Everywhere Grace went, she felt Lor’s eyes on her. She had been avoiding him since the other night; there was something about the weight of his gaze that made her feel ashamed - ashamed to have given up, ashamed to do what she was told. Every time Grace was forced to go up on stage, every time the music started and she swayed almost against her will, she felt more and more sick. Sick of this life, sick of how she was being treated, sick of accepting it all instead of fighting back.
She wondered if it wasn’t time for a change.
Three days after she’d met Lor, Grace sought him out. She knew where the stagehands slept, and when she walked into the dingy tent, only a few dirty looks were sent her way. Most were curious, some jealous when they saw her heading towards Lor, sleeping slumped against the fabric walls of the tent. Grace nudged him in the shoulder, and he jarred awake. “Wha- huh?” he blurted, glancing around frantically before settling his eyes on her. “Oh. Hi.”
“Hi,” Grace replied. “Come with me. They need you backstage.” It was past midnight, the shows were over, and yet the request wasn’t that unusual. Many boys were still working; Lor was lucky to have gotten any sleep before being put to work again.
Lor nodded, following without question. He followed her out of the tent, past the arena, past the vendor booths and game kiosks closing up for the night. He followed her all the way to the wooden pallets on the edge of the property, too far to be seen by those who weren’t looking. When Grace sat down, Lor sat down next to her.
For several minutes, neither of them spoke. Grace was still going back and forth on her decision - doubting herself, reassuring herself, feeling sick, feeling bold. Lor watched her in concern, but she didn’t acknowledge him at first.
“I want to leave,” Grace admitted, expelling her words like one would spit out poison sucked from a wound. The moment they left her lips, she felt calmer, and repeated, “I want to leave.”
“Okay,” Lor agreed. “Then leave.”
“I-“ she stopped, paused. “I have nowhere to go.”
Lor gave a half shrug, looking out over the field. “You don’t need to have a destination in mind. You can just… go.”
Grace was quiet for a minute. She rubbed her thumb against the rough wood of the pallet, feeling the splinters slide under her skin. “Come with me.”
Lor didn’t meet her gaze. “I can’t.”
He didn’t answer, just looked at her. “I’m sorry. I wish I could.” His tone was softer as he went on, “You’re going to be just fine. In fact, you’re going to be better than fine. You’re going to be a star.”
Grace frowned. “What are you going to do?”
“Stay here,” Lor answered. “What else is there to do?”
“Come with me,” Grace urged, placing a hand on his bony wrist. “I can see how much you hate it here. We can run away together, find real jobs somewhere else.”
Lor snorted. “Very few places give jobs to twelve year olds.”
He had a point.
“But…” Grace trailed off. There was more than mere hesitance to leave him in her voice; there was fear, definite fear. She was terrified to go out on her own, without people next to her, telling her where to go, how to dress, what to say. Grace knew nothing about the world, nothing about money or work. The world was huge, and she had seen only a fraction of the place. What else remained that she knew nothing of?
Lor’s eyes were closed when Grace stood up, but at her movement, they opened. “Where are you going?”
“I’ll be back soon,” was all she said.
Grace picked her way back across the pallets, then returned to the fairgrounds. It was late, but there was still a flurry of activity as everyone went through the night’s closing routine. After spending so long at the carnival, Grace knew just where Uncle Wes’s tent was, and she knew that he wouldn’t be in it until he had collected every bit of money and checked in with every vendor.
Uncle Wes’s tent was large for one person, and extravagant on the inside. A trifold dressing mirror and a bed were along one side, with a black varnished dresser and velvet chair on the other. The persian rug splayed across the middle of the tent was rich with color and intricate design, and was soft under Grace’s bare feet as she padded towards the locked cabinet in the back. Her fist closed around the iron lamp on top, and she brought it down hard on the gorgeous wood. It was a shame to ruins such a beautiful piece of furniture, but that beauty was tainted by its association with Wes. Her anger fueled her blows until at last the wood splintered.
Inside the cabinet lay sever thick wads of cash and a decanter half full of a caramel-colored liquid. She took everything, wrapping it in a linen scarf of Uncle Wes’s and hurrying from the tent. Grace had a few skills, and being quiet and light on her feet was definitely one of them.
By the time Grace made it back to Lor, he had fallen asleep again. She nudged him on the shoulder as she sat down.
“You’re back,” he stated.
“Yeah,” she replied. “Look.”
Lot’s eyes grew wide as he took in her spoils. “Wow,” he breathed, his eyes wide. Lor turned his gaze to Grace, filled with concern. “You can’t go back now. They’re going to come looking for you.”
“How will they know it was me?”
“I get the feeling Wes always knows,” Lor replied sagely. Grace shivered as a chill ran up her spine. He was right again.
“Yes, well, we have some time. Or I have some time - you’re staying,” she muttered, not meeting Lor’s eyes.
“I have to,” Lor said. “Unless…”
Grace looked up. “Unless what?”
“There’s a lot of money there,” he said. There was a pause. “My family sent me here to work. They need the money, and I can’t let them down. But that’s more than I’d make here in years; I could send some to them from that until I find a better job.”
“Somewhere else?” Grace asked, unable to keep the hope from her voice.
“Somewhere else,” Lor replied. “That is, if you still want me along.”
Grace smiled, and Lor smiled back. She held up the glass bottle. “In celebration?”
“Yeah,” Lor agreed, watching as she took a swallow, coughed and handed it to him. “To freedom,” he said, raising it slightly.
“To freedom,” Grace repeated, her voice barely a whisper.
Lor took a drink, and passed the bottle back. “So, what now? Where do you want to go?”
Grace shrugged. She looked out at the field, up at the stars. “Anywhere,” she replied. “Anywhere at all.”
A smile ghosted across Lor’s face as he followed her gaze out into the night.
“Sounds good to me.”