Horatio gripped the wooden handle of the knife in his hand, sweat beading on his forehead. With one deft movement, he thrust the blade toward Agador. The sharp point shot through the small man’s hair, just missing the top of his scalp by a fraction of a millimeter, and plunged into the wooden board behind him.
The crowd cheered.
With eyes shut, Horatio released a small sigh of relief and quickly threw the remainder of the small knives at Agador’s bound body. One, two, three, four… Each blade met the flimsy board with a satisfying THWACK!, and formed a neat frame around the captive who remained motionless and silent, careful not to breathe too heavily so as not to throw off the rhythm.
Horatio only opened his eyes when the announcer’s weighty voice boomed through the megaphone. “La-dies and gen-tlemen! The great — the amazing — the fantastic Horatio! — the most daring knife thrower in all the world!” The audience blurred, all the faces blending with the lights into one mass of color and static. To the side of the stage, Agador was untied, and with a flourish, he bounded forward, arms raised triumphantly to the air as indication that he had escaped unscathed. The audience erupted into applause and whoops of laughter. Horatio gave one modest bow and retreated from the stage.
Back in the comfort of his small room, he poured a glass of bourbon, settled into his armchair, and smoothed his inky mustache. The din outside had begun to fade into the black as spectators stumbled home, eyes wide and sparkling with the magic of the night, fists clutching leftover bags of popcorn and fairy floss. As the crowds faded and the cicadas hummed in the trees, Horatio pulled out a small, metal frame from the desk drawer. With his eyes closed, he ran his fingers over the cool filigree that surrounded her face.
He didn’t want to look at her lips curled into that sweet smile, because he could feel her eyes burn through him. It had been two months since she left, the wheels of the wagon car rolling in rhythm as he sharpened each knife over and over until the night and the road fell quiet. He didn’t blame her for leaving. After all, he was cursed.
He took another drink, relishing the smooth burn of the liquid. He looked down at Helena’s photograph — always smiling that smile at him. He ran his finger around the top of the glass, slowly, carefully. In his head he counted one, two, three — His finger stalled on a rough patch, a slightly raised bubble on the rim of the glass. He lifted his finger and began again. One, two, three, four, each swoop making its way around the circle without hesitation.
Helena would be safe tonight. He took one last look at her face, placed the frame in the desk and closed the drawer. He closed the drawer five more times and downed the rest of his drink.
What would Father think of me? he wondered, staring into the mirror. He was handsome, although there was a sadness that could be mistaken for exhaustion in his eyes. The droop in his demeanor made the other performers stop him on the way to the show. You should get some rest, Old Chap! and they would slap him on the back, and he would feel nothing. Nothing.
The freak show had joined the act in April. It was generally considered an embarrassment, but a necessary one. The audiences wanted to see the strange, and they would pay much needed money to do so. Aren’t we all freaks anyway? Horatio wondered, rotating the knife in his hand. One, two – one, two three – one, two, three, four…
Helena had arrived with the carts and wagons of the deformed and disabled – the Tattooed Woman. Horatio couldn’t help but stare when she stepped into the tent, her body scantily covered to showcase all the colors of her skin. “Good evening, Sir,” she had said quietly as she passed him and smiled.
Weeks later, they would find themselves tangled for another night on the ornately decorated rug in Horatio’s room. She, playfully feeding him round, purple grapes plucked one by one from the bunch; he, tracing the panthers and stars and birds on her back with the tip of his finger around and around again.
“You’ve never told me how you joined the show,” she cooed. “What made you come here?”
Desperation, Horatio wanted to say, but Helena plopped a wine-colored grape into his mouth before he could. He chewed, juices filling his senses.
“It was my father’s business.”
Horatio’s father had been a good man, and the only person in the world on which Horatio could rely after the death of his mother. Horatio wished he had known her, that he could have had some of that bond he had seen between mothers and sons. She lived only two days after Horatio’s birth, a fact he often blamed himself for as a boy, as if the sheer act of his existing had been too much for her to bear.
George had been the animal trainer for the show, and Horatio would watch with stars in his eyes as the giraffes would dance in a circle at his father’s command. Occasionally, he would let his son sit on an overturned bucket while he went over training exercises. On his fifth birthday, Horatio had been presented with a ball.
Hold it very carefully until I say when, George had instructed, and Horatio nodded his head. Moments later, when given the ok, Horatio tossed the ball into the air, and it was caught perfectly on the snout of Marmalade, the show’s prize seal.
Life at the show was magic when Horatio was five, and when he was fifteen, everything crashed in. The animal act was late. The pachyderms and primates should have been marching in to center stage, but there was a lull, the jangling music playing on nervous loop.
Go find your father! the announcer had growled, and when Horatio went back to his room he found his father lifeless, drooped over the dressing table.
“I inherited it from him when he died,” Horatio finished, and Helena’s eyes mimicked the sadness that she expected to find in Horatio’s.
At fifteen, with the loss of both of his parents, Horatio had begun to feel that there was something in his nature that brought bad luck and death. This was too much for a young boy to handle, and he let superstition take over, bargaining with death – with the devil – to get through each day.
After the funeral, he worried that the animals in the show might die. He worried that he might die. He had visions of the whole tent in flames, all his fault, so he counteracted. He placed his drinking glass on the furthest left corner from the bed every night. He only pulled the shades exactly halfway. He locked the door three times and then rose from bed to check if it was locked, readjusted the drinking glass, and redid the curtain. These rituals, if done perfectly, would keep destruction at bay.
He spoke to no one, kept to himself, and it was only when Agador, the show’s smallest man, walked in on Horatio in the woods one night that things changed. Agador had heard a noise, and when he crept to see what it was, he found Horatio crying and wiping his eyes on his shirt sleeve in a clearing. With rage and pain, he was throwing a set of small blades blindly at a standing tree. One, two, three, each one hitting the same mark.
Say? Agador had carefully interrupted. …think you could do that again?
And he could. Every time, Horatio balanced the weight of the blade, throwing at just the precise angle, and always hit the target. Shortly thereafter, he became one of the shining acts of the show, and he found himself exhausted every time.
He realized he had been tracing the same round shape on Helena’s back for a while. “That tickles!” He stopped, but when she left to return to her own room that night, Horatio locked the door twelve times. He smoothed her spot on the rug. He put the glass on the table and picked it up. Put it down. Eighteen more times. One, two, three…
He was beginning to care too much for Helena and knew this would not end well for her. Everyone he cared about ultimately died. The rituals increased every day he spent with her. He wanted to keep her perfect and safe, and he wore himself down. When the freak show announced its departure for the season, Horatio did not fight for her to stay.
She’s better far from me, he had thought, but as the wheels of her camp rolled away, he could not unlock his eyes from the sharpened blade.
He spent the following two months in a drunken blur, but the cold, golden fire wasn’t enough to keep him from readjusting the glass that contained it, all for Helena’s behalf. One night in August, as Horatio settled into his chair after just pouring himself a drink, he was interrupted by a quiet tap at the door. It was Agador.
“A telegram for you. Arrived a little late this evening.” He placed it on the table and walked away knowing Horatio wouldn’t talk to him. Horatio didn’t talk to anyone anymore.
He ripped the envelope open and paused when he unfolded it. Helena.
“I will be in town for the night. I would very much like to watch your show. –H”
Horatio sat still for a very long time. He slicked back his hair and stared into the mirror. Instinctively, he began to run his finger around the rim of the glass on the table but stopped himself short. He held the glass in place for quite some time and then, with a start, flung it against the wall where it shattered to shards.
When he stepped out into the ring that night, he tried to scan the audience — always a blur like the maniac whirring of a fan – but he thought he saw a curl of hair and a woman perched near the front row in a blue dress exposing rainbowed shoulders. Horatio was dizzy. The room curved. He could hear parts of the announcer’s spiel:
— death defying feats! — mere inches from — grisly demise — bound to the wooden plank —!
They were tying Agador to the board, an inch of spare wood peeking from behind his tiny frame. It would be time to begin as soon as the announcer cried –
— the fantastic Horatio!
He stepped to the mark and shut his eyes. Normally, he counted quietly under his breath and weighed the handle until it felt just right. One, two, three, one, two, three, one, one, two, one, two thr – THWACK!
Tonight he threw and missed the board entirely, the blade smacking a metal bar supporting the tent. The crowd was quiet. He threw again and grazed Agador’s pant leg, pinning him to the board.
The hell are you doing? he could hear Agador hiss. He threw again and struck the dirt at Agador’s feet. Get me down from here!
Horatio kept his eyes closed and continued to throw, pinging the blades off of beams and hitting them handle down on the inside of the ring. The audience shouted and scattered but Horatio threw to the repeated, whispered rhythm of:
I love you
I love you
I love you…
You know when you have a story but just can’t make yourself make words? That foul writer’s block coupled with a very busy past few days has made this story a little past due, and I apologize. I came up with this idea by accident while playing with a plot generator tool, not expecting to get much out of it. “Pick one topic from each of three columns.” I ended up being intrigued by “a knife thrower” “who wants his ex-girlfriend back” “but has obsessive compulsive disorder.” I also knew I wanted to write a love story this time, and there you go: Horatio and Helena. I hope you’re all rooting for them.