Amongst the Clowns

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I wandered for a time amongst the Circus performers, unsure of what to do with the bundle that the clown had foisted off on me. I wasn’t sure why no one seemed to notice that I wasn’t actually a member of the Circus, no one paid me any real attention. Every so often someone would glance at me a second time before going back to whatever task was occupying their time, but that was the extent of their response to me.

The cobalt blue of the sky above us never seemed to change, no clouds swept across that vast dome, and the twin suns of wherever we were never moved from their station slightly past zenith. It was hard to gauge the passing of time in that place, and the pace of the Circus denizens certainly didn’t help. At first, there was a mad dash through the gate, crowds of performers pulling carts or carrying bundles much like mine. Then the vehicles and trailers started popping through as the last of the Circus pulled up stakes and escaped whatever they were obviously running from.

After that first rush, the circus and staff seemed to just mill about as a calm sense of the everyday seemed to fall over the entirety of the Circus. After the last truck came trundling through the shining mirror of the gate, it closed with a snap, a tall man in a long coat the last to step through. He pushed something into his pocket, shaking his head as he strode purposefully through the crowd.

At first, I thought the man was smirking, his lips curled up in a way that would certainly be called a smirk on any other face, but this man’s was different, somehow upside-down. His brooding glare swept over and past me, not even noting my presence, and I began to cautiously make my way in his wake.

The other cirkies pushed out of his way as he stomped across the sand, and a rustling stillness followed him as carefully as I did. Every eye turned in his direction, the conversations around us dying to a whisper as an air of expectation settled over the crowd.

He stepped up to a small-ish wagon with the Circus logo painted on the side in now-faded colors, and he banged unceremoniously on the door. “Fuller!” He shouted, his voice carrying over the muted stillness of the crowd. I barely breathed as I came to a stop next to a pair of large clowns about twenty yards away from the brewing confrontation.

“Fuller!” The man pounded on the door again, his voice even louder than before. “Open this door, we need to talk.”

Another moment passed, and then the door swung outward revealing the tuxedo’d man in his garishly red coat. He’d removed the top hat and I realized he was much shorter than I had originally estimated, and certainly shorter than the man with the upside-down face.

“Manny, my friend, won't you come in? This is no place for civilized discourse, standing out here and yelling before the gods and everyone. What would our Family think, hmm? Can’t have them getting all worked up over nothing, can we?” His words and manner were conciliatory, but even in this, the magic of his tone flowed out from him like honey, and I immediately knew that he had everything under control, that this strange exodus had been planned, and that everything would be all right.

Manny seemed to pause for a heartbeat as the crowd around them began returning to whatever tasks they had before them. I had no task, and I fully intended to stay and wait for whatever happened next, but the clowns beside me had entirely different plans.

“Oy, Poodles. It lookin’ like we’s got ourselves a gilly!” The big clown bent down and looked me right in the eyes.

I’d never really had a chance to really look at the clowns, and face to face with one was probably not the best way to get that chance. But look I did, and I realized that there was something off about the thing gazing back at me. It looked human enough, but whatever was staring at me from behind those eyes most certainly wasn’t human.

I took a few steps back from the Clown, fumbling with the bundle of cloth in a vain attempt to show it that I was supposed to be there. “I… uh, I was handed this and…” I sounded lame and I knew it, but what was I to do? Fear trembled through me, and I stumbled backwards on rubbery legs, landing in a puff of dust. I dropped the bundle in my lap, and I just… gave up.

“I don’t know, I didn’t mean to intrude, I just… I just followed.”

The big Clown squatted down beside me and patted my head with a surprisingly gentle hand. “S’ok, lil gilly. We was in a rush, we was, and we din’t take all tha usuals. Vent’uly this was gonna appen, fo’ certin’. Them damn Essie P’s been gettin’ real snickery, an’ I’s guessin that was tha third close call this month.””

The other Clown grinned a too-large grin, revealing a mouth full of way too many teeth. “Yeahhhh, Manny sure looked pissed. Fuller’s gonna have a helluva time explaining this one away. Prolly not gonna have another show in Prime fer a while.” He kept grinning at me, and his sclera-less eyes seemed to glint with hunger. “I’m thinking we shouldn’t bother him with our little stow-away, eh Squigly? Maybe we just take ‘im to the Fun-lovers for a bit of a row. It’s been a while since we had a good’n. Manny’s been keepin’ that leash awful tight lately.”

“Nah.” Squigly stood and gently helped me to my feet. “Thissun’s been at tha Candy. You kin see it ‘n tha eyes.” He trapped my chin in fingers that felt more like rebar than flesh, and he tilted my head up so both Clowns could take a look at my eyes.

“Ohhh, for sure. You can see the little wigglers in the white ‘n veiny bits. Ate a bunch of the Candy, I bet. Almost too much, mebbe.” Poodles looked at me, and I no longer saw the glint of hunger in the dark pools of his eyes.

“It’s curious like, tho.” Squigly turned my head a bit so he could get a better view. “Thems wigglers, all right, but this gilly aint all squirmy like’n them last ‘uns. Mebbe Eugene’ll know.”

Poodles hummed, and then reached down to snag my bundle off the ground. “Nah, better not bother him either. He’s been all grouchy since he and Pius came back from bein’ stuck in the Ways. Let’s just put this one up in the Alley. We’ll figure out what to do next after that.”

And that was that. The two Clowns led me through the rest of the cirkies like they owned the place, telling jokes with other Clowns as they passed. Almost no one noticed me. Those that did were quickly distracted by the antics of my two companions, and no one commented on my presence. I thought I caught a pretty girl in a black clown suit glance my way, but at a motion from Squigly, she shrugged and turned away.

At last we came to a small trailer covered with a garish mish-mash of graffiti and circus bills. Above the small door in the side of the trailer, a sign painted in bold blues and purples read “Clown Alley.”

Poodles pushed open the door and we marched inside, both of the Clowns having to bend their head and duck through the doorway to follow me in. The inside of the trailer was not at all what I expected from the outside. The walls here were also covered in graffiti, but that was the only thing consistent with the outside. Inside, I found myself in a long and very tall canyon that looked more like I was within the bowels of some gigantic container ship than the inside of a small-ish rail car.

Container after container stacked atop each other and end to end, stretching off into an endless haze. There were Clowns everywhere, scampering up rapidly gyrating rope ladders or simply jumping the awful gulf between the precariously-stacked containers. Industrial barrels were everywhere, each one filled with burning colors, and they filled the interior with a blaze of multi-hewed light.

I just stood there and gaped at the riot of color, my two companions momentarily forgotten as I lost myself in trying to see everything all at once. Poodles laughed as he scooped me up in his brawny arms, and suddenly he leaped straight up to the third level of the containers.

With a shriek I clutched tightly at the frills on his costume, and I closed my eyes tightly as the world shifted again and again as he continued his hopping ascension through the containers. Hoots of laughter and catcalls from the other Clowns followed our leaping journey through the maze. The world swam around me and I struggled with nausea when Poodles finally came to rest high amongst the stacks.

I gulped as I peered down from Poodles’ shoulder, and my vision spun again as I took in the dizzying depth beneath me. This was impossible, the space just seemed to stretch out endlessly all around me, and thousands of Clowns called into the empty vastness with a cacophony of sound that seemed more like the calls of zoo creatures than people.

Poodles turned and I caught a glimpse of another container set back from the edge and recessed in shadow before he stepped up and through the open door on the side. He dropped me unceremoniously onto a pile of overstuffed pillows away from the opening in the giant metal box, and Squigly once more crouched down beside me.

“Oi, gilly. This ‘ere is Fraust’s Nest, annit be yer new place, at least’n fo now. Best ya not be getin’ too close to tha edge, yeah? It be a longish fall, and yous don’t gots enough Milk in yas to be survivin’ that kinda fall, eh?” He patted me again on my head with a chuckle before both of the Clowns turned and dropped out of sight.

Suddenly, all the events of the previous few hours came crashing in on me, and I began to weep uncontrollably, deep wracking sobs rolled through me as I gave in to the stress and shear other-worldliness of it all. I clutched one of the pillows to my chest and curled into the pile, overwhelmed by it all.

“Hello, friend.”

I didn’t hear the voice at first, so wrapped up was I, in my misery and exhaustion. It wasn’t until I had sobbed for a few more minutes before I realized that there was someone else that had crept up to the pile of pillows.

A thin hand gently stroked my face, and I stared out into the gloom of the unlit container. “Shhhh,” came their soft voice from the darkness as they continued to run their fingers lightly over my face. “It is not too bad, I promise.”

I struggled up to a sitting position and peered into the shadows, trying to find my companion in the murk. “I… I’m sorry.” I said, wiping the back of my hand across my face, attempting to wipe away some of my tears. “It’s… it’s just so m-much, you know?”

“It is ok, friend. It really is. Squigly and Poodles are really quite lovely, once you get to know them. In fact, just about everyone in the Circus is. Maybe even those creepy Freewheelers, though maybe not them, they are night spying for Fuller.” Something rustled nearby, almost like leather whispering over steel, and my companion turned lambent green eyes upon me. “You will be fine, I promise.”

I withdrew a bit from those eyes, burrowing a bit more into the pillows of the nest. As my eyes began to adjust to the darkness around me, I caught glimpses of things moving in the shadow.

“I’m sorry,” I said again, a little stronger this time. “I wasn’t expecting any of this, I really just wanted to speak to Malagantius, to find out..” My voice trailed away as I drifted back over the words and visions from the Big Top performance. I glanced furtively over at my companion as the memory of those visions caused the shame to once more bubble up to the surface.

A soft laugh whispered around me, like rose-scented silk, and I felt the pillows move as something shifted closer. “Shhh. It is ok. It really is, I promise.” I could see a little better now, as the beautiful Clown smiled at me and once more stroked the side of my face.

“Get some rest. When Poodles and Squigly get back, we will all go and see Mal. Just go to sleep, and I promise that by tomorrow, everything will be better.”

A lethargy began to overwhelm me, something in the Clown’s voice reaching out to gently take hold of my already exhausted brain to carry it off to sleep. I struggled for a moment against it, looking around with panic threatening just beyond my grasp. But as I failed and began to slip into slumber, I thought I could see something shifting around me. Several somethings, long and thin slowly shifting closer. Rope, maybe?

Not rope… it moved like…

Tentacles… in the dark.

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