“Raw, engaging.” —Kirkus Reviews
The Greatest Showman meets This Is Us by way of Sarah Dessen in this heart-wrenching, hopeful contemporary novel about a multiracial teen who risks it all to follow her dreams by joining the circus, from the award-winning author of Starfish.
Harley Milano has dreamed of becoming a trapeze artist for as long as she can remember. With parents who run a famous circus in Las Vegas, she spends almost every night in the big top watching their lead aerialist perform, wishing with all her heart and soul that she would be up there herself one day.
After a huge fight with her parents, who continue to insist she go to school instead, Harley leaves home, betrays her family, and joins the rival traveling circus Maison du Mystère. There, she is thrust into a world that is both brutal and beautiful, where she learns the value of hard work, passion, and collaboration. At the same time, Harley must come to terms with the truth of her family and her past—and reckon with the sacrifices she made and the people she hurt in order to follow her dreams.
From award-winning author Akemi Dawn Bowman comes a luminous, unforgettable examination of love, loyalty, and the hard choices we must make to find where we truly belong.
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Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
Not many buildings can rival the bright lights and vibrant colors of the Strip at night, but the big top of Teatro della Notte certainly holds its own.
The black-and-gold-striped building is blanketed by an explosion of twinkling white lights. Built to look like a vintage carnival tent that practically bursts with nostalgia, the structure is impossible to miss—even against a backdrop of Las Vegas casino hotels.
A circus is an attraction, after all. And Teatro della Notte attracts.
I slip through the overflowing parking lot and keep my fists tight around the strap of my bag like I’m trying to contain my excitement. I can hear “The Minuet of Ghouls” playing from inside—the arpeggio of a violin, the trill of an oboe—and my heart beats a little faster when I realize how close I am to missing the final performance.
But there’s still time.
I’ve probably seen the show more often than anyone on the planet—I know the music, and the routines, and the truth behind the magic—but it hasn’t changed the way I feel.
I love the circus. I love the mystery, and the wonder, and the way every act transports my soul into another dimension. I love the way it makes me feel as if the world is in reverse and upside down all at once—like there’s starlight beneath my feet and the ocean above my head, and every impossible dream can come true with a single whisper.
Mom says I have a romantic view of the world, and maybe I do. But I don’t know how anybody could watch an acrobat dance across a tightrope or twist into the most perfect contortions or swing from the ceiling like a bird ready to fly and not find it utterly beautiful.
A pair of spotlights flash across the entrance like they’re pointing the way, but I hurry to the back of the building and make my way down a set of stairs. I knock on the door rapidly, bouncing on my heels because the tension inside me needs somewhere to go, and my second favorite doorman appears.
Second favorite because he once told my parents I was watching the show when I’d promised them I’d stay home to study. Even though he swore he hadn’t meant to get me in trouble, I haven’t entirely forgiven him for it yet.
“Har-leeey,” he says, dragging out the last syllable like a college dude-bro. Something else I’m not sure I can forgive him for.
“Hey, Billy,” I say with raised eyebrows. “Is it okay if I catch the last performance?”
“Of course.” He swings the door open so I can squeeze past him. He’s dressed in black from head to toe, which is a stark contrast to the glitter bombs and feathered ensembles of the performers. “Cutting it close tonight, huh?”
I let out an exasperated breath. “Mom sent me all the way to Summerlin to pick up Janie’s costume because her cat ate a bunch of the beads. She needs it fixed for tomorrow.” I peer up the nearby stairwell and point. “Is anyone in the skyrise?”
“It’s all yours,” Billy says with a chuckle, and suddenly I’m racing up the steps two at a time, very aware that the contortionist act is coming to a close.
I hurry across a metal walkway that circles around the height of the big top. We call it “the skyrise,” but it’s mostly used by the theater techs to adjust wires and lighting, and for the occasional photographer to get a good close-up photo of the aerial acts.
It’s also my favorite place to watch Tatya’s final performance, because when I’m this high, I don’t feel like a spectator. I feel like it could be me out there, sitting on the static trapeze, performing to the music my father composed—the extra layer of magic that breathes life into every act.
Traditionally, the trapeze has always been the closing act of the circus, and I couldn’t imagine anyone but Tatya closing out the show.
Except maybe me. One day.
An artist performing on a trapeze—the strength, and the movements, and the story, and the sparkle—it’s the very heart of the circus.
I want to be that heart.
I reach one of the many transparent windows in the darkest part of the hall and look down toward the center of the ring. Teatro della Notte boasts an incredible moving stage, surrounded by an impressive collection of dining tables circling around the room like a spiral. Each is decorated in black cloth and its own unique centerpiece representing the seasonal theme of the show; the tables flourish with guests, wineglasses, and confetti from the juggling act that appears during dessert.
Teatro della Notte combines a unique circus performance with a fine dining experience, and most of the guests turn up in suits and gowns. It’s the warmth of a vintage postcard combined with the decadence of 1920s glamour, with all the twists and turns of my parents’ imaginations.
I smile like I’m a child seeing the circus for the very first time.
Lights flicker all around the ceiling like an enchantment of stars, and I watch Tatya make her way to the center of the ring. She does a piqué turn and moves her arms through the air with the grace of a dancer.
I look at the faces in the crowd, lit up by the lights of the stage. They’re already enamored by her, and she hasn’t even started yet.
Tatya takes a seat on the static trapeze and flashes a wide smile toward the audience.
Dad’s beloved “Bird of the Night” begins to play from the live wind orchestra showcased at the back of the room. Each musician is dressed like they’re part of a haunted masquerade, and when the music erupts from their instruments, I picture my dad in his office, humming to himself and striking at the air like he’s conducting an orchestra of ghosts.
Even though sometimes it feels like he’s a ghost too.
Tatya grips the ropes as the trapeze lifts higher, and suddenly we’re at eye level, though she’d never be able to see me through the one-way glass. Besides, Tatya is never distracted when she performs. She’s too busy existing in another world.
A world I desperately wish I were a part of.
She pulls herself up, tucking both feet around the ropes and stretching her legs out in perfect form. With every shift of her body, she holds each pose, keeping in time with the music like it’s nothing more than a dance.
I know the moves—the monkey roll to sit, the mermaid on the bar, the lamppost, the drop to half angel. I know them because I rehearse every pose in my head while I count the days until the next time I can spend an afternoon at Teatro della Notte’s backstage gym. Usually there’s time when my parents are too busy counting numbers and going over expenses for a business they seem determined to suck the magic out of.
When they aren’t paying attention, I feel like I can be myself.
When I’m on the trapeze, I feel whole.
When I’m in the air with the ropes between my fingers, I feel like I’m everything I ever want to be in the world.
Tatya does a barrel roll over the bar, and I hear clapping when her body stills into a perfect horizontal split. The silver gems on her costume flicker like she’s covered in glass, and there are so many white feathers exploding from her skirt and braided hair that she really does look like an ethereal bird lost in a graveyard, ready to take flight.
It’s funny to think she had the same dream as me when she was my age—because look at her. She’s out there, living in the very same clouds a thousand people probably told her weren’t even real.
Tatya does a plank in the rope, and I can see the joy erupting from the crowd below.
This is what I want. It’s all I’ve ever wanted.
I only wish my parents could see what this means to me.
What it would mean to hold a dream in my palm, press it tight against my heart, and never let it go.
I find Tatya backstage when the show ends. She’s sitting at her dressing table, the mirror in front of her lined with big, round light bulbs and gorgeous white flowers. She spots me in the reflection and smiles, just as she removes the fake lashes from her left eye.
“Fancy meeting you here,” she says with a laugh.
I half skip toward her and fall into one of the empty chairs. “You were amazing. Like, I haven’t had chills like that since Zelda’s big reveal in Ocarina of Time.”
Tatya unpins the feathered crown from her hair and sets it on the table, patting at the stray red strands that come loose. “I hope you’ll still visit me even when you’re busy with classes. I’ll miss your weird little compliments too much if you don’t.”
I hide my grimace. She still thinks I’m going to college in a few weeks. She doesn’t know about my change of plan.
Not yet, anyway.
Tatya turns to me and purses her darkened lips. “How did you grow up so fast? What happened to the little kid that used to sit backstage reading comic books while trying to get Bobcat to teach her magic tricks?”
“Bobcat.” I place a hand over my chest. Mom hired a brother-duo of acrobats from Spain two years ago to replace Bob Catalotti when he retired. He was only thirty-one, but circus performers don’t always have a long shelf life. The wear and tear on a person’s muscles takes a toll, and more often than not, there’s someone younger and more talented waiting to take over. At least Bobcat got to make the decision for himself. “Do you still keep in touch with him?”
Tatya nods. “He opened a circus arts school for kids in Seattle. It’s doing really well.”
Even retirement sounds like a dream.
I sigh into the bunched-up yellow sleeve I have clutched in my fist. I’m always resting my head against my hands, but Popo—my grandmother on my mom’s side—once told me people break out when they touch their faces too much. Using my sleeve as a barrier feels like a decent compromise for my hard-to-break habit and Popo’s voice in my head. “I wish I’d trained as a kid. You’ve been working at this since you were six years old—I feel like I have so much catching up to do, and not enough time to do it.”
“There’s plenty of time. You’re only seventeen,” she offers, pulling out some of the makeup removal wipes from her drawer.
“Eighteen,” I correct, and I can’t hide my grin.
She smiles at me in the mirror, half of her face pinkish-white, and the other half still painted with a decorative silver-and-black mask. “I almost forgot—happy birthday!”
“Thanks,” I say, before twisting my fingers together awkwardly. This is my chance—the first move on the chessboard of my new life. A mini battle before facing off with the boss-level baddies that are my parents. “That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about. Do you remember when you said you could train me? If my parents said it was okay?”
She nods. “I do.”
“Well, is that offer still available?” There’s so much hope in my voice, I can hardly sit still.
Tatya’s bright blue eyes widen. “Wait, you’re not going to school? Delilah and Kenji are really going to let you take up an apprenticeship?”
I hold up a hand and rotate it in the air like I’m not entirely sure. “Maybe? I’m going to talk to them tonight. I just wanted to make sure you would still be okay with it.”
“Of course I am,” she says with a smile. Then she turns and waves a finger at me seriously. “But only if your parents say it’s okay. I can’t do anything to upset the bosses, got it?”
I nod too many times. “No, yeah, totally, of course.”
Tatya plucks one of the stray jeweled feathers from her table and sticks it in the messy topknot on my head. “Our little bird is all grown up and ready to fly.”
She goes back to removing the rest of her makeup, and I look at my reflection in the mirror. Next to Tatya, I look like a shadow. An unrealized dream.
I know my parents will never really understand, but I’m going to try to make them.
This place is home to me, and it always has been.
And if they didn’t want that to happen—if they really thought pushing me toward an education I don’t want was ever going to work—then maybe they shouldn’t have opened a freaking circus in Las Vegas.
I’m never going to change my mind, no matter how much it disappoints them. I don’t want to go to school—I want to train here, at Teatro della Notte, instead of going to university in a few weeks for a degree I have no interest in.
Mom and Dad keep telling me I need a “real education,” but university doesn’t feel real to me. This feels real. Being at the circus. Feeling like I’m my own person.
They’ll just have to understand.
I close my eyes and take a breath.
Everyone gets a birthday wish, right?