That night I slept on the spare bed in Luka’s trailer. We heard news the next morning about the Viglio’s beating up some thugs—I knew Mick would be okay. Luka’s desire to keep me from catching something was thwarted when I woke up with a fever. He relayed this to the others and I was stuck in bed.
Being sick meant I had a lot of time on my hands. Luka anticipated that with school work I was behind on. You’d think being acrobatic would give you insight into geometry, but it didn’t and I resented the triangles and their little X’s.
I managed to get better around Piedmont, and Luka revoked my punishment out of pity. Two weeks without performing set my nerves on edge and a hunger for the acclaim was building. But one couldn’t go straight to performing without practice and it was another week before I was back in condition.
I flew through my routine to give it an edge. Faking a few slips and dropping a ball or two. I felt invincible the moment the mask was on and I pushed my limits with cartwheels and a double front. I should have taken more dare but the applause…it shook through me.
Every night we performed I pushed as far as I could and in practice I pushed further. I had to find something that made me the best. I could tumble, juggle, and walk the tightrope. I practiced with torches and knives. No tightrope artist I knew of juggled either on the high-wire.
Multiple lines could give me more options, but we didn’t have the equipment for that. I would have to make do. Fire juggling I practiced alone, and knives only with the older children. I cut my hands, burned my fingers and bruised my whole body but—I had to be the better. I had to be the best act in the show.
After each show I watched my mask in the mirror become more and more life-like and took it off with more and more regret. With it, I could do anything, and as the crowds grew with my daring, I knew it was responsible. It was making me better.
We were fast approaching the biggest stop of our tour. The one night we competed with Rouvelle for an audience. It was Chicago and two stops after we’d be making for winter camp. Luka had promised me a place with him, but if I made the impression I hoped to, I’d be wintering with a bigger crew.
It didn’t matter if Everhart thought the knives were show-ready or not, I had to impress the scouts Rouvelle would send to poach the best acts.
And then—I’d be a star.
It was an hour till I went on, but I couldn’t stay still. I was finished with set up, and I paced the costume change room. Marie came running in, panic on her face. “Eva! I’ve torn my skirt!”
Already on edge, I snapped, “And what do you want me to do? Stop being a baby and fix it yourself.”
She started to cry.
“Go away, I’m busy.” I turned away and stalked to the make-up counter. I heard her run out, and in a tiny quiet voice.
“You’re mean Eva.”
I should’ve cared, but I didn’t. All I could see was my performance. My name in lights. What did it matter if one little girl’s feelings were hurt? I’d gone through worse. What did she have to cry about?
I sat down, taking the mask from its box and stroking the cheek. With it, I would have everything I wanted. I took the time and care with my costume I never had before, ignoring the others coming in and out. My last task was put on the mask.
I took out of the box with care, pressing it my face and tying the knots. I felt ready the moment the knot was tight and my blood buzzed with excitement. The mask’s smile echoed my own and as the act before mine wrapped, I tucked the knives I would juggle around my waist and hurried out.
This was my night to shine.
The darkened stands held more people than I’d ever seen in our show before, and they were all cheering. Everything else was unimportant just then. I climbed up to the high-wire, pausing when the light was on me.
“Ladies and gentlemen. May I present the acrobatic, the amazing, the princess of the high-wire, Eva!” Everhart’s stage voice thundered out over the crowd. There were more cheers, but I waited until they settled. With my left foot forward, I eased onto the rope. The walking was easy for me, it always had been.
I did a quick cartwheel to draw out some gasps before flipping onto my hands and swinging down to scare them a bit more. After a sufficient length of dangling, I pulled myself up and settled onto the rope. I walked a bit further and pulled out the first knife and sent it spinning into the air and a second later another, and another until I had four gleaming blades whistling through the air.
The only risk was to my hands, the line was too strong and no one was below me. Close to the end of the rope, I caught them—one at a time—and tucked the away. I made it to the platform and took a bow.
But I wasn’t quite done. With no care for the knives, I pulled off the cartwheel and somersault I had added weeks ago, bouncing into the net.
I climbed out, bowing again to show them I was all right. I took time to bask in the applause and tossed flowers, collecting a few before I scrambled back to the changing room. My heart beat faster than ever and my skin was warm all over from the thunder of the applause. Everhart would yell at me and Luka would lecture—but it didn’t matter.
“That was quite something,” a man stood, smart in a grey suit and shiny shoes, just by the entrance to the changing area.
“I’m Mr. Stuart. I work for Rouvelle,” he held out a crisp white car, “I don’t suppose you’d be interested? I know Everhart isn’t much for contracts.”
I took the card and pushed up the mask. “No, he’s not.”
“A masked, daredevil high-wire act would do well with us. Let’s say we meet again. How about tomorrow afternoon?”
“Where and when?”
“The diner down the street, two o’clock?”
I was going to be a star.
That night, Marie didn’t speak to me over dinner. Everhart and Luka both gave me looks that promised trouble but I went to bed feeling special. I was going to make it big, at last.
The next morning, there was an air of danger. Something wasn’t quite right in the circus. Marie wasn’t in her bed. She never woke up first. I shoved my feet into shoes and went out into the early morning haze. Maybe she went for breakfast…
Something…something was wrong. I started to run, and it wasn’t until I reached the Big Top that I knew even where I was going. The early risers stared as I went by and some called out, but I had no time. When my eyes adjusted to the light inside I saw her, a tiny crumpled form in a yellow nightgown.
“Help!” I screamed out the doorway before rushing to her side. “Marie? Marie?”
There was blood on her forehead and hands. I could see in my mind’s eye how she must have slipped off the wire and smacked her head into the side of the net before falling to the ground. She was breathing though. Short, shallow breaths.
“Please be all right…please.”
I heard the sound of running feet as people rushing in from the outside.
Mr. Grant, one of the hands, knelt down to get a better look. “Call an ambulance!” He snapped at the nearest idle person. “Wake Luka and Everhart!” Three youngsters hurried off and the grizzled man looked to me, “What happened?”
“I woke up and she wasn’t there…I had this feeling and…” I shook my head. “She must have fallen. I don’t know what she was doing up there.”
Yes you do. Proving to me she wasn’t a baby.
Luka arrived soon after, and I got out of his way, and everyone else’s.” When the ambulance came to take her, Luka went too. I went back to the trailer and made breakfast for the other kids—hotcakes. I gave them the news and kept myself busy with washing up. Sunk deep in my guilt.
I tried to distract them all with stories and games. It was well past dinner when Luka came home, without Marie.
Before anyone could ask, “She’ll be okay. A bump on the head and a broken wrist. They’ll release her in a couple of days.”
The relief struck me to the bone, and I sagged a bit. I was so sure she was hurt really bad.
“It could’ve been worse. Eva, I need to talk to you.” He left the trailer, and I followed him back to his own. The door closed behind me with a snap.
“I know why she tried that trick.”
“I’m sorry Luka—I shouldn’t have—”
“What’s done is done Eva. Apologize to Marie.”
“Of course, I will.”
“You’ve been acting strangely Eva. Not just to Marie either. You took Bess’s practice slot, you haven’t done any schoolwork and overall, you seem to think you are the star of the show. That stunt last night could have gotten you seriously hurt. You know how Everhart feels about performers changing their shows without letting him know. It’s not just a quirk; it’s to keep you safe.”
“Everhart is so busy looking to himself; he doesn’t notice anything around him.”
“I know you’re upset your father isn’t what you expected, but don’t you dare take that out on the rest of the circus. People are going to be watching us after what happened to Marie. The police are asking questions.”
Questions? I’d be discovered. They’d send me back to my mother…and I’d missed my appointment with Mr. Stuart. I had to call him.
“I have to go. I have a phone call to make,” I pulled open the door. “I am sorry about Marie, Luka, I am.”
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you weren’t the same person Eva,” he called after me. “You need to think about your priorities!”
I was. I really, really was.
I rescheduled with Mr. Stuart, who had already heard about the accident. I was to meet him after I saw Marie at the hospital, at a little restaurant just a street down. He seemed excited to talk to me and seeing as he agreed to reschedule, I was sure it was genuine. More, I’d called Rouvelle to ensure he was who he said he was.
You couldn’t be too careful.
Marie was awake when the whole troupe of kids and Luka…and surprisingly, Everhart, arrived in her room.
She had a bandage around her head and a splint on her left wrist.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you. I didn’t mean it.”
“It’s okay. I’m the one who did something really stupid.”
I’d scrapped together a gift anyway, and gave it to her. It was a patchwork, stuffed monkey. The nose was a bit off, but it was a last minute sort of thing.
“”Thank you,” she smiled, “I love him. I’m calling him Chester.”
“I—I’ve got to use the bathroom.” I ducked my head and hurried out. Now, I just had to make my appointment and get back without raising suspicion. I couldn’t take too long. I felt a small twinge of guilt but—Marie would understand.
“It’s a test contract. You work with us on your act between here and our next stop and when we get to the New York show we’ll debut the act. If it goes well, we’ll write up a more long-term contract.”
The piece of paper in front of me was still offering more money than I’d ever earned. I couldn’t find anything about it I didn’t like or couldn’t live with. I picked up the pen and signed.
He smiled, “I’ll see you at Rouvelle in two days.”
“Right,” I nodded. “See you then.” I flashed a smile and hurried out of the restaurant.
I got some looks on entering Marie’s room and explained with one of the most often told lies in the English language after “I’m sorry.” And “I love you.”
“I got lost.”
That night, I composed two letters. One for Luka and the other kids, and one for Everhart. I went through my things on the pretense of organizing. Packing things away into my single piece of luggage, a red suitcase trimmed in brushed steel. I’d put my name on it with a paper label just under the handle. I tucked it under my bunk.
The next day I spent saying silent goodbyes. I would miss Luka and Marie and the other kids. But some things were more important. I knew they would understand.
I felt distracted during the show, but I gave it my all. After all, it was Eva’s last show.
I barely slept that night, and when morning came I was up before everyone to leave the note for Luka, dress and finished up packing. I stopped by the costume trailer for the mask and headed to Everhart’s trailer. I’d expected him to be asleep, but he wasn’t. He sat on the steps of the wooden gypsy caravan, out of costume in brown slacks and a grey sweater. He looked shorter without his top hat and his hair stuck out all over.
He sipped a mug of something steaming, it smelled like coffee. He didn’t look particularly surprised to see me. “Leaving us?”
“I got a better offer.”
“Of course. Rouvelle enjoys poaching. Be sure you keep up to their level. They’ll drop someone who doesn’t perform to par.”
“Speaking from experience?” I snapped. “I won’t become some washed-out acrobat who’s so bitter he scares off half his talent. I will be better than you ever were.”
And there it was. My father abandoned me to live with a sadist before I was even born to pursue his damn dreams and he didn’t even last a season. I would do better. I would beat the king of the high wire. I would be the star.
He laughed, “I suppose you think you know everything about me, don’t you? You’re just a silly little girl who wasn’t even born when I quit the tightrope.”
“I wasn’t born yet for a lot of things you did,” I snarled. “You’re very good at quitting, aren’t you? Quit the tightrope, quit your family. Quit before your child was even born.”
“How did you—”
“My cab is waiting.”
Before my mouth could betray me further, I ran. I ran to the waiting black taxi and climbed in. It didn’t matter anyway. He would never make up for leaving me with her. He could never be a father. He was just a bitter man who used to be a star.
I left Chicago with Rouvelle. I still shared space, but it was just one other girl, around my own age even. A trapeze artist called Susanna. She was sixteen, breasty and drew in a crowd with her pretty face. I resented that a little, but tried to hide it.
I wasn’t here to make friends.
Preparations for my big debut came together and practice took me to levels of exhaustion I’d never seen. My trainer, Joseph, expected a lot more of me than Bess ever had. I was going to be the best. My new act would include fire juggling, and a secondary line.
The net was bigger, to account for the two lines. The newest parts of the act were the ribbons. Two lengths of fabric I would climb up to reach the lines. It required more upper body strength than I was used to, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.
There were risks, juggling fire, but it would prove I was the best, the most daring high wire act in the world. No one had done this before. I would make history. I would be a star. I would burn brighter than he ever had. I still had a bit of time before New York, and I was going to use all of it.
“Use your stomach muscles Eva! You have to be able to wrap the ribbon around you to make the climb and get loose!” Joseph—my new trainer—shouted from below me as I got tangled in the ribbon on the way to the second line.
It was just a trial run, this practice, and as I wiped sweat from my face, I wished we could practice this with the fire too. But that was too expensive. I twisted my legs up and managed to free my middle of the ribbon, pulling up and alighting onto the second line.
The net was so far down…I didn’t want to die in a fall, but that did seem to be the destiny of us all. You fell, it happened. I couldn’t let that scare me. I would have dress rehearsal soon, a chance to wear the mask again. I itched to wear it even now. The mask would help me focus. I would complete my act perfectly so long as I had it on.
“That’s better Eva! Jump on down and we’ll try it again!”
I gave thumbs-up in acknowledgement—I didn’t have breath to spare for shouting, and took a dive into the net.
The dress rehearsal went perfectly. The tickets had sold out. The seats were filling and I sat at the mirror, staring at the mask over my face. I felt calm. I felt ready. It was finally my time to shine.
The Ringmaster’s voice rang out over the crowd, “Ladies and Gentlemen, children of all ages. It is Rouvelle’s pleasure to present the most daring tightrope act in these United States. The Sultana of fire and blade, hailing far from our shores; Zora and her walk of death!”
My costume reflected this new persona. My pants bagged at the ankle and my shoes were pointed. My fiery red hair was explained on the posters and any skin was covered in dark make-up. The spotlight marked me and I waved at the excited fans in regal fashion. I waited for silence before starting the climb up the ribbon to the first line.
A few tricks caught their imagination, hanging upside down and spinning around the ribbon with a twist of muscles. First and foremost was showmanship. I made it to that first line and slid onto it with a handstand that turned into a slow cartwheel. At the center of the line, a hand started tossing me the torches, and as I had in practice, I managed them beautifully.
With a bit of devil-may-care, I dropped the torches and jumped for the second ribbon near the end of the first line. This was the chanciest part of the act by far. I really did not want to miss.
And I didn’t. The fabric was slick in my hands, but I managed to lift my legs up and wrap the fabric around them. As I started up it, I looked down at the crowd to swing, arms free of the ribbon and just my legs to hold me.
I knew it was impossible to see anyone in particular from this height, in this light, but I swore I saw Everhart and his top hat. I shook my head and pulled myself up to the second line.
My transfer to this line wasn’t nearly as smooth, to the gasps and cheers of the crowd. The same hand was ready to start tossing me knives, but then, I looked down again. I thought then that I saw Luka, and Marie and Mick and Jake but—
“Evelyn!” Someone, someone called my name. It reminded me of Everhart without the bitterness.
I shook my head and took the first knife to start the second part of the act.
It was my name. No one had used it in so long…
But it was Zora now, what did it matter?
Except it did matter.
As I made to catch the second knife, I paused to let if fall. What was I doing? I didn’t even like the tightrope. Why was I doing this? I felt suffocated. It was like the mask was smothering me, trying to get inside me.
I tried to scream but I couldn’t. My limbs moved on their own, jerky at first—as if on strings. But then with all the grace I possessed. I closed my eyes, but the mask didn’t need my eyes. It only needed my body. Weeks, months of thoughts came back to me. When had I ever wanted the spotlight? All I wanted, all I ever wanted was for him to see me. For him to know me.
The mask clung tighter and as the knives alighted from my fingers with a deftness I didn’t remember having, I tried to shake it loose. The sweat from the heat of the lamps loosened it , but it would not come free. I had one chance.
I had to fall. I had to break the mask.
It took everything I had, but I managed the misstep.
But my hands found the ribbon. Mask or reflex, I couldn’t be sure.
The lights were so bright, so white. Behind my eyes…it was like a dream I entered. A white room full of the echoes of applause. In that room the mask was gone, but there was another girl there. Her hair was long, red and flowing down her back. She turned, and I caught horror behind my lips. Her face was the mask. She wasn’t wearing it; it was a part of her.
“What’s wrong Eva? Don’t you want to be star?” Her voice, it was the same nasty little voice that yelled at Marie. The same voice I heard over and over again in my head. Telling me to push higher, go further.
“Not like this…I don’t want this. I want to go back. I had a family, friends. Now what do I have?”
She laughed, “You have me. What else do you need? With me, you’ll be a star. You will shine brighter than any performer ever has.” She stalked towards me, placing cold hands on either side of my face. “You don’t need a family. You don’t need anyone but yourself, and me.”
“That’s not true,” I shook my head, backing away from her. “I want to go home! I don’t want this!”
“If I let you go, you’ll fall—and you’ll die. I guarantee it.”
“I don’t care. I won’t live like this.”
The smile turned into a snarl. “I will not let you throw away everything we’ve worked for!”
“I will not be your puppet!”
I was falling, hands, arms, legs…nothing would respond to me. Someone shouted, but I couldn’t see anything but the light. But out of the light swept a blue blur that grabbed hold of me and swung me to the safety of the net. They supported me in a bow after helping me out of the net to be bustled into a dressing room—I think it was mine.
The vision through the mask was shrinking. It was getting harder to breath.
“It’s the mask,” Luka’s voice came from my left.
“It won’t come off!” I managed to cry, staggering away to my dressing table. I could see the mask girl laughing in the reflection of the mirror. I collapsed into the chair and managed to move my arms up to unknot the ribbons. Even with the ribbons undone and hanging free, the mask was stuck tight.
“We’ll have to break it John,” Luka said.
“Without hurting Eva?”
“I can try.”
That wouldn’t work. I didn’t know how I knew that, but I did. But before I could protest—I’d never been hit so hard in my life. But it didn’t hurt—at least my face didn’t hurt. My back hurt where it slammed into the edge of the counter.
I shook my head, reaching up, nails digging at the edge of the mask. It hurt, but I managed to get my fingers under it.
I could hear the mask girl screaming in my head. I could hear her…but I didn’t care. She wasn’t going to control my life. Not anymore.
With a tearing pop, the mask came off in my hands, and I threw it from me. It struck a metal tent pole, breaking in two. The mask screamed once, and then no more. I turned around, slumping over the counter, head in my arms. I started to cry, I couldn’t help it.
Someone placed an arm around my shoulders. I looked up, into Everhart’s eyes.
“I am so sorry…I’m going to make it all up to you. I promise.” He kissed my forehead, wiping tears away. “Okay?”
“Okay…can we go home now?”
He nodded; taking the blanket Luka was holding out and wrapping me in it. Luka collected the mask fragments and put them in his pocket.
“Ready?” Everhart—my father, asked Luka.
The strongman nodded. “Yes. Let’s go before someone comes to investigate.”
My father picked me up with the same ease Luka had done that night in the rain—but then, it was my father that saved me up on the tightrope. He was wearing blue.
As we left Rouvelle’s behind, I wrapped my arms around his neck and kissed his cheek, “Thank you for catching me.”
He smiled, the first time I could remember him smiling. “That’s what father’s are for.”
I buried my head in his shoulder and closed my eyes. I felt warm. I felt—free.
“Evelyn, you’re up next!”
I gave a quick thumbs up to Luka, who had popped into my dressing room, putting the finished touches on my makeup and standing up. The purple heart on my face looked good with my hair.
I hurried out of the dressing room and into the ring. I climbed the ladder—pleased with my costume change and its lack of tutu to snag on the ladder—and stopped on the uppermost platform.
I’d never shared it before, and Mrs. Viglio wrapped a comforting arm around my shoulders, “You ready?”
I smiled, “Yes.”
It was time to fly. Mick was ready in the trap to catch me when I did, his strong arms locking onto mine. The trapeze was about trust.
And it was so much fun.
At the end of the show, we took our bows, and I could feel the energy of the place. It was different. The whole circus was different. Everyone was happier—I was happier. And Everhart, he smiled at the crowd as we said our goodbyes. He’d bought a new top hat--a black one this time.
When the crowds were gone and the circus went about its preparations for dinner and sleep, I stood in the empty parking area, staring back at the lights of the circus as they started to wink out. The Ferris wheel stopped turning and its lights shut down as well. But then, the trailer lights started to turn on--one trailer at a time.
“Evelyn! Dinner!” Everhart—dad—shouted from our trailer.
The lot was empty and strewn with wrappers and popcorn bags. Ticket stubs and bits of candy fluff. It would be cleaned up tomorrow morning though. I eyed the big top and smiled. There, a fabric banner advertising the Viglio’s was waving in the wind.
The Flying Viglio’s! Starring the daring Maryanne Viglio and her sons Mick and Richard. Featuring Evelyn Everhart.
It wasn’t top billing, but I didn’t care about that any more. My dad and I were together, and he was really making up for lost time. I kicked a bit of trash out of my way, an old flyer it looked like, and hurried to the trailer.
Dinner smelled great.