“Geez, Rachel, do you think you could have taken any longer in the shower?” Gabe growled teasingly.
“It wasn't me that set the microwave on fire! Plus, 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 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. I wasn’t sure why but the way she stood behind the counter reminded me of a caged songbird.
“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. “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 behind a 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 knew 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 onstage and took their places at their master’s side. The crowd went wild. I stayed completely stunned. Snow leopards 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 four torches being tossed, then five. 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 feet in cheers, Gabe and I 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, "It’s 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. Ever since the fire eight years ago he'd 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 its 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’d 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 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 double that. “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 two years of college under my belt and I used to run my family’s farm. 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. “Where is your family now?” Candy asked without looking up.
“It’s just me and my brother now.” I choked out trying not to get emotional. “Our parents died in a fire almost eight years ago.” way to play the guilt trip card Rachel, I scolded myself.
“You don’t have any other family?” she asked
“No mam” I shook my head slightly.
Candy paused as if considering her words. “You seem a bit lacking in experience but you have a very impressive track record for only two 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?"