A Fractured Curtain
rating: +6+x

It had been a couple of days and what felt like even more nights since Cassie had agreed to stay at the Circus. Just about everyone there only knew her by the name Tootsie, which was odd, but not upsetting. They all just kind of accepted her. Most of them, anyway. Things just made sense by making no sense at all, which she had never experienced before. So often, things had to be ordered and follow a strict code, but at the Circus, nothing followed any kind of pattern whatsoever and it all worked out regardless.

“Staring at the stars or the clouds?” came a voice unfamiliar to her as one of the Freaks of the Den lied down beside her on the grassy hill just outside of the bulk of the Circus. She had a rhinoceros horn jutting out from the bridge of her long nose, and another smaller one closer to her forehead. Her skin was gray and somewhat leathery, like that of a rhino hide, and her body was wide, especially her massive legs.

“Both, I guess,” Cassie replied. “Looking at the night sky can be good for when I’m hallucinating. It quiets my mind a little, like a slice of clairvoyance.”

The young woman turned to her side a bit, being careful not to poke Cassie with her horn. “What’s the clairvoyant’s name? My stage name is Charging Charlie, but you can just call me Charlie.”

“I’m Cassie, but… everyone calls me Tootsie thanks to Lolly.”

Charlie laughed. “I like it. What’s your job here?”

Cassie chewed the side of her mouth a bit contemplating how to respond to that. It was always a difficult subject to broach. “Right now, I really just clean up after the shows. It’s… not the most fun part of the Circus… I’m not even sure why they need me, since they have reality benders who can do it way more efficiently, but it makes me feel like I’m not as much of a freeloader at least.”

“Did you run away to join the Circus?”

“I found it by accident,” Cassie clarified. “While I was… running away… So, yeah, I guess I did. Not like I would have joined any other circus, though.”

Charlie snickered. “No other circus would have kept me safe from the Essie P. Or the Geo Sea.”

“I hear those names a lot. What do they mean?”

“To keep it short and simple, the Essie P contains Freaks. The Geo Sea kills them. We’re safe from them, though, don’t worry. Not that you’d have anything to worry about anyway. You’re not a Freak.”

Cassie had heard the word Freak so much over the past couple days that it had almost lost all meaning. “It seems like that’s almost an insult around here. Not being a capital F Freak. I only ever heard it from people who didn’t like it when I had a psychotic episode. Never thought to use it like a badge of honor.”

“It is an honor to be called a Freak,” Charlie said. “It’s better than being a Humdrum. And maybe you’re neither of those things. Maybe you’re just an Unusual.”

Both of them had a quick giggle out of that, but Cassie’s uncertainty got the better of her as she started thinking out loud again. “It’s just… I’m not sure if I wanna stay here permanently, you know? It’s not like I have that much of a life to leave behind, but I’d be leaving it behind regardless. It’s a big change that I wasn’t ready for. Part of me just wants to join the cult of the Clown and feel better all the time. Recreate myself, give in to the absurd, all that stuff. And…”

Her stomach churned and her head began to spin, a sudden frenzied feeling overcoming her. She sat up and started breathing erratically, slowly shaking her head as if to lull it back into a calm to no avail.

“Crash?” she could hear Charlie say, however distant away it may have seemed in that moment. “Are you okay?”

She thinks you’re pathetic.

There it was… Usually she could ignore it.

A Freak thinks you’re embarrassing.

“Goddammit,” Cassie muttered while holding onto her head with one hand.

“You said looking at the night sky helps, right?” Charlie suggested.

“Not like this,” Cassie replied. “Not when it’s… Fuck, I was doing well, too.” She couldn’t explain that it was more than just the voices. It was the disorientation, the loss of control, and the feeling of hopelessness. After standing up, the bright colors of the lit-up Circus seemed to be everywhere all at once, the calliope working hard to lure her into hell itself.

The world then cracked, a blue tint falling over it all as everything appeared to be separated in chunks by the enormous glass splinters etched into the fabric of reality itself. She had come to know it as the Veil. It was always there, but usually it was easier to see through it. In moments like these, however, when everything looked the same in its various shades of blue, she couldn’t draw the line between what was real and what was fabricated from the twisting, severed hive of horrors to make up a disordered mind.

They’re hiding God from you.

With the physical world blended into her own, the Circus felt even more confusing than it already was. Charlie was standing up to comfort her, but Cassie merely sidestepped her grasp and looked at her blankly for a moment. Nothing was said between the two before she made her way back amongst the tents, sometimes feeling like she was running while other times feeling as if she was standing still.

You’re a peon. An ungrateful one, at that.

“Hey Tootsie,” someone said, but she could barely keep her head straight enough to get a good look at them. “What are you on right now? Can I have some?”

They know.

She ignored them, making her way through the crowd of Circus staff while asking who the “god” of this place was. Some trickster god, in all likelihood. A Loki of sorts. Icky might have been exactly that for all she knew. Or that Herman Fuller character. She wondered where he was. She wondered where she was. Nothing came to mind when she attempted to recall anything from that very day, as if it had never happened.

“Where is your god?” she kept asking, making a few Clowns giggle at her delirious state. “Why are you laughing? What’s funny? Who are you?”

They’re laughing at you. You’re like a lost child.

“Shut up,” she whispered to the voice. “I’m not a child.”

That Clown. There. Push him. Prove you’re not a child. Just push him.

She shook her head, but the voice continued to urge her to push that specific Clown. It was just background noise most of the time, but in her desperation to silence the voice, she did as she was told, walking closer to the Clown and pushing him back. He struggled to keep his balance in the most comedic way possible before somersaulting backwards. The voice was quieter for a moment, giving her a moment of reprieve as all eyes narrowed in on her.

Now you’ve done it.

Another Clown came to grab Cassie by the arm, forcefully taking her along with her. She recognized this one. Zoozoo.

Inside a trailer built with everything a kitchen could need, Zoozoo turned on a light and looked Cassie directly in the eyes. “What are you doing?”

The silence made it easier to concentrate on where she was and what she was looking at. She sat down at the round table with a checkered tablecloth close to the door and took a deep breath. “I go bad. Then I go to the hospital. They keep me there for weeks. Then I come back. Then I go bad again.”

“Your psychosis? So you’re having an episode? You need to come to someone and tell them. I can’t always be looking after you.”

Cassie raised her head and looked closely at Zoozoo, her long green and red hair resembling almost the same checkered pattern as the tablecloth with braids of either color interspersed throughout. Her skin was almost as white as her teeth, with black on her lips and around her eyes. Stitches looked as if they had been sewn all the way down the center of her face both vertically and horizontally, intersecting at her lips.

“Who made you?” Cassie asked her.

Zoozoo sat down beside her and rested her head on her hand. “You’re barely even here right now, huh? Nobody made me. I’m not even from this plane of existence.”

Hiding her head beneath her arms, Cassie took a deep breath and exhaled. “The impulse suppressants aren't doing enough.”

“No shit, Sherlock,” Zoozoo replied.

“Do you think I would be better off as a Clown?”

“No,” Zoozoo countered without any hesitation. “I think you’d be a liability. A danger to this entire operation. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows on the other side, either. Most of the time it literally is, but not always. We can’t all be as happy-go-lucky as Lolly every second of every day.”

After a brief moment of pause, Cassie began smiling, then laughing harder and harder until her lung capacity couldn’t take it anymore.

“Am I missing something?” asked the Clown.

“Why so serious?” she was barely able to get out in her breathlessness.

“Oh, good one, are you gonna ask me where I got these scars next? You know what year it is, right?”

“It’s just… It’s just that you’re a Clown! And you’re being so serious about the whole thing! I’m sorry, it’s just hilarious! Your face is so silly!”

With tears in her eyes and her cracked reality still obscuring the world in front of her, she still felt her heart nearly stop at the sight of Zoozoo contorting her face in an inhuman, horrific way, her hair bursting outwards into snake-like tendrils and her mouth opening wide to show a gaping maw of discolored fangs while her eyes jutted forward, their red veins growing in intensity the closer they got to their sockets.

“YOU WANT SILLY!? I CAN GIVE YOU SILLY!” Her voice was like a conglomeration of several demons speaking in unison, which was followed by Cassie screaming and falling backward in her seat.

With her face returning back to 'normal,' Zoozoo continued to watch her as she faded in and out of consciousness. “Just remember who you’re dealing with. We’re a lot more than just silly clowns. Oh, come on, don’t be like that, it was just a joke!”

While she was speaking, Cassie lifted herself to her feet, still shaking from head to toe, and left the trailer, falling face-first into the dirt below. She picked herself up yet again and started running. She didn’t know where to, but she kept going until the calliope music could no longer be heard over the wailing in her own mind The cracks in her world were hard to see through, the noise whirring through her head was deafening, and the cold encapsulating her was more than what her purple coat could ward off.

With only the moon as a light, she stumbled into trees and over branches in her panicked state, practically running on all fours with how often she tripped. Every time her hands touched the snow, she lost a little more feeling in them.

Trusting a place like that was a mistake from the beginning. It was a nightmare, not a circus. It wasn’t even real, just a prolonged hallucination after getting lost in the woods. Nobody was even looking for her.

Nobody sees the point in looking for you.

She was always going to run away and die alone somewhere.

You deserve to die alone.

Either in a ditch or in the back of a car.

Both would be too good for you.

“Just shut up,” she muttered to herself again, slowing down as she caught her breath.

Not so loud. They can hear us.

“Nobody can hear us.”

They’re close. They’re going to kill us.

“Добрый вечер!” a woman nearby said, making Cassie stop in her tracks entirely. She was in Russia? She didn’t want to think of what that meant for the rest of her ‘hallucinations.’

“Ah, I’m just fucking with you,” the woman went on, gum smacking between her teeth. “That’s like the only thing I know in Russian. Hope you speak English, ‘cause you must be all kinds of lost.”

Under the shade of the trees, she could hardly make out the dark figure of the woman standing there a few meters to her right. “Who’s there?” she called out.

A lantern was illuminated in the woman’s right hand, revealing herself to unmistakably be a Clown. Her light orange hair was in a messy bob cut with bangs that hung down just above her eyes, and along her pearly white face were red lines connecting her crimson lipstick to the corners of her eyes. “Name’s Crash,” she said, blowing and popping a pink bubble from her lips. “Staff or guest?”

Cassie hesitated for a moment, only being able to guess how much danger she was in. “Uh, staff. I work for the Circus. Uh… of the Disquieting. Janitor stuff.”

Crash raised a finger in the opposite direction as Cassie was facing. “Circus is back there. Can’t miss it.”

“Can I be honest with you, Crash?” she said with a tinge of desperation.

“Not like I’m doing anything else.”

Leaning against the nearest tree, she took a moment to compose her scattered thoughts. Easier said than done. “I’m not doing so great. I don’t wanna lose this world of magic- actual, literal magic- and go back to living a life of fear and confusion. People don’t like me much back there. I’m always a liability. Hell, this is the first job I’ve ever had! Not that I want a job, I just… I don’t feel so different here.”

“Where’s the downside?” Crash interjected, blowing another bubble.

“It’s terrifying… The Clown that’s been watching over me seems like she hates me and-”

“What’s her name?”

Having been thrown off her already dizzy train of thought, she started anew and said, “Zoozoo.”

“HAH!” Crash hollered with a grin, popping her bubble. “Manny’s trying to get rid of you for sure. You ever seen The Exorcist? Remember the demon Pazuzu? Connect the dots, it’s not just a funny clown name.”

“So I should leave,” Cassie said, resigned to her fate. “If I’m not wanted, there’s no reason for me to stay.”

“Whoa, whoa, wait a minute now. You gonna let that pineapple upside-down cake bully you into skedaddling? Your sob story moved me! My heart’s grown three sizes! We’re gonna make sure you stay and experience the world of magic of the actual and literal variety to its fullest! C’mon, hop on my back.”

Lifting her brows in surprise, Cassie looked at her incredulously before asking, “What?”

“My back! Y’know, the thing behind my front?” Crash knelt forward with her back to Cassie, pointing at it with her thumb. “This thing! C’mon, I don’t know how to be any more specific, cut me some slack and hop on my back.”

Hesitantly, Cassie climbed onto the woman’s back and wrapped her arms and legs around her torso. As Crash came to a stand, she realized even more how awkward she felt gripping onto her like that.

“Hold on tight, lady! I can’t be responsible for the death of another Humdrum! It’s like a strike system!”

As she pulled out a pair of goggles and a rocket twice the size of herself from her hammerspace, Cassie’s trembling intensified even more than when Zoozoo jumpscared her. “Another!?”

Before another word could be uttered, they were sent rocketing off into the night sky. Literally. The Circus was in view almost immediately after rising above the treetops, the moon and the stars in full view, as well as all of the colors associated with them. She had never seen the night sky so clearly before in her life, even in rural Oregon. For a moment, she could forget the immediate threat to her life in the form of a rocket straight out of the mind of Hannah Barbara and appreciate the cosmos for what they were. That only lasted until she realized that they were beginning to descend as the dread of falling washed over her like the terrifying end to a dream.

“Brace for impact!” Crash shouted as they straightened out onto a course directly into the ferris wheel.

Cassie screamed for her life, holding onto the Clown with every ounce of strength she had available as she remained conscious to the best of her ability.

With the rocket put back into hammerspace, Crash held her arms and legs out as if she were a flying squirrel, only the gliding bit never came. Instead, she landed squarely on top one of the carts, her hands and feet sticking to them like glue. When the wind rushing past them had quieted, Cassie was left with nothing but the racing of her own heart and the music of the calliope. Opening her eyes, she screamed once again at Crash’s goggled face staring directly at her despite the rest of her body facing the opposite way.

“Did you enjoy your flight?” she asked as she removed her goggles. “Keep holding on tight. We’re not done just yet!” She used her sticky hands and feet to grapple along the top of the cart, flipping upside down to see the inside of it, where a Clown was lazily drinking a black substance from a mug. “Outta the way, Eugene!” Crash ordered as she grabbed one hand around his collar and tossed him out into the open air. For a moment, he remained suspended in midair before realizing that there was nothing beneath him, at which point he began screaming and falling back down to Earth.

With the cart freed up, Crash helped Cassie take a seat as the cart began to crest at its maximum height. “Home sweet home!” she said, sitting down beside her and resting a leg on her knee, her arms spread across the back of the seat.

Doing what she could to calm down, Cassie sank further into the cushion beneath her and held a hand over her heart. “I’m not sure what I expected.”

“Probably to blow up,” the Clown responded matter-of-factly as she returned to smacking her gum. “Humdrums miss out on the best things life has to offer because of your brittle bodies.” She accentuated her point by poking a finger at Cassie’s ribs, causing her to tense up. “I had a brittle body once. It was always such a drag having to account for it. Sports are way more fun with Clowns. I’d invite you to play Clown Football with me sometime, but… you know…”

“You’re an athlete?” Cassie asked, still getting used to the stillness.

“No way!” Crash replied. “I’m a snack. Sweet on the outside, sweet on the inside, and certifiably delicious.” She turned her head to face Cassie, who had raised an eyebrow at her. “I played a few sports back in high school, but I’m just enjoying life now. No need for a profession or a hobby, I’m a Clown of my own making. Free as the wind! Fiery as a demon! Uhh… Fun as a bouncy house? No, that one didn’t land the same way. You get the idea.”

“It must be nice to be as free as you are,” Cassie sulked, gazing off into the forest just outside of the Circus. “I don’t even feel free inside my own head sometimes.”

“What’s your name?”

“Ah!” Cassie turned her head back to Crash and she was in an entirely different position, her stomach on the seat with her legs raised into the air behind her. “Uh, Cassie. But Lolly has everyone calling me Tootsie.”

“Classic Lolly,” Crash mused. “You’d make for a really cute Clown, y’know. You could even keep the name. You could be the Tootsie Pop! I can always turn you. The grass really is greener on the other side…”

“Yeah… I’ve heard. I need some time to think about it.”

“Why wait?” Crash pushed, sitting up and inching closer towards her. “We could do it right now.” She began twirling Cassie’s blonde hair.

“What exactly does becoming a Clown entail?”

“Well, I can tell you it isn’t painful… unless it’s your first time.”

Cassie narrowed her eyes. “You can only become a Clown once!”

“Oh yeah,” Crash said. “But there are so many ways to do it.” Her arm began wrapping around Cassie’s shoulder. “Though… I’ve got my own method that always leaves a satisfied customer.” Her head moved closer to Cassie’s neck until she could feel her Clown breath against it.

“Does…” Cassie mumbled. “Does having sex with a Clown turn you into one?”

Crash gave her a sly smirk. “Not unless you do both at once.”

“I’m turning twenty in a week,” Cassie said as she felt Crash’s hand running down her spine. “I’ll make a decision by then. I’ll be going from a one to a two in my digits for a decade. I figure that’ll be a good time to make any life changes if that’s what it comes to.”

“Ooh!” Crash gasped. “Turning to the Clown side on your birthday! Very Clown thing to do. You’re gonna love it, I promise. The first time you drink Milk will be the happiest day of your life, guaranteed!”

“What if I’m lactose intolerant?”

Crash’s lips grew into a wider smile, revealing her white chompers in all their glory. “I like you.” As she raised her fingers to slide through Cassie’s hair, she gradually moved her head closer to hers only to be denied as the young woman looked away from her.

Placing a hand atop her head, Cassie realized how decidedly uncovered it was by any kind of fabric. “Where’s my beanie?” she asked.

“It probably flew off on the way here,” Crash suggested. “It was a cute one.”

“I need to find it,” she said abruptly. “Stop the ride, I need to go looking for it.”

“We can find you a replacement beanie! It’s easy! How about a magical one?”

“No, I need this one,” Cassie insisted, looking around at the cart to see what would make the ride stop. “Can you get me down from here?”

“We’ll be jumping to a new location any minute now, Tootsie,” Crash tried telling her, but it was no use. “You can try and look for it, but don’t blame me when you get stuck in Russia.”

“You don’t understand!” Cassie argued as the entirety of their surroundings began to morph before their very eyes, shifting from a freezing tundra to the barren flats of Australia in mere seconds. “No!” she cried out dejectedly, sitting back down as she stared off into nothingness, her eyes displaying every ounce of grief she had felt over it.

As the ferris wheel came to a stop finally, Crash moved to place a comforting hand on Cassie’s back, but was denied as the woman stood to her feet and exited the cart without a word. “Hey, I’m sorry, Tootsie-”

“My name’s not Tootsie,” she blurted out. “And it’s not your fault. I just wanna go to sleep and forget about tonight.” She continued on her way as the Clown behind her remained quiet, her head aching and her body exhausted. Even though the world had been pieced back together again in her mind, she hardly felt any better than earlier that night.

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