"The dark peach of your lips makes me want to kiss you," he says, his voice low. Shock roots me to the spot. Any other man would earn a slap, but his words awaken a desire for his lips.
A mysterious circus storms into Sienna's quiet life. She's drawn to Logan, its enticing security guard. Their passion weaves a web of secrets. Sienna's dull existence is on the line - and so is her mother's. Can she save them or will the circus's dark charm win?
The sun dapples my tan legs through the trees, drawing yawning faces on my thighs.
I have my feet up, pressed against the trunk of the oak, the bark cutting into my calves. It's a pleasant pain. A reminder that I'm alive.
A bird trills for its mate. The train sounds its horn, an echo from miles away.
This is what happens in Forrester, Texas. A lot of nothing.
The screen door screeches. I can tell from the gait that it's Maisie. Who else would it be? My mother stopped calling me in for dinner years ago. My father's still at the lumber yard. We have an understanding these days. When he’s at work, I’m at the house. When he’s home, I’m not.
Her feet crunch over twigs and dry grass. Boards creak as she climbs the decades-old ladder to the platform where I’m lying. My mother always shakes her head over it. "One of these days the wood's going to crumble right in your hands, Sienna. And then what?"
Sometimes I think that’s why we keep coming up here. To find out what happens next.
Maisie Young sat next to me in kindergarten.
For that, she has my undying devotion.
"You'll never guess what happened." She dumps herself onto the platform beside me, her energy like a wash of cool air in the summer heat.
"Someone's livestock got out and fucked someone else's livestock?"
"A solid attempt, but no."
Mosquitos love me. They especially like the skin right below my cutoffs, biting me through the frayed denim, creating a little garter belt of scabs. I scratch them. "The mayor got caught fucking his secretary."
"Technically yes, but that's not interesting."
He fucks all of his secretaries. "There's a lot of fucking in Forrester."
"This isn't about that."
Interesting. In my experience, everything is about sex. "Then I'm going to guess…that our water supply is contaminated. A chemical spill from upstate worked its way into the rivers. Now we're all going to get cancer."
She shivers, rocking the loose, rotting boards. "Now I'm going to have nightmares about that."
"Fine, tell me."
"A circus came to town."
I drop my legs into crisscross applesauce, still butted up against the tree, my back to the platform, as if I’m floating. Sunlight dances over me, blinding me in little waves. It’s bliss, this treehouse. My safe haven… Though it's really just the illusion of safety. "An actual circus?"
"With red-and-white-striped tents and everything."
"In Forrester. Not San Marcos or Austin?"
"They're in the old Hendrick's farm."
"That place is a bunch of dust and crack needles."
"Everyone is freaking out. Mayor Lindon signed the permit himself. People are saying they must have paid him to do it. Bessie O'Roark says they're going to bring sex and drugs to the town."
"A little late for that."
"And Mr. Campbell says they must be laundering money. He says no one could actually turn a profit in Forrester."
"What does the high school science teacher know about laundering money?"
Though he has a point about Forrester. We don't have the wineries like Fredericksburg or the antique fairs in Round Top. Forrester's only claim to fame is its lumber. Wood, wood, and wood.
With a population of two thousand, the circus probably needs to charge hundreds of dollars per ticket just to pay for gas to get to the next town.
"They open tonight."
That finally makes me sit up. "Tonight?"
"Are we going?"
“What do you think?” The entire town will show up to an event like this. Even Bessie O’Roark and Mr. Campbell wouldn't miss this. They’ll show up if only to hope the whole tent burns down.
"Everyone will be there."
"Good. I need to kill Kyle." Kyle Moore is a piece of shit. That’s nothing new. We graduated in the same high school class two years ago. He escaped the heavily-wooded hellhole of Forrester with a football scholarship. That doesn’t stop him from partying hard when he visits home.
She groans. "Again?"
"For real this time."
* * *
The Hendrick’s farm has been transformed.
Gone are the rotting hay bales and empty beer cans. Many a hymen has been lost in a car parked here, but you couldn’t tell now.
I had imagined something small. A single tent. Stale popcorn. Half-broken bumper cars. I’ve been to little traveling carnivals like that, though in my lifetime even a small one has never come to Forrester.
This circus is something else entirely.
A man with a large belly and infectious smile welcomes every newcomer. “Come one, come all. Welcome to Cirque des Miroirs. We have everything you can dream of.”
Red flags ripple on high peaks. The wind is like a mother's hand, ruffling the scalloped fringes of the tents. Performers on stilts wear colorful costumes with sequins and flowing fabric and outrageous top hats. A woman wearing a red silk bandeau and a large black-and-white hoop skirt blows fire from a hoop.
The scent of popcorn and sweet cotton candy fills the air.
Mr. Campbell walks toward wooden picnic tables carrying a paper plate with a funnel cake. His children run to keep up, grabbing pieces of fried dough when they can, their faces already white with powdered sugar. Apparently he doesn't mind his money being used for laundering if it comes fried dough and powdered sugar.
A carousel plays a grand song while the animals—a horse with a large feather headpiece, a zebra wearing a three-piece suit, a giraffe whose head goes all the way through the mirrored top, a hole placed so that it can go up high—carry laughing children in circles.
Screams roar in the distance and then silence—a roller coaster.
“What?” I say, scanning the crowd. I spot a bunch of families I know–the Nolans, the Crosses, the Brandinis. And a bunch of people I don’t. Looks like we actually drew crowds from neighboring towns. This has never happened before.
Interesting on its own, but not enough to distract me from noticing them.
Kyle and his two friends are here. The biggest bullies in Forrester, even now that Kyle has gone to college. He should stay there on the weekends, partying, but at a huge school he is no longer a big shot. So he comes back every weekend so he can be the worst bully again.
Of course they would be here causing trouble, but the more disturbing part is the way they walk with purpose…away from the games.
Where the hell are they going? Or more specifically, who are they going to beat up?
I start to follow them.
Maisie runs alongside me, her shorter legs struggling to keep up with my digging strides. She puts a hand on my arm. "You don't even know that it's happening."
I give her a dark look but don't speak. It's always happening.
She sighs. "I wish you could forget about him."
I don't know which him she means, but it doesn't matter. I can't ignore it. I never could.
"Look," she says as if I'm a child to be lured by flashing lights. "There's a ring toss."
Sure enough, a good hundred blue-clear bottles lined up in neat rows. Not a single slender neck contains a ring.
She grabs me by the arm. "You can win a new iPhone."
Along with large plush animals and a new video game system, there's a pristine white tech box. Sometimes I hate being the cynical one. "That only means it's impossible to win. The box is probably empty."
"Come on," she says, wheedling. "It's only five dollars."
Ten rings for a dollar or five dollars for a bucket, the sign says. I refrain from pointing out the number of buckets that they'd need to sell to pay for a new phone. Instead I reach into my pocket and slap down two wrinkled five-dollar bills.
"Yes." Maisie claps her hands together, eyes narrowed on the bottles. "I'll get the next one."
A hardened-looking man swipes the money from the weathered wooden counter and drops an overfull tin bucket. It's heaped high with thick red plastic rings. Some of them slip down the side like melting ice cream in the sun.
I grab a ring and toss it like a miniature frisbee. It bounces off the pouting lip of one bottle onto another. Predictably it slides through a gap and falls to the ground, along with hundreds of other rings.
Maisie tosses two in the time it takes mine to land, one which goes wide. The other bounces so hard it flies over the end of the rows.
She whoops, uncowed by the misses. "Watch me," she says.
"I'm watching," I lie, keeping my voice casual.
I toss a few more rings alongside her for good measure.
And then when the next crowd of people come by, I'm gone. I let them move me like a wave in the ocean. I'm just a body in a sea of so many, connected—and then apart.
I'm deeper in the fairgrounds now.
There are more rides here. One is a large pirate's boat that gets swung in a giant circle, upside down, around an axis shaped like a shark.
Someone I knew from school stands in line, arm slung around his girlfriend.
I nod to them both, though it's more a question than a greeting.
"I saw them go that way," he says, gesturing with his chin.
His girlfriend makes a face at me. She thinks her boyfriend and I hooked up once, which technically we did. It was an awkward moment that went absolutely nowhere. I don’t know how to be sexy, or be normal for that matter, no matter what the gossip mill says.
"Thanks," I say, heading sideways.
It takes me through a couple of rides, behind them both. There are thick wires back here. Large steel plates that cover electrical equipment. I wonder how they got enough power outlets running to an old farm before realizing they must bring it themselves. Generators or something like that.
The sound comes from behind them. I'm walking through a row of beige trailers, the kind they used at the elementary school for overflow classes—until enrollment dropped low enough that they sold them to FEMA after a hurricane.
The music fades away. It sounds muted now, like an almost-forgotten dream.
A sharp cry makes the hair on my arms stand up.
It's cut off, but I catch the general direction. I take off running, kicking up dust behind me.
I round the corner in time to see Kyle land a kick to Travis's side.
"What the fuck," I say, not stopping as I turn the corner. I push straight into Kyle, taking him by surprise.
He's taller than me and outweighs me by a good seventy-five pounds, most of it muscle. It sets him back only a few inches before he stands tall, a twinkle in his eye.
I swear to God, sometimes I think he does this just to bait me.
"Hey, Sienna. Welcome to the fucking circus."
"Let him go," I say, trying not to look at Travis. And failing. His clothes are covered in dirt and something dark, probably blood. That part's pretty normal, unfortunately.
The part that chills me is his face, which is smeared in something white and thick and greasy. There's a rainbow-colored wig of curly hair on his head. A red circle nose has rolled off to the side.
Kyle's two friends are holding him down on either side. They have names, of course, but I prefer to call them Asshole #1 and Asshole #2. Like this is a backward small-town Dr. Seuss book with Kyle as the insouciant Cat in the Hat.
"What the hell did you do to him?"
Kyle grins. "I thought he should get the full circus experience. And let's face it, he's always been a clown."
I learned not to telegraph my movements a long time ago. Ironically, Kyle is the one who taught me that. That's how I take him by surprise.
My fist comes up and slams into his jaw.
He stumbles back.
Green eyes flash with danger. And then it passes, leaving only that terrible joviality. That's part of the game we play. He only takes out his anger on Travis.
"Let him go now."
"Or what?" Kyle asks with genuine curiosity. "It’s a nice right hook, but it's only going to get you so far.” He nods toward Asshole #2. “That one has had his jaw broken so many times I don’t even think he’d feel it.”
“Let’s find out,” I say, heading toward him.
I’m almost to him when I feel Kyle’s hands wrap around my waist and haul me back. I flail back, trying to hit him, but I can’t see from behind me.
Asshole #2 decides to leave Travis to his buddy and stand up, heading toward me.
“We don’t hit girls,” Kyle says.
His hands tighten on me–protectively, I think. Which is strange. I don’t have time to process that thought, because Asshole #2 smiles in a way that says he absolutely hits girls. And enjoys it.
Maybe I should be more wary of that. Maybe I should know better, but I’ve spent too long beating my wings against the chicken wire of the universe’s screen door to stop now.
“Then stop me,” Asshole #2 says.
“She’s mine,” Kyle says, reeling us both back. “You know that.”
Asshole #2 lifts an eyebrow that’s cut through with a scar. He’s full of scars, more reformed flesh than original. Schoolyard fights have turned into bar fights. They only ever seem to make him stronger. “I know you get first dibs, but what then? What happens when you finally stop teasing her and actually fuck her? You think I’m not gonna get my turn?”
My stomach turns over, but I force the memories back. This is no time for a mental breakdown.
I bump my ass back against Kyle. It’s enough to startle him, the contact of my backside to his front. He lets go, and I drop down in time to avoid Asshole #2’s punch. In the periphery of my vision, I see Travis scramble up and run toward the far end of the alley, but a chain-link fence on wheels stops his escape. As does Asshole #1’s fist in the back of his T-shirt.
All a hundred and twenty pounds of me gets directed at the back of Asshole #2’s knee. It’s enough to make him drop–hard. He grunts and then turns around, faster than I would have expected. He’s on me in a blink, his hand around my throat, stealing my air. I pull and scratch at his arm. It has no effect.
Kyle yanks at his other shoulder, but it’s no use.
That’s the problem with having violent minions who are stronger than you.
You never really control them.