Once You Enter, You'll Never Want to Leave
Some carnivals aren't all that great on the inside.
I had just arrived at the train station when my mom asked if I was on my way home. I went to one of the benches and texted her that I was at the station waiting for the train. I wasn't the kind of teenager that would sneak out a lot or have Amber Alerts dedicated to me; my mom was just more concerned about my whereabouts than usual due to the many disappearances she has heard about on the news and from the past. I don't exactly consider myself a perfect child, but I did understand her concerns. The main issue for me was that, even though I wasn't exactly the most social, I still felt like I would be better off getting fresh air from somewhere outside the house as long as it was somewhere where I didn't have to deal with my family lingering over my shoulder. It seemed like a good way to pretend that my family didn't think I needed to be sheltered or that there wasn't anything wrong with me that they felt the need to hide for some reason.
Anyway, since I was in an area where the station was the last one on the route, I had a long time to wait, and as much as I would enjoy scrolling through social media like the average teenager, I didn't feel the need to bring my phone charger with me, so I just spent some time looking around to see that the only person around was an older man whom I assumed was a custodian.
I walked over to one of the rails overlooking part of the area. The crisp, cool air made me feel grateful that I remembered to bring a sweater with me, the sky still seemed light blue and it made me chuckle, as I remembered it wouldn't be that way for long, and the red and orange leaves from far away trees made me think of the apples we managed to pick earlier in the season. Eventually, I turned my head a little more as I was looking at some bits of the town I was sightseeing in and noticed some brighter colors out the corner of my eye that I hadn't taken notice to initially. I paid more attention to the sight and noticed there were decorations fit for presumably a carnival or a block party. I took a look at my train ticket and the clock on my phone and decided that the train wouldn't arrive for a longer while, so it wouldn't hurt to have some fun while killing some time.
As stated before, the train station was mostly empty, so I was able to pocket my ticket and leave the station the same way I entered. I got off the exit ramp and notice there were people and carnival decorations present that I could've sworn weren't there when I entered. There was a diverse array of minors that ran around playing tag and eating food. I walked for a while longer while jokingly wondering if someone decided to create a modern version of Pleasure Island from Pinocchio. Eventually, I came across someone who looked like he could be a carnie, only their back was facing me. I walked up to the person and tapped their shoulder.
"Excuse me," I tried to make my presence known, as I was tapping the person's shoulder.
When the person turned around, I was overwhelmed by a gargantuan smile and blinding clown makeup.
"Welcome to the Dreamscape Carnival! Once you enter, you'll never want to leave," he immediately told me, answering at least one question that I wasn't able to verbalize.
The response slightly creeped me out, but I just brushed it off as the efforts of someone seeking "Employee of the Month" status. I walked down the road and came across more kids and the sights of various carnival essentials: food stands, rides, a fun house, a bouncy castle, games that were potentially rigged, even a station for face painting. Each of the stations had different carnies using over-the-top dialogue to advertise their part of the carnival. There wasn't a station where I had to pay for tickets and, even though I found it odd, I thought it would be a good idea to take advantage of it.
I rode some fast and slow rides, explored the many disformed versions of myself from the funhouse mirrors, I even pigged out on several of the carnival foods in a way where I didn't get sick afterwards. There were even some games I participated in, not for the sake of winning, but for the sake of making sure I can catch the carnies rigging the games.
After an amount of time I wasn't able to keep track of, I thought it would be a good idea to get back to the train station. I pulled out my phone in an attempt to see the time, but I was stopped by a younger kid asking me what was in my hand. I told him that it was my phone as if it was a no-brainer, but he claimed that the phone at his house was much bigger. I placed my phone back in my pocket in confusion and decided to retrace my steps to find the ramp to the train station. I walked a little more and noticed some much younger kids running around and screaming something about the Power Rangers and I couldn't help but wonder if I was out of touch with another Power Rangers reboot coming out or if they watched some old movies with their families. After some more walking and getting suspicious, I heard some little girls talking about how they "saw Snow White and can't wait to see Cinderella with Mommy" and I paid attention to their outfits that were more... innocent and old compared to the outfits worn by the little girls I had seen initially. As I was paying more attention to the fact that the only adults in the carnival were the carnies, I was bombarded by more of them, while trying to find the ramp to the train station until I bumped into the familiar clown from when I first entered.
"Once you enter, you'll never want to leave," he told me, with a creepy smile afterwards.
The clown grabbed my wrist and looked like it was about to pull me towards the part of the carnival that I just left from.
Before I could take a couple of steps with him, I shouted "Wait, why don't we play a game?" without much thought apart from the movie Coraline. The clown stopped in his tracks and let go of my wrist before turning towards me with that massive smile.
"Game? I love games!" he said cheerfully, with everyone else following with the same response.
"Okay," I nervously answered, "If I find the train station and get back inside, I'm allowed to leave the carnival for good."
"And if you fail to go back within 15 minutes, you'll never have to leave," the clown finished, with a dark tone in his voice, while keeping that smile plastered on his face.
I was thinking for a bit and couldn't help but think that if I tried to swindle my way to a higher amount of time, he would try to lower my amount of time.
"Deal!" I answered.
"Let the game begin!" the clown shouted.
I ran around trying to find the ramp to the train station and noticed a pain within my stomach that almost made me think my period arrived out of nowhere. I clung to my stomach, but tried to focus on retracing my steps. I turned a corner and tried to think, but loud music came out of nowhere blasting in my ears. As I was running, one hand was clinging to my aching stomach and one hand was on my ear in an attempt to at least muffle the loudness my brain was registering my a smidge. I noticed the rail to the train station a large distance ahead of me, but I also saw some of the kids appear around me and shooting me with those arrow guns that I saw from the game that had the objective of popping balloons. As I was jogging, I felt some of the arrows hit me and one of them even hit my leg, which I didn't have time to actually look at. Eventually, the closer I got to the ramp, the more it felt like I was running in honey. I heard the familiar clown laughter behind me, so I figured I might've been low on time. Even though I felt extremely uncomfortable from the initial occurrences, I used my arms to help me put more energy in my movement. As made it to the ramp, I clung onto the ramp and I looked back to see the clown running behind me as I was rushing up. I felt the clown's fingertips lightly touch my ankles before I finally made it into the station and collapsed on my stomach.
After lying down to catch my breath, I rushed over by the ramp to blow chunks over the rail. When I looked up after barfing, I noticed that there weren't any traces of Dreamscape Carnival ever being there. The streets were clear, people were still either busy in the stores or just going about their own business outside as if nothing had ever happened. I looked at my phone and saw that the train would arrive in 10 minutes. I walked back to where I was initially waiting for the train and inspected myself just to see if I had imagined the whole experience. I rubbed the inside of my ears to find there were some drips of blood coming out of the unprotected ear and I looked down to see that one of the legs of my pants was soaked with blood. I was stunned by the whole experience and I didn't know how to explain any of it: the out-of-touch kids, the clown insisting I stay, why it was harder for me to get back to the station, why there weren't any parents at a carnival that vanish into thin air.
"Hey, are you alright? You look pretty shaken up?" I heard a voice ask me.
I looked around to see who spoke to me and noticed the custodian approaching me.
"Oh, I'm fine. You probably think I had some drugs or something," I excused.
"You want a bet? Tell me what's on your mind," he kindly invited, as if he were an understanding grandfather.
"Well, um, have you been somewhere where everyone else is having fun, but you want to get out of there as soon as possible?" I asked.
"Well, there was the bar during the first time my friends convinced me to drink, this house party hosted by victims of an MLM, there was Dreamscape Carnival..." he started to ramble.
"Wait, Dreamscape Carnival? Have you been there?" I asked a little too eagerly.
At first, the man seemed like he didn't want to talk about the memory on his mind, but I guess something about my appearance made his expression change.
"Ah, yes, when I was a young kid who lived several states down, I was playing outside enjoying the fresh air and freedom more than the kids would nowadays. My eyes lit up as I saw this carnival that just arrived out of nowhere. A clown welcomed me to Dreamscape Carnival, there were so many games and treats to enjoy. I figured it would be a good time to head back home for dinner, but some of the kids and workers insisted that I try more that the carnival had to offer. The clown gave me spooks while trying to convince me that I could stay forever. I thought the fun thing to do would be to make a game out of heading home, like what my parents would usually do if I initially didn't want to leave somewhere like the park. As I was running back home against the clock, I was pelted with baseballs that made it hard for me to focus on where I was going. I ran home and cried to my mom about the pelting and the clown that didn't want me to go home, but when I went back outside to show her, the carnival was gone."
I was surprised by the man's story and felt relief that I wasn't as crazy as I had initially thought.
"Did anyone else know about this?" I asked, as a way of seeing if I should let my own mother know.
"I never told anyone else ever, since I failed to show my mom. However, from what spread through the grapevine and the news, there have been kids who supposedly disappeared after briefly asking their parents about a carnival and their parents absentmindedly giving them permission without inspecting their environments or thinking twice."
I stared ahead of me while processing the information and the custodian was nice enough to sit with me until my train arrived. I couldn't help but think of those lost children stuck in that presumably timeless carnival. Did they stay by their own choice or did the clown rig their chances of escape for his own benefits?