The Circus’ Curse by Amber Cole

Prompt: Forbidden Places | Word Count: 1800 | Genre: Fiction / Suspense

I held my breath and watched the body fall from the rafter heights. Ribbons in shimmering trails added elegance to the pink and gold blur that was her. The room gasped, others who wanted to catch her, yet all we could do was watch. Just before she hit the dirt floor, screams erupted into cheering. She was back in the air, the trapeze faithful as always to send her flying again. The dazzling Mirelle.

I smiled and clapped along. I had to cheer on her every act, to be her strength and protector. I promised, after all. I nodded toward her, as if to reinstate the pact, though she never caught my eye. Even if she forgot, I wouldn’t.

It was probably easy to forget one boy in an opening-day crowd after all.

“To my first fan, Evan,” she’d smiled as she wrote like calligraphy even with my lame ballpoint pen. After the first line, she paused and charged me with pointed finger: “You know, I’m counting on you to keep cheering me on. I’ll look for you in the crowd, okay?” She giggled as I nodded in solemn promise.

The ringmaster was up, ending the night’s show, her abrasive shout ending my daydream as well.

“Give it up for our performers!” Angelique cracked her whip into the air, receiving the demanded roar of applause. “We only have you to thank for another successful night. Where would we be without our darling fans? We’ll see you back again Wednesday,” the ringmaster concluded with sneering confidence.

Maybe it was the distance, a reflection of something else, but from my mid-tier seat I caught a gleam in Angelique’s dark eyes. Something cruel, something…scary.

I shivered the same way I had on opening day when she’d grabbed Mirelle’s shoulder with slender, pointed fingers. I don’t think she knew I heard her hiss into the acrobat’s ear.

“Don’t get too friendly with the fans.”

She’d then turned her nose up at me and slunk back under the big top. Mirelle looked ashen. She scribbled her name at the end of the unfinished message and cast an apologetic smile down before pushing the program back into my hands and disappearing into the crowd.

Back home I sighed and gazed at the half-signed feature photo of the great trapeze hung on my wall.

“To my first fan, Evan. With thanks and…”

And what? What did Mirelle mean to tell me? Mom told me that day I was just overthinking it. That her loopy handwriting just ran out of room. Six months later I still wasn’t satisfied. I guessed I probably never would be.

Over dinner I stirred my so-called soup but couldn’t bring myself to lift my spoon. Fortunate for me, Elam had mom busy with his own obsession.

“Did you see the way the lion licked his lips tonight? It’s only a matter of time before that trainer becomes a snack. Please, mom, I can’t miss it. We have to go to every show.”

“Even if I wanted to miss it, I can’t,” Mom sighed. “Somehow, every week, we get drawn into going. I’ll never have money for another pedicure. But as long as you and your brother are happy.”

“Oh, I’ll definitely be happy with lion tamer sushi gore.”

“Elam, that’s enough at the table,” mom groaned and turned to me to change subjects. “You’re quiet tonight, sweetie. What was your favorite part of this week’s performance?”

“Mirelle, of course,” Elam answered for me with a dramatic sigh, batting his eyes.

I felt my face go red and buried it in my arms on the table.

“Aw, it’s okay sweetie, I think your little crush is adorable,” mom patted my arm. “It’s normal. Much more normal than wanting someone to be eaten.”

Even mom misunderstood me. It wasn’t a crush…it was simply my duty to cheer her on. Right?

“She’s just really brave, that’s all.” I mustered an explanation through my embarrassment. “I’ll be brave someday, too. Maybe I’ll join the circus.”

Mom gave me a funny half-smile. “You’re such a sweet boy. I don’t want to lose you to the circus.”

“You wouldn’t lose me. It’s, like, five blocks away.”

“But, honey, the circus takes so much time and practice. When is the last time you saw someone from the acts out and about? Sometimes I wonder if they’re just ghosts that appear once a week.”

“Well.…” I started and trailed off with a frown. She was right. The grocery stores, parks, even around the neighborhood…I’d never seen Mirelle anywhere a normal person would be. “Maybe I’ll investigate the grounds tomorrow. I’m sure they’ll be there.”

“Absolutely not, Evan.” Mom got up with a clamor and put her dishes into the sink. “The circus grounds are only open to the public during performances.”

“But I know other kids that have-”

“There are no ‘buts.’ Those children are not you. And you will not be going.” Mom got the last word and retreated to the other room.

Elam grinned across the table at the shock on my face. “Do you want to know why mom’s so adamant?”

I knew he’d tell me either way. I rolled my eyes and took the bait. “Why?”

“The circus is cursed.”

I arched my brow in disbelief. “Says you.”

“No, think about it. When the circus first came, it flopped. It wasn’t supposed to come back…until opening day last year. And you heard mom. Now, even though she doesn’t want to, we watch the same show every single week. And so does everyone else in town. Doesn’t that seem a little fishy?”

“So, what do you think is going on?”

“It’s obvious. The witchy ringmaster did some sort of voodoo to get out of her failed rut. But no one wants to know there’s something evil going on, so, they just keep going to the circus without another thought.”

“Why do you go then, if you know so much?”

“That lion’s hungry.”

“You’re just crazy.”

“Maybe. Or maybe Mirelle really is a ghost. Cursed and summoned every week to draw unsuspecting saps like you to see her. Are you really going to let her be used and abused for Angelique’s popularity?”

Elam grinned wide, then left me alone with thoughts and cold soup.

I knew Elam was just trying to stir up trouble. I tried to remind myself of that the next day. I survived by using all my analytic powers for math class, and all my energy at P.E. Then dreaded history period hit. With nothing to keep my full attention, thoughts of Mirelle cursed and afraid infiltrated. Mom really was acting weird. Angelique was terrifying. It all made sense.

What if the incomplete message from Mirelle was meant to be a plea for help? What if no one else was brave enough to save her? It had to be me. As soon as possible. But not too soon because mom would be suspicious.

Dinner seemed to be as terribly long as it was gross. Why did meatloaf even exist? Once I’d made a sufficient show of pretending to eat, I yawned and excused myself.

No one seemed to suspect what was up or came to check on me while I made a circus rescue survival kit of my backpack. Flashlight, water, a sufficient non-meatloaf snack, and the kitchen salt shaker…just in case I encountered any black magic. When the house was quiet I made my escapade out the window.

The night air gave me goosebumps and I was glad the grounds weren’t far. Yet, the formidable shadow of the big top didn’t provide much comfort as I approached. The entire site was eerie and lifeless like I’d never seen it. A haunting circus melody played in my memory of the night before, adding to the nightmarish atmosphere. I shook my head in defiance of fear. This was for Mirelle. I lifted a portion of the humongous tent and slipped under.

The dusty ground made for a great silencer under my feet, but it was so dark I couldn’t tell where I should sneak to. A flashlight would be much too drawing so I squinted my eyes in attempt at adjustment. I managed to make out what looked like the edge of small buildings across the main ring. It had to be living quarters. I crept through the bottom layer of bleachers and could see a definite door getting closer. When a hand touched my arm, an instinctive scream let its way out.

“Shh, little one. You shouldn’t be here.” The voice’s face illuminated with the soft light of a phone screen. “I’ll call someone for you if you’re lost.”

“Mirelle! I came to find you. Do you remember me?” I blurted, a little too loud.

She pointed her screen toward me,

“Evan,” she said after a short pause of puzzlement.

She did remember. My cheeks flushed with happiness and I was glad she’d taken the light off of me. Then I remembered something much more important.

“I know about Angelique’s curse.”

“You do?” Her eyes widened with what looked like fear in the dim screen light.

“Yes. I’m here to save you.” I took her hand. “Hurry, let’s go.”

“Oh, Evan…it’s not me who needs saving.”

“We’ll come back for the others, too, I promise.”

“No, you  – ” She went silent at the sound of voices outside the tent.

One by one, the overhead lights came on and illuminated our position. Angelique would catch us. I ran to the closest door.

“Evan, don’t go in there,” Mirelle warned but I was already in.

My flashlight revealed a room littered with human-sized puppets; wooden, marionette, faceless.

“What are these for?” I lifted a lifelike hand to study it closer. I’d never been a fan of puppets.

“Angelique’s curse.” Mirelle answered in a quiet voice, not looking at me. “I appreciate your support, but…I’m not amazing at all. I knew what Angelique was practicing on guests, but did nothing. I’m sorry, Evan.”

What did she mean? A heavy knock startled us before I could ask, followed by the handle being shaken. The lock wouldn’t keep her out for long. It was over. My mission had failed. I at least had to know one thing.

“Mirelle…what would you have written if you’d finished the signature you gave me?”

A familiar voice burst through the door and attacked me.

“Evan…there you are. I was so worried.” Mom hugged me so fierce, we fell into a pile of puppets. My flashlight landed, highlighting our reflection in a mirror on the wall. I looked on in horror. There where my mom and I should be were mother and son puppets in embrace,  Mirelle’s white face teary behind us as she answered me.

“With thanks and all my regret, Mirelle.”

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14 thoughts on “The Circus’ Curse by Amber Cole

  1. Hi Amber, this is a great read & very well written. I like the extra little details you use in your descriptions and the ending is very clever. God job.
    All the best – until next month.
    Tim

  2. Hi Amber

    I just had to read your circus story (lots of mine have been circus based too!).

    You told the story very well and I love the idea of the audience being turned into wooden puppets at the end. Very creepy! Great idea. I’m jealous!

    Some beautiful descriptions, most notably Mirelle in the first paragraph – the coloured ribbons etc. Really lovely.

    Occasionally a phrase or paragraph felt a bit like padding (perhaps to hit the word count). I’m definitely guilty of this so perhaps I look out for it! Regardless, the story was well told, not complicated or difficult to follow.

    Kim 🙂

    • Hi Kim! Thank you very much for reading and for the detailed feedback! 🙂 I’m super glad to know it was easy to follow!

      I am curious, can you point out a spot or two where it felt like padding, so I can keep an eye out next time? 😬 I was having difficulty with character development, and also changed the main plot of the story halfway through writing so am wondering if it was stuff leftover from that.

  3. Hi Amber

    Great story – original and creative. I kept reading to see what would happen to the boy because you just know something is going to happen, so very well done on creating that suspense!

    A disconcerting ‘tic’ that you have is using a technique called ‘anthropomorphism’ (commonly used in poetry and song lyrics). I am not sure you are aware of it or if it is intentional? – it does however pull me out of the fluidity of your writing and makes me as a reader stutter on why your perspective would so suddenly change .
    some examples :
    The room gasped
    That her loopy handwriting just ran out of room
    A familiar voice burst through the door and attacked me.
    could see a definite door getting closer.
    ie you’re basically attributing a human response/emotion to an inanimate thought or object.

    One other minor correction :
    ‘I made my escapade out the window’ – the definition of escapade is an act involving daring or great adventure. I think you mean to say ‘escape’ or ‘daring escape’ ?

    I agree with Kim above – that sentence of the trapeze artist tumbling to earth is beautifully written – ‘Ribbons in shimmering trails added elegance to the pink and gold blur that was her.’ Please – more of that as it really makes the reader live in the moment of your writing.

    On the tech side – some minor plot holes are exposed which perhaps you haven’t quite resolved in the telling of your story (even if its only backstory /research for yourself and doesn’t physically make it onto the page) : ie if the brother knows is he also a puppet / is the mother aware she is a puppet? do the puppets retain their feelings, fears, know they are manipulated?

    All in all a Lovely story so well done!

    • Kim, thank you for reading and for the wonderful, detailed feedback! I am thrilled that the suspense was on point and that the opening paragraph was written with rich detail that wasn’t -too- much. I would’ve loved to continue painting more vividly with descriptions, alas the word count caught me. 🙂

      I greatly appreciate the critique as well! Let me see if I can answer some questions.

      As for the ‘anthropomorphism:’ now that you point it out, I think this is something often found in my writing. I didn’t know it was a ‘thing’ or that it could be disorienting to readers. Is it something that is always concerning in stories versus poetry, or did it just not flow with this particular tale? I’ll keep an eye out for it for sure.

      For the tech and plot holes: ‘Escapade’ I actually used on purpose because to the young boy that’s what he felt, climbing out his window to a forbidden place.
      Great questions about the puppets! So, his brother didn’t know he was a puppet persay; just that something was amiss. The whole town felt this odd draw to the circus and couldn’t stop attending, but they made excuses rather than getting to the bottom of it, because to be honest they didn’t want to know exactly what it was. (I.e. their mother saying she keeps going just to keep the boys happy, and since it sort of gives her the creeps decides it must be haunted). Evan was the first to explore and expose the entire truth. Thus I hadn’t thought of what happens to the puppets once they fully transform, or whether they retain any human capabilities. I’ll have to ponder this for a bit now. 🙂

      Thanks again, Kim! You rock! 💖

  4. I love the first paragraph. For me it sets the tone for the whole story; scary and beautiful. The compulsion to go weekly to the circus was weird and intrigued me. I sensed an evil power that could not be ignored and the ending surprised me. Great story.

  5. What a spooky tale, Amber, told to great effect. I loved the way your words flow and to me, the ‘anthropomorphism’ (I only learned of the term today, reading Kim’s comment) adds depth to the emotion being conveyed. It doesn’t seem like a shift in perspective because it’s still how the narrator is perceiving things. One thing I was left wondering about – is Mirelle being used as the bait for Angelique to pick her targets?

    • Hi Anusuya, thanks for giving your time to read and comment. 🙂 I’m glad I wasn’t the only writer unfamiliar with the term; thanks for sharing that it was an element you found to work. I think I enjoy it and would have a hard time cutting it out of my writing to be honest. 😬 It was fun to research further and realize it is part of my style though, so I am glad Kim pointed it out! 🙂
      As far as Mirelle being used as bait, yes, everyone in the circus act is an accomplice of drawing people in; though Mirelle is one of the few that really knows what is going on behind the scenes.

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