“Painted Love” Rob Thurman
Love is a bitch.
There’s no getting around it.
But I’ll get to that later.
First . . . first came Bartholomew.
On any given day someone can be a hundred different people. I’m not talking Sybil here, and no voices in the head, but no one is singular within themselves. They’re good . . . help a little old lady with her groceries. They’re bad . . . steal a magazine from a newsstand. Sometimes they’re smart, sometimes stupid. Sometimes loving as they give their child a kiss on the cheek and murderous in the next minute when they jack a car and kill a man in the process. People are people. Hateful and peaceful. Content and miserable. Honest and deceitful. With all of that inside fighting for control every minute of the day, it’s a wonder everybody’s not banging their heads against the wall. And those around you—even you yourself—aren’t ever quite sure what they’re going to get from moment to moment.
I knew that just like I knew from watching him that Bartholomew was nothing like that—the exception that proved the rule. Bartholomew wasn’t at war with himself or his darker emotions. With Bartholomew it was all about Bartholomew. What he wanted and what he’d do to get it. Love wasn’t a bitch to him, because he loved himself inside and out.
All the best sociopaths do.
It wasn’t just my luck to hook up with one—it was an occupational hazard. I’d seen more of the world than most and it wasn’t by drifting. I always had a plan. I’d long found that the best way to travel was to find someone who was going somewhere you wanted to be, stick with them, and keep your mouth shut. You’d be surprised how little they minded, mostly because if you picked the right ones, they were entirely self-centered. They were generally puzzled to one day realize they’d picked up a buddy, wonder how you’d slithered in under their radar and become a fixture in their lives. But that’s another thing about people: they didn’t want to ask too many questions. Some people didn’t like to look stupid, some people didn’t like to make waves, and some people—the smartest people—generally didn’t want to know the answer.
And the ones like Bartholomew—they ultimately couldn’t bring themselves to believe someone had put one over on them. After all, that’s what they did, not what was done to them.
I was good at it, what I did. Maybe you could say I used people, but I did it out of harmless curiosity. My talent for hanging around by blending into the background was useful, but I didn’t put it to the same use Bartholomew did his. He worked at a carnival, which was what had interested me in the beginning. I’d seen a lot of things as I made my way around the world, and a carnival was more or less next on my list. I came across Bart on a week away, whoring and drinking mostly, heard his glib stories about where he worked, and there found my opportunity.
His ego was my ticket to ride.
When he returned to the carnival with me tagging along, I saw his work. I don’t mean him giving away stuffed prizes or running a few rides or ushering people into a mirrored maze, although he did do all those things. Nope, Bart’s true occupation was hurting people. Sometimes for entertainment, sometimes for profit, but always with the zeal you find in those who truly love their jobs.
Bart . . . he couldn’t get enough of his job.
Not that it was my problem. I wanted to see what the life in a carnival was like, and that’s what I would do. If Bart liked to play mind games with gullible people, it was their fault that they weren’t a little sharper, now, wasn’t it? Or at the very least it wasn’t my fault. I was just along for the ride. Speaking of . . .
His carnival was one helluva ride.
It had been settled for two weeks in one small scrubby field on long-bladed grass that cut like knives, and spectators’ feet had stomped its grounds down into dry, pitted dirt. There was a Ferris wheel that made the most god-awful sound as it creaked up and around. It was the groan and rattle of a dragon’s dying breath—the last dragon in the darkest of ages, its final breath heated by fire and coppery with sacrificial blood somehow caught and bottled to run some unimaginable, infernal machine. Only instead of all that, it ended up wheezing its way through a garishly lit wheel that, instead of grinding their bones to dust, spun screaming children along in paroxysms of delight. That dead dragon was probably embarrassed by it all.
I liked it.
Then there was the carousel. If you’ve ever read any book, seen any movie, heard any carnie tale, you know carousels are where the very best and worst things happen. Depending on which way you spin, depending on what animal you choose to ride, Fate either kisses you on the lips or slits your throat. I loved those stories, because they got it right. That’s exactly how fate was: capricious as fuck. She would ignore the biggest decision in a person’s life yet gleefully wipe your slate in a fatal do-over on something as innocent and simple as a merry-go-round.
Perched proudly upon it was one particularly shifty-looking red-and-black-striped tiger with faceted red glass eyes that glittered like bloody tears. I wondered where he’d take you if you climbed in his saddle. I doubted it was Disneyland.
The maze of mirrors: now, that was creepy, flat-out. If you looked just the right way, took the fastest glimpse over your shoulder, you could see your reflections turn to shadowed doppelgängers with sharp teeth, hungry smiles, shadowed holes for eyes, and taloned hands pushing against the glass that locked them away. Hardly anyone did, though, look just right. But I did, each time grinning and giving a friendly wave to my predatory images across a hundred gleaming surfaces. The clawed hands waved back and, blinking in curiosity, the eyes of soot and silver would give me a wink. You caught us. Point to you.
I wasn’t superstitious and, no, not crazy. I’d traveled the world. I kept my eyes open and I’d seen things. Boring things, astounding ones, and everything in between. What I saw in the carnival was nothing unbelievable. It was more of a pitcher plant where careless flies were caught in the sticky nectar and slowly slid down to be devoured by digestive juices. If you weren’t careless, you’d be fine. If you were careless . . . hey, carnivals weren’t the only thing in the world that would eat you. In fact, after several days of following Bart through the maze of booths and rides, I’d come to the conclusion that carnivals weren’t built. They grew. They accumulated, like a feast of flies on a hidden carcass. One day there was an empty field, the next the carnival bloomed like an ebony poppy. Eventually people—and things—came, populated it, and there you go.
A slow-moving predator came to life.
Some people were carnival people. They knew the carnival and the carnival knew them. They belonged. They were black poppies, too, only on a smaller scale.
Others were just people: good, bad, and indifferent, but all of them blind. They did the work, though, and the carnival needed them. They weren’t the careless type, living the nomadic life, and they survived. I wondered what it was like to be blind like them. I’d seen a good deal of the world, but even with my first step, I’d always been able to see.
“Bart, do you have change for a fifty? Oh, look at your new friend. He’s cute.” The girl smiled at me. Becca? Yeah, Becca was her name. I’d heard it in passing the day before. She worked the psychic booth with her sister, and if she was older than fourteen, I’d need to see a birth certificate as proof.
I tried hard not to smirk back at her smile. Hey, I was cute. I worked on being cute. People, even self-centered, oblivious, or gullible people, didn’t want someone with serial killer vibes following them around.
Bart smiled back at her, so friendly and affable that manufactured goodwill oozed out of his pores. “Doodle? He’s all right. He hitched up with me on vacation. I thought I’d show him the sights.”
It was a joke to him. Bart’s kind didn’t do anything for anybody, but Becca liked me, and Bart . . . Bart liked underage girls. And underage boys. Vulnerable women. People humiliated and naked, bound in chains. And that was only the top layer of porn stuffed in his footlocker. I didn’t want to know what the second, third, or fourth layer showed.
“Change for a fifty, yeah? Anything for you, sweetheart.”
Becca was young, with long waves of hair dyed cotton candy lavender, round blue eyes, small white teeth that showed when she laughed, and exactly five freckles spread across her nose like a spray of cinnamon chips on a Christmas cookie. Wearing a long, filmy green dress, all the better to look psychic and ethereal, she reminded me of a mermaid curled happily on a rock counting flying fish. She looked innocent and sweet and oh-so-gullible.
A combination Bart absolutely could not pass up.
Of course, sociopaths with questionable taste in porn weren’t always as smart as they thought they were. There was a gleam in Becca’s blue eyes that said she wasn’t nearly as gullible as Bart thought. And if it hadn’t been for me, his new pal, I doubt he’d have seen even a smile from her.
I hadn’t run into the problem of being too cute before. Cute was harmless, cute was safe, and cute let me hang around as long as I liked. Unfortunately, this time it was helping out a predatory dick, and that annoyed me. As I’d thought before, whatever games Bart played weren’t my problem. I was a traveler. I couldn’t get bogged down by people’s troubles. There were always going to be problems, and there were always going to be Barts in the world. I couldn’t change that.
But I didn’t like being used as bait in a trap. That’s all. I just didn’t like it.
Maybe Bart would behave himself and in a few weeks I’d be gone. Off to someplace new with someone hopefully somewhat less problematically evil than good old Bart.
“Good-bye, Doodle.” Becca smiled at me again. The two front teeth were separated by a tiny gap and her smile was all the more perfect for it. She thought my name was funny, I could tell. But I didn’t mind. I liked it. That was me. Humble Doodle, nothing less, nothing more.
“He’s the quiet sort,” Bart laughed. His laugh was perfect, too, but completely false. Becca’s smile was a warm summer rain. Bart’s laugh was a snow globe—cold glass and fake plastic whirling around, trying to fill the void beneath the hard shell. “Doesn’t say a word. But come back and visit him anytime. I do enough talking for the both of us, Miss Becca.”
Becca tilted her head. “Maybe.” Then she smiled again, this time at Bart, and headed back to the psychic booth.
Just like that, I saw the gleam of good sense sputter and go out of her eyes. It wasn’t her fault, not really. She was fourteen and Bart was a good-looking twenty-one-year-old in a carnival where her working age group was limited and dental hygiene was not the word of the day among most. Bart was blind, the most interesting parts of the carnival a mystery to him, but he was a black poppy, too—a different sort, but he’d eat you all the same.
I sighed. This had every sign of fucking up my good time here.
Bart frowned at me. “At least you’re good for something.”
That would be Bart, only noticing me when I did something for him—whether I’d meant to or not. The Bartholomews of the world . . . Bigger assholes could not be found.
While Bart continued to sucker people into trying to win teddy bears in a game so rigged Vegas would’ve been proud, I did my best to forget about little girls with lavender hair and concentrate on my sightseeing. I perked up as the Poodle Lady passed by us. She was a grandmotherly type with hair as short and curly as that of her dogs, pink cheeked and plump and with a thousand fake diamond rings, bracelets, necklaces, even a tiara. When the sun hit her, she glittered wildly, a star about to go supernova. She was a sight, but that wasn’t what interested me.
It was the poodles.
I loved the poodles.
I whistled low and soft as they trotted by, bedecked in ruffled collars. All white, they were tiny dandelion drifts blowing across the ground, yipping and excited from their last round of acrobatic tricks. As one, each furry face turned my way at the whistle too soft for the Poodle Lady to hear. Each mouth opened and each pink tongue twisted to change into a tentacle with pulsing suckers and fully as long as each dog’s entire body. Each eye turned the blind silver-white of fish that lived so deep underwater that sight wasn’t necessary.
It tickled me. Cthulhu slept, but his goddamn poodles roamed the earth.
Then they were only ordinary poodles once again and they scampered on, one stopping to lift a leg on Bart’s booth.
“Hey, you little shit!” he snapped, tossing a teddy bear at it with malicious force. In a fraction of a second the stuffed animal was nothing but shreds and stuffing and, after pissing on that as well, the poodle was gone.
A few minutes later five clowns wandered by, following the Poodle Lady to the lunch tent. I didn’t bother with them. Clowns were the biggest disappointment in the carnival. They were supposed to be cannibalistic, murderous, child-stealing monsters with jagged metal teeth and makeup mixed of blood and ashes. But no. They weren’t. They were just ordinary people who liked to make people laugh. Which, don’t get me wrong, is nice in theory and all. Still . . .
That’s what happens when you buy into a stereotype. You think nightmares using intestines to make balloon animals and you get slightly dumpy, sort of sad, average people who had determined that if they couldn’t laugh themselves, they would do their best to make others laugh. Noble, but a little bit boring. I wouldn’t have minded seeing Bart, the porno-loving sociopath, end up as a balloon animal, as he seemed set on ruining my playing tourist.
Finally, Bart closed up the booth a few hours later to grab a meal himself. I went along, too, not that he would notice if I ate or not. Luckily, I could get by on little. Roaming the world will teach you that. Refrigerators and microwaves were rare in my life. I had eaten goat once in India. . . . I still felt rather bad about that.
Bart loaded up a paper plate with barbecue and long, slinky fries dripping with grease. Sitting down at a picnic table, he dug in, and I rethought the goat issue. The food here looked as if that long-digested goat had vomited on a plate and then handed you a fork. Bart obviously didn’t mind, as he plowed through the mess. I reflected on how he had a grin and a wave for everyone who walked by except the Poodle Lady, and I wasn’t surprised. The clowns had their masks of greasepaint and Bart had this mask. The friendly guy who was enough of a flirt for the women and a bit of the roguish con man for the men—it was a good disguise. It said, “I’m good, but not too good.” Too good can’t be real, and Bart was smart enough to know that. He relied on the wink and the grin and the “I might cheat you at cards, but not for money.”
He made you like him, and there weren’t many masks better than that. Everyone here fell for it, even the black poppies, who I’d have thought would’ve known better. He really was that good.
But on that day, I learned I was wrong after all. One person did see through him.
Remember when I said love’s a bitch?
Yeah. . . .
Now is when I come back to that.
Love is a bitch.
That’s what people say. I hadn’t come to the conclusion about how often people were right—I was a little naïve on the subject, I admit it—but in this case, with this one nugget of knowledge, the people were in the know. On the money.
Love is a bitch, and this being my first encounter with it, I wished the saying was longer. Love is a bitch . . . but here’s how you deal with it. A nice list with bullet points would be appreciated. Some pictures, maybe? I’d take stick figures if that’s all that was available. I wasn’t proud. I traveled the world, but that didn’t mean I was always wise in the ways of it. Any assistance I could get, I would happily take. I was stuck with Bartholomew, however, and helpful he was not. What he knew about love, he wasn’t telling, which rather sucked for me, as I’d hooked up with him to learn more about the world I was traveling and life in general. I tried to learn from everyone I’d teamed up with. So far all I’d learned from Bartholomew about love was that he didn’t much care for it. Correction: he didn’t much care for it unless he could twist it to his benefit.
Like he was thinking about with Becca.
Becca, who was too young to know better.
“Bartholomew, I want you to stay the hell away from my little sister.”
Her sister, though, she knew about the big bad wolves in the world. And where the huntsman would carry an axe, she would carry a shotgun.
Bart looked up from his plate with rage. Unadulterated fury that someone would dare tell him what to do. I looked up and . . . shit . . . I was head over heels. Love. There it was. There she was, and nothing in all my rambles had prepared me for it.
“Whatcha talking about, Starling my darling?” His hand white-knuckled around his plastic fork, but his voice was smooth as honey and slippery as butter. “Becca came over for change and to see my buddy, Doodle. She’s a kid, for God’s sake. What? You think I don’t know that?” Bart was probably smirking on the inside about how very well he did know that . . . about how much he liked that.
I’d picked up on Becca having an older sister who played the psychic, but I hadn’t seen her in my few days at the midway. Bart didn’t cross her path . . . or maybe she didn’t cross his. Didn’t want to. As she sat down opposite him, I saw it in her eyes when she looked at him. . . . Here There Be Monsters reflected in onyx mirrors. It might as well have been painted on Bart, which was rather ironic, to her gaze at least. She knew. She knew about wolves and monsters and how a man could be all that and worse.
Starling’s dark eyes passed over me. “Doodle?” There was scorn in her voice, but it was for Bart, not me. I hoped. “Do you think your buddy there is going to have me thinking you’re nothing but a puppy, all big eyes and milk breath? Sugar, you’re trying to pull the wool over the wrong set of eyes. I know wickedness when I smell it, and you are rank with it.”
I hadn’t noticed it in Becca, but Starling had a trace of a southern accent. Around twenty-four or twenty-five, she had hair that wasn’t long like Becca’s, but a short cap of dark red streaked with the black stripes of a tiger. It cupped her head less like a gentle hand and more like a warrior’s sleek helmet. Her eyes were dark and fierce, but she had the same five freckles. It was incongruous—the same as if you walked the plains of Africa and a tiger lifted its head from its kill to show a spattering of shooting-star freckles across its bloodied muzzle.
Head-over-heels. What can I say?
Can you blame me? I mean, seriously, a tiger with freckles. Who wouldn’t fall for that?
“Wicked? Jesus, Starling, you’ve known me six months now.” And it wouldn’t be any longer than that. Bart was the type to piss where he lived. His stays would be short and his exits in the middle of the night, leaving pain and regret in his wake. Sometimes maybe worse. “What have I ever done to you? What have I ever done to anyone?”
His hand relaxed on the fork, but it twitched. It was the kind of movement that made me think that had he had metal instead of plastic, she might have been stabbed with it.
“I don’t know. What did you do to Mr. Murphy? How’d you come by his booth? One day he’s there, the next he’s gone, and there you are with your easy smile, pretty talk, and dead eyes. And don’t tell me he sold it to you. Murph loved the carnival, and as far as I can tell, you don’t love anything but yourself.” A short fingernail painted copper hit Bart in the chest. “So, here it is, Bar-tho-lo-mew, you don’t touch Becca or I’ll get my daddy’s old bowie knife out and make sure you don’t have a damn thing left to touch anyone with ever again.”
Eyes narrowed, face flushed with anger, unpainted lips peeled back from her tiger’s teeth, she was . . . amazing. And then she was gone, turned and striding out of the tent with her long silk skirt doing nothing to conceal long legs loping after another gazelle to take down.
Bart, unfortunately, was no gazelle. He wasn’t a tiger, either. Bart was a hyena through and through. He only took down the weak and the vulnerable, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous. If anything, this adversary would make him more dangerous . . . thinking, plotting, and full of an ego that was not going to take this lying down.
And Starling, as demanding and feisty as the bird she was named for, knew him. No one else at the carnival did, but she knew. She might actually be a little psychic, putting truth to that label on her booth. If I’d learned anything in this world, it was that things you think are aren’t, and things you think aren’t can be. Everything under the sun . . .
Mr. Murphy . . . That was a new name I didn’t know anything about. Bart could be a bigger predator than I’d thought, a pack of hyenas all on his own. Which wasn’t good—not for Becca. Starling had tried to push around Bart, command him. Bart was a man . . . (a thing) . . . you didn’t tell what to do, because sure as shit, he’d do exactly the opposite for spite alone.
What did I do about that? About little Becca? About her gloriously wild sister? I was Doodle. While the Barts of life walked around with hands dripping pain or blood, Doodles, we didn’t get involved. I was always on the outside looking in. I wanted to see the world, I didn’t want to be the world. It was too complicated. Standing up for something, I didn’t know how to do that, to be that. I was content being the camera, not the subject.
I only wanted to watch. I only wanted to see.
What about Starling, anyway? She’d watched me, but she hadn’t seen me, not really. Sometimes I blended in a little too well, and blending in with Bart’s kind wasn’t the way to her heart, that was for damn certain. I shifted a little and grimaced at how that had come back to bite me in the ass. Bart hissed and glared at me, raising a hand to aim a slap in my direction.
Stopping at the last moment, he snapped, low and mean, “Son of a bitch.” Then he stared at where Starling had sat. “Or just a fucking bitch—period.”
The rest of the evening and night, Bart spent thinking. What he was thinking, he didn’t say out loud. I wasn’t surprised. If it was close to the thoughts I was working through, words like that . . . they do something to the air. They taint it with shadows and the smell of week-old roadkill. Words like that—I’d heard enough of them in my life, and I didn’t care to hear any more of them.
When Bart went to bed that night, I left as I always did. Sometimes I lay in the grass and watched the stars. I waved to them, too, like I did the reflections in the mirror maze . . . just in case. Sometimes I’d investigate the carnival further, which was how I discovered that the magician had four arms and his hat had teeth. No wonder he kept a giant cage constantly full of at least twenty-five doomed rabbits. I let them go. That wasn’t much interference.
Tonight I found a family sitting outside their trailer. The mother and father were listening to music, drinking wine, kissing, and laughing, laughing, laughing. Here was the love Bart knew nothing about. I watched from the dark, then wandered behind the trailer, where someone else had wandered as well. Their little boy. He was two, two and a half. Baby ages are hard. Strawberry-blond hair stood on end and pudgy hands were waving in a vain attempt to catch fireflies. He saw me, pointed, and laughed.
I smiled at him and whispered, “Hi.” I pointed to my chest. “Doodle.”
He pressed his finger against my nose. “Doodle!” He laughed again.
“Doodle,” I agreed. I liked kids. Kids were uncomplicated and easy to understand. I didn’t have to worry about keeping my head down and not being noticed. Kids accepted. They weren’t suspicious or judgmental. They took me at face value and it didn’t matter what I knew or didn’t know. If I wasn’t always sure how to behave, because I was a little different, it didn’t matter. To them being Doodle was enough. I was about to ask what his name was, although I wasn’t so good with talking—words were difficult to get out for me—when I heard his mother calling. Reluctantly, I trudged back into the dark.
He called after me. “Doodle! Doodle!”
I heard his mother laugh at him. “Who are you talking to, silly bear?”
Those were two nice memories. Love and wine; a little boy and fireflies. I’d keep those when I moved on.
I wandered some more, watched the stars, and got back to Bart’s trailer by morning. It was important, as a professional hanger-on, not to be gone long enough to be noticeably absent. That led to second thoughts about poor Doodle. I wouldn’t want Bart to get too used to being without me—not yet.
I expected him to start a campaign to win Becca’s trust. Buy her a gooey, sugary pastry, all fried dough, cherries, and powdered sugar. Talk to her as if she were a grown woman, not a fourteen-year-old. Try to get her to brush off Starling’s warnings as an over-protective big-sister reaction. It would’ve been typical pedophile behavior.
But Bart proved me wrong. Bart showed he wasn’t typical . . . not in this case. Maybe he would be normally, but Starling had stood up to him, beat him down, and seen him for what he really was. She saw through his mask, and of all the things she’d done, that was the worst. No one saw Bart for what he was. If they did, how could he continue being what he was? How could he get away with it?
She might tell others. They might believe her. Bart couldn’t have that.
No, he could not.
While he sulked among the teddy bears, taking dollars in exchange for guaranteed failure, he kept his fake smile plastered to his face, though he mumbled under his breath. I couldn’t make out words—just the static buzz of what were likely psychotic ravings.
Bart had been a mistake. I should go now. Before I spent the next night and the one after peeking in the window of Starling and Becca’s trailer.
No self-will at all, that was me. When Bart turned in, I was at their trailer window. The curtains were the brilliant green of Irish fields, with a crack between the two halves. It wasn’t a large one, but large enough that I could see through. It was late, with Bart exhausted by his porn for the night and already asleep. But Starling was still up. She was curled up on a tiny couch with a cup of tea, wearing pajamas patterned with ice cream cones. Her bare feet were pink with copper-painted toenails, her smooth cap of hair was ruffled in completely ridiculous spikes and cowlicks, and the curve of her lips was relaxed. She was a long way from the “gypsy psychic” she’d been while facing down Bart, when she was dressed in silk and beads with black ice for eyes, nails the color of a Burmese sunset, and teeth bared in threat. It was different now, a picture of domestic bliss. . . .
Until you noticed the giant bowie knife that was cradled on the cushion next to her. That made it even better.
Perfect domestic bliss.
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. A she-tiger sat in ridiculous pajamas, drinking tea, studying her toenails to see if they needed repainting—and had her knife at the ready for Bart in case some wicked piece of anatomy needed to be treated like a breakfast sausage.
Love could be wine under the stars, but love could be this too.
I’d never felt it before, not really, but love . . . I didn’t have the words for how it made me feel. I was Doodle and words weren’t my thing. But I felt and I wanted and I dreamed and Starling, she was all of that. She was a tiger, my tiger, and she wouldn’t ever back down from anything.
Laughing had been a mistake, though. She whipped her head toward the window and was up and moving. She was fast, but I was faster. I’d traveled far and wide and learned you had to be fast to survive.
Later I returned and tried the back where the bedroom would be. It was a small trailer, only big enough for one foldout bed. I saw Starling and Becca tangled up like children under the blankets. Becca slept curled up on her side, doing her unconscious best to scoot Starling out of the bed onto the floor. Starling slept—out of self-preservation, probably—on her stomach with one arm hooked around the edge of the mattress as if it were a lover of last hope. Lavender and tiger-striped hair mixed together in the dark, inseparable.
My heart warmed. Becca was less Starling’s sister and more her cub. Starling would kill Bart and wouldn’t shed a tear over it. Such was the way of the wild, and that was another good thought and memory to keep. Fierce protection and soft hair mixed under piles of blankets.
It was enough. I didn’t spy anymore. I wanted to see new things, but I didn’t want to dirty them . . . unless they were already dirty, and then there wasn’t much more I could do there anyway. I learned that when one of the poodles chased me back to Bart’s trailer. I nearly lost a strip of my hide to a fast-moving tentacle, but I still loved the little monsters. They were so damn funny.
THE NEXT DAY was the same as the others. Or so I thought until that night, when Bart spent three hours digging up Mr. Murphy and moving him farther away into the woods. Starling had spooked him. And Bart spooked me. He didn’t know I was there, watching. He wouldn’t have known if the whole carnival was there, cheering him on. He was muttering to himself with flecks of saliva flying from his mouth and a body tense with absolute molten rage. This time I could hear what he was saying: “Bitch, bitch, bitch. Fucking whore. Telling me. Telling me what I can do. She’ll be sorry. She’ll be so fucking sorry, she’ll beg. She’ll beg and beg and beg—she’ll beg. . . .” After that it was more incoherent, the rage a language all its own.
Shit, Doodle, I thought with grim resignation, what have you gotten yourself into now?
Breakfast was not good. I kept wondering why I was still here and not in the wind. That was my number one rule, the Doodle motto: Watch but don’t participate. Don’t get involved. You’re different, you’re weird, and no matter how harmless I tried to look, people wouldn’t want me around once they knew me—the real me. I was a freak.
Wasn’t that ironic? In a carnival where there were no freaks anymore and the word itself was now bad and wrong, I was still a freak. Just a different kind of one.
Facts were facts: if people knew me, they would shun me. That meant I couldn’t let anyone see behind the mask or through the reflection. I wanted to talk to Starling and tell her all the places and things I’d seen. The world was huge and its mysteries and secrets never-ending. I wanted to see her small, fiercely suspicious face smooth into smiles. I wanted to see her throw that neatly shaped head back in reckless laughter. I wanted to make fun of her pajamas and have her make up an outrageous fortune for me. Most of all, I wanted to sharpen her bowie knife for her and tell her never to warn men like Bart first, to just go ahead and put them down.
I wanted all those things, but I knew that Starling, for all her wild ways, wouldn’t react differently from anyone else when it came to me. I was too different, and while the world changed all the time, that wouldn’t.
I watched as Bart shoveled down his breakfast. Wondering. Wondering. What should I . . . The thought was interrupted. The couple from three nights ago walked by, swinging their little boy hand in hand. He saw me and squealed, “Doodle!”
His mother, ponytail swinging, looked over and smiled. “There is a Doodle, isn’t there? Hey, Doodle.” She laughed cheerfully. It wasn’t the throaty wine laugh from before, but I still liked it.
Bart was not thrilled. “You get more action than I do, asshole,” he mumbled under his breath while waving at them and giving them the patented Bart smile, that cork against a human bottle of psychopathic rage and hate. See the smile, but never look past it.
The mother didn’t, and they were past us and gone. I relaxed slightly. Bart had something planned for either Becca or Starling, I knew that. I didn’t want to add any further collateral damage.
By that time Bart was done. He left his plate and cup on the table, uncaring, which wasn’t a good sign. You didn’t do that in the carnival. You cleaned up after yourself—always. The mask was slipping.
THAT NIGHT IT dissolved and Bart—the real Bart—came out to play.
I could hear a thousand crickets when Becca slipped out the trailer door and Bart approached her with, “Hey, sweetheart, where you going?”
I saw the flash of wariness in her eyes. Her sister had told her about Bart and, unlike most girls Becca’s age, she believed. She listened to her big sister, and now she wanted nothing to do with Bart.
“Oh . . . Bart . . . and Doodle.” Her smile was a small, pained thing, because it was meant to include me. But as everyone had seen that I stood with and behind Bart since I’d arrived, it didn’t throw Bart off. Her voice wasn’t casual and breezy as she hoped. It only showed her fear and her weakness, and I could see Bart was already high at the sight of both. “I’m just going to Bartleby’s.” She tilted her head toward the next trailer. “We’re out of milk for Star’s tea.”
It was barely dark. It was just next door, but even so, I found it hard to believe Starling would let her go alone . . . not when the big bad wolf lived just across the way.
“Tea.” Bart rolled the word around his mouth. “She drinks tea. The bitch drinks tea. How fucking boring. I’m surprised she doesn’t drink acid, for all the shit that comes out of her mouth.”
Becca was frozen. In her life probably no one had ever talked to her that way, not even in a carnival. Bart used that. And he clubbed her down with one blow of his fist. She was a puddle of green and heather and ivory silk at his feet.
I hissed. This was wrong. Wrong. The world could be a bad place. I knew that. From the beginning I knew and had promised to stay out of it—for the very reason that I was as wrong in my way and my help might not be any better than the things I tried to stop. I watched. That’s all. That’s . . .
Why, Bart? Why, you asshole? Why’d you have to go and screw everything up?
He buried a hand in Becca’s hair and dragged her back into the trailer, dropping her on the floor and locking the flimsy door behind us.
“Doodle this and Doodle that,” he sneered at her. “You never had a word to say to me until goddamn Doodle came along.”
That was why. It was why Bart had messed things up for me and Becca, and it was why I had to fix it. If I hadn’t been here, this wouldn’t have happened. Mr. Murphy would’ve—already had—but not this.
“Becca? Did you open the door? I told you not to go outside after dark without me.” Starling came out of the tiny bathroom and stopped short at the sight of the unconscious bundle that was her sister. “Becca?”
She sounded lost, but she wasn’t. I don’t think Starling had ever been lost in her life. She stood, short hair damp, the wet gloss of red-and-black stripes screaming “Beware!” Wrapped in a scarlet robe, feet bare like before, she was a queen and Bart should’ve feared her. But Bart was an idiot.
I wasn’t. When she whipped that man-eating knife from behind her back and lunged to stab him in the chest, I applauded, unnoticed. Bart spat curses and grabbed her neck to throw her to the ground, the knife still in him. Starling was a fighter, but she was small. Five foot three at best. Barely a hundred pounds. But no matter the size, a tiger is still a tiger. She was back on her feet in a fraction of a second, her hands back on the handle of the knife, trying to shove it in deeper. It had gotten hung up on a rib bone, more’s the pity.
This time Bart grabbed her throat and held on, choking fast any screams she might’ve made. With the other hand he pulled the blade out of his flesh. “You fucking bitch.” His teeth were bared, his eyes full of fury, but a cold fury. When rage burns, at least it’s quick. When it’s cold, it can make a death last forever. Slice by slice by slice.
Holding the knife just under her chin and above his hand, he seethed curses that seemed to crawl over both of their bodies. “I’m going to kill you—don’t think for a second there’s a way out of that. But first I’m going to hurt your little sister. Hurt your Becca. I’m going to fuck her five ways to Sunday and then I’m going to cut every inch of her so the next man that looks at her pukes from the sight. And then I’m going to leave her alive on top of your fucking entrails. If ‘alive’ is what you can call that. In fact, I’ll call her up in a few years, ask her. Ask her if she’s alive or if she’s a corpse walking around with a beating heart. How’s that sound, Starling my darling? Well? How’s that sound? Fucking answer me, bitch!”
I was different. I was a freak, maybe. I was the passive watcher, blending in and never getting involved. Speaking only to kids too little to know how strange I was. That’s who Doodle was. That’s who Doodle had always been.
Now . . . now I got involved.
Now I spoke.
Because now I was fucking pissed.
“Time to go home, Bart,” I said, stretching against the tightness of being still. Shedding the inertia of blending in.
Past Starling and the knife I could see the three of us in the bathroom mirror. I could see the surprise on Bart’s face, the bulge of his bicep where he all but held Starling off her feet. And I could see me.
On his bicep. On his skin.
A cute, happy monkey with a cheerful grin, the hat of a clown, several balloons of red, blue, and green held in one paw, the tail wrapped around Bart’s arm and below that, my name: Doodle.
Bart’s drunken vacation had him waking up with a tattoo he couldn’t even remember getting. Everyone in the carnival had loved it, though. Loved me. Joked about his new friend with the funny name, Doodle. Bart had been pissed about me, thought I was goofy and stupid, until people started talking to him to look at me. He regretted it less then, that mysterious tattoo. Bart, who’d take any advantage he could get.
Me? I’d just wanted to see life in a carnival. See this world. I’d spent millions of years in a different place and, once out, I wanted to see it all. It was brand-new to me and much better than home. Home . . . well, home was hell. Plain as it came.
Once, when especially bored, a demon had sketched me in the burning sand. Hence my name—hilarious, huh? I was a demonic doodle, who after endless years had finally escaped Hell, snaking through the smallest of cracks. I was a line of sulfur and will, and I could shape myself into any form and color. I thought a monkey was good for a carnival and particularly appropriate for Bart. He didn’t fling his feces, but he bit and he bit hard.
So did I.
I slithered out of the monkey shape, shed those colors, and went up Bart’s arm, winding back and forth at a speed even a rattlesnake couldn’t have managed. In less than a breath I was wrapped several times around Bart’s neck and that breath . . . it wasn’t something he had to worry about any longer.
I tightened until he turned blue and dropped the knife from Starling’s throat. I tightened again until he was purple and dropped himself, too, beside the knife. He foamed at the mouth a bit, like they do, and then he died and shot straight down to the burning sands I’d escaped.
Of all the predators that prowled the carnival with strange appetites and stranger shapes, the human was the truest monster of them all. The truest evil.
I know what people would think. I’m from Hell. Big H, little e, double-hockey-sticks Hell. I should be evil myself, pure malevolence, every part of me. Eh, not so much. You live in Hell for millions of years and you realize something about evil: it’s boring. You can say it’s wrong and morally reprehensible and all that, and you’d be right. But mainly it’s just so damn boring that after a while you don’t ever want to see it again. Life, even when it lasts millions of years, is too short for boring.
I wasn’t putting up with boring again.
Bart was wrong. Bart was boring. And now Bart was gone.
“Doodle?” Starling was crouched on the floor, staring at the tattoo line garroting Bart, finally seeing me.
I slid from around Bart’s neck and re-created the monkey shape and offered her the balloons.
“Doodle,” I confirmed.
She reached out and took them. Hesitantly, but she was a tiger and feared nothing, so she accepted them. The painted colors poured over her hand like a melting rainbow before disappearing.
“You . . . what are . . . ?” She shook her head, because this was Starling and even if I’d known her only days, I knew her still. She was infinitely practical. She didn’t second-guess, she definitely didn’t look a gift Doodle in the mouth. “You saved us. Thank you.”
My monkey tail curled around her wrist, black and brown lines of ink. “Doodle loves you.” I couldn’t talk much. Throats and voice boxes and tongues, they’re beyond a simple doodle, and I hadn’t regretted it before, but I did now. I eked out the words anyway. I couldn’t have held them back.
Because, yes, love is a bitch and doodles and tigers can’t be together, but love is still worth saying aloud.
“Doodle loves you.” I let go of her wrist, unraveled this shape, and slipped away through the small crack under the door and into the night.
Soon enough I’d find someone else to hitch a ride with, see something new, and maybe fall in love again. It was possible. Evil was boring, but love was interesting and exciting—everything I could imagine—and covered the world. I could meet love over and over.
Love is a bitch, I thought sadly, yet fondly, too, as I disappeared from the carnival and into a promising darkness.
Love is a bitch.
But she’s my bitch, and I couldn’t wait to see her again.
RACHEL CAINE’s vampires aren’t child’s play, as a naïve teen discovers when her heart leads her far, far astray in “The Cold Girl.” With “Parlor Tricks,” JENNIFER ESTEP pits Gin Blanco, the Elemental Assassin, against the Wheel of Death and some dangerously creepy clowns. SEANAN McGUIRE narrates a poignant, ethereal tale of a mysterious carnival that returns to a dangerous town after twenty years in “Daughter of the Midway, the Mermaid, and the Open, Lonely Sea.” KEVIN HEARNE’s Iron Druid and his wisecracking Irish wolfhound discover in “The Demon Barker of Wheat Street” that the impossibly wholesome sounding Kansas Wheat Festival is actually not a healthy place to hang out. With an eerie, unpredictable twist, ROB THURMAN reveals the fate of a psychopath stalking two young carnies in “Painted Love.”