Updated: Dec 4, 2020
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"In the Spotlight" by Joel R. Hunt
The stench of decay was stronger here. As Michael crawled between the silent booths and abandoned carnival games, searching for any supplies that weren’t pungent with rot, he tried not to breathe in the scent of burgers and hotdogs long past their prime. He tried not to touch the stains that coated the floor and sucked at the bottom of his boots.
He tried not to look at the bodies.
The glassy eyed, pale faced, half-eaten bodies.
The popcorn stand was where he remembered it. Michael pulled up the fabric cover and, after quickly checking that nothing was waiting for him within, he ducked inside. He got to work at what was becoming strangely routine. First, he pulled a bottle of grease spray from his chest pocket and coated the cabinet hinges. Then, as if taking hold of a newborn, he eased open the door, pausing whenever he made the slightest sound. Satisfied that he had alerted nothing to his position, he slipped off his backpack and lined it up at the edge of the cabinet. Finally, he slid as much of the contents as he could inside, until he could only just force the zip closed.
Five bags of popcorn kernels. The expiry date was practically non-existent. They’d be good long after the other supplies had gone off.
Looking around, Michael grabbed a few unopened cans that had escaped earlier raids, and then peered over the top of the counter.
The aisles were empty, apart from the dead.
Directly opposite him, at a games stall, a mound of prizes lay mostly untouched; the figurines and consoles that had once drawn in crowds were now valued less than edible food and clean water, or a half-decent hiding place. The prizes were surrounded by a little moat, ducks floating by, propelled by the icy breeze. Yellow feathers ruffled. Exposed wounds leaked.
One of them gave a limp kick.
Poor thing, Michael thought.
Just then, the wind picked up. It clawed at Michael’s exposed face, and carried with it tones of discordant laughter. Distant, but getting closer.
Time to move.
Edging out of the food stand, Michael crouched low and made his way back through the aisles and into the carnival beyond. Gravel crunched under his feet as he emerged onto a central path, remaining more than arm’s distance from any of the dark tents and overgrown brambles that lined his way. It was a lesson hard-learned from the mistakes of others. As he moved, Michael brought a small knife from his pocket. It wouldn’t do much good, but it gave him the confidence he needed to keep going.
Surviving this long had been a combination of luck, skill and rapid adaptability. Every experience added to the growing list of rules that Michael followed, and one of them was on the forefront of his mind as he ran through the semi-darkness, exposed on all sides.
Don’t look up.
In the distance, a monstrous twist of metal loomed over the carnival. When he had first arrived here, back when the sun was shining and the air was scented with candyfloss, it had been a Ferris wheel. Now it was a rusting gallows. The limp bodies hanging from the wheel seeming to dance as the wind howled through the night. The last time Michael had looked directly at those bodies, he had seen one turn to him and smile.
Don’t look up.
He already knew what he would see if he did. A round moon, glassy and pale against a starless sky. The black expanse would seem to ripple and flow, drawing the eye, encouraging it to linger. To stare.
Exactly what it wanted.
Don’t look up.
He was getting close now, approaching the last turn before safety. Then, somewhere in the dimness of the pathway ahead, there was a crunch of gravel and a wooden thud. Michael faltered. He had no idea what had caused the noise, but whatever it was, it was just about loud enough to attract the attention of…
A booming hum filled the night sky. It rose in pitch, as Michael desperately scanned for cover. There, to the right, a parasol wedged in the dirt. The hum was deafening now. Three steps towards the parasol. A desperate jump. Michael landed heavily on the stone-littered floor.
Then the moon exploded.
For the briefest moment, the carnival was thrust into a searing, artificial daylight. Michael flung up an arm to protect his eyes from the burning whiteness all around him, the parasol above providing little protection. In seconds that felt like minutes, the light had diminished, focussing itself into a tight beam emitting from the false moon that watched over them always.
Michael didn’t know what powered it. He didn’t know what controlled it, or what motivated it. No one did. But he knew what it searched for. And what happened when its search was over.
As a solid white beam, the Spotlight scanned from stall to path to ride and back, illuminating all it touched in colours only ever dreamt of. It wasn’t long before it swept past the popcorn stand, and there it flickered. Michael clenched his teeth. Had it caught his trail? The searing light began to crawl up the winding path, following his footsteps with gut-wrenching accuracy as he prayed that the parasol would be enough to save him.
Like a deer sensing a wolf, Michael’s gaze snapped away from the beam. His vision was distorted with the white afterburn of the Spotlight, so it took him a few moments to spot the source of the noise: a young man huddled under a wooden bench just across the path. Michael raised his knife instinctually and peered closer at the stranger. No weapon. No face paint. No body-part trophies. He probably wasn’t a threat.
Michael raised a slow finger to his lips, and the stranger nodded.
I’ll come over to you, he mouthed, but Michael shook his head. The parasol was barely big enough to cover them both, and that was presuming the stranger was as innocent as he appeared. Besides, the Spotlight was closing in on them. He wouldn’t get across the path in time.
Michael held out a steadying hand. The man under the bench hesitated, before both of them turned and froze as a low buzzing washed over them. The spotlight was seconds away, and closing in fast. The stranger ducked down and whimpered. Michael brought his arms in tight around his body. The parasol would be enough to save him. It had to be.
As the Spotlight lit up the ground around his feet, Michael was plunged into a sharply defined shadow. The fabric above his head glowed and vibrated under the glare of the beam. If there was a single tear in it, Michael knew, he wouldn’t have a chance. He held his breath, tried to avoid revealing his presence through the slight noise he would make or the movement of his expanding chest. The air around him grew warm. Then hot. Then stinging. The Spotlight was lingering on his position. It knew! It had to know he was there! Every muscle in his body begged to run, but he held firm. Running now meant death. His only hope was the parasol.
As the steam began to rise around his feet, there was a shift in the air. The ring of light singing the floor began to crawl away. In moments, it had released him, and made its way further up the winding path ahead.
He was alive.
And so was the stranger.
“Psst!” hissed the man, crawling out from under the bench. Michael wanted to scream at him, tell him that he was a fool for emerging while the Spotlight was still trawling for survivors, but a single whispered word might be enough to attract its attention. Instead he locked eyes on the stranger and shook his head as firmly as he could. The stranger didn’t seem to notice. He stumbled to his feet and brushed himself off, casting a courtesy glance to the Spotlight in the distance before gesturing to Michael.
“I’m safe,” the stranger whispered, “No weapons. I’m like you. I’m Unchanged.”
Michael slammed his finger against his lips, gesturing as strongly as he dared for the man to get back under his bench. It wasn’t safe. If he kept making noise like this, he was going to get both of them caught.
The man started moving towards the parasol. Michael nearly cried out. He pointed to the ground, pointed to the stranger’s feet.
But it was too late.
An empty can spun across the gravel pathway. The stranger froze, horror flooding his face. A harsh buzzing sound was the only warning Michael had to cover his eyes, and barely a second later the Spotlight had snapped onto the exposed man.
An agonised scream tore through the darkness.
A scream cut short.
The caustic scent of burning washed over Michael, and he fought his instinct to retch. Just a few more moments. He only had to remain still and silent for a few more moments.
As suddenly as it had burst into being, the Spotlight disappeared, and the carnival was plunged into artificial night once more. Michael staggered back and collapsed to the ground. The only source of light that remained was the softly glowing pile of ashes in the middle of the path, already being carried away by the wind. However unintentionally, it seemed that the stranger had sacrificed his life to Michael’s benefit. The Spotlight had been fed. Michael tried not to dwell on the matter any further than that. There was nothing else he could do now. Besides, the stranger clearly hadn’t had the instincts that had kept Michael and his group alive for this long. It was only a matter of time before something had caught him. And there were worse ways to go than being caught by the Spotlight.
Trying to adjust his eyes to the return of the darkness, Michael forced himself to his feet and continued his journey. After a final corner, the first aid station appeared in his sight. Safety. Michael ran the rest of the way, almost able to smile. Returning after a scavenge was always a welcome relief.
Ascending the metal steps as quietly as he could, Michael ran his fingers along the wall until he found the switches there. Flashing lights were a safer secret code than knocking. He flicked them in a practiced rhythm – left down, left up, left down, right up, middle down, middle up, left up, right down – and then slipped through the gap that appeared before him. Once he was inside, the door was bolted shut.
Sophie embraced him before he could take off his backpack, and he laughed and patted her on the back.
“I wasn’t gone that long,” he smirked.
“I’m just so glad you’re okay,” said Sophie, “When we heard the Spotlight come on, we thought you were done for.”
“So did I,” Michael admitted, slinging off his backpack and emptying the contents into the ever-diminishing stash of supplies. His haul would buy them a few more days, and he saw other snacks that had been liberated by his fellow scavengers, but it was no permanent solution. With each trip, they had to go further from their base. With each successful run, there was less food for the next. They had about another five weeks at this rate, and then there would be no food left in the carnival.
It had been at least a month since the Change. Probably more. It was hard to keep track of the time when daylight never came. At first, they had thought that the Spotlight only emerged in the true night, and that it fell inactive during the day. But ashes blowing in the chill, ever-present breeze were testament to the fact that the light could find them at any time, and at only a moment’s notice.
And when it wasn’t the Spotlight trying to find them, it was the Changed. Hollow husks of skin, hunting down humans and dragging them away for whatever twisted torments lay in store. Scouting parties found a Changed camp every now and then, and the remains of their victims strewn within. Michael had probably found more bodies than anyone else in the base. But he’d never found a survivor. No one had.
As Michael looked around at the ashen faces surrounding him, he realised his friends were thinking of much the same thing.
“Where’s Jen?” he asked.
Silence answered. As Michael looked from face to face, Sophie and the others turned to Ray.
“She never came back,” said Ray.
Michael closed his eyes and leaned against the table. Expecting that answer made it no easier to hear.
“Do we know?” he asked, “Is she definitely dead?”
“We were expecting her back hours ago,” Ray said, “It’s possible that she’s alive, but I don’t like her chances.”
Michael nodded. He rubbed his forehead and tried to think straight. Jen was far from the first scout they’d lost, but it was no fluke that she’d made it this far. She was brave. Resourceful. Adaptive.
If there was even a chance she was still alive…
“We have to find her.”
Sophie’s eyes lit up. Ray’s did not.
“She was exploring the sideshows,” he said, “We have no idea what’s out there. What’s waiting for us.”
“All the more reason to rescue someone who’s seen it,” Michael said, already standing to gather supplies. Bottled water. Bandages. Rope. Matches. Knife. “If something in the sideshows is killing our scouts, we have to find out what it is. And if anyone is able to survive out there for long enough to be rescued, it’s Jen.”
“Or you,” said David.
“We look out for one another,” he said, “That’s what keeps us human.”
Checking over his bag before securing it around his shoulders, Michael found himself mobbed by his fellow survivors, wishing him luck and safety. Ray pushed his way to the front.
“If you’re going back out there so soon, you’re not going alone,” he said, “I’m coming with you.”
“Me too,” said Sophie.
Michael shook his head.
“Anyone who leaves here might not be coming back,” he said. The pair had slung on their backpacks and marched to his side before he’d finished speaking.
“You’re risking your life for Jen,” said Sophie, “You don’t think anyone’s going to risk their lives for you?”
She smiled at him, and Michael’s chest fluttered. The Change had affected more than the carnival. It wasn’t so long ago that Sophie barely knew his name, and Ray had been following him home from college to use as target practice. Now they would die for him.
Perhaps this place wasn’t all bad.
“Alright,” said Michael, “Let’s go.”
The initial stretch out of the first aid station was usually a safe one, but with three times the footsteps and three times the targets, the trio would be more appealing than ever to any Changed who might have strayed near. With Michael at the lead, they moved in a tight formation, eyes scanning every shadow. As they rounded the first corner, Michael couldn’t help but glance across to the parasol. A faint wisp of smoke still lingered in the air, all that was left of the foolish stranger. Ray interruptedhis thoughts with a tap to the shoulder, gesturing between two paths. Michael chose one and they set off.
The journey was blessedly uneventful. That was, of course, what Michael hoped for whenever he left the safety of the base, but he refused to let himself relax. Sometimes the chants and howls of the Changed echoed for hours before they attacked, but sometimes they struck from the silence, knives and teeth and sharpened nails. It was safer to presume they were always watching. In Michael’s experience, they usually were.
Ahead, a bush rustled.
Michael gestured for the others to stop. He pulled out his knife and peered through the darkness. No movement. He took a single step closer. Then another. Another.
The bush exploded in frenzied flapping. Michael flung his arm in front of Sophie as the three of them dropped down low. Half a dozen pigeons swirled through the air and away into the artificial night. Michael gripped his knife so tight that he could have snapped the handle. His heartbeat pounded in his ears. Pressing his back to Ray’s, he scanned each side of the path for other threats, ones that might have been drawn by the flight of the birds, but nothing came.
The three of them continued, eying up each bush they passed.
“It’s amazing,” whispered Sophie, “How they all managed to survive this long. Pigeons. Rats. I saw a dog the other day. I wonder if they’re as scared of this place as we are.”
“I’ve noticed them too,” Michael whispered back, “Less and less of them every day, but they’re still holding out for now. I think we should try to catch some of them.”
“To rescue them?” asked Sophie.
“I think he means for meat,” said Ray.
“Yes, for meat, but not straight away,” said Michael, “Our food supplies won’t last us forever. If we want to have any hope of surviving here, we need to adapt to this place. We need to grow our own food. We need to farm.”
“You want to farm rats?” asked Sophie, pulling a face, “That’s… resourceful.”
“It’s clever,” said Ray, “When we get back, you should take charge on that. Get people organised. We all know they’d listen to you. They already see you as a sort of leader. Might as well make it official.”
Michael smiled and shrugged.
“Something to think about,” he said, “But for now, let’s focus on getting Jen back.”
Progress was slow. The sideshows were one of the last uncharted territories in the carnival, and the paths had a tendency to move when they weren’t being watched. If the trio had been tracking a less experienced scout, they likely wouldn’t have found any trace to follow. Fortunately, Jen was one of the best. Each time they began to fear that the paths had taken them astray, Michael would spot another of Jen’s tent pegs buried in the ground, marked and oriented to display her route; her own take on the trail of breadcrumbs. The last one brought them into the heart of the sideshows, with the hall of mirrors looming ahead and the freakshow squatted beyond, brimming with inhuman laughter.
Sophie plucked at Michael’s sleeve.
“I’ve heard that laughter before,” she whispered, “We have to leave. If they find us…”
“We’ve come this far,” Michael whispered back, “We’ll search this stretch and see what comes up. Okay?”
Sophie hesitated, but Michael squeezed her shoulder and looked her in the eyes. She nodded.
They traced the path up and down, knives at the ready, peering through the gloom for clues.
“Look here,” hissed Ray. The others crept over and followed his pointing finger. A trail of blood snaked along the path, fresh and wet, leading to a tent behind the bushes. None of them had been blood experts before the Change, but they’d seen enough of it since to know that this was from a human. Though none of them spoke it, their expressions all bore the same weary fear; this blood came from Jen.
Ray moved closer to the trail, and pointed either side of it. Every half meter, indents were gouged into the dirt.
“Footprints,” Ray breathed, “Something dragged her away.”
Michael knelt down, resting his hand by the marks. He could cover them entirely; small for footprints. Too small.
“Palmprints,” he said, rising again and striding to the tent, “She wasn’t being dragged. She dragged herself. Somewhere the Spotlight couldn’t get her.”
Michael flung back the tent flap. A huddled figure inside flinched and thrust a knife in his direction.
“Jen!” Sophie shouted. She ran in and the two embraced, though by the time Ray and Michael joined them, Jen’s arms had fallen slack. Sophie eased her back down while Ray made a pillow from his backpack. Accepting Sophie’s water bottle, Jen drank as though she were inhaling a lake. Her face was crumpled with pain, sweat running along the creases and giving her a sickly pallor.
“Are you okay?” asked Michael, “What happened?”
“There was… a child…” Jen panted.
“A child?” Sophie gasped, “An actual human child? How have they survived out here this long?”
“I don’t know,” said Jen, pushing herself back to a sitting position and hissing through her teeth. Sophie helped her rise and get comfortable. “But she was real. I know she was.”
“Where is she now?” Michael asked.
“I don’t know,” said Jen, “I tried to… get her to come to me. But she was so scared. She ran off into… into the hall of mirrors. I started to follow, but then…”
She hissed again and clutched her side, her face draining of colour.
“You see what did it?” Ray asked her, and she shook her head.
“Bit me while I wasn’t… wasn’t looking,” she said, “Scampered away when I swung at it. Didn’t get a good look.”
“Let me see the bite,” Michael said, kneeling by her side. Jen inched away.
“I’m fine,” she said, “I just need to -”
She closed her eyes and turned away, defeated. As Michael peeled back the soiled cloth, a putrid stench filled the tent. Sophie and Ray pulled back, covering their noses, but Michael leant in and peered close. The wound was jagged and deep, spilling fresh blood to renew the dried river down Jen’s side. As her chest rose and fell with pained breaths, spots of yellow glinted inside, stark against the deep red of her torn flesh. Michael pulled a match from his pocket and struck it. In the flickering glow of the flame, the damage to Jen’s body was starkly highlighted. Michael held the match close to the crater in her flesh. When she breathed again, for just a moment, Michael got a clear look at what was inside.
Gnarled, mismatched teeth.
They hadn’t come from the creature’s mouth. These teeth were fresh, their roots embedded in Jen’s muscle. Even as Michael watched, they shifted. They grew.
“I was worried about this,” said Michael, “It’s already dentified.”
Before the match extinguished itself, Michael pulled some kindling from his backpack and started a small fire. He nursed it until it brightened the furthest corners of the tent. The smoke might bring unwanted attention, but it had to be done; it was safer than the trail of blood Jen would leave behind if they hauled her back to the base in this condition.
When the fire was large enough to sustain itself, Michael turned to the others.
“Could you two fetch some more wood?”
Ray nodded and slipped from the tent. Sophie lingered, eyes locked on Jen’s leaking wound, until Michael reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze. She took a deep breath and followed Ray out of the tent. As soon as they were both out of sight, Michael cut into the top of one sleeve. Reaching into the hole he had made, he tore the fabric from his arm, rolled it into a tight bundle and handed it to Jen.
“Here,” he said, “Bite down on this.”
She looked at him pleadingly. She knew as well as he did what was going to happen next.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t have to.”
“Promise me,” she said, “Promise me it’s the only way.”
“Do you trust me?”
Jen stared deep into his eyes, searching for a way out. She found none. At last, she nodded. She opened her mouth for Michael to place his bundled sleeve inside, then turned away and clamped her eyes shut. This would have to be quick; for Jen’s sake, of course, but it went beyond mere empathy. The more noise she made, the more likely she’d summon the Spotlight.
Michael took Jen’s knife and thrust it into the heart of the fire. Then, raising his own knife and placing a free hand on her shoulder, he took a deep breath. Four teeth. Four incisions. Wasting no time, he began the first.
As his blade sank into Jen’s ravaged flesh, her body seized up. Her heels sank into the ground and her knuckles cracked in a clenched fist. She didn’t scream – not yet – but a muffled grunt of agony made it through the cloth. Between the flickering light and her trembling arm, Michael struggled to direct his knife, probing and gouging into what might have been healthy flesh. Even so, the first tooth gave way in moments, tumbling from the wound with a spray of blood and a squelch.
“You’re doing great,” said Michael, already lining up his blade for the second incision, “You can get though this, I know you can.”
The second tooth came easily, with barely a wince from Jen. Capitalising on that victory, Michael went straight for the third; a sinister, multi-pronged molar. He dug the tip of his blade beneath it, trying not to focus on Jen’s rapid breathing. He steadied her shoulder, twisted the knife, and the tooth ripped free, tearing a half-choked cry from Jen’s throat. Warm blood flecked Michael’s face, but he wiped it away with his sleeve and steeled himself for the final removal.
“Just one more,” he whispered.
The last tooth was a corkscrew canine, with a single root that delved deep into Jen’s flesh. To get underneath it like he had with the others, Michael would need to slice much further into her arm, at which point he risked severing the muscle entirely. He had a safer idea. Resting the tip of the blade against the tooth to ensure he was as close as possible, he eased the knife down its side until he was parting it from the surrounding flesh. Jen punched the ground and groaned at the sky, but her arm remained steady, so he continued. As quickly as he could, Michael slid the blade along the circumference of the tooth, cutting it free on every side. Then, wishing he’d had the forethought to bring some pliers, he pressed the knife against one side of the tooth and clamped down on the other with his finger. It was sl