Everything being a constant carnival, there is no carnival left. – Victor Hugo
Will had just stepped off the curb to cross the street, barely glancing right and left because there was never traffic in town at this time of day. Jim always said it was thinking things like this that would get him killed.
So he’d barely hit the middle of the street, mind already half down the next block when the dove flutter sound of loose paper rattled against his leg, dragged against Will’s shin in an exaggerated motion. As he bent down to pick it up, the not-quite quiet of the afternoon stretched, gained importance as Will clutched the edge of the paper even as it tried to evade him with a mute flicker-swisssh.
It was blank, so anti-climactically bare that Will only fully looked at it once before crinkling, crumpling it into a pocket with some shred of his mother’s ‘keep things tidy’ manner at the edge of his thoughts. Then it was across to the far curb, down the block and cross corner to open the bar door (bang) and slide a chair closer (clatter) to offer Jim’s calm slouch a crooked smile.
“Got held up,” he said, accepting an open beer as payment for the almost apology.
Jim could have answered with lots of things, but instead smiled a little and took a sip from a glass of something clear like water but with enough alcoholic bite to it that Will could almost taste the sting on the air. Which was answer enough to many questions, so Will just relaxed a little in his chair, feeling the weight of the day slip off and slide to the floor.
He was fairly sure that his new boss thought he was an idiot, and an overlong day spent learning more of the ins and outs and whys and hows of his job didn’t help. For a moment, Will was jealous of Jim, a hot stab he remembered from years ago when they were boys and he thought (knew) that Jim was smoother, faster, braver than he ever would be. Jim worked for the friend of an uncle’s cousin, and his only usual stress during the day (the way Jim told it) was to decide whether he wanted to order in or go out for lunch.
Still, Will noticed that something was off, a knowing started with the glass of liquor instead of a bottle of beer, but cemented by seeing that Jim didn’t sit quiet in his chair but settled and resettled his shoulders; his eyes tense, not calm; muscles tight, not loose and free.
“Jim,” Will said, but his friend’s gaze was long and unfocused, peering both in and out with a concentration that stepped cold fingers up Will’s spine. “Hey, Jim.”
Instead of refocusing and smiling, maybe even a quick and sarcastic shot, Jim twitched, not violently but with enough force that his hand struck the nearing empty glass he’d been using so it tipped, spilling onto the bar.
“Dammit,” he swore softly, and as he twisted to look for napkins or the bartender, Will could see the shadows of poor sleep stretching across Jim’s face.
As no one appeared (you were never bothered here, which was why they kept coming back), Will remembered the blank piece of paper and tugged it from his pocket.
“Here, better than nothing,” and he spread it wide to catch the loose spread of alcohol. As the liquid struck the paper, it darkened a little. Will was about to ask Jim if he was all right (even though he could bet money that Jim wouldn’t answer) when he blinked, leaned closer to the paper. He could see from the edge of his eye as Jim did the same.
It… changed. Words vined out from the center, dark and darker against the paper’s white (blank, Will could have sworn it was blank) face.
“Dare to believe, to dream, to see...” it merged, faded. At the edge of his hearing Will felt a breath of Flip-flick-shhh.
“This week only, Thorngate’s Show of Wonders,” and was that a flower, growing, tangling its way across the page? Will’s fingers itched to touch it, but before he could more than flex his fingers, the words, the picture faded, until only “Thorngate’s Show of Wonders, Green Town Fairgrounds,” remained, crisp and utterly normal.
For a moment, they were quiet. Then Will noticed Jim was making a noise, a shifting, gasping shudder. He was laughing, chuckling and shivering to himself in gleeful humor.
“You don’t see that every day,” he muttered in between breaths, and easily dodged Will’s swatting hand.
“Jim, it’s not funny,” Will hissed, hand aching to crush the paper, to rip it to shreds, but almost fearing what it would do to him in return. “It’s too much like… him. Like the carnival. What if it’s back?”
Jim stilled, and Will could see how pale and sharp he looked, sickly dimmed in the dying light of sunset through the bar window.
“No,” Jim said in a firm grownup voice. It sounded like a stranger, and Will was reminded why they never talked about that October, not really, not in more than half-glancing grimaces and wriggles of fear and accomplishment. “He’s… gone. It’s gone.” He waved a few fingers at the paper, whose ink was beginning to mundanely run from the spill. “This is different, has to be.”
“Doesn’t have to be anything,” Will argued, not sure why he felt so sure and so doubtful both. He wished wildly for his father, for the calm and meditative tone of his voice working through a problem. Sometimes, when Will looked in the mirror, he could see an echo of his father’s chin in his grown face, a twinkle in his eye that made him feel far older than nineteen. “There aren’t rules to this, you know.”
Jim smiled, something hard and foreign angling his face.
“There used to be,” was all he said, and he carefully slid his glass away from the paper and gestured to the now attentively expectant bartender for a refill.
Later, Will wondered what the paper would have read (if it would have read anything) if he’d been alone, or if only Jim had seen it. Part of him wondered, wished, that it needed both of them, some kind of echo of the pair they had been as boys, the give and take that had stretched and mellowed with age. They were still friends, of course, but were too different as almost men to be close in the innocent and free way of young boys, still too green to know more than they could touch, see, or outrun.
Jim was leaning against the outside of his office building when he got off work, though it took Will three steps to let go of the frustration of another day of apparent incompetence. He turned a smile at Jim, noticing again how pale he looked compared to the slow but healthy bustle of businessmen and townspeople as they continued towards the end of their productive day.
“I saw another one,” Jim said, as if continuing some conversation they’d been having. Though, Will realized, it was truly part of a conversation never finished since a crisp Halloween night six years ago. “It says the carnival starts tonight.”
“Don’t call it that. And we’re not going.” Will stepped faster, feeling the ache of his feet in stiff dress shoes. Jim sped up to keep pace.
“I am.” And oh, Will could feel the chilly brush of those words, I am. Apparently the advertisements didn’t need them both; Jim would do (again).
“Want to ride the carousel again?” Will asked it without meaning to, feeling the ache of the words as they slid through his teeth.
“No,” and there was enough speed in the reply that it sounded nearly honest. He flushed red. “Not that.”
“What then?” When Jim didn’t reply, Will stepped faster, turned to face his friend. And while Will frequently found himself feeling older (or too young, was that the problem?) Jim looked ancient, drawn and tensed under some unknown weight. Will bit his lip. “If you don’t want ‘that’, you want something else?” Jim ducked his head a little, shy the way he’d never really been before, and it was almost like the weight increased, driving Jim downward, anchoring him to a painful halt. “Tell me,” and somehow Will found he was begging, needing to hear, to be the secret keeper of the (terrible) wish that Jim held close, so close to the desire that had almost killed him.
“It’s…” and God, Jim looked young, like he was going to kick the ground, or cry. “Jane and I had a fight. She’s been so upset lately.” Then he gulped, ground down whatever emotion was in his throat with a large swallow. “It’ll be a girl.”
It could have been a non-sequitor. After a slow breath, Will realized it wasn’t.
“When?” he managed, feeling something (Pride? Anxiety? Jealousy again, all green and churning?)
Jim laughed, or close to. It sounded dead.
“I didn’t stay long enough to find out.” Then he shook his head and moved a bit, like he wanted to walk forward, to move past the conversation. But Will held his ground.
“Then why…” Will began, then felt his throat close and oh, it wasn’t jealousy anymore but it was still churning, understanding and fear and for a moment he couldn’t feel anything though a memory of that tent, that roomful of freaks and phantoms and terrible terrors of imagined realities. “No. Jim, no.”
Jim grinned, the smile of a skull flung from a pauper’s grave.
“Maybe they could fix it.”
Fix, Will’s father’s voice murmured in his head. Meaning both a problem, such as ‘in a fix’, or to repair, mend. Also, to enact revenge on.
“That’s not what they do.” Will’s mind whirled. The lightning salesman. The Dust Witch. All the screams as Dark hollowed and husked into the air.
“This might be different.”
“Jim,” Will felt it, hot and wet in his mouth, like a gulp of tears. “Don’t you remember what my father said? How they twist and they tempt and they promise but it never ends well. God, Jim, don’t you remember?”
Jim’s eyes narrowed and he stepped closer, his breath hot as he leaned into Will’s space.
“Whatever I remember, I know that they could change things. And Will,” he lowered his voice, something cool and sharp in his smile. “Don’t you think they could bring him back for you? Give you whatever you wanted, and wouldn’t it be worth it?”
Will felt his feet root to the sidewalk, his eyes fixed on Jim’s. Something, a glimmer of some dream or moment (friends forever, and to be that, to be that brave and clever and handsome once, just once) sweeping over his face with a feeling of cobwebs and promises.
“My father would have said that nothing is worth your soul,” Will bit the words off slowly and distinctly, and it was bitter, and slow, but true.
Jim smiled, handsome but darker now, gaunter and more desperate than he’d seemed before.
“Everything has a price,” he replied, and then backed up a step to twist and continue around Will, not looking back, not letting go of tight pale fists that he’d begun during their conversation.
Will almost felt himself follow, because it was Jim, his friend, his childhood, to (run away and join the circus) go to the fairgrounds. But he didn’t. Not because he couldn’t, he could feel the urge, the need pull at him, make his eyes wet. But because he knew that the only way he would ever really see the twinkle in his father’s eye, the shape of his chin would be to look in the mirror.
As Will started back the way he’d come, he could feel the wave of a new and frigid wind caress the back of his neck, the punctuation to his hollow thought.