Don was frozen to the spot watching the fire. Orange flames spreading in all directions, like blazing monkeys leaping wildly in a feeding frenzy. Suddenly the scrambling monkeys became leaping tigers, muscular and powerful. The tigers raged and roared, causing the tent poles to buckle and snap and flames to burst through the canvas in places, letting loose thick waves of black smoke.
In no time at all, the cloud of smoke above the big top was colossal; billowing up through the sky like a hurricane cloud, so dense the moon disappeared. Specks of ash began to fall everywhere; grey scorching snow burning holes in Don’s vest.
The circus folk were running around, half dressed, grabbing what they could, blankets, pillows and costumes. Don’s father told everyone to shelter under the trees at the bottom of the park, as he tried to account for everyone. Don helped Bo and Min to bring their things. Min was holding a handkerchief to her mouth and could only use one hand to carry. The ringmaster shouted, “I’ve got everyone apart from Cha Cha, Frankie, Ruby and Rani. Cha Cha and Frankie can look after themselves, and they weren’t in the big top, Ganesh is out looking for Rani but what about Ruby?” His face was twisted in panic. He looked at Bo, “Where was she sleeping?”
Bo’s eyes widened. “She went to the big top to sleep. I told her to, because of Min’s coughing.”
Don started back towards the big top. “I’ll get her out.”
He felt his dad grab his arm as he went past. “No, don’t be stupid, don’t go anywhere near that fire,” Mr Unusually nodded to Don’s other arm. “You’re still in plaster.”
“But what if the smoke’s got her? What if she can’t get out?” Don pulled his arm out of his father’s grip and rushed off. He ran around the big top, trying to find a gap where the flames were smaller. But it was too late. Everywhere was equally hellish. He yelled through the mouth of the tent, but he couldn’t see anything but fire. He circled the tent again, frantically calling her name. He tried to get closer to see inside, but the heat formed an invisible wall, keeping him out. The tent was disappearing before his eyes, the canvas melting away in a moment leaving just the frame of metal poles and the wooden seats thick with flames. He was too late.
Don’s throat tightened. If Ruby was in there, she would no longer be alive. He fell to his knees remembering a rifle lying in the grass ten years before and his skinny legs running to get it, Lillian’s growls and the crowd’s screams behind him. Then his head span, his forehead crashing into the blackened grass, burning into his skin. He felt his father pulling him away, strong arms lifting him as he spluttered and choked on the heat and smoke
Don’s father lay him down on the grass at the edge of the park where the other circus folk had gathered. Bo brought him a cup of water and sat next to him, putting her arm around his shoulders. Slowly he caught his breath. He felt a strange, helpless calm as they all watched, mesmerised. The fire destroyed in a few minutes things they had known for years. Costumes which fit perfectly, soft and stretchy with wear. Velvet curtains that they had swept out of to the applause of the best audiences. Nets that had saved their lives. Don heard the bells of the fire engines getting louder, but the damage had already been done. Don covered his face with his hands. Ruby was gone.