By Jordan Marie McCaw
The inside of this tent felt like the inside of Carrie’s heart: cold, empty, a place once full of people now deserted. Outside the purple tent she could hear the excited carnival-goers, the BB guns popping balloons, bells dinging whether or not someone lost or won.
The flap of the tent pushes inward as her twin sister Ada comes inside.
“There you are!” Ada shivers as soon as the flap doors close. She looks around the empty tent as if there’s more to see than the tall purple ceiling and empty dirt floor. She looks at Carrie with a furrowed brow. “I’ve been looking for you for twenty minutes.”
“I needed to get away from all the people.”
Ada approaches Carrie carefully, her arms acting as the protective barrier between them. “Do you need to go home?”
Carrie sniffs and looks down. “No, I just want to be alone.”
Ada drops her arms. “I can tell when you want to go home.”
“Don’t act like you can read my mind. I said I’m fine.”
“I’m not reading your mind, Carrie. I’m reading your body.” She looks around the empty tent again, this time not really looking at it. “Shit, Carrie, what’s been going on with you all night?”
Carrie keeps her head down for one second longer, until she decides to lock eyes with her sister. Tears stand in her eyes, blurring her vision. A cold air swirls through the tent, beginning at her ankles and flying around her strawberry blonde hair. She opens her mouth to answer––
A light switches on in the center of the tent. The thin, white beam angles straight down from the ceiling, lighting up a handgun displayed on a small waist-high table.
Ada’s eyes grow wide at the sight of the gun. “What the––”
“Ladies, welcome.” A tall––taller than tall––a towering man steps out from the dark. He wears a three piece purple suit. A silver chain hangs from a small pocket in the front. Carrie expects him to be wearing a top hat by the time her eyes reach his head, but his black hair is slicked back like Elvis Presley with no hat perched on top. The man licks his wide smile and his grey eyes sparkle as he steps into the beam of light by the gun.
Carrie exchanges a bemused glance with her sister. “Uh, hi?”
“You didn’t think you would be walking into the most exciting tent in Flynn’s Fantastic Carnival, but here you are.” He extends his left arm into the darkness. “Welcome.”
“I’m sorry,” Ada says with her hands up, “we came in here on accident. My sister did, I mean. I was just looking for her.”
The man gasps. “You two are identical.”
They exchange another glance, this time wary. Carrie turns back to him despite how uneasy he makes her feel. She can’t look away from him. Or from the gun he stands beside.
“Am I correct in my observation?”
Ada smiles, that fake one where her eyes are too wide and her mouth is tight. The same exact fake smile as Carrie’s. “Yep, you’re right. Sorry, we thought this tent was closed.” She turns to the flap that serves as the door, but before she can even get Carrie to follow, the man taps his finger on the gun. Ada freezes. All expression leaves Carrie’s face.
“I hope this didn’t alarm either of you when the light turned on.” He licks his smile again. “It’s not a real gun, of course. Flynn’s Fantastic Carnival doesn’t allow real firearms on his premises. No matter what state.”
“So, it’s fake?” Carries asks.
“If by fake you mean that if I pull the trigger a bullet won’t blow a hole in the tent’s wall, then yes. It’s fake.”
Carrie cocks her head to the right. “Then what does it do?”
The man’s smile stretches until it looks like it’s wrapped halfway around his head. “What’s your name?”
Ada whispers something behind her, but she doesn’t hear what.
The man’s eyes flick to Ada. “And yours?”
Ada crosses her arms over her chest. “Mary.”
Carrie flicks her own eyes to her sister, raising her eyebrows.
“Carrie, Mary, it’s a pleasure to meet you both. My name is Cornelius.” He steps in front of the gun and crosses his own arms to match Ada’s. His elbows look sharp enough to tear holes in the tent. “Now answer me this, dearies. Do you believe in magic?”
Ada snickers. “Of course not.”
Cornelius looks to Carrie. She blinks, clears her throat, and says almost in a whisper, “No.”
He uncrosses his arms. “That’s all right, believing in magic is not necessary to participate.”
“Participate? Sorry, but we were actually just leaving.”
Carrie turns to her sister. “Let’s stay a minute. See what’s going to happen.”
Ada takes two steps toward her sister and grabs her wrist. “I don’t want to see what’s going to happen,” she whispers. “We’re two girls alone in tent with a man and a gun.”
“He says it’s not a real gun––”
“I don’t care, Carrie. I want to leave.”
Ada tries to pull Carrie by her wrist but Carrie stays put. “Please, A––Mary. I want to see whatever this is. It’s a carnival. There are children, families, people outside. Let’s just stay for a minute.”
Cornelius checks the silver pocket watch intently, as if he isn’t listening to their hushed conversation. His expression remains calm, without even one eyebrow raised in interest.
Ada looks him up and down, then back to Carrie. “Whatever, fine. The only reason I’m not leaving this second is because you refuse to leave with me. It’s not like nothing bad never happened at a carnival, right?”
Carrie turns to Cornelius. “Sorry, sir. We’re ready.”
He closes the pocket watch with a snap and returns it to his front pocket. “Excellent! I’m delighted to hear it. As you can see, this tent doesn’t get many visitors.”
“If you opened the doors you might get more people in here,” Ada says.
“I appreciate the suggestion. I’ll lock it away for future use.”
Ada frowns and glances at the closed flaps leading outside. The sounds of screaming children and playing games and people on rides carry on outside. Carrie clings to the noise as a reminder they’re not alone. Not really. They have nothing to fear yet. She watches Cornelius with fascination as he rounds the gun on the table. It only comes up to his mid-thigh, but it’s almost as tall as Carrie and Ada’s chests. He beckons them closer into the light.
“There’s not much to this,” Cornelius says. “All this demonstration requires is belief.”
“Do we do something?” Carrie asks. “Or are you about to do something?”
Cornelius giggles. They rise up from the back of his throat like a particularly acidic burp. “I won’t do anything here. It’s all up to you, Carrie and Mary, if you decide to participate, and if you decide to believe.”
Ada shrugs. “What are we supposed to believe in? That we’re looking at a gun?”
“This requires belief that is unseen. Perhaps faith is a better word for this. What is it that is found in Hebrews? ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ ”
Ada rolls her eyes at the quote. Carrie, however, leans into the words. The handgun looks old to her. Her knowledge of guns is just about nonexistent, but she knows a gun when she sees it or hears it. This gun looks like it’s made entirely out of silver. Ornamental designs trace the barrel. She notices the chamber and realizes this is a revolver. That much she knows. That means there are six bullets inside, or it holds up to six bullets. If this gun isn’t real, though, what could be inside the chamber? Is it a water gun? Does it shoot bubbles?
Cornelius stands behind the gun. “Now, I said it wasn’t a real gun, and in a way that’s true. If I pulled the trigger right now, nothing would come out of it. But it does load and shoot like a regular gun. It will fire if someone is to pull the trigger.”
“Does it fire blanks?” Ada asks.
“No, it fires a bullet. Just not in the traditional sense.”
Carries shakes her head, her shoulder length hair dancing around her shoulders. “I don’t understand.”
Cornelius chortles to himself. “Forgive me as I get excited. Explaining this is my favorite part.” He pets the top of the gun with one index finger. “You two may not believe in magic, but something will happen if you fire this gun. In fact, something will happen to someone if this gun is fired. We just won’t know who.”
“Something will happen to someone, what?” Ada shakes her head now, her longer strawberry blonde hair wiggling in between her shoulder blades. “Just tell us what happens when you fire the gun.”
Cornelius bites back on another giggle. Carrie notices his teeth are crooked as the top row bites into his lower lip. As soon as he gets himself under control, he says, “If this gun is fired, someone in this town will die.”
“But you said it doesn’t fire bullets,” Ada argues.
“I didn’t say it wouldn’t fire a bullet somewhere else.”
Ada shakes her head again. “What the hell are you talking about? None of this makes sense.”
Cornelius giggles, unfazed by Ada’s mounting frustration.
Ada grabs Carrie’s wrist. “It’s time to go, Carrie.”
“No, Ada!” Carrie pulls her wrist out of her sister’s grasp.
Ada turns on her with her eyes wide, her true identity revealed. This only turns Cornelius’s giggles into full on laughter. He howls as he doubles over, one hand on one bony knee, the other hand holding his flat stomach.
“Carrie, he’s talking about someone in our town dying. He’s making a mean joke about us.”
“How is he making fun of us?”
“He’s making fun of our town, I don’t know. He’s laughing at us.”
“No, no, no.” Cornelius straightens up, wiping a tear from his right eye. “I assure you I am not making fun at your expense. I just can’t help the laughter when I get so excited. Please, forgive me. I’m not finished explaining how this works.”
Ada crosses her arms, unmoving. “How can you say that if someone pulls the trigger on that gun, someone in our town dies? Did you kidnap someone? Do I need to call the cops?”
“It’s not as easy to explain if you don’t believe in it’s magic,” he says. “I understand your unbelief. Just about anyone who comes into my tent is as skeptical as you are. You see, the gun works regionally, within whatever town’s limits it’s currently in.”
Ada shrugs. “Okay?”
“And someone in this town will die if the gun is fired?” Carrie asks.
Cornelius’s eyes light up. “Yes.”
Ada takes one step toward Carrie. “Why would anyone want to fire that if it’s true? That would be murder.”
“But you said yourself that you don’t believe in magic. So if you fire the gun and nothing happens, then nothing happens.”
Ada walks up to the gun. The white light makes her pale skin glow. “Do people really come in here and do this at every carnival you’re at?”
“I don’t get many visitors, but usually one or two people test the gun’s magic if they feel like taking a risk.”
“What are you charging? Twenty bucks? A hundred?”
He shakes his head. “Nothing.”
Ada smirks. “I’m surprised there aren’t more people in here. I just spent seven bucks on french fries.” She looks to Carrie. “Are you gonna try it?”
She pulls her eyes away from the gun. “I don’t know. Are you?”
Ada turns her attention back to the gun, smirking again. “Why not? It’s not actually going to kill anyone. Only if I believe it will kill someone it will. It’s all up to what I decide, isn’t it? If I want to feel guilty about someone getting shot tonight because I pulled this trigger, than I can, right?”
“Most people look at it that way,” Cornelius says.
Ada wraps her fingers around the gun’s silver handle. “I bet you make people go crazy in towns smaller than ours, huh? I bet you get more people in here on a full moon.”
He shrugs, grinning. “It varies from town to town.”
His grey eyes sparkle as he stares at Ada’s hand on the gun. He licks his lips, his crooked teeth shining in the beam’s light. He wraps his hands over one another, going over and over them so that they constantly topple over the other. He doesn’t even realize he does this as he watches her hold the gun. Carrie glances down at his hands. The silver chain connected to his pocket swings as his body shakes in excitement. Another breeze swirls around the tent, beginning at her ankles and moving up her body. The flyaway hairs on top of Ada’s head blow with the breeze.
Ada coils her finger around the trigger. She glances back at Carrie, but only for a second. Carrie sees beads of sweat stand out on Ada’s upper lip despite the breeze in the tent. There’s a hint of fear in her sister’s eyes. Carrie knows that because she’s seen that fear in her own eyes. Ada stares straight into the tent’s darkness, expecting to see something shoot out of this gun once she pulls the trigger.
Her finger pulls back and the gun clicks. Ada looks down at it in disappointment. “Did it go?”
“It went, all right,” Cornelius says through a giggle.
Ada turns to him. “You can’t at least make it sound like it fired? After all your theatrics?”
Carrie listens for the commotion outside the tent. Bells ding, people scream in excitement, and music is played in some other corner of the carnival. No shouting, no dispersion, no people fleeing inside the one empty tent in this carnival for safety. She sighs.
“Come on, Carrie. Pull the trigger on this dumb thing and let’s get out of here.”
She continues to listen to the outside noises as she takes her turn with the gun. The normalcy outside reassures her, but something doesn’t feel quite right inside this tent.
The gun is cold to the touch, even after Ada held onto it for a good minute. A shiver runs up her left arm, sending the hair standing on end and goosebumps poking out on her skin. Cornelius’s giggles don’t die out but increase as she takes her turn.
Carrie looks straight ahead just like her sister did. Sweat beads her upper lip in just the same way, but it was there before Ada pulled the trigger. Carries wipes the sweat away with her right hand. Resisting the urge to ask Cornelius to be quiet, she pulls the trigger.
“Seriously, is it broken?” Ada asks.
Cornelius is howling with laughter again.
Ada places a hand on Carrie’s shoulder. “Can we go now? No wonder no one is in here.”
Carrie turns back once as they depart to watch Cornelius laugh so hard he chokes.
“Thank you for coming in, dearies!” Cornelius screeches in his excitement. “I hope you had as much fun as I did! May you be blessed by your unbelief as you leave! Good luck, dearies!”
The purple tent’s flap shuts behind them and they’re back outside.
Carrie examines her left arm. “Did you feel that?”
“Feel what? The major let down that just happened in there or the extreme creepiness of that guy? I’d say both.”
“No, I mean the––” Carrie sees her sister has already moved on from this tent and is back in the real world. Ada scans the crowd for anyone she knows. Anyone to ditch Carrie for or to at least pick up this evening.
“Come on, let’s go ride something,” Ada says.
“No, I want to go home.”
“Seriously, Carrie? It’s not even ten. We don’t need to be home until eleven.”
“I wanted to go home before we went in there. You can’t pick up on that because you’re too busy looking for someone to flirt with.”
Ada’s mouth hangs open.
“It’s okay, Ada. It’s–It’s whatever. Please, just let me go home. I’ll come back and pick you up before curfew. Just please, let me go home.”
Ada recognizes a friend of the shallow variety standing by a cotton candy stand. She waves and smiles as though she doesn’t hate Carrie in this moment. “Don’t worry about picking me up. I can get a ride.” When she looks at Carrie for the first time since being outside the tent, she’s frowning. “You’re no fun, Carrie. All you want to do is stay in your room reading or do whatever it is you do in there.”
“You know I don’t like crowds, Ada. I only came here because you begged me to.”
“I just thought we were supposed to be the same person. Not the opposite.”
“You know, that line really got old when we were, like, ten.” When Ada doesn’t reply because she’s waving at her friend again, Carrie heads toward the parking lot. “Please don’t do anything stupid, Ada.”
As soon as Carrie gets home, she checks local news stations and newspapers on her laptop. When she doesn’t find anything about someone getting shot, she turns her laptop off and goes to bed.
At 8:45 that evening––exactly when Ada pulled the trigger on the silver gun––an elderly woman is found dead in her bedroom. Her husband found her halfway off the bed, bleeding profusely from the chest. Once medical examiners see her, they discover that the wound goes through her chest and out her back. A clean shot, most would say, if she had been shot. There were no reports of gunfire noises or sightings in the area, however, and no bullet casings or shells of any kind found in the bedroom. It’s as if a spear of air bore a hole straight through this woman’s heart and exited through her back, killing her almost instantly.
Despite Carrie’s fruitless search for local shootings on the internet, a shooting did occur in her town that night, though the news hadn’t gotten hold of it yet. Gunfire woke up a pastor of a Baptist church at 8:47. His wife stirred in her sleep beside him as a second shot was fired. He told her to stay in bed as he slid on his slippers and walked downstairs to the living room to get a better look at their street. Just as he reached the window, a nondescript compact car sped past his house. He sighed as he watched the car hang a right without even tapping the brakes. He hoped the shots didn’t wake up his two daughters upstairs.
He sighed again as he turned around. The full moon made his youngest girl’s face glow white. He held his hands out to her. “It’s okay, sweetheart. Let’s go back to bed.”
She pointed at his chest with a tiny finger. “Daddy, you’re hurt.”
He looked down and saw a growing spot of red on the left side of his white t-shirt. He touched it and his fingers came away sticky with blood. He looked to his youngest, whose eyes were wider than his.
“Let’s go back to bed,” he said, then fell face first before his daughter. She screamed bloody murder.
Carrie shoots up from her pillow, gasping. Sweat lathers her body. She throws off the sheets and jumps out of her bed as if the night terror would stay there if she leaves it. It doesn’t. The night terror plays in her mind as clear as when she was asleep. She saw the hole in the pastor’s chest. She even recognized his face. She has attended his church a couple times in the past year.
The glowing light on her laptop flashes at her. She opens it to see if she could find any news about people dying tonight. She even goes to her town’s police scanner Facebook page. The most recent post is about someone getting their bike stolen at the carnival.
Carrie patters to Ada’s room. “Ada,” she says a little louder than a whisper. “Ada.”
Ada isn’t in bed. Carrie sees the time on the clock on the nightstand reading one in the morning. She tiptoes to the kitchen. Her dad’s asleep in his recliner. The TV’s blue light fans across his snoring face.
Carrie takes a deep breath, holding herself by her shoulders. Sweat clings to her body, but she doesn’t feel like she’s going to jump out of her skin anymore. Just as she decides to go back to her room, the back door creaks open. Carrie twists to greet Ada sneaking inside. Before either of them says a word, Carrie points down the hall to their bedrooms.
“It’s one in the morning,” Carrie says as soon as Ada closes the door to her room. “What were you doing?”
Ada turns on the lamp beside her bed. She wrinkles her nose in disgust. “Geeze, Carrie, you look awful. Are you sick?”
Carrie casts her eyes down at her feet. “I had a nightmare.”
Ada rolls her eyes. “Oh, what was it about? Someone getting shot mysteriously?”
Carrie nods, more to herself than as an answer to Ada’s question.
Ada’s smirk dissolves into concern. “You really don’t look that good, Carrie. You should go back to bed.”
“What if it’s real? What if when we pulled the trigger two people died?”
Ada walks up to Carrie and grabs both her shoulders. “Go back to bed, Carrie. You’re half asleep. The nightmare won’t come back.”
But it does. The pastor dies in front of his five-year-old daughter. When his wife gets downstairs, his eyes are glass marbles and his body is stiff. She shrieks with her daughter, pulling her close. The police are already in the area because of the gunfire. He’s pronounced DOA once the ambulance gets to the hospital. Investigators search the house for any signs of intrusion.
Not only does Carrie see this in her dream, she watches this on the news in the morning. The anchorman relays this story right after the elderly woman’s. When he reports on everything he can about their improbable deaths, he moves onto last night’s carnival’s booming success.
Ada wakes up around noon. By then Carrie has read and watched everything she can about the death of the pastor and the elderly woman. When she tells Ada everything, her sister barely raises an eyebrow in interest.
“Ada, will you not even consider we might be involved in one of these shootings?”
“The only shooting was at the Minute Market. You said so yourself. The other two didn’t get shot. They just died. They’re heart exploded––however you said it.” She finds a slice of pepperoni pizza in the fridge and tears a bite out of it. “You’re playing into everything that guy said, Carrie. That’s the whole point of his stupid tent. His job is to make people question everything. He’s trying to make you go crazy. He’s probably still laughing that creepy laugh of his right now, thinking about how freaked out you are.”
Carrie looks down at her hands, like she does almost every conversation she has with Ada. There was a time when Ada would humor her in these concerns. She would at least toy with the ideas Carrie presented. Now she’s looking for an excuse to check her phone.
Ada sits on the counter, the slice of pizza reduced to the cold crust. “Are you done with this?”
Carrie looks up, but only for a second before looking back down. “Yeah. Okay.”
That night Ada drags Carrie back to the carnival to meet some friends. Ada makes Carrie go more on the insistent of their parents than she actually wanted. Carrie only agrees to go because she thinks being outside might be good for her. Even if outside means smelling popcorn and vomit and being assaulted by the dings, bells, and screams of the carnival. She wants to go back to the purple tent.
Cornelius’s tent, however, is gone. Carrie turns in circles, sure this is the tent’s exact location the night before. Ada even looks around curiously, pressing her lips together and furrowing her brow.
“Huh, that’s weird.” Ada’s eyes grow wide. “Do you think he wasn’t really part of the circus? Or maybe he has something to do with those two deaths.”
Carrie rubs her forehead. Sweat beads on her upper lip. Her stomach rolls over itself like one of the rickety roller coasters at the carnival.
“What if none of that was real?” Carrie considers. This isn’t the first time she considers something she experienced as being a figment of her imagination, but it’s the first time she voices it. “What if none of that happened last night?”
“What are you talking about? Of course it happened. We can’t collectively imagine something. We’re both not delusional.”
Feeling leaves Carrie’s face.
“I didn’t mean that,” Ada takes it back. “I just mean––”
“You’re not the crazy one.”
“What I’m saying, Carrie, is that he was definitely here last night. And now he’s––” she gestures at the open space where the purple tent was “––gone.”
Carrie picks her right arm with long fingernails.
Ada says, “Let’s just forget about it, huh? Forget about last night. At least he didn’t take our money.”
“Are you really not worried about any of this? About those two people who died unnatural deaths last night?”
“No. I’m not worried at all. Let’s have some fun tonight, okay? You know what sounds good? French fries!”
Carrie doesn’t have fun that night. In fact, she doesn’t have fun for the next seven years. As Ada enrolls in college, falls in love, gets married, and has a child, Carrie stays at home with their parents. She sleeps more than she should, she eats too much, she mutters to herself, and she dreams about the pastor’s final moments with his daughter. She spends too much time researching the pastor and the elderly woman’s lives, their families, how their deaths affected others.
Scabs litter up and down Carrie’s arms. She picks them when she’s anxious. Her once thick strawberry blonde hair is an oily, matted nest thinning by the day. At one point her parents consider kicking her out of the house, but when her mom sees the scabs on her arms, she can’t make her go. They make Carrie go to a therapist, who’s more interested in Carrie’s relationship with her twin sister than the mysterious man with the purple tent.
“I think I killed someone,” Carrie tells her therapist. “I think I’m responsible for a pastor’s death. I think I’m going to hell because of it.”
She explains Cornelius, the tent, the gun, the magic to her therapist. She explains how at first she didn’t think she believed in what the gun does, but is now unable to deny it.
“I looked into that pastor’s death, Carrie,” her therapist tells her, and this is not the first time. “He had a pacemaker that exploded in his heart. It was a defect in a new model. That’s what happened to that woman too. Same pacemaker. Same defect. They recalled the pacemaker and destroyed the model. Those were the only two malfunctions. I couldn’t even understand how it malfunctioned when I looked into it, and I’m sure you wouldn’t understand either, but that’s not important. What’s important is that you accept that you had no part in their deaths.”
“I only had part in one of the deaths. The pastor. My sister killed the woman.”
“And why do you think you killed the pastor and not the woman?”
Carrie lifts her nails up to her arm to pick it, but reminds herself not to do that here. Instead she bites her lower lip. “Because I dream about him every night. I think that man in the tent––Cornelius––I think he’s the devil. I think he knew who would die if we pulled the trigger on that gun. He could see that I believed him just a little bit when he explained everything, and I think he knew this would haunt me more than it would my sister if I was the one who killed the pastor. You know, I knew him. The pastor. I went to his church a couple times. He greeted me on a Sunday morning. It felt like he knew me. When people look at me, they don’t. They look through me.” She digs her nails into her arm. “That man looked at me, and I killed him.”
Carrie’s parents put her in a mental institution for one month when they find out she called the police and confessed to the pastor’s death. She’s not arrested, of course, because his death wasn’t a homicide case. Her parents are afraid she’s hurting herself beyond picking her arms. They’re afraid she’ll commit suicide. The therapist didn’t seem to be helping. When she gets out, she doesn’t go home to her parents. Instead she goes to Flynn’s Fantastic Carnival, which is town for the weekend, just like it is every year during the summer. Carrie waits impatiently for its arrival every year. Each of those seven years the purple tent hasn’t been there, but she goes anyway. She asks the workers about it. She roams the parking lot in hopes Cornelius is somewhere around.
Before she leaves the institution, she calls Ada.
“Carrie, how are you?” Ada talks quickly. In the background Carrie hears a baby laughing. “Are you out? How–How was it?”
“I’m going to the carnival, Ada.”
Her twin sister sighs into the phone. “Carrie, why don’t you come here for the weekend? We have the spare room. Frankie would be so happy to see her aunt.”
Carrie’s fingernails are well-trimmed. Though scars pock her arms, none of them are fresh. She wears a long-sleeve cotton shirt to hide them. Her hair is combed back into a low pony tail and looks healthier than it has in months. Her pale face even has some color in it. It’s the inside of her that’s unchanged, that’s still hollow.
“Ada, have you ever thought about that man and woman who died the night we went to the carnival? Have you ever once considered how your actions may have harmed someone?”
“Ugh, Carrie, I’m tired of talking about this every time you call. You never even ask how I’m doing, how Frankie is. Why––”
“You’ve never thought about anyone else but yourself. If you fired that gun five more times and five more people died, you would not for a second think you might have anything to do with it. Even if you watched that woman die as you pulled the trigger.”
“You’re sick, Carrie. You’re always going to be. I’d say you need help, but I don’t think anyone can help you.”
“There’s only one person who can help me.”
She hangs up the phone and walks outside with nothing but a bottle of antidepressants in her pocket and fifty dollars in the other. The scabs on her arms burn under the cotton, but she keeps her hands by her sides.
The carnival isn’t open when she gets there, but she sneaks through a broken chain-link fence rather than try and go through the front gates. Animal piss assaults her senses as she walks past the petting zoo. A billy goat looks up from her with its wrong, black eyes, as though it knows who she’s looking for. There’s recognition in its eyes that Carrie has a hard time looking away from. She slows her pace until she stops before the billy goat. It munches on dry hay as it stares at her. For some reason the scabs on her arms burn more than ever.
People arguing breaks her attention. She moves on from the petting zoo, but the billy goat doesn’t move on with its munching. In fact, the hay in its mouth sits there as its jaw goes slack. It watches her head straight for the purple tent.
Carrie’s heart beats rapidly inside her, making her shake. She’s afraid the tent is a mirage, a vision that’s only there because she wants it to be. The piss of the petting zoo animals follows her, until a breeze sweeps it away and she can’t smell anything anymore. The metallic taste she carries in her mouth most of the time leaves as well. Even sound is cut off from her senses. All she can do is feel the breeze and gaze at the purple tent, refusing to blink in case it vanishes in the time it takes her eyelids to open again.
The tent’s flap doors are closed, but she enters anyway, like she did that night seven years ago. The breeze follows her––ushers her inside.
The white light is on in the center of the tent, shining down at the silver gun. It gleams in the brightness, greeting her. Carrie’s heart quickens its beat. She licks her lips with a dry tongue.
Out from the shadows Cornelius approaches.
In the seven years since Carrie was in this tent, her appearance has changed dramatically. She’s acquired a woman’s body, shaving off the boyish figure she carried through high school. Her hips are wide now, her stomach nowhere near as flat as it was all those years ago. She hunches her shoulders compulsively, giving her a vulture look. Her eyes bulge, her upper lip pulled upward to reveal teeth not brushed often enough.
Cornelius looks unchanged in those seven years. In fact, he seems to stand a little straighter than that night. He holds his hands behind his back. The silver chain still hangs from the inside of his jacket and the front pocket. The biggest difference, however, is his smile. It’s gone.
“Can I help you?” he inquires with a frown. He holds his nose up toward the light, looking down at Carrie. The gun stands between them.
Carrie shuffles toward the light like a moth. “I’ve been looking for you for seven years.”
“I’m sorry, have we met?”
Carrie straightens her hunched shoulders and combs a hand through her washed hair, letting it loose from the ponytail. She’s kept it at the same shoulder length since she was a child. The split ends skate across her collarbone. She says, “My name is Carrie.”
Cornelius brightens up so quickly, her heart skips a beat. “Oh, Carrie! It’s you!”
“You remember me?”
He steps in front of the gun so now nothing stands between them. “Of course I remember you. You’re the only one who showed any signs of belief in all this.” He waves a hand in the open air, as if that’s explanation enough.
“You said this was about faith when I was here.”
His grin broadens until it covers half his face. “It is about faith, my dear. That’s what this is all about, is faith.” He pats his hands on the front of his pants. “And here you are. You’re back! No one has ever come back before. Never ever.” His smile falters and his brow furrows. “Why have you come back?”
A tear Carrie has been trying desperately to hold in rolls down her right cheek. Her chin trembles and her nostrils flare. “I need to know if I killed someone. I need to know if my sister and me are murderers.” Another tear. “I’ve needed to know this for seven years.”
Cornelius rests a hand on her shoulder. His touch is so light she barely feels it. He says, “You don’t look well, Carrie. What’s been going on?”
“Please.” She shakes. “Please, just tell me if I’m responsible for his death.”
His brow remains furrowed, his smile dimming. “Yes, Carrie, it’s true. When you pulled that trigger you ended someone’s life. I wasn’t lying that night. Tell me, how’s your twin sister doing? How’s she been taking it?”
“She still doesn’t believe in anything. If it doesn’t affect her directly, she never cares.”
“But this does affect her. She also pulled the trigger that night.”
“But she doesn’t believe. Oh…” She holds her stomach as it twists in knots inside her. “I can’t take this anymore. I thought knowing for sure would be enough. I thought that if you said yes or no I would be able to walk out of here fine. But knowing makes me feel worse. Knowing what I did is real makes me want to die.”
“Oh, Carrie.” He pats her shoulder again, his touch still as light as the breeze swirling in the tent. “Sometimes knowing makes everything worse. Often times ignorance is bliss.”
She eyes the gun. “I think I’m still not sure about all this. I’m not sure I believe.”
She steps around him and picks up the gun. She holds the handle out to him, the barrel facing toward her. “Shoot me,” she says. “Put me out of my misery.”
Cornelius holds back a giggle until it slips past his lips. “Do you understand what you’re handing me? If I shoot you with that, the bullet won’t hit you.”
“But this is yours, isn’t it? Can’t you make the bullet hit me? Aren’t you in control?”
The giggles are inescapable now. His pink tongue pokes out from between his teeth. He leans over her as he laughs. “I’m only in control of my belief.”
She points the gun at him and his giggles cease. His wide smile draws to a small circle of surprise. When he notices she’s not bluffing, he gives himself up too.
She fires the silver gun. The walls of the tent ripple and the breeze whips Carrie’s hair around her face, as if a cosmic bullet ejects from the barrel. But the only thing that leaves the gun is an empty click. No bullet tears into Cornelius’s stomach where she has the gun aimed. He doesn’t even flinch.
Carrie drops the gun and brings her hands to her face.
“Did you hear that?” Cornelius chokes in between giggles.
She lowers her hands from her face. “H–Hear what?”
His eyes roll to the gun. “Did you hear it click?”
Her hands cover her face again. She shakes her head. “Oh, no…I didn’t mean to. I’m just so mad. I thought it would––oh, no…” She removes her hands from her face. She swallows a wad of saliva that had been building up in the back of her throat ever since she picked up the gun. When she blinks, her eyes appear clearer than they had been in weeks. “You’ve been lying to me the whole time,” she says. “That gun doesn’t do anything.”
“And why would you suddenly believe that?”
She feels the bottle of antidepressants in her pocket and thinks of how clear-headed Ada has been about this from the beginning. Regardless of how selfish she is, Ada knows when someone is bullshitting her.
“I know the gun doesn’t do anything because that’s what this whole tent is about,” she says. “That’s why it’s in a carnival. This is all just a bad trick to make people question if they’re good or not.”
Although his smile isn’t the usual head-splitting length, it doesn’t leave his face “That all depends on what you believe is the truth.”
Carrie exits the tent and finds the nearest payphone. She dial’s Ada’s number. As the phone rings, she thinks about what she wants to say to her twin sister. She closes her eyes and sees Ada lying on the ground in her kitchen, her blue shirt turning red. The image is quick, like a flash. She drops the phone. It swings on its metal wire as she runs out of the carnival. When she passes Cornelius’s tent, she hears him snickering inside.
About the Author: Jordan Marie McCaw works at Blackstone Publishing in Southern Oregon. She also writes a blog titled Recount & Reveal (recountandreveal.com) about bizarre historical events, interned at Dark Regions Press, where she proofread books by William F. Nolan and Caitlin R. Kieran, and was an entertainment freelance writer and editor for several journalistic publications along the West Coast. Her fiction has appeared in Blood Moon Rising, Showbear Family Circus, and BoneSaw Horror. https://www.instagram.com/jm_mccaw/?hl=en
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