“It’s weird, right?” my older brother says as we watch the muscled men set up the tents over on the fairgrounds. “I mean, I don’t remember the last time I heard of a circus in a big city, let alone a little shithole like this.”
“Hush!” I snap, enthralled with the way they hitch the poles and raise the faded, striped fabric. Horses whinny from inside rusted trailers, and I would bet every quarter in my piggy bank that there was a lion around here somewhere. Someone may as well have pulled the circus from my dreams, from the faded photographs I copied with the library’s machine.
With my arms over the edge of our fence and my feet braced in a hole in the wood, I look around for Mama. She’s still inside, on the phone, with her back turned to us. I steel my resolve and say, “It’s not a — a shithole. It’s our home.”
Zane pats my shoulder and smirks like he always does when he thinks he’s right. “Give it two more years, squirt. You’ll be calling it worse when you realize how boring it is.”
“It’s not boring,” I say. “We have a circus.”
“Yorick!” Mama yells after me as a sprint toward the line.
Every kid in my class is there, chattering and trying to get a peek inside the circus tent. This is the biggest thing since the county fair, which was two towns over and happened two months ago or something. It’s almost too cold for a circus, and I zip my sweatshirt up to my chin.
Mama and Zane catch up behind me; her nails, covered in chipped red paint, dig into my arm. “You stay right near me, young man!”
“Yeah, you never know what kind of freaks these carnival folks are,” Zane adds, his hood pulled up so that it obscures his face; with his hands shoved into the front pocket of his hoody, he looks like what Ms. Xavier would call a hoodlum. He had argued for an hour not to come, but in the end Mama made him –“We should do more things as a family; you’re gonna be at your daddy’s all week long, and I hardly ever see you when you’re here.”
She’s still mad about that whole thing — the divorce. Daddy’s new house is a twenty minute drive, and Daddy’s new wife was my Sunday school teacher until they moved. It’s not like Zane and I like it much better; Daddy keeps talking about having a baby, and I just want him to move back home. I guess Ms. Xavier can come too, if she wants.
When our turn comes up in line, the man with the tickets flashes me a big grin with sharpened teeth; his skin is all dry and crinkly around the edges. I grab Mama’s free hand after she gives him the money.
“They’re all so old,” Zane grumbles as we take our seats. “Look at that acrobat — he’s gonna break a hip if he tries to walk that tightrope.”
I ignore him, because it’s all so magical. People leap through the air, and bright colored lights shine on jugglers and plate spinners. I was right — there really was a lion, and a man with a big hat to tame him. When he sticks his arm in the lion’s mouth, the whole crowd gasps.
It’s not until things are winding down with clowns that I notice Zane is gone. Mama went out for a cigarette around the time the ringmaster brought out an elephant (where had they hidden it‽) and now I’m all alone. I crane my neck to look over the crowd — and a lot of adults are missing. I know Wyatt came with both his mom and his dad; Vera sits between two empty seats.
But there! Walking around the shadows of the ring I see floppy mop of Zane’s blond hair, though he’s wearing all the wrong clothes. Looking around for Mama one more time, I swallow my fear and head down the aisles, sneaking around in the shadows. The other kids seem totally entranced in the clowns, their eyes blank as they watch. I was like that too, I know — otherwise, how would I have noticed when Zane left, right?
I hear him before I see him. “I hate going back this young,” Zane says. I peer around the corner of a partition to see him standing there in an acrobat’s clothes. He pulls at his suspenders and stretches in place. “Why’d I get stuck with barely legal? I bet this one still had a clean prick, even.”
A woman speaks — Vera’s mom, I realize by her dark hair and deep voice. “Because Barely Legal there got nosy, and someone had to do it. Now this…” She runs her hands over her chest and hips, and I scowl. “They did not build them like this when I was young. I could do another few decades with this. At least yours will last a while. Besides,” she steps forward and brushes some of Zane’s hair back, “yours is going to grow up handsome, I bet.”
“Will you two quit yapping and help clean up this mess. It won’t be long before Ulrich’s spell wears off.” Wyatt’s dad steps into view; he has a bunch of wet sacks thrown over one shoulder, and his face is stained red. “If we’re going to sneak back in, we’d better do it quickly. Get your clothes on.” When he turns away, I see the faces on the sacks that aren’t quite sacks at all — the crinkly skin of the ticket man, the long grey hair of the psychic from early on in the night as it drags across the dirt of the floor.
I stumble back, biting my tongue against the sound I want to make — and Mama has my by the shoulder. At first I panic, but the look in her eyes is right.
“Yorick, sweetie?” She kneels down to my level and puts her cold hands on my face. She smells like smoke and I cling to her shoulders. “Sweetie, what’s wrong?”
“Don’t let him — ”
“Mom? What are you doing back here?”
She looks up over my shoulder, but I can’t bring myself to look back. My heart hammers in my chest, and I don’t let go as Mama stands. She grunts, but bears my weight without complaint. “What are you doing back here? You were supposed to watch your brother.”
“Yeah, sorry,” Zane says. I glance over my shoulder, and even though he’s wearing the hoody with the right band logo, I can see the stripe of the acrobat’s pants above the waistline of his baggy jeans. “I got curious.” He walks up and ruffles my hair, but I cling to Mama. I force myself not to say anything, not to do anything — not to become a sack with a face. “Anything interesting back here, buddy?”
“No,” I say, but my voice shakes. “I was just getting a better look at the clown. I wanted to see how he did his tricks.”
“We can ask him,” Mama says.
I shake my head. “No, I’m ready to go home.”
No one’s parents go missing. I see Wyatt’s dad at the playground after school, and Vera’s mom runs the Thanksgiving potluck at the community center. The circus leaves town, or it at least disappears one night — no one at school remembers seeing it go.
Zane looks right, but acts wrong. He’s too nice. He starts babysitting Vera and staying out too late. Mama always yells at him for skipping school, but when she talks to Daddy about it, they fight too. Daddy says his grades are better, that it shouldn’t matter if he’s skipping as long as he’s learning.
We’re putting up Christmas decorations when I say out loud, “I think I want to go live with Daddy.” Daddy and Ms. Xavier just told everyone in their Christmas card that they’re having a baby in the spring, and maybe it’ll be okay there.
I can see how it breaks Mama’s heart, all the hurt right on her face. When she asked a year ago if I wanted to go, I said I didn’t want to move away, and I knew that made her happy. But it’s not Mama I’m worried about.
Zane frowns at me, like he’s confused. It’s not what he should have done. He wanted to go with Daddy, but our parents refused to split us up. Its the only thing Mama and Daddy still agree on — that it’s more important for us to grow up together. “Why?” he finally asks.
It’s Mama that turns to him in surprise. “You don’t want to go?”
“Why would I?” He turns back to the tree and his string of lights. “This town is great.”