This story is by Sarah Elizabeth Graves and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A funhouse full of mirrors seemed like an appropriate place to die. Claire put a hand to the bloody gash in her side and watched, through the panes of refracted mirrors, the red rivers that oozed between her fingers.
She’d been caught in the crossfire of flying bullets as a fleeing gunman shot wildly at the pursuing cops. At some point, they’d stopped pursuing and started barricading this section of the carnival.
She’d thrown herself into the nearest doorway the second she’d been hit, and this is where she’d landed. Had she simply dropped on the ground outside, she may have been found by a paramedic, but she’d needed a moment to think.
She had no idea who the fleeing gunman was, what he wanted, or why he was there. Claire only knew one thing for certain: She was going to die here. She’d already seen it, days ago, as if the intervening hours somehow meant anything. It hadn’t given her the chance to prepare. Nor had it blessed her with any possibility of stopping it. She already knew from the long, painful road of experience that there was never any such possibility. There was only the base cruelty of absolute knowledge.
Claire breathed a labored sigh as she scooted her body back against a mirror, leaving a smear of blood along the painted floor. It was an odd thing knowing exactly when, where, and how she was going to die.
Once, Claire thought she’d been blessed with a great gift. That she’d woken up one morning to inborn superpowers, like an X-Man from the comics. She remembered her very first vision: all the dead left like scattered wreckage in a coffee shop, the sidewalk outside littered with shattered glass, refracting the light like so many carnival mirrors.
She hadn’t known what it was at first. A delusion? A seizure? A roofie slipped in her drink? But sure as hell not a glimpse into the future.
Then she’d read about it the next day in the news. So many dead, and she could have stopped it. Next time, she would believe, and she would act.
But knowledge that her mother would die in her sleep of a heart attack had not saved her. Mom’s doctors had all insisted she was fine. She wasn’t fine.
Nor had she saved little Tommy from dying in a fire. Even after she had dragged the little boy out, and all was clear – everyone was safe – somehow he had found a way to sneak back in, back into the blaze, to save his cat.
They’d both died. The boy and his cat.
It never worked. Time after time, Claire tried and Claire failed. No matter what she did, if she saw someone die they always died. She had a superpower. And it was completely useless.
Yes, knowledge was a cruelty beyond comprehension, and reality was the devil’s own bitch.
Screams echoed off the funhouse walls as more shots rang out. Claire already knew what was happening. He was taking hostages. She’d seen it. She didn’t know how many died today, save herself, but she’d seen the hostages. This was part of it.
Beside her, she could see her injured body reflected in at least six different mirrors. Fat, short, tall, ballooned. Every mirror was a different image. All were of Claire, bloody and broken, but each Claire was different somehow. The magic of warped plexiglass.
In one mirror, blood pooled beneath her like an ocean. In another, it was only a droplet.
In her vision, she hadn’t seen all of these reflected images. Maybe, Claire started to realize, that meant she didn’t always see everything.
Claire shook her head. What did it matter? She was going to die. If Claire saw someone die, without exception, it always happened. Maybe not in the exact place at the exact time, but the “victims” of Claire’s visions had every reason to fear the reaper. About the hundredth time she’d tried and failed, she’d stopped even questioning it.
And yet . . .
With the exception of this last one, she’d never seen herself in a single vision. Every time she’d tried to help someone, to save a life, she’d never seen herself do the trying.
This wasn’t the first time Claire had contemplated the question of every Greek tragedy: If she hadn’t seen it, would it still have happened? If she hadn’t dragged Tommy out of the fire, maybe a fireman would have. Maybe he or she would have stuffed Tommy into an ambulance. Maybe the fireman would have saved the cat.
What the hell was Claire doing at a carnival, anyway? She hated them. Growing up, her parents had dragged her from one street fair to the next, feasting on hot dogs and funnel cakes and cotton candy and ice cream cones. Wasn’t that how everyone celebrated summer? Except for little Claire, who’d gorged on too much funnel cake. Now even the smell of fried dough made her want to hurl.
Aside from the vision, what weird twist of fate would’ve conspired to get her to this exact spot, so she could get shot to death and die in a funhouse?
Claire had no idea. But she’d given up questioning it one hundred and one visions ago. This is what she had seen. Today she would die.
And yet . . .
Maybe Tommy would have died anyway. But she was there and she’d never seen herself in the vision and that definitely meant she didn’t see everything.
And maybe that meant she still had choices.
Claire wasn’t mortally wounded. The bullet had only grazed her. There was no logical reason she couldn’t escape this. Absolutely none at all.
Claire could walk away.
She could stay here where she was safe. Or, she could slip away behind the police line. She could try just one more time to save a life – this time her own. Maybe this would be the time it finally worked. Claire could finally be somebody’s hero.
Or . . . Claire could accept what she already knew in her heart to be true: that neither God nor the devil ever spared a soul from the final horseman.
The image of her squashed and flattened face stared back at her from the carnival mirror. What might Tommy’s face have looked like if he’d ever been allowed to grow up? If she hadn’t failed?
Claire smacked a fist against the mirror, and the plastic jiggled in response. Whoever’d given her these visions – God or the devil – could go fuck themselves. Claire was done playing.
She reached down with her blood soaked hand and hoisted herself off the floor. As she stepped into the funhouse doorway, flashing red and blue lights strobed over her. She knew if the cops spotted her, she’d be stopped, and all would be over.
Claire ducked back into the funhouse and exited through the back. She had to wind her way around the fairground, outside of their focus. She’d snuck her way onto enough active crime scenes to know S.W.A.T would be arriving soon, likely with a sharp shooter.
Maybe they’d rescue all the hostages with no loss of life; maybe they’d be in time. Claire wasn’t waiting around to find out.
She slunk around behind the backs of the game booths, winding her way towards the one she wanted, the ring toss, and reached under the wooden countertop. She already knew it would be there. Claire was in tune with the vision now. She gave into it completely as her hand hooked around the cold metal that had been shut away in a hidden drawer.
Claire let the pistol hang against her side, her hand pressed against her jeans as she walked towards the carousel. That’s where he’d planted himself, in front of a dozen moms, dads, and kids, locked on their traveling horses by an armed psychopath.
She didn’t bother to conceal herself as she stepped into the space between the ride and the ticket booth, in plain view of the gunman, the cops, and everyone. It didn’t matter. Claire was already dead.
Her loaded arm was raised as she approached, and her hand squeezed the trigger no sooner than she felt a barrage of bullets lance through her chest and torso. Her legs buckled, and her body crumbled beneath her, lost beyond all ability to will it to stand.
It was okay, though, as Claire had aimed true. Always shoot for the head. He’d hit the ground before she had.
Some part of Claire was barely cognizant of a dozen bodies suddenly looming over her as the coldness seeped in.
She thought she heard something like an awed whisper: “She saved us . . .” But she couldn’t be sure.
She was only sure of one thing before the darkness took her: Maybe she wasn’t death’s bitch after all. Maybe she was death’s instrument.