The circus was coming to town. Fliers had been tucked into mailboxes and slid under doors some time in the night, though no one had heard or seen anyone do it.
The carnival last fall had been the highlight of the small town. The flashing lights, tall striped tents and glittering sequins were mesmerizing. Men on stilts, candied apples, exotic animals, the smell of hot, buttered popcorn, magicians, clowns, music! The delighted shouts and laughter of young and old filled the air.
Everyone loved the circus. Anticipation rolled through the town like the clouds of dust that blew in from the dry fields.
The children raced outside at recess, their round faces pressed closely to the chain link fence surrounding the schoolyard. They jostled for the best view of the road, looking for the haze of dust that hailed the arrival of anyone coming to town. They would be here soon.
Within a few minutes, a strange melody could be heard, clinking and metallic. The timing was off, as if the song were playing at half-speed.
“Their stereo is broken!“ someone in the back of the gang shrilled loudly. Laughter broke out in the bunch, followed by more pushing and shoving for space at the fence.
The first truck came into view, the windshield nearly obscured with dirt and grime. The children waved and hollered as it passed, expecting the honk of a horn and a smile at least (last year the driver in the lead truck had tossed hard candies wrapped in colorful cellophane!) but this driver looked straight ahead, mouth set firm in a grim line.
“What’s his deal?” squawked a voice from the back of the group. A chorus of nervous giggles from the children.
The next truck rolled by, creaking in time to the plodding beat of the too-slow music. A faded wooden sign hung from the side, “CIRCUS” painted in peeling block letters. It was crooked.
There were two people; a man with his cap pulled low, and a pale woman. His eyes never left the road, but the dark haired woman stared intently at the children. She smiled without warmth, and blew a kiss. Her teeth were sharply white against her red lips.
“Who does she think she is?” screeched the voice from the rear of the crowd. A few children snickered uneasily, and the crowd shifted a few steps back.
Trucks and trailers rumbled by, dusty grey. More sullen stares and unsettling smiles. The circus last year had trailers with open windows, so they could see the elephants and horses, but every shutter was closed. Some were nailed shut.
The sluggish music clanked and sputtered on.
A girl backed away from the fence, tears in her eyes. “I don’t think this is a normal circus. I don’t like this circus.”
The last pickup rolled slowly by, with a lone passenger in the back. A sad clown.
His thick makeup was crusty and dry, and his wrinkles showed through. The clown pointed past the children, his tired eyes dark and lonely.
The children turned, and the familiar scratchy voice in the back shrieked, “Finally, you see me!”
It was another clown, but his eyes weren’t sad. His eyes looked mean.