by Kathleen Anderson
art by Belle McDonald
There is magic in the air.
Everywhere I look there are new people, colors, and adventures calling to me. I turn around and glance up at the towering sign bearing the word “Carnival” in purple paint, the bold spiraling script igniting the spark of excitement within me, sending electricity down through my fingertips.
Suddenly, I catch a flash of familiarity in a streak of bright blue from the corner of my eye. I whip my head around and am greeted by a grinning girl whose splattered freckles shift with her smile, the teal ribbons tied to her pigtails unraveling on both sides. Without saying a word, she grabs my hand and pulls me firmly in one direction. The blue ribbons swishing behind her, moving with the wind, remind me of the banners strung overhead in a zig-zag, flapping in the same pattern. The distorted mirrors echo the toothless grins we give each other as we hurtle past the entrance to the House of Mirrors.
We don’t stop running until we reach the line. She frantically reaches into the pockets of her overalls to pull out two magenta tickets, even though we are nowhere near the front. She holds them out in the palm of her hand, and I take one. It’s wrinkled and worn, ripped at the edges where she has disconnected it from her own, but I still clutch it carefully in my hand like it is treasure.
I still can’t seem to calm my nerves. I look down at my velcroed shoes as they rock back and forth, back and forth. I note the layer of dust that now covers the once shiny black surface.
We exchange whispers to pass the time, filling the air around us with giggles. I retie her ribbons, coiling the thick blue strands around my fingers and looping them like rabbit ears before pulling.
The front of the line greets us with a whole stampede of horses, all different colors, shapes, and sizes. Some are spotted, some striped, others winged. They bounce up and down, and I stare as they dance around majestically in circles. I try to keep my eye trained on one, but I can’t. They move too fast.
Finally, their pace slows. The riders dismount, the man unhinges the white gate, and I race to the horse I have my eye on, a pretty white one with a mane of gold.
I mount my steed. Straightening my back and gripping the saddle, I prepare for the ride. As my horse slowly gains speed, I imagine its head tilting back, gold mane swaying in the wind as it looses a neigh. I close my eyes, letting my laughter echo into the night.
The outside walls of the House of Mirrors distort my face as I stare at my reflection, but I can still see enough to make sure I’ve coated every inch of my lips with the spongy tip of my gloss before I carefully screw it back into the bottle.
I round the corner once more, almost crashing head first into a boy with black, shaggy hair that almost entirely shades his dark eyes. He gives me a bashful smile, and before I can register what has happened, he vanishes.
I flick my eyes back in front of me, where another, much more familiar boy, waves me over to his place in line. We’re up next. It seems like as soon as I step into place beside him, the velvet rope unclasps, and our feet are clambering up the metal stairs of the ride. The ferris wheel cab swings ever so slightly as he holds my hand, helping me up into the seat. As the ferris wheel slowly creeps up into the sky, his arm slides around my shoulders, and he finally pulls me into an embrace as we reach the top. I look into his bright blue eyes and smile, hoping he notices the shimmer of my lips.
From here, I don’t quite feel like I’m at the top of the world, but it’s close enough for me. I can hear the buzz of the Carnival below, catching bits and pieces of the events beneath my feet. Crackling music blasts from the speakers sitting next to the ring toss station; an excited shriek echoes from a little girl being hoisted onto her father’s shoulders; two boys cry out in frustration as they miss their chance to win a prize at the basketball booth.
The sky above is clear, the purple and pinks from the beginnings of a summer sunset making for a pleasant picture. The view below is more muffled. Smoke from various booths drifts up into the sky, mixing with the particles of dirt trampling feet kick into the air. I don’t find it a dirty sight. Instead, I think the slightly blurred view adds to the mysteriousness of the night.
He tugs at a strand of my hair playfully and turns my head gently into his smirking lips. His tongue is tinted pink from the cotton candy we ate earlier and tastes just as sweet. I shut my eyes as the kiss deepens, but can still vaguely make out flashes of blue, red, and orange from the surrounding rides as the ferris wheel spins on slowly into the night.
As I look up to the top of the ferris wheel, my cheeks still heat with the faded memory of stolen kisses from long, long ago.
So much is the same. The fluorescent lights still pull my eyes in every direction. I spot the familiar bright pink of tickets everywhere. One sticks out between a boy’s bundled fist; a spiraling string of them peek out of someone’s unzipped backpack. Another lays discarded in the dirt, its intense color muddled by the dust covering it.
But so much is different. This time, I don’t rush around in a haze, trying to outrace the sun to ride every ride and play every game before it is time to go. This time, it’s me handing out the kisses. I dole them out in flurries as I take turns picking up a giggling girl and a snickering boy. When I hold them, they both squeeze me tight with fingers still sticky from candy apples.
This time, I look to my side and find brown eyes staring back at me from behind a curtain of black hair. They sparkle, the outside corners wrinkling as a smile spreads across his face. I look back and forth between him and the girl in my arms, who peers up at me with identical dark eyes. Suddenly, I find myself smiling too.
We weave our way in and out of the crowded chaos, bound together by our intertwined fingers: an unbreakable rope of four. We snake around vendors selling everything from stuffed animals to stuffed pies. The children beg to stop at every turn of their heads, but I point to the fluffy unicorn so big my girl can barely wrap her free arm around it and to the leftover crumbs still crusted around my boy’s mouth to indicate they’ve had their fair share of treats for the day.
Finding an empty bench, we squish hip to hip in order to all fit, settling in just in time to see the fireworks burst open above our heads. I look down at the children’s wide expressions with the same wonder they peer up into the sky with, watching as the fluorescent orange and pinks explode into the emerging night.
There is still magic in the air.
I sit peacefully on one of the worn, wooden benches, mindful of the empty seats beside me. There is no one left to keep me warm when the summer breeze sweeps past me in a gust.
Although my time of wandering around from game to game is over, I still enjoy seeing others do so. I watch as families make their way through the crowd in tiny herds, children’s heads bobbing up and down around their parent’s hips. A mob of teenage girls stand thinking no one notices them stealing glances at the group of boys taking turns swinging the hammer as hard as they can at the high striker station. The boys clap each other on the back with every slam, ding, and flare from the machine, an action mirrored by the girls’ not so silent giggles.
I’m in the middle of watching the events around me unfold when a little girl skips up to me, tapping me so gently on the shoulder I almost don’t notice it. I smile as I shift my focus to her, noticing the bright blue ribbon that keeps the braid falling down her back in place. She wiggles her feet back and forth, keeping her eyes focused on the patterns they trace in the dirt as she politely asks if I have any tickets to spare. It’s for an important cause, she reassures me, although she doesn’t elaborate beyond that.
I nod my head as I reach for the tiny purse perched beside me on the bench, and her lips spread into a bashful smile. As I stretch the mouth of my purse wide I catch a flash of blue, drawing my attention to the faded photo tucked into my wallet. I tug on it a bit, wriggling it from its place just enough to see the whole picture. It captures a girl with dark eyes, face squished against her mother’s chest, as the middle-aged woman tries to re-adjust the ribbon in the girl’s hair. A boy stands impatiently with his arms crossed in the background.
Smiling, I reach my hand past my wallet and pull out my last three tickets. I hand them over to the girl, knowing that they will be sufficient enough to buy her a place at any ride or game offered here tonight.
She blurts a “thank you” as she spins around, sprinting around the corner of the closest ride and out of my sight, the trail of dust she left behind the only indication she had been there only seconds ago.
This time when the summer breeze comes to caress me, I embrace the momentary chill it sends down my spine. I tilt my head back and take a deep breath as I close my eyes, the laughter of children racing past me seeping into the summer night.