“Keep it Short” by Chris Reynolds

The path led through the abandoned carnival. Despite the cliché, the place was nothing more than a sad marker of the past. Everyone in the small party knew the place intimately- they remembered it from their childhood, if nothing else. The older ones had been back with their own children as well, reliving the memories. All of us, however, had also left something behind.

Perhaps carnival was the wrong word. This one was more a permanent attraction, sort of a ‘home base’ for the portable rides. Not quite a theme park, but not a transient camp of tents and caravans. The pathways between the rusting hulks of rides were gravel, with strips of concrete or asphalt decaying here and there.

Jessica appeared from around a corner and waved us on. You could never be too careful, and some private security guards could be overzealous in defending something that nobody wanted anymore. At first it had been justified as protecting the crime scene, and then to protect the reputation of the operators. Now, however, what was the point? With the company liquidated and the coronial concluded, what needed to be protected anymore?

We hurried along around the corner, and then we saw it: the long, low shed that housed the roller-coaster. It was one of those ‘haunted house’ jobs, with the cars travelling along a track filled with twists and turns rather than giant climbs and falls. Inside were the remnants of animatronic ghosts and monsters that would pop out and scare those riding.

I paused at the door. Inside was dark; I heard a creak, a bang and then footsteps. Greg had hauled the heavy door aside, and the noise was startling in the silent atmosphere of our little group. I nodded my thanks (my arm still hadn’t healed fully), but inwardly I hoped that it hadn’t been heard.

The group all filed in and walked quietly along the tracks. Most of the first three rooms were obviously mothballed- dull beige cloth was draped over every surface, and they ducked their heads through the doorways to get to the next section. I noted that in the third room, part of the corrugated steel roof had been torn open, and a cold drip of moisture came down from above.

I felt the people at the front halt and knew we’d reached our destination. I whispered to those in front to keep moving so that we could all fit. They grudgingly complied, and our half dozen people all moved into the fourth section.

I grimaced as I entered the room, my skin pricking up and my nostrils detecting the fading scent of disinfectant. The car was gone, no doubt taken to be looked over in more detail. The floor was still covered in a large dark stain, however. I wondered how much effort they had truly put in to clean it up after everything.

“Alright, let’s keep this short,” said Greg. His jaw was clenched and his arms folded firmly across his chest. There were a couple more nods from our group, and all eyes turned to Jessica and her guest.

She knelt down and helped the little girl to remove her hood and gloves. She looked at Jessica for a long moment before stepping towards the dark stain and looking down at it. The girl stepped sideways, her eyes trained on the same spot, and she traced a full circle around the stain.

She made another orbit, and another. She kept staring at the same spot, although I couldn’t see any difference between it or any other part of the dark floor. Greg shuffled his feet impatiently and took in a breath to say something, but Jessica held up a placating hand. The girl continued to shuffle.

Suddenly, she broke into a spin, twirling around and around the stain, holding her hands out to steady herself. Her focus went to the roof, her eyes fixed on it until she couldn’t anymore, and then her head would whip around in a swirl of ponytails and look at the same spot again.

I began to feel it- an electric crackle, like just before you touch the car after a long trip and get zapped. My hair tingled and began to stand up. I noticed others were sensing the same, particularly on the ladies. Jessica’s straight red locks were rising in individual strands. She gave a tight smile.

The little girl abruptly stopped moving and slapped both hands down on the floor. There was a bang from her little hands, the sound well out of proportion to the impact she must have made. The walls shuddered slightly.

We all stood transfixed for a moment, and then we heard a small voice. It sounded like a little boy, no more than eight.

“Daddy?”

Greg’s eyes went wide. He looked around for the source of the sound, but it wasn’t apparent. He nibbled on his upper lip for a moment before a small, glowing child appeared next to the little girl. He ran forward out of the circle that her footsteps had described and embraced Greg’s legs.

“H…Harry? Oh, Harry!” Greg fell to his knees and embraced the glowing child. Another person appeared, and another. They each moved to their respective family member. I waited until finally I saw my little Alicia. She was one of only three children in the group, the others all older teenagers or young adults. She loitered on the edge of the circle before giving me a grin, her face pointed downwards but her eyes fixed on me. She ran for me and I picked her up in a hug. I noted that she weighed as much as I remembered, and I struggled to lift her with my one good arm.

“Oh, my dear…” I buried my face in her shoulder and let my tears flow. We held each other, and she whispered something in my ear, something too faint for me to make out.

Then they all paused. Alicia pulled back and frowned, before looking around. The air grew colder. A fluorescent strip flickered to life, grew brighter, and then exploded in a shower of glass splinters. There was a groan from the steel frame around them.

The roof caved in; that’s when it all got so much worse. The corrugated steel of the roof tore outwards like it was blown away, and the steel supports came crashing down around us.

A misshapen dark form pulled itself out of the dark stain, as if pulling itself out of a pool. The face of thing was completely in shadow, but I could make out long teeth and dark red eyes that glowed slightly.

I clutched Alicia tightly and took a step back. I heard her little voice then, speaking softly in my ear.

“He’s here. He doesn’t like us.”

I looked at her, and then back at the dark shape. It was at least three metres tall now, standing up straight and looking around. I looked for an escape, but the twisted wreckage of the roof was piled around us. I heard someone start crying.

“Who? Who is he?” I looked at Alicia, cradling her head in my hands.

“Him? He’s the one who caused this.”

I saw the dark shape reach down and lunge for Jessica. She stepped back suddenly, but the thing managed to brush her arm. She screamed, and her arm was opened to the bone where it had touched her. I stood up and backed away from it as it took one lumbering step, and then another.

“Caused what?” I screamed. Alicia gave me a quick squeeze and smiled.

“Everything. He’s the reason you’re sad, Daddy.”

I took another step back and felt Alicia wriggle in my arms. I slipped and dropped her, and she landed neatly on the ground.

“He was a sad man, Daddy. That’s why he caused the accident. He was sad and wanted everyone else to be sad. But he died too.”

That’s when it hit me- the accident was anything but. All those months of police investigation, all that wrangling between the operators and the justice department… we had wondered why there was so much for something so simple. If it was a deliberate act, but they couldn’t prove it… or worse still, it was covered up… I let out a choked sob.

Then I realised that if the ghosts of our departed loved ones were still here, it made sense that the restless spirit of the killer would be, too. I narrowed my eyes and stepped forward, picking up a fallen steel rod. I banged it against the metal wreckage around us.

“Hey! Hey you, asshole!” I stopped banging as the thing turned toward me and took one massive stride. It swiped at me with its arm, and I stepped to one side. I brought the steel rod down to hit it across where I guessed the forearm to be, but instead the weight of the rod lessened and I saw it had been neatly cut in half.

I had made a terrible, terrible mistake. There was no way I could fight this thing. It swiped at me again and I ran to my left before I tripped and fell. Pain blossomed across my bad arm as I fell on it in a heap. I yelp, rolled over and looked up. The thing was standing over me, tall and terrible.

Then there was a small hand in mine. I looked down to see Alicia. She was glowing brighter. She smiled brightly at me.

“It’s okay, Daddy.”

She looked up at the dark shape and glowed brighter still. Her light filled the torn space. I found it hard to look at her. I saw another of the children link hands with her, and then another. The three formed a loose circle around the dark shape and danced. They grew brighter, like the sun at midday. I closed my eyes. The light streamed through still. I turned my head. I felt the wind begin to move around us, picking up leaves and shreds of plastic.

Then I heard laughter. I heard the laughter of my dear, departed child. I heard her sing. I heard the excited cries of all three of them. Then I heard the laughter of hundreds of children, like a packed school event. I rolled onto my back and clamped my hands over my eyes to shut out the light.

Then everything was suddenly still.

I sat up and looked at the dark stain. I caught a fading glimpse of her downturned face, cheeky smile and bright eyes. I scrabbled forward, my knees thumping across the floorboards, reaching out for my little girl. The one who had saved me. The one I couldn’t save myself.

But her apparition had faded. I fell back on my haunches and cast my face downwards. I felt hot tears roll down my cheeks. The pain in my jaw and forehead was intense as I tried to express the anguish of losing her again.

Then I felt the ghost of a little hand brush my cheek.

“Don’t be sad, Daddy,” I heard a fain whisper of her voice say, “don’t be sad like that man.”

I looked up, sharply, but the room was quiet once more.

About the Author:

Chris Reynolds is an author from Canberra, Australia, where he lives with an effusive wife, restless children, a cowardly sheepdog, an incontinent cat and a chronic hangover-like condition from a lack of sleep. He has a range of published short stories, including the Chinatown series with Monolith and stories in various anthologies. He writes in a range of genres, including paranormal, urban fantasy, military thrillers, sci-fi and fantasy.

If you’re interested in reading more of his work, please find him on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/Chrisreynoldsauthor/ He’s always up for a chat, and would appreciate hearing from people who haven’t mistaken him for another person with the same name. You wouldn’t believe how popular the name Chris Reynolds is!

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