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Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Walk Up the Midway


She stood before the mirror; soft light from overused dimming bulbs that lined her reflection creating radiant beauty while lacking all function for the task at hand. She patted her face with powder, creating a cloud that gave the illusion of an otherworldly origin. The analogy was fitting for the setting, though she paid it no mind; her ritual was practiced with ease and grace borne of habit. She bent low and pulled dark stockings over her feet and up shaped calves onto her thighs where she clipped them to a garter, hidden under a black skirt. She stood before the mirror, topless, taking in her body's shape and allowing time to appreciate the curves that had taken so long for her to accept. She knew now that her acceptance didn't matter, not here, in this place; which was ironic since this very fact made it easier to appreciate. The image in the second mirror, behind her, was more difficult. Thanks to the juxtaposition of the companion mirror made her back visible and was a necessity, though it made her uncomfortable. She did not appreciate what she saw. Damaged, scarred flesh, made her shudder and curse her misfortune as she always did. She knew the scars were a necessary evil and to some, their symmetrical pattern would appear artistic, maybe even beautiful. To her mind, though, they were a reminder of the hardships that had led her here, to this place; and what had created the scarring she so despised. After a sigh she picked up her bodice and slipped her arms through it easily. She pulled it around her breasts tightly and began to fasten silver clasps in a regular pattern. With each gesture, the bodice tightened and she inhaled sharply in slight pain. Her back became more rigid as small wires inserted themselves into her skin at strategic points along her spine; these were the cause of the scarring, she knew, but she had no choice. Completing her task she stood before the mirror once more and gave herself a winning stage smile, spreading six arms before the mirror as if she were presenting a new car on a game show.

"Timothy!" the sharp voice cut the boy like a knife and he immediately blushes and quickly retracted his head from the tent, where he'd been watching.

"Timothy Clark Duncan! What in sam hell are you doing there?" Tim cursed silently to himself as he joined the fuming woman several feet from the tent.

"I'm sorry Ma," he said, "I was just watching."

"I know what you were watching, young man and you know God will strike you blind for peeping!" his mother said judgmentally. Tim ran a hand through his mop of dark hair with one hand while shoving his other into his pocket. He was handsome for his sixteen years, looking closer to twenty, with only his eyes and his smile betraying his innocence. 

"I'd rather be blind than a virgin." he quipped.

"Keep talking smart. You'll see. I bet all them monsters down in Charlotte were smart too. Look what's happening to them." In response Tim rolled his eyes.

Mother and son resumed their walk and Tim took in the sights and smells almost gleefully. He'd never been to a circus before, and had been pleasantly surprised when his mother had agreed to the trip. The midway was a bustle of activity and everything Tim had hoped it would be. A juggling clown on a unicycle rode in front of them and was rewarded with an awed stare from Tim. In spite of this, though, he wasn't deterred from his destination.

The sign read "World's Greatest Freaks!" followed by "100% Authentic! 100% Alive! 100% Creepy!" painted on the image of a ribbon wrapping around the rest of the text. Tim felt his heart begin pumping as they reached the entrance.

"Honestly Tim, I don't know why you want to go in there, those poor people."

"It's all fake, ma. Don't worry. I just saw Spider-Girl putting on fake arms." 

"I'll just bet that's what you saw." his mother said reprovingly.

"Jesus ma! Would you let it go?" he said, and instantly regretted it.

"Don't you dare take the Lord's name in vain! Now, I raise you better'n that, didn't I? Brought you to this place and that's the thanks you have?"

"I'm sorry. I'm just excited." he said.

"Well, excited about what?" his mother asked impatiently.

"That." Tim said, pointing.

The sign that read "World's Greatest Freaks" was centered above 4 painted portraits, each about ten feet tall.  The first was a smiling woman with six arms and read "The only living human arachnid! SPIDER-GIRL!" Next to this was a normal enough looking man, painted in a profile shot, wearing a black suit with a bowler hat on his head. His sign read "What cruel twist of fate can make a man become what he became? John Smith." Tim, wondered at this for a moment but shook his head, assuming there would be some gimmick. The third sign had been painted black with a banner that simply read "Removed by order of the state of Louisiana! Write your Congressman!" The fourth, though, was what had Tim's attention. The image was a man with the palest of pale skin, which appeared to be decaying; the eyes were glassy and white, lifeless and his clothes were torn and there were pieces of his body that had been worn down almost to bone. His mother gasped at seeing it but there seemed to be little surprise in her reaction. The sign read "FIRST APPEARANCE! GENUINE! CAPTURED IN CHARLOTTE! THE ONLY UNDEAD SPECIMEN IN EXISTENCE!" Tim didn't care that they hadn't bothered to name it, he intended to see it for himself, nonetheless.

"My God!" his mother breathed, "How awful!"

"If by awful, you mean amazing," Tim replied, "I agree."


"Step right up, step right up my young man!" the voice was boisterous and attached to a man who looked to be the inverse of a stereotypical ringmaster. He wore a black tuxedo, complete with tophat and tails on his jacket, his shirt was blood red with a white tie, and over his feet he wore red and white spats. His plump face was red and his bushy mustache was sculpted at the ends, rising into a curl on each side.

"Who are you supposed to be, Ringling?" Tim asked, incredulously. He made a mental note to point out on his blog that this man's appearance was so out of date that it passed nostalgic and served to take away from the ambiance of the attraction.

"If you like, good sir." Ringling replied with a smile, "We don't stand on ceremony here." 

"Whatever," Tim said, then before he could finish,

"Timothy! You're being rude!" his mother said with a smack on his head. 

"It's quite alright, madam! The boy is right to bring skepticism into the tent with him. A show like ours hasn't been seen in years and, as you can see some aspects of it have fallen before the more sensitive appetites of the modern world." he said, gesturing to the third sign on the panel before them.

"Look," Tim said, losing patience and waiting to get inside, "I already know this is all fake. There's no way you could get away with putting "genuine" freaks on display in a sideshow. Not these days. You'd get sued! It's not PC!"

"Quite so!" Ringling said with a chuckle, "Quite so, indeed. And yet, here we are. I assure you all of the attractions are guaranteed."

"Or our money back, right?" Tim scoffed.

"Not exactly. You see, you've already paid to enter and the entry fee is non-refundable. Our guarantee is something different entirely."

"Oh?" this from Tim's mother, she had moved closer to Ringling, and if Tim didn't know better, he'd think she was flirting.

"Indeed madam!" Ringling said with a flourish. "Why, if you aren't one hundred per cent assured of the bona fides of the attractions we will grant ownership of the entire show to your good selves."

Tim scoffed again, "Come on! That's hardly worth anything! If they're fake, why would we want them?"

Ringling was still undaunted, "As I pointed out, young sir, you have already paid the entry fee." he gestured to the tent. Tim admitted he had a a point. Even if the attractions were fake, a person could make money taking the act on the road.

"There's a sucker born every minute." he said walking into the tent. 

Tim blinked hard in an attempt to force his eyes to adjust to the darkness, though it didn't help. As soon as the tent flap closed all the light as well as the sounds from the Midway had vanished, and this unsettled Tim, though he assumed it was part of the show.  

"I shall be your guide on this tour of the grotesque," Ringling's voice came, more somber than before, "Please don't move until directed to do so. This is a safety precaution for yourselves. 

As if on cue, soft lights came up and Tim was able to see his mother next to him, as well as Ringling standing before a stage, cordoned off with a velvet rope, similar to a museum exhibit. Behind the rope, Tim could make out a velvet chair next to a simple wooden table. The table held several items, a pipe, a carafe of what Tim assumed was Brandy, a book of matches, and a lipstick. On a nearby wall there was a mirror, though there wasn't enough light to see a reflection.

"What we have here is the sitting area for John Smith." 

"Yeah, what's the deal with him?" Tim asked, "He isn't scary or a freak at all. He's just some guy in a bowler hat."

From further into the tent, Tim thought he could hear a low growl, and abruptly remembered why he'd been so eager. He felt fear for a moment, and wondered if the undead specimen was as genuine as promised. 

"Please, hold all your questions until the end, young sir." Ringling admonished. 

"John Smith was found north of the American border and welcomed the chance to make a home here with us. It seems that the residents where he'd come from were a bit unsettled by his countenance." Tim though Ringling had chuckled at the end of that sentence. 

As if on cue, a man appeared. He was clearly the man that had been pictured outside, he walked up to the chair and sat down, though he appeared to carefully position his back so that it wasn't pressed into the chair. He reached for the pipe and matches and deftly lit it and began puffing away.

"What's the lipstick for? Is he some kind of transvestite?" Tim asked, straining to make the normal character seem a bit weirder than he appeared.

"Certainly not!" came the appalled reply. John stood up, grabbing the lipstick from the table and began walking toward the mirror. He arrived, still facing the observers, and bent toward the mirror, backward. His back moved at an unnatural angle as he tilted toward the mirror, though what appeared as the reflection was anything but the back of his head. A blonde woman, reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe in her looks (though quite obviously not the famous actress) appeared in the mirror and began applying the lipstick.

"Oh my!" Tim's mother cried out in surprise.

"Come on! That's just a trick with the mirror! Anyone who took theater in high school knows how to do that!" Tim didn't bother to hide his disdain over the obvious forgery.

"Young man," John himself spoke now, "I appreciate a skeptical mind indeed, though I must protest at your lack of faith. Perhaps you'd like a closer look?" 

John moved up to the velvet rope, close enough that Tim could reach out and touch him. He locked eyes with the young man and began to slowly turn. The move was practiced, and he paused for just a few seconds in profile view and then completed his turn. Tim took an involuntary step back and inhaled sharply. The blonde woman from the mirror stood before him, lipstick freshly applied. She leaned over, and Tim noticed the curve of her breast in spite of himself, and swallowed hard.

"How did . . . " he stammered, "Uh, how did you do that?" 

"We didn't do anything, sugar." the woman stated, her voice soft and with a hint of sultry seduction.

"What happened to you?" Tim's mother asked.

The woman looked at Ringling, "Now, I just hate that question, don't you?" she said, "Nothing 'happened' this is how I was born."

"You were born as two people? Or as the front of two people?" Tim asked narrowing his eyes.

"Yes." came John's male voice.

John sauntered back to the chair, the female face remaining visible, and sat down, a bit more daintily than before. Tim winced at the motion, wondering how the being's knees were able to bend so flexibly in either direction. 

"It's some kind of trick." Tim said, though his voice lacked conviction.

"I assure you there is no trick. Shall we continue to the next, ahem, exhibit?" Ringling asked. His question was answered by another low growl and what sounded like a small scream. Tim looked past Ringling into the tent and took a hesitant step forward.

"What's next?" he asked, "Spider-Girl?" 

"Quite." Ringling said, ushering his charges forward.

As the trio moved forward, the lights dimmed once more, preventing Tim from looking back at John Smith and his curious "twin." He felt disoriented again as he was veiled in a darkness that was somehow thicker than any other darkness Tim could think of. his disorientation passed as pale light returned, slightly to his right, and he looked at what he knew to be the "lair" of Spider-Girl. He thought breifly of watching the woman prepare for the show and his disappointment that she was a fake subsided when he recalled her full breasts and curved hips. Before his thoughts had a chance to turn too erotic, however, Ringling spoke again.

"What you've surmised is correct, young sir. We have arrived at the Web of Spider-Girl. Now, she is not an arachnid per se, of course."

"Right," Tim said, "Let me guess. Some type of human-spider hybrid?" 

"Nothing so droll, I assure you," Ringling said, his tone indicating that he was beginning to lose patience with the boy, "No, Spider-Girl was involved in horrific accident a number of years ago. There was damage to her nervous system and she lost much of the mobility of her arms and legs. She joined our family, originally, as "The Living Dead Girl" but the effects of her appearance on the crowd was simply too catastrophic. Through a series of bizarre accidents we discovered that a prosthetic allows her to regain 100% use of her legs."

"So you admit she's a fake?" Tim asked, suspicious, "I thought you guaranteed everything was genuine."

"You'll now, I'm sure, that the chief characteristic of spiders is that they have 8 limbs. I'm sure you were expecting that Spider-Girl will as well. There are, however, other characteristics of the spider. We'll let you decide, young sir, if Spider-Girl can indeed live up to her name."

From the back of the web, Tim's eyes caught movement, and he saw Spider-Girl emerge. She did have the requisite 8 limbs, though Tim had to admit he was surprised to see her using all of them. She fairly crawled on her web, almost as a real spider would have. As she got closer, Tim was distracted by the light glinting from the web. The material was thick, but appeared fragile. No doubt it was some type of fiberglass, but it did seem odd that it bore her weight.

"She can use all 8 limbs," he began, "I'll grant you that but what-" 

He was cut off by a roar and what was unmistakably a scream this time, and he jumped back, startled.

"Pay of no mind, young sir, I'll tend to it while Spider-Girl regales you with her talents." Ringling said, disappearing into the darkness so quickly it was like he'd vanished.

"Your legs are impressive." Tim said, conversationally.

"I've never had any complaints," the arachnis replied, "You don't believe I'm genuine, I take it."

"Well, I mean, come on. How can you be?" Tim said. Spider-Girl moved closer and his mother drew back, not bothering to mask her fear. Tim knew this was due to her great fear of spiders.

"You heard the story of my accident. The legs may be prostheses but I assure you, I'm quite the Spider." her voice dripped with confidence in what she was saying. There was no question she believed every word.

"You see, when I was "The Living Dead Girl" the crowd reaction was fierce. Children screamed. Women cried. Men fainted." she said, the memory clearly drawing menace from her. Tim, was hypnotized by her gaze as she spoke.

"One day, a little girl screamed and wouldn't stop. I laid still, not wanting to scare her any further, but her mother, so appalled by my, began hitting me with her handbag. My benefactor," she gestured to where Ringling had disappeared, "Did his best to stop it. In the end, though, it was a good thing. Because I learned how to do this." she leaned in, mere inches from Tim's face, and he leaned back, so hypnotized was he, that he welcomed what appeared to be a kiss. At the last moment, however, Spider-Girl opened her mouth and a thick substance shot out and sealed itself over Tim's mouth. He reflexively reached up and pulled it away. It was sticky, but pliable and after a moment he was completely free. For her part, Spider-Girl crawled back to the top of her web.

"What the hell?" Tim's mother smacked his arm reprovingly as he swore. "What is this stuff? Spider's web?" the only response he got was the shrug of six arms.

"Ah, I see, Spider-Girl has let you in on her true nature." Ringling said, suddenly reappearing. His face was ashen, and sweat beaded his brow. 

"She caught me in her web, if that's what you mean." Tim said, then, "What's wrong with you, you look like you've seen a ghost."

"Nothing like that, young sir. It's been tended to and we are now ready to continue our tour. Shall we proceed?"


"Finally!" Tim exclaimed, no longer to contain his excitement. The other "exhibits had been cool enough, and he was intrigued about what a woman with six arms could do, but that didn't change the fact that what he'd really come here for was  the undead specimen they would now see. 

"Has the young sir not been happy with what we've seen so far?"

"Why do you keep calling me 'young sir'?" Tim asked, evading the question. The truth was he was convinced that nothing was being faked, but he could never let Ringling know that after being so certain it was. After all, for all he knew it could have been and was just far more elaborate than he had at first guessed. Either way, he had no intention of challenging the authenticity. If he lost the challenge he'd lose face in a public setting and if he won the challenge he'd win a Circus he didn't really want.

"My apologies. My intent is not to offend; we simply stand on a certain  . . . propriety."

"You can call me Tim." Tim offered carefully.

"No, young sir, I don't believe I can." Ringling said after a pause.

"Whatever." Tim rolled his eyes.

"Before we go any further, sir, madam; I must warn you that this next, er, specimen, is quite violent. You will need to stay back for your own safety."

"Is it safe?" Tim's mother asked.

Ringling met her gaze, his face still ashen. By way of reply he made a sweeping gesture.

"Shall we continue?" this time, instead of leading them on; he dropped behind them, ushering them forward. 

"He didn't answer my question." she murmured, moving forward.

"What's that smell?" Tim asked as they entered the next room. They were once again shrouded in blackness and a faint metallic smell had touched his nostrils.

"That is the smell of iron." Ringling said, "Now remember, stand perfectly still where you are and-" he was interrupted by a low growl. 

"What's that?" Tim's mother asked.

The growling increased in intensity and volume. It seemed urgent, feral, as if the source was a threatened animal backed into a corner. Tim stood still, and began shaking, suddenly afraid. He wasn't sure what was going but he knew that he wished the lights would come back up. He recalled, with the most vivid of mental images, the painting of the undead specimen he'd seen right before entering. He recalled the other times he'd heard the growl and later what he'd thought was a scream. Then, Ringling had disappeared and . . . . the thought clicked in his mind.

"Wait, is that-" 

His mother's scream was preceded by a guttural roar. Tim cried out in terror,


But it was no use. Her scream was long and loud, and eventually dwindled to a wail that sounded wet and strangled. The metallic smell from before became stronger and Tim sobbed, knowing what had happened.

"You asshole!" he screamed, at no one in particular. He wasn't sure where Ringling was due to the darkness, but he knew their guide could hear him, "You killed her!"

"I am sorry to stand on semantics, young sir." Ringling said, his voice barely above a whisper, "but I assure you I did not kill your mother."

As if on cue, the lights came up and Tim saw his mother's body, limp and lifeless; hanging over the velvet rope before the undead creature they'd come to see. The creature's mouth dripped with her blood and it's lifeless gaze turned to Tim as it growled once more. It was bound by chains, unable to move its arms and had limited motion from legs that were chained to the floor. Tim forced himself to look at his mother's body; at the damage that had been done. 

"That smell you said was iron? That was blood wasn't it?" Tim asked, softly.

"It is accurate to say that it was iron, young sir. Though I believe what you are referring to is the high concentration of iron in human blood that gives it a metallic odor."

"I'll kill you." Tim said. Either to the pathetic, chained, undead creature before him; or to Ringling, he wasn't sure.

He started at his mother's form once again and committed her wounds to memory. She'd likely strayed just close enough to the velvet rope for the creature to lunge. The bite was on her neck and her entire throat was torn out. She would have died in seconds from blood loss and oxygen deprivation, Tim knew that much to be certain. Her blood dripped from the gaping hole in her throat and onto the floor creating a pool beneath her. He breathed sharply as her finger twitched but sobbed in grief and anger as he realized he must have imagined this.

"I am sorry, young sir." Ringling said, moving between Tim and his mothers form. Tim eyes him suspiciously as the undead creature loomed behind him. He observed silently, waiting, willing the thing to lunge again. To destroy the demented tour guide that had led his mother to oblivion, but the creature only growled.

"You're sorry?" Tim said, anger overtaking him, "Sorry!?" he lunged himself, pushing Ringling back toward the velvet rope. The man stumbled and fell into the creature with a cry of alarm. The creature leaned over him menacingly, blood and saliva dripping from its open mouth as if it were taking stock of what the man was. Then, without ceremony, it stood and looked at Tim, snarling again. Ringling scurried to safety and stood before Tim.

"Young sir, I'll have to ask you to leave the premises." 

"Oh I will," Tim warned, "And I'll be back with the police." 

Ringling was on him in a flash, so fast that Tim barely had time to register the glint of metal that he next felt pressed to his throat.

"Listen to me, you sniveling shit," Ringling said, his voice suddenly a stark contrast to what it had been before, "You'll leave this place now or you'll become food just like your bitch of a mother. Savvy?" 

"I'll kill you." Tim responded, his voice choked as Ringling's hand closed around his throat.

"You'll leave us alone you bastard." Ringling chided, digging the knife in deeper. Tim winced as the blade broke the skin on his throat and he felt a trickle of blood down his neck. The undead creature jerked against its bonds, straining to break free at the smell of new blood.

"Or you'll kill me," Tim said, "Either way, one of us is dying today." and he brought his knee sharply into Ringling's groin causing the older man to jerk his arm upward, slashing Tim's cheek from chin to eye. Blood spurted from the wound and soaked half of Tim's face instantly. Ringling for his part doubled over, clutching his injured crotch. He wasn't felled for long; he fell and rolled into Tim's braced legs the motion causing Tim to stumble and trip.

Directly into the monster.

As it had done to his mother before him, the creature sank its teeth into Tim's flesh at the junction of neck and shoulder. His vision blurred and he let out a strangled cry as he fell to the floor. He thought he could see his mother, just out of the corner of his eye. Had she fallen from the rope? How had that happened? Was she crawling away? Blackness surrounded him again and as he lost himself within it, he faintly wondered what was left to see in this den of horrors.

Ringling stood over the boy, watching in fascination as gouts of blood gathered in a pool at the boys feet. He moved closer, to draw the boy closer to the undead creature, pausing long enough for the chained beast to move away from him. A second growl joined the first, guttural moans, and he heaved a sigh as the lifeless body of the young man's mother crawled toward him, a grotesque analogy of a newborn rooting for the breast.

"I'm sorry madam." he said, his voice once again proper, "But we've got no more space for new attractions." and he brought his knife down into the back of her head sharply, burying it through hair and skull into the brain underneath. He pressed it into her cranium as firmly as he could until she'd stopped convulsing and then pulled it out in one smooth, deft motion.

He turned his attention back to the boy and stopped cold. Blood was dripping from the gash he'd opened in the boy's face, but impossibly; the bite wound was getting smaller! Ringling watched, mouth agape as the hole in the boys neck slowly, steadily closed. Where the wound was spilling blood only a moment ago, there was now only fresh, pale flesh. Ringling kicked the boy experimentally, and was satisfied when he didn't move.

"Seems dead enough, anyway." he murmured, bringing his knife to bear.

In a move as sudden as it was unexpected, Tim swept his leg into Ringling's ankles causing the man to fall on his back, hard. He gasped, trying to recover the wind that was knocked out of him but before he could move, Tim stood over him holding a knife that had been Ringling's only a moment earlier.

"Victims." Tim said. He shoved the knife between the eyes of the undead creature that had killed his mother, and pulled it out again not bothering to watch the creature fall to the floor. He slowly knelt down next to Ringling,

"Aren't we all?" he asked, slicing the man's throat.

He watched silently as the blood poured out of Ringling; though it was the man's eyes that he watched closely. He gurgled and struggled for oxygen that would never come, and reached out toward Tim in a supplicating gesture. Tim didn't respond. He simply stood there watching until Ringling's eyes faded into nothing and his breath stopped. Satisfied, he dropped the knife and found his way out of the tent. He never looked back, never registered the glances of other circus goers that gasped in concern or gave him a wide berth as he walked by them, covered in blood. Some of it was his own, coming from the gash in his face, and he was thankful for that; it would be far easier if he could convince people that the blood was from his own injury; at least he could distract them from the fact that he'd just killed a man. He knew that the sheer amounts of blood didn't add up, but he forced himself to keep a steady pace; strolling up the midway as if nothing had happened. There would be plenty of time to figure things out later.

He hoped.

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