Sweet Illusions

By Keily Blair

From the September 2021 issue of Cosmic Horror Monthly

The rusted gates that led to the fairgrounds creaked open like the maw of a beast, and the erratic music of the carnival irritated Micah’s ears as he approached the ticket booth. An ad in his hands showed bright, colorful tents, gleaming new rides, and a smiling, little man at a ticket booth. The real experience revealed faded tents, rusty old rides, and the crooked, yellow grin plastered on the man behind the counter. Micah’s fingers twitched in his pockets, echoing his silent wish for a set of noise-canceling headphones to block out the jarring noise. The Ferris wheel and some drop ride loomed over the booth, and his eyes followed their paths as his stomach twisted in knots. His younger sister chatted below him, excited and tugging at his shirt even though she knew he didn’t like to be touched.

The man took his money and slapped on his wristband. Micah focused on the bit of something stuck in the man’s teeth, avoiding his watery, bloodshot eyes. The feel of the man’s clammy fingers made his skin crawl. He produced a small bottle of hand sanitizer from his pocket, squirting a dollop into his hands as the man watched him.

“Nervous?” the man asked.

Micah didn’t respond, though he tucked some of his dark hair behind his ear with shaky fingers. Sometimes such questions caught him off guard and forced responses from him, honest ones met with laughter. He was no one’s joke.

“Come on, Ella,” he said.

His sister gripped his hand, and he stiffened at the touch. The ticket seller’s grin widened at this, mocking him.

The salty, rich aroma of roasted peanuts mingled with the sweetness of candied apples and caramel. Cotton candy machines whirred, spinning sugary, sticky confections. Popcorn popped in various machines, only to be smothered in rich, buttery oil for wide-eyed youths. Micah’s mouth watered, and as if on cue, one of the workers leaned out of her booth, holding a bright red candy apple by the stick.

“Everybody gets one free,” the worker said. Her red mouth cracked the caked, white makeup on her cheeks and around her eyes. Dyed, green hair framed her features.

The apple’s candy coating glistened in the sunlight. Micah shook his head and slipped his hand out of Ella’s grasp.

“None for me,” he said.

The woman’s grin shrank before stretching far enough that Micah feared her face would split open. She shoved the apple closer to him, just under his nose and inches from his lips.

“Not even a taste?” she asked.

Ella reached up and snatched the candy apple.

“Mama says he can’t eat junk,” she said. “It’s supposed to help his condition.”

People crowded behind them, standing in line for the free candy apples. Micah tugged his sister off to the side, his voice dropping to a harsh whisper.

“You aren’t supposed to tell people,” he said.

“No one would know anyway,” she said. “Without those goofy headphones of yours.”

He wiped the sweat from his brow. Carnival music blared in his ears, and his fingers tapped a certain rhythm against his hip, a steady one-two-three that always calmed him when the stimulus became unbearable. His mother had taken the headphones away for the day, claiming Micah needed to get out and socialize more. A retort died in his throat when Ella looked up at him with wide eyes, her mouth reddened by sucking at the candy.

“It’s so good,” she said.

One candy apple wouldn’t kill him. He turned back to the booth, only to find the line had grown in only a handful of seconds. The woman caught his eye, flashing her toothy grin, teeth thin like needles, long and glinting in the light—

He blinked, and shook his head. When he looked again, the woman had returned to serving customers. The grin she flashed revealed pearly, flat, human teeth.

Ella took huge, crunching bites out of her apple, covering her cheeks in the shards of candy. Micah wiped at her cheeks the way their mother always did, earning a scowl from the girl.

“We’ll let your stomach settle before you ride anything,” he said.

“You have to ride with me!” Ella said.

Stunned, Micah looked down at his sister. She appeared not to have noticed his surprise and spoke with a mouth full of candy.

“It’s no fun without you.”

Despite himself, a small smile crept over his face. Light danced off Ella’s curls like flickers of flame, and her wide green eyes softened at the sight of one of his rare, genuine smiles.

“You’ll regret it if we go now,” he said. “How about the hall of mirrors first? It’ll make us look funny.”

She snorted.

“You already look funny with those glasses,” she said.

He rolled his eyes and tugged her along. The savory, sweet aromas lingered in the air, tempting Micah with every inhale of breath. One booth featured funnel cakes, the fried dough sizzling in pans of oil. Another boasted fried pickles and tangy lemonade. Steam and smoke filled the air with a cornucopia of pleasant aromas.

Free candy apples waited for guests at every second or third booth, sticky and gleaming. Each time Micah attempted to grab one, Ella would tug him onward toward the center of the busy carnival. The entrance vanished from sight, buried behind countless booths and tents.

Large tents filled the center of the carnival, stretching toward the sky in an array of reds, yellows, and blues. Various tents caught Micah’s eye, but he’d promised a hall of mirrors. Surely the carnival had one somewhere.

Ella pointed at something, and Micah’s gaze followed. Bright red spray paint bled onto a wooden sign, declaring, “Tent of Mirrors.” Micah tugged Ella by the collar toward it. She followed him with the heavy steps of a child resisting, giggling and munching on her candy apple until nothing remained but a core on the stick. He brushed aside the flap of the tent so she could walk through, and he followed.

A maze of mirrors stretched on into darkness. Half of the tent’s lights were out, and the rest bathed the mirrors in a dull, yellow glow. Bare ground rested at their feet in place of a tent’s tarp. Ella tossed her stick onto the dirt, and as Micah leaned down to get it, she ran off into the maze.

“Catch me if you can!” she said.

He left the apple core where it fell, heart pounding in his chest. The moment he entered the maze, the giggles stopped. The footsteps fell silent. Row after row of mirrors reflected contortions of his body. One skinny, one fat. Another short, another tall. Something moved in the corner of his eye, and he spun around.

“Ella?” he asked.

No answer. The musty air of the tent pressed in on him, closing in until his chest heaved with each breath. He took off down one row, kicking up dust as his image blurred in the mirrors. A shadow flickered across them, running alongside him. She had to be just ahead of him. Just a few more steps.

Micah stopped to catch his breath, bending over with his hands on his knees as he sucked air into his aching chest. His body spent more hours in front of the computer, playing role-playing games with dragons and monsters than sprinting out on the track at school. Still, maybe he could’ve run a few more laps during physical education instead of faking sick and sneaking his handheld game console out of his locker on the way to the nurse’s office. Still, his father had always been more of a gamer, and Micah had found games to be the only way to connect with him and other people for a long time.

Micah sat on the ground, allowing a whimper to escape. His father wouldn’t have had any trouble with Ella. He always knew where to find her, how to catch up to her. Micah was not his father, no matter how much he wanted to be.

When their father died a year ago, Micah had tried to fill his shoes. The grief ate him, but not the way it ate Mother. Days passed without Mother making sandwiches for Ella’s lunch, and Micah made them. He went to Ella’s school plays, praised her when she made straight As on her report card. He taught her how to play video games, read to her every night.

Now, she was lost.

“Where are you?” he asked.


The voice didn’t belong to Ella. Movement caught his eye, and he looked up into the mirror a few spaces before him. The figure casting the reflection remained hidden behind the next row, but the image showed a man with an elongated jaw swinging back and forth, his tongue stretched to an impossible length, brushing his chest. He waved a hand with black nails filed to appear like claws.

Micah rolled his eyes. Freaks and clowns may have been scary when he was five, a full decade ago. He was way too old for games and mirror tricks designed to scare him.

“Have you seen my sister?” he asked. “She’s only eight, so could you knock off the mirror act? She’ll never get any sleep like this. We thought this was a house of mirrors, not a haunted house.”

The man snickered, his reflection pointing further down the row.

“Take a left at the end of the row,” he said.

Micah didn’t bother to thank him. He hurried forward, glancing off to the side to see the real man where he stood. No one was there. Concern for Ella drove him on, leaving the mystery of the reflection to hover in the back of Micah’s mind like a gnat. A soft giggle rose from behind one row to the left. After one sharp left turn, Micah stood face-to-face with Ella once more.

“Shoot,” she said. “You found me.”

He grabbed her by the shoulder and steered her toward the exit. Dirt crusted the rear of her new white shorts from where she’d sat on the ground. Mother would ground him for weeks for letting Ella ruin her expensive clothes.

“Don’t leave my sight again,” he said.

“Or what?” Ella asked. Her eyes flashed with wicked delight.

Micah urged her on. They left the tent, only to find a large crowd drawing near. Ella pulled Micah along to follow the people. A man in a smart, tan suit stood on a platform with a curtain draped behind him, serving as a crimson background. His tall, thin body towered over the crowd, and Micah looked for heels or platform shoes or something that could give the man such an unnatural boost in height. The air around the man shimmered, and for a moment, Micah saw a patch of green, scaly flesh on the man’s cheek. In another instant, it was gone.

“Did you see that?” he asked. “His face was green, wasn’t it?”

Ella furrowed her brow and pursed her lips like Mother always did when Micah said something “strange.”

“You’re weird,” she said.

Micah’s chest throbbed in the familiar, dull ache of hurt. His eyes avoided her probing gaze. Thankfully, a hush fell over the crowd, and Ella turned from him as the man spoke.

“How about an old favorite?” he asked.

Micah’s gaze remained on the ground. Ella gasped beside him.

“It’s a dove!” she said.

He chanced a glance at the trick, only for the blood to drain from his face. A large insect perched on the man’s hand, mandibles opening and closing with an audible click. Its metallic body shimmered in various shades of purple and green, and its eyes bulged from two stalks on its head. As the crowd laughed and cheered, the insect tore a piece of green, scaly flesh from the magician’s hand and gulped it down. The magician’s crimson lips stretched into a wide smile as he gave a hearty laugh, showing off his blackened, needle-like teeth. His watery eyes bulged from their sockets, and a forked tongue flicked out from between his teeth to taste the air. Large wings reminiscent of the beetles Micah had collected as a child protruded from the man’s back.

In Micah’s panic, he took in the crowd’s laughter and cheering. No one saw what he saw. Everyone saw a lovely dove and a delightful, tall magician. He swallowed a scream as the man spoke again.

“Why don’t you go and greet our audience?” he asked.

The giant insect flew over to a woman nearest the stage, and she shrieked in delight as it landed on her shoulder. It leaned over and took a small chunk from her ear, and the crowd gasped, only to clap with glee. Blood dripped onto the woman’s light blue blouse. The insect crushed a gold earring in its shiny mandibles.

“It’s giving her kisses!” Ella said. “I want it to come to us!”

Micah pulled Ella away. He dragged her out of sight of the crowd and the monstrous magician, over by a trash can. His stomach cramped and churned as he gripped the edge of the can.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

He leaned over, vomiting into the trash can until nothing remained of the breakfast his mother had forced into him.

“What is your problem?” Ella asked.

“We need to go home,” he said.

The look of stern disapproval returned on her face.

“Micah Trevor Wilson,” she said. “Did you forget to take your medicine this morning? Are you having one of your episodes?”

Micah wracked his brain for the memory. Had he forgotten? There were so many to keep up with, and it was the day he filled his pill tray. Then again, when had he ever hallucinated before? That wasn’t one of the symptoms, unless he wanted to add schizophrenia to his growing list of diagnoses.

He took in Ella’s frown, her shimmering eyes on the verge of tears.

“You always do this,” she said. “You always act weird and make us leave places. Can’t we just have fun for once? Daddy never made us leave places early.”

He closed his eyes. The words stung, but he wouldn’t show that. Ella needed him to be strong. He had to escape the carnival without alerting the strange creatures. How many of them were monsters like the magician? The man in the mirror and the woman with needle-like teeth? He swallowed, though his scorched throat protested.

A quick glance around showed that their path became muddled by following the crowd. The tents appeared to all be the same, sprouted from the ground like giant mushrooms feasting on decay. The carnival workers lost their human disguises, and he tried not to stare too long at any one of them. Some had hair the color of violets, some had eyes black as the mouths of caves his father used to explore, and all had wings copying some form of insect—butterfly, beetle, dragonfly, and more. The grotesque forms weaved in and out of the crowds, delighting some with horrors Micah couldn’t begin to describe. Why couldn’t they see?

Few people noticed them standing near the trash can, but Micah knew that would soon change. They weren’t enjoying themselves, laughing and smiling like the other. A fake, awkward smile stretched his lips.

“Come on,” he said. “The wristbands last all day, and we can grab some protein bars for me to eat. I’m famished.”

“Then we can ride the Ferris wheel?” Ella asked.

“Of course,” he said.

She beamed and grasped his hand. They wandered through the crowd. Beads of sweat dripped down Micah’s forehead and burned his eyes as they avoided the creatures loafing about. None of them noticed the way his hands shook or the way his gaze darted from monster to monster. From time to time, they approached him with an offer of a candy apple, but he refused, claiming he’d already had his free one. After a half-hour of wandering with no luck, Micah turned to Ella.

“Okay,” he said. “We can ride the Ferris wheel. Maybe we can see the exit from up high.”

A squeal of delight pierced his ears as Ella dragged him over to the creature standing before the spinning wheel. Its body appeared female, human, but its head held bulging eyes and a proboscis in place of a mouth. Deep purrs of satisfaction rumbled in her throat as she pierced the neck of the patron. When she removed the proboscis, blood oozed out of the wound and dripped onto the man’s jacket. He blushed a deep red, rubbing at the place where the wound was and smearing blood all over his neck.

“Yuck,” Ella said.

Micah’s eyes widened, but the creature paid no attention to them.

“I hate when adults flirt,” Ella said. “They won’t kiss, will they?”

The man stumbled away as the Ferris wheel stopped, and the creature’s voice rang out despite her lack of a true mouth.

“Wristbands?” she asked.

Micah and Ella flashed their wristbands, and Micah slipped by the creature into one of the Ferris wheel’s seats. Ella bounced in the space next to him, rocking the seat. The wheel rotated, lifting them high into the air. At the very top, Micah dragged his gaze from Ella to the rest of the carnival to search for the exit.

The tents stretched on almost as far as the eye could see, but beyond that, there was darkness.

A chill gripped Micah. His fingers tightened on the bar, locking them into their seat, eyes bulging in their sockets. A laugh escaped him, bitter and hysterical. Ella laughed as well, joining in with a merry and beautiful smile. Micah laughed until tears ran down his face as the Ferris wheel lifted them a second time. Once again, the darkness waited for them at the edge of the carnival, and Micah’s gasping laughter turned to sobs.

The moment the ride ended, he grabbed Ella and took off down the center of the carnival. The creature in front of the Ferris wheel called after them, waving a candy apple in one clawed hand. Micah ran, urging Ella along. Adrenaline pumping through his veins pushed him farther and farther. Tents blurred all around them, and angry shouts rose when they bumped into patrons. Finally, they stopped.

Darkness loomed before them. Micah reached toward it, watching as his fingers disappeared in its inky depths. Void.

He dropped to his knees. Ella’s words left her between deep panting breaths.

“What is your problem?” Ella asked.

Footsteps approached them. A long shadow fell over Micah, vanishing into the void. Scaly, green hands reached out in front of Micah, holding two bright red candy apples.

“I think he’s just hungry,” the creature said.

The free candy apples. They were the cure to the insanity Micah teetered on the edge of. One bite, and it would be over. Micah gazed at the treat.

“You’re not leaving so soon, are you?” the creature asked.

The creature looked at Micah with expectant, knowing eyes.

“I’m sorry, Ella,” Micah said.

Micah’s breathy laughter escaped him, and he reached for the candy apple and took a bite.


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