Other people make jokes about them: Walter without legs and her without arms. How together they’re a whole person. As if it takes four limbs to qualify someone as a person.
People joke less after they’ve seen the act. She and Walter tumble about on the backs of the mechanical beasts, then propel from the tallest one’s head to the trapeze. She tries not to think about the audience, but she’s still aware. All those eyes. All those held breaths, waiting for her or Walter to fall.
Are they disappointed when it doesn’t happen?
Walter’s the one who got her flying. When Faulk plucked her from the children’s home and brought her to the carnival, she didn’t know much. Walter’s only two years older than her, but he’s been around carnivals his whole life. He taught her slowly, working her up to the trapeze.
“I’ll always catch you, and you’ll always catch me,” he said with calmness and certainty.
Walter is always calm and certain. So she is, too, at least when they’re in the air.
She’s done hundreds of performances by now, but practice is still where she feels most herself. It’s just her and Walter, no eyes watching. She is no longer the armless kid, the armless boy. It’s easier to be a boy in general, no fussing with hair or skirts or corsets, less worrying about who might take advantage of you. It’s especially easier to be a boy when you’re armless, and in a carnival. Walter’s the only one who remembers she’s Catinka and not Carl. Sometimes she forgets herself.
But not during practice. It is impossible to be anyone but herself on the trapeze when there is no audience. Her body is a wave in a tide: thrust forward, feel Walter’s hands around her ankles, swing, fly, retreat. It’s as natural as a song she’s sung a thousand times, a song stuck in her head even when she’s not singing.
She propels Walter forward with her legs, giving him the push he needs to grab the other trapeze. She swings herself as she does it, so she’s not facing him when she hears the snap, a gunshot not in its volume but in how badly it scares her.
The trapeze in the grip of her feet is suddenly slippery. Scary. Not hers anymore. She feels herself falling even as she continues to cling to it, watching from above as Walter hits the ground with a thud that jerks her own body. She can’t scream, can’t get down, stuck in the air that won’t let her go.
She dangles, legs straining, Walter’s broken trapeze swinging lazily to her right. The dizziness she feels is the dizziness of Walter not moving, not the blood rushing to her head. People enter the tent, yelling and running about. Someone cradles Walter’s head and he moans, and she can feel her heart beat again because at least he’s alive, but even from this height she can tell he’s been broken. And then his eyes meet hers, across the distance, and though she can’t hear his voice over the roaring in her head and the hubbub below, she can read his lips. “Get Carl down.”
Someone drags the beast beneath her trapeze, and she tumbles onto it, legs rubbery, feet tingling as she jumps to the ground. She feels like she’s still in the air with nothing to hold her. She wants to go to Walter, but there’s a crowd now and she lets a roustabout lead her away, wondering why, no matter the circumstances, Walter is always the one taking care of her and not the other way around.
She doesn’t go to him until later, when he’s alone and resting. He has a concussion and a separated shoulder, which is the same as a broken leg in terms of his mobility. Apparently one of the roustabouts didn’t secure the trapeze properly. He says this without anger, and she seethes for him.
The doctor says he’ll heal, but it’ll take time. Faulk wants him to be in the freak tent in the meantime, because there can’t be any shirkers at the carnival. Walter says this calmly, too, but she sees the anguish leaking from his eyes. He’s the one who kept her from the freak tent when she first came. Told her people were going to stare at her either way, so she might as well make it for something she did, not something she was.
She doesn’t remind him she’ll be in the freak tent, too. She can’t fly without Walter, or at least she’s never tried. It would take practice, and anyhow, she doesn’t want to. But if he’s so fuzzy headed that it hasn’t occurred to him already, she doesn’t want to be the one to bring it up.
Instead she says, “We could leave.”
“You going to carry me?”
“I’ll get a wheelbarrow.”
“What will we do?”
She considers, trying to find the perfect job. All they know how to do is fly.
“Exactly,” Walter says into the silence.
She wants to tell him it won’t be so horrible. She wants to tell him someday they’ll save up their pay and leave. Get themselves a home somewhere, a little place of their own, with their own trapeze.
But the words don’t come because she’s not sure of them, not sure about the freak tent or about leaving someday or even if Walter wants a home with her.
Walter’s eyes are shut and he’s quiet for so long that she thinks he’s sleeping. Then he says, “Every time I close my eyes, I’m falling.”
“Open them, then,” she says.
He does. “I’m still falling.”
She still can’t find the right words. Walter’s the one who always knows what to say, not her. But then she realizes what he needs to hear.
“It’s all right,” she says, squeezing his good shoulder with her foot. “I’ll catch you.”
Valerie Hunter is currently a graduate student at Vermont College of Fine Arts’ Writing for Children and Young Adults program. She has previously had YA stories in magazines including Cicada and Inaccurate Realities, and in the anthologies Cleavage, Brave New Girls, and Real Girls Don’t Rust.