Authors: Matt Solomon
They made their way past a ticket booth crowned with a ceramic cow and toward their designated meeting place: the red-white-and-blue building where Rita always insisted her sons eat when they were at the fair. She believed the fare sold at carnival trailers was a ticket to food poisoning, only trusting the hand-washing habits of the town veterans who worked the American Legion stand.
Rita looked at her watch. “I wonder where he could be?”
For once Charlie had a reason to see his brother, and the guy was nowhere to be found.
, he thought. Any unexplained absence was classic Tim.
DJ stopped a scraggly-haired carnival worker hurrying toward the midway. “Excuse me, good sir,” DJ said. “Do you know Tim Lawson?”
The carny brushed the hair out of his suspicious eyes with a hand that was missing its index finger. Charlie had to look twiceâit was one of the creepiest, coolest things he'd ever seen. The four-fingered guy gave DJ a suspicious look. “You a cop?”
“I'm Tim's mother,” Rita said with an uneasy smile. “Is he working the midway?”
“That guy could be anywhere,” replied the carny, who apparently had no time for more questions about Tim Lawson. He turned and headed off again.
“Do you remember whereâ¦?” DJ called after him.
Then Charlie was tackled hard from behind. He hit the grass as a bigger body fell on top of him. The two of them rolled on the lawn, and Charlie heard his brother's signature raspy laugh.
“Get off me, you big idiot!” Charlie hollered, fighting back. Tim pinned his knees on his younger brother's elbows.
Charlie looked up at the ridiculous new sideburns, bushy and fat, that covered Tim's cheeks. Blue-tinted horn-rimmed glasses hid beneath greasy black bangs.
“You got bigger, Charlie, but not big enough!” Tim cackled.
“Get off!” Charlie squirmed and twisted for all he was worth. He thrashed hard from side to side, which did nothing. He had to try something else. “I threw out your stupid kung fu movies.”
It was the opening Charlie needed, and he heaved up with his forearms. The move sent Tim tumbling backward enough for Charlie to squirm free and scramble away. One thing was clear: He was going to have to put up with the usual Tim idiocy all night.
DJ reached down and helped Tim to his feet. “You must be Tim. Heard a lot about you,” he said. “Your mom sure is excited to see youâshe's been baking up a storm!”
“If you ain't ate it all yet, you're all right with me!” Tim tossed DJ's hand aside, then threw a monster hug around his mom's boyfriend, lifting him off the ground. Tim dropped the embrace and spun back to his brother. “You didn't really pitch
Enter the Dragon
, did you?”
The boy just scowled and dusted the grass off his shirt. Tim would be lucky if Charlie didn't really set the box of crap out with the trash now. Find out how to break in and get homeâthat was the plan.
Rita got a bear hug from Tim, which for some reason made her laugh and laugh. The stories and giggles and slaps on the back continued throughout their dinner at the American Legion stand, right until the last bits of rhubarb crisp were gone. Charlie kept looking for a moment to take Tim off to one side, but dinner offered no breaks. Soon the entire family was walking toward the midway.
Rita turned to Charlie. “What's first, kid? Maybe take your mom through the Creep Castle? You used to love that one!”
“Whoops! Creep Castle's on the sidelines for maintenance,” Tim explained as they worked their way through the crowd. “The mummy unraveled and the fortune teller's head kept coming off. I thought it was scarier that way, but the boss wants it fixed. Should be all patched by the time we split for Illinois.”
Charlie kept looking for his moment to ask about the warehouse. But Tim was pretty focused on giving Rita and DJ the royal tour, whispering gossip about the milk can game (you couldn't win) and the attractive young lady running the “Shoot the Star” contest (she turned just so when guys pulled the trigger, distracting them enough to ruin their aim). He even coached up DJ to win Rita a stuffed bear at the basketball game. The trick was a superhigh arc, and DJ dropped one through the narrow hoop on his third try.
“My hero,” she said with a twinkle in her eye, giving DJ a quick peck on the cheek. The guy melted like a snow cone. Charlie saw his chance.
“Hey, Tim, can I talk to you about something? In private?”
“Sure. What's up?”
They stepped away from their mom into the chaos of the midway. Charlie pulled close to his brother and talked in a loud whisper.
“I need to know how to do somethingâ¦”
“Hey, Lawson! Your break was over an hour ago!”
The four-fingered guy didn't look happy as he pointed his middle finger at Tim, who gave an unapologetic shrug and hustled over to his game booth on the midway before Charlie could even finish his sentence.
“Later, Charlie! Promise!”
Charlie threw up his hands. There was nothing he could do for now. He grabbed his mom and DJ, and they went to watch his brother work his magic.
Dancing back and forth in front of a large scale, Tim shouted at passersby and offered to guess their age or weight for three bucks a chance. He had to get the weight within three pounds or the age within two yearsâif he was fooled, he gave out cheap stuffed animals.
“Step riiiight on up!” Tim bellowed into a portable microphone, paying special attention to the young women who smiled at him sideways. “I guess your age, I guess your weight, you take home a prize! Who's it going to be?”
The money kept going in Tim's pockets as he hit guess after guess. The few times he was wrong, Charlie assumed Tim missed on purposeâhe always concluded the attractive thirty-five-year-old moms were twenty-three, and from the way they hugged and kissed him after, Charlie figured Tim had won again.
In the past, watching Tim had been kind of fun, but the novelty had worn off. This year, Charlie had other things he needed to do. His eyes wandered the midway, wondering how much longer they were going to stand around listening to people lie about their age. A familiar, cocky voice brought his attention back to Tim's booth.
“Guess my weight!”
Charlie looked twice at the large kid in the white Accelerton jacket. Fitz!
Tim walked around the bulky teen, sizing him up. “That's a lot of muscle, compadre,” he said with a grin. “You're one of my heaviest tonight, that's for sure.”
Charlie slid off to the side and more or less disappeared behind his mom and DJ. Part of him wished Fitz had just slugged him that afternoonâat least then the guy would feel like he'd gotten even and it would be over. Tim looked funny at Charlie crouching behind DJ. Charlie shook his head furiously, mentally telling his brother not to stare! Tim got the hint and worked the crowd on the other side of the midway. The boy exhaledâFitz was focused on the prizes, and Charlie was pretty sure the bully hadn't seen him.
“Hmmm.” Tim surveyed Fitz the way a judge at a dog show might evaluate a Doberman. Finally, he wrote a number on a small notepad and showed it to the crowd. “One hundred and eighty-three pounds! Let's see if I'm right!”
Fitz hopped up on the big scale and the needle twitched before settling in at 181.
“There you go, folks!” crowed Tim. “Within three pounds!”
Fitz fumed. Charlie could see the guy didn't like to lose at
. He kicked off his heavy athletic shoes, and the needle eased down to 180.
“Still within three pounds, pal!” Tim said, slapping Fitz on the back. “Tough luck!”
The Accelerton jacket was next, and then Fitz threw off his T-shirt. The scale still hovered at 180.
A pretty young woman approached. She casually leaned against the guessing booth, and the gold stud in her tongue glinted when she spoke. “Got this under control, Tim?”
Fitz glared at her from the scale. “What's your problem?”
Tim moved himself in between Fitz and the young woman. “Take it easy, big boy,” he cautioned. “I see you've been hitting the weights, but believe me, you don't want to make Tiger mad. She's the roughie.”
“What's a roughie?” asked Fitz.
“You don't want to find out,” she said.
“Tell you what.” Tim played to the crowd, rolling his eyes and pulling a fluffy bunny from his prize basket. “Let's call you a winner before we all get to see what color boxer shorts you're wearing! Give him a hand, folks!”
With a smug look of triumph on his face, Fitz took the rabbit and stalked off to the Accelerton booth. Tiger gave Tim a nod and continued walking the midway, looking for signs of trouble. Charlie kept working his way behind other fairgoers so Fitz couldn't see him. It looked like the coast was clear as Tim prepared for another break.
“Um, Mom?” Charlie touched her on the elbow. “Would it be okay if I spent a little one-on-one time with Tim? We don't get to hang out very often.”
Rita looked surprised. Usually, Charlie resented having to go see Tim, so this was a welcome development.
“Of course,” said Rita, taking DJ by the arm. “It will be nice for DJ and me to have a little alone time, too.”
“That's what I'm talking about!” said DJ.
Charlie winced, and she laughed. “You two have fun. But not too much fun.” Rita took DJ's arm, and they walked away, stuffed bear in tow.
Tim smacked Charlie in the stomach. “Looks like it's you and me, bro!” He pulled his brother to a beat-up food trailer with
stenciled across its faÃ§ade in faded red letters. “I need a couple elephant ears, stat!”
Tim grabbed the food and pulled up two plastic crates from behind the stand. He motioned for Charlie to sit.
“So you're going to think I'm crazyâ¦” Charlie began.
“Too late,” said Tim, shoving a mouthful of the greasy stuff into his mouth. “Already do.”
“Funny,” returned Charlie, taking a bite of the crispy fried dough. It was just the kind of forbidden fruit his mom hated.
“Am I right?” Tim asked with an I-knew-you'd-love-it grin on his face.
“Hey, Juice Man,” Tim said to a bald, beefy guy walking down the midway. He looked up the entire time, working a remote control. “How about putting a message up on the blimp for my mom?”
“It's not your own personal Jumbotron, Lawson,” Juice Man growled back.
“Forget about the blimp,” said Charlie. “I really need to talk to you about something.”
“Tell me all about it on the Gravitron,” Tim yelled, grabbing Charlie's shoulder and running toward the ride. About half of the blue and yellow bulbs spelling out Gravitron were either flickering or snuffed out.
“I need to talk first,” shouted Charlie, trying to keep up. But Tim was already up the worn wooden platform and inside the spaceship-looking ride. Charlie found his brother along the padded wall and took the spot next to him.
“What are you doing in here, Wertzie?” Tim hollered to the guy in the center control console, the same four-fingered carny who'd told him to get back to work earlier. “You hate this ride!”
Wertzie crossed his arms over his Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride T-shirt. His bored expression never changed as he leaned on a red button.
“See, Charlie? Any idiot can run the Gravitron.”
The ride started spinning and centrifugal force pulled Charlie back into the padded wall. Hip-hop music thumped as the Gravitron spun faster and faster. Conversation was no longer an option as he felt the floor slip away under his feet, his body stuck fast to the wall like he was magnetized. Next to him, Tim screamed along to the music in words that were nowhere close to the actual lyrics.
Finally the ride eased to a stop and the brothers stumbled off, trying to find their balance again.
“No more rides,” managed Charlie.
“Okay, okay,” Tim said with a friendly grin, holding up his hands to show he didn't want to fight. He led Charlie off behind the carnival games at the edge of the midway, where they could talk in private. “Let me guessâyou need to know how to handle the hundred-and-eighty-one-pound tough guy? Mr. Company-Swag Windbreaker?”
Fitz was the last thing Charlie wanted to talk about. “No!”
“C'mon, I saw you hiding from him.”
“I wasn't hiding. And that's not what I need to talk to you about.”
“You know you can't just keep running away, right?”
“What am I supposed to do, fight him?” Charlie exclaimed, getting caught up in the argument despite himself. “You saw himâhe's twice my size! He's a freshman, for God's sake!”
A serene look came over Tim's face. “It's like Bruce Lee once saidâpractice the art of fighting without fighting.”
“Fighting without fighting? What does that even mean?”
Enter the Dragon!
Come on, you've watched it, right?”
Charlie just stood there and stared at his brother. This was going nowhere. Not only was he not getting the advice he needed, he couldn't even get a word in edgewise. “I haven't watched your stupid movies, Tim. But I do have to haul them around every time we move, which is all the time.”
Tim kicked at the ground. “Sorry, man. Thought there might be some stuff in there you'd want.”
The brothers turned their heads in the direction of the man shouting their mom's name. At the end of a bungee line, DJ shot up into the sky again, waving his arms like crazy to show off for his date.
“We so got to do that,” said Tim.
“There's no way I'm jumping off that thing,” countered Charlie, watching DJ plummet through the air. And then the idea hit him. He had the answer he was looking for, even if he never got to ask the question. It was perfect. He knew how he was going to break back into the warehouse.