When Ezequiel opened his eyes, he saw the sky and the stars. They peered down on him through metal bars which spontaneously begged the question “Who imprisoned the night?
It was only until he allowed his vision to adjust that the metal bars became spokes and the rims of the Ferris Wheel came into full view, along with the rest of its structure towering above him with flashing lights.
As he came to his surroundings, he found himself awkwardly draped across the small bench of a capsule. He couldn't remember how he got there. And naturally, that led to the curiosity of why and when and one hundred other unrelated questions that swarm through one's mind after waking up. Though, a sudden yawn interrupted his thoughts and trailing shortly behind was the groggy aftermath of an unexpected nap. He sat upright and was greeted by a very sore neck; a brazen assurance that he had definitely been out cold for at least a few hours. The hot thick summer air, too warm to cool off the thin layer of sweat clinging to his forehead, was an uncomfortable addition.
And then there was silence.
Apart from the gentle creaks of the capsules suspended above him, the quiet of the night set off a particular alarm in Ezequiel's head.
"Shit." He muttered. He needed to know the time but after a quick pat down of his jeans in search of his phone, he came up empty. Must’ve been left back in the trailer. He vaguely remembered watching TV before leaving for a short walk but that had to have been hours ago; in the evening. Now...what time was it now?
His alertness was brief. He could feel his eyelids weighing down like anchors and his body, sluggish and slow, begging for just another second of sleep.
No. Stay awake, it’s still dark.
He pushed himself up, rubbing a hand over his face, scratching his arms, clenching his fists and wiggling his fingers.
“One, two, three, four.” He recited to himself, exiting the Ferris wheel and walking towards a pale blue trailer home settled on a wide field not too far from the edge of the carnival. To the left he could spot the bumper cars in the shadows, a static photograph of a day's worth of safe yet merciless pile ups. To the right, his favorite game booth Water Gun Fun and the teddy bears that were yet to be claimed.
And just beyond that stood the broad silhouette of the main tent, where all the magic happened.
Aside from the Ferris Wheel and a couple of emergency lights, the carnival made itself comfortable in the dark. As it always did. There was a stillness, not unlike a deep slumber that fell over once the final lights were cut. After three years of traveling with the carnival, Ezequiel grew familiar to the sight and the sound. The feeling of being swallowed by the night.
“One, two, three, four.” Forwards and then backwards. Backwards and then forward. Slowly and intently, he repeated the set of numbers quietly to himself, as he jogged up the stairs of the trailer and slipped inside, making sure the screen door didn’t creak too loudly.
He didn’t know why saying these numbers worked at rubbing off the drowsiness. They just did. And he’d been saying them for weeks just to keep it away.
All the lights were off except for the slight glow of a TV coming from a room at the end of the short hall. His room. As he entered, he was greeted by the paused screen of a Svengoolie episode he had recorded a few weeks back.
He remembered now.
On the bed, atop undisturbed bed sheets and pillows was his phone. He picked it up, relieved to see it read 4:03 AM. There also was a missed called from his brother, Benjamin.
Ezequiel looked out his room to the other end of the hall. To Benjamin’s room. The door was closed and even though Ezequiel knew his brother was home and asleep, he tip toed over and took a peek inside to make sure. He could barely make out the figure underneath the ocean of thick sheets and plump pillows but a leather jacket could be seen under the moonlight, hanging on the edge of the closet door. That was proof enough for him.
He retreated to his room and sat on his bed where he was left alone with the soft buzz of the television and his thoughts. The sun would come out soon and he was already planning a few scattered naps throughout the day, in between his work shift. Amiel would understand. They always did. A moment’s rest was harmless but only in daylight. It wasn’t quite the rejuvenating process his body ached for, but he managed. It was all he could manage.
He reached for the remote and pressed play, a monstrous arachnid on screen resuming its attack on unsuspecting citizens. It was only minutes before exhaustion weighed on his shoulders and pulled on his eyelids again. He jerked and rubbed his face, dragging thin fingers through his dark curls, pulling at their roots.
“One.” He began to recite again. But he stayed at one and he focused real hard on it. On the sound. On it’s meaning.
One day it came and took away his sleep.
The cereal in his bowl had turned soggy by the time he realize he was still sitting at the small kitchen table and he had only taken one bite. The transition from night to day had been slow and grueling, like pulling the sun’s teeth just to get the first few rays of light to filter through the blinds on his window. Yet, he could not remember the exact moment he shut off his TV to serve himself a bowl of cheerios.
One moment he was on his bed, the next he was sitting and staring at the white refrigerator. More specifically, at a magnetic frame that held a photograph of him and his brother when they were kids. It was an old photograph, wrinkled and faded at the edges as if it had been held by one too many hands and had been mindlessly tucked into one too many places. Still, the two brothers remained mostly untouched by the years, arms wrapped around each other's shoulders, boasting smiles with missing teeth. They were sitting on the steps of what Ezequiel could only assume was once their home.
How strange it was to assume about things like home but there weren't many photographs of them. And photographs were one of the very few things he had left of a childhood he could not remember.
The entrance door swung open and at least that came with two familiar voices. Ezequiel turned in time to see Benjamin and Amiel walk in through the door filled with laughter, playfully shoving one another in response to an argument they were possibly having but one Ezequiel was too tired to decipher. They both immediately noticed him slumped over his soggy cereal.
Amiel greeted him with raised brows. “Oh, Z! You’re up early.”
Early? He thought to himself and then realized he must've said it out loud because Benjamin was nodding, pointing at their tawdry red wall clock hanging opposite of him.
How the fuck was it still morning? Ezequiel could swear on every minute of delicious peaceful sleep he’s ever had that he’d been rotting at the table for at least 12 hours. He had the back pain and sour mouth to prove it.
“Did you sleep okay?” He heard Amiel ask. There was a pout forming on their lips and Ezequiel could tell their eyes were already scanning every inch of his face for any signs of distress. It wasn’t unlike them to worry so easily.
During the Carnival’s business hours, Amiel was his boss. Though first and foremost, as they liked to frequently remind him, they were his friend. But perhaps even then they would still somehow skip over the dark circles under his eyes. Fingers crossed.
“Yep.” He answered and quickly bit back a yawn building at the back of this throat. “All eight hours of beauty sleep.”
Amiel squinted their eyes but said nothing. They rewarded him with a smile instead; the kind that showed the trust they had built over the last three years.
“Well, if you’re hungry later on, there’s chocolate chip pancakes at the clubhouse.”
The clubhouse referred to Amiel’s trailer, its name bestowed upon it by Benjamin for a reason Ezequiel was too tired to remember.
“Thanks, but I had cereal.” Ezequiel did his very best to crack a smile without triggering another yawn.
Amiel grabbed a set of keys resting on top of the fridge. They were already heading back out when they replied, “One bite is not breakfast, Z.”
A few weeks ago, Ezequiel would've shot back with something witty. He was good at that kind of thing. Sarcasm and wit? His specialties. But that morning he had nothing. He let Amiel win.
“They’re right, you know,” Benjamin leaned over to grimace at the bowl. “What was that…cheerios?”
Benjamin laughed and lightly smacked Ezequiel on the shoulder. “Why’d you let them get like that?”
Ezequiel shrugged. “I spaced out, I guess.”
He watched as Benjamin’s smile slowly faded. “You didn’t sleep, did you?”
Ezequiel could smell his cologne. He always carried a cloud of cologne with him, but it was surprisingly never overwhelming. Just enough to be present. To turn heads and rightfully so.
Although they were twins, Ezequiel always thought he looked nothing like his brother. Benjamin didn’t have dark circles under his eyes. They weren’t droopy with little to no sleep. On the contrary, they were big and bright and youthful. Hell, they were only 20 years old but Benjamin still shined like a Homecoming King accepting his crown underneath the spotlight. His hair wasn’t an unwashed tangled mess. It was combed and slicked back and when it wasn’t, it was soft curls that hugged his forehead and dove into his eyes. Of course, even after all that no one could deny they were twins. But maybe it wasn’t about the hair or the eyes or anything about the way they looked. Maybe there was just something fundamentally different about each other.
“Was it the nightmare again?”
Ezequiel noticed he was staring at the photograph again. At a younger version of himself smiling back at him, squinting under the bright sun. He wondered if that little shit slept peacefully every night.
There was no emphasis on “the nightmare” because to Benjamin, that’s all it was. A bad dream. Something you woke up from and shook off with a cool splash of water to the face. But to his knowledge this had only happened twice. A bad dream from which Ezequiel woke up screaming and thrashing until Benjamin got a good grip on him and brought him back to reality.
But the undisclosed reality was, this wasn’t a rare occurrence. This had been happening for months. And each time it came back stronger.
A bad dream? Ezequiel could handle a bad dream; he could handle a hundred. But this? This was different.
One day it came, disguised as a nightmare and it never left. It found a home in the back of his head, in the pit of his stomach, underneath his nails. There were very few days where it stayed dormant. But it would always advise when it would appear. During the day, it gnawed just below his flesh, where he couldn’t reach, couldn’t scratch. It burned behind his eyelids, it burned his hands. It was taunting him. That’s when he knew the minute he laid down to sleep, he would be pulled under. Into the dark. Into the suffocating dark. So, he stayed awake, for as long as he could.
He didn’t know why this was happening. And for that reason, he kept it to himself. He knew laying it out for all to see would just bring more questions; especially from Benjamin. And between the two, there were already far too many questions left unanswered.
“Z?” Benjamin tried a final time. He was worried, now. A pout, similar to that of Amiel’s, forming on his lips.
“No, it’s not the nightmare.” Ezequiel answered flatly. He pulled himself up and walked over to empty his bowl in the sink. “Just stayed up late, that’s all.”
Benjamin didn’t sound convinced but for whatever reason, he changed the subject anyways.
“Amiel said we’re headed to Chicago next. Maybe we can visit Tía Lola while we’re there?”
Ezequiel could feel every part of his body tense up.
There were parts of his life he could not remember; gaps in memories, blurry faces and wrinkled photographs with unfamiliar smiles. And then there were parts of his life he did not want to remember. Chicago was one of them.
He felt the half-digested cheerios in his throat.
Benjamin continued, naive to his brother's change in composure. “It’s been like…what? 6? 7 months? 8 months?”
“A year.” Ezequiel exhaled slowly, months of irregular sleep crashing down on him like waves. He thought he would collapse.
“Oh shit, a whole year? We definitely gotta go see her. I wonder if she’ll make us pambazos. Oh my god, remember her pambazos?”
Benjamin’s voiced trailed off and distorted like he had suddenly been plunged underwater. Nothing but muffled sounds traveled into Ezequiel’s ears. Suddenly, he could feel it crawling underneath his skin. Anxiety bubbling at the pit of his stomach.
Would it come for him tonight?
El Carnaval de Cuentos—or ECDC as it had come to be known as—was fairly small and not unlike any other local carnival that situated themselves on grassy fields for school events or town festivals. But its size did not hinder its attraction by any means. On the contrary, over the years ECDC had obtained a considerably large and faithful audience across America. But it wasn't for its rides or game booths and surprisingly not even for the deliciously sweet funnel cakes which created lines at the concession stand that were on the brink of challenging Disney World.
No, the main attraction wore red and white stripes and took it's place at the center of the carnival: the big tent.
No matter what state they landed in, Amiel knew how to sell out their show. Every seat was filled; the air thick with the scent of buttery popcorn. Children wiggled in their seats, red at the cheeks from laughter, eyes wide with excitement. Parents and adults weren’t too far off in expression themselves. And despite a fear large of crowds, Amiel always delivered a show full of wonder.
Ezequiel sat at the far back, near the tent’s entrance but even from there, Amiel radiated pure charisma. At every show they wore a red tailcoat with gold accents. They kept their smiles bright, their russet brown skin carrying the glow of a sunset underneath the spotlight. They held the crowd at their fingertips, orchestrating a symphony of ooh's and ah's but what the audience didn’t know was that every snap of their finger, every flick of their wrist wasn’t a cue for smoke and mirrors.
It was an act of wielding real magic.
Amiel stood at the center of the ring, beaming at the audience as they scooted to the edge of their seats, shooting curious gazes at the brightly colored paper mache birds arranged in a large circle. As they walked over to the first bird in line, a beautiful blue feathered friend with a lavender tail, they claimed one by one they would come to life by a simple tap on the head. The audience whispered amongst themselves, doubting, theorizing how this trick could be pulled off.
Ezequiel could feel himself smiling.
It had been three years since he'd witness magic for the first time yet even now, he still sat in wonder, almost as naively as the crowd, entranced by the scene before him. Just as Amiel declared, one by one the vibrant paper mache birds spread their wings and took off, soaring high above the ring in a swirling motion. The tent was filled with loud gasps followed by laughter and cheers. He watched intently as Amiel took a bow in the middle of the ring and disappeared only to reappear among the crowd, calling a bird to their shoulder so the kids could marvel and pet it.
A few tricks later and the show was over as everyone went home with much to talk about, adrenaline still in their veins.
Ezequiel could see the relief on Amiel’s face as the last of crowd walked out the gates. They would always take a deep breath, giving their white gloves a good squeeze before folding them neatly and placing them in the breast pocket of their tailcoat.
Amiel was a Ringleader, one of many magicians that traveled across the globe with their magical acts. When Ezequiel first arrived to ECDC, he had many questions and throughout the years, he learned very little but enough to understand two things. One: magic was very real. And two: Amiel was most certainly worthy of wielding it.
But tonight, he had other things on his mind.
“It’s not Chicago, not technically, anyways.”
The suburbs. So, it was the suburbs, miles away from the city but apparently not enough to keep Benjamin from wanting to pay Tía Lola a visit.
“Why now?” Ezequiel pressed. Amiel noticed the change of tone in his voice. There was a pause, as if they debated whether to confront him about his strange reluctance. But they quickly decided against it.
“Lola wants to see you guys.” They answered, simply. Then added, “Plus we haven’t been to Illinois in a long time. Might be good for business.”
Ezequiel fell silent. Before Amiel could analyze his look, one of the staff members approached them to discuss the broken ride that had been shut down for the past month. Ezequiel felt the prickly sensation spreading down his arms to his fingertips. He tried not to focus on the feeling. Or the heaviness in his chest and in every part of his body. He was lead, sinking into the ground.
He looked up at Amiel. He immediately recognized that smile. The same smile they had given him earlier and the same one they had given him the first night he arrived at the carnival with Benjamin.
Sometimes that was a night Ezequiel did not want to remember. Because it reminded him of Chicago and the life he left behind. Or whatever he had left behind. It was hard to call something a life when there wasn't a childhood to look back on. When it felt like you were never born and instead, just sort of blurred into existence at the age of ten in a small apartment with Tía Lola.
“You can always talk to me.” They said, reaching out to hold his hand and give it a warm squeeze. Ezequiel squeezed back.
“I’m fine.” He lied effortlessly.
He wanted to ask if magic could erase what he saw when he closed his eyes.
He didn’t sleep that night. Nor the next night, or the one after that. He slept throughout the day, in strange secluded places so that no one could find him and ask him questions. The backstage of the big tent was a good spot. Though a bit dusty, he managed to get an hour here and there. But a couple of hours in the span of week was not enough. One day, he almost nodded off while operating a ride. He stayed away from machinery afterwards; instead, asking Amiel for the rest of the day off. He knew the interrogation that would follow so he faked a flu.
Luckily, Benjamin had a date so, he stayed away from Ezequiel as well but not before making sure he had everything he needed. It was about three in the afternoon when Benjamin finally left Ezequiel alone in his room with medicine, tea and piping hot soup.
It being summer meant Ezequiel had a good chunk of hours before the sun set. His plan was to get as much sleep as he could and as long as he woke up before then, he was fine.
He laid down on his bed and stared at the ceiling. They were leaving for Chicago that night.
Leave was a loose term. Maybe not the correct term at all. The carnival never left to places. It simply appeared in an instant. One moment he’d be in Arizona and in the next, he’d be in Chicago. Years ago, he’d call it one of magic’s perks. Tonight, he wished they could just travel like a normal carnival. Maybe the open roads would do him some good.
He yawned and remembered he was on a schedule. He could not deny feeling a bit nervous but he assured himself it never showed up during the day. If he could nap for an hour or two, four or five it couldn’t possibly be a problem. Still, he decided to play it safe and set his alarm up for 7:00 PM. That set him a whole hour before the sun went down entirely.
Then, he took a deep breath and allowed sleep to take over.
He slept for too long. For far too long. When he woke up, his heart leapt to his throat. The alarm clock on his drawer remained silent but it’s large glaring red numbers pierced the dark and kept him still.
Ezequiel felt his mouth go dry.
It’s okay. It’s okay. Just stay awake. All you have to do is stay awake.
He couldn’t move. He couldn’t feel his hands, his legs, he couldn’t feel any part of his body. The only thing he felt was the heavy weight of his eyelids. So heavy. He fought hard to keep them open, staring at the clock. Thinking in his head “ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR.”
He took in panicked breaths.
ONE TWO THREE FOUR.
FOUR TWO ONE THREE
THREE AWAKE FOUR AWAKE….
His eyes were closing, tears forming at their corners, sliding down his temples. He couldn't keep them open any longer. It felt like someone was pulling them down. Someone, something.
And then came the darkness. And with it, a silence. A familiar, sinister silence.
Ezequiel sat on a cold surface; knees tightly pressed against his chest. His body was trembling. He could only hear his shaky breaths. His fingers were pressed tightly around his arms, nails digging into skin. Eyes forward, into the pitch black. There was no ending, and no beginning.
But he was not afraid the dark or the nothingness. It was what came after.
A small red orb of light, off in the distance. It grew slowly and however hard Ezequiel tried to look away, he could not. He was transfixed by the glaring red.
Then, the ringing came. A high pitch ringing, barely detectable but it was there, growing in his ears, sinking into his bones, pinching every nerve in his body. The light grew bigger and Ezequiel knew he was moving towards it. Floating, unstoppable, with nothing to grab onto. Nothing to protest. How bad he wanted to close his eyes. But he knew it was coming.
And the screams.
In an instant, there were flames, all around him, licking at his exposed skin. Unable to move, he felt it scorch his limbs. He felt it sink into his pores and burn him from the inside. The ringing in his ears became screams of torture and pain. Screaming for him. Begging for help.
“EZEQUIEL!” They screamed.
Over and over and over. Until he forced his own screams out. Begging them to stop.
“Stop it! STOP IT! I SAID STOP IT!”
He gasped, shooting up from his bed and scrambling back until he hit his headboard. His breaths were heavy, his body drenched in sweat. He looked over at the clock in panic.
His first instinct was to bring his knees against his chest in attempt to control the trembling in his body. His second instinct was to run to Benjamin’s room. He left his bed and rushed to his brother’s door only to stop halfway down the hall.
“No.” He muttered under his breath, chest still heaving. “You’re okay. Stop. You’re okay.”
He tangled his hands in his curls, breathing slowly. He walked back to his room and grabbed a towel for a quick shower. When he got out, the trailer was silent. He debated turning on his TV to watch a movie, get his mind off the nightmare but it felt suffocating in his room. The trailer itself felt too small and cramped. He grabbed a jacket and walked outside into the summer air. The carnival was just as still as everything else.
The first thing he noticed was the change in location. They were on a large, grassy field. Beyond the Carnival gates, he could spot the quiet neighborhood hidden behind the trees. They were in Chicago. Or as Benjamin would correct him, the Chicagoland area.
Without so much as a second thought, Ezequiel went back in for some change. If they were finally here, he needed to see Lola. After all, she wanted to see him too.
The long walk to the CTA bus stop served him good. He was able to calm his nerves and push the images of his nightmare to the back of his mind. It was damned luck that the Carnival stationed itself in the suburbs of Skokie. He was familiar with the area and knew the Central bus ran late. After 20 minutes or so, he got on and sat in the far back, isolating himself in the corner. Not that he needed to. He only shared the bus with the driver and a man who appeared to be passed out at the front.
As the bus rumbled down the streets, Ezequiel could feel his stomach sink. He quickly regretted wanting to see Lola. In fact, he knew he didn’t want to.
He watched the buildings pass by; familiar streets and neighborhoods. He got off at the train station and headed closer to downtown. But the closer he got, the more awful he felt. He was two stops away from his destination when he decided to back out. It was a weekend night, which meant the streets were still bustling. He got off with the intent of only switching trains to head back to the Carnival but he paused for a moment to look around. He noticed how familiar the area looked. Under the night sky, the streets carried a lively atmosphere, full of people who were just starting their adventures. It was bar after club after bar after club. And nestled in between were bookstores and cafes and boutiques that reigned during the day. Ezequiel knew exactly where he was. He remembered how often he came there during his high school days.
The only days that ever felt real.
He walked the streets, taking in every recognizable sight and sound. Breathing in a mix of cigarette smoke and tacos.
He told himself he never wanted to come back. But the pang in his heart told him otherwise. Sooner or later, he’d have to admit that a part of him would always stay here. His thoughts drifted back to Lola and a wave of sadness came over him.
The truth was, he missed her.
He missed her jokes, her tamales and surprisingly, even her lectures. But the last time he saw her they had an argument, one that he didn't fix and one that broke both their hearts. He was angry and missing home. If he could even call it that. But hell, he wasn't sure what to call anything in his existence. Nothing ever lasted. There was no consistency, no solid timeline; everything around him had always been a giant puzzle with all the wrong pieces. But Chicago was the closest thing to home and Lola made them leave. Because of that night. The night he graduated from high school. A night he could barely fucking remember now.
“Hey you!” Someone shouted, along with something else Ezequiel didn’t catch. He was pulled back to reality, the buzz of the city ringing in his ears. He turned around to spot a group of people huddling around what looked like an entrance to a club.
“Huh?” Ezequiel replied.
A girl with blonde hair—the one he assumed had called out to him—shot him a wide grin. “Your jacket,” she said, taking a long drag of her cigarette. “I said I like it.”
Ezequiel awkwardly glanced down at his black track jacket, seeing nothing special about it. “Uh, thanks.”
He turned to leave.
“Wanna come drink?” She continued. The rest of the group talked loudly amongst themselves, their laughter and slurred voices convincing Ezequiel they were well into a few bottles at least. The girl’s stare didn’t budge. She took another drag of her cigarette, red lips stretching back into a grin. The breeze flicked some ash onto her tank top.
“I’m not 21.” Ezequiel responded, without hesitation. Not as an excuse to reject her offer but simply because it was the truth. He was still a month away from turning 21.
A few of the girl’s friends laughed at his response.
“You can be 21 tonight, bud.” One of the guys pitched in. He was wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses. At night.
Ezequiel wasn’t so thrilled about the invitation.
“I’m good, thanks.”
The group booed.
“Aw come on! It’s opening night!”
“Yeah. That means free drinks!”
Ezequiel couldn’t help but smile at the oddness of the situation. Certainly, a group of young adults—most likely college kids—had better things to do than to recruit strangers to come and party with them. They did seem genuinely nice for college drunks though, he had to give them that.
“But in all seriousness,” came a voice that immediately demanded Ezequiel’s attention. It wasn’t slurred and loud like the rest. It was steady and warm. Ezequiel scanned their faces until he fell upon one. He was tall, with black curls styled and parted neatly to the side. He had soft dark eyes and a gentle smile that made Ezequiel wonder how he had initially skipped over him.
“You don’t have to come.” He said. “It’s only if you want to.”
“Why wouldn’t he want to?” said Sunglasses. “It’s free drinks!”
The group roared with laughter and cheers, hyping each other up as they began a conga line back into the club. The only one who stayed behind for a moment was him. And everything about that moment felt inviting. He looked up at the neon blue sign that read RABBIT. They must’ve been telling the truth about it’s opening; Ezequiel never of it. He could practically feel the bass of the music vibrating through the soles of his shoes. When he looked back, the guy had dropped his stare and was walking inside.
It had been a long night and as far as Ezequiel could tell, there were two options. Option one was to go back the carnival and stare at the ceiling until dawn, fighting sleep, keeping it away.
And option two was—
“Hey!” He called out.
The guy stopped in his tracks and something about the way he looked gave Ezequiel his answer.
“So can you get me in or what?” Ezequiel grinned.