The funhouse languished at the edge of the parking lot carnival, a home for candy-coloured nightmares. At two stories, it towered over the tilt-a-whirl and the kiddie roller coaster. Its exit was a spinning wheel; its entrance, the ever-laughing mouth of a lunatic clown.
Seeing a lull in the crowd, the carny in charge ducked out back for a smoke. At the same time, Luther and his college buddies walked by; on a lark, Luther jumped the fence and snuck in without a ticket.
He didn’t know why he did it. He remembered entering one of these houses as a kid, slipping on the shifting floorboards and sobbing on the aluminum floors until the carny let his mother in to drag him out backwards. His friends had all laughed at him. But these weren’t the same friends, today, and he shouldn’t have anything to prove to them.
This funhouse was admittedly easier than the one he’d collapsed in. The first room was a corridor full of punching bags, which you had to shove aside to get through. So good, so far. The next obstacle was a gust of air that spurted up from a hole in the floor; startling, but really only a problem for girls in skirts. Now was stairs. You couldn’t do anything weird with stairs, lest there be lawsuits. Luther climbed them confidently.
The second floor was lined with wacky mirrors. Luther gamely examined his reflection, watching his body shrivel and fatten and wondering if this, too, would have made him cry as a child. He did feel slightly better when he moved to the second mirror, which stretched him out. The third mirror was a normal reflection; he didn’t bother consulting it.
The next stage was a drawbridge, and Luther hesitated, wondering if it would support his weight. Had the front entrance to the house displayed an age restriction? He hadn’t bothered to check. Then again, it would have to hold him; on a more crowded day, this bridge would have a half dozen kids running across it at once.
Luther was about to take a step when a bent and gnarled man swung around to block his path. He’d been hanging upside down from the underside of the bridge, waiting for a child to cross without a ticket. Fate had done him one better.
“Payment,” it croaked.
“What?” Luther asked.
“You need to pay to cross,” the man snapped. “You never heard of a bridge troll?”
“You’re not a troll, though,” Luther said. “You’re a clown.”
The troll’s black-lined eye flicked to catch a peripheral glimpse of his reflection in the side mirror. He could have seen himself full on if he’d looked in centre mirror, the Stretch Mirror, but he only skimmed it. The True Mirror confirmed that he did have a white face, painted lips, and a mass of fire engine red curls. So be it.
“A clown’s a costume,” he retorted, his blue eyes meeting Luther’s brown ones. “A way of making a living.”
Luther smirked. “Then why are you collecting tolls?”
“I’m not going to pay you,” Luther declared, looking down the stairs. “I’ll just go back.”
It’s okay, sweetie, we’ll just go backwards. You don’t have to cry.
The troll smiled, black lips stretching up to his temples. “There is no way back.”
Luther straightened up. The troll was right about that.
“I don’t like your eyes,” the troll said. “Mine are prettier.”
“Good for you. Nothing else on you is.”
He studied the man-monster’s warped body, the emaciated limbs and bone-like fingers. He could easily overpower the troll, if it came to that. He was also much, much larger than the thing – even with the troll at its full height, Luther dwarfed it.
“I could take you,” he announced. His voice didn’t quaver as he added, “I suggest you let me pass.”
“Are you sure you could?” The troll averted his eyes. “You’re trapped in that mirror.”
Luther threw up his hands and they hit glass. He pounded on the invisible barrier, felt it rattle but not break. Beyond the mirror, the troll laughed.
Now he understood why he felt he towered over the troll: when he looked down, his body was impossibly tall and gaunt, bones curved and wavy, his torso was an undulating plain. Outside, his flesh and blood body lay unconscious at the troll’s feet.
The troll didn’t meet his eyes as he raised a brow mockingly. “Sure you don’t have any change?”
Stifling panic, Luther reached into his pockets.
Luther’s body was too big to whizz properly down the mini slide that led to ground level, so he squeezed into the tube and pushed himself along with his hands.
He deftly navigated the spinning wheel (he would have had trouble with that as a child) and hopped the fence as the carny reamed him out, sticking the landing to the applause of his friends. The boys ran off, cackling.
Funnel cakes from the food court were sweet, after this victory – one his friends would never understand. “It took you long enough to get through,” Brad teased, throwing a chunk of dough at him. Luther was pleased to notice his fingernails were sharp and Brad’s eyes were a bright, sparkling blue.
Madison McSweeney writes horror and dark fantasy from Ottawa, Ontario. She is the author of the horror comedy The Doom That Came to Mellonville (Filthy Loot), the folk horror novelette The Forest Dreams With Teeth (Domain Publishing), and the poetry collection Fringewood (Alien Buddha Press). She blogs at madisonmcsweeney.com and tweets from @MMcSw13.