A note: This, "No Shark Lived in Captivity", and "Dragoneyes" are a three-part attempt to put some okayish buffer stories in between my really old, somewhat cringey high school works and the upcoming pieces that I really care about. This is by far my favorite of the three.

A fun writing exercise that got really long, because writing unnecessarily long fics about weird, kinda-creepy nonsense is my passion. Has anyone read the Firebringer trilogy? ...Please...?


The roads were all slow bends like many spines, and the immovable hills were an infinite body. These things blocked them from the other towns; three miles of hills blocked them from their nearest neighbor. The biggest touch of civilization they had was the family truck, and today it would have to last an unusually long drive, the drive to the carnival. Disneyworld, but better, because it was closer, and free, and the boy knew what it looked like. For every hill they drove around, he would picture what he wanted to do at the carnival ten times or more. Every picture started with the games.

He knew they were close and was imagining the games so vividly that the sun shooting through the window, drawing sweat out of his face and his armpits did not exist in his world. He saw the shooting game: a plasticky gun that would be either blue-and-white or pink-and-green and popped bullets towards the rubber ducks moving down the line ten feet ahead of him. There was also the ring-toss game, which sometimes had a horseshoe edition, and the one where you guessed the weight of something in a jar and the one where you pressed a big button on a big thing a million times to make your plastic horse win a race on an electric track. There would be more. The circus animals after that. Candy. Peanut butter.

Mom pointed and her nail tap-tapped against the window. Beyond the range of her finger was an empty field that could have eaten their sheep fields ten times. And filling all of it was the carnival. He had to blink once to clear his vision and sharpen the pink and red spires into tents and towers and rides. The Ferris wheel, the king of everything, claimed the highest point in the sky like always. His mind lit up with half a dozen memories that ran in tandem: the Ferris wheel last year, and the year before that, and other years and the first year he remembered seeing it. He had been three—but he thought himself four—and saw it only when his parents walked underneath it and were smothered by its shadow. It was a fifty-foot leviathan and the largest thing he had ever seen.

"I wanna ride," he said then, in his tiny, shrill child's voice.

Today he said, "I wanna ride the Ferris wheel first thing," a few years older and less shrill. Dad tried to catch his eyes in the rearview mirror, but his son never looked away from the window and the red kingdom edging closer. They were close enough now that the music from the game booths, music stages and circus tents were reaching their car at last. He fell into the sounds.

Rauuurr! went the ferocious, golden lions and tigers. Uuuuurrrr, went the elephants in the way, way back of the carnival. Flapflap-fla-fla-fla went the fluttering and swishing of the wild spectrum of birds. The grey birds with tall feet—secretary birds, a book showed him once—and fat, funny ostriches and the doves that worked in the magician shows. He wanted a dove for a pet.

The son eventually had to acknowledge the long swath of the field dedicated to parked cars, because it stood in the way of the carnival and they would have to walk through much of it to reach the entrance gate. Trucks and rusting pickups made up the majority, because the carnival planted itself about in the middle of the farming country. Strangers with familiar clothes meandered through the lot. Overalls hung on husbands' shoulders and wives wore friendly checkered dresses from the catalogs and children wore obnoxious grins on their shrieking mouths. The son was shivering and did not have it in his body or voice to join them. He knew the carnival better than them, had longed for it with enough powerful fervor in the previous weeks that he was nearly drained of it now. But that would change soon.

He was the first one out of the car but Dad had to close the door for him when he wandered towards the red towers. Mom and Dad followed his lead through six lanes of cars. The cars were a high horizon to him and he jumped up and down to see past their hoods. Sometimes he jumped up to see if Dad and Mom were still nearby, if maybe on the other side of the car he was walking past. The jumping brought blood back into his shaking feet.

The first, closest lane of cars was ahead and he sprinted through the gap in them and the horizon changed. With no cars blocking his vision, only the striped entrance gate hid the whole carnival from him. It was some thirty feet wide, dropped in place by a pickup and trailer, and it contained big boxes for the ticket sellers to sit in and polka-dot turnstiles for guests to step from one life into the other. He couldn't stand it.

"Hurry up hurry up hurry UP!" he screeched. He ran back to his parents not thirty feet back and yanked on their hands. But by the time they reached the ticket box, that energy burst was spent.

"Two adults, one child," Dad said, and paid for two tickets. His son, accounted for in the attendee books, burst through the turnstile and jumped again.

He breathed in long and powerful. Little bones in his shoulders and back popped as his lungs opened. He yelled, "I'M HERE!"

Dad came up behind him with a tissue and pushed it at his eyes. He always cried when he got to the carnival!

"What's the plan, Lee?" Dad asked, and Lee pivoted on his heel and clutched at Dad. Dad clutched back and laughed at him and Lee breathed in the feeling of his Dad loving him a lot, like always. He held him tighter.

"Dad, the games have gotta be first. I wanna play the ring-toss game first." he said. "And then candy after that. Or lunch. And then the circus!"

"My favorite! Let's do it," said Mom. But she knew better than to grab at him when Dad let him go. When Dad let him go, another burst came, the burst that would pump through him till nightfall. He sprinted to the left, which was where the game booths always were.

As he ran, the booths for horse tack and the newest fancy wool shears appeared in his vision and then evaporated. The county's biggest pumpkin and squash shot by his periphery unrecognized. Then the real aisle came into view. He stopped in the middle of the dirt lane with a skid and a hard jerk of his leg muscles and stood up fully in view of his true paradise. On both sides of him were tall tents, striped booths, and the heavy, eletrical equipment for games that did not exist anywhere else in the world but here. And dozens of lucky visitors who had gotten here before him, probably having a grand time. The ring-toss game was second on the left. He went for it.

His chest hit the long white block that kept players separated from the little ring arena where rings got tossed. Rings were set up on the top of the block for players to take and throw into the arena and onto the targets, little plastic houses. As he watched, a grown man with an old man's wispy beard tossed a silver ring and it slung around the nearest plastic house. It swunngggg around it a dozen times or more like a tornado about to pull the house from its foundation. The man yelled and slapped the block as his ring's energy quieted. Lee clapped with him.

"Me next me next me please!" He waved his hand, and got a pile of rings from a pretty girl in a dress.

"If you make at least three rings, you get a card for a free cotton candy, hon."

"Okay!"

Mom and Dad caught up, and they played. Lee went first and made one ring—"Nooo!"—and Dad played and got none of them—"Noooo! Am I getting too old!?"—and Mom played and swung three rings around the second-farthest house in the arena. Lee eventually accepted the card when Mom tried three times to give it to him.

"I wanna get a cotton candy. Right there, Dad." Lee pointed to a square kiosk nearby with a vat of spinning cotton candy showing through its chickenwire window. "Let's get one!"

"Let's!" said Dad, and then led him through the crowd of happy strangers. They paused once to let a little buggy go by, pulled by two brown ponies with feathers on their heads. And then Lee ordered his food by himself and gave his free card to the kiosk man as proper grownups would.

The cotton candy would be a minute in coming together. The swirling bowl of cotton candy kept Dad's eye locked on it, but Lee's eyes wandered away. The movement of the ponies caught his eye and he looked at the funny feathers on their heads and the buggy with a little grandma inside. The feathers wagged from one side to the other with the ponies' gait. Looking at the space between the duo of ponies gave a view of the rest of the game lane all to way to where it curved rightwards out of sight. Down there at the bend in the road was another horse. It was probably too far for him to go see it alone without his parents going with him. It was far enough away that Lee could only tell that it was facing him and it was a pretty silver color.

Mom called from the other side of the aisle, still playing the ring toss game. She waved another card at him. There were no more ponies or people in the road just now, so he bounded over to her. He asked her how she got better at this game than him, but his answer was a card being waved at his face and flicking at his nose. Mom gave him a kiss with it and shoved him away again, towards the kiosk and his father. Lee trotted back and slapped his card on the kiosk.

"Hi, I want a second cotton candy, thank you."

"Fine."

Again he looked in to the vat of cotton candy where the kiosk worker yanked out cones of the stuff, and again he looked away. Something else caught his eye from the left, down the aisle. It was a silver thing again. The horse that had been further down the road was closer now. It had passed the pony buggy and was walking in his direction. He gazed at it in a startled silence. Lee had grown up touching and feeding sheep, not horses, but he felt no fear from the animal. He couldn't figure a reason for why the carnival visitors were avoiding its path. It came closer and closer and he watched the people around it and saw that none of them were looking at it.

A rainbow shoved aggressively into his vision. He broke his gaze to look up at the cotton candy man and smile at him properly. "Thank you very much, sir," he said, but the man said nothing back. Dad was looking at the cotton candy vat still.

His teeth clamped onto the topmost thatch of cotton candy and yanked it away. The horse and Dad and the kiosk all were muted as the flavor spread on his tongue. His teeth ground together slightly and an uncivilized squeak of joy bubbled out. People walking nearby muffled the sound. Lee gasped and took another bite. Much of it melted on his tongue and he champed more and more. It was the best food in the world, but he would need to brush his teeth most aggressively after they drove home. Dad was eating his cone of cotton candy next to him.

From the middle of the road behind him was a heavy clap or clop, which startled him into pivoting around, cotton candy tails dangling between his lips. They remained there. Almost directly parallel to him was the silver horse again. Lee's jaws parted and his mind slowed to a quiet confusion as he watched people dodge out of its path again. No one was looking at it. It was tall as a draft horse but slim like an Arabian and it had a strange instrument stuck on its forehead. It passed by the cotton candy kiosk and the people standing in line scattered left and right to allow it passage. He stared.

The instrument looked like a horn, very pale grey as the rest of its body was. It was slim and aggressively pointed at the end, and the root of it was an uneven, layered swirl of grey and brown. Lee thought of farmers who were older than Dad, whose natural hair color was turning grey at the roots and pushing outward to the rest of their hair. This horse had that happening in its horn, but backwards.

"Backwards," he muttered to himself, and slurped the little tail of cotton candy in his mouth. Three more people who were walking from the direction of the entrance skirted to the side. One of them lunged in Lee's direction at the last minute and pushed him a bit, then walked away.

"Dad," he said, and yanked on Dad's free arm. "Look at that. Dad."

Dad was looking inside the cotton candy window again. Lee yanked Dad's arm again and asked him to please look but nothing changed. He would not speak. The people around him would not look at the silver horse.

Lee looked; his hand still clutched at Dad's wrist. "Is...is it escaping from somewhere?" he said in a near-murmur. "Dad. Do you think somebody's looking for it?" He drew on old memories of old carnivals: horses pulling buggies, dancer ladies standing on horses in the circus shows. Mostly pulling buggies. And they never did that without bridles and yokes and a modest load of tack hanging hanging off of them. This horse was just naked.

His view of the horse was cut off briefly when Dad crossed in front of him and headed back to the ring-toss game. He was holding two cotton candy cones. Lee gasped and jolted after him. "Dad! I was talking to you! Excuse me, Dad?"

"What's up?" Dad said, as he handed the other cotton candy to Mom.

"I said, do you think that horse escaped from somewhere? It didn't have any bridles and things."

Dad looked over his head at the far end of the road where it curved away. "What, those ponies? Did one of them get loose?"

"No."

"Then what do you mean?"

"The horse that just walked by."

Dad's eyebrows crinkled together and his mouth closed over cotton candy. "Hmmmm, what horse that walked by, kiddo?"

This time Lee felt a bit irritated and decided to point. "The one that just walked by! The grey one. Everybody was making room for it to go like it was the mayor."

The soft paper point of Dad's cone tapped on Lee's head. "Well it looks like I missed it, sorry there."

"But nobody would look at it, Dad. It was weird. You wouldn't even look at it."

"Well gosh, I musta been under a spell there. This cotton candy's way too good. What do you wanna do next? What game?"

Game felt like an odd word just then, because games were fun and watching the horse go by while nobody looked at it like it was a mayor, but a mayor nobody wanted to talk to, was strange enough to put a bad smell in the fun Lee had been having. The fact that the path the horse had taken was now all filled up with people again was a bad smell.

He decided, "I wanna go see the animals next. Let's go see the tigers." Mom and Dad told him he should lead the way. He did. As he walked and weaved and smelled popcorn and manure, he reached inside his cone and grabbed the last ball of cotton candy. It was tasty, but less strongly than before. Now the horse was at the front of his mind and while the sweetness buzzed on his tongue he also saw pictures of people avoiding its path and not touching it. It had passed a hundred practiced farmers and children raised between wide wooden livestock fences, and nobody thought to catch or corral it. Like they all wanted to leave it to a horse rancher but none was present.

The family reached the trampled spot at the entrance where six roads branched off into the various attractions. The aisle of game booths was the first one, on the far left, and the circus animal road was always the sixth, on the far right. Lee and Mom and Dad crossed the big circle and weaved around a hundred more visitors. Two clowns on stilts sailed above everyone's heads. Mom waved at one of them and the redheaded clown returned her greeting with a gunshot of confetti.

Mom lingered around the stilts to wave the floating paper around with her free hand. Someone else's mom and three children older than Lee leaped out of the crowd to do the same. Lee turned around to collect her.

"Hurry, hurry!" Lee said, yanking on both parents. They both moved their larger feet at half their son's pace.

With four more yanks, they'd reached the edge of the entrance circle and a thinning of the crowd. Fewer people were going down this lane than the game lane, leaving more space for Lee to run and for his parents to trudge lazily behind. He said hurry three more times while they passed ten painted signs advertising Exotic Beasts! and Largest white Tigers in The Country and one with WARNING! Excessive Prodding of Animals May Result in Injury which Lee could not read.

The left-hand side of the lane was made up of the backsides of shipping containers with tiny windows near the top. Lee recognized that they were large enough to hold horses, but they all lacked windows big enough for horses' long, long heads. The right side had more signs with big paintings of tigers and a brave man taming them with a whip and a little chair in his hand. Lee's hands mimicked his pose, his hands held an invisible whip and an invisible chair. What if he had a pet tiger?

The first cage along the right-hand side of the lane had someone's pet tiger inside it. Someone had dressed it in an oversized green bowtie to paint some quaint domesticity onto it, but the rest of it remained wild. Lee was instantly drawn to it and stepped up to the "do not cross" line drawn in the grass and hovered behind it. The tiger was an adult male with hard, jewel-like eyes in a face of jagged stripes. Its parted mouth showed a pristine pink tongue and teeth peeking out from the lips, teeth longer and thicker than a child's fingers. The nose was soft and velvety and the paws delightfully furry. The whole body stretched out longer than the height than any of the men looking at it. Few of the men looking at it would hover at the line with Lee.

Drowning in awe as he was, Lee did not notice the grown man standing at his left with hands on his hips and a bemused grin on his lips. "These are some lazy beasts, I tell ya. Right, Mara? I love seeing the circus men get some good tricks outta them. They do jump well if a tough man can train 'em."

It had no interest in the onlookers and stared without focus at its cage bars or some point beyond the visitors while thwacking its tail against the floor of the cage. Lee became lost in examining the path of each of its stripes. He followed each one and imagined where it must reach on the tiger's other side. His bobbing head and roving eyes caught the tiger's gaze eventually. Its eyes roved on him, too, considering the small size and stringiness of a creature like him, but the prey took no notice.

A flurry of footsteps further down the lane made his eyes zip away from the tiger. There was a T-intersection where the end of the bazaar lane hit the middle of the caged animals' lane, and folks were scurrying out of the bazaar end of things as though a cross mother back there was shooing them all with a featherduster. It struck Lee as a possibility that it could be a cart carrying more animals. A shipment of extra lions or llamas.

The horned horse came out of the bazaar lane. It was the same one. Even from a distance its great size was apparent, as was the invisible force that repelled people from it. This time Lee shivered as it turned slightly—to the left, away—and people ran to avoid it. He glanced from face to face and clutched at Dad's hand because none of them would look at it.

"The next circus act is at noon!"

"And I just walked off with it and nobody came after me. So I didn't have to pay a cent for it."

"—and everyone was asking, 'You mean the pig or your wife?' Oh, you shoulda seen—"

He clutched Dad's hands with both of his. "Dad. Dad, look."

He saw the horse flick its tail up at its right flank. He leaned forward, suddenly wanting a closer look. The tail was shaved but for its end, where the hairs were long and wispy like cotton candy. From previous carnival trips he knew for certain that lion's tails looked a lot like that. But lion tails weren't so long.

"Don't you think somebody should catch that horse, Dad? It got out from somewhere, I bet." he said. He looked up at Dad, who was reading the sign beside the tiger's cage. He read it and read it and read it.

"Dad! Hello!"

"Hey dear, let's go see the lions next." said Mom.

Lee grabbed her next and tried to point down the lane, where the horse was walking further and further away, alone. "Mom! Look at that horse. Nobody's catching it."

Mom looked at Dad. "I love lions."

Her son's hands slipped down her arm and then off of it. Her son stepped away from her, around a pot-bellied older man, and looked down the road at the horse again. He could see the horn pointing up right between its ears. He could see its strange, lion-tail. The people coming from further down the animal lane, looking in the horse's direction, walked around it when it came near.

"How come nobody's looking?" Lee asked aloud.

"Ooh, look! It's getting up!" somebody cried. The floorboards of the tiger cage creaked as it stood up and padded to a different resting spot. Visitors pressed up against the line to see the beast walking.

Lee turned to Mom and Dad once more and pointed down the lane. "Look! Look at that horse!"

Dad was grinning at the tiger. "What a fantastic creature. They remind me of youth!"

The crowd ignored him. The people coming from the far end of the lane ignored him. In desperation he went back to his parents and told them to look at the horse over there and stop looking at the tiger and neither one of them would avert their eyes from it. As he watched them more closely, Lee decided that for all the flies and funny smells and hot sun beating on their senses, the two of them hardly blinked.

He told them, "I'm gonna go look at that horse. I'll be right back." Mom and Dad gasped and put their hands up excitedly over their mouths when the caged tiger yawned and showed his long tongue and teeth. "I won't talk to strangers," he added.

"Okay, see you in a minute," Dad told him. Before and after this comment, he remained frozen in place.

"O-okay," his son said. He walked backwards two steps, looking up at the grownups and around at the other kids. Adults and children, men and women, all shared an unbreakable fixation on the bored and bowtie-wearing beast.

He passed four children and nine adults and each one was soft and compliant to his attempts to move between their bodies. He had the idea to push someone, just a little, to see if they reacted, but Lee didn't have enough rudeness in him to see the idea further than a passing thought. He weaved around legs and strollers politely and left the little crowd behind.

Ahead, the lane was mostly empty but for three elderly visitors holding popcorn bags and more signs advertising what animals sat in the cages that made the lane borders. And the horse. It was far away now but was unmistakably the same creature he had seen in the game lane. It had crossed nearly the whole carnival field in less than ten minutes. It must have made great time because it never had any obstacles to slow its walk.

As he walked, Lee remembered the sign with a circus tamer holding his whip and chair, and pretended instead that he had a whip and a lasso to catch the horse properly. Its horn made it look like a circus animal, like the buggy ponies who wore colorful feathers on their heads. The feathers were meant to catch and hold a spectator's eye, and make them give up pocket money to the buggy driver. The horse could be a similar businessman's tool. He could not think up a business that benefited from animals with sharp horns.

Distracted by thoughts of carnivals, he almost startled when the horse picked up its pace, going from a slow walk to a brisk trot that a little boy couldn't keep pace with. So he ran. The horse ran past two young giggling women who were unbothered by the wind of its passing blowing their hair into their faces. When Lee ran past them, one of them yelled at him to slow down or he might hurt somebody.

The creature's head tore to the right and all its feet left the ground. It was jumping suddenly, so quickly it looked like flight, into a space between two ostrich cages on the right side of the lane. Its tail sailed after it like the long train of a dress, fluttering. The smooth white hairs on its end winked away and it was gone.

Lee ran and skidded to a stop by the ostrich cages. Three crates of feed were stacked between them, their lids sitting higher than Lee's head. It was no obstacle and he was no stranger to climbing. He clambered on top of the first crate with one graceless leap, and scaled the third by using the second as a foothold. But his foot slid on the smooth surface of the final lid, and his right side hit the ground first in a hard fall. The ostriches in the first cage were displeased and stuck their beaks out through their cave bars to screech at him.

'Where'd he go?' He thought, rubbing his scuffed arm. Back here there were more shipping containers open to the air and filled with food crates. They smelled of hay, gruel and pork, a scent his tongue that was still laden with cotton candy could hold somewhat at bay. All the crates and bins were marked in a language he had never seen. The horse was—was turning again.

Lee had looked just in time to see the horse running and disappearing a second time. This lane was curved at both ends and the creature was sprinting this time, disappearing around a corner. The unclouded sun caught on its horn and made it glow. Lee saw shapes and colored lights moving inside the horn. And then the horn was hidden, the light was gone, and the lion-tail whipped again out of sight.

'It's a circus unicorn,' he thought, and then said aloud, "Circus unicorn." Little hairs on his arms stood up and drew shivers up and down his body.

For all the carnivals in his memory and all the lions and cotton candy and circus acts, they had never brought a unicorn to the carnival. But today, they had a unicorn. And it was running loose.

He wanted to shout, "Wait!" or "Stop!" but couldn't. Without thinking he was running again, sprinting like a sheepdog with sheep in sight. He'd never caught a horse, but he'd herded sheep, and that would have to be enough to help him catch the circus unicorn and bring it back to its owners. The sprint to the bend in the road lasted only a few seconds. Once he made the turn and took in the new surroundings, Lee's sneakers skidded in the grass. Then he fell.

The unicorn was there, rearing up on two legs, high enough to meet a roaring tiger and step on it. It was standing in front of an animal cage set on a grid of cinder blocks, slightly elevated from the ground. The front two knees were pushed up near its curved neck, the head was bowed and the horn pointed ahead to the cage bars. The front legs rocketed out and slammed against the cage bars. CLANG.

Inside the cage was a second unicorn. He almost missed the sight of it, a brown horse in shadow, but the sun peeking into the cage caught this one's horn like the first one had. Its horn was shorter and slimmer, and pink. It was the same soft class of pink that was in perfume bottles and girls' ribbons, and it lived, too, in a unicorn's horn.

The second strike on the cage bars was louder than the first; it made Lee flinch and his eyes squeeze shut. The third time, the unicorn's mouth came open and it neighed like a regular horse would, but louder, stronger. It echoed in the lane and Lee felt the vibration in his chest.

CLANNGGG!

Four bars bent inward. The round sides of them bore scratches from the edges of the grey one's hooves. Lee looked at its back hooves and saw that they were cloven feet, one hoof with a slight division into two toes. Hooves like sheep. The grey one's coloring was a bit like a sheep. It was ramming the remaining bars with its head.

The horn speared straight through one bar and skewered it; it bent under the strike like molten metal under a hammer. The brown unicorn was rearing up and neighing, too. Once the grey's front feet hit the ground again—SLAM! A metric ton of power hitting the ground, a draft horse's power—the brown backed away from the mess of bars and towards a side with undamaged bars.

"I bet she's his wife," Lee said to himself. He regretted speaking instantly. As he spoke, trace vibrations fizzled up from his chest and radiated out. In confusion and almost pain, he clamped his mouth shut. At the same time, the brown one inside the cage turned its head away from the grey and looked at Lee. He could see its eyes from here, ten yards away. Unmistakably pinned on him. If he had any power left to get up and move right now, the rest of it evaporated.

At the final strike of the grey's hooves, three more bars snapped away and clattered to the cage floor. Lee gritted his teeth against the vibrations crawling into him. Enough room for a draft horse made, the brown one came forward and then flowed out of the gap in a smooth leap. It landed hard on the grass. More vibrations.

The grey unicorn ducked its head nearly to its feet. The side of its horn touched against the bottom edge of the cage, in the gap between the floorboards and the grass, and pushed. Thick veins pushed up against the skin in its great neck and it leaned forward, pushing like a strongman at a carnival. The cage itself moved. One side lifted off the cinder block base. The thing was displeased to be moved and creaked like the boards of an old farmhouse. Dirt and dust fell from its underside.

Higher and higher its head lifted; it was higher than it where it would rest while standing, and then its front feet floated up as it reared. And the cage was falling backwards. There was an elongated pause as it fell off the blocks completely and dropped the short distance to the ground, and then it crashed. The remaining bars bent and wobbled as though they'd been thrown and the wooden framework crumbled into fat boards and splinters. Beyond the cage, birds took flight and something wooden collapsed.

Through the movement of the gigantic cage, little Rock Lee remained frozen and struck by more vibrations and now an unmoving current of dread. The brown one ignored its companion's monstrous strength and regarded the little boy on the ground ahead of it. The grey moved to touch noses with the brown but stopped short, following its friend's gaze, and now they both looked at him with their perfectly round, black eyes and horns with moving light. Lee's heart was pumping so strongly he felt its echo in his throat and mouth. Nothing could have bid him to move.

'Sees me,' Lee thought in great confusion and in a detached, dreamer's voice. There was nothing in his mind but vibrations and the sounds of wooden things falling on him, hurting him, maybe he would he hurt. But it came again only a few seconds later: 'Sees me. Sees me. Sees me.' Then, 'Follow. Followed me. Followed me.'

His mind settled. Dust settled. He tried not to think about anything and not do anything and if God was with him, he would disappear into the grass and they would not look at him, or remember him, or step on him.

'How? How? How? How?' This time there were two thoughts parading in his head. Loud thoughts with distinct voices. One of them was surely female, and the other surely male. The voices were unfamiliar to him, and there were no people around him.

"M' so-orry," Lee whispered. He took in a shuddering breath after speaking, blinking away tears. His hands wouldn't respond to commands to wipe at his eyes, or push his body up and leave. So he just said again, "Sorry. I-I didn't mean to—e-e-excuse me."

'Talking. Talking. It's talking. It's talking. It's talking to us, the spell didn't work, didn't work. It didn't work.' The voices were a man and a women and Lee miraculously remembered his earlier guess that the brown was the grey's wife, and the grey had come to rescue his wife. From the circus. From the carnival. Someone had caught his wife and put her in a cage.

'Tenten. Tenten. Let's go. Let's go. Let's go.'

Lee said, in a voice that unfortunately became a murmur, "Is Tenten your wife?"

The strange unicorns' thoughts stopped.

Their tails went limp and hung by their iron hoooves and their eyes were on him and their echoing thoughts stopped.

From beyond the cage, the stack of crates holding peanuts and walnuts collapsed further, and wooden boxes heavier than grown men hit the grass and broke open. The grey horse's ear flicked in the direction of the crash. The brown's nostrils were flaring. The sun shone on her pink horn again and it glimmered like a woman's hair ribbon for only a second. A flash.

"I w-won't tell anybody. Dad doesn't b-b-believe in unicorns. And that stuff. Swear."

'It talks funny. It talks funny. Funny. Trample it. Trample it. It will bring more men. Trample it.'

Lee's body curled in on itself. The voice that came out of him turned into a shriek. "Please don't! I won't tell! Swear!"

Where the crates had crashed, two men began to shout. The unicorns caught the scent of smoke before Lee did. They eyed stayed firmly on him when he broke the stare to jump and wriggled at the scent of danger. The grey nudged its head closer to the brown to confer with it. They thought, 'Go past him. Go past him. No reinforcements. He's a foal and cannot, cannot summon reinforcements, you paranoid fool. Paranoid fool.' The boy heard none of these thoughts, too consumed with the sight of a column of fire climbing above the crushed cage and eating the pile of smashed crates. As the flames were warming from yellow-orange to red, the unicorns began to walk forward.

On the ground, Lee jerked and started a valiant struggle to get up and flee. His limbs only heard him partially and he flopped about on the ground like a landed fish, struggling to reach water again. Here he was on dry land and the grey's iron hooves were coming closer and closer to him. One downward kick, one pointed step in anger or indifference, and his ribcage would be flat.

The brown one called "Tenten" leaned her head forward—her head, her—and she thought for him again. 'Do not tell. Do not tell. Do not tell. We will leave now. Leave.'

"O-o-okay. Yes ma'am." Lee said with a ferocious nod.

The grey's eyes finally left him and enough weight came away that Lee could take in a full breath. The grey—he—thought for Lee, 'Begone child. Begone child away from the coming fire. Fire. Fire.'

"Yessir, okay!" Then Lee screamed, for the grey's legs were coming up into the air again, rising like they had when he kicked iron bars like cardboard, and his belly was rising up above the ground. The hind legs soared up, too, and the lion-tail was last of all. It was longer than Lee had first judged, longer than the horse's full leg, and curved slightly at the end so it would not drag in the dirt. Lee observed this with his eyes driven wide as owl's eyes and his back and arms hugging against the grass. At long last, the grey's jump ended. He landed several feet beyond the top of the boy's vulnerable crown.

Once they were past him, they started to run. He felt it in the ground, the vibrations again, vibrating because they were heavier than draft horses, and yet slim as Arabians, and it seemed at first that they would leap through one of the cages at the bend in the lane rather than turn, but turn they did. Their heads came up and their backs curved, turning with bending spines that simple horses could not manage. They did not have to slow down to turn. A few seconds after they turned, vulnerable Lee's body jolted again and his hand involuntarily yanked grass out of the ground; people from around the bend began to scream. Heavy things fell and he felt the vibrations of their crashes. Not half so strong as a unicorn's feet.

The shrieking from ahead and the growing fire to his right together pulled him out of the vague fetal position he was in. The boy's hands heaved against the ground, so hard on his hands but nothing to unicorn hooves that broke iron, and he pushed. Pushed. Pushed more.

People nearer to the fire were screaming and knocking more things over, bringing clanging water buckets. Clang.

Ahead, around the bend in the lane, something huge fell over and hit the ground with a multitude of clunking sounds, ten or more metal pieces or metal frames hitting the grass and clanging against each other. Men near that crash site shouted, "Motherfuck!" which Lee remembered was a bad word, and reminded himself to never say. He tried to stand.

Once he was up, his whole body rejected the shift in gravity and considered falling again. But the fear of the fire was strong enough to hold him up and start him on a brisk walk. One of his shoes had come off at some point. Today marked the first time he could think of that he was not bothered by it, was not compelled to collect it and be left with one shoe, which was improper. Neither of his feet felt anything anyway, apart from a tingling in the soles. He came to the spot where the grey unicorn had jumped over the crates between two ostrich cages. The ostriches were gone and three men were on the ground, gasping and holding their heads. One of them observed Lee as he crawled over the crates again.

Then he was back in the animal lane. The rest of this lane and a bit of the bazaar lane was in his sight, and far far down the road, at the opposite end of the animal lane, the entrance spot where new visitors started down this road. People moved and ran around in all of these places. It was a tent at the end of the bazaar lane, where it intersected with the animal lane, that had fallen down. The rods holding it up were a cluttered mess in the grass and the tent itself now bore man-sized holes and rips. A woman was unconscious under the folds of it. Everyone in the animal lane was running away.

Lee jogged down the lane and dodged visitors while saying "excuse me" to each one of them. A family of five passed him, coming from the other end of the lane, and their son, Lee's age, waved to him and said hi. He said it back with a nice smile like Mom always said to do.

His jog slowed dramatically when he caught sight of the tiger cage halfway down the lane, and its caved-in bars. From his position, he couldn't see much of the cage's interior, but he did see the tiger. It came around from the hidden side of the cage, walking around it languidly, with the same hard and unpleasant gaze Lee remembered observing with such awe a long, long ten minutes ago. After watching two young men run off towards the entrance spot, the tiger swung its head around to look at Lee.

Lee bit his tongue. And walked quickly and quietly into the bazaar lane and out of the tiger's sight. Then his body came alive again and he sprinted.

He sprinted down past a booth with lots of bright neon lightbulbs strung across it and locked his eyes on a familiar checkered dress. With all the strength that had been sapped from him before on the ground in that lane he screamed, "MOOOOMMMM!"

Mom turned around and screamed back at him. And Dad sprinted. He sprinted just like Lee sprinted, since Dad had taught him to sprint, but he was infinitely faster. Lee only had to wait five or six more paces before Dad reached him and clutched him tight and lifted him up to his chest. There, his son clung to him and stared wide-eyed at the bazaar lane getting farther and farther away. Mom touched him once, and then he saw the side of her head and her hair bouncing as Dad and Mom ran together.

"Where were you, Lee? You left the tiger cage! Where did you go?!"

'I went to look at a horse. I told you. I went to see that regular, normal horse.' Lee thought, but realized too late this explanation hadn't left his mouth.

"We're leaving, we're leaving!" one of his parents said. But over the sounds of a firetruck rolling by, it couldn't be said which one had spoken.

"You know, maybe it's a godsend he was off by himself. The cage, it just, it just caved in! Exploded inward like, like nothing I've ever seen. Oh, if he'd been there he'd be closer to the beast than anybody else."

"I went to look at a horse, Dad. Just a horse." Lee murmured from his father's shoulder. In his head, he was seeing it all over again. The chase, the break-out—Clang!—the grey jumping over him while he lay on the ground, leaping higher than his head.

Mom and Dad skipped going through the turnstiles at the entrance and just ran around the whole ticket booth. Lots of families were doing the same thing. One family had stopped just outside the ticket booth with their camera on a tripod and were taking a picture. Helplessly, Lee stared at their mismatched grins and probably made it into their picture. He felt Dad's gait change as they stopped running on grass and hit the parking lot gravel.

The carnival was starting to get far away now, and Lee's mind tried to chase after it and cling to it. It seemed nothing could stop him from being a lover of the carnival, because even now he fought to preserve the pictures in his mind of how it had all looked. No one else had seen what he'd seen. And nobody else knew how the tiger cage "exploded," either. Bearded men with dependable state funding in their coat pockets would find a way to say that the tiger had broken itself out of the prison, or that some anomaly of the weather was responsible for weakening the cage.

Carnivals in the past always had lions, tigers and elephants in them. Lee remembered individual elephants, which ones had done which tricks in which years, and the two lions from consecutive years who were both named Mike, because Old Mike died and the circus owner bought a new lion named New Mike. This year, there hadn't been horses, circus or otherwise, but unicorns. Lee saw unicorns. He saw unicorns.

He saw unicorns. They talked. They talked in his head, like God was supposed to. Their thoughts had echoed inside his head. Or maybe they actually just liked to say things two or three times. Maybe that's why that one was named Tenten. That's 'ten' twice in a row.' He thought, blinking. 'Maybe there's another one out there and his name is Leelee. Or Gaigai.'

"Is my dress okay? How does my dress look?"

"Go!"

The cotton candy stalls and the ring-toss games were very far away now. They would probably be far away for an entire year, because the carnival was like to be drowned in lawsuits, or be starved for visitors, or both. This year, there'd be no circus memory, no acrobats, and no teddy bear prize from the fishing game. Lee would be wearing bigger shoes, bigger shirts and be in a bigger school grade the next time the carnival came. The carnival needed such an astounding volume of waiting before it could happen. Even as he thought these things, there was not a sad thought in his mind. He buzzed with excitement. With happiness. With a secret. Lee had a poor history of keeping secrets. But he also was never personally addressed and commanded by a unicorn. Perhaps that changed the situation.

"I think this year was my favorite carnival. Next year might be better. But this is my favorite for right now."

The look Mom gave him was chillingly adult, a look for other Moms she disliked, or for drunk men and idiots. Lee looked away but he couldn't fight the smile coming to the surface. Even when Dad plopped him onto the ground to unlock the car, and shoved him into the backseat and did his seatbelt for him, Lee was grinning.

"Stop that, Lee! People are going to be hurt by that tiger!" Mom said. Lee looked down at his feet to hide his smile and Mom ignored him in favor of the trickle of people around them still running for their cars. "Oh, I can't think about it. The people that were mauled are going to be in the paper tomorrow."

"I'm sorry about your big day going sour, Lee," Dad said quickly, and then ignored him to watch the parking lot and veer backwards. Once he'd started the truck in drive again and was waiting for a chance to turn, he added, "I know this is your favorite day, and you know, to make it up for you, next weekend we can—"

"Oh, that's okay Dad. I just said, this was the best. My favorite carnival day yet."

"What?"

"My favorite! We got two free cotton candy cards, and saw the tiger, oh, and I saw a cool horse. A really cool one."

Dad didn't comment and Mom gave Lee her ugly look again. This time it soured Lee's grin; he turned in his seat to look at he red tents and towers one last time. The fire looked to be out, but a fat black smoke column was rising out above it. A second firetruck was parked near the entrance now and visitors still streamed out. Popcorn bags and caricature papers colored many of them. The tallest tower, he knew, was actually a fifty-foot tall slide that him and Dad went down together every year. He hadn't remembered it till this very moment.

The road was starting the first of many slow curves through the hills that would take them home. Lee pushed up against the window and looked all around while he still had the chance. In the great green emptiness to his right, there were no running unicorns. And to the left was only a botched carnival and a huge stream of cars. The smoke was spreading, and he'd only been at the carnival a half hour, and a tiger almost ate him. But it would be Lee's favorite carnival for years to come.

He pressed his palms against the glass and imagined, getting rid of a whip and little chair and replacing them with hooves. He slapped them against the glass—CLANG!—and pretended to smash the bars of a cage.


Notes/literary/writing shit I was attempting:

I was thinking about this short-lived HBO show called "Carnivàle" and a book series about unicorns called the Firebringer trilogy when I first thought this up. Sadly I'm sure it looks like I just ripped off the evil carnival scene from The Last Unicorn. Baghhgh.

Please lend me some concrit about my writing, about what worked and what didn't. This is an exercise to get back into my own style, back into the groove of things, feeling out suitable word choices and themes, etc. At the beginning I was considering never naming Lee and always calling him "the boy" or "the son" but that fell away as soon as they entered the carnival. Most adult dialogue is meant to be distracted/missing the point/pompous to highlight that only Lee, a young child and hardcore carnival fan, can see "clearly" enough to see through the unicorn's spell.

Neji was the silver unicorn and Tenten was the brown unicorn. They are literal unicorns. Who captured Tenten in the first place? What other traces of magic and adventure are hiding in this world? Hmmm.