Bonus #2: the story of Alex, the strange red-headed man who feels no pain…or does he?
There was only one person who had ever been able to enter, sit and stay a while in Espressitus Kauffee’s Boiler Room, and that was a young man named Alex.
The Boiler Room was Kauffee’s personal chamber that led the Black Carnival on its unmapped ways across the world. The great metal cart shrieked on iron wheels, drawn by a chained creature that was often mistaken for an elephant. Yet even when folk daring enough to come close would see there was, truly, a long neck, a reptilian head atop it, claws picking through the mud…they would still convince themselves that it could only be a costumed pachyderm. A smokestack constantly spewed clouds of black, white, sometimes other colors that would stain the sky with shades of reds, purples, blues.
Every morning, Alex would knock on the great brass door that had been scorched with protective sigils, so dwarfed by the giant box that it was hard to believe that anything could hear the small rapping of his pale knuckles. And Kauffee would answer, having not in fact actually heard his greeting but motivated by the timely schedule they had perfected as reliably as the moment of a sunrise, and the towering man would usher him in with a turn of his palm.
And every morning, all the others of the carnival would stop and shield themselves against the blast of heat that came out in that moment, the steam attacking them like a divine plague. Most days, Alex looked back as he went in and allowed himself a small smirk because while they winced, he was untouched by the heat, incapable of suffering its fiery kiss, but this morning…this morning he just walked in without pausing.
Alex’s seat was always atop Kauffee’s stiff, black tophat, and he pulled himself up to the table. Now and then it would remind him of being a child; the hat came a bit above his waist and his feet would sway back and forth in the air. This morning…this morning he pressed his feet into the material and rested his arms on his knees.
Kauffee himself would sit across from him in an iron throne, the seat of which only Alex knew held all the money of all the lands they had come to. That sustained them. The table between them was a dark wood, stained by heat and cracked with age. Steaming mugs of liquid so hot and broiling that they seemed to be full of black lava sat before them. Just as Alex was the only one who could sit within the chamber, he was also the only one who could drink as Kauffee did.
“How many fingers this morning, Alex?” Kauffee asked, the smoke from his own cup billowing into his face, mixing with his whiskers.
Alex opened up hands. They were pale – his palms glowing like full moons as his arms pinked with the heat – and he closed them again. “Ten.”
Kauffee took a sip of his brew before continuing on, his ebony eyes watching Alex. “Nails?”
“All accounted for.”
“Any scratches in your eyes? Any changes in your posture, your walking, your movement?” He watched Alex pick up his drink and swallow down a mouthful of it, his bright blue eyes not even blinking at the heat. “Anything?”
Alex made a small hrm and shook his head, his shock of red hair moving back and forth before falling around a face with too many angles to ever be really attractive. “No blood under nails. Nothing. No change. Still same.”
Kauffee’s square head bobbed, a slight movement that took his beard precariously close to the edge of his cup. He said nothing to Alex’s short responses. Each word was as valuable as a breeze, raindrops. When he had first taken him into the Black Carnival, Alex didn’t even say that much, and though he had grown out of his baby fat, the speckles of dry-blood freckles on his cheeks, the intensity of the boy only hardened into a full-body shell for himself as a man.
“You’ll forgive all the questions, of course.”
“Of course,” Alex replied. His voice had a certain gravelly quality to it, perhaps hardened by the calluses, the blistered surfaces of the fire he ate regularly, the ice. “Must be mindful of valuable property.”
Kauffee did not disagree. Often this would be the end of their conversation. Alex would leave before the heat made him pass out, and Kauffee would be satisfied in knowing that his renegade body had not tried to harm him in his sleep. But this morning…this morning, Kauffee went on. “Do you want to talk about the show yesterevening?”
“Ennk.” Alex put his hands around his cup like it was neck he was choking. “Nothing to talk about. Brief slip in composure. Not worth discussing.”
“She seemed to know you.”
The image of the night before flickered across the backs of Alex’s eyes like a sepia movieroll. He was sitting as he normally did, his bare, long arms cross lazily over the chest of his undershirt. It was a small crowd that night, but all the instruments for his demonstration had been spread out on the table as they usually were: corkscrew, knife, matches, pliers. THE PAINLESS MAN, the banner read above him, WELCOMES THE MOST CREATIVE SADIST.
No one approached for some time. He could feel his delicate balance slipping into boredom when he finally perceived a sensation on the farthest edge of his brain. A small point of pressure, and he looked down to notice a little boy poking his leg with a pin. When there wasn’t even a crack in his thin lips, the vindictive beast gave it a twist. Even his blood took its time travelling down his calf, as if it too could not even be bothered.
She came out of nowhere, a small, high-pitched breath escaping to compliment the whistle that followed her open hand. It hit the child so hard that the clap of her skin on his cheek didn’t reach anyone’s ear until after he was standing mute with preadolescent, tearful shame. The pin stuck out of Alex’s calf like a third wheel until she knelt at his feet and pulled it out, pressing her hand against the wound. “Are you alright?” she had asked, all solemnity and seriousness and…
“You laughed in her face.”
“Barely chuckled. Over-exaggerating. Difficult to take seriously. Five minutes prior drunkard with cigar put it out on my shoulder.” Alex glanced down at the round circle that even cleaned looked like it would leave a quarter-sized morsel of scar tissue.
“She looked at you so familiarly.” Kauffee leaned forward with so much interest Alex found himself leaning back. “She touched you. And you let her.”
They are children. She has her tiny hands around his wrist, and she pulls him through the hall out of his mother’s apartment, which always smelled like ammonia, nightmares, death. The woman is howling after them, long breasts sagging over a sloshing filthy stomach, and the sounds follow them until they were out the door, in the alley. Ali. Her name was Ali.
“Won’t happen again.” He stood up. The room was starting to take on an aura like it was underwater. He didn’t feel any different, no, but he could tell the heat was soaking into his brain. “Have to go.”
“I brought her on.” Kauffee rose up, so many heads above him. He put his hat on, and he was no longer a companion, but the lord over the Carnival. “Hope you don’t mind.”
Alex almost snarled at him, but didn’t. “Do mind. Doesn’t matter, though. Why?”
They walked to the door together, and when Kauffee stood against the sun, so tall Alex had to crane his head, and even then he seemed one shadowy obelisk. Not a lord, no. A god. “She’s good with cannons.”
Alex made his way through the Black Carnival without wave nor word to any of the other freaks and fiends who were starting to wake up. The warmth of his skin and his short scarlet hair made him look like a match making its way from one cart to the next, a warning flame to anyone who thought this morning was a good one to approach him.
He cursed like a gunshot when he tripped on a stray tether that hung off one of the tarps used for tents. With one hand he felt his foot, his leg. He knew the bones like children, and he whispered each of their names as he made sure he hadn’t broken anything. Always checking. Always rechecking because if he didn’t there was no way for him to know if something had come loose, snagged, snapped, sprained.
In the tiny space between their building and the brick one next door, they sit amongst the tall, winding weeds. It is too narrow for any grown-up to get into and pull them, so the plants grow out of control. She has a black eye her uncle has given her, and he has a gash from his mother’s tequila bottle. “Don’t it hurt?” It is still been bloody, sticking to his shirt like jam. He just shakes his head.
He had made his way up to his fingers when she had shown up in front of him, holding out a rag. She wasn’t pretty enough to make it tempting for him, like some princess holding out a token to her favorite. She was moving through a coating of dust, dirt, grease. An oil smudged her cheek instead of rouge, and her sweaty hair was pulled back tight from her face. “Your stomach is bleeding.”
He stood up fast and close to her, heavy like a bull, but she didn’t move. “It’s fine,” he growled. “Torn stitches. Will redo.”
When she realized that he wasn’t going to take her offer, she stuck the towel in the back pocket of her pants. He could tell from the tightness of her face that she was trying not to look slighted. “When we were kids, I thought you just said it didn’t hurt so I wouldn’t worry. I never thought you actually couldn’t feel it.”
“Hnnk.” She trailed after him like detritus caught on his shoe, even stepping into his cart. “This place. Full of surprises.”
They are twelve. They can’t fit in between the buildings anymore, but they have found an abandoned garage that always smells like gasoline and paint thinner. Her eyes water every time they go in. One day, she tells him to meet her there after another fight, another cut on her cheek, and she kisses him. It’s young like they are, and they clash too hard, a thin ribbon of blood finding its way down his nose. All he tastes is that warm metal, almost sulfuric from the smell.
Alex watched her as he snip, snip, snipped away the other stitches, pulling the string out in two frayed pieces. She was looking for some personal token, something to tell her that there was more to him than just the Painless Man. She stopped once he started moving the needle through his skin, looping and looping and looping, one more, cut. He wiped the escaping streams of blood away and bandaged the spot. “Broken bottle,” he said finally, no tremor in his voice.
“I thought you got enough of that from that bitch.”
“Don’t be crude. Not same.”
“You just let them…?”
“Only during show.”
“How is that any different from -”
“Only during show,” he raised his voice to make sure she understood this time.
Her face grew red, and he wondered if the grease smudged there would start melting. “Do you know how long it took me to find you?”
It is a year after that first awkward kiss. He is sitting in the garage, a blanket spread underneath him that they put in there when the snow started coming. There have been a few other awkward things there, too, and he is waiting for her with an enthusiasm he was never allowed to have for Christmas or birthdays or any day other than when he would get away from her uncle. She doesn’t come. Not that afternoon, not the next. The third day, he can see men in suits from down the block pulling out the blanket, picking through the garage. He doesn’t go back. He doesn’t go home, either.
“No.” He wished she would move so he could get out, a creeping coming up in his gut from a time when he would be backed into corners without escape. “Don’t care.”
“We were friends…”
“No.” He found her dark brown eyes and locked onto them, willing with everything in him that what he had to say would force her out of his way. “Friends say goodbye. Don’t disappear. Don’t send in dogs to sniff out like criminal.”
It worked, a little. She swayed, and he nudged her the rest of the way so he could head outside. But she followed. “I wanted them to get you away from that awful woman, like they got me away from him. You deserved better.”
He made another noise in his throat and spit in the dirt. “Had the best already. Had you.” He immediately regretted the sentimentality that left such a stupid sweet taste in his mouth.
Three years before. His mother is bloated in bed, and there is more of an awful smell that comes up from her throat. Bile hardens on her chin. He waits, and she doesn’t move. When the sun sets again, he takes her to the harbor, shoves stones past her jaws and keeps filling, keeps filling. She sinks, and he watches the whites of her eyes like nickels travelling to the bottom of a fountain.
She has no one. No one loves her. No one comes looking for her.
Alex managed to avoid her for the rest of the day until the evening when everyone had started moving, had started setting everything up. It was like a switch being turned; one moment the lot of them were milling around, talking, doing whatever it is freaks do in daylight and then there was a sudden hivemind. The show must go on. Always.
The cannon was the largest thing in the caravan. It reminded Alex of pictures he had seen of whales that swallowed men whole. He would need the Giant to help him look down into it, let alone crawl in. She was straddling it and looked down at him. Ready to welcome anger, scorn, he was disappointed that she was still so hazed with concern. With such a forlorn watchfulness.
“I’m supposed to fire you out of this,” she said finally.
“You may not feel it, but…”
“Nothing has killed so far.” He gave the metal beast a speculative boot of one foot. “Won’t be first.”
He has been on the road too long. Everything – the haunting loneliness, the adolescent desires emptied out, the realization of all that had been gained and lost – catch up with him. There is a snow that falls that he cannot feel beyond a light whisper of damp on his arms , and a bellowing in the distance. He follows the sound until he walks beside the massive travelling Black Carnival, and it is only when he is at the head of it that he throws himself beneath the wheels of the first cart. It halts atop him, and there is red in the snow. He smiles terribly when everything becomes black – the sky, the tall man looking at him, the blood, Ali. Ali…
The smile fades when he wakes up again.
“How many fingers this morning, Alex?” the man asks.”You said that when I asked you your name. Before you passed out.”
Alex. He doesn’t correct him.
He opens up his hands. There are bandages all around him, and he feels like he must be in many pieces. He shows them to him.
He pulls up the blanket, wiggles them with some difficulty.
“Any scratches in your eyes? You can see, can’t you?”
He nods again.
The huge man smiles, hands him a bowl of bubbling broth. He drinks it without pausing, and when he rubs his tongue against the roof his mouth the blisters wet his mouth. “You’ll forgive all the questions, of course.”
Alex – it is Alex now, he takes it like the new skin that is growing under all the bandages, covering his innards, covering his torn heart – realizes that he is the first man who has spoken to him in years. He tries his voice on like a new suit. It’s foreign to his ears, but he says, “Of course.”
Once he was finally crammed and crushed inside, Alex rested his face against the wall of the cannon’s belly. The loud sounds and music and trilling and drumming of the Carnival was only a steady hum, a mild vibration. He wondered for a moment if this was what it was like before he had been forced into a world of screaming nights, too much drink, and…
“I shouldn’t have come.”
He wasn’t sure how he could hear her voice, and it brought a guttural, frustrated sigh from his chest. “Maybe not. Too late now to think on it.”
Her breath hitched, like it had been snared in a trap. “I don’t want to do this. I just wanted to see you again.”
“Too late. Chekhov’s gun. Cannon, yes, but…same difference.”
Alex shifted. There was no pin and needles, but he could always be uncomfortable. “Gun presented. Must be fired. Way of everything, really. Boy meets girl. Girl breaks boy’s heart.”
She didn’t speak for a long time after that.
“Why cannons?” he asked. He didn’t know if she was even there anymore, and the silence had become as oppressive as the darkness. Somewhere towards the front of the weapon he could see a smattering of stars, but nothing else.
“They made me feel strong,” she said, after another few moments. “The foster family I was sent to did war reenactments. I felt like I could bundle all my inner demons and all the pain I had gone through into one of those cannonballs and…just…watch it disappear.”
Alex smiled at that. “Maybe we will both be doing ourselves a favor, then.”
She is one of the dancers, and she has the body to match. They press and move against each other, trying to fit together like two opposing jigsaw pieces. He growls and finally pushes her off. He holds himself in his hand, as if trying to hide the fact that he can’t…
“Honey,” the dancer croons. He doesn’t even know her name. She is one of Kauffee’s, and he has given her to him as reward for a job well-done. She has liked him for some time. “It’s okay, let me…”
She tries to move herself down, and it makes him gag a bit for her to get so close. He shoves her too hard, too fast, and then she looks afraid even when he mumbles an apology.
“Don’t call me that.” His flesh seems to crawl so much it might rip off, leaving him a quivering mass of his inadequate, unfeeling muscle. “Don’t you ever call me that.”
There was suddenly a hissing. The fuse was lit, now, and he didn’t flinch, didn’t flex. He relaxed and waited. “I’m so sorry,” she said. She sobbed. He didn’t know how, over the growing noise and movement – he’d be fired in some direction, certainly – that it was only her voice he could hear.
“Had been forgotten. Never forgiven.” Maybe he was just imagining her there. Maybe it was just the broken part of his heart.
“I thought I was helping you. I swear. I’m just…I’m sorry, okay? Please…”
He laughed for the second time since she had reappeared like some unwanted specter. “All the time? You never knew. Only pain I’ve ever felt. Thanks, you’ll get, for the experience. Never forgiveness. Ever.”
And it’s in the punctuation of his words that the night exploded with him in it.
When he wakes up, she is there. Her hands are on him – he can feel it in the exposed parts – moving on him. It is a mockery of what he is sure she means as love, but it doesn’t make him cringe as much as he thought it would. Her palms smooth over his skin like a sculptor’s, and she folds his pale skin over the many scars and pockmarks and burns.
She touches him, up and down, and that part of him betrays the horrible yes that comes up his throat.
Her entreaties make him whole. She studies the holes needles have left, kisses them away. She moves past the barrier of his chest and holds his heart like a bird in her hands, and he sees her again, in those weeds, in the garage. He loves her again, and the rest of him trembles just as fiercely as his foresworn heart.
“William,” she says. It is him. And Alex is undone.
Thanks she will get for this too. The only one to bring him pain, the only one to bring him pleasure.
He goes to the Boiler Room and does not sit down. There are no drinks between the painless man and Espressitus Kauffee. Only those blue eyes, and his red hair, already looking more tame even as the heat teases it.
“How many fingers this morning, Alex?” the god asks.
“All accounted for.”
“Any scratches in your eyes? Everything put back together after your flight?”
“Eyes are fine. Everything else too.”
Kauffee looks him up and down, like he is memorizing the man standing before him. “You’ll forgive all the questions, of course.”
“Of course.” He stops. “Always been a mindful master.”
The dark-faced man holds his beard for a moment. “No. I must make sure nothing is owed to you. You came to me whole, and so you are leaving. I have taken nothing from you. She is waiting for you.” He grins. It is like a rock cracking. “She has always waited for you.”
“Did you know?”
“That she would claim you after this? Perhaps I was counting on it. I would never possess such hubris to say this Carnival is where all my peoples remain forever. It’s here, when it is needed, and it will live on when they are gone.” He moves a hand and the door opens. “So go.”
He says goodbye and does. She tries to take his hand, but he shoves it into his pocket instead.
The next morning, he wakes up and his ring finger is missing a nail. The blood dots his pillow and sheets like the stars, and as he sits in it he feels like he is in the bottom of the cannon again. He tries not to tense.