Teddy placed one Nike-clad foot in front of the other. She was trembling. The ground beneath her felt rough and solid. But for a moment, she thought that it might be slightly moving underneath her. Teddy slammed her eyes shut, inhaled, and then exhaled slowly. She hated being alone and she hated being scared.
“Why are you here?” she asked herself in a barely audible whisper. “Why are you doing this?”
Of course, no one answered her questions. Her friends were long gone, undoubtedly having already found the end to the frightening Carnival of Fear. Or maybe they had just given up and found an off-the-path exit somewhere? Or even worse, they could be hiding in the shadows, trying to only further terrify her.
“Screw you,” she muttered under her breath. Some friends they were.You can do this, Teddy told herself. Be strong; be brave—it’s all pretend.
“What’s the matter, little girl? Are you afraid?”
She jumped at the unrecognizable, high-pitched voice. Teddy rapidly turned toward the sound. Her feet got caught together and twisted, almost knocking her down. She managed to catch her balance mid-fall, straightened up, and immediately found herself starring into the painted blue eyes of a clown.
“You know it’s not safe to be by yourself,” he jeered.
“Leave me alone! You’re not real!” Teddy screamed and promptly hurried forward. She quickly put distance between herself and the six-foot plus man who sported a sparkling white face, curly red wig, and black lips that appeared to be bleeding.
The clown began laughing and then broke out into an ear-splitting tune.“Only go forward if you dare; monsters and traps await. Beware!”
“No!” Teddy thrust her small, shaking hands over her ears to block out the sound. She picked up her pace.
Seconds later, she rounded the corner. Darkness greeted her. A smoky fog filled the already thick air. For a moment, Teddy thought that she might get sick. Keep moving, she told herself. She knew that above all else, she had to keep moving.
But something suddenly popped into her head, puzzling her. What had that clown said? That bit about being safe? Was it safe to be alone? Teddy wondered. She had seen the news stories, knew about the awful events that had taken place over the past couple of weeks. The way the front page paper had recently depicted the tragic episodes instantly caused Teddy to assume that there really wasn’t a safe place to be anymore.
A cold sweat began forming. It started at her temple and then moved down the left side of her face. Her thick blonde hair was becoming frizzy; she wished that she had some sort of band or tie to sweep up the loose ends. And just as her heartbeat finally began slowing down to a normal rate, her path was promptly blocked by a brick wall, causing her to come to an abrupt halt.
“What now?” she asked through gritted teeth.
Teddy brought her hands up. She placed them on the wall and quickly shuddered, feeling the thick tangles of cobwebs. She rolled her shoulders back and tried to relax; she attempted to rid herself of all the stiff tension that filled her. She pushed on the wall, but nothing happened. She tried again, but with more force this time. She grunted and could feel her feet slide on the floor. Still, the enclosure wouldn’t budge.
Did I take a wrong turn? She asked herself. Teddy contemplated going back the way she had come, but then quickly dismissed the idea. There was no way that she was taking the risk of running into that annoying clown again.
She knew that she could always ask for help. Didn’t everyone need help in their lives at some point? Maybe if she screamed loud enough or cried desperately enough, someone would come to her aid?
No! She shook her head, ridding herself of the ridiculous thought. She was an independent, capable, 16-year-old girl; the last thing she needed was help from someone else, especially from some macho guy who would think she was weak or unable to take care of herself. She didn’t need to be treated like a baby; she could do this!
Teddy turned, put her back against the wall, and slid down. With her knees drawn up to her chest, she cradled herself. She let her forehead rest on the cool flesh that protruded from her ripped jeans. She needed a minute to think, to rationalize. This wasn’t some survival of the fittest test; it was just a haunted carnival. It came to town every year. And every year throughout the month of October, people of all ages made it through safe, sound, and alive. She would, too.
She brought her head up, craned her neck to the right, and then saw it. It was the way out. Or it was the way to the next chamber, at least. Teddy shuddered, thinking about crawling through the large, rusty tunnel that reeked of mildew. But she would do it; she had to it.
On all fours now, she was able to feel the grainy sensation of the dirt. Teddy brought herself forward and entered the circular passage. A dim, yellowish light led the way. If she listened close enough, she could make out some sort of scraping sound. There seemed to be metal on either side of her; something was rustling up against it.
Working up the courage to look, she swallowed hard and peered into the darkness. Rats! Large, dark gray, hairy rats stared back at her with beady eyes. Their teeth were sharp and long; their pink tails were swaying back and forth in the rectangular cages that bound them.
Teddy’s loud shriek echoed throughout the tunnel. She instantly picked up speed and scrambled to escape the disgusting rodents.
Finally, coming to an opening, Teddy all but jumped out of the entrapment and landed on broken glass. Well, the illusion of broken glass, as she soon realized—not finding any cuts, scrapes, or fresh wounds on her body. As she shuffled gingerly across the floor, she realized the “glass” was shredded plastic particles.
Teddy jumped back. Approaching her was a heavy, dark figure. As he stepped into the neon light, she could see that his face, like the clown’s, had been painted white. However, this man had trails of yellow cascading down his face, creating a puss-like appearance. His body was completely wrapped in silver chains and they made a nails-down-a-chalkboard sound as he struggled with the challenge of moving forward.
“Go away!” Teddy ordered. She sidestepped the creature and did her best to avoid eye contact.
“You know it’s not safe to be by yourself,” he taunted.
There it was again, Teddy noted, putting distance between herself and the monster. It was the exact same warning that the clown had given her only moments before. But did she really need to be warned?
She kept going. She passed ripped flags and a lone Ferris wheel seat splattered with scarlet blood and chunky gore that implied a gruesome murder had taken place at this outrageous, over the top, Carnival of Fear.
Murder. Murder. She couldn’t help but dwell on the idea of murder. And then on its own accord, Teddy’s memory was taking her back to the dreadful news clippings and shocking tragedies that had recently rocked her small hometown.
Three had now died, Teddy vividly remembered. All of the victims had been teenagers, ranging in age from 15 to 18. They’d all been blonde and attractive. Their throats had been slit from behind —ear to ear. The bodies had been found on the side of the road, each discarded like old garbage. The work of a serial killer, perhaps?
Teddy rolled her eyes at the weakness of the local police and reporters. They knew nothing, had nothing. Anyone could be the killer and everyone who fit the description of the victims could be next. Teddy couldn’t help but think about her own blonde hair, age, and the fact that she had been told a time or two that she was very pretty.
“You’re close to the exit,” she reassured herself. “Keep going.”
Teddy wasn’t sure why she had agreed to attend this nightmare in the first place. She wasn’t an idiot; and though it had never been stated in black and white, she had been able to determine that the killings had only started when the Carnival of Fear had come to town. So what was the carnival’s connection to the crimes that had been committed? What did it all mean?
She let out a low sigh and scratched at the tedious itch on the back of her neck. Her muscles felt tense and awkward. She hastily wondered that if she sprinted straight forward, if the trail would take her out into the open and safe atmosphere where her friends were likely waiting. Teddy needed to get away from the rapid sense of danger that had wrapped itself around her entire body like a tight, suffocating blanket.
“You need help?”
She looked behind her, wondering who had asked the question. Another ghoul trying to scare her? Or maybe it was just one of her friends, checking to see what was taking her so long to get through the place.
No, the guy standing in front of her wasn’t one of her friends, but he wasn’t in costume either. She knew him though, from school. Jimmy? Jake? Joey? Something like that. Teddy knew he looked familiar; they had a couple of classes together.
“Are you okay?” he asked, coming to a stop beside her.
“I’m f-f-fine,” she nodded.
“Why are you by yourself? You know it’s not safe.”
Of course, she thought to herself—the boy in front of her was Jacob Owens. He was the quarterback for the football team, homecoming king, and the most popular senior in school. His shaggy blonde hair was a hit with all of the girls. Teddy couldn’t believe it: he was talking to her! Had he come to rescue her?
“Hello?” he tried again. “I don’t think you’re fine.”
“No, sorry,” Teddy said and quickly waved off his suggestion. “My friends left me and I think that I may have gotten turned around. I can’t find the exit anywhere.”
“Sure. It’s just forward a little bit more,” he said and pointed. “It’s past the room full of mirrors. Let me help you.”
“Oh, that’s really not—”
“Come on,” he encouraged. He placed one hand around her shoulder and pulled her toward him. “I want to.”
“But nothing. I’m here.” His grip was getting more forceful, even painful. His fingertips dug through her sweater and into skin.
“Please stop!” she begged.
He finally let go. “Look, do you want help or not?”
Teddy shook her head, pinched the bridge of her nose, and thought for a moment. “Just lead the way and I will follow you.”
“Whatever,” he mumbled and walked past her. She heard him whisper something about a “stupid, crazy girl.”
She kept stride with him. She was just a few feet behind him and let him enter the next room first. That was when she felt the weight of something in her back pocket. Teddy reached for the object that had been concealed by her long jacket.
Yes, she thought, as she brought the tool around to her front and removed the large, plastic covering. The three victims all had had something else in common, too: they’d all been male.
“Are you still with me?” he asked.
“Oh yes,” she said and smiled. “I’m right here.” Teddy didn’t need the help of some arrogant, testosterone-filled boy who was undoubtedly trying to save the day. She could take care of herself. She always had. And the guys, well, they were always the same. Trying to swoop in and grope her, actually believing that they were needed in order for her to survive. She didn’t need a man to survive; after all, she had proven that multiple times now and would continue to prove it.
“Wait! I can’t see you,” she yelled out.
“I’m right here,” he answered irritably. He never turned around. His back was still toward her.
Teddy tiptoed forward, making sure to move silently. She raised the knife and instantly noticed the rusty stain that was still caked on the serrated blade from the last time she had used it.
Teddy turned to her right. In the mirror—a serial killer stared back at her. Winking, she brought the blade down.
[Author’s Note: This short story originally appeared in the horror anthology Carnival, published by Static Movement in 2012 (currently out of print). It then appeared in the e-book, A Motive for Murder, published in 2015.]