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The Lost Circus, Part 1
Nobody goes there.
It's been abandoned for a while now. Tall grasses stoop over broken fences and those portable bleachers that traveled so easily on trains while being so cumbersome in the field. The sideshow banners, ripped and tattered, still proudly stand. But they're not as beautiful as they were before.
I step gingerly over the holes in the ground where the tent stakes used to be. Now they're smothered by flowers, knotted vines and abundant clover, but there was a time when all of that was laid to waste. Dirt was trucked in and dumped, choking the wildlife. Thousands of boots tamped it down, trampling the beautiful growth beneath. Laughter and merriment and joy filled the air, gasps of awe and wide eyes, praying that the daredevils flying through the air don't fall today.
That was a long time ago. Fifty-six years, to be exact.
Since then, the tent has stayed right here, in this spot. Its train was auctioned after sitting too long in the yard, and the animals shipped to a zoo that was only too happy to accept them. Bundles of hay were trundled away by farmers in the area, hoping to pad their own crops. The labor crews scattered, the cooks stopped cooking, and the performers… stayed.
There's a haunted feeling in the air as I approach the tent, my camera in my hand. I've been visiting these places for years now, trying to capture what was lost: a sense of abandonment, silence, the end, anything. Breaking into forbidden places, snapshotting nature's return to human settlements. Old buildings, leaning silos, creepy mansions - there's nowhere I won't go. I've traveled all over the world, hunting down stories without words that were lost to the ticking clocks of time.
But not here. Not yet. I wanted to, for a very long time. I just didn't have the courage.
Broken glass crunches under my feet as I walk steadily towards the tents. My hand shakes, but I tell myself it's a tremor. Most people have those when they get older. It's not fear. In all the places I've visited, I've never once been afraid. Nothing has ever happened to me, and the odds of it starting today are low. But I can't shake the tremble as I draw closer to the first spot. Maybe they were right. This place doesn't feel like the others. Abandoned, yes. Unloved, yes, but there's something more. Something almost sinister.
I snort at myself as I ready my camera for a shot. Sinister. Yeah, right.
The drooping canvas sign over the door is barely legible, but it tries to inform me that this was the menagerie tent. Part of the wall caved in, probably from snow or a lost cow trying to poke its head inside. The drooping flags overhead probably waved gaily on that fateful day, when the circus was last filled with people and laughter and fun. According to reports, the animals were in high spirits then. People say they have a sense of what's coming, but it seemed even they were surprised.
Steadying my hand, I step inside, and I'm almost disappointed. It's empty. Probably stripped by the farmers and zoo wranglers that came to pick the animals up the next day. I'd expected to see food bowls, or cages, or at least some fences separating the lions from their next meal. But there's nothing. Not even the slightest clue that this tent once housed the biggest baby elephant in the world.
At least, so they say.
Back outside, I pick my way across the field to the next tent. The big top calls, of course - its faded red stripes beckoning me forward, asking me if I'm ready to see what's inside. That's the part everyone will pay for. They did when the circus was alive, and now that it's dead, they want to see it even more. The magazines I sell to are always on the hunt for a story, and when I pitched this one, my editor giggled with delight. "A circus? Of course! Who doesn't love a good circus story?"
Now that I'm here, though, I'm starting to have doubts. Maybe there's a reason this site was undisturbed. Maybe there's a reason my footprints are the only ones on the dusty ground. And maybe there's a reason my hands won't stop shaking.
I ready myself again as I near the second tent. This one doesn't have a sign any more, but I'd guess that it housed magicians, or fortune-tellers, or some other small-time act. Bigger magicians would be in the main tent, but smaller ones - sleight of hand, card tricks, fortune-tellers - would've had their own small arena. Better experience for the attendee, better money for the act. A win-win situation, even if it did mean missing out on the big show.
It, too, has been deserted. Nothing remains except an old crate marked FOOD. I wonder whose it was. Animals? Humans? Some kind of joke about a box of coal to feed the train? If there was a way to find out, it vanished forty years or so ago. Now it's just an abandoned crate, sitting in an abandoned tent, waiting for an abandoned circus.
When I emerge, my sight settles on the big top itself. Only one spot to go.
It's a farther walk from here to the main tent, giving me time to take in the atmosphere again. I didn't feel cold at the other two tents, but now my shoulders shiver under my jacket. Regardless of my earlier observances, there's a certain sense of anticipation here that I can't ignore. Up close, it's so much bigger than I'd thought previously. I can almost smell the popcorn on the breeze, hear the barker's call. "Come one, come all! See the fat lady sing, walk with giants as tall as the sky itself! See our baby elephant, but be careful - she'll eat the peanuts right out of your bag!"
I smile to myself. If this circus had visited my town, I definitely would have gone. Eaten peanuts, had cotton candy, might have even gotten my fortune told. Maybe brought a date along, stolen a kiss during the show. There's a certain kind of magic at circuses, always has been, always will be. Even though this place is gone, it's certainly no exception.
Then I see the handprint on the ground.
My blood freezes slowly, the chill creeping up my arms as I stare. Faded red, outlined in some kind of white paint. The perfect imprint. All five fingers, spread out equally. Little cracks and creases and blades of grass poke through where the scarlet color fades away, but it's there.
I approach it slowly, like it's going to jump off the ground and grab me. Then I notice the second one. And the third.
Marching, like footprints. Towards the main tent.
I swallow hard. Up until this point, I haven't had a reason to give any heed to the stories about this place. It was abandoned, I have a camera, and I needed some cash. Of course I would have come to see it. But now that I'm here, with a ruby handprint staring back at me, I start to understand.
But I can't leave. Not without my pictures.
With my heart in my throat, I start following the trail. Assuming the redness is from paint, it should fade after a while. But it doesn't. There's more. Dripping down in puddles beside the handprint, leaving tiny dots where there aren't fingers. Like someone poured it down the walker's arm. Or they dipped their hands before every step to keep it fresh. Or…
It’s not paint at all.
My camera shakes as I approach the main tent. A section of canvas has fallen, half-covering the entrance. Everything in me wants to run, but the handprints keep going, right underneath that fold and disappearing into the darkness inside. If it is what I think it is, I won't find anything good there. Certainly nothing that I can sell to my editor. Nothing that will pay my bills.
But it's like a car crash. Or driving slowly past an accident. There's something bad in there, and I have to find out what it is.
Instead of following my instincts and fleeing, I brush the canvas aside.
(Photo by Golnar Sabzpoush Rashidi, Pexels)