The carnival was in town. I got excited every time one showed up. I love the smells and the noises and the crowds. Oh, and I love the carnival games. I'm never very good at them. The skills atrophy between arrivals, and I still can't break all of those plates.
This time, there was something different. Even the entrance was unlike anything I had seen before. "Doctor Emilio Wyvern's Carnival of Discovery," read the sign over the admissions booth, lurid colors swirling in surreal patterns. No, really, they were swirling. Not when you looked at them, but when you looked down the midway, out of the corner of your eye, you could see the purples and yellows and greens move, emphasizing some other part of the title.
I swept past the admissions booth, and closed my eyes. One deep inhalation, and they were there. The smells of popcorn with real butter, hot dogs with mustard, and that hint of a rotting odor you get anywhere there is a large gathering and inadequate garbage disposal. It was intoxicating.
I wandered at first. It was an impressive show, surpassing any carnival I could remember. It had a ferris wheel, and the sound of a caliope told me there was a carousel over to my left somewhere. It had rides. I would have to try them all, but first, the games.
I walked down the alley with all the booths. I let anticipation build. My fingers itched with desire to hold the wooden rings that the woman in the booth swore would fit over the necks of the bottles, if only you threw them just right. I never had, but someday, I would.
I held off, though. Gratification delayed is gratification multiplied. That's my motto. I intended to look at everything before indulging. I needed to look at all of the stuffed animals I could win, especially the ones overhead, as big as myself.
I reached the end of the first aisle, and stopped. Around me, things were different. My fellow customers were somehow grayer. Less substantial. The colors of the carnival were more vivid, the sounds more enticing. The townsfolk, those people among whom I had spent my whole life, seemed insubstantial. They lacked desire, I thought. They were just themselves, nothing more.
Then I saw him.
Behind a podium stood stood the epitome, almost a caricature, of a carnival barker. A florid shirt in a color I couldn't name, striped pants, a top hat, and a huge, white, handlebar mustache. He looked right at me.
"Come," he cried, pointing his cane at me, "play Anderson B. MacGillicuddy's Games of the Self. Become the person of your dreams, or win the prize that you've always craved. Everyone's a winner. Satisfaction guaranteed, but you get nothing back."
It was irresistable. Before I knew it, I was in front of the man. To the left, there was a spinning wheel, but with out the colored sections I expected. It was solid green. I tried to read what prize it offered, but my eyes slid off of it before it could register.
"But, sir," I said, "it only has one prize, and I can't read it." This seemed a deficient game, unworthy of the presence of its proprietor.
He leaned forward, and an aroma of cigar smoke filled my nostrils. "That's because it's not a wheel of fortune. It's the Wheel of . . . Destiny!" he shouted. "There's no need for a second prize, because there's only one destiny per person. Spin the Wheel of Destiny but once, and you will get to experience your own."
"Or," he exclaimed, turning to one side, pointing behind him, "take a walk through the House of Truth. Go in with the face you present to the world, come out the you that you really are."
I looked at the flimsy structure he indicated. Its front was in stark colors, separated by sharp lines. Forbidding and uncompromising.
"Last, you may choose the third option." He pointed to a pool of water covered by a fotilla of toy ducks. "Take your pick at the Fountain of Desire." He winked at me. "You'll have to imagine the fountain. The hydraulics are out." I nodded absently. "If you select right, you will receive your most deeply held wish. Select wrong, and you will be a part of someone else's deepest wish."
My gaze was drawn back to his face. There was no escape from it. Anderson B. MacGillicuddy had my attention, and he would get my business.
"These games cost no money, though they are hardly free. You can only play once, but why would you want to do so again? All you have to do is choose. Destiny? Truth? Desire? Which of these will define your future?"
I swallowed. I wanted each, in their own way, but choosing wasn't hard. It was obvious which I wanted/ I opened my mouth. "I am going to . . ."