The Day the Hunters Came to the Pendleton Bros. Traveling Faire
A Southern Gothic Short Story
The sun rose the same way for Cal Jeanneton because the sun always looked the same over the Pendleton Bros. Traveling Faire. Patchy pink sky and pale-yellow sunshine, sneaking through the uneven blinds at the window beside Cal’s bunk. Morning came to the row of parked trailers and trucks tucked away on the edge of the fairgrounds, sometimes cloudy, sometimes clear. No matter the weather, the day that awaited the fair workers held the same shape.
The sun woke Cal in the RV he shared with his bunkmate, Shana Park. Cal stirred early to shut off the alarm on his phone before it had the chance to annoy him. In the next bed, Shana sat up and yawned. A forked tongue darting out and she blinked her yellow eyes sleepily. Under bubblegum sky and golden light, the monsters of the Pendleton Bros. Traveling Faire rose to get ready for their day.
In Septembers, the fair changed its seasonal lineup from the spring and summer carnival to the autumn harvest festival. The curio shops and midway stayed the same, along with the petting zoo. Instead of the famous Monstrosity Sideshow, the monsters hastily assembled and decorated the Happy Haunts of Waylon Manors, a kid-friendly haunted house that recycled the sideshow cast as campy Halloween characters. Tybalt that Man-Rat transformed from his upright state a half-rat monster to a giant, snarling rodent. Shana the Snake-Woman abandoned her human shape for that of a long, winding python.
Cal, a werebadger whose inborn monstrosity offered a far less imposing silhouette, had no place as the main attraction.
The badger’s age put him at the lowest rung on the ladder at Pendleton Bros. He little more than a half-grown man already, a reedy boy of 18 with hands rough from labor and a chipped-tooth smile. During the fall, Cal made himself useful by tending to the petting zoo animals, driving the hayride tractor, and occasionally working the ticket booth. It was an honest living, and the managers treated him well for the kind of work he did. A werebadger with few other prospects and even fewer ties back home couldn’t do much better than a monster-owned carnival.
Leaning against the row of old wooden barricades behind the petting zoo, the full stretch of the fairgrounds was visible to Cal. He smoked the hand-rolled cigarette he kept tucked behind his ear throughout the day, waiting for a quiet moment to light up away from the crowds. The general public filtered through the gate across the grounds before fanning out in all directions. Some to the hayride, some to the midway, the petting zoo, pumpkin patch, the spooky hay maze, and finally, the haunted house.
Once his short break was finished, Cal took up his shovel and returned to the stables to tend to the animals.
While Cal was away, a crowd had gathered around the pens. People came and went with the heat of the day, rolling in like waves to see the livestock. Small children pressed against the wire fence for the chance to feed the sheep, chickens, and goats. At the edge of the crowd, two people caught Cal’s eye: a human and a vampire, respectively. Cal could recognize a vampire by scent alone, his nose twitching at the smell of a predatory monster outside the familiar community of shapeshifters he knew. Even without his sense of smell to rely on, the vampire’s sickly white complexion, oversized sunglasses, and black parasol confirmed Cal’s suspicions.
The vampire stuck out conspicuously in an all-black outfit of skinny jeans, a crop top, and a denim jacket adorned in patches, zippers, and studs. Even his matte painted claws and long, wavy hair was black to match. The human he traveled with gave little away by comparison, good-looking with a brown complexion and strapping build. Watching the vampire feed a goat by hand, the human wore a pair of well-worn blue jeans, a gray tee, and a black leather jacket. However, the cut of the human’s jaw, the arch of his brow, the prominence of his ears, the distinctive fullness of his mouth – it all gave Cal a fretful pause.
He had seen them before, but the human he recognized with a terrible clarity. Hunters both, the kind that killed monsters. There were hunters at the fair, walking around the grounds, among monsters just trying to make a little money. Cal’s blood ran cold at the thought, the contradictory feelings of fight-or-flight like ice in his veins.
The pair loitered idly by the pen, the human snapping a quick photo of the vampire calling a sheep over through the wire fence. Instinct made Cal light on his feet, ducking behind a nearby tree. As a badger, his sense of smell was better than a human’s, but his hearing was just as poor. He couldn’t read lips, either. The hunters – a human and a vampire? Together? How did that even work? – spoke, but Cal could make out little of it. Whatever they were talking about, the casual way they stood around made Cal sick to his stomach.
Six months ago, before Cal joined up with the Pendleton Bros. on their way out of the parish for the season, he saw them. In the woods on the edge of town, when the weather was warm and balmy. They were on the heels of a badger named Miles; a friend of a friend Cal knew from high school. Miles got up to no good, so the hunters turned up with a utility knife the size of Cal’s forearm.
It happened in the morning. He still remembered the wet sound of steel slicing through flesh and fur. The way blood splashed hot on the ground, and the woods recoiled at the sound. That was when Cal made up his mind to leave town for good. Now the hunters were here.
Why? Did they come for Cal? No, that wouldn’t make any sense. But who could it be? The Pendleton Bros. hired on monsters just like Cal, who had little else going for them and nowhere else to call home. Had some of them done something wrong? Were they on the run?
The pair of hunters made their way from the petting zoo. Cal held a breath and scurried behind them, maintaining a safe distance as they approached the midway. The vampire hid under the shelter of his parasol while the human led them along the stretch of carnival games, curiosities, and contests. Leaning over to say something against the vampire’s ear, the human pointed across the midway at the shooting gallery.
They must have been looking for someone after all, Cal thought.
He hid beside an especially large scarecrow as the human ignored the shooting gallery for the pumpkin carving tent. The neat rows of pumpkins occupied three long tables under the tent, each given a placard with the carver’s name and the title of their work. They seemed distracted for a moment, before the human tugged his companion back toward the shooting gallery.
Up close, they weren’t quite as fearsome as they were in the woods that cold night, when they chased down Miles. It took two bullets to put the badger down – one to the back, and one to the skull. Cal remembered the way the blood splattered on the trees. He could barely stand to see them on the midway, firing plastic guns at plastic bottles.
Smiling. Laughing. Winning a plush skunk doll.
What kind of people could do that?
Finally, bored, the vampire took up his parasol and gestured toward the haunted house. The human, his winnings tucked under his arm, followed. Cal, for his part, stumbled. His knees gave and he all but tumbled out from behind the scarecrow.
Tybalt was working the haunted house today, and the hunters were on their way there.
Before the pair could make it to the line, Cal raced through the crowd. He ran around the backside of the temporary ramshackle structure. From the back, it was little more than a prefabricated metal structure with wooden panels put up inside the create the facade of a haunted house, but the crowd outside only saw a spooky two-story mansion. Up the metal ramp and through the employee entrance, Cal made his way to the dressing room.
There, a handful of monsters gathered around between performances. Some nibbled on sandwiches and salads while others played on their phones. Tybalt leaned against the wall, grazing from a bag of chips and scrolling through social media. He was a burly Black wererat, all soft muscle and body hair, standing at 6’1 and nearly as broad at the trunk. Cal scurried up to him, breathless and red in the face.
“Ty! Ty, we have a huge problem!”
The wererat didn’t look up from his phone. “The sheep knock down the fence again?”
“No, no – it’s nothing like that!” Cal wheezed, catching his breath. “There are hunters outside!”
Tybalt glanced up. “Where?”
“Here! In the line!”
“Did they pay admission?”
Cal’s face pinched incredulously. “I mean, I guess so —”
“If they were dumb enough to pay $15 a pop, then they have every right to be here.”
“Not these two!” Cal shouted. “I’ve seen them put a man down, Ty! They’re dangerous.”
After a moment, Tybalt popped a chip into his mouth. “You see them hunt somebody?”
“Yeah.” A pause. Cal’s conviction faltered. “Well, I mean, they came by the store I used to work at once. And asked some questions. But I mean, they were looking for a guy I used to know from back home.”
“Did they find him?”
“Um. I don’t know.”
They had stopped by the corner store, asking the clerk some questions while Cal swept up in the snack aisle. The human hunter asked about Miles, whose description matched a monster seen attacking a man on the other side of town. The vampire loitered around the bakery case while his partner talked to the clerk and took notes. Last Cal heard, Miles got himself picked up for possession charges. Nothing to do with the murder the hunters had come around the store asking about. Cal left town before that was ever resolved.
Perhaps, in retrospect, Cal’s imagination had filled in the gaps of the encounter.
Tybalt looked back to his phone. “Uh-huh.”
“Okay, but – they’re headed for the haunted house. What do we do?”
A sigh. “Let me see them.”
Pocketing his phone, Tybalt followed Cal around the back of the haunted house. Bales of hay lined up off the makeshift porch provided cover for the monsters as they peered out onto the line of people waiting to get in. Groups of two to six were let in every fifteen minutes, allowing the performers to take their positions between scares as fairgoers made their way through. The pair of hunters huddled under the vampire’s parasol some ten feet away.
Chatting. Being suspicious.
Tybalt made a worrisome noise. “Oh, shit.”
“I think I’ve fucked that guy.”
Squinting, Tybalt nodded. “Yeah, the human one. We definitely met at The Dirty Crow on Leather Night. And again outside.”
“Yeah. Wow. He was a hunter? I’ve done worse, I guess.”
Cal all but wailed. “Ty, this is serious!”
“I’m never doing tequila shots at Leather Night again, that’s for damn sure.”
“Should I tell Mac?”
Mac Pendleton was the heir, if there was such a thing, of Pendleton Bros. as the acting operations manager. Tybalt shook his head at the question.
“Look, if they’re going into the haunted house, hide behind the curtains in the first hallway and follow them once they pass. Nobody will see you, it’s too dark. If they don’t do anything, just let them go.”
Emboldened, Cal nodded. “Okay.”
“And don’t do anything stupid. You’re on the clock. If anybody asks where you are, I’ll just say you’re cleaning up some kid’s puke on the hayride.”
Summoning up all his mettle, Cal followed Tybalt’s directions to the letter. He squirreled away behind the cheap red velvet curtains and waited for the hunters to make their way through the first claustrophobic corridor of the mansion. The vampire and the human were alone, traveling the mansion’s interior scenes without anyone else in their party to notice Cal. Once they passed the curtained window and the self-playing piano, cranking out a tinny recorded tune, Cal slipped out. He shifted into his halfling form, a squat, muscular, dark-furred badger. His coloring gave him an advantage in the mansion’s dimly lit scenes, able to fit himself under tables and behind furniture without being seen.
The hunters didn’t notice Cal, their attention captured by the clutter of spooky Halloween store decor and cheap scares. Examining each portrait and poking at the fake spider webs, the vampire looked bored. Beside him, the human was delighted by the cheesy music and the occasional monster popping out from behind a blind corner.
“I can’t believe I paid $15 to be harassed by a werewolf in a loin cloth,” the vampire deadpanned. “This is why I stopped clubbing.”
“You mean I paid $15 for you to experience local culture,” the human said good-naturedly. “Haunted houses are fun.”
“That’s not even a real skeleton.”
“It’s for children, Dorian.”
“Then why are we here?”
“Because we have to –”
Shana slithered out from a witch’s cauldron with a theatrical hiss so loud it drowned out the conversation. The vampire sailed passed her with a scoff. The human gave her a thumbs up and mouthed “Good job.” Cal saw none of this, ducking around the various obstacles to remain out of sight. At the end of another long corridor, the vampire swatted torn curtains and tapestries out of his way in time to see Tybalt, fully a rat. The human didn’t seem to recognize him, and the vampire pretended not to notice.
“Anything?” Tybalt stooped to ask Cal once the hunters were out of earshot.
“I don’t know,” Cal whispered. “Sorry he didn’t recognize you.”
“No, it’s fine. I never texted him back. It would’ve been weird.”
The hunters made their way through the last scene, an elaborate mad scientist’s laboratory. This section of the house had bright strobing lights that streaked up the walls and around the set pieces. Cal realized this too late as he crept behind the pair.
“I’m hungry,” the vampire complained.
“We’ll eat after we wrap up here. We gotta do one more thing.”
“Can’t it wait?”
“Quit whining,” the human said with a chuckle. He was in good spirits despite the thoughts their conversation conjured in Cal’s racing mind. “You knew what you were getting into when you agreed to come.”
Then the vampire noticed the badger with a glance over his shoulder. Glowing red eyes caught him from over the rim of dramatic black sunglasses. The human followed the vampire’s gaze to the young badger behind them. Cal froze, struck by terror.
Finally, the vampire blinked. “Okay, this is just weird.”
The hunters walked off to inspect the clunky fake lab machinery and the animatronic creature sprawled out on the table. Cal ran for cover, bolting passed them and through the exit to find a find a tree to hide behind. He caught his breath. His mind spiraled into increasingly darker territories.
Certainly, Cal thought, he was right. Certainly, they were conspiring to hurt someone at the fair today.
As if responding to some awful cue, the hunters strolled through the exit, human stretching, vampire pulling out his parasol. Cal watched them as the human gestured toward the hay maze. Of course, the hay maze. Things started to make some sense to Cal as he kept brisk pace with their tread across the fairgrounds. It would be so simple to corner a monster there, amid the disorienting rows of towering haybales.
The vampire and human disappeared inside. Cal was suddenly grateful to have helped set up the maze’s layout, remembering the layout from the plan. It took two days and five monsters to complete, but the pain and the sunburn was worth it now. The hunters looked determined as they ambled through the narrow passages of the maze, unaware that they were being watched. Other fairgoers darted passed them, children mostly, racing ahead of their parents to find a way out.
Left, left, right, left, right, right, left.
The hunters moved deeper and deeper into the maze. Cal’s palmed sweated. He didn’t know what he would find when he caught up to them, or what he would do once he did. If they were hunting a monster, he couldn’t do anything to stop them. Even in his most monstrous form, his teeth and claws were only as good as his willingness to use them.
“Would you knock it off?”
Hearing their voices, Cal crept up to the wall. Beyond it, the dead end the hunters had found themselves.
“Don’t what me. You know what.”
They spoke in hushed tones. They were alone. Cal couldn’t smell anything else but dirt and straw and their sun-warmed skin.
“I don’t mean nothing by it. It’s really a compliment if you think about it.”
“That you’re such a thirsty nerd?”
“Well, no, not that specifically. Just that…y’know…”
A sigh. The sound of rustling fabric. He held his breath. They were just around the corner. Clenching his fists, Cal took the full step around the edge of the wall, prepared for whatever awaited him beyond its safety –
There, Call found the hunters kissing. Making out may have been the correct word for it, the vampire standing on tiptoes to devour the human’s mouth. The human gladly let himself be pawed at by the smaller, slimmer creature, pressed firmly into the wall as a clawed hand gripped his jacket lapels.
And for it, Cal blanched and ran away.
Behind him, he heard, “Fine, I’ll go on the hayride with you. But then I want a turkey leg or I’m going to chew off my own arm.”
A husky chuckle. “Yessir.”
Hand-in-hand, the hunters made their way out of the maze. When asked later, Cal said he never saw the hunters at the Pendleton Bros. Traveling Faire, and quietly returned to shoveling the animal pens.