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The Big Show

 

Chapter one:

Alone

Lost.

            Desperately lost, to be more precise, and trapped in an ocean of damp, grey mist. With no memory of what brought her there and no means of determining her whereabouts or which way to go, she wandered aimlessly in the overwhelming blanket of grey

            And then an unpleasant, vertigo-like sensation crept in with such intensity it became impossible to tell whether she was standing upright or hanging upside down. Closing her eyes produced a staggering dizziness, so she did the next best thing and sat down to wait.

            There was no telling how long she stayed put, bewildered by the sameness of it all. But as she did, it gave her time to sort through the confusion. Eventually her senses took over, starting with the sense of smell. The familiar aroma of popcorn became evident first, followed by cotton candy, caramel apples, hot dogs, and fried dough. Following these fragrances, she noticed lights up ahead, though they were not bright enough to determine how far away. The longer she stared, the more visible they grew until she recognized it was a string of dark blue bulbs partially illuminating the night.

            Beyond the damp and chilly sensations brought on by the mists, an uneasiness ran through her with the realization she was sitting by herself, alone and totally exposed. If something came upon her in the fog, she would have no time to react. It felt risky, but she decided to walk toward the lights. If something was out there, it was best not to sit and wait for it to come prowling. Head on a swivel, she scanned the area, moving ahead in a calculated way with slow and cautious steps.

            A third sense took over when voices called out, only one or two at the start. But as she continued to advance, more and more joined in. At first it sounded like someone, most likely a group of children, laughing out loud. The closer she moved toward 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, and without thinking about it, she kept walking forward.

            At the same time she couldn't shake the feeling something was wrong, quite possibly something sinister. Music began to play 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.

            As the fog lifted, the various aromas wafting out into the void became more prominent. She recognized 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 annual gathering, but over the past few years came to the realization she didn't need to try everything they had to offer.

            The voices, she surmised, were the midway hawkers, calling out to passersby. That being the case, they were in strong form, 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 always envied the kids lucky enough to win them. In her many years of trying, all she ever managed was a tiny little teddy bear. At one time the racing game with the squirt guns was her favorite, though other than empty pockets, she often had little to show for it. After realizing the tables were rigged against her, she made it a point to avoid that part of the fair.

            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 arrived too late, and everyone had already gone home for the night. That being the case, why were voices still calling out from the midway?

            Another screech pierced the night, and this time she did not question the emotion. It was a scream of terror, so awful it sent a chill through her body. She wanted to run away, but something made her move forward. In many ways it was like the proverbial train wreck too horrible to witness, and at the same time so alluring you can't stop watching. Her feet pulled her ahead toward the backside of a cavernous, red and white striped circus tent. She walked to the end of the tent and stepped into a clearing between a hot dog stand and a snow cone booth.

She stood inside the midway now.

Some of the lights were on, but it didn't look like anyone was home. Advancing forward, she came upon something familiar, the swing carousel. With its long chains and seats suspended from the rotating top of the carousel, it was her favorite attraction at the fair. Behind it, shrouded in the mist, she noticed the outline of the Ferris wheel.

Without warning the swings lit up in bright neon lights, the music kicked in, and it started to move. The glare being cast from the red and pink neon provided a stark contrast to the darkness engulfing it, momentarily blinding her. It took several minutes 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 screamed.

            Beth bolted up from her sleeping spot, eyes wide open and still screaming. She stopped yelling and took a frantic glance around, still not quite cognizant of her surroundings. Drenched in sweat, she felt cold, clammy and uncomfortable. Hair stuck to the side of her face, she realized she had drooled on herself. All in all, it was not a pretty picture.

            Although Pauly sat positioned a few feet away, he wasn't saying anything. Eyes glazed over he sat, trance-like, staring at her.

            "Pauly, help me!" she shouted. "We've got to get away from here. Pauly, are you listening? I said we've got 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 only a dream. You were having a nightmare, a terrible one from the sounds of it." She stared straight at him and realized what was happening. "Everything's okay," Pauly said, reassuring her. "I'm here with you, and you're okay."

            He moved in closer to put his arm around her shoulder. This simple gesture made her realize she was awake, and back with her friend. "Oh Pauly, you won't believe the dream I had. It was horrible." He nodded, like he knew what she would say next.

            "I was all alone and walking through the fog. I had no idea where I was, so I sat down and waited. 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 kept going toward the lights and the sounds until I realized 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," the boy answered. "If it's anything like my dream, 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 like you said, but instead of seeing people on the swings, there were bodies hanging from the chains. When I saw that I didn't stick around, but the dream lasted long enough for me to recognize who they were. I woke up shouting when I saw them, I'm surprised you didn't hear me."

            Beth's face went pale at the brief description of Pauly's dream. "Who? Who did you see? Please, tell me," she begged.

            "Are you sure you want to know? You might regret asking me once I tell you."

            She nodded.

            "I saw you, Beth. Along with Mariah and Katriva. You were all hanging upside down with chains around your ankles, and 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 the same thing except you and my sister and Barbara were hanging from the chains, and it all seemed 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, 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 his friend Mariah 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 told me."

            "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 Mariah told me she read some old newspaper articles about Tout. He used to be 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 must have 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 river on Marsh Island, a similar scene was playing out. Like Beth and Pauly before her, Mariah woke up screaming, caught in the throes of a horrifying nightmare. And, like Beth, she found herself greeted by a similarly dazed and confused companion.

            "I don't know what to tell you," 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 avoided commenting about Mariah's dream, because just then she had to deal with her own gruesome nightmare. In her case there were no swing rides or circuses. 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 help in the fight against Mr. Tout.

            It was still too raw to sort through, but she had a very dark feeling it was somehow connected to her companion's horrible dream.

            "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 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 over 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 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.

            Were things really 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 needed to believe that.

            A few days earlier he lived in the dormitory near Mr. Tout’s tower. Now, according to the dream, an entire circus surrounded the area, complete with rides making up the midway, carnival food concessions, and even a high-diving platform. There was no way something so elaborate could have been created in so little time, no way the old man could have gone off the rails in so violent a manner. Although he was the master of powerful spells with an insatiable appetite for mind games, he would 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 the shock brought a strange memory 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 saw 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.

            Unless he was up to something very, very evil.

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