The entrance to the Wonder Fair was a facade painted to look like a boy’s face with red hair and freckles. He looks almost just like me, Tony thought, but the boy had a cruel countenance and sallow complexion. Cross-eyed, he leered down at the guests as they trudged through his mouth up an unsteady ramp that was painted pink and gyrated, as though the boy’s tongue undulating lewdly. Unseen speakers blasted circus music layered with dry, hoarse laughter. Almost like the boy in the facade was gagging on each visitor as they plummeted gleefully into his gullet.
The front gate was crammed full of people. As soon as his mother gave the usher their tickets, a large man behind him shoved Tony through the turnstile. They emerged into an area that was so packed, Tony was unable to see over or past any of the other guests to the fair beyond. He reached for his mother’s hand, but she was too busy fussing over his little brother and baby sister who was still in a stroller. The distant whoosh of rides and far off cries of joy or terror promised thrills to come, but in the meantime it was difficult to move down the narrow path that led to the adventures awaiting him. Tony became dizzy and disoriented. He had woken up that morning feeling unwell, but was so excited to go to Wonder Fair he didn’t mention it to his mother. Now with all the people around him, his head began to throb. Even after they’d been walking for ten minutes or so, he’d seen nothing but the pasty legs and round backsides of the people in front of him.
He tugged at his mother’s pocket to tell her he needed to use the restroom only to find a strange face peering over him. She was dressed in similar beige slacks and lime-green blouse as his mother and had the same dark curly hair, but she was fatter with thin lips and wide-set, beady little eyes. It was like seeing his mother in some demented fun house mirror.
“Sorry,” he muttered to the strange woman as he backed away slowly into the dense crowd.
The woman stared at him for a moment before disappearing with her own son and daughter at each side of her.
Tony had been told many times that if he got lost he was to stay where he was until someone found him, but he was surrounded on all sides by the impenetrable bulk of strangers. How would anyone ever find him in this swarm of people? He decided that he should at least find some kind of landmark and wait there.
He moved along with the human stream while trying to push his way through to the side of the dense mob. He squeezed between sweaty bodies, which jostled and pressed in against him, all the while reeling from the oppressive stench of body odour. When he finally made it to the edge of the crowd, instead of stepping out into an open thoroughfare, Tony found himself pressed against a tall wooden fence, its paint nearly worn to nothing with age. People walked right up alongside it without leaving so much as a gutter where he could stand and catch his breath. He had no choice but to follow them along the fence until he arrived somewhere he could sit and wait, but his head began to grow dizzier. The air foul in his nose and lungs, it was nearly impossible to inhale any oxygen at all. He walked on for some time with nothing but the fence on one side and the careless fair goers thrusting him continually against the rough wood, giving him splinters in his bare arm. Just as he was beginning to think he would collapse and be trampled by the horde, the fence opened into a small train station.
The crowd shoved him towards the open door of the waiting train, but Tony did not want to get on. It would be better to wait at the station than board a train heading off towards he did not know where, but the large man beside him pushed him forward and would not let him slide past.
“Come on, kid. Move it. Hurry up,” he kept saying.
When he got to the front of the line the conductor grabbed him by his collar and dumped him inside the train without a word. Before Tony could protest, the train doors slammed shut and the car began to lurch slowly forward, so Tony found a narrow seat against the wall between the large man, whose paisley shirt was drenched in sweat, and an elderly woman who repeatedly coughed and snorted, clearing the mucous from her sinuses and throat. The conductor, standing at the far end of the train, seemed to be gazing straight at Tony, but his expression was masked in shadows.
Perhaps this train will take me back to the front of the fair, Tony thought hopefully. That seemed like a good place to wait to be found. Maybe the fair would even send out an employee to search for his mother.
The other passengers all sat in silence staring blankly ahead with their hands folded in their laps.
“Excuse me,” Tony asked the woman beside him. “Do you know where this train goes?”
The woman did not so much as glance in his direction. Tony turned around to look out the window. Instead of rides, tents, and other fair sites, he saw only a dark forest.
The jerky motion of the train nauseated him, and furthermore, he was furious with himself for getting lost. The Wonder Fair was only going to be in town for a couple of days. All of his friends had already been and teased him for not going. They whispered tales of fun and adventure to each other but would not share their stories with Tony, the uninitiated. He was too little to ride anything anyway they said, although smaller children than he had ridden rides so exciting Tony couldn’t even imagine what they might be like. When he protested that his family went to the state fair every year and that it was already almost too much fun to handle, the other children just laughed.
“The state fair?” they scoffed. “After you go to the Wonder Fair, the state fair will seem about as much fun as the jungle gym.”
Tony’s parents, however, showed no interest in going to the fair at all. His father, who was rarely desirous of fun, merely swatted Tony’s request away with the wave of his hand. Often ill and exhausted from work, he spent most of his time in bed when he was home, and Tony was continually warned not to bother him. Nevertheless, Tony begged and begged his parents to take him to the Wonder Fair, and they finally consented only a few days before it was scheduled to leave town. The next morning, however, his father had woken up feverish and could not be convinced to rise from bed. Tony, ignoring his own aching joints, swollen throat, and perspiring brow, cried so hard his mother begrudgingly agreed to take him, though that meant also bringing his younger siblings since his father was far too sick to watch over babies.
He had ruined everything by getting lost before he even had the chance to play any carnival games or ride so much as the merry-go-round, which he had heard contained a veritable Noah’s Ark of twirling animals to mount. His mother would be furious by the time she found him. She’d take him straight home as punishment. Then Monday he’d have to go back to school. The fair would leave town possibly forever without Tony discovering the secrets that it held.
Tony sweated profusely, and yet he shivered despite the heat. The small compartment was airless and stifling, and the way the train car wobbled to and fro made him want to vomit. Meanwhile the malevolent gaze of the conductor, an old, gray man with slack skin and mouth turned down into a perpetual frown, never left him. He was terrified he had done something wrong, that the conductor was fixing to scold him, spank him, or worse.
The train made occasional stops at small, abandoned stations or rickety, empty platforms, places his mother was sure never to find him. None of the passengers got on or off or even spoke to each other. It had been some time since he had seen anything of the fair at all and behind him lay only the dark forest. Despite his reservations, Tony made up his mind that he must get off at the next stop or he would puke on the train, which would no doubt enrage the conductor. Surely an adult there could help him find his way back to the front of the fair or at least a safe place where he could wait for his mother.
Upon disembarking, Tony’s shock at his surroundings was even worse than the oppressive atmosphere inside of the train. Before him sat his own house. It was the same in every aspect from the rusty red bricks to the chipped, green shutters. It even had the same plastic swing set in the front yard. Tony’s head reeled and he threw up onto the ground in front of him. After he caught his breath, he considered getting back on the train, but it was long gone. He hadn’t even heard it pull away. He looked down at the tracks running through what appeared to be his front yard, but could barely see them through the over-grown grass and weeds. Was it possible that the train had left the fair altogether and by coincidence taken him straight home? At night he often heard the whistle of distant trains come from far away, but none had ever passed this close to his house before.
Too frightened to go through the front door, Tony moved tentatively along the side of the house into the backyard. There was a small person on the far end digging in the garden with a hoe that looked oversized next to his shriveled body. He was standing next to several piles of dirt, as though he’d been digging up and filling in large holes and was just beginning a new one. Tony tried to sneak back into the front yard without being noticed, but the tiny person heard him and turned around.
It was his father and it wasn’t. He had his father’s bald head, white-flecked reddish beard, and tired gray eyes, but his father was a tall man with broad, stooped shoulders; long, spindly arms; and a round belly that sagged beneath his sunken chest. This creature was emaciated and no taller than Tony. He was completely naked and Tony could see his ribs and bones through his thin, transparent skin. Could his father’s illness have wasted him away so drastically in such a short period of time? Maybe Tony had not noticed how deathly ill his father had become in the last few months.
“Tony, my son,” the thing greeted him with his father’s gravelly voice, though it was higher and thinner somehow.
Frozen by fear and confusion, Tony was unable to speak or run away. The tiny man hoisted the hoe onto his shoulder with surprising ease. He scurried quickly though the yard towards Tony.
“Tony, my son,” he repeated. “Come to
me, my boy, and give your father a kiss.”
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