Run Away to the Circus

Image of A. L. Wright

A. L. Wright

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Ages Six and Seven. He first spots her behind a tent, all soft sniffles with tears on her ripped stocking. Wandering closer, he finds her knee is bloodied and bruised; it matches the dark circles around his eyes, the ones that make people tell him to get more sleep. He was born to the circus and has never seen a creature such as her before, so seemingly small and sweet.

She notices him and quickly wipes her eyes. "Stay back! Who are you? Father says not to talk to strangers!"

He is surprised by the way her words nip at his outstretched hand. It retreats to his pocket though he stays put. "I'm William. You're hurt."

"I'm okay." She knows she is not a good liar, but it doesn’t stop her from trying.

"Are you lost?"

She looks away and William knows her answer. Curious, offers his hand again. "Now you know my name, so we're not strangers." His smile is genuine, crooked but fair.

“I’m Cole,” her voice is soft now, but her grip firm as her fingers clutch his.

"Stick with me. I'll help you find your folks."

Finding her folks is not a straight away endeavor: it’s winding paths between tents, it’s secret spots she's never seen, it's too close to the lion's cage and blue cotton candy freshly pilfered from a stall. It's peeking in on dressing rooms when he finds out her favorite act, go ahead, say hi, they're just people like you and me. It's hours gone and sunset creeping in.

Suddenly her father appears with clenched fists and red cheeks. “Nicole! Where have you been?"
"You should run away to the circus." William's whisper sneaks into her ear before her father's hand leads her away.

Seven and Eight. Cole's waited all year, waited and begged and promised that she'll be good if they can go back. She beams when her father relents.

The day arrives and the music and colors swirl around her, all so much warmer than home. From the top of the ferris wheel she searches for the boy with the broken eyes; there is an empty space without his laugh beside her.

When her father is called away on business matters, “something important”, her eyes wet with tears.
“I'll be good,” she promises again. He allows her to sit in the Big Top’s show tent by herself. The popcorn doesn't taste as buttery as she'd like, but her eyes sparkle as she watches the acrobats dance through the air. Her breath catches in her throat, so entranced she doesn't see him sit beside her until, soft and warm, a bag of cotton candy is slipped between her fingers.

She startles. He laughs, remember me? written all over his grin. The cloud of candy is bright blue, just like last summer’s. The show sounds brighter now, her own laughter overflowing with mirth.

He stays by her side and they linger in the tent until the crowd has parted and she knows her father will return. "You should run away to the circus." William's whisper dances in her ears once more. Then, like magic, he's gone.

Eleven and Twelve. Finding one another under the Big Top lights is a ritual now. Her father is even more disinterested, making it easier to steal away from his sight. I'll be good is a promise only mostly kept as she wanders behind the tents with William, their fingers once more intertwined.

"What's it like?" The same question is on her tongue every year. "Being free like this?"

"It's hard work," he doesn't lie. But he tells her about all the places they go, all the sights—the ocean fronts and mountains and fields of endless wheat. She devours every word, watching him speak. They sit at the lion's cage and he tells her how he's taking up an act to earn his keep. Juggling, he says.

"Sounds like fun," she agrees, trying to imagine his gangly limbs catching anything properly.

“I can teach you some day," he offers. “Promise.”

She smiles, shy, but likes this thought more than she'll admit. Cole, too, has a new idea this year. Before he slips away, she slips something herself—a paper into his palm. “My address,” she says. “Send me postcards,” she pleads. “I want to see the world like you.”

William nods, hiding the paper safely away into his pocket. "You could just run away to the circus," he reminds her, knowing at the end of the night she'll still go home.

Fourteen and Fifteen. The albums of postcards are hidden safely under her bed, away from prying eyes. The postcards become ritual, too; every other week a new location on a four-by-six card arrives.

Mountains, oceans, cities, just as he described. She commits the route to memory and sends her own letters ahead to each of the circus’s stops. Their friendship grows thicker with every postcard exchanged.

Now she no longer counts the days until their return; she counts the cities. New York, Baltimore, Charlotte, Atlanta, marching ever closer. She dreams of secret paths and blue cotton candy, of the smell of sawdust and a pair of broken eyes.

Meanwhile, he is dutiful in his responsibility—he uses his allowance on stamps and postcards and a good pen. He tells her stories and imagines the faces she makes when she reads them. He daydreams about her more than he'll admit, sometimes enough to distract him from work or practice. But he'll earn his keep and ply his skills; he'll see her again soon enough.

He signs the cards all the same way: "You should run away to the circus."

Fifteen and Sixteen. Her father has convinced himself that this damnable circus is one of the few things that encourages his daughter to behave throughout the rest of the year. So she is there when the tents arrive, making herself useful as she spends every moment she can there. She's long outgrown the need for a chaperone, being a young woman now.

William has noticed. Friendship blooms into something greater: stolen blue cotton candy kisses and things more daring than going too close to the lion's cage. His fingers are faster now—his act has made his instincts sharper, his reflexes keener. Cole’s promises of I'll be good are further and further from the truth.

But staying true to his word, William spends these two weeks teaching her the ins and outs of the weighted clubs, how to make them fly in perfect unison, watching her with a careful gaze as she drops them. "I did that, too, at the start," he reminds her when she pouts. "Keep at it."

His words fuel her. Not long before the tent must come down they finally manage to pass the clubs flawlessly between them, the smile on her face glowing brighter than the Big Top itself.

He gathers her up in his arms, spinning her, their laughter a duet. Even as their time together draws to a close, he feels in his bones that this is right, that simple fact he knew even as a child: she belongs here.
This is the year she beats him to his suggestion, in careful words between lips that are far too close for her father's approval. "I should run away to the circus."

Sixteen and Seventeen. Their postcards are full of secret plans as Cole quietly prepares, puzzling over which pieces of her life she'll sneak out of her father's house. This place long ago lost its hold on her, she knows, but that does not mean it will not try to grip her, strangle her, if she is not careful.

Her father disapproves of her juggling in the backyard, so she puts on a new act: feigning disinterest in the approaching summer and hiding her clubs. "Circus? Oh, I forgot about that." Opening night comes and goes, but she stays home, buried in prep-school studies. This pleases him and sets in his mind that she is a good girl, after all.

But her father doesn't know about the boy with the broken eyes, or his ability to climb through bedroom windows. She scolds William for visiting her before their planned rendezvous, but, goddammit, I missed you wins out.

The morning the Big Top leaves town is bright and golden. Her father believes she’s away at a friend’s home. He won’t notice a few books are missing from her room, the absence of her favorite teddy bear, or the secret albums gone from under her bed.

She'll be far, far away before he ever realizes she ran away to the circus.


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