On a warm Tuesday night in 1971, Tamera put on her best Sunday clothes and climbed out of her bedroom window. Her foster brother Jax was asleep peacefully in his bed on the other side of the room, his glasses neatly placed on his bedside table, his dark hair messy from tossing and turning. As Tamera's pretty dress shoes hit the dirt below their shared bedroom window she heard the soft sound of a rock shifting beneath her weight, and she held her breath for a long moment. When nothing happened, she drew her hands away from the windowsill and crept away from the small white house she lived in near the edge of Rougeweb, Texas.
The moment she stepped off of the grass and her shoe hit the gravel street, a firefly buzzed before her nose. It whizzed in a circle around her head, buzzing by her ear, and she struggled to keep her eyes on it. She lifted her hands to catch it, but before her fingers could clasp around the insect, its light zoomed away down the street. Without so much as a second thought, Tamera ran after it as fast as she could, grinning and stifling her giggles.
Down the street she went, the gravel melting into asphalt, the houses getting closer together, and the distant giggles of other children reminding her of her goal. To find the festival.
The golden light of the firefly turned left, and so did Tammy. Her face was flushed, her breath heavy and her legs tired, but she desperately wanted to follow the light. She kept her pace, her eyes on her prize, her arms stretching out towards it. She leaped over rocks and fences, nearly tripping once but forcing herself back up with a grunt and a huff.
Finally, when she entered a field of corn, she was sure she was gaining on it. At first, she wondered if it was just her hoping too hard, but no, as she dodged around cornstalks she could tell she was getting closer. She forced herself to run faster than she thought she could, her arms out and fingers spread wide to finally capture the little glowing bug she had chased so far for so long. Just when she was sure she could close her hands around it, it completely disappeared, and she ground to a halt, nearly slipping in the dirt and ruining her Sunday clothes. She stood still in the dark of the night, the stalks of corn surrounding her forever on all sides. Her breathing was loud and heavy and she felt sticky and sweaty. She swallowed her spit and looked around herself, but saw nothing but the dark silhouettes of the corn disappearing into the distance. Though the moon shone bright and it was a clear night, she felt that not enough light was penetrating the leaves over her head. She felt her chest tighten and her eyes begin to sting, and she lifted her hand to bite down hard on her knuckle as she spun around a few times, desperate to get her bearings.
Then she heard it. At first, she wasn't sure what it was, but after a few seconds, she realized it was a tune. Music was playing somewhere, the sound getting closer and closer though Tamera stayed still. Her face stained with tears, she moved towards the noise, pushing at the stalks around her in an attempt to see where it came from. As she went, she slowly began to see fireflies again, but there were many of them, and none of them seemed keen on leading her anywhere. She kept following the joyful sound as it began to blend with children's laughter, the smell of fresh popcorn, the clapping of hands in time to the rhythm. When she finally broke through the thick wall of corn stalks, she looked up to see a large, freshly painted red barn in front of her, decorated to glow golden with fairy lights and streamers. Children were running in and out, laughing and playing and dancing, some holding popcorn and candy, and others holding balloons. By the door stood a teenage girl, dressed in a white button-down shirt and a red vest, black slacks and dress shoes, bowtie, top hat, and cane to tie it all together, grinning joyfully at everyone who ran past. Inevitably, that grin fell upon Tamera. The girl smiled and raised a finger to beckon her closer.
The girl knelt before Tamera, her shining green eyes crinkled at the corners with glee. "Well, howdy there, little princess. It's so nice to see a new little face here among all these friends. May I ask for your name?"
“Tamera,” she replied, and the girl smiled. "Tamera. That's a lovely name. Do you mind if I call you Tammy?" When the little one nodded, the girl's grin got even bigger. "Tammy. You've dressed up so nicely to come and visit us. I'm so, so happy." She clasped her gloved hands together, bringing them to her chest. "I'm known as The Barker around these parts. I'm the one who takes attendance, makes sure everyone is here and having a good time before the games begin. I bet you just can't wait, huh? I can see it in you - your little heart is just pounding with excitement, isn't it?" The Barker reached out, walking her fingers up Tammy's arm and then poking her on the left side of her chest, and Tammy giggled, her tongue sticking out between her teeth.
"Alright, Tammy, I want you to go on in and have some fun, okay?" The Barker smoothed Tammy's hair with a gentle touch. "Remember to be a good kid at all times. Good kids get a prize at the end of the night." Placing a firm hand on Tammy's back, The Barker lead her into the barn.
The inside was even brighter than Tammy could have imagined. The walls were painted brightly with cute pictures of sheep and pigs and chickens and cows. Streamers hung from the ceiling in every color. The smell of cotton candy and fairy dust lingered in the air. It was filled with children, all between the ages of five and ten. Everyone was laughing and cheering, not a frown on a single face. There were popcorn stands and a man handing out candy, another man handing out balloons, she heard someone walking by say something about a petting zoo, and oh, it all felt magical. She couldn't decide where to go first, her eyes as big as dinner plates as she took it all in.
Suddenly, she made up her mind. She wanted a lollipop. She hurried across the hay-covered floor, to the back of the crowd surrounding the Candyman. He laughed along with each child while everyone else waited patiently for their turn, as a good kid would. Though it felt like ages, finally his shiny eyes landed on her. "What would you like, Tammy?" he asked, leaning towards her. Giggling, she pointed at the lollipops sticking out of his cart, and he turned to see with a hearty chuckle. "Ooh, a marvelous choice! What flavor?" Tammy picked cherry, and as he handed the treat to her, the Candyman winked. "You go be a good girl, alright?" Then he turned to the next child, a little boy with chocolate around his lips. Tammy walked away.
When she got a bit closer to the back of the barn, Tammy saw there was a petting zoo. There were baby piglets and bunny rabbits, puppies and kittens and chicks and fawns. She looked at it from afar for a moment, utterly astonished, then ran over as fast as she could. The chicks were like cotton balls in her hands, the bunnies were softer than clouds. The puppies tumbled and played and tried to get her to play too, and the kittens climbed up her clothes and she kissed their heads. She sat criss-cross on the ground and a baby piglet settled in her lap, and she found it so cute she didn't want to move or disturb it. So she sat there a bit, licking at her lollipop, which was absolutely scrumptious, and watching everyone laugh and run and play and shovel popcorn into their open mouths.
"Is this your first time at the Bad Kids Festival?" a voice asked her, and she turned around to see a little boy talking to her. His skin was dark and he wore a dress shirt, nice brown slacks, and suspenders, shiny shoes. He came over and crouched beside her. "You just came here, huh? Don't you live with the Owens' down on Whitney Lane?" Tammy nodded and he clicked his tongue. "You're their newest foster kid, huh?" Another nod. “I’ve been with them for a few weeks now,” she told him.
“How’d you hear about the festival?”
“Jax told me,” she replied. “He said there was a carnival nobody remembers until it’s time to go. I don’t get what he means, though.”
“He means what he said,” the boy replied with an eye roll. “Something funny goes on in everyone’s head around the time of the festival. Nobody really mentions it. Maybe we’re all just afraid to.”
“What happens?” Tammy leaned forward and the sleepy piglet in her lap shifted. The boy seemed to think for a moment before sitting down criss-cross next to her.
“Once you leave, you forget everything that happened here,” he told her. “All you remember by the next morning is that you went, and had fun while you was there. No details.”
“Until a whole year goes by?”
“Uh-huh,” he nodded. “Then one night everyone comes running out into the cornfields, and we end up here. I’ve heard people say they came looking for this place afterwards, but nobody’s ever found it.”
He sighed and pushed some hay around with his index finger, focusing his gaze on that.
"I'm real sorry they're like that. The Owens, I mean,” he said. “They have a new kid each month, it seems like. Except for Jax. He's been here as long as I can remember." He shifted his weight slightly. "He just turned eleven this year, though. How old are you?"
“I’m six,” Tammy answered him, and he seemed surprised.
"Six? I thought you was at least eight. Huh." Another click of his tongue. "I'm nine," he said, "So next year will be my last year getting to come to the festival."
Tammy furrowed her brow. “How come?”
The boy groaned. "Don't tell me Jax didn't tell you! You can't come after you turn eleven. The fireflies won't guide anyone older than ten - they just won't." He picked up some pieces of hay on the ground and started trying to make a circle with them. "Some say you forget all about it after a while, but I don't believe them. How can you forget the Bad Kids Festival?"
The two of them looked around at the barn full of ecstatic children on sugar highs, clapping and dancing, playing tag and throwing fistfuls of hay from the hay bales in the corners. There was so much joy in the air that Tammy told herself she couldn't ever forget what it felt like to be right there, at that moment.
"Hey," The boy said, "You ever wonder why everyone calls it that? 'The Bad Kids Festival.'" Tammy turned her head to look at him, and he continued. "I mean, everyone who works here tells you the same thing. They tell you to be good. They tell you to be patient and polite and gentle and kind, all of that stuff. But then they name the whole event like we're all bad kids. We ain't all bad. The bad ones get weeded out, anyway, so why name it like that?"
Tammy hummed in thought, then furrowed her brow. “What do you mean, ‘weeded out’?” The boy got very quiet very quickly.
"... I don’t know," he said. “I just said it without even thinkin’ about it.” Though she was confused, the topic made Tammy uncomfortable, and suddenly she didn't want to know any more. The piglet crawled off her lap then and she pushed herself up. The boy rose too. "Come on," he said, "Let's go get balloons."
Tammy learned that the boy's name was Trevon and that he preferred vanilla over chocolate ice cream. He also preferred pink to blue as a color, so that's the color balloon he got tied to his wrist. Tammy chose purple. Together, the two of them enjoyed the festival, up until all the lights when out very suddenly, leaving everyone in the dark. Tammy reached out and latched onto Trevon's arm, swallowing hard. A soft and uneasy murmur went over the crowd.
A click sounded and a spotlight came on. Suddenly, there was a stage where the barn doors had once stood, and on that stage stood none other than The Barker. She twirled her cane in her hand and grinned to the crowd of children before her. "Is everyone ready to play with The Barker?" She called, her voice loud and jovial, and the children responded with a roar of approval that made her toss her head back in laughter. "That's great! I'm so happy to hear it! Now, everybody, sit down!"
On command, everyone sat down in their spot, crossing their legs or leaning against friends. The Barker hummed. "Now, the rules of The Barker's game are simple! Just stand up when I say. That's it! Doesn't that sound easy?" There was a murmur of agreement, and The Barker pouted. "That doesn't sound like everybody's ready!" The crowd roared upwards once more, waving arms and clapping hands, and a few older kids whistled faintly. That grin resurfaced on The Barker's face.
"Alright everybody, round one... if you like going to school, stand up!" The Barker excitedly raised an arm, and the crowd began to boo. Placing a gloved hand on her chest, she recoiled in shock. "You're all telling me you don't like school?!" She cried, and the crowd responded with various forms of 'yeah' and 'yes'. She sighed, tapping her chin and twirling her cane in one hand. She hummed softly, pacing back and forth on the stage a bit before she snapped her fingers. "I know!"
Taking off her top hat, she tapped her fingers along the brim. "Round two. Stand up if you like..." Her hand disappeared into the well of the hat. "... Magic tricks!" Out came a bunny, held by its ears. The crowd leaped to its feet, cheering and clapping, raising their arms over their heads in excitement. The Barker smiled upon all of them. "Alright, that's more like it! Everyone, sit back down!"
Once everyone was seated once more, The Barker dropped the bunny back into the hat and replaced it atop her head. She leaned on her cane and tapped her chin, thinking hard about something. Then she gasped and said, "Round three!"
Tammy leaned forward. This game was far more fun than she expected it to be. Maybe it was because she was surrounded by so many excited people, but she could hardly keep still. She fidgeted in her spot and giggled, but when she glanced over at Trevon she saw he wasn't even cracking a smile. She frowned and leaned over to whisper to him. “What’s wrong?” He glanced at her briefly, his whole body tense. “I dunno,” he whispered back. Then The Barker spoke again.
"Stand up if you've ever stolen from your mother's purse."
There was a drastic shift in The Barker's tone when she spoke. That once jovial voice that sang to Tammy when she first arrived now sounded cold and sharp, like whoever was behind it had gone on break and left some alien in their place. As a confused murmur settled across the crowd, a chill went down Tammy's spine. The Barker's grin had disappeared.
"... Nobody?" she asked. Nobody made a move to stand. She hummed softly. "Hm. Well. Some of you truly are good children, while others are filthy, rotten liars. But don't worry. They won't taint you."
Suddenly, screams rang out all around the barn. In the limited light, Tammy saw flailing limbs and children scrambling away from them, kicking them away. It lasted only a minute before a cold silence fell across the crowd once more.
"Round four," said The Barker.
It felt like all the warmth had left Tammy's body at once. She barely breathed as The Barker stood still as stone on the stage, the spotlight overhead making her seem to almost glow. In a low, breathy voice, she said, "Stand up if you've ever broken an expensive vase."
This time, a couple of children scrambled to their feet, trembling so hard that Tammy could see even the children farthest from her were shaking like leaves in a hurricane. The Barker's eyes scanned the area slowly, and then her upper lip curled into a sneer. "Some of you haven't learned."
This time, Tammy saw it. A girl in front of her with pink bows in her hair and wildflowers weaved into her braids. The ground beneath her melted into a dark, goopy black, and she sank into it. She reached for her friend next to her, but he scrambled away in horror, afraid he may be dragged down with her. She clawed at the hay, at the dirt, she shrieked so high that Tammy's ears rang, she fought until the last bit of her fingertips disappeared into the Earth, and then the ground returned to normal and everyone was again left in the chilling silence. Those who were standing slowly sat back down.
Tammy wanted to cry and scream and run home and vomit. Everything felt horrible. She looked around the room for the Candyman, or the woman handing out balloons, or for the elderly man watching over the petting zoo from a rocking chair, only to find them all slumped on the floor, against walls, in chairs, as if upon the lights going out every muscle had stopped working and they had fallen over lifeless. Trevon grabbed her hand. "Don't look," He said, "It only gets worse."
"Round five." The Barker's voice came out slow and distorted. Her eyes had rolled back into her head, her knees bent inward as she leaned to one side, her cane barely supporting her. "Stand up if you talk back to your parents."
More children stood this time. Tammy could hear someone crying distantly but wasn't sure which direction it was coming from. It felt both far away and right next to her at the same time. Though The Barker now had no pupils, Tammy could feel her gaze washing over her, like a cold slime enveloping her body, an invasive substance she wanted to wash away.
"You should all know better, by your age," the Barker hummed, and Trevon screamed.
"No, no! I don't! I never-" The blackness of the ground began to swallow him up. He kicked and flailed and fought, screaming at the top of his lungs and reaching for Tammy. She tried to back away, but his hand clamped around her ankle, cold and clammy. She shrieked and reached for someone nearby to help, but everyone scrambled away just as she had done a moment ago. Just as she was sure she would be dragged in, her foot hit solid ground. Trevon continued to sink, but Tammy did not. His hand clung to her a long moment before finally slipping away, and the blackness of the ground washed away, leaving Tammy alone with tears streaming down her face and a hand-shaped bruise on her leg.
"Round six." Said The Barker. Tammy gagged and threw up cherry lollipop and buttered popcorn all over the ground where Trevon had just been. Her vision smeared and she looked up at the barn walls. The once happy looking cartoon animals were suddenly just blobs of cracked, peeling paint. The smell of fairy dust was replaced with the smell of dirt and her own vomit. The streamers were never there, they were just spiderwebs long abandoned and dangling over her head. The room spun. Tammy threw up again.
"Stand up if you cheat on your schoolwork."
Time moved in slow motion. Children stood, screams sounded, but Tammy barely registered any of it. She felt dizzy and sick. She wanted to go home more than anything in the world. Nothing felt magical anymore. It all felt real, painfully real, and she wished she could just get up and sprint as fast as she could away from there.
Then, as she raised her hands to her face to sob into them, a little golden light appeared in her palm.
She blinked at it a moment, clearing her eyes of tears, then watched as it flew up and buzzed circles around her head. She swallowed thickly and struggled to focus on it.
"Round seven." The Barker said and collapsed in a heap on stage. There was a long pause, long enough for everyone to begin shifting in their seats and whispering to those nearby, before she repeated, "Round seven."
A longer pause. Tammy stared at The Barker's limp body in the spotlight. Smoke rose from it, first in thin, barely noticeable wisps, then gradually in visible streams rising from her clothes and skin.
"Seven." All that moved was her lips. A great plume of smoke drifted out.
Then, all at once, The Barker was in flames. Children screamed and began standing up, running away, but the ground opened up to swallow them into the darkness. The other workers simultaneously combusted moments later, joining The Barker in this crackling finale. The firefly buzzed in Tammy's ear and she wailed into her hands.
"Stand up if you know the way out."
The Barker's voice almost sounded human again, but it wasn't close enough. Through the whooshing of flames and the scent of burning flesh, Tammy heard sobbing from all directions at once, not only her own voice but everyone who remained and everyone who had ever attended The Bad Kids Festival.
"Please," the Barker's voice pleaded, rising in pitch. "One of you must know a way out." The flames spread from her body to the stage, the stage to the barn, the barn to the hay, which within moments left all the children batting at their clothes with their hands and frantically clearing spaces to sit.
"Seven!" the Barker shrieked. "Seven years I've been here! Tell me the way out!"
Tammy heard the buzzing in her ear once more, and without a second thought, she leaped to her feet and followed it, her eyes closed. She opened her mouth to scream a command for everyone to follow her, but never once did she look where she went. She followed the buzzing and the glowing shapes behind her eyelids, sprinting as fast as she could. She felt heat and flames graze her body, she heard the cracking of boards and The Barker's shrieks as the barn collapsed and the festival ended. When Tammy finally opened her eyes, she saw she was running through the cornfield she had sprinted through to get here in the first place. She heard several people running behind her, telling her either she hadn't made it out alone or she was being followed. She made a silent plea to the fireflies to guide the other children home safely and followed her own buzzing little friend with all her might. Her entire body felt heavy and gross, but she forced herself to keep going, for fear of what would happen if she stopped.
She exited the cornfield alone. She leaped over rocks and fences, made a right turn, sprinted straight ahead until the asphalt broke into gravel beneath her shoes. She kept running. The firefly disappeared the moment her shoes his the grass of her front lawn, and there she finally stopped and stood, staring, breathing heavily. The house stood just as she had left it. White and pretty.
Climbing back through her window, she saw Jax still asleep, though now he faced the wall. She changed out of her Sunday clothes and hung them up as she had them before leaving as if they had been there all night. She put on her nightgown, brushed her hair, and climbed into bed, where she fell asleep nearly instantly and had nightmares of fairies bursting into flames before her eyes.
The next morning, Tamera woke to Jax shaking her. When she rolled over to look at him, all he said was, "Breakfast," before turning and leaving the room. She got out of bed, dressed in her school clothes, then went to the dining room where her foster mother was putting sausage, eggs, and toast on a plate for her. She climbed into her chair and began eating slowly, as her stomach still felt upset. She nearly inhaled a bite of toast when her foster father, who had been sitting silently reading the paper and drinking his coffee up until now, asked, "Did you sleep well, Tamera?"
Tamera paused, thinking hard. She remembered the Bad Kids Festival, playing, meeting Trevon, and him telling her that everyone would forget it all within a few days. Past that, she couldn’t remember a thing. It all blurred together in her head.
“I slept just fine, thank you, Mr. Owens,” she replied. He smiled at her from over the paper, so she smiled back at him.
“Mom says I have to walk you home after school today,” Jax said through a mouthful of scrambled eggs. “Find me at the front once we get out, okay?”
“Okay,” Tammy said. “Will you wait by that oak tree with the yellow ribbon on it?” Jax nodded at her as he sipped his orange juice, accidentally spilling some on his shirt.
That day at school, Tamera was as good as she could be. She did not notice the number of children who did not come to class. She paid attention and did wonderfully on a spelling test, which she showed to Jax upon meeting him under the oak tree. He told her she did a good job, then the two started home. It was a short walk, as their town was small and they were lucky enough to live close by. As they turned down their street, Jax stopped her in front of the house on the corner. “Wait here,” he said, “my friend didn’t come to school today and I have to bring him some homework.”
Tammy sat on the curb and waited as Jax walked up to the front door of the home. She ripped up some grass and tied the blades together as she listened to them talking indistinctly. When Jax came back down the lawn, he was frowning. He grabbed Tamera roughly by the arm, yanked her up, and kept walking. She whined and wrenched her arm away. “What’s your deal, butthead?”
“He wasn’t there,” Jax replied. Tamera went quiet. As Jax walked more quickly, she noticed his hands were shaking.
“Trevon wasn’t there,” his voice shook, too.
Jax went straight to his room when he walked in, slamming his door hard enough that Tamera felt it in her shoes. Mrs. Owens came to greet her, and Tamera showed her the spelling test. Mrs. Owens clapped her hands and pinned it to the fridge. As Tamera smiled up at her foster mother, she made up her mind to be very good and as honest as she could possibly be. She felt those things were very important.
She couldn't wait to follow the fireflies next year.