IThe crowds shook in their seats with anticipation inside the giant red-and-purple striped tent as they saw the plump Captain Matador step up to the front of the stage in his tiny black boots, his purple top hat, and his purple-and-red striped suit. On his pudgy, smiling face were two bulbs of orange fur making up his walrus-like mustache; and in one of his two white-gloved hands was a black cane with an orange tip.
He spread his arms out in front of him and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, what you are about to see is inappropriate for those who are weak in the stomach, weak in the head, or sore in the mouth. I present to you the Woman Who Will Do Anything for Miniscule Financial Success! Watch her walk the tightrope.”
His gloved fingers pointed up at the pole to his immediate left. The crowd followed his cue and saw on top of that pole a ponytailed woman in glasses and a purple top hat staring grumpily down at the thin rope in front of her.
“You’ll get back at that fat bastard and these petty cretins one day, Autumn,” she muttered to herself. “One day…”
“Hurry up, or I’ll halve your pay!” Matador shouted up at her with his hands funneling his mouth.
Autumn carefully raised her left foot and stepped on the wire, feeling it dip under her weight as if it were made of paper. But whether or not it was made of paper, or even nothing at all, she still had no choice but to cross the obnoxious thing. So she picked up her right foot and put it on the wire, too, and began to slowly inch her way over to the other side while the rest of her body leaned and swayed in every direction as she attempted to stay balanced.
This is easy… she thought as she stared fixedly at her feet. Just watch your step carefully…
Below, the crowd and Captain Matador looked like ants. For anyone else, this remembrance of height would have frightened her; but for Autumn, the height over the little worms only pleased her.
However, these bitter thoughts only served to distract her and caused her to lose her balance. She began to stumble forward off the rope, only to have the front of her shoes catch the rope while the rest of her body hung limply below. Meanwhile, her glasses slid off her face. She waved her hands forward, attempting to grab them as they fell, but she missed. Her arms hung limply as she heard them clack against the ground.
The crowd laughed and cheered wildly.
“Ooo, this doesn’t look good for her,” Captain Matador laughed with a thumb jerked in her direction. “I hope she makes it, though; I paid two whole dollars for this one.”
Autumn wrenched her right leg around the wire and pulled herself back up close enough to grab on with her hands, grumbling the whole way through. Eventually she climbed back up to the rope and continued where she’d left off.
“I’ll show these dicks,” she muttered as she squinted down at the blurry rope below her.
And to everyone’s surprise she was crossing the rest of the rope with few balancing problems, focusing all of her energy on doing the most competent job ever, despite the watery pain in her eyes from squinting so hard at fogginess. She even quickened her pace just to show off—as well as end this ordeal as quickly as possible.
“Well, just look at her go!” Captain Matador said with a laugh. “Well, let’s see how well she does dodging the cannons!
Autumn pulled her attention off the wires and stared forward, wide-eyed.
Suddenly, three cannons—each attached to little bumper cars ridden by greasy men in overalls—drove in, shooting a barrage of cannon balls up at her. She jolted and panicked, jumping left and right to avoid them, which went well at first. She even smiled when she saw one cannonball land on the very driver who had shot it, exploding in his face and causing him to spin around and cry zanily.
This went well, that is, until she reached two cannon balls shot side-to-side that she couldn’t dodge. She tried jumping past one of them, but ended up getting smacked right in the face with the other one she hadn’t seen, knocking her off the tightrope, plunging straight down to the ground.
The crowd covered their eyes and shrieked with glee as they heard the loud Whomp! of her back crashing against the dirt floor. The people in the front row could even hear the cracking of her bones as they broke on impact and the squishy rupture of several vital internal organs, which they considered extra exciting.
Captain Matador waltzed over to Autumn, who was lying spread-eagle, still dizzy from the hard fall. He looked down at her with eyes of pity and shook his head slowly.
“Aw, too bad. I’m afraid I cannot pay you for that atrocious performance.”
Autumn immediately sat back up and gaped at Captain Matador with horror.
“What? But… but…”
She was interrupted, however, by Captain Matador, who walked forward toward the crowd with his arms stretched out again.
“If you think that’s all, you’re crazy!” he announced as he pulled out a furry pink scarf. “Now watch her strangle herself with this scarf for a mere dollar.”
“What? But… but I could kill myself,” Autumn said, the bags under her eyes drooping in despair.
Captain Matador bent down next to her on one knee, leaning in toward her while holding a dollar bill before her face. Though she could hardly see, her vision still blurry without her glasses, she could still recognize it just by its smell.
“You’re already dead,” he whispered to her, and then pointed at the crowd. “Look at them all laughing at you and your ragged, pathetic self. The only way to stop that is with this baby.” He jiggled the bill around. “This is the only way to be free—to be a real human.”
Autumn reached out, picked up her glasses, and put them back on as Captain Matador dropped the scarf in her lap. The color drained from her face when she looked down at it.
Gasps, laughs, and cheers erupted from the crowd as they watched Autumn hesitantly wrap the scarf around her neck and tighten it, choking her until she became too lightheaded to tolerate it anymore and let go, gasping.
But Captain Matador shook his head. “Uh uh. Don’t stop until I tell you to.”
“Sorry,” Autumn squeaked before chaining the scarf around her neck again.
Captain Matador stood back up and faced the crowd.
“Amazing! Look at how blue her face is!” He pointed at Autumn’s cringing face shaking and bulging from the pressure. “Now that can’t be healthy.”
The crowd laughed.
Matador turned back to Autumn and said, “Okay, you can stop now.” Autumn released the scarf, but was so lightheaded that she automatically lay down, feeling even dizzier than she did after falling.
“Now go back in your cage and my assistant will give you your fifty cents,” Matador said as he continued staring down at Autumn listlessly.
Autumn immediately sat back up and pointed an indignant finger up at Matador.
“Hey! You said a dollar!”
“Make that forty cents.”
“Wait! I’ll go!”
And then she scrambled back up to her feet and hurried away to the back curtains, passing through them out of sight.
Captain Matador turned back to the crowd and announced, “Next, we have the Amazingly Meek Skeleton, who will do anything you demand him to,” and then turned leftward and shouted, “Edgar!”
A shrimpy skeleton in a matching red-and-black vest and jester cap lined with yellow crept over to Matador’s side, the bells on his jester cap jingling the whole way.
“Um, yes, sir?”
“Edgar, eat this hot coal,” Matador said.
From Edgar’s left, Matador’s assistant carried a hot coal with a set of rusty metal tongs and leaned it toward Edgar’s face.
Edgar looked at Captain Matador and asked, “Um… isn’t this dangerous?”
Matador shoved his reddened face into Edgar’s and yelled, “I said eat it!”
Edgar squirmed, and squeaked, “Y-yes, sir!”
Edgar turned back to the hot coal still held in front of his face and gulped. The crowd laughingly cringed as they watched Edgar open his jaw for the coal to be dropped into his mouth. As the coal went down his throat and into his stomach, Edgar stared down at the ground and squeezed his stick-thin left arm in pain; but he made sure not to make any sounds of pain for fear of upsetting Captain Matador.
Cheers of “Wow!”, “Amazing!”, “How pathetic!”, and “I didn’t even know you could make coal hot!” jumped from the crowd.
Captain Matador patted Edgar on the skull and said soothingly, “You’re such a good skeleton…”
Edgar continued squirming and shaking, but also nodded and squeaked, “Thank you, sir.”
Captain Matador then pointed toward the back room and said, “Now get back to your cage, you worthless garbage.”
Edgar scurried over to the back curtain. There he saw Autumn still poking her face stealthily out the curtain, a dark, twitching glare aimed at Captain Matador like a heat-seeking laser.
When Edgar entered her sights, her eyes instantly fell to the floor. Edgar’s turned away from her, too. Neither wanted to even risk bringing up the hanging fact of either’s involvement in the other’s torture.
Captain Matador turned back to the crowd and with a puff of his chest, said, “We’ll have a great show tomorrow, folks! See a beautiful moon tonight, drive safely, and buy my DVDs!”
As he watched the crowds disperse, the attendant at the front brought over the box of profits. Matador opened it and scooped the dollars all together until he held it all in one neat stack in his hand. While walking toward the back room, he counted it by flipping each dollar back with his thumb.
Autumn sat crouched in her cage—since the cage was much too short to stand in, or even sit-up in—feeling around her still-aching neck to see if there was any permanent damage.
As she saw Matador walk by, she asked, “Hey, when will we finally be able to leave?”
Matador snorted and said, “I wouldn’t hold your bladder on that,” before passing her.
As she watched him go, she seized the bars of her cage and clenched her teeth.
Oh, we’ll see about that…
IIThough Autumn lay curled in a ball with her eyes closed as if asleep, her mind was wide awake, concocting plans for how she and Edgar could finally escape. About two hours later, she believed she’d reached a suitable strategy.
When she decided that Matador must have gone to sleep, and she could see that all his assistants were outside guarding the tent, Autumn tapped on the bars nearest to Edgar’s cage and whispered, “Edgar! Edgar, wake up!”
After a few tries, she finally dragged Edgar out of his sleep.
“Huh? Autumn?” he asked as he sat up, rubbing his wrists against his eyeholes.
“Shhh!” Autumn whispered as she glanced around the room. When she was satisfied that no one had heard them, she continued, “Tomorrow we’re busting out. Understand?”
“I dunno… we might get in trouble…” Edgar squirmed.
“Trouble? Trouble?” Autumn said, her whispers becoming harder and raspier. “We’re already in the deepest mire since Spinach Swamp. Did we worry about trouble when we escaped Gatsby’s train unscathed?”
“Did we worry about trouble when we trudged through the blistering Milky Mountains under the overbearing, never-ending sunset?”
“I suppose not…”
“And yet I should let this humiliating scam Captain Matador has pulled over me stand?” Autumn asked, a finger flung into the air.
Edgar looked down, distraught. “I guess not… But how are we going to escape with his assistants there to stop us?”
“Don’t worry about that,” Autumn said as she drummed her fingers together: “I already have a plot on the coals. Just do what I say and we’ll taste salty freedom soon.”
IIIA waxing gibbous moon surrounded by a blanket of clouds stared down at the giant red-and-purple striped tent the next night as the crowds returned to watch more clowns perform wacky hijinks and perhaps temporarily ignore their abusive spouses, impending bankruptcies, fears of terrorist plots, and drug-addicted children—plus the cotton candy was a whole bag for only fifty cents!
So it was that during Edgar’s act Captain Matador paced around the back room and barked, “Okay, you dregs: We’re packed, so no screw-ups!”
Autumn saw this as her perfect chance and ran over to Matador with a sheet held out in front of her, exclaiming, “Well, that’s wonderful, because I have this new act that will truly sock their jock, or however you say it…”
Captain Matador didn’t take the paper, but instead just looked down at her with a sour smirk.
“Leave the ideas to me. You’re just there to look stupid and slutty.”
“What’s there to lose? Even if I do screw up, it’ll just make people laugh,” Autumn replied as she stood there staring up at Matador with a faux-innocent look on her face, still holding the paper up to him.
Matador snatched up the paper with his left hand and held it up above his shoulder while he turned his head and looked at it with a sneer.
“Why would you care whether people laugh? Hmm?”
Autumn stared down at the ground and wrapped her hands around each other nervously.
“Well… I was wondering if maybe you could raise my…”
“Hmmp. We’ll see,” Matador said as he pocketed the paper. “But if they all hate it, I’m halving your pay. Just get ready. Go!”
“Aye aye, captain!” Autumn said with a salute, and then turned and rushed for the backroom.
As she went, she rubbed her hands together and grinned, her eyes glancing behind her at Captain Matador.
Oh oafish slave driver, I can guarantee that this will be the funniest sketch you’ve ever shown…
Meanwhile, Matador walked out onto the main stage, where Edgar stood shakily but still as he was pelted by rocks—and one barrel—thrown by the crowd. He wrapped his arm around Edgar’s shoulder and smiled at the crowd.
“Are you amazed at how he utters not a single sentence of solitary objection?”
“Captain, I think I might be bleeding,” Edgar said as he held his hands over his right eye hole.
As the crowd laughed, Matador pointed toward the back room and Edgar scampered over to his cage.
Matador stood up straight, puffed out his bulbous chest, and announced, “And next we have what you’ve all been waiting for: The Magnificent, Money-Hungry, Madame Springer!”
Edgar was walking back to his cage when he ran into Autumn moving in the opposite direction toward the stage.
“Are you sure this will work?” Edgar whispered, still holding his right eye hole.
Autumn’s determined expression boiled to fury when she glanced at Edgar and saw the blood dribbling down his eye-covering hand. Then she marched past without saying a word. Edgar turned back to her and asked, “Autumn?” but this also went unanswered.
Autumn trooped onstage with her arms crossed behind her back, forcing herself to be calm so as not to alert Matador.
Remember, emotions do not fix problems; deeds do. So let’s just focus on doing our unclean but cheap deeds.
When she reached her spot next to him, Matador leaned his head down to her and whispered, “Don’t mess this up.”
“Never have I ever wanted to avoid failure greater than today,” Autumn replied.
Captain Matador pulled out the sheet of paper, unfolded it, and held it up to his face. After clearing his throat for a bit, he began to read it:
“‘Madame Springer will now begin by shooting herself out of this cannon just to get a single puny penny right over there!’” He pointed over to his right, then turned his head rightward with a confused stare.
“Wait, then why is it pointed that way?” he asked as he pointed to his left.
But before he could get an answer, Edgar pulled on the rope of Autumn’s cannon and Autumn was shot into the cannon on Matador’s left of the stage, which shot Autumn into another cannon in another direction, and continued going from cannon to cannon. Matador’s eyes moved all around the room, trying to keep track of it all.
Matador threw his arms out to his sides and asked, “What is the point of this?”
But then an assistant rushed up to him and whispered, “Captain, she’s hitting our entire workforce!”
Matador looked around and saw that, indeed, the cannons were positioned so as to shoot through the various stations where the greasy guards in overalls were placed.
Matador turned to Edgar, who was still standing behind the original cannon, watching it all himself, and yelled, “Edgar! Stop her!”
Edgar shrugged. “Sorry, but it’s automatic.”
“That’s impossible!” Matador yelled as he stomped his right foot on the ground; but before he could continue his rant, he was suddenly knocked over by Autumn shooting from behind the crowd to a cannon behind him. The force of the hit had crumpled up his suit, flattened his hat, loosened his gloves, and somehow made his mustache crooked.
Matador sat back up, raised his fist to the air, and shouted, “Autumn! I’m lowering your pay to a penny! Let’s see you try and buy your freedom now!” “Captain…” Edgar began, which caused Matador to glare at him. “Uh… the crowd seems to be laughing.”
Matador looked at the crowd and saw that they were in an uproar. He scrambled up to his feet and bowed with a liar’s smile.
“Yes, well, amazing isn’t it?” Matador said.
“They won’t be laughing for long.”
Everyone looked up at where the voice came from and saw Autumn standing on the tightrope, which was now positioned up above the crowd. She was twirling an gigantic golden magnet on her middle finger. When she saw that she had everyone’s attention, she flipped a switch on the magnet all the way, bent down, and hung the magnet down toward the crowd. Suddenly, jewelry, coins, and bills of all varieties jumped out of people’s pockets up to the magnet until it was covered with a whole swarm.
As Autumn had forecasted, the crowd was no longer filled with laughter and cheer, but now with shouting, angry mutterings, and raised fists.
Matador took a menacing step forward with his finger pointed up at Autumn and shouted, “Stop that at once! That’s it… you’re down to half a penny!” He then looked around him with his arms thrown out and asked, “Where is my security!”
Edgar pointed in front of Matador and said, “Um, captain: the crowd’s coming after you.”
“What?” Matador asked as he turned his head back in front of him and saw the mass of people charging toward him with shouts and glares. Matador backed away from them slowly, face painted with horror.
“We want our money back!” the crowd yelled.
“Stop! I’m not the one you want—s-s-she is!” Matador shouted as he pointed his shaking finger at Autumn.
The crowd turned their heads to Autumn, who was now floating down with a large helium balloon.
“I can’t help it; I’m the ‘Magnificent Money-Hungry Freak,’ remember?” Autumn said with a smile; and then she turned to Edgar with a pointed finger. “Edgar, the helium.”
Edgar ran over to her carrying a long gray tube.
Captain Matador shook his fist at Edgar and shouted, “Edgar! Don’t you dare!”
“And speaking of my partner in crime, I’d like to return a thanks for the wonderful treatment you’ve given him,” Autumn said with the unhappiest of smiles.
Matador’s eyes trailed from her eyes to the stone she was lightly tossing in her free hand. Before he could even object, she pitched it at his nose, causing him to clutch said nose and moan.
Edgar slunk his head down nervously as he pumped Autumn’s balloon.
The balloon quickly bulged from the helium, until it was the size of a small bathroom. When it began to float up to the sky, Edgar released the pump. Autumn grabbed Edgar’s hand and pulled him up with her.
“Thanks for all the laughs,” Autumn said with a wave, and soon they were floating high up in the air and being blown away by the wind, shrinking into the sky until they disappeared completely.
The crowd was full of not just shock, but also copious amounts of awe.
“Wow! That’s amazing!”
“I don’t even think you can do that in real life!”
“And we didn’t even think to stop her, even though we had plenty of time before!”
Meanwhile, Matador stood in front of them, staring down at his wringing hands.
“So… I, uh, hope you enjoyed yourselves,” he said with a nervous laugh.
The crowd suddenly turned angry eyes on him.
“Oh, we’ve got a show for you!” one of the crowd members said as he held up two buckets—one full of feathers and the other full of tar.
All Captain Matador, who was backed up against a wall, could do was stare horrified at those two buckets.
IVThe moon and stars pierced the otherwise black night sky with white, shining light on the one lonely blue balloon slowly floating through the air.
Still hanging from that belloon, Autumn smiled wryly as she stared at the magnet full of coins before her.
“So what do we do now?” Edgar asked as he readjusted his grip around Autumn’s waist.
“We fly away to the city, free!” Autumn exclaimed. “No longer will we be anyone else’s slave; no longer will we have to dehumanize ourselves to make a living.”
“You really think so?”
“I will make it so.”
VAutumn and Edgar stood behind the counter of the local McCheesy’s in gray uniforms, fake-smiling at the lines of people in front of them.
“Welcome to McCheesy’s. How may I take your order?” Autumn said with plastic cheer.
“Hey, I ordered my burger without pickles and I demand a refund!” the customer yelled as he stamped his fist on the counter—except he hesitated just before it struck, and so it became merely a light bump.
Autumn kept her Styrofoam smile, but replied, “No, I remember you specifically called for pickles.” She held up a tiny tape recorder. “I even have it on tape.”
“Are you calling me a liar? I want to hear from your manager!”
“What’s going on out here?” the manager boomed as he walked in through one of the back doors. He was a hefty man in a somber black business suit and matching black top hat. On his face lay thick round glasses and a heavy black walrus mustache.
“This woman messed up my order and now refuses to refund me!”
Autumn turned around and smiled nervously at her boss.
“No, I know I’m right this time,” Autumn squeaked. “I even have it on tape if you want proof.” She held up the tape recorder shakily.
“Give him his refund—and I’m taking this out of your check.”
“Yes, sir,” Autumn said with a bow, and promptly opened the cash register and handed the customer his cash.
The manager began to walk back to his office when he heard a loud crash and turned around to see Edgar nervously picking up a pile of napkins that had fallen out of the square, black canister that also fell on the linoleum floor.
“That’s the third time this week, you clumsy dolt! I’m taking those napkins out of your pay—and if you do it one more time, you’re fired!”
“Yes, sir! Sorry, sir!” Edgar squeaked as he continued picking up napkins, his head hanging way down so he could not see the poison in the manager’s eyes.
Both Autumn and Edgar furtively avoided eye contact and instead immediately returned to work. Autumn in particular was wary of the question that was surely on Edgar’s mind, and she knew was on her own:
So, when can we buy our way to freedom from this place?