Confronting the Past (Flash Fiction)

Under the wavering beam of my flashlight, strips of red and yellow flapped in the breeze from where something had shredded the abandoned carnival tent.  I’d been here before. Every summer, my cousins would come to town and we would all pile into the rusted station wagon and make the two hour drive to the clearing in the woods, eager to see what new performance the traveling circus had put together.

I grabbed a fistful of the flap and pulled it open. I remembered the flap being heavier, but then I’d only been a kid the last time we were here. Dust choked the air, shining under the weak beam of light. I drew in a deep breath, and stepped into the tent.

My flashlight flickered and died. When I spun around, intent on fleeing, the tent flap was gone.

Something brushed against my ankles. I screamed, leaping back and lashing out with the flashlight. I must have jostled something into place, because the light cut back on. I swung it around, searching for the entrance. I had to get out of here.  The darkness swallowed the light, and I could find no trace of an entrance. I fumbled in my pocket for my can of pepper spray. Why hadn’t I brought something more useful? Like one of my guns or even a hunting knife?

If I kept the beam pointed straight ahead, I stumbled. If I pointed it at the ground, I couldn’t escape the feeling of walking into spiderwebs—even though every time I frantically scraped at my face, there was nothing there.

As I stumbled down the steps to the center ring, I heard the laughter of children. I spun around and lost my balance. I hit the ground and fell down the steps, tearing up my arm on the rough, molding wood. The flashlight shone down on me some steps above. A shadow crossed in front of it and then the light disappeared. I felt around for my can of pepper spray and found something furry in its place.

I shrieked.

I skittered backward. Torches blazed to life, crackling and snapping around the ring of the circus. I whipped my head from side to side. The seats were filled with people. My gaze lingered on the third row. The chubby cheeks of my gap-toothed grin smiled back at me. I remembered that night. That was the night when everything changed. The night of the last carnival.

The ghostly echo of organ music spilled through the tents and around me, ghostly apparitions of circus performers began to run through their routines. The trapeze act. The tiger tamer. Soon the clown cars would come out and take volunteers from the audience.

I watched my cousins and I all leap to our feet. I watched as we hopped up and down, waving our arms in desperation to be picked. I watched my lips turn down in a pout as I sunk down onto the bench. I watched the sullen way my younger self gazed jealously at my cousins as they stepped into the ring.

My cousins walked through me on their way into the ring.

“You left us,” Mary whispered in her high-pitched squeak.

“You forgot about us,” David’s forlorn whisper echoed in my ears.

“You never came back,” Mary whispered.

“Not until now.”

“No. I never…” But they were gone, taking the clown’s hands.

I closed my eyes, but the image played out in front of me. The tiger broke free of its cage. In the confusion both my cousins disappeared. The only thing we ever found of them was Mary’s shoe.

When I opened my eyes, the ghostly forms of my two cousins were all that remained in the ring.

“Nobody ever thought to look up.” Mary said.

“Up, up, up!” David repeated in a giggle. Their hands were linked and they were both looking toward the ceiling of the tent.

I followed their gaze but saw nothing. When I looked back, they were gone. I took one last glance upward and screamed as a piece of canvas plummeted toward me. I threw myself out of the way just in time. The canvas roll struck the ground with a thump, sending up a cloud of dust. Curiously, I tugged on the corner of the canvas.

I screamed.

And screamed.

And screamed.

The tiny skeletal hand of a child had flopped free when I moved the canvas. I fumbled in my pocket for my phone. No signal. I tried waving it around in hopes it would pick up a signal from somewhere. Nothing.

I turned back to the canvas and pulled up my camera. Just as I snapped the picture, the candles died. The flash temporarily lit up the room. I stared hard at the picture. Nothing but dirt.

Where had the bones gone? I pointed my camera up toward the top of the tent and took another picture. This time a canvas roll protruded into the picture, hung by a string.

I looked back at my phone, full bars of service.

I slowly pressed three buttons. I stared down at the numbers illuminated on my screen before pressing the green call button.

“I’d like to report a murder.” My palms grew damp. “At the old carnival grounds.” I could still hang up. “Twenty years ago.” I smiled. “Yes, the bodies are right where I left them.”

At the age of six, Eliza was certain of two things. The first was that she had stories to tell. The second was that she had no talent for illustrating them herself. Talent or no, she still wrote and illustrated her first book, one that should be located and locked away if only to prevent her parents from embarrassing her terribly by showing it off alongside baby pictures. Now she spends her days writing stories that she isn't embarrassed to show off after a little bit of polishing.

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