Pepper's Circus

It all happened in the course of a minute.

The doorbell.

The men.

The van.

There was only one way out, and Izzy didn't hesitate to take it.

What he experienced afterward it felt like someone had plunged a fist down his throat, grabbed a handful of organs, and pulled out his insides, and then launched him from a catapult.

The physical reality was essentially the same thing.

He was flying, though not in a graceful way. He was flying in an ass-over-teakettle kind of way, spinning and tumbling with such a remarkable lack of grace that Izzy could no longer tell which of his limbs was which. There was nausea, of course. And pain. A surprising amount of pain—to the point where the surprise was almost greater than the pain itself. There was color, too. So much color, and so, so much light. Even with his eyes shut.

These were the sensations Izzy experienced during the four minutes and seventeen seconds in which he technically did not exist.

The seconds that followed immediately afterward weren't much better. Izzy could still feel himself spinning, and he still couldn’t see anything but a blinding whirlpool of color. However, the sensation of being pinned face-first against a solid wall had been added to the mix. No matter how much he felt himself spin, the wall spun with him, crushing against his face and chest in exactly the same way.

His hands found a furry substance sprouting from a section of the wall. He grabbed on without hesitation, pressed his face into the surface to shield his eyes, and he waited for the spinning to stop.

Hours seemed to pass until finally, finally, Izzy felt his movement gradually begin to slow. As his nausea diminished to a tolerable level, his capacity for rational thought began to return. He became aware of three important facts in rapid succession:

Firstly, he realized he was not actually pressed against a furry wall. He was lying prostrate on the ground with clumps of grass and sod clutched in a death grip.

Secondly, he noticed he was dripping wet—probably with sweat, though the taste in his mouth suggested blood might be involved as well.

And finally, without needing to look, he could tell that a crowd had gathered around him.

The voices were many and varied. Izzy tried to focus on one to discern what was being said, but every voice he followed was quickly lost in an endless sea of chatter. From the bits and snatches he could make out, nobody seemed very concerned for his wellbeing. Izzy took a deep breath, rolled onto his back, and opened his eyes.

Scattered exclamations arose from the crowd, followed by shushing. Izzy needed to know what was going on, but the surrounding brightness made it difficult to pry his lids apart for more than half a second. Still, the brief glimpses he caught confirmed that people loomed over him on all sides. It was about midday, which accounted for the brightness. Something luminous and round and orange appeared to be suspended above him, and he assumed it was the sun until it suddenly lowered within inches of face. It was a man, and the man had two flaming caverns where his eye sockets should be.

“You look like shit, friend,” said the man. Tiny embers flecked from his mouth as he spoke. His accent sounded vaguely British. Just vaguely. “What say we get you patched up, eh? Get ready, now. Couple guys are gonna hoist you up in a sec, so keep cool or they may drop you. You understand what I’m saying?”

Izzy held up a hand. “Wait,” he said. Slowly, tenderly, he pushed himself up on his elbows, then lifted into a kneeling position. “I’m fine. I can walk.”

Keeping his hands on the ground for support, Izzy planted one foot flat on the dirt, then the other, and quickly pushed himself upward—too quickly. He felt his stomach give a violent lurch and he crumpled back to his knees. He cursed under his breath, clutched the grass tightly in his hands, and wretched. The crowd erupted with applause.

“Damn,” the flame-faced man said. “You almost had it there. My money was on you, for the record.”

Izzy was in no shape to ask any follow-up questions. He was still throwing up, which was bad—but even more distressing, his vomit was wrong. It was dry and granular and there was far too much of it. When his diaphragm settled, he opened his eyes and saw a pile glitter beneath him. His throat burned and itched. He strained to catch his breath, but the fluttering bits of paper in his windpipe sent him coughing.

“Give 'im some water!” called a voice from the crowd.

“Good man, Boofus!” said another.

Someone thrust a ceramic mug shaped like a tiki head in Izzy’s face. He grabbed it, hands trembling, and drank. It eased the burning and the itchiness, if only just a little. Just enough. He wiped the excess water and glitter from his mouth with the back of his hand and looked around. His eyes had adjusted to the light now, and he could see the flame-faced man squatting in front of him.

“You should be proud of yourself, you know,” the stranger said, flashing Izzy a smile. “Look at you, sitting upright. Most folks need to be scraped off the dirt with a spatula. What’s your name, friend?”

Izzy attempted to clear his throat, then tried again, then gave up and choked out an “Iz—“ before sputtering into another coughing fit.

The man nodded, stood, and turned his fiery face to the crowd.

“Three cheers for Iz, everybody!” he called out, raising his hands with a flourish.

A surge of arms grabbed Izzy from all sides. Before he could protest, he was rapidly hoisted into the air by the crowd, dropping his tiki mug in the process. His stomach gave another lurch. Fresh confetti pushed up his throat.

“Hip-hip, hooray!” the crowd shrieked. “Hip-hip, hooray! Hip-hip, hooray!”

Each ‘hooray’ was punctuated by tossing Izzy several feet into the air, and each time Izzy heaved a shower of confetti onto the crowd. No one seemed to mind.

“Look at him go, folks!” said the vaguely British man. “Let’s keep on cheering until he empties the tank, shall we?”

“Fuck—!” was all Izzy could say before the crowd hurled him into the air again.

And so it continued, toss after toss, until Izzy was spitting up nothing but air and saliva. When the crowd finally set him back on his feet, two men had to stand on either side of him to hold him upright.

“Drink up, drink up,” said another stranger, shoving a pitcher of iced tea in Izzy’s hands. He gladly accepted.

“There now, starting to feel a bit better?” asked the flame-faced man.

The drink tempered the fire in Izzy’s throat, and cooled his face where it splashed from the pitcher. It was empty within a minute.

With his agony alleviated and his senses feeling clearer, Izzy surveyed the area. Very few trees; most of them were in the distance. There was some kind of wooden structure a few yards in front of him, but it was hard to tell for all the people in the way. The crowd was even larger than he'd originally thought: two hundred at least. Lots of suspenders and vintage dresses. Some odd hair colors as well. All ages, even a few children sitting on shoulders. Every pair of eyes was on him.

“Bunch of sadists,” Izzy said. “All of you.”

There were scattered chuckles from the mob.

“Excellent!” said the flame-faced man. He grinned and gave Izzy two thumbs up. His teeth and gums glowed slightly from within. “Much improved already, I see! Think you can walk on your own?”

Izzy briefly considered saying no. The men holding him up seemed fit enough to carry him without much fuss, but Izzy figured this was not a good time to appear weak.

“I’m fine,” Izzy said. Reluctantly, he shook off the men at his sides and took a few cautious steps forward. Another round of applause erupted from the spectators.

“Looks like we got ourselves a fighter!” the flame-faced man announced. “Atta boy, Iz! Right this way, then. We have a lot to talk about and precious little time to talk about it! Strike up the band, Boofus!”

A playful brass cacophony broke out somewhere nearby, and the crowd parted with surprising speed, shifting in an almost wavelike motion, creating a path between Izzy and the wooden structure he’d noticed earlier. His view unobstructed, Izzy was surprised to find that the structure happened to be a large sculpture of a dragon. It resembled the dragon costumes he’d seen in Chinese parades on TV, except it was ten feet tall and made of polished wood. It was also moving straight toward him.

Izzy grabbed the flame-faced man’s shoulder.

“What’s happening?” Izzy asked. “What is that thing? Who the fuck are you people?”

“Relax, Iz,” the man said gently. “He’s just the welcome wagon.”

The wooden dragon drew closer. Its eyes shifted left and right at a mechanical pace. The sound of squeaky wheels grew louder as it approached, though no wheels were immediately visible. Izzy stared at the contraption, somewhat entranced by the rhythmic motion of its eyes. He realized his hand was still on the man’s shoulder, but his legs hadn’t quite returned to full strength yet, so he decided his hand could stay there a little longer.

“Where am I?” Izzy asked.

The man’s fiery face scrunched up in a pitying smile.

“The fairgrounds at the edge of existence," he said, then added in a more hushed voice, "I hate being the one to break this to you, but you're a long way from home.”

The wooden dragon came to a stop in front of them. Its jaws opened wide, revealing a dark, musky interior. A series of loud CLACK sounds echoed from within and a hatch opened at the top of the dragon’s head, illuminating a ladder in its mouth. The flame-faced man hopped up into the dragon’s lower jaw.

“Right this way, Iz! Step on up!” he beckoned. “Into the belly of the beast!”

Izzy hesitated a moment. By all appearances, the dragon was simply an extravagant vehicle. Excessively intimidating for a ‘welcome wagon,’ perhaps, but a wagon nonetheless. On the other hand, Izzy didn’t see any internal mechanisms in the dragon’s head, and every few seconds he heard a low, airy noise coming from inside that sounded suspiciously like breathing. But the eyes of the crowd were on him. His moment of hesitation passed, and swallowing his reservations, he climbed inside the dragon’s mouth and followed the flame-faced man up the ladder.

The top of the dragon was mostly bare except for a bench cleverly hidden in the wooden mane sculpted around the dragon's face. The flame-faced man was waiting for him there, holding an open bottle of Guinness in one hand and a brand of whiskey Izzy didn't recognize in the other.

"Have a seat and sit in it," the man said. Izzy did, and even sitting two feet away he could still feel the heat coming off the man's head. "I'm Gourdi Lanternskull, and it is my honor to welcome you into our fold."

He offered Izzy a Guinness, and Izzy thanked him in turn. From their new vantage point, Izzy could see the crowd had mostly dispersed already. Several yards in front of them was a sprawling forest of pines, and behind, a cluster tents decked in candy cane stripes.

Gourdi downed a swig of whiskey, then grabbed his nose and blew a small eruption of flame from his eyeholes. A drop of sweat ran down Izzy's cheek as he contemplated whether the dragon may be flammable.

"Clears the sinuses!" Goudi said with a chuckle, then, suddenly looking dead serious, asked, "how much do you remember?"

Izzy stared into the depths of his beer. "I was at home. It was just a normal day. The doorbell rang, and when I looked through the peephole, I saw these men in white coats. There was a van parked out front, too—'Stanley's Cyber Providers'. That's how I knew for sure."

His hand reflexively went to his back pocket. It was empty, of course, since he'd already torn the ticket stub to get to the Circus of the Disquieting in the first place. Still, the lack of its presence felt wrong to him. Over the last few years it had become a talisman of sorts, a comforting reminder that he always had a way out, and now—

"You made the right call, kid," Gourdi told him. "You won't have to worry about jailers, hunters, or any other of them spooks any longer. You're one of us now."

Whether I like it or not, Izzy added mentally. That was the price to pay for using the ticket. Izzy knew it, and he knew Gourdi knew he knew it. The magic wouldn't work if you didn't. He couldn't get out of this simply by feigning ignorance.

"You won't find the way home in bottom of that bottle," said Gourdi. "Trust me, I've looked."

Izzy hadn't realized he'd been staring at his this whole time. "I'm that easy to read, huh?"

"Open book, I'm afraid. C'mon, let's get you into town."

Gourdi gave the bench a couple of raps with his knuckles and the dragon lurched back into motion, making a U-turn toward the sea of tents in the distance.

"Why are we all the way out here, anyway?" Izzy asked. "I wouldn't think you'd get many paying customers on the edge of reality."

"Edge of existence. There's a difference, mind you. As for the why, this is where we park ourselves during the off-season. All work and no play and all that."

The conversation gave way to a tense silence after that. Izzy didn't feel like making small talk, and every time Gourdi seemed like he was about to say something, he took another drink of whiskey instead, until finally he barked out a "Jesus!", threw his head over the back of the bench, and blew a small pillar of fire into the air. He coughed for a moment and straightened himself.

"All right," Goudi said, smoke still flowing from his lips. "We're almost to town, so I guess I'd better address the pink elephant in the room. We haven't had anyone like you in a long, long time. I'll be blunt, Iz—I'm against this. I mean, indentured labor? It's barbaric, it's ancient. But that ticket of yours, that's ancient, too, and we've tried breaking it in the past but Fuller and his fucking—"

"No, it's okay. This is what I was expecting. I signed on for this." Izzy bit his lip. "It's ten years, right?"

Gourdi nodded gravely. "If there was any way around it, it'd be more effort than Manny would be willing to put in. I'm afraid it looks like you're in for the long haul."

"I know, it's a crock of shit," the man said. "Absolute travesty. You just lost everything you ever knew, and we rope you into a dog and pony show before you've barely screwed your head back on straight."

Izzy glanced at the drink in his own hand and sipped it gingerly.

"Why are we all the way out here?" Izzy "

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