An Unwelcome Surprise
Cleo stared down at the golden business card on the ground in equal parts shock and disbelief, wondering if she was going absolutely crazy or if what she was seeing was real. The card had just materialized out of thin air, dropping onto her tiled entryway with a clatter as she’d been crying, wishing she could go back to Kinky. To the carnival.
Wishing she could go to the place that felt like home.
“What the fuck is happening,” she asked softly, wiping at the tears in her eyes as the ‘K’ engraved on the front seemed to shimmer, the black swirls inviting her to come closer. To pick up that card and allow everything she’d ever wanted to come to life.
Cleo reached for that glittering card but paused, nerves freezing her in place.
The last time she’d touched it, less than a few hours ago, it had taken her back to reality. She’d found herself on the ground outside of the very normal carnival with her best friend, Sara, telling her she’d passed out and hit her head as soon as they’d entered the carnival grounds.
But Cleo hadn’t fainted at all. And Sara had actually taken her through some twisted, magical carousel that brought her to that demonic circus.
Kinky’s Carnival was real, and the proof of its existence was literally at her feet.
The knowledge of that unsettled her. Why had Sara lied to her? She’d acted like she didn’t know anything about Kinky’s, insisting Cleo go home and rest. But she didn’t want to rest. It felt like her whole life she’d been resting, eyes squeezed tightly shut to the world around her. And now she was wide awake.
She needed answers, but all of that could wait. First, she needed to go to him.
She snatched up the business card from the ground, the last of her tears drying as she stood to her feet and squared her shoulders.
She barely spared the moving boxes littering her new apartment a glance as she grabbed her purse and keys, practically ripping the door open in her haste to leave.
It was time to go back.
It was late in the evening when Cleo returned to the carnival, relieved to still see that the lights were still illuminating the night sky, though it had to be close to shutting down for the night.
The parking lot was nearly empty, with only a few straggles walking across the gravel as they headed to their vehicles. She was so frantic to make it before the carnival closed that she’d nearly forgotten to turn her car off, too focused on ensuring she brought that gold card with her to even swipe her keys from the ignition.
Hopefully her car didn’t get stolen, but even if it did, Cleo didn’t plan on coming back to it.
Her heart was beating rapidly as she made her way toward the ticket booth, trepidation turning her palms clammy as she waited impatiently in the short line. All too soon it was her turn, and her pulse began to echo in her ears.
Stepping up to the booth, Cleo slid the gold business card across the small counter and toward the booth operator, just as Sara had done earlier.
Unlike last time, there was no sly glance and a return of the card as they were allowed inside. In fact, he wasn’t even the same worker as before, and he looked like he’d just graduated from high school. A bit of acne along his chin, greasy brown hair and a lanky frame he hadn’t quite grown into.
“Entry is ten dollars,” the operator told her, not even glancing at the card.
“I think this should work,” Cleo told him somewhat desperately, holding up the card in front of his face. Shit, what had Sara told the other worker? “I’m here for the special event.” Sara had also forked over a handful of cash, but surely a golden card negated the need for that, right?
He squinted at it before huffing. “Lady, I don’t know what that is or what ‘special event’ you’re talking about, but unless you plan on showing me a magic trick and turning that into ten bucks, you’re not getting in.”
Cleo practically deflated as she tucked the card into her purse, sifting quickly through the contents inside until she found her wallet. She almost never carried cash on her, and sure enough, her wallet was empty. What the hell was she going to do now?
She had to get inside!
“I don’t have ten dollars,” she told him softly, looking up from her bag and wondering if she could just make a break for it.
There was only one security guard at the entrance to check bags and escort customers through a metal detector, but he looked bored and uninterested in his job, eyes glued to his phone. She could probably make it past him easily.
She felt ridiculous for even thinking of something like that, but she was either losing her mind, or there was a demonic realm lurking within this very carnival that belonged to a man who set her body on fire, her very soul crying out for him.
No, he wasn’t a man, but a demon. She recalled the way his silhouette had shifted into a taller male with wings and horns atop his head. It should have been terrifying, but his appearance had only made her want him more. It didn’t matter what he was in the end, she had to find him.
Rolling his eyes at her lack of cash, the attendant leaned forward, tapping a small, rectangular metal sign nailed to the front of the booth and snapping her from her thoughts.
She read the sign, shoulders sagging in relief before she pulled out her credit card, handing it over.
God, she was so frantic to get inside that she’d completely forgotten she could have used literally any other form of payment. Maybe she really was losing her mind.
Face heating with embarrassment, she was practically bouncing on her heels as she waited for him to swipe her card, sighing in relief when he handed it back to her with a ticket until she saw the front of it. No swirling ‘K’, no shimmers, no mention of Kinky’s.
‘Kitty’s Carnival’ was printed on the front of the paper, with a barcode and a series of numbers below. Kitty’s Carnival had been the name emblazoned above the circus tent when she’d woken up on the ground with Sara worriedly leaning over her.
She hated seeing that name as it only made her doubt her own sanity.
Only the gold card in her purse kept her from freaking the hell out, the knowledge of its existence soothing her like a balm.
Taking a deep breath, she squared her shoulders, running a hand through her long blonde hair.
Cleo thanked the attendant and took off, her sandals slapping across the hard earth as she hurried through the metal detectors at the entrance and straight toward the carousel where she’d first seen the ringmaster.
This time of night the carnival was almost completely deserted, giving it an eerie ambiance as she rushed past flashing lights decorating several attractions, carnival music droning in her ears as she pushed on, retracing her steps from earlier. The sound of balloons popping seemed to come from all around her as a few stragglers played for prizes as she flew past them, picking up a burst of speed when she spotted the carousel.
She probably looked like a huge weirdo, running through the carnival to snag a seat at the carousel, but she didn’t care. She was almost there!
Cleo stumbled over her own feet when she spotted a carnival worker wearing a pair of jeans and a red polo shirt operating the ride and bringing it slowly to a stop. A few laughing children hopped off the ride, their parents following after with smiles on their faces as they wandered off to another ride.
Normally the sight of seeing a happy family would have made her smile, given that she’d never really known that kind of tenderness or love growing up in various foster homes. Instead, she felt gutted as she frantically looked around, not spotting anyone wearing a tophat or a Guy Fawkes mask.
Heart in her throat, she stopped dead in her tracks. He… He was supposed to be here, waiting for her.
He’d told her to choose, dammit, and now that she had, he wasn’t fucking here! Frustration made her vision blur with tears, her lower lip trembling as she fought the urge to throw her head back and scream in anger and despair.
“Miss, are you alright?”
The worker had moved from the ride and was now standing in front of her, staring at her with worry shining in his eyes. She hadn’t even seen him move, too consumed by her own emotions to really notice anything. She probably looked like a lunatic, almost in tears at a children’s ride.
“I-I’m sorry,” she began weakly, wiping at her eyes with the back of her hand, her voice shaky. “I’ll just–” Leave, she almost said, but she couldn’t find it within herself to say the word aloud. It felt like giving up.
“Do you want to ride the carousel?”
Cleo nodded before she could think twice about her decision, allowing him to usher her to the front of the attraction.
The carousel looked almost identical to the one she remembered. It was large, blood-red and golden designed etched into the metal. The top was still covered in beautiful swirling designs with bright lights woven across it. Only now there was no square sign protruding from the ground in front of it proclaiming, ‘Welcome To Kinky’s’.
There were two small, metal steps at the base of the ride that she climbed up, too numb to feel even a faint trickle of hope as she took a seat at one of the benches, refusing to even stare at the beautifully engraved metal horses all around her.
There was a small beat of silence before music began to play over the speakers, light and upbeat and in direct contrast with her mood. The ride slowly began moving, taking her in lazy circles for what felt like an eternity.
But nothing mysterious or magical happened.
Once the ride came to a standstill, the music switching off abruptly, Cleo made her way down the same steps, thanking the worker hollowly and then leaving.
The drive back to her apartment was uneventful. Luckily her car had still been in the parking lot when she’d returned from the carousel, otherwise the walk home would have been awful. It would have just been the cherry on top of this shit sundae, though.
Once she parked in a spot near her apartment building, Cleo turned off her car, fingers tightening around the keys in her hand as she stared down at her leather steering wheel, trying to not lose her shit in public.
All she wanted was to get lost in a bottle of sweet red wine and stare forlornly at the bare walls in her home.
She should have gone to Sara’s once she’d left the carnival, not back to an empty apartment. She should be hunting her best friend down and demanding answers, but part of her was terrified to discover that everything had really been a fever dream all along. That the card practically burning a hole in her purse wasn’t actually real. Maybe she was hallucinating it, and the carnival itself.
Maybe she really had fainted and hit her head on the way down.
Spirits in tatters, Cleo finally stepped from her vehicle, silently promising that she’d call Sara tomorrow morning and ask her to come over so that they could talk.
Cleo traveled to the front of her apartment building, stepping through an archway that led her to a set of black metal stairs. Exhaustion lined her body with each step up, her feet feeling like they were tied down with fifty pound weights. After what felt like ages, she reached the landing, moving like a zombie to her door at the end of the hall, eyes locked on the concrete ground in front of her.
“Ah, there you are,” a familiar, masculine voice called sinfully from up ahead.
Head snapping up in surprise, Cleo couldn’t suppress the gasp that escaped.