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They Come With the Carnival

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam lives in Texas with her partner and two literarily-named cats: Gimli and Don Quixote. Her work has appeared in magazines such as Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and Interzone. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast program and curates an annual Art & Words Show, recently profiled in Poets & Writers. You can visit her on Twitter @BonnieJoStuffle or through her website: bonniejostufflebeam.com.
The balloon children dance down the sidewalk outside our house to music my husband and I cannot hear. They come with the carnival. It frightens us to see them, their balloon heads red and round, strings falling from their necks like ropes they might have used to hang themselves, though of course none of them did this. Too young. But back when the world ended, this was most everyone else's fate. Every oak in town a freshly minted hanging tree.
I shut the curtains and turn back to the room still littered with dusty children's toys. We don't speak when the carnival's here. As long as you're silent, the balloon children won't come for you. It's the noise that draws them, greedy for more music. When the sun goes down and the carnival lights go up, the round colored bulbs flickering through our sky like UFOs, the balloon children will go back, until dawn, until it is once more time to hunt. At night, we're safe. It isn't like most nightmares. When the carnival's in town, we are afraid of the sun.
The air is cool on our skin. We shut the door as quiet as we can behind us and tiptoe out onto the sidewalk, sticky with the remnants of pink and blue cotton candy like a carpet across the concrete. Fall used to be my favorite season; we were married in the fall. On Halloween we would take our two children from house to house to beg for candies. Children have a hard time staying silent. There are no children anymore, outside the carnival, other than the balloon children.
We hold hands and walk, barefoot and naked. It is a theory of ours that we are two of the last people alive, here, so it makes no difference what we wear. Most of our clothes are ragged and thin. Besides, the balloon children are naked, their bottoms smooth, their legs stubby. They seem human from the neck down. We aren't sure we know what human is anymore.
Sometimes it's me who wants to go to the carnival. Sometimes it's Rob. Either way, one of us always convinces the other with our sad eyes, our crying fits, our kisses down the body to the softest spot between the thighs. Every year, when the balloon children leave, we promise ourselves that it will be the last time, that we'll move on, that we'll make new children and raise them in this wasteland. Every year we try. Something about the air we breathe, though, has seeped into our blood. There will be no babies anymore, and we both know this better than we admit.
A mile from the carnival gates the air is thick with the smell and taste of honeyed nuts that stick your fingers together and sugared plums that leave you wanting more, and bubbles that melt into black spots on your skin. We no longer go inside. All that waits for us there is want. We wade through the thick air until we find the wire fence. Inside, rickety carnival coasters fly off their tracks and the Ferris wheel spins too fast. There's no one inside. No one except the balloon children. They hold hands and dance around each ride as though there were nothing wrong with the world, as though they were real people and we were real people and the world was a real world where real things happened. But we know the truth. Somewhere along the way we passed into a nightmare. This has to be a nightmare. We stare through the metal rings of the gate and try to find a birthmark on one of their left back thighs. We never have. But we try again and again.
The looking leaves me with an empty stomach throb. I can't anymore. I squeeze Rob's hand so tight he winces and tries to tear it away.
"I love you," I say to my husband, to the balloon children, to the one out there who used to be ours, ours, ours.
The balloon children turn and stare with their nothing eyes.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, October 6th, 2014


Each year I curate an Art & Words Show in Fort Worth, Texas, where writers respond to artists' work, and vice versa. I don't participate in the show, but after it's over I'm usually so inspired by the works created that I write my own responses. This was my response to The Carnival Series by an artist in Hawaii named Kris Goto.

- Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

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