Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Fiction

And the Carnival Leaves Town

The first piece of evidence appears on Walter Eckert’s desk in a locked office to which he has the only key. It is wrapped in brown paper, neatly labeled with his name, no return address. He unwraps it with wary hands.

Cheap plywood, as if from a construction site wall, pasted with a handbill-sized poster. It could be advertising any event around town—a rock band no one has ever heard of, an avant garde art exhibition no one will ever see—but it appears to advertise nothing at all.

The paper is grayed. Darkened by soot, slush, city smog. Carved into the bottom right hand corner of the wood is a date—October 17, 1973—a date currently forty-one years, one month, and fourteen days in Walter’s past.

The image: A clown in whiteface, black crosses over his eyes, tilted slightly so they resemble Xs. A conical hat. Pompoms in black against the whiteness of his baggy uniform. The clown cradles an infant’s skeleton in his arms.

The skull is human, but subtly wrong, enlarged. There is a hair-thin fracture, widening and darkening as it runs back toward where the skull meets the spine. Out of the camera’s view, one can only imagine the clot of darkness where the fissure disappears, the fragments of bone, caved in beneath a terrible blow. The rib cage appears human as well, but unnaturally small in comparison to the skull.

Below the waist, the skeletal remains are not remotely human.

• • • •

Walter Eckert has investigated almost everything in his time— domestic violence, cheating partners, insurance fraud, arson, petty theft, and even murder. He has never encountered anything quite like this before. Cold case. Two parents, one child. House, abandoned. Cups half-filled with coffee. Beds, immaculately made. Clothing, neatly hung. Refrigerator, humming and full. Television, left on.

The house remains; the evidence of daily life remains. The Miller family is simply gone.

Walter isn’t certain what motivated him to look up the case. It wasn’t even his, back when he was on the force; he inherited the file from his partner, Don. Walter should be actively pursuing new clients, sleazily patrolling social media for rumors of infidelity and foul play. But there’s something about the poster, something about the date. They remind him of something, two seemingly disparate events that lodge in his mind and refuse to let go. So instead of seeking new business, Walter chases down the cold trail of business over forty years old.

A carnival enters town in the fall of 1973. The Millers are a seemingly happy family, living the American dream. The carnival leaves town, and the Millers are gone.

Their house is left in perfect condition. The only remarkable thing is thirteen-year-old Charlie Miller’s room. The posters of his favorite baseball players have been turned to face the wall; his baseball cards have been removed from their plastic sleeves and dealt out across his bed, face down. In his closet, his stuffed animals—artifacts of a younger age—have all had their eyes removed.

Three days after the Millers disappear, a group of kids gathers in an empty lot to play. Midway through the game of tag, the dust in the lot blows slightly to the west and uncovers the remains of two complete adult skeletons. The bones are aged, colored faintly as though with years buried under desert sands. The remains, lying side by side, holding hands, are eventually identified through dental records as Jasper and Anita Miller.

Charlie Miller is never found.

• • • •

The second piece of evidence comes into Walter Eckert’s possession much as the first: Appearing in his locked office, part of his life as though it has always been there. It is a flat, gray canister, holding an old reel of film. Walter is at a loss until he remembers the storage locker in the basement of the building. He finds the key in his desk, descends into the chilly, ill-lit space, and digs out the old film projector left behind by his former partner, Don. The man never threw anything away, and it seems Walter has picked up his habit.

The film is black and white, jittery, and popping in the way old movies do. The camera fixes on an empty room, which contains only a surgical operating table. A man enters the room, walking from the left side of the frame toward the right. He strips out of his clothes, folds them neatly upon the floor, and lies on the table, face up. He wipes his palms against his legs, licks his lips, and blinks.

His fingers twitch restlessly at his sides; his eyes are open, staring at the ceiling. He never looks at the camera. The film continues to skip and pop, phantoms skating through the scene, flaws in the medium or deliberate splices, Walter can’t tell.

Another man enters from the left of the frame and stops in front of the table. He looks at the camera full on and smiles. He wears a white surgeon’s robe, but no mask or gloves. His motions are jerky and exaggerated, like any actor in a silent film. He reaches to his left, just beyond the frame. His arm returns with a scalpel held in his hand. He shows it to the camera, letting the blade glint as much as it can in black and white. This done, he makes a single, precise incision in the chest of the man on the table. He draws a line, in stark black against gray-white, from the man’s clavicle to his pelvic bone. And so the surgery begins.

For the next fifteen minutes of film, the surgeon dissects the man upon the table, who appears conscious the whole time. His fingers twitch once more, drumming the table before he clenches them still, and with their stillness, holds his whole body rigid. The cords of his neck strain, his mouth set in what might be agony, or a wild, delirious grin, but he makes no attempt to leave. The surgeon slits open the man’s arms, his legs, his cheeks, and each one of his ten fingers and toes. The movement of the blade is straight and true every time. Blood is wiped meticulously away after each pass of the knife. The skin is peeled back, pinned. The surgeon’s eyes gleam and the crook of his mouth never wavers. There is no soundtrack, but one can imagine the movements set to a jolly tune.

When there is only bone left, the skin and muscle vanishing by degrees between the lapses in the film, the surgeon once more reaches to the left of the camera frame, and returns with a silver mallet. This too gleams in the lack of light. The bones of the man lying upon the table are systematically and utterly shattered, one by one.

The surgeon leaves the frame, but perhaps not the room. It is impossible to tell. Perhaps he waits, breathing, just out of the camera’s view.

Another minute passes with the camera fixed securely upon the ruins of what was once a man.

After that minute is done, the surgeon reenters the frame backward. From there, the film proceeds as though it is being run in reverse, though when Walter checks, the projector is still running as it should. The surgeon raises the mallet and the bones are restored; he runs the knife up from pelvis to clavicle and the skin is healed.

At the end of the film, the dead man stands up from the table. He does not reclaim his clothes, but he takes the surgeon’s hand. Together, one smiling, one shaking, they face the camera and bow. Still holding hands, they exit the frame.

The camera remains steady on the empty room for an additional thirty seconds. Within the last five seconds of film, a date flashes across the screen: December 14, 2015—a date three months and seven days in the future of Walter Eckert, who watches the scene over and over in a small, poorly lit room smelling of stale coffee and cigarettes, smelling of noir cliché and whiskey, smelling of, above all, fear.

• • • •

The pieces of evidence don’t match. Walter isn’t even certain they are evidence yet. Only Walter’s mother insists they are and they do.

Walter’s mother is psychic, or claims to be. She even had her own 1-800 number once upon a time. His childhood memories are littered with phone calls landing like exotic birds at all hours of the night, lost souls seeking counsel and hope, weeping and giddy, desperate to be told exactly what they want to hear.

Holding his breath so it wouldn’t be heard, Walter listened to his mother listen to Jeannie from Paramus asking about her job. He listened to John from Denver worrying about his health, Kirk from Sault Sainte Marie wanting to know if he’d ever find true love, and Tina from Havertown who played the lottery every day and was willing to pay his mother $2.99 per minute for lucky numbers.

December 14, 2015, is still two months and twenty-seven days in Walter Eckert’s future when his mother calls from her nursing home to tell him the pieces of evidence, the film and the photograph, are connected. There are two things Walter never discusses with his mother—his work and his dreams, which are usually about Twin Peaks and who really killed Laura Palmer.

Walter has never entirely believed in his mother’s psychic powers, but when she calls him as he’s staring at the photograph of Charlie Miller paper-clipped to the cold case file, a shiver traces his spine.

He hasn’t told her anything about the Miller family or the cold case file currently sitting open on his desk. He hasn’t said one word about the two pieces of evidence, not even that they exist, but she knows, and she tells him they are connected anyway.

Just before he hangs up, she says, “There’s more. Lemuel Mason. The name came to me in a dream. Find him.”

After he hangs up, Walter slips the Miller file into his briefcase. He puts the picture of the clown, pasted to the section of plywood, and the reel of film into his briefcase, as well. Following what he would call a hunch and his mother would call a prediction, Walter ventures out into the blustery September weather and goes to the local library to do some serious and irrational searching.

• • • •

Virginia Mason, a resident of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, from 1863 to 1887, wife of the Reverend Lemuel Mason, was generally known to be a pious woman. She aided her husband in his ministerial duties, and was much loved in their town, known for organizing women’s charity drives and bake sales with all the proceeds going to support Mr. Clement and his one-room schoolhouse. The great tragedy of her life, as far as the town was concerned, is that she never bore the reverend a child.

So the stories say.

So some stories say.

But there are other stories, too.

There are stories of a certain tree where the devil was said to appear, and of Virginia, walking at night, restless and unable to sleep. Stories of Virginia growing large although her husband was away, conducting missionary work in Peru. Stories, contrary to the tutting of the townsfolk over the Masons’ childless life, that Virginia was indeed delivered of a babe. But what babe? Was it born sad, mad, twisted, and deformed, as rumors claimed? And who was its sire?

Other tales say Reverend Lemuel Mason was never a missionary and, devoted husband that he was, he rarely left his wife’s side.

What can be confirmed by public records is Virginia Mason died at a young age. Or, at least, that a stone sits on the outmost edge of the churchyard, indicating she was given a Christian burial. Her cause of death is unknown. Some terrible, wasting illness is suspected, as Virginia was little seen by anyone but her husband in her final days.

Lemuel Mason mourned deeply. Some good folk of his town, when they came upon him unexpected, heard him talking to Virginia, even after she died. On occasion, he was also heard talking to a child, rocking it in his empty arms and singing lullabies.

Some rumors suggest the desecration of Virginia Mason’s grave. But they are only rumors.

There are wilder stories still, of Virginia Mason’s body found in a tree, with only scraps of cloth clinging to its bones, and wisps of hair adhering to its skull. The body was found wedged in a crook of the tree, arms and knees raised to wrap around a conspicuous absence, just the size of a child. The remains were discovered three days after Virginia Mason was supposedly buried—not long enough for her to decompose to such a state, if those were indeed her bones.

Two months after the stone was raised in the churchyard bearing Virginia Mason’s name, words in white chalk appeared upon the tree where the bones were found: Who put Ginnie in the tree?

Whatever the truth, this is a publicly recorded matter as well, appearing in the local Pottstown newspaper: three months after Virginia Mason died, Lemuel Mason vanished.

No trace of his fate was ever discovered. He was never seen again.

A day before he vanished, the carnival entered town. The day after his absence was noticed, the carnival left town again.

• • • •

It’s impossible to tell whether the grainy, black and white image of Lemuel Mason accompanying the news story of his disappearance shows the same man depicted in the black-and-white image of the clown cradling a child’s deformed bones. The greasepaint is too thick. It could be anyone lost in all that whiteness, with black crosses over their eyes.

Who would even think to compare the pictures? Walter would not, unless his mother had called him to say the name Lemuel Mason, which came to her in a dream. He would not, if the paper reporting Lemuel Mason’s disappearance had not also contained a note regarding the “funfair” leaving town.

The pieces of evidence are connected, Walter thinks. It is not an advertisement; it’s an invitation.

“It’s coming back,” a voice just behind Walter says.

He twists around in his chair to hide his startled jump. “What is?”

The librarian is slender, nervous, like a young colt. Her hands flutter in the direction of the newspapers spread in front of him—stories of carnivals, the carnival, as Walter has come to think of it, coming to town and leaving town. The librarian’s hands settle, falling to clasp and twist in front of her.

“The carnival,” she says. “I’m sure I saw it somewhere.”

She lifts the top paper from Walter’s pile, the local paper from today, and scans it briefly, frowning, before replacing it.

“Maybe I imagined it.” The librarian shrugs, but her frown lingers. Her expression is one of someone who has misplaced an object they were holding just a moment ago, an object they could swear they never set down.

The same finger of dread that touched Walter when his mother called touches him again. He resists the urge to grab the librarian by the shoulders, shake her, and demand she tell him everything she knows about the carnival.

As evenly as he can, trying on his most disarming smile, Walter Eckert meets the librarian’s eyes and asks, “Would you like to have dinner with me?”

• • • •

The third piece of evidence is the oldest thus far. It is not a piece of evidence yet, but as he digs deeper, following tenuous connections and unexplained coincidences, Walter will encounter a glossy, full-color reproduction in a museum catalog, and file it as such.

The original is under glass at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. It is a shirt found among the grave goods of a nomadic steppe warrior, believed to have lived in the early 1200s, during the time of Ogedei Khan. It is remarkably well preserved. There are words stitched into the fabric, in a jumble of languages, as though each part was stitched by a different hand.

The words tell a fairy tale about a tame flock of crows and a girl who trained them to do tricks and follow simple commands. Like all good fairy tales, it is laced with darkness of the most brutal kind. The girl, who is only known as the daughter and never given a name, asks the birds to do something for her after she has taught them all the tricks she knows. She asks them to pick the flesh from her mother and stepfather’s living bones.

The crows obey.

And, hungry, wicked birds that crows are, once they are done, they devour the nameless girl’s eyes, too. It is not clear whether they do this as punishment, or as an act of mercy. After all, who would want to walk around with the image of their parents’ flesh-stripped bones fixed in their skull until the end of days? None but the most heartless of creatures, carrying feathers where their heart should be.

After the crows swallow the girl’s eyes and everything she has seen, they lead her away. It is never specified where. The story only says that for the rest of her days, the girl made her way through the world by following the sound of her tame birds’ wings.

No other versions of this fairy tale have ever been found, despite the natural tendency of stories to travel far and wide, much like crows. How it came to be stitched onto the shirt of a steppe warrior, no one can say.

At the end of the fairy tale there is a date, unfathomably far in the steppe nomad’s future—June 17, 1985.

• • • •

“It’s not the same carnival, of course,” the librarian, whose parents named her Marian, thus guaranteeing her future career, says.

She toys with her salad fork as she speaks. She’s shy, Walter has learned, but he’s also learned the second glass of wine, currently warming her cheeks with a delicate glow, has given her more of an inclination to talk.

“It’s a carnival. I went to it . . . one . . . when I was little. My father took me, after my mother left.”

Marian hesitates, and Walter feels as though he should say something, but he doesn’t know what. After a beat, Marian goes on.

“I don’t remember any of the shows. I must have been really young. All I remember is holding my father’s hand and being convinced we would find my mother at the carnival, and bring her back home.”

Marian blushes. It’s the most she’s said all night. Walter breathes out, and only then does he realize he’s been holding his breath. He finds himself leaning forward, as though his proximity will draw out more words, but it has the opposite effect. Marian reaches for a bread stick. Breaks it into pieces, but doesn’t put a single one in her mouth.

Walter leans back, trying not to let his disappointment show. The next thing out of his mouth surprises him.

“My mother is a psychic,” he says.

His fingers twitch, and he hides the motion by reaching for his glass. He can’t remember the last time he told anyone, and it’s not what he meant to say. The cynical part of him wonders if he’s manipulating Marian, giving her a piece of himself in order to keep her talking. But why? It’s too late for Charlie Miller and Lemuel Mason. He’s never been one to obsess over unexplained mysteries. Some things simply are, and cold cases don’t pay the bills.

But December 14, 2015, is still in the future, and there’s a possibility, maybe even a hope, that it is in his future. So he has to know.

Marian raises her head, her expression wary as though she suspects Walter is making fun of her.

“I’m sorry.” Walter shakes his head.

Marian’s expression softens.

“Don’t be.”

Then, in another move that surprises them both, she reaches across the table and touches his hand. It’s a gentle thing, brief, just a tap of her fingers along his bones, there and just as quickly gone.

Guilt comes like a knife. A rift opens in Marian, and Walter sees a wanting in her that goes all the way through. Suddenly, he doesn’t care about the carnival. Suddenly, Walter wants to tell Marian about holding his breath, pressing the phone to his ear, and listening as his mother dispensed fortunes. He wants to tell her a true thing, an apology for a deception he’s not even sure he’s made. The need wells up in him, bringing memories so sharp he is there again.

Rain pats against the window, streaming down and making odd shadows on the wall. Walter clutches the phone, holding his breath, wrapped in a communion his ten-year-old mind doesn’t have the language to understand. But he knows, deep in his bones, that he and his mother and his mother’s client are all connected. The rain and the telephone lines make a barrier, separating them from the world. He is essential in a way he can’t explain. If he breaks the connection, if he breathes out and lets on that he’s there, his mother’s prophecies will never come true.

The sensation is so real and overwhelming, Walter can scarcely breathe. Here and now, he is still holding his breath, listening to the whisper of words down the line. It terrifies him. He swallows deep from his glass, washing the memories away. They’re too big. He tamps down the impulse to speak, far, farther, until it is gone.

He will not ask Marian about her father, or the hitch in her breath when she said the word mother. He will not tell her about his own life. And with this decision, a new impulse wells up in Walter, one he knows he will not be able to resist. Before the night is through, he will show Marian something terrible; he will make her afraid.

Because he is afraid.

For years, his job has shown him how easily people can fall apart—friendships, relationships, even all alone. Humans are fragile. If he opens himself to Marian, if she opens herself to him, they will become responsible for each other, and that isn’t something Walter wants or needs. And, paradoxically, he is afraid precisely because he isn’t responsible for anyone and no one is responsible for him. December 14, 2015, is in the future, but what if it isn’t in his future? What if he isn’t essential and never was, only an observer, trapped on the outside?

Marian looks at him strangely and Walter realizes his hand is shaking. He sets his glass down, regrettably empty, and reaches for his water instead, swallowing and swallowing again. Even so, his throat is still parched when he speaks.

“Do you know anything about the Miller family? They lived in this area back in the seventies. They disappeared.”

As he says it, Walter knows it is the wrong thing to say. Something indefinable changes, a thread snaps. Marian tucks her hands back in her lap. Her shoulders tighten.

“My neighbor, Mrs. Pheebig, knew them.” Marian looks at her hands, her voice edged. “She’s ninety-one.”

“Does she have any theories about what happened to them?”

“No.” Marian has barely touched her pasta, twirling and twirling the noodles around her fork. Her plate is a minefield of pasta nests, cradling chunks of seafood, surrounded by rivers of sauce.

“Mrs. Pheebig told me everyone in the neighborhood suspected the parents were abusive, but no one said anything because people just didn’t talk about that sort of thing back then. I don’t understand how anyone could stay quiet about something like that.”

Marian finally lifts her head, and it’s almost like an accusation. In the rawness of her gaze, Walter finds it difficult to breathe. The terrible thing coming for him, for both of them, is almost here. Walter’s head pounds. He looks at Marian, and she’s nothing human.

She’s running ahead of him. Her eyes are inkwells. Her skin the finest kind of paper. The whorls of her fingerprints smell of the dust particular to libraries, the spines of books, the rarely touched yet time-stained cards of the archaic catalog, bearing the immaculately typed numbers of the Dewey decimal system. She is a prophet, an oracle. Somewhere, buried deep in her bones, are the answers to all his questions.

Because it had to be one or the other, kindness or cruelty, Walter reaches out to catch Marian before it’s too late.

“Can I show you something?”

Marian puts her head to one side, considering. For a moment, Walter has the sense of her looking right through him, knowing he’s dangerous, and weighing risk against reward.

“All right.” Marian reaches for her purse.

The bill settled, they walk two blocks to Walter’s office. He flicks the lights off, switches the projector on, and watches Marian watching the film. Walter doesn’t know what he expects, what he wants—a companion, someone to share the burden? Confirmation that he isn’t mad, someone to say, yes, I see it too? His pulse trips, watching the play of light reflected in Marian’s eyes. Despite the horror on the screen, her expression doesn’t change. She says nothing. Only her fingers curl, tightening where she leans against Walter’s desk. But even as her fingers tighten, she leans forward slightly, waiting.

This is it, Walter thinks, without ever knowing what it might be. The air shifts, and for just a moment the scent is salty-sweet, popcorn and candy apples, and it tastes like lightning.

Whatever it is sweeps past him, leaving the aftertaste of electricity on his tongue. The date flashes across the screen, and Marian’s expression finally changes. Her mouth makes an O, and she raises a hand to cover it.

“What . . . ?” Walter says. And, “No.” He reaches for her, but it’s too late. When Marian brushed his knuckles, that was the moment to take her hand.

“Wait,” he says.

Marian is past him, her shoulder striking his so he’s off balance. He follows just in time to see the cab door slam.

There are puddles on the street, reflecting stoplights and neon, and the night smells of freshly departed rain. The cab pulls away in a cloud of exhaust and ruby-burning headlights. The faint sigh of a calliope hangs in the air. Walter raises his hand, but the cab doesn’t slow. What was he thinking? What has he done?

• • • •

Walter returns to the library the next day. He asks after Marian, and the young man at the desk presses his lips into a thin line before telling Walter Marian isn’t here today. But he cuts his eyes toward the frosted glass office door without meaning to as he says it, so Walter scribbles a note on the back of an old circulation card, before shoving it into the young man’s hands.

“Just give her this for me, will you?”

It’s only two words: I’m sorry. Walter stations himself at a table, surrounding himself with books and drifts of paper. After twenty- three minutes, Marian emerges. She is polite, but closed. She brings him books, helps him find articles buried deep in the archives room, but doesn’t linger. He watches her, but the wild creature of paper skin and inkwell eyes has vanished. Slipped around a corner. Disappeared. Gone.

Perhaps he imagined it all. Perhaps he’s made a fool of himself and hurt a woman who wanted nothing more than a friend.

“Marian. About last night . . .” he says, as she lays a heavy tome of town records beside him.

“There’s nothing to talk about.” Marian’s lips press into a thin line identical to the one worn by the young man behind the desk when Walter asked after Marian. Is there a school that teaches librarians that expression?

Walter’s hand hovers in the space between them. He lets it drop even before Marian turns. The subject is closed.

Confused, uncertain, Walter retreats behind his own wall. Stories of the disappeared and unexplained surround him like birds coming to roost, like carnival tents rising from the ground.

There is the story of three men and seven women vanishing from their retirement home, leaving in their wake doctors and nurses who can only speak backward from that moment on.

There is the story of an opera, performed only once, telling of the beheading of St. John at the request of Salome. The lead singer walked off the stage halfway through the final act and was never seen again. The lighting rig above the orchestra pit detached while the baffled audience was still trying to sort out whether the departure was part of the show, and the conductor was instantly killed.

There is a bone pit in Pig Hill, Maryland. An ossuary in Springfield, New Hampshire. The entire town of Salt Lick, Indiana, which, in 1757, simply disappeared.

Walter studies. He combs news articles, conspiracy websites, birth and death records. He consults any and every source he can. He doesn’t know whether he’s chasing something, fleeing something, or trying to hold something back.

Walter dreams, and sometimes he’s trying to catch Marian, sometimes he’s trying to outpace her, and sometimes, he’s running scared.

• • • •

This is what Walter Eckert knows from the research he’s done: There are never any advertisements of the carnival coming to town. There are only stories reporting where it once was before it vanished, packed up, moved on.

This is what Walter Eckert knows deep in his bones: If you are not invited, you cannot attend. You will not be invited unless you would give up anything, everything, to have the carnival steal you away.

This is what Walter Eckert doesn’t know: Does he want it badly enough?

• • • •

From January 1983 to May 1985, Melissa Anderson, one of the top accountants at Beckman, Deniller & Wright, quietly embezzled nearly two million dollars from her employers and their clients. On the sixteenth of June 1985, Beckman, Deniller & Wright received notice of an impending IRS audit.

On the seventeenth of June, Melissa took the elevator to the thirty-fourth floor of her office building, and climbed the fire stairs to the roof. She removed her jacket and folded it neatly by the door. She slipped off her shoes and placed them beside her jacket. In her stocking feet, she climbed onto the building’s ledge. The wind tugged her blouse and hair. She looked down at the traffic on Market Street below.

In that moment, she could conceive only of the fall. Her muscles forgot how to turn around, walk to the door, descend the stairs. Elevators didn’t exist. If she wanted to get back down, she’d have to jump. And she was terribly afraid.

She told the wind, “I don’t want to die today.”

Perhaps the distant notes of a calliope reached her. Perhaps it was simply the way the birds turned, a scattered flock of pigeons appearing much larger and more sinister as they banked away. Or it was the scent of popcorn. Candy apples. Sawdust. The flicker of lights lining a fairway.

Whatever it was, Melissa remembered how to turn around. She climbed from the ledge and tore the delicate soles of her stockings as she crossed the roof to reclaim her shoes. She put her jacket back on, rode the elevator to the ground floor, and instead of returning to her desk, she walked three blocks to the university museum.

Melissa Anderson did not return to work the next day. Or the day after.

On the twentieth of June, the car carrying the IRS auditors to the firm of Beckman, Deniller & Wright was struck by a city bus. The driver and all three passengers were killed.

The next day, the carnival left town.

• • • •

How long does it take to fall in love? Seven minutes? Five hours? Two months, fourteen minutes, twenty-six days?

Walter catches his gaze drifting to Marian as he reads of the lost and disappeared and it gets harder and harder to look away.

Maybe it isn’t love. Maybe it’s only that he missed her when she was sitting across from him, so distant he couldn’t bear to take her hand.

Maybe it’s only that he knows he lost her the moment he asked about the Miller family instead of telling her about the hushed, connected world of held breath, psychic predictions, telephone lines, and rain.

• • • •

The fourth piece of evidence . . . Well, no one’s really counting anymore, are they? There is a postcard of a standing stone in Ireland, carved with Russian characters. There is a blurred Polaroid showing a body frozen into a chunk of ice, scribbles on the back in pencil indicating there exists forensic evidence dating it from the 1760s, though its brow is sloped like a Neanderthal’s. There’s a handwritten set of coordinates leading to a planet no one has yet discovered. All delivered in nondescript envelopes, no return address, bearing Walter’s name.

Whatever the evidence, it is always the same. The carnival enters town, the carnival leaves town. People disappear.

• • • •

As the clock ticks over from December 13 to December 14, 2015, Walter Eckert wakes in a panic. It’s Marian. Marian is gone. Of course she’s gone. Because the invitation was never meant for him.

Frantic, he drives to her apartment—an address he shouldn’t have, because she didn’t give it to him, but which wasn’t particularly hard to find. He told himself just in case at the time. In case what? This, he thinks, hunched forward, windshield wipers struggling to keep up with the rain. He parks catty-corner to the curb, leaves the car door hanging open, takes the stairs two at a time. He pounds on Marian’s door, not expecting an answer, and eventually he kicks it in.

The windows are open. Rain blows in and dampens the sill. The air smells faintly of mildew, as though it’s been raining in Marian’s apartment for a very long time. She could be out, visiting friends, on vacation, at a Christmas party, but Walter knows she isn’t. He goes through Marian’s apartment, room by room.

The clothes in her closet and her drawers, the towels in her bathroom, the bed sheets, the curtains—every bit of fabric in Marian’s apartment has been carefully knotted and left in place.

Under the scent of mildew is the lingering odor of lightning and popcorn.

And Marian is gone.

• • • •

On New Year’s Eve a stray firework ignites a blaze that burns the library to the ground.

• • • •

“Follow her.” Walter’s mother calls him in the middle of the worst ice storm in memory.

It’s New Year’s Day plus one. His mother’s voice is slurred. It’s dark, and Walter can’t work out whether it’s from ice coating the windows or the time of day. His bare feet kick empty bottles as he fumbles toward the bedside clock and its ruby light.

“Mom? I can barely hear you.” Walter’s tongue feels thick, as though he’s trying to shape words in a dream. Maybe the dwarf will show up soon and tell him how Laura Palmer really died.

“Go after her,” his mother says. Walter grips the phone.

“I don’t know how. Mom?”

There’s a hush like static. Like a secret world of rain. Like ice freezing on the telephone line sealing up his words. His world.

“Go.” His mother’s ghost voice is buried under a fall of not-snow. The line dies. As it does, instead of a dial tone, Walter hears the murmur of a calliope.

• • • •

It is January 4, 2016, and Walter awakes from a dream.

It must be a dream.

It is a dream because he enters the carnival with no invitation, only the evidence in his hands—the poster, the shirt, the film, the postcard, the Polaroid, the notes. He is allowed in. Even though none of the invitations are for him. They are for Charlie Miller and Melissa Anderson. They are for Lemuel Mason and Marian. But not him.

Unless, taken all together, they are. Evidence numbers 1 through To Be Determined—case files, half-vocalized conversations, newspaper articles, microfilm, archives, cigarettes smoked, and alcohol consumed. Perhaps these are Walter Eckert’s invitation to step right up, come on in.

It hurts. And Walter will never admit this.

What has he been chasing?

It has to be a dream.

• • • •

Walter passes through the turnstile, evidence clutched in his hands—the photograph, the film reel, a reproduction of the shirt, the standing stone, the Neanderthal man. He holds them out to a blank-eyed boy at the ticket booth who waves his hand and makes the gate standing between Walter and the carnival disappear.

Walter steps inside.

The boy, no longer blank eyed, runs ahead of him. Walter follows, hurrying to keep him in sight. No older than thirteen, the boy is naked, loping on hands and knees between tents staked into the dusty ground. Skinny. Faint bruises trace the ladder of his ribs, the knobs of his spine. Walter almost remembers the boy’s name. But every time he opens his mouth to speak, it slips away.

Down narrow ways. Between tents pulsing with breath, buzzing with the sound of tattoo needles, humming with the burr of electricity and the importance of a honey-producing hive. Walter is utterly disoriented.

There!

When Walter catches sight of him again, the boy wears a wolf’s head in place of his own—muzzle frozen in a snarl, glass eyes reflecting the glow of the pale fairway lights.

Fried crickets served here. Ten for a dollar, all skewered up neat and crunchy in a row.

Skin of mice. So nice. Peeled fresh and heaped with shaved ice. Drizzled with any flavor syrup you want.

Try your luck, Ma’am-Sir. Prizes no worse than your heart’s desire! Careful what you wish for. At-any-cost is a steep price to pay.

Walter almost loses sight of the boy again as he ducks into a tent. Walter follows.

Seats rise in concentric circles from the center ring. A spotlight, dusty-dim, pins the boy, who throws his head back and howls. The sound is muffled inside the echo chamber of the wolf’s skull.

In the spotlight there is no mistaking the bruises—dark purple scars that will not fade numbering his ivory bones.

The boy crouches and the light snaps off. Wolves, real wolves, who bear no human skin, creep between the seats, which are full now. The rabbit-masked audience holds its collective breath, leans forward. The wolves ignore them, dripping slow between the seats. Trickling down. The boy curls in the middle of the ring. Skinny, scarred arms wrap around the taxidermied wolf’s head. He waits.

Walter can’t bear to watch.

He flees.

And stumbles into another tent with a single man, a clown, spotlit in the center of the ring.

The clown stands behind a table, stitching. His eyes are downcast, covered in crosses. He works with infinite care, unpicking seams and redoing them, crooning softly all the while. A lullaby. The needle goes in, the needle comes out. The thread is a form of weeping, one that won’t smear his makeup, joining rust-colored bone to gleaming fish scale. The child’s skull is exaggerated, swollen. A hairline crack runs from brow back to somewhere Walter can’t see.

There are other tents, other exhibits. A woman rides a bicycle. Her legs churn the pedals, turn them insistently. Blood flows. Walter traces it from the wheels to her heart, to her legs, to her arms, and back again. Her skin is translucent. The bicycle, too.

A flock of crows follows her around the ring. If she slows, the blood will stop moving. If she slows, the birds will swallow her eyes.

Walter runs, on and on. Faster through the carnival: through the fortune-teller’s tent where tarot cards chase his heels like fallen leaves, past the world’s strongest man, the living skeleton, the ring toss game. He is looking for something, someone. A woman whose eyes are inkwells, whose spine is a card catalog, whose skin holds the tales of a thousand library books lost and burned. He needs to tell her he’s sorry; he needs to take hold of her hand.

But all he finds is a snake woman—half mechanical, half flesh and blood, selling lies for twenty-five cents a go in a sawdust-filled ring. All he finds is a surgeon with a silver mallet and a scalpel in his hand. A band of seven old women and three old men, playing flute and drum, xylophone and horn, with each other’s bones.

The exhibits are endless. They smell of popcorn. Cotton candy. Lightning. Eternity. Walter keeps running, but he never arrives anywhere. There is always another corner, some trick and fold of the carnival, keeping him close but at bay. After all, if there’s no audience, no one there to observe just outside the ring, how can the show ever go on?

• • • •

It is a dream. It must be a dream. It doesn’t matter that his boots are sitting beside his bed in the morning, caked with dust when he left them neat and clean on the mat beside the door before going to sleep. It doesn’t matter that his hair smells of greasepaint. It doesn’t matter that his palm remembers the touch of a librarian he didn’t have the courage to reach for across a table spanning the gulf of a thousand years.

Once invited, once the invitation is turned down, it will never come again.

It has to be a dream.

Because right now, Walter’s entire world is made of wanting. If he really went to the carnival, he would still be there, wouldn’t he? If they invited him in, asked him to stay, dear God, why didn’t he?

And more importantly: How will he ever get back there again?

A.C. Wise

A.C. Wise’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Shimmer, Tor.com, and the Year’s Best Horror Volume 10, among other places. She has two collections published with Lethe Press, and a novella forthcoming from Broken Eye Books. In addition to her fiction, she contributes a monthly review column to Apex Magazine, and the Women to Read and Non-Binary Authors to Read series to The Book Smugglers. Find her online at www.acwise.net and on twitter as @ac_wise.