chapter last updated: 8/22/11
I watched as Joseph streaked out of the big top in pursuit of Belle, his orange shape a blur in the glow of the flames.
"Get back here, Joseph!" I screamed after him. "You can't just leave me!"
But he did.
Fists clenched, I stomped my foot in an irritatingly juvenile fashion. Around me, the big top continued to crumbled under the weight of the fire that consumed it. The crowd died down as most of the audience finally reached the exit.
Anger boiled in my veins as I strode towards the tent flap, knowing I needed to get out of here before the roof collapsed. I let the challenge of stepping over debris and fire distract me, but it didn't work for long.
I was mad because Joseph was the third friend to leave me to fend for myself. First Jim, then Tony, and now Joseph, but it was more than that. I was mad because our plan hadn't worked out exactly like we'd thought it would, and it'd been a decent plan. I'd been proud of it, damnit. I was mad because I had the sinking feeling that my own impulsive actions had caused this mess, and now people might die in this burning hellhole.
Pushing through the crowd, I finally made it into the cool night air. I made my way with the other people a safe distance from the big top. I took a deep breath, felt my skin sigh in relief as the soft Southern breeze kissed it, and realized that's why I was mad. It was all my doing.
I'd made Jim agree to take me home on this circus train. It was my fault we'd found Joseph and turned him over to Belle. It was my fault he'd been turned into a tiger. It was my fault Jim had been bewitched. It was my fault the big top was on fire. And everything I tried to do to make it right just made it worse.
There was no sign of Joseph or Belle.
"Damn me." I kicked the grass with my foot. Smudges from ashes, smoke, and sweat covered my once-sparkling sequin-studded dress. I sank limply to the grass and buried my head in my knees, wrapping my arms around myself.
My ankle started itching.
I reached to scratch it and my hand brushed against something fuzzy. Bewildered, I frowned and glanced up, and I saw a gray mouse on my leg.
"Ah!" I shrieked, scrambling to my feet and shaking my foot until the mouse let go and fell into the grass. When my heart stopped hammering and I could breathe steadily I realized people were staring.
"Oh, it was just a mouse." As I smiled weakly, the crowd stopped looking at me and began to talk among themselves, creating a perpetual murmur of sound in the field. Some sat down, others decided to leave.
Through it all, I heard a squeaking. Glancing down, I saw my friend the mouse making his way back to me. I furrowed my brow, knelt in the tickling grass, and cupped my hands on the ground. He scampered right into them and sat on his haunches, his beady eyes staring at me.
Slowly, my brain recalled seeing an elephant disappear, and as it vanished a small gray speck had fallen to the floor. I remembered a story Jim had told me not so long ago about an elephant, and how Belle had appeared after that. There had been a missing link in that story, but as I looked at this mouse it clicked.
"Tony!" I gaped, finally connecting the dots.
The mouse squeaked for joy and ran in circles in my palms.
"Oh, geez, Tony." I stroked his soft head with one finger. He was so fragile, and I was so happy to see a friendly face, however small, that I caught myself grinning despite the fact that I'd bound and gagged him earlier the same day.
"Belle! Get out here where I can see you! You've got the law to answer to, ya hear?" Cody's voice rang over the buzz of chatter around me.
"What?" I muttered, squinting in his direction. He stood just outside the cat car, waving his gun around. Tony ran to the edge of my fingers and, I swear, pointed in Cody's direction with his front paw.
"You're dumb if you think I won't fire. Now get out here!" As Cody bantered away, I started running towards him, holding Tony close to my chest. Before I could even elbow my way through the crowd, Cody had already disappeared inside the car.
"Cody!" I shouted. "Wait!" Finally free of the dispersing crowd, I sprinted the rest of the way, taking the ramp in almost a single leap. I looked into the car and froze.
"Joseph?" I gasped.
The boy-turned-tiger stood next to Cody, only he wasn't a tiger anymore. It took me a minute to associate the stranger I'd seen sneaking into a train with the tiger I'd befriended during my stay at this circus. He looked the same as he had that night, down to the same worn clothes, only when I looked closer he was deathly pale. As I called he name, he looked at me with sunken eyes.
In front of them, sprawled facedown on the floor, unmoving, lay a figure in a bright red ringmaster's jacket half hidden in the shadows. Belle.
"She's…k-killing me." Joseph coughed, and I noticed him shaking. He looked like he might collapse at any moment.
"How?" My question seemed heartless, I realized, but I couldn't stop it from escaping my lips. I couldn't believe he was human.
"Don't know." Joseph grunted. "Don't care. Make it stop. Have to…kill her." He sank to the floor. I went to him, confusion and concern making my heart pound.
As I reached Cody's side, I heard his gun click as he aimed it at Belle.
"What're you doing?" I halted, undecided.
"Didn't you see what happened in the ring? Belle's a witch," Cody said, not looking at me, but down his barrel. "If I don't shoot, he'll die."
Something wasn't right, but I couldn't place what. I didn't have enough time to react, and while a part of my mind wanted to act immediately to help Joseph, another part said waiting and thinking this over was a better idea.
But I wasn't the one with the gun, so it wasn't really up to me.
Tony bit my hand.
"Ow!" I screamed, flailing my arm on reflex. It whacked Cody's head just as he pulled the trigger, screwing up his aim. The bullet sailed through the roof, and as I looked at the spot of blood blooming in my palm I realized I'd thrown Tony against the wall when I'd waved my hand.
"The hell?" Cody growled.
"Sorry," I said, blushing. It hadn't been my fault, really.
"Shoot again!" Joseph snapped. Then, almost as an afterthought, "It hurts, damnit."
Before Cody could take aim, Belle groaned. I squinted at the shadows, trying to make out any feature besides the bright red of the jacket.
"Hurry or she'll kill you too!" Joseph whined. Rolling my eyes, it hit me how un-Joseph-like Joseph was acting.
"Wait." I held Cody's gun hand down and walked to the stirring Belle. Kneeling, I pushed her shoulder so I could see her face.
Familiar, bleary green eyes blinked at me. I smiled at him. Joseph frowned at me as his eyes went in and out of focus, and he shook his head to clear it. He tried to growl, which only made him seem more ridiculous than he already was, dressed in a circus getup and all.
"Hey!" At Cody's shout, I turned to see other-Joseph, our Belle in disguise, wrestling the gun from Cody.
"He's the witch, Cody! He's Belle!" I called, and without thinking about it I jumped into the fray. In their cages, the lions and tigers paced and growled at all the commotion.
I grabbed Belle's arm and twisted it, trying to hold it behind her back so Cody could keep her other hand away from the gun. Squirming, Belle brought her foot down on my slipper-clad foot, making me yelp and lose my grip on her arm. With animal savagery she slammed her foot into Cody's knee and headbutted him, knocking him to the floor, and in the confusion the gun found its way into her hands.
She aimed it at me. With a sinking heart I wondered if I would ever learn to think before I acted. This was the second time Belle had tried to kill me tonight.
"I'm so tired of this." Belle's words, but Joseph's voice. She sounded angry, but she also sounded exhausted. Terror chilled my skin and I stared at the barrel of the gun, eyes wide. Cody had recovered from the blow to his head, but there was no time for him to act.
"Ow!" Belle jumped, shaking her leg and looking away for a second. I was so surprised I almost missed my chance, but I curled my fingers around the weapon and yanked it away from Belle just as she caught her balance.
Our positions were reversed, but sweat dripped down my brow and my hands start to shake. Some part of me thought she would run and save her skin. Come back and haunt me another day.
Belle didn't give me time to think about it. Snarling, she leaped at me and wrapped her fingers around my throat.
The seconds ticking by felt like lifetimes. I had time to notice things, like how Belle's sinister expression looked so strange on Joseph's face, and how there wasn't any thinking going on in her mind. All her sneaking, skulking, sinister tactics had been thrown out the window. Through her narrowed eyes and bared teeth, I could read nothing but hate.
I pulled the trigger.
The hands gripping my throat went limp. I took a deep, shuddering breath as the figure—Belle at heart, Joseph in form—sank to the floor. My whole body started to shake uncontrollably and I dropped the gun.
It was like I was looking at the world through a dirty piece of soundproof glass. Colors dulled and sounds fuzzed and feelings numbed. Blood stained my dress, I realized, but the thought breezed through me. I didn't want to think about it. My eyes stung and I recalled that this was what it felt like to want to cry, but tears didn't come.
Cody shouted something at me. I think it was my name. He put his hands on my shoulders and shook me, but I pulled away. Only a second had passed, but it felt like longer.
"Get it away, please," I managed to say with a tangled tongue, staring at the corpse in front of me.
"If that's what you want." Cody peered into my eyes, biting his lip. "But you don't look too good. I don't want to leave you alone."
"I'm okay now, really. Please." My back against the rows of cages, I inched my way along them, away from the corpse at my feet. Truly, I did feel a little better. At least I didn't feel like throwing up anymore.
"All right. You sit down and hang tight." It wasn't until after he'd helped me sit down that he picked up Belle—was she really that small?—and walked out into the night. I squeezed my eyes shut and concentrated on taking deep, even breaths.
I heard someone come next to me, and when I opened my eyes a slit and saw that bright red jacket I thought it was a ghost and fear raced through me, but then I remembered.
"Sarah?" Joseph, the real Joseph, tried to say my name, but his voice sounded unused and scratchy, so it came out more like, "Rawrar?"
When I opened my eyes the rest of the way, I saw he realized how silly he sounded. He stood on his hands and knees and coughed, clearing his throat, and it hit me that this was the first time I'd seen him as a human since the day we'd met. He seemed so different from Belle's imitation that I wondered how I could've ever fell for her ploy.
"Ahrah. Sahrah. Sair. Ah. Sarah."
He looked so determined. I couldn't help it. I started snickering.
"s not 'unny!" Joseph glared. At that, I keeled over, roaring with laughter. It felt great.
"Yes it is!" I snorted, holding my sides and gasping for breath.
"This. Is. Ard—harder. 'an—than. It. Looks."
He looked so indignant, standing there on all fours, that he might as well have been a tiger again. But he was human, and that thought made my fear, my guilt, and my sadness melt away. I grinned.
"Are you all rar—right—now?" Joseph managed to ask. Now that he was a little more used to his form, he took his hands off the floor and sat on his knees. Instead of answering his question, I hugged him, burying my face in his shoulder. It was strange to not to feel his fur tickle my nose.
"You are human, you know," I said after he remained frozen for a few moments. "You can hug back."
Uncertainly, he wrapped his arms around me, and for the first time in what seemed like forever—it couldn't have been only the last train stop that Jim had left—I didn't feel alone.
"Why?" Joseph managed to get the word out clearly as he let go. He stared at his hands in bewilderment.
"Why'd she change you back?" I finished for him. "Hmm... Maybe it was easier to change you both into you. Maybe she thought it didn't matter because Cody would shoot first and ask questions later. Maybe she wanted Cody to shoot and then she wanted us to realize she'd tricked us." A chill went through me with each possibility. "That would be just like her. To change you back only so we could shoot you before we realized…" I stopped myself.
"That was brar—brave—of you, you know." Joseph positioned himself beside me. We leaned next to each other on the lion cage. Inside, the lions lazed in the hay, all tension forgotten.
"Shooting her? That just made me sick." I shuddered.
"Not that!" Joseph shook his head. "Following me in here. You didn't have to do that."
"Oh." It hadn't even occurred to me that I could've not come. "I suppose it was."
"Suppose?" Joseph gaped. "Sarar—Sarah, damnit. I mean, not Sarah, damnit, as in I'm frustrated with you, but Sarah, damnit because I can't say your name right. I mean…" Joseph made a noise that I guessed was meant to be a sigh, but came out as more of a growl. "Sarah, I couldn't move for most of that, but it sounded like you wrestled a gun away from Belle. You can do that and just suppose you're brave? What does that make me, the world's biggest coward?"
"Well, I wouldn't even have had the chance if it weren't for—oh! Tony!" I scrambled to my feet and scanned the room.
"Tony?" Joseph parroted, tilting his head and furrowing his brow.
"Shh!" I strained my ears, hoping to hear a scrabble or a squeak, and walked to where Belle might've kicked the mouse.
"Something's scratching that box." Joseph pointed to the wooden chest that held the props used for the lion taming show. I couldn't hear a thing, and it dawned on me Joseph might still have better ears than I did. Sure enough, when I reached the box the mouse lay by the side trying to climb out. I scooped him up.
"You've got a nasty set of teeth. I hope you bit Belle harder than me." The mouse lay down and curled into a ball. I brought him back to my spot next to Joseph and sat again. For a few minutes, we stayed silent, letting the peace sink in.
"You know why I'm here?" I said, breaking the quiet. "Because I wanted to live on my own in the city, but I got fired from my job because I always act before I think. I always do things my way. When I finally hit rock bottom, I had to go ask my cousin to help me come back home. And I thought, maybe, with this circus, with helping you, I could finally prove that I could do something on my own. I wouldn't have to go crawling back in defeat."
"You did help me." Joseph pointed out.
"Yeah." I turned to him. "But what about Jim? And Tony? They're both still… not who they're supposed to be."
"Now that Belle's gone and I'm human, we can find Jim."
"There have to be other witches. Nicer ones." Joseph rubbed his chin, thoughtful. "We could look for one. Ask them a favor."
"Where on earth would we begin looking for a witch?" I groaned, but inside my heart leaped. He'd said we. He was going to help me.
"I haven't got a clue." Joseph shrugged, and then smiled. "Europe, maybe? The Middle East? Brooklyn?"
"Brooklyn?" I snorted.
"We'll look there last, then." Joseph grinned. I elbowed him in the side, and I had a suspicious feeling that he was trying to cheer me up.
"You make it sound fun. Like some sort of grand adventure." His mood was infectious. I smiled back. He suddenly seemed to me just like the sort of person who would write all of those crazy journal entries I'd been reading, or like someone who would jump through a hoop of fire.
"But first, a place to sleep?" Joseph asked.
"Yeah. Sleep first." I stood up and stretched.
"You're a mess, Sarah." Joseph shook his head as he looked at me. He was probably right. There were bloodstains on my dress. My tangled hair had more knots in it than I wanted to count. I could imagine a few bruises had emerged. I didn't even want to think about my ruined dress.
"You just look ridiculous." I held out my hand and he grabbed it and used it to pull himself up. He balanced himself using the cage, unable to walk on two legs yet. Walking around in a body that was his but not his, wearing the extravagant clothes of an old foe, he was a long way from normal. We both were, I realized as we walked into the night.
We looked like something someone would pay money to see at a circus.