People pour into the already-crowded tent, laughing and chattering and spilling drinks as they flood inside. The sign outside does little except get knocked over time and time again by the eager audience, and every time, the frazzled doorman picks it back up. The Lion Tamer.
The red-and-white stripes of the tent are frayed and stained with remnants of Coke, juice, and bits of food. Some unlucky soul will be cleaning the fabric tomorrow if the ringleader can be bothered.
Tonight, there’s a certain kind of energy in the audience, a buzzing quieted only by the anticipation of what is ahead. The lights dim and the people hush, a few soft murmurs and coughs threading through the silence. When the spotlight lands on the stage, the lion tamer comes out, a smile on her face. It’s not her first day on the job, but there’s still a wild fear in her eyes that most people pass off as adrenaline.
She never wanted to be a lion tamer, only wanted the gold coins that came along with it. But people have forgotten that now. To them, she is an act and will remain that way until her name shows up in the news.
Then she will be a tragedy, soon forgotten. It is difficult to decide which one is sadder. For now, though, she smiles through the fear and takes a deep bow, heavy breaths wracking her chest. She blinks a few times at the blinding light, then hastily hides two shaking hands in her mouth to call up a sharp whistle.
A roar. Just the hint of a massive paw tipped with silver claws that twinkle in the spotlight.
The lion arrives.
It is majestic, or so the members of the audience think. They laugh at its prancing, they smile at its flicking tail. They admire its claws unabashedly. Of course, they're not the ones on the stage.
The tamer is tossed a whip, and she cracks it a few times, letting the noise fill her with false bravado. Just another night, another bag of coins to weigh down her hands. Just another show.
She plasters on the smile again and cracks the whip at the lion. She knows its name--Jingle, horrifyingly cheerful, a name that belongs to sweet-tempered horses and small dogs. Not this beast.
“Come, Jingle,” she whispers. “Up.”
It pads toward the pedestal a few feet away. Too close. She inches back, the smile still on her face. She keeps her eyes away from the audience.
A slab of meat is handed to her from the side of the stage. She makes a careful toss into the lion’s mouth, full of gleaming teeth that shred the meat in seconds.
It satisfies the beast for now.
The show continues, a careful dance between Sky and the ever-gaping maw of the lion. The clapping of the audience vexes it, causing it to snap and snarl at them. They are oblivious. The lights shine upon its eyes, and it growls at the brightness. The stage manager is oblivious.
Another crack of the whip and the lion is off the pedestal. Ever so slowly making its way toward Sky, head tilted just so, tail snapping like an adder poised to strike.
She keeps smiling. It’s what she’s been taught to do.
When the beast is a few inches away from her, it stops. Turns. Smiles at the audience with its teeth on full display--a barbed mockery of the act that Skylar is pulling off, a terrible demonstration of what is to come.
The audience keeps clapping.
The smell of waffles rises through the house, and a woman sits at the table drinking a cup of coffee. A newspaper sits folded in her hands, and she snaps it, making it stand upright as she sips.
“A tragedy,” she sighs, closing the paper and leaving it on the table. “So young, too.”
The paper ends up in the garbage that day.