Folley’s Circus, by Lucio Rodriguez. Episode 12

Previous: Episode 11

The wind was picking up. It wasn’t a constant blowing, but sudden gusts that shoved one aside or threw the dry soil about. Gaspard shielded his eyes. Already his ears and the bottom of his pockets carried a fine layer of dirt.

Even this wasn’t ruining their take—they were now leveraging the wind into filling more seats inside the tents, and the butchers couldn’t keep their trays of popcorn and pop filled.

He felt somewhat guilty, sending people to help Folley, the more so because Hank had reacted so strongly. It couldn’t be helped. At this very moment they were heading to the Black Cart.

Better them than me, he thought, and then felt all the guiltier.

He made his way toward the arena, following the two ever-long strings of lights hanging above him, stopping once or twice to choke down his queasiness. Probably just gas building up, he thought. He’d been burping quite a bit since evening began.

When he arrived at the arena, Le Petit was holding the lead for the cow. It was mooing softly between sniffing out forlorn strands of grass.

Hank was there, keeping a slight distance from the cow. He wore a black suit with near floor-length tails, pristine white shirt. Where his rumpled and worn cabbie normally sat was a tall top hat, exactly like the one Ringmaster Folley wore.

“Nice duds,” Gaspard said. “You even slicked down your hair.”

In response, Hank held out his left hand. From nowhere a long cane appeared, slender and black with a clear orb sitting atop it. He spun the cane like a baton, transferred it across to his right hand, and swung it to a stop, tapping against his polished loafers.

“Did Folley get his seven?” Hank asked.

Oui. The Human Skeleton and the Painted Ladies are going before their own performances.” Gaspard motioned to the space between Hank and the cow. “Trying to stay clean?”

“The cow gets antsy when I’m close. Seems to like Le Petit enough, though.”

“That’s usually the case.”

“We ready?” Hank asked. “Show is in an hour.”

“Just a moment.” Gaspard crawled beneath the stands and brought back a crate filled with rope, the harness he had been tying earlier. He drew it out, dynamite laced within it, creating what looked like a ladder.

“I hid the plunger and line over there, near the generator. Didn’t want some sot getting into this and killing himself. I was also nervous about making this live too early.”

“I’m nervous too,” Hank said. He kept looking back toward the carnival proper.

“Okay,” Gaspard replied, unsure what his reaction was supposed to be.

“Gaspard. Whatever happens tonight, hold on to this.” Hank raised the orb on his cane to Gaspard’s vest. It clicked against something, a gold circle with a bas-relief key, the pin that identified him as management. He often forgot it was there.

“Okay, Hank,” Gaspard replied. The look in the man’s eyes, his wistful demeanor—it’d been a long time since Hank wore his tails. Gaspard wondered if Hank had helped himself to a little something for his nerves.

He tossed the harness over the cow. It was just a few rungs too long, so he made to crawl under the cow and adjust it.

The cow jerked away, snorted.

“Do you have her, Le Petit? Sick or no, she can still squish me.”

Le Petit wrapped the coil of rope around his fist. He placed his other hand on the cow’s head, nodded.

###
Francine’s arms and belly were full. She craned her neck, stuck out her tongue, trying to catch a loose tuft of fairy floss. The tuft hung by only a few sugary threads, flapped back and forth. She shifted the popcorn, heard the clank of the Coke bottles and felt one slip. She tightened her arms, stopping the pop from falling but spilled a handful of popcorn.

She scrunched up her lips. The top of the popcorn was her favorite part. It was where the butter was thickest.

She tilted her body, just so, to check how much popcorn she had really spilled. A man, his wife’s arm linked in his, glanced Francine’s shoulder. She hopped aside, realized several more people, a large crowd even, were leaving the benders’ tent and heading her direction. It was all she could do to move out of the way and against another tent.

The rubes were out in force.

That’s what all the vendors had said. She didn’t know what a rube was. A customer, she guessed. One with money.

They passed her by, tramping through her spilled popcorn. Not too much, she decided, and the vendors were in such high spirits that she still had money to get more if she wanted.

Something was in her crumpled popcorn. Black, so black she thought it was a shadow at first, but the way it moved. It fluttered. A feather.

She remembered her feather in her pocket. She hadn’t put it back when she packed her bags earlier. It was supposed to be in her pocket, but had she dropped it?

Francine wiggled the paper cone of her fairy floss from fingertips to fingertips, then slowly balanced her brother’s hot dog on top of her popcorn. Her right hand was just, just barely free, she felt inside her pants.

The feather was there, smooth and perfect. But the one on the floor looked just like it.

And farther along, another, carried by the wind toward the ring toss.

And still another two, at the intersection, orbiting each other briefly before going their separate ways.

Francine looked in the direction of the Black Cart. She couldn’t see it, hidden in the dark far beyond the booths and tents, but something was different. Something felt different.

That heavy feeling when she visited the man in the cart, even under the excitement of doing something her brother would forbid. Even now, under her sense of loss now that she wouldn’t be visiting him again.

Dread. It was always there.

She knew the other cast and crew felt it, too, because any time they looked or pointed in the direction of the Black Cart, they all made a face, or their shoulders slumped, or they changed their breathing.

She knew where the Black Cart was, where it was supposed to be, anyway. But that feeling of dread was wasn’t with it.

Now that feeling was moving through the carnival.

###

 

Gaspard wrapped the wire twice around the dynamite, then wired it proper. He didn’t want it coming loose if the cow got fidgety. One left, and they were ready with half an hour to spare.

“Hank!” he shouted.

No answer.

“Hank?” Still no answer. From his prone position beneath the cow he leaned this way and that, trying to find the old man. There was no sign of him.

“Le Petit, do you know where Hank is?”

The giant peered from over the cow. He shrugged.

Gaspard’s hands moved deftly. He could do this fast, yes, but right now he was more concerned with it being correct. He stood, dusted himself off, plucked a feather from his clothes and cast it aside.

“Done. Now the plunger.”

A few hundred feet of wire bound in a loop trailed from beneath the cow. Gaspard found the loose end, sat the detonator plunger between his knees and tried attaching the leads.

Above him, the lights dimmed to near black, then brightened to half what they were before. He groaned.

“Why is, did you make the juice man mad, Le Petit?”

The big man shook his head, pointed back to Gaspard.

“Don’t you blame me! I’ve been by my lonesome all evening, playing with explosives.”

Le Petit pointed to himself, then the cow.”

“Fine, fine. You are off the hook. But it is too dark here. Go shake the genny.”

Le Petit offered the lead he carried. Gaspard added, “No, I—here, let’s tie her here, to this tree. She won’t go anywhere.”

It was hardly a tree. A sapling tucked near one of the grandstands. Few leaves, and not much taller than Gaspard himself. He tied the lead to the tree with a quick tête d’alouette, then chuckled to himself.

Le Petit was staring, a hand still on the cow.

“See, in English it is called a cow hitch. It’s funny.”

Le Petit didn’t react. He continued staring.

“Well, we can’t all be as funny as you, can we? Go fix the generator, Le Pitre.”

At this Le Petit furrowed his brows.

“I’m sorry. I did not mean that. They frighten me, too, with their noses and face paint.”

Le Petit left, and a moment later the lights went up. Gaspard leaned the plunger on the cow’s back and quickly wired the dynamite to the plunger.

The cow stirred. Instinctually Gaspard hopped back, dropping the plunger on the ground. Thankfully, its handle wasn’t primed.

“I’m sorry, cow. Did I wake you?”

The cow snorted, alternately pulling against the rope and butting the tree. Her small horns gouged a chunk of the grey bark away. She turned her head, looking directly at Gaspard.

Gaspard took another step back. For a moment he swore the cow narrowed her eyes at him.

Gaspard’s stomach grumbled, long and strong. A thought crossed his mind: This cow doesn’t seem very sick.

###

 

Frank stepped up to a barbell, the bar at his knees. Each side read “500 lbs.” He gripped, strained dramatically and, with a heave, lifted it above his head. He dropped it back to the platform with a clang.

“That’s not a thousand pounds,” someone called from the audience.

“Why don’t we let you up here to give it a go,” the talker smiled.

This man had volunteered so quickly they didn’t need their plant. He was a fairly big man, farmer, judging by his soil-stained overalls, and could probably lift the hundred-pound barbell—but a gesture from the talker and Daniel, pulled the switch that turned on the electromagnet system beneath the platform. The air immediately smelled stale and electric, and Frank was unsure how none of the visitors noticed.

The farmer pulled, readjusted his stance and tried again, but was unable to lift the barbell. He stepped down to the jeering of his friends.

Frank gestured as subtly to Daniel as he could, but wasn’t getting the hint. It wasn’t until Frank used Francine’s gesture, miming flipping a lock of hair, that the crab man understood what Frank was on about.

The electric smell in the air was so strong now, Frank missed the challenge from the crowd.

“Alright,” the talker continued. “If you fine folks will head inside, we’ve many more wonders—”

“I said I want to give it a try.” It was another man from the crowd. This man was big, almost as big as Le Petit. He stepped onto the platform, squared up with the weights. Frank felt the magnets beneath his feet engage again—

—And an angry cow surged through the crowd. As if directed by some divine force, it quickly made its way directly to the stairs and bowled over the visitor on stage. It spun to find its next victim, and when it did so it swung a small tree, a short rope connecting the tree to the cow’s neck. The tree flailed, struck the talker’s head. The man collapsed. Daniel was immediately out from his hiding place and running across the stage, two-fingered hands raised in supplication.

From somewhere distant someone shouted, “Unexploded cow!” Indeed, the cow was covered with dynamite.

The cow charged. Frank dove out of the way, rolled when one of his legs caught briefly in a coil of wire. He kicked, struck something that gave and released him but took a shoe: it hung on the handle of the extended plunger.

Around the stage the crowd was frantically dispersing, which only seemed to make the cow angrier. It spun, a tree swung harmlessly over Frank’s head.

But the cow wasn’t the only problem. A familiar popping was coming from beneath the stage. With his newly bare foot Frank could feel the wood, already hot. Daniel had fled without turning off the magnets.

Frank looked at the crowd, unsure which direction to run, bumping into each other, trampling over those who fell. His mind immediately went to the place it always did: Francine.

###

 

Folley stood backstage with six of his crew: Nicolo, the two contortionists, the Painted Ladies, and Ben, the Human Skeleton. Nicolo’s complexion was pale, but seemed a far improvement from the green tone he had earlier. The contortionists, too, were pallid. If the Painted Ladies were as well, there was no way to tell with their head-to-toe tattoos.

On the other side of the curtain, the announcer prepped the crowd:

“He was there at the fall of Pompeii, and the shadow of his black wings was the last thing the Atlanteans ever saw…”

The winged man stood between Folley and the other six, each holding a chain attached to a skin-tight ring of steel around the man’s waist. A velvet hood was thrown over his head and shoulders.

“I don’t know why you do this,” the winged man said. “I can still see you.”

The others were visibly bothered by this, but the ringmaster growled, “Don’t listen to anything he says. He lies.”

The winged man laughed, low and long. “Oh, Ringmaster Folley, of all the things I’ve done, I’ve never lied—”

“Shut up!”

“When you visited at midnight, for instance. I told you I’d be leaving today.”

Everyone stirred, uneasy, probably scared, but when the spotlight shined at the entrance, professionalism took over. Their cue. They marched him to the center of the tent. Hammers and a railroad spike appeared from pockets and belts.

The crowd was enrapt. Folley had removed the Winged Man’s coat and shirt, exposing the place where the black-feathered wings merged with his body. The crowd had come to be excited and entertained, and that required setting aside a degree of scrutiny. Here, that wasn’t necessary. Everything they saw was real.

From outside the sound of yelling. People running, their shadows racing along the tent. There was no ignoring the commotion outside. Several of the cast looked at each other with concern.

“Pay attention,” the ringmaster scolded. “Remember, the chain doesn’t need to be tight, but it needs to be secure.”

Each began driving their spike into the ground. Ringmaster Folley held his chain and stood watch, inspecting each nail as it drove home. Three. Four. Nicolo looked woozy. He had set the nail into the chain, but was and was having trouble with the hammer. Beside him, the smaller of the contortionists teetered—

From outside, one of the rousties flung open the tent flap and yelled, “Fire! The Freak’s platform!” The gathered crowd immediately jumped to their feet and made for the exits.

The cast who had already secured their chains also ran, making for water and buckets: fire threatened everyone’s livelihood. Several bumped the swaying Nicolo, not hard, but enough that he dropped his hammer, and another bumped the contortionist. They fell together like dominoes.

“No!” Ringmaster Folley called out. Nicolo sprawled on his back. Folley was too far to react. He watched the chain fall free from Nicolo’s hand.

Still hooded, the winged man immediately reached out and began grabbing at the chains, each pulling taut in turn. The ringmaster fell to his knees, placing and driving his own spike in one motion—the line went taut in his hand, then the next.

Folley dove for Nicolo’s line, the spike still lodged in the chain’s last link. The chains tightened just ahead of the ringmaster: four, five, six. Folley hit the ground and Nicolo’s line snapped away, just out of grasp.

The winged man drew the chain up, grabbed the spike and snapped it in half like stale bread.

###

 

Francine had lost popcorn, tossed the candy floss, dropped a Coke when the first person ran into her. She only had one Coke left, and Frank’s hot dog, which she held close against her chest.

Something had changed, she didn’t know what, but suddenly the entire carnival erupted into chaos. Mothers were hoisting up their crying children, more than one fight had broken out as men clawed to get past each other.

Getting back to Frank’s stage was all she could think of. Even though she knew the direction it was, every time she stepped away from the tent she risked being stepped on, and the intersection ahead looked impassible. But she had to do it.

She waited for what she thought was a lull, but immediately two men clipped past her going opposite directions, knocking the wind from her. She stumbled and, one handed, crawled back to the safety of the tent’s edge.

Half a Coke. And Frank’s hot dog.

Above her the lights dimmed, then brightened again.

###

 

Frank was strong. He had to be, the way he was brought up, the tasks he had to do to keep food on the table. In all this time he had never hurt anyone, but tonight was different.

Nothing stood in his way. Already he had hoisted two men out of his path, tripped up another who tried shoving through him. Frank’s hand hurt—he may have punched that man.

“Francine!”

She wasn’t at the hot dog vendor, and now, no sign of her at the popcorn vendor either. The cow was still raging through the carnival, had clearly been here. The stand was knocked over, either the cow or the crowd trying to escape. Wind whipped through the midway, temporarily blinding him and scattering a carpet of popcorn past Frank’s feet.

“Francine!” he called again, but he could barely hear his own voice over the hundreds and hundreds of screaming customers.

There was still a handful of vendors he had to check, scattered throughout the carnival. Frank had no way of knowing which she’d be at, if she was even at one of them when all this fell apart. Fairy floss, he decided. The crowd was thick here, but he elbowed through the groins of several patrons before reaching a clearing. One of the minor thoroughfares, and alarmingly quiet.

A man ran past the intersection. Frank caught only a brief glimpse of him, red tails, slicked down hair, clearly terrified. But of what? It was so quiet here, it couldn’t be the cow.

The man who appeared at the intersection next was the answer to this question.

Frank hadn’t fed him—his turn hadn’t come up. From the stories others told, Frank was hoping he would never have to, and thankfully a rumor was making rounds that for fifty cents one of the other cast would take care of it for him.

Still, without ever having met him, Frank recognized him immediately. He carried a set of chains, some kind of harness in the middle was bent and cracked. He was lean and muscular, like a statue. Huge black wings sprung from his back.

Something inside Frank, something ancient, told him to back away, no, to run with everything inside him screaming. But the Fairy Floss stand was this way, and hopefully Francine, too.

The winged man stopped at the intersection, turned his head down to stare at Frank. Silver eyes and silver hair.

Frank wavered, but held his ground.

“You’ve got a secret,” the black-winged man said. The chains clattered in his hand.

Frank staggered. “N…no. No I don’t.”

The winged man watched Frank, crooked his head like a mantis eyeing its prey. “You never told Francine. About your mother.”

At this Frank grew angry. He gritted his teeth. “Maybe she doesn’t need to know.”

The winged man breathed deep before replying. “You would have been justified. No law in this life or the next would have been held against you,” he paused again. “If you had killed her.”

Now Frank paused.

The winged man’s eyes went wide. “But you did think about it. Interesting.”

“Yeah, and I thought better of it. She’s still my mother, and what kind of example would I be setting for Francie?”

The muscles on the winged man’s jaw tightened, his fist curled into the chains.

“You’re a good brother,” the winged man replied, finally. With his free hand, he pointed back the way Frank had come. “You’ll find her in that direction. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have long-standing business to attend to.” He rolled his head, popping his neck in several places.

###

 

Gaspard grabbed his left side like he was trying to stuff something back in. It was hard to breathe, for certain something was broken. It made running all the more difficult.

He wasn’t even sure what he was going to do if he caught up with the cow. After ripping the tree up from the roots, it had made short work of Gaspard. He came to dazed, lying half way up one of the grandstands.

Gaspard leaned against a post. Everything hurt, he had a feeling he’d be doing a lot of leaning in the near—

A shout from inside the tent beside him. He peeked his head in.

The tent was empty, a series of empty benches. Viera’s set up, and her equipment up on the short stage. Viera lay there, knife in hand, but both arms pinned by Donovan.

This was too close to home. Gaspard’s face flushed with rage. He staggered in. “You son of a bitch. What do you think you’re doing!”

Donovan looked in Gaspard’s direction, and was immediately struck in the face and knocked to the ground. Viera had used the distraction to kick Donovan. She stood, threw a hard right against Donovan’s kneeling body.

“You’re lucky he showed up,” Donovan grunted. He spit on the ground, dabbed at his split lip.

“Lucky?” Viera howled. “If he hadn’t shown up, I would have stabbed the living shit out of you, you bastard!”

Donovan spit again, this time hitting Viera’s face.

Gaspard grabbed Donovan by the collar. “After this mess is sorted, pack your shit up and leave. You aren’t welcome here anymore.” One of Gaspard’s molars hurt, he must have cracked it while clenching his jaw. He knew he needed to resolve this quickly, for everyone’s sake.

“Fucking frog,” Donovan gave a stifled laugh. “You’re not firin’ me. I’ve been here years before you signed on.”

Gaspard tossed Donovan back to the ground, restrained himself from striking Donovan again. “I just did.”

Within the space of a blink Donovan had snatched the knife from Viera and placed it against Gaspard’s neck. The blade bit in, and Gaspard resorted to standing on his toes to try keeping it from going deeper. Inside, however, something Gaspard had caged for so long was being set free.

Donovan’s breath smelled, popcorn hulls visible in his teeth.

“I’ve hated you from the day you signed on. You couldn’t take care of yourselves in the war and we had to clean your shit up. And now you come here, and get special treatment. I don’t know what favors you’re doing for Folley, but you don’t deserve that pin.”

Donovan removed the blade from Gaspard’s neck, made to cut the pin from his coat. It was a stupid thing to do, and exactly the moment Gaspard was waiting for.

He moved on instinct, tying up Donovan’s right hand to guard against the knife, elbows and forehead striking at whatever soft parts of Donovan’s neck and face were unprotected.

Donovan was bigger than Gaspard, stronger from all the hard labor he did on a daily basis. He struggled his left arm free, caught Gaspard in his definitely broken ribs, but this only stoked Gaspard’s anger. He grappled with Donovan, keeping his body close and striking at his larynx, the arteries at the side of his neck, threw in knees and, when Donovan shrieked, realized he had locked his teeth onto the underside of Donovan’s jaw.

That was the one that did it. The knife slid from Donovan’s hand and into Gaspard’s the handle so comfortable, so familiar.

The next ten seconds was a series of intentionally shallow cuts and debilitating organ blows. At the end Donovan was curled into a ball, and Gaspard was laying blow after blow onto Donovan’s head. Each blow seemed to take so much effort to deliver, and he realized Viera was behind him trying to pull him away.

Gaspard stopped, looked at Viera. He brandished the knife and teeth stained with Donovan’s blood.

She let go.

Gaspard straddled Donovan, made to cut a notch in Donovan’s left ear—but someone had already beaten him to it. Gaspard was furious, losing himself even more, now that he had been denied his brand. He swapped the knife to his left hand, wrenched Donovan’s head the other direction, exposing his right ear. Blood poured between the juggler’s fingertips. Donovan screamed.

It wasn’t enough. That thing inside Gaspard needed more. He flipped the knife in his hand, an icepick grip—

“Dammit, Gaspard!” someone called from behind him. In the same moment he was struck from behind, sending him sprawling across the floor.

“Get the knife!” Another voice, feminine, older.

Black tails grazed Gaspard’s face, pressure on all his limbs. From the corner of his vision Viera pulled at each of his fingers, releasing his grip on the knife.

He was flipped over, could feel that thing inside subsiding. An old woman, no, he recognized her, Grandma Bubushka. She cupped his face, kept repeating words that took too long for him to understand.

“It’s done. You’re done. We left the war behind us.”

Though he didn’t sob, tears rolled down the sides of Gaspard’s face.

Somewhere to the side, Hank called out, “Dammit, Donovan. This is the third time, and she’s beat your ass every single one. Why won’t you learn?”

Grandma Bubushka covered Gaspard’s ears, but he could still hear her. “That’s a lot of blood. Is he…?”

“No,” Hank answered. “He’s still breathing. A lot of stitches for sure, but I don’t think it’s anything permanent—oh. Shit.”

“What?” Grandma Bubushka asked. “Is—oh, no.”

“Yep. He marked him again.”

###

Smoke, carried by the wind. It was getting harder to see, harder to breathe. Francine could smell ash, and see orange light glowing on the midway.

“Francine!”

She heard her name, Frank’s voice, but couldn’t make out from where.

“I’m over here, Frank! By the…” She tried to make out where she was, but everything was overturned and trampled. Armfuls of Kewpie dolls lay scattered everywhere.

“The games, Frank! I’m in the games!”

But what turned the corner of the booth wasn’t Frank. It was one of the cows, the ones Frank had warned to stay away from, and she could see why. This one dragged a small tree alongside it, and those red sticks the winged man threw a fit about were strapped all around its body.

It stared at her, paced a quarter circle around her.

“Nice cow. Good cow,” she cooed, not believing the words.

It charged.

Francine closed her eyes, clutched Frank’s hot dog with both arms.

Closer, picking up speed, head lowered…

Frank tackled Francine moments before she was struck. Immediately on his feet, he helped Francine up and tucked the two of them inside the milk can toss.

“Frank, thank goodness you found me!”

“Are you okay?” Frank lifted her arms, prodded her. “Nothing broken?”

“No, I’m okay. But I think, um.” She lifted the hot dog. The bun was pulverized, brown flakes falling away along every inch. A small patch of dirt was on one end. “I’m sorry.”

Frank pulled Francine close and hugged her.

“What happened?”

“There’s a fire,” Frank answered. “And you saw the cow. The carnival is done. Their equipment is ruined, their reputation is ruined. I don’t know how they’re going to recover. I mean, just look how many people are hurt. I think it’s time to move on.”

Frank was right. Many had escaped the carnival, but many more were strewn about its paths. The circus was ruined, too, so many stalls crushed and toppled. And even though they had packed and planned on leaving, it felt like her home had been destroyed.

She felt a warm hand in hers, almost the same size as her own.

“It’s time, Francine. We need to move again.”

“No, Frank! I’m tired of moving. Every time we find a place that we fit—”

“We don’t fit anywhere, Francie!”

The cow snorted nearby, probably attracted by their yelling. Above Francine, the bulbs flickered, and slowly, slowly dimmed.

“We’re going to get our bags—”

Once more Francine yelled, “No!” and pulled free of her brother’s hand. The bulbs dimmed to black. Francine felt along the ground, found a baseball, grabbed it. She slid from the booth.

Francine hoped cows couldn’t see in the dark. She tossed the ball opposite the direction of the backyard, and was greeted with a metallic ping. No point in waiting, she made a break for it.

Francine thought it was dangerous before, but now she saw what true danger was. With no light, people shoved her this way and that every step of the way. She could feel her arms and ribs were bruised, but she made her way to the backyard. Even when she reached the clearing, she kept pace, hurrying her little legs to the Black Cart.

She didn’t have the key, but she didn’t need it. The door was unlocked. She flung it open, glass containers rattling wildly. The back room was empty, the door open.

So much noise outside. People screaming, kids crying. The reflection of widening orange flames stretched over the jars inside.

She pulled the feather from her pocket. Held it up to her lips. Whispered.

The sound of rushing wind, as from a single, powerful wing-beat.

There was a peal of thunder. A single tap on the roof of the cart, another, and then they came so fast they blurred into each other. From the doorway, Francine watched the ground turn to mud.

She counted fifty racing heartbeats before she had the courage to step back outside. The lights were back on, sizzling with the strike of each raindrop. The crowd dispersed, coats over their heads. There was a sense of confusion among them, as if they knew they should be scared, but didn’t know why.

Behind the black cart Francine heard a chain rattle and drop. She followed the sound.

The winged man’s back was to her. He stared at the open field at the perimeter of the camp.

Francine didn’t know what to say to break the silence, so she said the first thing on her mind. “I wished for—”

The winged man turned, a finger to his lips. “If you tell me, it won’t come true.”

“Th…thank you.”

“It has been my pleasure.” The winged man smiled, a real, honest smile, Francine could tell. It was much easier to see him when he wasn’t behind bars.

“I’m glad you asked now,” the winged man continued. You’re so innocent, but people grow, and they change. Rarely for the better. But who knows? You’ve surprised me today. Perhaps you’d surprise me then.”

He looked at the sky, rain blurring the moon. Its half-light fell on a figure a short distance away, a chain wrapped around its neck. The tailed coat was caked with so much mud Francine could only make out patches of red velvet.

Francine swallowed, hard.

“I have done one thing this night, and that I will not undo.” He gestured to the prone figure. “A plant grows, and dies, and leaves behind a seed. Sometimes the plant is a flower, and sometimes it’s a weed.”

The figure didn’t move. The wind picked up; the storm was about to really get going. Francine’s clothes were soaked all the way through, but that wasn’t the only reason she shuddered.

Any moment the winged man was going to leave. She realized that the feeling of dread about him was gone, and that she was truly going to miss him. If she could, she was going to steal just a few more moments with him.

“What did you think I would ask for?” she finally asked.

“Riches are popular. Though I thought Wisdom would be your request. You seem the type.”

Francine looked around. The barren fields, moments ago dust and now a flat, ugly mud. The barely working trucks, a circus on its last legs. Her home.

She swallowed a knot in her throat. “Do I need that?” she asked.

The man laughed, knelt in front of her so he could see her eye to eye. “Not if you already have it.”

“You’re leaving?” Another knot to swallow. “Will I see you again?”

The winged man looked over his shoulder. “Little one, we are legion. We’re always around.” He smiled at her.

Turning away, he stretched his wings to their fullest, and leaped.

Next: Epilogue

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