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Every year, a circus would come to town with a different act. One year, its theme was named “Human Monsters”, and its showcases were exactly what were broadcasted. People came from far and wide to marvel at these “freaks of nature” and “mutant miracles”, throwing peanuts and buying snippets of the bearded lady’s glorious mane. Parents took their families to see the show, ensuring their children that open gaping was expected and encouraged. “Look at that man with three arms!” mothers and fathers yelled with glee. “Look at that hideous girl over there, she has two heads! Why aren’t you looking? Look, Johnny! Look, Mary! Look at how gruesome they are! Isn’t it just absolutely repulsive?”
One early Sunday, young Tiffanie Mathew had gone to this circus with her mother. At the show, Mrs. Mathew dragged her offspring around the ring to look at all the attractions, pointing excitedly at the most unsightly but taking care to keep Tiffanie far from the bars, lest one of the beasts became aggressive, since “you never know what those freaks could be thinking”. Tiffanie was very interested, but not at the deformities; instead, she and the other children studied each exhibit’s living conditions and relayed their findings to the adults:
“Mommy, that cage is so small.”
“Father, nobody has cleaned the floor of that pen in weeks.”
“Auntie, there isn’t enough water for that man. Look, he is so thirsty.”
But cameras crushed compassion, and the little voices were drowned out by furious clicking of shutters desperately trying to catch the werewolf man scratching his elbow or the mermaid girl twirling her hair. Of course, the acts in the show were used to this sort of treatment. The shock of injustice had already gradually worn out into a numb indifference for most, as all of them had lived with the circus for many years.
In the case of the mermaid girl, once her parents saw their child developing scales on her toes at about age eight, “For Sale” advertisements were tacked onto every lemon tree in town (and there were many, as it only made sense for a place of sour people to grow trees of sour fruit). The mother and father of the girl were quick to accept the largest bid on their Elyssa, which came out to be a grand total of $62 from a well-dressed man who seemed like quite the charmer, but had a tendency to hastily change the subject when questioned about the source of his funds. The mermaid girl’s mother and father were not bothered, and nearly bursting with anticipation, exclaimed, “We can finally buy that model train set we wanted!” After watching Elyssa being led away by the well-dressed man, the parents bought themselves the train set for Christmas with the sixty-two dollars they traded for their child. The mother and father spent a record three weeks arranging and rearranging the pieces before they finally got bored, beginning to wonder what little Elyssa was doing and getting slightly jealous because the adventures that she was going on with the well-dressed man were probably more fun than that stupid train set anyway.
When the bearded woman, Gertha, was only six, her grandfather noticed the unnatural amounts of hair sprouting from his granddaughter’s face. He immediately wrote one of his friends who had a cousin who had a nephew whose sister-in-law worked for a boss, who just happened to be looking for a bearded girl, and with that, Gertha was stuffed into a crate with some packing peanuts and sent on her way to some place in Malaysia or Indonesia; nobody remembers anyway. Her grandfather was then due to receive forty dollars; he was already drooling with eagerness at the thought of all the peppermint sticks he could buy with the money. When it arrived in the mail, he jammed two dollars of it into his piggy bank, placing the remaining thirty-eight delicately in his pocket before hastily hobbling down to the corner general store. Loading up on sugar and bonbons, Gertha’s grandfather made eleven trips to bring back the pounds of candy to his little house two blocks away. Candy was one of the only things he’d preserved a liking for; throughout his years, he’d lost interest in a great variety of things that he had once loved, including baked mushrooms, gardening, and Gertha. But that didn’t matter, especially when he was in possession of enough candy to feed a small African village for a month. When the sweets occupied his entire living room, he began to eat. Chocolates and gumdrops and lollipops filled his small frame. His sagging skin began to inflate over his bones, becoming elastic under the stretching. But he did not stop eating. It was not until he resembled a medium-sized hippopotamus that he stopped and noticed an increased lightness in his feet. “It must be because this delicious candy is making me so happy!” he cried, delighted, and shoveled more into his wide mouth of yellowed gums.
The buoyancy grew exponentially, and a few minutes later, he was already bumping along around the ceiling, elevated off the floor like a balloon of ear-hair and liver spots. Now weightless, Gertha’s grandpa had no control of direction; he could not even propel himself using his arms, as they had shrunk down into his sides. He had been greatly enjoying this, still consuming sweets by the handful as he rolled around the ceiling elated. His old, baggy skin seemed to know no limits, so he grew larger and larger, plumper and plumper, until the pressure he exerted on the ceiling was too much for the little house at the end of the street. The roof ruptured like a long-dormant volcano and Gertha’s grandfather rose into the sky like a great, balding blimp. Upon realizing his predicament, he wailed, “My candy!” and sobbed until he was no longer within the Earth’s thermosphere. And that was the end of that.
But all of that was years ago. In the here and now, the circus attractions face greater problems than bored guardians or bloated grandparents, as all the injustices that Tiffanie and the other children pointed out were all true. In addition to poorer than poor living conditions, the attractions had to face their visitors, who were inverted monsters themselves. The crowd was growing as the hours ticked towards noon, the people becoming increasingly unruly. The calm and polite outer film of the adults had melted away to reveal twisted realities that were projected in the form of rocks and jeers at the cages. Those whose skins had completely dissolved now took after vaguely human-shaped creations of ugly, molten steel, who even then continued to hiss indiscernibly at the attractions. The crowd was made up of these creations and others who still retained some of their normal skins. As a whole, the adults resembled an inchoate mass of wingless flies held together by an invisible force within the circus ring, crawling on top of each other to feast their eyes on the cheerfully painted circus cages that had always mocked the great, violent melancholy of the surrounding reality.
Tiffanie, then seven, was alarmed at the cruel behavior of those whom children such as herself were supposed to look up to, tugged at the hem of her parent’s skirt. Initially, her mother paid no attention; all focus was directed towards aiming the throwing stones she bought from a vendor outside at the werewolf man. In a pitiable attempt to protect himself from the fourteen people tossing rocks through the bars of his prison, he had gathered a pathetically small amount of hay into a six-inch tall nest in the back corner, behind which he curled up to minimalize the amount of injury that could be sustained. Tiffanie’s mother’s aim grew exponentially worse as her skin started to disintegrate as it had on the other adults to reveal vile pitch underneath. More importantly to the mother, it lowered the probability of succeeding at maiming the werewolf man, though she still continued to ignore her daughter’s increasingly desperate pleas. But as her skin began to dissolve away to expose the darkness that was her truth, the skirt that Tiffanie was tugging on began to slide off, and so she was forced to address Tiffanie’s cries: “What do you want? Can’t you see that I’m busy? I want to hit him at least two more times, before everyone else does!”
“Mother, what are you doing? Can’t you see that he’s bleeding?”
“But nobody hit his left leg yet,” Ms. Mathew said, “I still have a chance! I know I can hit it, I know I can. Why can’t you let me do this?”
“Mother, don’t you see that he is crying? Right now, there is already an inch of water on the bottom of the cage, if you keep trying to hurt him, the ring is going to flood. How would you feel if people you didn’t know tried to hurt you for no reason but their own enjoyment?”
“I would feel absolutely terrible. But these beasts are just so hideous, they deserve everything they get for even daring to show their faces and bodies in public; there are children running about! It’s ridiculous as to how they could be so thoughtless and selfish; they are bad people and belong in those cages if anywhere at all, and what I’m doing is just.”
At those words, Ms. Mathew’s skin began to smoke, and without warning, she burst into flame for one second before crumbling into a smattering of dust mingling with the blood, sweat, and tears of those imprisoned by the circus. Tiffanie had already been swept away by the crowd when she stepped back to avoid the fiery inferno. Nearby adults who had noticed the momentary heat cast by Ms. Mathew’s incineration turned to smell the unbearably acrid smoke, a stench so foul that they began to bawl as Gertha’s inflated grandfather once did, hundreds of years ago. Adults near those who were wailing began to blubber and then sob also, until all of the adults were screeching and sniveling like teething infants. They were no longer charred, black masses, as new skin grew to cover old scars, but this skin was tighter and not healthy, but covered in burns and boils. This skin began to tighten even further, slowly shrinking the bodies until they had become the size of fetuses again.
The children who were present at the circus had all gathered near the edges of the ring, watching curiously with a sense of foresight. Shrieking cries came from the circus ring filled with screaming infants, ringing in the children’s heads, rebounding off their cerebral walls and providing first-hand experience with headaches.
Tiffanie, with a particularly severe migraine, was leaning against the ring wall when the sun extinguished itself. Three seconds of darkness later, the carnival jail cells were empty and the babies had vanished. The ring was piled high with dust.