Previous: Episode 9
Francine dragged her bags into the door of Daniel’s trailer. One on each shoulder, she got stuck in the jamb, struggled. When she realized she wasn’t going to be able to get through, she slipped the handles from her arms, dropped the bags, and hastily kicked them down onto the dirt.
Immediately she was on them, throwing the handles back onto her shoulders. “Okay, let’s go!”
Frank, her older brother, was dressed in his tiger stripe leotard. He was toying with a lever near his stage, the one where the barker shouted for people and Frank lifted his giant weights. Frank didn’t look up when he replied. “I told you yesterday, Francine. We’re not leaving. Not until after the show.”
Francine pouted and stomped. “You’re the one who wanted to leave!”
He still hadn’t faced her. “You can pout all you want,” Frank replied. “There’s a lot of buzz going on in town. That’s what the rousties say. That means a lot of money.”
“But he said we need to leave!”
Frank spun. “Who said?”
Francine felt her eyes go wide. “Um. You said. Yesterday.”
“You’re lying,” Frank said, matter-of-factly.
“Nuh-uh.” It wasn’t a lie. Frank did tell her that they needed to leave, to pack her stuff and be ready. But Frank’s direction wasn’t nearly as earnest as that of the winged man. Francine was scared—truly scared—that the winged man was going to tear the Black Cart apart yesterday, he was so furious. Remembering made her stomach twist now. It had also kept her up much of the night.
Frank scrunched up his face, went back to wiggling wires.
“If you’re not going to tell me,” he said, “I don’t have time to argue with you. This coil is still overheating, and we’ve got to use it tonight. Oh, maybe this?”
Frank slammed the lever up. Sparks flew. He yelped, and slammed the lever down again.
“Oooh,” Francine drawled, hand over her mouth. “You said a cuss.”
“I did not!” Frank clenched his hand, shook it a few times.
“Yes you did!”
“I—” Frank shouted. He stuck the pad of his hand into his mouth and sucked. A tear swelled in his eye and rolled down his cheek.
Francine was by his side immediately, bags forgotten. “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” Frank sniffed. “I burned the bottom of my hand. I’m okay.”
“Let me see.”
Frank pulled his hand out of his mouth, wiped the spit on his leotard. Francine probed, her short, round fingers poking Frank’s short round fingers. There was a shiny patch of skin, the same size as her fingertip, at the bottom of his hand.
“It’s not too bad,” Francine said. “Mom would say, ‘That’s what you get.’ For doing a sin.”
Frank looked away, but left his hand in hers.
“It’s okay, Frank. I won’t tell her.” She patted his hand, rested it on his own lap.
He gave her a half smile. “Are you packed?”
“I’ve got my two leotards. The clothes Mr. Ringmaster gave me. Granny-Kewpie.”
Frank took the doll from the top of the bag. “You still have this?” He held the back of the head, a Granny apple that he had carved into a smug-faced granny when Francine lost the original head. He had been trying to win her a new one when Mr. Ringmaster found them and hired Frank.
“Of course I still have it. Don’t play with her head, it’s going to come off again.” She reached into her bag, pulled out the next items.
“My Sunday best. And…” She pulled a black feather from the bottom of her bag, perfect and unmarred. It caught the light, just as it had that first day, a black rainbow running its length.
“I never won you a new one,” Frank said. “I bet I can just ask Hank or Gaspard. Won’t even have to spend the nickel.”
“Yeah,” Francine replied, but her mind was elsewhere. The winged man asked her, what were his words? ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ The words frightened her, still did, but it sounded like he was offering her a wish. Like in the fairy tale books.
“Frank. What does ‘turning on the vine’ mean?”
“Turning? Like milk? Going bad, sounds like. Why?”
“I don’t know.” The winged man said the offer was ‘turning on the vine.’ Was it a bad wish, like a genie wish? Those, for sure, were dangerous. Or did he mean it was good now, but was going to get rotten like milk? “I heard someone say it yesterday,” she added. “I didn’t know what it meant.”
Frank stood, started again on the wiring.
Francine watched. She stroked the feather, ruffling its edges between two fingers. Why hadn’t she thought of it yesterday? There absolutely was something she wanted, but was it safe to ask? Was it even something the winged man could do?
“Frank, how long before Mom finds us?”
Her brother’s shoulders jerked up sharply, like someone had cuffed him. He turned to face her. He looked like he was gathering himself.
“I don’t, um,” he said.
“Because, the breadcrumbs, right? She’ll be able to follow them?”
“Um. Yes. Of course.”
She wondered if she even needed to use her wish. Especially if it was a genie-wish, maybe it was best to wait? But if the wish got rotten…it was hard to weigh her options. That, and something in the air was starting to distract her.
“Ooh. Do you smell that?” Francine sniffed at the air, even felt her body lift up a little like the cartoon characters did. The smell was rich, savory. Something she hadn’t smelled in months: beef.
“Someone’s making something good!”
“Lunch,” Frank said. “Ringmaster Folley wanted a special meal to thank all of us, so Gaspard and Le Petit brought some cows back late last night.”
“Lunch? But it’s breakfast time!”
“No, sleepyhead. You missed breakfast. ‘s lunchtime. Can you get us something to eat? I can’t stop until I figure this out.”
“When I’m done, can I go look at the cows?” Francine asked. She wanted a horse, but a cow was kind of like a horse. Maybe Le Petit would let her ride it.
“No-no-no,” Frank answered, leading Francine back toward Daniel’s trailer. “And that reminds me…and this has nothing to do with cows, but, you know the stands they were putting up yesterday? Out in the open field?”
“You mean the benches?”
Frank was making his big suspicious eyes. He was hiding something. “Yes. The benches. They’re doing a show out there involving explosives. Don’t go over there, I don’t want you getting hurt.”
“And, um. If you see someone carrying the flyer, don’t look at it. It has a, uh, a cuss on it.”
“Why is there a cuss—?”
“It was an accident,” Frank cut in. “Ringmaster is super-mad about it. Just, um, don’t ask anyone about it. Now go get lunch.”
Francine made her way toward the mess, curious about her brother’s urging but not willing to anger him today. He seemed short today, and she was still trying to get him to agree with her and leave. She tried to keep her eyes down. The mess was in the same direction as the Black Cart, and she felt like something bad was going to happen if she saw that cart today.
“Oy. You look terrible.”
Francine chanced a look up. “Huh?” She was near the doctor’s trailer, his medicine cart half-prepared with tonics and tinctures. Gaspard was addressing Dr. Fagan.
“I ain’t slept in days,” the doctor replied. He gestured toward the far end of his trailer. Celia was there, faced away, strapped into a high-backed wooden chair. No, not chair. Wheelchair.
Francine and Frank didn’t have a trailer of their own, but more often than not were permitted to use Gaspard’s trailer to sleep. Gaspard, it seemed, didn’t want to sleep, but when he did, he slept in the truck. Francine often heard him rustling and muttering. Nightmares, Francine thought.
But last night, just as Francine was finally falling to sleep, Gaspard returned from whatever task—getting cows she wasn’t allowed to visit, apparently. Gaspard seemed loopy and tired, and Frank agreed they’d give up the bed.
Gaspard was still wearing the same rumpled vest he was wearing last night.
“Oh, little Francine,” Gaspard said. “I’m sorry for putting you out last night. I was not feeling myself, and the doctor here was trying to poison me.”
Dr. Fagan placed another armful of tonics on his cart, turned, huffed at Gaspard. Went back to his work, small glass bottles tinkling against each other where he lined them up. “I’ve told you a dozen times, I need new supplies. I’m short on everything, and what I do have is old. It’s starting to mix and react weird.”
Dr. Fagan did look terrible. There were huge, grey bags under his eyes. His eyeballs themselves were wracked with red veins. He was a strong man, and big, but right now all of him slouched. He looked so much shorter, and even his white doctor coat seemed exhausted hanging on him.
“Is the girl doing okay?” Gaspard asked, motioning toward Celia.
“When I can keep her medicated. I did have a surplus of pain killers, but I’m even almost out of those now. I’m having to space out her doses. But I don’t want to give her all of it in case someone else has something happen. Or, Heaven forbid, I have to work on her legs again.”
Gaspard winced, bearing his teeth. The doctor closed his tired eyes, his bushy eyebrows raising in agreement.
Still afraid of the doctor, Francine raised her hand to ask, “When is she going to get to acrobat again?”
Both men looked at each other. No words, but doing that eye-talk that adults did when they didn’t want to say something around children.
Dr. Fagan replied. “Not. Not for a while. Her legs need to heal.”
“Can I go check on her?” Francine asked.
“Go ahead. I was trying to sleep before someone woke me. I put her out here so she could be someone else’s problem.”
Francine started toward Celia. Behind her, Gaspard and the doctor continued talking.
“Speaking of,” Gaspard said. “The bossman wants the schedule full tonight. You’re going to wrestle Niccolo tonight. His partner is AWOL, and we’re not sure when he’s coming back.”
A sigh from the doctor. “One show? Two?”
The chair was wood, with metal wheels. Older, the backrest was woven reeds, which made a pattern of fingertip sized circles. A series of cloth strips held Celia’s upper body to the back of the chair.
Celia’s head lolled. Her eyes were open, but she didn’t seem to notice anything around her. The lower half of her body was draped in a quilt, a splinted arm sitting in her lap with a brush resting nearby. Her upper half wore what had once been her white leotard, but was now torn at the waist. Many of the sequins were missing, and a brown crust was soaked in to several of the tatters.
Francine timidly waved her hand. “H…hi.”
“How are you feeling?”
Celia didn’t blink. Her head twitched just enough to flop her hair over her face.
It was still its same lovely blond, but the curls put into it were long gone. It was matted and tangled, especially along the back. Francine leaned in slowly, took the brush. No resistance, no reaction.
Francine started brushing. Gently, like her mother had. No, she thought, more gently still. Actually gently.
“Your hair is so nice. Soft.” The tangles came out without too much effort. “I hope you heal quickly. I do so love your show.”
Celia’s hand shot up, grabbed Francine’s arm at the wrist.
“It was you.” Celia lifted her head. She locked eyes with Francine, even though her neck seemed too weak to keep her head aloft.
“What? Ow!” Francine dropped the brush.
“You. You made me fall.”
Francine looked in the direction of Gaspard and the doctor. Neither noticed.
“I didn’t make you anything,” Francine said. “I wasn’t in the tent. I wasn’t anywhere near it.”
“It was you!”
“No!” Francine wanted to shout, to get the adults’ attention, but her voice wouldn’t cooperate, like trying to run in a dream. “I found out after you fell. I was in the—”
In the Black Cart. With the winged man—no. That was the day he wasn’t there.
“There’s no way I fell,” Celia said. Her salt-caked eyes burned into Francine. “Five thousand times I’ve done that return. My swing, my dismount, all of it was perfect. There’s no way I fell, but somehow I did. And you know what? That whole time, watching Charles get further and further from me, I could only think of your face.”
Celia jerked Francine by the arm, pulled her nose to nose.
“Like this.” Celia’s breath stank of alcohol. Francine tried to hold her own breath.
“And I knew, even with the net beneath me, it was over. I was dead.”
“You’re not dead. You’re fine!” Francine was trying to brace her foot on the wheel, to get leverage, to get away, but she couldn’t find purchase.
“Fine?” Celia coughed. “Does this look fine?”
Celia pulled the quilt from her legs with her splinted arm, let it fall over the far wheel of her chair. Her legs were each braced between two long boards. The legs themselves were purple and lumpy, clearly uneven. Huge cuts ran the vertical length of their fronts, the crisscrossed sinew they were stitched shut with the only symmetry to be found.
“And you know what? Even when the doctor cut my legs open, when he tried to drug me and I could still feel his fingers fishing shards of bone from inside my leg, trying to piece me back together. Every second of pain brought you to mind.”
Francine pulled, kicked at the ground. The chair rocked only slightly, blocked into place with stones.
“I’m never going to be an acrobat again. I’ll never walk again! My friends—” Celia scoffed. “Friends, ha! They left me here. At least Emma had the decency to say goodbye. I have to shit in a bedpan because I can’t stand. I wish I had died. Because right now, I am in Hell. And every second, I see you.”
Tears filled Francine’s vision. She pulled and pulled, shouting “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Celia’s hand gave out; Francine fell and rolled away. She ran, away from the doctor’s trailer, away from the mess, instinctively heading toward her brother.
Next Episode: August 19