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Exposure: A Dark Carnival Short Story
by Brian LeTendre
“An old time photo booth,” Kylie exclaimed, almost pulling Jeff off his feet as she dragged him over to it. “C’mon–we have to get our pictures taken!” She stared wide-eyed at the pictures displayed all over the front of the small booth. They depicted everything from Civil War-era soldiers and Wild West saloon girls to old movie monsters and murder scenes.
“Seriously?’ Jeff asked, rolling his eyes at his girlfriend. “I only have like twenty bucks, and we haven’t even seen the whole carnival yet. I kind of wanted to go on some rides.”
“Yeah, and I’m not really into the idea of putting on a bunch of old clothes that haven’t been washed in years,” Sarah agreed.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Dave considered as he read the sign adorning the front of the booth. “Haunted Harry’s Old Time Horror Pics–it might be kind of fun.”
Kylie jumped as a scruffy looking old man poked through the curtain that formed the back wall of the booth.
“Fun, you say?” he asked, raising a bushy white eyebrow toward Dave. He vaguely resembled Uncle Sam, except his beard was unkempt, and his outfit was a black coat and top hat bereft of stars and stripes.
Before anyone could answer, the man stepped a black boot up onto the counter and pointed at Dave. “Sir, I personally guarantee that not only will you have fun dressin’ up in the fine garments I have available here, but you’ll be creatin’ a memory that will last a lifetime. And are you tellin’ me that you fellas don’t want to get your pics taken with these two visions of beauty here? Because if you are, then I would have to question your mental well being, gentlemen.”
“Oh my god we freaking have to do this!” Kylie squealed.
“Fine,” Jeff surrendered, “but we better be going on some rides after this.”
“Excellent!” the old man said with a slap of his knee. He pulled out a large portfolio from under the counter and opened it to the first page. “Now you just pick out your backdrop and then we’ll find the right dressins for ya.”
“Since you’re dead set on doing this Kylie, let’s at least pick something original,” Jeff said.
“Fine,” Kylie sighed, flipping through the book with the others looking over her shoulder. Among the usual backdrops were plenty of well-known horror locales like the Black Lagoon, Crystal Lake, and the farmhouse cellar from Night of the Living Dead. But Kylie’s attention was drawn to an unfamiliar backdrop that featured a hanging gallows outside of a large jail building.
“What’s this one?” she asked the old man, who sprang forward excitedly to explain.
“Ah, the Charleston Gallows!” he said, clapping his hands. “That’s where they hung Lavinia Fisher, the first female serial killer in US history. She and her husband John in fact. The two of ‘em ran a hotel where they killed a whole bunch of the guests over the years before they got caught in 1820. Chopped ‘em all up in the basement. Old Lavinia was hanged in her own wedding dress, spittin’ and cursin’ till her last breath.”
“Do you have a wedding dress?” Kylie asked, mesmerized by the old man’s story.
“Young lady, I have a replica of that dress that’s so good, even Lavinia would think it was her own.”
Kylie slapped Jeff on the arm and turned to Dave and Sarah. “Let’s do this one, guys! I can be Lavinia, Jeff can be my husband, and you two can be our executioners.”
“Sounds good to me,” Dave replied. “You don’t know how many times I’ve wanted to kill the two of you, between your stupid arguments and your make-up sessions.”
“I’ll second that,” Sarah agreed.
“Whatever,” Jeff said. “Let’s just do this so we can see the rest of the carnival.”
“Well then,” the old man said with a smile. “Just step through the curtain into my studio and we’ll get you folks gussied up.”
The tent that comprised the old man’s photo studio was much larger than the small booth outside suggested. Most of the area was filled with racks of costumes and boxes of props. The entire back wall of the tent was used for the photo shoots, and the amount of lighting kits, backdrops and projection equipment was impressive.
“You make enough money for all this stuff working a carnival?” Jeff asked the old man as he fastened the buttons on the plain gray suit he’d been given to put on.
If the old man replied, Jeff didn’t hear him. He was completely dumbstruck when Kylie stepped out from behind the room divider in her dress. The cream-colored silk wedding gown looked like it was made for her. The hand-stitched netting and lace sleeves were the perfect length and the bodice hugged her form like milk poured over her skin.
“What do you think?” Kylie asked.
“You look so–” Jeff started.
“God damn!” Dave blurted out, cutting him off and causing Kylie to blush.
“Watch it,” Sarah warned, slapping Dave on the back of the head. “I’d look good too if I wasn’t wearing a frumpy prison guard uniform.”
Dave swiveled around and grabbed Sarah by the waist. “I happen to love ladies in uniform,” he said in his best seductive voice. “And those long black boots are hot,” he added, raising an eyebrow suggestively.
“And you guys think we’re bad,” Kylie chuckled. “Now let’s do this!”
The old man positioned the backdrop of the prison yard and then used a projection of the gallows to make it appear that the foursome was standing on the scaffold, ropes hanging from the long beam above them.
“And this will all look real in the picture?” Dave asked.
As real as if these two were hangin’ from the gallows themselves,” he replied. “We just need to add one more touch.”
The old man fished around in a wooden box and pulled out two hangman’s nooses with about a foot of rope attached to them. He approached Kylie with the first one, and she took a step back.
“I’m not crazy about having a rope around my neck,” she said tentatively.
“Think of it as a necklace and nothing more, my dear,” the old man reassured her. “I’ll just be draping the rope off yer backs and the projector fills in the rest. When the picture comes out it’ll look like you’re hangin’ from that beam above. No one will be able to tell the difference.”
Kylie nodded and the old man slipped the noose around her neck, tightening it just enough for her to feel the press of the coarse fibers, but not enough to restrict her breathing. He did the same to Jeff, and then positioned Dave and Sarah to each side of them on the scaffold.
When he had the lighting right where he wanted it, the old man ran to the corner of his tented studio and rolled over a large, antique-looking camera.
“What the hell is that thing?” Dave asked. “All this high tech lighting and you’re shooting with a fossil like that?”
“She may not look like much, but this here camera is special. It adds a real lifelike effect to the finished product. If you don’t love it, I’ll refund yer money. Deal?”
“Yeah, yeah–that’s fine,” Jeff snapped. “Just take the picture.”
The old man smiled. “On the count of three, everybody say Lavinia Fisher. One…two…three!”
“Now you all just come back in a half hour or so, and I’ll have that picture ready and framed for ya,” the old man promised as he handed Kylie a receipt.
“I can’t wait to see it!” Kylie replied, beaming.
“Alright weirdos, where to next?” Sarah asked.
“Let’s grab some grub,” Dave replied. “I’m freaking starving.”
The four wandered around until they found a food stand and ordered a combination of fried dough, cheeseburgers and beer.
“We may not want to head right to the rides after this,” Dave noted a few minutes later as he took a large bite of his fried dough.
“Screw that,” Jeff scoffed. “Man up–first one to puke pays twenty bucks.”
“You just said you didn’t have any money!” Dave argued.
Jeff smiled. “I don’t. But I’ll have twenty bucks once you blow chunks like a lightweight on his twenty-first birthday.”
“You two are a couple of jackasses,” Sarah said with a chuckle. She looked over at Kylie, who was staring off into the distance. “Kylie, why aren’t you eating?” she asked, noting her friend hadn’t touched the food in front of her.
“I think I had a reaction to that stupid rope,” she said, rubbing the front of her neck. “It’s all irritated and itchy.”
Jeff took a swig of beer. “It didn’t bother me,” he said. “Who knows how long those things were in that box, though.”
“I’ve got some Pharmadryl in the glove compartment of my car,” Sarah offered. “My allergies are brutal this time of year. “I’ll run and grab it with you and we can meet the boys at one of the rides.”
“I vote Tunnel of Love!” Dave said, raising his hand for a high five from Jeff, who obliged him.
“In the meantime, we’ll hit the Rotor so I can get my twenty bucks,” Jeff said, planting a kiss on Kylie before standing up to go. “Let’s go, crummy tummy,” he said to Dave, and the two of them headed off toward the midway.
“I don’t know what the hell we see in those two,” Sarah mused as the two girls walked across the large grass field that served as a makeshift parking lot.
“Uh-huh,” Kylie replied. She was staring off into the distance, absently rubbing her neck.
“What is up with you?” Sarah asked, starting to get concerned about her friend. “I want to take a look at that when we get to the car.”
“I’ll be fine,” Kylie said with a wave of her hand. “A couple of Pharmadryl and I’ll be good to go.”
They made it to Sarah’s car, a beat up hatchback she’d gotten years ago as a high school graduation present. The driver’s side door creaked as Sara threw it open and slid inside.
“Bend down and let me see your neck,” she told Kylie, who did as she was told, unzipping her sweatshirt slightly.
“Jeezus,” Sarah said. “You’ve got bruises all around your neck. Are you sure that rope wasn’t tight?”
“I…don’t think it was,” replied Kylie. “I can’t really remember.”
“Let me get you the Pharmadryl, she said, reaching over to the glove compartment. “Shit–I forgot the stupid lock’s broken.”
Sarah leaned back up. “I have a screwdriver in–hukkk!”
Sarah’s eyes went wide as the flathead screwdriver entered under her chin, split the roof of her mouth and then buried itself in the center of her brain. Kylie’s smiling face was the last thing she ever saw as the world blinked out.
Dave had just finished throwing up in a trash barrel when his phone started buzzing in his pocket. As he stood up, Jeff shoved a handful of napkins in his face.
“Easiest twenty bucks I ever made,” Jeff laughed, slapping Dave on the back.
“You’re a dick,” Dave replied, wiping his mouth and then fishing his phone out of his pocket. It was a text from Sarah. Kylie’s on her way back. I’m waiting for you in the car. Now.
“Dude, I need to go meet Sarah,” Dave told his friend. “Kylie’s on her way back here.”
“Are you freaking kidding me?” Jeff said, shaking his head. “Can’t you two even wait until you get home?”
“What can I say, man?” Dave replied with a shrug.
“Yeah, well you might want to chew a piece of gum on your way there,” Jeff advised. But his friend had already taken off at a sprint.
Dave arrived at Sarah’s car in record time. As he walked up behind the car, he could see one of her Sarah’s feet peeking out over the back seat. Starting to unbutton his shirt, he made his way to the back passenger side door, where he knew she’d be waiting.
“Here I come baby,” he said in his best Elvis voice as he opened the door.
When Dave saw Sarah’s dead eyes staring back at him, his breath caught. A groan slowly began to work its way from his gut into his throat. It never reached his lips, as something heavy smashed into the base of his skull, causing his knees to buckle. He pitched forward, hitting his forehead on the roof of the car and then slumping down on top of Sarah’s dead body.
In a haze, Dave tried to right himself. His hands were covered in blood as he pushed himself off of Sarah. He tried not to look in her eyes as he groggily backed out of the car. He turned his head just in time to see the car door coming at his face, and then the explosion of pain was quickly followed by darkness.
Where the fuck are you? Jeff texted Kylie. It had been a solid fifteen minutes since Dave had left and Kylie was supposed to be on her way.
“Finally,” he said as his phone buzzed with Kylie’s reply.
At the photo booth. Meet me there.
Jeff was thoroughly annoyed by the time he got back to the photo booth, and even more annoyed that neither Kylie nor the old man were anywhere in sight.
“Screw this,” he said aloud. “Kylie can just get the stupid picture herself.”
He turned to head back toward the midway, when his phone buzzed again. It was Kylie. Waiting for you inside, the text said.
“For shit’s sake,” Jeff sighed, shaking his head. “You never said you were inside.”
He walked around the counter of the booth and through the black curtain into the tent behind. It was pitch black inside, the only sliver of light coming from the curtain that swung closed behind Jeff as he entered.
“Kylie?” he called out.
His phone buzzed again. He held it up and glanced at the text. It was just one word. Here.
Jeff looked up and gasped, as the soft glow of his phone revealed Kylie’s face a mere foot from his own.
“Jeezus, Kylie,” he stammered, finding his voice. “You scared the shit out of me. What happened–”
Before he could finish his sentence, the lights inside the tent came on. Kylie was standing in front of him in the same wedding dress she’d worn earlier. There were deep circles around her eyes, and thick, dark bruises forming a line around her neck.
“I loved this dress so much, the old man said I could keep it,” Kylie said, smiling.
Jeff took a step backward. “What’s going on here? Where is the old man, Kylie?” he asked as he scanned the tent.
“He went to get Sarah and Dave for me,” Kylie said, stepping toward Jeff. She took her hand out from behind her back to reveal a bloody screwdriver.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with you,” Jeff replied, taking another step back, “but I’m getting the fu–arrrghh!”
Jeff’s hands went to the side of his neck, where the handle of the screwdriver was jutting out. His breath came in wheezes as he tried to grab the blood-slicked handle and pull out the five-inch steel bar. As he grasped clumsily at it, he could feel the tip threatening to poke through the other side.
Kylie watched with an eager smile as Jeff’s legs gave way and he crumpled to the floor, his life spilling out of the puncture wound in his neck.
Jeff’s vision started to blur as he fought to stay conscious. He could no longer lift his arms to fight off Kylie as she knelt down and cradled his blood-soaked head in her arms. She leaned in and kissed him softly on the forehead.
“In a few minutes, Dave and Sarah will be back,” Kylie whispered in Jeff’s ear.
He closed his eyes for the last time as her words carried him to the abyss.
“We’re all going to get our picture taken again. I want to remember this night forever. Don’t you?”
A gaming, comic and horror lover, Brian has co-hosted and produced a podcast about geek culture called Secret Identity since 2006, producing well over 1000 hours of programming. He also hosts and produces three other podcasts about writing (See Brian Write), design and small business (Kitbash Radio) and gaming (Co-Op Critics). He wrote a book about starting your own podcast called Making Ear Candy, which was released in August of 2013.
Brian’s first horror novel Courting the King in Yellow was released in October of 2012. His next book Lovecraft’s Curse will be released before Halloween. Brian also currently writes a webcomic called Mo Stache, which can be read for free online at www.mostachecomic.com and will be collected in print in 2014. You can get info on all of Brian’s projects at www.seebrianwrite.com and follow him on Twitter @SeeBrianWrite.
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! Muahahahahaha! Ahem. I mean good luck.