The bored-looking man at the carnival gate held out his hand. “Five dollars.”
I didn’t even have five cents to my name, thanks to an afternoon of begging cut short by the certainty I was being followed. All that had been dropped into my cap was a card reading, Good for one free meal at the All Souls Carnival. Valid only in Boulder, Colorado, October 23-25. On the back was the name of the man who’d given it to me: Candelas.
I showed it to the gatekeeper. “Candelas said to tell you I was his friend.”
“Another one of his friends, eh?” He jerked his head toward the entrance without changing expression. “Go on, then.”
I hurried inside, casting a wary glance toward the parking lot in case the Suit still trailed me. I didn’t see him, but at least if I did, a carnival had plenty of places to hide.
A wintry night only made the scent of cotton candy, roasting meat and funnel cake more tantalizing. Several vendors were already packing up. The one food truck still open was selling Greek fare. I didn’t care, so long as it was hot and filling.
“You look hungry,” the proprietor said. He took my ticket and piled my plate high with lamb, falafel and bread. “There you go. Enjoy.”
I ate as I wandered, bypassing the midway since I had no money. And now that the food was gone, I was full, cold, and wondering where the hell I was going to sleep. Last night’s backyard tool shed had been serviceable, but I couldn’t sleep in the same place twice. The Suit might find me.
One by one, the lights flicked off and the last few stragglers headed toward the entrance. That was my cue to leave, but I dragged my feet. There had to be somewhere to hide for the night.
Keeping to the shadows, I sidled around a temporary fence. Behind the tents and outbuildings were several buses and trailers decorated for personal use. Those I stayed away from, but I decided to try my luck with the one that had a horse compartment on the back.
I peeked in through the windows, and, seeing only one blanketed horse, slipped in through the side door. The animal’s presence made the trailer comfortably warm. I’d always liked horses. More importantly, they’d always liked me. This one, short and white, craned his head around to sniff me then went right back munching his hay. That was a good sign; he had a blanket and dinner and there was no manure, meaning he’d been tended to recently and with any luck wouldn’t have anyone looking in on him until morning.
Safe. For now. I sank down at the front of the compartment, relieved to be out of the freezing cold. Idly, I pulled out my quartz orb and rolled it around in my palm, feeling the energy tingling through my fingers. If I wasn’t careful, I could let all that energy loose and use it to burn a hole in the trailer wall, or worse.
I shuddered and let the orb absorb all that excess. That’s why I’d gotten it in the first place. I’d never believed in woo-woo and magical crystals, but I’d been desperate when I’d gone into a gem shop, picked up a quartz sphere and immediately felt all the wildness inside me calm. I’d had it with me ever since, and after playing with it a bit, I found I could focus both my energy and that of others through it.
Like the horse, for instance. At a thought, I let the stallion’s essence flood the orb. Green and orange flickered in its depths. Strange. Animals were usually a solid green. “What are you?”
This time when it turned its head, there was a look in those brown eyes more human than equine. I shivered.
“Well, whatever you are, don’t tell anyone I’m here, all right?” I tucked the orb back into my jacket pocket and closed my eyes, meaning to wake well before dawn.
A soft whicker startled me. For a long time, I stayed motionless as I tried to recall where I was and why. Then I heard the soft swish swish of fabric and opened my eyes.
I wasn’t alone. A man had come in and was exchanging soft murmurs with the horse as he removed the blanket. Once he folded it and moved to the side, recognition jolted me. It was the man who’d given me the card. Candelas. His dark hair was pulled back into a ponytail, exposing an angular, handsome face and olive complexion.
The horse, which I could see now was a stocky, well-muscled stallion, grunted and shook himself. Candelas picked up a brush and began to groom, earning a lick and chew of pleasure. “Sleep well?” he asked after a time. He spoke with a vague Latinate accent I couldn’t discern. “I didn’t want to wake you. It looked like you could use the rest.”
I sat up slowly, wincing at muscles aching from the awkward position. “Thanks,” I said, not entirely sure why he’d let me stay in the first place.
“If Ghost didn’t like you, he would have warned me. Or he would have kicked you. Either one.”
“Ghost? That’s his name?” I held out a palm. The horse lipped it, probably looking for a treat. When he found none he snorted and went back to his hay.
“He’s a Lipizzan, so technically his name is Maestoso Andorra, his father’s line and his mother’s name, but I call him Ghost. Sounds better for a carnival.”
“Thanks for not kicking me,” I told the horse. He bobbed his head in response.
Candelas smiled. “Ghost has a thing for handsome young men.”
I blushed, wondering if Candelas was speaking from the horse’s perspective or his own. “Do you give out a lot of meal tickets?”
“As many as I can without getting the manager angry, although I’ve never had someone sneak into my trailer and spend the night before.”
Guilt stabbed at me. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I know what it’s like to be hungry and not have a place to sleep. But you’d best be on your way before the manager sees you.”
I nodded, a little sad to be leaving so soon. I liked the horse, and Candelas was the first person in ages who hadn’t run me off as soon as he’d found me. If only I could stay and travel with him. The best place for a freak to hide would be with the other freaks.
My heart thudded at the possibility. Candelas came around Ghost and helped me to my feet. Before I lost my nerve, I said, “I was hoping…”
But he shook his head. “I don’t need a roadie. I work alone, and having a handsome young man in my trailer would bring the kind of attention I don’t want.”
My cheeks burned at the intimation. “I’ll pick up trash, tear down acts, anything. I’ll do it for food instead of money. Please.”
He eyed me for so long that I wondered whether I’d said something wrong. “Why?”
I couldn’t tell him the truth. Not all of it, anyway. “There’s a man after me. The sooner I get out of Boulder, the better.”
“Did he hurt you?”
That surprised me. Usually people assumed I was at fault.
He took my silence for agreement. “Okay. I’ll talk to the manager. No promises.”
Relief flooded through me. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” he said. “Carnival life isn’t easy. It’s a lot of work for eight minutes in the spotlight. What’s your name, anyway?”
He didn’t bat an eye at my chosen moniker. “All right, Foxfire. Follow me.”
The carnival manager lived in a sleek, expensive-looking bus painted with the carnival’s logo. I waited outside, digging the toe of my worn sneaker into the dirt while Candelas spoke to him on my behalf. A few other carnival denizens wandered by and stared at me curiously. I couldn’t help but stare back at a man with a fur coat so fitted it might have been his own pelt, a bearded woman, and a group of Chinese men showing off their skills by tumbling from one tent to the next.
I couldn’t hear any of their conversation clearly, but a man’s voice spoke sharply. Candelas said something angry in return. At length he slammed the door open and walked past me so quickly I had to trot to keep up.
It wasn’t until we reached his truck and trailer that he spoke. “Manager says you can stay on a trial basis. Do a good job, and he’ll see if he pay you in something besides food. Until then, you’re my responsibility.”
I took this to mean that if I screwed up, he’d be the one getting reprimanded. “I won’t be any trouble. Just tell me what to do.”
Some of his tension drained. “Look. I’m not angry. It’s just…it would have been better for you to stay with someone else. That’s all.”
The back half of the trailer was for Ghost, but the front was just big enough for a bed, bathroom and kitchenette. He pulled a blanket from a drawer and handed it to me. “I’ll see if someone has a pillow to spare and you can have the floor. Most of our meals come from the food trucks. I’ll make sure your name’s on the list. Now I’m going to exercise Ghost, and while I do that, you can clean up after him. You’ll find everything you need in the front compartment.”
Once I finished with that chore, he gave me a tan uniform shirt, pants and hat—all of them too big—he’d gotten from storage. It was perfect. The Suit would never recognize me in something so plain and baggy.
Inside the big tent I picked up trash and to clean chairs, railings, handles and anything else needing work before the afternoon’s opening. There were two performances, a matinee and an evening show for entertainment, plus the food trucks, midway, and exhibits. The litterbug crowds kept me busy, and I missed Candelas’s act because I had to clean up after a sick little girl. I didn’t care, though. No one paid attention to the groundskeepers. I had food to eat and a place to sleep, none of which I’d had regularly for months.
After the carnival closed, roadies broke down the tent with practiced ease and loaded it into a semi. The performers were largely responsible for their own equipment, and I helped Candelas with the performance ring, which came apart in several pieces and went into one of the smaller equipment trucks.
It was nearly dawn before Candelas secured the trailer to his pickup and slid behind the wheel while I took the passenger seat. The caravan trailed out of Boulder and toward its next destination. “Go to sleep,” Candelas told me, and I did, exhausted but glad I’d found a way to escape the Suit.
Carnival life wasn’t all so hectic. When we were in the same town for a few days, I had time to watch Candelas rehearse in a practice ring set up near the RVs and trailers. Ghost wore a leather pad which covered his back and rump, held in place by a harness and a surcingle which wrapped around his chest and doubled as a grip for Candelas.
They were beautiful together. Several other performers paused to watch, but except for me, Candelas spoke to no one unless they approached him first. He was a loner. I didn’t begrudge him that. So was I.
We grew used to each other, though, and soon Candelas trusted me enough to hold or direct Ghost when he wanted to try a new trick or juggle something dangerous like lit torches.
“Thanks,” he said after one such rehearsal, and favored me with one of his rare smiles. “I like you, Foxy. You do a good job.”
I liked him, too, although I didn’t have the courage to say so.
“Any sign of your friend?”
I froze, hating the reminder. “Not so far.” Although I scanned every crowd, to make sure.
“If you see him, tell me, okay? We look after our own here.”
I nodded, gratified he believed me.
Once afternoon Candelas lost his rhythm and dropped one of his clubs. “Hand me that, would you?” he said, clearly irritated by his error. I gave it to him, and he restarted the routine. I watched. He was a good juggler, but his movements weren’t as smooth as they should be. He hadn’t gotten the pattern down. After the third try, he made an exasperated noise.
I couldn’t stand it anymore. “Can I show you something?”
“Think you can do better?”
I held out my hands. I’d been juggling since I was six. One of my foster brothers had taught me, though I hadn’t always had a set of clubs to practice with and had made do with whatever I’d had on hand. I’d earned many a night’s meal by standing on a street corner and throwing apples, knives, rocks or anything else that came to hand. Contact juggling, like I did with my orb, I’d picked up after seeing it in a movie.
Eyebrow raised, Candelas tossed the clubs at me.
I caught them and slipped easily into the right pattern, going so far as to show off a few behind-the-back tricks.
Candelas gestured, and we started passing the clubs back and forth as if we’d been partners for years. Eventually he caught them all. “Why didn’t you tell me you could juggle?”
“It’s too bad I work alone. You’d be a perfect addition to the act.”
“I’m not interested anyway.” The last thing I wanted was to be center stage and attract the Suit’s attention.
“Why not? You’re a natural.”
“I just can’t.” I turned to go but he caught my arm.
“Can you do anything else?”
Reluctantly, I pulled my orb from my pocket and rolled it around on my palm then went into more complicated movements over my fingers and down my arm.
“Very good,” Candelas said. Then his smile faded as he caught sight of the blotchy red scar on my palm. “What happened?”
Embarrassed, I clenched my fist to hide the ugly mark. “Lightning. I was five. My parents and I went for a picnic and got caught in a storm. They died. I didn’t.”
“I’m sorry. It isn’t easy losing someone you love.” From the sadness in his voice, he knew what he was talking about.
“I barely remember them.” The pain from their loss was old and dealt with, anyway. I rolled the orb back and forth while I focused on Candelas, wondering why he was so determined to be alone.
The orb burst into a bright, fiery crimson. I’d never seen it so vivid. Deep oranges and reds swirled and sparkled in a veritable firestorm—all of it a reflection of Candelas’s energy.
Candelas whistled softly. “It’s beautiful. How do you do that?”
I hadn’t meant to lose control like that, yet for a moment I basked in his delight. I wanted to please him after all he’d done for me.
Then I remembered how many times someone had praised me in order to earn my trust and how quickly they’d broken it afterward. “It’s nothing special.”
“That would make a wonderful act.”
I dimmed the orb and put it away. “No.”
He squeezed my scarred hand. “Please. I’d like to have you in the ring as my partner.”
Until then, Ghost had been wandering placidly around the ring, nosing the dirt for something to eat. Now, he butted forcefully between us and shoved Candelas away.
“Behave.” Candelas gave him a sharp whack on the snout. Ghost pinned back his ears.
I backed away, not wanting to be in the middle of their spat, secretly glad at the interruption. I couldn’t be a performer. If word got out that it had an act with a guy who juggled with light and manipulated energy, I was screwed.
I went to the trailer to change and get a drink of water. When I was done, I set the glass on the counter. As soon as I turned my back, it crashed onto the floor and shattered.
I whirled around, mindful of the shards, some of which had flown onto my blanket. The door thrust open. “What happened? Are you all right?” Candelas asked.
“That glass just jumped off the counter by itself.” I pointed.
Candelas muttered something under his breath. “Go get some lunch. I’ll clean up.”
“But it’s my—”
“Go,” Candelas said, and I didn’t argue.
Candelas always slept shirtless, so when he rose the next morning I couldn’t miss the livid bruise on his right shoulder. “What happened?”
For a moment, he looked as if he had no idea what I was talking about. Then he shrugged and winced. “Oh. That. Just an accident with Ghost.”
I didn’t think it was. Stallions could be fussy, dangerous creatures if there was a mare around, but I had yet to see Ghost be physically violent.
After I’d finished with my chores, I went out to the practice ring. Candelas was there, standing on Ghost’s back, juggling. “Come here. Let’s see what you can do.”
I froze as his words jerked me back to the years of white walls, cramped rooms and officials insisting I perform for them. “Show us what you can do…”
“Just do whatever you’re comfortable with,” Candelas said calmly, and passed me a club. Physical instinct overrode my paralysis. I caught the club and sent it flying back. I breathed in time to the movement, and gained enough confidence to try some of the trickier passes while Ghost was in motion.
Candelas did a back flip from Ghost’s rump, sticking the landing. I clapped, and he performed a sweeping bow. I followed him to a chair outside the ring where he’d hooked his smartphone up to a pair of speakers. “This is called El Amor Brujo by Manuel de Falla. It’s the story about a gypsy woman plagued by the jealous ghost of her dead husband. Listen.”
I did, and quite enjoyed the piece. By the end, I knew what he wanted: an act, with both of us, constructed around that composition. Candelas didn’t say a word. He simply gazed at me like a child begging for a toy.
I glanced over at Ghost, who was over on the far side of the ring. He let out a snort and pawed the ground. Candelas looked hard at him and he quieted, but the objection worried me.
“I can’t. I want to, but—” I started to shake at the thought of being in front of so many people. “I just can’t, all right?”
I tried to leave but Candelas caught my arm. “Why were you living on the street, Foxy? Why is your boyfriend still after you?”
I stared, not comprehending what he meant. Then I did and almost laughed at the absurdity. He thought I was a hustler. “He’s not my boyfriend. He’s a detective, I think.”
“A detective? What does he want?”
“It’s nothing, really.”
“It’s not nothing.” He gave me a sympathetic look. “Come on, Foxy. You can trust me.”
Maybe I could, but that wasn’t the point. I hadn’t told anyone my secret and wasn’t keen to do it now. But one look at the sincerity on Candelas’s face and I gave in. “After the lightning, I became a ward of the state. When the doctors found out about certain side-effects, they enrolled me in a program. I didn’t have a choice.” Emotion clogged my throat and I drew a deep, shuddering breath. “They had me reading peoples’ energies like a damn fortune teller and going into haunted houses feeling for ghosts. When I refused, they drugged me and claimed forced me to do even more. Once…the last time…” I started shaking. “I can’t just sense energy. I can manipulate it too, though I’m not good at it. I tried to tell the doctors that. They didn’t care. They kept pushing, and…”
I closed my eyes, but it just made everything worse because I could see what I’d done. “One day I picked up too much energy and couldn’t control it. It burned as it went through me, just like the lightning had. I screamed, and then the guy overseeing the experiment did. I ran, and I kept running. I was seventeen. That was five years ago. The Suit’s been after me ever since.” I’d left out the worst part, but tears trickled down my cheeks anyway. Ashamed, I wiped them away.
“The Suit? The detective, you mean?”
I nodded. “I stole the orb from a psychic. I didn’t mean to, but when I figured out it worked as a focus, I had to have it. I have more control now, but I promised myself I’d never touch energy again.”
Candelas wrapped an arm around my shoulder and pulled me close yet I couldn’t quite bring myself to relax. “No one here will make you do anything you don’t want to. If the Suit comes after you, well, we’ll sic Ghost on them.”
Ghost snorted and pawed again, looking like a bull ready to drive us apart.
Candelas ignored him. “What do you say? Will you join me?”
Instinct told me to run but I couldn’t tell Candelas no, not when he gazed at me as if there was no one else in the world but him and me.
Candelas and I didn’t stick to the story quite as written. I wasn’t a gypsy girl, for one thing, so I became a fey creature from a world beyond to seduce an arrogant man. Reluctantly, I let the orb represent the will-o-the-wisp mentioned in the music, and was careful to keep it focused on Candelas rather than Ghost. The stallion seemed to be on his best behavior in the ring, but Candelas’s bruises grew more frequent.
It took another week or so before Candelas finally expressed his approval. “Excellent.” He fed Ghost sugar cubes from one of his pockets. “We’ll try it with an audience this evening.”
Trying not to let on how nervous I was, I stroked Ghost’s flank, warm from so much exercise. “Will you teach me to ride someday?”
The smile faded. “That isn’t a good idea.”
“You stay on the ground. Nobody rides Ghost but me.”
I took a step back, surprised by his sudden vehemence. “I wouldn’t hurt him.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t think you would.” Candelas held up his hands in apology. “It’s easy to get hurt on a horse. That’s all.” He looked me up and down. “We’ll have to get you an outfit.”
“Nothing skin tight, all right?”
“Shy, are you?” He gave me a playful nudge then ushered me over to a bus full of fabrics, costumes and accessories. Its owner, advertised on the side as Miss Direction, was a woman dressed entirely in black with thin, spindly limbs reminding me of a spider. “Candelas’s boy, eh?” she said with a sly smile that made me flush. By late afternoon, she had a shirt and pants ready for me to try. I cradled the clothes, too nervous to put them on.
Miss Di took pity on me. “Do you know what I do, dear, when I’m not costuming performers? I’m an illusionista. I have one of those photo booths where people dress up in costume and become something they aren’t. Only, in my case, I help them become what they are. Trust me, darling, I know just how to hide things…or enhance them.” She winked and patted her bosom which, I realized, wasn’t an original part of her anatomy.
Feeling safer, I changed and let her fuss around me while she adjusted the fit. Strange; for so long I’d stolen clothes from someone’s laundry or gotten whatever I could afford from the charity stores, I’d forgotten what it was like to have something new and well-made.
She deftly applied make-up then steered me over to a full-length mirror. “What do you think?”
I was afraid to look, but when I did, I was stunned. The shirt and pants were a shiny, fluid fabric coated with something that reminded me of snakeskin. Under the orb’s light, I’d glow like an otherworldly creature.
Then I looked at my face. I’d never been particularly masculine and hadn’t cared, but Miss Di had somehow managed to capture both my androgyny and my penchant for light and shadows. Maybe I wasn’t a freak after all.
At dusk, I was waiting near the performance ring when Candelas appeared dressed like a Romani devil. He was stunning in a red leather vest, no shirt and matching red pants. I sucked in my breath, aching at the sight of that hardened body.
He saw me and grinned. “Are you ready?”
“Now or never,” I said.
The music started, soft and melodic. Except for my orb, there was no light on stage. I went in the ring alone, running the ball along my arms, over my shoulders and back again. With sweeping motions, I danced as the will-o-the-wisp. So fascinated was the audience that they didn’t notice Candelas’s slow, quiet entrance until the lights came up and he was suddenly there, resplendent in his glittering red outfit. The collective gasp sent my heart racing. Ghost trotted around the circle while Candelas played the disdainful rogue, a man to be admired but not touched.
The music picked up. So did Ghost. He cantered while Candelas slid off and jumped back on, then slowed to a trot as Candelas did flips on his back.
The audience roared their appreciation. Candelas held out his hands, which was my cue. The clubs sparkled as I threw them. Great arcs of light curved in the air in intricate, fleeting designs.
I doubted anyone but me noticed the shift in Ghost, the slight rippling of his hide as he filled out and became more alert and muscular. I had a sense of other, something beyond mere horse. The orb shifted its focus from Candelas to that second presence and exploded into a bright, fiery orange.
That wasn’t Ghost or Candelas. It wasn’t human.
One of the clubs headed straight for my head. I caught it, but so I was so shaken that I barely registered when Candelas somersaulted from Ghost’s back and landed, arms raised high while the audience cheered and clapped. Stunned by the audience’s enthusiasm, I followed his example. Ghost, at Candelas’s cue, reared back in a levade, holding for a few seconds on powerful hind legs.
When we took our bow, Candelas curled an arm around my waist. “Easy. It’s over,” he said into my ear.
I didn’t know how tell him it wasn’t the performance that had terrified me.
Sometime after midnight I woke to find Candelas’s bed empty. I laid there for a few minutes, listening, expecting him just to have gone out for air, but when he didn’t come back I started to worry.
I put on shoes and jacket and went outside. Ghost, looking cozy in his blanket, was picketed near the trailer and pawed the ground here and there looking for something edible. “Hey, boy.” I reached out to stroke him. He sniffed then snorted, ears twisting this way and that as he took me in. Then he sniffed my jacket and lipped my pockets.
That wasn’t like him. He was different, somehow. More congenial. On a hunch, I took out my orb. It glowed a pure, deep forest green without a hint of orange. Strange.
Wondering where Candelas had gone, I wandered around the back of the trailer. The door was open a crack. From within came the sounds of panting. I pocketed the orb to hide any light it might give off and peeked inside.
Candelas was on his back, head tilted and mouth wide. I’d seen him shirtless, but not more than that. Naked, he was as beautiful as I’d expected him to be with lean, muscled limbs and a light matt of hair on his chest. His body rose and undulated as if making love…except there was no one with him.
The sight of him held me spellbound. I was alternately excited and anxious and fighting hard not to feel guilty for being a voyeur. When he shuddered and moaned in climax, I had to clasp a hand over my mouth to keep from making a sound. He jerked, and the expression his face transformed from pleasure to pain. He rolled over, and I saw why. Blood streaked his back from a long scrape. A second appeared, drawn by no hand I could see. Shocked and sickened by the sight, I scrambled to my feet, intent on going to his aid.
The voice was low and vehement. I jerked back from the door, heart pounding, looking frantically around.
There wasn’t anyone there. Cursing silently to myself for being a fool, I’d just gotten a glimpse of Candelas lying dazed when the voice spoke again. Stay away from him or I’ll do worse.
A sudden burst of wind struck my face and drove through the neck and arms of my coat. I fled inside and crawled back into bed, shivering from more than the cold.
I took my orb with me when I went out the next morning to clean up after Ghost. Once again, orange mixed with green in his energy. Ghost ignored me. I said nothing to Candelas about what I’d seen in the trailer. Neither did I ask about the long, raking scratches down his back. I’d never had cause to believe in ghosts until now, and I wouldn’t have, except my orb didn’t lie. Someone—something—was haunting Candelas and using Ghost to do it.
I didn’t know who to ask until Candelas went missing one day and I saw him emerge from Miss Di’s trailer with a bandage wrapped around his arm. “What happened?”
“I got between Ghost and his breakfast.” His voice held false lightness. “Miss Di used to work in the ER. She’s as good at mending people as she is with costumes. See? Good as new.” He flexed his arm.
I looked at Miss Di, but she wouldn’t meet my gaze. Whatever she knew, she wasn’t going to say, but I figured she’d agree there was more to Candelas’s tale than he was telling.
“Time to rehearse, Foxy. Come on,” Candelas said.
He fetched Ghost, who seemed his usual calm self, and we went to the ring. Nearby, the Chinese tumblers were building a human pyramid. One was shouting orders, and I fought to ignore him. “I want to ride Ghost.”
“I told you--”
“Just once. If I could get a feel for the rhythm, I could time my throws better.” And I could get a better sense of just what lay beneath that white hide.
Candelas’s jaw tightened. “It’s not a good idea.”
“You’re hurt. How much are we going to get done today anyway?”
He grabbed Ghost’s halter and spoke quietly to the stallion. Then he said, “This morning, and just for a little while.”
He gave me a boost onto that wide, slick back. No saddle, which worried me at first, but then I understood that it was easier to feel the horse move without it. Candelas wouldn’t let me fall.
I let my body move with Ghost’s as I’d seen Candelas do. He was smooth, sturdy and powerful, yet I had no fear with Candelas beside me. With no reins, I had to rely on my own sense of balance.
“Want to try standing on him?”
I nodded. I got down and Candelas secured the leather pad and surcingle on Ghost. He did a running jump and vaulted neatly onto the stallion’s back. I didn’t have a chance of matching that sort of skill yet, so he offered me his good arm and helped me climb aboard.
“Here. Stand in front of me. Knees loose. That’s it.”
He wrapped his arms around my waist. My body tingled, and I forgot everything but being close to him and smelling the heady mix of man, cologne and horse.
At a cluck of his tongue, Ghost walked forward. I did have to keep my knees bent as if I were on a trampoline to absorb the horse’s motion. Round and round we went, with Candelas using voice commands and body language to urge Ghost to go faster or slower.
He rested his chin in the crook of my shoulder, breath warming my ear. I turned my head slightly, feeling his nose and lips against my cheek. Just a little more and I could—
A cold, malevolent energy swept through the air and slammed into me. The world spun. I swayed in Candelas’s arms. He adjusted, trying to keep me upright, but Ghost spooked. His sudden jerk ripped me apart from Candelas.
I had only a split second to realize the horse wasn’t beneath me before I crashed into the ground. Shock drove the air from my chest. My orb broke free from my jacket and rolled across the dirt, sparking like a flare before erupting into an undulating, fiery orange.
Ghost took off in a gallop with Candelas sitting on the pad and clinging to the surcingle, white as his stallion’s hide. Ghost went round and round in dizzying circles, bucking, every so often springing into the air and thrusting his hind legs out in a capriole. The acrobats shouted, and from the corner of my eye I saw them running toward the ring.
I wanted to call to Candelas, to beg for help, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. A malignant chill seeped beneath my skin.
You can’t have him.
Cold fingers constricted my throat. Panic took hold as I fought to breathe. My limbs wouldn’t respond. I was suffocating.
He’s mine. Stay away from him.
The voice came from a distance. I couldn’t respond. The world narrowed to a sparkling pinpoint of light. The hold around my throat didn’t let go.
“Easy, Foxy. It’s all right.” It wasn’t Candelas, but Miss Di was the next best thing. “Breathe for me, all right? You can do it.”
She rubbed my chest, and there was something in the comforting gesture which broke the choke hold. I sucked in a lungful of dusty air…
And screamed at the pain.
I must have passed out, because the next thing I knew I was in Candelas’s bed with Miss Di hovering over me. “Foxy? Foxy, can you hear me?”
“Where’s Candelas?” The words came out in a rasp.
“Seeing to the horse,” Miss Di said shortly. “You had a bad fall. Let me have a look at you.” She unlaced my shoes, pulled them off then reached for my shirt.
“Don’t. I’m all right.” I tried to thrust her away. Pain shot up my arm and I whimpered. Every breath was like inhaling fire.
With skillful hands she poked and prodded to discover a broken wrist, several bruised ribs and a concussion. “You’re lucky you didn’t break your neck,” Miss Di said. “I saw you go down and thought for sure you were a goner.”
“I can’t go to the hospital. The Suit will find me.” And if he did, I’d never be free of the doctors again.
“Don’t worry about that. I used to be a triage nurse. I know what to do.” The pill she gave me put me to sleep, and when I woke my wrist was splinted, my ankle bound and my scrapes cleaned and covered. My head and chest hurt like hell. Miss Di lifted me just enough to help me swallow another pill, and soon the throbbing eased.
Since I always slept on the floor, I’d never noticed the photograph tacked above the window just inside the curtain. A man draped his arm possessively around Candelas’s shoulder. Alone, either one of them would have been striking. Together, they were spectacular. Studying them kept my mind off the pain. “Who’s he?” I asked Miss Di.
“That’s Lucien. He died in an accident five years ago.” Her sigh told me this was an old, sad story. “They were close, those two. Lucien came from a Romani background and was practically born atop a horse. Candelas was a dancer with some riding skill and easily learned all of Lucien’s tricks. From what I heard, they put on quite the show. They juggled knives and torches and did acrobatics on horseback. Then Lucien fell.”
“What happened?” I asked, though I had the feeling I already knew.
“They were at a Renaissance Fair near Portland. Some idiot played a bugle while Lucien was in the air. The horse spooked and sidestepped just enough that Lucien landed on the horse’s rump, slipped and hit the ground, head first. He lasted just long enough for Candelas to reach him and beg him not to die. He did anyway. Candelas went mad with grief. He kept the stallion and somehow found our carnival, and the manager set him up with a ring to perform in. He’s a fool, taking all kinds of risks.” Her voice turned bitter. “They were crazy for each other, though Lucien was a nasty son of a bitch. He felt free to take any number of suitors, but he rarely let Candelas out of his sight and threatened anyone—male or female—who became too interested.”
The dominance in Lucien’s eyes was obvious. Seeing it reminded me of that cold, ghostly touch and the voice claiming Candelas. Impulsively, I rubbed my neck. “Do you believe in evil spirits?”
Miss Di took a long time to answer. “Be careful, Foxy. Just…be careful.”
My dreams were full of fire and demons. I woke, heart pounding, to find Candelas sitting hunched over with his fingers threaded together.
“Are you angry with me?” I asked.
The gaze he turned on me was full of grief. “Why would I be?”
“Because I pissed off Lucien.”
His face drained of the little color it had left. “Lucien’s dead.”
“Then who was with you the other night in Ghost’s trailer?”
Candelas started shaking. “You were dreaming.” But I saw the lie in the way he moved. I knew it from the tale Miss Di had told. He was quiet a long time before he said, “I should explain.”
“I wish you would.”
He cupped my chin and stroked my cheek with his thumb. “Foxy, you’re the best thing that’s happened to me since…” His voice cracked and it took him a few breaths to get ahold of himself. “I didn’t think I’d enjoy being in the ring again until you came. I like watching you perform. When I saw you fall, I thought…”
There was grief in his eyes. I felt bad at being the cause. “Miss Di told me what happened at the Ren Fair.”
He sucked in a breath, and I couldn’t tell if he was upset or relieved by having his secret out. “I owe Lucien everything. My father was a bastard when he was drunk, so I left the house when I was fourteen. I was starving when Lucien found me. He took me in, taught me…”
No wonder Candelas had taken pity on the homeless, starving guy he’d found in his trailer; I’d reminded him of himself. “He hurts you.”
The grasp on my chin tightened so much I thought he might shake me. “He has a temper. That’s all. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t love me.”
“I wouldn’t hurt you.”
He let out a long, slow sigh as he realized I’d tricked him into admitting Lucien’s ghost existed. “I know, Foxy. I know. But you and I…we can’t…”
I knew what he meant, and it broke my heart. It was no use imagining any sort of life with Candelas as long as Lucien was around. The longer I stayed, the more likely it was that one of us would be injured worse than we already were. “If I left, would he leave you alone?”
His silence was answer enough.
“Hand me my orb.” When Candelas did, I said, “It flashed orange when I fell. That was Lucien’s energy. Ghost is green.” I tuned the ball to Candelas. Red swirled around in tormented waves. “This is you.”
He stared into its depths, mouth tight. “What does that bauble say about you?”
That was the last thing I wanted him to see. “It doesn’t work like that.”
“It doesn’t work, or you’ve never tried?”
I had tried, but since the orb reflected only the energy I sensed from someone else, it was difficult to direct my own into it. Just to placate him, I tuned it to myself. The red dimmed and disappeared, replaced by a thick cloudy gray that eventually settled on one side. I saw emptiness. Confusion.
“And what the hell does that mean?”
After being in a carnival for years, he ought to have known how many illusions were subject to interpretation. “Tell me what you see.”
For a long time he studied the orb as the cloud lay limply inside. His face scrunched, and for a moment he wore a look of pity. Then he hardened. “You’re no more than a ghost, empty and cold,” he said, and stalked out.
After that, things became so strained with Candelas that I moved in with Miss Di. I missed Candelas terribly, but staying wasn’t worth the risk of provoking him further.
Recovery was slow but Miss Di wouldn’t let me stay in bed. “You’ll hurt worse if you do,” she said, so I hobbled around the grounds until I got tired, which didn’t take long. She made me a nest of pillows and soft fabrics and I watched silently as she sewed. Since I couldn’t juggle with a broken wrist, I played with my orb, passing it back and forth over my fingers and along my good arm. Every so often I caught Miss Di looking at me.
“It’s not glowing,” she said.
“I’m tired.” Though, really, I was afraid of seeing the fiery glow indicating Lucien’s presence. I wasn’t sure how far he could travel without being attached to a body, and I didn’t want to find out.
“Pity. I wondered what that thing might say about me.”
I knew it was a trick to cheer me up, but I owed her, anyway. Making sure to focus solely on her, I directed the energy I sensed into the orb. She was violet, deep and rich like royalty. The color undulated in slow, calming waves. Once in a while came a flash of light, but I took that to be her creativity and inspiration as she worked on a new outfit.
“Pretty,” she said.
The color died abruptly. No one would ever say such a thing about my energy. Like Candelas had said, I was cold. Empty.
No more than a ghost.
One day when Miss Di was out on an errand, Candelas let himself inside her bus. “Foxy. I wanted to apologize.”
I shrugged. “It’s all right.”
“It isn’t. I shouldn’t have said what I did. I was upset, but that’s no excuse for being needlessly cruel.”
“It’s the truth. I’m empty.”
He crouched to be at eye level with me. “You have a gift.”
“If I had a dollar for everyone said that to me, I’d…” I shook my head, too angry to continue. “Look. As soon as I can use my hand again, I’ll leave. It’ll be better for both of us.”
“No, it won’t. I’d miss you too much.”
“I’m not worth this.” I gently fingered the swollen area over his cheekbone. We hadn’t spoken in two weeks, but obviously that wasn’t enough distance to make Lucien happy. “Or this.” A set of finger-shaped bruises trailed up his arm. “I won’t make you choose between us.”
That was all he could say. He left, leaving me even emptier than before.
My body healed faster than my heart. Candelas and I didn’t speak, but I saw the pain in his eyes every time he looked at me. The cuts and bruises kept accumulating, making it obvious that I’d have to leave the carnival completely to placate Lucien. So I kept a packed bag, waiting for the right moment. I didn’t want any long goodbyes.
One evening when the carnival was dark Candelas decided to go into town with a few of the other performers for some drinks. He leaned inside the bus door while a gaggle of carnies jostled behind him. “Come with us,” he begged Miss Di.
“Go,” I said when she glanced at me. “I’ll be fine.”
She kissed my forehead and left. As soon as the truck left the camp I grabbed my bag. Soon, I’d be back to a life of dodging a detective rather than a violent ghost.
But thinking of Lucien made me pause. I’d leave, but first I wanted to give him a piece of my mind.
Ghost was munching away at his dinner. Cautiously, I stroked the smooth white body, remembering how often Candelas did the same thing. I wondered how much of it Lucien felt, being inside a horse.
Ghost’s hide twitched beneath my palms as if he was shaking off a fly. He swished his tail, stinging me on the arm.
“Come out, you bastard. I need to talk to you.”
Ghost shuddered. Then he craned his head around and stared at me with brown eyes too canny to be fully equine. I kept well back, not wanting to get bitten or kicked if he lost his temper.
There was no easy way to say what I wanted to, so I just did. “You got what you wanted. I’m leaving, so you can stop hurting him now.”
Ghost gave a loud, wet snort, giving me the sick feeling that even if I left, the abuse wasn’t going to end.
“Look. I’ll do anything you want as long as you stop beating him.”
The word hung in the air, and I couldn’t tell if it was spoken aloud or merely in my head. The trailer grew cold despite the heater.
Would you make a trade?
I had no idea what that entailed, but I was willing to risk it if it meant helping Candelas. “If that’s what you want.”
Ghost shuddered. For a moment, his head was up, ears alert. Then he went back to his hay as if nothing had changed. But it had. I felt Lucien. Coldness slid along my skin beneath my clothes. It was both frightening and sensual. There was an aura of raw sexuality around Lucien that turned me on no matter how much I despised him.
I want to touch him as a man.
“But you can’t, unless…”
Unless you invite me in.
The idea repulsed me. The last thing I wanted was someone as cruel and possessive as Lucien using me. The cold twined around my body, sinuous as a snake. “No.”
You said you’d do anything.
I’d had enough years of people telling me what to do and when, of being poked and prodded and used. Even for Candelas, I didn’t know if I could bear giving myself up like that. “Only if you promise you’ll stop hurting him.”
Coolness brushed my lips. A ripple of lust and longing emanated from Lucien. One cool tendril rested just below my belly and fondled me just the way I’d imagined Candelas might. I didn’t want this. I didn’t, but Lucien knew just where to stroke for the utmost effect.
Do you want me?
The only thing I wanted was Lucien far, far away, but my body betrayed me. The word passed my lips before I could stop it. “Yes.”
There came an awful, terrible chill as if I’d been dunked in an icy lake.
I drifted back to awareness while we were in Candelas’s bed, twisted in the sheets, panting and kissing and sweating. His breath reeked of beer. “Foxy,” he murmured. “Oh, Foxy.”
It hurt to hear him speak my name with such passion knowing he had to be drunk to do it. I meant to grab his arms and shake him, but my body wouldn’t cooperate. Candelas’s skin was beneath my hands, his lips crushed against mine, but it wasn’t me running my fingers through his damp hair or wedging my hips against his.
It was Lucien.
The cold held me trapped and immobile within my own body. Candelas was obviously too drunk to know I wasn’t myself and Lucien wasn’t about to stop everything to explain.
“Foxy, I’m sorry, I’m so…”
“Shut up.” The ensuing slap burned my hand. Candelas’s head jerked to the side, his eyes wide with shock. The pleasant drunkenness had worn off.
You promised, you bastard! I thought hard at Lucien, but he ignored me.
When he looked back, his eyes were full of hurt. Guilt stabbed at me. This was my fault. I’d let Lucien in, just so he could hurt Candelas and let him believe I was the one doing it. “Foxy?” His voice was small, and in his anguished gaze I saw the child betrayed first by his father, then Lucien, and now me. He thought he deserved it.
Lucien didn’t answer. He clambered on top of Candelas. My fists pounded Candelas’s chest and arms. My knee drove into his unprotected stomach. I was sick knowing that I’d been the one to inflict this on him.
Yet Candelas did nothing. He didn’t fight despite being larger and stronger. He curled up and took the blows that continued to fall.
Stop it! I screamed. If Lucien heard me he didn’t care, but neither did the egotistical bastard hide anything from me. He enjoyed using Candelas as a punching bag and therefore destroying any chance I might have at earning Candelas’s love—my punishment for daring to think I might have a chance. Candelas belonged to Lucien, and he demonstrated his ownership by the roughness with which he made love—if this could be called love.
I had to reach him, but Lucien kept too tight a grip on me. I couldn’t speak or move, but my jacket lay on the floor, and there, just peeking out of the pocket, was my orb.
Before Lucien could follow my train of thought, I corralled his energy and hurtled it toward my orb. A burst of orange filled the trailer, sparkling acidly before it died.
Blinking, Candelas jerked away and stumbled out of bed. “Foxy, what…?”
Lucien wrapped me in a binding cocoon of energy, cutting off any hope of a second chance. I was no more than a spider’s meal. All I could do was wait, paralyzed, for him to squeeze me dry.
He knew. Thank whatever gods were listening, he knew.
At the sound his name, Lucien stretched toward Candelas, but Candelas stayed out of reach. “What’s the matter, lover? Aren’t you happy to see me?”
Candelas smiled. “Of course I am. I missed you.”
My heart sank. Candelas didn’t care that I was gone. He’d wanted Lucien back all along.
He let Lucien pull him back into bed. It was torture. My body reacted to every kiss and caress, but it wasn’t me Candelas desired.
Candelas nibbled on my—Lucien’s—ear. “Such a handsome body. What did you do with its owner?”
“Nothing. He decided not to stick around.” Arrogance leaked into his voice. I hated him. Right then, I hated Candelas too.
“He left without saying goodbye?”
Lucien chuckled. “Good riddance.”
Candelas stroked Lucien’s—my—face. “He was kind of a jerk, wasn’t he? A real needy kid. I just wish I had five more minutes with him. Then I could forget about him completely.”
“Only five minutes?”
“Plenty of time to tell him what I really thought.”
Lucien kissed him deeply on the lips, and I tasted stale beer. Then he pulled back. “Granted.”
The chokehold around me lightened. I fell back into myself, all floppy and confused after being held captive for so long. My tongue didn’t want to work either. “Candelas?” The name was almost a gurgle.
Candelas jerked me back upright. “What the hell were you thinking?”
“He said he wouldn’t hurt you anymore if let him borrow my body.”
He looked stricken. “Oh, God. I never meant…”
“Doesn’t matter. I’m not what you want.” I was nothing like Lucien. I’d killed a man, and I was a hollow, empty freak. Candelas had said as much.
“And how the hell do you know what I want? Why don’t you consult your crystal ball?” Candelas bent down, picked up my orb and set it in my hands. Automatically, I tuned in to his energy. The crimson glow was no longer tormented, but calm and intense, throbbing like a heartbeat. That was love. I’d seen it a few times before, but never directed at me.
“But…” This wasn’t going to end well. Lucien thrashed inside me, counting the seconds until he claimed my body for good.
Gently, Candelas clasped my hands. “I lied to you that day you showed me your own energy. It wasn’t emptiness I saw but a cloud, one that covered the sun, and I hated myself for forcing you to stay that way. Don’t hide in the shadows, Foxfire. Come into the light.”
In answer, the red faded, replaced by the misty gray representing my own energy. This time, though, the darkness had cracked. Light burst through. And all around the edges the clouds were tinted with rainbows. I stared in wonderment, surprised by the change. It hurt to see something so beautiful and know it was going to be gone within moments.
I appreciated his support, but Lucien wasn’t mine to banish. “You think you need him to survive, but you don’t. He stays because you keep him here.”
His grip tightened. Lips pursed, his eyes glazed over. He was perilously close to crying.
But it was too late. Orange flickered in the orb. Flame curled around the edges. Terrified, I met Candelas’s eyes.
Lucien yanked me back. Fire licked the edges of my vision. Talking to Candelas had been a terrible mistake. Lucien knew Candelas loved me, and he was furious enough to beat Candelas until he was too ragged to protest.
Don’t hurt him anymore, I begged Lucien. You promised.
Scalding rage crisped the last of my consciousness. It had been like this the last night at the lab, when I’d lost control and—
A tide of cool redness drowned out the orange. “Leave Foxfire alone, you lying, thieving bastard.”
Lucien swung at him, but Candelas ducked and grabbed his—my—wrist.
“Not this time. I’ve taken enough shit from you. I’m not going to let you destroy Foxfire like you did me.”
Lucien was spirit, fueled by Candelas’s guilt and obsession. The angrier he got, the more his energy rose, and the less controlled it became. Candelas was giving me an advantage—the one I’d sworn never to use again.
In struggling against Candelas, Lucien weakened his hold on me. I surged back into my body, which crackled with more energy than I’d ever felt. It had to go out somewhere, and I didn’t want it to end like last time. Panic rose as I met Candelas’s gaze. “Let me go. Let me go before I…”
“You won’t hurt me.”
“I can’t do this. Please.” The truth I’d never told anyone nagged at me. I’d lied to Candelas and run away from everything to avoid it. Lucien buzzed at me like a wasp, stinging in all the right spots to heighten my pain. “That man at the lab. I didn’t just hurt him. He’s dead because I lost control. I felt him die. I couldn’t bear it if…”
“Then don’t lose control,” Candelas said with a touch of his boyish humor.
I couldn’t understand how he could be so nonchalant. I’d killed a man. I might very well kill him. “Get out. Just get out before I…”
“You won’t hurt me.” Candelas set the orb in my hands. “And this time, I won’t let you fall.”
Lucien shrieked. He tore at me, biting and jabbing. I drew in every bit of energy I could sense, from the electricity running through the truck and trailer to Candelas’s grounding presence and Ghost, a stream of vibrant green, strong and sure. I took it all and focused it into the orb.
My nerves rang with pain from Lucien’s fury, and it was all I could do to concentrate. The orb flared, filling the trailer with blinding white light as I took all that borrowed energy and focused it on Lucien. But once I had, I couldn’t finish. “You love him,” I said. “I can’t just—”
Candelas covered my hands with his. Face hard, he stared down into the fiery orb. “Go away, Lucien. I don’t need you anymore.”
With that tacit permission, I let go. Lucien’s energy exploded. Agony streaked through my body and I jerked in an uncontrollable seizure. The orb fell from my twitching hands. The trailer crackled and popped. Sparks flared in the tiny kitchen.
Smoke filled my nostrils and I coughed, unable to breathe. Someone lifted me, carried me out into cool air. Candelas frantically called my name. “Don’t leave me, Foxy. Don’t go.”
I opened my eyes. Everything ached, but at least I could breathe.
“Foxy? Foxy, talk to me.” Candelas had his arms around me. We were outside and on the ground. Ghost hovered nearby, pacing back and forth and letting out high-pitched whinnies.
“Is he gone?”
“Don’t be,” he said, squeezing me tightly. “Don’t you ever be sorry for standing up for yourself.”
I hoped he took the same advice. Breathing deeply, I inhaled a lungful of air so acrid I let out a barrage of coughs. Alarmed, I looked back at the trailer. Smoke leaked from blackened windows.
“Looks like lightning struck, doesn’t it?” Candelas said with all seriousness. “Ah, well, I was going to upgrade to a larger model anyway.”
The trailer wasn’t the only casualty. My orb lay nearby on the ground, cracked and permanently cloudy. There was no chance of it holding energy now.
Candelas followed my gaze. “We’ll get you a new one. You never know when we might have to exorcise more ghosts.”
“Not soon, I hope.” Sharing my body with a spirit wasn’t an experience I cared to repeat.
The smoke along with Ghost’s uneasiness had attracted a number of carnies, none of whom dared to approach the dancing, snorting stallion in order to reach us. Candelas had to let go of me to soothe his horse, but he was quickly replaced by Miss Di, who fussed over me as if I were at death’s doorstep.
“I’m fine,” I told her after she wrapped a third blanket around me.
“What the hell happened?”
“I got you-know-who to leave. There were…side effects.”
She glanced at the charred remains of the trailer. “Some side effects.” Curling a finger beneath my chin, she said, “You’re something else, Foxy. Thank you.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. The attention wasn’t something I welcomed. And with all these people around and no stone to focus with, I was terrified of losing control, just like I had with the researcher.
The thought stayed all day and into the evening while Candelas answered numerous questions and Miss Di had made room in her nest for us. “What’s wrong?” he asked when we finally had some peace and quiet. Miss Di had brought some of the Greek fare I favored, but I wasn’t hungry.
“I killed a man.”
“Lucien was already dead.”
“Yeah. I know.” He fiddled with his phone for a minute. “I wasn’t going to tell you, but…”
He passed me his phone. I took it, expecting to see a photo of the demolished trailer and rumors about what had happened. Instead, there was a short news story accompanied by a familiar headshot. “Oh, hell.”
Beneath my four-year-old photo was a caption: If you have information about this man, please call 1-800-555-9247. The rest of the article detailed the medical testing I’d been subjected to—illegally, it said—and a few other sketchy trials the doctors had engaged in. A detective agency had been hired to find me so I could provide information to use in a trial. There was no mention of being arrested for causing a man’s death.
“What are you going to do?”
I handed back his phone, feeling sick to my stomach. The last thing I wanted was to find the Suit on purpose, but if there was one thing I’d learned from Candelas, it was that I couldn’t keep living with the ghosts from my past.
He scrolled through the article again. “That’s your real name, huh?”
To my relief, he didn’t say it aloud. “You’ll always be Foxfire to me.”
I held out my hand. He passed back his phone.
I made arrangements with the Suit, who went by the name of Detective Briggs, to meet. I’d have to go back to San Diego to give a deposition, and from there, who knew. Briggs assured me I’d be provided for and that I wasn’t under arrest. “Accidental death and self-defense,” he told me, though I wasn’t convinced, and it didn’t ease my guilt at all.
The reassurance also didn’t make it any easier to leave the only place I’d come to consider home.
“Take this,” Miss Di said, giving me a suitcase full of tailored clothes. “You’d best look sharp. Take care of yourself, Foxy.” She kissed my cheek and left me with Candelas and Ghost.
“I’ll come back,” I told him.
“You’d damn well better,” he said, and hugged me so hard I didn’t think he’d let me go. “Once I get a new trailer, Ghost and I will be there. You don’t have to do this alone.”
Ghost pawed the ground, impatient at being made to stand still for so long. I threw my arms around his neck. “Thank you. Both of you.”
The stallion licked and chewed. “He needs a new name,” Candelas said.
I scratched around Ghost’s ear, thinking. “Pegasus?”
Candelas snorted. “I don’t want him getting more full of himself than he already is.”
A black sedan turned into the camp and slowly drove toward us. Briggs. Right on time. I thought quickly. “Phoenix.”
“Risen from the ashes. Like you.”
He twisted me around and kissed me. I clung to him, burning with love.
This story originally appeared in The Myriad Carnival.