Carl stood at the mirror and stared at the old man glaring back. The sign posted above the frame announced in bold, black letters as big as his hand: See Your True Self - 2 Tokens.
He closed his eyes, snorted out a dismissive laugh, and then shook his head. He hated carnivals like this, had said as much to his daughter and granddaughter just earlier this evening, but no, they had to go. It was a tradition, they had said. He asked since when, because he didn't remember taking the family when Sherrie was a child.
His daughter clucked her tongue, said, "Oh please," in that snarky voice she showed him from time to time. "You think I don't know that, daddy?" Still calling him daddy after all these years. "The tradition is with me and Natalie. We're the ones who've been going to the county fair. We just want you to go with us this time."
"Because it's fun. You can grab a corn dog—the real kind, with mustard slathered on top, not that crap they sell at the store—and you can take in the sights. There's always something new." She patted him on the back then. "You never know. You might see something that will amaze even crusty old you."
Standing in front of the mirror, looking at the lines on his face, trenched through years of living on the road, saving every cent possible as if it were his last, Carl glanced up at the wooden sign again.
See Your True Self.
He didn't know what the darn thing would do once it collected its fare, but he could guess. The mirror had probably been constructed out of some sort of pliable metal. It would warp and contort, and the image would grow fat or thin, short or tall, depending upon the option randomly selected by its designed algorithm. In the end it would only show the payee what a fool they had been. Like everything else at the carnival, the primary objective was to take other people's money. He should know. He'd made a living out of showing people what they wanted to see, even if they didn't know what that was at first. He took their money doing it, too.
Still there was something about the sign...
Something about the hardy oak frame...
He reached down, found a small pebble, and chucked it at the mirror. The metallic sound he expected didn't come back at him; instead, he heard a sharp tack! as the pebble hit the mirror and fell to the ground.
Carl frowned. If it was made out of glass, then how could it bend? How could it distort the image? He looked back up at the sign.
Carl looked from side to side. He wasn't sure why he was about to do this, but he certainly didn't want Sherrie or Natalie seeing it. No doubt, they would want to stand next to him, watching as the mirror did nothing at all. Then they would laugh and say something like, "There you go, you're an old man, just like you knew you would be."
After making sure his daughter and granddaughter were nowhere to be seen, he fished two tokens out of his pocket. Of course, he didn't exchange his money for the tokens. That would have been stupid. He even felt weird carrying them, which was why he buried them deep in his pocket instead of holding them in his hand like a small child who couldn't wait to spend his money on something. Sherrie insisted he have a few of them after she had handed forty bucks to the cashier. What a waste that was. "In case you find something fun to do," she said.
He dropped one of the tokens into the vending machine, feeling awkward even as he did so. It made a metallic click as the token fell into the collection box. He was committed now. He couldn't walk away, not and waste the money.
He dropped the second token in the machine, and then stared at his reflection: at the white hair, at the protruding eyebrows, at the carousel spinning behind him, the horses swinging up and down, up and down. The glass fogged over, and the reflections fell behind a cloud of smoke, swirling around and around.
Carl's heart raced now. What was happening? What would it show him? Would he see a man who had spent so many years on the road, selling product and crafting stories far better than any fiction writer in order to make the next deal? Or would he see a man surrounded by multiple women, only one of who had been his wife? Maybe he would see a man who had attended weekly mass, who drank the communion wine as the priest passed him by, only his heart wasn't in it.
The cloud stopped swirling. The fog lifted.
Carl stared into the mirror and saw nothing but a spinning carousel, the horses swinging up and down, up and down.