2nd Place – David Anderson

Brody kept his head down, shielding his face from the cold, driving rain.  The dollar store poncho offered little protection.  No car had stopped for miles, and water squelched inside his boots.  Up ahead, he saw a bus stop and walked faster.  He had no money for the fare, but the awning offered some refuge from the storm.  He plopped onto the bench and shrugged his backpack from his shoulders.

He rummaged through it, retrieving a half-pack of peanut butter crackers and a framed 5×7 of his mother, taken before his junior prom last year.  God, how he missed her.  He’d hitchhiked out of Atlanta the day of her funeral, when his stepfather made it clear Brody was no longer welcome in his home. Other than the vague notion of visiting an aunt he didn’t know in Kentucky, Brody wasn’t sure where he was going.  Two men in Chattanooga had jumped him, taken his phone and all the money he had except for a $20 he’d tucked in his shoe.  Of that, he had $5.68 left.  As he put the picture away, a poster on the bulletin board caught his eye.

HELP WANTED

Moonlight Amusements Carnival—See the world.

Hiring able-bodied, sober applicants to assemble equipment, prepare food, host games.  No experience required.  Competitive wages, accommodations and meals provided. Apply at the ticket office.

“Looks like I’m joining the circus,” Brody said.

***

Forty-five minutes later, he stood in the ringmaster’s trailer.  The tall man eyed him suspiciously.

“How old are you?”

“Eighteen.”  That was a lie, but he would be in another month.

“ID? References?”

“No, sir.  My wallet was stolen, and I don’t have references.  I’m not from here, but I’ll work hard if you’ll give me a chance.”

The ringmaster frowned.  “You’re handsome enough.  You think you can call up people to play games? You have to be charming, loud, persuasive.”

“Yes, sir.  I’ll do my best.  I just need to make some money and find a place to sleep.”

His stomach rumbled, and the ringmaster’s eyes softened.  “And it appears, a meal. I’ll try you out.”

He rapped on the door and a burly man in a rain slicker opened it.  He handed the ringmaster a briefcase and looked at Brody.

“Ivar, you have a new roommate.  Show this young man to your trailer and then to the food tent.”

Despite his gruff appearance, Ivar proved to be friendly.  The tour he gave was brief, because of the late hour and the weather, but he promised to show Brody around more later.

As they approached the food tent, the delicious smells of cooked sausage, peppers and onions made Brody’s stomach rumble again, and Ivar laughed.

Brody ate until he was nearly sick.  The cook Charlene seemed to take pity on him.  She kept sliding things on his plate to try.

“What in the world are you eating?” he asked Ivar.

“I call it the Triple Bypass.  A fried chicken patty with swiss tucked inside a glazed donut bun with honey sauce.”

“Wow,” Brody said, then a movement at the tent door drew his gaze.

The most beautiful girl he’d ever seen looked straight at him. Tall and slender, with a mane of  blond hair that tumbled down her back, she was strikingly pale and wore a only a sequined bodysuit and ballet slippers.  Her eyes were also striking– a strange, golden color that was emphasized by the jewels glued to her face.  It was rude to stare, but he couldn’t look away.  She dropped her gaze and walked across to Charlene.  The way she moved entranced him, head held high, back straight—she glided like a queen.  The cook ducked into the adjoining tent and emerged with a briefcase like the one Ivar had given the ringmaster.  The blonde took it and walked back out.

“Stay away from her,” Ivar said.  “Her father is crazy.  This circus is built around her family’s act.  The Flying Kuznetsovs, great Russian trapeze artists. They are strange, reclusive people even in a sea of recluses.”

Brody didn’t see her again until the next night.  He worked the midway during the day, learning how to call the games.  He found it fun and easy work.  Even when his shift was over, he hung around the bottle toss booth with his new friend Dimitri.  He’d just ringed one of the bottles when someone behind him said, “You’re a natural.”

It was the girl from the food tent.  She was even more beautiful without all her makeup.  She smiled and kept walking.  He hurried to catch up.

“Hi!” He offered his hand.  “I’m Brody.”

She hesitated, then looked around before taking it.  “Ana.”

“Ivar said you are a trapeze artist?”

“Yes.”  She cast another furtive look over her shoulder.  “Are you coming to the show tonight?”

“Yes,” he said, though he hadn’t planned that until now.

“Maybe I’ll see you afterward.  It was nice to meet you, Brody.”  She hurried away.

At the end of the night, he joined the crowd inside the big tent and listened as the ringmaster introduced The Flying Kuznetsovs.

“Ladies and gentlemen, step right up to the greatest show on earth. You are about to see an angel fly, forty feet above the ground with no net! You won’t believe your eyes.”

Brody’s attention followed the spotlight at it focused on Ana, high on a tiny platform with a trio of blondes he would guess were her parents and brother.  Her outfit tonight was orange sequined.  She looked like a spark as she darted and tumbled through the air, being passed between her brother and father.  Just watching her made him dizzy.

He caught up with her after the show.  Though she’d just had what looked to be a brutal workout, she wasn’t even sweating.  She did look alarmed, though.  She grabbed his hand and pulled him to the shadows.

“My father…he’s very strict.  He does not like me socializing with boys. “

She had to be close to the same age he was.  How strange, Brody thought, but he didn’t say that.  She must like him.  Her small, cool hand was still clutching his.

“Meet me inside the Tunnel of Love in an hour?” she asked, then laughed.  “I’m sorry. That sounds so corny.  But we can talk in there.”

***

Brody was already waiting when she appeared.  With a smile, she took his hand and tugged him inside.  They walked the tracks in the dark.  He couldn’t see anything, but she walked without hesitation.  They emerged in a main chamber and she extracted a small candle from her jacket and lit it.

“There!” she said.  “We can see one another.”

They met there every night that week.  Mostly, they talked, but occasionally, he stole a kiss.  Brody had never met anyone like her, and he pitied the restricted life she led.  He was falling in love, and he couldn’t tell anyone.  Ivar would be displeased, he felt, and Dimitri had inexplicably left before they moved to the next town.  Ivar said to get used to it; circus people came and went like the breeze.

Brody became better at calling the games, and soon worked the midway at night. He hated that he missed Ana’s show, but they would always meet afterward.  He lived for those times, because she could never sneak away during the day.  Her father homeschooled her, and he seemed to have a relentless curriculum.

Toward the end of their second week together, Brody noticed Ana seemed distracted.  Agitated.  She asked, “Brody, do you think we could run away?  Far from here, where my father would never find us?”

“You want to leave your family?” he asked.

Her eyes looked so sad when she said, “Yes, but they would find us.”

No sooner had the words escaped her lips than an angry voice called, “Ana! Are you in there?”

She jumped to her feet and grabbed Brody’s hand.  “Run!” she gasped.

They wiggled out of a space between the tracks and the wall in the back, then darted into the fun house.  Brody lost her in the mirrors.  He saw only his own shaken reflection staring back.

She appeared right in front of him, startling him.  None of the mirrors surrounding them held her reflection.

“Ana, wha—“

Before Brody could process it, her father appeared, his expression angry.  Even in his panic, Brody noticed that he, too, had no reflection.  Ana stepped between them.

“Father, no!” she pleaded.  “Don’t hurt him.”

“Ana, you know what he is.  You know his purpose.”

“No, Father, please! Can’t we keep this one?”

“Do it, or I will.”

Ana turned to Brody.  Tears glistened in her beautiful amber eyes.  “I’m so sorry,” she said.

The last thing he saw was her fangs.  The last thing he felt was their sting as they sank into his neck, and the last thing he heard was his pulse throbbing in his ears as she drank the life from him.

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