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The Lost Circus, Part 5
Hello, dear readers! Welcome to the fifth installment of The Lost Circus. Thanks for your patience as this train moves along! Here’s the part where it gets really interesting.
BUT BEFORE WE DO!
Or, if you need a quick summary to bring you up to speed, here it is:
When last we met, our intrepid hero had just met the second curious character of the circus: a Gypsy offering to tell the future. She refused any resistance, and together, our band of two ghosts and one living human prepare to enter the first of the remaining three tents…
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Good luck, dear readers!
May the circus have mercy on your soul…
It's not a party. It looks like one, and it sounds like one, but it's not.
There's definitely alcohol. I see dark red glasses in many performers' hands, wine sloshing back and forth as they talk and gesture wildly. Plates of food - hot dogs and burgers - spin from one hand to the other. Midgets (little people, they're called little people now) sit and stand in clusters on top of boxes in the corner, where they can see everything. Giants and normal-sized humans stand around the tent, deep in loud conversations about something. There's music coming from somewhere, but I don't see a band, and everyone screams on top of everyone else to be heard. It's too loud, my ears already hurt, and I don't see a single soul I know.
Even more, all of these people seem to be normal. No one's bleeding, no eyeballs falling out of sockets, no half-bleached skulls. It's quite the turn of events, after the blood-gushing clown and his lovely Gypsy partner popped out of nowhere. Who are these people? Fellow performers who escaped a violent curse? A mix of massacred audience members and carnies? If so, why don't they look more dead?
The clown pushes through the crowd in front of me, slipping through conversations and steering around obstacles like it's some kind of course. A few performers - easily identified by the spandex and face paint - clap him on the shoulder, but he doesn't stop to talk. Instead, he nods, his fuzzy red hair waving before he dives through the next opening.
Curiously, he doesn't pull me with him. I'd assumed that once I was in here, my doom drums would start beating and he'd march me to my deathbed, but it seems he trusts me not to run away. At least he's giving me the chance to move on my own. Then I feel a hand press into my shoulder, several rings digging into my skin, and I realize I'm not quite alone.
When the Gypsy speaks, she doesn't yell. Instead, the noise in the room lowers, like someone turned down the volume.
"Go, follow him. He knows the way."
As if I needed her to tell me that. I consider telling her that very briefly, and then catch sight of a monstrous seven-foot-tall man covered in muscles and tattoos. His eyes glaze over me, as if I'm not worth paying attention to, and catch on the beautiful hand balanced on my shoulder. They follow to her elbow, then her arm, and a smile appears on his face.
Suddenly everything's loud again, banging and laughing and screaming, and the hand on my back shoves me into the crowd. The smell of sweat and vomit, old leather, and creaky wood fills my nose. A trumpet screams in one ear, a harp in the other. A midget at my feet throws his hands into the air mid-story, and his wine sloshes over my legs. I open my mouth to protest, but the Gypsy's already there, pushing me deeper into the chaos. Dimly, I think about how the tent didn't look this big. It should have only held three or four acts. Who are these other people, and how did they fit them all in here?
My shoe catches on somebody's foot, and I stumble to my knees. Luckily, the crowd parts into an opening, allowing me to hit the floor in a clearing instead of landing on somebody's lap or head. About two inches from my hands stands a pool of red liquid, and beyond that, a pair of giant purple shoes. Strangely comforting, as it's probably safe to assume I've found my bleeding clown host. Right on cue, his six-fingered hand appears and hovers around my nose, an invitation to get back up again. I consider telling him I'm good, but since there's no chance he'd just leave me alone, it's probably better to see what he wants.
I close my hand around his - really, we're basically friends now, so it's only polite - and he pulls me to my feet. Then he steps to one side and clamps a hand on my shoulder as if presenting me to the room.
And he is. But it's not the room.
It's a buffet. Hot dogs and sausage links on long chains drape off a skirted table, dangling just above the floor. Piles of hamburgers squish here and there between the ropes of meat, and a platter of buns sits to one side, with condiments on the other. Several performers stand around, loading up their plates with dinner, blabbering noisily back and forth about something I can't understand. One of them must be remarkably drunk, because he's trying to have a conversation with the table.
My stomach rumbles. It's been a while since my last meal, and frankly, if I'm going to have a final food, hot dogs and burgers aren't a bad way to go. I have plenty of memories of family barbecues, charred food and the smell of lighter fluid, but I'm not getting the same sentiment here. In fact, I'm impressed. The circus chef - dead or not - must be a good one, because the mountain of food here is almost obscene, and there's no way to tell how he or she made it look so festive.
I turn to the clown with a smile, pleased that we're making progress. He hasn't killed me yet, he wants me to take pictures, and now he's feeding me. If I do end up dying tonight instead of making my pièce de résistance film, at least I'll have a full belly and known someone who could have been a friend.
Instead of accepting my thanks, my mysterious silent ally shakes his head and points back at the buffet. My brow furrows, then suddenly everything becomes clear when the table starts to laugh.
It's a woman. The Fat Lady. That old saying about when the fat lady sings pops into my head, but it's about four seconds too late as the smorgasbord takes on a new meaning. Suddenly, the drapery makes sense. The chains of sausages - that aren't sausages - make sense. The performer entertaining the table makes sense. Of course he'd be talking to the table, if it wasn't a table at all.
Oh. My. God.
My eyes twitch back and forth, reading the whole scene anew. The plates in the party attendees' hands. The pile of buns beside the food. The way burgers seem crammed into the display with sausages, and the odd choice of a large, circular bowl to display all the offerings. Even the wine takes on a new meaning, as I watch a stranger dip their glass into the Fat Lady's bowls and take a sip. My own stomach swirls, but there's nothing left to heave. I can only watch in horrified fascination as they feast on one of their own.
It's otherworldly. It's sick. If I wasn't scarred enough by the bleeding clown and the half-skinned Gypsy, now I have the memory of an extremely large woman cut open at the belly, her intestines spilling onto the floor as the rest of the cast serve themselves. Getting fat on her fame, taking pieces of her for their own. They'll gobble her up and spit her out, allowing bits and bobbles to process through themselves and out the other end, assuming ghosts still have to relieve themselves. Or she may stay in limbo, hollowed out and used up, but not quite enough to be gone.
The clown's eyes are hard as he gestures towards the woman. This time, I shake my head. If he wants me to eat something, he'll have to force it down my throat. There's no other way I'm going to eat any of that. I'll just die with an empty stomach.
Instead of throwing me mouth-first into the pile of body parts, he plants both feet and lays his hands on his chest, throwing back his head in silent laughter. His whole body shakes with the effort, giving the impression of a full-belly guffaw that ripples out to his toes and the tips of his fuzzy hair. Tears swim in his eyes - real tears, not bloody ones - and he props himself up on one knee, the other hand held up in surrender as he continues to quake.
I don't get it. He thinks this is hilarious, but I don't know why.
The Gypsy materializes out of thin air, posing beside the fat lady's gaping stomach. She dips one finger into the pit and licks it. My stomach rolls over again, and I realize that the smell I've been attributing to my clown frienemy is too coppery for one person. It's both of them, him and the Fat Lady. Two pools of blood dripping on the floor.
"No." My voice is hoarse, and suddenly I'm exhausted. I want to get out of here, but I know they won't let me. It's a game, now. A sick, squalor-filled little trick that'll keep me up at night for the rest of my life. I want to believe it's a nightmare and I'll wake up eventually, but I know that's not the case. As weird as it is, there are too many details for it to be fake. The metal smell. The sticky feeling on my pants, where something that I thought was wine soaked me to the skin. The pressure of the Gypsy's hand on my back, the way the clown's hair wobbles when he laughs. No, this is real. I'm just in a horrible, horrible place.
I'm in hell. This is hell. And they're serving up people for dinner.
The Gypsy smiles, as if she can hear my thoughts. Then she beckons to my camera. "If you're ready, now would be the perfect time for a picture."