Village girl

You have always loved the circus. You have loved the trapeze, the tents and rings, the animals and smells of animals, the calliope music that hangs in the air like a fog. You have never seen the circus, of course—like most of the people you know and your aunt knows, you have never left Middleton—but you love it from jokes and from picture books and from the small wooden toy set you have with the gape-jawed lion and the grinning clowns whose bodies are hollow cylinders which slot into holes in an eight-inch biplane that you fly above your bed before supper. You have heard one man in town who tells stories of a circus in the desert where the performers wear swirling blue makeup and dance impossibly through the audience.

Thus you have always loved the circus. Two days ago you were walking through the snow to the schoolhouse and passed a large round man standing on a stepladder and putting a poster on a tree by the road. The man wore a sort of heavy coat that looked like canvas, and his pants were brown and filthy and hung loose about his person. He turned when you approached and you saw the poster behind him: CIRCUS, it said.

‘Little girl,’ the man said. ‘Do you believe in magic?’ He held a hammer in his hand.

You looked around you at the snow covering the ground. The crisp thin air reddening your face. You did not know that circuses ever came in the winter.

‘I know, I know,’ the man said. He stayed at the top of his stepladder. You noticed that he was speaking oddly, and then you saw that he was holding two thick carpenter’s nails in the corner of his mouth. ‘We gotta eat when it snows too, ya know?’

That was two days ago. Last night you barely slept. At school you were distracted, looking out the window in case the train pulled in early. The circus will be arriving soon. You suppose they will set up in a farmer’s field, near the edge of the forest, where the land is flat and useless and clear. Tonight you lie awake in bed. You stare at the crossbeams above you and wonder if the circus will be what you have thought it will be, if the smells and colors will be right, or if they will be better, or if there will be many tents and performing animals with animal costumes. Ballerinas in the air, clowns with balloon animals making squeaking noises as they twist into their dachshund shapes.

A fire crackles and pops in the fireplace. Your aunt is out, and you are alone in the house. She is working tonight. You wonder what time it is. You stand up on your bed and peer out the window into the dark night, the snow glowing dusty blue below the moon, the fir trees waving slow-motion.

There is a loud, long scream from somewhere outside. Somewhere on the other side of the house, out on the street maybe. The scream sounds like terror or anguish. It is a woman’s. You see nothing out the window.

A. Run out to the street in the winter air.
B. Dive into your bed and wrap the quilts around you and try to fall asleep.
C. Put on your boots and head away from the street, into the woods.
D. Ensure that the door is locked and wait for your aunt to come home.
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