I wiped the sweat from my forehead with the back of my hand. My Dart Balloon booth did almost nothing to block out the hot May sun. My sweaty Led Zeppelin shirt clung to me like a second skin, I tugged the cloth away in a futile attempt to get rid of the uncomfortable wetness.
Benicia, California was the first stop of this years Mezzanotte Carnival tour and it was overcrowded with excited customers ready to drop money on food and entertainment. Each city on the tour was required to generate a certain amount of revenue in order for the carnival to return the following year, this city was known for its overflow of young families.
I spot a group of male teenagers who looked a couple years younger than me. They surrounded two giggling girls and I immediately called out to them. "Hey, you want to win your girl a huge teddy bear? I've got a game where you can show off your skills!" They turn to stare at me and when I see cocky smirks come over their faces, I smile.
I hop over the front of my stand and grab three darts. "Hello gentlemen, all you have to do is pop the balloons with the darts. Pop one balloon and you can pick out one of the small stuffed animals on the bottom. Pop a second one and you can pick from the medium sized animals, and if you pop three balloons, you get to choose one of the giant stuffed animals."
"To show you this is possible, I'll demonstrate." I brought back my hand and let the first dart fly, it popped a red balloon and the other two darts followed suite. It had taken months of practice to be able to consistently hit the balloons.
"The hard part isn't popping a balloon, its popping three in a row. That's the only way to get a giant teddy bear."
I smiled brightly and kept my eyes innocent. They didn't have to know how tricky it was to pop a balloon with a plastic tipped dart.
"It's 3 for five dollars or 7 for ten. I'll even throw in a free practice dart."
The blonde teenager flashed his twin dimples at me in a flirtatious grin. "I'll try it. I'm sure if this pretty girl can do it so can I."
The brunette haired girl giggled and pointed to a medium sized leopard stuffed animal. "That one is cute! I want to try it too!"
"I'll get twenty dollars worth of darts." Blondie pulled two bills from his wallet and holds them out to me. It's like taking candy from a baby. I take his money and give him his darts.
He splits the darts with the brunette and they immediately start throwing them. The girl doesn't hit a single balloon but blondie hits one and picks a small leopard. The girl squeals when he hands it to her.
When the group leaves I'm up sixty bucks and only lost 2 small stuffed animals. The rest of the afternoon is scorching hot, but customers come in droves, and by dinner I have to make a trip to the office to deposit the cash. When a booth earns more than 900 dollars its policy to deposit it into the carnivals vault.
The sun finally burned out in the late evening and my head was pounding. I forgot my broad rimmed hat at the trailer and hadn't had the chance to pick it up. Being in the hot sunlight for hours gave me pounding headaches and with each customer that came up to the booth, I found myself becoming increasingly irritated.
I squinted through blurry eyes to see Kerri Moreno race towards me. Her long, black hair streamed behind her in an elegant twisted ponytail. Her graceful, dancer's body was showcased in her skintight performance outfit. Kerri was beautiful and her personality was just as enchanting. She flew over the front of my booth and flung herself towards me.
I grimaced and rubbed my temple as she clung to my neck. I didn't even attempt to remove her; I knew from past experience that she wouldn't be moved until she was good and ready. Instead, I just patted her back and allowed my eccentric best friend to give me my daily hug.
"I brought you some Advil. I noticed you didn't have your hat and I knew if you didn't remember your hat you wouldn't remember your Advil!" Kerri smiled and shoved a bottle of Advil and water at me. I closed my eyes in relieve as the pills slid down my throat.
"Sorry I couldn't come earlier. My dad needed help with the tilt-a-whirl and my performance just ended." Kerri turned dark, worried eyes at me. I could see the gears turning in her pretty, little head as she contemplated giving me another hug. I palmed her forehead as she reached for me and kept her at arm length.
"You know I love you, but my head is killing me, and if you squeeze my neck again I might throw up on you."
Kerri laughed and swiped my hand from her forehead. "Fair enough! I'll hold off on the hug until you feel better."
She sat down on the front of my booth but immediately stood back up, her fingers twitched as she paced. I eyed her for a moment before rolling my eyes.
"Just spit it out already." She paced and twitched when she was excited to tell me something but trying to hold it in.
"Okay, okay! I know you don't feel well but I have to tell you! You remember Darrin right? The guy who lives in Burrows Creek? Well we will be there in two weeks and he just texted me and asked me on a date!" She did a little happy spin dance and almost clobbered me in the face with her flailing arms.
"Opps! Sorry, I almost hit you! I'm just so excited! I've liked him for two years and he's finally agreed to go on a date with me! I can't wait! I just have to ask papa and Antonio if I can have Friday and maybe Saturday off." She froze and her blue eyes widened.
"They should give me those days off right?" Large brown eyes gazed up at me.
I didn't have the heart to tell her the likely hood of her getting out of work was pretty slim. She had to sign a contract with her dad and Antonio Mezzanotte in order to perform. Her dad hoped it would teach her responsibility, and if I wasn't mistaken, that contract stated she couldn't skip out on any of her performances.
I couldn't bring myself to crush her hopes though. There was always a small chance he would let her go.
"He's gotta! I have to go talk to him! I'll let you know how it goes, okay? Go to sleep as soon as your dad relieves you! Hope you feel better."
She started towards the carnival's office at full speed, uncaring of who she mowed over in her pursuit of her dad.
I grimaced at all the disgruntled faces she left in her path and shake my head. It was going to be quite the blowout if she didn't get that weekend off. She hadn't looked at any of the guys in the carnival because of Darin and I hated to think of what she'd do if she was denied the date she had been waiting two years for.
I checked my iphone. 8:30.
My dad should have been here thirty minutes ago. Figures. With a sigh I dial his number and grit my teeth. He always does this; he's never on time.
"Charlie bean I'm on my way right now! I'm sorry I'm late, I got caught up working on the Yo-Yo and I lost track of the time." His voice brimmed with excitement, and with a sigh, I bit back my scathing scolding. A couple weeks ago he bought one of the large rides and now spent all of his free time with the engineers getting it ready for use. He had scrimped and saved for years to buy it and now that his dream had finally come true, he couldn't tear himself away.
The ride wouldn't be operational until the beginning of next month but that didn't stop my dad from being in the engineer's hair and learning everything he could about his new baby.
"Alright, so you're on your way?"
"I'm almost there, I'll see you in a couple minutes." The dial tone cut off any goodbye I could have offered. I shoved my phone back into the pocket of my jeans and took another swig of water.
All I wanted to do was crawl into my bed and fall asleep. It took another ten minutes before my dad showed up. I was in pain and cranky so I gave my dad a quick hug before making my way to the trailer.
Our trailer was actually a 2010 Luxury 2 bedroom Puma park trailer. My dad insisted that I have as close to a normal home as possible. He knew how hard traveling with a carnival was and he wanted me to a have a comfortable and safe home. So two years ago he took me to pick out our new home. We chose this one out of hundreds because it provided privacy. Our bedrooms were on opposite ends of the trailer with a large kitchen and living room separating them. Even the bathroom was fairly large.
I didn't even bother changing into pajamas, I just fell face first onto my queen-sized bed. I closed my eyes; sleep came as a blissful relief.
I woke to pounding. My room was dark; my alarm clock flashed 1:00 a.m. I groaned and stumbled my way to the front door. I was just thankful my headache was gone.
Kerri stood in front of me with tears running down her puffy face. I squinted at her; the lights of the surrounding trailers blind me.
"Charlie! Why didn't you answer your phone?" She sobbed. "They wont give me Friday and Saturday off unless I find someone to work for me!" Giant tears rolled down her face.
"Um." I blinked the sleep out of my eyes and grimaced. "Ok, keep it down, I don't know if my dad is home, lets talk in my room. Come on, Kerri." I grab her elbow and lead her to my room.
"Hold on, I'm going to see if my dads home. I don't want to wake him up if he is. Sit down on my bed."
A quick glance in his room tells me he's still out. Which isn't too unusual because he usually grabs a beer with some of the carnies after closing time. I grab a water bottle from the fridge and hurry back to my room.
Kerri sat on my bed with silent tears rolling down her cheeks. I sat down beside her and wrapped her in a one armed hug. I wasn't usually a touchy feely person, but Kerri was upset, and I knew she found comfort in hugs.
"Tell me what happened."
"My dad made me talk to both him and Antonio about getting that weekend off. My performance contract with the carnival states that I can't skip a performance unless I get someone else to perform for me!" I knew this was coming, I had reviewed the contract with Kerri when she signed it during the carnival's tour break. Kerri's dad was notorious for giving in to Kerri's tears and he made this contract so she would have to learn responsibility. Kerri was an incredible person, but she tended to be a little free spirited in the sense that she grew bored quickly and then went to her dad to get out of whatever project she started in the carnival. Her dad loved to boast that it was her Italian blood that made her so free spirited, but he still made her sign the contract. I think Antonio might have had something to do with it.
"I didn't think two days would be that big of a deal!" She sobbed into my shirt. "Mio padre non sarebbe nemmeno ascoltare quello che ho detto!" English was her second language and she had this exasperating habit of switching back to her native language when she was upset.
I'd been studying Italian ever sense I found out that the majority of the people in the carnival were Italians who preferred Italian to English. It was frustrating when I first arrived and I always felt they took advantage of me not understanding a lick of Italian. Now I could understand a lot of what is being said to me, but not when it's blubbered in high speeds by a crying girl.
"I don't understand you Kerri." She took a deep gulping breath and wiped her tears with the back of her hand. "I said: My papa wouldn't even listen to anything I said! This is Antonio's fault; I just know it!
I smartly didn't bring up the fact that she knew what she was getting into when she signed the contract. That wouldn't go over very well. "We could try to find someone to perform during that hour. They don't have to dance; they just have to be able to entertain. There has to be someone in this carnival who's talented."
Kerri sniffed but perked up. "You're right, they wouldn't necessarily have to perform a dance. They could do a comedy skit." Kerri paused, her eyes brightened and her tears dried. "Or they could sing! You could play your guitar and sing! I've heard you Charlie, you're good enough to make it a hit!"
I jerked away from her and looked down at her with disbelieving eyes. "Wha.."
"Please Charlie? I'm sure they would accept you as my replacement for those two days. You have a beautiful voice and the carnival already has the licenses and equipment you'll need."
"Whoa whoa, Kerri I haven't sang for an audience for over three years, and when I did I was always with my mom. I have no experience performing on my own." Just the thought of my mom clogged up my throat and brought back the old pain of losing her.
"You're incredible and I know you can do it! It's our last year in the carnival, don't you want to do something big before we go off to college?" I wasn't impressed and I felt a little like I had fallen into a trap. Her tears had long since dried up and she looked up at me with wide, eager eyes.
"Kerri, I don't think this is a good idea. I'd be more than happy to help out with your dad after your performance. You could leave right at 8 and still have enough time for a date."
"Performing always winds me up and stresses me out. I don't want to go on a date with Darin when I'm stressed out. I want to spend most of the day with him, not a couple hours after work! It took me two years to get him to ask me out! This is my chance to convince him to give long distance a chance."
At 5'7" I towered over Kerri's petite figure and it gave me the perfect angle to see her up turned and pleading puppy dog eyes.
"Please Charlie, just try."
I closed my eyes in defeat. "Alright, alright. I'll try, but I can't promise much."
With a squeal Kerri threw her arms around my neck. "Oh thank you thank you! Don't worry we'll practice and you'll do fine."
"Just don't mention college in your negotiations tomorrow. I still haven't told my dad that I got accepted into Daiogin California State University. I don't want to tell him until after my mom's birthdays in July."
Kerri rubbed my back comfortingly. She knew how my dad grieved for my mom even though they hadn't been together.
"Don't worry I wont bring that up, my dad isn't too thrilled about that either."
With a sigh I fell head first into my pillow, I was still tired and this conversation was exhausting. I didn't even want to think about what I had agreed to, a part of me believed they would refuse her suggestion and I'd get off scott free. I wouldn't worry about it until they actually agreed to it.
Kerri snuggled under the covers beside me. "Can I sleep over? You always make things better Charlie."
"Yeah, just text your dad and let him know. That last thing we need is them taking out a search party." Kerri snorted and rolled her eyes, but did what I asked.
It didn't take long before I heard her light snores and soon after I fell into slumber.
Saturday was just as hot as the day before. Only this time, I didn't forget my hat, sunscreen and water bottle. People came to my booth in swarms, I didn't have to entice any of the eager teenagers to try their hands at the darts, and before dinner I deposited almost two grand.
I hadn't seen Kerri since this morning and hope bloomed in the back of my mind. I wanted to help her, I really did. I just didn't want to sing in front of people I had to see every day.
Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed when I spotted an ecstatic Kerri barreling towards me, a huge smile spread across her face.
Oh no. I braced myself for impact a second before she hit. Her arms wrapped around my neck in an overly excited hug.
God damn it. I never thought they would agree, not in a million years.
"They said yes! They agreed to let you try next weekend and if it's a success then you can cover for me the weekend after!"
She released me and did her happy spin, while all I could do was stare at her in horror. Kerri noticed my wide-eyed crazy eyes and giggled.
"Don't worry! Everything will be fine. Your voice sucks people into your music; you'll have everyone under your spell. I wouldn't have asked you if I didn't know you'd be incredible!" Kerri had a way of getting people to do what she wanted. But I knew her well enough to know that she believed every word she told me, in her mind, she was doing me a favor by giving me an opportunity to show off my talents.
"You're the best friend ever! I owe you so much; I'll make it up to you! I promise."
I smiled back at her, happy with her happiness. The truth of the matter is: I knew her cry fest last night was to get me to cover for her. I knew it was coming as soon as she opened her mouth. But I owed her too much to deny her anything. Three years ago when my mom died and I was forced to work at a carnival with a dad I barely knew, Kerri took one look at me and immediately became my friend. It didn't matter to her that she was a part of the founding families of the carnival, a close family friend to the Mezzanottes, and I was the daughter of a booth owner and an outsider. She simply took me for what I was: a depressed eighteen-year-old girl who missed my mom and didn't have a clue on what to do in a carnival. That first year was rough, and Kerri had stubbornly stayed by my side at every turn. When she found out I applied to a University she had fallen suite and stated: "I need an education too, I might as well get one with my best friend!"
Her unwavering loyalty was one of the reasons I overlooked her slightly eccentric ways to get what she wanted. I knew she thought she was doing something good for me while getting her way.
"Hey look who it is." Kerri's prod to my side woke me from my inner monologue. I followed her line of sight to group of guys sitting at a picnic table and immediately tensed.
Raphael Mezzanotte sat with his two best friends, Nico Lombardi and Landon Moretti. We have only been in this town for a couple days but already there were girls surrounding them. It didn't take much imagination to know why girls swarmed to them. Raphael Mezzanotte lounged lazily in his seat, his tight wife beater showcased bulging biceps and dark jeans hung on lean hips. His ebony hair was spiked messily into a faux hawk that hung over intense, dark eyes.
"Phew that guy is intense, I've known him my whole life and I still get the shivers when I'm around him." Kerri exaggerated a full body shiver and grinned. "He was there when I talked to my papa and Antonio. I've seen him conducting business for the carnival ever since he graduated. I wonder if Antonio plans to retire soon."
"Isn't he only 24? Isn't that a little young to inherit the carnival?"
Kerri shrugged. "I know he's taken over a lot of Antonio's engineering duties. I always see him and those two working on the big rides."
When I first came here three years ago, Raphael was at USC so I only caught glimpses of him during the holidays. But he was notorious around the carnival for the fights he won and the parties he threw. I vaguely remembered a story about an ex girlfriend of his that left the carnival and turned him bitter towards womankind. It was all just rumors I've heard over the last couple years. I don't think I've spoken to him more than a handful of times.
"I just wish Nicco wasn't such an asshole! You'd think four years in college would force him to grow up." Kerri scowled at the lanky, blonde man and shook her head in disgust. "Did you know that he hit on me the other day? Pftt, not in this life time." I did know that he hit on her; she sent me ten texts the day it happened.
Kerri's rocky relationship with Nico was well known in the carnival. Apparently, they use to get into full-blown fights when they were younger. I personally thought she had a bit of a crush on him. I would never tell her this though.
Kerri stared intently at the group of guys eating their hot dogs and burgers; an unknown emotion flickered across her face. "I wonder what it would be like to be loved by him?"
I blinked, taken aback by her words. "What?"
"Raphael. For all of his faults, he's so intense and devoted to this carnival. What would happen if he fell in love with a girl and loved her more? I don't think he'd ever let go."
I didn't know what to say. Kerri never showed any kind of interest in Raphael and it was a little unsettling seeing her with that dreamy look. "Didn't he have a girlfriend a couple years ago?" Kerri snorted and flicked her hand at me.
"I don't think he loved her. She was something else." Her face darkened with dislike.
"Since when do you have an interest in Raphael Mezzanotte?"
"Everyone in this carnival has an interest in Raphael Mezzanotte." Kerri dismissed casually. "I just want to be around to see him fall."
"That's messed up, you know that right?" I teased her.
"I can't help it, I grew up with him and I want to see what happens when a girl throws him on his ass." Kerri grinned at me, her eyes playful.
I watched Raphael throw away his garbage and disappear with his group following closely behind. For a moment I felt a little jealous, what would it be like to be a part of their group? To be a part of the founding families and invited to their parties? One glance at Kerri and those thoughts disappeared. It didn't matter; I was content to stay in my bubble until college.
I would branch out at college and actually go to parties with Kerri. I could start over there, I was done living in the past.
A young boy pulled haggard looking parents up to my booth. "I want a puppy!" He shouted and pointed to the giant stuffed dog hanging from the ceiling of my booth. A tired dad pulled his wallet out of his back pocket.
"How much for the darts?"
"Twenty bucks and you can have the puppy."
A grateful smile spread across the man's face. "Thank you."
I pulled the giant stuffed dog off its hook and gave it to the squealing boy. The parents gave me another grateful look before they pulled their content son back into the swarm of people. I could have probably made twice that amount, but I wasn't cruel. Those parents needed a break.
"You're so sweet!" Kerri pinched my cheeks and cooed. I swiped her hands away and blushed.
"Stop it. I just felt bad for his parents."
Kerri laughed and slid out of my booth. "I'll talk to you later. I got to talk to my papa."