The circus, really. Like Sarah’s six years old and willing to be pacified with a bag of kettle corn and a bunch of clowns leering at her from inside the ring. She’s thirteen and she knows why they’re here: because S still feels guilty about dragging the two of them across the pond (shit, shit, all shit, it’s an ocean, it’s huge, it could drown her) and Felix is easily bought by S’ guilt field trips.
Sarah isn’t. As soon as the clowns get in the ring she wriggles through the bleachers to the underneath and makes a run for it before S can reach through and grab her hoodie. It’s better down here – more honest. All trampled cotton candy and dropped tickets and nasty butter-smeared popcorn bags. Sarah can see everyone’s feet and she could probably take more wallets but that isn’t the name of the game this time, the name of the game is just getting out.
She makes it out of the tent, out into the summer sun: the hot blue bowl of the sky, the grass brown and flattened as far as she can see. Terrible place to pitch camp for a circus; it looks like shit out here. Even the tent is dusty and faded, colors bleached out by the sun. Sarah shoves her hands in her pockets and wanders off into the trailers behind the tent. She doesn’t know what she’s looking for. Maybe she’ll be the world’s worst cliche and run away to join the circus; she could shovel elephant shit, grow that work ethic S always wants for her.
All the trailers are shitty, too. The trash has blown out of the tent and back here, so clown faces grin at her from pamphlets no matter where she looks. Maybe she won’t join the circus. It seems sad.
There’s no life anywhere, no tigers in cages to poke at or acrobats who have alcohol they’d share. Just Sarah—
—and a hand tapping her on the shoulder. She whirls – nothing. Hand on her shoulder. She whirls – nothing. Hand on her shoulder and she grabs it, yanks it. The hand is attached to an arm is attached to a girl Sarah’s age, who stumbles before she falls into a neat somersault and then watches Sarah from the ground with the easy satisfaction of a cat.
“Lost,” she says, word heavily accented.
“Anyone ever tell you it’s rude to start poking people?” Sarah says, aiming for a snarl but not managing it. Mostly because she’s baffled. The girl on the ground is skinny but muscled, and her hair has the shittiest perm Sarah has ever seen. It’s got dirt in it now. She’s wearing an overlarge wifebeater and that’s dirt-smeared too; ragged jean shorts, bare feet. She wiggles her toes when she sees Sarah looking and Sarah scuffs the dirt with her boots, refuses to admit she’s ashamed.
“Tell you rude to go looking,” says the girl. She sits up, shakes her head like a dog; the dirt does not come out. “Go watch show. See clowns. Clap. Buy food.”
“Why don’t you.”
The girl shakes herself out into a one-handed handstand before she walks both her hands away from Sarah and jumps back up to standing. She bows in a flourish. Sarah doesn’t clap, and the girl wrinkles her face into a frown before pointing at one of the trailers.
“House,” she says. She stomps a foot in the dirt. “Home.” She points to herself. “Helena.”
“You’re a kid,” Sarah says.
Helena shrugs at her, a gesture involving too much movement – all flopping of limbs, like she’s been taking lessons from the clowns. She stares at Sarah, then at her toes in the dirt, and then abruptly grabs Sarah’s hand and tugs her towards the trailer.
“Hey,” Sarah says. “I’ll kick your arse, you got that? What the hell are you—”
The inside of the trailer is filled with – trash, really, just trash. Dolls and candles and stage makeup scattered haphazardly around the tiny tin-can space. It’s easily the most disgusting place Sarah has ever had to step inside of, and she’s about to snarl that out before she notices Helena pointing enthusiastically to a pile of blankets in the corner. There are food wrappers in it. There’s a bed across the trailer, but Helena is pointing at the pile of blankets like it’s something to be proud of. All of Sarah’s mean proud anger drains from her in a second. She’s changed her mind: she is never ever going to run away and join the circus.
“Wow,” she says weakly. “Cool.”
“Yes,” Helena says. “Much cool. They feed me. I like.”
Somewhere in the distance Sarah can hear clapping, faint, hardly audible. S has noticed she’s gone by now. The clowns are over, maybe, but there’s still time – intermission hasn’t even come up yet. Sarah feels a sudden homesick ache; surprisingly it’s not for London but for that spot in the bleachers she ditched, Felix’s hands sticky from kettle corn, the way S frowns when she thinks Sarah isn’t looking. Only she can’t sprint back towards the tent, because Helena is looking at her with something like hope.
“You learn how to juggle?” Sarah says, shifting from foot to foot, desperately trying to find the gap in this conversation she can duck through.
Helena brightens. She grabs a baby doll’s head, a plastic-wrapped Twinkie, and what looks like a knifethrower’s knife and Sarah is about to say something like hey or stop but then they’re flying. Effortless. Helena’s face turned open, unfolded into something like holy. Sarah wants to touch it – not the things flying in the air, but the space between them. She doesn’t. Eventually the knife flips, and Helena catches it at the expense of the Twinkie and the doll head. Clunk goes the second one on the floor, rolling until it watches Sarah with blank eyes. Helena bows again. This time Sarah claps, laughing a little bit, only slightly hating herself for it.
Helena flips the knife into the air and catches it, over and over again. “Me,” she says. “When eighteen. When speak English. Maybe acrobat. Maybe clown.” She shrugs. “Nobody tell me.”
Sarah leans against the thin metal wall, feels the heat of the sun beating down on the outside of the trailer. “You gonna come back?” she says. “To Toronto – I mean – the circus, yeah? Is it gonna come back.”
Helena shrugs. She throws the knife idly and it sticks in the middle of the wall, vibrating. “No plan,” she says.
Helena looks at Sarah. Sarah looks back. She feels so conscious of her hoodie, her shirt, her jeans ripped for fashion and not from overwear. She’s wearing makeup. She smeared it, to make it look like she’d been wearing it for days. Helena has dirt on her face. Stupid of Sarah, to go wandering through here – but they both know that, don’t they.
“I think I gotta go back,” she says slowly. “To the tent, I mean. Before my m—before someone gets worried.”
“Yes,” Helena says, eyes darting away. “I will show.”
I know the way back, Sarah thinks, but she lets Helena kick the door to the trailer open anyways and she follows Helena outside. Helena dances around her in small movements as they go – clown-prances, acrobat-flourishes. Her bare feet are knowing in the dirt. The tent rises above them, and Helena leads her past the ticket booth – says something to the man running the booth in a tongue that isn’t English, hurried syllables. Then she grabs Sarah’s wrist and tugs her towards the flap of the tent.
“He says go,” Helena says. “Knifethrower now. Maggie. Very good. My m-someone.”
“Thanks,” Sarah says, and she’s not sure what for. For the trailer? For bringing her back? For telling Sarah that her mom is in the middle of the ring and she’s holding knives in her hands?
“Yes,” Helena says. She tilts her head to the side. “What is name.”
“Sarah,” Sarah says.
“Sarah,” Helena echoes. She scuffs her foot through the dirt. “If circus comes back. Come see. Come find me. I can get good seat.”
They’re all shitty seats, in the tent. “Thanks,” Sarah says. She swallows down a lump in her throat. “Yeah, I’ll – I’ll come back. See you throw knives or somethin’.”
Helena smiles at her, a weird and wrinkled thing. “Bye bye,” she says.
“Bye,” Sarah says. She lingers by the flap for a second and then goes back into the tent, elbowing her way through the bleachers until she finds her seat. S is still there, and Fe – mouth smeared with pink cotton-candy sugar. Easily bribed, is her Felix.
“There you are,” S hisses, too angry to be anything but worried. “You can’t just run off—”
Sarah hugs her from the side, awkward and tight and with too many elbows. It’s fast and it’s over before S can hug her back and then Sarah’s shuffling over so there are a few inches between them, avoiding S’ stunned silence. In the middle of the ring a woman is throwing knives; she looks like a knife herself, fast and flat-faced. When the knives ring around her target she stops, and holds a smile in the corner of her mouth, and turns to the audience to bow. It’s the same bow as Helena’s bow, and Sarah is clapping and clapping and clapping and she can’t stop.