I want to say that it all started when the carnival came to town. That things got odd when the tents popped up and the Ferris wheel lit up and started spinning and the smell of corndogs and elephant ears filled the air everywhere you walked. Truth is, it all started well before that.
And I can pinpoint the exact moment when it really all started happening.
I was at the library, waiting for my father to finish work. His shift always ended at 5 o’clock and as soon as the next librarian would come, my father and I would walk back home together. During those walks, he would tell me about another new book that came into the library that day, or an old book he found stored away that nobody had touched in over a hundred years. But that day, the other librarian didn’t show up. We waited well past 6 o’clock, my father even encouraged me to head home ahead of him so that supper wouldn’t get cold. But I wanted to stay.
No one was coming through the library and my father decided he would close up early and leave a sign on the door for anyone coming by for a late night pickup or drop off. Just as he pulled out a piece of white paper and a thick black marker, the door opened, and a man I had never seen before walked in. He was tall, taller than any man I had ever seen before. He had white hair that hung down to his shoulders. His lips were constantly curled and he grit his crooked, yellow teeth. His black suit had dust and dirt cakes on the sleeves and pant legs. He looked around the library for a moment, then he spotted me.
“Booooyyyyyy,” he called out. His gritty voice as ugly as his teeth. “Where is the librarian, boy?”
I sat silent, just staring in fear, not even blinking. A lump filled my throat as I tried to speak, choking any words back. From behind, I could the clicking of my father’s shoes. He patted my shoulder and I finally blinked.
“I’m the librarian,” my father said. “Can I help you, sir?”
The stranger stared my father up and down for a moment. My father was considerably smaller than the stranger. His brown jacket and khaki pants were cleaner than the man’s suit, but despite the man’s long grey hair he was still clearly younger than my father. The grey hairs in my father’s beard and hair always gave away his years to anyone who met him.
“Mr. Mastiff is waiting for you, sir,” the stranger said. “Did you not receive his invitation?”
My father pulled off his glasses and rubbed the lens with the corner of his shirt. “I did receive the invitation,” my father said. “I simply wished to not entertain his advances.”
The stranger clenched his fists and his brow furled, making long creases across the top of his head. “Sir, I highly encourage you to answer Mr. Mastiff’s call,” he stranger continued. “It would be unwise to ignore this warning, I implore you.”
“I hear you warning, and I will pay no heed,” my father said. “Now, if you will excuse me, the library is closed.”
The stranger cracked a sinister smile. “Did the evening library not make his engagement? What a shame. I do hope he makes his next shift.” Then the stranger laughed and walked back out the door.
I looked up at my father, and he smiled back down at me. “Pay no attention to him, son,” he said. “There’s nothing he can do. Not while you’re here, and not while I’m around.”
The evening librarian’s name was Jason Carter. And he wasn’t seen again for weeks. Not until the carnival came.
The name Mr. Mastiff never came up again at the library or at home or anywhere around my father. Yet I wasn’t able to get the name out of my mind, or the image of the tall stranger with the crooked teeth who called me, “boy.” No one had ever called me “boy” before. My father was proud of my name. He always said that Bradley was a strong and confident name. He never even wanted me to shorten it to Brad. And that wish stayed with me. I was Bradley. So to be called “boy” struck an odd chord with me. Like my name didn’t matter. Like he was reaching into my soul and trying to pull me out of my own body by taking away my name.
The stranger’s voice echoed through my mind, as if I were standing in an empty library and the sound of that gritty harsh voice travelling out from between those crooked, yellow teeth was being shot at me like an arrow shot from a crossbow. I would never forget that voice, or the way he called me, “boy.”
The town was abuzz when it was announced that the carnival would be here. People in the streets talked about the plans they made that they would have to cancel, the carnival announced itself in such short notice. Why, the people only had one day to prepare themselves for the festivities. After all, we were all living in such a small town and nothing fun ever came through, especially this close to winter. The shops in the old red brick buildings that made up our small downtown were filled with talk and gossip about where the carnival may have some from, what everyone can hope to see there, and what exciting things might happen with such a festival coming to town.
Even the library, normally a haven for the quiet and the silent, was filled with talk and laughter and excitement. Normally, noise would bother me while I tried to read the pulp adventures and science fiction tales my father always kept aside for me when I visited and waited for him. But this noise was welcome. I was excited about the carnival too. My father was less than enthusiastic.
“I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with you going to that, Bradley,” my father said. “A carnival hasn’t been through here in years, longer than I certainly can remember. I’m just not sure what to expect from it.”
I plead with my father to let me go. There were only so many things I could do in my imagination spawned by stories and books, I wanted to experience something for myself. I promised to be safe and that I wouldn’t go on any ride that would turn me upside down and I wouldn’t even waste any money on carnival games.
“Alright, but wait until I can go with you,” my father said. “I want to make sure I can keep an eye on you.”
We agreed that on the Sunday, the last day of the carnival, we would go together. The library was always closed on Sunday, so my father would for sure have the day off work. But the carnival started on Friday, and by Saturday morning, you couldn’t set your foot down for two steps before hearing someone talking about something they saw at the carnival.
“They had a gorilla there, it must have been 800 pounds!” one woman exclaimed.
“I could swear that the horses on the merry-go-round actually came alive,” one young man said.
“I had my fortune read. The fortune teller told me I was going to marry a millionaire,” a young girl swooned.
As I walked to the library, I ran into Maxwell Stern, a boy who went to my school but was a grade older than I was. Maxwell wore thick glasses and had his backpack on everywhere he went. He would sometimes show me comics and other books that he was reading and would always tell me he would lend them to me when he was done. But he never leant me a single book.
“Have you been to the carnival yet, Bradley?” Maxwell asked, adjusting his glasses.
“Not yet,” I answered. “My father and I are going tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Maxwell whined. “Why so late? All the good stuff will be gone by then. You should go today. We should go right now.”
“I can’t,” I replied. “I don’t have any money to get in. And my father won’t give me money to go today.”
“No money? No problem,” Maxwell answered. “You leave that to me.”
At that moment, I thought about my father. I thought about how disappointed he would be if I had already been to the carnival without him. He didn’t like the idea at that moment, but maybe if we had gone together he would have seen how much fun it is and enjoyed. If I went ahead of him, it would ruin everything. But I thought if my father never found out and I acted like I was seeing everything for the first time, it would still be as fun.
So I told Maxwell I would go with him. And I followed him out of the downtown, far from the red brick buildings, and toward an empty field where we would ride our bikes sometimes. And in that field stood the massive carnival.
We stood at the top of a hill that dipped down into the field and the carnival looked like it could be a city all on its own. The red and white striped tents stood interspersed around carnival rides and hot dog stands and you could see all the people walking around and hear the laughter like it was thunder in the distance.
Maxwell gave me a light shove and pointed down the hill to one of the tents on the other side from where the entrance was. He started walking down the hill and I stood at the top, frozen and confused as to where Maxwell was headed.
“The entrance is on the other side!” I called out.
Maxwell looked back and smiled. “Trust me,” he said. “This is how I got in yesterday. No one’s guarding the back of the tents. It’s easy. Now come on!”
Against the anxiety I felt weighing against my chest, I forced my feet to step forward and follow after Maxwell. We reached the back of the tents and, just like Maxwell said, there was no one in sight. He lifted an edge of the canvas sheet off the ground and motioned for me to crawl through. I took one last look around my surroundings and at the reassurance of only damp grass and fallen leaves around me, I ducked down and crawled through.
The tent Maxwell and I snuck into was one of the costume tents. All around us were chrome bars with empty hangers and rainbow striped one-piece suits strewn across the floor and along the few chairs. At the far end of the tent was a desk with a large mirror, bright lights, and bright coloured makeup. Red and pink and purple and blue fingerprints we streaked across the top of the desk and stained along the side of the chair.
“It’s a clown tent,” Maxwell said. “I don’t remember there being any clowns here yesterday. This is awesome.”
Maxwell slowly walked up to the desk, staring at his reflection more intensely with each step he took. I followed behind him, looking back the other direction to make sure any clown that needed a touch up didn’t catch us in the tent. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror and saw over my shoulder an old man’s face and he was gritting his ugly, yellow crooked teeth.
The feeling that my heart almost shot up through my throat left tingles through my fingertips as I jumped where I stood and looked behind to where I saw the face. And there was nothing but the dark, empty tent. I could hear Maxwell start to chuckle.
“A little jumpy?” Maxwell now in a hysterical laughter. “That was hilarious. I’ve never seen anyone freak out like that before.”
“I saw…” I muttered. “I… I saw…” I hesitated.
“What did you see,” Maxwell glared.
“N… Nothing,” I mumbled. “Just a weird shadow I guess.”
Maxwell looked back to the desk. “Those big lights probably make some weird shapes,” he said. “Probably scares the clowns too.”
We turned and headed for the tent’s exit. Maxwell stopped before pulling back the curtain and looked around before motioning to me to follow him. We stepped out into the carnival grounds, expecting a bright autumn sun glaring in our eyes and the sounds of exciting, wandering people filling our ears. Instead, we were met with a blackened sky with tinges of red lining the thick clouds. The grounds were empty, leaving behind the drawl grey concrete, cracked and covered in dry and crumbling brown leaves. The only sound around us was a wailing wind, blowing open the curtains into the other tents and shooting scraps of paper across the grim concrete.
“Where are we?” Maxwell asked. “I don’t remember this part of the carnival.”
A scrap of paper tumbled to my feet and collided against the end of my leg. I reached down and picked it up. It was an old flyer for the carnival, and in the centre of the page was a picture of a man with long, dark hair, a thick beard, and he was wearing a top hat. The name across the top of the page read, “Mr. Mastiff’s Carnival of Mystery and Wonder.”
“Mr. Mastiff,” I red out loud.
“Who?” Maxwell asked.
“I guess it’s the guy who owns this carnival,” I answered. The name Mastiff rang in my ears. I remembered the tall man in the library, and I remembered the way my father talked to him about Mr. Mastiff.
“Weird,” Maxwell said, looking at the flyer over my shoulder. “I wonder where everyone is.”
We walked around the carnival space, looking into tents and peeking behind stands, trying to find anyone who would be still around. The games hanging above the stands had all turned brown and the stitching holding together the stuffed animals’ limbs were all pulled out and the animals’ arms, legs, and heads were all barely hanging on as they hung from hooks around the stands. The cotton stuffing inside looked like rotten fruit.
“Something is really wrong,” I said to Maxwell. “We should probably get out of here.”
Maxwell nodded his head without uttering a word. The carnival’s entrance was close by and we quickly walked towards it, not taking the time to look around as we marched forward. When we reached the carnival’s entrance, we looked out at what looked like an endless nothing. I was just black. No ground, no stars, nothing to give a clue as to what we were looking into. Just black.
“Boooooooyyyyyyy!” a voice grinded out from behind. I quickly turned and my eyes instantly met the eyes of the tall man from the library who spoke with my father about Mr. Mastiff. His eyes were icy cold, colder than blue. More like a grey you would see in the clouds during an autumn rainfall. The tall man pointed to me, his eyes squinted and his brow furled as he gritted his yellow crooked teeth at me.
“RUN!” I cried out. My feet instantly pushed me to the side, away from the tall man who was behind us, away from the empty black in front of us. I had my eyes fixed on a tent I was going to try and climb through. Climbing through a tent got us here, maybe it would get us out.
I looked back for a moment and saw Maxwell still standing in place, facing the tall man, with his mouth hanging open in shock and his eyes so wise they were almost bulging out of his head.
“Maxwell!” I cried out even louder and harder. “Maxwell, hurry! Follow me!”
Like a hypnotic spell being broken, Maxwell locked eyes with me, turned back to the tall man who was marching closer and closer, and Maxwell turned and ran in my direction, running harder and faster than I ever saw any other kid run from before.
I waited for him to catch up to me before tapping his shoulder. “In here,” I pointed to the red tent. We flipped open the flaps that led us inside, where we prayed for safety. After a single step inside, I tripped on a stool left in the middle of the floor and fell, twisting my ankle on the way down. The sharp pain shot through my leg as I held my throbbing foot, already starting to feel it swell.
Maxwell reached down and helped me back up to my feet. I hopped on one foot to try and keep my balance and quickly looked around the inside of the tent. It was more costumes, another desk with a large mirror and bright lights, and more streaks of face paint left on every surface.
“Is this the same tent we came in through?” Maxwell asked.
“No,” I answered. “It looks a little different. But maybe we can still get out through here.”
Maxwell rushed to the edge of the tent and lifted the canvas cover lying against the ground. He dropped the cover and looked back to me with a looked on his face that spelt out defeat.
“Same as the entrance,” he said. “Just… black.”
The tent’s entrance was calm and quiet. The tall man had not made his way through yet. And yet was the word that was scaring me at this moment. When he did make it in, we were stuck. There was nowhere we could run from here. But as I listened close between my heavy, terrified breaths, I couldn’t hear any footsteps. Hesitantly, I crept slowly toward the tent’s entrance, hobbling along with all my weight on my good foot, and I peeked through the tent’s entrance. And no one was there. Just the same empty grounds and wind blowing papers.
“I don’t see him,” I said, closing the entrance and looking back to Maxwell. “I don’t know where he went.”
“Should we run for it?” Maxwell asked.
“I don’t know if I can run,” I explained. “I can barely stand.”
Maxwell looked around the room for a moment, and then stopped with his eyes fixed on one spot in the room.
“Would crutches help?” he asked, pointing to a corner of the room where a pair of crutches laid on the ground.
I hobbled over to where Maxwell was pointing and picked up the crutches. They were the perfect height to fit under my arm and help me keep balance. They helped a lot and as I tested out moving myself quickly through the tent, I realized this is exactly what I needed to help and that now maybe making a run for the tent we came in through could be possible.
Neither of us could remember exactly where the tent we came through was. We remembered it was to the back of the carnival ground, opposite to where the entrance was.
“I think the tent was polka-dotted,” Maxwell pointed out. “I remember that’s why I chose that one to go through. It was the only polka-dotted one.”
I poked my head out of the tent and looked back to the direction we came through. I couldn’t see the polka-dotted tent. The wind that bustled through the carnival grounds was getting colder and the red sky was getting darker. There were no light posts around the carnival grounds. I knew we had to get out of here before it got dark outside.
“You’re sure that the tent was polka-dotted?” I looked back to Maxwell. “I don’t see it from here. Are you totally sure?”
“Totally,” Maxwell said, without blinking and a face straight and serious enough to convince me of anything. “I remember where it was, exactly.”
Maxwell took the lead and walked out of the tent first, holding open the flap so I could find my way through easy. We both looked around for any sign of the tall man. With no sign of him, or anyone else, and the sky even darker than it was when I first noticed it getting darker, we quickly moved to the opposite side of the carnival grounds, looking for the polka-dotted tent.
We moved quickly. Far quicker than we did when we first started exploring where we were. We made it to the opposite side of the carnival and we could see the polka-dotted tent. As we drew in closer, we could see the flap of the tent’s entrance being held open by a large, pale hand with long yellow nails. A figure emerged from the tent, his face pure white with hints of red on his lips and on his nose. His eyes were trimmed thick with blues and purples and his hair was thick and green, but not a bright green. The kind of green you see when you over-cook spinach. The makeup around his eyes was running, leaving dark streaks around his patchy cheeks.
And he wasn’t the only clown to emerge from that tent.
One by one, more clowns emerged, all painted with streaks and flaws all over, like they had been wearing that makeup for years and was drenched in sweat all over. Their one piece suits must have been bright yellow once, but now were a faint greyish yellow that reminded me of the tall man’s teeth.
In all, six clowns emerged from the tent and started walking toward us. Maxwell quickly grabbed my sleeve and led me away from the approaching clowns and into the first building he saw.
We rushed through the doors and closed them tight behind us. I felt around for a lock as we pushed against the old wood, trying our best to keep it shut as the clowns drew in nearer. “There’s no lock,” I said. “What do we do?”
Maxwell pointed to the long hallway that led away from the door. “We head through there and find a back way out,” he said.
The long dark hallway felt like it never ended. We followed along the blank walls and floor caked with dust and dirt until we found where the room opened up. And all around the room were hundreds upon hundreds of mirrors, all crisscrossing and cutting through the room like an enormous glass maze.
Everything was dark and the few glimmers of light that shone trough reflected off the mirrors and glared into my eyes as I walked past. We felt around for the pathway through, but for every turn further into the maze we found, we hit three glass walls. As we twisted and turned, I felt more and more like we were just getting lost and circling around the mirrors.
“How do we know we haven’t been through this hall yet?” I asked Maxwell.
He looked around for a moment, then licked his thumb and smudged it along the mirror in front of him. “We’ll make each hall we’ve been in with a smudge, just like this one,” Maxwell said.
With each hall we passed through, Maxwell left another smudge. It felt like we were making god progress until we hit a mirror with a smudge. “We’ve been here before,” I said. “How did we wind up so turned around?”
Maxwell looked closely at the smudge. His eyes squinted small as he closed in. He then stuck out his thumb, just below the smudge. “I haven’t been smudging them that high,” Maxwell said as he looked closer in. “It looks like there’s white paint in this smudge.”
From behind, a mirror smashed and glass shards shot out, clinking against the ground. From behind the shattered mirror, one of the clowns crawled out and looked toward us. I stood completely frozen. Maxwell grabbed my arm and pulled me down the hall away from the clown. We rushed through, using our own reflections as our barriers. We followed along the path, spotting clowns popping up every few mirrors, assured by the feeling of the glass on our hands that the clowns weren’t in front of us, but terrified not knowing which directions the clowns are stalking us from.
Then, we hit a dead end. We came to a rounded pocket in the maze, completely surrounded by mirrors. Reflected on each surface around us was the face of a different clown, breathing heavily and staring directly into us, as if peering through the glass and preparing to reach through and take us. The sound of clicking footprints followed us behind where we came in from. We were trapped where we stood.
We looked back to find out whose footsteps were walking behind us. As they grew louder, I quickly realized there were two sets of footsteps, and out of the darkness came two men, one was the tall man from the library, he was walking behind the other man who wore a black top hat and had long hair and a thick beard. His hair and his beard were patched with grey all over giving away an much older age than even the tall man. But his face was smooth and without a single wrinkle, unlike the tall man and even my own father.
“Hello boys,” the man smiled. “How do you like my carnival?”
It was that moment I finally recognized the man. He was the man from the flyers on the ground being blown around by the wind. The man who sent the tall man to find my father.
“Mr. Mastiff,” I muttered.
“Oh, I see you’ve heard of me,” Mastiff replied. “I hope my little funhouse here was all that you expected and more.”
“Wh…. Where are we?” I stuttered.
Mastiff smiled wide. His cheekbones pushed up and made dark circles around his eyes. His eyebrows crooked up to a jagged, sharp angle that made his smile look less amused and more sinister. “The real carnival.”
Maxwell and I stared at each other confused. What did Mastiff mean by this? Mastiff read our obvious confusion and continued. “You see, boys, the carnival that went to your town, that was in your world, it a gateway, to my world. This world. This carnival has existed hundreds upon hundreds of years. You see, I need that gateway to your world to bring more people into mine. It keeps me alive. But, the people in my world are deteriorating faster and faster every time I bring someone new in. My clowns here were once people in your world. Brought over for their energy to keep this world, and me, alive. I need the energy that only people form your world possess. And what better way to find that perfect energy than with the fun and excitement of a carnival?”
“Why us?” Maxwell blurted out.
“You, my boy,” Mastiff pointed to Maxwell. “You were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But you,” Mastiff pointed to me. “You’re something special. Your energy and imagination is like nothing else I have ever seen. And you are also the child of the only person to have ever escaped my world. He never deteriorated like the other people I brought into this world. He only grew stronger as time wore on. Your father had the same energy and imagination as you do, but I won’t make the same mistakes with you that I made with him. You won’t escape like he did.”
“You’re right, he won’t” a voice from behind the tall man called out. “It took me years to escape you, Mastiff. Bradley won’t face that same fate. I’ve been out of your world for years but I am no weaker now than I was then. Your clowns are weaker than they have ever been, and your tall man no longer terrifies me. As long as I am here, you won’t take Bradley, or anyone else.”
Mastiff smiled and pointed at my father. “You’re mortal,” he said. “Even in my world, despite how strong you grew, you would have died one day. You can’t protect your boy forever.”
“Once I go, Bradley will be even stronger than I am now,” my father answered. “And after him, there will be others. Your power is dwindling, Mastiff. You, your tall man, and the clowns no longer have the power you once had. Our world is no longer your feeding ground.”
Mastiff’s face gave off a look of anger like I had never seen before. His snear created creases along his face that gave away how long he has actually existed. Hundreds of years of ware and tear on his body, now starving for the energy he needs to feed, surfaced on his face, illustrating his hunger and his anger.
“You know you are powerless,” my father continued. “There is nothing you can do. Send away your clowns and you and your tall man stand back while Bradley and Maxwell walk through. I will take them back to our world. And this will be the last stop your carnival ever makes.”
As I turned to look at the mirrors, the images of the clowns slowly shrunk and disappeared, as if the clowns had turned and walked away from where they were watching us. I looked back to Mastiff and the tall man who both stood aside and cleared the walkway for Maxwell and I to walk through. Mastiff laid out his hand, signalling that the path was open for us to take and that we were invited to leave.
Maxwell and I both took hesitant steps across, walking in front of Mastiff and the tall man. It was the closest either of us had been to the tall man and his immense size made me feel so incredibly small. My eyes locked to the tall man’s as we walked by and just as I looked away to watch my father, I felt a hand wrap around the back of my neck, and the look on my father’s face turned from victory instantly to fear.
The tall man lifted me off the ground and held me by his one hand.
“Let Bradley go!” my father screamed.
“He’s ours!!” screeched Mastiff. “Come any closer and we will end the boy! You will not threaten me or my world!”
Then Maxwell lunged forward, calling, “NO!” and a bright light shot from him, hitting the tall man. Then I fell to the floor, and looked up to see the tall man was nowhere to be found. I scrambled to my feet and looked all around me and found the tall man, trapped in a mirror. He was banging the glass, gritting his teeth. It looked as though he was screaming, but there was no sound.
I looked to Maxwell, who was standing with a look of astonishment on his face, like he didn’t know his own powers. My father stood, smiling.
“Bradley isn’t the only one with the power the transfer and change between worlds,” my father said. “I’m shocked, Mastiff, that you didn’t see it. You always pull people in your world. But both Bradley and Maxwell just walked in. Neither were pulled. There’s more than one way to gain the power to travel between worlds.”
Mastiff’s face read like a book of pure horror. He couldn’t believe what he had witnessed. “That’s impossible,” spit flew from his mouth. “How? HOW?!”
“Stay out of our world, Mastiff,” my father said as he lifted his hand. And in the blink of an eye, Mastiff was trapped in another mirror next to the tall man. My father looked down to me, and then over to Maxwell. “Let’s head home,” he said.
My father turned and placed his hand against another mirror. It illuminated like a bright light was reflecting off of it, and then as the light died a door appeared. He looked down to me and said, “Open the door, Bradley. Take us out of this world.”
I reached for the door handle and twisted. The door began to slowly swing open, outward out of this world and back into our world. We stepped out and walked into the library again. I closed the door behind me and opened it once more and it revealed the sidewalk and the street that let me know I was home. I could see all my neighbours and friends walking down the streets, still talking about the carnival that came to town, but without any clue of the other world it led to.
“Bradley,” my father said. “That doorway was supposed to lead to the carnival grounds back in our world.”
“I didn’t want to go there,” I answered. “I wanted to be here.”
My father smiled. “It won’t be long before Mastiff and the tall man escape their prison. They have the same power as we do. But we’ll be ready, won’t we?”
I still go carnivals whenever I find them. I walk around the grounds, watching the people laugh and play games. I peek into the tents and sometimes, when I’m brave enough, I sneak through the back underneath a tent’s tarp. Looking to see if I find that other world again.
And if you see me, just know I have my eye out, constantly searching for the tall man.