Fair Affairs

The scent of old grease and marijuana lingered in the humid air long after the lights went out. I popped two more acetaminophen and locked my cash box before putting the lanyard with my keys around my neck. My eyes itched and watered, my bones ached, my blisters had blisters, but I was pleased. My family was happy, ecstatic, but I hadn’t mustered happy in a long, long time.

“Benny, hey.”

I almost dropped the cash box as I whirled around. “For once would you wear a bloody bell or something, Winny? A stalking cat makes more noise than you.”

Winny snorted. “If you’d been faster, I wouldn’t have to come over here and bug you. What’s the hold up?”

“Some barbie wanted her ken to win her the four-foot dog.” I shoved the box into Winny’s ample bosom and jumped over the counter, grabbing the rope to pull the door down at the same time. Together, we got the locks secured and I handed Winny the keys.

“Still there, I see. I take it the cash box is full?” Winny linked her fat arm through mine, and we headed to the trailers. I couldn’t wait to fall face first into bed.

“He came close, but no cigar. Says he’ll be back tomorrow. Six more larges and he can upgrade for the dog. Lots of kens today, I stopped counting the haul when I hit a grand.” I stifled a yawn as I shook my head when Winny held out her cup. I never knew if there was rye with her pop, and I wasn’t in the mood for booze. “Did you check on Benji at all tonight?”

Winny, her round face flushed from the brisk walk in the heat, nodded. “Your ma let him ride a couple of extra times then your dad got him settled for the night. When trailer security got called to assist at the midway, Hilda went and sat outside. Lazy as she is, she made sure Benji was asleep inside before she started knittin’.”

“Everything okay? You need me still, or can I go to bed? We’ve already run two hours over, it’s hot as hades tonight, and I’m getting cranky.” I stifled another yawn as I waited for Winny to lock the cash box in the safe.

Winny’s brown eyes flitted around the trailers, looking everywhere but at me. “Yeah, ’bout that.”

I tensed. “Can you wait until tomorrow to tell me what’s gonna piss me off?”

Winny put her hands on her wide hips and glared at me. “Everythin’ ticks you off. Who knew sweet lil Benny would grow up to be such a miserable and ornery witch? You act like you the only one workin’ ’round here.”

If Winny was busting out the blame me for what’s wrong with the world card so early into the discussion, I knew I wasn’t going to like what she had to say. Two could play. I let my itchy eyes fill with tears, stared at the star strewn sky. “I’m sorry I don’t wear pink and have pigtails anymore, Winny. I’m sorry I’m such a screw up, gettin’ knocked up at fifteen, then again at twenty-one, with no man, no ring, no nothin’. Needin’ my carnie family to help me raise ’em because I can’t. Been a burden to everyone for half my life, haven’t i?”

I closed my eyes but peeked beneath my lashes to see if it’d worked. Winny’s eyes narrowed, and I ducked when I saw her pudgy hand coming for my face (it was 50-50 she was going to stroke my cheek or slap it). “Ah, Benny. I know you say all that to play me, and it don’t work most times, but don’t think for one minute I don’t know that deep down you think it’s true. It ain’t, mind, but I know you think it. Not sure I’ll ever knock that haunted look off your face, kick happy up your butt, but I ain’t never gonna stop tryin’. ‘Cept tonight.”

Tension and stress were part of a carnie’s life and being the daughter of the owners doubled the strain. Being the daughter with two kids (with two different daddies) tripled it. Winny was making the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up. “What?”

Winny squared her shoulders and drew herself up to her full height (five feet, half an inch). “You’re bein’ shipped out. Need you over in Brock. Joe’s drivin’, you’re sleepin’ on the road, and then you in Brock Thursday ’til Sunday. Brock shuts down early Sunday, so you can pack up and Joe’ll have you back here for when we hit the road at cock’s crow Monday mornin’.”

The temperature for days had hovered in the high thirties with the humidex, but I went cold. Frozen. “No. Screw you, Winny. I’m not going to Brock, and you know it.”

“We’re down four with heatstroke because of stupidity and irresponsibility. Brock’s openin’s tomorrow, it’s a smaller deal than here, but down four? Ain’t no way we won’t get sued for breakin’ deals.”

My hands made fists at my sides. I wanted to punch, kick, scream. “Why me? Send Daddy, or Ma. We can spare them.”

“Need you to run the games, all eight o’ them. Your father on games? He’d give the prizes away without takin’ a penny to play for ’em. Your ma ain’t much better.”

“So stick Ma or Dad anywhere, and put whoever they replace on games.” Winny’s eyes were filled with understanding and sorrow, but her head was full of stubborn determination.

“The boss there wants you, only you can do the job of four. Your boss here—” Winny thumped her chest emphatically. “Says you’re goin’. We can spare you. And before you go runnin’ to my bosses, I’ll tell you what they said. ‘Get her gone by midnight, Brock starts early’. It’s already nearly one, so you best get movin’.”

My heart pounded and sweat – cold, terror filled, panicked sweat — beaded on my brow and under my arms.

“I’ll quit. So help me, Winny, I’ll quit. Take the boys –” I thought of my oldest, Alex, fifteen and full of himself just like his father, and amended what I was going to say. “Take Benji and go where Ben Dale can’t find us. Live in a tiny town far away from anything Ben Dale, somewhere they’ve never even heard of fairs or rides.”

Winny shook her head and snorted. “You’d die within a week of sheer boredom.”

“Will not. I’ll buy a farm, raise donkeys – God knows after dealing with carnies my whole life a bunch of stubborn mules would be nothing.” Winny’s eyes twinkled, which made me angrier. “Better yet. I’ll go tell Ma and Daddy right now that I changed my mind. They said I could, any time. Changed my mind about being boss. Then I’ll be your boss, and I’ll fire you.”

Winny doubled over, her wheezing laugh grating on the last nerve not already frazzled. “Stop. Stop. I’m gonna pee myself.”

“Shut up out there!” I recognized Gary’s voice from the trailer beside where Winny continued to bray.

“Sorry, Gary. Blame Winny, it’s her. Gone and lost her mind.” I started to storm away, intending to jump in my trailer and curl up for a long sleep.

“I know who it is, ain’t none of us don’t know that wheezy giggle and that honkin’ guffaw. Now shut up. I gotta get up at seven to check the coaster. Ain’t been runnin’ right.”

I left Winny still trying to get herself together, and stomped over to my trailer. Because of Benji, I didn’t have to share with anyone else. Smallest of them all, but I figured it was a fair trade because most of my carnie family snored or farted their way to morning.

I got my hand on the door handle, was about to reef the door open, when Winny caught up to me. “He ain’t been there in five years.”

I let go of the door handle and tugged on Winny’s arm until we were out of earshot of my trailer. “How do you know? You haven’t been back to Brock in ten years, either.”

“Nine, dummy. You was twenty-one when you left Brock for the last time, and your last time was my last time.” Winny put her hands on mine and squeezed.

“How do you know he hasn’t been there?” I kicked a can sitting next to Hilda’s trailer. Pop and soggy cigarette butts spilled over the pavement and pooled under Winny’s ugly shoes.

“You don’t think your Gran keeps lookout? That Bob don’t search every face? They ain’t never said nothin’ to Ryan, but they always cared.”

I sniffed, which infuriated me. I blinked and swallowed hard several times, felt the tears burning the backs of my eyes but I refused to let them fall. “They never mentioned him to me.”

Winny nodded, still holding my hands. “They promised they wouldn’t tell anyone, wouldn’t tell Ryan ‘specially, and whenever Brock was mentioned, they saw how you got so they agreed never to mention Ryan to you. They couldn’t see the point in hurtin’ you.”

I extricated myself from Winny’s clutches and pressed the heels of my hands to my eyes. “He’s what, thirty-three now, I guess. Probably married, happy. That’s good. If he’s not been to the fair in five years, then he must be living somewhere else. That’s good, too. Brock was never kind to him.”

“I know the place is full o’ ghosts and all that, an’ I know it’s real hard for you go back, but Ben Dale needs you, and in some ways, I think you need to go. Benji don’t know nothin’ ’bout Brock, ’bout his dad, and no one doin’ the fair there knows anythin’ except your Gran and Bob. Most o’ the ones there weren’t ’round back then, anyhow.”

I blinked at Winny, nodded my head, and without a word, went to my trailer to pack a bag. No way was I waking Benji, no way was I going to run the risk he woke and begged to come. We’d take one of the trucks that towed the rides. We weren’t pulling out of here until Monday morning so we could be back to join our crew and not leave us a truck short. Ma and Daddy would watch the boys while Joe and I were gone.

I sat on my bed, feeling more tired than I had even when the boys had been small. Five years? Every year, this time of year, I pictured Ryan as I’d known him, riding the rides, eating poutine. At least until we were older, then we’d talked while I worked, become friends. I lay down on my bed, hugging my pillow and bit my knuckle to stop myself from crying out. That last summer, the summer Benji was conceived, ran through my head on fast forward. The last days I’d spent with Ryan, the last time I’d seen his smile, at least until Benji was old enough to smile himself. I closed my eyes, wishing I could close my heart as easily.

*

I woke confused, wrong footed. I felt turned around, upside down, disoriented. My internal compass was off. I lifted my head slightly, saw the sink where it should be, Benji’s unmade and empty bed across the trailer, yet I still felt weird.

I rubbed sleep from my eyes, debated a quick shower (there was a tiny shower in the bathroom), and decided I’d go see if Winny had made some of her excellent coffee instead. If she hadn’t, I’d head over to one of the vendors and beg a cup.

I opened the door and expected to see Gary’s trailer, but instead found a brick wall. I racked my brain, trying to remember what building at the site had grey brick. Must be the back of the main building, and that’s why I felt off – the trailer had been moved while I’d slept and the rear now opened to the north instead of the west.

I heard people talking and wondered who was up so early. The sky was barely blue, the only hint that it was early morning rather than late dusk was the chatter of the birds. Funny, I didn’t remember hearing so many birds yesterday.

“And to whatever higher power you believe in, be it God, be it mother earth, be it yourself, let us all ask for Ben Dale, here and everywhere, to be safe. For all that come to enjoy, let them leave happy, satisfied. Amen.”

My steps had slowed as I’d listened until I was hardly moving. “Gran?”

“Benny! You’re up early! We didn’t expect to see you moving for at least an hour.”

Like a wave of cold water washing over me, I remembered Winny telling me I’d be going to Brock. I must’ve fallen asleep while packing. “Joe could’ve gotten a huge ticket driving with me sleeping.”

“Don’t fuss. He got Benji belted in beside him but figured you needed your beauty sleep so he left you alone.”

“Benji?” My mouth went dry.

Little arms wrapped around my waist. “Here, Mom. Got you some coffee. Dell says it’s even better than Winny’s.”

I took the paper cup Benji offered, staring at him in disbelief. “What are you doing here?”

“Me and Alex are working. Cool, eh? Grampy said you’d need help if its busy. Grammy says there’s a lake we can see from the top of the ferris wheel that we can go to if it’s slow.”

I closed my eyes and willed my heart to stop stampeding in my chest. Nerves fluttered and flittered, panic crept up my spine and reached around my neck to squeeze my throat.

“Hey, Mom, GG’s got a Playstation in her trailer.” Alex, towering over me, wrapped his long arm around me from behind in a strangle-hug.

“PS5,” Gran nodded. “Told Alex he could play when – if – it’s slow and on breaks. But if he deletes my progress on GTA, he’s banned.”

I sipped coffee hoping the world would right itself and make sense again. My Gran, a spritely, lady-like old woman, playing Grand Theft Auto? Alex was about the only thing I didn’t mind  of the current events. “Benji, go make your bed.”

Benji scowled. “Did you make yours?”

I hadn’t. “Make mine too.”

Benji opened his mouth, and I knew a battle royale was about to be waged.

“Hey, Benj, let’s go make the beds then we’ll have time to play Fortnight. We can take turns using the PS5.” Alex put his arm around his much smaller brother’s shoulder as they hurried off.

“Okay, what the hell?” I gaped after my sons and gulped hot coffee.

The rest of the crew (those who were up, at least) wandered off to start their early morning jobs. Final safety checks, fuel runs, checking the power cords were still secured and protected by rubber mats. When we were alone, Gran put her hand on mine. “I told Alex I needed him to keep an eye on Benji because I needed to talk to you.”

I raised an eyebrow. “And what, he said ‘sure, GG, nothing I’d like to do more’?”

“Of course.” Gran’s blue eyes twinkled as she smoothed her gray hair. “That, and the fifty I slipped him.”

“Wish I could say money well spent, but in ten minutes there’ll be blood and your PS5’ll be toast.” I settled on a bench in front of the curling club while Gran stretched, preparing for her morning yoga. “Why are my kids here?”

“About time Alex started working the business for real, and Benji’s eight and still hasn’t done a lick of work. You were running the duck pond by the time you were seven.”

“With Grandpa.” I felt a pang, remembering my excitement when Grandpa would let me help. I felt so grown up. Grandpa was the Ben and Gran was the Dale in Ben Dale Fun Factory.

“Now Benji will be working with you, and Alex, too. Grandpa would’ve wanted it that way.” Gran lifted her head to peer at me from her downward facing dog position. “I’m guessing you thought you’d be doing the work of four alone?”

“Well, yeah. I mean, Brock’s small town, it’s not that busy. I could’ve done it.”

“I’m sure you could have. But the boys should learn if they want. Or they should be doctors if that’s what they want.” Gran settled on the bench beside me. “You never wanted anything but this life until you were twenty. Then you started thinking maybe you should get a real job, be normal.”

I felt the tremors as Gran guided the conversation to a rocky ledge. “Let’s not, okay? Bad enough I’m here, let’s not go down that particular memory lane.”

Gran nodded after a few seconds. “Thanks for helping us out. Those dumb kids went out on a local’s boat after set- up was done yesterday and they all came back burnt to a crisp, drunker than ten skunks, and high as Mount Everest. When Billy upchucked all over Bob’s boots, he sent them packing. Dell drove them to the homestead, and they’re suspended until next week.”

“You’ve never suspended them for getting drunk or high before.” I tossed my empty cup into the garbage can and leaned forward, resting my arms on my knees.

“More because they got mouthy with a couple of locals. One woman was scared because they were shouting that it was her fault they stepped in dog doody. She didn’t even have a dog. More because they were staring at her in her bikini getting off her boat rather than watching where they walked. Don’t need the bad rep and bad feelings.”

“What’d you comp her?”

“She was easily mollified by a coupon for free ice creams.” Gran laughed. “If you ask me, she was flattered the young men were looking. She was fifty-two. She only came up to me to tell me because she worried they’d be yahoos, cause problems for Brock.”

“The boys are harmless.” I sat back on the bench again as Gran nodded her agreement. “I don’t want Benji running around much. Can’t he work with Bob or Dell?”

“You really think anyone in this town will even remember Ryan? He stopped coming about five years ago. I figure he took off, finally got out. Brock’s a great little town unless your parents are the local dealers. Even their customers never had much nice to say about any of them.”

I sighed. Gran was probably right. Ryan hadn’t had many friends, and those he did have weren’t really allowed to talk to him. His family were rough, tough, and known to police in several regions. Ryan was the black sheep but people judged him, refused to believe the apple could roll far enough from the tree to be worth anything. In the few years I’d done the Brock fair, I’d only heard of one Drummond attending besides Ryan, and that was for the smash-up derby. Ryan’s older brother had a lifetime ban for starting a huge brawl and never been back.

I blew out a breath. “Okay, so you, my parents, Winny, and Bob are the only ones who know, right?”

“And Joe, of course.” Gran nodded. “Dell guessed, but none of us confirmed or denied.”

“Did Joe stay, or did he drive someone’s truck back?” I stood up, stretching my aching muscles.

“He’s here. Bunking with Dell, I think. Unless he’s hooking up with Beth again.” Gran rolled her eyes.

“He better not be. Winny’ll skin him alive because he’s messing around with Brandy.”

“Geez Louise, don’t go saying that to this crew. Buck’s still moping about Brandy dumping him.” Gran brushed her pants off as she stood. “We might get away with our carnie’s coming to fisticuffs at a bigger fair, but I doubt the good people of Brock would be pleased.”

“True. That little town where Daddy knocked Joe around for knocking me up still talk about it when we go there.”

Gran shook her head. “Man, you were a wild one. Poor Joe. He darn near peed his pants when your Daddy told him you were only fourteen.”

“I was almost fifteen. I told Joe I was seventeen.” I grinned, remembering. “I thought for sure he’d quit, but he stuck out the carnie life. I wonder how much of that was for Alex.”

“I’d say most of it. The side pieces and all that can be had anywhere. He’s not getting rich working for us, either.” Gran smacked my butt. “Now go. You look like you slept in those clothes. There’s a tonne of work to be done.”

*

“Mom, I gave a little girl two fish instead of one. Hope that’s okay.” Benji was helping me blow up more balloons for the dart game. I kicked the compressor to get it to stop rattling.

“Sure. Why’d you give her two?” I unplugged the compressor and made a note to have Dell take a look at it.

“She’s not allowed to have any pets unless it’s a fish. She looked so sad. Her best friend has three dogs and four cats. Her parents think it’s dirty.” Benji shrugged.

I ruffled his brown hair. “Hey look, you got another customer.”

“Oh good, they want to throw baseballs. I’ve made fifty bucks and only one prize so far.” Benji scrambled over the counter and tore off for his area.

Fifty bucks already? I shook my head. I’d made twenty – and I was running four games. Benji kept his cute kid routine up, we’d make a killing.

“He yours?” A woman’s amused voice startled me out of my thoughts.

“They both are.” I pointed at Alex manning the fishing game and the water gun targets.

“Handsome.” The woman glanced at Alex but her attention was fixed on Benji. Alarms sounded in my head, and not because Benji’s customer had knocked down the bottles.

“Thanks. Want to play balloon pop? One dart for two bucks, three for five.” I pinned the last balloon to the board. “Or next door I’ve got the ping pong ball toss.”

“Pardon?” She took her focus off Benji and stared at me blankly. “Oh, no, thanks.”

I watched her walk away, my stomach threatening to toss the cookie I’d just eaten. I didn’t think I’d ever seen her before, but when you’ve been away from a fair for a long time, the once familiar faces fade from memory.

“The boy’s a natural.” Bob climbed over the ledge and hefted a big bag full of stuffed animals behind him.

“Which one?”

“Well, both, I guess. Alex is more like his dad, wants to do the rides. I told him I’d let him do the train and he was all over it. That’s how you know where the heart wants to be. Anyone thrilled with the train is destined for rides.”

“I hated the train, and the baby coaster.” I started pulling stuffed bears out of the bag and clipping them to the chains dangling from the ceiling.

“You preferred the games. The excitement of seeing people win, happy kids with treasures.” Bob pointed at Benji who was busy scooping out a fish for another pond winner. “See his face? He might look like Ryan most often, but that look right now? That’s pure you.”

My gaze scanned the people walking nearby. “Don’t say his name, don’t mention him at all.”

Bob shrugged. “You’re Dale’s granddaughter, so I’ll abide your wishes, but I’m Dale’s beau, so you’ll listen to me like you would your daddy. I’m gonna tell you what your grandpa would tell you if he was here. The man had a right to know. Benji’s going to have questions. Are you ready for them? Once he figures out his sire wasn’t a carnie, wasn’t one of us, he’s going to be curious.”

“Bob, not now, please? Not here, not in Brock. We’re working together next week, we’ll talk about it then.” When Bob simply stared at me, I held out my baby finger. “I pinky swear we’ll talk about it next week.”

Bob stared at my finger for a second before nodding and wrapping his fat pinkie around mine. “Deal.”

“Send Dell over to check the compressor, would you?” I called after Bob’s retreating back.

“Hey, anyone working this?”

I looked over and saw a tattooed and muscly guy yelling at Alex from the basketball game across from the ping pong ball toss. “Yeah. Me.”

I leapt over the counter after making sure the cash box was hidden out of sight. I entered the trailer through the skeet ball side and went to the basketballs. “How many balls?”

The guy assessed me, and I recognized the leer. I wanted to cross my hands over my chest to block his view but these pervs just took that as a challenge so I stood tall. His eyes traveled lower to my crotch.

“Before you finish thinking up your joke, I’ll have you know I’ve heard ’em all. Now, you want to play basketball or not?”

The guy glared at me, and I could tell I’d been right. “How much?”

“One for five, three for ten.”

The guy eyed the nets, then the prizes. “How many to win the horse?”

I glanced over my shoulder. “Three.”

The guy handed me a ten-dollar bill. “Save us the trouble, just give it to me.”

I rolled my eyes and put up three balls. “Doesn’t work that way. You gotta get three baskets sunk to get the prize.”

He picked up a ball and held it between both of his hands. He eyed the basket, aiming. I knew he’d never get the ball in that way – he had to throw a bit high to avoid bouncing off the board or the rim, but not so high he hit the roof. “Piece of cake.”

We watched the ball bounce off the rim and I caught it before it could bounce back to him. He was the kind of idiot that would say it hadn’t counted. The guy gave me a bad vibe. Not the perv stuff, I was used to that. The tattoos were simply a description – most of the carnies had more, had better. It was the eyes. Something cold, almost dead. Crazy. “Try the pink ball.”

The guy grabbed the second ball and did the exact same thing. Then he grabbed the orange ball and hit the backboard so hard the ball shot out of the booth, bounced across the pavement,and rolled under the ping pong and balloon trailer.

“I got it.” Benji dove under and came back with the ball, his face split in a wide grin. “Here, Mom.”

I caught the ball, and I caught the look on tattoo guy’s face. Benji must’ve seen it too, because he took a step back. “You want to go see if Bob’s ready to relieve you?”

Benji swallowed hard and nodded. “That’s where I was headed when the ball bounced out.”

I waved him on his way, my eyes darting back to the guy watching him. “Go on then.”

“Kid’s a bit young to be workin’, ain’t he?”

I shrugged. “He’s playin’ at helpin’.”

The guy stared at me, hard, before he loped off in the opposite direction Benji had gone. My breath whooshed out of me. My gut was screaming, my hands were shaking, and my heartbeat kicked up several notches. I grabbed the walkie-talkie from my waistband. “Dell. Games. Now.”

“What’s wrong, Ma?” Alex called over the heads of the family fishing in front of him.

“Nothing’s wrong,” I lied with my fingers crossed behind my back.

“Then why do you look like you seen a ghost?”

I forced a laugh as I left the trailer and went back to the more popular balloon game. I didn’t recognize the guy, but he sure as hell seemed to recognize me. And I hadn’t liked the look on his face when he’d looked at Benji.

“This better be good, missy. I was about to go on break. And since when don’t you know how to speak properly on the talkie?”

“Get Joe to run the games. Benji and I are heading back.”

“Joe’s out at the gas station. Rides’ve been runnin’ non-stop since we opened, and we still got four more hours to close.”

“Gas station’s fifteen minutes out. How long ago did he leave?”

“‘Bout twenty. He’ll be awhile yet.” Dell put his hand on my shoulder. “Breathe.”

“I gotta go. You need to fix the compressor. Send Joe and Alex with whoever’s meeting us at the north fair Monday.”

“Benny, girl,” Dell sighed and took his ball cap off to wipe his sweaty brow. “Ryan’s not here. Not at the fair, not in Brock.”

I stilled. “How do you know?”

Dell sighed. “Cuz he went to jail.”

The smile froze on my face when I realized Dell wasn’t laughing. “What?”

“I don’t know details, alright? Never told no one what little I knew because, well, it’s gossip.” Dell sat on the counter in front of me. “Guess he got into his parent’s business or somethin’. Dunno. Happened just before we was here, ’bout five years ago so people was talkin’, you know. I got ears, picked up some stuff. Everyone was guessing the details. There was a deal gone bad or somethin’. Big fight, someone was stabbed, and Ryan got hauled off to jail. That’s all I know, so don’t ask me nothin’. I never wanted to tell you, but you looked so spooked and talkin’ crazy ’bout leavin’ us stuck.”

“The little sent me over to cover, but if you’re here Dell, I’ll go back to fixin’ the two busted bumper cars.” Bob looked from Dell to me.

“I’m on break.” Dell slid off the counter before I could stop him.

“Been quiet. You and Alex can hold down the fort a bit? I’m not feeling so good.” I knew I must look like hell because Bob didn’t hesitate to wave me off.

I raced to the ticket booth where Gran could usually be found selling ride passes and tickets. Without knocking, I opened the back door. The heat of the day wasn’t as noticeable in the booth. Gran had fans blowing to circulate the air, and a tray of cold water in front of the fan blowing on her. I could see the bits of ice melting.

“It’s thirty for an all day pass, a hundred for today through Sunday. Twenty for twenty-five tickets if you’re not planning on staying long or coming back.”

Gran attached wristbands to the customers until there was a lull in the line.I counted seven hundred come in while I waited. “What’s wrong?”

I took the bottle of water Gran passed me from the cooler beside her. “Dell just told me Ryan’s in jail. But there was this tattooed guy, he recognized me, and I know he recognized Benji. Rather, the Ryan in Benji’s features.”

Gran groaned. “Darn. I had such high hopes for that boy. Thought him not coming around meant he’d escaped. Well, that should ease your mind some, that he won’t suddenly appear.”

“Ease my mind? That my son’s father is in jail?” I chugged the contents of the bottle and tossed the empty into the tiny blue bin.

“Joe’s been to jail, too.” Gran shrugged. “More than half our employees been to jail. Look at Winny. Came to us after ten years hard time.”

“For stabbing the guy who hurt her daughter! Not for drugs.”

“You don’t know the why’s or how’s of it, so until you’re talking facts, don’t judge. I’ll tell the security guys to keep a close watch on Benji because I agree with you, there’s something off about the tattoo guy if he did see Ryan’s features in Benji’s face.” Gran patted my shoulder. “Now go on, get back to work. I’ll send Joe over to work the games with you when he gets back, Alex’ll love running the airplanes.”

“I’ll run the airplanes, Joe and Alex can run the games. Been slow anyhow.”

“The fair closes at nine tonight, you still got a few hours yet. People who were working are just getting here.” Gran opened her window for a rush of people to her booth.

I knew there was no point arguing, and likely wouldn’t get a chance to for awhile anyhow. The line that formed was getting longer and I saw a long line of cars inching along the road outside the fairgrounds, looking for parking.

“Mom! Dell said he’d bring me another fifty fish, that’s how many I’ve given away today.” Benji fell into step beside me and we made our way back to game alley. “I was going to tell you before I went on break but I know you said never to mention how much money we had. I’ve made two hundred bucks so far today. Alex said he made more, but I know he’s lying because no one’s been playing the water gun game and the fishing game is lame.”

“You made more than me, that’s for sure.” Not by much, because I was running four popular games, but I was so proud of Benji, his pride tickled my heart. “Now be ready to make at least twice that much. No shows or concerts tonight so the games will be busy.”

“And it’s hot out. Grampy said the games double their money when its hot because people don’t want to sit at home and don’t wanna ride rides the whole time.” Benji threw his arms around my waist. “Thanks for letting me work, Mom.”

I watched my son beeline for the family waiting patiently by the duck pond. Bob was scooping out ping pong balls for another family to throw. I had a line of people waiting for the balloon pop and Alex had sprinted over to deal with a broken skeet ball game.

I barely noticed when Bob left and Joe took his place. We fell into a groove like a well-oiled machine. Benji was getting tired, I could tell by the way he kept sitting on the edge of his booth, but his enthusiasm never waned.

“Pack it up for the night, boys,” I called when I saw it was almost nine-thirty.

Benji had already done most of his clean up and was helping Alex with his. I took my cash box, locked up my trailer, and went to help Joe. “Good night?”

Joe thrust his apron at me and the cash box. “You know I suck at counting money.”

“Nobody walked away with a gleam in their eyes, so you counted out their change pretty good.” I winked at Joe as I quickly put the bigger bills into the cash box. The apron kept the small bills and the coins, but when we got busy, we didn’t take the time to empty the apron into the cash box.

“Yeah. One guy tried to tell me he’d paid with a hundred but since I’d just stashed the big bills, I could prove he was lying.” Joe picked up all the broken balloon bits while I opened the door to the ping pong side. “Yeah, bit of a mess in there, watch your step. I crushed about eight of ’em but had no time to pick up any.”

“We’re heading to the midway. I’m hoping we can get a couple of turns on the ferris wheel before they shut down.” Alex passed over his money box and apron. “Five hundred eighty, before you ask.”

Joe whistled. “Not bad. How ’bout you, little man?”

Benji squared his shoulders and cast a nasty look at Alex. “Five hundred and seventy-two. But that’s not fair, because half of what Alex made was from when he was helping me because I got swamped.”

“You wanna come with me, or you want me to hand you over to Dell and he can take you to the trailer?” Alex muttered.

“With you. I wanna spin on the music ride. I’ve missed it. Haven’t seen it since we were in – Mom, where were we last time we saw Bruce and his music ride?”

“Don’t remember the places, but it was one of the first of the year so been a couple of months.” I waved the boys off. When they were out of ear shot, I turned to Joe. “I’ll finish here. Go with them, would you?”

Joe put his arms around me and hugged me close. He smelled of sweat and Beth’s perfume. “The boys are watching him. No one’s seen a muscle monkey with tattoos since you saw him earlier.”

“Just the same. Please?” I pulled out of Joe’s embrace.

Joe kissed my nose. “I’ve missed the music ride myself.”

I decided not to open Joe’s or my cash boxes until I was in the trailer. I needed to sit down. One of the security guys sauntered over. “Need help closing up?”

“Nah. Can you take the money to the safe? If someone else wants to count, I won’t argue.” I grinned as he took the boxes and aprons. I’d just finished cleaning up the ping pong area when I sensed rather than heard someone behind me.

I jumped over the side of the counter and landed on the pavement, preparing to shout when I caught sight of who it was. Not the tattoo guy with the crazy eyes I’d expected. Worse.

“Well, you ruined the whole ‘guess who’ thing I’d been going for.” Ryan’s wry smile kicked my pulse into racing more than it had been when I’d thought I was about to be robbed.

“Ryan. I though –” What, that he was in jail? I’d hoped he was married, happy, but he looked sick, pale.

“I was.” He’d read my mind I guess. Ryan jumped off the ledge and approached me, his green eyes, Benji’s eyes, searched my face. “I see you and Joe are together.”

I pushed around him to pull the door down and locked the trailer. Tears burned my eyes, but I wasn’t going to let him see them. His assumptions had led to our break-up then, and they were going to end things before they even started now.

“Yeah, that’s right. I was doing him the whole time. Never stopped.” I put the lanyard back around my neck after I’d finished locking the trailer.

“I don’t believe that.” Ryan took a step towards me, so I backed up.

I snorted. “You had no problem believing it then, why not now? Especially since you seem to have it in your head we’re together now.”

“You’re not? Together now?” Ryan stopped moving when he realized I intended to keep backing away.

“We were never together, I told you that.”

“But you had a kid together.”

I heard the silence first. The rides were down. Any minute, my boys were going to come here, heading to our trailer. Ryan would know about Benji. Hell, Benji was bright, he’d see an older version of himself and know about his father. I wasn’t ready. Next lifetime I might be, but I definitely wasn’t ready in this one.

“Let’s go sit down.” I pushed past him, heading for the bleachers we used to sit on when we’d been young. I didn’t look to see if he followed, just hurried as fast as I could.

The bleachers were litter strewn from shows early in the day, but I climbed to the top of the first bank of metal bleachers I’d come to. I heard Ryan climbing behind me. I expelled a relieved breath.

“Look. I never told you about Alex because –” I blew out a breath and looked to the heavens, asking for forgiveness. “I was embarrassed. Ashamed.”

Ryan frowned. “Why?”

“Come on, Ryan. Think. I wasn’t even fifteen when I got pregnant. I was rebelling, acting out, whatever you want to call it. Joe got hired by my grandparents, and I had a crush on him. He was working with my parents crew, I saw him every damned day, saw the women flirting, him flirting back. I told him I was seventeen. He had no clue I was the daughter of Ben and Lil. None of the others thought to tell him. When Joe realized I’d been a virgin, found out I’d lied about my age, he felt sick. He was going to quit. Then he found out I was pregnant and we made it work as parents, not as a couple. Co-parenting carnie style.”

“Every year since you started working Brock’s fair, you and I spent every minute of those four days you were in town talking. You never once told me about your son, about Joe.”

The hurt and shame, different shame than from when I’d been a kid, rose up to stab my heart. “Not every minute. And the kid I minded? You have to have figured out by now that was Alex. When I realized that I looked forward to Brock’s fair more than any other every year, I started thinking about getting out. I was twenty, you were twenty-two. I thought we could get jobs somewhere; I could see my family whenever they had gigs close to wherever we moved. I spent a whole year thinking about whether I wanted to work at a coffee shop or a restaurant. Figured I’d tell you about Alex, the three of us would find normal. Go out into the real world.”

I swiped angrily at my tears. Ryan put a hand on my arm but I pulled it away. “You never told me about Alex.”

“I wanted to. That last summer? When we, you know. I was going to tell you, but that first time, that first night, was amazing and I didn’t want to risk spoiling it. Then the Friday night was even better. Remember, it rained so hard and we closed down early. We ended up falling asleep under the bleachers.”

Ryan’s eyes unfocused, as if he were seeing my memories as I was. “Saturday morning, I told you I loved you.”

I pressed my fingers to my mouth as I nodded. My tears dried up as I pulled out the old carnie grit. Life wasn’t easy, no matter how much fun we had, and duty and responsibility came before happiness. “I loved you so much it hurt. And I was going to tell you. Tell you what I’d figured out for us.”

“And then your kid came up and called you mommy.” Ryan sat up straight on the metal bench, rubbing his jaw. “And Joe beat the crap out of me.”

“I’d freaked everybody out by not coming back to the trailer. Joe was the most worked up because Alex was crying for me and Joe stayed up half the night with him while I was with you. The look on your face? The disgust when you realized Alex was talking to me? Joe lost his cool. He knew – everyone knew – how I felt about you, and seeing you looking at me like that?” Even as my heart had broken, I’d been in awe of Joe’s rage, his protectiveness, his hell bent fury to defend my honour, our son’s.

“I’m sorry, for what it’s worth. But I wasn’t disgusted, I was shocked. But I never got a chance to talk to you before Joe was pounding on me. I got a few shots in, but he won the fight.”

“That’s Joe. He doesn’t fight much, but when he does, it’s for a good cause. He can’t work the fair just north of here because he beat a guy for hitting his wife.” I shrugged and looked up at the sky. Ryan and I used to wish on shooting stars. I hadn’t star gazed in years.

“So you’re saying that if I’d just believed you when you tried to explain, the last nine years could’ve been better?” Ryan kicked the seat in front of him.

I thought of Benji and wondered if Ryan would’ve been happy to be a father. He’d been stricken when Alex had called me mommy, I’d assumed he didn’t like kids. “Maybe. Probably not. I’d have pined for this life while slinging burgers or whatever.”

“That’s the kicker. You say you’d planned to leave, run away from the circus, or carnival, or whatever you call your troupe, but I’d planned to ask if I could join.”

My spine stiffened, my eyes widening. “What?”

“You know how bad I wanted out. I dropped out of school to take care of my sister because she was sick. My parents, my brothers, were useless. She’d have been dead if I’d left her to their care. When she went into remission, I’d thought about leaving a million times but I was scared to leave her. She was getting into trouble. No one gave her a chance, just like no one gave me one.”

Ryan had told me bits and pieces of what his life at home was like, told me about his sister, but four days once a year wasn’t enough to cover all the details. “I remember you saying ‘over my dead body will Nikki become a statistic, a teenage, unwed mom’. I remember, because I wanted to wave at you and say ‘like me? Statistic on your right’.”

Ryan laughed, and I realized why I loved when Benji threw his head back and laughed – he laughed exactly like Ryan did. “Nikki never got pregnant, but dabbled in the drugs my family was dealing. She went to a party with a bunch of the ‘good’ kids in town, you know, the ones that do the drugs they buy from my parents? The kids whose parents wouldn’t let them hang with me because I might be a bad influence? One of the little punks tried to rape Nikki. So I guess I went a little crazy. Beat the maggot to a pulp. Because he was from a good family, parents were teachers and mine were low on the pharmaceutical totem pole, I was charged and he wasn’t. I went to jail for assault, and when I got out, I never came back to Brock.”

“Why are you here now?”

“Funny story. Nikki cleaned herself up and she’s working at the medical centre. Got her addiction counselor degree or whatever you call it. One of her patients called her today, said she might want to tell her brother to go to the fair. Said I might have fun shooting hoops, but I’d probably rock at breaking balloons.”

Crazy tattoo guy. I got the joke – broken condom, broken balloon – but Ryan obviously hadn’t. My mind raced. The rational part of my brain wanted to say ‘you went to the fair, now go home’. My heart wanted me to take him to Benji, right now. Indecision kept my lips closed.

“There you are!”

I felt white hot tingles up my spine when I heard Benji’s voice. I watched Ryan out of the corner of my eye as Benji climbed the benches instead of the stairs.

“Another one?” Ryan mumbled beside me and I stiffened.

“Benji, come on little man. Get over here and leave your mom alone.” Joe and Alex were standing at the foot of the bleachers. Alex was curious, Joe was assessing.

“Hang on, Joe. I just wanna give Mom the cookies I got her.” Benji stopped two benches below us, his eyes wide and staring at Ryan. “Who’re you?”

Ryan slid to the edge of the bench, gaping from me to Benji. “What the –?”

“Careful there.” Joe put his foot on the bottom step but didn’t come any closer. I knew he’d be here in an instant, but I figured he was secretly pleased. He’d been telling me for years to come clean.

Lies popped into my head, each one more absurd than the one before it. I locked eyes with Joe, who nodded, then with Alex, who had put two and two together and was assessing Ryan with a cool expression.

“Mom? Is that –? Is he my –?” Benji’s small voice was full of wonder. He walked along the bench so he was close to where Ryan had moved to. “He is. You are, right?”

“Who?” Ryan gulped.

“My dad! See? I told you my dad wasn’t an alien.” Benji spun on the bench to glare at Alex, before turning back to Ryan. “You’re not, are you?”

Ryan cleared his throat. “Uh, no.”

Joe whispered something to Alex. Alex shook his head. Joe grinned before turning his attention to us again. “C’mon, little man. You gotta feed the fish, count your mom’s and my cash boxes, and GG wants to hear all about that guy who knocked down the bottles.”

Benji practically vibrated with excitement. He couldn’t take his eyes off Ryan but I knew my boy. Benji would need some time to absorb this latest development, maybe talk to Joe and Gran a bit before he figured out how he felt.

“Ryan, you’ll come see us before you go, won’t you?” Joe’s tone left no question. If Ryan knew what was good for him, he’d stop by to see Benji.

“Uh. Yeah. I guess?” Ryan shot a dark look at me before shifting his attention back to Benji. “Nice to, uh, meet you?”

Benji laughed as he started down the benches. He stumbled as he seemed to change his mind. He ran back up the benches. “Almost forgot. I got you cookies. There’s two, so you can share.”

I took the white paper bag and wondered if I should laugh or cry. “Thanks , honey.”

Benji leaned over and hugged Ryan. Ryan’s hands hesitated then patted his back awkwardly before finally enclosing around Benji’s small frame. Benji whispered quietly into Ryan’s ear, released him, and took off down the stairs this time.

“What did Benji say?”

Ryan shrugged. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

I shook my head. “Really? You have to ask? By the time I figured out I was pregnant, I’d convinced myself that whatever we’d had was an illusion. Four days a year for how many years? I was just as dumb and stupid as I’d been when I was fifteen. So I focused on growing up instead. What did Benji say?”

“Looks like you’ve done well by the kids. Doing well. Wish I could say the same.”

“What?” I still wanted to know what Benji had said, but his words surprised me.

“Not easy to find a job when you’re an ex-convict.” Ryan laughed and jammed his hands through his hair.

“Huh. Well, I know where you can get a job.” I felt my eyes widen as I said the words and instantly wanted to take them back. My brain disengaged and my mouth kept going. “Gran and my grandfather started Ben Dale Fun Factory because my grandfather’s brother needed a job after getting out of jail. I’m 3rd generation heir to all this, and it’s almost a job requisite to have some issue or other that makes life hard. Lots of felons, but as long as their crimes weren’t against kids or women, we’re interested. Now what did Benji say?”

Ryan reached over and grabbed the paper bag out of my hand. “He said to make sure I got the bigger cookie because you’d already had five today, and that’s only fair.”