Authors: K.B. Nelson
Carnival, Volume 2
Published by K.B. Nelson, 2014.
This is a work of fiction. Similarities to real people, places, or events are entirely coincidental.
First edition. October 6, 2014.
Copyright © 2014 K.B. Nelson.
Written by K.B. Nelson.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
very night is a dance through a sea of neon lights. When the sun goes into hiding, it’s always the same. But with every passing moon, something changes. Like, I’m reaching out for home and every tick of the clock pulls me further from it. If I go any further, I may never find my way back. But maybe that’s the point. I’m not supposed to. Every time I look into the night sky, and see that familiar swirl of neon whiplash, I imagine it’s a road. And when I’m walking on the colorful ribbons that circle the sky, I know there’s no looking back...
he noise of the gears when the cages come to a full stop is horrifying. On this side of the rusted white fence, it all seems dangerous and void of the euphoric fun I had become accustomed to throughout childhood. I guess that’s because your ass is on the line every time you load ride-goers into the pear-shaped cages. I must always remember to push that thin bolt into place. It’s a simple task, but the autonomy of it all can make you paranoid to the point where your eyes are glued to the cages as they tumble against the sky. Some days, I tell myself I hate this ride. Could I ever hold The Zipper in such low regard? It hasn’t happened yet, but one more day of working this damn ride might be the death of me.
Thank God for Gina.
Gina is this huge, bright star in an often dim world. Her hand was forced to join the carnival by circumstances she’d rather not discuss. If you asked her, she’d say she never even had a chance at a somewhat normal life. Then she’d shrug her shoulders and move on with her day because for her, being alive and breathing is enough to make her feel as if she’s on top of the world.
I wish I had her strength.
She’s tall, dark, and the feminine equivalent of handsome. She wears her hat backwards like a true tomboy, her black hair slipping through the edges and outlining the sharp contours of her face. If you look close enough, you can see a journey in her eyes. Wherever she’s been, wherever she’s going, her burnt green eyes tell stories.
Mine do, too. But they tell stories of the past and my reluctance and inability to move forward. You know what they say, one step forward, and two steps back. All that jazz. Well, I drive a thousand miles and somehow come across the same exact crossroads where I began. There are four stop signs and it doesn’t matter if I drive straight or turn to either side. I’m basically running on empty.
Gina leans against the railing, the tip of her back leaning past the fence and intruding upon the personal space of the people who wait for their turn on the other side. It’s a Monday morning and the carnival is far from crowded. The teens that will soon swarm the grounds are currently held hostage, impatiently tapping their pencils against their desks, waiting for that fateful ring of a bell. The bell that signals their freedom, the same bell that’s about to give me a headache.
They’ve always been loud, carnivals and county fairs, but they’re so much louder when you’re living on this side of that world. There’s no escape from the grinding gears and piercing screams. And that god-awful carnival music that was always a breath of fresh air? I can’t walk anywhere near the game booths and flat-out refuse to work them. That’s where Blue’s at currently. Peddling dollar toys for far more than they’re worth through the lousy exchange of winning-to-losing ratios.
I place a hand across a painted blue cage, steadying it as I pull the bolt out and spring open the door. A pair of teen’s maybe fourteen or so years old, hop out and onto the ground while two more park themselves against the torn cushioned seats. They smile as I lock them in and beg me to spin them before I send them up.
I smile and give them a nod, reflecting upon a time so long ago that these kids were me. I reach for the top of the cage and give them a spin, good for about four or five flips, and they’re up and away, into the hands of the carnival gods. And I think to myself, did I bolt them in? The answer is obvious, as I know I’d just done so, but that uneasy feeling is always there...
* * *
I might be crazy, but I love my job. All right, I’m definitely crazy. There’s not much breathing room to doubt that, I guess. When I look back on my life, the one thing I’ll never regret is being happy, even if I go about that in a way most of the world would never understand. I’ve made mistakes and I have regrets, but I can’t let them define me.
With my back against the corner, I sit with my legs kicked out across the counter of a perfectly legal thieving machine. Behind me is a wall stuffed to the brim with cheap prizes. In front of me, a young mother holds a toddler in one arm while tossing dull darts at a collage of balloons. Predictably, because it’s human nature or something, she aims for the center and pops an under inflated balloon, completely unaware that was the plan all along. She’s just scored herself a nice little portrait worth nothing more than the dollar she handed to me just moments prior. She’ll walk away from here with her flimsy frame and curse to herself that next time she’ll win the big bear.
Unless she aims for the corners instead of the middle, the odds aren’t in her favor. I should know, since I’ve rigged the game to favor profit over customer satisfaction. And that’s something I’ve come to realize—that chance and want mean nothing when the world is rigged against you. I wanted to get away from the life of the carnival so bad, but when life flipped the script and sent me back on the road, I accepted it. Didn’t really have much of a choice.
I watch the woman holding her child as she walks away. A part of me wants to scream out to her, get her attention, and toss her a stuffed bear. That’s a bad idea on two accounts. The first is that she’s holding a kid, and the second is that I’d probably be out of a job within the hour. But it’d almost be worth it to see the perfect stranger smile, because the one thing I do know is smiling is contagious and on a cloudy day like today, I’d kill to feel the pull of the muscles above my chin.
* * *
After the last passengers are unloaded onto the safety of the ground, I slam the door shut and don’t even worry about pinning it. I take a glance at the watch on my wrist and let out a frustrated sigh. It’s ten past five, which is ten minutes cut from my lunch time.
Every day, for an hour, I’m free. Most workers spend that time stuffing their faces with enough food to hold their stomachs until closing, but I spend that time being free with Blue and the gang. Yeah, I’ve got a gang now. On the surface, they’re hollow replacements for the people I left behind, but down inside, I know better because my heart tells me that I love these people. I run fingers through my hair as Gina twists the key from the operating board of the ride. She turns on her foot and asks, “Are you ready?”
It’s more of a rhetorical question, but I respond anyway. “I’ve been ready since noon.”
“Let’s go find the boys, grab some grub, and mentally prepare ourselves for the onslaught of bratty children,” she says with a pat on my shoulder and a mischievous grin rippled across her face.
“Don’t remind me.” An instant flood of memories from last night overtakes me. It began right after dinner last night and didn’t let up until midnight. Most of the headaches don’t arrive until the rides are in full swing again. A blessing, because at this point, there are only six hours left in the day. But also a curse, because by that point, I’ll be well past tired and well into irritated territory. Life on the road isn’t easy.
I shut the gate behind me and don’t bother locking it. Behind me, I can hear the rusted hinges creak as the gate comes to a hauntingly slow stop. Gina and I head to the western edge of the small fairgrounds—where the game booths are—hoping Blue and Cookie are still waiting for us.
A quick gaze Gina’s way and I notice her head turned over her shoulder for milliseconds at a time. I know that feeling of paranoia, whether it’s the world out to get you or something else. Something more sinister, like running from your own shadow. “You really need to stop worrying.”
She turns to me, but continues to walk. “I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.”
She knows exactly what I’m talking about, but I go along with her. “I know you don’t.”
“Don’t you ever get paranoid?’
I shrug. “What’s the point? Being paranoid doesn’t change anything.”
“I’m dying to know what exactly it is that
My right foot misses a step. Both of my feet dig into the ground. “We’ve been through this. What makes you think I’m running from anything?”
“Because nobody’s parents would call them pink,” she points out, and she would be right. My parents didn’t name me that. She continues, “I’m instantly curious about anyone who uses a nickname like that, and besides, everyone is running from something.”
“And you? What are you scared of?”
“The same thing that makes me look over my shoulder.” There’s a flash in her eyes when she speaks, like every light beneath her always-starry eyes die out. And I know the feeling and wonder if I’ll ever get tired of looking over my own shoulder.
* * *
WO MONTHS AGO
There’s a warmth in the air, the kind of intangible breeze that threatens to choke you if you’re not prepared. An unexpected spike in temperature that signals the changing weather, like the eye of the storm when everything is calm. You don’t know when or how, but something’s coming.
We stand on opposite sides of Blue’s Jeep, leaning against the chipped hood as we take small bites of overcooked hamburgers. We purchased them on a budget at some local fast-food eatery. I’m not hungry, but Blue insisted I eat, promising me that the knots in my stomach were nothing more than phantom ghosts that would go away with the passing of time.
I don’t believe him. Five-hundred miles out and the only thing that’s seemed to change is my level of confidence that I did the right thing. It began sky-high, like hitting the peak of a roller coaster. But now it’s damn near close to the bottom, when the ride, depending on age, either jerks or careens to a slow stop.
Blue takes a bite out of his cheeseburger and sits it down on a messy foil wrapper. The way he pushes the food to the back of his mouth warns me that he’s about to speak. “Who do you want to be?”
Unsure of the context of the question, I just shrug and take a bite. I’m not much in the mood for philosophical questions.
“You can’t be Charlie,” he says while looking me straight in the eyes. “Not right now, anyway.”
“Great.” I sigh. “Is there anything else left to sacrifice?”
His lips purse. His fingers dance nervously across the hood. “That’s not what I meant.”
It might be that I haven’t slept in a good twelve hours, or it might be the fact that I’m currently the second most wanted fugitive of Lakeview, but I’m irritated and almost snap. “What did you mean then?”
“I just mean that to me, you’ll always be Charlie. But to the rest of the world, you have to be somebody else. I don’t think the police of Lakeview are going to follow us to the edge of the country.” He pauses to scratch his nose with his thumb, and then continues, “But if they do, don’t make it easy for them to find you.”
From irritated to content in the span of a few seconds? Yep, that’s typical Charlie behavior. But reflecting back on the events of the last six weeks, I can’t help but embrace the idea of being someone else. If for no other reason, but to pretend everything isn’t so fucked up. I know I love the man chewing bites between fragments of conversation, but it’s hard to find the happiness when everything’s a mess.
“You could be Pink,” he suggests with a playful smile. “That’s who you were when you first met me.”
That’s the second stupidest idea I’ve heard in the past twenty-four hours.
“That’s almost perfect,” I say, clearly betraying the for-once-sane voices in my head.
“It’s fitting, right? In a
back to square one
kind of way. A fresh start...”
Blue continues to talk, but I zone him out.
I’m Pink now. Over the course of the next few hundred miles, I’ll have to create her and become her. Maybe I can finally take a break from staring into the rear-view mirror. And if I happen to take a glance, maybe that mirror won’t be filled with the ghosts of my past chasing me.