(c) Marina Bridges
The church parking lot lights winked at Tim through the lens of his excited breath in the unusually cold Southern air. He slammed the car door and slung his full backpack over his shoulder.
“Tim, honey, stay with me,” his mother called as he plunged into the sea of parked cars.
“We are already late, Mom!” Tim shouted, leaving his mother to unstrap baby Jennifer from her car seat. Tim didn’t like to think of what fun he’d already missed while his mother had been stuffing Jennifer into her new snow suit. Jennifer had pooped her diaper half way through, which had forced Mom to reverse the process before starting it all over again. Having to haul a baby around slowed everything. It was more than a twelve year old could bear.
Tim arrived at the front gate. A rickety old privacy fence looked as if it had been stolen from five or six different back yards. A ticket booth was set up beside the gate.
Tim couldn’t see through the fence. He could hear people laughing and shrieking at the wonders inside. He could hear music and see flashes of light in the air. The ratty sign over the ticket booth sparkled with promise. “Spirit of Giving Christmas Carnival” was splashed in faded red paint across yellow canvas.
“Well, hello, young fellow,” said a bored, unsmiling woman in the booth. She wore a shabby elf costume. One of her fake elf ears had slid around to point south. No one from the church had been asked to volunteer at this event, which was cause for celebration for those few members of the congregation who somehow always ending up giving of their time. “You got your entry fee?” asked Bored Lop-Eared Elf.
“Sure do.” Tim unslung his backpack and unzipped it. His entry fee was at the very top. He handed the elf his fee. A pair of socks, knitted by his crazy Aunt Dora. Tim received a pair of Aunt Dora’s special socks each and every Christmas. Each and every Christmas, he was forced to wear the blumpy, itchy things so he could pull up his pants legs and show them off on command. After the extended family went back home, he threw the socks away, stuffed deep under the crumpled wrapping paper in the kitchen garbage can so his parents wouldn’t see. Bored Lop-Eared Elf took the socks without comment and opened the gate.
Tim had one foot off the ground when a hand closed on his shoulder. “I think you can do better than that, son,” his dad said. Tim’s foot dropped to the ground.
Tim’s dad was the preacher of the church. He’d arranged for the carnival to come on this Christmas night. For months, he talked about how it was worth emptying the church coffers to have the carnival come. Worth the money spent for the lessons to be learned. The night he’d finally won his small battle for the funds, Tim had heard him confess to Tim’s mom about already booking the carnival weeks earlier.
His father’s face was firm, but smiling. Tim saw the disappointment in his eyes. Tim silently unslung his backpack. He replaced the socks, dug around a little, and came up with a harmonica. It had been a gift from Grandma Zoey. At home he’d tootled tunelessly on it for half an hour until Mom said, “Tim, honey, we’ve enjoyed the music so much, but you can practice later. Don’t want your lips getting sore.”
Tim had pretended to love the harmonica just for this moment. Sacrifice was the theme behind The Spirit of Giving Christmas Carnival. Every ride he rode, every game he played, and every hot dog he ate tonight would cost Tim one of his Christmas gifts. The Spirit of Giving Christmas Carnival press packet had included video footage of a Santa Claus passing out gifts to people who looked impossibly poor and impossibly sad, even after they were handed gifts. Tim’s church was supposed to get a similar video of their own gifts being distributed to the poor next Christmas. It had been one of his father’s major selling points to his congregation. “This will be a lesson to us all for not one, but two Christmases!”
Tim handed the harmonica to Bored Lop-Eared Elf and his father boomed, “Now, that is what I’ve been talking about all this time! That is giving!” He clapped his other hand on Tim’s other shoulder. “I want you to understand, son, I want us all to understand that’s it’s better to give than to receive.” He turned Tim back toward the gate and gave him a huddle-break swat on the butt. “Now get in there and have a heavenly time!”
Wincing at his dad’s corniness, Tim dashed through the gate.
Someone jostled Tim. Hard. Harder than an accidental jostle. “Lame-o,” intoned the jostler. It was Tim’s best friend, Barry. Barry had a backpack, too. It was significantly deflated, compared to Tim’s. Barry had probably been there since the gates had opened. Tim felt a surge of jealousy.
“I’m not lame,” Tim said, and jostled Barry back, harder. Barry had hit his growth spurt early so jostling had no visible effect on the bigger boy. He grinned down at Tim.
“You are lame, but this carnival is lamer. I was on my way home until I saw your lame ass.”
“What’s lame about games and rides?” Tim demanded. “You are just being a jerk.” Tim lowered his voice. “And don’t cuss. The whole church is here.”
“The whole damned church.” Barry grinned. “What lame-o thing do you want to do first, Lame-o?”
“I dunno. What’s good?” Tim looked around. The carnival didn’t look so different than the small fair that came to town every summer, except there were fewer rides and everything had a slap-dash winter theme. And this fair was on the church lawn instead of the fairgrounds.
Tim headed for a softball throw game. Tim was the pitcher for the church baseball team. Winning a prize would be a good way to start his evening. Barry tailed him, snickering. The booth banner read, “Snow Ball Toss.” The word “snow” was scrunched in and the letters were brighter than the other words.
“I’d like to play, please,” Tim said to the game proprietor. The heavyset man turned around and Tim took a step back.
The man wore an elf costume similar to the woman’s at the gate, but looked even worse in his. Greasy, unwashed hair hung from under his jaunty little cap, which actually didn’t look jaunty at all. He was unshaven and his eyes were bloodshot. He wore green tights that looked filled with lumps of semi-solid lard instead of legs. It appeared lard had melted to make amoeba shaped stains. The best thing that could be said about this elf was that his ears were on straight.
Lard Elf didn’t call Tim “Slugger” or suggest Tim might not have a good enough arm to play this game. No carnival game patter here. Lard Elf picked up three balls in one big hand and held out his other hand. Tim’s hand went reflexively to his pocket and The Lard Elf shook his head no. Tim went into his backpack. He touched the socks, but rejected them. His father might be in the area and watching. Tim pulled out his Carolina Tarheels baseball cap. He actually wanted this gift, but since he couldn’t, it seemed fitting to spend it throwing balls. Kind of.
Tim exchanged cap for three balls. Lard Elf stuffed the cap under a counter and muttered, “Knock ‘em down, win a prize.” He waved vaguely at the pyramids of fake milk bottles behind him and gazed off into the distance.
“Balls. Tim has three snow balls.” Barry snickered.
Tim picked up two balls with his right hand. He hefted the remaining ball with his left and tossed it up and down a few times. He waited for some comment from Lard Elf about his southpaw status, but Lard Elf continued to not care a whit about Tim or Tim’s balls. Tim glanced at the still grinning Barry, looked back at the milk bottles, and let fly.
The softball crashed into the pyramid right on target and two fake milk bottles exploded off the platform, with a lone bottle left spinning on its side. Tim punched the air and crowed, “Bullseye! What did I win?”
Without looking to see if the bottles had fallen, Lard Elf pulled something from under the counter. He handed it to Tim and took back the two remaining balls.
His prize was a little paper booklet with a drawing of a screaming woman on the front. “No Ice Water In Hell,” lurid print proclaimed.
“What is this?” Tim asked. Lard Elf was bent over to retrieve the fake bottles.
Barry had tears in his eyes and his cheeks were all puffed up. Tim shook the religious tract at Barry and the air exploded from Barry’s cheeks in a gale of laughter.
“It’s the prize, man,” Barry sputtered. “It’s the prize.”
“Will I get something better if I throw the other two balls?”
“No.” Barry wrapped his arms around his sides and bent over, overcome with hilarity. He righted himself and said, “It’s the only prize. You get it if you win, you get it if you lose. You get it no matter what game you play.”
“Well, shit,” Tim said. He checked to see if anyone had heard him cuss. The coast was clear and he relaxed. “So what is there to do, Barry? There have to be a couple of good rides, right?”
“There are rides.” Barry grinned. “Come on.”
Tim followed Barry through the carnival. Not many people were participating in the attractions. Groups of adults stood together talking, their children miserably silent on the outskirts of the conversations. Tim knew everybody, except for the people who’d come with the carnival. He waved and smiled, but stayed on Barry’s heels so he wouldn’t be captured and tortured into politeness.
Tim ran face-first into Barry’s back. “We can’t get into that one, “ Barry said. “That one is only for the adult men.” Barry pointed to a medium sized tent off by itself near the fence.
No words on the banner, just paintings of naked women upon which someone had stuck red velvet bows over the breasts and the crotches. Young men stood in line, glancing guiltily around, hoping to spot their relatives before their relatives spotted them. One man tried to dislodge a bow from the banner, but it was fixed fast. His friends laughed nervously. At some silent signal a powerful, mean looking elf stepped aside from the tent doorway and uncrossed his massive arms to motion the men inside. The men rushed for the cover of the tent.
“Now! Let’s go to the back,” Barry said. “Hurry.”
Tim followed Barry to the back of the tent. Men poured out of the tent, a different group than those Barry and Dennis had seen enter. Barry’s big brother, Dennis, was in the group. He staggered to the fence, put a hand on it to steady himself, leaned over, and vomited. Dennis’ friends looked pale. Nobody nudged anyone else or laughed the way Tim knew he and Barry would if they’d paid to look at naked women.
Barry fired questions at his big brother. “What did you see? What is in there? Everybody who comes out acts weird.”
Dennis spat on the ground. In an uncharacteristic moment of big brotherhood, he put his arm around Barry’s shoulders. “Stay pure, kid,” he rasped. “Save it for the woman you marry. It’s the only safe way to live.”
“That doesn’t tell me anything,” Barry angrily slapped off his brother’s arm. “You went in there. I can’t go in there. Tell me what you saw.”
Dennis seemed to finally find the words he wanted. “I saw sick women.” Barry opened his mouth, but Dennis cut him off. “I don’t mean morally sick. I mean sick like diseased. You guys aren’t missing anything. You are lucky you can’t get in. Go find something else to do.” Dennis rejoined his friends, forcing an uncomfortable laugh. “Two of those hot dogs were two too many,” he called. His pale friends forced laughs back at him and they all wobbled toward a hot chocolate stand.
Tim felt scared. Dennis had never been particularly nice to Tim or Barry. Tim had seen Dennis hit Barry in the head with a closed fist until Barry cried. Dennis acting like a real big brother was the most unsettling thing Tim had seen tonight.
“Let’s go home,” Tim blurted. “My Mom is tired and she has Jennifer. We can find her and tell her we want to go home. Mom won’t like that this girlie show is even here.” Tim added, “You said you were leaving when you found me.”
Barry considered, for a second. He snapped out of it. “Nah, there is one more thing I want you to see. It’s a hoot. Plus, your dad would get mad if you left now.”
His Dad would be really disappointed if Tim left without seeing at least some of the carnival. This was his father’s big night. A night he’d made happen through the force of his will. Tim had to stay so he could at least talk to his father about the carnival tomorrow.
“Come on,” Barry said. “You have to see the House of Horrors. You’ll love it.”
“I thought everything here sucked,” Tim said.
“Everything but the House of Horrors.”
Although, at this point, a spook house was the last thing he wanted to see, Tim let himself be sucked along in Barry’s wake,.
They ran past the Chilly Chili Dog stand. Past the Hall of Ice Mirrors. Past the Frozen In Time Wax Museum. They ran until they reached the Xmas House of Horrors. There hadn’t been room on the banner to add the entire word “Christmas.” “Xmas” didn’t seem very respectful. Tim wondered if his dad had seen it.
A plywood haunted house towered over a small track that disappeared under the front door in the false front and reappeared from under a large painted window. White Styrofoam with sprayed on glitter had been glued on top of the fake roof. It looked like snow the way the soap flakes his Bible school class had put on Christmas cards they’d made for their parents had looked like snow. Which meant that it didn’t look like snow at all, and looked more like a mess.
Another elf manned the gate. This one was elf sized. The elf was so small that Tim thought at first it was a child. But there was something adult about the small, twisted face, and its teeth were stained. The pointed ears looked real.
A two-car train banged through the fake picture window. The cars were empty, so there was nobody in Barry’s way when he hopped into the first car. Tim tried to hop in beside him. Barry said, “Get in the back, homo.” Tim flushed red, pulled his leg out of Barry’s car, and turned to the second car when he felt a tug on his coat.
“Fee,” said a high, scratchy little voice.
Gnome Elf actually touched him! Tim briefly considered fainting or screaming or doing something girlish. That would make him the homo Barry had said he was. He coughed uncomfortably and said, “Fee. Of course. The entry fee. I have it right here. The fee. I have the fee. In my backpack. The fee.”
The first thing his hand encountered was, of course, the stupid socks. He handed the socks to Gnome Elf. “There you go, my good man,” Tim said, although he wasn’t positive that Gnome Elf was male. Barry guffawed and Tim felt his face pulsate.
“Two fees,” Gnome Elf said, and pointed at Barry, who stopped mid-guffaw. Relieved to be out of the spotlight of red hot embarrassment, Tim joined Gnome Elf in looking expectantly at Barry,.
Barry’s pulled his pack closer to his side and Tim wondered what Barry still had in there and didn’t want to give up. Barry pointed at the socks in Gnome Elf’s hand. “He already gave you my fee. Two socks. Two fees.”
Gnome Elf looked down at the socks in his left hand. He subtracted one sock from the original hand. Two hands. Two socks. Gnome Elf looked from one sock to the other. Gnome Elf cocked his or her head and considered the socks for several moments. Gnome Elf stuffed the socks into the front of its tights and began to jabber. “Seat belts on. Do not exit the cars during the ride. If you are pregnant or have a heart condition, please exit the ride now. Have a nice day.” He hit a hidden button and Tim had to leap into the suddenly moving little train or be left behind.
“Hahahahaha!” shouted Barry as the train slammed through the door of the house and into the darkness. Tim fumbled for a seat belt for several breathless seconds before coming to the conclusion there wasn’t one. Abnormally worried about not having a seat belt, he locked his hands on the grab bar.
There didn’t seem to be anything inside of the Xmas House of Horrors except for darkness and Barry’s cackling voice. Tim strained to see in the pitch darkness until his imagination helpfully supplied purple spots for him to look at. The ride was far longer than it should have been. The two-car train made multiple jerky turns, but didn’t seem to be going anywhere.
Tim felt a bubble of panic rising in his throat… a pinprick of light in the distance! As the cars drew closer the light grew larger and larger. The light looked warm and comforting and Tim prayed the train wouldn’t lurch back into the darkness.
God must have been listening, because the train kept on going into the wonderful light. The train chunked to a stop. Barry twisted around and said, “This is it.” He pointed and Tim saw a kitchen.
The kitchen looked a lot like Tim’s kitchen at home. It looked like every kitchen of everyone Tim knew. A universal kitchen. There was a counter with a sink and some small appliances. A plain wooden table with two chairs. Someone sat on one of the chairs.
Tim got the impression the person was supposed to be a teenager, but she was at least thirty. She dressed like a teenager and wore a bobbed pink wig. The old teenager had headphones on over the pink wig. She got up from the table and danced around the kitchen to music only she could hear. She danced to the counter and took something out of an ashtray and lit it with a Bic.
Nobody Tim knew smoked. It was against the Bible, and seeing someone defile their temple always shocked Tim. “She’s smoking a cigarette,” Tim blurted.
The old teenager stopped mid-dance and peered out of the kitchen toward the train. “It’s pot,” she announced. “I’m smoking pot.”
Tim cowered in his seat while Barry snickered. The old teenager resumed her kitchen dance, dramatically drawing smoke into her lungs and whooshing it out.
Although pot was infinitely more shocking and horrifying than a cigarette, five minutes of watching the old teenager dance and smoke pot got boring. Tim looked around for something else to look at when there was a click, followed by the dead air produced by a cheap stereo system. After a brief delay, it played a loud, scratchy-sounding sound effect of a car squealing to a stop and doors opening, then slamming. A man and a woman wearing coats and scarves ran into the kitchen.
“Tina!” the woman screamed, “Tina, what was that strange phone call about? Where is my baby?”
“Baby, Mrs. Jones?” The old teenager rushed to the sink to throw her marijuana cigarette away. She fruitlessly tried to wave smoke out of the air. “Mrs. Jones, the baby is asleep. I haven’t heard her make a sound for an hour. But I have been busy. I cooked your turkey for you!” The old teenager yanked open the door of a microwave oven and pulled out a casserole dish. She opened the lid, produced a baby doll leg, and extended it to the couple. “Dark meat?” she asked.
“Our baby! You got high on marijuana and you cooked our baby!” The man screamed. The woman fell in a heap on the floor. The old teenager gnawed on the doll’s leg. The train clunked into motion and immediately slammed out of the Xmas House of Horrors and into the cold night air.
Barry was laughing his head off. Tears rolled down his cheeks, he was laughing so hard. The little scene in the house had horrified Tim. He’d always known drugs were bad, but had no idea exactly how bad until now. He was so shaken he even let Gnome Elf help him out of the car.
Barry jumped out and capered around in the chilly air. “What do you want to do next?”
Tim’s stomach hurt and he wanted to go home. God wanted him to be good, but he wasn’t good. He hadn’t been good at the carnival his Dad had worked so hard for. He hadn’t given freely of his presents, and that was the whole point of the carnival in the first place. He might be going to Hell.
Tim emptied his backpack at Gnome Elf’s feet. He was giving it all, right then and there. He didn’t want anything in return. No rides, no games, no hotdogs. Just eternal life at the feet of The Lord.
Tim looked at his gifts on the ground. Other kids had told him some families in the church had exchanged cheap, fake gifts so they wouldn’t have to really give. They were going to have their real Christmases after the carnival left town. Tim’s family had exchanged their best gifts ever. Tim’s dad had explained the lesson wouldn’t mean anything otherwise. Tim had received a small remote helicopter he’d begged for all year, and a fingerprint kit that was supposed to work just like the ones the police used, and a genuine Boy Scout knife. Looking at those gifts now, Tim realized they meant his father loved him.
Barry stopped capering. “Holy shit. You are going to give it all?”
Another small train slammed out of the painted window. Tim’s dad was in the front seat. His mom held little Jennifer in the back. Tim’s dad leapt from the car the way Barry had, his exaltation evident. He snatched snow-suited Jennifer from Tim’s mom before she could get out of her car.
“No, Carl, no.” Tim’s mom tried to snatch Jennifer back from her husband, but her fingers slid off the arm of the baby’s slick suit.
Tim’s dad then did something Tim could hardly believe. He grabbed Tim’s mom by the face and shoved her back into her seat. He punched her in the face until she stopped trying to get out of the car. He headed for Gnome Elf.
“I know I’ve already given for this ride, but I was moved. I didn’t give enough. We can never give enough.” Tim’s dad looked up to Heaven. He knelt down in front of the Gnome Elf and placed Jennifer in the ugly little creature’s arms. “Take her. Use her. My gift is my child so that others might learn the lesson of that holy house.”
“Well, okay, then,” Gnome Elf said. He hiked Jennifer up on a hip and ran between the rails of the tracks and through the false door of the Xmas House Of Horrors.
With tears running down his face, Tim’s dad told the boys, “You can never give enough, boy. You can never give enough.”