Whispers of Wormwood
Shadows of Tockland Book Two
Jeffrey Aaron Miller
Copyright 2021 by Jeffrey Aaron Miller
All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the copyright owner, except in the case of brief quotations embedded in articles and reviews.
The One and Only Tiny Barrel-Shaped Lady
David Morr brushed aside the filthy curtain and gazed through a window covered in greasy handprints. Beyond, he saw a naked pink monster writhing on an orange rug. He watched as the nameless animal clawed at its own belly and chest, a glistening tongue poking out from between its lips to lap at the air. David grunted in disgust and let the curtain fall back into place, but still he saw it in his mind’s eye, all that yardage of hairless skin, the great heaps and mounds of it, distorted into abstract shapes like melting mountains.
“Take a good long look,” the woman with the white hair said, making a grand sweeping gesture with both arms. She wore a black tuxedo with oversized silver buttons, the long tails in back dragging the floor. Behind her, a hallway filled with straw-colored sunlight wound off into the distance. “Get your money’s worth and drink it in.”
“I’ve seen enough to get the general idea,” David said. “Is that a person or an animal in there?”
The woman smiled, her dry tongue poking through a big gap where her incisors should have been. “That’s for you to decide. Is it a man? Is it an animal? Is it a monster from the center of the earth? Nobody knows!”
“Or it could be a stage prop made of foam latex,” David said. “Like a big puppet.”
The woman smiled again, but it was a different smile—knowing, mischievous. Yes, she recognized a fellow showman, and she tapped the side of her nose with a long, crimson fingernail. “Well, you just never know, my friend. Go on. Take another look. What’ll it hurt?”
“Like I said, I get it.” David motioned her aside. “Let’s move on and check out the rest of this freak show.”
“Best freak show for a thousand miles,” the woman said. “But you won’t get your money’s worth if you’re timid. It doesn’t hurt their feelings when you stare. They’re all used to it, especially the real ugly ones.”
“I’m sure they love it,” David muttered.
“They love the food it puts on the table,” the woman said, her smile faltering. She pressed herself up against the wall and waved him past her. “Door on your right. Just open it up and go inside.”
David squeezed past her, trying his best to avoid dragging his shoulder against the filthy wall. The hallway was too narrow, and the owners of the freak show had dirtied the place up to make it look creepy. The carpet was frayed, the walls smudged with mud and blood and who knew what else.
The owner, a scarecrow of a lady who had yet to offer her name, pointed at a small gray door on the right. The brass handle looked grimy, so David turned it with his forearms. Pushing the door open with the toe of his shoe, he saw a small drab room with a bare concrete floor, painted walls, a couple of flimsy plastic chairs in the middle. A tattered curtain covered another window. He entered tentatively, wary of sudden noises.
It’s Cakey’s fault I’m in this hellhole, he thought. He insisted I check out the local freak show. What’s the point? This is not our competition. We’re not a freak show. We’re actual entertainers.
But Cakey the Clown was a hard man to refuse. Relentless, insulting, and not a little whiny, he usually got his way. David grumbled under his breath and entered the room. He expected the woman to follow, but she pulled the door shut behind him. He glanced back to make sure it had a handle on the inside. He wouldn’t put it past a flea-bitten ragtag show like this to kidnap a customer.
With a sigh, David sat down on one of the chairs, alarmed at how it creaked and shifted beneath him. He waited a few seconds for something to happen, but the only sound came from a creaky ceiling fan overhead.
She wants me to pull the curtain, he thought, staring at the much-stained linen scrap hanging from its brass curtain rod. I won’t touch it. It’s probably crawling with lice.
The filthy curtain had a hundred little stains, and he saw a distinct handprint in one corner. Was that blood?
“Do you see it?” the scarecrow woman asked from the hallway, voice muffled by the door. “Have you taken a look?”
“Oh, sure,” David replied. “I’m taking a nice, long look. Soaking it in until my eyes can’t stand it anymore.”
“Good,” the woman replied. “If she’s just sitting there, ask her to dance. She loves to dance.”
“No, it’s fine like this,” David said. “Do me a favor and stop talking. It’s distracting me from all of the gazing and soaking. Let me get my money’s worth.”
To this, the woman said nothing, and David continued to sit in the silence for a few seconds. He rather enjoyed it, a moment to put everything on hold. He didn’t want to think about the show, any show, not even his own. The Klown Kroo was set to perform the following evening. Cakey had rented an old downtown theater for the occasion, and posters had been tacked up all over town. A real, live clown show with acrobats, juggling, plate spinning, and slapstick—how could the rubes resist? But Cakey had booked them for three nights, and repeat business was often their downfall. As it turned out, few people really enjoyed watching a handful of clowns give the same half-hearted performance more than once.
Tryouts, David thought, for the thousandth time. We have to schedule tryouts, whether Cakey wants it or not! We need fresh talent.
He scrubbed his face with his hands and tried to drive these thoughts out. He had plenty of time to worry about the decline of their circus show. Right now, he just wanted to sit in the quiet, with the curtain firmly in place, as long as he could before the owner dragged him out.
But then a voice spoke from beyond the curtain, a squeaky little voice, and it startled David so badly that he lurched up out of the seat.
“I can hear you breathing,” it said. A strange accent, either a child or a young woman or…what?
“Sorry, I’ll breathe quieter,” David said. He adjusted the plastic chair and sat back down.
“Pull the curtain aside, stupid,” the voice said. “Don’t you know how this works?”
“I was…I was confused. Sorry. There were no instructions.”
He found a relatively clean spot on the curtain, snagged it between two fingers, and whipped it aside, revealing a filthy window set in a cheap aluminum frame. It gave a generous view into another room. David saw an ancient television on a stand, an old clock radio on a shelf, but the little brown woman in the pretty dress drew his gaze. She was maybe four feet tall, rather wide, thick-limbed, and seated on an undersized blue recliner. At the moment, she was bent over a tray table, eating soup out of a ceramic bowl with a plastic spoon. She had a strange way of eating soup, pushing the spoon all the way into her mouth and turning it over so the liquid spilled onto her tongue. It made no noise that way, but it looked uncomfortable.
“You figured it out,” she said, setting the spoon beside the bowl.
She had a rather pleasant face, big cheeks, her jet-black hair pulled back in a loose braid that trailed over the top of the recliner. Her flowery dress had lace trim on the sleeves and collar, and she wore shiny shoes with silver buckles.
“I don’t get it,” David said. “What happens now?”
“I sit here and eat soup and watch my television show with the volume down and the captions on,” she said. “It’s an old, old show stored on a disc. Did you know that? We got it working again. Diff’rent Strokes. Four episodes. I’ve watched them hundreds of times.”
“I’ve never heard of that show,” David said. “Actually, I’ve never watched any television show. Working sets are so rare. Wouldn’t you rather have privacy so you can watch your show and eat your soup in peace?”
“Nah, I’m used to people staring at me,” the woman said blandly.
“Well, I don’t get it,” David said with a sigh. “What am I supposed to be seeing?”
The woman laughed and tapped her spoon against the side of her bowl.
“The last room had a big, naked latex something-or-other,” David said. “Before that, I saw a half-snake half-man, and before that, a guy with a third eye on his forehead. I think they were all fake, but I got the point, you know? You, on the other hand…” He gestured at her.
“What?” she said. “I’m a disappointment?”
“You’re…you’re mostly normal,” he said. “I mean, you are normal, except for, you know, sitting in front of a TV and eating soup while people stare at you.”
She laughed again, but he thought there was something sad in it this time. She had big, bright eyes, most or all of her teeth, neatly manicured fingernails. What was he meant to see here? Was he supposed to marvel at her cleanliness and class?
“I’m the one and only Tiny Barrel-Shaped Lady,” she said, striking a pose with a finger against her chin. “Smallest and widest little lady in nineteen counties.”
“I mean…” David shrugged. “You’re not all that tiny. We’ve got a guy in our crew who’s a few inches shorter—Telly. He’s not as wide, I guess, but I’ve seen much wider. I’ve seen…heck, I’ve seen all sorts of things. I don’t know. I don’t get it. What are you doing in a freak show?”
By the mirthless look on her face, he assumed he had offended her.
I’ve gotten too bold, he thought. I should learn to shut up more and keep my thoughts to myself.
The woman just sat there, clutching her plastic spoon, unsmiling, so finally David rose from his seat.
“No, look, I was wrong,” he said. “It’s a great show. You do sort of look like a barrel. I get it.”
He turned to leave but bumped against the other plastic chair and knocked it over. He wanted to put the curtain back in place, but that felt like an insult now. And the woman just kept on staring, like she had slipped into some wide-eyed dream state. In trying to right the chair, he knocked the other one over.
Her voice changed. It went from a high squeak to something soft, breathy, full of anguish. David paused in the act of picking up the second chair and turned back to the window. The Tiny Barrel-Shaped Lady was still sitting in her recliner, but she leaned in close to the window.
“My name is Enid Hillberry,” she said. “I was named after the town where I was born. Look, you’re right, I don’t belong in a freak show.”
“I’m sorry, Enid. I didn’t mean to upset you. I’m actually part of a traveling clown troupe. We’re performing at a theater down the street, The West Street Orpheum, and one of my guys insisted I come check out the local freak show. He thinks I’m spying on the competition, but I don’t want to hurt your business or your income or anything like that. I’m sorry. I’ll be going now.”
He moved to the door, but she made a little hissing sound. He glanced over his shoulder to find that she’d risen from the chair and come to the window.
“You’ve got a show?” she said. “A traveling show?”
“That’s right,” he said.
From the hallway, the owner-lady called out. “How’s it going in there? Ready to move on? We’ve got so much more to see!”
“Still soaking it in,” David called back. And then, to Enid, “Guess I’d better go. Your boss is getting restless.”
“Please,” Edna said, pressing her hands against the glass. He realized many of the smudge marks on the glass were the same size and shape as her hands. “Take me with you. Don’t leave me in this place.”
“I’m not sure—”
“You don’t know what it’s like here,” she said, cutting him off. “I’ll do anything. Sweep floors, set up the stage, sell tickets. I can’t stay in this place. Clairty’s Freak Show is like a prison, and Clairty is the warden. Please.”
“Well…” David looked left and right. Of course, he couldn’t actually take her. The other members of the troupe would throw a fit, especially Cakey. Annabelle would get irritated that he’d made a unilateral decision. Plus, Enid wasn’t even a performer, as far as he could tell. Unless… “You can dance? The owner said something about that.”
“Oh, yes, absolutely,” Edna replied.
Suddenly, she looked truly distressed, tears in her eyes. “No, not right now. Not in here. It’s too small. But I promise, you get me out of here, put me on a stage, and I’ll show you any dance you want to see.”
“I just…” Davis clapped a hand to his forehead. How do I get out of this? If they added someone to the show, the others would insist it be someone with an act. The one and only Tiny Barrel-Shaped Lady wouldn’t cut it, but now Enid was crying and pressing her face against the glass. David knew how it felt to desperately seek an escape from a bad situation. Oh, yes, he knew that feeling all too well.
“Well, what am I supposed to do?” he said. “Break the glass and fight my way past your boss?”
“No, no, not that,” Edna said. She backed away, bumping the tray table. She managed to reach back and grab the edge before the soup bowl slid off. “It’s gotta be at night. They keep me in a little trailer out back. You know where the big fence is?”
“I haven’t been out back, but I’m sure I can find it.”
“Climb the fence,” Edna said. “Break open the door to my trailer and let me come with you. Clairty won’t have any idea how I got out or where I went.”
“That sounds like a good way to get us all arrested and hanged,” David said.
“You don’t know what it’s like,” Edna said again. “I just need a little help. The trailer closest to the building. That’s the one. Climb the fence at night and break open the door.”
David groaned and rocked his head from shoulder to shoulder. Just tell her you can’t do it and then leave, stupid. It’s what any other Kroo member would have done, even Telly, tender-hearted as he was. But David had a soft spot for trapped people, so he lingered by the door.
“I’ll dance,” Edna said. “I’ll scrub toilets. I’ll wash clothes. Whatever you need. Just get me out of here.”
David knew damn well he couldn’t walk away. This whole sad conversation would torment him day and night forever if he did. But as he tried to think up a response, the door flew open. It smacked David in the chest and forced him back, as the owner squeezed into the narrow opening.
“Are we ready to move on?” she said, her face pressed between the door and the doorframe. “Many more rooms to go.”
As the owner spoke, David heard Enid scurry back to her recliner and sit down. He spared her a last glance, and, despite himself, he gave her a nod and a wink. A stupid thing to do, he knew. She would read it as a commitment of some kind, and he had no authority to commit to anything, certainly not a rescue.
“I’m ready,” he said to the owner. “Let’s move on.”
He gestured for the owner to move into the hall. The woman obliged, and David slipped through the door, pulling it shut behind him. He suppressed an urge to curse loudly.
Well, my day’s ruined. Great.
“Next door. Next door,” the owner said, sweeping her hands at him. Clairty. Her name was Clairty. He knew that now. “You haven’t seen anything yet. Trust me.”
“Hang on a second,” David said, stepping away from the door. He ran his hands through his hair and forced himself to turn away.
Clairty, the scarecrow woman, was too close, her skin shiny with some kind of makeup. He smelled it, a weird mix of petroleum and wax. When she smiled, he saw the gaps in her teeth.
“Through the very next door, we’ve got a nine-armed man,” she said. “Can you imagine it? Two arms growing out of his back, two arms growing out of his stomach, and three small arms growing from the top of his head. You’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Real arms or foam latex over a wireframe?” he said.
“You take a good look and tell me,” she replied.
He started down the hall, but now he felt queasy. Absolutely sick. He took deep breaths in order to stave off a sudden urge to puke. And why should the tiny barrel-shaped woman bother him so much? Hadn’t he seen plenty of terrible things in the last couple of years? Hadn’t he grown up in wretchedness?
Yes, and that’s why you feel so bad for her.
The next door had a little drawing on it in black ink. It took him a second to realize that it wasn’t merely some random squiggles but a crude rendering of the nine-armed man. He approached the door, not wanting the scarecrow woman to get in front of him, not wanting to look at her.
She’s imprisoning people here. She’s a little Joseph Mattock, a tyrant ruling a very small, pathetic kingdom.
“If you act real nice, he’ll juggle a dozen steak knives,” Clairty said.
“Yeah, yeah, steak knives. We’ve got a clown that can juggle knives.”
He reached for the greasy door handle, but paused. A desperate urge to get out of the building had seized him, tingling on his skin. Raising his shoulders, he fought it, planting his feet firmly against the floor to keep from bolting.
“Go on in,” Clairty said. “He’s waiting.”
He reached for the door handle again.
Can’t do it.
Clenching a fist, he turned to Clairty, trying to keep the disgust off his face.
“You know, this has all been super entertaining,” he said. “It’s the single best non-touring freak show I’ve ever subjected myself to. But I’ve seen enough.”
He turned, intending to head back the way he’d come, following the twisting hallway through the building, past a dozen dingy doors and shaded windows to the lobby where he’d first smelled the weird musty odor of this place. But Clairty moved in front of him, stretching her hands out to either side. She shook her head, smiling an unfriendly smile.
“Wait a minute. Wait a minute,” she said. “It’s one-way, sir. One way in and one way out.”
David tried to move past her, but she held her ground. He was taller, broader of shoulder, and he didn’t think he’d have any trouble shoving her aside. But he wanted to avoid escalation, if possible.
“This is taking longer than I expected,” he said. “I have to get back to the Orpheum. We need to set up for dress rehearsal this evening. Pardon me.”
“I told you,” Clairty said, looking him up and down. Her breath reeked of pipe smoke. “One way in, one way out.”
David bit his lip, clenched his fists, and stepped back. He felt something dangerous welling up inside of him.
You don’t handle anger well, Disturby. Stay calm.
That’s what Annabelle always told him, usually while wagging a finger in his face. And, yes, David was sorely tempted to slug this obstinate scarecrow right in her gappy old mouth. He shut his eyes and waited for the feeling to subside.
“I just wish you’d take the full tour,” Clairty said. “We don’t get too many outsiders. We’ve only got a few more rooms left. Won’t take more than ten or fifteen minutes.”
“Right, right,” David muttered. He opened his eyes and gestured over his shoulder. “The rest of the doors are this way?”
Clairty nodded, her big mop of gray hair bouncing.
“And the exit is this way?”
“That’s right,” she said. “Now, be a good visitor and let’s finish the tour.”
David sighed and turned around. “Next time, Cakey can come and visit the freak show himself, if it’s so important to him.”
He started down the hall, walking away from Clairty, his fists clenched tightly and pressed against his belly. The hallway continued another twenty or thirty feet, windows on the left, doors on the right, and then took a sharp turn. David moved toward the next door, as Clairty followed along behind him.
“You skipped the nine-armed man,” she said. “Come on back and take a look. Just wait until you see him. Every arm moves and functions. He’s missing a few fingers here and there, but all the elbows bend, and he’s got a triple-jointed thumb.”
“That sounds amazing,” David said, letting the sarcasm ooze out. “He can pick every orifice at the same time.”
And then, laughing at his own little joke, he took off running, the flimsy floor creaking beneath him. Clairty gave a squawk of surprise.
She called after him, but he heard her falling behind. She had on a strange pair of black high-heeled shoes, and they weren’t conducive to chasing people. As he ran, David thought he heard a loud, wet gurgle from behind one of the doors.
David ran all the way to the end of the hall, caught himself against the wood-paneled wall, and propelled himself around the corner. After the bend, the dusty hallway went another ten feet and opened up on a small lobby. Thick sunlight poured through window shades, casting glares on a linoleum floor. A couple of chairs framed a broken water fountain. The exit door was on the right, glass panels in an aluminum frame, big red letters reading End of Tour in red paint on the upper panel.
He glanced back and saw Clairty at the corner. She was bent over, leaning against the wall, and gasping for breath. When their eyes locked, she jabbed a finger in his direction.
“I take offense,” she said. “Do you like it when people skip out on your show halfway through? It’s rude.”
“You have a great show here,” David said. “Almost too good for the likes of me. That’s the central issue, I think.”
When he reached the lobby, he saw an old man sitting on a padded stool in the corner. He was bent-backed, wearing an old blue jumpsuit, black hair braided into cornrows. He looked up as David approached.
“We got a problem?” he said.
“Just in a hurry,” David said, checking his speed and heading for the door.
“They got you spooked, didn’t they?” the man said, smiling. He’d been reading an old comic book, but he dropped it on the floor. “Was it the alien queen? The sweating blob? The half-horse half-hippo?”
“The nine-armed man, actually,” David said. “Couldn’t handle it. Six arms is my limit.”
As he reached the door, he heard Clairty shout in the distance.
“Toonie, don’t let him leave!”
The old man scowled. “What did she say?”
“She’s not talking to you,” David said, leaning against the door. “Have a nice day.”
“She said my name,” he muttered, struggling to rise from the stool.
“Toonie, stop him,” Clairty cried.
The stool gave a soft whoosh as the old man finally got to his feet, but David shoved the door open. Cool air swept into the room.
“Did you do something?” Toonie said. He took a single shuffling step toward David, his right hand sliding along the wall.
“Tell Clairty I loved every second of her fabulous show,” David said. And then, just before he stepped outside, he added, “Come to our show tomorrow night. It’s not as good as a nine-armed man, but it’s not bad.”
Toonie started to say something else, but David slipped outside, letting the door swing shut behind him. He found himself in an old parking lot, grass and weeds growing through a hundred cracks. He heard Clairty one last time, faintly, as he hurried away.
“Bring him back, Toonie! Bring that boy back!”
They’d converted a storage room at the back of the theater into temporary living quarters. David smelled booze and stale farts as he pushed through the heavy stage door and entered the room. Light came from a small lamp resting on a stack of wooden pallets in the far corner. In that small circle of light, David saw Telly, the smallest member of the Klown Kroo, sitting on a sleeping bag. He wore a dirty white t-shirt and a child’s gray sweatpants, a raggedy old baseball cap pulled over his bald head.
At the moment, Telly was trying to sew up a hole in a pair of white gloves. He had a dull, glassy look in his eyes, but that was normal now. In the days of the plague, he’d suffered damage during a short but brutal infestation of brain worms. It had slowed him down, made performing difficult, and robbed him of about half his personality. Still, the Kroo always found work for him to do.
Telly looked up first as David entered and gave him a dim, child-like smile, waving one hand, the glove caught between his fingers and flapping back and forth.
“Hey, look, everybody,” he said. “Disturby Dave came back.”
This caught the attention of the others. Cakey stood in the center of the room, big clown shoes planted on the dirty slab of bare concrete that served as a floor. He was partly in shadow, which made him look more menacing than usual, dressed in a billowy clown suit of shiny blue. The fabric caught the lamplight in tiny shimmering waves as the cloth moved. At the moment, Cakey was juggling knives, the silver blades whistling in the air. Even as he turned to look at David, he continued to juggle.
Cakey had a bright shock of orange hair on his head—not a wig but hair plugs. David had seen the plugs up close, the roots laid out in neat rows. What truly set him apart, however, was his face. He had a big white face with a blood-red mouth that curled into a smile on the left and a frown on the right. A single blue eyebrow stretched from temple to temple, and he had a small green circle on the tip of his nose.
It looked like stage makeup, smooth greasepaint without defect. But it was his real face. He’d had the skin permanently dyed, so he looked like a clown all the time.
After all of this time, David hadn’t gotten used to it. The depth of mental sickness that must have compelled Cakey to have his face transformed into a permanent clown mask was beyond David’s ability to grasp.
“Ooh, looks like Davey had the time of his life,” Cakey said with a laugh, continuing to juggle the knives as he took a step toward David. “Didn’t I tell you that freak show would be worth your time?”
The final member of the clown troupe was sprawled on a sleeping bag against the far wall. Like Telly, she wore only a t-shirt and sweatpants, her black hair arrayed around her head in a nest of tangles. Annabelle stifled a loud yawn as she struggled to sit up. The long, flexible poles she used for her plate-spinning act lay on the floor nearby.
“Were they real freaks or just makeup and special effects?” she asked, her voice thick with sleep. She rubbed her eyes and sniffed.
“A bit of both,” David said, moving into the room and letting the heavy door slip shut behind him. “It was all kinds of sad, to be honest. Why did you want me to go there, Cakey?”
Cakey laughed, catching the knives one at a time between his fingers. “Oh, kid, come on, we gotta know the competition. That freak show is about the only entertainment in town.”
“I wouldn’t worry about competition,” David said, crossing the room to his own sleeping bag. “I didn’t see any other customers. Besides the freaks, it was just me, the scarecrow lady who runs the place, and some old guy named Toonie.”
“Did you see any two-headed people?” Telly asked, as he resumed stitching up the glove with slow, deliberate motions. “I’ve always wondered if there are any real two-headed people in the world.”
David slipped past Cakey, who elbowed him gently in the ribs in passing.
You didn’t send me there to scope out the competition, David thought, suppressing an urge to elbow him back much harder. You just like telling me what to do.
Another power play from the clown formerly known as Gavril Tugurlan. Due to Telly’s diminishment, the troupe lacked a clear leader. Annabelle was the likeliest candidate since she was relatively sane, but she didn’t seem to want the responsibility. David assumed she loathed the idea of being responsible for Cakey’s behavior.
That left David and Cakey to vie for control. David didn’t particularly want it either, but he sure as hell couldn’t let Cakey the Jacked-Up Clown make leadership decisions.
“Sorry, Telly,” David said, taking a seat next to the smaller man. “I didn’t see any two-headed persons. I heard a rumor about a nine-armed man, but I skipped that room.”
“What did you see?” Telly asked in a quiet, awed voice, eyebrows climbing his forehead.
“Oh, let’s see.” David leaned back against the stack of pallets, tucking his hands behind his head. “There was the Alligator-Skin Man, something called The Creature, the Legless Wonder, the Three-Eyed Guru, the Alien Queen, a sweating blob, a horse that was supposed to be half-hippo, and…I forget them all. They sort of ran together after a while. The one and only Tiny Barrel-Shaped Lady.”
Saying her name gave him a twinge of guilt. Would she be waiting for him after sunset, clinging to the bars of her prison and hoping beyond hope that the visitor from out of town would dare to set her free? A terrible possibility. David groaned and shut his eyes.
“Look, kiddo, we have to know what we’re up against,” Cakey said. “Don’t act all sore because I insisted you check out the local freak show. It’s fine.”
“Next time, check it out yourself,” David said. “It’s wasn’t fun. A bunch of pitiful people locked inside these dirty rooms.”
“Cakey didn’t go to the freak show himself because he’s afraid they’d lock him in with the other freaks,” Annabelle said, speaking through another yawn. “Ladies and germs, come and see the one and only Clown-Faced Weirdo!”
“It’s good for Disturby to get out and see the world,” Cakey said. David heard the whistle of blades as he resumed juggling.
David thought that was the end of it, and he breathed a sigh of relief. If he never talked about the freak show ever again, it wouldn’t bother him one bit. But Telly set his knitting down and tapped him on the leg. When David turned to him, he saw a look of wide-eyed wonder on the small man’s face.
“The barrel-shaped lady,” Telly said. “Tell me about her. Was she shaped like a real honest-to-gosh barrel?”
David blew his breath out. “She was…she was…” He sat up, crossing his arms over his chest. “Honestly, she was a little person like you. Just sitting in a chair eating soup and watching TV. I don’t know what to tell you.”
“Could she turn her eyelids inside out or wiggle her ears or something?” Telly asked.
David shook his head. “Nope. She could eat a bowl of soup like a pro, but that’s about it.”
Annabelle stood up, stretching her arms over her head. “If she’s small like you, Telly, maybe you ought to go over there and strike up a conversation.”
“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” Telly muttered, picking up the gloves. “Wouldn’t know what to say. Never was good at that sort of thing.”
“It’s simple,” Annabelle said. She had a mischievous smile on her face as she moved closer to him, bare feet slapping the cold concrete. “You just sidle up next to her, bat your eyes a little, and say, ‘Howdy, ma’am. I’d sure like to share some soup with you, if you know what I mean.’”
Telly blushed, smiled an embarrassed smile, and shrugged. “I don’t know if I could do that.”
Cakey began juggling the knives in a higher and higher arc until one of them finally stuck, point first, in the exposed insulation on the ceiling. A second joined it, then a third. They hung there a few seconds before dropping back down, and he caught them in his right hand. Then he turned and bowed to David, to Telly, to Annabelle.
“What do you want?” Belle said, waving him off. “A pat on the head?”
“It would be nice,” he said. “Why am I the only one practicing for the show tomorrow?”
“Because we’ve done this same act eight hundred times,” Annabelle said. “That’s why. I don’t need to practice plate spinning. I could do it in my sleep.”
Cakey turned to David. “What do you say we work up a new act, kid? The dame’s right. I do get tired of repeating myself. How’s about we combine skills? You do your acrobatics stuff, and I’ll weave the knives in between your limbs.”
“Oh, sure,” David said sarcastically. “I trust you to throw knives at me.”
Cakey scowled. “I’ve never hit any of you with a knife. Only person that ever got accidentally stabbed while performing was my own self.” He reached back and touched the place on his shoulder where he still had a sizable scar. “Come on, kid. We need to freshen things up. Let’s work up something new.”
“I’ll consider it,” David said. “If you stop calling me kid.”
“He’s almost nineteen,” Annabelle reminded Cakey, giving David a knowing wink and smile. “An experienced man of the world now.”
Cakey stuck his tongue out in disgust. “Please, no details. Whatever sick things you kids have been up to can stay in your own heads.”
David felt the flush rising in his cheeks and ducked his head.
It was one time, and it wasn’t much, he thought. We were both a little drunk anyway, so it hardly counts.
Still, he couldn’t look at Annabelle, though he sensed her knowing smile, felt it burning against the side of his head. Why did she have to bring it up all the time? He felt awkward about the whole thing. Groping and grunting in a dark motel room, sick to his stomach thanks to a big plastic cup of vodka Cakey had practically forced upon him. Annabelle had reeked of beer. Then again, her lips had been soft, her body warm.
He shook his head, cheeks on fire.
Stop thinking about it, stupid.
“Oh, okay, fine,” he said, if only to drive the memory out of his head. He stood up. “We can work up a new act, if you really want, but I don’t want you throwing knives at my limbs.”
* * *
They found a cheap plastic card table and set it in the middle of the room for dinner. While David and Telly slid some chairs into place, Cakey and Annabelle went to scrounge up food. A small plaza a couple of blocks from the theater served as the city’s market, and it had a few food carts.
“Please, make sure to identify the meat before you buy it,” Telly said, before they left the room. “I think we had dog that one time in Scottsbluff.”
“Nothing wrong with a little dog meat,” Cakey said, earning a scowl from Annabelle. “It’s hearty muscle tissue just like any other four-footed beast.”
“No dog,” Annabelle said, smacking him on the back of the head with an open hand. “No cat. No human. Only kosher meats!”
Once they’d left, Telly and David waited in the silence, sitting across from each other at the table. Telly spent the time carefully winding a spool of black thread, his tongue poking out from the effort. David watched sunlight through a crack in the back door slowly turn from yellow to purple.
She’ll be waiting for me. Enid will be standing at the door of her trailer, just hoping and waiting.
It made him ill. He knew the feeling. How many times had he sat at the window of his bedroom as a child, daydreaming about escape?
How can you leave her like that?
He had nothing to work on, nothing to pass the time. He felt restless to the point of distraction.
“I wonder sometimes…” Telly said, then left the statement hanging in the air a few seconds.
“What’s that, Telly?”
Telly finally got the thread wound back around the spool, and he set it on the table. A hint of a smile played over his lips as he glanced up at David.
“What really happened between you and Belle on your birthday?” he asked, finally.
David groaned and folded over the table, burying his head in his hands. “Come on, Telly. Is that really what you want to talk about?”
Telly began rolling the spool of black thread back and forth across the table. “Well, you never really told us about it, but Belle drops hints all the time. I’ll tell you what I think. Do you want to know what I think?”
“No, not really,” David said.
“I think you fooled around,” Telly said, speaking over him.
“Fooled around,” David replied. “Okay, Telly. That’s what you think. Got it. Can we not talk about it?”
“I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to talk about it, Davey. I’ve always sort of wondered what Belle—”
“Give it a rest,” David said, a little more forcefully than he intended.
Telly chuckled softly.
“If you want details, talk to her, okay?” David said. “And not when I’m around. Let’s just say, these things are a lot more awkward than you expect them to be, and I don’t want to talk about it ever. Not ever.”
Telly grumbled under his breath, tapping the spool against the edge of the table.
“I’m not stupid, you know,” he said. “You guys think I don’t know what’s going on, but I do. I hear what people say.” And then, softly, “I’m not stupid. I got half a brain left, at least.”
David sighed. “Nobody thinks you’re stupid, Telly.”
“I’m a little slower is all.” He grabbed his forehead, pushing the baseball cap back. “They nibbled away at the edges, those plague worms, that’s what happened.”
“I know. Nobody thinks you’re stupid.”
Telly nodded, as if satisfied, set the spool on the table, and reseated his cap. Then, after a couple of seconds, he added, “I know you fooled around in that motel room.”
Before David could respond, the storage room door flew open, and Cakey entered the room making a loud, meaningless sound. It startled David so badly that he rose from his chair and balled up his fists. When he saw it was Cakey, he sighed and sat back down. Telly hardly stirred.
A pungent smell followed Cakey into the room, something both savory and sweet. David spotted a large ceramic pot in the crook of his arm. Annabelle followed him, bearing a small wicker basket. David couldn’t look at her, not after his conversation with Telly. Did these people talk about that one stupid night all the time? It was a horrifying thought.
“Beans and bread,” Cakey said, putting the pot on the table and removing the lid. “And no dog meat whatsoever, my little friend.”
He patted Telly on top of the head, but Telly batted his hand away. Annabelle set the basket down and removed a cloth cover, revealing a bunch of small, yeasty bread rolls.
“Unfortunately, Cakey made a point of asking the food vendor if he served dog,” she said, pulling back one of the folding chairs and sitting down. “Very loudly. It offended everyone in the market. I’m sure that’ll be great for business.”
“It’ll pique their interest, trust me,” Cakey said. “They’ll say, ‘Why did that damn clown come around the marketplace asking us if we serve dog meat? Let’s go see exactly who these weird foreigners are,’ and they’ll fill the seats tomorrow night. Trust me, children. I know the psychology of the human animal.”
He produced a handful of plastic spoons from a pocket of his clown costume and dumped them on the table. David grabbed one, but he didn’t have much appetite. Embarrassed about the past and sick with guilt over Enid’s imprisonment, he didn’t want to do anything. Crawl in his sleeping bag and zip it shut, perhaps. But he forced himself to eat. They had no plates or bowls, so they ate communally, digging into the crockpot. Since the opening of the pot was small, this produced much competition, batting away of spoons, and grumbling.
“It could use a little hot sauce,” Telly said.
David scarcely noticed the taste of the beans. The sharp mix of embarrassment and guilt made him restless. He didn’t handle stress all that well anyway, but he was getting close to a breaking point. In fact, as the others made their obnoxious wet eating sounds, he envisioned grabbing the edge of the table and flipping it, food and all, in Cakey’s direction. His skin crawled with the need.
“What do you think of the new act?” Cakey said.
He spoke to David casually. Did he not see how tense and miserable David was?
“I don’t like you throwing knives at me,” David replied. “I told you I didn’t want to do it, but you wore me down.”
“I’ll never hit you,” Cakey said, shaking his spoon to punctuate the point. “You have my personal guarantee.”
A single drop of bean juice flew off and landed on David’s sleeve, and David wiped it away with a little more force than was necessary, fighting the scream that wanted to torture its way out of his throat.
“If I ever nick you with a blade, you’ve got my permission to gouge out an eye,” Cakey added.
“That’s bold,” Telly said.
“I didn’t say my eye,” Cakey added with a dumb smile.
The only one at the table who seemed to notice David’s festering mood was Annabelle. She sat to his left, eating quietly and giving him a probing gaze.
She thinks she caused it. She doesn’t know about Enid.
And that made David glance toward the door, where he saw a band of purple light at the bottom. The sun had set. Enid would be in her trailer, standing perhaps at a barred window, gazing off into the darkening sky, and daring to hope. Daring to hope.
“David, are you okay?” Annabelle said. “You look mad enough to kill someone. Was it something I said?”
“Fooling around,” Telly blurted out. “That’s what it’s about.”
This caused Cakey to laugh, and it was a cackling, hideous sound that went right down David’s spine. With a cry, David flung his spoon across the room, rose, and kicked his chair back so hard that it clattered across the floor. This caused Telly and Belle to lurch back in their seats, and Cakey’s laugh turned into a weird squawking sound.
“That’s it,” David shouted, stepping back from the table. “I have to go. I have to go right now.”
He hurried around the table and moved toward the door. Annabelle was the first to follow him, but Cakey moved faster, leaping out of his seat and sliding in front of David.
“Get out of my way,” David said, waving him aside. “There’s something I have to do.”
But Cakey, frowning in a concern that seemed half-feigned, planted his hands on his hips and held his ground.
“I thought we were past this, kid. You freaking out at the drop of a hat. I thought that sort of behavior ended with the ever-night.”
David tried to go around him, but Annabelle moved to cut off that direction.
“David, I’m sorry,” she said. “If it was something I said—”
“No, it wasn’t,” David shouted, waving both hands at her. His heart was racing, his whole body electric. He wanted to break something, and the image of Enid at the barred window wouldn’t go away. “Get out of my way right now. There’s something I have to do right now.”
He tried to go the other way, but Cakey shifted into his path.
I’m telling you, Cakey,” David said, his voice shaking. “I’m telling you to get out of my way.”
“Kid.” For once, Cakey spoke with quiet, troubled sincerity. “Kid, what the hell’s going on with you? Are you alright?”
“I won’t be if you don’t get out of my way.” David clenched his fists, trying to stop them from trembling.
“Cakey, let him go,” Annabelle said, laying a hand on Cakey’s arm.
“It’s about that fooling around,” Telly said, still bent over the pot of beans. “Maybe you shouldn’t ought to have done that.”
“Is that it, Davey?” Annabelle asked.
“No, it’s not about anything.” David made another attempt to move around Cakey, and this time Cakey didn’t try to stop him. “Let me go.”
Cakey held up his hands in a gesture of surrender, and David moved past him, heading for the door.
“But, kid, are you coming back?” Cakey asked.
Instead of answering, David flung the door open. Evening sunlight from the far side of the auditorium cast long purple beams over the rows of chairs.
“Don’t follow me,” he said, stepping through the door. “Let me do this. Leave me alone. Eat your beans, and that’s it. That’s it!”
He shouted the last word, just as the storage room door slammed shut. He heard a final confused sound from Cakey, and he felt a twinge of guilt.
I should’ve explained it to them, he thought, heading across the bare stage, the dead lightbulb on its stand in the center. But they had to bring up the stupid motel room.
Still shaking, fists clenched at his sides, he hopped off the stage and landed in the center aisle.
Get it over with before it sinks in how stupid this is, he thought, racing up the aisle toward the open doors on the far side.
Look for Whispers of Wormwood coming soon!
And read the original novel HERE!