Mr. Aramate's Wonderous Emporium of the Soul: Part Five
Peter was of course an eight year old, as I think we’ve mentioned before. At such an age there can be only one reaction when you are caught somewhere you aren't supposed to be - run.
Unfortunately, Mary was standing in his way and happened to be nine. Her mind wheeled with such consequences that Peter couldn't even imagine. In her extra year of life, she had been equipped with fresh perspective. Better to stay firm and beg with an apology. She didn't run, and as a result Peter barged right into her and the pair clattered to the floor.
The voice that had discovered them belonged to a small Cybunny, who couldn't be any older than six in his body. But his face, and his eyes, seemed far older. Impossibly older.
“Keep quiet!” the Cybunny said, with a voice that carried far more authority than a six year old’s. “If anyone hears you back here we’ll all be in more trouble than you can imagine.”
“You’re... Not going to shout at us?” Mary asked as she got back to her feet.
“Of course not,” the Cybunny said. “You’re just kids. You shouldn't be here though, your friend is right.”
“I'm not her friend,” Peter said sharply. “I'm her cousin.”
“It doesn’t matter what you are,” the Cybunny said. “You shouldn't be here. Go home, now. Stay away from this place - please!”
A noise behind the three of them startled the Cybunny and he grabbed them both, dragging them behind a stack of boxes. A Chia clown sidled past, collecting a fake flower before leaving.
“What was that about?” Peter asked when the Cybunny let go of them.
“Please! Just get out of here!” he replied, glancing over his shoulder.
“You’re not with the circus, are you?” Peter asked. “And you’re not from Halfcastle Forge, either. Who are you? Some kind of thief?”
“I am from Halfcastle Forge,” the Cybunny said. “I've just... Been out of town for a while.”
“A while?” Peter laughed. “You're younger than me!”
The Cybunny gave a sad smile at that.
“If only that were true,” he said. “I've been here... I lost count somewhere after fifty years.”
“You can't be!” she whispered. “... Charlie?”
It was the Cybunny’s turn to gasp.
“How do you know that name?” he asked.
“I know... I know your sister,” Mary said. “Annie?”
Peter laughed again.
“He can't be Annie’s sister,” he said. “She’s a hundred!”
“She wasn't Old Annie when I knew her,” Charlie said. “Has it really been that long? I thought she must be gone. I thought everyone must be gone, otherwise why would they let the circus back into town? Don't people remember what happened the last time?”
“There’s only Old Annie left from back then,” Mary said.
“Mary, you don’t honestly believe this kid, do you?” Peter asked.
“Look at him, Peter,” Mary said. “Look at his eyes. He’s Annie’s brother, and that means... That means this circus isn't just a circus.”
“It isn’t,” Charlie said. “And they are here to do the exact same thing they did ninety years ago - you have to get out, get away!”
“You can come with us!” Mary said. “I know where Annie lives - you can meet her again!”
“I can’t,” Charlie shuck his head. “If I leave the Big Top, they’ll know. And then there’ll be trouble. I have to stay, it’s too late for me. But you can still get out!”
“What’s going on over there?” a voice called.
One of the Grarrl strongmen had come back in from the ring and was heading over to their hiding place.
“Go!” Charlie whispered, pushing them back through the tent flap the way they had come. “Go! And never come back!”
He hastily closed the flap after them, barring the way.
“We have to help him,” Mary said to Peter when they were back at the stands. “He’s been here for decades, Peter. And... They are planning on stealing children again, he said it himself.”
Peter didn't fully believe Mary, but he had to admit there was something strange about that Cybunny. And what other reason would there be? And Mary... She didn't tend to be wrong about things. Not important things.
“We should go tell our parents,” he said.
“No,” Mary told him. “They wouldn't believe us - most of the adults are the ones who brought this circus back, they don't believe in it.”
“What even is it?” Peter said. “How can it be the same one? What are they, ghosts?”
“I don’t know,” Mary said. “Maybe Annie will. We have to do as he said, Peter - let's go. We’ll head over to Annie's and tell her about it. She’ll know what to do, I'm sure of it.”
She made to edge around the back of the scaffold, but Peter grabbed her arm.
“Wait, Mary,” he said. “We’re not the only children here. If that Charlie was telling the truth, they’ll be caught just like he was. We have to stop them.”
“How do we do that, Peter?” Mary asked. “We’re only two children - Annie will know what to do.”
“Annie struggles to stand up,” Peter said. “She's not going to be much help. No, we need to stop this - it’s magic, it has to be. Proper magic, like they have in the Haunted Woods, not card tricks. It must be some kind of spell.”
Mary nodded, thinking.
“Annie said that the children didn't disappear until after the show finished,” she said. “That means that the spell can't be cast until this is over.”
“Unless!” Peter gasped. “Unless the show is the spell! If we can stop it, we can stop the magic!”
“We could run into the ring!” Mary said. “They’d have to stop the show to get rid of us.”
Mary may have been nine, but that had robbed her of much of the imagination that Peter still possessed.
“No, they’d carry on after that,” he said. “We need something that will stop the show for good - ah! The roof!”
“We’re in a tent!” Peter said. “If we move one of the tent poles, it will collapse just like any other would. With no roof, they’ll have to stop the show!”
It sounded simple when you said it like that, but the supports for the Big Top’s canopy were as thick and tall as tree trunks. It would be a struggle for the pair of them to move them.
“The Ettaphant!” Mary said. “If we can startle it, it will run right into the tent’s main support - it’s sure to be heavy enough to move the thing!”
“We can confuse it,” Peter agreed. “There, we can use the fire breather’s batons!”
Peter ran off before Mary could either agree or disagree, so she was forced to follow. The fire breathing Meerca was at the edge of the ring, blowing the flames up into the air right in front of the stands. He held two flaming batons, one in each hand. Peter barrelled into him, sending both to the floor. Mary was there a moment later as gasps rang out from the crowd.
The pair of them scooped up the batons as the Meerca was busy recovering himself on the floor. Together, they ran towards the giant Ettaphant, which was busy standing on its hind legs and bouncing a beach ball on each of its two heads.
The carnival folk were moving to intercept Mary and Peter now. When she had been watching, Mary had thought they looked happy and excited - but now she was close she thought that their smiles were twisted somehow, into malice and hate. The Ettaphant came down hard and spotted the pair.
Peter took the left head and Mary the right, waving the flaming batons in front of the creature to spook it. It worked - in any normal Petpet, it would have stampeded away to a clear area. But the Ettaphant was a Petpet of two heads, each with just as much control over the body as the other. The resulting confusion between the two as each tried to get away from the child in front of it meant that the whole creature stumbled sideways, and right into the main pole that supported the canvas.
It moved only a few inches at first, but that was enough. The weight of the material was too much at an angle, and the column came down sideways - and on top of it, the tent. There were screams and shouts as the circus was smothered. Above it all came the Ettaphant's trumpets and somewhere nearby the voice of Mr. Aramate. It was devoid of its usual charm.
“Find zem!” he ordered. “Find zem!”
Gradually, people were struggling to the edge of the canvas to get back out into the night air, audience and performers alike. Hector and Esther were among the first ones out - Esther’s face was a picture of rage and embarassment.
“Where are they!?” she demanded. “This is intollerable! These good people have come to entertain us and those children have ruined the entire evening! We’ll never live this down!”
Aramate had emerged from the tent at the opposite end. He was busy barking orders at his workers, mostly about getting the tent back up so they could resume the performance, but it became increasingly clear that it wouldn't be possible.
Hector came over to him.
“Mr. Aramate,” he said.
“What!?” the Lutari rounded on him with fire in his eyes.
For a moment, the charming Lutari ringmaster was gone. In his place was a twisted creature with hollow, empty eyes and a horrible face. But then Aramate realised who he was talking to, and in a blink of Hector’s eyes the charming Lutari was back. Hector though perhaps he had imagined it.
“My dear ‘Ector, I apologise,” Aramate said. “If you give us a few hours, we can continue.”
“No need, my man,” Hector said. “Considering it was our fault, we’ll take the blame for this - but by the time you get set up again it will be well past midnight. If you consent, perhaps we can try again tomorrow? Your pay will be increased, of course. And the offenders will be banned from the repeat performance.”
“You are gratious, but if you give us time we can continue tonight,” Aramate maintained.
“No, no, I think tomorrow is the best idea,” Hector was firm on this.
He had no desire to be waiting around in a dark field, after all.
Peter had finally made it out of the tent, but he hadn't made it more than a foot before Esther Fastbelly had him by the ear.
“Got you!” the Elephante declared. “You're going to answer for what you’ve done.”
Mary got out from the tent not far away, and next to her she found Charlie crawling from under the canvas.
“Well, they know something’s wrong now,” she told the Cybunny. “You might as well run now, you have nothing to lose.”
She grabbed Charlie by the hand and ran.
To be continued…