I wake with a start as a hand raps on the door. Harper shows herself inside.
“Wake up, Rochelle,” she says as she rushes around the small space, her tail twitching madly. “Rehearsals for tonight’s show are now.”
She throws some clothes at me and I sit up, my back and thighs still in pain from the beating. I wince at the fresh memory. I was so weak... if I wasn’t human I could have taken him on and beaten him... killed him…
But I’m not a vampire anymore.
I slowly slide my shirt off, my bra streaked with sweat and blood, and I painfully accept Harper’s offering by slipping my arms through the holes and sliding it over my head. It is a plain tank top that hangs loosely over my torso. It has a cinch at the bottom, the string pulling it right over my hips. I stand up, holding the edge of the bed to steady me, and slide off the ripped blue genie pants and into a pair of tight-fitting shorts.
Harper turns around, now that I’m dressed, and gives me a cheerful smile, as if trying to erase the pain of last night.
“Alright then,” she says. “I hope you’re feeling better. We have a lot to cover today.”
I nod and rub my neck, jumping as my fingers brush a welt. I follow her out into the morning sunrise, something I marvel at for the moments I can see it, and into the big tent where Hilda had been slapped the night before.
I shake the thought away as we step inside.
In the center, there is a large ring, creating something like a platform. Around that is a large area, probably where they parade animals and whatnot. Around that, there is a ring of railing that has an opening in it by the entrance of the tent. The audience’s seating area stands around that.
People of all shapes and sizes and colors stand talking and stretching and warming up inside of the big ring. A few of them look up at us as we walk into the circle.
“Great improvising, guys,” a woman with a beard calls to us.
Harper basks in the compliment and I nod stiffly.
“You ruined the show,” another woman who looks like a man barks at us, her muscles bulging from underneath her leotard.
Harper looks at her with a smirk. “Ah, come off it, Tanya. At least our show was entertaining. Come on, Rochelle.”
She takes me gently by the arm and we walk away toward the other side of the ring.
“Okay,” she says. “I’m going to teach you the basics of our routine. It’s going to hurt because of what happened—”
Before she can finish, the front flaps of the tent fling open, and the Ring Leader steps through, wearing all black. It covers every inch of his skin and his black eyes fall upon the people inside, who had all stopped to stare at him in shock. In one hand is his cane, helping him walk, and the other holds a pair of sunglasses, circular and large.
“He never comes in here during the day...” Harper whispers to me.
His eyes snap over to us and a look of smugness slides across his face as he spots me. Part of me wants to cringe away, but the other part of me wants to stand strong and tell him that he wasn’t able to break me, although he had.
“I’m sure you are wondering what I’m doing out here this early,” he says, smiling beneath his glasses as he replaces them. “I have come to watch, and make sure nothing goes wrong.”
He sits himself down on one of the middle rows of the audience’s seats. I feel a wave of fear go through me.
He came to watch me. To make sure I was doing what I was supposed to do. The only problem is... is I don’t even know what that is yet.
Everyone just stands in awe, watching the Ring Leader. I can feel the tension in the room rise, and I can almost see the fear on the carnie’s faces as I look around. I shift my eyes back on the Ring Leader, and he’s peering at me over his black sunglasses. His eyes are black as night as he smirks at me.
I feel the fear grow, and then I suppress it by crossing my arms. I won’t be afraid of this man. Fear is not in my vocabulary. Not anymore. Not ever.
He smiles and shakes his head, chuckling. Placing the sunglasses back onto the bridge of his nose, he shifts his weight in the seat and gets comfortable.
“Well?” he asks the crowd of performers. “Start from the top.”
The crowd scrambles, but I stand there, staring at him. What am I missing about this man? There’s more to him, and I know it. I just don’t know what.
Harper pulls at my arm, the pain in my back reminding me of the episode the night before.
“Come on. We’ve got to get you ready, and I have to teach you the tricks. We can’t mess this up. Not this time. Not after...” she looks at me with sad eyes and then started to walk.
I was taught a lot of things, like how to stand on a tight-rope and not fall off, for starters, and I had to learn the routine. A few flips here and there, a few poses and stretches, and then we were done, and it was time for us to go up. My brain whirrs with the amount of steps I had just learned. The pressure is on, and there is no chance of getting it off. I can’t fall, can’t slip, and can’t miss one move. If I do, I will fall to the ground and die, and if I don’t do it in that particular order, the Ring Leader will definitely make sure it happens that way.
My heart beats fast as we step out into the ring. The first move plays in my head, followed by the rest. Though I’m still human, I learn at the pace of a vampire. I guess the brain never changes, no matter how much you do.
Up the ladder we go. I look over at Harper, who gives me a warm smile to encourage me.
There is none of that being done at that moment.
Fear has entered back into my vocabulary as I climb the rungs to the tightrope and look down at the ground. The recent slip up I’d made the day before makes me not even want to test my luck with this rope anymore.
I sway as I stare down from the platform, and I glance back up and close my eyes, my stomach lurching. I let go of the bar behind me and I feel like I am going to fall because nothing is holding onto me.
It’s this or die.
I can do this. Just one foot in front of the other on a very, very narrow path…
I give Harper a nervous nod, and we start out across the rope.
I make it over to her, and she smiles happily. We do a slight turn and a small bow.
“To the bars,” she whispers, and we leap.
My hands firmly wrap around the one I jumped for, and I pull myself up to sit on top of it.
I’m facing away from Harper now, who I know is sitting just as I am. I pose and swing, then fall backwards, hanging from the backs of my knees. I see Harper jump to me as the bars swing closer.
I miss her hands.
She whips her tail up, and I grab it. She poses, stiffening a howl at the sensation of her tail being pulled. I swing her back toward her bar, and she climbs up easily.
The rest of the routine goes well, flips and poses and contorts and all.
That is, until the dismount.
We were supposed to leap from the bars down to a net that is brought out. Harper does it gracefully from her bar, and I watch as she stands up and bows. She motions up to me, and I smile, looking at the Ring Leader. His glasses are off, and his black eyes are staring at me.
I start to feel dizzy and I drop to the ground.
When I say the ground, I don’t mean the net.
The dirt hits me hard, like a truck going eighty miles an hour. I know, because I’ve felt it.
I lay still, everything hurting and colors swirling around me. Something’s broken. I can feel it. Something isn’t right about my body anymore. I am broken.
But something inside of me is changing.
And then, there is darkness.