There are consequences for every action. At least that’s what Rowan McArter had learned the hard way. His dreams of running and maintaining his own carnival had come true. But, like any deal with a demon, there had been exorbitant costs. Costs that he had come to realize may have been too much in the long run. Though, it wasn’t his soul he had given up that night, he often wished that had been. For two hundred years, he had suffered through much worse than handing his soul over to darkness.
He had faced loneliness.
For two centuries, Rowan had thrilled his hometown with the world’s most exciting carnival. He could still remember the day he had first encountered such an attraction. He had been just a boy–around seven at the time–when his father had taken him to a small, pop-up carnival that opened just outside their little village. It was only going to be there for two nights before moving on to the next town and Rowan wanted more than anything to go. So, his father, being a man of honor and having so much love for his son, pulled together every penny he could find, and they were off to the show.
Rowan bustled with excitement when they arrived and his father handed over their money to get in. It was everything he had imagined it to be and more. There were fire breathers with flames soaring from their mouths as high as ten feet in the air. Giant clowns on stilts wobbled through the grounds, weaving past tents and through throngs of people as they playfully chased screaming children. A tent promised the most curious sights. There were bearded women, the world’s tallest man, a wolf boy, the fattest person on Earth, and other strange commodities. Rowan giggled as he manoeuvred his way past the exhibits, his eyes glowing with each passing second.
The wolf boy lunged at him; he squealed and bounced toward his father, grabbing the man’s arm. A half-hearted laugh fell from his gaping mouth, his bulging eyes widened with terror and excitement. His father scooped him up, cradling the child gently.
“Did you like that?” he asked his son, carrying him away from the wolf boy.
“Yes, papa! He’s so scary, but I know he’s not real.”
His father laughed. “And, how do you know that?”
“It’s a carnival.”
“Oh, yes, of course. How silly of me.”
Rowan and his father spent hours there that night, taking in the sights and smells. They even pulled a few bits of change together and bought a funnel cake to share between them. It was nearing closing time when the two discovered the one thing Rowan wanted to see more than anything else. The haunted house. Sitting just off to the right of the main event tent, the small wooden structure beckoned to the child. He heeded its call and dragged his tired father toward the entrance. They had just stepped in line when the attendant announced they were cutting it off and Rowan would be the last allowed inside for the night.
“Can you believe we made it, papa?” Rowan asked, his voice cracking with excitement.
“Yes, son, what luck!” His father said. But, Rowan could see there was less joy in his father’s words. The man coughed several times, pulling out a handkerchief to catch it. Several guests in line shot him dirty looks. When his father realized Rowan was staring, the man placed a hand on his son’s shoulder and forced a smile.
“What are you most excited about?
Rowan beamed, a gap tooth smile showing through open lips. “Everything!”
“Me too,” his father laughed.
Fifteen minutes later, the two made it into the house. Rowan’s face immediately fell as he realized he was being put in a tiny, wooden cart that would be tugged along by a pulley system. The ride lasted all of ten minutes and not once did a person jump out to scare them. It was painted boards and animated creatures that shrieked and squealed. Rowan had spent the majority of his ride with his chin resting firmly in his hand, boredom plastered across his face. When the ride ended, his father seemed pleased.
“Well, what did you think?”
“It was stupid,” Rowan grumbled.
His father’s face fell. “I’m sorry you felt that way. It looks like the carnival is closing. Let’s go home.”
Rowan nodded. “One day, I’m going to own the best carnival in the world. It’s going to have a haunted house that will terrify everyone who goes inside!”
“You sure will, son, you sure will.”
Rowan’s years passed with normalcy, but he never forgot about that night. He grew up, took a job working on a farm to help support his family, but his thoughts of the haunted house were never far from his mind. When his parents died, both from influenza, leaving him with nothing but debt, he finally began to forget about the attraction and his dreams. He quit his farming job and went to work in a factory to pay off the debts his parents left for him. After years of tiring work, Rowan’s dream slowly re-entered his mind. He began to save pennies from his paychecks and for sixteen years, he continued to save. Until one day, while taking a casual stroll through some woods nearby his home, he came upon a clearing with a sale sign. It was only a small plot of land, but it was plenty big enough to build the haunted house part of his carnival. Surely, from there he could build something more. He counted his savings and had just enough for the plot of land. When the transaction was finished, he was able to obtain a loan from the bank using the land as collateral. The bank loan had given him enough to build the house and hire workers that would terrify his guests.
Opening night was finally upon him. People flocked to see the new attraction, some even hiking nearly a mile to get there. But the excitement was short lived. Everyone wanted to know where the fire breathers were and what about the wolf boy? The bearded lady? Why were there no stilt walkers or ring masters or lions dressed in tacky garb? What was this trash masquerading as entertainment? What was this house in the middle of the woods? People demanded their money back and left in droves, leaving Rowan standing in the center of his land, failure apparent on his face.
After the abysmal night, Rowan knew it would be impossible to ever repay the bank loan. In debt with no future, he was ready to walk away from his dream and return to the factory job. It was during one of these moments of despair that he found himself walking along a darkened, dirt road. His mind wandered and his heart raced. There was nothing he could think to do. He would give anything to have another chance at his dream. As the thought crossed his mind, he looked up and noticed a crossroads had appeared seemingly out of nowhere. In the center of the four-way was a single man, dressed in black pants and a black shirt. The only color on his clothes was a simple, solid red tie. His pale face was illuminated by the full moon hovering overhead.
“Mr. McArter, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” the man said, his voice harsh.
Rowan stared at him, unsure of whether or not he should answer. Finally, he choked out, “H-how do you know me?”
“I know all men and all their desires.”
“Who are you?
The man shook his head. “My name is of no importance. All that should matter to you is that I’m here to help you.” The mysterious man waved his hand in front of Rowan’s face, causing him to blink. “You want a haunted house—one that is so terrifying and dazzling that people will come from far and wide to see it. You want to be remembered and be able to pay off all of your family debts.”
“I told you that I know all. Now, would you like me to make it happen?”
Rowan thought carefully. He had nothing else to lose, so what could possibly happen that would make his life worse? “What are the terms?” he asked.
“Simple. A soul. Once per year, you must provide me with a soul. Bring me someone who needs something. Do this, and you will have everything you have ever wanted and you’ll be immortal. Fail me and not only will you lose everything you’ve built, but you’ll face your worst nightmare—no one will remember you.”
Rowan held out his hand and shook for the deal.
That had been nearly two hundred years earlier. As he stood on a ledge atop the brick wall surrounding the carnival, overlooking the crowds of people flooding into the attraction, Rowan still thought about that night, the night he had been given everything he could imagine but had also given up a piece of him that he could never get back. Within a day, he not only had a perfect haunted house but a full-sized carnival and all the land he could want. He had also been given employees to run it. Word spread and people flocked to the attraction. Life was perfect. Almost. Having everything proved to still not be enough when there was one thing missing in his life that he could never have: love. In two hundred years, he had not met one person he could find himself loving. How would he even explain never aging? If he did explain it, who would want to be with someone who has to feed souls to a demon every year? No matter how much he wanted it, love was not something he would ever have.
“It’s time, sir,” a husky voice whispered from behind him. Without looking, he simply nodded. He knew exactly what that meant. It was the time of the year that he had to find someone. He only had until midnight to deliver the unsuspecting soul to the demon or he would lose everything. He had not missed a deadline in two centuries. He would not do it tonight. His eyes on the crowd, he searched out the perfect candidate. Who would it be this time? The teenager who would give anything for their own greed? The single mom who wants to find love and a father for her child? The father who wants everything for his family? Or the lost soul who had nothing, as he had once been?
A group below him laughed loudly and shouted obscenities at one another. His eyes scanned the area. They seemed normal enough and happy, or at least four of them did. The fifth one, a redhead with large, sad green eyes forced a smile, but did not return their laughter. There was a deep despair within her heart that spoke to him. She was at the end of her rope; the perfect victim. This was the one who would be delivered tonight. He swallowed hard and took a deep breath. Something inside of him didn’t want to do this, but he needed an easy victim; someone he could turn over without a fight. Before he could change his mind, he leapt from the ledge and landed softly on his feet. Several people clapped and laughed, thinking it was all part of the show. Even the redhead smiled. He took that as his moment to introduce himself.
“Welcome to my carnival,” he said, taking her hand in his. He turned it over and kissed her palm, making her almost giggle. The group with her rolled their eyes. “Perhaps I can show you around?”
“I shouldn’t go off with strangers,” she said, her eyes shifting.
“I’m not a stranger. I’m Rowan McArter, the owner.”
The blonde in the group raised an eyebrow and vigorously nodded her head. “Go. You need it; trust me. Have fun.”
The redhead shrugged, but still seemed hesitant. “Fine. You guys have fun.” They walked away, leaving Rowan relieved, until the girl spoke again. “I’ll be honest. I hate carnivals, and they only invited me out of pity.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he responded. “Perhaps I can change your mind tonight.”
She nodded. He led her through the dirt pathways, past the fire breathers, the clowns on stilts, and the chainsaw wielding monster chasing a group of kids. With each scene, he gave her an overview of the history. For someone who hated carnivals, she held on to every word, her eyes flickering to his every so often. He couldn’t help but see how beautiful she looked in the starry light. There was a softness to her, like she had seen much pain but had always come out on the other side.
“I can’t believe you own all of this,” she said quietly. “I’d love to own my own business.”
“Is that what you want more than anything?” he asked, almost giddy at already finding out her weakness, though something inside him knew that couldn’t be it.
She shook her head. “I don’t know how to answer that. I mean, how can we really know what we want more than anything? I feel like that’s something that changes as time goes on. A person’s desires change with the people they meet, the things they do, the jobs they hold. What I wanted more than anything a month ago was to marry the man I’d been dating for nearly three years. Now, what I want more than anything is to forget he ever existed. Tomorrow, that desire may be to finish the book I’ve been working on for six months. Who knows?”
Rowan eyed her with curiosity. He had always met people who seemed to know exactly what they wanted out of life, even if it wasn’t their actual desire, it was something they craved so bad that they would give anything to get it at that moment. This woman had no such desire. She would not be the perfect victim after all.
He led her to the starter haunted house for children. It was simple carts on a pulley system, exactly like the one he had ridden with his father as a child. It was the perfect place to sit and talk and find out what he might be able to present to the demon before the end of the night. They skipped the line, much to the chagrin of the people standing in line, and climbed inside a moving cart. The second the bars were latched in front of them, Rowan wasted no time.
“Tell me what you want out of life,” he said. “If you could have any one thing in this world, something you would give absolutely anything to have. We all have something. Mine was this haunted house.”
The woman chewed on her bottom lip and stared at him. Her eyes were glowing in the darkness of the haunted house. “That’s an awfully loaded question for someone you just met.”
“I don’t believe in wasting time with people. So, I go for the deeper questions. I apologize if I’ve offended you.”
“Not at all. I’m just not used to it. And, I don’t know. I guess it would be to…right now…to have someone to love me; someone who felt as much passion about me as I feel for him.”
Rowan sucked in a breath. She wanted the one thing he also desired. In all his years, the victims he chose always wanted something shallow. They wanted money, fame, power, anything to make their own lives better. While she still wanted something to make her life happier, it wasn’t any of the things he expected. She just wanted someone who would love her in the same way she loved them.
“What?” she asked.
“You’re staring at me.”
“I’m just surprised. That’s not an answer I expected.”
She laughed. “You ask that question to many women?”
Rowan grimaced. “No. I ask it in general sometimes. People tend to want more shallow things out of life and I’m not used to someone being so open about wanting love. It’s…refreshing.”
“What do you want?” she asked, catching him off guard.
He twisted his eyebrows. He knew what he wanted, but he had never had anyone ask him that, other than the demon. How could he answer that question? Telling her that he wanted love, he would have to explain why he never found it. How could he tell her he had been alone for so long because his job required him to hand over souls to a demon every year? He shook his head and decided to lie.
“I have everything I could want.”
“Even love?” She eyed him curiously.
“Why do you ask that?”
“There’s no ring on your finger and there’s no imprint where one used to be. You’re alone. You seem to have everything, but I can see the pain in your eyes. You want someone to love you.”
“H-how did you know that just by looking at me?”
“Because I want it too.”
A cardboard cutout of a monster popped up from behind smoke, startling her. She jumped closer to Rowan. He took the opportunity to put a hand around her shoulder. To his surprise, she didn’t push him away. Instead, she leaned in closer. He took in her scent: Sweet Pea.
“Did that scare you?” he laughed.
“Not a bit,” she said, though her nerves betrayed her.
They finished the haunted house and stepped from the moving cart. He took her hand in his and helped her out. But once they were on soft ground, she did not let go. He didn’t force her to either. Holding hands, they stepped outside, the cool breeze hitting them in the face. He breathed in the crisp night air.
“I love this time of year,” he said.
“So do I. There’s something romantic about it.”
He nodded his head and led her through the park, her hands still in his as they went.
“What do you want to see next?”
The sound of jazz music drifted from somewhere off in the park. She perked up, looking around to find the source of the sound. Rowan smiled and without asking, he led her in the direction. They found a live jazz band playing on a make shift stage. Several couples were dancing to the slow, soft music. Holding her hand tightly, Rowan twirled the woman and pulled her close to him. At first, she seemed hesitant, but within seconds, her head was on his chest.
They danced to the music, twirling and laughing until the world around them faded away. For a brief moment, it was just the two of them. For a moment, Rowan was the happiest he had been in all his time at the haunted house. He was feeling something he had never felt before. Compassion. He wanted to get to know this woman, to understand her heart and her desires; not so he could give them to the demon. No, he wanted her heart for his own. But, he couldn’t do this. If he did, he would lose everything he had built. On the other hand, wasn’t two hundred years enough time? Wasn’t it enough for him to have built something that had made so many people happy?
The woman looked up at him and their eyes met. The sadness was slowly fading. It had been returned by something else: admiration. She wanted to get to know him just as much as he did her. Why was this woman so mesmerizing to him? He didn’t even know her name. He knew nothing about her except that she was here with a group of friends and wanted to be loved. He shook his head and pulled away from her. He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t hand over this soul to the demon. He’d have to find someone else. But, the deadline was approaching. How could he possibly deliver another soul before the midnight hour?
A breeze hit him from behind. Turning around, he saw the demon standing at the tree line. He pointed a pale, bony finger toward the girl and motioned for Rowan to bring her to him. Rowan shook his head, but the demon responded by tapping a watch on his arm. It was time and there was no turning back. He either handed over the woman or he would lose everything. He wasn’t sure he was ready for either. But, he had a choice to make.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. Her eyes drifted toward the tree line, but she saw no one there.
“You have to leave,” he responded.
“What? Why? I thought we were having a good time. I’d like to get to know you better.”
“And, I would love the same, but I am not the man for you. You have to leave. Please. Don’t ask questions.”
Tears welled in her eyes. “I knew this was too good to be true. You didn’t even ask my name…”
“I’m sorry…” was all he could muster.
The woman turned on her heels and rushed from the area, ignoring the looks from the other guests as she shoved through them. Rowan lowered his head and walked from the crowd. He took one look at the demon and motioned for the man to join him on the ledge. It was only appropriate that it would happen there, where he could overlook his creation, his life.
Almost as if by magic, the two appeared at the top of the ledge. Rowan’s eyes shifted around the park at the happy faces, giggling children, and screaming guests running from chainsaw wielding clowns. Sadness filled him, but there was a calm in the pit of his stomach. Though something would be ending on this night, something else could begin. He realized that his promise to the demon had been his livelihood. He still had, however, his soul. And, he knew exactly what to do with it.
He watched carefully as the woman and her friends hurried through the front gates. She stopped and looked around, as if expecting someone to greet her. When no one did, she lowered her head and rushed out, sadness still on her face. Rowan turned to the demon and offered him the one thing he knew it would want.
“I want her to be happy; to find a love that will stay with her for all of her life. I want her to know the happiness I have never been able to find.”
The demon nodded. “You realize what you’re doing? Why would you give everything you’ve built for a woman you just met?”
“Because I feel like I could have grown to know her and, even if I had never found love with her, at least she can with someone else. That’s all I’ve ever wanted, to make people happy. By doing this, I’m making her happy.”
“So be it,” the demon said.
The two shook hands.
As if something washed over them, the guests suddenly flooded from the carnival in droves. Confused mumbling filled the air; no one knew why they were there. The red head, who was already on the other side of the gate, even stopped and looked around, also confused. But, the sadness in her eyes was gone. She looked to the ledge, and though Rowan knew she could not see him, he still felt her gaze burning into him. She felt it, the sudden rush of ease, though she would never know how it came to be. At least he knew she would be safe from the life of despair he felt.
As the carnival began to shift and change, falling into itself, Rowan stared into her green eyes. A single tear slid down his cheeks as he and the carnival disappeared into the darkness.