She had seen pictures before, in books. The library in New London was a jumble of whatever books people had decided to bring with them when they were forced from their homes to go underground. There wasn’t many. It seemed that books weren’t at the top of people’s lists of things to bring with them from their old life to their new.
In one of the many times she had been banished to her room, Abigail remembered sneaking out her window, and climbing down the outside of her house – bricks chiseled from the walls of the underground vaults and picking up her lantern she always hid in plain sight – hanging from a tentacle of the octopus fountain in the central courtyard of Zone Z, where she lived. The library was its own domed structure, smaller than any of the zones. There were no buttresses holding it up like in the rest of the main zones. She felt safe in the library cocooned. It was circular and around the outside were chairs and couches, ratty ones, old, musty. Ones people didn’t have any room for in their houses, or didn’t want anymore. It was a place for people to sit and read the books. The book shelves filled the middle of the room, in a grid like tic-tac-toe. The people of New London liked structure and routine. It wasn’t laid out alphabetically, but instead by subject. Mostly there were instruction manuals. There were piles of old newspapers lying in woven baskets that sat next to some chairs and couches. The news was old, out of date, pointless, their pages yellowed and brittle. Abigail wondered if anyone ever read them, and why people had brought them in the first place. She thought the answer was probably no. Who would want to be reminded of the old world, their old life above? She often wondered what it was like now. What the world looked like a couple hundred feet above her head.
She went to her favourite section of the library. The children’s books.
She ran her hands across the cover. It was bright and colourful in this world of darkness, dreariness, and gloom, glazed with the sickly greenish-yellow glow of fireflies. It showed a girl in a long flowing dress atop a white horse, reins decorated with bright ribbons. The horse was marching through brightly coloured striped tents – yellow and purple, pink and black. There was a baby elephant and a man smiling widely with a large moustache that was twisted into a strange shape, as if it were smiling itself.
In the town square, they sometimes, rarely, put on plays. To occupy them, occupy the inhabitants. Abigail had never seen the point. It wasn’t the same. They would dress up in costume and yell loudly at each other from across the stage. Giant lanterns had to be positioned at either end of the stage, at all four corners, to chase away the firefly gloom and allow the actors to be seen as something more than just shadows. Abigail giggled as the memory came back to her. The time when she had knocked over one of the large lanterns that hung on an iron post. It had wavered, unsure at first, and then fully committed, it had fallen over with a resounding crash, the crack of shattering glass. And then the flames rose, like a living being, swallowing up the stage in seconds. The hem of a woman’s dress caught on fire and a scream filled the air. That was when Abigail realized the women were actually men dressed as women.
There was chaos. People ran everywhere, bumping into each other, pushing each other down, trampling over each other. Not caring about anything but themselves.
They hadn’t put on a play since the stage burned down along with all the props, all the decorations – the wooden trees, and bushes, and houses. No one had had the energy to make new ones. Abigail sighed as she ran her fingers over the brightly coloured circus. Things were like that in New London. People gave up on things so easily.
Abigail stepped through drying, dying leaves, them whispering around her legs and crunching under her feet. Her heart beat fast in her chest. She realized she was still holding onto the old woman’s hand. She wriggled her fingers free, and didn’t notice the woman glance at her.
She had seen pictures before, in her book. But they weren’t like this. They weren’t somehow sad, and lonely looking – fraying at the edges. She was too entranced by the carts that were arranged in a large square. Bright words with swirls and swatches were painted on the sides of caravans and trailers. The Worlds Largest Woman! One proclaimed, with a grotesque picture underneath the words of a woman sitting on a chair. Or on something, but you couldn’t see anything underneath her girth. Next to that was a picture of a man swallowing swords, vivid blue words above his head telling people that he was Sylvester the Sword Swallower.
Perpendicular to those two trailers were large iron cages. In one was a giant tiger, stripes of black confusing themselves with the black iron bars of its prison. Next to the tiger cage, huddling in the opposite end of its own age, as far away from the tiger as possible was a small elephant that was morosely picking up strands of hay with its trunk.
Abigail hadn’t even noticed the men and women who sat around a camp fire in the centre of this makeshift house of walls. She had been timid at first, moving slowly, taking in the pictures and words. But the elephant broke through to her and she ran to it.
“It’s like in my book!” she shouted, wrapping thin fingers around thick bars. She turned to look at the woman, a million questions on her lips. And it was then that she noticed the people around the fire. Because they had gotten up and were now advancing toward her. None of them looked friendly. Abigail looked from one shaggy, worn face to another. She had trouble determining who was man and who was woman. “What’s going on?” her eyes flickered wildly from one strange person to another, to their unkempt hair and dirty clothes.
The old woman was standing at the entrance to the camp, and she cackled loudly. She suddenly didn’t seem so frail, and her hunch had miraculously disappeared.
Abigail’s heart jumped into her throat. She ran to her left, away from the elephant and tiger, to a third wooden caravan painted in bright oranges and reds that shouted to all from far and wide to come see the fire breather. It was a man who was swallowing burning torches. She made it to the man, and wished that he was real, instead of wood. She wished he could help her, but realized that even if he was there, that he wouldn’t help her.
She screamed as arms reached for her, and grabbed her painfully by the wrists.
“What are you doing with me?”
The old woman laughed again, heartily, and her blue eyes sparkled with a life that hadn’t been there the whole way there. “You’re very valuable to us, little lady. You’re our newest addition to our little circus here.”
“Help!” Abigail screamed loudly, her throat becoming raw and sore with each shout. The woman laughed and removed some of her layers of clothing, throwing them down on a wooden upturned box that served as a chair around the fire. She looked younger the more layers she lost. “There’s no one nearby that will hear you. We’re in between destinations right now. It’s just us and the forest creatures. Unless you can rely on a squirrel or badger to rescue you.” This caused bursts of laughter from the men and women who currently had their hands on her.
They pulled her towards a carriage that Abigail noticed with dismay was blank, brown wood. A woman shoved her up a small set of stairs at the end and through a door. There was a single lantern flickering a weak light that was just enough to see the meagre surroundings. On either side of the narrow room, were benches, that were somewhat padded, their stuffing poking out from torn fabric. A few cushions were thrown haphazardly on them. A small square table sat at the end of the room. Her eyes fell on something that made her heart stop, and her to stop struggling with the woman who was now the only one holding onto her, who was propelling her forward.
A thin girl, just a year or two younger than Abigail herself, looked up at her with wide brown eyes, dark circles underneath them, and her skin pale and sickly. The girl was covered in tattered rags, just barely enough to keep her modesty. The girl let out a squeak, a noise that Abigail wasn’t sure what it meant exactly.
“Welcome to your toy,” the woman cackled at Abigail, exposing a mouth full of yellowed, rotten and twisted teeth. Her hair was like a halo of snakes around her head.
“T-, toy?” Abigail managed to force out, between teeth that had begun to chatter with fear.
The woman smiled again. “It’s a nicer word than victim now, isn’t it?”
The girl squeaked again and squeezed herself into a shape as small as possible, curling her legs under her on the seat.
The woman left, and slammed the door behind her. Abigail heard the finality of a lock moving across the door, sealing her in.
The girl stared at her, her brown eyes getting larger and wider with each second.
“Don’t look so scared,” Abigail said, as she sat down on the bench seat opposite.
“I can’t help it,” the girl replied. “They told me what you’re going to do to me!” The girl burst into tears, and she brought her knees up to her chest and wrapped skeletal arms around them, hiding her face, a curtain of long dark hair falling down.
“What? I don’t know what’s going on. I just got here, I’m confused.”
The girl raised her face, it was tear streaked, and Abigail noticed how dirty it was - tears having cleaned paths through the grime.
“You’re going to make me dead, and then bring me back again.”
Abigail had been about to reach across the table and put a hand reassuringly on the girl, but her hand stopped and shrank back, as if it had been burned. “What?” she said, her voice was barely audible.
“You can’t really do that, can you?” the girl asked, hopeful. “You can’t do magic like that. That’s not magic. Magic is something good. Magic helps people to be happy. I can do magic. That’s why they got me. Trapped me. They saw me on the street. I was doing magic to get money for my family. Just simple stuff, like this.” She tore a strip of material from her dress, at least Abigail assumed it was a dress, it was hard to tell exactly what it was. The girl made a fist and stuffed the material into her hand. She flung her fingers open and her hand was empty. “Just like that. Nothing special. But they said they would pay me money, lots of money, enough to help my mother and father and brother! How could I turn that down? I would barely get anything each day, standing on the street corner. Sometimes I’d get enough to buy a small roast, but usually it was just enough to buy some potatoes.” The girl took the strip of material she had torn from her clothes from somewhere and blew her nose loudly on it. “But what they told me you can do, bring people back from the dead. That’s not magic. That’s some kind of witchcraft!” She burst into fresh tears and went to wipe her eyes again with the strip of cloth. Abigail tore a strip from the hem of her dress and winced as she did so. It was her favourite dress. She handed it over.
“I don’t know if it’s witchcraft, but whatever it is, I can do it. Yes.”
The girl nodded slowly, as if resigned. “Okay.”
“Well, they want you to kill me and then bring me back. They say it’ll be a big spectacle for the audience.”
shook her head. “No. If I do that we won’t ever escape.”
The girl laughed sadly. “There is no way to escape!”
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Abigail,” this time she did reach her hand across the table, and took the girl’s thin cold fingers in her own thin, cold fingers. “There’s always a way to escape.”
Jenna shook her head. “I’ve tried.”
“But you haven’t been able to give them what they want. We can do that.”
Jenna’s eyes widened again. “You’ll kill me and bring me back again?”
“No, not really. But we can trick them into believing that you are dead, and that I can bring you back again!” She could barely contain her excitement.
“You have a plan?” Jenna looked at her, suspicious.
“Yes. Have you seen the sword swallowing man?”
Jenna nodded. “Yes. He’s not what you’d think at all. He’s a small man, scrawny. I almost laughed when I first saw him.” Her eyes clouded with suspicion again. “Why?”
“Well, he has swords, doesn’t he?”
Jenna nodded. “Yes…?”
“Well if we can get our hands on one…” Abigail’s eyes lit up, and she clapped her hands. “I’ve got it!” she shouted, laughing.
Jenna grabbed her hand and raised a finger to her lips. “Shhh. Be quiet. They can hear you.” She pointed to the walls of their wooden cage. “The wood is thin.”
Abigail mirrored her and put a finger to her own lips, nodding.
“So what do you propose?”
“I just realized they don’t know what’s involved. They don’t know how the secret works, how I am able to bring back the dead. I can ask for a sword. I can say that I need the sword to carry it out, that it’s part of the whole ceremony.”
“And it’s not?” Jenna’s eyes were wide, curious.
“No.” Abigail smiled. “But then we’ll have weapons.”
“But how can we pretend that I’m dead?”
Abigail laughed again, but this time quietly. She grabbed Jenna’s hands. “You’re the one that does magic!”
This time, Jenna joined in with the laughter, muffled behind their hands.
The sound of shutters being thrown open woke her. Abigail rose, stiff and sore, having fallen asleep with her knees curled up to her chest, lying on the narrow bench.
Jenna was up, moving around. Someone outside had thrown open a narrow window high at the top of the caravan, letting in the weak sunlight of autumn. Abigail shivered. “Where I come from, we don’t have to worry about it getting colder.”
Jenna took a kettle from off a small hot plate and poured water into two small chipped teacups. She handed one to Abigail.
Abigail sniffed it cautiously. “What is it?”
“Some kind of tea leaves that they gave me. Here,” Jenna held out a small paper bag that was open. Abigail peered in at a cluster of small brown lumps.
“What are they?”
“Chestnuts. From the girl with tattoos all over her. She brings me them in secret, without any of the others knowing.”
Abigail gingerly removed one from the bag and sniffed it before taking a small bite. Her nose scrunched up at the strange taste and texture, and she stuck out her tongue.
“Not a fan?” Jenna said with a smile, closing up the rest of the bag. “I like them anyway, fresh from the fire is better. These are from a few days ago. I never eat all of them at once, just in case…”
“Just in case?”
“Just in case they decide to stop feeding me one day.”
There was a loud rap on the door which made the girls jump.
“Yes?” They said at the same time, both as timidly.
“Come on out! The organizer wants to meet you!” Abigail recognized the hoarse voice of the woman with the horrid teeth.
“The organizer?” Jenna said, confused. “But there isn’t anyone who organizes it, not really. It’s all of them together, working together. They’re all the organizers.” She bit her lip. “I don’t like this. They never took me to see any organizer.”
Abigail smiled and patted Jenna’s narrow shoulder reassuringly. “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine. They won’t do anything to me, they want me as part of this…circus, remember?”
“It’s not a circus. It’s a house of horrors, that’s what it is!” Jenna said, her mouth turning down at the corners in a sour scowl. Abigail gave Jenna another pat before crouching to climb out of the small door and down the short steps. She came out of the caravan, blinking in the sudden brightness, even though there was no sun. Jenna remained at the top of the stairs, watching warily.
Abigail was grabbed roughly and shoved forward by a couple pairs of arms.
She stumbled and almost fell, and another pair of arms, strong and capable grabbed her and pushed her back upright.
She looked up, to thank the person, and then gasped. She was looking up at the sharp features of the tall, slim man all in black. The one that was coming for her in the town, before she ran.
The man stuck out a hand and Abigail flinched, but instead his hand just brushed some straw from her arm. “My dear Abigail,” he said flashing a smile that caused a shiver to race down her spine, his eyes glittering like small lumps of gold. Fools gold, she thought. “It is so nice to finally meet you. Even though it is in somewhat…” he cast his gaze around at the few gypsies that were occupying the camp, and she watched as they slunk back from him, “unusual circumstances.”