Homestead, Pennsylvania: August 1892
As the train slowed, Neva cracked open the door to the advance men’s bunkroom and peered inside. “Well, you’re not supposed to be there,” she murmured to the room’s petite, petrified occupant. But her words were drowned out by Brother Paste, who rapped the window at the other end of the railcar and shouted, “Damnation! It’s a sticker war!”
Neva had made her observation to a pale girl who couldn’t have been more than sixteen—the age Neva had been when she joined the circus four years ago. The girl looked more terrified than most runaways, but maybe that was because Brother Paste, whose voice was every bit as immense as the man himself, hadn’t stopped shouting.
“The bastards stole a march on us!” he roared as the train eased into the station. “They papered over all our mummies!”
Neva mouthed “Be still” to the runaway and then leaned back to see where the big man was pointing. Lithographs of wild animals and near-naked performers coated the saloon opposite the station, the bar’s sagging walls “mummified” from top to bottom with advertisements for the circus. But while the eye-catching colors were familiar—grassy greens and peacock blues and molten reds more brilliant than any you’d find in even the best magazines—the name was wrong: “Ringling Bros.” instead of “Barnum & Bailey.”
“Would that saloon be ‘The Tipsy Cow?’” asked Floy, the only other regular advance man on board. Unruffled, he was checking the list of pasting contracts.
Brother Paste, halfway through yanking his pasting smock over his head, grunted what sounded like an affirmative. He’d spent the last hour brewing a barrel of his flour-and-water-based adhesive in case they needed to post some last-minute ads. He was probably cursing himself for not making more.
“Advance Car 1 signed the bar’s owner—a Mr. Wilcox—to a pasting contract back in May,” Floy noted. “Cars 2 and 4 confirmed it in June and July.” He struck a line through that portion of the list. “No complimentary tickets for him.”
“He’ll still get a piece of my mind,” Brother Paste growled, finally out of his smock. He hefted one of the rolling pins the advance men used to flatten the lithographs against their intended surfaces. “After we make sure the Ringling crew is good and gone. Come on, then—get yourself something to knock heads with.”
This last was to Neva and the other fill-ins, especially grizzled Ceburn, who was almost as large as Brother Paste. But Ceburn said what he always did—nothing—and the significantly shorter Gemi and Dorian crossed their arms.
“No one said anything about paying us to brawl on our day off,” Neva reminded Brother Paste. “Come get us when you’re sure the Ringlings are gone, and we’ll put up your posters.”
The advance man glared at her, muttered something about “Old men and colored midgets,” and stalked off the car.
Once Floy followed, she turned back to the runaway, who’d had the sense not to repeat whatever she’d done to make the incriminating noise Neva had heard a few moments earlier. “You picked the wrong train, little rube. This is Car 6. It works for the circus, confirming supplies and spreading the word. But it’s not part of it.”
Dorian squeezed his head under Neva’s arm, winked at the runaway, and stretched his face into a wide-eyed smile so ridiculous the poor girl couldn’t help giggling.
“This one, though—he’s an act to himself.” Neva tugged his hair until he withdrew, still beaming like a jack-o’-lantern. “A clown on and off the job. Normally us performers wouldn’t be here, but most of Brother Paste’s team is sick.”
Dorian slid under Neva’s arm backwards this time, clutched his rear end, and made a long, wet farting noise. The runaway giggled again as Gemi—her hands hairier than most men’s—grabbed hold of Dorian’s shoulders and returned him to the main cabin.
“No one asked for an illustration,” Gemi growled.
“The rube came to see ‘The Greatest Show on Earth,’” he protested.
“Then stop disillusioning her.”
Neva couldn’t help grinning. “The rest of the circus will be along tomorrow,” she told the runaway. “Stay out of the way and we’ll get you sorted.”
The girl nodded.
“What’s your name?”
“Rassy,” she whispered, her voice threaded with hope.
“I’m Neva—Neva Freeman. It’s nice to meet you.”
Before Rassy could respond, Brother Paste bellowed “Trespassing bastards!” from somewhere outside the car. Neva motioned for the runaway to hide, then closed the bunkroom’s door and ran to the nearest window. A second later, she jerked her head back as a pail of paste thunked against the car and coated the glass in white goo. She moved to the next window and did a quick count of the sticky, shouting men outside. “There are at least seven from Ringling’s—no, eight.”
Gemi joined her at the window to watch. Brother Paste and Floy were standing back to back, dripping with paste from another hurled bucket. Even so, they were giving better than they were getting. Brother Paste had laid out two of the rival advance men with his rolling pin, and Floy had jabbed another in the gut with Car 6’s stirring stick, doubling the man over.
But the odds remained bad.
“Maybe we should go out and help,” Gemi said, reflecting Neva’s own thoughts.
“No need,” Dorian replied. “The fight’s coming to us.”
Neva turned in time to see four more of Ringling’s advance men clamber into the car.
“Look at this,” the ugliest said when his eyes lighted on Gemi’s furry arms and chin. “They brought the darkie freakshow.”
“Must be their Gorilla Girl.”
“And that’d make the little man, what? Her chimp husband?”
With a juggler’s grace, Dorian tossed a rolling pin to Gemi and two to Neva.
“I like the taller colored girl, myself.” The first advance man took another step forward and whistled at Neva. “Bet you she’s in their ballet. I might actually pay to see those legs do a kick or two.”
“Who’s the geezer, then?”
Neva offered one of her pins to Ceburn. “He’s our wax man. Makes the best models in the business. And if you don’t get off this car, he’s going to help us wax you.” She hoped it was true; she barely knew the man. He mostly stayed in his compartment on the main train and let his apprentice set up their sculptures at each stop—it had been jarring to see Ceburn volunteer for fill-in duty. But maybe there was more grit to him than he let on.
Or maybe not. When Neva gave him the pin, he just looked at it and blinked.
The Ringling advance men laughed. They were only a few feet away now, brandishing their own pins and fanning out as much as the cluttered car allowed.
“There’s no need for this,” Neva tried, glad her words sounded calm. “We only came along to make a little extra coin. You can keep your posters up for all I care.”
“Too late,” the first advance man sneered, tensing for a lunge.
“And to the fire-eyed maid of smoky war, all hot and bleeding will we offer them,” Dorian intoned, freezing everyone.
“What the hell was that?”
“A monkey quoting Shakespeare to an ass.” Dorian let the words linger in the air a beat before flashing a nastier version of his jack-o’-lantern smile and chucking a rolling pin into the man’s ugly face.
Dorian got two more throws off before the advance men overcame their surprise. Both shots did damage, but not enough to prevent the Ringling goons from charging.
Gemi struck next, landing her blows low and fast. A shin, a knee, an ankle—in a trice, the advance men were all limping and yelping. Neva capitalized by whacking a few more legs, along with a shoulder and an elbow.
Yet Ceburn just stood like a lump off to the side.
If he’d done his share—or even half it—maybe they wouldn’t have lost the advantage. But once the advance men started swinging back, their size and reach quickly won out over the performers’ speed. Dorian went down within seconds, and Gemi soon after.
At which point Neva, woozy from a smack to her temple and inches away from being cornered, stopped holding back and revealed herself to be the biggest freak in the car.
It wasn’t just that she started contorting her body in ways that made her one of the most compelling acts in Barnum & Bailey’s Sideshow. She was flexible to be sure, her muscles more pliable than most of the acrobats’. But she could also stretch her bones. Silently snap and reform them into new positions that defied natural anatomy.
Was it magic? Witchery? Normally, these types of questions kept her from bending publicly in anything but her performances. And even then, she only augmented her twists and turns with minor distortions, small tweaks that were enough to make people marvel at the results without wondering what enabled them.
This idiotic sticker war seemed close to becoming a matter of life or death, however. And her friends were bleeding on the floor. So Neva bent. Compressing her spine so she could duck lower than she should have been able to. Nudging her ribs to the right so she could avoid a jab while staying in place. Extending her legs so she could jump over the backswing.
Lengthening her limbs also let her strike further and more unpredictably. Soon enough, it was the advance men who were retreating, eyes wild as she pressed them with unnatural, off-kilter flurries of her rolling pin. It hurt—bending always hurt. But it was also exhilarating to be this bold, this unleashed, this powerful.
Until three more Ringling advance men flooded onto the railcar, and the odds worsened yet again.
“Watch her,” one of the original assailants warned the newcomers. “She’s like a damn octopus.”
Yet they were too many now, bending or no, and it took less than a minute for her to lose all the ground she’d gained. “Ceburn!” she yelled as a vicious thrust forced her up against the bunkroom door. “Now would be a good time to stop acting like one of your stupid models!”
The jibe wasn’t enough to rouse him, but Rassy’s cry was.
She screamed when the ugly advance man from the first group missed Neva for the umpteenth time and followed his arm’s momentum into the bunkroom door, smashing it open and sprawling face-first into the narrow confines beyond. Neva nearly lost her balance trying not to trip over the man, but something about the fear in Rassy’s voice finally stirred Ceburn—and it made all the difference.
With a howl worthy of the menagerie’s hyenas, the “geezer” bowled into the advance men from behind, sending two flying and another to his knees. Belatedly, the rest turned their attention to the improbably furious sculptor while Neva caught her breath. More reinforcements arrived a second later, as Floy, Brother Paste, and a stranger wearing—of all things—a blue U.S. Army uniform rushed into the car trumpeting various battle cries. Combined with Gemi reviving enough to batter the Ringling crew from below, and Dorian springing up to bewilder them with more Shakespeare (“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste death but once!”), it wasn’t long before Car 6 belonged to Barnum & Bailey again.
“Right,” Brother Paste said once the last of his rivals had tumbled out of the train. “That was a good one. We all in one piece?”
Gemi slumped against the wall and shook her head. “Ceburn’s down. Took a hard hit at the end.”
“Not just down,” Dorian clarified in horrified awe. “They knocked his face off.”
“What?” Neva hurried to where Dorian was kneeling over the sculptor. Rassy crept alongside as the clown pointed to the big man’s nose.
His second nose. The first had been broken off, taking a layer of flesh with it and uncovering a perfectly formed duplicate beneath.
Ceburn had been wearing a wax mask of himself.
And now he was dead.