The sound of tweeting birds reached a deafening crescendo from the phone alarm. Jackie started and groped bleary-eyed for the offending device on the bedside table. Opening one eye, she stared at the time, eight-thirty a.m., and groaned.

She leapt from bed and frantically bee-lined for the shower. The staff meeting looming at eleven-thirty was not going to wait while she blow-dried her hair so she emerged dripping, twisted her hair into a knot and began toweling herself and applying makeup with the skill of a juggler. Wardrobe choices swirled in her mind. Fortunately it was casual Friday, which meant her trusty standbys of black capris teamed with a jacket and lacy tank would pass muster.

The phone rang as she dressed. Hopping on one foot toward it, she scowled at Greg’s image on the phone.
“Thanks, a lot!” she snarled. “I’m late and my ass is going to be on the line if I miss the staff meeting today.” Greg chuckled.

“Not my fault you guzzled a pitcher of Sangria with dinner.”
“I didn’t exactly notice you abstaining, Mr. Wino.”
“I’m a man. We have a higher tolerance for these things. If you can’t take the heat, stick with that fizzy water you love to waste money on.”
Though Jackie tried to suppress a smile, her lips disobeyed and turned up at the corners.
“You are such a loser, Vanelli,” she said. “I’m surprised you didn’t stick a straw in the pitcher.”
“That’s Mr. Vanelli to you,” Greg said, and then dropped his voice, “speaking of sticking…”
“You are such a pig!” Jackie cried with feigned indignance. “Go away and watch some porn or something. I’ve got to get to work.”
The two shared a good-natured laugh.
“Okay,” Greg said. “I won’t keep my corporate she-devil any longer. Oh, before I forget, thanks for the invitation. That was a nice surprise.”
“Invitation?” she asked.
“Yeah. Found it outside my door this morning. Nice touch. Makes a change from e-vites.”
Jackie stared blankly at the phone. Time was passing and she should have left ten minutes ago.
“Well… I’m glad you liked it.”
“So I’ll pick you up at eight.”
“Okay, I get that it was meant to be a surprise but I do need to tell Scott I can’t make it Friday night.”
“Cancel Scott,” Jackie said, desperately trying to figure out what the hell her boyfriend was talking about.
“Great,” Greg said. “I’ll let him know. Haven’t been to a carnival in a while. Should be a good laugh.”
Carnival? Jackie thought. Am I still dreaming or what?
She noted the time and felt a surge of panic. It was now or never.

“Okay, babes,” she said. “Gotta run. Talk later.”
Bursting from the front door, Jackie simultaneously fumbled with her purse, keys, laptop case and a bagel. She would have missed the brightly colored envelope decorated with clowns and balloons on the doormat had she not directly stepped on it.

She gazed down at the envelope impaled by her stilettos. “Invitation” in crayon block lettering scrawled across it. A smile crept across her face.
“You are so full of it, Greg,” she said, setting down her gear and reaching for the envelope.
Tearing it open, she scanned the whimsical clown-decked invitation. “Come to the carnival!” block letters proclaimed. Surprisingly, there was little information beyond a date, time and address. She frowned at the address. On the outskirts of town, it was not a place known for any amusements or venues; in fact, last she had seen of the area it was undeveloped farmland.

Nor was there any indication the invitation actually came from Greg. In fact, if he already had an invitation ….
Jackie shook her head in confusion. She stuffed the invitation in her purse and scrambled to her car. There would be time to discuss leisurely activities later on assuming she still had a job.
Emerging from the staff meeting, Jackie leaned against the wall and exhaled a sigh of relief. She had rushed inside the conference room barely a minute before the managing director appeared but ended up distracted more than she realized by the mysterious invitation. Returning to her office, she closed the door and retrieved the invitation from her purse.

Holding it in her hands, she contemplated it, then reached for her phone and dialed Greg’s number.
“So are you filing for unemployment?” Greg quipped as he answered.
“Not today,” Jackie said, “although that was a little close for comfort.” She toyed with the invitation. “Look, Greg, tell me the truth. Are these invitations some kind of joke?”
“Joke? You’re the one who left it.”
“So did you,” she said. “Found one on my porch this morning. Clowns, balloons, you know, typical kindergarten style.”
“You serious?”
“You want me to scan and email it?”
“What the hell? You seriously didn’t leave it?”
“You we’re with me till two a.m., Greg. Did I follow you, wait till you went inside and leave it on your doorstep?”
“Maybe it’s a special promotion or something. What the hell, I already cancelled Scott. Let’s just check it out. We take a drive and it if looks like kiddie-land we catch a movie or something instead.”
Jackie fingered the invitation.

“Actually, having fun at kiddie-land doesn’t sound so bad. Okay, we’re on.”
Jackie was enjoying the balmy evening on her patio when Greg sauntered onto the deck.
“Hey babes,” he said, giving her a kiss and settling on a lounger beside her. “You ready? It’s almost seven.”
Jackie stretched languorously before rising. Wearing skinny jeans and a snug fitting top, she felt Greg’s appraising gaze. She flashed him a provocative smile.

“You like?” she asked, running her hands along her tight, shapely ass.
Greg’s eyes lit up. He grinned charmingly like an impish Dennis the Menace.
“I’d like to do more than like,” he said, gathering her in an embrace. “You sure you want to go? We can always hang out and finish another pitcher of Sangria.”
Jackie kissed him.
“Why don’t we do this? Let’s check out the carnival. We don’t have to stay, maybe just grab some cotton candy and come home and eat it.”
Greg grinned.
“Yum… I’ve always loved the sweet sticky taste of fluffy pink cotton candy.”
He retrieved his car keys from his pocket and jingled them.
“Let’s go.”
The drive was pleasant, the evening mild as they passed countryside showing little encroaching development. Rounding a bend leading toward a low range of hills, colorful twinkling lights and faint music beckoned from a valley tucked behind the cover of trees. As they approached, traditional carnival rides droned against the staccato thud of heavy metal music. Delighted
squeals emanated from a brightly illuminated Ferris wheel. The appetizing aroma of popcorn, grilled hot dogs and funnel cakes wafted into the air.

Greg drove through an entrance flanked by booths. Attendants dressed as clowns stopped each car. Jackie noticed that each driver handed the attendants the same invitation that they had both received. When Greg pulled up to an archetypal evil clown, the clown grinned wolfishly and looked into the car. He gave Jackie a leering once over.
“Invitation, please.”

Jackie handed it to Greg, who handed it to the clown. He looked it over and then motioned them toward a dirt parking lot flanking the carnival entrance. After they parked, they walked through flashing gates resembling gaping cartoon mouths

Inside, crowds bustled amidst a sea of balloons, stuffed animals and wads of cotton candy.
Greg and Jackie exchanged knowing glances.
“Care for some?” Greg asked.
“As a matter of fact, my sweet tooth does have a hankering,” Jackie replied.
While Greg stopped to buy some, Jackie strolled toward the game stalls. At first they seemed like the usual toss, throw or shoot-for-a prize but on closer inspection of one stall, the targets brought her to a standstill.
“What the hell?” she murmured, peering more closely at a young man throwing rubber balls at a row of Little Bo Peeps. As some of the balls struck them on their pillow-like behinds, they bent over to reveal shiny red buttocks.
His female companion screeched and clapped her hands as the busker awarded her a huge stuffed sheep displaying a furry beige rump. Jackie stared in disbelief, then looked around. No one else seemed to notice.
Then it all came into focus. Vendors selling buttock-shaped candy apples, wandering clowns randomly spanking women with whoopee cushion paddles, even a High Striker in which men swung a mallet against a buttock-shaped lever. Above all, there were no children, only adults.
“Greg…” she murmured, sidling her way back to the candy floss stall. “Greg!”
He turned toward her with a big smile and two sticks of cheek-shaped candy floss.
“Oh, my God!” she cried.
Greg laughed.
“Now that’s what I call a novelty,” he said with a wink. “Wanna bite?”
“Greg, this isn’t funny. Look around. Do you notice anything…unusual?”
He bit into the candy floss with gusto and looked around. Slowly his expression changed when he noticed the Bo Peep stall.
“Whoa,” he said. “That’s different.”
“Different? That’s all you have to say?”
Greg’s smile broadened as he observed a clown chasing a young woman with the whoopee cushion paddle.
“This is actually kind of kinky,” he said, handing her the candy floss. “Maybe we should check out the rides!”
He looked at her dubious expression.
“Come on, Jackie. You’ve got to laugh, I mean, somebody went to a lot of trouble to get us here. Let’s just check it out. What’s the harm?”
Jackie reluctantly followed him toward the rides. She scanned the crowds hoping not to recognize anyone.
Greg stopped outside the haunted house. Screams and cries emanated from the spooky structure.
“Want to try it out?” He tickled Jackie’s nose with the last of the candy floss. “Come on, it will be fun.”
“Okay,” Jackie finally said.
They waited in line only briefly before they entered the haunted house. Dark, creepy and resonating with blood-curdling music and sound effects, they wandered along obscure, weirdly angled paths. Luridly-lit displays popped up from shadowy corners, but far from the ghoulish and ghastly monsters and mutants, kinky bondage scenarios assailed them.
Leather-clad masters chased gagged submissives with whips, straps and floggers, striking exposed buttocks. Elsewhere, men and women dressed in various period costumes stood chained or restrained in stocks, or were bent over spanking benches and other apparatus.
Jackie felt herself growing aroused as she watched, realizing that the cries were not those of pain, but of pleasure. She glanced at Greg, staring at a woman lying prone over a birching bench while another woman alternately tickled and struck her very rosy, very glowing heart-shaped cheeks.
“You like?” Jackie said.
Greg nodded.
“I like,” he said, grabbing her ass and rubbing it. “But I like yours better.”
Jackie reciprocated by firmly squeezing his cheeks.
“Ditto,” she said.
They looked at each other and burst into laughter. Hand in hand, they continued through the steamy haunted house, noting a few ideas they intended to try out on each other. As soon as they
exited, both stopped in mid-stride when they recognized Jackie’s sister and her husband, dressed as dominatrix and slave, waiting outside.
Jackie’s eyes slid from one to the other. Greg merely stared at Marilyn’s voluptuous figure bursting from a black brocade bustier. Nick, kneeling at Marilyn’s feet, kept his eyes on the ground.

“Marilyn? Nick?”
“Surprise!” Marilyn said. “Welcome to our little Carnalval!”
“Carnal…val?” Jackie said.
“Pretty unique idea, don’t you think?” Marilyn said. “This is our fourth year and it’s growing all the time. Invitation only, of course.”
Jackie looked incredulously at her sister, then at a broadly grinning Greg.
“You’re in on this, aren’t you!” she said.
Greg raised his hands.
I take the Fifth!”
Shaking her head, Jackie grabbed the whoopee cushion glove from a passing clown and chased a laughing Greg into the crowd …