The music was low, soothing, and pretty. It was the perfect reflection of the girl who swayed and danced, her long skirt obscuring her dirty, calloused feet and the leg that hung stiff and useless. There was a hint of aching sorrow in the melody, and the girl latched onto it, incorporating it into her dance, letting it feed her movements. She tried for a brief twirl, then faltered, her lame leg awkward as it caught and held her back. She fumbled, stumbled, and when she recovered she saw the sympathetic smiles of the people in the front row. A queasy feeling twisted in her stomach, but she quelled it by squeezing her eyes shut and returning to flowing with the ups and downs of the music as if it was all part of the plan.
The girl ended her dance in a final pose, her locked leg jutting out at an angle that wasn’t too awkward. As the music faded, she stood, her figure slight and hunched. Her eyes darted around enough to show endearing and hesitant acceptance of the attention, but not enough to bring an air of suspicion. It was a careful balance, and not one easily perfected.
“Ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause for Grace!” Uncle Wes’s deep voice encouraged, magnified to a terrible volume by the microphone he held. In the small arena, his words echoed, reverberating off the tent walls. All-encompassing.
The bright lights blinding, Grace couldn’t see Uncle Wes’s face as he added, “The personification of her name, how magnificent.” There was a smile in his tone, and it had the intended effect on the crowd. The applause crested, then tapered off as Uncle Wes joined Grace in the center of the stage. His velvet suit was crisp and clean, its color matching the small purplish bruise peeking out from his collar.
Uncle Wes rested a large hand on Grace’s shoulder, and she didn’t react. No one noticed her forced smile; it paled next to the large jovial grin that Uncle Wes directed at the audience. Grace knew that every one of them felt as if that smile was directed at them - especially for them. From a distance, at least, it came across as charismatic, charming. Upon closer inspection, Grace knew it as the type of smile an arsonist might give, one last flash of calm, of reassurance, saying everything will be okay even as his fingers struck the match.
“So, Grace,” Uncle Wes began, smiling down at her. Even standing on the tips of her toes, she would hardly reach his broad shoulders. “How old are you?”
“Eight,” Grace replied, flashing a slight, nervous smile at the audience. Like everything else she did under the accusing lights, it was a lie.
Uncle Wes beamed like a proud parent, his hand stroking the crest of Grace’s freshly brushed hair. The dark strands tangled around his fingers, and she held in a wince when his golden ring caught on a knot, pulling it sharply. “Eight!” he exclaimed to the crowd. “I wish I could dance like that when I was eight. Or when I was forty-eight, for that matter,” he added with a wink, as if the entire arena shared some kind of inside joke. They laughed. Grace offered a little smile.
When the last of the chuckles had faded into the humid air, Uncle Wes took his hand from Grace, raising it in a gesture to the crowd as he encouraged, “One final round of applause for our graceful Grace! Then be ready to welcome the Gaffrey Boys and their tiger Lairz!”
As the applause started up again, Grace managed a bow just awkward enough to be endearing, then limped her way across the stage, her dead leg dragging uselessly behind her. She pushed through the curtains, letting out a breath as the darkness enveloped her once more. As usual, the backstage was cramped, hot, and disorganized. Scanning the prop table, Grace located her beaded purse, empty now, but hopefully soon to be filled. She waited for the tiger to pass in front of her, looking docile and cowed, before heading over to fetch her purse.
“Watch-“ a voice hissed in alarm as a pole rammed into Grace’s back, shoving her forward into the spot that the tiger had only just cleared. She stumbled, but caught herself on both legs. The person behind her made a small noise of surprise. Grace whirled, scowling.
“Watch what you’re doing,” she growled in an undertone. The boy looking back at her was thinner than she was, and had smudges of dirt on the side of his face. He held a brightly painted rod in his hand, the one which had presumably caused the current throbbing in Grace’s back.
Grace shrugged him off, turning and stalking over to the prop table. She plucked the beaded bag from the pile of juggling clubs and knives, then headed for the exit. It was a relief to step out into the relatively cooler night air, a slight breeze drying the sweat that clung to Grace’s skin. She took only a moment to savor the feeling before adopting a limp once more and heading to the main entrance of the tent. In her head, she shifted into the mindset that had become a second nature to her.
Only a few steps from the backstage entrance, a voice called, “Wait! Hang- ah-“
A bony elbow drove into Grace’s side, and she went down in a tangle of limbs, not all hers. Laying on the grass, Grace found herself pinned beneath the backstage boy from a moment ago. “Are you actually trying to hurt me?” she demanded, scowling at him.
Looking sheepish, he rolled off her, then offered his hand. “I’m sorry,” he said again.
With considerable reluctance, Grace took his clammy, calloused hand and pulled herself up. She brushed her dress off, noting a green spot that marred the pink fabric like a rash. Pointing at her hip, Grace accused, “You stained my dress.”
“I’m sorry,” the boy said again.
“Is that all you can say?” Grace demanded, scrutinizing the boy’s face in the low light. It was long, gaunt, and the color of the caramel-dipped apples that the vendors sold. His white shirt was loose, cinched at the cuffs, and bore several dark stains. Grace wasn’t surprised.
“I, uh,” the boy glanced behind him, half turning to point, “I tripped over the chord.”
“The chord that holds up the tent?” Grace asked, narrowing her eyes.
The boy rubbed his neck, clearing a spot of dirt. “Yeah.”
Grace gave a half sigh, then turned to resume her half-walk, half-limp towards the front of the tent. “You’re new.”
“Yeah,” the boy said again. There was a beat of silence before he continued, “I really am sorry. I’m just kind of clumsy-“
“-And… well, wait,” he said, changing gears. “You’re limping again. And earlier, on stage. But you moved your leg when I, um, hit you with the pole, so-“
“So?” Grace challenged, stopping in her walk and fixing him with a stare.
He blinked those large, brown eyes, looking confused. And betrayed. “You’re lying about…” he gestured towards her leg.
Grace’s jaw tightened. She brushed a strand of hair behind her ear and glanced towards the front of the tent. People were beginning to trickle out; she needed to be there. “Listen, I’d love to explain the circus business to you, but all you need to know right now is that I need to be there,” she said, pointing, “and if I don’t meet my quota tonight, it’s your fault. So leave me alone?”
The boy seemed shocked, or at least surprised. He took a step back. “Yeah, uh, yeah. Sorry. I should, um… right.”
Grace turned away before he did, limping the final distance to the front of the tent and plastering on the humble, sweet smile that she had worked at for months now. She took up her spot in the center of the two doorways, holding out her little bag and prompting, “Change? Spare change?”
Some people passed right by without even a glance, but that was to be expected. The others made up for it, taking in the awkward way Grace held her leg and giving little smiles of sympathy. Women nudged their husbands, standing by and straightening the veiled, feather hats on their heads as their husbands dug out some coins. With every clink in the bag, Grace’s chest eased little by little. She would meet her quota, she thought. Tomorrow’s dinner was secure, and, if she was lucky, she might get a chance to wash more than just the visible parts of her skin.
The final man to leave the tent was Uncle Wes, clapping a well-dressed man on the back and laughing over some fading joke. The man hefted his silver cane, muttered something to Uncle Wes that made him smile, then turned to escort his wife away. Uncle Wes wasted no time in turning to Grace, putting a hand in the center of her back and pushing her gently into the tent, out of sight. “Your purse,” he prompted with no preamble, holding out his hand.
Grace felt a little twist in her stomach as she dropped the bag into his palm. He weighed it by feel and smiled that goddamn smile. “Good night.”
With a little nod of affirmation, Grace agreed. The tent arena felt too quiet all empty, and Uncle Wes’s presence was stifling. She wanted to be back outside in the fresh air and away from him.
“Run along now,” Uncle Wes said, granting her the dismissal she needed. “You know the drill.”
And Grace did. Don’t get in the way of the crew, don’t speak to the guests. These rules didn’t bother Grace. She was good at being a ghost among people, and she looked forward to her dismissal every night. After all, ghosts didn’t have rules, didn’t have someone directing their every move. They could do what they wanted, go where they wanted - as long as no one saw them. And nobody ever saw Grace.
That’s why it came as very much a surprise when Grace heard footsteps leading up to her hiding place - a discarded stack of wood palettes at the very edge of the grounds. It was quiet there, peaceful, and away from the flurry of activity that the carnival brought every night. She would be sad to see her spot disappear in a less than a week when they moved on to the next city.
At the noise, Grace turned, her hands gripping the edge of the pile of palettes, ready to push herself off and hide if it was Uncle Wes. It wasn’t. Instead, it was the same boy from earlier, picking his way across the broken wood. Grace watched him for a second before saying, “Don’t trip this time.”
“Trying not to,” the boy replied, as if that was taking quite a bit of his concentration. In the moonlight, Grace took a moment to really look at him, beyond his face. He seemed to be about twelve, though it was hard to tell whether he merely appeared so due to his emaciated figure. He didn’t have shoes.
“Be careful,” Grace advised, pointing. “There’s a nail there.”
The boy squinted down at it. “Thanks,” he said.
When he sat down next to her on the palette, Grace tried not to be annoyed that he was invading her private spot. They sat in silence for a minute, only the distant sounds of the people and animals drifting over from the circus. If Grace had to guess, she’d say it was past three in the morning. “How’d you know I was here?” she asked, her voice quiet in respect for the silence around her.
“I saw you walk over,” the boy answered.
“Why’d you follow me?”
“I-“ he stopped, then looked down at his feet where they dangled, not reaching the ground below the stack of palettes. “I don’t know. I guess to say I’m sorry. For earlier,” he clarified.
Grace looked out at the rocky field in front of them. “You said that already.”
“I know. But I don’t think you believed me.”
With a half shrug, she replied, “I believed you. It’s just your apology doesn’t change anything.”
“Oh,” the boy answered. “So, um, what can I do to make it up to you?”
“Nothing,” Grace replied. “It’s done.” She paused, closed her eyes. “That’s how everything is. Words later don’t change the past. Intentions don’t dull pain.” Fire Felix, the fire-eater, had always told Grace she was wiser than a girl her age should be. Grace had never thought that true. All girls her age should be this wise, or at least they would be if they had dealt with the life she had.
The boy looked unconvinced. “That’s depressing.”
“You’re new here. Just wait,” Grace promised, bitterness staining her voice. Eventually, she looked over at him. “What’s your name?”
“Loren. But most people call me Lor,” he answered. “You’re Graceful Grace, right?”
Grace didn’t bother to hide the disgust in her face. “I’m whoever I have to be.”
Lor didn’t reply to that. He turned his gaze towards the black night sky, littered with the pinpricks of light that tried persistently to break through the darkness. “The stars are pretty today.” He leaned back, laying flat against the wood and staring at the sky. After a moment, Grace mirrored his position.
They lay there in silence for so long that Grace wondered if Lor had fallen asleep. She glanced in his direction, but found his eyes open and searching the sky as if it held some kind of answers for him. He looked over at her, meeting her eyes. “Why do you lie about your leg?”
Grace broke eye contact. “It’s just the way it works,” she said. “The more they feel bad for you, the more money you get.”
Lor frowned. “But if you didn’t bother, you could dance really well. Not that you don’t already, but you could be, like, really good. Wouldn’t that be better than some sympathy money?”
It took effort for Grace not to laugh. “You think it’s my choice?” She would love to go out there in front of all those people and dance and twirl like she knew she could. But that wasn’t her purpose.
“Oh,” Lor muttered. He was quiet for a long time. Grace wondered how long it would be before he became like the rest of them - hardened, cynical, tired. His voice barely above a whisper, he asked, “Are you happy here?”
Grace scowled at the sky. That wasn’t a question she was used to hearing. “I used to think so.”
Of all the things she said, that might be the one with the most truth to it. For a while, Grace really did think she was happy. The circus didn’t seem real to her; it seemed like an odd interlude in an already odd life. It always felt like this adventure would one day come to an end, and she would return to her old life and pick up where she left off. It never felt like her real life, just some limbo.
“And now?” Lor prompted.
There was a long pause. “I started spending a lot of time with the animals a while ago,” Grace began slowly. “They always looked so sad in their cages. Just tired and sad, like each performance took everything they had. Then I realized - they’re just like me. They were forced to perform, to do tricks, to attract people and money with a pretty face and an exciting name. But it’s all just false, false advertising,” Grace muttered. “You see them behind the scenes and they’re just… broken. They don’t even fight to get out of the cage, ‘cause it’s where they belong.”
Grace had her eyes fixed on the stars, but she could feel Lor’s gaze on her face. “This circus is my cage. But I think it’s where I belong.”
Lor seemed to be struggling for words. “But don’t you- do you ever… Can’t you leave?” he managed. “Do they keep you here?”
“Where would I go? I don’t have money or family. All I know is this,” Grace replied. “And some of the performers here are nice to me.” Or at least they didn’t shove her aside and sometimes spared a few words.
“And that’s enough for you?”
Something in Lor’s tone sounded almost accusatory. How dare you settle for so little? Grace’s jaw tightened as she replied, defensive, “Well why’d you come, then? If you have so much going for you on the outside.”
Lor looked away. “I don’t. I just- I was… I was hoping that you did. I mean, you could get out of here, go somewhere where you can be yourself. Where you don’t have to lie all the time. At least I don’t have to do that,” he said, “The work is hard and doesn’t pay well, but at least it’s honest.” He spoke in such a matter-of-fact way this time that it didn’t seem he was judging Grace. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that; judging was all she was used to.
Grace muttered something too low to hear.
“What was that?” Lor asked, turning towards her again.
Grace didn’t want to repeat it. It sounded fake, hollow and unimaginable. Ironic that so many lies dripped from her lips like honey, but one leaden truth weighed down her tongue. Warm fingertips brushed her arm, and Grace looked down in surprise.
“It’s okay,” Lor assured her. Something about his touch was reassuring, grounding. It made everything more real. After spending so long in her own head, having someone else willing to talk, willing to listen… The last time Grace had such a person was before she was sold. She was slowly starting to realize that this wasn’t a phase in her life that would pass. She wasn’t going to return to her old life. This was her reality.
Drawing in a breath, Grace repeated her words, only a breath above audible, but clear. “I don’t remember who I was. Who I am.” A flicker of confusion passed over Lor’s face, and Grace clarified, “You said I could go somewhere I can be myself. I don’t know who that is anymore.” Grace closed her eyes, and the stars lingered on her eyelids.
Fingers threaded in between hers, and she welcomed the touch. Lor was a boy, and she was a girl, but it wasn’t like that. This was just a simple comfort between two people too young to be adults, but too jaded to be kids. They were lost in the same way, and it wasn’t until then that Grace realized how nice it was to not be alone on the outside. She felt the first cracks forming in the icy façade she had fashioned for herself, the protective web of lies that kept her safe. But even as her defenses slowly melted, Grace couldn’t bring herself to resent it. It had been so long since she had felt the relief, the warmth of letting the truth escape from where she kept it locked up, deep inside.
Still, Grace knew that the life she had here was delicate. The balance relied on focus, dedication, and the total absence of attachments. It was what the industry thrived on, what it exploited. A week in each town before disappearing. No attachments. A trapeze accident in rehearsal. Regrettable, but it came with the job. Attachments formed strength, formed distractions. And Uncle Wes could afford neither of those. Grace made the money; she couldn’t be distracted, she couldn’t be given something to rebel for, especially not by some expendable stage hand.
One mistake on Grace’s part, and the consequences were clear. Lor would disappear.