Episode Nine

#Episode 9: Absentminded Satyrs
Hrothgar and Beth—August 1991

The berries of the Blueberry bush signify cleared or enhanced sight or understanding. When paired with Babies Breath, the berries denote wishes of good health. A cluster of the short-lived flowers is a call for guidance from beyond. Remembrance.

          “I’m sorry, by the way,” Hrothgar offered genuinely through a sad smile. “I can only imagine how weird this has all been for you.”
          “You’ve certainly made the last few days interesting.”
          “Maybe, yeah. I mean, I guess. It’s just…”
          “Take a breath, Gar, and then let it out.” Beth wasn’t used to a Gar so flustered he stumbled over his words. Usually the boy was overflowing with them, and she needed answers.
          Crossing his legs with his feet beneath both knees, Gar pressed the palms of his hands together in front of his solar plexus, closed his eyes and started humming and swaying. “Om” he intoned, the consonant droning on like the buzzing of a lazy bee drunk on the nearby wild lavender. He cracked an eye to peek at Beth’s reaction. He needn’t have bothered, judging by the sharp punch to his shoulder he got in return.
          “Ok, ok!” Gar laughed, rubbing his shoulder. “Before I get to the carnival, I guess I need to backtrack a bit.”
          “Of course you do,” Beth demurred primly.
          Gar sighed. “Just let me get there! I promise, it won’t take too long.”

Hrothgar—Two Weeks Ago Continued

          Despite some of the strange, otherworldly adventures Hrothgar and Kaithias shared in both the waking and dreaming world, the week leading up to the carnival Gar found himself exploring Finn’s Wood alone more and more often. When Kaithias did appear, he wasn’t apologetic, only distracted. The creature would appear only to vanish without a word moments later. When he reappeared, he acted as if he’d never left, showing Gar new plants to add to his family’s books and miming many of their qualities for his friend to jot down. The mental communication between them was never very eloquent, but as time went on it now seemed stilted and strained even in their shared dreams.
          Often left to his own devices as he explored the preserve, Gar started to take a hard look at what was happening around him. Most days he sat through family meals with barely a word. As summer had grown long, he’d ignored what passed for his circle of friends more often than not. It was only a few more weeks before he had to return to the drudging routine of school. How would he explain his absence to Kaithias? Could the beast-man even understand that he didn’t have a choice in the matter?
          He had given up his summer to the aging flower diaries of his grandmother and her forebears. The wonder that had grabbed hold of him after the former’s passing was still there, thrumming underneath the current of his day-to-day existence so loudly that sometimes it was all he could hear. Now his shaggy blue friend seemed to be as captivated by something unknown as Gar was with him. His flickering presence grew more distracted by the day, now vanishing sometimes by the hour. At first Gar was worried something was wrong with Kaithias—but if there was, the creature didn’t intimate anything of the sort to him. They had spent most of the summer sharing everything together; there were no secrets when your unconscious was a literal place you visited with someone every night. Deep down, if he was being honest, he worried that Kaithias was losing interest, and becoming as flighty as the stories of faeries and fauns he’d read in the week he’d spent trying to discern his friend’s proper name and the behaviors appropriate to interacting with him.
          As he had frustratingly left Ryan, Seth, and their circle of friends behind in pursuit of Kaithias, it now seemed that the capricious creature was doing the same to him—and he had two ways to handle it. He could be possessive, jealous, and scared and do what he could to recapture the totality of the beast-man’’s attentions, or he could do his best to remain the same person he had been when Kaithias had first revealed himself to Gar and hope that what had drawn them together was enough for a lasting bond. Kaithias’ uncle, or whoever it was that had sat on the living throne in their first shared dream, had hinted that their bond might well be permanent. Gar hoped so—he wasn’t willing to go back to the empty hollow shell of a life he’d had before. It’s not that there was anything wrong with who and what he had been, it’s just he hadn’t known—hadn’t seen—just how much more there was out there beyond his adolescent awareness. Now that he had, it looked myopic by comparison. Pathetic.
          As he passed through the forest one afternoon and into a small clearing nestled near its heart, he had a small, but inevitable panic attack. What if Kaithias’ wandering thoughts and attentions meant that whatever ability he’d gained to see him and his ilk would fade? The bond was strongest when both of them contributed. If Kaithias was willing to let his half fade, would Gar’s ability to see all of this fade as well? He sat down as he tried to control the hyperventilation the thought of that had caused. Kaithias, and what he’d shown him, had in some strange way given him hope that his grandma had gone one to a gentler, greater place. If Kaithias and his family were real, than nothing was really impossible. It made it easier to deal with the ache of her loss to think of her having adventures of her own, as she clearly had during her youth. But to never touch that certainty again…could Gar even cope, if it came to that?
          Kaithias appeared then, stretching down to tousle the boy’s hair from a branch on a sturdy sapling he’d leaned against as Gar had caught his breath. His goatish legs hooked at the knee around the branch, the blue creature completed an Olympic style dismount in a successful attempt to make Hrothgar smile. Walking toward the far side of the clearing, Kaithias gestured to a cluster of large rocks causing the water of the small river that ran through the preserve to arc to the left before it continued back into the forest.
          Small chirps and squonks emanated from behind the outcropping, and a small paddling of baby ducks emerged into the water with a mama duck protecting their flank as she gently nudged them into the swifter current. The detritus of the forest had been lodged on the river’s floor, and several of the ducklings found themselves at the pair’s feet. As Hrothgar bent down to greet the incoming ducks, the father duck joined what he assumed was the mother. Both of them stood behind the five drenched fuzzy babies, their heads leaning towards each other until they rested upon the others. It was a very human response. Gar reached out, and the nearest duckling moved forward and placed his bill on his outstretched palm. Hrothgar thought he might die from the cute. Rainbows shimmered around the whole scene, the world tilting and twisting in a sheen of brilliance that had him momentarily draw back his hand to put it on the ground for support.
           Through the haze and the growing pounding at the back of his skull, Gar swore he saw both adult ducks approximate a bow to Kaithias, and then to Gar himself. Kaithias returned the gesture in kind, and Hrothgar tried as well, but ended up falling on his stomach instead. He heard laughter, and looking to his right saw it was the bunch of ducklings, their mouths opened wide as they expressed their mirth. As the pain crept across his scalp and settled into its familiar place in front of his ears where his jaws and eardrums met, he felt his head swimming.
          The pain pushed to right behind his eyes, and as he did his best to blink away the water that collected in response, he saw an image of the mother and father duck, their bills somehow curved in loving smiles as they tuck their wings and press against each other as they presented their offspring to Kaithias and Hrothgar. The image fuzzed and blurred and when it cleared it wasn’t ducks standing in front of him, but Kaithias who was bowing in the same manner alongside a human girl Gar had never seen before, towards Gar, his father, and his otherworldly family in the impossible woodland they’d visited in their dreams. He had just enough time to notice her somewhat wild honey-blond hair and strange black smudges covering her hand as they clasped in his friends. Then the pain crushed what remained of Hrothgar’s attempt to stay conscious, and darkness came rushing to fill the void of his sight.
          When he woke, he found his head resting in Kaithias lap. His friend sat cross-legged on the bed of grass and swamp moss, weaving columbine and lavender into Hrothgar’s hair and occasionally brushing still brimming tears away from Gar’s eyes. Kaithias’ look of concern, as Gar’s field of vision cleared, relaxed into his typical semi-smirk of amusement.
          “What was that? “
          Kaithias looked towards the river, though the ducks were nowhere to be seen. No answer was forthcoming. Hrothgar groaned as he slowly took in his environment once again. The sky’s blue was muted, and the sun was nowhere in sight. Briefly, for a moment, Gar considered skipping out on the carnival completely and spending the night in the preserve with Kaithias. He hadn’t brought any camping supplies, or a change of clothes, but as he lay there with the claws of his friend delicately stroking the tingling electricity of his former pain from his temples he couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
          Closing his eyes, he drifted somewhere between waking and sleep. He sat up too quickly, and he shook his head to get out the cobwebs. He turned and faced Kaithias.
          “I’ve got to go. There’s this stupid carnival I have to go to tonight.”
           Kaithias tilted his head to the left, his eyebrows raised quizzically in his lack of understanding,
          “My friends will be there, and there’ll be games and food and rides. How do I explain this to you?”
While he sat there with a profound loss for words, Kaithias reached out a hand and tapped his temple. Gar closed his eyes and tried to picture the carnival as he imagined it would be, with his friends all egging each other on at the various games. The Ferris wheel, the tilt-a-whirl, and the Buzzsaw—though he didn’’t think he could handle the speed or angle of that spinning monstrosity. Funnel cakes, though. Those would be good, with some honey, cinnamon, or maybe both. And lemonade, fresh-squeezed. Probably one of those Strongman hammer test things, where you had to ring the bell. He imagined trying his hand at that, with dismal results.
           Hrothgar opened his eyes at the wheezing coming out of his friend a few breaths away. Kaithias was rolling on the ground, trying to catch his breath from laughing. Looking around, he couldn’t see what was so funny. At least, not until Kaithias stood tall and mimed Hrothgar swaying back and forth with the hammer above his head, trying to hit the stupid Strongman thing and ring that bell. Then they both laughed.
          Gar stood up and dusted off his pants, and Kaithias rose too, offering his hand in parting. The two friends shook and took off in different directions as the sun vanished below the tree line. Gar started to move into more of a sprint. He didn’t have long before he’d need to be ready for Ryan’s parents to pick him up.
          He made it home with 20 minutes to spare, and didn’t stop to process whatever his parents said to him as he flew up the stairs taking off his shirt on the way. As Gar vigorously scrubbed himself clean under the hot water, he realized he didn’t just feel good—he felt amazing. As the Irish Spring and water sloughed off the dirt and sweat, he felt like he could climb a skyscraper or take on a hundred Johnny Prentiss. The sudsy shampoo poured off his head and let the water beat on his neck. Turning around, Gar didn’t bat an eye as the spray passed through a coruscation of blues and greens, turning to oranges as they hit his skin and slithered around his legs towards the tub.
          As he turned off the water and started to speed-dry his hair and body, he hopped a bit from foot to foot, carrying far more energy than he could keep in. He threw the towel into the hamper in the bathroom’s closet and turned out the light on his way out of the room. He had just made it into his bedroom, the door not even closed as he threw on some underwear and some shorts when he heard the doorbell ring downstairs. He grabbed some red and white plaid western-style snap-shirt from a hanger and threw it on as he grabbed his sandals from the closet. He raced down the stairs and found Ryan waiting in the foyer.
          “Hey,” offered Ryan, his head tilted like one of the goldfinches Gar had seen earlier.
          Gar’s “Hey” in response was substantially more muted.
          “You ready to go?” Ryan asked, clearly eager to let the strained moment end.
          Gar felt a hand upon his left shoulder, and his dad’s hand slip him a few bills into the left hand he’d had behind his back. “Hey Ryan. Haven’t seen you much lately. Glad to see your face. Have a good time tonight,” his Dad ordered, giving Gar a small push forward towards his friend. Gar’s harrumph was genuine and caused Ryan to smile in return. They walked out into the brisk night air and headed towards the car.
          What followed was a seemingly never-ending stream of questions by Ryan’s father from the moment the two teens got into the car until they pulled up at Seth’s apartment building. Ryan and Gar both end up equally annoyed, which somehow worked towards bonding them together. Once Seth slid into the back seat, sandwiching Gar in his usual spot, his friend’s grateful smile made Gar feel a bit guilty for the neglect he’d shown them both.
          Minutes later the car entered the gridlock of all the other parents dropping off the other teens by the school’s running track. After making dutiful promises to behave themselves and seeing his father off, Ryan led the other two through the crowd as they attempted to find the rest of their posse. Hrothgar did his best to keep his frustration to himself when Ryan spotted Eddie in the crowd by one of the ticket booths. It was clear that Eddie felt the same, once they came into his view. Ryan bro-hugged it out and Seth nodded to the larger fellow in greeting, but ignored Gar completely.
          In an attempt at an olive branch, Gar walks up to the pretty girl standing by Eddie’s side and greeted her with a noncommittal, “Hey.”
          “Hey,” she clipped, clearly annoyed.
          “I’m Gar. I guess you’re here with this guy?”
          “So it seems.”
          “Well, these two fellows are Seth and Ryan. They’re not too terrible.” The familiarity and teasing of yore came easy to him, but he could see that both of them weren’’t sure how to take it anymore from the virtual stranger he’d become. Suddenly aware that it was his job to make introductions, Eddie scowled at Gar. Ryan and Seth both looked about to say something, but they were saved by Bryce walking up with his arm around Emily.
          “You guys are slow, man. We’ve already been on like three rides already.” Bryce snuck a quick kiss to Emily’s cheek. Cole, Derrick, Matt, and Wyn appeared out of the crowd just a second or two later, the couple walking with their pinkies entwined. Cole looked grateful for the additional company, taking a moment to slap hands with Ryan and Gar. Seth and Cole were actually pretty close, but in a group like this both seemed to be satisfied with a head nod.
          Taking the cue from Gar, Eddie slid an arm over Kristin’s shoulders, bragging, “This is Kristin. She’s pretty—I mean, I probably would’ve completely botched that Algebra test in Kincaid’s Math class today if she hadn’t taken the time to pound the info into my brain.”
          Did Eddie look bashful? That seemed impossible, but his cheeks were boasting a reddish glow that couldn’t mean much else. He then properly introduced her to the small group that had gathered. Gar couldn’t decide whether Kristin looked irritated at the oafish way it had come out or pleased that Eddie seemed to respect her brains. If they stuck together, Gar imagined she’d be wearing that look pretty often.
          When Eddie got to Derrick, Derrick’s eyes were typically unsubtle as they roved up and down Kristin’s body. Hannah appeared at that precise moment, harrumphing and rolling her eyes as she noticed Derrick’’s profound lack of subtlety.
          “She can’t be too smart, Ed. She came here with you after all. Good thing the rest of us are here to look out for her,” Hannah smarmed as she deliberately insinuated herself into the growing circle between Derrick and Kristin’s thankful face.
          “Ouch!” chuckled Seth, shaking his left hand as if burned. “Watch this one, man. She’ll be on Leno any day.”
          Hannah responded maturely by sticking out her tongue at him.
          Now that just about everyone they’d hoped to see had all shown up, they started slowly meandering down the makeshift Boardwalk. They stopped first at the Balloon Dart throw. Coleman attempted to impress Emily by nailing all 3 throws and was doing well with the first two, but then Sean appeared riding on the shoulders of some sophomore he later introduced as Greg with his face and upper body painted in the green and blue of Nabiscoding Central High and proclaiming, “All Hail the Arrival of The High King Majesty of This Here Principality of Revelry and Ribaldry.” He beat his chest like King Kong before thrusting his fists into the air and the exploded with glitter and confetti over the crowd that had gathered around the booth. Needless to say, it was expertly timed. Cole missed the last one completely.
          “Did you seriously just get derailed by this glitter-bombing idiot?” Matt laughed as he slapped Sean a necessary high five. Sean dismounted Greg’s shoulders via an only partially successful backflip, almost knocking down a few kids in line.
          Wyn, as perfect in her timing as Sean had been in his own, quipped “Special is as special does.”
          Everyone pretty much lost it then, except for Cassidy. She’d followed in Sean’s wake, and clearly didn’t appreciate the ribbing. Her brother had pretty hardcore dyslexia, and she took umbrage with the short bus humor that was so en vogue at the moment. She had a hard look for her friend, who was yet unaware of Cass’s arrival. Gar saw it, though, and knew there’d be words later.
          He just squeezed Cole’s shoulder and wandered off towards a nearby booth with flashing bulbs. Some outrageous painted cartoon Genie adorned the top of the machine, appearing out of the multicolored smoke that filled the large glass box. Above the Genie, surrounded by those flashing lightbulbs, was a banner reading, “Tell Your Fortune, only 3 tickets!” As the smoke cleared, Gar could make out a glass ball in the center of a small circular table with symbols painted all over it. Clouds seemed to float in the sphere, mirroring the dissipating smoke the machine was now releasing around him. To Gar’’s eyes rainbows filled the dome, shifting shape and density. He put in three tickets, the cloud spun inside its spherical prison, and a plastic bubble popped out of the slot underneath, at knee level. Inside was a rolled up piece of paper.
          He pocketed it and joined the others as they cheered on Bryce, who had muscled his way to the front of the line for the Milk Can Toss. As if to justify his line jumping, he loudly boasted that he could sink all five balls with his eyes closed. A crowd, most of which was formerly the line behind him, gathered to see him try. He took in the booth and then picked up the ball, closed his eyes tightly, and quickly sank one of the baseballs into the large milk can. The crowd clapped enthusiastically, and Gar felt tiny gnats do their best to attack his arms in a swarm. Batting them away, he distanced himself from the others. He could tell from the next round of applause that Bryce was still batting a thousand.
           He walked up to Sarah and Daryl, who had only just now caught up with everyone else. Gar shook hands with Wouter in an awkward exchange of camaraderie. Sarah’s hands were all over the Danish exchange student like some kind of human octopus, and Wouter’s face made it clear he didn’t know what to think or do about it. He settled for trapping one of her hands in his and clearly called it a very relieved win.
          Daryl smiled when he saw Cassidy across the way, and joined her. Both of them walked across the concourse and not for the first time Gar tries to picture a world in which the two of them end up together. Cass’s intelligence and independence seemed to Gar the perfect catnip for someone like Daryl, who seemed born to gather followers. Despite that, Daryl cared far more about his friends than he usually allowed to show. That depth of caring was definitely something Cass would appreciate. Gar watched them try and fail miserably at Tip the Cat, the fuzzy little felines silently mocking them as their thrown whiffle balls danced around them or worse, hit them and just rolled away.
          Hrothgar slid his hand in his pocket and felt the bubble with his fortune in it. It was probably mass printed somewhere in China. It’d be ludicrous to take whatever it said at face value. And yet. Lost in thought, he didn’t expect the loud slap on his back as Ryan appeared with Sean, Derrick, and Eddie in tow. He pivoted so he was facing Gar; both his arms bent at the elbow to house his winnings, including some sickly elongated plush giraffe and a purple striped Godzilla.
          “There you are, man.”
          “Hey, Ryan” Gar coughed to soak up the force of the surprise. “Yeah, waiting for Cass and Daryl to realize that game is rigged.”
          “Rigged?” Derrick asked, as he made a point to walk up and take a hard look at the fuzzy cats and the shelf they were mounted on.
          “Haven’t seen anyone tip a cat in 15 minutes, so I figure yeah.” Gar shrugged. Looking around, he was unsurprised when none of the other guys seemed to want to let Cass and Daryl in on the scheme.
          Ryan looked around, “Where’s everyone else?”
          “Still probably basking in the glow of Bryce’s accomplishments,” Gar said with a smile.
          Ryan looked at him closely, trying to judge whether it was Gar’s newfound sarcasm or just the easy repartee they’d always shared. “I think you’ve missed the point of this little outing,” he declared, as he nodded towards a nearby lane of games they’d yet to explore.
           “You have to actually play a game, not just watch the rest of us.”
           “What’s the point if they’re rigged?”
          “I dunno, Gar. That’s sorta the deal, right? We won’t know if you don’t try it.  C’mon, it might be fun.”
          “If it helps, just think of it as an excuse to actually hang out with your friends? C’mon, they can’t all be rigged, can they? I’’m sure we can find something that meets your exacting standards.”
          This time it was Gar’s turn to look at Ryan, trying to figure out if it was time-honored banter or a sign of the strain the summer had placed on the both of them. After ten more minutes of searching, Gar finally acquiesced, spending four tickets to try his hands at a giant plastic Tic-Tac-Toe board he was sure he’’d played with as a toddler. The Viking woman running the booth supplied him with red beanbags and he did his best, but Ryan was equally committed with his blue bags. After two of his five throws, he could tell there was no way to win. He spent the rest of the game making sure that Ryan wouldn’t have the satisfaction either. When they’’d each taken their last turns, he turned to discover Cassidy and Daryl had joined them, soundly defeated by the army of plastic, tufted kittens.
          “C’mon,” Cass shouted to be heard over the growing crowd and grabbed Gar’s hand. “I’m pretty sure these guys can survive your absence for a few minutes. Let’s go for a spin.” Ryan gave her a pointed, neutral look. Gar searched her face for some sign of dissembling, but came away empty handed. What had happened to him, that he was dodging verbal blows that weren’t even there? When had he become this person? As Cass took his hand in hers and led him towards the Tilt-a-Whirl, she half-shouted, “Why so down, chum?”
          “It’s been a weird summer, I guess. I don’t really know where I fit in anymore. Sometimes everything is fine, and then it’’s like I’m this stranger wearing a Hrothgar suit.” They both snorted trying to picture Gar wearing a Viking costume as they waited in line, elbowing each other with growing frequency until their funny bones knocked.
          Sitting down and tightening the belt around their waists, the crowd muted by the hum of the machine around them, Cass confided, “He’d never tell you, but Ryan misses you.”
          “I miss him too,” Gar said forcefully. He was just so tired of constantly justifying his every action. His parents, Ryan, Seth, and now Cassidy seemed committed to keep everything as it was. Before this summer, before he was…whatever it was he was now. Still Gar, but something more, too. How could he even try to explain it? Without thinking, he just spit out, “It’s just…sometimes it’’s too much, you know?”
          “What is?” gulped Cass as the blue and red semi-circle that passed for a car began its first slow epicycle with a deep spin.
          “All this,” Hrothgar gestured, taking in their friends and the growing crowd of folks from the middle and high school that had appeared as the machine spun them in ever tighter, faster circles.
          Cass waited, and when Gar didn’t offer up anything else, she continued, “Seth told me you’re writing a book.”
          “Well, a story,” he grumbled. Of course Seth had decided to share that little nugget. “Not sure what it’ll be.”
          “I think it’s great,” Cass smiled and punched his arm. “And if you tell him this, I will deny it and make your life hell, but I think it’s great you’re finding something for yourself. Ryan’s the best, most of the time, but sometimes I agree with you. He has this larger than life quality about him—Daryl does too, actually, and don’t get me started on Emily and Wyn. It’s like the four of them just suck us all up in their orbit.”
          Gar was dumbfounded. He’d expected yet another castigation about how insular he’d become, or at the very least a solid scolding as to how he’d become a bad friend. Cass’s confession seemed to come out of nowhere.
          “I didn’t realize…I thought it was just me,” he stumbled.
          Cass barked out a laugh, “Hardly. Why do you think Sarah tries so hard to be a rebel, or Derrick makes his…”Cass grimaced as that very subject joined the crowd waiting for them at the exit ramp, “unfortunate choices. Everyone acts out in different ways, but we all keep coming back. And they’re good people, Gar. Remember that, as you go off on whatever this is. They’re good friends, to you, to me. They just can’’t be everything. That’s why I’ve never let Ryan ask me out.”
          Gar smiled softly, “I’d wondered.”
          “I’m sure. I know Ryan has, though I’d never tell him. And I’m trusting you not to, either.”
          Cass put her left arm around Gar and grabbed tight with her right hand onto the bar holding them in place and leaned deeply into Gar, causing the tumbler to whip ever faster as it spun along its track. Soon they’d engaged in a tug of war, each sliding hard into the other as they forced the car to spin into a patriotic blur of red and blue. They were laughing when the wind wasn’t knocked out of them completely, and it was glorious.
          Eventually the car rocked back and forth in broken circles and the tumbler came to a stop. They stood and walked towards the exit. At the base of the stairs stood Kristin, left abandoned by Eddie, chatting with Derrick. Gar and Cass groaned together as they saw Derrick reach out and stroke the inside of her exposed left arm far too casually. Both headed forward to intervene but were spun about by strong hands on their collars. Sean just sort of shook his painted head and led them down the boardwalk. Turning his head, Gar saw the other two following behind them at a small distance, talking.
          Before either of them knew it, Cass and Gar were dropped off to bear witness to Sarah’s booming voice, demanding some Bottle Ring action. Sean smirked as he wandered closer to Hannah in the crowd. Both of them look bemused. As they walked up, Sarah was claiming to whoever could hear that her brother was a pro at Frisbee golf and had taught her all his tricks he’d picked up at college. Shaking her hips to the overly loud—and certainly not school approved—clashing soundtrack of Baby Got Back and En Vogue, she effortlessly let the small plastic ring fly and raised her hand high as it rolled successfully around the neck of one of the center glass coke bottles. Just a few seconds later, Sarah walked away with her hips swaying exaggeratedly and a giant stuffed green dinosaur under her arm.
          “Look what I scored!” she enthused, as Hannah rolled her eyes and Wyn asked to see it. She handed it over to the long slender fingers of her friend and kept moving. Cole and Wouter waved them over. Gar felt bad for the Dutch exchange student. Sarah and Hannah had rather taken him under their wing, much to Daryl’s dismay. The three friends played tug of war with the friendly, dark-haired boy, as each had designs in remaking him in their image. He was sure Daryl wanted another well to do friend in their little circle, as Gar imagined he was frequently embarrassed at just how much more he had than his closest friends did. Gar was sure Hannah just wanted to loosen the fellow up. Hannah wanted everyone to loosen up. Sarah, well, was Sarah. She was irrepressible, and she’d decided at first sight that Wouter would be hers.
          Looking around he could see just about everyone, even Matt, Eddie, and Ryan across the way trying their hands at the High Striker. He felt the pressure of the bubbled container in his pocket and his hand absently stroked around its circumference.
          His drifting attention was brought back as he heard the last vestiges of Cole’s advice to his bud as Wouter aimed the hard rubber ball at the white porcelain plate with a blue picture of a whale breaking the surface of a rough ocean at its center. The plate fell, but didn’t break as it landed on the Astroturf covered shelf directly below it.  On his second try, he missed the plate entirely and the fellow operating the booth had to duck in order to not take it square between the eyes. Defeated and embarrassed, Wouter backed away as he offered apologies that sounded more sincere in his broken, heavily accented English.
          “Don’t give up now, man. You’ve still got two throws left!” Sarah egged him on.
          “I almost beheaded that man!” Wouter grimaced.
          “Don’t be so dramatic. Here, “Sarah said as she muscled herself in between Wouter and Cole. She picked up a ball and put it in his hand. Standing behind him, she guided his elbow and arm through the motions of a fastball. Next came the positioning of his legs, and a lot of attention on his hips. Gar was embarrassed for him. This was so the opposite of subtle, but was definitely all Sarah.
          “Pay attention!” she commanded. “I don’t reveal the secret of my perfect softball pitch to just anyone. Now throw it!” Sarah flew backwards as Wouter took her at her word and his elbow almost collided with her already prominent nose. The ball hit the edge of the nearest plate and landed somewhere near the back of the tent.
          “Woah, dude! Step back. I’ve got this.” Picking up the last ball of Wouter’s turn, Sarah turned to the side, looked left and right as if she was pitching for the Yankees or something, and then let it fly right at the farthest plate. Gar was impressed, he could barely see the ball it was moving so fast—just the pink and purple trail it left in its wake. There was no time to react or warn Sarah, who had already let out a hoot of success, as the ball hit the plate flat and was sent directly back towards her face. The impact was a loud thud that caused the crowd that had gathered to wince in sympathy.
          Wouter picked up the ball and handed it to the gamesman.
          “She ok?” the tattooed man grunted.
          Wouter cradled the right side of Sarah’s face in his hand as he turned the left side towards the light of the hanging electric lanterns. He took his time with his other time inspecting her face for bruises, asking in very coherent English if Sarah was ok, if that hurt when he pressed here, or there.
          “Oh boy,” Seth chuckled as Wouter’s inspection dragged on and Sarah’s face settled into the palm of his right hand and her eyes fluttered closed for a moment before jumping wide and she pulled herself away.
           “Smooth, man,” admitted Seth.
           “What’s that?” asked Gar, relieved his friend hadn’t been hurt. Then again, if anyone he knew were going to walk away from a school carnival with a concussion, it’d have been Sarah.
          “Was talking to our new buddy there earlier while you went for a spin with Cassidy. I think he’s as into Sarah as she’s into him—the real her though, not the More-Hannah-than-Hannah front she plays up. Having that ball hit her in the jaw may’ve been the best thing for them both.” Seth looked pleased for the pair.
          “Girls,” Gar said as he shook his head.
          Seth returned a small, shy smile back. “Right?”
          Leaving the two lovebirds to their denial, the next tent also had some of their friends trying their luck—or lack of it. Sean had apparently lost most of his tickets already playing some game called Monkey Business, which involved throwing plastic bananas into the mouth of a painted wooden monkey.
          Bryce sidled up to them all just shaking his head. “Weak, man.”
          “I’ve got this,” grunted Sean, clearly focused as he threw his next banana and it hit the monkey’s face hard.
          “Dude, you’ve not managed to land more than one in the last five minutes. Why not let someone else have a chance?”
          “I said, I’ve GOT this, Bryce,” Sean bit back through clenched teeth.
          Bryce was about to say something else when Emily stepped out of the crowd behind Gar and Seth and rushed to her boyfriend’s side with a profound pout.
          “What’s wrong, honey?” Bryce leaned down for a quick kiss and Emily acquiesced.
          “I’m out of lemonade. And it’s so hot. I’m sooooo thirsty.” Gar and Seth both goggled open-mouthed at the ridiculous, over the top act, especially as Emily started fanning herself a bit too close to her chest. Bryce was speechless for a second before he grabbed the cup and muttered that he’d be right back.
          “Boys, right?” Emily posited in a ridiculous Valley accent.
          Seth and Gar both choked.
          Emily smiled and sauntered down to a tye-dye booth to join Kristin and Cassidy, who appeared to be fighting over a ridiculously huge tye-dye giraffe. He wasn’t even sure how the winner would get the thing home. Seth nudged him as Sean finally scored two bananas through the monkey’s mouth.
          “Dude, you got it!” Seth punched him in the arm.
          “Told Bryce I had it under control,” Sean grumbled.
          “I know, man.” Seth raised his hands to his shoulders in surrender and asked the pockmarked shill operating the booth, “What does he get?”
          Sean turned three shades of red as the man working the booth reached below the counter and dangled a Donkey Kong keychain from one hooked finger.
          “That’s all?” Sean asked incredulously.
          “Well, you only got two. Big Prizes,” the man gestured to the stuffed animals and giant foam bananas that hung on the booth’s back wall, “start at three.”
          “Thanks,” Sean groused as he took the prize from the man’s hand.
          “No, thank you,” said the man who was failing at keeping a grin off his own face.
          Sean pocketed the keychain with a shrug and looked down the makeshift boardwalk until his gaze stopped not far from the lemonade and Sno-cone booth where Bryce waited impatiently in line. “Catch you guys later,” he said, as he went to join his friend.
          Both Seth and Gar turned to each other with a matching arched eyebrow and fell apart into laughter as a result. Sean was so damned competitive with everyone, but Bryce especially. It’s probably why the coach made them co-captains this spring for the baseball team. The pecking order of the school’’s jocks wasn’t something that Gar gave a tremendous amount of thought, but even he knew the only thing lower than baseball in the sports hierarchy here in Nabiscoding was soccer. And nobody played soccer. Football was the main game, and the best of the football team got into lacrosse.
          Walking past a few crowded booths, he sauntered up to a tent that proclaimed itself in large, psychedelic letter “Ping Pong Phish”. Inside, he recognized Matt’s hearty laugh as he and Wyn took turns trying to get ping-pong balls in the different colored goldfish bowls. They did their best to not only toss the balls in the small bowls half filled with water but also bounce the other’s ball out of the way.
          Gar gave a head nod to Derrick, who he saw was also in the crowd. He and Matt had become close, ever since both had tried out for the football team. Derrick had gotten in, despite Matt being the one with the right build for it, but it hadn’t deterred their growing friendship. Wyn was probably the only girl safe from Derrick’’s wandering eye. Not that she would’ve noticed. The easy way she and Matt touched each other, and their mocking competition reminded Gar a lot of his parents. Out of all of his friends, he could imagine Matt and Wyn that old, still together, still giving each other a hard time before falling against each other laughing. He felt a small ache that he’d never felt anything close himself. Seeing the suddenly red-faced Seth, he wondered if his friend felt the same.
          Gar changed his mind when Seth let out a gasp and grabbed his arm, dragging him to a stand kitty-corner from where their friends continued to play. In front of them were milk crated filled with vinyl 45s, most of them from the 60s and 70s.
          “Aw, Man. This is just not right.”
          “What?” Gar looked around and saw two girls using the modified turntables to drop Day-Glo paint from what looked like old ketchup squeeze bottles. The paint spattered and spun amidst the grooves of the records, creating a cool tye-dye effect that was part chaos, part order.
          “Look! Seriously?” Seth reached into the crate in front of him and pulled out a cache of several perfect, potentially vintage copies of David Bowie’s Space Oddity waiting to be used. “I mean, I get the appeal. Psychedelic 45s used to make cool tye-dye spin-art. It’s so on the nose as to be trendy, I guess. But Bowie? Not cool.”
          Gar noncommittally agreed, as he felt a familiar pressure growing in the socket where his jaws fastened together. The world seemed to lurch briefly forward, propelling Gar to grab onto a nearby bin to steady himself. His seeming distaste earned him a tight frown from his friend.
          “If Bowie isn’t sacred, then neither is this Ace of Base!”
          Snapped out of his brief trance, Gar was outraged. “Which Ace of Base?”
          “Lucky Love. Guess I’ll just dip this in neon teal and hang it right on my door, so you can see it every time you never come over.”
          “You wouldn’t dare.”
          “Watch me!”
          Putting several other selections back in the bin, Seth walked up to the bespectacled man with the honey colored loose braid. “Hey dude, how many tickets to spin this fine single into some actual art?”
          Gar’s jaw dropped.
          “5 tickets, dude,” the man responded, amused at the antics of the two. Seth handed over the tickets and took the record to a spin station that had opened up a few steps away from his friend.
          “Fine then. I guess this is war.” Gar reached into the bin that Seth had stashed the copies of the Bowie album in and withdrew a 45 and handed it to the man along with five tickets. Seth’s eyes hardened as Gar sidled up to the turntable to his left and placed his record on the spindle.
          “Fine then.” Gar grabbed a garish candy apple red and a toothbrush from a plastic cup that was on the tray containing supplies. Seth grabbed the blue and white ketchup bottles and held them both at an angle, ready to spray his vinyl as it began to spin.
          Gar, not missing a beat, began releasing a light drizzle of the red, using the toothbrush to spread it among the grooves. Seth followed suit by alternating vigorous squirts of blue and white with such force that glops of the paint slid across the spinning records and flew onto the plexiglass casing surrounding the turntable. They both, at one point tried to grab the yellow bottle, but Seth won. Soon, his teal had turned an uncomfortable shade of turquoise. It made both of their eyes hurt to look at it.
          “You fellas about done? There’s a line, you know.” The hippie looking guy wiped his hands on his jean overalls and put on some rubber gloves. Picking up Seth’’s record from the large hole at its center, he took a hair dryer to the painted side, setting the pigment. When it was dry to the touch, he put it in a sleeve. He repeated the process for Gar.
Both of them looked daggers at each other.
          “I guess that’s it, then,” Seth announced with a heavy sigh.
          “Can’t be friends after something like that.”
          “If it means that much to you, Seth, you can have the record back.”
          “It wasn’t mine in the first place.” Seth grumbled, pointing his thumb at the guy running the vinyl booth.
          “Still. Go ahead, Seth, take it,” Gar suggested, his voice dripping with exaggerated venom. “I made it just for you.” He couldn’t help it. A half-smile snuck out across his face before he took it back.
          “Well, I guess the least I can do is give you back your Swedish Abba knock-off.” Seth handed the album over with a stoic expression, while accepting Gars in return. He took a deep breath and slid the album out of its sleeve. The red spattered paint utterly coated the front of the record in various splotches and thickness. Flipping it over, Seth looked quickly back up at Gar, who stood there with an eyebrow raised.
          “This isn’t Bowie.”
          “No. No, it’s not,” Gar agreed. “Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do…”
          “You. Shit,” said Seth, grabbing Gar’s shirt and giving him a slight push as he let out a rare expletive.
          “You’re the shit, man. How could you paint my favorite song that color? I mean, any color really, but that color?”
          “It was quite torrid,” Seth pondered.
          “Horrific,” Gar shuddered.
          “Monstrous,” Seth affirmed with a nod and a grim smile.
          Gar slipped the 45 out of its sleeve and was relieved to find a copy of Real McCoy’s “Another Night” hiding under the hideous turquoise monstrosity Seth had created as his revenge.
          “Well,” uttered Gar, “Now that we’re enemies, I guess I better stay close.”
          “Oh?” Seth huffed.
          “Yeah, to see what sort of stunt you’ll pull next. I clearly can’t take you anywhere.
          There was nothing halfway about the smile Gar offered then. He punched Seth in the arm. A moment later Seth followed suit, and that was that. No words were needed. As they started walking, he nudged Seth’s shoulder with his own, and Seth did the same. Their shoulders periodically smashed together as they walked away into the crowd, each bringing a smile or bubble of laughter to the other. Holding onto their winnings, the two boys let themselves get swallowed by the multitudes around them. Adrift in the crowd, Gar felt lighter than he had felt in forever.
          The crowd parted in front of them, and they saw the High Striker rise like a monolith before them. Gar could make out Bryce and Daryl egging on Matt and Cole to give it a whirl. The pain he’d almost forgotten surged forward from his jaw to settle behind his eyes and the carnival lights danced in coruscation. The bell rang.


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