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The Soulmate Sketch

Rainbows of silk snap and dance in the summer breeze, fixed to earth only by pegs pressed into the dusty ground. The gauzy fabric provides meagre shade but lends a gemstone hue to the sunbeams, turning them into slashes of beauty in the chaos. Shea McMurray’s fingers fly across the page. She works to the chorus of children laughing, their screams of excitement drenching the popcorn-scented air.

In her mind’s eye, a man waits. He is all flat-planned cheeks and thick lashes, and she need only reach out and capture him. A mouth bordering on too thin emerges from the charcoal, but it’s the type of mouth that can transform with a smile. The woman seated across from Shea cranes her neck, gasping as the image melts from Shea’s pencil onto the heavy stock paper.

“Is that truly him?” she breathes, leaning closer. “He’s so handsome.”

“I sense kindness as well,” says Shea. She’s found people crave a balm for their shallow words. Though most often a first impression comes from a face, it is somehow taboo to admit it.

Shea’s hand cramps, but she is nearly there, only a few shadows left below those sharp cheekbones and beneath the eyes. He’s there so clearly, sharper than anyone she’s drawn before.

“What is his name?” The woman asks. Shea sets down her pencil with a flourish, shoves back sweat-damp curls from her face, and flashes a grin. “That, I don’t know. You must find him and discover it for yourself.” She hands the sketch over, then interlaces her fingers, stretching the joints. The woman, older than Shea by a decade but still ripe with the hope of undiscovered love, smiles down at the treasure she clutches. She is Shea’s tenth customer today, and it is only 1 pm.

“What do I owe you?” she asks Shea, not looking up.

“A fiver,” Shea says. She should raise her prices, but she finds it hard to deny anyone a chance merely for finances’ sake. Everyone who slows and studies Shea as she works hides the same secret desire, like a diamond in their hearts. They are searching for love and for human connection. Shea may not give them exactly that, but she aids in granting hope, in restoring faith.

The woman finally tears her gaze from the paper bearing the image of her future. Rifling in her bag, she produces a handful of coins and lays them on Shea’s wobbly table. “A tip,” she says, “for your wonderful work.”

Shea thanks her, and once the yellow wisps of sundress disappear in the crowd, Shea grabs the money, shoving it into the box she keeps beneath her stool. Then she stretches with a groan.

“Busy one today,” says a voice like distant thunder. “How’re those fingers doing, missy?”

“Harris.” Shea grins at her hulking friend, silhouetted against the tent silks. Harris ducks his head to enter, his handsome grin a white slash across his features. “My fingers will be as crooked as Mildred’s if I’m not careful.” She wiggles them in his direction.

“You know,” Harris says, “I’ve always suspected her cantankerousness is part of her act. I betcha she’s sweet as sugar.”

Shea chews her lip, considering. “I don’t see it,” she pronounces. “I once said Good Morning, and she looked at me and muttered, ‘you’ll be dead by the next.’” Shea shrugs. “So, you’ll forgive me if I’m not getting a grandmotherly vibe.”

“Hmm, my mother always told me I’ve got a tendency to look for the good in people,” Harris says. Shea catches the cloud of grief that drifts across his deep brown eyes. It’s true. When she’d come here, alone, skin and bone starved, Harris fought to add her to the program. People underestimate the big man. They watch his act, see the sheer, unbelievable bulk of him, and assume that is all there is. Nothing is further from the truth. Like the rest of the fair family, Harris is one of a kind. All of them are as unique as sand grains beneath a microscope—each with their gift, personality, and willful refusal to fit in with society’s parameters.

A throat clears, and Shea looks up. A young woman hovers just beyond the flap, and Harris grins at the girl. She flushes. “Excuse me, ladies, I’ve got something weighty to lift.”

“Come in,” Shea says when Harris vacates the tent. “Take a seat and get ready to watch the love of your life appear before your eyes.” She beams at the girl, who smiles tentatively and sits.

“Can you really see a person’s soulmate just by looking at them?” she asks.

Shea picks up her pencil, nodding. “Since I was a child, I’ve seen faces behind my lids when I look at someone. Like a spectre.”

When the face sweeps across the page, Shea swallows a gasp. In her years of practicing her gift, she’s never drawn the same face twice. The girl takes her sketch and leaves without looking up, staring at the high-cheeked man with a mouth on the verge of being too thin. Shea presses shaky palms into her eye sockets. Before the weight of shock can settle, another person enters, and Shea must begin again. The day seems endless. Each likeness creates a burning hole in Shea’s stomach. One after another, after another.

“You look as if you’ve seen a ghost,” Harris says when he enters Shea’s tent at closing time.

“Something happened,” Shea whispers, her voice rasping with fear.

Harris comes, gripping her arms in concern. “What is it?”

“I drew the same man five times today,” Shea says, shaking her head. “I don’t understand what it means.”

“How can one man have five different soul mates?” Harris’s bushy brows furrow.

“I… I don’t know,” Shea says and wraps her arms around her middle. She’s reeling, unsure and scared. Her talent is her livelihood, and she has nothing else if it fails her. “This can’t fail me, Harris. It’s all I have.”

“Maybe you need a good sleep. Been working too hard.”

“Maybe,” Shea leans against Harris’s thick shoulder, drinking in his warmth. She’s been alone for so long; these fleeting touches are sips from a well she can not reach.

“Off with you then,” Harris says. “Tomorrow is a new day, and the boss man says he’s got news to share.”

Shea stifles a yawn. Rising on her toes, she presses a kiss to the big man’s rough cheek. “Goodnight, Harris.”

“Goodnight, missy.”

When Shea opens her trailer door the next morning, a woman from the fair makes her way down the hall, knocking on doors. “I was just about to wake ya,” she drawls. “Boss wants us. He’s got some big announcement.”

Shea nods and ducks inside, dressing quickly. Tugging a brush through her red curls, she binds them with a scarf. A glance in the mirror shows eyes too old for the face they sit in, ringed with blue shadows. Shea looks at herself for a long moment, sighs then slips from the room. The fairgrounds are already alive when she arrives, staff crawling about, preparing for the onslaught of customers. Shea spots Harris towering above the crowd and threads her way over to him.

Before she can speak, a round man pushes himself through to the front and claps his hands. “Can I have everyone’s attention?” Mr. Gribley calls. When the milling group quiets, he beams at them. “I’ve news for you all, so please lend an ear. This—” he gestures to his side, a come-hither motion with his hand. “Is my son, Malachi.”

A long, lean man steps forward, so different from his father. The juxtaposition is staggering. Shea cranes her neck, trying to snatch a better look. Mr. Gribley rambles on, telling the fair members Malachi will take over by the end of the season. Shea doesn’t hear him.

She’s finally glimpsed him, Malachi. With a gasp, she clings to Harris’ tree trunk arm as the world dips beneath her feet. Her heart is a wild bird beating against the cage of her ribs. Green eyes scan the crowd and falter when they snag with Shea’s. A raven wing of dark hair brushes sharp cheeks. A set of lips—not so thin now, animated and mobile—turning up into a shy, shocked smile. That smile settles into Shea’s bones. It descends through the layers of her being to engulf her soul. People close around her, and she wants to cry out as she loses sight of him. Shea wonders if she images it when she sees Malachi mouth the words “It’s you.”

One man could not have five soulmates, but perhaps Shea is allowed just one? Someone yells, and people shift to clear a space around her. A shadow falls across her face, and Shea looks up.

“Hello,” Malachi says, his chest rising and falling in time with hers, winded, excited in the face of discovery.

“Hello,” says Shea.

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