THE BIG TOP SAT right on the sand, to the side of the pier. Its red-and-white stripes towered high above, with flags of every color flying from its poles. A simple red-screened fence surrounded it, making it impossible to see in. Snippets of music wafted over Jenna, who stood facing away from the tent, staring toward the water. In the dark, she could just make out the white crests of the waves as they crashed into shore. A part of her wanted, unreasonably, to shed her clothes and shoes and run in.
She sighed and pulled her coat tighter around her.
“Look, aziz-am.” Afa came up, waving three tickets, her other arm around her girlfriend Crystal. “The man swore they were excellent seats, just a little ways back, dead center.”
“You think all seats are excellent,” said Crystal — a little sourly, Jenna thought. Crystal was lawyer, with short dark hair and glasses. She didn’t like Jenna and didn’t try very hard to hide it. Jenna felt a small rush of relief that Crystal wasn’t pretending to be nice to her; it meant that Afa hadn’t told Crystal something was wrong.
“Well, they are,” said Afa, unperturbed. She took her arm from around Crystal’s waist and grabbed her hand instead, the gesture little-girl sweet. “Come on!”
Jenna followed behind them, trying to walk so that her shoes didn’t fill with sand. She would have to clean out the second bedroom for Florencia, but that wouldn’t be too hard. She could have a garage sale, or maybe donate everything to Goodwill. She paused as Afa handed a red-suited man their tickets, and then stepped through the gates, head still down.
Something winged dropped in front of her.
Jenna let out a shriek as the person unfolded. It was clearly a man—Jenna tried to lift her eyes from that obviousness—wearing a skin-tight, pearlescent outfit that somehow made him look otherworldly. Majestic red and white wings swept out from his back, billowing in the ocean breeze. His face was contoured with astonishing shades of luminescent face paint; first he resembled a bird, then a marble statue. His eyes glowed like black lava, catching the light as though aflame. The effect was clearly from contact lenses, yet Jenna could barely catch her breath. She felt her heart beating in her chest.
The winged man said something to her in an invented circus language, a series of clicks and whistles. Passers-by stopped, smiling and nudging each other.
Jenna glanced at Afa, who was watching the whole thing and laughing. Crystal watched Afa watching Jenna.
The man spoke again, the same whistled language.
Jenna shook her head and took a step backward.
The winged man smiled and leaned in toward Jenna. From the folds of his costume—although Jenna had no idea how there could possibly be folds in his costume—he took a single red rose. When he held it out to her, she realized it was spun of delicate, deeply-dyed sugar.
In a low voice, he said, “For your sadness.”
Stunned, Jenna took the rose, staring at its perfect petals. She looked up just in time to see the winged man turn and, in one fluid gesture, catch hold of a trapeze that seemed to come from nowhere and swing out of sight. For the first time she noticed that the winged circus performers were everywhere, interacting with the waiting crowds, all speaking that same made-up language.
“Looks like you have an admirer,” said Crystal sullenly. “Ah, delbar-am, don’t be such a grump, please. Look where we are!” Afa made a grand gesture. Crystal gave a little snort. “It’s a freak show,” she said, and then turned to weave her way through the crowd toward the big top. Afa watched her go, then turned to Jenna with moist eyes. She tried to smile, but it didn’t quite work. Jenna linked her arm through Afa’s, ducked her head, and touched the tip of her tongue to one blood-red, sugar-spun petal. The sweetness was granular and shocking.
“Look,” said Afa in a false-cheery voice. “A fortune teller!”
Under a drape of red velvet embroidered with golden stars sat a small table, a deck of tarot cards fanned across the midnight blue covering. The cards were decorated with a red and white swirl, their edges worn and frayed. Behind the table, another red curtain partitioned off a space where, Jenna assumed, the fortune teller waited to pounce.
“Aziz-am, you should go!”
Jenna had no interest in fortune tellers, palm readers, or even horoscopes. She hated the idea that something was fated for her, something she might not choose. She shook her head, but a girl had already stepped out from behind the curtain.
The fortune teller was tiny, dressed in veil upon veil, her face an animal swirl of paint. She bowed slightly to Jenna and flipped over three cards.
If Jenna wasn’t an actress trained to look at faces and emotions, she might have missed the slight widening of the eyes, the almost inaudible intake of breath. Jenna dropped Afa’s arm and moved closer to the table, but the fortune teller had already swept up the cards and shuffled them back into the deck.
“What did it say?” asked Jenna.
“Sometimes the cards are mistaken,” said the girl, not looking at Jenna. Her voice was soft.
“What did it say?” insisted Jenna.
The girl lifted her eyes. They were dark brown, rimmed in kohl. Instead of answering, she turned over three more cards, placing them carefully on the table.
This time, the fortune teller gasped out loud.