Abby worked methodically through her stretches, just as she’d been taught to do after every practice since she was a young child. While she stretched, she watched with amusement as her friends Marco and Emilio flipped and somersaulted off of one another’s backs. Acrobats through and through, the brothers never really turned off their act. They tumbled all the way to a shallow wooden bucket in the corner of the tent. The next thing she knew, a wet rag was tossed at her face.
“Hey!” Abby laughed, but the twins only cackled. Marco, the fair-haired of the two, scooped up Emilio’s ankles and dove out of the tent, propelling his dark-haired brother in front of him like a wheelbarrow on hands.
Abby stood and sponged the sweat from her face and neck with the cool cloth. She quickly fixed her raven-coloured pigtails and dropped the rag back into the bucket as she exited the tent as well.
The Bellavia brothers were nowhere in sight, so Abby shrugged and went in search of her boyfriend. She wove easily back and forth among brightly-painted trailers and groups of circusfolk. The circus was like a small mobile village: nearly 150 members, talking, working, laughing, singing, and eating out in the sun. They had been camping in that spot for a couple of days as their main scout, Malachi, tried to secure a performance for them in the next city. The city of Dunnsville had been reluctant so far, but Malachi insisted he was close to persuading them.
It didn’t take Abby long to find Duncan. He was tinkering with his sideshow setup, as he often was when he didn’t have another job to work on.
“Hey handsome,” Abby greeted him as she approached. He glanced over his shoulder and smiled at her, straightening up from where he’d been kneeling on the ground.
“Hello there beautiful,” he answered, putting aside his tools and giving her a lingering kiss. “Have you had lunch yet?”
“Not yet,” she answered, brushing a strand of brown hair out of his eyes. “I spent most of my morning practicing with Marco and Emilio.”
“What about Snake?” Duncan asked, referring to the circus’s other star trapeze artist.
Abby shook her head. “She’s with Lee today. Her skin and hair were overdue to be dyed again.” Snake was an odd-looking woman; with black tea to dye her hair and another, more peculiar concoction to darken her skin, she looked just like the Asians who could sometimes be found doing work on the railways. Circus patrons loved to see foreigners in the acts. “Anyway, I thought we should get lunch together.”
Duncan grinned and kissed her again. “Sounds fantastic. Just give me a moment to clean up.”
Abby nodded and leaned back against a nearby trailer while Duncan packed his tools back into the sturdy canvas back he carried. She plucked absently at her fingerless fishnet gloves until he was ready to go.
Hand-in-hand, the couple walked toward the centre of the circus camp. As they passed through the set of trailers that contained some of the circus animals, the chuffing of tigers and the twittering of birds from Erica’s wagon briefly drowned out the music that came from the clowns several trailers away. They covered their noses as they passed Carter, the youngest animal trainer, shovelling elephant dung into a pile.
At the heart of the camp, several makeshift ovens and stoves had been set up for cooking. Only one of them was lit at this point, and standing next to it was Plamen, serving hot soup to a number of circus members. Not only was Plamen skilled at juggling and swallowing fire, but he was a good cook, too: many of the circusfolk had come to look forward to the days that he took on lunch duty.
Duncan and Abby helped themselves to a couple of old, chipped bowls and joined the queue for lunch. They didn’t have to wait long for their food. Plamen greeted them with the same quiet, friendly attitude he had for everyone; Duncan had no trouble striking up a conversation as the older man served them. Abby joined in, but she was distracted – she eyed the haphazard stove warily.
Plamen, who had always read people well, looked at Abby’s expression and said, “It’s only a small flame, Abby. It’s nothing to worry about.”
She glanced up at him and smiled sheepishly. Everyone in the circus knew that she was afraid of fire, but she was embarrassed nonetheless. “I know. I can’t help it.”
Duncan slipped his free arm around Abby’s waist and pulled her against his side, offering a moment’s comfort. The Albanian fire-juggler in front of them smiled. “You needn’t be nervous, it seems. You have this fine young gentleman to protect you.”
“Yes, indeed,” piped an older voice from behind the couple. “And how about that fine young gentleman takes the lovely lass at his side and gets out of my way? I’m hungry.”
Duncan and Abby turned, laughing. “Sorry, Eduardo,” Duncan apologized. The old magician grinned at them good-naturedly as they took their soup and found a place to sit on the grass and eat.
They weren’t very far into their meals when they heard a crash, a roar, and a yell from the direction of the animals. Duncan and Abby exchanged alarmed glances, putting down their bowls. Everyone’s attention was trained in the direction the noise had come from. Suddenly more yelling erupted from the same place. Duncan and Eduardo had both gotten to their feet.
“I’m going to go see what’s happening,” Duncan told Abby. She nodded, and he and Eduardo began to jog in the direction of the ruckus. Quickly dousing the flame in the stove with a nearby bucket of water, Plamen followed them.
Abby glanced around, realizing that she was now left alone with several of the children. Alfred stood up, craning his neck as if he might be able to see what was happening from where he was. “I wanna go too,” he started, but she quickly went over to join him.
“I think we should stay here,” she told him, looking to Leo and Elizabeth for backup. The two younger children nodded. Alfred looked at her, clearly conflicted, before sighing heavily and sitting back down.
“I guess we don’t have ta see it,” he decided.
“We’ll finish our soup first,” Abby suggested to him, “and then maybe we’ll go that way and see if there’s anything we can do to help, okay?”
He regarded her appraisingly for a moment, his big dark eyes calculating, then shrugged. “I guess probably that’d be good.”
She turned to the other kids and tried to smile. Behind her, she could hear more voices joining in on the yelling, and she thought she caught a whiff of smoke. Her heart pounded against her ribs.
Elizabeth turned to Leo and asked seriously, “Do you think anybody died?”
The youngest boy’s eyes went wide as saucers. “That was Terrence’s roar,” he agreed. Terrence was the circus’s resident lion, and it was true – the roar had been unmistakable. “Maybe he ate someone!”
“Don’t be silly,” Alfred told them with an air of authority. “Everyone knows Terrence don’t eat people. Erica said so herself. It’s the tigers what eat people.”
Abby laughed nervously. “Wow, you guys are full of stories!” she interjected. “But really, you shouldn’t worry. Nobody died. I’m sure everything’s just fine.”
The children weren’t paying attention. Their eyes were fixed on the distance above Abby’s head. She bit my lip, then finally succumbed to the urge to look over her shoulder towards the site of the chaos.
“Is that smoke?” Elizabeth asked. Abby froze, because Elizabeth was right. Something at the far side of the circus camp was on fire.
Abby tried to gulp down the fear that immediately bubbled to the surface of her emotions. She glanced back at the children, then towards the smoke again. One of the elephants trumpeted in distress, and she thought of the other animals – the tigers, the donkey, the birds, the dogs, the bear. Would they be all right?
Leo and Elizabeth began to babble excitedly, and even Alfred, who’d been trying to show how mature he could be, got caught up in their high-speed discussion. Abby was trying to figure out how to work out what was going on without leaving the kids when Carter approached at a jog from between the trailers.
“What’s happening?” Abby blurted, unable to remain entirely calm.
Carter ran a hand through his hair, looking stressed. “You know how we’ve been training Terrence with the hoops, right? Well, Erica and Alec agreed he was probably ready to try the flaming hoop shtick sometime soon. He’d done okay with little fires, right, and he’s great with the hoop-jumping. So Alec tried it for the first time today, but Terrence panicked. He knocked the hoop over. It should’ve been fine, but the hoop hit a coil of rope, and the fire got all the way to Terrence’s wagon. The whole thing’s gone up in flames.”
The children grew even more excited, but Abby felt her oldest fears turning in her belly. She glanced down at them and grabbed Leo’s and Alfred’s wrists before they got it in their heads to run off and see. “Doesn’t Alec keep water nearby when he does the fire tricks?” she asked desperately.
“Of course he does, but only enough for the hoop!” Carter replied. “It only takes a bucket! They’ve got a water line going down there, something like thirty people, plus about a dozen trying to get Terrence in hand. You can only imagine how frightened he was when his wagon caught.”
Abby bit her lip, begging herself not to cry. Next to her, Leo clutched her shirt with both hands, suddenly frightened. “Is- Is everyone all right?” Abby asked. “How do you calm down a panicking lion?”
“Erica wanted to gas him, but they couldn’t even trap him long enough for that. Fyodor had to knock him out with a blow to the head. Terrence wasn’t down long, but it was long enough for them to throw down a net and get him tied.”
Elizabeth shrieked, unable to contain herself. “It’s okay, sweetie!” Abby tried desperately to comfort the little girl despite her own growing terror. Elizabeth threw her hands into the air.
“Fyodor knocked out a lion!” the girl cried, wide-eyed. She didn’t seem to know what she should do with the information. “Fyodor knocked out a lion!”
Abby let go of Leo, who had relaxed slightly when Carter said that Terrence was knocked out, and pulled Elizabeth against her side. Then she looked back at Carter. “Will Terrence be all right? Won’t that hurt him?”
Carter made a face, clearly uncertain. “Yeah, it’ll hurt him, but not nearly as much as he might hurt someone else if he got loose in that state. He may not want to cooperate for the next few days.”
Abby took a few deep breaths and held the children close, trying to calm herself down. There was a bit less smoke in the sky now. “But everyone is all right?”
“Nobody’s hurt, aside from a few small burns,” Carter promised. Then, seeming to know what she was thinking, he said, “Duncan’s fine. When he heard Erica tell me to get out of the way, he asked me to come back here and let you know what was going on. He knew you’d be worried.”
Abby blew out a long breath, trying to let go of all of the anxiety that had gathered in her middle. The tears she’d been fighting sprang into her eyes. Then, still wound up, she pulled Carter in for a hug, too. Despite being four years her junior, he was quite a bit bigger than her. Awkwardly, he patted her back.
“Thanks, Carter,” Abby murmured, trying not to get too emotional. The prospect of fire frightened her more than she cared to admit, but knowing that it was being well taken care of helped her calm her nerves. The fear had been like a spring coiling in her gut, and now it was released, striking her other emotions powerfully.
It was early the next morning when Abby slipped out of her trailer and headed for Duncan’s. Normally she waited until after breakfast to see him, but she’d just woken from a nightmare and needed some comfort. His best friend and roommate, Carol, was already up; he was outside the trailer stretching and beginning to get moving for the day. He met Abby’s gaze, but said nothing, only nodding amiably. She nodded back and quietly opened Duncan’s trailer door.
Duncan was still asleep, laying on his side with his back to the wall. Abby left her shoes on the grass outside and tiptoed through the trailer toward Duncan’s bunk. Doing her best to stay quiet, she climbed into the bed and slid under the covers, nestling close to Duncan’s front.
Duncan knew instinctively, without having to wake up very much, that it was Abby who had come to join him. Hers was a familiar weight on his mattress. Sleepily, he stretched his arm across her side and pulled her in close.
With a sigh of relief, Abby rolled over and tucked her back against Duncan’s chest, happily allowing him to curl his large body around her smaller form. One of his arms was wrapped snugly around her middle, the other outstretched so that it hung off the bed. She laid her head on his bicep and let herself relax. With one deep breath, she blew out the tension that had coiled inside her since she awoke from her bad dream.
It didn’t take her long to doze off again, feeling safe and warm with Duncan in his bed. She was vaguely aware of the sounds of birds outside, and of Carol slipping back into the trailer to grab a few things and leave again, and of the scent of Duncan’s body permeating the blankets that fell across her shoulders.
Then Duncan began to move next to her, and she woke again. He mumbled something unintelligible but affectionate in tone, and she rolled over once again to nuzzle his chest. He smiled sleepily and kissed the top of her head.
“Good morning,” Duncan eventually managed, sweeping his hand down Abby’s side.
“Is now,” she agreed with a tiny smile.
“Everything all right?” He blinked a few times, trying to wake himself up, and then looked down at her with concern.
“Yeah.” She reached up to comb her fingers through his bangs, a lazy attempt to neaten his bed hair. “I had a bad dream, is all. I’m good now, though.”
“All right. As long as you feel better.” She nodded, and he smiled broadly at her. “I must say, you’re a very fine sight to wake up to in the morning.”
“If I’d woken up here, rather than in my own trailer, I’m sure I‘d return the sentiment,” Abby teased.
Duncan laughed, and then, suddenly, he rolled on top of her and pinned her down. She let out a small yelp of surprise, but was cut off when he lowered his face to hers and kissed her. After a long moment, they separated, smiling.
“Would you care to join me for breakfast?” Duncan asked cheerfully.
“Certainly,” Abby answered, biting back a grin.
Soon Duncan lifted the whistling teapot off the stove and poured hot tea into a mismatched pair of teacups. He placed them on the little table in his trailer and took his seat, picking up his fork and choosing a small piece of ham from his plate. “So what was this bad dream about?” he asked Abby across the table.
“It was a bit silly, really,” Abby admitted self-consciously as she felt Duncan’s foot land lightly on top of her own beneath the table. “I just… I dreamt that yesterday’s fire got out of hand, and people got hurt. And then no one got Terrence under control, and he was attacking people, and then all of a sudden all of the animal’s trailers were on fire and they were all going to die, and…” she trailed off, looking upset.
Duncan’s expression softened, and he reached for her hand across the table. “It’s not silly, love. I mean, for starters, fire is a completely natural thing to be afraid of…”
She nodded half-heartedly. “I know. I just felt so useless yesterday, and I hated it.”
He smiled and squeezed her fingers. “Listen, the whole circus is thrown off from yesterday’s chaos. Dougal wants me and some of the other guys to go back over there and see what we can do about a temporary wagon for Terrence. Erica had to keep him sedated all night long, because we had nowhere to put him. There will be a lot of people helping out. Why don’t you come along and see if there’s anything you can do?”
Abby bit her lip. “I should be practicing today…”
Duncan lifted his eyebrows at her, chuckling. “Come on. Snake’s always sore the day after dyeing, and you can’t honestly expect Marco and Emilio to stay away from a scene like the one we’ve got down by Terrence’s trailer. There’s no way you’ll really be missing out on anything.”
“Well…” Abby hesitated a moment longer. “If Dougal says it’s okay. He’s the one who wants us practicing so much lately. He wants our audiences to really be able to see how much we’ve improved in the year since they’ve seen us.” Dougal Fortherbird was the owner and ringmaster of the circus, and Abby often took his word as law.
Duncan grinned. “I guarantee he’ll be down there this morning. You can ask when we arrive.” He pointed at her plate with his fork. “Finish up. We’ve got to get moving.”
She nodded and quickly ate up what remained of her breakfast. Once they had finished their tea, Duncan gathered up his tools and put them into his tool bag along with the journal he kept on wagon repairs. Together the pair stepped into the bright morning sunlight and headed through the circus camp toward the animals’ trailers.
Nearly half the circus seemed to be milling around in that area, but it didn’t take long for Abby to find the young ringmaster. His rich baritone voice and trademark striped tailcoat made him stand out in any crowd, even one of circus performers. He was standing near Erica’s bright red-and-blue trailer, now slightly scorched at one corner.
Dougal Fortherbird had his hands on Erica’s arms. The old woman looked exhausted – she had dark circles under her eyes, and her usually square shoulders sagged with fatigue.
“Get some rest,” Dougal was directing her. “We’ve got plenty of help. Alec can look after Terrence. You need to sleep.”
The head animal trainer sighed. “Very well. Terrence needs to be fed with the sedatives every two hours. And someone needs to take care of Josep; he hasn’t been fed.”
“It’ll get done,” Dougal promised. He turned her around and pushed her gently toward the open door of her trailer. “Now get some sleep. If it’s too noisy out here, Lee’s offered to let you rest in her wagon across camp.”
Once Erica was shut safely in her trailer, Dougal turned his attention to Abby, who had been waiting patiently. He pulled a silly face at her, letting her know in his own way what a long morning it had already been. “What can I do for you?”
Abby chuckled at her boss’s antics. “I… I wanted to know if I could be of some help this morning,” she said self-consciously. “I wasn’t around to help yesterday, and I feel badly.”
Dougal shook his head. “Don’t. You looked after a few of the children, I understand, and kept them out of the chaos, which is help, even if it doesn’t feel that way.” He smiled at her, then turned his gaze to the crowded scene around them. “As for today, you can see that it’s a bit disorderly, but I’m sure you can make yourself useful. A number of the men are working on constructing new quarters for Terrence… We’re a bit shorthanded when it comes to animal care for the day, though. Erica, as you may have guessed, was up all night long looking after the lion. Alec’s taken over now, but frankly, he’s not much better. Carter and a few of the others have been trying to take care of the regular duties, but it seems they could use another set of hands.”
Abby nodded. “Sure, no problem.”
“Thanks.” Dougal patted her on the shoulder and then made his way towards where Duncan, Carol, and some of the others were inspecting the charred remains of Terrence’s wagon.
Abby soon found herself helping Carter feed Josep, the circus bear. They were tossing fish from a bucket through a gap in the bars of his wagon. The big brown bear snorted and chuffed as he munched away on the fish, seeming content with his meal.
“Abby, can I ask you about something?” Carter said suddenly. Abby looked up at him in surprise, but he was still focussed on his task.
“Sure, go for it,” she answered.
“Are you afraid of fire because of how your parents died?”
Abby stalled. After a moment, she replied, “You know about that?”
Carter threw the last fish into Josep’s trailer and finally turned to look at her. “Alec told me,” he explained. “Your parents left you with Fortherbird senior for the night to go into town for business. They got caught in an inn fire.”
“Yeah.” Abby looked at the ground.
“I don’t mean to upset you,” Carter went on. “I was just thinking… I understand how that would make fire frightening, especially because you were so young. But, you know, I just thought… well, the fire here yesterday didn’t really hurt anyone.”
Abby didn’t answer; she didn’t know what to say. Hesitantly, Carter stepped closer to her, reaching out and putting a hand on her shoulder.
“I was just thinking,” he said again, “that maybe you can learn not to be so scared. I know that Duncan sent me back to talk to you because he knew you’d be frightened when you saw smoke. But I think the part of you that gets so scared is the part of you that’s still young and missing your parents. Maybe you can teach that part of you that it’s not so bad.” He cast a glance over his shoulder towards the circusfolk that were trying to construct a new trailer. “Nobody’s hurt. Everyone worked together to take care of the fire, and we’re still working together to get back on our feet from what did get damaged. You know? It didn’t destroy us.”
Abby looked up at him again. The young man’s face was sincere. She swallowed and tried to smile. “You’re right on that part, at least,” she admitted.
Then she drew him in for a hug again. This time he was slightly more prepared, and he embraced her in return.
“Thanks, Carter,” Abby said when she pulled away from him. He nodded and offered an encouraging smile, holding out the empty bucket.
She took it from him and headed back toward the others, setting her shoulders and resolving to look at the fire’s effects with a different eye.