The metal on metal clanged together as the shopping cart went over each crack in the pavement. Other than small ponds of light scattered sparsely throughout the parking lot, she was surrounded by darkness. An uncomfortable darkness. The kind that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. She hastened her pace toward her car.

With her vehicle in view and keys in hand, the girls's eyes surveyed for any sign of life. None. Not a soul. Serves me right for shopping at 2am, she thought, her pace nearly a jog. Sucks slugging pitchers of beer for a living. No nights off. Still moving, her hands dove into the cart, looping her fingers through the handles of the bags. The air didn't feel right. She could feel eyes on her.

Key in lock. Door opened. Groceries in backseat. She rounded the car to the driver's door and opened it. She had one foot in the car before it got her...

The parade. My most hated task when entering any new town. To be put on display, and wear a fake smile while my arm gets tired from constantly waving. That's how it goes, smile and wave, smile and wave; smile - and - wave. Hello, everybody, I'm on display. Look at me in my tiny unitard with all these sequins and this ridiculous feather boa.

Then there are the Townies. The kids are okay, in fact they're great. A directed wave, a wink, a big smile, maybe a blown kiss and the kids are falling all over themselves with excitement. Just about the only upside to this whole thing. Anybody over the age of twelve is pretty much a lost cause. Adults are the worst; they glare, judge and stare in suspicion. I'm not a freak, as ridiculous as I look. I'm simply trying to make it in this world just like them. And I don't choose the outfit.

This crowd appears to be a little more distrustful than usual. I notice a number of posters and flyers, all with the word, 'MISSING' as the heading. From where I am, I can't make out the faces. Still, I can see that there are three different shapes of people. Considering they're Missing posters, I figure the shapes got to be people. Certainly don't look like dogs or cats. Smile, Garnoc always says a smile wards off the devil. Whatever that means.

I sometimes wonder what we look like to all of them. See the real faces hiding underneath the surface. See underneath Belhannah's shield. I know they can't, her magic is too strong. It has to be with a caravan like ours and all the Firsts populating it. Grön Brothers Circus was a colourful rainbow of Firsts, but then we didn't have many places to go nowadays.

Arkouda harrumphs from beneath me, followed by a loud yawn, showing all the people lining the streets his very large and pointy teeth. My 800 pound Dire bear more saunters down the street than walks. Each lurching step can be heard as leather paw after leather paw hits pavement. The stares Arkouda and I tend to receive are wider than my fellow workers and performers. Dire bears are scary large. Bigger than a Polar, bigger than a Kodiak. When people ask about him, I have a story rehearsed about how I found him in the Ukraine close to Chernobyl. Most of the time they're too scared to question further.

To compensate for the gasps coming from the more sensitive members of the crowd, I continue on with my fake smiles and waves from atop his shoulders. I give him a squeeze with my legs to grab his attention.

"Stop scaring the little ones with those teeth. You," I playfully scold, ruffling a patch of hair behind his right ear.

The loud cry of an elephant brings everyone's attention to the hulking attraction in front of us. My eyes roll in response. It`s only one part of your day that you do once a week. Breathe.

Another reason I hate doing the parade thing, is because of my position in the procession. We march directly behind the bane of my existence, Kezia Molpe. The star attraction, acrobatic, elephant riding, singing, dancing, boss' lady, all around bitch and resident Siren. If you're boned up on your Greek mythology like I am, Sirens are these dangerous bird-women, portrayed as seductresses who lure sailors with their enchanting music and voices to shipwreck. Basically, they're evil bitches. Her true form speaks volumes of her, all red and scaly. A pair of horns and wings to match. I only caught a glimpse once, and I never regretted it. It's my small tidbit to snicker about when she's being her awful self to me. Today was no exception. Wailing out the notes to a song she wrote to lure more people into coming, she tosses a large handful of glitter our way.

I spit out the glitter, that somehow flew into my mouth and quickly go back to my smiling and waving pose.

Lumbering between Kezia's legs is the ten foot tall Sheba, the elephant. Not a Dire elephant, there's no such thing, just your average, run of the mill African elephant. Sheba is Arkouda's bully. Funny, how you would think bear versus elephant, normally you'd pick bear. With Kezia being the boss' special friend and Sheba being her precious pachyderm, Arkouda knew better than to even touch her.

Parading through the town of Licht, in I don't-know-what province Canada, the enormous wrinkled monster has managed to dip her trunk in some water before the parade started, and stored it up just to let loose in our direction. Adding to the torment, her owner had already subjected us to. The first spray hits us like torrential downpour.

Arkouda shakes the excess water off, showering myself and some unfortunate spectators. I wipe my face, screw the smile back on and continue to wave.

"Sorry!" I say, loud enough for the soaked members of the crowd to hear me. "Arkouda Oakton!" I use his full name; a name he knows means business. "If those people say something to Irad later you know what'll happen. And I don't particularly want to be on ticket duty and you don't want to get locked in a cage all night, do you?"

Arkouda lets out a grunt, acknowledging that he understands. Like the smart bear I raised from a cub, he backs off a bit, bringing us closer to our follower, the last wagon in the march toward the fairgrounds. Madame Belhannah Vashti's wagon, painted purple, pulled by her old grey donkey.

"If she gets me wet, I'll make her hair fall out," Belhannah says loud enough for me to hear but not the watching Townies. Being a Witch, Belhannah can do that and more. Though her dalliances in witchcraft are rare these days compared to her past. She mainly tells fortunes and tarot card reading. Both of which, she isn't the greatest at. Once she told me I was going to step into something exciting. Instead, I stepped into a pile or Sheba's shit. Her gift for foresight was terrible. Her ability to cast a spell that could bring night into the day and day into night, is remarkable. Belhannah liked to think she was older than time itself. She could be telling the truth. No one knows.

Arkouda didn't like her and avoided acknowledging that we're even close to her wagon. He didn't like anyone, other than me, but I had moulded him from being his instinctually aggressive self, to being tolerant of others.

"I'd love to see that one day, even if she doesn't get you wet." I giggle at the thought of a bald Kezia, her fire red locks replaced by her fake pink skin. Then I think of her true form, even better, and I have to control myself not to have a hysterical laughing fit. If karma exists, Kezia is due for a dose, and Belhannah would be the perfect person to administer it.

"With an attitude like hers, I think one day she'll get too close and push my buttons. And it won't be just the hair she loses." Belhannah lets out a snicker, accompanied by the only smile she'll have for the entire duration of the parade. With her age, Belhannah had the privilege to do anything she wanted, Irad respected her and therefore she didn't have to go through the tireless tasks of cementing a smile on her face and waving at strangers. It wasn't part of her job description. To be the oldest person in a circus full of ancients.

Staying close to Belhannah proved to be advantageous. The rest of the route to the fairgrounds was water and bitch free. Once our house on wheels is in site, Arkouda with his usual childish excitement, bounds toward our trailer, oblivious to me still atop his shoulders. He stops shy of the door.

"Hey Big Guy, you still have a passenger!" His head is engrossed in his water bowl, gulping loudly, before I slide safely to the ground. Our motorhome doesn't take much work to set up, park it, unroll the awning, pull out my canvas chair and watch the maintenance crew buildup.

Being that I'm disastrously clumsy, I have been banned from participating in buildup. (Buildup is a 'carny' speak for setting up the tents and attractions.)

"Tayte!" I hear my name being called from the other side of the trailer. An all too familiar voice I've known ever since, I can remember. And I can`t remember much. Garnoc rounds the back end of my Thor Four Winds Class C motorhome, a discouraging look on his face.

Standing at a meagre three and a half feet, is Garnoc, my guardian. With a carefully trimmed grey beard and shoulder length hair to match, his grumpy yet patient demeanour has guided me through the last five years. He more became my father than anything else. The only family I've ever known. He was the one who found me, took me in and gave me a home. Taught me the carnival life. The rules we live by and how to be the mediocre performer that I am. A lucky happenstance with my predicament.

"Have you heard the news?"

"What news would that be?" I ask.

"Before we got here some woman went missing." He looked worried. It was rare for Garnoc to be worried about anything.

"Are you sure it was just one? Because I think I saw some flyers up along the parade route."

"This one is the most recent, apparently."

"Big deal, people go missing all the time." When you don`t know the person, do you really care all that much? Garnoc is at my side and I lean in close to his ear to say, "Sometimes. They run away and join the circus!"

"Well sometimes they find a body."

"And we care about someone in Hicksville Canada, because?" I look to the gods in the sky and add, "Rest in peace." Not entirely heartless.

He lets out a big sigh of frustration and glares at me, "Because the news report that was just on, says this woman appears to have been mauled by a bear."

What do the kids say these days... oh yeah, fuck my life.

(C) Stephanie R. Lever (wishuwerehere) 2011 (id482157); protected under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License; view via my profile link.

Author's Note:

Give a review, get a review. A big one detailed. Please.

{Edited 21/10/2011} Thanks to my beta Roselyn Flores