Highway

Right now, she's sick to her stomach.

Rolling over, Ivy drops her head in Cason's lap and clings to him as the RV bounces along uneven highway. Under the shadow of her blonde hair, she sees Cason's jeans are stained; she breathes in his scent of sweat and latex, a perpetual perfume he can't escape.

Maybe he smelled like cologne once, or soap, or like the ocean, like boys do in Ivy's romance novels, but sideshow tents amplify everything.

It's never just a little hot under aging canvas; it's sweltering. It's never just a little dirty, it's filthy—and Cason's been with the carnival for a couple of years now.

He traces her shoulder with his left hand; the right is busy holding a soft-paged paperback to the window to catch the last of the day's light. It's gentle, distracted comfort, and it's all he's got until they make the next town.

If they roll into Lawrenceburg before dark, Ivy's going to get her hair washed. Every little stick-and-plumb on the east-west trail has a beauty parlor; they smell like perms and gossip and carnations.

Women that feel like aunts and nanas sink their fingers in and ask questions like they care—where are you from? where are you going?—and Ivy lies.

Sometimes she's in college; sometimes she's visiting a sick cousin. Anything but the truth— the confidential womanhood club seems to dissolve if the salon ladies find out they're set-and-styling the Living Mermaid.

The summer's gone on too long for Ivy to protest, to explain how she's completely normal, how she's not really homeless, how there are people waiting for her to get home and start her life. These things are all true, or they were.

Before she ran away to join the circus and only found Binion's Traveling Fair.

Before she got her fins.

Then

Without a spray of sparkling lights to cast the illusion, the Ferris wheel was nothing but rusted arms and faded paint.

The top car groaned against the wind, a blue-black shadow against the night sky, and Ivy—six months ago Ivy, still clean and wearing pressed khakis—wandered past.

She hugged herself with thin arms, trying to figure out what an office looked like at a carnival. The Dolores-like woman at the ticket booth had said she'd find it in the back, but where was the back, exactly?

Ducking around a funnel cake stand, Ivy startled when a man whipped around with a fan of swords in one hand. Blood pounded in her ears, her muscles tensed to flee, but the man's expression was more irritated than homicidal.

"Something I can do for you?"

Ivy shook her head, then nodded, flashing mixed signals because she still hadn't figured out front from back, and her nerve had started to fade. "I'm looking for the office, please."

The blades wavered, jouncing like rubber toys, pointing out a huddle of RVs in the distance. Dingy little sheepdogs in the dark, crowded together behind the funhouse, so that's what a carnival office looked like.

It wasn't so far, not so very far, and she murmured her gratitude as she walked away. She slipped past a half-naked man, blue with tattoos from his forehead to his ankles, and offered a wan smile to a pair of conjoined twins sharing a cigarette by the Tilt-a-Whirl. Their lipstick looked black in the dark, their mourning mouths slack between draws of smoke.

The sky traded place with earth, something Ivy saw in a flash before everything was veiled in her dishwater hair. Her heart pounded a warning beat as she tried to make sense of her new up and down. She wasn't usually this clumsy; she got tangled in a black nest of wires taped to the ground.

"Walk much?" The voice was rich and low and not unkind, just teasing enough to make her blush.

Ivy shook her head as she swept the hair from her face. "I tripped."

"Obviously."

He thrust a hand at her, pale, faint grime crescents beneath the nails. It was unremarkable, neither particularly smooth nor especially rough, but it was attached to a boy Ivy paid three tickets to see in the sideshow that afternoon.

Well, a guy—he was her age and just a few inches taller—with greenish eyes and dark hair. A lot of dark hair, on his head and tumbling down to his shoulder in waves, and on his face, wolfman style. His hand fit neatly in hers.

Ivy stared at his shoulder as she stood, skimming past eye contact, warding off another blush. "Thanks."

Still holding her hand, he inspected it, turning it to examine her palm. "So what are you doing out here?"

"Trying to get there," she said, nodding toward the RVs. That's clever, she decided; that's good conversation.

"Oh," he said. "Running away, huh?"

"My family knows where I am." Mom, Dad, aunts, uncles, her shrink, the neighborhood gossip, oh, they knew.

He studied the rise and fall of her knuckles with a brush of thumb. "Well, alrighty then. What's your thing?"

"How do you mean?" Ivy stretched when he squeezed her hand. It was like playing a game, holding his hand—her fingers slipping hide-and-seek between his.

"You know, your thing?" He tugged her closer, drawing her into his space—close enough to share heat. "Like, do you eat bugs? Or fire? We don't have a fire-eater." She said nothing, watching the ice cream curls of his mouth, so he tried again. Another tug, a low buzz in his voice. "Amazing feats of strength? Put your ankles behind your head?"

Her skin reacted to the tone, her body too. Tight everywhere, and stinging with a new blush, Ivy licked her lips and admitted, "I was hoping I could do face painting or something."

He raised a brow, and then his other hand. A sticky popping sound curdled beneath his fingers. He peeled a long, silky strip of pelt from his face in slow motion.

Ivy gaped. "You're not real."

It was a stupid thing to say, and Ivy realized that when he looked himself over—down at his plain jeans and T-shirt, then back up at her.

"I'm not?"

The good blush faded, replaced by embarrassment. Freeing her hand, Ivy shook her head. Breathe; all she had to do was breathe and explain. "I mean, your face, you're not really..."

"Everybody has to have a thing," he said, and moved to touch her. When she turned away, his touch followed, tracing the shape of her face in the air. She hesitated; started to look up, and he pressed the furred strip to her cheek.

She cut him a quick glance as she swallowed the stone in her throat. He was too close, his touch was too familiar, but she didn't step away. Touching the fur gingerly, she said, "But I don't want to be the Dog-Faced Girl. Boy. Whatever."

"Nobody does," he said, pulling off the other appliance to offer it to her. There was a shadow in his green eyes, a darker, forest hint that disappeared with an unexpected smile. "I try to be just Cason after hours."

"Ivy," she said automatically, though suddenly it seemed like a wasted word. There was a secret kind of past between them that she almost remembered, right on the edge of wakefulness. It glimmered like fireflies just finding their light, and she knew it was real because he took her hand again, exactly when she wanted him to.

Probably Oklahoma

Larry Binion owns the Ferris wheel and the Tilt-a-Whirl, the bunkhouse RVs, the Italian sausage stand and the sideshow, but it's the sideshow he loves the most.

First off, it doesn't cost him much to run. It's not like the midway, that giveth with its four-ticket four-dollar rides, but also taketh away with maintenance and parts and safety inspections and state licenses.

The midway is expensive; the sideshow is cheap. The geeks who work in it put up the tents. Then they pay fifty dollars a week out of a $150 paycheck to sleep in the bunkhouse—meals extra. Binion likes cheap.

Second, it brings regular folks down to his level. Sometimes he puts on a ragged top hat and tears tickets himself just to see upstanding people, church people, had-a-shower-that-morning people, give into the ugly voyeurs that live in their hearts.

They pay to stare at Mike Cole, who isn't part lizard at all, but his psoriasis is so bad he can't even get a job flipping burgers.

Or they watch through their fingers while Clara and Marybeth do calisthenics with their four legs but just three arms. The sisters share a heart and a lung, and stuck together like that, they share everything else, too.

Unnatural, abnormal—take a minute to gaze at Lyle, the Man With No Face, as he threads another fishhook through skin thick with scar tissue. He can't feel it—he hasn't felt anything since the fire.

Keep moving, folks, Binion's got a unicorn, a two-headed goat, stillbirths in jars, and oh yeah, the Living Mermaid and the Dog-Faced Boy, come look, come look.

Good people pay good money to be openly horrified—they want to stare at deformed babies and ask what happened to the arm that man on the bus is missing, but they're too civilized. That would be rude. Binion gives them a chance to hop down in the gutter; it only costs three tickets.

And finally, it's an opportunity for him to brag, though most of the brags are lies. Larry Binion alone is keeping carnival history and tradition alive, which is probably news to Jim Rose and his circus, and any number of county fairs with their own homegrown geeks on display. Political correctness, he'll slur after his third whiskey, ruined the great American sideshow.

When the caravan stops, Binion comes around to bang on all the bunkhouse doors. Ivy burrows down to bury her face against Cason's side. Everything spins in her head, a hot-and-cold flash stirring her belly sour again.

She squeezes her eyes closed, and clenches her teeth so hard it stops up her ears, just so she doesn't have to hear Binion yell, "Time to make some money!" for the thousandth time that summer.

She doesn't like him; she hasn't liked him since he put his hand between her thighs and asked if she was a virgin. That was three days and three hundred miles from home, after she'd taken the job to prove she could leave the house (take that, Dr. Neill).

"Go ahead and stay here," Cason says, tucking a receipt into the book to save his place. "I can put up the pool."

Ignoring the ache in the small of her back, Ivy drags herself to slump beside him.

Like magic, like destiny, her fingers slip between his. His skin is still soft-rough, and it's damp from sweltering in the RV; even though she can hold his hand anytime she wants, actually doing it still makes her sting with pleasure.

She swallows silence, considering the offer, then shakes her head. "I don't want him to give you a hard time."

Cason raises their joined hands to his mouth and kisses her knuckles. "Fuck him." His dark eyes simmer, long lashes fanned out as he looks at her through his brows. His lips linger on her skin, dry as paper, but hot.

An 'I love you' tries to escape from her. The confession climbs into her throat and claws to escape; it has insistent feet and hands that push her ribs to breaking. She's been thinking it for a while, every time he puts his thin body between her and some threat, however petty; all the nights when he makes a circle with his arm and invites her to sleep there—just sleep.

She thinks it when they don't just sleep, too; that's when it's hardest. Afterward, her fingers stroke his bare waist; she just can't stop touching him, and instead of saying I love you, I'm in love with you, she tells herself, "You're such a girl."

As if there's something wrong with that, but it works. She cools in the dark, turning her face to beg another lazy, lingering kiss, and says nothing.

He doesn't have her willpower. If the looks aren't enough to give it away, if his hands worshipping the span of her waist mean nothing, he's said it out loud. He's whispered it into her ear as she sleeps; sometimes he tells the space that surrounded her after she's walked away.

It's a secret they're keeping from each other.

Binion knocks again, and they hurry outside before they get docked ten dollars for skipping work. Sweat paints a V on the front of Ivy's shirt, and she fades each time she blinks.

Though the sun's setting, the humidity hasn't quite let go of the day. It's a vicious kind of hot, the kind that steals a breath and makes it hard to take another. That's probably what's making her dizzy—it's too hot to think, let alone move.

Fortunately, putting up the tents is simple. Ivy knows where to stand and how to hold the poles to keep them from buckling or falling over, now.

She shares the task with Lyle—because of the scars, he can't raise his arms above his head. The twins thread painted banners onto their frames, and Cason and Mike crawl beneath the suffocating weight of canvas to raise support stakes. It gives them a chance to out-testosterone each other, racing to see who can get theirs up first. A job for everybody, everybody with a job, nice and neat.

"Think they'll come back?" Lyle asks, nodding toward the feet disappearing beneath the spread tents.

Ivy shakes her head. "Doubt it."

"Guess you'll have to marry me, then."

"Looks like." She smiles, then turns her face against her shoulder when Mike warns he's ready to raise.

The tents rumble thunder, springing off the ground one, two, three fast and groaning as they give up another pound of dust to the already dirty-thick air.

Ivy coughs through it, weaving between thinking and not-thinking, awake and not-awake. The tents get up; her pool gets filled; these things happen. By the time the sky is truly dark, no more hints of purple and gold on the horizon, the carnival's ready to open in the morning.

All Ivy can think about is sleep, and she reaches out to catch Cason's hand. This time, she misses, and he gives her a gentle nudge.

"You go on back, I'm going to run into town."

"Oh... all right." She hesitates.

"You want anything?"

Orange juice. She wants orange juice, cold and fresh, thick with pulp, but even though her mouth is souring for it, she shakes her head. There's no way to keep it ice cold until morning.

He asks if she's sure, and when she nods he jogs to catch up with a couple of the ride jockeys. Their voices ring out, reflected off all the midway steel, jeering and laughing together. They walk until they're shadows, and Ivy turns away when she can't make Cason's familiar lope out in the dark

It feels like being kicked in the chest, like being pushed down and having the wind knocked out, when he goes away like this.

The world that's small and intricate as a diamond when they're alone disintegrates. Suddenly there are miles and miles open in every direction, so much space, no one could hope to fill it. Too much space to find someone lost in it.

Still, she heads back to the bunkhouse alone.

Indiana, Somewhere

Six weeks ago, nearly to the day, Binion called from the front flap of the sideshow tents, "Right this way, folks, step up, get close to the strange and unusual!"

He wore his top hat, and he'd managed to produce a red suit jacket from somewhere. He strutted like a ringmaster, oblivious to the fact that he looked like an insane insurance salesman.

In spite of the get-up, he seemed to be pulling a better-than-usual crowd into the tents. They shuffled through with their lemon shake-ups, slurping through the dregs and tossing yellow peels into the dirt, pretending to be invisible at the human zoo.

Ivy thumbed through a magazine behind waist-high plastic barriers. Warning signs around her pool claimed that the barriers were for the visitors' protection—mermaids had a nasty habit of drowning men, after all—but they really just kept people from looking at her fishy half too closely.

The first time she wore the costume, she thought it was cheap, but beautiful. If there had ever been a tag in the fins, she couldn't tell where it might have been. They looked handmade—sewn from shiny blue-green rayon, the quilted scales were uneven with staggered-stitches, dusted with glitter. When she sat, no one could see how the color had worn off the fabric by the zipper—they couldn't see the zipper, either. A flap of fin hid her feet and hobbled her with sequined scallops.

All her life, she'd been a one-piece bathing suit kind of girl, but a mermaid didn't have a V between her legs, or a waistband to tuck anything into. Ivy forced herself to wear a green bikini top she picked out at Wal-Mart her third night there. The one that came with the costume was two cups too big.

She swished her fins; sometimes she played with the shell barrettes in her hair, or pretended to comb her locks for the little girls who were hoping to see Disney but got Binion instead.

Mostly, though, she kept to her magazine. Glossy fashion covers ruined the illusion of the maiden of the deep, but it shielded her. Some people thought three tickets bought them the right to do anything; women didn't whisper when they wondered if she was a slut, kids threw the peanuts they couldn't shell, and some men... well. Three spitters already that morning, and on the last one, Cason nearly jumped the ropes that kept the customers from the curiosities.

The whole day had that kind of feel, an unburdening of manners, a vicious, restless seed waiting to feed a storm. When the lights finally went down, Ivy followed Cason to the bunkhouses. She was his puppy, afraid of everyone else, content with his company. He turned fast enough to catch her when she stumbled.

His wolf face peeled at the edge, a gash to reveal smooth cheek beneath, and he ducked his head to meet her eyes. He didn't have to; he wasn't that tall.

"I'm'a head into town," he said.

Ivy shrank, looking toward the thin strip of highway that led away from the fair. "Oh. I'm, I need a shower."

Reaching back to open the trailer door, Cason stepped out of her way. "You can sleep in my bunk tonight." When she didn't move right away, he smiled and teased, "Don't steal anything."

"Are you coming back?"

Broad and certain and strong of hand, Cason turned her, nudged her. Up the first step, then the second, barely raising the dust beneath their feet. She moved like a music box dancer for him. When she was inside, and he was out, Cason peeled away his working face and shook the strips of fur at her as he backed away. "Be beautiful for me in the morning, would you?"

And he left, which was different from and then he was gone. Ivy clung to the doorknob and watched him walk, forty yards, fifty, a hundred, to her point of pathetic, then she closed herself inside.

The trailer smelled of sweat and man, mildew and stale beer, but it was better, so much better, than sleeping on the carousel. Cason had a hotplate and a radio; he had an uneven bed that washed her with prime otherness. She rubbed her mouth against the rough curve of his pillow because she hadn't kissed him yet.

She wrapped herself in his blanket and watched the unlocked—unlockable—door until she fell asleep. She woke alone, and filled up her section of the tents alone. Binion muttered that the Dog-Faced Boy had to get his distemper shots that day. He muttered, "ten dollars a day for no-call, no-show."

Ivy shielded herself with the extra-thick summer style issue, but read nothing. Trapped in her fins, she had to beg Lyle to take a look for her—did the ride jockeys come back? Is Natty handing out water pistols at the horse race game? They all left together; have they come back? She had to ask about midway strangers because Cason's pen stayed empty.

She slept on the step to his bunkhouse.

And the next night.

And on the third, Binion wandered through camp, using his hands as a bullhorn. "Let's move, people. Let's move."

"Mr. Binion," Ivy said, smoothing her hair from her face. She tried to stand in his conversation space, but the scent of cherry tobacco on his breath pushed her away. She blinked, brushed at flies and dust, hands constantly moving between them in semaphore for the ill at ease. "Mr. Binion, Cason's not back yet."

Binion blanked, then caught light. "So?"

"We're packing up," Ivy said. It was obvious; the way she gestured at the midway coming down explained everything; didn't it?

"Ain't no contract here. He's free to go if he wants." Binion's arm brushed hers when he turned to yell needless directions. His voice seemed to fall into the dust; it didn't carry at all.

With a weak smile, Ivy intended to walk away. She had to drain her pool; she needed to roll it up so it wouldn't get torn. Onto the truck, or onto her back, the mermaid's lake had to make it to the next town over. Rubbing her pale mouth, she looked toward the tents and talked instead of walked. "He didn't just go."

"Rent's fifty bucks a week for the bunkhouses," Binion said, distracted. "I'm taking ten out of your check for the other night, so you know."

"I only," Ivy said, then decided not to argue. "Fine, but what about Cason?"

Binion clapped a hand on her shoulder, using her as leverage to shove off. "You can work it off with me personal-like, if you want. I'm easy."

Just like that, nothing at all, worse than the hand between her thighs. The suggestion slapped her cheeks shamed-red; by the time she thought to tell him to just dock her, he'd climbed into the inner-works of the carousel to figure out what the hell was making that pin stick.

May he get eaten by painted circus ponies. May his insides grease the gears forever and ever. Amen.

Ivy scrubbed her arms with her hands and turned, her sandals muddying prints into the dust. All around her the carnival sank to the ground, dying without struggle. She tipped her face back to the dirty late-day sunlight, growing smaller and smaller, until she made herself grow big again.

Wouldn't her mother be relieved if she gave up right now; wouldn't Daddy be thrilled, wouldn't Dr.-damned-Neill applaud her for being level-headed, if she gave up, if she went home, this is no way to prove a point, Ivy Lee. But she had a reason to stay:

Somebody had to be the Dog-Faced Boy.

Into Illinois

It's a moment of meditation: if a sideshow geek falls through the slats of an old railway bridge, is there anyone there to catch her? What if she's perfectly normal, just a girl pretending to be a geek, out in the open, rebelling against home and phobia, sweet phobia, and what if somebody does catch her, and he kisses her, and they make love down by the banks of the Wabash, and that's the first time she's ever allowed anyone into her skin?

Is there anyone there to catch her?

Right This Minute

Ivy splashes her face with lukewarm water and falls into bed. Cason's away, even the local channels suck—she's air-drying and staring at the ceiling.

The throb working at the base of her spine finally translates. Sick, no thermometer, please—the blizzard beneath the sheets keeps her too cold to have a fever, surely, definitely.

A doctor would meet the fair somewhere in August. She takes the west-east route, ministering to carnies and game jocks all over the country, cash-only, no-insurance accepted. Rumor in the geek tents has it that she lost her license when she slipped and turned a little boy into a little girl, but her prescription pad seems legal enough.

Can I wait?

She asks against the back of her hand. Between knuckles—the little curve between her thumb and forefinger—she discovers, is exactly the shape of a kiss. August isn't far, full of dates and portents.

The first day of school, the first day of college, the first day of the rest of your life—Ivy kisses her hand and closes her eyes.

She can wait for Dr. August. She has nothing to cut off.

The Town After They Left Him

The fine, churchgoing people of Gem, trickling through the musty-hot tents, didn't applaud when some longhaired hippie (as if Gem had ever seen a true hippie, even forty years ago when it was likely), stepped over the rail to lay hands and mouth on the Dog-Faced Boy. There was no applause when they kissed.

Some asked for their money back, and that pissed Binion off—but not enough to throw them out of the fair. Hell no; he single-handedly kept American sideshow history alive, and that meant displaying a goddamned Dog-Faced Boy and a goddamned mermaid, whether they'd lost their goddamned minds or not.

He yanked them both up by the arm dragged them into sunlight behind the tents. To Cason, he said, "You owe me a hundred." To Ivy, he said, "Take off the beard and put on that fucking bikini before I send you home." He probably would have shoved her, but he knew—even if he wouldn't admit—Cason would beat him into the dirt if he did. He liked his power uncomplicated and unquestioned.

They ran back to the bunkhouse, and Ivy had to remember that she didn't really live there; she let Cason go in first, then gathered her things as quickly as she could. She ached with questions; she burned with demands, and all of it came out in an unexpected wail.

She beat at his chest with crabapple fists, small but strong. Each strike made his lungs rattle; disturbed the beat of his heart. Not painful, unpleasant. Unsettling. She hit him for going away, for making her worry, for making her step in to his blue jeans since somebody had to be the Dog-Faced Boy. She hit him for sleepless nights. She hit him for coming back. She hit him for kissing her, and for not doing it sooner.

And when she stopped, he just smiled. Wry or thoughtful, he just smiled, like he knew he deserved it. As if he could read every worry in every punch. After she'd worn herself out, he just smiled, and held out his hands for his costume.

Behind the half-open bathroom door, Ivy pushed her jeans down and stepped out, watching to see if Cason watched her undress.

He didn't; he had to enwolf his face now that she'd quit hitting him and returned the appliances. He brushed his long hair down to cover the uneven edges, turning from side to side to try to catch a glimpse of himself.

"I was really worried," Ivy said. Her mouth still stung—abused, taken advantage of; molten soft and hungry, it wasn't fair.

He didn't look over. "I'm sorry."

"I tried to hold the fair for you in Richmond." Grabbing a doorknob for balance, Ivy stepped into the narrow cone of her fins. Sequins, glitter, fluttered to the floor. "What happened to you?"

The bruise, a blue double line on the fine crest of his cheek, was obvious.

"It was just a fight."

"Did you win?" She frowned expectantly; she had that right.

Cason shook his head, examining the ceiling as Ivy bent over, baring the curve of her breasts for anybody who cared to look down her collar. "I shouldn't have had it."

"Guess not." Ivy snorted, trying to sound tough, but she wanted to kiss the dusky spot; she could heal him and soothe her all at once. Working the ridge of the costume over her hips, she squeaked when she tipped over. "I worried, you know."

"Don't wait for me," Cason said, and caught her. His hands lay flush and smooth against her waist, better balance than a lousy tin doorknob. He stroked the small of her back idly, with his thumbs. "Don't count on me."

Her eyes reflected sequin light when she looked at him sharply. "I won't again."

"I'll save you when you need it." Horsehair whiskers brushed her neck. "But that's all."

"That's mighty big, considering I filled in for you," Ivy said, offering the obvious. She still had spirit gum on her cheeks; dust and flecks of hay stuck to it as she struggled with the last inches of her fins. His hands were in the way; she slapped at them impatiently.

Cason nodded. "Thank you."

She raised a hand over her head and waited until he slipped her arm around his shoulders. Most days, she hopped to her tank because the costume hobbled her; today he understood he had to carry her. "You missed it, too, because I was gorgeous that morning."

"Now, I am sorry I missed that."

The fine, churchgoing people of Gem didn't applaud when the mermaid got a kiss, either, but somebody in the back whistled their approval. Good enough; nearly a vow.

Last Spring

They always talked in the living room, underneath Ivy's bedroom, as if sound never traveled past the ears meant to hear. Her mother had a ticky-tock walk; when she paced, she sounded like a metronome. After Ivy first retreated, her mother covered the whole ground floor, andante. Soon, it turned agitated allegro, punctuated with angry murmurs.

     "She never leaves the house."
     "She goes to school, doesn't she?"
     "And nowhere else. She's seventeen, Jack."
     "At least she's not in trouble."
     "Look, I'm telling you, there's something
          wrong. I'm her mother."

Ivy drew her shades and sank to the floor beside the vent. Heat, conversation, the ducts were indiscriminate and carried sound or central air with equal indifference. Plucking the metal grate with her fingers, Ivy made it sing like a slow harp blending with the endless, staccato tap of her mother's shoes on the hardwood below.

     "And you know these things."
     "Don't mock me."

On one hand, Ivy hated it when her father used that voice. It was his lesson tone, the one steeped in worn sarcasm. When he used it, you were supposed to understand you'd been stupid, how you'd been stupid, and in what ways you might endeavor to be less stupid in the future. He wasn't a mean man, just a smart one who'd gone ragged with regular minds years before.

     "What about the therapist?"
     "He agrees with me."

On the other hand, Ivy didn't care if Dr. Neill agreed. Despite his diplomas and red leather chairs, no matter his shelves of thick statistical manuals and obscurely-titled texts, Dr. Neill understood exactly nothing. He was the crazy one, if he thought walking around outside was safe. Maybe he needed a little Prozac or Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, if he thought it was reasonable to let your body move around all vulnerable and obvious outside four walls, where anybody could see it. Where anybody could touch it.

     "I think you're blowing this out of proportion."
     "She's disappearing!"
     "You're being ridiculous. We can't force her
          to have a social life."
     "I'm trying to force her to have a life, period."

Without looking, Ivy reached into the bowl of change on her desk. Quarters and dimes clicked when she closed them in her fist. She was tired of this argument—about her, not involving her—she was tired of being the thing.

The coins roared a crescendo when she dumped them down the vent, and thank God, everybody finally shut up.

Midwestern to Midwater

Later, she remembers it like a house of mirrors.

The fever made her wild—when she opened her eyes, she saw a funhouse in the bunkhouse. The colors had turned sticky-old-photo-grey, blue with grey, brown with grey, red with grey, and the ceiling's angles failed to meet.

She heard her parents whispering about her all over again, even though she'd left them far behind. They filled one ear with hissing doubts, they're so worried, please go outside, just one date, at least graduation! And then they cry in the other, a carnie? the fair? this isn't what we meant, don't you think you're going overboard?

She tried to tell them it made sense; if she couldn't be safe, she should be reckless, but the man came back. Drowning in her fevered sweat, Ivy fought this time. He held her down again, and she screamed, but it stopped with the taste of orange juice in her mouth.

Though there must have been a car involved, what Ivy remembers is being carried. Cason carried her out to the stage lights—no, just the overhead lights that surgeon-magicians in green blocked with their heads. He stayed, and stroked her hair, and promised to watch out for her as long as he could.

She knew, because her mother told her, that the pinprick she'd felt in her hand wasn't a Cinderella needle, it was an IV. She knew, because the scar on her belly told her, that her appendix couldn't wait for Dr. August after all.

But she knew because she'd said I love you, and Cason had said, "Don't count on me," meaning exactly the same thing. He got to kiss her once more, but it didn't feel like a goodbye until he turned around. When they released her from the hospital, the carnival had moved on.

Briefly, she considered chasing it, even though Cason had somehow found her old life and dragged it to Midwater, Kansas. She considered chasing him, too, but she let her mother take her home instead. Somewhere on the east-west trail, he still got in fights he shouldn't have, and still paid good money for a dirty bunk that should have been condemned, because somebody had to be the Dog-Faced Boy.

She couldn't count on him, except that she had. Exactly as much as he'd let her; exactly as much as she'd needed to.

When the stitches came out, she swam. In spite of the scar, she wore a bikini, and plunged into the wide-open ocean of the back yard pool. A little the first day, and that left her gasping. A little more the next—her muscles quivering, she splashed, and swam, and came to understand:Cason protected her and kept devotion a secret—

Don't count on me; don't wait on me.

Now, Ivy swims to the surface, and up and up, dripping gold with wet sunlight. She's fast and beautiful and uncatchable, her fins left behind in a three-ticket sideshow. She's free because she went, because he let her go, because she's a myth and much better, a fable and overboard and real.

Copyright © Saundra Mitchell 2007.

Title graphic: "Falcon" Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2007.