The Circus: A new NaNo tale for 2018

the newest adventures of some familiar characters.

***One***

Daisy

There’s a letter.

It looks like it’s been through hell, this letter, all crumpled and grimy.

It’s being pushed across my blankets, toward me, crumpled and grimy and hellish. The thing pushing it is the nose of a dog. A scruffy, three-legged dog at the side of my bed, nudging the letter from hell toward me with his nose.

The letter must stink, too, because this is my dog, and he’s blind, in addition to being three-legged, so he can’t see the letter to nudge it.

But they can smell really well, dogs, so maybe it doesn’t really stink, exactly. Maybe the grimy letter carries only a little whiff of the hell it came from.

My dog nudges the crumpled, grimy letter a little closer to my hand, which is resting on my blanket.

I don’t want the letter, not because it’s crumpled or dirty or smelly. I don’t want it because it is a dusty, unnatural shade of orange.

It’s the same dusty, unnatural shade of orange I’ve been dreaming about, or in, really, dreaming in this hideous color every night for the last seven nights. Hideous dreams in this hideous, unnatural color, which is the only thing I remember of those dreams when I was up.

Seven days in a row.

My scruffy, beautiful, amazing three-legged blind dog nudges the letter a little closer to my hand with his dear, sweet nose. I close my eyes and hope this is another dream, I’ll open my eyes and wake up and remember the color but not the letter, and I won’t have to open it or read it.

But none of the dreams had my sweet little dog in them, I’m quite sure, although I can’t be, since I don’t remember anything but orange. Still, I’m sure. None of them took place in this sweet little bedroom, in this sweet little house I share with my husband.

He’s not little or sweet, or my husband, truthfully. It’s easier to call him that then to explain what we are to each other. He’s big, and solid, and the thing to know about my husband-not-husband is that he will always, always be there when you need him. Although you will never believe this, because he is so very, very slow. You will never have faith that he will be there, make it in time. He takes so long to do everything.

Like right now, as I’m propped up in our bed, watching my blind dog nudge the hideous orange letter closer. I know I cannot face reading the letter without my morning coffee.

And the moment I think this, the exact moment my mind decides I will get up and get my own coffee because my husband-not-husband is taking so long, as soon as the thought “I need coffee” forms itself into words, he’s there, it’s there, a solid white mug filled to the brim with steaming, strong coffee that smells so good. I look at him with as much gratitude as I can muster.

He returns my look with one of pure love. I want this moment of the smell of coffee and the look of love to last forever.

It doesn’t.

“What’s that?” he asks, setting the mug of coffee on the table next to me, ruffling the scruffy fur on top of my sweet blind dog’s head, and nodding toward the hideous orange envelope.

And his asking that send us all into an orange-tinged nightmare.

***Two***

Walking from one end of the Circus to the other took him a full day. It had outgrown it’s name, no longer a series of impermanent tents dotting an abandoned lot.

The Circus had not simply taken over the city. The Circus was now the city itself.

No one could recall exactly how that had happened. As it was happening, it seemed more than impossible. It seemed absurd, that their capital city could be taken over so overtly. They had always been prepared for threats from outside, always been vigilant about who they allowed in.

They had forgotten to defend themselves against the clown.

A joke, an entertainment, a diversion. The clown used those expectations to amass followers and power, to expand the Circus itself, until he took over.

They looked around them in shock and consternation, the dwellers in this capital city. How had this happened? Surely it could not last. The system they’d built would spit him out at its first opportunity, as if it had bit into a soft, souring apple.

While they relied on the system they’d built, the clown played to the crowd. He won an election, and then another one, and by then he’d changed their system. Torn it to shreds, while they watched but failed to see, simply by misdirection, the oldest trick in the book.

Now he did not have to win elections any more. There were no elections inside the Circus, just wealth, power, and entertainment. Outside the Circus was chaos. Inside, there was safety and order. As long as you followed the rules, of course. And the rules were whatever the clown said they were.

Not that he walked much these days. There was no time to take a leisurely stroll through his Circus.

He had an empire to build, and like every clown, a master to satisfy.

He climbed into his golf cart, a six-seater emblazoned with the crest that signified he was the leader of this Circus, it’s president, it’s emperor.

Luther King drove his golf cart onto the dusty orange concrete paths that connected the dusty orange concrete building of his Circus in a sprawling, spiderweb-like pattern across the city that had not welcomed him, but now bowed to him.

A city of towering, imposing, nearly windowless block-like structures, built of concrete that glowed a hideous, unnatural shade of orange.

The color that most closely matched Luther King’s skin.

***Three***

Daisy

He calls me Daisy, and I call him Bert. Somehow, my sweet scruffy blind three-legged dog has taken on the moniker of Brutus.

We use pseudonyms because we have copyright issues. Bert wrote about us in our previous lives, and published the story. Even though it was bought by only about .000000000001 percent of the beings in this galaxy who can read, it’s all copyrighted. (Copy-wrote?)

Jokingly, we started calling one another by these non-copyrighted (copy-written?) names, and they stuck.

Daisy, Bert, and Brutus. Don’t we sound like we should be in one of those old-fashioned comic books, from a previous century, a quaint little planet? Bert loves collecting those. Because he does everything so slowly, including reading, you would think he’d adore big thick novels that last forever.

“A single frame in a single comic can last forever, or go by in a blink,” he tells me. “It’s not the length of the work, it’s the quality of your attention, Daisy.” If his slowness can frustrate me no end, my scatteredness does the same for him, I’m sure.

I can be, literally, all over the place. Most of the time, I hold myself together in this form I became used to as a girl. It’s comfortable, and when I catch a glimmer of myself in a mirror or something, what I see feels familiar. Bert does the same, most of the time, wearing the body he had when we first met. I love it. He’s handsome, and so different than me. He calls me beautiful, and I confess I love that, too.

And Brutus, he’s just always himself. He’s been with me for a long time, and I want him to be with me forever. I want them both to be with me forever. In a way, I live with two dogs: they are loyal, loving, a bit messy, will eat just about anything, and  find a way to make me laugh every day. We’re all from different worlds, different planets, even. But we made ourselves into a family.

So why do I want to read the hideous orange letter by myself, without them around?

As I think this, feeling the danger radiating from the awful envelope on the bed, there’s a cry from the next room.

“I’ll get her,” Bert says, and smiles that big, generous smile of his. He adores our little daughter, so much that even changing a diaper is kind of a joy to him. He leaves my coffee on the table, taps Brutus to follow him, and in one of the very rare times he moves sort of quickly, goes to see what the baby needs.

Our baby. Who would have thought that a shimmering being like me and a rock like Bert could even make a baby? We did, and she’s amazing, and like every baby, completely exasperating. But her waking up gives me the time I need to open the orange letter before they come back. I know Bert will take his time with M. We call her M., so her name will never be copyrighted. Copy wrote?

There is a stench when I tear open the grimy envelope. Stale popcorn, rancid oil, rotten peanuts.

I am in the Circus, the letter inside says. Please. Help.

***Four***

Starting the Circus here had been no accident. This place already had a lot of clowns in it. And no one of any importance had paid much attention to it for a long time. Eons.

The people who lived here had grown increasingly disaffected with their system. It helped those who helped themselves, all right – helped themselves to the planet’s natural resources, helped themselves to the fruits of the labor of others. For many generations there seemed to be enough prosperity to go around. Small groups of citizens would occasionally raise the alarm: we are running out of this, or that, or we are leaving too many of our fellow beings out of this prosperity.

These uprisings, small and isolated as they were, rarely went anywhere. Those who the system benefited most pretended to listen, pretended to offer solutions, pretended to implement those solutions. Some had the best of intentions to follow through. Some knew from the beginning that they would never act.

Meanwhile, on a different planet far away, an equally small and isolated being sat on the cold empty floor of a cold empty prison cell. He could no longer recall the specific transgression against the powerful rulers of his planet that had landed him in this dark, damp place. He might have written a satirical novel that displeased them. He might have tried to help a family who had lost their breadwinner to the violence the rulers wielded to keep the population in order.

Or, he might have done nothing at all. His eyes might simply have been the wrong shade of pink. It did not matter, as his eyes surely now had turned coal black for lack of anything to look at other than cold, empty walls.

Pale from lack of light, small from lack of nourishment, and insane from lack of contact with others, he had only one source of warmth: the flame of anger that burned in his very small heart.

***Five***

The Circus built itself over several years as the people flocked to its entertainments. Primarily, it offered freak shows. People on this planet hungered for nothing so much as reassurance that they were not freaks, and found strange comfort in identifying who the freaks among them really were.

It was especially reassuring that the freaks were all from other planets.  Or at least they were labeled as such. And they lived in luxurious rooms, filled with fine furniture, comfortable beds, and well-stocked kitchens, each full of foodstuffs from the alien freaks’ home worlds.

The only compromise for their comforts, it seemed, was that one wall of each room was glass, enabling the audience to stroll through and watch the alien freaks do whatever they did. At first, these “walls” were chain-link fences, but the audiences didn’t find them so reassuring. So the Circus upgraded every tent, as the money rolled in, with more luxury and more comfort. Soon tents became buildings with thick orange concrete walls, and bullet-proof glass instead of wire.

They must be happy, the audience of gazers assumed. They are so well-cared for.

The Circus also maximized its communications strategy. One if its first investments was a large public address system, calibrated precisely to the frequencies of this planet, with the capability of broadcasting images of the comfortable, well-cared for alien freaks directly into the people’s homes and communication devices. Advertisements, these messages were clearly labeled at first. Advertisements with inducements to come visit the Circus: refreshments, delicate treats and intoxicating libations; raffles and lotteries, with ever-more-glamorous prizes; and, as time went on, games of chance in which the gambles were on what would happen to the alien freaks.

What the audiences barely recognized, and shrugged off if the awareness threatened to creep out of the shadows, was that every inducement was carefully concocted to create more distance between the audience members and the freaks, to create the impression that the aliens were completely other, not us, them, so de-contextualized that their futures only mattered as the subject of wagers.

Then, their futures became the subject of votes. Audiences were given the power to vote on the small things that could happen to a freak: what they would find in the refrigerator, waiting to be made into dinner; what clothing would (or would not) be provided; and, eventually, issues of greater significance: marriages, living situations, whether or not there would be food at all on a given day.

The last step of the Circus’s master communications plan was the most heralded, and the most despicable. By then, audiences had so accepted of the role of the alien freaks as well-cared-for actors, there was hardly a ripple of reluctance when the first vote was called to determine who would be next.

Three aliens, “competing” to join their fellow freaks in the well-cared-for comfort of the Circus, based on audience popularity.

One journalist wrote a scathing op-ed about the evil of allowing citizens to vote on the fates, the potential incarceration, of fellow citizens, for entertainment purposes.

That journalist found his name on the next list of three “candidates” for additions to the freak show. He left the planet before the vote took place.

***Six***

Brutus

Nobody ever asks the dog. Rely on us, yes, tell us to sit, or stay, or roll over, or shake. But they never ask us, and we are too polite to offer the answers without being asked.

If Daisy had ever asked me, for example, where the letter came from, or who wrote it, or why it came to her. To us. I could sniff a lot of the answers for her. My nose is just that good. And if she had asked me to use my very good nose, maybe some of this mess could have been avoided.

Wait, avoid mess? I love mess. Mess is where the best, tastiest tidbits are hidden. Like the mess where the cushions of the couch make a little canyon full of bits of food, or the mess under Bert’s chair, where he always spills something he knows I will like. Which is not difficult, because I like it all, but some I like even more, and he spills those when he can.

I love Bert with all my heart, even though I love Daisy the most, because she’s my Rescuer. And I love their daughter with all my heart, too.

I have a lot of different all-my-hearts of love, which is one of the main powers that comes with being a dog. There are others: eating stuff that’s been on floors for days, without getting sick; an exquisite sense of smell that can distinguish over one thousand types of poop; eyebrow manipulation, especially for us Schnauzer-types; being able to fall asleep in an instant, curled up in a ball or sprawled with our bellies exposed, and to wake up just as quickly, immediately ready to protect our families or the toy squeaky ball we were chewing on before we fell asleep.

The power of concentrating on a line of thought is not a main dog power. We can concentrate on food, odors, balls, Frisbees, sticks, and poop. Thoughts are far more slippery. Which is why I am already wondering why I started this conversation.

Wait! I remember. Or do I?

Something just happened. It sounded like my name being called. They call me Brutus now, which I like equally as much as what Daisy called me before. Neither are my real name. My real name was given to me by my mother, when I was born, so long ago. I remember her cool nose and her warm, rough tongue, and her gentle eyes. I saw her eyes not with mine, but with my heart. She gave me my real name and fed me, and ever since then I have known without a shadow of a doubt that I have been loved.

Maybe this is why I never miss my eyesight or mind getting around on three legs. But “why” questions make it hard to move my eyebrows, and my tail stops wagging, so I don’t try very hard on those.

Was that my name again? I better go. I wonder if they are finally going to ask me something important. But then again, it might be breakfast time, which is just as good.

***Seven***

Daisy

“Have you ever heard of the Circus?”

Bert stops buttering our toast, which is hard to notice, because he moves so slowly that a full stop isn’t always obvious until much later.  He stops buttering, but does not answer me.

“Brutus,” he calls softly instead. “Hey, big guy, time for breakfast.”

When Bert stops doing something in the middle of it, and changes the subject, I know it’s serious. So I wait. He’ll tell me what he’s thinking when he’s ready.

Bert getting ready to speak can take a very long time, so I’m glad when he takes up buttering again. Buttered toast made by the person you love most in the world is my definition of comfort food. Warm, crunchy, a little salty from the rivulets of melting butter. It smells slightly burnt, the smell of love.

We eat, sharing the toast and the quiet, M asleep in her crib, the only sound Brutus slurping up his breakfast.

This is the kind of moment I dreamt about for so long, the safety, the comfort, the feeling of belonging to another being who would do anything to keep you around. It’s when I am most tempted to break into a shimmer of joy, when I can barely keep myself in this body, all its edges tingling and warm. There were so many years of not knowing my real self, living with my dear aunty and then on my own, always feeling a part of me missing, wondering why I could never settle, and then settling for a life that was so small it hurt. Brutus was there with me for much of that time, making me laugh, taking me for walks, making sure I had someone to think of other than myself. I love that dog with all my heart, because he is my Rescuer.

Now I have Brutus, and Bert, and M, and this sweet little house, and there is a hard, sick knot in my guts, thinking about my orange nightmares, the orange letter, its message. “Help me.”

At the same time, I have to admit that since M was born, I have been longing for something. She is wonderful and perfect, and taking care of her scares me to death. If I am brutally honest, this longing goes back even before M came along. All this comfort and love and safety. All I craved for most of my young life, having it is also wonderful and perfect, and taking care of it all scares me to death.

Bert pours us each a second cup of coffee and sits down across our dining table from me. “Circus? You mean the kind with elephants and high-wire acts? I don’t know of any around here.”

And I know, like that, in a snap, Bert knows exactly the Circus I’m talking about and he does not want me to know what he knows.

The knot in my guts twists. Brutus makes a small whimpering sigh. M wakes up and calls out to us with a baby coo and gurgle.

Bert smiles at me, a kind of smile that is carefully constructed to appear careless, an attempt to distract from the concern in his eyes.

It occurs to me that I might be on my own with this one.

***Eight***

M, twelve years later

I suppose for most teenagers, it would be weird to discover that there was a time in the past when your parents weren’t together. I don’t think of it that way. To me, the weird thing is that any two people would be able to stay together for very long at all. We are all unique, our combinations of genetic traits and environmental influences. How likely is it that two absolutely unique beings would overlap for more than a moment?

This can even be made into an equation. I suppose for most teenagers, equations are weird things they avoid, in favor of movies or shows or sports or dating or something. For me, equations are both reassuring and fascinating. Why wouldn’t everyone want to use them? There’s no better way to understand something.

For example, those relationships between two unique beings. Let g be the genetic make up, and e be environment, and within e, there are p (parents), s (school), l (love, a binary), w (war, another binary), m (money), and h (hope, the last binary), and then x is the likelihood of matching, and z is the factor that we can never pin down to more than an approximation. You get something like this:

G + (e*p*s*l/1*w/1*m*h/1) = z/? *X

I have tried solving for X, but I haven’t made it work yet. I will. Equations are all solvable, that’s one of the things that makes them so comforting.

My mom used to say I get my fondness for numbers from my dad. My dad tells me I get my curiosity from my mom.

I think I’m just me. It’s hard for me to see anything in me that comes from them, although I know it must be there. I’ve only known myself for sixteen years, give or take those months as a baby when I just ate, slept, and pooped without any self-reflection.

Maybe that’s why, when I found the journal my mom kept of that time, at first I didn’t want to read it. It seemed like something that was hers, and should be left that way.

Then my dad convinced me to read it. He said, maybe there’s a story in there you need to know, M. Or an equation you need to solve.

He was right.

I haven’t solved it either, yet, but I will.

***Nine***

Daisy

The next thing that occurs to me, after the idea that Bert might not help me find the Circus, is to go get the book.

Way back when, in the process of my first exile, my brother and I were sent away with a book. The book was designed to read the information broadcast wherever we landed, and send it back to the scientists tracking us. It never really worked that way. Instead, the book became this thing my brother and I shared, and eventually it brought us back together.

That’s another story, and it is copyrighted (copywritten?), so I can’t go into it here.

I still have my half of the book. I take it with me everywhere. Sometimes, it’s just half of an old printed book with a faded brown cover graced by the outline of a chubby bear. Every once in a while, though, it tries to function again.

We have lots of newer, slicker, more reliable technology in our sweet little house. Small communication devices that keep us in touch with one another. Large screens that play whatever entertainment we ask of them. Research has never been easier.

So why am I drawn to the book, this old, unreliable, definitely not slick bit of technology from a long-ago place and a long-ago past?

I don’t know, but Brutus goes with me, so maybe I’m on to something. One of these days, I’ll ask him what he knows. I’m sure he will not be able to tell me. But one of these days, I’ll at least ask.

I find the book, blow the dust off the outline of the chubby bear, and creak it open. I stare at the pages of text, thinking of the Circus, of the hideous orange color, of the smell of stale popcorn and rancid oil.

Brutus whines. His ears flatten. He manipulates his eyebrows in a way that makes me sure he is trying to tell me something. But what?

The text on the page I’m staring at begins to blur, then move, then it disappears entirely. The page is blank for what feels an eternity. Then an image begins to form.

The image is not orange, as I fear. It’s green. A lovely, emerald green. The green of fertile forests and spring shoots, the green of ferns uncurling, a green that even has a smell, mossy and a little metallic.

It’s the Green Planet, and now I know something about why Brutus whines and flattens his ears, even without asking him.

We’ve been there before. We know people there, one or two, if they are still alive.

We’ve seen the news from the Green Planet, and none of it is good.

The picture fades, the text on the page reforms, and the smell of moss is replaced by slightly burnt toast and strong coffee.

I go back to our kitchen, and Brutus follows. I sit down, watch Bert snuggle with M, watch him make her giggle and burp.

He’s a better mom than I am. How do I tell him that I have to go?

“When do you leave?” he asks. He already knows.

***Ten***

In what felt like a remarkably short period of time, but must have been decades, the Circus replaced the historic buildings and neighborhoods of the capitol city with its hulking block-like structures. Giant warehouses for the operations and entertainments of the Circus, they became famous for serving another purpose: order.

Inside these buildings, the story went, all was safe, orderly, predictable. Outside, all was chaos.

Those who believed the story flocked inside for a show, and stayed. The Circus built large residences. At first, they were hotels for audience members who wanted a week, or two, or more, of watching the Circus. Gradually, people stayed. For those who could afford it, it was an all-inclusive experience: meals, housekeeping, entertainment, all in one package. They became employees of the Circus, which never ceased its hunger for more workers.

At some point barely noticed, everyone in the city was either a Circus employee, audience member, or a freak.

Almost everyone. There were, under the eyes and ears of the Circus, a few exceptions they missed.

One old lady refused to sell her house to the Circus so they could demolish it and extend a corner of one of their giant concrete box across her little lot. No matter how much money they offered, no matter how they cajoled or threatened, she refused to sell. During the nights, hateful orange graffiti spread across her garage wall. During the days, she would scrub it off or paint it over. Her garage became a rainbow of colors other than orange. Finally, uncharacteristically, the Circus gave up and built around her. She used all her remaining paint to cover her entire house in flowers and birds and fish, a colorful riot of flora and fauna surrounded on three sides by tall blank walls of hideous orange concrete.

And inside the Circus itself, there were resisters. Any structures that huge have dark corners in which a person can hide. Any operation that massive offers the ability to hide in plain sight.

If caught, the resisters faced horrific punishment. Not torture or execution. The Circus discovered a much more effective punishment than that.

If caught, resisters were simply put into a room with one thick glass wall, the better for the audience to see them, and no way out.

***Eleven***

Following Luther King around all day presented no physical challenges at all. There was always an electric cart ready to transport the leader of the Circus and his entourage from wherever they were to wherever King wanted to be next. Each stop held food and beverages calibrated to his preferences. And his “workday” consisted of an hour or so after breakfast, an hour or so after lunch, and the daily staff meeting right before dinner.

In between, King partook of the entertainment empire he built. He would speed the cart to the newest freak exhibit, showing off the residents as stunning acquisitions, validating his prowess and popularity. While each thick glass wall held a sign warning audiences not to touch, knock, or place anything on the glass, no rules in the Circus applied to King. He would extend a stubby orange finger, rapping the glass with his knuckle, and if the freaks inside failed to respond he would pound out a tattoo until they turned and looked his way.

“See?” he would crow to the entourage, rapt in their attention to his every word. “These ones come from the outer Pleiades. No other circus has anything like this. These are the best freaks in the universe.”

One entourage member fought back the urge to vomit. This was the biggest challenge of being the orange clown’s inner circle: a constant nausea, an ongoing taste of bile in the back of the throat, a hovering acidic mucus clogging the nose. Smithers wondered if he was the only one riding the electric cart who wanted to barf every time King spoke.

Most of the bile was triggered by the overt lying and racism King spewed. But there was also the fear of being caught. Smithers represented the resistance inside the Circus, and had worked his way into King’s inner circle. If the orange man found out, Smithers knew, his next stop would be on the other side of a thick pane of glass.

As King crowed about the freaks from the “outer Pleiades,” a place Smithers and everyone else in the entourage knew did not exist, Smithers stepped quietly to an unobtrusive side door, nearly invisible in the hideous orange concrete wall. He knelt, slipped a piece of orange paper under the door, and returned to his place in the entourage.

One Pleiades freak made eye contact through the glass. Smithers nodded. The freak blinked four of her twelve eyes.

Contact made, Smithers held on to his seat and fought the urge to smile as King drove the cart away at a ridiculous speed.

***Twelve***

Daisy

It’s after breakfast, M is taking a morning nap, and my sweet little blind three-legged dog naps beside her. They are not exactly inseparable, Brutus will always come with me if I go somewhere. But he loves M and she loves him, and he feels like part of his job is to protect her. I wonder how he pictures her in that sweet doggy mind of his. Is she a constellation of smells and sensations, baby powder and baby soap and baby oil, soft pudginess, warm and a little salty to lick?

Bert sits beside me on our couch. We’ve recreated a lot of what we loved on Earth, from our first adventure together, and I’m not certain whether it’s sweet nostalgia or unhealthy hanging on to the past.

“Here,” he says, and hands me a slim book. Unlike the old book of mine, tattered and slow to pull information from the atmosphere, this one is slickly new. I touch the screen, and a graphic, stylized C fills the screen.

“Everything I know about the Circus. Well, almost everything.” Bert says. I look at him. “Don’t ask,” he replies to the question forming in my eyes. “It’s a long story, better for when you get back. This should help, though.”

Tears fill my eyes. Although his slowness can overwhelm me with frustration, he loves me with a rock-solid devotion.

“Hey,” Bert says softly. “You have to go, I know. There’s something happening over there that is ugly, and someone is calling you. The letter came to you, you know. Not me, not us. Just you. I’d love to come with you, but M needs me.”

This starts the waterworks in earnest. She’s my daughter, too, and I adore her, and yet it’s easier for me to leave her on some wild goose chase than it is for Bert. Shouldn’t I be the one staying home, sending him off to save the world?

“Doesn’t she need me, too?” I manage through a blubber. Bert puts an arm around me, pulls me gently toward him, where his shoulder becomes both pillow and handkerchief.

“Oh, geez, Daisy. Of course she does. We all do. You might be the most needed person in this universe.”

***Thirteen***

There was only one figure who frightened Luther King. And although this figure, on his regular visits, could fit inside Luther King’s pocket, the orange man found himself sweating through his hideous orange clothing.

King’s sweat smelled of stale popcorn, rancid oil, and old socks.

In preparation for this visit, King took his third shower. The first two showers were as hot as he could stand; then the last, he turned the cold on full blast until he might shiver himself into a million little pieces.

Stepping out into his dressing room, one of his entourage holding a hideous orange bathrobe, King’s heart pounded. Or, the muscle that served as a heart, pumping lifeblood through his orange body. Luther King prided himself on having no emotional heart. His only goal in life was to leave more money to his two sons than his father had left to him.

Not a particularly difficult challenge, he mused, choosing the hideous orange suit for his meeting. Thinking about his loser of a father calmed Luther’s fears for a moment.

No matter what he did, he would never be as stupid as the being who birthed him.

Another member of King’s entourage scuttled into the dressing room. “He’s here, sir.”

The organ that served as Luther King’s stomach, processing the food he took in copious amounts, lurched. The smaller organs that served as his bowels, moving the waste from that food to its evacuation shoot, clenched, as their contents turned into a burning sort of water.

Luther King waved his entourage out as he stumbled back into his bathroom, clinging to the comfort of his solid gold toilet.

***

Twenty minutes later, King found himself, the reek of rancid oil hovering behind his orange-scented cologne, in the presence of the source of his fear.

Albion Mus perched on a high chair at the end of the great long hideous orange table in King’s office. “Mr. King,” Mus greeted Luther, always formal but with menace in his squeaky voice. “I’m so glad you could join us.”

“Sir,” King nodded, refusing to rise to the bait about being late. “We are always pleased to host you.”

Around the long table, the members of the Board that funded King’s Circus remained silent. They knew their role, and knew who was in charge. Although Albion Mus could not be much bigger than King’s stubby hand, hence the high chair, and although his tiny, mouselike body glowed a timid pinkish white, they all knew what Mus was capable of.

“Then, let us get right down to business,” Mus said. “I’ve been reviewing your books, gentlemen, and the Circus is doing very well. Very well indeed.”

“Thank you, sir.” King swallowed. He kept so many sets of books for different audiences, occasionally even the lawyers and accountants in his entourage lost track. He crossed his stubby orange fingers, hoping Mus had seen the books meant for his eyes only.

“And yet, Mr. King. And yet.” Mus paused. Luther knew this as one of his tactics, leaving the silence to become heavier and heavier until his chosen target blurted something damaging or stupid. King knew enough to keep his mouth shut and count to one hundred, if need be.

“Well, there will be time for that later,” Mus said. Luther King felt sweat pool in the small of his back, or the area that served as the small of his back. It’s like your mother saying wait until your father gets home, and then you spend the next two or four or six hours dreading what will happen, King thought. “For now,” Mus went on, “let us talk about the freaks.”

***Fourteen***

In every building, there’s a dead time. A time when nothing is happening, no one is awake, and even the security guards, if there are any, fade into a daze watching dreadful broadcasts, or give in and slide into sleep.

The Circus was no exception. Its series of enormous dirty orange concrete structures each went into this dead time, and that’s when the freaks came out.

This was the resistance.

Smithers entered a small, hot, noisy room full of pipes, valves, and vents, deep in the bowels of one such structure. Various honks, whistles, and murmurs greeted him, the native languages of several dozen freaks from all over the universe. Just enough of them were multilingual to make communication possible through a series of translations.

“Let’s get down to business,” the leader said. Smithers leaned into the cat-like creature next to him, who served as one of the translators. As a result, Smithers associated a soft, purring voice with the leader’s vast, slug-shaped body. “First, we have a new building going up in the southeast quarter. We need an inside person there, and soon. We know what will happen to the beings housed there if we don’t.” The leader focused three eye-stems on Smithers.

This kind of thing usually came down to him. He was the highest-placed resistance member, as far as he knew. He would suggest, through appropriate channels, of course, that one of the more experienced freaks be placed in a new sector, to keep the newcomers from trying to create a revolt of their own. King’s toadying officials rarely cared to question or challenge his ideas, as long as it didn’t cause them any additional work. The official in charge of freak housing would wave at him, and Smithers would take care of it, planting a resistance member with the newcomers to help them adjust.

In fact, they did often quash open rebellion, after seeing too many early attempts at escape or revolt end terribly. The resistance had learned that their strength was not in brute force, but in organization and cooperation.

Smithers nodded at the slug-like leader, who went on to the next matter of business. “Now,” he said, through a series of translating murmurs shifting into the cat-creature’s purr. “We have a bigger problem. Our mail system’s been hacked.” Smithers’ bowels clenched. He pictured the beautiful creature in the Pleiades room, her twelve jewel-toned eyes, her graceful presence.

“We figure the hacking started about a week ago. Our team just discovered it today. We think the last dozen messages out were tracked. This means that anyone in the chain, senders, couriers, and receivers, are in danger. In fact, we’ve already lost one, from the Pleiades room.” A tear slid down the slug leader’s face.

Smithers leaned on the hideous orange wall in the mechanical room. That meant the last message he sent had been traced, and his Pleiades contact was somewhere he could not reach. The cat creature touched him with a soft paw.

“We keep going,” the cat purred, not a translation this time. This had become the resistance’s motto.

“We keep going,” Smithers answered, grateful for the touch. “We keep going.”

***Fifteen***

Daisy

I’m looking through the thick pane of glass from the wrong side.

I know I had to get in here, to become one of the freaks, in order to help. But I don’t like it.

Maybe none of them do, either. Maybe even though they are fed and provided for, comfortable even, they don’t like being the exhibits in some orange maniac’s zoo. A menagerie, they would call it, if we were all animals.

But each of us on this wrong side of the glass is a person. Animals are people too, come to that. Brutus, my dog. He’s a person. He’s from Mars. He told me all about that long ago. He loves, he suffers, he rejoices. Is there another definition of personhood I should know about?

So why do we always put a wall, or bars, or a barbed wire fence, or a thick pane of glass between “us” and “them”? Why do we divide ourselves this way?

Maybe it’s a question we never ask, or at least we never ask it deeply enough, until we find ourselves looking out from the wrong side of the glass.

Here’s another thing I ponder. Out there, Smithers and the other resisters are risking everything. In here, I’m safe. I’m fed, I’m provided for, I’m comfortable, even.

For now.

I’m the newest freak in this a group. One of my fellow roommates, I call them, for lack of another word, and also because I don’t want to call them cell mates, taps my shoulder. I am wearing my human form here. It’s freakish, perhaps, but it’s easer to interact from inside this body than from a relatively dispersed shimmer.

Or maybe I’m just used to it. It seems fair to have something I’m used to on this adventure into the unknown.

She- I think she’s a she – nods toward a wide, open area on the other end of our room. The floor is covered with an intricately patterned carpet that would be beautiful if the pattern wasn’t done all in hideous shades of orange.

And, like that, I’m flashing back. Or remembering a nightmare. I’m lying on the carpet, supine, unable to move. Paralyzed. Watching lovely creatures, like my roommate, come and go above me. Hearing derisive laughter from the other side of a thick pane of glass. Hating that I can do nothing to stop the laughter, nothing to tell the lovely creatures how lovely they are. Some are children. I’m not sure how I know this. They are smaller, they give off an aura of dependence, fragility. They do not know what the laughter means, but they feel its brutal intentions.

Hostility. Condescension. An undertone of fear, directed at them.

The smell of rancid popcorn fills my senses. My nightmare. This scene is from my nightmares, before I got the letter.

I snap my attention back to the present as my roommate taps my shoulder again. We walk to the orange carpet. She lies down and motions for me to do the same.

She is lovely. A luminous shade of lavender, a slender torso on a tripod of legs that fold under her like those of a giraffe as she descends to the floor. Her two arms end in long-fingered hands of a deeper purple. Her face holds a trio of deep emerald-colored eyes above a warm smile.

I lie down beside her, feeling thick and clumsy and blandly-colored. I long to show her a bit of the shimmer that is the real me, but before I can unzip a little, we are joined by others on the carpet.

A nearly-invisible door in the back of the room opens. A humanish person walks to the front of our carpet. She claps. Gentle music begins. Speaking a language I don’t recognize, she leads us by example in a series of movements. We stretch our various types of arms, legs, fingers, toes.

Yoga. I realize I am in a yoga class taking place here, on the wrong side of the glass.

It feels great, stretching and breathing, my human-form muscles warming and letting go of their tension, dropping into softness. Watching my roommates do the same, each becoming more beautiful as they do. We lie back for the corpse pose at what must be the end of the class.

I hear it.

Derisive laughter from the other side of the glass.

We are an exhibit, an entertainment, after all.

***Sixteen***

M, twelve years later

I thought the time my parents were separated was about me. Now that I read this journal, I realize how wrong I was.

I want to reach back through time and help the lovely lavender giraffe ladies and the yoga teacher. I want to help my mom, and Smithers, and the other resisters. They have Passion and commitment but they don’t have logic.

Equations.

They are looking for a way to bring down the Circus from the inside, and they don’t realize. There’s an equation for that.

There’s an equation for just about everything, if you know how to make it up.

In my own notebook, I start to sketch it out.

Solving for X is always the same process. Simplification. The only difference is how many other factors there are, which drives the complexity of the equation, and how many steps you need to go through to get that X by itself on one side of the equation. Once it’s there, on it’s own, then it’s just mathematics.

So let  be the factor that will bring down the Circus. I just need to list all the other factors, and figure out their relationships to each other.

Resistance is a factor. Probably multiple factors, since they seem to be a loosely organized group. Loosely organized phenomena are harder to solve for, tight organization is always better, but it’s far from impossible.

R>=1.

The number of freaks is a factor, but not a complex one. Same for the number of people operating the Circus. A ratio could work.

Freaks/Operators. No, O/F. The operators have more power, so they should be the numerator.

This makes me wonder. Who is really in charge? The orange dude, King? Although he struts around and all, according to the journal, I don’t think he’s the one. No single person would have enough resources to build something that big. A quick mental calculation confirms there has to be someone else, backing him up, putting in the real money.

I send a mental message across time and space, to mom and Smithers and the rest.

Look for the sponsor, I send. The Y factor. The key to the equation. It’s small, but undeniable.

The whole equation won’t solve without it.

***Seventeen***

Arrival on the Green Planet is fraught with danger. An invisible danger, one masked by the ordinariness of airports, all lit with ugly florescent lighting, smelling of stale air, filled with lines of travelers wearing expressions of mixed anxiety, boredom, and physical discomfort, from being packed into commercial travel pods, jammed together for their journeys long and short. The hum and whir of machinery is always the soundtrack.

If everything weren’t a hideous shade of orange, this could be any airport, any where in this universe.

The point of entry to the Green Planet presents two dangers: one general, one specific. Both lurk in your choice of lines.

Step into the right line, and you risk the general danger of being there for hours, as point of entry personnel and policies conspire to keep you waiting for permission to collect your baggage and exit into the cool, fresh air that blankets this lovely planet.

Step into the front line, and you risk the very specific danger of winding up in the Circus, behind a thick pane of glass.

The irony that many travelers come here to be in the audience, to see the famous and infamous Circus for themselves, is lost on airport personnel.

How can you tell which of the many lines that present their tail ends to you is the right line, where the only danger is wasting your time? And which is the wrong line, the one where people are pulled out for “interviews,” and never seen again until they are on the wrong side of the glass?

You cannot.

You don’t choose right and wrong here on the Green Planet anymore.

It chooses you.

At first, there seemed to be rules. Or at least rumors of ways to game the system.

Don’t look like a refugee, that was the main one. Any body who looks like a refugee is automatically in the wrong line. This extrapolated to don’t travel with someone who looks like a refugee, and then to don’t stand in line next to someone who looks like a refugee. And then, don’t stand in a line that has, anywhere in or near it, someone who looks like a refugee.

This led to bottlenecks of travelers roaming the exit halls, dragging luggage, unable to commit to a line, because they had no idea what a refugee looked like, and of course, a refugee could look like them.

Some groups launched a brief but bright “we are all refugees” movement, dressing conspicuously as they imagined refugees would dress, going to the airport and mixing in with the real travelers, trying to jam the system and mess with the Circus.

The movement disbanded as its members disappeared, resurfacing months later, if at all, behind those thick panes of glass.

It’s all for public safety, the Circus public relations messages said. We don’t know who these so-called refugees are, or might be, and we have a ready-made place to keep them until they are fully processed, to keep the true citizens of the Green Planet safe.

Even in a universe as small as this one, small enough to follow the science fiction convention of whole planets fulfilling the narrative function of cities or countries, there are always beings fleeing one lace and seeking refuge in another. Escaping poverty, war, or repression, they risk long journeys to places they do not know, but believe to be free from the horrors they knew at home. And therefore, these refuge seekers conclude, once safely in these magical places, they will be free as well.

Luther King and Albion Mus are refugees themselves. They fled lives of emotional starvation (King) and political prison (Must) to find a planet as welcoming, hospitable, and ripe for exploitation as the Green Planet.

Most refugees seek only to disappear into their new communities, carving out a safe place to live and make a living. Must and King came to conquer.

The security forces pulling people out of the wrong lines at the airport should have looked for wealthy businessmen in expensive suits made of the skins of exotic animals. These are the refugees to beware.

***Eighteen***

“It’s called the Green Planet, but we are turning it orange together!” Luther King raised his thick orange arms topped by thick stubby hands, waving the crowd into a roaring cheer.

Smithers would never get used to this view: a vast sea of beings in the audience, only the first few rows visible in the stage lights. The square, hideous orange back of the square, squat orange clown who could whip that audience into a frenzy of adulation by saying the seemingly stupidest lines.

It was the tail that got to him, though. Or rather, the tails. Each time King had a suit made from an exotic animal skin, he requested the tail be left on. Smithers had seen tails shaped like brushes, feathers, stubby worms, and long, lithe snakes. Tails that coiled, slunk, swept, and snapped.

Every new rally meant a new suit, and every new suit meant a new animal, and a new tail.

Smithers forced himself to look at the crowd from his seat on the stage, to the left of Luther King, where he was expected to keep a blank-yet-somehow-adoring expression on his face at all times, just in case a camera panning past King would catch Smithers in the background.

Once, a member of the entourage had been caught by just such a camera, eyes closed, head down, snoring. He was gone by the next day. Another time, a high-ranking official stared, horrified, at the tail of King’s suit, made from an animal whose eyes were at the end of said tail. The screen capture of that moment, the dead but open eyes of the animal staring from the end of the tail, the high-ranking official’s face twisted in disgust, went viral. Millions of views within minutes.

Needless to say, the official was never seen or heard from again. Even some of the audience members who had carelessly shared and re-shared the image of the tail-eyes and official-eyes in a dance of horror wound up on the wrong side of the glass.

Smithers swallowed, refocused on the first few rows of audience, and shut out the flutter of a long, tawny, furry-tipped something tickling his peripheral vision.

***Nineteen***

Brutus

Traveling with Daisy is great! I get to sniff a lot of different stuff. Sometimes, it’s uncomfortable. I have to make myself small enough to fit in a kind of bag with lots of air vents, and I have to stay quiet. Sometimes, I have to be small and quiet for a really long time.

Like this trip, which happened sometime after I pushed that nasty-smelling letter to Daisy. I knew it was important because nasty-smelling things usually are. I knew it was for her because in addition to smelling nasty, it felt heavy.

Bert takes all the light stuff, like baby M, who doesn’t weigh very much. Daisy takes all the heavy stuff, like stinky letters. And me in my bag with air vents.

After being small and quiet for what seemed like most of my life so far, although afterwards I could barely remember the whole thing, Daisy let me out of my bag. My toenails scrabbled on a hard floor. She shushed me, and a little tug on my neck let me know she’d put my leash on my harness.

I don’t mind wearing the leash on my harness, even though it’s completely unnecessary, because not only would I never disobey Daisy, I would never do anything dumb enough to warrant a tug on that leash. She explained it to me once. The leash isn’t for me, she explained. It’s for other people who would be nervous seeing a dog without a leash.

That’s okay. I don’t like making people nervous. Although I will, if I have to. I protect Daisy, and M, and Bert, and if that makes anyone nervous, they can tough it.

Most of the time, though, I like making people feel better. Like Daisy, if she’s down, something about my rough tongue touching her elbow always makes her smile. Or letting her rub my belly. Yes, I love a good belly rub. But it’s not about me. It’s about making Daisy smile.

How do I know she smiles if I can’t see? This kind of question sort of gives me a feeling of pity for beings who rely too much on their eyes.

A smile smells sweet, and ripe, and earthy. You don’t notice that smell if you rely only on your eyes, and it’s one of the best smells in the world. Daisy’s smiles smell sweeter, riper, and earthier than anything else in the universe.

So I let her shush me, and put my leash on, and I follow her wherever we are going after our traveling time. I smell everything along the way, just in case I need to help her find our way back here.

I’m a blind guide dog, Daisy says, and she laughs, and maybe that’s the best smell in the universe – all the good odors of a smile floating on the sort of hooting snorts she makes when she laughs.

***Twenty***

Albion Mus hated everything about Luther King. He hated the color orange, hated the animal skin suits, hated the big rallies, hated the adoring audiences. He hated the smell of rancid popcorn. He hated King’s stubby hands.

The only reason he tolerated King was that he had no other choice. No one else had the combination of public charisma and personal weakness that Mus needed to carry out his manipulations.

Staring across the length of the hideous orange table in King’s conference room, Mus fought off the urge to shudder. “The freaks, Mr. King. What is the long-term plan? We need to know your strategy.”

Mus knew that words like “strategy” and “plan” made King nervous, so he used them as often as possible.

King shifted in his seat. “Don’t worry, Mr. Mus. It’s all under control. I’ve got my best people on it.”

“That’s precisely my fear, Mr. King. Your best people have proven to be remarkably unreliable. The point of the freak show seems to be in danger of disappearing, as it expands willy-nilly. You remember the point, don’t you, Mr. King?” Mus focused his tiny eyes on a spot just below King’s bizarre hair. “The freak show might please your audiences, of course, but it’s real purpose is order. Reinforcing the natural order of things. The intelligent, educated, capable beings must remain in charge. Those who would bring chaos must be contained.”

Every member of King’s entourage looked down at the hideous orange table. None could make eye contact with the small, glowing pinkish white Mus, whose coal-black eyes never changed expression. Never had any expression. All expression came in his squeaky, sinister voice.

Mus reveled in his ability to turn so many big, powerful people into small, terrified lackeys. Even King’s eyes were on his stubby hands, clasped in front of him on the conference table.

“Those who would bring chaos must be contained,” Albion Mus repeated, dropping the squeak from his voice, making it raspy, almost violent. “This includes anyone, from anywhere. Right now, Mr. King, your port of entry is being flooded with new arrivals from all over this small, chaotic universe. Do you know who is coming in? Do you have a plan for them? And, Mr. King, do you have a plan for making the most of their captivity?”

From his own experience, Mus knew the power of keeping the opposition in captivity. He’d been the political prisoner. His offense was so far in the past he could not recall what he’d done.

He only knew that he had exited that prison a different person than the one who went in. He’d come out convinced that order was the answer, that only the elite could impose it, and that the only alternative was bloody, catastrophic chaos.

In service of his crusade to bring order everywhere, he would even use such a despicable being as Luther King.

***Twenty-one***

Smithers held his expression neutral and his shoulders square. No matter how many times he sat at the big hideous orange conference table, being in the presence of Albion Mus creeped him out.

“The intelligent, capable beings must be in charge.” Mus’s statement resonated through Smithers, vibrating his innards in a distinctly unpleasant way. Luther King was a despicable buffoon who could toss Smithers behind a pane of glass at a moment’s whim. Yet King never truly frightened him. Disgusted, yes. But not frightened.

Mus, on the other hand. Small, pinkish white, black eyed, terror. In his tiny presence, Smithers’s own primitive instincts wanted only to be ignored, passed over, kept invisible.

That wish was about to implode.

“You, for example,” Mus squeaked. His tiny coal black eyes aimed directly at Smithers. “Yes, you. What do you do here, exactly?”

Smithers knew better than to answer. He waited. King would step in, as he always did.

“He’s fine, Mr. Mus. He does what I ask him to do. As do they all.” King swept a stubby hand to indicate all the entourage around the table. “They all do what I tell them, when I tell them. That’s all they need to know.”

Mus remained silent, staring at Smithers, not responding at all to King. The atmosphere in the conference room snapped, crackled, and popped with the tension between Mus and King, and the odor of King’s fear underneath it all. Smithers waited. In all his life, in every adventure and accomplishment, every loss and time of wandering in his own personal wilderness, Smithers had learned to wait. Sometimes he chuckled to himself at the thought that waiting, which had been forced on him for so long, had become his superpower.

He waited as his innards vibrated with dread. He waited as King sputtered out words in a vain attempt to redirect Mus’s attention back to his orange self, and finally fell silent.

Smithers waited as the silence enveloped them all. He focused his attention on the spot right above Mus’s tiny pinkish white head, avoiding direct contact with those black, black eyes.

After a seeming eternity, but probably only about thirty seconds, of that blanket of menacing silence, Mus blinked. “Yes. Well. We’ll see about that,” he squeaked.

Smithers’ innards nearly turned to water.

***Twenty-two***

Daisy

Knowing this is where I have to be doesn’t necessarily make it easy to be here. I’m not one of those kinds of heroes, you know, the ones who never question their goals or abilities. The ones you read about in comic books.

I don’t like being on this side of the glass and I especially don’t like seeing all these beautiful people on this side of the glass with me. I know I had to get in here, but I don’t know for sure what to do next.

I wish Brutus, my sweet little blind three legged dog, was in here with me. I mean, I don’t wish he was here, I just wish we were together.

We were separated after I was pulled out of the line in the airport. When I was escorted into the room for an “interview,” and before I could react one of the officials grabbed Brutus’s leash out of my hand. “He’ll be right outside, don’t worry,” the official said.

When officials say “don’t worry,” that’s when you start worrying. I’m no super hero but I’ve learned that much for sure.

My “interview” lasted about five minutes before I was hustled into the back end of a black vehicle with no windows for me to see the scenery. Or know where I was or where we were going. I was told we were going to a “holding center” where I’d be “taken care of.”

You’d think that would make me terrified, but I kind of expected it, and knew I needed to get into the Circus anyway. These officials were just doing the heavy lifting for me. Reading the book Bert gave me about the Circus, no one ever claimed that there was mass slaughter or torture or anything like that.

Just separation and incarceration.

Bad enough, but maybe not so bad that the audiences would finally rebel? Maybe that was the strategy. Find that sweet spot where you can do what you want, giving the public enough comfort, enough plausible deniability, so they don’t erupt into open rebellion.

So I’m here, where I have to be, and I’m working on my patience, waiting for the resistance to get in touch, maybe another letter, and wondering what I will have to do.

I don’t know where Brutus is, but I assume he’s okay. I don’t feel that sickening sink in my belly that would tell me he’s, you know, not fine. I’ve learned over the years that my little blind three-legged dog is stronger and smarter than I am. Brutus might be that kind of hero, in fact. The kind that never questions his goals or abilities and always knows what to do next.

That wouldn’t surprise me at all.

***Twenty-three***

Bert dandled M on his knee. “Dandled. What a lovely word,” he murmured to his sweet little girl. She gurgled in response.

He nestled her into the crook of his arm, where she fit as if she had been chipped off that part of his body. Holding M was like bringing a severed limb back into place, like waking up from a dream of falling apart and remembering that you were, after all, whole.

With his other arm, Bert began writing. Who knew how long Daisy would be away on this adventure, this significant mission of hers, trying to end the Circus, or at least save a few of the freaks. Bert’s research on the Circus had taught him enough to feel a tightness around his heart when he imagined Daisy there.

M should have a record of her mother’s courage, dedication, and eventual success. Or failure.

Bert shook his head slowly, as if to dislodge the thought that Daisy might fail.

She always came back. Always. She would this time, too.

He wrote about her decision to go, how she had looked at M before she left, with tears brimming. He mentioned, but did not describe, their lovemaking the night before she departed. If M read this as a teenager, a description of her parents making love might be too much for her. But if she read this as a teenager, he wanted M to know that making love was what her parents did, that they adored one another, in spirit, mind, and body.

He wrote about the messages he received from Daisy, when she could get something out of the Circus. He wrote about the messages he received from others, his network of informants around this small universe who kept him in the loop on just about everything, in return for all the ways he had helped them over the years.

He kept the pages in a bright blue notebook, with a silver M in script on the front.

Bert wrote a love letter to his wife and daughter in that notebook, as he wondered what their futures would be like.

And then, after catching up on the latest, he put the now-sleeping M in her crib, and worked his network of allies until he had a clear plan of his own.

***Twenty-four***

M, twelve years later

Even though I know it’s over, by now it must be, I can’t stop working on the equation.

Today, in school, my teacher caught me with my notebook, trying to work it out, instead of listening to her lecture on history or something. She asked me what I was doing. I didn’t know how to answer without sounding crazy, so I mumbled something about working on homework for another class.

She’s pretty cool, so she just frowned, and reminded me to pay attention, and went back to her lecture.

My dad is worried a little, too, I think. He keeps asking me if I’m getting any sleep. I look at myself in the mirror, and I don’t look tired to myself. Maybe he hears me writing late at night? Maybe I’m doing that thing again, that I used to do when I was little, of moaning softly when I concentrate. I thought I’d kicked that habit. It sure seemed to unsettle people around me. I’d be focused on solving a complicated calculus thing, and lost in the challenge of it, and the beauty of it, and then I’d hear someone cough or something, and I’d look up to see people staring at me.

That’s when I’d realize that I was moaning the whole time. I’d hear myself, then, while seeing myself through the eyes of the people staring at me. I’d hear this low, kind of sad sound surrounding me and realize I was making it.

I worked hard to stop doing that. Maybe I started again, late at night, and my dad can hear it? Because I don’t think I look tired.

I’m not tired, not at all.

After everything that’s happened, and all we’ve been through, I just keep thinking that some how, some way, I can help.

It’s not magic thinking. I know my mom’s not coming back. I’m not trying to change that. There’s no point.

My dad hasn’t said so, but I can see it. It’s part of the equation:

D (m).

Daisy’s missing.

***Twenty-five***

Daisy

It’s easy to lose track of time in here, on this side of the glass. You have everything you need: food, water, a place to sleep, a screen for entertainment. A bathroom that someone cleans regularly.

Yoga classes.

Snacks.

You have everything you need, perhaps, except variety.

Every day is the same as the day before it. Every day is the same as the one that comes next.

You can’t keep track of the days, after a while, they all blend together.

There’s no calendar in here, and all the lighting is artificial. You can convince yourself that a day isn’t even really a day, after a while. It starts when the lights go on and ends when they go off. When the audience shows up, it’s morning. When the audience goes home, it’s evening.

A day could be twenty-four hours, or twelve. Or three. Or thirty.

You begin to go a little crazy, trying to figure out ways to mark the passage of time.

In the mirror, in the bathroom, I check on the progress of a couple of wrinkles on my forehead. I wonder if they are changing. I wish I could measure my hair. But it doesn’t grow at a steady rate, anyway, even this human body I wear doesn’t age at a steady pace.

I wake up, and put a little mark on a piece of paper. I’ve already forgotten whether I started this on the first morning here, or if it took me a while to figure out I needed to do it. So I’m not precisely sure how many days transpired before my first mark.

But right now, today, I’ve run out of room on the paper. I’ll have to find another one. I write a big “one” on the top of this slip of paper, so I will remember, when I need to, that this was the first.

I’m looking for a scrap of paper I can appropriate, checking the drawers in the little kitchenette they let us use, scanning for anything I can mark on, when the usual trickle of the audience swells into a crowd, then is cleared back from the thick pane of glass by some security guards on a little golf cart.

There’s a pause, a silence that is nearly absolute, that reminds us on this side of the glass of the fact that there is always a hum of noise on the other side. The silence is noticeable, almost as thick as the glass. Then the thrum of an engine and the screech of brakes fills that silence, making us stare at the glass, to see what the disturbance could be.

It’s a golf cart, bigger than the one the security guards drove up, and it’s full of people in dark suits, who appear to be hanging on for dear life.  There is one small, pinkish white creature, difficult to pick out any details of appearance, but it radiates an aura of cruel authority. The driver is a squat, stubby man wearing an orange suit made of some kind of animal skin. It’s a horrible vision, as he points at us with stubby hands, and the dark suit people nod.

A bright face hovers out of the background of dark suits. We make eye contact. His eyes sort of twinkle. There’s almost a smile.

The orange man steps on the accelerator and the golf cart veers away. The bright face stays turned my way for as long as possible, until it winks out.

It’s him, it’s him, he’s seen me, and now I know it will all be okay.

***Twenty-six***

After the long and painful meeting with Albion Mus, Luther King withdrew with his entourage to his private office suite. And raged.

King raged at the presumption the little pink-white Mus displayed, coming into the Circus and telling King what to do.

He raged at his entourage for a range of offenses, from not being obedient enough to being too sycophantic.

He raged at the Circus’s public relations machine, for not bringing in more audiences.

He raged at the audiences for swarming the Circus, overwhelming its hallways and food courts, leaving garbage behind.

King raged globally and specifically; he raged loudly, quietly, irrationally, pointedly; he spit, gestured, paced, ranted, raved, whispered, threatened.

He exhausted himself with rage, sinking into his large, hideous orange chair, spinning it toward the large plate glass window that looked out over his domain, waving a stubby hand to dismiss the entourage when his rage sputtered to an end.

“You stay,” King pointed to Smithers. “The rest of you, get out of here.”

Smithers nodded as his dark-suited colleagues escaped, flinging him expressions of sympathy. Always one member of the entourage had to stay to pick up the pieces of a Luther King rage fest. Lately, Smithers was King’s favorite.

It was not a point of pride. Smithers did not feel honored to be chosen.

He listened, keeping a careful, neutral expression on his face, as King detailed a litany of reasons why Albion Mus should stay away from the Circus. Why Mus should simply leave King in charge, to do what he was hired to do.

Smithers listened as King shifted his rage from Mus to the freaks behind the panes of glass. As if he believed his own propaganda, Luther King described the dangers they presented to an orderly society. Their differences, of language, appearance, values, beliefs, interests, were a threat. Their poverty meant they would tip into thievery and grift if left to their own devices. Their physical states were likely diseased.

King stated all this with his back to Smithers, staring through his window at the Circus spread out below him. Thinking of the person he just saw behind another pane of glass, Smithers had a fleeting fantasy of pushing King out that window. Would it help? He wondered. Or would another Luther King emerge, paint everything a different, equally hideous color, while everything else stayed the same, or worse?

***Twenty-seven***

Albion Mus stared out a different window. It also held a view of the hideous orange buildings of the Circus bound within its rectangular frame. But from the inside of his suite, where he stayed when visiting this awful, deity-forsaken place, Mus saw not an Empire, as he imagined King saw, but an increasingly problematic element in his master plan.

Emerging, blinking and timid, from that prison cell on his home world so long ago, released into a kind of freedom that did nothing to make him feel free, Mus worked to focus his eyes and mind on something. Anything. Taking in the wider landscape caused vertigo. He needed to scale down his vision.

His tiny black eyes focused first on a piece of garbage that flitted down the street, carried almost playfully in the breeze. Mus had learned to deal with his own waste in prison, with the stench that built up between the days when guards emptied the bucket in his cell. But something about the freely bouncing piece of garbage on an open street snapped a connection in his nervous system. Rage surged through his innards. The back of his pinkish white head grew hot.

If he’d been able to put it into words, he might have yelled to the universe, why does a piece of trash have more freedom than I do? Or he might have screamed, you who can move about freely, how can you pollute your freedom with garbage? Or, he might have whispered, menacingly, the only antidote to an onslaught of trash is order.

Order.

Bringing order to this small universe, picturing it as a quiet, calm, clean place, calmed the fire in the back of Mus’s head.

As he gazed at the orange monstrosities of the Circus, Mus saw the regular paths and streets, the symmetrical blocks of concrete, the lines and signs. His gorge rose at the notion of Luther King, all flamboyance and disorder, in charge of this beautifully ordered place. That would end, but it would have to wait.

Albion Mus had risen from a timid, blinking, angry political prisoner to wealth and power by realizing and accepting that order itself was the only value. Mus did not have a traditionally political or economic agenda. Everything he did created a corner of order, and then another, and then another, until garbage of all kinds was erased from his view.

King was useful for now. He had no idea, Luther King, that he was not running a vast entertainment or political empire. Mus allowed himself a small moment of satisfaction, for he knew he was gazing out at the universe’s garbage dump.

***Twenty-eight***

Making eye contact with Daisy sent a thrill through Smithers’ soul. He’d found her, once again, this was their story over and over. Finding one another and losing one another and finding one another. He snuck into the next resistance meeting with a light step and a smile on his face.

As he entered the mechanical room during the building dead time, the time the resistance members gathered and planned, his smile faded quickly.

They were arguing, in their halting, translation-interrupted way, as they did more and more these days.

Smithers sat quietly by the cat-creature, who shared his disgust with the time wasted in arguing. Together, they watched the drama unfold, making many inferences based on body language (dicey amongst different species), voice tone, and the scraps of translations they could make out.

A humanoid appeared to be scolding members for failing to show up for the small groups that worked on specific issues. The group assigned to food advocacy seemed to be particularly delinquent. Smithers wondered why they needed food advocacy. Were there freaks or aliens who truly weren’t getting the food they needed? No, it seemed food advocacy was about variety, not quantity. The food, it seemed, was boring. The resistance had voted at a prior meeting to work out a plan for sharing food, transporting it from one glassed-in room to another. Barring that, they wanted to demand the guards bring them more diverse dishes.

The slug leader tried to intervene. This led to a floor debate about the slug’s leadership abilities. Was the slug leader truly committed to the resistance principles? Had the slug been leading too long? Was it time for younger, fresher eyes (or eye stalks) to take on their problems?

Smithers fought the urge to get up and leave. Why would they all risk their safety, perhaps their lives, for more diverse dishes? Wasn’t their network about something deeper, more basic, more significant than that?

As the hum of voices in the room died down, Smithers realized he’d spoken those words out loud. The cat-creature had translated to the creature next to it, and so on, until the room fell silent.

“The slug is doing the best job possible, and has been risking life and limb, well, slime for us. It’s time to face the big problems. And, I happen to have part of the solution,” Smithers continued. Since he had the floor, he might as well use it.

“Daisy’s here.”

***Twenty-nine***

The interesting thing about the freaks on display in the Circus is that the more bizarre they were, the less the audience seemed interested.

The lavender giraffe-like creatures Daisy found herself among drew audiences for a while, but their novelty wore off. Few audiences drifted by as Daisy kept count of the days, such as they were, she spent behind the thick glass.

In other rooms, behind other panes of glass, were creatures that resembled squids, badgers, great apes, rocks, feathers, coils of rope, coppery wires, chunks of coal, spiders, and horses. These rooms were all calibrated to make the creatures comfortable, to keep them alive, with the amounts of water, food, exercise, and entertainment they needed. No more, no less.

But the rooms that drew the largest crowds, day after day, week after week, and now year after year, were the rooms that sheltered creatures that looked and acted the most like the beings who called the Green Planet home.

Humans.

At some point in the distant history of this small universe, humans had arrived on the Green Planet. Whether or not they decimated the life forms there before their presence was left to the dustbin of history. By the time Daisy arrived at the Circus, the Green Planet was full of humanoid creatures and so were the rooms behind the thick panes of glass.

How she wound up with the lovely giraffes mystified her. Perhaps a clerical error, or perhaps an intentional intervention in the system, so that she would stand out among her roommates.

She would be easy to find.

Her inclusion in the lavender giraffe room increased its popularity as a stop on the Circus tour. Audiences were curious about how a creature who looked so much like them wound up with roommates who did not.

Was she  being punished, they wondered, or was she somehow in charge?

They moved on to the next room, and the next, and they sought to understand what made the humanoid forms on one side of the glass different from themselves.

An entire academic discipline had grown to present scientific research documenting the evidence of the differences between freaks and normal humans. There was no doubt, the academics claimed, that these differences existed. The only challenge was to determine their exact characteristics.

The humanoids behind the glass wondered the same thing. What made those staring at them so different, deserving of freedom of movement?

Of course, Albion Mus had no illusions of such differences. Or such freedoms. He knew the whole point of putting the panes of glass between two groups of essentially identical beings was to distract them with figuring out the point of the panes of glass, so that they would not think to simply smash them.

***Thirty***

Very early on in the life of the Circus, Albion Mus recognized one of its most important potentials. As audiences flooded the halls and new buildings went up to accommodate more freaks and more audiences, Mus realized he was sitting on a gold mine of information.

Data.

Mus tapped a team of experts to figure out how to collect as much data about the audience as possible. At first, they were data scientists and software engineers. They created elegant algorithms and data visualizations. But they missed something essential. The visualizations were only as useful as the amount of data they could represent. And data remained painful to collect. Cameras were installed that tracked audience movements, and point of sale systems knew what they bought, when, and where.

But they were missing the who and the why.

It was the social media team that came together and cracked that nut. Customer service wanted real-time data about the audience’s perception of the freaks, the facilities, the food, and the merchandise. Social media created an app for audience members to tap their emotional “temperature” at any moment. The app used global positioning to determine where the audience member was, and the audience member volunteered all the juicy information the Circus masters wanted.

To get the app, users registered their names, addresses, ages, genders, species, all the demographic information that a marketer could want. They were rewarded with discounts and prizes. The more information a user shared, the more discounts and prizes showed on the app.

The fact that the actual awarding of discounts and prizes were not at all tied to use, but were doled out on an intermittent basis designed by staff psychometrists to ensure the highest addictive potential, went unnoticed by most users.

Almost overnight after the launch of the app, the data scientists and analysts of the Circus were overwhelmed by spikes in the quantity and quality of data coming into the system.

Mus celebrated, silently, switching his pinkish ears. The audiences increased in size and in their willingness to part with private information. His team was creating the largest database in their small universe. And it was all voluntary. All he had to do was tweak a discount or prize, and more data flooded in.

This information went to Luther King’s team, too, in a stripped down version, focused on marketing the Circus. Mus, on the other hand, behind the scenes, knew its real potential.

Lists of people, their behavior, their preferences, their locations, their origins. These would be the foundation of the order he intended to bring to the Green Planet, to make it an example to the entire universe of the benefits of order everywhere, all the time.

How delicious, he mused, that these ants crawling through his garbage dump offered up their own solution without a second thought.

***Thirty-one***

Brutus

Daisy’s here, all right. My nose always knows where she is. Also, my tail wags. So, my job is to find her.

Here means somewhere within smelling (and wagging) distance. My ears need to start to listen, and they do, as soon as I think about listening my ears do it. They swivel and bend and send information to my brain for processing. If my tail wags faster,  it means my ears are probably pointed in the right direction. This is how my tail helps. It’s a little bit of a tail, because some human early on decided to cut part of it off. I’ve forgiven them. They didn’t know any better. But it still works as a kind of antenna.

I’m working my nose and ears and waiting for my tail to tell me something when I recognize another odor. It’s so strong, I’m embarrassed I didn’t notice it sooner. I was focused on something else, that’s my only excuse, but what was it? I’ve already forgotten.

That smell is so familiar and so friendly and so exciting my tail spins wildly. Somehow I know I shouldn’t bark but maybe I have barked already, it’s hard to stop a bark before it happens.

He’s here, too, and close by. Maybe even in this room, which my ears and nosed have sussed out to be full of beings from all kinds of places, all kinds of smells swirl around, maybe that’s why I didn’t notice his smell at first. Or maybe he’s changed it. There’s a lot of hiding in this place. Hiding smells funny, like bacon that’s been on a dusty floor too long. It’s still edible, of course, but it smells funny.

Did someone mention bacon? It’s hard to focus in this room full of swirling smells of beings and hiding, and oh, that’s right, I’m looking for Daisy and he’s here.

He is here, in this room. I can smell it now, and my ears hear his particular breathing pattern.

He’ll help. He helped before, and took care of me for a while. I remember when I first met him, I lost a leg. I don’t blame him. I don’t think it was his fault. Even if it was, I’ve forgotten that part.

He loves Daisy almost as much as I do, though, that’s part of his smell. Baked in, like cinnamon in cinnamon rolls, his love for Daisy.

I’m not sure how, but I get myself next to him, without too many of these odd beings noticing, they are all so focused on arguing with each other. Arguing sounds like the nasty north wind where I met Daisy, and it smells like an old cat. There’s a lot of it here.

I get myself next to him, trying to forget old cats, cats can be okay, I’ve lived with them, but when they are old they are pretty grumpy, I get myself next to him and nudge his leg just as he says her name.

“Daisy’s here,” he says, like its news, and I try not to laugh as my tail spins again. I bark.

I feel his hand on my head, full of warmth and love and joy.

“Brutus,” he says. Yes, that’s me barking, after all.

***Thirty-two***

Daisy

That bright face on the other side of the glass. It stays with me, long after the golf cart driven by the ugly orange clown speeds away.

The face of the one person I would never expect to see here, although now that I have, it seems inevitable. Now I remember his messages, telling me about the trip he planned. Everything back on our “home” planet, the one we’d adopted, it was all hunky dory. He was bored. He needed adventure.

A feeling I know well.

My other half. Not Bert. He’s part of me, too, of course. But my true other half, the owner of the other half of the book of my life. The person (shimmer) who never stopped looking for me, every single time I got lost.

My brother.

My twin.

He’s here. And now it all makes sense. The letter is from him, that’s what Brutus smelled, and knew, and my brother came here to the Circus for some reason, probably to see if he could help in some way, and then he got sucked up into something and he sent out a message. Brief as could be. On horrible hideous orange paper.

This explains my nightmares. They aren’t my dreams. They’re his reality.

Our secret twin language, if you will, although we never really had one. We exasperate each other, but we are two halves of one person.

One shimmer.

Judging by his presence among all those black suits, my brother’s worked his way into some kind of position of trust or power. That’s his M.O. He enters a corrupt system, figures the enemy, bides his time. Plays dumb and passive. Becomes part of the machine. This is how he helped stop another planet from playing its part in an interspecies war by giving all its people up to be migrated, cyborg-sized.

For a moment I’m dizzy remembering that past me, the person who thought the planet I lived on was the only one in the universe, that plot I tried to foil was the biggest threat we’d ever face. The person who learned how to fight, watching my brother, not knowing who he was most of the time.

That person, the old me, seems so naive, so young, so hopeful.

This, what we’re involved in now, this is so much worse. Those creatures back then, the ones I thought of as “alien,” the ones with the cyborg plan, they were brutal but stupid. The orange clown strikes me as only a step or two more intelligent.

But this system wasn’t put in place by stupid creatures. This system is intelligent, and it feeds on the intelligence of its victims.

If my brother is here, though, we’ve got a chance to blow this thing wide open. My giraffe-like roommates start a gentle chant. One taps my shoulder. I wonder if it is time for yoga again.

No, this roommate isn’t inviting me to the big rug. She is trying to tell me something. Her expression, her eyes… she saw him too.

She knows my brother, and she’s delighted to meet me.

***Thirty-three***

“Brutus.” Smithers scratched the dog’s ears. This is the best news possible. Not only did Daisy make it, but Brutus is with her. Well, not with her. They were separated somehow, Smithers realizes, but it doesn’t matter.

Brutus is a Daisy-finding machine. And now that Smithers learned which room behind which pane of glass held Daisy, the two of them will not rest until they are a team again, all three of them.

The dog leaned into Smithers’s touch, small tail whirling rapidly. The rest of the resistance members watched, waiting.

Finally, through a murmur of translations, the cat-creature asked the question hovering in the air.

“Who is Daisy?”

Smithers laughed. “Oh, right,” he said. “There’s that copyright issue. You know her by another name.” Or they should know her, Smithers thought, although perhaps not that many creatures in their small universe had read Bert’s book. Quickly, he explained their first adventure, leaving out irrelevant details, sharing only the high points of conquering the plot to turn all the beings of a certain small planet into a cyborg army.

You can’t copyright a generic plot like that, Smithers thought, or science fiction writing would screech to a halt.

The room fills with more murmurs as Smithers’ story is translated, shared, and most likely misunderstood in a multitude of languages. The gist seemed to sink in, though, and the mood of the room lightened considerably. The resistance members forgot their earlier spats about food. Now, it seemed, they had an opening to focus on a real solution.

“Escape,” one voice said. “No, overthrow,” said another.

Smithers sighed. Another argument erupted, and though it was about something significant, Smithers wished this group could do something, anything, without turning on one another. The cat-creature whispered what it could understand, passing on the debate about their obligation to save themselves, their obligation to save other freaks, to stop the whole freak system.

He felt Brutus sit and then lie down beside him, chin resting between his front paws. Smithers wished he had the patience of a dog.

The patience of a dog. Oh, lord, Smithers smacked his forehead. The patience of a dog who should be sitting patiently with a small baby on another world. Baby M. How had Daisy managed it? His joy at the possibility of reunion with his twin sister now turned sour around the edges, realizing that she had left her baby daughter behind. His niece, in fact, who he had not yet met, lousy uncle that he was.

Brutus stood and licked Smithers’ hand. Yes, indeed, the dog was patient; but even Brutus realized the gravity of their situation. They needed to get Daisy back to her daughter. Saving the freaks in the Circus needed to be done as quickly as possible. M deserved a mom.

“I had to ask her to come,” Smithers said to Brutus. “I wouldn’t be able to do this with anyone else. I hope Bert will forgive me, one day.” Brutus whined at the sound of his other person’s name. “You’re right. The best way to earn forgiveness is to get Daisy, get this mission done, and get everyone home safe.”

***Thirty-four***

M, twelve years later

I have this uncle. He’s my mom’s twin. On their home planet, the odds of having twins were about one in thirty-five. That’s one of the highest rates of twin births in this tiny universe, and it means there are a lot of twins out there from that planet, which wound up kind of self-destructing, according to what my uncle says.

He says a lot of stuff that I am not sure how much to believe, to tell the truth, because he’s sort of a joker. He likes to make people laugh, and he doesn’t always stick super close to the truth. He’ll veer way off the road of facts just for a giggle. He’s told me that, too, which creates a paradox.

Do you believe a professed liar when he tells you he is lying?

I’m sure there’s a formula for that, too, but I don’t have time to figure it out.

The formula I need is the one that will bring Daisy home. Sometimes I wonder why it is that this tiny universe took my mom and sent me a goofy uncle in exchange. My dad loves my uncle, he says they have a history, that my uncle is one of his oldest friends. He knew my uncle before he met my mom, even. But I know my dad misses Daisy, too, like I do, like my uncle does.

Most of the things my uncle tries to make me laugh about are things to take my mind off my missing mom. They rarely work, but he keeps trying. I mean, he makes me laugh, but my mind never really leaves off puzzling out the equation to help my mom in the past, so that she can come home in the present.

Is time travel even possible? My dad says yes. He says we time travel in memory and anticipation all the time. He says everyone experiences time passing at a different pace, some more slowly, some quickly.  He experiences time in a different way than I do, than my uncle does, than Daisy did.

Does.

I hate it when I slip into referring to my mom in the past tense. It makes me crazy. My dad never does that. Bert reminds me that the diary I am reading was written years ago, but he never, ever loses track of the fact that Daisy still is.

Somewhere.

She is.

I’ll find her.

My dad challenges me to come up with the equation that takes this into account, this difference in how everyone marks the passage of time, all the time. He knows I have a hard time resisting a challenge. He also tells me it’s part of the equation that could help my mom in the past.

***Thirty-five***

The more time that went by with Daisy away, at the Circus, the slower time went for Bert. He was used to time progressing incrementally, especially compared to Daisy’s perception of time. One of the artifacts of their differences: what he experienced as a momentary blip felt like hours or days to Daisy. His slowness, as she perceived it, frustrated her no end.

And Daisy, in her shimmery way, created all kinds of challenges for Bert to keep up with. From here to there, from this decision to that, from this plan to another, by the time he’d figured out the first step she was waiting, tapping a foot, blowing out her breath, already there. He’d learned not to interpret her flitteriness as a source of stress for her. He’d long stopped trying to convince her to just, slow, down.

Instead, he worked hard to keep up. He focused his attention on the end of the process of whatever they were doing, instead of becoming lost in each step. He visualized Daisy, happily by his side, arm in arm, instead of waiting, tapping her foot.

And with baby M, there was more to do, and more to plan, and it made the challenge of keeping up more difficult, but also more worthwhile. M’s presence in Bert’s life helped him see the perspective that everything was temporary, everything was fleeting, and if he could squeeze out one more moment with the three of them together, it was worth all the effort.

Bert had always reveled in effort. His special gift was making effort look effortless, and his ability to arrive just in time was carefully cultivated.

And now he felt that ability rusting.

The longer Daisy was away on her quest to take down the Circus, the less he had to work to keep up, the slower time went. It seemed he would put baby M down for a nap, make a cup of coffee, read the latest missive from Daisy (which might have arrived the day before or a year ago, or anything in between), and by the time he went back to check on M she was toddling around her bedroom. And by the next time, she was reading.

Bert felt M’s childhood slipping away. His heart broke at the realization that so much of her early years would always be invisible to Daisy, the one person who would understand M best.

One day when Bert felt Daisy’s absence most profoundly, and while he was in the middle of considering a particularly important part of his plan for her rescue, there was a knock on the door. Since Brutus the dog had gone with Daisy to the Green Planet, Bert had no warning of someone’s approach. It took him a while to get to the door, during which time, several more knocks rapped out. “Patience,” he called out. Was he doomed to be perceived as slow by every other being, even a stranger at the door?

It was no stranger. The person on the other side of the door was, other than Daisy, the person who Bert most longed to see. He started to cry out the arrival’s real name, recalled the copyright issues, and beamed instead.

“Good to see you too, Bert,” Smithers said and leaned in for a stony hug.

***Thirty-six***

“You made it,” Bert said, holding his old friend Smithers at arms length, beaming the smile that had made so many fall in love with him over the years. “How is she?”

“Well,” Smithers began, but before Bert could determine whether he meant Daisy was well or whether that was a hesitation, a buffer before diving into the bad news, M sent out a wail from her bedroom.

“Sounds like I’d better say hello to my niece,” Smithers said. Bert gathered up his girl and brought her into the living room of their house, plopping her on the comfortable couch that faced the front window. Smithers sat next to her. “Hey, little M,” Smithers cooed.

The chubby toddler moved eye contact from Bert to Smithers, an expression of interest tinged with anxiety reddening her cheeks.

“That’s your uncle, your mom’s brother,” Bert reminded M gently. “Your mom, Daisy, sent him to say hello to us.” Bert shifted his gaze to Smithers. “She did, didn’t she?”

“Ah, well, of course she did. In her own way.” Smithers smile did not change. Bert wondered what he meant by “in her own way.” Daisy did everything in her own way. What would be different now, that his old friend felt the need to qualify his statement this way? “She wanted me to see my little niece in person. M, it’s so nice to meet you, finally, without a screen between us. Face time has nothing on your little face, you know. And you certainly have your mother’s eyes.” Smithers swallowed noticeably, triggering another fish-flop of anxiety in Bert’s stomach.

As if she’d suddenly remembered the person in front of her was someone she was related to, M’s face lit up. “Unca!” she said. “Unca, unca,” she repeated the word a few times to herself, as if testing it on her tongue.

“That’s me,” Smithers said. “You got it, kid.” M turned to Bert. Their daughter’s first sentence was something he’d always thought he’d celebrate with Daisy. Instead, he heard it with his beloved’s brother, while wondering if he would ever see Daisy again.

“Where Daisy?” M said, in the serious tone of voice only toddlers can muster. “Where Daisy?”

“Now that’s the question of the day,” Smithers said.

“Yes, it is,” Bert agreed, willing with all his might that Daisy’s brother would have the answer.

***Thirty-seven***

Daisy

I’m living this in real time, writing some of it down as best I can, and my giraffe-friend has hooked me up with the mail system to get messages out of here.

I send everything I can, every little scrap of paper with a line on it, as much as I can muster, out to Bert. Bert’s my go-to, he’s my husband-not-husband, partner in life, all that, but also, he’s connected.

Slow, but connected. I want him to know what’s going on here and know I’m okay so he can focus his network on helping us do what needs to be done.

Bert will get here, eventually. About the very moment I give up on him entirely, he’ll be coming through that door with no handle on this side. I try sometimes to fool myself into believing I have given up on him entirely, just to see his beautiful, solid, maddening self arrive, all smiles and I told you so’s and we’re together nows.

With my brother and me and the resistance working on it, we’ll be ready.

We’re the chaos on the inside that will bring the chaos from the outside.

See, this is what I’ve figured out. This place isn’t a zoo or even a holding pen, a jail, a prison.

It’s a garbage dump. It’s the place where these people, the orange clown and his pinkish white master, want all the chaos held, so they can have their blissfully ignorant and perfect order out there. I’m not even sure the orange clown knows this. He thinks he’s in charge, but he’s being played. It’s obvious.

So I write all this down and send it by hook or by crook to Bert, so he knows what to do.

And he will save everything I write for M, so when she’s old enough and ready, she can read about this.

Of course I hope I’ll be there to tell her in person. That’s the plan.

But if I’m not, for whatever reason, she’ll know her mom in some small way.

***Thirty-eight***

Brutus

My people are so cute. They are also silly. They take so long to smell what is right in front of them. I mean, if I were that close to a peice of bacon, cooked just the way I like it, extra crispy, so I can melt it on my tongue for a split second before gulping it down, then…

Where was I? Bacon always distracts me, even when I’m only imagining it.

Oh, yes. Daisy.

She’s close enough to smell, the odor of her so strong in my nostrils that my tail wags. People, sadly lacking tails, also lack the alert system they provide. My tail is wagging, I feel the tiny breeze it generates, and I check my nose.

Sure enough, Daisy.

I must have yelped that, because Smithers puts his hand on my shoulder. “What is it, Brutus? What are you trying to tell me?”

See what I mean? Silly. As if that particular yelp could mean anything other than Daisy. So I yelp it again, louder, because sometimes that works.

“Tell you what, old boy. I’ll just follow you.”

Follow is a word I understand, and usually it means for me to get behind the person. That’s what I do, crowding myself behind Smithers, with my ears lowered, because it’s dumb for me to get behind him when I should be leading.

Dumb? No, I meant silly. You can’t really accuse people of being dumb. They just don’t have the right tools, the way dogs do.

There’s a tangle of legs as Smithers seemed to try to get behind me at the same time I try to get behind him. Then he laughs. I love the laugh smell. His is similar to Daisy’s, earthy and sweet, but with something else, a tang of pickles, which always reminds me of loneliness.

“No, Brutus, I meant you go first. Go ahead, take me to Daisy.”

I’m already halfway to the door of the big noisy room by the time he finishes this sentence. I know how to do this.

Daisy, here we come.

***

Turns, long straightaways, sneaking through doors Smithers has to open for me, after I scratch at them and whine, more turns, something smells funny, more dusty bacon, but it doesn’t take too long and we are on the other side of one last door.

Daisy’s smell is strong here, and I know she’s on the other side. Smithers shushes me, a thing I don’t much like, but as a good dog I try my best to shush.

He raps out a series of knocks on the closed door, shushes me again (was I matching the raps with my yips? Maybe I was), and then I hear a woosh, and there’s a bit of air, and the smell of Daisy is so strong I push through the now-open door and find myself licking her face.

Then I’m squished between Daisy and Smithers as they hug. This is a kind of squishing I love very, very much, and I’m happy to lick whoever’s face is closest to my tongue.

There are other smells in here, other beings, who smell like lavender and rose petals and ozone. They do not frighten me one bit, and when Daisy and Smithers separate, I feel a soft kind of nose checking out my ears, and that’s okay, too, I make myself still so the nose can do what it needs to do.

Meanwhile, Daisy and Smithers talk about things, many words I don’t understand, but I do understand these.

“You have to go. Tell Bert what’s happening here, let M know I am okay, help him. He’ll be working on a plan, if I know him, but if he doesn’t hurry it will be too late.” That’s Daisy’s voice, and I understand the words “go,” “Bert,” “M,” and “hurry.” Since Daisy says these words, I know she is correct.

“But that leaves you here unprotected. If I’m here, with the entourage, I can at least let you know what King and Mus are planning. What they’re up to. I can funnel that information to Lael, here, through the resistance.”

I don’t understand any of these words, although “funnel” sounds familiar. Did I come through something like that on the way here? I can’t remember.

Also, the word “unprotected” smells bad.

“If the mail system’s been hacked, then we can’t get messages to Bert without endangering him. You need to go in person. Can you? Is there a way out?” Daisy’s voice sounds so worried, I move away from the several soft noses gently nuzzling me, and closer to her.

“Theoretically, yes, although on one’s tried it yet,” Smithers says.

“First time for everything,” says Daisy, and I smell her smile, but very faintly.

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