The Big Show
Chapter one–Dream Circus
She found herself immersed in a mist so dense that when she waved her hand in front of her face she couldn't see it. This was far worse than any fog she had ever encountered, and it was frightening. With no way to tell which direction to go, or even where she was, a sense of vertigo crept in. It arrived with such an intensity that for a moment, it was impossible to tell whether she was standing right side up or hanging upside down. Closing her eyes just made her dizzy, so she did the next best thing and simply sat down and waited. Even the smallest clearing would be helpful in this enveloping world of fog.
It was hard to tell exactly how long she sat there. But as she did, it gave her time to sort through the confusion. Her senses took over, starting with the sense of sight. It was difficult to determine how far away they were, but she noticed lights off in the distance. The longer she stared, the more visible they became. Eventually, she realized it was a brilliant string of dark blue bulbs partially illuminating the night. Now her sense of smell kicked in, and the familiar aroma of popcorn was evident, along with cotton candy, caramel apples, hot dogs, and fried dough.
An uneasiness ran through her with the realization that she was sitting by herself, all alone and totally exposed. If something came upon her in the fog, there would be no time to react. It was risky, but she decided that her best bet was to walk toward the lights. If something was out there, it was best not to just sit around waiting to be attacked. Head on a swivel, she scanned the area, moving slowly and cautiously in a calculated way. Voices called out, and a third sense took over. At first it was only one or two, but as she continued to advance, more and more voices cried out into the night. At first, she thought it was the sound of someone, most likely a group of children, laughing out loud. The closer she came to the source, the less certain she became of the sounds. Were they shouts of joy or exclamations of anguish? Something was very familiar about the noises and the sounds. Without even thinking about it, she kept moving toward the lights.
At the same time she couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong, quite possibly something sinister. She wasn't sure why she felt this way, or where these feelings were coming from. Music started playing from somewhere up ahead, and again it sounded strangely familiar.
Then, all at once, everything made sense.
It's a circus, or at least some kind of carnival.
The fog was lifting now, and she recognized the various aromas wafting out into the void. She knew the smell of fried dough as well as anyone. After all, it was her favorite guilty pleasure every August at the New York State Fair in Syracuse. She tended to overdo it at the fair, but over the past few years had come to the realization that she didn't have to try everything they had to offer.
The voices, she surmised, were the midway hawkers, calling out to passersby. They were in strong form tonight, doing their best to goad people into parting with their hard-earned cash. Their selling point was the lure of sending everyone home with a giant stuffed animal. She had always envied the kids who were lucky enough to win them. In all her years of trying, the best she had ever done was a tiny little teddy bear. She had learned that the tables were rigged against her a few years earlier, and made it a point to avoid that part of the fair. At one time the racing game with the squirt guns was her favorite, though she often had little to show for it when all was said and done other than empty pockets.
But for all the noises and smells bombarding her senses, there didn't appear to be much in the way of actual activity going on. Perhaps she was too late, and everyone had already gone home for the night. If that was the case, why were voices still calling out from the midway?
Another scream pierced the night, and this time there was no questioning the emotion being elicited. It was a scream of fear, and it sent a chill through her body. She wanted to stop and run away, but something kept her moving forward. In many ways it was like the proverbial train wreck that is too horrible to witness, and at the same time so alluring that you can't stop watching. Her feet kept pulling her ahead, advancing toward the back of a large, red and black striped circus tent. She walked until she came to the end of the tent and then stepped into a clearing between a hot dog stand and a snow cone booth.
She was inside the circus now. Some of the lights were on, but it didn't look like anyone was home. Advancing forward, she saw something familiar, the swing ride. It was her favorite ride at the fair, with its long chains and seats suspended from the rotating top of the carousel. Behind it, in the mist shrouded darkness, she could just make out the outline of the Ferris wheel. Without warning the swing ride lit up in brightly colored neon lights, the music started, and it began to move. The glare being cast from the red and pink neon was in stark contrast to the darkness engulfing it, and she was momentarily blinded. It took a long time for her eyes to adjust. When they did, she noticed people on the ride. What she saw next made her lose all control, and she began to scream.
Beth bolted up from her sleeping spot, eyes wide open and still screaming. She stopped yelling and took a frantic look around, still not quite cognizant of her surroundings. Drenched in sweat, she felt cold, clammy and uncomfortable. Her hair was stuck to the side of her face, and she realized that she had drooled on herself. All in all, it was not a pretty picture.
Although Pauly was only a few feet away, he wasn't saying anything. Instead he sat, mouth wide open, staring at her. His eyes were glazed over.
"Pauly, help me," she pleaded. "We need to get away from here. Pauly, are you listening? I said we need to get away from here! Right now!"
The suddenness of her voice struck him like a cold slap in the face. "Slow down, it's just a dream. You were having a nightmare, a terrible nightmare from the sounds of it." She looked right at him and realized what was going on. "Everything's okay," Pauly said, reassuring her. "I'm here with you, and you're okay."
He moved in closer and put his arm around her shoulder. This simple gesture helped her realize that the dream was over, and she was back with her friend. "Oh Pauly, you won't believe what I just dreamed. It was horrible." He nodded, like he knew exactly what she was going to say next.
"I was all alone and walking through the fog. I had no idea where I was, so I sat down and waited. And then I started hearing things and seeing lights, and I smelled popcorn and cotton candy. I wanted to run away, but I couldn't. I just kept walking toward the lights and the sounds until I realized that it was some sort of fair or maybe a circus. When I got there I saw the swing ride, and it was terrible. You'll never believe what I saw."
"You'd be surprised what I'll believe right now. If it's anything like the dream I just had, it was terrible. I've been awake for a while, hoping you'd wake up soon. I didn't want to disturb you."
"So, you had a nightmare too? What did you see?"
"It was just like you said, and instead of seeing people on the swings, I saw bodies hanging from the chains. I didn't stick around for long, but the dream lasted long enough for me to recognize who they were. I woke up when I saw them, I'm surprised you didn't wake up. "
The brief description of Pauly's dream caused Beth's face to go pale. "Who? Who did you see? Please, tell me," she pleaded.
"You might regret asking me once I tell you. Are you certain you want to know?"
"I saw you, Beth. Along with Mariah and Katriva. You were all hanging there, upside down with chains around your ankles. You all looked dead. Some other kids were there too who I didn't recognize. What did you see?"
She shook her head in disbelief. "I saw you, and my sister, and Barbara, and it was all so real. What's going on here, Pauly? What does it mean? How can two people have the same dream at the same time?"
"Slow down girl, there's nothing to be gained by freaking out. I'm sure there's a logical explanation . . ." He stopped, realizing the absurdity of his words. "On second thought, forget that last comment. I don't know what it all means, but it can't be good. As far as there being a logical explanation—" Again, he stopped, shrugging his shoulders.
He remembered something Mariah had told him back when they were reunited in the swamp. "This is a stretch, but when Mariah first came back she told me she'd been doing research on Mr. Tout's past. I kind of dismissed it at the time, but now I'm thinking I should have paid better attention to what she had to say."
"Why? What did she tell you, and what’s it got to do with our nightmares?"
"I don't know how it's connected to our nightmares," he started. "But what Mariah told me was that she found some old newspaper articles about Tout. He was a circus master and some sort of mystic who got in trouble with the law. The last time anybody saw him was when he tried to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. The barrel crashed and all they ever found was his finger, so everyone assumed he was dead. Somehow, he ended up here, although I still don't understand what that has to do with our dreams. Either way, I'd say we need to be careful. Something's not right about all this. I think it's some kind of warning."
"Warning?" Beth answered, rubbing her hand against her forehead. "About what?"
* * *
Across the way on Marsh Island, a similar scene was playing out. In this case Mariah woke up screaming, caught in the throes of a horrifying nightmare. And, like Beth, she was greeted by an equally dazed and confused companion.
"I don't know what to tell you, Mariah," Katriva cautioned her after hearing about the dream and then being bombarded by questions. "Whatever it is, it can't be a good thing." She never said a word to Mariah, because just then she had her own gruesome nightmare to sort out. In her case there was no swing ride and no circus. Instead, her dream involved the bodies of the other children, the ones whose essence she had carried ever since Beth set her free from the weeping willow tree—the ones she hoped to bring together to join in the fight to stop Mr. Tout.
It was still too raw to sort through, but she had a very dark feeling that it was somehow connected to the horrible dream Mariah was describing.
"Tout's up to something," she continued, returning her attention to Mariah. "That's the only logical explanation for it, and somehow he's found a way to enter your subconscious. I hope I'm wrong, but if that's what's going on here, we're in real trouble—which means that we've got no time to lose. It's still too dark to head for Lydia, but as soon as it's light enough, we need to get moving."
* * *
“No! I SAID NO!”
Owen did not have the luxury of a friend to talk things through with when he woke up, shouting into the darkness of Lydia. Heart racing, he gasped for breath and shivered in the crisp dungeon air. He had experienced some terrifying nightmares during his time in the magical forest and on Marsh Island.
This one topped them all.
This one had crossed the line. And it felt too real for his liking.
The only source of consolation was to convince himself that it was nothing more than a dream. Anything more . . . a chill ran up his spine. He pulled his blankets tight against his body and curled into a ball.
Could things really be this bad?
“A terrible dream, that’s all it was” he said aloud, as though saying it would make it true. While he had no concrete proof that this horrific vision was anything more than the effect of being underground in Lydia, it had to be. If for no other reason than to protect his own sanity, he had to believe that. A few days earlier he was living in the dormitory near Mr. Tout’s tower. Now, according to the dream, an entire circus surrounded the area. There was no way anything so elaborate could have been created in so little time. There was no way Mr. Tout could have gone off the rails in such a violent manner. Although he was the master of powerful spells and had an insatiable appetite for mind games, he could never stoop so low. The Tout he knew would never allow something like this to happen.
Or would he?
The jolt of a second cold chill surged though his body, and with the shock a strange memory came to life. His first instinct was to dismiss such a crazy notion. But the more he thought about it, the more possible it seemed. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He could see it plain as day in his mind—Mr. Tout, sitting in his chair late at night, wearing muddy shoes. It didn’t seem logical at the time, and even less so now.
Unless he was up to something very, very evil.