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Hide & Seek

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One

We arrived in the cemetery around four o'clock, stepping off the grumbling school bus into the crisp fall air. I wrapped my scarf tighter around my neck, pulled my hat further over my ears, and blew into my gloved hands."Are you alright?" My teacher, Mr. Cainson asked. His dark eyes were full of concern.I stared up at him and nodded, bending my head again so my hair fell like a curtain over my face.

"Good," he said, patting me shoulder gently and walking with me toward the slabs of gray stone.

My classmates followed behind us, walking amongst the bare trees and chattering about what they were doing over the weekend. This field trip held no significance for them. I blew on my hands again, rubbing my palms together through thin cotton, fingerless gloves, and tugged on my scarf, which did nothing to keep the creeping cold out. White puffs of breath followed me as I walked over rocks and stepped into leaves. My father was not buried here, but the memories were strong.

The field trip was to a cemetery in order to learn about local history and do gravestone rubbings. Mr. Cainson directed the trip every year in the fall, but I had doubts as soon as the school bus had passed through the tall gates atop which read in spiraling letters "Est. 1680."

“Pay attention to the dates on the stones,” Mr. Cainson had announced, peering over his shoulder at the rest of the bus’ occupants. “Was it a parent? Teenager? Child? Maybe an entire family? In the 17th and 18th centuries, it wasn’t uncommon for folk to die early from disease, fire, or even childbirth. A single sick family member could infect an entire community.”

There was a story he told about a circus coming to town during a particularly bad epidemic. The town used the circus tents to house the ill and dying, until one day someone set those tents on fire.

Something like that.

In bed this morning I had thought of pretending to be sick and spending the rest of the day reading safely indoors, but the sun was out, the leaves outside the bedroom window were glowing orange and yellow, and I realized that countless other classes had gone on this trip, done research on an urban legend, and come home safely. They had touched graves, looked at them, and walked among the spirits of the dead in this old part of the woods surrounded by rock fences. They had come home alive and happy.

Perhaps it was not the frightening, crumbling stone that faltered my steps; the skull’s heads with angel wings and grimacing, empty eyes, but my own inhuman grief. Perhaps sometimes a deep hole dug by sadness was avoided by bolting in fear. Death was simply one of those things that I couldn't help but to shy from.

My friends followed close behind me as I took hesitant steps into the cemetery, then diverged off their different ways. My teacher stayed by my side.

We sauntered forward, stepping over broken twigs and branches as the trees churned overhead in the crisp gale.

I stopped walking abruptly. there in the leaves was a tombstone almost as tall as me. A poem was etched in the stone and atop it was a sneering gargoyle.

Ludwig Von Tökkentakker, it read. Died 1898. An owner of a carnival who gathered many players who perhaps was never killed but stole the souls of his slayers.

I flinched and pulled my hat down over my ears again as a blast of wind picked up the leaves and made them swirl in the air. Such a sight I always thought was beautiful. Now, I shivered.

"I..." Mr. Cainson said gently. "I wouldn't take the words literally. The poem was probably a joke...there are several legends surrounding Ludwig Von Tökkentakker and more than likely someone long after his death put an epitaph on his grave based on those legends. There are photos of his grave and when it was new there was no writing on it. It was simply put there to frighten people into believing silly stories. You can imagine the sorts of people who would do that.”

Further down the hill, Dylan and Rob, two hockey players from my class, were guffawing loudly and throwing sticks and leaves at the girls. “Don’t get eaten by graveworms!” They shouted.

Carissa, Melissa, and Natalie shrieked behind pretty smirks, fluttering their eyelashes. Melissa’s hair was impeccably platinum beneath a perfectly positioned wool beanie, and Carissa covered her mouth in mock terror, her dark curls falling over her shoulders.

“Boys,” Mr. Cainson said sternly, walking away from me and towards them.

I touched the word carnival with a fingertip, then jerked me hand away. "It seems old to me," I muttered.

I turned away to find something less weird when the shine of something caught my eye.

There -- partially covered by dry leaves -- I walked toward it without thinking, taking my hands out of my pockets and swooping down to cup it in my palms.

A golden coin -- heavy, the size of a field hockey ball, and nearly half an inch thick. I had to have it. It was so delightfully shiny, and the weight was pleasant in my hands.

“Anna!” Beatrice was shouting for me.

“Anna,” Carissa mimicked in a mocking tone.

Barely readable were the words Admit One to Carnival. Instantly I glanced around, my eyes searching for the grave. On the tombstone lay a round indentation; as though someone had taken a large hammer and pushed the stone back an inch or so.

“Come over here and see this!” Bea called.

More shrieking. The sheen of leaves was getting kicked up by running feet. The boys hollered, giggling.

“Let’s get focused, people,” Mr. Cainson called.

My hand, with the coin, reached toward the place on the tombstone where it belonged, and pressed the coin in. The indentation clicked, then the coin fell into a hole.

“Cool,” I muttered.

Rustling of leaves. My classmates shouting to one another and stirring up the forest floor. Birds twittering overhead. The hillside roaring, rushing up to meet me.

And...nothing.

Chapter Text

I would have figured the coin popped back out somewhere. I mean, I did find it out on the grass. I looked around the back of the tombstone to see where it came out, but there wasn’t anything there.

Panicked, I sifted through the leaves. I wanted that golden coin back; I wanted to take it home, to feel its cold golden weight in my pocket, to hold it and prop it up next to my bed.

The ground felt like it was quaking, and my lightheadedness didn’t fade -- everything looked a little fuzzy. I glanced around for my classmates, but they seemed to have moved on.

I whipped out a pad of thick paper and wrenched one page free, my hands quivering as I ran the gritty charcoal stick haphazardly over the paper, until Ludwig Von Tökkentakker appeared on the page. I stuffed the paper in my folder and grabbed another clean one, which quickly became smudged with the charcoal dust off my gloves. I started rubbing the inscription poem, when suddenly the sun went behind a cloud and cast strange shadows on the grave.

“Anna?”

I jumped.

Mr. Cainson was shivering. “Everyone is headed back to the bus.” He jerked his head in motion for me to follow.

“Okay,” I said. “I’m just finishing.”

As I finished rubbing, I began thinking rapidly about what I was going to write. I rolled up the finished grave rubbing and stuffed it in my bag, then turned to Mr. Cainson.
Sudden, high-pitched laughter echoed throughout the trees.

I whirled around.

"Um. Mr.--" I stuttered.

"What?" He asked. He didn’t sound alarmed, but his eyes were darting back and forth past me.

“Let’s go,” he said gently, optimistically.

I realized that it wasn't a gargoyle on the top of the stone, it was a jester. A skeletal face staring at me with red eyes and sticking out its tongue...

It took all my effort not to sprint down the hill to the bus, which I could barely see through the trees, waiting patiently for us. With each walking step, I took as large a stride as I could, in efforts to warm up and get as far away from that tombstone as possible.

At last the doors to the bus, friendly and open, and I hopped up the steps with Mr. Cainson right behind me. The smell of bus seats filled my nostrils.

Ahhhh, sweet safety.

“About time,” Melissa grumbled. I turned to shoot me a look, when she suddenly paled and stared at something behind me.

A hand closed on my wrist and I jumped around with a cry.

"Don't move. Close your eyes," a voice hissed.

I stood rigid and closed my eyes as tightly as I could.

"Open them..."

I felt my eyelids lifting though I didn't want to. It was as though something was summoning them to open against their will. Around my wrist were wrapped long, white fingers. I followed the purple-and-gold silken shirtsleeves up till I met the face of the jester on the tombstone. It was even more horrifying in person...his face was pale, like shining smooth stone, with large, sunken eyes, and a bared, lipless smile full of long, sharp teeth. His pupils were black and took up most of his eyes, and which flashed red as I stared, open-mouthed. A purple hat with arching pieces and bells topped his crown.

Without meaning to, I tried to pull away, but the jester chuckled and pulled me back.

"Welcome," he hissed.

"To what?" I whispered. I tried to turn my head but the jester's cold hand cupped my chin and turned me back.

“What the hell,” one of my classmates whimpered.

"CarnEvil," he said, and laughed in his high voice. "Come see freaks, magic, animals, and of course...the best part..." He lowered his face so his eyes stared into mine. "Me."

Oh no. Oh God. Oh no.

I shuddered and turned away, jerking my wrist and trying to get out of his grip, to run. Where? Somewhere, anywhere...I grunted with the effort but the jester held fast and he pulled me arm up in the air. A stinging ran down my arm and my knees buckled with a gasp I couldn't control.

"I wouldn't try that again," he sneered, "if I were you.”

He pulled on me again and I struggled to my feet. "Where’s Mr. Cainson?" I cried.

The jester smiled once more and pointed off to the left of me.

I followed his thin white finger and cried aloud, clawing at the jester holding me.

"Let him go!” I cried angrily. “Let him go!”

Two ugly men held our wonderful teacher to them. Neither wore shirts but had tattoos all over their grimy chests. One of the men gripped the back of his neck (his dirty fingers wreathed in his long dark hair) and the other held him by the back of his shirt and pointed a jagged blade at his neck. His head was pulled back and up which seemed to me extremely painful. "Stop--don't worry about me," he said calmly, with a smile. "You need all your concentration and an abundance of wit about you now. Don’t expend your energy.”

I shook my head. "No, no..." I struggled, pushing against the jester's grip, but he simply jerked me back to him. "Please,” I whimpered.

“It didn’t take long to make you beg,” Umlaut sneered.

One of the boys from my class laughed.

"You can't do this!" I howled. Now I was embarrassed that everyone could see me crying…a sign of weakness. I kicked in the air. I couldn't move my arms and I pulled and pulled. "You can't do this!" I screamed, and screamed, and pulled, until I was bucking and gasping for air, like I had laughed too hard.

"Stop it, I," Mr. Cainson said softly. "Let it be."

"No! I won't let you get hurt," I cried. "I won't let them. I won't." I reached for him but the hands around me wrists stopped them in midair.

The world was growing dark, and I felt myself sit in one of the bus seats. I could hear the girls whimpering, crying, whispering.

I had done this. This was my fault. My fault.

The jester’s voice sang out above the dim, dark, fuzzy shapes around me as he shifted the bus’ gears.

“Let’s go for a little ride, shall we?” he giggled.

Chapter Text

I kept my eyes shut during the sputtering, bouncing bus ride, my forehead pressed against the back of the seat.If I go to sleep, I will wake up, I told myself. It’s a nice fall afternoon. You’re on a field trip. You are napping.I was either on my way to the field trip, or on the way home.I pressed my eyes shut, me brain racing and loudly sending me pictures and words, a sure sign of a dream.The bus slowed and stopped, the brakes screeching.

I dizzily sat up and peered outside, refusing to look at the being in the driver’s seat.

You have been asleep, I told myself. That’s it. That’s an irrefutable fact.

It was nighttime now. I pressed my forehead against the cold glass. When you sit up, and open your eyes, you will be back at school, in the pickup-dropoff lane. Mom will be waiting in the warm car. Your little brothers will be bickering at home over the leftover Halloween candy. The smell of burning wood will be on the air.

Then homework, then bedtime, then do it all over again.

Please.

I opened my eyes. My vision was abnormally clear now, like there were LEDs in the school bus.

We were in the middle of empty woods. It was like we had gone back in time 400 years. Was there even a part of town where there was nowhere?

The black shapes of a dense forest fringed the wide clearing where we were parked, as if we hadn’t left the forest of the cemetery at all, and if I ran, I thought with a shudder, I would probably not get far before getting lost. The trees were bare, and the November evening was already cold enough to cause me to shiver. I had nothing with me to hunt or any idea how to survive. I tucked my chin into my scarf.

Ahead stood gigantic tents held down with rope--their silhouettes were black in front of the setting sun, but a warm glow was visible from inside. A roller coaster framed the scene in silhouette. Soon it would be perfectly dark. I heard eerie music and laughter from the distance--I listened for screaming but heard none.

“Cool, a carnival,” one of the boys said. “Nice.”

Nervous laughter from some of the other kids.

“Everyone off the bus!” It was a shrill voice, cackling with glee. “We’re here!”

Several whispers and whimpers sounded behind me, along with the shuffling of reluctant feet. Winter coats swooshed and bus seats creaked.

I was still hiding my head. I could hear my name being used as a scapegoat. I was late; I was last on the bus; I was the one at the stupid tombstone. This was all my fault.

“I only give orders once,” the jester said, his voice suddenly cold and shrill. “I tried nicely. Time to go!”

Blood-curdling screams sounded in the bus, the loudest and most horrifying sound I had ever heard. The girls sounded like they were getting their heads ripped off.

I peeled my head off the seat to see the bus covered in a thick coating of spiderwebs, and thousands of black and brown hairy spiders dropping from the ceiling. Something tickled me hand and I recoiled, shaking me hand vigorously, only for another to drop onto my jacket.

I jumped up, rushing for the bus door, but my classmates wrenched me back, flailing their arms violently and stomping as they pushed each other and jostled me to get out of there first. I fell back against the seat and into Beatrice, who was deathly afraid of all bugs. She was all green, the whites of her eyes big and bulging. Her mouth was open but she couldn’t scream anymore, so she was just making guttural sounds. She looked lost, the fear having taken over her primitive brain, as she shoved me back again in an effort to get off the bus.

A couple of the boys were laughing, amazed. The jester looked amused. I pulled myself up and ran, too, shaking spiders off my arms and legs as I went, and pulling the sticky cotton from my clothes.

The jester sauntered off, the boys following, the girls crying and whimpering in the grass. He snapped his fingers and suddenly, in an instant, the bus was clean, and so were we, and the fear had sucked itself right out of my brain, leaving a warm and fuzzy feeling of comfort behind.

“I see we are now divided into boys and girls,” the jester laughed. “Great!”
Mr. Cainson was missing.

“Where’s Mr.--”

“Don’t mention your teacher, ever, again!” the jester said in a sing-song voice.

I closed my mouth.

“Now. I want you to get in lines.” We hurried into line, so quickly our bodies bumped together, pushing and jostling one another.

Rob and Dylan, on the other hand, were laughing amongst themselves, in no rush.

“Tick, tock,” the jester sang.

“Be right there,” Dylan sneered.

“Just got to tie my--”

Rob never finished what he was about to say, and a queer look overcame his face. He glanced down at his body, confused.

We stared, too, wondering what was going on. The ground was dark.

“Oh---ow---AWWOWWW!” Rob’s discomfort suddenly turned to terror and he fell to his knees, screaming and writhing on the ground.

I stared at the jester. His gleeful face had turned uglier, and meaner, and he was focused completely on Rob.

We waited, with bated breath, until his screams of pain had subsided.

“Get up,” the jester said.

Rob struggled to his feet. Not one of his friends, even Dylan, moved to help him. Rob was crying, staggering and dragging his feet as if his shoes were made of iron. When he got closer, into the light cast by the distant carnival, we could see his shoes were slick with blood. My breath caught and I ducked my head, suddenly dizzy.

“What happened? What happened?” Melissa was whispering fiercely.

Dylan opened his mouth but no words came out.

When I felt my stomach was strong enough, I tried to look again, but I couldn’t.

“He…” Carissa dropped me valley girl twang for a more serious voice, though it shook badly. “His shoes are...they’re tied,” she began.

“And?” we all whispered.

“His shoelaces are sewn into his skin.”

A sign overhead—on a black iron gate--with large yellow letters, dripping blood, read: "CarnEvil."

Chapter Text

"Are you scared?" The jester crooned.

"No," I whispered back, shaking.

"I don't believe you," he hissed.”But in time you’ll learn to tell the truth. In time.”

He gestured to move, and we marched forward onto a path made by tents like at the county fair. In front of a few stood some carnival workers, with pale waxy-looking skin and dirty, stained clothes. They stared at me as we talked past, then continued working. Women waited with their stringy hair tied up messily. They were scantily clad--hardly wearing anything but tight corsets and full striped skirts greasy and ripped at the hems. Their eyes were rimmed with smeared black makeup and their pouted lips were dark as though with black lipstick.

Not like mine, I thought urgently as we passed a mirror leaning against a tent. My face was so pale it seemed yellow. My eyes were dull and stained red from crying, and my brow was furrowed.

I walked where he wanted, past fat men with dirty, ripped pants and tattoos, men with one eye or one arm, with black, ugly seams stitching over the missing limb, men who sneered at us through beards and from stilts, through red and black eyes, who seemed...unfriendly. Not cold, but who looked at us as though I were something they wanted to cut up and eat. I gulped. No matter where we were headed, nowhere was going to be good.

“What’s your name?” The words were high-pitched stinging in my ears, like bees, a whisper that made me jump in alarm. I didn’t realize he was standing so closely behind me.

“I...er...” I stammered.

“Let’s all introduce ourselves!” The jester jumped away from me and stood on top of a barrel outside one of the tents. “Gather round!”

He pointed at the left side of the haphazard semicircle we’d created.

“Eric,” said Eric. His blond hair was tucked under a knit beanie, and he’d stuffed his hands inside his Canada Goose down jacket. I was so envious of those. He wore skinny jeans and Vans skateboarding sneakers. He had eyeglasses that made him look thoughtful when on, and without them, cross-eyed.

Melissa and Carissa were huddled together, shivering, their mittens clenching each other’s waists, their legs looking extra cold and thin in ripped jeans and ankle boots under their expensive winter coats. Platinum sheen and long, dark curls entwined together.

Dylan and John. Dylan was dumbfounded, and could hardly form the syllables that made up his name. His jaw was left slack like a mule who was chewing too much tobacco. He had brown, tousled hair, and pink cheeks, despite the fact that under his winter coat, he always wore a sweatshirt.

John was black haired and quiet, with dark eyes. He had given up living on the Rez for public high school.

Beatrice, my oldest friend, still pale and quivering, looking like she was going to throw up any minute, her hair under a hat and dressed in her usual scarf and peacoat.

Heather, with me dark bob and big blue eyes behind glasses, pretending she was bored, but the widened eyes gave her away.

Brian, who was letting Rob lean on him, was the big football player, wearing a hoodie and wrinkled jeans. Rob was breathing shallowly through his pain, avoiding glances at his feet. His normally goofy smile, beneath a large nose, had sunken into red wetness, a bare tolerance for life.

“Great!” the jester giggled, turning around and back bending down off the barrel onto his hands. “Come inside!” He grasped the flap of canvas holding the tent closed and peeled it open.

My classmates and I glanced around at each other. The obvious question was one we didn’t dare ask but would have surely been comfortable doing with anyone else: who are YOU?

The tent was well-lit and the ground was covered in dirty furs and oriental rugs. We were eager for the warmth, the light, and the comfort, but it made it feel almost too real.

“Thank you for accepting my invitation to the carnival,” the jester said, as we stepped slowly just inside, and no further. there was that eerie smile again. "And I must say," he added, picking a candle from the chandelier above my head. "You'll make excellent additions."

“Invitation?” I blurted out loud.

“You put a token in the grave and brought our carnival to life. Didn’t you?” He asked in his high pitched voice.

I was silent.

“You idiot,” Melissa hissed.

“Way to go,” John mumbled.

I yelped as the surroundings flared and burned like a flash of light. Surrounding us, iron bars as thick as our arms.

“You’re trapped like rats with no chance of escape…” the jester’s voice was sickening.
Nervous whimpers from my classmates as we felt the iron groan and compress, pushing us into the center. Whimpering, crying, wailing, desperately, as the bars began to push and crush us. Squeals of squeezing metal turned to screams and squeals from us, as fat brown rats burst forth from nothing and clawed at us, crawling and racing around the cage, desperate to escape.

My eyes squeezed shut as the burning grew and grew and another icy pain bit into my arm.

The jester snapped his fingers and the pressure released --I dropped to my knees, realized my face was wet, and tried to wipe it.

I was holding someone’s arm, clenching with fear, eager for some human contact.

“Stand.”

We stood.

I rose to my feet more of my own free will than I cared to admit. Still holding someone's arm, I looked down and gasped -- I was no longer in jeans, a winter coat, and scarf, I was in some kind of white gown -- like a long sleeved, late 19th century dress. It was a long skirt of heavy, moldy lace, and long sleeves with cuffs at the end. The other girls were in similar outfits -- the colors were too dusty to make out, but I could tell there was some kind of variation between cool blue and green and warm pinks.

I looked up and realized it was Dylan I was holding. "Sorry," I murmured.

The boys, similarly, were in old-fashioned suits and knee-high socks.

“It’s been a long day,” the jester said. “Hmmmm.” He put a finger under his chin and cocked his head upwards, in thought.

Around us, the carnival workers seemed to creep closer, voices whispering in hushed tones, and shadows growing in form outside. The girls and I stared at each other, then back at the shadows. The whispering turned to humming, and still, as we jerked our heads back to the jester, he stood in thought.

The tent door crashed open and the humming became a low chanting. The boys, without notice, stepped backward toward us.

“What time is it,” Heather whispered.

“Almost eight,” Brian whispered back.

“Chaaaaa, Chaaaa, Chaaaa,” the workers trudged inside, one slow step at a time, like zombies. there was a bald cretin in stained overalls, dragging a chainsaw, one eye bulging green and blind, and his jaw slack with hardly any teeth left.

There was a woman with pale, translucent skin like a maggot, and greasy black hair, holding her torn dress closed at her chest, where a deep gash was visible. There was a mechanic dragging a gas can, banging it with each step; in the other hand he held a huge wrench, with a fixed smile so wide that it seemed unnatural -- and then I noticed the screws holding his mouth open.

Eric started at the sound of the gas can pounding on the ground, spilling a little gas as it went. He eyed the candles around the tent in horror.

There was a blonde woman in pigtails, in a plaid shirt tied right below her boobs, her stomach exposed over short daisy dukes. “Iowa,” she was mumbling. She was pulling something along behind me… a leash of some kind. As I stretched my neck, a massive, skeletal lion appeared, and I jumped back.

Claw-like fingernails scraped down my back, making me shudder and shiver, and I turned to face a horrifying clown, an evil smile of long, crooked teeth twisted on his face behind melting paint.

“AHHHH!” I closed my eyes behind my palms. “Make it STOP!” We were all screaming various things, nonsense, really.

A man came in walking on his hands -- wait, no, I realized. The man had two torsos, two sets of arms, sewn together, so one set of arms was where his legs should be. He scuttled with his four arms for a few paces, like a spider, spitting at us, before performing a few flips.

“That’s Flapjack,” the jester sighed.

I felt someone grip my arm and I shot them a look -- it was Heather. When she realized it was me, she released.

“Sorry,” she said, in a snippy tone.

“I think the carnival freaks want to sing you a song!” The jester clapped his hands. “How fun.”

Who’s calling WHO a freak? I stared at the jester, and he gave me a cold, warning look.

The freaks gathered round -- more and more, surrounding us. They weren’t looking at us, not exactly, more like through us -- but I was still shaking, eyeing the various torture devices in their hands: hammers, wooden bats full of nails, axes, drills, saws, dental tools, and of course, that lion.

They all opened their mouths at once.

“Welcome to CarnEvil,” they sang, in more of a low chant than a tune. “We are visiting your town. No, that's not the walking dead... It's just a silly clown! We open every midnight and close before the dawn. Your mommy may come look for you... but by then we will be gone.”

I shook uncontrollably.

The jester snapped his fingers and the cage was back, blessedly separating us from the freaks, but suddenly, the tent was gone, too, and all remnants of comfort. We were in the middle of a wet, muddy, cold field, inside the carnival, in a locked cage on wheels.

“BOO!”

We all shrieked and jumped, and the jester giggled. His skeletal face was getting more and more creepy as it got dark. His eyes had a frightening glow.

“Welcome, welcome, welcome!” the jester laughed. “We do hope you enjoy your stay. If you try and leave us, you’ll end up getting slain!”

He cupped Carissa’s chin. “You’re a beautiful one, my dear,” he said. “A star. A star.”

She trembled, and as quickly as the jester had grabbed her, he let go and shot everyone a look. “Sleep tight! We’ll have much more fun tomorrow!” With a jingle of his bell, he was gone, and we were alone.

The cage was full of straw that stunk of kerosene.

Eric was holding up handfuls and sniffing it, then tossing it back to the ground. He shook his head. “This entire thing will go up in flames with even just an attempt at flicking a lighter,” he said.

“That’s kind of a cavalier way to put it,” I pointed out.

“Cavalier? You’re one to judge! Where's Mr. Cainson? Dead, or worse?” Heather snapped. “What were you thinking?” Her face was bulging and red, and her eyes were glossy with tears.

“Oh, don’t be so hard on her,” Carissa said in a bored voice. “I mean, what can you expect from a nitwit like Anna, anyway.”

“Hey!” I called back. I half-thought about rolling up my sleeves as my fingernails dug themselves into my palms.

“Stop!” John shouted. “Leave her alone!”

“She got us into this mess,” Rob said dully.

“What even is this anyway? I mean, can you believe this?” Brian waved his arm at the carnival in the distance. “It’s the freaking carnival from hell!”

“Don’t swear,” Eric said, rolling his eyes.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I meant that it’s the fucking carnival from heck!”

“Thank you,” Eric said.

“We have to think of a way out of here,” I said quietly, gripping the iron bars with my hands. “Does anyone see a door anywhere? Like under the straw?”

“How about we sit here, and we’ll watch you look,” Melissa sniggered.

“Oh, genius. Enjoy the kerosene soaking into your clothes,” I snapped back.

“That jester freak creates things out of magic. I’m sure it doesn’t have a door,” John said.

“You’re probably right.” I sighed and sank to the floor.

“Magic? You’re kidding, right?” Melissa scoffed. “I mean, come on. This is just some crazy murdering cult or something. You got us in here, so you get us out.”

“Yeah,” Carissa agreed.

I turned desperately to Beatrice, who was sitting with crossed arms. She gave me a half-hearted shrug. “I don’t know,” she whispered, her voice still shaking.

“Guys. Not helpful,” Dylan said. “We need to think.”

“For once, Dylan is right,” Brian pointed at Dylan. “We all have to work together or we’re not getting out of here.”

“We should all have jobs,” I said. “I’ll volunteer for...whatever the least great job is.”

“Good idea,” Brian said. “Not about the worst job part. Just the...assigning people part.”

“Let’s get out of here,” Dylan said.

Rob sat in silence. My stomach squeezed for him, but I didn’t know how to ask the obvious. How’s your pain? When your pain was obviously horrible and not going away anytime soon, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

We all gazed at Brian, who was sitting still with his fingertips on his temples. After a few moments, he opened his eyes and sat up. “Ok, let’s make a plan,” Brian said. Brian’s dad was in the army, so he knew a lot about planning and acronyms. He spread his hands in emphasis as he said, “S-M-E-A-C.”

“What’s that mean?” Eric pushed his glasses up further on his face.

“Situation, Mission, Execution, Administration, and Command,” Brian said. He glanced around. “Er, if I had a whiteboard, it would make more sense.”

“So our situation is… that we’re stuck in this carnival,” Beatrice said.

“More specifically, the cage,” Heather added.

“Right,” Beatrice nodded.

“And there’s a lot of dangerous...freaky stuff. And people...things,” I added. “And that omniscient jester.”

“Yep,” Brian nodded.

“This mission is, like, get the hell out,” Melissa said.

“Sure,” Brian said.

“And like...kill everything,” I added.

Everyone stopped and looked at me.

“What?” I said, crossing my arms. “It’s probably necessary.”

“Oh sure,” Carissa rolled her eyes. “Because making things more complicated is soooo helpful.”

“Probably,” Eric said, eyeing the straw again. “I mean, we should really look at the facts. She’s right. We’re probably not going to be able to just slip off into the forest.”

“We’re not?” Dylan laughed.

Rob coughed, which shut everyone up.

“Okay,” John said. “So...escape this cage, then escape carnival...by any means necessary. And get home.”

“Is the bus still around?” I asked. “Not that...we even know where we are.”

“That can be part of execution,” Brian said. “We have to figure out how we’re going to accomplish this mission. Reconnaissance. Anyone know how long we were driving for? Anyone willing to go venture around?”

“We were driving for about an hour and 45,” Beatrice said, holding up her wristwatch with a beaming smile.

“What direction?”

We glanced around at one another, but no one had an answer.

“Okay,” Brian said. “That’s...a good start at least. Too bad we don’t have like, maps around.”

“Hang on a sec…” Dylan felt his new pants, which reached his knees over tall stockings and old-fashioned shoes. He even had a newsboy cap on. “My phone’s not here.”

“Mine either!” Beatrice wailed.

“Ugh!” Melissa and Carissa complained. “Now what are we supposed to do?”

As the grumbling continued, I raised my hand, tentatively. “Um, I would be okay with like… doing some reconnaissance. Maybe look around for clues, maybe try and find some kind of map.”

Brian nodded. “Alllll right. We’ll skip over admin. Let’s think of some commands. Codes, for us to know when it’s time to execute something related to the special mission.”

“Hallows Eve?” John asked.

“Kinda obvious,” I shrugged, and he nodded and shrugged back.

“How about we call the mission ‘Thanksgiving?’ since we want to make it back before then,” Heather suggested. “We can just use various versions of ‘thanks’ in order to make it inconspicuous.”

“Probably simple enough to remember,” Brian said. “Just don’t slip it in by accident. If you do, just say sorry, and look at the person.”

He looked at each of us. “Clear?”

“Clear,” I said, as others said, “yeah,” and “yup.”

“Ugh, whatever,” Carissa snapped.

Chapter Text

The pickup-dropoff circle in front of Collinsville High School was dark, with orange sodium street lights casting eerie shadows on the cars below.

The cars were running with the heat on, their exhausts puffing out white clouds around the circle, and inside, parents and younger siblings yawned and waited impatiently for the bus to arrive.

Ellen Jackson, Heather’s mom, was tapping the steering wheel in earnest, staring at the bumper sticker of the mid-size SUV in front of her that read, “Collinsville Football.” She could make out the large form of Mr. Huxley in the driver’s seat. Red tail lights shone livid and bright around the circle in the late evening shadows.

Ellen tilted her wrist to check her watch: 7:05 p.m. She continued tapping on the steering wheel. The bus should be arriving any minute. In fact, it was already running a few minutes late, but no matter, she thought -- they probably had to stop for gas on the way home, or hit a few extra red lights.

The old cemetery wasn’t too far, but was still five or so miles away from the school, through winding roads and out of the way.

Journey’s “Faithfully” was playing quietly on the radio, and in the backseat, three-year-old Holly Jackson was slumped over in her cushioned seat, snoring softly. At home, a steaming shepherd’s pie was waiting for Heather as an apology for their fight this morning.

Heather had slammed the front door as her mom jerked open the car door to drive her to school, hair still damp and trying to get her second earring in, stumbling on her low heeled shoes. The last sight of her was her backpack swinging over her shoulder, the back of her head cocked upward in rebellion. She hadn’t even looked back as she shut the car door on her mom’s words: “Have a good day, sweetie.”

All day, Ellen had nervously tapped her pen on her desk, trying to focus on emails and spreadsheets for the board meeting -- Collinsville Community College was about to roll out a new strategic plan, and the Communications Department needed to be ready with outreach opportunities and press releases -- but Ellen’s stomach was flipping as she tried to figure out what to say to Heather.

Heather’s older sister Nicole was engaged, living in a cramped apartment with two roommates in Boston, about to graduate from BU Law, and 15-year-old Heather couldn’t keep her room clean and her boyfriend at a safe distance. Greg, a basketball player a year older than Heather, had wandered into the house without invitation and into Heather’s room, closing the door behind him.

They had only been dating for five months, and his lack of respect was baffling. Nevermind the sexual overtones of spending hours at a time doing nothing but hanging out in either his basement or in her bedroom, his arm draped over her shoulders, a smirk on his face.

The last time Ellen picked Heather up from his house, at 9:30 p.m. on Monday night, his parents were asleep and Heather closed the door quietly behind her, tiptoeing to the car.

As Heather opened the car door to get in, Holly had woken up and started crying.

“So,” Ellen said. “What did you guys do today?”

“Not much,” Heather shrugged, avoiding eye contact and blushing.

“You were there since school got out,” Ellen reminded her daughter. “Did you eat, go somewhere? The bus ride isn’t that long. What did you do for seven hours?”

A walk, a dinner, a date would have been nice.

“We just hung out,” Heather snapped.

“What does that mean, ‘hung out?’” Ellen snapped back.

“Nothing, it just means hung out. Jeez, do I need to write a minute-by-minute schedule for you to analyze?”

Hung out of his pants, more than likely.

“Don’t take that tone,” Ellen said. “I’m your mother and I have every right to know where you are, and what you’re doing. You might not think so, but you’re still my kid.”

“We were at his house,” Heather said. “We weren’t doing anything.”

“That’s the problem,” Ellen said. “You’re never doing anything. What? You just sit on the couch all night, watch ten movies? Can you even remember the movies you watched with him? Probably not. You shouldn't be spending this many hours alone, with no supervision.” Ellen’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel.

Heather crossed her arms and slumped, sulking, while Holly continued to sniffle and cry.

Heather’s latest progress report, which came in the mail before Heather could intercept, showed that some of her grades --previously excellent -- had slipped to Bs and even one B-minus. She had already lied to her mom, saying that they didn’t get progress reports in the fall quarter anymore.

The pressure of the relationship seemed to be grinding her down. Heather’s homeroom teacher was concerned because Greg wanted to see her in between classes during every locker break, making out with her right in front of the classroom up to the bells ringing. As soon as Heather got home, he was calling the house phone, which Heather would sometimes let ring and ring.

“It’s Greg,” Ellen would call, elbow-deep in flour and egg for the chicken batter.

“Just let it go,” Heather called back.

“What’s the matter?” Ellen asked. “Is everything okay with you two?”

“Fine, Mom,” Heather would reply. “I just talked to him at school and I don’t have anything else to talk about.”

And then Ellen would call Nicole, her eldest daughter.

“I don’t know what to do about them. His parents don’t supervise or don’t care -- they spend all day alone together doing nothing. Or who knows what.” Ellen had even prepared for Christmas by buying books that even Ellen thought were cringe-worthy: You’re Worth It and Every Young Woman’s Struggle -- the religious self-help books that urged teenage girls to say no to any sort of romantic physical activity, including full-body hugs.

“Mom, I think you need to let up a little,” Nicole said in a dull tone. “Heather is at that age. She’s going to resist everything you say and the more you push and ask her for details, the more closed-off she’s going to be.”

“I just don’t even think she’s happy in this relationship,” Ellen said. “He’s not good for her and I know it’s not going to last. There’s something wrong -- he’s pressuring her and being a bad influence, I just know it. Nothing really bad, but...”

“Okay, I get it, but you just need to let it run its course,” Nicole said. “Even if you want them to break up, you can’t do it for her. Just…tell her you’re concerned. Ugh, Mom, I have to go -- I have a lecture tonight and then some friends want to meet up at Black Rose tavern. Talk to you later!”

City girl Nicole was engaged now, but never dated anyone in high school. She was too focused on her academics. Heather was a bit more outgoing, outspoken, and artistic, but she hadn’t worked on any of her pieces for her application into the prestigious Art Club at the high school. Her easel was empty, and what should have been finished pastels were left half-hearted, rushed sketches without any color or life, forgotten and gathering dust.

Ellen wanted to badger her more -- inspire her -- don’t you care about AP Art anymore? But she could already imagine Heather’s reply: I thought you didn’t want me to go to art school.

Last night, which was Wednesday, Greg had attended Heather’s soccer match after school. He had sat with Ellen and Holly but didn’t say much. There were two boys from Heather’s class serving as managers and scorekeepers on the sidelines -- Ellen couldn’t remember their names, but they were from the hockey team.

Heather was off. She was slow and distracted, a step behind the others, but keeping up just enough that she wouldn’t get benched. One of her teammates even opened her arms as if to say, “what the hell, Heather?” when Heather missed a pass. Heather kept glancing toward her mom nervously. Or was it Greg she was looking towards?

At halftime, the managers -- maybe Darren and Tim? -- brought the girls water bottles while the coach talked to them. Tim sat next to Heather and she had smiled, saying something like “thanks,” after he gave her a water bottle.

All at once, Greg stood up, slamming his sneaker on the metal bleacher, startling Ellen and Holly.

“Fuck you!” he hissed toward the bench, his hands around his mouth for emphasis.

Tim grinned in response.

Heather didn’t notice his anger at first, just waved at him, confused at what he was doing, then rescinded her hand when Greg flipped her off and started to storm off the field.

Ellen clutched Holly, who had started whimpering, and hurried after him.

“Greg,” she cried angrily. “Greg!” She grabbed his arm at the elbow and he violently shook her off, startling her.

“You are not to speak to my daughter that way,” Ellen snapped. “What the hell is the matter with you?”

“Maybe you should teach your daughter not to be a skank,” Greg shot back. “Oh wait. She has too many daddy issues to count.” He shrugged her off again, stalking toward his car in the parking lot.

“Excuse me?” Ellen cried after him.

After he left, Ellen desperately tried to call Greg’s parents, needing someone to take responsibility, but they weren’t interested.

“Oh, okay, sorry he said that,” his mom, who was at least 20 years older than Ellen, said in a bored-sounding voice.

Ellen stormed back to the bleachers, where the other parents were waiting, concerned.

“What happened, Ellen?” Marguerite asked, touching her on the shoulder.

Ellen just shook her head.

That night, Heather threw her soccer bag to the ground after walking in the door and headed to the kitchen.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Ellen snapped. “Get back here.”

“Um, going to eat, obviously,” Heather said. “I’m hungry.”

“Take a seat.” Ellen pointed at one of the armchairs by the front door.

Heather, dirty and covered in grass stains, sank into the chair, her eyes raised to her mom behind furrowed brows.

“In case it wasn’t obvious, you and Greg are finished,” Ellen said. “You can hand over your phone, and I’ll be calling your teachers to make sure you don’t see each other for even a minute in school.”

“Mom!” Heather cried. “What the hell? What did I do? What did you say to him?”

“What did you do? You let an abusive asshole control your life for far too long. Do you even know what he did today?”

For once, Heather didn’t have a retort. She shut her mouth, and shook her head.

Ellen explained.

“Aside from disrespecting my rules in my family, he has severe jealousy and control issues,” Ellen said. “You want to be one of those girls that makes excuses, that allows him to get progressively worse until he snaps? Because I’m not going to tolerate

that kind of relationship.”

Heather stared at her feet, tears pooling in her eyes.

Ellen didn’t comment on the other things he had said about her father being gone-- the truth about his jealousy was quite enough, and it was clear that Heather realized she was right.

“Heather--”

Without a word, Heather stormed upstairs, slamming and locking her door behind her.

Just like that, Ellen’s satisfaction sank back to ground zero.

Chapter Text

Thick knuckles rapping on Ellen’s car window made her jump.

“Hey,” the muffled voice of Ron Huxley, Brian’s dad, came through.

Ellen rolled down the window and peered up at him.

“I saw you were parked behind me,” he said, hands stuffed in his pockets and nose red. “Just wondering where you think the bus is?” Each sentence expressed white clouds.

Ron, or Sergeant Huxley, as he was known around town, lost his wife to cancer a few years prior. He was big, burly, and bearded -- the epitome of a dad bod.

Ellen glanced instinctively at the car radio -- the time was now almost 8 p.m.

“I have no earthly idea,” she said quietly. “You don’t think they ran out of gas, or got a flat tire…?” Heather hadn’t called, and she was too embarrassed to admit why.

“Nothing came across my scanner,” he said. “So whatever it is, it’s not serious.”

“Yet,” was the unspoken word between them.

Several other car doors slammed shut and other parents joined Ron outside of Ellen’s car, shivering.

“What’s taking so long?” Tara Borden, Melisssa’s mom, asked. She was tiny and blonde, huddling in the arm of her husband. Mr. and Mrs. Collinsville High Prom King and Queen, 1985. The cheerleader had married her football player, a giant white rock on her finger that seemed to grow bigger every couple of years as she got it traded in, the rumor mill said. Tonight she was in skin-tight yogas and Uggs, and a bright blue, long sleeve track jacket that also functioned perfectly as a pushup bra. A solitary diamond glinted in the tan folds of her neck. Her hair, too, was more yellow than platinum blonde.

The Rotterdams, Carissa’s parents, were as close to Mr. and Mrs. Borden as Carissa and Melissa were to each other. The Rotterdams owned a beautiful, sprawling farm that also served as a riding and boarding stable. Carissa was never shy to compete in show jumping as a result of growing up under her mother’s equestrian thumb, and often took to wearing matching tan breeches, brightly colored polos, and dark ponytail with her mother.

Some of the parents Ellen didn’t recognize. She had a laminated card in her purse with Heather’s classmates’ names on it, if she even still had it. She grabbed her purse from the floor of the passenger seat, and dug around. Mrs. Borden cleared her throat as Ellen worked through the cracked, dirty pleather, fishing through old receipts and broken pens for her worn wallet.

The card was faded and folded, but still readable, and she eyed the rest of the parents that were huddling around her car.

She recognized dark-haired and sharp-eyed Mr. Coppermine, John’s father, who drove a black pickup truck to school. His wife was not here at the moment, but she worked part-time at the local pharmacy.

“Blasted cold out here,” grumbled Mr. Wint. He was shivering in a nice suit. “Their dinner’s going to be cold, too, if we’re out here waiting any longer.”

“What’s your son’s name again?” Mr. Coppermine asked.

“Dylan,” Mr. Wint replied. “Future partner of Wint & Wint, Attorneys at Law. Only this time,” he chuckled, “it’ll be Wint III and Wint IV.”

Collinsville, Iowa had a lot of woodlands, a lot of farms, and a tiny center of town that hadn’t changed since the eighties. Maybe even the sixties.

Mr. Wint squinted at the Rotterdams. “You’re the Rotterdams, aren’t you? You own the farm up on Terrace Court?”

Emily Rotterdam smiled. “Yes sir. It’s also a family legacy. Our farm has been in the family since...well, since Collinsville and Greely Valley were founded. But we absolutely love it. Carissa especially.”

“It’s a lot of hard work, I can imagine,” Ellen said.

“That’s for sure.” Mr. Rotterdam focused on her.

“What time is it now?” Mr. Coppermine asked.

“About 8:15,” Ellen said. “You all look cold. You want to sit in the car for a while? There should be room for everyone.”

Emily Rotterdam laughed. “Thanks Ellen, but I think it’s a bit cramped for us.”

Ellen half-smiled in return.

Ron was glancing nervously around, his radio buzzing with empty static.

“I’m just sitting in here because Holly is asleep at the moment and…” Ellen was about to say that she didn’t want to lock herself out, which would be embarrassing.

Another mother was pushing through the crowd and shivering, her arms crossed over her thick scarf. She was joined by another woman, slightly shorter and dumpy looking, with thick curly hair.

“Hi. I’m Anna’s mom, Mrs. Knox. Call me Terri,” the thinner, taller woman said. She had long, silky hair pulled back in a ponytail, and she nudged the other woman beside her. “This is Mrs. Butler, Beatrice’s mom.”

“Anna?” Ellen said. “I’m not sure I know her, but it’s nice to meet you.” She wasn’t sure about Beatrice, either.

“Your daughter is Heather, right?”

Ellen nodded. “Yes.”

“I have two younger boys, youngest about Holly’s age,” Terri said. “Ethan and Bennett.”

“And I have a few older kiddos,” Mrs. Butler said. “Kelsey is our oldest, and then there’s Ryan and Jon in the middle, and Beatrice is the youngest.”

Ellen realized she knew the Knox name. She had seen it recently somewhere. “Maybe we can get together sometime,” she smiled. “It’s just me and Holly most days, now that Heather is growing up.”

“Anna’s a bit on the quieter side, so she’s home more often, but…” Mrs. Knox smiled. “I’d like that very much.”

“Well, if you’re forming a club, perhaps Ron could join,” Tara Borden laughed, her hand on her husband’s chest.

“Sergeant Huxley,” Ron replied tersely, turning back. He was still very focused on his radio.

That’s why I know the name, Ellen gasped internally. Mrs. Knox just lost her husband.

She purposely did not wish to say “sorry” in front of the other parents. She remembered how awkward it was when her own friends had done the same, sidestepping talking about the divorce, and standing at a distance as if it were contagious to have a cheating asshole of a husband.

“Well at any rate,” Terri said. “It’ll be nice to spend time with you all.”

“It’s nice right now, despite the bus being late.” Two men stepped forward, one with shoulder length black hair under a hat, and the other slightly shorter with receding hair.

“Ross Neese,” the taller man said in a honeyed voice, and raised an arm behind his partner’s back. “This is my husband, Paul Pierson.”

“And who do you belong to?” Mrs. Rotterdam asked.

“Eric is our son,” Paul said. “Bright boy, wears glasses?”

“The Asian one?” Mr. Borden asked.

“Jake,” Tara hissed.

“Well, yes…” Paul said. “He’s adopted.”

“Of course,” Emily Rotterdam said.

“Well we could have used a surrogate and egg donor, but...you know, there’s so many children who need homes already.”

“You also need a lot of…” Mr. Borden slid his fingertips together to indicate “money.”

“Well, of course, children cost a lot,” Mrs. Butler said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re adopted or not, especially if they end up in private school!”

“We adopted Brian,” Ron said. “At birth. Best decision we ever made.” At that, he listened to his radio again. The parents quieted down in order to hear, but it was still plain static. “It’s approaching 8:30,” Ron said, grabbing his keys from his pocket. “This is getting out of hand.”

“Where are you going?” Terri asked.

“I’m going to take a drive out to the cemetery and see what’s happening,” Ron said. “Or see if I can’t find their bus.”

“Do you want some of us to come with you?” Mr. Rotterdam asked.

“Yes, of course,” agreed Mrs. Borden. “Some of us need to keep waiting here, and some of us can go with you.”

“Have any of you tried calling your kids?” Mr. Coppermine asked. “John has a bit of an unreliable phone, but…”

“Of course we have,” Emily Rotterdam snapped. “Straight to voicemail.”

“The service out by the cemetery is very spotty,” Ross said.

“I did try Eric’s, and the same thing -- straight to voicemail,” Paul said, holding his flip phone out.

“Anna doesn’t have a phone,” Terri shrugged. “No need.”

“Same with Beatrice,” Mrs. Butler said.

Some of the other parents gave them queer looks.

“Alright, well, I’m going,” Ron said, his arms out. “Anyone who cares to join, then hop on in, but otherwise, you’re getting left behind.”

Ellen glanced back at Holly still sleeping in the car seat. It was approaching 8:45. What was she supposed to do?

Chapter Text

High-pitched laughter jolted me awake as the jester raked his sharp teeth and fingertips across the thick iron bars of our cage.

“Rise and shine, sleepies! Hope you rested in peace, hee hee!”

I groaned and rubbed my forehead. It was just as sore as the back of my head, which had uncomfortably rested between the bars. As I opened my eyes, I saw the reddish pink haze of a sun very low in the sky. The deep blues and purples of early dawn hadn’t yet been broken. I thought it must be like 7 a.m., if we were even in the same time zone as home.

Across the cage, the girls were confusedly lifting their heads, caught between their typical wakeup routine and adjusting to this frightening new reality.

“I thought I was going to wake up,” Anna mumbled. “For the second time.”

“Sorry, you’re never waking up from this nightmare! And now I set you free to walk the carnival grounds… if you dare!” Suddenly he sighed, looking thoughtful. “I suppose you need to eat,” he said, and waved his arms.

The girls startled, as some of the carnival workers, truly horrific beings, started to lurch forward with platters in their hands. The cretins, who had nails through their eyes and bulging bags of fat under their arms, looked like decrepit, inbred mutants from Appalachia.

“Thanks,” Melissa said cheerfully, even though I could tell it was forced.

I shot her a look. What are you doing? I mouthed, and she shook her head.

The jester, looking more evil by the day, smiled at Melissa, but it was a twisted smile of sharp teeth and lurid red lips that were too large for his face. There was no nose -- it was a hole like a skeleton would have, and two large white eyes sat in deep sockets.

“You got a name?” I asked, as the platters were dropped in the cage.

“Umlaut,” the jester said, surprising me. It was that easy, huh?

“Umlaut,” I repeated, botching the pronunciation. “I’m Dylan.”

The food was strange, in a way, but only because it was however early in the morning: hotdogs, fresh from the steamer, popcorn, and slices of pizza.

We lunged at the food and devoured it without tasting it, either because we were so hungry, or because it was subpar, bland, typical carnival food where everything kind of tastes like the inside of a greasy cardboard box. I grabbed two hotdogs in hand and a slice of pizza in the other.

The field had the cold scent of early morning dew and stale manure, and thick forests surrounded it. The sun was rising in front of me, so that meant East was in that direction, but it was also behind a thick wall of carnival tents and food trucks and glowing lights. Behind me, an ancient roller coaster that totally looked safe rose in silhouette, winding through more stalls, games, and a ferris wheel.

Hmmmmm…

The clothes I was wearing now were really stiff and uncomfortable and looked like they were two hundred years old: a starchy, stained shirt with a high collar, suspenders, a newsboy cap, and thick pants that looked faded, like a farmer wore them every day forever. The cap didn’t do much for my hair, which was long in the back. To make matters worse, I had on stiff leather shoes that probably had no soles and looked like a librarian’s, which was like, the last kind of shoe I would ever wear.

In other news, the cart still was full of hay that smelled like gasoline and we were still trapped like rats.

With food still in hand, we found ourselves suddenly standing in the middle of the trampled, grassy field, surrounded on all sides by the carnival. The wagons in this area were almost certainly the ones that housed the carnival as it traveled (whenever), but now they were dilapidated with fading and peeling paint, broken wheels and yokes with no horses or oxen. Umlaut was gone, but the henchmen were still there, watching us eagerly, like we were something to eat.

“Enjoy your time at the Carnival,” Umlaut’s disembodied voice called from across the sky.

We all jumped.

“Ride the rides, see the shows! But if you’re caught out TOO late... then who knows!”

A giant clock appeared in the center of the clearing, glowing and ticking. Right now, it read 7:30 a.m.

“What time should we come back?” John called to the sky.

There was no answer.

“Maybe we should split up,” Anna suggested. “Cover more ground.”

“Yeah...you go your way, and we’ll go ours,” Melissa said, laughing to herself and crossing her arms.

“Wow, Melissa,” I said. “You know she just lost her dad, right?”

“And, so?” Melissa snapped.

“So cut her a break already,” I said. “If Anna hadn’t accidentally summoned the carnival of all evil, I’m sure another one of us probably would’ve.”

I know I would have.

Anna was looking at the ground. I don’t think she liked people bringing up her dad.

“Sorry, I said.”

She shrugged.

“I think splitting up is a great idea,” John said. “Like, in groups of two or three. See what we can find out.”

“Great,” Melissa said. “I get Carissa and Brian.”

“Let’s draw straws,” John said. “To make it more fair.”

“We don’t have straws,” Beatrice said, “but maybe we can play like, spin the bottle.”

Rob was silent.

We took turns blindfolding each other and spinning with outstretched pointer fingers.

Sure enough, Melissa picked Carissa.

“You cheated!” Heather snapped.

Melissa shrugged. “Yeah, whatever you say.”

Soon enough, we had our groups: Beatrice, Heather, and Brian; Carissa, Melissa, and John; and that just left me, Anna and Rob.

“We have to find Mr. Cainson, too,” Anna said.

Carissa rolled her eyes. “Oh my god,” she said.

“Well, she’s right,” Beatrice snapped.

“She’s obsessed with him and everyone knows it. It’s super pathetic. He’s not even attractive. Ooooh, Mr. Cainson! Be my daddy!” Carissa giggled and fell into Melissa.

“Shut. UP!” Brian hollered, in a tone that made them stop cold. “Do you wanna get out of here or not? We have to work together.”

We regrouped and each stared at different portions of the carnival: Rickety Town, which looked to be the rides and food court, the Haunted House (self-explanatory), and the Freak Show.

“Let’s do the Freak Show,” I told Anna, who shrugged in response.

“We’ll do the Haunted House,” Heather said, and Beatrice blanched.

“That leaves Rickety Town,” Brian said. “I guess you guys will take that, Group Two?”

“Group One, moron,” Melissa snapped. “We’re Number One.”

“Whatever. What time do we need to get back?” John said. “There’s this huge clock and no answers.”

“What was it he said?” Heather mumbled to herself. “Ride the rides, and see the shows, and don’t stay out too late...”

“Too late,” Beatrice called immediately. “Too..TWO! Anyone have a watch?”

Nobody did.

“We’ll just have to hope for the best, then,” John said.

“No.”

We all turned.

Rob was sitting hunched on the ground, his fingers laced together over his shins. “No. We should just sit and wait here.”

“What do you mean, dude?” Brian snapped. “Because you’re butthurt that you got yourself into some trouble?”

“Brian,” Anna muttered. “Watch it.”

“No, Anna, I will not ‘watch it,’” Brian growled. “This idiot wanted to be a smartass and test the psycho jester. We are all on the team and we all contribute. All for one, and one for all, until we get out of here.”

“I’m not going.” Rob’s eyes were swollen and red, like he hadn’t slept and was crying all night.

Brian looked like he wanted to pick Rob up by the scruff and shake him.

“You think the carnival goes away on its own, or what?” I asked, trying to take the attention off the clearly-damaged Rob. The kid that was sitting in a puddle of his own misery wasn’t the best friend I knew. And I felt partially guilty for egging him on and goofing off to see what the jester would do.

“I don’t know.” John and Heather raised their arms in confusion.

“Maybe we can kill everything,” I shrugged. “Like Anna says.”

“Well, first we gotta wander around. See what we can find out,” Brian said. “So let’s split up. Rob can stay here and be safe. I’m sure nothing can happen with all of us gone.” He gave Rob a biting look, and then turned away.

I walked over to Anna and touched her shoulder. “You ready?” I asked. “I don’t think there’s any part of this that’s going to be pleasant.”

Anna was pale, but resolute. Her frilly frock of a dress looked ridiculous, but kinda pretty.

“Yeah, let’s go,” she said. “Maybe there will be an axe or something we can grab.”

“That’s my girl,” I said.

She looked at me queerly.

As we turned to face the freak show, a gate made up of a man’s writhing eyes and gritted teeth, I noticed a small, lit stand beside the gate.

“Oh look, guys, a shooting gallery!” I called.

“Those aren’t real guns,” Brian said. “It’s a carnival.”

“For you,” I handed it to Anna.

“I’m more of a swordsman,” she shrugged. “But I’ll do my best.”

We grabbed rifles, grenades, and pistols, and then I saluted Brian before we again faced the gate.

“Okay,” Anna breathed, hunched over her gun in her dress. “Let’s go.”