You’ve dared return to the Dark Carnival. How brave, yet foolish! Today, I can’t guarantee you’ll make it out alive. Your darling muse KJ is joining us today. You do know how much she loves a carnival….
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Once For Me
by Kristen Jett
I’ve been waiting all year for this, choking back blends of anticipation and the bile rising nausea of fear. It’s been one year since the carnival came to town. It’s only here for one week, the only time of the year where eating almost anything dipped into fried batter is encouraged by everyone.
It’s been one year since their last visit. One year since I crossed these gates. One year since my sister vanished. One year since I started my plans.
Funny how much can change in one single year.
I stand at the gates, almost not noticing the shaking of my legs. Would they recognize me? Would I look like the girl they’d stolen away before? I’d chopped my hair into a shaggy bob the week after she’d vanished. What was once crisp blonde is now a bizarre blend of mousey brown and faded fiery red. I don’t even recognize myself in the mirror; how could they recognize me as the twin of the girl kidnapped before?
It doesn’t matter though. No one looks twice at me as I walk through the gates. The ticket seller never even made eye contact with anyone in line, preferring to tap her nails on her cell phone and blow bubbles with her gum.
The noises. The smells. It makes it so hard to think. As soon as I enter, my senses are jostled by what used to be fond memories. The sugary scent of caramel apples and cotton candy. The noise of the midway carnies teasing some young man to show his girlfriend what a catch she has. The calls of the animals. The whisper of the wind, carrying the adrenaline of the crowd with it.
It’s overwhelming. And they depend on that. That’s how they do it.
I’ve looked it up, you see. Once she never came home, I did a little research. She wasn’t the only girl to go missing when this carnival came to town. Always pretty girls around the same age. From small towns. It wasn’t hard to find a pattern when you knew what you were looking for. Not that the police believed me. I was just the grieving sister, trying to make amends for her mistakes.
And I had plenty of mistakes to amend for. I never should have left her here. I never would have – had it not been for Julian McKane. Leather jacket. A rehearsed but still sexy crooked smile. Smoked too many cigarettes. The kind of boy that just wanted to use and abuse me. But when a boy like that looks at you, you don’t care how long it’s going to last. You know whatever price you pay will be worth every single little touch.
Except my price was Annabelle.
He’d strolled up to me under the ferris wheel. I never get on those rickety things. I don’t trust them. I was waiting for Annabelle, alone in my cowboy boots and the purposefully one size too small tank top. His eyes. My cleavage. And that’s when I knew. I had a chance. A chance with Julian freaking McKane. And as soon as my Annie came down, I did what any other girl would do. A whisper in her ear, “Annie, do you mind if I run?” A nod of my jaw in his direction as he leaned against a food stand, crooked smile lit our way. I knew the answer was no before I asked. She knew that boy was my Kryptonite, and maybe all I needed was one little moment to get him out of my blood.
She gave me that knowing smile of hers and tossed her blonde hair his way. “Screw him once for me.”
That was the last thing my sister said to me.
Because of Julian McKane and my own selfish lust, I left my sister here all alone. She was the good twin. The responsible one. The one that wouldn’t fight back. How foolish I’d been.
I shake my head at myself again, continuing my walk through the carnival. I don’t even know where I’m going. I just know that I’ll feel it when it’s right. Everywhere I turn, I think I see her. Every girl laughing has the same melody as hers. I’m lost without her. Just a shadow of the girl I was before. But I can feel her. I know she’s here. She’s like my heartbeat, pulling me in. Is she alive? Is she dead? I don’t know. I simply know she’s here, beckoning me. Calling me. Asking me to come find her.
Twins know these things.
I skim past the midway attractions, barely glancing at the rides. These are the illusions, the smoke and shadows – what you’re supposed to see. I’m looking for the heart of the carnival. You always think it’s the rides and the food and the carnies that makes the fair…but really there’s something more. There’s always someone running the shots. The puppets playing the strings.
I’m looking for the magician. The ringmaster.
A touch to my hand pulls me from my thoughts. I whip around to see whatever threat this is. “Isabel?”
That familiar voice calls out to me. Of course. Julian McKane. What a cruel twist of fate. I don’t even acknowledge him. The last time I lost my sister. What other cross could I bear?
“Izzie? I know it’s you.” Before I know it, his hand is around my waist, his voice a mere whisper in my ear. “You were the best thing about my last year after all.” Any other time, this would be a dream. How the times have changed. I shrug out of his touch, almost regretfully, “I- I have to go.”
“What are you doing here?” He swallows nervously, not even flashing that crooked smile. “I didn’t expect you’d ever come back here.”
Even now, he is still my weakness. Still my Kryptonite. It’s easier for me to answer him than to not. “Looking for Annie.”
A pause. There’s indecision in his eyes. Finally, one sharp nod. “Let me help.”
We stride through the fair, probably blending in more this way. We’re just another young couple, full of adrenaline and young lust. We could be anyone. It’s Julian who discovers the trailer I’m looking for, and his nimble hands crack the lock to get us in the door. The same nimble hands clap over my mouth to muffle my scream as soon as that squeaky door swings open.
In all the things I’d imagined, this was not it. I’d imagined some boy with a taste with pretty girls grabbed her to fulfill his carnal needs. I’d imagined she’d been kidnapped and forced to travel with some motley crew. That she’d been hypnotized and convinced to join the circus, or was a zombie slave working in a dusty tent somewhere.
This was not that. I gasp under Julian’s hands, reeling backwards as my heart wants to move forwards, stuck in some weird horrific limbo.
She’s alive. Barely.
The beauty from her face is faded, with her skin abnormally pale and taut. I have to wonder how long it’s been since she’s eaten. Her torso is strapped into a chair, but even the leather bindings don’t hide the ribs protruding through her torn clothes. The same clothes I’d last seen her in.
“She’s actually here.” Shock rings clear in Julian’s voice. He hadn’t believed me. He’d just come because he felt guilty. Or maybe he just wanted another roll in the hay.
Annabelle’s head lifts, clearly taking all of her effort. A raspy voice I’d barely recognize rolls out of her mouth. “Izzie? Leave. Before she comes back.”
“What happened to you?” I’m still in shock. I don’t…I don’t understand.
“Ah, dearie, you’ll know soon enough.” I turn just in time to see the owner of the voice walk in, her gilded knife pressed against Julian’s handsome neck. She oozed Queen Bee, looking like she’d just stepped out of a fairy tale. “Do you think these things create themselves?” She sniffs the air haughtily, her Roman nose upturning. “Do you think success comes easy? Do you think this beauty creates itself? Blood. Blood creates all of it. One girl a year. That’s all I need.” She sizes me up carefully. “A virgin would be better, but two sisters – twins, yes? – back to back. That ought to be a strong enough sacrifice.”
Which is worse – the fact that she can look at me and tell I’m not a virgin, or the fact that she’s talking about my death as if it’s imminent?
“I’m still alive, you know.” Annie croaks from the corner.
Queen Bee rolls her eyes. “I’ve only done this ceremony about a hundred times. I do know that you’re alive, since you have to be kept alive until midnight darling. Now do hush. I’m busy with your sister. Isabel, is it not?”
I nod dumbly, trying to figure out how to get us – all of us – out of this one. Queen Bee shoves Julian in the room, towards Annabel, while returning her attention to me. “You’re stronger than your sister, you know. You could do me well, despite how tainted you are. That anger you have is powerful. That drive to find your sister after all this time.”
I can see the rustling of Julian and Annie behind the crazy witch, but I focus on Queen Bee in hopes that she won’t notice. “I knew she was here. I could feel her.”
Her eyebrows raise. “Pity I don’t have time to research this more. Who knows all the things I could do with twins.” She eyes her watch. “I just don’t have time to find another pretty girl, and I can’t risk it. It’ll be bad enough if the spirits don’t appreciate your fire. Last time they didn’t approve, I had to spend a year dying my hair every week to hide the grays. Eternal youth, my ass.”
Beauty. Money. These are the things worth killing over? I can’t see how eternal youth could be worth murdering someone like my Annie, but then again I’d spent weeks wondering how I could live in a world without her.
“At least I found her,” I say slowly. Which is true. My questions were answered. Could I have gone another year desperately waiting for the carnival to come back? Could I have gone another year without the other half of me? I’d spent three hundred and sixty five days being the girl who could walk into a room, and instantly tell you how many ways there were to die in it. My eyes would find them all. Sleeping pills on the nightstand. Belt in the closet. Mirror on the wall. She’d been a part of me for so long that I wanted to join her wherever she went.
“You’re not killing my sister.” I didn’t even know Annie was possible of such a venomous voice. I’d be proud of her if we all weren’t going to die any minute now.
Annie looks me straight in the eye, and slowly nods her head at Julian. Her pale lips mouth the words “Once for me.” I see the shimmering of a steel blade being opened, and I know what’s going to happen.
Everything stops for a moment.
And then I see my sister die.
The tears streaming down my face only pause for one small moment – when I see hair turning gray, face turning ashen, and her captor dying too.
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