Never Make the Same Mistake I Did, Don’t Get Lost at a Trade Fair

I bet you’re laughing right now. You probably think I’m just some idiot with a terrible sense of direction. To be honest, you’re right about the latter, but I assure you, what I experienced is no laughing matter.

The day I got lost, I was working. Theoretically.

My colleague Frank and I were sent to represent our food company at one of the country’s biggest trade fairs.

It’s not a great job. Our boss couldn’t be bothered to pay for any of the extra baggage that came with it. No compensation for traveling, no extra payment for setting up the stall, nothing.

Even worse, our work hours would be long, as so often. We’d have to man the stall from early morning until late in the evening, pretending to be as happy to be there as the fairs many visitors. All the while, our boss insisted we wore those stupid caps with our company’s name on it.

Yet Frank and I had a little arrangement going to make the best of our shitty situation. He’d been in the trade business for most of his life, and he knew trade fairs inside-out. He knew when things would go slow, especially in the early morning or the late evening. Frank also knew that one person was enough to man the stall during those times. This allowed the other to roam the place, to relax or even take a nap.

The fair we attended that day was huge. It was held in a giant, sprawling complex comprising various halls, out areas, restaurants and much more, all connected by a variety of hallways. It was the equivalent of a small town.

After we’d finished getting the stall ready for business, Frank offered to take care of the morning shift. I was quick to agree.

I’d been wanting to have a look around ever since I arrived. It wasn’t a luxury we could usually afford since we were trapped in our stall for the fair’s entire duration.

What can I say? I like food, especially meat. When I’d seen there was an entire hall centering on exotic meat products, I had to go.

I wished Frank the best of luck with the morning shift, stuff the damned cap in my pocket and set out on my merry way.

Being the idiot I am, I just started walking and promptly got lost. The place really was huge, and even worse, everything looked the same.

After finding and tinkering with one of the interactive map displays, I figured out where I was and where I had to go: hall 19.

It wasn’t long, however, before I got lost again. In frustration, I consulted another map display, and learned I’d somehow taken a wrong turn, and was now in hall 12. Great, that’s in an entirely different wing of the complex.

This time, I snapped a picture of the map and followed it to the letter. Whenever I entered a new hall, I checked the big sign telling me which one it was before I cross-checked my position on the map.

I left hall 12, walked past hall 11, and eventually through hall 9. All that was left was to cross hall 14, and I’d be at my goal.

After crossing hall 14, however, and following another hallway, I suddenly found myself in front of hall 24.

I was dumbfounded and pulled out my phone again. For almost a minute, I went over the map, but as much as I searched, I didn’t find a hall 24. The highest hall number I could find was hall 22.

Still confused, but not sure what to do, I entered hall 24. After a few minutes of stumbling around, I found another map display. The small red dot told me I was indeed in hall 24. I frowned. How the hell was there even a hall 24?

When I compared the map in front of me to the one on my phone, I noticed something right away. The map in front of me was different. It was bigger and several halls seemed to have been added.

For a moment, a strange feeling washed over me and my eyes darted around looking for…I don’t know what. Everything around me was as normal as it could be. Visitors were checking out stalls, talking to sales representatives or indulging in the various samples.

Soon enough, however, something made me look up. So far, I’d hurried over the fair, not giving any of the stalls a better look. Now that I did, and really looked at them, I saw how strange some of the advertised products were.

Right in front of me, a stall was presenting a fruit called Fallarius. By that point, I’d been working in the food industry for a good few years, and I considered myself having a rather solid grasp on it. Yet in all those years, I’d never heard of a Fallarius. When I googled it, I came up with a big fat zero.

With my interest piqued, I approached the stall. Who knows, it might be one of those weird new mix-breeds that had grown in popularity.

What I saw, however, looked unlike anything I’d seen before. It was a slimy, bright orange thing, covered in some sort of spiky fur. The moment I’d made it to the counter, I couldn’t help but reach out for it. When my fingers made contact, however, the thing twitched and produced a disgusting wet squeak.

Cursing, I cringed back, landing me a few annoyed glances and not a few giggles.

For a few more moments, I stood there, staring at the stall and the weird orange fruit. Then, I shrugged, and went on my way.

Phone in hand, and staring at my map, I tried to find my way back.

After following what I assumed to be the same hallway I’d entered from, I should’ve been back in hall 14.

Yet the entire layout was different. A swift look at the hall sign told me I’d somehow ended up in hall 27. How the hell had I even gotten here? I’d followed the same damned hallway!

There should be an exit to my right, leading to an outer area, but it was gone. Instead, I saw another hallway, one that supposedly led to hall 31.

I frowned. How was the place that big? There shouldn’t even be a hall 31. Hell, there shouldn’t be a hall 27, and I should be in freaking hall 14! At least, if I were to trust the map on my phone.

For the next few minutes, I stumbled on, trying my best to ignore the strange, unknown products all around me. Here and there, I stopped, desperately searching for a map display, but saw none.

Suddenly, someone called out to me.

“Can I help you, sir?”

When I turned around, I saw an info desk worker. The woman had stopped a few meters away from me and must’ve noticed my predicament.

“Yeah, sorry. I guess I got lost,” I admitted, giving her an embarrassed laugh.

The woman, too, laughed, or rather giggled. It was a strangely throaty giggle. Only now that I focused on her did I see that most of her face was hidden behind strands of thick, dark hair.

“I’ve been trying to find hall 19, but the maps are…”

My voice trailed off. The longer I stared at the woman, the more I felt something was wrong with her. She just stood there, and I watched as she pulled out some sort of electronic contraption.

“Problem with maps,” she started, in a now much quieter voice. “Old versions.”

What the hell was she going on about? This was one of the biggest, most prestigious fairs in the entire country. Why’d they display older versions of the maps and how’d they just add a dozen new buildings to the complex? No, something didn’t add up.

“Where you want to go, sir?” she mumbled in her half-whispering voice.

She still hadn’t moved, still hadn’t bothered to brush her hair aside. As I listened to her, I wondered once more what the hell was wrong with her. Even her way of talking was strange. Her English was over-accentuated, but at the same time, it seemed to take her an effort to bring out each individual word.

“Hall 19,” I brought out eventually.

“Not far,” she simply said.

Then she turned around and began walking. The way she moved was as unnatural as the way she spoke. Instead of stepping forward, she merely shuffled her feet, dragging herself forward as if something was wrong with her legs. It made her entire body move in a strangely jerky motion.

“Coming, sir?” she asked after a few moments, but didn’t bother to even turn around.

Instead of moving, I just stared at her. Somehow, I knew I shouldn’t follow her. This woman wasn’t normal, not normal at all.

“No. I mean…I’m sure I can find it on my own. Thank you very much.”

Not even waiting for an answer, I hurried away. I half-ran past stalls and visitors, and only once I’d made it past a corner did I feel safe enough to relax.

I took a deep breath. Then I looked around, trying to find my bearings. It hadn’t been more than a few seconds when I heard the same half-whispered voice again.

“Can I help you, sir?”

It sounded exactly the same as before. The same over-accentuated English. When I looked over my shoulder, I saw her there, only a few meters behind me, staring at me from behind those thick strands of hair.

I couldn’t help but shiver. Why the hell was she following me?

Instead of saying anything, I turned around, hurried towards a hallway, and fled into another market hall.

Yet this new hall was even more different. Things just didn’t add up. The layout made no sense. Stalls were just placed haphazardly, with no rhyme or reason. When I checked the sign above to find out what hall I’d ended up in, I almost laughed. Instead of a number, all I saw were strange symbols.

The stalls, too, were covered in them. The products presented were even stranger than the Fallarius I’d seen before. They were utterly alien, seemed half alive.

I rushed past stalls and disgusting…things, as an overwhelming feeling of being lost, of not belonging, came over me.

Eventually, I stopped. I hid between two stalls, far away from the bustle of visitors, and closed my eyes. Don’t give into it. You’re okay, idiot. Just calm down.

Yet when I opened my eyes, I realized it wasn’t just the environment that was strange. The people were, too. They were all acting normal, but the way they moved, the way their bodies and limbs worked, was…wrong.

As I stared after a person, I couldn’t help but think that someone had taken them apart and put them back together the wrong way. They were human, yes, but a few details didn’t add up. Their arms seemed backwards, their facial features slightly warped, and their torso…

No, don’t focus on it. Just find your way back. Fuck hall 19, and go back to where you came from.

Taking another breath, I approached one of the strange people around me, a woman. I tried my best to ignore her weird body and strange face.

“Excuse me, I’m trying to get back to hall 7, but I’m-“

I trailed off when I noticed her wide eyes and confused expression. A fearful noise escaped her mouth before she turned around and hurried away.

As she did, I saw the way her legs moved. It looked like there were too many joints in them.

For a moment, I almost lost it because of the surreal situation I found myself in.

Then, I heard a strange, half-whispered, over-accentuated voice from nearby.

Sweat broke out all over my body. It’s a coincidence, I told myself. Yet when I turned around, I saw the same strange woman. This time, however, she wasn’t alone. She was talking to a pair of security guards. Both of them looked as strange as she was, and I shivered when I noticed the same jerky movements.

When she turned in my direction, I ran. I knew I shouldn’t, no, couldn’t be found by her again.

Yet when I looked over my shoulder, I saw that all three of them were looking after me.

I dashed away, turned right, then left, past haphazardly place stalls, not even sure what exactly I was running from. As I did, I pulled out the damned cap and threw away the jacket I was wearing. It wasn’t much, but maybe, just maybe, they wouldn’t recognize me.

The layout of the hall, however, was too disorienting. There wasn’t a place to hide, and I knew if I stayed here, it was only a matter before they’d discover me.

Then I saw a tightly knit group of people making their way toward a hallway. I instantly ran in their direction, trying to mingle, to hide between them. When I reached them, however, I saw how wrong they all were. Some were too short, others too tall. Some were shambling around while others were slumped over. In-between, I saw children running here and there. They were moving on all fours, more like animals than human beings. When one of them focused on me, I saw glaring animalistic eyes.

I pulled the cap deeper in my face before I pushed myself past the strange gathering and entered the hallway ahead.

This hallway, however, differed from any I’d seen before. It was small, almost constricting, more a tunnel than anything else. The floor was dirty, and the only light that reached me came from randomly placed yellowish lamps.

As strange as the place was, however, I could do nothing but hurry on. Driven by an almost primal fear of the woman and her companions, I ran on and eventually entered the hall at its end.

I’d barely crossed a few meters when I noticed just how strange the place was.

This wasn’t an orderly market hall. Neither was it one of the disorienting, haphazardly thrown together ones.

No, this place didn’t feel like it had been planned out or even constructed. It looked more like a shanty town, a place that had grown bigger and bigger over a long period.

The ground was as dirty as that of the hallway and a variety of stains and fluids covered it. I saw caskets and boxes everywhere, saw empty cages, and, occasionally, chunks of meat, discarded and left to rot. The air was heavy with a disgustingly sweet smell.

In an instant, I pushed myself past empty crates and behind a stack of boxes.

What the hell was this place?

My eyes darted around, trying to find out where I’d ended up at. Eventually, I found the sign, but the hall’s number was all wrong. At first I didn’t know what it said, but after a few seconds, I could decipher it. It was supposed to be hall 37. The numbers, however, they were backwards and distorted. They looked as if someone who’d never seen numbers before had written them.

That’s when it clicked.

It wasn’t just the sign, it was this entire place. This wasn’t a fair or a market hall. It was an imitation, one that was all wrong.

The people, the things populating this place, they too, were nothing but cheap imitations of the human form. They wore mismatched pieces of clothing, ones that were too small or too big, and shoes that didn’t fit. Their entire form was warped, as if something horrible was hidden below their outfits.

When I focused on one such person, a cold shower went down my spine. My entire body felt cold. A nervous chuckle almost escaped my mouth, and I had to scream at myself not to move until they’d passed.

What I’d thought was a face wasn’t. It was a mask, a drawing of a happy face frozen in a perpetual half-smile. But it was too simple, too cheap and reminded me of a child’s crayon drawing.

The strange person shuffled past my hiding place and then stopped in front of a stall, or something that was supposed to look like one. It was nothing but a crude construction made from wood and rubble, an amalgamation of trash. Hooks dangled from it here and there, each sprouting a chunk of raw, bloodied meat.

I watched as the thing approached a hook. In a swift motion, it tore down one of the dangling chunks and pushed it below its mask.

For a few seconds, it seemed to chew on the meat. Then a long, black tongue slithered out from under the mask and I watched as it licked blood and pinkish goo from its misshapen hand.

A while longer, the creature just stood there, staring at the remaining chunks of meat before it shuffled on.

By now, I saw that a similar creature manned the stall, one wearing another of the crayon-masks. A strange, grunt-like sound escaped its mouth when it saw the empty hook.

I watched in confused horror as it approached something covered by a piece of clothing. It was a cage and for a moment, it moved the cloth aside and seemed to check what was inside. When it did, I heard something: sobbing. The sobbing that was unmistakably that of a human being.

Another grunt. The cloth went back down, and then the creature vanished behind the stall, tearing aside a curtain I hadn’t even known was there. I only saw it for a moment, but I could’ve sworn I saw blood and gore, and something that might once have been a human body.

I barely covered my mouth and drown out the scream that had wanted to escape my mouth.

Then, still huddled between crates and boxes, I realized what those stains, those fluids on the floor all around me, had to be. Blood. Human blood.

Then those chunks of meat…

This time, I could do nothing and threw up right where I was.

Almost instantly, heads turned to where I was, heads sprouting the same smiling crayon-faces. In a frantic motion, I stumbled out from between crates and boxes. Before any of the creatures could react, I ran. I rushed past them, past the non-stalls they’d erected, and then back into the dark, tunnel-like hallway.

I’d almost made it, had almost escaped this hellhole of a place when a hand closed around my arm.

“Can I help you, sir?”

The same words, the same damned words. The same over-accentuated voice. As if to mock me, the strange woman, the thing in front of me, repeated them once more.

“Can I help you, sir?”

This time, I realized what was wrong with her voice.

It wasn’t the half-whispering, neither was it the over-accentuated English. No, it was the voice. It sounded as if someone, or something, was trying to emulate English. Another cheap imitation, another one that was all wrong.

“No, let me go! Let me fucking go!” I screamed at the thing.

I tore at the arm holding me in place, twisted my body, only to be pulled backwards.

At that moment, the hair that had covered the face was thrown aside. For the first time, I could make out its face.

I instantly cringed back. It wasn’t one of the simple crayon-like fakes. No, it looked almost real. Almost. It was a mask, but one made of skin, of lifeless, human skin. And then, something moved, but something that was hidden below. I could see a hidden mouth, could almost see it turn into the outlines of a twisted grin.

I screamed in terror, tried once more to get away, but it was too late. The commotion had been noticed.

From the entrance of the not-hall in the back, hulking, shambling figures were making their way towards us. By now, they weren’t even trying to keep their imitation alive anymore. No, all that remained of it were the empty, half-smiling crayon-faces.

“Can I help you, sir?” the thing next to me repeated once more.

This time, the words came out in the same throaty giggle I’d heard before.

The image of those cages returned to me, of the hooks and the chunks of meat dangling from them.

That would be me, I realized. This was what awaited me.

And then, my fear, my terror, was pushed aside by rage. No, it wouldn’t. I was not livestock. My free hand shot forward, and in a single motion, I tore apart the disgusting, dead skin covering the creature’s face.

What I saw below was nothing but twisted flesh and scar tissue. An inhumane shriek, one of outrage escaped its mouth, and I felt the hand holding onto me let go.

As the thing covered its face, I dashed away. I was out of the tunnel in an instant and then back into the disorganized hall. I didn’t lock back, didn’t want to see what was coming after me.

No, I just ran.

My legs led me through hall after hall, each stranger than the one before. They were all twisted and wrong. One seemed to be built vertically, with stalls stacked on top of one another continuously. Another was populated by stalls that seemed to have grown and were more alive than the beings moving between them.

More than once, figures pointed and stared at me. Some cringed away, for I was as alien to them as they to me. Yet sometimes, I felt hands reaching out for me, trying to hold me in place.

In sheer and utter panic, functioning purely by adrenalin, I ran on. My lungs were burning, my legs were getting weak. I had no goal, no direction. I just ran on, trying desperately to flee the surreal place my world had become.

Then I collided with someone stepping out in front of me. I stumbled, lost my balance, and crashed to the floor. I cursed, fought myself back up, and was about to rush on when a hand closed around my arm.

In my mind, I could already hear the same words, the same question.

Instead, I found myself face to face with a man who looked entirely human, a security guard. Yet I didn’t stop. I tried to get away and eventually pulled my arm free. This was nothing but another ploy, another fake who was out to get me. I stumbled another step, then another, before I fell once more.

My eyes darted around, searching for hulking, shambling figures, but all I saw was faces, normal faces. Some seemed worried, others confused. A group of teenagers nearby snickered behind their hands. I even saw a couple dragging their son away the moment I stared at them.

Yet they were all unmistakably human.

By now, the security guard had motioned for his colleagues to come over.

As they stood in front of me, their mouths moved, yet my brain didn’t seem to function.

Once more, one of them got a hold of me, pulling me to my feet. In an instant, however, I tore myself free again.

“The hell’s the matter with him?” one of them brought out.

Another mentioned the words ‘drunk’ and ‘drugs.’

I finally opened my mouth and began rambling about being followed, and hunted down before I closed it again.

“You saw what? Someone’s following you?”

“No,” I started shaking my head. “I mean, yes, there’s this woman and those men, but…”

My voice trailed off when I saw their expression and how they stared me down. It was clear they didn’t buy a word of what I was saying.

“I think it’s best for you to leave the premise, sir,” the one holding onto my arm eventually said, or rather, commanded.

With that, they swiftly escorted me from the complex.

Still confused, but more than relieved to finally having escaped the place, I made my way to our hotel.

When Frank arrived, he was pissed.

While I was sitting on the bed, he laid into me. He ranted on about where I’d been, what I thought I was doing, and even told me he’d informed the boss about me skipping out on the job.

I only half-listened, still plagued by what I’d seen just hours ago.

Eventually, Frank got a hold of my collar and pulled me up close.

“The fuck’s the matter with you, Danny?”

At first, I only stared at his angry face, but then I opened my mouth.

“I don’t know. I think I got…lost? No, never mind.”

When Frank heard this, he let go of me and the anger on his face evaporated.

“What happened? What did you see?”

Instead of answering, I shock my head and told him he wouldn’t believe me, anyway. For a moment, Frank continued staring at me, before he grumbled something, but left it at that.

Later that evening, though, when the two of us went out to have some beers, I finally opened up to him.

Frank listened without saying a word. Once I was done, though, I couldn’t help but laugh again. I told him I must be overworked, or that I’d had a panic attack.

Frank, however, didn’t join in my laughter. Instead, his face grew dark.

“No, you did get lost.”

“What are you-?”

“Listen, Danny, these days, they make these places, these fairs, too damn big. There’s too many people. It’s only natural that some get lost or end up in…places they don’t belong. Happens all the time, just no one ever talks about it.”

“How do you…?”

Frank didn’t answer. Instead, he just sat there, staring at his beer, avoiding my probing eyes.

“Best thing you can do is not to wander around and just stay at your stall,” he finally whispered.

When he looked up again, I saw his expression, saw the sad, anxious look that now filled it.

For the next couple of minutes, I pressed him to tell me what he meant. I asked him if he’d gotten lost himself, but Frank never said another word about it.

It’s been years since it all happened. I’m not working with Frank anymore, and I neither do I work at trade fairs.

I just…couldn’t do it. Whenever I went near those giant, disorienting halls, and saw the countless people entering them, I was pushed into a state of almost-panic.

In time, however, as the years went by, what happened that day became nothing but distant memories.

Just recently, though, having finally gotten over my fears, I visited one of our local trade fairs with a friend of mine.

As we walked from hall to hall, I couldn’t help but look around and watch my surroundings.

I saw them.

I saw the few select people who seemed bewildered and confused, who seemed lost. It’s always people who are a tad bit different, a tad bit wrong. People who just don’t seem to belong.

And I can always see those who are preying on them. Figures who pretend to be info desk workers, security guards and even sales representatives. And I can see them lead them away, lead them into directions that shouldn’t lead anywhere, or that lead somewhere else entirely.

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