The noise swelled. She heard the tell-tale swoosh of the curtain parting. Following that, the two overhead spotlights came on, illuminating the interior of her cage.

The illusion was very realistic. A captured alien being held behind bars of steel. It made for great drama when it was time for her to make her move.

"Ladies and gentlemen! Lawson Hall’s World Famous Carnival and Sideshow proudly present... Challa, the Alien Girl!" Lawson announced her himself. It was the only job he let no one else take over. The man could be on his deathbed, and he’d find a way to crawl out of it to do the show.

"Take a look, everyone, but please keep your distance. She’s dangerous."

"She’s fake!" someone yelled, and the crowd laughed in response.

Lawson continued, unaffected by the catcalls. They were expected. "You’re welcome to your own opinion, sir, but we here know better. Just as we know better than to get her riled."

That was her first cue. Slowly, Challa began to unfurl herself, slowly stretching as if awakening from sleep.

"Hey, how much of that camouflage paint does she go through in a week?" another voice chided.

Challa answered the man’s question by lifting her face and staring directly in the direction where it had emanated. Several people gasped. A few stepped back. Their terror began to cloud the air with the scent of something burning.

The music began. Another cue. Slowly, she rose to her feet, yet keeping her hands behind her back. When she was certain everyone’s eyes were on her face, Challa opened her mouth and hissed.

Several people screamed. A few men initially jumped, then chuckled to cover their embarrassment. It was all part of the show she performed five nights a week for the past twenty-three months.

Her eyes searched the sea of heads turned up at her. She needed to find one patsy to focus her attention on. Make the crowd believe she had taken a personal interest on him. Have them believe she would love to personally rend him into shreds if she ever got out of this cage.

In the back of her mind, she took notice of the age groups represented. It was the normal young adults, the high school kids and college bound. The closer Lawson parked near a small branch campus, the more they’d see of them. Tonight looked like that kind of crowd. There was a smattering of older couples. And a few sets of daring parents with school-age children. Challa kept searching; time was getting tight. Her whole performance never lasted past twenty minutes, and already she could sense she was starting to stretch it.

"She may be slight in stature, folks, but she’s a mean one," Lawson announced. He turned to give her a warning look, reminding her to keep to the timeline.

She hissed again, keeping her face tilted toward one of the spotlights so her teeth gleamed. Taking a menacing step toward the bars, she ignored the taunts that were coming again. Fortunately, no one had thought of hurling anything at her other than words.

There. That one.

Her eyes caught sight of a young man wearing a football jersey. He was bulked up, and looked like someone who considered himself both a top jock and prime ladies’ man. He also wore a smirk of conceit that always rankled her whenever she saw one.

Without warning, Challa threw herself at the bars, hitting them more with her claws than with her body. Lifting her hands to show her formidable talons, she gave a scream and drew the blade-like tips down the metal bars like nails on a blackboard. More people jumped, several more screamed. The taunts suddenly stopped, as she knew they would. Before the crowd could recover, she lifted her arms and opened her wing flaps. All the while, she never took her angry gaze off the smirking jock, who finally realized her attention was directed straight at him. So did others in the crowd.

"Stand back, everyone! Someone in here has ticked her off big time!"

Challa shook the cage, reaching between the bars and clawing at the air as if she was trying to get to the man. Several people hurried away. That was a good sign. Most of the crowd that was left backed further away. Many turned to see who was the target of her tirade. The jock’s face had gone bleach white. All braggadocio was gone, as well as the smirk.

Lawson finally saw her intended, and milked the scene for all it was worth. "Sir! Sir! What did you do? What have you done? Get out of here, now!"

The young man lifted his arms in confusion, shaking his head in denial that he’d done anything to tick off the alien. Lawson played his next hand with consummate skill.

"Did you say something to her? Could it be your aftershave? Something about you has upset her to the point where your life may be in danger! Go! Security! Please escort that young man to the parking lot immediately! There is no telling if these bars can hold her!"

Charlie left his post in front of the low stage and made a beeline for the jock, who didn’t argue or try to shake off his firm grip. When they exited the tent, so did the rest of the crowd—as was expected.

The moment the tent emptied, Challa drew back from the bars and took a deep breath. That was Show Number One. Her introduction to the locals. Word would spread about the "almost breakout", and tomorrow night the crowd would be bigger. Noisier. More curious. And then she would put on Show Number Two.

Her chest felt sore. Challa glanced down at herself. She must have hit the bars a little too hard. It wasn’t the first time she’d end the night with a few bruises, and it wouldn’t be the last. If anyone cared to investigate, the bars were real. The cage was real. Challa, the Alien Girl, was also real, but if the world ever learned that last fact, it would mean the end of her.

Heavens, she was thirsty. The heat generated by the lights and packed bodies always left her parched. The floodlights remained on, but there would be no more peeks at her tonight. Lawson knew how to stir the crowds, keep them in a frenzy. Give them a little taste now so they’d come back for a second bite. And a third. And a fourth, if the carnival remained around the vicinity that long, but he rarely stayed longer than a weekend. In on a Friday, out by Monday. But if the take was steady and good, Lawson would extend their date by a couple of extra nights.

She glanced around the cage, but there was only the prop bucket with its fake bloody entrails hanging out of it in the corner next to the stage. Sight of the bucket always made her laugh. However, there was no sign of the bottle of water that was usually hidden under the straw near the door at the back of the cage. Lawson must have forgotten to stash it.

She started to leave the cage and tent when she sensed someone standing in the shadows at the rear. Thinking it might be one of the customers who’d managed to sneak back inside, she launched herself at the bars with a snarl.

The figure didn’t jump, nor did it make a sound. Instead, it moved closer, limping slightly, until it reached the periphery of light, and she could gradually make out the features.

It was a man with reddish-brown hair and dark eyes. He had a perplexed look on his face, a face that Challa felt herself drawn to. It spoke of intelligence and maturity, not the kind of look she normally saw on a high school age or even college man. Yet, at the same time, she could see shadows of deep emotional pain.

He carried himself erect despite favoring his right leg. His whole figure radiated strength and confidence. He was a man who had gone through stress and horrors, and survived. Just like her.

He took another step toward the cage. His eyes raked over her, his head tilted slightly at an angle, until they locked back onto her face. Silently, they remained staring at each other until the man finally spoke.

"Are you real?"

Challa started to answer when a faint scent wafted over to her. She sniffed, stunned, then took another longer sniff. To be certain. To erase any doubts.

Her knees buckled. Before she was aware of it, she collapsed in the straw. Her trembling hands gripped the bars as her mind screamed the impossible truth she’d never expected to see in her lifetime.

The man smelled of sweet, tangy lemonade. And the only other being in the universe that would throw off that scent was the man her body had chosen to be her equal. Her other self.

Her destined life mate.