It was on a bright, starry night that the traveling circus rolled into town. Sleepy people on a sleepy street stood on shabby porches and watched the procession — gawkers with eyes full of contented blindness while they let one small corner of Kentucky be transformed. Brilliant lights flared and flashed like a fleet of fire engines, casting frightful shadows across the desolate fairgrounds.
From a vacant lot down the dusty road, Sara surveyed the activity through eyes full of loneliness. A searing summer wind blew back her unkempt hair, but there was no inferno to account for the faint aroma of smoke on the air. She watched as doors along the street were closed and locked tight in denial of this intrusion into their perfect, peaceful world.
Only when all the shutters were securely drawn, and there was certainty that no one would see, did the young girl take her first tentative steps toward the spectacle.
Drifting aimlessly through a mass of trucks, tents, and trailers, Sara stared about in apathetic awe, as if she knew her world was changed, but could not bring herself to care. Coiled power cables cluttered the ground, reminiscent of firehoses being yanked this way and that in a desperate effort to snuff out the embers of every child’s dream. She stepped over these snares and followed the sticky scent of cotton candy; it brought memories of the treats Mama would give to reward her big-girl bravery after one of the really bad nights.
The sweet smell mingled with that of empty liquor bottles as she passed a trashcan; she recognized the black label as the poison to her innocence. Sara violently vomited up what remained of the scraps she had found last night.
She regained her composure and moved swiftly away from the offensive fragrances of her past. A guttural growl attracted her attention and enticed her around a large trailer and into the menagerie. Sara meandered among caged predators with a sense of homecoming she had not felt in a month — since she had had enough. She approached a heavily muscled, majestic tiger without fear and extended a tiny hand through steel bars meant to protect her. The graceful cat advanced leisurely, sending powerful ripples through shimmering orange fur, giving the appearance of living flames bearing down on her. Instead of bared teeth, a sandpaperish tongue passed lightly over her open palm to provide her first affectionate contact since the death of her father two years ago. Maybe the beast sensed a kindred soul trapped in a cage of her own, or maybe there was no more sport in killing prey whose spirit was already extinguished — she hadn’t always had bars to protect her.
“Hey now,” came a gentle voice behind her, “be a good girl and come over here.”
Sara knew well the pain that came from disobeying a man’s orders; she withdrew her hand slowly. Turning to face the speaker, her heart began to race. The man was tall and thin, and smiling warmly at her. His casual clothes were clean and respectable.
He looked just like Mama’s boyfriend, except no lust burned in this stranger’s eyes.
Still, Sara ran, stumbled over serpentine cords, and ran some more. The snarl of exhibits closed in from all sides like billows of smoke filling the chambers of hell to prevent her escape. Blazing around a blind corner she collided with a clown in a garish frock, her face grotesquely painted like the bright-lipped social worker with the platitudes and accusing eyes. Dirt had replaced soot on her face this time, but again the grimy child darted into the darkness before she could be grabbed.
Some time later, Sara returned to the lot and spied on the circus from the security of where her porch used to be. One by one the lights winked out and stillness descended on the fairgrounds again. Sleep returned to a town with no interest in being awake. In a few hours the neighbors would rise and begin their days, pointedly ignoring the remains of the charred house at the end of the block — just as for years they ignored the smoldering lies that foreshadowed the burning lives of those who lived there.
A solitary flame came alive in Sara’s hand; her last match. For a long moment she gazed lovingly at a singed photograph of two radiant parents and a smiling little girl: a family that died with the father’s cancer, then was damned by the mother’s denial. As tears began to fall, she touched the flame to her likeness and finished burning away her past. She had reduced her entire life to the ash under her feet.
She let her final fire burn unattended, melted away in the shadowy woods at the edge of the lot, and was gone. Only an empty matchbox at the edge of the train tracks marked her passage into blessed oblivion.
Innocence died, and a young girl cried, all on a bright, starry night.
Jason Michelsen is originally from Detroit, Michigan, but has lived in a number of states and countries around the world. He has a wide variety of life experiences that inspire his writing.