Standing Before the Flame
Gabriel, my older brother, cheered as the front door of my house swung open to let me in. I stepped inside glowing with anticipation. I was beginning to think that my eleventh birthday had been forgotten all together. Sure one of my friends at school remembered to wish me a happy birthday but that was hours ago and the school bus had only just dropped me off at the edge of our property. Now after walking a ways, or really sulking, I stopped to feed the horses and other critters that my family had collected over the past couple of years. Once they were all taken care of, I dragged my feet a half mile down our driveway to the front door. I didn’t even get my hand to the door knob.
You may be wondering, what kind of critters. Actually we had allot of animals including, two horses, four dogs, six chickens, and one very large pig who was about to give birth to piglets. My friends say it’s a lot, but my family had plenty of room, seeing as my dad also loved living off the land.
“How can you live off the land if you don’t have any?” he would say. Though I think he just didn’t like having neighbors knowing what we did day in and day out. His need for extra space ended up working out for everyone in the end. After all, animals were the coolest, and perhaps I could become a veterinarian someday… Oh, right… my birthday.
My 18 year old man child of a brother, stood in the doorway of our house practically shaking with enthusiasm. Seriously he was like a big puppy dog, and if he had one his tail would be wagging. Gabriel stood in the doorway with his six foot three frame his dark chestnut brown hair and his pale white skin. He’d been told he got his looks from my dad. Gabe, as I affectionately called him, was a college boy who lives at home and commuted to the local community college. Despite my parents’ prompting, Gabe was a care free kind of dog. Still didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, so currently he was just taking General Ed. Besides, he loved that he can go to school and still come home every day to enjoy our mom’s cooking.
Gabe swung the door wider to reveal the variety of decorations strewn around the house, all purple and white, which were my favorite colors. From the front door I could see Mom and Dad in the dining room looking a bit frantic and flustered by my sudden arrival; Dad was struggling with a small digital camera while Mom lit the candles atop a beautifully decorated homemade cake.
My mom was my hero, she was everything I could ever hope to become as a person.
She was kind, patient, loved taking care of her family and had a faith in God that I envied. She was a stay-at-home-mom too, my momma bear and I was her cub.
Dad was pretty cool too, more of a great eagle than a big bear. He was a former Marine and he took the phrase “God, Family, Corps” to a new level. To be honest they were both perfect parents.
“Here, let me take that,” Gabe beamed as he removed my backpack from my shoulder. With a grin I made my way into the dining room, my stomach doing flips about the treatment I was receiving.
“Hi, Princess,” Dad chirped enthusiastically, placing the camera down and reaching out to give me a big hug. As I melted into the arms of my daddy I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Hey, what about me, don’t I get a hug?” Gabe begged teasingly.
As much as I loved feeling safe in the arms of my Dad, hugging or being touched normally kind of bugged me. However, he did his sad puppy face, all giddy and excited, so I relented this time and reluctantly embraced my older sibling. As I put my arms around him, I couldn’t help but notice how big Gabriel really was. Sure he was technically an adult but even then, he was six feet tall and still growing.
“Rachel, look!” Gabe whispered, releasing me and directing me towards the cake. As they all in unison began to sing:
“Happy birthday to you,
Happy Birthday to you!”
My face went hot as the blood rushed to my head; “Happy birthday, dear Rachel!” they all yelled in unison.
As I inched closer to the table, I began to feel warm. Though I barely felt it at first, the heat was a little more intense than it should have been, and it was getting warmer. Soon the heat was so intense, it smothered me from head to toe. That’s when I noticed the candles were extraordinarily bright. It was like standing before a bonfire, as opposed to small flickering lights. The heat continued to grow until it was almost too much to bear. I recoiled, trying to escape it, though I felt no change as the discomfort persisted.
“Happy birthday to you!” as their song ended, I no longer cared for my wish. All that was on my mind was the unbearable heat. I covered my face and without hesitation I took a deep breath and blew.
I half-expected my efforts to be in vain, but to my short-lived delight, the candles flickered out.
“Yay!” everyone shouted with approval. I couldn’t share their enthusiasm, for the heat still lingered.
“Why is it so hot?” I asked, looking around, but no one seemed to hear me. I looked at the smiling faces around me and was shocked to see their apparent obliviousness to my discomfort. It wasn’t that they were ignoring me, it was more like they didn’t even hear me.
“Time for gifts,” Gabe cheered, practically jumping up and down with excitement. I turned around and saw his hand in his pocket. As he pulled it out, I caught a glimpse of a small golden box as he handed it to Mom.
No sooner had she taken the box, clouds of smoke began to pour from the top of the cake. The smoke filled up the entire room until I could no longer make out the faces of those around me. Searching frantically for my family, I tried to cry out, but my voice would not respond.
“Rachel!” my mother called from behind me. I turned to face her however the smoke hid her from me. Suddenly the delicate hands of my mother’s emerged from the smog and rested softly upon my shoulders. She revealed a small silver cross which she draped against my chest and fastened it around my neck. Looking at her, despite the confusion, I felt a love that only a mother can give.
As she latched the necklace she whispered to me, like she would always tell me: “Never forget, Rachel, God loves you and you are never alone.” My vision started to blur, and everything around me melted away into nothing.
“Rachel, wake up!” my brother’s voice rang in my ears. His voice was desperate, and I could smell burning. Frantic for breath I immerged from my dream as though I had been holding my breath underwater. My eyes filled with tears from the smoke, stinging as I tried to orientate myself through the dark plumes. All along the ceiling I saw a blanket of smoke that seemed to crawl from one end of the room to the next. Trying to climb out of bed, I ended up breathing in a lungful of the black fog and started choking.
From out of nowhere a pair of large, strong hands grabbed me by my arms and dragged me out of bed to the floor. My lungs were on fire and I nearly gagged from the intense coughing.
“Come on, Rachel!” screamed Gabriel. “Get up now!” He took me by my hand and pulled me to my feet. “We need to get out of here!”
My throat was so sore I didn’t respond, and neither did I fight him. With his hand tightly clenched around my wrist, he led me through my door into the hallway. The walls were on fire, and the flames seemed to pour from every open doorway. Gabriel didn’t stop; he just kept on going until we hit the stairs.
“Wait!” I choked. “What about Mom and Dad?” Looking towards their room I pulled back from Gabe. Without slowing he tightened his grip and dragged me down the stairs.
The fire had not reached downstairs, but the smoke was still thick and toxic. As we hit the front door we found it locked. My brother struggled to get it open. A lowed creek sounded from the ceiling. The roof was giving way. Fighting with the lock and the heat Gabe removed the pad lock. The living room was visible from the door. The ceiling above it caved in. hot embers where kicked up at us. Desperate he twisted the door knob, digging his shoulder into the door. It open and we passed through. As we did the section of the ceiling above us caved in, throwing sparks and flame at our heels and we stumbled out into the night. Out of breath and now on our front lawn, the crisp coolness of the night washed over us like a waterfall of relief.
Letting go of my brother’s hand, I turned to face the inferno that was our home. I gasped from the sight of it. Before I could do or say anything, Gabriel scooped me up in his arms and carried me to the edge of the street. Pulling away from him, I stood, staring in awe at what was happening.
The entire roof was on fire and most of the top floor was engulfed in flames, bursting from every window. The sound of glass shattering and beams crumbling echoed through the night.
“What is happening?” I quaked. “How could our house be on fire?”
Taking a couple of steps closer, I noticed something strange about the roof, where my parents’ room was: a huge chunk of it was gone. Just gone. It was as though our house was made of cheese or some other kind of food, and giant had taken a big bight out of it.
As I scanned the scene around us I noticed several large, smoldering craters the size of beach balls which dotted across our lawn. “What happened” I wondered in disbelief.
Suddenly it hit me.
“Where are Mom and Dad?” I stammered, turning to Gabe. He now sat on the curb with his head in his hands, muffled sobs escaping him. Stumbling alongside him, I asked again, this time louder, “Where are Mom and Dad?”
As he lowered his hands, he shook his head. Black soot lined his nose and mouth. A look of hopelessness filled his eyes as I desperately tried to find any comfort in his face. My eyes darted around the yard again, seeking any movement or any sign at all of our parents’ whereabouts. As I did, Gabe finally looked at me. His eyes seemed to glow, as their hazel green color caught the reflection of the inferno before us.
“I… I don’t know,” he stammered. Catching his breath, he looked down at his hands. My gaze followed his, and though it was night it might as well have been midday; the blazing from our house was giving off enough light to plainly show the bright red burns on his palms. It looked so painful I couldn’t understand how he was able to remain so calm.
He continued, “I smelt smoke, and I tried to get to Mom and Dad first, but I couldn’t even…” He stopped, out of breath. He took a deep breath and looked back at me. “They weren’t there, Rachel. They were just gone.”
“’Gone?’” I cried. “What do you mean, gone?”
“I mean gone; there was no sign of them,” he sobbed.
I swallowed hard. “Maybe they got out and they’re looking for us in the backyard.” I stood to look around. “Or maybe they went somewhere last night and didn’t come home.” I turned toward the driveway. Their car was in its place as usual.
“Where would they have gone?” Gabriel grunted to himself, starting to sound angry. “And if they did leave us, why didn’t they…” He paused to look back at the fire. “They wouldn’t have just left us…”
I heard the faint sound of sirens in the distance so someone must have seen the fire. However since we lived in a rural community with no real neighbors, it would take the firefighters about twenty minutes to even get to our driveway.
A crisp wind blew in against our backs, carrying no comfort but the faint scent of morning. “What do we do?” I asked as I started to shake, the cold night air penetrating my charred pajamas.
Gabe looked down at me. “I don’t know, Rachel.” Noticing that I was cold, he pulled me in for a hug.
Grateful for his embrace and warmth, I hugged him back. I could hear him start to softly cry again. My brother was the strongest person I’d ever known; I had never heard him cry. He had always been an outdoors kind of guy; he and dad would do a lot of crazy stuff like go on camping trips, go rock climbing, and they would even take their bikes out every weekend for hours. Almost every time they went out, they both came back bruised and bloody. He would always say that if he didn’t come back with some injury that it wasn’t worth remembering. He had even broken some bones on one of his trips and never shed a tear.
Worse still, when he was a teenager his best friend Taylor came down with cancer. Gabe sat by his bed for hours, and even when he passed away Gabe was stoic. Not a single tear. Yet now I heard him crying like that; it really frightened me.
The emergency vehicles arrived just as the roof of my house started to collapse. What could be done now? Everything I had ever known was gone. The tears were now streaming down my face as I began to sob. To think that just yesterday I had turned eleven. My mom and I spent the previous morning together because my birthday fell on a school day. We even did some shopping and then had lunch at my favorite restaurant. It was quite the surprise last night once I finally got home from school and found cake and presents waiting for me. Gabe even sat to watch a TV show with me and let me pick what I wanted to watch, which was rare for him. Everyone was so happy, especially me. My home, and my parents. I reached my hand up to my chest to find I still wore the necklace Mom had given me.
Clutching it tightly in my hand and, still holding my brother close, I started to pray. “Dear God, please help us.”
Gabriel heard me and echoed it: “Yes. Please, God, help us.”
“Fire in the hole!” The demolition charges went off and the entire end of the building caved in, having lost all its support. I could feel the powerful vibrations surging through the earth as tons of steel and drywall came tumbling down.
The sun would be up soon; a faint glow could be seen on the horizon of the quiet residential district of Philadelphia.
My name is Gabriel Saint; I’m twenty-six years old and a part of the demo team for a construction company that builds and renovates hotels. It’s a demanding job and the hours are rough, but the pay is hard to beat.
“Hey Gabriel!” yelled my boss. He was standing at the far side of the work yard. “I need you back tomorrow to help me out with the south wing at five! Can you make it?”
“Sure, Joe, see you then!” Joe gave me an affirming nod then went to go yell at some of the clean-up crew.
My shift was just ending; I’d spent the entire night stripping a condemned school building bare so they could build a bunch of high rise apartments in its place. I made my way to the tool shed where I dropped off my tools and hung up my helmet. My body was tired, sore, and dripping with sweat. Nothing a hot shower and a nap wouldn’t fix, but first I had to get home.
Once my gear was up, I exited the shed before checking my watch. The time read 5:00 a.m. which meant my shift was officially over.
Yup, I was working the night shift. Thinking back, it was quite a tough shift: ten hours, which also meant one heck of a pay day. I started for the parking lot where my truck sat.
From across the parking lot I heard Larry call out to me, “See you, Gabriel!” and I turned to wave back. Larry was a friend of mine on the demo crew; a bit of a nerd, but then again I guess I am too. He was one of my only friends, though I think the main reason he hung out with me was because no one else would. Plus, I think he had a crush on my sister.
Larry was twenty-six like me, but much more accomplished. He actually was from money and didn’t have to work, though he did it anyway, because he liked it. Something I don’t understand at all.
Almost every other night we would play cards or watch a movie after work. His parents owned a bunch of hotels and apartment buildings. That is how we met; in fact, even the one we were working on now was owned by his parents’ company. A while back he even set me and Rachel up with the apartment we lived in now. Larry, Rachel and I had been friends ever since. I didn’t hold him being rich against him and he didn’t hold me being a jerk sometimes against me, so it worked for both of us.
Opening the door to my faded green pickup, I climbed in and started the engine. It was a nice morning with the sun just beginning to peek over the horizon and no traffic on the roads. Once on the freeway, I rolled down the window to enjoy the cool morning breeze on my damp face. The sound of the wind and the chirping filled my ears faint while the smell of Philadelphia smog filled my nostrils.
“A new day,” I chuckled to myself halfheartedly.
Actually, I had two other jobs on top of this one. One of them was stocking shelves at a bookstore, a block away from the apartment I stay at, and the other was loading and receiving at a post office about six miles from there. Sure, it was a lot of work, but my sister is worth it.
I was currently trying to put Rachel through her third year of college and good gravy are those classes expensive. However, since it was Sunday I didn’t have work for the rest of the day, since the book store and post office are closed on Sundays. This was a welcome relief; we may have needed the money but it’s nice to take a break every week. As a bonus to a half-day off, I also got to spend some time with Rachel. She usually went to church in the morning and then volunteered at an animal shelter later in the day. She got off around the same time as I did, so we had the evening to spend together. Today was an extra special day though: it was her birthday, and I wanted her to feel important as well as create some good memories.
After the death of our parents, we received some money from a life insurance policy that they had, and, even though Rachel was against it, we ended up having to sell her animals. Thankfully it was enough to get an apartment, buy a truck for me, as well as put Rachel in private school and then, later, through high school. Surprisingly, she managed to finish high school early and graduated when she was sixteen. She started college that fall and had been going ever since. I, on the other hand, had to drop out of college because I needed to work. It didn’t really bother me that much because I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
Anyway, Rachel and I were all we had left, and her birthday is a hard time for the both of us. Despite my indecision regarding my own life I still wanted Rachel to have a decent life and I didn’t care how hard I had to work for it; if not for me being eighteen at the time of the accident, my sister and I would have probably ended up in some foster home.
Even after all these years they never did find out what happened. To our house, I mean. By the time the firefighters managed to put out the flames, any evidence explaining how it started was long gone. The police tried to find the bodies of our parents but were unsuccessful. There was no sign of them. They said the heat of the fire probably burned them all up, though I often wonder if they might actually still be alive. It was wishful thinking I guess, but what can you do?
After about twenty-five minutes of driving I made the last turn to our apartment. The air rushing in the truck was surprisingly warm for fall and it carried the scent of freshly carved jack-o’-lanterns. I also noticed that the trees lining our street had only a few amber and crimson leaves left on them. That’s right, Halloween was tomorrow.
Swinging around into the parking lot, I pulled into one of the vacant spaces, which conveniently sat in front of where Rachel and I lived, then turned off the engine. We lived in a rather old apartment complex, though the owners took good care of it. Despite the love it received, you could tell from the aged bricks and faded colors that it had to be at the very least a hundred years old. It looked kind of like it was converted from an old train station. The rooms were awkward inside, not your typical apartment, but the outside had look of a rich history about it.
I made my way into the apartment building and checked the mailbox. No mail. I promptly went upstairs to take a shower. Our room, was on the second floor just next door to Larry’s. It was part of his inheritance and it required him to live in one of the buildings that his parents owned, so as to know what his tenants lived like, though on the plus side he didn’t have to pay any rent. One thing I will say for these old buildings is that the water pressure is awesome. As the hot water streamed down my body I felt all my sore muscles relax. I couldn’t tell you exactly how long I was in there, it felt like an hour or two, but what I do know is that it felt amazing.
Once I finally finished my shower I had to sleep. Working the night shift really is hard on your body. You get used to it, but I still needed a couple of hours of sleep before I start feeling human again. The feeling of my head hitting the pillow was one of relief that just can’t be explained, and after that all I can remember is setting my alarm for 11:00 before letting my heavy eyelids close tight.
When my alarm finally woke me up I headed to the kitchen for a snack. An apple sounded good. Being fall, apple season was at its peak, and I had just bought a bunch at the farmers market yesterday on my drive home.
Opening the door to the fridge, the entire bottom shelf was loaded with bright green Granny Smith apples. Oh man! I have been addicted to these things for as long as I can remember. I don’t know why, but they were my absolute favorite in the world. Mom used to make them into pies, but I’ve always preferred them straight up. Grabbing two, I was about to make my way to the couch when I froze. Oh, shoot. I forgot about the cake.
Before I went to work yesterday, I went to the store and bought Rachel the new zoology book she wanted for her birthday and then spent maybe two hours baking and icing a relatively large dark chocolate cake. Originally I was supposed to take it out of the fridge before work, though I had forgot. It wasn’t a perfect cake that you could buy in the store, but I made it myself, so that had to count for something.
Holding one of the apples in my mouth and dropping the other on the counter, I opened up the fridge again. I then carefully lifted the cake, balancing it with one hand while shutting the fridge with the other. Once I had the cake securely in my hands, I made my way to the dresser across the room from the front door. That was the perfect place to put it so Rachel would see it as soon as she walked in from church. It took a little bit of effort, but I got it to the dresser safely. Delighted with my skill in transporting cake, I promptly turned to make my way to the couch, accidentally grazing the frosting with my loose shirt. “Gosh dang it!” I cursed.
Oh, yeah, that’s how we curse in my family. If Rachel so much as heard me think the word “crap” or heaven forbid something worse, she would be all over me. After eight years of her constant nagging, it was now a habit.
First things first, I headed back into the kitchen to wash the dark chocolate frosting off of my shirt. I then grabbed a knife from the drawer and went back to my defiled cake to fix my shirt mark.
After that little bit of personal drama, I retrieved my apples from the kitchen and made my way back to the couch, stopping only to grab her zoology book off the coffee table. I then sat and ate both my apples, savoring every bite.
Rachel would be home any time now; the last couple of years she had been really active in church. Around the same time she met some girls from high school that attended a big church down the street and they invited her to a youth retreat. Ever since that weekend she seemed happier. She carried a bible around all the time and spent most of her free time at church or bible study. I guess that is good for her; I suppose anyone would need help to get past what she went through at such a young age.
I picked up the zoology book to pass the time. Rachel was getting her degree in zoology science. All that taking care of our animals when she was younger must have stuck with her. Looking up briefly at the clock, I saw it read 11:15 am. Then I ran my fingers through my unruly hair while reading a section on large cats.
I was about to turn the page when I heard a knock at the front door. That was strange. Did Rachel misplace her house keys again? I promptly put the book down on the coffee table and jumped over to the dresser, where I lit the candles atop my glorious creation. Once they were lit, I quickly made my way to the front door to let Rachel in. Making sure I had on my biggest smile before opened the door. I jerked the door open fast to surprise her. My smile quickly faded as it was only Larry.
“Hey Gabe, someone seems to have mixed up our mail, yours was in my box.” He handed me the mail and smiled weirdly back at me.
“Well, that was a letdown,” I complained. “Thanks, Larry.” This was the second time this month they had mixed up our mail.
“What’s with the cake?” he asked, looking past me as if to see if anyone else was home. I knew who he was looking for, too. Larry always had some excuse to come to the apartment to see Rachel.
“It’s Rachel’s birthday.”
“Really, how old is she now?” he asked, pretending not to be that interested.
“She just turned nineteen. Would you like to wait with me to wish her a happy birthday? She should be home from church soon.”
“Oh, that’s cool. No, its ok,” he added. “I’ll see her around and wish her a happy birthday. Thanks.” Any mention of church and Larry went running. I guess I was not really fond of church either, but Larry seemed downright scared of anything to do with it.
With a grin on my face I shook my head, and gave him a wave. “Bye, Larry.” I then closed the door and went over to blow the candles out.
Looking down at the stack of mail, I thumbed through it to see if there was anything interesting. It was mostly bills and some promotional stuff for a carnival or something. Just then there was another knock at the door. I let out a deep sigh and I placed the envelopes next to the cake. This time I would look through the peep hole to see who it was.
Before I could get my eye up to the hole, someone pounded again. “Gabriel, are you going to let me in or not?” Rachel snapped. Yes she had forgotten her keys again.
“Just a sec!” I yelled. Panic hit me as I jumped back from the door and made a dash to the cake, tripping over myself and crashing to the floor, forgetting that socks don’t get much traction on our fake hardwood floor. Recovering quickly, I bounced back up and hurriedly lit the candles. The candles flared to life and I bolted for the door. Hand on the door knob, I paused briefly to compose myself, then I let her have it.
“Happy birthday!” I cheered as the door flew open.
She struck a fake embarrassed pose, but smiled widely. I stood back to admire my little sis and her new age. Nineteen and so grown up, such a long way from that little eleven year old who used to talk incessantly about animals and the zoo that she was going to run someday.
Now that I think about it, she really hasn’t changed all that much. Sure she got taller and older but she matured allot faster than I did. By the age of twelve you could have easily assumed that she was my older sibling. Though that is partially my own fault, as my inner child tends to come out a little easier than most. You could say that she didn’t have a choice and her early maturity was because of what happened to her eight years ago, but to be honest I don’t thing that had as much to do with it as she thinks. She has always been older and wiser than me, even before the fire.
Today she was dressed in blue jeans, a green top, and sandals with a gray bag slung over her shoulder. Her long brown hair was tied back, revealing the round features of her face, including her freckles and blue eyes. Sometimes I forget just how much she’s grown up.
“That sounded like it hurt,” Rachel smirked. She quickly looked me over with halfhearted concern as she passed by me.
“It did,” I admitted, with a snicker of embarrassment. Rachel tossed her bag on the floor and proceeded across the room to the dresser.
“Thanks, Gabe… um, did you bake that yourself?” she teased, sarcastically pointing down at my cake.
“The icing gave me trouble, but I think I did pretty well for my third attempt,” I quipped back.
“You didn’t mix up the salt and the sugar again this time, did you?” she asked with a smirk.
“Oh come on, it wasn’t my fault the jar wasn’t labeled,” I protested.
“Mhm,” she murmured, giving me a sarcastic look.
“So…” I started hesitantly. “So do I at least get a hug?”
“Fine.” She surrendered, a little irritated with me. I knew she didn’t like hugs but for me that just made them more special. Besides, these moments were rare, and I had to make them count.
“Oh, I almost forgot!” I quickly broke free from her embrace. Nearly knocking her over, I jumped over the sofa and retrieved the book from where I had left it. I cautiously made my way back around, suddenly remembering what happened last time I ran on the hardwood with socks. “Here, this is for you,” I beamed, handing her the zoology book.
“Is this the new one?” she gasped.
I nodded with a big smile. She’d wanted that book for a while now, but was hesitant to ask me for it because it was so expensive. But seeing as she wanted to be a veterinarian so bad, she was going to need it.
Her obsession with animals started at about age five when she found a baby bird in our backyard and talked my parents into taking it in and nursing it back to health. It was at sixteen when she started college, and by then she knew without a doubt what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.
She threw her arms around my neck and hugged me, this time because she wanted to. “Thank you!” she sang with a really silly sheepish voice. “I know this cost a lot.”
“Yup,” I stated in a ‘duh’ kind of way. “So did you want to catch a movie tonight?” I asked nonchalantly. “Or maybe we could play a board game?”
“Actually. . .” Rachel began to fiddle with Mom’s necklace, something she did when she was nervous. “I was hoping to go job hunting today, I could really use your help.”
“A job?” I groaned inquisitively. “How can you do a job and go to school at the same time?”
“Well, actually,” she replied, “I was looking for an internship for a couple of months.” She looked up then added, “It’s a school requirement.”
My heart sank. This was the last thing I wanted to even think about!
“Gabe, I know that you’ve been trying to carry the torch for Mom and Dad by taking care of me, but now that I’m an adult, I think it’s about time that I took on some of the weight. Plus, it will fulfill my semester requirement.”
“You have enough to worry about with school hanging over your head. If you did get a job it would just slow you down.”
“Gabe, my grades are in for this semester and it’s about time I applied as an assistant somewhere,” she explained insistently. “I do need to get a job out of college. If I get a paid internship then that could lead to a permanent job later. I’ve volunteered before, I don’t get why this is such a problem for you.”
I was running out of things to say. We had had this argument before, but somehow, this time she was winning. “Couldn’t we talk about this another day?” I asked, pretending to be offended. “Today is my day off, plus it’s your birthday! Why would you want to think of working on your birthday? Can we just talk about this on another day?”
“I don’t see you on any other day,” she complained sadly. “So how are we supposed to talk about this later? Besides, it is my birthday and this is what I want to do.”
“Most people try to have fun on their birthday,” I retorted.
“Gabe, I’m not asking for permission,” she replied with a little irritation in her voice. “I’m asking you to come with me. I’m nineteen, which means I’ve been an adult for a year now.” She crossed her arms, determined not to be swayed. “Please, Gabe,” she asked in a calm yet serious tone. “Let me take some of the responsibility for myself.”
I felt cornered, and I didn’t know what to say. Rachel wasn’t just my little sister, she was my best friend, and it had been like that ever since we were little. Everything I have done was to keep her safe and ensure that she had a future. The idea of her getting a job kind of scared me because that meant that soon she wouldn’t need me anymore. Then again, wasn’t that the point?
I let out a great sigh of defeat, letting my arms fall to my sides and hang there. Rachel knew I was broken and the faintest smile crept across her lips. “I’ve put a lot of thought into this, Gabe. I know what I’m doing.”
I only nodded in response.
“Oh c’mon Gabe, I promise it will be fun!”
“How is job hunting supposed to be fun?” I asked sarcastically.
“You’ll see, but we will have to leave soon,” Rachel insisted, glancing over at the clock.
“You say that like you already have something in mind.”
She gave me a weird smile. “Yup! I don’t suppose you’ve heard about the new show in town, I think it was called-” Rachel paused, trying to recollect the name. “Wait, that’s it!” she shrieked with delight. She reached past me to the pile of mail still sitting next to her cake and grabbed the flier off the top. “This is it!” she held the flier up to me.
“The Black Candy Circus?” I read the title aloud in a questioning tone.
The advertisement was very unique compared to the others I had seen. Dancing across the paper were black representations of all sorts of exotic animals that you would expect to see in a circus. The paper was treated with a special gloss that made them seem to be moving. I read aloud: “Welcome to the experience of a lifetime. We warn you that our show is not for the faint of heart. Premiere showing October 30th. We-”
“At the bottom, Gabriel!” she cut me off
mid-sentence. “Read the bottom”
I started again. “Employment opportunities: stunt devil, animal tamer, veterinarian assistant, ringmaster assistant.” The list went on a bit more, but I had read everything she wanted me to. “You want to work at the circus?” I asked with a raised eyebrow.
“I just want to check it out,” she stated defensively. “The premiere showing is tonight. We should go.”
“I don’t know, Rachel. Don’t circuses only stay in town for a week? What could you do in a week?”
”It says right here,” smirked Rachel, pointing to another line on the advertisement that read ‘three month run.’ “That is exactly what I wanted. It’s almost as if it was made for me.”
Getting frustrated with my hesitation, she grabbed the pamphlet form my hand. “Come on, Gabe! It’s a circus, not a blood drive, and besides you did say you wanted to have fun!”
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up at her mention of the blood drive. Why did she have to bring that up? I had been terrified of needles my whole life and she knew it. What can I say? They just freak me out.
“Please Gabriel? It is my birthday,” Rachel frowned, taking advantage of my hesitation.
Of course she had to play that card. I crossed my arms and sighed. “Fine, I’ll go with you to check it out.”
A huge grin crept across her face and Rachel started to jump with joy. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” Once she finished thanking me like a maniac she gave me a big hug, which made me feel a little better about my decision. Huh, three hugs in five minutes; this was a record. She practically skipped out of the room, calling from over her shoulder, “I am going to get ready now for my first job interview.”
“Wait,” I quipped. “What about the cake?” I called after her, but she didn’t stop. What had I gotten myself into?
Oh well, I guessed cake would have to wait until we get back. Sighing deeply, I took in a breath and blew out the candles.
Off the Deep End in Candy land
“Geez, Rachel, do you think you could have taken any longer in the shower?” Gabe growled teasingly.
“I wanted to look my best and I wasn’t in there that long,” I retorted. Despite his pessimism, I knew he was excited; he had never been to a circus before and neither had I. To be honest, I was a little worried we weren’t going to make it in time.
After about fifteen minutes of Gabe’s infuriatingly slow driving we were almost there. The map on the back of the pamphlet said it was at the high school’s old football field. How hard could it be to find a football field in the middle of nowhere? Regardless, we still had a little trouble finding the place. It was about 6:15, which meant we had a little less than fifteen minutes ‘til the show started. We decided to watch the show, then find the Manager after, and have talk with him or her afterwards.
“Hey, there it is!” Gabe stated, gesturing to our left with his chin.
The circus was huge; I couldn’t believe we hadn’t seen it before. The tent itself was a dark purple with black embroidery and it nearly filled up the school’s entire football field. The closer we got to it, the more intimidating it got, as its size started to really sink in. I was also surprised by how busy it was; there were cars everywhere. “Wow, these people sure know how to advertise,” I marveled.
“You’re not kidding,” Gabe agreed, showing genuine enthusiasm.
After about five minutes of circling the parking lot trying to find a spot, we finally parked. The line to get in was surprisingly short; apparently, everyone else was already inside and we were late. The lady at the ticket booth gave a large, but empty smile. “Hello, and welcome to the Black Candy Circus!” she chirped in a strangely flat tone. She wore a purple dress and a black bow which tied back her shoulder-length dark almost, black hair. Not sure why but the way she stood behind the counter reminded me of a caged song bird.
“Hi, how much for two adults?” Gabe asked.
“As tonight is our premier showing. All admission is free.”
Wow, that surprised me. Apparently Gabriel too, as we both gave each other a confused look. “Well, I guess this is our lucky day,” I joked. “Another birthday present for me.”
Gabriel gave me a look to say ‘seriously?’
The lady spoke again, monotone like before, which caught us by surprise and felt somewhat creepy. “Tonight is our premier show and our premiers are quite special.”
“Oh, ok,” I acknowledged. “Thank you. Wonder what she means by special,” I added to Gabriel under my breath. We both giggled and the lady handed us our tickets. “Thanks,” I smiled. She responded in kind though with the same empty smile from before. We took our tickets and proceeded to the tent. “Well, that was weird,” I added.
Gabe nodded in agreement. “Goodness gracious, weird isn’t the word for it.”
With the tent looming over us, you couldn’t help but be intimidated. It was like some huge monster glaring down at you; the entrance even resembled a gaping maw. It was still light out despite the time. However, this made it difficult to see what was past the tent flap, as it was so dark inside.
I paused a moment to take a quick breath. Then, with Gabe at my side, we crossed the threshold. A deep sense of distance seemed to set itself between us and the world outside. I didn’t quite understand it, but it just felt removed. Gabe and I stopped for a moment to let our eyes adjust to the dark, and stared in surprise. The tent seemed even larger from the inside. Maybe it was just a trick of the eyes?
Tall jet black and purple wooden bleachers wrapped around the tent, all surrounding a center stage about fifteen yards in diameter. The bleachers were completely packed with people talking and eating, waiting for the show to start. As we entered I noticed on our right stood a tall, solemn-looking man. He stood behind the counter selling candy and popcorn. The tent itself must have been soundproof because as loud as it was on the inside, I would have sworn it was empty from where we’d been standing on the outside.
Another thing I noticed was the lighting was very eerie. The only source of illumination was a single spotlight shining down directly on the center stage. This light reflected against the sides of the tent in a way that made it seem like the fabric was moving.
I looked at Gabe and shrugged my shoulders. “Well, here we go.” We had to find our seats before the show began. Scanning the bleachers I managed to pick out two that were empty and we sat down just as the music began to play. The show had started.
A whole orchestra of violins rang out to break the chatter of the crowd. It was absolutely enchanting. Gabe and I, along with the rest of the crowd, grew quiet with wonder. Looking about, I tried to find the source of the music, but I couldn’t see anything. “Maybe they’re using speakers,” I thought to myself.
Suddenly a faint mist began to fill the stage, and it spun about itself as though it were alive, slowly creeping inwards towards center stage. Once it reached the center spotlight, the mist rose up from the ground, building up upon itself until it encompassed the entire stage.
“Welcome to the experience of a lifetime,” thundered a deep female voice that sounded more like growling than speaking. “Beware, for you are about to enter a world without rules or comprehension.” The crowd fell silent, and the mist rose into a tall column in the center of the stage. “My name is Candy, and I will be your hostess for this evening.” The mist vanished, leaving on stage a human figure that I presumed was Candy.
She was young, maybe in her thirties, with long black hair and a sickly white face. She wore a black dress coat with purple trim and embroidery. Atop her head sat a black top hat with a purple bow encircling it. Despite the distance she stood from us, a twisted smile could be made out just under the shadowed brim of her top hat.
“And now, let the show begin!” She removed her hat and gestured toward the curtains at the far end of the tent. The music changed to that of a waltz. The curtain parted and from behind it emerged two polar bears on their hind legs, dancing. “Holy cow!” I screeched.
The audience applauded while Gabe and I sat dumbstruck. It couldn’t be. I know way too much about animals to believe that polar bears could be taught to waltz. It really looked like two people dancing together, though. Maybe they were actors in costumes. No, they were way too big, they had to be real.
As they rounded the area and approached closer to the center stage, Candy gave a twirl of her dress and vanished in a puff of mist. Then from behind the curtain came a man dancing with another polar bear. He had white hair and wore a plaid shirt and red overalls much like a farmer would wear. His face was emotionless as they twirled around each other. How could any of this be real?
The dance continued on until the man and his polar bear came to the center of the stage, directly under the spotlight. The music changed back again to the violins, and all four stopped dancing and faced the crowd.
Over the loudspeaker came Candy’s ghostly voice again. “Please, give a great big hand to my brother Jagger, The Beast Tamer!” The crowd cheered and clapped as he took a bow. “He must be one heck of a trainer!” I stated aloud. Gabe nodded in agreement.
The music changed to a more traditional circus theme as the polar bears exited the stage, leaving the guy with the overalls still standing in the center stage. “And now, ladies and gents, please welcome The Beast Tamer’s two faithful partners, Lola and Kiki!” From the right side suddenly appeared two majestic-looking snow leopards. They came out on stage and took their places at their master’s side. The crowd went wild. Wow, what beautiful animals. They were supposed to be endangered. How loaded was this circus if it could afford two of them? I nudged Gabriel, but he was just as mesmerized as the rest of the crowd.
The music started up again and the snow leopards bounded from the podium. The instant their feet made contact with the floor, two large round orbs with jack-o’-lantern faces painted on their surfaces fell from the darkness above. Seriously, these things were huge, and when they made contact with the ground they bounced nearly ten feet up.
The two leopards chased them around like a cat with a ball, then, when the large objects came down for the second bounce, they leaped onto the tops, causing the spheres to lose their bounce. Now balancing atop the large orbs, the two cats maneuvered around the stage effortlessly and without falling off. They circled The Beast Tamer, one of them clockwise and the other counterclockwise. They continued their circular rotation until they looked as though they were about to collide, then they both leaped from their mounts and over each other to land safely on the other’s globe. They continued balancing around the arena until they finally retreated back to Jagger the Beast Tamer’s side. The crowd cheered as the music blared.
Jagger then stuck his hands behind his back and pulled from nowhere two flaming torches which he began to juggle. Now this was getting interesting. Both torches soared through the air. From out of nowhere appeared another, and then there were three torches being tossed, then four. I couldn’t tell where they came from, one second they weren’t there the next they were.
Now juggling no less than six torches, Jagger tossed a torch up to his left, and one of the snow leopards still balancing on the ball caught it expertly in her mouth. Then the other leopard on the right of Jagger did the same, catching hers. Once both cats had their torches they tossed them in unison back to their master, who caught them, continuing to juggle. They repeated this process multiple times, back and forth, back and forth. All the while Jagger continued to juggle and the cats maintained their balance on the large spheres.
Gabe and I were at the edge of our seats. The cats started to circle their master again while still passing the torches back and forth to him. Finally the music started to slow, as did Jagger’s juggling. As the music wound down the torches started to disappear as easily as they appeared. Five, then four, disappearing into thin air until there were only the original two torches left. Jagger slid them back where they came from behind his back and they too disappeared. Once the torches were gone the cats turned their balls around and made their way behind the curtain, leaving Jagger alone on stage. The crowd leapt to their feed in cheers, Gabe and me where no exception. This place was absolutely amazing, and every performance left us in a state of pure awe. Jagger stayed on center stage most of the night directing each performance, one barrage of exotic animals at a time. Up next was flying trapeze with a pair of full grown chimpanzees, followed by some impressive acrobatics performed by a group of three hyenas and a leopard.
Before we knew it, three hours had flown by when it was time for the final act. Jagger ushered the animals off the stage and was just stepping off himself when the music suddenly stopped.
“Holy-!” Gabe exclaimed and jumped out of his seat.
“Yeah, it was good!” I chimed, turning to Gabe. He was now standing on his seat looking down at the floor like a frightened cat with its hair on end.
“What’s wrong?” I yelled over the deafening noise of the crowd. I then felt something brush against my leg. I shrieked and jumped up on my seat as well. Below was a large black snake slithering under the seats. It had to be about ten feet long and nearly as thick as my arm. Gabe and I embraced each other as if we were somehow going to protect ourselves from this large monster. The snake slithered under our seats past us, heading toward the center stage. Spectators everywhere were jumping up on top of their seats just as we had done.
An electric guitar began to play strange notes as suddenly hundreds of snakes slithered onto the stage. They crawled on top of each other, making a huge slithering serpentine pile in the center. We were dumbstruck, a feeling that the rest of the audience seemed to share. Gabriel grabbed my hand as if to say ‘No, I am not alright with this.’ I patted him as a mother would do to a child and leaned over to whisper, “its ok, I think it is part of the show.” He still looked pretty freaked out, and it made me smile. Wow, my big brother was afraid of snakes!? I knew he was scared of needles and but this was just funny. Well, to me anyway.
Turning my attention back to the stage, the twisting pile of snakes began to stack up like a pillar about six feet tall then seemed to fuse together, forming into what looked like a human. It was Candy, the mysterious Ringmaster. As she rose up the snakes seemed to melt away from around her until nothing but the ringmaster remained. A second later there wasn’t a trace of the snakes left, there was only Candy.
She raised her arms in the air and spoke. “Are you ready for the finale, ladies and gentlemen?!” she uttered in the same low gravelly voice. The crowd hollered and cheered. She spread her hands out towards the audience in a beckoning motion as the audience became even crazier with noise. Gabe and I cheered along with them. The effects for this show were amazing. What could possible top what we had already seen?
Jagger The Beast Tamer left the stage. Mist began to appear again, only this time it was different. Instead of coming from outside the stage flowing to the center, it started from beneath Candy’s feet and crept towards the audience. A slow eerie music kept track and timed its every move. The mist made its way to the edge of the ring, spinning and circling, beginning to glow. The music quickened as the mist began to move and shift: it separated into mounds of smoke, then in unison hooded people emerged from the mounds dressed in long, flowing black robes that obscured any individuality. Their robes flowed as if made of smoke instead of cloth.
The music faded, then changed tempo and quickened to a lively but more sinister tune. Candy stomped the ground with her foot and fire erupted all around the area. Wooden sticks shot from under the ground and were suddenly caught by all those who were cloaked in black. They encircled Candy and flame erupted from the end of each stick as they began to juggle, twirling the flaming sticks around themselves and each other, timed perfectly to the music.
All the while, Candy, still in the center, began to dance. She moved sensuously, elegantly flirting with the sticks as they flew past her, weaving through them as though they were intently dodging around her every move. Almost hypnotized, Gabe and I could not help but stare intently as she moved. The cloaked beings and the torches seemed to respond to her every move in unison.
The music thundered toward a climax, and on the final note Candy returned to the center of the stage and stomped her foot down one last time. The music stopped and everything in the ring burst into flames, then just as quickly vanished in a plume of smoke, leaving Candy alone in the center. The whole place erupted in cheer. Gabe and l were no exception; we stood on our feet and clapped and yelled. This was definitely the place for me.
Candy took her bow, turning to every side. Jagger joined her on stage and also bowed to the crowd. “Thank you for coming,” they called in unison. “I hope you enjoyed the show.” As the crowd died down, Candy left the stage and only Jagger was left. He raised his voice again directed at the audience. “We have a show every night for the next three months,” he announced. “Each night you will experience a greater show than the one before.”
Candy returned to the center ring for an encore. The crowd cheered again as she removed her hat and bowed again. “Have a most enchanting night, ladies and gentlemen,” she sang, and with that, she vanished again in a plume of smoke.
“That was amazing!” I screamed over the crowd to Gabe.
Gabe enthusiastically nodded again in agreement. He bent down to my ear. “Ok, you win, this might actually be a good place for you to work. At the very least we might get to see the show whenever we wanted.” I smiled smugly and Gabe just rolled his eyes. “Alright let’s go and see if we can find the person in charge. You brought your résumé, right?” he asked
“Yup,” I nodded. We headed through the crowd toward the back of the tent.
“Hey,” he turned to face me, “can we stop first and get a caramel apple? I‘ve been wanting one since we arrived.”
“You and your apples,” I shook my head.
“Hey, can you blame me? It’s fall! You’re supposed to eat apples, and what better way than to encase them in caramel?” We stopped at the concession stand and Gabe bought two. “Here,” Gabe called, offering me one of his apples.
“No thanks,” I said as apologetically as I could. As much as I appreciated the thought, I wasn’t in the mood for junk food. The only thing on my mind was to find whoever was in charge of hiring. With a light shrug and not even a second glance, he bit into his apple, getting caramel on his chin and causing juice to drip down his face. “Gabe,” I groaned with a half-hearted chuckle, trying to hide my embarrassment. I know he didn’t do it on purpose but it was at times like this that I remembered just how much of a slob he could be. Maybe it’s just a guy thing. It’s funny ever since the fire eight years ago he’s been more closed off and more antisocial. Not like the happy puppy he used to be like. Still every now and again that messy puppy would show itself again so at the very least it wasn’t completely gone. Trying hard to ignore the mess all over his face, I eventually managed to lead him away from the food kiosk and back out to where we got our tickets. The same lady was still standing there behind the counter with the same empty smile. “Hey,” I chirped, “I was wondering who we talk to about a job here?”
The empty smile disappeared, apparently startled by my question “Um, you talk to the ringmaster, Miss Candy; she’s in charge of this circus as well as the hiring. I’d be happy to take you to her.”
It could have just been my imagination, but I could have sworn I detected an anxious note in her voice, almost desperate. She fluttered out the back of her little tent and led us around the back of the main tent. Along the back stood several much smaller tents which I assumed were for storage, or used for housing the cast or animals. The woman walked briskly and Gabe and I practically had to jog in order to keep up.
Once we made it around to the back of the main tent, we came to another large tent connected to the main one. “Wow, this place is huge,” I marveled. “What is in all these tents?”
“Uh-” she paused as to think of something to say. “It’s all for the show.”
She finally led us inside the second main tent where our jaws dropped: there were so many cages, maybe hundreds of them, and all of them were full of exotic animals, both large and small. I watched as two lions paced nervously, back and forth. One of the large polar bears I recognized from the show was lazing about in the corner of his cage. There were also hyenas, snakes, several large cats, and many different types of assorted birds. So many animals, I almost couldn’t move from awe. They were all so majestic. “How did you get so many of these animals?” I asked.
“Uh-” she paused again, although she didn’t stop walking. “Well,” she stammered. “Candy has collected them over the last couple of years.”
Gabe and I gave each other backwards looks. We both knew that to get this many exotic animals all in one circus was almost impossible. “There are so many back here, how come none of these animals made it into the premier?” I asked.
“Every animal has their own set of routines and eventually gets their time in the spotlight,” she stated, still walking. “Miss Candy likes to mix things up every show. What you witnessed tonight was a performance that will never be viewed again.” I nodded in understanding as we continued on at our brisk pace.
“Where are all the workers to take care of the animals?” Gabe asked as he gestured to the cages, sounding a bit confused. “With this many animals you would think there’d be a lot more staff running around back here.” Gabe finished off the first apple, core and all, then inserted it’s now bare stick into his jeans pocket before starting on the next one.
“We may be a bit short-handed despite our attempts to hire more staff. Candy is very picky and usually turns down most of the applicants. Candy has strict qualifications,” she added, putting extra emphasis on the final word.
“So then, how many people do work here?” I asked, now curious about the qualified.
“You will see,” the ticket lady muttered, her voice so low I had to strain my ears to catch it. I waited for her to explain but she made no attempt to amend herself, so I dropped the issue. To be honest, I was excited. Excited to have the opportunity to work with animals, that up until this moment, I had only really read about in books.
Seeing all these animals, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that I wanted to work here. I wanted it so bad I couldn’t even fathom what would happen if I didn’t get the job. Grabbing the necklace that mom had given me, I whispered a short prayer: “Oh God please let me get this job.” My heart quickened a little, which surprised me. I stopped and shook my head a little.
“Are you ok?” Gabe asked with a concerned look on his face.
“Yeah,” I said. “Just a little uneasy.”
“Uh, I don’t know,” I said as we kept walking. “Gabe,” I glanced over my shoulder. “What if they don’t want me? I really want this job; it’s perfect.”
“They would have to be crazy not to take you,” he reassured me with a shoulder nudge. “And besides, even if they don’t, you shouldn’t worry about things you have no control over.” As much as he clearly didn’t like the idea of me having a job, I was surprised to hear Gabe encouraging me. It was times like these he sounded more like my dad. Oh, how I missed my parents. I wonder what they would think of me and Gabe now. They always encouraged us to go for our dreams. Would they be proud of me? I sure hope so.
I nudged him back. “I know, I know. I just haven’t wanted anything this badly in a long time.”
“Then don’t worry about it. If they don’t take you, it wasn’t meant to be, and there will be something even better for you out there.
I gave him another playful nudge. “Thanks, Gabe. He turned, practically purring to himself, and give me his stupidest smile. His way of saying ‘you’re welcome’. He then wiped the excess apple juice off his face with his sleeve.
We continued to walk through the tent, which from the outside hadn’t looked so big but from the inside was never-ending.
“Hey Rachel, you know what I just thought of?”
“No, what?” I asked.
“How little you will get to see me if you’re working full time during winter break?”
“I’ll live,” I teased. “Though you, I’m not so sure about. Maybe you should get a girlfriend?”
His eyes rolled. “Don’t start that one again” he moaned sarcastically.
“Gabriel, you really should start dating; I’m getting sick of people mistaking us for a couple,” I complained.
“Well,” he said, “I actually think it’s kind of fun messing with you.”
I shoved him jokingly. “Sometimes I swear I can’t tell who the oldest is.”
“Ouch.” he clutched his chest acting like I shot him.
“Seriously, one of these days you are going to need to grow up.”
“You’re not my mom,” he hissed, rolling his eyes again.
The ticket lady kept to herself, seemingly oblivious, or just indifferent to our conversation. She led us past one final pair of cages before we rounded a final turn; Gabe was just finishing off the last caramel apple, when we saw the ringmaster in the distance down the corridor. She was still in the same outfit as before, only she wasn’t wearing her hat. She stood with her back to us, facing and talking with her brother, Jagger, and they seemed to be arguing about something. I could barely hear what they were talking about, but as we drew closer I heard her growl: “Listen, I don’t care if you forgot; if you steal my spotlight like that again. . . ”
“Miss Candy, these two people are here to see you about a job,” the ticket lady quickly interrupted.
Candy gave a threatening sideways glance back to see who had disturbed her. “Thank you, Miss Tiffany,” she grunted flatly, still glaring ravenously at her brother. “I’ll take it from here.”
Tiffany made a bow and flew back the way she came. Candy lumbered back to her brother. “We will finish this later,” she snarled. Jagger turned with a sheepish look on his face and left. Candy whipped herself back around to face us. Up close, her appearance shocked me a second time; this lady leading the Black Candy Circus didn’t look a day over sixteen, but earlier on stage she could have passed for late twenties. “Hello,” she greeted, offering her hand to me while acknowledging my brother with a smile. “My name is Candy.” She chuckled. “Of course, you already know that. What are yours?”
Gabe answered for me. “My name is Gabriel, and this is my sister Rachel.”
“It’s nice to meet you, your show was amazing!” I shook her hand cautiously but enthusiastically.
Candy seemed pleased with my flattery. “Yes, I know. I’m afraid you’ve caught me at a bad time, though; I understand you’re here for a job,” she asked, looking directly at Gabe.”
“Yes, actually, my sister Rachel is -oof!” Gabe started to say.
I elbowed him in the stomach before he could finish. “I can speak for myself, Gabe.” I pulled out my résumé and presented it to Candy. “I was hoping to apply for a job as a vet assistant; I am on winter break from school and I read that you are in town for three months and looking for a vet assistant?”
A rather wolfish grin crept across Candy’s face as she slowly grabbed the folder out of my hand. “Are you qualified for such a position?” Candy asked, perusing inside the folder hungrily.
“Yes, ma’am. I believe I am. I have three years of college under my belt as well as two summer internships at the city zoo. I also have a letter of recommendation from their Director of Animal care.”
Candy continued to read, not giving any sign of having heard me. “You have a very impressive track record for only three years of college,” she commented, then closed the folder and tucked it under her arm.
I started to respond but Candy put up her hand to cut me off. “When can you start?”
“Well-” I stammered and shot a look of shock to Gabe. He raised his shoulders as if to say ‘go for it!’ and I said, more like a question: “Tomorrow?””
Written in Blood
Wow, that was easy. Too easy. Looking to my sister, I saw a smile like I hadn’t seen since she was a little girl appeared on her face. Now don’t get me wrong, I was happy for her, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something a bit off about this young ringmaster. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but she seemed a little too eager to have Rachel after just talking to her for five minutes. Rachel looked happy, though, so I decided to ignore it for now and resigned myself to just wait and see. If she didn’t like the job she could always just quit, right?
“Come this way,” Candy called as she moved down the corridor back the way we came. “I have your contract in my trailer.” Now outside again, I noticed the skies had acquired quite the menacing overcast. Thunder could be heard faintly in the distance and clouds now blocked the light from the moon and stars. It had gotten so dark, in fact, that I barely noticed the parking lot as we passed it.
As Candy led us away from the old football field and the main tent, we started walking towards what looked like a really large trailer. As we drew near I could see Candy’s name on the door. The light above the entrance suddenly snapped to life as we approached it. “Come on in,” Candy beckoned, opening the door for us.
The interior was amazing. Just like the tents, it seemed larger on the inside than from the outside. Even more intriguing, the interior looked like it was from another era long past, from the golden mirror hanging on the far wall, to the hand-carved desk resting dead center at the far end of the room to the fancy silver figurines resting on its surface. Not to my taste, but then again I could survive with a futon and milk crates for furniture.
Rachel was the first to speak. “Wow, you have an amazing place.” She was obviously trying to suck up to Candy, but the ringmaster barely seem to notice or even care as she brushed past us and closed the door behind her.
Candy made her way around the large desk and from the top drawer produced a blank sheet of paper and a black, extravagant-looking quill pen. It had to be the oldest looking pen I had ever seen, all black with golden detailing all over it. She presented the paper and the quill to Rachel, who seemed confused.
“Please sign here,” Candy instructed, holding out the pen. As she did, lightning flashed outside the window.
“Uhm…” Rachel hesitated, but reached out for the quill and paper. She was about to take it from Candy when, out of nowhere, the ringmaster jabbed my sister’s index finger with the pen’s jagged tip, drawing blood. “Ow!” Rachel recoiled from the shock of suddenly getting her finger stabbed. “What was that for?” she screeched.
“Oh, you’ll see,” Candy chuckled enthusiastically. Before either of us could object, however, she took Rachel by the hand and delicately planted her injured finger on the bottom left corner of the blank sheet of paper.
The instant the blood made contact with the paper, it flew across the page as though it were alive. I watched dumbstruck as the blood danced around the page and began forming words. The once blank page now was filled with blood-soaked text. Entire paragraphs were written in seconds very plainly across its surface, and in my sister’s blood.
I threw my hands up and backed away from the desk. “I’ve had enough of this freak show!” I announced and grabbed Rachel by the arm. “We are out of here.” Rachel hesitated and pulled back. I glanced back, and seeing my sister’s transfixed reaction toward the blood-covered page, I hesitated as well.
Despite how freaked out we both were, somehow, in some sort of crazy sense of clarity, we read everything written on the page.
By signing, I Rachel Saint, do hereby
submit myself, my rights, and my
services in full subjugation to the
betterment and overall well-being of
the Black Candy Circus and its
mistress Candy. I am henceforth
recognized as a full member of staff
and will remain as such until released by
my new mistress Candy.
It was surprisingly short, but I didn’t even get past reading the first sentence. “What the heck… Is this supposed to be some kind of a joke?” I asked, a bit disturbed.
My sister looked up from her reading to the ringmaster. “I-I realize I need a job and your circus is really cool, but I think I’m going to need some time to think about this,” Rachel stammered nervously. She started to turn for the door when Candy started to giggle.
“I am terribly sorry, young lady, but you signed the contract; you now work and live here.”
The lady was clearly insane if she thought anyone would work here after that little display. No wonder she was short-staffed.
“She doesn’t have to work here if she doesn’t want to!” I snapped, taking Rachel by the hand and turning to leave with her. “Let’s go.” As soon as I turned I nearly jumped out of my skin as I came face to face again with ringleader, who stood between us and the exit. How the heck did she do that?
All around us, the sky roared and flashes of light silhouetted us in the dimly lit room. “Leaving in such a hurry?” Candy asked. “And here I was about to offer you a job too, Gab-ri-el.” The emphasis she put into the syllables of my name made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
Even though I towered over the young woman in my six foot frame, it somehow felt as though she had ‘me’ cornered. Rachel’s hand was trembling in mine as she squeezed harder. I pulled her behind me, placing myself between her and Candy. “Oh, and brave too!” Candy chuckled. “Yes, you’ll be perfect!” She reached for a whip tied to her belt.
Only just now realizing that we were going to have to fight our way out, I dropped Rachel’s hand and rushed towards Candy with my arms outstretched, intending to overpower her before she could try anything. Before I knew what happened, I felt myself soaring through the air as Candy easily tossed me aside like a rag doll. My shoulder collided with the glass of the window on the side wall and it shattered as I passed through it, then landed hard on the grass. Breathless and stunned, I simply lay there, belly up as it started to rain.
With a painful groan I rolled onto my hands and knees. Candy stepped out of the trailer, the whip from her belt now in her hand. The rain blurred my sight but from where I was now kneeling I lifted my head slightly. I could only make out the tail of her whip as it dragged behind her black leather high-heeled boots. She stopped only feet away from me. The sky boomed above me as though Candy’s very presence enraged it, tendrils of light snaking across the heavens.
Just as my vision was beginning to clear I saw a flash of movement as she flung the end of her whip into the air, then brought it down hard on my side, slicing a hole clean through my shirt. The whip resounded with a deafening “Crack!”
A surge of red-hot pain shot through me as I yelled and clutched at my side. Looking down, I expecting blood, but what I saw was far more disturbing. Covering my exposed skin through the tear in my shirt was a patch of thick, brown fur the same color as the hair on my head.
I gasped, then cried out again as the hair grew and spread down across my skin with a sensation so painful it felt as though I had been set on fire. Every new hair that grew felt like a needle stabbing its way through my skin. With unfamiliar strength, I tore my damp shirt open to reveal the fur spreading down my side and up my chest.
“Gabriel!” Rachel cried, as she followed Candy through the door just in time to witness the horror before her. Glancing up I saw her move in behind Candy, her hands at her mouth, frozen in shock and disbelief.
Scared and confused, I turned my gaze to the monster standing between me and my sister. “What did you do too -”
I was silenced when the whip collided with my chest again, sending me backwards. Rolling over onto my side and looking down again at the new hole in my shirt, I saw more fur growing across my chest but taking on a lighter shade than the rest. My ears were now ringing. “GABRIEL!” Rachel screamed my name.
The unrelenting pain pouring out from my wounds forced me to clutch my stomach. Whatever was happening was now spreading its way down my right arm and onto my hand: I felt a surge of pain follow it as I watched the brown coat reach my fingertips. My fingers as well as the rest of my appendages thickened; the bones in them seemed to break and pull inward while my nails grew into what looked like claws, which twisted forward to a point. Utter helplessness consumed me, though my screams were muted by the thunder and rain.
Wave after wave of searing agony coursed through every fiber of my being, each one more painful than the last. I buckled and stretched, subdued by my own spasms. The ringing in my ears grew louder, pain ripping through my head.
Another blow from her whip struck me in the face. “Please!” Rachel pleaded, tears streaming down her cheeks.
My head throbbed like a hammer and I heard a deafening crunch as the bones in my jaw and nose stretched and creaked, pushing themselves forward. A harsh burning sensation rippled across my face as the fur continued to grow, tearing my flesh with every hair that sprouted. When the beast-like coat finally reached the end of my nose it forked out down to my lips, coalescing into sharp points of thicker and longer hair, like whiskers.
The pain was so great, I should have passed out already from it, but whatever it was that forced my body to endure such mutilation seemed to hold my consciousness in place, chaining me to reality. Somehow despite the pain, I could still comprehend all that was happening around me. My body had become hypersensitive to all the sights and sounds buffeting me. It overwhelmed me. I didn’t understand how or why this was happening to me, and though I knew it to be impossible, Candy was actually changing into something and that something was definitely not human.
A hard, reverberating screech shook me to my core as my jaw began to ache. In front of my tongue I could feel it as my molars and incisors began to stretch and grow jagged until they filled the spaces in my mouth. Whatever I was becoming, it ate meat.
As if to confirm my suspicions, I felt my guts swim inside my thrashing body as my internal organs moved to different locations, abandoning both their original shape and function. I tried to roll back onto my chest but instead rolled onto all fours. I stood in one place, trying to regain my composure. The pain seemed to be subsiding. For the first time in what seemed to be an eternity I started to finally regain control of my faculties.
The whip struck me again, causing me to lose my balance as soon as I’d regained it. A sharp stab traveled down my back, It felt as though my spine was being literally stretched apart, making it even more difficult to attempt standing on two feet.
My ears slowly crawled to the top of my head all the while my spine continued to grow. My appropriately named tailbone had grown down my ever-tightening pant leg into a short, fuzzy stump of a tail.
In a matter of seconds I was almost double my original girth and still growing. My jeans were constricting my legs, so much that I could feel the beating of my own heart pounding in my ears. Fortunately the fabric, no longer able to take the strain, tore down the seams with a loud rip. my clothes fell to the ground.
As my shirt tore away, it revealed a multi-colored stripe pattern in the fur that now covered my entire body. Finally, like a light switch being turned off, the pain suddenly stopped and I collapsed to the ground, exhausted.
The world around me had grown quiet. The only sound I could hear was from my now massive lungs, which heaved, straining for every breath. Devoid of will power and energy, my body rested heavily on the cold, wet ground.
Laying there for what seemed like hours, I half-expected the pain to return or for Candy to lash at me with that accursed whip again, but neither happened. When the pain didn’t return, I let exhaustion take me and allowed my body to sink further into the mud, the wind and rain had subsided. Barely able to move, I forced myself to blink as my vision began to clear. Despite my disorientation, I tried to piece together what had just happened.
Although my ears were still ringing, I was able to make out a familiar faint whimpering coming from where I had last seen Rachel.
With the last bit of strength I had, I forced my eyes open and searched for my sister; she was huddled against the wall near the broken window, her head lowered, hands clasped together as if in prayer. She lifted her head, and our eyes met, tears in her eyes and hands shaking. She seemed to be in shock, though I suppose anyone would be.
I shook my head as my senses seemed to be strangely more alert; it surprised me but I was able to hear what she was saying under her breath, her voice echoing through the darkness. “Dear God, please let this be a dream! Dear God, please let this be a dream!” She continued on like that for a while, repeating her prayer over and over.
Candy, now finished with me, turned her attention to Rachel, glancing back only once to admire her work. Rachel slowly stood, facing Candy. I half expected her to leave me and run, but what she did instead surprised me.
Trembling with fear, but determined, Rachel dredged up all the strength she could muster and confronted Candy. “What did you do to him?” she demanded in a shaken but stern tone. Candy folded her arms as she approached Rachel feigning an almost amused look.
“Exactly what it looks like, dear. I just made your brother my latest attraction.” She stopped and glanced back in my direction. “What do you think?” Turning slightly, she unfolded one of her arms to display her work. I was still slumped on the ground, so exhausted I could barely lift my head.
She turned back to Rachel and lowered her voice. “You both belong to me now.” Candy reached out to grab Rachel by the wrist.
Almost instinctively, Rachel jerked her hand away. I know my sister didn’t look like it at only five feet tall, but she knew how to take care of herself. Without warning, Rachel brought her left foot forward and shifted her weight perfectly before delivering a right hook that would make some baseball players jealous. The punch made hard contact against Candy’s cheek and she staggered backward from the sheer force of the blow.
The ringmaster struggled to right herself, but I don’t think it was from the blow she had just received. The look on her face was that of utter shock and surprise as opposed to pain. The look on her face suggested that she had never imagined anyone would ever dare strike her.
“How did you do that?” Candy hissed.
Rachel didn’t understand the question and neither did I. She had hit Candy hard, harder than most guys could, but her punch hadn’t even left a mark. Rachel screamed at Candy, “Get away from me you monster. I’ll-” She paused to consider her words. “Or I’ll go to the police and expose you, and your circus!”
Candy’s intense glare went from my sister to the blood contract she still held in her hands back to Rachel. Her attention drew down to the small, silver cross around Rachel’s neck. Her expression changed from surprise to again threatening.
Rachel continued, though her words were being ignored. “Change him back, change him back now!” The ringmaster’s eyes tracked back up to my sister’s face. She paused as though she was trying to figure out how to get this defiant girl under her control. As a smile crept across her face she walked closer to Rachel, almost as if she was going to whisper in her ear.
“Your brother is my property now,” she announced softly, her voice harsh and husky. “However, I have left his memory intact. He still remembers who he is and all of his memories as a human. If you defy me or do anything other than what I tell you, I will make it as though he were never human. He will not remember anything from his past life, not his own name, not even you!”
Rachel met her glare. Then she glanced at me. With a sad and hopeless look on her face, Rachel lowered her fists and relaxed.
A triumphant smile crept across Candy’s face. “That’s better,” she chirped. “As long as I hold your brother’s life in my hands, you will do as I say.”
“What are you? What do you want from us?” Rachel asked pleadingly.
“What I am is of no consequence. What I want is obedience from both of you.” Candy paused as if waiting for her to respond, then went on. “I will allow your brother to keep his mind and allow you to keep your brother so long as you are obedient.” She paused again to compose herself, confidence now returning to her. “If you even try to tell anyone, I will know. If you defy me, I will make you regret it. It’s your choice,” she added. Candy’s words rang in my ears as darkness washed over my mind. After all that happened I could no longer keep awake. “Welcome to the Circus,” was the last thing I heard before my vision went black and unconsciousness took me.