The velvety indigo of summer’s dusk descended slowly, the stars winking. No moon shone in the sky, but a great deal of noise and light coming from the earth below more than made up for it. A rotating circle of lights stood out most brilliantly against the sky, taller than any building for miles, spinning on its neon axis.

            Below and around the Ferris wheel, mirthful crowds pressed all around the colorful booths where vendors shouted like auctioneers, the candy-striped tents emitting the clanging and cheering of games, and the luridly dressed clowns on stilts, juggling bats and twisting balloon animals. The laughter was incessant, permeating through the humid night, and the carousel music only complemented the sound.

            From the topmost seat of the Ferris wheel, Charlotte could survey all of this from a somewhat objective distance. Certain pieces of the crowd stood out more—the gaudy red nose of the nearest clown, the pink bow on top of a little girl’s head, the huge yellow Teddy bear a man had won at a shooting gallery. Red and purple balloons floated atop the crowd’s heads, bobbing here and there, and every once in a while, a solitary rubber sphere would escape into the inky sky, free for a moment before it popped.

            Then something else caught her attention. Leaning against the popcorn stand, contrasting oddly with the surrounding lightheartedness, was a shadow. It must have been a person, of course, but he or she stood in the booth’s shadow so that their face was hidden. All she could tell was that the shadow had its hands in its pockets, and wore a black suit—and she had the uncanny feeling that it was staring at her.

            “When we get down, do you want some cotton candy?” asked the other occupant of their seat. “I’m getting a little hungry again.”

            Charlotte laughed; relieved to be free of the shadow’s stare, she turned back to the boy next to her. “Dan, we just had huge boxes of popcorn, and you’re still hungry?”

            He shrugged, grinning sheepishly. “Ah, well, it is carnival night—we get to indulge, right?”

            She privately wondered if her boyfriend had double the average human’s metabolism; he was skinnier than she was, but seemed to eat twice as much.

            “Well, I’m full,” she said, as the wheel finished its downward arc and came to a stop at the ground. “You can get some if you want.”

            He cast a guilty glance at her as they got off the ride. “Not if you don’t want to,” he said, “that wouldn’t be fair, for me to just eat in front of you…”

            She grinned; he was so anxious to please her sometimes. “How about this: I’ll go try to win a Teddy bear while you get some cotton candy, and then we meet back at the carousel. How does that sound?”

            He bit his lip. “Well, alright—if you don’t mind, that is,” he agreed.

            “See you,” she said, giving him a swift peck on the cheek, and they separated.

            Charlotte had difficulty making her way through the pressing mass of bodies, weaving her way through children, teenagers, parents, and clowns, while grasping her purple balloon’s string tightly in one hand. Eventually, she had waded over to the yellow-and-white striped tent that housed the shooting gallery.

            “Step right up, miss, go on, just fifty cents for six shots, and you might just win one of these prizes!” promised the man running the game. “Just try to shoot five plates.”

            She pulled up the rifle to take aim, but something caught the corner of her eye. On the side of the adjacent booth, the shadow she had seen before stood with its hands in its pockets. This time she could see more clearly that it was a man—just a man, with an ordinary face, middle-aged with brown hair, vaguely nondescript. But his dark eyes were on her, his smirk in her direction.

            The summer air felt cold all of a sudden, her limbs tingling with shivers.

            “Miss, go ahead, it’s your turn,” pressed the man in the booth, breaking into her trance.

            She turned back to the booth abruptly. She was being ridiculous, she thought—how uncommon was it for her to see the same man twice while spending the evening here? She had nothing to be alarmed about, nothing at all.

           She won herself a stuffed panda, about as big as her head, and then hurried off to find Dan near the carousel. She found him by the line, buying two tickets, smiling as he caught sight of her.

            “Nice bear,” he congratulated her as they climbed onto two neighboring painted horses, clinging to the brass poles.

            The carousel played a music-box tune, catchy and cheerful at once, and Charlotte managed to throw off the shivers and by joking with Dan. The turntable spun around, eventually gathering a bit of speed as the watching crowd turned to a vivid jumble of flesh colors and lights.

            She was laughing as the horses made their last rotation—until a jolting sight met her eyes for a split second. The enigmatic man was standing in the middle of the throng, his composed sneer still unmistakably on Charlotte.

            Her face paled, the hands gripping the brass pole turning slippery with sweat. It felt now like this stranger was following her, whether she was imagining it or not, and her female intuition told her to run as fast as she could in the other direction.

            The ride stopped, a half-circle away from the man, and Charlotte felt a terrifying compulsion to make a run for it.

            Next to her, Dan was completely oblivious to her distraction until they reached the exit line.

            “Charlotte, are you alright?” he asked, putting an arm around her in concern.

            She struggled to take a deep breath. “Actually, I think I feel a little sick. Can I go to the ladies’ room for a minute?”

            His eyes grew wide in alarm. “Of course—go ahead.”

            She half-ran across the dirt path, ducking around people until she reached the fortress of safety, where she knew the stranger couldn’t reach her: the women’s bathroom.

            Her arms had to support her as she stood over a sink, breathing heavily. The cracked mirror showed that worried lines were lodged over her sunken grey eyes, set in her ashen face.

            “You’re being silly,” she tried to reassure herself. “You only saw him three times—just because he happened to be in the same place as you, that doesn’t mean he’s following you. And even if he was, this is a crowded, public place—how in the world could he do anything to you?”

            She took a brief drink of water, splashing some on her face and the back of her neck. She was just being paranoid, she repeated over and over to herself, and poor Dan must be worrying. She took another deep breath and strode out of the bathroom.

            In the midst of the crowd, she suddenly felt hideously exposed. She shivered, the warm summer night inexplicably feeling wintry.

            She searched, craning her neck to see over the throng with growing desperation. Where was Dan? Though she could have sworn she’d checked every face around her half a dozen times, none of them were familiar. She knew it was foolish to panic, yet her heart pounded, her pulse hammering in her neck so hard that she might faint. Where had he gone?

            She found herself racing through the crowd as fast as she could, pushing past clowns and bright balloon animals that were just blurs, until she found an unoccupied space.

            There was a gap between the crowd and this small building, a gap undoubtedly caused by the darkness that stained the ground around it. The inside, from what Charlotte could see, was completely and ominously dark, contrasting oddly with the flashy purple and blood red letters above the door: FUN HOUSE.

            Instantly, her body locked down. Something was unnerving about this place, and every portion of her mind rebelled against going inside, though she couldn’t explain why.

            Her blood, already throbbing in her veins painfully, raced still faster, her whole body still cold. A perverse impulse dragged her foot, unbidden, into the dark entrance—first one step, then another. It was as if her body would not obey her; it acted of its own accord.

            Once inside, the darkness washed over her like a polluted river, nauseating her. She walked further and further inside, hoping that she would find the exit on the other side, and hopefully Dan.

            Her wide eyes adjusted quickly to the gloom, and she caught sight of something over her shoulder—

            With a terrified gasp—and then a laugh—she realized it was only a mirror. She’d just seen her dim reflection, that was all. Her ghostly face shone in the sparse light, but she laughed with weak relief, the stabbing panic in her stomach ebbing away.

            She strode through the narrow corridor of mirrors, thousands of pale Charlottes echoing around her, bouncing off the other mirrors, repeating over and over. The deathly silence pressed around her, creeping up her spine with an uncomfortable prickling; a cold shiver that seeped its way through her unpleasantly like poison.

            She quickened her pace, anxious to rid herself of the gloom and the multiple Charlottes surrounding her. So fast that she wasn’t entirely sure how it happened, she banged into something with a loud thud and was thrown backward onto the ground.

            A piece of glass stood in her way, rippling—so translucent she hadn’t noticed it. There were open paths to her left and right, both of them still lined with mirrors reflecting infinitely onward.

            As she glanced down the left hand side, her muscles stiffened into a rigid stillness, her pulse hammering: an elongated silhouette gazed out of the mirror, faceless and immense.

            With a scream lodged in her throat, she turned to fly down the other side—but a shadow stood there too!

            Everywhere she looked between the infinite mirrors, shadowy men leered at her from every direction. Her breath came in painful gasps, burning her lungs as she gulped in air.

            Which one was the real one?

            She had no choice but to guess. If she didn’t make a choice, the shadow would catch up with her in her hesitation.

            She flung herself down the left passageway, ducking around a corner, her limbs no longer shaking but pounding their way through the maze. The fight-or-flight reaction had taken control over her body, regained possession of her numb mind—a status of pure survival that she accepted gratefully.

            She rounded another bend, and a screech tore from her throat—the shadow stood in front of her; no optical illusion this time.

            She withdrew from that hall and began to run senselessly, without direction, not caring where she was going, simply away from here.


            She’d slammed headlong into a clear wall of glass. Ignoring the bruise now throbbing on her face, she picked herself up and scrambled through the open passageway.

            Dead end!

            She turned back the way she’d come and tore through the other path. Shadows watched her progress with amusement. Footsteps, echoing terribly in the mirrored labyrinth, silhouettes nearly upon her; she couldn’t run fast enough.

            Hands extended out in front, she stumbled through the maze like a blind man, running in every open direction. She may have gone in circles, but it didn’t matter to her; so long as she kept moving with all the power left in her aching muscles.

            She heard ragged breathing, lower, coarser than her own; the stranger was nearly upon her. With a sudden surge of adrenaline, of speed she hadn’t known she possessed, she burst out of one corridor—

            And out into the blinding light.

            She didn’t stop when she had freed herself from the Fun House; she kept running, running until she touched the side of the popcorn stand, across the path from the Fun House—like she was headed for the base during tag.

            Wheezing, she came to a standstill, clutching her chest.

            Why was everything so quiet?

            Horrified realization washed through her, trickled through her veins with a sickening cold.

            It was empty.

            The carnival itself was still present, the Ferris wheel turning, the erratic lights on the arcade games blinking, the merry-go-round playing its tune. But the crowds, the pressing masses of men, women and children that had laughed and joked not twenty minutes ago—they were all gone!

            To her frenzied eyes, the sporadic lights and garish colors were evil. The wax moon clown face painted on the Fun House entrance grinned at her in a manic way, his black eyes glinting with twisted delight.

            The carousel’s spins turned faster and faster, the music-box tune pitching higher and higher, to a slighter hysterical note, the painted horses galloping up and down, their eyes rolling madly. They seemed to whisper to her frantically.

            Run! Run!

            The man had not gone, and it was only by a miracle that he had not yet escaped from the labyrinth. She flew on, with no idea of where her legs were carrying her; it only mattered that she did it quickly.

            Her feet were suddenly splashing, knee-deep, her high tops soaked—and she realized she was standing in a creek, far from all the rides.

            An arched tunnel over her head read, in shocking pink and lavender, TUNNEL OF LOVE.

            It was darker in here—only a few purple lights flickered in the tunnel. Soon, she had ventured deeper and deeper into the stream, sloshing loudly, so she hoisted herself up onto the brick catwalk next to the channel. Her waterlogged jeans weighed her down, but she kept moving.

            She couldn’t stop glancing behind herself, her eyes always on the entryway from where she had come. Every once in a while, a small rowboat would bump gently against the side of the catwalk, giving her a start, but other than the water lapping around the footpath, she could only hear her own squeaky high tops and rough breathing.

            With yet another shaky peek backwards, she wondered when she ought to stop moving—perhaps hiding would be safer than running. She was nearly at the end of the Tunnel of Love.

            She turned forwards again—and gave a shriek.

            The dark man stood there, the dim purple light throwing his lined face into sharp relief. A smirk twisted his calm face, heavy eyebrows slanting over his deep-set eyes.

            One of his hands clamped around both of her wrists, a vise too tight for her to break, despite her frantic struggles. She opened her mouth to scream, but her dry windpipe made only the tiniest rasping sound.

            The man didn’t speak—but his other hand reached for her throat.

            He didn’t look angry, as murderers often did in movies—he was smiling slightly in obvious enjoyment; a twisted expression that was infinitely worse. His dark eyes gleamed, but it was not the light of reason that illuminated them; it was a possessed impulse.

            One coarse thumb stroked her neck before his whole hand tightened around her throat.

            A burst of adrenaline washed over her like a tidal wave, and she thrashed as hard as she could—but he held her neck tighter, choking her.

            “H-Help…!” she tried to scream with every ounce of energy she had left, but it came out only in a raspy whisper. She grasped at his grip on her neck, trying with slippery fingers to unlock his hold on her, screaming ever louder.


            People did hear her shrieks of “help”, and they came rushing in. A frenzy of activity flurried around the hospital bed—two doctors in white coats hurried to the patient. One held the girl down as she struggled, screaming hysterically; another injected more fluid into the IV sack hanging over her bed.

            Slowly, the girl’s cries quieted, becoming whimpers. She fell back on her pillows, her eyelids drooping shut, and she breathed deeply again.

            From the simple, sterile hallway, Dan peered anxiously through the window, a bouquet of icing-pink roses in his hands.

            “Doctor Martin! Excuse me, could I talk to you?” he called to a passing doctor.

            The doctor took off a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and glanced through the window. “Are you a friend of hers?” he asked, gesturing at Charlotte’s still form.

            Dan nodded, making a quiet choking sound, twisting the flowers in his hands.

            “Dr. Martin, what’s wrong with her?” he begged. “She’s been here for weeks.”

            The doctor pursed his lips, running one hand along his bald head. “When someone suffers a trauma like that…well, they’re not going to get better in a day or two. There could be long-term damage; it could even be permanent. Physically, there’s nothing wrong with her anymore, but mentally and emotionally…”  He trailed off, shaking his head somberly.

            The flowers in Dan’s hands were dangerously close to breaking.

            “But, Doctor, I don’t even really understand what happened that night—she disappeared at the carnival for a half an hour, and then all of a sudden, police cars are coming, and people are crowding around—some guy gets arrested—”

            The doctor smacked his lips together grimly. “Son, you do realize that she was nearly assaulted, don’t you? The man they apprehended had been wanted for years.”

            Dan’s face drained of color as Dr. Martin spoke.

            “So,” he stammered, his voice cracking, “is she ever going to recover?”

            Dr. Martin shook his head slowly. “I don’t know. I really don’t know. If she could stop reliving it over and over again, she might improve. But she keeps having vivid nightmares about it every time she falls asleep, and she thinks it’s really happening every time. Whenever we convince her to talk about it, she eventually gets hysterical.”

            Dan fidgeted with the zipper on his jacket, biting his lip. “Her parents are really worried about her, too,” he mumbled.

            Dr. Martin sucked in a breath through his teeth, seeming to debate over whether to tell him something. “Her parents are thinking of sending her to a sanitarium,” he said, watching Charlotte’s sleeping figure.

            Dan’s eyes widened, and he nearly dropped his bouquet. “A sanitarium—you mean an asylum?” he cried.

            Dr. Martin’s eyes narrowed. “No, I mean a psychiatric hospital, where she can get the kind of help that she needs. There isn’t much left that we can do for her—but going away someplace might help her get better.”

            Dan swallowed visibly, and there was a long pause. “Will I still be able to visit her?” he murmured.

            The doctor nodded. “Not as often, I’m afraid, but I’m sure you could.”

            Dan started for the ward door. “Please, can I just go in and see her?”

            “She’s asleep.”

            “I won’t wake her up.”

            The doctor conceded with a nod, and Dan entered the ward with trepidation.

            He sat on the edge of her bed, careful not to disturb her. Taking out the withered bouquet of daffodils from last week, he refilled the glass vase on her bedside table with the pink roses. Underneath the vase was a get-well card he had sent just yesterday.

            “Hey, Charlotte,” he whispered, taking one of her hands. Charlotte didn’t stir, still asleep from the sedatives.

            A tear fell on the white pillowcase, and then another—Dan bent his head so that any watching doctor from the window wouldn’t see him crying.

            “I’m sorry, Charlotte,” he murmured thickly. “It’s my fault—I was so stupid! If I hadn’t brought you there, none of this would have happened.”

            He sat there for a long while, holding her limp hand in his, sniffing. He could barely even see her through his puffy eyes.

            “Get better, Charlotte,” he said weakly, bending to kiss her forehead.

            Then he heard the sleeping girl make a sound, a soft sound. For a second, he thought she’d awoken, but her eyelids remained shut. In her sleep, Charlotte began to hum under her breath—a catchy, music-box tune that Dan remembered the carousel had played that night.