The Traveling Spectacular
A Short Story
by Michelle Rowen
Maybe it was the fact that they’re set up so fast. Or the creepy, stringy-haired ride operators. Or the strange, stuffed prizes, larger than a small horse staring at you from their shelves with soulless, shiny, black button eyes. Or the sickly sweet smell of hot dogs and caramel corn and cotton candy rolling through your stomach.
Maybe it was the creaking rides, or the scary walk-through haunted trailers where the carnies sprayed water or ran their dry, thin fingers along your bare arm as you walked along in the darkness.
All I knew is that it sucked that I had to spend a perfectly good afternoon at The Traveling Spectacular Carnival with my rug-rat cousins. What did I look like? Mary Poppins?
I watched the two of them, eight year old twin girls, golden hair and blue, blue eyes, skip along happily in front of me. I didn’t look much like them. I was dark, like my dad, able to look like a Goth without even trying. Black hair, dark eyes, pale skin like a blank sheet of paper.
“And a permanent miserable expression on your face,” my aunt would say. She was my dad’s older sister and I was staying her for the summer while the ‘rents went on their “cruise of a lifetime.”
So there I was. It was my punishment to look after the brats for the afternoon. She’d thrust a couple of twenties at me before she went off to her day at the spa. I eyed the money, of course, but refused the babysitting gig.
“You’re under my roof, you live by my rules,” she snapped. “You need to stop being such a selfish little bitch.”
“Lisa!” My cousins turned to look at me with big eyes. “Can we go on the tilt-a-whirl?”
I shook my head. “Nope. That’s only for grown-ups.”
“You’re a grown-up.”
Not yet. Only two more years until I turned eighteen and I could go out on my own. I didn’t know where, but it would be somewhere cool. Exciting. Special.
Until then I was stuck in this dump of a town looking after my drooling cousins at a lame carnival hastily set up in the Wal-Mart parking lot.
“Why don’t you guys go play over there,” I said, pointing at one of those enclosed tent things with the plastic balls that are as deep as your neck. Kids love that kind of shit. At least I used to.
The brats were so excited they started jumping up and down, clutching at each other’s arms. I peeled off a few tickets from the stack I’d purchased with one of the twenties, while pocketing the other, and gave them enough for their admittance. I watched them skip away happily. Was I ever that happy? Doubtful, but you never know.
They climbed into the tent after handing the tickets over. I noticed that the tent was shaped like a clown’s head. Bright green hair stuck out at either side. Eyes, wide and a little crazy. A gaping, hungry mouth was the entrance. The balls were all red, moving, swirling around the happy children like a long tongue, or a pool of blood or —
I felt a hand on my shoulder and I spun around with a shriek, ready to fight, kick, and scratch at whoever it was.
“Hey Lisa, take it easy.”
I let out a long sigh of relief. It was my boyfriend Jake. I hugged him and realized I was crying.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, stroking the hair off my face.
I wiped the back of my hand across my face and sniffed noisily. “Nothing.”
“I didn’t know you were coming here. Why didn’t you tell me?”
I nodded at the tent. “I got roped in to looking after the brats. No big deal.”
He took my hand and led me off to the side, over by the hot dog stand. Somewhere fairly private. I hadn’t told him where I was going because I wasn’t in the mood to see him. I was pissed at him. I’d heard a rumor that he was cheating on me with a girl from the track team. A girl who was beautiful, strong, smart, and won stuff like medals and compliments.
I looked at him. Would he do that to me? Why wasn’t I good enough?
“Sometimes I wish I could just run away,” I said. “Go somewhere that isn’t here. Disappear so nobody can find me.”
“Then what would I do?”
“You could come with me.”
I saw the expression on his face change as he imagined our lives together, away from this stifling town. Somewhere fun and exciting, where every day was an adventure.
“Maybe after finals,” he said.
I turned away from him and squinted at the clown tent to check on the brats but I couldn’t see them through the mesh. I walked directly over to it and looked inside but the ride was empty, there was nothing to see but the red plastic balls like drippings from an old lava lamp.
Where were they?
A rope of panic twisted inside my gut. Where the hell were they?
“What’s wrong?” Jake asked.
“The kids. I don’t know where they are.”
What was I supposed to do? I’d only taken my eyes off them for a second. They couldn’t have just disappeared.
“There,” he said and I followed his finger through the crowd of carnival-goers. “See? Nothing to worry about.”
I let out a long, shaky sigh of relief and walked towards my cousins as they approached us.
“I thought I told you two to stay there.” I nodded at the clown tent. “I was freaking out. Do you want me to tell your mom about this?”
As if I was going to do that. Not a bloody chance. She’d rip my head off for being irresponsible. But they didn’t have to know my threat was false. Maybe it would keep them in line for the rest of the afternoon. Worth a try, anyhow.
I expected them to say something, maybe plead with me not to tell their mother what naughty children they’d been for fear of such harsh punishments as no dessert after dinner or having their Playstation confiscated.
But they said nothing. They stared up at me with their pale, little faces. Expressionless faces.
I frowned and got down on my knees in front of them, placing a hand on each other their bare arms. “You guys okay?”
They didn’t answer. Just kept up with the weird-o-rama stare.
I moved my hand down to their wrists, having the strange compulsion to take their pulses or something. As I looked down I saw something…unusual…on the backs of their hands.
I inspected it closer. It was an ink stamp. Red ink. The blurry, partially rubbed off image of a clown’s face on their skin looked up at me.
I dropped their hands and scrambled back from them, clutching my hand as if I’d just been scorched. I hadn’t, of course. But that image…seeing it on their hands. Why did it seem so familiar to me? And why did it make me want to run screaming out of the carnival, out of this town?
“Where did you get that?” I asked the twins and my voice sounded harsh. “The stamp on your hand?”
“What’s wrong with them?” my boyfriend asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Nothing. Nothing’s wrong.”
“The man,” my cousin said in a small but steady voice. “He gave us the stamp.”
My other cousin spoke then. “He’s gone now.”
“Where did he go?”
I stood up and pulled the kids against me like a mother hen with her chicks. I scanned the crowd, searching for…I didn’t know what. I don’t think I wanted to know.
“We’re leaving,” I said firmly. I pulled at their hands to lead them out to the parking lot, but they didn’t budge.
“He said he wants to talk to you,” my cousin said.
“Who said that?”
“He said to give this to you.” She pulled a chain out of her pocket. On the end of it was a heart-shaped locket. I blinked at it, not believing my own eyes. It was my necklace, my favorite necklace. The one with…
“Let me see that.” I snatched it away from her, greedy and nervous at the shiny piece of jewelry swinging in the air before my eyes. I clicked the locket open and stared down at the pictures inside.
One side was a little picture of me, age seven, smiling and happy and full of life. The other side was my aunt, my mother’s baby sister. At the time she would have been about my age, sixteen, maybe a little older. She’d given me this locket and I wore it religiously, touching it from time to time like a rosary or a good luck charm. But I’d lost it soon after I got it and cried for days not remembering where I’d dropped it, saddened even further because it had been the last gift my aunt had given me before she disappeared.
I closed it with my thumb then met both gazes of my strangely subdued cousins.
“The man who gave you that stamp gave this to you?”
They nodded solemnly.
“He wants to talk to me? Where is he?”
“He said tonight. Not now. Later. When the others have all gone home.”
I glanced back at my boyfriend. He shrugged.
“Should we call the police?” he asked.
“And tell them what? No. Let’s just get them out of here.”
I took the cousins home. They were so tired that they immediately went to take naps. It was only two o’clock. Before they lay down I tried to scrub the red stamp off their hands but it wouldn’t budge. One of those indelible inks, I figured.
I didn’t like it. The clown face stared up at me in defiance with its blurry eyes, big red lips, crazy clown hair. It looked funny, comical even. But if that was so why did I want to curl up in the corner and hide from it? It was stupid. Just stupid.
My aunt came home scrubbed and pumiced and whatever else you do at a spa. She was glad that the kids were asleep and barely looked at me.
I watched some television that evening, but I couldn’t tell you what shows were on. My hand was in my pocket, touching the silver chain of the locket, wondering where it came from, what it meant.
I went to bed at eleven, brushed my teeth, washed my face, and then changed into sweat pants. I shut the lights off, went over to the window, opened it up and crawled out. Not like it was the first time I’d done it or anything. It was surprisingly easy to get out of my aunt’s house. It was surprisingly easy to get out of almost anywhere if you really wanted to.
Jake was waiting for me. He seemed a little more excited than he should have been. Nothing usually happened of any interest around town so I guess checking out a carnival after it had shut down for the night was exactly what he’d been hoping for. Not me. I wanted to check it out fast and leave just as fast. Maybe even faster.
We didn’t talk much, just walked. The carnival sprang up in front of us almost out of nowhere. The lights were out. Yeah, this was exactly where I wanted to be at nearly midnight. Not.
“Where do you think he is?” Jake asked. “And who do you think he is?”
“Don’t know. Don’t care. We’ll stay for five minutes and then we’re out of here.”
“Chicken?” He grinned.
I gave him a dirty look as we stood at the entrance. “Cluck, cluck. I don’t want to go in there. I don’t care what you think.”
His grin widened and he circled me with his arms. “Come on. I’ll protect you.”
“Yeah right.” But I was grinning back at him. He leaned down to give me a quick kiss and then backed away. He frowned.
“What?” I said.
He stepped back from me and I glanced around. We were inside the carnival now, past the entrance. We stood in the exact center and I couldn’t for the life of me remember moving a single step.
I jumped at the sound of my name and clutched Jake’s arm. The sound came from nowhere I could pinpoint, almost as if it emanated from speakers placed throughout the carnival.
“Who said that?” I asked, my voice shaky. “Who are you?”
There was a rustle, shadows shaping and reshaping themselves as a man moved forth from the darkness. He was skinny, tall, with a pock-marked face from years of acne. He looked at me blankly. I was scared but not so much anymore. He was just a carnie. I’d dealt with creeps before, and I knew Jake could handle him no problem.
“Lissaaa,” he said, drawing out my name so it sounded like the hiss of a snake. “You don’t remember me.”
It wasn’t a question.
“No,” I said quickly. “Why the hell should I?”
The blank expression on his face parted as he raised an eyebrow and smiled a half smile at me. “Interesting choice of words.”
“Why did you have my necklace?”
“I thought you might like it back after all these years. A remembrance of times long past.”
“I didn’t ask why you gave it back to me. I asked why you had it.”
The expression faded from his face. Another man, this time fat, round like an oily beach ball, walked out from the shadows and cocked his head to one side.
“You gave it to me,” he said.
“Who are you?” Jake demanded.
The man smiled. “No one. Everyone. Everything. Every time. Every place.”
“Yeah, whatever you say, buddy. Lisa, let’s go.”
“Lissaa,” another voice said from the blackness. Female this time. Familiar. “We’ve missed you so.”
I turned my head slowly and saw my aunt, young as the day she disappeared, come into the moonlight. My mouth opened, my jaw moved up and down but no sound came out. Her face was as blank as the others. She spoke monotone words. Odd. Unnatural.
“We tasted you then. We liked it very much. We are pleased that you’ve finally come back to us.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
“No, of course not.” She smiled at me and she looked exactly as I remembered her. But it wasn’t my aunt. Not really. That much I was sure of. “But do you remember that?” She nodded at my hand and I raised it to my face.
I had an ink stamp on my hand now, just like the twins had. But this one’s lines weren’t blurred. They were sharp, precise red lines that began to drip blood and sting with pain.
I looked up, the fear in my eyes must have been obvious. “What do you want?”
My aunt smiled at me. “You. Just you.”
“No,” Jake said, and he took a step towards her. “I don’t know what you’re doing but -”
“Silence.” She stared at him and he stopped moving, stopped speaking. His eyes moved, though, turned to me, wide and afraid.
My entire body felt cold and it wasn’t just the fact that I was scared to death. The temperature had dropped. I could see my breath coming now in clouds.
“The twins,” I said, as I rubbed my now injured hand gently. “What did you do to them?”
“We simply sampled them. We sampled all of the children today.”
“What do you mean, sampled them?”
“Remember, dear Lisssaaa. Try to remember.”
I didn’t want to remember, not if it was anything that had to do with these people. But the mixture of the hand stamp, the surroundings, the strange voices filling my head…the memories came to me without my permission.
I walked next to the ferris wheel holding my daddy’s hand. I had a balloon in my other hand. Daddy went to get us something to drink because it was a hot day and we were very thirsty. My balloon slipped out of my hand and I ran after it. There was a bunny. No. It was a man in a bunny costume. He was beckoning to me…follow me, follow me. And I did, my balloon forgotten. He disappeared into the clown’s mouth and I climbed in after him, no fear, no second thoughts. Only the pure curiosity that children possess.
Inside the clown’s mouth it was dark. I felt tired, but not scared. There was nothing to be afraid of in there. Only happy things. The happy things didn’t like to live in the darkness. I could help the happy things. The bunnies. They asked me if I wanted to stay with them. And I did. But then I heard my daddy calling for me and I turned away. The happy things weren’t happy anymore. They were sad. Angry. Reaching for me in the darkness, but I got away. It was hard but I got away and ran to my daddy who wondered where I got the strange stamp on my hand. I was so tired. He took me home and I slept so long that they had to take me to the hospital to find out what was wrong with me.
But then I was okay again and nobody could figure out what had been wrong with me. And it was forgotten. I forgot it because I wanted to.
I rubbed the back of my hand where the mark was.
“But you’re returned to us,” the fat man said. “And we’ve missed you so.”
“You will stay with us this time,” my aunt said, her smile widening so I could see her long, sharp, white teeth. “We will be so happy together.”
I shook my head. “I don’t want to stay here.”
“But we need you. The children aren’t enough. We need something more. We need you.”
“No,” I backed up, flicking a glance at Jake who looked back at me with wide, horrified eyes. “No!”
“Then we will take him,” my aunt nodded towards Jake. “And we will continue to be patient for you, for you shall return to us again.”
I shook my head. “No.”
I saw Jake move, the movement slight. He turned his expressionless face to me.
“Yes, Lissaaa,” he said. “We shall take him and we shall wait. We are very patient.”
It was the carnival. The entire carnival itself breathed and moved and thought as one entity. And it was hungry. So very hungry…
It had tasted me. It had marked me. And it had taken my boyfriend like it took my aunt.
I turned and ran as fast as I could out of there, my sandals slapping against the pavement, my hand aching where the blood ran down my fingers. I couldn’t see for the tears, for the heavy sickness that weighed down my heart. I ran faster that that girl on the track team could ever hope to run and nobody would ever see it. Nobody would ever find out about it, any of it.
I climbed up and into my bedroom window, got undressed and got into bed. I pulled the covers up tight over my head.
I closed my eyes and wished it all away.
* * *
Years later, the carnival came back to town. My husband insisted we take the kids and they had it in their minds to win fabulous prizes and eat candy apples and caramel corn. I told him to go without me — that I didn’t like carnivals all that much — but he insisted. I relented.
But now I regret it. I honestly don’t know why I don’t like them. Why they give me chills when I see them set up in a mall’s parking lot with the whirling rides, cheap food, and expensive games. Why do I feel the uncontrollable urge to run screaming away from them while at the same time my kids are jumping up and down with the excitement of it all?
The children were so tired when we got home. They went to bed without hardly a word. They never usually get that tired.
And it’s so strange. I could have sworn I saw an old boyfriend of mine working there, looking as young as the day he’d disappeared from town without a trace. He waved at me and at my kids before we left.
I feel the oddest urge to go back tonight to see him again.