All the children stood in line, craning their necks to take in the sights with their mouths wide open. The circus tent looked rather small from the outside, but it was a gateway to an entire carnival. Just beyond the small ticket booth Anya could see a ferris wheel with waving arms in each and every car, a higgledy-piggledy pair of acrobats juggling fire sticks on five-metre-high stilts and a frolicsome crowd of children. Miranda squealed and pointed her stubby fingers towards the sky. Balloons waltzed with the wind, flying higher and higher until they spotted the sky like sprinkles on a chocolate cupcake. Anya looked at Billy and smiled so widely that it hurt her cheeks a little.
Billy pulled Anya out of the way just in time. A large metal wheel whizzed by the young girl, inches away from her. Anya stood still for a moment, glaring at Jester Thingrim as he threw his head back and cackled merrily on his tall tricycle. At full speed, he zigzagged through the crowd.
“Did you see the look on her face?” said Miranda, slapping herself on the knee. Even Billy stifled a laugh behind his hands.
“Quit it!” said Anya and shoved Miranda’s shoulder back.
“He didn’t hit you—”
“But he could have,” hissed Anya. Her jaw clenched and unclenched as she watched the line slowly move forward. One at a time the children stepped behind the red curtain into the small ticket booth and then ran out with a handful of tickets. Anya wondered why it took some longer than others.
“What do you think is in there?” asked Anya.
“Who cares,” said Miranda, crossing her arms. She let out an exaggerated sigh. “I just want my tickets. This is taking forever.”
Billy asked: “Do we have to pay?”
“If we do . . . ” said Miranda, “Don’t worry. I’ll just get my mom to deal with it.”
Anya merely rolled her eyes and turned her attention to a group of trudging mimes. Their steps were slow and heavy, as though they were sleepwalking. The one in the front was carrying a tambourine, followed by another hugging a tuba and the two in the back were sharing an accordion. They were all wearing gray hand-me-downs that were either too small or too big, and holey shoes. Occasionally one of them would lift his head up for a moment and give the crowd a sidelong glance.
Jester Thingrim parked his tricycle beside a wooden platform in the corner. He snapped his fingers and a bright yellow light lit the stage almost instantly.
“Messieurs-dames,” said Jester Thingrim, bowing deeply and doffing his top hat to his audience, “Welcome to Tourne au Rouge.”
Everyone cheered and clapped as the four mimes scrambled onto the stage. Hesitantly, they stepped into the spotlight gave a quick nod, then stepped back. Anya recognized the mime with the raisin eyes hiding behind the big tuba. It was Pierrot. He was trying to scratch his leg discreetly, but failed every time the tuba leaned dangerously to one side. Anya giggled.
“There are many games and rides,” said Jester Thingrim with a grin. “Use your tickets wisely. I will only say this once — particularly to those with the nimble fingers. You may not borrow, share or steal here. You’re out when you run out.”
Jester Thingrim jerked his arms upwards and held them in mid-air like a music conductor. The mimes on stage closely observed his fingers and began to play the instant they twitched. In an eerie high-pitched voice, Jester Thingrim sang:
“Emmenez-moi au bout de la terre,
emmenez-moi au pays des merveilles
Il me semble que la misère
serait moins pénible au soleil.”
Billy and Miranda shuffled forward, trying to squeeze past the smaller children while Anya kept her eyes on Pierrot. The quicker Jester Thingrim shook his arms the harder the mime smacked his tambourine against his hip and the quicker the two mimes pushed and pulled the accordion apart and back together, the harder it seemed for Pierrot to breath. His face turned purple every time he blew into the tuba and puffed out his cheeks.
“What do you think he means by you’re out?” asked Miranda.
Billy shrugged. “Go home?”
“I’m never going home,” said Miranda. “Hey!” she waved her hand in front of Anya’s face. “You’re holding up the line.”
Anya turned around. She wasn’t sure if she saw a bead of sweat on Pierrot’s cheek or a tear.
Three old women were crammed into the ticket booth sitting on a single stool. Neither of them noticed Anya as she stumbled through the red curtains. The old women were busy trying to poke each other in the eye with their long bony fingers, shrieking: “Scoot!”
“You get always sit in the middle—”
Anya knocked on the window pane and said: “Excuse me?”
The three old women froze in mid-motion with their arms extended, their heads leaning back and their eyes squinted.
The three old women all chimed together: “Hello, Anya.” They grinned as though invisible strings were pulling their lips apart, staring at Anya with eyes like marbles, empty and cold.
“Say cheese,” they sang in unison. Just before Anya could say a word, there was a flash of blinding light.