by Maggie McAteer
I take a deep breath; the calm before the storm. One step, and they’ll all see me. Except they won’t really see me, will they? They’ll see the sparkles and the magic and the tricks and they’ll never think to look behind the curtain, never think-
A noise from behind me and the mask goes back up.
Last chance to run, Niamh jokes. I roll my eyes and tuck a loose curl behind my ear. Like you’d ever let me, I respond. The words ring hollow in my ears, truth too close to the surface, but the platinum blond doesn’t seem to notice. Her brown roots are just beginning to peek through near her scalp, a hint of reality, a cry for help. Niamh laughs softly, and gives me a final once over. Good to go, she says approvingly, eyeing the many sparkles on my jumpsuit. I can hear the announcer outside, his voice loud and booming.
Everyone, please give it up for the
The crowd roars louder, and adrenaline rushes through my body. Niamh shoots me a final thumbs up. I feel like I’m heading towards my funeral, and maybe I am. When you’re me, every day could be your last; I work without a net. But I push the thoughts down, and lock them in the cage where my heart should be. I’m Harriet Solano. I don’t fall.
When the lights hit me, I shine. I smile at the crowd, the mask glued tightly to my face. They see me, a glittering ball of poise, my eyes brighter than the sequins that feel stitched to my skin. I see them, a faceless mob of vultures, hungry, flashing and utterly fake. But then again, so am I.
I trace the steps I’ve walked a hundred times before, grains of sand sticking against my slippers. My breathing slows, like time itself. Thousands of eyes are glued on me as I make my ascent. Rung after rung, I push past the cold metal, clearing my mind. I try to ignore the weight of their gaze, try to push away all the secrets I hold.
The thought that, if I could, I would shed my shiny skin in a heartbeat.
The dream of running and running and running and never coming back.
The secret desire of wanting to fly, if only for a second.
But they can’t know that, any of it. It’s not good for business.
I reach the top, and I finally get a breath of fresh air. This is my favorite part, when it’s just me, and the wire, and the rest of the world melts away. I close my eyes for half a second and picture myself far away. One moment is all that I allow myself before I return to my body and ground myself. I am here, and this is all that is real. The platform beneath my feet. The stretch of wire in front of me. The audience below, holding their breath.
I breathe. And then I step.
One foot in front of the other.
And always, always smile.
I feel like a doll, a robot controlled by unseen masters. Every move is scripted, every wobble choreographed to add tension, every trick planned out. Up here is where I feel the most free, but also the most caged. Like a bird in an aviary pecking at the fencing, wondering how close I can get to the sky.
I reach the middle of the wire, and stop. I pause, and look out at the faces around me. I envy them, more than I’ve realized. I want their simple awe, their sugar coated fingers. Their freedom.
Harriet Solano doesn’t fall. But what if I did?
I bounce a little on the wire, testing it. The people below me don’t notice anything is wrong, but I am sure that behind the curtain Niamh is beginning to panic. She’ll call her managers frantically, and watch as I contemplate my last true freedom.
Falling. Letting go. Flying for one breath, one glorious moment and then no one could ever hurt me again. I lift my foot up, flirting with death.
Death beckons to me, murmuring sweet nothings into my ear.
Hello, love, I whisper back, have you missed me? Death smiles, sitting in the audience. Their cold eyes staring at me, calling me-
No. They’re not cold anymore, are they? The eyes looking at me are blue, and impossibly far away, and I don’t know how I can see her sitting there but I can.
Blue eyes, so sad and so hopeful. A worn out beanie covering tangled brown hair. A smile. I shouldn’t be able to see that smile, but it’s there, in front of me, and its voice overpowers death.
Those eyes tell me to hold on. They say that life’s still worth living. There’s nothing fake behind them, she wears no mask. Only truth and yet, behind the pain of existence there is joy. I stare at her, green meeting blue, and I smile back, a true smile. The first one I’ve had in I can’t remember how long.
Harriet Solano doesn’t fall, her smile says. You don’t fall.
I turn back to complete my walk, pivoting. The audience is confused, they wonder why I stopped. For once, I don’t care. I won’t fall this time, not because of them and their money and their spectacle, but for her. For me.
One step after the other, I walk. I think of her, and her smile, and those gorgeous blue eyes. Step, breathe, step, smile. I forget the rest of my act, and there’ll be hell to pay later but I don’t care. I just want to find her and forget about my sparkles and my fake smiles and run as fast and as far as I can. I climb down the other side, and bow as I reach the floor. I can see Niamh glaring at me from the side. The audience applauds anyways.
As soon as I’m out of sight, she grabs my arm, glaring. What the hell was that?! She exclaims, You froze up, on stage, forgot half your act, so just tell me, what on earth were you thinking!
I just shake my head, still smiling. I quit, I tell her, Find another puppet to walk your wire. I grab a nearby towel and start to wash the glitter off my skin. I’m done being their toy. I’m sick of all of the fake smiles, and the lies, and I won’t do it anymore. I’m leaving.
Niamh looks at me in shock. Well, shock at first, then something akin to disappointment. And maybe, just maybe, I can see a hint of fear in her eyes. If I can leave, what’s to stop the rest of them? You can’t leave, she says, you won’t be able to survive out there. This circus has been your entire life, you’ve been here longer than me! The world outside the walls of these tents are dark and full of vultures. Besides, you wouldn’t be able to live without the thrill. I know performers who’ve tried to leave, and they either come back or they end up dead, trying to get the same performance high. Don’t you love the applause? The rush when you take a bow? You’ll be crawling back here in no time.
I study her quietly. I don’t think so. A roar of applause comes from outside, and the tent begins to empty out. Their show is over; and so is mine. I hope you’re happy, I tell Niamh, but I know I won’t be until I leave. This place has held my chains for far too long. It’s time for me to break free. I want to live.
Then I turn, I walk away from it all. From the laughter and the clapping and the screams. From the sparkles and the lights. From the little fine line I walked. I walk away, and I don’t look back, instead, searching for a pair of blue eyes among the swirl of the crowd.
It doesn’t take me long to find her. After a moment, she’s the only one left. I gaze at her across the courtyard, my green eyes staring into her blue.
Elouise, she says, coming over, that’s my name. Elouise, I repeat her name, and it sounds like hope.
Harriet, I stick my hand out, and she grasps it, nice to meet you.
Harriet. You want to have an adventure? I’d thought I’d had enough adventure to last a lifetime, but the prospect of going out into the world didn’t seem so bad, if it was with her. I take one last breath of caramel scented air, one last look at the world I’ve always known. I turn to Elouise and smile.
I thought you’d never ask.