This short story is part of a larger collection, a series about a strange and sinister circus that drifted through small-town America in the 1940s-1950s.
“Four eyes! Hey—four eyes!”
“Hey, we’re talking to you, loser!”
Irma Groden didn’t turn around, she just kept walking with her eyes on the cracked pavement. The hem of her red-checkered dress was too short; it fluttered upward with every step.
“Hey, Gross-en!” One of the boys from her class caught up to her on his bike, blocking her path. Irma tried to go around him but he refused to let her pass, knocking her shins with his front tire.
“Where do you think you’re going?” A second boy, this one on foot, came up behind her.
“I’m walking home.” Irma said tonelessly. Her eyes, obscured by thick, coke-bottle glasses, were still on the ground.
“I’m walking home,” Alex, the boy on the bike, mocked her. Again, Irma tried to go around him, but Jordan, the second boy, shoved her from behind. Irma tripped over Alex’s bike tire and landed clumsily, sprawled out on the pavement.
She got up quickly, palms stinging. Pushing up hard from the sidewalk, she began to run, ginger braids trailing backward like streamers. She felt blood trickling down her knee as her scuffed Mary Janes clicked wildly down Stine Street. She heard Alex’s bike beside her before she saw it.
“Where you running, Gross-en?” Alex teased. His pale hand came through the air like a perverse bird, catching Irma squarely on the side of the head. He shoved with all his might and Irma thought her neck was breaking. She reeled sideways and landed on the grass, tears blurring her vision. Two dark, watery figures loomed over her.
“P-please,” Irma said. “I didn’t do anything! My-my neck really hurts.”
“My neck really hurts.” Alex said, lip curling. Irma tried to sit up but Jordan held her down with his shoe.
“Why don’t you and your stinky kraut mother go back where you belong?” He asked, grinding his foot down on her chest.
“You’re hurting me!” Irma gasped, trying to wrestle his foot away. The boys laughed and began pelting her with stones from their pockets. One hit her left brow and she felt the skin break; hot blood poured into her eye and splattered the lens of her glasses.
“Please, please…” She repeated, arms held up weakly against the blows.
“CAR!” Jordan cried suddenly, and the boys abandoned their assault as abruptly as they had begun it. Irma lie in the grass, hoping that whoever was driving by would see her and stop to help. No one did.
Eventually she sat up and looked down at herself, surveying the damage. Her checkered dress was dirt-smeared and torn. Her right knee was still bleeding, rivulets of blood snaking down her calf and soaking her sock. One hair ribbon had been lost, leaving one braid wavy and half unraveled. Her glasses weren’t broken, thankfully, and after furiously wiping at her eye with the corner of her dress, she saw there was no permanent harm done.
Irma resumed walking home, quickly leaving Stine street and making her way to Coffey—a quiet street with much less foot-traffic. She walked briskly, arms swinging, hoping to arrive home without further incident. Cutter’s Woods lay just outside of town, and most of the houses on Coffey Street had unruly forest claiming the area just behind their back fences. The street itself was shady, with knotted, sturdy oaks lining either side of the lane. It was a peaceful place to walk, and Irma took advantage of the time to herself to think about what she was going to tell her mother.
As she approached the empty lot between the Harrisons and the VanDammes, she saw a flash of movement out in the trees. Irma paused, glancing around to make sure she was alone. She took a few steps toward the empty lot, trying to distinguish what had moved among the tree line. For a moment she saw nothing, but then she heard a faint rustling in the brush. The branches parted, and Irma was staring into the wisely glinting eyes of some creature.
It took a step out into the grass, long, fingerlike toes grasping the blades. Its whiskery mouth was crinkled up, eyes squinting, as if to say, Why hello! I didn’t see you there!
It was a monkey, covered in thick black hair and standing at least four feet tall. Irma stood, frozen in surprise. She’d never even seen a monkey at the zoo, let alone in her sleepy little town of Racega.
The monkey surveyed her for a moment, its gaze incredibly human. It then turned nonchalantly and walked back into the woods. Irma could scarcely contain herself. She took off running, down Coffey and over two blocks to her house on Chaney Street. She burst through her front door, running down the hall toward the little sewing room off the front of the house, where she knew her mother would be.
Greta Groden was a widow, a beautiful but stern woman who worked as a seamstress for a living, sewing delicate beadwork and careful stitches into much richer women’s clothing. Irma could imagine her mother now: fair-haired head bent low, gleaming grey eyes searching for any flaw in the fabric.
“Mama! Mama!” Irma threw open the sewing room door, eyes glittering with excitement behind her dirty glasses. “I just saw—“
“Himmel! Irma!” Her mother said sharply, abruptly abandoning the dress she was sewing. “What happened to you?”
“Oh, well…Nothing, Mama…” Irma bowed her head, futilely trying to straighten her dress. “I fell on the playground.”
Greta eyed her daughter suspiciously but said nothing, instead kneeling down to touch Irma’s sticky brow; the wound was already dry and closing up.
“Well. Let’s get you cleaned up and you can tell me about your day, ja?”
“Ja, gut, Mama.” Irma smiled and let Greta lead her by the hand to the bathroom. Sitting on the counter with her skinny legs dangling, Irma prattled on about school while her mother examined her knee.
“—and Mr. Fox taught us all about snails and mollusks—“
“Ja, and he told us what looks like the oyster’s tongue is actually his foot!” Suddenly, Irma’s eyes widened. “Mama! I can’t believe I forgot! I saw a monkey today!”
“A monkey? Did Mr. Fox show your class a film today too?”
“No, Mama, I saw it on my way home from school!”
“Oh, little vogel!” Greta laughed, carefully placing a bandage on Irma’s knee. “You have such a beautiful imagination. Now let’s take a look at your eye.”
“But I did see it, Mama! On Coffey Street, right where Mr. Mercer’s house used to be.”
“I see.” Great dabbed at Irma’s eyebrow with a damp cloth. “And what kind of monkey was this? A gorilla? An orangutan?”
“I don’t know.” Irma answered, wincing at her mother’s touch. “How do I know what kind it is?”
“Well, vogel, they all look different. Gorillas are very big and black. Orangutans are brown, I think, with very orange hair on them.”
“Mine was black, but not too big,” Irma said thoughtfully.
“Hmm.” Greta swabbed alcohol over the cut. “Maybe Mr. Fox has a book that can tell you what kind of monkey yours is.”
Irma threw her arms around her mother enthusiastically. “That’s a great idea, Mama!”
Greta smiled and began cleaning Irma’s glasses on her shirt. “All done,” she said, placing them back on her face.
“Have you ever seen a monkey?”
“Once, when I first started university in Germany.” Greta lifted Irma off the counter, eyes far away. “When I first started seeing your father, he took me to the zoo. Back then I wanted to be a nurse.”
“Why didn’t you, Mama?”
“The war broke out before I could finish school. My family was lucky enough to escape to America. Many people we knew were not as lucky.”
“So many questions!” Greta chuckled. “How about we go eat dinner, and I’ll tell you about when I was a little girl in Stuttgart, alright?”
Irma nodded eagerly, following her mother down the hall and forgetting all about the monkey in the meantime.
* * *
The next day at recess, Irma played by herself. She’d staked out a spot on the jungle gym, high up and away from the other children. She wondered what it would be like to be a monkey, living at the tops of trees, far away from dusty playgrounds and boys with sneering mouths. No one picked on monkeys, Irma decided. Probably.
Irma flipped upside down and hung by her knees, glasses sliding dangerously low on her nose. Through the orangey wisps of hair hanging in her face, she saw the monkey watching her.
He was across the playground, crouched in a little thicket of trees by the tetherball poles. His long arms were down at his sides, his wide, flat nostrils pointed upward, as if he smelled her on the wind.
Irma sat up hurriedly, feeling a strange jolt when she locked eyes with the creature. He seemed to beckon to her. She slowly made her way down the jungle gym, never taking her gaze off him. She was halfway across the playground when the monkey reached over and put his hand inside the knot of a tree. The monkey clacked his teeth together and turned and ran across the road.
“Hey!” Irma cried, breaking out into a run. She reached the little group of trees too late. She couldn’t even see the monkey anymore. Irma ran from tree to tree, looking for the one the monkey had touched. On tip-toe, she stretched and reached inside the knot of a particularly gnarled elm. She stared at her palm in confusion when it came back full of peanuts.
* * *
After classes that day, Irma hung around her cubby until the other student trickled out. Apprehensively she made her way to Mr. Fox’s desk. Pale and thin, with her pointed face and round, protruding ears, Irma looked like a frightened mouse.
She cleared her throat, peering at Mr. Fox over his brass nameplate.
“Irma!” He said smiling, looking up from a stack of papers. “What can I do for you?”
“I—“She faltered, losing focus until Mr. Fox nodded encouragingly. “I was wondering if you could tell me about monkeys.”
“Monkeys? Certainly!” Mr. Fox bustled out from behind the desk, rotund belly leading his way across the room. “Monkeys are known as primates, Irma, and out of all the different animal species in the whole world, monkeys are the most closely related to humans.”
“Related?” Irma’s mind latched onto the word hopefully. “Like a father? Or a sister?”
Mr. Fox chuckled, kneeling in front of a stubby bookcase. The shelves were crammed full of colorful volumes. “Not exactly. More like…a cousin. A cousin you don’t see very much of.”
Irma smiled uneasily, sensing more than understanding the joke.
“Did you know that primates are extremely intelligent animals?” He asked her, running his thick fingers down the rainbow of spines.
“I didn’t know.” Irma said.
“Aha! Here we are.” Mr. Fox held out a wide, heavy book. The cover was red with a picture of the Earth; the pages looked thick and glossy.
“There are a lot of pictures,” Mr. Fox told her. Irma saw that his eyes were green, like the tiny stripes in his tie. “It will tell you all about the different types of primates. I know you’ll take very good care of it.”
“Thank you, Mr. Fox.” Irma said breathlessly. She took the book with a rush of excitement.
“You’re welcome, Irma,” Mr. Fox said, beaming down at her. “You’re one of my brightest students. Don’t let anything discourage you from learning!” He gestured animatedly, returning to his desk.
“Have a good night, Mr. Fox!” Irma cried, already running out the door.
“Uhm hmm.” Mr. Fox said, leaning back in his chair. Turning to glance at the clock, he slid open his desk drawer and retrieved his pipe. Fifteen more essays on summer vacation to grade.
* * *
At home, on her bed, Irma flipped through the pages of the book. There were more kinds of monkeys than she imagined—tiny squawking macaques and mischievous-faced capuchins. Irma learned that her monkey was a chimpanzee, which typically lives in Central Africa and can grow to be five feet, six inches tall. She had devoured nearly the entire chapter on chimpanzees when her mother called her to dinner.
“What did you do at school today, vogel?” Greta asked as Irma scooted in across from her. Underneath the brassy glow of the kitchen light, Irma thought her mother looked tired.
“Well I did what you said. I talked to Mr. Fox, and he gave me an entire book about monkeys! My monkey is a chimpanzee. Some people call it a ‘chimp.’ “
“Is that right?” Greta said, pouring a glass of water for each of them from the flowered pitcher.
“Did you know that there was this chimpanzee, Congo, who could paint? There was also a chimp on the Ed Sullivan show—Zippy I think his name is—and he can roller-skate and dance! And—“Irma took a breath, sliding her glasses back up on her nose. “They also have monkeys in the circus! They do tricks and everything. I think Nero is a circus monkey.”
“Nero?” Greta said, making a face.
“That’s my monkey’s name.” Irma explained, swirling her spoon around in her soup.
“Why did you name him Nero?”
Greta raised her eyebrows. “Someone else named him Nero?”
“That’s just his name, Mama.” Irma’s eyebrows knitted together like a chord. Her stomach felt funny with her mother’s eyes trained on her.
“How do you know that’s his name?”
Irma shrugged. “I just know. He knows me too. He left me peanuts.”
“In the tree at school. That’s why I think he’s a circus monkey, because of the peanuts.”
“Alright, Irma. That’s enough now.” Greta smiled, but her eyes were tight.
“Listen, I know it can be fun to make up tall tales, Irma.” Greta reached across the table and touched Irma’s arm. She saw that the veins in her mother’s pale hand were paper thin, like lilac spider webs.
“Are you listening, vogel?”
“Gut. Just save the stories for when you are a big writer someday, ja?” Greta smiled brightly, tousling her daughter’s unruly hair. Irma sank down in her seat.
“But what if,” Irma proposed slowly, looking down at her plate. “What if a monkey really did—“
Greta’s face hardened. “That will be enough, Irma.” Her pale eyes flashed.
They ate the rest of their dinner in silence. Afterward, Greta listened to the radio while she sewed pearls on a wedding gown. Irma went up to her room and sat at her desk facing the window. She stared at her math homework for a while, doodling epic scenes of stick-figure battle in the margins.
She felt his fixed black eyes before she saw them, looking at her curiously from the hedge across the street. Irma sat up quickly in her chair, leaning over her desk to see him better. She pulled up hard on the warped window; it seemed to have swelled shut.
“Nero!” Irma stuck her head out the window. The black eyes had retreated into the bushes. “Nero!”
She waited for a moment, scanning the shadowy lawns along the street. Nero didn’t reappear. Disappointed, she flopped back down in her seat. Irma rapped her pencil against the edge of the desk. What is that monkey doing? A little while later, she heard a rustling from the yard. She clambered up onto her desk, pushing the window farther open and looking down toward the porch.
“Nero?” More scuffling, followed by a muffled thud. Irma scrambled off the desk and ran to the stairs, taking each step as lightly as she could. At the bottom of the stairs, she peeked around the corner of the sewing room. The gown was draped across a chair, unfinished. Her mother was nowhere to be seen. Irma tiptoed toward the kitchen, paying attention to every sound.
“Are you in here?” Irma stepped onto the faded linoleum and flipped on the light. She looked around curiously; the pristine kitchen was empty.
The window by the pie safe was wide open, but she was quite alone. Unsettled, she turned to leave the room. As she turned off the switch, she heard a sound from the sewing room. Her heart leapt into her throat and she took off in the direction of the noise.
“IRMA!” Her mother’s angry voice was coming from the sewing room. Irma came to a stop outside the entrance, eyes wide.
Mud was smeared across the eggshell colored walls and ground into the Oriental rug. Her mother’s back was to her, bent over a ruined bundle. A young Greta and her sisters watched crookedly from a cock-eyed portrait by the window. All of a sudden Greta pivoted, hair flying as she turned on Irma.
“What have you done?!” Greta waved the soiled wedding gown in Irma’s face, mouth twisted into a snarl.
“But, Mother!” Irma was horrified, rooted to the spot as she stared up into her mother’s face. “I would never—I couldn’t! I didn’t! Nero—“
“Enough! I have had enough of this Nero business and your lying! How am I ever supposed to get this clean?”
Irma’s bottom lip quivered. “You have to believe me. I was in my room!”
“And this just all happened by itself, did it?” Greta put her hands on her hips, forehead flushed scarlet. “I think you need to go to your room until you figure out that little girls in my household don’t make up stories.”
“Jetzt, Irma! Now!” Greta turned her back on her daughter. Helpless, Irma trudged back to her room. From her desk she could see Nero, bathed in street light, clacking his teeth. Angry, she leaned out the window.
“You get out of here! You got me into trouble!” Irma hissed, raising her voice as much as she dared. Nero stamped his gnarled feet, wheezing. He was laughing at her.
“I said go!” Irma snapped, seizing the plastic cup that held her pencils. She chucked it out the window toward the street lamp, but Nero moved away easily, wheezing down the street and out of sight. Irma shut and locked the window before climbing into bed.
“Stupid affe…” She mumbled, pulling the covers up to her chin. She hoped in the morning that things would be better.
* * *
But things were not better for Irma in the morning. Her mother barely acknowledged her at breakfast and, after repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) trying to get her to speak, Irma was late for school.
Nothing was more humiliating than walking into class late. Irma hesitated outside the closed door for a moment, peering in at her classmates, swaddled in fall sweaters and hunched over their desks. She took a big breath and walked in, ignoring the dozens of eyes on her.
“Welcome, Irma!” Mr. Fox boomed. His weathered face was friendly. “Go on and have a seat! We’re on page 103 in our blue books.”
Irma shuffled, head down, to her desk. She could feel Alex and Jordan staring at her.
“Ew, look! It’s Gross-en.”
“I can smell her from here!”
She ignored the boys and slid in behind her desk. Lifting open the top, she absentmindedly stuck her hand in and rummaged for her blue history book. She felt something odd, grit rubbing off on her fingertips. Irma jerked back her hand and stealthily cast a look around the room. No one was watching her; none of her classmates were snickering. Was this a practical joke? Gingerly she lifted the lid again, peeking into the darkness. Rolling around in the back was a handful of unshelled peanuts. Irma slammed her desk shut, startling the surrounding students.
“Irma? Is everything alright?” Mr. Fox turned to look at her from the map at the front of the room. Sheepishly she nodded, cheeks burning. As soon as he began lecturing again, she peeked at the peanuts. Maybe this was Nero’s way of apologizing for the mess.
When the bell rang for recess, Irma was the first one out of her seat. She ran across the playground, out toward the thicket of trees where Nero had first left the peanuts. The monkey was nowhere in sight, but the faint smell of straw and unwashed fur told her that he was most likely there, watching.
“Thank you for the peanuts!” Irma told the trees. “I know you’re very sorry! My mother thinks I’m lying about you.”
Irma turned in a circle, scanning the undergrowth but seeing nothing. “Please, I know you’re there!”
Irma had already begun to walk away when she heard Nero approach. She spun around, watching him step out beside a twisted oak. She took a step forward, mouth hanging open.
“You are real.”
Nero’s lips rolled up comically, offering a tooth-clacking smile. Here I am!
Irma took another step forward, hand outstretched. Nero’s wrinkled face reminded her of a peach pit, one rheumy brown eye was clouded over. He watched her closely.
“Thank you again for the peanuts. Are we friends?” Irma dropped her hand, not brave enough to cross the space between them. The monkey folded his lips down over his teeth and clapped his knotted hands. “I don’t have any friends here, just my mother and she’s mad at me.”
Nero cocked his head and seemed to look through her. A beetle crawled through the scraggly black fur on his chest.
“I wish Mama knew you were real. Maybe she wouldn’t be so angry.” Irma sighed, reaching over to pick off the bug. Nero’s eyes shone.
“Hey! Maybe you could come over later—just so she could see!” Irma said. “But don’t you mess anything up! I’m still sore about last night.”
The monkey wouldn’t meet her gaze, seeming almost ashamed.
“Aw, don’t be sad. We can tell Mama everything! So you’ll come see us?” Irma asked. The monkey stared flatly into her face and clacked his teeth again. After a moment he turned away, lifting one long slender arm to scratch his head.
“Are you going? Bye! I’ll see you later!” Irma watched as he waddled into the trees. She made her way back across the playground.
“Who were you talking to, Gross-en?” Jordan stepped out from behind the slide, lip curling meanly.
“Nobody,” Irma replied, walking passed him toward the school.
“Oh, yeah? I don’t think you were talking to nobody.” He followed her, giving her a little shove. “I think you were talking to somebody.”
Irma ignored him and kept walking to the classroom.
“Hey!” He shoved her harder and she stumbled. “I’m talking to you!”
“I know you are.” Irma kept her eyes forward and tried to pull open the back door to the classroom. Jordan slapped the palm of his hand against the door with a loud thwack.
“Then you better not fucking ignore me.” Jordan lowered his voice. For the first time, Irma narrowed her eyes and looked straight at him.
“Let me go.”
“And why should I?” Jordan laughed. Irma really didn’t understand why everyone liked him. He was pushy and loud, and his front teeth looked rotten.
“Either you let me go, or I scream for Mr. Fox and tell him you’re being mean to me.”
“No you won’t.” Jordan flicked her forehead.
“Just you watch me, schwien.” She growled. Irma threw her head back. “MR. FOX! MR. FOX!”
The creaky classroom door was thrown open and Mr. Fox’s round, sweaty face emerged.
“Irma! Jordan! My goodness, what’s going on?” He looked back and forth between them, searching for signs of injury.
“Jordan won’t leave me alone, sir. And he keeps using ugly language.” Irma said softly, looking up with what she hoped was a sweet expression. Instantly, Mr. Fox had Jordan by the ear, squirming in protest as he pulled him into the room.
“What did I tell you, Mr. Hughes? That’s right, if I hear one more profanity from you, my boy—“
Irma closed the door behind her, a self-satisfied smirk on her face.
* * *
Irma raced home after school, making a game out of leaping over the sidewalk cracks. As she approached her front walk, she noticed that the front door was open.
“Mama?” She called, poking her head in. She looked around; the foyer was empty. “Mama?”
The house seemed just the same as it had been that morning. Her mother’s favorite china coffee cup perched on the kitchen sill, half-drunk. The radio on the counter warbled softly, something Classical.
“Hello!” Irma walked through the kitchen and out into the hall. The sound of her soles on the hardwood was deafening. She paused outside the door to the sewing room. Everything was as it was the night before; the smears of dirt on the walls seemed even uglier in the garish daylight. The ruined wedding gown was like a sulking pet, crumpled into a bundle on the settee. Her mother was nowhere to be found.
Irma went up upstairs, figuring that she would find Greta napping in her bedroom. But her mother’s bed was made, the faded blue coverlet folded over neatly. Greta’s glasses, which she normally wore when stitching, sat primly on the edge of the nightstand.
“Mother? Where are you?” Irma walked through her mother’s room and opened the bathroom door. The light in the tiny bathroom was dim, the only bulb mounted over the vanity mirror. Again, Irma saw nothing out of the ordinary. Nonplussed, she reached up to pull the chain dangling beneath the light. It was then she noticed a dime-sized drop of blood, glaring at her wetly from beside the sink. On the countertop near the drop were three long, rough black hairs. Irma’s heart began to pound.
“Mother!!!” She shrieked, panicking. She ran from the room and back out into the hall, screaming over and over again. The house was empty, her frantic footsteps echoing throughout. She burst out the back door and across the dry, broken lawn. She sobbed, collapsing to her knees.
“Where are you?”
She felt someone standing next to her. The feet beside her in the grass were Nero’s, his toes narrow and knotted. Irma looked up quickly.
“Where is my mother? Do you know where she is?” Irma demanded, furiously wiping away tears. Nero smiled.
“What did you do!? Where is she? I know you’ve seen her, I know you have!” Irma cried pitifully, beating tiny fists against the monkey’s barrel chest. Nero clacked his teeth in warning.
Irma stood up, brushing the grass from her legs. “Take me to her. Take me to my mother.”
Again Nero rolled his lips back, cocking his head first to one side and then the other. I don’t know what you’re talking about, he seemed to say. Irma shook the hair from her face and turned away.
“Don’t you give me that. This is your fault somehow.” Irma walked back toward the house, trying to decide what she should do. She paused in the doorway and turned back to look at Nero. “You just—just stay out here and think about what you’ve done!”
Irma slammed the door and marched up to her room, throwing herself across the bed. She felt like crying. What would she do for dinner? Who would wash her clothes and braid her hair? Who would tuck her in at night? She lay there, drowning under the weight of the worry.
She awoke a while later and the room was dark. In her anxious stupor she must have drifted off to sleep. She stared up into the blackness of her ceiling, waiting for her eyes to adjust. Irma yawned and rolled over on her side. She could barely make out the dark shape of her dresser across the room. Another shape caught her eye, black and irregular beside a small bookcase. For a moment she felt afraid, trying to imagine what normally stood in that spot when the lights were on. The shape moved and she knew it was him, eyes glistening in the small sliver of light falling through the curtain.
“What are you doing?” Irma breathed, sitting up. Nero shuffled forward, staring at her. His frame seemed massive, borders blurred by the surrounding darkness. He made a small sound in his throat. Suddenly his hand shot forward, closing around the fabric of Irma’s shirt.
Irma screamed and scrambled backward. Nero shrieked, too, backing up and knocking into something heavy. Irma heard glass shatter and saw the monkey’s fleeing shadow down the hall. She leapt up and turned on the light. A vase of flowers her mother had given her was shattered in a puddle of water by the rug.
Irma padded down the stairs to the back door, which she promptly locked. She headed toward the kitchen to do the same to the front. The kitchen light was still on, and Irma saw that the table was set. One green placemat was at the end of the table, one of her mother’s favorite dishes placed on top. The plate was filled with unshelled peanuts and a browning banana. Irma stood before the table, unsure of what to feel.
After a moment she sat down and ate the banana in silence. In the morning, she decided, she would tell Mr. Fox everything.
* * *
The next morning, Irma put on her last clean dress. After clumsily trying to braid her own hair, she gave up and left it hanging loose around her face. She grabbed the book Mr. Fox had lent her and left the house without breakfast. She wanted to get to school as soon as she could. She felt that Mr. Fox would most certainly require some convincing.
The morning was foggy, lending a particularly eerie look to the forest. Irma was unnerved at the surrounding silence; not a single bird was out welcoming the dawn. She looked around but saw no sign of Nero. Still, she felt as if she was being watched.
When she reached the end of Coffey Street, she heard it: bicycle wheels on damp pavement. As she began to turn the corner, she found Alex and Jordan in her path.
“Hey, Gross-en.” Jordan said, almost conversationally. “I’m so glad we caught you.”
The boys began to circle her predatorily. The worn Jack of Diamonds wedged in Alex’s tire flapped deafeningly.
“You know, Mr. Fox stopped by to talk to my father yesterday.” Jordan stopped his bike and began to dismount. “Can you imagine why?”
Behind him, Alex climbed off his bike. Both boys seized her by either arm, Mr. Fox’s book flying from her grasp. They began to pull her through the mist, toward the tree-line and into Cutter’s Woods.
“Krauts are cowards and snitches,” Alex told her. “My old man says so.”
“So does ‘Ol Frankie Roosevelt.” Jordan agreed. Irma couldn’t see the street anymore as they dragged her further into the trees.
“But–I–I was born here!” Irma sputtered. The boys just snickered.
“We’re going to show you what Americans do to Krauts.” Alex said, suddenly shoving her. Irma fell hard on her knees, palms shooting out to catch her fall. Jordan’s foot caught her square in the back, knocking the wind out of her.
“I got my baseball glove taken away because of you!” Jordan yelled, kicking her again. She tried to scramble away, slipping on the dewy grass. The toe of Jordan’s sneaker caught her in the ribs and she fell again, wincing in pain. She braced herself for another blow when she heard Alex start to scream. The hair on the back of her neck stood up.
Irma turned and craned her neck to see behind her, still frantically trying to stand and run. She saw a flash of movement and a sudden spurt of blood covered the lenses of her glasses. She heard Jordan gasp for breath and the sound of running. Irma screamed and ran blindly, furiously wiping at her glasses with her fingertips. She tripped over a protruding tree root and found herself sprawled on the ground again, the sounds of wet lips and crunching bones still too close behind her.
She struggled to get up, but her Mary Jane was wedged firmly beneath the root. Tears streamed down her face as she frantically wiped at her glasses with the hem of her skirt. When she managed to shove them back on her face, the world around her had fallen quiet. Alex was nowhere to be seen. Jordan lay on his back, several yards from her, his left foot sporadically twitching. His face was turned away from her, but she could see blood pooling around his head. Standing next to him, mouth dripping, was Nero.
Irma tried to scream but her breath was caught in her throat. Nero raised one gnarled hand to wipe his mouth. He took a step toward her, and Irma sobbed. She closed her eyes, not wanting to see the end when it came.
A moment later, she felt the tree root lift. Surprised, she opened her eyes and saw Nero gingerly pulling her foot free. He looked at her, his gaze unwavering. He lightly laid his hand on her leg, in what she felt was a reassuring gesture.
Irma found her voice. “You–you won’t hurt me?”
Nero shook his head.
“You saved me.” Irma tried not to look at the blood collecting on his whiskered chin. “Th-thank you.”
Nero patted her and Irma wiped her blotchy face with her sleeve. She felt numb. Jordan sputtered suddenly, startling her. He took a rattling breath and the woods were silent again. Nero stood from his crouch and walked a few steps into the mist.
“Where are you going?” Irma asked, scampering up. Nero gestured for her to follow, offering his hand. She hesitated for a moment before enveloping his wrinkled fingers with her own. She followed him even further into the woods.
They walked for a long time. Irma felt as if they were moving through a dream. She could barely see through the dense droplets of fog, and the hushed sounds of their movement seemed to echo. Suddenly the tree-line broke and they found themselves at the edge of a clearing. A huge circus tent sat in the middle, crimson flags with some sort of black markings fluttered in a wind Irma couldn’t feel. Faint music came from within, a song she vaguely recognized. Suddenly, Irma was cold with fear. She stopped.
Nero turned to look at her questioningly. He tugged her hand, urging her on, but Irma was rooted to the spot. Nero released her before turning back to cross the clearing. When he opened the tent flap, she could clearly hear the music—it was “The Crave” by Jelly Roll Morton. Her mother had the record and used to play it on nights she missed Irma’s father, but she hadn’t heard the tune since they’d moved to Racega. Irma felt a lump rise in her throat.
The flap opened again, and this time a man emerged. He wore a tall top hat, silky and black. His frock coat was a rich burgundy with shiny buttons, and his thin trousers were striped with the same fine color. His black hair curled softly from underneath the hat, and his thick mustache partially obscured a kind mouth. He slowly crossed the clearing toward her, and he seemed to bring the music with him.
“Are you my father?” Irma heard herself ask as he came to tower before her.
He stooped to look her in the face. He smiled warmly, but it didn’t seem to reach his eyes. They were silver and shiny as a new dime, even paler than her mother’s.
“No, Irma. I am not your father. But all of my family here come to think of of me that way. My name is Alphonse Rictus, and this is my circus.”
“How–how do you know my name?”
“Nero told me. He also told me that he thought you might like to join my circus.” He smiled again, touching the brim of his hat.
“Well, I–” The music drifted around her like a breeze. “I’m sorry, I can’t. My mother–“
“If Nero brought you to me, my dear, that certainly means that you have no one. But you are always welcome here.” Alphonse straightened to his full height. The fog seemed to close in on them. Irma swayed on the spot, unsure.
“But…But I’m not good at anything, Mr. Rictus.” Irma said finally. “What could I do here at your circus?”
“Every person has a purpose, my dear,” Alphonse placed a gloved hand on her shoulder. “And every person is capable of both wonderful and terrible things.”
He extended his other hand to her, as Nero had. His fingers were unnaturally long and cold to the touch, even beneath the fabric of his gloves. Irma saw that they were intricately stitched, the work finer than anything she had seen her mother do.
“Do you really think I can do wonderful things?” She asked timidly, accepting his hand. Irma suddenly found herself across the clearing, the immense silken tent looming above them.
“I know you can, Irma.” He smiled again. The tent flap closed behind them.
* * *
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