Just inside the footpath, beyond the topiaries and gnarled roots, under the shade of the ancient oak, there sits a rotting carousel. Freewheeling, it turns as breezes pull against the cracked faces of apes and horses and my childhood favorite, the stoic tiger. My hand on the rail sends sparks through the ether. The trilling cadence of carnival nights brays at the saucer moon. Placing one foot onto the decking, I hear the groan of decades, the whimper of bony steel stretched taught beneath dark shapes and circus shadows. In the distance I hear a whinny. Was that a roar? An ape grunts and chuffs. The seal turns, his eyes roving as his slick, silvered body spins around a corroded pole. The gold leaf is peeling, like eucalyptus bark or dark chocolate curls, baring its flesh, chipped and split where small hands once gripped tight, glee and surprise rimming innocent faces.
Each step forward sends shivers along the gangplanks, trills the overhead wires, and shimmies the tension straps. I cling, hand over hand as I creep along, my breath is heavy, my chest tight as my heart pounds out drum signals across the long-empty park. From behind the looming form of the tiger, I am shadowed, tucked into a land of isolation, of memory. I feel the chills splinter along my forearms as I touch his haunches, feel that somehow familiar fiberglass shell. It is a cherry Icee in a summer breeze. It is a blast of powdered sugar on the crisped edges of a funnel cake. It is the rush of wheels on wooden tracks as the carts loom over the top of Thunder Ridge before careening safely into the waiting pool of frothing water below.
I step further, bravely rounding the maw of the striped beast, his ancient jaws gaping and bloodthirsty. His eyes are black, empty, waiting. In the distance I hear the thrill of young voices, the clang of bells, the electric energy surging through crowds. Teenagers are pushing, jockeying for position at the bumper cars. Parents hold reams of tickets, melting slush, cinnamon churros, and someone’s half-stuffed prize awarded for sharpshooting or skill with feathered darts. As I grip the reins of Titan, my pet name for this majestic tiger, I see my own father standing in the fringes, his gray corduroy pants and signature flannel are unmistakable.
“Yay, Gracie.” He calls out, his voice muffled by the crowd. The carousel rounds, my eyes rushing past all of the other families, the beaming parents, the carnival barkers, the old clown on stilts, his face pasty white with thick black tears. And there he is again. My father. His eyes seem to glow, radiate love and pride and something else I don’t understand as he raises his hand and waves. I wave back, my legs tightly wrapped around Titan’s saddle, my heels clicking against the metal stirrups that seem so far away. In the dark, back in the silence and emptiness of the present, I step into those same stirrups and swing my leg up over his back. I straddle the beast, my feet comfortably tucked into the steel, my hand gripping a weathered leather bridle. I run my fingers along its stitching, remember the tight, woven straps that I would whip back and forth as I rode gleefully in circles, each pass catching my father’s eye, each pass secretly holding my breath until I could see him standing there once more.
With my free hand, I pat the side of Titan’s neck, those fading black stripes slick with late-night dew. I tuck my head down low, resting my ear on the nape of his neck, listening to the rhythm of the carousel through his cavernous chest. The brave beast seems to sigh, a sound slipping between mandibles frozen in bloodthirsty snarl. “Gone.” He whispers. Or maybe it’s more specific? Maybe it’s a question? Like “She’s gone?” Gooseflesh flares along my neck, sprinting down my shoulders and across my trembling fingers. I swing my leg out of the stirrup and over the saddle. My feet feel leaden as I shuffle around to face my friend. His eyes are still dark. I run my fingers between his teeth, feel the brittle cracks that have spawned along his jawline, notice the missing ear, a craggy hole in his side.
I rode that tiger every year until I was twelve. Even then, I probably would have returned if I knew how to find it. I would have paid my fare and walked quickly in front of the other children to be assured of a spot on Titan. And then he would stand in the crowd and wave at me and smile, just like the old days. And I would go round and round, my heart full, my eyes dancing. My father grinning wide. At least, that’s what I told myself I would have done. I would have done a lot. If any of this was real. If that morning in October I had stayed in bed or gone to Mabel’s house or maybe just asked dad to stay home and watch football. If I had not snuck out with ten one dollar bills I had saved from chores in the summer and slipped in behind the Bowers family with their eight children on parade. If I had not stood at that iron gate watching child after child clamber up on to my Titan and ride him around in circles as their parents snapped photos and cheered.
Maybe my orange and black striped friend spoke to me then too. Maybe he whispered a warning? I can almost remember something like “Run.” Maybe even a little bit more. Like “Run away, now.” But I was only a child, wasn’t I? And I was holding so tightly to those bills, those crisp new riches that I could not wait to present to the barker and claim my ticket. My ticket to ride Titan. I’m sure I heard him growl that day. I probably heard a lot of things. But I just can’t remember. It’s like there’s this dark shadow hanging over my head, something thick, velvety, opaque. It smells like oak and sweat. It’s hot, so very hot. My whole body is shaking. I can feel arms lifting me up, carrying me somewhere. In the distance, there’s a noise, something low and guttural. Was that a growl? Or was it barely a whimper? I don’t remember.
There was a loud thump, like wood hitting the side of a barn or a shed. Then the creaking of hinges. Then the sagging springs of an old mattress. Then I felt hands again, this time pressing against me, holding me down. I don’t like to remember. I can’t, really. I think hard about the carousel, the animals, my father’s face. I even think about the cheers and cries of glee of the other children, the crowds, the smell of the caramel apples. I cry too, but for other reasons. I smell something stale, something wrong. I reach out, try to push my arms up, but they are tight against my sides. I can only flex and grit my nails, pulling against some soft, satin fabric. There is a groan. Then the hood is lifted, and I see everything for the first time. The dirty plates, the old pizza boxes, the dolls with painted faces and lollipops. A pair of stilts rests in the corner, a jester’s hat on the mantle.
There is point, just at the edge of terror and despair when I know I must be dreaming. I just couldn’t be there in that place, couldn’t be locked away in that trailer, within those walls, with that brute of a man. In the distance, all I hear is the guttural growl of my champion. Titan calls to me, comforts me. And I close my eyes, push the image of the pasty white face with the black painted tears out of my mind, and fall asleep.
When I open my eyes again, I see my father. He’s smiling down at me. He’s quiet, like someone who has discovered a secret so wonderful that they are afraid to share it with anyone. And then he’s crying. I try to reach out to him, to hold him, to wipe those tears from his stubble. I can’t move. Everything is ice. His face blurs and beyond, there’s a shadow looming. The crust of white and black trembles, blood red lips quiver in the moonlight. There’s a sound like metal on ground, like dirt grating, clods falling. And then it’s dark, and I am screaming.
When I wake up in the woods, nothing is the same. The carousel still stands, but the vines and branches have split its colors and gouged its paint. Titan prowls the circular swath, just as he has for decades, his shoulders granite, stoic. He carries a secret now, his fearsome jaw gaped open, a whisper on his tongue, “gone.” It is our secret, at least those of us whose bones lie cold in shallow swells just beyond the forest’s edge. Me, and the twins, Janice from Wichita, Betty the dancer, and the others they never named. Just inside the footpath, behind the topiaries and gnarled roots, he holds our secret dear. He waits to burst forth with a fearsome roar, something brutal, something louder than memory. He waits because he knows; he saw it happen, all of it.
If only animals could talk. Maybe he could tell them I’m still here. We all are.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Original narrative & well developed characters
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions