PART ONE: Josie
I stood in front of an elongated mirror, admiring the eighteen-gauge steel rings inside my newly stretched earlobes. The gaping holes were the size of a nickel, making the lobes look slightly distorted. The piercing artist advised against stretching them so quickly—it was supposed to be a process, she’d explained, in which you stretch the holes gradually over a period of time. But the hundred dollar bill I placed on the counter was enough to change her mind.
I loved my new piercings although they were sore, and couldn’t wait to show my new friend Freya. We’d been hanging out for a few months now, and the new piercing wasn’t my first attempt to impress her. Freya was hot, but not your typical beauty queen level of hot. She was darky and broody, her feelings fluctuating almost as often as her hair color—which this week was a combination of pink and orange, sort of like coral.
I knew she’d love the piercings, just like she loved my new wardrobe of all black and deep gray colors. Today I was wearing black again, and in conjunction with the piercings, I almost looked cool enough to hang out with a girl like Freya.
I thrust a knit cap down over my head, making sure it covered the entirety of my ears. It was nearly eighty degrees and sunny today. I’d just have to deal with the heat until I made it all the way to the bus stop.
My dad wasn’t strict. In fact, he’d been pretty cool about accepting my recent wardrobe changes. It was my stepmom, Candy, I was hiding the piercing from. If she saw what I’d done to my ears, she’d freak out. Just like she did last summer when I came home with a teeny tiny stud in my nose.
They got married last year. One year ago. But that didn’t stop the woman from trying to rule my life.
My real mother lived at Tokomo Penitentiary in Westwood, and she’d been locked up for six years now. Candy had taken it upon herself to assume the role of dutiful mother. I couldn’t stand her, or how my father’s behavior changed whenever she was around him.
I didn’t need my real mom, and I didn’t need a surrogate either.
I grabbed my messenger bag, swung it over my shoulder, and raced down the steps, making sure to secure the cap in place before passing my dad and Candy. They were sitting in the breakfast nook, sharing cups of coffee like a happy old couple. Yuck.
“Do you want me to drive you, Josie?” Candy asked in her sweet, pretending-to-be-mymother voice. But I was already out the door, the screen door banging shut behind me. Take that, bitch, I thought angrily.
The bus stop was only one block from my house. The house—a classic saltbox design with rustic shutters and crimson-colored clapboards—was the largest house in the neighborhood. It was also the ugliest and most rundown. As though living in this lame town, ironically called Lamison Point, wasn’t bad enough, I also had to live in that shit box.
Everyone in town knew about my mom being in prison, and their sometimes pitiful— sometimes disgusted—glances didn’t go unnoticed by me. They looked down on me, felt sorry for me. And I hated them because of that. Maybe that’s why I liked being friends with Freya so much. I loved her edgy style and “don’t give a damn” attitude. She didn’t care if my mom was in prison. She didn’t give a damn about much of anything, really.
I cut through the Briars’ front yard, trying not to stamp on any of their flowers or plants, because if I did, I’d hear about it later from my dad, or worse, from Candy.
I could see the kids lined up on Vermont Avenue, huddling in their cliques, gabbing away as they waited for bus 309. I jerked the wooly cap off, my twisted red locks tumbling down below my shoulders. I hated my hair. Naturally a brunette, I’d dyed it over the weekend. Like my ears, it was another attempt to impress Freya.
Approaching the bus stop, my eyes made a beeline for her face. Freya stood amongst the other kids, but she emerged like a neon beacon of light. There were kids around her talking, trying to draw her attention, but she was too busy writing or drawing something in her notebook. She took notice of no one. Including me.
She was dressed in a black stretchy top and tattered black skirt, with holey knee-high socks and chunky black clogs. Her coral-colored hair was twisted in a loose braid that hung limply to one side of her pale moon-shaped face, clearly unwashed and unbrushed. She didn’t have to try to be cool or beautiful—she just was.
I stopped jogging, deciding instead to approach her with a cool stride. But then the bus screeched to a halt in front of the kids, and Freya jumped on before I had a chance to catch up with her.
That’s okay, I thought. I’ll just talk to her on the bus. But when I boarded, I was disappointed to discover she already had a seatmate in the back. I tried to catch her eye, to at least give her a wave or smile, but she was still busy, scribbling away in that notebook of hers.
Taking a seat up front, I smiled tightly at a kid with braces sitting next to me. I hadn’t seen or spoken to Freya all weekend, and I thought she’d be eager to hang out. But that’s Freya for you.
Hot and cold, and infuriatingly unpredictable.
She was bubbly one minute, then quiet and withdrawn the next. And it frustrated me beyond belief. She hadn’t even noticed my new piercings!
Although most days she seemed to genuinely like me, other days I wasn’t so sure. We met at a party over the summer, and we’d been hanging out ever since…
I was sitting on a lopsided couch, nervously clasping a plastic cup filled with soda. Not usually one for parties, I felt anxious and awkward, alone. I’d decided on a whim to just go for it, get out of the house and meet people. Maybe I’d meet a guy or at least a friend to talk to. But showing up there, with all those people, just highlighted my weirdness, making me feel even worse about myself.
But then Freya showed up.
I saw her approaching—paving her own crooked path through a crowded living room of dancing bodies. Plopping down right next to me, she reached for my Coke and drained it.
“This ain’t whiskey!” she cackled, jumping up from the couch. I expected her to leave, now that she’d discovered my lameness. But instead, she took my hands and began pulling. I thought she wanted me to dance, but she kept on tugging until we were out the door.
“Let’s get out of here,” she whispered, leading me away from my classmate’s house. I couldn’t even remember the name of the person throwing the party. We walked in silence, all the way to Mumston Park.
“This is my favorite tree,” she finally said, breaking our silence. She was pointing at a massive, ancient tree, with limbs so twisted they almost looked fake. Like some crazy movie prop from Universal Studios.
Freya slipped off her shoes and began climbing—as though she’d done it a hundred times. Reluctantly, I followed, my feet slipping on the bark as I struggled to catch up with her. When I reached her, she was up so high that the hot July air felt cool and damp. She was sitting on a branch smoking, attempting to make smoke rings by puckering her lips and pushing them out like a fish. I thought about the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, and then she said, “Ever gone down the rabbit hole?” Like she was psychic or something. We sat in that tree till daylight. “You’re my best friend,” she mumbled as we parted ways for the night—night that had turned into day.
I’d finally found a friend.
Or so I thought…I frowned, pushing away thoughts of that night. If I was honest with myself, I had to admit that every day and night since then had been a disappointment. At school, she was quiet and standoffish. Like today, she was so often in her own little world, far away from mine. ***
The rest of the school day went kind of like that—me trying to catch up with Freya, and Freya too busy and distracted to care. By the time I reached my last period of the day—study hall—I was pissed off and seriously depressed.
Study hall was the only class me and Freya had together, and I imagined that the next fortyfive minutes would involve more of the same. I’m not even going to talk to her. Or look at her.
Maybe playing hard to get is the way to go with Freya, anyway, I sulked.
I found my usual seat in the back and opened a notebook of my own. Dug a charcoal pencil out of my bag, and started to draw with my head bent low down over the desk. I didn’t see Freya come in the room, but somehow, I could sense her presence. Even from the back of the room. Rooms always got quiet when she arrived—boys admired her natural, careless beauty and girls either despised her for it or wanted to be her friend.
Instead of looking up, I kept on drawing, moving the pencil forward and back, in long, angry strokes. Drawing had been my main outlet for stress for as long as I could remember. I could still recall a day when I was six, and I opened the box of drawing pencils that my mother had clumsily attempted to wrap. Even before she went to prison, Brenda Crowley’s presence in my life was spotty at best. Her job history was spotty as well, and I never knew when to expect a gift on my birthday, and when not to.
That particular year had been a good one for my mom—she didn’t use many drugs that year and actually held a small job for a while, bagging groceries at the local Save-A-Lot. She and my dad were getting along that year, and I could remember that birthday when I received the pencils, and how it was one of the happiest days of my life. I imagined Mom and me leaning over the cake, blowing out my candles together. I’d wished for every day to be just like that one…
Those pencils were long gone now, worn down to the nub like dozens of other sets that I’d previously owned. Gone, but not forgotten, just like my mom…
I scowled at the Freudian nature of my thoughts. Tried to focus solely on my drawing.
“Did you hear the news?” Freya asked. The sound of her voice, so close to me now, was startling. She was straddling the seat backwards in front of me, a big smile plastered across her face. She was always so moody that seeing her smile was like spotting a rare bird. I was so unused to seeing her grin that the image was sort of eerie.
“There’s a carnival in town. It opens to the public tonight.”
A carnival…I’d gone to an amusement park once with some friends, but I’d never been to a real carnival.
“What kind of carnival?” I asked.
“The fun kind, silly!” she said, tilting her head back and laughing so loudly that some of our classmates turned around to look at us.
“What’s so funny?” I asked, still sore about her giving me the cold shoulder all day.
“Something fun happening in Lamesville, that’s what.” Lamesville, another one of our private jokes—about this town and the people who lived here.
“Wanna go?” she pressed, sticking out her lip with a pouty expression that not even a crazy person could resist.
“Sure.” I shrugged. “Want me to come to your house at six?”
The bell rang, signaling the end of the school day. Students began pushing their way out of the classroom.
“I’ll meet you there,” Freya shouted, taking off down the hallway. I tried to scurry after her, but eventually lost sight of her coral-colored hair in the thickening crowd.
Leaning against a row of lockers, I squeezed my eyes shut. That girl was so impossible! But despite being irritated by her aloofness, I couldn’t help feeling a tiny glimmer of excitement about the carnival tonight.
“Nice house, dork,” an upper classmen teased, pointing at the drawing in my notebook as he passed by. I stared down at the page.
Without realizing it, I’d drawn a picture of a creepy old house. I squinted at my own pencil strokes, trying to remember drawing it. It was a big house, sort of like mine, but different somehow. I slammed the notebook shut, my face reddening.
I headed for my own locker, but then stopped, noticing dozens of fliers sticking to the surface of random lockers throughout the hallway.
Carnival de Arcanorum. Come if you dare, the flier read.
Shit! Freya didn’t even say where to meet! I realized, feeling miserable.
But that wouldn’t stop me from trying to find her. Who knows? Maybe the carnival would be fun…maybe it’d be a night I’d never forget.