The circus was in town. Savoy waited in line for popcorn, smelling the butter, salted caramel, and cotton candy wafting out the snack bar window. It was the last stop before entering a world of fantasy. Its rigid walls looked like a child’s lemonade stand and stood in stark comparison to the flimsy and almost floating fabric of the tent behind it. The tent moved like waves in the wind, like the flickering flame fighting a birthday boy’s blow, but it stood tall, proud even.
Outside the red and white striped tent a fire breather teased passersby with hints of what was to come. In the air, the flames he created looked like a ferocious cloud, raining smoke to the sky above. The fire commanded everyone’s attention. It looked like it was fighting the fire breather, like the fire breather was willing himself to keep in control. It was a battle the fire could never win. It never had anything to hold onto.
Savoy imagined his friends sitting on wildly uncomfortable seats, the chaperones of the outing pointing fingers at those who couldn’t get settled. He knew Mendrin would be one of them. Mendrin would be anxious for his popcorn.
Heavy footsteps like untrained elephants echoed from behind. Kernels of popcorn exploded with the quickening steps and Savoy became fearful for the potentially lethal stampede of the Boxum Boys, Grundy and Barlow. They were far too large, too mean, for their age. Savoy turned around in time to move out of their way, but the Boxum Boys weren’t charging to the line for snacks. They wanted Savoy.
“How’s your date going, Savoy?” they said in unison. “Mendrin looks real nervous.”
Grundy flicked open and closed the top of his metal lighter. The flame looked pea-sized when placed against the large clouds of fire breath that continually entered the sky. Barlow grabbed Savoy’s arm. His grip felt unnaturally strong.
“Let’s play a game,” Barlow said.
Grundy grabbed Savoy’s other arm and started carrying him to the side of the red and white. Everyone outside the tent had their eyes on the fire breather. They didn’t notice Savoy struggling to escape the Boxum Boy’s grip. As Savoy was carried into the tent’s shadows, he realized he wasn’t strong enough to fight them. In the darkness, Grundy’s flame seemed much larger. He held it up to Savoy’s face. The flame did not flicker in the wind. Barlow took Savoy’s other arm from Grundy and held them so Savoy could not move. Savoy stopped struggling.
There was a small photo peeking out from Savoy’s jean pocket. Grundy snatched it from him.
“How cute,” he said.
It was a photo that Mendrin had colored over and given to Savoy. In the photo, he gave himself the whip of a lion tamer. Savoy was drawn with the muscles of the strong man. Savoy looked at the image of himself in Grundy’s oversized hands. There was so much color, so much strength. For a moment, he made believe that the photo was real, that he and Mendrin were, in fact, among the circus performers and putting on a show for their friends. He saw himself in the center of the tent listening to the crowd cheer and clap.
“Did your boyfriend give this to you?” Grundy asked.
Savoy stopped imagining. He saw Grundy, the flame, and his photo. Grundy began to bring his lighter closer to the photo. Savoy wanted to be the strong man. He wanted to break free from Barlow’s hold, grab his photo and head to the safety of the tent, but he couldn’t. Savoy watched as the flame consumed Mendrin and his lion tamer whip. Grundy dropped the photo to the floor and put his focus back on Savoy, smiling and thrusting his metal lighter back into Savoy’s face.
“Hey, Barlow, you think Savoy here could be a fire breather?” Grundy said.
“I dunno, Grundy, why don’t we test it out.”
Grundy placed one hand on Savoy’s mouth, trying to force it open with his fingertips, trying to let the fire in. Savoy closed his eyes and clenched his teeth wishing for the strength that Mendrin saw in him.
“Open wide,” Grundy said.
Savoy felt the heat on his skin, but didn’t feel the Boxum Boy’s grip. He opened his eyes and found himself in the center of the red and white’s burning tent, wires and ropes like vines being sacrificed in a forest fire, the tent’s pieces like falling stars, brighter and closer, landing and burning on the audience trapped inside. The tent’s opening was blocked by collapsing wood and metal. Savoy didn’t know how. He immediately looked for Mendrin, looked for his friends, the chaperones, anyone he could recognize, but inside the smoky tent Savoy couldn’t make out faces, he couldn’t make out voices. All he heard were the screams of children and their parents being burned by the fire that had finally found something to hold onto.
The walls of flames shook what was left of the tents foundation, the burning tent soon to cover the trapped guests like an oversized picnic blanket atop scurrying ants. Through the smoke, Savoy saw an opening in the far corner of the circus tent, the wood and metal’s writhing and crackling growing stronger and louder. The metal lighter was beside him. He picked it up and ran to the panicked crowd to let them know there was a way out.
He felt a grip on his arm, much gentler than the Buxom Boys, but still firm. The woman swooped him into her arms and ran for the opening as the tent collapsed. Savoy looked back and watched as a wave of flame drowned the circus’s victims. In the brief moment before Savoy and his savior made it out of the tent, the smoke seemed to clear. He saw Mendrin fighting the flames with the lion tamer’s whip.
That’s what he thought he saw, anyway. The smoke had made his eyes water.
Outside the tent Savoy closed his eyes and clung to the woman who saved him.
“It’s going to be alright,” she said. “You’re safe.”
He recognized her voice.
“Ms. Hartlett?” he said, “How did it…Wh-where was…Mendrin…my friends?”
He felt her squeeze tighter. The wind let him know they were still walking. To where, he didn’t know, but in the distance he could hear the siren of a fire truck that was far too late to save the people resting under the tent’s charred red and white fabric.
The sun set and the wind blew the ash throughout the town. Echoes of children’s voices floated in the air, like ghosts performing as trapeze artists, the flinging and flying down the town’s empty streets.