art by Jeffrey Redmond
by John M Shade
The trucks roll into town like a fog, muted colors and brands dotting their sides like worn heraldry. Soon the spikes are down and Sluggoth is pouring the sand. Rime lifts the tents with cool, arctic winds from his fingertips. Panoply's clones hammer nails and put up boards. And everything starts to look familiar again.
In the main tent, around the sand and dirt floor of the arena, a wooden wall is erected eight-feet tall. The worn, angled seating rises from there. A makeshift gate sits on the side where the opponents emerge, and another across from it from where I emerge. Real boulders dot the floor for cover or weapons, or both. Everything is wood or stone, nothing metal.
"I've had plenty enough experience with magnetic controllers to know that a little fire ain't so bad," Mother Circus would say.
I sit waiting in a covered trailer during the day, far removed from the rest. It has benches and a dirty mirror and is filled to the ankle with stale, pallid water, a necessity when Red Octopus had been here. Once, the trailer had been filled with all different kinds of costumes, each of us boasting our colors to the other: Kid Shambler, Falcon Low, Halcyon, Mimetic Lad, Jack Lantern, Red Octopus.
I remember them all, but I could always see her the clearest.
In the children's games, we would always play in our costumes, capes fluttering at our backs, parents keeping a safe distance on the lawns, watching close. Tiara would always volunteer to be the damsel. No one knew why. Tied up and hanging over vats of plastic lava or acid, she would whisper to me, "You can save me this time. You really can."
I never could.
"I've got another hero for you," Mother Circus says as they are making the last preparations for the show. She looms over me in the trailer, having to stoop for the low ceiling. The stitching across her face has come undone again. The frayed edges at the corners of her mouth crinkle loudly when she grins. "You'll be wearing these tonight."
She throws me a costume and I turn it over in my hands. Cowl, cape, red and gray. So common, I think.
She says, "Shape it however you want. I don't care."
"Where did you find him?" I ask.
"Her," Mother Circus corrects.
I raise an eyebrow.
"Rare," I say. The women in masks were the first to go.
"Yeah," she says.
"Is she trained?" I say.
"Put up quite a fight when we took her."
"You'll be meeting her soon enough," Mother Circus says, and motions with her hands like she's wiping muck from her shirt. "Hasn't been cleaned yet, though."
I try not to imagine all the methods used to get her to say yes. No one agrees to this without convincing. No one except me, it seemed.
I hear the stitches crinkle again as Mother Circus strolls away, back down the steps, the wood protesting her girth as she goes.
I meet the new hero in the waiting area, behind the large arena gate. Sluggoth comes and fetches me when the preliminaries are done and leads me through a series of tented corridors--all white and gray and stained with dried blood--connected to the waiting area.
Small and lithe, she has egg-white hair and an absent gaze. More a dancer than a hero, I think.
Sand from the arena trickles lazily in to mix with the mud around our feet. We stand listening to the crowd call for combat. Above our heads they stomp and pound, some with masks and some without. They come to watch something precious and rare, just before it's gone again.
It's never as fun watching the villains fight.
The woman superhero turns, looking me over, her sidekick. Her mask is red like mine but with faded gray edges, and sparkling blue eyes underneath. She says, "My name is Jessie. My real name, you know."
There is fear in her eyes, a forced smile.
"You're not going to last," I tell her.
"They're going to come for me," she says.
I shake my head.