Where the Red-Striped Balloons Float Far and Free

by Rachael K. Jones

When the unexpected circus comes to town, it digs its tentpegs into the field beside Whippoorwill Elementary School just as lunch recess begins. Before the recess monitors can stop them, the kids flood to the fence to see the dancing bears file out of their boxcar as the red-and-white striped Big Top inflates like a huge lung. The smaller tents billow in the warm wind as worn fabric settles around the domed shapes. Six glittering acrobats show off for the children, trapezing through the park’s trees and catching each other by the ankles, their movements hypnotic, lazy as the sway of a panther’s tail.

Once the kids are good and riveted, next come the clowns.

This circus is old and well-established, and it has many clowns. There are too many clowns to count, each of them white-faced and striped, smiling or frowning, spraying each other with seltzer flowers or towing stacks of cream pies as they cavort in the strip of grass that runs against the fence. They honk their noses and pile themselves four high on tiny bicycles, balanced with vestigial claws, and then one of them whips out balloons and begins making animal shapes. A few bright red-striped balloons will soar over the fence, their strings dangling just to the level of the small, outreached arms. A few lucky kids will loop the strings around their wrists to secure them before the rest drift away on the breeze.

It is a perfect morning, with the whiff of early summer in the air. In this state, full of longing, one or two of the more adventurous children may contemplate climbing that fence and giving themselves to the joy the circus offers.

It all ends suddenly when the circus-hunters arrive.

The circus-hunters pull up to the park’s curb in plain white vans marked with biohazard symbols. They burst out of the rear doors kitted out in balloonproof flak vests, their faces painted in greasy camouflage anti-clown patterns. Some begin to set up the artillery as the strike team rushes in with flamethrowers and hand grenades. The strike team focuses on the acrobats as the artillery begins to shell the twitching Big Top. The Big Top bucks and howls, opening its many-toothed maw and crunching up a whole squad in a single bite.

There is nothing more dangerous than a cornered circus, and this circus is old and fierce, and has been hunted before. It displays its scars in the repaired tears of its fabric, the exhibits in its freakshow, and it has many clowns.

The clowns spring into battle, their white faces stretched and grinning as their flowers squirt acid and ballistic pies arc and strike the nearest vans. Clowns are a circus’s claws and teeth, reared on a diet of flesh and funnel cake. They ride their tiny bicycles directly into the vans, exploding like overripe bananas, and no matter how many are mown down, there always seems to be more streaming from the satellite tents around the Big Top.

The children, meanwhile, are rushed back into the school as the warning siren wails, but they cannot help but drag their feet and gawk at the battle-in-progress. The circus cries out in a voice like an audience applauding, and a calliope wails in minor key. When the circus bleeds, the sweet, heady smell of cotton candy fills the air.

The circus-hunters are winning, and the circus knows that its death approaches. With a last big swell, the Big Top splits open, releasing thousands of rainbow balloons into the air, floating up, up, up into the treetops, into the clouds.

But the circus-hunters have prepared for this. Out come the sharpshooters. They take careful aim. Letting even one escape could seed a new circus, bright and deadly. Every last spore will be popped, and the albumen will rain down on the park as the circus’s corpse twitches in its death throes.

For many days after the circus-hunt, the children will rush to the fence at recess to watch the crows pick at the gristle leftover from the fight. In time, the great, knobbly spine of the Big Top will become just another thing to climb upon, and the lingering striped tatters of its skin will fall into decay. But for now, the powerful smell of cotton candy will draw them, hungry with longing for the lions and the acrobats.

And inside a few closets, packed in with the baseball gear and last year’s swimsuits, a few children will hide the carefree balloons they snuck onto the bus in the chaos.

The balloons will pulse and swell like a lung slowly inflating itself, and the children will have runaway dreams, greasepaint dreams, dreams of dancing bears. Their hands will twitch and flex in knot-tying patterns and balloon-animal patterns as they fall under a compulsion that will only grow stronger in time.

At night, when all else is quiet, you might hear a faint tinkling sound from the balloons, like a calliope clearing its throat.


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