Sheriff Lester Henry (The Carnival Boys)

They sent out the dogs hoping to find the scent and track those dirty bastards down. Stealing radioactive chickens and selling their eggs to the Soviets. We had them in sting, a perfect set-up but one of the guys was listening to his Walkman, someone said it was The Smiths, and didn’t hear them pull in. Heaven knows I’m miserable now. So we had to send the dogs out in hopes of finding them before dark puts the clamps down. The state line is only four to five miles south so time is of the essence. We’ve sent Deputy Jon Johnson ahead as well. He’s a runner, mostly marathons but some smaller events as well. He’s won the annual Slaughter’s Mad Dash 5k three years in a row. In a town where the largest employer is a slaughter house that’s the kind of thing you get.

The Carnival Boys have been raising Cain around here for the past six months. It started with stealing refills at Ken’s Smart Mart, grew into a bicycle chop shop and now they’ve graduated to international crimes. Pictures from surveillance are blurry. Kevin, the assistant manager down at Ken’s estimates their ages to be 12 or 13 years old, although he can’t remember ever seeing them. They did leave a business card at the soda fountain which gave us the name, Carnival Boys in bold with Otto and Peewee in a smaller font just below. Teenage girls around here are in love with them. Parents are encouraged to lock their doors. Television producers from two major networks have flown into town and are considering a television movie. Both the CIA and FBI have been notified by letter delivered by carrier pigeon.

Church bells. Something about church bells makes me melancholy. Something about love makes me sad. The dogs are getting close. Picking up steam, on their heels. Another deputy has secured the chickens. They’re both a little shaken-up which isn’t surprising. It’s only a matter of time now. There are times when I look up at the night sky and wonder how the arc of time stretches across the universe and comes back to settle in our hearts and manufacture our memories. The ticking of my pocket watch keeps me grounded in the here and now but I’ve been having discussions with the wife in the morning over coffee about the present sense of terror that has found me as of late. It happens as we grow older, I understand that but it has almost become a physical ache in my chest; it carries with it a certain weight. Last Tuesday night at exactly 11 p.m. the phone rang and the voice on the other end of the line said, in a whisper, “Are you afraid of dying,” and gently hung up. Now, something about that sticks with a person and it has sent my thinking in about 20 different directions. The wife suggests retirement. I jokingly suggest she have her head examined. We kiss and off I go to work.

We’ve found a plastic clown mask most likely discarded by one of the boys. They make it interesting; always leaving little clues like a pen knife or an oven mitt. A tailless raccoon crosses our path with what looks to be tears in its eyes. Those boys have no shame. The dogs stall, circle and seem to have lost the scent. Two of them lie down and turn on their backs waiting for belly rubs and one of my deputies obliges. Hard to fault him for that. A single gunshot breaks the silence; the echo passes through me and nearly carries me away to a former time. We scramble to reach Jon and after a half mile through a fog that is just beginning to settle like a faint breath we find him on his back, dead. Single shot through the head. The wind sways and I hear what can only be described as a giggle but when I look around there’s nothing there. None of the other guys heard it. An owl blinks from a branch of pine tree. There’s a note nearby, which reads “I did my best.”

The three of us switch off carrying Jon’s body back to the farm, while the solo man leads the chickens. It’s not his death as much as the loneliness surrounding it that makes me want to weep. It borders on madness. After the ambulance arrives I get inside my car, breathe and finally ask myself aloud what I’ve been thinking for some time: Are The Carnival Boys physically real? There are strange spirits in this town but I’ve never witnessed a cruelty like this. Did they, like some deranged Pan-like figure lead Jon into the black hole of his own emptiness? Is that what we all face? The wretched night cuts a dashing figure in the light of a blind moon that cannot hide its frailty.

The following morning I wake-up early. It’s still dark. I walk outside, close my eyes and breathe deeply. The air is tinged with the smell of waking, a new life just as simply as the old one is discarded. An owl’s screech draws my attention to a large pine across the street. I remember a long time ago, when we were different people, when my wife said, “Owls do cry. I’ve seen the tears in their atomic eyes, glow and shine. They cry because they have seen so much but have no one to tell it to.” The weight of what will be begins to bear down and I whisper a prayer for mercy.

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Lillian Morgan

My husband died suddenly at the age of 62. All of the time we spent planning and saving for a day that now will never come. People see me at church and give words of comfort that feel like a blow to the head. Jesus gives comfort they say but I have yet to be visited by him or his angels. My neighbor Ginny bought me a parakeet for company. I realize she’s off in the head but she must have been walking down hallucination alley that day. It was summer and I took his cage outside on the deck, opened the door and watched him fly away. Jesus watches over the birds too so I’m sure it’s okay.

Now I’m not claiming that Robert was perfect but he was a good man. Worked at the plant like all the rest of the jokers in town. It’s a hard way to make a living and when the company took the union out back in ’86 that was all she wrote. We never had interest in leaving town like some did. Although the way this town’s going, leaving should probably be considered. We both grew up here and had built a decent life for ourselves and our four children. He drank of course. All of those morons down there do. I suppose it’s the work. Killing hogs all day and drinking at night to ease the pain that takes its toll after so many years. He took his fishing and hunting trips with the guys, which I never complained about. Not like he was cheating on me, unless it was with Larry Silvers.

He had a wood shop in the garage and was hoping to do more with it when he retired. Well he expired before he could retire and here I sit, chain smoking like a runaway locomotive and drinking martinis all afternoon. I put a Frank Sinatra record on and just sit, smoking my days away. I’ve got a plot waiting for me over at Cedar River Cemetery and I aim to use. I wonder what happened to Larry. Last I heard he was somewhere in Arizona working for a cleaning company and married to some Indian. He always was a little funny if you know what I mean.

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Stephan Joyce

There’s something dark in this town. I’ve been the newspaper editor here for one year and I can feel it. It’s ghostly in that you sense things but rarely see them. The first day on the job, just last June, I was walking down the block to grab a coffee at The Brick House and I saw a man bicycling while wearing aviator’s goggles, a plastic fireman’s helmet and rubber snow boots. That’s the good stuff, the friendly sort of show your uncle around to meet the local eccentrics kind stuff.

There’s an undercurrent here though as if the entire town is haunted by cruelty, falsehood, jealousy and rage. When the sheriff finds a 19-year old kid with his arms hung over a barbed wire fence and a paper Burger King crown on his head like some kind of ridiculous Jesus it tells you something about a place. The drug use is growing and the people here are paying the price for it yet, they seem content to just go to Ken’s Smart Mart and have themselves a Slurpee. Best Slurpee machine in town, no doubt about it, 16 flavors and always changing but that’s not a way to live.

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Mike Knudtson

I am a barber in town. Own my own shop, cut people’s hair and listen to their stories. My hobbies include crossword puzzles and ship building. We all have dreams. The disillusionment comes in 16 flavors in this town of sad darlings. There’s only so much a person can stand before the gallows becomes a viable option. I just cut hair and listen.

I just heard that one of our town’s most beloved and hated mayors passed away last night. That’s the fodder than makes the paper here. Of course we’ll count it as a minor victory if the article has his name spelled right and a recent photograph that slightly resembles his real appearance. Mayor Higgins was known for his fake mustaches, his Pabst Blue Ribbon hat collection and for impregnating a couple of married women back in the day. Supposedly there are a couple of his offspring still in town.

His family said they were shocked by his most recent death. Apparently, his past deaths came as no surprise but this one, the most recent of his many deaths, overwhelmed them. They cited the usual things like his keen wit, his work ethic and his devotion to his children and grandchildren as if any of that can account for how well his inner organs are working.

However, sorrow sows such strange patterns in our eyes that blind our judgment, creating iritic illusions that make us see things that have yet to be invented. Perhaps, upon a little honest reflection, they will come to realize that his most recent death was hardly his best one and that he wasn’t even trying. I suppose it’ll keep people thinking about something other than the murder for a while.

What do I know? I just work here.

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What is this?

The Cedar River Anthology is the work of Muggsy Shawback, a member of the Burr Oak Farm Art Collective. This work is a take on the work of Edgar Lee Masters and his book, Spoon River Anthology. The setting is a small, Midwestern community where a wide range of characters speak about their lives.

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