"Irregular Creatures" - Flash Challenge

So, the awesome Chuck Wendig posted a  flash fiction challenge with the prompt "irregular creatures". That's it. Those two words, whatever they mean to you and 1000 words to tell a story. I've never done flash fic, actually. Truth be told, I've almost been afraid of it. Only 1000 words? The hell you say! It's an irrational fear, I know, but it's there.Well, I've been writing about zombies for the past year and change and really needed to get out some of the other paints on my palate. So, armed with a hot chai latte, I set to work and pulled together at 1500 word story. I went back through and cut it to 999. This is the end result. Hope you enjoy!
Step Right Up 
by Jamie Wyman

         “Brad, I don’t want to go in there,” Ellie said. Her fingernails dug into the vinyl sleeve of his letter jacket.
          Brad flashed his too-white grin. “C’mon, babe,” he said, “you can’t go to a carnival and not go through the freak show.”
         Shivering, chills skittering over her spine, Ellie burrowed into the curve of his arm and moved with him past the barker into the dimly-lit tent. As her eyes adjusted, she wrinkled her nose at the mélange of smells; earth, old canvas, straw and the tang of manure. It smelled of childhood, of adventure and the safety of sleeping in the backseat of the car. But there was something else. Something chemical. Formaldehyde and paint added a sinister note to the circusy bouquet.
            No, Ellie thought, I don’t want to be here.

 

            Brad willed her forward into the gloaming.
            The freak show was little more than a tent divided into a series of stalls, each marked off with a strand of flimsy yellow rope. Dusty, road-worn signs gave the oddities names, fabricated histories to make them all the more exotic.
             Fetal pigs and two-headed snakes floated in murky amber fluids, their dimensions distorted by the wan light and the curve of the specimen jars.
 “Fake,” Brad said. “Probably all plastic or rubber.”
Moving along, Ellie saw a cow. Where the udders should have been, four small legs protruded from the animal’s abdomen. The cow bent its head to take a mouthful of cud and those extra legs gave a sudden jerk. Terrified, Ellie jumped and pressed herself even closer to her boyfriend.
“It’s alright,” he said. “Probably batteries.”
Ellie, heart hammering, gripped at Brad’s jacket. “Brad, please, let’s just go. I don’t want to see any more.”
She turned to leave, but when she looked up she couldn’t find the door. The sinuous path of stalls, the inky silhouettes of other patrons blotted out the entrance.
Trapped. Trapped in the freak show. 

Her breaths came rapidly, like those of a treed animal. For an instant, Ellie thought she might gnaw off her own arm to be free of this horrible place with its cloying smells and disgusting oddities.
“No way out but in,” Brad quipped. He slid his hands over her shoulders, comforting, and escorted her deeper into to the sideshow maze.
As they flowed along in the ogling processional, Ellie relaxed. A sword-swallower named Arthur sheathed a broadsword with the muscles of his throat. A woman covered in fading tattoos licked flames from a series of torches. A man in the leopard print uniform of his trade held a gargantuan load on his barbell with one hand while the other cradled a worn copy of Atlas Shrugged.
See? Ellie chided herself. Nothing scary. 

She moved with Brad toward the next stall.
It was an aquarium the size of a large SUV. Two lamps perched at the upper corners illuminated water and cast shifting webs of light over the faces of marks.
“Empty,” Brad said. “Cheapass circus.”
He moved on, but Ellie stayed, staring into the aquarium. She stepped closer as other marks filtered past her until she stood with her thighs against the slack rope.
Out of the cloudy water swam a face. Ellie gasped, but didn’t move. She was rooted to the spot, hypnotized by the swirl of water, by the docile face of the tank’s human occupant. Gill slits marred the flesh of his neck and kelp-like hair fanned out behind him. He lifted a pale, webbed hand and pressed it to the glass. Ellie stretched out her fingers and returned the gesture, lightly stroking the wall between them. He smiled.
“’is name is Pisces,” said a gruff voice beside her.
Ellie turned and saw the barker. His red hair hung in lank waves just past his shoulders. His clothes were faded as if he’d just walked out of an old newspaper photograph.
He didn’t look at her. He just stared at the fish-man in the tank.
“He pines for the woman he couldn’t have,” came the barker’s Irish brogue.
“Why couldn’t he have her?” Ellie asked, her voice small.
“Well, in case y’ didn’t notice, he’s in this here tank o’ water. Can’t leave any longer than you could go in it lest he drown in the air.”
With an uneasy laugh, Ellie shook her head. “You think I believe he’s really some merman? That those are gills? Please, he’s probably wearing some costume make-up and has a scuba tank in the back.”
The barker turned his eyes to meet hers, a smirk playing at his mouth.
“Y’ think so, do ya?”
The barker brought up his hands and lit a cigarette, but Ellie didn’t hear the spark of a lighter. He drew his hands away and sighed a plume of smoke. Shadows danced over his face with a reddish light, not the watery glow of the tank.
“Nothin’,” he said with a sidelong glance, “is what it seems.”
Looking to his right hand, Ellie saw the small flame that had lit the cigarette. The man twirled it around his fingers then began passing it over his knuckles like a coin. She clamped her hand tightly over his and felt her skin prickle as the fire met the ice in her veins. Anger and confusion washed over his features.
Quickly, she tore her hand away and stuffed it into her pocket. She looked at her toes, ashamed, as the old barker examined his own skin, bluish and frosty from the sudden cold.
“Ah,” he said, “I see you understand.”
He held her chin between his fingers and gently lifted her gaze to meet his.
“Nothing is what it seems, is it, love?”
Tears welling in her eyes, Ellie shook her head. The word echoed in her head.
Freak. 

“Off with ya,” he said. “Out of my tent before I decide to take y’ with me and mine.”
The spell broke and Ellie ran for the exit.