Reaching out slowly, he used his finger to swirl the dust floating in the midst of the ray of sunlight streaming through a broken slat covering the window.
“Ever notice how dust in sunlight looks like a staircase? Were you small enough, I bet you could follow it all the way to the horizon,” he said.
Behind him, two figures, heads close in quiet conversation, paused. One of them, slightly larger than the other, whispered, “Dennis, keep your voice down!”
Dennis, a short, thin man in his mid-twenties, nodded as though hearing only half of what the other said. The other two returned to their conversation, voices hushed and urgent.
“He won’t make it another year. We have to get there tonight—and hope they arrive,” the larger figure said.
“We’ll make it, Phillip,” the other replied. “When night falls we can leave.”
Phillip glanced at Dennis. “Jenna, when you brought him home, I never imagined it would become a year of running and hiding. I’ll protect him as long as I can but I don’t think we can keep this up another year either.”
Jenna reached up and drew his glance back to her. She pressed her forehead against his and whispered. “We’ll make it.”
The ground trembled underneath them. Phillip reached out and gently pulled Dennis away from the window. “Keep quiet now,” he said.
Dennis looked up at him, smiled and raised a finger to his lips as was his habit when Phillip asked him to be silent.
Outside, they could hear voices, calls being sent back and forth like trumpets on the wind. Jenna carefully looked outside. She shook her head slightly. “They’re close but moving away,” she said.
“We’re running out of hiding places,” Phillip said.
“It will be there tonight. Tomorrow night this will be over,” Jenna said.
Phillip felt Dennis lean against him. “We need to rest,” he said. “We’re all exhausted. I’ll take the first watch.”
Jenna lay down beside Dennis who was already asleep. “Wake me in a few hours,” she said. “You need to rest as well.”
Phillip did not reply. Jenna rolled her eyes but soon fell asleep.
Phillip woke Jenna at dusk. She swatted him once on each ear in frustration but not too hard. “I told you to wake me up,” she said.
“I can sleep for a week after tonight is done,” he said.
Dennis sat up and stretched his arms out to the side. “Are we going for our nightly walk?” he said.
“Yes, we are, Dennis. Tonight we’ll use the cart though. We have a long way to go and you will tire if you try to keep up with us,” Jenna said.
Dennis smiled brightly. “I love the cart!” he said.
After a quick meal, Jenna opened up the door on the cart. The sides were made of red wood and the roof, slightly peaked, had been painted green. There were small openings on either side. Below each, painted in faded gold lettering was a word they could not decipher. Dennis told them it read ClancyC but that did not seem like a real word. As Dennis sat down in the cart, Jenna lifted the door into place. “Remember to stay low, Dennis. Don’t look out the windows,” she said. He looked up at the openings, his shoulders slumping, but nodded that he understood. As Jenna latched the door in place, she thought back to when she’d found the cart abandoned in Fair Field. She was only a few feet past it when she heard the sounds of someone crying within. When she opened it, she discovered Dennis, terrified. His eyes could not have grown wider as he looked up at her. His first words confused her.
I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to! I… I didn’t believe….
Yet afterwards he seemed to slip away as though the world had become too much for him. How could she have left him there? Had someone else found him, who knows what would have happened? Eventually, despite their best efforts to keep him hidden, he was spotted. Rumors and wild stories followed. The authorities pursued them relentlessly. Phillip discovered the old stories about Fair Field. She wasn’t a believer until they had a chance encounter with a retired circus performer who lived on the circuit. She wouldn’t have believed his stories except that he seemed undisturbed by Dennis, as though he truly had seen his kind before. “Once a year, on the first night the circus arrives at Fair Field, it becomes possible. A gate opens. You have to get him there in time,” he told them.
A month later they learned the old performer died under mysterious circumstances.
Jenna bowed her head as Phillip looped the rope around her neck and chest. He cracked the door open slightly, scanned the area, and led them outside.
The end of their strange journey began.
Soft grass underneath them cushioned each step. Jenna was thankful for the relief from walking for days on hard-packed earth and along dirt roads, avoiding towns and people. Fair Field was close now. Overhead, stars bloomed and filled the clear night sky like a distant, rushing river of light. She could hear Dennis humming in the cart behind her, a tune he often sang when he was fearful.
“There! Look!” Phillip said, pointing toward lights in the distance. “They’ve arrived.”
Jenna smiled as relief washed through her.
The sound of a distant siren filled the air. Somewhere behind them an alarm sounded. Phillip stared at Jenna for a moment.
“Run!” she said.
The cart bounced up and down behind her as Jenna broke into a desperate sprint. Phillip ran slightly behind her. He would protect them, give them time to reach the tents of the circus ahead if it came to that. She heard the sound of cracking wood and felt the cart tipping over behind her. It crashed into the ground. Her heart sank within her.
“Dennis! Are you okay?” she said.
Phillip did not hesitate. He lumbered over to the cart, reached into the opening and tore the side of the cart off. Dennis emerged, a cut on his forehead bleeding slightly.
“Go! Take him! I’ll be right behind you,” Phillip said.
Dennis stumbled out of the cart and nearly fell.
“He must have hit his head,” Jenna said.
“You’ll have to carry him.” Phillip helped Dennis onto Jenna’s back. Dennis held on tightly. “Now, go!” Phillip said.
The edge of the tents drew nearer. The siren was growing louder. Dennis clung tightly to her, but she could hear him grunting in pain every other step she took.
“We’re almost there, Dennis. Hold on just a few moments longer!” she said.
As she approached the gates of the circus, two tall posts lined with colorful flags, two attendants moved to block her way. She did not slow. Alarmed, they got out of her way when they realized she was not going to stop.
Jenna ran on, looking for the largest tent, the one that would house the rings. She spotted it towering up, overshadowing everything else, raised in the center of the circus. When she reached it, the flaps were closed. She stopped, breathing heavily, and shouted. “Help! Bring me the ringmaster!”
The flaps parted slightly and two large, dark eyes peered out. “What is going on here? Who do you think you—” The voice behind the flaps cut off abruptly. The siren’s sound was close now. “You found him! Thank the Rings! Quickly, bring him! They’re right behind you.”
The tent flaps were opened just enough for Jenna to rush inside. She saw three large rings ahead of her, lit up with spotlights from above. By instinct she knew she needed the center ring and she ran for it.
“Yes! That’s it!” the voice behind her said. “Now is the time!”
Jenna blinked twice as it seemed to her the other two rings were melting into the center ring, the three becoming one. The light grew brighter. She reached it, set Dennis down, and looked at him.
“In you go, Dennis. It is time to go home,” she said.
He stepped into the light and waved to her. As his form shimmered and began to vanish, she heard him say, “Ringmaster, Clancy! Oh, I have had the strangest dream just now. I was on the run with my parents, escaping capture in a world where all the people were elephants and I was the only human being.”
Jenna wept as she heard the sounds of a man weeping with joy and what sounded like others cheering and clapping.
“Goodbye, dear boy,” she said.
The lights above winked out. The ringmaster stepped up beside Jenna and embraced her about the neck with his trunk. “Your act of kindness will forever be remembered by all the ringmasters in all the worlds. Thank you,” he said.
Eric is the author of two fantasy series, The Dreamtrekker Journals and The Essence Tales. He also writes non-fiction and has had numerous essays on the spiritual life published online in the Clarion Journal of Spirituality and Justice. He lives in British Columbia, Canada, and plans to continue writing… forever.