The ringmaster had caught a new cast member en route. So said the rumours around Seattle before the Circus Scientia rolled up with its fleet of wagons and canvassed tents: a new figure to add to their motley crew of halfbreeds, and this one was winged.
It was big news. Most folk had dismissed the ornithological hybrids as a myth, preferring to focus on the documented problem of the freaks that couldn't fly - mothers hurried their children home from school because 'the wolfmen like to prey on little children like you'; full body checks would be run before admittance to any workplace, searching for scaled clumps of skin, gills, pronounced canines, tails. Bird people were largely unreported and unseen, even amongst their own halfbreed kind.
Some townspeople had told of humanesque shapes in the sky at dusk - always dusk, as they would hide in the alleys and forage until it was dark enough to travel - but these accounts were treated as urban legends, fairy stories. And now some upstart ringmaster had claimed to have picked one up on the wayside and tamed it into submission.
Opening night at the Circus Scientia (6:00PM, Friday, 12th December!!!!! declared the poster's gaudy violet print) was an oversubscribed event. Anyone who was anyone was shelling out for a ticket, front-row seats reaching upwards of five hundred dollars, and the week leading up to the show was a-froth with gossip and speculation, whether hospital or police station or office or school.
The school of one John Egbert, seventeen-year-old prank fanatic and geek extraordinaire, was no exception.
'You know it's gotta be a hoax, right?'
John shook his head free of the pleasant daydream fugue it had been shrouded in. Last class on a Friday was never all that great for concentrating in, and this Friday was particularly so. The girl next to him chewed her gum for a couple of seconds before repeating herself, eyebrows raised.
'My dad thinks it's real,' John said slowly. 'He's pretty up on his circus stuff.'
'Then he should know they'll lie like crazy to get suckers to buy tickets,' she said. John glanced across at her notepad, to see that she hadn't written anything down except four more hours!!!!!!!! in a variety of different colours . 'It'll just be some dork in some crappy feather suit. Maybe it'll be some halfbreed freak they can dress up like a bird, but that's all it'll be. They've never even got a photograph of a bird mix, and some guy expects us to believe he caught one?'
'I think I'll stick with what my dad says,' John said.
She didn't dignify him with a response, just rolled her eyes expressively and went back to practicing her typography. John paused for a while, biting his lip and wondering whether or not to chance it.
'If you think it's fake,' he said eventually, 'then why are you going?'
The girl - Veronica? Violet? He couldn't quite remember, but it wasn't like they talked much - hunched over her notebook, her face burning a sudden and violent shade of mulberry. The bell tolled to signal the end of class and she stayed where she was with her mouth pressed tight into a sullen line.
'In case it isn't, right?' When he smiled, it wasn't unkindly.
'Shut your mouth, Egbert,' she grunted, shoving her books into her bag and hiking it onto one shoulder. 'I guess I'll see you tonight and we'll find out who's wrong.'
She thought he was going? Ah, but he had given her that impression, hadn't he? With his circus-savvy father and his stupid rush to defend of the trade's integrity. He couldn't really blame her for assuming, even if it meant bringing back the cold throb of resentment in the pit of his stomach; no one ever really likes being left out of something big. Especially so when you were a kid who lived twenty minutes away from the circus pavilion itself, close enough to sometimes hear the music and the laughter carried on the wind.
' I'm not going,' he said with a cheeriness he didn't feel. He busied himself with his own book-bag so that he didn't have to look into her face while he talked. 'I mean, I want to. But tickets, y'know?'
'Bad break for you, geekoid,' she said, but this time her voice had dropped a few notches on the acidity scale. 'I'll tell you if it's real. Which it won't be, on account of circuses being made up of completely lame fakey bullshit.'
'No problem,' she said, and sauntered out of the classroom without saying goodbye.
John took his time on the way back home. He wasn't thinking about the Circus Scientia's opening night, and how fantastic it would be - he hadn't been to their tour last year, but his father had, and had bored him silly with a verbal essay on just how perfect the whole affair was ('One might say they got the art of circus down to a science,' Dad had deadpanned while cooking dinner, and John had buried his face in his hands). No, best not to dwell on things like that.
He was thinking about halfbreeds. Not that he liked that word - it was oddly evocative in a way that he was only just beginning to come to terms with - but society had yet to hit upon a consensus for what their proper terminology should be. Names ranged from the offensively clinical (genetic aberration) to the offensive (litterslurry, mongrel, zoo children) to the specific (lupines, amphibes). Halfbreeds would have to do.
People had been talking about them a lot recently, sparked into discussion through the circus' influence, and the sentiment regarding them was unanimous: Dangerous. Violent. Upsetting. THREAT TO OUR CHILDREN, one newspaper screamed, while TEEMING WITH DISEASE emblazoned another. These articles rarely had photographs; these animal sorts would hide at the skirts of society, cloak themselves in darkness and stick to the shadows of a society that actively rejected them.
Halfbreed was an unfitting term in many ways, because they weren't classed as half a person.
Half would have been generous.
It'd be cool though, John allowed, to meet one properly. Maybe it would be a little scary, too, but that was okay. He'd come across a boy with a hard shell and pincers once when he was younger, a sharp-faced boy that was scavenging for food at the back of a burger stand, and the boy had made such a terrible noise and such a violent gesture with his claws that John had run back to his father - shaken, but not terrified. Not in the way you were meant to be terrified of those people. Those creatures.
Maybe once the hubbub over this new bird guy - lame fakey bullshit or not- had died down, John could go to the circus. He could hang back, wait 'til the crowds had died down, and maybe try to meet them. If they worked for circuses alongside people, they had to be safe to talk to, right? It made sense?
That wasn't a bad thought at all.
John found himself whistling as he walked up the pathway to his house.
The boss at his John's father's office was predicting some big change in the economy - something bad, judging from how often Dad was getting called in and how strained his smile was when they telephoned - and so he wasn't surprised to find his dad in the kitchen , packing a lunch for his work shift.
Dad didn't appear to notice him arriving at first. He was flipping through a set of manila envelopes and shuffling them into his briefcase.
'Little late home today, son,' he said.
John stuck his tongue out and sat down at the counter. 'I was thinking about things!'
'A pastime I'm proud my boy indulges in,' Dad tipped his hat and put a foil-wrapped slice of cake into his lunchbox. Then he reconsidered, and added a second. From here John could see that the lunchbox already contained a sandwich, a flask of coffee - and for reasons best known to his father - a spare can of shaving cream. 'However. When the youngest Egbert in the house takes a whole extra hour to come home, his father starts to get worried he might come home late enough to miss the best part of the festivities - and that, John, wouldn't do.'
Sometimes Dad was really weird. Not that John was complaining. As far as parents went in the last years of the decade, Dad Egbert was an acutely charming and tolerant one. Unfortunately for John, sometimes this charm manifested itself as eccentric habits like baking multiple cakes a week, packing shaving cream to take to work, and chiding John for almost missing festivities that didn't exist.
'I don't think Nanna would mind me showing up late to sit in the house and listen to radio plays.'
Dear, sweet Nanna Egbert had been deceased for the past eight years. They kept her ashes on the mantle next to the wireless radio.
Dad turned from his completed lunchbox to look John in the eye. There was the merest hint of a twinkle in his eye, and John felt himself tense up. The other wearisome thing about Dad was that he was the only person in the world who could stand toe-to-toe with John on the battlefield of practical jokery.
'Got something behind your ear there, sport.'
Gah, oldest one in the book! Embarrassing for everyone involved.
John felt behind his ear. Nothing.
'Wrong ear,' Dad said. He leant over and twirled a piece of lacquered paper seemingly from thin air. He held it in the air for a moment, face-up, and then handed it over. 'and before you ask, it was free, and before you ask the question after that, let's just say I have good connections.'
The piece of paper in John's hands was small, numbered, and barely had any writing on it at all. What was written was printed in violet ink, and a considerable section was taken up with today's date alone. An ostentatious choice for marketing considering the price coloured ink would fetch at the presses, but it was something of a trademark for the Circus Scientia.
Which was what the ticket in his hands was for.
John stood there, mouth dry, temporarily robbed of the ability to speak.
'I wasn't entirely sure if you were still the sort of gentleman to go in for circuses,' Dad said, still in the same even tone of voice as always. He took his pipe out of his mouth for a moment and tapped it against his cheek. 'But after you seemed so interested in that new fellow they've picked up...The one with the wings-'
'The one everyone thinks is fake?'
'Their ringmaster is an insult to the trade and the race that runs it,' Dad said. His smile didn't quite reach to his eyes, which were narrowed and for once unreadable. 'A liar, a cheat, and I would hazard a gamble that the only reason his show runs so smoothly is because he's not afraid to abuse his crew. But I talked with him a little after the show last year, and that was not a man who'd spend so much time and money rigging a hype campaign for a hoax. I swear-'
His son cut him off by seizing him in one of the tightest hugs he'd ever given, all clutching arms and face nuzzled up against his tie. An ungainly for an enterprising gentleman of eighteen, John thought, but judging from the warm chuckle and his dad's hand ruffling his hair, not an altogether unwelcome one.
'I'll walk you down to the pavilion on my way to work,' Dad said. 'I trust you won't get yourself into any trouble.'
John grinned, trying to quiet the awkward feeling in his stomach. He'd cheered himself up with the idea of waiting afterwards to talk to the crew - talk to the halfbreeds, really, that was what it came down to - but on opening night it would be so busy that there would be no chance. No chance at all.
At least it meant he wouldn't risk getting into trouble.
'I won't,' he said.