-BY KD BURR-
This short story is part of a larger collection, a series about a strange and sinister circus that drifted through small-town America in the 1940s-1950s.
The week the circus came to Fairview, Daniel Carver went funny. Driving up the old dirt road toward Forest Pass, his neighbors saw him, standing stock-still by his mailbox.
Daniel was shirtless, staring off across the vacant field opposite his house. His chest and shoulders were a violent, shiny pink; his face was tight and alarmingly red. Vicki and Billy Griffith slowed down as they passed, the truck tires sending up a cloud of dust.
“What do ya say there, Danny?” Billy called out, rolling down the passenger side window. Vicki leaned out of the truck, smiling brightly at their young neighbor. Her smile faded as they drew nearer; Daniel’s scalp and the tops of his ears were bleeding, cracked by the sun.
“Are you alright, honey?” Vicki asked. Without thinking, she reached down to lock the door on her side. Daniel said nothing.
Vicki looked uncertainly to her husband, who shrugged and shook his head. He had no idea what Daniel’s problem was and he didn’t want to get involved. Daniel and his wife Angela were fairly young. Probably mixed up in drinking and drugs, Billy thought, like most of the kids from town.
“Well, you take care of yourself, hon.” Vicki said as they began to roll away. She kept her eyes on Daniel in the rearview mirror. Standing there alone with his skin all red and blistered, he looked kind of like the Devil.
Later, Vicki was at the kitchen sink washing vegetables for dinner when the sound of tires on gravel made her look up. She saw Angela Carver coming down the road in her scratched up sedan. Angela pulled into the drive at the bottom of the hill and launched herself from the car, straw-colored hair flying straight back from her face. Vicki watched as she stormed up the front walk and into the house, a curse—unintelligible to Vicki—already rolling from Angela’s angry mouth. Vicki reached over and clicked on the little radio sitting on the sill.
“You knooow, we got a good thing, baby…” Vicki turned the music up, singing along and trying to push the Carvers from her mind. She thought about calling Angela’s mother—once upon a time she and Lettie Melton had been pretty good friends—but she quickly dismissed the thought. Billy would remind me it’s none of my business, she thought to herself. About half an hour later, she was methodically slicing an onion when she noticed the blue sedan speeding back down the road, gravel flying. After a few minutes, Daniel came out of the house and stood in the front yard, smoking a cigarette and watching the dust settle. Very suddenly he turned and looked right back at Vicki. Her heart dropped to the pit of her stomach and she gasped, letting the onion roll off the cutting board and onto the floor. Daniel’s dark eyes bored into hers and she knew he knew she’d been spying on him. But then he looked away, off somewhere to her right and then back at the road, like he hadn’t seen her standing there at her kitchen window.
She closed the curtain hastily and retrieved the onion. Crazy kids, she thought.
“I saw Daniel Carver going into the woods a little while ago.” Billy said, sitting down across from his wife.
“Did he have a shirt on, at least?” Vicki asked, spooning rice onto her husband’s plate.
“Yes. But no shoes,” Billy mused, helping himself to the bowl of vegetables. “And he had a gun.”
“Yes. That old Winchester he had up at the Elders’ cabin. Summer before last.”
“When was this?” Vicki asked, a funny chill running down her back.
“Right before dark.”
She put her spoon down, swallowing with difficulty. Her throat had gone dry.
“Vic? What is it?”
“Angie came home while I was making dinner. She looked awfully put out about something, sayin’ the least… Not thirty minutes later she was off again, hell-bent for leather down the road.”
“So, I think she left him, Billy! I think she left him and that crazy SOB just went out into the woods with a gun!”
“Keep your voice down, Vic.” Billy hissed. “You saw that boy today, he ain’t right. It’s best we just leave him be.”
“Of course he ain’t right, that’s what I’m saying!” Vicki insisted. “He needs our help.”
“He needs nothing of the kind,” Billy frowned, mustache bristling. He stabbed at his baked chicken for emphasis. “He’ll be just fine.”
“Fine?! You just said that he wasn’t—”
Billy slammed down his glass. The silverware rattled and clinked. Vicki looked down at her plate.
“The last thing we are doing is going out into the woods—at night—where there’s a crazy sunburned bastard walking around with a gun.” Billy said slowly and deliberately. “Look at me, Vicki.”
She did, and she saw that his eyes were kind, if creased with concern. The mouth behind his wiry mustache was not angry.
“Let’s just eat this good dinner and forget about Daniel. What do ya think, Mama?”
Vicki smiled a little, embarrassed. “I think that sounds just fine.”
They sat in silence for a few moments before Billy brought up the tractor, and what work needed to be done on it. Vicki listened to the lilt in his voice, losing what he was actually saying as he threw out words like “cylinder head” and “rear differential.”
“Vic, you listenin’?”
“What? Yes. What?” Vicki looked at him, startled.
“I asked you what you did today.” Billy laughed, shaking his head. “I swear. If your head wasn’t attached to your neck…”
“Oh, stop it. I saw Nancy Sawyer’s mother in town today. She had her grandbaby with her.”
“Boy or girl?”
“A little girl,” Vicki replied wistfully. She remembered when her girls had been small; ribbons wrapped around round ringlets and skin that smelled like milk. “Nancy’s mother said—”
But what she said, Billy would never know. The sound of a rifle firing ripped through the tiny house, rattling the pots hanging over the sink.
“Billy!” Vicki stood up quickly, her chair clattering backward across the linoleum.
“Sit down, Vic.”
“But we have to do something, don’t just sit there, Billy, we have to—”
“I SAID SIT DOWN!” Billy was on his feet in one swift motion. He looked angry, but Vicki could see that his eyes were scared. He stood there for a moment, uncertainly shifting his weight from side to side. He walked to the back door and locked it, bolt and chain. Flipping off the light he said, “It ain’t nothing to worry about, Mama. If you’re done eating, let’s go off to bed.”
The next morning, on her way to work, Vicki saw something large hanging from the Carvers’ front porch. She slowed down, heart pounding. She rolled down the window a crack and squinted out, straining to see across the sloping yard. The russet-colored tail hanging down reminded her of a teardrop. The tiny fluff of white at the bottom was stained with blood.
Suddenly the front door banged open and Daniel, his face peeling and terrible, emerged. He had a glass of orange juice in one hand, the liquid sloshed and dripped over the side. He gestured loosely to the carcass with his elbow.
“Fox,” Daniel said. “Gettin’ into my damned chickens.”
Vicki nodded tightly and punched the gas.
They didn’t see or hear anything from Daniel for the next day or so. Once, while she was out tending to her begonias, Vicki thought she saw a flash of white through his front curtain. But it was only for a moment, and later she assured herself that she was imagining things.
The morning after, Billy went into town to visit McGillicutty’s Hardware. As he was going in, he was nearly knocked over by Carl Elder, a corn farmer who lived just a few miles east.
“Whoa there, Carl!” Billy teased, offering up a smile. “Hey, Carl. What’s wrong?”
Billy Griffith had known Carl Elder since they’d sat next to one another in Betty Ketchum’s crooked school house off old Highway 70. He’d seen him upset quite a few times over the last thirty years, but it was nothing compared to the look of fear and bewilderment he saw on his face now.
Carl mumbled a faint excuse, shuffling quickly passed Billy and out into the street. The man looked like he might get sick right there on the corner. Billy shrugged and continued into the store. He waved to Alvin, the man at the register, and made his way back to the lumber section. A man in a faded hunting jacket shoved by him, dragging his wife along. Billy watched them curiously as he rounded the corner. It was then that he saw Daniel Carver, standing at the back paint counter and waving like an old friend.
“Hello there, William!” Daniel said. His voice sounded odd, his words forced and deliberate.
“Good morning, Daniel. How are you this beautiful morning?”
“Oh, I am thriving, sir. How are you?” Daniel’s smile stretched tightly over his face.
“Well, I’m alright, thank you. Just getting some supplies this morning.” Billy tried to excuse himself, but quicker than a flash Daniel was in front of him, leading him by the elbow to the paint counter.
“Well, I can see that, yes.” Daniel said conversationally. Something in his voice put Billy on edge. “I know that you’re busy, but I was wondering if you could help me with a magic trick.”
“Yes, and the most fascinating one at that! I’m sure you have heard that the circus is in town, William. I thought I might try my hand at being a magician’s assistant. Do you want to see the trick?” His eyes were flat. Billy noticed that Daniel’s grip on his arm was unnecessarily tight.
“I’m kind of in a hurry, Daniel-“
“Oh, this won’t take long. If you’ll just stand over here.” Daniel positioned Billy against the counter. “Just stand there and get comfortable! Are you comfortable, William?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Spectacular. William, what is the scariest thing you’ve ever seen in your life?”
Billy looked up in surprise. “I beg your pardon?”
“Ah, doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter.” Daniel laughed. The sound was animal-like. He shook his hands with a flourish and then placed his fingertips on Billy’s temples.
“Now just you wait—” Billy tried to jerk away from Daniel’s touch, but he was surprisingly strong.
“Relax—it’s all part of the trick!” Daniel assured him. “Now close your eyes.”
Again, Billy tried to move away. “No, Daniel, I don’t want—”
“I SAID CLOSE YOUR EYES.” Daniel’s voice changed and Billy felt his eyelids snap shut, not of their own accord. He was terrified but he couldn’t move, held there shaking against the counter by some unseen force.
“Now…” The new Daniel spoke. “I’m going to make you…disappear.”
Billy suddenly found himself standing in his childhood home. The familiar old family portraits lined the dimly lit hallway, the carpet beneath his feet worn and faded blue. He could hear someone moving around in the kitchen, the metallic sound of the baking pans rattling in the drawer under the oven. Billy looked down and saw his hands, smooth and unlined. What on earth is going on?
“William?” His mother’s voice called from the kitchen. “William, is that you?”
Billy tried to speak but couldn’t. His throat felt swollen shut. His feet propelled him forward, toward the kitchen. His heart froze as he turned the corner. There was his mother, dark hair piled high on top of her head. Her dress was yellow, the threadbare apron around her waist was pink. He smelled roast and buttery baked potatoes. A rag was wrapped tightly around her left hand, from where she’d cut herself slicing vegetables earlier in the day. Billy remembered all of this, and he knew what happened next.
“William.” She turned and smiled at him. “Dinner is almost ready. Go and tell your father for me.”
Again, Billy tried to speak, but instead he just nodded his head and glided back across the threshold like a ghost. He walked down the hall and through the laundry room, out the back door and into the yard—where he saw the old red barn.
“Dad!” He called, in a voice he barely recognized. “Daddy, supper’s ready!”
Billy walked across the stretch of lawn. The barn drew nearer, the entrance dark and gaping like a horrible mouth. It was quiet outside. Even the horses were quiet. Billy felt sick; his hands began to sweat.
“Daddy?” He was inside now, the horses shuffling nervously in their stalls. No, no, no, no, no, Billy thought frantically. This isn’t happening.
Billy looked around and found himself eye-level with his father’s boots. Confused, he looked up into the purple, bloated face of a corpse—a noose tied tightly around the raw, bruised neck. Billy stumbled backward and began to scream, bolting from the barn.
He collided very suddenly with the paint counter, painfully ramming his hip into the sharp corner. Daniel was back in front of him, laughing riotously, as Billy ran in terror from the store.
Billy didn’t say a word to Vicki about what happened at the hardware store. She had been in a cheerful mood when he arrived home, and not wanting to spoil it, he kept his mouth shut. After dinner they settled in together to watch a movie, but Billy couldn’t get what had happened at McGillicutty’s out of his head.
They watched An Affair to Remember on AMC and Billy slowly started to feel more at ease. That Daniel is a strange duck, nothing more—he thought. He’s got me so worked up I’m imagining things. Vicki snuggled into him more closely; she smelled like pumpkin bread and the lavender laundry detergent she liked to use. Pushing Daniel to the back of his mind, he took her chin in his hand and kissed her. They made love the rest of the movie, the muted television casting flickers of shadow and light against the wall.
Billy stood in his boxers in front of the fridge, drinking greedily from the milk jug. Through the doorframe, at the end of the narrow hall, he could just see Vicki’s auburn curls against the pillow. He dropped the milk jug as an ear-splitting howl cut through the night air. The plastic bottom burst, sending milk flying out around the kitchen, soaking his socks and rushing in a wave under the refrigerator.
“Billy!” Vicki was in the doorway, hazel eyes wide with fright as she fumbled to tie her robe. “What was that?”
“Nothing, Vic. Just some kind of animal—” Billy started, but Vicki brushed by him, pulling back the curtain and looking out toward the Carvers’.
“He is on his roof, William!”
“What did you just say?”
“Come and look for yourself, you old fool!” Vicki said, pointing. Billy peered over her shoulder and sure enough, there was Daniel, pacing catlike back and forth across the roof. His sunburned skin looked even redder beneath the eerie cast of the moon. As they watched he threw back his head, opening his mouth unnaturally wide. It was Daniel that was howling, so loudly that Vicki felt it down in her bones. After a moment Daniel stopped and turned to face them. His mouth was moving; it looked to Vicki like he was singing.
“We have to go out and—”
“We don’t have to do anything.” Billy snatched the curtain and pulled it closed. “Come to bed.”
Vicki rounded on him, cheeks flushed with anger. “You mean we are just going to sit here and let that boy—”
“We have no obligation to the boy, Vicki! I don’t know how—”
“—He’s our neighbor and he’s obviously having some kind of breakdown! It isn’t right to just let him—”
A scratching sound at the window silenced them both. The blood drained from Vicki’s face. Billy slowly reached up to pull back the curtain. Daniel had his face pressed up against the window, smirking and sliding his tongue across the glass. White peels hung from his nose and forehead like a snake shedding its skin.
“Aaaaaarrrrcccchhhhh.” He croaked against the glass, eyes rolling wildly in their sockets.
“Get away from the window, you son of a bitch!” Billy cried, seizing a knife from the drawer and tapping it furiously against the glass. Daniel croaked again, the corners of his mouth turning up into a wicked grin. “GET BACK OR I’LL KILL YOU!”
Billy let the curtain swing closed and propelled himself across the room, throwing open the back door. Vicki and Billy could see Daniel’s retreating back as he ran, howling into the woods behind his house.
“Don’t you leave this house or go anywhere without me,” Billy ordered, shutting and locking the door. “And I don’t want you to say another word about that Carver boy. He is out of his mind on drugs.”
Vicki nodded silently and followed Billy out of the room, a sinister feeling welling up in her chest.
The next night, the couple had hardly fallen asleep when a gunshot sent all the glass in the house rattling.
“Billy!” Vicki hissed as she pulled on her slippers, eyes flashing. “I don’t care what you say, I’m going to check on that boy. Stay or go for all I care, but I’m going!”
“Vicki!” Billy reached out to grab her, but he was unsteady with sleep and surprise. She easily knocked his arm away and pulled on her robe.
“Vicki!” He said again, but she was gone—a shadow writhing down the blackened hallway. Billy cursed and grabbed yesterday’s overalls off the back of the chair in the corner. He shoved his feet into his boots, sockless, and retrieved his revolver from the nightstand. Pausing only to make sure the gun was loaded, Billy took off toward the Carvers’.
He was out of breath by the time he reached the bottom of the hill. Running up the Carvers’ walk, he could smell the wet scent of decay. The rotting fox still swung from the porch, its jaw unhinged and black like the mouth of a pit. Vicki stepped out of the shadows under the eaves and sent Billy reeling backward, biting his tongue to keep from screaming.
“What in the sam hill are you doing, woman?”
“I couldn’t go in without you,” she whispered and he pushed her aside, pulling open the screen. He rapped on the door loudly.
“Daniel! Daniel, it’s the Griffiths! Tell us you’re okay or we’re coming in!”
They waited, breath caught up in their chests. Vicki thought she heard something move deep within the house. Billy cocked one wiry brow.
“Daniel!” He tried again, louder this time. The air was cold, much colder than it had been just moments before. Their breath came out in frosty bursts. Billy’s cries were met with silence.
“Okay, Daniel! We’re coming in!” Billy called. To Vicki, he turned and said, “Mama, you just stay behind me.”
The inside of the house was dark, but the two could see that it was in total disarray. From somewhere down the hall, Billy heard water running and splashing out onto the ground. Food and trash were strewn in a trail across the floor, a rotting sandwich and a curdled glass of milk sat off to their right on the counter. Beside the plate was a butcher knife drying in a sticky puddle. Vicki leaned over to take a closer look, but a clunking sound down the hall made her jump. She looked at Billy with alarm. Raising a finger to his lips, he aimed his gun out into the darkness.
“See if you can find a light,” he whispered.
Clunk, they heard again. Boots on hardwood. Vicki groped like a blind woman for the light switch. Clunk, clunk, clunk, down the hall.
“Daniel!” Billy called out, voice wavering. “Or whoever the hell you are! We’re here to help. We mean no one no harm! But if you’re up to anything… anything funny—”
Vicki flipped on the light just as Daniel’s face, raw and blistered like a candle, leered around the corner. He stepped into the kitchen, hands in fists at his sides, and looked at them. He had blood slicked down the front of his shirt.
“Daniel?” Billy asked. Daniel opened his mouth to speak.
“Come and see,” something deep inside him said. Vicki’s hair stood on end, the bottomless voice echoed in the small kitchen. Daniel slowly turned back toward the hall and Vicki screamed—the back of Daniel’s head was a bloody, dripping hole.
“Billy! Billy!” Vicki panicked, voice rising.
“Hurry and call 911—“
“Just call for help!” Billy ordered, following Daniel’s bloody footprints to the back of the house. Vicki grabbed the phone from the wall and dialed furiously.
“911, what is your emergency?”
“Hello? This is Victoria Griffith. I’m at 1740 South County Road 12! A man has been shot in the head—”
“Is he still breathing?”
“He’s up and walking around!” Vicki yelled hysterically into the receiver.
“Ma’am, please calm down. Is he bleeding?”
“Yes, a lot! Yes, his head—the back of his head is gone—it’s gone!” From the back bedroom she heard a strange sound, like a cow lowing. Billy cursed and again she heard the animal-like groan, so loud the operator could hear.
“Ma’am, ma’am, what is that? You need to tell me everything that’s going on.”
“I don’t know what’s going on! Just send help right away! Please!” Vicki pleaded and hung up the phone. When she reached the bedroom, Daniel was on his back, head bucking up and down in a growing puddle of blood. His arms and legs were contorted unnaturally; his body seized and twitched.
As Vicki drew closer, Daniel began to growl. Guttural noises that she’d never heard before burbled up in his throat. Billy was trying to hold the man down but Daniel thrashed wildly, biting the air and emitting a wordless stream of screeches.
“What is he doing, Billy?” Vicki brought her hands up to her mouth, horrified.
“I think he’s having a seizure!” Billy cried. “He was just standing here, talking to me in some kind of language, and his eyes rolled back and he just went down!”
Vicki knelt down beside her husband and watched Daniel’s head loll from side to side, tongue sliding around wolfishly as he growled.
“Look at his eyes,” she whispered, blood going cold. Daniel’s eyes were completely black, the pupils swallowed up by bottomless irises. Burst veins leaked blood into the whites of his eyes like a roadmap. His eyes rolled every which way, focusing on things Billy and Vicki could not see. The halo of blood around his head grew larger, soaking the knees of Billy’s pajamas.
Suddenly the twitching stopped and Daniel’s eyes fluttered closed. Billy and Vicki could hear sirens singing in the distance. Vicki breathed heavily, the front of her robe splattered crimson. It’s over, she thought. She couldn’t help but feel relieved. As the paramedics rushed in and pushed the couple out of the way, all Vicki could focus on was how cold the room felt.
About the time they were tagging Daniel down at the local morgue, the city police out in Deerfield received a frantic call from Mr. and Mrs. Harvey Melton. They had come home to find their daughter sitting on their front steps; legs splayed, with a smeary, bleeding grin cut from ear to ear. It didn’t take the cops too long to figure out that Angela Melton-Carver’s killer was under a sheet up in Bloom County, and the murder weapon was drying on his kitchen counter.
Vicki and Billy were perfectly content to forget about the whole mess with the Carvers and move on with their lives. Two days after Daniel’s unusual death, Billy made a new dollhouse for his eldest girl’s daughter and Vicki planted a row of tomatoes in their garden. On Sunday night, they had a glass of wine and a cigarette out on their back deck, overlooking the thick expanse of trees at the edge of the property. They talked about football and Nancy Sawyer’s grandbaby, and what vegetables Vicki should plant next. At 9:30 they went inside and began their nightly ritual—lock the doors, brush and floss, news at ten, bed by eleven.
Around three in the morning, they were both awakened by the front door slamming. Billy bolted upright out of the bed, looking around for the source of the sound. Vicki sat huddled on her side of the bed, mouth opening wordlessly. She could feel it. Someone was in the house.
Billy pulled her behind the bed with him, crouching in the small space between the headboard and the wall. He could hear someone moving through the dining room.
“I gotta get my gun. I gotta get my gun!” Billy whispered, bobbing up and down frantically.
“Under the bed!” Vicki hissed, already groping for the shotgun. Her hand closed around the butt and she slid it out, handing it to her husband.
“That dadgum thing better be loaded!”
A heavy footstep fell in the hall. They jerked their heads toward the sound. Billy peeked around the headboard, but he couldn’t see more than a few feet out into the hall.
Clunk, the sound of a thick sole on wood. Vicki’s breath died in her throat.
Clunk. All she saw was Daniel Carver’s face in her mind. His black, rolling eyes and bloody teeth. He was coming up the hall, his empty head dripping down the back of his button-up shirt.
Clunk, clunk, closer now. Vicki felt like throwing up. Any moment Daniel would be in the doorway, ready to take them back to whatever damp and rotting grave he came from.
Clunk. The sound was right outside the threshold. Billy raised his gun. Clunk. It was there, there in the doorway. They couldn’t see him but they could feel him—feel his presence solidly in the blackness, some malevolent force sucking the life from them. The room grew cold and Vicki felt light-headed, unable to draw breath.
A deep guttural noise came from the blackness and Billy felt his knees buckle. Vicki put her hands to her face and screamed.
“Leave! Leave this place! In the name of God, leave this place!” She shrieked in terror, tears pouring from her eyes. She could barely hear herself over the snarling coming from the door.
“COME AND SEE.” The blackness spoke from the doorway. “COME AND SEE.”
“Oh, dear God, no! Whatever you are, leave this place, leave—IN THE NAME OF GOD, LEAVE THIS PLACE!”
It was like a switch had magically turned off. The oppressive feeling in the room lifted, the growling stopped. Vicki vaulted over the bed and switched on the light, running out into the hall. Billy was on her heels, looking left and right. They searched the whole house twice over and found nothing but a single drop of blood in the doorway–still wet. All of the doors and windows were locked.
The next morning on his tractor, Billy saw Carl Elder’s boy standing out across the road without a shirt, shoulders blistering in the sun. When the circus left town that week, Adam Elder went too, hired on as a magician’s assistant. They never saw him again.
For more from KD Burr, check out her site here!