John Everson

The February Special Guest Writer is John Everson

You can visit John at: www.johneverson.com

John Everson


by John Everson

After the fifth step, it was mundane.

Ahhh…but getting to the fifth step. That was the trick. That was what it was all about. The crowds below, they thought the tough part was in the center, once the safety net was removed. “Oh, such danger,” the ringmaster would cry. “Such daring-do!”

Such malarky, Reind thought. Once you were moving, in the groove, you didn’t need a net. The difficult part was in placing one step in front of the other when leaving behind the wooden platform. The first step was like a switch between stepping on sandpaper and high-gloss ice – with a slight movement, his foot left behind the immobile, grainy plywood to slip down a quivering, thin decline of twined, worn fibers. It was stepping through the door from plane cargo bay to open, unparachuted air. That step was the first trick. And the second, bringing your anchor with you.

The hardest was the step after the first. That’s where you gained or lost your balance. That’s where it became a walk or a fall. After the second step, there was no going back. You didn’t turn around on the highwire.

The third step was a beginning. The first complete motion forward on a new course. The fourth step was an affirmation.

After the fifth step, it was just walking.


Reind put his first foot down on the tightrope and felt the horsehair-thin fibers catch on the lyrca net of his tights. Comforting feeling, that. While an unpracticed person would simply feel his foot slip down on a waving thread of uncertainty, Reind could feel his sole wrap and grip on the tightly-wound fibers of the rope. It wasn’t like stepping on air. It was solid to him. Different than earth, maybe, but solid. If you were in tune.

Maybe that was the best simile. Walking the tightrope was like performing a violin solo. Long, elegant strokes across thin strands of fiber.

Of course, if you flubbed a note on a fiddle, you didn’t end up so much dogfood in front of an audience of hundreds. Usually. He thought of a spider, stepping without thought across skeins and splinters of web.

Tarantula, sang a dirge in his mind from a long-ago album by This Mortal Coil. That’s what he tread across. This Mortal Coil. A skein of filigree and shadow. The web of a “Tarantula.” He smiled and hummed.

The second step fell true. He sighed, an invisible breath of success. The audience didn’t know the peril of those first two steps. It was the job of the ringmaster to keep them from focusing on that while the tightrope walker gained his composure and rhythm.

Down there, past the round red- and yellow-painted elephant waiting step in the 2nd ring. That’s where the megaphone man made his plays. That’s where the man with the handlebar mustache barked his exaggerated cries of, “Can you believe it, he’s about to step out on the wire without a net beneath him…quiet ladies and gentlemen, this is very dangerous…”

That was exactly when Reind didn’t care anymore. That’s where the danger became safe. Sleight of hand and misdirection were the calling cards of the circus.

After the first few steps, he was home free. It was the adjustment zone at the intro; that’s where the tough stuff was. It was the job of the ringmaster to keep the audience focused on the center and the false bravado, where it was easy. 

The third step was good, and Reind’s heart slowed.

Oh yes. Even after all these years of walking, his heart still kicked with a mule’s petulant anger when he put that first toe to the wire. His mind may have been stubborn, but his body wasn’t stupid. He knew that every walk could be his last.

But with step four, he knew that this was just another day. His bearings found, Reind moved steadily across the rope, one foot in front of the other, each step bearing down lower on the ever-so-slightly sloping rope, until he reached the center, and the object of the ringmaster’s over-exaggerated cries of excitement. Once he started that upward incline on the far side of center (over the spot where there was no net) it was like walking up a hill. From the ground, it actually looked fairly level. But it wasn’t, not quite. The second half of the walk was work, but it was easy. He began to think of Melienda, the night before. The way her fringed gold lame top had slipped from his fingers to the floor, a bouquet of tinsel. The way she’d shown him how a girl could really appreciate the controlled reflexes of a tightrope walker. She didn’t care if his mother was the “three-breasted woman” of the freak show tent.

She loved his surety of self. She loved his lips for their deceiving softness.

He loved her eyes for their kaleidoscopic play of spark and dark and mystery. He loved her dimples for their expressive blushes.

God, he hoped she didn’t tell. This was a dangerous game. All of their other meetings had been during the break between their acts. They’d seen each other on the sly for weeks, but never had a night date before. When he slipped back into his tent to face Erin after midnight, he’d had to make up an excuse about helping Raymond with a faulty rope pulley. She’d yawned and shrugged, and turned away back to sleep. Did she suspect?

It was one thing for a man of the circus to love a woman of the same. It was another for a man of the circus to cheat on a woman of the circus with a woman of the same. He knew it was only a matter of time before someone talked to the wrong someone else. No matter how careful he was, tongues would wag. A circus was a family, and like any family, nothing stayed secret for very long.

Erin, Reind’s wife, was a ticket-taker at the front gate.

She had no “talents,” but she’d loved the smell of the damp bales of hay and the heat of popcorn in the air and the sticky promises that pink cotton candy gave and the front gate cries of, “Step right up ladies and gentlemen! Welcome to Barnett & Staley’s Amazing, Mysterious, Phantasmagorical, Traveling Circus. Hear the mighty trumpet of the elephants and the horns of the clowns. Taste the taffy of our apples and caramel of our corn. Twist your body in the house of illusions. And for the truly terrifying, visit our freak show. Come and see the frightening Mr. Lee. Come and beware of the terrible Mrs. Jacob!”

That greeted the guests a dozen times a day in every town. They stepped past the ticket-taker girls and oohed and ahhed at the brightly colored, massive tents, at the fire engine red signs in the shape of giant hands that pointed this way and that, noting in daisy yellow script: “This way to the Freak Show. See the three-breasted woman! Hear the tiny voice of the Midget Man!” And another: “This way to the Center Ring, the site of the Show of Shows.”

The people streamed inside the tent to see what they could never see at home. Sometimes, to breathe sighs of relief that they did not have such freakishness at home. But mostly to lose themselves in the strangeness and warped talent of it all. The circus was ultimately about the people who came to see it. It reflected them. And the people wanted to taste the salt of the corn and the sugar of the cotton and live the vicarious danger of a man on a tightrope and a woman in a skimpy top sticking her head inside the deadly lion’s mouth. They wouldn’t do it themselves, mind you. But somehow, seeing another person tread the wire or brave the teeth gave them satisfaction in their own lives. That was what Reind did…he gave satisfaction. He made life worth living for hundreds of folks every day.

Erin had been one of those people, once. She’d come to see him walk, and hung around after the show to talk. She’d ended up in his bed. She’d asked if he minded, the next morning. How could he have minded? She stayed with him through the next town, helping out as they struck the tents and pulled up the pitons and rewound the ropes. She’d shown up in a “God Left Me for Another Man” T-shirt on the 3rd day with a backpack on her shoulder blades and said, “I hope you’ve got room in your bunk in Cincinnati,” because that’s where they were going. He’d said sure. Aside from the occasional fleas he ended up sharing it with (thanks to the lions), he’d always give up space for a girl like Erin. 

Cincinnati, Dayton, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Detroit, Chicago… she’d been in his bed at the end of every show, challenging him to walk a different thin rope than the one he slid across in the air. This tightrope was wrapped in a scrim of emotion…and she was weaving it as they went. He was trapped before they left Ohio.

She began to earn her keep at the ticket-takers’ booths.

“I’ll not have you carry me,” she said, on the day that she applied for the job. It’s not like she had a lot of competition. Most of the people who traveled with the circus had talents and skills to show off. Or oddities. All Erin had were her looks and a lover. And free time on her hands.

So she worked the booth.

Reind worked a tent.

They made the circus money, and moved from town to town.

Until, in Peotone, Illinois, Reind met a girl with dark, curly locks that stretched down to tease at the creamy cleft between her purple crop top and the low-slung faded denim of her jeans. And he slept with her in the tall grass just beyond the recently-mowed parking lot. And he found that there was more than a wire, and a ticket-taker, and a suitcase to life. At least, that's what he thought, as her heavy, forceful tongue invaded his lips.

Reind thought he could quit the circus for Melienda, if that’s what she wanted. He’d never thought that way when he met Erin. But for now, at least, he wouldn’t have to consider it. Melienda had joined Barnett & Staley’s Circus a few months before. She was the newest member of the family and was working in the Big Tent, ushering the animals and clowns and kids on and off the floor. Her name proved she didn’t know how to spell, but she knew a whole lot else. In particular, she knew what made him feel real good. He’d found that out in between shows while Erin was still out at the front gate selling $3.75 tickets. “I’ll come back tomorrow.”

“Will you see me again?” she asked, zipping up her jeans across bare pale flesh at eye level with him as he lounged on her wide cot.

“Yes,” he smiled. “I’ll do more than see you!”


Reind reached the middle of the rope walk and smiled, both at his memories of Melienda and his hearing… the barker was bragging of how this was “the most dangerous fifteen feet ever attempted by man … a twenty-five-foot high walk with no net across the deadly center floor of a Big Top.” He could hear the audience take in a collective breath. Oooh. Ahhhhh.

His mind was far from the plodding step of toes to rope. His mind was on the deep, brown eyes and wide, pink lips of Melienda. And on what they might do for him tomorrow.

He almost didn’t even hear the ear-crushing applause when he stepped up on the board on the other side and turned to bow to his audience, perfunctorily, before climbing down the ladder as a lion tamer came running across the dusty dirt floor to take his place in the public’s eye. His private eye had other concerns.

Reind feigned sleep when Erin came in. He couldn’t face her, tonight. He was a terrible liar. And, truth be told, despite his feats on the tightrope, a coward. He lay in bed with his eyes locked shut, wondering if he could convince Melienda to stay in Springfield with him. The circus could pack itself up and hit the road, and when it arrived in St. Louis, it would just be short one tightrope walker and one glitter girl. They could hitch onto another circus easily enough… He didn’t really believe the last part, and he doubted Melienda would either; she’d just finally ended a job search. How many traveling bands of multitalented gypsies were there in middle America? And how many needed performers?

He rolled on his side as Erin kicked her shoes into her trunk with two muted thuds, and slipped off her heavy, gold-lined, red jacket, draping it over a folding chair with a hollow clang of metal beads meeting metal back. As she did every night. He heard her jewelry hit the pressboard of her thin shelving unit. She insisted on keeping one light piece of furniture in their portable “home.”

She slipped beside him under the covers, cool silk brushing his thigh. Reind could feel her eyes burrowing into his neck.

“You wanna talk about it?” she said finally. He didn’t stir.

“Yeah, didn’t think so,” she whispered.

They both lay there, faces to the canvas ceiling, each knowing the other was awake, as somewhere a clock ticked through the hour, click-stop, click-stop, click-stop, click-stop, click…


When Reind woke up, Erin was already gone. Part of him was relieved, but another was frightened. What did she know? What would she say, when he finally came clean? He shook away the visions of her screaming and beating at his chest with clenched fists. He dressed quickly, and went out to meet the crowds. He had a show to do.

He passed his mother, “Yvette, The Three-Breasted Woman” outside of the freak show tent. Her arms were crossed over the objects of her attraction, and she shook her head at him and tsked.

“Behave,” was all she said, and vanished behind the flap of canvas.

Great, Reind thought. Did everyone already know?


The first step was harder than usual.

The second, was almost impossible.

He couldn’t focus. He kept hearing Erin ask in the darkness, “You wanna talk about it?”

She knew.

She knew, damnit. Maybe his mother did too! Shit, maybe the whole goddamned circus knew. But how? It hadn’t been that long. And they’d been careful…Or was he just being paranoid?

He could feel a change in texture to the rope beneath his foot at step three, but didn’t look down. When you were on the wire, you didn’t turn back, and you didn’t look down.

But then he felt it again. His foot seemed to slide, just a bit.

Reind didn’t move his head, but his eyes slid down, staring at the event horizon of the long rope below him. He saw the cause of the disturbance. If he hadn’t been so preoccupied with his infidelity when climbing the ladder and starting out across the rope by rote, he couldn’t have missed it.

Someone had wound strands of golden tinsel every few inches, all down the length of rope.

Cute, he thought, and refocused his gaze. Irritating, but not dangerous. He was already past step five and the rest of the way was just a walk in the park, really. He and Rafe, the tentmaster, would be having a long talk when he got down for this little stunt. You don’t mess with a guy’s tightrope to “pretty it up” without telling him!

Down on the main floor, the ringmaster was just winding up, getting into his act.

“Shh, ladies and gentlemen, be very quiet now,” the man in the red- and white-striped suit intoned, holding a finger to his lips. “He is coming up to the most dangerous part. A walk of intense peril. The most dangerous fifteen feet ever attempted by man…Look as he steps out over the ground fifty feet below…without a net!”

Reind hardly smiled at those familiar words. Old hat. He’d heard them too many times. He stepped, slipped a little again on tinsel, stepped again and stepped…

“Shit,” he hissed. Something bit into his foot. He hurriedly stepped again and almost fell.

The rope felt as if it had disappeared and he was treading on a razor. The thin fabric covering the soles of his feet barely shielded them from the rope, allowing him to feel the texture of the strands beneath him. And right now, all he was feeling was pain and a growing heat down the center of his feet.

His arms struck out and waved for balance as his walk slowed, and the crowd took in its breath with a perceptible gasp. The whole world seemed to creak to a slow motion crawl.

He stepped again, and this time, cried out.

And again. The pain was growing, but Reind could not go back. He could not stop. On the wire, there was only going forward, or going down.

Reind looked down, afraid of losing his focus completely, but unable to stop himself from seeing what had been done to his rope.

His rope had been taken away.

Across the fifteen-foot gap above where the nets were withdrawn – the “dangerous” part of his walk – a single, heavy steel wire extended. He had stepped, without seeing, from thick rope onto thin, slicing wire. Ahead, where the protective nets again began below, the wire rejoined the treadable thickness of rope.

He would not be safe until he’d truly “walked the wire.”

Tears were already slipping down his cheeks from the pain, but he would not, could not stop. To stop now would mean death. Or at the very least, a broken back.

Another step, and the skin of his feet was separating, slipping down in a wet, bloody kiss around the wire. He lifted his right foot, feeling the skin sucking at the steel as he pulled it up and away, only to place it down again.

He screamed.

And stepped.

Cried, “Oh my god, my god.”

And stepped.

The audience was aware that something wasn’t right, and the background noise grew in volume as people pointed and chattered and a thousand voices whispered “oh dear, oh my.”

He could feel the web between the second and third toes of his left foot give way with a painful tear and he nearly fell again, wobbling off balance, arms akimbo, waving from side to side but still his legs not stopping, not slowing, no. He put his right foot down, bloody, shredded and fire-hot to the razoring foot-garrote and swore every curse he knew in a foul blue stream, no longer caring if the audience heard or saw his moment of weakness. Now it was life or death for him. This wasn’t a performance. This was a survival test.

This was a punishment.

At last the filleted remnant of his right foot came down on what seemed to be a foot-wide support of rope, and he pulled his left forward to match.

He’d made it. Whoever had done this, he’d beaten them. He’d survived.

He looked down at the familiar surface, checking to see if more foot irritants lurked in the last third of his journey across the sky of the big top.

The rope was free of exposed wire, and golden tinsel. In their place, was a new decoration.

Every remaining foot of his walk was marked off with what looked like raven-smooth ribbons. Ribbons made of long, black twists of hair. The slippery, red blood of his foot was dripping down the satiny locks of one curl even now. 

Reind knew whose hair had been shorn to decorate his rope.

Reind knew whose costume the golden tassels had been ripped and clipped from.

And when he finally reached the platform at the end of his faltering walk, when he slumped down on his knees to cry and shake with relief on the plywood surface, and saw the glass jar with a fist-sized, bloody organ floating inside, Reind knew whose heart had been cut out.


The doctor cleaned and stitched and dressed his feet, and assured him that he would be able  to walk the ropes again. If he wanted to. Reind didn’t ask about the new jar perched on the doctor’s medicine shelf. The jar with something kidney-shaped floating inside.

Back at his trailer, Erin waited.

“They said you had some trouble with your walk today,” she cooed, one eyebrow raised in an innocent question. “Oh my, what happened to your feet?”

He set the crutches aside and collapsed on the bed next to her, where she kissed his forehead, and stroked his hair.

“My poor baby,” she said. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Reind shivered and shook his head.  “I don’t think so. Some things just can’t be said.”

She stood up, shaking her head in agreement.  “I’m glad you think so. I feel the same way.”

She walked over to her shelves, and pulled a jar from the top.  “Your mother gave me this today,” she said, holding it out in front of her, as if to catch the light to see something hidden inside.

“She asked me what I thought about adding it to the display of two-headed calves and conjoined twins and all the rest of the twisted mutants they have jarred up over there in the freak show. I told her I thought so, but I said I’d ask you. What do you think?”

Reind took the proffered jar and stared deep within its yellow, formaldehyde waters. Inside, a tiny Tom Thumb floated, umbilical waving like a wrinkled, severed worm. Its eyes, barely the size of a pinhead, were black, and open. Despite its size, Reind could make out every finger and toe. It was perfect.

“Some things just can’t be said,” she murmured. “And some things just shouldn’t be born.”

Reind could see a tiny drop of blood hanging like smog near the tiny cord, drifting in the preservative solution. He choked, and nearly dropped the glass.

Erin rescued it from him, and flashed a sad, weary smile. “So what do you think?”

“I think it’s going to be hard to walk for awhile,” he said.

“Yeah,” she answered. “Yeah, it looks that way. But you’ve got me to take care of you. We’ll all take care of you.”

She paused and met his gaze, her eyes hard.

“We’re all family, remember? The circus takes care of its own.”

Then she took the tiny child, and left the tent, leaving Reind to cry in dry, empty sobs over the loss of his son, and his lover, as he stared into the other jar left behind on Erin’s traveling shelves. Reind stared for hours into the deep, brown, floating eyes of Melienda, who would never see again.

Originally published in the anthology FREAKS, GEEKS & SIDESHOW FLOOZIES, and collected in VIGILANTES OF LOVE

John Everson is a staunch advocate for the culinary joys of the jalapeno and an unabashed fan of 1970s European horror cinema. He is also the bestselling author of eight critically acclaimed novels of horror, suspense and the occult. His latest novel, The Family Tree, was a featured October 2014 release from Samhain Publishing and his first novel, Covenant, won the coveted Bram Stoker Award in 2005. Originally released by an independent press, Covenant was picked up and released in mass market paperback by New York’s Leisure Books in 2008, along with its sequel, Sacrifice. Three more mass market paperback novels (and several booksigning tours) followed, including the urban legend Candyman-style occult horror of The Pumpkin Man and the mythological creature erotic horror inSiren. John’s sixth novel,  the erotic horror tour de force NightWhere, was a Bram Stoker Award finalist in 2012 and topped the horror charts in Germany last summer thanks to a translation edition.

Everson followed that extreme novel in 2013 with the Kingdom of the Spiders-inspired “Creature Feature” tale Violet Eyes. Over the years, his stories and novels have been translated into Polish, French, Italian, Turkish and German and optioned for potential film development (Siren was on the shortlist two years in a row for the SyFy Channel to turn into a film).

2015 marks John’s 21th anniversary as a published author. In addition to his novels, he has also published more than 100 short stories in various magazines and anthologies.

His short story “Voyeur” recently appeared in the Qualia Nous anthology with Stephen King, and “The Pumpkin Man” (which inspired his novel of the same name) was recently reprinted in the anthology All-American Horror of the 21st Century: The First Decade 2000-2010.  He has been invited to contribute stories in the worlds of Vampire Diaries, Kolchak: The Night Stalker and The Green Hornet, as well as the new IDW series V-Wars, spearheaded by New York Times Bestseller Jonathan Maberry. V-Wars is currently under development for television. 

A wide selection of his short fiction has been reprinted in five short story collections – Deadly Nightlusts (Blasphemous Books, 2010), Creeptych (Delirium Books 2010), Needles & Sins (Necro Books, 2007), Vigilantes of Love (Twilight Tales, 2003) and Cage of Bones & Other Deadly Obsessions (Delirium Books, 2000).

“Letting Go,” one of the short stories from Needles & Sins was nominated for a 2007 Bram Stoker Award and three other short stories from the collection have been included in the Honorable Mention List of the annual Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror anthology co-edited by Ellen Datlow.  Needles & Sins also includes Everson’s full “Circus Cycle,” – “After the Fifth Step” is the 2nd of a five-story arc.

John is also the editor or co-editor of the anthologies Swallowed by the Cracks (Dark Arts Books, 2011), Sins of the Sirens (Dark Arts Books, 2008), In Delirium II (Delirium Books, 2007) and Spooks! (Twilight Tales, 2004). In 2006, he founded Dark Arts Books (www.darkartsbooks.com) to produce trade paperback collections spotlighting the cutting edge work of some of the best authors working in short dark fantasy fiction today (the press has since produced seven anthologies). He is also a digital artist and musician – some of his dark techno songs serve as the soundtrack to the horror fiction CD-ROM anthologies Bloodtypeand Carnival/Circus, and in 2003 he scored Martin Mundt’s comedic serial killer stage play “The Jackie Sexknife Show” in Chicago.

John shares a deep purple den in Naperville, Illinois with a cockatoo and cockatiel, a disparate collection of fake skulls, twisted skeletal fairies, Alan Clark illustrations and a large stuffed Eeyore. There’s also a mounted Chinese fowling spider named Stoker courtesy of fellow horror author Charlee Jacob, an ever-growing shelf of custom mix CDs and an acoustic guitar that he can’t really play but that his son likes to hear him beat on anyway. Sometimes his wife is surprised to find him shuffling through more public areas of the house, but it’s usually only to brew another cup of coffee. In order to avoid the onerous task of writing, he records pop-rock songs in a hidden home studio, experiments with the insatiable culinary joys of the jalapeno, designs book covers for a variety of small presses, loses hours in expanding an array of gardens and chases frequent excursions into the bizarre visual headspace of ’70s euro-horror DVDs with a shot of Makers Mark and a tall glass of Newcastle.

For information on his fiction, art and music, poke around here at John Everson: Dark Arts at www.johneverson.com

He is also on Facebook at www.facebook.com/johneverson and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/johneverson.

The Family Tree

Night Where

Needles and Sins






















































































The Family Tree NightWhere