I know. It's been a while, but I have a piece to share with you. It's a short one, one that I wrote in response to a prompt.
It will be a little dark, a little different, but in the end, you'll have your happy.
3) While on a camping trip, a little boy strays from his family and finds a carnival in the middle of nowhere
Stumbling in the Dark
Jake would go on. He had to. He moved quickly, his breathing harsh and ragged. He was tired—tired of running, of stumbling in the dark. He’d waited until they had all gone to sleep to leave. His mom and stepdad had been talking about this camping trip for weeks, eager to rub elbows with the higher ups, to gain a foothold in their dreams of joining the upper crust. Brad had even stopped drinking the last few days, more excited about the preparation for the trip than chugging down strong-smelling cups of the dark poison that brought out the evil in the fucker. There’d been no hiding in the pitch black of his bedroom, afraid to step outside his door because he knew there was something he’d do to anger the asshole who didn’t want Jake calling him Dad.
There’d been no struggle lately to move out of Brad’s touches when they were spidery, when they were just a little too much to the left of weird, when he gripped him and yanked him close, leaving gusts of liquor saturated breath across his skin. He’d wanted to tell his mom, had tried, but she’d laughed at him and told him to go away. She’d said there was nothing he had that Brad wanted. She’d hissed that he wasn’t Brad’s kid, was barely hers. Yeah, he knew that. He’d never forget it. Every new scar Brad layered into his skin would make sure of it. Every moment Mom ignored him, didn’t even see him made him invisible.
But the last few days, instead of punches or being tossed down the stairs for some perceived crime against Brad’s authority, instead of touches in places he didn’t feel safe, he’d been hungry. Even that was nothing new. Jake was always hungry, except at school. At home the food he’d scavenged at the back of the almost-empty fridge helped a little. The crackers and packages of trail mix were good, the ones with the fake M&Ms the best. He missed them as he scurried beneath tree branches, stumbling along as quickly as he could.
He’d been hungrier for this moment, to see a way out and take it. His new clothes rubbed his skin, chafing between his legs. The new hiking shoes bit at his toes, boots Mom had insisted he needed. He’d been cold for so long, he could feel the ice in his veins. He’d needed a jacket, since the one he had was decorated in so many holes and long past fashionable. His jeans were the same. He wore one of three T-shirts he owned. It wasn’t until Brad realized his rags wouldn’t impress the families sharing the camping trip with them, the people with their nice kids and good education, that Mom had taken him shopping. They wouldn’t be impressed with a kid with haunted eyes and gaunt cheekbones, a kid who wore bruises like tribal tattoos. So the last few weeks had been devoted to making Mom’s unwanted responsibility look “normal.” New clothes, food—but never enough to heal the pains in his belly—a Carhartt jacket, and boots that made his eyes water, too small but just the right price. And shouldn’t he be grateful for them?
“Wipe your eyes, shut your fucking mouth, and put them on before I give you something to cry about.”
So he left them on. Had to be better than whatever Brad could and would do to him.
When they arrived at the site, the other families moved off to give one another some space. He’d waited in another tent, waited until everyone was asleep, until the quiet from Brad’s grunts and Mom’s moans had settled across the campsite. When he’d heard gentle snores instead of their lovemaking, he’d reached underneath the paper-thin sleeping bag, thrown on his new clothes that didn’t fit, pulled back the flimsy opening of the tent, and taken off.
Now he stopped for a breath and listened. Nothing. He gulped in some air and traveled on.
Lights. He saw lights. Lights had to mean warmth, right? Music. Carnival sounds. He’d never been to the carnival, but he’d seen pictures in books and on the screen in school. He’d heard the traditional piped organ. There would be people, and places where he could hide. He pulled his jacket closer to his body and headed that way. He was cold, his hands frozen, and wasn’t looking around him well enough. He missed the fallen branch and realized his error too late. He was thrown to the side, his head slamming into the nearest tree. And then, it was dark.
Jake heard soft voices that spoke in hushed whispers.
“Oh, there he is, poor little darling. His eyes are opening. Come on, little bit.”
Jake’s eyes fluttered in the shadowy golden light.
“Ahh, wee one. There you are.”
His head ached and his body soar. It had to be the results from the fall he’d taken.
“He’s awake then, belleza?” a gruff voice asked.
“Yes, love. He’s awake.” That voice was quieter, tender.
“Well, then. Let’s get some food in him.”
Jake opened his eyes to take in the odd couple before him. A large woman—no, a man. He had a beard, but his full lips were some shade of pink. A sky-blue bonnet sat on his head, and his wide frame was draped in a yellow dress with pink roses. The colors were bright, nearly assaulting Jake’s vision, but the warm smile he wore, the kindness that heated those eyes, welcomed him.
“His eyes are clear, darling.”
“Si, but the boy’s a skeleton. Needs some meat on those bones, belleza.”
Jake rolled his head toward the source of the gruff voice he’d heard earlier. A tiny man this time—a dwarf? In Jake’s haziness, he almost looked like the troll from The Hobbit movie. The barreled furry chest stood out, but instead of leathery armor, he wore a deep purple plaid.
“Had empty trail mix packets in his bag.”
“Si, but not enough for an eight-year-old.”
Twelve. I’m twelve, Jake thought. But he’d always been hungry. He’d always been hunted and small. Guess that would make him seem like he was eight. That little guy was powerful, a body packed with dense muscle. He could picture him wielding a weapon, battling his way to Isengard. A gentle, motherly giant and a fierce dwarf.
“So, true, my heart. I’ll heat some food up for him. We have chili enough to feed him. Some cornbread too.” The giant in the canary dress with pink roses stood, and the dwarf slapped his ass lightly as he moved away to bustle about the covered wagon.
“Well, boy. You’ve found your way here. By the looks of you, you’ll need to be staying.”
Grateful tears slid over Jake’s cheeks. It was too early to look at this little powerhouse of a man and call him “Dad,” but he wanted to. Wanted to call the man who hurried to feed him “Mom.” It’d been so long since he had one, if he ever had one.
“Ah, now, dolce cuore. Put those away. We have you now. No more need for that.” Gentle kisses landed on his cheeks, wiping away salty tears.
His belly full, his body tired, and his soul safe, Jake enjoyed the flavors of seasoned meat and beans still resting on his tongue. He smiled.
When he woke next, underneath a heavy blanket, there were mumbles at the cloth door of the wagon. Questions were asked. He could hear the rumble of authority, the voices asking if a boy had been seen. Frightened, he flailed about and prepared to run. He should have known he wouldn’t be safe, not from Mom’s neglect or Brad’s abuse and the look his eye. His heart raced as he struggled to get up, but a hand gentled him and an arm wrapped around his shoulders.
“Shhh, wee one. My Leonardo has it. Don’t you worry.”
Gasping, he turned his head into the warm folds of canary yellow with pink flowers, into the safety of strong arms and calmed.
The voices grew quiet. Steps moved toward him, and by the glow of the lantern, he saw the face of the little powder keg, Leonardo. Twisting his handlebar mustache, Leonardo smiled down at them both, his eyes shining.
“Mia cara, our boy’s age is twelve.”
He heard the gasp of surprise from his mom. He wanted this person for his mom, wanted the body sheltering him as his parent more than anything.
“Oh, Leonardo. His family was out there?” Concern laced her words.
“No, amore mio. Not his family. A woman and a man.”
Not his father. Brad. Brad would never be his father. Brad, who had started watching him from the open doorway of his bedroom at night, one of the reasons he had planned his getaway.
“And from the look of them, our boy is better off here. Man has a look about him. The woman’s not much better.” Leonardo stepped farther into the light and placed a calloused hand on Jake’s cheek. “We’ll be keeping him here. Would bring in the authorities, but at his age, they’ll just pass him off to the wolves. Si, Colleen?”
He looked to the giant who held him tightly, felt the gentle kiss on the crown of his head.
“Yes, darling. I’ve been wanting my own for some time.”
There were tears in those words, love too. Jake was hungry for that love.
“This I know. And, here he is, love. All ours.” Leonardo smiled down at his family.
Jake tossed the blade and watched as it cut a sweet arc in the air and landed flush inside the baseball-size pumpkin at the top of Katerina’s head, Leonardo looking on silently. It would be winter soon, and they would be traveling south, to Florida hopefully. He was eager to free himself from the heavy red plaid he wore and run along the beach shore for a change in his bare feet, hand in hand with his Paul.
Laughing at his father’s grunt, Jake turned to see him twisting his handlebar mustache, pepper and salt now, rather than the midnight blue of years ago. Jake rolled his sleeves up his huge biceps as he stood waiting to hear the judgement. His thick brown hair hung braided at his back, a band of leather keeping it from unraveling. At his height, he towered above his father physically but would always honor him as the pillar of strength in their family. He pushed his wide hands into his pockets and waited for the man he respected to pass his verdict. Each year, he was tested, understandably. After all, those knives he used were blades passed down from Gallinari. It was his father’s duty to ensure his son wielded his blade not just efficiently, but artistically, and continued to honor the family name.
“Si, boy. Eccellente! There is no doubt of your skill.” He smiled grew. He looked fondly to the woman knitting, who nodded back. “Mother thinks so too. You’ll more than do to lead the team again this year.” A lion roared in the distance. “Seems Castille thinks so too.”
Pride. It was a wonderful feeling, one made even greater when he heard it in his father’s voice, the man who had taken him in and called him his.
Off in a distance, Colleen looked on, a broad figure in a pink dress with cornflower-blue petals, his mother in her own right, his gift. She sat on a chair, knitting in hand, as she watched the men in her life practice their craft. He’d bought that dress himself, and the look in her eyes had made his day when he gave it to her. He’d been so happy when the pink hat he bought along with the dress fit perfectly too. She was lovely, and she was his.
For his father, he’d had a knife welded with a buffalo-bone handle, his father’s initials carved into the hilt. When Leonardo raised it for all to see, Jake had almost missed the wetness at the corner of his eyes. The Siamese twins had praised Jake for a good eye, and the lion tamer had looked on quietly, the small loving smile he wore strengthening the flame in Jake’s heart.
It was the perfect tenth-year anniversary for their family.
Jake would lead the team again this year, Leonardo standing beside his Colleen. Paul would be there to see. Paul, the beautiful golden lion tamer, the emcee’s son whose kisses were warm and sweet, would glow as he watched his man display his gift. The ring on Paul’s finger would catch the light, the ring Jake had given him two years ago to stake his claim.
His family would grow.
Pipe organs would play, and Jake?
Jake would go on.