I walk along the street, my ornamental spurs jangling at my heels. I do not use them for riding, as I do not believe in the mistreatment of animals. I have suffered more than enough at the hands of human cruelty myself over the years. I shan't put a beast through the same.
Yonder lies the tavern, looming from the darkness like a blessed port in a storm. Yet I must not call it a tavern in these parts. I must remember to refer to it as a saloon. It would not do for the local populace to realise I am not from the area, although I am sure that one look at me will tell them that all the same. I would not imagine that these people will have seen many men covered in so many tattoos that their skin glows a luminescent blue. Indeed, I daresay few people in this entire country have seen such a man. Why else would they flock to see the Painted Man in a travelling show?
Our wrangler approves of my visit to the town. In polite company, he calls himself our manager, but away from the crowds, he treats us as cattle. Mr Virgil Soames is far from genteel. He calls our small fair a medicine show, yet he refers to us as freaks. We are used to his mindless chatter and pay him little mind.
He has sent me into town to drum up business for the show. The conjoined twins loiter elsewhere, papering the walls with handbills. The bearded lady will pay a visit to the barber in the morning. We hope that the townsfolk will be fascinated or appalled – either way, they will pay their pittance to gawp and we shall afford to eat until the next town. It is a wretched way to earn a living, but for folk such as ourselves, we have little else to recommend us, save our difference.
I push open the swing door. The pianist stops hammering out his tune. A bartender stands behind the bar, his mouth hanging open. Each of the patrons stops and turns. Every eye in the room is upon me, and I feel as though I might buckle and fall beneath the weight of their stares. I face this claustrophobia on a nightly basis, yet I suffer all the same for it.
“Hey fella, you ain’t welcome here,” calls a man. He stands near the bar, swaying from side to side. He peers at me through a drunken haze.
“Relax, friends. I mean no harm,” I reply.
“You, er, you sure do look a little, er, different, fella,” says the bartender.
“He’s bluer’n a pecker in a snowstorm!” cries the pianist. A ripple of laughter circuits the saloon. I shift inside my jacket.
“I mean only to tell you fine folk that the Virgil Soames Medicine Show has arrived in town,” I tell them.
I walk across to the wall opposite the door, and paste a handbill to a wooden beam. Virgil’s face beams at me in sepia ink.
“You one of them circus freak types then?” asks the bartender. He stares at the handbill.
“I could scarcely be a county marshall with an appearance like this,” I reply.
The saloon’s patrons laugh again. My discomfort lessens; they are laughing with me, not at me. The pianist scowls at me. He raises one arm and points across the saloon. A young woman sits in the shadows at the back. Alarm spreads across her face and she shuffles in her seat.
“You should take her, she can join your band of freaks,” shouts the pianist.
I walk across the saloon to where the young woman quakes. I smile down at her, and she offers me the tiny ghost of a smile in return. I hold out my hand to her. She gingerly places her small hand in mine, her skin so normal in a sea of blue. She looks down at my fingers, and notices the tiny painted fauns that frolic in the forest around my thumb. She gasps with delight.
“On what grounds would you have such a delightful creature admitted to a medicine show?” I ask.
“She’s the daughter of a witch. Stands to reason she’s evil too,” says the drunk.
I turn back to the young woman. She stares at the floor, and I feel her hand trembling in mine. She is terrified of these people. I know that kind of terror, and empathy plucks a melody on my heart strings. I lean in close to her ear.
“My dear, you’re clearly no freak, but my employer could use an assistant. Would you care to join our motley crew of artists?” I ask in hushed tones.
Her other hand skates across her belly as her eyes dart between me and the townsfolk. If I’m not much mistaken, I am on the verge of hiring two new people for our travelling show. She nods at me.
“Ladies and gentleman! I am proud to announce an addition to our show!” I roar, turning to face the patrons with a flourish. I hold the young woman’s hand aloft. The townsfolk cheer, thinking their young woman is leaving to become a freak. She gives a nervous smile, and allows me to lead her to the door.
“I hope we shall see you all soon?”
I reach into my pocket and draw out a knife. I flick it with practiced ease, and it sails across the room. The blade hits the beam with a thud, and it holds the handbill in place. The townsfolk gasp, staring at the knife in stunned silence. I leave the saloon with my new friend, confident that we shall do a roaring trade in this town.
* * *
This story acts as a teaser for the next Choose Your Online Adventures tale, set in the Old West! I've been handling the story's "freak show" contingent, and figured I'd introduce you to one of them...