The Whole Damsel Thing
A Cody and Joanna fic
by Staci “Cody” Faulkenberry and Michelle “Gidget” Beaubien

 October 2004

Notes/disclaimers: Joanna, Cody, and a few others belong to the authors.  TaleSpin and its licensed characters (cameos) are the property of Walt Disney Studios.

(rated PG-13 for occasional language, violence, and mature subject matter)
This story takes place in 1936, about one year before the events in TaleSpin and two years before the events in A Fair to Remember.  Cody is 21 and Joanna is 25.   It’s advisable, however, that you read AFTR first to enhance your enjoyment of this fic.  There are some in-jokes for the sharp-eyed reader.

Dedicated to our pal Lizzy, who liked the idea of a Cody and Joanna adventure.  And Beth, who proofread and tried to save us from ourselves.  Thanks, guys!

 

Prologue

 

Haley’s Carnival
May 1936

At first glance, the carnival seemed like a ghost town. A light breeze sent papers skittering across the scuffed grass and dirt walkways between deserted booths and billowed the tops of the tents like parachutes.  

Freddy Koogar sat in his boss’s kitchen, which also served as a makeshift office, poring over the ledgers. Though he was a short, wiry cougar with plain, non-descript features, his average looks served him well --- by the time he was gone, no one could describe him well enough to set the cops on his trail.  He remembered one time he stood in line at the post office to buy stamps and coming face-to-face with a barely recognizable version of himself.  He knew because he recalled the alias written under the sketch --- The Man With No Name. His wanted posters were laughably bad.  It was funny.  He’d never noticed a wicked scar over his left eye or the fact that he was missing a front tooth.

They should fire the artist.  Or get better witnesses.  

Getting hired was almost too easy.  Having hung around the grounds as a paying customer at their last stop in Plantersville, he’d waited until suppertime and eavesdropped outside the carnies’ dining tent.  During dessert, the owner, a stout little koala he later learned was Helen Haley, was commiserating with a small group of carnies about some poor slob called Tommy.  Listening carefully, he soon learned that a position was open.  He peeked through a flap of canvas and watched.  

“Poor man,” Helen had sighed.  He noticed that she had a rather charming Oztralian accent.  “One day he was up on his box, shoutin’, ‘Come one, come all!’ and then he keeled over, dead as a ‘ammer.”  

“Bad ticker,” a short, grizzled beaver said, shaking his head sadly. “I’d always warned him against all that greasy carnival food.”  He took a lusty bite of his hot dog.

Next to him, a pretty, dark gold bear wearing a high-necked blouse that was just tight enough to be interesting, remarked, “Yeah, all those hot dogs couldn’t have helped.  And he drank like a fish, too.” 

Not the kind of girl you take home to Mama.   

“Now, now, Joanna.  It ain’t nice to speak ill of the dead,” the koala chided her. 'specially since he ain't here to defend ‘imself.”

Joanna looked confused. “Well, that is sort of the point, isn't it?”

Across from her, a homely albino bear rested his bony elbows on the table, dreamily gazing at her, his pink eyes magnified alarmingly behind thick spectacles. He was a thin albino bear with a blotchy completion that showed under his sickly yellow-white coat and an overbite so pronounced that he could never completely close his mouth.  Homely, but harmless.  At twenty-six, he was a year older than she but was so sheltered by his protective mother that there was something of the adolescent about him --- from his gangly frame to the blotchy patches in his fur.  He was always nice to her, despite the fact that he sometimes stood a little too close and tried too hard to make her feel welcome to their ragtag ‘family’.  Soft-spoken and timid by nature, he stammered when he tried to speak, except when he performed onstage as the self-designated lead singer of the Haley Carnival Band.   Then his guitar spoke for him.  

At the gentle reprimand, he came to her defense. “Ma, she didn’t mean it.”  

Freddy recoiled and thought incredulously:  That thing is her son?  

“No, I didn’t.” The woman reddened. “Sorry, Helen. I didn’t know him that well, but he was okay.”  

“Yeah! I think he was okay, too!”  The homely albino glanced at Joanna eagerly, as though expecting a medal. 

Like you’d have a chance, Freddy thought. Freak.  

As though in agreement, a plain-featured lioness, who he recognized as the pony trainer, snorted and rolled her eyes. 

When nothing further was forthcoming, the albino added sulkily, “He was always yelling, though.”  

“Of course he yelled, Nicky.  After all, he was a barker,” Helen waved her spoon to punctuate each word.  “Tommy ‘ad his faults, but he was always on time an’ never missed a day of work.  I don’t know ‘ow we’ll get another barker ‘alf as good.”  

“That’s true,” Handy, the old beaver said.  “He was a bit hard of hearing too.  Maybe that’s why.”  

The bear, Joanna said suddenly, “It’s been a whole week. When are you going to hire another one?”  

Everyone, especially Handy, looked shocked at this rather insensitive question, but Helen reached across the table, patted her hand and said gently, “Ye can’t rush these things, luv.  We need someone who’s free to travel with us, with no family ties.  A nice young man with a good boomin’ pair o’ lungs.  Tommy sure ‘ad that in spades!”  

Freddy grinned.  No problem there.  He had deserted Polly and the kids years ago.  

“A toast,” Handy raised his paper cup.  “Here’s to Tommy.”  

“To Tommy,” the others chorused, raising their cups. Except for Joanna, who did not bother to join the toast, but knocked back her drink in one gulp and wiped her mouth.   

She reached for the last slice of cherry pie.  “Anyone going to eat this?”  

Handy glared at her, apparently miffed that she hadn’t joined the toast.  “Have some respect.”  

She started to stick her tongue out at him; guiltily, she glanced at Helen, who looked rather surprised.  She drew her hand back. “Sorry.  Grief makes me hungry.”  

The albino bear came to her rescue.  “But Tommy was such a generous person.  I think—I think…” He swallowed.  “I think he’d want her to have it.”  

He blushed furiously when she flashed him a grateful smile.  She carefully cut the slice in half and gave him one piece. 

“Here. Want to share?”  

Freddy nearly laughed out loud at the look on the freak’s face.  It was like she’d agreed to marry him, for Pete’s sake!  

He waited a couple of days, then returned to the fair to introduce himself to Helen as Freddy Benson.  In a firm, confident manner, he told her that he was a bachelor and willing to travel.  

“Do ye like young‘uns?”  

“I love them!” Shyly, he added, “I’ve always wanted to be part of a family.”  

“Ye’ll have to share a trailer with Handy, our maintenance man.”  

Damn!  Someone to watch his comings and goings. That’s all I need.  He managed not to show his dismay. “Sure.” 

“Well, that’s fine. There are a few rules, Mister Benson.  No rough language while the fair’s in operation.  This is a family business an’ I don’t want the kiddies pickin’ up bad habits and us gettin’ in ‘ot water with angry mums and dads.”  

“Golly, no! That would be awful.”  

“When can ye start, Mister Benson?”  

“Right away, ma’am.”  

“That’s good enough for me,” she said, enthusiastically pumping his hand up and down.  “I hope ye’ll stay with us a while."   

“Thank you, ma’am! You won’t regret this!”  

A thought crossed her mind and she frowned. “Er, pardon me askin’, but ye don’t have a ‘eart condition, do ye?”

 

End of Prologue

 

* * *

 

Part 1 of 10

 

The carnival was closed on Sunday, ostensibly to allow the carnival workers to attend church if they wanted, but in reality it was because everyone needed to recover from the busy weekend rush of Friday nights and Saturday.  After church, Helen generally puttered around the empty grounds until after lunch, then ran errands and did some sightseeing. 

“Luv, won’t ye change yer mind and come out with us?  I ‘ear they offer tours around the wharf on a shrimp boat.”  

“Sorry, no can do.” He heard the girl cough loudly. “I’ve got the plague.”  

“Oh dear, ye sound dreadful.  Would ye like me to stay with you, make ye some tea?”  

“No!  Um, no, thanks.  I just need to sleep it off.”

Shortly after Helen left, however, Joanna’s head began to pound, beating a tattoo behind her eyes.

She began to regret sending Helen away and wished that someone would take care of her after all.  Someone to bring her lots of coffee and comic books.  And crossword puzzles.  We need a nurse around here, she thought resentfully. And I need aspirin. Or a mallet.  Anything to stop the pain.

In the end, however, she settled for the aspirin.  Helen must have some.  Grumbling, she got out of bed, slipped on an old baby blue chenille robe that had definitely seen better days, and went out.

* * *  

Freddy congratulated himself for getting this far.  He had waited impatiently until they were gone, slinking around the midway and silently checking each employee’s name off a list he secretly kept.  It had taken weeks to case the joint, observe their comings and goings --- their habits, as it were.  It had been a piece of cake to ‘accidentally’ bump into the old broad, then neatly snatch her key from her dress pocket as he helped her regain her balance.  Getting into the ledger where Helen kept all the carnival’s accounts was even simpler.  The trusting old lady sure didn’t believe in much security.  He thumbed through the battered pages, stopping here and there to examine a rise or fall in the profit margin.  Unfortunately, it looked pretty evenly keeled; no sudden rushes of success or plummets into extreme debt. 

“We could be making so much more money,” Freddy muttered to himself. “I’ll get rid of the old bag and that creepy son of hers --- kick them out into the street.  No, maybe I’ll keep him.  The rubes’ll pay big bucks to see a real live freak.  Put him in a cage during the day and then cover it with a cloth at night, like one of them talkin’ parrots…”  

Someone coughed, startling him.  He stood up quickly, knocking the chair over. “Hey!  What’s the idea?”  Then he saw the intruder and groaned.  “Oh, great. You.”  

“Well, well, well.” Joanna stared down at the barker, arms folded across her chest.  “Making a little withdrawal, are we?”   

“Perfect.  Just perfect. What are you doin’ here?  You’re sick --- go back to bed!” 

“Gee, I didn’t know you cared,” she said sarcastically.  “Never mind that. I’ve been watching you, Freddy. You’ve been in here, sucking up to Helen every chance you got.  I didn’t know exactly what, but I knew you were up to something.”  

“Oh yeah?  What makes you think I’m up to something?  Maybe I just like the old girl.”  

He watched with mild interest as she yawned and stretched, gracefully arching her back to show off an impressive figure under the threadbare robe.  Not bad, if you liked the type, which he didn’t.  He liked nice girls.  He firmly believed that guys who married for looks were just asking for trouble.   His wife Polly certainly wasn’t much in the looks department, but at least she was faithful.  With all the traveling he did, it had been good to know that she wasn’t cheating on him.  Who’d have her?  And he prided himself on never running around on her either, even after he flew the coop for good.  She was lucky to have him.  

Joanna, he supposed, was pretty in a flashy, hard-edged sort of way.  Not now, of course ---- being sick made her pale and haggard, and her long hair hung untidily in her face like dried straw.  She looked at him in what she obviously thought to be a mysterious, seductive manner.

Then she coughed again, spoiling the effect.  “Come on, Freddy… give. I feel like hell, so I’m not about to stop you. I just want some aspirin.”  

“So get some and go to bed.  And it’s Frederick.” He had to get rid of her.  

“Okay, okay!”  Somewhat huffily, she crossed to one of the upper kitchen cupboards and began rifling through the contents.  Finding a bottle of Mufferin, she took it out and tried to twist the lid off.  It would not budge.  “Darn, I hate these things. It’s like cement. You mind?”  

“Aw, give it here.”  With a grunt, he got it open and handed it to her.  “There.”  

“Thank you, Freddy.  My, but you’re strong.”  

“Cut that out.  I don’t go for that malarkey.  You don’t have what it takes, anyway.”  

“Well, I am sick.” She sniffed, offended, then deliberately peered at the top of his head --- an easy enough feat since she towered over him.   “What’s your excuse?  Didn’t Mama feed you? Nice bald spot, by the way.”  

“Why, you little ---!  If you weren’t a dame, I’d knock your block off!”  

Joanna almost laughed out loud.  Nearly ten years of faithful service to the Foundation tended to make a girl jaded.  But she was no longer the angry, frightened child that they honed into a deadly weapon since the tender age of thirteen.  Helen had changed all that, although she never knew it.  Now Joanna was a pianist for the carnival band, and safe, working with people she knew wouldn’t stick an ice pick through her brain as she slept. She didn’t have to prove her ferocity here --- especially to a balding little runt who barely reached her chin.  

“Take it easy, Freddy.  No need to be short-tempered.”  

He bristled. “Was that a short joke?”  

No, I can tell longer ones too, Joanna was tempted to retort.  But as fond as she was of getting in the last word, she now realized that the wrong one could very easily send the little hothead over the edge.  Or the right one.  She tried a different tact. 

Eyes widening innocently, she asked, “What do you mean?  I don’t see why you have to get so mad.  I was just curious.”  

Freddy stared at her suspiciously.  “Yeah, well, I don’t need your curiosity, so take your pills and leave me alone.”  

Joanna shrugged.  “All right,” she said reluctantly.  “I just wanted to know what your plan was so you wouldn’t interfere with my plan.”  

He snorted.  Your plan?  For what --- bamboozling some rich sucker into marrying you?”

For a fleeting second, he thought he saw her eyes harden, like he'd hit a nerve. Then, as quickly as it had appeared, the look was gone.  He wondered if he'd imagined it.  

“No… oh, never mind,” she said airily, “my plan’s probably better than yours, anyway.”      

“Oh yeah? Well, someday I'm going to own everything you see around you,” Freddy boasted. “This is one sweet set-up.  All it needs is a smart guy to run it.”  

“Like you, I suppose?” Joanna carefully kept her expression bland—neither encouraging nor sneering.  

Freddy favored her with a sour look. “Listen, doll, I’ve got more business sense in my little finger than the old bat has in her whole body.” 

“When you’re right, you’re right,” she agreed. “I say we bleed the old lady dry.”  

He looked at her in surprise. From what he had seen, she and Helen seemed to be pretty close. Could it be that she had an eye on the carnival, too?  

Well, she won’t put one over on me. This set-up’s mine!     

He snorted. “Whadda ya mean, we?  I work alone.”  

“Oh, come on!  I’ll earn my keep… if you know what I mean.”  She wanted to cut out her own tongue for that one, but she had to stall him.  

“Forget it, lady. I told you you ain’t my type.  Besides, you’re contagious.”  

Gee… am I losing my touch? she wondered. Then her tone turned chilly.  “Fine.  I could have helped you, but I don’t want to anymore.  More dough for me, anyway.”  

He squinted at her suspiciously. “What’d you mean by that?”  

She gave an elaborate shrug. “Oh, nothing.  I just happen to know where she keeps her loot, that’s all.”  

He snorted. “Yeah, right.”  

“It’s true.”  

“You’re lying.”  

“Fine.  I really don’t care if you believe me or not.”  She shrugged and turned to go. “Look, I don’t need this.  I’m going to bed.  I’ll say I slept through the whole thing.  Good luck.  Be sure to lock up before you go, okay?”   

He scowled, hating the seed of doubt she’d planted in his mind.  Besides, what if she was pretending to leave, only to sneak off and call the cops? “Wait --- why would she tell some floozy that where her money is?  You’re pullin’ my leg. Even she can’t be that dumb.”  

But there was almost uncertain note in his voice that reassured her.  He was interested, all right.  She just had to play this one differently.  

“Freddy, this is the woman who fixes her hair before she goes to the beauty parlor.  Besides, watch the name-calling. If I were a floozy, I’d be all over you, wouldn’t I, little man?”  Joanna gave him a long stare, letting the word little sink in.  

He glowered up at her, but she suddenly smiled.  

“Cheer up. You’re not my type either.”  She was almost enjoying herself.  “Honestly, Freddy --- I caught you red-handed.  You’re such a schnook --- you can’t even steal right.  I’d be tired of you in a week.”  

“Oh yeah?” he said belligerently, puffing himself up to look intimidating.  Joanna wasn’t impressed.  He only succeeded in reminding her of her little sister’s method of getting her way --- she’d hold her breath until she turned blue.  Joanna had discouraged this practice by reaching out and pinching her nostrils shut.  

“Yeah, I could do way better,” she sneered. “She didn’t tell me, genius.  I know a lot more than people give me credit for.”   

“Yeah, right.  And I’m the King of Siam.”  

“It’s true.  But go ahead and settle for chicken feed.  I really couldn’t care less.”  

She turned slightly away from him, but noted with satisfaction that he was intrigued.   

Hooked, aren’t we?  Time to reel this little fishy in.  

“Come on.”  

“Where are we going?”  

“You’ll see.”  She went ahead, not bothering to look to see if he was following her.   

“I don’t got time for games.” Nervously, he glanced at his pocket watch.  

“Oh, relax.  Helen takes forever in stores.  We’ll be out of here long before she comes back.”   

We, he thought, trying not to smirk. That’s a laugh. What a pip.  

She led him to Helen’s tiny bedroom, which was separated from the rest of the area with a curtain.  Next to the cot was a large square iron night table, covered with a large lace doily; it had no drawers, which he found strange.  On top was a small flowered lamp, sitting primly in the middle.  Next to it was a large, chunky alarm clock --- an incongruous sight to say the least.  

Who decorated this place, Ellen Keller?  

She read his expression.  “Yeah, I know.  Hideous, isn’t it?  But functional.”  

“Huh?”  

“Wait,” she replied, placing both hands on either side of the night table and wrenching it around to face them.  The table was set on castors, and rolled easily. The dial had been facing the wall, concealing it.   

His mouth fell open in astonishment.  “It-it’s a safe!”  

“Very good.  I like ‘em observant.  Saves me having to get out the puppets and flash cards.”  

“Shut your pie hole and open it!”  

“Gee, does your wife know how lucky she is?”  

“How’d you---never mind.”  

She gave him a nasty grin.  “I didn’t.  Shot in the dark. Now be vewwy, vewwy quiet.  I’m cwacking safes.”

Joanna knelt, put her ear to the lock and slowly began to turn the dial.  She listened carefully to the tumbler’s clicks, mentally noting each number of the combination.  After three tries, the door finally opened.  “Thank you, no autographs, please.”  

He was impressed in spite of himself. “Where’d you learn to crack safes?”  

“I have many skills,” she said loftily. “You think I was always a carnie? These fingers can do more than just tickle the ivories, y’know.”  

“I told you I ain’t interested.”  

“Neither am I, so quit twisting my words. You’re a fan club with one member, pal.  I just want the cash so I can get out of this place.” She peered into the darkness of the safe.  “Hey… I see something else in there.  I think it’s a jewelry box.”  

He tried to nudge her aside. “Lemme see.”   

“Hey, don’t be so pushy.  I’ll drag it out, okay?”  She reached in, got a fingerhold on the edges and dragged out a beautifully polished jewelry box.  “Oh, I remember what she’s got in here --- she was married six or seven times and keeps all the rings on a chain.  Kind of like a trophy.”  

“That’s disgusting.”  

“What was she supposed to do, wear them on her fingers?  She’d never be able to lift her hands.”  

“Never mind!” he said impatiently.  “Just let me see!”  

Half-turned from him, she picked it up. “Okay.  Careful, though.”  

“Why?”

“It’s heavy,” she answered, and slammed the box into his forehead as hard as she could.  

* * *

Moments later, he slowly came to, head throbbing with pain.  He groaned.  Ohhh… anyone get the license number of that truck?”  Someone gently dabbed his forehead with a cold cloth.  

“Wakey, wakey, Sunny Jim,” he heard a low-pitched female voice say.  “That was quite a whack you took on the noggin.  You should be more careful.”  

“Yeah…” he mumbled, struggling to sit up.  The pain was so bad he could barely open his eyes. “Hurts like a sonuva…”  

“Shhh… relax. Drink this.  

He felt the warm rim of a cup being pressed against his mouth and tried to turn his face away. “Wha’ is it?”  

“Just tea.  The water doesn’t taste that great here, so I added a spoonful of sugar.”  She helped him sit up and guided the glass to his lips.  

He was too groggy to resist at the moment, so he let her tip the warm liquid down his throat.  “There, take small sips, now… that’s it.  That’s a good boy.”  

“Whoops, I forgot to ask.  You’re not diabetic, are you?”  

He was startled enough to say incredulously, “Now you ask me?”  

“Well, how do you feel?”  

“Whadda ya mean, how do I feel? Sheesh.  

“Has your headache stopped?”  

“It hurts like hell, you dumb broad!”  

“No need to swear at me.  My, you’re cranky.  No wonder your wife left you.”  

I left her!  Not the other way around!  I mean…” He trailed off, confused.  “Never mind --- nobody knows about her!  Stop twisting everything I say!”  

She was silent for a few seconds, then asked, “Do you want to lie down?”  

“No, I have to get out of here!  The old lady’ll be home any min---!”  

“You mean your wife?”  

“Yes --- I mean no!  The other old lady!”   

“You don’t feel anything?  Nothing at all?” She stared at him without blinking.  

He frowned.  

“Do you have foggy vision?  Are you dizzy?”   

Freddy started to protest, then stopped.  Now that she mentioned it, the room was starting to swim and spin before his eyes.  He felt a flash of panic.  

“Sonuva---! What’d you do to me?”  

“Do?” she echoed.  “I didn’t ‘do’ anything.  I added a little something to your tea, that’s all.”

“What’s in it?  Tell me, you rotten bitch, or so help me---!”  

“Are you sure you want to know?”  

“Tell me!” he screamed at her.  

“You don’t have to yell,” she said, sounding injured. “I didn’t make you drink it, you know --- you did that yourself.”  

His eyes went wide as she triumphantly held up an empty aspirin bottle.  He sucked in his breath, searching her expression for some sign --- any sign --- that she was bluffing.  

“You’re lying. Tell me you’re lying.”  

“Okay,” she said agreeably, “I’m lying.”   

Then she winked at him.  

“Y-you poisoned me?”  

“Who are you to talk?” Joanna’s manner changed from jovial to quietly menacing. “At least I don’t befriend trusting old women so I can rob them blind.”  

“Wh-what are you going to do?”  

“I’ll tell you what you’re going to do.  You’re going to write Helen a signed confession and then you’re going to disappear.”  

“You can’t prove anything!  You’re here too.  I’ll say you were in on it --- or that you poisoned me into making a false confession!”  

Joanna sighed loudly.  “You shouldn’t tell lies, Freddy.  Lies hurt everyone.  Nobody wins.”  

“But I need a doctor!  A stomach pump!  Anything!”   

“Not for long.  Now… where’s a pen and paper?”  Joanna scanned the counter, then noticed the ledger.  She flipped to a clean page and tore it out.  “Hey, what do you know? I found a pen too!”  

“I-I ain’t signin’ nothin’!”  

“That’s it.  No ambulance for you, young man.”  

“Everything’s going dark!  I-I see spots!  

She thrust the paper at him. “Here.  Write the note before you pass out and I’ll see what I can do.”   

Maybe.  

“Please….” he begged.  

“Say pretty please.”  

“Pretty please!  Come on!”  

“With a lump of sugar.  Say it.”  

“Prettypleasewithalumpofsugaronit!”  

And a cherry,” she sang, enjoying her game.  

“Cherry!  I’ll cherry you!” he roared, lunging at her.  

He sat hard on her chest, knocking the wind out of her; his hands were small, but he just managed to fit them around her neck so that the tips touched.  He pushed his thumbs against her throat, making her gasp for air.  

If she hadn’t been so weakened by her cold, she would have ended the struggle sooner.   Freddy was obviously inexperienced in physical combat and it was only dumb luck on his part that he had the upper hand. With both her nose and mouth completely congested and his hands around her throat, she began to feel very lightheaded.  Black dots began to dance before her eyes.   

A gentle male voice from her past brushed against her mind as softly as a lover’s hands.  

If we die, sweet Lila, it must be glorious.  Not some stupid accident, not some mundane disease and especially not by the hand of one who isn’t part of the Foundation.  If some ordinary person strikes you down, you deserve it.  You were never worthy.  

She thought wildly: No!  I can’t die like this --- it’s stupid! He’s nothing --- a loser!  I can’t get killed by some… runt!  

She tried to pry his thumbs from her throat --- no good, he was too strong, and his weight on her chest was surprisingly solid. Then her nose tickled and she suddenly sneezed in his face.  

“Ah-ah-AH-CHOO!

He swore and let out an exclamation of disgust and out of brief reflex, let go of her with one hand to wipe the phlegm off.  

It was enough.  Lying flat on her back and unable to swing her arm to deliver a good roundhouse punch, Joanna balled her fist and jabbed, aiming for his nose but boxing his ear instead, momentarily stunning him.   

She mentally scolded herself for this blunder.  Years ago I’d have broken this loser’s neck.  

As he lay there, she groped around for the nearest weapon.  Her hand closed around the handle of the teapot and she gripped it firmly.  Swinging it in an arc, she brought it down hard on Freddy’s head.  In an explosion of warm liquid and soggy tealeaves, the teapot shattered and he slumped to the floor.  

* * *

For the second time, his head pulsating with pain, he groggily regained consciousness and opened his eyes to complete darkness.  For one terrifying moment, he thought he was blind.  He was curled up on the cold metal floor with his feet tucked under him and his knees nearly touching the wall in front of him.  When he tried to unfold his legs, he couldn’t.  He sat up and yelped when he banged his head on the ceiling, causing waves of agony to sing through his brain.  

He rubbed his head, then noticed that his scalp was sticky and wet.  Blood?  No, more like --- Orange Pekoe? Earl Grey?  

Where am I?  Who did this to me?  

Now panicked, he felt all sides of his prison --- he seemed to be inside an iron box. Then he saw a thin, vertical sliver of light to his left.  

A door?  

He reached for it, only to be blocked by a metal wall.  Touching a hard, round, upraised bump, he tried to turn it, but it wouldn’t budge.  He remembered that he’d seen this odd knobby thing before…  

It had to be the other side of the rotating knob that Joanna had clicked until she was able to fling the door open.  

He then realized what happened, then and his fear nearly made him faint. She had poisoned him --- and he was entombed.  

She locked me in the safe!  I’m going to die in here!  

He screamed, his own voice muffled and bouncing off the iron walls.  

“You lousy tramp, lemme out! Let me out!  I’ll kill ya!”  

“I wouldn’t scream if I were you,” she said calmly. “You’ll use up all your oxygen.”  

“I can’t breathe!”  

“See what I mean?”  

“Y-you can’t just leave me in here!”  

She didn’t answer.  

“Joanna?  Answer me!  

Still no answer.   

Joanna waited for about a half-hour, listening to his insane shrieks until he finally fell into exhausted silence.  It wouldn’t do to keep him there too long --- who knew how much oxygen he’d have in such a tiny space?   Then, satisfied that he wasn’t going anywhere, went to a nearby payphone and dialed ‘0’.  Helen did not have a phone in her trailer, and it was too much trouble to find a place to hook one up at every stop.  The operator connected her to the local police station.  

When she heard the sirens a couple of blocks away, she hurried back to the trailer to Helen’s bedroom and messed up her hair, pulling out a handful and dropping it on the carpet; she slapped her own face hard, noting with satisfaction that the fresh pink palm print was coming up nicely.  She looked around the room for a weapon, deciding not to underestimate him this time.  

For a runt, he sure is feisty.  

On the floor was the discarded jewel box.  Then, very carefully, she opened the safe again and picked up the box, ready to strike.  

He had fainted.  She could see the pulse in his throat throb, so he was alive.  Tears glistened wetly on his cheeks.  She almost laughed.  It was amazing what being trapped in a safe would do to a person.  Then she stopped smiling.  

Her eyes narrowed.  “If you’re playing possum, little man, I’ll crush your skull.”  

He didn’t react.   

“Police!  Open up!”  

“Coming!” she called.  

Grabbing the unconscious cougar’s ankles, she dragged him to the kitchen and laid him among the shards of the teapot.  Then, she kept her eyes open until they stung and became watery, and raced to the door.  Flinging it open, she allowed tears to stream down her face as three policemen pushed past her.  

“Are you okay, miss?” a fourth one asked.  

“That horrible man!” she sobbed.  “He tried to strangle me!”  

* * *

Freddy came to—again.  At first, he thought that whatever she’d poisoned him with had made him see nothing but blue.  Then, he realized that he was surrounded by cops.  He’d never been so glad to see them in his life.  Now that little tramp would pay.  He raised his head weakly and groaned to let them know he was awake.  Anything else seemed like too much effort.   

“All right, buddy.  Come on.”  One of the cops grabbed his arm and jerked him into a sitting position.  

“She’s poisoned me, I tell ya!  Get me a stomach pump!”  The cougar moaned.  “I’m dying here!”  

The older cop, an elephant, was unsympathetic. “Well, that would save us a load of paperwork…”  

“You don’t believe me!”  

“He ain’t poisoned.  He’s probably one of those hypo-things.”  

“Hypochondriac?”  

“No, I mean people who always think they’re sick and keep seeing doctors when they’re perfectly fine.”  

“Oh, right!  One of those.”  

“Don’t worry, bub.  You’ll live to a ripe old age in the clink.”  

One of the younger cops got a closer look at him.  “Well!  As I live and breathe, if it isn’t the Man With No Name, aka Freddy Fingers, aka Freddy Koogar!”

“Who?”  Joanna and Helen both asked at once.  

“Ol’ Freddy’s one of the slipperiest confidence men in these parts, wanted for chicanery and fraud.  His sheet could paper a whole wall. We’ve been looking for this mug for months.”  

The younger cop said to Joanna, “We’ll have to take a statement, miss.”  

Uh-oh.  I have to get rid of these guys.  She sniffled loudly, making sure she stood a little too close to him. “What do you want to know?”  

He took an involuntary step back. “What happened?  Exactly.”  

She sneezed loudly. He cringed and wrinkled his nose in disgust as she barely managed to turn her head away from him.  “Sorry, I’m sick.  I bas just resting while everyone else was out.  I got this bonster of a headache and went to Helen’s trailer to get some aspirin…”  

“Helen?” the cop asked.  

“That’s me,” the koala told him, then addressed Joanna.  “Do ye need a ‘anky, sweetheart?”  She checked her skirt pocket.  “Oh dear.  I don’t seem to ’ave one on me person…”  

Joanna pretended to be about to sneeze again.  “Ah-ah-ah…”  

“Here!  Use mine!” the cop said quickly, whipping one out of his own breast pocket and shoving it at her.  

She blew her nose lustily, then offered the sodden cloth back to him with a wet, grateful smile.  “Danks.”  

“Keep it!  Just give me the statement and you can go back to bed!”  

“… I let byself in and heard this doise.  I was pretty jumpy by den, but I had to see what it was.  Dere he was in her bedroom, cracking the safe open.”  

If Freddy could have heard her, he would have protested loudly that he didn’t know how to crack a safe.  Unfortunately for him, Joanna was able to give him the credit. Freddy was too busy concentrating on not dying to pay much attention. Why were these stupid cops standing there, listening to her when he was dying?  He struggled against the handcuffs.  

“I tried to sneak away and call the police --- dat’s you guys --- but he heard me and just… just… came after me!”  She began to tremble.  “I was so scared!  If I hadn’t been able to reach that teapot…”  

“… looks like you chosen the wrong people to swindle.”  

“What!” Strummer’s eyes bulged with rage. “You tried to rob us and hurt my—er—Joanna?”  

“Yer a very bad man,” Helen rounded on Freddy.  “Ye bloody viper!  To think I trusted you!”  

He sneered, “Yeah, yeah, cry me a river, lady.  Let me give you a little advice…” He winced as his headache turned from excruciating pain to a dull throb.  He’d have the last word if it was the last thing he would do. “…don’t turn your back on that girl for a second.”  

“She’s worth a hundred of you!” the koala snapped. “Take this rotter outta me sight, constables. I can’t bear to look at ‘im!”  

Joanna smiled smugly.  A hundred, huh?

She watched them drag him away to the paddy wagon, then throw him in the back.  He was still protesting—loudly—and begging for a stomach pump. She wondered with dark amusement how long it would take before he realized that he wasn’t poisoned.    

“Hey!” she shouted after them, forgetting to sound congested.  “There’s a reward, right?”

One of the cops, an older rhinoceros, turned and gave her a disgusted look.  After they’d secured the doors behind Freddy—who was still yelling about a stomach pump—he walked over to her and said, “Young lady, I think you’d better count your lucky stars that we don’t haul you to the station too.  You may not have poisoned him, but I’ll bet a dollar to donuts you did something.”  

“Of course I did!  What was I supposed to do, let him choke me?” she said indignantly. “So I hit him with the teapot. That’s self-defense.”  

“It better be.”  He stared her down, unfazed by her outburst. “And by the way, you sound much better.”  

When he turned to leave, obviously considering her properly chastened, Joanna stuck her tongue out at his back.  

They drove away, leaving her coughing and disgruntled.  

Helen draped one of her blankets over Joanna’s shoulders and hugged her. “I thought—I thought he was goin’ to kill ye!”  

“Me too.”  She sniffed loudly.   

Helen shook her head, bewildered. “Why was he carryin’ on so?”  

Joanna shrugged.  “No idea.”  

“To think that awful man was nothin’ but a barefaced liar and a thief!  I thought he ‘ad the nicest manners too!”  Helen set her jaw. “Well, that certainly won’t ‘appen again!”  

“Some people are just plain mean.” Joanna shook her head sadly. “Crazy world, isn’t it?”

“I’ll say!” Helen glanced at her and suddenly softened.  “Luv, go back to bed this minute.  I’ll came back an’ look in on you.”  

“Thanks.”   

When she left, Joanna and Strummer were alone outside Helen’s trailer.  

Timidly, Strummer touched her shoulder.  “Are-are you all right, M-miss Joanna?”  

“For heaven’s sake, just call me Joanna,” she said irritably, shrugging off his hand. “It’s been three years.”  

“Of course, Miss…er, Joanna.  I’m sorry.”

She glanced at Helen, who was looking back at them curiously.  Probably thinking she was acting awfully feisty for someone supposedly at death’s door.  She had to admit, despite the fact she was starting to feel new bruises where Freddy had grabbed her shoulders, a small, long-dormant part of her brain was laughing insanely, exhilarated by her victory.  Too bad she couldn’t share it with someone.  No, she had to pretend to be a weak little girl, cowed by her near-brush with death.   

How humiliating.  

“No, I’m sorry.” She paused, half-heartedly trying to remember his name. Nelson? Neil? Nicholas?  Nicholai?  “It’s not your fault, um... Ned.”  

“Nicholas,” he corrected her, then he added quickly: “But you can call me Ned if you want to!  Maybe I should change my name, huh?”  

She blinked at him, momentarily nonplussed by this change of subject. “Huh?”   

He misinterpreted the blink, as he did most small changes of expression and gestures.  She fluttered her eyelashes ---at me!  He puffed out his bony chest with masculine pride.  

“Oh…” She always found it hard to look at him, so he was always assigned a peripheral role in her consciousness.  It was easier to pretend he didn’t exist. To her, he was just Helen’s son, part of the scenery. 

She felt the faint stirrings of half-forgotten excitement from her encounter with Freddy.  Long ago, she had given up a life of intrigue and violence.  She did not miss wondering when her number would be up, but she did miss the rush of adrenaline that followed a fight to the death.  It was a heady brew --- almost an aphrodisiac.

She glanced at Strummer --- and the feeling evaporated.  Back to business.  

Trying not to grimace, she threw her arms around his neck, burying her face in his bony shoulder, sobbing, “Nick!  I was so frightened!  That mean man tried to kidnap me!”  

“That no-good rotter!  There, it’s all right, you couldn’t know what he was…” He patted her back awkwardly, while she worked up some decent crocodile tears. “How dare he!  Did-did he… touch you?”  

No, he tried to kidnap me with his mind, she thought irritably, then felt a small stab of shame.  The poor guy meant well.  

“Just a few bruises, that’s all.  I’m more frightened than anything else.”  

Suddenly, she felt a subtle shift in his comforting pats, which grew firmer with each passing second.  She peeked over his shoulder and saw Handy watching them.  He looked grimly satisfied to see her predicament. 

What the hell is he smiling about, she thought resentfully. It’s like he wants me to act like a stupid damsel in distress!  Then:  Oh boy, that’s it.  Handy did not approve of unladylike behavior and had barely concealed his dislike for her since shortly after Helen hired her as a pianist of the Haley Carnival Band.    

Jeez, put a purse snatcher in intensive care and they never let you forget it.  Helen had nearly fired her for that little stunt, even though it had been her purse that was stolen.  They were lucky that the young man lived, but they’d had to pull up stakes early and move onto the next town.  

“Okay, show’s over,” she said, detaching herself from his arms. Then she added, not meaning a word of it:  “Thanks, I owe you.”  

There was a strange catch in his voice, but she was too distracted to notice. “Wait---you’ve been through a horrible experience---where are you going?”  

Ignoring him, she abruptly turned away and headed for her trailer.  She wanted to lie down and savor the triumphant thrumming in her blood after cheating death --- one of the few memories of her old life that she actually enjoyed.  There was no feeling like it, except maybe an invigorating fierce encounter of the flesh --- and not often enough to satisfy her greedy appetite for long.  Knowing that Helen disapproved of conjugal relations outside of marriage, she often had to sneak around like a guilty teenager to keep her private life, well, private.   

Unknown to Helen or anyone else, she did occasionally meet men off the premises for dates.  She suspected, rightly so, that her motherly boss would have insisted on meeting them herself, and Joanna simply didn’t have the heart to tell her that these liaisons meant nothing more than scratching an itch.  There was no point in getting attached to anyone when the carnival was only in town for a few months.  She liked fun-loving guys with no expectations --- and she usually found them. 

Her co-workers were constantly underfoot and were terrible gossips, except for Bonnie.  Joanna respected her for that, and believed that even if her roommate knew of her activities, she wouldn’t tell anyone.  It was nobody’s business what she did on her own time, but still… she preferred that Helen remained ignorant.  Maybe it was the annoying, yet somehow endearing way the older woman mothered her, fussing over her when she was sick and inviting her to play gin rummy over rich Oztralian tea.  Joanna was a coffee-drinker, but she was learning to like tea as well.  It was a small price to pay for a little attention.  

Joanna left the door slightly ajar to let the horsy smell dissipate and untied the curtains so that they hung loose across the windows, then flopped onto her cot, making the springs squeak.  The dark was comforting to her --- cool and serene.  She closed her eyes and replayed the events in Helen’s kitchen in her mind.  

“Miss er, J-Joanna? Are you all right?”  

Oh, crap.  

“Fine!” she called back.  “Just taking a nap, Ned.”  

“C-can I come in?”  

“Nicholas, do leave her alone,” she heard Helen scold him.  “Ye know ye ain’t allowed in the girls’ quarters.” 

“But, Ma, I was just comfort---!”  

“I know, Nicky, that’s very sweet. I’ll see if she needs anythin’.  You run along now and let me take care of her.”  

Great.  Battle stations!  Hurriedly, she dove under the covers, rubbed her eyes to make them look redder.  

Helen knocked lightly and peered through the sliver of open doorway.  It was too dark to see inside.  “Can I come in?”  

“It’s open.”  

The koala waddled inside, approached and cot and handed her a steaming mug. “I brought ye some broth, luv.  Best thing for a cold.  Careful now, it’s ot.”  

“Thanks.”  She accepted the cup, blew at the steam, and sipped.  The rich liquid flowed down her throat like a forbidden elixir.  “Mmm… chicken.  My favorite.”  

“Well, it weren’t too hard followin’ the directions on the packet,” Helen said modestly.  They both chuckled.  Helen may have looked like somebody’s sweet little old granny, but she wouldn’t be caught dead making anything from scratch --- except maybe pancakes.  Joanna could appreciate that, not being the domestic type herself.   

“How are ye doin’?”  

Joanna tried to sound weak. “Better, thanks.  Still pretty woozy, though.”  

“Well, I won’t keep ye long.  Can we talk?”  

Great. Here it comes.  Joanna coughed again, a little too long to be convincing.  “Okay.”  

Helen planted her generous bulk at the end of the cot, making it dip a few inches. “Now then --- what exactly happened with Freddy?  How was it ye found him in me trailer?”  

Joanna took a long swallow of broth, buying time.  Whenever Helen was agitated, her Oztralian accent became stronger, more colloquial --- a sure warning that she was in no mood for games.  

Joanna told her about wanting aspirin, and accidentally catching him red-handed with the ledgers, leaving out most of it.  Some things she didn’t just tell Helen, even if she was the closest thing to a mother she ever had.  “…and then he just went nuts and tried to strangle me, Helen. Thank goodness you guys came in when you did---!”   

“What were ye doin’, confrontin’ Freddy like that?  Ye coulda been urt!  

“I know.”  She stared at the bottom of the empty mug as though the answer was somewhere hidden in its depths. “You know me. I couldn’t let it go.”  

“Aye, I do know ye, Joanna,” Helen said. “That’s why I fret about ye so.  Yer too proud for yer own good. Ye always think ye can take on the bad guys by yerself --- and ye get in way over yer head.  One of these days ye’ll get yerself badly ‘urt --- or killed.  Why didn’t ye scream fer ’elp?”  

Joanna set the mug down on the floor. “I thought I could take him,” she said defensively. “Besides, what’s the point? No one was around anyway.”  

Helen slapped her forehead in exasperation. “Now what kinda foolishness is that? A slip of a girl like you, thinkin’ ye can face a mean bugger like that Freddy on yer own?”  

Joanna said nothing.  As dear as she was to her, Helen would never understand that it was unacceptable to be weak or to act in any way like a damsel in distress.  If there was one thing she had learned at the Foundation, you never, ever fainted, screamed for help or begged for mercy.  You went down fighting and took the other guy with you.  

She hunched her shoulders, trying to look humbly chastised.  “Okay, I was wrong.  Can I get some sleep now?”  

The koala sighed, knowing that her words were falling on deaf ears.  She suddenly looked older than her fifty years. Weather, time and Joanna had taken their toll.   She took the mug.  “Aye, I can see that yer gonna be a mule about this.  I’ll let ye get some rest.”  

Joanna couldn’t let her walk away like this.  She suddenly didn’t want to be alone. “Um…Helen?” she said in a small voice.  

The koala turned. “Yes, dear?”  

“C-could you stay with me for a while?  Just until I fall asleep?”  

“Of course,” Helen smiled with amused affection.  Tough, sarcastic Joanna could be such a little girl sometimes.  “Scoot under the covers now.  Here, let me fluff yer pillow.”  

“Thank you,” Joanna said sincerely. She snuggled under the blankets and was pleasantly surprised when Helen even tucked her in.  “Talk to me…tell me one of your stories.”  

“Oh, goodness, which one? I must’ve told you all of ‘em.”  

“I like your stories.  Tell me about Oztralia.  All that neat stuff you did when you were a kid.  Tell me about the time you and your father stopped that stampede of horses and…”  

“Hush, now, luv.  Who’s tellin’ this, you or me?”  Helen sat on the edge of the bed and began, “Well…I was twelve an’ just learnin’ te work a drive…”  

Eventually, the soothing lilt of Helen’s voice lulled her to sleep.  The older woman soon fell silent.  The springs of the cot creaked as she stood up, smoothing the back of her well-padded skirt.  She started to leave, but noticed that several strands of reddish-gold hair lay across Joanna’s nose, making it twitch.  Reaching down, she brushed it aside; then she bent and kissed her gently on the forehead.  Joanna stirred, but did not awaken.

Helen left her, taking the mug with her.  

“Night, luv,” was all she said.  “Be good.”  

* * *

Freddy lay on the floor in the back of the cop car, waiting for the end. As long moments passed and nothing happened, however, he began to wonder.  

Am I really dying? I…I feel okay.   

He sat up. The symptoms he’d felt so strongly in Helen’s office were gone, and he felt a flood of rage course through him. Freddy wasn’t the type who liked being duped—especially by a smart-mouthed floozy. He had to get out of here. Shouldn’t be too hard.  

The handcuffs were easy enough to get rid of.  He’d become something of an expert at getting out of them over the years—when you spent as much time in lockup as he did, you learned a few tricks.  Tossing the handcuffs aside, he looked at the barred windows on the doors and no other means of entrance or exit. Well, he could work with that. Once the cops lost sight of him, they’d likely forget about him. It was a definite advantage to being ordinary-looking.  Sure made it easy to blend into crowds.  

Then he sneezed.  

* * *

It was late afternoon the next day before Joanna made it out of her trailer.  She felt much better, but hadn’t wanted to rehash yesterday’s misadventures ten million times, and she knew that the other carnies would ask for details—over and over and over again.  

She was going past Helen’s trailer when she heard the sounds of someone cleaning up.  Glancing around, she poked her head in the door to see the koala sweeping broken pieces of the teapot into a neat little pile.  

“Hi,” Joanna said.  

Helen glanced up.  “How are ye feelin’, luv?”  

“Better.  Want some help?”  

Helen smiled and nodded.  “That’s real nice of ye.”  

Joanna stepped into the trailer and helped Helen clean up the kitchen, which was still in shambles.   

“What with you, then my Nicky under the weather, I haven’t had time to tidy up.”  

“Oh?” Joanna asked.  “What’s he got?”  

“Nothing te worry about.  Just a small cold.”  

“Oh,” she said again, not terribly interested.  

The older woman swept up the shards of the teapot, while Joanna righted an overturned chair and cleaned up trash that had spilled from an overturned trashcan.  

“What a mess.  I just can’t help but feel partly responsible,” she apologized.  

“Joanna, ye couldn’t very well protect yer virtue without makin’ a mess.”  Helen sighed.  “I do wish that teapot adn’t got broke, though.”  

“I’m really sorry.”  Sorrier about the teapot than Freddy, actually.  

“Never mind.  You did what ye had to, I guess.”  

“Yeah.  Doesn’t mean I enjoyed it, though.”  

Wish I had a camera.   

“Aye, that’s true.  I --- what’s this?” Helen started to toss the shards into the garbage, then she spotted something.  She looked at Joanna strangely.  

“What?”   

“It looks like someone dumped a whole lot of pills in the dustbin.  Aspirin, perhaps?”  

“Oh. Gee, how’d those get there?”  

“Don’t lie, Joanna.  Not te me.”  

“I’m sorry,” Joanna said meekly. “I had to stall him for the police.  It had to look real.”  

Helen smiled uncertainly.  “So, you really didn’t…”  

No!  Of course not!” Joanna was outraged.  “What kind of person do you think I am?”  

“A very clever girl.  Sometimes too clever for ‘er own good.”  

Her vanity tickled, she forgot about being outraged. “You really think I’m smart?”  

“No, I said yer clever, which ain’t the same thing at all."

"Oh."

Helen said severely, "Risking yer life for a few baubles ain’t smart.”  

“I didn’t.  I went for aspirin and he surprised me.  I couldn’t leave.”  

Helen looked at her.  

“It’s true!”  

“All right.  I believe ye.”  Helen changed the subject. “That was the fifth barker we’ve lost in six months. They sure don’t last long around ‘ere.”  

Joanna didn’t say anything.  

“Not that it’s such a bad thing.  Except for Tommy --- bless him --- most of ‘em were layabouts anyway.  Not a patch on my Bill, bless ‘is soul --- he knew how to pull in the crowds,” Helen continued, bending to sweep some broken glass onto a dustpan.  She bent slowly, grunting with the effort.  “Maybe I should ‘ire someone to pick up the place a bit.”  

Joanna firmly took both broom and dustpan from her. “Sit down, Helen.  I’ll do that.”   

“Thanks, luv.  Yer an angel.”  

“Hardly.  I hate flying and look awful in white.”  

“Oh, you!” The middle-aged koala gave her a mock push. “Yer a right nice-lookin’ girl, do ye know that?”  

“Yup!”  Joanna grinned at her, stood up and twirled in a mock pirouette, bright ponytail swinging.  “And I’ve got a wonderful personality!”  

Helen smiled “Well, that ye gotta work on.  And learn te cook.”  

Ew.  No thanks.  Otherwise the guy would actually expect me to do it.  “Like you did?”  

Helen gave her a playful swat. “Get on with ye.  Why learn if my Bill liked doing it and was better at it?   Do ye think we’d have been ‘itched as long as we ‘ad if he ‘ad to survive on my cookin’?”  

“No, I guess not.”  

Joanna hated all things domestic and deliberately dropped eggs and burned toast until she was shooed from kitchen duty.  She complained that the smell of fried food made her nauseous.  She was willing do anything from helping her employer with paperwork to shoveling manure in the stables where the ponies were kept; but she could not stand the idea of cooking and serving food in the dining tent, especially to the male carnies. Helen was a kind boss --- almost motherly --- but hopelessly old-fashioned when it came to assigning chores. Although she refused to cook, she did take in the laundry and mending.  The men did the heavy work, like helping to build and repair the rides.  The women were expected to take turns cooking and serving the daily meals.  Joanna believed in feigned incompetence.  

They worked in companionable silence for a few minutes, each engrossed in her own thoughts.   

The young bear sighed.  This wasn’t the first time she’d caused --- however indirectly ---trouble in Haley’s Carnival.  I should leave soon.  Before she gets wise and tosses me out on my ear.  

She hated the greasy food, the mixed odors of people, livestock, moving from town to town and lack of privacy.  It wasn’t nearly as bad as the Foundation, where she had been forced to share a drafty dormitory, not to mention bathroom stalls without doors on the stalls with eleven other young girls. The carnival was no Eden but she couldn’t face the prospect of being cast out either.  

I should go away for a while.  Give it time to settle down around here.  

“Helen,” Joanna announced. “I’d like some time off.”  

“Why---of course, if you like.  Yer such a omebody.  Ye oughta go out more often, ave some fun with people yer own age.”  

Joanna made a face. “You mean find a husband.”  

“Well, ye don’t want to be left on the shelf, sweetheart.”   

“Yeah, I might expire.”  Playfully, Joanna lifted her ponytail and pointed to her neck.  “Say, am I starting to go bad?  You see any mold?”  

“Ye devil!” Helen waved her off. “Get on with ye.  Take a week.”  

“Thanks.  I’ll bring you back something nice.”   

“Just come back in one piece.”   

“I promise. Don’t worry about me.”    

The middle-aged koala changed the subject. “Where will ye go?”  

“I’ll probably just find an inn somewhere in town and stay indoors and not talk to a soul.”

Pah!” Helen made a dismissive sound. “That’s a vacation?”  

“Sure it is.  I just need some time alone.”  

“I do wish ye’d take someone with you.”  

“Like a chaperone, right?”  Joanna barely kept the note of amusement from her voice.  

“No… just another girl to keep you out of trouble.  How about Bonnie? It’s just safer to go out in twos, dear.”  

No, thanks.  I’ll be fine.” What she really meant was that she had to get away from the stink of hot dogs, cotton candy and horse manure, but she didn’t want to hurt the old lady’s feelings.  

“At least find some decent lodgin’s. Some of these inns are real fleabags.” She paused to indicate the window, in the general direction of the ramshackle trailers.  “Not nice like these.”  

Joanna shrugged.  All she wanted was her own room.  As long as she didn’t have to share it, she’d be happy.  After living in a trailer, it’ll be like a palace.  

She had grown up sharing a bedroom with her sister, then a dormitory --- later.  She hated having a roommate --- the everyday noises of another person in cramped quarters, the lack of privacy, sharing practically everything but a toothbrush.  Bonnie Scott, the lioness horse trainer, was nice enough, and although they rarely saw each other during the day, the tiny trailer smelled of a curious mixture of leather, horses, and manure until Joanna made her leave the offending riding boots outside; she actually got headaches and was forced to change, read and think with the bathroom door closed.  

She spent as little time as possible in the confining space, except to get snatches of sleep between the smell and her room mate’s whinnying snores. And Bonnie was so damned dull --- she talked about practically nothing but her stupid, smelly ponies.  Joanna had heard rumors that she had once been married, but chose her precious darlings over her allergic husband.  It didn’t surprise her.  

“I’ll look around,” Helen was saying.  “There must be a nice clean establishment in town.”  

After Helen’s kitchen was back in order, Joanna went back to her trailer to plan her holiday. Wrinkling her nose at the smell, she untied the ribbon around her ponytail and changed clothes. Then, she sat at the dressing table.  

Seeing a smudge on the mirror, she rubbed it with her sleeve.  Took another look, then whispered to herself, “Better than mortal man deserves.”  It was not the conceited statement it seemed --- more of a mantra of a plain, lonely child all grown up and now reassuring herself that yes, she was pretty at last.                                 

She brushed her hair, carefully untangling it, then tied it with a narrow black ribbon.  There.  What she believed to be her one good feature, she treated with tenderness.  Her father used to call it ‘amber’. She refused to cut it to a fashionably shorter length.  Not beautiful, she knew that --- she was no fool.  But she made the best of what she had. Helen was teaching her to make her own clothing, which she found relaxing.  Before Helen came along, Gordon taught her that she was beautiful and loved, although not by her own family. No, that was wrong.  Her father loved her but he had to send her away, to keep her safe.  She wondered if he was still alive after all these years. Poor Daddy.     

Her features were a little too sharp to be beautiful, but that didn’t matter.  She liked her looks just fine.  She deliberately walked with  an earthy sort of grace, her slim hips moving in concert with her long legs, knowing there were men who watched, no matter how happily married or how pretty their girlfriends were.

Joanna smiled; it was sweet of Helen to make her arrangements for her.  She herself hated dealing with schedules and itineraries.  Gordon had always done that sort of thing for her in the past, as well as managed her financial affairs, when she was young and unable to object.  Kept her and the others under his control, first by kindness, then by force.  

* * *

The bus ran every hour, so Helen waited with Joanna at the bus stop to’ keep her company’.   After about twenty minutes, Helen’s head drooped forward and she began to snore.  Amused, the bear shrugged.  She didn’t feel like talking anyway.  

Suddenly, Strummer ran up to them, wheezing.  The whites of his eyes were almost as pink as his irises.  “J-Joanna, you’re going away?”  

“Word travels fast, doesn’t it?” Joanna said lightly, thinking: I can’t wait to get out of here!  

He sneezed. “W-was it something I said?”  

“Why?” She frowned, puzzled. “What do you have to do with it?”  

“Oh, I don’t know…” He turned crimson, intensifying the pink splotches beneath his sickly yellow-white fur.  Blushing was not flattering on an albino bear. “I-I just thought…”  

But Joanna was not listening.  “It’s a vacation, Ned…um, Nick.”  

“You can call me Strummer, you know,” he said earnestly. He let out a bray of laughter, which gave way to a phlegm-filled coughing fit. “Because I ‘strum’ the guitar, you get it?  Ha-ha-ha!”  He blew his nose.  

“Uh-huh.  I got it.”  Stepping back a couple of paces, she glanced down the street.  “You got the time?”    

“Time?”  He brightened.  “Time to do what?”  

Time.  As in clock.  As in where the big hand and where the little hand are.”  

He flushed to an even more unbecoming shade of red and fumbled with his pocket watch. “It’s, uh, uh t-two.”

Joanna looked impatiently down the street again. Where is that bus?  

“WA-CHOO!”  

Helen’s head jerked up.  “What?  Who’s there?”  

“Me,” her son said meekly.  He made a snerkling sound, wiped his nose on the back of his hand.  

“Nicholas!” Helen scolded in a whisper, “Don’t use your hand. Ye know better than that.”  

“Sorry, Ma.” Strummer blushed fiercely. “I forgot.”  He wiped his nose again, this time on his sleeve, then the seat of his pants, leaving a slimy yellowish streak.  

Helen smiled approvingly. “That’s better.”  

Joanna stepped away from him, wrinkling her nose. “Ew. You’re not sick, are you?”  

Helen exclaimed, “Oh, sweetheart, I forgot! Nicky, I think ye need to go back to bed.”  

“But Ma, I wanted to say goodb---!”  

“Go to bed, luv.  I’ll make ye some nice, ot broth in a bit.  Get on with ye, now.”  

“Okay, okay.”  Humiliated, Strummer turned and stomped off.  

Helen sighed.  “I swear I don’t know what ails that boy sometimes.”   

Joanna shrugged.  She glanced down at her old black skirt, hemmed and hanging exactly mid-calf.  Her blouse was white, primly buttoned as high as it would go. Helen advised her to also wear a sweater; it was light blue.  She touched the dark blue sash of her wide-brimmed straw hat, making sure that it was tied securely under her chin. For some bizarre reason, she felt like Fran of Eight Gables.  

Helen frowned at the small blue duffle bag. “Ye sure ye got everything?”  

“Yeah, thanks for finding that hotel for me.  I can’t believe I needed a character reference just to stay there for a week, though.  How come you won’t let me read it?”  

“Because it’s addressed to the lady, not you.  And yer head is big enough already.   How that hat fits, I’ll never know.”  

Joanna hid a smile.  It was Helen’s way of telling her that it was a good letter.  

“It’s a real nice place, I hear.  They ‘ave to be sure their guests are well behaved and respectable-like.  Meals are provided, so ye never ‘ave to worry about cookin’.  Ye get yer own room and bath.  I think it’s perfect, don’t you?”  

“Yes! I can’t wait to have my own room! Thanks.”  Joanna beamed at her and held up a small bag.  “I’ve got three books in here, see?  I’m gonna read non-stop and never talk to another living soul.”  

“Well, I hope ye’ll find time to eat.”  Helen said. “I know ye want yer privacy, but it wouldn’t ‘urt ye to be more sociable.  Try to make some nice new friends.”  

Joanna gave a non-committal shrug. The idea did not appeal to her, since friends usually expected you to spend time with them.  They were funny that way.  

Helen seemed to read her mind. “Try, sweetheart.  Won’t you please try?  For me?”  

Joanna sighed. “Okay.  For you.”  

“Good girl.” The koala smiled. Joanna sighed again and allowed the older woman to hug her, and awkwardly patted her on the back in return.  Not accustomed to showing affection, she was still somewhat uncomfortable when anyone embraced her.  She tolerated Helen, who was extremely affectionate with everyone, and didn’t expect anything in return, unlike most people.   She had grown up in an upper middle-class household where emotion was frowned upon.  Her own parents were extremely undemonstrative, so she was never quite sure what to do. 

With men, it was easy.  She knew what they wanted and sometimes granted it, sometimes not, enjoying her power. If anyone ever told her that this very behavior proved that she was lonely and craved the contact of another person, she would have laughed at them.  

She refused to admit that she was lonely ---even to herself.  

“Ye’ll be careful, won’t ye, luv?” Helen said anxiously.  “A young woman alone…”  

“Helen, I’m a big girl.  Don’t worry, nothing’s going to happen to me.”
 

End of Part 1


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