Jed never had been a good boy, not in all the time she’d known him. It was part of his appeal. To the kids on the midway every night, desperate to dip themselves in the illicit neon-pooled pleasures of dark corners and cheap thrills, he was dirty, dangerous. They loved him for it. They could laugh about his missing eyetooth and scruffy, angular jaw, and say they bet he never even graduated high school… but they’d still buy weed and beer from him, and plenty were eager enough to lose a half hour and a virginity or two behind the whirling, grinding weight of the rides he operated. Jed sure could pull a good lever, after all.
“Evenin’, Kari,” he called, crossing the patchy grass to bum a smoke.
Sometimes, he did more than rides. He filled in for anyone sick or late, and never complained. He’d man the punk or flat joints, make sure the marks spent at least five bucks to win a dollar prize, and there was no one better to handle freak-outs over rooked games. Jed was skinny—long and tall, the kind of body held together with chew and tattoo ink—but he could lay down hell itself on any chest-pounding asshat with an attitude problem.
He’d even geek if you asked him.
Oh, not the old-time kind, tearing the heads off snakes and chickens with his teeth… you couldn’t do that anymore. The fair didn’t have a geek pit. But it had something close.
It started a year ago, back in Topeka. Bill, who ran the show—and whose cousins held the contracts for the rides and food stalls, in one big, nepotistic tangle—had been left short after Harlo the Clown got himself in trouble in a Walmart parking lot and couldn’t raise bail. Bill had Jed put on Harlo’s gear, but Jed wasn’t one for clowning. They’d come up with an act where he ran around, let the little kids throw wet sponges and pies… it had gone over big.
Then, when someone threw a penny, Jed didn’t flinch. He caught it, put it on his tongue, opened his mouth wide—little copper disc wet against yellow-fried teeth—and swallowed. The New Geek was born. Bill called him a genius, proving there was a first time for everything.
Carny people bleed pride, though, and there’s no artistry in opening up a vein and letting out the feral psychotic. There’s nothing special about a geek, people said. Geeks could be anyone, and usually were. Drifters, suckers, college boys slumming for a summer… and, most of all, alcoholics or junkies. The people too desperate to say no, who’d do anything for a fix, or the money to get one. Bring somebody that low, and who knew what you could drag out of them. It was dirty somehow; obscene in the way it ripped the guts out of the relationship between performer and audience.
The geek took away the safe distance that skill created and confronted the watcher with an ugly reality: they were staring into a crazed face that—there but for the breath of fortune—could be their own.
It got Jed shunned, and created the slimy, bone-deep unease that Kari felt as he squatted before her in the dirt hollow at her trailer’s stoop. They were parked up under trees, a silver-sided wagon circle, a world apart from the midway’s artifice.
“How’s the leg?”
She shrugged, aware of the hollow place beneath her skirt that still seemed to have shape and feeling. Two months since the accident. She’d never fly the high wire again, but Bill had let her stay on. She was Luna Fortuna now, swapping trapeze for Tarot cards. It was just a different kind of spangle.
“All right.” Kari pulled her sequined shawl tighter, and fumbled another coffin nail out of the pack. “Better, I guess.”
Jed smelled of ash, beer, and staleness, like the cab of his truck. Kari met his uneven eyes: one green, one brown, yet each flecked with the other. She wasn’t fool enough to think of them as the angel and the devil in him—you couldn’t separate that much good out of Jed, much less put a halo on it and call it clean.
“Well, that’s good.” The end of his cigarette flared red in the dusk, one bright eye against the coming dark. “Want me to walk you to your spot? I got time.”
It was a busy night. This year had been, even after that girl went missing in Emporia. No one talked about her anymore. She’d faded away, like the kid in Wakarusa last fall. Outrage had no permanency these days.
Kari spent her shift shilling for happiness, telling tales of lucky loves and brighter tomorrows. What was the harm in that? Except the cards wouldn’t shut up, and she could feel the wrongness in the air.
“That’s not what the nine of swords means,” announced the fifteen-year-old seated opposite, all ocean-blue hair, black septum clicker, and educated annoyance.
Kari blinked. The embroidered symbols on the purple tablecloth swam before her eyes.
“Huh? Sure it is. Look. Bad dreams are just dreams, and y’all can wake up and face the morning. It’ll be better.”
The kid snorted. “Are you kidding? Screw this!”
Kari didn’t watch them go. The card showed a figure, waking as if from a nightmare, haunted by blades. Its old name was Lord of Cruelty, and it was the third card she’d turned after the Tower and the Devil.
She grabbed her crutch, closed up the booth, and set off down the midway.
Pitching swirls of music and peals of half-sunken laughter drowned out the diesel gennies’ hum. Pink-and-blue lights sutured the sky, and Kari’s crutch bit into the cool, damp grass, jarring with every step.
She found him in back of the trailers, hidden by the silver walls of his bloodstained pit.
A boy sprawled on the dry grass, eyes wide and mouth gulping, elbows and knees flailing with desperate jerks as he tried to scramble away. His shirt was already cut, white cotton turned to bloody feathers.
“Jed, let him alone. It’s too soon since the last one.”
He glared up at her. Blood wet his fingers, his face a twisted scream of interrupted glee. Outrage burned in his eyes.
“It’s all they want,” he moaned. “Pain. Ain’t it?”
Kari shook her head. The air was thick-scented, the smell of ash, onions, fuel, and bodies woven into one distinctive perfume.
“Not like this. You know that.”
Jed gave a short, low cry, bent into a coil across the ground. A razorblade glittered in his palm. The geek’s job was to suffer, to swallow it all and smile through the shards. To wallow in the filth and let the others come up clean.
“It’s all it ever is,” he said, his voice curdled, fingers digging into the soft flesh of the boy’s belly, printing red half-moons in their wake. “All this, so’s you can go home and say, ‘well, hell, I may be broke, I may hate my life, but thank god I ain’t that. Not yet.’ Why’d you get everything, and we ain’t, huh? Why ain’t it fair?”
“Jed.” Kari stepped forward. “Come on. You know why. You got different meat.”
With a howl of frustration, he backed off and crawled across the grass toward her, body bent and head held crooked.
She raised his chin, stared into his uneven eyes. For a moment, she was teetering atop the wire again, the smell of chalk, sawdust, and sweat in her throat. She was flying, twisting, feeling the paroxysm of terror that came with knowing something was wrong but being powerless to change it.
He smiled. Then Kari was falling, diving down from a hundred storeys, right into the vast, wet ruin of his mouth. She could have screamed, tried to escape, run like a geeked bird with no air beneath its wings, but it wouldn’t have helped.
He sank his teeth into her arm, just above the wrist, finding the spot where the tendons softened and the skin smoothed. She split open, ran red like a ruptured pomegranate, blood dripping from her fingertips. Maybe flowers would grow where it fell.
She nodded at the boy. “Go on, now.”
He gaped at her, then scrambled to his feet, stumbling and wet-legged, and fled into the dark. Kari threaded her fingers into Jed’s dry, dusty hair, holding his hunger close. The geek needed to feed. He was always there, the loyal rage squeezed back behind silent lips. But someone had to take care of him, or the whole damn show would tumble down.
Kari tilted back her head and let him wrench her hand away. Somewhere, right at the edge of pain—past catharsis and out beyond the white-furled fuzz of awareness—she breathed out a sigh, and the red, red world turned dark.
Kezia Kynaston-Mitchell is an author and poet drawn to the strange. A writer of speculative fiction and horror-tinged sci-fi and fantasy, Kezia has a deep love of all things odd and off-kilter. They split their time between the Pocono Mountains and a farm in southwest England, where they can be found behind a keyboard and a furry pile of foster dogs. Kezia's other loves include horrible B-movies, vintage cameras, and the dream of unkillable houseplants. Kezia's work has been published by Inscape Magazine and Random House eKhaya, among others, and has appeared on radio and in mixed-media exhibitions.
Follow Kezia on Twitter - @KeziaKynaston - or check out keziakynastonmitchell.com for new releases, free reads and more.