Seer of Visions, Eater of Glass
by Jon P. Straface
He cut her lip kissing her. A shard of forty-watt lay hidden within his mustache, likely from the previous night's show, but possibly weeks dormant. She took no notice of the blood, gazing into his eyes and far beyond them. He moved to wipe the small cut with his thumb, but she took hold of his hand and clutched it in midair, mesmerized by some deep abyss he could not sense.
"It is you who will share in my fortune," she whispered, barely there.
He had gone to her tent, this tattooed brute, to be a menace. To frighten her from the midway. She had caught on in Ronkonkoma, and in the four days since had managed to increase traffic on the alley tenfold. On that first night, the barkers were optimistic. Nowadays, folks tended to bring their kids, and only came for the circus, or the camel rides. They could scarcely spend any extra tin on bearded ladies and lobster boys, not to mention the unfortunate fact that roadshow attractions typically inspired more fear than curiosity in the little ones. So, when Lucy Dolan blew in on the westerly and brought with her a whispered reputation for honest-to-goodness psychic prognostication, the Three-Card Monties and Zolo The Drowning Clown understandably figured they'd catch some of the runoff from the bottleneck that would likely form at her tent flap. This assumption turned out to be wrong.
For the privilege of a three-minute encounter, dozens stood on line, guys and gals alike, waiting up to an hour, paying a full dime. None ever strayed from the queue to sample some of the other weird wares. They waited patiently and took little notice of the gaudy signage advertising the other attractions. After their brief appointment, destiny fully revealed, their eyes were always glassy, their expressions distant. Not only was Lucy Dolan monopolizing all the customers, she was draining them of their desire for anything except wandering toward the exits in a misty fog. Because of this, four of the seven regular nickel acts that traveled with the MO, feeling a collective emotion beyond mere displeasure, approached Iron-Head Ahern with the suggestion that he utilize his uniquely intimidating presence to scare the young redhead into perhaps considering a change of venue for her lucrative little grift.
"For God's sake, Hammer-Nose, keep your mitts to yourself, and don't make any threats," Demanded Soros, Snake Handler and Swallower of Swords. "At least, nothing specific. We just want her outta here. No bruises. No blood."
Already belligerent due to the fact that he had no love for, and felt no brotherhood with these freaks, but feeling the strain on his wallet as much as they were, Ahern readily agreed.
"Whatever you do, don't look into that eye," warned Annabelle Chimovski, nervously twirling her wiry mustache. "She put the whammy on me with that god-am thing, I swear."
• • •
Ahern prepared for his encounter with Lucy Dolan in the same way he readied for a performance. Slathering his tattoo-strewn upper body with a mixture of cat oil and liniment gave him a wicked aroma, and made his muscles ripple. Black Grease pencil filled in the few areas on his face that were still undecorated with ornate symmetrical designs, namely the spot in the center of his forehead. This gave him a fierce look, but the makeup wasn't truly complete until he swished a tiny mouthful of India ink, and bared his blackened teeth. After this, he was truly monstrous. Tan riding pants and leather jackboots completed the costume, but Iron-Head Ahern, The Painted Man With the Impervious Jaw, would be gnashing no coffee cups so early in the day. His store of discarded light bulbs would go unchewed for the time being, and his nasal cavities would remain free of railroad spikes. He wasn't dressed for a show, but rather, to make an impression.
He had been fully confident in his ability to make such an impression just minutes prior, as he stood outside her tent, beneath the large canvas banner painted with a haunting crimson eye, open wide and seeing all. Printed above and below that eye, in bold letters were her stage name, and those enigmatic talents that drew curious visitors from locales far flung.
Red Eye'd Lucy
Augur of The Profound
Diviner of The Obscure
Now, having just kissed her for no reason other than inexplicable urge, leaving her bleeding and ink-smudged at the mouth, Iron-Head Ahern felt just as dumbfounded as the beautiful Lucy Dolan, still gazing into the ether, appeared to be.
"I'm uh…, I have to go," he sputtered, turning to flee. Lucy still held him by the wrist though, and was gripping him fast. With her free hand, she took hold of his left shoulder and squared off with him.
"It is you," she repeated. Her eyes were wide and piercing, and the one on the left (the red one) seemed to be pulsing with light "you, who will share in my fortune. And not soon enough, I say."
Even though Ahern found this fiery ocular display to be quite lovely, and felt that tingling, powerful urge to kiss her again, his urge to vacate the area was much stronger. It would be more than a day before he'd begin to consider how large of a fortune she could possibly hold, and in what ways he could share in it. In this surreal, electrically charged moment, such concerns were beyond him. He whipped around, escaping her grip, and walked quickly back to his tent, where those goddamn freaks had been waiting, and watching.
Their looks were incredulous, and Conroy Mellish, a man Ahern found repulsive more for his personality than his deformity, couldn't help but toss a barb. "Not the way I would have handled it," he sniped, scratching his chin with his fused digits. Ahern snatched him by the collar as quick as a cat, and proceeded to bash his head into the ground repeatedly, until he ceased making any movements or complaints. By the time Ahern finished brutalizing Mellish, leaving him gasping through a throatful of blood, the rest of the nickel act committee had been gone for a minute or more. Dragging the broken lobster boy to Zolo's dunk tank, Ahern looked over his shoulder at Lucy, still standing in the entrance of her tent, glaring at him, red eye ablaze.
"Your buddy needs to learn when to keep his mealy mouth shut," Iron-Head snapped, and Ivan Zolomov, still unpainted at this hour, gently took his battered friend from the tattooed hulk's emblazoned arms, and lowered him to the ground. Zolo smartly said nothing, fearing similar repercussions.
• • •
Ahern remained in costume until nine hours later, when he performed for a crowd of three. He debuted a new gag that night, and a trio of drunken salesmen were the only souls to see it. After opening with the spikes in the nose, he went on to run through a selection of his standards. Slowly, methodically, he bit, chewed, and swallowed three light bulbs. Mind you, the show was more than just eating glass. Iron-Head acted as though he relished the flavor. He devoured them completely, down to the socket end, and looked as though he were eating a decadent midnight snack; a guilty, indulgent expression on his inked face. He finished his meal by licking his fingers clean, making a wet smacking sound. Then, still seated at his on-stage dinner table, he poured himself a cup of coffee to wash it all down. He gulped the coffee, (which was cold and several days stale) and then proceeded to chomp the rim off of the ceramic mug and spit the broken chunks at the spectators, causing them to howl with delight in between sips from their flasks. As usual, he then flamboyantly smashed the remainder of the coffee mug on his bald, ornately decorated head. This was usually the end of the show, but on this night, Iron-Head Ahern ate a mirror as well.
This was dangerous, but peril was half the allure. Mirror glass was nothing like light bulb glass. No matter how carefully you chipped at it, you always ended up with a sharp edge. The prospect of blood was almost guaranteed, which is why Ahern had decided to add it to his act. He stood behind a very large mirror and nipped a good-sized piece from the corner. The reflective side faced outward, so the three members of the staggering audience could behold their own gleeful horror. He chewed, and the crunch was painful, and crisp. Slowly, he stepped out from behind the mirror, gnashing all the while. He moved to the edge of the stage, paused for effect, and allowed the mixture of blood, spit, and silvery glass to gush from his mouth, down his chin, and onto his flaring, ink-stained chest. The fluid resembled glowing magma in both texture and color, and the three stewed travellers who would be the last to ever see this display could only gape their jaws and back slowly out the way they came in. Ahern stayed in character, and remained silent. When they had finally made their way out, he bowed to an empty tent.
• • •
Early the next morning, after a wakeful night, Ahern finally gave up on getting any rest and dragged his bulky mass from his cot. He made a small pot of coffee over the roadies' campfire, which had been burning all the night while they dismantled the Mystic Orpheum Acrobatic Circus and Nickel Carnival, loading the entire affair onto a legion of ancient flatbeds. The small tents would be loaded last, after the inhabitants of which had finally been roused from their rest, and on to points beyond they would go, leaving Oneonta, likely never to return. Iron-Head would often help the crew with this final step, not wishing to stand idle while others grafted so hard, but today his thinking was set on only one thing. Yesterday he'd been too dazed by the shocking allure of her presence: a luminous feeling he simply could not explain, but longed to experience again. After merely being touched by her, Ahern felt as though he'd never again be quite the same, but now, a day removed from the encounter and fifty yards or more from that hypnotic girl, he was at least able to concentrate on thoughts other than the insurmountable desire to completely absorb her into himself.
He gazed across the midway, and looked upon her tent. Stationed out front, sleeping slumped in a wooden chair was Tom South, Strongest Man in The World. His head lolled forward, and drool streamed from his sagging lower lip, down his slick chest and into the hollow formed by his crossed arms. He would soon awake clutching a pint of his own fluid. Seeing him there brought new musings to the forefront of Ahern's iron head. Was the strongman standing guard? If so, he was derelict in his duty. Maybe they'd done the familiar last night, and Tom South had found no comfort sharing her cot. Perhaps she had promised the strongman a piece of her fortune as well. It was this thought that shook Ahern from Lucy's glamour and filled him with the dull rage to which he was more accustomed. He wondered if he was the only one who could feel her uncanny aura, or if the weightlifter could sense it too, and now felt ownership over it. That fat, hairy beast Annie Chimovski had gotten close to her, as had Soros the snake-fucker, but neither of them relayed any overwhelming urge to kiss her, or squeeze her, or maybe even eat her. Iron-Head Ahern had felt this urge though, and the part of his mind that had been scorched by her magic wanted desperately to feel it again. There was another part of his mind, however, that had not been erased by that glowing red eye. This part of him desired only one thing: a share in the fortune which she'd so brazenly touted upon their first meeting. In fact, he'd have more than a share if given occasion. He would have it all.
• • •
By ten that morning, the MO was beating a trail west, and Iron-Head Ahern was sleeping in a pile of hay on the back of the big cat truck. His neighbors, two scrawny, flea-bitten, threadbare lions lay together in a woefully undersized cage, ignoring each other. Had Ahern possessed the key, he would have readily freed them from their confinement and allowed them to lounge with him, for these cats were as docile as kittens. They were old Hollywood lions, trained to star in jungle pictures, and inspired by that fact, Iron-Head had given each a name. The one with the slender face and black whiskers he'd dubbed Fairbanks, and the one with the light wavy mane was called Barrymore. Together they would burn away the tedious hours on the road together, Ahern gently caressing them through the bars of their prison, telling them stories. They, in turn, would lick his shiny, ink-lined head with their massive tongues, once as sharp as rasps, now dulled by extreme age. They were bashful around every human soul except for three: Ahern, who they loved, their trainer Louis Normandy, who they feared, and strongman Tom South, who they hated with a fervor. Whenever South came even near their pen, they would lunge at the bars and roar ferociously, baring their jagged teeth. The strongman soon learned to avoid the cats at all costs, and it filled Ahern with pure delight to see him so daunted.
South had earned the ire of Ahern by stealing his act. It was Iron-Head who was once the midway's strongman. He'd earned his nickname not by smashing crockery over his dome, but by lifting massive iron plates hung by a chain clenched between his teeth. That was until a year and a half ago, when a house-sized, tow-headed farm boy arrived in Atlantic City carrying on his back a steamer trunk as big as a Ford and claiming an ability to lift any weight a reasonable man could propose. Quickly, Ahern found himself needing to rework his act, as South's bluster was not false. He could indeed hoist seemingly ridiculous amounts of weight over his head, and would take suggestions from his audience on which stupidly heavy object he should lift next. Ahern's impervious jaw act was looking suddenly unimpressive, and he needed to come up with some new gag he could perform that would allow him to keep his expensively made and flamboyantly painted ad banner. Now, instead of hearing expressions of awe and disbelief from audiences as he lifted massive weights and twirled bathing suit-clad beauties above his head, he elicited only gasps of horror and disgust as he bit the heads from pigeons and pierced his cheek with sharpened knitting needles. He found that his act needed all the shock value he could conjure, so he began the slow, torturous process of tattooing his entire body with complex geometric runes. Itty-Bitty Bob, The Two-Foot Terror, had done them one by one with a sharpened guitar string dipped in India black, and the searing pain of each one only freshened Ahern's hatred of Tom South. He had gone from daring strongman to glass-chewing, tattooed geek, and all thanks to that hulking rube who showed up one day and lifted a tractor. Ahern was determined to insure that the strongman didn't steal Red Eye'd Lucy from him too. Not before he'd experienced at least one more mesmerizing kiss, and her purported fortune, whatever it consisted of, belonged solely to him. He would kiss her twice more before the day was out, and her fortune, such as it was, would indeed be his.
• • •
Ahern slept as the truck trundled on, and his dreams were strange. Black ink and jagged needles filled his vision, then intense beams of sharp, piercing red light, giving way to grey clouds and massive spires of glass. He was floating though those clouds, and beneath him he saw only concrete and steel. The great glass towers seemed unending as he approached them, levitating through the grey mist, and downward he began to float. Then he was floating no more, but falling. The ground rushed up toward him as he plummeted into a canyon of silver and glass, and as he descended he began to notice frenetic movement and bright colors. The ground was laid out like a grid, and within the crosshatched lines, glossy things of every hue darted left and right, up and down. The grid became larger as he fell, and just before he thought he would surely smash into it, that feeling overwhelmed him again; that uncanny tingle that enveloped him when he first came within range of the girl with the red eye. He awoke, and there she was.
"Seeing visions, are we?" Only her head and shoulders were visible above the truck's bed, as she stood on the dusty ground and peered into the canvas flaps that protected the hauler's cargo from the elements. The light that shone in from behind her was dim, and Ahern knew that evening had fallen. He raised himself into a seated position. "Be wary of what you see in dreams, Mr. Inky, for in them the mind hides the very truth." Her Irish brogue seemed much more pronounced to Ahern than before, but he figured it probably slipped in and out, like so many others off the boats, trying desperately to sound like natives.
"What is it that you want?" Iron-Head snapped, hoping that rudeness might scare her away before her allure overwhelmed him once again, forcing him to sweep her into the back of the truck with him and squeeze her until her essence departed. He wanted to kiss her again, but this time to draw even more blood. To chew her lip from her face. To crush her beneath his bulk and inhale her very soul. The incredible exhilaration of her presence was all consuming, and had this feeling not been slightly dulled by the eight feet of distance between them, Ahern would have been unable to resist.
"Aye, there's quite a reflex when you and I draw near each other, no doubt about it." She returned, and Ahern was once again enchanted by the glow of her red right eye. "Linked across the eons as we are by destiny, it can hardly be a surprise. Such sensations dull as days pass, and you will soon find yourself long on days. It appears I'm finally a bit short of them myself."
"What the fuck are you saying to me?" he spat back, hoping still to drive her away with pure unfriendliness, but she would not be daunted.
"What I promised you yesterday still stands as a promise today," She calmly replied. "All that is mine can be yours. Must be yours. But I cannot freely give it. You must take it from me." She switched her gaze to the right, and saw Fairbanks and Barrymore sleeping in their tiny cage, tails lolling left and right. "Tell me, why does the strongman fear your kitten friends as he does?"
This question brought Ahern completely into the moment. He knew there would be no scaring her off, and her incredible hypnotism did indeed seem to be diminishing, if only slightly. The fact that he was quite proud of his accomplishment in the field of limited lion training was just the further boost he needed to join the conversation as a full-fledged participant. "He told you he was afraid of them?" he asked.
"No," she responded. "But it takes no clairvoyance to notice a big muscle man breaking a cold sweat any time he comes near a couple of hundred-year-old cats in a steel cage."
"I taught them to hate him." he beamed, still seated in the far corner of the truck bed.
"And how did you accomplish such a feat in animals that are clearly beyond the beastliness of their youth?"
"The lion tamer. Normandy. They're scared to death of him because he whips them, and prods them with a stool," Ahern said. "One day he blew up at them over some mistake they kept making in the show, and he stormed out of their training ring without taking any of his stuff with him. As soon as old Normandy was out of sight, they started acting like true-blue kings of the jungle. One pounced on the stool, the other tried to shred the whip. They were ferocious. Normandy must have heard them growling, because he came back within a few seconds and they shrank back to size, but I'd already seen them in a frenzy." Ahern reached into the cage and gave Barrymore a tousle on the scruff of his neck. The lion opened one eye briefly, then drowsed again. "About a year ago, I got ahold of one of the strongman's sweat rags, and I rubbed it all over the legs of that stool, and I tied a ribbon of it around the tip of Normandy's whip. They may fear Normandy, but they feel nothing but raw hate for that whip and that stool."
"So now any time they get a whiff of the farm boy?"
"They lunge at him like he's a zebra. Fairbanks even bent a couple bars in their old cage. Now they're stuck in this one."
"Adroitly handled, I'd say," She returned, and her smile was lovely. Ahern again felt that urge to rush her, to kiss her to death, and likely would have, had her flaming eye not pierced him so in that very moment. There was no black in that eye, only fire, and Iron-Head Ahern was struck completely dumb. "Easy now, painted man. Let the wave pass over you as it will. About your plans for the weightlifter; I know that you can't and won't be discouraged, but I wish you could see that it's not necessary." The red eye ceased its blazing, and Ahern found his faculties once more. Shaking the gloss from his vision, he untied his tongue and spoke again.
"Your eye," He sputtered. "That's some trick. How do you do that?."
"I cannot tell you, for I do not know myself," she replied. "The red eye shutters open as it wants, and when it does, the light from inside shines through."
"The light from inside your eye?" Ahern returned, truly perplexed.
"The light from everywhere and nowhere together," she offered. She turned to leave, but added one more comment. "Think about what I said concerning the strongman. He's no more than a trifle, and not a danger to your end."
Ahern sat astonished in his bed of straw, and looked over at Fairbanks and Barrymore, to see if her glowing eye, and the stars within it had dazzled them too, but they only slept, chests rising and falling with each breath. From outside, and clearly several steps away, Red Eye'd Lucy shouted one final thing. "Chop Chop, Mr. Glassface. We've arrived in Ithaca, just like intrepid Ulysses."
After a moment, Ahern scrambled from the back of the flatbed, and it was then that he realized he hadn't slept all that long at all. The dim grey light of the day was due to the coming afternoon rain, not the fall of night. His eyes quickly adjusted to the failing brightness, and he took in the Ithaca public fairgrounds for the first time. Across the already bustling midway he saw Lucy as she approached her tent. There, standing outside the flap and holding it open for her was Tom South, clad in his ridiculous overalls, straw colored hair whipping in the wind. Just before she stepped in, she put her hand on his massive chest, and stood on her tiptoes to say something in his ear. He lifted his gaze, and his eyes met Ahern's across the distance. Lucy dropped back to her heels, patted his chest, and bent under the flap. The strongman continued to regard Ahern from across the grounds, and a narrow grin spread itself across his face. Ahern couldn't tell if the smile was benign or malicious.
She can't be much of a mind reader, Ahern thought. I don't have any plans for the strongman. He looked to his left and saw the roadies uncover the bed of the truck in which he'd just slept away the morning. The activity had roused Barrymore and Fairbanks from their catnap, and they gave Ahern a casual look. "Although, maybe I should, huh fellas?" The lions gave a semi-simultaneous yawn, before turning away without interest.
• • •
After helping the roadies raise his tent and assemble his stage setup, Iron-Head Ahern went to the mess hut to grab a sandwich and a beer. The rain had been pouring steadily since arrival, and the shack was filled with carnies and roadies. Ahern grabbed a tray and loaded it with fixings and bread, grabbed a semi-cold Schlitz from a large steel tub filled with water, then proceeded to an old cable spool that was being used as a table by several carnies. They saw him approach and immediately fled, knowing he was rarely in good spirits. Ahern put his tray down and assembled his sandwich. He cracked his beer with his teeth, which were slightly chipped at the front, but had never broken in all the nights he had abused them. He looked out toward the midway, and the gargantuan circus tent beyond it, and there he saw a familiar sight.
Normandy the lion tamer was skunk drunk and stumbling into his trailer, bottle of red-eye hanging loosely from his fingers. Pulling a ring of keys from his pocket, he jammed one into the lock. He slumped through the door and let it rattle closed behind him, keys still dangling beneath the latch. Normandy was a committed souse, and Ahern had seen this event occur dozens of times. As usual he took little note of it. His mind was far too tortured by what Lucy had told him in the back of the truck. All that is mine can be yours, she had said. But I cannot freely give it. You must take it from me. She was so cagy. So much subtlety and vaguery. Why could she not just say exactly what she meant? Ahern had finally had enough. He would go to her and demand to know her motives. What was it of hers that he was supposed to have? She had called it a fortune the day before, but Ahern suspected that she didn't mean that word the way he'd always understood it. And why could she not just give it to him, whatever it was? Ahern felt like he was being baited, and that familiar feeling of rage that had been mostly absent since yesterday came on in full force.
He began walking through the pouring rain to Lucy's tent, clenching his teeth all the while. The downpour was so heavy that he was drenched within moments, and the visibility so limited that he didn't notice Tom South until he was a mere twenty feet away. The strongman stood like a statue in front of Lucy's tent flap, arms akimbo, utterly soaked with rain. He stared Ahern down, and Ahern glared right back. This was truly remarkable, for Ahern usually avoided Tom South just as habitually as Tom South avoided those lions. The tattooed man's anger may have given him courage, but it did not give him the strength to tussle with a blonde bull ox, and he knew it. They sized each other up for a moment more, before Iron-Head turned on his heels and headed toward his own tent.
The tent leaked from nearly every seam, and Ahern found it pointless to towel off. He also thought it futile to prep for a show that night, due partly to the thunder and lightning, but mostly to the fact that if anyone did show up to see the MO in the rain, they'd come for the acrobats and the red eye'd fortune teller, and little else. He laid down on his cot, which was situated beneath the tent's only reliable dry spot, and closed his eyes. It was then that his strange dream revisited him while fully awake.
The blackness flowed like liquid, and Ahern knew that it was ink, dripping from sharpened steel. This time the vision was accompanied by sensation, and Ahern could feel the searing sting of a thousand tiny punctures. Then suddenly the needles became red hot, and the burning was incredible. The razor tips of the needles began to glow so intensely that they melted into pure brilliance. Thin, blazing beams of scorching red light filled his senses, and the pain became even more intense. It felt as though his flesh was burning away from his bones, and just before he could take no more, he was floating through the grey. The glass spires jutted up from below, each coming to a sharp point above the fog. He fell, and the ground rushed up to meet him with its bright colorful sprites weaving this way and that. Then he stood in front of a huge mirror, a busy street rushing behind him. It was his reflection that struck him more than the strange nature of whatever city surrounded him. The cars moved fast, and were sleek, and vibrantly colored, but Ahern could only gape at his mirror image, which looked completely free of tattoos. He hadn't seen his unmarked face for more than a year, and he was shocked to note that he looked incredibly young and fresh. He wore an oddly cut but very clean jacket and tie, and his look matched the bizarre cityscape around him; sharp, sterile, and smooth. The only blemish he could see was a small bandage in the middle of his forehead, and when he leaned closer to the mirror to examine it, he realized that it wasn't a mirror at all. It was then that he was startled back into reality by a booming thunderclap. He sat up on his cot and saw himself in the large mirror on stage. He was still shiny with rainwater, and he was tattooed beyond anything his mother would ever recognize.
If he was ever to discover what the girl with the red eye had in store for him, he'd first have to do away with the strongman. He pondered for only a moment or two, before remembering something from earlier in the day. Opening his steamer trunk, he retrieved his tattered raincoat.
• • •
Twenty-five minutes later, Iron-Head Ahern stood before Tom South, who looked as though he hadn't budged since their stare-down earlier, though that had been late afternoon and the sun was now fading. The strongman was drenched to his very soul, but stoic. He said nothing, merely looking down at Ahern who stood a full foot shorter, waiting for him to speak. "Listen, Tom," Said Ahern. "I know you and I aren't the best of friends, but I could really use a hand with this new rig I'm setting up for my show. I hate to admit it, but I can't lift it myself." South remained silent. "Come on, pal. I know the palm-reader's got you on sentry duty, but can't you take a five and help out a fellow nickel man?" Still no response. "Honestly Tommy, all the roadies are drunk by now, and you're the only guy I know who could lift this thing. I'm askin' a favor."
At this, the strongman blinked, contemplated, then turned around to tap on the rain-soaked tent flap of Lucy Dolan. Before he'd even tugged at the canvas, she called out from within. "Go ahead, Mr. Muscles. The tattooed man has deemed that you must, and I can't help that. I'll do fine without you for a minute or three."
"See? Your new boss says it's okay. Now will you give me a hand?" Ahern gestured toward his tent and gently motioned Tom South to follow him. The strongman reluctantly obliged, and trailed Ahern across the midway, and to his end.
Inside Ahern's tent, nearly everything had been covered with tarpaulin for protection from the drips and trickles. "What needs lifted?" asked Tom South. This was the very question he asked members of his audience during his show. In fact, in all his time on the midway, Ahern had never heard him say anything else.
"That big ol' shiny mirror up there. I swear it's made outta lead-lined concrete," replied Ahern. " I put wheels on the bottom, so it rolls around easy enough, but I'm changin' the act a little bit, and I need it down here, in front of the seats." Ahern pointed to the area at the foot of the stage, were the first row of chairs was hidden beneath white canvas. South said nothing and climbed the twin stairs to mount the stage. His reflection filled nearly the entire mirror as he grabbed both sides of it and prepared to lift. "You're gonna want to lift that from behind, friend," offered Ahern. "Those edges are sharp like knives. There's structure in the back you can grab onto."
Behind the mirror was what looked like a medium-sized table, draped like most other things with a tarp, and Tom South had to roll the mirror out a foot or so in order to get behind it. He squeezed himself into the gap between the mirror and the covered table and got into lifting position. Hugging the wooden frame with his massive arms, Tom South took a deep breath, braced himself for something heavy, and showed Iron-Head Ahern an expression of pure shock. He exhaled in a wet spurt, released his grip, and collapsed sideways, pulling the tarpaulin cover from what he'd assumed to be a table, but was actually an undersized cage. His overalls were shredded, as was his back from neck to nethers. Blood pooled and then flooded from the four jagged gashes that Fairbanks had carved into the strongman's flesh through the gap in the bars. The cage door swung open as Barrymore gave a push, and within seconds, both cats were having at him. South first moaned, then choked, then shrieked so loudly it could have roused the dead from their sleep. This incredible noise was no match for the rain and the thunder though, and Tom South, Strongest Man In The World, died the death of his worst fears, while Iron-Head Ahern watched, his anxious nerves tingling. When the strongman had finally ceased his noise, and the lions began to eat the freshest meat they had likely ever been fed, Ahern turned his gaze from the gory aftermath to that huge mirror, its edges chipped in several spots from his bite. He looked at his ink-strewn form, and knew that what he had done could not be undone. He thought for a moment about re-caging the cats, loading them upon their rolling cart and returning them, but it had been quite an ordeal transporting them to his tent through the mud and standing water. Repeating the process in reverse would take more time than Ahern was willing to give. He felt a desperation to finish what he'd begun. Being fully committed to his cause, he decided it was time to steal a kiss, and whatever else.
• • •
Lucy Dolan was already standing in her tent flap when Ahern arrived. "I suppose your business with the farm boy has concluded?" she said, but Ahern gave no reply. "Okay then. Let's have done with it for heaven's sake. I've waited a dry age already." She stepped inside and Ahern followed.
Inside, the tent was nothing remarkable. No gypsy regalia, no tasseled scarves of every color, no crystal ball. There were merely two small chairs facing one another in the middle of the space, and a cot in the corner next to a steamer trunk not unlike Ahern's. He scanned the room for a safe, or a lockbox, but saw neither. The hypnotic feeling was coming over him again, but just as Lucy had said, it wasn't as pronounced or intense as before. His desire to kiss her though, was still overwhelming. "Well," she spat. "Will you take what will be yours, or do you need provoking?"
Ahern snatched her into his arms, leered at her with hatred and lust, and kissed her forcefully. His head seemed to burst with fire and stars, and the kiss lasted only a brief moment. Lucy's face reddened, and her breath heaved. Her red eye, dormant when Ahern had arrived, was pulsing and flashing with brilliant light. "What's the matter Mr. Tattoo Man?" she said. "You've arrived at the door after a desperate search, and you knock so quietly? You'll have to break it down, I tell ye. It cannot be opened from within." He clutched her in his massive hands, and she took a deep breath. The fire in her eye was infinite. "Do it already. So very tired am I."
Ahern pulled her into himself and kissed her even more powerfully. He breathed into her. He pushed his mouth forward into hers, and her eyes flooded with tears. Ahern choked out his rage, and she choked in return as their lips separated. Her eyes were calm, but she stumbled backwards as though surprised beyond belief. Her breath seemed stolen away.
"What I like about glass is that it cuts so clean," said Ahern. "Usually you don't even know it's happened until you see the blood." Lucy Dolan continued to rasp for a few moments until she spat out a rather large piece of gore-covered mirror, and with it about a pint of red liquid. She collapsed to the plywood floor, and claret streamed from her mouth into a puddle. She looked up at Ahern, and her red eye flickered, and went black.
"It's all yours, painted man," She sputtered, spewing blood as she struggled to create the words. "To your good health." Her arms collapsed beneath her and her head splashed down into the growing pool of blood.
Ahern rushed to the corner of the tent and opened Lucy's steamer chest. On the underside of the lid was a small makeup mirror, and Ahern saw that he too was bleeding from the mouth. He took no notice of the spot in the center of his forehead, for he was too busy rifling through her few possessions to find the safe. He found nothing. She hardly even had any clothes. He would have turned the place over, but there was no need. The tent was virtually empty. She'd said it was all his, but what? He'd murdered two people on this night, one who seemed to possess some kind of true magic, yet he was looking at a tent full of absolutely nothing as his reward. Panic struck him like a club to the face. His plan had always been to flee the MO that night, but that plan had included countless jewels and gypsy gold from Red Eye'd Lucy's hidden stash. Where would he go? After tonight, the police would surely be on his heels; he couldn't stay in New York, but he had only about eighty-seven cents to his name. The weight of his own violent and stupid decisions forced itself down onto his shoulders. He lifted the collar of his raincoat and fled the scene.
As he'd expected, the midway was nearly deserted, and most of the activity on the fairgrounds was taking place inside the big top. There were a few barkers out on the alley though, and when Ahern's eyes met those of Soros the Snake Handler, who was trying desperately to drum up some business, he instantly understood what it was that Lucy had given him.
He saw Soros, only a much older version of him, laying on a bed in a brightly lit white room with pale green tiles on the floor. There were tubes coming from his chest and his arms, and jammed down his throat was something that looked like a rubber hose. Suddenly, Old Soros' eyes roll back into his head, and a series of loud beeps and bells began to sound. Within moments, three nurses descended upon him, did all manner of things, but Ahern knew it was too late. Old Soros was dead. Ahern was seeing him as he was now, and as he would be in his last moments. He needed no explanation, he simply knew that this was the case. The spot in the center of his forehead began to burn intensely, and Ahern suddenly remembered his need to escape the vicinity before anyone found the bodies. He rushed down the midway through the fading rain, and as he moved, he glimpsed Zolo the Drowning Clown standing next to his overflowing dunk tank. Their eyes met, and Ahern saw Ivan Zolomov, age sixty-one, stabbed to death by a tall boy in a black sweater behind a gas station. Annabelle Chimovski was folding up her ad banner, planning on quitting for the night, but she was also bleeding out after giving birth to her only child, who would be named Anna in her honor, and would grow to become a true beauty. Ahern saw all of this and simply understood it. This was the gift that Lucy had given him. A gift she had been eager to be rid of. Ahern broke into a sprint as he entered the darkness that surrounded the Ithaca public fairgrounds.
• • •
About three hours later, in a small all-night diner, two waitresses and four coffee-drinking customers were unsettled when a drenched bald man with a tattoo-covered head and face entered the establishment. He watched one of the waitresses, still quite young, decapitated in a car accident, and saw the other have a massive stroke at the age of ninety-three. Two of the customers would burn together in a house fire in less than a year, while the other two would both die as a result of falling; one into a frozen lake, and the other off of a bell tower in France after taking a bullet in the shin. The tattooed man said nothing and proceeded toward the back and into the restroom. There was a mirror above the sink, and in it Ahern saw his new tattoo for the first time.
An eye, open wide, colored a deep crimson, now occupied the formerly empty space in the center of his forehead that he'd been saving for something truly memorable. He leaned in and looked closely, and was struck by a familiar vision. The needles and the ink were gone this time, but the piercing red light and the searing pain were stronger and more vivid than ever. A faceless man in a surgical mask and mirrored goggles moved the beam of red across his flesh, and he could smell his skin burning. He felt the agony, but there was also some form of relief, though he could not place why. The red beam faded, and he was rushing toward the ground again, colors zooming everywhere, glass spires flanking him on all sides. Then he was standing on that strange city sidewalk again, looking into that mirror that was not a mirror, but a huge window.
He leans in, examines the spot in the center of his forehead to make sure the small bandage that covers his only remaining tattoo (the one that could not be removed) is secure. He enters and finds himself in a restaurant. He's seated at a table with a beautiful woman. She's staring at him with some form of fascination and she's saying something, but he cannot make it out. Then suddenly, she kisses him with force. When she pulls back from him, the alluring Christopher Ahern has a small cut on his lip. She must have bitten him, she thinks, and reaches out to wipe the tiny trickle of blood with her thumb. He clutches her hand in midair between them, and he feels the spot on his forehead begin to burn. "It is you who will share in my fortune," He whispers. "And not soon enough, I say."
She smiles upon hearing this, and there is a gleam in her emerald eye.
Copyright © 2014 by Jon P. Straface