Inside Drops of Crimson

In This Issue

The Devil's Knitting Needles - Erin Fanning

Randy leaned toward the girl and positioned his elbows on the counter. He felt the muscles in his biceps grow taut. It was a move he’d practiced many times in front of his bathroom mirror. 

 

“Meet me later and I’ll show you around town,” he said. “How about it?” 

 

“My, but aren’t you the bold one?” the girl whispered.

 

Her eyes lingered on Randy’s arms. She bent forward, bumping into bags of pink and blue cotton candy. Her hair dangled in grease-stained paper plates filled with fried elephant ears. A blush spread across her cheeks, and she fluttered her lashes, so pale they were almost invisible. They mirrored her equally washed-out eyes. Running her hands over her skirt, she smoothed the apron against her hips.

 

Randy had her now — he knew the symptoms well. This time the mark for his summer game had been too easy, not the challenge he usually enjoyed.

 

Behind him someone shouted, “I won. I won.”

 

“Step right up, folks, everyone’s a winner here,” a carnie bellowed.

 

Children shrieked nearby, and a Ferris wheel, its white and red paint a cheerful contrast against the darkening skies, tore into the clouds. Thunder rumbled, followed by a humid breeze, then complete stillness. The air felt heavy on Randy’s skin.

 

He picked up the girl’s ordering pad, letting his fingers brush against hers, and fanned himself.  “If it rains,” he added. “We’ll find a cozy place to hole up until the storm passes.”

 

“You go on now, luv.” She giggled. “Quit messing about.”

 

Her English accent was the only thing attractive about her. A smattering of pimples flourished on her forehead with a few blossoming into whiteheads. Sweat stains tattooed the armpits of her t-shirt.

 

“Hey lady, how about some cotton candy for my kid here?” a man yelled. And the girl waddled off to help him.

 

Randy held back a shudder. Anyone watching them, he thought, would wonder what a good-looking guy like him was doing with such a mutt. People often told him he should model, what with his bone structure and height. Well, maybe it had just been the one person who had said that — his last mark — but still she was probably correct.

 

His brother Kyle called him “the snake charmer.” Kyle, though, didn’t like women. He thought of them as vipers, always ready to bite, but to Randy they were playthings.

 

He liked to think of himself as a modern-day pied piper, leading women astray. This one, though, was only a temporary preoccupation, resulting in a few minutes entertainment and maybe some quick cash. If only Kyle would get a move on. Where was he?

 

             As the thought flashed through Randy’s mind, he caught a glimpse of Kyle’s shaggy head towering a few inches above the crowd waiting next to the Tilt-A-Whirl. For such a large guy, Kyle’s hands were small and quick, perfect for what they were planning.

 

Kyle winked at Randy and stopped at the neighboring booth — a balloon and dart game.

 

The man running the game said, “Ready to try your luck, sir? I’m sure you’ll be a winner.”

 

Kyle mumbled something and examined the prizes, hesitating over a stuffed elephant.

 

It was Kyle’s way of telling Randy he was ready to make his move. Their own carnival game was close to its finale.

 

The girl rang up a customer and turned back to Randy. “You still here then?”

 

“Trying to get rid of me?”

 

She shook her head, releasing a smell of fried food. A shy smile spread across her lips. “So you were serious, all this about meeting up later?” Her hands shook as she arranged boxes of caramel, taffy, and licorice — a sugar addicts’ fantasy.

 

But Randy only had eyes for the jar stuffed with cash that the girl kept in a cubbyhole below the counter directly behind her. All someone had to do was slip their fingers — fingers like Kyle’s — beneath the tarp and grab it. It would be so easy, as long as the girl was occupied.

 

             Randy took one of the girls hands and squeezed it. Come on, Kyle, he thought, take the cash. This is your moment.

 

             The girl licked her lips. “Why, aren’t you a charming lad?”

 

             “You don’t know the half of it,” Randy said, watching a pair of hands slip underneath the tarp and snatch the jar full of money.

 

             “I’ll be back in a few hours when the fair closes,” Randy said, squeezing her hand one more time. 

 

             She nodded, eyes downcast. Someone said, “How about an elephant ear, miss? I’ve been waiting forever.”

 

             Randy slipped into the crowd. He walked with purpose, but not too fast, not wanting to call attention to himself. He’d meet up with Kyle in about 15 minutes.

 

             He’d only gone a few paces, when the girl from the booth called out, “Help! Help! I’ve been burgled.”

 

             Randy stepped up his pace and held back a smile. Burgled? Sometimes those Brits didn’t seem to know the American language.

 

             He replayed the back-and-forth with the girl in his head. Most guys he knew went out for baseball in the summer or swam on a team, but Randy and Kyle’s sport was Carnie Con — their name for the tricks they pulled at summer carnivals and fairs. They had come up with the game after putting a few dollars too many into the Basketball Toss to win a stupid teddy bear for Randy’s then-girlfriend. He couldn’t even remember her name now. 

 

             A raindrop hit Randy’s arm, followed by several more. Dark clouds enveloped the sky with a touch of dusky rose on the horizon, a hint that night was falling fast. The con had taken longer than Randy had anticipated. He sped up. The crowd closed around him, a barrier between him and his crime. It was as if it had never happened.

 

Yet, he felt eyes upon him. Whipping around, he caught a shadow slink behind a canopy. Was someone following him? He hurried along and bumped into a stout man.

 

“Watch where you’re going,” the man said. “You almost ran over my daughter.” He swung a girl into his arms and trudged toward the Merry-Go-Round, its white horses gleaming..

 

Randy flipped the man off behind his back.

 

He was sure the English girl was probably surrounded now by the other carnies. What a bunch of losers, he thought. They deserved to be robbed for taking advantage of carnival goers.

 

Still, the feeling of being watched came again. He spun around. Someone stood just inside the door of a gypsy wagon. Painted balls of yarn in every color imaginable, from fuchsia to turquoise to cream, decorated its black exterior, and knitting needles in the shape of golden dragonflies outlined the door. Above it, a carved sign read, “Ye Olde Knit Shop.”

 

The person at the door turned and spoke to someone inside the wagon.

 

“Him” and “the one” was all Randy could make out.

 

He froze. Were they talking about him? Of course not — he was just being paranoid.

 

“Ye Olde?” he muttered. “How unoriginal.” 

 

Children whooped and a vendor yelled, “Get your fresh lemonade.” The voices seemed to come from a distance. The muttering from the wagon, however, grew louder. But Randy still couldn’t make out all the words nor could he clearly see the people.

 

His legs felt heavy, like they had grown roots. He wondered what was wrong with him. Why couldn’t he move? The heat intensified as black clouds swarmed the sky, followed by thunder echoing across the fairgrounds. The sound broke through his trance and he ran.

 

             Randy passed a booth jammed with leather jackets. A man with tattoos crisscrossing his arms covered his wares with a plastic sheet. The rain thickened, and people scrambled into booths or ran for their cars. Carnies propped up signs in front of rides that read, “Temporarily closed.”

 

             Splashing through a puddle, Randy sprinted across a dirt road and into an alley behind a convenience store. Kyle’s Lexus — a hand-me-down from their father — waited where they’d left it. But where was Kyle?

 

             Hail combined with the rain and dug into Randy’s bare arms and legs. He continued around to the front of the convenience store but it was closed. Damn! He looked back at the fairgrounds, where rivers of hail and rain already flowed along the roads and walkways. Blood trickled from a cut on his calf. The hail felt like shards of glass.

 

             All of the booths were shut tight and the tarps tied close. A man, holding down his baseball cap, sprinted across the deserted fairgrounds and scrambled into a trailer. He slammed the door behind him.

 

             Randy looked up and down the street. A garbage-strewn field stretched around him —

 

there was nowhere he could hide. The hail quickened, making Randy wince. It felt like thorns from a rose bush, and blood blossomed on his arms and legs. He had to find shelter and fast.

 

             Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the door of the gypsy wagon was still open. He saw it as an invitation and sprinted across the field. Half-blinded by the rain and hail, he sloshed through mud puddles and hesitated when he reached the steps. The day had grown darker than the hour warranted, yet inside the wagon it was even gloomier. Who was there? Why hadn’t they shut the door? The hail bit into his skin, and Randy decided it didn’t matter. He sprinted up the wooden stairs, the wagon swaying with each step he took.

 

             “Hello?” he called out.

 

             “Come in and escape the storm,” a woman said.

 

Her voice held a lilting quality, which drew him forward. He bounded up the steps, bumping his head on the doorway.

 

The woman stood next to an eating nook with a built-in booth. Her black hair blended into the dusky light. She struck a match and Randy caught a glimpse of ivory skin before she bent and lit a lamp on the table.

 

             “Electricity’s out,” she said, moving around the space and lighting two other lamps that were built into the walls.

 

“Now, that’s better,” she added, lowering into a mock curtsy. “Welcome to Ye Olde Knit Shop. I thought that name up all on my own. Pretty original, huh?” She laughed, her cheeks dimpling.

 

             Her t-shirt didn’t quite reach her low-slung jeans and revealed a tan midriff. Red lipstick covered full lips, and the same shade decorated her fingernails and toenails. She looked to be in her late 20s, maybe about ten years older than Randy.

 

             Hmmm, he thought, not at all what I’d expected. He’d have some fun with this one and pass the time just the way he liked too.

 

             Balls of yarn, arranged by color, covered the shelves and bins built into the walls,  and knitted scarves and shawls hung from the ceiling. Buckets contained knitting needles with their sharps ends pointed up.

 

The woman eased into a ladder-back chair. “Have a seat,” she said, gesturing to a stool about an arm’s length away. She picked up golden knitting needles, which were decorated with dragonflies, and a ball of intertwining yarn, the colors of thunder and angry clouds. The needles clicked together with each stitch she made.

 

             “I’m Esme,” she said.

 

             Randy plunked down on the stool, mesmerized by how the yarn flew through her fingers. The needles followed an intricate pattern seemingly on their own. He’d never seen anyone do anything that fast.

 

             “Cat got your tongue? Or should I say knitting needle?” Esme asked.

 

             “No. I mean, wow! You’re good… Oh, I’m Randy.”

 

He leaned forward with elbows on his knees and shoes hooked into the base of the stool. I’m gushing like some little kid, he thought, straightening up. Be cool or you’ll get nowhere with this one. He crossed his arms and checked out the muscles in his biceps from the corner of his eye, making sure the position displayed his body to his advantage.

 

But he felt strangely exposed propped up on the stool, blood drying on his arms and legs. He shivered. It seemed so cold in the caravan. But how could that be? Even with the rain, it had been hot and muggy outside.

 

             “So tell me about those knitting needles.” he asked. “Why dragonflies?”

 

             She finished the row she was knitting and lifted the now-free needle in the air and studied it, almost as if she’d never seen it before. “Sometimes I forget,” she said. “I’ve had these forever and a day. They belonged to my grandmother and her grandmother before that and… you get the idea. So you’ve never heard of the old fable that calls dragonflies ‘the devil’s knitting needles?’”

 

             Randy shook his head.

 

“Must have been because of their shape. The fable claims that dragonflies visit naughty boys at night and knit their — . Oh my, look at your legs and arms. Haven’t seen a storm like this in eons.” Esme winked at him, obviously enjoying herself.

 

Randy nodded, unsure how to respond.

 

“There’s a towel in the wee bathroom over there, just behind that door, next to the sink.” She gestured at the tiny kitchen, consisting of a sink, microwave, and cooler.

 

Randy smiled. Wee? Where was she from? First the English chick at the cotton-candy booth and now Esme. America really was getting overrun by foreigners. It didn’t matter with this one, though, she was truly a babe, foreigner or not.

 

“Thanks,” he said and strolled over to where she had pointed. He walked slowly, letting her get a good look at his body.

 

She was right — wee didn’t even begin to describe how small the bathroom was. He left the door open and used the hand towel to wipe his face, arms, and legs. As he dried his hair, he glanced in the mirror and almost dropped the towel. The beautiful woman he’d been talking to a few minutes ago was no longer there. Instead, an old woman with a crooked nose, beady eyes, and bent, arthritic fingers sat in her place.

 

She met his eyes in the mirror and smiled.

 

Randy spun around. Everything was how it should have been — the beautiful woman watching him, her needles flying, not even paying to attention to what she was doing.

 

Just the light, he thought, hanging the towel on the rack.

 

Hail beat a rhythm on the roof of the caravan as he sat again on the stool. “What are you making?” he asked.

 

“This and that,” she said. “That and this.”

 

“Come on? A scarf?”

 

The knitted product now cascaded down Esme’s lap and rested on her feet. Silver in the yarn glittered in the lamplight, and the grays and blacks swirled together.

 

Randy, unable to control himself, stroked the material.

 

“I dye it myself,” Esme said, dropping her knitting and touching his hand.

 

Randy froze. Was she making a move? Be cool he told himself. Don’t startle the lady.

 

He gave her a lopsided smile. “This storm sure seems to be hanging on. Is there anything other than knitting you’d like to do to pass the time?”

 

Esme intertwined her long fingers in Randy’s and turned his hand over, running a fingernail across his palm and tracing the lines that crisscrossed there.

 

“My turn for questions.” She raised her eyebrows.

 

He nodded. “Shoot.”

 

“Tell me, Randy. Why are you so far from home?” Her voice teased as she continued to stroke his palm with whispery soft movements. “Why come to this small-town fair today? What brought you here?”

 

“Come again?” he said, trying to pull away.

 

Her hands closed around his like a steel trap. “Nothing to keep you closer to home? No entertainments?” She released him.

 

“Hey, have I met you before? What makes you think this isn’t my home?”

 

Esme shrugged. Standing, she wrapped the now-finished scarf around her neck. The grays matched her eyes, which Randy now realized were as stormy as the weather he’d escaped.

 

He ran his hand down her bare arm. She shivered and wrapped the scarf around his neck, tying them together. It’s going to happen now, he thought. She’d kiss him and then anything could happen. He’d play it by ear. She might be a little crazy but those ones were sometimes the most fun.

 

She leaned forward on her tiptoes until her forehead rested against his. “See no evil,” she whispered. “Hear no evil. Speak no evil.”

 

Randy’s heart raced with each word she spoke, and the room spun. Bile collected in his throat. What was going on?

 

Esme slipped out from under the scarf and tied it loosely around his neck. “For you,” she said. “It’ll lessen the pain.” She bent her head, and Randy noticed white strands among the black locks.

 

“What?” He suddenly wanted to escape this beautiful, riddle-talking, crazy lady.

 

Esme nodded at the door. Her eyes looked blacker now, reflecting the night.

 

Two of the lamps had gone out, and something shifted in a shadowy corner, followed by a sigh. It reminded Randy of the shadow he’d seen earlier that day.

 

“Go,” she said. She lifted a wrinkled hand to her face. She spoke in a monotone, the lilt and flirtation gone.

 

Randy hurried to the door, glancing back when he had reached the first step. The last lamp had been extinguished, and quiet descended over the caravan. He sprinted down the stairs. At the bottom, he bumped into the English girl from the cotton-candy booth.

 

“Where have you been, luv?” she said. “I’ve been waiting for you.” She twirled her hair in her fingers and chomped on gum.

 

Too stunned to speak, Randy hurried away. The girl giggled and climbed the steps of the wagon. Did she know Esme? Doesn’t matter, he thought, they couldn’t connect him to the robbery and after today they’d never see him again.

 

Only a few stragglers remained at the fair, even the beer tents seemed deserted. A country-western band sang from a bandshell, “I loved him and lost him at the state fair.” A solitary woman swayed to the music. 

 

Randy ran to the convenience store. Headlights blinded him as he dashed across the street.

 

Kyle rolled down the window. “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been looking all over for you.”

 

Randy scrambled into the car. The lights of the fairground slowly blinked off, except for a solitary light hanging in front of the gypsy wagon. Randy could just make out the words, “Ye Olde Knit Shop.”

 

“Nice scarf,” Kyle said. He flicked one of the tassels into Randy’s face. It felt soft against his cheek and smelled of Esme, cinnamon and… spoiled milk. Sweet yet sour — how appropriate.

 

“Let’s get out of here,” Randy said. “And I’ll tell you all about it.”

 

Kyle grunted and jabbed down on the gas pedal. The Lexus peeled out of the parking lot in a spray of rocks and gravel.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Randy staggered to bed well after midnight, leaving Kyle snoring on the couch. Beer cans littered the carpet around him. Their parents were gone for the weekend, some kind of conference for his Dad. He and Kyle had refused to go with them and their parents had seemed relieved when they left.

 

“Screw ‘em,” Randy whispered. “Who needs parents?”

 

Although he wouldn’t have minded having his mother around tonight. He remembered how she used to stroke his forehead when night terrors forced him awake. He’d lay in bed whimpering, too afraid too move, convinced that if he’d stay put, the thing in his closet — vague and shapeless — couldn’t get him.

 

Somehow his mom always heard him crying and she’d soothe away his nightmares. What had happened to that kid? Tonight he felt a little of that boy return, like something evil really lurked in his closet.

 

The house seemed too quiet, except for a branch pushed by the wind that scraped his window. His mind wouldn’t relax and replayed the events from the day over and over.

 

The girl’s cash jar had only held 50 bucks, but they’d never done the robberies for the money. It had always been about the challenge and the thrill of getting away with it.

 

Now Randy wondered if it was worth the risk. And there was something else. A gentle pricking on his palms, a phantom memory of Esme’s fingernail. It also reminded him of the English girl. How had she felt? Pretty lousy he guessed and tried to laugh it off. What a fat loser anyway, but a part of him didn’t find it so funny. Maybe these kinds of things had happened her entire life. Why did he want to add to her problems?

 

A creaking sound came from just outside his door. Kyle staggering to bed?  He’d tell him in the morning that Carnie Con was over. For some reason, it seemed distasteful to Randy.

 

As he drifted to sleep, his door swung open. Light from the street glowed softly in the hall, yet he couldn’t see anyone there.

 

“Kyle?” Randy said. “Go to bed, quit screwing around.”

 

A tall shadow filled the doorway..

 

“Who are you?” Randy sat up. “Get the hell out of here before I call the police.”

 

The shadow floated into the room, the door swinging shut behind it. A heaviness hit Randy’s chest and stole his breath. Gasping, he fell back into bed.

 

The scraping sound against the window grew louder and it burst open. The wind billowed the curtains like tarps at the fair while buzzing filled the room.

 

Three golden dragonflies flew above him and landed on the headboard.

 

The shadow crawled into Randy’s bed, pinning him down. He felt smothered and tried to scream but no sound came out. The dragonflies again took flight, fluttering closer and closer to Randy’s head. Their shapes changed, and he recognized the golden knitting needles from earlier that day, yet the points of these ones were sharp, more like sewing needles. A fine silvery thread was attached to the eye of each needle.

 

He flailed but the shadow didn’t move, and Randy was only able to turn his cheek. It rested on Esme’s scarf, which he didn’t remember bringing to bed. As the needles dug into his ears, lips, and eyelids, pain searing through his body, the scarf caressed his skin. He thought of Esme and what she had said, “It’ll lessen the pain.”

 

When the first stitch was finished and the needles drew back, he heard her voice, as plain as if she had been in the room,  “Hear no evil. Speak no evil. See no evil.” A scream erupted in his mind, but the shadow resting on top of him and the golden needles digging into his flesh kept it from reaching his lips.

About the Author

Erin Fanning spends her summers on a remote Michigan lake, where her imagination explores the water and dense forest for undiscovered creatures. In the winter, she migrates to central Idaho, exchanging mountain bikes and kayaks for skis and snowshoes. Visit www.erinfanning.com for more information about her writing.

Copyright (c) 2008 Drops of Crimson. All rights reserved.