"Have you seen my bear?"
Even as that anguished cry left Lodz's lips, he realized the words were the same ones he'd spoken back when it all began. On the fateful day that had changed everything.
I spoke English then because I could see the soldier's uniform wasn't Russian or German, and I'd heard there were Canadians in the area. Then I got closer, and could actually see "Canada" in small print on the shoulder.
Now there's no question about language, but I have no idea who just barged into the trailer and is standing three feet from me...
He knew, of course, as soon as he heard the voice.
A voice that said bluntly, "Your bear is dead, Lodz. Along with three kids."
Lodz staggered backward as if he'd been struck a physical blow. Gripping a table for support, he wailed, "You let them kill my bear? You let them kill Bruno?"
"No." The voice was shaking now, with an emotion he recognized as fury. "I didn't 'let' anyone kill your precious bear. I shot the damn thing myself, so it wouldn't try to eat any more kids!"
Lodz let out a shriek and lunged at the other man. He knew the dwarf Samson was a small target, but he guessed wrong at the height and found himself clutching empty air.
Samson's kick sent him sprawling.
He didn't try to return to the attack. He curled up on the floor and lay sobbing as Management thanked Samson for solving their problem and ordered him to move the carnival out of St. Louis.
For the moment, Lodz didn't care who ran the accursed carnival. He could think only of Bruno, and the choices that had followed his first disappearance.
If I had it to do over, knowing what I do now...
No! I mustn't let myself think that way! It's too late for regrets.
But...what if I hadn't looked for him? What if I hadn't met that Canadian soldier...?
The Great War: Russian front, 1917.
Lodz trudged disconsolately across a plain littered with corpses, flinching only slightly at sporadic bursts of gunfire whose distance he couldn't judge. The sky was so darkened by particles of debris that the sun seemed a distant memory. But when he'd last looked at his pocket watch it had only been 3:00 p.m.
The battlefield reeked, a mix of smells in which he could identify smoke, blood, vomit, urine, and feces. He didn't glance down at the substances he was stepping in, tried not to think about them.
He'd called for Bruno until he was hoarse. Now he walked aimlessly, not really hoping to find his beloved bear, not sure where he'd go or what he'd do if he didn't.
Why wouldn't those fools listen to me? I said it was crazy to bring a carnival so close to the front! Any animal would have been driven berserk by all that noise.
But he had the only animal act, and the manager had ignored his warnings.
For him, starting over with another bear was out of the question. He and Bruno had been together so long that he viewed his charge almost as a brother. Even the name he'd chosen for himself was a tribute not to his home town, but to the one in which an older trainer, nearing retirement, had given him the young Bruno.
He sighed. Not that this has been anything like the life I expected when I ran away from home to join a carnival...
It was that carnival's two psychics who'd enthralled him, fired his 14-year-old imagination with dreams of becoming what they were. He'd hoped to learn secrets and master skills that would let him soar above the pig farms of rural Poland...free his questing mind to explore faraway places, forgotten times, and the fearsome realms of spirit.
Unfortunately, both performers had turned out to be phonies.
Even after becoming an animal trainer, Lodz had pursued his dream. He'd moved frequently from one carnival to another. But in decades of searching, he'd found only a few psychics with even a trace of real talent; they'd told him it had to be inborn. He'd finally given up.
So you're all I have, Bruno. And you're probably as lost without me as I am without you.
He paused wearily, giving himself the excuse that despite the poor visibility, it might be a good idea to stand in one place and take a slow look around in all directions.
It was when he had his back turned that the soldier almost backed into him.
Both men spun around, gasping. The soldier raised his gun in a jerky movement, then lowered it quickly as he realized he was facing a civilian.
Lodz took in the unfamiliar uniform, remembered the talk of Canadians, and blurted out in his fluent English, "Have you seen my bear?"
The soldier's expression wasn't as bewildered as might have been expected, given the question. But he still looked incredulous as he asked, "The bear is yours?"
Lodz's heart gave a mighty leap. "Yes, yes! You've seen him? Is he all right? He ran away from a carnival. He's tame, he was just frightened by the noise -"
The soldier was shaking his head. "I've seen him," he said grimly. "Not five minutes ago. But he's turned wild. He was eating dead bodies back there in the trench I was in. Then he attacked another soldier and me. My gun jammed -" He shuddered.
Lodz panicked. "Did either of you shoot him?"
The soldier gave him a strange look, but said, "No. At least I don't think so. The bear came at me, and my gun jammed. The other man - a Russian - fired and missed because the bear was moving, and it turned on him and began mauling him. I don't think he got another shot off.
"My gun still wouldn't work - all it's good for now is bluffing. And the one I grabbed from the nearest corpse was out of ammo." He seemed to be reliving it, talking more to himself than to Lodz, trying to convince himself he'd done the right thing. "Only the Russian and I were alive, and I figured all the other guns in the trench could be out of ammo. If I tried to fight the bear without a working gun, I'd just get myself killed along with the Russian. So I decided to get a safe distance away till the bear moved on, then go back and see if I can find any weapons that are usable."
He didn't add, "And go after it." He didn't have to.
"That was a good idea." Lodz shifted uncomfortably, aware of the man's eyes on him again. "I'm sorry he attacked you. He was hungry. And then he smelled the blood from the corpses...
"But you have to believe me, he's normally tame! Please, please don't kill him!" He hated himself for begging, but he couldn't stop. Gripping the other man by the shoulders, he pleaded, "Please let me go with you! I'm sure I can control him, even now. Let me help capture him and take him back to the carnival!"
The soldier hesitated. But then, to Lodz's surprise, he nodded in agreement. "All right." His grimy, sweat-soaked face managed something close to a smile. "This is quite a coincidence. Before I enlisted, I was a carnival performer myself."
Lodz was taken aback. "That is strange, considering how few of us there are." Since the man didn't appear to be any kind of freak, he asked, "Did you work with animals too? In Canada?"
"In the U.S., though I am in the Canadian Army now. And yes, you could say I worked with animals, but not in the same way as you. Do you know the American carny term 'geek'?"
Lodz made a face. "Yes."
"Then you can imagine what went through my mind when I saw a huge animal coming at me. Nature's revenge for all those small ones whose heads I'd bitten off."
Lodz couldn't think of a response. But he didn't have to. His new companion continued, "Wait here while I go back to search the trench. I won't be long."
"It would be safer if I went with you."
"No. I want you to stay here. It's not far - I know the light's bad, but if I yell and you answer, I won't have any trouble finding you again. This may take me a few minutes. I have to check on the Russian, and, uh, patch him up if he's still alive."
"I could help -"
"No! Stay here!" The tone brooked no argument. But before he turned away, the Canadian - or American, or whatever he was - stuck his hand out and said more politely, "I'm Henry Scudder."
Shaking the proffered hand, the bear's newly hopeful owner replied, "Lodz. Just Lodz."