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L. M. Bryski


      BOOK OF BIRDS excerpt

       I almost missed seeing Dot huddled by the tent ropes at the entrance. She stood as she saw me.
       “Dot, don’t leave like that.”
       “I was scared.” Dot’s wail outdid the crowd’s roar behind us.
       Baby Jesus. I missed whatever they were cheering for.
       “C’mon.” Why did I have to take care of her? Why me?
       Dot let me take hold of her hand. Stammer paused as if deciding to go back in or stay. I was grateful when he started walking with us through the crowd.
       “Let’s go home, Elly.”
       “Not yet.” I was mad, and I wasn’t finished with the circus.
       Stammer said nothing. He just let us play ourselves out.
      “We’re not supposed to be here.” Dot dug her heels in. “If you won’t take me home, I’ll find someone who will.”
       I had to stop walking. It was that or drag her.
      Circuses are supposed to be fun. They only come once in a long while. Can you blame me for wanting fun?
       “Look. I’m staying. You can go if you want.” I let go of Dot’s hand.
      Dot stuck her lip out and tucked her arms under her pits. “I’m gonna tell.”
       It was the last straw. I looked for escape.
      We were beside the Fun House wagon. Billy Harner stood at the door, calling to the crowd. He caught my eye and winked.
       “I’m going there.” I pointed at Billy’s wagon.
       Dot said nothing.
       Stammer made a face. “You n-need money for that.”
       I didn’t think so. Not with the way Billy started calling me.

      “Hey, Sweets. Come inside the Fun House.” Billy smiled his dark teeth as I approached.
      I should have taken Dot to see the birds. She would have liked that. Then we could have gone home.
      “You like fun?” Billy waggled his eyebrows as he pointed to the wagon.
      “Sure I do. As much as the next person.” I felt all adult-like to be talking back to him that way.
      “Well, then. Go have some.” Billy leaned up and opened the door. I climbed the few wooden steps to peek inside. I could feel Billy close behind me.
      “You going or not? I got customers, y’know.” Billy’s breath came hot on my neck.
      I stepped into the dark. A mirror reflected both my distorted form and the outdoor light. My heart started racing, beating a staccato rhythm that had nothing to do with fun. Billy stepped in too, and closed the door behind us. I could feel his hands on my hips.
      “Boo.” Billy gave me a pinch.
      I screamed full throat. My feet kicked out and my fists went flying. Only twice did I connect with Billy. Most of my fury was spent on the mirrors surrounding me, reflecting me. Billy grabbed me and wrapped his arms tight around my own. I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to breathe for the smell of him.
      Hot wet tobacco grease-gobbed full and mean. Hard lips and face bristle. A tongue deep inside that I tried to bite.
      My first kiss.
      Somehow I connected with the soft part of him, and he let go with a groan. He still blocked the door, though. I ran the other way, banging into walls and mute-faced mannequins. Fun.
      I found a door somewhere as I heard my name called out.
      Stammer had followed me into the Fun House. Billy was silent but I knew he was still there, too. I’d let them work it out between them. I slipped out this back door.
      You don’t know what you’ll see when you come out from danger. It may be safety. It may be more danger. It may have nothing to do with you at all. I saw Mr. Oswin pushed against the back of the wagon, and Samson the Strongman leaning against him. They shared a kiss that looked much better than what I’d come from. They looked like they enjoyed it. I just stood there, wanting to cry my fear out, but more afraid of them noticing me.
      Mr. Oswin saw me first out of the corner of his eye, and broke away from their kiss. He flushed again, like he did when Samson ribbed him about having kids.
      Samson just straightened his costume and crossed his arms.
      I wish I’d been kissed like that, by either one of them. Now that I’d seen it, though, I chose to ignore it. I had bigger worries, like saving Stammer behind me.
      “Stani’s in there.” I pointed to the door I just came from.
      Mr. Oswin quivered, like some shock had worn off. “What?”
      “Stani’s still in there. With a man.” I felt silly saying it, having just seen them kiss each other. “A bad man. Billy Harner.”
      Both men shared a look, then stepped up to the backdoor.
      “Stanislaw? Are you in there?” Mr. Oswin peered in to the dark.
      “I’m h-here.” Stammer appeared alone.
      “Where’s Billy Harner?” The anger in Mr. Oswin’s voice surprised me.
      “I d-don’t know. I d-d-didn’t see him.”
      Samson laid a hand on Mr. Oswin’s shoulder. “Best let me do it. You know these little ones better.” He entered the wagon and was gone.
      I’ll admit, I didn’t think of her first.
      “D-Dot.” Stammer stammered.
      I stared a moment, still caught up in my own drama.
      “Dot.” Stammer repeated.
      “Where is she?” A cold flush swept the heat outta my chest. She had to be where we left her, crying. Mad.
      Mr. Oswin trailed us as we went round to the wagon’s front.
      People of all sorts walked by. Some stopped and looked at the Fun House. Billy Harner was on the stairs in front again, calling to the crowd. Samson came out the Funhouse door and spoke with Billy, who smirked and shook his head.
      Dot was nowhere to be found.
      “Dot.” I called and started pacing. “Dot!” I got louder and more frantic.
      Dot didn’t answer.