We had to go all the way to the Cape, just the other side of the Lower End Woods, out near Graymoor Lake. The stars were so bright out there and I couldn't help but get lost in them. Tara dragged me on to a pair of massive oak trees, a huge wooden sign intricately carved to read The Festival of Worlds connecting them. It was as if they'd gone in and cleared a good ten acres, replacing all those trees with clapboard shacks.
Just beyond the entrance a shirtless man with a shining bald head beckoned us inside. A metal ring seemed to hover around his neck, and as we drew nearer I realized it was spinning. Leaning back, he spit a ball of fire at the twinkling sky. It roared fifteen feet into the darkness and dwindled to a wisp of smoke.
Tara grabbed my hand and dragged me in.
He cocked back and let loose another ball, and this time I felt the heat.
The first shack belonged to a short, stout man with ears like Dumbo almost touching his shoulders. He stood behind a table loaded with swords of various sizes. The banner above read Swallower of Swords. As we stopped he waved an arm over the table, as if prompting us to choose.
Tara picked a broadsword she could hardly lift.
The Swallower hefted the blade, guided the tip to his tongue and shoved it in. I cringed, expecting it to burst through the back of his neck, but as the haft disappeared he opened his mouth to show us it was simply empty. He waved an arm over the table again.
“How'd he do that?” I asked.
I wasn't so sure.
The next act was a tall, lithe blonde in a red-and-white striped bikini. Her banner read The Spineless Wonder. She stood rigid, like a soldier at attention. Until she bent backward. Her midsection folded and her face appeared between her legs, chin to the floor. With a dazzling smile, she came back up and twisted until her back faced front, torso creasing like a wet towel, then turned her head so she was looking at us again.
Most of the spectators clapped, but one guy dropped to his knees, spilling his last meal.
Tara pulled me along, giggling like a schoolgirl.
Stop number three was a man and a massive mirror, but where his and our reflections should should have been was a lion, it's mane full and lush, dark orange with some black at it's ends and a bit of yellow under the chin. A crowd of other various animals ranging in size and species from birds to bulls and even one elephant spread out behind. Where Tara and I should have been were a leopard and an eagle. I moved an arm and the eagle's wing rose. Tamer of the Beast Within, the banner read.
The Tamer brought a whip and a chair out from behind the mirror and the lion rose, made a tight circle and set it's feet facing us. The Tamer cracked his whip and the lion growled. Inching forward, he cracked the whip again. The very tip touched the mirror and it rippled like mercury. The lion roared and I coughed, a hand inadvertently against my chest. The Tamer, still moving closer, jabbed with his chair and the lion swatted. He jabbed again and when the lion swiped this time it's paw came out of the mirror, caught one of the chair's legs and sent it spinning off the platform.
I grabbed Tara and ran. She laughed and said something about good effects. I was sure now, they weren't illusions or special effects. That lion's paw came out of that piece of glass. The beautiful blonde had no spine. The sword swallower ate his blades and the fire spitter needed no accelerant. It wasn't a freak show, and it wasn't a circus either.
Before I realized I'd taken us further in, we were too far to tell where we'd come from. Stretching in either direction as far as I could see was an endless corridor of horrors. Tara was oblivious, convinced we were watching the greatest show on earth. All my life I'd heard stories of Graymoor Lake and the Lower End Woods but I'd always cast it off as superstition. Now, searching for a way out of whatever terror we had found ourselves lost in, I knew that had been a mistake. My heart beat in my gut. No matter how far or fast we went, in either direction, the corridor never broke or curved or changed in any way. It felt like one of my nightmares, when the clown is coming, toes already peeking, claws stretching, and my legs are moving but it's like I'm only making one step for every three of it's.
I stopped, gasping, unable to clear my mind. Before I could even begin to form a thought Tara pulled me on to another platform crowded with spectators.
The banner read Eyes Without a Face. Below it stood a man with wispy white hair. Overalls drooped on thin shoulders. Just a common hillbilly, until his eyes popped out. He caught one in each hand. They turned one way scanning the crowd, then the other. He shoved them back in, spun them in their sockets, rolled them up and and around, then popped them out again. This time I gave up my own last meal, and when I came back up Tara was gone. Two men were leading her away by the arms, and she seemed content enough to go with them. I called out once, but realized that would only alert them to my presence and followed instead.
As though they were in on the abduction, the crowd parted for them and closed around me. One guy even grabbed my arm, or I thought he did, and I punched him in the nose. I saw blood but moved on as the crowd momentarily opened. By the time I made it through, though, Tara was gone.
My mind spun and the world around me began to spin as well. My thoughts took off like the Thunderbird at Holiday World. I almost fell down. I tried to call out to her. My throat was closing. Everything seemed to be revolting against me. I screamed inside my mind. I could feel the words reverberating against the walls of my skull. It made the vertigo worse and I tripped. Someone caught me. I looked up into a pair of purely black eyes. Pools. I saw colors swimming there. But that couldn't be. How could there be so much diversity in such empty blackness? I felt myself falling into them. Or were they pouring down over me? A voice. It asked what I would do to have the one thing I had always wanted. Tara. The one thing I had wanted since I realized I loved her. The thought broke whatever spell those eyes held and I shoved as hard as I could.
I hit the ground and stared up at the crowd moving past me. There was no black-eyed anyone. No one in front of me at all. I turned over pushing myself up and ran. The first platform I came to was empty and I climbed onto it, hoping they had taken her inside the shack. Instead I found a woman sitting at a vanity, naked save a thick green snake across her shoulders. She turned, snake slithering into her luscious red curls.
“May I help you?” Her voice was lulling, relaxing, comforting. Her eyes shimmered, yellow in the soft dancing flames of her lanterns.
“I'm looking for someone.”
“Someone you have found,” that last mostly a hiss.
She was right. I couldn't figure out what I had come there for or even how I had gotten there. Her fingers came up, longer than they should have been, and caressed my arm. Waves rolled into my chest, creating an immediate an excruciating erection. I put my hands on her hips. Then she was hard against me, arms coiling. I realized I was losing breath, that I had pretty much already lost it and was struggling for the next. Still, I could think of nothing but her, being held in that embrace, having her, moving inside of her.
Then something changed. It wasn't supple flesh in my hands, it was sharp and rigid. I glanced at the vanity, everything dimming at the edges, and saw her. From her feet to her lower back and climbing were green scales. I tried to break free but her hold was so strong now that even if I'd been breathing I couldn't have broken it. The world was mostly dark, just those yellow eyes staring into mine, a pink forked tongue flicking at my nose. I was going to die in her arms, crushed to death because all I'd been thinking about was pussy. I almost wanted her to kill me, the way I felt in that moment. But if she did that then Tara would just be gone. I would never know what had happened to her, and she would never know that I had died trying to find her.
Something grazed my neck and I drew back, no more than three or four inches, and what had been an alluring conglomerate of perfect features only moments ago had become an arrangement of green plates. That tongue flicked into my eye and I reached up to clutch her hair. It wasn't much, just a loose grip, but I pulled hard. She shrieked, loosened her grip enough to allow a breath, which I may have gotten half of, and I yanked with every bit of strength it gave. She hissed and two long fangs dropped from the roof of her mouth. I got one great gulp and really grasped that hair. I pulled and she let go completely. I fell and scooted away. I thought then that she could have had me anyway, if she'd really wanted. Either way, I stumbled out the door and tumbled off the platform without looking back.
As I came to my feet all the way I hit a wall. At least that was what I thought. Eight feet tall at the neck and about four feet shoulder to shoulder. His eyes were solid white, his skin as black as tar. It was almost like looking into a void. A thick metal ring dangled from his nose.
One of his hands palmed my stomach, stretching easily from one side to the other, and moved up to the base of my throat. I tried to move away but he pressed me against his platform. “Leave here.” He wasn't speaking. “She has chosen. You have not.”
“What do you mean, chosen?”
He stepped back. “All must choose. All choose incorrectly. Leave here.”
“I don't understand. Just tell me where she is, I'll get her and we'll be out.”
“You do not understand. She has chosen. Once a choice is made it will never be unmade.”
“What choice? Tell me, please.”
“All will be tempted. She has succumbed.”
“Just fucking tell me where she is!”
He pointed down the corridor, in the direction I had been going. “Continue and you shall find her. Do not continue. Her choice is made. Yours is not.”
He raised his arm to let me pass and as I moved away I looked up at his banner. The Oracle. I wanted to stop. I wanted to leave. If she had really made a choice then it was what she wanted and there was no saving her. I didn't care. I couldn't leave her.
I passed a woman with slitted eyes, whiskers and a long black tail swaying at the hem of her skirt. There was a teenage boy dangling from an awning by his feet. Another woman had a pair of white wings. Not like an angel, but like a bird. No arms, just wings. They glittered in the flickering torchlight. There seemed to be no end to the creatures on display, and I say creatures because none were quite human anymore. If they ever were. One guy had the body of a man and the head of a bull, with horns two feet from point to point. I thought of the mythological chimeras we'd learned were nothing but mere tales of fiction. The longer I walked the less sure I was of things. I began to think I'd wake up soon holding Tara, sweating all over her. I certainly hoped that was the case, whether I lent the thought any credence or not.
Then I reached the end. It was a wall with a solid metal door. There was no knob or bar or handle. I approached it anyway. I felt the smooth surface, cold and hard. I pushed. Nothing. I tried to find an edge I could manipulate, maybe work a finger into. It was seamless. I stepped back and just looked at it. I'd come so far and this damn door was going to stop me? I couldn't let that happen. If I had to kick until my feet broke I would, but I wasn't leaving. I lifted my leg to begin a task I knew was pointless and something hissed. At first I thought the snake lady had caught up to me, then the door started opening. I ducked beside the nearest platform and watched.
Two men emerged. They appeared no different than anyone else, aside from their suits. They were white. So white they were difficult to look at. As the door finished opening I dashed for it. I wasn't even giving it a chance to close. If they saw me they saw me, but Tara was in there. I knew it.
Everything was fluorescence and gleam. For a moment I just watched. All over, some moving from one end of the massive space to the other, some actually performing operations, were those white suited figures, only these were very different. The two I'd just seen had been no taller than anyone I'd ever known. These ones though, these ones were seven feet tall at the shortest, maybe nine at the tallest. Their arms were spindly, legs like thin trees. Their necks were long as well. Their skin was translucent. Their heads were bulbous, eyes huge and blue, with hair that bordered on white.
Then I saw Tara. She was lying naked on one of their tables. Between myself and her were a man being dismembered, arms and legs replaced by those of a tiger, and another man yet to be worked on. The second man and Tara's bodies had been marked with a series of dots and dashes. I couldn't get near her without being spotted, but neither could I leave her there to be dissected like some high school biology project. There were a few instruments carts on the way to her, so I thought if I could get to each one undetected maybe...
I almost made it. I was at the last cart, about to maneuver around the doctors operating on the tiger-man when a hand touched my shoulder. I looked back and up into those black orbs that had caught me earlier, the ones that had seemed to melt and pour over me while simultaneously drawing me into them. When that voice spoke this time I listened. Tara had made her choice, whatever that was. I was making mine. If she couldn't leave, then there was nothing anywhere else for me. The only thing I'd ever wanted was a life with her, a happiness. I guess I was never able to give that to her, so she chose whatever they had offered her. So I did too. They asked me what I wanted. If I could have one thing. Just one. So I told them.
I came to on my own platform, spectators filing by or crowding the corridor, pointing and whispering. I paid them no mind, focusing instead on the attraction across the way. Her platform had been fitted with a rather large aquarium. Inside it lay Tara half submerged on a huge rock. Her legs had been replaced by a shimmering green-blue-red tail fin. She smiled and waved, and on her lips I read the words “I'm sorry.” I smiled and waved back, and what should have occurred to me long ago occurs now. Her dream had always been the dream of a girl, a dream that could never possibly be, a dream she couldn't possibly pass up. I'm not sure what she's sorry for, but I hope it isn't for choosing her dream.
She can't know, of course, that I don't blame her, or that I'm not angry or upset. She can't know that I could have escaped, that I'm here because I chose my dream too. When we shut down they'll take me to her and I'll explain. See, that was my deal, I get a life with her, mostly from a distance, yes, but a life nonetheless. The stars are brighter here than they ever were where we came from, everything is. I will not miss the world we left behind. I was never much for it anyway, Tara had always been mine. According to the legends mermaids are able to shed their tails from time to time. The legends are true, for the men as well as the women.