(7 minute read)
by William Falo
Ember hunted mice around the crooked tombstones as I watched from the pine trees, unable to let her go wild. I violated every rule of a wildlife rehabilitator, but I couldn’t let her go.
I took care of her from a kit when a carnie found her running from a barn fire, and he named her Ember. I feared for her, since I saw a mounted fox at the local bar. Its empty eyes glared at everyone who came in the door, and they looked both angry and shocked. I kept thinking its last thought was wondering ‘why did they do this to me?’ I couldn’t let that happen to Ember.
I leaned against a telephone pole, next to a sign, declaring that the carnival would open tomorrow. It came at the same time every year and brought the town together for food, drinks and fun; but I knew there were bad things there too, but nobody got hurt until Olivia went missing.
The missing poster on the other side of the pole curled up from the weather. Nobody ever found Olivia. There was no happy ending. They blamed the carnies, and that’s why one of them gave me Ember after he feared them taking her away from him.
Despite the missing Olivia, the town needed the revenue the carnival brought, and they invited them to return.
“Chloe.” I stiffened. The fox darted behind a tombstone. Ryan, a local man who was close to my age, approached me.
“What are you doing out here in the dark? You look like a vampire” he said, louder than I expected. He was always loud.
“If I was, I wouldn’t suck your blood,” I said.
I couldn’t trust him or anybody else. I was a foster child. A foster child sees a lot of things. The five lines I cut in my arm represented my foster homes, and none of them adopted me, not like I wanted them to anyway.
“Hey, I want to work with the carnival,” he said.
“In the freak show?”
“Funny. No, in the midway.”
I walked toward the woods.
“Wait. I wanted to ask you out.”
“No,” I yelled back. Ryan always asked me out, and I always said no. It was an endless cycle, but I got closer to a yes each time he asked. I would never admit that to anyone.
When the carnival opened, I walked to the funhouse and found the man who had given me Ember.
“I lost her.”
“You were supposed to release her anyway, once she was old enough. She’s a wild animal.” Jack lit a cigarette.
“But-” I couldn’t go on.
He looked at me. “It’s okay. I have an idea. Stevie, watch the ticket booth.”
Stevie walked over and waved to me. He was Jack’s son from a marriage gone bad.
Jack led me into the woods behind the carnival.
“I’m suspicious of this guy. He threatened me a few times in the past because I didn’t like how he treated his dogs when he walked through the carnival, and I let him know it. I know he’s a trapper. I reported him to animal control, but they ignored me.”
“Traps. That’s bad.” I shivered.
“I think they’re live traps. Still bad, but there might be time.”
“I hope.” My voice cracked.
The cabin was more like a shack, skins of dead animals were scattered around the yard, and traps littered the ground. It reminded me of a scene from a horror movie. I grasped the knife I always strapped to my waist.
“He sells furs. Bad business.”
I wanted to gag. I tried to run. I wanted to scream.
“There.” Jake pointed to a trap. Ember dashed against the sides, trying to escape.
“Ember.” I ran to her.
“I got a rock.” Jack smashed the lock, and Ember ran out; then she stopped once and looked back at me, then at the hills.
“Ember.” My voice cracked.
“Let her go, or she will die here,” Jack said.
“Go, Ember,” I pointed toward the hills. She ran into the woods, and the tears came and ran down my face. I didn’t bother wiping them away.
“Look at this.” Jack held up a blue ribbon. Olivia was wearing a blue ribbon the day she disappeared.
“They blamed the carnies on her disappearance. Some people even blamed me. I need to call the police.”
“She could be in there.” I started walking toward the house.
“Wait,” Jack said. “It could be dangerous.”
“I don’t care.” I reached the back door and picked up one of the branches that littered the ground. I smashed the window on the door, and the dogs chained around the other side of the house went wild. Their barks would draw attention soon.
“We don’t have much time.”
“Wait. Listen.” I heard sobbing and followed it through the cluttered house. Flies covered dishes in the kitchen while half-eaten food littered the tables, and boxes of junk lined the hallway. The stench made me nauseous, and I gagged on the vomit that I held inside my mouth.
“Look at that,” Jack pointed at the boxes. “It’s carnival supplies. They thought one of us was stealing them; they even fired someone for it.” Jack picked up and examined all kinds of ride and game signs, tools and parts, game prizes, numerous painted pieces of wood, some water guns and even a carousel horse.
“Wow,” I said. We stared at them until we heard the sobbing again. I followed it to the last door, and of course, it was locked. Despite Jack trying to find something, I couldn’t wait; I slammed against it with my shoulder and fell into the room. My shoulder throbbed, but I didn’t care when I saw a girl curled up on the bed. I knew from the missing posters that it was Olivia.
“Olivia,” I said.
“Oh my God,” Jack said. “We have to get her out of here fast.”
I reached out for her hand. But she wouldn’t take it; her arms were wrapped around a stain-covered stuffed cat.
“You can bring the cat,” I said, and she slowly reached out and took my hand. I hugged her, and we started toward the front door when a vehicle pulled up.
“Shit,” Jack said.
“What do we do?”
“When we reach the front door, I’m going to charge him, and you run the other way with Olivia.”
“No,” I said.
“Call 911,” he said.
I dialed the numbers, told the dispatcher what was going on, and then hung up, despite her telling me to stay on the line.
Jack opened the door with his hands up.
“You carnival animals.” The man said. I gasped; he was holding a shotgun. “Let my girl go.”
“Jack, he’s got a gun.”
“I know,” he said. “The same plan.”
“Just save the girl.”
“She’s not your girl, and we are not animals.” Jack charged the man and I started to run. Then I heard the worst sound in the world. A loud blast made my ears ring, and I fell to the ground pulling Olivia down. She cried out.
“Jack,” I cried out.
“My cat.” Olivia cried.
I saw it behind us, and I ran to get it then saw the man staring at me. He still had the gun.
I ignored it then ran back to Olivia. I feared a shot in the back that never came; when I looked back, I saw Jack standing over the man with a piece of wood in his hand, then he collapsed, and I saw blood on him.
“No,” I cried out. I fell to the ground with Olivia as the sirens got closer. I grabbed Olivia’s cat and handed it to her.
The police couldn’t believe Olivia was still alive and held captive in the same town, but they knew it could happen after the Cleveland, Ohio incident with the missing girls found after many years in the same area.
They interviewed me numerous times, even when I visited Jack in the hospital. Yes, he survived, and he needed a lot of surgery, but he would return to the carnival soon. Stevie stayed with him every day.
Olivia wanted to meet her heroes. The Carnival Heroes, she called us. I said Carnival Friends was better. Her parents promised a future visit and cried when they talked to us on a video chat. I cried numerous times after that night, and I mailed Olivia stuffed animals from the carnival midway games. I labeled them The Carnival Friends.
The kidnapper was in jail, and he should be put away for a long time; he blamed the kidnapping on the recent loss of his wife and daughter in a car accident and the resulting loneliness. The police said there was no record of an accident involving his family. They were investigating whether he may have killed his family or if they left of their own free will. When he saw Olivia lost in the carnival, he led her to his house and kept her as his child. I tried not to think of what she went through because it broke my heart and made me wish I could have found her sooner. A lot of people felt the same way.
I often rode the Ferris wheel; I asked the ride operator to stop my car at the top. Although I was scared, I admired the beauty of the midway lights from that height. It was beautiful.
I found peace there in the sky, even if it only lasted until the Ferris wheel started to move again.
When Jack returned to the carnival, I went to meet him but stopped in the midway when I saw Ryan kissing a high school girl behind the water-gun game. I ran behind a food stand and threw up. The worker there didn’t appreciate the image I portrayed, so I walked away. I always said no to Ryan, but I thought about saying yes; the next time he asked, I might have said it. Now, there will never be a next time. Nobody ever wanted me. I should have known better. I would stab him before I ever said yes to him now, but it still hurt. I walked to the funhouse as sadness overwhelmed me. It didn’t feel like a funhouse, it was a sad house now, and a pit formed in my stomach that felt like a rock.
Jack waited, and after we hugged, I sat down.
“What will I do now? Ember was my only companion.” I asked Jack.
“Come with us.”
“What can I do?”
“We’re linking up with animal shelters to rescue stray animals we encounter. We have one now. You can help. After all, we are The Carnival Friends,” Jack said.
Stevie brought over a tiny kitten. The cat’s short hair stuck up in every direction.
“Her name is Mischief because we found her tangled up in wires under a game in the midway. She got shocked but survived. She’s tough,” Stevie said. “Like you.”
“Sounds like a perfect match for you.” Jack laughed.
I bent down, and it rubbed against my hand while purring like a train engine. After a few pets, it bit me then licked the same spot. I laughed. I loved its attitude.
Meanwhile, people gathered outside the funhouse, which doubled as a haunted mansion, hoping to be scared by the things they feared. They didn’t know the monsters were not inside. The real monsters walked among them in the darkness, but in the midway lights, you might catch a glimpse of them.
I became a carnie. My friends became my family. I never saw Ember again, and that was a good thing. Now, I watch out for people and animals in trouble. I also take care of Mischief while trying to stay out of trouble, but I never make promises that I can’t keep. Maybe I can catch a monster one day and save someone like Olivia. I always keep my eyes open except when they are filled with tears for all that happened in the past, and although it is brief, the sadness is still there. Among the lights of the midway, I found my home.
I looked around at the carnies, and they were all broken in some way; I fit right in with them.
I started to see beauty in the carnival. I saw it when the sunlight faded over the double-Ferris wheel, and the lights of the midway filled the carnival with colors of every kind. I felt it as Mischief curled up next to me when we went to sleep. I heard it when happy children begged for stuffed animals as they ate cotton candy and cried for ice cream. When happy families celebrated winning a stuffed animal, I saw it, and I thought of Olivia. There was so much happiness and joy here.
Yet, sometimes, in the quiet of the night, I hear a distant scream. I jump up, and chills run through me until Mischief rubs against me, and her purrs calm me down. I just hope they are always screams of joy. They are screams of joy, aren’t they?
Copyright © 2022 – William Falo. All rights reserved.
About the Author
William Falo lives with his family, including a papillon named Dax. He has been published in various literary journals. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram.
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