By Geeta Johal,
Samuel glances over his shoulder and sees the moon spilling into the sea. He dusts his leather jacket, hides a gun under his shirt, and climbs into his boots. Samuel grinds his teeth as he steers out into the night. Cold headlights streak down an empty road leading to the past. The windows rattle as he races towards a narrow bend, turning left at the cross road, in the direction of a place he never thought to return.
Fog shrouds the town of Hawksley. Samuel drives past rows of abandoned houses and farms, where proud men in long sleeve shirts and women in prairie dresses used to work. Twenty years had passed since he was driven out, taken to the river, and nearly drowned. Samuel regained consciousness, and stumbled along the Colorado river that night. He waved down a car and hitchhiked his way into the city. Fourteen of his older brothers were cast out before him. He never knew what became of them. His sisters stayed and married the older men. After six generations of inbreeding, everyone in Hawksley was related; ensuring that certain bloodlines would be preserved. The stillborn were buried in unmarked graves by the side of the road.
Samuel remembers his little brother, Danny, had frequent seizures. He wasn’t able to crawl or walk until he was five. Samuel had to look after him. Once, when Danny was eight, he went missing for days. No one could find him because he had climbed to the top of the water tower. Samuel brought him back home. Danny was so proud no one could beat him at hide and seek.
Remnants of a circus lie on the border of Hawksley and Glenmore. Samuel remembers the first time anyone from outside was let in past the town gates. Circus performers were set up in Glenmore until a fire ravaged their camp. It started when the old wooden theatre in Glenmore caught fire, the roof collapsed with children trapped inside. The broken windows were covered in soot. Fires blazed through the night, creeping up closer to Hawksley. But the town’s people managed to redirect the water supply to extinguish the flames. Sirens wailed into the night as firemen in Glenmore dug through the ashes.
The circus folk came to Hawksley looking for a place to stay. But the elders stood guard of the town gates with rifles strapped to their chests.
“Beware of outsiders! They’re not like us. They’re not God’s chosen ones, so they don’t have to live by the same standards that we do,” Father Jessup said.
The town’s people begged the elders to have mercy for the poor wandering souls. They had nowhere else to go. It was the first time Samuel saw a clown. After much deliberation, the circus performers were allowed to build their camp near the edge of Hawksley. A few days later, in exchange for their gratitude, they set up a circus for the children.
Danny was nine when he first saw the circus. He would leave for hours and stay after the shows. He told Samuel he wanted to be a clown when he grew up. Samuel would make excuses for Danny’s frequent absences. None of the Hawksley children were allowed to mix with outsiders. It was forbidden to visit the circus. They had to help harvest crops on the farm. They were told there was dignity in their hard work and they would be rewarded for it. But Danny was troublesome. He ran to the carnival when no one was looking. He learned how to dress in make-up, and take care of the horses. The clowns told him he could perform with them when he was older. He never wanted to leave. Danny had the unconditional devotion of someone who had been promised paradise.
When Father Jessup saw Danny running in face paint one day, he feared that the circus would corrupt the minds of Hawksley’s children. He gathered a few of the elder men to gun down the performers. Father Jessup told the town’s people that the circus folk had decided to leave.
Samuel wondered why they left their things behind. He wondered what the twelve new lumps in the copper dirt along the river were.
Danny cried. He never understood how they could leave without saying goodbye. Samuel tried to warn Danny not to ask too many questions. But Danny asked, “What happened to the clowns?” during Father Jessup’s fiery sermon.
Father Jessup took him in back of the church after service, and beat him. He broke Danny’s arm and nose. Father Jessup told him he was saving his wretched soul from the torments of hell.
It didn’t stop Danny. Even as he got older, he kept asking, “Why didn’t they say goodbye?” Danny was much bigger now and could easily overpower Father Jessup’s frail stature. Father Jessup decided it was better to ignore him.
When Father Jessup died, seventeen of his sister wives attended the funeral. His fifty-four children, most of whom were similar to their brother Danny, sat in front. They had small jaws, large foreheads, and wide set eyes. Father Jessup Jr. delivered the sermon. He took over his father’s role in the community and shared his awful temper. When Danny asked again about the clowns, he threatened there would be thirteen lumps of copper dirt by the river.
In the spring, young girls with loose braids were arranged to wed the older men. Samuel was fourteen when Father Jessup Jr. ordered that the teenage boys be expelled from Hawksley. He said that they had been possessed by the devil and needed to save their town from them.
Samuel didn’t know life outside of Hawksley. When he returned to see Danny, he was taken to the river by Father Jessup Jr. and submerged into the freezing water to drive the demons out. Samuel went limp. Father Jessup Jr. left him in the water and ordered the townsfolk to return to their homes.
Danny cried. He ran away a week later and never came back. Everyone thought he probably dove in after Samuel and drowned. Father Jessup Jr. said that anyone who would disobey his orders would suffer a similar fate.
Danny hid in the water tower for days; he’d forage for food on the farm. The town’s people were convinced that a hungry bear was digging into their crops at night, but they never suspected Danny was still alive. It wasn’t long before he decided to head back to the one familiar place he loved. The circus tents were still erect.
Sometimes the kids in Hawksley said they could hear carnival music at night. But the parents reassured them that it was just their imaginations. That boy, Danny, who was tempted by the circus, had gone mad and drowned his brother in the river before killing himself they warned. They would also go insane and kill their loved ones if they followed in his footsteps.
When the compound was raided, the news said there were no survivors. The police brought Samuel into the morgue to identify his family, but he couldn’t find his little brother. The mass suicide had claimed the lives of all, except Danny, whose body did not lie among the dead.
Samuel sits frozen in his car, watching a rusted Ferris wheel spin. The neon lights flicker before vanishing into darkness. Empty passenger carts rock back and forth. A carousel turns, decapitated horses bob up and down the poles to a carnival waltz. Samuel gets out to look around. The pavement is strewn with wet sawdust. His boots stick to the ground. Samuel can still hear the faint sound of kids laughing and their joyful screams in the vacant amusement park.
He dreads reuniting with his brother as strangers. Samuel’s stomach is tied up in knots, acid surges up his throat. He vomits on a patch of yellow grass, hands spread over his knees. Coffee pours out of his mouth like black bile.
Samuel contemplates telling Danny about his life. How he was passed around from three different foster homes until he turned eighteen. The nights he slept under the highway when he was homeless. How he searched in vain for their older brothers in the city. But it feels as though too much time has passed to sum up his life in a few words.
A loud snort interrupts his thoughts. Samuel gets startled and reaches for his gun. He sees two horses sleeping inside a stable. A half empty bottle of gin is tossed on a pile of hay. He picks up the bottle, and takes a swinging gulp to calm his nerves. Fire courses through his veins. His fingertips tingle.
“Danny? Where are you hiding Danny? Come here! It’s Samuel. Let’s play hide and seek,” he shouts, smashing the empty bottle on the ground.
A shadowy figure stirs from inside the big top. It scrambles into a trailer and slams the door shut.
He chases after it and yells, “Danny! It’s your brother Samuel!”
A wary eye peeks through a slit in the blinds. “You alone?” he shouts.
“Yes,” Samuel replies with a tense smile.
He turns the steel lever clockwise, the door creaks open.
Danny’s face is painted white. A crimson smile is drawn outside of his lips. The fabric from his button shirt pulls over his chest; its collar cuts into the thick folds of his neck. His trousers hover above his ankles. A man with a receding hairline towers over his older brother.
Samuel searches for the little boy he remembers in Danny’s eyes-the one who chased after him in the yard when they were kids.
“Did Father Jessup Jr. ever catch you stealing his clothes?”
“No.” Danny shakes his head. “I took it from the clothesline.” He points his finger at Samuel’s chest. “They said you died.”
“I had to play dead so I could stay alive,” Samuel responds.
“Me too,” Danny says, distracted. He gazes back at the Ferris wheel. His eyes dart side to side. He raises his fists, and pounds them against his temples.
“Stop! You’ll hurt yourself!” Samuel pulls Danny’s hands down. “It’s okay!”
Danny takes a deep breath, and blows it out of his mouth like hot steam.
“I knew you were hiding somewhere! Remember how we used to sneak out and play in the fields?” Samuel says.
“Yup.” Danny nods. His heels stick out from the backs of his shoes. He teeters as he tries to walk in them.
Samuel looks towards the empty streets, tall grass ripples in the wind like waves.
“What happened to everyone?”
Danny scratches his head. “Father Jessup Jr. said, ‘End of the world is coming, it’s time to leave.’ I was sitting there.” Danny points to the water tower. “No one saw me.”
“That’s because you’re really good at hide and seek,” Samuel says.
“I know,” Danny replies with a wide grin.
Samuel slows his pace. “You’re the only one in Hawksley who managed to see the carnival when we were kids.”
Danny raises an eyebrow. “Why did you come back?”
“I’ve come to take you with me. They’re coming to seize the compound in Hawksley. The entire place is going to be torn down. If outsiders find you here, they’ll lock you up! It’s not safe,” Samuel says.
Danny shrugs his shoulders. “I can’t go. I’m in charge.”
Samuels stops, and turns towards his brother. “In charge of what?”
“Danny!” Samuel grows impatient. “Don’t you see?” he says, shaking his head. “You can’t stay here by yourself!”
“I’m not by myself. Kids like clowns. Kids need to play here. They can’t go home. Their parents are gone. I don’t want them to be scared.”
“What are you talking about? There’s no one here but you,” Samuel says, baffled.
“The stillborn, drown boys, Glenmore and Hawksley kids. They come to the circus at night to play.”
Samuel grabs Danny’s arm. “The police say Father Jessup Jr. didn’t drink the poison like everyone else. They found his body floating down the river. They say it looks like someone strangled him and threw his body in the water. They think whoever did it might still be alive, hiding somewhere in Hawksley.”
Danny’s eyebrows furrow. He tightens his lips. “He was a bad man. He made kids drink poison.”
“Come with me! If they catch you-”
“I can’t go. Kids like clowns. Kids need to play here. They can’t go home. Their parents are gone. I don’t want them to be scared,” Danny says with an exasperated look. He hammers his fists against his head. “No! No!”
The conversation is going nowhere. Danny’s too big to drag away against his will, Samuel thinks. They’ll lock him up for the rest of his life. He’ll be taken away from everything he knows.
“Look, forget what I said. Let’s play hide and seek like when we were kids. This time I’ll hide, you find me.”
Danny’s face is flushed. He unclenches his fists. His chest heaves and his breath steadies. “Okay!”
Danny turns towards the trailer and covers his eyes. Samuel stands behind his brother. His hand trembles as he points the gun to the back of Danny’s head.
“Tell me when you’re ready,” Danny says. “I’m going to find you,” he laughs.
Samuel closes his eyes and tenses his finger on the trigger. A lump forms in his throat, tears streak his face.
“Are you ready?” Danny asks.
Samuel clears his throat. “Almost.”
I have to spare him from his madness, Samuel thinks.
“How is the outside?” Danny says.
Samuel’s voice cracks. “It’s hard. Sometimes the people you love try to hurt you.”
“Why do they hurt you?”
Samuel chokes on his words. “They think they have to.”
“You should stay with me. We don’t have to worry about that here,” Danny says.
Samuel lowers his arm.
“Are you ready now?” Danny says, peaking through his fingers.
Danny turns around. “How come you didn’t hide?”
Samuel wipes his tears and smiles. “I wanted to be found.”
“Let’s play again. This time you count and I’ll hide,” Danny says.
The gun shakes in Samuel’s hand.
“I have to go back. Please come with me Danny! I’m begging you!”
“I can’t go. Kids like clowns—”
Samuel closes his eyes, and pulls the trigger. There’s a loud bang. White smoke curls out of the barrel. Danny collapses to the ground, clutching his chest. His eyes are wide. He writhes on the ground, whimpering in pain until, finally, there’s no pain left.
Samuel walks back to his car. He turns his key and lets the engine run. He remembers how Danny used to flip his cereal bowl over his head during breakfast. Sticky porridge dripped down his face while everyone was eating. Mother yelled at him, but Danny watched Samuel’s face to see if he made him laugh.
Samuel sits in silence looking out of the driver’s side window, his heart races, his chest feels tight. He grips the gun in his hand. “I’ve never been on any of the rides at the carnival.”
A loud blast echoes around the empty fairground. It rings in Samuel’s ears. Coyotes howl in the distance.
Samuel runs back to see what happened. Danny smiles at his brother. “Do you want to go on the rides?”
“Yes!” Samuel says, his voice sounding higher than usual. The young boys walk towards the carousel and jump inside a cart. Samuel doesn’t feel anxious like when he first arrived. The carousel spins. He looks down and sees a long line of kids waiting to get on the ride. There are clowns juggling, a man on wooden stilts breathes fire over the crowd. The air smells of popcorn and sweet caramel. Balloons float up to the sky, Danny tries to catch a red one as it blows past him. Horses neigh, next to the big top. Children laugh at a skinny clown who falls backwards into a steel tub of water.
Samuel sees the house where he grew up, the church, the river where everyone thought he drowned as the carousel goes round. He looks down from the top of the wheel and sees a car with its headlights flashing. There’s blood splattered over the windshield. He sees a man with a face like his, collapsed over the wheel from a gunshot wound to the head.
Geeta Johal is a fiction writer from Montreal. She was selected for the 2021 QWF fiction mentorship program and is a 2019 Disquiet Alumni. When she is not writing, she can often be found checking out live concerts, boxing or reading.