A piece of ribbon running through her fingers. A candle flickering in the corner of her eye. Her fingers trembling, milky tea spilling out of the top of the mug. Her eyes darted round the room, trying to source the reason for her feeling of unease. She hadn’t felt this way since she was 11 and her father had become unwell. Most nights were filled with terror and dread, never knowing what was going to happen. Never knowing why. It had all stopped when she was 17, however, when her father fell victim to a coma. She was the one who found him; passed out on his bed, vomit staining his dry lips, an empty bottle of pills in his hand. It hadn’t worked. In his coma, she knew he was trapped, though she couldn’t help but feel a sigh of relief; at least he was safe. She felt so selfish. Every Friday, after her shift at the quaint café on the edge of town, she would shuffle through the hospital entrance to visit her father. She spoke to him of current events and gossip about local folk, hoping he’d one day respond. Though somewhere inside her, she knew such methods would never work.
Her mind too occupied by the sinking feeling in her stomach, she didn’t notice the candle flame die out, or the smoke that swirled into the air following this. Just like that, her shadowy silhouette that flickered on the wall, was gone. This only made the atmosphere more daunting, seeing everything just as dark shapes. Lifeless. Lifeless, but watching. The only light came from the window, where the moon was full, above a sleeping town. She tried to put her mind at ease, taking a seat by the window, where rain was drizzling down. Even on rainy days, she often spent hours perched on the windowsill, strumming melodies on her guitar, as though she were the modern Holly Golightly. She enjoyed being Holly. It was someone different. She began to play, the moon reflecting on the recently polished wood of her father’s old guitar. The chords sounded peculiar, unlike the way her father used to play them. Discouraged by these unfamiliar sounds, she glanced out of the window, desperate to pluck some inspiration from somewhere. It was at this moment she noticed something moving in her garden. This wasn’t something unfamiliar to her, as she frequently observed small animals roaming around at night. Yet, this seemed different. She’d seen the horror movies before; knew to lock her door and stay away from what may or may not be dangerous, but she had always been a curious child – something her father had often said would someday get the better of her- and instead decided to investigate.
Hesitantly, she stepped into her garden, blades of grass itching her bare feet. The rain was slowing down, though still heavy enough that curls of brown hair now hung damply by her ears. Although cars could occasionally be heard drifting by in the distance, the silence in between was endless. Almost as suddenly as the stillness fell upon her garden, the silence was smothered by the chime of the grandfather clock. Midnight. October 17th.
The week her father became ill was the week her only brother -sweet little Noah- went missing. When her father slipped into a coma, she tried putting that life behind her. Though she still resided in the family home, all the photographs were stored in the attic and the only glimpse of her father was echoed in the melodies she played on his guitar. Fear of what may have happened to her brother prevented her from letting grief take over, so no trace of him was seen in the house. That was the only way to handle the pain; the anxiety and sorrow left along with her father. ‘Repression’, some people may call it. That’s what Mrs Mills, the overly-sympathetic-but-hopeless school therapist had always told her. But she liked to call it ‘coping’. There was nobody around to remind her of Noah. Yet every year, when the clock struck midnight, she felt the pain. Alone in the garden, her eyes welled with a year’s worth of tears. Slowly flowing to the corners of her eyes, a dam of grief about to burst open, tears blurred her vision and the garden became distorted. Streams of sadness suddenly tumbled down her cheeks, over her ever-present dimples -whether smiling or crying- leaving her cheeks pink. Her brother had dimples too. Her father said they were kisses from their mother.
The sky was peppered with more stars, when she finally came around, and night had finally set in. As she gazed into the darkness, faint footsteps could be heard. Leaves rustling, a twig snapping, a quiet mumbling. It didn’t sound like any animal she’d heard before. From the darkness emerged two little feet, wearing mud stained socks. Stepping forwards, torn trousers were revealed, knees grazed under the rips, and an off-white dinosaur t-shirt, where blood poppies had bloomed. As he stumbled out of the shadows, arms stretched out in front of him, the moon finally lit up his face. His skin was perfect; round rosy cheeks with freckles scattered across his button nose. Auburn hair curled round his ears and above his eyes, which he brushed to the side with his tiny hands. Gleaming at her were two bright blue eyes; her brother’s eyes. She always felt as though she were staring into the ocean whenever she looked into Noah’s eyes. She didn’t know if this was her imagination or insanity, but she could feel the ocean again. It was him. Exactly as she remembered him.
The thought didn’t enter her mind to question why he was there. All she knew was that he was finally home. He giggled, and through his smile she could see his baby teeth and the gaps where some of them had never had chance to grow. Toddling up to her, she wrapped him in a warm embrace and squeezed him with so much love. The minute their skin touched, the world became a whirlwind. The garden flurried round them and faded to black, darker than the sky they were under a few seconds ago. Her heart was pounding out of her chest, as she clung onto Noah for dear life. Nothing was going to happen to him this time. She crouched down, forming a human shield over Noah, fear percolating her entire body. Her eyes were shut tight. The howling of the wind was gradually dying. The world fell silent again. Hesitantly, she opened one eye, wishing to be back in the safety of her house. To her dismay, she was not. A thick mist seemingly surrounded her, and her body unfolded to reveal that Noah was gone. In a panic, she glanced in all directions, but fog was all she could see. Screaming his name, her face wet with tears once again, she stumbled forwards, almost falling over her own feet. Echoes of his laughter floated through the air, as flashes of auburn hair scurried past the corner of her eyes. Turning her head sharply at every glimpse of Noah, she yelled his name the same way she did when he went missing 10 years ago. The same panic set in, as her legs started shaking beneath her. Just as she was about to tumble to the ground, her legs wobbling too much to carry her own weight, she heard him.
“This way!” he called to her in his sing-song voice, finally emerging from the fog. He beckoned her over, before disappearing again. Her feet sped up as she followed obligingly, desperate not to lose him. Noah being so tiny, it wasn’t long before she caught up, her frantic heart finally steady. As the two of them walked over twigs and autumn leaves, a shape emerged from the fog. First, a red flag high above them, slightly faded with age and waving in the breeze. As they grew closer, the outline of a tent presented itself, the mist slightly dispersing, allowing the colour to return. A bold red and white carnival tent now stood tall above them, intimidating and powerful, illuminated by blinding lights. A parting emerged in the torn fabric and the eerie sound of carnival music drifted faintly from inside. Fearful of what may stand beyond the entrance, her body stiffened. But Noah, unphased by the image, grabbed her hand and led her in. As she stepped into the tent, the smell of fresh popcorn drifted round her and left a sweet taste on her tongue, drawing her attention to the hunger growing more and more aggressive in her stomach. A candy floss machine almost tempted her but being with Noah gave her enough energy to go on. Reaching the main attraction, there were benches full of carnival attendees; families laughing, children causing havoc, annoyed parents. Everyone you’d expect to be at the carnival. Despite the familiarity at first glance, it was only a moment before she realised that everybody was still. They blinked, and they breathed, but they were lifeless. Lifeless, but watching. Shifting her focus from the harrowing statuesque figures, her gaze fell upon the centre of the tent. In the centre stood a man, his eyes aged and his skin weathered. Moth eaten clothes hung off his weak frame, his skin wrapped round prominent bones. He looked so small, so helpless. He had the same curly, auburn hair as his son, with the same emerald green eyes as his daughter. Though, his were older and sadder. His pale skin was stained and scratched, but he was still the same man he had always been. A gasp escaped her lips as she realised who it was. The moment he saw them he came to life, like a candle being lit after years in the dark, and instantaneously his eyes became youthful again.
Calmed by the feeling of being in her father’s arms once again, her brother by her side, she smiled in a way she hadn’t smiled in many years. She didn’t need to ask if this was where her father had been trapped for so many years, all she cared about now was that their family was together again. Her lungs let out a sigh of relief just knowing she could bring him back. As they briskly exited the tent, not wanting to be under the observation of the soulless spectators any longer, the fog lifted slightly. Above them, the sky was endless; a black abyss stretching on forever. Void of stars, empty of everything but a lonesome moon, the nothingness became almost hypnotising. Without warning, the carnival jumped to life. They were the catalyst this strange land needed. A rollercoaster started up next to them, cracked padded seats empty and carriages with chipped paint. As the coaster reached its crescendo and plummeted down a rusty hill, the rumble of the metal cut through her chest like a knife. A big wheel turned in the sky, creaking precariously as it went around and around, the moon shining on it in a way that long shadows were cast across the carnival ground. A swing carousel ascended into the sky, the metal chains chattering through the wind. As the trio crept down the path, leaves danced across the cobbled ground. In one hand, she held onto Noah whilst he feebly tiptoed along. The other hand was buried in her pocket, the biting of the air being too cold for comfort. Her brother’s hand, with a tight grip on hers, was just as cold. A shiver ran down her back, as an unconvincing smile tried to find its way onto her face. That’s when they saw him; Noah, a faded glimpse of exactly how he looked on that day. No hollow eyes, no blood-stained shirt, no ripped trousers. As the phantom scurried into another nearby carnival tent, they heard an insidious whisper from inside. She looked at Noah, with desperation in her eyes, not wanting to watch the truth of that day. But Noah just pointed at the wisp of what he used to be.
Enticed by what was coming from the tent, he made his way inside and stood face to face with the carnival’s ring leader. He was a tall, crooked man, with stubble ageing his pale face. Upon his head sat a top hat, elongating the menacing figure even more. Deep black eyes stared at the child, as his lips parted, and a grimace appeared across his face, revealing cigarette stained teeth.
“Do ya wanna see some circus animals, lil’ boy?” he howled, with a hearty laugh.
He grabbed Noah’s shoulder with his large, gloved hand, pushing him round to the back of the tent. With his young naivety, Noah willingly went along. He led him through crowds of unknowing bystanders, round carousels and roller coasters, and eventually away from the carnival. That’s when it happened. The smile abruptly left Noah’s face when he realised that there were no animals.
She looked at her father, and then at Noah. She couldn’t watch, and Noah didn’t want to show them. They heard his sobs. They heard the man’s grunts. They heard the slash. Then they heard silence. Finally glancing at the aftermath, she saw her brother resting lifeless on the ground. Blood stains were scattered around him, darkening the crumpled grass underneath his corpse. His fingers curled up and his hair was tangled over his eyes. Open and empty, his eyes were a dead ocean. She tried to look away, but she was paralysed by the deplorable sight, her arms hanging limply by her sides. His pristine face remained unharmed, his skin still smooth and clean. As the minutes went on, however, his body began to rot. The skin on his face started to peel off, his cheeks opening up to reveal baby teeth. Rolling back in his head, his eyes no longer stared. Leaves were intertwined with his auburn hair, and his body was slowly being buried by soil and twigs as the seasons progressed. It wasn’t long before his bones started to stick out from where his skin once was, his organs collapsing in on themselves inside his skeletal frame. Eventually, he was completely covered by earth, as though he had never existed at all. Glancing at Noah and her father, she broke down into sobs. They held each other for a while, relieved but pained to know the truth. She wiped tears from her brother’s cheeks, his face appearing hazy from the tears still tumbling down her own. With quivering lips, she told him she loved him, as her father rested his hands on Noah’s shoulders. His mouth smiled but his eyes were sad. He kissed Noah on the forehead and said the goodbye he never got to say. At long last, the fog completely dispersed, and a bright light began shining in the distance. When her vision sharpened, Noah was no longer hurt. His clothes were clean and white, his eyes full of life, and his skin no longer bruised and cut. Behind him, the light grew larger and brighter, and from it they could hear a faint whistle.
“Will we see you again?” she asked, crouching to his level. Her father followed suit.
“I’ll look after dad. And we’ll think of you. We’ll sing for you, okay? Moon River. You still like that one, don’t you?”
“Yes…but…daddy has to go home on his own. They say he can’t come with us. I wish he could,” he uttered lamentably, his bottom lip pouted.
With concern in her eyes, she glanced at her father, reaching her arms out to Noah. He knew something bad. Grabbing her hands and turning them, her palms faced the sky. He looked at her wrists, then he looked at his sister. He said nothing. On her wrists were open wounds, slices tearing open her flesh, and fresh blood slowly drying, turning dark red. She thought back to earlier that evening; the ribbon running through her fingers, the candle flame dying out, the razor dropping onto the ground, along with droplets of blood that would forever mark the wooden floor. For her, it had worked. She buried her hands in her pockets, unable to admit what had happened. There were no words to express the fear and sorrow that now clouded her mind, and her father and Noah couldn’t find the words to comfort her. He held her in a warm embrace, empathising with her pain, as Noah patted her arm, not completely understanding. Though he understood enough to know she was coming with him. Between her sobs, she spluttered out apologies, though her father didn’t blame her. After all, that’s why he was there.
With the singing of the whistle drawing closer, they glanced at each other, together for the last time in a long time. From the light emerged a train; old in style, but white and spotless. The whistle blew as steam arose from the engine and unravelled into the air, before fading into nothingness. As the train drew closer, it slowed down until finally screeching to a halt, before a plump, cheery train driver hopped out. She brought her hand out of her pocket and in it were two tickets. He marked the tickets and ushered them inside, into a carriage full of people, wearing white and smiling as the pair stepped on board. They took a seat by the window, waving to their father as the train started up again. Though heartbroken to be saying goodbye to the only family he had, he knew that what waited beyond was going to be so much better. And they had their mother there, to look after them.
Her father was released from hospital three months later. Astonished by his sudden recovery, the doctors were reluctant to let him go home, but he assured them he was fine. Upon arriving home, he was overwhelmed by the memories that came flooding back to him. He walked the hallways his children had laughed in, round the living room where they took their first steps, up to their bedrooms where they had dreamed sweet dreams. He swore he could hear the echo of them giggling together, but when he turned around, he was alone. Flickers of them haunted each room. He wasn’t afraid. In each room he displayed the photographs of his children, that had been abandoned in the attic and forgotten. They hung on crooked nails, taking their place over the faded wallpaper, smiling down on him. At the bottom of the last box of photographs, he stumbled across an old, large key. It was the key for Noah’s room, and it had already started to rust, the brass slowly turning copper. It turned precariously in the door, breaking the cobwebs that had formed in the lock. He pushed on the wood with force, and the door creaked open, as layers of dust jumped up and hovered in the air, getting stuck in his throat.
After running down to get his guitar, he perched himself on Noah’s bed, by the window.
“Moon river, wider than a mile.”
Gently playing the melody, the words sounded broken as they croaked past his lips.
“I’m crossing you in style someday.”
The lump in his throat grew larger as he sang for his family.
“Oh, dream maker, you heart-breaker.”
He glanced out of the window, gazing past rows of houses and autumn trees.
“Wherever you’re goin’,”
He noticed a red flag high above the trees, slightly faded with age and waving in the breeze. The hauntingly familiar chimes of music grew closer.
“I’m goin’ your way.”
The carnival was in town.