Rachel and Peter stood in front of the tent, a dingy yellow stretch of canvas riddled with holes. Next to it, a sandwich board propped against an upturned wheelbarrow. It read: SEE THE LESBIAN VAMPEYRES! NAKED! CAGED!
“How much?” Rachel asked the dwarf, who sat on a lawn chair reading a tatty paperback.
“Twenty five cents each,” he told her.
Rachel elbowed her brother. Peter reached into his pocket and dropped a pair of coins into the dwarf’s outstretched hand. They stepped into the tent. It was dark and empty and smelled stuffy, like the inside of an old lady’s closet. Christmas lights, strung up from the ceiling, blinked on-and-off like neon spider webs.
The vampires lay in a cage in the tent’s center. Two of them, the first plump with raven tresses, the second lithe, her hair the color of ripe corn. Both seemed young, in their early twenties.
“Wow.” Rachel said, her mouth wide open. “Look at that. They’re really naked.”
“That’s what the sign says,” Peter told her.
The blonde vampire rose, stalked forward and gripped the bars. She bared her fangs. Hissed.
“Her teeth are so phony,” Rachel said.
“They look real to me,” Peter told her.
“This is boring,” Rachel huffed. She glared at her brother. “Aren’t they going to do lesbian things?”
“I don’t know, sis.”
“I’ve seen enough.” She stomped out of the tent. “What a rip off.”
“Sorry about that,” Peter said. “She’s just a kid.”
“That’s all right.” The blonde vampire’s voice was sibilant, like steam hissing from a kettle. “She’s about twelve years old, right? It’s a tough age.”
“I’m Ingrid.” She smiled, her face smooth as a porcelain plate. “That’s Camilla.” The raven-haired vampire, who was busy examining her nails, grunted.
“I remember you,” Ingrid said. When she reached out Peter could have backed away. But he didn’t. Cold fingers curled around his wrist. Her hand felt frigid, like a rock under an icy stream.
“We’ve met before,” she said. “Years ago, the last time the carnival stopped at this cross-road.”
“I was just a kid,” Peter said, meeting her gaze. Ingrid’s eyes were green, flecked with gold. He turned away, his face hot. “Sorry.”
“What are you sorry about?”
“It’s rude to stare,” he said.
“Ah. You’re American.” Ingrid sounded amused. “How old are you, Peter?”
“Eighteen. I turned eighteen today.” He glanced at his watch, which had stopped. “Well, I better go find my sister.”
“As you wish.” Her fingers tickled his wrist before she let him go.
“Here. Before I forget.” Peter reached into the pocket of his jeans and withdrew a pair of silver bells, tied together with blue string. He dropped them into her outstretched hand.
“Come back later,” Ingrid said. “We do lesbian things when there’s a crowd. It excites the rubes.”
“Maybe I will.” When Peter walked outside the cool night air hit his face. He shivered; back home, it was summer.
“Did you see my sister?” he asked the dwarf. The carnival, hundreds of tents and booths, stretched out before him as far as the eye could see. Rachel was nowhere in sight.
“She went that-away.” The dwarf jabbed the air with his thumb. “Towards the roller coaster.” The title of his novel was The Planet of the Robot Sex Slaves.
“Thanks.” Peter glanced back at the cross-road. The path was still there, the trail leading home. Peter turned away from it, his feet taking him into the carnival’s heart.
He walked past the brightly lit booths, the Dancing Bears, the Astonishing Gill-Woman, the Death Stench Beetles. Barkers clad in garish colors shrieked at the crowd, begging, entreating, bawling. The Ferris Wheel hummed to life like some half-awake insect. Smells filled the air, roasting chestnuts, sawdust, burning popcorn, odors he’d smelled in his dreams for years, always moments before awakening.
A satyr with a fiddle danced past, playing a peasant tune from some faraway land. A crown of holly adorned his head, his polished horns gleamed and his hooves clip-clopped against the earth. The satyr was bare-chested, his muscled arms dripping with sweat, a kilt round his waist. He smelled of baked bread and sour wine.
Peter stopped to get his bearings. He saw the Devil Fish, an eight-foot catfish with huge whiskers, swimming in a kiddy pool, round and round, never stopping. A group of teenagers watched it. One of the teens, a big guy wearing a varsity-wrestling jacket, saw him. He pursed his lips, blew Peter a kiss. His friends pointed and laughed, like he was some exotic animal in a zoo.
“There you are.” Rachel came running up. “I thought you got lost.”
“Sorry about that,” Peter said, watching the teens walk off.
“This place is awesome,” Rachel said, her eyes ablaze. “How did you find it? You knew exactly which path to follow.”
“I dreamed about it,” he told her. “For years. Do you ever dream about places you’ve been to?”
“No.” Rachel rubbed at her bare arms, which were sprouting goose bumps. “Where are we, anyway? The seasons are all wrong. It’s cold.”
Peter shrugged. “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
“Whatever.” She laughed. “I love it here.”
“I wanted to celebrate my birthday,” he said. “With someone who loves me.”
“Come on, Peter. Let’s go.” Rachel said, tugging at her brother’s hand. “I want to see it. I want to see it all.”
And they did. They saw the performers, the Knife-Eaters, the Fire-Jugglers, the Tumbling Clowns. They watched a hedge-magician transform water to cherry soda pop. They rode the bumper cars, careening back and forth like pinballs. They played games, with darts and baseballs and beanbags. Rachel won an albino goldfish, Peter a Zippo lighter.
They ate, stuffing themselves on ribs and chicken legs and slick-yellow corn on the cob. Others sat around them, travelers from other lands. Peter heard snatches of different tongues, French, German, even Latin. Their picnic table faced the Grotto of Destiny, a cave nestled at the wood’s edge, the entrance boarded up, the sandwich board sign reading CLOSED.
“I want to stay here forever,” Rachel said. “Do you think they’ll let me join?”
“I don’t know,” Peter said, picking at his fries. “Why would you want to leave home?”
“I hate Kansas,” she told him. “Kansas sucks. Don’t you think Kansas sucks?”
“If I stay will you tell mom and dad?”
“I’d miss you, sis.”
“Maybe they’ll let you visit.”
Peter shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“What do you mean? Why not?”
“Why would you want to leave home?” he asked. “You’ve got friends, stuff like that.”
“I don’t want to be boring like Mom,” Rachel said. “I want to do cool stuff. I want to be a Tattooed Lady, get a bunch of wicked tattoos. Maybe I’ll get Tramp Stamped. You know what that is?”
“You can get a tattoo, but that won’t change anything.” Peter said, pushing his plate away. “You’ll still be who you are.”
“What does that mean?” Rachel asked, wrinkling her brow. “When you talk like that you sound like a fortune cookie.”
“Nothing,” Peter said. He pointed at the Grotto of Destiny. “What do you think is in there? It’s the only thing we haven’t seen.”
“I don’t know,” Rachel said, grinning. “Let’s take a look.”
They left the picnic table. The albino goldfish, unwanted, forgotten, stuck in its bowl, watched them go. Peter found the side-entrance, a small unmarked door. He pushed it and it creaked open.
“It’s dark,” Rachel whispered, hanging back. A golden owl hung in the tree above, staring down at them.
Peter laughed. “I’ll go first.”
“Better take my hand,” Rachel said. “We don’t want to get separated again.”
“Got it.” He took her hand, warm and moist, and they stepped inside. Peter smelled wet earth and rot. A hot breeze stroked his cheek, like a kiss. The ground under their feet felt gritty, like packed dirt.
“I can’t see anything,” Rachel whispered.
Sounds, from the depths: a grunt, like a horse; something heavy, falling; a low, keening whistle.
Rachel squeezed her brother’s hand. “What is it?”
“Let’s see.” Peter fumbled in his pocket for the Zippo lighter, the one he’d won earlier. He flicked the switch. Sparks flew. A cold tongue of flame pierced the dark.
“I see them,” Rachel shrieked. “Peter, I see them.” And then her eyes rolled up in her head and she saw no more.
The first thing Rachel saw when she woke was her brother, sitting next to her on an upturned trunk, his hands folded in his lap.
“Where are we?” Rachel mumbled. She was stretched out on a scarlet sofa. Turkish carpets covered the floor and a brazier full of burning coals crackled in the corner, giving out warmth.
“In a tent,” Peter said. “You passed out in the grotto, so I carried you here. Don’t you remember?”
“No.” Rachel wrinkled her nose; the old lady smell was worse in here. The tent’s entrance rustled, and Ingrid walked in. She wore a black silk robe with a golden dragon inscribed in front, and she held a mug in her hands.
“Are you all right?” Ingrid asked. “You had us worried.”
“You’re the vampire,” Rachel said, sitting up.
“That’s me.” Ingrid held out the mug, and Rachel took it. She sipped its contents, hot cocoa topped with whipped cream.
“What happened in the grotto?” Rachel asked her brother.
“It’s the Grotto of Destiny,” Ingrid answered. “So you saw a destiny. If you can’t remember that means it wasn’t yours.”
“Are you the one in charge?”
“Nobody’s in charge.” Ingrid settled on the edge of the bed, like a fussy bird. “It doesn’t work like that.”
“I want to join you,” Rachel said. “I want to join the carnival.”
“Where are you from?”
“We live in Kansas. Topeka, Kansas. You know it?”
“I’m from Wallachia. A place that doesn’t exist anymore.” Ingrid shrugged. “Why would you want to leave Kansas, anyway?”
“Because it’s an awful place,” Rachel said. “And I want to get away.”
“How bad is it?”
“It’s terrible,” Rachel told her. “Kansas is an awful place. Everyone is so stupid. Peter gets beat up all the time. I’m failing Algebra.”
“We stop at cross-roads,” Ingrid said. “People come from all times and places, to see us. I’ve met thousands of people from places just like Kansas. Do you think you’re the first to want to join us?”
“I can work. I’ll fit in.” Rachel’s chin trembled. “I’ll even be a lesbian vampire, if that’s what you want.”
“Do you even know what a lesbian is?”
“Of course. I’m a lesbian,” Rachel said, proud. “My brother and I are both lesbians.”
“That’s what I thought.” Ingrid sighed. “How about another cup of hot cocoa before you go?”
“But I don’t want to go.” Rachel had a whipped cream moustache on her upper lip. “Don’t I even get to try out?”
“You can’t join. Not yet. You’re too young. Come back when you’re older, and who knows? Maybe we’ll have a spot for you.”
“How do I do that?” Rachel asked, sulky.
“Here.” Ingrid reached into the pocket of her robe and took out the bells. She dropped them into Rachel’s hand. “When you leave you’ll forget this place. If you ever do remember, ring these bells. You’ll know how to find us.”
“You probably won’t remember,” Ingrid said. “Things change when you get older. You might not even want to come back.”
Rachel’s brows scrunched together. “Why not?”
It was Peter who answered. “Because you’ll have people you love. Things to look forward to. A life.”
“Do you want more cocoa, dear?” Ingrid asked.
“Please,” Rachel said, holding out her mug.
The night stretched on. The sounds of the carnival faded away. The coals in the brazier flickered and died. A cool breeze swept in, smelling of pines. Rachel drank her cocoa. She settled back on the sofa. Her eyes grew heavy, and then she slept, her breathing deep and even.
“So you came back.” Ingrid’s voice was low and even. The top of her robe had come undone, and her breasts poked through, the aureoles unblinking eyes.
“I came back,” Peter said. “To my make-believe land, the place I went to in my head when things got bad.” He laughed. “And it turns out to be a real place.”
“Do you want to stay?”
“I don’t know. I don’t fit in back home, that’s for sure. There are a few others like me at my high school. But they hide. I don’t blame them.” Peter rubbed his cheekbones. “I can’t hide. It’s in my blood. The way I talk. The way I move.”
“How bad are things?”
“My sister is the only person on earth who loves me,” he said.
“Have you ever had a lover?” she asked. “Has there ever been anyone?”
“You’re young yet.”
Peter looked down at his hands. “I tell myself things will change. I’ll go to school. Leave Kansas. Move east or west, doesn’t much matter. I’ll get a job. I’ll meet someone. We’ll fall in love.”
“Maybe that will happen.”
“Maybe. Or maybe I’ll die never having loved anybody. Maybe I’ll go to the Sex Factory. It’s a porn store, off the highway. The old men all go there. They smell like chalk and have pee stains on their pants.”
“Have you ever been seduced, Peter?”
“Me? No.” He laughed, but it had a raw edge to it. “Who would want to seduce me?”
“Who knows?” Ingrid smiled. “It starts with talk, though. You talk, like we’re doing.”
Peter shifted. He glanced at his sister, who slept at his side, her mouth wide open.
“I was the second of two children,” Ingrid said. “My older sister died in childbirth when I was a little girl. It was horrible. She screamed for hours. When the midwife came out of the bedroom her arms were slathered with blood. Her white apron was stained black. The house stank for weeks. When I was betrothed I ran away, because I didn’t want the same thing happening to me. I met a woman. Her name was Lilith. She told me she could give me what I wanted. She lied. Of course she lied.” Ingrid laughed. “She made me what I am.”
“I don’t know,” Peter said. “I don’t know what I want.”
“Life is a wanting game. We want this, we want that.” Ingrid smiled, her teeth daggers. “I’m not going to lie to you. You know. Young people come here, from all times and places. Many of them want. You’ve seen.”
“Yes. I’ve seen.”
“Here is the pact,” Ingrid said. “Every twenty-eight days, there’s blood. We are women, Camilla and I. We follow the same pattern, alive or dead. We’ll feed, and for the first few days afterwards, you’ll feel sick and dizzy. You won’t be able to stand light. And then your blood will regenerate. The symptoms will fade. You’ll be all right. The rest of your time is yours, to spend as you choose. You see?”
“I saw,” Peter said. “I saw what lives in the Grotto of Destiny. Is lives the right word?”
“You will live a long time,” Ingrid continued. “Over a hundred years. You won’t age. You will stay young. And then your blood will fail.” She spread her hands. “And that will be it.”
“Men.” Peter’s voice was a husky whisper. “All bled white. They couldn’t stand the light. Moaning. Crawling on their bellies, like worms.”
“They were free to leave,” Ingrid told him. “Up to the very end. None did. I loved them all. I still do.”
“Love.” Tears spilled down Peter’s cheeks. He glanced at his sister, still fast asleep.
“She won’t come back,” Ingrid said. “Some people have it, a faint unease with their lives. They think something is wrong, but they don’t know what. She’ll bury the feeling, when she grows older. Most do.”
Peter gasped, an awful shuddery sound. He nodded.
“Come to me, then.” Ingrid said.
Peter gazed at her outstretched hand. The palm was bare, the lifeline erased.
He reached for it with his own hand, trembling.
Rachel woke in her own bed. She rubbed her eyes, and then saw the pair of silver bells resting on her pillow. They were tied together with blue string. She rose, plucked them up and put them in her dusty old toy chest, nestled next to the closet.
Rachel walked to the window. The curtains stirred, tickled by the wind’s fingers. Night faded to dawn.
She thought she saw a face, familiar, fleeting, gone.
“Peter? Peter?” Her voice rose, in panic. “Where are you, Peter?”
George R. Galuschak is a speculative fiction writer who lives in Northern New Jersey. His fiction has appeared in a number of places, including Strange Horizons, PodCastle and The Big Book of Bizarro. He doesn’t have a blog, but you can contact him at email@example.com or @GeorgeGaluschak on Twitter. He says:
I like Hammer horror movies. My favorites are the vampire movies, the best of which radiate a sort of sleazy glory. The same can be said of carnivals. When you walk through the entrance, you take your chances. The games are rigged, the rides are unsafe, and you better keep a close eye on your wallet. But people keep coming back. Who knows why?