James Jesse gave his parents the slip almost as soon as he woke up the morning Haly's Circus came to town. He'd picked a few pockets the night before and was intending to spend his takings at the card shop as soon as it opened; consequently, he was the first performer from Hamill's Circus to see the big trucks pass through downtown Metropolis on their way to a vacant field just east of the city.
Despite all the traveling he'd done, James was a seven year old boy with a seven year old boy's world view and concerns. He thought the long, flashy line of trucks with their painted sides was neat, but he didn't give them much more thought than that. He had no notion of competition, nor did he think the trucks had done a very good job of representing a circus. The performers on their advertisements looked happy and clean, and the audience was way too full.
When the store opened James bought some new trading cards and a few comic books, then he got some ice cream for breakfast from another shop across the street. He got a few funny looks from people, but not nearly as many as when they stopped in small towns. For whatever reason, people in the suburbs always expected James to have his mother with him.
James poked around the city a while longer, then figured he should get back to his circus on the western side of the city. His parents might think he'd tried to run away again, and besides that he was getting hungry and could do with a real meal.
He went to his family's vardo, hoping he could hide the comics and cards he'd purchased before his parents yelled at him for wasting money (never mind that the money wasn't theirs). Unfortunately, he got back in just as his papa was waking up.
Lucky for James, his papa had one of his headaches, and he barely noticed his son. James got his secret goods under his pillow and darted back out of the vardo as quickly as possible.
He was immediately grabbed by his mother, who had an iron grip on his wrist. She started dragging him towards the big top despite James' best effort to impede their progress by dragging his feet.
"And where have you been all morning?"
"I-I went for a walk! Mama, you're pulling my arm out!"
"Well then pick up your clumsy feet! We need to practice."
"But I'm hungry. Can I get lunch first?"
She gave him a shake for that. "If you wanted to eat before work then you shouldn't have wandered off! We have to work extra hard now Giovanni. Haly's is in town. Eddie and Lloyd saw them while they were out getting ciggs. I suppose it was bound to happen eventually, but I'd always hoped we could avoid each other."
Helen was blatantly talking more to herself than her young son, who couldn't understand the panic in her voice.
"But Mama, what's wrong with Haly's?"
Helen stopped walking and crouched down so that she was at eye level with James. "Haly's is another circus, Giovanni. CC Haly runs his show very differently from the way Mr. Hamill runs ours, and everyone is afraid that all the customers will want to see them instead of us."
"Oh. Well I don't think that will happen Mama. I saw the trucks for Haly's this morning, and they don't even know what a circus is supposed to look like!" James shared all his observations from earlier with his mother, and for some reason she boxed his ears.
He decided to keep his mouth shut after that.
The next couple of days were horrendous for poor James. It wasn't just his parents who were worried about competition; every act at Hamill's had its analogue at Haly's. For Mal the Magnificent elephant trainer, Haly's had a small-scale zoo run by a feisty girl who could have been a fashion model. Mr. Hamill was proudly billing the latest addition to their freak show, a glass eater, and Haly's had an Oddities and Curiosities exhibition to rival PT Barnum in his heyday.
And then there was the difference in their ringmasters. Haly's was a well-dressed, stout little man with a booming voice, and they had Lloyd, a cantankerous old man who did have a strong voice when he wasn't coughing his lungs up.
The only thing, it turned out, that Hamill's had that Haly's didn't was a child star. Hamill had the Flying Jesses: Frank (Franco), Helen (Elena), and James (Giovanni). The Flying Graysons, though inarguably more talented than the Jesses, lacked a cute little boy doing death defying stunts.
If James had had his way though, the Flying Jesses wouldn't have the cute little boy either. He hated practicing and performing with his parents on the best of days (he got yelled at a lot, and his dad always dropped him), but with everyone nervous over Haly's, and sure that James was their only advantage, the pressure on him to do well increased to an intolerable level. If he so much as hinted that he needed a break his father slapped him.
By the third day of this, James was so scared of setting his parents off that he wet himself on the tightrope rather than ask to go to the bathroom.
James woke bright and early Friday morning. Hamill's was going to open Saturday afternoon, which meant that this was their last day of practice. This also meant another long day of beatings and exhaustion. James knew he had no chance of making it through if he didn't get up before his parents and find breakfast somewhere.
He got dressed and ran over to Lady Maera's vardo where, if he wasn't mistaken, he could smell potato pancakes on her griddle. James fixed a charming gap toothed smile on his face and knocked on her door.
Lady Maera appeared, curly orange hair hidden by a heavy plaid scarf and wearing a silk bathrobe over her flannel pajamas. "You again? Don't your parents ever feed you anymore?"
"You said last time that home cooked food is meant to be shared. I'm helping you by giving you someone to share it with. I'm just thoughtful like that."
With a pleased smirk, the fortune teller stepped aside so James could climb up into her home. Her reading table was already set for two, with a plastic protector under the setting clearly meant for James (he'd stained one of her best velvet spread cloths at their last dinner).
"I had been hoping that the next time I shared my home and cooking with a handsome Italian that he might be a bit taller."
"I'm doing my best," James pouted. "Mama says I'm sprouting like a weed. I'm gonna need a new costume soon."
Lady Maera ruffled his hair, but she was forgiven for her demeaning behavior by her next action, which was to heap a sizable portion of potato pancakes onto his plate. His opinion of Lady Maera increased further when she handed him a bottle of ketchup.
"Eat slowly Jamey. Little boy, you eat as though you've never seen food before." She let out a soft sigh. "Or as though you're not sure of seeing it again."
"It's very good," James choked out, spraying crumbs from his full mouth.
Lady Maera smiled at the compliment, but it didn't meet her eyes. After they finished their breakfast she made James a cup of cocoa. He drained half of it, then did her dishes and cleaned off her griddle while she started fixing her hair and makeup.
"It's so good to have a man in the vardo," she said, eyeing the cleaned kitchenette with approval.
"You can keep me if you want," James offered. Lady Maera laughed and ruffled his hair again, but he'd been offering in full sincerity. He liked the pretty fortune teller, and not just for her good cooking.
Of course, even Mal the Magnificently soused elephant trainer would have been better than Frank Jesse the short tempered.
James was finishing off his cocoa, Lady Maera joining him with a cup of tea, when they heard Helen screaming for her son.
Heaving a reluctant sigh, James thanked Lady Maera again for breakfast and then ran off to find his mother.
"Mama, I'm right he-ow!"
Helen greeted him with a slap to the cheek. "Where have you been? I've been worried sick!"
James rubbed his cheek, thinking that she had a funny way of showing it.
"Come on Giovanni, we need to get you cleaned up."
"For what?" James asked. He always got dirty when they practiced, so he didn't see much point in washing up until after it was over.
"Because we're going out and you're not fit to be seen in public. Stop dragging your feet!"
"But Mama, where are we going?"
James couldn't remember the last time his parents had taken him anywhere; if he wanted to leave the circus he typically had to escort himself. No fear of smacks or slaps could still his questions, and finally Helen gave him an irritable answer.
"We're going to see what the other circus is like, now shut your mouth before I change my mind and lock you in the vardo!"
James' face set in a scowl. His parents were taking him to see a circus? Well whoop-dee-doo! He'd only been to one of those practically every day of his life.
Then again, if they were at the other circus then they wouldn't be practicing…
James supposed seeing their rivals couldn't hurt.
"Will ya look at that tent?" Frank Jesse said in open mouthed wonder. Helen quite literally turned her nose up at it.
"It looks gaudy to me. What do they need with a colorful mess that big? James, stay with me!" She reached out with a quickness that matched his own, and yanked James back to her side by the arm.
"But Mama, they're giving away popcorn at that stand. I want to get some."
Frank laughed. "Don't be a fool Gio. Only idiots would give away a juicy plum like popcorn. You know how much the rubes spend on…" He stopped speaking upon catching sight of a cheerful looking clown in a flowered apron handing out boxes of free popcorn to children from a pushcart.
"Here you go little boy!" The clown greeted James in a silly voice and handed him a box overflowing with fluffy white and yellow kernels. James eagerly grabbed the box and popped a handful into his mouth.
"Mm! Mama, Papa, this tastes so much better than ours!"
Once the clown was out of sight, Frank snatched the box out of James' hands, sniffed it suspiciously, and then he and Helen each took a handful.
"I think they actually use butter Frank," Helen reported.
"Huh. Suckers don't know they can cut their costs with yellow food dye. Alright, let's go inside and get this over with." He tossed the box on the ground and stomped on it as he passed.
"Hey!" James shouted. "That was mine! The clown gave it to me!"
"Shut your pie hole and get over here," Frank growled.
Seething with injustice, James followed his parents into the big top.
For only the second time in his short life, James Jesse was having a good time at the circus (the other had been when his father had gotten so drunk he'd put his tights on over his arms instead of his legs and Lloyd had tried to pass him off as a clown).
Haly's Cirus was superior to Hamill's in every way possible. The performers seemed happy, and not in that fake way everyone was when they were "on" at Hamill's. James managed to get his hands on another popcorn, and he was able to fool a confused woman escorting a rather large birthday party of little boys into buying him a soda, so he sat back and enjoyed the show, neither hungry nor thirsty.
He couldn't believe how funny the clowns were. James had always thought clowns were supposed to be disgruntled and scary. In fact, Frank's favorite threat was to talk about sending James off to be a clown.
"Giovanni, pay attention," Helen hissed, elbowing him in the ribs.
"Huh?" James turned away from the clowns he'd been watching and followed his mother's gaze. The lights were dimming, gradually drawing everyone's attention to the top of the tent. "Oh wow."
A handsome man and a beautiful woman in matching costumes were standing on a little platform near the top of the tent. It was so high up that James had to tilt his head back to see, and his mouth hung open in wonder.
To him, it was a trick just to stand on that little piece of wood so far from the ground. But they had trapeze equipment set up!
The Jesses wanted James to be a trapeze artist, but no amount of beatings could get him to comply. He just wasn't brave enough to be that high up without even a tightrope under his feet, especially if Frank was the one to catch him.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," the ringmaster announced in a booming voice that startled James into spilling some of his popcorn. "Haly's Circus is proud to present those magnificent wonders, the artists of the air, the first family of the trapeze, the Flying Graysons!"
The audience erupted in applause (James was smacked upside the head when he tried to join in), and the picture perfect couple waved at the crowd with dazzling smiles on their gorgeous faces. Then they began their act.
James was spellbound. He'd never seen such graceful performers in all his life. He was completely caught up in their show, even before they dropped the safety net. As he watched them soar and flip, invigorated by each motion and always landing perfectly in the other's strong grip, he felt an ache in his chest. He couldn't explain it at first. After all, he was enjoying himself; the show was as astounding as the billing had promised and he had snacks (the company could have been better though).
Then the man made a particularly nice looking catch, his wife holding a position that made her look like a ballerina, like she was dancing on air as they swayed back to the platform, and James understood the ache as the deepest longing he'd ever felt. The Jesses would never be that. They weren't happy. He'd never trust his father enough to attempt anything half as daring, even with a net.
"Will you shut your mouth? You'd think you'd never seen an acrobat before instead of being one yourself," Helen sniffed.
"They're flashy, I'll give 'em that. But some family. There's just two of them," Frank grumbled. "First family my hairy Italian ass. We're the first family. We're the ones with the kid." He clapped James on the back and the boy dropped his soda.
"Even if he's clumsy, we got one and they don't," Frank said with grim determination, trying to convince himself his child was worth raising.
The Graysons sailed back onto their platform and the audience went nuts with cheers. James leaned as far forward as he could, getting out of his mother's reach so he could clap for them too, Helen grabbing for his hands all the while.
Mrs. Grayson blew a kiss in their general direction as she climbed down the ladder and James imagined that it was meant for him. He touched his cheek with a dreamy look on his face.
The ringmaster was waiting for them at the bottom. He handed the microphone to Mrs. Grayson, tipped his top hat, and then stepped aside.
Mrs. Jesse rolled her eyes, and muttered her opinion of a performer's wife addressing the audience.
"Thank you so much everyone! You are truly an amazing crowd, and a pleasure to perform for!"
The audience cheered again, and this time Frank pinned James to his seat with one beefy arm to keep him from applauding. He had to struggle out of his father's grip to hear what Mrs. Grayson had to say next.
"As you might have noticed, we call the Flying Graysons a family act. Three short years ago, we welcomed the first, but hopefully not the last, addition to our family. I hope you'll all give as wonderful a welcome to my son as you did to me and my husband John. This is his first performance guys, so let's make it memorable!"
"You've got to be fucking kidding me!" Frank's profanity was lost to all but their nearest neighbors as a clown led an adorable little toddler out to meet his parents. The audience positively melted with coos and "Aaaaws!"
Helen dropped her head into her hands. "We're finished! He doesn't even need to do anything! He's ten times cuter than James has ever been! Why did the Lord curse me with such an ugly child?"
"Hey!" James scowled, and decided he didn't like the stupid baby.
In truth, the toddler didn't look like he could do much. They set up a miniature version of his parents' platform for him, with a few swings, a balance beam, and a tightrope that was only two feet off the highly padded ground. Clearly, baby Grayson was a wuss.
Mrs. Grayson handed the microphone to her husband so she could place her son on the balance beam. James still caught her encouraging whisper, barely amplified by the speakers.
"Go ahead sweetheart."
The little boy took a few measured steps out on the balance beam, then faced the audience with a bashful smile and gave a shy wave. The adults in the crowd responded with immediate aaw-ing and more cooing, but the kids generally seemed to agree that a baby on a balance beam was boring.
Then the toddler finished the balance beam with cartwheels that just shouldn't have been physically possible given how top heavy he was. He did a hand stand and walked like that over to the swings.
James got another whap upside the head. "You never did that when you were his age!" Frank hissed.
Baby Grayson gave a pretty impressive routine with his miniature equipment, and when he was carried offstage by his proud parents he was all smiles. With the way the crowd cheered for him, it would be hard not to be.
James had never gotten cheers like that.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, let's hear it again for little Dickie Grayson! And that won't be the last you see of him!"
James burst into laughter. Finally he understood. The Graysons were more talented acrobats than the Jesses, and they must be better actors too, because it had really seemed like they loved their son.
But if that were true then they wouldn't have named him Dickie.
Clearly the Flying Graysons were more like the Flying Jesses than they let on. At least, that's what James told himself that night when he curled up with his blanket and pillow on the cold, hard floor of the vardo, smarting from the shiner Frank had given him.
A/N: Hope you like the story so far, and as usual, reviews will be greatly appreciated :)