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Bird Meets Cage (Love’s Landscapes)
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He was made of big dreams, sunshine, and raw sense of being that I’d never known existed before him. His eyes were black as mud, his lips were the same color as the cotton candy I sold, and his smile could put a solar eclipse to shame.
He was everything I wasn’t. He was the first man I ever loved, and he left without me ever telling him that the way he looked at me broke my heart.
I’m older now, and even if that circus never comes through town again, I’ll still call him Stardust.
This story was written as a part of the M/M Romance Group’s “Love’s Landscapes” event. Group members were asked to write a story prompt inspired by a photo of their choice. Authors of the group selected a photo and prompt that spoke to them and wrote a short story.
This story may contain sexually explicit content and is intended for adult readers. It may contain content that is disagreeable or distressing to some readers. The M/M Romance Group strongly recommends that each reader review the General Information section before each story for story tags as well as for content warnings.
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Part One: Then
MOST OF THE stalls were run by circus folk.
Thanks to a nasty round of influenza, I’d been hired on as casual staff.
I wiped my hands, sticky from cotton candy I’d been trying to save from a sudden rain shower, on my apron.
The food and game stalls studding the fringes of the fairgrounds sat quietly, in lonely striped silence, awaiting the next wave of visitors. The peacock colors and vibrant life that had minutes ago rustled all around me, flirting with smiles and sparkling silver coins, had been lured on by a clown playing the flute. With oversized crimson shoes, he’d clomped over sun-browned grass, piped his merry tune, and the crowd had giggled and followed. To the crown of the circus. The tent.
The rest of the place was left drained of color. Empty. Just like our town would be, when the circus left.
“Damn you, you bunch of fat-heads,” came a hard voice followed by a throaty growl. “I was meant for piper today.”
A high-pitched honk sounded, and a clown stumbled out from behind a roasted nut stall, trying to attach a red rubber blob to his nose. Getting his nose on seemed the least of his worries. Rain had dribbled through his greasepaint; his eyes were ringed with black, and his smile looked like it was melting. Soil dusted his red polka-dot pants and blue vest like he’d been rolling in one of the fields.
He touched his head. “Great. They took my damn hat as well.”
He looked up; I glanced to my rescued cotton candy, and then to my trumpet case under the counter.
Begrudgingly, I looked up at the clown. He was younger than the others I’d seen passing through; he had all his hair, and his greasepaint didn’t get lodged in the cracked skin around his eyes. “Cotton candy?” I asked with a wan smile.
He snorted. “Cotton candy!” he said, as if that were the vilest filth in the world. And then he stopped, gave up fiddling with his nose, and plunked it on the stall ledge with a sigh. His pitch sweetened. “Actually that would help.”
He pinched a stick and procured a quarter from behind my ear. “There you go. So, kid” —he munched on the raspberry cloud— “did you see the bastard clown that stole my flute?”
“There was one leading the crowds to the show,” I said, looking over the tops of stalls to the tip of the red-and-gold-striped tent beyond.
“Yeah? What did he look like?”
I blinked. He was kidding, right? “Ah. Like you.”
He munched more of the cotton candy. “What, confident and swoon-worthy?” His melting smile quirked as his lips curved. “I’m kidding with you. Jesus, kid, you’ve gone white as me. Like I told you I want to go all the way with you or something. That’d be the joke of the day. Crack me right up.” He winked. “Now, what color were his shoes?”
I stammered out an answer, staring at the candied apples lined up on the adjacent counter. His words trumpeted in my head, but I didn’t have control over the sound, like I usually did when I played my instrument.
When I lifted my gaze again, readying myself for whatever else this clown might have to say, he was halfway toward the tent.
THE CLOWN HAD left his nose behind.
I ducked out of my apron, took the honking rubber nose, and dashed down the rows of stalls, searching for him.
The laughter of a five-hundred-plus crowd roared, and for a moment the gold and red stripes of the circus tent glowed brighter. I headed towards it, drawn by the sound, the color, the warmth it emanated.
Clipping around one side of the tent, I caught sight of my clown and followed after him, veering around tent pegs until his figure blinked out of sight. The tent door flapped in a breeze and I moved to it, sneaking closer and closer until water dripped from the slanted roof onto the back of my neck, sluicing a path under my cotton shirt. Through a narrow gap in the door, I peeked inside the tented arena.
There was so much vibrancy, it should have been difficult to know what to focus on first. I could have looked at the hundreds of cheering people curved around the ring, or the lively band as it played “The Circus Bee”. Perhaps I should have been drawn by my love of the trumpet, and honed my gaze on the glittering brass instruments. My clown might only have been yards away, a tiger lurking in the shadows even closer than that.
And I was drawn to the ring.
He danced on a cantering horse, arms stretched above his head, fingertips inches from a million glittering constellations suspended above the ring. His costume played from dark to light blue, shimmering in the light. He leaned back, as if he wanted to give his body to the stars and have them embrace him; then, in a sassy change of mind, he flipped backward, landing easily on the horse’s back.