Written November 13th, 2016; by Andrew Labre.
It’s the dead of the night on a cool fall evening. A pitch-black night, the only source of light being a glowing full moon that lingers overhead, hanging high at its zenith. It shines brightly in the clear, starless sky. A dark, dense, secluded forest, with a single lane road passing through it. In fact, it’s not much of a road at all, just a dirt path that functions as a makeshift road. It doesn’t make for a comfortable ride, certainly, but it’s there. Massive oak tress, their treetops far beyond the reach of any person, are bathed in the shadow of night. This thick, all-consuming darkness gave them a smooth, matte black, undetailed appearance, almost flattened. They are aligned along the sides of the road, closely spaced. They seem to form natural guardrails along either side of the path, extending as far as it possibly goes through the forest, perhaps further.
The leafless branches, twisted and barren like a decrepit and mangled arm, reach out with their sharp-pointed tips and threaten to tear at those daring enough to climb. They cross the road well above the head, forming natural archways, leaving enough space for passersby to travel through. Yet the way the branches crisscross and interlink with one another form a wooden web. The skies are gated off from the ground below, divided by nature’s mesh of a suspended chain-link fence of a roof.
The steady streams of moonlight peer through the gaps left by this web, shining at awkward, indirect, unlikely angles through it. Some manage to hit the forest floor dead-on, leaving scattered blotches of light along it. Others don’t hit the ground at all, shining sideways. There’s not quite enough to light the entire path, but enough for one to find their way…if they were paying attention. The shadowy net would be cast, leaving strange cross-hatching patterns, threatening to trap and consume the uninitiated.
Within this forest are the sounds of horses galloping. Wooden wheels roll and clunk as they tread across the uneven path. A leather whip cracks and lashes. It is a horse drawn carriage, pulled by two horses, two black beauties as dark as the night itself, speeding through the forest at a brisk pace. The Coachman driving the carriage is in a black top hat, coat, and cape that completely obscures both bodily form and facial features.
The inside of the carriage is empty, save for a lone girl in her early teens. She lays down on the seat as though it were a bed, arms and legs tucked in as she rests her head, sleeping soundly. She’s in a messy and drab mix and match of tattered rags, worn sheets of fabric, and patched together articles of clothing. It’s enough to keep herself warm in the weather to come. She had been awake, waking from a daze where she had found herself on this moving carriage in the middle of its journey. When she fully came to after waking, she promptly asked the driver where they were headed.
“You already know our destination, young one,” the Coachman uttered in deep and somber tones. “I do?” She replied, somewhat rhetorically. She understood what they meant but wasn’t sure why. She mulled over the thought, turning it around in her head again and again.
The Coachman interjected her thoughts and said, “The journey has been long for the both of us. And we still have a ways to go. So please, rest weary one, and sleep this journey from your eyes.” Soon after she seemed to lose interest in finding an answer, laying her head back down, hoping that they’d be there, wherever they’re going, soon enough.
The journey had been long for her, but she didn’t recall where she was coming from. All she knew was that she’s being taken someplace, somewhere. Soon after she dozed off yet again, her curiosity was answered. As the carriage slowly crawled to a stop, she was slowly and gently stirred awake.
With a stretch and a yawn, she lifted herself up from the seat and stumbled her way out of the carriage. It was still as dark out as it was before, which made it difficult to see what was around her with tired eyes. She rubbed them and blinked a couple of times before her vision focused. She noticed they had stopped in a wide circular clearing that was somewhere in the middle of the forest. The webbing of branches extended into this clearing, looking like individual strands of wire overhead, wound together into a dome. Perhaps it was more like a cage top, trapping them inside.
The next thing she noticed was the lack of horses and Coachman. They managed to disappear without her knowledge. She groggily staggered around the carriage, looking for any signs of them, to no avail. They vanished without a trace, except for a black cape on the front of the carriage where the Coachman had sat. She eyed it for a moment, wondering if she should take it or not. Despite the density of the forest surrounding the clearing on all sides, the wind managed to find its way in. She shivered as it blew across her, feeling its bitter grip take hold. Without further thought, she took the cape and wrapped it around herself like a blanket. It was larger than she thought, dragging on the cool, moist grass beneath her feet. And heavy too, as though someone’s hands were on her shoulders, pushing her to the ground. Despite that, it still felt comfortable and warm. A sudden spell of sleepiness washed over her. She was growing weary, about to lay herself down for another rest until her wandering eyes met with the next thing to hold her attention.
Not too far from where she was standing was a big top tent. This worn, ragged circus tent was coloured in shades of dull and faded greys, blacks, and whites. The sight of this jerked her awake, her eyes widened at the the sight of it. Her excitement invigorated her with a burst of energy that relieved her drowsiness. She wanted to see what was inside it, yet she was drawn to it for other reasons. Again, she didn’t know why: how she got on the carriage in the first place, why she was taken here, or why she had this urge to adventure forth. It wasn’t too far from where she was standing now; she could walk towards it with little trouble. And so she did with a hurried pace.
Upon reaching the front entrance of the tent, she was blocked by an admission gate. It stood inside its entrance, inside the open fabric arch that would lead further in. The gate itself was in a state of disrepair. The metal was stained, rusted, and bent in various places. It almost seemed as though no one had come to visit it in a long time. It was likely abandoned, and no one was manning the admission booths. A worn out sign hung above the gate, which said Cirque du Longway in barely legible lettering.
She noticed something in the corner of her eye. She turned her head and saw what appeared to be some sort of animal, slowly breathing as its stomach rose and fell with its breath. She couldn’t see it too well from where she was standing, just its vague outline: a big, round, oblong shape. To get a better look at the creature, she crept closer to it, one step at a time, trying not to disturb it or be too sudden with her movements. As she got closer, what seemed to be its head slowly rose and perked up. She wasn’t sure if it noticed her approaching, but that didn’t stop her. She continued to come closer until she was in clear earshot. The creature lazily turned its head towards her and stared at her, freezing her in place. It had the face of a cat. A really fat cat. It was almost the size of an adult person. Its face was wide, thick, and sagging with long, drooping jowls that pulled its face towards the ground. It had a pointed but stout nose, almost triangular, and its mouth hung open loosely. The colour of its eyes were impossible to distinguish, let alone the shape they might’ve took. The creature itself was coloured like a raccoon, primarily a deep grey with black rings wrapped around the length of its body, but lacked the mask on its face. Pale white whiskers and a bushy tail with rings completed the appearance of this cat-raccoon chimera. Its fur was thick, coarse, matted, and unkempt, if not outright dirty. It was sitting on its rear, back leaned against the wall, slouched towards the ground.
“So, are you just gonna stand there?” The creature casually said to her. In a jolt of surprise she jumped back a bit. She wasn’t expecting it to talk to her, let alone in a way she could understand. “Oh, sorry ’bout that. Should I have said ‘meow’ instead? Well, mau~ “ What it uttered sounded like a long, drawn out, tired and dreary “meow.” “ ‘Mau. Mau. Come’on, I ain’t gonna hurt ya. Come closer, Ana.” Again she jumped in surprise, her eyes widening in disbelief, and a bout of anxiety came over her.
“H-h-how’d you know my name?” She said nervously, her words stuttering.
“Whadd’ya mean? Why wouldn’t I?” It said, half accusatory, half inquisitively.
“Because I never, well, met you before.”
“Never met me before she says!” As it raised its voice into a hoarse but jolly roar.
“What’s so funny!? Are you mad!?”
“We’re all mad here. But worse for wear, I hate to say. Hard to be mad when there’s nothing to be had.”
“What do you mean? I don’t get it,” she bluntly shot back. It calmly but intently stared at her, looking into her eyes. She was feeling nervous again, but didn’t know what to do. She just stood there, returning its gaze. It broke eye contact after a moment, saying solemnly, “So ya really don’t remember? Has it been that long?”
“Maybe? I have a feeling I know why I’m here…I think.” She said, unconvincingly.
It effortlessly picked up on the doubt in her voice, pouncing with “You don’t sound too sure about that. Or about yourself. Or about anything, really.” She whipped her head up in surprise, shocked at its snide tone. She jerked her head forward and shot it a perplexed glare, but in response it just gave her a playful, toothy grin. “Hmm? Am I missing something? Or are you, my dear?” It dug at her with without skipping a beat.
She let out a flustered sigh. “I don’t know. I really don’t.”
“Ah, just like all the other times. The more things change, the more things stay the same.”
“Now what is THAT supposed to mean!?” She sharply fired back at it.
“Wouldn’t ya like to know?” It smugly retaliated.
“I do, actually.” She asserted.
“Well, then. Why don’t cha come with me and find out? Perhaps more than you bargained for. Buyer beware, they say.”
She pondered on its offer and said “…Would you do that?” This…thing seemed trustworthy enough, and it knew her, or knew of her, somehow.
“I suppose I could. Follow me, Ana.”
“Hold on. Shouldn’t I know your name first?”
“Well, what do ya have in mind?”
“Oh? You want ME to give you a name?”
“Sure. Go for it. Doesn’t matter too much.”
“Honey. Honey Bear.” It gave a soft chuckle at her suggestion as it picked itself up off the ground, rolling onto its belly, onto all floors, and onto its short and stubby legs.
“Welp. Ya get what ya asked for. Beggars can’t be choosers, I guess.” it thought outloud. “Now, lets get a move on. Mau~“
They passed through a small metal turnstile within one of the lanes in the gate. It rolled with a creek and a grind, but wasn’t locked into place. They were able to get inside. A lonely, abandoned space was inside. It was empty, save for the unoccupied wooden bleachers set up all around the outside walls, and long wooden poles with climbing rungs nailed into them that lead up to the trapeze platforms. There wasn’t even a circus ring. Ana’s eyes dropped in disappointment. She had been expecting so much more than this. Her ears picked up on something. Something faint. A melody. A tune. Someone playing. She couldn’t quite tell, nor could she tell where it was coming from. It sounded like it was coming in all directions at once. “I can hear it too,” chimed Honey Bear. “I can take ya to it if ya want.”
Ana nodded, and Honey Bear took her over to the side of the tent, behind one of the bleachers. They stopped in front of a large cut-out gap in the cloth. It was an entrance into another part of the tent. From the gap came the music that they heard before, now louder and more distinguishable. It sounded like piano keys; someone was playing on a piano. But who would be playing a piano in a place like this? In the middle of nowhere? At a time like this?
Those questions ran through Ana’s head as she and Honey Bear stood in front of the gap, taking in the tune together. After a moment of being spellbound, Honey Bear nudged Ana to continue. She snapped out of her daze and followed further in. They entered a makeshift hallway: a tunnel of cloth and drapes with more cut-out gaps along the sides. The gaps seemed to lead into siderooms, little pockets of private space, individual dressing rooms for whatever or whoever must’ve been performing here. At the end of the hall was a wooden door, an office door, that led into an actual room. The music was coming from it, from behind that door.
“You’ll find what ya’re lookin’ for in dere dearie.” Ana glanced over at Honey Bear, unsure as to what that could possibly be. But she knew it was right. That music, that room, this place, she was drawn to it. It pulled her in, and now there was no going back. She’ll get her answer. All that was left was to march on forward. Without fear or hesitation they strolled past the empty pockets that lined the sides of the hall. If this place truly was abandoned, then there wouldn’t be sight or sound of anything that could hurt them. At least, that’s what they assumed, which seemed correct insofar as they made their way to the door. They were now standing right in front of it. Whoever was on the other side was now joyfully dabbing and banging away at the keys, in the complete swing of creative passion.
Ana looked over at Honey Bear, who this entire time had been right by her side. But when Honey Bear looked back over at her, and their gazes locked, it gave a gentle head shake. “This is as far as I go kid. What’s past here is for you only.” Ana’s eyes dropped in disappointment again, and a deep melancholy swelled up from the bottom of her stomach. She didn’t know why she felt this way. She had only just met this furry companion, yet it felt as though she was going to lose her best friend, that she would lose someone that she’s known since she was little. Honey Bear picked up on her doom and gloom, gave her a playful nudge at the hip, and put on his widest smile. “Hey, don’t look so glum, chum. I’ll be right here. Now go on. Take a look see.”
She gave it a smile and a nod in return, trying to hold back the tears that were attempting to break through. Taking a deep breath, she reached for the brass doorknob while Honey Bear stepped back. Slowly, she turned the knob with hesitation and found that the door was unlocked. She gave it a hardy pull and it flew open, gliding with little resistance.
She was met with a bright white light that blinded her. There were no signs before of anything this bright. Nothing was shining from the cracks in the door frame, so she was taken completely off-guard. Soon her entire vision was nothing but white, and she felt herself being sucked into the room, until she was yanked by something that pulled her in. She landed with a hard thud. But despite the hard fall, she was fine. She wasn’t sore or aching, and her vision managed to restore itself back to normal. She still felt a little disoriented. Ana carefully picked herself off from the floor, coming to her feet.
When she came to, she noticed that she was in a completely white room. It was like a black box theatre, except white. The walls, floor, and ceiling were radiating white light. In the middle of the room was the piano that she heard before, being played by an Opera Phantom-esque Pianist. He was head-to-toe in black formal wear: complete with tuxedo, a white dress shirt underneath, white piano gloves, top hat, coattails that hung from the back and draped over his rear, and freshly polished dress shoes. The Pianoman was sitting down at his seat, playing away as energetically as he was before. Ana could overhear him singing in a loud and booming voice that resonated throughout the space:
I do not know where I am,
Within this long forgotten land.
I don’t know how to find my home;
Looks like I’m on my own.
Nobody here seems all that friendly,
But do things look quite so deadly?
Frightened and isolated,
Yet shockingly elated,
Hear me right, I like it thus:
This fatalistic, tingled bliss.
Very strange this place, it seems,
As though it’s caught in a daydream.
And yet I’m only a homeless madman,
Here within this wasteland wonderland.
Upon finishing the last string of notes that followed the last line, the Pianoman took a deep breath and let out a long, relaxed sigh. His arms and posture loosened, and his shoulders slouched down. He did a couple of slow head rolls and stretched his arms out to his sides, reaching outward, then reached upwards with hands clasped and leaned back a bit. He gave a light groan as he stretched, collapsing his bodily weight into his chair, his arms now resting at his sides. He sat up.
Turning around, he faced Ana, who had been transfixed this entire time. He jumped back in surprise, almost cartoonishly as he could’ve leapt right up onto the seat. In a panicked run he said “Wh-wh-wh- what’re YOU doing here?!”
Ana snapped out of her trance, but her eyes were still locked on the Pianoman in complete disbelief. “Ana! Why did you come back here?! You shouldn’t be here!” He dashed over to her and put his hands on the sides of her arms, grasping but not quite grabbing her.
“…I—I wanted to come see you again. That’s why,” she said in astonishment. He was wearing a blank white neutral mask that completely obscured his face, but one could discern his facial expressions through his vocal inflections.
“Ana! I told you not to come back here! Don’t you remember?!” She shook her head earnestly. She really didn’t. It was so long since her last visit that she nearly forgot this place. It still stuck with her, throughout the years that she’s been absent here, from Cirque du Longway. “Ana, you have to leave. Now.”
“I don’t want to! Don’t you know how long it’s been? How much I’ve missed you?!”
“That’s not the POINT, Ana! You can’t be here!”
“Well why not?!” As though right on cue, the room slowly began to be tinted with a crimson red, resembling a photographer’s darkroom. As the room transitioned, a fierce, primal roar was heard in the distance. A muted cry of bloodthirsty malice.
“The Red Dragon draws near. You have to leave!”
“What’s going on?” Ana’s gaze darted around the room but all she could see were walls. Not a door or window in sight.
“I can’t protect you any longer. I’m sorry. You have to leave. Now.” But it was too late. As he uttered his final word, a muscular, hulking, towering silhouette rose up from within the floor directly behind him. From the way it was rising up, it looked as though the floor wasn’t solid, instead made of ooze, dough, clay, or something soft and moldable.
“No…” The Pianoman shuddered under his breath as he felt the warm, heavy, guttural breath through the clenched teeth of the beast breathing on the back of his head. In an act of desperation, the Pianoman clenched Ana’s arms, whirled her around, and pushed her away. As he did, the beast grabbed the sides of his head with its massive, veiny hands, and squeezed with a vice-grip tightness.
Ana stumbled and hobbled forward, almost losing her balance, but she kept herself steady. While she didn’t catch the full sight of whatever that beast was, she didn’t have time to look back. She didn’t dare look back. She knew she needed to get away, as fast as possible. When she regained her balance, she looked ahead and was faced with a flight of stairs that appeared out of nowhere. It resembled a house stairway.
She could hear the sounds of heavy grunting and thuds of pounding steps behind her. She threw the cape that had been wrapped around her since she had left the carriage onto the floor and rushed up the steps. The beast was gaining on her as she heard it approaching. It would’ve caught her if it wasn’t for the bedroom door she reached at the top of the stairs.
She gripped the handle and threw it open. It was a girl’s bedroom. Her bedroom. In her home. Without a moment’s thought she slammed the door shut, threw herself onto the floor, and rolled underneath her bed. Just as she managed to settle into her hiding spot, the door burst open. The presence barged into her room, screaming her name with bloodcurdling rage. It was utterly lost in a fit of uncontrollable, incomprehensible anger, other than the moments when it shouted her name. She huddled herself into as tight of a ball as she could, taking up as little space as possible, imagining that she wasn’t there. She still glimpsed the sight of muddy, brown leather steel-toed boots, and blue denim work jeans. The beast assaulted her room, throwing boxes, books, and binders onto the floor, tearing into the room with reckless abandon. Soon it had given up on finding her and marched out of the room, roaring at someone or something else in another part of the house.
When the noise finally settled, and the beast finally ceased its rampage, all she could hear was the faint sound of crying from the room over. A dreadful cry of despair and hopelessness. Ana found herself taking a moment to listen to the crying as she tried to regain her composure. When she was finally present, she noticed some things underneath her bed.
She saw the same blank mask that the Pianoman had worn, except beaten and dusty as though it sat there for ages. Then a large but old and ragged plush, something that could’ve been won at a carnival fair as the top prize. It was coming apart at the seams, stuffing dripping out, despite repeated attempts to mend it back together. Finally, a picture of her with two other people standing behind her: a woman and a man, or someone she assumed was a man. The photo was slashed and torn across the spot where his face would be. It resembled a family photo of parents and their child, each putting a hand on the child’s shoulder. After another moment, she held the mask, plush, and picture close to her chest and hugged them tightly. Then, like the other voice had done before her, she herself began to cry, crying for better days gone by.
Inspired by “Wasted Wonderland” [piano] – myuu