…And Her Friend, Samson

I was thirteen years old when my little brother Derek was born, thankfully way passed the threat of any sibling rivalry. Derek was my treasure, a light in my life, some other cheesy sentiment that wouldn’t make how special he was any less true. He was my best friend, despite our large age gap, and he looked up to me in a way that no one ever will again, even if I ever have my own children.

Notice I’m talking about him the past tense?

That’s because he’s dead. Sorry to be so blunt, but it’s the truth. Derek is dead.

A lot of people tend to describe loss, whether it’s a break-up or a death in the family, like your heart being ripped from inside of you. No. Your heart remains inside your chest, only it’s fricasseed, marinated with poison and left between your ribs, an uncooked and toxic mess of muscle and plasma. You live with it. Everything you do is defined by it. You’re constantly looking back and reminding yourself of it, because it will never go away; it spreads over you and over time like a chill, until you’re finally the bitter and revenge-obsessed man you were somehow always destined to be.

At least that’s my experience.

Derek was murdered. Not by any human means; no one shot him or stabbed him or strangled him from behind. He didn’t piss off a stranger so much that they stalked him to the bus station and pushed him in front of the departing number 54. No crime of passion, no premeditated scheme to rid the world of such a beautiful soul. The culprit in question didn’t know any better and was just acting on instinct, but that didn’t make the one responsible any less of a waste of matter to me, nor was it any less deserving of what it had coming if I ever got my hands on it.

Derek was mauled by a lion.

It was the summer before Derek was supposed to go to college. Yale. Did I mention that he was a genius? He had the sharpest brain I’ve ever witnessed, able to deduce calculus problems in fifteen seconds flat, or enlighten a stranger on environmental law when they inquired about the litter problem in town, or devour a nine-hundred-page opus on the history of Uzbekistan, just because. I might be exaggerating, but only slightly, and only to get my point across that Derek was going to go somewhere. He was—and again, this is cliché, but it’s still the truth—he was going to be president. The one thing that was missing in his life was that, despite reading up on all corners of the planet, he had barely gone beyond our hometown borders, except for maybe that trip to the Grand Canyon when he was just a toddler, but he had no memory of that. He wanted to see the world. And he wanted to start with Africa. So the summer before his adult life would officially begin, he invited me to go on safari with him.

There’s no need to give all the gruesome details. All you need to know is that the lion snuck into the camp while our group was sleeping, safely enveloped in our mosquito nets, and of all the people it could have chosen for its snack, it chose my baby brother. It clawed through the net, took him by the leg, and dragged him out into the field and tore into him like it was nothing. Derek’s screams awoke the camp, and everyone ran out to see. I caught a quick glimpse of the beast: it looked like any everyday lion, except my flashlight passed over a pair of teardrop shaped scars next to its tail, as though they were tattoos representing the lion’s previous two kills and he was now on his way to a third. The ensuing ruckus scared the thing away, but it had done its damage: Derek was gone.

They lie when they talk about the five stages of grief. They occur, all right, but they don’t go in order. It’s a bag of trail mix, and on any given day, you reach in and pick the mood you’re going to have at random, maybe going in for seconds or thirds the very same day, each morsel a different nut or carob chip. This is how it was for me for two years. Two longyears of mixed and manic emotions that all added up to the simplest one: sadness. And I never reached the end of the bag, where the good stuff was supposed to be hiding—a healthy and delicious handful of acceptance. Derek was gone, no, taken, unfairly, by a stupid animal and nothing else mattered.

As you can imagine, my life kind of fell apart after that. My sullen demeanor caused me a demotion at work, but I didn’t care. I started to ignore my friends until they inevitably stopped calling, but I didn’t care. I found little solace in women, trolling bars for quick flings, and coming out the other side feeling more empty than usual, a hole that spiraled deeper and deeper. This I kind of cared about; loneliness, true loneliness, doesn’t help the grieving process.

My mother’s grieving process involved ignoring the pain as much as possible. She enjoyed glossing it over with cheap whims, temporary fun. Anything that could potentially bring a smile to her face would do, and anything that made the memory that she was ever a parent disappear would be better.

Something a son always wants to hear from their mother.

In any case, that’s how we ended up at the circus. She saw a flier and was immediately game and called me as fast as she could: “Alex, Alex, the circus is coming to town.” Besides the necessary modern additions, like cars, trucks, GPS, a Twitter feed and a Facebook page, the William V. Raleigh Traveling Circus and Sideshow presented themselves as old-fashioned summer fun under the big top, moving the larger cargo, like their animals, by train, and harkening back to something you’d catch during the Depression era.

Like any good son, I humored my mother and joined her. It was a typical circus: crappy snacks (I ate them anyway), annoying clowns (I was never a fan), the smell of wet firewood mixed with animal piss (take my advice: bring nose plugs whenever going to the circus). In the giant, beach ball-colored tent, we bore witness to the trapeze, elephants, more annoying clowns…

Then the ringmaster, William V. Raleigh himself, a big and burly man with perpetual sunburn and veins bulging out of his neck like the trim on a pillow, stepped out in front of the audience. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he proclaimed, “now ready to take their place in the center ring, one of the bravest women I know. She is here to show you proof that even the wildest beast can be tamed. May I introduce: Lucia Mendoza and her friend, Samson!”

The lion tamer stepped out of the dark. She was a tall and slender woman, decked in a glittery corset that sparkled blue and glimmered into her even bluer eyes. She had skin the color of redwood bark and a confident smile of milk-white teeth. She walked around the ring with an air of giddy self-importance, like she couldn’t believe she was there, either, and boy, were we in for a treat, and it was completely earned. And behind her, being rolled out in a cage…

The lion.

The lion.

I had no doubt in my mind that it was the same piece of shit feline who killed Derek. Everything about it—its shape, its scent, the look in its eyes—had been branded into my memory with a hot iron bar the moment I saw it taking the last few gnaws on my brother’s neck. But what solidified that this was indeed that same lion were the two teardrop scars near its tail.

There it was, being humiliated by the beautiful tamer, whipped into roaring and rolling over. The tamer indulged one audience member’s cries to stick her head in the lion’s mouth, and I saw that corks had been strategically placed on any tooth that could cause the most harm (so all of them). The once fierce and fearsome creature had been reduced to a sideshow (in the center ring of a high-profile circus, but still).

It should have been enough to see this former king of the jungle and the bane of my existence made out to be such an impotent fool, but it wasn’t. I needed more. I needed blood.

The circus was in town for two more days, so I quickly put my affairs in order, made a spectacular scene in my office in order to get fired (because, why not?), and said goodbye to my mother without any explanation of where I was going. I packed up my clothes, left my apartment key in an envelope taped on the landlord’s door, and took a taxi to the outskirts of town.

I was joining the circus.

I have no talents or skills, so the hulk of a ringmaster wasn’t too enthusiastic about this nobody’s sudden interest in going on the road with acrobats, bearded ladies, and an assortment of wild animals. He sat at the desk in his trailer counting money and sticking the bundles in a drawer like a stereotypical man in show business. But I managed to paint a lie for him as vividly as I could.

“Mr. Raleigh, I’ve wanted to join the circus since I was four years old. My parents knew it was a lark. I knew it was a lark, so that’s why I didn’t actively pursue it. But I have nothing now. I just lost everything. And with your troupe in town at the exact same time… It’s destiny. It’s just destiny.

“I’ll do anything, sir, anything. Just to be a part of this. You want me to clean up the animal poop? Done. You want to shoot me out of a cannon? I’ll light the wick myself. Somehow. If I’m fast enough to hop in the cannon after lighting—I’ll train. Anything. I’m yours. Just let me be a part of this. Please.”

I’m lucky the ringmaster had some sympathy somewhere under those steroid-laden muscles. He gave me a job as part of the clean-up team, glorified janitors and handymen in charge of making sure everything was spic-and-span before and after every show. The net for the acrobats needed to be examined for frays before every performance and their swings were to be polished, but not to the point where their hands would slip, naturally, any idiot would know that. Every costume, no matter how scantily clad (not that there was much showing of skin to begin with, but they weren’t exactly conservative) needed to be washed and ironed. Even the fortune teller, the aptly named Maura the Mystic, a Bostonian putting on an obviously fake French accent and wearing a turban that screamed cultural appropriation, demanded her Tarot cards be shuffled by one of us. Strangely, she didn’t seem to mind that her crystal ball was fogged and smudged with fingerprints, so much so that it looked like a used baking sheet, still brown and buttery after the cookies were long since eaten. She made it clear that only she could be the one to touch it.

There couldn’t be one peanut shell left in the seats after the spotlight went dim. If a performer needed their trailer cleaned, I was their man (I and the other multipurpose people were given hammocks to sleep in outside the trailers; even the circus has a caste system, if my lack of questioning Maura the Mystic’s stupid crystal ball rules wasn’t indication enough). Every bottle of seltzer for the clowns needed to be full, and in the case of one temperamental clown named Crackers, it needed to have the right amount of carbonation, otherwise he would “spritz the stuff up my ass and give me a bubbly enema,” as he so lovingly put it.

Mr. Raleigh was a man of strict efficiency. All he cared about was that you would do your job well and on time. He never socialized with anyone beyond the occasional rehearsal or photo op with wide-eyed children who had never seen a giraffe before, so he didn’t care too much about what you did in your spare time, as long as you were back in time to do what he was paying you to do. One time, two of my fellow maintenance workers were late to report in before it was time to open up the grounds. They claimed they overslept, though Crackers insisted they were “banging behind the monkey cages.” Mr. Raleigh didn’t care—he fired them right on the spot. He had Hal the Strongman escort them off the property. After that, Mr. Raleigh muttered, “The show must go on,” and I was instantly assigned about eleven more tasks to do every day.

This included cleaning up after the animals. At last, I could get near them and near the lion. However, they were never in the train car when I came to shovel their feces into buckets with multiple hazardous waste stickers pasted on, and in any case, I lacked the key to the lion’s cage; the lion tamer was fine with cleaning up after her own animal, so she held onto the key herself. The chances of getting close to that bastard cat were low no matter what. But even if I were to somehow get lucky, how was I going to kill the thing successfully andcome out of the scheme unscathed? The answer had to involve a gun, and a good enough aim to ensure that the lion would be dead in an instant.

The circus made stop after stop, delighting the masses (or scaring them, if they ever experienced that profane, seltzer obsessed clown on a bad day) across the country.  I took note of the lion tamer’s schedule, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible; there were only a couple of times where she caught me following her and shot me the look of a disapproved mother.

At each stop, I would take a quick tour around the city or town once I was off duty, searching the shadiest bars for the shadiest figures sitting in the shadiest corners. I’d ask those shady characters if they knew where I could get my hands on a gun, and I was thrown out of many shady bars, apparently for being too shady.

Then one day, we were in a small town in Illinois. I was taking one of my strolls and found a tiny Irish pub, a hole in the wall with lime-green windowpanes and wooden carved leprechauns dancing over the door. This wouldn’t have been one of my usual spaces to check—too many bright colors and not enough shade—but considering I had had such poor luck with the dive-iest of bars, a place with even a fragment of light peeking through (not to mention four leaf clovers painted on the walls) didn’t seem like a bad change. I went inside.

The room was a lot more packed than I expected. A group of angry beach-blonde hooligans sat at the bar, eyes up to the soccer match on the television, cheering and groaning in unison. An older couple that looked like they were survivors of the potato famine rested in one of the booths, solemnly sipping on their pints and sharing a plate of fries. The bartender was a short, round woman with red curls hanging over her pale face, giving her the guise of barbershop pole.

This immediately did not look like the sort of place I’d find a man or woman who could help me get my hands on a gun, but like any frustrated man who was still mourning the death of a family member, I could never pass up the chance for a drink, so I stayed.

After two and a half pints and a double shot of whiskey, it became apparent that my lack of success when it came to feline-icide was getting to me, and after another pint and a half and one more double shot of whiskey, I stopped caring and gave in to the numbness of it all. My memory is still hazy about what actually happened, but from what I can recall, I said fuck it to anonymity and declared to the whole bar that I was looking for a gun, screamed at the old couple, was deservedly cracked over the head with something pointy by one of the hooligans and, as had become custom, thrown out into the cold.

I woke up to a damp washcloth patting my forehead. My eyes fluttered open to the sight of blurs and swirls, and a soothing voice whispering, “Open them slowly. A little more time without regret will do you some good.”

I did as the voice said and gave myself another hour of blissful ignorance, though in reality it was probably more like five or six minutes. Then I opened my eyes fully, allowed the world to return to a higher definition, sat up slowly, and like clockwork, the regret came shooting through.

I was in a trailer. It was sparsely decorated, save for some violet curtains, shelves and tables packed with porcelain trinkets, and an infant’s mobile representing the planets hanging over the bed in which I lay.

“So. How was your night?”

She sat at the end of the bed in her pajamas, legs crossed and her hands in her lap. Her tone suggested a smirk, but her face gave only signs of concern. I had seen her a million times over the last several months and had clocked her schedule to a T, but this was the first time words were ever exchanged between us.

My own words took a while to move passed the six-foot thick ache that clouded my head, neck and, hell, entire body, and I managed to grunt, “Yup,” followed by, “what happened?”

“I only know the end of the story,” Lucia said, “where you stumbled back into camp and passed out near the animal car. You’re lucky I found you before Mr. Raleigh did. He doesn’t abide alcohol.”

“Yeah. He’s more of a Muscletech kind of guy,” I said.

Lucia snickered, nodded and smiled. She didn’t smile with her teeth; it seemed she saved that for the stage.

“Thank you, for… saving me, I guess,” I said.

“Sure.” She got up and crossed over to the electric stove on the other side of the trailer. She put a frying pan on and took a carton of eggs from the mini-fridge. “I’m making some scrambled eggs if you’re hungry.”

My stomach spiraled like Maura the Mystic’s hypno-wheel and sent a glare up to my throat. “No thanks,” I said. “Maybe just some coffee?”

“Next to you. It should still be warm.” She pointed to the small and slanted bedside table on my left. A beige mug sat precariously off center, elbows of steam oozing upwards toward the nearby window.

“Thanks,” I said as she began to crack the eggs and whisk them in a bowl. “I’m Alex, by the way.”


“Yeah, I know. You’re kind of a big deal.”

Lucia chuckled. “I think it’s Samson who’s more of the attraction. Everyone wants a piece of him.”

Just like that, the daze wore off and I realized the sort of luck I had stumbled into. This was my in.

“So… Do you… like… lions?” I asked, unable to mask the new pain in my body over the stupidity of the question. I hoped taking a sip of the coffee nonchalantly would be enough to stop any awkward moments from arising.

Lucia shot me that look that toed the line between smug and sympathetic. “I like my lion. I can’t speak about any others.”

“It takes a lot of guts to do what you do,” I said.

“It’s never been about guts. It’s just… It just is.” She poured the eggs into the frying pan and gave them a good scramble. “I wouldn’t be doing it if I ever thought I was in danger.”

“But it’s a lion. It’s a wild animal.”

“That’s why they call me a lion tamer.”

That awkward silence finally arose, so I did my best to ignore it by taking more tiny sips of my coffee. She removed a plate from the cupboard, and her hand lingered over a second one. “Are you sure you don’t want something to eat?”

“I’m sure, thanks,” I said. “Rain check.”

And so, the next day, we had lunch together. And the day after that. And save for anytime she felt her lion needed a little more rehearsal, the next couple weeks or so saw a lot of Lucia.

But there was no sight of the lion outside of the show. I would occasionally ask questions about it and about Lucia’s history with it, but I never wanted to come off too obvious or too suspicious (as though someone having the intent to take revenge on the lion that killed his brother was a common thing that lion tamers had to look out for). And Lucia was completely honest, telling me the story of how Samson was saved from poachers, and how her husband, now ex-husband, rescued it and brought it home with him for treatment at the zoo where he worked. Once it became established that Lucia and the lion had some kind of rapport, Lucia, already a clown for the circus, switched jobs and that was that.

Along with all the getting-to-know-you stuff, we would make each other laugh. She was very forward, often touching my hand or my knee once I said something funny, and she occasionally greeted me with a kiss on the cheek and said goodbye the same way. Our lunches soon went in danger of going long and we started earning disappointed looks from Mr. Raleigh every time he would walk by, so any time a lunch was cut short, dinner was put on the schedule, and then not long after that, it was put on the schedule permanently.

Suffice it to say, I could feel my heart expanding to make room for her. When I was with her, it was easy to contain, but every moment without her was spent trying to squeeze my heart down to its regular size, cooling it down to its normal temperature, and remembering I had a mission. It didn’t matter that Lucia was quite possibly the most amazing person I had ever met and was so beautiful and warm and welcoming and hilarious and an absolute bright spot in my life that I hadn’t felt in years. She worked with the enemy, which in a sense made her the enemy. I could not fall in love with the enemy.

I fell in love with the enemy one night in July when the circus was packing up and ready to leave Missouri. I was in the big top, sweeping up the trash, when I heard a cough from across the way. It was Crackers, still in his clown costume, minus the big red nose, giving his face a skull-like quality with all the white makeup avoiding the center of his face. The rainbow wig was also missing, revealing his balding and graying scalp. He chewed gum while leaning against a beam, the spitting image of every villainous asshole in the book. The mood in the tent went from pensive to volatile in three seconds flat.

“You’re a shitty person, Alex,” he yelled over to me.

It was hard to dispute that, even if it was meant as an insult and less as a statement of fact, so I said, “Okay,” and continued sweeping.

Crackers stomped over to me; each step came with a malicious honk from his long, red shoes. He trotted up to my spot in the stands and knocked the broom out of my hands. “Smell this,” he said, and he grabbed my head and shoved it down into his chest. I didn’t take a conscious sniff on Crackers’ command, but I did catch a whiff of something thick and wet, like a bucket of blood. Once he was sure I’d gotten a good enough smell, he threw my head back.

“My costume smells like a goddamn slaughterhouse. Are you washing my clothes in a bathtub of gizzards?”

“I use the same detergent I use for everyone else,” I said, and it was the truth. I didn’t know why his clothes smelled like that.

“Well it smells like you’re slacking off on mine. You know what it’s like when you’re trying to amuse a bunch of kids and those little bastards recoil from you because you fucking stink?”

“I can imagine.”

“No, you can’t imagine because it’s not fucking happening to you!” Crackers got closer to my face. The aroma of raw beef shank flew into my nose. “I’m not saying you’re doing it on purpose, buddy, but the sheer fact that you’re completely and utterly fucking oblivious to it is even more disrespectful. So, here’s the plan. Step one: wash my clothes better. Step two: let the fear that I’ll shove a juggling pin down your scrawny throat drive you toward completing step one.”


We turned to the center ring. Lucia stood there, holding her lion’s whip at her side. Her eyes were slits, like perfect creases in tan construction paper, and they were trained directly onto the clown.

“Back away from the man and scurry back to the mud you came from.”

“Or else what? You’ll whip me? Do I look like the kind of guy who gives a shit about pain? You know better than most, Lucy, I’m a sick individual. I would thrive on it. I’d love for you to go at me with that thing. You already have the corset. Just buy some thigh-high boots and meet me in my trailer—”

I pushed Crackers onto his back. His right hand caught the corner of one of the seats and he yelped in pain like a dog whose tail was stepped on. He clutched at his hand and a small amount of blood squirted through his fingers. He looked up at me with a snarl and his right eye twitched. But once he was on his feet, Lucia had already made her way up to us, whip at the ready.

“Yeah, you really do thrive,” she said.

Crackers stared at her for a while, then spit his gum into her face. It bounded from her cheek to the ground, landing like a small weight, dull and immobile. I took a step forward, but Lucia stuck her hand out and held me back.

Crackers turned to me. “Just clean these like they’re your clothes,” he said, and he edged around Lucia and made his way out the tent.

Lucia put the whip down. She allowed a shudder to run through her, and then turned to me and gave me that toothless smile. “I’m making pasta. See you at eight.” She briefly took my hand, gave it a squeeze, and my mind shattered into a million heart-shaped pieces.

It was such a cliché. Torn between my self-appointed sworn duty and the person that made my life whole. Obviously, I didn’t know how she felt about me, as her touchy-feely ways were more than misleading. But then there was all the time we spent together. The bond we had formed that seemed to make the world around us fade and make nothing else matter. She had to feel something similar, even if it wasn’t the L-word. But then there was the other L-word that swam through my head at all times. Killing that L-word would kill any chances of that first L-word being reciprocated.

Three weeks or so later, everything except for the lovelorn wailing in my head died down. I washed Crackers’ costume twice a day, before and after every show, but he would still leave passive aggressive notes on my hammock, describing both the scent of the costume and how he was going to shove various clown props into whatever orifice he was into that day. I managed to keep my composure around him, though I did often fear for my safety, especially when he started following me to my hammock every night, just hoping that the others on the clean-up team wouldn’t be there to act as witnesses. I also managed to keep my composure around Lucia, though every second spent in her presence was a second spent controlling the urge to bend down on one knee and propose to her with a peanut shell that was somewhat ring-shaped.

Then early one morning, Lucia woke me up with a light shake. “I want to show you something,” she whispered. I flopped out of the hammock and followed her to her trailer. She retrieved a steak wrapped in butcher paper and a black, zipped up pouch that looked like a shaving kit. “Okay,” she said, and then led me to the animal cars. It took me longer than it should have, but I realized what she was doing.

There it was, awake in its cage, lazing about like it was a normal, less murderous cat. It watched us we approached the cage and let out a wide and intimidating yawn. Its mane was matted, a ‘do that would have looked charming on a human being, but just made the lion look dumb.

Lucia dropped the steak onto a nearby crate. She then zipped open the pouch and revealed a vial full of some kind of liquid. She inserted a syringe into the vial and filled it up, and then she injected the needle into the steak. She placed everything back into the pouch, approached the cage, unlocked it with her key, and stepped in slowly.

“Hey, Samson,” she said. Lucia continued to inch towards the lion and slowly put a hand out to pet it. The lion miraculously let it all happen, and for a second, I could have sworn I heard the thing purring. Lucia brushed her hand through his mane for a few moments, smoothing it out, perfecting that ‘do. She stepped out of the cage, retrieved the steak and dropped it on the floor. In a second, the lion forgot all about Lucia and sunk his teeth into his breakfast. Lucia walked out of the cage, closed the door, but left it unlocked. I pointed that out.

“It’s okay. Trust me,” she said.

“What did you want to show me?” I asked.

“I just wanted to share this with you. This is how I cork his teeth. Samson would never bite me, but I need to take precautions for insurance purposes. As though the force of his jaw snapping down on my head is lessened because of the cork.” She scoffed. “I put tranquilizer in the steak to calm him down. He hates the cork, so this is the only way it can be done. In thirty minutes, he’ll become lucid, or even just fall asleep. It’s not humane, but it works better than catnip.”

We waited, listening to Samson chomp and tear apart the steak just like he chomped and tore apart my brother. It was the only sound as the two of us sat side by side on two crates and watched. My left hand and her right were mere centimeters apart. The threat of our pinkies touching made me blush; I hoped she didn’t notice.

“Crackers and I were partners,” she eventually said, not noticing my sudden redness. “Clown partners, if that makes any sense. Crackers and Lucy. He always had kind of a thing for me, I could tell, but I was married to Andres, so he had to deal with it. He used to be sweet. He hid all the garbage in his soul really well.

“When Samson came into our lives, my daughter had just turned one. It seemed kind of… reckless to have a baby around a lion, but there was just something about Samson that, I don’t know, calmed Alyssa down. Samson was a gentle giant, I guess. So it felt really natural to switch acts. Andres encouraged it. Mr. Raleigh was supportive. The only person to throw a fit was Crackers. He didn’t want me to leave him. Which led to him filling my trailer with gas and making it explode.”

I looked over at her. She kept her eyes forward, the images of the past no doubt unfurling before her like film on a spool.

“Crackers says he didn’t do it but come on.”

“Let me guess,” I said, but before I could even relay what I thought had happened, Lucia said, “Yes.”

“I was buying the mobile when it happened. Andres was out for a walk with Alyssa, they were approaching the trailer, and boom. Andres got some burns and scratches; Alyssa… He thought we were all home. Crackers. Or he at least I thought I was home…

“You know why I’m able to tame Samson so well? Because we have a mutual understanding. I love him, and he loves me. He may be an animal, but that doesn’t matter to me. I’m just as foreign and scary to him, and he couldn’t care less. All that matters is the feeling, and that moment in which we feel it. The now. I try to live up to that standard. It’s hard, but… He helped me get through what happened to Alyssa, and my marriage crumbling, and having to see that red-nosed fuck’s psychotic smile every day…”

“Why don’t you just leave?” I asked.

“Where am I going to go with a six-hundred-pound lion?”

It was silent again. Samson had resumed his place in at the end of his cage. He let out another yawn and then sprawled out over the floor with his eyes closed. The only thing left was his heavy breathing.

“Today’s the anniversary,” Lucia said.

“Of when it happened?”

She nodded. “All the people here—besides Crackers, obviously—they’re wonderful. But I’ve never had someone around I…” She looked at me. Her eyes were so blue; I felt like I might drown in them. “I’m really grateful you’re here, Alex,” she continued. “You and Samson are the best parts of my life right now.”

She took my hand and gave it that paralyzing squeeze. She placed her head on my shoulder and inhaled deeply. I felt myself flush even more and sweat began to dot my forehead. My mouth became dry and wet all at once and my chin shook.

“I love you.”

The words just spilled out of me.

Lucia leaned up and looked at me again. She smiled her toothless smile. “I love you, too.”

Then she let go of my hand and went back into the cage.

I was lost. What had just happened? Mine was a declaration of love, but was hers? Shouldn’t we have just started kissing, or was that going to come after she finished corking the lion’s teeth?

I stood up. “I love you,” I said again.

She turned back at me, smiled and nodded.

I stepped forward to the entrance of the cage, rubbed my hand through my hair. “No, in… I’m inlove with…”

Lucia froze. She looked over her shoulder at me with that concerned yet affable expression. Only this time there was more sadness in it. Right away I knew what she would say. I didn’t know the exact shape it would take, but only heartbreak was going to come out of her mouth.

“Alex…” she said. She bit her lower lip.

I didn’t want to hear the heartbreak.

“I… I don’t— “

Tears welled up in my eyes and I was looking at the world from the inside of a fish tank. Of course this is how it would be. Of course I would fill the hole that Derek left two years prior, and of course that void would be dug open by the sweet and bullshit drill of rejection. I couldn’t face this (even with my sight temporarily liquefied), so I made my way out of the car, tripping on a couple crates and adding bruises to my shins to go along with the bruises to my ego.


I was out the door.

And I bumped right into Mr. Raleigh’s burly chest.

“Alex. Just the man I was looking for. Can you come to my trailer for a moment?”

“Sure,” I said, and I sniffed the tears back in. Anything to get away from that moment, to bury it in the past and pretend it never happened.

Mr. Raleigh led the way to his trailer and opened the door for me. Once inside, I nearly doubled back right into the ringmaster. Crackers sat across from Mr. Raleigh’s desk, small dabs of white make-up smeared over his forehead and over his scowl. He ground his teeth at me and clutched tighter onto the armrests of his chair. Knowing what I now knew, the ugliness dripping off him was thick, cold and lumpy, like weeks-old tuna salad left in the fridge weeks past its expiration, stained with an unnatural, moist dew. I wanted to race away from him, and at the same time, I wanted to choke the life from him for what he did to Lucia.

Mr. Raleigh pushed past me and took a seat at his desk. “Crackers here has a complaint against you,” he explained. “He says you have been washing his costume improperly.”

I took a deep breath, accidentally catching a whiff of something fishy. Maybe he resembled tuna salad beyond just the metaphor? “I have drenched his clothes in lavender detergents over and over again. If he still smells something, then maybe the problem’s in his nose, or better yet, in his head.”

Crackers stood from the chair suddenly and knocked it to the floor, but before he could attempt any kind of attack, Mr. Raleigh spoke up, “Stop. Crackers, pick up the chair and sit like a gentleman. I’ll expect the same attitude from you, Alex. No snide remarks.”

Crackers did as he was told. I resigned myself to not speaking again for the rest of this meeting, which thankfully turned out to be short. Mr. Raleigh just gave me firm and precise orders to make sure Crackers’ costume no longer smelled like an industrial freezer after a power outage, and he seemed sure that would be the end of it.

Crackers caught up with me upon exiting the trailer and slammed me up against a popcorn cart. Clearly it wasn’t the end of it.

“You having a laugh at all this?” he sneered.

“Laughs are your department,” I said. He couldn’t take the joke and tightened his grip on my shirt, so I followed up with, “I could give two shits about you or what you wear. Now let me go.”

“Why? You uncomfortable? You don’t like it when someone’s getting up close and personal with you?” He pressed up closer against me, rubbed his crotch up against my thigh. He put his face close to mine. His breath was damp like a swamp. “Then maybe you shouldn’t incur my wrath with your shoddy laundry—“

I slammed my leg up into his balls as hard as I could. Crackers let out a squeaky “oof” and backed away from me. I made him back away a little further with a punch to his nose; I heard the bridge splinter, like someone pulling apart a bunch of wet Popsicle sticks. Crackers fell onto the ground and curled up into a ball, one hand on his face, the other between his legs. Blood dripped onto his shirtsleeve. He looked up at me, but I couldn’t be sure he even saw me behind all the rage.

I just stared down at him with pity. “Drop the shirt off at my station if you want the blood taken out.” And I walked away.

I didn’t sleep that night, or the next few nights, and not just because I expected Crackers to show up and assume the horror movie role he’d clearly been auditioning for all his life. Lucia kept pace with that in my mind. First her image, then just her name. Whatever it was, it filled me with bile. She didn’t love me. She didn’t have to love me, but that didn’t make it any less painful. Nothing is worse than being so certain of something, only to learn the rest of the world sees it another way, which means you’re wrong, you’re stupid, you’re alone.

I avoided her completely. I would see her heading in my direction, and I would turn around, double back and go the long way to wherever I needed to go. She would yell after me what she was making for dinner that night, but I was fine with finding something in town and eating out, eating away from her. She was suddenly the enemy again. Not so much out of sadness or even anger, but rather out of necessity. I needed her to be the enemy, because that way, I had no problem taking Samson out and getting the fuck out of there.

At the end of the week, the circus began packing up for the drive to the next town. These were always hectic times despite everyone knowing what their jobs were and how they should be done, but the entire company approached the dismantling as though it had a deadline that, if missed, meant the world would explode. What this meant is that everyone would be distracted. What this meant is that Lucia would be out of her trailer for a good chunk of time.

This meant Samson would be left unattended.

I watched Lucia’s trailer from a distance, waiting for her to leave. When she finally did, I zipped over to her door. I jimmied (or rather, cracked) it open with the shovel I used to dispose of the animal shit, and slipped inside. I found a steak in her fridge and located the black pouch with the tranquilizer. I filled a syringe, stuck it in the steak and emptied the contents into it. I took another vial and added another dose, just to be safe. Then I made my way to the animal car. I would feed Samson his last meal, wait till he passed out, and then take the shovel to him until he was dead.

And after that… I didn’t know.

I went inside the animal car. Made my way up to the cage. Samson was pacing back and forth as though he was impatiently waiting for me. His eyes fixed onto me and he stopped. I shuffled closer and held the steak up. Samson licked the lips he didn’t have. I reached for the door…

And realized I didn’t have the key.

In my haste and idiocy, I forgot to get the key to the stupid cage.


I could jimmy the cage door with the shovel again, but my limited knowledge of physics told me that would probably be a waste of time, not to mention it would rile up the hungry beast in front of me to the point where even looking at it would be suicide. I’d have to go back to Lucia’s trailer and hope that they were there and that she didn’t have them herself. It would take a while for Samson to lose consciousness, though, so I tossed the steak through the bars. It landed right at Samson’s feet, but he kept his eyes on me.

“Eat it.”

Nothing. Just more of the same blank stare.

“Eat it, you useless fuck.”

“Oh, of course it was you.”

I turned. Crackers slid the car door closed behind him. He was in full clown gear; from my position, I couldn’t tell if he was wearing his red nose or if his real nose was just very swollen. “I got your note. What do you want?” he asked.

“What?” Out of the corner of my eye, Samson was still taking his sudden hunger strike.

“Did you want to apologize? Because we are far passed the point of apology.” He took a tuft of his outfit and brought it to his nose. “I still stink, after all.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, Crackers,” I said. “Change your name to ‘Beefy.’”

Crackers hissed a laugh. “That’s good, that’s good. You’re choosing to still kid around. You know what my next move is?” He moved forward slyly. “It should be a no-brainer. The only logical course of action for me to take is pure and swift vengeance.” From the deep caverns of the pockets of his clown pants, he pulled out a small and barbeque sauce-stained knife.

Once I realized what was about to happen, I figured that it probably wasn’t barbeque sauce.

Maybe it was the blood of the last janitor that crossed him.

Crackers charged at me. I lifted the shovel in front of me and swung, but Crackers ducked and swung his own weapon. He slashed at my stomach and managed to make a thin slice in my shirt. I backed into a crate; a corner slid between two vertebrae and agony swept up and down my body.

Then Crackers was on top of me, aiming the knife at my heart. My hands held his wrists, tried to push him away, but my entire body had turned into sand in an hourglass. Crackers looked down at me with a wicked smile. His teeth were chattering with delight as he strained to move the knife closer and closer.

I thought, Why fight?


There’s nothing for me here.


I’m going to see my brother.


A shriek. The weight lifted off of me. More screams that were quickly muffled under the sound of moist chewing.

I stared up at the ceiling for a long while before easing myself up and bracing myself against the crate that apparently hit the core funny bone that connected to every nerve in my body. To my right, Samson was out of his cage. He feasted upon Crackers’ torso. The costume was torn away, the skin of his belly flapping over it like drawn red velvet curtains. The clown’s head lay slack in an awkward fashion, the wicked smile now as vacant as his eyes were, wide and frozen.

Samson took one final mouthful of Crackers, then stared up at me. He blinked, and then moved back into his cage. The door was wide open, unlocked. Samson bent down and lapped up the steak with his tongue.

I shook uncontrollably as I tried to stand. The wobbles continued as I absentmindedly made my way for the door like I was never there.

The door opened before I was even halfway. Lucia stood on the front step. Her eyes went from me to the lion to the dead clown, and then back to me. She jogged over.  “Oh, God. Alex.” She put her hands on my shoulders. “Are you okay?”

“I hate clowns,” I said dryly.

She chuckled sympathetically, then sat me down on a crate. Only the sounds of our breathing and Samson taking the last bites of his meat dessert filled the car. Lucia looked over at Crackers’ body. She took a breath. “I gave him a note that said to be here.”

That was all she needed to say for me to understand what happened. “You…” I swallowed. “You left the door unlocked? You made his costumes smell like meat?”

She nodded. “He killed my baby.” She shook her head, started to say more, but the words got caught on something and stayed stuck in her throat. She looked down at her feet. “He killed my baby.”

Samson gave out a loud and sad yawn and fell back onto his side, eyes closed. Lucia went over to him. She put her hands on his stomach as it rose slowly. She looked back at me. “What were you doing here?”

I told her. I didn’t even hesitate. I told her about Derek. About my quest for revenge. About my dilemma. About how sorry I was. She remained in the cage for the whole tale, stone-faced, her hand on Samson, petting him softly. Finally, once I was finished, she stood up. “Come over here,” she said.

Part of me thought she was going to lock me in the cage with Samson until he woke up and decided he was hungry again. But I thought better than that and stepped into the cage. Lucia stepped back and gave Samson and me some room. She nodded towards the lion.

I crouched down and put my hand on Samson’s neck. He felt like carpet, not too soft, not too coarse. He was warm like sleep under flannel sheets. I could smell the blood still fresh on his face, under his black nose. He was peaceful. And I owed him my life.

Just like that, all anger was gone. My need to avenge my brother evaporated into the air. The past two years seemed to stretch further and further away in my memory like a rubber band pulled to its limit, only this was not going to snap back and leave a thick welt. Derek was gone, and I would miss him forever, but his death no longer drove my every breath. I could now think of it all with a melancholy fondness, and that hole seemed to fill itself up again.

“I understand,” Lucia said behind me. “Better than most.”

I took my hand from the lion and stood. Lucia and I looked at each other for a long time. Then she wrapped her arms around me and we held each other tightly. This wasn’t romantic, nor was it sorrowful. It was more out of gratitude. Gratitude for coming into each other’s lives when everything seemed to be broken. It was just a mutual acknowledgement: you are my best friend, and that will never change, even if we never see each other again.

An hour later she was gone. I don’t know when or how she managed to slip away, but once Crackers’ body was discovered, Lucia Mendoza and her friend Samson were gone, along with a pickup truck, her trailer and several bill folds from Mr. Raleigh’s desk. I did my best to explain the situation to Mr. Raleigh and the police, trying to leave out the parts that suggested premeditation. Mr. Raleigh was furious, but he took the position of “the show must go on,” and it was soon off to the next town.

I decided to stay behind. Find something new. Take a page out of Lucia’s book.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again. But that’s not a problem for me. I know she’s okay. I like to picture the same thing every time I close my eyes: Lucia at the wheel and the open road in front of her like a dumb and obvious metaphor at the end of a film. Samson is in the bed of the truck, drenched in a tarp to camouflage the fact that there’s a frickin’ lion hitching a ride. Lucia doesn’t know where she’s going—not many places are going to take a wanted woman and her feral pet in with them—but she doesn’t care. She has the air, she has the earth, and she has her companion. One day she’ll find a new home for her and her lion, but all that matters right now is now. Forget what’s in front and forget what’s behind. Nowis what matters. And the realization brings that meek little smile to her beautiful face, and one to mine.