The air was heavy with the smell of smoke and a sour scent I couldn’t identify. The scents clung to me, wrapping me in a layer of filth. My sweaty hair hugged the back of my neck, reminding me that there was no escaping the Louisiana heat. The ground was still damp from a recent rain, causing the street lights to reflect on the payment. I could hear water splashing under my rain boots as I walked towards the dim lights.
I had been excited when my dad told me that we were going to the street fair, but now all I wanted to do was go home. The small fair was alive with sounds and sights that my parents would usually shield me from. Tonight, my dad wasn’t concerned about shielding me from anything. Did he even realize that I was still with him? I glanced up at my father. His face was set in a hard line. His steel colored eyes were cold as they looked straight ahead. My father had been distant since my mother died. I couldn’t remember when he’d last registered my presence, but his actions were making me feel that I’d done something wrong. Something he couldn’t forgive me for. I tried to tell myself that I had done nothing wrong. I tried to tell myself that he had trouble being around me because I reminded him of my mother, but I didn’t quite believe that.
A street lamp flickered before burning out completely, forcing my eyes to readjust. I huddled closer to my father, gripping his arm so tightly that he let out a little yelp. A man with at least half a dozen facial piercings appeared in the corner of my eye. He was double the size of my father. Tattoos covered the entirety of his visible skin. He hissed at me when we walked past, reminding me of a snake. He smiled when I backed away from him, hiding behind my father. Why had my father brought me here so late? He’d told me we were going to a street fair, but all the other families had already left. Most of the booths had already been abandoned, or maybe they’d never been occupied. We passed a face painting booth that had been overtaken by a family of rats. The rats didn’t scurry away when they heard us approach, instead they stared at us as if we were intruders.
“Give me your hand,” my dad commanded as we walked past a group of men who were laughing and drinking beer. A few of the men were having trouble standing up straight. One man looked a scantily clad female up and down before letting out a whistle. The sound lingered in my ears, forcing a chill to travel down my spine. The man barely registered our presence, as he watched the woman walk away. He threw his half-empty beer bottle on the ground and motioned for his friends to follow her.
“Can we just go home, Dad?” I asked, pulling on his hand to gain his attention. “I don’t like this place.”
He shook his head, but he didn’t bother to look at me. “Not until we visit a friend of your mother’s,” he said.
“Dad, that’s not what you said earlier, and those men scared me,” I complained, tugging harder on his hand. “I hate it here. I want to go home.”
“We’ll only be here for a minute,” he promised as we passed more empty booths. Most of the vendors had packed up already, but my father didn’t notice or maybe he just didn’t care.
“None of Mom’s friends will be here,” I said, but my father didn’t respond. “Don’t you think I’m too young to be here?” I asked. I hated how whiny my voice sounded, but I wanted nothing more than to go home.
“It’ll just take a few minutes, Mackenzie,” he snapped. I could tell he was growing annoyed with me, but I didn’t care.
“Why didn’t you leave me with Cassie?” I asked. Cassie was my babysitter for the moment.
“Cassie was busy,” he said. My father’s expression said I wouldn’t be seeing Cassie again.
“I liked Cassie,” I said.
“You liked them all,” he said, referring to all the nannies he’d fired that year. I wasn’t sure why he kept firing them, but I knew I was going through an unusual number of nannies.
I released my father’s hand to swat at a bug that flew too close to my face. There was broken glass on the ground, but I moved to avoid it. Goosebumps covered my skin as I heard glass crunching under someone’s feet behind me. My heart felt frozen in my chest as I turned to see a man standing behind me. He was wearing a plain black hoodie paired with sweatpants. His features were impossible to make out in the dark, but I could tell her was sneering at me. I screamed when the man wrapped his arm around my waist, pulling me away from my father.
“No!” I yelled.
My cries were silenced by a hand over my mouth. I tried to bite and punch my attacker, but my actions didn’t faze him. I glanced up, trying to make out their face under his hoodie, but I couldn’t. A sick feeling formed in the pit of my stomach as I was carried away with my father on our heels. I kicked my legs and swung my arms, trying to loosen the man’s grip on me.
“Give me my daughter!” He reached for me, but he only managed to grab my shoe.
Hot tears streamed down my face as my attacker forced me into a nearby tent. I heard shuffling noises and someone cursing just outside the tent. Someone cried out in pain, but I wasn’t sure if it was my dad or my attacker. “Dad!” I cried. I was just about to peer out when a gentle hand tapped my shoulder.
I turned to see a woman kneeling beside me.
“Why do you have on so much makeup?” I asked before I could stop myself. “Are you dressed for Halloween?” I asked, studying the woman’s maroon and gold dress.
The woman had dark curls the color of a raven’s feathers. Her olive skin that was almost glowing. Her eyebrows were thick and unruly, but they perfectly framed her deep brown eyes.
“Hi, what’s your name?” she asked, unfazed by my questions. She reached forward to brush a stray lock of my blonde hair behind my ear. I noticed that her fingernails were long, almost claw-like and they were bejeweled with tiny rhinestones and crystals. There was even a crystal ball on one.
My father had warned me about talking to strangers, but there was something about the woman that put me at ease. It might have been because she smelled like oatmeal. My mother had always smelled like oatmeal.
“Mackenzie,” I whispered as it as if I were saying a bad word. “Who are you?” I asked. I looked around the room noticing the crystal balls and skulls behind the woman. There was a table in the middle with cards spread out on it. Some of the cards were face down, but the ones that were face up sent a chill down my spine. Each card was more disturbing than the last.
“Those cards don’t look like the kind of cards that I play go fish with,” I said, pointing to a card that featured a skeleton hanging from a tree.
“Those are very special cards. They were given to me by a friend,” she said.
“I don’t like them,” I replied. “Why did you make that man bring me here?” I asked.
“I needed to talk to you,” she said.
“Why?” I asked.
“My name is Naomi and I was a friend of your mother’s. I’m the reason your father is here,” she explained.
I folded my arms across my chest. “Couldn’t you have talked to me without taking me away from my dad? Your friend is hurting him,” I said.
“I don’t think your father would let you talk to me,” she replied.
“Why do you have such awful things?” I asked. I tried not to look around the tent, but my eyes kept falling on things I didn’t want to see.
“I need those things for my job. Do you know what a fortune teller does?” she asked.
I had seen a fortune teller in one of the cartoons I’d watched, but she didn’t have all the gross stuff that Naomi did. My eyes lingered on one of the skulls behind Naomi’s head. I couldn’t imagine being surrounded by such disturbing things all day.
“No, but I don’t want to be here. This place scares me,” I said.
I started to walk towards the door, but she grabbed my arm and brought me closer to her.
“It’s okay. You can leave after we sing a song together.”
“I don’t want to sing, and I think my dad’s getting hurt! I just want to go see my dad,” I whined, hoping that she would just let me go.
She pulled me closer, wrapping me in a hug. I wanted to get away, but my arms and legs felt heavy. It was as if my body had been filled with lead. I wanted to scream, but my breath caught in my throat. She whispered something in my ear. She started speaking a language that I’d never heard before. She repeated the words over and over as if they were a song. I tried to fight it, but soon my own lips were forming the words to her strange song. My skin felt hot, and little jolts of electricity traveled through my body.
Naomi stopped chanting. “Look around. Do you see anything that wasn’t here before?” she asked.
I didn’t want to look, so I closed my eyes instead. I tried to picture my mother, but my memory of her was already starting to fade. “Let me go!” I yelled, trying to break free of her grip. I tried to run, but I felt her hand on my arm. It was clear she wasn’t going to let me leave until she was ready. If she was ever ready. I didn’t understand what she wanted with me, but I could feel myself growing afraid of her.
“Open your eyes,” she commanded.
I tried to keep my eyes closed, but they popped open. Naomi pushed my hair back to look into my eyes. I averted my eyes, and that’s when I caught sight of someone else standing behind her. There was a man with long, greasy hair standing on the opposite side of the tent. There was a film over his eyes, which lead me to believe he was blind. His clothes were ragged, and he was filthy. Even his teeth were rotten. He reminded me of a homeless man that I’d seen near the grocery store.
“What’s your name, little girl?” he asked.
“Leave her alone,” the Naomi commanded, but the man ignored her.
He crept closer to me, his hand extended as if he expected to touch me. “She can help me talk to my daughter,” he said, smiling at Naomi. “I haven’t seen my daughter in five years. I can see my daughter again!”
“No!” I screamed, finally finding my voice.
“I warned you,” Naomi said. Naomi’s mouth was set in a hard line as she pulled something from her pocket. She didn’t say a word as she threw it at the man. It was a pouch filled with lavender colored dust. The man’s skin burned when the dust touched him. I watched in horror as the man’s face twisted into a pained expression. His skin turned red and a dozen tiny holes began to form on his face. I couldn’t stop staring as lavender smoke started to come from those holes. Naomi covered my eyes as the man continued to howl in pain. “I forced him to cross over,” she explained.
“Let me go!” I sobbed. I could feel my face getting puffy from my tears.
“I’ll be here when you need me,” Naomi said before she loosened her grip on me.
My legs were no longer made of lead, so I fled the tent. I ran out to where my father was standing surprised to find that the other man was already gone. My father’s chest heaved up and down as if he were having trouble breathing. His lip was bloody, but that didn’t appear to bother him as he ran over to me. He wrapped me in a in a warm hug as he checked me for cuts and bruises. “Are you hurt, baby?” my father asked. His voice was soft, caring.
I shook my head. “Can we go now?” I asked, my voice coming out in a hoarse whisper.
My father frowned as he looked back at the tent. His eyes lingered on Naomi long enough for me to wonder if she was the person he’d been looking for. I worried that my father would refuse to go home, but then a disappointed look crossed his face and he nodded. I could feel Naomi’s eyes burning into me as my father carried me away.