The Grand Delusion
rating: +25+x

There it was. Before her stood the exact circus she had seen in her vision, brightly lit and teeming with childlike wonder. The late afternoon sun cast an orange glow overhead, something she wasn’t used to around those parts, possibly some kind of effect of the circus itself. Cassie had never been to one before, never experienced the wonder nor the allure of its fantastical nature, but that wasn’t important to her. The only thing that mattered was getting all the information she could out of the secret organization that ran it.

She had to pay the entrance fee, of course, but it was a minor price to pay for what needed to be done. The carny asked her how old she was, but she kept it vague and let him know that she was an adult. “Yes, I came here alone,” she said defensively to no question having been asked. “Can’t a grown woman enjoy the circus?”

The carnie, who was tall, lanky, and had eyebrows that were far too thick to be natural, simply shrugged as he granted her admission. It seems their security was lax, as they didn’t even recognize her right away. It was all too easy. There had to have been more challenges waiting for her inside.

The calliope music felt as if it wanted to burrow its way into her head and control her thoughts, and it might have even been successful. It was hard to tell. The black cotton candy was no doubt drugged, so she naturally refused any offerings of the sort. Her mission was a singular one and she had no time to play the games of the so-called Herman Fuller’s Circus of the Disquieting no matter how much fun and excitement they promised to provide her with. Even the petting zoo with its adorable-yet-unorthodox animals that were simply begging her to pet them…

No. It was all part of the ruse. She knew better. The quicker she infiltrated their defenses and got out, the better, as she knew that even she wasn’t completely immune to their tricks. However, this was after coming to realize that she was within the petting zoo’s fences, her hand happily outstretched onto the head of a pink baby goat. On her face was a wide, almost manic grin as she continued to pet the adorable creature. And it was pink! Pink! Among her favorite colors! Even the children around her weren’t as excited as she was to be near so many animals of varying colors and shapes.

It was truly a magical moment, but she stood up straight and straightened her purple coat and other actions related to straightening so that she could resume what was most important. That same coat coupled with her multicolored beanie meant she must have fit right in at a place like that. The Clowns she passed by were distorted in ways that only Clowns could be, making her wonder what they fed the poor souls who worked there.

“Are you having a fun time!?” one of the Clowns asked her in an unbelievably jovial voice as she stopped and moved closer to him. His head was too big and shaped almost like a balloon, but she ignored that.

“Yeah,” she answered plainly, keeping an eye out for anyone who may have been listening in on their conversation. “Hey, uh, who runs this place?”

The Clown grinned from ear to ear and asked, “You see all of this, and yet you think there’s a leader? You’re more optimistic than I am! The closest thing we have is the ringmaster, Icky!”

Cassie shook her head slightly, getting even closer and lowering her voice as much as she could while remaining audible over the crowds. “You don’t have to put on this act with me. I know all about this place. I’m gonna help you.”

The Clown stared blankly at her for a moment, his jolly nature put on hold. “What?”

“I get it,” Cassie went on. “You don’t have to say anything. Just point me in the right direction if you know what I mean.”

With his face still suspended in awkward happiness, the Clown hesitantly raised an arm and pointed to one of the many striped tents, this one a little out of the way compared to most. She nodded to him knowingly, making her way to the tent immediately. As she looked back, like she always did, she could see the Clown talking to another Clown, his eyes still following her as she left.

Not good, she thought. They must have been more brainwashed than she had thought. She should have guessed. Regardless, the situation would only become more perilous from here on out.

Instead of going to the tent that was pointed out to her, she veered off and broke into a sprint between the tents, cages, and teens who had snuck off to smoke in private. The calliope music felt as if it was becoming more insidious with every face she passed by peering into her soul, knowing exactly what her purpose was. Would they turn her into one of their own? She had to keep her mind clear, but whispers could be overheard saying how she was obvious, how she would be roasted alive. All she needed to do was find something damning, a document or the right opportunity for a photo, and she would get out of there, but she couldn’t leave empty-handed.

"Excuse me, ma’am,” a deep voice spoke from directly in front of her as the glow from the setting sun was blocked out by the image of a large man with a peculiar face. It took a moment for her to process, but it hit her that this man’s entire face was all the way upside-down. It was as if an artist had merely lost their patience when drawing a portrait that day. When it hit her that what she was looking at was clearly impossible, she gasped as her heart sank. “Can I help you?”

“I knew it,” she said, her breathing becoming more rapid. “I knew it! You’ve all been behind it all along, haven’t you? Pulling the strings, making this nightmare… I know exactly what you’ve been up to.”

The large man reached out and grabbed her coat by the collar, lifting her feet off the ground. She could get a better look at him like that, and vice versa, but the moment didn't last as he carried her into a more private setting inside a small, unlit tent nearby. He pulled up one of many stools present and lowered her onto it, folding his arms as he looked at her sternly, his brows rising in order to do so.

“Who sent you here?” he asked, towering over her as she gently took a seat.

“Nobody sent me,” she answered honestly. “I’m here because you’ve been making my life a living hell. It’s my burden.”

“Your burden,” the strange man repeated in a mutter, stroking the top of his head where his chin was. “To my knowledge, I don’t think I’ve seen your face before. Why would we do such a thing to someone we don’t even know?”

Cassie grimaced, scooting the stool backward inch by inch to gain a safe distance from the man. “Tell me who you are.”

“I’m called Manny here,” he replied calmly. “It’s no secret, either. That tells me you’ve been left in the dark by whoever fed you information on us. It doesn’t have to end poorly for you.”

Having what she would describe as a healthy buffer of space between the two of them, Cassie continued. “Nobody fed me information.”

“Listen here!” a woman’s voice yelled as a Clown Ringleader made her presence known, bursting through the flaps of the tent. “I’ve had it up to here with you goons barging into the Circus like you own the place! It’s like you’re not even trying anymore! You really think these Clowns are gonna turn traitor at the drop of a dime?”

Cassie’s breathing remained erratic and her mind spun in a tempest of thought after intrusive thought. “I’m here to expose you all! The world needs to know the truth!”

The man grumbled. “I can’t make sense of anything going on in her head.”

Icky narrowed her eyes as she bent over to get a better look at Cassie, procuring a flashlight from her pocket to shine in her face. “Geo Sea? Essie P? CIA? FBI? Local police? Manna? You seem like you’re in over your head, so it would benefit you to start fessing up.”

“You mean you’re not with the police? Or the FBI or CIA? Or is this just a misdirection?”

“Do we look like pigs to you?” Icky questioned, motioning as if to present herself. “I mean, some of the Clowns, sure, but they’re self-conscious about their snouts, so don’t bring it up.”

Cassie got lost in her own head for a minute, some of the strings coming unraveled as she quickly had to make sense of everything again. “So you’re separate from all of it. Then that means you must be the good guys! I had a vision of this place. This exact place. I had to come here, but I wasn’t sure why. It’s never clear.”

“Perhaps she’s clairvoyant,” Manny suggested to the ringleader. “That could prove useful if what she says is true.”

“That’s the difference between me and you, Manny,” Icky said as she pointed a gloved finger at the man. “You see usefulness, I see potential. Very fine line between those things.”

Cassie spoke up before the two of them could argue about the minutiae of their phrasing. “Do you really think I could be clairvoyant? The caregiver at the psych ward I go to says it’s dangerous to think of things that way.”

Icky once again narrowed her eyes, puckering her lips in thought. “Psych ward?”

“They put me there to control me,” she said immediately. “They don’t want me talking about any of this. They’re afraid.”

“And this vision… It looked exactly like this very Circus?”

Cassie attempted to nod but found it difficult to fully visualize what she had in her mind, or even what she had seen prior to coming into the tent. “I think so.”

“Not a vague hallucination of some kind? Vague enough to apply to just about anything?”

“No,” Cassie protested. “It was…” She shook her head, trying to clear her mind. “It was it. I know it. It was the city. The… hidden one. The hidden city.”

Icky turned back to the man and said, “Get her to Tinkles. We’ll see what she has to say on a clearer mind after some Clown Impulse Suppressants.”

The man nodded, kind of, as Icky left the tent. “Come with me, kid,” he said to her as she hesitantly stood up from her stool.

“What are Clown Impulse Suppressants?”

“They’ll help calm you. Believe me, you’ll be able to think more clearly after you come down from one of these.”

Cassie still didn’t move to follow him. “Do they get rid of the thoughts they’re trying to put in my head? I didn’t consent to anything they’ve made me think about, you know. I don’t know anything about them. Okay?”

Taking a moment to pause, Manny lent a hand in front of her. “I promise you’re safe from whoever intends to harm you here. You’re going to have to trust me.”

She looked down, taking notice of the dirt and the bits of forest that had clung to her coat. Her hands were dry and cracked, her feet aching and her hair knotted. It wasn't even clear to her how long she had been away from home. Slowly reaching out to accept the man’s hand, she conceded. “Okay.”

There was some kind of balloon that kept hitting the floor beside her, over and over until she turned to see what it was. A Clown, red nose and pigtails. She came in and out of view with each bounce, the red balloon she was mounted on looking as though it would surely pop each time.

“What…” she mumbled, followed by a groan as she struggled to get herself moving again.

“You’re awake!” the Clown loudly exclaimed, putting a cease to her bouncing as she stretched out her neck to get a better look at her. She had a grin that reminded her of a sleep paralysis demon and Cassie wasn’t entirely convinced she wasn't. “We all have episodes sometimes!” she went on. “Sometimes they’re TV episodes, like an episode of Law and Order! And sometimes they don’t have an order! Or law, for that matter! But don’t worry! You’re in good hands! Even though you’re not a part of the family… yet… that doesn’t mean I can’t treat you like you are! As I always say, every Freak is always valid in their own Freaky way. I lied, I never say that, but every always begins with a first! Ooh, I like that.”

Cassie shut her eyes tight and opened them again. Sometimes that would be enough to get rid of a hallucination. “Are you real? Would you tell me if you were real?”

“As really real as real can really get!” she shouted happily. “My name is Lollipop, but you can call me Lolly! What’s your name?”

After a deep groan, she answered, “Cassie…”

“Hmm…” Lolly rested her chin on her fist, getting a real good look at her for some reason. “Cassie… Cassie… Hmmmmmm…” Her face lit up as she triumphantly announced, “Tootsie! Way less of a Humdrum name, you can thank me later when you realize you love it.”

“Where am I?” she asked, still not fully awake.

“A tent! Tinkles’ tent, to be specific. He’s the doctor here, went to Clown college and everything. You came here last night, remember? Tinkles gave you the Clown Impulse Suppressants, you got all hazy and asked to go to the bathroom, you could be heard stating, and I quote, ‘It just disappears forever!’ Then you passed out! On the toilet, I mean.”

Shaking her head, Cassie groaned again. “I don’t remember any of that. Stop trying to implant memories into my brain.”

“I would never do such a thing! Not even if I could! Which, to be fair, I’ve never tested… But I wouldn’t start with you! That’d be rude! I’m just here to watch over you.”

“That’s my job, Lolly,” another woman’s voice from within the tend spoke. She tried to get a better look at who it was, but could only make out that she was a Clown in her hazy state. A Clown with a lot of reds and greens. For hallucinations, they felt all too real.

“Well, okay, technically Zoozoo’s here to watch over you, but I’m here so that you’re not alone with Zoozoo. And I’m also the Ringleader’s favorite and most trusted!” She lowered her head bashfully and bit her lip. “And her lover. And that’s important to remember! Even if you’re only gonna be here for a day… or two, I dunno, Icky and Manny are both, like, really really cautious of people.”

“The Circus was real?” Cassie said incredulously, having not been able to believe her own memories several times in the past. “Oh, god… My family must be worried sick. They’ve probably already called the police. I’ll be in the hospital for months…”

Lolly audibly gasped as her eyes gained a fiery glow. “Sounds like they wanna lock you up, and I am adamantly opposed to that on a deep and spiritual level!” She got down on one knee beside Cassie’s bunk and said, “I know I’m not supposed to do this, but… will you be my friend? And… uh… run away to join the Circus? I know! I know! It sounds like a whole thing, but I promise it’s worth it! We’re all Freaks here! You’d fit right in!”

“I’m not a Freak,” Cassie declared firmly, making Lolly recoil. “It’s dehumanizing… I’m just different. And different is okay.” She was no longer talking to Lolly, but rather to herself. For her, it was the same thing. “I won’t dehumanize myself. I’m valued and worthy of love.”

“But…” Lolly started, showing her puppy dog eyes in their full glory. “I never said you weren’t all of those things you just said! It’s not a bad thing to be a Freak. Becoming a Freak was the best decision I ever made.”

Cassie sighed and shook her head. “I guess I have to settle with that. I should call my parents and let them know I’m alright.” She reached for her pockets to retrieve her phone only to realize that her jeans were entirely flat around those areas. She had spent extra on women’s jeans that had actual pockets and they had let her down for the last time. “Where’s my phone?”

Lolly could be seen smiling nervously, a small noise that possibly could have passed as a laugh escaping her. “About that,” she said through her clenched, perfectly white teeth. “They might have taken your phone because you haven’t been cleared as a non-threat yet. And by might, I mean definitely.”

“Lolly,” Cassie said with a straight face and tempered voice.


“Am I being kidnapped?”

The Clown held up two fingers as if she was about to pinch the air and said, “Maybe just a little bit? But it’s for good reason! If this is really all by mistake, then you’ll be let go, no questions asked! Well, maybe a few questions asked, but I’m sure they’re doing a background check right now and obviously, since you’re innocent, you’ll be fine!” Her mouth closed as she was still smiling, but there was clearly something more she wanted to say, so Cassie waited for it. “It’s just that it’d be real nice if you could join the Circus- I can even give you the grand tour! Last guy I gave the tour, well, lemme tell you, last time I’ll be giving a tour to an adult!”

“I’m not a child,” Cassie said, confused. “I’m nineteen.”

Lolly nodded along, saying, “Right, you’re an adult, of course! Sometimes you uh… assume everyone’s a child when you work at the Circus, but hey! Nineteen’s a great age! Don’t you wanna stay nineteen forever? You’ll have the joys of being a kid and the freedom of being an adult if you stay here.”

“I think I need an adult,” Cassie protested, moving to stand up only to realize she wasn’t as balanced as she thought she was. Her head felt like it was about to give out, forcing her to lean on the top bunk beside her to stay on her feet. “Did you really drug me?”

“I didn’t,” Lolly replied, holding her hands up in mock surrender. “Tinkles did, but I can’t be held accountable for his actions! I already need to be held accountable for all of my own, and let me tell you, that’s a lot of actions.”

Cassie took a second to think it over and sighed. “I mean… I did barge into the Circus like a maniac. Feels like it all happened so fast. One minute I was talking to a Clown, and the next I was being interrogated by a Clown… That couldn’t have possibly been real. I’m off my meds, I’m seeing things and… remembering things that aren’t real. I don’t even know how long I’ve been on the run looking for that stupid vision I had, and… I mean… I’m not crazy, I just need my meds to be balanced! If my meds aren’t working, I’ve gotta be put on more meds or… or different meds next time and… I don’t know if I can go through another med change because I’m already almost entirely through the list of antipsychotics they’ve got available and I just wanna experience life for once without a fucking desert in my mouth as a side effect!”

She looked to Lolly, who didn’t seem to be at all perturbed by her little outburst. They never did seem to care all that much. But this one was different. Gentle and kind hallucinations were one in a million. “We’re used to much worse around here,” she assured her. “Trust me, much worse. We’re a family of Freaks, every day is something completely different from the last!”

Looking at her more intently, Cassie poked her side, eliciting a giggle from the Clown. She couldn’t have been real… “Hey, why are both of you wearing your full makeup?” she asked, realizing that a clown certainly wouldn’t be in makeup 24/7 unless she sincerely misunderstood how that job worked.

Zoozoo leaned back in her chair. “Capital C,” she said confidently. “We’re not clowns by trade. We’re Clowns for life.”

“And if you leave, you’ll think this was all just a dream,” Lolly pointed out. “Or in your case, a hallucination. Or a hallucination in a dream. Hallucidreams. Can you get hallucidreams?”

“I’m having one right now…” she confirmed.

Lolly took Cassie by the hand and, before she could have a say in the matter, placed it near her ear, where a handkerchief was already beginning to slide out on its own. “Pull,” she told her.

And so she did. She pulled as more handkerchiefs came out of her ear, each tied to the last and as clean as a whistle. And they weren’t just appearing as if they came out of her ear, either. They were quite literally coming out in the dozens directly from the canal. When she had pulled enough handkerchiefs out, Lolly then began weaving them into designs that not only stood on their own, but began moving and speaking nonsense on their own as well. They were in the shape of people, their mouths moving and a whole lot of nothing important coming out.

“Look!” Lolly exclaimed. “It’s congress!”

Not knowing what had come over her, Cassie began to laugh at the impossible display. Truth be told, it was nothing she wasn’t already used to in some capacity. She wasn’t sure how this was supposed to prove that she wasn’t hallucinating, however.

“In these hard times, I feel like some cuts are necessary.” Lolly procured a scythe from her pockets somehow and sliced the heads off of all the handkerchief people, their talking immediately silenced as they all fell lifeless to the floor. Slowly, the handkerchiefs began to rise again, moaning and wailing, painting legitimate fear into Lolly’s face.

“Ah, crap!” she said, continuing to slice through the cloth. “I forgot you can’t kill a status quo! Tootsie, get out while you still can! Save yourself!”

The Handkerchiefs burst into flame in the blink of an eye as the tend flap opened to let the morning light in for a brief moment. “Lolly,” the same voice as the magician woman from the night before rang out. “What have I told you about playing with the economy?”

Lolly sighed, reciting the phrase, “Economic interests and values aren’t to be played with outside of specific roleplay scenarios.”

Icky neared them and hugged Lolly from behind, the two of them smiling ear to ear. “Good girl,” she said next to her ear. All of a sudden, Cassie felt awkward for looking in the same direction as the two.

“Oh!” Lolly interjected. “Tootsie is innocent and she can join the Circus and be a forever-friend! Pleeeaaase? Can we keep her?”

Icky sighed. “Well, the good news is that she is innocent. The, uh, “bad” news is that we can’t just abduct people off the streets. Or… shouldn’t abduct people off the streets. Clearly we’re able to…”

“But she wants to join!” Lolly argued. “You should have seen how happy she was when I did something as simple as a handkerchief trick! Imagine how much happier she would be if she saw more! Plus, she’s already stayed a night with us! That’s basically like joining the family already! She can be a Carnie! Or a Clown! Oh! Or even a magician! Don’t we need more magicians or something?”

“No,” Icky replied plainly. “Not particularly. And she still has to make that decision herself. Just because you want a friend doesn’t mean she wants a new family.” She narrowed her eyes and looked Cassie up and down, smirking much like Zoozoo did. “I mean, she is fresh meat that isn’t too bad to look at…”

“Do you interview all your clients by undressing them with your eyes?” Cassie said as she crossed her arms over her chest.

“Only the lucky ones.”

“C’mon!” Lolly shouted, grabbing Cassie by the hand and dragging her out of the tent. “The Circus is so much better from out here!”

As Cassie looked around at the morning scenery surrounding the two, shortly followed by Icky, she realized she didn’t recognize any of it. There were red cliff sides in the distance and the immediate area had no trees whatsoever. This was somewhere far from Oregon, to be sure.

“It’s northern Mexico, if you were wondering,” Icky mentioned as if reading Cassie’s mind. “Congratulations on making it to day two of Circus company. Not many get to learn about our weird little secrets, least of all a Humdrum such as yourself. I’ve got work to do, but I’m sure Lolly and the others can keep you company for now. Oh, and…” She rummaged through her invisible hammerspace and pulled out several odd items like bookshelves, axes, and live animals before getting to Cassie’s phone and handing it to her. “All yours. Sorry about the whole drugging thing, better safe than sorry.”

As Icky was leaving for the striped tents, Lolly bounced up and down for a moment and could barely contain her excitement. “You see? We’re good guys! This place is the most magical, wondrous, mind-blowing, exhilarating place in the world! No, the multiverse!”

“How do I get back home?” Cassie asked, much to Lolly’s disappointment.

“Oh. Right. Icky can take you back whenever you’re ready. It’s just a doorway away with magic! You’ll stay around long enough to see more magic, right? Just wait until you see the Menagerie of Mayhem, the Hall of Humans Extraordinaire, and you have to see the Fun-lover’s Funhouse!”

Cassie stood for a moment to view the entirety of the Circus from a distance, admiring its ability to be like a shining beacon even in the morning sun. “So magic is real, huh?”

Lolly nodded with a big grin on her face. “And a world of infinite possibilities. Otherworldly travel! Unbelievable spectacles! Unlimited adventure! And just think- you were lucky enough to not have to go home after the first day! Because you’re like us! Well… kind of. It’s not a misfit’s world out there. But here, the less you fit, the better! And don’t take that out of context!”

“And I’ll be fed? And safe?”

“You bet! You’re not the only one like you here. Sure, the Clowns need Clown milk, but not everyone is a Clown! We take care of all needs, big or small! Just… don’t worry about Manny for right now. He’s more focused on profit than Icky, and you don’t exactly have a superpower that can sell tickets.”

Cassie tightened her grip around her phone, looking at the endless texts and missed calls from her parents, and replied that she was alright and being taken care of. She wasn’t sure what else to add, since no matter what, they were going to be worried sick. While she did want to get back to them and have that comfort she had been lacking ever since she took off, it wasn’t every day someone got to explore the realm of real, genuine magic. “Okay,” she said finally. “I’ll stay here for a little bit. But if I get too uncomfortable, I’m gonna take that doorway thing back home, alright?”

Lolly couldn’t have been more satisfied with her answer, wrapping her arms around her in a tight, soul-crushing embrace. “You’ll love it! I promise! Welcome to the Circus of the Disquieting! And welcome home!”

“Yeah, yeah, home, Circus, all good,” another Clown said, holding a clipboard to his chest. It was Tinkles, she barely recognized him from the haze of the previous night. “Clown Impulse Suppressants work? That’s good, that’s good, take one at night before going to sleep and we’ll see where you’re at.” He handed her an unmarked bottle of pills followed by a form from his clipboard to be filled out. It was in the opposite order from how she was normally prescribed drugs, but she couldn’t have expected anything more from a hallucination.

“Now we’re both on the same meds!” Lolly pulled out her own bottle of pills from her pocket and added, “See? We’re matching!”

“What are the side effects?” Cassie asked just in case it was all real. At least, everything except for Lolly. She knew she was a hallucination no matter what.

Tinkles shifted his feet and said, “For humans? Drowsiness, dizziness, slowness, bloating, a Clown-like resistance to just about everything you can think of, that kinda thing.”

“No dry mouth?” It would have been a first.

“Not that I know of.”

She breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank god. Seems like every antipsychotic in the world just wants to-”

“See there’s your problem right there,” Tinkles interjected. “Using human medicine. That stuff is way behind the times!”

“It’s true,” Lolly nodded in agreement. “You should check out some of the other Worlds and see what they have to offer. I love this World and all, but it can be a little dull at times. Which is why we’re here! When the world needs a little cheering up with a hint of magic, we can spark some joy and creativity in them! Everyone deserves as much!”

Cassie leaned in closer to Tinkles, whispering, “Just out of curiosity, do you see that Clown there?” She pointed at Lolly, who was daydreaming about something or another after her speech.

“More than I’d like to,” Tinkles responded, making his way back inside his white tent.

Cassie stared straight ahead while Lolly stared directly at her face, soaking in the secondhand wonder of the newbie. She smiled a bit, then turned to face Lolly. “What did you call it? Menagerie of Mayhem? Can we go there first?”

Lolly quickly began jogging in place as she grabbed Cassie by the hand, her terrifying grin on full display. “You won't believe your eyes! Or your nose! Seriously, you might wanna cover your nose around some of these wonders.” Her jogging finally took a direction and the two went speeding through the Circus as Cassie couldn't help but feel the excitement rush through her.

At the very least, it was going to be one hell of a trip.

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