So Much To See
When the circus comes to town promising 'So much to see...and kids go free!' it provides a welcome diversion for busy single mum Hannah. But she soon discovers that unspeakable nightmares lurk behind the canvas flap of the big top...
Hannah awoke from a dream of better days and started at a whip-cracking sound from the window. She reached for the familiar warmth of Glenn, but he wasn’t there.
Of course he wasn’t.
Wriggling free from a tangle of bedsheets, Hannah plumped her pillow and positioned it upright against the headboard. She scrambled into a seated position and then, wiping the sleep from the corners of her eyes, she searched out her spectacles on the nightstand. Squinting through her glasses at the bedroom window, she saw that the window blind was spinning on its roller, making that sharp whip-crack sound each time it flipped over the top. The night had been unbearably muggy and she had slept with the window open. The distant rumble of a thunderstorm had lulled her to sleep and she recalled her last waking thought—a wish for the rain to come her way and wash all the oppressive heat away.
At least there was a breeze this morning. The wind blew against the blind, making a snapping canvas tongue of it once again. Yawning, she clambered off the bed and trudged over to the window to fix the blind. Dark clouds were gathering over the rooftops, which stretched all the way down into the distant town. Feeling more awake for the fresh morning air in her lungs, Hannah headed to the shower, deciding to let Molly sleep until she smelled breakfast.
Unable to sleep for the cloying humidity, her daughter had gotten to bed late the night before. As a result, Hannah had less time to go over her resume and interview prep than she’d have liked. Maybe she’d have time over breakfast. But as she stepped into the shower’s warm jet, she heard her daughter knocking on the bathroom door.
“Mom, I need to pee. Can I come in?”
“Sure honey,” Hannah replied, although Molly was already in the bathroom. “And good morning to you too,” she muttered through the rising steam of the shower.
The flush of the toilet was the only reply, and then Molly was gone, taking with her Hannah’s hopes of a few uninterrupted minutes to go through her prep again.
“Eat up or we’ll be late.”
“But it’s only seven-thirty,” Molly protested.
“Mommy has things to do, sweetheart. And it’s your school trip today, remember?”
Hannah checked and re-checked that she had her dry-cleaning voucher in her bag. The service was more than she could afford right now, but she needed to make the best impression she could at the interview. Her job-share in campus administration was being advertised as a full-time position since her co-worker had left for pastures new.
Hannah sipped her coffee and felt her stomach churning with nerves. So much was riding on today. Although she had a good rapport with the staff at the College, her line manager did not seem too approving of her intention to apply when she had mentioned it to him. She worried that he might already have someone else in mind. One of the slick young things from Central Office with their on-trend clothes and smart-phone eyes, and who certainly did not have a young daughter to drop off and pick up at school.
One of those, for instance.
Hannah had managed to put in a few extra hours here and thereby almost bankrupting herself with after school clubs and occasional childcare for Molly. She felt confident her work profile was satisfactory—apart from those absences when the divorce papers had arrived from Glenn—but even now she began to feel rising panic that she had not done quite enough to secure the full-time position. Hannah tried to console herself with the fact that she had been able to agree to an afternoon interview at all. She couldn’t help but feel her boss had scheduled it during school pick-up hours on purpose. A sly corporate mechanism by which to test her, knowing her situation would make it difficult. He was already willing her to fail, the bastard. She had found herself in a quandary—request an earlier interview slot, or go further into the red for a babysitter. After school clubs had finished for the semester, and Hannah’s diminishing circle of friends (she jokingly called it a semi-circle these days) had made it plain that they were not interested in play dates or anything that might actually ease the load for her. They all had their own crap to deal with. But without exception, they all still had their spouses to offer some help and support.
She envied them and their ordered little lives.
But then Molly had come home with the note in her bag from Miss Perkins, inviting Hannah to fill out the permission slip for a class outing to the circus. She had winced at the admission fee, with cash on top for a brown-bag meal, but it was still less than a babysitter would cost. She remembered feeling most elated of all to see that the return trip would not be until after the late afternoon performance, giving her ample time to attend the interview before she had to be at the school gates. Nope, her boss wasn’t going to catch her out this time. Reminding herself of all the hours she had put in, of all the times she had bit her lip instead of protesting when additional workload was dropped on her desk at short notice, Hannah felt her resolve returning. She could do this. She had to do this. If she was going to stand on her own two feet and provide for Molly, she had to do this. There was no other way. Getting a second part-time job would be a disaster as she’d end up spending anything she earned on out-of-hours childcare, which always came at a premium.
The full-time position on campus came with vouchers to help with that, and access to a creche which was currently out-of-bounds to her as a part-time employee. It was the answer to most of her problems.
She took another sip of coffee and felt her stomach settling.
Watching Molly finish her breakfast, all the while chatting to her usual line-up of stuffed animal toys, dolls and action figures, Hannah felt she had done the right thing in not telling her about the interview. Ignorance was bliss when you were six years old. If she got the job, Hannah would tell Molly right away and take her for celebratory ice cream at the mall. If not, she simply wouldn’t mention it. The mere thought of failure made Hannah tremble, and she almost spilled her coffee. She tossed the rest of it down the sink and told Molly to grab her school things. Leaning over the sink and breathing deeply and rhythmically, Hannah willed herself to get her shit together. It was time to go.
THERE’S A DEAD RATZ TAIL AT DA CIRCUS LUV MOLLY X
Hannah had given the mobile phone to her daughter so she could contact her in an emergency. She hated kowtowing to the tyranny of technology when her daughter was still so young, but the school’s Board of Governors had made a well-meaning amendment to regulations to allow cellphones on campus. The bitter aftershock of (yet another) high school shooting—this time too close to home in a neighbouring county—had been hanging in the air, and the new regulation passed almost immediately. And so, Hannah had been under pressure to furnish her eager daughter with the latest handheld device. Her budget would nowhere near stretch to that though, so Molly had to make do with her mom’s old model.
Hannah quickly got sick of hearing how the other kids poked fun at the out-of-date handset. She quietly enjoyed it when Molly told her one of the smartphone snobs had dropped hers into the toilet by accident during recess, tearfully telling her teacher that her life was, as Molly had quoted, “over.”
This mishap had turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Since then, phones were to be checked in at the beginning and end of class sessions. Hannah wondered how that was supposed to help kids use their phones to raise the alarm during an emergency scenario, but she guessed that thinking about such things was just one of the many reasons she hadn’t been invited to become a school governor.
Clearly, to a kid such as Molly, finding a dismembered rodent on the school trip to the circus constituted such an emergency scenario. At least her daughter had used an apostrophe in her text message (top marks for that) but they would have to talk about the txt-speak spelling later. Hannah tapped out a reply on her phone’s screen.
DON’T TOUCH IT BABY LET THE CARNY PEOPLE DEAL WITH IT. HAVE FUN TODAY AND BE GOOD. LOVE MOMMY XXX
She hit ‘send’ and drove on through the crawling traffic. If she was going to make it to the dry cleaner’s and reach her desk in time, the commuter crowd had damn well better get a move on. It felt to Hannah that she was always on a clock since she and Glenn had divorced. It was always the little things that brought him back to her, pieces of the puzzle making up her daily routine that were either missing or displaced in some way. She could still recall his face, of course, that would never fade, and his voice the last time he lied to her, but he’d walked out, abandoned them. Old grief made her stomach flip and she felt the acid burn of coffee lapping at her throat. The unmistakable onset of a panic attack.
Better not to think about those things at all, best not to dwell on them.
The next text came while she was driving. Waiting at a stoplight, Hannah wiped her stinging eyes then checked her phone.
COME 2 DA CIRCUS SUM THING HERE LUV MOLLY X
Something here? The words chilled Hannah to her marrow. The sudden blare of a car horn made her yelp in surprise. In her panic, she dropped the phone. It fell between her legs and into the footwell. She grabbed for it but couldn’t reach. She stalled the engine and her car lurched as the engine died. Another sharp blare from the horn, and now a man was shouting at her—
Shouting at her like Glenn did, in their last days. When she was late home from her shift. Accusing her—of lying, of seeing another man, several other men, all at once, and oh boy she’d be sorry when he was done with her, and where was his GODDAMNED dinner anyways, and—
“Hey lady! The fucking light is green! G-R-E-E-N. Have you ever driven before!?”
The man in the pick-up was adjacent to her, glowering at her through his side window. His face was gammon-pink. She blinked away an image of Glenn, towering over her, his fist clenched, and her eyes began to fill with tears. She blinked at the angry man glaring at her from the pick-up. His eyes were almost popping out of his skull with incredulity. His face became distorted through the film of her tears. Trembling, she gave up on the phone and fumbled for the keys in the ignition. After two attempts—and more blaring horns—she got the engine running again and shot forward just as the light was turning from green to amber. A barrage of blaring horns echoed out down the street as she drove on, wiping the tears from her eyes.
Hannah waited until she could pull over, next to some boarded-up shopfronts. She killed the engine—on purpose this time—then unclipped her seatbelt and retrieved her phone from beneath the pedals. She unlocked the screen and used voice activation to speed dial Molly’s mobile. It rang. And rang. Then rang off into voicemail.
“Molly, I got your message… I’m not sure what you mean baby, what’s going on? Have Miss Perkins call me back, okay?”
Puzzled, Hannah pocketed her phone and walked the short distance from the parking bay to the cleaner’s. The text was out of character for Molly, cheeky though she was. Maybe one of the other kids had decided to pull a prank, text Molly’s mommy while she wasn’t looking? How did the kids call it? Fraped, that was it. Yes, maybe that was it. Mere frapery. Nothing to get fazed about. A gust of biting autumnal wind blew across Hannah’s hair and skin, making her shiver. The wind lifted rust-coloured leaves from the sidewalk and with them, dozens of sheets of paper that flapped around Hannah. One of the sheets attached itself to her coat. It was an event flyer. She tore it away and was about to toss it in the garbage bin outside the cleaner’s when the design caught her eye—a circus big top emblazoned with stars and underlined with the words:
“Circus. This week only. So Much to See and Kids Go Free!”
Inside the cleaner’s, Hannah handed over her ticket and waited in the soapy warmth for her garments. She realized she was still clutching the flyer. As she straightened out the paper, more details were revealed. A troupe of rats, dressed in human clothing and upright on hind legs were performing as clowns, musicians and acrobats. Her eyes followed their merry dance as they processed into a dark opening in the big top. Despite the warmth of the store, Hannah shivered again as she stared at the tent’s black slit. It looked like an open wound.
Hannah’s morning shift had crawled by. The bulk of the staff were in a seemingly endless meeting and she had been left at the front desk on her lonesome. Apart from two students wishing to file late coursework in hard copy, the place seemed deserted. She used the time wisely, going over the bullet points on her resume and revisiting the milestones she had listed in her application letter. Hannah almost felt relieved when her line manager sent his lackey to tell her they were ready. She smoothed down her dress, still freshly scented from the dry cleaner’s, and took a deep breath. This was it.
The first part of the interview passed in a blur, with the line manager seemingly content to reel off her list of accomplishments. Probably because he didn’t bother to read it, she thought, trying not to let the cynicism show in her expression. Her manager’s young assistant then began asking questions about the ten-year strategy of the College, and how she saw herself being part of that. Hannah hadn’t even considered they might ask her anything beyond the parameters of her admin role, and she found herself floundering. She caught a smirk on her line manager’s face as she blushed her way through a series of increasingly tricky questions. They were doing it on purpose. Blindsiding her like this. They wanted her to fail. They didn’t give a damn about her clear and present suitability for the role. Probably had someone lined up already—maybe the young buck asking all the high-level questions, smirking at her from beneath his HD eyebrows.
A sudden shrill sound startled her from her thoughts so much that she almost cried out. Her mobile phone was ringing in her pocket.
“Do you need to get that?” Her line manager’s look was one of pure indignation.
“I…” Hannah began, as the phone continued ringing.
“Hannah. Please either answer it—or maybe put it on silent?”
She hated the young assistant using her first name like that. Hannah pulled out the phone. Molly’s name was on the screen. She answered. A burst of static crackled in her ear, loud as a hailstorm.
“I’m… not able to take your call right now…” Hannah said, trying to sound as calm and collected as possible—even though she knew in her heart that she’d blown the interview, and the job.
She heard screams, then. Shrill and raw. One of the screamers sounded like Molly.
“Honey, my god, is everyth—?”
The harrowing, nightmarish screams of children were all she heard.
Hannah put her free hand to her other ear, trying desperately to hear what was going on at the other end of the line. She blanked the two men as they glared at her in disapproval.
The screams went on. A chorus of fear cut short as the connection dropped. She stood up and straightened out her clothing, as if in a dream. But not a dream of better days. Numb, she turned and walked over to the door.
“We’re not quite done yet.”
“Oh yes we are,” she muttered.
She didn’t stop to look back, to even attempt to explain. The ghost of a scream echoed on as she wandered out in the grip of a waking nightmare. She let the door slam behind her.
Hannah raced her car past the playing fields at the outskirts of town and onto the dirt road that led to Wilson’s farm. That’s where the circus was, out near the lakes where the tree cover got thick and the silver shimmer of the first frosts covered the ground. The car swerved as she rounded an icy corner too fast. She steered into the swerve, narrowly avoiding a spin.
Steeling herself, she drove on; hating the fact that she wished Glenn was there with her, if only so she could have someone to blame. A bad mother. That’s what he’d called her when they were in the death throes of their relationship. A disappointment to Molly and me. Bitter tears welled up in her eyes. She wiped them away angrily and put her foot down, made the engine roar.
Then she saw it, through the trees. A big top—all the pretty colours of a rainbow.
Dispassionate applause welcomed Hannah as she stepped out of the car nervously. Looking up at the huge marquee, she realized the strange sound came from pennants fluttering in the howling wind. “Roll up! Roll up!” heralded their imagined cry, “So much to see, so much to see and Kids Go Free!”
Up ahead, a figure staggered through the storm. She heard a woman’s voice raised in panic. Hannah’s phone throbbed in her pocket again.
2 NEW MESSAGES
She opened the first.
The second read, LUV MOLLY X
A whirlwind of fluttering paper was circling the field. As the sheets flew past her eyes like the tail of some monstrous kite Hannah saw they were yet more circus flyers. More rats, dancing gaily. And, on her knees in the centre of the maelstrom, she found Miss Perkins.
“My God you’re bleeding, what happened?”
Hannah stooped to help the principal to her feet. As she did so, she pulled the catatonic woman’s hands away from her face. What Hannah saw made her gag and back away. Perkins’ eye sockets were ruptured, oozing dark jelly where her eyes should have been. Sensing Hannah’s presence, the principal reached out with trembling hands, clawing at the chill air madly.
“The children! The children!” she cried. Her throaty voice sounded cracked and broken.
“Where are they, are they inside, are they hurt?”
“They took them!” cried Perkins.
“Who took them? Who?”
The principal’s answer was a howl of anguish, torn apart by the wind.
Hannah staggered on and a few yards further along the image on the circus flyer was coming to life. The entrance to the big top was flapping in the wind. It had the dreadful aspect of a flap of loose skin and, beyond it, a dark gash of impenetrable blackness. Molly was inside, she felt sure of it, even though she could scarcely believe the words that had come out of Perkins’ mouth. Hannah tried to blink away the horror of the poor woman’s bloodied face. Ears ringing, stomach yawning, she stepped into the darkness.
The punishing wind dropped and silence enveloped her as she crossed the threshold. Gone were the plaintive cries of the blinded woman outside, replaced with only the gentlest flutter of canvas and creak of rope. The air inside was warm, sticky, and smelled seasonally sweet—of cotton candy and damp earth. Heavy scarlet drapes hung from guy-ropes forming a labyrinthine network of passages divided by huge, varnished tent poles. The lashing storm outside caused the curtains to rise and fall. They undulated as though they were living, breathing things. The further Hannah walked, the more she felt she was entering a real live organism, the blood-red drapes adding to the arterial effect. Strings of coloured lights tink-tink-tinkled above her, casting weird pools of light on the curtain walls.
She arrived at some wooden steps that led to a pair of starry curtains. The cold wind was invading the tent from high above. It cooled the nape of her neck with its chill whisper. Hannah climbed the steps and tentatively pulled back one of the nightscape curtains, peering inside to find a mirrored room. She entered, her footsteps echoing dully on the hard wooden floorboards, and found herself surrounded. Dozens of Hannahs looked back at her, each as frightened as she was—her reflection in a hall of mirrors. She walked on, one mirror stretching the image of her head until it looked as though it might burst. Hannah made her way around a corner, into a larger chamber. It was dark and dank inside, the only illumination coming from the overspill of the coloured lights she’d passed on her way in. The smell inside was as sickly sweet as butcher’s sawdust. The faint sound of chattering teeth came from the gloom. Then, something moved—no, unfurled itself—ahead of her. It was tall, this something, and elegantly dressed in frockcoat and top hat. Its teeth glinted in the scant light and Hannah knew it was smiling at her. The something took a few quick steps across the boards and towered over her. She flinched, feeling sure it would strike her down any moment. But the moments passed, the something merely studying her for a while before announcing, “So much to see…”
The something’s voice was sharp as ice, its breath a sewer. Hannah backed away, vaguely trying to speak through her terror.
“P-please…” was all she could muster.
The something convulsed with rasping laughter at her plea, then clicked its fingers. A shaft of brilliant white light blasted into the mirrored space, blinding her momentarily. She wished she could stay blind when she blinked away the after-burn and saw what the something had brought with it.
Knotted tails, as thick as the ropes that held the big top erect all around her. Gnashing teeth, bloodstained and plugged with clumps of hair and flesh. Dozens of thick, sleek, oily bodies as large as dogs. A legion of vicious claws, scraping at the floorboards. Row upon row of eyes, burning red with hatred. Better not to think about those eyes at all, best not to dwell on them. And most horrifying of all, the rat king’s faces. They were the faces of schoolchildren she knew, or rather, had known. For they were barely human now, enslaved to this demonic colony of fur, tooth, claw, and tangled tail. Instinct told her to turn and run from this nightmare, to howl her horrors into the storm like Miss Perkins outside. But she stood rooted to the floorboards, frozen by fear.
As the rat-king came for her, the last face she saw was that of her own beloved daughter. And she knew then the dread meaning of Perkins’ words.
They took them.
She closed her eyes. And then there was only crimson, followed by an impenetrable black curtain.
The last sound she heard was the vile laughter of her ringmaster as he whispered,
“So much to see and kids go free.”
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