The spotlight flared. A familiar collective gasp rippled through the room. The sensation of every eye settling upon Amorpho’s churning body warmed him like an ant under a magnifying glass.
The music started. Solid protrusions emerged from his flowing form, and he rose on two lengthening appendages as two more unfurled to the side for arms. The tissues of his body folded over each another, every inch alive. Flesh gave way to muscle, muscle sank and peeled apart to present bone, bone was swallowed again by rippling flesh. Features travelled along the currents of his body, surfacing, swimming, submerging again.
When Amorpho’s eyes breached the surface, he saw the audience frozen. Their wide, white stares burned into him. He saw, briefly, the darkness of open mouths. Shock. Horror. The open mouths were their honest first reactions. Then, embarrassment brought up their hands. Or maybe it was a protective gesture, a way to keep what they saw from entering their own bodies. Either way, the gesture had always bothered Amorpho. Here he moved onstage, utterly revealed, while these people couldn’t even share that small part of themselves.
He wanted nothing to do with them, anyway. Other people were inherently dishonest, their rigid, impenetrable bodies full of hidden agendas. They only showed what they wanted you to see. He told himself he was better off alone and most of the time he almost believed it.
Movement by movement, Amorpho progressed through his routine,
counting the seconds until he could lie on his waterbed and retreat into the contents of his bookshelves.
Predictably, a few ticket buyers vomited into grease-stained, popcorn bags.
Out in the Backyard behind the performance hall, Amorpho saw the lights were on in his trailer. He must’ve forgotten to turn them off. Amorpho sped up, anxious to get inside. As he took the steps, he noticed a sheet of paper taped to his door. He could just make out the enormous “RM” scrawled at the bottom—the Ringmaster. As the authority of the operation, nothing happened without her knowledge and approval. She was the Cosmideluxe Circus and Sideshow.
Unable to read her note in the dark, Amorpho snatched it down with a tendril of skin and hurried the door handle. At least he’d made it back home without being ambushed by her. Amorpho hated surprises.
When Amorpho stepped inside, he staggered against the doorframe. A stranger sat at attention in the worn leather reading chair in front of his beloved bookshelf. The stranger’s hands rested in his lap, fingers spread, gently cupping his thighs. Thin blonde hair hung over his jutting cheeks, falling partway down his back. The stranger stared, motionless, with eyes the size of fists.
The stare was unrelenting. The whites of the stranger’s eyes were vast, bright, seemingly endless compared to any other Amorpho had endured. The irises were green. Silver-dollar-sized discs woven with strands of pine needle and clover, dotted by flecks of yellowing mid-autumn grass. A heavy, overwhelming green that bored into Amorpho, kneaded through his body’s convulsions until it mixed with his breath, his pulse, his thought. No words, just two black pupils pinning him in place.
“What are you doing here?”
He considered he might have been rude. “I mean, who are you?”
He’d crumpled the note as he reeled under those eyes. He smoothed and read it quickly:
Minor adjustment. Boug Signed new artist for sideshow gallery today, branding him “The Leering Freak.” Space limited; will bunk with you for time being. Assured very quiet (as in mute). Will hardly notice, doesn’t even need bed.
Sure you understand,
Amorpho sat and sunk and dripped onto the floor, wondering what he’d done to piss off the Ringmaster. For the past five years, he’d lived his devil’s bargain: a few minutes of exhibition as the nightly headliner in exchange for otherwise complete privacy. She knew about his sensitivity to the gaze of others and how much he cherished his solitude, and despite knowing, this was his sudden roommate? He thought about his daily routines, shot to hell. How would he ever get out from under those eyes?
Cicada song filled the trailer from the open door. Amorpho eased it shut, fighting the force of The Freak’s gaze.
“Well, I guess we’re roommates.” Then, considering, “Um, temporarily.” Considering again, “Tonight.”
The Leering Freak just watched, straight and still. His breathing was very slight, very precise. Inhale, two, three, four. Exhale, two, three, four.
“They call me Amorpho. Because…well,” he moved a hand-ish shape in front of himself. “The note says you’re going by ‘The Leering Freak?’”
Just green. And breathing.
Right, Amorpho thought. Very quiet. As in mute. He set the Ringmaster’s note down on the small table between them. “Guess I’ll let you settle in. Uh, over there.”
As he moved away, he felt pushed along by those eyes.
All that night he lay awake while the stare gusted around him.
One of the Ringmaster’s trusted squad of handlers arrived in the morning to escort The Freak to his position in the Gallery. Amorpho had frankly been surprised to see the man move of his own volition when he got up to follow. All of his movements shared that same deliberate quality of his breathing.
After The Freak left, Amorpho noticed something sitting on the table next to his reading chair. A piece of paper, the Ringmaster’s note, twisted and folded into a strange shape, vaguely human, with four fluid limbs projecting from an ovoid core. A sculpture. Of him. He first felt shock; he’d heard nothing in those long hours, not one crinkle or crease or tear. Then, as he leaned closer, he felt a twinge of admiration. The figurine’s approximation of his shape wasn’t crude or elementary, but actually rather precise. The limbs weren’t merely twisted into serpentine coils, but showed structure and movement, captured a bit of the fluctuation of his tissues in their varied textures. On the torso he could see tiny peaks and folds indicating some of his facial features. The attention to detail spoke of keen observation. And no wonder, he thought.
Regardless of this unexpected talent, The Freak couldn’t stay. Exhausted and hopelessly off-schedule, Amorpho had no choice but to track down the Ringmaster and beg his way out of the situation.
On his way to the dreaded Executive Office, he found Naomi—or Madame Dearlove, as she was known to the patrons—squaring off with one of the Ringmaster’s errand boys in front of her trailer. She’d come on as the operation’s fortuneteller, not because she possessed any talent for it, but because the Ringmaster insisted Naomi’s three icy-blue eyes made her a no-brainer for the gig.
The errand boy worked his jaw, trying to keep his patience. “Well? Was it cigar smoke I smelled coming from the Fortuneteller’s wagon yesterday, or not?”
Naomi rolled all of her eyes. “What if it was?”
“Been over it before, and the Ringmaster’s tired of repeating herself. She says it’s a masculine trait. It ruins the illusion of the role for the ticket buyers.”
“It’s a Naomi trait. Just like everything I do is a goddamn Naomi trait. Plus, the rubes don’t care. You know why?” Naomi pointed sharply to the third eye in the center of her forehead. “The eye is what sells it. Isn’t that what she keeps saying every time I talk about a transfer? If I gotta be Madame Dearlove, then Madame Dearlove’s going to enjoy a Montecristo every now and then, got it?”
The errand boy arched an eyebrow.
“Well, if you don’t, I foresee a split lip in your future.”
The errand boy marched off toward the Ringmaster’s office. There went any chance of catching the boss in a good mood.
“Morning, Stretch. You catch all that?”
Amorpho approximated a nod. Early on Naomi made it clear that she was to be an exception to Amorpho’s self-imposed solitude, and after a while he’d stopped resisting because he’d found that she hid nothing and made no apologies for it.
“The nerve, you know? These peons act like they don’t know the entire show depends on us, the premium freaks. We’re the draw. Without us, it’s just another dog-and-pony show full of contortionists and aerial silks.”
He supposed she was right, but he couldn’t be sure he felt empowered by his “premium” status.
“How are things on your end?”
Where to even begin? Amorpho made a shrug-ish gesture and sighed deep enough to deflate half his body.
“No kidding. I saw your new bunkmate earlier. He’s an eyeful, huh?” She laughed and gave his pseudo-shoulder a light punch. “Where you off to?”
“Nowhere now,” he said.
The icy-blue triangle of eyes brightened. “Here’s the best damn idea you’ve heard all morning: let’s check out the new guy’s act.”
To his own surprise, Amorpho agreed.
Amorpho wore an old pair of oil-splattered mechanic’s coveralls with the name “Frank” embroidered on a white oval patch for the rare occasions he ventured beyond the Backyard. He concentrated on keeping a solid, passable head together until they walked under the Sideshow Gallery’s “Employees Only” sign.
The Gallery was a separate building with its own admission fee. Ticket buyers followed its dim, winding corridors to ogle the bright displays on either side. The Ringmaster had an aesthetic vision for the Cosmideluxe, one that was all about display, production, and polish. Distance, in other words. Expensive barriers. The Gallery looked more like an upscale natural history museum, each artist placed in individual bays, given unique personas complete with contextual dioramas and ambient sound. The glass doors of each bay were covered with a semi-transparent vinyl overlay that allowed staff to observe, unnoticed, from the access corridors. Amorpho and Naomi stood behind one as they spied on The Freak.
He sat on an airbrushed resin tree stump in an ersatz swamp. He’d been dressed in an artisanally-stained white tank top and threadbare overalls. Speakers played the layered croak of bullfrogs and the occasional swish of water, the zigzagging high whine of mosquitos very subtle beneath them. There were even fog machines to pump in a lingering vapor that crept over the ground.
Many passers-by flinched upon locking eyes with The Freak. Amorpho understood that reaction. They gawked and pulled their friends and spouses and children closer. They pointed, snapped pictures of themselves in front of the glass, bulging out their own eyes. They twisted up their mouths like they had upset stomachs. They said “ew” and “ugh” and made meek little screams. Some said “pity” and “poor soul” and “what an awful life.”
Amorpho understood that as well.
He felt a dull ache—nowhere physical, but somewhere in his memory. Like old injuries in bad weather. He remembered those earliest days at the Cosmideluxe: how deep the audience’s reactions penetrated, how they upset the balance between being the performer and being the performance.
Naomi rested a hand against the stir of Amorpho’s body.
“Welcome aboard,” she whispered to the window.
On stage that evening, veins and arteries sprouted, swaying like sea grass as Amorpho moved to the melody. He’d designed the routine meticulously, every movement plotted to correspond to some nuance of the soundtrack. He hit his cues every time, his body perfectly attuned to his accompaniment.
Though he could masterfully control his shifting body, the measure of that control was limited. Asking one particular area to solidify required no great effort; he could listen to the distinct voices of his form and hold the harmonies of his face or arm for roughly an hour before exhaustion. However, complex whole-body solidifications were considerably more taxing and required intense concentration.
The music rushed toward its climax, and Amorpho prepared for the final pose, an elaborate configuration he called The Gaping Flower. Arpeggiated notes climbed to a crescendo. Amorpho pulled himself into a compact pyramid of flesh, then elongated in spiraling revolutions to form a slender stalk. The stalk then peeled away in four broad leaves of flesh, revealing Amorpho’s spine and upturned skull. His circulatory system crowned the display, emitting from his open jaw, arrayed as a flower with his beating heart at its center. The final sustained note of music faded, and the spotlight blinked out, leaving the crowd too sickened or stunned to applaud. In the brief moment before the curtain closed, he saw, again, the deep black holes of their mouths, their hands rising.
When Amorpho returned to the trailer after his act, The Freak was back in the chair. Green hit Amorpho just the same, despite his attempt to steel himself.
“How was the first day?”
He risked a direct glance. Light caught in two tear tracks running from the enormous reddened eyes, over the sharp cheeks, down along the jaw. It dawned on Amorpho that it may truly have been The Freak’s first day as a “performer.”
He was at a loss. Naomi had been his only point of social contact for years now, and she’d certainly never required any comforting. Enclosed together in the cramped space of the trailer, Amorpho could now practically feel the stinging sadness emanate from his unwanted guest. He had to do something. He thought back to the years before the Cosmideluxe, what his mother had done for him in such moments. He remembered steaming cups of herbal tea, ginger and chamomile, and he remembered her voice, giving him an unbroken string of stories to surrender to, something else to hold onto with his attention.
“Well, I usually enjoy some tea after my act. Helps wind down after having to see all of them…the crowd, I mean. Like some?”
No response, but he pulled two mugs from the cabinet and filled the kettle to twice the usual amount.
On his last morning at home, he’d left his mother’s body lovingly arranged on the dining room table, surrounded by white and yellow irises from the garden. Her favorites. Held her callused hand a final time while, in his other, he held the thick Cosmideluxe contract she’d signed on his behalf the day before. The last words she spoke: “They can take care of you. They understand you.”
Then he’d been ushered into a sleek black sedan, watched every bit of life as he knew it shrink through the rear window in a cloud of dust, while one of the Ringmaster’s errand boys sat next to him, assuring him the burial would be arranged and that he was now part of something grand, something special. “No one forgets what they’ve seen at the Cosmideluxe.” He’d stepped onstage the very same night, no act, just a boy and his body and a spotlight.
“I grew up on a farm,” Amorpho told The Freak. “Me and both my parents for a while, then just my mother and me. My name used to be Centavo. That’s what my parents called me, anyway. What do you like to be called?”
No answer except the whistle of the kettle.
“Right. So, Centavo, because my mother carried me in a little coin purse tied to her belt when I was first born. I was very early and very small. She always said this was the stress of the journey to the States. They’d been running for weeks. The first moment she allowed herself to relax, when the ship’s crew said ‘Bienvenidos a America,’ that’s when I decided to arrive. She told me my first cries sounded like a mewing kitten. She was able to go work only a week later, so she put me in this drawstring purse and took me out with her.”
He poured both cups and went to The Freak, leaning into the push of the green. He offered the cup, gently warning against its heat. The Freak stared and breathed his rhythm. Then, slowly, he lifted his hands and accepted the tea.
Amorpho had already said more to The Freak than he did to anyone in a given day. Yet the weight of those memories and the streaks drying on his guest’s face urged him to continue.
“She said they knew I was different, unique, but it only seemed fitting that my body was restless. She said ‘Centavo, you were conceived in the midst of a war, and in the months I carried you, nothing in our lives was stable—the country itself was changing shape week to week.’ When the violence became unavoidable, they fled, each night finding a different resting place until finally that rolling week at sea, lured by the promises of freedom. She said this is why I made perfect sense to them. She enjoyed telling these stories.”
Amorpho lifted his cup and aligned lips, tongue, esophagus, and stomach to take a long sip. He savored it, letting the chamomile slide over the surface of his tongue, light and floral, then welcoming the mild burn of the ginger that rose in its wake. He stared into the amber liquid as it settled against the ceramic.
“My favorite thing about our farm was the pond. I used to float for hours, my own private sea. I’d float in the center and, because of my body, the water moved around me. Ripples went looking for the edge of the pond and then came back to me and so on, until it became like a conversation. The water and me, give and take.”
The words made Amorpho conscious of his audience. “Sorry, I’m babbling, and you’re probably done in.” He began to move away. And then he felt The Freak’s hand rest on the arm he’d formed to hold his cup. The palm was hot from cradling the tea and the grip was gentle, but insistent. Amorpho turned and saw The Freak looking up at him, a plea in those enormous eyes.
Amorpho moved close again and spoke more of his time on the farm. The tea grew cold. Later, laying in the dark, he thought the green felt less like a push.
Maybe more of a current.
Last night’s monologue had invigorated Amorpho. He’d shared a different part of himself, something real, unchoreographed, and no harm done. All day he noticed that the Cosmideluxe possessed vivid new life. The backstage corridors were full of activity, another day’s work winding to a close. People rushed by Amorpho in all directions. Props had to be returned to storage, costumes needed mending or cleaning, audiovisual systems tweaked or maintained. Details and sensations bloomed around him that he’d either forgotten or never paid any mind to, but now stood out as potential topics to expound upon for The Freak. His small world seemed bigger.
Outside air was a relief when he stepped into the Backyard, despite the pervasive scent of deep-fried carnival foods. Though the midway still hummed with twilight activity on the far side of the Performance Hall, the Backyard was quiet, peppered by the hiss of cicadas and small swells of laughter from other artists who’d finished for the day and now relaxed outside their trailers. Roustabouts stomped past, conversing in too-loud voices, carting animal feed and rigging, hoisting rolled up vinyl banners over their shoulders. You could usually tell the newer hires, as they hadn’t yet learned to disguise their gawking, but there were some who never even made the attempt. They were quartered on the other side of the midway, a strategy Amorpho suspected was meant to minimize contact between them and the performers during off hours.
Almost home, Amorpho passed into a thick stream of cigar smoke. Naomi, leaning against her trailer. An orange glow signaled a deep draw from the cigar.
“Hey, Stretch,” she said. “Want a puff? Got stronger stuff if you’re inclined.”
“No. I mean, no thanks. Thank you,” he replied.
“Knew you’d say that. Grab a seat anyway; we should talk.” She kicked the trailer’s wooden steps, indicating his spot. He’d long ago given up on the possibility of ever winning an argument with Naomi, so he sank down next to her, hoping this at least wouldn’t take long.
Naomi looked over at Amorpho’s trailer and blew out a long stream of smoke. “Listen, how was he yesterday? I mean after his shift?”
Amorpho remembered the tear tracks. “I don’t think he’s used to the spotlight. At all.”
“Well, you’re right about that,” she said, grinding her cigar out against the trailer.
“What do you mean?”
She leaned over him and unlatched her door. He shrank to avoid contact. After fishing blindly by the doorframe for a moment, she wagged a manila folder at him, which he pinched between two tendrils.
“Your roommate’s personnel file.”
Amorpho darted eyes up and down the dirt lane, and he pulled the folder into a pocket of flesh to hide it. “Are you crazy? How did you even get this?”
“I can be very persuasive,” Naomi said, bouncing her hip. “You think I’m not gonna do homework on someone they bunk with you? I’ve got your back, Stretch.”
He shifted the folder nervously inside his skin. “What does it say?”
“See for yourself.”
Amorpho peeled open the folder and surveyed the documents inside.
The Freak’s file mentioned a house leaning on its foundation in a mostly-abandoned neighborhood on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. A back room with boarded windows, no furnishings, strewn with years of loose pages from the local gazette.
The Freak’s file contained a Cosmideluxe bill of sale, co-signed by both parents, an “X” for his name, that totaled less than the combined sticker price of the books on Amorpho’s shelves.
The Freak’s file held no medical history. Just his birth certificate, the “X” for his name, and his physical exam upon arrival. All clear. Cognitive tests and lab work normal. Re: the subject’s aphonic condition (pre-existing)—signs of tissue damage consistent with blunt-force trauma, irreversible.
Naomi sighed, and in a voice softer and gentler than Amorpho thought he’d ever heard her use before, she added, “I’ve been on the circuit my whole life. By choice. I’m here because I want to be, Stretch. But I know that’s not true for everyone.”
Her words stayed with him as he walked the rest of the way home. With each trailer he passed, he wondered about the people who were his neighbors, who’d remained strangers to him in many ways. What really brought them here? What choices had they made?
Yelena, the armless knife thrower, honing her blades on a leather strop tacked to her doorframe.
Sturm and Sigismund, the conjoined twin strongmen, earnestly involved in their game of backgammon because cards always ended in accusations of cheating.
Bernice the Dancing Bear, curled luxuriantly by a fire pit while her partner Reg sat with his back on her flank, playing soft improvisational jazz on a wooden flute.
The distance he felt from them all struck him. His treasured solitude felt more like isolation, and he turned his door handle more quickly than usual, stepping inside ready to share a little bit more of himself.
So the evenings went. Amorpho came home after his act to make tea and hold forth on his past, on life in the Cosmideluxe, on anything and everything that occurred to him. The words poured out with greater ease as, night by night, he learned to navigate in the gaze. The Freak never finished his tea but always accepted and held it with both hands. Amorpho grew certain he could see the hint of a smile on The Freak’s mouth as he listened. In fact, the more hours they spent tending this evening ritual, the more he felt capable of interpreting the person sitting across from him.
Sometimes Amorpho read aloud from his small library. He even went so far as to share his favorite book, a slim collection of H.G. Wells’ short fiction. He loved the book for a particular story, “Country of the Blind,” more for its setting than anything else. Just the title printed in bold letters at the top of the page had become like a promise of heaven to him. A place where eyes held no power, where being was the only thing.
He’d “borrowed” a ream of printer paper from one of the technicians’ offices in the Performance Hall and set it on the table beside the reading chair. Every morning when he woke up, a new intricate sculpture awaited him: animals, both real and imaginary, portraits of other folks around the Backyard, and sometimes even purely abstract forms. He looked forward to this daily moment of discovery. Often, they were more portraits of Amorpho, each recognizable but distinctly different from the others.
One night, Amorpho announced he wasn’t going to call The Freak by his stage name anymore. “We’re not on the clock and I don’t like the way it feels in my mouth,” he said. “You deserve better.”
The Freak’s eyebrows lifted ever so slightly. Amorpho translated this as relief and also, What will you call me, then?
He scanned the bookshelf, lined with miniature sculptures, searching the names printed on the spines for inspiration. On the bottom shelf, a slender coffee-table book with a powder blue spine caught his eye. Lucian Freud, Portraits. LF—perfect. “How does Lucian sound?”
The Freak’s restrained smile appeared.
One night, Amorpho spoke about his act. He explained how he thought of each set of tissues in his body as distinct voices—how, by imagining their movement in terms of harmonics, he’d learned to orchestrate the complex configurations that made the crowd gasp. Then he admitted how he felt about the crowd, the one-sided honesty in being exposed in front of them.
“Lucian, do you think…I was wondering if I could maybe…look into your mouth?”
The question hung between them.
Amorpho sent his heart deep into his middle, hoping its commotion wouldn’t be visible. Lucian stared and breathed his rhythm. Then, a sliver of dark appeared as his lips slowly parted. He opened his jaw. A slender filament of saliva joined his top and bottom teeth.
Amorpho couldn’t disguise the excited tremor running through him. He lowered himself in front of Lucian and extended an arm. He rested the palm of his hand against Lucian’s chin and peered into the open mouth through an eye on the tip of his thumb. Lucian’s breath blew hot against him in four-second intervals. Amorpho watched the tongue’s slow pulsation. He counted the teeth two, three, four times. He stared up at the ridges of the hard palate with reverence as though it was the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral.
He found wonder, not written on any of the glistening tissues he studied, but within himself. Warm, thrilling wonder that Lucian had opened himself wide without question. Every second that Amorpho knelt before Lucian, every nuance of the mouth that he noticed and committed to memory, spoke of a trust between them, of a willingness to be seen in full. Amorpho exulted in the privilege of that trust as it breathed in and out around him.
The tea grew cold.
On another evening, as Amorpho made his way home, he heard shouting and hoots of appreciation, then a roar of laughter. Lucian sat straight and steady on the trailer steps, surrounded by a group of roustabouts from the animal acts, judging by their scent. Lucian’s drenched clothes stuck to his thin frame. His hair fell in wet strings around his face, still dripping. The man who’d been yelling, a face Amorpho hadn’t seen before, swayed on his feet in front of Lucian, an empty bucket loose in his hand. A flask bulged from his back pocket.
“Told you to quit your staring, didn’t I?” The man turned to his pals with a sneer, “Didn’t I?”
The sight of Lucian surrounded by these men sent a feeling through Amorpho’s body like cold, prickly vines. A sharp, hard feeling.
He moved in front of Lucian. “Leave him alone!”
The workman stepped back and drank in Amorpho’s shape with wide, glassy eyes.
“What’re you gonna do, other’n make me seasick?”
Amorpho swung a wild fist. He’d never had to fight before, to make himself sharp and dangerous. The punch was so clumsy that even in his state the drunk was able to sidestep out of range. He kicked into Amorpho’s middle, sending him crashing into the side of the trailer. Shame registered before Amorpho felt any pain. The drunk snatched another bucket from one of his pals and heaved its water in a glistening arc at Lucian.
No sooner had it fallen with a wet crash than Amorpho saw Naomi charge through the onlookers and smash her fist into the side of the drunk’s face. She landed two more solid hits before he went sprawling into the dirt, moaning. She turned to the others, all backing away.
“Pick up your trash and get back to shoveling shit,” she said.
Two of the crew members hauled their dazed comrade to his feet and slung him over their shoulders. Amorpho crawled over to the steps where Lucian shivered in the evening air. He tested the doorknob. Lucian had locked himself out. Amorpho sent a probing piece of cartilage into the lock mechanism, felt his way past each tumbler until he heard the click.
“Come on, let’s get you dry,” he said.
Naomi trailed them, rubbing her knuckles. “That prick has to be new. He’ll be out on his ass come morning, bet you anyth–”
She stopped with her foot on the bottom step. Amorpho blocked the doorway, assembling a look that pled for privacy. Naomi nodded and turned away as Amorpho eased the door shut.
Lucian sat hunched in the reading chair. The rhythm of his breathing was off balance, and he didn’t seem able to help his trembling or the chatter of his teeth. Amorpho brought towels and dabbed at the soaked clothes. When he looked at the enormous eyes, he saw they were reddened, and Lucian’s usually smooth forehead was creased. Lucian clutched at Amorpho, opened his mouth and made wet clicking sounds in his throat. Amorpho understood, even without the touch, without the words. Hurt.
He placed a hand on Lucian’s neck. The fingers snaked down his back, flattening as they traveled. The other hand he placed over Lucian’s, shaping it into the same flattening extension. He slowly wove a cocoon, coiling around the terrain of Lucian’s shivering body. The coolness of the damp fabric soon warmed in the heat between their skins. The tremors came with less regularity, less insistence, until there was only breathing. Amorpho relaxed into the give and take, imagining himself floating in a sea of green.
The next morning, Amorpho didn’t leave his waterbed. He replayed the events of the previous night in his mind, each time feeling more helpless. Naomi had needed to step in and rescue the both of them. He remembered Lucian’s cold shivering skin, the eyes he’d grown to love, raw with pain. As he lay in his bed, Amorpho realized he’d never wanted anything more than what he wanted in this moment: to be able to protect Lucian. To never see him suffer that way again.
Lucian went to his place in the Gallery at the usual time, while Amorpho spread out, listening intently to himself. He sought each of the little voices swimming inside of him. He coaxed them into orchestration, building slowly, methodically. A heaviness formed. He thought of the big sounds: flesh, muscle, bone. The mass of his right hand protruded obediently, more solid than ever before, a fixed point in the midst of his motion. He felt it spread under his attention, cell by cell, a wrist emerging behind the hand.
There was a discernable border on his body, a demarcation between stasis and flux.
As the arm emerged and his orchestrations grew more complex, Amorpho guided them with one single thought: one image, one name, one feeling to push his body past its previous limitations. He thought of Lucian and built himself anew.
For a long time Amorpho had believed that if there was any place on earth for people like them to be safe, to work, to live something like a “normal” life, it had to be the Cosmideluxe. His mother had thought so too, and the Ringmaster banked on this notion. Here, they were stars, attractions. People wanted to see them. Only, that wasn’t quite it. Amorpho and The Freak and Naomi—all the artists at the Cosmideluxe—only existed as warped mirrors for crowds to look into and walk away from with a sense of relief that life on their own side of the glass was so pleasantly flat and predictable. Underneath the laughter and fun was fear, and fear had consequences.
Amorpho wouldn’t be helpless again. He’d be a shield, a barrier between the world and the person he loved.
Hours passed. The process accelerated as it unfolded, fed by his focus. Hand, wrist, arm, shoulder, ribs, hip. By the time the pounding on the door came in the late afternoon, only a subtle rippling under the skin remained.
“Hey Amorpho, open up!” a voice called. “The Ringmaster wants to know why you’re not on your mark. It’s three till curtain.”
He didn’t answer, only held the one thought.
The pounding continued. “Come on, open up.”
He was covered in sweat, sure this was the first of many novel sensations in store for him. This new body felt sluggish and tricky to steer, but he would adapt. He jerked to his feet and grabbed his coveralls, pitched against the dresser.
“I hear you banging around in there. What’s going on?”
Amorpho had to get to the Gallery to show Lucian what he’d done, how things had changed for them. When he pulled the door open, the Ringmaster’s errand boy looked up from the steps, confused.
“Who the hell are you…Frank?”
Amorpho said nothing and pushed past, not really knowing the answer anymore. Each step felt clumsy and dumb, too solid. And breathing, and seeing—even thinking, too—felt different now. Heavy, fixed in place. Centavo again, a name only to be used when loved by someone? He looked beyond the discomfort, toward his hopes. He imagined an indefinite stillness of Lucian’s hand in his own, imagined kicking down the Ringmaster’s door with this solid heel, tearing up their contracts with these short, clenched fingers. They’d go make their own place in the world. Somewhere outside of the spotlight, no ticket booth, no charge for admission. Maybe somewhere near the sea, Lucian and Centavo.
As he walked toward the Gallery, people gave him only cursory glances. Just a man walking past, a nameless stranger. He felt nothing when they did look, no pressure, no heat. He smiled, experiencing a slow, stiff tension under his cheeks.
Ticket buyers swarmed around Centavo, a solid stream of bodies brushing and jostling. No one cared who he was, only that he get out of their way or keep moving. His excitement grew as he drew closer. When he reached the door to the Employees Only section of the Gallery, he wrapped his hand around the handle and wrenched it open. He’d made it only a few steps into the corridor before a technician came shouting.
“Hey, you can’t be back here, pal.” The guy pointed to the exit. “Seriously, man, you gotta go. This area is off-limits to customers.”
Centavo pushed words through his rigid throat. “I know. I work here.”
The staff guy took a defiant posture. “Yeah? Never seen you.”
“Amorpho, from the Performance Hall?”
The guy’s eyebrows drew together skeptically.
“Come on, I’m the headliner here.”
“Look buddy, I don’t have time for this. I know who Amorpho is and you’re not walking soup. Get out.”
But Centavo needed to prove to Lucian he’d never have to worry again. He would protect them both. Last night would never happen again, and he couldn’t let Lucian think it could, not for another minute. He needed for Lucian to see and touch this new body and know exactly how things had changed. He needed to know it himself. The door to Lucian’s swamp sat just twenty feet away. Centavo took off down the hall.
Not fast enough, though. Staff guy had the back of Centavo’s coveralls almost immediately and used it to swing him against the wall. Even pain felt different to him now, lingering trickles of something bright and hot.
“Not today, pal.”
Centavo struggled against the grip, but the man pulled Centavo toward the exit with ease. He fought, leaned toward Lucian’s door, tried to make himself too heavy to be moved, but foot by foot he slid further away.
He yelled Lucian’s name.
Staff guy kicked the exit open and heaved Centavo out of the building. He landed on the pavement. The door clicked shut behind him. Something in that sound broke Centavo’s reserve of strength. The ticket buyers gathering around him melted into a blur of colors as his eyes filled with tears. Ashamed, he covered his face. The fresh scrapes and bruises were nothing, only hurt on the surface. But inside, in some remote place he couldn’t locate, rang the realization that still he couldn’t fight off the outside world, even after working this change in himself. All of his effort, every ounce of will he’d gathered, every bit of hope he’d called upon, amounted to nothing. Now he felt trapped inside the still body, smothered by the weight of failure.
The soft pressure of a hand resting on his arm startled him. He blinked away tears to find Lucian kneeling beside him. Centavo met with the green, and though he didn’t physically feel the gaze enveloping him, he still sensed some intangible force moving between them, pupil to pupil. It shifted the two of them into sharp focus, while the rest of the world faded into formless color.
Lucian recognized him. His forehead knotted as he brushed black hair from Centavo’s eyes. Lucian’s gaze swept the length of the new body. He took Centavo’s hand and squeezed.
“Last night, I wanted to make them sorry. I wanted to stop them, but I couldn’t. Seeing you like that, I wanted to never see that again. So I changed. I thought I should be harder, more forceful.” Tears surged. He choked them back. “But it’s still not enough. I don’t even know if I can go back.”
Lucian cradled Centavo’s head. He tensed his lips into a straight line. By now, after such devoted study, Centavo knew that understanding Lucian meant attention to nuance—the difference between looking at the paper sculptures from a distance or examining them up close. Centavo took in the face above him and knew what he was being told: It doesn’t matter if we hurt. What matters is that we are together, that we have each other. Lucian tightened his grip, almost imperceptibly. This. This is the only thing that matters.
As Centavo read Lucian’s face, the tangle of pain in his chest began to unravel. His body, the show, the entire solid sprawling world, all of it existed far below the place where the two of them touched. Shame and regret and fear still swirled inside him, but these were made smaller and subordinate under the warmth of Lucian’s palm.
Gazing up, Centavo sheltered and warmed and hoped in the green. Lucian helped him to his feet and led him through the crowd. They went back to their trailer and made tea. Amorpho may have softened himself once again and returned to the familiar body and stage and routine the next evening. He may have remained in the new body and learned how to be something else, someplace else. All of it is possible and none of it matters except that he did nothing alone.