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The Greatest Show on Earth

December 6, 2017


 

She sprinted across an endless expanse of barren field that blurred at the horizon.  The bottom of her light-blue, floral dress caught on her feet as she fled from the approaching flames that engulfed a dark mass behind her.  As she sprinted forward, the field seemed to twist, turn, and stretch in front of her eyes.  Her heart beat loudly in her head and screams of unknown faces rang in her ears; she tried to block them out, but they only grew louder.  She peered over her shoulder to see that the inferno had caught up to her.  She tripped and fell hard onto the flat dirt.  She tried to get up but she was frozen in place.  Smoke overtook her senses as a silent scream escaped from between her cracking lips and the fire descended upon her.

 

***

 

Susie woke with a start and struggled to catch her breath.  She sat upright and panted; a distant scream still rang in her ears.  Fighting to peel the bed sheets off her sweaty body, she shook her head to dispel the scream, but it grew louder.  Only when Susie threw herself out of bed and stumbled to the door did she realize the screaming was not in her head.  It came instead from down the hall.  Susie listened to the screams morph into sobs and she knew it was her little sister, Abigail.  Susie figured she must have awoke from the same dream; it was such an important day after all.  Susie heard a door slam and then light footsteps patter down the hallway towards the din; her mother had gone to comfort Abigail.  Susie glanced at the wall clock; it was 7:25 a.m.  She needed to get dressed and help cook breakfast, so she opened the bedroom door and shuffled to the cramped bathroom to wash off her sticky body.  She stood in front of the looking glass and gripped the edges of the porcelain sink to steady herself.  Knowing she had to be strong on this day, she pushed the nightmare to the back of her mind, slipped on a pale pink dress, and went downstairs to the kitchen.  

 

When she arrived downstairs, she saw her mother starting the oven, and Abigail clinging to her apron, wiping away stray tears.  Susie’s mother, Mrs. Carter, crossed the kitchen slowly with a placid expression.  Susie knew how hard this day would be for her mother, and especially for young Abigail, at only twelve years old.

 

“Susie, would you go out to the shed and bring some wood in for the stove?  It’s getting low, and I want the house to be warm when your father arrives from the post office,” Mrs. Carter whispered softly.

 

“Yes ma’am,” Susie replied.  Her stockinged feet padded softly on the wooden floor as she crossed the kitchen and unlocked the screen at the back door.  As she stepped outside, she wished she had brought a wrap.  Her mother guessed right; it was unusually cold for July.  A chill blew through the air, and angry clouds threatened rain.  The angels obviously knew what day it was and were prepared to lament.  She crossed her arms over her chest and quickly strode over to the woodpile by the shed.  She gathered a few small pieces of dry wood and walked back into the house.

 

She returned to a quiet kitchen.  Her mother was gone and Susie assumed she went upstairs to help Abigail get ready.  Susie welcomed the privacy as she continued to the stove with her arms full of wood blocks, but her family’s old radio caught her eye.  She glanced at it, sitting there on the counter next to the bread box.

 The wood stain was faded and a fine layer of dust rested atop it.  She remembered when she and her father listened to it every night together.  Years had passed since they did that.  Those memories created a pain in her chest, so Susie averted her eyes from the radio.  She dropped the wood blocks on the floor, knelt in front of the stove, and opened the creaky, black door with tender fingers.  The flames in the stove flickered and hissed.  She focused on the smoldering ashes that crumbled beneath the flames and her thoughts soared back to six years ago, when fate changed her life forever, and when the greatest show on earth fell to the ground.

 

***

 

Good morning, Hartford, Connecticut!  It is July 6, 1944 and the hour is 8:00 a.m.  The weather forecast for today is beautiful, clear skies and temperatures expected to be in the low eighties!  Meanwhile, across seas in the Netherlands, the Dutch are resisting Nazi forces while allied troops advance.  In Washington, President Roosevelt has declared that despite lack of funds due to the war effort, the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus shall continue their tour across the states in hope that it will raise the morale.  In other news…

 

Susie sat at the kitchen table listening to the local radio broadcast, elated about the day’s events that were just hours away.  Her father had told the family the fantastic news last week; he, her mother, she, and her sisters Abigail and Elise were all going to the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus today!  Susie was told that there would be mighty lions,  majestic tigers, exotic zebras, elephants the size of houses, and even fighting bears.  Her father entertained her with fantasies of sinuous trapeze artists, men who could lift thousands of pounds, and people who could ride rhinoceroses.  Susie’s eyes shot to the front door as her father entered.

 

“Ladies, I’m back from the post office!” Mr. Carter called.  Susie, Elise, and Abigail went running and squealing to their father, who tossed off his postmaster’s hat to hug them.  Mrs. Carter came down the stairs to greet her husband.

 

“I picked up five tickets today on my way home! Who’s ready to go to the circus this afternoon?” asked Mr. Carter.  The three small girls squealed in excitement and began jumping up and down.  “Go with your mother and get dressed, then we shall leave for the show.  We’ll arrive early so that you may look around before it starts.”

 

Susie ran upstairs with her sisters to clean and dress themselves.  She chose to wear the new dress she received a couple of weeks prior for her birthday; it was a beautiful robin’s egg blue with tiny, light blue flowers speckled across it.  Within an hour the entire family was ready, so they filed out of the house and crowded into the little car that sat ready in the drive.  Susie stared out the window as the little car rumbled through town.  She watched excitedly as the scenery changed from buildings to Harford’s serene countryside.  

 

When they finally reached their destination, Susie squirmed in the back seat as her father parked the car near a few others in a field.  In the distance, Susie could see a large red and white striped circus tent rise up into the sky; she found it slightly ominous for she had never seen anything so big.  She heard the distant sound of a loud roar, so she cowered behind her father, but he urged her and the family forward.

 

Once her family entered the circus grounds, a million smells attacked Susie’s nose.  Her mouth salivated with the aroma salty buttered popcorn, roasted nuts, and sugary sweet candies.  She also smelled the animals before she saw them.  Families were everywhere, walking around and pointing the animals in lavishly decorated cages.  The various tents were fantastically covered in the colors of the rainbow: blithe oranges, sunshine yellows, deep violets, neon greens, bright blues, and candy apple reds.  Susie even saw a clown for the first time.  He was dressed in baggy clothes of bright colors, decorated with frills and trim.  He wore large shoes, much too big for Susie to fit in, and she had to wonder if his feet were really that big.  His face was painted white with blue around his eyes, and a large round, bright red ball adorned his nose.  The Carters explored the grounds and watched jaguars pace behind their large metal bars.  Susie enjoyed the tiny monkeys who swung on ropes inside their cage.  The family bought peanuts and even fed some to a friendly elephant.

 

Finally, the time came for the show to begin, so all the spectators filed into the large tent.  When Susie stepped inside, her jaw dropped and her eyes widened to take in the entire spectacle.  Wooden benches stretched all the way across the edges of the tent, surrounding a dusty circle.  The hazy light sifting in through the cloth-like material created an air of mystery.  The Carters quickly made their way to Section A where their seats were located.  After a few minutes, the lights dimmed out, and a single spotlight appeared in the middle of the ring.  An eccentric man entered beneath it, introducing himself as the ringmaster.  He then introduced the first act; a cat tamer.  Susie could not believe her eyes as she watched the massive lion roar at the tamer as he cracked his whip in the air and poked the lion with a small wooden stool.  After that act finished, the clowns did a comedy act, which left everyone’s stomachs aching from laughter.

 

At that point, the ringmaster re-entered and introduced the third act.  “And now, prepare to be amazed!  You are about to witness the talents of the two greatest trapeze artists in the world!”  Everyone applauded as a young man and woman entered the ring in gold and silver costumes that clung to their bodies and sparkled in the spotlight.  They nimbly climbed up the large pole to their perch where the wires hung.  As they were securing the wires, Susie saw through her peripheral vision a small light.  She turned to investigate and saw that it was a tiny flame just to the right above her head on the tent canvas.  It was so small it could have been from a cigarette.  It began to glow brighter, spreading upward across the tent.  Only when the flame was four feet long did Mr. Carter notice it.  When he saw that bright crackling flame licking the side of the tent he grabbed the girl and pushed them out into the aisle.  By then, people in nearby seats were noticing the growing flame.  People began yelling and the news spread throughout the tent, but not as fast as the fire.  It raced upwards forty feet, nearing the tent’s pinnacle.  The entire place was alight and people ran in total chaos.  An escaped tiger leapt into the ring and paced dangerously back and forth, seeking its own way out.  It hurled itself towards a group of clowns who yelled out in terror and scattered in different directions.

 

Amidst the roaring of the flames and the screams of people, Susie heard music.  Susie watched the clowns disperse as her father’s hand grabbed hold of hers and he dragged her down the steps of the bleachers.

They passed right by the band section where the musicians were playing The Star Spangled Banner instead of running away.  As she strained to hear the music above the roaring of flames and screaming of people, her father shoved her aside as a large wooden bench splintered on the ground where she had stood not a second before.  Bewildered, Susie looked above her and saw people tossing benches down to make room for escape, but it only blocked the way of those at the bottom.  

 

Mr. Carter reappeared and grabbed her by the hand.  He looked directly at her and yelled something, but Susie couldn’t pick out his voice for the deafening roar of the conflagration and the screams of thousands of people.  She looked around at the scene before her.  People rolled in the dirt and flames licked mercilessly around the entire base of the tent.  Susie felt the heat at her temples.  Her body heaved as the images before her became seared in her mind.  Even when she closed her eyes people still burned and screamed.

 

Her eyes shot open as her father jerked her to the outskirts of the tent.  More people ran blindly around them, shrieking in agony from the burning tarp that fell on them.  Wooden beams and metal poles rained down from the ceiling just as Susie and her father reached an exit, but it was blocked by an empty tiger cage.  They turned and saw people escaping through burning holes in the tent.  They quickly reached one and tore their way through into the blinding harshness of the sun.  The sound of sirens filled the air and fire trucks appeared down the road.  People lay in crying, quivering heaps in the dirt; circus workers tried in vain to put out the fire with buckets of water, but the heat was so intense that it drove them away from the inferno.  Susie looked around wildly, disoriented by sight and sound and unsure what was happening.  Then it hit her.  Where were her mother and two sisters?  They had stood right beside her in the bleachers.  She looked to her father whose face was stricken and terrified; he realized the same thing.  

 

They made their way through through the smoking grounds littered with soiled tarp, but they had no luck in finding any of them. They pushed through injured people being carried into ambulances and weaved through the labyrinth of police cars. Just when their hopes were almost shattered, they noticed a woman sitting on the ground with a little girl; they were both leaning above a charred, broken body.  Mr. Carter shouted aloud, but Susie couldn’t hear his pleas; she could only choke on her tears.  They ran forward and fell to their knees, but to Susie it felt like they did so in slow motion. There on the ground, lay the burned body of Elise.  Mrs. Carter bent over her and let out a long painful wail then pitifully tried to pull Elise into her lap.  A nauseating pain struck Susie right in her gut.  She looked up at the dismal, gray sky that had been bright blue hours before.  Tiny white pieces of ash and debris floated through the air and settled on the gray grass like a new snow, but Susie only felt cold on the inside.  Her head became light and airy, like a circus balloon, and then a white hot pain seared her right hand.  Susie looked down and saw that a huge area of skin was burned.  As quickly as the agony came, it left, for no amount of physical pain could distract her from the brokenness in her heart.

 

***

 

Susie opened her tearing eyes.  Her hand was burning from the proximity of the flames coming from the stove.  She quickly yanked her hand back and looked at it.  Light pink skin stared back at her; her own personal reminder of that fateful day six years ago.  She remembered how the travesty had been all over the radio for weeks, so her father eventually shut the radio off, condemning it.  Susie still remembered all the injuries and casualties that had been rebroadcast probably a million times.  Eight thousand people had attended the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus that day.  One hundred and sixty-nine were killed, two thirds of which were children; one of which was Elise Carter.  Six hundred and eighty-two people were injured, one of them being herself.  They were told that the circus tent was made waterproof with a highly flammable material a couple of months prior to the fire.  For weeks the scene was investigated by police, but it was only a few months ago, nearly six years later, that a man by the name of Robert Segee came forward and admitted to starting the lethal fire.  The law took him in for questioning, and the man ended up confessing to more unsolved fire crimes.  He was a maintenance worker at the circus that day, and he was soon convicted as an arsonist.  Before he was sent to jail, further investigation found that it was impossible for Segee to have started some of the fires he confessed to.  They brought him back in for questioning and asked him for his motive for starting the circus fire.  He told them that a man came to him in his dreams, haunted him mercilessly, and then commanded him to start the fires.  The police dismissed him as a schizophrenic and sent him to a mental hospital.

 

Susie regretted that they may never truly know who or what started the fire all those years ago.  She didn’t know how many times she had lain in bed crying for the loss of Elise and staring at her hand in resentment.  She often asked herself: why her family, why Elise, why not someone else?  She wasn’t sure if she or her family would ever fully recover from the disaster.  Today she had to live through just another anniversary of the day that the greatest show on earth caught fire.

 

 

 

"Bailey Schnur is an aspiring novelist residing in southern Indiana.  There she attends college and is currently earning a degree in History as well as Secondary Education.  She has been published in various student anthologies and has won several local writing competitions. Creative outlets such as writing, photography, and film are her favorite pastimes."

 

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