Short Story: Before and After

Even before she joined the circus—before she was surrounded by grifters and phonies—Evangeline understood that if you wanted to work as a psychic, you needed to be able to authenticate your gift. Her abilities were limited to seeing how someone was born or died and the immediate before or after of their lives, which were pretty stark limitations, but reasonable enough abilities to convince the average audience that she was legit.

Of course, whether telling someone her birth or death would have been more convincing could vary. Births could be awfully generic for the hospital-born set. Deaths typically required some imagination and some faith for the mark to accept what she was saying as true.

Evangeline could see straight away that Officer Blake wasn’t much for imagination or faith, but rather more the hard-evidence, make-the-case-stick type. She was grateful that her gift revealed his beginnings—a home birth surrounded by dogs. He smiled when she described it, not necessarily convinced she was the real deal, but amused that there was more to her than wild guessing and the sort of generic proclamations skeptics expect from fortune tellers.

Claude, The Ringmaster’s right-hand man, had placed the call to the police after the lion got out. It was a big deal for carnies to call the cops; at any given time, someone in the crew was on the lam and may well have hit the road with the circus for purpose of running and hiding. Besides that, the circus’s means of securing field space to perform weren’t always on the up and up, so much as it was a matter of setting up the big top and hoping no one caught on to an absence of permits until they’d already left for the next town.

The general consensus was that calling the cops about the lion was meant as a service to the local populace, i.e., mothers keep your children in arm’s reach until this jungle cat is apprehended. It turned into more than a courtesy phone call, though. It was clear Officer Blake wasn’t so much concerned with finding the lion as he was with assigning responsibility for how she escaped. There was an interview with the Ringmaster and Claude, then a walkthrough of Lucille the lioness’s enclosure. Blake didn’t stop there. He wanted to interview everyone in the circus.

So it came to be that Evangeline told him about the dogs that surround his mother’s bedside.

"I guess that’s why I’ve always been a dog person,” Blake said. “That, and a big dog gets loose, all he wants to do is lap at his owner’s face, not go for somebody’s jugular.”

He knew.

There was no way Blake could know thatt the lion was responsible for a fatality before she escaped the circus. Nobody knew the clown’s real name, and nobody liked her enough to report her death on principle. She was easy enough to dispose of. Bury her and nobody miss her. But maybe some nervous nelly had spilled the beans to Blake about Arabullonia, and maybe that’s why he’d lingered, started an investigation proper. More than a loose-animal case, but an accidental death. Spin it right, and it was criminal negligence. Spin it far enough, could he call it murder?

“Hopefully we’ll get to Lucille before she has the chance to hurt anyone,” he said. Was that a wink Evangeline heard in his voice? “I’m sure I’m barking up the wrong tree here, miss, but I need to tell the boys back at the station that I asked everybody. Do you have any idea how the lion got loose?”

Officer Blake could play the nice guy, as he did in that moment, but might turn on a dime. Say too much and this friendly chatter would hone in on an interrogation, on reading rights and handcuffs. She didn’t imagine this circus waiting around to see how she did in court, let alone helping her find a lawyer.

So, short answers were better. Yes and no and I don’t remember, sir. She knew that, even as she remembered—

the night when first time she first actually touched the lion’s cage, let alone opened it. Evangeline had long ago seen how she, herself, would die, but knowing that a moment like this wouldn’t be her last didn’t embolden her. After she’d seen how enough people would meet their ends, she knew there was more than death to fear. A broken neck and you may not die, but spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair. A swipe from a lion’s paw may not kill you, but deep enough lacerations and a subsequent infection might make you wish she’d finished the job.

Evangeline rarely acted on her gift to see births or deaths past the point of telling someone how he’d started or how he would end. She’d read enough science fiction pulp as a kid to worry about messing up the space-time continuum if she were to interfere in someone’s fate more than that.

But this time—

This time, when Evangeline stood at the cage, she took the time to notice that Arabullonia the clown’s back was turned, and the time to make sure she was walking away. Evangeline made sure Arabullonia had ventured far enough not to hear her or see what she was up to.

The element of surprise was key, as was Arabullonia remaining in the lion’s sightlines. No obstacles. Just a few strides to catch up and go in for the kill.

Evangeline slid the stolen key in the lock, while Lucille watched her, still, but with considerable interest. Silence. Evangeline recalled the sound of the pads at the bottoms of the lion’s feet pacing, or the scratching sound her claws made under her chin or when she kneaded the ground. The silence was unnerving. Evangeline was always bad with locks. She was the kind of girl who asked boys in school to help her with her locker. As a girl, she had told her father that her front door key was broken, only for him to demonstrate it was just a matter of jimmying it enough to bend to her will. Nothing was broken, just old and rusted.

While she struggled, the metal of the key clinking against the insides of the lock, the lock knocking against the iron bars, Evangeline recognized what she was: prey.

But the key caught. Enough jimmying. Enough persistence.

So, Evangeline opened the door to set Lucille free.

The lion proceeded with long strides toward the opening, then out into the night.

Evangeline threw away the key—

that she’d secreted from The Ringmaster, cashing in on months of good will. For all the nights he attempted to tame the lion, Evangeline had been one of those who stood by, not to watch the spectacle, but rather with soap, water, and bandages ready to tend to his inevitable wounds.

Lucille got him good on his upper arm, tearing straight through his shirt. After Evangeline had cleaned out the wound, she advised him to hold the bandage hard to his skin, to apply pressure. In that moment when he was most distracted with his pain, she snuck the key from from his pants pocket.

She was back to caring for him without missing a beat.

She was good at looking harmless.

Evangeline’s circus act operated on a similar principle. Over time, careful listeners among the circus had come to recognize she really did have some degree of psychic abilities. But her performances were always equal parts about convincing marks she knew more than any mortal should, while remaining vague enough not to leave anyone certain.

Certainty meant people would try to exploit her.

When she told one audience member he’d die at the lake by his family’s cabin, she left out his wife holding his head down while he drowned. And when she told another that the doctor who delivered her was a dark-skinned man with a very skillful hand she left out a level of specificity—that she knew the OBGYN was one-handed.

Evangeline gave enough to pique interest. Just enough to be right. Not enough to give herself away. This was a way of living in the world.

Arabullonia watched from the curtain. That clown always seemed to be watching. She’d taught Evangeline the word coulrophobia—fear of clowns. Arabullonia spelled it out to her, standing uncomfortably close and whispering the letters in Evangeline’s ear as she prepared to go on stage one night.

You have more talent than you let on, Arabullonia had told her.

Evangeline gave her a morsel. I find it’s better to only show so many cards at a time.

Arabullonia didn’t agree with that philosophy. In her act, she juggled and sword swallowed and did magic tricks and danced in a way that never should have been sensual coming from a clown, and yet inevitably was. It was an unwritten law of the circus not to step on anyone else’s toes—not to exhibit the same talents as other acts and risk undercutting them. But this clown showed no boundaries.

And no one called her on it.

Arabullonia painted her face painted in a base of silver rather than white, black accents around her eyes and her mouth, a mess of black curls over her head.

From what Evangeline could tell, coulrophobia was contagious. Everyone gave Arabullonia a wide berth.

If I have a talent, why wouldn’t I share it? she asked. Rumors started. That she’d slept with the wrestler, or with the Ringmaster himself. I go where the night takes me, she said, of the improvisational nature of her act.

Evangeline wasn’t charmed.

When they met and shook hands, and Evangeline said she was a psychic, Arabullonia said, How quaint.

Though Evangeline should have shown more restraint, she couldn’t stop herself, after being insulted, after seeing in her mind’s eye how Arabullonia was born, to a father in a full suit and tie, to a mother actually being fanned by a hired hand—a bald man with a bead of sweat running down his face, moving a venetian fan with a vigor to keep her cool.

You too, Evangeline had said. A rich girl, slumming with a circus.

That gave Arabullonia pause. Evangeline swore she saw death in the clown’s black eyes.

Seeing that death wasn’t unlike the first time Evangeline saw Arabullonia in a vision, before she knew the clown’s name, months before she’d met her, when the dark clown was only—

more dream than real. The Ringmaster called Evangeline into the lion’s cage with him. He did it with everyone from his circus in turns it seemed, trying out different techniques from a book called Approaches to Training Your Lion. It was absurd, of course, that by all accounts the Ringmaster had bartered for this creature without any first-hand experience or anyone on staff to help him. That he would opt for a do-it-yourself strategy, in an endeavor that was so clearly a matter life and death.

Of course, The Ringmaster had survived the interceding months.

And, of course, Evangeline had stepped through the door, making the bars of the cage no longer a barrier between her and lion, but rather the prison that confined her inside with the beast, and that would impede any help from reaching her when things went wrong.

The enclosure felt smaller from the inside. Less like a boxing ring than a cubicle with barely enough room to exist out of contact with the lion. Lucille smelled more like a housecat than a wild animal. Evangeline tried to tell herself that as a reassurance.

Her gift was hit or miss when it came to animals. Evangeline suspected it had less to do with any an inconsistency in her ability than in how difficult it could be to tell an animal’s life from death, from the present moment, all of it chaotic and vaguely feral even among the most domesticated animals.

Lucille was not domesticated.

Lucille did offer a clear vision, though.

In her mind, Evangeline saw the cage in the darkest part of the night. She saw the dark clown.

Evangeline’s visions of births and deaths would vary in terms of how much she could understand. Sometimes, she saw a flash. Other visions were more sustained. Sometimes, she could only see, or only hear, and sometimes she could participate, as if she were there in the moment.

When Evangeline saw the lion’s demise, the vision was immersive. Rather than seeing or hearing, she somehow understood.

She understood the dark clown had unlocked the enclosure, and understood Arabullonia meant for Lucille to massacre the circus. Chaos. Gore. These simple, selfless motivations without personal benefit, driven by an innate desire to wreck and ruin.

But the lion didn’t share in these desires.

Lucille stepped free from her cage and stretched, front paws out as far as they’d go, back legs coiled as if to pounce. Then she arched her back. Then she walked, a little unsteady. It was as though she’d never put much thought into getting free, let alone what to do if she were loose.

But she didn’t want to kill.

And so it was that Lucille met her end. Disappointed at the absence of violence, the clown stabbed her. A swift, strong, two-handed plunge straight through her flesh. The cat collapsed, coughing blood.

Evangeline was sick in the moment of this vision, heaving while Lucille, very much alive and unaware of her fate to come, watched the woman with interest.

She wouldn’t partake in taming the lion. The Ringmaster’s assumption, which Evangeline made no effort to correct, was that she was too scared, and that she’d had a panic attack once she was in proximity to Lucille Evangeline had seen many births. She had seen many deaths.

She decided then, that in so far she could help it, she wouldn’t allow this murder to come to pass.

Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently lives in Georgia with his wife and son. His hybrid chapbook, The Leo Burke Finish, is available now from Gimmick Press and he has previously published work with journals including The Normal School, Passages North, and Hobart. He works as a contributing editor for Moss. Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin.