Francine turned the corner from the mess, walked out past the living quarters toward the back yard. The trucks and trailers here were well-used, even the recently painted trailers were faded and chipping with sun and travel. The posters mounted on their sides were brittle.
The covered tray she carried wasn’t heavy—oatmeal, she had peeked—so she walked lazily, stopping at each poster.
She was only just learning to read. Grandma Babushka was teaching her, but there were an odd number of capital letters on all the posters and an extra period after ‘Dr,’ whatever that was. “Dur Fagan,” she read aloud. “And his ded…deaadly needles of death.” The man in the photo was large, looming like he was trying to escape the page, each of his hands holding a pair of hypodermic needles as long as her arms. He had one of those headbands with the shiny metal circles on his forehead like a—
“Oh, Doctor Fagan!” she exclaimed to no one but herself. She hadn’t met the doctor yet, but made her mind up to stay away from him. She never did like doctors, and this one looked very unfriendly.
Three scooty side-steps to her right, another banner. Three girls, two tall and one short, dressed in uniforms with short white skirts that looked like a mix between ballerinas and sailors. The banner was heavily damaged, the heads of the taller two girls completely removed, but the youngest was there in full. This girl had a broad, pleasant smile. The bottom read, “Smirl Sisters,” but Francine couldn’t make out what their act was. With skirts that short, she guessed they might be acrobats. Or danced the Kooch…whatever that was. Her brother would never let her go to that tent so she could find out.
A tiny but full-effort hop over a wet spot of dirt. She kept walking. She only came up to the tops of the tires, not even that on the largest trailers, the ones that carried the animals or the tents. These had only the remains of old posters, patchy remnants where the paste was more stubborn than time.
She reached the last ring of trailers. It was so quiet here. Not just that all the crew and performers were elsewhere—they actually weren’t more than a hundred yards away, eating breakfast or prepping for the night’s show. But her steps were the only noise here, hard crinkly crunches on the dry, caked earth at this end of the lot. Even the wind seemed to tip-toe around this place, and the few birds she could see from here seemed to veer wide around the direction she was heading.
Maybe this was a bad deal, she wondered, and thought of turning back. But Mr. It had already paid her, and she figured trying to go back on a deal now would only get her a scolding from Mr. It and maybe Mr. Ringmaster.
Her steps slowed, but even still she reached the end of the last trailer. The trucks and trailers here made a half-circle on the empty lot, a large, open space whose sole occupant was an old, black, wooden cart. It looked like in the picture books—but in the picture books the carts looked colorful and happy. This one was not happy.
Sound here seemed deader than it had twenty steps back. She leaned on the last trailer, peeking out at the cart. Her hand brushed a piece of paper; when she looked up, her brother was staring down at her.
“Midget Strongman!” the poster read. “The 8th wonder of the World!” A dwarfish figure in tiger-skin, lifting a one-ton weight with a single arm. It only looked a little like Frank, the teeth were too perfect, his arms too muscular. Not that her brother wasn’t strong. He was the strongest person she knew. He did all kinds of odd jobs to earn money before the circus: moving furniture, cleaning manure, lifting hay bales. That’s why Mr. Ringmaster Folley had hired him.
But Frank was stubborn, too. He almost never gave her any spending money, and even though they lived with the circus now—the circus!—he never let her leave his sight while he was performing. He was only three years older, but he acted like he was the boss of her. They could be eating candy apples and popcorn every night, but no, “We need to save our money,” he always told her.
A whole month they’d been living here, and she hadn’t seen almost any of the shows, and the only goodies she’d had were the few pieces of popcorn Le Petit would sneak her if they happened to end up near the snack vendors together. “No snacks,” Frank always said, but that was a lie. Francine had seen him sneaking candy floss.
She looked at the open lot. He would hate that she was earning her own money now. She stuck her tongue out at the poster.
The cart was old, even older now that she was beside it. The wood was a uniform black, but she didn’t think it was paint. It was like the wood was dyed or stained this color, the black color seeping into the very core of the wood. The boards that made up its sides were warped, and though they fit unevenly against each other, she couldn’t see anything but darkness inside when she peeked between the boards.
The lock was heavy, made of a metal that matched the key in her pocket. She had to stand on her toes to reach it, and when she did she had a weird feeling. As if, for just a moment, the world stopped.
She pulled away and looked around. Nothing out here. She thought of going back, but when she stepped away her pocket jingled. No, she wouldn’t go back. Tonight, if she wanted, she could have ten candy flosses and Frank couldn’t do anything about it.
She took the lock in hand again. The world filled with the sound of the key in the lock, of the tumblers falling in place. The door opened.
“Hello,” Francine whispered in the smallest voice she could.
Shelves, ceiling to floor. On each, mason jars covered in a thick layer of dust. Many the quart size their jam always came in, but so many in other sizes, too. Small ones barely larger than her hand; resting in the corner was one large enough for her to sit inside. A harsh light filtered through the cracks in the walls behind the jars, backlighting them. She inspected a few. This was so far from the mess, she didn’t think they’d store food here.
The silhouette of one seemed familiar. A larger jar, probably a gallon. A pig? But what was the fluid around it? There seemed to be fluid in most of the jars.
Francine’s mouth felt dry. She wiped dust, smeared a clean streak on the jar. A piglet, its cloven feet pointing at her. It looked like it was prancing, suspended in that liquid. A smile began creeping on her face. She tilted the jar, trying to catch the light on its snout.
She gasped. Nearly dropped the jar and caught it only because of her fear of breaking glass, and then afraid because she was touching it. She pressed it back into the shelf.
The pig swirled, slowly, bubbles of disturbed water circling around it. She wanted to look away but was paralyzed with horror. The eye. One eye, large and black at the center of its forehead.
The room became clear, as if scales were falling from her eyes. Through the dusty jars she could see a two-headed lizard. A worm, long and flat and circling back and forth over itself, jagged, hooked mouth against the glass. Animal parts, claws and hooves and hands. And so many other piglets, flawed in ways she knew would haunt her. A label on the largest jar, the one she could sit in, read, “Mermaid.” She refused to look directly at it.
From the far end of the cart, movement. A breath that rumbled through the floor, the wooden walls protesting, contracting, then swelling with the exhale.
At the far end of the room was a door, the same heavy black wood the rest of the cart was built of, though it appeared to have been reinforced. It sat on thick hinges. Chains crisscrossed the door, linked between seven locks spread across its frame.
Another intake of breath. All the air in the room pulled toward the locked door. The entrance door slammed shut. Unable to think of any other course of action, Francine dropped to the floor and braced herself against the tray of food.
There, at the bottom of the heavy door was a small panel. A flap. Just large enough to push the tray through. She crawled on her belly, one arm scooting the tray ahead of her.
Another intake of breath. Francine imagined herself being sucked into the flap—but the breath cut short. Instead, snorting, sniffing.
She quickly shoved the tray under the door, made a dash for the exit.
“Hello?” The voice was butter, warm milk, a cold cloth on a hot day. Masculine, but kind and comforting. Francine padded to a stop.
The cart swayed, softly this time, the sound of rustling against all the walls of the room behind the door. A man’s face appeared at the barred window. High cheekbones and a square jaw, jet-black hair offset by silver-blue eyes.
The man spoke, “You are not who I expected.”
“H-hi,” Francine muttered. “Uh. Breakfast.” She pointed to the bottom of the door. From where she stood, the room he was in looked shallow. She guessed the man didn’t even have enough room to stretch his arms fully in any direction.
The man looked at her. Blinked a few times, as if he were unsure what to make of her. After a moment he leaned down, audibly stretching. But as his head disappeared, two large, black wings rose into view. Only partially extended, they filled the room. The feathers were as black as the man’s hair, twinkling where they caught the light. As they folded, one of the feathers caught against the barred window and floated down.
“Oatmeal.” The man’s face was back in the window again. “It is still warm. Thank you, littlest one.”
Francine did a quick curtsey, the one Grandma Bubushka had taught her.
“You are new here? And it’s your turn to feed me?”
Still unable to find her voice, Francine nodded eagerly.
Stirring, scraping, as porcelain on metal. “I do not know last when I had a warm meal. Again, thank you.”
“You dropped a—”
“Pardon?” he raised an eyebrow.
Francine pointed to the feather, and it was as if the man were suddenly aware he had, in fact, dropped it.
“Oh. Curse it all. That’s what comes with being cooped up here for so long.” He sighed.
The feather skirted across the floor, turned over itself once and landed on Francine’s shoe. She picked it up by the quill, a rainbow sheen running its length several times over when she stood.
Her voice was a whisper, “It’s beautiful.”
“You can keep it. If you like.”
The winged man smiled, and Francine almost smiled back. She had to remind herself that Mr. It had paid her half a dollar so he wouldn’t have to come here. That just like the tiger, maybe beauty hid something she should be uneasy around.
“I…I need to go,” Francine squeaked out.
His smile softened even more, and he blinked his large eyes slowly.
Francine closed the door gently, or at least tried, and quickly locked the door. She ran across the open field to the circle of cars, not realizing she was holding her breath.
She gasped, leaned against a truck. Her brother would be looking for her, along with the other freaks. They were letting her take part in a show. She was supposed to start training just after breakfast. Few of the freaks were of much help setting up, so they tended to sleep in when they arrived in new towns.
Francine looked at the sun, hardly over the small hills in the East. It was still early. Frank probably hadn’t woken yet, either. She had some time to look around.
It took Francine forty-five minutes, but she found it. She had to peel a poorly-pasted banner aside, on a trailer she wasn’t sure they unloaded in their last three stops.
A banner. Old. One of the oldest she’d yet seen. It was an image of a man, bowed over, wings raised. Chains—seven of them, she had counted—pinned him to the ground. The words were hard to read. She liked block letters, and the balloon letters, not these fancy ones. They reminded her of old-timey books, long, looping letters with extra bits and bobs. The banner read, The Sallen One, but she didn’t know what ‘Sallen’ meant.