by Aura Wilming
Vivian was hesitant before we even got inside. I had to drag her through the gates. I didn’t mind. I usually had to drag her into experiencing new things. And while she would sputter and protest in the moment, she always ended up enjoying herself. It was just the way our dynamic worked; she loved the way I pulled her out of her comfort zone, I loved the way she kept my recklessness in check. It was one of the many reasons we worked so well together.
Vivian looked up at the sign over the gates, leaning back against the pull on her hand, the way one does when walking a large dog.
“Why does it say Carne Vale?” she asked.
“I think it’s Italian.”
“How would you know? You don’t speak Italian.”
“It’s similar to Latin. I do know some Latin.”
“Yeah?” Her skepticism was clear in her voice. “What does it say in Latin?”
Vivian stopped walking. Her hand slipped out of mine. When I turned around I saw the color had drained from her face. Vivian’s lively imagination had a tendency to get very dark. With just a few words she was able to scare herself into a panic. The best way to deal with it, was to bore the fear out of her with some trivia.
“It’s not as scary as it sounds. In Europe carnival is a festival held before lent. It’s a chance to indulge in the desires of the flesh — eat, drink, have fun — one more time before giving it up for forty days.”
Keeping my voice calm and pleasant worked, as I knew it would. She visibly relaxed a little and when I slipped my arm around her waist she allowed me to lead her further into the carnival.
“I still think it sounds scary.” She said softly. “This whole place looks scary, too.”
I pulled her against me with a little squeeze and smiled. That was just the lingering fear talking. I was convinced I could help her see what I saw.
“I think it’s amazing. I’ve never seen a vintage carnival look this good. Look at that old fashioned carousel,” I gestured with my free arm. “Do you think it’s refurbished or replicated?”
“Is ripped from the 50’s trope ‘a tear in time’ an option?”
“Ooh, that’s good,” I breathed, impressed. Vivian often came up with the most amazing turn of phrase out of the blue. One more reason why I loved her so much. I let go of her to pull the notebook from my pocket. “I’m putting that in my blog.”
She clung to my arm like a small child. “It’s not good. It’s out of place and off putting. Look at those horses. Those things are horrifying.”
“I didn’t know you were so sensitive to the uncanny valley.” I remarked. I walked forward to get a better look at the offending carousel horses. Vivian released my arm so she could keep her distance.
“It’s not the uncanny valley. It’s the expressions. It’s like they are being tormented.”
I had to admit, she wasn’t wrong about the horses. Their eyes were just inexpertly applied paint; too little black and way too much white. They should have looked dull and lifeless. Instead they had haunted, terrified stares. As if they were made to witness things too horrible to mention. It didn’t help that their mouths looked to be twisted in grimaces of pain and their limbs frozen in full gallop, forever trying to flee, forever doomed to remain where they were, skewered in place by their fancy brass poles. I suppressed a shiver to try to hide how unsettled I was from Vivian. It was a wasted effort. When I got back to her, Vivian was shaking like a leaf.
“Why did you bring me here? Just for your stupid blog? You know you’re wasting your time, right? You’ll never be as big as Atlas Obscura.”
“I don’t care. I like going to weird places and writing about them. And you said I should take you out on dates more.” I tried my previous trick of keeping my voice pleasant and calm.
“I meant proper dates not…this.” She waved her arms, gesturing at the carnival around us.
“Baby, how can you say that. We can sit in the Ferris wheel and share cotton candy. I can try to win you a giant stuffed animal. This,” I copied her arm movements, “…is the all-American dream date!”
“More like the all-American nightmare,” she snapped.
“Really?” I was getting frustrated. I could hear the sarcasm in my own voice and I hated it. Vivian didn’t deserve that. But damn it, she was being extraordinarily difficult and I was just about done with her attitude.
Vivian either didn’t notice, or chose to ignore my annoyance. She kept talking loudly: “Everything here feels wrong. That guy at the shooting game? He hasn’t yelled at us even once.”
“Why should he be yelling?”
“To sell the game? To goad you into trying to prove your masculinity? To get us to spend money? But he just…stares at us.”
I turned to look at what she was talking about. There was indeed one of the carnival workers behind the counter looking at us with a blank expression. That was understandable; Vivian was making a bit of a scene. But the man creeped me out. He had gaunt cheeks and a sickly complexion with dark purple rings around his eyes. He reminded me of the bad zombie movies they used to show on television.
Vivian still wasn’t done: “Where’s the people, Josh? How come we’re the only ones here?”
Now that she had pointed it out… The carnival was deserted. Not just bereft of visitors, the rides and stands were abandoned by the usual crew of carnies. Aside from the one ghastly figure at the Duck Shoot, we were the only ones in sight. But all the lights were on. Music was playing. I was suddenly acutely aware of the mechanical laughter that punctuated the upbeat music at irregular intervals. It was not a nice sound. I was formulating a reply to Vivian when a hand grabbed my shoulder.
I almost jumped out of my skin. I spun around on my heels, heart beating in my ears, ready for anything. Behind me, giving me an intense look, was just some guy. He looked tired and could use a shave — the only thing remotely scary was the hand rolled cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. I let out a deep breath that threatened to become a sigh.
“We’re not open yet. How did you get in here?”
“Eh, I saw the lights and thought…” I mumbled.
“Just running checks of the equipment. ” The man took his cigarette out of his mouth and crushed it under his boot. “The gate was supposed to be closed. It wasn’t, was it?”
He shook his head. “New kid is damned lazy. But we’re not ready for visitors yet. I’m gonna ask you folks to leave.”
I could feel Vivian pull at my arm towards the exit. I didn’t want to go just yet, that would be admitting the guy had given me a scare. No way in hell I was going to retreat with my tail between my legs.
“I am really sorry. I write a blog with reviews about places like this. That’s why I got a bit too excited and missed the closed sign, I suppose.” I explained. Mentioning the blog was usually good for a freebie. These days creating buzz on the internet was of make-or-break importance for a small business like this. I was right.
“A reviewer, huh? Tell you what, you write us up a nice story and I’ll let you go on one of the rides for free right now. They are all fired up anyway.”
“No, please, let’s go.” Vivian whispered to me.
“Don’t be rude Viv.” I whispered back.
Vivian leaned towards the man and plastered a sweet smile on her face. “I do appreciate the offer, but I am going to politely decline.”
“Not too keen on the mechanical rides? I don’t really blame you,” the man said, returning her smile. I caught a quick glimpse of the man’s teeth. I could have sworn they were pointed. Like animal teeth. It had to be my mind playing tricks on me. I never expected an empty carnival to feel so unnerving. I was already looking forward to sitting on the couch with Vivian, drinking wine, laughing about how stupid we were acting.
“Tell you what, why don’t you two try out the mirror maze? Spooky scary fun, but totally safe.” the man offered.
“I love mirror mazes!” I said excitedly in a last ditch effort to convince Vivian to take advantage of the free ride offer.
“You go. I’ll stay here and take pictures for your blog.”
Not the result I was hoping for. I knew pestering Vivian further would do me no good. I couldn’t back out now, unless I wanted to look like an idiot to the man — and like a wimp to Vivian. I had to go in alone. “Alright.”
I took in the structure that housed the mirror maze as I approached. The walls were decorated with paintings of people, visitors to the carnival presumably, walking away from the maze. The artist had to be the same guy who did the horses of the carousel. They had those same panicked eyes.Their wide, open mouth smiles looked more like silent screams. The entrance to the maze was a huge clown’s head. You had to enter through the mouth. A mouth with teeth that looked slightly too large in proportion. I was sure it was unintentional, but the whole scene put together made it seem like the people were trying to flee the giant clown in fear. The mechanical laughter was louder here. I realized the mirror maze was where the laughter originated. That meant I was going to be alone for however long it took to navigate this maze, with that grating sound in my ears.
“Awesome,” I said to myself. I took a deep breath and walked in.
The maze was beautiful. It didn’t have lasers like modern mirror mazes, but it did have slowly shifting multicolored lights overhead. Some of the mirrors were warped, like fun house mirrors, that distorted my reflection. Some of them had brightly painted decorative frames. But most of them were completely straight and placed in ways to disorient visitors and hide passages. It didn’t take too long before I got turned around.
It wasn’t until I realized I was lost, that I started seeing the spooky things the carnival worker had promised. There was some sort of special effect in this maze that made you see things…shadows in the mirrors. But only at odd angles. Only from the corner of my eye. Each time I turned to take a good look, it was gone. All there was to see was my own reflection. An impressive illusion to be sure, one that would get a lot of screams and giggles from groups going through here. Since I was alone, all it did was create an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I had a constant feeling I was being followed.
I took a left turn and found myself at a dead end. I turned back, and couldn’t see the way I came anymore. Mirrors surrounded me on all sides. I took a deep breath to quell the panic rising up in me. It had to be an optic illusion. The mirrors couldn’t have moved around. I would have heard it if they did.
The only way to solve this puzzle, as far as I could see, was to methodically check each wall. Suddenly the lights changed. The shifting, multicolored overhead lights blinked off and for a moment the maze was pitch black. In the darkness that mechanical laughter played again, this time slowed down, dropping the pitch and giving it a demonic quality. Red light flooded the maze, coming from below. Simple changes, but combined the effect was drastic. The maze turned from a silly fun fair attraction into a hellish trap. My heart started racing so fast I was afraid it would explode. Blogger scared to death in carnival mirror maze. You couldn’t buy publicity like that.
I clutched my right hand to my chest and squeezed my eyes shut, willing my heart rate to slow down. When I opened my eyes, I saw my reflection staring back at me, its right hand to its chest. What the hell? That was the wrong hand. My right should be its left, that’s how reflections worked. I looked down to my chest and hands in confusion. Was I was that spooked I couldn’t tell my right from left? No. Of course not. The reflection was wrong. Seriously, supernaturally wrong. I looked around me, hoping for some normalcy I could cling to. All my reflections in every mirror were moving independently. Pointing at me. Laughing at me. Waving at me. A piercing scream echoed through the maze. My voice. Was I screaming? I felt like screaming, I just couldn’t tell if the sound came from my lungs or someone else’s.
Vivian’s voice. She sounded concerned. She heard me scream. My scream. I was screaming. Of course I was screaming, who wouldn’t scream at something like this?
“Josh! What’s going on? What’s happening?”
It was close. The exit was close. I had to get out. I ran in the direction of Vivian’s voice. I smacked into one of the mirrors. My reflection wobbled and staggered to keep its balance. As if I had ran into another person. When it had caught itself, it grinned at me. Its teeth were pointed. Like animal’s teeth.
My reflection turned its back to me and started walking away from me. I could see the exit in the edge of the mirror. Vivian! That thing was heading towards Vivian. Panic took hold of me. I slammed into the mirror with all my might, trying to get to the thing in the mirror, trying to stop it from getting to the exit of the maze. The second time I slammed into the mirror, I knocked it over and tumbled to the ground. When the world stopped turning, I was outside the maze somehow. I could see Vivian clearly. She was nervously rubbing her hands together.
“There you are,” Vivian said. “Are you alright?”
I wanted to run to her and take her in my arms, but I couldn’t move. Then I noticed she wasn’t looking at me, but to the left of me. From the corner of my eye I saw myself step out of the exit of the mirror maze. I heard my voice reply: “I’m fine. I just startled myself really badly at the end there,” in an embarrassed tone. I saw the “me” slip its arm around her waist as I had done so often.
I tried to scream at Vivian. Get away from that thing! I tried desperately to move. Not a single muscle responded to my commands. I couldn’t make a sound. All I could do was watch as panicked thoughts echoed through my head.
Vivian, my sweet Vivian noticed me, sensed me, against all odds. She looked right at me, an expression of recognition washing over her face. Bless her and her keen observation skills.
“Oh my God, Josh!” she exclaimed.
“What?” the not-me responded.
“That painting looks just like you! Look, it’s even got the same color coat you are wearing right now!” She pointed at me.
Realization slowly dawned on me. The decorations on the mirror maze walls — I was one of them now.
No! NO! Vivian!
“It does, a little,” not-me said.
Shut up! Get away from my girlfriend! Vivian! Vivian! THAT’S NOT ME!
I saw Vivian shudder.
“I don’t like those paintings. They have the same terrified expressions as the horses.”
The not-me pulled her in for a hug. With my girlfriend in its arms, it grinned the most evil grin directly at me, baring its pointed teeth. “Let’s go home.”
Circus of Fear – TV Tropes”I mean, really, what kind of a demonically evil scheme involves rollercoasters and cotton candy anyway?” Overnight…tvtropes.orgMirror Monster – TV TropesMirrors are inherently creepy objects. If you’re looking in a mirror, there’s also someone looking at you. A movement…tvtropes.orgAnd I Must Scream – TV TropesA character suffers from an extremely horrifying Fate Worse than Death. Suicide is not an option; even death never…tvtropes.orgThe Weekly Knob
Originally featured in The Weekly Knob Horror Trope Challenge, October 26, 2019