The eye was almost out of sight and Kochanie was getting very worried.
“Giddy up, Rosie,” the girl urged until her father shushed her.
“You are very young, my child, always in a hurry to get to your destination. Black Rose is very old, so she can only try to get there alive.”
Kochanie strained to see the outlines of the All-Seeing Oracular Oracle sign painted on Dr. Apollo’s wagon as it faded into the sunset. She knew that her father was a proud man, and despite the Nazi war that had driven them out of their Polish home and kept them constantly on the move, he’d never abandoned the promise he’d made his wife’s father, Malik Benoffski, to keep the family circus intact.
Kochanie also knew that the Nazis said all circus people were gypsies who should be eradicated from the face of the earth. And although Kochanie did not remember her grandfather who’d died before she was born, she would never forgot the night those murdering thugs had invaded their encampment, forcing everyone to hide in the forest lest they be swept away to concentration camps.
Finding no human prisoners, the Nazis had broken into the animal cages, allowing most of the horses, cows and bears to escape, but they slaughtered her beloved Iorek Byrnison the Dancing Polar Bear as he fought to protect his mate and two cubs, which never were found, dead or alive.
That night had shown Kochanie many terrible things, but the lesson she learned was that it was dangerous to stick out from the crowd. Plain was better. Vanilla did not draw the wrong kind of attention. There was safety in fading into the background crowd and danger in drawing attention to oneself. Hide in a crowd; avoid getting caught all alone on a lonely stretch of road.
Suddenly, the night sky erupted in explosions, but these weren’t bombs, they were beautiful flowers blooming among the stars.
“See, sweetness, you were worried for nothing,” her father said. “Those are bouquets of welcome sent to us from the Tivoli Gardens. Some say it’s the happiest place on earth, and it’s going to be our new home”
And she had been as happy at that magical place as she’d ever been because it was always crowded with people, mostly the same people day after day, but who were all different in sometimes very exotic and even alarming ways. It was the one place where a small girl with some big differences of her own would have to compete for attention, which was something she declined to pursue. She tried to be proud of her heritage, as her father insisted she should be, but when outsiders pointed and crowds gathered to laugh or cringe at her and her mother, she only felt so deathly afraid that one day she just couldn’t go on with the show.
Her father had been very angry and her mother told her how ashamed she was that she disrespected family and herself, so Kochanie ran away. She ran all the way to the ocean where she finally collapsed, sobbing on the sand beside the statue of The Little Mermaid. She sat watching the guardian swans, one white and one black, protecting the Mermaid’s rocky perch, and wept to think how alone she would always be just like this stone statue.
“Do you know her story?” He was an older man, older than Papa. He wore neatly trimmed black whiskers tucked into his thick overcoat and had a white dog by his side. Kochanie wondered if he was a policeman.
“Some people think it’s a sad story, but I don’t know if that’s true. That Little Mermaid was a survivor,” he said in a quiet voice.
“I thought she died, after she couldn’t kill the prince, she threw herself into the ocean and turned to foam,” Kochanie said.
“That’s right, but there was a loophole her grandmother didn’t know about. Instead of dying, she turned into a spirit, a daughter of the air. As one of them, she can earn her own soul by doing good deeds. When 300 years have passed she will have earned her soul and will rise into the kingdom of God,” the whiskered man said. “And you’re helping her, did you know that?”
Kochanie shook her head.
“With each good child she finds she subtracts a year, while she adds a day for each tear she must shed over a wicked child. Look at her, she’s not crying is she? That must mean that she knows you are sorry for whatever grief or trouble has led to your tears. You are a good girl,” he said.
“You will be better still when you are able to apologize to your parents for making them worry about where you’ve run off to. Am I right?”
“Will you allow my wife and myself and, of course, my shaggy companion Tarleton, to offer you a ride home?”
He led her to a chauffeur-driven Duisenberg automobile where his elegantly dressed wife slid over to make room for her.
“Can we hurry?” Kochanie begged, the car sped toward the amusement park, but the time they reached Tivoli, it was too late to make amends. The circus wagons had vanished along with Dr. Apollo, old black Rose, her parents and her twin brother, the tall, strong able boy who kept her safe from harm.
On that fateful day in 1943, Nazi sympathizers had burned down the Tivoli Garden and the people who had been performing at the time vanished along with the black smoke.
Kochanie had gone home with the rich people, who promised that they would help find her family, but until then they thought perhaps she’d find some comfort in a cup of hot cocoa, a slice of buttered toast, and the warmth of a down quilt covering the first bed she’d ever slept in that stayed in one place all night long.
“Excuse me, Professor Apollo,” the steward said, reaching across her seat to pull up the window shade and allow in a dark arctic dawn
“We’ll be arriving in Copenhagen in approximately 23 minutes. May I bring you something, toast, coffee, tea…”
“Do you have any cocoa on board, Scott?”
“It’s Steve, Professor,” he said, smiling indulgently, “and yes we do have hot chocolate, Dutch style.
“Thank you, Steve. Please forgive my eroding memory,”
“Don’t worry, it happens all the time,” he said.
“Old age,” she said by way of excusing her mistake. “By the way, I think you’d better bring a cup of something for my sleepy friend. Won’t he be happy to know he’s made it here alive?”
Iben woke up and smelled the coffee. Since Diet Coke was Iben’s usual morning eye opener, having long ago surrendered the complexities of the coffee maker to the pros at Starbucks, French Roast was his first clue that he was not at home on his couch having fallen asleep reading an old poem about a boat.
How he’d got from there to a place that he quickly surmised must be airborne was a blank. Where was he headed? Destination unknown, and that was a place Iben was almost certain he did not want to visit. In fact, he was pretty panicky by the time his Professor Apollo took the seat next to him.
“I’ve asked the steward to bring some schnapps,” Candace reported. “I thought it might help revive you, but I see you’ve come alive on your own. Mr. McIntyre said that’s what would happen.”
“Professor Apollo?” Iben’s brain scrambled to comprehend her presence.
“Can you speak?” she inquired, peering at him over the half-moon crescents of her reading spectacles.
Iben squinted into the darkness.
“Good boy,” she said. “I didn’t know you had a dog, Iben. Mr. McIntyre said you wouldn’t leave town without him so ABC arranged to have him travel as your helper dog; canine companion. They said your therapist insisted.”
“Mr. McIntyre, that is, Hamish, said everything was arranged through them: private jet, limo, hotel rooms. Actually, a three-bedroom suite,” she said the last bit with a kind of bemused wonder. “The dog has his own room.”
“Hamish?” Iben said. “You know Hamish?”
Dr. Apollo laughed. “He said you’d probably be pretty fuzzy about the details when you finally woke up. I had no idea you were so afraid of flying— although perhaps I shouldn’t mention that until we’re on the ground. Anyway, you’re right, I didn’t know Hamish until he called me yesterday to say that you had a writing assignment for ABC - which, by the way, I now understand was the source of all that encryption -- requiring you to fly to Denmark for a few days, but that you were going to lose the job because of your fear of flying.
“He said he had some tranquilizer pills that would get you through the flight, but you couldn’t go alone. He understood I was a good friend of yours and if I could leave immediately, ABC would pay my way to accompany you,” she reported.
“‘All expenses paid’? You know I’ve lived quite awhile and it’s been a long time since anyone said those three words to me. Let me thank you, Iben, for making this trip possible. It’s quite an unexpected Christmas gift.”
“What did one snowman say to the other snowman?”
Iben considered the question. Was it a riddle? He hated riddles, but since Dr. Apollo had risked her life for him, albeit unwittingly, he felt obliged to make an effort for her.
“Are we in heaven or did hell just freeze over?” was Iben’s best guess, as he stuffed his hands deeper into his overcoat pockets and contemplated the dazzle of a million fairy lights shimmering off the swirl of a trillion snowflakes reflected darkly in his old friend’s mica-bright eyes.
He figured that was not the answer she was looking for but then he didn’t think he had a snowman’s chance in hell of answering even one of the other questions on Dr. Apollo’s list that grew longer and more perplexing with each loop they made around the amusement park.
It was all snow, all Santa Claus, all twinkle lights all the time plus they’d taken in the pantomime show (clown mimes, no lie) and visited the aquarium. They’d boarded the landlocked frigate, bought smiley faced balloons from a Keystone Kop clown who reminded Iben of…who? Oh, yeah, officer Grillo with a greasepaint grin replacing that NYPD sneer.
All the while Dr. Apollo added more and more questions about Lost, The Lost Experience, which Iben hadn’t even heard of until today, and ideas for the plot of the Apocalypse Equation. These were questions so impossible to consider given his trembling state of mind that finally her voice mixed with the whitewash of the snow to become a kind of tabula rasa on which he imprinted the litany of worries that he could not convince her were real.
Between the time they’d landed in Copenhagen and arrived at the Tivoli Gardens, Iben had unwrapped that special gift Dr. Apollo had so profusely thanked him for exposing the lump of coal it contained. He’d told her about the turkey shoot at his apartment on Thanksgiving, the open grave in New Jersey, the mechanical toys, the weird tune, the purple light, The Black Rock poem and he flat out stated that he feared Hamish was in cahoots with the people who were apparently trying to kill him and now, regrettably, her, too.
She had just clucked her tongue in a rather dismissive “tsk tsk,” and said she was glad they’d landed in Copenhagen instead of crashing on some untraceable desert isle.
“Finally, Iben, here’s your vindication for all of the dreary years of novelizing! Enjoy yourself. And get a load of this snow,” she said, holding out mittened hands. “It’s gossamer; the cotton-candy of frozen precipitate.”
Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so? Unfortunately, Iben did not. It reminded him of a substance equally ethereal, but far less benign. With a shudder, he wondered if nanobots came in white?
“Come on, what did one snowman say to the other snowman?”
“I don’t know.” Iben really didn’t want to play this game any more. “You can’t get here from there?” he offered, reluctantly.
“Isn’t life a ball?”
Even standing here in the middle of Santa’s friggin’ winter wonderland, Iben thought he could detect a faint tick-tick-tick coming from this super-duper Christmas gift. He didn’t want to shake it, didn’t dare peek inside, he just wanted to leave it under the tree, take a cab to the airport, fly home and forget the whole thing.
“Let’s go home,” Iben said.
Dr. Apollo and the dog turned to face him, their eyes filled with sympathy. “You’re afraid,” she said.
“Afraid? What? Me, afraid?” Iben parried.
“You’re afraid of success. This is the job you’ve been waiting to come your way for years. Now it’s here. You’re this close. And suddenly you’re a homesick kid at sleep-away camp; a great big quivering blob of writer’s block, sobbing into your sad little pillow on the scary top bunk.”
“What about the nanobots and the cement truck and the weird music and the big clown face and the bullet,” Iben pantomimed (while using words, which technically was a cheat) his many close calls to emphasize his very real and legitimate fears. “Knock-out drugs. Explain that if you can. I am not afraid of words. Words are my life.”
“Exactly. Your life blood. So, how much of that vital fluid have you pumped into the Apocalypse Equation?”
“Who has time to write? I’m constantly on the run. Even when I’m unconscious, I’m in transit.”
“And now you’re ready to do some more traveling? Ready to get back on that plane and waste another day or two? You won’t be happy until you lose this job, will you?”
Iben shuffled his feet. She could be very persuasive. He acknowledged that failure was a hard habit to break.
“I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. We’re going to sit down in one of these charming cafes. You’ll get out your laptop. I’ll dig through all those these documents ABC messengered over to you on Thanksgiving,” she said.
“You mean that girl with sunglasses? She was a messenger?” Iben tried to remember the details of that fateful encounter. “Then why did somebody take a shot at her?”
“I can’t tell you that, but whoever that someone was, they missed. Thank goodness,” she said with the same gentle patience that a mom would use as she checked under her kid’s bed for giant spiders. The way the doctor at the Santa Rosa Hospital told Hurley that his friend Dave was, you know, pretend.
“There are no guns at Tivoli Gardens,” she reassured him. “And I know for a fact that it’s the second or third happiest place on earth. This way,” she said, steering him into the Nissekøbing’s miniature world of pixies and gnomes brought to life by thousands of mechanical puppets.
“So, why did they send you to Copenhagen? To Tivoli Gardens?” she tapped her glasses against her cheek, oblivious to the clockwork universe they were wandering through. “As we’ve seen, the Tivoli has much in common with the Lost island. It has an aquarium, for example, and an old fashioned frigate like the one in the show, The Black Rock. I think there might be something there to work with plot wise.” Iben thought he could hear the gears of her great big brain whirring in time with the tiny mechanical marvels building pixie-sized cabins, baking elfin loaves of bread, playing gnomish chess.
“And from all that stuff I read on the plane trip over, Copenhagen is where the Hanso Foundation headquarters is located,” she continued, indefatigably, but losing Iben whose attention had been drawn to the scene of pixie circus. It was far more detailed than most of the other tableau offering clowns that juggled, a big top going up, colorful painted wagons, including one that featured a huge eye advertising the talents of the mysterious soothsayer to be found inside. There were a troupe of circus-roadie type gnomes going about the business of running a traveling show and right at the edge of the action there was a child pixie, tinier in every way than the others, but as exquisitely wrought as a MacFarland action figure. Except, that is, for the hand, oddly ill-defined, that cranked the old fashioned hurdy-gurdy.
“Dr. Apollo, check this out,” Iben said, interrupting her oral storyboarding.
“These are delightful objects aren’t they,” she said, without stopping to look.
“No, I mean it. This pixie circus is incredible…” but that moment the hurdy-gurdy girl’s instrument began to play--Do do do do doo do. Do do do do doo do. Do do do do doo do. Do do do do doo do—stopping Iben in his tracks.
“Do you hear that, Dr. Apollo? That’s the music. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s the song all those music boxes play.”
Then what to Iben’s wondering eyes should appear but a polar bear that began to dance to the tiny child’s tune.
“Oh my god, it’s the same polar bear! It’s gotta be,” he said, his imagination captivated by the coincidence. “I told you so. Ha! Look at that! I am not crazy.” Iben said, clapping his mittens together to create a one-man standing ovation.
“What do you say to that, Dr. Apollo? Seeing is believing, isn’t it?” he said, and then immediately had occasion to ask himself the same question when he turned to face his friend who was nowhere in sight.