Mom dropped the bombshell at breakfast. “We’re thinking about going to Puerto Rico for the summer.”
I choked on my bacon. Seth rubbed at the pillow-creases on his face, flipped his hair off his forehead, and sat up straight. Mikayla set her green juice down with a thunk, blinked her eyes fifteen times, and opened her mouth. Dad took advantage of the moment to help himself to the last three pieces of french toast.
“I should have worded that better.” Mom wrapped her hands around her coffee mug. She and Dad exchanged nervous smiles. “Dad and I are going together. Just the two of us.”
Seth, Mikayla and I stared at each other. We stared at our parents. Seth scratched his head. Mikayla blinked ten times. I crumbled bacon with my finger.
“How is that better?” asked Seth, putting on the wide-eyed expression I like to call “lost baby lemur”.
“Exactly my point,” said Mikayla, though she hadn’t said a word until then. “What are we supposed to do while you’re gone?”
Dad set down his fork. “I’ve put a lot of thought into that,” he said.
We all froze.
My breath snagged in my throat. Mikayla clasped her hands so hard the knuckles turned white. Seth’s fingers moved in a silent drum-roll on the table.
I mentally reviewed all the things Dad had “put a lot of thought into.” Like the Christmas he rented a cabin in the woods and the power went out. We ate crackers, peanut-butter, and boiled snow for Christmas dinner. Or the time he modified Mikayla’s bicycle with a lawn-mower engine. She hated the scar it left on her shin. The day I turned nine he took me out for chicken nuggets during lunch hour but forgot to sign me out at the office. All my classmates could say was that I’d gotten into a silver Toyota with a strange man. The police got involved. Dad was almost put in handcuffs in the restaurant parking lot. I wet my bed for weeks afterwards.
“Have you guys heard me talk about my friend Fancy Ed?” Dad asked.
“The dude with the circus?”
A grin bloomed on Dad’s face. That’s when I knew we were in for it. No matter what had happened in the past, the minute Dad grinned like that, Mom was a goner.
She smiled into her coffee and took a sip, oblivious to the mounting horror on her children’s faces. “You want us to join the circus?” I asked, my voice raspy with shock.
“Yeah,” said Dad, beaming. “Run away and join the circus. It’s every kid’s dream, right?”
“Not mine,” Mikayla snapped.
“Fancy Ed is short staffed,” said Dad, a bit crestfallen. “He could use the extra help.”
“You’re selling us into slave labor?” Mikayla scratched her fingernails across the table. “This is insane. I can’t believe it.”
“Oh honey,” Mom set down her cup. “It isn’t like that. Fancy Ed has offered you each a job for the summer if you want it. You’ll get to travel with the circus, earn money, and sightsee a bit. We thought it’d be the best scenario for everyone. You’re young adults now, and we thought you might enjoy a bit of supervised independence.”
Seth cocked his head. “What kind of job?”
Dad rubbed his thumb along the edge of his plate, trying to play it cool. “He thought you might work out best in a combined position, Seth. He’d like to put you on the tent set-up and tear-down crew, ticket sales, and have you as a back-up tall man.”
“You mean walk on stilts in a hat like Abe Lincoln and striped pants?”
Dad nodded. Seth sat back in his chair for a minute. He got a goofy half-smile on his face. “Okay,” he said. “I’m in.” Then he picked up his fork to wolf down the remaining french toast on his plate.
Mikayla snorted. Seth was an easy sell. She lifted an eyebrow and smirked at Dad in open challenge. “What about me?”
Mom pulled a paper out of the bag hanging on her chair and slid it across the table. I craned my neck to read it. It was a poster. “Fancy Ed’s Circus Extraordinaire” marched across the top in bold. Lists of dates and locations lined the bottom of the page. In the center was a picture of a dark stage. A spotlight shone down on three ballerinas in a mid-air grand jeté, legs flung straight, necks regal. The caption read “Presenting: Madame Adelene’s Magnificent Ballet Dancers.”
Mikayla’s fingers twitched. All the fight went out of her. “Are you guys serious?” Tears dropped from her eyes and she clutched at the paper. “They’d let me perform?”
Mom reached over and squeezed Mikayla’s hand. “You’ve worked so hard, honey. You deserve it.”
“But…how? I mean, I don’t—”
Dad grinned. “Remember that day I snuck into practice to film you? We sent the footage over to Ed. Long story short, he showed it to Adelene and she’s willing to give you a try.”
“Wow.” Mikayla brushed tears from her eyes. She half-sobbed, half-laughed. “Thank you guys so much.”
Then Dad and Mom looked at me. Heat rushed into my face. My throat closed up. I squeezed my fork. I knew what they were going to say. I couldn’t be a strong man or help pitch a circus tent. And I’d sprained my foot during the first and last ballet class I ever took. I knew I didn’t have any talents. It wasn’t their fault. They shouldn’t feel bad for my sake.
“It’s okay,” I said, trying not to cry. I forced my lips into a smile. “I can pick up trash or clean toilets or whatever. I don’t mind.”
Dad laughed. He put his big hand over my hand clutching the fork, and squeezed it. “There might be a bit of that,” he said, “but that’s not what we had in mind for you.”
“Really?” A tear slipped down my cheek.
“Really,” said Dad.
I tried to believe them.
“You know how you love animals? Well, Fancy Ed owns an elephant, three ostriches, an ornery old zebra, and a whole bunch of other creatures. If you want the job, you can be an assistant animal caretaker and apprentice lion tamer. What do you think?”
I gaped. Seth stopped eating french toast long enough to grin at me. Mikayla clasped the circus poster to her chest. “Oh Alice,” she said, “You’d be great.”
“It’s hard work,” Mom cautioned. “You’d have to shovel poop and hay and do all sorts of manual labor. And keep a good attitude, even if you’re tired or want to do something else.”
“That’s right.” Dad’s voice went stern. “It’ll be a job, not a vacation. I say that to all three of you. You have to be willing to take it seriously and work with diligence. You’ll probably get more exhausted than you’ve ever been in your lives. Consider carefully. If you don’t think you can do it, your mom and I will stay here and you can get summer jobs at the grocery store and the ice cream shop.”
Seth waved his fork at Mom and Dad. “There’s no way you’re talking me out of this. I’ll work my butt off.” He paused for a beat, “And eat lots of cotton candy and maybe fall in love with the fat lady.”
“I’ve wanted this for ever.” Mikayla ran her fingers over the poster. “To be part of a company, to perform. I’ve put in hours and hours. I want to do this.”
I shivered. I thought about the safety of scooping ice cream or stocking shelves with tomato cans. I thought about how happy Mikayla looked. I thought about Dad squeezing my hand clutching the fork. I thought about the chicken nuggets on my ninth birthday, and the cabin at Christmas, and the scar on Mikayla’s shin. I thought about Mom and Dad smiling at each other over coffee and bacon. I thought about all the hours they must have spent arranging things with Fancy Ed. And I understood that they’d done all those things because they loved us.
Alice the lion tamer? A flutter like a candle flame lit my chest.
“Okay,” I gulped. “I’ll do my best. I’ll try to make you guys proud.”
Dad kissed me on the forehead. “We’re proud already.”
Two months later Mom and Dad dropped us off at the side of a back-country road. “Head due north through the woods,” Dad said, handing Mikayla a compass. “In about a mile you’ll hit a big field. That’s where the tent is set up. Can’t miss it.”
The car drove off.
Dad and Mom were headed to the circus to have dinner with Fancy Ed, but for some reason Dad wanted us to walk there on our own. When I asked why, he said a bunch of things I didn’t quite understand about symbolism and independence. Mostly I think he thought it’d be more fun that way.
Leaves crunched under our feet as we walked. A clean, woodsy smell filled my chest and I craned my neck to look at the tree tops. The setting sun turned them golden. None of us said much. Every now and then Mikayla adjusted our course. Her eyes shone in the lowering light. She looked ahead, through the trees, waiting for that big field and the glowing tent. Seth tromped along, sniffing the air, glancing around, brushing his hands over tree trunks.
As for me, I thought about a lot of things. I thought about Dad’s grin, and about him getting arrested on my birthday. I thought about the Alice I’d been when that happened and the Alice I was at that moment. I savored the smell of greenery and fallen leaves and bumped my fingers over tree bark.
About 30 minutes later, the woods opened up into a grassy field. We got a clear view of the sky, cast in gold and pink. Beneath it, lit from inside, stood a massive circus tent, banners snapping in the breeze.
We paused at the edge of the field.
Seth whistled. Mikayla let out her breath in a whoosh. “This is it,” she said in a hushed voice.
That’s when it really hit me, who I was choosing to be. To become. Me, Alice. Animal caretaker. Lion tamer.
“Let’s run,” I said. Grass slapped my legs as I took off. Wind flooded through my hair. I hollered and yipped. Seth and Mikayla ran on either side of me, their backpacks bumping up and down. Seth pumped his fists in the air. Mikayla did a cartwheel.
I grinned and raced ahead.