In the fall of 1946, grieving war widow Sarah goes to the carnival with her friends and is riveted by the tattooed man in the freak show, sporting head to toe body art. Later she discovers him hiding in her hayloft, escaped from virtual imprisonment since childhood by the carnival's evil owner. She shelters him on her farm, fighting a powerful sexual attraction while learning about his mysterious past and gentle nature. When a local child goes missing, Tom uses his psychic gifts to locate her, but his assistance in the case doesn't allay the town's mistrust of such an exotic stranger in their midst. Small-town prejudice tears the lovers apart and a very real threat from carnival owner Art Reed endangers them. Can they rise above obstacles of fear and hate to create the family both have always craved?
Discordant carnival music and the smell of burnt sugar, popcorn and axle grease drifted through the crisp fall air. In the dusk, the colored lights of the rusty rides shone in broken lines where bulbs were missing. Faded canvas tents housed games of chance, a fortune-teller, a fun house and freaks. Sarah walked the trash-strewn paths between booths and rides and wondered why she’d come. She hated carnivals.“Sarah, you made it!” Grace May called across the loud music and barker’s cries. She caught up with Sarah and linked arms. “I’m so glad. You spend far too much time alone on the farm. You need to get out more.” Sarah smiled without comment. It was easy to read Grace’s message between the lines. ‘Stop grieving. John was killed over a year and a half ago. It’s time to start living again.’ But Grace couldn’t possibly know what Sarah felt like inside, hard as drought-baked earth longing for rain but more likely to shed water than soak it in and grow soft again. John’s body had been shipped home from the front just before V.E. day ended the war. She could pinpoint April 29, 1945 as the day her heart froze. The moment she’d seen John in the coffin and realized his death was real, Sarah had stopped feeling much of anything. She drew her light blue cardigan more tightly around her. There was a chill in the air at the end of a hot September day. Grace squeezed her arm. “Look, I know you’re going to be mad at me but—” “Grace, what’d you do?” “I told Mike to bring a friend along. You know Andrew Harper, who works at the hardware store? He’s new in town, single, almost forty but a real sweet guy and he’s looking for someone.” “Well, I’m not.” Sarah pulled her arm away from Grace, annoyed at her friend’s meddling. “And I don’t appreciate your match-making without consulting me first.” “Come on. Don’t be upset. It’s only for this one evening. If you don’t like the guy, you don’t have to see him again. Oh look, there they are.” Grace grabbed Sarah’s arm again and tugged her toward two men standing near the entrance to one of the tents. Grace’s husband, Mike, was talking to a red-haired guy with a pleasant smile on his freckled face. He wore a short-sleeved shirt and a navy blue sweater-vest, and she vaguely remembered seeing the man when she had her screen door repaired at McNulty’s Hardware. She might even have talked to him, but if she had, it hadn’t left an impression. Harper’s grip was warm and his smile shy as he shook her hand. “Hi. I’m Andrew Harper. I work at—” “McNulty’s. I know. I’ve seen you there. I’m Sarah Cassidy.” She pulled her hand away from his and adjusted her sweater around her shoulders, aware of Grace and Mike exchanging glances. “So, how do you like living in Fairfield?” Harper shifted on his feet and a flush crept up from his neck, covering his freckles. “I like it just fine.” He cleared his throat and looked across the fairgrounds. “That’s nice.” Sarah couldn’t think of a single thing to add. She didn’t want to make small talk. She wished she was at home reading a book or listening to the radio. Mike stepped forward interrupting, the awkward moment. “How about a ride on the Ferris wheel, ladies?” “Not for me,” Grace replied. “I hate heights and even if I didn’t I wouldn’t trust that thing.” She indicated the ancient metal wheel arching against the night sky. The cars swayed as it jerked to a stop. “How about in here?” Andrew pointed to the tent near them. The painting on the side of the canvas showed obese, bearded, dwarfed, misshapen, tattooed, hermaphrodite freaks. You could gawk at them for only a quarter. She thought those who were willing to pay to view handicapped people were more pathetic than the unfortunates themselves. But Grace and Mike agreed so Sarah paid her money and followed the others inside. In the hushed darkness beneath the canvas, each display was illuminated by a single bare bulb. The dim light cast odd shadows, adding to the gloomy atmosphere of the stifling tent. Heat from earlier in the day was trapped in the airless enclosure. The smell of unwashed bodies and cow manure was rank. Sarah removed her cardigan and tied it around her hips. Only a few other people wandered from one attraction to the next. There was a placard set up in front of each ‘display’. There was a calf with a fifth leg lying on a bed of straw. A two-foot-tall dwarf sat on a stool, smoking a cigarette and gazing impassively at the fair-goers. Sarah felt as if she’d stepped back into medieval times as she trailed her friends from one mistake of nature to the next. What next? Bear baiting and a public execution? She watched the bearded woman open her robe to reveal a breast then tug on her facial hair to prove its validity. Feeling like a voyeur, Sarah dropped her gaze. She moved on to observe another woman who had some kind of growth on the side of her neck, which on closer examination proved to have stunted facial features--nature’s aborted attempt at a twin. The others lingered, studying the woman with the tumor, but Sarah moved quickly ahead, anxious to be out of the hot, oppressive tent. It felt wrong to be gaping at these peoples’ anomalies. The next station appeared to be empty. The wooden chair beneath the yellow glow of the light bulb was empty. Sarah peered into the shadows behind the spotlighted chair and saw something moving. Then the dark figure stepped into the circle of light. Sarah drew in her breath. The man was a walking tapestry of color. Every bit of his skin was covered in tattoos. Angels, devils, dragons, flames, flowers and skulls were tossed on blue waves. There was no common theme to the tattoos and only the decorative blue swirls connected them. It gave the impression of flotsam floating in the wake of a shipwreck. In the center of the man’s chest was a red heart, not a Valentine confection but a knobby fist-shaped lump with stubs of aortas sticking out. Wrapped around the heart were links of black chain, binding it tight. The movements of his muscles as he took his seat caused the images to expand and contract, as if they pulsed with life. With all the ink covering his body, it took Sarah a moment to notice how very nearly naked he was. A loincloth hung from his hips. As he sat, propping one knee up on a rung of the chair, the cloth opened to reveal that his thigh was covered with images right up to his groin. A flush of heat lanced through her, settling warmly in between her legs. She brushed her hair back from her burning cheeks and tucked it behind her ear. She knew she should move on, but couldn’t stop staring at the tattooed man. He gazed past her, across the tent, focusing on something. Sarah fought the urge to look over her shoulder at whatever he was seeing. His body was as concealed as if he were clothed. The designs covered every limb and muscle, distracting the eye from his nudity. Even his face and shaven head were tattooed. More tentacles of the swirling blue design marked his cheeks and framed his eyes making their vivid blue seem to glow like a gas flame. When he turned his head to the side, images bloomed up the back of his neck and fanned over his scalp in a fountain of colors. The shreds of pale skin between the tattoos served as contrast to red, purple, ochre, green and inky black. Sarah suddenly realized that her friends had already looked at the tattooed man and gone on ahead while she still stood and stared. Unwillingly, she started to walk away. Just then he turned his head and his eyes caught and held Sarah’s. Her breath stopped and her heart pounded. He was gazing at her as intently as she had been looking at him, peering deep inside her. She felt naked in front of him and longed to run away from his searing gaze, but found it impossible to move her feet. It was as if he saw and marked her pain, still percolating underneath the veneer of dull ennui. His scalpel gaze hurt as it cut through her scars. Tears stung her eyes and she blinked to clear them. Then the man looked away, once again staring sightlessly at that invisible mark on the opposite side of the tent. Sarah moved on, feeling shaken and anxious, wondering what had just happened. That moment of connection had been as sharp and real as anything she’d ever experienced. She longed to go home, bury herself under her bedcovers, and forget what she’d seen tonight. She hurried past the rest of the exhibits, but before she followed her friends out of the sideshow Sarah took a last glance at the tattooed man. A cluster of people blocked her view. She had to leave without seeing him again. The rest of the evening passed in a blur of carnival lights and music and too much noise. She made pointless small talk with Grace, Mike, and Andrew but nothing registered. She felt as if she was walking in a dream. Her mind kept returning to the arresting vision of the tattooed man, to his intense eyes even more than the art decorating his muscular body. If only she could steal away from her friends, pay her quarter and see him one last time. Instead, she bid them all goodnight, rejected Andrew’s offer to see her home, and walked over the hill, through the pasture to her house.