Tuesday was Laura’s first time at the circus. She’d read about circuses all her life, but her mother insisted they were dangerous. Laura suspected that the truth lay more in her mother’s fear of clowns than in any real danger, and that was why her mother didn’t know she was here.
Laura walked from tent to tent in awe at the feel of magic that drenched the fairgrounds. Anything could happen here. Trapeze, bearded lady, even the not-so-scary clowns — all of it intoxicated her. The hours flew by and before long it was almost dinnertime. She was tired and her legs felt a little stiff, but she still hadn’t been to the last tent, the one out past the Ferris wheel. It wouldn’t take long.
The tent had a hand-painted sign that read “Tyrk, a creation of Dr. Anders Schneider.” Laura pulled aside the flap and stepped in.
A man, who she guessed was Dr. Schneider, sat to the side of a contraption that dominated the center of the tent. The thing — the “Tyrk,” probably — looked like a jumble of scraps from the dump. There was a big metal box, and perched on that were some leather steering wheels (or at least they looked like steering wheels), and then a heap of wires and pipes and bulbs and goodness knows what else. Everything was bathed in a pale green light that seemed to come from within the machine.
“Welcome, welcome,” said Dr. Schneider. “You have heard of my Tyrk?” He tapped the machine with his long finger. Laura noticed the funny robe he was wearing — it was like he took a thick Persian carpet and wrapped it around himself. Not to mention the hat, squatting on his head looking for all the world like a fat stuffed chicken. Laura tried not to giggle.
“It is a magical, mysterious machine,” he said. “Many years in its gestation. Twenty-seven prototypes before this. Simply drop your face here, on the portal” — he pointed out a circular opening on the side of the machine — “and voila, transportation to a world of wonder. It is unlike everything you have ever seen. You want to try?”
Laura nodded. She handed him her last penny.
“Excellent! When you have satisfied your curiosity, simply crack the egg. You will find it in your pocket. Simple, yes?”
She nodded again.
Dr. Schneider scratched his head. “But it is not wise to crack eggs in your pocket. Messy. Remember that.” He laughed, a high, reedy little laugh that sounded fake to Laura. “Are you ready, little girl?”
While she didn’t really like being called a little girl — she was thirteen — she stepped up to the machine and leaned forward until her face was in the opening that Dr. Schneider called a portal. The inside of the machine was so dark that she couldn’t see anything. Then, a blue light twinkled far away, like someone holding a candle at night on the top of a mountain. Laura wondered if this was the “world of wonder” Dr. Schneider was babbling about. If so, she wanted her money back.
She heard Dr. Schneider fiddle with something on the Tyrk and suddenly the blue light drew closer and closer, filling her view. It sparkled around the edges, danced with little pricks of light. Kind of pretty, she thought. A loud popping sound from behind the light startled her, making her bang her head against the top of the portal opening. Ouch.
Just as she was about to step back, thank the doctor for his time, and head home, she felt herself falling forward into the machine. The portal and the floor just weren’t there anymore. Down, down she fell toward the shimmering blue light, arms and legs flailing. Then she couldn’t breathe anymore. She tried, but she couldn’t suck in any air. She stuck her hand in her pocket. No egg.
She fell through the light, catching her breath long enough to get a whiff of cotton candy.
Then Laura found herself lying in a meadow, looking up at mountains that seemed impossibly high. Monstrous puffy pink clouds hugged the sky. She felt a cool breeze on her cheek and long blades of greenish-purple grass tickled her arms.
It couldn’t be real. It just couldn’t. Dr. Schneider must have slipped some kind of crazymaking powder into the portal. The nerve! Illegal all over the place, especially since she wasn’t a grownup yet. She wondered how long it would take to wear off.
Still, this was a pretty strong illusion, and it wasn’t nearly as bizarre as Laura had always expected powder visions to be. Whenever Uncle Wynn was powdered up, which was every time he lost at a game of innocence, he waddled home and jabbered gibberish till early morning.
Laura got up and walked down the meadow to a cluster of trees. The first one glittered. As she got closer, she could see pennies and nickels dangling from its lowest branches, with what looked like quarters and silver dollars up near the top of the tree.
She reached up and plucked a penny. Seemed real. She bit it, because that’s what people in the movies did. It tasted like a normal penny. Must be real. Maybe this wasn’t crazymaking after all.
She had to jump across a brook to get to the next cluster of trees. The closest one, a tall, thin tree that looked like it would fall over if the wind started blowing, had big bubbles all over its bark. Laura popped a bubble and out fell a piece of pink taffy. It smelled good. She nibbled a little bit. It tasted even better than it smelled — strawberry with a hint of coconut.
Behind the taffy tree there was a little hill, and on top of it sat a thick, black, ugly tree, gnarled and twisted so much that it looked more like a pile of branches than an actual tree. Laura climbed up next to the trunk of the tree and looked up at it. She caught the smell of chocolate on the breeze, but she couldn’t see anything on the tree that looked like chocolate. Figuring it would be up top, and since it looked easy to climb, she got up on the lowest branch — it was as low as her knees — and pulled herself up. The bark flaked off on her hands, leaving a black dust. She smelled it. No, it wasn’t chocolate.
As she climbed, she saw some pods hanging inside little openings in the thicker branches. She pulled one out. It was hard and black, as big as a silver coin. She twisted it with both hands — bracing herself against a branch so she wouldn’t fall down — and it tore open. She shrieked. A spider crawled out and dropped in her lap. Ew. She grabbed a leaf and brushed it away with a trembling hand, somehow managing not to smush it. She shuddered. Spiders were gross and nasty.
Catching her breath, she looked at the pod. She’d accidentally crushed it, but as she peeled it back open again, she saw a light brown piece of chocolate in it, perfectly round, smelling just like the bars of chocolate her mother had her buy at the drugstore every Saturday morning. Laura wrapped the chocolate in a leaf and put it in her pocket. Hopefully that would make up for her sneaking out to the circus and probably being late for dinner. She’d have to leave soon.
Down the other side of the hill there was a tree with branches that Laura could see through. On its branches hung eggs — big ones, small ones, all different colors. Laura remembered what Dr. Schneider had said. She reached into her pocket and, sure enough, pulled out an egg covered in gold and silver swirls. It didn’t look anything like the eggs on the tree, but it was beautiful. Laura fingered the swirls — they were etched into the surface — and then put the egg back in her pocket.
At the base of the mountain, only a few dozen yards away, she could see a dirt path that led upward. Perfect. The view would be better up there, and she’d be able to get a quick look over the valley before she cracked the egg and went home. She took one step up the path. Suddenly she was above the trees. She took another and she was hundreds of feet up. The path was only a few feet wide, and being so high and so near the edge made Laura dizzy. She sat down. This couldn’t be a dream. It was too real.
She backed up against the mountain and, grabbing hold of a large rock to have something to cling to, took a few deep breaths. That helped the dizzy spell pass. Up here she could see a big river out in the distance, reflecting the pink sky and a very tiny sun that looked to be setting soon. Long canoes floated along the river, and she thought she could see people on them. The trees grew thicker out near the river.
Off to the left were hundreds of blue and yellow striped hills, each one with a round houselike mound on top. Some of the houses had puffs of green smoke billowing from tall, skinny chimneys that swayed back and forth.
To the right Laura saw flat plains with dark dots moving around. Probably cattle, she thought. Though they looked kind of tall to be cattle…
She felt a drop of rain on her arm, then another. A thick purple cloud had moved in above her. She’d had enough of this Tyrk world. Time to go home. She’d get there before her mother whistled for dinner if she hurried.
She scooted down the path. This time it took a lot longer, like she was fighting against gravity to go down. At some points she even had to grab hold of some big rocks just to keep from being blown into the sky. Finally, though, she reached the wonderful, safe ground again and took a deep breath. No more mountain climbing. It wasn’t raining down here yet, though the cloud was still there.
She pulled the egg out of her pocket. Hard to believe cracking an egg would do anything, unless maybe there was something inside it. She found a nice, large rock a few feet away and knelt down.
“It won’t work.”
Laura jumped. She’d been sure she was the only one here. The voice came from a man leaning against the egg tree. He wore pinstriped pants and an old velvet jacket with white polka dots. “I’ve tried.”
Laura stepped back and tripped a little on a rock, but luckily she caught herself before she fell. “Who are you?”
“A long time ago I was Schneider’s assistant,” he said, scratching his patchy beard. “Name’s Rhys. I’m not going to hurt you, kid.”
“What do you mean, it won’t work?” Laura felt chills drip down her spine.
He laughed, sad and distant, and sat down on the grass. “Your egg. It won’t crack. Mine didn’t. I’ve been here in Tyrk for thirty years, darling. No way out.”
Laura didn’t trust him. There was something shifty in his eyes, reminding her of Uncle Wynn when he wasn’t powdered. That wasn’t a good thing.
Ignoring him, she knelt back down and hit the egg against the rock. Nothing, though a few flakes of rock fell to the ground. The egg was just as solid as before. She felt sick inside.
“I told you,” Rhys said. “It’s useless. But you never know, maybe this time will be different.”
She tried again and again, scuffing her knuckles and flaking off more of the rock. The egg didn’t crack. She stood up. Maybe she needed more force. She stepped back and threw the egg as hard as she could at the rock. It bounced back and fell at her feet.
“There’s got to be a way out,” she said. Or whimpered, really. But she wasn’t going to let herself cry in front of a strange man. Especially not one who looked at her like that. She felt swallowed up by a thick, uncomfortable feeling. If only her father were here.
Rhys pulled out a pocketknife and trimmed the nail on his pinky. “Believe me, I’ve looked. There’s nothing.”
Laura looked at the useless egg in her hand. That conniving Dr. Schneider, he knew it wouldn’t work. She shouldn’t have come here. She should have gone straight home. Her lip quivered.
The egg was now dead weight as far as she was concerned, so she made ready to huck it back behind the trees, toward the plains.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Rhys said.
Laura rolled her eyes, trying not to look the way she felt inside, all crumbly. “I don’t want to talk to you.”
“Last person who threw their egg away got eaten by gizzlets. Feisty little things. They’re what Schneider calls his Tyrkish delights.”
He was probably lying. She had to get away from him before it got dark and before it started raining hard.
Laura put the egg back in her pocket, left Rhys a cold glare, and made for those houses on the hills. Somebody there had to be able to help her get home. Maybe even in time for dinner.