I wasn’t a clown, but I got my share of laughs on my first day with the circus. Snickers, really. Millicent Dalrymple—one of those Dalrymples, which means something around here—helping to put up posters advertising elephant acts and tightrope walkers? The idea! My grandmothers were no doubt turning in their graves, but my creditors didn’t care that I should be thinking about my debut, not my debts.
Some bad decisions on my father’s part (I’ll spare you the details) led to him skipping town ahead of those creditors—and without yours truly. Mother died years ago, so I had to support myself, which wasn’t easy in the Great Depression. If I did a good job with their posters, O’Hanrahan’s Circus might hire me on to sell popcorn and pop during the shows. (“You haven’t the looks to be a showgirl, nor an act to join our show,” Mrs. O’Hanrahan had told me when I’d come looking for work. What I did have was the height to help put up posters, and the sense not to whine when I wasn’t offered something better.)
If I wasn’t lucky, bad weather might cancel a show or two. Men and elephants had put up a tent the day before (and wasn’t that a sight to see), so rain wouldn’t be a problem. But, a strong enough wind could knock that same tent down. Mrs. O’Hanrahan wouldn’t want that kind of trouble.
If I was really unlucky, a downpour might peel off the posters I’d put up—and if all three dozen weren’t up until the circus left town, I wouldn’t be paid.
So, I crossed my toes (my fingers being otherwise occupied) as I glanced up at the thunderheads moving in. I definitely wasn’t thinking about how I was standing on a ladder as I finished smoothing out a poster, at least not until my hair started standing on end. By then it was too late to do anything but say a word that must’ve accelerated my grandmothers’ grave spinning. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Billy leap to safety. An acrobat couldn’t have done better than that roustabout.
I woke up staring at the sky and Billy’s face. “You okay?”
I wiggled my toes—still crossed. Maybe that was what kept me from dying when the lightning struck. Not being dead, I still had a job to do. “Let’s go.” While Billy grabbed the ladder, I looked around for the paste bucket. It turned out to be lying on its side, spilling its goo down the gutter. I must’ve knocked it over when I fell.
What I said then no doubt made my grandmothers give up on me altogether. What I did then… I still can’t explain the how or why of it, unless it was the crossed toes.
Billy echoed what I’d just said, but not about the missing paste. No, he was wrestling with the posters. There wasn’t any wind, but it was like they were a bunch of flags, all flapping in their own little twister.
One of them peeled off and stuck itself on my hands—the picture side, that is. That was all I needed, to tear it. My fingers twitched—and the poster hovered in front of them.
I don’t mind telling you, it was eerie. I jumped back a foot, and the poster leaped against the wall—and stayed there.
Billy’s jaw dropped a foot. He took a step back. “Don’t hurt me, witch.”
I rolled my eyes. “Don’t be silly. It’s just static. Haven’t you ever seen static hold something on your sweater?”
Billy had worked around elephants the day before, but I guess I was scarier because he took off down the street. That meant I still had to get dozens of posters up, which was really a job for two.
As it turned out, the static was still with me. I was able to put up every last poster for O’Hanrahan’s Circus all by myself, without any paste at all. And wasn’t that a sight to see?
I did some experimenting overnight and some hard thinking as well. I still wanted to join the circus all right—but my dreams had changed.
Polly O’Hanrahan was a busy lady. She’d already made up her mind about me, and I doubted she’d give me a second look. Actions speak louder than words, so I’d just have to show that my actions could draw a crowd.
At first, they were too busy to notice me that morning. So, I finally bawled out (in tones that Miss Elton of Miss Elton’s Charm School would never have approved of), “ladies and gentlemen!”
That got some attention since it’s not every day that the Big Top has a girl crawling up the side of it. Attention and applause, and that meant something to me since I’d never had much of a talent for anything.
As far as I knew, I was one of a kind. That meant money—an act, a career! Oh, I’d need a costume, but Polly O’Hanrahan would take care of that. Or maybe I should join a bigger show, which could pay more.
Someone hollered at me through a megaphone to come on down, and I did just that. I could see myself a big star, all right. Come one, come all! See the Marvelous Millicent!
What I couldn’t see were the flames starting to lick at my heels, but the roustabouts certainly did. If the clowns hadn’t had a “funny firemen” act, complete with a pump full of water, that fire would’ve gotten out of control in a hurry. As it turned out, I left a hole about six feet wide, which meant taking down the whole Big Top, patching it in a hurry, and setting it back up again before the afternoon’s show. That may have been more of a miracle than my lightning bolt.
Mrs. O’Hanrahan was far kinder about everything than I deserved. She took the time to sit down with me once everything was organized. “Your act is wonderful, but it’s too dangerous. Circus tents are covered with wax. The grandstands are made of wood, and sawdust covers the floors. Circus folk—and our animals—fear fire more than anything else. And, I can’t risk taking you on as a butcher—that’s what we call our food vendors—in case your static strikes another spark. Do you understand?” I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. I wanted to tell her I’d pay her back for what I’d done, but it’s not as if I had many employment opportunities.
She bit her lip. “Billy told me about the lightning. I’m sorry about that. Sometimes strange things happen around circuses. I’ve seen a dozen things I can’t explain.”
“So I’m unlucky thirteen.”
“There’s magic out there, Millicent Dalrymple, and circus folk sometimes call some of it down to us. That lightning could’ve killed you. It didn’t. Maybe you don’t know why yet, but I’d bet my tent you’ll find out someday.”
I walked away slowly, but I didn’t stop going until the sun went down. Truthfully, I kept on going even when I couldn’t see, into the woods surrounding my home town. By that point, I wasn’t sure I cared where I was going.
I certainly didn’t care enough to dodge very hard when lightning started striking nearby. I half-wondered if my “magic” or whatever it was would go away if another bolt struck me. Just in case, I crossed my toes. You never know.
Worn out, I sat back against a tree to rest. I watched the lightning, and resented it, and wrapped my mind around it, I suppose. It took some doing, but I remembered that lightning was a kind of electricity, just like static. And, I could make it do what I wished with plenty of practice. High overhead, of course. I’d learned my lesson.
I knew where O’Hanrahan’s Circus was going. I’d seen their schedule. And so did the rest of the state, thanks to the letters I wrote across the sky in lightning, every night for a month. Come one! Come all! See O’Hanrahan’s Circus, The Most Wonderful Show of All!
With some research at the library, I found a new name for my profession. “Marvelous Millicent” wasn’t appropriate for my advertising business. What I finally settled on would’ve been better for a circus act, but by then every circus in the world wanted my help, so I guess it really does suit me.
After all, what’s a circus without an ion tamer?