William Falo lives with his family, including a Papillion named Dax. His stories have been published or are forthcoming in various literary journals. He can be found on Twitter @williamfalo and Instagram @william.falo


by William Falo


When the carnival came to town, everyone seemed to forget their troubles, sadness drifted away, and people became friendly. It was always the best time of the year, but that changed because of me.

It happened in the middle of a drought. Ben and I circled the carnival and fairgrounds like vultures over a dead animal. Nobody stopped us from losing money on rigged games, going on nauseating rides, and seeing sideshow acts. We were free! Mostly, we followed the girls.

Lightning lit up the sky, but the rain stayed away. When there is a drought, even the thunderstorms are dry.

The carnies ran games and rides. Vendors sold everything from food to religious items. The contrast amazed me. They all coexisted because everyone was making money, but when that is the only thing holding the carnival together, it is fragile.

The heat was stifling, and we walked to the sideshow of oddities. Suddenly we found ourselves at the House of Mirrors. I didn’t want to go inside. I always worried that if I looked too hard into the mirrors, I would see that I was the odd one. The outcast.

“Let’s move on,” I told Ben.

He laughed. “What, you don’t want to see your own ugly face?”

“That’s it!” I told Ben, although that wasn’t it at all.

Underage, we bought cigarettes from some guy. I was surprised that Ben had a lighter and even a can of lighter fluid. He filled the lighter and put the can in his pocket. We smoked next to the two-story Haunted House.

I noticed a girl in a colorful dress and purple streaks in her hair working an attraction nearby through the cloud of smoke. She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen, and I stared at her for too long. She looked in my direction and caught me. I looked away, but it was too late. My cheeks burned, and I knew they turned red.

Ben looked at my red cheeks. “Alex, what the hell is wrong with you?”

“I feel sick.” I lied and threw the cigarette on the ground, and walked away. Ben did the same and followed me.

We walked through the midway. It didn’t take long before the smell of burning wood came to my nostrils. And then someone yelled Fire!

I turned and saw an orange glow from the direction of the Haunted House.

“Look!” I grabbed Ben’s arm and spun him around. “The cigarettes!”

“No way,” Ben said. “Wasn’t us!”

Sirens came closer, but they were still too far away. Shouts from people inside the Haunted House rang out.

“Ben, let’s get out of here!” I was disgusted at my own sense of self-preservation, but in that moment, it was all I could think of…just in case.

I ran past people, almost pushing them out of my way. But I found myself straight in front of the Haunted House as smoked poured out. The smoke burned my eyes and I looked back, but Ben wasn’t behind me. Alone, I sprinted away from the fire.

And suddenly, I was right back at the Haunted House. It wasn’t possible!

I turned to run a second time, but again, there was the Haunted House.

Ben had abandoned me. Was it the guilt? Did he believe we started the fire? I became furious at Ben. My friendship with Ben went up in smoke just like the Haunted House. We were the real monsters; everything else inside that house was fake.


In the end, two people had died in the fire, and three others were badly burned. Everybody blamed the carnies for the fire. They got cited for many violations: faulty construction, no smoke alarms, escape plans, no fire exit, lack of trained workers, and on and on, but I knew it wasn’t their fault.

The carnival shut down, and a few of the carnies were arrested for having warrants or refusing to give their real names.

A fire marshal completed the investigation but concluded that the cause was undetermined. In such dry conditions, he said, even a cigarette could have caused it. That hit close to home.

A deep sadness formed inside me.

That night and many others later, I kept expecting a knock at my door, but it never came. Not from Ben or the police.

The police put crime tape around the carnival to keep people out, but it didn’t stop the locals from taking out their anger on the carnies. They gathered on the outside and shouted insults. A few carnies were physically attacked when seen in the town buying supplies.

The locals said the carnies were immigrants, illegal aliens, criminals, and even worse things. Whether that was true or not didn’t matter to the townspeople. A few people even pointed guns at them.

The carnies took down the carnival as fast as possible while bearing the insults and danger.

I didn’t blame them for rushing to leave. Inside, I knew it was my fault, but I was a coward, and I hated myself for that.

One night, I snuck in and watched the carnies take down the rides and midway. They worked in unison. They stuck together like a family, and I admired that. I envied it.

I thought that although they were outsiders just like me, they weren’t alone in being an outsider. As a group, they found acceptance and friendship with each other; possibly even love. It was a bond that I feared I would never find.

As I stood watching, a girl with purple streaks in her hair approached me. A small dog walked by her side. I knew it was the girl from the carnival. I thought of running away, but her eyes froze me in place.

She stood in front of me. “What’s your name?”


“I’m Gabriella, and this is Tinker.” She pointed at the small dog. I reached down to pet it, but it backed up. “Tinker thinks you’re like the ones who hate carnival workers.”

“I’m not like them. I don’t hate carnival workers at all, especially you.”

“Well, then maybe one day you can join us.” She handed me a card with her name and a phone number. “By the way, smoking is bad for you.”

I was speechless. She knew.

Why did she keep quiet about it? She could have turned me into the police. Did she like me? Or was it a carnie thing to never tell? The answer eluded me, and I obsessed with the reason so much that I struggled to think about anything else.


I was filled with emptiness when the carnival finally left. I watched the trucks and trailers drive away; a few kids threw eggs until I chased them away. In one truck passenger window, I saw Gabrielle lean out the window. The purple streaks in her hair blew in the wind. I ran after it trying to wave goodbye, but she never looked in my direction, and the truck drove down the main street and vanished.

I walked away with my head down. The reality of my life was the opposite of a carnival. It was sad, colorless, and empty.

Except for my dreams.

Every night, I had the same recurring dream. I was always running away, but found myself in front of the Haunted House over and over again. Had that really happened that time at the carnival, or did I imagine it?

And then came the day I walked by an old house near Savich Field.

I stopped when I heard strange noises coming from the old house. There was a fence around it, and I wondered if that was to keep intruders out or something sinister in. I got closer and smelled smoke.

A familiar voice called out from inside. “Ben!” Nobody answered.

I didn’t see any fire, but the smell of smoke overwhelmed me. I had a strong sense of déjà vu. Was it a coincidence that someone inside had called out for someone named Ben?

I waited, but there still didn’t seem to be any fire. After a few tense moments, the smell of smoke dissipated.


My days became difficult. I always felt in a fog because I couldn’t sleep at night. I always fought going to sleep because I was afraid of my dreams.

During the summer, a smaller carnival came to Marlton. It was set up outside a church. Teenagers loved the small carnival. They played games and gathered in groups that I never was welcome; some won goldfish they carried around in plastic bags. I related to the goldfish. I was trapped inside glass, separate from others, and nobody was going to let me out.

I wandered the carnival, hoping against hope to find Gabriella and her dog Tinker. But she wasn’t there.

I thought of Gabriella obsessively and started writing poems to her. They all ended up in the trash. The summer dragged on, and I drifted through it like a boat lost at sea. I drank behind liquor stores with a few homeless guys. I smoked marijuana. My parents viewed me as a problem for their ongoing divorce, but there would not be a custody battle. In my case, neither one of them wanted me. I was a handicap to their freedom and affairs.

I heard through the grapevine that Ben left for college in September while I stayed behind, going downhill. The winter brought darkness to me that I feared would never escape its grasp.

My parents divorced and moved. I refused to go with either of them and sadly, they didn’t argue. I moved into their house while it was listed for sale. It was close to the old carnival grounds. I got a job in a hardware store, which I hated. Every day, I walked past the empty carnival grounds and paused at the spot where the Haunted House had stood. In my troubled mind, I still smelled smoke.

I couldn’t go on like this. My obsession with Gabrielle grew. And then I remembered the card she gave me with her phone number on it.

I left to find my redemption.


“Tickets!” I called out. “Come see the things that give you nightmares!”

Gabriella stood beside me while holding Tinker. I was the barker for the Haunted House attraction.

One day I asked her. “Was I a monster?”

She hugged me and cryptically replied, “There are monsters and then there are monsters.”

Some people still called the carnies monsters, freaks, and even worse, but they also bought tickets and walked inside the tents. They screamed and gasped. They liked to see monsters in the carnival because they left after a week.

They didn’t know that monsters were everywhere. They only had to go into the House of Mirrors to see where real monsters could hide.