An excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Blood Bonds
(c) 2009 Levi Montgomery
Lucy wanders alone down the midway, watching the ground slide past her feet with the sound of a thousand people walking on sawdust. Candy wrappers and torn ticket stubs and bits of random trash litter the ground, drifting like windblown snow in the untracked corners and the narrow spaces between game booths. The people around her fade away like a driving rain when you’ve grown used to it, their shouts and voices and footsteps and rustlings becoming merely an insistent whisper of questions. “Why are you here? Why did you come? Why do you do this?”
Every year, she says that was the last time. Every year, she changes her mind. Every year, she decides to give the county fair one more try, and every year, she’s disappointed again. Fifteen next month, you’d think she would have learned by now.
There is absolutely nothing here for her. People are fine, in small groups, but this is just a crowd. The rides are either boring or scary or both, and she wants neither. The games are all rigged. The cows and rabbits and horses and the guy selling cowboy hats and the woman with the hand-painted saw blades you’re supposed to hang on the wall are all the same things from last year. There’s some big storage place somewhere, some giant version of the shed in the back yard, and they just roll this whole thing in there and leave it for fifty-one weeks. Then they drag it out again to fool the unwary who didn’t learn their lesson last year.
She stops and digs her foot down into the dirty sawdust put down to protect the grass, trying to see how deep it is. Like she didn’t do this last year. Like it’ll be any different this year. Just deep enough she can bury her shoe, that’s how deep it is. A shadow crosses her foot, and she looks up.
Denny Martin stands there, alone, and she looks instinctively past him for Dave Laufer. He’s nowhere in sight, and that’s so weird she almost shivers a little. Dave and Denny are like twins. Conjoined twins, joined at the hip in some tragic post-birth mixup at the hospital. Some of the snottier girls at school say they’re gay, but she knows better. She’s seen the way they look at girls. Even her, sometimes. Especially Denny.
“So how come you don’t have a big bag full of stuffed animals?” he asks her, as she’s opening her mouth to greet him.
Because I think the prizes are stupid and the games are rigged. Because I don’t have a boyfriend to try to win them for me. Because I don’t have any money, and I only came to look at the cows and rabbits and the guy selling cowboy hats. “Mmm, uh…” is all she can manage, looking down again. She shrugs.
“You don’t even have a bracelet,” he says. “Are you paying for the rides separately? That gets expensive.”
No, I’m just not going on rides. The bracelets are eight bucks. That’s not expensive? She shrugs again, not looking up. There’s sawdust on her shoe, and she taps it against the other one, looking off down the fairway so he won’t see it.
A bolder girl would look up and grin at him, and that grin would say everything she needs to say. Buy me a bracelet. Win me a teddy bear. Hook your fingers oh-so-casually through mine and buy me kielbasa on a stick and elephant ears, and let’s pretend we’re boyfriend and girlfriend. A bolder girl would look up. She’s known for years now that he wants all those things as badly as she does, and she can’t do a thing about it.
She shakes her head a little, not knowing why, and manages one quick squinted look at his eyes, but the sudden weakness in her forces her gaze down again.
Watching her face, watching her eyes watch her toes, he thinks of asking her to come on some rides with him, but he lets the thought die alone. Dave hasn’t talked about her since that day two years ago, when they swore the blood brothers oath, but he’s felt this odd hands-off taboo ever since.
“Well… have fun, ok?” he says, and she nods her head a little, looking down at her toes.
As soon as he turns away, she can raise her eyes, cautiously, watching his rear view as he moves away toward the rides. Come back and ask me, Denny, she shouts after him, but it’s only in her mind, and she buries a gum wrapper in the sawdust as he walks away.
Kielbasa on a stick. She can afford that, barely, and it’ll feel like fair food, sort of, and she turns the other way, toward the food stands. If you walk between the two rows of back-to-back tents along the commercial display, you have to dodge past piles of boxes and empty hand carts and step over the stakes and ropes, but at least you don’t have to look at people.
Six inches of kielbasa impaled on a wooden skewer and covered with sticky barbecue sauce, and a can of Coke from a cooler with no ice in it. Lunch exhausts what’s left of her allowance, and she sits in a corner of the noisy table area, wondering why she does this and watching the crowd go by. Chests and stomachs and legs, swinging arms and strollers. If you look higher than their shoulders, then you might have to see their faces.
A girl from school and a boy she doesn’t know sit down at the table next to hers with an armload of food that would feed a horse, hamburgers and Cokes and a block of curly fries the size of a loaf of bread. She turns her back and nibbles her kielbasa even more slowly. If she can make it last longer than their pile of food, then she wins, and she closes her eyes to make time slow down.
The bench shakes suddenly, and she looks up, startled. Dave Laufer. It’s so odd to see either of them without the other, and now she’s seen each of them alone in one day. Maybe they’re fighting. Maybe it’s some odd male-bonding ritual.
He landed straddled on the bench with such force that it’s still shaking as she turns her gaze away to the tent pole in front of her. All that silent shouting, and he’s the one that shows up?
“Hey! What are you doing?”
What’s it look like? Eating my last two dollars. Three, counting the Coke, but she can’t say anything. She shrugs her shoulders, picking up the Coke can from the bench beside her.
“That’s not your lunch is it? ’Cause I was thinking, I could buy you some of those curly fries?” and she chokes on her Coke, barely not spewing it out all over the pole. She stares at her shoes. Buy me a bracelet. Win me a teddy bear. You’re not the right one, but can we pretend?
“Hey! Where’s your wrist band? You didn’t get a wrist band? You can’t pay for rides one at a time, you know. You go on like six rides, and you’re losing money after that.” She doesn’t look at him, but she can feel his eyes on her.
“I, uh, don’t really ride the rides much,” she manages, talking only to the tent pole, and then she gropes for her straw again, watching her toes squirm inside her shoes.
“Well, come on! Let’s go fix that. It’s only like two o’clock, lots of time left. Come on!’ and he’s got her elbow, tugging her to her feet. She walks away with him, glad she has the can to occupy her hands. You’re the wrong one, but you might be a step closer.
He takes her back to the front gate, where he buys her an all-you-can-ride wrist band in neon purple. They walk the length of the midway, where anything that remotely resembles throwing a baseball falls prey to his pitching skills, and she lets him talk her onto the Ferris wheel, but that’s all. He’s not giving up, he assures her, but he needs food to argue on, and they retreat to the food stands again, three of them now, Dave, Lucy, and a big green bear with a goofy grin.
The bear’s not eating anything, but Lucy and Dave claim one end of a bench and start in on a pair of steak sandwiches and a big block of curly fries. With drinks and assorted extras, they have enough food between them to feed a small army for a week. Well, a very small army, perhaps, but still, it’s more fair food than she’s ever eaten in any one year.
The passing stream of people holds not just her friends, but his as well, people stopping to greet them and ask if they’ve ridden this ride or that, or did they see the giant pig, and how stupid are those hand-painted saw blades? If she ignores the crowd and pretends she’s in the lunchroom at school, it’s ok. She can see the people as though they’re people, not as units in some zombie locust horde, intent on devouring this entire event. She can sip at her soda straw and smile and greet the girls from school, and not quite look at the boys, and sometimes, she can catch a look in an eye that she’s never seen before, as one girl or another notes the closeness of his hand to hers, on the table between them.
In a still moment with none of their friends around, a sparrow comes hopping alone and intent along the narrow aisle between the row of awning posts and the parking-lot fence. Eyes on the ground, he searches for crumbs among the straggly weeds there, and Lucy gropes along the table’s edge for French-fry remnants to toss him. His bonanza instantly noticed by all his buddies, he’s joined by a dozen more, flitting through the chain-link fence when she reaches for more crumbs, swooping back in when they hit the ground.
Dave joins her, tossing bits of bread and broken chips, and when she reaches blindly to the table, watching the birds and groping for more, her fingers are met by his and the whole world crunches to a stop around her. Unable to look up for a long second, she watches the birds. When she does finally look up at him, she still can’t quite reach his eyes. Her gaze stops at his chin, watching the movements there.
There is absolutely nothing in the mundane feel of his fingertips tangled in hers to account for the sudden stillness in her. Perhaps he’s not the wrong one after all. She draws her fingers away from his, taking refuge in the need of another sip of Coke, and now she can get her eyes all the way up to his. Brown. Why didn’t she know that? Why has she never noticed that? Why has she never seen the way his hair shifts in the soft breeze like that? When did his chin acquire that tiny little juttedness, that firm masculinity?
“Maybe when school starts,” he says, looking down, looking for more to toss to the birds, “maybe we can, uh…” She waits, but there doesn’t seem to be any more. She looks past him to where Denny’s turning away, turning to the line at an ice-cream place.
“Spend some time together,” he whispers finally, but she doesn’t answer. Maybe you’re the wrong one. Maybe you’re not. Maybe you’re just one step closer. Take me on more rides, and let’s find out. Dangle your fingers ever so casually through mine, and let’s see if you’re the one or not.
Except for the mindless crush of the rides and the casual push of the crowd, they spend the rest of the day without touching one another, her fingers trembling off and on all afternoon from that one throbbing moment of tangle. Waiting in the dark outside the front gate for her mother’s car, she finds all of her fingers gathered up again into that mundane stillness. His eyes are even darker now than normal, hidden in the deep shadows of the street lights. Puddling into her own stillness, she looks up at him, at where eyes would be if he had any.
Kiss me. Don’t kiss me kiss me, just kiss me a little, just kiss me a sweet soft first kiss, but when he leans toward her a tiny spanless way, she shifts her weight backward, away from him, and he recedes like an ebbing tide, like a sigh, like regret, and she breathes again.
“School’s in, what, three weeks?” he asks her. They haven’t touched that since he first dropped it, there in the shade of the awnings, in the smell of grease and barbecue sauce and smoke, in the sight of the birds. We should spend some time together, he said to her, and they haven’t said anything about it since.
“Five,” she says, “almost five,” slipping her fingers from his. Take them back. Link them through yours and let my mother see. She steps a tiny inch away from him. Her mother can’t see them like this.
He can’t seem to decide where to put his hands now, dangling alone there in the dark beside him, flitting and hovering like the birds at lunch time. They settle finally in the edges of his pockets, birds landing so neatly in the diamonds of the chain link. She watches the skin wrinkle across his knuckles, tiny canyons of shadow. There seems to be nothing at all left to say, perhaps ever, and she says none of it.
He looks past her, across her shoulder, and a tiny, reluctant movement of his head tells her that her mother is here.