He’s late. Ellie pulls her knees to her chest and sighs into the night. Aaron has never been one for punctuality. Four years earlier, she’d waited for him on this same curb in front of her mother’s house wearing a floor-length, silver prom dress and an insane pair of heels, excited that Aaron got to use his dad’s BMW. Back then, Ellie had dreamed of riding in a convertible, but after showing up to prom with her up-do all lopsided, she’d decided she preferred her cars to have roofs on them. Tonight, Ellie is not dressed like a princess, though the engagement ring on her finger glitters like something out of a fairytale. The rest of her is a contrast: loose threads from her cut-offs tickle her thighs, her tank top is suddenly too thin for the summer night, and her flip-flops are held together by duct tape. Everything is different, but Aaron is still late.
Ellie checks the time again. She’ll give him five more minutes, and then she’ll creep back into her mother’s quiet house and go to sleep like she’s supposed to. Knowing Aaron, he’ll pull up to the curb as soon as she’s inside. She twists the engagement ring. It’s a little loose on her finger, probably a result of the wedding diet she’s been on since Jon popped the question six months ago. The ring looks more like something Ellie would have worn to prom; it would have matched her silver dress, classy up-do, and handsome date. It will also match the white dress she’s wearing in four days to marry Jon. She’d known Jon in high school, but he’d needed a little extra time to grow into himself and become good-looking enough to catch Ellie’s eye. Aaron, on the other hand, had been attractive all through high school, and though Ellie had had a fling with him, it hadn’t been anything serious.
Four of the allotted five minutes pass, and a pair of headlights round the corner. The shiny sedan stops a few feet away from Ellie. She blinks in the sudden brightness, still playing with her ring. Nothing happens for a moment, so Ellie stands up and gets in the car.
“Ellie.” Aaron smiles and taps her nose, like the old days.
“Late, early,” he says. “Does it really matter?”
“I was about to leave.”
“Couldn’t have that.”
“So where are you taking me?” she asks.
“I was going to drive off into the sunset, but sunrise is sooner.”
“Beach,” she agrees.
Aaron shifts gears, and Ellie tries not to notice how his gaze lingers on her, on the diamond calling for attention in the light of the streetlamp.
As he pulls onto the freeway a few minutes later, she asks, “You ready?”
“For, you know. Friday.”
He smiles. “It’s not like it’ll be that hard. I just stand there and look good.”
“Did you put your boutonniere in the fridge?”
“Was I supposed to?”
Ellie grimaces. “Yes. It’s going to die.”
“Everything dies,” he says. “Besides, I only got it this afternoon.”
“I swear, if your flower is dead by Friday, you will be dead.”
“Excuse me if I don’t want you wearing a dead flower! It would look awful in the photos.”
“And you really care about the photographs?” Aaron says.
“I care about the fucking photographs.”
The rest of the drive is silent. Ellie stares straight ahead at the empty freeway lanes, but she can almost feel Aaron’s eyes sliding in their sockets to glance over at her. She fiddles with the ring and refuses to look at him.
She doesn’t have to look at him to know he’s hardly changed. His skin is as dark as it’s ever been, like he’s draped in the starless night sky. His body is long and lean, his voice soft and muffled, like a drum stuffed with cloth. She wonders what he sees in her, if he can see the way the Wisconsin winters have taken the caramel from her skin and the shine from her hair. She wonders if he notices the way her hair brushes her shoulders where it used to graze her hips. Most of all, she wonders if he can tell how cold she is, how she feels like the sun hasn’t touched her skin in a thousand years, and she’ll never be warm again because all the warmth is gone.
Aaron pulls smoothly into a parking spot along the sidewalk. They’re a couple of blocks away from the beach, and the streets crawl with the creatures of the night. Music blasts from bars and clubs, flooding the sidewalk with bass. Ellie smells the salt as soon as she opens her door. She hasn’t seen the ocean in far too long.
She follows Aaron to the sand, slipping off her flip-flops where the sidewalk ends. She loses her balance, but Aaron catches her around the waist and elbow. Even when she’s back on two feet, his hands loiter before he kicks off his sneakers. Aaron extends a hand; Ellie takes it, letting his fingers glide over the ring. He doesn’t say anything about it, only steers them toward the water.
“It’s a beautiful night,” Ellie says, feeling the ocean breeze slice through her, mingling with the chill in her bones.
“I hope for the sake of your bridezilla side that the weather stays nice.”
“Yeah, because it will definitely rain in L.A. in the middle of July.”
“Only for you.”
Ellie grins. “But I think I’d dance in it. The rain. Wedding dress and all.”
“No. Just simple. Jon wanted a big, poufy dress, but I don’t need all that.”
Aaron looks her up and down. “I can see it.”
Ellie stops just shy of the water and lets go of his hand. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just making sure you’re not getting cold feet.”
“How could you say that?”
“It was a harmless question.”
“No,” she says. “It wasn’t.”
The breeze picks up, and she fights a shiver. The waves lick her toes. She can hear Aaron breathing behind her, in time with the waves. He reaches out his hand again and twines his fingers around hers. She doesn’t pull away.
“Why did you ask me here?”
“I just wanted to see you.”
“You couldn’t have waited for the wedding?” she asks.
“That would’ve been too late.”
Ellie tosses her flip-flops onto the sand behind her and squats down as the water comes closer. She dips her hand down until her fingers break the surface.
“I hate his eyes,” she says.
“His eyes. I mean, I usually don’t pay much attention to that sort of thing, but I realized last week that, oh my God, I hate his eyes.”
Aaron chuckles. “Seriously? Of all things?”
“Yes! They’re blue, you know, but not a strong sort of blue. They’re weak. Like jeans that have been through the wash too many times.”
Ellie looks up at him. “I mean, it crossed my mind: Do I really want to spend the rest of my life looking into a pair of— of jeans?”
Aaron squats down beside her as the next tide rolls in. “Chances are it won’t be the rest of your life.”
“That was rude.”
“Come on, the chances of divorce? Especially marrying so young.”
“Not that young,” she mutters.
“You’re not even twenty-three, El.”
“So,” he says, “the odds are against you.”
“I know him better than almost anyone.”
“And how many times have you broken up with him?”
Ellie shrugs. “I was scared. I didn’t know what I wanted.”
“And you do now?”
“But you knew something was wrong,” Aaron says. “Part of you thought you couldn’t be with him. What if that part’s right?”
Ellie leans back and sits down on the sand, eyes on the horizon. “So what if it is?”
“Don’t make that mistake.”
“What mistake do you want me to make?” Ellie lifts their clasped hands. “This one?”
“I’m here to help you.”
“Like hell you are.”
Aaron touches her face and pulls her gaze away from the ocean. The waves rise and fall in an endless rhythm. The moon glitters like the diamond of Ellie’s ring, cold and distant.
I lost track of how long I stayed with the circus. A week became a month, two, three, six . . . . No one noticed me; I became lost in the sea of misfits and acrobats, outcasts and fire breathers. I swept out the cages every day and kept my head down. I talked to no one except the lion.
His name was Zephyr, he said. Like the west wind, once a majestic, mythological figure. Zephyr had some remnant of a similar majesty, one that is told rather than shown, but it sagged with his loose skin and his squinted eyes. His mane was matted clumps of gray and brown fur, and he told me that no one groomed him because they were afraid. His tail flicked about lazily as he told me that no one had talked to him in a very long time. His eyes fixed onto me, following the movement of my arms as I swept out his cage, discarding a half-eaten steak, raw and dried out. He said he’d grown sick of the taste of cows. He’d had nothing else for so long.
In the dead of night, after a performance, the air filled with the sound of clinking bottles and rowdy laughter. Heat ran thick, immersing me in the smell of sweat and whiskey. The lion trainer led Zephyr back into the cage without much effort, his focus elsewhere. Zephyr lifted one large paw after another and settled back inside his prison. As the trainer locked the door and left to join the ruckus, I approached the cage. Zephyr lowered himself to the ground slowly, his tongue gliding across his maw.
I have heard them speak of hell, he said to me, and that is this place. I live in hell, he told me. Free me.
I asked him how. I told him I could force open his cage so that he could run.
No, he said. He was too old to run. His bones shook with each step he took and creaked every time they made him jump. His jaw ached from gnawing on bad meat, and his throat was raw from the many times they had forced a roar from him. He could not carry on, he said.
I asked him to tell me what to do. I wanted to reach a hand through the bars of the cage and stroke his sullied fur, but his long, sharp claws gleamed.
Fire, he said. They use it every night. They think they have tamed it, as they think they have tamed me, but fire is strong where I have lost my strength. They consume fire, he told me, but fire can consume them.
Help me, he said. Free me.
How could I refuse?
Zephyr told me how to find the fire eaters’ supplies. They were not locked away to prevent any accidents, and Zephyr called them lazy fools. Then he told me to empty the gasoline canisters into the dry grass, where the yellow and purple circus tent met the earth. Matches, he said. I needed matches. I dropped the empty canister and dug into my pocket for the matchbook I kept next to my pack of cigarettes. As I searched, I saw one of the trapeze artists heading my way. Her path was unsteady, and she wasn’t looking at me, but I still froze, hand buried in my trousers. She stepped lightly, daintily, the way I imagined a fairy might. I’d watched her before, flying through the air like she had wings.
Don’t let her see you, Zephyr said. She can’t know.
I took out my cigarettes and lit one, trying to be inconspicuous. Instead, she perked up at the smell. She looked right at me and smiled.
“Can I have a light?” she asked as she strolled over.
I didn’t move. The cigarette burned between my fingers.
Light the fire, Zephyr said. Drop the cigarette.
“What’s your name?” she pressed. “I don’t think I’ve seen you before.”
I let the cigarette fall from my fingers. It hit the ground, and the grass burst into flames. The trapeze artist’s eyes widened.
“Oh my God. What have you done?”
She’ll run, Zephyr said. Don’t let her.
What could I have done?
I tackled her and shoved her against the cage. She trembled, and I grasped her harder.
She’ll tell. Can’t let her tell.
I thrashed her against the bars, and her head made impact. Her eyes rolled back into her skull as her fairy’s body crumpled. By the time she awoke, she would not be able to escape.
The fire was spreading. I could feel its heat behind me, pressing against my back, oozing down the collar of my shirt.
I asked the lion what to do next.
Go, he said. Leave. I am almost free.
“But you’re trapped,” I said.
Zephyr licked his lips. Not for long.
But I couldn’t leave him to burn. I fiddled with the latch of the cage for a moment and finally wrestled the lock open, always feeling the burn, always hearing the screams as the night turned into chaos. The door swung open toward me, Zephyr’s eyes on it the whole time. He looked at me; I looked at him. I stepped from the doorway, his path to freedom, but he made no move to get up. The fire roared in my ears, the smoke played in my hair, and I knew I had no more time.
I rushed through the panic, the sea of misfits ravaged by a storm. When I was almost out, so close to safety, I chanced a look back. Zephyr’s eyes were trained on me for a second, and then he licked his paw and rubbed it against his face like a housecat. The door of his cage hung out over the open air.
The moonlight shone bright, but nothing compared to the brightness of the fire. Silhouettes waltzed across the tent, water splashed across the flames, but the blaze could not be stopped. I walked faster, away from the screaming. Over the cacophony of it all, I heard the single roar of a freed lion.