“Psst!” Rod hissed through the heavy canvas tent. “Mila. Come on!”
I stepped backwards slowly. My soft shoes barely making a sound on the sawdust packed floor. No one was watching me. They were all looking up at my Mother, who was spinning and twirling on the tightrope like she was floating on air. A swift peek over my shoulder and I saw my best friend Rod holding the slit in the tent open so I could scoot out soundlessly.
Running to the nearest caravan we crouch down behind it, waiting for the angry, exasperated voices to call us back. Rod’s heavy breath was the only sound. The wet huff making the back of my neck sticky, I shove him away and he lands hard on his butt.
“Shush! They’ll hear ya!” I waved frantically at him and bounced up and down on the spot trying to get him to be quiet. If anyone knew we were skipping rehearsal again, then we’d both be goners.
We stopped and listened. Nothing but the hum and clicking of the cicadas. Hauling Rod up from the ground wasn’t easy, he was two years older than me, at sixteen and was already twice as wide and as heavy. Crouching low we weave and bob behind the trailers until we get to the edge of the river. It was nice camping by the water. Most of the time we were parked in a football field or a car park so it was easy for people to see Horlock’s Magnificent Gypsy Circus, which my great, great, great Grandfather named after his wife who was a Romani gypsy. My Father looks totally Australian, he was born with red hair, white skin and covered with freckles. But he dyes his hair black so he looks more exotic. He was born in Molong for goodness sake. Our surname is Blackett but if anyone asks, I’m a Horlock.
Nobody moves quickly on a night like this unless you’re escaping. The air is too thick and breathing feels like sucking soup through a straw. “Have you got them?” I whispered into the dark. Rod dug into his back pocket and pulled out our chocolate, flashing a grin. “They’re probably a bit squashed because you pushed me.” He shoulder bumped me and almost sends me flying into a van. “But they’ll taste fine.”
I’m not supposed to eat chocolate. Well, not now anyways. Mum says that no one will pay to see a fat acrobat. The last time I was rehearsing the riggers laughed that I was bending the rope.
“I hate the new riggers! I don’t know why my Dad picked ‘em.” Our feet find the way over the maze of tree roots sticking up from the ground, like fat snakes diving into the Earth and vanishing under the water.
“They’re just doing their job Mila. Old Tuck couldn’t do it anymore. You know that.”
“Yeah well, they ain’t got no business telling me I’m fat!” Rod laughed and I lunged at him, so angry and ashamed at my changing body. He side stepped me and with his large hand held my shoulder back while I swung my fists in the air at him uselessly. That’s how I felt all over. Useless. I couldn’t be a good acrobat. I couldn’t be a good daughter and lately it felt like Rod was pulling away, like he didn’t want me as his friend either.
“Stop it Mila!” He released his hold and held his hands out in front of him. “I’m just sayin’ that’s all. Your supposed to get bigger. My sister calls it puberty. She had it and it makes her real mad.” His eyes darted to my chest. “And you get boobs.” He added quickly before jumping out of the way so I wouldn’t try and punch him again.
“Well I don’t want boobs or any of that puberty stuff!” I crossed my arms over my chest trying to squash down the small mounds that were growing every day.
“I don’t think you can do that?” He took a step in front of me and held out his hand. He always made sure he was in front of me on the slippery bank.
I followed Rod to our rock. It was a sandstone shelf that hung out over the river. Just enough so we could dip our feet in the warm water and wash off the mud from the bank. He slid over to me when I was settled and handed me the chocolate bar. He always made sure that he got me something with peanuts and tonight it was a Snickers. Mum would lose it if she saw me shoving it in my mouth. My leotard was already getting tight and I knew I was going to be shovelling elephant dung all summer until they could afford to buy me a new one or I lost some weight.
Rod was going to be a strong man like his Father. He was already training hard. Sometimes I watched him pick up his weights. Grunting and sweating, his teeth clenched and the tendons in his neck popping out. He said all that work made him look good for the girls that come to see him. I told him it looked like he doing a poo.
“Do you ever think about getting out of here?” I whispered the words that would get me a smack across the head if I uttered them near my parents.
“Nuh. Why would I? We grew up here and I don’t know anything else.”
“Don’t you want to be something else? Like a doctor or a train conductor?” Rod’s face scrunched up and he looked at me like I had three heads. “A train conductor? Why would I want to be a train conductor? Here at least we get to see a different town every month.”
He leaned back on his elbows, his eyes travelling over my face and down my body. It made me feel… Well I didn’t know how it made me feel, kind of like I had bubbles popping in my chest. Yes, my chest got bubbly when he watched me like this. But I was too annoyed at him to care.
“I want to go to school. Proper school with uniforms. In one town. I want to have friends.”
“We’re friends Mila and home school is still a school. You’re the smartest person I know, but I don’t know a lot of people.” He smirked at me and I snapped my teeth at him.
“Forget about it.”
Rod shrugged. His newly muscled shoulders making his body move in a way that made me feel different and I wasn’t sure if it was a good different or a bad different. “Besides when we get married, our kids will do this too.”
I felt my face flame hot. “What?!” I knew I shouldn’t have been shouting because the others could hear, but I would not have Rod telling me that I was marrying him!
He tried to shush me but I pushed him away and stood up, fury rushing through me. “I will not marry you Rodney J. Gilmore. Not now! Not ever!” I tried to turn but he grabbed my ankle. I kicked out at him, hitting something solid. Scrambling up the bank I heard the satisfying splash of him hitting the water.
“Marry him. I ain’t marrying no one!” I started to stand, brushing the dirt off my knees when I realised something that made my stomach drop into my toes. Rod couldn’t swim. Spinning, I slid down the river bank on my backside until I hit the water. The water closed over my head and it was suddenly pitch black and so deep my feet couldn’t find anything to kick off from. I spun around trying to see him while the current dragged me down the river.
My lungs started screaming for air and panic flowed through my limbs making me fell heavy and stupid. I picked a direction and kicked as hard as I could. Praying to God that I was kicking towards the surface. Praying that if Rod is alright, then by gosh I was gonna marry him! I’ll even become an acrobat! And give up chocolate! Just let him be alright!
Breaking through the surface sweet air poured into my lungs. I spun around coughing and spluttering out water trying to see him!
“Rodney! Where are you?!”
“Here.” It was a weak sound over to my right, further up the river. I put my head back in the water and kicked hard forcing my shaky arms and jelly legs to move. My feet finally hit the muddy bottom. There he was. His thick legs hanging over the bank. He lifted his head and waved at me. Utter relief flooded me and heavy sobs were ripped from my chest as I clawed through the roots and mud to get to him.
Then I saw it. A pair of green legs standing next to Rod, almost camouflaged in the underbrush.
“Hey! Get away from him!” Without even looking at its face I threw myself at it. My little fists useless against the broad, muscled chest. It wasn’t until it shackled my hands that I bothered to look at its face. I wish I hadn’t. Its face was green too. Its nose had a metal spike through it and its ears had holes so big I could see all the way through to the other side. Its eyes! Oh God! Its eyes were as black as night, there was no white in them at all.
“Let me go!” I became a dead weight, like I had seen toddlers do when they didn’t want to leave the circus. I slipped out of his grip and crawled over to Rod, trying to protect his massive body with my little one. It was utterly inadequate.
“He saved me.” Rod coughed, spluttering up river water. Oh. Relief and embarrassment hit me. I raked my eyes up the green man and on a closer look, he wasn’t green at all. He had small greenish coloured scales tattooed all over his body.
“I know who you are. You’re the amphibian act that my Dad booked for the Summer tour. Martin, isn’t it?”
He knelt down on the other side of Rod, he nodded and smiled, revealing a set of sharp teeth. “I’m sorry I scared you.” He hissed his words like a snake. I shivered and hoped he didn’t notice.
“Thank you for saving him.” I said trying to keep my voice from shaking, as Martin stood and slipped back into the river. Disappearing under the water like he was never there at all. I brushed the black hair away from Rod’s face, he gave me a small, almost bashful smile.
I punched him hard in the arm.
“Don’t you ever do that to me again!” I could feel the hot tears spilling down my face. Rod rubbed his arm still smiling at me.
“You pushed me in dummy.” I collapsed on his chest, needing to feel his warm skin under my cheek. “You are learning to swim Rod. You scared me half to death. I even promised that if you were alright I would…”
“What Mila?” I wiped my snotty nose with the back of my hand and took a deep breath.
“I would marry you. You stupid moron! So now we have to get married because you are okay. But you have to ask me in eight years. I’ve got stuff I wanna do before I marry the likes of you Rodney J. Gilmore.”
Rod smiled at me. It was the first time I really saw it. The first time I noticed how handsome he was and how much I hated the other girls watching him. Yeah, maybe I did want to stay with him, even if it did mean having to give up chocolate to become an acrobat.
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Photo by Daniel Novta via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons