Prompt: The dark carnival and its clowns have come again.
The ticket had no information on it at all. It was a pale orange stub of paper. Jeremia had tried a few things to get a date out of it. He had licked it, but that did not reveal any invisible ink. He put it over a candle flame, but the heat produced nothing. He didn’t have a blacklight, so he had to go over to the neighbor’s and borrow his.
Jeremia’s neighbor was a middle-aged man with bad hair and a brain that only seemed to be present half the time. He had a mustache, but it was less a decoration and more a symptom. He had one of those faces that things simply grew out of. Jeremia didn’t really know why he had the blacklight, and he hoped it had nothing to do with the stack of vintage men’s magazines sitting in the corner of his living room.
He caught him on an absent-brain day, so the man let him borrow the light with no questions asked. He only needed it for a few minutes, so he took it into the man’s bathroom and turned the lights off. He thought he heard his neighbor chuckle just outside. The teenager ignored the sound and flipped the switch. He dared not look at the walls, so he stared down at his knee where the ticket was balanced.
Finally. There was the information in eerie green ink. Tuesday, October 14th. Glinnley boulevard, 1455. 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm. No admission without ticket. No secrets shared. Jeremia turned it off. He would’ve liked to bring it with him, but he had a feeling the circus had their own. It was going to start in less than four hours. Glinnley was an hour away by his bike, and his parents would return home around midnight. They would no doubt be sloshed on white wine and cheese that had most of its cost in the label, but they would be present enough to notice an empty bed.
None of this changed the fact that he had to go. His parents were only getting sloshed three nights a week now because of what the circus had taken from them. They had given up, but not Jeremia. The police had been there, asked questions of the clowns with the glowing faces, and gotten nothing, but Jeremia wasn’t going to ask questions. He was simply going to show up, like a patron, and search.
Everyone who had heard of it casually called it the ‘dark carnival’, but it’s full name was Bladdibus Roper’s circus of limited light. The ridiculous show was very exclusive, handing out tickets only by word of mouth, hidden in handshakes, and disguised by ultraviolet ink. It was supposed to be an experience like no other, which was how his sister got roped in.
Becky was seventeen, only two years older than him, but there was always something unbalanced about her. She stood like someone atop a bar stool with a weak leg. She was always pushing her hair out of her face nervously, or brushing the rusty orange crop of it until it came out in clumps. She was kind-hearted, but she couldn’t take much. He once caught her yelling at a movie for killing a character. He watched through a crack in the door as she angrily pressed buttons on the remote, moving over to the DVD commentary so she could berate the director directly.
One day she was gone, off to join the circus, because apparently she’d found normal friendships in school too straining. She left a scribbled note and basically all her hair, sheared off and left on top of the notebook paper. They knew which circus; the school had gossiped about it for a semester. They had sent the police there, but they came back with shrugs. Now it was Jeremia’s turn. He huffed and puffed on his bike, with nothing but a light jacket, a ticket, and some old pictures of his sister Becky. When he got there he found a warehouse with someone like a bouncer out front, no make-up.
He handed over the ticket, which was scanned with a blacklight, and then he was allowed inside. It was very dark. That was the whole point. Nobody could see anything but the performers, as they were covered in ultraviolet make-up. He took a seat on the edge of a bleacher, nearly sitting on someone else at first. It was so very dark. No wonder his sister was with them. Nobody could see her if she didn’t want to be seen.
Eventually the performance started. A man, visible as nothing more than green teeth and red lips, handed out glowing striped bags of popcorn. The snack itself was visible; Jeremia didn’t dare swallow any of it. They’d put something on it to make it glow. A few kernels rolled into the ring, where glowing clown faces, incorporeal by his eyes, performed acrobatics. Someone next to him wolfed down neon cotton candy, the glowing sugar turning to glowing slime on his tongue, like a slug lolling out of a log on some swampy night.
The spinning rims of a tiny car appeared. He couldn’t see its body, but he knew it was a clown car. The engine sounded small. They heard a door pop open, and a dozen more faces spilled out, painted like tigers, bears, pies spilling their fruit filling, and funerary masks. They went about their routine. Now was his chance. He had only a moment while the car door was open.
He dropped to all fours and crawled into the ring, completely invisible thanks to the darkness. Becky was in the car; she didn’t have the stage presence to be a clown, but she was an excellent driver, very cautious. A clown stepped on Jeremia’s hand and he withheld a hiss. Just a cotton candy paper cone. Not a hand. Not the hand of a boy trying to steal his sister back.
When the foot was gone he scrambled into the tiny car and closed the door himself. It started to drive away, back into the black depths of the circus. How was it going so far? The building wasn’t that big. He reached up to where he assumed his sister’s thigh would be… and found nothing. He scrambled higher and grabbed the wheel. There were no hands on it; it drove all by itself. It couldn’t be true. Those were all rumors. There was no black magic at the root of the dark circus.
“Jeremia?” a voice asked, so far away. Becky. She couldn’t be in the car. It was so cramped in there and she sounded like she was at the bottom of a well that twisted and turned like a buried viper. He crawled through the seats. There were too many. The back of the car went on and on, and it was just as invisible as everything else. A paperclip jabbed the side of one hand, drew blood, but he kept crawling.
“Becky? Are you back there? This isn’t the place for you. Come home!”
“Don’t come back here!” his sister shouted. He could hear tears in her voice. He imagined her uvula turning into one, dropping out of the back of her throat and into an abyss, silencing her. She would fade away if she was allowed to be too quiet for too long. He was sure of it now. This circus was a recruiting tool for actual darkness, or perhaps a way to feed it.
The trunk of that clown car would go on forever if she let it. If there was nobody to argue her back. He crawled and crawled, through debris that grew sharper. He could see something in the distance now. A pale green dot. He looked down. He could see his blood as well. He was too alive to be back there; the natural light of his soul was shining through, being bled out. The dot screamed for him to stay back, but he didn’t listen. Little brothers, even in their concern, were so good at not listening.
Her face was painted and her tears didn’t streak any of it. Her hair had not grown back. She was scrunched up, arms around her knees. She broke down when his hand grabbed her wrist. She hugged him. She didn’t have to admit it. She wanted peace, not this crushing darkness, not this bottomless pit in a clown car, the sounds of festivities, of idiots laughing and eating, perpetually overhead.
His blood trail showed a way out, but that was assuming the darkness didn’t shift. They thought they were near the car door, but they felt cold damp air. The door was too heavy and it was on top of them. They pushed. Jeremia told her to try harder. She had to fight for it. She had to want a life if she was going to have one instead of being an echo in a musty infinite trunk.
The door moved and they crawled out. Something was different. They saw street lights. There was pavement beneath them. They had come out of a manhole, not the clown car’s trunk or front seat. They kept hold of each other’s hands as they pushed the cover over the darkness of the sewer with their feet. It seemed all of the deepest darkness out there, the kind that sought you out, tempted you in, was connected.
They were free of it, and they had to admit one thing of the circus. It was a hell of a show, and they didn’t have to fight the crowds on the way out.
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by darkefyrewolffe5656 during a livestream. I hereby transfer all story rights to them, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog. If you would like your own story, stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!