You’ve dared return to the Dark Carnival. How brave, yet foolish! Today, I can’t guarantee you’ll make it out alive.
You can see the live list of participants and their posts dates on this link.
Follow the buzz on twitter using the official hashtag #DarkCarnival. Oh, and don’t forget to scroll to the bottom of this post for a giveaway!
Tabbi’s Petting Zoo
Tabbi had never touched anything as soft as the rabbit she held in her lap. The sensation of its smooth, silky fur gliding between her fingers and the contrasting hard bumps made by the trembling creature’s elbows and shoulders delighted her. If there was a word that described how this felt, she hadn’t heard it.
“Want to trade?” Tabbi’s sister, Clara, asked, offering up her toad.
“Iew,” Tabbi said, wrinkling her nose. “No thank you.”
She and Clara sat knee to knee in their foster-brother’s tree-house. Except for their animals, either of the twelve year old twins could have been the other’s reflection. They insisted on wearing perfectly matched outfits and hairstyles, and always wore pretty dresses with hats or decorative accessories in their long black hair.
“I wanted a pony,” Clara said with a disgusted frown at the toad. “Why couldn’t you be a pony?”
“Mother said you couldn’t get a pony, but you had to try anyway, didn’t you?” Tabbi asked.
“At least mine isn’t a deformed monster,” Clara said.
“Well, at least not anymore,” Tabbi said with a wicked smile.
“Conner! Dinner time.”
It was Mrs. Graham, their next-door neighbor. Clara looked up from her toad with wide, startled eyes.
“Conner, time to come home,” Mrs. Graham called again.
Both girls giggled.
The tree-house door swung open and Arlene, their adoptive mother looked in. She pretty and always very kind, even when one of her children caused trouble. The floor of the tree-house was about five feet above the back yard, and Arlene had to step on the bottom rung of the ladder to see inside.
“Oh, hi girls,” she said. “I thought your brother—Oh dear lord! Is that…? Where did you get that rabbit? Is it wild?”
The rabbit squirmed in Tabbi’s hands, but she pulled it into a firm hug.
“Please tell me you didn’t take that thing from the carnival,” Arlene said.
“Oh gross. It peed,” Clara said, holding her dripping toad away from her pretty yellow dress. It hopped out of her hand and Arlene promptly scooped it off the floor and cupped her hands around it.
“No. On second thought, don’t tell me,” Arlene continued. “I don’t want to know how you got it. But you have to take it back. Tell your brother I said to drive you to the carnival and help you return that poor thing to its proper home.”
“But we can’t take it back,” Clara whined. “We didn’t…”
Tabbi pinched Clara’s arm and pushed into her thoughts. Shut it, Clara! Let me handle this.
“Arlene,” Tabbi said as her foster mother started walking away. “Mom, wait. We walked home from the carnival. We haven’t seen Ryan or Connor since we left.”
“Girls, please just take the rabbit back to wherever you got it. If you walked here with it, then you can walk back, right? And hurry home. It’ll be dark soon.” She turned away and walked over toward the fence and Mrs. Graham, setting the toad in the grass along the way.
“What are we going to do?” Clara asked, wide-eyed and near panicked.
“Get a hold of yourself,” Tabbi said. “I can’t hear you think when you get so emotional. Honestly.”
The rabbit seemed heavier on the walk to the carnival. They carried it between them in a white painter’s bucket, stopping a few times to switch sides and rest their arms. Clara’s anxiety bothered Tabbi. It interfered with their twin connection, and Tabbi wanted to talk about their plan without the risk of being overheard. It would have to wait until Clara calmed down.
Stepping through the carnival gates, Tabbi inhaled the refreshingly chaotic atmosphere. She loved the carnival. It was a place of risk taking, of rule breaking. It was place where the outsider and the misfit could feel at home, where weird was normal.
Countless discordant sounds bled together, combining the voices of man, machine, and beast into a joyful chorus. The frenetic, insistently happy music, the cries of vendors and game masters, the rattling, creaking, clacking of the rides, and the screams of children and adults all made a lovely song.
The aromas of every imaginable kind of food cooking in deep fryers battled with the stench of animals, garbage, and strong perfume. This place was the best and worst of humanity in a giant blender, and it gave Tabbi a delicious smoothie of the emotions that she could only pretend to feel.
Dressed in identical yellow dresses with green sashes at their waists and crocheted hand bags over their shoulders, they looked as much a part of the carnival as Tabbi felt.
They put the bucket down outside the petting zoo gate and took a moment to rest. The petting zoo was little more than a tiny paddock with two goats and an alpaca, with a enclosed pen that could hold a couple of children and six or so rabbits.
“Is he okay in there,” Clara asked, pointing at the bucket.
Tabbi shrugged and pried the lid off. The rabbit didn’t look well at all. It was sprawled out on its back with three of its legs in the air, breathing in quick, shallow gasps through its open mouth. It’s front right paw lay limp at its side, covered in angry pink skin instead of soft rabbit fur, except for a straggly patch on its elbow about the size of a quarter. Instead of a normal rabbit foot, two very human-like fingers protruded from a twisted, misshapen hand. One of its ears looked nearly human, too: pink, hairless and much shorter than the other.
A couple of teen boys walking past tried to look into the bucket, but Tabbi snapped the lid on and sent them packing with a glare that would have chilled the sun.
Clara nudged her and nodded toward a woman inside the animal pen. She pulled a photograph from her handbag.
“There she is,” Tabbi said. The woman inside with the animals looked more like an average person than the witch they knew her to be. Her bright green tie-dyed shirt camouflaged the dirt and stains of her job. The same could not be said for her ragged, discolored jeans and brown work boots. The well-dressed woman in the photo with Tabbi’s mother would have been mortified at being seen in such a state, but this was, without a doubt, her. Aside from her position in the world and her fashion sense, the last ten years had changed her very little.
“It’s hard to believe she and our mother were friends,” Clara said. “What if she recognizes me?”
“She hasn’t seen us since we were babies,” Tabbi said. “All you have to do is keep her occupied and keep a clear head. I’ll do the rest. If you get into trouble, just start crying and yelling for your mommy. That should draw attention, and she won’t do anything to you with a crowd of people staring.”
“Couldn’t we just tell her what we did and ask for her help?” Clara asked. She seemed much more nervous now than when first saw the woman earlier that day.
“Certainly not,” Tabbi said. “Now get in there pet those bunnies.”
Drying herbs, tiny bottles and frail wooden racks took up every flat surface, and strange abstract art prints and Broadway musical posters covered the walls. The tiny herb and spice vials on the table were labeled and priced, and sorted into wooden racks. At the far end of the small trailer a narrow door opened to a storage closet and a tiny bathroom.
Tabbi wasn’t sure exactly what she was looking for, but when she saw the intricately carved wooden chest at the bottom of the closet, she knew that was it.
She dragged the box into the main room and heaved it onto the table, scattering and breaking many of the tiny vials of herbs and spices. The whirlwind of aromas mingled with the lingering ghost of incense, inexplicably bringing her mother to mind. Would her mother be proud of her? Would she understand what Tabbi was trying to do?
The white bucket thumped against the floor, reminding her to hurry. The spellbook had to be in this box, but she didn’t see a way to open it. The catch had to be hidden among the intricate carvings in the pale, worn wood.
The trailer door opened and Tabbi spun around to see the witch stepping inside with a black rabbit in a wire cage. She put the cage on the floor and smiled at Tabbi.
“Can I help you with that, dear? It can be a little tricky until you know the secret.”
The black rabbit stood up in the cage, shaking its head at Tabbi.
“Yes, that would be helpful,” Tabbi said, reaching into her handbag. “There’s something I need to find, and I’m pretty sure it’s in there.”
The woman raised an eyebrow and stifled a smile. “You are very young to be so sure of yourself. More than one witch has fatally overdosed on self-confidence.”
“Maybe,” Tabbi said. “Which one of us do you think is in the most danger of that?”
The woman waved a hand at the box and the top swung open on unseen hinges.
“I needed to get in there anyway,” she said. “I have a couple of items to store that I don’t want to be found just yet.” She glanced at the black rabbit.
Tabbi couldn’t resist peeking into the box. If it wasn’t obvious before, she could easily tell that it was magical. Inside, it was larger than her bedroom at Arlene and Jim’s house. It was filled with cages, some occupied by bunnies that cowered in the corners.
“Say hello to your new brothers and sisters. These are the children of witches I have killed, and I have waited a long time for you and Clara to take your place in my collection.”
“I have waited a long time, too,” Tabbi said. “It’s Mattie, right? Mathilda Norman? I’ll call you Mattie, if that’s okay. You don’t know what it’s like living in a new house every year, sometimes two or three, with a new group of strangers pretending they love you. Or not. It never really bothered me, but Clara has taken it kind of hard. That’s why I’ve been looking for you, too. You knew our mother.”
Mattie laughed. It was a real laugh, a happy one. “Your mother would be so proud of you, she said. “You are just as cold and heartless as she was. I bet you are very powerful, aren’t you? No matter. It won’t help you when you join the other animals. Instead of terrorizing the world as you grow up, you can bring joy to the children who visit you in my petting zoo.” She pulled a handful of dirt from her pocket and flung it at Tabbi, uttering a few unintelligible words to invoke the power of her spell.
Tabbi made a casual fanning motion with her free hand, conjuring a blast of wind that scattered what she assumed was grave dirt before it reached her. She smiled. She and Clara had been mispronouncing one of the words in that incantation. Now she knew how to make it work.
“Very powerful? No, not really,” Tabbi said. “Clara and I are pretty strong when we work together, but I know someone whose power makes ours pale in comparison. She is herein this room, too. I can’t tell you how much she has been looking forward to catching up with you.” Tabbi had been fondling a small glass jar in her bag. She removed it and opened the lid. “You remember my mother, don’t you, Miss Mattie? You used to do all sorts of wicked things together before you went all Glenda the Good Witch and started killing everyone with a cat and a broom.”
Outside, the first pops and flashes of the fireworks display erupted to the delighted noises and applause of the onlookers.
Inside the trailer, a different light show captivated its audience. A swirling cloud of ash burst from the small jar, filling the room. Arcs of power in red, blue, yellow and lavender cut through the cloud, outlining the shape of a person before vanishing as quickly as the fireworks. Eldrich power crackled through the air, flickering like a short-circuiting lamp. Each colorful flash highlighted the vengeful spirit of Tabbi and Clara’s mother. Tabbi smiled, entranced by her mother’s terrible beauty.
Matti gasped, and a slow, musical moan crawled from her throat. Terror was etched in her wide-eyed, open-mouthed expression as the specter of the woman she’d murdered so long ago appeared closer and closer with each burst of light. Pain wracked Mattie’s face, too. Her hair smoldered, and wisps of smoke climbed up from her exposed, darkening skin.
Tabbi had seen this display of power before. In truth, she found it quite beautiful, and not just for the deep, colorful witch-fire that consumed living flesh without harming anything else. The terror, the fear, the unending agony of a person’s final moments all played across the canvas screens of their faces like a macabre study of emotional expression. That was the true beauty.
Matti knew what witch-fire did to people like them. It had a special effect on those touched by the spirit world, those able to manipulate the energies of life and death. Witches, as they were called. She knew that her flesh was very painfully dissolving into a fine, powdery ash. Tabbi wondered if the agony of that transformation would overpower Mattie’s horror at knowing it would not kill her. Her spirit would abide, bound to her remains, eternally suffering and dying without the hope of death’s blessed release.
Tabbi’s mother remained visible longer as Mattie disintegrated. She looked like an older version of Tabbi and Clara.
“Hi Mommy,” Tabbi said. “You look so pretty today.”
The spirit turned to Tabbi as the last of Mathilda’s physical remains fell to dust. The witch-fire surrounded Tabbi, but the arcs of power were drawn to the glass jar.
“Mother! Stop that. You know you can’t harm me while I have your soul jar. Get back inside.”
The cloud, the light show, and her mother were drawn into the vial, and Tabbi closed the lid.
The black bunny thumped the wire walls of its cage.
Tabbi, let me out of here and turn me back. Hurry. This is awful!
See? I knew you could calm your mind with the right motivation. You should have warned me. Now you’ll have to wait. There are four other bunnies in here that want to be children again.
She looked inside the magic box at the stacked cages. Some held rabbits, some contained clothes and items that probably used to belong the rabbits when they were children. Four sets of bunny eyes looked up at her. She imagined she could feel the hope and relief of finally being set free in those gazes. She reached in and stroked one of their soft ears with a finger.
“Aw, that’s so nice,” she said to herself, enjoying the smooth texture.
Tabbi, please! Get me out of here. Don’t forget Connor.
Connor. She almost had forgotten him. He was just a normal boy, after all, unimportant and easy to forget.
She opened the bucket and looked in at the suffering, badly transformed rabbit. “Hang in there Conner. You’ll be all better in just a second.”
She took a pinch from the heap of clothes and dust that had once been Miss Mattie. Witch-fire remains could work in place of any spell component. She would have to craft another soul-jar for Mattie when she got home.
She sprinkled the dust over Conner and uttered the words of power. His misshapen body parts quickly transformed, leaving him a physically perfect specimen of rabbit. He stood up and tried to climb out of the bucket, but Tabbi replaced the lid. She put him and Clara in the magic box with the other rabbits and wheeled it home to her foster-mother’s house on the cart Miss Mattie had left outside.
Tabbi restored Clara to her proper shape before they got home, but Clara insisted on being angry. Even when they found a table and chairs set up out back with a cake, soft drinks and a pinata for their surprise farewell party, Clara refused to participate. It wasn’t much of a party with only Arlene and Miss Foster from next door sitting together crying. Apparently everyone in the neighborhood was out searching Ryan and Connor.
This had been one of their nicer foster homes and families, and Tabbi was determined to have a fun final day here with her sister. While Clara pouted in her room, Tabbi came up with a plan. She put on her best smile and went out back to recruit Arlene and Mrs. Graham.
Their foster father, Jim returned home later with no sign of the boys. He found Tabbi and Clara each riding a pony in the back yard, while half a dozen rabbits scattered in terror before them.
“Girls!” Jim shouted to get their attention. “Where are Arlene and Mrs Graham?”
They giggled to each other and struggled to control their startled ponies.
“We haven’t seen them since the ponies arrived,” Tabbi said.
Gregory Carrico is an Amazon.com Best Selling horror and science fiction writer, and HFA Author of the Year 2013 Finalist. He enjoys crafting bad guys that readers will both care about and despise. When not creating new worlds and plotting their destruction, he advocates for adopting rescue dogs, and politely urges slower drivers to get out of the passing lane.
Step right up! Try your luck!
Anyone may enter the giveaway. This includes the artist and writers contributing to the Dark Carnival, as well as the readers of the stories. Enjoy!