Originally written for the spngaiman exchange on Livejournal -- this is a sort of pastiche of Neil Gaiman's superlative short story 'The Facts in the Case of the Disappearance of Miss Finch', though I've been informed that it's reasonably comprehensible even if one hasn't actually read said story.
Effusive thank-yous to wanderlight & suchheights for beta-ing and cheerleading and suchlike.
From what Sam's read on the Internet and in the dusty archives of five libraries in three states, the thing doesn't really have a neat classification: circus, tableau, collection of naff incongruities, exhibition of horrors. 'Circus', then, for the sake of narration. The current address and almost-illegible directions he wrote on a diner napkin lead to a tiny building in a back-alley, crammed between an antique store and a shuttered house-for-sale, almost unnoticeable, not quite there. It's dilapidated, ramshackle, a whole host of other adjectives; nothing dramatic or remarkable, just a gradual deterioration into something inconspicuous and forlorn: 'fits the pattern,' Sam mutters, shuffling the papers in his lap, perhaps ticking something off on a mental checklist. --that's what it does, see: London, Edinburgh, Copenhagen, Madrid, now New Orleans and Chicago and D. C.; it's always tucked into a shadowy corner in the poorer quarters and only stays long enough for someone to vanish, and then it's gone in the blink of an eye leaving only ragged posters behind, as though it has simply turned on its heel in the middle of the night and collapsed into dust. Something about it all's almost as though the whole structure's held together only by the loosening glue on the long-forgotten now-unreadable flyers plastered all over the walls.
The night is warm, slightly foggy in an oppressive way; it smells incongruously of woodsmoke and spices. Dean drops the handwritten directions into the gutter and curses, then shrugs. They're superfluous anyway. It's starting to rain, gently; the streetlight glints, and the door creaks in an almost deliberately ominous way as Dean pushes it open with the flat of his hand. Sam pauses for a moment to watch the dust-motes drifting in the beam of the streetlight, and think.
When they're inside, just two more faces in a straggling crowd, the lights snap off with a hiss; there's a faint creak of machinery, a hollowed-out deep-down rumble of grinding metal, and something dark swoops overhead with a little twang of wires as it glides past; Dean mumbles something indistinct and presumably sardonic that Sam doesn't quite catch. There's a flourish of recorded trumpets punctuated by static crackles and hisses and leaps -- 'here come the clowns,' mumbles a woman in front of Sam (she's all heavy perfume and ostentation, and her fake furs tickle Sam's face every time she deigns to throw her husband a remark). A few seconds later a door concealed in the corner swings open (managing somehow to scrape and screech raspingly, so very obviously that it can hardly be an accidental sound); there's a ragged mimicry of applause--
--and then Sam looks up into the ring and it's a memory, a ghost, a localised delirium, a hallucination, a twist of the light; the ringmaster has a plum-coloured shirt and trailing coat-tails and untidy blonde hair and and a lazy smile, head tilted, and -- Jess. Sam wants to run and cry and laugh and punch the wall till his knuckles bloody over and shout and do all of it at once or none of it at all; and he's telling himself it's a trick, and he's telling himself this is what they came looking for, but across the room Jess is waving a hand in exaggerated gesture and Sam can't bring himself to move. And he can't understand why the crowd is still talking, why this doesn't seem to make a difference to anyone but himself. His fingernails are biting into his palm; everything's awkward and unreal, like a story where nothing's right and nobody knows what to do with their thoughts or their hands, but it's all Sam can do to stop himself thinking about Jessica's eyes and writing papers in the rain. (And somewhere he might be laughing, because he knows: people go missing at that circus, they said. People walk in and vanish. It's not difficult to guess.)
There's a roll of drums punctuated with the hacking skips of an old tape, and something in a back room is probably burning because the air smells of smoke and fire and is full of strange sounds; Sam wonders if he might be dreaming, but he isn't, except that Dean isn't saying anything when he calls his name, and there's a sort of light quaver to the air, and he's still wondering whether he should run or shoot or laugh. --And Jess is right in front of him now -- he doesn't know how, one moment she's on the makeshift stage describing a pantheon of horrors, and the next she's near enough to whisper into his ear; she smiles warm honey and silk. 'You're not real', he says, because she isn't and she can't be and he left her on a ceiling in Palo Alto.
--and then she's gone.
And something's shuddering back into normality, and when he looks around again all he can see is the run-down raftering and the slightly naff velvet hanging forlorn from the walls. An overdressed Marilyn Manson lookalike is slouching in the ring, the cynosure of all eyes, and when Dean looks up inquiringly Sam doesn't say a word.
Later on, the rooms will only be a blurred memory, indistinct and smeared with dust; Sam's stumbling through them in a sort of haze. The lighting is terrible and the makeup is wildly unconvincing, and by the time Dean's rolled his eyes through five different acts (rubber-masked 'werewolves' and blood that looks suspiciously like tomato sauce and sullen green-haired pseudo-punks with fangs and a hugely unconvincing beheading and 'the magical Marvin on his flying trapeze') Sam's almost ready to believe that there's no truth to it: nobody ever disappeared here, unless they died of the boredom. But he can still see Jess's smile, and when Dean mumbles something about how he's wasting his time here and a bar would be great, Sam shakes his head.
--that's when the roof cracks open; the sky spreads like an inkstain across the rafters, dissolving them away into shavings and sawdust, and Sam watches. Watches. He can hear, incongruous, someone's voice announcing that tonight, tonight, for one night only, one person will have their dearest wish fulfilled, and trailing off into an incomprehensible spew of ponderous Gothicism. But that's irrelevant; the ceiling's completely gone, the stars precarious overhead. And he's almost unsurprised that Jess is next to him, her hair tickling his chin, caught in a breeze he can't feel, and she's whispering something he can't quite make out, but then does it matter? It could be stay, stay here, stay now, or I love you, or I'm sorry, and perhaps he's going mad but reality's a subjective thing when you really get down to it, just an aggregation of things that don't even have to be true. Now the ceiling's a delicate yellow just shy of white, and there's a tap in the corner that's dripping as if to remind him that movement exists, and he's taking the stairs two at a time and tucking someone into bed and watching the sunrise through the window; he looks into the mirror, thinks surely his hair was always shot through with grey. There's a note pinned to the fridge; his handwriting's impeccable, small, worryingly neat, and Jess is smiling (surely she always had the faintest crow's-feet around her eyes?), and he knows without looking that if he goes into the living-room the fireplace will be warm and absurdly bright. Sam, he's driving to his office in a car that costs more than a small country, or he's walking the dog in early autumn, companionable silence not broken by the pleasant crunch of fallen leaves under his shoes, or he's waking up five-thirty in the morning to watch the sun rise. He let his hand linger a second too long on the warming stove, and the burn's stinging like days he doesn't even remember. He rolls over in bed and silences the alarm clock by knocking it off the table. There's a pair of starlings flying past the window, which is only a white square containing the black outlines of birds, and he watches the white leak out and bleach everything into invisibility, and he hears someone saying--
--and after that it's down to belief: he's somewhere underneath the world or just at right angles to it and his arm's around Jessica's shoulders. Or he's out of that room and into another, in the middle of a congregation of empty chairs and dusty flyers and rags, and Dean has his gun out and he's shouting though his eyes say something else, and then he's in the alleyway, looking at the moon, tracing the fading ring of a burn on his palm till the wind blows even the memories away, and wondering.