i. a skeleton of words
Once upon a time (he says, his voice lowered to a murmur, for that is the proper way to start a story) there was a circus. It traveled from village to village and brought happiness to all the people it visited. Each night, the tent was full to bursting, and the air was always filled with the sounds of applause and laughter.
Ah, it was magical. Truly magical! It went on like this for many years, and everyone was content.
But one day, the Ringmaster woke up and found out that he had become very old. His bones ached and his eyesight was dim; it hurt him very much to get out of bed. For the first time in his long life, he felt the weight of his time upon him, and found it nearly too heavy to bear. That burden turned to fear, which became acid in his belly and cold fingers that clutched at his legs, pulling him down. When he looked in the mirror, he found his face had changed into something he could not recognize, with skin that hung loose, pouched under his eyes, and made his jowls droop. He could not look for very long, for the sight of that ugly creature made him ill.
For a whole week he shut himself up in his room and allowed no one to enter. The clowns and trainers were worried, and they whispered behind their hands, Is he sick? Is he sick? Will he die? and wept bitter tears, for many of them had traveled with the circus for a long time.
On the eighth day, though, the door opened and the Ringmaster stepped out. Those who saw him gasped, for his gray hair was now white as snow, and his skin no darker; his eyes were hollow and burning with a strange fire.
Come, he said, his voice ringing, tonight, we will give them a show to remember!
And they looked at each other and laughed nervously, for there was something strange in his voice and his gestures – but he was still their beloved Ringmaster, and so they followed him to the next village, to the next performance.
After that (he says, and raises his voice back to a normal speaking tone) no one is exactly sure what happened. Certainly they arrived at a little town, who welcomed their arrival with open arms. Something happened, though, under the blind open eye of the full moon, for the next day there was no village and no circus: only an empty field of dry, dead grass where life once flourished. Afterwards, well. They say strange things occur if you linger too long; you might dream of a wolf swallowing the moon, of a woman with no skin, of eyeless children who never once had parents.
How strange, how strange. Don’t you think?
ii. [white noise]
“Oh, I like that place. So many people!”
“That is a lot, isn’t it? Do you think you’re ready, dumpling?”
“Please, say we can go there – I would enjoy it ever so much! They look like they could be such fun!”
“Ah! Who am I to refuse such enthusiasm? If that is your heart’s desire, then we shall proceed.
Lacey is having the time of her life.
The masquerade ball is fucking awesome. There’s more expensive food and booze than she’s ever seen in her life, and everyone there is drop-dead gorgeous – even her! Her hair is actually behaving, coiled and braided with seed-pearls. Her dress fits like a glove and doesn’t pooch anywhere, and her mask is incredible: dark blue with an intricate pattern of small, sparkling rhinestones at the far corners of each eye, and it matches her dress perfectly. It’s the sort of enchanted series of luck she knows will never happen to her again, so she drinks it in while she still can. Everyone is talking, eating, drinking, laughing, and she is too. This is the night of her life. She feels only a little guilty for blowing Nick off for this: masquerade balls aren’t his thing.
Over the noise of the crowd comes a measured clapping sound, and she turns to look. The host is there, smiling broadly at them under his white mask. He’s a tall bastard – probably taller than six feet, if she had to guess – and rail-thin too. She’s pretty sure he’s about as thin at his waist as he is at his ankles, and that’s just gross.
“My dearest guests,” he says. He has a nice voice – it’s deep and carrying over the murmurs in the crowd. Lacey feels it all the way down to her toes. “Are we ready for the next part of tonight’s entertainment?”
If that’s a cue, Lacey takes it along with everyone else, lifting her glass and cheering. Her cheeks are hot, and she feels practically giddy right now, carried by the exuberance of the crowd. If she were to look down, her feet might not be touching the floor. When the host opens the door (Come in, come in!), she is thrilled to see how her dress flows around her ankles as she glides in.
The amphitheater is dark but roomy. The walls seem to stretch on to forever – she can’t remember if the building looked this tall on the outside. Tiny strings of lights sparkle high up above, like trails of stardust. Lacey takes her seat next to a woman in a dark, red dress and folds her hands in her lap. Her heart is beating fast. She tracks their host’s movements with her eyes, watching as he ascends the steps, and takes them two at a time with his long legs. He moves to center stage, and instantly the spotlight is upon him. The white of his mask is nearly blinding, but she can’t look away.
“My darlings,” he says, in that same rolling voice, “my dearest friends and my wonderful companions! Tonight, I promise you a show unlike any other you will ever experience again in your life – a performance to amaze, to shock, to mystify! Something you will dream of for years to come!” He lays a finger to his lips, nearly as pale as his mask, and smiles. “But first, I will need your help. Would someone care to volunteer for me?” His gaze sweeps the crowd slowly, thoughtfully. In spite of herself, Lacey sits up straighter in her chair, though a sudden flare of nerves keeps her from simply raising her hand. She holds her breath.
The host points. His arm is so long that even five rows back, she feels like she could reach up and take it easily. “You, darling,” he says. “Please come up front. Bring your friend with you.”
Lacey looks at the girl sitting next to her, the one in the dark red dress. She nods back, and there is equal excitement in her face. As one, they get to their feet, and Lacey has to fight to just not bolt for the stairs. Her heart is beating even faster now. She feels like it might explode from her chest with the force of its movement. Somehow she stays graceful, though, ascending the steps with the other girl. The host moves to her, and up close she can see that, under the edges of his mask, his cheeks are sunken and hollow. She wonders if he has been recently sick. He takes their hands, one in each of his. His fingers are so thin that they’re practically bone.
Up close, he smells a little like musk and cotton candy – the smells of the circus, Lacey thinks. He smiles and lets go of the other girl to pull her closer. From his pocket he pulls out a long piece of bright, blue string, which he loops twice around her wrist before tying it off in a bow. As she stares at it, he takes her other hand and presses something hard into it before moving on to repeat the process with the girl in the red dress. Lacey looks: it’s a knife he’s given her, with a bone handle, and polished mirror-bright. Her own reflection in the blade is strange to her. Has she ever been so beautiful? Really?
The host is talking. His voice is wonderful, but she can’t quite make out the words. She tightens her fingers around the knife’s hilt and wonders at how it feels like an extension of herself.
Another person is being called to the stage. This volunteer is a young man with no mask, and looks utterly naked even with all his clothes on. His eyes are terrified for some reason. Lacey licks her lips as he is strapped to a board and presses her thumb to the very base of her knife, testing the pressure without pushing hard enough to cut herself. His costume is all white and yellow, the bland, easy colors of spring. He’d look better with more vibrant colors, she thinks, something bold and dark to cut the softness. Music starts up from unseen speakers, and Lacey moves forward without prompting, her smooth gait intersecting and separating from the path of the girl in the red dress. When she pauses for just a moment, she feels the host’s hands light on her shoulders, delicate and thin like a dream.
“I love you, darling,” he says. “Make me proud.”
iv. a man of string and bone
[excerpted from N—–‘s journal, found amongst his belongings]
–saw his face tonight. I think he is the man who took Lacey. It was a terrible face. I only saw it for a second but it will never leave me. At first it was fine, maybe a little gray, but not anything strange, and then it started smiling … and smiling … AND SMILING …
It was like his mouth was getting bigger with each second until it was wider than his face. He had too many teeth. The smile made his skin do weird things, too, like you could see veins under the skin because it was pulled so tight. He was a skeleton with nerves and skin and you could see every single detail. It made me sick. I think he was laughing at me. He knows I want Lacey back.
It’s funny. I used to never believe in this sort of stuff. Now I don’t think I have a choice. I saw his face, and he saw mine. I will either come back with Lacey tonight, or not at all.
v. [white noise]
“Can you hear me?”
“It’s me, Nick. Don’t you recognize me?”
“I’m going to turn the light on, now. Okay? Oka–”
“It’ll be fine, I promise. … There, see, that’s–oh my god–”
“… nnnnnnnnnnnn …”
vi. a fantastic collection
Sometimes, on the night of a full moon, if you are in just the right place at just the right time, you can hear singing. If you do, running will only delay the inevitable. The carnival has come to town, riding on the back of a giant wolf, ready for fresh blood – for volunteers of any sort.
If it’s just the man’s voice, it will be slow and easy, as you’re seduced into his world, into his performance.
If it’s just the boy’s voice, it will be violent and fast. He’s only a child, and he hasn’t yet learned patience. At least it will be over quickly.
If you hear them both, in strange harmony, your show is about to begin.
Don’t be late.