(June 2022 short story of the month, yep, it’s finally done)
She told him to try again, and he did, and she couldn’t help but laugh.
“I told you I wasn’t a dancer,” he said, protesting.
“But you’re an athlete,” she said, “you ran circles around everyone in p.e.”
“Dancing and running are not the same,” he protested again. He bounced in the air and tried to flip. It didn’t work. He was strapped into a harness and was trying to learn to be graceful and move the contraption where he wanted it to go. It wasn’t working. He needed to master this. If he couldn’t master the basics of acrobatics, they wouldn’t let him train on the trapeze or on the high wire. He pushed off and tried once again to flip. He didn’t get even one rotation. He just moved across the room and bounced towards the wall. He growled as he dragged his feet slowing his movement.
She laughed again. “You can get this. You must be over thinking it.”
“Maybe we should take a break. Try again tomorrow,” he suggested.
She nodded. “I’ll wait for you outside. Let’s skip some rocks.” She spun around and made running leaps until she was out of the building.
He worked quickly to get out of the harness. He was beyond frustrated with training. He tossed the straps onto a pile of others. He took a deep breath. He needed to get this. He didn’t tell her what he and everyone else in the troupe knew—he was getting too old for his current acts. He needed to learn something that adults did. If he didn’t, then he would be relegated to being part of the crew that tore down and set up. He wouldn’t be part of the true circus people—the ones who performed. He grew up with them; he needed to be part of the big show. He didn’t just want to be a worker bee.
He’d never shown any talent for the graceful acts. He couldn’t dance, flip, or fly like the others. He was strong. He’d work with his uncle as a part of the strong man act. He was billed as “The World’s Strongest Boy.”
He was getting too old though, and his cousin had been performing most nights instead of him.
Skipping rocks usually calmed his nerves. It was hypnotic when you skipped one just right and it bounced in tiny little beats across the surface of the water.
He heard a large splash but didn’t look to see what it was. He just watched his rock skip, skip, skip.
There were odd ripples crossing the surface of the water. He ran as fast as he could. She was face down in the water. She wasn’t moving.
He picked her up in one swift motion and placed her gently on the shore. She wasn’t breathing. He didn’t know what to do. Should he move her? He didn’t know cpr.
He couldn’t sit there and do nothing. He picked her up again and ran. He went to the center of the camp. Someone would be in the mess hall. Someone was always cooking something.
“Help,” he yelled as he placed her on a picnic table.
Three women came out of the kitchen. They didn’t say anything but pushed him aside. They worked together pressing on her chest and taking turns to get her breathing again.
It felt like forever and an instant all at once. He watched them pump, pump, pump against her heart and felt every press on his own. What was happening? Why had she fallen into the water? He didn’t understand what was happening.
The women kept working on her, but nothing was changing. She wouldn’t breathe. As he watched, he felt his heart racing. He wanted to give her his heartbeat. He placed his right hand over his heart and closed his eyes.
Breathe. Beat. Be. Alive.
He thought those four words over and over again. He could feel them being chanted at the same pace the women were pressing on her.
Breathe. Beat. Be. Alive.
He needed her to live. She was his best friend. He couldn’t handle this world without her in it.
Breathe. Beat. Be. Alive.
She had to live. What would he be without her?
He thought the last word and let out a deep breath.
Everything was quiet. No one was trying to resuscitate her anymore. He opened his eyes and was about to ask why they had stopped.
The women were looking at him. Their eyes were wide with shock.
“What have you done?” one of them asked. The other two wrapped their arms around themselves and rubbed their bodies like they were cold.
“What? What happened?” he asked.
The woman who’d scolded him stepped aside. He could see her. She was looking at him.
She was alive.
She was staring at him wide-eyed. She slowly raised her hand in front of her face and spread her fingers, as if she was seeing them for the first time. She put her hand on chest over her heart.
She smiled and took a deep breath.
As the years passed, the memory of that day faded for him. He didn’t understand it then, but he’d done something he shouldn’t have. He was ostracized even among the circus.
Everyone eyed him warily when he walked past. They never made him leave, but they never forgot that day. They talked about it all the time. They warned all newcomers. And whenever there was an accident, as was apt to happen around flimsy rides and wild animals, he wasn’t allowed to help. As soon as anything would go wrong, he would be shoved away and forced to leave the area.
They were made to live in a RV separate from the others.
But the strangest result of that day was that she never spoke again. She followed him everywhere, and most times, even without speaking, she seemed to understand what he was thinking.