Candice handed over the cash for the cotton candy and started munching on it.
Her friend, Tamara, gave her an undisguised look of disgust as they strolled through the carnival grounds.
"What?" Candice asked, her voice partially muffled with a mouthful of cotton candy.
"I thought you were trying to lose weight." Tamara told her.
"Look at me. I've lived off carrot sticks for years and I still look like a beached whale. So forget dieting. If I am going to be fat, I might as well enjoy it."
Tamara emitted a disgusted sigh.
"What?" Candice prodded. "Like you're a poster child for perseverance. You're not goint to college just because you didn't get into Harvard."
"That's different." Tamara protested. "I've always been the best at school. I can't take settling for second place. If I can't get into Harvard, what's the point?"
"That's just what I'm saying. If I can't have the body I want, then what's the point? Man, like where are the bumper cars? They are supposed to be around here somewhere."
Tamara squinted through her glasses at something on the far end of the carnival. "Want to ride that carousel?"
Candice shrugged. "Why not?"
The carousel was something from a long by gone age of penny candies, ragtime music and Model T Fords. Its size and grandeur seemed out of place on the edge of a rinky-dink traveling carnival's grounds. Its pointed canopy was as big as a circus tent and ornamented with a blizzard of dulled colored lights. Rows of horses impaled on golden poles and centaur's pulling chariots marched in a perpetual, frozen procession. Paintings of sylvan scenes and full-length fun house mirrors decorated the rounding boards.
The ride was deserted. Even the ticket booth was empty.
"I can't believe nobody's riding this thing." Tamara mused.
"I can. Check out the weird horses."
The horses weren't the traditional carousel variety at all. They weren't even really horses but bizarre male and female human-horse hybrids. Their hind legs and plume like tails looked like cartoonish versions of true-life horses but their torsos were almost fully human with painfully arched backs. Their were heads thrown far back to display their grotesque faces. Their frozen glares were so wide-eyed that their overly large eyes seem ready to burst from their sockets. Their mouths were contorted in either abnormally wide grins or toothy smiles like the Joker from the Batman comic books, or one of his victims. They reached forward with human arms that ended in hooves or hooves with the remnants of human fingers as if they had been caught in mid-transformation from human to equine. While the chariot pulling centaurs had forms that were more recognizable from myths, their arms were thrown wildly about as if they had been frozen in some gypsy dance and their faces were also fixed in exotic leers.
"Whoever runs this thing either has a really weird sense of humor or is completely crazy!" Candice observed.
"Yeah and it's giving me the creeps. Let's get out of here." Tamara complained.
"No! Wait!" Candice shouted and ran toward one of the rounding board mirrors. "Check this out!"
Tamara did not want to go any further into the carousel but she relented at her friend's urging.
"What's so great about a mirror?" Tamara asked. Her jaw dropped when she saw what had caught Candice's attention. She was looking at Candice's reflection only it was not Candice as she was standing right next to her but an idealized vision of her. Candice had always had a pretty face but in the mirror it was positively angelic. Even more startling was her mirror version's body--it was not that of the chubby young woman but a willowy bikini clad super-model. At first, Tamara couldn't believe this was a reflection but each move of the mirror image of Candice matched the real one's perfectly.
"This is incredible!" Candice cried as she looked at this version of herself. It was the form she had always fantasized of becoming but believed it impossible to obtain. "How can they do this?"
Tamara shrugged off her surprise. "Must be computer generated."
"Uh huh!" Candice said skeptically. "Now let's try you!"
Tamara protested but Candice pulled her in front of the mirror. Tamara saw herself mostly as she was. The only difference was that she was wearing a crimson red t-shirt with the word Harvard printed on the front in big block, white letters.
"Ok, how did the mirror figure out you want to go to Harvard?" Candice demanded to know.
"Someone must have heard us and programmed this...this computer image." Tamara said unconvincingly.
"This is a carnival run by hicks!" Candice told her. "Their technological sophistication ends at texting. There's no way they could pull something like this off. I don't know anyone who could. This mirror must be...must be...must be magical."
Tamara laughed but nervously. "No way!"
"Oh yeah?" Candice said. "Let's ask him!" She pointed to someone who had just popped out of the ticket booth. He was a tiny man dressed in a polo shirt and khakis and orthopedic shoes. His long pointed beard gave him a dwarfish appearance which increased when he slapped on a red pointed hat. Tamara rubbed her eyes as if that would make him disappear. She had sworn she hadn't seen anybody in the booth when they got here and she had been looking to make sure no one was around when they were checking out the carousel. It was as if the strange man appeared out of thin air!
Candice called out and ran over to him. "Hey, sir! How does that mirror on the carousel work?"
He looked up at her and blinked with a stunned expression as if the answer should be obvious. "By magic, of course." He told her.
Candice elbowed Tamara who had come up more slowly. "Told ya." Candice said. Tamara just rolled her eyes.
"My card." The man handed them each a business card. "Ronald Stiltskin." It read. "Granter of wishes."
"Ronald Stiltsken?" Tamara mused. "Sounds like Rumpelstiltskin."
"Yes, he was my brother. He was so stuck in the ways of the past." Ronald said sadly, shaking his head. "He just couldn't change with the times. A most unbusinesslike way of doing things. He kept doing the same old baby-stealing shtick and ended up get torn in two."
Tamara rolled her and hissed with impatience. "Alright, let's go!" She told Candice.
But Candice wouldn't leave. "You can really grant wishes?" She asked Ronald.
"Surely." Ronald replied. "What use is having a mirror that shows your heart's desire unless I can grant it? That would be most unbusinesslike. With the mirror, I can give you the exact wish you really want."
"So you can make me look like the way I looked in the mirror?" Candice asked getting excited.
"Of course, for a price." Ronald said ominously. "Much more than you can afford I am sure. But I might be able to swing you a deal for YOUR SOUL!"
"Oh come on!" Tamara cried. "You want to bargain for her soul. Like the Devil?"
Ronald looked hurt by the accusation. "No not like the Devil, devils or demons. They are most unbusinesslike. They try to trick you into a silly bargain for your soul and wait to collect. By the time they show up for it, any idiot lawyer could have found a way to break the deal. My transactions are all up-front--you get what you see in the mirror, I get the temporary use of your soul."
"Just temporary?" Tamara laughed.
"But of course." Ronald responded. "Captive souls whither if kept too long and cease to generate the power I need to grant wishes. Only demons and devils collect souls on a permanent basis and only because they compete against one another to see who can own the most. They are most unbusinesslike."
"So how long would I have to give you my soul, to look like I did in the mirror." Candice asked excitedly.
Ronald considered Candice for a moment and then said, "Five years for the body. Ten if you want a lucrative modeling contract to go with it."
"Deal!" Candice shouted. "Sign me up!"
Tamara grabbed Candice by the arm. "Candy, you can't be serious!? Don't tell me you believe this guy? He is crazy! Even if he could do what he says he can do, any story I've ever read involving someone giving up their soul does not end well."
Candice yanked her arm away. "It's my soul and I'm not doing anything with it."
"Fine!" Tamara shouted. "Sell your soul. See what I care. Don't expect me to wait around while you make a fool of yourself." Then she stomped off, leaving Candice and the strange little man alone.
"So what do I do? Is there something I need to sign?" Candice asked excitedly.
Ronald smiled. "Simply step on the carousel."
Candice stepped onto the platform and looked around. "What is supposed to happen?" She asked.
"Everything is taken care of. Don't worry about a thing." Ronald told her as walked over to a lever and pulled it. The carousel jerked to a start, it's tinny organ tinkling out the tune to "Daisy Bell." Candice started to feel a bit silly and that this man was all talk. She would take a few turns on the carousel but if nothing happened she would jump of and leave. As she waited, she found herself humming the tune and then singing the words.
"Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I'm half crazy, All for the love of you!" She murmered, surprised that she knew the words. While she was familiar with the song, she couldn't remember ever learning the lyrics. "It won't be a stylish marriage, I can't afford a carriage. But you'll look sweet upon the seat, of a bicycle made for two."
Candice giggled as she finished the refrain. With every word she was experiencing a heady, giddy feeling. Any tinge of embarrassment faded as she started to sway in time to the music. She belted out the words now, "We will go 'tandem', As man and wife, Daisy, Daisy! 'Peddling' away, down the road of life, I and my Daisy Bell!"
While lost in the tune, she felt a coolness creeping up her legs that made her feel like she was standing in a pool of water. When the coolness reached her waist, she looked down to see what was causing the strange sensation. She gasped as she found something totally different from the chubby jean-clad legs she was expecting. Her waist was now a thick bulk of muscles over slender bony legs that terminated in hooves. Her torso was standing over the body of a horse, but not a real horse, its shoulders and legs were made out of a purplish plastic rather than flesh and blood. She looked behind her and found her human butt was gone, replaced by the torso and backside of a purple horse. This was not the end of her transformation. The purplish plastic was liquid and was defying gravity and running up her body. Where it touched her belly, it turned her skin into a lighter purple and remade it into a hard crust like surfacea fake colored copy of the flesh that had superseded it.
Candice tried to protest, but her anxiety got lost in the song the organ played. She stopped caring about what had happened to her and continued to sing. "Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do! I'm half crazy, all for the love of you!"
As Candice swayed on her body, she raised her arms and waved them above her, like she was lost in a gypsy dance. Her heart ceased to beat, her lungs ceased to breath, her chest ceased to heave. Her human torso was cold and hard now and heavy as if a solid block. Her head became fixed in place as the coolness swept over her and her eyes stared ahead, no longer able to blink or turn. The smile she wore became a permanent grin. Her arms became fixed in mid wave, her palms thrown wide from her back flexed wrists, with fingers fully extended Frozen and mute to the outside world, she still sang in the recesses of her mind. "You'll take the 'lead', in each 'trip' we take. Then if I don't do well, I will permit you to use the brake, my beautiful Daisy Bell!"
There were other voices with Candice now, joining her in a chorus as they finished the tune and the carousel began to slow. When it stopped, Candice and the other voices slipped into silence. She became fixed and frozen but she lacked the ability to care.
It wasn't until the next day that Tamara decided to make up with Candice. She called her friend's cell, but got a message saying that the phone number was not in service.
"Must not have paid her bill." Tamara decided.
Tamara went over to Candice's house and her mother answered the door.
"Hey, Mrs. Berg. Is Candice around? I've been trying to reach her."
Candice's mother looked at her coolly. "There is no Candice here. Who are you?"
For a moment, Tamara was speechless. "Come on, Mrs. Berg, you're kidding right?"
The woman shook her head. "This joke is in bad taste. I have no idea who you are, young lady. Leave me alone!" She slammed the door in Tamara's face.
Tamara called her friend Jane. "Jane, something weird is going on with Candice and her family. I just talked to Mrs. Berg and..."
Jane interrupted her. "Tamara, who are you talking about? Who's Candice? The Bergs don't have any kids."
Tamara called a couple more friends. Neither of them had ever heard of Candice. It was not only as if Candice had dropped off the planet, it was like she never existed.
"That weirdo at the carousel!" Tamara realized. "He has to be behind this!"
Tamara returned to the carnival, finding the carousel deserted as it had been the day before. She walked around it, searching for the diminutive Ronald but he was nowhere to be seen. She climbed up onto the carousel platform and walked through the ranks of colorful, leering creatures and stopped dead her tracks when a purple centaur caught her eye. The horse form was caught in a perpetual cartoonish prance while the human form was that of a shapely female caught wildly gesticulating pose but it was its face that captured Tamara's attention--it had Candice's features frozen in an unnaturally wide rapturous smile. Tamara ran up to the centaur and tapped it as if she were trying to wake it from a sleep. She ran her hands over its varnished cheeks and stared into its painted eyes. Impossibly, Tamara could still sense a presence within in the figure.
"Oh my god!" Tamara cried. "Candy, are you in there?"
"Of course she is." Ronald's voice said. Tamara jumped as she found the small man beside her. "She is fulfilling her term of service under our contract. Her form bonds her soul to me so that I may draw upon its energy to grant wishes."
"But it is like she never existed!" Tamara cried.
Ronald chuckled. "I took her out of reality. I just can't have her disappear and reappear 10 years later as a hot babe. That would raise too many questions. When she is done, I will return her into a web of existence altered to handle her new state and it will be like she never left it."
"All those things, you said." Tamara gasped. "They're true!"
Ronald bowed. "But of course."
"So you can get me into Harvard?" Tamara asked.
The small man nodded and smiled. "But of course. It would only take a year of service. To be honest, you should have gotten in to Harvard but the application committee was sloppy when they reviewed your application. That won't take long to fix."
Tamara gulped but she made a decision she never thought she would make. "Ok. Then we have a deal."
"Deal." Ronald said and stepped off the platform.
The carousel started up and its band organ started to play a song that Tamara was only remotely familiar with. As she made a merry-go-round circuit, the words somehow came to her and she gave them voice. "Roll out the barrel, we'll have a barrel of fun. Roll out the barrel, we've got the blues on the run."
As she sang, she started to giggle even though there was nothing she found funny. It was a laughter she could not contain and it interrupted the song she felt compelled to sing. "Every time they hear that oom-pa-pa, ha ha ha ha...Everybody feels so tra-la-la ha ha ha ha...They want to throw their cares away. They all go lah-de-ah-de-ay...hee, hee, hee."
Tamara felt coolness about her. She looked down to find her clothes--jeans, t-shirt, shoes, socks--had all melted into a thick viscous liquid the color of bubblegum pink. It clung tightly to her body and then began to surge over her as if it had a mind of its own. As it oozed over her, its purpose became apparent. It molded all the flesh it came in contact with, changing Tamara's form and color. She marveled as it swelled about her thighs, increasing their visible muscular power, pitching her forward and forcing her to reach out to one of the carousel horses for balance. As she put her hands in front of her, she found them covered in the pink goo and had started to grow a filmy web between the fingers. A thrushing sound from above distracted her and she looked up to see a brass pole shoot down at her. Unable to dodge it, it impaled her at the back and emerged from the belly securing her to the platform. There was no blood, there was no pain. It had not speared her. It had joined with her and become a part of her. And that made her laugh even more hysterically.
Tamara's calves suddenly went rubbery. She looked down to find that they had become elongated and contorted into a zigzag shape to form an equine hock joints. Her feet had swollen into large angular hoof-like lumps which she kicked off of as if she were going to leap. Instead of flying across the carousel, the pole kept her fixed in the air, in the same place from which she had tried to jump. She flexed her half human, half equine legs once more before they became frozen in a mid-stride as the pink substance hardened and denied them any more movement. A springing pink tail of long pink hair had sprouted just above her butt and danced from the movements she was still able to make above the waist. She knew here capacity to even make these motions would soon end. And still she laughed and sang. "Then they hear a rumble on the floor, the floor....hahahahahaha....It's the big surprise they're waiting for....teeheeheheehee....And all the couples form a ring,....hahahahahaha....For miles around you'll hear them sing...teeheeheeeheehee"
Arching her back on her pole, her body bent impossibly to lift her head high and she reached out in front of her as if to grab hold of something. She watched as the webbing between her fingers flowed to their tips making her hands like pads. She marveled as they swelled into thick plate-like hooves, paddling them in front of her like she was swimming doggie style. The pink substance covering her arms fixed into hardness once these changes were made and she could move them no longer.
Tamara leaned back her head and belted out a hard laugh that consumed her song. The liquid pinkness froze at her chest and she felt its solidification embrace her on the inside as well as on the outside. She turned to a runner board mirror to find her hair now had pink highlights and then felt its weight as it formed into one solid mass upon her head. On her back, behind the pole, the ooze had formed to make a decorative saddle. She looked straight ahead again, not on her own accord but because the pink substance now running up her neck directed that she move that way. When the liquid ran across her face, it sealed her mouth in a wide, maniacal grin and preserved her face in an expression of almost extreme happiness. She had no voice now, no lungs to draw in air, no vocal chords to vibrate, but she sang her song in the existence of the carousel horse/human hybrid she had become. "Roll out the barrel, we'll have a barrel of fun. Roll out the barrel, we've got the blues on the run." Other voices joined with her, to sing with her in unison, including Candice. The song went on and on until the carousel came to a stop and Tamara and Candice and all the others became silent, aware but unthinking.
Tamara woke up to other songs, silly songs of the past. She sang them with the others on the carousel, laughing crazily as she spoke the lyrics voicelessly through her soul-mind. Together Tamara and the others of the carousel wielded an immense power in their songs, far greater than any invention or imagination of man. When they sang, they made the tapestry of reality appear before them. Their notes stroked its fabric, pulling and altering strands, sometimes changing small parts, sometimes remaking full sections. They did as they were bid by unheard instructions, performing their tasks with as much thought as a piston makes in an engine. They were parts of a machine, a machine that altered reality.
After many songs, Tamara woke up on the carousel platform. She quickly lifted a hand before her eyes, almost expecting to see a hoof but was relieved to find her familiar palm and five fingers. She got up and looked around. She was back in the carnival, but there was no trace of Ronald or anyone else around the carousel. Tamara walked over to Candice's purple form and stroked her frozen face.
"I guess I'll see you in 9 years. I'll miss you kiddo." She told her. Tamara almost thought she heard a murmur float through the air in reply.
Tamara ran home, stopping only to look at the date of the day's newspaper. It was a year to the day from the moment she had stepped upon the carousel to give herself to Ronald. When she got to her house, she found her Dad mowing the lawn.
"Hey, Dad. Miss me?" Tamara asked him playfully.
"Miss you? You've been gone a half hour." He replied. "Oh, the mailman came. You got a letter from Harvard."
Tamara squealed with glee. She raced off to get the letter. Ripping it open, she yelled in triumph as she read, "We are pleased to invite you to join the Harvard University class of
What a difference a years had made.