“I don’t think you should go. You know the Circus won’t let you.” Lumen walked ahead of me through the room. We were on the second floor of our building, the only building I’d ever known. Still, standing here, surrounded by mirrors placed at odd angles, it felt like I was in a different world.
This room used to be open to visitors. Our Circus, in times long gone, used to be a walk-through experience. Guests would roam the hallways, floorboards creaking. They’d find out about the stories hidden in their tea leaves behind the curtains of Lady Aubury. They’d watch anything from dance performances to magic tricks in one of the auditoria. They’d have their try at balancing a tightrope, only to watch a professional at 32 feet move faultlessly.
But no longer. Not since the Circus had started claiming rooms for its own.
“How long do you reckon it’ll take before the Mirror Room becomes inaccessible as well?” I asked.
Lumen walked around, their face reflected back at me at least a dozen times. “I don’t know. I just hope you’ll be here to witness it.”
“That almost sounds like you want this room to fall.”
They turned, looking straight at me this time. I’d always admired Lumen’s determination and stature. They stood with their shoulders straight, black hair either the finest of curls or braided tightly to their scalp. “No, Emma. And you know very well that that’s not what I mean.”
I shrugged. I hated goodbyes. Why couldn’t Lumen just act like everything was normal? Why couldn’t we be best friends, as we had for years? “I wish you weren’t mad.”
“I wish you’d get out of your lovesick brain for a second to see what you’re about to do.” The words stung, like rose thorns pressed into my palms. “It’s Jeremiah, Em. Do you honestly think you can trust him?”
I stepped away, elbow knocking into glass. “Of course I can. I love him.”
“He’s also a naïve idiot.”
“Lumen!” Normally, I’d slap their arm, laugh it off. But not this time. This time felt more serious. More final. A goodbye was a goodbye, after all, whether I liked it or not. “Don’t you see? I have to go. There’s nothing left for me here. Someone else can mop the floors and dust the windows from now on.”
“You signed the contract. You’ve always known what that meant. When you join the Circus, it’s forever.”
“Yeah,” I muttered, my hand in my pocket. “Well, forever is a long time.”
“And in all that time no one,” Lumen said, “And I repeat, no one has ever managed to leave the Circus and live.” Their lips moved a thousand times around me, each image in perfect synchronicity.
“No one has ever tried. Not really.” Those were Jeremiah’s words. And he was right, up to a point. I’d heard of people trying to leave, of the Circus locking the door on them, keeping them inside. But a locked door wouldn’t hold anyone who truly wanted to get out.
“Girl,” Lumen said, taking me by my wrist and dragging me along. The open doorway began to appear in some of the room’s reflections, so I knew we had to be close to the end of this maze. “You know what they say about the Circus, right? It lives. It breathes and it feels and it hits when it needs to. It travels but does not move. It learns and it—”
“It shifts and it hunts to feed itself when it gets hungry,” I finished for them. “Yes, I know. Shouldn’t that just make you want to leave more? Who wants to be supper for a magical building?”
Lumen shrugged their shoulders, turned a corner, and then we were out. Back in the hallway, everything seemed oddly dark compared to the Mirror Room behind us. A rumble passed through the building, and I closed the door behind us.
“Right,” Lumen said. Their voice was lower now. In this place you could never know for sure who was listening in to your conversations. “The way I see it, it’s all about balance. The Circus takes what it needs, and then it’s satisfied. It has you, Emma. It’s got all of us. But if you leave…”
I remembered the final line of the mantra, the one that we all said each morning before breakfast. When the Circus gets hungry, it is insatiable.
A shiver ran down my spine.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” I told Lumen.
“But what if you’re not? Once the Circus jumps, it’ll leave you right here, stuck in the timeline like everyone else out there. You’ll be all alone with no way to reach us.”
That was the catch, wasn’t it? Our Circus was a travelling circus, even though it was contained by a building. Once it decided it would go, it left. From one year to another. From the 1900 to the 1790s. From the Golden Age to 2019. That was why we all stayed inside. If we went out, who’s to say the Circus wouldn’t decide to leave right away?
Jeremiah didn’t fear it, that moment when the Circus would take the leap and leave us. He saw it as an opportunity. I had to agree with him. Sometimes it takes leaving something behind to find your way to a better place.
“Please, don’t go.” Lumen stared at me, eyes shining. So I hugged them. I hugged them close right there and then, standing up on my tiptoes. Their scent was as familiar to me as my own. I tried to save every strand of it, locking it in my memory forever. Lumen smelled like what I imagined trees to smell like. Wild and strong and full of growth. Those were the moments I’d remember them most. Every time I sat under a tree, I’d think of them on the tightrope.
“I’ll come back,” I told them, my eyes squeezed close. “Once the Circus returns to this year, I’ll come back to visit.”
The year was 1815. My bag was packed. Not quite as heavy as I expected it would be, but not entirely uncomfortable to carry, either. I met Jeremiah in the downstairs corridor. Paintings graced the walls on both sides. Landscapes, mostly. I had a favourite: a view of a dawning sun over a lake. I hoped I’d get to see something like that soon.
“I believe I’ve packed everything,” I announced.
Jeremiah nodded, his short hair springy after a fresh shower. I wanted to tangle my fingers up in it and kiss him—but first things first. “Me too,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”
Through the wide opening on our right, we could see the main theatre. In the sandy middle, our team of acrobats was practicing. They were dancing around, toes pointed, twirling before a somersault, climbing on top of each other to form complicated figures, nothing but hands and the crooks of elbows to keep them together.
Two green eyes spotted me in the doorway and smiled. It was young Cole, his blonde hair slicked back tightly. I smiled back.
Maybe I’d miss this more than I gave myself credit for. Maybe the Circus had a lot to give, after all. Family, for one. All of these people here, I knew by heart. Each and every one had something special, even if I hated them sometimes.
But outside had so much more to offer. Places that wouldn’t be determined by brick walls. Sights that could go on forever. Time that went in a straight line instead of in the loops and the circles the Circus chose for us.
I was tired of being stuck here, tired of being the talentless janitor in a place of magic and dreams come true. So I took Jeremiah’s hand, staring at the leather braided band around his wrist. “Yes,” I said. “It’s time.”
We stepped out without saying goodbye. No one but Lumen knew. Anyone else might stop us, Jeremiah had warned me. He was right. Better to rip the bandage clean off.
The front door of the Circus had a big, bronze handle that I turned gingerly. To my surprise, it opened right away. A light breeze of cold air met us on the other side. I breathed it in, laughing. “Oh my gosh, it’s letting us go.”
Jeremiah walked past me, arms out wide as he stepped onto the street, sunlight on his face. He was shining. “Come feel it, Emma! Come feel freedom!”
I took my bag and followed him outside without looking back. The door behind me closed on its own, its clang announcing the last time the Circus would ever speak to me.
Lumen didn’t smell like trees, I quickly found. In fact, nothing in this outside world smelled anything like the Circus had done. There was something dusty and dense missing, something that I’d been breathing in for so long that I had thought it the scent of normalcy.
Jeremiah kept laughing all throughout the day, and all throughout the next day and the next and the next. We ran across the city—even though it could barely be called a city at this point in time.
We slept in an inn. As payment, we helped to clean and cooked meals that the owner had never heard of. He was so happy with us after seeing his customers come in for seconds that he told us we were free to come back whenever we wanted.
We walked through every street—every single one but the four surrounding the Circus. The uneven paths felt like clouds to my feet. I couldn’t remember ever having worn shoes for such a long time before.
We danced the evenings away. Sometimes in bars with live music, sometimes on the squares, where people would cheer us on and throw copper coins our way. They asked where we learnt to dance like that, said we looked as graceful as the swans flying south.
Perhaps I wasn’t as talentless as the Circus had always made me out to me.
“We should do something special tonight,” Jeremiah said one day as we sat in the park, the grass tickling our ankles. His face was so close to mine that I could count the freckles on his nose, on his forehead. I reached forward and kissed each one.
“We could leave town? Move on to the next one?” The playful look in his eyes set my heart right on fire. Then his arm slid around my waist and my skin began to bathe in flames as well. “I want to see the entire world with you.”
Of course, I told him yes.
There, on that village’s main square in 1815, we stood with our bags packed once again. My pale green dress was brown at the edges, coated in bits of dirt and earth. I liked the look of it and twirled. This dress would see the world, I thought. This dress would get to dance countless times.
I took Jeremiah’s hand and squeezed it. He looked so handsome in his linen shirt, his collar up and a long-tailed coat trailing behind him when he walked. “Can we go south?” I asked him. “Like the swans?”
“We can go anywhere we like,” he said, and planted another kiss on my lips.
There were several others in the square: married couples walking arm in arm, a group of young boys in breeches chasing each other. An evening like every other for all of them. For me, it was the beginning of something new.
But then the ground trembled. My feet felt unsure and I looked up at Jeremiah. His frown told me that he’d felt it, too. No one else seemed to, however. The boys kept on playing and the couples kept on walking.
The tremble returned, worsening until we were both shaking. Shocked, I let go of Jeremiah, all my attention aimed at keeping my feet steady. I tried to look across the square—surely now everyone else felt it too?—but couldn’t. Everything was hazy, as if covered by a thick mist. There was the corner of the pastor’s house, the clattering sign above the bakery and—a bus stop.
“Jeremiah,” I said, pulling at his coat. “Do you see that?” I pointed, blinking in an attempt to make the mist go away.
The bus stop flickered in and out of view, electric lighting showing some commercial for a new ethical shampoo blend.
“Oh god,” I said, my throat dry. “I think the Circus is travelling. Is that what we’re seeing? The world changing around us across time?” I looked back at Jeremiah. He was staring ahead, his eyes perfectly still, looking grey through the mist.
I stopped, touching his coat once again. It was hard and ice cold, as if carved out of stone. My hand trailed up, fingers rough against his arm, his shoulder, his cheek. All of it was the same. Hard and cold. His eyes stared ahead without a pupil in sight. His hair was made up of hard, immovable lines. The leather bracelet on his wrist seemed to have become part of his skin. And all of him, grey. Like stone. Like a statue.
I stepped back, my breath hitching as I saw his feet and his suitcase, both rooted to the stone of the square as if they’d been there forever.
When the Circus gets hungry, it is insatiable.
Quickly, I checked my arms, pulling the sleeves of my dress up frantically, looking for patches of that same grey devouring me. There wasn’t a single one.
Jeremiah stood right in front of me, feet hip width apart, one of his hand outstretched as if to grab mine. His mouth was open just slightly. I could imagine him saying my name. Emma. Emma. Emma.
Not a sound came out of him.
If any passers-by cared to notice, they’d see a woman in a minty dress with her arms around a statue that none of them could remember having been there before. They’d hear her wailing, calling out for a man who could no longer hear her. They’d see how she clambered back up eventually and started running, leaving her suitcase next to an almost identical stone one.
I saw it all happen as if that woman was someone else, detached as I was from my own body. All I knew is that I had to get help. I had to find someone who understood, who could bring Jeremiah back to me. So I ran through the streets that I’d danced on just hours before, straight back to the Circus. Once it came into view, I allowed myself to breathe. Everything would go back to normal if I just went through that door and let someone help me. Lumen would help me. The ringleader would help me.
I knocked on the door, but no one opened.
“No. Come on, Lumen. Open up. Open up.” I started slamming the door, my fist colliding hard with the old wood, its hinges creaking. I slammed and slammed until my eyes fell on the side of the building. I saw the shattered windows, the grey remnants of what had once been curtains.
Fear began to gobble me up as I reached for the doorknob. I touched it, and the door swung right open.
Inside, everything was coated in dust. No furniture. No paintings. No Circus. All of it gone, off to a future I would never reach.
I stumbled back, my vision going in and out of focus. Alone. I was alone. Trapped in a time I didn’t know with my family over a hundred year away and my beloved motionless in the middle of a square.
Slowly, the strength seeped out of my legs. I sunk to the cobblestones. My cloak was thrown back by the wind, so I took it and wrapped myself up in it. Then I lay down and let the tears slip free.
“She went mad,” the man in the armchair said.
The Circus was moving around him, the room filled with a whole new generation of performers. The contortionist stretched herself on the couch. The ringleader stood by the fireplace. The young trapeze artists sat huddled in a corner.
“That’s what happens when you try to leave. If the Circus decides to travel on without you, you either turn to stone or become frozen in time, destined to roam an empty world for the rest of eternity until you go mad.” The man smiled. “Just like Emma Sondheim.”
The room was silent save for the cracking of the burning wood in the fireplace.
“Some say she’s still walking about outside to this very day, trying to find a way back.”
The ringleader clicked her tongue. “You do like your ghost stories, don’t you, Charley?”
“Legends,” Charley clarified, swinging his legs down from the arm of his chair. They landed on the carpet with a soft thud. “It’s a legend, but it’s real. They lived right here, under this roof. It was all real. Excuse me, Penelope,” he said, looking at the scoffing ringleader. “You don’t believe me? You live in a time-travelling building with doors that scream the moment you touch them, and still you find this hard to believe?”
The trapeze girls moved from their place on the floor. “Is it really true?” the youngest, a blonde girl wearing a soft pink skirt, said.
“It’s just a story. It didn’t actually happen,” her older sister answered.
Charley merely shrugged his shoulders
The girl stared around the room, her blue eyes big as saucers. “But we still won’t leave the Circus, right?” she asked.
“No,” the sister replied, closely watching the adults in the room. “We’ll never leave.” Though, somewhere, deep inside her heart, the tendrils of a desire had already begun to grow.