the prompt is Explore how and why authors create tension?
using 2 of these passages
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The circus arrives without warning.
No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.
The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black-and-white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colorless world. Even what little ground is visible from outside is black or white, painted or powdered, or treated with some other circus trick.
But it is not open for business. Not just yet.
Within hours everyone in town has heard about it. By afternoon the news has spread several towns over. Word of mouth is a more effective method of advertisement than typeset words and exclamation points on paper pamphlets or posters. It is impressive and unusual news, the sudden appearance of a mysterious circus. People marvel at the staggering height of the tallest tents. They stare at the clock that sits just inside the gates that no one can properly describe.
And the black sign painted in white letters that hangs upon the gates, the one that reads:
Opens at Nightfall
Closes at Dawn
“What kind of circus is only open at night?” people ask. No one has a proper answer, yet as dusk approaches there is a substantial crowd of spectators gathering outside the gates.
You are amongst them, of course. Your curiosity got the better of you, as curiosity is wont to do. You stand in the fading light, the scarf around your neck pulled up against the chilly evening breeze, waiting to see for yourself exactly what kind of circus only opens once the sun sets.
The ticket booth clearly visible behind the gates is closed and barred. The tents are still, save for when they ripple ever so slightly in the wind. The only movement within the circus is the clock that ticks by the passing minutes, if such a wonder of sculpture can even be called a clock.
The circus looks abandoned and empty. But you think perhaps you can smell caramel wafting through the evening breeze, beneath the crisp scent of the autumn leaves. A subtle sweetness at the edges of the cold.
The sun disappears completely beyond the horizon, and the remaining luminosity shifts from dusk to twilight. The people around you are growing restless from waiting, a sea of shuffling feet, murmuring about abandoning the endeavor in search of someplace warmer to pass the evening. You yourself are debating departing when it happens.
First, there is a popping sound. It is barely audible over the wind and conversation. A soft noise like a kettle about to boil for tea. Then comes the light.
All over the tents, small lights begin to flicker, as though the entirety of the circus is covered in particularly bright fireflies. The waiting crowd quiets as it watches this display of illumination. Someone near you gasps. A small child claps his hands with glee at the sight.
When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears.
Stretched across the top of the gates, hidden in curls of iron, more firefly-like lights flicker to life. They pop as they brighten, some accompanied by a shower of glowing white sparks and a bit of smoke. The people nearest to the gates take a few steps back.
At first, it is only a random pattern of lights. But as more of them ignite, it becomes clear that they are aligned in scripted letters. First a C is distinguishable, followed by more letters. A q, oddly, and several e’s. When the final bulb pops alight, and the smoke and sparks dissipate, it is finally legible, this elaborate incandescent sign. Leaning to your left to gain a better view, you can see that it reads:
Le Cirque des Rves
Some in the crowd smile knowingly, while others frown and look questioningly at their neighbors. A child near you tugs on her mother’s sleeve, begging to know what it says.
“The Circus of Dreams,” comes the reply. The girl smiles delightedly.
Then the iron gates shudder and unlock, seemingly by their own volition. They swing outward, inviting the crowd inside.
Now the circus is open.
Now you may enter.
From Followers by Megan Angelo
New York, New York
So she still believed in mail, this woman, whoever she was. The first thing Marlow saw when she walked into the building was a grid of metal boxes, each with its own window and cobwebbed keyhole.
Most of the boxes had only blank spaces where the names had once been. But the one for 6D still had a label, and the name on it was the same one Marlow had written down in eyeliner at the Archive. She could see, behind the small square of glass, the white slant of a waiting envelope.
Marlow slid a bobby pin out of her hair, ignoring the wave that sprang free and clung to the sweat on her neck. Ellis had taught her how to pick a lock on their third date. Why do you know how to do this? shed asked, watching him bend the pin. THough she didnt know him well yet, she was sure he had never needed to steal. They had grown up the same way.
I like exploiting the flaws in things, Ellis had answered. And Marlow, twenty-two and in a hopeful phase, had laughed and let the omen sail haigh over her head.
Now she jiggled the crimpled bit of metal in the keyhole, listening for the seize as he had taught her. Finally, the little door popped open and the envelope jutted toward her. She slid it into her back pocket, shut the box, and walked toward the elevator.
The stoned superintendent stared at her as she waited. His desk was tall, pointedly designed for someone to stand behind, but the man sat, his bloodshot eyes at the lip of the walnut veneer. He must have seen her pick the lock, but he didn’t say a thing.
On the sixth floor, the doors were painted jade, the color the carpet looked like it had been before it turned trampled brown. Marlow found the door with the oily brass D and knocked. No answer. SHe tried the knob. It turned, and then she was inside, her feet falling on a gaudy doormat — black rubber, with hot-pink stripes. Marlow winced. Now that she was seeing colors clearly again, she could not get over how many of them she disliked. She saw, in a flash of memory, the roses stuffed into her mothers bathroom, just before she ran. That had done it for pink, she supposed. Shed be avoiding it the rest of her life.
No one was home. THe apartment smelled like air that had been sitting undisturbed. To Marlows left, as the front door swung shut behind her, was a narrow kitchen wrapped in cheap white cabinets. Three stools sat beneath the gray counter that divided the kitchen from the rest of the long, charmless room. THe place dead-ended twenty feet or so out, in a naked window overlooking Eighth Avenue. THe walls were dull handy-man white, the color of a place between people.
THe couch was the thing that made her feel like something was off. It was plump and lived-in-looking, the color of melted chocolate. But on the cushion closest to the window, a precise rectangle of fabric had been bleached beige by the sun. It was not the kind of thing, Marlow thought, with a tweak in her stomach, that anyone just let happen. Staring at it, she felt the way she would if she was sensing an intruder, though this was the opposite: an absence, just as sinister.
She wasnt sure how long she lay shaking on the couch, trying to recover from the chase. After a minute, after an hour, she sat up and looked at the mail shed stolen. The envelope was soft with age. The faded stamp on its front claimed it had been sent from Los ANgeles. Marlow scratched at the yellowed seal, scraping it upward bit by bit. She could never remember how to open these things.
The paper inside was childs stationary, embossed at the top with a chain of daisies. Above them, in all capitals, was a declaration that made the skin on the back of her neck prickle: FROM THE DESK OF MARLOW. She had never seen the paper before.
Each sheet — there were three — had the same crazy look. Filled back and front and end to end, margins forgone. Words compressed, begging to be heard out, at the edges where their writer had misjudged the space left.
She was reading for several seconds before she realized: she wasnt. She couldnt. The letter was in another tongue, one with its own strange alphabet — lilting loops, curving tails, linked letters forming something both foreign and familiar. There — that word reminded her of free. But was it?
Shed have to take the letter with her. As if she didnt look suspicious enough already, now shed have three pages of paper on her person. She practiced fixing her face in a way that made this seem like nothing — Yes, Im carrying a bunch of paper, casually. Whats the problem? People still have it for plenty of reasons. She was the last person who would have bought her own explanation. Paper had occupied a nervous place in Marlows childhood. There was a shredder in her house, kept on a high garage shelf, that each of her parents brought down and used when the other wasnt home. Her mother used it to destroy the department store receipts she still insisted on cashiers printing for her, so that Marlows father couldnt trace her greedy habits as easily. Her father fed the shredder wrinkled cocktail napkins, after he memorized the names and numbers on them.
She had grown up seeing paper as synonymous with secrets. It was why it still surprised her, how light it felt in her hands. It was why it still surprised her, how light it felt in her hands.
Her fingers still gripping the letter, Marlow looked up. She heard footsteps in the hallway, getting closer. She waited for the click of another door, the sound of someone who had every right to be here going home. But the footsteps kept getting louder until, finally, they stopped. She watched the steel handle of the aprtments front door beginning to turn — slowly, soundlessly, like the person on the outside didnt want to scare her yet.
She put the letter down on the counter carefully. Eyes, then balls? Balls, then eyes? She wished that she and Jacaueline hadnt gone to happy hour before their self-defense class. Its just for fun, anyway, Jacqueline had reasoned, lips pursed on the rim of her vodka martini. If you ever get jumped for real, your device will walk you through what to do.
But Marlows device was gone.
THere had been a part in the self-defense class, too, Marlow recalled, about how to disarm a rogue bot. But bot-on-human violence almost never happened, and so that was the lesson she and Jacqueline paid the least attention to. If memory served, they had talked off to the side throughout the demonstration, admiring the instructors exquisite biceps.
If it was a bot, she would go for the hip area, where the controls were usually hidden.
If it was a human, she would go for the balls. The thought of her thumbs on someones eyes made her queasy.
The door jamb gave way. Marlow braced herself up and down. She tried to look indestructible, like she was made of more durable stuff than whatever lay inside the thing or person in the hall. Stronger than heartless steel, stronger than menacing bone. Just as the door started out of its frame, the word for the language the letter was in came back to her. Cursive.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me, and the fry cook. Grady and I sat at a battered wooden table, each facing a burger on a dented tin plate. The cook was behind the counter, scraping his griddle with the edge of a spatula. He had turned off the fryer some time ago, but the odor of grease lingered.
The rest of the midway so recently writhing with people was empty but for a handful of employees and a small group of men waiting to be led to the cooch tent. They glanced nervously from side to side, with hats pulled low and hands thrust deep in their pockets. They wouldnt be disappointed: somewhere in the back Barbara and her ample charms awaited.
The other townsfolk rubes, as Uncle Al called them had already made their way through the menagerie tent and into the big top, which pulsed with frenetic music. The band was whipping through its repertoire at the usual earsplitting volume. I knew the routine by heart at this very moment, the tail end of the Grand Spectacle was exiting and Lottie, the aerialist, was ascending her rigging in the center ring.
I stared at Grady, trying to process what he was saying. He glanced around and leaned in closer.
Besides, he said, locking eyes with me, it seems to me youve got a lot to lose right now. He raised his eyebrows for emphasis. My heart skipped a beat.
Thunderous applause exploded from the big top, and the band slid seamlessly into the Gounod waltz. I turned instinctively toward the menagerie because this was the cue for the elephant act. Marlena was either preparing to mount or was already sitting on Rosies head.
Ive got to go, I said.
Sit, said Grady. Eat. If youre thinking of clearing out, it may be a while before you see food again.
That moment, the music screeched to a halt. There was an ungodly collision of brass, reed, and percussion trombones and piccolos skidded into cacophony, a tuba farted, and the hollow clang of a cymbal wavered out of the big top, over our heads and into oblivion.
Grady froze, crouched over his burger with his pinkies extended and lips spread wide.
I looked from side to side. No one moved a muscle all eyes were directed at the big top. A few wisps of hay swirled lazily across the hard dirt.
What is it? Whats going on? I said.
Shh, Grady hissed.
The band started up again, playing Stars and Stripes Forever.
Oh Christ. Oh shit! Grady tossed his food onto the table and leapt up, knocking over the bench.
What? What is it? I yelled, because he was already running away from me.
The Disaster March! he screamed over his shoulder.
I jerked around to the fry cook, who was ripping off his apron. What the hells he talking about?
The Disaster March, he said, wrestling the apron over his head. Means somethings gone bad real bad.
Could be anything fire in the big top, stampede, whatever. Aw sweet Jesus. The poor rubes probably dont even know it yet. He ducked under the hinged door and took off.
Chaos candy butchers vaulting over counters, workmen stag-gering out from under tent flaps, roustabouts racing headlong across the lot. Anyone and everyone associated with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth barreled toward the big top.
Diamond Joe passed me at the human equivalent of a full gallop. Jacob its the menagerie, he screamed. The animals are loose. Go, go, go!
He didnt need to tell me twice. Marlena was in that tent.
A rumble coursed through me as I approached, and it scared the hell out of me because it was on a register lower than noise. The ground was vibrating.
I staggered inside and met a wall of yak a great expanse of curly-haired chest and churning hooves, of flared red nostrils and spinning eyes. It galloped past so close I leapt backward on tiptoe, flush with the canvas to avoid being impaled on one of its crooked horns. A terrified hyena clung to its shoulders.
The concession stand in the center of the tent had been flattened, and in its place was a roiling mass of spots and stripes of haunches, heels, tails, and claws, all of it roaring, screeching, bellow-ing, or whinnying. A polar bear towered above it all, slashing blindly with skillet-sized paws. It made contact with a llama and knocked it flat BOOM. The llama hit the ground, its neck and legs splayed like the five points of a star. Chimps screamed and chattered, swinging on ropes to stay above the cats. A wildeyed zebra zigzagged too close to a crouching lion, who swiped, missed, and darted away, his belly close to the ground.
My eyes swept the tent, desperate to find Marlena. Instead I saw a cat slide through the connection leading to the big top it was a panther, and as its lithe black body disappeared into the canvas tunnel I braced myself. If the rubes didnt know, they were about to find out. It took several seconds to come, but come it did one prolonged shriek followed by another, and then another, and then the whole place exploded with the thunderous sound of bodies trying to shove past other bodies and off the stands. The band screeched to a halt for a second time, and this time stayed silent. I shut my eyes: Please God let them leave by the back end. Please God dont let them try to come through here.
I opened my eyes again and scanned the menagerie, frantic to find her. How hard can it be to find a girl and an elephant, for Christs sake?
When I caught sight of her pink sequins, I nearly cried out in relief maybe I did. I dont remember.
She was on the opposite side, standing against the sidewall, calm as a summer day. Her sequins flashed like liquid diamonds, a shimmering beacon between the multicolored hides. She saw me, too, and held my gaze for what seemed like forever. She was cool, languid. Smiling even. I started pushing my way toward her, but something about her expression stopped me cold.
That son of a bitch was standing with his back to her, redfaced and bellowing, flapping his arms and swinging his silvertipped cane. His hightopped silk hat lay on the straw beside him.
She reached for something. A giraffe passed between us its long neck bobbing gracefully even in panic and when it was gone I saw that shed picked up an iron stake. She held it loosely, resting its end on the hard dirt. She looked at me again, bemused. Then her gaze shifted to the back of his bare head.
Oh Jesus, I said, suddenly understanding. I stumbled forward, screaming even though there was no hope of my voice reaching her. Dont do it! Dont do it!
She lifted the stake high in the air and brought it down, splitting his head like a watermelon. His pate opened, his eyes grew wide, and his mouth froze into an O. He fell to his knees and then toppled forward into the straw.
I was too stunned to move, even as a young orangutan flung its elastic arms around my legs.
So long ago. So long. But still it haunts me.
I DONT TALK MUCH about those days. Never did. I dont know why I worked on circuses for nearly seven years, and if that isnt fodder for conversation, I dont know what is.
Actually I do know why: I never trusted myself. I was afraid Id let it slip. I knew how important it was to keep her secret, and keep it I did for the rest of her life, and then beyond.
In seventy years, Ive never told a blessed soul.
The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry
My name is Towner Whitney. No, that’s not exactly true. My real first name is Sophya. Never believe me. I lie all the time.
I am a crazy woman. . . That last part is true. My little brother, Beezer, who is kinder than I, says the craziness is genetic. We’re from five generations of crazy, he says, as if it were a badge he’s proud to wear, though he admits that I may have taken it to a new level.
Until I came along, the Whitney family was what the city of Salem fondly refers to as “quirky.” If you were old Salem money, even if that money was long gone, you were never referred to as “crazy.” You might be deemed “unusual,” or even “oddball,” but the hands-down-favorite word for such a condition was “quirky.”
Throughout the generations the Whitney men have all become famous for their quirks: from the captains of sea and industry all the way down to my little brother, Beezer, who is well known within scientific circles for his articles on particle physics and string theory.
Our great-great-grandfather, for example, parlayed a crippling preoccupation with ladies’ feet into a brilliant career as a captain of industry in Lynn’s thriving shoe business, creating a company that was passed down through the generations all the way to my grandfather G. G. Whitney. Our great-great-great-grandfather, who was a legitimate captain in his own right, had a penchant for sniffing cinnamon that many considered obsessive. Eventually he built a fleet of spice-trading ships that traveled the globe and made Salem one of the richest ports in the New World.
Still, anyone would admit that it is the women of the Whitney family who have taken quirky to a new level of achievement. My mother, May, for example, is a walking contradiction in terms. A dedicated recluse who (with the exception of her arrests) hasn’t left her home on Yellow Dog Island for the better part of twenty years, May has nevertheless managed to revive a long-defunct lace-making industry and to make herself famous in the process. She has gained considerable notoriety for rescuing abused women and children and turning their lives around, giving the women a place in her lace-making business and home-educating their children. All this from a raging agoraphobic who gave one of her own children to her barren half sister, Emma, in a fit of generosity because, as she said at the time, there was a need, and besides, she had been blessed with a matching set.
And my Great-Aunt Eva, who is more mother to me than May ever has been, is equally strange. Running her own business well into her eighties, Eva is renowned as both Boston Brahmin and Salem witch when, really, she is neither. Actually, Eva is an old-school Unitarian with Transcendentalist tendencies. She quotes Scripture in the same breath as she quotes Emerson and Thoreau. Yet in recent years Eva has spoken only in clichs, as if use of the tired metaphor can somehow remove her from the inevitable outcomes she is paid to predict.
For thirty-five years of her life, Eva has run a ladies’ tearoom and franchised successful etiquette classes to the wealthy children of Boston’s North Shore. But what Eva will be remembered for is her uncanny ability to read lace. People come from all over the world to be read by Eva, and she can tell your past, present, and future pretty accurately just by holding the lace in front of you and squinting her eyes.
In one form or another, all the Whitney women are readers. My twin sister, Lyndley, said she couldn’t read lace, but I never believed her. The last time we tried, she saw the same thing I saw in the pattern, and what we saw that night led her to the choices that eventually killed her. When Lyndley died, I resolved never to look at a piece of lace again.
This is one of the only things Eva and I have ever vehemently disagreed about. “It wasn’t that the lace was wrong,” she always insisted. “It was the reader’s interpretation that failed.” I know that’s supposed to make me feel better. Eva never says anything to intentionally hurt. But Lyndley and I interpreted the lace the same way that night, and though our choices might have been different, nothing that Eva says can ever bring my sister back.
After Lyndley’s death, I had to get out of Salem and ended up in California, which was as far as I could go without falling off the end of the earth. I know that Eva wants me to come home to Salem. It’s for my own good, she says. But I can’t bring myself to do it.
Just recently, when I had my hysterectomy, Eva sent me her lace pillow, the one she uses to make the lace. It was delivered to the hospital.
“What is it?” my nurse asked, holding it up, staring at the bobbins and the piece of lace, a work in progress, still attached to it. “Some kind of pillow?”
“It’s a lace maker’s pillow,” I said. “For making Ipswich lace.”
She regarded me blankly. I could tell she had no idea what to say. It didn’t look like any pillow she had ever seen. And what the hell was Ipswich lace?
“Try holding it against your sutures if you have to cough or sneeze,” she finally said. “That’s what we use pillows for around here.”
I felt around until I found the secret pocket hidden in the pillow. I slipped my fingers in, looking for a note. Nothing.
I know that Eva hopes I will start reading lace again. She believes that lace reading is a God-given gift, and that we are required to honor such gifts.
I imagine the note she might have written: “Of those to whom much is given, much is expected Luke 12:48.” She used to quote that bit of Scripture as proof.
I can read lace, and I can read minds, though it isn’t something I try to do; it is something that just happens sometimes. My mother can do both, but over the years May has become a practical woman who believes that knowing what is in people’s minds or their futures is not always in anyone’s best interest. This is probably the only point upon which my mother and I have ever agreed.
When I left the hospital, I stole the pillowcase off one of their pillows. The Hollywood Presbyterian label was double stamped on both sides. I stuffed Eva’s lace pillow inside, hiding the threads, the lace, and the bonelike bobbins that were swinging like tiny Poe pendulums.
If there was a future for me, and I was not altogether certain there was, I wasn’t going to risk reading it in the lace.