“Who did your ink?” The guy in the tank top had a man-bun and one of his arms was covered from knuckles to shoulder in tattoos.
“Pug. He died a few years ago.”
He stepped closer and peered at my arm like he was sizing up an item at a garage sale. “Nice. Dude. Pug was a legend.” He waved and continued down the sidewalk.
I rubbed my upper arm. After all this time, the bejeweled elephant still raised her trunk proudly. It was late October, almost Halloween. I shuddered.
I once ran off to join the circus. It was, I don’t know…twenty years ago? My kids were grown and my wife had been taking private lessons with the tennis pro at the country club for a while. I didn’t think she’d even notice I was gone.
I had found an ad for an assistant elephant keeper for a circus that’s headquartered about a hundred miles away in Dante, Florida. Training provided during the winter, then travel May through October. I’d even found a set of vintage nesting steamer trunks for my stuff. Maybe not the most efficient, but I love old things.
The Ninth Circle Circus always held performances in their hometown the last week of October. Halloween Homecoming, they called it. I arrived two days before the troupe and I unloaded my stack of impractical trunks in one of the tiny houses on-site provided to employees. It would have been easier to have just gotten an extra-large suitcase, I suppose. But the three of them grouped together, in all their old-fashioned glory, had made this feel like a real adventure.
I spent the majority of my time exploring Dante, the surrounding small town that was mostly populated by retired circus performers. There were all the shops you’d expect, and then some. But there was only one that I felt compelled to visit.
Perched on the slate roof of Orpheus’s Oddities was an eight-foot plastic lyre that had seen better days. There were a few patches of gold paint on the oversized instrument, but it was mostly a swampy grey. I wasn’t sure if that was by design or just entropy.
Wind chimes tinkled when I opened the door. I saw no one in the shop—the cashier must be in the back and would probably turn up in a minute. Casually posed mannequins stood all around the shop, dressed in sparkling circus costumes and antique jewelry. A trapeze hung from the ceiling and a life-size acrobat hung by his knees from the bar, forever ready to catch a non-existent flyer.
A taxidermied white horse stood close to the door, three of its hooves fixed to a heavy stand, while the fourth was raised in an elegant arc. Hot pink, glitter-sprinkled feathers to rival a Vegas showgirl rose behind its ears and another, even larger bouquet adorned its back, held on by a leather strap that encircled its middle. The brown glass eyes that stared at me from its majestic head were so realistic I found it… off-putting. I hurried past it into the heart of the shop.
A statue stopped me cold. On the glass counter, a life-sized contortionist squatted, her back bent at such an extreme angle that her placid face looked out from between her feet. It made me think of a spider, even though she had only half the limbs of an arachnid. A beam of afternoon sunlight cut through the dingy window above the wooden door and highlighted her face. The vertical slit of a pupil in her yellow eyes didn’t make me feel any more at ease.
“Anything I can help you find?”
Ahh! I almost jumped out of my skin when the contortionist spoke to me. She began unbending herself.
“No. No, thank you. I was just looking. Got a job at the circus and moved in yesterday.”
“Oh.” She grinned at me. Her eyes were an ordinary brown now. Must have been a trick of the light that created that creepy effect. “You must be Terry Gillespie. I heard they hired a new pooper scooper.”
“Yeah. That’s me. Hope there’s more to the job than that, though.” I hadn’t really thought about what duties an assistant elephant keeper would be performing before I applied for the job.
“My brother’s the elephant boss. Circus owns three of them—Ellie, Peanut, and Queenie. They’re all really sweet. Queenie’s the mom and Ellie and Peanut are her daughters.” The way her eyes flicked up to the ceiling when she said ‘brother’ made me wonder about their relationship.
“Is there a dad elephant?”
“Rorschach, but he passed away a few years ago.”
“Oh. Sorry to hear that.”
Her smile showed too many teeth. “If you have any questions while you’re looking around, just ask.”
I nodded and continued with my perusal. The store wasn’t the standard box from a strip mall. The building had clearly been someone’s house once upon a time. I guessed this had been the living room, or possibly parlor, depending on how old the house was.
My eyes fell on a shelf of preserved mutations. A tiny, two-headed pig floated in a jar of formaldehyde. A frog with four extra legs, placed randomly on its body, stared out from a brick of acrylic. A stuffed kitten with a single enormous eye, eight legs, and two tails sent a shiver down my backbone. A Fiji mermaid sat next to that, the clumsy surgery that grafted a monkey head and torso onto a fish’s tail painfully obvious.
I moved to the next room. Bigfoot print castings, a clump of alleged Yeti hair, and blurry blowups of UFOs lined one wall. A gallery of photos and paintings of sideshow freaks took up the other three. I kind of liked the impressionist take on the bearded lady.
Four additional rooms held circus memorabilia, old costume jewelry, and circus-themed home décor and souvenirs. I thought about getting a big top shower curtain for my daughter—she loves that kind of thing.
A glass cabinet in the souvenir room contained pewter figurines. Ringmaster. Clown. Lion. Elephants in several poses. One elephant, its trunk raised proudly, stood out from the rest. It was the only one of its kind, probably the last on the shelf, because it was so much better than the others. Purple and pink crystals—I assumed they were rhinestones—sparkled in the headdress beneath fluffy plumes of purple feathers. I had to get it, given my new job.
I set the statuette on the counter by the cash register. “There’s no price on this one.”
“All the figurines are the same price.” A sly smile edged up the corners of her lips.
Seemed reasonable. I wasn’t in the mood to haggle, anyway.
She rang up the statuette. “They say a raised trunk is for good luck.” She grabbed the elephant with a wad of tissue paper and shoved it into a bag.
“Thanks. I’ll need all the luck I can get.”
“Yes. You very well might.” She grinned her stomach-churning grin.
I took my purchase and left, not sure I ever wanted to set foot in that store again. I could order a shower curtain online for Genie.
When I got back to my tiny house on the circus property, I unwrapped the elephant and set her on the windowsill in my bedroom. Purple and pink blobs splotched the white paint of the sill where sunlight touched the jewels. The elephant just looked happy, and it made me feel happy looking at her. Don’t know how I knew it was a her, but I knew.
I was supposed to be at work at 8:00 AM, so I left my house at 7:45. I’d found the elephant enclosure when I first arrived, but I wasn’t entirely sure where in the oversized building I was meeting my new supervisor. As I got closer, I saw the grey forms of three elephants in the reinforced pen. But no people.
A woman in tights and a sports bra was heading in my direction.
“Excuse me? Miss? I’m looking for Elliot Spencer. Can you tell me where to find him?”
Her eyes boldly scanned my body from head to toe and back up again. “You must be the new bullhand. You’re a lot better looking than the last two. Shame.”
Last two? Is there a high turnover rate? “Um… thanks?”
She pointed to a towering barn. “You’ll probably find Spence in his office in there.”
I’d seen tall elephant and giraffe barns on trips to the zoo when the kids were little. But this one seemed less airy and bright. Dark, heavy timbers supported the tall awning, which cast the entryway in deep shadow.
It’s not like I need this job, I reminded myself, not sure where the resistance to entering the elephant barn was coming from. My footsteps echoed off the concrete walkway and were swallowed by the gloom.
“Hello?” I called.
There was no answer.
Further down the hall, I spotted a lighted office window, so I hurried toward it. Should I knock, or just go in? He is expecting me. I knocked on the door before opening it. A man a little older than me looked up, a phone receiver clamped to his face.
I looked around while he finished up his call.
“Fleur said you were in the shop yesterday.”
His lips pursed slightly. “The one and only. Alright, let’s get started.”
He gave me a tour of the elephant facility and introduced me to the pachyderms. As it turned out, Fleur’s description of the job as a pooper scooper wasn’t that far off. I shoveled food at one end and manure at the other. The elephants were friendly, brushing me with their trunks when I was in the pen. I didn’t mind, except when they got too personal. Peanut was bad about groping.
Halloween would fall on a Saturday this year. Spence told me they expected an especially large crowd. Dante wasn’t that far from Jacksonville, so there were always plenty of big-city suckers, ready to lose their money on the midway during that glorious Halloween Homecoming week. I fell into the rhythm of life in the circus. My favorite part was watching the aerialists from backstage. Benders not so much. They made me queasy.
Circus life was hard work, harder than I’d expected. Didn’t need to worry about going to the gym. I’d only been there a week and thought I was in decent shape, but I had to go up a notch on my belt to keep my pants from falling off.
It was closing in on three AM. I sat in Spence’s office, and he poured us both a drink. The midway hadn’t shut down until two to take advantage of the sizeable crowds. The Halloween Homecoming had been a runaway success. There was an afternoon matinee tomorrow, but for all intents and purposes, this season had ended with a bang.
Spence got up and stood near a picture of four elephants. I recognized Queenie, Peanut, and Ellie. Didn’t know the fourth, but suspected it was Rorschach. I coughed after guzzling a little too much of the liquor. I wasn’t entirely sure what it was. Spence had poured it from a crystal decanter, and I’d assumed it was whiskey, but I was wrong. It was not like anything I’d ever tasted, but I could pick out a few familiar flavors. Anise. Honey. Vinegar.
My head drooped against my chest. My normal bedtime was about five hours ago. Spence was talking. His words meant something, but I was too tired to understand what. I’d figure it out in the morning.
“C’mon.” Spence opened the door.
I stumbled after him, even less coordinated than I expected.
Queenie, Ellie, and Peanut stood in their stalls, stuffing hay into their mouths. Well, Ellie and Peanut were. Queenie stood quietly, facing us.
I leaned against the bars to hold myself up. “I should probably hit the sack. I’m beat.”
“In a minute. I want you to see something.”
“It can’t wait until morning?”
He had the same unpleasant expression his sister did—a grimace that was more snarl than smile. It made my skin crawl.
Something touched my hair and I jumped. It was Queenie, stroking my head with her trunk. “Well? What do you want to show me?”
Spence whistled an unfamiliar tune.
Queenie’s trunk shot out like a snake and pulled me hard against the bars. Something else wrapped around my right leg, then my left arm. I looked down to see two more elephant trunks. Another one grabbed my left leg.
Wait. Four? “Queenie!” I grunted. “Let go!” She ignored me. “Spence?”
He stood there in the darkness. “Sorry, Terry.”
The elephant tugged harder, as if she was trying to pull me through the bars. My ribs ached, like they would crack at any moment. I gasped for air. Instinctively, I lowered my head and bit down as hard as I could on the tender tip of Queenie’s trunk, clamping down until she released me, bellowing in pain.
I staggered away from the bars, out of reach. I don’t know what that thing was that stood behind the bars, but it wasn’t the Queenie I knew. Six trunks flailed like angry snakes in front of her face. Her head had widened and a third eye, smoldering red like the other two, had appeared in the middle of her forehead.
Teeth—not elephant teeth, but knife-blade piranha teeth—glistened in the slime that oozed from her mouth. My head swam. I tried to shake it off as I bolted for the door. Spence stuck out a boot and tripped me. I sprawled on the concrete, busting my lip and skinning my knee, but somehow I was back on my feet and running in an instant. I raced to my tiny house, locked the door, and hid under the bed.
What was in that drink? LSD? I forced myself to take deep breaths. Calm down, Terry. You’re so tired you’re hallucinating.
Feet crunched on the gravel path outside the house. No. No, no, no, no.
“Teeeerry. I know you’re in there. I can smell you. Come on out.” Spence sounded like he was trying to coax a lost kitten out of a tree.
This isn’t happening. None of this is real. But I didn’t move from my hiding place.
Glass shattered in the front room. The front door opened, and heavy footsteps crunched on the remains of the window.
“Teeeeerry. Come out, come out wherever you are.”
I held my breath, feeling like I was going to lose my lunch at any second. The house had only two rooms: a living room with a kitchenette and a bedroom. If I wasn’t in the front room…
Spence whistled as he strolled through my house. That same weird tune from earlier. In the gap between the bedspread and the floor, I could see black boots, each footfall on the wood floor like a sledgehammer blow.
The boots stopped right in front of my face at the end of the bed. “Bingo.”
The double window above the bed shattered, and glass rained on the floor. Suddenly, the bed was picked up and tossed onto its side.
Six trunks had swarmed in from the broken window, searching for me. I wasn’t sure I was out of reach.
Spence shook his head. “You’re making this so much harder than it has to be, Terry.”
I scooted backward, slicing my palm on a shard of window. A trunk stretched toward my head, getting longer as I retreated until I hit the wall. It found my foot and dragged me toward the gaping hole where the window used to be. I clawed at the area rug, but only succeeded in bringing it with me.
The elephant figurine had been knocked to the floor and lay in the window debris. It wasn’t much of a weapon, but it was the only one I had. I grabbed the statuette, and it almost slipped out of my blood-slicked hand. But I held on and bashed the trunk that was tugging me up through the ruined window.
There was a sizzle, and I almost gagged on the acrid smell of burning flesh. Queenie screamed, dropping me onto the wood floor. Before I could get up, the other five trunks wrapped around my arms and legs, and I thought my shoulder was going to dislocate as she tugged and shook my arm, trying to make me drop the pewter elephant.
I don’t know how I held on to it. Maybe because the drying blood had become sticky.
Queenie squeezed my arm so tightly I started losing feeling in it. If I dropped the figurine, that would be the end of me.
I struggled, trying to turn my body and break her hold. She shook me and I felt like a mouse in the jaws of a cat. I wasn’t going to fit through that broken window. Not in one piece, anyway. Jagged glass studded the frame. I kicked my legs, trying to maneuver one of her trunks onto a sharp edge. No luck.
The monstrous elephant pulled me against the window frame. My body was being crushed against the center bar and I fought for air. As my body contorted, I heard a pop. I hoped it was the wood and not my spine. My arm slid toward my thigh.
The figurine brushed one of Queenie’s trunks.
She bellowed, and her grip loosened.
I smashed the statuette into her other trunks, burning them, too. She let go and jerked them from the window, dropping me into the broken glass. As I struggled for breath, I heard her thudding footsteps retreat into the darkness.
“What did you do?” Spence growled.
I whirled on him. His eyes were reptilian. Gold with vertical pupils. I almost dropped the statuette.
“Where did you get that?” he snarled as he backed away from me.
“No, you didn’t. We’d never carry something like that.” Then he growled, a low rumble deep in his chest. “Fleur,” he muttered just loud enough for me to hear before fleeing out the door.
I huddled in my closet until dawn, pewter elephant clutched in my hand. As soon as the sun bobbed above the horizon, I threw my few possessions into my steamer trunks and hit the road, with no idea where I was going, just wanting to put as much distance as possible between me and Dante, Florida. I got on I-10 and headed west.
Two days later, I was at the edge of a town whose name I can’t remember, sitting in a twenty-four-hour diner having stale coffee and a questionable piece of cherry pie. This had turned out to be a whole lot more adventure than I’d bargained for. Maybe what I really needed was a place in a small town. Just an anonymous retiree with a little house I could lock and leave when I wanted to travel. There’d have to be some things to do in the area, of course. But an out of the way place, a friendly backwater where a circus was not likely to visit. I’d had enough circus excitement for the next three lifetimes.
I hadn’t been paying much attention to the TV that hung above the end of the counter, but a video of a fire caught my eye. The volume was off, but I read the chyron.
“Overnight, the winter quarters of the Ninth Circle Circus burned to the ground. The compound housed a circus troupe during the off season, and the small town of Dante had built up around it.” The video switched to a still of a young woman, face smeared in soot. I almost choked on my cold coffee. It was Fleur, the contortionist. “Tragically, firefighters have only been able to rescue a single resident. Cadaver dogs have been called in, but no bodies have been recovered as of yet.”
I didn’t know what had happened. Had Fleur torched the camp? Or had they left her behind in the flames? Heck, maybe Queenie was so furious about being denied her…sacrifice that she lit it up. Either way, I needed to put more space between me and Dante. If it weren’t for the nasty cut on my hand, I would have chalked the whole thing up to a doctored drink. But that raised its own questions. I didn’t think there was a reason for them to come after me, but then again, I didn’t think I was going to get attacked by some perversion of an elephant, either.
I pushed away my half-eaten pie. Grabbing my check and heading to the door, I rubbed the bejeweled elephant in my pocket like a worry stone.
An extra dose of luck never hurt anybody.