You want my confession?
My part in this? My secret?
I get obsessed with songs. I'll listen to one or two, usually by the same artist, over and over, on repeat. I live them for awhile -- sometimes days, sometimes weeks -- singing to myself, in my head as I fall asleep, tapping them when I pull coffee shots or mop the floor. Every weaving I make is as much of the song I'm on as it is of the smell that inspired it.
I couldn't choose to have synesthesia.
I don't choose what odors feel like.
But I can choose the soundtrack.
That's my secret. You're the first I've told. There's enough about my condition that confuses people; enough so they call it a condition to begin with. Enough that they feel sorry for me. I don't know if my song thing is a quirk or a compulsion. But it's easier to keep things to myself.
It doesn't mean I don't care about other people. I do. That's why prep for Homecoming started two weeks early. I wove paper flowers and felted garlands to decorate the coffee shop, David Bowie in the background. Tissue paper is the smell of the hot blueberries in pancakes, and wool felt is tannic tea. No one else would feel the smells, I knew, but they were welcoming and fit the shop, and these sentiments show through.
I believe that. I really do. And my classmates would spend lots of time in the shop; it's the only place big enough to hold everyone, for the dance and the dinner, and the town breakfast.
And, of course, when they needed a few moments away from family -- it would be big enough to hide in for awhile.
The Last End Coffee Cabaret and Tea House sits on original site of the very last big top. Over time, it was built up into the main house. Then, when our parents had us, it became the community center and the schoolhouse. Then, when we grew up and most of us moved away, our parents kept things alive building studios around it for glassblowing and chainsaw carvings, and the house became a place tourist could get a drink, a bite to eat, and in the summertime, a show: our bearded mayor doing her famous Cressida soliloquies, or Sunshine Beam swallowing swords -- shorter and straighter than the blades in her past, but still impressive by anyone's standards.
It'd been twenty years since everyone was under one roof. Half my classmates skipped the last reunion; ten year reunions are usually poorly attended, anyway; they're right when most people my age are at the pinnacle of adulting: closing on a first home, bundling up a first child, or spending late hours away from new home and new kid to move up the career ladder.
But twenty year reunions are an easy sale: everyone's accrued vacation days, tweens can sulk over their younger siblings, and our own parents were getting on.
Circus folk, even retired, reformed, and health-conscious, had three times the national average of osteoarthritis and muscular myopathies. Kurlee occasionally forgot a line, and Sunny spit a little more blood into her hankie. Hands were shaky and eyesight going, and the number of cat residents had exponentially grown.
I wanted the shop to look pretty. I wanted to impress everyone. I had something to prove about staying in Last End when they all moved away. I felt responsible and nervous, and started on decorations two weeks early. Everything was already cleaned and hung when my classmates started trickling in from across the country, with spouses and children and in the case of Love Hateblink, two ferrets whom she spoke of as her foster kids.
The flowers and garlands did look pretty, and everyone was impressed.
And, I did prove something: I am the daughter of the fortuneteller and there are no coincidences.
There are omens and there are signs. It's on me that I missed them the first time around. It's my fault I didn't see it until it was already too late, when the garlands mimicked everyone's drooping posture, when the flowers looked perfect for a funeral.
I can't keep things to myself. I know this now. It's been easier, but it hasn't been right. I can't choose to be just like everyone else. I can't control what they think of me.
But I can decide to pay attention.
Part I: We Passed Upon the Stair
Zan's first scream was at 5am.
I opened one eye, sure the mayor restarted her primal screaming therapy. Her kick lasted a good while and we got used to the Halloween soundtrack, regular as a rooster. But it was still dark, and Kurlee made a point of screaming only at the rising sun, and always across town, at the highest point.
These screams were close, between my house and the Beams', so Daisy and I were the first outside, Daisy's daughter, Honey, right behind us. We found Zan, on her knees in the mud, over something that looked like a lawn bag full of leaves and grass. It was cold enough to see her screams rise like smoke.
Daisy pulled Honey back inside. She was only 5, one of the youngest kids of the kids of my classmates -- much too young to see whatever might be screamed over.
Time was wrong and slow, and it felt like forever that it was then just me, and Zan, still screaming. I put my hand on her to stop her, and it worked. She let me help her up, and she turned into me, buried into my shoulder.
Zan smelled like melon body spray and something else, all sweet. The combination made my palms itch. I tried to ignore it; the itch was just in my head, but Zan was real and in my arms, my shoulder getting wet and cold beneath her face. I held her tighter. In a whole life of knowing her, I'd never touched her. No one had, except probably her mother, Jelly Clearglow, the trick rider, and maybe not even then very much.
It was hard to see anything, but I heard and felt people around us. Someone kneeled beside us, and then screamed themselves, one I knew well, the mayor. Someone shone their flashlight and Zan clutched into me deeper. The wet on my shoulder spread, and there were more flashlights. I saw pieces of townspeople: a mosaic of slippers and robes -- pink and fuzzy, plaid and sheepskin -- as they circled in closer. The lights converged. I rubbed my palms on Zan's back like I was comforting her, though it wouldn't help the itch.
The mayor kneeled over the lawn bag, which wasn't a lawn bag. It was too big, too rectangular. Kurlee rolled it closer, brushed away leaves and dry trigs. Scraps of leaves caught in her beard.
Last End edged in, a pool of light. Exhaled breaths, gasps, the smell of death, wet bark and vomit rising from the lawn bag, which wasn't a lawn bag. Kurlee uncovering, brushing off a black track suit, and I felt it now: no more itching, instead static electricity furry, covering me, covering Zan. It was a smell I knew, a feeling I'd had, but only once, 23 years earlier.
Another scream. Mine? Maybe. I was sure I was holding Zan up, but she broke from me and ran. Unsupported, I sank down next to the mayor. There were a few of us now, the yellow lights trembling as it became clear what we were looking at, that the what was a who, and it was a who we all loved very much.
There, in the mud, in a black tracksuit littered with mulch, lay Adam Armington.
There was not a lot of death in Last End. In 40 years, there'd been Edmund "Mind" Suzio, the circus ringleader and founder of the Electric Snowflake Suzio Psychedelic Family Circus that'd employed all our parents and whose last winter encampment became the town. Edmund died well, of old age, surrounded by our parents.
Then there was Lil, the Borneo Pygmy elephant, who died at almost the same age and as well as Suzio.
And when I was 15, my mother. But that was an accident.
Now, Adam. Tank.
The Peninsula police arrived with the sun, rising October orange.
No one knew what happened. No one could believe it. No one knew what to do. And no one wanted to go back to their homes. I grabbed my keyring and opened up the coffee shop, turned on the lights.
Then, Sunshine and I tugged on everyone's sleeves, individually. She never needed to be asked to help. We went up to everyone in Last End.
"Follow me," we told them, over and over. We pointed them to the shop. "Come inside."