The midway at night. It is an eerie place. Fading filaments in clear glass bulbs are strung overhead between old wood caravans with sun-baked and chipping primary colored paint. Long pitch black shadows filled with ominous creatures scuttling about within their depths. Faces appear sinister. An October wind is dry and smells of burning Fall foliage, stale popcorn, even staler beer and cotton candy.
There are few patrons here. This carnival does not draw the crowds of the old days. It is in disrepair, with tired old carnies working rusty old rides, aging animals and worn out stages. Run down and uncanny. It is a vagrant's carnival.
The Sideshowman, a son of a Sideshowman, peeks out from behind a ragged old red curtain and surveys the gathering of people about the stage. It looks pitiful. He sneers, deflates. The tin of his flask catches the light of a full harvest moon as he tips it to his lips and pulls from it heavily three times. His shoulders shudder from the burn coercing through his wiry limbs. The flask nestles back into his breast pocket.
A teenage girl joins five people standing before a stage shrouded in darkness. She is petite and fresh, bright brown eyes, shaggy light brown hair, a cherub's face. She sips soda tenderly through a straw, delicate little fingertips upon transparent cylindrical plastic. She looks up. The banner across the stage lit by weak flood lights simply reads SIDESHOW; COME ONE COME ALL! She steps to the front and waits.
The girl catches the Sideshowman's eyes. A wicked grin spreads across his thin lips like a disease. He straightens his back, adjusts a red and white vertical striped suit jacket on his shoulders, and sucks in breath. The Midget King hands him a straight black cane.
The Sideshowman pounces onto the stage with a cymbal crash as floor-lights ignite his image from below. He is tall, lanky and pallid, dark eyes, brown curls. He has a stage presence that demands attention naturally, being the son of a Sideshowman. He stands still in a learned pose of expectation, arms out, head cocked, hat in hand, grinning kindly. He awaits applause.
A light smacking is heard that rivals the crackling of a fire.
His brown eyes swing over the audience, taking snapshots of each face for future reference. They are hick town folk and look as such. The teenager down front though has a inviting cleavage and large clear eyes that speak volumes of untainted innocence just lying in wait. These eyes are glued to his form, a curious expression on her face as she sucks on the straw from a cup of fountain soda. His eyes spark to burning embers in the floor lights. The edge of his mouth pulls up.
"Good Evening, ladies and gentleman," The Sideshowman's voice booms through smiling lips as he tosses his hat onto his crown and the cane to his other hand. "It is absolutely wonderful to see all of your shining bright faces this eve! So very good of you all to join us as I would most indefinitely delight in bringing your humble attentions to the sights and sounds that we have poised for you just behind this luxurious Hollywood curtain!"
His cane whips out and smacks the tattered remains of the old felt curtain of red behind him. His head turns back and forth quickly, a sly look on his face.
"Step right up," he beckons, "don't be shy."
No one moves. The teenager in front blinks up at him, her chest rising invitingly. The Midget King in the wings is the only one enraptured by performance.
The Sideshowman breathes deeply and steps to the edge of the stage. "Only a quarter! Just one twenty-five cent piece to see the most incredible and disturbing creatures and anomalies from the farthest reaches of our very own little 8-ball! Curiosities! Men of infinite strength. Women of virtue times two. Boys the size of toys. Yes, yes indeed we have them all for your viewing! We have a man of the forest, wild as the night. We have a girl with no arms but four legs. We have the Pin Cushion Lady and the Bear. We have the Midget King and so much more!" He is energetic and working to his full, pantomiming and exaggerating words and gestures. "Now who would like to be the first to witness the very strangest of the strange? Chance of a lifetime, a must see!"
The people remain inert. The Sideshowman represses the urge to balk; his eyes roll up to the murky night sky. "Father, they test me," he murmurs through his teeth.
A moment passes and the Sideshowman's eyes roll back down in a rollercoaster motion and square the teenage girl. She looks sweet and succulent. He grins at her and points, "how about you, miss? Won't you be the first to see the unseeable?" He flashes charm and bends down on one knee.
The teenage girl's brows lift and she smiles shyly. Her cheeks flush. The Sideshowman winks at her. Her shoulders shrug in a brown leather bomber jacket and she nods.
The Sideshowman smiles wider, mouth watering, and reaches his hand down to her. The teenager takes it and steps up the rickety wooden steps to the stage. She works a fantastic set of stems wrapped in tight acid-washed denim. The Sideshowman holds onto her hand and spins her slowly, admiring her curves. "My my, isn't she lovely ladies and gentlemen?"
The girl smiles. The crowd is dead silent. The Sideshowman glares out at them and leans out, "I said, isn't she lovely?!" he barks at them.
A flinching smattering of hands slapping together raises nervously. The Sideshowman snorts at them, turns back to the teenage girl and smiles again. She is watching him carefully. The edges of doubt glint in the whites of her eyes. He blinks sweetly at her, bends to her hand, licks his lips and kisses her knuckles. She giggles once with bashfulness, looks away. His tongue sweeps over his lips again. He can taste her and his eyes say so.
"So," the Sideshowman grabs her shoulder and turns back to the audience, "what is your name, my darling?"
The teenage girl nervously glances about and murmurs something. The Sidehsowman cocks his head, eyes madly rolling with embellished confusion. He bends close to her mouth with his ear. "I'm sorry, my dear, what was that?" His eyes keenly take in the cleavage heaving beneath his face. She doesn't notice.
"Chloe," she speaks up with a slight drawl, voice nervous, "said my name, Chloe."
The Sideshowman rights himself as if shocked and wildly whips his cane up into the air. "Chloe, ladies and gentlemen!" He glares a warning at the crowd and they clap again.
"Now if you will just step this way," The Sideshowman can wait no more, turns and begins carefully guiding the girl towards the back of the stage.
The girl watches the Midget King back away into darkness in the wing.
"Hey," someone in the audience yells, "what about us?"
The Sideshowman reels, turns to the audience and snarls at them, "Shut up! One at a time only!" Spittle flies from his teeth as he scolds. His eyes are wide and feral.
A few gasps swell, but it's too late. The Sideshowman disappears behind the Hollywood curtain with Chloe the teenager.
In the dull light of the corridor behind the stage, The Sideshowman snatches the arm of a slow looking behemoth with no hair and growls in his face, "tell them no more show tonight! Tell them go home!" The slow man nods and shuffles out to the stage.
Chloe looks scrupulously at the Sidehsowman. He laughs nervously and carefully puts his arm about her shoulders. "It's late, and you are our last guest tonight," he assures her. He is damp and cold, frantic beneath his smile and behind his eyes. Chloe looks innocently up at him.
On the other side of the curtain, the slow man speaks slow, mimicking in menace exactly what the Sideshowman said. Chloe watches the shadow of him play against the curtain. The crowd groans and cups and boxes of crackerjacks are thrown at him.
The Midget King appears and passes something sharp and glinting to the Sideshowman and just as quickly he disappears. The Sideshowman clasps the hilt behind his back. Chloe looks back to him, brow worried.
The Sideshowman, smiles, laughs anxiously in his throat, and squeezes Chloe's shoulder to his chest. "Well, let's start, shall we, Chloe, my dear?"
The Sideshowman walks Chloe towards a dusty curtain at the bottom of another set of rickety wood stairs. Behind it black light illuminates everything a fuzzy deep violet and blue. Strange smells emanate from there, strange noises, strange feelings. Dangerous feelings.
Chloe is hesitant, sneakers dragging in the hay spread over the hard dirt.
The Sideshowman stops, looks at her with the demented grin of a clown.
"Don't be afraid little girl," he says, "it's only a sideshow."