Chapter 1

Toby

 

 

            “Hey, you! Tubby!”

            Toby Pach turned around to look at the line of customers waiting near the ticket office. One in particular, a man wearing a muscle shirt and a sweaty ball cap, waved for his attention. Pointing to himself, he made the facial gesture Me?

            “Yeah, you, fat boy! C’mere!”

            Setting his plastic pails on the ground, he went over to see what the guy wanted.

            “My name’s Toby,” he cordially informed the customer.

            “Yeah, yeah, okay. Listen, we’ve been standing in line for nearly twenty minutes. When is this fleabag circus supposed to start?”

            Toby pointed to the sign suction-cupped to the kiosk’s window. In case the guy was illiterate, he told him, “Tickets go on sale at seven. The show begins at eight.”

            The man checked his cell phone. “It’s ten minutes till seven. You’d think they’d go ahead and open up with this many people already waiting in line,” he grumbled.

            Toby went back to retrieve his pails. He didn’t care to let the guy know that everybody in the show had more than one job. Aimee, the girl who usually sold tickets, was also the circus’s sword- and fire-swallower. If it was ten until seven, that usually meant she’d just finished up her act over on the carnival sideshow and was cleaning up before heading over to the ticket booth.

            “Yo! Tubby! Can you let the owner know we’re getting a little impatient out here?” the man yelled again.

            Taking a deep breath, Toby gave the man a nod. “I’ll let them know.”

            He carried the pails around the side tent where Jimmy Singman was busy brushing down the show ponies, and set them down next to the tackle box. “Here’s their feed when you’re done. By the way, have you seen Aimee? The rubes are getting restless.”

            “Big crowd?”

            “Looks like it will be.”

            Singman shook his head. “Tanny and I’ve been busy getting ready. Let ‘em wait. It’s good for the blood pressure.”

            Toby snorted. “How about Mr. B? I need to talk to him about something.”

            Singman paused to look at him. “Last I heard, he’d gone into town to pick up the new act.”

            “A new act?”

            “Yeah. Some kind of knife-throwing act he acquired after the Horchow went under. They’re supposed to arrive sometime around six-thirtyish.” The man glanced at his watch. “It’s seven now. They should be back before show time. If not, Giff told me to be ringmaster.”

            As if right on cue, they caught the sound of the canned music as it began playing in the Big Top a hundred yards away. Despite the countless number of times Toby had heard it, those first few strains always sent a thrill of excitement through him.

            “Hey.”

            Toby glanced back at Singman. The man was adjusting the feathered cap atop the palomino’s harness. “Speaking of show time, don’t you need to be getting ready, too?”

            Grinning, Toby gave him a little salute and sauntered over to where the other animals were located a further distance away. Darius was already there, outfitting the three female elephants with their blankets and headgear in preparation for the Grand Parade.

            “Hey! I was just about to come looking for you!” the man called out. “Can you help me with Beebop? She’s being cantankerous again.”

            Toby eyed the lone pachyderm standing chained a few yards away. The animal kept tugging on the length of iron chain that ended in the heavy spike driven into the ground. He could see where the creature’s hind ankle was already bloody from the cuff that encircled it.

            “She’s hurt.”

            “Well, if she’d mind a little better, I wouldn’t have to chain her,” Darius snapped. Toby could tell by the man’s tone that he was already fed up with the recalcitrant animal’s behavior that day. “Do me a favor and see if you can’t talk some sense into her,” Darius pleaded. The man went back to dressing the other two females, leaving Toby to fend for himself.

            He approached the female elephant, taking slow, cautious steps as he held out his hands in front of him to show her he held nothing that she might construe as being dangerous. If she thought he was about to hurt her or punish her, she would rebel, and people could get hurt.

            “Hey, girl. It’s okay. No one’s gonna hurt you. It’s just you and me, all right? Be a good girl and let me put your costume on you, okay?”

            Beebop lifted her trunk, sniffing him. Her wide brown eyes focused on him. She wasn’t as scared as she was cautious. Her prehensile trunk arched toward him, testing him, almost trusting him.

            A quick glance over his shoulder revealed a few curious customers walking between the trailers. The caged lions and tigers always attracted them, as did the pachyderms. It was imperative he get the old matriarch calmed and ready as soon as possible.

            Facing the animal, Toby pressed his lips together and burred, making those sounds similar to elephant talk. Beebop huffed at him and extended her trunk all the way out to where she could touch him.

            Toby let her play with the front of his shirt, then she checked his jeans pockets to see if he had any tidbits for her. Smiling, he pulled the banana from his back pocket and held it out to her. The piece of fruit was supposed to tide him over until dinner, but he knew how much the elephant loved them.

            The delicate upper finger touched the banana before she wrapped the tip of her trunk around it. As she proceeded to peel the treat, Toby went over to the tackle box to fetch her blanket and headdress. Beebop continued to keep a wary eye on him as he threw the covering over her back. She never moved, but she shook her head when he started to attach the headdress to the top of her harness.

            “Whoa, girl. You gotta look pretty for the audience. Don’t you want to impress them with how beautiful you are?” Toby cooed to the creature. He made sure to stroke her hide and rub behind her ears the way she liked it. Finally shucking the peel from the fruit, she shoved the inner portion into her mouth and chewed.

             “Hey, Darius, toss me the key to this cuff.”

             The man pulled the keys from his pocket but hesitated. “Are you sure about this? She’s done this kind of thing before, all complacent and shit. And then, boom!”

              Toby motioned with his hand. “If she goes off, then I’ll just have to come down on her. Let me have the key.”

              The trainer threw the short set to him, which Toby caught in midair. Peering into the creature’s eye, he softly told her, “I’m going to uncuff you now. Be a good girl for the rest of the evening, and I’ll make sure you get an extra helping of leftover peanuts from the vendors.”

               Beebop flapped her ears, turning her head to watch as he knelt by her back leg. Toby removed the iron ring and tossed it onto the ground. Reaching over, he checked the ankle to see if it would need doctoring, when the elephant raised her trunk and let out a loud blat.

               Toby heard Darius yell for him to get out of the way. Instinctively, he ducked underneath the animal’s belly as the trunk hit the ground near where he’d been standing with a force so hard, it cracked the dried earth.

                Beebop turned to lunge for him again, but he would have none of it. For one thing, he was tired of having to deal with her steadily increasing fits of rage. For another, it was almost time to go into the tent.

            Diving away from her, he rolled and got back to his feet to check the area. Most of the customers who’d been perusing the caged animals were gone, apparently in fear. The few hangers-on were being shooed away by circus staff, in case the creature tried to stampede.

            Beebop reached underneath her belly to grab him when she caught sight of him on her other side. She trumpeted again as she swung around to confront him. As the creature whirled around, Toby pulled his t-shirt over his head and toed off his running shoes. He reached to unzip his jeans when she slammed her hip against him, throwing him off balance.

            Toby hit the ground hard, but fortunately he was uninjured. He heard yelling, and glanced up to see Darius running toward them. The man carried a spike to goad the animal away from him.

            Realizing she was free, Beebop raised up on her hind legs to stomp down on him. Enough was enough. It was time to stop this creature in her tracks.

            Getting on his hands and knees, Toby lowered his head and flexed his muscles. He felt himself shifting, growing. His arms and legs thickened, as did his entire body. He was aware of his pants shredding as his nose elongated, almost unfurling like an accordion. Scant yards away, Darius tried to keep the elephant’s attention diverted, to give Toby the precious minute he needed to make his transformation.

            Beebop wasn’t aware of Toby’s presence until he rammed his shoulder against hers. The creature turned to attack in return, when Toby shoved a tusk underneath her throat and held it there.

             The elephant dangled with her right front foot off the ground. He saw her fear in her eye, and he raised his head slightly, burying the tip of his tusk far enough into her neck to draw blood. The elephant made a mournful sound in a range only he could hear. It was her way of pleading for him to let her go. Of surrendering.

            He waited until Darius had the metal shackle back around her rear leg before lowering his head and removing his tusk from her throat. Slowly, he backed away to give the animal room, then morphed back into his human form.

            Darius trotted up, wiping his brow with the back of his hand. “Whew! That was a close one. You all right?”

            Toby glanced over at where the remains of his jeans lay on the ground. “Yeah. I’m okay, but that’s the third damn pair of jeans I’ve busted out of this month.”

            “Well, we obviously can’t take the old girl into the tent with us tonight,” the elephant handler remarked.

            Toby agreed. “Tonight, it’ll have to be just me and the other two girls.”

            “You got that right. Better hurry and change your ass back,” Darius remarked. “We go on in less than fifteen, and you still need to get your costume on.”

            Nodding, Toby dropped to the ground. A minute later, an enormous bull elephant stood where a human had been. Darius waved for him to follow, and Toby ambled off to get dressed.