“Ladies and gentlemen, the French family!”
Cameras flashed. The audience roared as the Frenchs skipped onto the stage, dressed in their sparkly leotards that glinted in the spotlights. The seats were packed with fans so that if you went far away enough, the whole mass of squirming people would just look like ants, faceless and unrecognizable.
Shirley and Warren French clasped hands and grinned hugely at the audience. They gracefully scaled the ladders and swung like monkeys from the platforms, flipping somersaults in the air and gripping the swinging trapeze on the other side. The crowd boomed with every successful jump and when the show was over, they exploded with noise.
Charles did not like the noise of the crowd. As he lingered in the backstage of the circus, he flinched at the needless bombardment of chaotic din that the visitors made, gasping and clapping for something none of them could do. It’s pathetic, he thought, electricity humming behind his eyes.
He took a deep breath, regaining control over his easily-angered mind. Charles watched his sister, Carol, peeking out from behind the curtain at their parents, holding her breath as they soared through the air like birds. She looked back at her brother, eyes shining with excitement.
“Wasn’t that simply incredible, Charles?” she whispered in awe. Charles shot her a shallow smile as her eyes whipped back to the trapeze, a gasp hovering above the crowd. Charles leaned back against the stack of boxes, closing his eyes. How noisy it was at the circus.
Charles longed to go back to the French’s caravan, to go to his bed and toy with his playing cards, locks and keys. But the thought of his parents’ fury the last time he snuck away from a show was enough to keep Charles rooted to his seat on the moving box.
He stuffed a hand in the pocket of his overcoat and, with a happy jolt of surprise, felt a smooth object rolling around. Charles pulled it out and realized it was a marble, no doubt from the game he and Carol had played earlier that morning.
Glancing around cautiously, he let the crystal swim between his fingers, gliding from hand to hand. He focused all his energy at the center of the orb, energy crackling in his fingers. A whisp of shadow fell delicately from his finger and enveloped the ball, leading it between his hands. Charles let another string of the darkness whisper from another finger and pinched his long, thin fingers together.
The crystal spun up on a spiral of the black material and Charles held it there, for one glorious moment. The crowd roared and then, the crystal turned a murky black, cracked and fell into Charles’s open palm, ashes. He sighed sadly and tucked them in his other pocket as his parents walked off the stage, looking happy and exhausted.
“You were fantastic, mama and papa!” Carol chirped, passing them towels. They smiled appreciatively and wiped their brows.
“Thank you, my darling,” Warren said, his voice low and rough, “Where is your brother?”
Charles felt his body thrum but he forced himself to stay put. No disappearing, he told himself sternly. Carol pointed cheerily to the place where Charles’s long, thin form was perched upon the moving boxes. He smiled thinly and his parents beamed back.
“I’m so glad you, um, stayed for the show,” his mother said, her grin never wavering. Warren nodded stiffly and wrapped his arms around Charles warmly but his embrace felt cold and alien.
“Let’s go back to the caravan,” Shirley told them, the words welcome to Charles. He stayed silent as his mother gripped Carol’s hand and led her out of the tent. Charles’s father shot him an awkward look and disappeared through the flap behind the rest of Charles’s family.
Charles felt a twinge of sadness as he watched the rippling flap of the circus tent but he quickly buried it under the lock and key that always shielded Charles’s emotions. He had always felt a little different from his “family”. I suppose having magic powers doesn’t help, Charles thought sarcastically, following them through the makeshift door.
The air was cold and sharp, shocking after the sticky heat of the tent. Charles watched his family walk across the dark grass, disappearing into the shadows. He followed them, his long black overcoat fluttering in the breeze. Charles pulled it tighter around him. He was relieved when he saw the French caravan slide into view.
Charles clicked up the steps and creaked open the door to let himself in. The inside of the caravan was cramped and uncomfortable but the only house Charles and his sister had ever known. Sometimes, Charles caught his mind wandering to apartments in Paris or cottages by the sea but he had to remind himself of the impossibility of these whimsical fantasies.
Charles fell onto his bunk, Carol chattering to their parents as the musty scent of meatloaf wafted over the family. Charles sighed. All they’d eaten was meatloaf for months. He rolled onto his side, staring at the wall of the caravan. Charles stuffed his hand in his pocket and looked at the ashes that he pulled out, his heart sinking. He almost didn’t notice his parents walking over to him.
“Charles,” his mother said, a smile playing with her face, “We have some exciting news for you.” Charles glared at her. He was not in the mood to chat.
“Mr. Watkins thinks it’s about time you had your own performance in the big top show,” his father said, not a glint of emotion in his eyes. Charles stared. he heard Carol moan.
“No fair,” she whined, “Why does Charles get a show and not me?”
“Charles is thirteen, dove,” Shirley said fondly, “That’s about the age you’ll start performing at too if you practice enough.”
“But I’m eight,” Carol replied, “That’s close enough, right?”
While the girls argued, Charles was sitting stock still, flabbergasted by the news. He had never thought of having a show. It seemed like something that happened to other people but now that it was here, Charles had to start planning.
For the rest of the night, Charles thought up tricks and an interesting order to perform them in. He kept stumbling over the one problem but tried not to let it slow him down. This was too big an opportunity to mess up.
After dinner, Charles lay quietly in his bed, listening to his sister’s rhythmic breathing. His parents were seated at the table and they were muttering in hushed tones that Charles could barely make out.
“Is he asleep?” his mother breathed. Charles immediately shut his eyes in a pantomime of sleep. He felt his father’s breath on his face as he searched Charles’s face for lies as he so often did.
“Yes,” his father whispered back. They sat in silence for a few moments. Charles could feel their gazes burning his back.
“How will he do a show?” Shirley said in despair, “He can’t talk.” Charles’s father sighed.
“I don’t know,” he replied quietly, “But he’s certainly got the talents. You should see the things he can do with cards. He -“
“YOU should see the things he does with his hands! And with himself!” his mother hissed back quickly. A heavy silence hung in the air as Charles waited with bated breath.
“He – he scares me, Warren,” Shirley told him, voice shaking, “Have you seen his fingers? They’re long and slim. Just not human, I tell you.”
“He’s your son,” Warren whispered, “Just because he has long fingers doesn’t mean he’s a demon or something.”
“Is he? Is he really my son? Sometimes I don’t think so,” Charles’s mother breathed. A pause. “You must have seen the shadows.”
“I don’t know what I’ve seen,” Warren said, sounding overwhelmed, “Oh, why couldn’t he be a normal child, like Carol?”
Anger bubbled in Charles but he controlled himself, trying to focus on his parents’ words.
“And it is even worse that he’s mute,” Shirley said, “I don’t know what’s going on inside his head. The looks he gives me, Warren… he despises us, I’m sure of it.”
Charles sat up. His parents jumped and his mother stifled a scream.
“Oh,” his father said, catching his breath, “You frightened us, Charles. Why aren’t you asleep?” Charles didn’t answer, just looked at his hands.
“Charles?” his mother asked quietly. Charles tried to ignore the fear tinting her voice. He tried to ignore the tears running down his face but he couldn’t. Charles felt the darkness around him and let it enclose him, doing nothing to stop it. This time his mother did scream, waking Carol up.
“What’s the matter, mother?” she asked but then quickly notice Charles, her green eyes going wide.
Charles knew it looked like he had disappeared. He quickly focused himself on becoming visible again and his family stared at him, fear etched into their faces.