Kago no naka no tori wa
Itsu itsu deyaru
Yoake no ban ni
Tsuru to kame ga subetta.
Ushiro no shoumen daare
Yume Kurosawa hummed an old Japanese children's game song to herself as she sat in the darkness of the Den of Freaks. Outside she could hear the crowds of people swarming and chatting as they ventured into the dozens of attractions and booths the Circus of The Disquieting had to offer. Far off towards the carnival grounds, there were screams of delighted terror coursing through the rides, and the occasional yell of triumph or disappointment by the game booths. Outwardly, Yume kept a stoic smile on her face, but inside, she felt a rush of dread; even though she couldn't see it, she could hear the Freewheeler, the Ringmaster's watchdogs, a few rooms down, its awful, squeaky metal wheels rolling over and over as its Rider's feet fumbled unevenly on old bike pedals.
The Den of Freaks was some twenty feet across from the Ringmaster's domain. Unlike the vivid scarlet and gold that adorned the Big Top, the Den was a tent of deep, poisonous purple and neon green. It was here where others such as herself were looked upon in awe and fear for their abnormalities. Yume had spent the majority of her seventeen years as part of the Circus in this very place; now twenty-three, it was the only life she was truly used to, and this tent was the only place where she was surrounded by a select few she considered friends. Life was hard for a Freak; Manny was kind to all of them, but the Ringmaster looked down on everyone in the Den as if its inhabitants were his personal playthings. No one dared to speak out though; that could be a one-way ticket to the Clowns.
Along the inner wall of the tarp, Kurosawa gazed at the posters depicting various human oddities; all of them had stretched grins on their faces, all of them looked lively, and, most of all, all of them looked happy. Kurosawa creased her eyes in bitterness and looked down at her feet, then continued humming her song. Her shift as a display was over, and now she had ten hours of solitude to brood…
Mommy, she looks gross!
Can we go now? I don't like these people…
Squeak, Squeak, Squeak
Yume snapped out of her two hour doze to the sound of distant retching, followed by a gasp of awe. It was a familiar sound she had grown accustomed to over the seventeen years; she and the person uttering it had been taken by the Circus within weeks of each other.
"Quincy's up…" she murmured. Even as she said these words, a breeze blew into her room from the main Den, and with it came three, dainty, winged creatures. Yellow swallowtails. The butterflies fluttered around Yume in synchronization, guided by their master's will. It was his standard gesture of camaraderie. Pursing her lips, Yume smiled a sad smile and held out a finger; the butterflies flew about it, then slowly flew away, back out the way they came from, back out into the Den. Yume knew better than to follow; it was against the rules for an unscheduled freak to enter the Den during a show. Still, she wished she could have seen Quincy's act; she almost envied her friend for the positive reception the crowds gave him. She immediately regretted thinking that.
"Stupid," she told herself. "It's all so stupid…"
The main room of the Den was some fifty feet long, with little lighting, except for the dozen or so pedestals that lined the edges of the interior; these pedestals shone and flashed in circular patterns, each one illuminating a Freak. There were five on exhibition at the moment. Four remained on their stands; the fifth was in the center, illuminated by circling spotlights.
He was a scrawny, pale man of thirty, clothed in a frilly suit colored neon pink, red, and green; a cheap plastic tiara hung lopsided on his unkempt blonde and dyed, purple hair. His mouth bulged and curved in an odd, filled shape, as if he was trying to swallow an unpleasant pill. Then, without warning, he retched. A torrent of vermilion, orange, and black spilled from his mouth, flooding the floor. For a moment, the mass he vomited lay inert. Then it started rising up. It started flying. The audience shouted with approval once more. Quincy Allicott, The Man With Butterflies in his Stomach, grimaced as he rubbed his stomach delicately, looking up at the orange cloud above him.
It wasn't his sick, it wasn't even liquid. The mass was a swarm of monarch butterflies.
Quincy raised his eyebrows. Haven't seen those in awhile, he thought to himself. That ought to earn me some recognition.
He walked off the main ring and returned to his pedestal, sitting down on his wooden stool.
A throne fit for a butterfly king. Someone toss me a real crown! Quincy smiled crookedly as he thought wryly to himself.
"Monarchs? You're stepping up your game, Quincy."
Quincy turned his head at the sound of a melancholy, airy voice.
The Fishman of Manasquan looked at Quincy from his adjacent tank/pedestal. He didn't have nearly as many people surrounding him as the most popular performer in the Den; having gills and being covered in fins and scales was interesting, but not as…exciting as having the ability to exhale butterflies.
"Thank you," Quincy said, leaning with his hands on his knees. "Act going along well?"
"It's been better," The Fishman said mournfully. "You know how they have me speak to different sea creatures in here? My fish haven't been exactly cooperative as of lately; they hate being in this place, and they all go belly-up sooner or later. The salmon just died in the middle of my act, and—" The Fishman broke off midsentence.
"Oy! Fish! What's going on?" Quincy spoke in a hushed bark.
"The—those damned Freewheelers, Quincy!" Fishman's voice suddenly rose in pitch. "They've been eating all my friends after every act!"
"They've been—" Quincy closed his mouth quickly and looked past the Fishman; a Freewheeler had poked its rag-doll head into the tent flap, and was now looking at the Fishman with its black, button eyes. Freewheelers had superb smell and hearing.
Quincy widened his eyes and gave the Fishman a minute lift of the head. The Fishman didn't need another warning; the anchovies and minnows in his tank had already told him of the potential danger; he dived back into his cylindrical tank and quickly put on a show of complex underwater acrobatics, which drew in enough cheers from the audience. The Freewheeler retreated back into the shadows.
Back inside the Freaks' lounge, Yume's flowery hair shook as the pink roses began shedding petals from her fear. She had heard the Freewheeler make its way to the Den entrance, chittering excitedly to its Rider; from the response, Yume guessed that the Freewheeler's bicycle was being driven by a toad. The croak sounded awful.
What went wrong? What went wrong? she wondered in terror. Something must have gone wrong.
Squeak, rattle, squeak, rattle
Oh, god, there's another one now.
Squeak, rattle, squeak, rattle
Forty feet away, hidden in the rafters of the Big Top, the tall, thin Ringmaster sat with his legs outstretched, his top hat tilted over his face, his maroon-red suit swaying gently. He grinned.
"Dear, dear, Fishman," he crooned as he watched and heard everything occurring in the Den of Freaks through the button eyes of a Freewheeler. "You must really learn to know when to hold your tongue."
Below him, the crowd cheered as the Clowns took a bow and walked offstage; the lights dimmed for the next act. A circle of a dozen elephants emerged from the tent flap and gathered into a conga line. The giant animals were all garbed in stars and stripes, and were trumpeting as a calliope continuously played its lighthearted, celestial tunes; with the swirling, color-changing spotlights, it almost looked as if the elephants were walking through space. The Ringmaster clapped his hands together.
"Such resentment towards me, Freaks? You hurt my feelings…" The Ringmaster moaned in mock offense. "Manny, Manny, Manny! Keep your pets more loyal, s'il te plait? Oh well, old friend, I'm afraid I have to take matters into my own hands… I apologize in advance…" The Ringmaster pressed his fingers together, cracking his knuckles.
"Now then, which Freak, which Freak? Which Freak to beat and meet? Where to go? Where to go? Freak Show if I know…"
AND NOW, THE FISHMAN OF MANASQUAN WILL RETURN TO HIS UNDERWATER HOME! WE THANK YOU FOR WATCHING THIS MARVELOUS SPECTACLE AT—HERMAN FULLER'S CIRCUS OF THE DISQUIETING! A male voice boomed throughout the entire of the Den of Freaks.
Fuller?! Yume let out an involuntary gasp. The remaining pink flowers growing from her head contracted and withered, their now dried petals fluttering to the ground. Yume felt her head growing a new arrangement. She picked one.
Yume heard a gasp of surprise from the audience, followed by an eerie, empty rippling of water.
Back inside the main Den, Quincy spat out a moth.
The Ringmaster hummed nonchalantly as he sat in his velvet chair, his feet propped up as he reclined back as three Freewheelers rolled up to him in his "office". It was more of a side tent than anything, smaller than the Freak Lounge, but comfortable nonetheless. A simple wooden desk sat in the middle of it; an ornate swing arm lamp illuminated the room. A portrait of Herman Fuller looked around the room from an easel off to the side, and a single photo frame lay face-down underneath it.
The lead monster's chest cavity bulged and squirmed with a human-sized lump. Ragged breaths could be heard from within. Fuller smiled and ignored the cries.
"Hello again, Freewheelers!" The Ringmaster sang over the muffled yells. "Brady, Bridget." He nodded towards the giant horned toad on a scarlet bike; the Ragdoll, as usual, was mounted in the place of the handlebars. The pig-tailed, patchwork torso tilted its head.
"Willard, Warren." A barn owl clicked its talons in greeting.
"Now, you know why we're here. You should know, I made you," Herman Fuller guffawed. "Once again, Manny's little pets have dared to raise a voice against me, and we all know that that simply won't do. Dish out the usual punishment, please; but keep him quiet while you're doing it. I don't want another disaster like the one with the Crane Woman!" As he spoke, the Ringmaster picked up a wooden plank and swung it into the lump within the Freewheeler. "Shut up, Freak! I could have you set on a hook right now with a Clown grub in your mouth! I'm not some bait you can just bite and expect to get away with it, you fishy bastard! Now, toodle-loo! Wheelers, do do your thing!" The Ringmaster shooed his watchdogs away.
The Freewheelers turned to leave their master's office. Then they suddenly stopped. Six pairs of eyes turned their heads back towards Herman Fuller.
"What are you doing?"
Fuller threw his hands into the air. He picked up his chair and turned it a hundred and eighty degrees. He pushed it up against his desk.
"I repeat, what are you doing?"
"My job as a leader, Manny." Utter contempt bubbled from the Ringmaster's as he glowered at the ground.
"Are you going to move your chair? Or will I have to do it for you?" A cold voice spoke softly from underneath The Ringmaster's worktable.
"Oh…go flirt with Emily again, will you? The little minx doesn't respect me anyways." Fuller's chair shot out from under him, spinning in the air like a wheel. He jumped out of it and gracefully back-flipped onto his feet as his seat cracked in splinters to the ground.
The Man with the Upside-Down Face, Leader of the Freaks, emerged from the desk cabinet and stepped on the dirt.
"Learned a few more tricks, I see." The Ringmaster looked at where his former Circus partner had stepped out from.
"It's nothing, really," The Man said coolly. "Same principle as to what happens when you saw a Clown in half, or when you pull a Fun-Lover from a hat. Any hole can be a door. Now, what's going on here?"
Herman Fuller sighed. "Andy and Alice, let him out, please," The Ringmaster asked with his eyes closed as he waved his hand towards the duo of ragdoll and bicycle-riding box turtle. The box turtle tilted its head slightly, staring curiously at the Ringmaster; the ragdoll did the same, then swung its head towards the floor. The seams around its mouth opened up, and out of the ragdoll's mouth tumbled a disoriented Fishman of Manasquan. He immediately leapt to his feet and looked around. His crazed eyes stared at Fuller for a moment, then he began backpedaling, frantically running toward the exit flap.
"Manny!" The Fishman shouted as he ran. "I'm sorry, I—"
"That will do for now, Gabriel. Go back to the Den" The Man spoke curtly. The Fishman bowed in gratitude before ducking out. The Man turned back to Fuller, and the two sneered with mutual hatred. Then, without warning, The Man with the Upside-Down Face lunged forward and swatted Alice the Turtle off of its bicycle seat. Andy roared in protest and opened its mouth; four sinewy, snake-like tongues shot from it towards the turtle's attacker. The Man snatched them all at once and drove them into the ground with a tent spike and a swift stomp. The Freewheeler lurched forward, its bicycle unable to stand without a Rider, and it flailed grotesquely on the ground like a potato sack baby. The other two Freewheelers quickly turned tail and sped out of the room.
"Andy!" The Ringmaster rushed forward only for The Man to step in his way.
"You know, considering your little toys are old Freaks, I'm surprised you care for them so much." The Ringmaster flinched involuntarily as Manny, who towered above him by a good two heads, leered down at him.
"Now, what were you doing to Fish?" The Man with the Upside-Down Face inquired, taking a step towards Fuller.
"It's my Freaking job, to carry out discipline within these grounds!" The Ringmaster spat.
"It's your job to watch over your area, your goddamn Big Top that you're so proud of!" Manny shouted. "We agreed on that! We operate separately, on different terms!"
"Well," Fuller laughed mirthlessly, "I don't agree with your terms, and seeing that I'm the head around here, I can do as a I goddamn please!"
"You make me sick!" Manny hissed. "You were bad enough when we first teamed up, and now you've somehow gotten even worse off since the Clowns!"
"The Clowns? The Clowns are amazing!" Fuller threw his head back and cackled. A dribble of spit rolled down his lips.
"You're not fit to be a leader," The Man said quietly. "You're just a greedy, Milk-snorting fop!"
"Well, it blows to blow, Freak!" Fuller exhaled sharply. "And until I drop dead, I, make, the rules around here! But you'll be long gone by the time that happens, oh yes, you'll be long gone! I'll see to it that you meet your end in due time!"
"'In due time?' Fuller, Fuller, Fuller, you know as well as I that I'm the one who keeps the Clowns in check, not you! You rely on me, Herman! You've got the show, you've got the tent, and you've got the money, but you still need me!"
Silence rang through the Ringmaster's office. The audience was still cheering; they couldn't even hear what was transpiring as they goggled at the Flaming Lions and Tigers and Bears.
"I'll have you stuffed into a Freewheeler soon enough," The Ringmaster's handlebar moustache twitched as he bared his teeth. "Get out."
"You stay away from my kind," The Man with the Upside-Down Face warned. "Or you'll find yourself strung up as a squeeze toy for Luana."
"Oh, we'll see who comes out in first. All in due time." Herman Fuller snapped his fingers. His ruined furniture pieced itself back together, restoring his office to its clean state.
The Man kicked his foot through Fuller's portrait, leaving a neat, boot-shaped hole. He leaned through the opening, and seemed to melt through it, until his whole body was gone from sight.
The Ringmaster sat, slightly disheveled, his top hat knocked askew. He put his hand in it and pulled out an apple. He bit it, then spat the chunk out.
"Strung up, eh?" The apple was full of worms.