[] Todd loses Sheila.

This is part 20 of Todd’s story.

You think I’m blind, I can see for miles
You think I’m happy ’cause I smile
But beneath flies a bird with a neck for a noose and bricks for cargo
You think I’m blind, I can see for miles
You think I’m gonna fake this smile
But I’ll turn it loose on stones and air with its guts for cargo
And its pockets full, and its pockets full
There’s a whole full of old blind men pointing in one direction
With their pockets full
So blind, they’re tripping over their own deception
With their pockets full
Ruby, “Cargo”

It was never the sights of a carnival that stuck in Todd’s memory; it was always the smells. Fresh sawdust, animals, sweat, cotton candy… it was enough to stick in your mind for the rest of your life. He inhaled deeply, relishing the memories that had happened before and after his time. Sheila and Thunk flanked him, seemingly expecting the worst. Todd exhaled slowly, trying to figure out their next step. He’d smelled fear in the Carnival, and that was right. This place should fear him, because he could un-make it. Of course, that would probably kill him in the process. And then it hit him.

Todd crumpled to the ground as a rubber juggling ball bounced off of the back of his head. Sheila and Thunk spun around to see a juggling clown approaching them. It wore an enormous smile, and it was moving slowly through the crowd of Carnival-goers. He was juggling quickly and skillfully, smiling as he walked. Todd moaned and tried to sit up. Thunk placed himself between the clown and Todd. Sheila just had time to yelp as she was picked up by her shoulders from behind. She was moved away from Todd, and set down. She whirled around to face a clown that had at least a foot on her. It was smiling, but that only made it more fearsome, instead of friendly. Its teeth gave the impression of being sharp and pointed, and its eyes were dull and dead. “Ticket.” Its voice sounded like bones rubbing together.

Sheila shakily held up her golden ticket stub. The clown looked at it closely, without touching it. It looked at her with its dead eyes and nodded. It unraveled a balloon string from around its arm and handed her a green balloon. Sheila suddenly realized that this frightening creature was letting her go, and she ran off without a second thought. She didn’t stop until she reached the Hall of Mirrors.

Todd stood up shakily. His head had already been hurting from the boot to the head that he’d received from the Symmetrical Man. Now, it throbbed as the world undulated and refused to focus. There was a vaguely person-ish shape in front of him whom he immediately recognized as Thunk. There were others, raging with color everywhere but their ghost-white faces. He steadied himself on Thunk’s shoulder and whispered in his ear, “They can’t kill us here. But, apparently, they can kick the crap out of us.” Todd shook his head, trying to clear it. Something familiar was trying to get recognition from his conscious mind. Someone was playing music close by. It was, appropriately, a carnival tune, but it was haunting and old. Todd turned around, and saw that the clowns had surrounded them. This was wrong; he hadn’t done anything to have the clowns attack him. He hadn’t endangered anyone or anything. Neither of them had earned the dreaded “Fetch.”

It was calliope music. It was the Carnival’s song that had enraptured Ralph so deeply that his heart ached when it wasn’t playing in his head. He’d missed it enough to install his own in his home. Their home. Todd’s home.

Todd knelt and picked up the rubber ball. “They’re herding us, Thunk.” He pointed, still palming the rubber ball, at Dr. Celestine’s trailer. “That’s where we’re going.” The clowns – all four of them now – backed off a step or two. Todd turned to the juggler. He whipped the rubber ball back to him, and it was deftly caught and added to the four balls already in the air. “Fuck you.” One by one, all five rubber balls hit the dust. Todd turned and walked toward the Doctor’s trailer. The clown’s makeup began to run, more quickly and fluidly than a downpour could have done, off of his face and hands. Thunk followed Todd, staring at the clown over his shoulder. The clown’s suit seemed to dissolve, revealing ancient finery underneath. His skin was nearly golden-colored and his gaping, surprised mouth had two fangs protruding from his upper jaw. Life, after a fashion, returned to his eyes. The sound of shattering glass came from inside the trailer, followed quickly by a bellowed curse.

The other clowns were distracted for just a moment, and the vampire made a bee-line for the gate that was both exit and entrance to this place. They followed it with inhuman speed, and none of the customers – the rubes – had noticed a damn thing.

Todd and Thunk gazed in awe at the ancient circus trailer. Every piece, no matter how functional, was adorned with carving and gilt, if not bright paint. It wasn’t garish, but it wasn’t exactly pleasing to the eye. There were windows, but they seemed to be blocked by heavy curtains. Todd took a deep breath, and knocked soundly on the door three times. It opened slowly and smoothly, without a single creak. Just inside the door stood Dr. Celestine, sans hat and coat. He was holding a silk hankercheif to a spot just above his eye.

“Ah, yes, Todd. You’re late.” Todd and Thunk exchanged surprised glances. “Don’t stand out there like two rubes. Come in!”

Give me your kings let me squeeze then in my hands
Your puny princes, Your so called leaders of your land
I’ll eat them whole before I’m done
The battle’s fought and the game is won
I am the one the only one, I am the god of kingdom come
Gimme the prize just gimme the prize
Queen, “Gimme the Prize (Kurgan’s Theme)”

[] Todd meets the Ticketmaster.

This is part 19 of Todd’s story.

It just takes a minute
And you’ll feel no pain
Gotta make something of your life boy
Give me one more vein
You’ve come to see the doctor
Cause I’ll show you the cure
I’m gonna take away the questions
Yeah I’m gonna make you sure
– Queensryche, “Operation: Mindcrime”

Todd sat in the middle of the back seat, watching the city fall away and turn into suburbs. Ever since he had entered the warehouse, he had known certain things about the Carnival. He had known about the Symmetrical Man, and about his relationship with Dr. Celestine. Todd was pretty sure that this was all information that was written inside Ralph’s old journal. He was also pretty sure that the imbalance he had caused was needed if he was to have a purpose. If he was to return to his house. He mumbled, “I am here because I intend on continuing to exist, in this form or one very close to it.”

Sheila looked back at him. “What does that mean?”

Todd leaned forward, and she shrank away a bit. “Something Dr. Celestine said to me while you and Thunk were upstairs.” Sheila blushed deeply. “He manipulated you, Sheila. Both the Symmetrical Man and Thunk used you to fuck with me.” She glanced fearfully at Thunk, and then stared at him, as if she was trying to read his soul.

“Neither of them could take what I wasn’t willing to give them, Todd.” She began to cry again, and faced forward with a set jaw. Todd leaned back against the back seat. Rage, jealousy, and hurt bubbled up within him, and then fell away. It felt as if they were someone else’s feelings, experienced by proxy. She was his girlfriend, and he was wronged by her infidelity. Compared to the Carnival, and to the game that was being played throughout time, it was so small. Todd was deeply afraid for a moment; he had nearly no idea what kind of being he was becoming, or if he was even still human.

Suburbia fell away, and the wide open fields of autumn farms surrounded them. “Almost there, Todd,” Thunk reported. Todd nodded. He would be unquestioning and fiercely loyal. He would do anything Todd asked, without limit. Without free will, there was no conscience, no responsibility. To Thunk, it was the ultimate freedom, when to so many, it would be a prison. Todd watched Sheila for a few minutes, and wondered just how few were left in this world that would see it that way. He shook his head, and Thunk pulled into a field-turned-parking lot. A short distance away stood the carved arch of a sign. Dr. Celestine’s face smiled down at those entering and leaving his Carnival of Souls. As dusk finished falling, the lights switched on, and the Carnival shone with color and motion. It was a beacon in the night.

Thunk pulled the car into a space, turned off the lights and engine, and yanked the parking brake into place. Sheila got out of the passenger side, and Thunk held the driver’s door open for Todd to get out of the back seat. His face was still quite swollen, but he could see out of both eyes. He noticed that while Sheila was nervous as hell, he was calm. That made sense to him, though. His job was clear. Hers was still entirely up in the air.

Todd walked to the bank of ticket-sellers, and his two friends followed. The carnie looked up at him, and he held up two fingers. He smirked painfully as he paid for two insanely over-priced admittance tickets with money from his basement. He could still hear Sheila’s exasperation at his own disinterest in the money. He glanced at Thunk and Sheila, and purposefully burnt that image into his memory. There was no telling when he’d see either of them again. “You guys ready?” Thunk immediately nodded, having no choice in the matter. Sheila hugged herself tightly, seemed to brace herself, then nodded. Todd smiled, a real and honest smile, and Sheila couldn’t help but return it. All three got in line for the ticket-taker. Sheila was first, Todd next, and Thunk last.

It was a fast line for the number of people that were coming in and out of the Carnival of Souls. As they approached, they saw the ticket-taker. He was overweight, balding, and possibly the most cheerful person that they had ever seen. His thin hair was long enough to hang over his ears, and fluttered gently in the breeze. He was wearing a dress that actually fit him well. He had countless pieces of Hello Kitty jewelry and toys in his booth. He greeted each person warmly and honestly; there wasn’t a single person that entered Dr. Celestine’s Carnival of Souls without a smile on their face. As Sheila approached, Todd recognized him. He was named Dav, and he was the Ticketmaster.

“Welcome to the Carnival, miss! Do you have your tickohmygod where did you get that?” Dav had stood up, and was pointing at her Hello Kitty lanyard. He was enraptured, like a kid in a candy store.

“Hi… uh, my boyfriend got it for me.” She looked back to Todd, motioning for her ticket. He handed her a small wooden box.

“Well, I’m not ashamed to tell you that I’m terribly jealous. Do you have a ticket?” Sheila gave Todd a questioning look, and he just stared at her. She shot him a glare, and opened the box. She handed the inverted ticket to Dav, who looked at it with a worried smile. He looked back up, but to Todd. “Isn’t this your ticket, Ralph?”

Todd smiled. “It was a mistake, Ticketmaster. I was meant to give it to her.”

The Ticketmaster looked back down at the ticket. “I don’t know…”

An idea suddenly struck Sheila. “Uh, listen, if you let me use that ticket, you can have this.” Sheila took off the lanyard and held it up to the booth. Dav’s eyes lit up, and his face beamed with an enormous smile.

“Deal!” Dav punched the stub of the now-golden ticket and handed it back to her. Sheila rushed past the booth, glad to no longer be holding up the line. Todd gave Dav the two tickets for himself and Thunk, and followed Sheila in.

No one saw Dav un-clip Sheila’s old ID badge and slip it into his ticket folder.

I will clean and cover my windows
‘Cos I don’t want to see where the wind blows
I’ll love it, I’ll covet another one’s idol
Because I am the queen of denial
I’ll love it, I’ll love it
I’ll love it, I’ll love it
The ego is the master of psyche
And envy tastes sweeter than grey meat
I’ll love it and learn to follow behind all
Because I am the king of denial
– Ruby, “Queen of Denial”

[] Todd kills.

This is part 18 of Todd’s story.

I am just a worthless liar.
I am just an imbecile.
I will only complicate you.
Trust in me and fall as well.
I will find a center in you.
I will chew it up and leave.
Tool, “Sober”

Thunk dropped to his knees and pressed his forehead to the floor. Sheila had never seen Thunk show submission to anyone, let alone in this blatant manner. She took a step away from the Symmetrical Man and bumped into the machine, jostling it. The two remaining jars wobbled on their perches, but didn’t fall. The Symmetrical Man smiled at her, like he had the morning after the party. The fucker looked like a snake.

“Sheila, my sweet lover, my young sacrifice, why do you cower from me? Did I not show you tender embraces and passion beyond what you’d ever known? And you would back away from me, in my own home?” He spread his arms wide in a gesture of innocence and good intent. His face still reminded her of a serpent, but the memories of his muscular form were strong and clear.

From somewhere off in the distance, the sound of glass shattering echoed. It was one instant sound, as if someone had dropped a glass, and then Thunk started screaming. “No! No, no, no! I don’t want it back! You can’t give it back to me!” He stood up, his face painted in terror, and stumbled past the Symmetrical Man. He flailed wildly and tripped as a soft glow filled the center of the warehouse. Todd joined them, but from exactly the opposite side that the Symmetrical Man had approached. Just in front of him hovered a small ball of light. It was just about the size of an orange.

The Symmetrical Man’s eyes darted back and forth between the light and Todd. Thunk was cowering on the floor, still insisting that he didn’t want it back. “There have been many before me, and will be many after me, young man. You, however, don’t fit the job description. You’re not even Scottish!” The Man began to sweat as his eyes continued to dart back and forth.

Todd motioned, and the ball of light moved to his left. Thunk winced as it got nearer. “I am your undoing. I am your antithesis. You provided me with a way to come into being, and your Carnival causes me to continue. I will end you, or I won’t. Do not mistake me for one who wants to take your place.” Todd took a step toward the Symmetrical Man.

The Man snarled at Todd. “My Carnival? Boy, you got the wrong Celestine.” He whirled at Todd, bringing his right leg up in a blur of motion, and kicked Todd in the jaw. Todd fell, rolled, and crumpled into a heap. Sheila screamed Todd’s name, and the Symmetrical Man sneered at them all.

The shattering of glass echoed from the other side of the warehouse. It grew louder, and disbelief replaced contempt on the Symmetrical Man’s face. Row by row, jar by jar, rafter by rafter, empty or full, cracked and broken jars exploded in a hail of tiny shards of glass. The explosions spread, following the rafters as if it were a maze. Finally, all that were left were the two jars rotating slowly on the broken machine. Todd pushed himself to his hands and knees. “I free my friends.”

It came out as barely more than a mumbled comment, but it resounded through the warehouse as if it had been shouted. The jars holding the spoons and the lanyard exploded. One shard, and one only, caught the Symmetrical Man above the eye, opening a small cut. Todd used a crate to pull himself to his feet. “I end you.”

It came out as a quiet command, but once more the warehouse was filled with the declaration. The Symmetrical Man began to glow with frenzied, multicolored light. It writhed through him and coiled over him like an angry python. Slowly, the colors and swirls and clouds and strands of light unraveled from each other. As their ends whipped and tossed, free of their form, they dissipated like fog in sunlight. The more of the outside that fell away, the more of the brighter inside shown through. Both Thunk and Sheila covered their eyes, and cowered until the miniature sun died out.

When it did, Todd was leaning on the crate. He was upright, but one side of his face was swelling up badly. Both Thunk and Sheila stood up. Sheila was staring at Todd in wonder, Thunk in fear. Todd looked at Thunk. “You sure you don’t want that back?” Thunk shook his head and cowered from the orange-sized light that still hovered near Todd. “Fine. Now you work for me.” Todd swept off Ralph’s old hat, caught the light in it, and set it back on his head. He turned to Sheila. “Could you please grab the stuff off the machine? I still think I might pass out. I think he broke my face.”

Thunk offered Todd his shoulder, and Todd leaned on it. Thunk wrapped his arm around Todd as Sheila picked up the journal, the lanyard, and the spoons. They all walked slowly out to the beater. “Todd, what do you know about that man?” Sheila was practically shivering from what had just happened.

“I know that he is dead.” Thunk opened the door for Todd, and he slid into the back seat. Sheila sat in the passenger seat, and Thunk sat in the driver’s seat. He started the car and released the parking brake. Sheila asked shakily, “Where are we going?”

Todd answered from the back seat, “The Carnival.”

Long ago there was a dream,
had to make a choice or two.
Leaving all I loved behind,
for what nobody knew.
Stepped out on the stage, a life
under lights and judging eyes.
Now the applause has died and I
can dream again…
Queensryche, “Anybody Listening?”

[] Todd watches.

This is part 17 of Todd’s story.

images as the bodies burn
seen through my eyes
please don’t make me visualize your pain
images and the sounds of war
seen through my eyes
images of rape and gore
seen through my eyes
images of a shadowed world
please help my god
– Chiasm, “Images”

Todd brought his clunker to a stop on the gravel and crumbling concrete driveway in front of the loading dock. Sheila flung open the passenger door and stormed out of the car. Thunk deftly squirmed out of the back seat, with none of his usual grumblings or protests about small cars. Todd turned off the engine and pulled the parking brake. He slowly got out of the car, letting his gaze wander over the whole building. He closed his eyes for a moment, and took a deep breath in through his nose. He could taste the power here, and it reminded him of burnt microwave popcorn.

A pebble went sailing straight for his head, and he brought his hand up just in time to catch it. “What the FUCK, Todd!” Sheila had a handful of gravel pebbles, and whipped another one at him. “Are you trying to prove some stupid point?!” Her eye makeup was running. She was crying and pissed as hell. “You knew this whole time, and you let me feel guilty for not telling you? You let me wallow in being a shitty girlfriend, and you knew all along?!” She limply threw the rest of the handful at him, and burst into wracking sobs.

“Sheila, what the hell are you talking about?” Todd’s confusion was plain on his face. Thunk was watching them both very carefully. Sheila turned around and stormed off, bawling, into the warehouse. Todd’s mouth hung open, as if he’d been slapped. Thunk kept his calculating look on Todd.

“Why did you bring us to this warehouse, Todd? The Carnival isn’t here. Of all the places in Chicago, why here?” Thunk took out a Helix cigar that he’d stolen from Ralph’s house, bit off the end, and spat it onto the gravel. He clamped it between his teeth and lit it, staring at Todd the whole time. Thunk seemed a lot older than he was.

“There’s something here that I need before we get to the Carnival.” With that, Todd spun around angrily and followed Sheila into the warehouse. He was no longer the only one who wasn’t entirely what he seemed. Thunk followed, wearing the same cheshire grin that he’d worn on the way to Ralph’s basement.

The evening sunlight lit the warehouse well, if not in the glittering magic that Sheila remembered from the morning after the party. Shadows were forming and deepening in the corners and beneath the rafters. Her tears stopped as memories of the party, closed to her until now, came flooding back. She slowly walked toward the warehouse proper. For a second, she was sure that she heard Todd’s footsteps behind her, but they’d stopped almost immediately after she had registered the noise.

Something crunched under her boots as she walked. It wasn’t gravel. She looked down, feeling like she was caught in a dream, and saw millions of shattered, tiny pieces of crystal. She followed her path forward with her eyes, and noticed that they covered the floor all the way to the center of the warehouse – right where she was headed. She shook her head and banished her fear. She would not go into this like some dumb blond. Fuck her mistake; now she had a score to settle.

Thunk entered the warehouse last, after giving Todd some time to wander around and get lost. The place hadn’t changed much in a year. There were more jars in the rafters, but that was to be expected. There was broken crystal all over the floor, but it didn’t seem to come from any of the jars. He squatted, inspecting the crystal pieces more closely. The pieces were too small and too numerous to try and piece them back together. Upon a closer look, Thunk could see tracks in the crystal. One set was small, light, and recent enough to be made by Sheila’s Hot Topic boots. The other two sets were older by a few days and much larger. The similar walking patterns implied that they had been of similar weight and height. Dr. Celestine and Mr. Weaver. It had to have been.

Panic rose in Thunk’s throat. The Man was not easily killed, but those two weren’t exactly normal, run-of-the-mill thugs. Not only that, but Dr. Celestine had bore an eerie resemblance to The Man. Fatter and older, sure, but almost the same. Thunk took off into the warehouse at a jog, his panic making him forget all about Todd’s missing tracks.

Sheila came upon the machine and stopped, gaping at how complicated and clockwork the whole thing seemed. Two jars rotated on small platforms, crossing each others’ paths often. There had been a third, but the jar looked as if it had been blown apart from the inside, and the platform no longer moved. An old journal sat there, and Sheila immediately thought of Old Ralph’s writing table. Still in jars were her work ID badge, still on its lanyard, and Thunk’s grandmother’s spoon collection. The whole machine conveyed a sense of broken symmetry.

Thunk came rushing up behind her, and skidded to a halt on the crushed crystal. He saw the machine, registered it, and looked around frantically for something else. “Sheila, they came here, those two assholes from the Carnival. Dr. Celestine and Mr. Weaver!” He kept looking around, searching for something.

“So?” Sheila scowled at Thunk, not liking how familiar with this place he seemed.

“He is merely concerned for my well-being, Sheila. To say that we are not friends is understating the animosity between the Doctor and myself.” The Symmetrical Man walked out of the office and toward them. Now, his sinister intent was unquestionable. Thunk heaved a sigh of relief. “Welcome to my home.”

Eine halbe Tasse Staubzucker Ein Viertel Teeloffel Salz Eine Messerspitze turkisches Haschisch Ein halbes Pfund Butter Ein Teeloffel Vanillenzucker Ein halbes Pfund Mehl Einhundertfunfzig Gramm gemahlene Nusse Ein wenig extra Staubzucker … und keine Eier.
– Tool, “Die Eier von Satan”

[] Todd drives.

This is part 16 of Todd’s story.

Squishy transmission was caught in drive
Spider man was squinting at the sand in the sky
Spider woman in the front seat, screamin’ “Go, Go, Go,”
He’s ridin’ the accelerator down to the floor with his fuzzy little toe
The Presidents of the United States of America, “Dune Buggy”

Todd drove down the highway humming to himself and smiling. Sheila was slouched in the front passenger seat, scowl on her face and arms crossed beneath her breasts. Thunk was laid across the back seat, staring at the sky through the back window. It wasn’t that Chicago was that far away from Jackson. It wasn’t that they’d be missing school or work because of the spontaneous road trip. It was that the Carnival was in Chicago.

Sheila had been in Chicago recently. It had been a few months since the whole ordeal, and she’d tried to put it behind her. Todd and she had been fighting. They were practically broken up, then, so it’s not like she’d cheated on him. She’d used her fake ID to get into a club, where she and her cousin had run into some of her cousin’s friends. They knew about a party – the news would have probably called it a rave, they were so out of touch – that was going on at a warehouse nearby. An hour later, they were bored with the club and in line to get into the party.

She’d taken a pill, and it made her feel so good and so free. She spent most of the night alternately dancing and making out with a twenty-something martial artist. He had been so muscular and sleek, with his reddish-brown hair and Scottish jaw. There were sections of the night that she couldn’t remember, except for the feeling of his feline form and the way that he’d known just how to touch her. Then there was nothing. She woke on a mattress in an office of the warehouse. The sunlight had come in through the windows and caught beautifully in hundreds of cracked and broken glass jars that lined the rafters. She sat up and shivered when the tips of her hair brushed her shoulders.

The horror slowly dawned on her. Nearly a foot of tediously-cared-for hair had been crudely cut off. She looked down at the mattress, and next to her lay a pair of old rusty scissors. She clamped her mouth shut so that she wouldn’t scream, and frantically looked for her clothes. They were scattered all over the office, and her hips were sore enough to tell her that she’d had quite a bit of sex the night before. She cursed her stupidity as she quickly dressed and headed for the office’s door. The smell of cigarettes, sweat, beer, and sex was all over her and her clothes, and she was already fighting back tears.

Then she saw him.

He was just as beautiful as her jumbled memories had told her, but there was something sinister in his stance. He was looking at her, through her, and she might as well still have been naked. There was age in those eyes. Age, wisdom, and a fury so powerful that Sheila screamed, standing there. It echoed through the warehouse, making the jars shiver and clink against one another.

He laughed. His laugh came from deep within him, and its rebounding sound overrode her scream. Around his neck hung her Hot Topic work ID badge and lanyard. It shined and shimmered in the early-morning light as if it was glowing.

She ran then, out of the warehouse and into the city. She had thanked God that the man had left her cell phone, and that she’d been able to ride the el to get to her cousin’s place. The ID badge had been easy to replace, but the lanyard had been a gift from Todd on her first day working at Hot Topic. They’d gotten back together quickly after that, and all of her pregnancy tests had come back negative. She and Todd had been stable and happy since then, until the thing with Thunk at Ralph’s house.

She stole a glance at Todd, who was still driving along with a chipper grin on his face. She resented him for being so happy and relaxed amidst all of this weird. She resented him for being the center of it, instead of her. But most of all, she resented him for making her love him, even now. She had no idea what she’d been thinking when she let Thunk kiss her. When she’d kissed back, hard. She had never stopped loving Todd. She looked back over her shoulder as Todd swapped CD’s. Thunk seemed caught up in a daydream.

Thunk saw Sheila’s look out of the corner of his eye. He kept his gaze focused on the clouds. He had never imagined that giving up something that everyone said was so vital would give him so much power and control. She’d been so easy to push that he wondered if everyone wanted so badly to have the choice taken away. He’d given up his free will; watched it fill a mason jar like the one in Ralph’s basement, only cracked, and had been given the power to take it away. Trick was, you had to want it gone, just like he had. Sheila wanted it gone, and bad.

Thunk had never thought that it would be this much fun to do the work of The Man.

close your eyes and take me in
the way you know is soon to change
alive inside the species grows
the silent fate
will dominate
you are your own enemy
Chiasm, “Enemy”