Red lights hung like cherries in the night sky. There were booths set up on the grass. Salesmen displayed thousands of antiques and dollar shop finds on the tables. Paige and Matthew had been on exactly two fair rides and tried three fair games before it started to rain.
The flower merchant’s tent was full, and not because people were buying blossoms for their date. It was as if everyone had found that spot to congregate in lieu of the rain. Paige and Matthew were half-in and half-out of the tent, desperately trying to find a spot to fit in the crowd.
So much for a night at the fair. Paige sighed.
Matthew held an umbrella over her. He stuffed his hands in his pockets. Carnival music played ad nauseum over the speakers. Wafts of kernel corn and cigarette smoke floated in the air.
“I think it’s starting to drizzle now,” he said.
Paige nodded. She closed her eyes and tried to block out the fecal-like smell of the man breathing across from her.
Matthew’s hand felt smooth and warm in hers. The feeling was comforting, like a worn glove or a blanket thrown over the shoulder in the cold.
Paige spent that afternoon finishing off the tenth chapter of her story and grinding her teeth at another one of Devon’s critiques.
“Why are you always doing that?” Matthew asked.
“Hmm…?” she looked up at him.
He grinned. “I guess I’m not interesting enough, aye?”
“I was just thinking thoughts.” Paige smiled, but inside she scolded herself for being neglectful of her date.
The rides started back up with a groan. Inside the tent the people cheered. The carnival music started with renewed vigor. The tent began to empty. Several couples ran past, laughing as they went into the night.
Matthew squeezed Paige’s hand. “You want to go back out now?” He was trying his hardest, though the night hadn’t gone as they’d expected it.
They stepped over puddles of mud and sidestepped people who went catatonic staring up at the fair lights. Boiled corn and butter was a welcome smell along with the rain-soaked earth.
The Ferris wheel was just over the hill. Their first stop. The wheel turned over the ground in a spectacle of lights. Paige ran ahead of Matthew, pulling him along. She froze mid-stride.
The ride was empty.
Matthew exchanged a look with Paige, and turned to the man behind the controls.
“When will this ride be back up?” he asked.
The man leaned on the control panel. Ash from his cigarette ran down his twisted, gray beard. “Ah…twenty minutes.” He didn’t even look at the teens, choosing instead to peer at the night sky.
Paige looked at the nametag strapped to the man’s uniform shirt. Teddy. He must have had a hard time in school.
“Excuse me, Teddy? Is that a nickname?” Paige asked. He had a patchy, red nose that he ran a hand over repeatedly.
The man’s brow furrowed. “No.” He glared at the girl.
“We’ll be back.” Matthew grabbed Paige’s arm and pulled her aside.
“You’re crazy, you know that?” Matthew said. She grinned, but stopped at his face. He was serious. Screams from the Whirl-A-Tron ride echoed in the background. Paige broke her gaze with him.
Sobered, Paige followed behind the boy and around the park. The fair was held in a space of cleared land in the woods. It was far away enough to avoid neighborhood complaints, but close enough to alert police in case of fair brawls. And there was an eerie way that the trees shifted in the breeze, as if there were ghosts riding on the wind.
There were dozens of things to do at the fair. Paige stepped on a scale, had a man guess her weight, and nearly punched him in the face for guessing ten pounds extra. She and Matthew made a wish at the fountain and shared a kiss in front of the twirling waters. They went in the house of mirrors. Paige watched her size change from skinny to plump and pregnant. Her eyes were slammed shut and bleed with tears as they went up and down the Free Fall. She grabbed Matthew’s hand and held on until she was sure that she cut off his circulation.
They were walking out of the game tent, Paige with the big bear that Matthew won for her. An officer talked into a radio in front of the tent.
“What was with all the police at school today?” she asked him.
“Seriously, you didn’t hear?” Matthew said. He ripped open a bag of cotton candy. “One of the football players died last night.”
“Died?” Paige asked. So the rumors were true.
“Stevens. He was dating Devon’s sister for a while. Overdosed and went into a coma. Died early this morning.”
Paige stared at the ground. “Oh...Do you know anything else about it?” she asked.
He started to speak, and then stopped, shaking his head. “Not tonight. Tonight, I’m on a date with the girl I love, and I plan to enjoy our time together. How about you?”
There was something teasing and mischievous behind those brown eyes, Paige was sure of it—but also something nervous. Dismissing her misgivings, Paige smiled. “Sounds great.”
He pulled her close and kissed her cheek. They walked together back to the Ferris wheel. She rested her head on his shoulder. There was this wonderful, warm feeling growing in the pit of her stomach. She liked this guy; she liked him a lot.
It wasn’t until they were at the front of the ride that his last statement hit her.
He said he loved her.
“The seats are still wet,” Teddy said, growling. He leaned against the controls talking to a woman who, in Paige’s opinion, looked way too young for him.
“We don’t care” Matthew said. He looked at Paige. “You don’t care do you?”
The wind pushed through Paige’s hair. She removed the strands out of her eyes and shook her head.
“Okay…” Teddy rolled his eyes, pulled a lever, and the Ferris wheel came to a halt. He opened the gate and allowed them in.
“We have it to ourselves,” Matthew whispered in Paige’s ear. A shiver went through her spine. The way he touched her and looked at her, she knew that he wanted the night to end with more than just a kiss.
He helped her into her seat, which was soaked, before taking a seat himself. The bear rested next to Paige’s legs. Once the trio was secured, Teddy went back to the controls and started up the ride.
Up and up they went, away into the night. A soft breeze tickled her skin. The sky full of stars reminded Paige that they were out in the country.
“It’s beautiful out here,” Matthew said.
Paige only nodded, awestruck by the scene above her. Matthew pointed out the constellations to her.
“How do you know so much?” she asked him.
“I learn it here and there.” He leaned back in his seat. They went back down again, their feet almost touching the ground before the ride continued its cycle. Matthew closed his eyes for a second. The wind tugged at the curls of his hair. His jawline and cheekbones were perfectly sculpted, and even more so in the moonlight.
Paige bit her lip. He is really so handsome. She knew several girls at Bass had their eye on him. She also heard enough around the school to know that Matthew had a ‘history’. He was the brooding loner that girls liked. His apparent intellectualism just added to his attractiveness.
Not that she was worried, she trusted him.
Matthew sat up and nudged her. “Maybe I learned it from you.”
“Me?” Her voice was skeptical. It looks as though it’s going to rain again, Paige mused at the clouds.
“Yeah, I must have the best partner in A&P.” He looked at her closely and squinted. “People are jealous.”
“You keep repeating yourself tonight,” he said with a scowl. Paige chuckled and Matthew grinned. “Yes! Of you. Why? Don’t you think people are looking?”
Paige shrugged. She stared at her chipped nail polish. She didn’t think people cared much. It would be presumptuous to think anything else. Everyone was busy with their own lives; whatever she did would barely be a blip in their radar, if that.
She hated to be reminded about it.
Paige took from his cotton candy. “Maybe it shouldn’t matter if they are or aren’t.” She said.
There was a comfortable silence. Matthew pushed his hair away from his forehead and took off his glasses. He looked at her decidedly and then glanced away, lost in the beauty of the night.
“What is it?” Paige asked.
“I know you were going to tell me something,” she teased. “Some sage advice, a quote, some words of wisdom...?” C’mon, you have to have something. Matthew just wouldn’t be Matthew without it.
She sat back and waited.
“None tonight.” He gave her a sidelong glance. “I didn’t know that it bothers you.”
A raindrop hit her eye. “Not at all. I enjoy all your sayings. Maybe one day I’ll even keep it in a notebook.”
There was teasing sarcasm in that last statement. Matthew smiled. “I have to get used to how brass you are.”
Her face wrinkled. “Good or bad?”
“Good.” Matthew said. “Maybe because you’re a redhead.” He rubbed a hand over her shoulder.
“I hate that stereotype.”
“Okay…” he thought for a moment, “Well then I’ll say you’re different from other girls.”
Paige smirked. “What’s wrong with other girls?”
He studied her carefully. “A good kind of different.” His fingers found their way under her bra strap.
Paige remembered what he said earlier that night. She closed her eyes. He kissed each eyelid before turning to her lips. Matthew cradled her face and brought her closer to him. He kissed her soft and slow.
Matthew broke away. She caught her breath. The way he stared at her. His eyes were big, brown and beautiful. She shivered.
He averted his gaze. “I won’t be here for your birthday.”
It felt as though something hard and heavy dropped in her chest. She swallowed. “What?” Her throat was dry. “Why not?” she asked.
He adjusted his glasses on his face. “I’ll be in St. Augustine.” He turned his eyes to the moon and back at Paige. “Band concert.”
She rumpled the bag of cotton candy in her hands.
He brushed away the hair from her face. He smiled. “Please don’t be miserable.”
She wrinkled her face. “Why?” She thought she had every right to be miserable considering the circumstances.
“You’re making me feel guilty.”
They were at the top of the Ferris wheel. If Paige squinted she could imagine that it was a city down below her feet. The fair below was a blend of lights and noise. She could hear people screaming on the Drop Tower.
“I wouldn’t miss it on purpose.” His tone became defensive, eyes pleading.
She managed a faint smile. “No, I understand, but that doesn’t mean I’m not sorry about it.” She poked him. “I was really hoping to spend that weekend with you.” She stared at her lap. “I guess I’m disappointed.”
He hugged her. “I want you to have a good time. Try to enjoy yourself, for my sake, okay?”
She rested her head against his chest and leaned into his embrace. “I’m sure it’ll be all right.” She didn’t want him to feel bad, though hopes of a birthday dinner with him were shot down.
Matthew lifted her head. His eyes narrowed. “Okay…I’m going to call you and you better say you had fun.”
She felt a raindrop hit her on the head, and then another, and another.
It was raining again.
The next morning there was a memorial on the school lawn. The canopied white table was adorned with flowers, stuffed bears, and Tigers’ mementos. In the middle of it all was a framed portrait of the player. Black suit, smile, laughing gray eyes—it was what would have been his senior photo.
There was an assembly that morning, and thus classes were canceled.
Paige chewed the inside of her cheek and tried to stay awake. After the fair, she had gone to Matthew’s house to watch a movie. The night ended predictably with them having sex.
Paige paused. The inside of her cheek was drawing blood. She wasn’t sure if she was okay with that or not. It had all happened so suddenly, but it wasn’t like she slept with some random. It was Matthew, her boyfriend, the guy who said he loved her. Everything was fine.
He dropped her home after one. She spent another two hours being lectured by her grandmother before being sent off to bed.
Needless to say, she was irritable, sleep deprived, and grumpy, not the best of moods, but she would deal with it.
Paige stood on the lawn, with the rest of the students, and thumbed through note cards. Student Association would be giving a presentation to honor Steven Effers, as Vice President she would present third, nevermind she didn’t know him personally. Paige sighed.
“Stevens was okay,” Amber said next to her.
“What?” Paige looked at the girl. “You knew him?”
Amber nodded. She fingered her braids, nervous. “I knew him most of my life. I know he was seen as a hot-shot here, but I remember when they used called him rollie-pollie and tubbo.”
Amber laughed. “Kids,” she said. “He’s going to be missed.” She looked down, moisture covered the whites of her eyes.
There was much more she wasn’t saying about her and Steven, but Paige wouldn’t push it. It was clear that the girl was in grief.
They went inside the auditorium. Across the stage was a banner declaring: YOU WILL BE MISSED. White flowers decorated the stage’s podium. The screen projector played snippets of Steven’s time at Bass Towers. There was another memorial set up at the base of the stage where students could go up and sign their names on a card. Balloons tied around the stage’s stairs.
He seemed like a good guy.
It was regrettable that Paige hadn’t known him, but then again, she still didn’t know most people at Bass. Bass Towers was like an old community in its exclusiveness. People knew families and families of families. They’d grown up side-by-side, cheek-to-cheek, and house-to-house.
Most of the S.A. members shared stories of their time with Steven. Paige deflected her ignorance by focusing more on the school’s loss and its meaning.
Mrs. Tomlin went up to the podium and cleared her throat. Her gaze swept the student body, observing the red eyes and wet faces of the crowd. She looked down briefly before she began.
“I know that this is a confusing time for many of you. Steven was a friend to most, a team-player, and a student with exemplary citizenship. Nevertheless, I thought it would be beneficial to clear up several rumors. It’s not only for Steven’s sake and the sake of his reputation, but for the entire school body.”
She waited until the murmuring of the student body died down.
“Steven suffered Sunday night from an unexpected brain hemorrhage at his home. He was admitted to June Baker hospital, and was later pronounced dead early Monday morning.”
Mrs. Tomlin let that piece of information sink in. Several tissues were brought to faces as the students wiped their tears.
“If needed, there are counselors available for students who want to talk to someone. Any condolences offered to the Effers would be greatly appreciated, as the memorial service for Steven will be this evening.”
As the assembly was dismissed that morning, Devon sat on the bleachers and wondered many things. He wondered what Steven’s death would mean for the football team and for Bass Towers. He wondered what death felt like, did it creep up slowly or did just come on a person? But most of all, he wondered where his sister was and if she was okay. He hadn’t seen her since Sunday.
“Baby!” Cristina called.
He waved at her. She grinned and waved back from her place down at the field. Cristina stood with Coach Julia Benson and the rest of the track team.
Track and Field competitions were coming up. She’d sat through all of his football practices; it was time for him to sit through hers. Cristina broke out on the field in quick strides, her long, tan legs pumping, her blonde ponytail swinging behind her. She passed a girl and charged to the front of the team. Devon knew by now that she was showing off for him.
She usually wrote for the Sports section of Journalism, but with her at practice, Devon took charge. He stared at his paper. He’d been too lost in his thoughts. Putting the page aside, he flipped through a car magazine.
Devon put down his magazine, and smiled in spite of himself.
Paige stood at the bottom of the bleachers. She squinted up at him. It was an unusual greeting, but all things about Paige were prone to be odd.
“What happened? You decided you wanted to do Sports again?” He called.
“No.” Her shirt wasn’t tucked in and her hair was loose, all in all, not as polished and put together as she’d been at assembly that morning.
Grunting, she started up the bleachers in his direction. “I…” she paused. “I’ve never seen you by yourself before.” She sat.
Devon unzipped his backpack, looking for something. “Well, it’s important to be alone sometimes.” He got out a pen.
Paige stared at her feet. She kicked a gum wrapper off the bleacher. “So…you want me to leave?” She leveled him a look.
Devon’s focus turned to the field. “It’s all right.” His eyes followed Cristina’s lean form around the track. It was her second round around.
“Was he your friend?” Paige asked, crashing into his thoughts. She tilted her head and looked at him thoughtfully.
He looked at her and shrugged. “He liked my sister.” He gave a dry, bitter laugh. “We got along okay.” Steven was the first of Lyn’s boyfriends who wasn’t a drug addict or a meth dealer. Oh yes, they’d gotten along smashingly. “He was always just around. We had the same circle of friends.”
Paige’s eyes went to his suit, his black tie, and cuffed sleeves. A white handkerchief was folded in the breast pocket. She’d seen a few other kids dressed similarly at the assembly.
“You’re speaking at the memorial?”
He shook his head. “Oh, no, no. You’re a public speaker, not me…I thought I’d be there for the Effers and the rest of the team…” his voice faded and he gazed into the distance. He wondered: how were they keeping up?
“So, what were you working on?” she asked.
“You ask a lot of questions, you know that?”
“No, it’s okay.” He tousled her hair. Maybe he should talk to someone, it might help him. He just wasn’t sure that he could talk to her. “I was trying to write an article. No luck so far. You sure you don’t want to write it for me?”
“Stop.” She combed her fingers through her hair, hoping the effort would put her hair back in place. “Me write for you?” Paige looked at him for a moment.
“I’m sorry if I came off as—” Paige said. “I don’t want to bother you.”
“I’m just trying to figure everything out. A kid I went to school with died. Stevens won’t be graduating with us. I keep thinking I’m imagining things. It’s strange.”
Back down on the track, the team broke up for a water break. Cristina stared at them. Her gaze locked with Devon. A smile broke through her face. She shook her bottom, her rear moving in short, quick thrusts and blew him a kiss. That girl is really something.
Devon whistled. Cristina laughed and rejoined the rest of her team. He turned to Paige again, his face still glowing. “I guess I just need to get used to it.”
Paige nodded. She stared at the magazine in his hands. He handed her his Car & Driver. “I’m thinking of getting a new car.”
“What’s wrong with your old one?” she asked turning the page. She glanced through the buyer’s guide.
“Besides it being from the 90s, you mean? I want a new one.” His rubbed his hands together.
“I wanted a car with better mileage. I might get a hybrid, but I’m not sure.” Fuel-efficient vehicles cost a bit more, though there was that nice tax break to consider. He turned to her. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
Then it came to him. “Ah!” Devon said. “I keep forgetting. You don’t have your license yet.”
“I wouldn’t be so smug. I’ll be sixteen soon, and driving circles around you and your little coupe.” She spread the magazine between their laps. “What car are you looking at?” she asked.
He winked at her. “My dream car or what’s financially feasible?”
She rolled her eyes. “The car you’re actually going to get.”
He showed her: a silver Acura LT. “Hopefully,” Devon said. “Still haven’t convinced my dad yet.”
They talked a bit longer. The track team dismissed, and Paige wisely chose that time to leave as well. Before she left, he reminded her they were working on articles together Sunday.
Devon waited for his girlfriend at the foot of the bleachers. He handed Cristina a water bottle when she approached him. She took a sip, out of breath. She pulled out the elastic on her ponytail. Curly hair ran down in trundles, past the skull tattoo on her upper back, and to her waist.
She looked in the direction the redhead left. “Looked like an interesting conversation. What were you two talking about?” Cristina asked.
“I’m not sure,” Devon said. They never stayed on one topic too long. “Random stuff, I think she was trying to make me feel better, you know, since Stevens—”
Her face scrunched. “She’s always around you.”
Devon stopped. “C’mon Cris, Paige?” He put an arm around Cristina’s shoulders. “She’s like a little sister,” he said. He kissed her temple. “You have no reason to be jealous.”
“Who said I was jealous?” She returned the kiss on his lips.
Devon raised an eyebrow. “Sounded like it.”
“You flatter yourself too much.”
They walked hand-in-hand to the parking lot. The incident was all but forgotten to Cristina, who babbled on about the track meet and the plans the team had for the year. It was unusual that the girl would be so insecure when it came to him and Paige.
Good times and bad, Cristina had been his everything for two years. And she was gorgeous. Everything a man could want, and smart to boot. There was a reason he kept coming back to her whenever they broke up. He had to remind her how much she meant to him. Maybe he would take her out later? Somewhere nice.
As Devon went over his plans for the evening, there was a recurring problem in his thoughts. Rather minor in light of the week’s events, but a problem nonetheless.
Unwittingly, his thoughts kept returning to a certain redhead.