Table of Fear

Hazel Ann Lee

Choose a card and meet your greatest fear!” squawked Clairsee, the sideshow dealer. She loudly screeched an off-tune ditty claiming to be a psychic.

Clairsee is my name,
Clairvoyance is my game!
Search high, Search low,
See what the cards show!
Do you know your greatest fear?
Seek it at my table here!

It was midnight now. A chilly, dank-smelling wind blew in from the north towards me and my two close friends, Billy Bond and Kwame Johnson. I’m Stu Miller, the one telling this tale. The three of us had just returned from our first year in college, during spring break. We were attending the bustling county fair located near our small town in the heavily forested Allegheny Mountains.

We found ourselves gawking at a fortune teller sideshow as we were leaving. We had eaten popcorn, chili dogs, cotton candy, and drank glasses of chilled lemonade as we played the dime games throughout the fair. I was feeling a little sick from eating so much food and drowsy from the late hour when we reached Clairsee’s decrepit stand.

Clairsee’s sallow face was barely seen beneath a mound of grey shoulder-length hair. She had a lopsided smile and bright blue eyes. Clairsee’s eyes sparkled as she sang her rhyme. When she beckoned to us, she looked to be eighty years old, from wearing an old, dark green shift with a torn, black shawl wrapped around her shoulders. If I could guess her age, she would be young, maybe twenty-five years old, only a few years older than we were, because of how quickly she spoke and stepped.

“Choose a card and meet your greatest fear!” said Clairsee again openly sneering at us.

Hanging over Clairsee’s stand was a torn sign with red, faded letters that read “Find Your Fear, 25 cents.” Below the sign was a rickety table holding three battered playing cards with the red backs of the cards facing up. Clairsee stood close to her Table of Fear.

It was Billy who pushed me towards the table saying, “Stu, the sign says twenty-five cents. Go ahead and try it.”

Billy was the leader. He was short and dark brown with a tousle of auburn hair. His black eyes crinkled at the corners when he joked. Being a leader type, he signed up the previous week to join the Air Force in the Reserve Officer Training Corps to become a pilot.

“Yeah, Stu,” echoed Kwame teasingly. “Pick one of Clairsee’s cards.”
Kwame was fair with green eyes, and stood about five-foot-nine. He was thoughtful, always asking questions. He was awarded a scholarship to a California college and planned on being a doctor. Whereas I was dark brown, of medium height with light brown eyes, and short black hair. I had also received a scholarship and was studying English at state college to become a writer. Usually, I followed along not saying much. However, tonight I was the adventurous one.

“Choose a card and meet your greatest fear!” said Clairsee for a third time.
Clairsee’s taunting and my friends’ sly encouragement goaded me on. I had to pick a card now or by Monday, all our friends would know I was a scaredy-cat. Quickly, I thought of my greatest fear – losing the respect of my friends for turning down this challenge.

Unwillingly, I flung my quarter on the table. The coin landed on the middle card spinning wildly on its edge for several seconds until the coin stopped and fell to its side. The card dealer howled, throwing her head back, clapping her hands, and shrieking with laughter.

“You picked a good one!” Clairsee cackled at me.

I reached out and touched the middle card. Abruptly, the ground split open beneath my feet. My body dropped straight down a narrow hole scraping my shoulders on the sides. After what felt like an hour of falling, I arrived at the bottom slamming my feet on hard rock.

It was chilly at the bottom. I could see that the narrow hole expanded into a dimly lit cave. The air smelled moldy. The cave’s walls gave off a dull, grey light. Hissing sounds could be heard coming from the walls of the cave. Sharp, snapping sounds of rattles could be heard at my feet.

I realized the cave was a den of rattlesnakes. I wrapped my arms tightly around my chest as I felt snakes crawl over my sneakers. Hissing sounds could be heard above my head and to my sides. In front of me, I made out coils of hundreds of snakes at my feet and snakes gliding down the cave walls.

The largest snake, about two metres long, was coiled at my feet. Its rattle sounded the loudest and it reared up. The snake’s head leaned forward to strike at my leg. I stood motionless trying to be as still as possible. I closed my eyes, gasping with fear, and waited for the snake’s venom to flow hotly through my body.

Suddenly, I was clutching at a hard edge. I opened my eyes to see I was back at the fair holding tightly to Clairsee’s crooked table. The cards, quarter, and Clairsee were gone. I turned aghast to my friends lined up behind me with dumbfounded expressions on their faces.

“I fell into a den of rattlesnakes!” I screamed at my friends.

“What?….Where?…What are you talkin’ about?” were their responses.
Kwame shook his head side-to-side and reassured me, “You never left us, Stu. We’ve been watching you all the time.”

I told my friends what happened to me and they swore I never left their sight. They said Clairsee disappeared while they were watching me. They never noticed when she left.

Years later I still cringe when I think of Clairsee, the sideshow card dealer, peddling her Table of Fear. My friends and I reasoned when we became older that Clairsee had hypnotized me with the spinning coin. It felt so real to me. Perhaps, I should be proud of myself for surviving my greatest fear.

Hazel Ann Lee s an American author who recently published a book of original science poems and sci-fi short stories titled The Astronaut’s Window: Collection of Poems and Short Stories Celebrating Nature, and the moving, environmental science fiction poem titled “Last Seen Sunset” was published in the Star*Line Magazine Issue 43.4. Hazel Ann’s horror poem titled “Luna’s Midnight Escape” is online as an audio recording on the SFPA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association) 2020 Halloween Poetry Reading webpage at the