I’m at a carnival. ‘Goodbye 2016, Welcome 2017’ a neon sign glares overhead.
The scene around me looks like something right out of a sappy rom-com where lovers unite at the end of a year to welcome the new one locked in each other’s embrace, but I’m muttering curses under my breath as she pulls my unwilling hand towards the Ferris wheel queue. I hate carnivals. I hate heights. And I hate those who try to call this fear of heights irrational. Like my girlfriend, who is always hell-bent on trying to make me do weird shit and call it manly. Like that time she bought me a leather bracelet with a skull etched on it. What’s so manly about wearing a skull, even if it’s Titanium? I wouldn’t wear that even if I were dead. What was she thinking? Why does she treat me like a child? Why do we still share a bed? But that’s how we’ve become. We’re together, yes, but we’re miles apart inside.
Nevermind. This story isn’t about her.
So I’m at this stupid carnival being pulled to the stupid Ferris wheel and I’m protesting like a two-year-old. She keeps telling me what a ninny I am and that I’ll like it once I’m on it, and I know I won’t. We’re almost into the New Year and there are liquored up PYT’s around us feverishly counting backwards.
The ground erupts in a collective cry of ‘Happy New Year’. Fireworks erupt in the sky above us. And almost at the same time, something odd happens.
It’s not a wind, it’s not a flash. But somehow its both of that. Like the impact of a nuclear explosion. The night goes still, the laughter of the raucous dies, the fireworks freeze and frizzle out mid-air and a pall-like silence descends on the sprawling grounds. Our limbs freeze. I know because I’m straining to pull away, but my hand won’t move. The intent is there but the action is not. I notice people around me not moving either. I’m beginning to panic, but I can’t do anything but feel that fear clawing at my gut. Then, just as suddenly as it came on, it goes away too.
I gasp for breath like I’m a newborn babe who’s lungs have tasted air for the first time.
‘Did you feel that? What was that?’ I look at my girlfriend and scream. She’s stone-still. Her left leg is still in mid-air as if she’s going to take the next step any moment now. And she isn’t the only one who’s frozen. Everyone except me is still. And they all seem dead. Dead! No movement, no pink blush of life in them. They all have the pallid greyness of death. Death that has long been resident of a body that has somehow escaped rot.
I’m not spooked. I’m beyond that now. If someone spoke to me right now I would probably have a heart attack right here.
I step back and bump into someone, who goes crashing down and falls head first onto the ground with a dull thud. He is still frozen in the same stance as when I crashed into him.
‘Get out of here!’ My insides scream, and I run, not caring who and how many I bump into. I’m running as fast as I can, away from these grounds where time has disappeared. I can see my car parked at the far end of the parking lot and I fish into my pants for the keys. In my hurry, I drop them on the ground. I curse and jog back to get them but right before my eyes, the ground swallows my keys whole. I swear, I’m not hallucinating this! A second ago they were there. Now they’re not and I have literally seen the earth crack up, swallow my keys and watched how that crack seals itself shut as if an invisible zipper zipped it close. The mind tries to think rationally. Maybe there was a crack here and they just fell right into it. But my eyes scream, ‘No! We know what we saw!’
What the fuck is this place?!
I look around bewildered. I’m not even ashamed to admit that my mouth is wide open. But the night isn’t done dishing out surprises. The scene I left behind just minutes ago, is no more. Where is it all? My girlfriend? That stupid Ferris Wheel? The people? Where did they all go? The earth couldn’t have swallowed them all up! I was only one among a multitude on these grounds just minutes ago, and now I’m the only one. The grounds are as barren and wasted as a battlefield after the war has ravaged it.
‘Screw this! I’m running away.’ I turn to do exactly that when I bump into him. His face is unforgettable. The same arcane harlequin mask tattooed on the porcelain-like face that had first lured me to him on that night, a year ago. Come to think of it, it was the same night, only a different year. It was the last night of 2015.
‘You,’ is all I can manage.
‘Me! Happy New Year again. For the 366th time.’ He steps towards me and I fall back.
Memories fill in. ‘No, no…. not again, please. I want release. Please…’
‘Sorry. A deal is a deal. It’s the price for the game we played.’ He walks slowly, drawls his words out even slower. I can feel my lungs gasping for breath as I forget to breathe in my fear.
‘No, please… I’ll do anything but do it all over again!
‘Remember I told you right before you made the deal – there’s a price for everything! You played, you lost, you consigned your soul to the eternal loop in return for a year of life. I gave you that one year. 2016. Don’t complain now. I’ve kept my end of the bargain.’
‘You think I wouldn’t remember?! I’ve been reliving my last night, over and over, for a year. And the worst thing is I don’t even remember I’m reliving it till this moment, till this ugly tête-à-tête with you. You gave me a year of life, yes, but you turned it into hell. That’s not a fair bargain’.
He smirks. ‘Who said the Devil plays fair?’
I see stars in my head.
I’m at a carnival. ‘Goodbye 2016, Welcome 2017’ a neon sign glares overhead…