Ridley Bickett’s Traveling Panoply

"Pete Mesling's None So Deaf takes the reader on a whistle-stop tour of American gothic, traditional and modern, with unsettling carnivals, kids breaking into decrepit houses on a dare and corrupt preachers in the Wild West. Nasty new stings in the tail alternate with tilted perspectives on horror tropes for this box of entertainingly poisoned chocolates."—Narrelle M. Harris, The Opposite of Life


Daniel stood on the hill looking down over the midway with the deepest longing he’d known since landing at the bottom of his life. Only because of the full moon could he make out the silvery ripple of red and white striped canvas in the breeze, or the row of trucks and trailers in the distance. Two large tents claimed the grounds to the right. Rides and small game tents huddled to the left. Conifers rimmed the area, while poplars, maples and dogwoods dared to inch in for a closer view. He drew a half empty bottle of bourbon from inside his worn, dirty suit jacket. June was an unpredictable month in western Washington, and he wasn’t about to leave the jacket for someone else when he woke up one recent morning on the courthouse steps to find it lying next to him. It had looked new then, maybe a gift from some caring soul who’d passed by in the night. Already it was little more than a rag, which suited him just fine. He took a long swig and replaced the bottle.
Carnivals rarely came to Stutton County, so when they did they got a lot of attention. This one more than most. Ridley Bickett’s Traveling Panoply billed itself as a return to the glory days of carnival freak shows. Daniel had been around long enough to know that it couldn’t really be a throwback to the nineteenth century horror shows that used to roll through the American landscape peddling cheap thrills to simple folk. There were laws, after all. Gone were the days of gathering up the crippled and the insane, pitching them into horse-drawn cages, and grooming them to be star attractions. And good riddance. God knew Daniel would have been a likely candidate for abduction back then. But part of him wanted to believe in Ridley Bickett’s bold claim, wanted to see the world with a child’s wonder again. He supposed that was why he’d climbed this damn hill in the middle of the night, to capture something lost so long ago that he could no longer be sure it ever existed.
A chill wind rolled up the hillside, teasing the grass and weeds to life. Daniel might have taken the sudden change as a signal to turn back and find a quiet doorway in town to finish his bourbon in, but the flutter of something shiny nearby held him in place. A slip of paper about the size of a dollar bill. He stooped over without bending his knees and almost fell victim to a dizzy spell, but he was used to his body’s idiosyncrasies and knew he could outfox the condition by easing himself down onto his rump, which is exactly what he did.
He plucked the paper from the weeds that held it. Admit Two: Unlimited Access, it read in bold script. A pass, good for the entire week the carnival was in town. Some poor kid was bound to be missing it, this being only day two of the show. It felt good in his hands, though, stiff and glossy. He didn’t care for the clown face that leered at him from one corner, but still the pass brought on a flood of memories from carnivals he’d sneaked into as a boy. The chorus of tinny midway music, the rich smells of popcorn and cotton candy. He was never able to afford such treats, but they held as high a position in his memories of boyhood as they did for any suburban brat with a fat weekly allowance, maybe higher. Daniel suddenly wanted very badly to explore the grave-silent traveling show. He’d never liked clowns, but surely they were out of makeup at this hour, and likely as not sleeping.
“Sir?”
Daniel craned to see who’d spoken. A boy stood nearby, a little higher up the hill. More of a young man, really.
“You startled me, son. It’s not every day I’m addressed so formally. What brings you out by yourself at such an hour?”
“You won’t tell on me, will you?”
“I’ll let you know if you’re in danger of saying something I don’t want to hear. How’s that?”
The boy didn’t look convinced but it was clear he wanted to unburden himself of something.
“I’m planning on joining up.” The boy nodded toward the tents below. He looked like he had more to say, but no words came. His hands were fists inside the pockets of his windbreaker and he shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
“Feels scary coming right out and saying it like that, I’ll bet. What’s your name, son?”
“Ben. But there’s no use trying to talk me out of it, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Ben, I’m Daniel. Tell me, does your father beat on you?”
“No.”
“Your mother drink? Sleep around?”
“Uh-uh.”
“They make sure you have food to eat and a roof above you, I suppose.”
“I guess.”
“Then what the hell are you runnin’ away from?”
Ben took several steps down the hill toward the carnival and left his back to Daniel.
“My sister. I broke the head off one of her dolls and she told me she’ll kill me in my sleep with a knife.”
“Jesus.” It came out in a whisper.
“She’s got it in her, too. I’ve caught her doing things, to animals.”
Daniel ratcheted himself upright and went to the boy, placing a limp hand on his shoulder. “Son, I’ve got something here you might be interested in.” He held up the shiny pass. “Good for all the rides and exhibits you can stomach. Tell you what, you take it and come here every day as soon as the carnival opens. Stay till it shuts down at night. If you haven’t had your fill of the carnie life by then, why you can march yourself right up to the last barker on the midway and ask where to sign up for a job. Go on, take it.”
But Ben didn’t take it. His eyes and mouth widened. Wonder clouded his features, as if he suspected the ticket was some piece of magic. Daniel’s unconventional manner could have reinforced such an impression. But all of that was easily ignored for a moment as he pretended Ben’s reaction instead hinted at some deep feeling passing between two human beings, at a friendship being forged. He thought he’d wrung the last of the tears from his eyes long ago, but now he felt like crying. It was a beautiful feeling and he hoped Ben took his time answering so the moment would last.
“You think they’d show us around, even after hours?” Ben asked.
“Us? You mean you want me to go with you?”
“Admit two, right? Unlimited access.”
“There wouldn’t be anything to take in this late, except maybe the freaks. How much are you willing to see?”
“What do you mean?”
Daniel started down the hill. “Freak shows can be unpleasant things is all, even in daylight hours—even if they’re being faked, which I expect will be the case with some of these.”
Ben followed in silence, and they soon stood on the dusty midway of a carnival ghost town. Daniel perceived an echo of calliope music between gusts of wind, but it was probably just his imagination.
“I’m game,” said Ben.
“Fair enough.”

*****
The decision of where to begin and who to disturb was made for them when an old man wearing a white tank top tucked into gray sweatpants stepped out from between the large tents to the right of the midway.
“A boy and a beggar,” the man said in a voice like stones being ground together while he rubbed one hand over the top of his bald head. Daniel and Ben looked at each other, surprised. “It’s usually one or the other, not both. How come you, then, to Ridley Bickett’s house of wonders at this late hour?”
“How?” Daniel said. “We come curious.” Was it the remnants of red greasepaint that streaked the other man’s neck?
“And in peace,” Ben added with several quick nods.
“All right, why have you come, if that syntax is more pleasing to your refined ears?”
“The pass,” Ben whispered while delivering a nudge of the elbow to Daniel’s side.
“Yes, yes, of course. We have a pass, you see.” He took a step toward the old man and handed him the colorful ticket. The man’s eyebrows slowly rose and fell, like magnificent tides compressed in time.
“You’ve come to look at the freaks? Not for work?”
“Sir,” said Ben, “the truth is—”
“What the boy means,” said Daniel, “is that the truth is what we’re after.”
“The carnival after midnight is a strange place to go truth seeking. But that’s not to say it can’t be found. You two interest me some. The name’s Lautrec.”
“I’m Daniel. This is my friend Ben.”
“You’re a drunk, aren’t you, Daniel. I can smell it on your breath. Never mind, we all have our weaknesses. This way, please.”
He led them to the far end of the midway, to the largest tent of the carnival. Here he pulled back a voluminous flap and ushered them inside with a dramatic sweep of his arm. Now Lautrec appeared to have white circles of paint around his eyes. Odd that Daniel hadn’t noticed them before. He hesitated but Ben darted right in, leaving the drunken beggar little choice but to follow. Not that it felt like he had a choice in any of this to begin with. It was as if this night, and whatever lay ahead, had been written into his destiny from the beginning of time.

*****
A crooked, twisting aisle unspooled between two rows of alternating viewing panes and crimson drapery for as far as Daniel could see by the dim, wavering candlelight of the tent’s interior. Candles glowed from the tops of stands the height of a man, but beyond their slight comfort a dreadful darkness presided.
“You’ve come to look,” Lautrec said, “but you will also see. Our day visitors are admitted to the smaller tent. That’s where you’ll find the goat with five legs, the creature with the wings of a bat and the body of a vulture. That sort of thing. All very amusing for the simple minded, but we feel our night visitors deserve a bit more. Bear in mind, what you’re about to witness comes with an obligation. You must act on the impulses these exhibits engender in you, take what you learn here out into the world and subvert the lunatic course your breed has chosen for itself. All who are willing to carry that mantle are welcome here. All others are trespassers and will be dealt with accordingly. Do you accept these terms?”
What was there to say other than yes? Of course, yes.
“Very well. Then let us begin.” Lautrec waved a hand over something and there was light within the closest exhibit on their right. “We start with an old idea, but one that bears repeating. You see these children?”
Ben gasped and Daniel’s knees threatened to give out. A boy, wan and stupid looking, gaped at them, scratching the rags he wore with nails like claws. Beside him slouched a girl, emaciated and filthy. Her lips peeled away from black teeth in an unsettling rictus. This one’s gaze roved but paused on Ben and Daniel with each pass.
“Mother of Christ,” Daniel muttered. “Who are they?”
“The boy is Ignorance. The girl is Want.”
“Dickens?”
“Dickens.”
“What are you both talking about?” Ben wanted to know.
“Characters from A Christmas Carol,” Daniel explained. “Shown to Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas Present.”
“A troubling passage, lad,” said Lautrec. “A very troubling passage. So troubling you’d think enough people would have taken the message by now. Not so, I’m afraid. Ignorance flourishes in the world. Want thrives. And so we continue Dickens’s work.”
“Where did you find such creatures?” Daniel asked.
“He hails from Jerusalem, the girl from Sudan. But they have countless brothers and sisters in every corner of the globe. Let’s move on.”
They passed several darkened exhibits before Lautrec illuminated one on the opposite side of the promenade with another wave of his hand. Tight red curls hugged his scalp now, and his cheeks appeared lightly rouged. Either a strange trick of the light was obscuring Daniel’s perception of their guide, or the man’s appearance was changing.
“I’m not sure I want to see more,” said Ben, his voice trembling.
“You shouldn’t want to. Not entirely. Come.”
Something simian sat on a rock, staring but mute, its expression wise and sorrowful. A single phrase, repeated a thousand times, claimed every inch of the pinewood walls that enclosed the animal on three sides, scrawled in what appeared to be mud but might have been something else: I WILL DIE! Over and over, I WILL DIE!
“Charlie here comes with a cautionary footnote. Play God only if you’re willing to stare down your own handiwork. What you’re looking at is the offspring of a union between a male human and a female chimpanzee. He was conceived in Switzerland and no artificial insemination was required. No Swiss entity is willing to own up to this abomination. Charlie is presumed to be the only non-human animal in existence with awareness of its own mortality. An unhappy fate for the stolid brute, I’m afraid.”
They wound their way through the rest of the tent in a rough spiral that drew them inexorably toward the center. They passed by many darkened exhibits and paused only briefly at others, but they lingered at the most poignant examples of man’s errors. Lautrec relished the telling of his moral lessons and he had an attentive audience in Daniel and Ben. When they reached the final stretch of horrors Daniel noticed that one exhibit was already lit up.
“End of the line?” he said.
“In a manner of speaking, yes. Ben, why don’t you have the first look at this one. It’s something rather special.”
Ben looked from Lautrec to Daniel and back again before moving in front of the final enclosure. He spun around as soon as he caught a glimpse inside. “I don’t get it. What’s this mean?” His voice brimmed with anger and fear.
Daniel stepped within view of the scene. A young girl paced as much as the chain allowed that ran from a collar at her neck to a thick staple on one wall. “You know this girl?”
“It’s my sister.”
“That’s right,” said Lautrec. “You choose carefully when to tell the truth and when not to, it seems. You were also correct when you told your friend here that Amelia wants to kill you.”
“Hey, what is this?”
“What you failed to reveal is that you’ve got it coming. Put a meat fork in her precious rabbit’s neck, didn’t you, boy. Oh, we have eyes and ears everywhere. Believe it. And you lied about your parents, too. Or have you forgotten how your mother forces you to watch her have sex with strangers, that you don’t much miss the regular beatings now that dear old Dad’s finally fled the scene. Lickings he used to call them, I believe. Unfortunately, young man, none of this works in your favor. You don’t get a free pass to painfully execute a defenseless animal just because your parents are worthless. It doesn’t work that way.”
Daniel sensed a rustling movement amid the dark drapery to the right of Amelia’s cell. A disfigured monstrosity emerged—a man, at a guess, but one who had suffered such horrible burns that his joints seemed fused tight the way he ambled into view and took the boy by the shoulders. Ben put up a struggle and cursed a good deal, but his efforts were useless against this creature’s stooped might and implacable will. It licked at the edges of its mouth before disappearing into the drapes with its prey.
“Who in the—”
“That, Daniel, was Ridley Bickett. Lucky to be alive, too. He rushed into a burning house many years ago to save the children of the man who set the blaze. The incident left him scarred in more ways than one. But we can discuss that another time. First, your final lesson for tonight.”
Lautrec pointed to the glass. Bickett finished chaining up Ben opposite Amelia and then retreated. She arced her little knife with great savagery in her brother’s direction but he remained just out of reach, already taunting her with barbs and gestures.
“There’s no place for this kind of behavior in the world. They’re not the product of shoddy parenting alone. They’re the product of a disengaged society. We made them, yet we cannot tolerate their violent ways, their madness. These two cannot be unmade. It’s too late for that. But they need not have counterparts in future generations. That’s where you come in.”
“Me?”
“You, Daniel. Go out among the world and teach what you’ve learned here.”
“What have I learned?
“Why, that it matters. It all matters.”
Daniel finally tore his gaze from the children and before him stood a full-fledged clown, bedecked in an orange costume with white polka dots and ruffles at the wrists. Wooly red hair encompassed his head like backlighting from another world, and enormous shoes covered his feet. Through heavy layers of greasepaint Lautrec smiled broadly. The smile turned to chuckling, which grew to deranged, mocking laughter.
The request made little sense to Daniel but there was no way he was spending another minute in that tent with a deformed man, a sinister clown, and the countless captive atrocities that made the dark their home. Lautrec was letting him go, it seemed. That was good enough for him. He’d miss the boy. There was no sense lying to himself about that. But he still had a third of a bottle left in the pocket of his suit jacket. It wouldn’t dull the pain of losing a friend so newly discovered, but it might curb the anger he felt toward himself for being taken in by a kid.
Outside, the cool night air carried the faint strains of calliope music—he swore it did—but at least it drowned out the hideous laughter that continued to peal from inside the tent, if not the questions and doubts that stormed through Daniel’s head as he walked back to town in search of a place to bed down.


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