Copyright © Aurelia T. Evans 2018. All Rights Reserved, Totally Entwined Group Limited, T/A Totally Bound Publishing.
In retrospect, Elizabeth should have looked up what kind of circus Arcanium was before bringing the Bishop children.
It wasn’t entirely her fault. Mrs. Bishop had recommended it based on a casual glance at the weekend events in the local paper. However, when she and Mr. Bishop went out of town for the weekend on business—which was almost every weekend—it was up to Elizabeth to entertain and care for the children, and she was responsible for the content of that entertainment and care, which meant she’d been responsible for investigating Arcanium’s suitability for an infant, a three-year-old girl, a nine-year-old boy and a monster masquerading as a sixteen-year-old girl.
Standing in front of the half-naked sword swallower performing at the entrance of the circus, Elizabeth shared a look with said monster, who usually just went by Sharona.
“You’re going to be in so much trouble.” Sharona flipped her hair over her shoulder.
She was pretty, just like her mother. Though it was mid-January, the weather was unseasonably warm, and Sharona had taken the opportunity to ignore her mother’s guidelines for shirt length and exposure, guidelines that Elizabeth couldn’t really enforce without Mrs. Bishop’s approval—and Sharona knew it. A teenage girl flaunting her already-beach-ready body next to a woman in orthodox dress turned a few heads from the initial impact of the sword swallower, as though Elizabeth was just another circus oddity.
If the Bishops thought hiring a Petrosian saint for a nanny would rub righteousness off on their children, they’d severely underestimated teenage determination—and chosen the wrong Wu daughter as a nanny, not that Elizabeth’s mother had shared that little bit of information with them.
Thank God, Sharona’s brother Todd was much more manageable. And the toddler and infant were at least predictable.
“Why’s she going to be in trouble?” Todd asked, holding the toddler’s hand tightly. “The guy’s just swallowing swords. Man, three swords now? Wow, gross. Think he can do four?”
“I’ll admit that if he were swallowing dildos, that would be more shocking.” Sharona took her phone out of her purse and framed the sword swallower in the picture.
“What’s a dildo?” Todd asked.
“I mean…this guy? Not hot. But imagine what Mom and Dad would say if they saw the snake lady in the background? Or maybe this nice couple walking by? How romantic.” Sharona grinned at the shot of the woman in shiny purple latex leading a man in red leather around on a leash. The man carried a double-sided torch trident over his shoulder.
“Come on, Todd. We’re leaving.” Elizabeth didn’t think the ticket master was going to give them their money back. The gigantic sign of rules and warnings that she’d apparently failed to read all the way through had been clear about one thing. No refunds.
“Why?” Sharona lowered her phone to follow the progress of the woman and collared man—most likely because, despite the scars on the upper half of the man’s body, the leather cradling his buttocks left as little to the imagination as his mistress’s outfit.
“I am not taking your nine-year-old brother and baby sisters into a place like this.” Elizabeth hooked a hand around Sharona’s elbow to lead her back to the elaborate Arcanium gates.
“It’s not like they get it. He doesn’t know what a dildo is. Do you even?”
“And when Todd tells his parents about circus acts gyrating in fetish gear, who do you think isn’t going to get paid this week?”
Sharona giggled. “How do you know what fetish gear is?”
“How you know is the more important question. I’m thirty-five, and I’m religious, not ignorant.”
“It really isn’t,” Elizabeth said dryly.
Sharona grabbed one of the wrought-iron whorls on the gate before Elizabeth could lead her through. “I want to stay.”
Trying to force a recalcitrant teenager to go somewhere she didn’t want to go while maneuvering a dual baby-and-toddler stroller over grass proved too much for Elizabeth. “Over my dead body. Your mother wanted me to take you to a circus, which was supposed to mean clowns, trained animals, acrobats… There’s nothing redeemable about a freak show pretending to be a floor show. I thought these places had all been wiped out.”
“But I want to see the snake lady,” Todd said. “I like snakes.”
Elizabeth suppressed a shudder. “You know I don’t. But if you want snakes, we can go to the zoo again. Would you like that?”
Sharona crossed her arms. “I want to stay.”
“You just want to look at the boys,” Elizabeth said. “There are boys wherever we go, Sharona. We don’t have to stay here for you to let temptation get the better of you.”
Sharona scoffed. “Look. This is the coolest place you’ve ever brought us to. Come on. This place has, like, three-headed dogs and games and a haunted house. I swear on a stack of Bibles”—she held up her phone as though it were the equivalent—“I won’t tell Mom and Dad about this place if you let us stay. Besides, Todd knows how to keep secrets.”
Elizabeth raised her eyebrow. “What kind of secrets?”
“Sharona sneaks out of the house by going out of her window and down the rose trellis,” Todd said, whispering loudly. “She goes to meet a boooooy.”
Now Elizabeth directed her raised eyebrow toward Sharona.
“You little creep.” Sharona shoved her brother. Elizabeth stepped in to keep Sharona from doing more than superficial damage and to snag Maggie before she decided to toddle off toward the shiny swords.
Todd scrambled behind Elizabeth. “You just told me I couldn’t tell Mom and Dad.”
“You’re fucking dead.”
“Language!” Elizabeth picked Maggie up and knelt next to the stroller, where Brianna had started fussing. “You can use those words with your friends all you want, but not around me and not around your brother and sisters.” But now that Todd had revealed a tasty bit of ammunition, Elizabeth thought Sharona would be a little more amenable.
Sharona rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Can we stay? Please? Listen. There are elephants, right? Trained animals. I’m sure we’ll find some clowns and acrobats somewhere. I mean, it’s a freakin’ circus. There’s more skin at a public pool. It’s not a big deal. Just because you’ve got a thing about covering yourself up doesn’t mean the rest of the world cares.”
“Believe it or not, I don’t expect the rest of the world to adhere to my standard of modesty,” Elizabeth said.
“Then what’s the problem?”
“It’s more what they’re doing while they’re half-naked that concerns me. Your brother isn’t that young and neither are you,” Elizabeth said. Thankfully, the baby had drifted back asleep rather than wake up screaming to join the rest of them.
“It’s not even sex. It’s just sexy.”
“It’s not appropriate.” She straightened, hitching Maggie on her hip and grateful for the pins holding her head covering in place, because Maggie liked to tug on it as much as she liked tugging her sister’s hair.
“Geez, no wonder no one ever married you. You have so many sticks up your butt. There isn’t room for anything else.”
Elizabeth pretended Sharona hadn’t hit a nerve, but both of them knew otherwise. “You’re not making your case, young lady.”
“One hour. If we see something we wouldn’t see at the beach or Cirque du Soleil, we can leave and Mom and Dad never have to see the pictures I took. Todd will just talk about the muscle man and snake lady and sword swallower, and Maggie’ll just squeal about the clowns or something. Come on. You can flagellate when we get home, and it’ll all be fine. I’ll buy you all the mortification instruments you want.”
Sixteen years old and somehow both a juvenile delinquent and a devout student. Sometimes Elizabeth thought she and Sharona clashed so much because they were too alike.
“We’re already here. It’ll take us another hour to get to the zoo then it’ll be too sunny and hot for Maggie,” Sharona continued. “I swear I won’t tell Mom, and neither will Todd.”
“Swear,” Todd said. “What aren’t we telling them?”
“You know how we didn’t tell them about that movie with kissing and boobs in it?” Sharona said.
“I’m not hearing this.” Elizabeth resisted the urge to cover the toddler’s ears.
“I’ll be good the rest of the afternoon. I’ll take care of Todd and make sure Maggie doesn’t run off and play with scissors. These photos stay on my phone, and we don’t tell my parents you took us to a weird-ass den of iniquity. Deal?” Sharona held her phone-free hand out.
“You’ve been listening to your father talk business too much,” Elizabeth said.
“I’ve never heard him use the phrase ‘weird-ass den of iniquity.’ When have you been listening to him?”
“That’s enough of being a smart aleck, Sharona. If it’s too hot for Maggie, it’s too hot for me, too.” She was getting a headache, both from imagining what the Bishops would do if she stayed and from how warm she was getting underneath her long-sleeved shirt, long skirt and head scarf.
“Hard to believe it’s January, isn’t it?” Doing an excellent impersonation of a caring human being, Sharona opened her arms to take Maggie. “Not my fault your beliefs tell you to swelter in the name of piety. You’d rather sweat like a pig than let someone see a scandalous ankle, as though it’s the Victorian era all over again.”
“It’s not about scandal and it’s not about sex. You know that perfectly well.”
“Excuse me if I don’t get why covering yourself almost head to toe shows respect to God. Didn’t he make Adam and Eve naked?”
Elizabeth refused to let Sharona bait her into another ‘my Christianity makes more sense than yours.’ She remembered similar debates with girls Sharona’s age back when she’d been that young, too, when she had still been in public school—so-called fellow saints pulling Elizabeth’s head covering off or lifting her skirt, as though Elizabeth’s representation of piety somehow insulted everyone else’s. People got sensitive when their holiness was threatened. They’d never understood that when she was young, she hadn’t had a choice, because her parents had bought all her clothes and controlled what she wore. And now that she was a full-grown woman, she still didn’t, for reasons adjacent to parental control. After all, she was an unmarried woman, which technically still put her under the purview of her parents.
These days, modesty was the least of her concerns, but it was one of the few ways her family—along with the other dozens of families in their neighborhood who were part of the same church—could declare its beliefs, and one of the few ways an unmarried woman could defend herself.
“Remove the temptation,” Charity Wu always said. “We expect our brothers to control themselves, but we remove temptation out of compassion. We cover our bodies as God concealed his in the temple. Moses was the only one permitted to see God the Father in the temple, and so we only allow our husbands to see our bodies.”
When Elizabeth had pointed out that Moses had only ever gotten an ass view of God on the Ark of the Covenant, she hadn’t been able to sit comfortably for days—bruised in the only place Moses had ever seen God.
The Bishops didn’t believe in the strap or the paddle, and Elizabeth preferred it that way. It just would have been nice if the Bishops had given her anything at all with which to convince Sharona to play nice. Instead, they’d given her a spoiled—and, more importantly, smart—brat to look after, who was too old for a nanny and too convinced of her own cleverness to talk sense into.
The sword swallower yanked four swords from his throat just as Elizabeth and the Bishop children came closer. A few of the bystanders tossed quarters or dollar bills into the basket at the edge of the platform on which he performed.
The sword swallower returned his swords to their place in the spinning holder and reached for a gleaming brass hook. “Excuse me. I couldn’t help but overhear.”
“What exactly did you overhear?” Elizabeth fought and lost against the flush on her cheeks. Sharona hadn’t been tactful about the man’s attractiveness.
He had nothing to hide, per se, but he was a touch thin, his complexion sickly, his hair shorn but stubble showing the dramatically receded hairline. He was hardly the masculine specimen that was luring Sharona into the circus, but a second glance had Elizabeth noticing muscle tone under his pasty skin. And he was fearless as he brought his head back and pushed the sharp end of the hook up his nose, then curved it down to emerge from his mouth.
She’d envy that fearlessness if he didn’t look like he’d just caught himself on a fish hook.
The sword swallower gave a flourish, then picked up a handful of iron nails.
“Calling this a ‘family circus’ might be a bit of a stretch, but we stay pretty tame until after eight.” The sword swallower carefully pushed one of the iron nails into his socket around the eyeball.
Elizabeth fought against the urge to retch, but she turned her face away. “Tame?”
“Relatively,” he conceded. The wet sound that followed told her he’d slid the other one in.
“Don’t you know you can lobotomize yourself like that?” Sharona said, fascinated in spite of herself.
“Gross! Cool!” Of course Todd would think this was the greatest thing since the spitball.
“I’m a professional,” the sword swallower assured Sharona. “But don’t try this at home, little man. Took magic and a bucket of luck for me to learn this without sending the tip into my gray matter, as the lady says, or piercing through the eye itself. Not a body horror fan, ma’am?”
“Not as a rule.” Elizabeth still wasn’t looking. She had no idea where he was putting the other four nails—and she didn’t want to know.
“Nanny doesn’t know how to have fun,” Sharona replied. “Anything she’s not afraid of, her religion forbids her from doing it.”
“Well, we accept all ages in Arcanium until eight, as long as they’re accompanied by an adult. Some of our oddities get a little frisky, so if I were you, I’d concentrate on the fringes rather than the juicy center of the circus. We have animal rides, performances, a carousel, food booths, midway games… Oops, looks like the little one likes shiny nails.”
Elizabeth forced herself to look back at the sword swallower to make sure Maggie wasn’t taking up swallowing sharp things herself. She couldn’t resist a shudder as he unhooked himself.
“I told you I’d take care of her.” Sharona shifted Maggie to her other shoulder, farther away from the nails in the sword swallower’s hands.
“The haunted house might be a bit much for your youngers,” the man continued. He bowed to the rest of the passing audience. “I’d recommend the midway. The prizes are eldritch, but nothing too questionable. Be sure to show them these.” He put his hands behind his back, then whipped them back in front less than a second later. When he unclutched his fists, six gold dollar coins rested in his palms. Elizabeth hadn’t even known they were still in circulation. “Well, would you look at that? You’re quite the lucrative family. These ought to get you started.”
With that, the sword swallower tipped the coins into Todd’s eager hands then retrieved his nails again. One by one, he tossed them into his mouth and made a big show of swallowing them down.
Elizabeth turned away. This time she tasted bile at the back of her throat.
“Awesome!” Todd was at the age when everything was an exclamation. With her headache, Elizabeth was just glad they were outside so she didn’t have to tell him to use his inside voice every five seconds. Sweet kid—needed work on his modulation.
“Hope I could settle your mind, if not your stomach, ma’am,” the sword swallower said. “Welcome to Arcanium.”
“Let’s try that midway.” Elizabeth didn’t know whether she’d be able to handle the food court any time soon.
“Yay, scam artists and cheap toys,” Sharona said in a cheery voice that had Maggie raising her arms in her own little cheer.
“I’m sorry. Who’s the one who begged for us to stay?” Elizabeth maneuvered the stroller around to follow Todd as he sprang for the line of booths that seemed most promising as a midway.
They passed the woman in latex and the burned man in the collar on the way.
Maggie stretched out her little fingers for the leash. “I want doggie.”
“You and me both, sister.” Sharona spared another appreciative glance at the burned man’s trousers.
They passed by the fortune teller’s tent, which was verboten as far as Elizabeth was concerned. Jacob’s son Joseph could divine all he wanted, but divination was still a form of witchcraft, and Elizabeth was no blessed son of Israel.
The midway was as the sword swallower had promised—with skulls, skeletons, tentacles and other such things as prizes instead of stuffed bears or cheap erasers, but no more extreme than one might see on a pirate ship. Despite the fact that the one-dollar coins were real currency, the attendants surprised Elizabeth by treating them as tokens instead—one coin per game, even though each game was three dollars a turn. Neither she nor Sharona nor Todd decided to look a gift horse in the mouth, and it saved some of the Bishops’ money allotted for the trip.
The midway could only entertain them for so long, however, as expensive and difficult to master as the games were and with other things closer to the freak show to catch the kids’ eyes.
Clowns, for instance. And not the clowns Elizabeth had been expecting.
Contrary to popular belief, Elizabeth liked clowns—friendly clowns with cute patched outfits, clowns who made balloon animals and emerged from tiny cars.
These were not those kinds of clowns.
At first glance from behind, they looked like some kind of punk rock fans lost from an outdoor concert. There wasn’t anything intrinsically menacing about bustiers, hardcore leather boots and orange mohawks. But after a series of intricate tumbling moves in the miniature ring off the midway, they turned around and flourished for applause, and Elizabeth jerked the stroller to a stop.
“They could do Halloween makeup tutorials.” Sharona looked back at where Elizabeth had frozen with the baby. “Oh, come on. Where are killer clowns on the list? Seven? Three? Do you know the odds any of them are serial killers?”
“The fear of killers is completely rational, no matter how statistically improbable.” The cold sweat on Elizabeth’s palms made her grip on the stroller handle too slippery to hold on to it with conviction. “And they’ve done studies. People are afraid of clowns because exaggerated, unnatural facial features unsettle the mind.”
Sharona shrugged. “Not mine. I mostly just want the chick’s outfit.”
“You have your own phobias. It wouldn’t be prudent to start on mine.”
“Sure, I’m afraid of a massive storm destroying Metropolis, but I know mine is never going to happen. You, however, decided to fall into the arms of every clichéd phobia in the book. How do you even function?”
“Believe it or not, I’m unafraid of more things than I’m afraid of.” Elizabeth managed to turn the stroller around. Unfortunately, that meant the creepy clowns with their creepy lantern eyes and creepy mouths painted to look creepily wide and—in the case of the older man with curly tufts of orange hair like a more classic clown—full of creepy teeth were now behind her where she couldn’t see them.
“Name one,” Sharona said.
“Schoolwork. I can look over that all day, while you sometimes seem to have a pathological fear of it.”
That, at least, earned Elizabeth a genuine grin. “You want to move on?”
“Great. The haunted house is next.”
“You must be joking.” Elizabeth closed her eyes and counted down from ten. It didn’t help much, but it forced her to breathe with the count.
“Nope. Right there between us and the family-friendly carousel and circus animals.” Sharona laughed with delight. “You want to go into the haunted house, don’t you, Todd?”
“Yeah! I want to stick my hands in eyeballs and watch blood dripping out of someone’s stomach,” Todd said, as though describing a birthday party instead of carnage.
“Sounds like a blast.” And by ‘blast’, Elizabeth meant ‘nauseating image’. “I don’t know about this place, kids. It looks like a strong breeze would blow it away.”
“So do you,” Sharona retorted. “But this place might actually have a spine.”
The haunted house didn’t look much sturdier than the midway booths, although it appeared more ambitious. It was composed of a collection of temporary structures—the sort that seemed to sprout up in construction sites or outside renovated buildings—clustered together to form a more substantial building. The vinyl siding had been covered with wood that wouldn’t be fit for anything other than atmosphere. Any windows around the buildings had been painted over with ghoulish vignettes—a woman screaming, a bogeyman peering from behind curtains, a man attempting to run with partially amputated limbs, heads on pikes in the midst of hellish flames.
The style was sufficiently cartoonish to deemphasize the horror, but the bloodstain next to the stairway to the entrance seemed entirely too real, with a gleam that made it appear fresh. Real-looking cobwebs Elizabeth prayed were fake stretched across another length of wood. And a monster that looked like a cross between a Lon Chaney werewolf and a vampire bat loomed above the entrance. He rested on his stomach on the flat roof, clutching the wood on the side with his claws and staring unblinking at whoever dared ascend the stairs. Elizabeth could almost swear the monster breathed, that the pronounced muscles of his arms twitched. That it stared right at her.
She forced herself to tear her gaze away and apply her attention to the warning sign above the bloodstain. “Uh-oh, looks like there’s an age advisory, Todd.”
“‘Some images and experiences within the haunted funhouse are too graphic or intense for children. No one under thirteen unless accompanied by a teenager or adult,’” Todd read. “And they use strobe lights. And it’s our fault if we’re traumatized. What is ‘traumatized’?”
“Is that one of the things on your list, too? Terrifying flashing lights?” Sharona said.
“Still not funny. Even if I could get the stroller up those stairs, Todd, I don’t want to go into a haunted house unless the name is preceded by Abbott and Costello.”
“Who are they?” Todd asked.
“Oh, children of the cell phone generation, you have been grossly deprived. I’ll have to rectify that. Shall we go home now so I can introduce you to comedy genius? Comedy, as in not terrifying.” Elizabeth glanced up at the monster again. Had his claws been in that position before?
“But I want to go in,” Todd said. “I don’t mind blood and guts. I look at the roadkill on the side of the road. Dad lets me watch Bruce Willis with him.”
“What a brave, cultured little gentleman,” a man said from behind Elizabeth.
Sharona raised her eyebrows in appreciation, but she also thinned her lips to keep from smiling as Elizabeth looked over her shoulder.
Even though she anticipated something from her extensive list, nothing could have prepared her for a woman draped in a large albino boa constrictor, whose face was right in front of Elizabeth’s.
She brought her hand to her mouth, bit down hard to keep unholy words from passing her lips, but that did nothing to muffle the undignified shriek. Only the sturdy stroller prevented Elizabeth from falling.
The man who had spoken rested his hand on her shoulder to steady her. Elizabeth automatically ducked from his touch.
He took her avoidance with alacrity. His calm, slightly amused expression didn’t change. “I know it’s sometimes pointless to say, but Raphael is quite harmless. He’s accustomed to women handling him, which is why my snake charmer allows him out of her sight and why my assistant willingly wears him around the circus.”
Only in a circus could an assistant’s dress code include a red leather dress with corset laces up the sides, black bracelet cuffs that were made for chains and a literal boa as an accessory.
“Wow, his name is Raphael?” Todd exclaimed. “Like the Ninja Turtle?”
“I don’t think the Ninja Turtle is who he was named after,” the assistant replied. “Would you like to touch him? Really, he’s as friendly as a cold-blooded creature can be.”
“I’m sorry. I just can’t,” Elizabeth finally said. She forced the baby’s stroller back with her, away from the man in the black leather pants and the girl with the serpent.
“Think he’s the devil?” Sharona asked, joining Todd to marvel over the scales.
“I think he’s a snake.” Elizabeth rubbed at the gooseflesh that crawled all over her at the sight of the Bishop children touching the thing. “Look. I understand they’re important, that they’re fascinating and probably beautiful animals, but I can’t—”
“There’s no need to apologize,” the man said. “Arcanium was made for shock and awe. I would be remiss to take offense when it is so successful.’
“You can hold him if you like,” the assistant offered—to Todd and Sharona rather than Elizabeth. “I’m sure your sister can take the picture from a safe distance.”
“Sister?” Sharona snorted. “I assume you’re talking about the woman in black trying to blend into the wall. Do we look even slightly related? Here.” Sharona hesitated before handing Elizabeth her phone. Kicking up a fuss if Elizabeth didn’t give it back would be more embarrassing in front of circus folk. “Take a picture of us with the snake and the circus lady. Mom and Dad won’t be upset by that, so we’ll have something inoffensive to show them when they ask.”
Elizabeth weighed her options—including tossing Sharona’s phone to the monster on top of the haunted house and herding the children back to the car for their own protection, a survivalist combination of maternal and fight-or-flight instincts.
Sharona sighed. “It’ll be more suspicious if we don’t have any pictures at all. Come on. As funny as it is when your mother and my mother tag team for the scolding, I’d get grounded, too, you know.”
“Sometimes, interacting with my client’s teenager is like managing hostage negotiations,” Elizabeth said by way of apology to the thoroughly amused, very bare-chested man. She carefully stretched her free hand out to take Sharona’s phone without getting too close to the snake. She didn’t like cell phones either, but any potential carcinogenic properties couldn’t compare with an immediate reptilian threat.
“Managing a circus sometimes feels the same way,” he replied. “I can hold the young one there if you want both hands.”
Elizabeth’s heightened awareness caught the way the man’s assistant briefly tensed.
Elizabeth hitched Maggie up on her hip and offered the toddler the wooden cross pendant on her necklace to play with. “I can multitask. Thanks, though.”
She found the camera on the phone and waited with minimal trembling for the assistant to drape the snake over Todd’s and Sharona’s necks then pose on the other side of Todd with a beautiful smile. There was only so much to be done about the prominent cleavage in the keyhole window of the dress, but a certain amount of sexiness was expected among circus women.
“You sure you don’t want to try Raphael yourself?” the man asked Elizabeth. “I promise, no biting. If our snake charmer were here, you wouldn’t even have to fear the dangerous ones.”
“No,” Elizabeth said quickly. Then she corrected herself. “No, thank you.” She was familiar enough with the Bishop children to let some snark sneak into her interaction with them, but she’d been trained to be unfailingly polite with strangers.
“Thanks. That’s so cool! I want to meet the snake lady now,” Todd said as the assistant lifted Raphael back to her own shoulders.
Elizabeth and Sharona shared a glance as Elizabeth returned the phone.
“Hey, twerp, how about we go through the haunted house before Nanny Elizabeth decides to steal someone’s Taser to rescue us from the circus in a blaze of electrified glory? Come on… Inside’s the best escape.”
“Inside is where we trap you for all eternity,” the man said, still with that amused expression that crinkled the corners of his startlingly amber-hazel eyes. “But do go in and enjoy yourselves, if you dare.”
Sharona appeared caught between the man’s charm and the menace of his words, but she put an arm around her little brother’s shoulder to lead him up the stairs to the entrance.
“See you on the other side,” she said to Elizabeth.
“No photography, please,” the man said before the kids entered. “I would hate to have to confiscate your phone.”
“I wasn’t going to take pictures,” Sharona said.
“Yes, you were. Arcanium lets you take pictures of all our wonderfully weird displays outside of the haunted funhouse, but I would appreciate it if you would refrain from revealing all of a humble circus’ secrets. The clowns won’t eat you for disobeying, but you’d piss off the owner, and that’s never a good idea, young lady.”
“Do I need to take your phone again while you go through?” Elizabeth asked.
Sharona’s competing feelings about the man seemed to deepen. After a moment to consider, she tossed her phone down to Elizabeth.
“Good girl,” Elizabeth said quietly.
She couldn’t help the twinge of disquiet when as the kids entered the screaming darkness, which cut off as soon as they closed the door behind them.
“What made you think she was going to take pictures?” Elizabeth asked.
“Teenagers are our biggest offenders,” the man replied. “When I’m not here, there’s not much to be done, but I’m here now. And I’m the circus’ fortune teller. I’m exceptional at divining the future.”
“Or at being observant, I suppose.” Even knowing that most fortune tellers weren’t actually psychic, Elizabeth edged away from him just in case.
“Oh, don’t worry. I don’t read people who haven’t paid for the pleasure—unless they intend to break my rules. I take such trespass very seriously. Maya, love, I’ll meet you in the tent.”
Maya stroked the serpent’s golden-white scales, visibly wary, but she allowed the man to lift her hand, with the snake’s head resting upon it. He kissed the serpent’s head. The snake accepted such unsnakely affection without resistance. Then the man wrapped his arm around Maya’s waist, pulled her close with the snake still between them and kissed her.
Elizabeth recognized the intensity behind an otherwise chaste kiss. Yet, though all her upbringing told her to look away, she couldn’t. Her pale cheeks were probably bright red.
At that moment, the toddler became entranced by the gold bracelet coiled around the man’s upper arm, and the baby decided now was the time to get properly fussy.
“Be good,” Maya whispered to the man. She stepped away from him and turned to Elizabeth. “If you pass by Oddity Row, our Bearded Lady, Kitty, does really well with kids. Have a good visit.”
“Thank you.” Elizabeth struggled to keep the squirming toddler from mauling the man in the pursuit of sparkly things—the very picture of human temptation, Maggie was. “I’m sorry. She has a thing for jewelry. We thought she’d grow out of it by the time she started talking.”
“Want the pretty,” Maggie said, making grabby hands.
“It’s quite all right.” The man slid the bracelet from his arm and handed it to Maggie. “This ought to distract her while you tend to the littlest one.”
“I appreciate that, but it looks expensive…”
“Gold can be cleaned. She can’t hurt it.” The man hooked his thumbs in the pockets of his leather pants, though there wasn’t much room for them.
Elizabeth had to work not to look where his fingers drew her gaze. She was only human herself. Instead, she busied herself with putting Maggie in the child’s seat of the stroller—a godsend for just this kind of situation. While Maggie played with the bangle, crooning her favorite jewel song that she sang when she got to play with her mother’s costume jewelry, Elizabeth lifted Brianna from her seat and started searching the diaper bag for the bottle.
“Managing so many eccentric personalities has its drawbacks,” the man said. “It must be just as difficult to take care of so many children on your own, especially of such varying ages.”
“Yes, well, the mother only has to take care of them one or two days a week, so she doesn’t see any problem having more,” Elizabeth muttered before she realized she’d said it aloud. She stiffened and straightened. “Oh, I’m sorry. It’s been a long day, and Sharona’s well beyond the point where she needs a nanny, but she still needs a firm hand, and I can only be so firm. It’s like herding cats. Sometimes I wish I had a few extra limbs to go around. Between the four of them, I’d probably need to be an octopus to keep them all happy.”
As attractive as the fortune teller was when playing mysterious, his intensity only increased when he smiled. Straight white teeth, the hint of dimples and the light in his eyes all showcased cheekbones that could cut glass. Elizabeth had suffered from a weakness for cheekbones before.
He’s off-limits, Liz. On so many levels. An echoed memory of him kissing Maya played in her mind’s eye. Guilt entwined with the unwelcome heat it inspired.
“Or a spider,” he said.
That effectively killed the mood. Elizabeth shuddered. “Not a spider. I can’t stand spiders. Their prickly little legs, multiple eyes, hairy little bodies, the way they move… I have to call in one of the groundskeepers if I see them in the house. I even asked Mr. Bishop to squish one before, and that’s supposedly under the heading of my job. Good thing he was understanding.”
“You might want to avoid a certain part of my carousel, then. We do have a squid, though. For someone afraid of snakes and spiders, it surprises me that you’d be fonder of cephalopods.”
“Well, I’m fonder in comparison. I wouldn’t want to be face-to-face with one,” Elizabeth said. The baby finally decided she was as hungry as she sounded, and from the feel of the diaper, she needed changing, too. “Wicked creatures, too clever by half.”
“There’s nothing wrong with being wicked and clever.”
Maggie stretched up her chubby arms to offer the fortune teller his bangle back. He accepted it as though receiving a gift from a queen. “I don’t believe I’ve introduced myself. Bell Madoc, man of many talents here in the circus.”
“Child charmer, fortune teller, circus folk wrangler. Did I miss any?” She draped the spit cloth over her shoulder to prepare for burping the baby. Black was uniquely unforgiving of spit-up, although the admonition against vanity should have forbidden her from caring.
“Magician, acrobat, fighter, lover, dreamer… I once played Ringmaster as well, before we found our current one. I much prefer a less domineering role. My obsessively controlling ways are best behind the scenes.” The baby wrapped her grasping fist around Bell’s finger, playing with the large red stone on his ring. Brianna was gearing up to be as shiny-fascinated as Maggie. “I’ve always enjoyed children. It is unfortunate my tastes are so esoteric as to limit their presence at my circus. Their desires are so simple.”
“You’ve clearly never played Candyland with a toddler—or tried to explain to them why they can’t have something. They’re more complicated than they seem, and they only get more complicated as they grow. Babies, however, are simple. Messy, but simple.” She burped Brianna and wiped her mouth. “You wouldn’t happen to have a changing table in your bathrooms, would you?”
“Portable toilets, unfortunately. But if you have a changing pad, there’s no reason the picnic tables shouldn’t suffice.”
“People get miffed if you change babies where they eat their food, even if it’s on a pad, but it’ll have to do.” She was no stranger to accusatory looks, and a baby needed changing when she needed changing, not when it was convenient for everyone involved.
“I give you official authorization,” Bell said. “None of mine will give you any trouble…about taking care of the baby, that is. I really must be going, but tell Sharona”—he opened his hand with a graceful fanning of his fingers, revealing Sharona’s smartphone, which he must have taken from the pocket of Elizabeth’s skirt without her knowing—“I appreciate how she and her brother enjoyed the haunted house. It’s still a relatively new attraction, and I’m adding new things whenever I can. Do watch out for the things that creep and slither on the carousel.”
Elizabeth took the phone, not knowing how to respond to him stealing from her then returning the stolen item. He bowed with the same uncommon grace and blew a kiss to the toddler, who waved happily, now distracted by fistfuls of Cheerios she’d found in the stroller basket underneath her.
Bell glanced above the haunted funhouse entrance. “Someone likes you.”
He walked away as Elizabeth raised her head. She jumped, nearly dropping the baby in the process.
The monster grinned at her, baring sharp teeth like those of a python or a fruit bat—some kind of creature that gave her the heebie-jeebies either way. The wings folded over his back rustled half open, and he blinked.
Dear Lord, it’s a person. Heavily made-up, with pneumatic or engineered wings, but an actual person who stared at her with those inscrutable red eyes—as though someone had spilled crimson ink in them.
Elizabeth slowly drew the stroller away from the side of the haunted funhouse, fingers going cold. The man didn’t take his eyes off her, nor did he stop smiling his jagged smile.
Sharona and Todd came running around the haunted house, Sharona forgetting about being cool and disaffected in the wake of her brother’s infectious enthusiasm.
“Oh my God, that was fucking awesome!” Sharona said. “There were these people, right? And they were all in a line while this guy legit whipped them. I swear you could see their skin splitting. It was so realistic.”
“I saw a monster burst out of a man’s chest,” Todd said proudly.
“Don’t use four-letter words in front of your brother and sisters, Sharona,” Elizabeth said distractedly.
“We just went through the best gross-out haunted house I’ve ever been in, and you’re worried about me saying ‘fuck’?”
Elizabeth held up Sharona’s phone.
“Oh, fine. I’m allowed to say ‘fine,’ aren’t I? It’s a four-letter f-word, after all.”
“A little gore, and we’re back to being a smart aleck.” The teenager drew Elizabeth’s attention away from the monster for a moment, but when she looked back, it had resumed its original position as though it had never moved, never blinked, never rustled its wings, never smiled at her.
“What do you know about gore? You barely let us see PG-13 movies, and you cover your eyes at the violent parts on TV.”
“Believe it or not, Sharona, I wasn’t always committed to the orthodox. I’ve seen adult movies. I’ve even had a beer. Disgusting, but I had it. Now, can you do me another favor?” Elizabeth glanced up at the monster again. It still wasn’t looking at her anymore, but the hairs on the back of her neck under the head scarf stood on end anyway. “Can you take Todd and Maggie to the carousel? Brianna needs to be changed, and the picnic tables are my only option.”
“Sure, why not?” Sharona waited for Elizabeth to give her the money for the three kids. If she’d overestimated the cost, Elizabeth probably wouldn’t see the money again, but that was okay. It was Mrs. Bishop’s anyway.
“Thank you.” And Elizabeth meant it. “Meet me by the picnic tables when you’re through. We’ll eat before visiting the circus animals. And maybe—maybe—we’ll visit the oddities. Take pictures on the carousel. Your mom would like that.”
“Come on, Maggie Bear. We all know you don’t like it when Miss Elizabeth does diaper duty. Todd, you hold on to Maggie.” Sharona waved without looking back, trying to make it look like a dismissal, but adrenaline had apparently left her mellow, which made Elizabeth’s job much easier. Having children under the age of ten compete for their much older sister’s affection could lead to some serious friction, but it was a good thing Sharona secretly loved her younger siblings and sometimes even showed it if her friends weren’t around.
She wasn’t always such a monster.
Elizabeth rolled the empty stroller and continued to pat Brianna through her fussiness on the way to the picnic tables. The smell of the food booths was simultaneously enticing and worrying. She’d anticipated less-than-vegan fare to select from, so she had date bars in the diaper bag, but when she wanted something more substantial, date bars just didn’t cut it. Looked like she’d probably have to wait until she returned to the Bishops’ home, where their housekeeper fortunately kept plenty of vegan items for the Bishops’ full-time, in-home nanny.
Elizabeth made a beeline for the one picnic table where no one was sitting. She plopped the diaper bag down on the seat then quickly spread the changing pad. A few patrons shot nasty looks her way, but she laid the baby down and did a swift diaper change.
She’d been the nanny for the Bishops ever since one of Elizabeth’s younger sisters, Amy, had married off and left their family, which had been right after Todd had come along. Between the Bishops’ three younger children and the six Wu children who had come after Elizabeth, she could probably change a baby with her eyes closed.
Petrosian saints, especially the women, were in short supply, but they were known locally to be good, honest workers willing to take a humbler paycheck in return for a generous donation now and then to the Petrosian Church. Hiring someone concerned with religious law had its perks, especially when a wealthy couple needed someone to look after their children. When a person wanted good furniture, they went to the Quakers. When they wanted good bread, they went to the Amish. When they wanted midwives, they went to Quiverfull women. When they wanted good childcare, they went to the Petrosians and asked for their unmarried daughters.
After the diaper change, Brianna was still fussy, so Elizabeth arranged a wrap to keep Brianna close to her. In the warmth of the day, having a wrap and a baby against her body made her feel like she was going to faint, but she drank from her water bottle and braced herself. Discipline in modest clothing was something every Petrosian saint learned early, especially in the dead of summer when everyone else walked around in shorts and swimwear.
A younger middle-aged woman holding a plastic stein of half-finished ale sauntered to the bench and looked up at Elizabeth as though she were looking down instead. “If you’re not going to eat here, quit hogging the table.”
“I’m almost finished then I’ll be out of your way.”
“You know, it’s unsanitary to change a diaper where people eat, not to mention rude. If I see mess anywhere, I’m going to tell management.”
“Management told me to use the table.” Elizabeth gathered the dirty diaper and the changing pad off the wooden picnic table. “I apologize for being in your way.”
“You people all think you can just do anything.” The woman’s fake nails clicked on the stein as she set it down. She pushed her sunglasses up her nose in a gesture that shouldn’t have been as aggressive as it was. “Just walk around and get special treatment and protection on our tax dollars when you’re all trying to spread sharia law to the rest of us.”
“Ma’am, I’m not Muslim, and even if I were, religious liberty means religious liberty for religions you don’t like, too,” Elizabeth said.
Petrosian saints weren’t supposed to wear jewelry to avoid the appearance of vanity or arrogance, but these days, many of the women wore simple wooden cross necklaces to avoid this very association. And while the Petrosian church had no love for Islam, Thomas Petros worked closely with some of the local Muslim, Hindu and Sikh leaders to promote religious acceptance.
“Don’t ‘ma’am’ me. I’m not your mother, thank Jesus, or else I would have told you how far back you put the feminist movement by wearing that burqa, or whatever you call it.”
“Muslims refer to head coverings as hijab, but, like I said, I’m not Muslim. I’m an orthodox Christian, and I just needed to change my employer’s child. Please, let me pass.”
“So now you’re giving good Christians a bad name? God doesn’t need you wearing that thing. Jesus freed us from the law, honey. It says so in the Bible.”
“With all due respect, if you call me ‘honey’, I’m going to keep calling you ‘ma’am.’ Petrosian saints are aware of what the Bible says about the law, but my spiritual choices are really none of your business. Please, let me pass.”
“You’re making Christianity look just like Islam, as though it’s up to women to protect men from themselves. Do you know how insulting that is? Come on, honey. You don’t need that.” The woman reached for Elizabeth’s head covering.
Elizabeth ducked away, turning to put herself between the partially inebriated woman and the baby. “If you wouldn’t pull down my skirt, ma’am, please don’t pull off my head covering. Wearing it is a gesture of respect.”
“You don’t have to hide your head from Him.”
Lord spare me from well-meaning saints who don’t know the difference between adherence and oppression.
“Don’t touch me!” All trace of politeness—a mixture of Southern charm and Petrosian respect—disappeared as the woman got her fingernails under the edge of the scarf and pulled it away. “For God’s sake, I have a child with me.”
“See? No thunder and lightning. You’re no more disrespecting God than I am. God loves us. He doesn’t want us in chains. We have to show the other side that we’re free.”
Elizabeth tried to retrieve the black square cloth without startling the baby, but the woman danced away to the cheers and laughter of the women and their teenage children who had accompanied them. Elizabeth frantically tried to keep her head and neck covered with her long hair, but her shirt didn’t have a high collar, and she wasn’t sure everything was concealed the way it was supposed to be.
“I’m not going around covering random women’s heads in the name of God. It’s common courtesy not to force me to follow your form of religion in the same name. Give me the head covering. Now!”
Brianna punched her little fists against Elizabeth’s chest at the shout, opening her mouth and adding her shrieks to the rest.
“It’s for your own good.” The woman crumpled the scarf into a ball and tossed it to her friend. “God loves you enough to free you from the law.”
“I never said I was imprisoned by it,” Elizabeth said coldly, hindered by the baby. “But I’m pretty sure both of us are bound by man’s law, and man’s law says you just stole from me and assaulted me. Give it back to me! I need it!” Poisonous bile soured the back of her throat. Sickness born of fear moved through her belly like frigid barbed wire.
“You’re what’s wrong with America!” the woman shouted back as her friend tossed the scarf to her again. She dodged Elizabeth. “People like you are how the terrorists win.”
The sickness was there, right on the tip of her tongue. “So help me, if you don’t return that head covering, I’m—”
“What on Earth is going on here?”
The question itself might not have been enough to interrupt either the woman or Elizabeth from the childish war that had almost turned adult really fast. But the one who stepped into everyone’s sight and posed the question was strange enough that they stopped what they were doing.
Elizabeth wrapped her arms around the baby as she swallowed back the bile again and tried to stop shaking. Embracing Brianna was as much protection for herself as for the little girl.
The unique personage that was the circus’s Bearded Lady pushed through the circle of onlookers then stood between Elizabeth and the women playing keepaway, separating the two warring parties. She was covered head to toe in chestnut hair, the hair on her head and the moustache and beard thickest and longest, swaying side to side like her beribboned skirt as she walked. With a purple corset and the butterfly illusion combs arranged in her hair, she looked like nothing so much as a curvy pirate fairy queen covered in ginger cat fur. She stood almost as tall as Elizabeth and exuded presence.
Hands on her hips, she took in the sight of the head scarf, with the woman’s fake nails bright against the black, and Elizabeth’s hair loose and disheveled, flat where the scarf had covered it and freer where it had tucked into the fabric like in a snood.
The Bearded Lady held out her hand to the fake-nailed woman. “I don’t believe that belongs to you.”
“I just wanted to help her. Look at the poor girl, trembling as though God’s going to strike her down just because people can see her hair.” But the woman grudgingly handed the wrinkled scarf to the Bearded Lady.
“Of all the places to attack someone because of their differences, a freak show circus seems a strange place to do it.” The Bearded Lady returned the scarf to Elizabeth, who went through the steps of putting it in place one-handed, tucking her hair underneath and wrapping it around her neck to conceal all but her face once again. Only when she was fully covered did she let out a shaky sigh of relief. She could make sure it was on straight later. All that mattered now was that it was on. Her relief translated to Brianna, who hiccupped pathetically but stopped crying.
“Thank you,” Elizabeth said.
The fake-nailed woman retreated slightly to stand closer to her friends. “Read the Bible, honey. You don’t have to submit to anyone but Him, and He doesn’t have a dress code.”
“I don’t see you walking around without so much as a fig leaf,” the Bearded Lady said, sparing Elizabeth from her own similar retort. “If I hear that anyone else is harassing this woman, you’ll have to answer to the circus owner, and believe me, that will not end well. He doesn’t like it when his customers are harassed by anyone other than the clowns.”
Nervous laughter defused the situation. The spectators dispersed, and the woman and her friends turned back to the table, much more interested now in their fried food.
“Oh my, who is this with such a fussy face?” The Bearded Lady tickled the baby under her chin. “She is absolutely precious. Hi, sugarplum! Oh no, we don’t want tears here, do we?”
Elizabeth was far more willing to pass the baby to her than the fortune teller. And while the Bearded Lady cooed at Brianna and helped transform her pathetic face into a delighted one, Elizabeth adjusted her head covering until it was more or less straight again.
“I’m so sorry for the inconvenience,” Elizabeth said.
“There’s no need to apologize for other people’s rudeness. Believe me, Arcanium’s no stranger to Neanderthals who can’t distinguish their head from their…hindquarters.”
People watching their language in the face of visible religiousness wasn’t a new phenomenon, but while Elizabeth didn’t require it of anyone but the Bishop children, she much preferred this reaction to the previous one by the fake-nailed woman. Not least because it reminded her to curb her own poisonous tongue.
“But we have more than a few men and women who can make someone’s life a living hell if they do anything to threaten anyone in this circus. I was this close to whistling for our strongman.” The Bearded Lady carried Brianna as Elizabeth rolled the stroller away from the picnic tables and the main thoroughfare. “Don’t hesitate to do the same if any of these folks give you more grief. Would you like for me to arrange for your tickets to be refunded?”
“You’re too kind, but that won’t be necessary. Actually, could you stay with us a little longer? The other kids should be coming back soon, and they’d love to see you. The fortune teller’s assistant—Maya, I think her name was—said you’d be appropriate for the younger ones. She wasn’t wrong.”
The Bearded Lady smiled, and for a moment, Elizabeth barely noticed the extra hair. Elizabeth supposed, though, that assuming her beauty was in spite of the hair or beyond the hair was just as uncharitable as the people who couldn’t see beyond her head scarf.
“I’d love to,” the woman replied, unfazed by the baby pulling at the beads braided into her beard. “I’m Kitty, by the way. The name wasn’t even intended to be ironic when my parents gave it to me.”
“Oh my God, you’re the best,” Sharona said, coming up from behind. “How much shampoo do you go through in a week?”
“You have a beard! I want a beard. Wow! How long is it?” Todd asked.
“Kitty!” Maggie shouted.