This story started life just over nine years ago—October 30, 2013, to be exact—as an assignment in an online workshop taught by Craig Clevenger. We’d been focusing on escalation of events and status play between characters, so the jockeying that surrounds gendered expectations, especially involving sex, seemed like a good place to start. Beyond that, I’ve always found carnivals unsettling because of their atmosphere of blatant disguise, so the theme and setting fit hand and glove for horror.
Although not exactly sleeping, Harrison and the woman lay together in the bed, which took up the lion’s share of space in the ramshackle trailer. He traced lazy circles on her bare arm draped across his chest, feeling her press against him with each breath. He was warm now, despite the brisk evening outside, and even the sweet and sour smells of sex and incense didn’t bother him in this state.
Pinned beneath her light body, he sighed. This circus trailer was nothing like he’d imagined as a child. Instead of magic and wonders, there were cheap appliances and faded black-and-white photographs of people in once brilliant outfits now flattened into smears of gray. A blue sequined costume, shapeless but for its epaulets, hung over the chair in front of the room’s only hint of opulence: an antique Hollywood-style vanity with a marquee of cold, bare bulbs.
“Hey, are you awake?” Harrison shook the woman’s shoulder. He furrowed his brow, fishing for her name. “Hey.”
“Mmmmm.” She stirred, squeezing him tighter in reflex, then releasing. “What time is it?”
“I don’t know.” He looked around, trying to extricate himself from her drowsy embrace. “Is there a clock or something?”
She rolled off Harrison’s chest. He felt the outline of sweat she’d left on his skin beginning to cool.
The woman pointed toward the kitchenette side of the trailer. “Look at the microwave.” Rubbing her eyes, she yawned.
“Goddammit.” She was up like a shot. “I’m fucked if I’m not at the tent on time.”
Instead of the shiny tights that Harrison had pulled her out of after the matinee, the woman grabbed a t-shirt, underwear and jeans from the floor. She wriggled them on and then threw herself into the chair in front of the vanity’s mirror. “You’ll be in trouble, too.”
Harrison, more slowly, began to get dressed. “What? Me in trouble?”
“I don’t even work here.”
With a flick of her wrist and a hidden switch, the bulbs crowning the mirror flared, forcing Harrison to squint and shield his eyes.
When the spots vanished, her reflection was staring at him. In the bright and shallow illumination, she was lit up like a movie star. He, on the other hand, faded into the background.
“You could work here,” she said, “if you wanted.”
Like a priestess beginning a ritual, she took a cotton ball and placed it to the lip of a bottle of rubbing alcohol. Harrison’s nose twitched as the astringent cut through the air when she began to rub it over her cheeks and chin and upper lip.
Harrison pulled his shoes on. “I don’t think so. I mean, I’m not . . .” He waved his hands, as if encompassing her world both in and outside the trailer.
“Not what?” she asked
“I just, I mean I don’t belong in the circus.”
She snorted as she picked up a vial and shook it. Twisting the cap, she withdrew the long brush from within. With delicate precision, she pulled her face into flat angles and painted the clear liquid on to those areas she had just cleaned. Holding her lips rigid, her voice was muffled as if speaking through a mask. “Anyone can belong in the circus. They just have to have nowhere else to go.”
“I have somewhere else to go,” Harrison said. “I told you.”
“You told me you’d take me, too, if I wanted to go,” the woman said. “Does that offer still stand?”
Harrison twisted his mouth and rubbed his head like the orangutan in the animal cart. “Did I say that?”
The woman sighed. “I thought as much. But don’t worry; I wouldn’t have really gone with you. We’re always losing people as it is,” she paused to apply the liquid to the corners of her mouth, “in the sideshow.”
She opened a small, gilded box and removed a thick clump of dark hair. The black mass grew as she teased it out, spreading like a shadow between her fingers and hiding the motion of her hands beneath it. Craning her neck closer to her reflection as if trying to look through a window, she began to press the hair against her face, pulling and shaping. From behind it, her voice sounded deeper and further off.
“Gerry, for instance—the Human Worm, right—he just up and left.” She continued smoothing the hair down beneath her nose, circling it around her mouth. “Franklin the Geek, also gone.” Their eyes locked in the reflection, and she smiled like a lion beneath the mane of her new beard.
“Thanks, but no thanks.” Harrison rose from the bed to stand behind the woman. He leaned down so that their faces were parallel in the mirror. From this distance, in the extra space of the reflection, the illusion was complete. He placed his lips on her cheek, close to her ear. “Am I supposed to just chop off my arms and move in with the bearded lady?”
Beneath the spirit gum and fake beard, her smile faded. She did not look away.
“We’ve been in town a week and you’ve been here almost every night. I do have a name, you know.”
Outside, the calliope began to play. Harrison stepped back from the woman’s side and glanced awkwardly at the door.
The woman grunted. “It’s fine. Just walk me to the tent, okay? You don’t necessarily have to stick around after that.” She was already up, pulling on a boxy green hunting jacket and a trucker cap, heading for the door. Harrison followed, pausing first to pick up the blue sequined rags from the back of the chair.
“Don’t you need your costume?”
“Leave it. This is a different show. Everything I need will be in the tent.”
The woman was already outside and heading into the cool and darkening night. Harrison dogged her steps in silence, watching as she pulled the jacket closer around her and the hat further down over her eyes.
Three clowns materialized before them in the gloaming, their faces white as lepers. Eyes and mouths gaping holes of paint, they passed in silence. The one in the middle carried his oversized shoes in his hands, walking barefoot through the low grass. The one on the end nodded.
Harrison shivered and walked faster to keep apace with the woman. “Ugh. I don’t know how you deal with it. Maybe it’s just because it’s dark now, but this circus gives me the creeps.”
She kept walking.
When the woman stopped, they were at the back entrance of a large white tent. Dirty yellow light pooled from beneath the edges of the canvas. An odor stronger than astringent or theater glue wafted out as the woman pulled back the flaps.
“I’m not scared,” she said, “but then again, I’ve gotten to know most of the people here.” She motioned Harrison to go first into the tent. “Will you come in, just for a minute?”
“Yeah, but you said people come and go.” He stepped into the light and was again forced to shield his eyes from the harsh glare even as he winced at the now overwhelming antiseptic tang. “And everyone’s wearing face paint or disguises. Hell, I don’t even recognize you—no offense—when you’re dressed for the show.”
As the woman followed Harrison into the tent, with a flick of her wrist, a quick glint of silver flashed at the end of the syringe. She pressed gently on the plunger and the needle shed a single tear.
“You’ll learn that who you are is a flexible thing,” she said as the tent flaps fell closed and the crowd inside burst into applause. “Let’s just get you out of that costume.”
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