Escape from the circus (3604 words)

This was written in response to a blog post by Em_Anders, in which she described a dream.


Emily looked outside. The window was streaked with green algae, that dripped from the leaking guttering, above. The view beyond wasn’t exactly enticing. But sometimes it helped to look. To remember there was something out there.

Even if it was only a “corpse motel”, as Andy called it.

The cemetery stretched out, below her. It seemed to go on forever. Brambles covered half-broken gravestones. She’d never seen anyone lay flowers, never seen anyone visit the graves.

Andy, when he was in one of his black moods, would sometimes push her face up against the glass.

“Don’t think of ever leaving me, doll,” he would say. “’Cos that’s where you’d be sleeping, six feet down, just the worms for company. And don’t think I’d come visit, neither.”

Emily didn’t know what was on the other side of the house. The windows were boarded. There was a crack in one of the boards, but she had never tried to look through it. She wasn’t allowed in those rooms: not alone, anyway. Andy never let her go outside. Sometimes she tried to imagine what was out there. But all she ever came up with was the graveyard. She’d asked Andy, once. When he was in a good mood.

“What’s on the other side of the house, Andy?”

He had looked at her. For a full minute he stared at her. He didn’t say a word, and he didn’t move. She had begun to think she must have imagined asking him. Perhaps, she’d just thought it. And then he got up. He moved quickly. Emily felt the air leave her lungs, before she felt the pain of his fist in her stomach.

He didn’t often hit her. And never on the face. The clients didn’t like it. A punch in the stomach left no bruise. Well, not unless you looked real hard.

Emily turned away from the window. On the bed were the clothes Andy had left her. Underwear, and a dress. No shoes. Some of the clients wanted her to wear heels, but Andy always shook his head.

“No shoes.”

Emily removed her night robe and began to wash herself. Andy had brought the bowl of water and the soap, fifteen minutes ago. The water was cold, but not from the wait. It was always ice cold. She dried herself with the towel. It was rough. Andy said, “soft towels don’t dry, they just move the water around”. She didn’t mind: the friction helped warm her skin. She dressed quickly. She brushed her hair, and let it fall over her shoulders. She had no mirror, so the makeup would have to wait. Andy liked her to do that in the Work Room. He liked to watch. “I need to make sure you do it right,” he said.

Emily sat down on the bed and waited. Andy would come and fetch her when he was ready for her. He hadn’t always been like this. Things had been different, once.

She was certain of that.

She had no clear memories. She knew they had had parents once. She could not remember what they looked like. Or, what happened to them. There were no memories of them in this house. They had never been here, she was sure of that. They did not belong in this house.

Emily could not remember how long they had been here. Or, how long her brother had kept her a prisoner. She thought it may have been a few weeks, or maybe a year. She did remember the day he came to her with the first man.

“We need the money, doll,” he said. He stood in the doorway of her room. It was the last time he knocked before entering. She remembered thinking he was dressed strangely. Now, there was nothing unusual in him wearing a tight fitting suit, a skinny tie knotted at his throat, and a fedora on his head. But she was sure he hadn’t worn anything like that before-

“It’s time you contributed to the household, sweetheart. But you ain’t qualified to do nothing. ‘Cept this one thing.”

He had shown her to a room. She couldn’t remember seeing it before, she certainly had never been inside. It was a large room, bigger than her room. At the other side of the room a large mirror hung on the wall. Underneath, was a sofa. A man, Emily had never seen before, sat there, a drink in his hand. He looked up as they entered. He smiled and nodded at Andy.

“Jeez,” he said. He whistled. “You wasn’t joking, Andy. She’s a good looking broad. Come over here, sugar lips.” He patted the cushion, next to him.

“I don’t understand,” Emily said, looking at Andy.

He had made her understand.

There was a knock at her door. She perked up. It wasn’t Andy: he would’ve walked right in. Which meant it had to be Jimmy, Andy’s driver and bodyguard.

“Come in.”

“Good morning Miss Emily, how are you today? Andy’s got a meeting. He told me to let you know you won’t be needed ’til after lunch.”

Jimmy filled the doorway. He had a powerful upper torso. It was quite something to behold. The body of a bull, the heart of a lamb. He always treated her well. Respectfully, even. Last nights dream suddenly came to her. She was a matador. The stadium was crowded. She would see Andy looking down from one of the boxes. “You’re gonna get what’s coming to you, this time, doll!” she heard him call. And the the doors opened wide. Jimmy stood there, more animal than man. And then he was charging towards her. She caught him in her cape, and after a struggle she over powered him. Then they kissed. The crowd cheered, but when she looked up Andy had vanished.

Emily felt her face heat up. She looked away, and pretended to look out the window.

“You seen the circus, Miss Emily?”

“The circus, Jimmy?”

Jimmy walked over to the window and peered through.

“Oh, that’s right, you can’t see it from this side of the house. They got acrobats, and clowns. And animals: tigers, lions, and elephants too. I hear it’s quite a show.”

Emily smiled. As a child she remembered being taken to the circus by her mum and dad. Andy had come too. He had liked the clowns best – he laughed until tears came to his eyes. She didn’t like the clowns, she remembered sitting on her daddy’s lap, peeking through his fingers.

She did love the elephants though. She loved their big floppy ears and the way they swung their trunks when they trumpeted. After the show, her daddy had taken her round the back of the circus to see the elephants. Emily cried when she saw the cages. Her daddy had scooped her up and held her. She had cried so much the tears stung like sand.

The memory from before this house hit her like one of Andy’s fists. It took her breath away. She felt nauseous, and elated simultaneously.

“You alright, Miss Emily?”

Jimmy looked worried. He pulled a handkerchief from his jacket pocket , and held it out. Emily took it, realising tears were flowing down her cheeks. Jimmy looked uncertain of what to do. He suddenly sat down on the bed, next to her and held her. She felt just like she did all those years ago, crying in her daddy’s arms.

“I’m sorry, Jimmy,” she said. “I just don’t know why I’m here. In this house, living this life. How has this happened? How have I become this person? Andy never used to be like this.”

“He doesn’t treat you good, Miss Emily.”

“No, he doesn’t. And it stops here.” Emily blew her nose. She looked Jimmy in the eyes. “You gonna stop me, Jimmy. If I run away, I mean?”

Jimmy stood up, blocking the door once more. She had misjudged him. He was just like the others.

“Stop you, Miss Emily?” he said. “I’m here to help you.”

Taking Emily’s hand, Jimmy lead her down the grand staircase. A huge chandelier hung from the ceiling. They were in the entrance hall. Emily had no memory of every having seen been there.

Ignoring the front door, Jimmy opened a door to the left of the staircase. He fumbled with switch, and a light flickered on revealing a staircase.

“The basement,” he said. He held up his hand as Emily started towards the door. “Hold on a second.”

Jimmy left her standing at the door, and walked across the hall. He opened another door, and disappeared inside. Emily waited. Jimmy reappeared with a pair of shoes.

“Your size, I think. I had to hide them from Mr Andy. What is his problem with you, and shoes?”

“I have no idea.”

Emily took the shoes and put them on her feet. It felt odd. She couldn’t remember the last time she had worn anything on her feet, other than stockings. Jimmy led the way down the stairs.

The basement was not empty. There was some kind of vehicle. A car, but it looked like nothing Emily had ever seen before. It was cherry red.

“A Pontiac convertible,” Jimmy said. “Mr Andy’s pride and joy. Built and registered in Nineteen Seventy.”

“Nineteen seventy?” Emily said. “How can that be, Jimmy?”

“I know, amazing. He found it on Ebay. It needed a lot of work, I did most of it myself.”

“Nineteen Seventy,” Emily said, again. Just how long had she been in that house? The last time Andy had let her read a newspaper it had been dated Seventeenth May Nineteen Fifty Two. Emily rubbed the skin of her face. It felt soft, no obvious flaps of old skin.

She grabbed hold of Jimmy’s hands.

“How old am I, Jimmy?”

“Don’t ask me, questions like that, Miss Emily. I hate it when ladies ask me questions like that.”

Emily let go of Jimmy’s hands. She ran to the car. An anxious face stared back at her from the side-view mirror. But a face she knew to be her own. She hadn’t aged. Still mid-twenties, still pretty. Nineteen seventy? None of this made any sense.

“What month of Nineteen Seventy, is it now, Jimmy?”

Jimmy laughed. But stopped when he saw Emily wasn’t laughing with him.

“It’s January, Miss Emily,” he said, “Two thousand and thirteen.”

Emily felt light headed. She stumbled and Jimmy caught her, before she hit the floor. She leaned against him as he opened the passenger door. She fell gratefully into the seat.

“Never mind,” she said. “Let’s get out of here, shall we?”

Jimmy pressed a button on the wall. Emily was surprised to see the doors raise up by themselves. Jimmy hopped in, beside her, and inserted a key into the ignition.

“Here we go, Miss Emily,” he said. “Hold on to your hat.”

The car started with a roar. The sound was unlike anything Emily ever experience. She not only heard it, she could feel it vibrate from her toes up. Emily was pushed back into her seat as the car left the garage. Something flew off the back seat. Looking back, she saw a coat flapping in the wind. On the back seat was a woman. She wore a red feathered boa, no dress; just what looked like a sequin-encrusted corset.

“Who the hell are you!” Emily shouted, over the noise.

“That’s Margarette,” Jimmy said, his mouth close to Emily’s ear. “She’s another pr… She’s another one of Mr Andy’s employees.”

Emily looked at the woman. She was younger, maybe not even out of her teens. Jesus, what had gotten in to her brother? Jimmy looked at Emily and smiled.

“It’s gonna be alright, you know.”

Emily smiled back. The road was narrow, with no other traffic. On the left there was a grass verge, that banked up. Emily could see vibrant tents rising from it. This must be one hell of a circus: she counted not one but fourteen Big Tops. It stretched for miles. There were acrobats, and guys on stilts. Emily grimaced as she saw four clowns, in a multi-coloured car – with Clown-Mobile painted on the side – chasing another one on a unicycle.

Then she saw the cages. Hundreds of them, it seemed to her. As the car flashed past she saw a tiger pacing in one, and in another some elephants.

“It’s so big!” Margarette shouted. “What’s going on, is it some kind of Circus convention, or something?”

Jimmy turned and smiled at her.

“Something like that,” he said.

There was something in the road. Emily grabbed the steering wheel, and tugged it hard to the right.

“Watch out!”

The car skidded onto the sidewalk, and screeched to a halt as Jimmy slammed his foot on to the break pedal.

Emily leaped out of her seat, and ran to the creature in the road. A baby elephant, about the size of a St Bernard dog, looked up at her. It appeared unharmed, and unfazed by the near collision with the speeding car.

“Is it alright?” Margarette had left the car and was standing beside her.

“I think so. Jimmy, give me a hand.”

“What’s your plan, Miss Emily?”

“He’s coming with us. A circus is no place for an elephant.”

“Neither is a Nineteen Seventy Pontiac convertible, Miss Emily. Do you even know what the little chap eats? Best leave him to people who know how to care for him.”

“They haven’t done a very good job, so far, Jimmy. Poor little fella was in the middle of the road. Give me a hand, or I’ll swear I’ll do it myself.”

Jimmy shrugged and lifted the elephant into the back of the car.

“I ain’t sharing the backseat with no goddamn smelly dumbo!”

Margarette stood by the car, hands on hips. Emily guess she didn’t realise how ridiculous she looked in nothing but a boa and a corset.

“Then, I guess you’re walking from here. See you later.”

Margarette actually stamped her feet. Emily suppressed a smile, as she watched her climb onto the backseat. The elephant lifted it’s trunk and trumpeted. Emily laughed.

“We’d better get going, Jimmy. I think those guys aren’t happy with our rescuing this little chap.”

A crowd had appeared at the top of the bank, on the edge of the circus, no doubt drawn together by the sound of the car skidding onto the sidewalk. One man pushed his way to the front.

“What the hell are you doing with my baby! Gladys! I’m comin’ for ya!” he yelled. He began to run down the grass verge and tripped. Emily watched open-mouth as he turned the fall into a spectacular somersault, landing gracefully on the sidewalk, arms out-stretched like a gymnast.

“Go, Jimmy!” Emily said. The man began to run towards them. Jimmy engaged the engine and the Pontiac shot forward. Emily looked back. The man stood there waving at them, shouting.

“That ain’t language a lady should hear,” Jimmy growled.

Emily smiled. It was good to have someone who cared for her.

“Where we going, Jimmy?”

“Don’t worry, Miss Emily. The Firm have arranged everything. You just sit back and enjoy the ride.”

“The Firm, Jimmy? What do you mean? I don’t know no ‘Firm’.”

“Let’s just say that there are a few people who want you back home, Miss Emily.”

Emily looked at Jimmy. What people? Who could possibly even know about her! Her thoughts were interrupted by a honking noise. Emily turned around in her seat. Coming up fast behind them was a car. It was the Clown-Mobile from the circus. It seemed to be traveling at speed. As it approached Emily could see it was being driven by the shouting man from the circus. There was a clown in the passenger seat, waving what looked like a Tommy-gun out of the window. The back seat was a crush of people. The noise in the Pontiac was becoming unbearable. Every time the clown car honked, Gladys trumpeted. And Margarette was screaming.

“Hang on, ladies,” Jimmy shouted. He pressed the gas peddle to the floor and the Pontiac started to move away from the Clown-Mobile. Emily’s relief was short-lived. Within seconds it had begun to catch up. It suddenly swung onto the other lane. The clown in the passenger seat was shouting something, waving his Tommy-Gun at Jimmy.

“Pull over, Jimmy!” the clown, shouted. “Your gonna get a face-full if you don’t pull over. I’m gonna count to three.”

With horror Emily realised that underneath the macabre clowns make up, lurked the face of her brother.


Jimmy gritted his teeth, and swung the car to the right. There was a jarring screech of metal as the two vehicles made contact. Margarette screamed, and Gladys trumpeted. Emily looked at the elephant: she looked like she was enjoying the chase.

“Two!” Andy screamed the number and pointed the Tommy-gun at Jimmy.

The roof of the clown-mobile seemed to be opening up. Emily watched in horror, as four men on the back seat stood up.


There was a loud noise and the world went yellow for a second. The Pontiac swerved, as Jimmy lost control. Emily wiped her face, getting the yellow gunk out of her eyes. Jimmy was doing the same: he had egg-custard all over his face. Emily turned to see two men back-flip from the Clown-Mobile onto the back of the Pontiac. They had some kind of harness, they were trying to attach to the still-trumpeting Gladys.

“Hold on!” Jimmy said. Emily braced herself. Jimmy slammed on the brakes. The two men shot forward, as the car screeched to a halt. They fell to the ground, both of them performing perfect forward rolls, before standing up and jumping back into the slowing Clown-Mobile.

Margarette was still screaming, both arms around Gladys. The little elephant wrapped his trunk around the woman’s neck and stole her boa.

The Clown-Mobile was backing up, fast. Jimmy threw the Pontiac into reverse and spun the car around. Emily could see they were losing ground. One of the four men, standing on the back seat, held another kind of gun in his hands.

Emily heard an explosion. The Pontiac swerved onto the sidewalk, and up the grass bank. Then everything was upside down.

Emily felt a crushing weight on top of her. A liquid dribbled onto her face, and into her mouth. Custard, not blood. She felt light-headed. She lay there listening to the sound of Jimmy’s shallow breathing.

Just before she passed out she remembered why Andy hated her wearing shoes.


Emily awoke in her bed. She tried to sit up, but couldn’t move. She felt bruised. She lay in bed for a moment, fragmented memories returning to her. Of the escape, the chase. But also of the life before.

She felt sick.

The door to her room opened.

“You awake, doll?” Andy said. He leaned down to look at her.

“Where’s Jimmy?”

“Jimmy?” Andy said. He smiled. “Who’s Jimmy? You been dreaming again. Dreaming of a knight in shining armor, come to rescue you?”

He stroked her cheek. Emily tried to move away, tried to recoil. She shut her eyes. It was all she could do to get away from him. It couldn’t have been a dream. It just couldn’t. She knew things. It all meant sense now.

But it had all been so crazy. Perhaps it was just a dream. Perhaps she had dreamed everything in order to escape the hideousness of her existence in this house.

She opened her eyes. Andy was still looking at her. Smiling at her.

“Only joking,” Andy said. “Jimmy’s dead.”

He walked around the bed and stood by the window. Emily felt tears trickle out of her eyes. She didn’t want Andy to see her cry. Not any more.

“He didn’t die in the crash,” Andy said. “He survived the crash. You all did.”

He stood there with his back to her. If she could only move she would smash his head right through it. He turned. Quickly, as if he had heard her thought. Which, she remembered, was entirely possible.

“Do you know how much effort it takes to kill a guy like Jimmy?” he said. He leaned in to her. His forehead touching hers. “It took me a goddamn hour to kill the son of a bitch.” He laughed. “But it was an hour well spent.”

Andy stood up straight, and moved around the bed. He looked at her.

“You’re crying,” he said. “Always the cry baby. Just like when we were kids. Crying at the circus, for god-sakes. And, whilst I’m on the subject: very wrong to steal the elephant. The circuses are very good customers. I had to do a lot of explaining. I had to make a lot of promises.”

“I remember, Andy,” she said. “I remember everything. About before. About The Firm.”

Andy smiled at her.

“Do you think that matters, anymore, doll?”

“I remember about the shoes, Andy.”

He moved quickly. She felt her cheek sting, before she realised he’d slapped her..

“I’ve spoken to my people, doll. They’ve increased the dose. You ain’t gonna remember shit.”

The syringe was loaded with the slightly florescent fluid, just like she knew it would be. She felt the stab of the needle, and then the familiar heat of the liquid as it traveled up her arm.

Her eyelids began to close. Emily fought the drug, repeating a phrase to herself.

“Remember the shoes. Remember the shoes.”

It was her only chance.


Written by Bruce Arbuckle (January 2013)

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

With thanks to Em_Anders for providing the inspiration!

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