Chapter 1

 

IF YOU were to ask me today, I still wouldn’t be able to explain why I wanted to join the circus. Perhaps it was out of boredom and a desire for something new. Perhaps I had gotten tired of notching a time card on a daily basis and reporting to a job that, no matter how interesting it was the first day, always wound down into tedious repetition. Perhaps Fate placed her hand on my shoulder and pushed me in that direction—if you believe in that sort of thing. Or, maybe it was her distant cousin, Chance.

Perhaps… he called to me.

Whatever the reason, I found myself standing inside a large tent with my duffel bag slung over my shoulder as I faced the circus manager. The storm outside had completely soaked my sweater, making it cling to my thin body instead of hide it. My long ponytail was dripping down my back, and I quickly brushed away the loose dirty blond strands that stuck to my face. I had tried to dry off during the last part of the show in the circle of porta-potties, but a handful of paper towels proved ineffective. Without a real towel and a fresh change of clothes, it was the poorest presentation one could have for an interview. But there I stood, shoes drenched and laces covered in mud. There was no sense in standing the interviewer up after all that effort.

The manager was currently reading over my résumé, which detailed such commendable things as janitorial cleaning, construction, and flipping burgers while wearing those stylish paper hats. He was a large man dressed in a bright red show coat with pinstriped pants and a vest that struggled to cover his belly. From this close I could see that the thread holding in the last button was a different color and straining against the cloth, showing it had been resewn many times. Even with that imperfection in his clothing, his bright and lively outfit put mine to shame. His thick brown hair curled tightly around his face, a matching mustache climbing up from his top lip. Dirt-colored eyes glanced from the yellowed paper full of my neat scribbles to my face, scrutinizing my incredibly unremarkable features.

I knew I didn’t look like much compared to him or some of the amazing performers I’d seen advertised on the posters outside. I had stepped into a world of magic tricks, sparkling costumes, and dazzling smiles. I hardly looked like the willowy man on the tightrope or the cute blonde girl whose hands were full of sharp daggers. A poster of me wouldn’t attract a crowd if it were posted anywhere near the performers here, but I wasn’t interviewing for a stage job. I was aiming for the ring crew, the team that worked behind the scenes in the circus. I knew my talents were best utilized in a job where I could work and sweat and see the results in physical form.

“You have an interesting range of skills, but this paper shows me nothing.” He shoved the résumé back into my hands and placed his own on his hips in an attempt to look intimidating, but someone with facial hair like that would always look like a cartoon villain. No one wore mustaches like that anymore. “Prove to me why I should hire you.”

A different person would have frowned or stopped to think, but I had expected this. I already had an idea of what to do. Over the twenty-six years of my life, my résumé had become a collection of odd jobs and skills that helped to show my wide range of talent to do what people asked of me. Summer months were generally spent doing outdoor jobs that put me in front of the sun, while winter months allowed me to hibernate inside, taking on jobs where I didn’t need thick, expensive coats. But when a résumé became as long as mine did, potential supervisors and managers would always discount you, labeling you a job hopper who wasn’t willing to stick to one profession. After dealing with a couple of dry spells, I had learned to stand out in other ways.

The manager’s insistence was actually a blessing to me. It meant I wouldn’t have to plead for him to give me a chance. Without a pause I set down my duffel bag and put the paper under it so it wouldn’t blow away, then walked past the manager to the lion’s cage against the other end of the tent. The huge cat growled at me and padded around the cage, staking out its territory. Taking a deep yet silent breath, I stopped next to the cage and slid my arm through the bars.

“You stupid boy!” The manager raced toward my side to pull me back, but I held up a hand, causing him to stop a few feet away.

My eyes still on the pacing cat, I knelt down slowly and turned my hand so the palm faced up. I fixed my eyes on the lion, but not directly on his eyes, and watched him carefully as I kept my head bowed in submission. Animals don’t listen to words; they watch one’s eyes—just like me—so I knew how to communicate with them, at least to an extent. My affinity with animals reached back to my days as a tangled-haired kid playing with my neighbor’s dog in the cornfield next door. Until I moved into the neighborhood with my parents, they’d always kept the dog chained up and its sharp teeth away from curious children. I’d stumbled into their yard without thinking, and the animal had jumped at me, growling angrily. I didn’t scream or run; instead I froze and immediately dropped to the ground, looking down out of some strange instinct. The dog had come right up to me and bared its teeth, but when I didn’t react, it eventually gave up and sat next to me, as if lost on what to do. Since that day I’d been its one friend, and the neighbor still stared at me when I went home to visit between jobs.

Now I remained still, ignoring my potential employer and focusing completely on the animal in front of me. I had to show that I was submissive and not a threat. That was the best option when dealing with larger, more fearsome animals.

I won’t hurt you, I promise. Trust me.

Those were the words I tried to put into my body’s expression—calm, kneeling, and waiting for acceptance. In retrospect, it was very stupid of me to attempt this with a large lion that probably had been whipped into anger at the last show, but I couldn’t afford to think about that. This was my chance to get the job, and I hated to pass up chances, especially when I needed a job so badly right now—the dry spell had been going on for far too long. I mean, after all, what new hire would be desperate enough to put their hand in a lion’s cage? I focused on kneeling there, my hand outstretched and waiting patiently. The lion stopped pacing and regarded me quietly for a moment before it seemed to make up its mind. It began to approach me, walking to my side of the cage. It didn’t touch my hand; instead it dropped onto the ground and rolled just a little to expose part of its stomach. It was baiting me, seeing if I would go for its exposed stomach, the spot I knew most predators attacked first.

Slowly and carefully I moved my hand through the bars, ignoring the large cat’s stomach. I dug my fingers into the thick fur near his ears, scratching him under his mane. Immediately the cat’s eyes slid shut, and a content look crossed his large, furry features. The large cat wasn’t purring, but I vaguely remembered learning back in grade school that the larger cats didn’t, so that wasn’t strange. I took his body language as a sign that I had passed the test. I’d earned his friendship.

“Amazing…. Lizzie, come look at this.”

I heard the manager move a few steps behind me, but he didn’t come closer to the cage. I suppose he didn’t want to startle the large animal that was now leaning into my fingers like a friendly kitten. From the corner of my eyes, I could see a young woman step into the tent dressed in a sparkling performance outfit. The outfit was designed just right to show off the gentle curves of her figure while giving the impression of innocence when paired with her perfectly curled golden hair. A small line of golden stars hung from her left ear, twinkling in the tent’s lamplight as she paused at the doorway, her mouth dropping open.

“He doesn’t even let the trainer pet him like that,” she whispered in wonder as she approached us. Her voice rang out like soft bells that would play from a church on Sunday morning, adding to her perfectly angelic image. She looked down at me, her hands on her hips. “Just who are you?”

I pulled my hand from the cage and stood up, averting my eyes from her face after one quick glance. “Thomas Shannon.”

Beside me the manager stood up and flashed a broad grin. “No need to be shy now. This is Elizabeth—we call her Lizzie. She’s our resident knife thrower and acrobat. Lizzie, this is Thomas.” He paused and glanced up at the wire frame of the tent, and I could almost see the wheels turning in his mind, like those who’d hired me for jobs before. “He’ll be joining the ring crew and handling cleanup of the animals.”

I resisted the urge to smile at the way he’d phrased that. I’d been hired. Before applying for the job, I’d looked into what the “ring crew” entailed and discovered that it was mostly backbreaking maintenance work around the circus. Personally I preferred jobs like that, with lots of variety and the ease of losing yourself in manual labor. It kept my life much more interesting. I turned my attention to the blonde performer and nodded a greeting to her. I recalled, near the entrance of the main tent, there had been a poster with her dressed in a white leotard covered in black swirling accents and rhinestones. Her outfit had been accented with pink and black blossoms, and it had advertised her as being deadly despite her cute curls and dazzling outfit. Her eyes had pierced through the picture, the knives in her hands sharp enough to stab through anything she threw them at.

“You don’t talk much do you, Tom?”

Tom? It didn’t take her long to shorten my name. I shook my head to answer her question.

She smiled. “Well, that’ll probably change as you get to know us better. No worries.”

“Lizzie, do you mind showing him back to the trailers? He can start tomorrow.” The circus manager took off his top hat to scratch at the rather large bald spot it had been hiding.

“No trouble at all. He can clean up and rest in my trailer until we clear out some space for him with the ring crew. Come on, Tom. This way.”

I picked up my duffel bag, and Lizzie wrapped a loose shawl around her shoulders before she led me out of the tent to the back area where the patrons weren’t allowed to walk. The rain had mostly let up, but a thin mist still hung in the air and stuck to my skin. I gave up being annoyed at the weather—after all, I’d gotten the job—and instead looked around as we walked.

I’d never been behind a circus before—in the staff area—but I’d read about it a little after applying for the job. Spread out behind the main tent was a large cluster of trailers, tents, and a couple of semitrucks. I could see a large fire pit near the center, surrounded by fold-up chairs and a worn bench, waiting for the crew to come back from performing and relax. Some of the trailers were large, older models with rust spots and faded racing stripes, while others were smaller, newer models that gleamed in the twilight mist. From what I’d read, I assumed the nicer ones were for the leading acts and the manager, while the rest of the crew shared the larger and older trailers. My thoughts were confirmed as Lizzie headed toward one of the newer trailers. The panel on the outside was splashed in deep pink with multicolored stars up the side. I could tell it was hers before she even opened the door.

I knew from my research that most circus performers and workers lived in tents and trailers, but even that didn’t completely prepare me for the inside. Lizzie’s trailer was small, the living space barely the size of a normal living room. There was space for a small kitchen, complete with a minifridge covered in star magnets, two cupboards, and a table that folded down from the wall when it was needed. Beyond that was a built-in couch that had seen better days, and a bed peeked out from behind a pair of star-covered curtains above the driver’s compartment. In spite of the small space, it was decorated in bright colors, with beads and trinkets hanging near each of the windows. The theme seemed to be all stars and pink, but not overly so, so it was tolerable. I looked around and set my duffel bag down on the couch.

“Normally members of the crew sleep in the larger trailers, but I don’t think we have any beds open at the moment. The last person in your job was married to Angel—one of our tightrope performers—so he didn’t need an extra bed. Don’t worry. We’ll make it work. Here should be fine for the night.”

“Thank you. I’ll try to stay out of your way.”

“Don’t worry about it. Now, I’m going to head to the food tent and see what I can find. You should get some sleep. Ring crew starts work at 5:00 a.m. There’s an alarm clock you can use on the table.” While pointing out the bathroom and sink and other items in the trailer that might be of use to me, she threw a pair of yoga pants and an oversized and well-worn sweater on over her performance outfit. After pulling her hair back, she winked at me and waved, disappearing out the door and leaving me to get settled in.

I took a second look around the trailer before I turned to my duffel bag and my own meager belongings. Ever since I’d graduated high school, I’d taken on more of a nomadic lifestyle. Where I lived depended on what jobs I held, and I was used to rooming with other people, occasionally paying to crash on someone’s couch. My duffel held a couple changes of clothes, mostly jeans and comfortable shirts that could hold up to most outdoor work. If needed I still had a closet back home with my parents, but I preferred to really only go back there once every couple months to switch out my clothes for the next season’s job. It wasn’t that my parents and I were at odds, but I suppose I had a gypsy mindset of never really liking to stay in one place for too long. Luckily they understood—my father had always had a habit of taking jobs that took him away on long business trips as well, and my mother liked her alone time.

As I changed into a pair of comfortable—and thankfully dry—shorts and a shirt to sleep in, I realized that working for the circus might be a perfect fit for me, considering the ever-changing schedule with new places and people. I unfolded the blanket she left out for me and looked outside to see the manager crossing the grounds. I stepped over near the window to see him walk up to one of the trailers with a distinctive red door that matched his show jacket. In one hand was a bag from the local bookstore, swinging just slightly with his walk. As he climbed the steps to his trailer, the door opened with perfect timing, revealing a young man standing in the doorway to greet him.

I couldn’t help but stare as the young man moved to the side and let the manager into the trailer. Even though I only saw him for a second, the image managed to burn itself in my mind, still remaining after the thin metal door closed behind them. He looked young, a couple years younger than me, with short blond hair that curled up slightly at the edges and a face that held the tiniest hint of youthful plump but not enough to make him look underage. It was strange, but something about the way his hair curled and how young his face looked wouldn’t leave my mind. A moment’s glance and I could tell the innocence his body projected was real, not practiced and performed like Lizzie’s. He somehow managed to straddle the line between youth and maturity.

I didn’t sleep well that night. It wasn’t the couch, because I found that piece of furniture surprisingly comfortable. It had a musty scent that reminded me of an old date’s basement where we cut class to sneak off to and enjoy other and more intimate studying methods. The problem was that every time I closed my eyes, I could see the red door open and the young man stepping out to greet me. The entire image was surreal, making him look like some glowing creature amidst a sea of normalcy, and my sleep-blurred mind only exaggerated the strange scene. He was beautiful, the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen, and I didn’t understand it.

I understood men, more than I would generally admit out loud. I understood the restraint of the men with their button-up shirts and pressed ties, insistent on keeping quiet in the office bathroom where another employee could step in at any time. I understood the scrambling and hurried hands of the teenagers who were eager to experience anything beyond their limited, private-school-enclosed world. I certainly understood the rough and gritty hands of manual labor, commanding attention and obedience while they moved in careful and practiced motions. I understood all of that very well, but I did not understand this creature.

Rolling over on the couch, I sighed and tried to sleep once more. Pressing my face into one of her pillows, I tried to concentrate on the hint of cinnamon and stale coffee, probably spilled and absorbed months before. But still, even with that, the image haunted the back of my mind.

Who was he?