From the author: You never know when those tiny traveling carnivals are going to drift into town and who works them, but sometimes a chance at cotton candy and a sketchy rollercoaster ride are exactly what you're looking for.
Creighton pulled into the Bedlam Carnival because she was too mad to drive farther. Behind her was the Weed High School tenth reunion disaster, and before her waited U.C. Davis and her doctoral thesis, which Professor Fraietta had already declared “thin and untenable.” She turned off the car, put her head back, and listened to the engine ticking as it cooled. A temporary fence, festooned with banners blocked the view, but a Ferris wheel spun above it and a rollercoaster crested a long climb before roaring down and out of sight.
Dust from her arrival hovered off the mostly empty parking lot. Two pickups parked by the entrance, along with a station wagon and a sedan showed she wasn’t the only one here. Creighton stepped out and winced when she pushed against the hot door. The sun pounded. Who would come to the rides in the middle of a blazing, California afternoon?
The ticket taker, a twenty-year old wearing a bright blue, sweat-stained military jacket, checked her out from behind his booth. “Ten dollars gets you an hour at the booths. Twenty and you’re set till we close. Rides are extra.”
“Is the place any good?”
He shrugged. “Look at where we are.” He gestured to the empty fairgrounds and the fields around it. “This is as good as it gets in a town like this. Even the bars close at sunset.”
Inside, two rows of booths formed a lane ending with the Ferris wheel and rollercoaster. Flanking the booths whirled a carousel and a spinning teacup ride. A small pavilion protected bumper cars. Nobody tended the popcorn stand, but when she leaned on the counter, a slender woman with silver hair came out of the booth that sold hotdogs next door. “Welcome to the carnival,” she said. She handed her a bag with about four handfuls of popcorn in it. “That’ll be five dollars.”
“You sell a lot at that price?” Creighton popped a piece into her mouth. Over-salted and stale. She wondered how long the hotdogs had been spinning on the aluminum rollers. Did they throw away leftovers at the end of the day or keep them?
At first she thought the other booths were unattended, but the owners sat back in the shade, like spiders, watching her as she passed. A calliope played, but she didn’t see a carousel. It was okay. She ate a second piece of popcorn. Going to the reunion had been a bad idea, but she’d wanted to quit thinking about her thesis for a while. Tom Johnson, the only other black student in her graduating class didn’t make an appearance, which didn’t surprise her. He’d said at the reception after graduation, his diploma jammed into his pants pocket, that he’d never come back.
A guy standing in the hoop toss game booth rocked a giant stuffed panda hanging from a hook to the side of the bottles. “Take a chance?” he said. “Three tosses, and you could win this beauty.” She knew how the game worked. The hard plastic hoops were barely larger that the bottle tops, and unless they settled exactly on target, they’d bounce away. It was an impossible contest.
Of course the thesis defense committee was just as unaccepting as her high school class. It wasn’t just that she was different: at high school it was color while in the grad program it was gender. Both schools went out of their way to not discriminate. She could feel them not discriminating all the time, like being at a party where you were invited at the last second because not inviting you would be mean. The world felt small.
She dropped the popcorn into a trashcan. An animal display caught her eye. SEE NATURE’S WONDERS the sign proclaimed. A six-legged pony stood miserably by the fence in its tiny corral. An all-white crocodile with a dog’s face floated in a horse’s trough, and a large birdcage held six featherless hawk-sized creatures that sported beaks filled with sharp gleaming rat teeth. Surprisingly, the animals all looked real. She’d seen a freak show when she was twelve with displays that even then seemed fake to her.
The rundown Ferris wheel only became more rickety and worn when she moved closer. White paint hung like ribbons from the bare wood. No one manned the ticket booth. She supposed that they might not fire it up for a single customer, but the thought of circling above the carnival in an uncovered chair didn’t sound appealing either. The roller coaster, though, would at least generate a breeze, and unlike the Ferris wheel, it looked modern. The tracks above were red metal tubing that emerged from a blue tent and swept up with a gentle curve. The tallest section of track stuck skyward grandly, but the tent concealed the rest. A sign above the ticket booth read, THE RIDE ETERNAL. She studied the tent. It hardly seemed large enough to contain a minute worth. Hardly eternal.
“I don’t recommend it.” The ticket taker in his blue military jacket stepped beside her. “Everybody here’s a freelancer. They come together to make a carnival, but they’re independent. End of the season they split up. Some wait for the spring. Some go south. New booths all the time. These rollercoaster folk are new and weird.”
“You’re not much of a salesman. Why would you even share that with me?”
The ticket taker shrugged. “I think more people get on that ride than get off.”
Inside the entrance, a short canvas passageway covered with surreal landscapes lead to darkness. “Have you ridden it? Is it a light show like Space Mountain in Disneyland?”
“No, not like Disneyland. It’s hard to describe.”
“It’s this or the Ferris wheel. Everything else is a kid’s ride.”
But what she was thinking was that it was either the Ride Eternal or climb into the car and continue toward the thesis. Nothing sounded less appealing. She wondered if they needed workers at the carnival. She could just leave her car where it was, put on an apron and man the beanbag toss or the horse race booth where you squirted water into a target to advance your metal horse down the track.
“I’ll tell you what I think when I finish,” she said.
The short man at the ticket counter sat on a tall stool so he could work the cash register. His legs didn’t reach halfway to the floor. “You want the short trip or the long one?” he said in a surprisingly deep voice. Beyond him a four-person car sat on the track. Curtains covered the tracks in front and behind.
“What’s the cost difference?” She held her wallet open, ready to fish out a bill.
“Same either way.” The ticket man’s hands draped across his knees. His fingers were unnaturally pale and smooth, as if they’d been made from plastic. Maybe he’d been in a fire, and had surgery on his hands.
“I’ll go long.”
He took the five from her. “Pull the lap bar snug until you hear it click. Keep your arms inside the ride. There’s a stop-call line opposite the door in case you want to get off.”
“Will I want to get off?”
The man looked at her blankly. “Just pull the line.”
As dingy as the rest of the carnival seemed, the rollercoaster carriage looked brand new. High quality leather covered the seats, and the safety bar swung down smoothly and tight. Creighton sniffed, half expecting a new car smell, but popcorn, hot dogs and rancid animal enclosure permeated everywhere.
A light above the car flashed white as she lurched into motion, pushing through the curtain. Creighton sighed. Thrill rides’ best feature was they made it hard to think about anything else. No light. She strained to see where the car was taking her as it tilted back and climbed for a few seconds before leveling out again. Ahead, a dim redness showed the car’s front, but blood-colored smoke hid the left and right, and where she’d hoped for a cooling breeze, hot air pushed against her face. The car jerked to the left, not going fast. Ten feet below, a lake bubbled and seethed, like lava. She wiped sweat from her face. An effective illusion. Then the car climbed again soundlessly leaving the pool behind. No clicking of wheels against the rails or chain drive clanking. A curve to the right took her through a circular opening, barely wide enough to accommodate the car. She ducked, and then felt silly. There must be plenty of clearance.
Orange light radiated from stalagmites and stalactites, and the air cooled, smelled damp and crystalline. Water glistened on stone. How impressive. A bear-like animal clung to a pillar, watching as she passed.
Then darkness and another hole. The landscape dropped away. Below her, hundreds of feet down, tree tops caught a slanting sun. Shadows deepened the greens.
I’m in a tent! How is this in a tent?
Through a gap, a stream flowed, and she glimpsed thatched huts. Nothing appeared to support the rails. Creighton gasped. The effect startled, but before she could figure a way that they did it, the car leaned into a steep dive and picked up speed. The rails dove into the trees. Limbs whipped by as the track wove between huge trunks, still far above the ground. Strange large birds with orange and yellow feathers perched on branches. One glided beside her for a second, riding a five-foot wide spread, glanced at her with pitch black eyes, then peeled off into the canopy with a screech.
A curve through another opening and the car slowed over a grey, lifeless plain. Rocks cast sharp-edged shadows, and the wind stopped completely. Something shimmered between her and the moonscape. She reached out until her hand met a hard surface, like a glass bubble. The horizon before her curved. A ringed planet filled a third of the sky. Then on the surface, huge domes. The rails dropped to their level. They shone with their own light. Tall buildings festooned with open balconies and footbridges from tower to tower nearly brushed their enclosures.
The rails swept her up, through the next tunnel, and she was underwater, protected by the bubble. At first, only a soft blue diffused from a distant surface surrounded her, but soon the rail took her through seaweed waving gently. Either the car descended or the ocean bed rose to meet her. Vast, cyclopean buildings with doors and windows too large for human inhabitants passed on both sides. The water must have been intensely cold, because she shivered and wrapped her hands around her upper arms to hold in heat. A head like a moray eel emerged from a nearby door, but it was at least twenty feet tall. When it opened its mouth, each curved tooth was longer than her arm.
And the ride went on, through canyons where apartments clung to cliffs, to a jungle filled with monstrous creatures more frightening than dinosaurs, to a city in the sky hanging from dirigibles, to a beach where naked almost people frolicked in the waves, to a gargantuan structure floating in space where one-man ships zipped to and fro like bees, to a countryside of rolling green hills awash with purple heather. There, a long dirt trail led to a stone palace overlooking a forest.
Each vista stunned uniquely. Creighton craned her head in all directions, afraid to miss the next scene. What were they? Dioramas? Clever holograms? Was the air in the tent drugged, making her hallucinate the experience? She felt delirious, not with the rollercoaster’s swoops and climbs and howling curves, but with landscapes, civilizations, the grandness and variety.
Her shirt clung to her, and she realized she was sweating, breathing hard, face and chest flushed. The car rose on the rail’s red ribbon, reaching ahead in a long, twisting line, pressing her into the seat, before cresting a hill, leaving her stomach behind in a lightness, a swelling pressure that tingled like she remembered when she was a child in an automobile that lifted over a bump in the road. Angels flew around the car, or they looked like angels. Dark-skinned men and women weaving above and below, laughing in their play.
Then the car dashed through another door, climbing. A blue surface receded behind her, and in the distance beyond the blue surface, hay or wheat fields reached in all directions. A Ferris wheel that was as tall as the rollercoaster track, spun beside her. Dizzy, her legs trembling and weak, she recognized the carnival. Her car sat where she’d left it in the parking lot.
The car reached the top, paused, then flew back into the tent. Darkness. She leaned forward as it decelerated. Finally, a curtain parted before her and the short man with the strange hands unlocked the safety bar that held her in.
“I can’t get out,” she said. Her heart pounded. She was sure that she could not stand yet.
The man nodded. “Take your time.” He retreated back to his stool, clambered up it like a ladder until he reached his cash register.
After a few minutes, Creighton pulled herself out. Slowly, the realization that she would have to leave the tent came to her. She’d walk back through the carnival, start her car and drive to her useless thesis defense. Her professor was right. The paper did nothing original. It was weak. She’d hoped to break new ground. Instead, her research had merely dug up the bones at one end of the library and buried them in the other. And what would it matter if she rewrote it? She’d seen the graduate library: tomes and tomes of black-bound books, each one representing a year or more of a doctoral candidate’s life.
Her thesis had no sense of wonder in it. It opened no vista.
She stopped in front of the ticket man. “You said I could pull the stop-call line if I wanted to get off the ride. You didn’t mean that I would get off here, did you?”
His eyes glittered. They were all iris, no pupil. “If you exit, you can’t get back on.”
“Will I be safe?”
“Some places are better than others.”
Tom Johnson had looked so convinced at graduation when he’d said he would never come back. He’d looked at the people he’d grown up with, at the town that never quite felt like home, and he’d pronounced a judgment. She could see him now, a sad, defiant boy who hadn’t found his happiness yet and maybe never would.
Creighton dug into her wallet. “It’s still five dollars for a ticket, right?”
The man nodded. She thought for a second that he started to smile, but it was a flashing expression. “The trip’s different every time.”
“That’s fine.” Maybe there wouldn’t be angels this time. Maybe there wouldn’t be a city hanging from dirigibles, but there would be something.
“Long ride or short?” he said.
“Give me the long one.”
This story originally appeared in Strange California.