The shows rolled along Main Street on a warm Sunday afternoon while Monica Superior, Cheryl and I ate ice cream and pretended not to watch. At sixteen, we thought ourselves too old for such nonsense and in truth we'd felt that way for years, but at the end of the summer holidays, everything better to do had already been done. Despite ourselves, once the pretty lights went on, we were like moths.
"Sigh," Cheryl said as the cavalcade of trucks and caravans snaked towards the park. "Is it that time of year already?"
"We should make a pact," Monica suggested.
"A pact?" I asked.
"This year, we do something else. Honestly, the idea of spending another week with the same crappy attractions, the same rigged games... I can't face it, Katie."
I smiled, finished my ice cream and waited for someone else to bring up the subject of what we were going to wear.
By Monday evening, the pact had been forgotten, decisions on clothing had been made and we joined the rest of the town as it drained into Franklin Park. As Monica had predicted, there had been no major developments in the world of fairground attractions since last year.
"Divebombers, waltzers, dodgems, hoopla, round-up, ghost train." Cheryl name-checked them like she was taking attendance. "The same crap as last year. Frown."
I couldn't help but be disappointed and a little bored, until I spotted something odd.
"Yeah," I said, "but haven't you noticed? Where are the people our age?"
Cheryl scanned the crowd. "You're right. Where is everybody?"
Devastated that our peers had found something better to do without telling us, we stopped batting our lashes at the exotic carny boys and spent the next five minutes looking for people we knew. When we found one, we found them all. Near the centre of the site, they crowded around a mannequin, raised six feet off the ground on a wooden platform. As I moved closer to the crowd, an uneasy tremble rippled through me. The dummy was so convincing, I couldn't be sure she wasn't alive.
In her late-teens or early-twenties, she was dressed fantastically but the look somehow remained understated and warm. A red satin dress spilled over curves and down her slender frame. Blonde hair tumbled in curls beyond her shoulders. Green eyes contemplated something distant, above our heads. Petite and glowing, she oozed far more style and sophistication than I would normally expect to see from anyone here, local or carny. It wasn't that she was flawless. In fact, she looked as though make-up covered a bruise on her arm and her bottom lip looked slightly swollen, but if anything, this added to the attraction. She was a movie star and at that moment, just as she blinked, I fell in love.
"Wow," someone whispered.
"Is she real?" I asked.
It took a while before I could peel my eyes away from the girl to check on Cheryl but when I did, I saw her mouth drooping open and her eyes ready to pop.
"She's amazing," she said.
Everyone around me stood mesmerised; Megan, the two Amys, Arin, Leeanne, a bunch of girls from a couple of towns over, everyone. Even Monica Superior, who considered herself above the interests of us mortals, looked somewhere between awestruck and baffled and on the verge of tears and the only reason I didn't whisper a bitchy remark to Cheryl was because I felt the same way. While younger kids and parents barged through the bottleneck we created, our group stood firm, captivated, hypnotised and content to let time slowly wear us down and away.
Downstairs for breakfast or lunch, my mother tried to make conversation while the kettle rumbled in the background. She hadn't seen me or my friends at the shows and asked if we'd found anything interesting. When I could only manage a grunt, she moved on to ask what time I'd gotten home, which attracted an even less precise response. My brother smirked as the pitiful attempt at connection ground to a halt.
"She spent the entire night staring at a lady," he said, thrilled with himself for being so helpful. I tried to remember seeing him or any of his stupid little friends last night but drew a blank.
"A what?" my mother asked. "What kind of lady?"
"A female lady," my brother said.
"And what was she doing, this female lady?"
"I dunno. Just standing there."
"Well, she must've been doing something. Was she juggling?"
My brother sighed and rubbed his eyes, looking like he already regretted getting involved. "No, she just... stood there."
"She gets paid for this?"
"How am I supposed to know?"
My mother scrunched her face. "Well, Katie, that doesn't sound like an interesting way to spend an evening."
"Well, Mother," I mimicked, "it's just as well you found something different to do."
While she considered this, I poured myself a mug of coffee and went back to my room.
At quarter to seven, I burst out of the house and half-walked, half-jogged to meet the others at the park. As soon as the gates opened we rushed down the alleyways of attractions, pouring through the shows like a tidal wave down an avenue of skyscrapers, crashing through the other early visitors, drawn to the centre.
She was there. She hadn't left. She hadn't changed. She wore the same red dress, the same tumbledown hair, the same distant gaze. I shuddered as relief radiated from the bundle of nerves in my belly until it pricked my skin.
"I was so worried she'd been gone," Cheryl said. She laughed as her eyes misted.
"Just ... wow," Leeanne whispered.
"She even smells amazing," one of the two Amys said. "Why don't I remember her smelling so amazing?"
Over the course of the next couple of hours, a few things jumped out that would eventually concern me. First, while the other girls and I had all made a bigger, better effort, I noticed Monica Superior had turned up in a red dress -- not the exact shade or length as the girl's, but still -- and she tugged on her short hair, which had lightened by a tone or two overnight, like she was forcing it to grow. Second, the relief I felt from the girl still being here evaporated when I realised that she definitely wouldn't be here next week. Next week, though, felt a lifetime away and just because she wouldn't be here didn't mean she wouldn't be somewhere. Surely finding out where wouldn't be impossible. Finally, when Cheryl's stomach gurgled so loud it became audible over all the whoops and alarms, I realised I hadn't eaten in 24 hours. The obsession had already developed from harmless to unhealthy but I felt too grateful for being there and for being part of it and so about these and countless other things, I simply didn't care.
When our group compared notes on Wednesday, we'd all received the same pep talk from the oldies. They didn't mind us going to the shows -- after all, it was tradition -- but couldn't we actually do something when we got there rather than celebrating this non-entity? Personally, I had other things on my mind and for most of the day, I stayed in my room, watching myself in the mirror, wondering if I'd lost any weight, wishing that I had the ability to captivate, wanting to see someone else look back at me.
At seven, Monica Superior joined the group at the gates in another red dress and this time the shade, length and shape were all spot-on.
"Honey, you have no idea," she said to every question about where she'd got it or what she'd done to get the money from her parents or boyfriend. The more questions she fielded this way, the more confused I became about the whole display.
"But why?" I asked.
Cheryl cleared her throat and turned away. "Cringe."
"Why what?" Monica asked, her grin frozen on her face.
"I guess I just don't get why you'd dress like that. I mean, what's the point?"
I laughed. "I'm not jealous."
"Oh, just totally jealous," she insisted with a sneer. "Jealous of me, jealous of my idea, jealous that you didn't have the originality to think of it firstů"
"Originality? You mean the originality it takes to copy someone?"
The gates to the shows opened and being in or near the argument lost its importance as once again, we poured past the attractions towards the centre of the park where we resumed our vigil round the girl on the podium. Something felt different that evening and I could see that Monica felt it too. Rather than her usual, captivated expression, she seemed more needy, more pleading and this only intensified as the night went on. By the time I noticed the tremble in her lips, I hated Monica Superior and her stupid copycat outfit for spoiling my night.
I would've felt jittery anyway on that Thursday. I hadn't eaten or slept properly for days and now there was the added agitation from knowing that come Saturday, the shows would be packing up and by Sunday, Franklin Park would just be Franklin Park again. So while the others and I waited at the gates in the minutes leading up to seven o'clock, I was already chasing an itch round my arms. Then Monica arrived and it got worse.
Her hair, extended and lightened, now tumbled over her shoulders; and her eyes, which yesterday had been an unimpressive grey, shone green.
"Ta-da!" she sang with a curtsy.
One of the Amys reacted immediately and rushed to her, cooing unintelligible praise and giggling. The other Amy and Cheryl warmed slower and walked rather than ran. It wasn't until the fuss settled down that I realised I had stood my ground and at the same moment, everyone else seemed to notice too. As if sensing this, the gates opened behind me.
"Jealousy is such an unattractive accessory, Katie," Monica told me as she walked by.
While I boiled, I said with false chirpiness, "Underneath, you're still you. You're stuck with that until the day you die. Never forget it."
I brought up the rear that day. My stomach crackled with anxiety and the breath of the July evening chilled against my forehead. I hated this. I hated feeling this way. I hated Monica Superior for trying to steal the show. For the first time that week, I didn't want to be there. I felt bad for the girl on the podium and hoped she wouldn't notice. I prayed that her distant gaze wouldn't pick up this insult from Monica Superior, but how could it not? From the girl's viewpoint, Monica would be a splash of colour in our grey little town. She would surely notice this imitator in the crowd and she'd feel cheapened and violated. Or worse, she'd feel flattered.
Initially, she didn't react at all but Monica stood on her toes against the barrier, at full stretch with pleading smile and expectant eyes so that it would only be a matter of time before she got the look she so desperately craved. But the girl on the podium kept her gaze distant, trained on the same spot blessed with her attention all week, and as seconds turned to minutes and Monica finally resorted to shouting "Hey," my stomach raised with excitement instead of sinking with dread.
"No," Monica Superior said. "No! You have to see me. You can't ignore me. I'm not a nobody!"
The girl on the podium slowly closed her eyes and the air around us evaporated. Within the vacuum, the buzzers and bells fell silent. For those seconds, the universe concentrated on that moment, on that point, and everything outside the bubble faded until all that remained was the girl's face and my eyes to see her. When her gaze returned, still distant and true, her expression blank, and as oxygen reappeared and burst into my lungs, Monica howled, turned and ran away.
I tell people I live in a small town, but how small is small? Well, it's small enough that in the middle of the night, it can be so quiet that if you happen to tune in to it, the buzz from the streetlights can keep you awake for hours. A fox at a bin might as well be using a stick of dynamite instead of a claw to tear open a bag of takeaway food. The waspish drone of a scooter can be heard for miles. The scream from an ambulance is like the end of days. And because the town is so small, it's possible to get an idea of which street the ambulance is on by listening to the tone of its siren. The population is so tiny and the community so well-knitted that they'll throw on clothes and rush to investigate, no matter how late. They'll follow the audio and visual breadcrumbs and watch an open front door, arms folded, while some dare to breathe those speculative breaths, whisper those unthinkable thoughts, and when the gurney emerges and is wheeled down the path with all the care in the world but absolutely no urgency, the news spreads in a pulse. People who didn't attend still know the outcome minutes before the silent ambulance arrives back at the hospital. Around cold breakfast tables, questions are demanded of kids who must know, who must surely have seen a sign. But when no answers find a voice and no one can come up with a reason why a girl so young would choose to let her life ooze from her wrists like strawberry sauce, pinking the candy-floss foam of a lukewarm bubble-bath, the town is wounded as one. That's how small my town is and on that Thursday night, it got a little smaller.
Cheryl and I spent Friday afternoon sitting on a wall on Main Street and we watched the shows leave. The news from the people who'd been there was they'd packed in a rush and as they were calling it quits a day early, that made sense. There were those, mostly adults, who made their feelings known and who hurled abuse and bricks at the caravans and trucks in the name of Monica's memory but Cheryl and I didn't bother. No amount of bricks would stop them leaving and anyway, it wasn't about stopping them; so after they left, someone would have to clear up the mess. I could live without more reasons to feel stupid and small.
We hung around long enough to see the girl leave. Her window had been smashed and a trickle of blood, as red as her dress, trickled from a lump on the side of her face.
"Did you find out where they were going?" Cheryl asked.
A minute passed. Maybe more.
"Is it far?"
I drew breath to answer but then I saw the two Amys glide round the corner, heading in the same direction as the departing convoy, wearing blank expressions and distant gazes and dresses of the most startling red. Behind them, the girls from a couple of towns over followed. Without exchanging a word or a look, we pushed ourselves down from the wall and crossed the road to join them.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Gavin Broom. All rights reserved.