Warnings from a Carnie
I remember hanging up the poster in front of my tent on the first day of my job.
“Can You Face Your Fears?
Come Look into the Stranger Mirror!
Fun for the Whole Family!
Are You Brave Enough?”
I loved working at the circus. I would tip my top hat (the one that fit ever-so nicely on my otherwise disheveled head) at the ecstatic people who passed inside my vividly colored tent. Even though the scents of deep-fried foods and dying organisms wafted from their clothes (I dubbed it “the carnival smell.” It was impossible to wash off), I continued to wear the most jubilant of smiles, curling my lips so tightly at both corners that it became etched in my face like a statue . . . or like just another carnie. But my hat was usually brimming with crumpled dollar bills, so I let the crying children and gossiping teenagers spike annoyance through my soul because I knew exactly how to bare my teeth at the world while I simultaneously bled out. It wasn’t too hard. I could do anything for money.
That is why I put my most prized possession inside the vibrant tent. When I showed the ringmaster of the carnival, a rather plump man who was suffering from some sort of cancer, I was hired immediately. Or, rather, my possession was.
“What is it?” Dr. Tempton had asked. I supposed he was a doctor of sorts, but not of the traditional kind. If he was, then I figured he wouldn’t be so pale and sickly in his own flesh. But, again, that was all just assumption. Everyone knows that timeless saying about assuming things.
I had practiced my answer many times. I wore my smile and let the thin fabric covering my possession dance across my fingers. “A mirror.”
“A mirror?” He appeared to be rusting as he blushed. “I hire acrobats. I hire dogs that can dance on one leg. I don’t hire people with . . . with junk.”
“Oh, but this isn’t just any mirror, sir! Please brace yourself, and I will show you the truth.”
The fabric intertwined hands with mine, and I pulled the sheet from where it had rested on the thin frame of the mirror.
Fissures ran through its dark frame from years of neglect. In my lack of knowledge about home repair, I had fitted the mirror with a stand that caused it to wobble a bit every time someone walked past it. But the glass was clear as though it had just been fashioned in a factory without any understanding of the dust and grime of the outside world. It reflected Dr. Tempton’s immense form in a sort of perfection usually only found in an untouched lake. It even captured his acute aggravation.”
“Mister Gray, it’s a mirror.”
“No, it’s the mirror. This is the only mirror in the world that actually shows us our true image. It tells us what we truly are. See, Dr. Tempton, see.”
Dr. Tempton saw.
The table he was sitting at crashed like the end of the world to the floor, overturned by his hefty les. He fell onto his robust behind with a startled cry. Like a baby (or upside-down turtle) he floundered and clawed at the air for breath. He rubbed his eyes. He rubbed them harder when the realization that he was shedding tears on the filthy floor hit. I helped my unfortunate new boss to his feet which the rotund fellow actually accomplished with immense dignity.
There were a few seconds of silence before he spoke. “I’m . . . I’m sick, Mister Gray,” Dr. Tempton stated. He looked over his shoulder as though the image that had materialized in the mirror was palpable, as though it was still there. He tightened an expensive tie around his neck. “I’m dying, actually. Fuck cancer.”
“Of course, sir,” I replied with a compassionate nod.
More silence. Then,
“You can set it up in a spare tent,” Dr. Tempton said when I covered the mirror back up with its loving, though disgusting sheet.
“Thank you, sir. My parents just died, and so I could use the money.”
“Yes.” Dr. Tempton was regaining the rogue in his pale face, but he still (which I now know) was only a few weeks from passing away. “I do have one question, though.”
“And what would that be, sir?”
“What do you see when you look into the mirror?”
My lips twitched, but only a little. I had hoped that my boss would not notice the momentary collapse of my empire of self-assurance. “This is the God-honest truth, Dr. Tempton, sir. I’ve never looked into that mirror.”
“Really?” Dr. Tempton’s eyes grew large as though someone had pried his eyelids apart. “Why?”
I had put my suiting hat back on my hair in a flourishing movement, and I tipped it back in respect towards my boss. “Sir, I already know what I am most afraid of.”
And that was how I became a carnie.
And that was how the end of the world began.
Children passed through my tent like a raging storm at first. When parents came back to the carnival complaining to me about the nightmares their children now suffered, I was forced to make a new rule which imposed that the youngest customers would be turned away . . . unless they promised a hefty bribe, of course. It bothered me briefly that a large source of my income was now forbidden to pass through the tent, but the tears of those children bothered me, too. There was just something about the way they shambled from the Stranger Mirror and their dark conversation that tugged at my chest. I think it was the heavy weight of dread, because I know that I do not feel compassion.
So I sometimes peeked into the tent. I couldn’t help it. The shadows of curiosity stole my eyes and directed them to the horror I had just collected money from. A few themes were produced by the mirror, I began to notice: clowns, spiders, snakes, death . . . a hell of a lot of death. And some were wholly unique such as a memorable occasion when a grown man ran screaming into the carnival throng after the mirror produced an adorable, white rabbit. I wanted to laugh along with the crowd, but there was something wrong about that particular rabbit. I did not get the greatest look, but did I see a pink nose reaching out of the mirror? Did I see girls actually grasping for it as though they could actually touch it?
The first time I felt my heart begin to beat as though signaling an attack was during the last night of a show in New York. Ebony smog stalked the sky and devoured the stars, and the moon’s faint, natural light cut daggers into the faces of tourists. Merry carnival music predicted the funeral of those who came out of the Freak Show laughing and those who clogged their hearts with deep-fried Oreos. The scenery did not lend itself to a happy sight, I lamented. But it was about to get so much worse.
My feet and jaw ached from standing and smiling in front of my tent. The drill was always the same. Just smile at the scum that entered my tent with cautious steps and exited with tentative laughter. I just reminded myself that lying was my best talent, and showing people the truth was my best asset. I supposed I was just too good at my job. That was why the terrible screams sounded from within my tent.
Of course I was used to the shouts of panic, but there was something about the way that my hair prickled on my arms and people sprinted out of the tent a little bit faster that caused me to actually swivel about to stare directly into the abyss.
I looked into the mirror. Please, please forgive me.
I’ve mentioned that I already am acquainted with my darkest fears, at least in my mind. But the Stranger Mirror knows you so well. It, like any mirror, shows you reality and painful certainties. However, unlike a real mirror, this one forces you to accept the realistic revulsion. It grabs at your eyes and forces them to stare at its pristine glass, whispering, “I know all. I know what frightens you the most.”
That’s exactly what the mirror did. I saw the dead creature first, a decaying, human male climbing steadily out of the mirror as though the glass were just a flimsy window screen. He shimmered slightly, like an image on an old television, but the bloodstains and exposed bone were all too real. Did the gore actually stain the tent floor? Did I actually smell his decomposing flesh? Some people remained staring at the reflection as though it were all an elaborate magic trick. I wish I was that clever.
I screamed at the people to leave the tent. Some obliged, and some laughed at the genuineness of the show put on by such a depraved circus. But I had looked into the mirror, and so it wasn’t long before the stragglers fled the tent in a frenzied panic. It wasn’t long before the man materialized into a solid form and hordes of clowns, insects, zombies, and other spawns of Satan clawed their way out of the mirror. I quit my job in that exact moment. I left my beautiful hat on the ground to be demolished by the mirror’s demons, and I hailed a taxi out of town.
Reading the paper from a dilapidated hotel with a buzzing sign the next morning, I learned that five people had suffered heart attacks at the circus that night, Dr. Tempton included among the deceased. Police had come to distressed calls about monsters and a “trick gone wrong,” and only found strange footprints that did not belong to humans and a very, very creepy old mirror. They threw the blanket back over it ceremoniously, and, for that, I am eternally grateful.
But that still does not change the fact that I saw my fears in the Stranger Mirror that night. You see, it has explored hell and come back with an extensive knowledge of human frailty. It knows all about sad, pathetic little men who will risk the lives of others just for a dirty dollar bill. It is very aware that, deep down, it is my biggest fear.
Those monsters are still out there. Every missing person’s report or unexplainable murders send the hairs on my neck prickling with an emotion I’ve heard is called “guilt.” But I’m more afraid than guilty. I’m more terrified that those mirror creatures will find a way into my secluded, secured cabin to complete the last, petrifying chapter of my story. But I still hold hope that, because my glance in the mirror was brief, the otherworldly demons are few in number. Perhaps, I can remain isolated, but safe.
So this is what I ask of you. If you stumble upon a site where colorful tents are collecting mold and dust, where birds are still squabbling over the last heart-stopping hotdog, where instinct leads you to a cover that envelopes what appears to be a large mirror, do not uncover it.
But, if you do, just know that it is waiting patiently to show you your greatest fears.