Opening Night
rating: +70+x

You still see them here and there, but they're more zombies than anything else. Nothing but corpses coated inch-deep in makeup, hoisted up by strings, and made to perform broken dances. They're not really alive. No, the circus, the proper circus, died a painful death some time ago. The close-up intimacy of a single ring performance, the smoke-hardened scream of a Ringmaster's voice, and the heart-stopping terror of a truly death-defying act are all things that the true circus took to her grave.

And yet here we are. We are not zombies. Not ghosts. Neither echoes nor afterimages. We're more immortal than any spectre, more timeless than any vintage photograph. We're the ones who've forgotten that they were supposed to have faded into obscurity. We're the ones who missed the memo that electric lights and synthetic sounds are superior to colored flames and pipe organs. We're the kind of circus that died decades before you were born. We are pure romance, and the crowd loves us.

Not an eye sees our caravan pull up in the moonlit lot. Not a soul hears the sound of our spikes driven into the earth. One day we're not there, the next day we are. The moment the sun hits the bigtop, the candy-striped curtain rolls up and we pour out into the light. What was before an empty lot instantly comes alive with the din and activity of hundreds of subhuman creatures with multicolored faces.

You step out of your car and onto the circus grounds. The sound of the calliope is omnipresent, coming from nowhere and everywhere at once. Smiling figures that almost succeed at looking human surround you, laughing, chatting, dancing, singing, juggling, selling cotton candy that's just a little too sweet, and running games that are a little too easy to win. But don't be too distracted by the clowns, there's so much more to see. Your expectations aren't very high. You think that a dancing monkey or a bear on a motorcycle would be the most exciting thing you'd see all day. But your eyes begin glancing at the weather-worn posters around you. Outrageous billings mingled incongruously with bizarre illustrations do nothing to prepare you for the miracles within. You hold tight to your beverage and take a peek beneath a tent.

You audibly gasp, as many tend to do. In front of you, a man unbuttons his vest to reveal three canaries tweeting out Camptown Races in his exposed ribcage. Over there a group of midgets form a human totem pole atop a galloping horse, then one by one climb into its mouth and manipulate it from within. A woman uses a fishhook to gracefully pull her organs from her throat and makes them perform tricks on a table. A beast with a thousand hands walks over a man's body, carefully prodding every inch of his flesh. A Bengal tiger mauls a young fawn, the corpse of which floats gently upward through a flap in the tent and into the sun.

In the far corner of the tent stands an average sized man, his form hidden in the shadows cast by the bars that keep the outside world safe from his touch. Though there are dozens of curiosities, wonders, and terrors in the tent, you find yourself drawn to this lone figure. Approaching him cautiously, he comes into focus and you see that his face is upside-down. You feel uncomfortable, but you only move closer. His expression is hard to read, but it doesn't change in the slightest when his hand slowly reaches between the bars, nor does it change when he gently holds you by your wrist. You're too stunned to speak as he raises your hand to his face and runs your fingers down his misplaced features. You quickly retract your hand, put a quarter in the jar at the foot of the cage and walk, not run, away.

I'm sorry if I frightened you. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't take joy in it.

You hop from tent to tent, stepping out of the sunlight and into the earthy heat of the polka dotted tarps we house our dreams in. The honey-voiced barkers on their boxes shout enticing impossibilities too incredible to disbelieve, and you find yourself drawn from one attraction to the next, a hostage to thrill and a slave to whimsy. As time passes and darkness falls, the searchlights form a spiderweb in the starless sky. Your eyes are immediately drawn to the crowd quickly gathering at the bigtop, but you choose not to go in. Tired from a long day spent wasting your time winning trinkets at the midway, pitying the freaks who breathe stale air, and petting things you told yourself were animals, you turn back and head for your car, oblivious to the expressions of disappointment concealed beneath the clowns' greasy face paint.

I thought of you when the Ringmaster called me onto the stage. I didn't see you when the spotlight came down on me. I missed you when I showed the audience what was behind my face. I imagined seeing you there, squirming uncomfortably with that nauseated expression I'd seen in the Den of Freaks. I wanted to hear your reaction when the lights went out as the Ringmaster announced the grand finale.

I wanted your murmurs of confusion to mingle with those of everyone else who wondered if it was all part of the show.

I wanted to laugh at you as you lined up in single file with others.

I wanted you to wake up in your bed the next morning, no worse for wear but never again the same.

I wanted you to get what you deserve.

But we can't always get what we want.

No, you just brush your teeth, get dressed, and go about your day as normal. You know, it's funny: you've already forgotten about me, but I'll always remember how unfair it was that you missed our opening night.

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