I’m falling. My body jerks forward. I wake to my brother, Jasper’s face in mine, still grasping handfuls of parachute silk with white-knuckled hands.
“You can’t keep doing that,” I say, trying to steady myself. Jasper lets go of the side of my hammock, the quick release of tension causing me to sway back and forth. He smiles.
“We’re here,” he says.
“Where’s here?” I ask.
“Who knows,” he says. “Another little town. It doesn’t matter; we have work to do.”
I’ve stopped keeping track of all the places we’ve been. It’s not worth trying to make friends or learn the name of a town when you’ll only be there a few days and never return. My soul was sold to the carnival when I was born—of course, it’s a traveling one. I’ve stopped wondering what it would be like to have a home that doesn’t roll on wheels or smell like horse shit. Here it’s just me, my brother, Jasper, our dad, the other carnies, a couple of horses, and my mother’s boots. They’re all I have left of her, no pictures (Dad accidentally destroyed the camera and film in a juggling accident that involved fire before they could ever get developed—don’t ask) just her trick riding boots that are a snug fit on my slightly larger feet. The blisters are worth feeling closer to her when I ride.
I’ve also stopped keeping track of time. It’s not fun to think too hard about the ungodly hours we get up each morning. It’s our dad’s life mission to keep the tradition of “magically appearing carnivals” alive. I’m still not quite sure where that tradition supposedly came from, but we don’t get a say about sleeping in a little later, he’s our boss, our landlord, and “above all your father” as he likes to say.
I’ve also learned to take care of the horses in the dark. My favorite, Augustus, has a white star on his forehead, the only part of him I can see in the mornings. He pushes me in the back with his nose, causing me to drop the flakes of hay in my arms intended for the other horses.
“Not getting enough food?” I ask.
“When isn’t he trying to steal food from the others,” Jack says from somewhere in the dark. I can’t quite see him until he’s right in front of me. He laughs when I jump.
“You could have warned me you were standing there,” I say. “You know I can’t see anything.”
“Where’s the fun in that?” Jack says. I roll my eyes.
“Well, at least you could help me finish up chores,” I say. “We’ve still got to put all these flyers out before daybreak.”
“Isn’t your brother supposed to help you with that?” Jack asks, taking half the stack of flyers I produced from a saddlebag.
“He’s too busy practicing his new juggling act,” I say. “He wants to be like dad.”
“Saddle Ares for me and you’ve got a deal,” Jack says.
Jack joined the carnival with his mother the Tarot Card Reader when he was only a few years old. He, Jasper, and I grew up together. I taught him how to ride mostly as a torture device, but after a while, he ended up becoming friends with the horses; well, at least one horse, Ares, the only one too lazy to do anything bad to him as he likes to say. Now he’s our “strong man,” and while his muscles are impressive, the weights he uses in the show aren’t as large as he likes to let people believe.
I saddle Ares and make one of the stirrups much shorter than the other one to make Jack’s climb into the saddle a bit more interesting. I hear the trailer door open and move to Augustus to appear inconspicuous. I focus on pulling his forelock out from under the front of the bridle. He grabs a lock of my hair in his mouth and pulls it. I pop his nose gently.
“Ow!” I say, moving back from him.
“Serves you right,” Jack says coming up behind me.
“For what?” I ask.
“I don’t know yet,” Jack says, “but I’m sure you’ve already been up to something.”
I ignore his comment and shove my half of the flyers in my bag. Half in the saddle, I turn Augustus around and click my tongue sending him into a gallop.
“Last one to run out of flyers has to muck out the horses’ trailer tonight!” I yell. I turn back to watch Jack scramble into the saddle. He struggles to climb onto Ares fast enough and sits a little lopsided in the saddle. I laugh.
“Cheater,” he yells, half his body hanging from the saddle.
“Sorry,” I say, “I’m having trouble hearing you over all the dust behind me.”
Augustus slows to a trot as we enter town. I do a few tricks as I balance on his back to stick flyers on lampposts, windows, doors, and any surface I can find to stick them on. It’s a silent race against the sun. A few rays of light have made their way around the quiet street corners, and soon the townspeople will be up. The sound of Augustus’ hooves against the cobblestone streets echoes against empty shops and sleeping homes. I catch sight of a few kids in their beds and think back to Jasper and our stacked hammocks—I can’t remember the last time I laid in an actual bed.
“You done passing out flyers?” Jack asks, trotting up beside me. Ares lets out a sigh, the old horse and Jack are both winded.
“I’ve been done,” I say. “Looks like you’re on clean-up duty tonight. I’ll spare you the embarrassment of eating my dust on the way home.”
“I should have known I didn’t stand a chance,” Jack says.
We ride back silently, our horses’ tails swishing away the morning flies in unison, and watch the sun turn the sky orange, and then a soft pink.
Jack’s voice lifts me from a trance when he speaks.
“You ever think of just staying and settling down in one of these towns?” he asks.
“I don’t know that I could leave my father and brother,” I say. “I don’t think dad’s ever going to retire.”
“You haven’t ever just thought about what it would be like?” Jack asks, turning in the saddle to face me.
“Have you?” I ask, deflecting.
“Honestly,” Jack says, “I have.”
“What would you do out here all alone?” I ask.
“That’s the thing,” Jack says. “I was kind of thinking that if I did, I’d ask you to stay with me.”
I face forward in the saddle, my cheeks flushed. Of course, I’ve always had a crush on him, but it’s just sort of something we ignore. Jack and I grew up together; I assume most childhood friends catch feelings at some point or another. I’m not sure what made him bring it up now. Sure, I love being around him, but wouldn’t living together, just the two of us, change things? I see the top of our camp and change the subject quickly.
“Hey!” I say, avoiding eye contact. “Why don’t we round up a few of the others and do some tricks in the town square to promote the show tonight?”
Jack nods. We ride back into town with our small herd of performers: my brother Jasper, our uncle Ronnie the magician, and the contortionist Carla. I stand on Augustus’ back and wave to the little kids peering at us through their windows. Jasper shows off his juggling skills, Jack acts as Ronnie’s assistant, and Carla takes her spot by a storefront bending her feet up over her head.
Soon a small crowd has formed around us oohing and ahhing. Jack and I keep making eye contact while we perform. Kids peek behind their mothers to look at Carla and Jack has talked a couple of boys into taking part in a card trick. I love this feeling, there’s no greater prize for a performer than the wonder and smiles on kids’ faces.
Augustus moves into a canter, and I do a couple of small flips on his back, the applause increases each time my feet land back where they started. Most people have stopped to watch me now. I turn into another flip and make eye contact with Jack. He smiles, and I miss my landing. The crowd gasps. Jack catches me before I hit the ground and the crowd erupts in cheers. He looks out at the crowd and grins, then turns to kiss me. My face is hot, the crowd is cheering even louder. I pull back to look at Jack, and for a moment I can’t breathe, but it’s the good kind of not breathing.
The crowd suddenly turns silent. When I look back out at them, a man has made his way to the front. He has a scowl that appears more like a feature of his face than an expression.
Jack and I grab our horses.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing here,” he says.
“I’m sorry sir,” I say, “we just wanted to put on a little show for the kids.” He motions for the kids to run back to their houses.
“You gypsies think you can come in here and swindle these kind people,” he says.
“That’s not at all what’s happening here,” I say.
The man moves his hand to brush back his coat and rests his hand on the outside of a holster. Jack moves in front of me.
“Just leave now, and go back wherever you came from,” the man says. Jack locks eyes with me begging me not to argue. I reluctantly turn to follow the others and get back on Augustus. A little girl waves to me secretly as we head back to camp.
I untack Augustus silently. I think about the man, his gun, the smile on the kids’ faces, and Jack. We really did just kiss, and I liked it, a lot more than I thought I would. We couldn’t settle in this town, not with that man and his gun, and I couldn’t leave my brother and dad. I can’t let myself think about it, even if I want to.
I don’t make eye contact with Jack while he brushes Ares. I can’t, we can’t.
“Too bad your plan didn’t work,” Jack says. “I was really having fun putting on a show for all the kids.”
“Me too,” I say, careful not to look at him.
I take my time brushing Augustus and cleaning my tack as though taking time with my chores could stop me from thinking, but it doesn’t.
I hear a horse galloping toward camp.
“We’re packing to leave; can’t they leave us alone,” Jack says. He moves to the trailer to get closer to the gun we keep just in case. It’s meant to be used for the coyotes if they get too close to the horses, but then again, we’ve never had issues with a big man with a gun before.
The man has a little girl with him. She grabs him by the arm and pulls him forward reluctantly. When he speaks, he keeps his eyes on the ground.
“Before you guys leave, maybe we could see a show?” he asks. “My daughter hasn’t shut up about the girl on the horse since you left.”
Jack squeezes my hand. I try to calm my face from stretching into a smile.
“I think that could be arranged,” I say.