* * *
Lukas pulled the curtain closed with a grand flourish and smiled wide at his two female customers. They were a little young to be here on their own, especially with darkness falling fast over the big top. He knew better than most what sort of evil lurked between the tented alleyways of this circus, and it wasn’t pretty. But the girls giggled at his dramatics and appeared completely wrapped up in watching Lukas perform for them, unaware of the dangers that awaited them outside, should they overstay their welcome. Lukas slipped into character and let the smile fall away until it was only a hint of a secret about to be spilled. He earned more tips from his friendly demeanor than he did for being accurate, though he sometimes fudged the details a little so he wasn’t too precise. It wouldn’t do to have people thinking he really was precognizant.
He walked back to the table with wide, flourishing steps and slid into his chair with arms spread wide like a performer; for that’s what he was. He might not have a stage, or a place in the big top, but he was a performer through and through.
“Ladies, welcome,” he said in a low, booming voice.
The girls giggled again. They both had a similar shade of blonde streaks in their dishrag hair, and one was huddled up to the other in a protective stance. He knew without even opening his ‘sight’ that they were sisters. The oldest looked to be about seventeen, the youngest fifteen. He bit back a frown. They really shouldn’t be out here alone. Where was their escort? He knew it was a new fad in society: you women no longer required an escort for every outing. He thought it was a little too progressive and dangerous. But then, it wasn’t up to him. At least he could look ahead, make sure they’d be safe when they left.
“You are here to know your future, yes?” He waggled his eyebrows dramatically, playing up the character.
“Yes,” they said in unison. The oldest was watching him with a small smile and piercing blue eyes. It was almost sad how unaware she was of the impossible age difference between them.
“Well, then. Sit back and relax and let Hocus Pocus have a look.”
“Hocus Pocus? That’s your name?”
“It is tonight.” He winked, to the sound of more giggles. “Now, close your eyes and ask me what you wish to know.”
The girls complied and he wasn’t surprised to find they weren’t the type to peek. So many of his clients were and he was always herding them back to obedience. If nothing else, so he could properly concentrate without worrying about the mask of his character falling away before their eyes. If he caught sight of a particularly unexpected vision, his eyes were likely to glaze over and become unfocused, and that would most certainly give away the truth of his gift. As long as they thought it was all in fun, his position here remained secure.
“What would you have me see?” he asked.
“My future,” said the youngest, after a nudging prompt from her sister. “There’s a boy…”
“Ah, I see,” he said. “A boy...” He squinted in concentration, eyes on the girl, and let his mind wander over her.
Seconds later, he felt the web of his mind open a connection and he went through it without hesitation. Suddenly, he was seeing beyond this room, this moment, into another night. A night where the young girl before him wore white and soft lavender as she was led through an archway and into a room full of smiling faces, on the arm of a man who had a forehead way too large for his small face but otherwise, looked happy as a clam to be where he was. People cheered and toasted. A couple that were, no doubt, her parents were grinning from ear to ear and the robust man was crying and claiming allergies. It bothered him only vaguely that he didn’t see the older sister in the room and then he was being called back by the sound of the younger girl’s voice.
“Can you see him? I mean, can you see anything, Hocus Pocus?”
He blinked and refocused on her. She still had her eyes closed, but he could tell she was straining to open them and have her answers. “I see a boy, my dear. Open your eyes.” She did and watched him expectantly. Not for the first time, he felt like Christmas morning personified and was always grateful when there was truly good news to deliver. Nothing harder than trying to lie to cover up a gruesome future. He smiled at the girl and spread his arms wide, going for the theatrical again. “He is yours,” he said. “’Til death do you part.”
“Oh,” she said, her eyes going wide. “You’re sure it’s him? I mean, you don’t even know what he looks like, this boy.”
Her words were rushed, and he couldn’t bring himself to find out if he’d seen the boy she was hoping for, so he said, “I see you happier than you’ve ever been. In the meantime, let destiny have its secrets.”
She looked a little put off by his vague answer, like she might argue, so he turned to her sister and hurried on before there could be a rebuttal. “And you, dear. What do you want to see?”
“Um, well… I mainly came here for my sister, Justine." Justine, the younger sister, snuggled closer. "I guess… can you tell me if my scholarship comes through?” She didn’t sound overly skeptical of his ability to see it; more like she wasn’t used to putting herself first. He appreciated what that meant for her character and smiled a genuine smile at her.
“Of course. Close your eyes and let Hocus Pocus work his magic.”
Both girls settled in again to wait, eyes closed, and he worked quicker this time, opening the web of connections and finding hers before stepping through. He was met by a wall of darkness and for a second, he floundered, unable to get his bearings. His eyes adjusted to the darkness and he was able to make out shadows. Odd shaped buildings and crude alleys came into focus. He looked around, trying to figure out where he was, but it was too dark.
He tried pushing past this moment, into something more future, but nothing would come. His mind was uneasy, not only with his surroundings, but the inability to move forward from the vision. He never got blocked like this. Unless…
He swallowed a lump and looked at his surroundings more closely. If he strained, he could hear panting nearby. He whirled in every direction. There. Crouched behind a crate was the older sister. He moved closer, knowing she couldn’t see him here in this reflection of what was to come. Her clothes were torn and her eye was swollen and leaking. She was crying so softly, he almost missed it. He wanted to bend down and comfort her but she wouldn’t feel his touch. A scuffle sounded from the mouth of the alley and he looked up at the same moment she did. It was too dark to make out anyone specific, but he knew there was someone there; several someones. They were drunk. He knew it without needing to see them. He could feel it in the air, in the way they carried themselves. And they were heading this way. He swallowed another lump.
“Well? Do you see?”
The sound of her voice wrenched him out of the dark vision, and he blinked at her. Her eyes were open and she was watching him with curiosity and a little confusion. His eyes must’ve been milky again. He should really start making them all wear blindfolds. Or at least dim the lights.
“I didn’t get it, did I?” she asked.
He collected himself and pasted an open smile on his lips. “Easy as pie,” he said. Madame Bellfast had trained him in the art of talking in clichés when the answer was unclear or unflattering. He reverted to it only when he really floundered for answers. When the visions he saw were particularly gruesome.
“So, I got it?” Her eyes went wide, like her sisters, but it seemed more disbelief than excitement.
“You needn’t concern yourself,” he said, which was, unfortunately, true. The scholarship was the least of her worries.
She smiled, transforming her features from anxious to pretty. “Thank you… Hocus Pocus,” she said.
The girls rose, and he took his cue, rising as well and motioning them towards the curtain with a flourish of his hands. “Ladies, it has been a pleasure. Come back anytime and enjoy the show.”
They smiled and slipped past him, out the curtain he held open for them, and into the fluorescent night. The yellow lights danced off their hair as they made their way down the causeway, arm in arm. He watched them until he couldn’t see them anymore and then let the curtain fall back into place with finality. He couldn’t see any more customers tonight. Madame Bellfast would understand. He’d never come out and admitted his gift to her, but he saw the way she watched him and he knew she knew.
He sat back down at the table and removed the heavy cape he’d draped over himself. Partly because it lended him to the character he played and partly because it covered up the ketchup stain on his button-up shirt underneath. He dropped his head into his hands and, without really knowing why, went back into the web to look for the girl. His visions weren’t always accurate when he tried for the distant future. He should try for something more immediate, make sure he wasn’t missing something.
The web opened and he stepped through. Over the next few minutes, he let the vision take him, completely wrapping himself into the moment. At the end, his head shot up and his eyes swirled back into focus with jolting clarity. He jumped up, knocking the chair over, and ran from the tent.
He found the alleyway with the ease of someone who’d been there a thousand times. It was the alley between the groomer's tent and the bearded lady, and he knew the sort that hung out there. They were lower than the low. Not even worthy of the company of the ‘lifers’; these were the temps. Short for ‘temporary’. They were so unpredictable, you never knew who would still be here the next day, or who’d be passed out in the ditch as the circus party headed for the next town, leaving the drunk behind.
He heard the sounds before he saw them, and his insides clenched. Was he too late?
Grunts and guffaws echoed out from the darkened alley, and he recognized the scene from his vision with revulsion. A body came hurtling towards him from the back of the alley and slammed into him. It was the youngest sister and she must’ve recognized him because even through her sobbing she clung to him with a desperate grip.
“My sister,” she managed, before reverting back to indistinguishable sobs. “My sister,” she repeated.
He peeled her off him and set her aside, under the bright lights of the menagerie tent. “Stay here,” he said. He didn’t wait for an answer because she was still sobbing. Instead, he headed into the unlit alley.
He did quick checks with his gift while he walked. Ten seconds out. Clear. Fifteen. Clear. Twenty. Not so good. There was going to be a guy just ahead, behind that crate. Lukas reacted a split second before his attacker and caught him around the throat. He squeezed and slammed the guy on the ground without a word. His would-be attacker struggled against him, but Lukas held firm. Physical strength was another of his gifts and he rarely used it for violence; unless it was unavoidable. His attacker ceased his struggles and fell silent. Lukas rose, still checking ahead with his gift. He saw what the three men up ahead planned on doing to the oldest sister and shut his visions off after that. Even if it alerted him to an attack, he couldn’t bear to watch the possible future unfold. He had to stop it.
He walked right into the group of partiers, and they were so far gone they didn’t even recognize him as an outsider until he’d punched the closest one square across the jaw, sending him sprawling backwards.
“Hey,” the other two shouted. They lunged towards him but it was like slow motion. The stench of alcohol that clung to them was revolting. Lukas held his breath and waded into the fight with both hands. He was dimly aware of the frightened girl, crouching behind some crates, and whimpering. He ignored her and focused on the fight. On the meeting of his fists to the men’s faces. Then their ribs. Then their throats. When he finally stood and wiped the sweat from his brow, none of them were moving. He hoped they stayed unconscious until the tents were rolled and loaded and they were halfway to the next town. Otherwise, he’d have to face them again. And he wasn’t sure he could leave them alive if that happened.
“You okay?” he asked, turning back to the girl.
He couldn’t see her face, even this close, but he could see the silhouette of her arm, and he took it gently in his hand and pulled her to her feet.
“I think so,” she whispered. He could hear the fear and panic in those three words, but she managed to hold it together and let him lead her out of the alley.
Justine, the youngest, was waiting under the lights. She ran to her sister and they clung to each other in a fierce hug. Lukas stood aside and waited as long as he could before breaking them apart with a hand on the eldest’s shoulder.
“You should get going,” he said quietly. “Get home.”
The eldest nodded at him. “Thank you,” she said.
“Yes, thank you, Hocus Pocus,” said Justine, tears still streaming down her face. She sniffled and clung to her sister but she was smiling at him.
“All in a day’s work,” he answered, going with the cliché again.
He nudged them forward and followed them all the way to the parking lot. When they got in their car and drove off, he stood there, smiling, as he watched the vision of the oldest sister’s life play out before his eyes. It was long and full.
He’d saved another one.