We Walked the Sky is the stunning, multigenerational story about two teenagers: Victoria, who joins the circus in 1965, and her granddaughter, Callie, who leaves the circus fifty years later. Perfect for fans of This is Us.
Callie stopped at the end of the buckling brick walk and frowned. “What is this place?”
“It’s a carriage house,” Quinn pronounced brightly.
“It’s a garage.”
“Oh, come on—it’s adorable. Look at that tile roof. And those arched windows! I think it’s charming.”
“I think it’s a garage.”
Quinn cocked her hip. “Guest suite?”
“Fine, Calliope.” Quinn sighed and yanked a jangling keychain from her jeans pocket. “It’s a miserable little garage apartment. But you know what else it is? It’s where we live now. The Sanctuary is home.”
Well, that was wrong. Dead wrong. Home was not this crumbling, peeling outbuilding on the grounds of an animal rescue facility in Lake St. Julian, Florida. Home was everywhere else—a train speeding through a twilight filled with promise, a field on the outskirts of some small town Callie had never heard of, a sprawling meadow in the European countryside, or an arena in any bustling American city. Home was motion, change, adventure.
Home was the circus.
Or at least it was, until Mom decided to destroy my life.
Callie eyed the second floor of the so-called charming carriage house, where two curved balconies stuck out from the façade like a pair of buckteeth. Their iron railings were rusted and broken, giving the impression of braces applied by a substandard orthodontist. “I’d say it’s a pretty fair gauge of how much a place sucks when the banisters commit suicide.”
“Mr. Marston’s already promised to have them repaired,” said Quinn, battling with the ancient lock. “In a few weeks those railings will be back to their original splendor and dripping with bougainvillea.” Jerking the door open, she leaned against it, holding it wide for Callie to enter.
“Just so you know, Mom, people run away to the circus. It’s, like, a thing. Nobody runs away from the circus.” Brushing past her mother, Callie climbed the stairs to the apartment, where several packing boxes, suitcases, and duffel bags lined the walls. CALLIE BEDROOM STUFF; SUMMER CLOTHES/TOASTER; QUINN MISC. OFFICE SUPPLIES.
Three days ago, the boxes had been loaded into a moving van and sent ahead from Providence, where Callie still had one show left to perform. Her final walk across the high wire—billed dramatically on posters and in online advertising as “Calliope’s Crescendo”—had dazzled the Rhode Island crowds. Callie had signed autographs for hours afterward, and the next morning she and her mother had said their goodbyes. Quinn’s were lengthy and emotional, but Callie’s hadn’t taken long at all. The farewells she’d received were cordial, of course—she was the star attraction of VanDrexel’s Family Circus, so naturally her fellow performers were disappointed to see her go. But it had occurred to her as she was accepting a perfunctory group hug from the Bertière triplets (who’d interrupted their trapeze rehearsal just to see her off) that although she’d spent years in the same schoolroom with these girls, she’d never really managed to learn which one was Bianca, which was Beatrice, and which was Brittany. She did vaguely recall some rumors about Brittany dating one of the Chinese acrobats—Liang, she thought his name was. Brittany always seemed to be talking about him, but Callie had a way of tuning things out. She was never overly interested in gossip, which was probably why people rarely bothered to share it with her.
Returning her attention to the boxes, Callie felt a surge of panic. “This can’t be all of it. Where are my costumes? Where’s the practice wire?”
“Your costumes are downstairs,” said Quinn, tearing into a carton marked BEDDING. “We’ve got use of this whole carriage-house-slash-servants’-quarters, so I figured there was no point cluttering up the closets with stuff you aren’t going to need.”
“And the wire?”
Quinn looked up from the box to her glowering daughter, hesitated, then tossed her head toward a bay window overlooking the back lawn.
Callie went to the window, wiped away a layer of grime, and looked out. There in the small shady patch that constituted the backyard was a three-foot-high tightrope, all set up and ready to go.
“I called ahead,” said Quinn, taking a quilt out of the box.
Callie stared down at the line and said nothing. She knew some expression of gratitude was in order, but the only sensation stronger than the ache to feel that tightrope beneath her feet was the anger she was harboring toward her mother. Quinn could have had three rings and a Big Top set up out there, and Callie still wouldn’t have given her the satisfaction of saying thank you.
And why should she? Callie was never supposed to leave. The plan was always for her mother to resign from VanDrexel’s Family Circus as soon as Callie turned fifteen and was old enough to travel under the guardianship of her grandmother. In fact, Quinn had been on the verge of leaving a little over a year ago, when the circus’s parent company made the dramatic decision to stop using most of its exotic animals in the show. This had left Quinn—the show’s animal specialist—essentially without a function to perform, so she’d promptly arranged a Skype interview with Brad Marston, the owner of the same rescue facility to which her beloved elephants and big cats would be retiring. It was a newly established preserve called the Sanctuary, whose philosophy and mission had been enthusiastically heralded by all the proper animal welfare federations and authorities. Knowing that many American circuses were on the verge of making similar changes to their performing animal policies, Marston had listened to Quinn’s qualifications and personal beliefs and offered her the executive director position on the spot. The job came with what he’d called “a full relocation package,” including transportation costs and moving expenses, as well as a rent-free home right on the Sanctuary grounds.
Quinn, of course, had accepted.
Then, a week later, out of absolutely nowhere and to Callie’s complete astonishment, Quinn had called her new boss back to say she’d changed her mind.
At the time, Callie couldn’t understand why. Though Quinn had been born and raised in VanDrexel’s Circus (indeed, she was a VanDrexel) running an animal sanctuary had always been her dream.
Callie hadn’t learned her mother’s real reason for staying until three weeks ago. And she’d learned it the hard way.
Spinning away from the window, Callie bolted back across the room.
“Where are you going?”
“To make sure my costumes aren’t being devoured by cockroaches,” Callie said, as she made her way down the stairs.
More boxes: TAX INFO/BANK RECORDS; WINTER COATS (DONATE); TUPPERWARE (MISSING LIDS). The one marked CALLIE’S COSTUMES was the largest by far, bulging at the sides.
Dragging the box to the center of the garage, she ripped off the clear packing tape, revealing the perfect plum-colored sheen of her first performance dress. A shaft of sunlight made gray by the dusty garage windows caught one of the five hundred Swarovski crystals that dotted the purple bodice. She’d been only seven when she first walked the wire for a crowd, and she’d begged for a purple dress with cascades of pink ruffles and a tutu that could only be described as an exercise in hyperbole.
Was I ever really this tiny? she wondered, holding the dress up to the meager light. Or this gauche? Apparently yes, and there was a matching purple parasol to prove it.
Laying the dress aside, Callie gingerly removed the next costume—a svelte unitard she’d worn the year she turned twelve. Because it had been designed during her Harry Potter fangirl phase, the fabric was a deep shade of scarlet, accented with shimmering gold stripes. It was in this costume that she’d learned to do a backward somersault while lying on the wire, and she smiled now, remembering how she’d secretly imagined that if she were to fall while executing it, it wouldn’t have been into the bouncy embrace of the safety net her grandmother insisted on, but into the waiting arms of a young Daniel Radcliffe.
Next in the pile was a mod little minidress her grandmother had designed for her to wear at a charity benefit performance. In it, she had delighted an audience of wealthy baby boomers by performing a dance called the Watusi on the wire. Her grandmother’s idea, which Callie had found both campy and fun. And while she might not have been world famous in the strictest Lady Gaga sense of the term, in the circus industry she was hailed as a swiftly rising star,
the darling of the tightrope.
Just as her grandmother, Victoria VanDrexel, had been when she was a girl.
Callie’s eyes were suddenly drawn to a battered carton in the farthest corner of the garage—not one of the crisp, pristine boxes
the moving company had supplied but an old, worn one, with dented corners and paper tape peeling upward at the ends. Written on the side of the box in faded block letters was the name victoria.
It was as if by thinking her grandmother’s name, Callie had somehow conjured her spirit. Why hadn’t her mother told her she had kept some of Gram’s belongings?
Maneuvering through the cardboard labyrinth, Callie lugged the unwieldy carton to a roomier spot. Her fingers caught one of the upturned corners of the tape, and when she tore it away, the sound filled the garage like the drumroll that had always preceded Victoria’s act. Callie opened the flaps, and a magnificently familiar scent assaulted her: sawdust and old suede and Chanel N°5.
She didn’t answer; she was engrossed in a new routine she was choreographing for opening night in Tulsa.
“Callie . . . come down.”
“I’m kind of busy, Mom.”
It didn’t occur to her how unusual it was for Quinn to interrupt her during a practice session. It was always just Callie and Gram in the tent at rehearsal, speaking the almost-secret language that only they and the wire understood.
“I have to talk to you, honey,” Quinn called up. “Please come down.”
“Can it wait? And where’s Gram? She was supposed to meet me here at seven. She never sleeps in.”
“Callie . . . please.”
Callie climbed down from the platform and presented herself, scowling, to her mother.
“Baby . . . I’m so sorry.”
Callie didn’t understand. The full truth was still hidden in the shiver of her mother’s voice, but the heaviness of the words as they fell from her tongue landed hard on Callie’s heart. “Sorry for what?”
Quinn lowered her eyes. She shook her head as a sob escaped her.
Callie was suddenly seized with terror. She couldn’t stand up; she couldn’t move forward. The world shrank to a vicious wire, rotating violently beneath her feet. She couldn’t find her balance. Balance no longer existed.
“Gram’s gone, baby. She died in her sleep. It was so peaceful. Graceful, almost, just the way she would have wanted it.”
And then more words from her mother, truths that felt like lies. “Cancer . . . last year . . . aggressive tumor . . . didn’t want you to know.”
But Callie couldn’t listen anymore. Her world had just changed forever, and no amount of explanation could reverse it. Without a word, she turned away from her mother, climbed back up the ladder, and disappeared into her routine.
So Quinn had delayed her departure and stayed on at VanDrexel’s to be with Gram while she was dying. Except no one had bothered to tell Callie that.
As if the shock and heartbreak of Victoria’s death hadn’t been enough, Quinn’s first order of business following the funeral was to call Brad Marston and ask if her job was still available.
It was. And this time, the relocation package would cover two plane tickets.
Wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, Callie stared down at her grandmother’s tightrope shoes, the perfect leather slippers with the suede soles. Her grandmother hadn’t worn them in ages, but the uniquely molded shape of them, the worn quality of the leather, had Callie imagining Victoria taking them off just moments before.
They’d been packed into the cardboard box on top of a vinyl-covered chest—an old-fashioned jewelry box, Callie thought. Stuffed in around the box were other keepsakes: framed photos, old circus programs—even a faded VanDrexel’s Family Circus T-shirt. Setting aside the shoes, but without removing the chest from the carton, she carefully lifted the lid.
A sort of shelf was nestled into it, and on it sat a black-and-white photograph of two pretty girls. Callie had never seen the photo before, but there was no doubt that the dark-haired one was Victoria. Judging by the other girl’s hairstyle, Callie guessed it was probably taken sometime in the 1960s, and Victoria and her friend appeared to be riding in the back of a pickup truck. Squinting, Callie saw that her grandmother was holding a paper bag with the word Woolworth’s emblazoned across it.
Putting aside the photo, Callie lifted the velvet tray, shocked to find that, instead of jewelry, the box was filled with several strange scraps of paper. Each was a different shape, color, texture; each had a phrase or sentence written on it by her grandmother. Some of the phrases were carefully inscribed in the lovely looping script Victoria used when signing autographs; others were written in her tidy, careful print, and still others seemed to have been dashed off in a hurry, their letters all sloppy and smudged.
If the balloons can do it, so can I.
A name is a kind of enchantment.
A thing that’s wild can be taught, but never tamed.
It was all too much for Callie—too close, too far away, too . . . over. With a shuddering breath, she closed the lid and left the garage.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” asked Quinn.
Callie gave a curt nod. Tamping down the ache in her chest, she forced herself to focus on her new living situation.
It was certainly spacious enough, spreading out across the width of three garage bays. It was also profoundly musty and dank; the oxygen felt vintage, like it was so old it had forgotten how to let itself be breathed. Cobwebs dripped from the empty curtain rods like amateur aerialists, and the floor was coated with dust. All the furniture was draped in white sheets, giving the impression of a gathering of ghosts.
Worst by far was the kitchenette with its amalgam of roaring twenties cabinetry, 1950s linoleum, and disco-era appliances.
Two rooms opened off the main living space. Callie trudged into the first, where a double bed with a wicker headboard was shoved haphazardly against the far wall. The mattress, she was relieved to see, was brand-new, still in its plastic wrapping. She supposed she had Marston to thank for that (though she wouldn’t). There was an antique dresser next to the closet, and the floor was fashioned of wide bamboo planks that would probably gleam after a good sweeping. A glass door with leaded panes opened onto one of the little balconies, which, precarious condition of its banister notwithstanding, Callie didn’t hate. Across the room, a large window looked out on a pair of swaying palms.
Maybe, if she tried, she could get used to this place.
But she had no intention of trying.
Why bother, since she had no intention of staying.
Because even if this were the cutest apartment on the planet, it would always be standing still. There would be no more falling asleep to a snowy mountain view outside her window, only to awaken to a balmy seaside sunrise.
Just keep moving forward. Callie’s grandmother had drilled that phrase into her head from the moment she’d first mounted the practice rope at age three. It wasn’t simply good advice, it was a rule, a commandment. Directional inertia—the means by which those who walked the wire stayed alive. Standing still for too long meant failure.
Which was why tucked into one of those suitcases in the other room was a letter addressed to Signore M. Ricci, owner and operator of Un Piccolo Circo Familiare in Perugia, Italy.
When she heard the soft squeak of her mother’s sneakers behind her, Callie didn’t turn around. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Quinn placing something on the dresser—a pewter urn engraved with a single V. As if by some unspoken agreement forged of anger and heartache, neither of them acknowledged it.
“Not a bad little room,” Quinn pronounced, joining her daughter at the window.
“Sure, if you like wicker,” Callie baited.
Quinn shot her daughter a look and began opening windows. “Anyway, it’s just temporary. Mr. Marston’s going to have the whole place remodeled for us. He’s already apologized a thousand times for not having it done already, but it’s not like I gave him much notice. He’s promised that come summer, our home will be state-of-the-art.”
Come summer, Callie thought, I’ll be gone.