There were guardian angels watching over each and every person in the world, his nanny used to say. While it was a pleasant notion, Phillip Carlyle had known even at that tender age not to put too much stock in nursery tales. Angels belonged to the world of fantasy, inhabited by giants, fairies, mermaids and unicorns. Or, perhaps, he had just never done anything worth catching the notice of one until that night.
His latest play was having a spectacularly successful run. In fact, there was talk of extending the number of shows well into the next year, given the highly profitable box office numbers. The less of himself he put into a production, it seemed, the more of an audience it seemed to draw. He found it telling, if not unexpected.
The previous evening, in fact, his father had actually commended him on it. His own father, who had repeatedly and vehemently lectured for years on how theater was nothing more than a waste of time and temptation to vice, had praised his play for the upright values it espoused. It showed, he was informed, that Phillip was ready to start taking over management of the estate. That perhaps all he needed to complete the transformation from indolent scandal to upstanding citizen was more responsibility.
What had really changed, he had been tempted to respond, was the exponentially escalating supply of liquor at his writing desk. His place of refuge had, at some point, become yet another prison, and he had been too busy ornamenting the cell walls to notice. He took another swig of his flask, hoping it would hit fast, already thinking about where the closest disreputable drinking establishment was and just how much damage he could do before the night was over. He never got a chance to find out.
The way Barnum seemed to materialize before him, hand outstretched, had left Phillip feeling light-headed, almost dizzy. Possibly, it was just the sudden movement from snapping his head up so fast. His stomach writhed and twisted into a knot, whether from the alcohol or Barnum’s voice, warm and resonant, he was not certain. He couldn’t seem to trust his senses anymore, but for some reason, he trusted this stranger. Then he invited Phillip to a bar, as if reading his mind, and the rest was history.
It didn’t take much to lure him away, truth be told. Even as he found himself defending his past choices, he knew it was from a need to state them for the sake of abolishing them. To give them substance so that they could be pushed aside and left behind, the pull of Barnum’s promises gaining more purchase as each layer dropped away. His protestations contained the unspoken plea of “ prove me wrong” , and Barnum complied. Phillip had fully intended to find some form of escape at the bottom of a bottle that night, but this was the last thing he’d expected.
If Barnum had the timing of a heavenly emissary, he bargained like something from the other place. Maybe he realized that, amidst all the rule-breaking and convention-flouting, the deep-seated legitimacy of a contract, an exchange, was all the more necessary. At least, it was for someone who had never experienced the word unconditional. So they bartered. In exchange for saving his mind and sanity, for a chance at freedom, he gave his name, his inheritance, and his past. Phillip knew a bargain when he saw one.
In the middle of a scene straight from the Inferno, air choked with ashes and skies tinted a violent shade of crimson, Barnum again seemed to manifest, this time out of a billowing cloud of black smoke. Despite being scheduled at a venue several hundreds of miles away on a tour that he had been all too eager to depart for, there he was, just in time to watch all they had worked for disappear in a raging conflagration.
As distraught as he was, Phillip found himself wondering if his very thoughts had been loud enough to act as a summons. Strong hands gripped his shoulders, shook him to his senses as a paralyzing panic clawed at his chest. He stumbled back under the weight of all his mistakes, saw them flash by in a single moment, before the realization of his greatest oversight sent him bolting back inside.
Now, pinned under a wooden beam with a trickle of blood obscuring his vision in one eye and motes of soot making his other blur with tears, he cursed himself as much for leaving Barnum’s side as for not finding Anne. For adding one more disappointment to an already excessive pile, for failing them all, for his weakness and inability to be anything to anyone. For becoming an unfortunate footnote, occasionally whispered about, after the fire left nothing of him behind but ashes and regrets.
How he managed to hear anybody’s voice above the roar, he couldn’t quite explain afterwards. He certainly was in no position to answer, barely able to breathe let alone utter a sound. Then, somehow, the weight was being lifted off of him even as he lost consciousness. The last thing he remembered seeing was a pair of hazel eyes reflecting the hellish orange flames, burning like embers themselves.
Barnum had saved him again that night, wresting his limp form from a building -- an entire livelihood -- on the verge of collapse. In return, he gave what remained of his health, his possessions, his future. Phillip always honored his debts.
Once the show was over, wearing a hat that was a size too big and clutching a cane that was just a little too long, Phillip retreated to the cramped office. The tent was too full of empty space after the people left. After he left. But not before handing him a new home, family, life, purpose -- all of it cut out for someone a little larger than life. Stay, he had wanted to say. Come back, you can have anything. Just don’t leave. But what sort of deal could he hope to make this time, with nothing in trade to ensure his return?
As if on cue, the door opened, a tall figure filling the frame. Barnum, for once, seemed surprised to find him there.
Phillip wasn’t as easily surprised anymore. Apparitions didn’t keep timetables. He was sorry, he explained, he had nothing left to give. He understood that meant this might be the last time they’d speak. He’d planned to offer his heart, but then realized it was already in Barnum’s possession.
This admission was received by Barnum with a slow nod of understanding. It was lucky, then, he replied, that Phillip had claimed his long ago.
Knowing the words to be true the moment he heard them, Phillip barely had time to let out a sigh of relief before being caught up in a tight embrace. They had been saving each other at every step, never losing anything of themselves, an unbroken ring. Here, together, he was whole, salvaged parts and hand-me-down pieces forged into something new. His. Theirs. Nothing given up or given away, but gently cared for and held in trust for the moment when he would finally come home.