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Carnival Days and Days

Daniel Ausema's short stories and poetry have appeared in many publications, including Strange Horizons, Diabolical Plots, and previously in Daily Science Fiction. His published novels include the Spire City steampunk-fantasy series and The Arcist Chronicles, which begins with The Silk Betrayal and is published by Guardbridge Books. He lives in Colorado, at the foot of the Rockies.
After a day of rides and caramel corn, we were sad to leave the carnival. The jugglers, the tightropes, the half-winking games that everyone knew were cons.
We wanted to con the con artists back, to win what everyone said was impossible, knowing that we never would succeed. And the Barker most of all. If we could only trick him, that would make the day perfect. But alas, the day was done, the carnival closing down. We... I will admit it, we cried.
Not least myself.
The clowns waved as we departed and wiped exaggerated tears from their eyes. They smeared the makeup onto each other's outfits, and at the same time they went tumbling back and forth in a show that made light of their feigned sadness.
But ours wasn't feigned at all.
At the airport, our flight was delayed. A storm or power outage or rebel attack somewhere. The rumors claimed all three and other causes as well. Strikes and mechanical failures and who could say what else. We demanded help at all the desks, but there was no hope. We would have to stay for another day.
So we returned to the carnival.
The jugglers looked tired. When one juggler dropped a baton, the Barker himself swept in to distract us.
"Pay him no mind, no mind at all. Come, see the animals."
As we let ourselves be herded away, we saw a gaggle of clowns gathered around the juggler. The juggler fell. He must have been desperately tired, and they were helping him to a bed somewhere to rest. Surely it wasn't that the clowns had attacked him. No matter what it had looked like to us.
A camel spat at us, and we found our laughter again, ducking saliva and avoiding animal hooves. The animal pens kept us occupied until late in the day.
On the way out, the caramel corn tasted stale. We threw it out after a few bites and cried again to leave the carnival behind.
Another delay kept us in town for a third day. Our loudest arguments couldn't move an airplane, no matter who we shouted at.
A tightrope walker was frantically mopping up the melted ices when we arrived. The Barker smiled his biggest smile, but it had become forced.
"Welcome again, welcome again. The carnival must always move, but for you we remain. You have made the choice, the perfect choice, to enjoy the pleasures of the carnival yet again. Will you play our games, win us out of fabulous prizes?"
We chose to visit the animals first, but the camel was sleeping, and the llamas rested in the shade. The tortoise kept its head in its shell. The elephant refused to flap its ears.
So we visited the games after all. The Barker wiped the sweat from his forehead and began his patter. "Step right up, step right up. Try your wits against me. I dare you to try. I challenge you to outwit the carnival...."
We won nothing all day but still cried when it came time to leave.
When our flight was delayed a fourth time, we said nothing, only trudged over to the carnival.
The Barker's eyes were shot with blood and his suit askew. There was no sign of the jugglers, no clowns. Even the tightropes themselves dangled loosely overhead. The Barker took us into a huddle.
"I need you. Each of you. You must be the carnival now. Come and take this paint, take these balls. The animals' stalls need cleaning and their feed refreshed. Come, come. The carnival will die without you. It always needs new things, new carnies or new marks, one or the other or both."
We cried, cried as the Barker forced us to tend the animals, to paint our faces, to learn to juggle and balance on the tight ropes.
I was the last to cease my tears, and as I wiped my eyes, the Barker draped his coat around my shoulders. His coat and tails fell loosely around me. His hat tightened around my forehead like a vise.
And just at that moment, the Barker and his minions fled, a herd where there had been only him before. They dashed from the shadows and hiding places and made for the airport.
For the first time in days the air was filled with the sounds of airplanes taking off.
I believe they must have been on that first plane, surely they must have.
So step right in. It is a new day, and the planes are flying. Come. Visit the carnival. We are here but for a day, and then we must move. Or whither. We must... You will laugh, you will cry, and we will win your money and your tears.
The Carnival always wins.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, January 29th, 2020


I wrote this while sitting in an airport in Orlando. I am about as opposite a frequent flyer as one can be, so I arrived with plenty of time to spare before my flight home. Almost too much time. So I took advantage of that time to write some flash fiction, and the idea of a flight being canceled was something that rose pretty organically in that setting. As for the clowns and carnival, well who can say?

- Daniel Ausema
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