THE WEEK LEADING up to Christmas was equally exciting and peaceful as a majority of the residents toted their luggage through the iron gates and hailed cabs to the public train station. According to James, Marvelle took a weeklong break from running performances to allow its employees Christmas holiday. In Baltimore, Marvelle stood almost deserted save for various roustabouts, students, and dozens of trainees.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they sent their maid to collect me,” Jodelle muttered, crossing her grey-gloved hands across her chest as she leaned back against the icy black entrance gates.
Cars whizzed by on the slick streets just beyond the Midway. It was the first time the snow had let up all week and a thick coat of slush was pushed against the curbs and cars parked along the sidewalks.
James had lugged her black suitcase down the plowed path from the carriage all the way to the gate, and now stood between them with his bare hands stuffed into his black woolen coat pockets.
“They’re that bad?” Laila asked, her breath a visible mist that hung in the frozen air as she spoke.
Jodelle rolled her eyes, staring off into the distance. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they asked me to juggle for them as entertainment,” she said over a strained laugh. “They think I’m a clown.”
“You haven’t told them you’ve been training?” James asked.
“They couldn’t care less. Anything I do is insufficient to compete with my sister’s figure skating career.” Jodelle forced a smile, but kept her eyes stationed on a red brick building across the street.
“Your sister’s a figure skater?” Laila asked. “Why don’t you skate?”
“She’s training to skate professionally,” Jodelle said, kicking the snow underfoot. “Ice wasn’t my thing. I wanted to be a ballerina.”
“How’d you go from ballet to circus?” James asked. “I thought you ended up here because you broke an hourglass?”
Jodelle nodded. “My sister and I were fighting in my father’s study and her elbow caught the hourglass. If I didn’t take the blame, they’d have pulled her out of figure skating. That’s her dream.”
“So you gave up your dream,” Laila finished.
Jodelle shrugged. “I couldn’t dance en pointe, anyway. My feet weren’t the right shape.”
A glossy black Buick 45 rolled up to the slush-strewn curb before them, the motor purring and a soft mist filtering into the air from the pipes behind. The back door swung open and a young girl with coffee hair darted from the cab and pummeled Jodelle’s legs, arms encircling Jodelle’s waist.
“Aprilla!” Jodelle bent to embrace her. “I’ve missed you.”
“Can we see the circus?” Aprilla asked, her chocolate eyes twinkling.
“It’s not running right now,” Jodelle explained, her voice suddenly soft.
A slick-haired man in a charcoal pinstripe suit introduced himself as Ferdinand, Jodelle’s father. He offered a fleeting smile as he pulled open the back door for James to lodge her suitcase inside. Visible only from the passenger-seat window, Jodelle’s crow-faced mother was an identical representation of the jewel-hugging women Laila had seen at the vaudeville the previous weekend. James and Laila stood back and waved to Jodelle as she and her family sped off to their home in Bethesda for the holidays.
GRATEFUL THAT JAMES’S mother was here at Marvelle, Laila spent most of the week alongside him, Alysia, and Florence. Unperturbed by the merry travelers, they carried on with the festivities offered by Marvelle. A jovial old man led a small team of the remaining personnel into the forest beyond the fence to cut miniature pine trees for them to bring back to their carriages to decorate. The outing resulted in getting pegged in the back of the head by snowballs created by the frenzied little fists of adolescent students who laughed and darted behind thick tree trunks to avoid retaliation.
They lugged a portable fir back to carriage 114 and shook the snow off its sharp, green needles before mounting it to the makeshift stand and placing it neatly beside the foot of the staircase. They, along with James, spent the night listening to records on the battered old gramophone as they decorated the tree, sipped hot cocoa, and ate the cookie figurines off the gingerbread house they’d pilfered from the eatery.
Quickly realizing they had no presents to place beneath the heavily embellished fir, they spent the next few days running in and out of town to complete their gift shopping. The Marvelle grounds were eerily silent, devoid of most the personnel who had amassed a great enough fortune to take vacation during the cold holiday.
Around every corner, Laila’s eyes strained for sight of Dex. She hadn’t seen him since their night at the vaudeville. The sideshow was snowed over and deserted. No footsteps in the snow betrayed hint of the performers who frequented it. She tried to push it from her mind, unable to help but wonder where he was this Christmas, if not around Marvelle.
But was it so out of the ordinary for him to be hidden from view? She only saw him on rare occasion in the eatery when Marvelle was packed; why should this be any indication of irregularity? Comforting herself with that notion, she drew a smile upon her cheeks and turned her attention back into the warm, glowing carriage and the now crowded tree that resided beside the staircase.
Enjoying the resplendent festivities, they barely noticed when Christmas snuck up upon them. Sitting cross-legged upon the sill and wrapped in the thick, carmine velour comforter from her bunk, Laila sucked on the peppermint candy cane that had previously acted as the structural support for the gingerbread house (now just a pile of gingerbread debris on it’s cardboard lawn). James was perched upon the sill beside her—Remi curled into a tight beige ball in his lap—ripping the emerald paper off the flat package from Florence.
Florence’s cheeks flushed a deep tomato red as James peeled the cover off and revealed the 1919 calendar featuring a dozen different species of large cats. He thanked her before sending his own package flying across the room to her. It landed with a dull thud on the floor, her grin permanently stretched across her face as she peeled the wrappings off.
Inside was a thick textbook with BIOLOGY, HUSBANDRY, & CARE OF EXOTIC SPECIES in gold foil lettering across the cover. She cracked the spine and read aloud the inscription James had penned inside the cover:
Florence, read all you can so you can keep your fingers!
Merry Christmas, James
Florence grinned wider, thanking him before sinking her nose into it.
“Animal trainers…” Alysia breathed, rolling her eyes. She grabbed a small box from beneath the tiny tree. Reading the nametag, she tossed it toward Laila.
His handsome face glowed in the lamplight, reflecting upon the glass behind him.
“It’s a coin purse!” Florence guessed, her eyes bright.
“Nah, it’s too heavy,” Alysia commented.
Peeling off the red paper, Laila pulled out a silver hairpin covered in glittering jet stones. “It’s beautiful,” she whispered.
“My mother’s idea,” James shrugged. “To wear once you start performing.”
She grinned and threw her arms around him. After cleaning up the crumpled balls of wrapping paper scattered amongst the carriage floor, James suggested they make their way to the banquet.
Donning their thick winter coats, they stepped out into the frozen world outside the carriage. The darkening sky cast a deep blue over the sparkling white blanket of snow as they hiked down the path toward the eatery. Laughter and conversation echoed through the air as groups trekked toward the tent like moths to flame. Unlike in the warmer months, the sidewalls of the eatery were unrolled, shielding diners from the breath-taking winds ripping across the snowy yard.
A small group of artists she recognized from the show entered through the undulating doorway. Following, James pulled the flap of the entrance up to allow the girls beneath it. Laila ducked inside behind Alysia as Florence sauntered up to the table.
The eatery had been completely transformed for the occasion. The crew had combined all the tables into one, creating a large square in the center of the tent that was filled with decadent foods. Hot stews, roasts marinated in gravy, meringue pies, cobblers, puddings, and streusels created a menu that she could previously only dream of.
Ornate silver candelabras were spaced evenly with the soft yellow glow of the dripping candles dancing lightly across the indigo-fringed runners than spanned the length of the tables. Along the outer perimeter was a line of embellished silver plates, fancy silverware, and gleaming silver chalices much unlike the wares they typically dined on.
“Where’s Raiyna?” Laila wondered as she took her place between Alysia and James.
James shrugged. “Sideshow performers don’t like to associate with us circus folk.”
“But they are circus folk.” She stared glumly at the ornate silver plates before her. She despised their grandeur for reminding her of the ritzy décor of the Orpheum Theatre.
“I know, but they can be touchy. I suppose it’s not easy, being labeled a freak amongst the even freakier. But I know it’s not Raiyna you’re concerned with. It’s him, right? Dex?”
Her silence gave her away.
He nodded and took a deep breath. “I know you really like him, but you need to forget about him.”
Another group of diners entered through the gaping flap of canvas and a chilled breeze stole over them from the icy world outside.
“I can’t just forget about him,” she muttered, her fingers grazing over the row of silver forks and spoons beside her plate.
“I don’t know why he’s not here. But if he wanted to see you, he’d be here.”
She dropped the subject, unable to withstand any more comments that contradicted her growing feelings toward Dex. Peering around the table, she buried the longing temporarily and opted to enjoy the banquet, instead.
Her first Christmas feast with friends in her new home felt more warm and cheerful as the tent quickly filled with the remnants of residents who had remained for the break. Only a few artists had lingered, and everyone settled into the table as one.
She felt the itch of eyes upon her and turned toward the corner of the table. The sight caught the air in her lungs and fury roiled inside her. Rich was seated across the table, sending her a cutting glare. He wore a metal brace on his head, mending his jaw. Two chairs down sat Ethan, oblivious. She clenched the seat of the bench to steady the urge to run over and slap the look off his face.
Would you still wear that cocky grin if Dex were here? she wondered. Then she scowled, because Dex wasn’t here. He wasn’t here beside her, where she wanted him to be, and he wasn’t here to prevent Rich from sending her threats through his eyes. She returned his black look with a pointed smirk on her lips.
The room fell silent as Robbins swept up to an empty chair and paused before taking her seat.
“I’m delighted to be spending this wonderful holiday among friends and family,” she said, gazing around the table. “Here’s to a wonderful Christmas.”
She raised her glass and everyone around the table followed suit, repeating “Merry Christmas” in cheery yet fumbled unison before taking a drink.
“Dig in!” she said and at once, everyone began scooping helpings onto their plates from the wide assortment of foods upon the table.
Laila’s eyes involuntarily scanned the table one last time. She knew she was secretly hoping to catch a glance of Dex and wasn’t sure which disappointed her more: his regrettable absence or her inability to keep him off her mind. She knew she shouldn’t be upset over his truancy. Yet despite her best effort to remain unaffected, she suddenly felt a great deal sourer as she scooped marinated green beans onto her plate.
After the banquet, nearly everyone abandoned their seats around the cluttered table to stand and chat with one another over their third or fourth glass of wine.
“I’m going back to the carriage,” Laila nearly shouted over the multiple conversations now buzzing around the eatery. “I’m tired.”
“I’ll be there soon.” Florence smiled, her eyes glazed over either from food-induced lethargy or the warming buzz of the wine.
Laila pulled her white coat in tighter to her chest as she exited into the cold, dark night. The clatter of silverware from the cookhouse rung into the otherwise silent night air and a cloud of frozen breath escaped her lips as she stepped across the tracked lawn to the hollowed out path.
With her eyes stationed on the hundreds of footsteps that packed down the snow before her, she jumped backward as her arm knocked something hard. Her eyes shot up, landing on a beautiful mirage: Dex’s beautiful porcelain face. His messy hair was camouflaged against the black sky, but his charcoal eyes glittered brighter than any star.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his hands encircling her wrists to steady her in her haste.
“Rich of you to finally make an appearance,” she muttered.
“What?” he asked, confusion crossing his features.
“Nothing,” she breathed. “Good night.”
He released her wrists and watched her stalk off. Glaring into the night, tears stung her eyes as she made it up to the carriage. Crossing the threshold, she whipped off her coat and threw it to the floor beneath the coat rack.
Her stomach bubbled with anger as her head settled into the cold pillow in her bunk. Angry that anger consumed her on a night that should have been plastered with happiness. Angry with herself for not listening to her friends’ warnings about Dex. Angry that she had listened to James’s legitimate point in the eatery. Angry that she didn’t even feel remorseful as her thoughts traveled back to her mother, alone in the brothel on Christmas. But mostly, angry because she cared so much.
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