Previous: Episode 12
Gaspard lay on the ground, letting the pain and shame pulse through him. Outside the tent, shouting, uncertainty. People ran this way and that. The noise beat in time with his body.
“What do you mean, ‘This is the third time?’ He’s never tried this bullshit on me before, or he’d already be a dead man.”
Hank shrugged. “If my notes are right, Donovan has the best timing. Always shows up on the last page.” Hank seemed to be talking through Viera, to Grandma Babushka.
The roustie, Donovan, was unconscious, smears of blood surrounding the dozens of shallow cuts across his body. Grandma Babushka, tasseled shawl dangling from her left shoulder, was doing her best to bandage him.
“Pardon,” Gaspard said, looking up at Hank. “You can stop kneeling on me.” His arms were starting to go numb.
“Are you done trying to kill Donovan?”
“I’m not,” Viera chimed in. “And you still haven’t answered my question.”
Hank sighed. His attention went to the noise outside the tent, and it seemed he was trying to count something, keep track of something.
“Let me up,” Gaspard said. “I was not trying to kill the bastard.”
That was true. Mostly. Gaspard had gone well past wanting to kill Donovan, came out something uglier on the other side. He, however briefly, had wanted to punish the roustie. Make an example of him. Gaspard hadn’t felt that since—he cast the thought from his mind. A new wave of nausea washed over him, and this time it wasn’t because of the contents of his stomach.
Hank dusted off his suit, was pleading with the knife thrower. “Viera, we’ve been through this before. I answer you, you lay into me with a thousand more questions. We don’t have time right now. I need to get back to my ledgers.”
“Okay, we’re done here.” Grandma Babushka stood, motioned to Donovan, still unconscious on the floor.
“He’ll survive. Thank goodness we got here when we did. A few dozen more cuts and there’d be no stopping him from bleeding out.”
“Thank goodness,” Hank agreed. “The last thing we need is another clown.”
That look again. Hank looked to Donovan. The ruckus outside the tent. Hank was working out a puzzle that was missing pieces.
Grandma Babushka approached Gaspard, straightened his cuffs and collars. Gave an extra snap to his left lapel, the one that held his pin. He noticed, for the first time, she, too, had the same pin clasped to her shawl.
“Gaspard, dearie. Are you good to walk?”
He nodded. There was indeed something matronly about her. He wanted to do right by her.
“Then take Viera. She’ll keep an eye on you, help you if your ribs give you any trouble getting around. Both of you go to the Black Cart and—”
That was enough to break whatever charm the old lady was using on him.
“No. No no no. I am not going there.” Gaspard motioned around them. “Do you not hear this? I’m pretty sure that thing in the cart is behind all of this.”
Grandma Babushka let out a long breath. Just beyond the tent a cow lowed angrily past them.
Gaspard added, “I’m also pretty sure that gal wants another go at me, too.”
“I’m going wherever you’re going,” Viera said to Hank. “Don’t think you’re getting on past me without—”
Hank groaned. “Viera, we don’t have—”
A knowing look on Grandma Babushka’s face, brief, Gaspard wasn’t sure he caught it. But Hank’s stance immediately flipped.
“Yes. Okay. But not right now. Tomorrow. Tomorrow you own my time. I’ll answer any and every question you have.”
Viera’s brow scrunched, but she relented. “You promise?”
“Yes,” Hank replied.
Outside, a unified shriek from their guests.
“Hank. The lights!”
Grandma Babushka was peering through the tent flap; the scent of ash and smoke wafted in. Outside, the lights were all out.
Gaspard slapped his own forehead, immediately regretted it for the pounding pain. “We were supposed to return the generator to the Juice Man.”
“Let’s go!” If Hank was anxious before, now he was compelled. “Grandma, don’t let me—if I don’t make it in time, write this stuff down for me.”
“We’re going to make it,” Grandma Babushka replied. She moved deliberately, but hardly quickly. “And we’ve been through this. It has to be in your handwriting. You’re not a very trusting person.”
Hank was already at the flap, holding it for the old woman. “Gaspard. Go to the Black Cart. We’re going to meet Folley there. And remember what I told you, about the,” Hank pulled at his own lapel, and exited.
His empty lapel, Gaspard realized. Hank was part of the management. Why didn’t he have a pin? And what were they playing at? Grandma Babushka was half Hank’s size and had twenty years on Hank—and Hank was no youngster. The old lady would only slow him down.
Outside was a mess. It looked like someone had flipped the entire carnival upside down. Visitors were running around like headless chickens, lost and turned around looking for an exit. There was only the one, the entrance, and the carnival layout was designed to keep people moving deeper in.
“Let’s go,” Viera said. “I guess I’m babysitting you.”
“Go where?” Gaspard asked.
“To the back yard. Like Hank said.”
“What kind of fool do you think I am?” Hank asked. “I don’t want to go there on a normal night. On a normal day. There’s nothing good going to happen out there. I’ve half a mind to climb the fences and be done with this place.”
Viera beamed. “That’s what I’m talking about. Look at this place. It’s ruined, Folley’s got nothing left. How’s he going to hold us to our contracts?”
Gaspard breathed a sigh of relief, winced at the pain in his side. He was worried Viera was going to hold him to following Hank’s orders.
A wave of visitors was heading their direction, somewhere too close the sound of an angry cow. Hank looked left, right, Grabbed Viera’s arm and headed alongside the tent they just exited.
“The closest fence is this way.”
They reached the fence, tucked well behind the tent. Eight feet tall, metal mesh and wood. Viera was clearly the more athletic of the two of them, Gaspard’s injury or no. She was just pulling her leg up to the crossbar, Gaspard just leaving the ground—when a wind washed over them.
Viera dropped back inside.
“Que faites-vous? What are you—”
She didn’t answer. Didn’t move. Gaspard stepped down from the fence, had to walk around her to meet her face to face.
She stared, empty-eyed, at nothing.
“Viera?” He waved at her, warily snapped his fingers near her face. No response. Pushed her; she staggered back, still no reaction.
Apparently this was the evening for all the nauseas. This didn’t sit well with him. He retraced their path, hoping against, but knowing, what he’d find when he reached the main thoroughfare.
All around him, absolute silence, and hundreds of unmoving people. Statues, he thought, but they were breathing. Some even seemed to move, with a snail’s purpose, as if they were caught in molasses.
He wandered in the dark, trying and failing to avoid the shoulders and legs and arms of the figures around him. When he realized where he was heading, he halted, turned to head back the other direction and toward the entrance.
From the far end of the thoroughfare, a figure approached. The man moved at a normal gait; Gaspard was unsure if that should be comforting or unsettling. Halfway toward him, just before deciding to flee, Gaspard realized the man was tall, giant even.
“Le Petit? How are you…how are we…What’s going on here?”
Le Petit held up an open palm toward Gaspard.
“Who? Oh, Grandma Babushka? What did she give you?”
From behind his back Le Petit revealed an umbrella, popped it open.
A raindrop struck Gaspard on the forehead. Another. Le Petit raised the umbrella, made room for both of them.
The rain fell faster, heavier. Gaspard sighed, stepped under the umbrella. “Okay. Lead the way.”
They walked, shoulder to shoulder, toward the Black Cart.
It wasn’t recognizable, not at first. A heap of debris; someone’s discarded laundry; the carnival’s evening refuse.
Gaspard left the protection of the umbrella, ran to his employer’s side, to check if there was anything to be done.
Mud spattered, crumpled. Bound by an interlocked set of chains, one length so tight around his neck the flesh was half-enveloping the links. No breath, no heartbeat, but that was hoping against hope to begin with: Folley wasn’t just dead, he had been broken.
Rain poured around Gaspard, instantly soaking him to the bone. “What happened, Le Petit? Who did this!”
Le Petit shrugged—
“No! I’m not going to be patient. The carnival is ruined; the people out there, I don’t even know what to call that; Folley… I’m done, you can have all of it, keep my pay, I don’t want this, I don’t want the Cart, you can keep your pin.” He grasped wildly at his coat.
From behind him a woman called, “Stop that, you fool! You don’t know what you’re doing.”
Gaspard turned. Grandma Babushka was there, stern-faced. She held an umbrella in one hand, led Hank with the hand. Hank bore the same blank expression the rest of the carnival bore; in his arms was a ledger.
Gaspard was lost for words. He looked to Le Petit, back to Grandma Babushka and Hank. “What are, what’s going on?”
“Le Petit answered you.”
“No. He’s keeping his cards close.”
“Be patient. It’s easier to see for yourself than to explain.”
“Explain what? Why we’re the only three people in this whole carnival, no, maybe the whole world, that aren’t sleepwalking?”
“Four of us,” Grandma Babushka replied. “And you’re right, it’s the whole world. But it doesn’t last long.”
“Four? Look at Hank. He’s as empty as the rest of them!”
“Not Hank,” she replied. She nodded, used her chin to motion behind Gaspard.
Ringmaster Folley’s body unfolded. He kneeled, unwrapped the chain once, twice, from his neck and dropped it on the floor. He coughed and staggered to his feet.
Folley’s hat lay a short distance away, caked in mud. His shirt, shoes, coat, nearly covered. The few places without mud were streaked of blood. Even as Gaspard watched, the broken and twisted parts of Folley’s body were correcting themselves.
The ringmaster turned to face them. His voice was raspy when he spoke. He addressed each of them in turn. “Le Petit. Grandmother. Gaspard.”
On hearing his own name, Gaspard staggered back.
“What are, no. You were—”
Folley rocked his neck to each side. He ignored Gaspard, approached Grandma Babushka.
“I’m ready. Get Hank.”
Whatever Gaspard was expecting, some chant, a magic potion—this wasn’t it. Grandma Babushka stood in front of Hank, and struck him in the face.
Hank came to as if he were waking up. He shook his head, looked at Grandma Babushka.
“Did it work?”
He had a hopeful look, which was immediately dashed when he saw Folley. Hank immediately opened the ledger, read the first page, flipped to the last page and began skimming that one.
“How far did we get?”
Folley scoffed. “We hardly got started.”
“Where’s Salma? And Mr. It?
Grandma Babushka answered first. “Salma left. A few years ago. Without ceremony.”
Hank grimaced at that.
“Mr. It left not a month ago,” Folley added. “We might be able to catch him. Had some rousties on him, said he’s in the area. But he’ll know we’re coming now.”
“Wait,” Hank looked up from the ledger. Thumbed toward Gaspard. “There’s a new guy? Gus…Gaspard? Is that you, are you Gaspard?”
Folley already looked fed up with an argument that hadn’t happened. Only it had happened, months ago when Gaspard was made part of the management.
“Folley, you can’t just—it doesn’t work like that!”
Gaspard noticed Hank used the exact words he had used then.
Folley’s back was to Hank, clearly ignoring him. He rooted around in the dirt, looking dazed or compelled. “We’re doing it, again,” Folley grumbled.
“Alistair, you can’t keep doing this. You need to stop.” Hank was pleading now.
“I said we’re doing it again. And don’t call me by that name.”
A look from Folley corrected Hank.
“Uh, Ringmaster Folley.” He ran his finger along another page of the ledger. “You said we hadn’t even started. It looks like we’re going backwards. You need to stop, or at least take a rest.”
Ringmaster Folley didn’t look up from his work, whatever he was digging for. A curt, “Ah-ha!” When he stood, he held a chain. Not the one that had choked him, no. The links of this chain were thicker than Le Petit’s thumb, larger than Gaspard’s hand-span. A giant chain for a great beast, or a monster.
“I said, ‘again.’”
Folley placed a hand on Hank’s chest, pushed him back, not with force, but with enough authority that Hank stepped back of his own accord.
“Again!” Folley barked, staring at the sky and leaning back, heaving on the chain.
Le Petit took up a place just behind Folley, the big man bringing all his strength to bare.
What they were pulling on, where the chain lead to, Gaspard couldn’t tell. He wondered how he could have overlooked such a large chain to begin with, and the far end seemed to disappear into thin air not ten feet away from where Folley’s hands met it.
Grandma Babushka took a place behind Le Petit, gave Gaspard a telling look. She, too, began pulling, her matronly gentility replaced with fervor.
Finally, Gaspard stepped in line, took up the chain. It was heavy, even heavier than it looked. With his hands on it, he somehow had a better view. The chain extended in both directions. The length behind him led to the carnival proper. In front, it seemed to go on forever, reaching up into the sky.
“Pull, everyone pull!”
“Folley, we’re short three people. There’s no way—”
“Shut up, Hank. There’s always a way. Pull!”
Folley heaved, hand over hand slowly pulling one link, then another. The rain, his drenched clothes, none of it seemed to deter Folley in the slightest.
Grandma Babushka fell away first. A few minutes in, her worn hands slipped. She faltered, but had clearly given all she had.
Gaspard pulled with all his might, single links at a time passing behind him in a slow procession. He didn’t know what they were exerting themselves like this for, what might be at the other end of this chain. Arm over arm he pulled, but eventually he, too, became tired.
Ringmaster Folley and Le Petit remained, shoulders straining, legs pressing against the ground.
“There!” Folley called, gesturing with his nose at some impossible distance.
The pulled, heaved, but then Le Petit, too, fell away.
“Folley,” Hank said. “That’s enough. You can’t do this, not with four.”
“Yes. We can. And we will.” Folley bared his teeth, grinded them. His body was under such strain it looked like muscle would tear from bone. When he pulled this time, huge lengths of chain passed between his hands, five or ten links at a time. He groaned, he roared.
And then, impossibly, Gaspard could make out black wings on the far end of the chain.
Folley pulled, sweat pouring from every pore. Finally, ultimately, the winged man touched down on the ground.
“I always hope you will forget about this chain. Or that you’ll give up.”
“Never,” Folley said through clenched teeth. He turned toward his management.
“We’re doing it again. Gather up the cast and crew. Put them in their bunks. We start again in the morning. Out there, look.”
Folley pointed to the far end of the field, the opposite side of the Black Cart. “It’s the two little ones, the strongman and his sister. Don’t forget them.”
Even in the rain, Gaspard thought he caught a tear roll down Le Petit’s face. Under her breath, Grandma Babushka muttered, ‘They were so close.’
“You could let me help,” the winged man said. “For old time’s sake.”
Folley turned away, looked at Hank.
Hank flipped rapidly between pages, trying to come up with…something. Some argument. Anything.
“No, Al, uh, Folley. I don’t like it. Something’s not right about this.”
“What could it hurt, Ringmaster Folley?” the winged man smiled. “Maybe we get it right this time. And if not, you just try again.” There was too much mirth in that last sentence.
A long pause. Gaspard didn’t know the full stakes—that would come soon enough, he was sure. But he hoped Folley sided with Hank. Folley bared his teeth at the winged man, and Gaspard hoped like he hadn’t hoped since his childhood.
“So be it,” Folley replied.
That same rush of wind he had felt at the fence, right before the real nightmare part of this nightmare began. Gaspard blinked, less than a blink.
Folley turned toward them, tails impossibly clean, shirt impossibly white. He donned his tall hat, stark black, and said, “Again!”