The streets were merry chaos. Artists displayed their work—blossoming apricot trees, lovers enveloped in murky fragrance. The academic style had not yet ruined the city. And there were masks, black chitin forged from carriage beetles. Everywhere, the faces of crickets, ants, and termites. Shells exaggerating the similarities between lacewings and lawyers, dragonflies and doctors, beetles and barons.
It was the carnaval de la coccinelle, when the natural kingdom is reversed. The mayor dresses as a maggot and squirms in the sty. A beggar is put in the government building. He is given cakes.
The only office uncontaminated is mine. For reasons of security, the commissariat de police remains intact. The carnaval is a time of excess, therefore abuse, and I am kept to the streets to deter license from turning criminal.
Today, my white beard, the wrinkles around my eyes, were hidden by the black face of the ninfly. Incognito, I rushed through the stalls. A man offered me a cage with a six-tailed scorpion. I pushed pass. In my fist I clutched a portent that I must not relax. A message taken from the thief Gabbard.
The thief was not really Gabbard. He was an Englishman named John Lawrence Kerr. Gabbard was a mask—a thin layer of words that ripped away in the interrogation chamber. The message was taken from his pocket.
Seek out the saint—the fête of fools.
The shank is there—but nones pour vous.
From pincer rust—to needle blue.
An annoying riddle. Some verse in English, the rest in French. I had solved one portion. There was some operation to be performed at the Church of Saint Trophime. Today, during the festival. But what was the scheme? And when would this deed occur?
The church I have always considered awkward, with walls that seem more dust than gray brick. These walls are unpunctured by scripture, except for a foyer, with its arches and columns decorated by the tediously holy.
The doors are wood from a sanguine tree. Inside, the hall is long and dark.
On this day, there was a line to the altar, where a priest stood. I saw his mask imitated the ant. He was blessing the merry-makers, one hand touching their foreheads, the other limp, shrouded by robes. This seemed poorly invented. Shouldn’t it be the rabble, in a reordering of tradition, blessing him?
I do not care much for churches or their congregations, although I prefer Religion to the concoctions of the Darwinists. There is comfort in mystical men, blessed by God, even if their stories are mixed with mythical creatures. Animals have always been the hardest for me to believe. It is difficult to believe in miracles, but must I also believe in lions and lizards? And hellfire if I do not?
In an office near the front, there was a man at the desk. His face pointed toward me, his mask dyed in blues and blacks. It was the common fly.
“I am Henri Moreau,” I said, showing him my papers. The mask stayed still, not caring for credentials.
“Today and only today, I am the subdeacon,” the man said. “My responsibility is the Liturgy of Hours.” Every few hours, then, he would sanctify the city with prayer. There were eight of these divisions, from matins to compline.
“You are not always a subdeacon,” I replied.
“We take the holidays seriously in Saint Trophime,” the man said. “Do you seek the true subdeacon? He is administering the blessings.”
The priestly fly meant the man before the congregation, camouflaged as an ant.
“But you are fast,” the man said. “We sent a boy for the police only a minute ago. Would you like to see the cage?”
Not knowing what he meant, I consented, and we walked around pews as black as street water. The fly led me to the crossing, where stood the red priest. Behind him, the altar. It was a design as awkward as the church. An iron cage built beneath a stone table. The bars were black with flecks of gold. The cage door was open, the lock resting on the floor.
I removed my mask, but the man hissed. “Return your covering. This is a holy observance, where those who are loved by God are raised.”
I failed to mention that insect masks were more diabolic than divine. Instead, I whispered, “I am not one for religion.”
“But God is—so keep your mask on.”
I examined the cage. “There should be a claw inside,” my companion said. “From the scarab which the messiah rode into Jerusalem.” It was the custom of clergy to call the creature a ‘scarab.’ In the book my father read, it was a dung beetle.
The man gave me an accounting. Most of the fathers were at the festival, rousing with the rabble, more for the blessed dignity of disorder than a desire to drink. Three remained. This man, who claimed to be subdeacon for the day, appointed to matins, prime, terce, sext, nones, vespers and compline. Put to a scribe’s desk when he wasn’t reciting prayer. The man at the crossing, giving blessings above his rank. And the bishop, put to the broom in the kitchen. As a man of near-eighty, the bishop avoided crowds, which carried sickness.
“Tell me what has happened here,” I said, examining the cage.
The man bent beside me and whispered confidentially, “We have been robbed. Someone in the last hour has stolen the claw.”
“How?” I said.
“Someone has picked the cage.”
I handed him the lock. “He would be very skilled. There are no nicks. See, no small, shiny scratches around the key hole.”
The man looked closely.
“I think a key was used,” I said. “Your relic would be worth something?”
I scoffed. “If this is the claw of the scarab. There are fifty across the Continent.”
“It is one of the six.”
“When was your last prayer?” I asked. The man looked at me again.
“The sext, or noon’s prayer.”
I examined the church. The high nave, the darkness. The ant giving sustenance to the faithful. I took another look at Gabbard’s note, and the line of rags and hidden faces. In front stood a man with a curved horn protruding from his head, a lesser below. The beetle of Hercules. Behind was a green shield—someone posed as a bush cricket. The metallic navy of the water bee. The fuzzy brown of the assassin bug. The translucent oranges and grays of the atlas moth.
Behind them all, three ninflies. My men in plainclothes.
“The claw is here,” I said. “In fact, it is not far at all.”
I walked to the red priest and took his limp sleeve and squeezed the cloth like a towel to be wrung.
My companion stuttered, somewhere between a shout and a slap of surprise at the lack of arm beneath. Then I punched the priest, more to keep him from running. The mask fell, the youth’s face revealed. Here was no priest at all, but one of those roughs who work for Gabbard. Through his robes, something fell, and then it was on the floor.
The leg of a beetle, a red shine to its black skin. Fire in deep water. The unholy thief had kept the relic beneath his cassock, pressed to his chest, with the unused arm.
“We must be grateful to the thief Gabbard,” I said to the dumbstruck. The revelers were still, heads peering around the line.
I read the instructions found on the English thief and explained.
“The saint—St. Trophime. The festival—today. The shank—the leg of a beetle. The nones—that was the cleverness. I had mistook it for grammatical error. A contraction in need of an apostrophe. But now I have realized it was the hour for when the bell strikes. The canonical fifth prayer. Nones. With the bishop distracted, the rusted red pincers of the ant could slip the artifact to the metallic blue bee, disguising evil with a blessing.”
My men sprang from the line and took the boy and his accomplice—the adherent in a blue mask. The leg was returned to its cage, the lock replenished. And I, returning to the carnaval, took a respite from my duty to purchase a blue-webbed apple, the sugar spun by Spanish worms.
In a defiant mood, I removed my mask and ate.
Desmond White writes speculative fiction in Denver, Colorado. His work has featured in The Tishman Review, HeartWood, Rue Scribe, and Theme of Absence. In 2018, he was featured in Z Publishing's America's Emerging Writers. Des lives with his wife, two cats, and a jungle of potted plants.
The Festival of Fear opens at midnight with a parade through streets once muddied by a hurricane and still not back to what they once had been.
A funeral carriage driven by a humped back man with a shadowy smile leads the carnival. The driver tips his crimpled top hat and long strands of scraggly hair fall around his ears and off the back his head. His lone passenger is le Reine des Mortes, the Queen of the Dead, who sleeps until her abdication at the opening ceremony when one of the twelve Lost Maidens dancing behind the wagon replaces her.
Le Troubadour de la Reine, the Queen’s musician, rides on the back of a horse the color of a moonless night. With his face painted to resemble a skull, he strums a guitar with gloved covered hands that make his fingers look like bones. The balladeer sings a dirge to the once and future queen.
“Hey little lady let me walk you home. You shouldn’t be out here on your own. The night is dark, so very dark…Come with me and take my hand and I will lead you from the damned…oh oh oh the world is stark and the night is dark…”
Close behind the singing horseman march the Silent Souls. Each drags multiple chains that slows them, pulls them, burdens them. No one else knows the weight assessed to the encumbered individuals but people surmise. Oh, they have their theories and they share these thoughts away from the procession fearing that one day they also might drag the chains ‘they forged in life’.
Next comes the rolling cages of ghouls and goblins and gargoyles. Spectators aim phones at the creatures then lower their hands when they think they recognize the tormented face in the images on the screen. A team of four feral hogs snort and drool and whinny as they pull a rolling cage.
Bare chested men hoist the yolk of a wagon hauling an electric organ. A broken wing angel plays melodies arranged by crows on power lines as if notes were arranged randomly on a blank score sheet. She tries but cannot help hear the sorrow of the birds. Black tears leave streaks on her powdered cheeks.
This goes unnoticed by the Gaffs, the newest members of the troupe. The Gaffs push three wheeled carts advertising attractions waiting for guests to experience at the carnival.
Ride the Demon Whip!
Sail on the Serpent!
Rock and Roll down the Sisyphus Slide!
The Abyss! Don’t just stare into it—Jump on In!
Do You Dare Enter the Maze of Mirrors where Your Greatest Fear is what You see in the Glass???
And then, after the humped back carriage driver tips his crimpled hat.
After the sleeping Queen wakes.
After the Lost Maidens dance.
After the skull faced bard sings.
After the Silent Souls rattle their chains.
After the train of ghouls, goblins, and gargoyles rolls away.
After the weeping angel plays the songs of the crows.
After the trudging of the Gaffs.
After the parade has all but passed by comes a towering man in a vest made from rooster feathers. His pants are the same color red as a sun rising on a hazy summer morning. A necklace of chicken bones strung on a leather strap dangles over his chest. He carries a teakwood staff a foot taller than himself. A gnarled root ball on the top end of the teakwood rod houses a glass globe with a flickering flame inside it. In front of the towering man flits a spirit of sprites announcing the arrival of the man in a vest of chicken feathers.
“Gather near! Gather here!”
“Gather near the Chanticleer!”
The man in the vest of chicken feathers lifts his arms and raises his staff. The glass globe rotates inside the gnarled root ball so that the flickering flame points at the moon. His voice is as old as the wind and as heavy as thunder. The sprites scatter like old, crinkled leaves in the rush of an autumn gust.
“I am the Chanticleer and I make problems disappear! This isn’t a game. I will put a curse on anyone you name.”
And the sprites cry out of the shadows.
“Gather near! Gather here!”
“Gather near the Chanticleer!”
He waves his staff through the night. The flickering flame brightens.
“You can’t keep secrets from me for into your souls I can see! I know more about you than you think I do!”
And the sprites twirl and whisper.
“Gather near! Gather here!”
“It’s time to follow the Chanticleer!”
“Follow the Chanticleer!”
“Follow him to the Festival of Fear!”
And they follow. The crowd follows and the parade grows longer with each passing night. When morning breaks all that remains is the dust of their shadows.
Jack Bates is a three time finalist for a Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society. His short horror fiction has appeared in anthologies and websites including 365 Tomorrow, Tales from the Lake III, and Enter the Aftermath.
Round and round and round it goes.
My first real memory was riding on a carousel. There were probably other, earlier memories, indistinct blurs of hands and voices, meals and games. But the first thing I remember with crystal starkness is the carousel. A small carousel, as they go, only perhaps ten animals. I was perched on a horse, white faded to the colour of bone, its golden mane chipping and ragged. I remember clinging to the pole up the centre, my child’s legs barely spanning the width of the cracked red saddle. I didn’t trust myself, didn’t trust the horse. The pole seemed to be the only thing between me and the drop to the carousel floor, a distance that seemed light years wide.
Still, when I finally stumbled off, the fear had alchemized, as it sometimes does, to exhilaration. I developed a fondness for carousels. Not for me the ferris wheel, the roller coaster, the lion tamers or the bearded lady. No, I always first sought the ring of delicately prancing ponies with the bright colours and the jauntily tossing heads. In fact, I could spend a whole evening there. The minute to a minute and a half rides, the five or ten rotations never seemed long enough to satiate me.
It was sunny when the carnival rolled into town, the day that special kind of bright and welcoming that seems specially designed for children’s play. If I had had my way, I would have dragged my parents in the second the tents went up. But I was forced to wait, to eat, to be changed into something more appropriate, before finally I was permitted through the tall, fluttering gates.
I made my way to the carousel, of course. I wanted to be early in line, so I had time to pick my mount. I liked to walk along the rows, to pick the very finest one to bear me.
It was an enormous carousel, the largest I had ever seen. The carousel animals were arranged in rows of three, beneath a canopy that blocked out the sky. It must have been freshly painted; it gleamed wetly under the fading sun.
I was lucky; I was first. I was allowed to scramble up immediately. I walked among them. It was a traditional carousel, horses alone. Or at least, I thought they were horses. Whoever had carved them had little talent, I thought. Their bared teeth were too sharp, their necks too long and something in the eyes seemed to follow you as you moved. The colours were strange, too. There was bluish gleam to the whites and a green undercurrent to the blacks that looked sickly. Still, it was a carousel and I was fond of carousels. I chose for my mount a golden horse, because it looked the brightest, and swung into the saddle. I wrapped my hands around the pole. It was a slippery, sinuous thing, slick almost to the point of wetness, and it seemed to already be spiralling up into the canopy.
The carousel filled up quickly. I paid little attention to the other riders, too focused on anticipating the glorious moment when the carousel would begin. Finally, finally, I heard the music start. Slowly, the carousel began to spin. My horse started to raise and lower. It was a disjointed movement, up far too slow and then down with a jerk that sent me slamming against the pole. I sat up, shook my head.
And then – the music did not slow or speed up. Neither did the carousel’s movement. It was the same pace I remembered all my life. And yet, the world beyond didn’t move. Though I could feel the carousel spinning, everything around us was static. And then, everything beyond the carousel slid out of focus. It didn’t blur with speed. It just faded, as though it had simply stopped existing.
The music grew louder and louder, the tinny noise pounding against my ears until they began to ache. The colours, too, seemed to brighten and brighten until my eyes couldn’t take them in any longer. I blinked the tears from my eyes.
I looked around me, wondering if anyone else was experiencing what I was.
There were no children on the horses next to me. There were only shadows, shapes without eyes and with grinning, toothless mouths. Their horses, though, were stark, their colours glistening under the artificial lights. They tossed their heads, their manes falling wetly across their shoulders. They opened their mouths, their jaws splitting open back to their ears, displaying jagged teeth coating every inch of their mouths.
For a moment, my mind couldn’t take it in. And then, without conscious thought, I decided to run. A carousel doesn’t go that fast. I could make it back out into the world I could no longer see. I stiffened. I tried to jump.
But I couldn’t move.
My horse’s head turned. Its eye was black, black, black, and the fangs it bared at me reached past its chin. I had taken the horse’s colour to be golden. But it was not. It was the soft pinks and yellows of human flesh. Almost the colour of my own flesh. I could no longer see the line between my calves and the horse’s belly. I don’t – I don’t think there was one.
Did I scream? I think I must have. Even I couldn’t hear it over the carousel music.
I think my mind stopped working for a while. The world, such as it was, faded out. When it faded back in, I knew I had never had a chance to escape. There was no platform beneath my feet. There was only an inky black void.
How many years passed? I don’t know. I felt my body grow and strengthen, my muscles stretch, my hair on head and face grow and straggle down, mixing with the sweat and blood and urine in my lap to form a sick, crusted mess. I felt my mind change, become sharper, clearer. Better able to understand what was happening but so much less equipped to deal with it. I felt my body begin to fail. My teeth loosened and fell from my mouth. My back hunched. My joints stiffened and ached. And always, always, the carousel music played.
And then – release. My back straightened. My arms moved. My eyes were clear. The world beyond the carousel sharpened. The light was the same tinge it had been when I entered the carousel. The leaves on the trees still held. The crowd wore the same clothing, carried the same bags and prizes. I saw my mother’s face. She was smiling. She was waving.
I was a child again. But there was a last fading spark of something older in my mind. And I understood.
All that time and in it, I had completed only a single rotation of the carousel.
I have ridden many, many carousels. Some go around five times before they stop. Some go around much more.
I don’t know what will be getting off this carousel when it finishes spinning.
Round and round and round it goes.
Rowena McGowan has lived in more provinces than most Canadian citizens have visited. She writes horror, fantasy, and magical realism about birds. You can find her @rowena_mcgowan on Twitter. You can also try whispering her name into the ear of the nearest white horse. It won’t get a message to her or anything but she thinks it would be neat if people did it.
It was the aroma of popcorn in the air that Madeline loved most about the carnival. Pretty much the minute those vans and carts rolled into town the scent lingered in the air like a smile after a pleasant dream. The excitement drove her wild and she nagged her best friend Lily every day, begging her to go with her.
Lily did not love the fair.
It was the stench of motor oil and smoke in the air that she hated the most about the carnival. Those vans and carts seemed to drag the stink in with them, filling the town with pollution and waste. The dread of going sunk right to the pit of her stomach and she dreaded the thought of Madeline bringing it up.
And Madeline always got her way.
It was decided. Lily would borrow her mother’s car and they would ride the short trip to the abandoned field that carnival had claimed for the season. Madeline talked the whole way there. In the driver’s seat, Lily just nodded, said “uh-huh” whenever was required of her and smoked another cigarette right down to her fingertips.
A yellow ticket was thrust into Lily’s hand and Madeline looped her arm around the crook of her friend’s elbow. Lily tucked the ticket in her purse and tucked her purse tightly under her free arm. Carnivals were rife with pickpockets and they loved to look for a pair of young women like Lily and Madeline.
Madeline beamed at her friend and waved her ticket in the air, yelling “Look out boys, the gals are here!” She held Lily close, trying to hold down her own excitement. All around them the carnie boys grinned and she winked. This carnival was rife with strapping young men and they were on the lookout for a pair of young women like Madeline and Lily.
“Right,” Madeline grinned. “I say we hit the Ferris wheel first. Gives us a good chance to look around and see what’s what.”
“Whatever you think, Maddie,” Lily grimaced.
Madeline squealed and ran towards the structure at the far end of the field, pulling her friend in tow. The two women ran through the thoroughfare, trampling through the discarded popcorn and tickets that had already collected in the few days since the carnival had arrived. Tents whizzed by them, along with food stalls, games of try-your-luck and unusual individuals who claimed to lift cars over their heads.
From the vantage point of the Ferris wheel, Lily and Madeline could take in the view and plan out their day.
Immediately after the Ferris wheel, they would test their strength, hoping that the strapping strong lad would say “step aside, ladies, let me show you how it’s done”. Lily hid her eye roll at this and started smoking another cigarette. Next, would be some of the performers - especially the strongest man in the world. Then, would be the carousel. Then some cotton candy. Even though Lily preferred toffee apples. And finally, a good old fortune teller to finish.
A whirlwind afternoon of too many rides, too much sugar and sideshows that were a little too strange swept by and a few hours later they were stood outside the foreboding tent of “Madame Mystique”. There was no way that was her name. It was probably Mary. Lily grimaced and took another bite out of her toffee apple.
The poster showed a woman with white eyes and flowing black hair. Blind eyes were raised to the heavens. The hand of the illustrated figure lingered between the words “Yes” and “No”.
“Alright, three yes or no questions for $1,” Madeline read off the poster, skipping from one foot to the other. Her cotton candy was nearly gone. Sugar was practically running through her veins now. “This is it; this is my chance to find out when Tommy is going to propose and where we’re going to get married and how many babies we’re going to have…”
Lily licked stray toffee from her lips. “None of those are yes or no questions.”
Scoffing, Madeline corrected her wording: “Is Tommy going to propose soon? Are we going to get married in that little church on Elm Street? Will we have more than three babies? There, done. What are you going to ask?”
“Nothing. I have no questions.”
“I like the mystery.”
Giggling, Madeline gave her friend a very gentle punch in the arm. “You old romantic, you.”
“Right, go ask your three burning questions and I’ll wait outside.”
Madeline grinned from ear to ear and kissed her friend on the cheek. Like a good friend, Lily wished her luck and held back the tent door. Madeline disappeared into the dark.
A smell of incense and burning candles snaked out towards Lily as the tent swung closed. It clawed at her nose and gave her that sinking feeling in her stomach again. She leaned back on a lamp post that had been fitted in the thoroughfare for the fair coming. Little kids ran by, laughing and cheering and egging each other on. She hated it here and wanted to go home.
In a flurry of tent and smoke and waving arms, Madeline burst back into the thoroughfare. Tears were streaming from her face. “Lily, I need you to go in there and ask my questions again. She said no, no, no.”
Lily took Madeline by the wrists. “Sweetie, calm down, it’s a load o hocus pocus.”
“No,” Madeline insisted, overcome with an anger that Lily had never seen in her. It was a little frightening. A dollar bill was pressed into her palm and Madeline started pushing. “I need you to go back in there and get the right answers because that was wrong.” Her future was evaporating before her and she needed her friend. “Please,” she begged. Lily nodded and headed into the tent. Her last sight was Madeline, leaning against the post and biting her nails.
Inside the tent, the smell was stronger. It pulled her in and held her like a warm embrace. The temperature was dramatically higher than it had been outside. Sweat ran down Lily’s neck. A burly man appeared from the shadows and held his hand out.
“One dollar. Three questions,” he growled. Money exchanged hands and the man led Lily to a small table where the young blind woman sat. Just like on the poster.
“Yes or no questions only,” the man added and gestured for Lily to sit down.
Something both frightened and enticed Lily about this woman. Electricity prickled through the air, prickling at Lily’s skin. The man tapped on the table. “Three questions,” he ordered. This seemed to pull Lily back into her body and she felt herself again.
“Will that idiot, Tommy, marry my friend, Madeline?”
“No,” the girl whispered. Her unseeing eyes stayed fixed on the ceiling.
Madeline hesitated. Something in her head told her that Madeline’s questions didn’t matter.
“Will I ever leave this town?”
“Yes.” On the table her fingers twitched.
“How will I die?”
The burly man stepped forward. “Yes or no questions only…”
The young woman reached out and grabbed Lily by the wrists. Her white eyes met Lily’s and stared right into her soul.
“In my arms, in this tent, in this carnival. Not in this field, not in this town, not in this state. You will be old, you will be sick, you will be loved.”
The burly man pulled Lily out of the seat and out of the seer’s hands. He pushed her from the tent and the outside world flooded in.
“Well?” Madeline asked, grabbing Lily by the shoulders. “What did she say?”
Lily looked at her friend and she seemed like a visitor from another life. She felt like an imposter all of a sudden. And she had way more than three questions left to ask. Searching Madeline’s face, she tried to find words to explain what she had just gone through. Instead, she saw desperate hope.
“Three yeses. Load of hocus pocus, I told you so.”
Visible relief washed over Madeline’s face. “I knew it! I knew Tommy and I were getting married in that little church. I knew it, Lily, I’ve always known it. What a load of hokum. Let’s go home.”
Madeline pulled Lily towards the exit. Everything was a little louder for her now. Children’s laughter sounded like cackles. Smells assaulted her nose. Oil from the noisy trucks polluted the air. Around her, she was sure that the young men behind the stalls were laughing at her. She wanted to go home. Madeline was done with carnivals.
Lily walked at Madeline’s side with purpose. Everything sounded different now. Children’s laughter was like music, harmonising with the accordion player. The scent of popcorn filled her lungs. Around her, the carnies gave her subtle nods. They knew she’d be back. And she would be. Lily was ready for the carnival now.
Emma Kathryn is a horror fanatic from Glasgow, Scotland. You can find her lurking on twitter @girlofgotham. When she's not scaring herself to death, she is recording as one half of The Yearbook Committee podcast or she's streaming games on Twitch. She is rather tiny and rather mad.
Mindy Bowers downed her second Martian Sandstorm.
She’d just finished her set as “The Warbling Waif” at The Flophouse, one of the Martian Mining Company’s seedier bars. Across the table from her sat Mortimer Philpott Queensberry, whose slug-like lips were moving.
“People call me the Marquis,” he told Mindy. “Songbirds wish they could sing like you, my dear.”
Queensberry was on Mars hunting down useful scraps for his Garden of Orbital Delights, or G.O.D., a junk heap of a space station that he’d turned into a floating carnival. It orbited, reluctantly, above whatever remained of Earth. Martian colonists were so poor and desperate that Queensberry only needed a bit of smooth talk, or an occasional not-so-veiled threat, to get what he wanted.
“I work for the good of G.O.D.,” he told her.
“Wow,” she quipped. “Big job.”
“I’m classing up my little carnival,” said the Marquis. “Would you like to be the headliner at my new casino’s executive lounge?”
Mindy’s mind flashed back a decade. She was singing at a roadhouse outside of Raleigh to pay for opera lessons. Then that asshole at the Old Met in New New York called her a “Southern-fried disaster” after just one audition. The next day, a mining company recruiter promised steady work, and exotic adventures, on the edge of known space.
Queensberry’s offer sounded eerily similar. And yet...
“How long will it take to get back to your G.O.D.?” Mindy asked.
“Four or five years. You’ll be in stasis. Don’t worry!”
A few days later, as the cold crept over her in the stasis pod, the last things she saw were those slugs moving in slow motion beneath the Marquis’ untrimmed mustache again.
“Rest easy, my little songbird.”
There was no casino. No lounge. No singing gig.
Instead, Mindy Bowers was a new attraction in Queensberry’s “Cavalcade of Curiosities.”
As “Lorelei, Siren of the Midway,” she appeared on stage every night between “Fangs” and “The Jackhammer,” Martian miners who’d been also been lured onto the Marquis’ transport ship. All of them had undergone a series of “enhancements” during the journey. Fangs now boasted a mouthful of servo-controlled titanium teeth. The Jackhammer’s forearms were gone, replaced by two steel appendages topped with menacing chisel-heads.
It was Lorelei’s job, the Marquis said, to femininize this rich tableau.
Mindy woke from her four years in stasis to discover blue and gold feathers grafted onto her arms and upper torso. The Marquis’ engineers had bypassed her own voice box with a computerized one, which was connected wirelessly to a tablet the Marquis always carried with him. In other words, Queensberry controlled what came out of Mindy’s mouth in the same way he controlled what Fangs gnawed and what the Jackhammer crushed. All he had to do was push a few buttons.
Worse, the Marquis had no intention of letting Mindy sing. Instead, when Lorelei took the stage, he made her perform rare bird calls and songs.
Word quickly spread of the Marquis’ Martian Curiosities.
Lorelei wowed the crowds. Most had grown up on space stations or in hardscrabble mining colonies far from Earth. They’d never even seen a bird before, let alone heard one. Some rubes actually believed Queensberry’s contention that Lorelei herself might be the last emu in the galaxy.
“My beautiful Curiosities!” the Marquis said to his troupe after one performance. “They love you. And me.”
Mindy’s throat was on fire.
“Is this thing really powered by Strontium-90 batteries?” she asked Queensberry, who occasionally relinquished his control and let her speak normally.
“Yes, my nightingale. Certified by the Plutonian Radiation Safety Board.”
No one had heard from the Fusion Mining Company on Pluto for more than a decade.
“Listen, you fat fu…” she began. But the Marquis pushed a button, and her profanities transformed into the melody of the Cincinnati warbler.
The Marquis’ rule for fighting was simple—there were no rules. In the cage, no holds were barred and the use of all bodily enhancements was legal. And since the Marquis controlled everything with his tablet, every fight was rigged.
Unlike the construction of a pricey casino, Queensberry saw the fights as a more natural, more economical extension of G.O.D.’s core business, which was, as he put it, “bilking Space Corps grunts and ignorant miners out of their credits.” To cut costs, the Marquis repurposed his Curiosities. Fangs and the Jackhammer became Steel Jaw and Iron Fist. Their nightly clash, staged to ensure the betting public lost badly, always left the crowd wanting more.
Queensberry made Mindy the ring girl, or “fight progress manager” as he called it. Her skimpy outfit, which showed the poor quality of her feather implants, was bad enough. But the Marquis also installed new software in her voice box. He could now make her scream: “Let’s get ready to rumble!” before every match. She almost preferred imitating a Baltimore oriole in the Cavalcade, where, at the very least, she wasn’t caged.
Then, one night, she noticed that Queensberry’s vendors were selling small packets of birdseed to a drunken crowd already prone to throwing things at the cage. As she picked sunflower seeds from her hair later that evening, she said to Fangs and the Jackhammer: “Gentlemen, this shit circus needs new management.”
With one minute left in the third round, Fangs’ teeth were poised over the spot where flesh met metal on one of the Jackhammer’s arms. The menacing business end of the Jackhanmmer’s other arm was pressed against Fangs’ cheek. Bags of fake blood were hidden under the skin of both.
The fighters paused. The crowd roared.
The Marquis sat ringside, fingers hovering just above the tablet. Mindy, in a far corner of the cage, pretended to look away in horror.
Normally, at this point, Queensberry would pretend to press buttons, and the fight would enter the end game. The combatants would scream, roll around, and then one of the two—depending on the whims of the punters—would play dead. The crowd would be so wound up, it hardly noticed how clean the ring was at the end of the match. The Marquis was too cheap to spring for fake blood.
On cue, the Marquis tapped his tablet. Fangs and the Jackhammer shouted and writhed. The hidden sacks full of liquid burst, and both were soon covered in red.
Unused to such a sight, the Marquis thought he’d accidentally caused his prized Curiosities to destroy each other. He made for the cage door, carrying the tablet with him. Once inside, he set down the device and ran toward the prone bodies of his fighters.
The next thing he knew, the Marquis was pinned beneath one of the Jackhammer’s giant arms. Fangs had also miraculously recovered, his teeth now inches from Queensberry’s neck.
Mindy Bowers stood above all three, holding the tablet.
She cycled through bird calls until she found the one labeled “white bellbird,” widely considered the loudest avian mating call in the entire galaxy. She dialed her voice box’s volume up to its highest level. She kneeled and put her lips next to the Marquis’ ear. Those two wet slugs under his mustache started to quiver.
Then she pushed the button.
Fangs and the Jackhammer, who knew Mindy’s plan, were lucky enough to have earplugs. But the Marquis’ eardrums, along with all the grey matter in his skull, ruptured. Blood—real blood—oozed from his eyes, ears, and nose. Mindy could also smell foul things leaking from Queensberry’s other orifices.
The Marquis’ eyes started to glass over.
She whispered to him, in her real voice, “Don’t cage the songbird.”
Then another mating call split the Marquis’ skull in half.
Mindy didn’t smash the tablet. She wanted to, but she didn’t.
Instead, she methodically deleted the control programs. Fangs ended up with new dental implants, and the Jackhammer underwent a double arm transplant. Mindy had the voice box removed. “Got those feathers plucked too,” she joked.
When they felt fully human again, they dismantled the cage, and with it, the last vestiges of the Marquis’ G.O.D.
“Gentlemen,” Mindy said, “time for some new melodies.”
She realized that the bird calls and songs in the late Marquis’ database might actually be valuable. She contacted ornithologists, teachers, and avian enthusiasts in every corner of the galaxy. They agreed that Mindy had something special.
Over time, grant money flowed in and she turned Queensberry’s floating freak show into an avian research institute that she christened “The Bowery.”
Visitors to the station enjoyed walking among the hydroponic trees and vines while an ever-changing chorus of birds serenaded them from nearby teaching modules. Some visitors swore they heard another sound, too—a faint one coming from a closed section of the station, which, according to legend, had once housed a fighting cage. It sounded for all the world like a woman practicing opera scales. And the voice, they said, hit each note perfectly.
Clark Boyd lives and works in Haarlem, the one with the extra "a," in the Netherlands. In another life, he spent two decades reporting, writing, editing, and producing international news stories for the BBC and US public radio. He's currently at work on a book about windmills, cheese, or maybe both.
Although Odella couldn’t read the sign posted at the Market Square entry, her father could. “His Royal Majesty, King Aethelbert the Eighth, summons all and sundry to A Royal Fair, Norms and Wyrs, of whatever ilk, to attend a peaceful assemblage to celebrate the signing of the Armistice betwixt the two races signed one year ago on the morrow.”
Her father’s reading was very precise, and no wonder, since the King’s own tutors had taught him, after a Clerk of the King’s Court had discovered his propensity for fine weavings, He continued reading.
“There will be entertainments, including high wizardry, tumbling, mimes, puppetry, major and minor magics, as well as feasting.” He patted his round belly and smiled, then read on. “All are bid to attend under penalty of public flogging.” He scratched his chin at the last, mumbled. “Humph, he never changes...”
As one of the King’s own weavers, he and his four daughters ate well, though Odella, the youngest, could never put on weight.
Her mother had died bearing Odella, and she was always a sickly child, and ever so small for her age.
“But Papa,” she said, tugging on his waistcoat to get his attention. “You told me Mama said we should never trust the Norms.”
Papa nodded and slid his index finger alongside his nose. “And that holds as true today as it did in my childhood, when the Wyr and Norm War started.” He cast his gaze about furtively to see if anyone in the nearby market stalls appeared to be listening to his errant slip of the tongue. He crouched down to speak softly.
“And you, especially, should not trust the Norms, ‘Della. You barely have any WyrFriends as it is.” He clamped his mouth shut, belatedly realizing he’d once again lost control of his fallible tongue.
Odella didn’t mind. She was used to Papa’s ways and loved him dearly anyway for them. Still… “Is that because I’m a...”
“Shh,” Papa scolded her, giving her shoulder a shake. “You should never let anyone know.”
Odella’s eyes filled with tears at Papa’s harsh remonstrance.”Not even my husband someday?”
Papa smiled now. “You’ll decide that for yourself when you come of age, but for now, we keep it a secret, okay?”
Odella nodded, her unusually large, yellow eyes still brimming with tears. Papa hugged her to himself, pulled a kerchief from his waistcoat, and dabbed at the corners of her eyes.
“Hush now girl, and let’s dry those tears. We have something exciting to share with your sisters when we get home. Who know? Perhaps they might find themselves a husband at the fair, eh?”
“And me?” Odella said. “Will I find myself a husband?”
“Hopefully not for a very long time,” Papa said. His face looked worried.
Though it had rained nearly every morning for the past week, the day of the Fair dawned clear and warm.
Odella’s sisters chattered excitedly, dressed themselves in their brightest smock frocks, pinched their cheeks to add blush to their animated faces, and drove Odella’s father and her to distraction.
If Odella hadn’t been so excited by the Fair herself, she might have decided to stay home rather than get caught up in this energy.
Papa loaded up the best of the weavings the King hadn’t commissioned in his cart, hitched up old Horace, their mule, and the whole family rode into the village in style, Horace’s belabored brayings not withstanding.
The revelries had already begun when they arrived.
Papa, because of his high standing with the King, commandeered a market stall for his weavings.
Della’s sisters made their way to the entertainments where some of the local lads pitted themselves against one another in feats of strength, lifting heavy kegs and hurling them. There they admired the shirtless young men.
Odella was left to her own devices and she quickly found the puppet show, where the puppeteers were performing Knights and Dragons. She sat down on a carved wooden log with a boy of about her own age with overlarge yellow eyes like her own.
He smiled at her. “I’m Timmot. What’s your name?”
“Odella. My Papa’s the King’s Weaver. What’s yours?”
“My Papa’s a tinker. We travel a lot.”
“You’re like me, aren’t you?” Odella leaned in close and whispered. “A WyrOwl?”
Timmot nodded. “Yes. Papa says it has to be a secret, because the WyrOwls helped the Wyrs so much the King had to make the Peace. He doesn’t like them at all.”
Suddenly, both children lifted their heads as if listening.
“You feel that?” Timmot said.
This time, it was Odellas’s turn to nod. “Danger. In the direction of the King’s Wood.”
“We should wyr and check it out,” Timmot said.
Odella shook her head. “I’m not supposed to in daylight. The King’s soldiers might see me and report me to the King.”
“This is something bad. I know it. We’ve got to see what it is.”
Odella bit her cheek before nodding. “Okay, but hide first.”
The two children ducked behind a market stall and changed into WyrOwls and launched themselves into the air. If anyone noticed it, none remarked, perhaps believing them to be pigeons.
They circled the market square from above, then widened their search finally agreeing that the danger they felt did, indeed, emanate from the King’s Wood itself. They flew in that direction.
As they landed in one of the taller trees they could already hear the sound of men talking and the nickering of horses. The two of them hoped and flew from branch to branch ever lower until they could make out that the men were soldiers wearing the King’s own colors.
“It’s all a trap,” Odella hooted to her new friend.
He nodded. “We have to warn the WyrFolk.”
A few minutes later, Odella flew right into Papa’s stall and startled his Norm customers by changing right in front of them. “Soldiers in the King’s Wood, Papa. The Fair’s a trap.”
Papa nodded, turned red, and began to shout. “To me, WyrFolk! We are betrayed. To arms!” The Norms scattered. Those that had shops fronting the market square shuttered their windows and secured their doors, not wanting to have any part in the King’s revenge.
For the WyrFolk, the cry of, “To arms!” meant that instead of picking up pitchforks and clubs they changed into WyrWolves, WyrBears, and whatever other forms their creator had gifted them with. For Papa, that meant he turned into an enormous and deadly, hairy Wolf Spider.
Claw and tooth, hoof and poisonous fang were now ready.
When the King rode into the village at the head of his small mounted army, prepared to cut down Norm and Wyr alike in his thirst for revenge he didn’t arrive in surprise, but to confront a massed and fully alerted WyrForce.
Odella watched the King’s expression change from chagrin to angered embarrassment. Then, the King’s General, on a steed beside him, leaned in and whispered something which Norm ears wouldn’t have been able to hear, but WyrEars heard perfectly.
“Make our appearance here out to be a review or a parade your Majesty. We’re here to honor the Peace, by honoring the Norms and Wyrs alike.”
The King turned even redder in anger, but then slumped in his saddle, before nodding. The General nodded back and spoke loudly.
“We now take this time to march before Norm and Wyr to remember and celebrate our fallen. There is nothing to fear.”
It took a few minutes before the Norms gathered their courage and returned to the square to attend the review, and the WyrFolk paid their own homage to their fallen, remaining in WyrForm throughout the sham parade.
Odella thought the whole performance rather splendid.
I've been published a good bit. Most recently here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B082PGPGK5. I tend to write weird fiction and some of my story titles reflect that. One such title, "With Possum You Get free Were-Fi" and "Bubba vs. the Werewolf", as well as "I Was A Teenage Were-possum. I've also had a story reviewed here: https://www.sfcrowsnest.info/stupefying-stories-22-emag-review/
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.
At noon, the ringmaster and his cirkies forced their clowns into a large iron cage in the big top, snapping shut heavy padlocks to imprison the cowering men. The audience arrived hours later, packing the ringside seats, murmuring in eager anticipation of the show. When the full moon peaked, its light flooded the cage. The clowns begged for their freedom but their transformation had begun. They twisted and shrieked in agony as their bones cracked, their teeth elongated and sharpened and claws burst from their fingertips. The crowd clapped and cheered, baying for blood. Wolf howls drowned them out. Showtime.
Emma K. Leadley is a UK-based writer, creative geek, and devourer of words, images and ideas. She began writing both fiction and creative non-fiction as an outlet for her busy brain, and quickly realised scrawling words on a page is wired into her DNA. Visit her online at emmaleadley.co.uk or twitter @autoerraticism.
“Melarskey and Dunn - Two for the price of one!” Dunn called out while adjusting her timeworn fortune telling costume. “Melarskey tells of your future, and I tell of your future loves!”
A group of adults shoved a laughing woman towards the booth on the lighted midway. Dunn took the money offered and directed the woman to hold out both hands.
Melarskey took one, Dunn the other. Each told her what she wanted to hear.
When they projected their true form into the woman’s mind at the end, the resulting fear was flavored exquisitely, and Melarskey and Dunn each fed well.
Amanda Bergloff writes weird stories that have appeared in various anthologies, including Stories from the World of Tomorrow, Trembling with Fear, After the Happily Ever After and Uncommon Pet Tales. She has a passion for collecting vintage books, toys, and comics in her spare time. Twitter: @AmandaBerglof
Johnny looked up from the grotesque goat boy exhibit to see a carnie standing right in front of him. The carnie gave him a creepy smile.
“You liking the freakshow?”
Johnny was immediately creeped out by the man, “It’s…it’s really cool. You have a lot of attractions.”
The carnie chuckled, “We make sure we always have the biggest and best collection of freaks.” Jonathan backed up.
“Right…I should get going,” he said. He walked quickly to the entrance, but saw the entrance had been sealed. The carnie walked towards Johnny. He smiled.
“How would you like to be a freak?
Radar DeBoard lives in Wichita, Kansas and is currently a student of Wichita State University. He writes in his free time as he finds it relaxing and enjoyable. He has had multiple drabbles and short stories published in several different electronic magazines. His only goal with his writing is that someone enjoys his work enough to share it with others.