holiday that kids loved, and most adults didn’t realize they’d miss until it was gone.
“I can’t take it anymore!” shouted Becky Myers, aged thirteen. Had there been anyone present besides her two best friends, she might have felt a little more insecure about such an unbridled and spirited display of passion. But there wasn’t, so she just felt ticked off.
“Easy, fearless leader,” offered Joe. “People our age shouldn’t have blood pressure as high as yours.”
“Or forehead veins as large,” added Avery, their words slightly muffled by a sizable piece of red licorice.
“I don’t care!”
Becky had felt the banning of Halloween a bit harder than most. The whole thing had been spearheaded by her mother, the mayor, despite it being a time her daughter lived for. She grounded Becky for a month last January when she staged a formal protest at her school in opposition of the ban. Currently she was staring daggers at Becky from outside the police car window.
“Rebecca Lee Myers, I cannot believe you would embarrass me like this.”
“The feeling is mutual.”
“Don’t get smart.”
“She does that, ma’am.” Both Avery and the two Myers women shot Joe reproachful looks.
“What were you thinking?” the mayor continued. “Showing up outside my office-”
“It’s city hall, mom; it’s public property.”
“Outside my office with those ridiculous signs. I suppose this was your secret “social studies homework” that you’ve been working on in your room all week.”
“It IS social studies, mom. We’re trying to spark social change and appeal the decisions made by our incompetent local government.”
“Where did you even get those costumes?” demanded Becky’s mother, ignoring her daughter’s barbed comment. “Nobody should be selling them.”
“There’s still a few places! I guess we just care more about supporting local businesses than you do.”
“Alright, that’s enough.” The mayor pinched the bridge of her nose. “You’re just lucky Officer Addams saw you before too many other people did.”
“Thanks again, dad; real supportive!” Avery called into the front seat.
“Child, you will show the mayor some respect and let her finish speaking. We’ll talk at home, and that is less a threat and more a promise.” There was something just a trifle upsetting about a parent who could scold their progeny while keeping an even tone. Even the mayor got goosebumps.
“More people should have seen us, though.” Becky’s eyes had gotten bigger as she tried to hold back the coming tears. “Mom, this town needs Halloween. I know you love this time of year almost as much as I do. All those spooky movies we watched with dad, the pumpkin patches and hayrides, the haunted house you organized the year I turned ten! Isn’t that stuff worth preserving; that feeling?”
“I…” she trailed off. Avery’s father hadn’t turned around to address them when he spoke before, but even he had to allow himself a glance back in anticipation of how the mayor would respond.
“Officer Addams is going to drive you home.” There was a slight quiver in her voice as she spoke. “When you get there, you will stay in your room until further notice, or so God help me there will be hell to pay.”
“And that is the end of the conversation! I need to go explain to the press why my daughter was protesting my office while dressed as a witch.”
“A necromancer,” Becky corrected, no longer making eye contact with her mother.
“Thank you again, Charlie,” she said to Avery’s father, while resuming her dagger stare into the backseat. “I trust you have it from here.”
“That I do, mayor. And you’re welcome.”
As they drove away, tears fell down Becky’s face. She refused to sob, her hands clutching themselves to whitening in her lap and her face aimed squarely at her shoes. Joe and Avery each attempted a comforting gesture, but the young necromancer recoiled from their touch.
“For what it’s worth,” said Officer Addams. “And your mother will have my badge if she catches wind of me telling you this, so as a courtesy I’m trusting you to keep it zipped, but I admire what you were trying to do, kid.” Becky only sniffled in response.
“Going out there and standing up for what you believe in, standing up to your kin, no less, that takes guts. Does my heart good to know my Avery is hanging around good people.”
“Dad…” groaned Avery.
“But if you ask me, and I know you’re not asking, just relax, you’ve gotta learn to pick your battles. You can be a dragon, but a dragon spitting into the wind is apt to get their face burned.”
“What?” croaked Joe in a comedically exaggerated voice.
“I’m saying that if you take on the world, you might wind up just hurting yourself. Rebecca-sorry, Becky. Your mom loves you, and I know you love her. Do you really want this whole Halloween nonsense to be the thing that drives you two apart? Is it that important?”
“I d-don’t know,” she said honestly.
“And that’s okay. You’re thirteen; if ever there was a time in your life to not know something, it’s now. I’m just saying, it’s worth thinking about. Ain’t no shame in admitting when you’re beat.”
“Like how you’ve been passed up for sergeant six times now, dad?”
“Watch it child,” said the officer, annoyed but still loving.
No one spoke for the rest of the car ride. At some point Becky leaned into Avery’s shoulder, relenting and letting them put their arm around her. She reached out her hand for Joe to take, which he did, and she began to cry in earnest. Officer Addams watched the scene play out in his rear-view mirror, his heart warmed and broken in equal measure.
The weeks rolled on, grey September turning into an October of flamboyant orange. Any mandates or bans on holiday attire didn’t apply to the trees, it seemed. Becky was grateful that something still looked like October in her hometown, less so that she was required to rake it up for her whole street as part of her punishment.
In the middle of tying up her sixth trash bag of leaves, something sticking out of the top caught her eye. It was thin and orange like a leaf, but upon closer inspection Becky realized she had raked up some kind of flyer. It had a spiderweb pattern on one side and tabs cut in the bottom that people could rip off, each one printed with ‘ADMIT ONE’ in all caps.
‘The Gonzo Brothers,’ read the flyer’s curvy onyx text, ‘are proud to bring you their world-famous travelling circus and carnival, one night only! Rides! Games! Freaks and Horrors! And come see the world-premiere of the newest addition to our menagerie!’ The date on the bottom read October 30th. In the right hand corner above the tabs was a logo, a realistic skull with a bat flying out of one eye. ‘Gonzo Industries. Delight, Entertain, Terrify’ was written underneath.
Becky looked around as if she were a spy in possession of state secrets, checking to make sure no one was watching her. Satisfied that she worked in relative obscurity, she folded the flyer and carefully pocketed it. Her work resumed, and later that night she would hide the flyer under her mattress for safekeeping.
Whisper Falls earned its name that month, with the flyers that had mysteriously popped up all over town being gossiped about in hushed tones and careful murmurs. City hall put together a group of volunteers to take them down en masse. The mayor considered having her daughter take part, but by this point her punishment had concluded.
Besides, while the flyer did not specifically advertise a Halloween celebration, it was close enough in date and subject matter that Becky’s mother felt it would be unwise to have her involved. Her office never publicly acknowledged the flyers, merely putting out a public statement reminding citizens that Halloween was still banned.
“So we’re for sure going, right?” Becky asked her friends.
“For the ninth time, yes,” said Avery.
“I just want to be sure.”
“I mean,” Joe looked around while speaking. “We’re already on our way. What did you have to tell your mom to get out tonight?”
“Ha!” Becky smiled. “She’s busy with work. As far as she’s concerned, I’m still in my room sulking.”
“It looks like half the town is on their way to this thing,” observed Avery. Like them, many citizens of Whisper Falls made their way on foot towards the location described in the flyer, an empty field on the outskirts of town. Asphalt gave way to dirt road about a mile out, making the walk a feasible one. Feasible, if not for the occasional car passing them by kicking up clouds of dust and exhaust.
After ten minutes of walking, they saw a beacon of light in the distance cut through the darkness of late dusk. There had been some doubt in their minds that there would actually be a carnival at the end of this, that the flyers weren’t some kind of elaborate prank or protest. It seemed they were not the only skeptical ones, as a small crowd had formed at the top of the hill which led down into the field. No one spoke to each other, the shared moment of awe being enough to bind them all.
“Race ya.” It was a teenaged boy who broke the silence, speaking to no one in particular before darting down the hill with his arms behind his back. Inspired by his example, Becky smiled and shot forward as well. Joe and Avery looked at one another, shrugged, and did the same. The rest of the group, some kids and some adults, followed suit after them.
While this field had hosted a plethora of county fairs, festivals, and the occasional community barbecue, there was no formal parking lot, so cars sat motionless at odd angles every few feet. A chain link fence had been erected which blocked off the entrance to the carnival. Becky wondered if it went around the whole field as her and her friends joined the crowd waiting anxiously for entry.
"I bet you any money he's the ticket taker," Becky said to her friends, gesturing towards the silhouetted carny a few feet inside the fence. "These operations always have one."
"I don't believe it," said a voice which made Becky's blood run cold. "Rebecca, what are you doing here?"
"Oh. Hi, mom." Her shoulders immediately slumped when faced with the mayor. "Here for the circus?"
"Hardly. I’m getting to the bottom of these shenanigans. You didn’t walk all the way here by yourself, did you?
“Not so, mayor,” said Officer Addams, appearing from behind the crowd. “I see my Avery there with her. Looks like Joseph Prince too. Your dad know you’re out this late, Joe?”
“He knows,” came a voice from just outside their circle. Owen Prince clasped a disapproving hand on his son’s shoulder, stuffing the reporter’s notebook he was carrying back into his pocket. “I guess this is a group outing now.”
Before Mayor Myers could reprimand them further, a sudden and thunderous slamming of metal echoed throughout the vicinity. Avery’s father unholstered his gun on instinct. When the screams died down, people started to notice that the entire chain-link fence had collapsed; not simply falling over, but having been completely dismantled in an instant.
“Ladies and gentleman!” shouted a man from what had once been the other side of the fence. “The Gonzo Brothers wish to welcome you to the darkest show in town, one night only. Inside, your every wish is our command,” he took a dramatic bow, tipping the boater hat he wore atop a mask which made his face look disfigured, “and your every desire is made manifest. Wonders and horrors the likes of which you have never seen await you. I will be your ticket taker this evening.”
“Told ya,” Becky whispered.
“Please step inside and enjoy!” The Ticket Taker gestured with a glass cane that picked up the changing lights from inside the carnival. “Step lively, now. Form an orderly line. Or push and shove; I’m not a cop.”
“No, but I am,” said Charlie, using his badge and stature to get to the front. The other five followed behind him, led by the mayor.
“I’m Mayor Olivia Myers,” she said confidently, doing her best to exude an air of authority.
“My first patrons of the night!” chirped the Ticket Taker. “How exciting!”
“I want to know what you people are doing here. Where are your permits? Who authorized you to be here?”
“I’m afraid I’m just a humble ticket taker,” said the man, his stubbly chin contorting into an exaggerated frown. Becky adored his outfit, apparently composed piecemeal from a wardrobe’s worth of garish attire.
“You can flag down our illustrious hosts, the Gonzo Brothers, once you get inside. But no one gets inside without a ticket. That’s kind of my one rule.”
“Sweet, we’re going in,” Becky declared triumphantly. She produced the flyer from her coat pocket and held it above her head for all to see.
“Oh no we’re not,” said her mother. She grabbed for the flyer, but underestimated her daughter’s grip and tore the paper in two.
“Mom!” Becky shrieked. Quickly she assessed the state of her treasure, content that there were still usable tabs but nevertheless shaken. “This sucks, you know that? Halloween was the one thing I could look forward to every year, but thanks to you it’s gone.”
“And now this carnival comes along, one last chance for Whisper Falls to have a little fun before winter, and your first thought is to stop it? Well, you can try, but I’m going in before you ruin this too like you ruin everything else!”
Olivia Myers had so much she wanted to say to her daughter in that moment, conflicting thoughts tying her tongue. Before she found the right words, if she ever could, she was caught off guard by the sound of whistling and raucous applause from the line which had formed behind them. In the seconds it took her to find her composure, her daughter had presented three stubs to the Ticket Taker and rushed inside with her friends.
“Becky, wait!” Her pursuit was cut short before it could even begin, as the cane of the Ticket Taker came down like the gate of a tollbooth.
“Tickets please,” he said with a smirk. Olivia looked at her half of the flyer, which bore exactly three tabs on it.
“Charlie, Owen, I hate to ask you this, but could you…?”
“You sign my cheques, Liv.” Avery’s father gave the mayor a reassuring smile. “Plus, that’s my kid in there too, so I’m in.”
“I was going in anyway,” said Owen. “But I forgot to bring a flyer, so this works out just fine for me.”
Beyond the threshold of the carnival, Becky, Avery, and Joe stood transfixed at the onslaught of sights and sounds the night lay before them. Booths of games and snacks and rides were arranged in a spiral pattern, starting with a big top striped in red and black. The children studied the attractions as best they could from their limited vantage point, and reasoned that the spiral ended with a Ferris wheel at the opposite end of the grounds from the entrance.
“We’ve gotta ride that thing before we go,” Becky said excitedly.
“If our parents don’t kill us first,” muttered Avery.
“How do you think they get these lights to work?” asked Joe. Becky and Avery had been so fixated on taking in everything, only Joe had seen the details. Strange orbs of light hung about in a milky green vapor. The carnival was covered in them.
“Projector?” Avery posited. “Casting shapes onto the fog?”
“There’d have to be projectors everywhere, then.”
“Yeah, isn’t this place amazing?” Becky laughed, not fully hearing her friends. “Check this thing out!” She led them to a raised platform made out of finely cut pine, which sat twenty feet in front of the big top. Unlike everything else in the carnival, it was the only structure not a part of the spiral. A black tarp covered something on top, and the only staircase it had was guarded by an older man wearing an ash-coloured trench coat over a pair of filthy jean overalls.
“Run along, children,” he said in a thin Welsh accent. “You have a world of games and rides to occupy you this evening; you need not bother me with your nonsense.”
Becky narrowed her eyes at him, fully prepared to give him a piece of her mind as only a thirteen-year-old can, but a sudden commotion behind her took a hold of her attention. A wave of guests was making their way inside, including her mother near the front. Without much of a plan, she beckoned for her friends to get lost in the crowd with her.
There was a vibrant energy to the crowd. People looked livelier; they wore their smiles wider than they had in months. There was laughter, and cheer which Becky had forgotten about. Children ran around seeing the sights, and parents chased after them happily. It was as close to a perfect moment as Whisper Falls had seen in a long time.
“Ladies and gentleman!” boomed a voice which emanated from all around. It was loud enough it could have come from concert speakers, but it lacked any of the electric reverb one would expect.
“Thank you so much for joining us this evening!” said a nearly identical but distinct voice. “The Gonzo Brothers wish to welcome you!”
“And welcome you we shall!” The fog which permeated the fairgrounds became thicker, taking on a faint emerald hue and starting to move as if blown about by several opposing fans. Two disparate tendrils of green smoke wormed around like snakes, meeting at the platform and spiralling up a pole in the back before bursting into fireworks at the top.
No one from Whisper Falls was sure what they were seeing. As the mist cleared, two pale figures stood where the fireworks had gone off, seemingly both balancing atop the tiny beam. They wore identical jackets, made from a cherry red fabric which sparkled wickedly in the circus light and trimmed in dull gold. The man on the left wore his dark hair a little longer, and on his head he wore a rufous red top hat covered in jagged geometric shapes. The man on the right wore a top hat as well which was the colour of smoke and bore vertical stripes. They sported matching bowties which were blacker than pitch.
“Hello, Whisper Falls!” they greeted in unison.
"That's Chip," said the blackhat.
"He's Flim," said the red. "And together we are,"
"The Gonzo Brothers!" The crowd cheered boisterously.
"For those of you that don't know us," exposited Flim, "we are a pair of world class, world-travelling showmen! Isn't that right, brother?"
"It is!" stressed Chip. "And in our travels, we heard tell one poor unfortunate town in the heartland U.S. of A that was going without Halloween this year."
"So we packed up our merry band of freaks and misfits,"
"Our carnies and our crooks,"
"And we set out straight away to give you a whole month's worth of fun in just a single night!"
More applause, this time thoughtful and aware. Somewhere in the crowd, Olivia Myers rolled her eyes.
“We have exceptionally fun games,” started Chip.
“And rides which will thrill and chill you in equal measure!” continued Flim. “But let’s not forget the big top and our circus of horrors held therein. Are we forgetting anything, Chip?”
“We are! You didn’t tell them about the menagerie!”
“You mean the one full of monsters, madmen, and everything in between?”
“That’s the one!” Chip bellowed enthusiastically. “The one with the brand-new addition we just picked up.”
“But we haven’t told them about the new addition yet,” Flim pointed out.
“We can do that now, if that’s agreeable to you.”
“Yes, let’s!” And then the Gonzo Brothers took a casual, mirrored step off their thirty-foot perch.
The fall was too slow for grown men of their size, but that didn’t stop people from screaming after that first step. Becky’s brain worked like a colony of ants trying to figure out how they did it. What sold the effect was how they were accelerating in their descent, hitting the ground with a significant impact which kicked up a gust of wind. Ever the showman, the Gonzos made sure the air blew the tarp off the platform.
The crowd gasped. Underneath the shroud was an old-fashioned pillory. Becky recognized the contraption from history class, the textbook diagram having inspired more than one daydream about how to get back at a few cruel classmates. But there were no children in this pillory, or any human beings at all for that matter. Instead, it housed a scarecrow.
The figure was hunched over, but Becky reckoned from her vantage point that it would stand around eight feet tall were it to stand to its full height. Its clothing was a ragged plaid shirt with black overalls. It had a lit jack-o’-lantern for a head, on top of which was a hat that seemed crossbred from a fedora and a classic witch’s hat. Its face pointed out and downward so it looked at the crowd. The light inside flickered faintly.
“Isn’t he handsome, folks?” sneered Flim.
“This is our good friend Spirit,” explained Chip. “Spirit O’Halloween. We encountered him on our jaunt into your neck of the woods.”
“Poor bastard was so weak,”
“So emaciated and hopeless. See, Easter has the rodent, Valentine’s has the filthy cherub,”
“Christmas has that fat, jolly idiot.” The crowd laughed, and the Gonzo’s shared a quick glance of mutual satisfaction with one another.
“But Halloween here has Spirit,” explained Chip. “There have been other contenders, pumpkin kings and skeleton shades, and the like. But they are not THE Spirit O’Halloween.”
“Spirit O’Halloween, who got within three counties of this quaint little burg and positively plotzed!”
Becky had been drawn in by the hypnotic quality of the Gonzo Brothers’ words so thoroughly she had nearly forgotten the scarecrow was there. When she looked at it again, it came off as sad, sick even, and what she had failed to realize before was that there were chains around it. The idea that something was wrong seized her slowly, chilling her blood.
“Congratulation, Whisper Falls; you miserable humbugs literally almost killed Halloween!” Flim Gonzo never lost his upbeat cadence, so this remark actually earned a small applause before people began looking around for some direction on how they should be feeling.
“But no matter,” Chip assured. “Spirit will have a home with us in our menagerie.”
“And seeing as that’ll leave a vacancy on the 31st, we’ve signed our residence applications in triplicate!”
“After tonight, Halloween will be no more!”
“A relic of a bygone era!”
“And in its wake, you’ll see a brand-new holiday: Gonzo Day! Run, owned, and operated by us!”
“All rights reserved,” Flim noted sternly.
“And because we want you fine folks to enjoy Gonzo Day as much as we do,” Chip winked.
“Concessions are on us!” The two brothers held up their arms, and coins began to shoot out of their sleeves like a hemorrhaging wishing well. People swarmed for them the second the first token hit the ground.
“Hold on a minute!” cried a shrill voice from within the crowd. It made enough of an impact that people actually froze in place where they were. Those who had been directly around Becky Myers backed away so as to give her room to speak.
“Hello, little girl!” said Chip.
“And what’s your name?” asked Flim.
“Becky Myers,” she said with confidence. The two brothers each raised an eyebrow and looked at each other before turning back to Becky.
“Any relation to the mayor?” they said in unison.
“Yes!” shouted Olivia Myers, awkwardly shuffling through the crowd to stand at her daughter’s side, although Becky took an irritable step forward when she got there.
“You can’t just cancel Halloween and replace it with your own holiday; who do you think you are?”
“Lovely daughter you have there, mayor,” Flim teased.
“She must get her public speaking skills from you,” mocked Chip. “But to answer your question, little girl, we are the Gonzo Brothers! Purveyors of all things which go bump in the night. We’re entertainers, but we’re businessmen as well, and a monopoly sounds like a lovely goal to strive towards, doesn’t it?”
“But you can’t just own Halloween! That’s ridiculous.”
“I agree,” nodded Flim. “And how fortunate then that your town cancelled that wretched holiday for us. It was bad for business; we find it much more agreeable this way.”
“You need to let that scarecrow go right now.” In an attempt to punctuate her demand, Becky took a dramatic step forward. There was something about the showmen’s smiles which bore into her, though, and her wavering resolve pushed her a step back.
“We don’t have to do anything, Miss Myers.” Chip Gonzo closed the gap between them as he spoke. “We may be in Whisper Falls, but I assure you, we are playing on Gonzo territory now. However, I sense this isn’t something you’ll let go lightly.”
“You can bet your stupid top hat on it, mister.” Behind them, Flim let out a quick chortle, only to be silenced by a venomous look from his brother.
“Alright then,” Chip said through a gritted smile. He straightened his back and held out his hands to address the whole crowd. “We’ll play a game then, one anyone in Whisper Falls can play if they so choose!”
“Six keys,” declared Flim, waving his hand like a window washer. Green mist took the shape of the promised items. “Six keys are hidden somewhere in this fine fair of ours.”
“But,” continued Chip. “Only three are necessary to free our dear Spirit. Two for the pillory, one for the chains. Bring them to us before midnight and he’s yours. Fail, and expect to see Gonzo Day cards at your local pharmacy next September.”
“Those are the only consequences?” asked Becky.
“There are consequences in everything, Rebecca,” lamented Flim.
“Often greater and more numerous than you might initially anticipate,” warned Chip.
“Where do we find these stupid keys?”
“In the rides and in the games, of course! You want your keys, tokens must be consumed.”
“Now enjoy, Whisper Falls, and have a happy Gonzo Day!” The two brothers levitated for a split second before bursting into that same green mist, which blended with the natural translucent fog of the evening and disappeared.
Mayor Myers watched her daughter run to the quickly-dispersing crowd, petitioning anyone and everyone to help her and her friends find the keys. If there was any interest, they didn’t show it. Some mumbled a quick decline, while others didn’t even bother saying anything before walking away. She supposed this was to be expected; Becky wasn’t the only one desperate to have some fun tonight.
“Ok, guys,” she said to Avery and Joe. “It looks like we’re on our own. We only get six chances, so maybe we better split up.”
“Oh, joy,” moaned Avery. “Going off alone in what is clearly a haunted carnival.”
“I wouldn’t say ‘clearly’ haunted,” Joe laughed. “Just ‘potentially’ haunted. Our chances are way better with just ‘potentially’ haunted, right?”
“A scavenger hunt sounds fun,” said Joe’s father. “We’d be playing games and going on rides anyway, right? Might as well look for keys while we’re at it.”
“I can provide a police escort, I suppose.” Officer Addams hitched up his belt in a dramatic fashion, likening himself in his internal monologue to John Wayne. Avery lovingly thought he’d be lucky to get compared to Chief Wiggum.
“Great, more bodies!” Becky turned to her mom. “Not you, though.”
“Excuse me, young lady?”
“There are only six keys. If you get your hands on enough of them, Halloween is over.”
“Why are you so sure I don’t want to help?” Olivia’s eyes had gotten a little puffy, which made her look more like her daughter.
“You haven’t for a year now, mom. I don’t expect you to start now.” Her tone was dull, but her words still managed to cut the mayor, who began to cry fully. As Becky stormed off, Charlie turned to her.
“The kid has had a tough year,” he said sympathetically.
“Yeah, no thanks to me.”
“Hey, none of that now. I don’t know what’s going on here, exactly but a little nighttime revelry might be good for your girl. Just give her time.”
“Charlie,” said the mayor, wiping her tears away and replacing her frown with steely resolve. “Get those damn keys, okay?”
Watching his superior stomp away angrily, Officer Addams couldn’t help but mutter to himself “Like mother, like daughter, I guess.”
It didn’t take Becky long to reach her destination. She had made sure to call dibs on the Ferris wheel when devising a game plan, although she got no argument. Signs had informed her that the wheel was known as ‘The Eye of Anubis’, and it stood like a misty silver eye overlooking the whole carnival.
The carny running it was a gaunt woman whose arms and chest were completely covered in tattoos. She winked at Becky as she took her tokens and helped her into her seat, and the girl couldn’t help but blush as the ride jerked into motion. Going up was like floating into a cloud, with the haze that accentuated the wheel being thickest around the middle.
When she was fully immersed there was a strange noise which Becky couldn’t place at first. Shapes moved in the fog just outside her seat, and suddenly she could feel her heart beating in her chest. Joe and Avery said this place might be haunted, but clearly there was more to it than that. Who were the Gonzo Brothers that they could just chain the spirit of a holiday? What dangers were they capable of which she had gotten her friends into? What had she gotten herself into?
The voice came before a weight plopped down in her cabin. Accompanying it was a wind too cold even for this late in October, and Becky was able to see her breath. It was all she could focus on, her fear freezing her in place.
“This is pretty weird, isn’t it? Sorry, I should have been better prepared.” The bumbling way the voice spoke was enough to snap Becky out of it. There was something familiar about it, and she had to turn her head to confirm the gnawing suspicion.
“D-Dad?” she stuttered. “I…I don’t-”
“Believe it, sweetheart. I guess I-oh, please don’t start crying. If you cry, I’m going to cry. How about a hug for your old man?”
Becky leaned in to hug the ghost of her father. It wasn’t like in the movies, where the living person just passed through like they were grasping smoke. To Becky, the sensation was more like touching two magnets together, an intangible force preventing them from fully connecting. The act was cold and unsatisfying; nothing like what a hug from her father should have been.
“How are you here?!”
“I think it’s this wheel,” said Leonard Myers, scratching his incorporeal head. “Acts as a kind of gate between this world and the next. These Gonzo jokers play hardball, I guess.”
“But…why would the wheel show me you? You’re not exactly scary, y’know.”
“That’s the worst thing you can say to a ghost!” her father mocked.
“I’m serious, dad.”
“Well, it’s because you're still a kid, kiddo; not that many dead people, yet, and not that many regrets. Which is how it should be. But the wheel can't break you with things you don't have."
Suddenly the noises in the mist became clearer to Becky. Screams and weeping blended together in a mournful melody, people forced to face those they had buried or said goodbye to, what they didn’t want to see and what they couldn’t bear to. Hearing all that pain made Becky sadder than she thought was possible.
“Careful, now,” said her dad. “You can’t help people sail the sea of misery if you’ve got a hole in your boat.”
“You sound like Avery’s dad,” Becky laughed, wiping away a tear.
“How’s ol’ Charlie doing? He a captain yet?”
“He’s not even a sergeant.”
“For the love of-okay, gotta focus. Ferris wheel rides aren’t that long, so we haven’t got much time.”
“Right!” said Becky, hiding the well of emotions she felt behind a determined façade. “I get straight As in school. Well, a few As, but the rest are Bs! Okay, one C, but geography is hard!”
“I was never good at geography,” Leonard smiled. One of the advantages to being translucent, he found, was that it was harder to notice when you were crying.
“I want to be a talk show host when I grow up. Or maybe a writer. I think I’m scared of bees but not wasps, which is weird because wasps are the more harmful ones. My favorite food is-”
“Hey, pumpkin?” her dad interrupted. “Your ride’s almost over. I promise I want to hear all of this, and I might just hear it next time you’re alone in the dark or talking to yourself in the cemetery. But I’d make the next one count, sweetie.”
“I…I love you dad. I miss you so much. Mom and I are fighting, and I don’t know if it’s ever going to get better, and I’m really scared.”
“You and your mom will be okay,” he told her, embracing his daughter with the strange magnet hug one more time. “I love you both so much, even if you’ve got a couple of thick skulls.” It relieved Leonard Myers to no end that he could still make his daughter laugh when she was upset.
“I’ll let you in on a secret, kiddo: you don’t just magically figure stuff out when you grow up. Your mom is probably scared and confused too. Go easy on her, speak your mind, and forgive yourself and her for when one of you messes up. Or, y’know, I’ll haunt the heck out of ya!”
“Dad,” Becky groaned, praying the ride would last just a little longer. The cloud began to thin, and so did the image of her father.
“Oh crap, I forgot to look for a key!”
“I’d scold you for language,” said the disappearing apparition. “But I cuss like a damn sailor, too. They don’t let us carry coins in the afterlife, but maybe you can put this in the swear jar.” In his wispy hand was a brass key shaped like an ankh.
“How did you-?!”
“Grabbed it when we were at the very top. You’re too easy to distract; that’s why you liked my magic tricks so much.” He went to hand the item to her, and it fell into her palm when he disappeared. The last Becky saw of him was his mouth forming the words ‘I love you.’
Across the fairground, Joe Prince weighed the tokens in his hand carefully. An indecisive boy by nature, he had a hard time narrowing down his choices from the plethora of rides and games in the midway.
People often told Joe he over-complicated things. He spent so much time weighing every detail that he never saw the straightforward answers in front of him. His dad had told him about Ockham’s Razor, the idea of cutting away unnecessary details until you had the simplest solution. So what details weren’t unnecessary, then?
There were only six keys in the whole carnival, but dozens of attractions they could be hidden in. The Gonzo Brothers were gamesman; they wouldn’t make things easy, but it would still be solvable. He thought to what the pair had said before they disappeared, absentmindedly running his thumb over the tokens in his hand.
That’s when it hit him.
“Gonzos!” he shouted, failing to consider there might be people around to find him odd. This was a recurring problem for Joe. “I’ve solved your riddle!”
Four glowing red eyes came into view down a dark alley, a space between a snack stand and the shooting gallery where bright carnival lights did not reach. They moved in perfect unison, like they belonged to some long-extinct apex predator out for blood. Eventually the light illuminated their owners, brothers Chip and Flim Gonzo.
“A riddle?” questioned Chip. “What riddle are you privy to, Joe Prince?”
“You know my name?” Suddenly his confidence felt less than total.
“Of course we do!” Flim snickered. “We’re all friends here. Tell us what you found!”
“Your tokens!” he revealed, holding out his hand as if they were all the explanation he needed.
“Beautiful coins,” Chip observed.
“Legal tender anywhere within our domain,” added Flim.
“Beautiful coins…made of chocolate!” Joe peeled back the metal foil on one of the tokens, revealing slick milk chocolate underneath. “You said the tokens had to be consumed. Who talks like that unless they’re giving a hint? I eat these and you fork over a key.”
“What an interesting thought process,” said Flim. Chip said nothing, narrowing his eyes as the boy put coin after coin in his mouth.
“Ha, that’s all of them. Pay up!” Joe had a hand outstretched to receive his prize, but it quickly shot to his stomach, clutching it as an odd sensation gurgled within.
“Oh, Joseph,” scoffed Flim Gonzo. “Didn’t anyone ever teach you not to take candy from strangers?”
“But,” Joe gagged. “You…said we were friends?”
“Grow up,” laughed Chip. “We’re carnival folk; the eternal strangers. And tokens are only to be consumed by our fair. You’ve created an imbalance in the Universe, one not easily rectified.”
Joe began to stagger away. His mouth became unbearably dry, like his throat was lined with the grittiest sandpaper. Heat blazed off his forehead, his body no doubt trying to purge whatever evil communion he had inside him. Water became his only priority. There was a lemonade cart down the midway, but his knees felt weak. He collapsed next to a post with a dirty hose attached to it. With fading hope he turned the spout handle, and water actually began to trickle out. Like a suckling piglet he began to drink the water.
The Gonzo Brothers were the only ones to witness what happened next; the carnival didn’t want anyone else to see. The post which held the hose began to splinter and crack, spitting out huge boards and poles. They connected together around Joe, forming a carnival booth. This occurrence unnerved Joe, but his only worry was quenching his thirst. When it felt for a second like he was satisfied, he tried to turn off the hose but found he couldn’t. His arms wouldn’t move at all; they had been swallowed by the walls of the booth.
Joe tried in vain to scream, the jet of water preventing any sound from getting out. The hose was now on one side of the booth and his body was on the other. The water pressure became immense, and a pole started to rip out of Joe’s back. The surface of every board in the booth began to ripple and change, taking on enticing colours. Soon Joe’s eyes glazed over, and his roaring head was joined by seven others with their own water guns to douse them. Joe felt everything, constantly drowning but unable to die.
“Master of Tides,” Flim read off the sign atop the now brightly-lit booth. “A bit abstract, isn’t it?”
“I think you’re right,” exhaled Chip. He waved his hand, and the words ‘Water Gun Race’ appeared beneath the original title. People were already flocking to play the game, and silently Joe begged that they wouldn’t.
“I really wish you wouldn’t,” said Charlie Addams some distance away. He had gotten separated from Avery while looking for an information booth. None appeared, and there were no security guards of any kind. Avery had run off, chasing what they claimed had been a lead but never elaborated on.
“Dad?” called a familiar voice. Charlie turned towards a building marked simply as ‘House of Mirrors’. “Dad?!” the voice called again from within.
“Oh, cripes,” sighed the cop. There was no one around the attraction, and Charlie wondered if it was even in operation. He poked his head inside and could hear sobbing, which to him sounded like his Avery was in trouble. “Damn carnival folk,” he muttered under his breath before stepping inside.
The House of Mirrors was dark, so he switched on his flashlight. Suddenly dozens of shadow men appeared, his own silhouette reflected endlessly. Something about the way the mirrors caught the light didn’t seem correct, but he had bigger concerns.
“Avery! You in here?”
“Might be,” came a new voice, and Charlie turned so quick to face it he wound up slamming his head on a wall of glass.
“Careful,” the voice said pertly. “It’s notoriously easy to get turned around in here. Have you lost someone, officer?”
“Yeah, my kid.” He rubbed his forehead and looked around for another actual human being. “Who are you?”
“Can you describe your child, Officer Addams?”
“Uhh, light brown hair? Kinda short? Jean vest, purple shirt. Denim pants. Wait, how did you-?”
“Are they a boy or a girl?”
“Surely it can’t be that difficult of a question.” Something about the way they spoke was familiar but aggressive, almost predatorial.
“Speak up, officer! Sound doesn’t travel that well in here.”
“They don’t really go by either!” Charlie croaked.
“Oh,” said the voice, sounding a little disappointed. “That’s odd.”
“Yeah, it’s-wait, no! It’s…it isn’t weird.”
“You agreed with me for a second, Officer Addams. Not entirely sure of your answer?”
“No, you’re not sure?”
“No, I AM sure! Who the hell are you anyway?” He waved his flashlight around trying to catch a glimpse. He couldn’t even see his own face, save for the reflection immediately in front of him. He looked tired, older than he remembered. Just as he turned the flashlight away, he noticed something wrong. He aimed it back at his reflection and saw that it was smiling…when he wasn’t.
“Boo!” shouted the reflection, banging its fist on the inside of the glass. Charlie yelped and nearly dropped his flashlight. The reflection laughed at him; even in the dark he could see it keeling over.
“What kind of trick-?”
“No trick, officer!” it explained. “No more than the one you play on yourself every day.”
“Have you considered you can’t find ‘Avery’ because you don’t know who that is?” Charlie took a step back at the accusation.
“They’re my kid!”
“Are they? That’s not what you named them when they were born.”
“Yeah, they…didn’t like that one. What business is it of yours?”
“I’m you, pal,” the reflection chuckled. “Like it or not, I’m the genuine Charles.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Charlie stammered. He looked around at his other reflections; none of them would meet his eye.
“Doesn’t it?” the insidious reflection spat. “The you that sometimes gets things wrong? The you that still doesn’t fully understand his child, even when they’ve explained it a dozen times?”
“The you that Avery is eventually going to get sick of and walk away from?”
"You can’t shut me up, Charles.”
“I can sure as hell try.” Charlie drew his gun and aimed it at his reflection.
“You’re not going to shoot me, officer.”
“You’re not going to shoot me because you’re a coward, Charles. Just an old dinosaur who can’t make sergeant, can’t fix his diet to save his life, and can’t stop his kid from hating him!”
Charlie fired the gun. The sound was deafening as it echoed around the room. The mirror cracked but didn’t shatter. The reflection was wounded on the right shoulder, mercury spilling out in place of blood. A blinding pain shot through Charlie’s left shoulder, but as far as he could tell there was no actual injury. He let loose five more shots, breaking apart the mirror and knocking the creature inside on its back.
He stepped over its body, a mangled and writhing thing which barely resembled him anymore. The more playful part of his nature compelled him to say a witty one-liner like a movie star would, but his whole body was in agony, and this thing didn’t deserve it anyway. After firing one more shot, he saw something glint in the creature’s hand, a chrome key which he took happily.
“Dad!” the real Avery shouted at him as he made his way out of the House of Mirrors. He walked as if he had just gotten into a fight with the Incredible Hulk, and looked as if he had bet money on himself. “Dad, say something.”
“You know I love you, right?” Charlie said after collapsing to his knees and putting his arms around Avery’s shoulders.
“Uhh, yeah? Dad, what are you doing?”
“Just listen,” he blubbered. “I know I get stuff wrong a lot, and I’m confused by just about everything. But I’m so proud of the person you are, and the person you’re becoming. You don’t ever need to do anything or be anything to have my approval, okay? Not a damn thing.”
Avery was silent for a moment before returning their father’s hug. “I know you get stuff wrong, dad. You’re old, these things happen.” Charlie let out a laugh, which made Avery smile. “I’m still figuring stuff out too, and I wouldn’t be able to do that if I didn’t have your support. You care enough to learn from your mistakes, and I appreciate that.”
“So…we’re okay?” he asked, pulling away and getting to his feet.
“Always. Now let’s go find Becky.”
A small crowd had gathered around the platform which held Spirit O’Halloween. Despite their earlier apathy, Whisper Falls was invested in the fate of the holiday, and they hoped the mayor’s daughter could pull through.
“Avery!” she called. “Did you get them?”
“Eyup,” said Avery, proudly displaying a white key covered in polka-dots. “I had to fight some really weird clowns to get it, but they weren’t that tough.”
“You got one too, Mr. Addams?”
“Yeah, I…had to do a little self-reflection, but I got it.” He handed her the chrome key and looked around for her mother.
“Then that’s three!” Becky cheered.
“Good evening, Whisper Falls!” bellowed Flim Gonzo from atop the platform. “Have we delivered on all we promised?” Cacophonous applause erupted from the crowd.
“You’re welcome!” shouted Chip. “It’s less than ten minutes until midnight, so we’d like to invite Becky Myers and all her little friends to come up here and tell us how they did tonight!”
The crowd clapped as the three ascended the rickety staircase. Becky looked to Spirit, who was as motionless as ever. The candle inside his pumpkin head seemed too dim, nearly extinguished.
“Were you successful, Miss Myers?” Flim asked. The trio each held up their prizes, and the brothers seemed giddy for someone who had just been foiled.
“Well done!” Chip commended them. “All that’s left then is to free your holiday friend.” Becky looked out into the crowd anxiously. “Is there something wrong, Rebecca?”
“It’s just…I thought my mom would be here to see this. And where are Joe and his dad?”
“Oh, we have them.”
“We told you there were consequences,” snickered Flim. “You play, you pay. Mr. Prince the elder tried to grab a prize from our claw machine, but the machine wound up grabbing him instead. Mr. Prince the younger, meanwhile, thought he could outsmart us, but we drowned those aspirations swiftly and efficiently.”
“And your mother,” continued Chip. “We had a lovely chat with her not half an hour ago, and afterwards sent her off towards a quaint little fishing game with a promise there was a key there. There was more in those depths than she bargained for, though, and I’m afraid your mother was pulled under.”
“No!” Becky shouted.
“Hold it, freakshow,” declared Charlie Addams, stepping forward and aiming his gun directly at the brothers. “I’ve just about had it with this spooky scary shit.”
“Officer,” said Chip Gonzo.
“Are you familiar with the phrase ‘this will hurt me more than it will hurt you’?” asked Flim.
“Well, I assure you, firing your weapon right now would hurt you more than it will hurt us.”
“Bring them back!” interjected Becky. “You bring all three of them back now!”
“We could,” admitted Chip.
“But we won’t,” laughed Flim. “Not for free.”
“What do you want for them, then?”
The brothers shared a knowing look.
“Oh, not much,” Chip said slyly.
“Just one of your keys!” squeaked Flim. “Specifically your key, Rebecca. Give us that and we return your lost property, simple as that.”
“But…” Becky considered, eyes on the key in her hand. “We only have three?”
“It’s almost as if that’s the point,” Chip spat. “Not every choice is apple juice or OJ, child. Sometimes it’s life or death, business or pleasure. Better make your choice quickly; it’s nearly midnight.”
Becky looked from the Gonzos to Avery and Mr. Addams, both of whom looked mortified for her. The crowd was even less helpful, blankly waiting for things to play out. She almost broke down until she caught a glimpse of the Ferris wheel off in the distance.
“Have the key,” she said, holding it out to the Gonzos. Flim snatched it up quickly, and the pair watched the brass melt in his clutch.
Three new bodies appeared on the platform, and the crowd gasped. Joe’s father was on his back holding an old-fashioned cymbal monkey toy. He seemed to notice it for the first time and threw it away in horror. Assured that it couldn’t hurt him, he ran to his son who was coughing up water and being tended to by Avery.
“Mom!” cried Becky. The mayor looked as if she had been dunked in a bog, her whole body dripping with foul green water, moss and mud covering her from head to toe. Becky hugged her in spite of it. “I’m so glad you’re okay! I don’t care about Halloween, alright? It’s over anyway, we lost.”
“I don’t know about that,” whispered the mayor, slipping something into Becky’s hand.
“What do you have there?” demanded Chip.
Becky understood immediately. She nodded at Avery, who grabbed the key from their father and joined her in running towards the pillory. The polka-dot and mirror keys fit the locks around the scarecrow’s arms, and the key from Becky’s mother, a rusty green one, unlocked the black chains.
“No!” barked Flim. “You lost, so that means no more Halloween!” He loped towards the pillory but was immediately thrown across the platform into his brother.
Becky couldn’t explain what had happened. She didn’t see the scarecrow move, but nevertheless it stood as if it had gotten out of its restraints. It was completely still, save for the raging candle-flame in its head. Chip and Flim Gonzo, who had toppled over one another, looked at the immobile Spirit and screamed in terror.
A fierce wind picked up, whipping circus garbage all about. It was the kind of wind which preceded a terrible rainstorm, but the night sky was clear. Becky was nearly blown off the platform, but Avery caught her by the arm. Her mother hugged her to keep her steady.
“What now?” Olivia asked her daughter. A sound like a whip crack alerted them to the big top, which was becoming unlatched one rope at a time.
“I think now we run!” Becky shouted over the accelerating air currents.
“Ok, people; show’s over!” Charlie shouted to the crowd, who were already beginning to panic and scatter. “Back to your cars, step lively! You don’t have to go home, but I wouldn’t recommend staying here!”
A snack stand flew into the sky, and there was a powerful creak from the Eye of Anubis which suggested it wasn’t far behind. Owen took his son into his arms, Charlie and Avery helping him off the platform, which was rocking back and forth. Becky took one last look at the eight-foot-tall scarecrow, seeing if it would take any other action against its captors, but the brothers had disappeared; one last showman’s trick. The wind blew on just the same, finally sending the big top high into the sky.
“Time to go, kiddo,” Olivia said, grabbing Becky by the hand.
The young Myers girl would swear to Avery and Joe later that Spirit had winked at her before being blown away in its own wind, but when they asked her for details, she found she couldn’t conjure them. The moment was hers alone. The platform crumbled and was sucked up into the sky just as both mayor and daughter made it off the last step. The six were some of the last to make it out, encouraging stragglers to get a move on.
Outside the fairgrounds the wind was tamer, and the citizens of Whisper Falls were able to safely make their egress by foot or by car. Avery went with Becky and her mom, Joe and Owen getting into the back of Charlie’s squad car. In the mayor’s sedan, Becky and Avery watched the rest of the carnival get pulled skyward. The cyclone flew off, the circus lights still lit briefly enough to take the shape of a happy jack-o’-lantern before dispersing among the stars.
Becky smiled to herself as a feeling came over her, one she couldn’t quite name. It was a kind of hope, but not hope in the general sense. It was the kind of hope a child felt in its mother’s arms, the kind a cynic experienced after accepting a miracle. There were no decorations up, but the trees were still orange and the sky was still black. No costumes had been bought, no candy had been sold, but despite it all, Becky Myers smiled because today was Halloween.
Steve Bernardi is an author, graphic designer, and York University graduate who resides in Hamilton, Ontario. His works include the Whisper Falls series, which consists of a new original Halloween short story every October, and his debut novel, How to Succeed in Skeleton Business, which will be coming out in early 2024.