It was the aroma of popcorn in the air that Madeline loved most about the carnival. Pretty much the minute those vans and carts rolled into town the scent lingered in the air like a smile after a pleasant dream. The excitement drove her wild and she nagged her best friend Lily every day, begging her to go with her.
Lily did not love the fair.
It was the stench of motor oil and smoke in the air that she hated the most about the carnival. Those vans and carts seemed to drag the stink in with them, filling the town with pollution and waste. The dread of going sunk right to the pit of her stomach and she dreaded the thought of Madeline bringing it up.
And Madeline always got her way.
It was decided. Lily would borrow her mother’s car and they would ride the short trip to the abandoned field that carnival had claimed for the season. Madeline talked the whole way there. In the driver’s seat, Lily just nodded, said “uh-huh” whenever was required of her and smoked another cigarette right down to her fingertips.
A yellow ticket was thrust into Lily’s hand and Madeline looped her arm around the crook of her friend’s elbow. Lily tucked the ticket in her purse and tucked her purse tightly under her free arm. Carnivals were rife with pickpockets and they loved to look for a pair of young women like Lily and Madeline.
Madeline beamed at her friend and waved her ticket in the air, yelling “Look out boys, the gals are here!” She held Lily close, trying to hold down her own excitement. All around them the carnie boys grinned and she winked. This carnival was rife with strapping young men and they were on the lookout for a pair of young women like Madeline and Lily.
“Right,” Madeline grinned. “I say we hit the Ferris wheel first. Gives us a good chance to look around and see what’s what.”
“Whatever you think, Maddie,” Lily grimaced.
Madeline squealed and ran towards the structure at the far end of the field, pulling her friend in tow. The two women ran through the thoroughfare, trampling through the discarded popcorn and tickets that had already collected in the few days since the carnival had arrived. Tents whizzed by them, along with food stalls, games of try-your-luck and unusual individuals who claimed to lift cars over their heads.
From the vantage point of the Ferris wheel, Lily and Madeline could take in the view and plan out their day.
Immediately after the Ferris wheel, they would test their strength, hoping that the strapping strong lad would say “step aside, ladies, let me show you how it’s done”. Lily hid her eye roll at this and started smoking another cigarette. Next, would be some of the performers - especially the strongest man in the world. Then, would be the carousel. Then some cotton candy. Even though Lily preferred toffee apples. And finally, a good old fortune teller to finish.
A whirlwind afternoon of too many rides, too much sugar and sideshows that were a little too strange swept by and a few hours later they were stood outside the foreboding tent of “Madame Mystique”. There was no way that was her name. It was probably Mary. Lily grimaced and took another bite out of her toffee apple.
The poster showed a woman with white eyes and flowing black hair. Blind eyes were raised to the heavens. The hand of the illustrated figure lingered between the words “Yes” and “No”.
“Alright, three yes or no questions for $1,” Madeline read off the poster, skipping from one foot to the other. Her cotton candy was nearly gone. Sugar was practically running through her veins now. “This is it; this is my chance to find out when Tommy is going to propose and where we’re going to get married and how many babies we’re going to have…”
Lily licked stray toffee from her lips. “None of those are yes or no questions.”
Scoffing, Madeline corrected her wording: “Is Tommy going to propose soon? Are we going to get married in that little church on Elm Street? Will we have more than three babies? There, done. What are you going to ask?”
“Nothing. I have no questions.”
“I like the mystery.”
Giggling, Madeline gave her friend a very gentle punch in the arm. “You old romantic, you.”
“Right, go ask your three burning questions and I’ll wait outside.”
Madeline grinned from ear to ear and kissed her friend on the cheek. Like a good friend, Lily wished her luck and held back the tent door. Madeline disappeared into the dark.
A smell of incense and burning candles snaked out towards Lily as the tent swung closed. It clawed at her nose and gave her that sinking feeling in her stomach again. She leaned back on a lamp post that had been fitted in the thoroughfare for the fair coming. Little kids ran by, laughing and cheering and egging each other on. She hated it here and wanted to go home.
In a flurry of tent and smoke and waving arms, Madeline burst back into the thoroughfare. Tears were streaming from her face. “Lily, I need you to go in there and ask my questions again. She said no, no, no.”
Lily took Madeline by the wrists. “Sweetie, calm down, it’s a load o hocus pocus.”
“No,” Madeline insisted, overcome with an anger that Lily had never seen in her. It was a little frightening. A dollar bill was pressed into her palm and Madeline started pushing. “I need you to go back in there and get the right answers because that was wrong.” Her future was evaporating before her and she needed her friend. “Please,” she begged. Lily nodded and headed into the tent. Her last sight was Madeline, leaning against the post and biting her nails.
Inside the tent, the smell was stronger. It pulled her in and held her like a warm embrace. The temperature was dramatically higher than it had been outside. Sweat ran down Lily’s neck. A burly man appeared from the shadows and held his hand out.
“One dollar. Three questions,” he growled. Money exchanged hands and the man led Lily to a small table where the young blind woman sat. Just like on the poster.
“Yes or no questions only,” the man added and gestured for Lily to sit down.
Something both frightened and enticed Lily about this woman. Electricity prickled through the air, prickling at Lily’s skin. The man tapped on the table. “Three questions,” he ordered. This seemed to pull Lily back into her body and she felt herself again.
“Will that idiot, Tommy, marry my friend, Madeline?”
“No,” the girl whispered. Her unseeing eyes stayed fixed on the ceiling.
Madeline hesitated. Something in her head told her that Madeline’s questions didn’t matter.
“Will I ever leave this town?”
“Yes.” On the table her fingers twitched.
“How will I die?”
The burly man stepped forward. “Yes or no questions only…”
The young woman reached out and grabbed Lily by the wrists. Her white eyes met Lily’s and stared right into her soul.
“In my arms, in this tent, in this carnival. Not in this field, not in this town, not in this state. You will be old, you will be sick, you will be loved.”
The burly man pulled Lily out of the seat and out of the seer’s hands. He pushed her from the tent and the outside world flooded in.
“Well?” Madeline asked, grabbing Lily by the shoulders. “What did she say?”
Lily looked at her friend and she seemed like a visitor from another life. She felt like an imposter all of a sudden. And she had way more than three questions left to ask. Searching Madeline’s face, she tried to find words to explain what she had just gone through. Instead, she saw desperate hope.
“Three yeses. Load of hocus pocus, I told you so.”
Visible relief washed over Madeline’s face. “I knew it! I knew Tommy and I were getting married in that little church. I knew it, Lily, I’ve always known it. What a load of hokum. Let’s go home.”
Madeline pulled Lily towards the exit. Everything was a little louder for her now. Children’s laughter sounded like cackles. Smells assaulted her nose. Oil from the noisy trucks polluted the air. Around her, she was sure that the young men behind the stalls were laughing at her. She wanted to go home. Madeline was done with carnivals.
Lily walked at Madeline’s side with purpose. Everything sounded different now. Children’s laughter was like music, harmonising with the accordion player. The scent of popcorn filled her lungs. Around her, the carnies gave her subtle nods. They knew she’d be back. And she would be. Lily was ready for the carnival now.
Emma Kathryn is a horror fanatic from Glasgow, Scotland. You can find her lurking on twitter @girlofgotham. When she's not scaring herself to death, she is recording as one half of The Yearbook Committee podcast or she's streaming games on Twitch. She is rather tiny and rather mad.