Calliope (Flash Fiction)

The calliope sang, and the dark child wept. The steam-powered notes taunted him through the dirt-hazed glass of the attic window, as he stared into the suburban abyss. A spinning Skittles rainbow of twinkling Ferris wheel lights teased him.

The dark child retreated to the shadows. The thick hair of his back itched against insulation. Tears fell from his red, night-glow eyes. The days were bad. The sound of passing school buses and playing children tormented him. But nothing—nothing compared to the carnival.

The joyous cries of children invaded his sensitive ears. He covered them with his hands, digging his long, sharp fingernails into the surrounding flesh. His pain could not silence the ecstasy of others. The world lived, and he died a slow, lonely death.

The dark child longed for the silent dark, the friendly night that allowed his wandering, aimless journeys through shadows and moonlight. The dark child embarrassed his parents, and so he was not allowed daylight. He scared the children, so he was not allowed school. Tonight, the dark abandoned him, as well embracing the carnival and the day children who would taunt him. He hated the carnival. He despised it for condemning him to a household prison.

The dark child’s stomach grumbled as the sweet smell of cotton candy tickled his nose. Funnel cakes, hot dogs, buttery popcorn. The dark child pinched his nose, and the calliope screamed. The barker’s siren song called, “Come one, come all! See sights unseen and experience the bizarre and wonderful!”

The dark child rocked back and forth, clutching his knees through his brown corduroys.  The calliope sang “My Sweetheart’s the Man in the Moon.” The carnival children laughed and shrieked. The lights burned like Earth-struck stars. Corn dogs.

The dark child sprang up and smashed the window with hairy fists. Footsteps started up the stairs.

“Tony, are you okay?” came his mother’s voice.

Tony started towards the door. The barker called. The dark child turned and jumped out the window, landing in the oak tree, and then dropping down to the lawn. He sniffed the air. Kettle corn. He followed the aroma through the suburban landscape to the field at the edge of the Conner State Park, where pinstripe giants of tents sat concealing unknown wonders.

The dark child watched from the forest. His mouth salivated. He felt energized. The carnival radiated electricity, and it jolted through him. Every hair stood tall, struggling to see. His heart beat time with the calliope, and then the singing ceased.

Parents gathered grumbling children and herded them towards the gate.

“Thank you, ladies, gentlemen, boys, and girls,” the barker called to them. “May your dreams be filled with songs and wonders, and may your feet bring you back tomorrow night. Thank you for visiting our wonderful family.”

Parents loaded sugar-high day children into sedan and mini-vans. Parents snipped, and horns honked as the vehicles fought to escape the make-shift parking lot. The carnival lights were extinguished. The workers retreated to small trailers hiding beyond the edge of the tents.

The dark child advanced slowly, as if approaching a dog that might bite as soon as lick. He crawled under the plastic fence that surrounded the tents and slid into the midway. Moonlight illuminated booths. The dark child was alone. He walked, the calliope’s song still ringing in his ears. He crept, slowing at first, but his pace and posture grew with his confidence. Before long, he strode down the paths, imagining the busy carnival, smiling and waving to invisible children who eagerly waved back.

The dark child stopped at a game booth. A pyramid of milk bottles sat on top of a pedestal. The dark child grabbed three balls and took his place at the line. His first three throws missed. He looked around and decided to give it another try. His next throw connected and the milk bottles tumbled. The invisible children applauded, their imaginary parents wishing he was their own. He threw his arms to the stars, victorious.

He wandered farther down the Midway. He wanted to ride the Ferris wheel—it’s bright lights spinning—with the calliope singing backup, but he knew it was impossible. Instead, he climbed through the mouth of a gigantic clown into the fun house. He imagined the dark, still tunnel as it must have been for the other children, a whirling tube of color sending them topsy-turvy, head-over-heels. He stepped through into a hallway that seemed to get smaller and smaller, his body inexplicably slanted to one side.

The dark child chuckled and stepped through the door at the end of the hall into the mirror maze. He laughed as he ran through as fast as he could, running into laughing reflection dead ends. He imagined they were other children, squealing with delight as they dodged and darted through passage after passage. Hundreds of children ran with him, children just like him. He reached the end of the maze, a new hallway, and was again alone.

The dark child looked back into the mirrors. He saw his furry, fanged reflection. His red eyes cried. He put a hand over the reflection to hide it—a fur-covered claw of a hand. The dark child broke down and sobbed.

“The carnival is not a place for tears.”

The dark child turned, startled. The barker stood behind him. Kind, knowing eyes peeked through black framed glasses. A mop of gray hair sat atop a face that was at once wise and young. Standing with him was the illustrated man and the fire eater.

“It’s okay,” the barker said. “We won’t hurt you. Why are you crying?”

“I’m a freak,” the dark child said. “I am alone.”

“You are a freak, but you aren’t alone,” the barker said. “You aren’t alone, because you are a freak.”

The dark child sniffled and wiped his tears with a furry arm.

“Don’t tease me,” the dark child said.

“We are all freaks, each and every one of us. That’s what makes us amazing.”

“I’m not amazing, I am hideous.”

“You are glorious, a wonder among all creatures. You are lucky.”

“I don’t feel lucky,” the dark child said.

“Do you want to hear a story?” the barker said. “I love stories. When I was your age, I went to a carnival just like this one. I met a magician named Mr. Electrico. He did so many fantastic things, marvelous amazements the likes of which I had never seen. He told me the secret of life, one I have kept close to me ever since. I want to share it with you.”

The barker knelt near the dark child and placed his hand upon the boy’s forehead, as if baptizing him.

“Live forever!” The barker shouted, raising his hand to the sky.

The dark child felt warm. He felt hope. The calliope sang brightly throughout his body. Every cell vibrated with electric excitement. The barker leaned in close to him.

“And when you feel you’ve lost your way,” the barker whispered. “Remember the carnival.”

The calliope sang, and the dark child smiled.

Jack Campbell, Jr. is a dark fiction writer in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in various venues including Twenty 3 Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Insomnia Press. He writes about reading, writing, and life on his blog at

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