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Ma used to be a trapeze swinger until the day she fell and became a painter. It was Papa’s idea to bring the circus to the attic. A company of brushes and sponges, fat and skinny rolls of tin foil fooling around the paint rollers, and beads with no fear that slipped across the high wires stretched over a mountain of white canvases.
Papa said: “The show must go on,” and it did. In Ma’s circus it was the mice who tamed the lions. The acrobats juggled with stars and planets over a hundred gaping mouths and elephants rode unicycles in their pale tutus. Ma always had a story. Some nights the sun would set in the west and Ma would fill the water guns with honey-brown for Anya to paint a desert around the lone cowboy or pirates would invade the canvas and they had to fight back with their palette knifes dipped in navy blue. Three years later, Todd was born and a wagon-train came to take Ma’s circus away.
With her fork, Anya poked the strawberries and buried them under the spinach leaves while Todd dipped his pudgy fingers into the balsamic vinegar. Todd crammed a cherry tomato into his mouth, and then stuck his tongue out at Anya. She glanced at Papa and Mary-Anne, and threw a lima bean across the table. It hit Todd’s forehead. As Todd reached into his bowl to throw something back, his elbow knocked his glass, and the water spilled into his lap.
Todd yelped. Mary-Anne rose to her feet. Anya sniggered and Papa scowled. Mary-Anne asked: “Anya, can you get the paper towels,” and lifted Todd from his chair.
“You go get them.”
“Anya,” said Papa. “Go get your mother—”
The fork clattered. Anya said: “She’s not my mother,” and stormed out of the living room. Before Papa could say a word, Mary-Anne gave his shoulder a little squeeze. Sighing, he put his hand over hers. “I know,” said Mary-Anne. “She’ll come around.”
Behind the wooden posts of the staircase, Anya drew her knees up to her chest. She fiddled with the hem of her floral skirt, watching Todd and her stepmother. His ginger curls bounced gently against his chubby cheeks as he shook his head. Todd said: “But Ma—” and jumped into Papa’s arms, burying his face into his shirt.
“Go on,” said Mary-Anne. “I’ll be up in a minute to tuck you in.” The fabric crumpled in Anya’s clenched fists at the sound of Todd’s footsteps hurrying up the stairs.
Anya went to the attic and closed the door behind her. She pulled the string and turned on the light from the bare bulb hanging above her head. Papa said: “Mary-Anne’s an artist too,” and suggested they share the attic. Over time the canvases were replaced with Mary-Anne’s photographs. Anya despised them. They were mostly pictures of Todd, of the house, of Mary-Anne and Papa, and of Anya’s hand.
An old white sheet was draped over the boxes in the corner where Ma’s trinkets were neatly tucked away. Flecks of dust shook free as she pulled it off. Anya sat in front of a small canvas propped against the stack of boxes. Ma had never finished painting the grand carousel. The sky was an explosion of fireworks, the man dressed in red and gold beside the carousel waved with a bright smile, but the children’s faces were blank and the balloons slipping from their hands were white. A tear drop fell from her chin and landed on the canvas. Silently, Anya closed her eyes and made a wish as the tear drop slipped into the man’s hand.
In the bathroom, Todd stood on the step-stool in front of the mirror. He brushed his teeth up and down, right to left until a whirring sound caught his attention. It came from the bedroom. He hopped off and padded down the narrow hallway, peeking past the door frame into Anya’s room. The merry-go-round on the bedside table pitter-pattered. Bells jingled and horses whickered as it spun round and round. The tut-tootle tune accelerated with every step he took. Todd held the music box with both hands and brought it close to his face, watching the brass reins flop loose and clink against the back of the horses’ necks.
The sudden shrill of Anya’s voice made Todd flinch and drop the merry-go-round. One of the horses’ legs broke as it clanked against the hardwood floor.