Pepper's Circus

To Izzy, it felt like someone had plunged a fist down his throat, grabbed a handful of organs, and pulled him inside out. And then launched him from a catapult.

Unfortunately, the physical reality wasn’t much better.

He was flying, though not in a graceful way. He was flying in an ass-over-teakettle kind of way. He spun and tumbled with such a remarkable lack of grace that Izzy could no longer tell which of his limbs was which. There was nausea, of course. And pain. A surprising amount of pain—to the point where the surprise was almost greater than the pain itself. And there was color. So much color, and so, so much light. Even with his eyes shut.

These were the sensations Izzy experienced during the four minutes and seventeen seconds in which he technically did not exist.

The seconds that followed immediately afterward did not improve. Izzy could still feel himself spinning, and he still couldn’t see anything but a blinding whirlpool of color. Except now the sensation of being pinned face-first against a solid wall had been added to the mix. No matter how much he felt himself spin, the wall spun with him, crushing against his face and chest in exactly the same way.

His hands found a furry substance on the surface pressing into him. He grabbed a handful without hesitation, pressed his face into the surface to shield his eyes, and he waited for the spinning to stop.

Hours seemed to pass. Finally, the spinning sensation gradually began to slow. As his nausea diminished to a tolerable level, his capacity for rational thought began to return.

He became aware of three important facts in rapid succession:

Firstly, he realized he was not actually pressed against a furry wall. In reality he was lying prostrate on the ground with clumps of grass and sod clutched in a death grip.

Secondly, he noticed he was dripping wet—probably with sweat, though the taste in his mouth suggested blood might be involved as well.

And finally, without needing to look, he could tell that a crowd had gathered around him.

The voices were many and varied. Izzy tried to focus on one to discern what was being said, but every voice he followed was quickly lost in an endless sea of chatter. From the bits and snatches he could make out, nobody seemed very concerned for his wellbeing. Izzy took a deep breath, rolled onto his back, and opened his eyes.

Scattered exclamations arose from the crowd, followed by shushing. Izzy needed to know what was going on, but the surrounding brightness made it difficult to pry his lids apart for more than half a second. Still, the brief glimpses he caught of his surroundings confirmed that people loomed over him on all sides. It was about midday, which accounted for the brightness. Something luminous and round and orange appeared to be suspended above him, and he assumed it was the sun until it suddenly lowered within inches of face. It was a man, and the man had two flaming caverns where his eye sockets should be.

“You look like shit, friend,” said the man. Tiny embers flecked from his mouth as he spoke. His accent sounded vaguely British. Just vaguely. “What say we get you patched up, eh? Get ready, now. Couple guys are gonna pick you up in a sec, so keep cool or they may drop you. You understand what I’m saying?”

Izzy held up a hand. “Wait,” he said. Slowly, tenderly, he pushed himself up on his elbows, then gradually lifted into a kneeling position. “I’m fine. I can walk.”

Keeping his hands on the ground for support, Izzy planted one foot flat on the dirt, then the other, and quickly pushed himself upward. Too quickly. He felt his stomach give a violent lurch and he crumpled back onto his knees. His eyes closed again involuntarily. He cursed under his breath, clutched the grass tightly in his hands, and wretched. The crowd erupted with applause.

“Damn,” the flame-faced man said. “You almost had it there. My money was on you, for the record.”

Izzy was in no shape to ask any follow-up questions. He was still throwing up, which was bad— but even more distressing, his vomit was wrong. It was dry and granular and there was far, far too much of it. When his diaphragm settled, he opened his eyes and saw a pile glitter beneath him. His throat burned and itched. He strained to catch his breath, but the fluttering of paper in his windpipe sent him coughing every time.

“Water!” called a voice from the crowd.

“Good man, Boofus,” said another.

Someone thrust a ceramic mug shaped like a tiki head in Izzy’s face. He grabbed it, hands trembling, and drank. It eased the burning and the itchiness, if only just a little. Just enough. He wiped the excess water and glitter from his mouth with the back of his hand and looked around. His eyes had adjusted to the light now, and he could see the flame-faced man squatting in front of him.

“You should be proud of yourself, you know,” the stranger said, flashing Izzy a smile. “Look at you, sitting upright. Most folks need to be scraped off the dirt with a spatula. What’s your name, friend?”

Izzy attempted to clear his throat, then tried again, then gave up and choked out an “Iz—“ before sputtering into another coughing fit.

The man nodded, stood up, and turned his fiery face to the crowd.

“Three cheers for Iz, everybody!” he yelled, raising his hands with a flourish.

A surge of arms grabbed Izzy from all sides. Before he could protest, Izzy felt himself rapidly hoisted into the air by the crowd, dropping his tiki mug in the process. His stomach gave another lurch. Fresh confetti pushed up his throat.

“Hip-hip, hooray!” the crowd shrieked. “Hip-hip, hooray! Hip-hip, hooray!”

Each ‘hooray’ was punctuated by Izzy getting tossed two feet or so into the air, and each time Izzy heaved a shower of confetti onto the crowd. No one seemed to mind.

“Look at him go, folks!” said the vaguely British man. “Let’s keep on cheering until he empties the tank, shall we?”

“Fuck—!” was all Izzy could say before the crowd hurled him into the air again.

And so it continued, toss after toss, until Izzy was spitting up nothing but air and saliva. When the crowd finally set him back on his feet, two men had to stand on either side of him to hold him upright.

“Drink up, drink up,” said another stranger, shoving a pitcher of iced tea in Izzy’s hands. He gladly accepted.

“There now, starting to feel a bit better?” asked the flame-faced man.

The drink tempered the fire in Izzy’s throat, and cooled his face where it splashed from the pitcher. It was empty within a minute.

With his agony alleviated and his senses feeling clearer, Izzy surveyed the area. Very few trees; most of them were in the distance. There was some kind of wooden structure a few yards in front of him, but it was hard to tell for all the people in the way. The crowd was even larger than he'd originally thought: two hundred at least. Lots of suspenders and vintage dresses. Some odd hair colors as well. All ages, even a few children sitting on shoulders. Every pair of eyes was on him.

“Bunch of sadists,” Izzy said. “All of you.”

There were scattered chuckles from the mob.

“Excellent!” said the flame-faced man. He grinned and gave Izzy two thumbs up. His teeth and gums glowed slightly from within. “Much improved already, I see! Think you can walk on your own?”

Izzy briefly considered saying no. The men holding him up seemed fit enough to carry him without much fuss, but Izzy figured this was not a good time to appear weak.

“I’m fine,” Izzy said. Reluctantly, he shook off the men at his sides and took a few cautious steps forward. Another round of applause erupted from the spectators.

“Looks like we got ourselves a fighter!” the flame-faced man called out to the crowd. “Atta boy, Iz! Right this way, then. We have a lot to talk about and precious little time to talk about it! Strike up the band, Boofus!”

A playful brass cacophony broke out somewhere nearby, and the crowd parted with surprising speed, shifting in an almost wavelike motion, creating a path between Izzy and the wooden structure he’d noticed earlier. His view unobstructed, Izzy was amazed to find that the structure happened to be a giant wooden dragon. It resembled the dragon costumes he’d seen in Chinese parades on TV, except it was ten feet tall and made of polished wood. It was also moving straight toward him.

Izzy grabbed the flame-faced man’s shoulder.

“What’s happening?” Izzy asked. “What is that thing? Who the fuck are you people?”

“Relax, Iz,” the man said gently. “He’s just the welcome wagon.”

The wooden dragon drew closer. Its eyes shifted left and right at a rhythmic pace. The sound of squeaky wheels grew louder as it approached, though no wheels were immediately visible. Izzy stared at the contraption, somewhat entranced by the rhythmic motion of its eyes. He realized his hand was still on the man’s shoulder, but his legs hadn’t quite returned to full strength yet, so he decided his hand could stay there a little longer.

“Where am I?” Izzy asked.

The man’s fiery face scrunched up in a pitying smile.

“You’re exactly where you think you are.”

The wooden dragon stopped in front of them. Its jaws opened wide, revealing a dark, hollow cavern. A loud clack came from inside and a hatch opened at the top of the dragon’s head, illuminating a ladder within. The flame-faced man hopped up onto the dragon’s lower jaw.

“Right this way, Iz! Step right up!” he beckoned. “Into the belly of the beast!”

Izzy hesitated a moment. By all appearances, the dragon was simply an extravagant vehicle. Excessively intimidating for a ‘welcome wagon,’ perhaps, but a wagon nonetheless. On the other hand, Izzy didn’t see any internal mechanisms in the dragon’s head, and every few seconds he heard it make a deep, airy noise that sounded suspiciously like breathing.

But the eyes of the crowd were on him. His moment of hesitation passed, and swallowing his reservations, he climbed inside the dragon’s mouth and followed the flame-faced man up the ladder.

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