This is raw, unedited first draft as it streams out of my head. Please, if you find an error or have a suggestion, email me! email@example.com
Her first week had sailed by; the days were spent in a whirlwind of ticket sales interspersed with running errands for Carl or avoiding Eduardo whenever he came looking for her.
She didn’t know what it was, but Cai’s father unsettled her. He was handsome, charming, and not so disturbingly old that it would be scandalous if she ever gave into temptation and Daddy issues and hooked up with him, but there was something deeply disturbed about him just under the surface that made her nervous. She didn’t imagine one really hooked up with a man like Eduardo, it would be more like an entanglement of epic proportions.
He sometimes looked at her like the tigers had. Like the only thing keeping him from pouncing on her and devouring her whole was the threat of a whip. Social convention. And that was a flimsy construct, something she didn’t want to test too often.
So she avoided him.
All while trying to find ways to run into his son.
It was almost a comical scenario if not the hint of anxiety Eduardo added to the mix.
She was working late on a Friday, and was scanning the employment ads during a spare moment. The show had started an hour ago, so she was basically here to tell stragglers that they were too late and push them to purchase tickets for tomorrow.
Nothing in the job market had come up all week, and she knew the Cirque would be heading south to Seattle in the next ten days.
She felt like packing it all up, letting her apartment go, and follow Cai and her job as they cross crossed the continent.
But the self-preservation portion of her brain that was missing from her body, it completely controlled her emotions. It was on overdrive, flashing warning bells to protect her heart and stay behind. End up homeless if she had to.
But if she couldn’t get a job, she’d end up on her sister’s couch back in Saskatchewan. Or even worse, begging Becs for a place to crash until she got on her feet.
She obsessively stalked Becs’ Facebook for some update on her relationship with Jacob, but there was nothing yet.
She was pleased on some level that they hadn’t jumped right in together. She kinda knew it was inevitable, but at least they were letting the corpse of her relationship with Jacob cool before desecrating it.
She wanted to run, from her old life and from the feelings she was developing for Cai.
But if she ran, she’d end up running right into his arms.
The only place she wanted to be, but the one place that could potentially hurt her the most.
“Hey daydreamer, what’s up Ms. Normal?” his voice called to her from the front of her booth. Speak of the Devil…
“Hey,” she smiled, “you want into the show? That will be thirty eight dollars.”
“How about I take you out for a late dinner? A real dinner, away from Cirque? Will that cover the cost of my admission?”
He constantly surprised her with his attention. She’d heard rumours all week of his player ways, he was more apt to love her and leave her than anything else, and yet she couldn’t help her heart’s reaction.
It flip-flopped and sped up as she casually replied, “What do you have in mind?”
“Well, there’s not a lot open at the end of our night, but I do know a pretty good diner just up on Davie. It’s got great food, and we can people watch. All the drunks that time of night make for quite a show.”
She pretended to think about it. She was concerned she’d miss the last Skytrain home, but she supposed she could always use her bed at Cirque for once. “Yeah, sure,” she said, “as long as you’re buying.”
“Always,” he replied and winked and was gone.
She blushed hot red, as usual, and glanced over at the other girl in the other booth. Erica something, she’d been hired just before Maisy. She was staring at Maisy with a mix of jealousy and admiration on her face.
Maisy wasn’t used to such attention. She shrugged her shoulders as if to say who me, and turned back to her phone to scan the job ads.
God, more than ever she wanted to get out of Cirque. She was in dangerous territory and she knew it.
The appeal to stay was growing stronger though, not just Cairo, but being in a place she was normal for the first time in her life. A place she didn’t stand out, a place she felt like she belonged.
But her heart. She must protect her heart. It was the only control she had in her life, keeping her emotions safe, and she took it seriously god dammit.
She glanced up to Erica’s booth again and smiled when the other girl gave her a solid thumb’s up.
Normalcy was intoxicating. Fitting in was addictive.
Almost as addictive as the way Cai made her heart flutter and her body float.
She went back to the job ads and Becs’ Facebook as though she hadn’t already made up her mind to stay with Cirque.
As if she hadn’t already given herself permission to leap.
“You ready to go Ms. Normal?” Cai asked as he stuck his head in the window of Maisy’s booth.
“Heck yes,” she said and immediately regretted her choice of words. It sounded cuter in her head.
He didn’t seem to notice and held his arm out for her when she left the back of the booth. She shut the door, locked it and mentally went over her night’s end checklist. Carl had been by to collect the deposits, she’d cashed out, logged off and was free to go. She tried to ignore Erica’s grin when they passed her and said good night. Maisy knew she’d have to divulge every detail to the other girl at some point soon, and it felt a little awesome to have a friend other than Becs to talk to about girl things.
It was just after one in the morning when they were seated at a Guys and Dolls, a fifties inspired diner in one of the busier sections of Vancouver. The place was packed, the music was blasting, and she was feeling a little electric herself. She was on edge, but in a good way, her nerves were on fire with excitement, not anxiety.
She could barely hear him across the table at her, so he remedied that by moving to her side of the booth.
His thick, muscled leg pressed up against hers and she jumped. He leaned towards her and said, “Oh shit, did I just hurt your knee?”
It took her a moment to clue in that he meant her injured knee, the one that was supposed to hurt.
“Just a little,” she said and looked pained, “but I’ll live.”
“I’m sorry,” he said and ran his hand up her thigh, “I’ll buy you a drink to make up for it, okay?”
“They sell booze here?” she asked.
“Of course. Besides, isn’t this your city?”
“I live in Richmond, I don’t get out this way that often.” She’d never been here this late, the most excitement she’d had was following Jacob and his band from one shitty dive bar to another in the far outskirts of the Lower Mainland. His music was best suited for barely surviving pubs in Coquitlam or Maple Ridge where they were paid with piss warm beer and cold chicken wings instead of cash.
She kinda hoped Becs was sitting alone at a wobbly table under a Keno sign trying her best to look enthusiastic as the band wailed out some Green Day cover and forgot half the words.
It was okay right now, because she was here with Cai and she could feel the heat of his body on her thigh. Even after he’d removed his hand, she could feel his touch burning on her skin. Or what she imagined burning would be. Only if actual burning felt this good, people would be walking around sticking their hands on stove tops and into the flames to get this sensation flowing through their bodies.
“Well, you’re missing out. Not for much longer though, every town we go to, we end up in the middle of the best areas. We’re all about entertainment, so we command space in the City’s entertainment districts.”
“Sounds like fun,” she said, trying not to think about quitting the Cirque in ten days. Not wanting to quit, but still that alarmed part of her brain warned her that staying would be risky. Dangerous. Inappropriate. And exciting. Oh god, the things she wanted him to do to her.
As much as she knew she couldn’t orgasm, she craved his touch. As much as she knew it would feel good, but not great, she needed his fingers tracing her body like a blind man finding her form in the dark. As much as she feared him, she wanted to let him in.
“What you having?” the waiter asked them, bored look on his face.
“I’ll have a vodka tonic, and she will have,” Cai looked at her, waiting for her to order.
“I’ll have the same,” she said and felt his pleased smile before she saw it.
“A girl after my heart,” he said, “most girls like martinis or wine.”
“I’m a vodka girl. I told you, I’m a tomboy.”
“You’d better start dressing like one,” he said and played with the hem of her skirt again, “or I might not believe you.”
“I am a tomboy on the inside,” she laughed, “and a girl who wants a job on the outside.”
“Are you saying my father hired you for your looks?” It was his turn to laugh. She knew he was teasing her, but on some level, she also knew being a pretty girl made it easier to find work, but she hadn’t looked the part during her interview with Eduardo. She didn’t know why he’d hired her.
“I’ll have you know I was dressed very badly the day I was hired,” she said in mock indignation.
“You couldn’t hide your beauty if you tried, and my father is known for picking the best looking girls he can find for the front of the show.”
She didn’t know if she should be flattered or creeped out, but it didn’t matter as long as it was Cai saying it, and not Eduardo.
Their drinks arrived and they ordered a couple burgers with homemade onion rings and their conversation flowed as smoothly as the Fraser River through Delta. Not a ripple on the surface.
They ordered another drink with dinner, and another halfway through. She was glowing warmly when he stopped in mid sentence, looked at her and said, “Hang one, you’ve got something.”
She froze, praying she hadn’t bitten her tongue or lip, there was nothing worse than a mouthful of blood when one was trying their very best to be sexually appealing. He raised his thumb to the corner of her mouth and swiped very slowly, making contact with her lips. She melted, her body felt warm and her insides felt like jello. She wanted to laugh, to kiss him, to take his thumb in her mouth and suck it.
Instead she watched him, her mouth agape and her breath stopped in her throat as he moved his thick thumb to his own lips and sucked a smear of ketchup off.
His lips were so full and luscious, she could almost feel them on her own as he wrapped them around his own thumb.
She managed to breathe out when he smiled at her, turned away and ordered two more drinks.
“Fuck me,” she whispered under her breath as he spoke with the waiter and ordered a dessert for the two of them along with their vodka tonics.
“What was that?” he asked when he turned back.
“Nothing,” she lied and stared at his lips when he spoke. His dark facial hair encircled them perfectly, he must trim it daily to keep it looking so tidy. She wondered if it tickled when he kissed, and she wondered if he liked to go down.
“What are you thinking about?” he asked her and took an onion ring off the plate. He bit into it and she watched him chew like it was the most sensual thing she’d ever seen.
It could just be the most sensual thing she’d ever seen. She’d kill to be that onion ring right now, being devoured and sucked and teased with his tongue.
“Nothing much,” she said, and grabbed the last couple bites of her burger to distract herself. She chewed thoughtfully and mentally sized herself up beside him and came up lacking in all departments.
“You’re just all fulla nothing tonight,” he replied and licked the greasy film off his fingers.
“I guess it’s just pretty late,” she said and thought yeah, no, just sitting here imagining my body covered in onion ring grease and your lips and tongue sucking me everywhere. Can’t say that, don’t say it out loud.
“Come on, it’s not that late. You’re young and beautiful, you should be used to being out all hours of the night,” he said and smiled.
She grinned and felt a blob of mayo slip down her chin. She froze, unsure what to do, sitting there grinning like an idiot in front of the hottest man she’d ever been around. A real man, thick and muscled, not like Jacob who was a poser. A boy in his dad’s clothes.
Cairo seemed like he could cut a tree down, build her a cabin and fuck her until she forgot her own name. If she could feel it. God damn, there were few moments her condition really bothered her, like deep to the core, and this was one of them.
She wanted to believe he could make her orgasm, make her lose her mind and hit the level of intensity that other women seemed to find when fucking…but it wasn’t for her.
The way he watched her tongue find the drip of mayo and lick it off. The same hungry look that she’d just felt was residing in his eyes and he smiled, a slow, lazy smile like he knew there was something more going on here. Some deep, steady undercurrent flowing between the two of them.
“You missed a spot,” he said and reached his thick thumb up to touch her chin again. She forced herself to close her mouth, to not seek his thumb and suckle it like a baby animal. Fuck what has gotten into me? She thought, it must be the booze or something.
“Thanks,” she said breathlessly and noticed he hadn’t removed his thumb, the thick, rough pad of it rested on the divot between her chin and lower lip. She could imagine him circling her clit with the wide end of it, she imagined that she might be able to feel it, feel the roughness and insistent force behind his strokes.
She’d been let down before though, in the past her imagination always ended up being far greater than the naked fumblings that she’d experienced.
He pulled his thumb back and said, “Anytime,” and reached for another onion ring. She was dumb with lust, simply speechless in her erotic imaginings over something as insignificant as him rubbing a slip of food off her face.
It didn’t feel insignificant though, it felt real, it felt good, and it felt terrifying. If she was this on edge at simply imagining him touching her, and he did manage to break through the invisible barrier that disconnected her from her pleasure receptors, what would that mean to her heart?
She concentrated on her food and forced herself to make jagged small talk. Where he was from, where he grew up, what he wanted when he grew up, how long he’d been growing the beard, etc etc. They compared tattoos and she had to admit being impressed with his. They compared scars and she outnumbered him ten to one.
They talked about past relationships and she remained fairly tight lipped, not wanting to disclose her recent betrayal. It still hurt too much, and it still made her feel like she had been at fault.
Finally he sighed, looked at her, stretched and put his arm over her shoulder. “You’re a very difficult woman to read, Ms. Normal,” he said and gave her what could only be classified as a friendly squeeze.
She knew she was being difficult, but it wasn’t deliberate. She was naturally guarded, and the way he made her feel left her breathless and confused. Part of her wanted to throw herself into his arms, and the other part wanted to run.
Right now, run was the top contender and she fumbled for her purse when the cheque was deposited on the table.
“I don’t mean to be,” she told him and reached for the bill. He snatched it up before she grabbed it and removed his arm from her shoulder.
The weight of it on her body had been comforting, she felt oddly exposed now that it was gone. But she still wanted to flee these unusual mixed up emotions.
“Don’t even think about it. You might be a mystery, but I’m straight up, and I’ll never let a lovely lady pay for her meal,” he said.
They left the restaurant and found themselves walking in a light rain on a very busy sidewalk. She hooked her hand in his arm again like it was the most natural thing in the world. She didn’t even bother to limp slightly, pretending her knee hurt as an excuse to touch him. She needed to hold him so she didn’t run, although every time she was jostled towards him by the crowd, she felt jumpy, like she was a frightened horse about to bolt.
“This is nice,” she finally admitted, “Thank you for taking me out.”
“Any time, Ms. Normal,” he said, “I hate to admit it, but I don’t get out that much either. Work keeps me pretty involved and we travel so much I don’t get to explore each city as much as I’d like to.”
“What do you do exactly?” she asked, “I mean for the Cirque. You eat fire and all that, but what else?”
“My father is the showman of the family, don’t get me wrong, I love my fire act, but he relies on me for the business end of things. I handle the logistics of moving the entire Cirque from place to place, I oversee payroll, human resources, permits, insurance…okay I can already see your eyes rolling back in your head. Yes, I deal with all the boring shit.”
“I swear I was just trying to stop a sneeze,” she said and held her finger to her nose. The familiar tickle surfaced again and she couldn’t help herself, she sneezed with a hideous expulsion of noise, like a dying mouse on a train track.
“Fuck,” he said and she raised her brows, “you even sneeze adorably. Is there anything you don’t do well?”
“Oh so much,” she laughed and took his arm again when he offered it. “But seriously, I don’t think that’s the boring side of things, it’s the necessary side of things. It’s admirable that you’re putting your own life on hold to keep everything together.”
“So many people rely on the Cirque,” he said, “it’s not like most of them could go get a job in an office if we shut down, you know? I can’t leave them hanging, not when most of them are like family.”
She was truly impressed with how much he handled and for all the right reasons. She felt almost ashamed that she had fled her own family, her sister, the moment she was old enough. There was a reason though of course, her own family hated her and couldn’t go an hour without letting her know.
She sometimes thought about her sister, what her life was like now, but never had the courage to send her a text or add her on Facebook. It felt unnatural to reach out to the woman who blamed her for their parent’s death. They’d been driving home from yet another series of medical appointments when they’d been hit head on by a drunk driver.
Maisy had been in the hospital at the time it happened, and hadn’t been able to get out for months. By the time she got back, their farmhouse was sold and her sister was living in a one bedroom apartment close to the college. Maisy was an unwelcome guest, and had hung around long enough for it to be legal to leave.
She wondered what it would be like to have a family as close as Cairo’s, even if his father was a bit off. She wanted to meet his sisters some time soon, to gauge him as a brother and find out more about him as a man.
They made it back to the Cirque long after the last Skytrain would have left. Maisy was fine though, she let Cairo walk her to her trailer like a nineteen fifties teenager. The tension was thick between them when they parted ways, but they seemed to both agree on an unspoken understanding that they wouldn’t take it there yet. They wouldn’t take it to the next level with a kiss.
Maisy was grateful for this, as it allowed her to calm the part of her that wanted to run. It allowed her to come down so to speak, to take a deep breath and come at this situation logically.
She lay on her bed, surprised at how comfortable and homey her room was, and came to one simple conclusion just before she fell asleep.
Where Cairo was concerned, logic held no power. In a realm ruled by her increasingly uncontrollable heart, sensible decisions were trampled under the fierce pounding as she thought about his lips, his tongue, and those eyes. Those damn eyes of his.
Logic was gone, and chaos seemed about to rule.
She didn’t see Cairo when she woke the next morning, and he was sorely missed all day as their paths didn’t seem to cross even once.
She told Erica all that had happened, and protested when the other girl didn’t believe her that she hadn’t even kissed their hot boss. She promised to tell her the moment anything happened, and the two of them made plans to go for drinks before they left Vancouver.
She took the train home after her shift and felt a little bit lonely once she got back to her apartment.
She convinced herself it was logical to let the place go, the Cirque was leaving in nine days and it seemed perfectly reasonable to give up her apartment and most of her belongings and hit the road with them.
She craved Becs’ advice, and she loathed her friend for ruining their friendship. She half considered texting her and forgiving her just to have somebody to talk to. She wanted to go on and on about Cairo and his muscular arms, his gorgeous tattoos and the fact that he seemed almost as interested in her as she was in him.
She couldn’t fathom sharing him with Becs though, there was a stab of jealousy when she thought about the two of them meeting and she felt a little rage tantrum build when she thought about Becs scooping Cai from under her nose the way she had with Jacob.
She checked her phone and Becs hadn’t texted that day. Or the past couple days. Maisy wondered if Becs had finally gotten the hint, or if she’d finally decided to move in with Jacob and every drop of guilt had been fucked out of her by then.
Either way, she made herself okay with it. She had no other choice really, she didn’t want either one of them back in her life at this point other than as a listening audience for her tales of Cairo’s amazing self. She would make new friends elsewhere.
She packed up a few personal mementos and looked around the place.
Once it had felt bright and cheery, and she’d taken great pride in having an apartment of her own.
Now it felt dingy and cold, she could see dust motes dancing in the light of a lamp and saw finger marks in the layer of dust on the nightstand.
It wasn’t much bigger than the room the Cirque provided for her, and it was much less luxurious.
She went to her dresser and packed anything she’d worn in the past six months and stuffed the rest into garbage bags for goodwill. She did the same with her closet and gained momentum as she moved from room to room.
Within a couple hours her apartment was almost packed. She was a little saddened to realize that there wasn’t as much keeping her in Richmond after all.
She went to her neighbour’s apartment and knocked, knelt and petted the cat one last time.
“Can I help you?” the neighbor asked as she opened her door. The cat sped through her legs and disappeared into the apartment.
“I’m moving,” Maisy blurted, “do you need anything?”
“What have you got?” the girl asked suspiciously. Maisy suddenly hated this about the city. Even in her condition, she had a sense of community growing up in a small farming town. After her parent’s death, she’d lost the connection she’d had with her friends, driven into herself by her sister’s constant taunts.
She hadn’t realized how much she’d missed it until this past week, with the people from Cirque. They’d welcomed her into their midst, in spite of her being normal to them. She wanted that community again, she wanted family.
“A little of everything, you wanna come take a look?” Maisy asked.
The girl hesitated, then grabbed her keys and said, “Yeah, sure.”
Maisy lead her back to the apartment and stood inside. The girl walked in, looked around and said, “Where’s the stuff?”
“Everything,” Maisy said and pointed to her three suitcases, “except that pile.”
“Everything? Are you kidding?” the girl asked.
“Not kidding, I’m moving, it’s all yours if you want it.”
“My name’s Tia,” she said and stuck out her hand. Maisy shook it and smiled.
“Maisy,” she replied, “sorry we never spoke before this.”
“Me too,” Tia replied, “I keep my head down in the city though, you know? People are such weirdos and you just never know who’s going to end up being some crazy stalker.”
Maisy laughed, “Can’t argue with you there.”
“So where are you moving to?” Tia asked and started loading up Maisy’s things. It was disconcerting, watching the other girl take her stuff away, but it was freeing at the same time. She wasn’t really attached to any of it, even the mementos given by boyfriends or Becs. It was cathartic, a rebirth.
“I’m running away and joining the circus,” she replied.
Tia laughed as though she thought it a joke. Maisy didn’t bother explaining.
Tia called a couple friends over and the four girls hauled the contents of Maisy’s apartment to Tia’s over the course of a couple hours. Tia’s looked like a thrift store by the time they were done, but she seemed pleased to have received Maisy’s unwanted life.
To thank her, Tia and her friends insisted on buying Maisy dinner, then drinks, then offered the couch for the night now that Maisy was essentially homeless.
It was strange, falling asleep on her cast of sofa, room spinning from too much vodka and a familiar cat purring on her chest as she dozed.
She should have really talked to Tia months ago.
She smiled and drifted off, a brand new life waiting for her in the morning.
She crept out before anyone was awake, including the cat. She left her apartment keys on the counter in her former kitchen, texted her landlord and effectively gave her notice. She didn’t bother leaving a forwarding address, he would probably keep her damage deposit.
She took the earliest train to the station closest to Cirque and wandered through the front gates at a little after seven in the morning. Carl’s boyfriend nodded at her as she walked by, like there was absolutely nothing going on.
Like she hadn’t just went mad, dumped all her shit on her neighbor, and packed just enough to survive on the road.
Like she hadn’t just given up the life she knew to take a chance on the life that might be. Like she hadn’t just given up her solitude for a chance at community.
Her heart was pounding my the time she got to her trailer and unpacked, putting her clothes in her new dresser and closet, and curled up on what was to be her bed until she felt it was time to leave.
She had done it, she had changed her life for the better. She hoped.
And there was a little voice in the back of her head whispering that she would be closer to Cairo now, she would be able to spend time near him and see what happened.
If anything. The dominant voice scoffed at her dreaming and thought she’d be better off worrying about life with a bunch of people sho hardly knew. Or the fact that she’d packed it all in to search for a surrogate family.
Perhaps her biggest worry should be whether or not she had ever fully dealt wit the death of her parents and her sister’s subsequent attacks.
Or Becs’ betrayal. Jacob’s cruel words.
Any of it really.
Or was she simply pulling a groundhog and diving back in her hole every time the going got rough.
She heard a tap at her door and said, “It’s open.”
A pretty blonde girl peeked in and said, “Hi, are you going to be living here now?”
“I guess,” Maisy replied, “I mean, yes, definitely.”
“I’m Cara, I work concession. I think we’ve met.”
“Oh yeah, we have,” Maisy replied, “I’m Maisy. I’m at the front doing tickets.”
“Awesome, well I’m glad you’re here and decided to join us. Any time we have new hires in a city, we’re all pretty much expecting them to bolt the minute we pack it up to leave.”
“Oh, people do that?” Maisy replied and did her best to sound duly scandalized.
“You wouldn’t believe how many,” Cara told her, “And heading in the US, we need everybody on board. It’s tough to hire once we’ve crossed the border.”
“Well, I wouldn’t think of ditching, “Maisy assured her, “I just had to settle things with my apartment.”
“Cool. Well, I’m making coffee if you want some. There are three of us in this trailer, you, me and Rose. You’ll meet her soon enough. We all chip in for the basics, like coffee and snacks. Are you okay with that?”
“I don’t have much until I get paid, can I get you the money in a couple days?”
“Not a problem,” Cara said, “we’ve all been there. I’ll see you in a few.”
She shut the door and Maisy couldn’t believe her good luck Cara seemed nice. Maisy had never had a room mate, other than the month Becs had crashed with her when she moved out here, but this could be nice. Part of her new life, new community thing.
She and Cara enjoyed a brief visit before Cara’s shift. Maisy didn’t start work for a few more hours, so she decided to take some time and explore the parts of Cirque she hadn’t seen much of.
And possibly run into Cairo, if she was being honest.
A couple hours later, she’d spent some time with Cara in the staff concession, visited Alexi and his cats, and found herself in the performer’s tent.
She was watching a man and woman, husband and wife she’d heard, who could twist themselves into the most elaborate, inhuman shapes imaginable. Contortionists, she’d heard them called. She was sitting in the back, afraid to repeat the knocked chair incident of her previous visit. It was dark, she was alone, and it was vaguely disturbing to watch the things they could do with their bodies.
She couldn’t help but imagine how their positions would translate sexually. She couldn’t perform such acts herself, one of the detriments of being pain-free was not understanding your limits.
A lot of people with her condition ended up in wheelchairs early on, unable to feel the pain of arthritis or joint stress, and eventually unable to walk because their bodies broke down without them knowing it.
It was a constant fear for Maisy, the idea that she might develop cancer and not know it until it was too late.
Pregnancy terrified her, not know if something was wrong until she was too far along to help herself or her child.
It was also disturbing to think of passing something along to her child. As much as she appreciated her life, she would hate to pass this along to her baby.
She would remain childless, and had been refused tubal ligation from several doctors who cited her age as the barrier to making her sterile.
She was too young, they said, she might change her mind, they said.
She never would though, as much as she sometimes craved a child, she wouldn’t be that irresponsible.
“Enjoying the show, Ms. Normal?” Cai’s liquid, smooth voice whispered in her ear.
She hadn’t heard him approach and she jumped, turned to see him and said, “You scared me.”
“I’m sorry,” he replied and climbed over the chair to sit next to her. “I’ll make more noise next time. Maybe knock over a couple of chairs.”
He grinned, but she still felt like her was mocking her. She blushed hot red again and said, “I told you, I’m a klutz beyond redemption.”
“It’s a good thing you’re so beautiful then,” he whispered next to her ear and she flamed even hotter. God, what he could do to her with just a few words.
“That’s what they tell people when they’re stupid,” she replied, “I’ve heard that before, but I assure you, I’m not stupid.”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” he said, “but I think you know that. You’re just trying to be controversial.” He smiled at her again, and she knew he was joking around, but she was feeling more vulnerable than she was used to.
She didn’t want to take her vulnerability out on him though, she knew he was just being playful, and she was falling into her usual, morose patterns of behaviour. She forced herself to smile and change the subject, “They’re pretty twisty.”
“That they are,” he said and caught her hint. They watched in silence for a few moments, while the couple folded and unfolded in rhythmic precision. He broke into their quiet with, “Listen, I wasn’t being a jerk, I didn’t mean to upset you. I’m sorry.”
She felt like an idiot, he was a nice guy and she was reactionary. She simply felt raw around him, exposed as though he knew her inner dialogue and was mocking her for feeling so obvious.
“I’m sorry for being a jerk,” she said, “let’s start this conversation over again, deal?” She stuck out her hand and he shook it. She loved his skin, it was so warm and dry, his hands were rough and strong. She wanted his hands on her body.
“It’s all good,” he replied and gave her a lopsided grin. His beard gave him an almost menacing look in the dim light of the tent, and she liked it. As though he were about to devour her whole.
“I’ve had a hard time being…close…to people,” she said in the dark, “it makes me a little prickly, so I’ve been told.”
“I don’t find you prickly at all,” he said and leaned close to her. She could feel his breath on her ear as he continued, “I think intriguing, mysterious, alluring…but not prickly.”
She turned her head slightly, just enough to see the curve of his smile and the gleam in his eye. She believed him, right then with all her heart, she believed that he thought of her in that way.
This wasn’t Jacob, saying just enough to string her along. This wasn’t any of the other men she’d been with, playing her and jerking her along just to get at her pussy.
He meant what he was saying, and she believed it. And it terrified and excited her to the point that she had to exhale slowly as to not betray her shaking breath.
“Thanks,” she said and smiled, turned away from him and watched the next performers practice. A woman dressed in an exotic belly dance costume began to gyrate and move so she appeared to be liquid energy, undulating across the stage.
“I thought there would be more…you know…unusual performers,” she leaned towards him and whispered.
“There are, they don’t generally perform. We have a special entrance section for people to interact with the real stars of the show. Without them, we’d just be another acrobatic company essentially.”
“How do people interact? Doesn’t that get a little overwhelming for the…” she trailed off, not sure what she was allowed to call the human oddities.
“Freaks. It’s okay to say freaks. And yes, it gets exhausting, which is why we make the performances the bulk of the public’s time with us, and the meet and greet short and sweet.”
“You’re a poet and–”
“–didn’t know it,” he laughed and finished her sentence. “We are very careful with everyone’s health while traveling. We have a medical doctor and physiotherapist who come along with us to handle any emergencies or aches and pains our people go through. You might not know it, but most of the conditions our Freaks have mean added stress to their bodies. We would hate for them to be hurt because of their work here.”
She did know about the added stress being a freak had on the human body, she suffered from it herself. She couldn’t tell him though, not yet. Maybe soon, but she was enjoying her role as Ms. Normal a little too much. “That’s very good of you, I can’t imagine many other employers who would care so much about the people in their employ.”
“Some might say it’s just us thinking about the bottom line. Healthy freaks mean healthy ticket sales, but we’re family here and take care of each other. I want you to know that.”
“I do, which is part of the reason I’m staying here now.”
“I heard about that. You’re a permanent resident now?”
“How did you know?”
“It’s a small community, gossip spreads fast. Plus, I had money riding on it.”
He smiled sheepishly and stroked his beard as if in deep thought. “Well, I don’t know how to say this, but we bet on new hires. We see how long they’ll stick around for, most people get hired in the city and decide to stay behind when we leave.”
“So which way did you bet?” she asked and laughed. She hadn’t realized how obvious, how completely transparent she’d been.
“I knew you’d stay,” he smiled, “especially after that day with the tigers. I saw how your face lit up when you saw them. You’ve got Cirque in your blood, and it showed.”
“Maybe I’ll be a performer some day,” she said and turned back to the belly dancer. She was now curved backwards, her head almost touching the floor. She produced a sword and started to work it down her throat. Maisy gasped and added, “Then again, maybe not.”
“She’s pretty amazing, isn’t she?” Cairo said, his voice full of admiration. He was puffed up with pride. She felt a small stab of jealousy.
“That she is,” she said and watched the girl extract the sword with a flourish, straighten up and continue to dance.
“That’s Paris, my sister,” he said.
“She’s beautiful,” Maisy replied and felt relief wash over her. She had never been the jealous type and couldn’t tell if her recent heartbreaking betrayal lead to her current state, or if it was the knee weakening attraction she felt to him that did it. Either way, she had heard of his reputation with the ladies, and made herself think about her original plan.
Have some fun and move on. She might be staying with the Cirque, but she couldn’t count on a man like him to be faithful.
“Cairo,” a voice hissed in the dark behind them, “they need you in HR. Something about our visas.”
They both turned and found Eduardo standing behind them in full Ring Master costume. Maisy couldn’t help but note how good he looked, his muscular thighs clad in tight white jodhpurs, his black jacket fitting him like a glove. He carried a riding crop and was wearing a fancy hat, not a top hat, but something similar. She apparently needed to Googled hat types the next time she had a moment.
“I have to go,” he said quickly, leaned and kissed her cheek before he rushed past his father. The two of them exchanged a look, Cairo appeared guilty, Eduardo enraged. Maisy didn’t understand why Cai’s presence in the performer’s practice tent would make Eduardo so angry.
She looked away, and forced herself to look back, to make eye contact. She caught his hooded gaze, dark and foreboding and intensely, oddly exciting.
She watched as he left and turned back to the performers. She hunched in her seat, alone in the dark and tried to control the thoughts that were racing through her head.
Cairo was unbelievably attractive, and his danger was in the way she could fall for him. She risked her heart and soul if she decided to play that game.
His father was dangerous in another way. He was good looking, charming, and exuded ill will towards her at times.
Both were intriguing and both could hurt her in very different ways.
She smiled to herself and thought, when have I ever backed down from danger? I’m not about to start now.
Maisy heard her phone buzz and rolled over to check the time. The Cirque was packing up and leaving for Seattle later today, so she resented whoever was waking her up early.
It was Becs.
“WTF where are you? Your apartment is empty?”
Maisy ignored the inquiry and flipped the phone upside down on the night stand. There was categorically no way she wanted to engage in any kind of conversation with her former best friend.
Meeting new people had opened her eyes a little more and allowed her to see how selfish Becs had been all along. Maisy had been little more than an accessory, somebody to make Becs look bright and shiny while Maisy had hung on in the background.
She wondered if Becs had slept with any other boyfriends. Trevor from Moosejaw, Maisy was sure of it now that she could look back. Maybe Dylan, the Irish guy she’d spent last summer with.
God, how could she have been so stupid? Jacob and Becs deserved each other.
In a foul mood, she rolled over, punched her pillow to fluff it up and tried to fall back asleep.
She couldn’t help herself though, she thought about Cairo and imagined he’d be the kind of guy who would laugh at a girl like Becs. He would be faithful if you could get him to commit.
That was the key though, finding out what it took to have a relationship with him, not just a one night stand or playful fling.
The more Maisy thought about it, she didn’t think she could handle friends with benefits when it came to Cairo.
Why did he have to be so fucking hot? And why was she getting to be so fucking moody these days?
She gave up and shuffled out to the kitchen. The trailer was empty, but the coffee was still hot so she poured herself a cup and contemplated searching for Cairo. As if playing chicken with her heart, holding herself to the flame long enough to see if she could feel anything, to see if she would flinch.
It was ridiculous, setting herself up for heartbreak like this, but she’d always had that dangerous streak.
She finished up and headed off to find Carl. She had no idea what they were supposed to do on moving day, and she decided she might as well find out.
There was an air of excitement surrounding the entire Cirque grounds as everyone prepared to move. Maisy had to admit, there was something romantic about being homeless, having no fixed address. It felt very Great Depression era to her, traveling through the dust bowl looking for work.
Although of course, her travels came with a steady paycheque and comfortable roof over her head.
She found Carl in the midst of chaos where he reigned supreme. She almost didn’t recognize him out of costume, instead of looking like a half crazed clown, he looked like a half crazed businessman.
“Oh this?” he said when he caught her look of surprise, “they don’t take kindly to full face make up at the border. Rather than get stopped and held for hours while they went through every nook and cranny of every truck and trailer, we all dress respectably and make sure we appear as normal as possible.”
“I’m impressed though,” she said, “you clean up really nice.”
“Thanks, Ms. Normal,” Carl gushed, “you don’t look half bad yourself.”
He told her to go help Alexi with the big cats and other animals, given her background in farming, and appeared to float above the ground as he buzzed with nervous energy and shouted directions at anyone who crossed his path.
She found Alexi in cool control, the opposite of Carl’s organized chaos. “I was sent to help you,” she told him when she approached. He was grooming one of the tigers and singing softly to the great beast.
“I don’t usually need any help,” he replied and stopped brushing the animal. “Most people are frightened of these lovely kitty cats.”
“I’m just following orders,” she said, “Carl told me to come here. I think they’re just trying to keep me out of the way because I have no idea what I’m doing.”
“Carl is just following Eduardo’s instructions,” Alexi said, “which means Eduardo wants you here. It’s no problem, I’ll take the help. Just be careful around them.”
“How many are there?”
“Just two this time, the rest of the animals are staying behind. It’s difficult to cross the border with too many creatures.”
“I can imagine,” she replied, “so what can I help you with?”
“Hang tight here with Lucille, and I’ll be right back. I have to get Desi into his cage.”
“Lucille and Desi?” she asked, “I like it.”
“After the greats,” he replied, smiled, and left her alone with Lucille. The tiger was collared and tied to a crossbar, obviously something she was used to. Maisy was nervous however, having never been in charge of something so fierce and wild before. On the farm, she’d been kept away from most animals with the concern that they could hurt her and she’d never know.
She’d defied her mother once, when she was ten. She’d taken the old mare out for a quick ride and gotten stepped on. It wasn’t until her foot was swollen three times its normal size, blackened and unmoving that she had to admit her mistake to her mother.
She’d been walking on a shattered foot for two weeks by then.
The doctor had had to re-break the bones in order for them to set properly. Her lack of pain had been more of a blessing than a curse that time.
“Hey Lucy,” she said and reached out to touch the cat’s fur. She was fascinated, it looked like velvet this close up. She touched the soft coat and stroked the fur, amazed at what was happening. She was touching a motherfucking tiger, and nobody was here to take a picture.
She looked around, pulled her phone out of her pocket and thought, just one selfie for Facebook. What harm could there be? And fuck Becs and Jacob, I’m next to a goddamned tiger, she thought.
She hadn’t updated anyone on her whereabouts, part of her wanted Becs and Jacob to panic when they realized she was gone.
Immature, she knew, childish and self centered…but she wanted to know somehow that she had mattered. Not just to Becs, but to Jacob as well. Even though, looking back on it, she could see how meaningless their relationship had been, it felt horrible to admit that she meant so little to him.
She held her phone up, checked Lucille for any signs of stress. The tiger was calm and almost purring, like any housecat. And cats loved Maisy, she couldn’t forget about that.
She got as close as possible and moved her thumb to the circle at the bottom of the phone to take the shot. Too late she wondered if she’d turned the flash off.
The light flared and Lucille jumped, she jerked away from Maisy, and whipped her head around in a lightning quick motion. Maisy felt pressure on her arm and the phone dropped from her hand. She couldn’t control her hand, her arm was pinned in the tiger’s mouth.
“Shit, Lucille, please…let me go,” she said in a hushed voice. She was utterly mortified that her stupid idea to show off on social media landed her in this spot. She tried again to wiggle her fingers and managed a little movement. Her arm didn’t feel broken, she’d had enough broken bones over the years to recognize the familiar grinding of bone on bone.
The skin was definitely broken though, blood poured through Lucille’s jaws and dripped onto Maisy’s jeans as she tried desperately to negotiate with the tiger.
“Please, kitty kitty. Good girl, let’s get your mouth open,” she said and tried to pry Lucille’s jaws wider with her other hand. It just served to make the cat chomp harder, probably doing more damage.
“Shit. Fuck, what am I going to do?” she whispered to nobody in particular. She hated the thought of Alexi finding her like this, unable to trust her with even the simplest of tasks.
“What is going on in here?” he demanded from behind her.
Speak of the devil, she thought. How am I going to explain my way out of this one?
“She’s just playing around,” Maisy said and moved to the side to allow Alexi full view of her arm in the tiger’s mouth. “It looks worse than it is.”
“Lucille!” Alexi barked and produced a short bullwhip. “Release,” he demanded and snapped the end of the leather at the tiger. She let out a low growl and stubbornly gripped Maisy’s arm tightly.
“Come on,” Maisy said and pried the teeth apart with her good hand.
“Lucille, release,” Alexi repeated and snapped the whip again. Maisy could feel the air move beside her face, the whip was so close.
The tiger finally let go and Maisy drew her arm back carefully.
Her skin was a mess of blood and puncture wounds. There would be no easy way to hide this injury.
“Oh dear god,” Alexi said, “that looks bad. Real bad.” He produced a walkie talkie from his hip pocket and hit a button.
“It’s seriously not that bad,” Maisy said and held up her hand. She wiggled her fingers and said, “See? It doesn’t even hurt.”
“I’ve got a bite, and she’s in shock,” Alexi said into the radio. “Bring a medic, ASAP.”
“I should go,” Maisy said and started to back away, “I can clean up in my trailer. I’ll even bandage it myself. We don’t have to tell anyone.”
She was terrified this meant she’d be fired. After dumping all her shit on her neighbor, not telling a soul she was leaving, and she’d end up bounced out of Cirque before they left town? She really would be homeless, she had no money to her name. Not enough for a damage deposit and rent.
“You’re not going anywhere,” Alexi said, “this is much more serious than you think. You are in shock, so you can’t feel anything yet. But when that wears off, this is going to hurt like a son of a bitch.”
“I know myself well enough to know this isn’t bad,” Maisy protested and started to back away from Alexi even faster. Alexi was too busy trying to get Lucille back into her cage to come after her. “I heal fast too, and with a travel day, I’ll have plenty of time to get ready for work.”
“The hell you will,” Eduardo said from behind her, “show me your arm.”
Maisy froze on the spot, unable to follow his simple command. This was the worst case scenario, he was her boss and would ultimately decide her fate. He already didn’t seem to like her, this sealed it for her. She was going to get fired.
She turned and held out her arm, unable to think of any way to get out of this. Eduardo set down a first aid case and took her hand in his. His hands were softer than Cairo’s, but warm and dry like his son’s. Maisy couldn’t help but react, it felt good.
“Does this hurt?” he asked as he moved her hand from side to side. She couldn’t feel a thing, which meant she had been correct. No broken bone as far as she could tell.
“No,” she said, then remembered her current identity as a normal person among the freaks. “I mean, a little.”
“You are in shock,” he said, “let’s sit you down.”
He lead her to a small bench at the side of the tent and yelled, “Full lights!”
Maisy didn’t know who had responded, but the tent was suddenly flooded with light. Alexi was already gone, he’d taken Lucille into the back to her travel cage. Maisy hoped the big cat wouldn’t get into trouble because of her stupidity.
She remembered her phone. “Shit, my phone,” she said and looked over Eduardo’s shoulder. She saw it on the ground a few feet away, it was covered in blood.
“I’ll get it in a moment, until then you can live without it. You young people and your obsession with live tweeting every damn moment of your lives,” Eduardo replied. He pulled back, looked at her and scanned her face. Maisy wasn’t sure what he was searching for. “You should learn to live instead of telling people about your life. There’s a huge difference.”
“I guess,” Maisy said and fell silent. How could she defend herself? It was true, trying to show off on Facebook had landed her in this mess. Had most likely cost her a job.
“Can you feel this?” Eduardo asked and Maisy looked at what he was doing. He had a damp cloth and was wiping the blood from her arm carefully.
“A little,” Maisy said, then added, “ouch,” for dramatic effect.
“You’re handling this very well,” Eduardo said and continued to clean the wound. The blood had stopped pouring out and had receded to a slow ooze. She had two large puncture wounds on the top of her forearm, and two below on the other side. Lucille had really gotten her good, but at least she hadn’t torn the flesh too badly, only punctured it.
“I’m a tom boy, I’m used to getting hurt,” she said.
“I can see that, you’ve got scars all over the place.”
“I grew up on a farm, it added to my injuries.”
“I can imagine,” Eduardo replied but his eyes were narrowed and he was examining her, as if looking for clues.
“This might hurt,” he said and drew a bottle out of the case. “It’s antiseptic, it will sting. Look over my shoulder, don’t look at the wound.”
“Okay,” she replied and winced when she felt cold liquid hit her arm. She screwed her face up into a pained expression and squeezed her eyes shut.
She felt pressure along her flesh and opened her eyes wide. Eduardo had a razor blade held to her inner arm and had opened her skin in an expertly applied slice.
“What the fuck,” she cried out and jerked her arm away. Fresh blood flowed from the razor cut and she held it against her shirt to stop the bleeding. “Why did you do that?”
“You can’t feel pain, can you?” he asked, his eyes piercing through her façade to her very core. She felt like a bug wriggling on a pin, she was caught and she had no way out. If she hadn’t given up her apartment and given all her shit away, she might have stood up in indignant protest and marched out of the tent right then and there.
But she had, and she essentially had nowhere to go if she stormed off. She was stuck, he was right, and he knew it.
“What makes you say that?” she asked, drawing the inevitable conclusion out even longer. Why didn’t he fire her right on the spot? If he’d suspected her condition, why had he allowed her to decide to follow them?
“I’ve been watching you over the past two weeks. There was something special about you Maisy, I have a sixth sense for these things. I knew it, and it wasn’t just your beauty.”
“There’s nothing special about me at all,” she said and held her arm out when he motioned for it. He was tender this time, cleaned up the new slit and applied a bandage to her entire arm to stop the blood.
“Take these,” he said and gave her a couple pills with a bottle of water. “They’re antibiotics. And you are wrong, you are extremely rare.”
“Are you allowed to give these to me?” she asked and took the pills. She swallowed them with a swig of water and handed the bottled back to him. She felt as though she was about to make a deal with the Devil, and the more she took from him, the more she would ultimately owe.
“We treat our own around here,” he replied. He then paused, looked at her and added, “I saw you with my son. At first I was angry, all new hires chase him like bitches in heat.” When he saw her wince at that, he said, “Don’t flatter yourself in that area, you’re all bitches after him in my eyes. He’s out of your league, by the way. He might play with you a little, but he knows his place. The Circus isn’t a world for outsiders, and even though I am going to make you a star, you will always be an outsider. I have bigger plans for him.”
“I don’t think you have the right to make that decision for him,” she replied quietly.
“That’s not up for debate. He is my son and he will do as I say.”
“I’m not chasing him anyways,” she said, miserable in her predicament. Nowhere to go, and now not a single chance with Cairo, the man who made her heart flutter and her pulse race.
“That’s neither here not there. I saw you with him one night, you had a nasty cut on your knee. When he was around, you limped, but you forgot a couple time which leg it was supposed to be. When you left for home, you walked as though nothing had happened. I started to wonder about you, and I see I was right.”
“So I can’t feel pain, what’s the big deal? I can still work, it’s not exactly risky to sell tickets.”
“You are no longer going to sell tickets,” he said and closed the first aid case. Her arm felt squeezed, he’d done the bandages a little too tight and she could feel her pulse in the wounds. It was an uncomfortable reminder of her oddity.
“Are you going to fire me?” she asked and slid a finger under her bandage to loosen it.
“Oh no, dear, we won’t let you go,” he replied with a wicked grin,” Like I said, I am going to make you a star.”
“What are you talking about?
“Your condition…we’re going to make you famous. I have to figure out an act, but until then, you are not to work. I will have our physician visit you to start you on a supplement routine to promote rapid healing, and I will figure out the perfect thing to showcase your particular talent.”
“How can a genetic anomaly be called a talent?”
“You can’t feel pain. We could come up with an exciting performance piece for you. I could incorporate you into my own performance,” Eduardo said, stroking his chin, his eyes growing distant. “I will pay you triple what you’re making now, and you’ll only be on stage for a few minutes each night. You will receive performer’s services, extended health benefits and more on your staff card for the concession. If you decide to stay with us, after two years you’ll earn profit shares in the Cirque. Think about it.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Maisy replied, “I don’t think I could do anything in front of a crowd, and I can’t imagine anything being that exciting, really.”
“Go back to your trailer and I will contact you once we’re in Seattle. Your wage increase starts today however. Relax, enjoy yourself. I have research to do.”
He stood and looked down at her, once again with a hungry look as though about to devour her. If only Cairo would look at her like that, she’d be a happy woman. When Eduardo did it, she had to suppress a shudder at his intensity.
He turned on his heel and left the tent. Maisy felt as though a great weight was lifted, his presence was almost supernatural in its oppressive quality. She couldn’t breathe properly when Eduardo was around.
She left the first aid case where it sat, picked up her phone and walked slowly back to her trailer. Her arm had stopped the persistent throbbing and had settled down to a dull pulse under the bandage. She could see some blood seeping through, but knew they’d be sealed shut by tomorrow. She really did have excellent healing powers.
She stretched out on the couch in the living room of the travel trailer and opened the pictures on her phone. After all the drama and traumatic injury, she was pleased to note that her tiger selfie was pretty fucking bad ass. She smiled as she uploaded it to Facebook with no caption. She made sure the location was turned off, she didn’t want people to find her, she just wanted to let them know she had moved on and her life was awesome.
Now she just had to work on convincing herself.