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1hr 40min read

The Ringmaster’s Troupe

Author since 2023 1Story 0 Followers
The Ringmaster’s Troupe

Have you ever heard of the Grand Circus of Mysteries? You can recognize us by the large banner set up over the entrance; a circular sign with several slightly faded looking clowns, magicians, leaping acrobats and other exotically dressed performers decorating its length. A large, open circus tent sits in the background with the entrance lit up in yellow, and the name of the circus is printed out in bold and stylised letters in a semicircle above the scene. The sign is over fifty years old and it’s been a tradition for the past century for it to be erected right on top of the archway over the circus gates.

I would have hoped you’d heard of us. We’re a circus like no other. We’ve put a lot of effort into creating a special experience for our visitors from the minute they step into our circus to the moment they leave.

Your visit will be greeted with the smell of popcorn and funnel cakes and sweet cotton candy. The sounds of shrieks and screams from the rides will drift over to your ears, along with the clattering, pops and beeps of the nearby game stalls.

You’ll notice a rolling layer of artificial fog drifting out of the entrance as you walk in, from which there seems to be no source. It curls and laps your ankles as you pass through the entryway, giving you an eerie feeling. The fog leaves a light haze in the air around you wherever you go within the circus. It’s always totally gone by the time you’re leaving.

You’ll most likely be heading to the ticket booth, which is decorated with a range of poster advertisements for whatever special shows are scheduled for that day at the theatre. After buying tickets, the vaguely bored looking employee working at the cramped wooden administration desk will wish you a great time. He will direct you to read the rules (posted beside him on a large and brightly coloured laminated sign) and always follow them closely. He promises the ones at the bottom – the stranger ones you will probably want to inquire about – most likely won’t come up during your visit, and he’s right. If you didn’t know what to look for, you’d never guess there’s anything sinister concealed from view at the Grand Circus. You’d never have a clue what the rules were really there to protect you from.

Once you’ve bought your tickets, you’re free to explore our circus to your heart’s content. Near the gateway and the ticket booth are the stalls; set up here are a variety of colourful stands, most stylized as wagons and each decorated with various, brightly coloured signs advertising things like ‘Freshly Dipped Toffee Apples’ and ‘Ice Cream Sundaes: Soft Serve, With Whipped Cream & 16 Different Toppings!’ – along a wide range of other circus themed foods. Some are seasonal, others are staples we are well known for, which we sell all year round.

Our food is to die for. It’s one of the best parts of coming here.

I personally recommend the cream puffs or the sugar dusted cherry and lemon tarts at Tiffany’s Circus Bakery. Me and my twin sister Trinity will frequently stop by her stall once the circus has closed for the day in the hopes of getting treated to some of the baked goods she prepared that day which didn’t get sold.

Beyond the game stalls decorated with toy prizes such as stuffed animals and dusty looking puppets you will find the rides, which range from a occasionally faulty merry-go-round to the Crystal Palace Jumping Castle, to a slightly unsafe looking oval shaped roller coaster with old-fashioned sounding arcade carnival music filtering out of the entryway (it’s not really unsafe, I’ve personally been on it like a thousand times, it just appears that way due to being forty or so years old).

In the centre of the circus is the most exciting part of the grounds, the part you absolutely can’t miss visiting while you’re here. This is where the performances occur. This is what you came here to see.

To the side of a large, grassy pavilion, you’ll find a miniature outside stage lightly decorated with a large sign and lit with some flickering, multi-coloured lights. The stage sits under an open circus tent where minor, unscheduled acts occur throughout the majority of the day, such as juggling or clowning or sometimes a couple guest performances, if we can find anyone in the local area who’s up to my parents’ high standards.

This isn’t what you’ve come here, though. This side show is only to get people excited to see the big events (and entertain people in between them).

The real events occur within the theatre. It’s set up in the centre of the clearing, a red and white striped, oval shaped tent. The top of it rises up into a set of tall, circular towers, supported by long lines of ropes which are each decorated with rows and rows of lights.

It is (usually) the largest thing in the circus, with the peaks tipped with flags displaying our circus logo, and a sizable glowing sign supported in between the two tallest towers reading ‘The Theatre of Mysteries, where dreams come true!’

You most likely noticed the theatre before you walked past the circus gates. It’s designed to draw the eye from anywhere in the circus with its large size and startling colours in the day, and with the way it glows brighter than any of the surrounding rides at night, where it will be lit up brilliantly with chains of hundreds of sparkling lights.

It looks amazing. I still sometimes get a little zip of excitement when I lay my eyes on it.

Shows are scheduled every couple of hours throughout the day and into the mid evening. You get one free ticket to attend any show of your picking with your entrance into the circus (families get a special family ticket). Perry will come out of the main tent with a microphone to make an announcement when a show is about to start. The time of the show you’ve booked will also be printed out on your ticket, so make sure you don’t lose it!

We do a range of different events and our performers possess a large range of different talents. During one of our shows, you might get to see Rachael and Damien fire dancing, Morpheus the Magician and his exceptional magic tricks, or one of our unbelievable contortionists (which might possibly be me!)

Perhaps during one of our acts you might catch me and Trinity taking the centre of the stage on a lyra or a trapeze, or joining in on one of the incredible theatrical sequences. We put our hearts and souls into preparing and training for each show, and everyone who has seen us absolutely loves us, as we love performing for them.

I promise, we will be your favourite performers. Our acts are unforgettable. Literally life changing. Everyone who’s seen them says so.

I’m sure you will have plenty of fun at my circus. I haven’t gotten tired of hanging around here and this has been a second home to me for my entire life.

However, no matter how much fun you have, you’ve got to be careful not to forget about the rules, particularly the ones which are highlighted in red at the bottom of the poster at the ticket booth (these rules are also posted every ten or so square meters around the circus to make sure you don’t forget about them).

Breaking any of them is where you can get into real trouble. You could easily spend a full day at the circus and not find a single rule to be relevant. The most common events the rules warn about only come up around once every week. Others persist for a few days and show up every couple weeks. The least common are the rules I’ve never noticed cause any issues at all during the years people were required to follow them.

Don’t worry. Though some can change from time to time, they’re always very easy to follow. Here’s an example: if you’re wandering through the stalls and you happen to notice a shabbily dressed, sad looking clown who offers you drinks, you should politely decline, even if he claims they’re free. He’s not supposed to be there – I mean well he is, but you’re not supposed to be able to actually see him.

He’s hard to miss. Typically he’ll give you an injured look and leave a very long awkward pause hoping you will change your mind, and the best thing to do at this time is simply to walk away. When you look back, you won’t see any sign of him, and you won’t be able to find him again if you go looking.

See? Nothing complicated about it. I don’t know who would want to buy anything from that creepy guy, anyway. This rule should be common sense, really.

You might be curious about the off-limits zone which people sometimes take note of (it’s not always there, in fact, it usually isn’t), adjacent to the main stalls. This area, which the rules instruct that you are most definitely not supposed to enter, appears somewhat creepy from the outside looking in. The mist crawls thicker there, drifting up over the sides of the caravans and the makeshift storage sheds. Mannequins, unused tents and decorations, tipped over wagons and other circus accessories lie around haphazardly. Well-used and worn looking torn down stalls can be found alongside these other items; stalls which appear particularly odd and out of place, decorated with labels such as Master Afton’s Haunted Masks and Madame Claudia’s Incredible Fortune Telling, and Interactive Puppet Shows: Mr. Chuckles and Friends.

The section is fenced off with multiple red no entry warning signs posted nearby. The thing is, you might see someone, a figure, beckoning for you to come over to them from the other side of the fence inside the swirling, artificial mist. Their facial features and the way they lean to the side are slightly off putting, and though they are well dressed and look similar to some of the other people who work here, they are a little too tall and their smile a little too wide for them to pass off as a normal employee.

You should ignore this ‘person’. He’s like the clown I mentioned earlier. You’re not supposed to be able to see them. Once again, if you’re not trying to get yourself into trouble, this should be common sense for you. He gives me chills, so I always do my best to ignore him whenever I notice him.

Oh, and don’t let your kids out of sight while he’s visible. We’ve had one or two… Incidents where that has caused issues in the past.

Really, don’t let any of this bother you too much. There’s way too much to see and experience at our circus to get concerned about some minor safety precautions you most probably won’t need to concern yourself about.

I admit, there are other odd things people more commonly come across, which don’t require rules because they aren’t dangerous but which can still sometimes… Creep people out a bit. For instance, you may happen to notice an out of order Ferris wheel toward the back of all the rides, typically identifiable by its unusually large size (compared to all the other rides and attractions) and clear evidence of age and abandonment. If you look at one of the carriages higher up in the sky for long enough, you might notice a figure seated on one of them, half obscured from view from your position. They are typically difficult to make out clearly, and they will appear to get restless or uneasy if you observe them for too long.

Don’t bother yourself with worrying about them. The figure will vanish from view eventually. The employees will all inform you there’s nobody up there at all. They’ll point out that it’s impossible for anyone to get anywhere near the Ferris wheel (due to a safety fence being set up around it), let alone to somehow climb it and make it all the way up into such a high carriage.

I’d advise you not to overthink any of the weird stuff you see. You’re never going to find a satisfying explanation for any of it, and you’ll be likely to forget about whatever you see after you leave, anyway. Most people who have any of these types of encounters tend to lose clear recollection of them shortly following their departure from our circus. It’s just another one of the places’ unusual quirks.

How do I know so much about all this myself? It’s a little more difficult to forget things when you’re like me and you work at the circus five or six days each week. When the circus is, like I said earlier, a second home to you. When your parents are the ones who own the place. People like us are different. We who work here are reminded of the unexplainable far too often to forget easily.

For most of our lives as kids, us twins weren’t supposed to talk about or even acknowledge any of the odd stuff. We were taught to pretend not to notice anything looking too strange or out of place. Follow the rules, our parents always told us, and everything will be alright. The hardest part was to not allow our ever-present inborn curiosity and inquisitiveness to get the better of us.

I’ve made the mistake of getting too curious before. I’ve broken the rules. A couple of times. As a matter of fact, I broke one of the most important rules of all. There’s another circus tent, you see, slightly smaller than the Theatre of Mysteries. When it appears (typically over the course of a week or so every couple months), it’s set up somewhere near the back past all the rides and attractions, not marked with a sign yet decorated with the same softly fluttering flags and lights as the main theatre.

No employee who works at the circus knows who sets up the tent or takes it down. It’s similar to the Ferris wheel and some of the off limits areas. Like them, it’s always gone by the time we’re packing everything up in preparation to move. Me and Trinity were left to come to our own conclusions as to what the tent was used for.

The most important rule is that you’re not supposed to ever go in there. It’s another easy rule to follow because the entrance will be cordoned off with a fence and there’s a stall set up nearby, selling circus merchandise. This stall may seem kind of out of place away from all the other stalls, but it’s set up there specifically for a reason.

The owner of that stand is Dennis and he’s tasked with keeping an eye out for anyone getting too curious about the old theatre, if and when it appears. He is prepared to step in and make a point of getting you to leave the area if you act suspicious in any way. He’ll remind you of the rules and how you’re supposed to follow them at all times. He’ll act like something terrible is going to happen if you break this particular one. He’s intimidating enough to keep most people away and quick enough to deter the few who attempt to sneak past him.

You might be wondering how I managed to get inside, then. Well, me and my sister, like I said, we work at the circus. As kids, our parents actually ran the circus, and it’s always been like a second home to us.

One night when me and Trinity were both thirteen, we were staying late, as we sometimes do, after the circus closed for the day to train for an upcoming performance we were starring in. Well, it was two sequences, actually. Each contained different themes and musical accompaniments. They were both parts of larger acts.

We had dual aerial roles for each of them. Features of us as a duo had been popular since we started doing simple circus and magic tricks together for crowds of kids when we were ten years old.

Ellie was our trainer for the night. She’s an aerialist like us and she does most of the choreography for our lyra and other aerial acts, and typically serves as our aerials teacher most of the time, since our parents are too busy managing things at the circus or rehearsing to take care of that. She’s very nice (even though she works us both half to death sometimes), and a great teacher. She always claimed me and Trinity were quick learners. I figured we inherited our skills from our parents.

Anyway, we were doing rehearsals with her one night at the central tent well past when the circus closed, practicing for the two acts which were planned for the following couple of evenings. We were expecting to finish training close to 10pm, but Ellie let us off early, telling us we were too exhausted to keep rehearsing any further and we deserved to have some time to ourselves before our parents took us back to the house we were living in at the moment.

It was pretty late – like around 9pm – and almost all other people working at the circus had already gone home for the night. Me and Trinity spent most of the time after Ellie left giggling over our phones on social media. We took a couple pictures of ourselves together attempting to do a partnered handstand. This didn’t really work out, so we snapped some more photos of us doing a couple other weird acrobatic tricks we tried to invent on the spot, which made us laugh harder because of how silly they all looked.

After that we got bored and we wandered out, deciding to go find Tiffany. She was another long-time member of the circus, and she’s always been really nice to us. To be honest I think me and Trinity considered her to be an extended part of our family, like an aunt, or something, even though she wasn’t related to us. I guess that’s the way we were raised to view a lot of the other people working at the circus, particularly our fellow performers and long time members like her and Ellie.

She’d confided in us earlier she was going to stay late herself preparing cupcakes for the following day, and she would always give us treats whenever we came over to visit her at her food truck. My favourite treat was her cinnamon dusted gingerbread and pumpkin cupcakes, which she had made quite a name for herself with over the years she worked here.

I was actually distracted thinking about these very cupcakes as we emerged from the theatre. We were walking across a grassy, shrouded field through the maze of rides, passing the warm, yellow glow of the lights of the merry-go-round and approaching the orange and red coloured fun slide, no more than a still silhouette in the darkness. It was then that Trinity stopped suddenly and pulled at my hand.

‘Hey, do you hear that?’ She asked, eyes widening.

‘Hear what?’ I asked.

‘Listen!’ She said insistently, and somewhat curiously, I obeyed. And then I heard it, what had captured Trinity’s attention.

It was carnival music. Not the kind we typically played during our performances at the theatre. This song drifted in and out of earshot as it intermingled with wind and the sounds of crickets in the background.

I looked at Trinity and we shared a nervous giggle.

‘Okay,’ I said, ‘Now that’s weird.

‘Weird and creepy,’ Trinity added. ‘I swear I heard someone talking just a second ago, like an announcer or something. Seriously.’

‘Something messed up must be going on in there,’ I agreed.

There was a pause between us.

‘We should go check it out,’ Trinity declared.

She saw the way I reacted and moved to stand between me and the tent, visible through a film of mist some distance away. She bounced up and down on her toes.

‘Come on, Cele,’ Trinity urged. ‘Come on, you want to know as much as I do what the hell is going on in there.’

She was right. I’d been curious about it for years. It wasn’t the first time we’d discussed breaking one of the rules, or this rule in particular. But I’d always been too afraid to actually suggest going through with it. You’ve got to understand, our parents really made us think some unnamed catastrophe would occur if any of the rules were broken. They made the idea of breaking them sound like a cardinal sin, comparable to the idea of us committing murder.

As we’d grown older, we grew increasingly to realize how little sense the rules made. More and more, we questioned why they were there in the first place, and why they were so important. I think tonight was the first time Trinity’s curiosity had overcome her fear over breaking them.

‘You really want to risk sneaking in?’ I asked.

‘It’s the perfect opportunity. Look around you, we’re practically the only ones here! No one will find out,’ she replied, ‘No one will have any idea if we just go over and take a peek.’ She laughed. ‘What could be in there that is so bad, anyway?’

I didn’t want to look afraid in front of my sister, knowing she wouldn’t let me hear the end of it. So I tried my best to imitate her boldness. ‘Yeah, screw it,’ I declared. ‘Let’s do it!’

We bounded through the silent and mostly dark rides toward the shadow of the old theatre. It rose up above the rides which encircled it. It sat positioned toward the back of the grounds we’d been set up in over the past couple of weeks. It was a dimmer, less inviting twin to the Theatre of Mysteries, which was set up in the middle of a central clearing, lighting the nearby rides and stalls in its soft, warm glow.

This tent was one of many things we weren’t supposed to talk about, something me and Trinity could get into trouble just by bringing up. My parents simply claimed it didn’t concern us.

However we’d developed several theories over the years for its existence based on what little we could learn about it. One theory was it was haunted – possibly by a performer from 1960 who died in an accident while rehearsing for a show at the circus. Alternatively, we thought it could be haunted by one of several other individuals. We knew of at least a couple of other workers and visitors who’d unexplainably gone missing at the circus over the decades.

In another theory I thought up, it was used for some inappropriate performances our parents didn’t want us to know about. Or perhaps, that they were too embarrassed to tell us about. Trinity once suggested our parents set up the tent along with other mysterious, abandoned sections of the circus and made up the rules simply to create an aura of mystery and excitement for visitors, an idea which I found compelling, though this didn’t explain why they felt the need to keep the truth a secret from us.

Over the years our theories grew progressively more creative and unusual and we had a lot of fun discussing and elaborating on them amongst ourselves.

The old theatre was set up in a secluded section of the circus, with a fence surrounding its whole length. Hanging off the supporting ropes, a few of the lights flickered faintly, leaving most of the tent visible as nothing more than a dark outline.

Unlike the theatre, this tent was not marked with clear signage. Me and Trinity had always referred to it as the old theatre because that was what our parents called it.

Only one lone stall stood nearby, where I knew Dennis would stand watch over the area while the circus remained open. Of course, Dennis had left hours ago, as he always did once the circus closed.

I hesitated when we reached the fence. The music was clearer now, and underneath it I could catch other noises; the sounds of an audience laughing, and a muffled announcer’s voice like Trinity had described. The noises remained oddly distant and faint as we drew closer.

Looking at the circus tent from the outside it appeared totally empty. It was hard to imagine anyone being inside. The noises coming out of it were ghostly and muted enough to sound more as if they were coming from a speaker or radio than a real source.

As I stopped at the fence, I was confronted with an overpowering surge of apprehension. Did I really want to go through with this? I wondered. If my parents did somehow find out about what me and Trinity were doing, I would get in an unbelievable amount of trouble, more trouble than I’d ever been in before in my life. I didn’t want to think about how my parents would react to our actions.

Trinity’s impatient voice pierced into my thoughts. ‘What are you waiting for?’

My twin didn’t give me a chance to respond; she was already pulling herself up nimbly over the fence. She glanced behind her expectantly after she’d dropped down on the other side, then kept moving.

Jarred into action, I forced myself to snap out of my nervous state and moved to follow her up over the fence.

Trinity reached the tent in seconds and pushed apart the thick row of curtains which formed a makeshift entryway, while I called repeatedly for her to wait for me.

As the curtains parted, I was momentarily bathed in a yellowish glow which caused me to squint a little. Just as quickly, the curtains closed around her as she stepped in, leaving me standing out alone in the cold air.

I blinked a couple of times as my eyes adjusted to the blackness.

I called out again. ‘Trinity? Trinity, can you please answer me? Trinity, seriously! ’

I received no response. The sound of carnival music drifted out from the tent through the curtains, along with a bout of wailing demented laughter and a series of shrieks, making me shudder.

I had the unsettling sense she’d disappeared, and that if I walked into the circus tent after her, I wouldn’t find her. The idea made me feel a little tingle of dread. It didn’t sound as absurd as it should have standing out alone in the cold, dark night.

I called out again. Silence. The curtains, while closed, completely concealed whatever lay beyond the entryway. Barely any light filtered through them.

Feeling more than a little apprehension, I stepped toward the curtains and with one swift movement, pulled them open.

I had some general idea of what I was expecting when I pushed apart the screen and stepped within the old theatre. I imagined I would find a couple of performers, rehearsing some kind of special secret act I didn’t know about, like me and Trinity sometimes theorized, or perhaps performing for a small audience. I thought there might be something funny or embarrassing in whatever they were doing, though most likely not of great consequence.

It might not surprise you to know this wasn’t at all what was waiting for me on the inside.

The moment I stepped into the old theatre, the music sharpened into focus, and I could make out other sounds; wailing, distorted noises rising under the tones of the music.

The circus tent was far from empty. It was crowded and packed full of people, all turned away from me toward a stage, crammed together into rows of red, leather seats arranged in a semicircle around the stage. Most of the audience were cast in shadows and dimness, though rows of hanging, twinkling golden lights lined the walls and ceiling of the tent, and the stage was lit by larger floodlights which put everything onstage in clear view.

My attention might have lingered longer on the audience, with which there seemed to be something unsettling I couldn’t immediately place, had it not been quickly captured by the spectacle on the stage. The moment where my eyes settled there I forgot about everything else. What I saw was so absurd I could hardly believe my eyes upon first seeing it. The more details I made out, the more confused and uncomfortable I became, and yet once I started, I couldn’t stop watching.

The first performance: Brandon the Pig-man

This is an approximation of what I saw onstage when I walked in.

There were two figures. The first was a professionally dressed, well groomed man in a top hat carrying a long, pointed black staff in one gloved hand.

The second was a grotesquely bloated man. Hanging off him was a dirty garment which covered his waist and thighs. His stomach was a series of bulging folds of fat, his legs weighed down and swollen. He was stumbling awkwardly around the stage, spinning around in circles and flapping his hands wildly while he made a series of gurgling and warbling noises at the audience.

The first man – who I’ll refer to as the Showman, skipped small circles around the obese man. Periodically, the Showman paused to slap him with the instrument over his belly, back and legs, always in time with the beats of the carnival song playing. After a short while of this he deftly poked the man with the staff in the centre of his distended midsection.

The man’s eyes bulged outward and he let out a piglike, squealing sound. Some drool came dribbling from the corner of his mouth. The Showman pulled the instrument back and spun it in the air a couple of times with a flourish. The audience cheered. The showman responded by tossing his staff high into the air and catching it, then twirling it around and juggling it between his hands a couple of times.

At this time I noticed more figures joining the pair from the back of the stage. They were five assistants dressed in plain but professional looking overalls, each wearing a white comedy mask fixed in a different, disturbingly exaggerated expression.

Three of these individuals marched forward in time with the music. When they reached the fat man, they went to grab his arms and support his weight while he struggled weakly against them. Another assistant presented the Showman with an instrument which looked like some kind of long and enlarged, filth encrusted funnel. The man’s mouth was pulled wide open by a fifth assistant and the Showman, acting as if with exaggerated effort, shoved the smaller end of the apparatus deep down the man’s throat.

Two of the assistants who had left the stage briefly now came marching back burdened by an extremely oversized glass teapot with handles. With some effort, the teapot was lifted by them into the air and partially appended so the lumpy, brown mixture filling it started to spill out into the funnel shoved down the fat man’s throat. They began to steadily pour all of the thick and slightly chunky mixture into it. Judging by its size, the teapot must have contained at least ten litres of this stuff, whatever it was. The sludge popped and bubbled and it looked as if there was something, or perhaps a large number of things, writhing and wriggling inside it.

Though it started slowly, the rate of pouring increased in pace alongside the accelerating carnival music still ringing in my ears. Over time, the funnel began to fill up, and some of the mixture spilled over as the last of the contents of the teapot was being poured into it.

As this was happening, the Showman, who’d stepped aside to watch, periodically poked at the mess of liquid with the bottom end of the staff he carried to force more of it down the funnel. He persisted in doing so after the pot had fully emptied, until it looked like the funnel itself was also empty. After leaning over and examining the wider end of the apparatus, he gave a satisfied nod to the assistants. He plucked the funnel out of the man’s mouth and handed the wet and sticky tool to the nearest masked figure.

As this mixture was being forcefully fed to him, the man’s body had begun to expand, additional folds of flesh forming and his already distended stomach bulging further outward. Not once did he throw any of the liquid up, though it certainly appeared that he wanted to, gagging, retching and heaving violently once the teapot was taken away. I seriously didn’t understand how he didn’t vomit most of it right back up, given the sheer quantity he’d been forced to consume. Even for his great size, I couldn’t imagine all of the liquid in the pot fitting within his stomach. I did notice he looked substantially larger and fatter than he did prior to the force feeding taking place.

As the assistants disappeared with the pot past the stage curtains, the Showman began poking the fat man again, eliciting more of the same reactions the man gave the first time the Showman did this, and further sounds of amusement from the crowd of onlookers. The Showman was treating the man like he was an animal, I thought, and the man acted like one, too. The whole thing all felt a little too real to be just a part of some performance. Of course, everyone else – except for possibly the fat man himself – was acting like it was one.

This process repeated several times. I came to realize the assistants took the pot offstage each time to refill it. The man being force fed steadily got fatter and fatter every time the feeding occurred, gaining at least twenty pounds with each round of the process.

By the end of the third round he couldn’t stand up anymore, and even four assistants struggled to support his weight. The countless, multi-layered folds of flesh which had developed and the full extent of his unnaturally distended abdomen have made him look barely recognizable as human.

Each time in between the forced ingestion of the sludge in the pot, the Showman used his staff to poke and prod the bloated man, and each time the responding wails from the man became louder and more shrill, until they sounded bestial.

The audience reacted to all this with increasing enthusiasm, cheering the Showman on, applauding in the small intervals where the Showman turned to look or motion at them.

After only a couple more minutes of this, the man’s skin stretched and ballooned out to a comical extent and the extra layers of flesh which had formed on him were no longer sufficient to support the additional mass he was gaining. His head looked tiny sitting atop his massive, bloated body. He was clearly sick and was incredibly weak, hardly responding to the Showman’s taunts or the audience’s jeering.

He didn’t offer any resistance the next time the funnel was shoved into his mouth and down his throat. During this round of force feeding, the centre of his belly slowly darkened to a bruised and sickly purple, and thin, snaking veins of blood became visible beneath the skin. At that point, the simple act of breathing was clearly a great chore for him. His bald head was glistened with a layer of sweat. His eyes had rolled to the back of his head as it lolled limply to the side.

The process of poking him resumed once again. The fat man seized up every time the Showman’s staff prodded him. His lack of any further reaction disappointed both the Showman and the audience, so he poked him harder, and then the fat man raised his head and projectile vomited a mass of chunky blood and gore onto the stage. Noticing the satisfied response from the onlookers, the Showman’s eyes lit up and he twirled his cane in the air in another celebratory arc.

Once the crowd settled down, the man’s mouth was forced open and the funnel inserted in one final time. His chest heaved and his arms quivered and spasmed as yet more of the liquid in the pot was forced into him. I could see the dark veins of blood spreading steadily over the entire length of his abdomen and legs. With every passing moment the deep, crimson stains spread more rapidly, covering a large part of his torso as they thickened and darkened.

In the middle of this latest session of force feeding, the man’s belly burst open with a wet popping sound. Blood and meat splattered all across the stage, some pieces making it to the front rows of the audience. I saw several of the parts of the man’s insides on stage flopping and sliding around, as if they were agitated by the sounds of the crazed and excited audience members, some bursting open in the process and spraying further pieces of gore everywhere. I cringed away and bit back a shriek. Thankfully, I was much too far away for any of his remains to reach me.

The audience loved it. The front rows who had just experienced the man’s insides splatter all over them cheered the loudest. The Showman bowed several times, himself somehow having managed to keep entirely clean of all the gore splattered about him. The assistants began to drag what was left of the fat man off to the curtains, several pieces of his insides slipping out in the process and joining the trails of blood and viscera left over as he was dragged away.

Right as he was being tugged behind the curtains, I heard him release another choked wail which was quickly silenced with a few sharp commands from the Showman as he followed the assistants off the stage.

‘What the hell did I just watch?’ I whimpered afterwards.

‘They must have faked it,’ Trinity whispered back.

‘They faked it?’ I repeated, disbelievingly.

‘If any of it were real, why weren’t the audience freaking out?’ Trinity hissed. ‘Look at them!’

‘The audience, there’s something wrong with them, if you hadn’t noticed.’ I shuddered. ‘And how do you think they managed to fake any of that, anyway?’

Trinity hesitated. ‘I don’t know,’ she admitted. ‘But I’m sure it’s possible. I mean, it can’t be real. No way.’ She let out a short, half hysterical laugh.

‘None of this makes any sense. I mean, what are all these – ‘ I hesitated – ‘people doing here anyway -’

I was cut off abruptly as two of the audience members sitting nearby turned around to look at us. As my eyes adjusted to the dimness, I realized both were wearing dark, stained clown masks and dirt encrusted, slightly torn jester’s clothes.

The clown on the left raised a finger to his unevenly cherry painted lips as he glared at us through the dark hollow sockets of his eyes.

Both of us fell silent immediately as we locked gazes with the clowns. The second one turned back, but the first continued to stare at us, pinning us in place with his icy stare until a voice boomed across the theatre from the stage, drawing his attention away.

We’ve got to get out of here, I thought. There was something really wrong with this place.

I turned away from the clowns and froze as I searched the length of the tent walls with my eyes.

‘Trinity,’ I whispered, ‘where did the exit go?’

She glanced around and then stared as I did. In the dimness, I saw her eyes widen.

‘It’s freaking gone!’ I breathed.

‘It can’t be gone,’ she muttered. She looked as frightened as I felt. She started walking quickly toward where the exit had been. I followed her. I think we were both hoping what we were seeing was a trick of some sort. I thought it might be a result of the way the shadows played across the walls of the tent.

It wasn’t a trick. This became very clear as we got closer. The entrance was completely gone, replaced by the monotonous red and white striped canvas walls surrounding it.

For the first time, I was confronted with the possibility that we were stuck inside the tent with all of the audience, although if the fact bothered any of them they didn’t show any sign of it.

I quickly rejected the idea. I decided instead we must have misplaced the entrance somehow. I was about to tell Trinity we should circle the remainder of the tent to find the way out, or if not maybe another exit.

I never had the opportunity.

‘Take a seat, the show’s only just begun!’ the voice from the stage called out.

I didn’t recognize immediately that it was directed toward us. Only when I saw the way that Trinity’s face had paled visibly did this fact register.

One of those clowns from earlier turned back for a second time. This time, he dragged one of the empty seats out from beside him, and patted it. He then turned to look up at us expectantly.

When neither of us moved, the voice spoke up again. ‘Please,’ he said, ‘Take a seat. Don’t be rude. Look, you’re making the audience uncomfortable.’

These words, accompanied as they were by the piercing gazes of hundreds of audience members – many of which I realized for the first time did not in fact possess faces – were enough to get the both of us to shuffle forward and take the seats without complaint.

I wanted to cry, or scream. I wanted to run away, to get as far away from the man onstage and the paralyzing gazes of the audience as I could. I knew now what a terrible mistake it was for us to not listen to our parents’ warnings.

I was painfully conscious of the gazes of the audience, the array of demented, insane and starving looks on their faces – at least those that had faces, and the way they were all watching me and Trinity hungrily. They could tell we were different. Everything about us, from our outfits we wore to our rehearsals to how young we were – made us stand out in the worst way possible.

I shrank back in my seat, trying to draw as little attention to myself as possible. When the Ringmaster on stage resumed his analysis of the previous act, I was freed from their obsessive looks.

The audience frightened me more than the performance I’d just seen. What I’d seen on stage, at least it couldn’t hurt me. The audience however I didn’t believe were so harmless. I could easily imagine them lashing out at us and tearing us to pieces, cackling madly while they did it.

Performance 2: The Siamese Sisters

The next act started a couple minutes later, after a couple assistants who’d come on stage earlier finished clearing the remaining entrails and body parts off the stage, and a few more handed out handkerchiefs to the front rows of the audience. Me and Trinity were both freaking out silently, pressed together with as much distance from the other audience members as the small space between us and them would allow.‘

And now for an act with some of our newer talent,’ the Ringmaster announced. ‘Our next show for you is an aerial sequence from two women who sacrificed everything to join my troupe! These sisters, as individuals, are wonderful performers, but their talents truly shine when working together. The two of them are capable of so much more than a single one could ever achieve by themselves. May I have the pleasure of presenting to you, the Siamese Sisters!’

Two women emerged from a gap in the curtains and walked up the stage, dressed in matching black and blue outfits. The Ringmaster stepped aside, clapping with the audience as he made his exit.

I looked between them as they approached. The snaking designs and patterns on each of the women’s outfits flowed seamlessly together in a way which made them disorienting to look at as they moved together.

They began their performance by bowing deeply to the audience and taking each other by the hand. An aerial hoop was lowered from a long chord as they started to circle one another.

When the hoop was low enough, one of the sisters slid into it and pulled the other sister up with one hand. Once they were both in the hoop, they adjusted themselves separately. One sister moved their hands and legs to sit in the hoop in a man in the moon, and then lifted her hips and adjusted her feet to sit upside down in the same position. The other lifted her legs effortlessly over the top of the hoop while she manovered her grip to hold the top and bottom ends of the hoop in each hand. This left their faces perfectly level as they stared into one another’s eyes.

After a pause in this pose they transitioned seamlessly into another trick, in perfect time with the music, with the feeling and intensity never leaving their expressions.

Each trick was more impressive than the last, displaying an exceptional level of strength and flexibility. At one point during the middle of the act, one sister held up the other with nothing by her hand, while the second sister remained poised fifteen meters above the ground. The act of holding all her weight in one hand was made to appear effortless.

As the hoop spun around and around, they continued to create an increasingly complex series of shapes with their bodies, their every movement tuned into perfect harmony.

Their dance escalated in emotion and intensity the longer it went on, with the hoop spinning faster and rising higher, keeping in pace with the music. At times there were two dancers spinning around the aerial hoop, dropping and twisting around its length. At times, their bodies looked like they merged together. Actually I’m quite sure they literally did merge together. It was the only way many of their tricks could be physically feasible to achieve.

One time their legs conjoined at the ankle so one of them could hang downward in a star pose without holding on to the hoop at all, while the other sister gripped the top and one side of the hoop with one hand each in an amazon pose. Another time, their entire faces, which were both twisted into an unrecognizable expression of passion, melded and merged into one another as they both hung down from under the hoop holding one another. The result was a conjoined head in a constant state of shifting between one face and the other and sometimes a mix of both, the skin melting together and separating apart again seamlessly, like hot wax.

As the song the sisters danced to neared its climax, I couldn’t tell where one sister ended and the other began. It was all so surreal. Yet it was beautiful, in the most messed up way. The soft intones and sharp notes of the music combined with the melodic, intimate dance of the sisters to tell a silent story of love and conflict between the two sisters, and the pain and loss they’d survived together. I cried, not out of horror, but from the raw grief the sisters elicited from me.

I completely forgot about the freakish audience on all sides of me. I forgot where I was. I didn’t want this performance to end, and when it did, I felt like screaming out in protest and begging the two sisters to keep on dancing.

Somewhat distantly, I heard the audience explode into applause as the amalgamation of the two sisters detached their conjoined torsos in one fluid movement and untangled their intertwined limbs. They continued applauding as the sisters bowed once more and turned to walk hand in hand back toward the stage curtains. Observing them, I felt as if I were waking up from a long, intensely beautiful dream.

I was aware enough to notice the nearby clowns eyeing us, and me and Trinity made sure we joined in on the applause. Our show of approval was convincing enough for them to appear satisfied and they turned away again.

The Ringmaster made his way across the stage to announce the next act. I barely heard him, still struggling to shake off the way the sisters made me feel.

The third performance: The Skin Wearers

In the third performance three men walked on stage and proceeded to strip to their underwear. The middle man produced a brightly coloured and decorated carving knife and made a long, deep cut across his leg, starting at the foot and ending at the upper thigh, without so much as cringing in pain. After a couple more incisions he took hold of the corners of skin inside the cuts and slowly peeled and tore a long flap of it off his leg, exposing the raw muscle and tissue underneath.

This – whatever this was supposed to be – made a mockery of the first performance in its display of horror.

These three men proceeded to detach all visible skin from their bodies, peeling it off like a costume in large strips, each using an identical looking knife. This did not appear to cause them any pain, or any feeling at all, not even as they cut through and plucked their own eyelids off. They were quick and deft about their work, sharing little more than distasteful grimaces and comical expressions with each other and the audience. The audience made vocal their enjoyment of every second of it.

The skin of their bodies fell in a pile around each of them, which they stepped out of once they were finished with their task. Once they were all done, the three men then switched positions with one other. They proceeded to grab pieces of the skin at their feet and stick them haphazardly onto parts of themselves. They did this until most of their bodies were covered by patches of ragged flesh, a task which took a while due to pieces dropping off frequently during the process of their work.

They made a point of showing off the result to the audience when they were done, acting as if they were part of an art exhibition, alternately taking the centre of the stage to present themselves. Once they were all done, they removed all the skin again and switched places on the stage.

The process of putting on and removing the piles of skin repeated several times, though they never seemed to try at all to get the long strips and flaps of flesh where they were meant to go on the body. This might have been part of the point, however. The blotchy patches of skin forming their asymmetric, floppy faces and the unnaturally overstretched portions of it on their bodies was hilarious to the audience, whose hysterical laughter filled the circus tent every time one of them finished attempting to layer the pieces of skin on top of their ragged bodies, and they posed and made an expression for the audience.

The results were always grotesque; most of the skin stuck half on and half off at all the wrong places. The flesh they attached to themselves was stained dark red from blood which leaked out from under the overlapping layers. Sections of their muscle and sinew remained bare, and the skin hung off other parts of them like a piece of loose clothing attached to their bodies. Their faces were the worst, cheeks sagging and large sections of their bare scalps visible. Uneven flaps of skin were used to replace their eyelids, which left most of the eyes exposed, and none of the three made any attempt to replace the skin which once formed their lipless mouths.

I lost count of how many times I swallowed my own puke before this spectacle was over. I’m amazed at how I managed to keep my composure through all of it.

The horror did, finally, reach its end. After the third or fourth repeating of the process of the skin removal and reattachment, the men stripped themselves of all the pieces of skin one last time, tossing them randomly into one of three adjacent piles. Once this was done, they reattached the skin from the nearest pile to their bodies as quickly and efficiently as they’d removed it. The pieces appeared to attach on as if they were being glued, and each piece fused together in the same unnatural way they had been peeled off. Seeing the speed and efficiency of their work, I couldn’t help wondering how many times they’d done this before.

Once they were finished, they redressed and bowed deeply like the other performers did. Besides a few faint lines which could have been scars, there was nothing left to suggest what they’d done to themselves.

Sometime during the third performance, Trinity attempted to call for help with her phone. I saw her doing it in the corner of my eye, keeping the light of her phone hidden with the help of the extra fabric around the sleeves of her costume. This led us to another despairing realization. We couldn’t call or text anyone. Trying shortly after her, I had as much success as Trinity did.

Neither of us could access the internet, either. I felt like an idiot for not thinking of trying to use my phone myself earlier, but I suppose it didn’t matter. Our phones, for the moment, were useless to us.

The three initial performances together couldn’t have lasted longer than forty minutes, though it was a time which stretched on to seem much longer. After a brief silence took to the stage, I allowed myself to hope for a moment that it was all finally coming to an end.

Then the Ringmaster returned to the stage to announce yet another act, and I sank down into my seat in despair. I managed to hide my reaction with some effort, and as the Ringmaster enthusiastically introduced the next production, I braced myself for whatever unspeakable display awaited me. At least, I thought, the audience seemed to have stopped caring about us.

The fourth performance: Eternity

A bald, shirtless man came onto the stage wielding a fire poi and began fire dancing. He was the most talented firedancer I had ever seen – and working at a circus, I’ve seen some incredible fire dancing performers over the years. The way the flames surged and swept around him, it seemed like they had a life of their own, and once or twice I was sure I saw a tormented face rushing out at me from the orange light. If I hadn’t witnessed what I did during the earlier performances, I might have been able to convince myself that part was my imagination.

This performance wasn’t accompanied by a song exactly, though I could make out some kind of hollow, mournful sound in the background which steadily rose in volume and strength over time. It was hard to listen to by the time the performance reached its climax, at which point it was loud and sharp enough to put my teeth on edge.

The act, like many of the others, escalated further as it went on. The climax of this act was a final, dramatic trick sequence which was so rapid the flames around the dancer became a dizzying blur. As he moved, they spread across the length of the poi in a surging rush. He kept holding the instrument even as the flames licked at his hands and then burned his fingers. He kept holding it after his clothes had caught on fire and his hands and arms became red and blistered, and as they began to turn a sickly shade of purple.

I caught a glimpse of his eyes closing as his body burned and the flames spread up to his face, and yet still he danced, fast enough now to become totally obscured, and absorbed, by the spinning, whirling flames.

By the time the reddish glow started to fade, there was nothing more of him left other than a trace of ash on the stage where he once stood.

The Ringmaster briefly took to the stage again whilst a couple assistants ran out to hurriedly clean the soot stained area.

As this was happening he announced the next act: a dance piece by the famous Peccatoris Chorus, a ballet company he expressed evident admiration for.

‘Some say they were touched by an angel,’ he whispered into the microphone. ‘Others claim they suffered a terrible curse. I’ve heard from one man that they are stuck within the limbo between life and death, trapped there until they find redemption. Their origins remain a true mystery to me. But nothing can deny their uncanny talent for ballet!’ He laughed.

As the last of the soot was brushed into pans and taken by the assistants off the stage, the Ringmaster raised his voice and cried, ‘It is my great pleasure to present to you, the Peccatoris Chorus and their magnificent masterpiece, The Price of Intimacy!

The Ringmaster made his grand exit with the last of the assistants. He left the audience in a brief, apprehensive silence as they awaited what was coming next.

The fifth performance: The Price of Intimacy

Ten women dressed as ballerinas moved onto the stage one by one, each bowing to the audience in turn. Once they had taken their positions in two symmetrical lines, they began to perform a traditional ballet dance to the sound of three female melodic voices and accompanying piano music. This was one of the longer performances, lasting what must have been at least twenty minutes.

This act, like the previous, had a relatively unassuming opening. The ballerinas were graceful and practiced, moving together in perfect harmony. They used the full length of the stage, arranging themselves into various shapes and patterns, drifting apart and then coming together again in quick succession.

In time with the changing pace of the song, their dance became faster and faster.

As the dance went on, something about their motions began to disturb me. Rather than consciously moving their bodies, it was more as if they were being pushed and pulled by some kind of irresistible force. It began to look unsettlingly like they were puppets being yanked on invisible strings. This metaphor only became more convincing as this production continued. I felt like I shouldn’t keep watching, but some surreal quality of the scenes onstage had my eyes permanently glued to it. Like with the previous acts, I couldn’t bring myself to look away.

After ten minutes of this non-stop dancing, uncomfortable and then pained expressions formed on some of the faces of the girls and many began to stumble and misstep from what I came to realize was sheer exhaustion. They needed to keep up with the increasingly rapid pacing in time with the song, while performing sequences with unforgiving levels of challenge and complexity. And it was as if they couldn’t stop, even when it didn’t look like their trembling arms and legs could support them anymore.

The pace of the dance never slowed down, not when one woman dropped to the floor, seizing and jerking violently. The other ballerinas merely stepped over her, not pausing with the tempo. It wasn’t long before another of the dancers collapsed, choking and groping at her chest and then lying still, and then another, hitting her head hard against the corner of the stage and going immediately limp. I could see a couple thickening trails of blood forming from beneath where the latest victim’s head was lolling to the side.

Another dancer twisted their ankle in an unnatural direction during a particularly complex sequence of movements. I noticed the same ballerina had a line of saliva dribbling from the corner of her mouth. She and another one collapsed almost simultaneously a minute or so later. I thought I saw relief passing across her face as her legs finally failed her and her eyes fluttered closed.

At that point I remember the three singers in the musical piece accompanying the act became two, the highest pitched voice dying away as the latest ballerina fell to the floor.

The dance continued. As more ballerinas fell, the remaining women wove around them, stepping on and occasionally kicking them as if they weren’t there.

One of the last three ballerinas fell limply into another’s arms and dropped to the floor when the other let her go. She was left to lie there, her face fixed in an expressionless stare. The music accompaniment grew dark and mournful, its tone morphing a little more each time another dancer entered her death throes.

The final two girls lasted for another couple more minutes. One stumbled and tripped over one of the bodies lying on the floor mid spin and fell. She tried to get up a couple of times with increasing urgency. The invisible force that was her puppetmaster wasn’t yet done with her. In synchrony with a series of climatic vocal tones, she was pulled into the air like a ragdoll repeatedly, and each time more violently. These movements twisted her into various unnatural shapes until I could see her bones shifting and breaking under her skin. The third time she was tossed up so violently she spasmed and her body was forced to contort into an impossible angle. I swear I heard the snapping sound of her spine giving out all the way from where I was seated. She fell forward face first onto the ground and lay there, pale and deathly still. I couldn’t count how many places I could see her bones broken from her last, violent contortions.

By this time the single remaining singer’s voice was filled with raw, pained emotion, and it sounded as if she were about to cry. The final ballerina’s movements weren’t at all graceful anymore; her utter exhaustion clearly showed through in her every action. Her arms and legs physically shook unsteadily through her sequences of pirouettes and fouettes, adages and grand jetes. Yet she was never allowed to slow down or rest, not for a moment.

She looked terrified when she finally collapsed, just as the music came to a close in a final dying, haunted wail that faded slowly into silence. I could have sworn her pleading eyes met mine for a single moment right as she fell.

The crowd began to roar in deafening applause as her chest stopped rising; the loudest applause they’d given yet to any of the productions.

The bodies of the ballerinas were promptly taken off stage by six assistants, dumped on top of one another in a number of colourful, small carts. The Ringmaster returned and complimented the dancers, looking quite touched himself. He went on to announce the next performance. And I continued to watch it all, not daring to look away.

The next couple of performances grew progressively more surreal. In one of these someone took their head off and spun it around, while it talked and babbled nonsense at the audience. In another, a ventriloquist took to the stage with a dummy made of flesh and bone which appeared to be growing in place of the man’s hand. I didn’t understand a word that came out of the thing’s mouth but the audience seemed to love it and they laughed like the thing was making the funniest jokes they’d ever heard.

I could no longer describe to you the nature or content of many of the later performances. They were incomprehensible, filling me with a kind of dread I struggle to put into words. There were times where I attempted to rationalize what I was witnessing, only for confusion and creeping horror to cloud my thoughts. In some brief moments, what I saw almost made sense to me, then the understanding slipped out of my mind, leaving me more confused than before.

Unsurprisingly, the audience did not share in any of my or Trinity’s discomfort. They loved each performance more than they did the last.

Though the majority of what I saw was decidedly awful, it wasn’t bad. There were a couple acts in between the bad ones which hit me in a very different way. These ones had me mesmerized, the images on the stage driving me to a near ecstasy of emotion. They were the ones I didn’t want to end, and left me feeling hollow and lifeless inside once they did. They were the small breaks of blinding beauty in a sea of monotonous, endless horror.

Between all of this, I lost count of the number of times the Ringmaster returned to the stage to enthusiastically describe the next production awaiting our viewing. I grew somewhat numbed to the parade of insanity onstage, detached from myself so I sometimes felt as if I was standing some distance away, observing my slumped and dull eyed form.

The shows lasted for hours, long into the night. To me, it felt like an eternity. I started to wonder if the night would have an end. I started to wonder if I was going crazy.

It was at least three hours after our entrance that there was any sign of our visit to the Midnight Circus – as the Ringmaster named our location more than once – was coming to a close.

‘And now for our final performance – ‘ The Ringmaster was cut off by a number of boos from the audience. He bowed his head to them briefly before continuing – ‘to conclude the night with something truly unforgettable, I present to you, the Blood Witch and its many children, to share their special gift for your pleasure!’

I didn’t catch what he’d said at first. I was still dazed and unfocused and though I heard the words, they carried no immediate significance in my mind. Trinity however registered the announcement and I heard her whispering something and pulling at my arm. She stopped short as the last performance began to play out on stage and fell silent again, though she kept a tight grip on my hand.

The final act concluded fifteen minutes later. The Ringmaster took to the stage as he’d done many times before, clapping his hands together and nodding enthusiastically. I heard him complimenting all of the performers and then telling the audience he was afraid he must wrap up the show for the night, but promising them they would see him again soon.

This was when everything took a transition back into sharp focus for me. I suddenly understood what he was saying. It was all nearly over, I realized. I could hardly believe it.

The audience was expressing their discontent more vocally than before, which elicited a sigh of regret from the Ringmaster.

‘I know, I know,’ he said sympathetically. ‘The entertainment is over far too soon. Unfortunately we’ve run out of performers for you for tonight!’

He waited patiently through another long round of booing and various other, more disturbing sounds of expressed displeasure. This didn’t abate and finally, he sighed and raised a hand placatingly.

‘Lucky for you I do still have one last item lined up for this evening. Not a performance, though. Something special, to leave your night with sweet memories. What do you think, hmmm?’

The audience settled down again quickly. The Ringmaster’s next words rang clearly over the rows of seated denizens.

‘We will conclude tonight with one final event. For this act to be possible, however, I am going to need a couple of brave volunteers.’

The Ringmaster surveyed the quieted audience as they settled back into their seats. It wasn’t long before his eyes fell on me and Trinity.

A slow smile spread across his face. ‘Perhaps the two fellow actors would like to grace us with their assistance?’

I wanted to shrink away from his gaze and the looks countless other onlookers were giving me, yet I couldn’t bring myself to move. I hoped and prayed he would choose to leave us alone and ask for someone – literally anyone else – for their assistance. Instead, he continued to stare at me expectantly.

A wave of sickness and nausea swept over me. The world spun around in circles, and I bent over in the chair, my legs going weak. I think for a few moments I must have blacked out, because the next thing I knew, I wasn’t sitting in the audience anymore. I could hear the Ringmaster’s voice from much nearer, from right beside me.

I twisted my head to the side. I saw the audience, positioned to my right on the rows upon rows of seats surrounding the curved stage.

I tried to move and realized I couldn’t. As I raised my head, I saw my whole body was tied down on a wooden box with a set of thick, leather cuffed restraints.

I was lying inside a translucent glass container, stained with a thin layer of grime and a small amount of what looked far too much like dried, clotted blood. Trinity was standing nearby, her hands covering her mouth.

I didn’t know how I’d gotten there. I didn’t even know how the box I was lying on had made its way onto the stage. Later, when I asked Trinity about it, she described experiencing the same thing I did with the blackout, so she was as confused as I was.

Panic took over. I started to freak the hell out. I screamed and pulled against each of the restraints with all my strength.

The restraints were tight and firm, and it didn’t do me any good. I could barely move any part of me more than an inch. My panic doubled, as claustrophobia set in.

‘Give our brave volunteers a round of applause for their participation!’ The Ringmaster cried.

The audience obliged enthusiastically, and the Ringmaster clapped with them. When the sounds settled down, he began to explain what he planned to do to me.

‘Tonight our participants shall play a game. Care to guess what kind of game?’

My screams quickly quietened as I registered what the Ringmaster was motioning at and started paying attention to what was going on around me. A couple of the assistants, wearing the white masks and overalls, were working on something, some kind of device.

My eyes fell on a large and wickedly curved, circular blade, one or two feet long and high. It was hanging poised from the device the assistants were fiddling with, which was itself built into the ceiling of the glass box. The tip of the blade was raised just over half a meter above my body, and it was positioned directly above my midsection. The whole thing looked like some kind of torture device – which I decided it most likely was.

My movements stilled as terror infused me.

I was half aware that the Ringmaster had begun to jest with the audience – who were observing me with entertained amusement – as he lifted to tap his finger over the top of the glass box.

‘Ladies and gentle-things, our friend Celeste has herself in a bit of an interesting situation, as you all can see. If she wins this game, she gets released, and these two sisters will earn themselves a very special prize.’

‘If she loses, however…’ the Ringmaster trailed off, looking meaningfully down at me. Right as he said this the figures finished whatever they were doing and went to shuffle away one by one toward the back of the stage.

I twisted my head to the side as I saw the Ringmaster holding something out to Trinity, who was standing nearby with a stricken expression on her face.

‘This,’ he said to her, ‘is a puzzle box. Within it is the key which will switch off the saw and release your sister safely from her glass entrapment. You have – ‘ he glanced at his watch; a watch up to that point I hadn’t noticed he was wearing, ‘approximately five minutes to solve the puzzle and get that key out of the box. Starting from right now. The survival of your sister is in your hands. Good luck!’

He didn’t wait for Trinity to ask any questions, or respond at all. He pushed the box into my sister’s hands. Then he flipped a switch on his side of the glass container, and just like that, the saw came to life, spinning with increasing speed and emitting a high pitched, piercing whining. At the same time, the music changed, a new tune starting up. It was full of suspense and intensity, a song which I was sure must have had its origins right out of a horror movie.

My throat ached as I screamed again, helplessly.

‘Oh, and no cheating. You can’t try to take the key out of the box until the puzzle is fully solved,’ he called over the noise to Trinity, waving a finger. ‘Getting it out any other way will cause things to end very badly for the both of you!’

He patted the top of the glass container, snapping his gaze back to me with a mischievous grin. ‘You’d better hope she gets that box open quickly, or you are going to be in a lot of trouble,’ he said in a low voice.

‘What is this, some kind of sick joke?’ Trinity cried. She ran over and tried to tug the glass box open with her hand. The top didn’t budge.

‘I wouldn’t be wasting time asking questions,’ he called gleefully. ‘You’re already down to four and a half minutes!’

I realized the Ringmaster was being entirely serious about the game he wanted us to play. Slowly and steadily the saw was being guided downward and it was noticeably closer to me than it was before it was switched on just under a minute ago.

I tried to imagine what would happen once the blade descended low enough. How long would it take to cut me open? Would the pain come all at once, or in a steadily escalating wave? Would I see my intestines fall around me, would my insides spill out over the table I lay on? I could see the scene forming in my mind’s eye with shocking clarity, and panic threatened to overwhelm me.

‘Celeste, oh Celeste,’ Trinity was sobbing. ‘Oh god, what do I do?’ She was hysterical. The box shook violently in her hands. She looked like she might drop it at any moment.

‘Three and a half minutes,’ the Ringmaster announced, lifting his arm to present his watch to us. ‘You’d really better get started on opening that box,’ he repeated. His voice was less amused now, the tone carrying a hint of serious warning in it.

Most puzzle boxes aren’t actually that hard to open, if you understand the fundamentals of how they work. You only need to know where exactly to press down, or pull or push in a particular way at just the right place on the box. Sometimes you need to do more than one of these things in a particular order. You can typically get them open in less than a minute if you know exactly what to do.

I didn’t really think there was any way I was going to be able to solve one from scratch in under four minutes. Yet I had no choice but to try. It was my only hope for surviving this.

I tried to collect myself. I forced down my panic with a great effort and twisted my head to look at Trinity.

‘Bring the box over here,’ I called in the steadiest voice I could manage. ‘Bring it closer! We’ve got to figure this out. Come on!’

After a second’s hesitation Trinity obeyed, scooting over to me and holding the box out with her hands. She was saying something to me, I think. I hardly paid attention to her.

I focused all my attention on the puzzle box, on the grooves and panels of wood which made up its four complex sides. I tried my very best to shut out everything else, like I did whenever I was on stage performing.

Back when I was younger, there was a man working at the circus who sold, among other things, puzzle boxes not unlike the one I was faced with now. On some of the days where our parents were particularly busy ordering people about or doing other management related stuff they had to do, they would let me go over to his stall to play with his puzzle boxes and other toys.

In my mind’s eye, I saw myself sitting in a chair behind the stall with one of the boxes cradled in my hands. At that moment, the memories came back with perfect clarity. It was difficult to figure out the first few he’d given to me to play with but I’d gotten better and better at opening them as time went on.

Eventually the guy had quit working at the circus after a big fight with my parents, with a plan to establish a permanent shop somewhere else. He left me a pair of his hardest puzzle boxes as a parting gift. I’d only ever managed to get one of those open.

I was scared the puzzle box would be unrealistically hard to finish in the allotted time. I could only pray the Ringmaster intended to give me a fair chance of winning his game.

Trinity, thankfully, pulled herself together enough to follow my instructions. She was careful to show what she was doing and described in detail how the box felt as she turned it around and manipulated it with her hands.

Trinity’s experimental exploration of the box paid off. As it turned out, she only needed to pull at a pair of grooves on either side of the box to trigger something. She managed it faster than I’d anticipated.

Trinity gave a little cry as a side panel came free, which turned into a sound of frustration when it only slid about an inch open.

There was a second part to the puzzle. Of course there was. I had to yell at Trinity not to break the box – because I was fairly sure she was about to. Thinking quickly, I lied to her and told her I thought I knew the full solution to stop her from getting us both killed doing something stupid in her frustration.

The only thing I could think to do at that point was to keep guessing, telling Trinity to try various things I could remember learning to try with the puzzle boxes given to me by Peter all those years ago.

‘Turn it over,’ I instructed. Trinity did, and I had to tell her to turn it the other way, so I could view the side of the box she’d partially pulled open. My thoughts racing, I instructed her to gently lift the panel up and down after sliding it out as far as it would go. Then I told her to try pressing down on the sides of the puzzle box while simultaneously attempting to push and pull the partially open wooden panel gently back and forth.

None of this worked, and the box remained stubbornly unyielding.

I couldn’t think properly. I knew I was running out of time. It was becoming increasingly difficult to concentrate and I kept glancing back to the Ringmaster’s watch, wondering how long I could possibly have left. I couldn’t bring myself to look directly up at the saw to see how close the blade was to me.

My heart pounded in my ears as I asked for Trinity to look for any other loose parts to see if they could be manipulated. It wasn’t long before she found one. She quickly fumbled with it, lifting an inconspicuous panel on the top section of the puzzle box, plucking it out and allowing the side panel she’d opened partially to slide the rest of the way free.

‘That’s it, I’ve got it open,’ she said breathlessly.

Trinity rummaged inside and pulled something out. She dropped the box as she held it in her hands and ran over to me.

I was crying. I couldn’t maintain my composure anymore. I didn’t know if she was going to make it in time. The spinning blade was less than an inch from touching my body.

Everything slipped into slow motion as she fumbled with the key, finding and jabbing it into a lock I couldn’t see on the apparatus the spinning saw was attached to.

I held my breath as she attempted to turn the key. For a moment it stuck. For a moment I thought the key wouldn’t work. For a second I swore I felt the sharp sting of the spinning blade starting to slice into my flesh.

Then I heard the sound of some whirring, followed by a couple of clicking sounds from within the device. The whine of the saw started to die as the spinning circular blade slowed, leaving a hush in the air as the music faded away abruptly. Slowly, the soft intones of the carnival song returned to play in the background.‘

My god, what a show you two have put on for us! Congratulations!’ The Ringmaster exclaimed. He stepped toward the box and leaned forward to examine it. ‘It looks like your sister got to the solution in just the nick of time.’

He grabbed the edge of the glass box with one gloved hand and pulled it open effortlessly. I cringed as I felt his hands brush my foot, but all he did was work to undo the restraints holding down one of my legs.

The Ringmaster talked enthusiastically while removing each of my restraints, not that I was paying much attention. I was too focused on observing his progress, willing him to work faster. I hated every second of him being so close to me while I lay trapped and vulnerable in the box.

The moment the final restraint popped open, I shot up and scrambled awkwardly out of the glass prison. I collapsed onto the stage beside it in a heaving mess, and lay there for a couple seconds, shaking uncontrollably.

The world spun around me as I straightened up. Then I doubled down and retched. Still heaving, I took several unsteady steps away from the box, fearing another cruel trick.

The Ringmaster was clapping slowly, glancing between me and the audience.

‘To be honest I really didn’t think you were going to make it out of there. I thought you were done for!’ He shook his head and chuckled. His voice sounded somewhat distant in my ears.

Trinity ran over to me and wrapped an arm around my shoulders, and I clung on to her.

The audience, it seemed, didn’t share the showman’s approval. Their disappointment was almost tangible. Those who did join in with the showman applauding did only after he surveyed the faces surrounding him expectantly and gave them an injured look. The applause was noticeably lacking in the enthusiasm they’d shared after any of the previous shows.

Shaking his head, the Ringmaster stepped forward, picking the puzzle box off the floor with one hand and adjusting his coat with the other. He reached inside and began fiddling with the box.

With another few deft movements, he slid free a panel within the box and pulled something out carefully. Most likely, I thought distantly, the puzzle box possessed a second concealed compartment.

I took another few steps back as he held out something golden and sparkling. A thick, metal bracelet.

‘This,’ he told me, ‘is your prize. A thank you for being such an entertaining guest.

’I didn’t move, hugging myself with my arms as I stared at him in disbelief.

‘Take it,’ he said.

I didn’t want to. I told myself I wasn’t going to. I wasn’t taking anything from him after what he’d done to me. He’s playing another trick, I thought. He’s playing another game with me.

Yet when his smile started to fade and his face adopted the wounded expression once again, I realized I simply couldn’t afford to risk refusing him.

I parted myself enough from Trinity to snatch it with one slightly shaking hand.

‘I think it’ll look good on you in one of your shows,’ the Ringmaster told me.

My gaze flicked back at the motionless metal saw and the box it was attached to, the box which had so nearly become my coffin.

‘Come on, put it on! Show us how it looks on you,’ the Ringmaster said, drawing my attention back to him. He was looking on expectantly.

With some reluctance, I complied. I stared down at my wrist as I started to slide the bracelet over it. For the first time I really took some time to examine the prize.

The bracelet was ornately carved with the words ‘Dance with the Midnight Circus!’ engraved in elegant, sapphire blue lettering, the phrase etched above a detailed scene containing a number of ballerina figures poised in the middle of dancing. Each was posed in a different movement as they twirled across a stage drawn over the length of the bracelet. Their dresses spun around them in a way that made them almost look to be moving when the bracelet reflected off the light. Each dancer was drawn in realistic, almost unsettling detail.

It shone and twinkled as I turned my arm around. It looked more expensive than anything either me or Trinity had ever worn before. It was beautiful. It took my breath away.

‘My god, it looks stunning on you,’ the Ringmaster exclaimed from beside me. He sounded almost awed.

There were a few brief seconds there where I forgot all the fear and horror, where I was transfixed. I felt an inexplicable excitement building up within me, filling me with energy and chasing away my fear. An absurd urge surged up to break into a dance right there on the stage in front of the deranged crowd.

It didn’t last long at all. In a few more moments, I felt Trinity give my hand a small squeeze. I looked around and met her shocked and terrified gaze. The feelings died away, and reality set back in.

‘This gift is special,’ the Ringmaster advised. ‘I’ll let you find out exactly how it works for yourself. But I really do think you’ll like it.’

The Ringmaster returned his attention to the audience. He took another couple minutes to wrap up the night, thanking the audience profusely for watching and promising to have ‘another night of fun for you lined up very soon.’ I took the opportunity to slip the bracelet off my arm and tuck it away while he wasn’t looking.

There were some noises of protest from the crowd but this time, the Ringmaster paid them little mind. He seemed to have lost all interest in their complaining.

Once this was done, he turned back to us and said cheerfully, ‘you’re free to go. Thank you again for being such entertaining volunteers.’

I risked a peek sideways. Members of the audience were beginning to get up and make their way toward the entrance of the tent, which had reappeared as suddenly as it vanished. The music had died down, and around me a couple of assistants had emerged to clear the remaining haphazard props and decorations off the stage, while others began somewhat unenthusiastically dragging large mops and other cleaning utensils across the length of it, or picking up the visceral remains of various performances – and performers, and dumping them into large, plastic bags.

Slowly, on shaking legs, I edged away from the Ringmaster, Trinity by my side. He moved only to turn briefly to shout some orders back at the assistants.

I glanced behind me. What remained of the audience was filling out of the tent steadily; they showed little interest in us anymore. I glimpsed the heads of the two clowns as they made their way toward the exit, followed by a collection of stiffly moving, shabbily dressed bald figures with lumpy, uneven skin who stood a couple of feet over the remainder of the crowd.

We lingered on the stage until they were all gone. I could feel the Ringmaster’s eyes on me as Trinity started to drag me by the arm, once the last of the audience vanished past the curtain. She helped me off the stage, urging me to move faster as we headed through the rows of empty chairs. I glanced back and saw the Ringmaster was wearing a friendly smile which didn’t reach his eyes.

His voice stopped us one last time as we were nearing the entrance.

‘You could join us, you know, both of you,’ the Ringmaster said. ‘I’m very aware of how talented you two are.’ He chucked. ‘Maybe when you’re a little older, you should consider it.’

As he spoke, his gaze fixed on me. ‘Regardless, I do hope you’ll come visit me again sometime. The Midnight Circus will always be open to you.’

Trinity tugged at my elbow before I could say anything back to him, practically dragging me through the exit. The Ringmaster’s haunting face imprinted itself in my mind, so it lingered there as he was obscured from view by the curtains falling around us.

We stepped outside into the night air, shivering in the sudden and startling cold. There was no sign of a member of the audience anywhere; the whole circus was deserted and silent. I wasn’t so surprised when I glanced back through the curtains and glimpsed the inside of a bare and dark circus tent, completely unlit and empty, with only a few haphazard seats and a derelict stage occupying the open space.

The sight offered me little comfort. We didn’t stop running until we’d crossed the whole circus and reached the gates which opened out onto the circus grounds.

Once we’d calmed down a bit, we went to look for our parents. Trinity checked her phone and found she had a dozen missed calls from them. None of those calls had come through to her phone during the show, however now we were free her phone was working fine again.

I appeared to have lost mine some time during the night; I guessed most likely during the Ringmaster’s game.

Trinity quickly called our mom and she instructed us where to meet her, at the administration booth near the front of the circus.

We found our parents just as they were finishing talking to the police. My mom looked like she was ready to drop the phone when she saw us. I couldn’t tell if she was more relieved or angry.

She returned her phone to her pocket and demanded to know where the hell we had been.

We both started telling in a rush what happened, tripping over each other’s words in the process. The narrative we managed to get out between us was inconsistent and out of order. After a minute or two of our frantic babbling, our dad grabbed each of us by the shoulders, instructing us to slow down and start from the beginning.

Neither of them stayed calm for long. Their expressions changed from concerned to alarmed right after our story started. In the middle of telling them about our decision to sneak into the old theatre, our dad left abruptly without another word. Our mother instructed me and Trinity to keep telling her everything but refused to let us know where our dad was going.

We never stopped to think about whether our parents would actually believe us when they heard our full story. I guess we both assumed they would have to believe it because they were the ones who made the rules which got us into trouble in the first place.

As it turned out, I guessed right. Our mother wasn’t surprised at anything she heard from us, nor did she for a second question the most outlandish descriptions we gave of what we’d seen during the night, nor our forced participation in Ringmaster’s game. I’m quite sure she told our dad everything later the same night and we never saw him once act shocked, either.

Instead of being shocked or disbelieving, our mom was mad, more angry at us than before. Once we finished our story, she was quick to let us know how serious our mistake was.

‘You don’t have any idea how lucky you are,’ she snapped. Her tone was unforgiving. ‘Those rules are there for a reason. How many times have I told you how important it is to always follow them?’

She pinched the bridge of her nose and exhaled slowly. ‘Let me think for a moment. The man, the one running the show, did he offer you something, or make a deal with you, or try to grant you a favour, anything like that?’

I hesitated. ‘He gave me this,’ I said, pulling the bracelet out of my pocket and showing it to her. ‘He said it was a prize-’

She snatched the bracelet from my hands. ‘It’s not any kind of prize you’d want to keep, trust me,’ she told me.‘

Why? What is it?’ Trinity asked.‘

It doesn’t matter. You shouldn’t have taken this from him. You shouldn’t have done any of this.’ Her piercing look pinned us both in place with its severity. ‘Jesus, I can’t believe you two. What in the world came over you?’

I was on the verge of crying, the back of my throat choking up. I felt like I was about to lose it. ‘Are you not worried, like at all?’ I cried. ‘We were both nearly killed back there! Isn’t that a little bit concerning to you?’

‘How many times have I told you not to get too close to the old theatre?’ she replied harshly. ‘I was trying to protect you from having to go through something like this!’

Our father returned, cutting the conversation off. Without another word, he took our mom aside to speak to her in a low voice. After that, she seemed to calm down a bit; actually, I could have sworn they both looked a little relieved as she returned her attention to us.

When she spoke again, her tone was much more gentle and measured. ‘Kids, come over here.’

We did, and she took each of us by the shoulders, gazing into our eyes. ‘I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve to hear me speak to you like that. Look, I know you’ve been through a lot. This must have been very traumatic for you. We’re going to work through this, alright? But tonight has to stay between us. No one else can get involved. Not the police, not anyone.’

She sighed. ‘Everything’s going to be alright. You’re both going to be alright. Me and your dad will take care of this, I promise.’

Her hands on our shoulders tightened a little. ‘Listen to me, you can never, ever, do anything like that again, either of you. Do you understand?’

After a moment, I nodded. That, at least, was something both of us could agree with.

‘Also, don’t discuss this with anyone,’ our dad put in. ‘When other people are around, you need to pretend tonight never happened. One of us will find out if you try to tell anyone else about this.’

‘I’m not going to punish you two because I know you’ve been through a lot and I can see you’ve already realized the gravity of your mistake,’ our mother added.

She seemed satisfied with the looks we were giving her because she relaxed and slowly drew the both of us into an embrace. I wrapped my arms around her waist and buried my face in her coat like I hadn’t done since I was seven. I cried, and I didn’t let go for a solid minute, and neither did Trinity. Our mother comforted us quietly with promises the horrors were over and we were safe now. Then she gently disentangled herself from us, and took us to another section of the administration building where a simple kitchen and meeting room was set up. Dad went back out again to have another word with the police and tie up some loose ends for the night.

During the following half hour, our mother continued to calm and console us with hot chocolates and iced fruit buns she’d been gifted by Tiffany. Meanwhile, we asked a lot of questions and she gave us a lot of vague and unsatisfying answers.

The only thing she was willing to explain to us with any clarity was why she’d been so concerned about the Ringmaster giving me a gift.

‘I’d prefer it if you didn’t know because the truth will only frighten you. I meant what I said earlier, about you being better off knowing as little as possible about what’s… Wrong with our circus. I’ll tell you this at least because I hope it will help you to see sense next time you feel the urge to experiment with one of the rules.’

‘The Ringmaster, the man who you saw running the show, he has been around here for a long time, a lot longer than me or you. He’s – kind of like us, a performer, an artist. He loves to create unique productions, but they are all sick and twisted, and for the entertainment of other people who are cursed like he is. He has a particular method for seeking out new victims to join his troupe of performers.’

I was silent, and she continued.

‘How do you think all the other performers you saw ended up there?’ she asked. ‘In the past, they were just like you or me, Celeste. They were normal people who visited the circus or used to work here. At some point they broke one of the rules and as a result, the Ringmaster found them. In some fashion he manipulated them, perhaps giving them a gift like he did with you, or maybe he would make a deal with them, offering them an escape from one of his games, in exchange for a promise they would come back after a certain number of years. I’ve been keeping track of his activities for a long time. In that time I’ve become familiar with the variety of different methods the Ringmaster uses to manipulate people.’

She held the bracelet out in one hand. ‘If you’d kept this, you’d come to regret it terribly. The longer you held on to it, the worse things would get for you. It would come with some kind of supernatural ability, I’d imagine enhancing your beauty or your talents as a dancer, to ensure you kept it and wore it more often. This would in turn strengthen the connection between you and him.

The longer you kept it, the more you’d fall under his control, until finally, one night you would find yourself back at the Midnight Circus tent like all the others inevitably did. You’d walk inside and you’d never come back out again.

After someone fell fully under his influence, they belonged to him, body and soul. Once they were called back to the Midnight Circus, there was no escaping him. They would be condemned to perform for the Ringmaster over and over again, for the rest of eternity.’

She exhaled. ‘Thank god we caught on to this quickly. If you had worn this for a while, perhaps not more than a couple weeks, you would have fallen under his thrall, and your soul would be his.’

I remembered the haunted and tormented looks on many of the performers’ faces. I was also reminded of some of the other acts where the performers within them looked honestly like they couldn’t be happier.‘

Is that why so many people who worked here disappeared?’ I asked in a small voice. ‘They didn’t really leave like you told us, did they?’

‘Most of them did leave, for various reasons,’ my mom admitted. But yes, a few of them broke the rules, though not all of them broke the one you did. Over the decades, plenty of people have been tricked by him and then trapped into performing at his Midnight Circus, and each of them is now a part of one of his acts.’

She placed one of her hands over mine comfortingly. ‘We’re going to get rid of it, okay? I’m not going to let him take you away from us. Ever.’

I nodded wordlessly. All the anger and resistance had drained out of me. The seriousness of all she’d said was written over my mom’s face. I felt nauseous thinking back to the insidious smile the Ringmaster gave me as I was leaving his tent, understanding as I did now what his intentions were for me.

After she was done feeding us, our mother directed me and Trinity to our car.

‘You two need to get some rest,’ she told us. ‘It’s 4am and you have to perform tomorrow afternoon and in the evening.’

She wouldn’t respond to any more questions from us. The last thing I remember either of my parents telling us that night was something our mother said as she guided us over to her car.

‘There are some things about this circus that are dangerous to get too curious about’, she told us. ‘Like what you saw tonight. As long as you don’t break the rules again and stay away from the Midnight Circus when it appears, we can keep you safe from the Ringmaster. Just don’t ever do something like this in the future, alright?’

Later that night, me and Trinity sat on my bed next to each other in an uncomfortable silence. I could tell Trinity wanted to say something, so I waited for her to speak.

‘What do we do now?’ She asked eventually.

Neither of us had an answer to the question, and the silence between us returned. After a minute or two, Trinity gave a long yawn. Seeing my reaction, she shrugged, and rubbed her eyes. ‘Aren’t you tired too?’ she asked.

I stared at her. ‘You don’t want to discuss any of what our parents said back there?’ I burst out. ‘Doesn’t it bother you how they reacted?’

‘It does,’ she admitted. ‘But I don’t see how discussing any of it will help. Mom was right. We should try and forget this ever happened.’

I felt like I should protest. I didn’t, though. I was tired too, a tiredness which had crept up on me suddenly and left my eyes heavy and my mind foggy.

‘Fine,’ I declared after a few moments, raising my hands. ‘Maybe that will work for you. Personally, I can’t imagine living the rest of my life working here knowing what I do now.’

‘What choice do we have?’ Trinity asked simply.I couldn’t think of a suitable response. I could hardly think clearly at all.

We sat for a few minutes in silence, both of us weighed down by increasing drowsiness.She eventually stood up, hesitated and then asked, ‘Are you.. Okay? After what you went through tonight?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said, honestly. ‘I hope I will be.’

She sucked in her bottom lip. ‘Look, whatever happens… You know I’ll be there if you need someone to talk to.’

I nodded, and smiled just a little bit. ‘Of course I do.

She gave me a quick hug and moved toward the door.

I watched Trinity head off down the hall to her room, wondering if I’d really just gone through what I did. Thinking back on it from the safety and comfort of my own bedroom, it didn’t seem all real. It was far too crazy, I thought, to be real.

I wondered if it wouldn’t be easier if I pretended it was all in my head. It seemed a lot less scary when I imagined it as a bad dream.

I’d expected our parents to say more, in the end. To make a real attempt to explain what happened. I felt like they at least owed us that.

Instead, our parents made us go along with our lives like nothing had happened. They weren’t planning on ever giving us any kind of closure for the trauma we’d experienced, or a proper explanation as to what was really going on with the circus. They were reluctant to bring the weird stuff up again at all, in fact. As it turned out, us twins were never meant to know the dark secrets behind the Grand Circus of Mysteries.

We didn’t tell anyone about what we’d been through, like our parents instructed. We went on with our lives, and from the outside, you wouldn’t have any clue to how much we’d been changed by that night.

I did my very best to avoid the ‘haunted’ circus tent, and I followed my parent’s other rules religiously to a point where I was always paranoid about them. There were times I would find myself wondering what else my parents were hiding, and if I should try to find the cause of all the weird and messed up stuff going on at the circus. I would always convince myself it wasn’t worth it, seeing myself back in the glass box listening to the whine of the saw blade as it edged ever closer to me, reminding myself of how close I came that night to a horrific death.

For the next two years, I did what my parents asked of me and kept the whole thing a secret.

For those two years these memories festered inside me, and I did my best to live with them.

During the daytime, it was easier. There was always so much going on, between my schoolwork and being a circus performer. I was always too concerned with other things to think about the Ringmaster and his circus, and most of the time, it was easy to keep the haunting memories at bay.

The nights were different. When I slept, I had frequent dreams reliving parts of the night where we visited the Ringmaster’s Circus. Most of them were nightmares.

However, the dreams which bothered me most weren’t the nightmares where I was bloodily sawed in half in front of a cheering audience, or the recollections of the worst of the performances I bore witness to. What got to me most were actually the good dreams. In those dreams, I witnessed again the haunting beauty of the Siamese Sisters or the heart-breaking story acted out in A Spirits Lament. The most difficult dreams were the ones where I was reminded of all the things – such unspeakable, wonderful things – that I would never get to experience again.

God, what I would do to be able to capture and share such emotion when I performed on stage. To make audiences feel the way the Siamese Sisters made me feel. To have such power over everyone watching me.

In less frequent dreams, I did become one of the performers on stage, and for hours I would perform tirelessly like I had never performed before, basking in the awe and enrapturement of the largest audience I’d ever seen. It was so much better than the high I usually felt during any of my performances. It was the same feeling but multiplied by ten.

They were the best dreams, and also the worst ones, because no matter how wonderful they were, a part of me knew none of it was real, and the fantasy would soon reach its inevitable end.

When I woke up from those dreams I would find myself in a stupor of despondency as I was confronted by reality. It was a reality where I wasn’t one of those performers, and I never would be. I was just my mediocre self, and it was nowhere near good enough. I entered into an intense depression and became filled with an unbearable sense of self loathing which persisted for hours and never fully went away.

Trinity told me for her, these dreams became less frequent after a while. She promised they would for me, too, but they never did.

She didn’t didn’t act quite as bothered by the experiences of that night as I was. I genuinely couldn’t tell if she was acting as much or seriously had managed to find a way to work through it.

If so, I was glad at least Trinity was able to put it behind her. I couldn’t blame her for the way she so easily resumed her normal life. If it were possible for me, I would have happily left this whole thing in the past like she did.

Though me and my twin went on with our lives as best as we could, this wasn’t quite the end of my story, or Trinity’s.

The Ringmaster never let us go, not really. He’d always planned on at least one of us returning to him.

I met the Ringmaster again two years later. It was as I was passing by the Midnight Circus one night, alone. He was leaning against the wall of the tent, almost invisible in the darkness. In such little light I didn’t recognize him at first, and it was his voice that identified him.

‘Hello, Celeste.’

The words froze me on the spot. They sent me straight back two years ago to still vivid recollections of being trapped at the Midnight Circus.

He moved up closer to the fence and made a show of looking me up and down, making me want to retreat to the shadows where he couldn’t see me. ‘My god, how you’ve grown since I last saw you! I can hardly believe it’s only been two years.’

‘I know what you tried to do to me,’ I managed to get out.

‘What did I try to do to you?’ He asked innocently.

I swallowed. ‘You know what I mean! You wanted to make me one of your slaves, like the rest of the people working at your sick circus!’

‘They’re not my slaves. I treat them as if they are my own brothers and sisters!’ he protested. ‘As for getting you to be a part of the troupe, well, I had to try.’ He spoke casually, and completely unapologetically.

‘Oh, and don’t think I’ve given up on you just yet. Some day, I still hope to see you join us.’

‘I can’t be talking to you. I’ve got to go,’ I said, backing away. The Ringmaster didn’t move, didn’t react, until I turned and started making my way quickly in the opposite direction.‘

I came here to ask you something. Something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Did your parents ever tell you the story of how they came to own the Grand Circus of Mysteries?’ he called out.

I kept walking.

‘They didn’t, did they? They wouldn’t want you to learn about their past because they’re not the people they want you to think they are.’

I didn’t stop, or slow down. I didn’t want to let him realize his words were getting to me.

‘They’re keeping other secrets, too. Secrets I’d have thought you would have a right to know. Such as what they’re plans are for you and your sister when you grow up.’

He raised his voice so it cracked through the night air. ‘They have your future all mapped out. They plan to use you and your sister until your souls are condemned to this place like theirs once were. Do you want that?’

When I glanced back at the Midnight Circus, the Ringmaster’s face was more serious than I’d ever seen him.

‘You don’t believe me,’ he said unaffectedly. ‘That’s fine. What I ask is for you to find the truth for yourself. You may not trust me, but there’s plenty of other people out there who can tell you what I know. Some of those people know your parents even better than I do.’

His face changed and he gave me a sudden, lopsided grin. ‘It’s your choice. You can turn a blind eye to this and tell yourself my words are all lies. You may even get yourself to believe it.’

‘You’re lying. You’re trying to manipulate me.’ I said flatly.

He shrugged. ‘Nothing I have to say here will convince you otherwise. But I don’t have to convince you that I’m honest, only that your parents might not be.’

He added as an afterthought, ‘oh, and just to make my intentions clear, I have good reason not to like your parents. This isn’t some trick I’m playing to get you or your sister under my thrall. I’m helping you because in the end, you’re going to be the only one who can stop them.’

‘You’re not helping me,’ I snapped. ‘I don’t know what you’re trying to do, but I’m not doing anything for you, alright? Leave me alone.’

I started walking away from him without waiting for a response. The Ringmaster, surprisingly, made no attempt to follow me, and when I glanced back, he’d vanished again, and I could hear the faint sounds of his voice announcing the next show from within the Midnight Circus tent.

I couldn’t quite get our little conversation out of my mind. As it turned out, I ended up doing exactly what he predicted I would do and took a dive deep into my parents past. I found some things which changed me and my sister’s life forever. But that’s a different story. One perhaps more crazy and disturbing than what I just told you here.

There’s plenty of fun and exciting things to entertain you at our circus. You could wander around for a whole day and never get bored here. Really, you should come visit sometime if you hear of us stopping by in your area. We move around a lot, so there’s sure to be a chance of it at some point.

As of recently, we’ve opened up a music express ride and we’re preparing an awesome classic horror movie themed haunted house, filled with the likes of Michael Myers, Ghostface, and Jason Voorhees. We’ve also opened up a new games stall where you can win these absolutely huge, fluffy stuffed teddy bears and cute, pretty unicorns as prizes! Not to mention the new and thrilling performances we have lined up. A couple months ago, me and Trinity started working with the Corde Lisse for some of our acts. It’s been incredible to train with this new aerial apparatus. It really takes your breath away, when you’re diving and swinging eight meters up in the air, hanging by nothing but a single long piece of rope. I can’t adequately describe it to you with words. You have to experience it for yourself to understand.

If you choose to stay one night late enough at night at the Grand Circus of Mysteries, you might overhear the sound of carnival music, a tune which borders on the fine line between a happy and haunting melody. If you listen out carefully you might hear the cheers and howls of a disturbed audience, and a myriad of less identifiable sounds echoing in response to – or as a part of – whatever show is currently playing in the tent. You could find yourself listening to the grand voice of an announcer describing all manner of things you can’t imagine.

Don’t pay any mind. Don’t get too curious. Follow the rules and stay away from the dimly flickering tent at the back of the circus.

In some places, secrets lie half concealed which were never meant for innocent people to see. Secrets like the Midnight Circus. The rules are there to protect you from them, to make sure you don’t ever end up trapped here – the way I did.

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