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is it a crime to fall in love?

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She’s not the first to fall in love with the renowned circus master, and she won’t be the last. But the end of the world crashes and shatters upon Jenny Lind’s shoulders, splintering like shards of glass, piercing her deep with desperation. She doesn’t know what she’s about to do until she does it, pursued by frenzied wolves, lust dripping from their jowls, bleeding across their lips, teeth, and tongue; their closeness is too overwhelming, too overbearing, too overpowering to resist.

It is with a mingled sense of satisfaction, relief, and guilt that she leaves the stage. It builds up in her stomach with no sign of stopping, even late in the night when she sits, empty-bellied, in the hotel room, gazing hazily at nothing and everything that she can see in the dark. She does not—cannot—recognise it for what it truly is.

Loneliness possesses her every waking hour; the truth of knowing that not for one minute will he reciprocate her love is like a rising tide of agony. At least for one moment she got a taste of what she desired for so long without voicing it. At least for one moment she got to know what it might be like to love, and be loved in return, even if it was Phineas’ pretend voice in her head, in her pretend world where they might’ve been lovers on stage, a phantom daydream.

It was a beautiful dream.

And this is her ugly, mirror-smashing reality: there is nobody or nothing who she might love, and who might love her in return. There, in the newspaper, sits the caricature of her and the man she destroyed because of one impulsive decision, burning through her eyes, her forehead, her heart, like a fiery star burning out the last of its existence.

Is it a crime to fall in love, she wonders.

It certainly feels like it.

Her body drags through the days, feels like there are a hundred sunken ships weighing her down, pulling her deeper, deeper, to the bottom of the ocean, drowning and rotting like all waterlogged things do. The fish feast on her flesh and her heart fumbles, falters, freezes so ferociously at the thought of him; her face flushes, for a moment, unsure of whether she should laugh or burst into broken sobs.

Everything she has done crashes and shatters upon her shoulders, splintering like shards of glass, piercing into her skin, criss-crossing into her hands, her head, her heart, until she bleeds crystals that cut her fingertips when she tries to clean them. The sickly, sticky redness of blood clots over, blurs her vision; she is a smashed, irreplaceable piece of fine bone china that can never be repaired, ugly and useless, placed in a box and left to dust over for eternity.

She is pursued endlessly by the relentless, starving wolves that lick their lips frantically for one last taste of lust that they cannot find; darkness climbs up her throat in one black fog, makes her gag over and over as it bursts through her mouth and seeps from her lips, staining her teeth and tongue like charcoal. No amount of lipstick can cover it.

The rumours spread like wildfire: are you sick, they ask; is Jenny Lind dying, demand the newspapers. Her alabaster face is plastered all over the world for everyone to question of her what is wrong with you and her hands tremble as she reads, shaking the way the ground does before an avalanche; she is sure she will be buried six feet beneath the snow should the avalanche occur the way it feels like it’s going to.

She never drank alcohol the way she does now. She doesn’t get drunk—she’s never been drunk—but she drinks far too often for it to be healthy. It’s a state she doesn’t like to think she’s in; an I don’t much care for what happens to me kind of state.

She is not suicidal. Sometimes, on the darkest nights, when the fire burns and snaps at her feet, blinds her eyes with its flickering, its temptation of immediate danger, she wanders through the forests of her mind, seeking out the wolves with their bloodied, sensual jowls, following them, following, following, through branches and brambles, to a circus, where she spots the ringmaster from the crowd, waves, and falls in love, again, again, again, and dies, again, again, again. Sometimes, on the bleakest days, she lies, motionless, like a rock, sunken beneath the bedsheets, and considers taking a train, no plan, no money, and waiting, waiting, waiting for the inevitable.

She is not suicidal, but she thinks about death far too often for it to be healthy.

She doesn’t notice herself. She becomes a shadow, crawling across buildings, across cities, and the words Jenny Lind quits comfort her like a blanket she can depend on to keep her warm. Her hands tremble, electrified, fingers curling around the image of the ringmaster’s face. Lightning keeps her awake all night.

The truth burns, the guilt inflames, the pain intensifies. The bathroom tiles feel like running her fingers across ice, cracking with every touch. When she looks at her hand, pulls it up to her face, head swimming, blood coats her fingertips, dribbling into her palm, staining every crease in her skin.

I’m in love with him, she admits to no-one, and puts out the fire, smoking.

Dawn breaks, the remnants of a fire-blazed sky still in the air, holding on fervently, hoping desperately to keep the flames roaring; it’s a hopeless cause--a fine drizzle blurs the smoke fogging the day, snuffing out any flicker of fire. Charity Barnum’s face is ashen as she sinks into the dining chair, lays the newspaper on the table, and turns to Phineas.

What’s wrong, he asks, grateful the girls are in Phillip and Anne’s capable hands for the day.

Charity reaches for his hands, uncertain, and says softly, voice shaking, Jenny Lind is dead.

The end of the world crashes and shatters upon his shoulders.