At the end of the world, in the perpetual twilight, there is a carnival. A beacon of warm, pink light and noise against an empty backdrop. Jangling calliope music plays while the tantalizing scent of cotton candy distracts from the smudgy, starless sky. The caramel corn is the best you’ve ever tasted and prizes at the game booths are guaranteed. Mark and Todd run the Ferris wheel.
The Ferris wheel is tall and bright and dazzling. Each cart is lit with thousands of delicate little lightbulbs, and the spokes radiating from the center blink and twinkle. You can see it from miles away, Mark is sure of it. Well, he isn’t sure. He’s never been miles away. But he imagines that it’s possible.
Mark can barely remember a place outside of the carnival. He can barely remember the world, if it ever existed. Best not to dwell on such things, he knows, but he thinks about it sometimes, when he’s not working at the wheel. He and Todd take alternating shifts. They don’t get nights off. There is no night.
* * *
There’s never a line for the Ferris wheel and often hours go by without anyone coming for a ride. Then, all of a sudden, someone will appear. Mark typically won’t notice them at first. It’s as if they just blink into existence, with a quiet clearing of the throat or a gentle tap of the foot, never aggressive about getting his attention. He feels guilty for making them wait, even more so if they’re nice about it. They usually are.
Often the patrons are young. The girls, especially. Mark can’t help but notice if they’re pretty. This one, she’s pretty.
“Hi,” she says.
“Hi,” Mark says back. “Ready to go up?”
The girl nods. She has very long, dark hair. It hangs nearly to her waist.
“I’ll need your ticket,” Mark tells her.
A confused expression crosses her face. “I don’t think I have…”
“Check your pockets,” he says. She’s wearing sweatpants, grey and baggy. He feels a tinge of embarrassment as she digs through the oversize pockets, searching for the ticket. He always feels bad—responsible, even—for what’s happening. I’m just doing my job, he wants to say.
Eventually she finds the ticket and hands it to him, a smile of relief brightening her face. Mark smiles back—or tries to. The ticket is a flat piece of red paper, with crimped edges and a serial number imprinted in black typeface.
Mark records the number in a large book filled with rows and columns of other numbers. He writes laboriously, using a pencil. Todd uses an ink pen: blue. It’s how they distinguish their entries, although no one is really keeping track.
“What’s your name?” he asks. It doesn’t technically matter—there’s no column in the book for names—but he’d like to know. It feels right to ask.
“Lucille Browne. Browne with an ‘e,’” she answers, still smiling at him. “Everyone calls me Lucy.”
“Lucy Browne, with an ‘e,’” Mark repeats, pretending to write it down. She’s not looking at the book. Patrons never do. She looks at the Ferris wheel instead. He supposes that she’s in awe of the height, anticipating that ride to the top. He feeds the ticket into a large metal cylinder then gestures to the girl. “Come with me.”
He leads her up the few stairs to the base of the wheel where there is a cart waiting for them. Lucy climbs inside without any fuss. Sometimes they regret it at the last moment and try to back out. Mark is glad that she’s not one of those. Those make him feel particularly bad.
“Keep your arms and legs inside the cart at all times,” Mark begins, hearing himself adapt the monotonous, bored tone that he so despises. “Do not rock the cart. Do not, under any circumstances, look up. The sky may frighten you. Do not look down. It may make you disoriented. It might be best to close your eyes.
“Follow these instructions and you will be perfectly safe.”
He closes the cart door and double-checks that the lock is engaged. Lucy looks very small, huddled in the corner in her grey sweatpants. It’s shadowy inside, but he can tell that she’s still smiling.
“Good luck, Lucy,” he adds, going off-script. “Enjoy the ride.”
“See you on the other side,” she replies. Mark nods uneasily. He doubts it. No one ever rides the Ferris wheel twice.
* * *
Stars. He remembers those. Also, cicadas, the clicking and humming songs they sang. And the muggy feeling of air in June, the oppressive taste of heat and humidity weighing down his lungs. Delicious.
During slow shifts, Mark plays a game. He looks directly up, craning his neck so that the Ferris wheel blocks out the disturbing sight of the vacant sky. He stares at it, then blinks hard, three or four times, until the pink lights have burnt themselves into his retinas. He closes his eyes and watches the lights until they fade out, pretending that they are stars.
Stars. He remembers those. Also, cicadas, the clicking and humming songs they sang. And the muggy feeling of air in June, the oppressive taste of heat and humidity weighing down his lungs. Delicious. He breathes in hard now and there’s only the acrid scent of cotton candy. He listens for cicadas, but there’s only the endless organ clacking out the same bright tune.
* * *
Todd, the other ride operator, makes Mark worry. Mark and Todd are not friends. In fact, they hardly know each other. Whenever Mark is working, Todd is on break, and vice versa. They have very little time to chat, and Mark has made it a point to avoid anything other than pleasantries. Something about Todd unnerves him. He seems very content and he winks too much.
The only time he’s ever had a real conversation with Todd was during orientation, when he was teaching him how to run the Ferris wheel.
“It’s very simple,” Todd had said during the demonstration. “Just make sure the door is locked and push the red button. The customer might protest but ignore them. Once the ticket has gone in, the Ferris wheel has to go up. This ride’s non-refundable!” He chuckled and winked at Mark like they were both in on some joke. Mark offered him a weak smile in return.
“The wheel will make a full rotation,” Todd continued, oblivious to Mark’s uneasiness, “and when it comes back down, the cart will be empty. Unlock the door, go sit at the booth, and wait for the next customer. See? Easiest job in the world.” He winked again.
Mark opened his mouth to speak, but Todd cut him off. “I know what you’re going to ask. And I’ll tell you what the guy who trained me said when I asked that same thing: it’s our job to run the Ferris wheel. Okay? It’s not our job to ask questions. Just follow instructions and everything will be fine. Don’t worry.” He grinned in what was supposed to be a comforting sort of way.
“Okay,” Mark replied automatically.
“Okay!” Todd said, slapping him on the shoulder. “You’re gonna do great here, Mark. I can just tell. This kind of thing suits you.” He winked. And when he did, his mouth opened involuntarily, and Mark could see all of his teeth.
* * *
The Ferris wheel has to be manned at all times, but Todd is extremely punctual and, as a result, Mark has never missed a break. He doesn’t know how to feel about this. There isn’t much for him to do on his time off. He doesn’t sleep, he’s already beaten all of the booth games, and the carnival doesn’t have any rides besides the wheel. He used to gorge himself on junk food, but he’s entirely sick of caramel corn and funnel cake.
So during his breaks, Mark wanders. He smokes cigarettes from the pack that he keeps in his khaki work pants—the pack that never seems to run out—and stares at the twinkling pink lights and does his best not to think. He never sees anyone. The carnival always seems to be empty, but he knows there must be other people there besides him and Todd. Sometimes he hears them speak, a babble of talk above the calliope music, even if he can’t understand the words.
He used to search desperately for them—these mysterious people—but their voices would fade out of earshot whenever he thought he might be getting close. But he knows they’re there. Someone has to be making the caramel corn; someone has to restock the prizes in the game booths. He knows they’re there, because eventually they all ride the Ferris wheel.
* * *
“Hey, asshole, did you hear me? I changed my mind. Let me off of this thing.” The rider is a big man, scowling, panicked and furious. Mark should be intimidated, but he’s past all that. What he does feel is guilt. He’s not supposed to care, he’s just doing his job, it’s got nothing to do with him.
“I’m just doing my job, sir,” he states, double-checking to make sure the door of the cart is locked. The man on the other side pulls on it, yelling obscenities. His name is Gregory, Mark remembers. He seemed calm enough when he arrived, but the sound of the door closing is enough to test anyone’s will.
“Please keep your arms and legs inside of the cart at all times,” he drones. He doesn’t care. This is his job. “Do not rock the cart. Do not, under any circumstances, look up…”
“Hey. Let me off this thing. I changed my mind. Did you hear me? I’m not ready. I thought I was but I’m not. Let me off this thing. Let me off. Please. I’m not ready to go up. Please.” His voice sounds like he is crying, getting louder and more hysterical in pitch. Mark refuses to look, refuses to feel anything. What does Todd do in these situations? Laughs, probably. He pushes the red button and hears the hydraulic hiss that starts the Ferris wheel’s rotation. Mark does not watch Gregory ascend, but can hear him screaming all the way up.
* * *
Mark remembers rain. He’s keeping a mental list of things he remembers about the world outside the carnival, which he mumbles to himself over and over again as he chain smokes on his walks. Rain. Cicadas. June. Stars.
He needs water, he suddenly realizes; he’s dying for a drink. He needs water like he’s drowning in air. He runs to the nearest convenience stand, feet making no noise on the pavement, something he’s learned not to let bother him.
There’s no one behind the counter, of course, so he hops over it and rummages around in the refrigerator. A water bottle is all he wants, maybe a few pieces of ice. He’s not greedy. The fridge is broken; the air inside of it is warm. Mark searches fruitlessly, only coming up with a few dusty bottles of pop and one strawberry lemonade. He takes a sip of the latter, the warm liquid sticky-sweet and unnaturally thick. The inside of his mouth is coated with the flavor.
In a rush of fury, Mark throws the bottle at the ground, where it shatters. Lemonade splashes onto his shoes and forms a sugary puddle. He’s even thirstier than before.
* * *
Desperate for company, Mark has taken to spending his time off at the Ferris wheel with Todd. Though his coworker seems mildly irritated at this breach of conduct, he doesn’t send him away. Why would he? There’s no one to report them, nor anyone to even report to.
They don’t talk much. Mark smokes cigarettes, and Todd hums along to the calliope music, tapping his blue ink pen along with the rise and fall of the organ. When customers come, Mark sits back and lets Todd take charge. Todd is efficient, if a bit overzealous. He averages about three to five winks per patron.
“Why aren’t there any stars here?” Mark asks at one point, after Todd sends up a very old woman. He is very sweet with her, only winking once, and holding her elbow for support as she climbs the steps. “There are supposed to be stars, aren’t there? I remember them.”
Todd looks at him. Just looks. It’s not a Todd expression. Some sort of internal war is going on behind his eyes; something inside his mind is burning. Mark immediately wants to rescind the question.
“I remember stars,” Todd answers slowly. “But it wouldn’t make sense to have stars here. We gave up the stars. We gave up everything.”
Mark nods. This makes sense to him. “But I wonder why? Why would I give up stars—” and rain, and cicadas, and June, he thinks, “—for this?” He makes a broad sweeping gesture at the lights, the empty concrete walkways.
Todd shrugs, tapping his pen. “It isn’t terrible here. It must have been worse where we were.”
Mark disagrees. He cannot think of a more terrible place than this carnival. He cannot think of anywhere he’d hate more. “Have you ever tried to leave?”
“Only way out is up, Mark,” Todd replies, his pen taps increasing in tempo. “You know that.”
“But where’s up?”
“You’re not supposed to ask that question.”
“What the hell are we doing, Todd?” Mark spits out, furious.
Todd stares at him with the burning expression again. Then he shuts down, the apprehension leaving his features, the flat note of professionalism returning to his voice. “Isn’t it obvious, Mark? We’re running a Ferris wheel.” He chuckles. His right eye twitches in an attempt at a wink.
* * *
Sometimes, very rarely, people will arrive together. Usually they’re couples: holding hands, whispering in each other’s ears. These are the worst, the most painful, to deal with. Mark hates them. They are the hardest to remain neutral about. Because even though they arrive together, they have to go up alone.
This time, it’s two women, mid-twenties. Holding hands, of course. The one with the very short hair is resting her head on the other’s shoulder as they watch Mark copying their ticket numbers into his book. Slowly, slowly.
“Names?” he asks.
“Lauren and Jessica,” the taller one answers. Is she really taller? She’s wearing heels. That’s probably it. “I’m Lauren; she’s Jess.”
Mark nods, offering them a tight-lipped smile. He wishes that Todd were dealing with this and not him. Where does Todd go during his time off? He has no idea.
He inserts the tickets and hears himself asking, “So, how did you get here?” Mark never asks this. Never. It’s an unspoken rule not to. He doesn’t want to know, and they don’t want to tell him.
There are five seconds of stunned silence. Then Lauren speaks. “We drove,” she says. “Off of a bridge, actually. We were both drunk, but I was the one driving. I didn’t mean to. It was an accident, technically. But I guess that doesn’t matter. We ended up here anyway.”
The frankness of her answer catches Mark off-guard. “I’m so sorry,” he finds himself saying. He isn’t sorry. He isn’t anything.
“Us, too,” Jessica says, softly.
Mark leads to the base of the Ferris wheel. He looks at them helplessly. “I’m sorry, but the cart only takes one at a time.” He braces himself for tears, arguments, pleading, but the women just nod. Lauren gathers Jessica in her arms. Mark tries not to listen as they say goodbye to each other.
“I’ll see you on the other side,” Lauren is saying. “I’m so sorry. I love you, Jess, so much.”
“I love you too,” Jessica says back. “This wasn’t your fault. I love you.”
“Thank you. Thank you,” Lauren says, and Mark turns his head away as they kiss.
Jessica climbs into the cart. She is crying. Mark shuts and locks the door, and it’s as if a person outside of himself is saying, in that horrible drone, “Keep your arms and legs inside the cart at all times. Do not rock the cart. Do not, under any circumstances, look up…” He presses the red button and forces himself to watch as Jessica goes up. Next to him, Lauren is crying too. The amount of time it takes the wheel to go around feels like an eternity.
By the time Lauren gets inside the cart, Mark feels physically ill. His hands shake as he checks the lock, and he doesn’t trust himself to make it through the required safety speech without throwing up or sobbing or running away while screaming at the top of his lungs. This is my job. I’m just doing my job, he repeats to himself.
“You’ll see her on the other side,” he whispers as he presses the red button. He has no idea if Lauren can hear him or not. He has no idea if what he’s saying is true. He watches her make it halfway up before sinking to his knees and burying his face in his hands.
* * *
Mark is dying.
He remembers dying, on a muggy, rainy night in June, stepping out in front of a car that was speeding along the highway. The impact was incredible, throwing him into the air and to the side of the road, sending him crashing down into the wet grass. He remembers feeling sorry for the driver. The sense of wrongness at the fact that he couldn’t lift his hand, couldn’t wipe away the blood that was streaming from his nose, dripping sickeningly down his throat. Realizing that he had been ripped halfway open and marveling at the fact that there was no pain.
Then, all of a sudden, pain. Intense and astonishing. He wanted to scream but his teeth were broken, and he was choking on his own tongue. He wanted to say, no, please, I take it back, you are my home, I love you, but he had betrayed his own body and there was nowhere for him to live anymore. He remembers looking up at the sky, searching for a star, and finding only clouds. The sound of the cicadas was merciless.
* * *
Mark remembers dying. As a result, he has never felt calmer. During his break, he stays by the Ferris wheel to speak with Todd.
“I’m ready,” he tells Todd. He is smiling.
Todd looks at him, his face burning. The corner of his mouth twitches. He looks as though he wants to scream. Mark understands. Everything he’s ever felt is written on Todd’s face.
“Ticket?” he spits out.
Mark feels in the pocket of his khakis. His pack of cigarettes is gone, replaced by a small piece of a paper with a crimped edge. The ticket.
He hands it to Todd, who examines it closely, as if to make sure it’s real. “Are you sure you’re ready?” he asks.
Mark nods. “It’ll be your turn eventually,” he assures him.
Todd grimaces, shaking his head. He writes Mark’s serial number in the book with his blue pen, pressing it into the paper harder than is necessary.
“I’ve had to do this three times,” he blurts out. “Send off a partner. I was sure I’d go before you. But you beat me to it. You! Mark! Bastard. Bastard!” He seems on the verge of some real emotion, as though the burning behind his eyes has grown too intense for him to keep inside.
Yet he contains himself. He is Todd, after all. He holds it in and smiles, with too many teeth. “But I guess someone has to be here to run the Ferris wheel.” Mark is relieved that he doesn’t attempt to wink.
They go up the steps together and Mark rests his arm on the side of the cool metal cart. Todd offers him a hand and they shake. “Safe ride,” he says.
“Thank you. Good luck,” Mark replies. It’s a marvel how calm he feels as he climbs into the cart.
Todd locks the door and begins the spiel about safety. Mark wishes he wouldn’t bother, but something tells him that this is the only thing that’s holding his partner together. So he listens, trying not to betray his impatience.
“Keep your arms and legs inside the cart at all times.” The words are so different in Todd’s voice. “Do not rock the cart. Do not, under any circumstances, look up. The sky may frighten you. Do not look down. It may make you disoriented. It might be best to close your eyes.
“Follow these instructions and you will be perfectly safe.”
Todd pauses, then goes off-script. “See you on the other side,” he says, the old comforting lie. Mark doesn’t need to hear it, but he’s grateful all the same.
“Thank you,” he says, sincerely. “For everything.”
They exchange a nod, and Todd presses the button. There’s a sudden jolt as the Ferris wheel begins to move. Mark’s teeth chatter and he grips his hands tightly in his lap, unreasonably exuberant. He debates closing his eyes, then wonders why he’d ever need to. He is perfectly safe.
The calliope music is fading away to the roar of wind. Mark glances down at the carnival, so far below now that it’s an unrecognizable blur of pink light. Laughing, he ascends. He looks up at the sky. Everywhere, there is the sky. And stars. So many stars.