Under moonlight and against floodlights, we sprint across the mottled browns and greens of trampled grass in a complicated game of tag. Tag got older when I wasn’t looking. Now, you want to be fast and win but also chased and maybe caught. When chased, you don’t know whether your pounding heart or feet or fists win. Winning isn’t measured in Skeeball tickets but pounding feet, or hearts, or others fists.
I hide behind a large, red, industrial, metal piece of a mostly-disassembled, carnival ride. The clunking of bolts, the whir of drills against metal, and generators running, surround me as my heaving breath slows and I scan the grounds. I don’t see him and my heart sinks. Until now, I didn’t know how much I wanted him to chase me. I hold my position and see him zip into view as he catches Missy Arbuckle by the long, slender wrist, her delicate, silver charm bracelet falling to the ground in the process. And just like, that the whole game, the whole world, stops to help Missy.
I stop the world for Missy too. She was the first person I thought to ask to come to the fair. My mom told me I could pick whatever friend I wanted to bring and I immediately picked up the phone and called Missy. I excitedly told her we’d stay in a hotel, and go to the parade first, and then the fair. And do you know what that girl said? She said, “Ok, but what do you do at the fair?” What the hell kind of kid doesn’t know what happens at the fair? I could see the haughty, blonde nose-in-the-air through the phone. Like she could smell the livestock that, if judged by her, would be granted awards solely on the basis of stench and likelihood of dirtying her pristine pink-a-boo manicure. Pink-a-boo is her signature color. I swear you can see her in a commercial with her perfect hands playing peek-a-boo with the camera, free of any dirt under the nails that should need covering with say, a darker color of polish. She said she’d have to ask her parents and call me back. Then a further series of phone calls to find out more information for her overbearing parents. Her parents always have to know everything. They want to know how much money she'll need, who else will be going, which hotel we'll be staying at, whether she should pack a bathing suit and on and on.
My mom doesn’t care what I’m doing when I’m at Missy’s, not that she should. She tells you something you’d best do and what time you’d best do it by and she means you’d best do it. You do it and you’re fine. You don’t and expect bruises somewhere. One time I didn’t come home on time and lied and told her I had a blister so it took me longer to walk home. I was only ten minutes late, but late was late so she used the belt on the bottoms of my feet right then and there. Then she did it again the next day for lying about the blister.
Once all the anxiety of phone calls was relieved, I was thrilled about bringing Missy to the fair with us. I couldn’t wait to drag her by her sweaty nervous hand to all the rides and eat fistfuls of funnel cakes and then get on more rides until we wished we hadn’t eaten so much powdered sugar and grease.
The milky skin of Missy’s brow is crinkled with worry as she stands helpless while the team of kids creeps around on all fours patting the ground with their palms looking for her charm bracelet. Tears well in her eyes and she tells us “I just got a new clock charm from my grandma for my birthday. It really tells time too. I just put it on today.” As if this were the news that would determine whether we found her bracelet or not. And it does. He stands suddenly, fist high in the air clutching silver, catching moonlight, glinting relief.
“Thank you,” she exhales dramatically.
Disaster averted, her face erupts into glee as she literally bounces. The wet from her blue eyes sparkle their appreciation and I fear that a kiss is on his lips.
Instead, his lips peel back in a sneer, “Time in!” he yells and takes off after me. Adrenaline surges as I run like hot coals, (instead of flattened grass,) were under my feet. He is at least two years older, with longer, faster legs, but I’m agile and crafty. I maneuver turns and twists to avoid capture just as his foot slips in wet grass, (probably domestic beer,) and I make it to base: a picnic table. I stand triumphantly on the bench, fists pumping above my head. “HA!”
I want this fine looking guy to know I’m no spoiled little girl. I don’t need his help and he can’t catch me that easily. I’m worth chasing, and I know it. I blow a strand of my unruly red hair out of my face, it falls right back and I cross my arms and stick my hip out. “Don’t you have someone else to chase?” My translucent, strawberry blonde eyebrow raised.
Mischievious, cocksure, his brown, perfectly-arced eyebrow raises in answer. He looks me over, “Nope.”
A straight, white-toothed, triumphant grin appears on his face and he says, “You have cotton candy in your hair.” And his winning again.
“So?” I say, about to sprint off, not sure I won’t be caught this time when Missy walks up.
“I’m tired. Where’s your mom?” she whines.
I roll my eyes. “I don’t know. Don’t be such a baby.”
“What time is it?” she frowns.
“I don’t know, look at the charm on your bracelet.” My lip curls up.
“Holy cow! It’s twelve thirty!” She looks at her clock then up at the moon directly overhead. “My parents are gonna kill me.” She frets, her voice a whine of blue-ribbon honesty.
“Who cares?” I shrug turning my body toward her. “How would they even find out anyway?” He’s behind me now as I glare at her not to ruin my moment with him. He slides an athletic, lanky arm around my underfed middle and it somehow grabs my heart and stops it. My eyes go wide with the message and Missy shrugs, nods, and runs off to restart the game with the few remaining kids who haven’t wandered home yet. She’s a good athlete: strong, fast, but lacking the scrappiness of street kids. Her sneakers will get some more use tonight.
He steers me away and we’re walking I-don’t-care-where, his arm tightly in place the whole time. I concentrate on matching the rhythm of his steps, not wanting him to let go, but then it starts to feel like a three-legged race. I’m about to loose myself from his grip but then we arrive at the baseball field bleachers. Earlier, the bleachers viewed a tented-arena with dirt floors, now back to be the baseball diamond but scuffed with foot and hoof-prints. I twirl out of his embrace but he does not let go. Instead, his hand slides down my arm and catches my hand at the end. I look him right in the eye, daring him to do something as my heart pounds. He pulls me down on the bench and right away kisses me hard. His teeth click against mine and I taste a bit of my blood. I pull back, stand up and he pulls me back down.
“Where do you think you’re going?” He asks.
“Maybe to find someone who can kiss right.” I say, thinking of going back to Missy and tag.
He pulls me back down, “Oh yeah?” and he does it again only this time our teeth don’t clink and I’m running out of bravado and melting into anxious lust. I want it to never stop and I want to run back to the game of tag and I want Missy to come whining about going home and I want to keep kissing, keep kissing, kissing, kissing, when a loud crash interrupts every thought for as far as I can imagine and a man growls. Howls, really. And that escalates to a yell, then a scream. And we’re up and running to see and his feet pound further and further ahead of me.
Then I’m standing, straining my eyes not to see him bent over the piece of Tilt-the-World that I hid behind watching a glinting bracelet and his father under that thick, heavy metal with bolts as thick as my waist. The floodlights announce the abrupt silence of the drills and it seems later, so much later than it did a moment ago. And I try not to notice him crying or the screaming or the kids and me and Missy standing there wide-eyed. And the men appear and they all heave and pick up the thick piece of metal with the red and blue lights still attached but his father’s hurt, really hurt and I don’t know what to say or do and Missy’s wide eyes look down at her clock charm and I want to hit her, punch her hard. But I just stand there the same as they all do and stare. We stare until red flashing lights, and blue police lights and pen lights arrive. And we’re flooded with questions: Did we see it? And what did we see? And why were we still there?
And the police want to call someone’s parents so honest, lily-white Missy Arbuckle tells them her parents’ number and they call. But my mom told me to wait here and she’d be back to take us to the hotel so two hours later when Missy’s parents want to take me home with them, I don’t know what to do. What best I do?
I refuse to go with Missy and her parents. I wait at the police station hoping that will help when my mom finds me somewhere other than where she left me. And I’m angry at Missy for telling the police and putting me in this position and for how her life is and how I know we won’t be friends anymore, not the same anyway. And I clench my fists and hold my scrawny, mighty, scrappy muscles in place that hold down weakness and think “good riddance.”
When I wake up in the hotel the next evening, cotton candy still in my hair, my teeth with a fuzzy layer, my feet hurt, my fists hurt, and still I want to play tag and eat cotton candy. And I wonder what’s wrong with me. And I wonder about winning at tag. And I almost forget to wonder what his name was.