Two serpents—one red and one white—slither between the mountains, hissing in the night air. The Cahuenga Pass is packed. Cars with businessmen harboring thoughts of warm chicken dinners, whiskey, and television are winding their way back to the suburbs after a long day of work.
Christine would kill for a chicken leg right about now.
She sits at the base of a eucalyptus tree near the bridge straddling the 101 and lights up a cigarette, running a hand over her greasy, lank hair. She smells bad.
She’ll do the decent thing and take a whore’s bath in the morning. Then ride her thumb up north. Maybe to Monterey. Even though there was shit-all there but cold fog, hippies, and drunken cannery workers. Still, it’ll be easy to disappear.
Hitchhiking out of Barstow with three dollars in her pocket hadn’t been the best idea, but she’d rather take her chances on the road than go back to that house. She’d spent enough years scraping over Ma’s mean words, hoping to find love within the spite. It was stupid.
Christine stubs out the cigarette and opens the tin of Vienna sausages she’d bought with the last of the money from her piggy-bank, clawing through the slimy jelly to the pink, salty meat and licking her fingertips. It isn’t very good. Nothing about this situation is.
She eats every bit, then beds down for the night, covering her ears with her jacket as the Santa Ana winds howl through the trees. She’s drifting into the deepest realms of sleep when she hears music. At first she thinks it’s her mind going over the rails with hunger. The tune is old-fashioned and off-key, like music from one of those dust bowl sideshows her grandpa was always talking about. Christine raises her head, listening. The music grows louder.
She stands, trying to catch a sense of where it’s coming from. It’s ink dark. Except for the yellow glow coming from below the shoulder of the mountain—light that hadn’t been there before.
Christine walks toward the crest of the ridge. The music gets more boisterous. And there are voices now—high shrieks of laughter, too. She jogs a bit, her heart picking up its cadence. As she reaches the lip of the canyon, a tent lit by a roving spotlight emerges into view. It isn’t anything fancy—just the white canvas pole sort revival preachers use, with Christmas lights strung around the entrance. There are people milling around. Some of them are juggling fire, some are tumbling. A fortune teller’s booth glows red through its open door and a popcorn stand sets her stomach to growling with the fragrance of its salty, sweet wares. The source of the music is an accordion player, strolling back and forth before the opening of the tent, a cigar clenched between his teeth.
Christine lies on her belly between the scrub sage and watches the hobo circus.
The voice is soft, familiar. She looks over her shoulder and sees a girl standing there, one foot tucked behind the other like a ballerina. She has on a leotard spangled with purple stars, her brown hair pulled into curly pigtails above each ear, a swipe of blue eyeshadow on each eyelid. But Christine knows her immediately. She scrambles to her feet, face to face with the girl who had invited her to sit at her lunch table when Christine was the new kid in third grade. The friend with which she’d shared every dirty secret and stolen cigarette—as well as the kiss that showed Christine who she really was. Beth.
“I thought you moved to Iowa,” Christine says.
Beth smiles. “Oh, I did. But I came back. We came back. For you.”
Beth shrugs, her sequins winking in the dim light. “The Carnival. It’s where you belong, Chris.”
Christine laughs. “Run away and join the circus! Now ain’t that something?”
Beth turns on her heel. “Yes, it is. Come on. You must meet the Ringmaster.”
Christine shakes her head. There’s something off about this whole thing. Still, she follows Beth down the hill, her scuffed-out Tretorns whisking through the dry chaparral. What else was she gonna do?
When they get to the bottom, Christine sees that the carnival is bigger than it looked from her vantage point on top of the hill. The white tent is high and broad, with aerialists swinging from the trapeze above, their hands reaching out to grasp one another’s wrists and ankles as they flip through the air. A moustached puppeteer operates a marionette with a blank face, its legs painted black, arms ending in lobster claws. A woman dressed in the green scales of a mermaid submerges in a tank of water, her wrists bound behind her. She smiles at Christine through the glass, her blonde hair floating around her face.
Beth grasps Christine’s hand, pulling her along. “The Ringmaster will know which act suits you best. He always knows.”
“If this is a circus, where’s the audience?” Christine asks.
Beth laughs, a sound like the tinkling high keys of a piano. “Silly. We don’t need an audience. We just need each other.”
Beth pulls her through a curtained door, the multi-colored glass beads clacking behind them. The room is small, clouded with cigar smoke and incense. A man sits in the corner, his portly belly clothed with a gold and green houndstooth vest, wearing a stovetop hat like Abe Lincoln. He looks up at Christine and smiles. His teeth have shreds of tobacco stuck between them, and his brown eyes are a bit yellow through their whites, but it isn’t an unpleasant face. It’s comfortable and soft, like an old pair of shoes. “Ah, Christine. We’ve been waiting for you to show up.”
“How do you know my name?”
“Our Bethany has been telling us all about you.”
Christine pushes back the nervousness shuddering through her. Things are off-kilter. The room’s walls waver and flicker like the flame of a candle. “Where am I?”
“You’re right where you belong, my dear.” The Ringmaster stands, his rounded body taller than expected. His hat nearly touches the ceiling. “And you,” he says, pinching the end of her nose, “will make a splendid levitating woman.”
Christine wrinkles her brow. “What do I have to do?”
“Just be yourself, darling. We’re all ourselves here. The rest will come—only trust.” He makes a flourish with his gloved hand. “Bethany will help you find a costume. Something in silver, perhaps, to match those marvelous, stormy eyes.”
Beth pulls her hand again, and they go through another beaded curtain into a storeroom of sorts, stacked with trunks spilling elaborate fabrics, feathers, and jeweled headdresses. Christine pinches the sensitive skin on her neck with her fingernails, testing to see if this is all a dream. Nothing changes.
Beth picks through the costumes, holding them beneath Christine’s chin, clucking and shaking her head.
“Have you missed me?” Christine asks, locking Beth’s blue eyes with her own.
“Of course I have. That’s why I’m here. That’s why you’re here.”
“I told Ma. About us. About the way…I am.”
Beth stops frittering around and takes Christine’s hand. “I know.”
A single tear slides from Christine’s left eye. “She said I was an abomination and no child of hers. So I left.”
Beth leans in and kisses her cheek. “It’s okay, Chris. No one will ever come between us again. Not here. You’ll see.” She holds up a shimmering column of white fabric, shot through with prismatic shards of silver. “There, this is the one.”
Beth helps Christine into the gown. She can’t help but cover her mouth with her hands when she sees her reflection in the warped looking glass of the dressing room, her smile widening as she turns from side to side. The dress is clinging and soft, lifting her curves in all the right places. It emphasizes the length of her neck, the beaded bodice shimmering against the paleness of her skin and the darkness of her hair, which is no longer lank and greasy, but billowing around her shoulders in soft waves. How?
“Ah. One last thing.” Beth produces a tiara shining with elevated stars, fixing its curving headband against Christine’s brow. “Now, you’re who you’ve always been. Come, let’s introduce you to the others.”
Within the arena, the other performers part to allow her through to the center. For a moment, Christine doesn’t realize her feet are no longer touching the dirt floor of the tent, but hovering a few inches above it. It’s a disconcerting feeling. Panic floods through her and she becomes earthbound once more, her bare toes curling into the dust.
“Don’t be afraid, my dear,” the Ringmaster says, “You were made for this. Nothing can hurt you now.”
“Yes, you are one of us!” the mermaid exclaims, now free of her tank and braiding her wet hair with quick fingers.
Beth nods in encouragement, and Christine closes her eyes. She breathes in and out, letting her arms float out to her sides. When she opens her eyes again, she’s hovering near the top of the tent. Panic churns low in her belly, and she plunges toward the faces looking up at her. “I’m not afraid!“ she cries, and floats up again like a bubble of air in a lava lamp. She laughs, and the others laugh with her.
“Only…how do I get down?” she asks, feeling a bit like a kitten stuck up a tree.
“Just think of down,” the Ringmaster says, as if this is the most logical thing in the world. So she does, and drifts to the floor, her gown made of stardust billowing behind her. The other performers cheer. Could she be happy with this group of revelers and misfits? To float and fly, and travel the world? Beth leans in and kisses her, full on the lips, in front of everyone. And for the first time in sixteen years, Christine feels she might know what “home” truly means.
On top of the mountain, a station wagon with a tray of red and blue lights flashing from its roof pulls off the bridge and parks to the side of the road. The officer climbs out of his patrol car, a grim look shadowing his face. He eyes the massive limb resting at the base of the eucalyptus tree, a pair of worn Tretorns peeking from beneath its branches. He picks up the radio transmitter at his belt and lifts it to his lips. “I’ll need an ambulance and the coroner. That young girl who went missing from Barstow last week? I think I just found her.”
Those of you who have read The Night Circus by the wonderfully talented Erin Morgenstern will no doubt see where part of my inspiration came from with this story. But it isn’t the only source. About three years ago, before I read The Night Circus, I had a dream about a circus. But it wasn’t an ordinary circus—it was a sideshow made of ghosts who had lived lives that were less than satisfactory—caught up in their yearning for more. A sort of purgatory, yet not an unhappy one. This circus, or carnival, was a place for misfits and dreamers—for those who didn’t fit in.
When I was writing this story, I remembered my own teenage years in the ‘90s, when it was risky to come out as gay, or queer, or bisexual, or anything else beyond the heteronormative. The ‘90s have this reputation as being a renegade decade, but it really wasn't. If you were different in any way, you risked teasing at the very least. And at the most? Well, let’s just say Christine’s situation wasn’t rare, even as late as the early 2000s. The stories of homeless gay teens who had to fend for themselves after being turned out by their religious parents is horrific. Things are slowly changing, but it does us well to remember, even though “coming out” is still an undeniable act of bravery, there was a time when being different wasn’t safe, even in the free-wheeling, open-minded ‘60s and ‘90s. This story is meant to be bittersweet. The purpose of historical fiction isn’t only to entertain, but to show us the error of our ways, and shed light on the past, so we will hopefully learn our lessons for the future.
I’ll be posting two more short stories within the month of October to complete my triad of dark tales set in Los Angeles. Next? A story of four old friends who gather every Halloween at the Chateau Marmont. Only this year, something goes terribly wrong.
This story was written as part of the #GrimList project on Twitter, started by Harlequin Grim