The carnival came through Mariah’s small, western Georgia town just once a year. It parked out on the fair grounds near the Freewill Baptist Church for a whole weekend, and then it was gone again on Sunday morning before church services began. She always begged her parents to be allowed to go, and every year either her mother or her father accompanied her there for a couple of hours. This year, however, she lobbied hard to be allowed to go alone with her best friend, Mel. They were ten years old now, after all, which was plenty old enough to go alone as long as they stuck together.
By the weekend that the carnival arrived in town, Mariah’s parents had given in. Mel’s parents, who both worked long shifts, hadn’t cared one way or another. They just gave her some money, told her to stick with her friend, and went back to the slaughterhouse where they did backbreaking labor. So that was how the two of them came to be alone at the Mr. Calibari’s Traveling Carnival and Side Show on a Saturday evening, running wild through the crowds.
It was a hot summer night, the air muggy but full of good smells. There were hot dogs and popcorn, cotton candy and boiled peanuts. Folks were selling sodas in glass bottles, all sorts of flavors, and the dead field grass scratched the bottom of their feet as they moved from one thing to another. Mel won a small teddy bear playing a game where you threw an old baseball at milk cartons, and Mariah ate two cones of cotton candy, one pink and one blue. They took a turn on the carousel, which made them both feel a little bit nauseous, and then they assessed their money situation.
They had enough left between them for two tickets into the famous side show. They had never been before, their parents wouldn’t allow it, and you had to be at least ten years old to go inside. They’d heard kids at school talk about it though, about all the freaks and oddities that were inside that big canvas tent. They wanted to see it something fierce, so they strode right up to the barker outside, paid their two dimes, and went inside.
It was dark at first, and they giggled nervously while walking shoulder to shoulder. Soon though they entered a room with muted, filtered light. There was a lady there, sitting at a beautiful vanity with a big mirror attached. The light, it turned out, came from the mirror, big bare bulbs lining it in a circle. To their horror, however, when they looked into the reflection, the woman had a long, stringy beard.
Mariah felt sufficiently grossed out. She’d never seen anything like that before in her life. A woman with a beard? It was strange alright, and she made a face before grabbing Mel’s hand to move on to the next room. There was a man on the floor in one who contorted his body in all sorts of strange ways, and a woman so small in another that Mariah felt sure she couldn’t be real until she moved about. Another held the tallest man she’d ever seen in her life, even taller than father, and yet another a girl who could walk on her hands.
Some of the sights made her felt a bit queasy, though she wasn’t sure why, but others made her feel sad. She was thinking on that as they left out the back, making it just a few steps when the barker from out front poked his head around the tent and flashed them a smile as he whispered to them.
“Pssst, hey. Hey, you two gals there. You want to see the acts we don’t let the general public view? Free of charge, for some nice girls like you.”
Mel nodded eagerly, and though Mariah felt apprehensive she went along anyway. She didn’t want to seem like a chicken, not in front of her best friend, and the pair followed the barker along to a nearby tent. It sat off by itself, much smaller than the other had been, but just as dark. They ducked inside, and that was honestly the very last thing that Mariah could really remember later. The rest, whatever came next, was lost.
All Mariah knew was that when she came to, she was in an incredible amount of pain. She opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out which only panicked her further. She tried to get up, but something heavy on her left side held her down, and she wiggled instead though that only increased the pain.
A face loomed into view then, and she recognized it’s blurry features. It was the carnival barker, and he was giving her a smile that could best be described as sinister. There was another man there too, blood all over the front of his white shirt. He had black hair and eyes that matched, gleeful as he saw that she was awake.
“Great, both of you came out of anesthesia beautifully,” he said to her, gesturing for the barker to move to the other side of the table. “Careful, girls. You may still be a bit unsteady on your feet for a few hours yet.”
Mariah was helped to her feet, though this time she turned her head to see what the odd sensation was on her left side. She saw Mel there, looking as dopey as she felt, and then she saw what was between them. She tired to scream a second time, but the sound was again caught inside of her throat. The man holding her let go and wheeled over a huge mirror, allowing the girls to see themselves properly.
She was missing her left arm, and Mel was missing her right. Their sides had been pushed flush together then, and the flesh flayed open and sewn together from their shoulder down to their hips. They each still had two legs, for balance, but their upper bodies and torsos were now one. Opening her mouth, Mariah balked when she saw that the reason her screams were muffled, unable to be heard.
“We took out your tongues, yes, and altered your vocal cords. We can’t have you talking to anyone, now can we? We do it to all of our new show pieces, so don’t worry. I’ve done it enough times know that it mostly heals well,” the man told them, looking very proud of himself. “We’ve never had conjoined twins in the show before. Real pairs are very rare, and extremely expensive, so we’ll have to make do. Once your skin grafts together at the suture points you’ll be ready to go into a display. For now, however, we’ll keep you under wraps and let you rest. You deserve it, after all.”
Mariah felt sick to her stomach, swaying a bit though her attachment to Mel and the painful pull of the sutures kept her mostly steady. The man and the barker helped them lay back down again, and then began to converse among themselves.
“The tents are down, we’ll be ready to move on within the hour,” the barker told the man with a nod. “The rain slowed us down, but nobody has come here yet to look for the girls. We should be gone before they show up.”
“Wonderful,” the man smiled, peeling his bloody shirt off and stuffing it into a bin to be disposed of later. “We may go on ahead, the truck is already gassed up and ready. We’ll be keeping them in here for a few weeks anyway, no reason to move them in with the others. It’s been a few years since we snagged any new blood too, so it’s unlikely that anyone will connect us with the other missing kids. We’re doing well, we really are. They’ll bring us a lot of money indeed.”
Mariah and Mel would, truly, be just two more children who were never found. The search for them continued for several weeks, but was eventually given up when no leads became available. It wasn’t until years later that they showed back up in their tiny Georgia town, unable to speak or plead for help. They were both older then, not recognizable anymore to those who had once known them. Especially not with their new shared body, stuffed into the same clothing.