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That morning, Dan decided he was half-vampire. It would explain why in the middle of spring he was so pale – whiter than spit. Then he remembered, while his mom was friendly with all the men in her days, she wouldn’t touch a vamp with a stake and garlic. He also remembered a time when he was eight, sitting at the kitchen table as his mom told him a story of being tricked by a vamp. He believed her till he remembered vampires weren’t real and she liked to play mean jokes on him. She still does.
He moved away from his skin and focused on finding clothes: skinny polos, loafers, and a tucked in white shirt with a blue blazer over it. His clothes were a little loose. He felt huge in them.
He brushed and sprayed his hair till it didn’t resemble a lion’s mane – bangs swooped to hide jagged eyebrows. He stood in front of the mirror once more trying to decide if he wanted to feel good or bad. He grabbed his camera though Negativity told him he looked like a bum. He took pictures. Maybe he should upload them online and tell everyone how gross he felt. He wasn’t fishing for compliments, but he knew in reality he needed them to feel better, even if only lasted a few minutes and he never believed them.
He grabbed his black ray-bans and hustled downstairs to the kitchen.
“I called you down twenty minutes ago. Now your breakfast’s cold,” his mom scolded as she finished washing the last dish. Her hip rested against the sink as she looked at him, scowling.
Dan grabbed a green apple from the counter and bit it. “I’m not really hungry.”
“You never are!” she exclaimed. Her hair was tousled and she was still in her red, satin pyjamas. Despite her mess, Dan was a carbon copy of her, and sometimes it weirded him out. He only has his dad’s nose and awkward body.
He was so lucky to have inherited their bad genes.
“I don’t eat a lot,” he corrected. “Chill.”
She rolled her eyes, giving up faster than usual. “Yeah, well, you’re still taking your brothers to the carnival?”
Dan nodded, throwing the half-eaten apple in the trashcan. It was too mushy.
“Where are they?” She pointed upstairs and Dan sighed loudly as he trudged back up. He didn’t really care too much for carnivals, the appeal losing its value as he got older. But it was something to do, and he promised his younger brothers he’d take them out.
He went to Jules’s room first, and found the seven-year-old jumping off his dresser and landing on his bed.
“What are you doing?” Dan caught the boy midair as he did it again, and they both tumbled onto the bed.
“I’m doing what the people in the circus do,” Jules squeaked.
“Because that’s what we’re gonna see at the carnival.” Dan chuckled, ruffling Jules’s hair and the kid squirmed.
“Nah, I don’t think that’ll be there, but you’ll see even more fun stuff. Here, put your shoes on. I gotta get Gregg.”
The fourteen-year-old’s room was across from Jules, and the door was shut. On the count of three, Dan kicked open the door and was greeted by a pitchy scream from Gregg.
“H-hey! What are you doing?” Gregg shrilled. He wasn’t naked or looking at anything on his laptop. He was lying on his bed playing a game on his PSP.
“Your door was locked,” Dan answered.
“And yours always is but I don’t kick it down,” Gregg complained, turning off his game.
“And don’t you ever. Come on; we’re gonna miss the bus.”
After a warning from mom to behave and a quick bathroom go, the boys were out and catching the bus just as it stopped down the street. They sat in the middle aisle, Gregg insisting he sit alone and Jules demanding he get the window seat next to Dan.
There usually aren’t a flock of odd folks on the bus in the morning. There were eight other people today. One of them a mother with a baby Jules kept making faces at it, and a drunken fellow (they’re getting earlier and earlier) who kept pestering Dan about the way he was dressed. Dan ignored him. He wouldn’t do anything, he wasn’t drunk enough.
The boys were heading to Landon View, 20 minutes from Eveling. Landon was bigger than Eveling – more city-like with musicians playing on street corners, various theatres, and vendors selling candy and toys from other countries. It was the kind of place artistic people or strange ones would live in.
As they near Landon View, cars began piling up and various kids were out about. There were giant, multicolored tents, a large Ferris wheel, and rides that weren’t as grotty as they could’ve been.
The smell of food and sticky candy wafted through the bus from a block away. The bus rolled to a stop, and Jules flew off with Gregg dragging behind.
“Dan, let’s gooo!” Jules squealed. Dan put on his sunglasses and they walked.
CCC was one of the most popular traveling carnivals to date. No one knew what the three Cs stood for. It could be in honor of the creator, Charles C. Coughlin, or it could mean Creepy Clown Carnival.
Dan went up to the ticketbooth, money in hand. The woman handing out tickets wore Monroe-red lipstick and her eyes were a grainy blue. She stared at Dan as he shakily asked for some tickets. The grin she wore made his nerves itch. He felt exposed despite his sunglasses.
“Ya’ll have fun,” she cooed. Dan smiled meekly, grabbed Jules’s hand, and they all scrambled passed her.
Jules immediately pointed to the Whirl-n-Swirl. “I wanna ride that!”
Dan and Jules probably rode it 80 times before Dan felt ready to puke and decided to stay back while Jules and Gregg made a mess in one of the game booths. Dan found a bench next to a cotton candy stand and took off his ray-bans.
Dan was typically oblivious; but today his skin began to shake and for a moment he thought the creepy woman had stalked him and was staring.
He hated being looked at.
He glanced straight ahead and instantly wished he hadn’t.
The man was somewhat shrouded by the tents, and groups of people kept walking in front of him. He was standing still, body stiff, and Dan knew it was him staring. The man was dressed in a brown suit and had a bowl-shaped hat on. If Dan squinted he could see a gold chain glittering from the pocket of his jacket. His mustache needed a serious trim: handlebars that resembled a dead squirrel.
Dan thought he saw him smiling curiously.
Dan stared till an ache formed in his head, and the heat made his stomach twist. He stood up, knees shaking. Oh, God. He can’t pass out, not in front of ----
And then he breathed cool, cool air in his lungs. His brain jumpstarted, the swirling stopped. The man was no longer there.
“Daniel. Stop ignoring me.” Gregg knocked his shoulder, and Dan glared at him.
“What is it?”
“You ate like half an hour ago!”
“You know breakfast food doesn’t last long inside your stomach. Wait – you don’t.”
Dan smacked his sunglasses back on and kept his face neutral. Gregg was a dumb kid naturally. Whatever.
“Fine. What you want?”
They walked about till Jules and Gregg decided on two hot dogs, pop, and funnel cake. Next to the vendor was a tent full of tables and they sat at one that was cleaner than the rest.
“I have a skate competition Tuesday,” Gregg announced through a mouthful of funnel cake.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full!” teased Jules. Gregg flicked powered sugar in his face.
“I’mma wake up early tomorrow and practice,” sighed Gregg. “If I’m in the top five I get to go to Brittel and compete against the best in the state. And if I’m lucky . . . the country. Don’t you get it?”
Gregg has this dream of becoming the best BMX skateboarder there was. The fact he’s at a carnival instead of working on his tricks was a miracle. “Don’t break a leg,” laughed Dan, and it earned him a greasy piece of pastry thrown at his head.
Dan dazed off soon after, and began to observe everyone at the carnival. Typical hetero families with small kids. Elderly couples. People dressed like they came from the swamp area of Eveling. Teen couples consisting of girls in sundresses and lean boys making kissy faces and gluing their hands to one another. And Dan swore he just saw his ex-girlfriend kissing an afro-haired girl.
He hasn’t kissed anyone in two years.
Before Dan could retreat into his corner of patheticness – the cackle of an announcer horn came on and a voice spoke through.
“My fair people,” boomed a man. Everyone looked forward, where on a pedestal stood a hefty man – the same one Dan saw earlier.
“My name is Bernard, and I welcome you to visit a world stranger than the Twilight Zone itself. Full of particular people not quite like yourself.”
He pointed to the bright blue tent behind him that confused Dan; he hadn’t noticed it before. There were giant posters of people with abnormalities: bearded ladies, Koko Girl, Skeletonman, Cyclops babies, and El Lobo Boy . . .
“Human marvels await all who come to say hello.” Bernard’s voice took on a foreboding tone, and again Dan felt his skin begin to sweat as the man peered at him. Like he knew something Dan didn’t want him to know.
Bernard turned swiftly and entered the tent. A young man working at the booth announced half-off admission to the first 50 people.
Jules jumped so quickly he spilled his drink. “I wanna go! Please, Dan?”
“I thought freakshows didn’t exist anymore,” Gregg gabbed.
Dan frowned. “I don’t know.” He didn’t like the way the man looked at him. The posters creeped him out. He didn’t want to see a “living skeleton,” he barely liked his own bones.
“I want to!” Jules’s voice was screeching at each word, and tiny tears gathered in his eyes.
“Shut up, Jules,” Gregg whined. “Can we go, Dan? We get to see people weirder than you. Think about it.”
“You’re very mean today.”
“It’s because of puberty.”
“Which you are still late on. Fine. We’ll go. Finish eating first.”
The two managed to stuff their cheeks like hamsters and in a second they were already at the booth.
“Enjoy the show,” the pimply-faced teen greeted as he handed Dan their passes. He didn’t have a staring problem like everyone else, but he gave Dan such a quick onceover it made his head spin.
The place was divided into three sections (which Dan couldn’t believe considering how small the tent looked from outside). The first was a museum-like room full of strange artifacts, the second a viewing room with selected marvels you could meet, and the third featured a stage where “the most outlandish marvels perform.”
“I want a shrunken head for a necklace,” Gregg mused sadly.
“That’s illegal,” Dan pointed out.
“So are a lot of things but I don’t care.”
Dan watched his brothers gaga over the items, and he pondered if they were allowed to take photos. He saw a worker standing by the entrance and was going to ask her about it.
“Enjoying things so far?”
Even with the sinking feeling so dominant in his stomach, Dan still turned around with a smile to greet Bernard.
“Pretty cool,” he said. Dan and Bernard wandered in front of a full length mirror. While Bernard’s image was simply blurred, Dan’s reflection had stretched cheeks, too thin waist, putrid, droopy eyes and a fat nose.
As if it was anything new.
“You believe mirrors show the truth, or tell a lie?” Bernard asked.
“Without mirrors I’d be in denial,” Dan mumbled, and his face burned red at his answer. “I mean, I don’t know. Depends on how much you like yourself, I guess.”
“And you don’t?”
Dan glanced uneasily at Bernard. There was no creepy smirk or glaring eyes, just wonder. Dan’s head began to throb, and again it felt like vile was rising in his throat.
“I don’t – I mean –“
“Dan!” He looked swiftly back and saw Jules and Gregg waving at him from the other end of the room. “Come on!”
“Hey, I gotta go, but . . . “ Bernard was already finished with their conversation and walking away.
“Rude,” Dan muttered, and went off.
In the second area, the trio met a bearded lady, whose dress Jules’s complimented on and she gave him an itchy kiss on the cheek. They shook hands with Spider Boy, and Dan blushed furiously at a dark-skinned girl who waved sweetly at him – her body ended at her waist.
They finally made it to the last area.
There were seats like one would have at a circus, only smaller with a 10 times smaller stage. The boys sat at the very front due to Jules’s persistence. The room began to fill with scattered, loud chatter as people waited impatiently for something to happen. It smelled like too much hairspray, rancid perfume and sweat. Dan expected a beauty pageant to happen.
The little light they had dimmed and the talking stopped. A spotlight focused on the stage and in it appeared Bernard in all his morning glory.
“Hello and welcome to Bernard’s Human Marvels. I am Bernard and today I present to you a variety featuring outstanding performances by some of our most extraordinary beings.”
Claps emerged; folks cheered.
Bernard chuckled. “Let me ask a question: how many of you, and I use this term fondly, proclaim yourselves freaks?”
Laughter came as hands went up gleefully. A boy next to Dan mumbled something about his girlfriend being a “freak in bed,” and his girlfriend rightfully bopped him upside the head.
Dan raised his hand half-heartedly. It felt too much like telling the truth.
“Some of us more than others,” Bernard snickered. “And so, with that, who would like to volunteer to start off the show?”
Cries and demands flew at him. Jules stood up in his seat and yelled, “Me! Me!”
Bernard’s index finger trailed the air before pointing at Dan. “You. The one still wearing his sunglasses even though it’s dark here.”
Dan’s tension went up; he started sinking in his seat. “M-me? No, I can’t –“
“Go up there!” urged Gregg.
“I don’t like attention!” Dan fussed, but Gregg already pushed him out of his seat, and Dan landed on his hands and knees, sunglasses on the ground.
“Need a hand?” The guy from the ticketbooth appeared, and grabbed Dan by his shoulders all the while laughing loudly. He dragged Dan to where Bernard stood.
Dan’s skin was melting from the light and the people’s intense stare. But Bernard was about as cool as a fall day.
“What’s your name, son?” Bernard asked.
Bernard put his hand on Dan’s shoulder. Dan was a second away from puking last month’s dinner. “You ready to amaze the crowd?” Bernard questioned.
“No,” flushed Dan. Oh, God, his voice was high. People were already laughing because he looked like a total fool.
“And with help from my assistants . . . “ Dan watched as four freaks from the previous area came out with a long, black banner and marched to him.
“What are you doing?” Dan gasped. Bernard sneered and Dan’s mind caved in.
“Putting on a performance, of course,” and he backed away. The smiling freaks spun around Dan, faster till there was only a black blur and maniacal laughter all around. Dan’s hair swished in his eyes and his clothes felt about to rip off.
Dan screamed. “Stop! I don’t want to do this! Stop!”
Dan screeched in pain as his skin began to stretch, his veins transforming. His eyes watered and his knees could barely hold his weight. He thought he might’ve finally puked, something wretched invaded his mouth. The audience continued to laugh.
Then the spinning stopped, and there was light and gasps.
The audience awed at the astonishing view. Dan breathed heavily, peering at them confusingly.
“What’s wrong with me?” he asked Bernard. “Why do I feel weird?”
“People!” Bernard called. “Our own freak right among us.”
The teen couple Dan had sat by grabbed a camera out and took pictures. Girls giggled. One older woman gazed in shock, hand covering her mouth.
Dan felt like the bullied elementary kid everyone picked on. “What’s going on!” Bernard grabbed his shoulder yet again and directed him to turn around.
“See for yourself.”
In front of Dan stood a tall, normal mirror. It looked like something cheap from the Dollar Store, but its reflection showed Dan what the audience gawked over, what he “joked” about himself looking but in reality it was all in his head.
He saw a grotesque boy with ugly, moss-colored eyes. His cheeks sagged with old, lumpy skin etched with black lines and wrinkles. His stomach morphed from obese to skeleton-like till his head hurt from the dizziness. He had a witch’s nose. His hands were too long, his knees too bony.
He was hideous.
And everyone could see it.
Dan stumbled stiffly. The audience still clapped, laughed, and took flashy photos. Jules and Gregg were even smiling hugely.
His own brothers thought he was a freak too.
“This isn’t real,” Dan cried. He felt like he had sobbed for hours when the tears were only beginning to come. “I don’t look like this.”
“Yes you do. You said so yourself,” Bernard replied. He walked circles around Dan, holding out his hand. “Every single day when you wake up. When you see people better-looking than you. I heard your thoughts, Dan. I know this is what you believe yourself to be. I suppose the truth hurts, doesn’t it?”
“But . . . but.” Dan’s breathing became labored and painful. The headache split his skull. He didn’t look like this! He does. He doesn’t.
He wasn’t a freak. He was.
“Don’t be ashamed,” Bernard comforted. “There’s nothing wrong with being a marvel.”
Dan couldn’t hear him over the laughter, so he ran. He pushed pass the ticketbooth boy who smiled ear-to-ear. Dan ran even though his bones were morphing and one minute he was a dwarf and the next a giant. He ran out of the tent and pass people who shrieked at his appearance. Because they knew he was hideous just like he had always known.
At least they were honest.
Dan doesn’t remember how, but eventually he found himself behind an isolated tent. He sat on the cold grass and closed his eyes. He kept them so till he passed out.
Dan was only out for ten minutes before he felt someone tapping his face.
“Hey, man. You all right?”
Dan moaned and blinked and his vision focused on a young, curly-haired man looking worried. He wasn’t staring at Dan like he was full of atrocity.
“I—I . . . yeah, I’m good.” The guy smiled and helped Dan up.
“You sure? There’s a medic tent nearby.”
“I’m good. Really. Thank you.”
The guy eventually left and Dan rushed to find a mirror despite how wobbly his knees were. He kept his head down so people couldn’t see his face, and finally he came across a reflective surface on the gates of the Caterpillar Coaster.
He looked . . . normal. He was still the same skinny Dan with chubby cheeks and weird hair, wearing pants a little too loose for him. His hands were normal. His eyes were the same.
For the most part.
He sighed happily.
He was back to himself.
Dan fished his phone out of his pocket and saw he had 5 missed calls and 3 texts from Gregg, one reading: Where the hell are you???
Dan called him back and they met up back by Bernard’s Human Marvels tent.
“Dude!” Gregg cursed. “What was up with that? You just ran off!”
“Did you see the way I looked?” Dan exclaimed. He wasn’t crazy too. “I looked like a monster!”
Gregg scrunched up his eyebrows and crossed his arms across his chest.
“Bro, they like scribbled on your face with cheap makeup and s***. It was funny but kind of cheesy. I guess you didn’t think so.”
“But . . . But I . . . “ Dan swayed and hit the back of the closed ticketbooth. He held his head and groaned. What was going on?
“I didn’t look like a freak?” Dan asked meekly.
“Wal-Mart has Halloween costumes better than what they put on you,” Gregg mused. He wasn’t messing around or lying. Even Jules was nodding at each word.
How could Dan have seen something totally different from everyone else? Did Bernard see? Dan didn’t want to know. He just wanted to go home and make today some sort of repressed memory.
For the sake of Jules, they let him play one more game before the bus showed up. It was getting dark and people were leaving. Staff members were telling people goodbye as they left. Dan couldn’t believe they spent all day at the carnival.
“Did you have fun?” Dan asked as they walked toward the exit. Gregg gave a thumbs up and Jules squealed it was the best day ever but he was hungry again.
Before the boys walked out, Dan took one final look around. He decided he was never going to a carnival again.
Dan’s gaze landed on one figure, hiding in the dark between two game booths. Bernard smiled joyfully, waving farewell. There was no upset stomach or migraines, but Dan still looked away quickly, and ran to catch up with his brothers.
Gregg and Jules fell asleep moments before the bus even started driving away. Dan stared out the window. It wasn’t clear enough to see his reflection properly.
Once they reached home the boys prepared for bed. Dan worked himself out of his clothes till he only stood in his underwear. He had a full length mirror in his room, directly behind him, and for an odd reason it burned his back. He should’ve turned off the lights and just went to bed, however . . .
Dan breathed till his lungs were full of fresh air, told himself he was being dumb, and turned around.
He saw his reflection and shivered.