Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
Unlike the larger circuses that dominated the railroads, the little medical show still puttered along in the old ornate wagons and trailers. This made travel much harder but allowed for the doctor to make his own curious, meandering paths. Max often wondered how his life had been hitched to every whim of this strange little man, but as Arthur reminded him, if he really cared that much they could have just quit.
This particular detour had led them to a small town in eastern Iowa. A brutal drought left the fields near scorched, and summer heat made the small crowds sluggish and irritable. The morning sun had only just begun to crawl up above the treetops and already Max felt his shirt clinging to him. The Doc wore his standard three piece suit and kept time with a polished cane. The old man rarely ever showed the wear and tear of the roads. Probably because his trailer had an icebox.
As they made their way on foot, DuMonde informed Max that this was a house call. He was responding to a letter mailed by a desperate family seeking help for their unfortunate child. And why had he brought the former boxing champ along? Simple a precaution, rest assured. The young man had his doubts, but the farm house they were aiming for was no more run down than any other lonesome homestead in the middle of nowhere. As they approached, a solitary donkey sounded the alarm, and his braying brought the owner of the house out the door. He was a short, stout man with a weathered face and an unnaturally tired look. Max thought he saw others peering through the windows at them, but after very brief introductions, they were lead away from the house and over to a storm cellar.
“Heard about you coming to Des Moines last season,” the man explained. “Thought you might be able to do something about this.”
He threw back the cellar doors and led them down into the darkness. It was difficult to see much of anything with nothing but the morning light shining in to guide them. The stench down below was unreal. The unmistakable odor of rotting meat and feces reminded him of neglected monkey he had once seen locked in a barren cage. The only thing that kept him from gagging was the fear that the smell would get into his mouth, and even the decorous doctor covered his nose with a handkerchief. Once Max’s eyes adjusted to the lack of light, he realized there was a pile of badly stained blankets near the wall to their left amidst piles of dung and fly-ridden scraps he couldn’t identify. The farmer took a rake that had been resting near the stairs and poked at the lump.
The thing that shot out from beneath the blankets was such a confusing flurry of limbs that even Max had a hard time understanding what he was seeing. It was human, though really only by technicality. The boy crawled about on four twisted limbs, but a fourth and fifth leg jutted out from his midsection and right thigh respectively. Though shriveled, these forgotten appendages twitched and flexed as he scurried about. His mouth was torn by a severe cleft palette, though that didn’t stop him from hissing and snapping with teeth grown long and somehow sharp like rodent incisors. He was naked but covered in sores, growths, mud, shit, and rust colored stains Max didn’t want to think about. One eye bulged out slightly, causing it to look off in a different direction, though the odd shape to the iris raised doubts over its ability to see anyway. The boy darted wildly to the end of the rope that had been tied around his neck and presumably anchored somewhere out of sight. He nearly choked himself trying to reach for the three men, and when that didn’t work, he resorted to spitting and finally pissing at them.
“Don’t have a right mind,” the farmer said as he stepped away from the spray. “It’s our second boy, but you can see why we keep it down here. Eats just about anything and doesn’t do much but raise hell. Killing it would be a sin against the Lord though.”
Max had to hold his tongue to keep from asking what that made keeping the boy alive down there.
“Very unfortunate,” DuMonde agreed.
He kept his face covered with the handkerchief, but leaned in as close as he could without getting hit. For a terrifying moment, Max thought the Doc might actually take the boy. While he understood wanting to put it out of its misery, accepting the thing instead meant trying to integrate it into the show. And that meant Max would have to deal with it.
“I am sorry,” DuMonde said finally. “While this is a very sad case, I’m afraid I have no room for such a child in my show.”
“What?” the farmer asked. His look of detached exhaustion gave way to a visible wave of grief and then rage. “You said you handled this kind of thing! You take these monsters off those folks’ hands! Now take this away!”
The man’s rising tone made his son launch into a frenzy of yowling and jumping. Max was more focused on the rake the farmer was brandishing, however. He stepped between the farmer and the doctor and took in a deep inhale. He instantly regretted doing so, but at least it puffed out his chest and straightened his spine. The farmer was no weakling by the looks of him, but Max was well over six feet and nothing but muscle. He stared the man dead in the eyes.
“Now, the doctor said there was nothing we can do. We’re real sorry about your son, but that’s all there is to it. If you don’t mind, we’ll be going now.”
Max let his words hang in the foul air between them for a moment before waving his hand for the man to lead them out. The farmer looked as though he might argue but swallowed whatever bile he had brewing and said not a word to them as they took their leave. The only response a farewell from the Doc got was a spit straight into the dust. The pair got the message and wasted no time getting back on the road and putting the house far behind them.
“Such a shame,” DuMonde murmured as the safety of their tents slowly came into view. “Such a poor, poor child.”
“I’m glad you didn’t take it though,” Max admitted. “I would have made you carry that thing back.”
If the story ended here, I’m sure that everyone would have had a good laugh, learned a little something, and the credits could roll safely. Obviously, that’s not the case. This wasn’t nearly the last time Max and DuMonde had to deal with the Unfortunate. Their troubles were only beginning.
The next night, Arthur was called to the ticket booth by one of the few roadies that travelled with them. Max was tied up helping with the bears, and DuMonde had no interest in dealing with the ordinary nuisances of running the show. He approached the depressingly short line and was directed to a wooden box sitting off to one side.
“A wagon rolled up and dumped it off here,” the roadie explained. “They ran off before we could stop them. Thing split open and some kind of animal jumped out, but crawled off into the bushes faster than we could catch it.”
“What kind of animal?” Arthur asked, but the roadie only shrugged.
“Didn’t get a good look. It didn’t look like a dog though. Too big to be a cat. One lady said it might have been a person, but who knows.”
“Box’s firewood then, I guess,” Arthur replied.
Secretly he hoped it was a monkey. Arthur loved monkeys and never did understand why their show had horses, mules, bears, birds, and dogs but not a single monkey, especially now that Ringling had Gargantua the Gorilla. Later in the evening once everything had closed down for the night, he mentioned this to Max. Max went pale and stared at his brother as if the young man had grown a third eye.
“Was it a person? Did they see? Was there a man in that wagon?”
“I’m sure there was a man in the wagon,” Arthur answered. “Someone had to drive it.”
Max was in no mood to argue with his brother. Instead he rushed off to DuMonde’s trailer, and Arthur followed close at his heels demanding to know what was going on. When Max gave a hurried explanation, Art shut up and helped pound on the Doc’s door. Dumonde listened to their concerns with his usual stone-faced quiet. When they finished, the older man smoothed out his heavily waxed moustache and nodded.
“Gather the dogs. Tell the young ladies to remain in their wagons. Search the area for it, but if you find nothing, then I suppose we have nothing to worry about. “
Max roused Carl, the dog and bear trainer. Carl was a short man who loved alcohol and had been occasionally accused of letting his beloved bears drink with him. His dogs came in all shapes in sizes, and though he insisted during the act they were all purebreds, he had once admitted to Arthur they were nothing more than strays he couldn’t possibly turn away. They gathered up the four largest mutts and a couple of guns, and met up with the other roadies Arthur had called out. The only woman among them was Ellen the token bearded lady who was probably at least as strong as half the men there and refused to be left out of the fun.
“We’re looking for…something,” Max tried to explain. “You’ll know it when you see it. Just be careful.”
“That narrows it down,” Arthur muttered helpfully.
They took up lanterns and fanned out through the brush surrounding the campgrounds. They’d taken up temporary residence in a lightly wooded area on the outskirts of the small town. Much to Max’s dismay there were plenty of places for an evil little monster to hide, and every rushing bush or snapping twig made him jump a good foot in the air. He wasn’t entirely sure what the boy could actually do to them, but the pit that was weighing down his stomach told him nothing good could come from this situation. Unfortunately, he didn’t have to wait long to find out.
Two men’s screams shattered the nighttime stillness, and Max and Carl went racing towards whoever was yelling. One voice rose above the other in obvious agony, and the pair tore through the bushes fueled by instinctive panic. They arrived close behind another search group, but that didn’t stop Max from nearly getting clubbed by a hammer.
“He broke my hand!” a roadie leaning against a tree wailed. “My hand!”
“There was a monster on you!” the one with the hammer insisted. Max took the weapon away from him anyway. The man’s eyes were wide with shock and terror.
“And then you broke my hand!” the injured man yowled.
The man had more than a broken had to worry about. According to the pair, a monster had rushed out of the bushes and attacked the man, clawing like a monster and ripping a good chunk out of his arm. In an effort to save his friend, the roadie had swing blindly but was too slow to connect with the creature and instead had shattered the poor victim’s hand.
“You think that thing had rabies or something?” the roadie asked Max as they dragged him back to the camp. “You think I’m gonna get sick?”
Max thought back to the conditions the boy had been held in and didn’t have the heart to tell the man about it. He ordered everyone else back to the camp. Searching the brush in the dead of night was just going to get more people hurt or worse. Instead they opted to lock doors, sleep with guns, and get the hell out of this place as soon as dawn hit. With all the yelling and nervous energy in the air, every animal in the show was riled up beyond hope and the humans weren’t all that much better. Max and Arthur found themselves sitting up in their trailers, playing cards and casting nervous glances out the window.
“Why would they dump that thing on us?” Arthur asked.
“Because they’re cowards,” Max replied. “They’re probably hoping we’ll kill it for them, and then we can go to hell instead.”
“Is it really that bad?” his brother asked.
“You can let me know if you get a good look at it,” was all Max would say.
Some time after midnight they had both managed to dose off. Max was fading in and out of restless dreams, and the incessant barking of Carl’s dogs kept jarring him back to the waking world. He had almost gone under for the last time when a sudden sharp yelp of pain and vicious growling made him leap out of his bed and grab his gun. Both he and Art flew out of their trailer, but though they were the closest and first to respond, they were already too late.
In the moonlight the Unfortunate was even more hideous than in the dark of the cellar. Its twisted spine heaved and pressed unnatural ridges against its skin, and the greasy, patchy hair on its head hung in oily ropes down to its shoulders. What skin wasn’t covered in blood and filth was a sickly white-gray, and its vestigial limbs were flicking wildly at the air. The monster had gotten one of the small dog’s cages open, and it was in the process of ripping the poor animal to shreds. When the boy jerked his head up to look at the brothers, the dog’s neck tore with a wet, meaty rip. The animal continue to try to yelp, but the only sound it could make were gurgling, trembling gasps as it shook and bled out.
Max was too stunned to quickly read his gun, but another figure was on the scene. Carl took one look at what the boy had done to his beloved dog, and the little man’s face actually grew red with wild fury. While the Unfortunate was distracted by the brothers, Carl took the opportunity to jump onto its back. The thing thrashed and howled, trying to buck the man off or at least get in a good gouging bite, but this was a trainer who routinely wrestled bears, both friendly and not. Carl bellowed out obscenities and slammed the boy’s misshapen skull into the remains of the cage, and when those gave way from the pummeling, he pounded the monster into the earth instead. There was finally a sickening crack as the Unfortunate’s skull split from the force. When Max and Arthur finally dragged Carl off the boy, only his frail, shrunken limbs still flexed reflexively at the night air.
By this time the whole camp was awake and watching the commotion. Doctor DuMonde made his way through the small crowd too look upon the remains of the fight. There was still a strip of the small dog’s neck between the boy’s rodent-like teeth, and Carl was now covered in blood and whatever else had been on the child. He was panting and staring at the body of his pet, making no effort to fight the brothers as they pulled him away. Pools of human and animal blood soaked into the dry ground beneath them.
“What a shame,” DuMonde said, shaking his head. “I’m so sorry, Carl. Max, when you get a moment, carry the body to my office if you please.”
The Doctor’s office was a wagon where he held many of his exhibits. At least the ones that weren’t living. The walls were lined with shelves filled with glass jars and odd creatures pinned to the walls like grotesque butterflies. There were some workers who refused to set foot in the place, but after so many years the brothers had grown accustomed to the good doctor’s collection. Max had to wrap the corpse in a blanket to avoid touching the filth, and ignoring the smell and the unpleasant stiffening setting in by the time he gathered the courage to pick the monster up was no easy task.
The Doctor, however, could not have been more pleased. Not two days later, the stuffed and posed corpse had a place of honor on the wall behind his desk.
Credited to Wampus – you can read the backstory and a plea for more of her work here!