Read Ghost Boy Online

Authors: Iain Lawrence

Ghost Boy (10 page)

BOOK: Ghost Boy
2.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Chapter

21

T
hey drove west over flooded fields and swollen creeks. The sun rose behind them, and the sky turned the color of roses. And they came to a town that was still asleep.

There were only a dog and a milkman out on the main street, a wide avenue built for driving cattle. On either side, plastered to walls and windows, were posters for Hunter and Green's. But the paper had turned to mush in the rain, and the wonderful pictures of elephants and tightrope walkers hung in tattered strips.

“Where's the circus?” asked Tina.

“They've come and gone,” said Samuel. “But they must have been here when we heard the calliope.”

Already the town was behind them. Samuel shifted gears, bringing the truck back to its highway speed. Red arrows flitted past.

They followed the trail of the Cannibal King, across townships and counties, past fields of wheat that were battered down by rain and hail. They passed a field of Liberators, row after row after row of them, the silver bombers parked nose to tail, wing to wing, a crop of planes that seemed as useless as the broken wheat.

They drove to the north and back to the west, through a bright shower of rain. Then they climbed a hill to its summit, and spread out below them, in a field at a bend in a river, was a gaudy cluster of circus tents.

At the center was the huge cook tent, its stack of rusted tin wafting curls of smoke. Spread in rings around it were the stable tents and the elephants' tent, the dressing tent and all the smaller tents the performers had pitched for themselves.

But the Cannibal King wasn't there. And neither was the big top.

“There's something wrong,” said Samuel, slowing the truck.

“Maybe they're resting,” said Tina.

Samuel shook his head. “They wouldn't be camped like this if there wasn't something wrong.”

He steered onto the field, clinging to the wheel as the truck bounced across the grass. He parked it behind a line of others, and the Gypsy Magda parked beside him. Then they climbed down, the four travelers, and stood in a row, staring at the tents like explorers who'd stumbled on a strange little village.

“There's Mr. Hunter,” said Samuel. He waved his arm and shouted, “Mr. Hunter!”

Harold squinted. He tipped his head sideways and gazed through his glasses. “Where?” he said.

“There.”

All Harold could see was a pole, a stiff little pole with one arm flapping. Then it swayed and started toward him, and Harold blinked. The pole became a person, the thinnest one imaginable. Even taller than Samuel, Mr. Hunter was like a short man balanced on a pair of stilts; his legs seemed twice the length of all the rest of him.

“Mr. Hunter owns the circus, remember,” said Samuel.

“You've arrived, I see,” Mr. Hunter shouted across the field, down the row of trucks, in a voice so deep and loud that it could hardly have come from his thin little chest.

Tina smiled. “He
is
the circus, Harold.”

He tilted over the rutted grass, just a strip of black to Harold, with a twinkle of gold where a watch fob swung against his waistcoat. “Greetings to you all,” he shouted. “Grateful greetings, my peripatetic pair of prodigies.”

“And he's the ringmaster too,” said Tina.

Samuel put his hand on Harold's shoulder. “Stay here,” he said, and shambled off, half in a run, with his wild hair flowing behind him. He took Mr. Hunter's elbow and turned him around, and their heads bent close as they talked. First one, then the other, looked over his shoulder. Samuel pointed at Harold.

“What's going on?” asked Harold.

“Don't you worry,” said Tina. She reached up and squeezed Harold's hand. “Samuel's putting in a word for you, that's all. You've got it made, kiddo.”

Harold was sweating. His hand shook in Tina's. “I'm the Ghost,” he told himself softly. “No one can see me, no one can hurt me.” Then he turned his head and saw himself in the shining side of the Airstream, his hair as black as the Gypsy's clothes, his glasses like black circles below it, on a face that was lost in the sunlit metal. And he smiled to himself; he was different now, he thought. He had nothing to fear anymore.

Samuel and Mr. Hunter came together, side by side, stopping right in front of Harold. Mr. Hunter looked down and the Ghost stared up, higher than he'd ever looked to see a person's face. It was gaunt and bright red from the sun, but it was a smiling, kindly face.

“Have you run away from home?” asked Mr. Hunter.

Harold frowned. He hadn't thought of it like that.

“You've come to join the circus, have you?” Long, thin hands rubbed together. “Well, you're living the dream of America, son. Footloose and free, following fortune where fortune is found.”

“Yes, sir,” said Harold. It seemed the proper thing to say.

Again Mr. Hunter stretched out his arms. “Welcome to my circus, son. Welcome to the great Hunter and Green's.”

Tina clapped her hands. “He's got a job?”

“Oh, dear,” said Mr. Hunter. “That's not up to me. That's out of my department.”

“But if Flip says yes?”

“Well, certainly. If Flip says yes, it's fine with me.”

Tina grinned up at Harold. “What did I tell you, kid? Come on, let's go.”

She tugged on Harold's leg, but the Gypsy Magda stopped him with a glance. “Be careful,” she said. “Remember what I told you.”

Harold nodded; he would never forget.
Beware the ones of unnatural charm, and the beast that feeds with its tail.
But it seemed unimportant, even meaningless now. And he looked up at Mr. Hunter. “Thank you, sir.”

Mr. Hunter smiled.

“Will there be a circus today?”

“Here?” said Mr. Hunter. “Who would come but the bees and the flies? No, son. Not today.”

“What's wrong?” asked Samuel.

“Oh, it's been a lash-up. A proper snafu.” Skinny fingers tangled in the watch chain. Mr. Hunter's head drooped to his chest. “We had a windstorm, Samuel. The blasting breaths of Boreas. They rent the big top right in two, and we're waiting here for the canvas boss. He's gone to fetch new panels—three new panels—the canvas boss and the rigger boy. And the Cannibal King has gone on ahead; I don't know where he is.”

“Gee, I hope he's okay,” said Tina. “I worry about him driving.”

“He'd better be all right,” said Mr. Hunter.

Samuel sighed. “What a tough season. The worst I remember.”

“It could be the last.” Mr. Hunter's voice turned sad and weary. “It could be the end for us all.”

Harold felt sorry for him, the smiling face collapsing into wrinkles. But Tina pulled at his leg and led him away, slowly at first and then faster, until she trotted at his side.

They passed the trucks and crossed the field and hurried in among the tents. People sat on chairs of wood and canvas, looking up from books, from games of cards. Some didn't speak at all, and others called, “Well, there you are!” and “We thought you'd never find us.” Tina laughed and waved her stubby arms, but Harold only stared ahead. He didn't like people watching him; he thought he'd never get used to that. To him, the faces that turned in his direction were like the coyotes he'd seen at the edge of winter fields, staring at cattle, waiting for a weak one to stray toward them.

He stumbled and caught himself. Then they walked behind the tents and into a different world.

Men in leotards bubbled up from a trampoline. A clown in baggy clothes, but with an ordinary face, juggled silver rings.

“Hey, Mr. Happy!” shouted Tina.

Harold stopped to watch as the clown spun his rings round and round, a wheel of rings ten feet tall. Then they stopped in midair, and the clown laughed at Harold's shock; the rings were welded in a circle.

“Come on,” said Tina.

They passed a girl on a slack wire, a man doing handstands on a ladder. And at the end of the lot they found Flip Pharaoh.

She had her back toward them, poking with a rake at the wall of a red-and-white tent. She pushed at the canvas, then leapt away as rainwater spilled from the sagging roof. It splashed across the ground and across her clothes; she never leapt away quite far enough. And with each surge of water she gave a girlish squeal and a shiver as she stood on her toes. The tent ropes hummed like cello strings.

“Hi, Flip,” said Tina.

Flip turned around, and Harold felt a lurch in his heart, a tremble that shook right through him. Blond and tanned, her cheeks puffed in a grin, Flip was more beautiful than the girl in the postcards, more beautiful than any girl he had ever seen. The water had soaked through her shirt, and it clung now to her shoulders and her chest in a skin of white and bright red frills.

Harold stared at her, his mouth hanging open, his eyes jiggling madly. He felt light-headed, almost dizzy to see her. And she laughed. She plucked the shirt from her shoulders and laughed, but not with malice, not with the cruelty he'd heard so often in the laughter of the Liberty girls.

“I gotta get a longer rake,” she said. “It's kinda cold, the rain.”

Harold saw the sunlight fall across her, and wherever she was wet she seemed to shine and sparkle. He wished he had a jacket; he could give her his jacket and let her put it on.

“Who's this?” she asked.

“This is Harold,” said Tina. “Mr. Hunter says he can have a job if you've got one.”

“What kinda job?” asked Flip.

She was staring at him, studying him, her eyes flicking up his face and down. And for a moment he saw the look he'd seen so often, that awful wonder that came to everyone's face when they saw a boy as white as chalk. He was scared she would tell him to take off his glasses, terrified she would see his eyes—like drops of water—and that she would know his hair was only dyed.

But she smiled all the harder. She ran a hand under her yellow hair, lifting it up from her shoulders. “Gee,” she said. “I don't know.”

“Oh, please?” said Tina. “He's come all the way from Liberty. All this way, without a dime in his pocket.”

“Why?” asked Flip.

“To see the King, of course,” said Tina, her arms held high. “To see the Cannibal King!”

Harold groaned inside. His face, he knew, had blushed a brilliant red.

“Oh?” Flip let the rake rest on the ground. “And why does he want to do that?”

“Well, gosh,” said Tina. “Because he's—” She stopped. Her mouth hung open, her eyebrows in a high, comical arch. She covered her lips with her fingers.

“Because he's an albino?” asked Flip, and Harold's heart sank. “Is that what you mean?”

Harold looked down at the ground, scuffing at it with the toe of his boot. His hair fell in shining black curls across his eyes, and he blushed even more to think how foolish he'd been to hope he could hide what he was.

“Because the Cannibal King's an albino? Sure, I can see that.” She laughed gaily. “He wants to meet the King because he's never seen an albino before.”

Harold turned his head to see sideways through his glasses. Flip stood on the rake, her cheek resting on the handle, and she smiled the most charming, the most beautiful smile. He raised his chin from his chest. He felt as though he had shrunk and grown again but was bigger now than when he'd started. It was true, he thought; he
was
different now. He was the dark-haired boy in his dream; he was an Eye-talian count, whatever that was.

She laughed again, and he smiled shyly back. She said, “I guess you don't see many albinos in Liberty.”

“Not really,” said Harold. He wished she would talk about something else.

“They've got white hair, if you can believe that.” Flip leaned forward on the rake, her shirt sticking to her. “But I think he's real handsome, the Cannibal King. There's something—oh,
exciting
about albinos. They just give me the shivers.”

Harold swallowed. He felt a shiver himself, as though it had leapt like a spark from her to him.

“You'll see what I mean,” she said. “Just wait till you meet him.”

Tina grinned. “You're going to give him a job?”

“Maybe,” said Flip. “What can you do, Harold?”

He had to think. What
could
he do? “Well, I can't ride horses,” he said. “I can't juggle, and I've never tried to walk on a tightrope.” He shrugged. “I'm pretty good with animals. Maybe I could be a lion tamer.”

She didn't move. She leaned on the rake handle and smiled at him. Then slowly she turned toward Tina, swiveling on the stick. “Is he kidding?” she asked.

“I don't think so,” said Tina.

Flip swung back toward him. “Do you know how long I've been riding?”

Harold shook his head.

“Thirteen years, that's how long. I could ride before I could walk. I learned the language of horses before I learned English. I practiced eight hours a day, every day, for my whole life, and—man!—it bugs me when people say, ‘Oh, I could do
that
.' Like it's so darned easy.”

“That's not what I meant,” said Harold, dismayed at her anger. He straightened his glasses, fiddling with the little round lenses. “I didn't mean I could
do
it; I meant I wanted to learn. Princess Minikin says you're the best in the whole world. She says you're famous, and maybe you'd teach me to ride.”

“Yeah? Really?” Flip cocked back her head, her hair tumbling down from her shoulders. To Harold, she looked like a movie star posing for pictures. “Well, maybe I could. I don't know.”

“Just give him a chance,” said Tina. “That's all he needs, just a chance.”

She glanced at Harold. “You're good with animals?”

“You bet he is!” shouted Tina. “He has a real swell dog that can do all sorts of tricks. He's just a sweetheart, just an angel.”

BOOK: Ghost Boy
2.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

New Title 1 by Loren, Jennifer
River Runs Deep by Jennifer Bradbury
A Brief History of the Vikings by Jonathan Clements
Shapers of Darkness by David B. Coe
Stealing Mercy by Kristy Tate
Rain of Tears by Viola Grace
Noelle's Christmas Crush by Angela Darling
La berlina de Prim by Ian Gibson
Arizona Territory by Dusty Richards