They arrive at the circus on a cold October day.
At fourteen Annalise no longer finds joy in watching animals and clowns parade around acting the fool. The cold air pierces her threadbare jacket and she keeps a tight grip on Lily’s hand. The two-year-old’s large, innocent eyes dart this way and that, taking in the colors and sounds excitedly.
She wishes they would look back. Maybe they would turn around and say “keep up, Annalise,” or “here, let me take the baby.” But they are, as usual, too wrapped up in their own world. Her father, walking ahead with his broad chest puffed out, hardly aware of his family’s existence. Her mother, frail and simpering, clinging to him with almost pathetic adoration, whispering sweet words and throwing flirtatious glances though he barely gives her a second look. They won’t turn around, and that’s the norm.
Lily pulls her this way and that, babbling and pointing at everything that crosses their path. A juggler passes by on stilts. A boy shouts for people to come buy balloons from a bouquet larger than his entire body. A young woman in a colorful clown outfit dances by, trailed by a grinning little dog wearing a jester hat and four tiny red booties and a gaggle of children.
“Doggie! Doggie!” Lily exclaims, dragging Annalise insistently towards the clown girl. The dog runs toward them and stands up on its hind legs to be petted. The clown girl produces a red hoop and at her whistle the dog hops several times back and forth through it and is rewarded with a treat and cheers from the children. Looking down at its smiling face as a dozen adoring hands ruffled its fur, Annalise feels prickles of jealousy at the back of her mind and quickly pushes them away. Things cannot be so bad that she is envious of a dog.
Lily has lost interest in the dog and is now looking about with her wide eyes, suddenly realizing their parents are nowhere to be found. Annalise quickly casts her glance over the crowd and spots their heads bobbing in the distance. She picks up her sister and gives her a reassuring smile.
“Come on, they’re up there. Don’t worry, they won’t leave us behind.”
This is a lie she repeats often. Sometimes she can almost believe it herself. As she walks away, Lily in her arms, Annalise looks back at the little dog. For a moment their eyes meet and she finds herself wishing, genuinely wishing, that they could exchange places.
For as long as she can remember, Annalise has told her classmates and neighbors that the distant man who lives in her house is her stepfather. It somehow justifies the way he treats her, or rather doesn’t treat her. Most of the time he looks right through her as if she is merely a piece of furniture or a pebble on the road. Adding that word “step” somehow makes it OK, makes it seem alright that he disregards her presence unless he is drunk or high and needs somewhere to plant his fist.
The last kind words he spoke to her are a fuzzy memory. She was Lily’s age, perhaps even younger. She remembers him stroking her head with a strange, wanting look in his eyes and telling her, “I hope you’re as pretty as your mother when you grow up.”
Except she isn’t. Annalise is well-aware of her father’s interest in her fading as she grew up. Short, flat-footed, with stringy brown hair, she pales by far next to her beautiful mother, who even after years of gin and drug-induced blackouts retains her voluminous black hair, shapely legs, and porcelain skin. But her eyes are fading. Every time she wakes up from one of those stupors, Annalise could swear those dazed pupils dim a little more. Her mother is not unkind to her. After all, who would be unkind to something they cannot see?
She sees them.
Though they do not see her, she sees them. She sees the lipstick on her father’s collar, in shades her mother does not own. She sees the little orange bottles hidden in the bottom of her mother’s purse. She has spent many evenings cowered in the corner of their tiny, cluttered living room, with hands over her ears to block out the sounds of arguing, then screaming, then punches landing, then sloppy, raucous love-making.
She sees the way her father strokes her sister’s face. Lily, who at two years old is already a rare beauty who inherited their mother’s stunning hair and dark blue eyes. She sees that same wanting, hungry look in his eyes as he says, “you’re just pretty as your mother.”
One day she won’t be able to protect her. This is the thought that keeps her up at night. Her baby sister, whom she practically raised, the sweet, innocent, unspoiled sprout, the only light and purpose in her life, will one day be snuffed out by the toxic smoke they call their life. She spends long nights fearing this inevitability, and hating them — the deeply flawed man and the weak, selfish woman.
A brisk wind pierces her clothes and Annalise instinctively holds Lily closer. The little girl has fallen asleep on her shoulder and they’re standing beside a busy crossroad. Their parents are busy playing carnival games, laughing and sneaking sips from a flask her mother keeps in her purse, probably one of many. They have not bothered to glance at their children since arriving.
What are they even doing here? Annalise hoists Lily higher and looks around. Is this some charade to pretend like they’re a storybook family? She scans the tents, searching for a warm corner where they can wait out the day. The search is fruitless but something else catches her eye.
The little dog in the jester hat is sitting across the dirt path. At first she takes no notice of it, but as her eyes rake the area she realizes it hasn’t moved. Sitting like a lady at afternoon tea, little red booties tucked properly under it, the dog watches her. She looks away and looks back again. The dog is still there, watching intently.
She takes a step forward. The dog rises but does not run. She takes another step and the dog turns, then looks back at her, as if wanting her to follow. Then, slowly, it takes two steps in the opposite direction, away from her parents.
Her mother is leaning on her father, stroking his arm in a simpering manner. He doesn’t notice. He’s flirting with the cotton candy girl. Annalise takes off after the dog.
It leads her through a dark path behind the tents, winding this way and that. Still carrying her sister, Annalise moves slowly. Several times she loses sight of the dog, only to find it waiting for her at the next turn. At the outer edge of the fairground it finally disappears. Looking around, she sees she had left the bustling circus behind. Only one structure stands before her, dark and unattended. A chipped sign reads “House of Mirrors.”
Standing before the dilapidated building, Annalise suddenly feels foolish. The sun is setting and she had followed a dog all the way out here. For what? She turns and starts to head back.
Then the dog barks. Once. Twice.
She turns back. It’s standing at the entrance to the House of Mirrors.
It barks again. Once. Twice. As if it’s calling to her.
Then it turns and disappears inside.
Holding Lily tightly, she follows.
The inside is larger than she expected. The many reflections of herself on the walls look back eerily. Her arms are beginning to ache with her sister’s weight but she refuses to put Lily down. Several disorienting turns later, she arrives at the center, an octagonal room surrounded by mirrors. Even the ceiling and floor are covered with mirrors. Looking down gives her a bizarre sense of vertigo so she keeps her eyes forward. The dog is there, sitting quietly and staring at the mirrors on the wall.
“Hello?” she says, though she feels silly. The dog does not move. Gingerly she steps next to it. It’s looking at the mirrors intently. She follows its gaze.
A large man with a flat, frog-like face looks back from the mirror. Annalise lets out a startled cry and quickly looks around, but no one is there. She looks back at the mirror. He is balding and has an unpleasant scowl on his face. At his foot is the little dog.
Except it looks different. The dog in the mirror is thin, with dirty, matted fur. It’s shivering and limping. Annalise looks down at the little dog in the jester hat. Their fur is the same color and they have the same spots on their sides and the same cocked ears, but somehow they hardly look like the same dog.
“Is that you?” she asks, and half expects the dog to speak, but the dog only looks at her, and looks back at the mirror.
The scene had changed. The little dog in the mirror is now in a filthy house, rooting around for food scraps. The large man shouts at it, kicks it, and laughs as he throws a beer bottle at it. She cannot hear him but in her mind, he has her father’s voice.
Then she can hear him. She can hear his drunken rants booming in her head, like claps of thunder. Her arms tighten around Annalise. The unpleasant man’s face had become her father’s, and it is no longer the dog he’s yelling at — it’s her. She sees herself in the mirror, so small and weak, so useless and plain. His voice is growing louder. Now he’s not yelling at her. He’s lost interest in her. She is nothing but a pebble, a punching bag, and as soon as his rage subsides, he has no use for her.
The next thing she sees is her mother. She’s in the mirror now. Has she always been so thin, so frail? Her eyes are lost and she’s surrounded by a mountain of bottles. Pill bottles, beer bottles, vodka bottles. . . . She’s staring into space, splayed on an armchair, a trickle of drool seeping out of her smiling mouth. She’s happy in her stupor, happy and lost.
Her father is walking away now, and his footsteps boom in her ears, rattling her brain in her skull.
He’s going towards a closed door down the hall.
“No,” she hears someone whisper, and realizes it’s coming from her own mouth.
He stops at Lily’s door.
“No! Stop!” she hears herself scream, but her voice is so tiny and hoarse. The Annalise in the mirror is still cowering, crying helplessly. “Stop him! Get up and stop him!”
It’s all around her now. She’s in the house, watching herself, watching her passed out mother, watching her father outside Lily’s door. She tries to move but her legs are frozen in place.
“Stop him!” she hears herself scream. “Stop him! Not Lily! Stop him!”
Her mirror self does nothing. She’s been defeated, through and through. She cannot even raise her eyes. Desperate, Annalise rounds on her mother.
“Get up!” She shrieks. “Get up and stop him!”
The woman in the armchair raises her head slightly, her eyes empty and dazed.
“You don’t protect us! You never protect us!”
His hand is on the doorknob. Everything is so loud. His raspy breathing, her own heartbeat, the creak of the door. The world is filled with noise, noise, and more noise.
“Why won’t you protect her! If she was mine I would protect her!!”
Suddenly the the sound of the world is replaced by glass shattering.
She blinks. The wind is chilly and someone is shaking her.
She shakes her head. A man in a police uniform is looking at her with concern. Someone is shining a light in her eye.
“What . . .” She starts to speak. Her voice sounds strange. “What happened?”
“You’re in shock, ma’am,” he says, visibly concerned. “You and your family were driving from the circus. Another car lost control at an intersection and crashed into yours.” He pauses. “Your husband and older daughter died on the scene. I’m very sorry.”
“Husband?” She looks over his shoulder at the totaled car. “I don’t . . .”
“You and your younger daughter seem to be fine, thankfully. But we’re taking you to the hospital to get checked out.”
“I don’t understand,” she says softly. Her head feels swimmy, as if she’s just woken up. She reaches up to touch her brow and sees a hand that is not hers.
She looks down at a body that is not hers.
A body covered by a sheet is wheeled past. The arm dangling out of its edge is wearing her jacket.
“I . . .”
Lily is crying. And just like that the world snaps into focus. She quickly scans the scene and finds the little girl sitting in the back of an ambulance, being tended to by two paramedics. There is a bruise on her cheek, but she appears unharmed otherwise. Spotting her, Lily reaches out, big eyes filled with tears.
She rushes over and picks the baby up. Was she always so small? She looks at her hands again.
“Ma’am,” the policeman is saying. “We have grief counselors on standby at the hospital, if you wish to speak to them.”
She nods as the paramedics usher her to the back of the ambulance. Lily falls asleep on her chest on the ride, and as her holds her little sister — little daughter — tight, she allows herself a small, secret smile.
“It’s OK,” she whispers. “It’s all going to be OK. You’re mine and I will protect you.”
The little dog finds her way back through the fairgrounds.
“Dolly!” the clown girl exclaims, shedding her costume in the back of a caravan. “There you are! Where have you been, you naughty girl?”
The little dog grins as the circus packs up its wares, ready to move on with first light. In the distance, the sirens of an ambulance can be heard.