4th Place – Surabhi Kaushik

Startled….

“Did you hear that? The circus comes to town tomorrow” said an excited Susan to her kids. Abby and Josh did not look up from their Ipads, their eyes fixed on their respective screens and their fingers on the screen moving like rabbits as they were engrossed in the game. An exasperated Susan walked into the kitchen throwing her hands in the air. When she was little, she and her sisters looked forward to the circus with the same anticipation as Christmas presents. They longed to soak in the colourful tents, cages, tigers and the elephants who stood with one leg on the stool, monkeys that rode bicycles and clowns that made them laugh till they held their aching tummies with their tiny palms. She shrugged her shoulders as she stirred the carrot soup on the stove, “kids nowadays” she spoke to herself aloud “so sucked into gadgets all the time! But I am still going to take them to the circus. I am sure they will enjoy it” she promised herself.

Next evening, both the boys were dressed in their not so favourite shorts and T shirts. Susan drove them to the circus. As they sat in the back seat of the car they noticed a small black briefcase lying on the seat. “Mom, is this yours?” asked Josh curiously as he touched the rough, plastic case. “No, Josh” “But, thanks for the reminder. It belongs to my co-worker Steve, who will be at the circus too this evening. Please remind me to give it to him, if I forget” said Susan slowing the car down as they reached the circus. “Sure Mom” chirped the boys in chorus.

Gold and bright red letters read The Big American Circus. The boys exchanged a brief look of disgust but quietly stepped out of the car and followed Susan to the entrance. A tall man wearing a weird hat and cool glasses walked up to them. “Hey Susan, Hey kids” he waved with a smile that did not look all that happy. “Hey Steve” Susan greeted him brightly. “Mom, briefcase” chipped in Abby, before Susan could speak further. Susan smiled at her boys and then looked at Steve with a questioning look asking him if he wanted his briefcase now. “Your boys are proactive and helpful,” Steve said quickly in a not so pleasant tone. Susan nodded at the sarcastic words. She walked back to the car in an instant and pulled the briefcase and handed it to Steve. “Thank You so much, Susan. But this could wait” he said finally trying to be polite. There was something about him that the boys did not like but they chose to keep it to themselves. Steve walked away holding the briefcase close to his chest like it was a baby. Susan and the kids walked into the circus.

The smell of elephant dung reached their nostrils as they looked for a good spot to sit. The boys blocked their noses with their palms and shifted in their seats as they waited for the show to begin. Popcorn vendors walked in and out of the maize of chairs, tempting adults and children alike with the appetising waft of popcorn.

The show began with the ring music filling the circus tent. Ronald, the clown entered the ring on a tiny one wheel bicycle. He was pedalling slowly and juggling a bunch of peanuts with his hands. The crowd cheered him and he lifted his hands to wave to them. Instantly, he lost his balance and fell down; the bicycle fell on him. The crowd laughed loudly as he made funny faces. Jack and Jill the monkey couple came jumping in, picked up the peanuts strewn all over the floor and popped them into their mouth joyfully. They went backstage with Ronald amidst the thin applause of the crowd.

The crowd fell silent as the lights dimmed and the trapeze artists began their act. All heads faced upwards as they watched the people in tight shiny dresses swinging from one end to the other with the ease of the breeze that blows through the branches of a tree. Every time one of them landed safely on the net, the crowd screamed, whistled and clapped in appreciation and relief. The artists bowed in gratitude. Josh and Abby watched in awe. Susan was glad they were engrossed and not bored as she had feared.

Suddenly the lights grew bright and an anxious voice spoke over the mike. “We have just got the information that there is a bomb scare in our circus tent. A black briefcase lying unclaimed near the tiger cages has made us suspicious. We have informed the bomb squad and the Police. Please vacate the tent immediately and stay safe.” No longer was the announcement made than the crowds turned tense and aggressive all at once. People rushed out, carrying their children in their arms and dragging their loved ones by their wrists. Susan held both her sons by their elbows and jostled out of the tent. Panic spread like wildfire. Minutes after the tent was evacuated a ball of fire went up in the sky. People shrieked in horror, closing their ears in reflex to the loud noise. Susan held her boys close to her. She was shaking all over. After a routine security check, the police asked everyone to leave. Luckily no one seemed hurt. Soft prayers of gratitude were heard as the exodus of people trickled out into the streets.

An uncomfortable silence rode with them as Susan drove back home. The shock was too huge for anyone to say anything. Susan’s phone rang as she was driving. She did not pick it up. Once they got home, Susan checked her phone. Fifteen missed calls! All made by Andrea, Steve’s wife. Susan sent the boys for a shower and sat down on the couch. She let out a deep sigh of relief. She returned Andrea’s call. “Hey Susan,” Andrea said sobbing. “Steve hasn’t come home yet. Did you see him?” she asked in a tense tone. “No” answered Susan simply as Andrea continued “He wanted to get his black briefcase from the car. I wonder why he wanted it in the middle of the show? I was sitting and watching the show with the kids and he just disappeared!” she cried loudly. “I had to get home because the kids were really frightened” she continued before Susan could console her. “I am trying to call him but his phone seems to be switched off” she finished. There was an unpleasant pause filled with doubt. “I am sure he will be okay” Susan managed to say at last. “You don’t worry” she assured her. “I will certainly call you if I hear from him. You take care” she said before she ended the call.

Susan’s mind swirled with an ocean of questions. Steve’s behaviour had always been strange even at work. He seemed to be bitter and angry all the time. No one really knew why. The black briefcase and his behaviour were related somehow. “Mom, I am hungry,” said Abby breaking the train of her thoughts. “Me too” came Josh’s voice. “Let’s eat,” Susan said in an absentminded voice. As they ate their dinner quietly, her mind was screaming with a million questions. Where would Steve be now? Did he really have anything to do with the blast? He was an easy suspect but she did not know him enough to judge him.

Susan lay on her bed tossing and turning. She heard her phone ring. It was past midnight and she switched on the lamp beside her bed as she took the phone to her ears. She was exhausted and could barely open her eyes. “Hey Susan, this is Andrea,” said the familiar voice. “Steve’s back home! He just got here a few minutes ago” she said in a relaxed voice.  “So glad to hear that” spoke Susan, trying to shake off a fresh set of questions growing in her head. “Goodnight,” said Susan. “Goodnight,” said Andrea chirpily “Oh! And guess what?” she said laughing “What?” said Susan moving to the edge of her bed. “The black briefcase had a gift in it for me! It’s our anniversary today and he wanted to surprise me with tickets to Paris and a beautiful evening dress. It was last minute shopping and he left it in your car ” she giggled. “He got me really worried for the past few hours but it seems like he was just in too much of a shock and was as worried and helpless as we are. Anyway, all’s well that ends well. I am so sorry to have bothered you Susan, thanks for your patience and support”. Susan smiled and sighed as she ended the call.

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