Many thanks to Alison Elise Pedaggi for the prompt for this week’s story!
Bartholomew reached into his coat pocket and nervously fingered the two worn and bent tickets, rubbing them together with slightly sweaty fingers. In his other pocket, he twisted a finger around the chain of a locket containing a small bit of hair and a portrait. The locket jingled against the scanty remainder of his money, all in change, just a little more than he would need for a corn dog. It would be his last, and he intended to savor it.
The ever-shifting carnival lights and competing notes of the jangling music and the shouting buskers were disorienting even to the dulled senses with which he was saddled. The smells were easier to identify, but his nose was pathetic at picking them up. That had to have been the most difficult adjustment, the nose. That and table manners.
Ah, there she was. At last. The woman from the locket was strolling past the ferris wheel with a languid grace that belied the tension and alertness in her face. Bartholomew suppressed a lifetime of instincts to keep from chasing her.
She dodged a particularly exuberant weight-guesser and walked up to Bartholomew. Both of their nostrils flared, and she squeezed nervous eyes in greeting. Remembering herself, she smoothed her hair with shaking hands and muttered “Hi, Bartholomew.”
“Hello, Angela.” The names were still strange, even after a few years of use. They had never had names before, either of them, nor any need for them.
“You have the tickets?”
He pulled the dog-eared pieces of paper from his pocket. Daintily, she took one from his hand and sniffed disapprovingly at its condition. “Not much time to get there,” she murmured, brushing past him without looking up from the ticket.
“Wait!” She stopped and looked at him, the tails of her long coat waving in the wind. “I just… there’s one more thing I gotta do before we go.”
“What’s that?” Her voice was somewhere between a purr and a growl. He looked sheepishly at his feet.
“I just… gotta get… a corn dog.”
Her eyes narrowed and her fingers flexed. “What? Why?”
“I just really like ‘em, and we won’t have any way to get ‘em again after this. It’s the last thing I wanna get before… before it all goes away.”
She turned from him, twitching her nose in disdain. “Honestly, you creatures will eat anything. Get your ‘corn dog’ then, but be quick about it. I don’t think you have another year to wait.” Before she had finished speaking, he had rushed off to the nearest stand and paid for the coveted food. It took all his willpower not to wolf it down in a few bites. He had learned the art of savoring during these past few years.
Angela set off as soon as he’d returned with his prize, leading the way to the magician’s tent with a surefooted grace. They produced their tickets and took their seats just as the magician stepped onto the termite-chewed stage. Neither Angela nor Bartholomew had ever seen the magician before, but their bodies remembered. They watched the show in anxious silence.
He was a truly crappy magician. He guessed the wrong card twice, got his magic rings in a hopeless knot, and the dove flew out from his vest long before its trick. Angela had to keep herself pinned to the seat at the first flap of wings, but she managed to calm down when it escaped the tent entirely. The show ended prematurely to a dismal display of pyrotechnics and the polite and uncomfortable applause of the audience. As the people trickled out of the tent, Angela and Bartholomew looked to each other for encouragement and stood in unison to see the magician. Angela’s long, confident gait outpaced Bartholomew quickly, and she came upon the magician with an eloquent sneer.
“That was far more tragic than it was magic,” she drawled at him as he attempted to get the scattered remnants of his show into a suitcase. “I have seen rotted rat carcasses with more mystery and magic in them than you.”
“Yeah,” Bartholomew joined. “It was terrible. The worst. The… the worst ever.” Insults had never come naturally to him; he was inclined to love everyone he met without question. As an afterthought, he flicked the corn dog stick at the man. It bounced off the man’s tattered coat and landed in the dust, and Bartholomew fought against the need to fetch it. The magician sighed heavily.
“Look, if you folks want a refund, take it up with ticket sales.”
“No, you don’t understand.” A note of desperation edged into Angela’s voice. “You’re an embarrassment to your family. You’ve wasted your entire life in this profession and actively make the day worse for people who see you perform.” She looked to Bartholomew for help.
“Uh… yeah. The worst. Can we be friends?”
“Bartholomew!” Angela hissed.
“Sorry! I can’t help it…”
The magician finished packing up his tricks and looked them over with weary resignation. “Ma’am, sir, I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the show. I know I’m a half-rate magician at best, but this is the only career I know.”
“You’re not a half-bad wizard, though,” Angela muttered.
“I said you’re not a half-bad wizard. Even if you’re an irresponsible one.”
The magician backed away from her, eyes narrowing. “What do you know?”
“You mean you don’t recognize us? Think back a few years, after a show like this one.”
The magician stopped backing up and looked hard at the pair. His eyes widened as he recognized Bartholomew.
“You! You were the rude fellow who harassed me after my first show. You were drunk, threatening to hurt me.”
“Hi!” Bartholomew grinned. “We’re friends now, right?”
“I thought I turned you into a dog…”
“You did,” Angela interjected. “In a way. But you can’t just make a man into a dog without the universe balancing itself in some way, or everything would fall apart. So a dog turned into Bartholomew here. And, when Angela came to get her Bartholomew back, you switched her with me.”
“The cat…” the magician. “I had no idea. I wasn’t even trying to turn them into anything in particular, I just wanted them to go away. I was such a young fool…”
“We just wanted to make you mad again so that you could turn us back,” Bartholomew said. “That’s alright, isn’t it? Are we bad?”
“No,” the magician muttered, rubbing his head. “I’m bad. I gave up wizardry after those incidents. It was too dangerous, and there was no money in it anyway, just like my gran warned me. I’m so sorry you two got dragged into this.”
“It’s okay! Only, can you fix it?”
The magician looked up at Bartholomew’s hopeful face. “Don’t you like being human better than being a dog?”
Bartholomew thought about it. “I liked being human, mostly. I liked being able to eat food and live indoors. After a while, I didn’t even mind that people got mad if I peed on things. But… I’m old now. For a dog, that is. It doesn’t seem right to stay human.”
“What Bartholomew’s trying to say is that he’s an old dog. He might be in a young man’s body and have all the young man’s memories and experiences, but his soul’s still a dog and it’s dying, same as his dog body. The same dog body the man who rightly belongs in Bartholomew is trapped inside. If the dog stays in Bartholomew, you’ll have a man’s body with a rotting dog soul inside, and somewhere the dog’s body will die and the man’s soul will be stuck inside it.”
She sneered. “I miss being a cat. Even a stray’s life is more enjoyable than this human life, with its senseless responsibilities and obligations. You creatures were always a mystery, and living as one of you has only made it worse.”
“It’s been so long since I’ve done any wizardry…”
“Well, by all means, just give up then. I’d hate to see you do anything worthwhile with your time.” Angela’s eyes were narrowed and her teeth just slightly bared. The magician glared.
“Fine.” He closed his eyes and muttered under his breath and waved his hands at them. Nothing happened.
“Pathetic. Just like your career.”
“Shut up, you mangy cat.” He tried again, and again nothing happened.
“Never mind what I said earlier. You’re a half-rate everything. Your mother must be proud.”
“Just shut up! Shut up!” As he shouted, he tossed his hands violently in their direction. Without a sound or any sense of showmanship, the man and woman were replaced by a dog and cat. The cat flicked a tabby tail derisively at him and scampered out of the tent. The dog looked at him with soulful eyes, nearly white from cataracts. With arthritic steps, he gingerly walked over to the corn dog stick and picked it up. Tail still wagging, he dropped the stick at the magician’s feet. With a half smile, the magician patted his head. “Let’s go get you a treat, buddy.”
In an alley several blocks away, a man named Bartholomew pulled himself out of an overturned garbage can. He looked at his hands with tearful eyes and patted his body all over, hardly daring to believe it was back. As he patted his pockets, he felt something familiar. With trembling fingers, he pulled out the locket with his beloved Angela’s picture and kissed it, sobbing openly.