I started with the treadmill, adjusting it to a setting that seemed frustratingly slow to ease myself in, before cranking it up several notches. The soles of my sneakers were pounding on the machine once I really got into it, my breathing coming in erratic bursts, eyes focused straight ahead. I’d never been one to run with music; I didn’t need it. The mere sound of my footsteps on a hard surface, along with Silver’s ruthless yelling, had always been enough.

            I’d hoped to lose myself, but after my introduction with Kim, it seemed even running couldn’t steer my mind away from one thing in particular: school. Since being brought up, the worry had been niggling in the back of my head, never staying still long enough to focus on something else. The mere thought of it sent an unpleasant nauseous sensation spreading throughout my body, yet my head always seemed to end up wandering back.

            Of course, circus life hasn’t left me entirely uneducated. Most days, I’d be sent to the quietest trailer of them all to spend several hours poring over textbooks. The other kids were forced to do the same, though most of their dedication started to waver by the time they hit fifteen or sixteen. I was the oldest of the lot who still kept up my relationship with studying, but it had become increasingly difficult to do so as the intensity of training had increased. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t escape the fact that my knowledge would be shaky compared to any other student my age.

            But I’d never imagined it would matter. Not until now.

            Several times I glanced noncommittally around the room, taking a mental note of those coming and going. The place seemed to be filling up as time wore on; when I’d arrived, I’d had free run of the treadmills, but people had began piling in on all sides. Maybe it wasn’t just my running that seemed to be using up the air in the vicinity.

            My muscles were already aching in protest, urging me to stop, but I couldn’t let myself. No pain, no gain; such mantra had been drilled into my head as early as I could remember. In training, we lived by it. Even as a kid, I’d been taught to constantly push myself further, only to stop when it became physically evident that I couldn’t continue.

            The bench press followed the treadmill, mostly because I could almost hear Silver’s voice in my head, taking me through the schedule that clearly no longer stood. Upper body had always been my main focus; spending all day coiling myself around a trapeze made it essential to possess substantial muscle. Even the most basic of moves, ones I’d learned while still an awestruck little girl, would be impossible without weeks of rigorous training. Years of it and, against others, I now stood exceptional.

            This became obvious soon afterward, when I began to feel the eyes of my neighbor wandering. I’d started off with an easy task: eighty pounds, to break myself in gently. The weight rose above my head with only mediocre effort on my part, which was probably why I was becoming something of a spectacle for the girl beside me.

            When I moved onto one hundred, completing a set of reps before shelving the weight, she seemed no longer able to contain her awe. “You’re really good at that,” she said.

            Perched on the end of her own machine, she’d abandoned her own workout in favor of watching my own in awe. She was very pretty, in an obvious way, even with her dip-dyed hair scraped back into a ponytail and beads of sweat forming on her forehead. Despite her hunched posture, I could tell she was skinny, though lacking too much serious muscle to be anywhere near a trapeze artist’s caliber.

            Her wide-eyed gaze had already sent a hot flush creeping up my neck: one that had little to do with the exercise. I slid out from underneath the weight, legs still straddling the bench, glancing over at her. “Oh,” I said eventually, “I’m okay, I guess.”

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