Melinda, licking the cotton candy crystals from her fingertips, wished she were enjoying herself. The sky was ominous, the midway overcrowded with people, and the pain in her stomach was growing worse by the minute.
Why’d she come here anyway, she wondered and fingered the car keys in her pocket. She dreaded the circus and everything it represented and yet when she found the free ticket in her mailbox she knew she had to come. After years of avoiding the big top, she found herself here.
She studied the giant, full-colored posters lining the corridor created by tents and the little trailers selling food. Faded painted acrobats swung from trapezes, leotard clad men carrying long balancing poles were frozen for all time gingerly stepping their way across the high wire, young women in sequins held hoops for performing dogs probably long dead. Every poster a cliché, and yet…and yet, something eerie and not quite human surrounded those images.
Melinda quickly averted her gaze and stood in the middle of the midway, staring at the ground trying to decide whether to go home or stay and try to discover why she needed to be here. That was when she felt the first raindrops like a gentle tap on her shoulder. She spun around and realized no one had touched her just as the sky opened up and the rain fell all around her in skin soaking sheets. A flash of lightning lit up the area, then plunged it into a dull, dark premature nightfall. Without a thought, she rushed into the striped tent to her immediate right. She dashed through the flap and almost ran into a woman with caked make-up and large rings on every finger.
The woman’s wrinkled face registered instant recognition. “It’s you!” she said. “At long last, it’s you!”
Taking an awkward step back, Melinda shuddered. The old, carnival gypsy was smiling through ruby red lips and pointing at her. “It’s you!” echoed in her head as she backed out of the tent and stood in the rain for a full minute before realizing that she was soaked.
Melinda began to shiver even though the late afternoon was warm. She looked around, but couldn’t get her bearings. Striped tents were everywhere and she entered one at random, making sure it wasn’t the one she had just fled.
The flap swished closed behind her and her eyes slowly adjusted to the dark, musky interior. She could see racks of costumes: spangled leotards, silly clown suits, short red jackets and a long ringmasters coat. She relaxed and grabbed a deep rich purple velvet jacket, a jacket that fit so perfectly it seemed to mold itself to her and exude warmth. In a few minutes she stopped shivering and in a few more, the dark and the new-found warmth lulled her to sleep.
A deep sleep, filled with images of circus life: animals, clowns, gypsy fortune tellers, trapeze artists, clowns, elephants, clowns and faceless people who wanted her and frightened her, yet, were not ominous. She woke, feeling uneasy and confused. She tried to think, but couldn’t get all the visions out of her head. Why’d she come to the circus anyway?
Oh yes, she remembered, to prove to herself that there was nothing to fear. She’d never been to a circus, hated playing big top with the other kids as they hung upside down on swing sets. She’d always been afraid of the big top, ever since she was a little kid, moving from foster home to foster home.
She felt the heavy weight of disappointment. She hadn’t defeated or even confronted her demons. She left the dark protection of the costume tent and decided to sneak away before anyone discovered her. Everything was so quiet, no noise filtered in from outside, no laughter, no midway barkers calling to the crowd, no ringmaster’s demands to look left or right or center ring, no calliope of tinny music. Just silence, silence as thick and impenetrable as the darkness enveloping her.
The midway was closed, the rides still, the animals asleep. It felt as if she were the only living soul at the circus. She looked over the midway, the food concessions closed up tight and the games of chance silent. She saw a slit of light coming from the tent she had run into the first time, the fortune teller’s tent. Why had that gypsy acted like she knew her?
Gathering up all her courage and ignoring the weakness in her knees, Melinda went over, lifted the flap and walked inside.
The gypsy was seated at the table with two cups of tea and cookies. “Come and sit, Dear. I’m sorry I frightened you earlier. It was just the shock of seeing you again. We’d almost given up hope, even though the cards foretold you’d be back.”
Melinda took the chair. The tea looked inviting and she was hungry. “You know me?”
The gypsy laughed, “Yes, of course, Dear. Do you know you?”
Melinda shook her head. “No,” she whispered, “No, I don’t really know me at all. I don’t have a past.”
“Yes, Dear, you do. How much do you remember?”
“Living in foster homes but not knowing anything more about me than my first name.”
“Well, Melinda,” The gypsy said in a soft, kind voice. “Here take my hand.”
Fearfully grasping the ring covered, red-nailed hand that looked like a vicious talon but felt like soft velvet, Melinda was suddenly engulfed in images. Memories. This was her home. She tried to remember why she’d run away, but all she could recall was the clowns chasing her, clowns hunting for her, all these years, hunting for her. Wanting her.
She let go and gasped. “I remember! I ran away. Ran from all of you! Oh, the clowns, the clowns. I’ve got to get out of here!”
The gypsy reached for her hand. “No, don’t try to leave. You’re home now.”
Melinda jumped up and ran out. She saw them then, the clowns, lurking, hiding in the shadows. She had to get away. She ran, no one followed, but she could sense them all around her. So many clowns, why would such a small circus have so many, many clowns. She ran down the midway, blind to everything. Searching for a way out she felt them closing in, drawing their circle tighter.
A doorway! Without thought, she ducked inside to find herself surrounded by herself. She reach out and touched glass. The house of mirrors! She ran, blindly bumping into glass walls, confusing herself, losing herself. She was everywhere, reflecting back at herself, hundreds of Melindas.
She sank to the floor and wept. What did all this mean?
She heard them, saw them wandering the maze in search of the real her. There were hundreds, no thousands of clowns surrounding her as they reflected endlessly in their quest.
“If I just stay still maybe they’ll never find me,” she whispered.
“Ah, Melinda, they will find you. They have too, they need you to come home.” Melinda looked up and saw the gypsy standing before her. The older woman smiled and held out her hand. “Come, it’s time to come home and take your rightful place.”
Tears streaming down her cheeks, Melinda took the old hand and suddenly another memory flooded in. “Mother? Mother!”
The gypsy smiled, and her once ominous face was suddenly warm and caring. “Oh Melinda.”
“Oh Mother…Mom, I ran away…I was scared…terrified. I didn’t want the responsibility. I was…I was just a dumb little kid. Then I forgot, I think I wanted to forget.”
“I know, Melinda, it is hard to accept who we are, who we sometimes must be. A hard road for a sensitive child. My poor baby. All those years, I’ve missed you.”
“Me too, Mommy, I got lost and didn’t know how to get home.” Melinda smiled and hugged her mother. The last puzzle pieces fell into place. She was a part of the circus world, an important part never known by the mundane world.
She looked down and with a shaking hand, lifted a bright red nose from the floor and pull it over her small one. A perfect fit.
She was Queen of the Clowns, Clowns the world over would soon hear of her return and all would once again be right. That was what had frightened her as a child, made her run away. Too much to handle.
“That’s right, you are our Queen.” the clowns all shouted in a roar as they filed out into the night. “Long live the Queen.”
Melinda crossed the midway and they bowed. She came to a huge golden tent and entered. The clowns followed her, then the rest of the circus family entered as well. She walked to the end, to the throne, her throne. She took the gold crown covered in garish, brightly colored jewels from the velvet seat and placed it on her head.
Smiling at her throng of cheering subjects, Melinda sat, picked up her scepter and squeezed the bright orange rubber bulb at one end. As the horn blared out ARRUGAH she laughed knowing she was finally home where she belonged.
Diane Arrelle, the pen name of South Jersey writer Dina Leacock, has sold more than 200 short stories. She has two published books including Just A Drop In The Cup, a collection of short-short stories. She is proud to be one of the founding members as well as the second president of the Garden State Horror Writers and is also a past president of the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference. Recently retired from being director of a municipal senior citizen center, she lives with her husband and her cat on the edge of the Pine Barrens in Southern New Jersey (home of the Jersey Devil).
Betty Rocksteady is a Canadian author and illustrator. Learn more at www.bettyrocksteady.com.