I always loved traveling carnivals. They held a mystery to me as a child, with the way they appeared overnight in an open field. I rode my fair share of rides and even won a prize or two, but the side shows fascinated me the most. The Man Who Could Eat Anything, munching away on nails and light bulbs. The Spider Lady, with the body of a giant black widow and the head of a woman. I would line up to see them as many times as I could.
I used to love carnivals. That changed when I was twelve, during the summer before my family moved away from my home town, Hystoria. My two best friends, Tommy and Wes, excitedly pounded on the front door of my house one morning. This wasn’t unusual for us. During the summer months, they practically lived at my house. My mom didn’t mind. We stayed out of trouble and out of her hair.
My mom opened the door, and they fluttered by with a chorus of, “Good morning, Mrs. Tilman.” Mom shook her head with a giggle, barely getting out of the way of the stampede. “Morning, boys. Michael is in his room.”
I was sitting on my bed, still in my PJs, when the dynamic duo crashed through the door and pounced on the bed. They both spoke at the same time, making it impossible to comprehend either of them. Wes clutched a paper tightly in his hands, shaking it at me. Tommy pointed at the paper with pure glee.
Waving my hands, I attempted to get their attention. “I can’t hear both of you at once.” They stopped talking and looked at each other. A moment passed, and they both were back at it, trying to out speak the other. Wes pointed to the flyer in his hand; clearly, this was what they were so excited about. I took it from him. The flyer was for a new carnival that would be opening this weekend. That was just two days away. I wasn’t sure why we hadn’t seen any flyers previously. Usually, we see the flyers a couple of weeks prior to the carnival’s arrival, so maybe we just missed this one.
Our town was pretty boring, so carnivals were a big deal to us kids. It was the closest some of us would ever get to seeing the world.
Tommy pointed to the upper right corner of the flyer. “Sneak Preview Thursday Night 10:00 PM!” I joined the others in the excited, unintelligible chatter. We cheered and made our plans for the evening.
Convincing my mother to let me stay out late wasn’t an easy task. Eventually, however, she relented on the condition that Tommy’s sister, Anna, would be there. We were spending the night at Wes’ house, so I also had to promise that we would be back to his house before midnight.
We were set. Anna agreed to allow us to tag along with her, so long as we agreed to disappear once we arrived at the carnival. She didn’t want her friends to see us. We also had to find our own way home. Our parents didn’t know these little details. We assumed there was no need to worry them with the little things, like the ride home; we would figure that out after the carnival. The carnival was set up on county land, just a few miles from Wes’ house. If we couldn’t catch a ride, we could walk.
We arrived at the carnival at 9:47 PM. Anna dropped us off by the ticket booth, then disappeared in search of her friends. The excitement grew, and we could feel the electricity in the air. The night itself was dark, making the neon purple lights of the carnival all that much more brilliant. The carnival tents were a mixture of black and purple, giving them a dark, yet regal, property. It is true the majority of the lights were neon purple, but there were other lights mixed in. The occasional black light cast a glowing hue, making white clothing and the occasional smile light brilliantly.
“Neat!” Tommy exclaimed. He was a man of many words, and most of them were the word “neat”.
We purchased our tickets and waited for the gates to open. Shaking with anticipation, we stared up at the sign. It read, “The Mystical Carnival. Suspend your disbelief.” The same name glowed in purple neon, in the center of the Ferris wheel. Over by the Tilt-a-Whirl, organ music danced on the night breeze. The smell of fresh popcorn and cotton candy clung to our nostrils. In one word, it was magic.
A little person, dressed in a black suit with a purple shirt, walked up to the gate and swung it open. He held a grumpy look on his face, but he waved us in. We smiled at him while we ran in. We skipped the Ferris wheel, opting for the Scrambler instead. A quick game of rock, paper, scissors helped determine who got to be on the inside seat. Nothing like smashing your buddy while spinning at high velocity. Unfortunately, I lost. Next, we took on the Viking’s Revenge. The giant boat swinging high in the air always made me feel like losing my lunch; that is why I always wait on the cotton candy until after.
11:15 PM came, and I begged Wes and Tommy to go see the side shows with me. I couldn’t miss them. We settled on watching the freak show. Wes grumbled that he wanted to get in line for the Ferris wheel. We knew the truth was that he was afraid. Wes was always skittish, especially when it was so dark outside. Tommy nudged Wes in the shoulder, and he reluctantly followed us.
“Five minute until show time!” a raspy voice hissed from a PA system, outside the black and purple tent hosting the show. We hurried in and found seats near the front row.
It was during the show, that I first saw him. His name was the Cursed Mr. Morttis. He was a terribly sad-looking clown. He stood well over six feet tall, wearing a white clown costume with black frills on the collar and sleeves. His bald head – all his skin, in fact – was covered in white paint. Mr. Morttis’ lips were nothing more than black slits, and black triangles sat above and below his eyes. He truly was a pathetic site.
When Mr. Morttis moved, I noticed the bags under his eyes, and his droopy cheeks. They made his face appear to be stuck in a perpetual frown.
The announcer began his introduction. “Ladies and gentlemen…” He paused for effect. “Welcome to this very special show! Tonight, you will witness the mystical powers beyond your imagination.” The announcer raised his hands above his head. “All fear, and watch in awe, the Cursed Mr. Morttis! He alone walks between the worlds of the living and the dead.” The lights dimmed on the stage. “Prior to this show, the Cursed Mr. Morttis sat in his isolated tomb, communing with the dead. They have given him the answers to questions. Questions you have yet to ask him.” A murmur went through the crowd. “He wrote the answers on these poster boards set before you, prior to your arrival!” Mr. Morttis stood in front of the crowd, holding the large white boards. “Who will be the first to tempt fate and ask him a question?” the announcer asked the crowd.
Wes fidgeted in his seat. “I don’t like this.”
“Stop being a worry-wart,” said Tommy, punching Wes in the shoulder.
The announcer pointed to a man in the front row in a tweed blazer. “Yes, sir, ask your question.”
“What are Saturday’s winning lottery numbers?” The crowd chuckled. Unfazed, Morttis turned over the first card which read, “We shall not profit off the works of the dead.” The crowd laughed and clapped in amazement. Mr. Morttis said nothing. His expression never changed, although he did wag his finger at the man in the tweed jacket.
The announcer interrupted the claps. “The first one is always about money, folks. Who has the next question?”
A woman in the back row asked the second question, “How old am I?”
The card was turned to reveal the number forty two. The woman sat down in shock. “He’s right.”
The next question came. “How did my father die?” a man asked. The next card flipped by Mr. Morttis read “St. Louis car crash”. The crowd swung to the man asking the question. “He’s right. How did you know that?” The cursed Mr. Morttis just stared at him.
They whispered in awe. Everyone except Tommy. He leaned over Wes to me and exclaimed, “They’re working with the clown. This is all just a big screw job!”
Mr. Morttis turned his gaze to Tommy and cocked his head to the side, looking at him questioningly. The announcer chuckled and pointed to Tommy.
“I see we have some doubters. Perhaps you would like to ask a question?”
Tommy smirked at first, embarrassed that everyone heard him. He thought for a moment and looked back at the announcer, then to the Cursed Mr. Morttis.
“Sure, I have a question. When will I die?”
“Well, well, well! Now there is a juicy question my boy. Are you sure you want the answer?”
Tommy nodded defiantly.
“Fair enough. Show him his fate, oh cursed one.” The announcer waved his hand to the clown.
Mr. Morttis brought the poster board over to Tommy and handed it to him. For a moment, he leered at the boy. I half expected him to attack Tommy, right there in front of everyone. But he didn’t. The strange clown walked back to the stage.
Tommy looked at the card and showed it to the crowd. “It’s blank?” Tommy exclaimed.
“I guess the spirits didn’t like your disbelief?” the announcer boasted, and the crowd laughed. The brief moment of levity made even Tommy smile, but Wes didn’t.
Terror filled his face as Wes looked on at the poster board Tommy was holding; it wasn’t blank to him. No one else seemed to notice. I didn’t, either, but I did see Wes turn pale. He turned from the sign towards the clown. Mr. Morttis was staring directly at him. Wes jumped out of his seat and ran from the tent.
We couldn’t catch Wes until we were in front of the Ferris wheel. He told us what he read on the poster: You will die tonight, boy.
“It looked like the words were carved by a claw instead of ink! Then that freak clown was staring at me!”
“I didn’t see anything on the sign. Maybe you thought you saw it?” I tried to comfort my friend.
“Man, you were freaked out!” Tommy laughed. “He did his job. Old Mortty was trying to scare the piss out of you, and oh boy, did he!” Tommy circled Wes, inspecting him. ”You didn’t crap yourself did you?”
“Stop it! I didn’t crap myself, and I know what I saw!” Wes scowled, shoving Tommy away.
I checked my watch; it was now 11:45 PM. Anna was nowhere to be found, and any hope for a ride home was gone. Tommy and I talked Wes in to a few more rides before we left for his house. After the Tilt-a-Whirl, Wes seemed more like his old self.
“Come on, guys, let’s hit the Ferris wheel before we go,” Tommy said, dragging us along. “We’re already late, so what would it hurt to be a little later?”
The view from the top of the Ferris wheel was incredible. We could see for miles. The woods on the edge of the field swayed with the light breeze. To us, on the top of the world, the wind felt more like a hurricane. We were scared, but having so much fun. For a few minutes, all was good.
Tommy spotted him first. A white figure standing on the edge of the woods, just outside the glow of the carnival. He was watching us.
When the ride was over, we hopped off of the Ferris wheel. Tommy wanted to find the clown and confront him, but Wes and I said we just wanted to get back to his house. We were already late.
Circling around the Scrambler, we headed for the gate. We all came to a sudden stop, our feet planted firmly as if the grass under our feet was holding us down. We all saw something by the exit, glowing bright from one of the black light bulbs. Another poster board leaned against the fence. Written on the poster board, in the same crawled writing Wes described, were the words: Leaving so soon? Have a nice trip home.
Hardly the indicting evidence of a sinister conspiracy against three boys, I know, but there it was.
We rushed through the parking area to get to the road. It felt better to be back on the side walk and away from the Cursed Mr. Morttis. He was now someone else’s problem.
Crossing the street, we exited the last of the light coming from the carnival. The air felt lighter here, even in the darkness. For a block, no one spoke. We were all a little freaked out, even Tommy who was always the bravest, or at least the most stubborn, of our group.
The left side of the road offered a sidewalk and the occasional dim streetlight. The right side was lined by the woods – the same woods we spotted Mr. Morttis watching us from. We opted for the sidewalk and the safe distance from the woods.
The silence was interrupted by the sounds of crunching leaves coming from the woods to our right. Our eyes scanned the woods for movement. With the wind, it was difficult to tell if anything was moving, besides the trees. The crunching noise was getting closer. I was sure of it. Maybe it was fear, or too many scary movies, but we just had to see what was coming.
“Do you see anything?” I whispered to Wes.
“No, but it’s moving towards that small clearing over there.” Wes pointed to a break between the trees a little behind us.
We watched intently, waiting for whatever it was. Something moved from the shadows into view. A long figure glided in to the moonlight and paused.
“It’s a deer. Just a dumb deer!” Tommy smiled. We smiled, too, over the fact that our worst fear was that we were being followed by…
My thoughts cut off. Wes and I looked at Tommy in horror. Mr. Morttis stood in the shadows behind him. We were so focused on the woods that we completely missed him. Mr. Morttis made no movements, but held a long, large kitchen knife in one of his hands.
I let out a scream so hard my ear drums throbbed. I am sure my friends did, as well, but I couldn’t hear over my own fear.
We ran, the night air rushing past. It couldn’t be more than a mile to Wes’ house.
Turning on South Street with our backs to the woods, we peeked back to see if we were being followed. South Street offered more light, enough to tell nothing was moving behind us.
“What the hell, man! Did you see that freak?” Tommy put his hands on his knees to catch his breath. I looked around.
“Oh God, no!”
I pointed down the street, not in the direction we were coming from, but where we had been running to. Standing under one of the street lights was Mr. Morttis. Again, he didn’t move towards us; he just watched, glaring at us with hatred. He was holding another poster chest-high: I am coming for you.
“How did he get in front of us?!?” Wes screamed. Wes led us as we ducked between the houses and hopped a backyard fence. “Reid Nix lives here. Maybe he will let is in? We can knock on his window.”
Motion lights in the back yard flashed on, cutting the darkness. Our eyes adjusted to the light, and there he stood again. Morttis’s silhouette stretched across the lawn towards us. He moved forward from the shadows. His eyes… What was wrong with his eyes? They were replaced by swirling pools! Greys and blacks churned in an endless vortex. He lifted his arm and pointed at us.
“I don’t want to die!” Wes cried. The Cursed Mr. Morttis pulled a knife from inside his sleeve.
“You won’t.” Tommy grabbed Wes and me by the collar, and we squeezed through a hole in the fence. Faster and faster we ran, across lawns and over trash cans.
A few minutes stretched to an eternity, but we reached the safety of Wes’ front door. The door swung open, and a dark silhouette filled the door way.
“Relax, guys. It’s my dad.” Wes led us in to his living room, into the safety of the light. Wes’ father had been waiting up for us.
“A little late, isn’t it, boys?”
“Sorry, dad. We lost track of time.” We considered telling him about Mr. Morttis, but we would just sound crazy. Really, were we going to tell him about being chased by a killer clown?
We went to Wes’ room to crash for the night, but I doubted any of us would actually sleep. The lights were kept off. We had gotten away from Mr. Morttis, but there is no need to attract attention if he was still outside.
Tommy decided taking turns watching out the window would be a good idea. We told ourselves we lost Mr. Morttis, and that there was no way the man could have kept up with us. But those eyes made me wonder if he was even a man. We didn’t take any chances.
It was my turn to watch the yard. Tommy and Wes settled in, playing Mario Cart. I couldn’t help but sneak a peek. After all, I was the reigning champion. Yoshi and I were unbeatable.
I peeked out the window quickly, eager to get back to the epic race unfolding behind me. But I couldn’t. There was something on the lawn. There wasn’t much light, but I could make out…a balloon. It floated just above the grass, with the string tied to the bottom dipping in and out of the grass. Besides that, it didn’t move.
I leaned towards my friends. “Guys, there is a balloon.” Wes and Tommy paused their game, with Mario midair, about to crash into Luigi’s roadster, and we all looked out the window.
The balloon had moved closer. I could now see it was red.
“That’s weird; the balloon was closer to the road just a second ago.” Again, the balloon only bobbed slightly, still floating out of direct light.
Trees and bushes cast shadows and offered so many places to hide. We scanned the night, but found no clowns.
The balloon drifted closer dancing in to the glow of the light from our window. We watched as it drifted closer and closer, as some unknown force was dragging it towards us.
Something about the balloon wasn’t right. The latex skin seemed to move. We focused on the balloon, as it drifted into the light.
“Oh God, its bleeding.” Wes backed away from the window. Indeed, blood ran down the sides, dripping down the string. Tommy looked at me. His bottom lip quivered.
“He is here. He found us.”
Wes whimpered behind us, but we kept our gaze on the bloody balloon outside the window, watching the dripping. Our focus wouldn’t have been broken, had it not been the kicking on the floor behind us.
We turned. The Cursed Mr. Morttis stood behind Wes, one hand covering his mouth, the other clutching a knife, which was held against Wes’ throat. His eyes still glistened black, spinning pools.
He slid the blade against the tender flesh of Wes’ neck. Wes crumbled to the floor.
Morttis lunged for Tommy. “No, no, no, leave me alone! You killed him, you killed him!” In his panic, Tommy knocked the knife from Mr. Morttis’s hand.
Morttis wrapped his hands around Tommy’s neck and forced him to the bed. I could hear gagging and wheezing sounds.
What should I do? I could run, maybe save myself. No, I had to fight to save my friend.
The knife lay on the floor next to Wes’ body. I resisted the urge to look at my friend, knowing I would lose my nerve. Grabbing the knife in hand, I plunged it into Mr. Morttis’s back. Out and in, over and over. I wouldn’t stop tell I heard this mute freak scream.
Wes’ father burst in to the room and turned on the lights. His son lay dead on the floor, as did Tommy on the bed. There I stood over Tommy’s lifeless body, which was now covered in puncture holes.
Wes’ dad threw me to the ground, knocking the knife away. My head bounced off the hardwood floor, causing me to lose consciousness. As I drifted off, my eyes fixed on the open closet door. From the darkness, the Cursed Mr. Morttis stared at me, smiling.
Like I said before, my family moved away after that summer. It is hard to live in a small town when your son is convicted of murdering his two closest friends. No one believed my story; why would they? I was found standing over the bodies, holding a bloody knife.
It has been twenty-two years, and I am scheduled to be released next week. My family now lives in West Taylor, far away from Hystoria and the hate they received because of me.
Mom said she can’t wait for me to get out. She said she has something special planned for me. A carnival is coming to town. She knew how much I loved those.