Love Is in the Air
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve dreamed of being a star on the flying trapeze. Most girls grow up wanting to be a ballerina or a princess. Most of them stop dreaming once they become a teenager. Not me. Ever since my parents took me to see my first circus show, I knew that that was the life for me. Watching the aerialist flip and twirl in midair, listening to all that applause . . . I couldn’t think of anything better. Everyone in the tent was watching; everyone wanted to be them. And someday I wanted to be the one who was the source of all that admiration.
Of course, it’s hard to run away and join the circus when your parents are dead set on you going to college—probably for something practical like accounting or dentistry. It also doesn’t help when you live in the Middle of Nowhere, Missouri.
So the fact that I’m here, standing in front of a sign reading THE KARAMAZOV SISTERS’ TRAVELING CIRCUS: FIRST ANNUAL YOUTH CAMP, is a pretty big deal. I mean, the Karamazov Sisters have been coming to town every summer for as long as I can remember. But them having a circus camp? One where I could learn flying trapeze and become a star? It almost seems too good to be true.
“You owe us for the rest of your life,” my mom says. “Remember this, Jennifer, when you’re picking out our nursing home.”
I grin at her and Dad.
“I know,” I say. Neither of them really wanted me to go to camp. I think they would rather I’d have just stayed at home and played video games with my friends like I had every other spring break. But I’m fifteen. It’s time to start reaching for my dreams. And a weeklong camp doing circus is the best way to begin. I know, deep down, that this is going to be life-changing. This is the point in my story where I finally flourish. At least, that’s what I’ve been telling myself right up to now.
Actually being here is starting to make me worry that I might have been wrong about all that.
The camp is held on the community college campus. We stand in the parking lot in front of the main office, and it’s hard to believe that I’ve biked past here more often than I can count. The place is entirely different, and not just because there are dozens of teenagers my age walking around with their parents.
There are semitrucks parked outside the gym, and there are tents being put up. None of them are quite as big as the big top for
the Karamazov show, but they’re all genuine circus tents, stripes and stars and all. My heart leaps when I see the structure they’re assembling a little farther off, out on the soccer field. It’s not complete, but I know without a doubt what it is.
“Looks like that’s where you’ll be spending all your time,” Dad says, noticing my gaze. He’s got my suitcase balanced against his leg. I didn’t pack much, since it’s only for a week. And besides, gymnastics clothes—all new, all part of my early birthday present—pack up pretty easily.
I don’t actually have words. I stare at the flying trapeze rig, a little starstruck, and nod.
I’m not left to stare long. A girl who looks like she’s a college supermodel comes up to us. She’s got long brown hair in a ponytail and impeccable makeup. Her green eyes match the T-shirt she’s wearing, and her shorts barely reach her thigh. She’s gorgeous. What’s more, I’ve seen her before; she’s one of the hoop aerialists for the show.
“Hi,” she says, stopping in front of me. She holds out her hand with a warm smile. “I’m Leena. Are you here for the camp?”
I nod as I take her hand, unable to peel my eyes from her. Just last summer I was watching this girl perform amazing stunts on a hoop dangling a dozen feet in the air. And now she’s shaking my hand! It’s like meeting a celebrity, only this star’s hands are covered in calluses, and there are a few bruises on her forearms and calves.
“Did you get attacked by a lion?” my dad asks. I shoot him the angriest look I can manage. I haven’t even gotten to introduce myself yet.
The girl raises an eyebrow, then looks to her arms and laughs.
“No, though that would make for a better story. These are just part of the gig. The battle scars of being an aerialist. Turns out hanging from a metal hoop hurts.” She laughs again. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be scaring you off. Especially not before getting your name.”
“Jennifer,” I say. “Jennifer Hayes. And these are my parents.”
Leena shakes my mom’s and dad’s hands, and I can tell from my mom’s expression that she’s not too happy about the fact that this girl is covered in bruises from being in the circus. At least she doesn’t say anything; she’s a little more tactful than Dad.
“Nice to meet you, Jennifer,” Leena says. “Is this your first time doing circus arts?”
I nod. Even though she’s at least twenty-one, there isn’t any condescension in her voice. She’s looking at me like even if I’m not currently her equal, I might be. Someday.
“Well, this is going to be an intense week. I hope you’re ready for it. You look like you’re a natural, though—nothing to worry about.” She gives me a grin. “Anyway, registration’s right inside the door. They’ll get you sorted and into your dorm. I’ll see you at the opener in an hour.”
She nods to my parents and then walks off toward another group of kids milling about as aimlessly as I probably appear to be.
“She seems nice,” my dad says when she’s out of earshot.
“Yeah,” I say. I’m still glowing. A natural? She thinks I could be a natural? “Really smooth, by the way. Thanks for trying to embarrass me.”
“I wasn’t,” he replies. “I just wanted to make sure she hadn’t been hurt, that’s all. I mean, I’m entrusting you to her care. If there’s anything bad going on behind the scenes . . .”
“I know, I know.” I pat him on the arm. “You gotta look out for your little girl.”
“You’re sure you want to do this aerial thing?” Mom asks. She keeps glancing back to Leena, no doubt wondering if there are more bruises we can’t see. “It looks . . . painful.”
“Totally sure,” I say. “Besides, she does hoop. I’m going to do flying trapeze—the only thing I have to worry about are bad calluses. Come on. Before registration closes.”
I head toward the door. They stay behind, but only for a moment. Then they’re following at my heels, the wheels of my suitcase rumbling on the pavement. The sky is clear, it’s not crazy hot outside, and I’ve just met one of my new coaches—who I’ve been watching for years. I don’t think this day could get any better if it tried.
• • •
Registration is quick and simple; not ten minutes later, my parents are hugging me outside the door to my dorm room, which is actually just one of the rooms in on-campus housing. There aren’t any tears shed, not like when I went to my first and only summer camp four years ago. I mean, I’m only here a week, and my house is only a few miles away. I think I can cope. Or if I’m being really honest here, I think they can cope.
“Call if you need anything,” Dad says.
“And make sure you text us when you know the time for your show. We wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“I will,” I say. I hug them both. “Love you.”
Then, just like that, they’re gone. Vanished down the hall. And I’m sitting in my room, staring at a suitcase of leotards and shorts and sweatpants, about to start the first day of the rest of my life. I’ve done it. I’ve basically run away and joined the circus, at least for a week. I grin. No more “Jennifer Hayes, girl no one really paid attention to.” It’s time for “Jennifer Hayes, high-flying circus star” to take the stage.
The door opens again a few minutes later, when I’m putting my clothes away in one of the drawers. I glance over. The first thing I notice is fire-engine red. Then I realize the shock of red is attached to the head of a girl. I blink hard. Yep, her hair is bright red, the same color as the striped red-and-black stockings sticking out of her camo skirt.
“Hi,” she says the moment she’s in the room. “You must be my roommate. I’m Riley.”
“Jennifer,” I say. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
Because I’d have remembered a girl with bright-red hair and crazy clothes. This isn’t a town where people try to stick out. I think they just save that for when they run off to college.
She shakes her head, making her puffy red hair fly. She’s got deep-brown eyes the same color as mine, and she’s roughly my same height and size. And that’s in her clunky gunmetal-gray boots, too.
“Nope,” she says, dropping her bags by the free bed. She’s
carrying two bags, another slung over her shoulder. “I’m about an hour away. Near Jefferson City.”
“Lucky,” I say. “Welcome to the Middle of Nowhere. Your nightly entertainment will be an old movie theater that only plays movies already on DVD and an arcade with one working pinball machine.”
She laughs and hauls a suitcase—black with pink stars—onto her bed. “Sounds like a fun place to grow up.”
“It’s a place to grow up,” I say. “But I guess I can’t complain; we got the circus after all.”
“I know!” She slides the small duffel bag from her back; it’s incredibly lumpy and covered in bumper stickers saying everything from DON’T TEMPT DRAGONS TO SAVE THE HUMANS! “I’ve been waiting all school year for this.”
I’ve known her less than five minutes, and I can already tell she’s going to be a fun roommate. When she starts pulling juggling pins and stringless tennis rackets from her bag, my thoughts are confirmed.
“Let me guess,” I say. I flop down on my bed and watch her unpack her bag of tricks. “You’re a juggler?”
“How could you tell?” she asks. “Was it the hair?”
“Totally. Jugglers always have weird hair.”
“Goes with the territory. What about you? What’s your focus?”
“Flying trapeze,” I say. No hesitation.
“It’s just that I didn’t know they had a flying trapeze school here.”
“They don’t,” I say slowly. And that’s when it dawns on me: She’s already a juggler. She’s been doing this for years. Crap.
“Oh,” she says. She stops rummaging through her bag and sits on her bed, facing me. There’s barely three feet between us—I don’t know how two college kids can live in here for a full year. “Have you done classes somewhere else?”
“Nope. It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do.”
She nods. “I don’t mean to be rude, but you do know you have to try out for that department, right?”
“Yeah, I know,” I say. “I saw it in the flyer. But, I dunno. I’ve always wanted to do it. It sounds stupid, but I guess I just know it’s something I’ll be good at.” I decide not to tell her that Leena said I looked like a natural—I’m starting to think maybe the girl was just being nice.
She shrugs. “Not stupid. I felt that way about juggling and learned a basic three-ball pass in five minutes.”
“I . . . honestly, I have no idea what that means.”
Her grin goes wider. Her cheeks are covered in freckles; she looks like one of those girls who’s used to smiling a lot.
“I’ll show you,” she says. She digs into her bag beside her and pulls out six multicolored juggling balls. “A three-ball pass is the basic juggling form,” she says. Then she tosses three to me.
“Oh, I don’t juggle,” I say, though now that I think of it, I don’t think I’ve actually ever tried before.
“Come on,” she says. “You gotta try at least.”
My first impulse is to say, No, that’s okay, I just want to see you try. But that’s the old Jennifer. Today, right now, I’m Jennifer reinvented, and I’m not going to turn down any opportunity. I mean, how many times in my life do I have the chance to be taught juggling by a girl with fire-engine hair? I pick up the balls from where they landed on the bed and watch her.
“Okay, it goes like this. Start with two balls in one hand, one in the other. I always start with two in the right because I’m right-handed, but everyone’s different.”
I follow her lead and put two in my right hand.
“Now, you’re going to toss the one from your right hand into the air, trying make its apex just above eye level. Like this.” She tosses the ball up in a perfect arc, its peak right below her hairline, and catches it without even moving her left hand. “You try.”
I do. And much to my surprise, it’s a pretty good toss. The ball lands just beside my left hand.
“Nice,” she says. I smile. “Okay, now for the second toss. Don’t try to catch it just yet. You want to throw the ball in your left hand when the first ball is at its peak. Once you’ve done that, you’re going to throw the third ball when the second is at its peak. Got it?”
I nod. “I think so.”
She demonstrates, tossing her balls up in a steady rhythm and letting them fall on the bed. I mimic her.
“Nice,” she says again. “I think you’ve got the hang of it. Now we try it with the catch. Remember, you don’t want to have to
move your hands around too much, and you definitely don’t want to throw the balls forward or back, or else you’ll be running all over the place trying to catch them. Always throw the next ball when the other has reached the apex. Rinse and repeat.”
She picks up the balls and tosses them in the air a few times, making clean catches and tosses—the balls are a blurred arc in front of her face. I lose track of how many times she tosses before she stops and looks at me.
The first few catches are a disaster—I’m so focused on catching the ball that I forget to toss the next. When I do remember, I end up throwing it at the closed window. Thankfully, the balls are just Hacky Sacks, so the window doesn’t break. I have to give Riley credit: She doesn’t laugh at all. Just watches me and gives me little pointers like, “Don’t move your torso so much” or “You’re not trying to hit the ceiling! It’s a gentle toss.”
After about five minutes, she stops watching me and goes back to unpacking. I’m hooked, though, and I don’t stop practicing. Not until I’ve managed six tosses in a row. And that takes a good ten minutes.
“Not bad,” she says. She managed to unpack everything in the time it took me to get the pass down. “You’re definitely starting to get it.” She glances at her watch. “Just in time, too. I think we’ve got the intro meeting in a few minutes. Do you have any idea where the gym is?”
I nod. “Yeah, I’ve been there a few times. My mom used to be a secretary here, and we went to a few games.”
“Funny. I wouldn’t peg you for a basketball sort of girl.”
“I’m not. Band nerd all way. But I’ll never say no to free popcorn and an excuse to watch a bunch of college boys running around.”
Her smile is huge.
“We’re going to be good friends, Jennifer,” she says. She hops off the bed and takes my elbow with hers, prom style.