Flames rose and twirled through the air before dropping into the capable hands of a blue-skinned man dressed in a yellow suit. I watched the flame thrower for the better part of an hour, ignoring those who brushed past me with their friends, children, or lovers.
Dancing black stars filled my vision when I looked away from his performance at last, distorting my view of the bustling carnival. I closed my eyes for a moment to allow my convoluted faculty to refresh. I turned my attention to a small stage where three women in trousers cartwheeled across the stage as they sang along with the excited crowd. A man on a very high unicycle pedaled past me and shoved a dagger into his mouth. Despite seeing such things before, I cringed. Mistakes had to happen sometimes.
The sword swallower slid the blade back out with a smile and a wave to the children gaping at him in wonder. Just behind the shocked boys and girls, I found Sarah’s face. Our eyes met for a trice before the crowd swallowed her whole. Light from the lanterns and the thrown flames danced along the people’s faces, making them appear just as sinister as their hidden selves.
I placed my hands in my pockets and strode toward a gathering of relatively quiet people that stood at the edge of an open tent. I joined them and my eyes went to the large, floating geometric shapes on the wall. A tall, thin man in a top hat stood behind a lantern-like apparatus.
“He’s a true magician,” one woman breathed.
“This is Satanic,” muttered an older man in front me.
He shook his head before turning to leave. He caught sight of me and glared before walking away. With a shrug, I watched the shapes float along.
“Hello there, Alfred.”
I started at the sound of the familiar voice. Smiling eyes greeted me once I turned around.
“Matthew?” I exclaimed.
“The one and only,” he said with a wink.
“What are you doing here?” I asked with a laugh.
“My mother wrote to me about the travelling carnival passing through town this weekend and also that you were in town. I could not refuse her request to visit.”
“How long has it been? Five years?”
People hissed at us to be quiet. We stepped away from the magic lantern show and he smiled as we reached the outskirts of the raucous.
“Have you been learning anything useful at that horrific medical school?” I asked.
His expression became serious.
“Yes, as a matter of fact. This may sound naïve, but medicine is advancing at a phenomenal pace. Did you know that soon even poor, rural families will soon have access to anesthesia during surgeries?”
“I hope that this is not sensationalism,” I said skeptically.
Matthew frowned. “I will personally see to it that medicine continues to advance.”
“I knew you would make a good doctor and I hope you are right about the anesthesia.”
“Ah, do not call me doctor yet. One more year to go yet. And how are your studies going?”
“I dread finishing my studies. I will likely become a book worm professor who lives at the university.”
Matthew’s easy smile brought a similar action to my face. “It is good to see you, Al. I have to admit that I expected you to be somewhat melancholic when I saw you, but here you are, very much full of life as I remembered you to be.”
“You have heard of my writing project?”
“All that my mother told me is that you have been obsessed with a certain group of deceased young people,” he said with a raised eyebrow.
I looked around to make sure that no one was eavesdropping.
“You could say that.”
“I suspect that this project of yours is not Brown University related.”
I could not tell if he was judging me or if he was simply curious. If only he knew that two days earlier, my mood had sunk well below melancholia. The short-lived mental stability of mine was subject to change on a whim.
“This is a personal work,” I said. “A novel.”
“I should hope that you will allow me to read it once you have finished.”
The way that his dark eyes studied mine hinted that he was thinking far more than what he was willing to say.
“How long are you staying in town?” I asked.
“I leave early Sunday morning. I will be free all day tomorrow if you want to go relive our excursions.”
“Excellent,” I smiled. “I haven’t been swimming in ages.”
A day spent with an old friend would be just the medicine that I needed.
“Now, let us see what madness is happening on the stage at the vaudeville show over there,” said Matthew, gesturing at it with his eyes.
We immersed ourselves into the crowd until we reached the colorful, lively show. Matthew became enamored with the dancing men and women on stage. He cheered and roared out in laughter along with the crowd. While the performance was impressive, my thoughts wandered away to the deep depths of my mind. Being surrounded by hundreds of people, music, and laughter led me to long for an escape into my own thoughts. That was what I had often enjoyed most about operas, musical events, fairs, and carnivals. Such occurrences caused my imagination to stir. I was content to stand there next to Matthew being lost in my own secret reality until a jab in my side startled me.
“How long have you been standing there in your own world?” asked Matthew.
“I-I’m not sure,” I muttered.
He laughed, shaking his head.
“You should allow your mind to rest sometimes, old boy.”
“But I was enjoying myself.”
We both laughed.
“What do you say we go try some overly sweet fare at the stand over there?” he suggested.
I nodded and followed him there. When we reached the end of the long line, it was then that I found Sarah standing four places ahead of us. She looked back over her shoulder at us, smiling at Matthew and nodding at me.
“She is quite lovely,” Matthew said quietly.
I recalled how enamored he was with Sarah the last summer I was in Sunny Harbor. Back then, she was engaged to be married to Caleb, the hot-headed young merchant, and she never looked our way once.
“She is strange,” I said.
“All right then,” Matthew laughed. “I take it that you have said more than customary greetings to our friendly store owner’s wife.”
“I may tell you more about it later.”
His shocked expression caused me to roll my eyes. His love for drama hadn’t died.
“It did not seem at all like you to cause such a stir in this quiet town,” began Matthew, looking cautiously around us to ensure that we did not have anyone listening in, “but I knew there was much more to it than what my parents told me. Perhaps tomorrow you can tell me more about your book and what has driven you to go digging into the past.”
“I hope that your morals swing somewhat to the liberal side,” I said.
“I may surprise you.”
Water’s dark depths chilled my flesh as I swam through a mess of underwater plants. My head broke the pond’s surface and I took a deep breath of warm air. I floated lazily on my back before swimming back to the water’s edge where Matthew sat.
“Have fun?” he asked.
“I needed this,” I said, stepping out of the water.
“I can imagine,” Matthew grinned.
I sat next to him and savored the feel of the hot sun kissing my wet skin.
“This has been an excellent reprieve for me, as well. I love apprenticing in the city, but visiting home always gives you a new perspective.”
“I wish you were able to stay longer,” I said.
“If only doctors in training were allotted peaceful summer breaks.”
“What happened to Jeremy Thomas?”
Matthew cleared his throat, staring straight ahead. “Well, that came out of left field.”
“You do know,” I pressed. “Please tell me, Matthew. You will be a doctor yourself in due time and I hope that you take this at least as seriously as a writer.”
“Of course, I do,” he sighed, shaking his head.
“I was going to write a portion of my book about Jeremy. I want to write about all the suicides. If you know even a small detail about what happened to him, it would help me.”
“This is a noble cause, Alfred, but you have to be much more cautious than you have been. Think about your aunt’s reputation, even if you do not care about your own.”
“I mean no harm. I only hope to…”
“Bring justice to those who died from a diseased mind,” Matthew finished. “Yes, I understand your passion and reasoning. The mind is an unknown field of research which I may partake in one day.”
“What happened to Jeremy?” I pressed.
“Good God. So much for an afternoon reliving our boyhood.”
“We are not boys anymore and this is important.”
My drive to know what had become of Jeremy far outweighed my sympathy for Matthew’s comfort. He picked at the sand with a stick without uttering a word.
“I spoke to Mrs. Thomas about Jeremy a few nights ago and she admitted to me that he is not dead.”
At last, Matthew’s brown eyes stared hauntingly into mine. There it was again; the chilling energy that would not cease in its pursuit of me.
“I know that he is alive, Al. Hell, if I tell you something, then perhaps you will stop harassing the poor townsfolk about him.”
“Is he in an asylum? Is that why Mrs. Thomas appeared so willing to forget about him?”
Matthew nodded slowly, still staring at me. “Good deduction.”
“He attempted suicide?”
“I cannot tell you that, old boy.” He flashed me an empathetic smile. “Perhaps you have something you could write about now.”
“Do you know what method he used to try to kill himself?”
The Adam’s apple on Matthew’s neck rose and fell as he swallowed hard. “From what I heard he continually bashed his head into the side of a building.”
I stared ahead, not wanting to imagine it, but imagining it anyway.
“What was going on in your mind, Jeremy?” I whispered.
“There is someone who knows more about Jeremy than I do.”
“Who?” I asked in irritation
He frowned at me, clearly taken aback by my aggressive tone. I was grateful to him for telling me more than he should, but I disliked his cryptic statements.
“You are a good friend, Matthew. You do not need to tell me anything more.”
“Indeed I don’t,” he said as he stood and put his shoes back on.
I cringed as my stomach began to knot up.
“I really should return to my family since I leave early tomorrow morning.”
“Of course. Thank you for…”
He held up a hand to silence me. “Be careful. That is all that I have left to say to you, Al.”
He stepped away, haphazardly putting his white cotton shirt back on. I knew he would not be pleased with all my questions, but I did not expect him to desert me. No longer wishing to sit on the riverbank alone, I jumped to my feet, dressed, and walked home barefoot.