the last circus



way out west

It’s the end of the world and my daughter is worried that we’ll be late for the circus.

“Mom. These aren’t our seats. We’re in the wrong section? See, Section 116, not 216. We not supposed to be this far up.”

“Oh, good.”

She pulls on my hand and leads me back down the concrete steps. This place gives me vertigo. I’m afraid of heights. I could never be up there, dangling from the ceiling. There are going to be acrobats. They’ve been working on this for months.

It’s cold in the arena, and we all have dirty coats on. Nothing’s clean, everyone’s hungry, we’re all pale‐even the black people look pale‐and outside there are zombies. Leadership says it’s getting better. We’ll be able to go out soon. But I’m afraid of Dot getting skin cancer. I have nightmares about it. So stupid.

My main act is later in the show. What I love about it is the way everyone looks at me. I know, somewhere in the audience, that a child will ask its mother: “Is she naked?” And the mother will say, “No, darling, she’s wearing a body suit.” And it is true, but less true than the mother thinks. The child’s eyes will see me more clearly. Men? Will see me with the eyes of fantasy. Women? With the eyes of jealousy. Children? Will see me fly. I do not care. I will be seen.

“Stop sticking your tits out and get warmed up.”

But it is affectionate, the insult that only love can bring. He is only an acrobat. He will catch women who are thrown to him. Any woman. But me, I am the one he teases.

I flip through the screens. Leadership has forgotten some of the cameras face onto the parking lot. Yeah. I see ‘em. I want to think it’s like Dune, where the giant sandworms can hear your footsteps through the ground, so you gotta walk without rhythm if you don’t want them to find you. We been practicing for months, music at all hours, featuring some pretty heavy bass. But fuck, I don’t know, it could just be something random. There was a flood of zombies, and it will roll downhill until it hits us.

As far as the eye can see.

Fuck it. I got a board to run.

The lights go down and Dot shushes me. Nobody’s got a camera or a cell phone, Leadership won’t allow anybody to charge their batteries. I wish I could take a picture. Just one.

I wish there were dogs on roller skates. Or elephants.

The pulleys are silent today, is good. I swing out over the proscenium, I know it because of the marks on the track above me. Limp. I am arched backward, my heart open to the roof, to the sky. A cacophony echoes around me. Distractions. Nobody sees me‐perhaps a child will see me. Once I heard the shout, in Russia, of a grown man who saw me before he was meant to see me. I found out later he was a mental defective. He saw me. I should like to perform for an audience full of mental defectives one day. Their vision is so brutally honest. I would purr for days.

Lieukov dangles. I keep an eye on it all. This is what thrills me: everything fucking going on all at once. Somebody was talking about automating it the other day. Get rid of the musicians and just use precanned shit. Saving on bodies, I guess. Put all the lighting and sound cues on a computer. Run the pulleys off a grid.

Nah. That’s not theater, I told ’em. Ain’t nobody’s spirit going upward on the wings of full-scale karaoke. It takes everybody. A hundred hearts that don’t want to beat as one. Beating as one. I’m a cynical son of a bitch, but I know that much. Have to build the electricity of synchronicity.

I should write a song for that. Pop song. Top 100 on the radio. Hah.

The zombies come out and I grab the arms of the seat.

“Ladies and gentlemen. Please be aware that the zombies you see here are not deadly threats. They are actors. Please holster all weapons. Repeat. Please holster all weapons.”

Why am I here? Why are we doing this? I can’t breathe.

Dot puts her skinny little arm around my back. “It’s okay, Mom. It’s not real.”

I let the fabric roll around me. I fall. I fall a hundred feet‐no, they tell me it’s more like twenty feet, but it feels like a hundred. I love it every time.

Why here? Why not‐New York? Or Barcelona? I would have loved to be trapped in Barcelona, surrounded by hairy, lisping men. “You are so tall. What is your name?”

But I would only smile and say nothing.

The children shriek, a woman gasps. I am twisting, fighting the red fabric, making love to it, hoping, despairing, fighting, surrendering. Below me are acrobats in costumes. He will catch me. He always catches me.

I move the spots with Lieukov. Underneath, the zombie extras try to grab her. The ribbon dances away. Every jerk, every flip, every thrust is perfectly timed. They grab, she swings‐I mean, don’t get me wrong. She’s a fucking bitch. A whore. But goddamn, I get hard watching her up there. I think about plowing that ass every time.

And then she looks down at them, clutches her heart, and lets go. Gotta watch. For a second I see her pancaked on the stage. Every fucking time I see this.

Anton catches her, lucky prick.

Zombies swarm over her, stuff her in a zombie suit, and throw red ribbons over their shoulders. Stage is covered in blood. The cover of some old goth song is thumping through people’s chests and the synths are running hot.

Intermission. Lights up. The audience can’t move for a second. Then they get up to piss. Good thing the windows are blacked out with cement or blocked with steel panels.

I flip through the screens. Tyrell looks over at me from the sound board. I nod.

His bottom lip scrapes his teeth. But all I hear is the ‐ck.

“I want to see the stage, Mom.”

So we head down when everyone else goes up. Blessed with big bladders, both of us. Ever since the rest stop in Topeka. There are foldout chairs on the floor, and I see they have no cushions.

I wish there were clowns. I want to laugh.

Dot takes one step onto one of the sets of stairs up to the stage, and the ushers flock toward her. They were watching her. Seeing so many people coming toward her at once, I pull my knife, run in front of her, and crouch low and wide, just like Danny taught me. The ushers pull back. “It’s all right, ma’am. She just can’t go on stage like that.”

I’m shaking. We should just go.

In spring, they promise me, there will be flowers in the dressing rooms again. Now they are bare, I see them for what they are. Plain cement boxes, with bright, naked lights and mirrors. Racks of clothes. Makeup. When we traveled, I did not care. Dublin! Moscow! Detroit! No matter how shabby the room, how ruined the city, it was still romantic. But here, staying still like this. Ohhhh, I am dying.

I will sit over the audience instead of here, dangling my feet over the catwalk. Leadership will not like it.

But Leadership will not look up.

“We can’t just lock the door, man.”

“You want this placed packed with people? How many do you think we could fucking pack in here? A hundred? Some fucker would be bit, too. And then where would we be? Sardines in a can. Yum.”

I lock the door to the booth.

Tyrell looks like he wants to be noble. But fuck it, the noble people all got thinned out from the herd.

I close my eyes. No.

Open them. Dot and I climb onto the stage. That sound. Of hush. When the lights went low and the first shadow moved on the stage. The hush before everyone started shushing each other. But we are not in our seats, and the lights are still bright, and that sound should not have come yet. We both know it.

Then screaming.

Then people rushing down the stairs.

Thank God, thank God I will not die falling down the stairs like that. There is a woman above us. I see her feet, her legs. Her feet twist as she looks toward one of the doors to the lobby. I cannot see her face.

“Help me!” I gouge my fingers into Dot’s shoulder. I put away the knife and wave my other hand to get her attention.

Falling. They are pushing each other forward, they are falling down the stairs like dominoes. Some spread out into the seats, but where will they go?

Below me is a mother and a girl in a dirty purple jacket. The girl sees me, the mother sees me and screams for help. The red fabric is gone, but the pulley is bringing it back toward me.

The girl catches the fabric in her hand.

She is still looking up at me.

I put my fists together, then I spread them around my waist in a circle, and then I wave them in front of me to make a knot.

It is not falling that is hard. You have the fabric wound where you want it, and you hook a leg around the spin of it to stop. It is climbing that is hard. I climbed mountains, I climbed trees as a girl. This one, what does she have to climb? But the walls?

She is done. Her mother kisses her.

They are coming.

The mother looks away from her daughter. I start pulling, winding the fabric around my legs together, so I don’t cut off too much blood flow. If I faint she will fall.

Falling is easy, but you shouldn’t do it if you are not ready.

The kid’s halfway up. I don’t say a fucking word. Mags has the pulley board. Not my call.

They shove me off the stage, I fall, I roll toward the bottom of the stage and cover my head. I want to watch her but I can’t. All I can see is her falling. And being ripped to pieces. I could look straight at her and not see her being lifted to safety.

I know I couldn’t let them lift me.

I look for trap doors. Stages have trap doors. But they’re usually on top of the stage. Not at the bottom. We’re all so dirty I don’t think they can smell me.

“Mom! Mom!” The girl is screaming. Who wouldn’t scream for their mother at a time like this? I shouted for my mother, but of course she must be dead by now, for a long time. I haven’t shouted for her for a long time. Blood is everywhere in ribbons, just like in the show, but the colors are not the same and do not shimmer under the spotlight.

This is what the Leadership wanted. Did they know? I think they did. So I send up a prayer for them, to say thank you. Thank you, you let me perform one last time. If we could have done the whole show, there would have been hope, too. It was that kind of show.

People beating on the door. Tyrell wants to open it, but it’s the wrong kind of fucking sound. Ain’t nobody knocking and sobbing for fucking help. I ain’t cold. Not that cold. It’s just they’re fucking up here already.

“What are we going to do? We’re going to die up here, aren’t we? What are we going to do?”


“There’s food and water behind the servers,” I say. “Not much but some.”

Tyrell gives me a look, but fuck him.

“Ain’t for me.” I cough up phlegm and spit on the floor. Fuck civilization, man. “I just wanted to see her do her shit one last time.”

I untie the ribbon from her waist. It is tied tight, good girl, but my fingers are like steel bars. She’s done yelling for her mother. I know. There is a part of us that leaves an open hole that says, “What if she is still alive? What if some miracle occurred?” That is all we have, until we have something better. I wish I had something better to give her. Than a catwalk over chaos. I will not make her say it, I will not make her acknowledge her grief for as long as I live. I wipe my face with the fabric but my tears will not stop.

“You are so brave.”

Did I say it, or did she?

Lieukov looks into the booth, wiping her face with her ribbon, almost dropping it over the side of the catwalk, then leaving it on top of the grillwork instead.

The girl walks up there like she was born to it.

Lieukov takes her hand and starts walking towards us.

The only way into the booth now is to break a window.

Tyrell beats on the glass and shouts. “No! No! Go the other way!” There’s a gate between the zombies and the catwalk, but guess who didn’t fucking lock it.

I am walking toward the door when Mags tackles me.

“You ain’t going nowhere, sugar,” she says. I hear a gun cock behind my fucking head. Then she gets off me.

“You want to save your girlfriend, just keep running the show.”


“You heard me.”

I lift up my head, get on all fours. I could take her. I look at Tyrell. He’s got a cold motherfucking face now. And a gun.

I think that definitely Leadership knew about this.

They’re fighting in the booth. The girl says, “What are they doing?” She sees. I love that in all of this, she sees.

“It’s political,” I say. I sniff hard and wipe my hand on my face. “That means when one person tries to take power from someone else.”

“Should we help him?”

“I do not know. Sometimes power should be taken away from people. I do not know.”

The lights dim.

The show goes on. No performers. But the lights and the sound cues, they go on. No music. The musicians are gone. We sit, our legs dangling over the catwalk. The little girl drops a dirty tennis shoe on a zombie’s head. We laugh; it’s an old one and part of its face slides off. She drops her other shoe but it misses.

“What are those?” she asks. Pointing.

They look like spotlights but they never turn on.

“We should get out of here,” I say.

She nods. I can hear the zombies on the other side of the catwalk cage door; we are very lucky they are not so smart. Where will we go, the roof? I touch the fabric fondly as we walk. I cannot get it loose if I try, that is good for performances, but not for here, and now.

The girl touches my hand, then pulls it close to touch the handle of a knife. Of course.

She has pockets.

Lieukov wraps herself in red ribbon.

She looks like a fucking queen.

We look into the parking lot. Cars, trucks, all still. I can barely see at first. I’m not used to daylight. There’s a bracket on the side of the roof, sturdy, I cannot shake it, pulling with all my weigh.

“You see that truck?” I point to the trailer where the circus carries equipment while we are on tour.

She nods.

I hand her the knife and it disappears inside her dirty purple coat. She climbs down, hands wrapped in her dirty socks, sliding fast but not too fast. The noise in the building is so loud now, even out here it shakes my breath.

I curl up the fabric. I will fall with style.

“Doors locked,” Mags says.

“We’re a go.” Tyrell takes off his headset.

They look at me.


“Those extra spots you asked about,” Mags says.


“Turn ’em on, sweetie.”

Now she screams.

The glass in the window shatters, but the fabric protects me, it has always protected me. Of course I saved it.

For myself.

For anyone who wants to know what it was like, the circus.

We are traveling, we steal a car and I teach her how to drive. I am lying when I say I know how, but I have been in more cars than she has, I say with a smile. So she has to listen to me anyway. It is the same with guns. I tell her, you will just have to take my word for it.

For a long time, nothing.

And then the radio, on our fifth car, an orange Mustang with half a tank of gas, we hear:

‐tonight we can confirm the last of the zombie hoards is dead, drawn in by hundreds of noble people in -----, who were hiding in a local arena. They invited the entire hoard inside, using the loud music and bright lights of a circus‐

I am weeping. We have not spoken for two days. I am thinking of killing myself this morning.

“How was it supposed to end, the circus? What was the rest of it going to be like?”

It is sunset.

‐lights back on. The following security precautions remain in place‐

They are bright, so bright, ahead of us.

This morning I wished to die. But now, now I tell her.

The Last Circus
originally published in Black Chaos II: More Tales of the Zombie

DeAnna Knippling went to her first Cirque du Soleil show shortly before writing “The Last Circus”: she had to do something, since she couldn’t possibly stand up and yell “Zombie attack!” during the packed arena show, no matter how much she wanted to. She also used to hang out with a bunch of theater geeks and found she missed being up in the booth more than she realized. She lives in Colorado and has recently been published in Penumbra, Crossed Genres, and more. Her website is at