By Lauren BriceThe carnival smells like cotton candy and desperation. Desperate for money, prizes, thrills. Or in my case, companionship. The fair is the last place on earth I want to be alone, but there’s not much to do around here, and I don’t know anyone yet. That’s kind of how it goes when you’ve lived in a town for two weeks.
The dust plumes around my shoes, and little kid screams pierce my ears. I walk long, loopy circles up and down the lanes of rides and food booths. It’s disgusting what they’ll fry here. Twinkies are one thing to surrender to the fryer. An ooey, gooey cinnamon roll is another. And we wonder why the country is one giant, clogged artery.
The rides give me vertigo just watching them from the ground, and the pools of grease surrounding all the food makes me actually consider throwing up, so I find myself settled in view of a Jacob’s ladder. It’s the only game around here that takes a bit of strategy. Not that it’s any less rigged. $5 per climb is robbery.
A few little kids try their hand at scaling it, flopping off the moment they step on, all flailing arms and legs as they hit the inflatable below. The employee is even nice enough to hold the bottom of the ladder for a while to give them a fighting chance.
It only really gets interesting when a bunch of kids my age show up, and the two guys promise to give a good show in a peacocking of physical strength or whatever ego prods men to do stupid things.
The one in the khaki shorts goes first. His girlfriend offers encouragement as he stutters up a few rungs. Then splat. Just like he should. Dude 1’s friend gives him some flack over the flop and approaches the ladder himself. While he sizes up the twisting ropes, I look him over. He looks like he belongs on a beach with his deeply sun golden skin and surfer hair, but his maroon shirt and jeans proves he belongs here. He snaps his head to get his bangs out of his eyes and settles his weight evenly over the ladder.
Where his friend was jerky and sporadic, he moves like a sloth, considering how every centimeter will disrupt his fragile balance. But there’s no time limit at this game, and, as he creeps up the ladder, neither of his friends cheer him on. His arms reach up, and he wobbles but manages to keep it together. With fingertips inches from the bell, I strange impulse comes over me, and I open my mouth.
“When you ring the bell, I’ll go buy you a cotton candy,” I say with my hands cupped around my mouth so he can hear. He looks over his shoulder at me, his sharp eyes catching mine, and the ladder twists in a final campaign to oust him. He loses his balance and starts to fall toward the mat, but his fingers clasp around the bell’s rope as he falls, and it lets out a chime before he bounces against the inflatable.
“It doesn’t count,” says the man running the booth. “You have to be on the ladder when the bell rings to get a prize.”
“What?” Golden boy looks seriously pissed. “I rang your freaking bell.That’s all you said I had to do. I got to the top of the ladder. I bet you’ve never seen anyone do that before.”
“Rules are rules,” the guy replies with a sorry not sorry look.
The boy stalks off toward his friends talking about how screwed up the situation is, and I start to turn and walk away when I hear his voice, and it’s directed at me. “I got to the top. I won my cotton candy.”
I pivot to face him, a small smile creeping into my lips. “I’m not a scammer like the people running the fair. I’ll keep my word.” I nod my head toward a booth that sells the treat and start walking. I get up to the window and survey the menu for something I might want. “I’d like a bag of cotton candy and a bag of popcorn,” I tell the man and hand over a few crumpled bills. As he’s gathering the food, I grab some napkins for the eventual sugar fingers.
“Napkins are twenty-five cents each,” the man grumbles from inside the booth.
“What the hell?” I say and throw the brown paper back on the counter.
Golden boy steps up behind me. I can feel his shallow breathing prickle on my neck as he says, “I’ll buy the napkins.” He gives the guy a dollar and picks up the giant wad of napkins I’d abandoned. Grumpy sales dude grunts and hands me the food, and we walk over to the bench by the ladder. Golden’s friend is still trying the climb the ladder, not to be outdone.
“Never gonna happen,” Golden yells before sitting down next to me. His friend makes the fatal mistake of looking back and loses his grip. “I’m Jack, by the way,” he says as I had him his bag of spun sugar.
“Jack,” I repeat, mentally changing his name. “I’m Tiffany.”
He splits the plastic open and reaches in for a glob of dessert that looks like pink hair. How do people eat that stuff? I open my popcorn and pop a few kernels in my mouth.
“You want some?” he offers, holding the bag out to me.
“No thanks, it gives me a headache, but you can have some of this.” Jack doesn’t hesitate to take a monster handful, stuffing it in his mouth.
“Real attractive,” I smirk, unsure of where my inhibitions have run off to tonight. I figure it’s better just to own it.
“I’m sorry,” he says with a full mouth, “I didn’t know I was supposed to be attractive.”
I chuck a piece of popcorn at him, and he pretends like the yellow puff hurt when it grazed his cheek. “Don’t be such a baby.”
Jack laughs and goes for another hunk of cotton candy. “So why haven’t we met before? I know everyone in this town.”
“I’m new. Haven’t been here long or out much, really. It’s hard to feel like leaving the house when you’ll be by yourself.” I sound pathetic, and I’m wondering where the girl bold enough to get Jack’s attention went.
“Ya, I get that. Most people have lived here their whole lives. It’s nice to see a new face.” He gives me an encouraging smile that gives me hope. Maybe I won’t be alone forever. “Yo, Patrick,” he calls back toward the ladder, “it’s never gonna happen. Come over here and meet Tiffany.”
Patrick’s girlfriend joins us first. Her bleach blonde hair falls to her chin, and she’s wearing black leggings that shimmer in the carnival lights. She exudes a confidence that makes me want to be her friend. She extends a hand toward me. “I’m Kat. Welcome to town.” I nod and take her hand. Then she sits down next to me.
Patrick eventually joins us, trying not to be defeated. “It’s rigged,” I offer with a shrug as he throws himself down on the other side of Jack.
“It’s not like Jack even technically won,” Kat adds to which Jack starts to protest and Patrick agrees.
“Okay, we can move on,” I say. “Let’s go ride the Ring of Fire.” It’s the first ride my eyes fell on, and it’s currently making an epic loop, throwing riders upside down as it makes circle after circle. The whooshing only gets louder as we approach.
“Dare devil, eh?” Patrick says, raising an eyebrow. One of the employees ushers us into the seats after checking our wrist bands. “You actually got Kat on a ride.”
“Only tonight,” I remark as we take our seats, safety belts clipping into place. Jack is sitting next to me, and I’m trying to prepare myself to not scream too loud. “Maybe this wasn’t a great idea,” I admit to him as the operator starts counting down.
“Nah, I think you’ll be just fine,” he says as his hand finds mine to give it a reassuring squeeze.
The ride lurches and starts pulling us back, and I clamp my eyes shut, focusing on the light pulses coming through my fingers. I’m starting to think Jack’s right.
I really will be okay.
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About The Author: Laine is an author, book blogger at Reading, Writing, And Me and the editor of Fireworks In The Night which she created to share her own work and that of others who have a story to tell. To read more of her work, click here