By Rae Ruane
editors note: Rae’s story won best creative fiction at the Central Coast Film Society Student Showcase in May
In an overgrown field something miraculous had appeared overnight. The city woke up to a new addition to the skyline; red and white canvas stretched to a grid of points in the sky. The colors were blinding compared to the grime of industry. They were a breath of fresh air. They were a reassurance that life existed outside of a clock and a foreman.
The circus had come. Flags fluttered from the top, beckoning in bright lettering for the crowds to Come One, Come All. And soon they gathered for an afternoon show. Families traipsed through the overgrown grass. Children ran ahead in search of sweet smells. The excitement swelled as the entire city left its factories cold for just one day. For one day only. To witness the Great Trapeze Duo, respected across the globe: Anita Nova and Vinnie Silvers.
The talented Anita Nova was in her dressing room. She could hear the audience finding their seats in the wooden stadium as she carefully fastened each button of her feathered costume and put on her shoes. She was young, barely nineteen, and she was free as a bird. She was free from it all. Anita Nova carried this air about her as she pushed the curtains aside and stepped into the narrow corridor that rounded the inside of the tent. Vinnie was waiting for her to walk to their places and together they trampled the dying grass in the silence that comes before a show.
The world around them was by no means silent. Circus barkers cried out advertisements, as if everybody and their mother wasn’t there already. Children clamored for the biggest candy apple and adults sighed as coveted spare change was spent on peacock feathers. The ringmaster stepped into the ring. The spotlight reflected off his shiny black boots and top hat as he brandished his baton, signaling for the people to take their seats.
“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, to the greatest show you’ll see this century!”
The crowds fell quiet. A parade of performers emerged from the curtains and began to circle the ring: jugglers, acrobats, clowns, animal trainers. Anita Nova and Vinnie Silvers were the main event, riding on plumed horses, their hands thrown proudly in the air.
“McSpade’s Circus of Splendor!” shouted the ringmaster, and the band struck up a lively march as the parade reached the front of the ring. Anita beamed at the starstruck audience. She was in her element.
“Nettie?!” someone called from the audience.
There was a minor scuffle in the stands, but the horses were already turning back towards the curtain. Anita turned her head to see what was happening but the spotlights swept across the ring and blinded her momentarily.
Then Anita and Vinnie were backstage, waiting calmly for their cue. Anita watched the shadows from each act flit across the flattened grass in front of her, wild animals performing every trick imaginable. The crowd laughed and cheered.
“Big crowd today.” Vinnie broke the silence. Anita nodded, keeping her eyes glued to the grass. A slow drum roll began, growing louder and faster. It was the tightrope walker.
“We’re next,” said Anita as she stood and began pacing back and forth. Her heartbeat ran away with the drums. Who had shouted “Nettie”? Nobody called her that anymore.
“Is something wrong?”
“I mean, you’ve been doing this for more than a year. There’s no reason to be nervous.”
“I said, I’m fine.”
Vinnie caught his words. From the ring, the ringmaster was speaking again in his booming voice. He was introducing their act. Right away Anita turned and strode towards the other side of the curtain, where she was to enter from. Vinnie closed his eyes. This was not the time.
Anita Nova, honored in the newspapers as the next big thing, stepped into the spotlight. She peered out into the audience as she made her way over to the ladder, but all she could see were silhouettes. Across the ring, Vinnie was already on his platform, ready to go. Shoot. Anita smiled at the audience and played off her distraction with a flourish, climbing the ladder to her own platform. Vinnie was already on the center bar, dangling from his knees. Anita untied her bar and launched herself off the platform, pumping her legs to gain momentum. Free as a bird.
“Nettie!” the voice from the audience called just as Anita was preparing to make the flight to Vinnie. It was a little girl, squeezing past the seated spectators to the aisle. She ran down the steps and stopped at the edge of the ring. Anita faltered and swung back in the other direction, whipping her head around wildly. It couldn’t be.
“Nettie!” the girl cried again, but this time Anita released the bar and soared through the air, Vinnie’s outstretched hands barely catching hers.
“Where was the somersault?” he hissed as they swung towards the other platform.
“It looked like–” Anita muttered. She let go and flew toward the other bar, landing shakily on the platform.
The girl in the audience waved her arms frantically. “It’s me!” she hollered. “It’s your sister!”
Anita’s eyes went wide. She was frozen on the platform.
“Maude,” she mumbled. The audience sat in silence, confused at what was happening.
On the center bar, Vinnie was trying to maintain his dignity.
“Anita!” It was the ringmaster. He was out of the audience’s sight, behind a curtain, but Anita could feel his fury. She took a deep breath and continued the routine, shorting each flip by multiple rotations and practically dragging Vinnie off the bar each time he caught her, but nonetheless it was over.
As soon as she had curtsied to the skeptical audience, Anita was out of there. Vinnie let her go as she hurried off, face slack and eyes brimming with tears. She tore through the backstage area, past the horses and the clowns, past concerned looks and shaking heads, and burst out of the tent. Feathers fell off her costume with every step, leaving a trail of broken dreams. The sun beat down on the city and the overgrown grass brushed against her legs. Anita slumped to the ground, holding her head in her hands. McSpade’s had been a haven, a place where she could earn her living outside of the factory-ridden cities. Where she could be a star.
“Nettie!” Maude rounded the tent and came into view. Anita looked up hesitantly. She had missed Maude’s tenth birthday, but her sister still looked the same, gaunt and practically buried in her dress. So thin. Maude flew into her lap, her bony limbs jabbing painfully into Anita’s soft ones. But she didn’t mind.
“Maude,” Anita said, happy for a moment. But then her smile turned. “You ruined my show.”
Maude crossed her arms. “You abandoned us, Nettie.”
Anita stood up, dumping Maude onto the ground. “I had to. I was going crazy in that city.”
Maude didn’t answer. Anita turned and walked away from the tent, gazing at the buildings at the edge of the field. For a minute they listened to the hot breeze whistle through the grass.
“Nettie, we really need you. The baby died last month and Mom won’t leave the apartment.”
“Mom had another baby?”
“He was only a few weeks old.”
Tears streaked down Anita’s cheeks, washing away her makeup. “What was his name?”
“Henry,” whispered Anita. She had missed so much. There was a whole other sibling she had never met—now she never would. Anita Nova, her picture known around the world, but not to her dead brother.
“You have to come home, Nettie. With Mom unable to work we don’t have enough money. We didn’t have enough when you left, anyways, and now it’s hopeless.”
“But isn’t Dad still working? And you and the others?”
“I’m telling you. It’s hopeless.”
Anita was silent. “I can’t go back.”
“You need to. The food is awful. We got an eviction notice last week. Dad ripped it up before Mom could see it, but I saw it.”
“I can’t.” She turned on her heel to see her sister, crumpled in the grass.
Maude sighed. “Nettie, we’re your family. You’re supposed to stick with us, good times and bad.”
Anita searched her sister’s eyes. “I’m sorry. But I am happy here. I am free.”
“You’ll change your mind. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“We’ll be gone by then.”
Maude picked herself up. “Maybe you won’t be.”
Anita stood there as Maude disappeared around the tent. Then she quietly walked back inside, contemplating her options. She thought of the family’s small apartment where her mother was currently holed up, grieving the loss of another baby. Of the dirty city streets that she walked each day to the factory and back. With McSpade’s, her days were full of shows and the open road of traveling to a new site. Here she was famous and loved, not just for how efficiently she could work in an assembly line, but for actual talent and dedication.
Vinnie was packing up his dressing room. When Anita pushed the curtain aside he turned around.
“Are you okay? You scared me.”
Anita nodded as she folded his costume and placed it in a trunk. “Not one of my best performances, Vinnie.”
“That’s okay. Tomorrow is another show,” he replied.
And here was Vinnie. They were a team. But they weren’t family. Did she need her family? She loved her family, sure, but she would do anything but go back to that life. She had found her freedom. She was free from it all. Was she responsible for Maude’s freedom, too? And the rest of her family?
The next morning the skyline was back to its usual state, marred by factory smoke. All that was waiting for Maude was an envelope containing folded cash and a lone feather from the costume of Anita Nova, esteemed performer and selfish sister.