Circus Island

Prompt 286

The island used to be quiet.

But in the last twenty years, the indigenous population had swelled to a size that turned the island into a tourist hot spot. Just off the coast of Cape City, the island received visitors from all around the world. People called it Circus Island – because the island’s biggest draw was the huge circus in the that housed the most bizarre creatures – and over time the name stuck.

The creatures had eyes of cats, hands of lizards, and hides of rhinoceros; they had an extra eye, head, limb, even wings. And for one special day each year, the ringmaster, who was not only in charge of the circus but the entire island, allowed free admission for anyone and everyone.

Nobody knew that this was not the case thirty years ago. The circus did not use to be as famous as it was now. It seemed to have produced the largest concentration of freakish creatures overnight.

But Luka knew. He knew what the island was like before and he knew how it had changed – his father, who was one of the few who were born and bred on the island before the ringmaster set foot on it, had told him the tale. So Luka knew how the three-eyed dwarf and the belly dancer with eyes of a cat and the grace of a snake came about. After his father died from meningitis two years ago, an affliction that eight feet-tall man-wolf hybrids like him were particularly susceptible to, fifteen-year-old Luka had been trying to expose the methods the ringmaster used to turn people into freak shows.

But it was 2050. Everyone did strange things. His father had explained genetics to him, how it could change the way you looked, the way you functioned, even your lifespan (which, for freaks like them, was never very long – there were always complications). How people looked at him, though, was something he figured out all by himself.

The visitors who came only stared and marvelled at how strange they all looked. They didn’t see how the elephant man and the snake woman and the rest of the animal-human hybrids screamed and moaned in pain from the effects of gene-mixing.

Luka himself experienced muscles spasms and murderous headaches that could only be allayed by the ringmaster’s special pills, which then made him so edgy and restless when he performed fire-eating that he often burned himself. The mermaid, Delphina, was dying of throat cancer because of her inflamed gills, and every month when snake man shed his skin Luka could hear his screams from the trailer he shared with Johannes the dwarf.

It was hopeless, everyone told Luka, to try and fight the system. They were all stuck on the island – no society would accept them — and the only life they had was the one they were subjected to. They were lucky the circus took them in. They were lucky the ringmaster gave them a job.

But Luka didn’t understand why he should be thankful to the ringmaster when he was the one who made them this way. The rest of the freaks had given up trying to escape. Or maybe they had never tried at all.

There was only one other person who knew, one other person who could help. He was the only one, apart from the ringmaster, who was human.

 

*

 

Luka wasn’t sure how he was going to stop the ringmaster, but he was at least going to try.

“That is a terrible and incredibly foolish idea. Let’s do it and see what happens,” Cooper said.

Getting the ringmaster’s assistant on their side was step number one. Luka had seen the way Cooper and Delphina looked at each other. Once Cooper realized what was in store for Delphina – the pain and suffering she would go through as a caged-up hybrid – he had been planning to help her escape, but he alone was not enough.

“Luka!”

Luka jumped. He held his breath when the ringmaster’s silhouette moved across the tent.

“Where is that boy?” the ringmaster growled. He took a step towards the tent Luka was in.

Luka dropped the vial he was holding. It smashed to the ground, causing the opaque viscous liquid within to seep out.

The back exit was too far away. Luka scrambled for a hiding place when the ringmaster started to unzip the tent. He could only hope the ringmaster would not think to look in the back of his secret storage cupboard. There was no way he would be able to explain his way out if that happened.

Luka shut the door of the cupboard with a soft click as the ringmaster stepped into the tent, peering around with his beady eyes. His lips were set in a permanent sneer and Luka was sure he had the nose of a dog, even though he was completely human.

Cooper should have given him the signal. They had an agreement. And yet….

No. Luka shook his head. Cooper was on their side. He was going to help them – he promised.

“Debitt!” Cooper yelled.

“What!” the ringmaster snapped.

“I’ve found Luka! He’s in the elephant enclosure.”

The ringmaster took one last glance around the tent, his narrowed gaze trailing over every crevice, before he headed for the elephant enclosure.

Luka remained where he was for a while longer until he heard Cooper say, “He’s gone now. You can come out.”

Luka crawled out of the cupboard and joined Cooper, who was surveying the smashed vial and its contents. “I hope that isn’t the cure.”

“Nope,” Cooper said, producing a bottle of purple liquid. “It’s this one. I’m sure of it. You’re lucky Debitt trusts me more than he trusts himself.”

Luka surveyed the contents of the bottle. The purple liquid sloshed against the sides. “Will that be enough for all of us?”

“I’m not sure about the dosage. I’ll try and worm it out of Debitt. Now, you really need to get out of here before Debitt finds you.”

Before exiting the tent, Luka swiped a random vial from the table. It was only until he was alone that he realized he had snatched a vial of snake genomes.

 

*

 

Cooper barged through the backstage of the aquarium, his eyes seeking out the only person he wanted to see. There was hope for her, at last. To think he would have a kid to thank for that. If it weren’t for Luka, Cooper would not have known about what Debitt had been doing all this while. Sometimes, Cooper wondered how a fifteen-year-old could be so much braver and more resourceful than he was.

Still, he had learnt about Debitt’s experiments all in the name of profits – by producing new freaks every year, he could ensure a steady supply of tourists ready to gawk and point at those who were different from them. The thought of people staring at his Delphina like she was some sort of animal – and not the unique beauty she was – made Cooper ready to do whatever it took to stop Debitt. Even if it meant killing him.

Like a vision, Delphina appeared before him. Cooper tried not to gawk at her beauty because she got self-conscious about her otherness. She was completely different on-stage and off. On stage, she turned into Delphina the Water Nymph; off-stage, she was just like any young woman with her hopes and dreams and fears – except that her fears were far more real and imminent than any other young woman her age. Her throat cancer was beginning to rob her of her voice, and even though her thick waves of hair covered the scars on her neck (an effect of her deformed gills), Cooper was reminded of them every time he saw her.

The cure was the only way to end her suffering.

When Delphina spotted him, her turquoise eyes sparkled like the ocean on a clear summer’s day. Cooper wanted to take her in his arms and tell her about the cure. But she was due to go on-stage soon and Debitt did not tolerate tardiness. Besides, it would raise his suspicion. Debitt was nothing if not paranoid.

“And now,” Debitt bellowed out front, addressing the crowd. “I present to you Delphina, the water nymph of Circus Island!”

Delphina gave Cooper a longing look, then slipped into the water and danced for the audience.

 

*

 

Luka fished out the vial from his pocket.

Cooper did not know of his second plan. His father had taught him not to trust anyone wholly, so Cooper only knew they were going to reverse the effects of Debitt’s experiments. But Luka knew they had to attack the root of the problem.

His moment to strike was now, when Delphina was keeping everyone enthralled.

In the darkness beneath the bleachers, Luka reached for the ringmaster’s silver flask, willing his hands to stop trembling as he tipped the contents of the vial into the flask.

Luka had just slipped the flask back to the ringmaster’s side when the latter reached for it. He swirled it a couple of times, then brought it to his mouth and took a long swig.

The effect was instantaneous. The ringmaster keeled over, clutching his stomach, then his head. He rolled to the ground, moaning, as perspiration poured from his face.

Luka stared in horror as the crowd erupted into chaos. Cries of horror and footsteps clunking on the bleachers. People running helter-skelter or whipping out their phones to record the grotesque transformation taking place. The ringmaster’s skin shriveled in a matter of seconds, turning dry and crackly. He thrashed around as he shed like a snake.

Luke retreated from the bleachers and raced back to his tent, his heart pounding, his mind spinning from what he had done.

He had always been the made. But now he was the maker.

 

*

 

Cooper watched the pandemonium unfold from backstage. Everyone’s attention had shifted from Delphina’s performance to the ringmaster’s appalling transformation into a snake-man hybrid. Delphina swam over to him and he helped her out of the water, whereupon her tail turned into a pair of long slim legs coated with iridescent blue.

Delphina squinted into the distance. “What happened? Debitt….”

“Luka,” Cooper said. “He must have done this.” He tugged on her hand. “Come on. We don’t know how long we have before Debitt is up on his feet again. I have the cure. We have to do this now.”

Her hand in his, they dashed towards Cooper’s trailer.

Cooper set the bottle of purple liquid on the kitchen table. Delphina bit her lip as she met Cooper’s equally uncertain gaze.

Cooper took Delphina’s hand. “Ready?”

 

*

 

It took less than a week for Circus Island to shut down after the ringmaster went into hiding, plagued by the media furore on illegal genome experimentation, and the circus crew escaped to discover new lives for themselves.

It took a week for Luka to achieve hero status in the news all around the world.

It took slightly more than a week for Cooper to gather up his courage to propose to Delphina.

 

*

 

Circus Island had been quiet for a long time now. This was mainly due to the absence of tourists, who had stopped visiting the island after the circus shut down. It was still visible from the mainland as an abandoned island.

Cooper, Delphina, and a few of the ex-circus members stood at the mainland pier, where Circus Island sat innocuously in the distance. But really, they were watching Luka settle into his very own boat, about to set off to see the world.

Luka grinned, waving at them. The morning sun played on the crests of the waves, and the way ahead was long and expansive. Luka looked down at his hands. Human hands, no longer hairy like a wolf’s. And he had clean nails instead of claws now. The hands of a boy turning into a man. The hand of someone about to make his own life, the way he had always dreamed.

 


2 thoughts on “Circus Island

  1. Yes, that line that Meredith called attention to, that one was mental. Like, holy shit, I got chills from that. I loved the premise of it, too. It’s such a creative, if not also horrifying, idea that I could totally see being turned into a longer work. Nice work, Joyce!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Whoa this was really powerful! This line especially got me: ‘He had always been the made. But now he was the maker.’

    The dual POV was really interesting too. And I had almost forgotten what the prompt was! I loved how you built this whole world around it.

    Liked by 1 person

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