Authors: Chandler McGrew
Copyright 2002 ©
Distribution of any or all of this work is strictly forbidden without the express written permission of the author.
I would like to thank my agent, Peter Rubie, of Fine Print Literary Management for his steadfast support and that of Brooks Sherman as well. Bigger and better boys. Bigger and better. I would also like to thank my wife, Rene, for supporting a crazy notion for so many years (or is it decades) through the ups and the downs. The term soulmate seems sadly inadequate in describing you.
Hey diddle diddle
We’re trapped in the middle
With the cat and the cow and the spoon.
We all want to dance
With the girl in the trance
But not while death calls the tune.
Diddle Me This
by Maggie Bright
As the semi rattled to a stop in a screeching blast of air brakes, Kira Graves swung the big passenger door open, grimacing as the wall of heat struck her in the face. The flat griddle of parade ground was surrounded on three sides by palmetto marsh. Across the road lay more swamp thick with live oaks bearded heavily with gray Spanish moss. The feeling of being encircled made the heat even more oppressive.
"Wake up your mom, Hon," said her Kira’s dad, climbing down on the other side of the truck.
Kira watched the other rigs pulling off the highway as she walked to the back of the long, silver-sided, freight trailer with its painted show-banner reading
World of Magic Carnival.
She unhitched the bottom lock-bolt on the smaller entry door that was cut into one of the two big swinging rear doors. Jen trotted over to boost her up and inside, and Kira slipped past the heavy wooden stoop that her dad and one of the roustabouts would lower into place later. She hurried down the aisle-formed of hanging blankets-along one side of the trailer and parted the curtain into her mother and father’s
, discovering that her mother was already awake, sitting on the edge of the mattress, rubbing her eyes, rimmed now with red.
"Hello, Darling," said her mother, opening her arms for Kira.
Kira fell into her embrace, soaking up the warmth and love that always overflowed there. Her mother was petite like Kira, with the same short blond hair and big brown eyes, but she radiated an inner glow that Kira was sure could light the whole show if she needed it to. Kira pulled back a little, and her mother kissed her cheek wetly.
"Your eyes are red, Mom," she said.
Her mother sighed. "Just tired."
"You had another nightmare."
Her mother nodded sadly. She might not tell Kira what the dreams were about, but she couldn’t hide their effect.
"Where’s your father and Jen?"
"I guess Dad’s already setting up. Jen is just outside."
"Well, let’s go help, then."
Her mother slipped down off the back of the trailer, then turned to help her out. Jen followed them onto the parade ground where Dad was shouting at roustabouts who were dragging out tent poles and midway gear even as more trucks were still pulling in. They went to help Fat Alice who was griping at Whiskey Coot as he stacked painted sections of plywood that would be Alice’s Penny-in-the-Bottle shack.
"We got this handled," said Alice, giving Kira the eye. "You help someone else who needs it. Coot is perfectly capable of doing a days work when he’s sober."
Alice slipped a hand the size of a smoked ham into a hidden pocket and handed Kira a sugar cookie. Kira smiled. Then she and her mother and Jen ambled on along the line of flagged stakes that Bennie the Barker was driving to mark the midway. Finally they spent a couple of hours helping to set up the Three-in-One, the Guess-Your-Weight, and the Shooting Gallery. Kira and Jen held the funnel while Fuzzy gassed up the big diesel motor for the Ferris Wheel a group of roustabouts were wenching onto its stand. Then she and Jen ran to catch up with her mom again. She was standing beside Kira’s dad, watching men lay out big wooden poles for the tent that would be the Haunted House.
"I’m gonna run into town and pass out some flyers and passes," said her father, rubbing Kira on top of the head. "You wanna come?"
She glanced at her mother and saw again the deep sadness in her eyes.
"I’ll stay with mom," she said, quietly.
"No," said her mother, equally softly. "You go with your father. It’s good for you to be together. I’ll stay and make sure no one breaks anything. If that’s possible."
"Hon-" said Kira’s dad.
But her mother shook her head. "You two need time together."
When Jen started to follow, Kira’s mother placed a hand on her arm.
"She doesn’t need you right now, Jen," said her mother.
Jen shrugged to tell Kira that she would stay. Kira’s dad got the keys to a rusted, open-top Jeep from one of the roustabouts and tossed a couple of cardboard boxes into the back. Kira climbed into the ripped leather seat, dodging loose springs. Her father glanced at her in her worn jeans and white t-shirt and smiled.
"Off to the big city," he said, as the car lurched ahead and out onto the highway.
Kira laughed. There were no big cities for miles. The parade ground lay a couple of miles outside the small town of Kisskawanee, and the town leased it cheap for fairs, carnivals, and flea markets.
Her father sensed her pensiveness and studied her face as she squinted into the sun ahead.
"Things will be all right," he said, sighing.
She nodded, wishing he wouldn’t lie to her or to himself, but it was something he had to do. They were all doing it. She was lying by nodding her agreement.
"I love being a carney," said Kira.
Her father’s smile returned, but this time it was melancholy, almost sad.
"I know you do. You have the show in your blood."
"I don’t ever want things to change."
Her father turned away to face the road again, his lips tight, and in that instant Kira knew that things were going to change, and there was nothing she or anyone else could do about it.
In most ways Kisskawanee was like every other small town Kira had known. A wide Main Street lined with shops that were slowly going out of business. The outlying land-on the opposite side of town from the parade grounds-had once been drained and clear cut for farms, but now was spotted with developments for the swarms of retirees filling Florida like God’s waiting room. Somewhere up the road would be a Wal-Mart Super Store where the locals now bought their clothes, their food, and most every other thing they needed.
Downtowns in the old villages of Florida were tough, though. They might be sick, but they weren’t gonna just roll over and die. The people you saw running the stores there tended to be older, with hard faces and sometimes soft eyes. They longed for a time that Kira sensed was passing them by, and she wondered what the world would look like when there were no more downtowns at all, just highways lined with Home Depots and MacDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chickens.
She hardly noticed the way the towners looked at her as she walked quietly beside her dad. They were recognized right off as
, but as soon as her father started shaking hands and passing out flyers the first thing people did was give
a good once-over. She’d realized early on that towners figured she must have a hard life, that she was probably uneducated and maybe pretty rough around the edges. Lord knew what else they thought, but she didn’t know any towners well enough to tell them that she could read on a college level, that because of Fat Alice’s tutoring she was two grades ahead in math, or that Shakespeare was boring if you compared him to Dean Koontz. She simply accepted the free soda that was offered in the Dairy Treet in trade for the passes, nodding her thanks silently and looking demure.
"Mom had another nightmare before we pulled into the parade grounds," she informed her dad, as they stepped back out of the hardware store onto the crackling hot sidewalk.
Her father sighed loudly.
"Why did she tell Jen I wouldn’t need her?" she asked.
Her father stopped, staring at cars passing as though looking right through them. He slipped one muscular arm around her shoulders and tugged her against his side, but he still didn’t look at her.
"You know how much your mother and I love you, don’t you, Hon?"
She nodded, wrapping her own arm as far as it would go around his broad back, trying to squeeze him as much as he squeezed her.
"We would never let anything to happen to you if we could stop it," said her father.
"What could happen to me?" she asked, hearing echoes of her mother’s midnight cries inside her head.
"Nothing," said her father, a little too quickly. "Your mother is just getting me spooked."
"She sees the future."
"Is something really bad about to happen?" she asked.
He leaned his head way back on his shoulders, staring now up at the wide green canvas awning shutting out the afternoon sun. Cars passed slowly on the street as though the heat made them as lethargic as the people outside the shops along the walk.
"I hope not, Hon," he said, turning to guide her on down the sidewalk. "I really hope not."
"Is it my fault?"
He stopped to kneel in front of her, bringing his face close to her own.
"Don’t you ever think that. Not ever. Nothing that has happened or that
happen is your fault. None of it. Do you understand?"
She nodded, but she wasn’t sure she believed.
They spent the rest of that Friday handing out flyers and passes in town, then walking the midway, checking to make sure that everything was ready for the show opening the next day. Balky Sam, the wiry old black man with the bushy gray mustache complained that the cops had given him a hard time about the setup on the Wheel-of-Fortune.
"They all but tore the damned thing apart, Rader."
Kira’s dad just smiled ruefully, shaking his head. "Don’t worry about it, Balky. It’s not the first time."
"But Goddamnit! We run a clean show. No sticky wheels or magnet catches."
"You know that, and I know that, but they’re towners."
"And we’re carneys," agreed Balky.
"You can’t cheat an honest man."
"Watch me," said Balky, smiling.
"We don’t cheat people," said Kira, "do we, Dad?"
"Never. The games are built in our favor. That means that the odds are we’re gonna make money on ‘em, but we don’t rig them so that people will lose whenever we want them to. There’s a difference. Do you understand?"
Kira nodded. "You don’t mess with fate."
Her father chuckled under his breath. "Close, but think a little harder."
Kira frowned, picturing the wheel. She understood how the odds worked. There were more chances that it wouldn’t
fall on a mark’s number than that it would, but that didn’t mean anyone
it not fall on the number. Still, the show wouldn’t run a game where there were even odds. They’d never win or lose anything, just break even.
"You don’t rig the game or mess with fate," she mused, trying to understand what she was missing. She could almost see it in her father’s eyes. "But you work it so the odds are in your favor."
Her father nodded. "That’s not cheating. You understand?"
"I think so."
"Fate favors those who use their talents to the fullest. You can’t bend fate to your will, but you can try your darndest to put yourself in a position to win by manipulating things in your favor, always staying one move ahead of your opponent.
father taught me that."
The crowds were thin all day Saturday, but by that night the midway was full of towners, meandering around with their popcorn and cotton candy and fresh roasted peanuts, saturating the night air with odors that Kira associated with
By bedtime she was exhausted from taking over for barkers on their breaks and from selling tickets for two hours as well. But even though the night seemed like so many normal nights before, a dull and not quite definable sense of foreboding had followed Kira everywhere since late afternoon. By bedtime it had grown into a nervous certainty that the terrible calamity her mother had foreseen and her father had sought so hard to deny was now hanging like a roustabout's sledgehammer right over the show.