Everyone ignored Franklin. Even Franklin ignored Franklin. Broken and defeated, he sat at the bar with the other forgotten and lost souls drowning their woes. No amount of screaming, pounding, threatening, or begging drew his attention away from the glass. Every night Mephistopheles applied his trade. Few prospective customers glanced toward the end of the bar where Franklin sat. That area was reserved for indebted clients.
Andy sat in the front row every night and watched the small family circus perform. There were clowns, acrobats, dog tricks, and even a high-wire walking monkey. His favorite though was the juggler. Andy watched as he threw balls, flaming torches, rings, and knives in the air and caught them with ease. Everyone in the circus seemed so happy and nice. He longed to join them.
Late one night after the final performance, Andy mustered the nerve to find the circus owner who traveled with them.
“I’ll do anything. Please let me join you.”
Mr Tall looked at the scrawny boy and scratched his chin. He walked around Andy and looked him up and down. “What could you do for us?”
Andy spared no time to think. He blurted out a laundry list of menial tasks he could do.
“I have plenty of people to do that.” Mr Tall shook his head and stared at Andy. “I asked what you could do for us? What are your talents? Your secret talents?”
Andy gulped. Few knew his secret, but those who did knew it immediately. Could Mr Tall be one of them? Could he risk telling the truth? Not telling the truth? Andy took a deep breath and swallowed his fear. “I could change my appearance.”
“What do you mean you change your appearance?” Mr Tall asked.
“I’m a shapeshifter,” Andy said.
“You mean that mythological crap about being able to transform your physical form or shape?” Mr Tall said. “Get out of here, kid. You’re wasting my time.”
“I can transform into anything I want,” Andy insisted. “Think of something you want me to change into. Don’t tell me what it is. Then close your eyes, and I’ll let you know when to open them.”
“This is stupid but fine.” Mr Tall thought for a moment. “Okay, boy. Now what?”
“Close your eyes until I tell you to open them.”
Mr Tall closed his eyes and waited a few seconds. He then heard a voice from overhead instructing him to open his eyes. Mr Tall looked up, but all he saw was a red-tailed hawk perched on the high wire near the top of the tent.
“So?” the hawk said, looking down the shocked circus owner. “You thought of a hawk, right?
“Am I hallucinating? Did you slip something in my drink?”
The hawk opened its wings and started circling above, slowly working its way back down to the ground. By the time it hit the sawdust-covered floor, Andy was, once again, a scrawny, human kid. “So, Mr Tall, can I work in your circus?”
Mr Tall just stood there for a minute or two before he found his voice. He looked at Andy and said, “Come with me!” and he hurried off into the night.
Andy rushed after him, eager to pursue the chance he had been longing for.
Mr Tall brought him to the centre of the campsite, he stopped in a ring of caravans, the doors looking inward. Andy felt suddenly like he was on trial. The brightly coloured caravans seemed like elderly matriarchs, stern but hiding an impulse to burst into laughter.
Except, one. There was one dark caravan, unpainted and in disrepair. It was completely out of place in this bright court.
Mr Tall caught the direction of his gaze and then looked abashed. He ducked his head as if to hide his shame or some other emotion not meant for Andy’s eyes.
‘I shouldn’t have brought him here,’ Andy heard his thoughts. ‘He will not resist that place, and we will be discovered.’
Then he spoke.
“Listen, lad. There’s no doubting your talent, we can use you. I am just not sure how. My people here, they. Well, they are an old fashioned bunch. Give them bearded ladies, conjoined twins and they’re fine. But you – you show them that and they will freak. And you and me won’t last five minutes. As for the audience. Well, we have to be subtle. Show them a trick that looks impossible in a way that they can believe it’s all smoke and mirrors.”
Andy stared at him. Was he going to give him a job or not? Was he going to bow out at the last minute? Lose his nerve?
Mr Tall glanced at the dark caravan again, then back at Andy. He took a deep breath as if drawing his strength.
“OK. Wait here! I have an idea, let me introduce you to my partner. He will know what to do.”
With that, he swept off into the darkness between the caravans.
Andy stood, suddenly unsure what to do. Should he just wait? What was going on here? It was all very strange.
But then it was a strange situation he had engineered. And much of the strangeness emanated from him.
He smiled wryly at himself. Wasn’t this exactly what he wanted?
Then he caught sight of the dark caravan again. It seemed to draw his attention. What was in there. What was Mr Tall afraid of? Ashamed of?
What would he discover behind that tatty door?
He found that he had already walked up the steps to that door. He looked around, something was warning him not to go any further, but he found he could not resist. He pushed the door open.
It was dark inside. He stepped forward into the darkness. He took three steady steps and then there was a click.
Too late he sensed a trap. There was a clash of metal. The darkness fled as the sides of the caravan fell away to reveal he as inside a cage. A cage with fine wire mesh sides.
He could transform – but not into anything that small.
“So! You could not resist?” Mr Tall. “You read my mind! At least as much as I wanted you too. And could not resist my bait.”
He smiled strangely.
“You are not the only one with talent.”
Before his eyes, Mr Tall seemed to shimmer, and he transformed. Not into an animal but into a young girl not much older than himself.
“We have been waiting for you to joins us for quite some time,” she said.
“Indeed we have,” said another voice. And out of the darkness came another man. Broad, long-haired and bearded, dressed in an immaculate suit.
“What shall we do with him?” asked the girl.
It had been a few hours.
The two had observed me for a while, whispering to each other and smiling, but they were just a little too far away for me to sense what was being thought in their villainous minds. Then they left me, striding to the far caravan.
Slowly doors opened and the other circus ‘acts’ stepped out, one by one, to peer at the newest addition to their crew.
The acrobats flipped their way to the cage and stared at me. “What’s so special about him? He’s a mere boy.” Unimpressed, they stalked off.
Andy tried to smile at the juggler, his favourite act, as he sauntered over, lazily tossing two small balls up in the air. “Hey! Mr Juggler! Please, let me out. They tricked me!”
“Jacques. I am Jacques the Juggler extraordinaire. And trick? No. Franco and Seline. They never trick anyone. You only end up here, if this is where you are meant to be… A demain, garçon mystérieux.” He turned and made his way back to his caravan.
“No! Please! Wait!” Andy called out in vein. Slowly the others retired to their caravans, tired of waiting for something to happen.
What was so special?
Andy slumped against the metal bars that caged him and slowly slid to the floor. A tear formed and trickled down his cheek.
Why did he never listen? Mother had told him no good would ever come of his revealing his secret to anyone. She had lived with her shapeshifter gift all her life, using it to help them survive. But never in a way that one of the ordinary folks of the world would ever discover her power.
Andy’s head jerked up. In the darkness, he was unable to make out anybody there.
“Psst! Over here!” The voice was just behind him. He turned to see a young girl, head covered, beckoning to him.
“Here,” she pushed something through the railings. Bread. “You must be hungry.”
Andy scrambled over and took the food.
She watched as he devoured the chunk of bread hungrily, before looking up at her again.
“Er, thank you.”
“I heard Maman talking about you with Papa. You are quite an enigma. No one seems to know why you are here. Caged. Oh, so rude of me, I am Nina. The juggler’s daughter.”
“Can you help me get out?” Andy knew nothing more than the fact that he needed to be released so he could run back to his own mother.
“What is your name?” She just looked at him, making no move to open the lock.
“Andy. My name is Andy, and if I don’t leave soon, my family will be up in arms! Please, Nina. Help me!”
She pondered his request for a moment. “I don’t know… you intrigue me. Maybe I don’t want to let you go. It’s been a long time since I had company here, more my age…”
Before Andy could make another plea, the door to the far caravan flung open. The voice of Franco bellowed out loud. “Quick! Pack up, everyone. We need to leave – IMMEDIATELY!”
Like magic, the ground filled with people, unpegging the tent, harnessing horses to the caravans, packing up the circus paraphernalia that was all around.
And just like that, Andy felt a shudder as the sides to his cage became solid. Someone had pushed the wooden covers back, leaving him nothing but a small slat to look through.
Then with a jerk, he was flung onto his bottom. The caravan started to move. He scrambled back up to peer through the slat. He could see nothing.
All he knew was that he was trapped, with no idea where he was being taken.
It was dark and try as he may Andy could see nothing through the single slat. He was tired and not a little frightened. Slowly the rocking of the caravan, come cage set him off to a fitful sleep.
When he awoke, he was surprised to find that the wooden slats were down and he was in the open cage again.
Everyone was across the way in a large clearing putting up the Big Top. There was a lot of noise, and everyone was very busy.
Andy felt he was being watched, so he spun round and smiled as he came face to face with Nina who was standing outside his cage again. “Hello,” she said, “I have brought you some more bread and some water. Sorry” she said pushing a hose pipe through the wire mesh, “you will have to drink through this.”
Andy was hungry and thirsty, so he did not complain and drank copiously from the hose.
“What do you think they will do with me,” he asked Nina. She smiled and told him that she had heard her father and the Boss talking. “They are going to use you in a magic act.” She told him.
“There is no need to be afraid,” said Nina, ” Everyone who joins this circus starts off in this cage.” Nina shifted on her feet and continued, “my Mum and Dad did, everyone does ” She smiled at Andy then continued, ” really no one joins this circus unless it is meant to be.”
“What do you mean” asked Andy. Before Nina could answer her father called her away. As she ran off towards the big top, she turned and waved to Andy giving him a wonderful smile.
Curiosity was burning in Andy’s head as he thought over what Nina had said. Suddenly and for the first time in his life, Andy felt the tingling in bones start, the warning that he was about to change. He was shocked because he had not discided to change. This change was happening un announced.
To his amazement Andy shape shifted to a worm, he had never changed into anything so small before.
Quickly he passed through the wire mesh, once outside he shifted once more into a sparrow. After he had got his breath back, he set off to see what he could find out.
Andy was never all that keen about flying. It all seemed such an effort, and he tired quickly. He thought being a juggler was much more exciting and less tiring.
His transformation did worry him as he didn’t think he could change into something so small. But he was glad to out of the cage and free once again.
After flying for a bit, he decided to stop on a branch of a tree and gather his breath. He looked around and found he was in a tree just away from the circus caravans. He was sure he had flown a considerable distance and was alarmed to find himself still within the grasp of the circus.
He flew off again, and this time a strong wind made the going all the more difficult, but he was determined to make good his escape.
Once again when he stopped he found he was sitting on top of one of the caravans and the words of Nina: ‘really no one joins this circus unless it is meant to be.” echoed inside his head.
This was getting so frustrating. Flying was hard work. Being back where he started was doubly frustrating.
Just then the face of the young girl who had once been the Tall Man appeared from under the caravan and along side her the man he had met before.
“Good to see you back,” said the girl. “It’s futile you trying to get away, this is how we determine if you are ready to join the circus, give you an opportunity to get away and see if the circus brings you back. You are one of us now,” she concluded and holding out a hand to him watched as he alighted onto it.
“Be a small boy,” commanded the man beside her and Andy found himself standing in the middle of the caravans.
“Here,” said the girl handing Andy a set of juggling balls, “see what you can do with them.”
Andy threw the balls into the air and couldn’t believe what happened next….
This is where the story died.
This story was brought to you by:
Mama always said I was special, and she made me feel special too. She never cared that I was slow, or scared of my own shadow. She loved me for me, and I loved her for her. When the shadow man came and took her away, he took part of me too. Nothing I can say or do is good enough for June and Papa won’t do anything to stop her. So, I spend all day hiding from her and the shadows in the barn with the cats. Sometimes I go to the edge of the woods and whisper for Mama. I know she’s there. I hear her crying at night. I want to help Mama, but I can’t. I’m too scared…and ashamed.
“Found ya, nutter butter!”
Water splashed on the tawny barn cat as June tossed a bucket of water over me. The cat scratched my face as she tried to get away.
“Stop your bawling, cry baby.”
I wiped my face and stared at June’s scuffed Keds. “Stop being mean to me.”
June burst out laughing and pushed me into the hay pile. “Cry baby….cry baby…cry baby! Where’s your bottle?”
Mama always said to ignore mean people. That was easier said than done, but I always tried. June stood between me and the barn door, so I ran but she tripped me and I landed face first in the manure pile that she made last night when she was supposed to be doing her chores. Mama’s voice said, “don’t do it,” but another voice talked over her and said, “she deserves it.” I don’t know why I did it, but June’s laughter just made it seem right. I scooped up as much manure as I could and flung it at her.
“I’LL KILL YOU! YOU LITTLE BRAT!”
I ran so fast from the barn and didn’t stop until I was at the edge of Mama’s woods. I knew they were watching me. They always did. Mama sobbed somewhere deep in the woods. She sounded so far away. It made my heart break.
June was yelling at Papa, and soon Papa was yelling for me. I walked down to the creek and washed myself clean.
“Jacob!” Papa yelled louder and louder. The louder he yelled, the meaner he sounded. In all my seven years, I never heard him sound so mean. No way I was going to go home. Ever again.
Mama loved me and I loved her. The further I walked into Mama’s woods, the louder she got and the more shadow men gathered around me. I could hear them. Some wanted to hurt me. Some wanted to help me. Others were curious, and a few were even scared. Imagine that, a shadow man being scared of me.
Rustling in the undergrowth scared me half to death, but then tawny cat strutted out and meowed.
“Oh, tawny.” I chuckled and picked her up.
She felt warm and I felt strong holding her. The woods had grown dark with all the shadow men around me. I couldn’t hear Papa’s voice anymore, or June’s. I stood there for just a minute, but I guess it was too long because the shadow men grew angry with me. They were enraged. Tree branches rattled and an angry wind howled through the woods.
Tawny hissed and howled. I had only heard her do that once before. The night Mama was taken. Part of me wanted to be taken – to be with Mama again. Part of me wanted to run – back to Papa and June. Instead, I did what I always did. I froze.
Papa and June were mad at first, but then their anger turned to fear. Hours passed and they wandered all around the farm calling for me. Once night came, June stayed in the house and Papa wandered through the woods with his old lantern and rifle. I had never seen him cry before. It felt good to see him cry, but I don’t know why. The shadow man looked at my grin and laughed.
“Welcome home, boy.”
Lizzie’s face glowed as she read the letter one more time. After three months, he was coming back for her. His last words echoed in her empty heart. The mountains that she loved had closed in around him and he returned to the city. That night they would dine together again just as they had for three years while attending NYU. That night past wrongs would be righted and they would be together again.
She paced around the room and counted the seconds as they slipped by. Her heart leaped as the doorbell rang. Had he surprised her by arriving early? Her smile faded as she flung open the door.
“Telegram for Miss Howard.” A young delivery boy held out a plain envelope in one hand and flashed tapped his empty palm with it.
She looked at his smile and sighed. All she had was fifty cents. Neither were impressed by her tip. “Thanks, but sorry.” She shrugged as she closed the door on the boy.
“Change of plans,” she read. “Meet the 2:30 train tomorrow and we’ll spend the weekend in Brighton. I’ll bring your ticket, so don’t buy one.”
Her hands trembled as she read his words. Tears dripped from her chin as she thought about their missed dinner. “Cheer up stupid,” she told herself. “We get a whole weekend together, then on to forever.”
The night passed slowly but packing and repacking passed the time. Storm clouds covered the morning sun, but she was happy nonetheless. She arrived at the station at two and sat on her luggage under her umbrella. She would wait forever if she needed to. No amount of rain could dampen her spirits that day.
The train pulled in on time. Lizzie paced the platform and watched as passengers departed. He wasn’t there. The conductor checked his manifest. Not listed. She watched from atop her luggage as the train departed the station. Three more trains passed while she waited for her lover to return. Thankfully it rained all day and the happy passengers didn’t notice the tears from her broken heart.
This was inspired by Crushed Caramel’s Tell A Story challenge. Now it’s my turn to nominate three others and provide them a photo prompt. So, let’s see what The Magic Shop, Jane Ridgewood, and Rory can come up with for the following prompt: