Continued from yesterday:
Kurt woke up. There wasn’t straw any more, but a warm blanket. A pillow. A *bed*.
And he’d lost Mama’s rosary.
Was it a sign? Was God telling him his prayers were useless? Or was it a test?
He pulled aside the door that concealed his resting place, looking around. Nobody nearby, but it smelled like someone was cooking.
“My ass you don’t need looking after, Cee,” someone was saying in the next room. “And don’t give me no bullshit about only needing help when you’re milk-white and leaning on things. You *are* milk white. *And* you’re leaning on things. Therefore you need help, sweetie.”
“Nope. Whatever you’re gonna say, it ain’t gonna work. You’ve stressed yourself out and you need your rest and *I* am cooking my famous build-your-bones kludge for you and your critter. Now drink your milk and take your goddamn pills.”
Mama sighed. “Yes, Betty.”
Kurt slunk from his hiding place and sought out the bathroom. After seeking and finding some blessed relief, he was sorely tempted by the shower stall. Surely, they wouldn’t hear the water running… if he was *quick*…
He dropped his pants and turned on the water. The shampoo bottle was both large and heavy.
_Blessed Father, please forgive this act of theft. I’ll labor to my utmost to pay it back, somehow. But I have need now, so please… don’t punish me?_
The water was lovely. The shampoo was *exactly* what he needed. He even took the time to scrub himself thoroughly. Help rid himself of the fuzz that went everywhere and gave Mama more work to do when she was already sick.
There was a brand new toothbrush and some toothpaste on the counter. In a little box with ‘Demon’ written on it in marker.
A test? A gift? What were these people *up* to?
Kurt wrapped the towel around his waist and allowed himself the temptation of keeping himself clean. It felt so good to be clean… and it was almost his undoing.
Behind him, the door opened a crack. A hand sneaked through, reaching for his shorts.
Betty smirked at the sound of the shower running. “Well, looks like we’re right about our not-so-little friend.”
“What scares *me* is how easily he passes for an animal,” Celia shuddered. “More ignorant people would have had him in a cage for the rest of his life.”
“All the same, he deserves clean clothes that actually fit him.” Betty sniffed judiciously at her concoction and put it on to simmer. “You still got 'em?”
Celia fumbled around. “Er…”
There was a small hunt for the bag, then some fumbling over what to leave in return for the threadbare shorts. Then they had to creep up to the diminutive bathroom, holding their collective breaths, because the shower had stopped.
Celia took the lead, owing to the fact that there was only really room for one person in there, anyway, but Betty hovered close behind. She opened the door *just* enough to spot the shorts. She could almost reach them. Almost…
A sudden growl and a snarl, and Demon landed solidly on the maligned fabric, almost knocking it out of her grasp. Toothpaste foam spattered about his mouth and leaked in dribbles to the tiles.
And just as suddenly as he started, he recognized her and stopped. He did not, however, move from his perch on his old excuse for clothing.
“I’m not stealing,” said Celia, valiantly concealing her initial fear at his display. “See?” She gestured with the new pants and the clean underwear, both adapted with his tail in mind. “We got you some new clothes to wear.”
She’d never forget the look in his eyes as long as she lived. Desperately afraid, dreadfully needy, and frighteningly close to the line between normalicy and insanity… all at once.
His grip tightened on the pants underneath him. All five limbs at once.
Celia maintained her grip, a gentle one. “They’re going to fall apart, soon.”
Shaking, Demon closed his eyes. He was breathing strangely.
“What’s so important, hm? Why do you need these shorts?”
A solid sob. He was *crying*. “…mama…” he said in a voice so soft she could barely hear him. “…treasure…”
Celia let go, so stunned that she sat solidly on the floor.
“Hon?” Betty prompted. “You okay?”
“You know the rosary I found? Can you fetch it for me, please?”
Betty didn’t fight or bother asking why. She knew this was serious business and just hustled to get what was needed. It took her less than a minute to return with the circle of beads, but listening to Demon on the other side of the door, weeping bitterly… it felt like an eternity.
Celia looped the beads into her hand and presented it through the gap in the door. “These were yours all the time, weren’t they?”
He stared in shock at them. Then his tail actually scooped up the looped rosary, coiling around it and hiding it close to his heart.
“Whoah,” she whispered. Feeling that flexible spade rub - however briefly - across her palm had been an experience in and of itself.
His fisted hands flexed in the overworn garment he’d arrived in. He was still deciding.
“Demon,” she whispered. Her hands reached for the scarf on her head.
His half-mad eyes focussed on her.
She took the scarf off.
Celia might as well have shot him, he looked so shocked.
The fabric of the decrepit pants ripped asunder in his hands. There was a brief flurry of desperate activity. And then… wonder of wonders, he crept forward.
His hand felt like velvet across her naked scalp.
And there was a weight around her neck. A locket on a chain. Celia opened it, turning it around so she could see the contents properly.
The woman’s face was almost her exact double. There was a spiral coil of auburn hair in the other side. Immaculately preserved under a shell of glass.
A mourning locket. A reliquary as sacred to him as anything could be to any other human soul. The fact that it survived, unmarred, unscarred and unsullied when Demon himself was clearly in the ruinous hands of the Wagners was proof of that.
She gave him dignity in the form of clothes made to fit him.
Celia prayed it was a start.
He looped the rosary back around his wrist, cleaning up any mess in a sort of automated fuge.
Of course Mama would give him new clothes. She was *Mama*. And it was only fair that she got a little bit of her hair back. If only to remind her what it was like to have some.
But Sir was going to be coming, now, for sure.
Sir was coming.
He’d broken the rules, and that meant punishment.
Kurt shook. He was too terrified to risk talking again… and yet he had to warn Mama.
What could he do?
What could he *do*?
He couldn’t stay in here. That was for certain. He had to do *something*. Perhaps… maybe… Sir would believe it if he just kept acting like an animal? It had taken a long time to get here. Maybe Sir wouldn’t even bother.
Maybe… if he was good.
Thus, when he emerged, he did so on all fours. Sniffing at things at random. Watching the world with wary eyes.
Mama had her scarf back on, but held the locket in her hand. She and the other woman - Betty - stopped talking the instant he showed himself. It was that singular women’s way of talking that stopped dead at the merest hint of an interloper… that watched the intruder pass like cats and refused to start again until they were well out of earshot.
Kurt almost appologized out loud for interrupting their conversation. He changed it instead to an enquiring purr.
Mama looked - wounded.
“It’s okay, sweetheart,” she soothed. “You can be yourself with us.”
He padded over to her and squirmed his front half into her lap, nuzzling for a scratch.
“Oh yeah,” said Betty. “Worked over *big* time. Poor soul.”
Mama’s fingers worked at his scalp. “I just want him to get better…”
“Can’t wait for next week,” said Betty. “On the road at last. The hell away from those assholes that did this to him.”
“I still feel sick about showing him off like…”
“I didn’t mean–”
“I know, pet. I *know*. Look at it like this… What *options* are there?”
It was only a handful of days intil the initial move. A small number, really, that could be counted on one hand. It was a handful of days loaded with hustle and bustle, making sure stocks were stocked - including a large supply of Celia’s own medication, since distant towns sometimes had a problem with filling out her prescriptions - new costumes, rigging pieces, fresh rope… and, in short, that all the minutia and mundanities were taken care of.
She barely had time to be worried about Demon.
The poor boy had gone completely animalistic after he had spoken. Living his role to the hilt, as it were.
But Celia would never forget those words or the heartbreak in them.
He could *speak*.
He was smart enough to know *when* he could speak, which meant that he was smarter than he was letting on. Which meant that her saintly organiser and covert housecleaner might just be *him*.
Celia was always careful to lend him as much dignity as she could. Clean clothes every day, including the option for wearing a shirt - which he had yet to take. Time to be alone to pursue hygene. A knife and fork beside his dish at the table. A blanket lovingly tucked around him when he was sound asleep.
None of it seemed to make any impact.
Even on days when she 'forgot’ the leash, he trotted beside her, as obedient as any dog.
Once, she took the collar off when he was napping. A sign, she hoped, that he was welcome to be himself with her. Demon just found it and bought it to her in his mouth.
It had taken all her effort not to cry when she put it back on.
He’d been extra affectionate, that day, as if appologising for her mood and being the cause of it.
Her fault, for pushing it.
At long last, the day came to go on their long tour. Owing to her health, Betty drove, which lent Celia the relative freedom of relaxation in the trailer with Demon.
She didn’t miss spotting the Wagners glaring at them from outside the campgrounds. Nor did she miss the way Demon saw them and promptly ducked out of sight, hiding under the furniture and whimpering.
Celia waved them a cheery farewell and breathed easier. Away from those two for the most part of a year. It seemed like paradise. One she hoped she could share with her young friend.
It took an hour and a specially-made portion of casserole to coax him out of his hiding place.
“Well, *fuck*…” Karl muttered. “Didn’t see the freak anywhere.”
“For all your school learning, you get some dumb ideas, boy.”
“We got money, don’t we?”
“We might have money, but the house is a freakin’ *sty*, boy! What in hell are we supposed to do 'bout that?”
Karl knew better than to suggest hiring a maid. Sass like that could have an ear ringing for the rest of the day with Dad’s clublike blows. “C'mon, Dad… we got rid of the freak and someone’s paying for it. So there’s a few little snags. We can find ways around it?”
“Like *what*?” One meaty hand balled into a fist.
“Like…” _…fuck…_ “Doing stuff ourselves?”
Ow. That hurt. Karl blinked at the ant just in front of his eye. Getting up, or even trying to, was a mistake. Staying down was the smarter thing to do.
“I’m not cleaning up after your mess, *boy*,” Dad announced. “I got more important things to do with my time.”
Traslated, Karl was now the new house slave. He risked sitting up. Ow. “Wha’ 'bout school?” he slurred. Damn. Another concussion. “Y'r always sayin’ I gotta go t’ school.”
“Then go to school. And ev'ry other hour… you’re *mine*.”
Dad was right. Selling off the freak was the worst idea he’d ever had.
The first stop. Celia’s nerves had her in performance-night jitters, even though she couldn’t actually *perform*. Not while she was still recovering her health. What happened instead was a cloud of nervous activity that encapsulated all the animal acts.
Except the one that she didn’t want to face.
Demon padded loyally by her side… if that really *was* his name. Celia personally doubted that the Wagners she met would have called him anything else, but…
*Someone* had to care for him when he was younger. There was no way he could survive to the present day without some form of solid nurturing. And given his fixation with 'Mama’…
Celia’s imagination filled in a battle between an abusive husband and an ill wife, one that was won and lost with the same result.
Demon wouldn’t be so confused about things if Mama was still alive.
Celia had completely stopped calling him 'Demon’ out loud. It was terms of endearment, only, or 'our friend’ when talking about him to a third party.
It hadn’t made any more impact than any loaned dignity she gave him.
Someday, she was going to make progress with him. Real progress that didn’t involve a complete retreat like this.
He’d spoken to her once. A grand total of four individual words. Two of them had been 'Mama’.
He’d spoken once.
He could speak again.
Just… not today.
Demon followed her into the cage, reminding her too much of cattle that followed a goat to their deaths.
_Ease up, Cee. He’s going to stay alive if the whole circus has to stand between him and danger._
But all the same…
Celia knelt and held him, sobbing into his fur. “I’m sorry as all hell to do this to you, darling.”
Demon purred for her and nuzzled against her.
She felt sick to her stomach when she closed him in there.
It was actually relaxing in the cage. Mama was close and he didn’t have to fret about accidentally doing something 'too human’ and thus summoning Sir to wreak retribution. It was comfortingly dim, reminding him of early-morning twilight. The time of day when he had the peace to do what needed to be done without the rest of his family barking at him to complete the tasks that could, essentially, wait.
They’d outfitted the cage with toys, this time. Things with which he could entertain himself - but nothing that was unexpected in an animal cage. It was a mystery to *him* where they found half a tree, but it was something to climb. And the almost-obligatory tire swing held… possibilities.
All he had to do, as far as he understood things, was maintain his act and otherwise enjoy himself while people gawked.
In a way, it was a relaxing holiday from what he’d had to do at home.
One tent was making an absolute killing. People would go out of idle curiosity. Some would read the list of cautions on the outside and walk on by, then later return - wondering what the heck was worth all the fuss and bother. All would later come back, bringing relatives and friends to see.
Each who visited bought a small handful with them on the return trip.
The troop had to use some of the roadies as muscle to keep the tent from being overcrowded.
Celia watched him carefully, searching for any bad signs. It gave her something to do other than listen to the comments made by the gawkers.
_They’re paying gawkers, Cee. We need the money. You can be sick to your stomach, *later*. What matters is now._
“There goes the 'shaved monkey’ theory,” said one of them.
Celia pretended to read her book. Most people who came through never even saw her. They were too busy staring at Demon.
“So what *is* it?” said another.
_He,_ Celia corrected inwardly.
Demon had put his head and shoulders through the tire swing and, propping himself up on his elbows, was idly swinging back and forth, propelling himself with his feet.
“Blue?” guessed the first speaker. “How the fuck should *I* know?”
_*He* is incredible,_ thought Celia.
He was getting faster on the swing, building up impetus. Celia found herself flinching whenever his head drew close to the ceiling of the cage.
Then, without warning, he latched onto the bars behind him with his toes. He left just enough time for that to make an impact before shrugging out of the tire and gripping the bars with his hands.
The observing crowd went *nuts*, gasping and yawping in surprise.
Demon clambered around the bars for a little, allowing everyone to get used to the idea, then he climbed up and clung to the flat ceiling, then down the bars close to her.
He was wearing the biggest shit-eating grin she’d ever seen.
“You magnificent little show-off…” Celia whispered. She had to rise and ruffle his hair, feeding him a sweet from the supply she had in her pockets.
The audience applauded, giving him an excuse to trot victoriously around the cage.
He *was* incredible. An incredible enigma.
Demon bumped the ball, possibly on purpose, and used it as an excuse for kitten-play with the thing, attacking and defending himself… and, just once, bopping himself in the face to make the audience laugh.
_You’re loving every minute of the attention,_ thought Celia. _Look at you. Hamming it up just to feel the love._
And the most heartbreaking thing was that she could *see* how limited he was by his arena. Demon was clearly meant to fly, what with that natural grace and flair, the speed and fluidity of motion. He was magnificent. Marvellous. In his element… and yet too restrained. Like a big fish in a little pond.
He needed more room.
Celia wanted to give him a world’s worth, lend him the freedom of the sky and all the space he could take; but she knew he wouldn’t go much further than eyeshot of her. Nor would he, given everyone else’s rights, take them properly.
She needed to take it slowly, using his own actions as a prompt for what she could actually *do* with him. For him.
Betty dropped by with refreshments. “Seth says you’re effecting the main show’s ticket sales,” she whispered. “The exact quote was, 'ask her where the hell my audience has gone’.”
And given the number of roadies doing the move-along routine… “Tell him I said, 'oops’.”
“Oh, he’s gonna love *that*.”
Celia rearranged her burden. “Go on out front and tell Kyle to put up a 'gone for lunch’ sign. Clearing out the tent’s going to be trouble, but we have enough big burly men.”
“For which we are thankful,” said Betty with mock piety. She waved a cheery goodbye.
Celia made sure the gawking crowds were gone before she opened up the cage and offered demon his share of food.
He still ate like an animal, even when it was just him and her.
“I know you’re in there,” she whispered. “I can only guess how scared you are, honey… just… please… you can be yourself with me.”
He groomed sauce off his face like a cat. Sort of. No cat on the planet concealed a shaking head in such movements.
Celia didn’t feel much like food. Even eating enough to keep her going made her feel ill. She gave the rest to Demon, who always ate eagerly.
His beloved 'Mama’ had to have given him a proper name. Celia was willing to bet her life that she never called him 'Demon’. *But*, since she looked so much like the deceased woman, so much so that he was clearly disturbed and confused by the resemblance, she couldn’t up and ask him what it was.
Even though the revelation was inevitable, what with her natural hair colour being uck-mud brown, Celia daren’t break that illusion. She was certain it was one of the few things that he actually *had*. Taking that away… breaking him when he was already broken… It was worse than showing him like the animal he pretended to be.
“You’re not an animal,” she whispered, holding him tight. “You’re *not* a demon. You’re one of a kind, and that makes you special beyond belief.” A kiss, gentle and motherly on his brow. “All I want you to do is let us *help* you.”
He nuzzled against her, purring, and lovingly groomed a spot of sauce off her jaw.
She wanted to scream in pure outrage against what had been done to him, yet couldn’t.
It wouldn’t help.