They rolled into town in the middle of the day: large covered wagons and flatbed trucks hauling disassembled rides that looked like futuristic dinosaur bones. They settled over by the highway, by the river, near the empty muddy brown field and planted themselves. Two days later, sawdust, lights, and swinging rides that screamed against the sky sprouted.
It didn’t matter where you were when the carnival arrived, everyone heard it beckon. The air filled with a music that lulled each person to a dreamy calm and seemed to come from a time when life was better. It was hard to believe that a time like that ever existed—safer, quainter, quieter times—but the music made everyone believe. People hummed the tune that reached through the rows of houses and rolled all the way back down to the river like a low fog. It made a person crave corn dogs and cotton candy.
It came once a year for a weekend in June, announcing to all that summer had officially begun. This year was no different than any other. The carnival would open on Friday night, and everyone in town had plans to go.
Tessa and Lulu were no exception. Last year the two sisters had worn matching sundresses and eggshell-colored sweaters—and they had gone with the burden of their parents hovering over them, making them squirm with embarrassment each time they saw someone from school. Accompanied by their parents, they had felt like babies, and, even worse, their mom’s sleeve tattoos and their dad’s long hair and piercings could have been an attraction at such a place once upon a time. Last year, Tessa and Lulu were not free to try every single ride, brave the curiosity sideshow tent, get lost in the crowds, or win a tiny stuffed banana without help from their father.
But this year was different. This year, Tessa was old enough to go alone. The week the trucks arrived, the two sisters were sent into a tizzy.
“Did you see them rolling into town?” Tessa asked, hoping to one-up her sister.
“No,” Lulu said.
“I did,” Tessa said. “Guess I’m lucky!”
“Guess you are,” Lulu said and tried to not sound too disappointed. But Tessa could tell she was. She wore the sadness on her face all through dinner.
Everyone at her school agreed that Tessa was officially the girl who saw the trucks first that year. Everyone said that was a sign of luck. In fact, it was pure luck that she’d seen them first at all. She hadn’t been looking for them. She saw them while staring out the window, ignoring the math lesson, and thinking of Charlie Evans. Her eyes focused on the vehicles, like tiny ants in the distance, jetting down the highway and then, as they crept closer, they morphed into something delicious and exciting. She had been wishing so hard for summer to start, and then, there they were, rumbling down Route 9.
Other people likely saw them, too, but Tessa was the first one who said out loud that they were there.
That night, Tessa watched as Lulu pushed her food around on her plate. Tessa knew this meant that either Lulu was being dramatic or that she didn’t like the quail her father was trying out on them that evening.
“What rides are you going on?” Lulu asked.
“Every one,” Tessa said, “and all the scary ones, for sure.”
Tessa was betting on dramatic, because Lulu always liked her father’s cooking. He and Lulu had the same taste for the untried.
“It will be better this year than last,” Lulu said.
“Of course it will be,” Tessa said.
On that they could agree.
Tessa watched Lulu eat three bites quietly and then listened as Lulu asked the question she already knew the answer to.
“Who are you going with?”
“Celina, of course.”
Celina was Tessa’s best friend. They had been planning their first unchaperoned trip to the carnival all year long.
“Can I come, too?” Lulu asked.
“No,” Tessa said. “Definitely not.” This could spoil everything.
Just the thought of Lulu going with them made Tessa’s curls tighten.
“I won’t be any trouble,” Lulu said.
“Be nice to your sister,” their mother said, and gave the girls a look. Sometimes their mother could look as tough as her tattoos. She knew how to settle things with her eyes. Tessa had tried to learn that trick, but things didn’t always go the way she wanted when she did it.
Tessa had to admit that, in truth, Lulu was not that troublesome. She had tagged along with Tessa and Celina for so many years that in a way she was an unofficial third to their best friendship. Tessa knew the rules of being the older sister meant that Lulu would either come with them or they’d be condemned to going to the carnival with parents. Despite Tessa’s annoyance that Lulu would slow down their fun, she couldn’t deny her sister the freedom to roam with her and Celina on the fairgrounds without the burden of parents. But that didn’t stop Tessa from doing everything she could to make it clear that it was still unfair.
“I’m not my sister’s keeper,” Tessa said to her mother, and then slammed her fist on the table so that her dinner plate jumped.
Her fury was useless. Lulu would tag along.
Tessa told Celina at lunch as they watched Charlie Evans throw a ball around with Dylan and Tony and wondered what kinds of plans they were making.
“Lulu wants to tag along with us,” Tessa said.
Celina’s face dropped.
“But she’s in eighth grade,” Celina said. “We’re practically sophomores.”
“I know, I know,” Tessa said.
“Not cool, Tessa,” Celina said.
“She’ll behave,” Tessa said. “I made her swear.”
They both knew that Tessa didn’t have any choice. But Tessa couldn’t help blaming Lulu just a little.
* * *
Their father dropped them off at the mouth of the carnival, and he gave them each forty dollars for tickets and rides and hot dogs and games and told them to be careful and to have fun.
He barely got the words out before the girls shrugged him off and ran straight into the night, disappearing into the noise and the lights.
There was so much to see, and although the girls had been to the carnival every year since they were little, this time everything about it seemed new.
“You’d better act cool,” Tessa said.
“OK,” Lulu said.
“You’d better stay quiet,” Tessa said.
“OK,” Lulu said.
“You’d better do what I say,” Tessa said.
“You got it,” Lulu said. And then she smiled big—the smile of a girl who could taste her first bite of freedom.
“What should we do first?” Tessa asked once they had met up with Celina at the assigned spot.
“It’s like we’re grown-ups,” Celina whispered. And the three girls nodded in unison, then took a moment to savor being old enough to go on their own to a place that had always seemed doomed to being the territory of family outings.
“Look.” Tessa grabbed Celina’s arm.
She pointed to a ticket booth. There stood Charlie Evans with Dylan, Tony, and Lionel. Tessa stilled herself and held her breath; Charlie’s looks had that effect on her.
“We should hook up with them,” Celina said. She knew how to seize the moment. Tessa loved that about her best friend.
“That’s Charlie Evans,” Lulu said. She had heard all about him and his dreamy looks from Tessa, but this was the first time she’d seen him off the football field without all that protective gear.
“Yeah, what do you think?” Tessa asked.
Lulu shrugged. She seemed unimpressed.
“Charlie will know how to have fun,” Celina said. “If you know what I mean.”
“What do you mean?” Lulu asked.
“I thought you didn’t like him like that,” Tessa said.
“I don’t like him like that,” Celina said.
“What do you mean?” Lulu asked again.
Tessa liked him like that. She admired him from afar, touched his locker when she walked by, and said hello to him every morning as they passed each other in the hallway. She even laughed at the jokes he made at the table next to theirs at lunchtime. Celina was the one who didn’t like Charlie. She didn’t like his dumb hair, his cleft chin, his anything.
“What do you mean?” Lulu asked a third time.
Tessa and Celina gave each other looks.
“Boys!” Tessa said.
“A boy is a boy is a boy. And Charlie’s got enough boys with him to go around. We should all go get one,” Celina said.
“Boys,” Lulu said. She said it quietly, like she was saying something forbidden. Then she giggled, covering her mouth with her tiny white hand. Sometimes she acted younger than 13. Tessa felt embarrassed for Lulu. Tessa saw Celina roll her eyes. Tessa rolled her eyes back at Celina in agreement. And just like that, they were in sync again.
It was then that Tessa noticed that Lulu was wearing Tessa’s favorite pair of skinny jeans. Lulu had not asked permission to go into her room and borrow them. Tessa was peeved that they looked better on Lulu. She should probably just let her sister have them but she knew that she wouldn’t. Whenever she went trolling through her sister’s drawers, she never found anything good to steal—just bangle bracelets, colorful scarves that no one knew how to wear, and unused vintage buttons from their grandma’s collection.
Sometimes Tessa wished that she was the prettier sister. When Tessa looked at Lulu, she wondered why it was that Lulu got the better nose. The nicer legs. The shinier, straighter hair. Tessa worried sometimes that people felt sorry for her because she was not round-faced, but made of angles. She dreaded that the truth might be that the arrangement of DNA hadn’t worked quite right on her parents’ first try for a baby, and she imagined that the combination of sperm and egg had worked better the second time around. Or worse, that maybe her parents had loved each other more when they had made Lulu.
Tessa shook the thought off like a bug. As she twitched the notion away, Celina and Lulu looked at her quizzically, imagined that they saw the bug, too, and helped her to shoo it away.
Tessa tried to smooth her hair, but the curls sprang back.
“Charlie!” Celina said. “Charlie!”
Charlie and his friends looked up at the exact same moment and all smiled their young man smiles, the ones that made the three girls fluttery. The girls collapsed toward each other, linking hands made uncomfortable with the wearing of new chunky rings purchased just for tonight.
Charlie waved them over and the girls moved toward him and his friends, clutching each other as though they had scored a victory. And in a way they had. They had won attention. And for the moment that was just as good as any of Celina’s swim-meet medals or Tessa’s certificates of merit in science. Maybe even better. They sashayed over to the boys, swinging their hips in a way that they had never done before.
When they got to the ticket booth, Jasper Kleine bumped into Tessa hard. He wasn’t with Charlie and his boys. In fact, he wasn’t with anyone because he was a loner. If he did hang out, he hung out with other lost boys. The ones who cut class and got high. The ones who rode their speedboats too fast on the river. The ones who had guitars and mountain bikes. The ones who wore pieces of leather tied around their wrists as if they had made a secret promise to themselves. These boys were the ones that everyone steered clear of because secretly everyone worried that strangeness was catching.
Jasper had bumped into Tessa because he wasn’t looking where he was going. He didn’t stop. He didn’t apologize. He just kept walking. He was too busy counting his tickets. It seemed like he had enough tickets to do every single thing at the carnival—twice.
To Tessa he smelled like a mixture of a latte, pot, pond scum, and sweat. But it was pleasant, the way that a skunk was pleasant, or garlic, or patchouli, even though her mother said that patchouli smelled like feet. Tessa liked the smell of feet. Tessa’s eyes followed him as he walked down the midway. He was so sure of himself. She noticed how happy he was to be on the outside of everything. She was a little jealous that he was glad to be alone.
Tessa wondered what Jasper would do first. Would he go on a ride? Would he enter one of the tents? Would he play a game and try to win a prize? If he did win, who would he give the prize to? Tessa had never seen him with anyone specifically.
Tessa always had someone to hang around with, like her sister or Celina. She never would go anywhere alone. She always ran in a pack. Everyone did that. But not Jasper. She wondered what that would be like, to go somewhere alone. But then she stopped wondering because Charlie was standing in front of her, looking at her from under his impossibly long brown eyelashes. And then Tessa was too busy blushing, and trying to look as pretty as she could despite her imagined genetic deficiencies. She couldn’t spare the energy to think about Jasper anymore.
“Let’s go,” Charlie said.
The whole group of them lurched into motion.
The promise of the carnival washed away all of Tessa’s musings about Jasper. Her insecurities faded, and she was overwhelmed by the big and the bright and the fantastic possibilities of the night that stretched in front of them. In that light surely she was pretty. Everyone was.
Tessa thought they were a happy bunch. They looked like they all belonged together. She felt they’d all be best friends forever. Tessa tried to ignore the booths that looked like teeth, and made the carnival feel like a mouth. She concentrated on the other things the fair had to offer: the games with stuffed animals and t-shirts as prizes, the Ferris wheel, the teacup ride, the fun house, the haunted house and the curiosity sideshow tent.
They started with the games. Gathering and jostling each other by the beanbag throw. When no one won anything, they blamed their loss on the games being rigged, which they most likely were.
“This blows, we’ll never win.”
“It’s not fair.”
“Life’s not fair.”
“Well what should we do?”
“We should ride every single ride till we get sick.”
“They look so rickety.”
“I don’t do rides.”
“Statistics say that the rides are safe.”
“If you say so.”
“How about the curiosity sideshow tent?” Tessa said.
Everyone stopped talking, and Tessa felt as though she had a stain on her shirt. Or something was stuck in her teeth. Or she had blood on her pants. Whatever it was, one thing was for sure—she had said something wrong.
“I don’t want to go in there, it’s just going to be things in formaldehyde,” Celina said, putting a hand on her hip. Sometimes Celina could be stubborn because she always wanted to be the girl with the plan.
Everyone looked at Celina waiting for her to come up with an alternative. Tessa looked toward the curiosity sideshow tent. Lulu looked, too.
“But it will be dark,” Lulu said.
“What?” Celina’s eyes widened.
Lulu looked at the boys.
“Dark,” Tessa repeated what her sister had said.
Tessa loved her sister something fierce at that moment. Maybe it was worth having her around because she was handy as backup.
“Oooh,” everyone said.
They were all on the same side again. Darkness meant the possibility of hand holding or kissing. Darkness was good when it was mixed with boys.
“Good idea,” Charlie said, staring right down into Tessa—right down to the parts of her that were secret.
Tessa and her heart sighed. She would do anything to be alone inside a dark tent with Charlie. She could just picture how the whole thing was going to go down. It would be perfect. She would pretend to be scared and maybe grab his hand for support. She would clutch him tightly and not let go. And he would keep holding her hand because everyone knew that holding hands felt so good.
The sign on the tent said ODD CURIOSITIES INSIDE!!! It also said that people should proceed into the tent in twos. As her group stood in line, patiently waiting for their turn, Tessa tried to calculate her odds of going in with Charlie. It was like a math word problem from school: If two people in a jostling line wanted to be paired off together, and there were an odd number of kids, what are the odds that person x and person y will go into the tent together?
She had never been good at math, always staring out the window instead. So she hung back a little bit so that she would be next to him.
If they were in the tent together, then he would notice her and her alone, and they would emerge from the exhibit as a couple.
She just had to go in with him. This was her chance.
Tessa tried to look as though she was thinking of other things. She tried to look casual. She laughed a little too loudly when Charlie spoke about his riverboat. She studied the dirt mixed with sawdust and how it kicked up on her shoe and stuck there. All the while she made sure she always kept herself next to Charlie. Lulu stood next to her sister as though she wanted to go into the tent with Tessa. It was as if she was too scared to go in with a boy by herself.
Lulu is such a baby, Tessa thought. Tessa was glad that she was 15. Glad that their parents called her a young lady and not a girl. Glad that she didn’t still have her dollhouse in her bedroom. She knew that Lulu still sometimes rearranged the furniture in hers and pretended she was dusting. The truth was that Lulu was still more girl than young lady.
Celina went first with Tony. Dylan went in with a girl they knew from school whom he’d grabbed into the line. Tessa hung back, and so Lulu hung back, and so Charlie hung back, and pretty soon the three of them were at the front of the line.
“Next,” said the girl in the carnival costume of red pinstripes and black vest.
Tessa stepped forward only to find the girl’s striped arm blocking her way.
“Only two at a time,” the girl said, snapping her gum.
And suddenly, Tessa was outside, looking at the closing flap, and her Charlie was heading into the curiosity sideshow tent with Lulu.
“Next,” the girl said and opened the tent flap again. Tessa didn’t want to go into the freak tent anymore. She began to step aside to let the people behind her go, but then a hand appeared gently on her shoulder and guided her toward the total blackness. There was nothing to do but go in.
“Freaky,” the voice belonging to the arm said.
Tessa turned around and stood face-to-face with Jasper Kleine. She thought she could see that Jasper was smiling. Her eyes adjusted to the dimness in time to see her sister and Charlie disappear into the next section of the tent. She didn’t want to stop and see the thing in the jar sitting illuminated on the table that Jasper was steering her toward. She wanted to follow Charlie and Lulu into the next room and say something clever. But suddenly a fear choked her and that fear made her feet unwilling to step forward and pursue them.
She didn’t want to look at Jasper.
So she looked at the jar.
Inside was a twisted creature that looked like a shaved rat with wings. It was pink and veiny. The wings had wet feathers that limply clung together, but they didn’t look natural. They looked pressed on.
“You can tell they just stitched together two animals,” Jasper said. He was moving toward the next room. “Rat and bat. Come on.”
Jasper held open the curtain for her. She stepped through. They moved from room to room as though in a dream. The curiosities were laughable. It was the darkness that was frightening. And the music; it was like a timpani or like wind pushed through drowning lungs. It was a ghostly soundtrack.
Jasper kept talking, commenting on the various beasts on display. Tessa said nothing. She strained her ears through the silent moments in an attempt to hear what Charlie and Lulu were laughing about up ahead. But she never caught anything. She would have to hear all about it later.
“Where are we going next?” Jasper asked when they reached the last room.
He was so close to her. She could feel his breath on her face, and she could smell him. If she moved the tiniest bit, her lips would be on his.
She felt strange. Strangled. Joyous. Angry. Tingly.
“We’re not,” she said.
She said it to hurt him.
His eyes went from soft to wounded. Then Tessa felt bad, but didn’t say so. She just looked at him harder, wishing that he would get the hint and go away.
“OK, I don’t like groups anyway,” he said, and he stepped out of the tent and went on his way, leaving her alone.
She was sure that her disappointment had made her hair curl more. There was only one way to face Lulu and Charlie—with smooth hair. It was easier to look like she didn’t care if her hair was straighter. She didn’t want her wild corkscrew curls to betray her hurt.
She tried to coax it down with a little spit, hoping to tame it before she emerged. She ran her hand through her hair. No good. It was still a mass of tangles.
Text copyright © 2012 by Cecil Castellucci
Illustrations copyright © 2012 by Nate Powell