Just for the blog Irregulars, a story for free.
This story was originally published in issue 2 of Sideshow Fables, in mid-2010. As you might expect with a title like “Sideshow Fables”, the theme was the circus–be it the performers, the customers or a little of both…
“Two adults, three children.”
(Cancer. Hanging. Cancer–again? Must run in the family–fishing accident, overdose.)
The girl who sits in the ticket booth at the circus can see how you’re going to die.
It’s not something she’s especially proud of: it’s not even something she’s particularly fond of. It just, you know, is. Like the sun setting, the tide ebbing and the dust falling; it’s just one of those Things That Are.
“Umm… hello? Yes. Three… no, four… Charlotte, would you come here please? Now!”
(Drowning. Nasty one, at that.)
It started when she was little; six or seven, maybe. She remembers the first time perfectly: it was her mother’s death that she saw. Their hands had touched in passing a cup from one to another, and in her mind there was a flash, a spark, and she saw her mother falling from the bedroom window… and then three days later, she had seen it again–only this time it had not been in her mind. She remembered standing numbly, dumbly, behind the coffin, believing that somehow she had brought this to pass and holding that belief, that knowledge, to herself like a cold dark secret. It would wake her shaking and screaming in the night for months: and then it happened again. And again. And again.
At first, it had been deaths which were coming up quickly; a week ahead, perhaps. A month. Then, gradually, it became years, decades. By the time she was twelve, she could tell straight away how almost anyone she met would meet their end. She started avoiding her grandparents and their friends, elderly neighbours–at least, she did until it dawned on her that everyone dies sooner or later. It wasn’t especially comforting.
“Just me, sweetheart.” A man–a biker. In his forties, maybe. He’s looking at her like she’s on a plate.
She sighs. “One, yeah?”
“Unless you’d like to join me? Sure I can find somewhere quiet for us to sit…”
“Don’t suppose you’d show me to my seat for a little extra, would you?”
“Can’t, sorry.” A flash. She pauses and smiles at him. “But for ten bucks, I could give you the backstage tour.” She twirls her hair, watching him as he bites his lip, leans closer to the window. “Is that so?”
“Uh-huh.” She examines her fingernails. “Not tonight though. Thursday’s my night off–say, nine o’clock?”
“You got it, sugar. It’s a date: Thursday at nine.” He hands her the money, his fingers closing clammily about hers as she passes him his ticket, tries to catch her eye. He winks and sets off in the direction of the stalls. Pulling a face, she pockets his money: poor bastard won’t make it past sundown on Tuesday–heavy rain and balding tyres do not make for an easy motorcycle ride, not when you’re in such a hurry…
“Two please: me and him.” The voice jolts her awake again, and she looks out of her little window. There’s a man in his twenties, friendly. He has freckles across the bridge of his nose–and is one of those rare souls who will die old and at peace in his own bed. It’s unusual, and she’s not seen it as often as she might hope, not yet, not with her only being seventeen this summer. There’s too much bad in the world for that, too much that can happen to a body…
It’s the boy, though, the little boy with him who draws her attention. He’s five or so, staring about him with wide, bright eyes. She sees that look a lot: it’s the look all the little kids have the first time they come to the circus. It’s all magic to them, the lights and the sawdust. They don’t see the patches in the Big Top, or the greasepaint melting off the faces, or the rust on the railings. They see an enchanted world, one full of wonders. He’s no different; holding his father’s hand, clutching a grubby-looking cuddly elephant in the other… But he is different. She hands the tickets over, and just as they’re turning away, she catches it: the smell. It’s the boy. Already he reeks of it, a clammy, claggy smell like shoes that have been left out in the rain. It’s soon for him–too soon. It’s tonight. And as they’re walking away, she does something she’s never done before: she opens the door to her booth and leans out. “Hey!” she calls after them. “You might want to give the elephants a miss tonight, you know?”
“What?” The man stares back at her, puzzled. She shrugs. “Maintenance have been doing some work on their pen today, they’re a bit grouchy. Not at their best. It might be an idea not to get too close, OK? Not with the little guy…” she tails off, hoping he can’t hear the desperation in her voice, but praying he’ll listen anyway. He’s looking at her, and she knows he’s about to speak but the boy pulls eagerly at his hand and they are gone.
Somewhere behind her, the familiar music begins; the show has started. There are no more customers for her tonight, and she flips the sign in the booth window to read “Closed: please purchase your ticket from the ushers” and switches off the bare light bulb that hangs overhead. Her last job of the evening is to take the cashbox over to the manager’s caravan, help him count the night’s take. It won’t be as much as he’s hoping for, she knows. There are fewer people each night, each town.
She swings the cashbox ahead of her as she walks, humming under her breath. A burst of laughter from the Big Top: the clowns have started their first routine… it reminds her that she’s supposed to be going for a drink with Charlie sometime. She smiles. He’s really quite cute if you can get over the lingering smell of custard pies in his hair.
She hops over a low barrier and makes her way towards the caravan, past the dog kennels. The animals are restless, uneasy, stirring and shifting as she passes. Suddenly, she hears a loud bang and is showered with sparks… her heart leaps and, startled, she drops the cashbox, spilling coins and notes onto the ground. Glancing up, she can see the light bulb in the overhead string that has blown, makes a mental note to let Marco know. She kneels on the grass, scooping the money back into the box–knowing she’ll need to come back in the morning to check she got it all–and she hears the footstep behind her.“Fancied my tour a little early, sugar,” whispers a voice and the breath is knocked from her body.
The girl who sits in the ticket booth at the circus, the girl who can see how you’re going to die, is lying in the grass in the darkness. The girl who sits in the ticket booth at the circus is dying. She wonders–almost idly–whether this is why the man with the bike will run off the road on Tuesday, why he’ll be in such a hurry…
She feels drowsy. It strikes her as somewhat unfair that of all the deaths she’s seen, she has never been able to see her own; would it have made it easier? Perhaps, perhaps not. It doesn’t seem to matter too much right now. A warm, soft weight pulls her downwards, a fine mist settles over the world. She closes her eyes just as the noise starts in the elephant pen, the screams carrying on the still evening air…..