Circus of the Damned
by Corey Moore
©2002 Corey Moore -- all rights reserved
It was sometime in the endless days of late August when the train rolled into town, a bottle green UP Bigboy with coal-black smoke thundering from its stacks. Ten smooth metal wheels thudded rhythmically against each joint in the rails, scattering legions of grasshoppers from the dry grass, gliding beneath a hundred tons of rolling iron and steel. Behind an antiquated coal car, the engine dragged two dozen boxcars, their wooden slats still bearing traces of the exciting images that promised entrancing wonders and delights, visions beyond imagining from all corners of the Earth: lions and tigers, dancing bears, incomparable horseback riders, elephants, sword swallowers, fire eaters, magicians, and in the center of nine concentric rings stood the master of it all, the debonair figure with a brushed top hat and a dashing goatee, knee-high leather riding boots, gesturing with dramatic authority to the angelic figure painted far above him, the demure ballerina of the high wire. The ringmaster's red coat had faded over the years and was now barely distinguishable from the rusty, sunwashed grain of the wood on which it had been painted, but something of life remained in his eyes, some chip of white leaded paint that suggested devilishly of the danger courted by the death-defying acts at his beck and call.
There were few circuses left in the world; the art of the traveling show had all but vanished with the rails themselves. Most big-city denizens had more modern concerns than a few relaxing days at the big top, and hard-headed reality allowed little room for fanciful freak shows or cavorting clowns. Television was largely to blame, and the cynicism of the age. With the proper technology, one could relax in one's own home and see animals from far-away places, watch cinematic spectacle, enclose oneself in pure Hollywood fantasy. Yet the circus chuffed noisily into Silver Springs, Nebraska, right into the heart of Box Butte county, on the back of a bottle green Union Pacific engine the likes of which had not been seen on the rails since before the Great Depression.
Tents sprang up overnight as if by magic, and the circus, too, seemed a place out of time, a relic of the nineteenth century, as canvas tents flapped heavily in the wind, and the scent of sawdust-strewn midways wafted dreamily into town. The residents of Silver Springs found themselves drawn to the cheerful chirrup of the carousel, to the aggressive Eastern twang of the barker, to the atmosphere of pomp and perpetual celebration that was the circus. Were it not for the modern dress of the circus patrons, one could imagine in the mind's eye that these were indeed simpler times, the bustling, energetic years when Teddy's Rough Riders made their eternal charge up San Juan Hill, when America's westward push had only just reached the Pacific Ocean and was looking beyond to the horizon. The oldest of the old-timers remembered this as the years of the horseless carriage and the iron horse, of King Kelly and Candy Cummings, after Bell and before Marconi, when Edison first lit up the world.
Bonnie Gentry didn't care for the circus. As a student at Silver Springs High, the town's only high school, she had taken lessons against animal cruelty to heart, and it was hard to spend any time at the corral without seeing how soulful and intelligent her horses were. She felt horrible about the small paddock which was all her family could afford, and dreamed of days when horses ran wild across the Great Plains. For anyone to lock up a wild creature in a cage and expect it to live and thrive was beyond cruelty and nudging into sadism. The lion deserved to be king of the savannah, the tiger lord of the jungle. A small square of iron bars was a living hell.
Nevertheless, when Don Sparks asked her to go, she reluctantly agreed.
She had fallen in love with Don during their junior year, and fallen back out before the summer was over. He was strong and tanned from backbreaking farm work -- most everyone was, in Silver Springs. Don had been different at first, a mouthy and rebellious long-haired young rowdy with a hidden streak of sensitivity. If only he could have remained as he was, that day when she sat on a bench in the circle commons while he drew her likeness in a Mead notebook. That was the Don she loved, but he stubbornly refused to let it show. She even posed for him on other occasions, privately, and really felt she had gotten somewhere with him.
When she found the sketches of the other girls, that was the last straw. One was clearly Missy Chamberlain, wearing next to nothing except her cheerleader skirt; the drawing was daubed with her perfume and bore her lipstick kiss. Since that discovery she had been too embarrassed to admit her mistake to anyone, and had avoided Don each time he tried to approach her.
Don picked her up in his '74 Charger, and she sat as close to the passenger door as she could, even though his hand lay invitingly across the seat back, reaching out toward her. They parked in the gravel lot that doubled as parking for the city's annual Garden Fair and Pie Competition, and walked toward the entrance. Bonnie put her hands resolutely in the pockets of her cardigan, but Don affected not to notice and slipped one arm over her shoulders.
An wooden arch surmounted the entrance, where an ancient man in a red striped vest collected money in exchange for a ticket. Don opened his wallet to buy tickets, while Bonnie read the flaking paint on the arch and frowned. It read Doogan & Smythe's Traveling Sideshow and Carnival.
"Something wrong, honey?" Don asked, returning to usher her by the elbow under the arch.
Yes, she thought. Don't touch me. And don't call me honey. However, she gritted her teeth and replied, "I don't recognize the name of the circus. I know Ringling Brothers, and Barnum and Bailey, but I've never heard of this one."
"There used to be a lot of them. Lot of 'em closed down," Don said, putting his arm around her shoulders again. He gestured at the wide path between tents, littered with sawdust. "Look at this place. This stuff was probably all new around when my grandpa was a kid. I'll betcha they still have the same animals from then, too."
They strolled through the aging tents and enjoyed the sights and sounds of yesteryear. A stiltwalker in an Uncle Sam guise towered over the crowd, handing down American flags. Somewhere, a barbershop quartet crooned through the close harmonies, singing Let Me Call You Sweetheart. On a wide stage, a barker brayed the virtues of Doogan's Fix-All Tonic, while a strongman demonstrated its efficacy by performing amazing feats of strength.
Don dragged Bonnie from tent to tent, and as he made mocking comments about the Bearded Lady, the Illustrated Man and the Wolf Boy, she wondered how to gently break it to him that she never wanted to speak to him again. Each time she suggested she had something serious to discuss with him, he listened only long enough to be distracted by another garish placard advertising some other freakish wonder.
Thankfully, he left her alone to get cotton candy, and she had a quiet moment to herself. He was always like this. Don refused to let anyone close to him, and controlled the conversation by refusing to acknowledge any topic he didn't care for. Sometimes Bonnie felt invisible, in public with him. In private he wouldn't take his eyes or his hands off of her.
Was that Jackie Sanders, over there through the crowd? Bonnie peered closely. If only she could find someone she knew, she wouldn't be as afraid of giving Don a piece of her mind right now. She knew him well enough to realize he would stomp away, shouting obscenities, and drive home by himself, leaving her stranded. If only she could find --
A weathered hand pushed an American flag into her hand. The flag was perhaps a few inches across, and pinned to a wooden stick. Bonnie looked up to see a smiling, bearded face looking back down at her. Uncle Sam the Stiltwalker gave her an unpleasant grin, and she smiled back helplessly, trying to dismiss the stink of rotten breath and denture cream. A moment later, he stood up to his full height and strode off through the crowd, tipping his hat and waving his miniature flags.
"Nice flag," Don said, taking a big blue mouthful cotton candy. "They got it wrong, though. Not enough stars, huh? Come on, I saw a House of Mirrors. Let's go check it out."
They cut across the midway, ignoring the exhortations of barkers and carneys to try the ring toss, to win your lady a kewpie doll. One man promised to guess your age, weight, and date of birth. A barker in red vest and tall black boots offered three swings with the sledgehammer, ring the bell, win a prize.
Beside the man on the scale and the barker with the hammer was an imposing building, a two-story box with a luridly painted facade. It read Hall of Mirrors across the top, amid crude renditions of women menaced by minotaurs. A short man with a weaselly face stood at the foot of a short set of wooden steps, smoking a cigarette and scowling at the crowd.
"Come on," Don repeated, grabbing Bonnie's hand and hauling her toward the entrance.
"Two for the Hall of Mirrors?" the weasel-faced man asked with what must have been intended as an ingratiating smile. He pitched his cigarette away into the sawdust. "That'll be four bits."
"Four? Four bits?" Don asked blankly.
Bonnie nudged him. "Fifty cents. Remember the old chant? Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar?"
"All for the Stallions, stand up and holler," he grinned. "Yeah, I remember now."
I'll bet you do, she thought sourly. Missy Chamberlain probably did that cheer for you in private.
"Wow. Four bits, though. That's really ch -- I mean, that's a good price." He paid fifty cents to the carnival worker, who made it disappear with alacrity. "Okay, are you ready to try?"
"I'm not good at these, Don," she said after a moment's hesitation.
"I'll be in there, too, you won't get lost," he said with an oily smirk.
"That's not --" Bonnie stopped and cocked an ear. "Do you hear that?"
"What?" Don hesitated. "The guys singing? Yeah, my grandma used to sing that song --"
"No, there's a cat. Don't you hear it? I think it's coming from the Hall of Mirrors."
He shook his head as if in exasperation. "You're not getting out of it now, I already paid for it. Besides, it's all in your imagination. There's no cat. I'll go first, and then you come after me in a minute or so. Don't worry, these are a cinch, you can't possibly get lost in here."
Don mounted the wooden stairs and disappeared into the hall. She could see him reflected for a few moments, groping forward into the dimly lighted halls, finding his way around, then even his reflection was gone.
Bonnie chewed on her thumb. "Do you hear the cat?" she asked the carney.
"Yeah," he nodded. "I guess it got caught in there. It'll find its way out sooner or later."
She looked worriedly toward the entrance. "You'd think it would be hungry."
The carney nodded brusquely, reaching a greasy hand into a shirt pocket for a pack of Lucky Strikes. "Probably."
"How long has it been in there?"
"I dunno, ma'am. A while. You better go find your friend."
Bonnie nodded and climbed the steps with trepidation. The mirrored maze yawned before her. Somewhere beyond, the cat continued to miaow plaintively. She took a breath and stepped into the labyrinth.
It took her only a few steps to become completely disoriented, and she wasn't even sure if she were continuing toward the exit or returning to the entrance. When she expected an open hall, she found a pane of clear glass, and she found herself turning around and around, looking for a clear path to somewhere, to anywhere. She could see her own reflection dozens of times, as if farther along in the maze, mocking her by being so much farther ahead while she was still trapped here.
The light, recycled from the entrance and exit doors and bounced throughout the maze, was dim with distance, and occasionally she felt she could just make out the retreating figure of Don, slipping past, just out of reach. And there were others in the maze, seemingly, people she didn't recognize. A man in an antique black topcoat and sideburns, a woman in a dress and bustle, a sailor that looked eerily like photos of her grandfather as a young man aboard the U.S.S. Coral Sea.
She heard a cry close by, a woman calling out for someone named Oscar, and she turned to see a mirror beside her. Reflected in the glass, half-turned toward her with alarm, was a woman of about seventeen, with corn-blonde hair and blue eyes, wearing a severe dark brown dress with a white bow tied at the bodice, and a brown pillbox hat.
The woman had Bonnie's own face.
With a cry, she stumbled backward into another pane of glass, and turned away, grasping for walls that would support her weight. Somewhere she could hear a deep-voiced man calling for Violet to come find him, and she noticed a distant shape that looked like a man in a vintage tuxedo.
Bonnie looked back at her reflection, and to her immense relief, it was simply her own image, corn-blonde hair and blue eyes, wearing a red cardigan with the Silver Springs letter. Her reflection looked pale and frightened, and she stood up to gather herself together. This is only a house of mirrors, it is only a maze, and mazes have a way through.
She reached forward to touch her reflection, and found it was only a pane of simple glass. To her left there was no reflection, so she turned that way and followed her feet through several more turns.
The light around her grew dimmer, and the voices became fainter. The wooden floorboards seemed worn in a pattern, and she eagerly tracked it through the maze.
So it was that her head was down when she ran into the man in the tuxedo.
Bonnie careened into him headlong, and was too startled to even speak, stammering something apologetic as she backed up and ran into another of the endless mirrors.
He was tall, over six feet, and had an imposing gray stare. He wore a thin beard and mustache, white gloves, and a tuxedo straight from the deck of the Lusitania, and yet it was as crisp as if she had set sail only the day before.
She collected her spinning thoughts. "I'm terribly sorry, I'm so sorry, I didn't see you, I was watching the track on the floor, I should have been --"
"Not this way," the man intoned.
"What?" Bonnie asked.
"Not this way," he said again, shaking his head ever so slightly. "Your friend went this way, but I'm afraid he got lost. Do you see the mirror to your left?"
She turned, and there was her reflection. "That's not glass."
"It is a door. Open it. It is the way out."
Bonnie gave her reflection a tentative push, and the cool metal door yielded before her. Just beyond, the light was brighter and she could catch a breath of fresh air and the sweet fragrance of sawdust.
"Thanks," she said automatically, turning back to the man.
He was gone.
Without wondering where he might have gone, Bonnie pushed through the door and found the exit in only a few more turns. She clattered gratefully down the steps, breathing in fresh air and sunshine. Don was nowhere to be seen.
She turned around to look for him. Perhaps he had grown tired of waiting for her -- or was he still lost inside?
Standing immediately behind her was Don Sparks, and he looked amazingly different. Instead of his torn blue jeans and flannel shirt, he had on a dapper pinstriped suit. His long, tangled brown hair was cut and combed, and tamed with Brylcreem into a short and stylish cut direct from Prohibition. At first he appeared slightly confused, almost disoriented, and when he saw her, his face creased into a wide and honest smile.
"Bonnie!" he cried, and caught her in a tight embrace. "You made it out! Excellent."
"Don?" she asked breathlessly. "What -- your clothes?"
"It's a --" For a moment, he was at a loss for words. "It's a surprise," he said at last, giving her a kiss. "It's the new me. How do you like it?"
Still caught in his strong embrace, she gave him an appraising look. "I like it, I really do. But we need to talk --"
"I know," he said instantly. "I've -- I've been a pill, I really have. Absolutely wretched to you. I'll make it up to you, I promise. Starting right now. Can you forgive me?"
Without warning, he dropped to one knee in the sawdust and took her hands in his. Looking up at her, Don's face shone for the first time with earnestness and sincerity. "Can you forgive me? I've been terrible."
"Don," she said with a laugh. "This isn't like you at all! What's gotten into you?"
He looked abashed, and stood up. "It's the new me, I told you. Starting today. Come on, let's fly. I'll crank up the flivver and we can go for a drive."
"Flivver?" she asked, puzzled.
Don appeared to concentrate for a moment. "Automobile. Car. Yes, the car. Come on, let's get out of this forsaken place."
"Just a moment," she laughed, still trying to catch up. "I'm not sure what's gotten into you just now, but we do have to talk, about us. So as long as you're willing to listen, I'm willing to forgive you. For now."
Don gave her a quick smile, then glanced nervously back at the Hall of Mirrors. "Come on," he said. "Let's get away from here."
He took her hand, and she let him, and they began strolling for the exit. Don was still disoriented, and began leading her in the wrong direction at first, but she tugged gently on his hand. "This way, silly."
They passed the weasel-faced carney, who was cleaning his greasy fingernails with a pocketknife. Don tried to lead her in a wide circle around him, and when she released his hand to go talk to the carney, Don grabbed it again urgently. "Come on," he hissed.
"One moment," she said, and turned to the carney. "I didn't find the cat in there. Has it found its way out?"
The short man gave her a knowing leer. "Yeah. Right before you did. He came out. Little black fella, white ruff, white boots on his front feet. Cute as the devil."
"Where is he now? Can I see him?"
"Damnedest thing," the carnival man said. "He came out the front steps, wailing and crying, and do you know what he did? Ran right back into the maze. Damned thing."
"Maybe he likes it in there," Bonnie shrugged.
"Or maybe he's looking for something," the carney said darkly, and winked.
"Come on, angel," Don said, tugging at her hand. "I want to get away from here."
"Okay," she said reluctantly, and sighed. "I want to have a long talk with you, Don Sparks, and we're going to talk about our future together."
"Our future," he said with a slow smile.
"Did I say something funny?"
"Not at all," he said solemnly. "There is nothing more I would like to do than to have a future again."
"With you, I mean," he added hurriedly.
"I see. Well, let's get started."
Together they walked in the direction of the exit. The weasel-faced carnival man took out his pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes and lit one, relishing the unfiltered tobacco. Twelve customers today. Not a bad take, but in this business you're always more concerned about the one customer who gets away.
He smoked his cigarette in reflective silence, while inside the Hall of Mirrors, a lost cat with long, ragged gray fur and scarred haunches wailed endlessly.